I generally come across two types of horse people. On one end of the scale there are the people who beg their horses to do things. We’ll call this end of the scale the Nagging Mother’s Association, because these owners constantly nag, nag and nag their horses. They bribe their horses with buckets of oats or treats and as a result, their horses run over them, don’t pay attention, take advantage of every situation, and are just plain disrespectful.
Then there’s the other side of the scale, called the Barbarian’s Association. These people usually whip and beat a horse to get him to do anything they want. The problem with this method is that it causes the horse to be extremely fearful, or causes the horse to get defensive and protect himself. In turn, he wants to fight more. The results from this training method are inconsistent at best.
You want to be in the middle, somewhere between being a wimp and getting drug all over the place, and being a barbarian who is too rough and aggressive with the horse.
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However, just because you want to be in the middle, doesn’t mean you actually get to stay there. The middle is like a seesaw or a pendulum swinging in the breeze. If you’re working with your horse, and he’s being disrespectful and not paying attention, then you’re going to have to be more assertive and step on the harder side of the scale. You need to show him that his behavior will make him feel uncomfortable.
Once you have your horse’s attention and respect, you can jump back on the easier side of the scale. The goal is to stay in the middle, but you don’t get to stay there all of the time. You have to be able to adjust to each situation you encounter with your horse. Some days your horse is more fearful, and other days he is more disrespectful.
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So how do you get your horse’s respect? A horse’s respect is earned by moving his feet forward, backward, left, and right, and always rewarding the slightest try.
Think about respect from your horse’s point of view. When horses are thrown together out in a pasture, it’s natural for them to establish a pecking order. At first, there’s tension in the group, and a couple of fights will break out. Within a couple of days though, a pecking order is established, and there’s one horse that’s the leader of the group.
Let’s say an old broodmare is in control. How did she get control of the whole group? She proved to every horse in the pasture that she could move their feet forward, backward, left, and right. On a daily basis though, the other horses will test her ability as a leader and question her authority. If horses naturally question each other’s authority, what makes you think they’ll behave differently towards you?
Work on the Ground
I always gain a horse’s respect by working him on the ground first. All riding problems are directly related to problems on the ground. If you’re riding a horse, and he wants to get ugly and dangerous, there are a lot of things he can do to make your life miserable.
Most people don’t understand the importance of gaining a horse’s respect on the ground first, until they get bucked off and are flying through the air. Then it hits them that they should have done more ground work and prepared the horse for a safer ride.
Gordon McKinlay, my mentor, used to have great little sayings that I still say to this day. One of the things that he used to tell me was, “Clinton, the more times you pick yourself up out of the dirt, the better your ground work gets.”
What he meant by that was the more times I fell off or got bucked off, I realized the reason why it happened was because I didn’t do a good enough job of preparing the horse to be ridden. The better I prepared my horse and the more respect I got from him, the less I fell or had problems.
When I work a horse on the ground I put a rope halter and 14-foot lead rope on him. I progress the horse through a series of exercises that are designed to get his feet moving forward, backward, left, and right. Basically, I’m simulating what horses naturally do to each other in the pasture.
Three Primary Exercises
I start out by working on what I call the Three Primary Exercises: Yielding the Hindquarters; Yielding the Forequarters; and Backing Up. Every exercise I teach a horse on the ground and under saddle is nothing more than a combination of one or more of these three movements moving independently or moving in combination with each other.
The more advanced the exercises get, the more the four movements (forward, backward, left, and right) are combined with each exercise. As ground-work exercises advance, your leadership skills and your horse’s respect will increase.
Ground work isn’t putting a halter and lead rope on a horse and walking him around the pasture for half an hour, nor is it about longeing your horse in a circle until he’s sweating and exhausted. It’s a step-by-step system that earns a horse’s respect and trust.
While working with your horse, you have to prove to him that you’re worthy of being a leader. Horses don’t want to follow wimps, and they don’t want to follow barbarians.
To earn your horse’s respect and trust, you need to make him comfortable for doing the right thing and uncomfortable for doing the wrong thing. There’s a universal saying in the horse world that goes, “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” When your horse does what you’re asking, make him feel comfortable. When he ignores you or acts disrespectful, make him feel uncomfortable by adding pressure.
You don’t always have to make your horse uncomfortable physically for doing the wrong thing. You can make him feel uncomfortable mentally without ever touching him. If I stood five feet away from most horses and waved a plastic bag up and down on the end of my stick, I could make the horse feel very uncomfortable mentally without ever touching him.
When a horse is doing the wrong thing or being disrespectful, make him uncomfortable in a small way at first, and gradually build to a level where you’re effective and get the result you’re looking for. Always start gently. Do what you have to do to get the job done, do it as easy as possible, but as firm as necessary.
A lot of people feel that reward is the only part to training a horse. Every time the horse does the right thing, they reward him, but when he does the wrong thing, they just ignore it. Eventually, horses catch on and become inconsistent.
Reward is only 50 percent of the equation. If you don’t make your horse feel uncomfortable for the wrong behavior, what motivates him not to make the same mistake again? Create some motivation for him. Why do most of us not rob banks? We don’t want to go to jail. There’s a repercussion for our actions. Make it the same for your horse.
A Step-by-Step Approach
A horse always has the choice to do the right thing. I don’t just walk out to the barn and make him feel uncomfortable. It’s no different than with that broodmare in the pasture.
If there’s a bale of hay lying in the middle of the pasture and all the other horses are surrounding it, the broodmare doesn’t go up to the other horses and immediately start kicking them. First, she pins her ears and gives the horses the choice to leave. If they don’t move, she pins her ears and acts like she’s going to bite them.
If they still don’t move, she pins her ears and bites them. If they still don’t move she turns around and acts like she’s going to kick them. If they still don’t move she’ll kick them, and if they still don’t move, she’ll continue to kick them with rhythm until the other horses move away from the bale of hay.
The broodmare does whatever it takes to get the other horses away from the bale of hay. She will be as gentle or as aggressive as needed. But she didn’t walk up to the group and just start kicking the other horses. She came at them with a system, a step-by-step approach. That’s exactly what you need to do to your horse.
Every horse has his own unique personality, and some horses are going to challenge your leadership more than others. Horses are nothing more than professional people trainers.
People make excuses for their horses’ lack of respect. “My horse can’t go on the trail ride because he doesn’t like your horse.” “I can’t use a pink lead rope because my horse doesn’t like the color pink.” “My horse hates men in black hats.” Blah, blah, blah, the list is endless.
Drop the baggage, and stop making excuses for your horse. You don’t have to hope and wish for respect, you should expect it. It’s not something magical you buy, and it doesn’t fall out of trees. It’s as simple as moving your horse’s feet forward, backward, left, and right, and rewarding the slightest try.
So mate, get out there, get busy and get some respect!
Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country’s top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson’s guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more,www.downunderhorsemanship.com.