It’s About Time
Most things in life that are important, take an investment of time—an education, a career, a relationship. Mastering a skill or a sport, starting a new business, overcoming setbacks; none of this comes quickly. Horses are not the best sport for instant gratification. It takes time to set your goal then to work diligently to identify all the steps necessary to work up to the bigger dream. Whether you’re working on a riding goal or to condition your horse, one thing’s for sure: it takes time.
With horses, after about 30 days of daily work, you start seeing physical changes in the horse’s fitness level—a flatter underline, more muscle definition, more energy. After 90 days, your horse is looking pretty fit and after 120 days your horse is ripped like a body builder.
Thirty-day increments of training are standard in the horse industry, whether we are talking about fitness levels, the time needed for the horse to perfect skills or for the cost of training. Many trainers, myself included, would say that 90-days is minimum to accomplish much of anything with a horse and we are talking about years of training for the truly finished horse.
Our society’s fast-paced, on-demand culture seems to sprinkle over into horse training. We want it all fast and right away. I hear this need-for-speed from riders, too. When looking through the applications for my TV show, Horse Master, I often see riders who want to work on flying lead changes. However, the horse they are riding is young or they themselves haven’t mastered the canter departure yet. Many skills precede flying lead changes—like haunches–in, leg-yielding, head-to-tail body control, halt-to-canter departures, counter-canter, then master the simple lead change, then learn the principles of the horse’s movements and how to cue for a change on the fly.
We want the end result—the pretty, finished picture—and we want it now. But to honor the horse, we must allow time and we must break down our lofty goals into smaller, attainable, slow steps.
Breaking down the training process
When my young horse Eddie, was very green, we struggled with leads at the canter. He always seemed to over-think it and he second guessed himself a lot (pick up the correct lead, switch to the wrong, then switch back—all in three strides). He got tense and hollow whenever it was time for a canter transition and needed some extra time to understand. I started breaking things down more and more, working more on haunches-in at walk and trot, sequencing my cues more clearly, giving lots of pre-signal and setting him up very definitively for the correct lead. Fortunately, I had no deadline or reason to rush through his training; I just asked for a little more each day. For months, I only asked for one departure on each lead a day, and by taking the time he needed and preparing him as best I could, he became very solid on his leads and his walk to canter transitions were great by the time he was four.
Whatever time it takes, is what it takes for a horse to learn something and while Eddie eventually did learn flying lead changes, none of it came easy—especially the next step. Once Eddie and I had a clear understanding of which lead I was asking for and he was batting a thousand with his leads, I thought it was a good time to introduce the counter-canter (going intentionally on the wrong lead)—a very important obedience and cueing exercise in preparation for lead changes. It blew his mind so badly he thought surely the world was ending. It was almost comical how wrong Eddie thought the counter-canter was and once again, it took a long time to convince him otherwise. Months, not hours.
Allowing recovery time
Healing takes time too. Lots of it and usually more than you think. Whether it’s from an injury or illness to you or your horse, or from a broken heart or a tragic loss; healing takes time and it should not be rushed. I’ve known of many horses that have been able to make big comebacks from terrible injuries or sickness, because their owners were willing to invest time and resources and have waited patiently for adequate healing to occur. Sadly, I have known many more horses that have been rushed back into training and performance, with predictable and disappointing results.
When my horse, Dually, torqued his back, I called in all the possible help. He had chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, a full veterinary exam, pharmaceuticals and nutra-ceuticals, physical therapy, and I doubled the healing time that was recommended. I wanted to make sure he was ready to return to work before asking him to perform. This was not as easy task as this is a horse who wants to work! He hated when I would walk into the pen and halter Eddie instead of him. When he did return to work, he was ready to go even though I knew I wanted to have a safe and steady plan for his re-entry to arena and performance work.
When it was time for him to return to exercise, I started by turning him loose in the arena and watching closely as he moved around voluntarily. Dually is never shy about letting you know if he hurts. Good results there, so I started ponying him from my other horse and just letting him walk it out. After a few days we added the trot; after a week or so, we started longeing over ground poles and backing him up in-hand, to get him to stretch and lift his back. After a few weeks, as Dually got stronger, he also got more confidant and energetic and soon I started riding again—but bareback. I spent four months riding bareback, to be easier on his back and so I would not stop and turn as hard. All told, it was about a year and a half before we were back to pre-injury levels.
Anyone who has ever suffered an injury from riding or handling horses already knows that well beyond the physical healing, it also takes time to rebuild confidence when it’s been lost. Whether we are talking human flesh or horse flesh, confidence can be lost in an instant, but takes a long time to rebuild. The same thing could be said of trust; it takes time to build it but you can lose it in a heartbeat. Trusting a horse, the horse trusting you, trusting that you can not only survive the situation, but control it—these things take time to reconstruct.
It has been said many times, when it comes to horses (and life), patience is a virtue. Having realistic long-term goals, slow and steady plans to get you there, investing the time, being patient, not afraid of failure and committed to the outcome, will almost certainly insure your success—both in life and with horses.
Cheating the Circle During Round Pen Work; Following the Herd Hierarchy at Feed Time
Q: How can I get my horse to longe or round pen in a complete circle? He keeps cutting in to the middle and making his circles too small. –Amber Verbena
A: This is a common occurrence in the round pen and your horse may show the same “cutting corners” behavior when you’re riding. Your horse is only obedient if he goes on the path that you choose. If he is veering off course—no matter how you’re working him–he isn’t paying attention to you and he thinks he can go where he wants.
