As a horse trainer there a sense of real excitement when I am first brought a horse to train. It’s like opening a Christmas present. First, I look at the wrapping. Color, age, conformation, movement. I can size that up from the rail. I lean against that fence and just watch this magnificent being in front of me, swishing his tail, ears turning, nostrils drawing in the new smells, and the deep, wise eyes trying to make sense of what has happened. If I ever am overwhelmed with the beautiful gift the Creator has given us in the horse, it is at these moments when I see the equine intelligence at work.

I will usually ask the owner to walk around the arena with the horse so I can read the chemistry (or lack thereof) between owner and horse. There’s a great deal of diagnostic information there. I just use my eyes and make mental notes; occasionally, I’ll shoot a lot of video with my iPhone. In the case of this one particular horse, I could see the owner was intimidated by her horse and she was holding him very tightly by the brass under his chin. She had a death grip on the lead rope. The horse barely could move three inches left, right, forward, or back without the owner tugging right on his face.

I waited for the owner to leave. Once I saw the truck and trailer raising dust on the road flanking the property, I knew we were alone. I just leaned over the rail at first, trying to assess the horse’s wariness or curiosity[1]. I didn’t press the horse at all. I didn’t want to make the horse do anything. I wanted to see what he wanted to do with me. Sometimes a gregarious horse will just decide to walk over and stand next to me because he is so anxious to connect. Nine times out of ten, however, most horses will just decide to stand in the middle of the round pen where they feel most secure or near the gate. Occasionally, a horse will go as far away from me as he can.

Then it’s time to meet and greet. I grab my gear: my rope halter, my lead, and my training wand. It always shocks me how comfortable I feel when my hands finally have my own gear in my hands. It’s just a part of me, like a part of my body. Once I walk in, if it’s a reasonably tame, polite horse[2], I’ll put my gear over the rail and then I’ll walk towards that horse with my body’s signals as small and relaxed as I can. My eyes are down on the ground. My breathing deep and relaxed. My whole goal is to get the horse’s frame to relax and let him synch a bit to my breathing. My body language makes it clear I am not a predator. My eyes are down. I am approaching him in the middle of his visual field. I’m speaking softly to him. I walk towards him and then slowly turn my back to him and take a few steps away from him. If I were a predator, I would not walk away from him. Finally, when he’s ready, I pet him on his shoulder. Not slap him. Pet. The shoulder is key because this not an area where a predator would attack. I pet him a little more, Again, I walk away. I do this a few times.

roundpenning

 

The horse I was working with recently would let me touch him on the neck and face but not the nose. I could see the marks from a hackamore. His lower face was sore. I could see signs of a poorly fitting saddle and a breast collar that was too low and two tight. The alignment of his navicular bones with his horse shoes was off by more than 10-15 degrees. We would get all that fixed.

I flicked the end of my lead rope. Good. No flinch. No ears up. Started to get his hips moving away from me. Then working on the forehand using a very light touch. Working right and left sides of the horse. Right side? Way under-worked and asymmetrically stiff. Willing to move out of my zone. Polite and willing to move his forehand away from me. I began to lightly get him to start backing up. At liberty, the horse and I worked on controlling his gait, turning into me, and getting a good join-up. He hooked on right away. He spiraled in. He started leading off. I began to see the change in him. His whole frame relaxed as if he were saying: “Thank goodness. You speak equus!”

 

In a matter of a half hour to forty-five minutes the horse started moving off smoothly. He would follow me without prompting. Keep both eyes on me as I moved around. I could tell he appreciated that I was very soft and light with the energy I was applying. I knew we were going to become close friends. I was struck by how willing this horse was to please me and what a great work ethic he had. In thirty days we would have a Western Pleasure horse that was as light as a feather and turning on a dime.

My problem would not be training the horse. It would be training the owner. The horse would need two days; the owner the remaining twenty-eight. In the movie, The Horse Whisperer(1998), the character Annie, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, says to Tom Booker, the main character played by Robert Redford: “I’ve heard you help people with horse problems.” Booker, the horse trainer, answers back: “Truth is, I help horses with people problems.” Most of the time that is the truth. That’s why it is such a joy to open the present and find a horse with a great character who is ready and willing to partner up. Remember that horse is always there when you are ready to unwrap it.

 

 

[1] If you are interested in reading a little more on this, turn to page 75 in my latest book, Lead With Your Heart—Lessons from a Life with Horse (Storey Publishing, 2016) and read the short essay entitled “Balance Fear and Curiosity.”

[2] I do not recommend you use this method at all with a wild or rank horse. Wild horse need an entirely different protocol. Wild, really skittish, or aggressive horses should only be tackled with the hands-on help of a professional horse trainer.