Training isn’t that scary!

Many people think that training is something that they could never do themselves. What many horse owners don’t realize is that every single thing you do with your horse is teaching him something.  You are a trainer, whether you want to be or not! That is an intimidating idea for some people, so I am (hopefully) going to make it seem a little less scary with this little concept:

Effective training gives your horse two options.

Option A: Your horse does what you are asking him to do and is rewarded by not having to work too hard in getting that reward, which may be release of pressure, a treat, simply letting him stand still, etc.

Option B:  Your horse does not do what you want him to do immediately and therefore has to work much harder to come by the reward, until he figures out that Option A is SO much easier for him. For example, you want your horse to lead politely next to you instead of dragging you all over the barn, so you ask him to walk next to you, then stop, which he doesn’t think is something he needs to do immediately, and he yanks you several more feet before deciding to stop.  Your response should immediately be to turn around, become large and in charge and make him walk backwards briskly to the spot where you wanted him to stop, then release pressure and let yourself relax to let him know “this is good”.  Backing is hard work that requires a lot of muscle, so it is a good way to discipline your horse through hard work without being mean or overbearing.  He might pull one or even a few more times, but after this harder option occurring, each time will get better until he does what you want [Option A].

Horses are very smart and very reward driven, so when he figures out that Option A gets a quicker reward, it will become the standard instead of the exception.

  • Just remember that you have to respond to anything he does wrong (or right, for that matter!) immediately! Horses have a 3 second window during which they will connect your reaction to their action.  After that, anything you do serves no purpose.
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Stretching is Fun!!

Stretching is one of those things that is not an absolute necessity, but if you do it regularly, it can help keep your horse limber and willing to work.  There are a couple of stretches which you can do with your horse that are quick and easy and help maintain a supple back and topline.

The first kind are “Carrot Stretches.” The term ‘carrot stretch’ seems to be one that gets thrown around quite a bit, but tends to confuse and baffle many people.  These stretches primarily target the neck and back and are great to do every time you see your horse.
To do a carrot stretch, grab a treat (anything is fine, as long as its something your horse will gobble readily!) and stand near your horse’s flank.  You will do this on both sides, so it doesn’t matter which side you start on.  If you aren’t sure your horse will stay put and you want to hold onto the lead rope, just be certain to give a gracious loop for him to move.  Offer the treat and draw it back from his shoulder to his flank, right across the middle of the barrel so that your horse bends his neck around to take it from you.  When you are just starting out with this stretch, keep in mind that your horse may not be particularly flexible yet, so if you need to hold the treat away from his side a foot or so, or not bring it all the way to his flank, that is perfectly fine — he can work up to the full stretch.  Do a few of these on each side of the horse’s body.  I tend to alternate back and forth, doing two on one side, two on the other, then repeating it, so he gets about 8 little treats total.

Another fun way to get your horse stretching is by teaching him to bow.  Press your chin to your chest.  Do you feel the stretch in the back of your neck?  This is the stretch that we are simulating by teaching a horse to bow.  It will loosen up their neck and topline, plus give you a fun trick to show off to your friends! =D
To teach the bow, grab a big handful of nibbles, because its going to take a lot of repitition (but hopefully not a lot of time) to teach this one. The ultimate picture you want to see is your horse with his head down, between his knees and one leg bent, resting the toe on the ground next to his cheek (that part is just for the look of the bow!).  Start easy, by offering your horse a treat low to the ground in front of his hooves by standing or crouching next to his front leg.  It doesn’t matter which side, since everything will be centered anyhow.  Then move on to offering it a little bit further back, just between his front legs and still low to the ground.  The higher up the treat gets when you pull it back, the harder the stretch becomes, so start low to the ground.  When you offer the treat, you should be reaching between his legs and asking him to put his head between his legs.  Add the voice command, “bow.” Once he willingly reaches between his legs for the treat, begin pulling your hand back a little further before releasing the treat to him, which will force him to (eventually) bend a leg, (which makes the bow look more debonair!) It may take a few sessions, but if you have a horse who is easily motivated by treats, this should be pretty easy!  I taught this concept to my horse in about 30 minutes.