When you work in a round pen, it can be intense for the horse and it’s possible that he’ll have an emotional outburst. Because of that, make sure that your round pen is made of a solid material that won’t bend or shift if he moves toward it and that it is at least five feet tall. Also make sure you have a tool (such as a stick and flag) to defend your space and direct your horse.
Ask your horse to trot in the round pen and be aware of when and where he starts in to the middle. He knows that he is cutting in and h finds that he benefits in some way. Is he being lazy and wanting to make the circle smaller? Or is he chopping off one side of the circle so that he is closer to the gate or to the herd? Watch his path closely. Either way, the fix is to take away the benefit for him and to teach him that it will be easiest to follow the path you dictate. You’ll change his direction to get him working harder at the moment he was choosing to go off course.
As soon as he comes off of the track, take a step to cut him off (using your body language and position to change his direction while staying safely out of his way) and use your stick to cue him to turn toward the fence then let him continue in the opposite direction. Watch again for his feet to come off the path and at that point, turn him into the fence again. Turning is difficult for the horse—it’s not easy to stop, roll back to his hocks and turn toward the fence.
Soon, he’ll learn to take the path of least resistance and stay to the outside of the pen instead of cutting in because it’s physically easier. When he turns toward the fence, it is the opposite direction from what he wanted, so you have taken away his benefit. That means he loses ground and realizes that you are choosing the direction and that he is not in charge.
If you’re working on a longe line, you can’t turn the horse away from you, but you can move more aggressively toward your horse’s shoulder and point your flag toward that point. You’ll drive him forward and make him speed up any time he steps in toward you. Your new posture and cue to move out and forward takes away the benefit for him. He no longer finds it easy to cut in to the middle; in fact, he’ll have to work harder if he tries that again.
Q: Knowing my horses and which is more dominant— should I feed in a specific order at feeding time and turn them out in a certain order? –Sherry Patron
The pecking order of your herd matters and it’s helpful to observe the order and note any changes. That’s great info to know, but it shouldn’t dictate everything that you do.
I want to know the hierarchy in my herd so I can watch to see if those at the bottom of the pecking order need help. Those horses may need to be separated for the night (to have a rest from a dominant or bully horse) or for feeding time (to make sure that they have access to food). Plus, if you see a change in the pecking order, it may indicate a change in health. If a horse that is usually alpha is suddenly lower in the order, it may mean he has a health issue and needs attention. I have seen a dominant horse move from the top to the bottom of a herd in a matter of hours and it was indeed a sign that he was getting very sick fast.
With my own herd of horses, I want to make sure that as soon as I step into the pen, they see me as the leader. The pecking order should change as soon as I step in– and suddenly I am the one they should be paying attention to. And my horses gladly obey, because they are happy to be in the herd and want to stay on good terms.
We train horses so that they don’t get to display herd behavior when a human is around. That’s a safety rule. I don’t want a horse to treat me as a new horse when I enter the pen or attack another horse who then runs over the top of me. That’s not a safe way for horses to act around humans.
I don’t want herd hierarchy to dictate how I go about my horse chores. If I want to feed them in an order that goes against the pecking order—by walking down a barn aisle and feeding in order of the pens—I want to be able to do that without making my job more difficult. I wouldn’t feed the alpha horse first if his pen was halfway down the row. He’ll need to be patient and have manners, just like everyone else.
I also don’t want to make my job harder than it needs to be. If I bring horses in from the pasture and they know that they’ll be fed in their pen when they return, I may allow the dominant horse to come in first. It may cause more problems than it’s worth to work out of the herd’s natural order in that scenario.
No matter their place in the herd, horses will learn the routine; they are very good at learning manners and following rules. They can learn to be respectful and patient and learn the process. Make sure that no matter what order you feed horses in, they are patient and acting properly at the moment you give them food. I want the horses to stand back respectfully and wait for the food (even if I am on the other side of the fence).
Horses often display anxious and aggressive behavior at feed time. All horses will nicker to you at feed time—the nicker means come to me and they know you will bring them food. But it is important not to let a horse control your actions or your emotions. Don’t stop what you are doing and feed them just because they are being demanding.
If a horse is displaying dominance and you walk by and throw hay, he may think that his behavior caused the food to appear.Some of my horses are on fee-choice hay access and 24/7 turnout—this is the most peaceful and least stressful feeding situation in the herd because everyone takes their turn eating and the omegas can steer well clear of the alpha/betas and eat without being harassed.
If a horse has learned to display dominant behavior at a scheduled feed time (such as pinning his ears, moving into me, pawing, or even charging) I would approach that horse with a flag and stick in my hand. I would wave the flag at any horse that approached me and encourage him to back up, out of my space. He doesn’t have to act perfectly for long, he just has to pay attention and be calm at the moment that I relinquish the food. If he backs up and stands still, I can give the food and know that he saw me as the herd-member to respect.
After I leave and step away from the food, the horses will go back to their own pecking order. But while I’m present, I want to make sure that no horse is moving into my space and acting disrespectful. Again, the horse doesn’t have to act right for long, he just has to be acting patiently and attentively at the moment you give the food. With a flag in hand, you’ll teach the horse that backing up, moving out of your space and being patient will cause the food to appear.
–Julie Goodnight, JulieGoodnight.com