This Month’s Expert Jon Ensign
Jon Ensign lives in Belgrade, Montana, not far from where he grew up. Working on local ranches has greatly influenced his training style. He also credits mentors such as Roland Moore, Buck Brannaman, Jeff Griffith, Martin Black and Ray Hunt.
Ensign conducts horsemanship, colt-starting and roping clinics throughout the country. For 30 years he has specialized in starting colts, often working with 200 to 250 young horses each year.
Q: When I try to halter my horse in the pasture, it’s almost as if he plays a game and dodges me on purpose. I can’t just walk up and throw a halter on him. How can I persuade him to come to me or at least not avoid me? Is there certain body language I should be looking for?
A: It’s very important for me to get my horse into a place where I control the outcome. I have a 160-acre horse pasture, and if you have a horse you can’t catch, you’re not going to catch him out there.
I work on getting a horse to “hook on” to me. There are a lot of ways to do it, but the easiest way is to make one spot in a corral or round pen that’s difficult for the horse to be, which means it’s an area where I can put pressure on the horse. I’ll pick a panel or point in the corral, and every time a horse comes around to it, I put pressure on the horse by walking toward it and making it move away. Pretty soon that horse doesn’t want to go by that point because of the pressure. Eventually, that horse will start looking to do something different.
There is body language to look for while doing this. If the horse is traveling to the right in the corral, I’m really going to notice that right ear. I don’t want the horse looking to the outside; I want that horse to turn in to me. And when he does turn in to me or shows me any sort of interest at all, I’m going to take the pressure off. Before long, the horse realizes that there’s no pressure in the middle of the corral, but there’s pressure on the outside. That horse will want to come in and want to be with me.
When the horse does come toward me, I don’t reach out and pet it. Instead, I let that horse find peace. I take the focus off it and let it stand there quietly. To think of it another way, it’s like if the horse goes outside the round pen, the sun is really hot out there. But if the horse comes in to me, I’m the shade tree. Before long, the horse finds a release—that it’s relaxing when it’s with you.
I see a lot of people reach out for their horse when it finally comes in, and that drives the horse away. I let that horse find a nice, safe place to be with me, and only then I might scratch it a little bit. If the horse decides to turn and leave, then I go back to doing the same thing and hook up with it. I try to set it up so the right thing is easy and the wrong thing is difficult. We’ve heard that saying before, but there are so many different ways to do it.
Once I get that horse to really hook on to me, then I can graduate into an arena. Then if the horse leaves, I can do same things as I did in the round pen, but the horse has a better idea of what I want.
Hooking up means offering the horse something good. If we don’t have anything to offer our horse, why would our horse want to be with us? But it doesn’t come from a bucket of grain or anything like that. I’m not opposed to using grain to start with, but I don’t want the horse to rely on it.
One thing that was really amazing was when I saw Buck [Brannaman] one year run a bunch of horses into a big area and he took a bucket of grain and threw it into a big long feeder. While he was standing at the feeder, the horses stayed away from the grain trough. But when he walked away, the horses came in and started eating. They had enough respect for him to stay away and not swish their tails away or crowd or kick him. So grain’s not a bad thing; we cause it to be a bad thing.
Also, ask yourself how halter broke is the horse? Does the horse want to stay with you while it’s haltered or does it pull on you on the halter? I spend a lot of time with my halter work, teaching my horse to want to be with me, but not jerking it around. I try to get it so the horse wants to stay instead of wanting to leave. Then, when I do go to the bigger pasture and the horse comes up to me but is a little standoffish, I can use the same technique I used in the round pen to get the horse to hook on to me.
When I apply pressure, I don’t focus so much on the hind end. I want the hind end to go away from me and have the front end come toward me. But I may put a small amount of pressure on the hind end to draw the horse’s eye to me. Once that horse sees me, it will relate that back to the round pen and walk right up to me.
It’s really hard to do this if you’re out in a big area and there are other horses around you, and the horses are running off. Then they will avoid you and play that game. Get the horse you want in an area you can control.
If you think about it, why would the horse want to get caught if every time we catch them we brush them up, saddle them up, go ride, and then put them away? Sometimes when there is a horse that is hard to catch, I’ll halter it, scratch on it for a while and then turn it loose. Maybe I won’t ride that horse that day, but I’m still doing something with it.
Q: I’ve heard and seen pictures of people starting colts and training horses with a flag. Can you explain the purpose of that? What are some common mistakes people use with the flag?
A: I think the world of the flag. I have a whole tack room full of them and I use them all the time. I use a flag on my colts and older horses, and I sort cattle with them. As long as we’re not offensive with it and use it in a way the horse can understand, I think it’s a great tool.
People use various things: a stick, a string, a garbage sack on the end of a fishing pole. There are all kinds of things you can use. The flag is just an extension of my hand. Instead of taking a horse or colt that I don’t know very well and reaching down and touching a leg and risking getting kicked, bitten or run over, I’ll reach down with the flag and get him used to it. I don’t like to use the word “desensitize,” because I don’t want to take anything out of my horse, but I want to get him familiar with it.
With a young or scared horse, I’ll start behind the shoulder, which helps guides the horse forward instead of backward. I’ll get it used to the flag by rubbing it a time or two, then leave it alone. I’ll rub the horse and wave the flag until the horse isn’t bothered by it.
Be cautious when flagging over the withers or the back, because if those sensitive areas are accidentally hit, it can cause a sting. This happens a lot to people who are careless or not coordinated with using the flag.
One of the biggest mistakes I see is trying to do too much, too soon. The horse is probably already scared, and then we’re constantly going at it with a flag. Once a horse is scared, it’s not going to learn.
I’ll also see people get out directly in front of their horse and wave the flag underneath the horse’s jaw, and the horse will strike and actually hurt people. The horse isn’t striking at the person, but it just so happens the person is holding the flag.
When I see someone riding a horse with a flag, it can be really convenient to hold the flag in one hand and have the flag pointing toward the ground in front of the stirrup by the horse’s shoulder. The horse will see that flag and might cock its head. If the horse takes a step away and the flag “follows” it, it might scare the horse and cause it to take off. Instead, rest the flag up on your shoulder until the horse gets used to the flag down by its shoulder.
One of my pet peeves with the flag is getting a horse dull to it, because then the flag has no meaning. You don’t want to use the flag so much that the horse become dull, but you want it to respect it. I don’t want a horse to scared of it, but I want it to respect it.
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