What are all of those joint supplements?

Many joint supplements are full of big words and strange sounding ingredients.  Here are the 4 most common and important substances to understand when choosing a joint supplement for your horse.

MSM [methylsulfonylmethane] This natural sulfur helps support healthy connective tissues, like tendons, ligaments and muscles and so is thought to be helpful in controlling or preventing arthritis, muscle pain, ect. It can be used by itself or in conjunction with glucosamine and/or chondroitin.  Some studies have concluded that MSM may help energy levels as well.  My old, but still sound horse is on pure MSM to help keep the creaks to a minimum and it also seems to put a little extra pep in his step at the jumps! He gets VitaFlex MSM, but there are many other MSM products also available.

Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance in healthy cartilage (the tough connective tissue that cushions joints) and is also found in the synovial fluid between joints.  If there is a lack of glucosamine in the body, the cartilage can get weaker than it should be and can cause arthritic pain in the joints.

Chondroitin helps to keep cartilage healthy by absorbing fluid (particularly water) into the connective tissue. It can also block enzymes that break down cartilage, and it provides the building blocks for the body to produce new cartilage. It is often fed in conjunction with glucosamine.

Hyaluranic Acid (HA) is a natually occurring substance in the synovial fluid, which provides cushion for the joints and other tissues.  Although it is available as a powder, it is most effective when given in liquid form.  It may be used alone or given in conjunction with glucosamine and/or chondroitin.

If you have an older horse who is still in work, it might not be a bad idea to offer a basic joint supplement just to keep your four-legged friend’s body happy.  A basic MSM can do the job for something like this and is usually cheap.  If you have concerns or questions, talk to your vet and see if they recommend a certain supplement for your horse.  They will be able to tell you what kind of supplement is going to be the most useful and effective.

If you want to put your horse on supplements, try using SmartPaks.  They make it fool-proof by pre-measuring everything you want to give your horse so that all you have to do is peel the top off and add it to your horse’s feed. I use SmartPaks and love it because they will automatically send you the next month’s worth of supplements so you never have to worry about missing out on a few days when you run out of (and forget about) your supplement.

 

“I’m not crossing that! It might eat me!”

The Scenario: You are out on a lovely trail ride or coming back to the barn after riding in the field and all of a sudden there is a (very scary) ditch/grate/crack that your horse thinks will come alive and eat him if he tries to cross it. This results in a dead stop or backing or something worse.  For my horse, GQ, this occurred when we tried to take a different route back to the barn from the field than we normally do.  While walking along the sidewalk, we came to a drainage grate that seemed like the scariest thing in the world and he stopped dead in his tracks, snorting, and wouldn’t budge an inch towards it.

The Fix: To fix this problem, you have two options. The first is to work through it from your horse’s back.  ONLY do this if you are a strong, confident rider.  The second is to get off, work with him from the ground and THEN get on and tackle it from the saddle.

The most important part of this fix is that you have to be confident, but also patient. Your horse is nervous, so if you are also nervous or timid, nothing will get accomplished.  You need to allow your horse to assess the situation for himself, so get him to a distance away from it where he can focus on it, but he will stand still. When he lowers his head and relaxes his muscles, ask him to take a step forward. As soon as he moves even a step towards the object, stop asking him to go forward and allow him to readjust to the new distance.  Take it slowly — one step at a time and then relax.  If he freaks out and tries to go backward while you are riding him for this, release pressure on the bridle and keep using leg pressure until he stops moving.  If he freaks out and tries to go backwards while you are on the ground, keep light pressure on his halter/bridle and move with him until he stops. (By letting him step back a little and not inhibitting his retreat completely, you reinforce that this is not a scary place.  Allow him to relax, get him perpendicular to the object again and start over. (This is why patience is so important.)

