Not long ago, I felt I’d hit a wall in my 5-year-old gelding’s (shown above)training progression. He’s always been a pretty solid soldier. I’ve asked him to work long days, rope big steers, put up with all-day horse shows, and endure trips to cow works two states away.
He’s always shown heart and a willing attitude. But lately, as I’ve tried to put a bit of refinement on his solid foundation, it hasn’t been working. Admittedly, I’m not the best horse trainer in the land, and I’ve been seeking help on that front, but my young horse’s attitude seemed at the root of the problem. He’s never overtly obstinate. We don’t get in big fights. Increasingly, though, his attitude seemed uninspired. More and more when riding out and then away from the other horses, he’d become antsy and nicker for his buddies.
A Look in the Mirror
I’ve learned that when a horse isn’t doing what I’d like it to, it’s almost always my doing. Sometimes I’m easy on my horses to a fault. I don’t ask for much because I don’t want to fight through the learning process. So my first reaction to my gelding’s lackadaisical attitude was to correct my known flaw and increase my intensity. Let’s rephrase that: I was angry that he didn’t respond to my easy hand with the willingness I expected, so I let that frustration boil over to some “jerk and spur” sessions.
Not surprisingly, that method didn’t yield the desired results, either. In fact, while I perhaps got him turning more quickly with a cow, his indifferece toward me only grew. He’d nicker with less provocation and more frequency. He even seemed more distant and less responsive to me.
I can’t remember if I read it, watched it on a video, or heard him say it, but Joe Wolter once spoke about his relationships with his horses. He noticed that when he’d take his young horses to a clinic or show early on in their training, he could feel them drawing nearer to him when they felt uncertain. They looked to him for guidance, reassurance, safety, and—maybe at some level—friendship.
I didn’t have that relationship with my horse. I used him as a tool to get a job done, but I never made an effort to create a bond with him. I figured if I were fair with him, he’d be fair with me. But I don’t think a horse reasons that way. For a horse to get with you, he needs to trust you. He needs to know you’re going to be consistent.
That, I think, was my biggest mistake. I was terribly inconsistent with him. At first, I didn’t ask much of him. Then, I asked without patience or instruction. He didn’t know where I was coming from or where I wanted him to go.
Making It Right
With that in mind, I began to look for ways to build a partnership with him. I started simply. Before my realizations, I’d ride him all day, jerk the saddle off, and kick him loose, thinking he’d appreciate the freedom as soon as he could get it. Now, I take an extra 10 minutes after a long day to brush him down. Sometimes he gets a little stocked up when he stands in the corral all day, so I’ve taken to graining him separate from the other horses and cold-hosing his legs while he eats. The silliest—but maybe most effective—new habit I’m trying to form is carrying a handful of treats in my coat pocket. When he does something I’m particularly proud of, I slip him one when no one’s watching. Or, if I’m cleaning stalls or catching another horse, I’ll sidle up to him and give him a treat unexpectedly.
The other side of this coin is being much more direct when I ask him to do something. I don’t pick or plead; I ask clearly and firmly. And once he does what I ask, I try to reward him.
The results are coming. We went to an out-of-state, four-day ranch rodeo recently, and I noticed some of his less-desirable habits are fading. He looked for me at feeding time. He nuzzled my pockets as I saddled him, and he never nickered.
Really, I shouldn’t be surprised. People—as well as horses—need leadership, purpose, and partnership. I’ve been blessed by those things in my life, and it’s my duty to provide them for my horses too.