Ask Our Expert - Mike Kinsey
Trail expert and backcountry extraordinaire Mike Kinsey runs his Start ’em Right horse training program from his facility in Belton, South Carolina. Kinsey conducts a variety of clinics throughout the country, and authored the Western Horseman book Backcountry Basics, with Senior Editor Jennifer Denison. Learn more about Mike at startemright.com.
Q: An article in the March 2010 issue (“10 Tips for a Successful Spring Ride,” by Mike Kinsey) stated that before mounting your horse after a long lay-off, you should tie the horse and then mount up. I have been around horses for 43 years and training for more than 25, and I have always held to the belief that one never mounts a horse that is tied up. I was further surprised to read that Kinsey then asks the horse to move his hindquarters while tied. Mounting a horse that is tied up is a wreck waiting to happen.
Debbie Kelly, Suffolk, Virginia
Editor’s note: For our readers that may have missed the article, “10 Tips for a Successful Spring Ride” focused on tuning up a trail horse, and assumed the horse had already acquired certain skills, such as standing tied. The article also included other exercises to help access the horse’s attitude before getting to this specific exercise, which was the eighth tip in the article.
A: Tying a horse that is not properly trained can be a wreck, with or without a rider. I certainly would never get on a horse that lacks this basic skill, tied or on the trail.
Failing to train a horse to accept being restrained is similar to failing to teach a child to accept being restrained in a car seat. Though being restrained may be unpopular among some, the simple fact is that accepting the restraint makes the situation safer than being forcibly restrained. Some parents and horse owners aren’t prepared to deal with the initial response of their child or horse being restrained. The initial response may be ugly, even include temper tantrums, but giving into this kind of behavior is an abdication of responsibility that fails to protect the individual in times that restraint is required.
Over the last 25 years, I have observed an alarming trend of folks claiming to be trainers that do not know how to teach fundamental basics, such as this one. Representing a horse as a “trail horse” when it is unsafe to tie abuses the term “trail horse” and begs the question: what else has the “trainer” failed to teach the horse? If someone hasn’t had the opportunity to work with horses trained by knowledgeable horsemen, I understand being frightened of his or her horse. In such a case, finding a knowledgeable horseman to help with training a horse to tie (a simple but invaluable skill), as well as fix other deficiencies can increase your confidence with your horse.
There are three chapters in Backcountry Basics that may be able to help you further with this: “Inside your horse’s mind,” “Making a trail horse,” and “Never a fit to be tied.” In the latter chapter, you’ll see that I teach a horse to control his fear by encouraging him to spook while tied. Now—I don’t try to scare the horse, but I encourage him to spook (see the photo on page 57 of Backcountry Basics), so that he hits the end of the lead rope, and discovers he can’t run. In this case, his flee instinct can’t perpetuate his fear, he doesn’t get the reward of running away, and I have the opportunity to teach the horse to control his fear. We can’t take away fear, but we can teach them to control it. That’s why spooking in place is a good thing. If my horse actually spooks on the trail, I don’t want him running, kicking or tearing through the brush. At worst, I want him to spook in place.
Q: I had an incident with my dogs and now my horse is very cautious when I have to go by my neighbor’s house, as their dogs come charging out without warning. How do you get a horse to get over a fear of dogs? What is the best way to confront dogs?
Laurinda Ramonda, Scranton, Kansas
A: So often, the problems folks have with dogs (or other obstacles) has more to do with the rider’s intimidation than the reality. In their natural environment, adult horses attack dogs, and either run them off or, occasionally, kill them. Instinctually, horses know that dogs are predators of smaller creatures, like foals. So, instinctually, horses hate dogs.
Most dogs come for the horse’s legs, and generally the rear legs. In more than 50 years of riding and training, I have only encountered one dog large and aggressive enough to come for the throat. So, with that one exception, here’s how I capitalize on the instincts of both the horse and dog:
I don’t want the horse to run. Horses that run from things generally get more frightened at the prospect of being chased, and dogs tend to chase things that run. But horses tend to chase dogs if the horses are confident. So, keeping the horse facing the dog, I softly and confidently encourage the horse to go forward, toward the dog. It may take several minutes the first couple times, but it’s pretty easy to bring out the horse’s instincts and it can quickly become a game: chase the dog!
If the dog (or dogs) circle, turn the horse to keep his head facing the dog. You may consider riding with another rider who has a confident horse. Above all, don’t let your anxiety about the dog’s barking or posturing feed into the horse. As the dog gets closer and the horse gets a better look, the dogs will become less intimidating. If you question your ability to stay in control (or your ability to stay in the saddle), contact a horseman to do some training with your horse.
Back in my small hometown in Kansas, there are probably still some folks muttering about that dang “Kinsey Kid” who occasionally rode into town to teach young horses to work cattle by running dogs up on porches. Funny thing is, the really old folks don’t remember if that kid was me, or my father 30 years earlier.
Q: I have a 10-year-old horse that’s perfect for the cattle work I do in the Great Basin of northwestern Nevada and northeastern California. He’s afraid of nothing…except the flag that is used to start playday races that I’ve entered on several occasions. He goes ballistic when he sees the flag, jumping, bucking and running wildly for cover. What would you suggest?
Dr. Larry Milham, Cedarville, California
A: The horse psychologist in me tells me there is something either not being observed, described or understood in this situation, based on the description of your horse’s reaction to a flag. Horses do not have violent reactions to an isolated object without deep psychological issues.
Of course, there are the usual solutions of “de-sensitizing” that many would recommend. But, my suspicion is that the issue is deeper and would need an experienced horseman to observe the horse and determine what is going on behaviorally. It is unlikely that there will be an adequate solution until the problem is properly diagnosed.
