Slower is Faster
Each time you work with your horse, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening, live in the moment and be flexible, even if that means letting go of your agenda.
When my two children were young, my mother would come baby-sit so I could ride. One day, I ran to the barn and hastily captured my horse. A friend, who was helping calve, yelled, “Slow down. That’s no way to catch your horse.”
At the time, I had only an hour to ride and all I could think about was leaving the kids for a while and loping through the meadow. What I didn’t realize was that even though I gained 15 minutes by not taking time to properly catch my horse—which involves having him “hook on,” or become attentive to me—I lost 30 minutes the next time I tried catch him.
If you find that you’re in a hurry on the way to ride or spend time with your horse, simply doing deep-breathing exercises can bring you to a state of calmness and awareness. This, in turn, will maximize the time you spend with your horse. Your horse can sense your state of being from your respiration patterns and will react accordingly. Slow, deep, regular breathing conveys relaxation and peace, while shallow, fast, erratic breathing or holding your breath transmits stress and anxiety.
Two of my favorite breathing exercises are the four-part breath and the “ha” breath. To take a four-part breath, inhale slowly through your nose while expanding your lower abdominal muscles, counting to eight. Allow the diaphragm to move down, letting the lower lobes of your lungs fill. When your lungs are filled with air, rest four counts, and then exhale just as slowly. Rest for a moment, and then repeat the exercise.
The ha breath is a great way to release tension. Inhale deeply through the nostrils, and then exhale through the mouth, making the “ha” sound.
After breathing and before approaching your horse, consider setting an affirmation. Your thoughts and messages can affect you on a subconscious level. Negative thoughts can lead to fear, low self-esteem and even physical weakness. Positive thoughts can boost your confidence, focus your intentions and empower you physically and emotionally to achieve your goal.
Write down your affirmations, using your full name, describing an active feeling and asserting your intention in a positive tone and present tense. (I’ve written an affirmation for the goals of this lesson so you can see the correct format.) Make sure your affirmations are believable and realistically obtainable by you and your horse, and don’t let your ego enter into the equation. You know intuitively if you’re prepared or over your head. Repeat your affirmation aloud and to yourself to ingrain it in your mind.
Approach with Authority
Catching and haltering your horse may seem basic, but they’re both an important part of your horse’s training foundation. If your horse reaches for the halter on his own, he’ll be easy to bridle. If he stands to be caught, he’ll also stand to be saddled and mounted.
Before you walk up to your horse, honestly assess your personality. Are you a bold, confident person around your horse? Or, perhaps you’re fearful and timid? Your attitude influences your energy and how you present yourself to your horse, whether he’s alone or with a herd.
Have you noticed that your horse hides, rests a foot or runs away when you enter the barn or pasture, as though he senses you’re going to catch him? This makes me think of the saying, “A horse knows when you know, and a horse knows when you don’t know.” That’s why the moment you start walking toward your horse you need to be armed with confidence and the skills necessary to set up a successful training session for him—as well as for every other horse around you.
Being aware of what a horse is telling you with his body language enables you to position yourself in a way to support the movement you want. I call this a “vitamin C,” or preventive, approach to horsemanship. If you’re not aware of your horse shifting his weight to move a foot and he leaves you, you’ll have to start over or get after him by making the wrong thing difficult. Fixing a problem after the fact is discipline, or a “penicillin,” approach.
It’s imperative that you not only create a presence with the horse you want to catch, but also with those you encounter along the way. You don’t need to catch the other horses, but if one attempts to run by you, simply decrease your energy, back off and snap your fingers or make another noise to get his attention. Once he’s settled and acknowledges your presence, then you can continue to move toward the horse you want to catch.
If you have a hard-to-catch horse, you want to send him to the outside of the corral so he doesn’t run through the other horses and spook them.
If your horse tries to hide from you, he may be sensing your excitement. Don’t change your intent to catch him, just do whatever you need to do to get him to acknowledge you. You may need to carry a bucket of grain or ask him to move into a corral corner and face you.
My mare, Voodoo, likes to play games when I go to catch her. I just send her to the outside of the herd, turn her on the rail a couple of times, then she’s ready to be caught. If I were to chase her, I’d teach her to run from me—the opposite of my goal. The key is to be confident in what you know and what works for you and your horse.
Catching a horse is about encouraging him to stand still and want to be caught. You’ll know your horse is ready to be caught when he has equal weight on his front feet, and as a result, stands still. If he has weight on only one foot, that’s a sign he’s getting ready to leave you. If you see him lighten a foot and start to turn away from you, take a deep breath, slow down and encourage him to focus on you. He’ll shift his weight on both front feet and eventually take a deep breath. This is your sign to walk up to him and touch him on the face or neck.
It’s important that you consistently approach your horse with confidence and in an organized manner, holding the top of the halter in your left hand with the halter rope draped over your forearm. This enables you to smoothly and safely reach under your horse’s neck with your right hand and adjust the halter with both hands so your horse can’t get away.
Your want your horse to become so willing that he flexes his neck about 45 degrees toward you, lowers his head and slides his nose into the halter on his own. Achieving this degree of responsiveness takes consistent practice. If your horse starts to turn his head away from you, gently bring it back toward you with your hand. Then allow him to stand for a moment in the proper position before you secure the halter. Taking this extra time to positively influence a horse will help prevent problems from getting out of hand, and, in the long run, enable you to spend more time doing what you love—riding your horse.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to [email protected]westernhorseman.com.