This Month’s Expert
Texas horseman Craig Cameron spends most of his time on the road conducting clinics and hosting Extreme Cowboy Racing events. He was featured in the June 2010 issue of Western Horseman, in the article, “Dare to Explore.” His philosophy is to use natural obstacles and the great outdoors to build confidence in his horses. To learn more about Craig, visit CraigCameron.com.
Q: I have a 21-year-old horse that’s a terrific performance horse, but pulls back when tied to a trailer or hitching rail, either when something spooks him or when he puts tension on the lead rope and feels the slack disappear. I can usually manage this by not actually tying the lead rope and instead simply looping it around the rail or through a tie ring on the trailer, but it would be nice to be able to tie the horse and be confident he’d be safe and comfortable. This habit has been in place for as long as I’ve owned the horse—18 years—and I can’t point to any specific cause. Any advice?
Debbie Cahill, Calgary, Alberta
A: Don’t worry about the cause, and work on the solution. You called her pulling back problem a habit and you are correct. After doing it enough times, it is just that, a habit. We all know the horse learns from repetition if that repetition is bad, then the habit learned from it is also bad. Habit; easiest thing to make, hardest thing to break! To break and change this terrible habit I would start with a 25′ lead line, good quality halter and a safe environment such as a horse safe round pen.
When a horse sits back, it is going against and not giving to pressure. Your horse must learn to yield to pressure. Send him off (lunge) with a flag or anything that creates forward movement around you. The horse will be working at the end of your 25′ lead. Then hold pressure with your lead line forcing the horse to bend back to you and yield to pressure. Do this over and over, working both directions until the horse bends and gives softly and willingly. Sometimes I might work this procedure 50 to 100 times until I achieve a truly soft yield. Remember, repetition is the key. Then, take the 25′ lead around a post of the round pen and pull the horse up close as if it is tied. Remember the horse is not tied, but pulled up close just as if it was tied. Then spook the horse. Most likely the horse will sit back or run backwards but it is not tied. You will have 25 feet for the horse to go back on. Feed out as much as you need until the horse stops. Reassure the horse with some rubbing and petting. Then, pull the horse back to the original spot just as if the horse were tied and repeat the process. Do this until your horse does not spook or sit back whatsoever. I will even sit up on the fence to get above the horse and do the spooking and desensitize until the horse is quiet and comfortable.
Then start holding a small amount of tension on the rope and repeat the process over and over again until the horse is quiet and yielding to pressure.
Be aware that you will need to do this process many times, possibly every day for as long as a month until your horse is quiet and comfortable standing tied. Do not be in a hurry.
After all, this has been a bad habit for a long time and can take some work to change that habit. Remember, be effective, patient, and stick with lots of good repetition.
Q: My horse has a serious fear of plastic, such as garbage bags or tarps. With a horse like this, one really notices how common plastic is around barns and fairgrounds. Riding in the open is sometimes a bit dangerous, due to plastic bags that might be encountered on the trail, or that might be stuck in a fence and blowing in the wind. How do I help my horse get over this fear?
Morton Anderson, Frisco, Colorado
A: Unfortunately, you are right because there is a lot of plastic trash on our trails and in the pasture. I suggest you start in a controlled environment such as a small corral or round pen. A horse with a bad phobia about plastic can take some time to correct, so be ready for the long haul and start simple and slow. Begin with a small plastic bag and wad it up as small as your hand. Remember, it would be a very small piece of plastic that would fit on the palm of your hand. Rub the horse all over with this bag, just as if you were brushing or grooming the horse. As the horse gets better, let the bag open up slightly and make a little more noise with the plastic. Remember, your horse should be warmed up thoroughly before you start this process. If the horse gets scared or spooky, just slow it down and begin again.
