Thursday, April 22, 2010

Increasing Horse Try: "Hold My Face, Hold My Hand!"

Horse try--or the willingness of your horse to perform for you--varies widely according to the horse you're riding and the task at hand. Believe me, I know! I have 3 mustangs, a QH, and a warmblood. I jump, rope, rein, trail ride, and start colts.

Mixing and matching these horses to the right career to maximize "horse try" is a little complicated at times!

But I have figured out some stuff along the way ...

Increasing Horse Try by Holding a Horse's Face

This is a horse training technique I have come to over time, by riding a bunch of horses who range from pushy types to insecure types. I've discovered that many horses feel more secure if I can establish light contact with their mouth, and then just hold that contact through my ride ... or at least through the scary part of the ride.

Having said that, the words "hold the horse's" face can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so let me clarify. Usually, when I teach a horse to allow contact with his mouth, I'm riding him in a simple snaffle bit-no shanks, no fancy stuff.

The snaffle allows direct contact without exerting poll pressure. This is important because a lot of horses will "disappear" by tucking their head behind the vertical, thus disallowing the contact. A snaffle, on the other hand, exerts pressure on the bars and tongue, and does not encourage this disappearing act.

To teach a horse to accept contact, I generally simply walk a circle. At first, I take up no contact, and just allow the horse to put his head and neck wherever he wants. Gradually, I increase my contact with the horse's mouth by taking up the slack in the reins. I encourage him to reach down and out as he walks, alternating between medium contact, when I'm asking for more stretch, and light contact when he is stretching. I am using my legs to squeeze him forward into the contact.

Once a horse accepts contact and learns to stretch down and out, his seventh cervical vertebrae, which I've written about quite a bit, is positioned for calmness and relaxation. In turn, the feel of "contact" then becomes a reassuring thing to the horse. The next time the horse is in a dicey situation, then I take up a little contact, and all is well again. I have increased the level of "horse try" even situations are scary.

Three Examples of Increased Horse Try
Here are some cases in point to show you what I mean.

Example One of Horse Try - Neighbor's Horse
I was recently swapped horses with my neighbor on a trail ride. My neighbor's mare is all about speed, didn't know how to walk, and had a Gumby-neck. She could also put herself into a sweat just walking. She's always amped. Her head and neck constantly "disappeared" when she tucked her chin to her chest, and she had no idea how to move away from my leg. Any leg pressure always meant "go faster!"

During the trail ride all I did was pick up and put down contact, sit heavy in the saddle, and constantly encourage her to walk instead of jig. The more I did this, the more the mare stretched out and "looked" for my hands and contact. After a while, we were able to walk peacefully down the trail with me "holding her face" with about 2 ounces of pressure. She LOVED light contact and would walk with a long stretchy neck. I felt like I was holding a child's hand for reassurance, only I was holding the mare's face instead! The mare developed a lot of horse try with this technique.

Example Two of Horse Try - Walker
The second example is Walker, my rope horse. We were at Mary and Dusty's working a bunch of new cattle, and teaching the cattle to run straight out of the chute and down to the stripping chute. We "scored" our horses, which means we made them stay in the boxes until we asked them to leave. We would watch 5 or 6 steers leave the chute before ambling out after them at a walk.

Walker got so excited by the steers he started rearing because I would not let him chase the steers right out of the chute. He's got a lot of cow in his breeding so I'm not surprised. I thought about giving him a couple of doses of Eleviv to help him handle the stress, but decided that he wasn't actually stressed, just excited!

When I finally got him settled again, I tried holding his face lightly while I talked to him. That worked great. He dropped his head low and held it there. He knew, from our previous work, that when I had contact with his face, he was secure. He then waited patiently until I told him he could chase the steers by releasing my contact. This is a case where Walker had too much "horse try" and I simply had to redirect it.

Example Three of Horse Try - Reyacita
Reyacita has also been roping. She's got plenty of horse try, but often feels stressed when new elements are introduced into our training regimen. Being a Metal horse personality type, fond of routine, this isn't surprising. The steers, the chute, and the "scoring" were all new, so she went into her stress response of having COPD and heaves.

I haven't spent as much time with Reyacita in training as I have with Walker, so I did two things: I gave her some Eleviv, which always calms her COPD symptoms right away, and then I backed her into the box and took up some contact. Like Walker, Reyacita responded my breathing deeply, relaxing her neck, and simply waiting for me. In this relaxed position, she was able to take in the new elements in the environment without stressing out.

At the End of the Day ...
My conclusions are that horses, like humans, feel better when they know their boundaries. Holding a horse's face with light contact is one way to give a horse a feeling of a boundary. The contact is so light that it is in no way a punishment or correction, but merely a statement of, "Here I am. I've got you. Don't worry." It's a boundary they can feel, lean on if they must, and definitely trust.

Because of what I have learned about the value of holding a horse's face, and how it helps a horse try harder, I now would far rather ride a horse who takes up too much contact than a horse who won't accept contact. And for the horses who won't accept contact, that's all I work on until they will accept contact.

Pretty cool and simple, really... don't you think?

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  1. Good blog post. I love learning new horse things even though I do not have a horse now, but have donkey's!

  2. Great information. I am going to try this with one of my horses.