I was riding with a friend of mine the other day, and we were discussing what to do when your horse gets into trouble. Now, getting into trouble can mean a lot of different things, but more often than not, they are experiencing pressure and believe the answer is to leave.
This makes sense as we know a horse is a flight animal and has survived for thousands of years by fleeing predators. What happens when a horse becomes frightened its natural tendency is to escape and then analyze the situation afterward, and this has served the horse well for years. Oftentimes, part of that process is to lower the variables at play, which means bucking you off. “Great,” the horse subconsciously thinks, “now I only have to worry about myself.”
What we would like is for them to analyze the situation first, then responds to the stimuli, while considering you a part of the solution as well as a trusted teammate. We want our horses to respond and then react rather than the other way around.
What we are asking is, of course, not natural to the horse and goes against their deepest survival instincts. But it can be achieved by gaining the trust of the horse. When I say trust, I mean that the horse understands that you mean him no harm and also that you have your safety in not only mind but also theirs. The foundation of this is achieved by applying pressure and releasing that pressure the instant that the horse yields to it. This can be achieved in many ways but I will share a story and give you an example.
Years ago, a hired hand of mine and I were working some horses in my outdoor arena, and I noticed a roan colt of mine standing by himself by a fence line. At the moment, I didn't think much of it and went about my business. Some time passed, and I noticed that the colt hadn't moved and was still standing in the same spot. This struck me as odd, so I stopped, and immediately rode up the hill to check on him, as I approached, I could see that the colt had his foot over the bottom strand of wire and was just standing there with his hoof slightly hovering above the ground. Talking softly to the youngster, I dismounted my horse and took the lead to my mecate with me. I looped the lead of the mecate around the lower part of the caught leg. I applied pressure to draw the leg and hoof upwards while stepping down on the now released wire, thus freeing the colt from the fenceline and his predicament. Upon inspection of the colt, I was relieved and grateful to see that he had not injured himself in any way. Bravo to the young colt!
So somehow, as he was grazing, he had managed to put his foot over the wire, and having good sense, he waited for help rather than panicked which would have cut his leg up. This good sense didn’t happen by accident… his earliest groundwork sessions were paying off! He had learnt an essential lesson. Wait for the release of pressure, it will come!
When I halter-broke this colt, I not only got him to give to pressure from the halter and lead rope but also from his feet. Using the same method as I do with a halter and a lead, I took my soft rope and picked up each foot, one at a time. I applied pressure by pulling on the rope to lift the foot off of the ground, the instant that horse gave a little to that pressure, I released it in that very instant. I didn't wait for him to lift his foot I released it myself as soon as he showed me he was even thinking about giving to the pressure! Then I’d asked him again, building on it. When he would, lift his foot, I would always reward this compliance by giving it back to him before he tried to take it back from me.
This system of give and take is very important because I never want my horse to know he is stronger than me. So I take care to never get into a tug of war with him, as he will always win that contest, so let's never play. I, of course, am thorough and do this routine on all four feet, teaching all my colts that if they yield to pressure, then the pressure will be released.
So taking the time to get the colt a thorough understanding of how pressure and release works saved him from what could have been a very serious injury! He responded to the pressure rather than reacting to it. This is what all of our groundwork and colt-starting sessions are about! They’re about setting up your horse for success in real-world situations, not just checking training steps off of a long “how-to start a colt” list. This solid foundation set him up for all the skills he would learn in his future training sessions, and he turned out to be a very nice rope horse.
So, as I told my friend, if you can get your horse good about giving to pressure, as well as ensuring they have the understanding that you are, in fact, the answer to their problems, then you’re off to a great start!
Happy and safe trails!
- Keith J Stewart