The best place to work with a young horse is in a round pen. Begin by letting the horse be at liberty to move freely but with the object of getting the horse to go forward. This may be too much for some young horses. When I worked with my three-year old filly she felt enough pressure that she wanted to go through the round pen rails instead of around inside them. To ease the stress, I put a halter and line on her and worked her this way in the round pen. With a younger horse, say a weanling up to one -year old, halter training is one of the most important lessons you can do in a round pen. Horses who have not been halter broke may sometimes resist and so learning to work with a halter is actually early resistance training. At first, a young horse can look like a fish out of water on a fishing line, literally flopping around on the end of the line. At this stage, halter training is a very big event in the horse’s life and care needs to be taken that the experience is positive and productive.
Halter training teaches a horse to give to pressure in all areas of the body, including around the legs and sides. This is a very important part of foundation training. I have had horses come in for training that have barely been halter broke and don’t give to pressure, yet their owners want me to get them ready to ride. Training must be one step at a time with each step building on the previous learning. Halter training is basic and must be done first. If you do not have a round pen, which certainly is my preference, you can still do a good job education the horse mentally, physically, and emotionally with line work.
Halter training is also needed to teach the young horse to tie and stand quietly. I know a fellow who gets his horse to follow him when he is at liberty. If he runs, the horse follows him and mirrors his moves. But, anytime his horses’ emotional level goes up and the fellow pulls on the lead, putting pressure on the head, the horse digs his feet in, his hindquarters drop down and he won’t budge. He has taught this horse to lead through his body language, which is important and we want all of our horses to do this. However, this training did not teach the horse to give to pressure. When you try to tie up a horse like this, this is often when you find the holes in the training program.
There are only two reasons a horse pulls back. Number one, the horse hasn’t learned to give to the pressure of a halter. Number two, the horse has learned to give to pressure but resists when his emotional level is high and the flight instinct kicks in. This is why it is very important that we do not just use body language to cue a horse but also teach the horse to yield to the halter. Otherwise, when you tie a horse and the horse becomes frightened, he can really hurt himself pulling back. The horse may pull the tie bar apart and run with it causing severe damage to his legs or snap the line and flip over backwards. Either of these situations can cause real trauma, physically and mentally, from which a horse may never recover. This is why we spend time in the early months teaching the young horse to give to the halter and to tie quietly.
My horse Tennison was about as broke as a horse can get in regard to leading, tying and giving to pressure. I had traveled across the country with him many times but once in Colorado when I tied him to the trailer something startled him. He hit the line and this caused him to panic and break the lead rope. This situation caused me to develop an exercise using a strong post because I wanted to change this reaction. I found that after working with Tennison using the post work exercise, when he hit the end of the line, he gave to the pressure instead of panicking and hurting himself.
For the post exercise, use a 25-foot line. Thread the line through a tie ring or wrap the line around a solid pipe, post or rail. Attach the other end to the halter. The loop must allow the rope to give or drag, giving the horse some relief without release. Choose a quiet location where your horse is comfortable. Stand behind your horse out of harm’s way and slowly start to bump your horse along his side. If he gets nervous, keep bumping until he gets quiet, even for a split second, then quickly release. If the horse pulls back, let the rope slide through your fingers to give relief. Once the horse accepts the bumping on one side, move the rope to the other side. With acceptance you can add excitement and energy, always allowing relief but not release.
Horses have a strong flight instinct, which we are restraining every time we tie them. You have to slowly build up your horse’s confidence, trust and comfort. There is no way to guarantee that teaching a horse to tie though leading and the post work exercise will keep him from ever pulling back. However, this training will enable you to change your horse’s reaction. There may be a time when your horse hits the end of the line but because of your previous work, the horse won’t panic but will instead give to the lead line pressure.