Q: I have a Quarter Horse mare that will be 5 years old in April. For six months she was ridden by two girls, aged 12 and 14, and their mother. The girls are both great riders, and their mother has been riding all her life. However, the mare, who was very sweet when she left, has returned with an attitude, especially toward kids. She turned and bit my daughter on the stomach, and now my daughter is skittish around her. How can I rectify this situation? Could this possibly be an attitude she will outgrow?
Cynthia Brewer, Christmas, Florida
A: No, it is not an attitude the mare will outgrow. Do nothing, and it might not get worse—or, it might get a lot worse. Allowing a horse to make threats encourages the behavior.
Your mare didn’t just start biting one day. Horses start by displaying they are uncomfortable or annoyed. Then they make a threat, and a bigger threat, and finally, they act. In human counseling, the path is much like that of an abuser, and it doesn’t stop until some outside force intervenes.
The horse doesn’t understand that we consider biting “bad” behavior. To the horse it is just behavior. But not correcting that behavior is condoning it, and subsequently, encouraging it. So, now you know how this habit developed: it was allowed to develop.
The first step to correcting the problem is to learn to recognize your mare’s threats before she acts. The second step is intervening with immediate and harsh discipline to those threats. How harsh is harshly? It depends on the horse, and her interpretation. The discipline needs to be such that she perceives she is being disciplined. Anything less, and she will either: continue; continue when you aren’t looking; or, worse case, discipline you for attempting to discipline her.
Since this obviously is new territory for you, I suggest you contact a professional horseman in your area to show you how to accomplish both these steps. Failing to handle it immediately and correctly could lead to you or your child being injured. You need some help to get this under control.
Q: My mare is really cinchy and I don’t know why. How do you get a horse over this?
Margaret Lewis, Westcliffe, Colorado
A: Before you attempt to get your horse over an undesirable behavior, you need to find the cause of the problem.
Take a hard look at your saddle and cinch. Check that there are no protrusions on the cinch and that it’s not corroded with gunk. Don’t just rub it with your hand, particularly if your hand is calloused. Rub the cinch against your cheek. If it is too rough for your face, it’s too rough for your horse.
Occasionally (though rarely) there are veterinary reasons for being cinchy. Soreness, raw skin, skin diseases and other health issues can cause a horse to act cinchy. If you suspect a medical problem, have your vet look into it.
When it comes to behavior, the two common causes of a cinchy horse are overtightening the cinch, and tightening the cinch too much at one time.
Some folks overtighten because of saddle slippage from poorly fitted tack, be it ill-fitting saddles, too many pads, or too-thick pads. It’s not uncommon for a rider to attempt to make a horse more comfortable with a thick pad, but then tighten the cinch too tight to keep the saddle from rolling.
Other riders tighten too quickly because they’re impatient, and want to slap on the saddle and get it tightened in one move. Horses find it uncomfortable to be hastily cinched in this manner, and some react by being cinchy. Others may rear, pull back, bite, cow-kick, buck, lunge or even lie down. The solution is twofold: don’t overtighten the cinch, and don’t tighten all at once.
The key to fixing (and preventing) this human-induced problem is to be sensitive to the horse’s discomfort when tightening the cinch. When you first saddle, snug the cinch enough to keep the saddle in place. Then lead her around for a while and snug it a bit more. When the saddle is snug enough to be safe, start riding. Five or 10 minutes later, check to see if further tightening is needed, but don’t overtighten.
Q: I’m having some problems going down hills with my new horse. He’s not very confident on the trail yet, and will sometimes hurry, especially if it’s muddy. How do I give him enough rein to see the trail and balance himself, but keep him from picking up speed?
Sharon Hubbman, Lebanon, Illinois
A: The solution is to teach your horse to collect. Collecting will transfer most of his weight to the back legs, and thus shifting the center of gravity to the rear.
For most folks I recommend teaching their horse in the arena because many folks get distracted on the trail and are not consistent.
I use the same technique common among reining and working cowhorses, for the same reason—I don’t want to be pulling on my horse’s face and causing him to be unbalanced at critical times, like going down a muddy trail. So, I teach my horse to expect a collected stop using the cue the better reiners do: slide my feet forward as I start to pick up the reins. Note: I don’t teach him to collect when I pull on the reins, because anytime you pull on the reins, the horse must brace against the pull. Consequently, I never pull with two reins.
Once the horse knows these cues, you pick up your reins and it is the most natural movement in the world to let your feet slide forward as you start downhill to balance you in the saddle, and your trail horse begins to collect. The first few times you just gently encourage the horse to keep walking, but keep your feet a bit forward as you should when traversing downhill, reins slightly picked up; your trail horse will transfer his weight and safely come down that muddy hill.
When he is collected up, giving his face, he won’t be hurrying. It may sound complicated, but break it down and it’s simple. Teach the horse to collect. Ride the trail. Ask him to collect up, and keep walking. Once you get it together the first few times, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to figure it out.
One caveat: You need some knowledgeable horseman to watch you ride and see if your hands know how to be soft, or if you are inadvertently “pulling” with two reins. Consider taking your horse to a reining trainer to learn how to teach the horse to softly collect. Your local reining trainer may express doubts about the technique on the trail, but I promise once you experience it, you and your horse will be a much happier and safer team.
Next month’s “Ask Our Expert” features West Texas horseman Joe Wolter. Don’t miss Joe in the April 2010 issue of Western Horseman, where he shares a unique warm-up technique that doubles as a great training tool. To learn more about Joe, visit joewolter.com.
If you’d like to submit a question, please email Associate Editor Melissa Cassutt at firstname.lastname@example.org by March 19. Please include your full name, city and state in your inquiry. Depending on the volume of questions received, some questions may not be answered. Western Horseman retains the right to edit submissions for clarity.