BUILDING A PARTNERSHIP WITH YOUR HORSE
In this article, I continue with the series “training outside the box.” The “box” is the confined areas, such as arenas and paddocks, where many riders spend most of their training time. Before we start training outside the box, however, it is important to recognize and learn how to “read the horse” to tell if he has inner energy and playfulness that needs to be released through a forced exercise like longeing.
Any healthy, fit horse has some level of inner energy that must be released before he can concentrate on the task the rider will be asking him to do. The level of inner energy may vary between different horses and in the same horse at different times, but it is always there. It may be present in a larger dose in higher strung or sensitive horses.
Another issue that riders might face when training outside the box is that their horse may be overly sensitive and more high-strung than usual in new surroundings. A horse will nearly always be different in a new environment. This is especially true of horses that are not “seasoned,” meaning those who have not experienced going to different places over many years.
Probably one of the hardest, but most important, things to learn is how to read a horse to know if he has inner energy that should be released, or if he is calm and ready for schooling. An obvious sign of inner energy is if his ears are moving very fast and his head is moving from side to side. Under saddle, the ears and head are an easy indicator to observe because they are right in front of the rider. When you are on the ground, you need to look closely for these signs of tension.
We can see tension or relaxation of the horse’s mouth while on the ground and listen for noises like teeth grinding. The rider also should look for soft eyes which indicate acceptance, while bulging eyes signal alarm.
There are several other parts of the body that a rider/handler should observe to gage a horse’s state of mind. A horse’s breathing is an important indicator of his “mood.” A horse will always try to smell with big breaths before he spooks if he is unsure or afraid. His skin also communicates a horse’s mood, whether it is relaxed or tensed tight and twitching like there is a fly on it. Another obvious indicator of alarm is the horse’s tail. If he is wringing or switching it, he is irritated or frustrated.
While doing a forced exercise like longeing, a horse will tell you if he has inner energy to release through these common signs: (1) shaking his head like he is saying “no,” (2) flicking his ears accompanied by tight or tense muscles in his neck and body, (3) drastic loss of attention, and (4) wanting to run, buck, kick up his heels, or kick at you.
If your horse is communicating with one or more of these actions, it is important to work him to release his energy instead of simply trying to calm him down. Working him means making the horse go forward without running like a maniac. While longeing, if he starts to run out of control, put both hands on the longe line, lean back and use a checking pull, instead of a constant pull, to bring him back to a controlled speed and to keep his head to the inside. Make him exercise at the trot, then the walk, back to the trot, and then back to the canter. The trot should be a square trot, not a jog. Do not let your horse cross-canter (one lead in front, opposite lead behind). If he does cross-canter, bring him back to a trot, let him balance and get organized, and then ask for the canter again.
Let the horse’s forward motion help you to evaluate his level of inner energy. When the horse begins releasing his inner energy, his stride will become smoother. The tenseness in his body will relax. His tail will relax and swing with his gait. His nostrils will flare, and the veins in his neck will pop out, even in cool weather. His head, eyes, and ears will lose their tenseness or rapid movement. When one ear cocks toward you, his concentration is coming back to you, and he will begin to respond more quickly to your commands.
When you think his inner energy is released, test your horse by stomping your feet or clapping your hands while he is longeing. If he shows any of the four signs of inner energy, he needs more work to get it out before continuing your schooling.
Even if a horse’s inner energy is released before the start of training outside the box, certain horses may become anxious during their training in new surroundings. If your horse’s past reactions or behaviors while schooling outside the box concern you, or if you are planning your first venture outside the box, take your longeing gear along on your next outside the box training session. Attach the longe line to the saddle, leave the halter on the horse over the bridle, and stick a shorter, three-foot longe whip in the back of your pants or some other place where it will be safe and easy to carry.
At the first signs of nervousness or distraction on the part of your horse, get off, control him on the ground, and longe him when you can find a safe place in an open area. Do not worry that getting off will cause him to repeat misbehavior just to get you off his back; this will not happen if the rider has a plan to take this action. However, if the rider jumps off in fright or worry, the horse will sense it. This will reinforce his awareness that misbehaving will intimidate the rider.
Remember, a horse knows what we are thinking and feeling by reading our body language. We are all afraid of falling off as it is a natural fear. If you are worried or frightened in the saddle, get on the ground and take charge of the horse. Riding with a friend who is on a very seasoned horse is a great way to help an inexperienced horse outside the box. It will make schooling outside safer and more fun for both you and your horse.
My E-Book, Training Outside the Box, is available online at www.lynnpalm.com along with my Longevity Training Tape #5, The Art of Longeing, and other valuable training products. Or contact us at 1-800-503-2824.