If your trail horse’s attention is on the place or buddy he’s leaving behind, use his nervous energy to teach him that being with his rider is the best place to be.
Nothing dashes trailride hopes faster than a horse that’s not willing to leave—either physically or mentally.
“A horse is a gregarious animal who wants to be in a place where he feels comfortable,” says Dillon, Montana, horseman Randy Rieman. “That’s usually around other horses.”
Rieman has trained horses and tended cattle herds across the West. In addition to working with industry greats such as Billy Askew, Bill Dorrance, Bryan Neubert, Joe Wolter and others, he spent nine years starting colts for Hawaii’s famed Parker Ranch.
“Your goal is to get your trail horse’s attention off his pal, barn, trailer or other object that is distracting him,” he says, “and get him focused on yielding to your feel.” Follow along as Rieman outlines five strategies to break the “magnets” that hold your horse hostage and use that energy to create a willing trail partner.
1. Find separation.
Teach your horse that being with you is the best option, right from the beginning. Your initial training starts when you catch your horse.
A horse that is buddied up with another can often be difficult to catch because he is reluctant to leave his pal. Rieman’s suggestion? Invite his friend along to the round pen.
Apply pressure to the pair to drive them around the pen. Depending on the sensitivity and experience of each horse, the pressure can be in the form of your voice, body position or a flag—whatever it takes to get and keep them moving.
The rules are simple: Apply pressure when the horses are together, release it when they are apart. Don’t try to drive them apart or hold them in position, Rieman cautions. Each horse has to seek release from pressure on his own for the lesson to be effective. In this case, the release comes when your horse is away from his friend and focused on you.
“One horse will be lazier, smarter or friendlier than the other,” Reiman explains. “He’ll turn and face you first, saying, ‘Here I am.’ Meanwhile, the other horse might continue around the pen or try to duck in behind the other horse.”
Let the horse that’s offered himself to you stand quietly. Pet him briefly, but concentrate on the other horse, allowing him to keep moving until he, too, finds a place away from his buddy where he can stand and offer himself to you.
“When the horses voluntarily separate and offer themselves, I’ll approach first one, then the other. If they stay, I’ll reward them each with a scratch,” says Rieman. “If they leave, I let them get together, then put them to work until they separate themselves again.”
A horse soon learns that separating from his pal and yielding to your approach is less work than avoiding being caught.
2. Stand still.
Saddling is another time when your horse’s attention might be elsewhere.
“If my horse is pawing, calling to his pasture mates or moving around, those are all indicators he’s not really with me,” says Rieman. “I want his attention before I proceed.”
Take advantage of your horse’s anxious energy to get him handier on the end of the halter rope. This helps capture the horse’s attention and prepare him for saddling.
“If my horse is not with me or not offering steadiness, I’ll move him around on the lead, asking for yielded circles with slack in my rope,” he explains. “I’ll also ask for some direction changes—anything to keep his feet hustling until he wants to stop and stand still.
“When your horse finds a spot to plant his feet and get settled, then it’s time to saddle him.”
3. Get disconnected.
Instead of trying to force your horse down the trail when his attention is on the barn or a buddy he’s left behind, use your horse’s preoccupation to teach him to leave willingly.
A rider assumes if he can get a horse down the trail, then everything will be fine, but if your horse doesn’t mentally depart, chances are he’ll physically make a break for his comfort zone when he gets insecure on the trail. This is dangerous for both horse and rider.
Refocus the horse’s energy by making him work harder when he’s near his pals or the barn. Ask him to yield his hips, shoulders or ribs. Ride circles, figure eights, serpentines or other patterns until he begins to yield, then ask him again to ride away from the comfort zone created by his horse friends and familiar barn.
4. Stay straight.
Working on straightness not only helps break buddy- and barn-sourness, but it also helps your horse become more compliant. A horse exhibits natural straightness, explains Rieman, going directly to or directly away from whatever is drawing him.
“When you’re parallel to a ‘magnet’ [anything drawing your horse’s attention away from you], your horse’s shoulders and ribs will press in one direction,” he says.
You can use that to your advantage by cueing the horse to continue on that crooked path, helping him learn how much more comfortable he can be by moving in a straight line.
Walking alongside a pasture, a horse might point his nose toward horses across the fence, while his body curves away from them. Rather than force straightness in your horse by using an outside rein and leg to pull and push him back into position, try doing the exact opposite.
“Ask your horse to curve his body a little more [in the direction of his attention] until he’s stepping in and over that hind leg and setting himself up to disengage,” Rieman suggests. “Then, change directions and go the opposite way.”
Continue to work down the fence line from each direction, asking your horse to step almost in a half-pass until he frees up his hindquarters and offers a change.
Soon, your horse will search for a place to relieve this pressure because his body is in a bind. And when he does, he will find the release comes when he travels parallel to the pasture in a straight line.
“You’re using your horse’s physical position,” says Rieman, “but you’re actually getting him mentally unhooked from the other horses and interested in going where you’re going.
“For a while, your horse doesn’t think you’re going anywhere. He just thinks you’re right there doing what he wants to be doing. He soon discovers ‘getting with your feel’ is a better deal.”
5. Find freedom.
“Work” and “sweat” aren’t bad words, Rieman points out. If a horse has to work up a sweat before he’s willing to leave freely, then let him work up a sweat doing things that will be of benefit to you and the horse in the future.
Take advantage of the impulsion he’s offering. Make direction changes and speed transitions. When he looks for another place to be, let him leave and see how straight he’ll travel.
Don’t be in too big a hurry. Using less pressure over a longer period of time is often more productive and effective than greater pressure over a short duration. “Usually, it’s during the search for the right answer that the lesson gets learned,” Rieman says. “Give the horse time to discover that resisting and pulling against the pressure does not gain him freedom—that yielding to it does.”
Article originally published in the August 2007 issue of Western Horseman.