Eventually you can take the plastic and put it on your lunge stick or even an old fishing pole – making a flag. Many people spook their horses with the flag by using it improperly. I suggest the first time you use the flag with your horse, make sure the plastic is very small – about the size of a bow-tie and even smaller if need be to accommodate your particular horse. Then, with the flag, rub him all over while keeping him on a good quality halter and lead. If he spooks keep working in a slow methodical manner until he realizes it is not going to hurt him. When he stops or yields, then you stop and reward him with some petting and relaxation. When the time is right and appropriate, start lunging your horse forward and eventually over a very narrow and long piece of plastic such as a rolled up tarp. Do not force him across. Just let him work at it and build up his own confidence and courage. He will probably leap the rolled up tarp the first few times. This is OK. Find a good stopping spot each day and remember, Rome was not built in a day! Be patient with your horse and yourself. Slowly build it up and wait on the progress. Remember, training takes time and you are going to have to develop the confidence and bravery of the horse. Remember, trust is a belief and you do not want to do anything to destroy the belief or trust that your horse is trying to find in you.
Q: I’ve heard from several horsemen I respect that starting a colt in a hackamore is more effective than starting one in a snaffle bit, and that the snaffle stage can more or less be eliminated. What are your thoughts on the validity of this approach?
Shelly Woodside, Temecula, California
A: I believe most great horsemen would tell you that you can start a horse in the hackamore or a snaffle bit and achieve good results. However, I would not suggest you try to eliminate the snaffle bit work altogether. I like my horses bit broke even if down the trail I might ride them exclusively with the hackamore, halter or even bridle-less. The snaffle is a wonderful piece of equipment but like any tool, including the hackamore, it can be misused or even abusive. Whatever piece of equipment you decide to use, remember the horse seeks the level of the rider and you must be a great communicator with all your tools; your hands, bits, legs, reins, spurs, on the ground and in the saddle. Work on yourself. Feel, timing, rhythm, tempo, patience and consistency are the attributes of a good horseman. Teaching is the art of communication and communication is two minds listening and two minds open – yours and your horses.
Q: Some new neighbors have moved in next door, and they’re exotic-animal fanatics. They have llamas, miniature horses and ostriches. For my horses, these animals may as well be from another planet. How do I help my horses get accustomed to the new neighbors so I can continue to make full use of my property, and not have to avoid riding or pasturing along the property line?
Shannon Lawson, Burns, Oregon
A: An interesting problem and aside from moving into isolation or finding a new place, you must look at it as a challenge. What I would do is maybe start by leading and walking the horses along the neighbor’s fence line. You must try to condition them to the new neighbors and strange smells that accompany many exotic animals. You are going to have to be consistent as you work a process with this challenge. Another idea would be to build a small corral, perhaps out of portable panels to allow your horses to actually spend time close to the strange creatures next door. Don’t build the corral too close in the beginning and make sure your horses are with a buddy. This is a tough challenge. Think positive, adjust to the situation and create a positive result.
Q: Due to some life changes, I will begin boarding my horse in the near future. At the stable, he’ll be turned out with a group of other geldings each day. My horse has an “alpha’ personality. How can I make sure he doesn’t hurt other horses in his turnout group?
Tim Brown, Evanston, Illinois
A: You cannot really control what your horse does in a turned out situation, but what you can do is put him in a corral next to some of his new friends where they can get accustomed, adjusted and acquainted in a safer environment. Give them a week to touch noses, smell each other and establish some herd order before just turning them out. Horses are herd animals with innate coping mechanisms that let them survive together. As herd leaders establish dominance and the herd hierarchy develops, there probably will be some kicking biting and pawing. This is a natural process as they work things out and get to know each other. It would definitely be safer and better if your new boarding facility keeps geldings with geldings and mares with mares in turnout areas to keep possible injuries to a minimum.
Your horse may be dominant by nature, but he could be challenged by a more powerful horse and will also have to learn to be submissive to those more dominant in the herd hierarchy. This will be good for your horse as he learns the ropes and the age old rules of herd mentality.