Thursday, January 21, 2010

Horse Training: Blink Blink Equals Think Think

Did you know that in horse speak blinking equals thinking? It does. So do ear twitching, trembling lips, and faster breathing.

Horses can't speak to us in words so they use body language, and you can read a horse like a book if you know their language. There are lots of horse training manuals out there by big-name horse trainers who detail all of this, and yet it's always so much clearer when it happens to you and your horse.

A Horse Training Example of Blinking and Thinking
I've been slowly preparing my quarter horse gelding, Walker, for a roping clinic that is starting soon. Every clinic participant was sent a "how to prep your horse for roping" manual. This manual, provided by Mary Duke and Dusty Healy of Stirrup Cup Farm, offers step by step instructions on how to accustom your horse to the rope.

The manual features really simple instructions, big pictures, and lots of explanation. All of this should have been easy to do with Walker, except for one vital fact: Walker had been roped to be caught as a three-year-old. He had to be roped because his former owner had dropped him off at the reining trainer's place without bothering to halter break him.

The trainer had to rope Walker to catch him. Once caught, Walker was gelded, shod, and put into intense training. It's no wonder Walker associates a rope, or lariat, with "bad news"!

Well, Walker and I did fine on the groundwork preparatory exercises, but when I got in the saddle and lifted the rope off the saddle horn, Walker lost it. He ran like a bat out of hell and only skidded to a 10-foot sliding stop when he encountered a panel he couldn't jump. Yikes.

Off we went to Mary and Dusty's for some help. We started back at the groundwork level. Walker let me touch him all over with the rope, but when I started to swing the whole lariat gently at my side, he got upset and threw his head up. Mary told me to keep swinging my rope in the same rhythm and look for "signs" that Walker was thinking. These included:

- blinking - faster breathing - twitching his ears - trembling lips

Whenever Walker showed these signs of thinking, I would stop swinging the rope and praise him. Within a few cycles of thinking, praising, and resuming my exercises, Walker would offer a release, which included any of the following behaviors:

- moving his feet - licking and chewing - snorting - yawning - taking a deep breath - shaking his head and/or whole body - dropping his head

The whole process was fascinating. When I tuned into these signs of thinking and released the pressure as soon as I saw one of the signs, he would process the information much more quickly and give a "release." A release indicated that he had accepted the exercise and was ready for me to either repeat it or move on to another exercise. If I repeated the exercise, he would offer a release more quickly than the previous time.

Using this approach, we proceeded from groundwork to work in the saddle quite quickly. Only once while in the saddle did he "lose it." It was a brain fart more than anything else. We had been doing the exercises in the saddle quietly for 15-20 minutes when he suddenly bolted. I immediately dropped the rope and we started over with the saddle exercise, looking for the same signs of thinking and release.

After that, Walker was fine. I was impressed with how subtle his signals of "thinking" were, and how much I had to focus my attention on him see those signals. Once I did, though, he rewarded me with a lot of fast learning and releases.

Without a doubt, Walker associates the lariat with trauma, but by tuning into his body language I can help him more quickly overcome that. All in all, it's been a whole lot of fun and a very interesting experience all the way 'round!

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Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0


  1. Great post and another super example of doing what a horse doesn't like until they get over it. Takes timing, feel, and knowing how to read horse language.
    Enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful informative posts Stephanie!! :-)