Thursday, October 1, 2009

Horse Training: Don't Be Boxed in By Old Ideas

Do you think your horse is broke? Think again. The majority of people who think their horses are well-trained, or broke, are correct until they take their horse into a new environment. Then all the fun starts: the bucking, rearing, shying, and general mayhem. Then they know that their horses aren't really broke.

My Horse Ain't Broke!
I used to think my veteran jumper gelding, Marcus, was broke. After all, I had successfully campaigned him at all kinds of shows, he had won Championships up to the 4'9" Preliminary Jumper Division, and he was in full training all the time.

Then I moved out the country, met some cowboys, and went riding with them. Ouch! The illusion that my horse was broke fell apart immediately. He couldn't side pass to open a gate; he was afraid of cows, goats, and llamas; and he couldn't figure out where to put his feet when climbing a steep hill. He basically freaked out. Nope, Marcus wasn't broke.

How to Avoid Being Boxed In By Your Routine
Riding with the cowboys, team penners, and ropers, I quickly learned that a well-broke horse is one who pays attention to you, understands your signals, and attempts to do what you ask -- all without freaking out. I know (some) team penners who can have their horse cut a cow out of the herd, and then turn around and take that same horse over a jumper course. In between, they can also navigate a trail course at an open show and score pretty well. They have well-broke horses.

Now how do they do that? By watching closely I've figured out that they do their horse training mostly in the form of "on the job" training. For instance, try to teach a horse to side pass as an isolated exercise and you might get a lot of objections, but teach a horse to side pass while opening and shutting a gate, and you'll get a lot more cooperation. The same goes for working the obstacles on a trail course. The reason the cowboy horses have no problem negotiating a trail course is that they are used to navigating around and over fallen logs on a mountain trail, crossing fast-moving streams, and dragging reluctant steers, all while pushing a herd of cows in front of them. When a horse has a job he likes, he's willing to learn almost anything to do that job well, and that's why cowboy horses are so well-broke.

Some Horse Training Exercises to Get You Out of the Box
If you don't have cows at your disposal, don't fret. You can still do a lot of exercises that will result in a well-broke horse. Here are some simple exercises to help you break up your horse-training routine and to teach your horse some new moves:

1. Working a Gate
Opening, walking through, and shutting a gate teaches your horse to move laterally to snug up next to the gate. It also teaches him not to be afraid of gates touching him, especially on his hindquarters (many horses are spooky about this). He will also learn to take one step at a time, in whichever direction you ask, and to stand still while you unlatch and latch the gate. There's a world of training in working a gate.

2. Drag a Log
Tie a log to a long rope or lariat, and drag the log behind you. This teaches your horse to not spook at people or objects coming up behind him, and teaches him to pull objects at your command. Many horses find this exercise frightening at first, so you may need to lead your horse from the ground the first few times so you maintain control. Teach your horse to drag the log while walking forward and backward.

3. Maintain the Same Gait on Trail
This exercise has to be done with two riders. Proceed along the trail at a walk. Then, keeping your horse at a walk, have the other person move forward at a trot or lope, leaving you and your horse behind. Your focus is to keep your horse calm and collected at the walk. Many horses will want to catch up to the other horse, or will rear, bolt, spook, or buck if not allowed to run with the other horse. To keep your horse calm and in control, you may need to turn him in small circles (called a curl), which prevents him from doing any of these naughty behaviors. You can also try walking him in the opposite direction until he is calm. This teaches your horse that no amount of naughty activity will get him closer to the other horse, so he will eventually learn to just walk.

There are tons more of these simple exercises to help you break out of your horse training routine, but these should get you started, The beauty of these kinds of exercises is that you don't need a lot of equipment or special training. You just have to have the willingness to play around with some new exercises, and most of all, enjoy the process. Don't get mad doing any of these exercises because that won't help. Stay patient and slow, so your horse can learn without stress. This will be totally new and different for many horses, so remember to take it slow.

What about you? Got any great "out of the box" horse training exercises to share?

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