Teeter-Totter Exercise

Horsemanship involves finding the edge of your and your horse’s comfort zones, pushing that limit, then backing off before you “jump off the cliff,” or lose confidence. As you challenge yourself and your horse, your confidence and teamwork will grow.

I like to think of this concept like a pendulum; using your energy and breath, you push and push boundaries until you reach the limit. Then you swing back to your comfort zone, exhaling and slowing your energy. The feeling should be smooth, never jerky.

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To feel this pendulum, while softening your horse to subtle cues, try my teeter-totter exercise. Place your hand on the lead rope where it attaches to the halter. This is the only time I advise holding this high on the lead rope, because it applies pressure to the halter. Point your thumb down on the rope, aiming it toward your horse’s hind feet. Apply very light backward bumping pressure on the rope, encouraging your horse to yield to the pressure and flex at the poll so his nose is perpendicular to the ground.

Inhale and increase your energy, encouraging your horse to shift his weight backward. The moment you feel the slightest shift and see him start to shift his weight off a front foot, exhale, slow your energy, and bring him back into the starting position. Repeat this exercise with the intention of just using your energy, breath and body to get your horse to shift his weight rearward. This is a very subtle movement; you want to feel your horse rock backward, but not take a step.

Grooming and Saddling with Intent
I encourage you to groom and saddle your horse untied, while keeping his focus on you. Doing so takes discipline from both horse and handler, but it also challenges you to be aware of your horse’s every movement and to hold his attention. Furthermore, it’s more comfortable and safer than if your horse were tied. If your horse is tied and falls asleep, and you startle him with the saddle, he could spook and pull back, creating a bad habit.

Start this sequence with your horse in a square position, just to practice positioning your horse’s feet. When grooming, place the lead rope loosely over your forearm. Relax, breathe normally and talk to your horse, focusing on his position and movement. Use rope pressure as necessary to encourage him to keep his attention on you at all times, gradually working around your horse and having him stay hooked on in response to your energy. If he becomes distracted or starts to move away, pick up the lead rope and move him back into position.

With consistent practice, your intent and energy—not pressure and verbal cues—will be enough to keep him hooked on.

As I mentioned in last month’s article, a horse can sense when you’re not organized and will take advantage of the situation. That’s why it’s important that before you saddle your horse your cinches are organized and tied up so they don’t become tangled. Place the pad forward on your horse’s back and slide it with the grain of the hair into position, making sure the edges are even. Raise the saddle and gently lower it onto your horse’s back in one smooth movement. Throwing a saddle on a horse doesn’t promote a positive impression or riding experience.

Secure all of your cinches, starting with the front cinch, moving to the rear cinch and the breast collar. As a safety measure, check for any twisted leather, broken straps or loose attachments, and adjust accordingly.

While you groom or saddle your horse, notice if he shifts his weight and lightens a foot. This indicates he’s about to walk off. If he does this, touch his shoulder or pick up your lead rope, and place his foot back in a square position. You don’t necessarily have to lead the horse in a circle to reposition him. Sometimes it just takes gently pressing on his shoulder or applying light lead-rope pressure. If you’re not aware of your horse’s body language and he steps away when you put on the saddle, your saddle will probably fall off and spook him.

Noticing these subtleties on the ground and taking time to refine the right response is the key to developing respectful communication between you and your horse. Master the maneuvers in this article and next month you’ll be ready to ride.

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