It may take more than day or session to fix a problem like this, or it could take mere minutes for your horse to realize that crossing that drain/grate/etc. is not as scary as they think. The key is to always keep it positive.  Never end on a poor action. For example, you are getting tired of trying, and you get frustrated at your horse which makes him step back and snort.  This would not be a good time to quit because you will just reinforce that this is a scary situation.  End on a note where your horse is relaxed and happy.

If you choose to try this from his back and it ends up being more difficult than anticipated, ONLY get off when he is relaxed and has just done something worth rewarding.  If he flips out and you immediately get off his back, he has won this little fight and now he knows that he can get you off if he gives a little attitude and you’ve just created extra work for yourself.  Instead, ride out the stupidity (as long as it is safe, meaning no bucking/rearing/generally dangerous behaviors) and wait for him to stand calmly, facing the scary obstruction and then get off and try from the ground.

If your horse won’t budge with you on his back, try doing it from the ground.  Many horses will be more willing to try something if they see someone else do it. (Thank God for the herd mentality, right?!)

Meet GQ!

My horse is the love of my life.  Since I’ve told you about myself, its only fair that I also tell you about him!

GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly) is a 15.1 hh 21 yr old Thoroughbred gelding who acts like a 5 year old.  He is full of spunk and still does the low jumpers! I don’t have his papers because the woman that I got him from did not have them either.  As a youngster he was started on the track. Unfortunately, his lip tattoo is very faded and I can’t read it to look him up. 😦

He loves a wide array of treats, with carrots and carrot-flavored things topping the list. Other favorites include butterscotch, apple and mint.  On the rare occassion that I have Frito’s or pita chips with me, he’s happy to munch on those as well!

He loves to have the underside of his neck rubbed and HATES to have his mane pulled.  He tries to eat the clippers when I clip his muzzle and lowers his head to make it easy for me to give him a bridle path. He doesn’t cross tie, but will stay ground tied in the same place for the entire day.

Like a stereotypical TB, he has a hard time keep both shoes and weight on, so I end up spending more money on him than I do on myself, but he’s worth it! He lives outside, but loves to go into a stall for a little while when I bring him inside to groom and tack him.

Best of all, he loves cuddles and gives the BEST cuddles in the entire world! If you are standing anywhere near him, he will give you a gentle nudge and when you turn to him, he will place his head against your chest for a hug, which he will stay in for as long as you will let him!

“Don’t Beg!”

The Scenario: One of my biggest pet peeves with horses is when they are pushy for treats.  If you enjoy hand feeding your horse, like I do, you want them to be polite because it can be dangerous to have a horse who turns into a bully when the treats come out.  When my horse, GQ, (who is spoiled rotten with cookies[!]) began exhibiting signs of bullying for treats, I knew I had to kick that habit before it got bad.

The Fix: I taught GQ “Don’t Beg.” This was actually a very simple fix that didn’t take more than a few minutes each day for about a week until he caught on.  I would hold a treat in my hand.  When he started pushing my hand or shoving me for the treat I would say “don’t beg” and wait for him to turn his head to the side. As soon as GQ turned his head, I would offer the treat. The key to this is that you are teaching the horse to not bully you for treats, so you are rewarding the behavior that is safe for both of you.  When you offer the treat, offer it at arms length away from yourself, which will help enforce that your horse should not expect to get treats if he is too close to you.
GQ has gotten so good with this action that he will actually use it to ask me for treats now.  Occassionally when I am grooming him, he will turn his head away from me and hold it there until he gets a reward (which I usually grant readily since I am a huge sucker for a cute face like his!)

Pull-on Bell Boot Blues

Pull-on bell boots can be a pain, but sometimes they’re all you’ve got to work with.  Here is a way to make putting them on and taking them off easier.

To put them on:

1. Flip the bell boot inside out.

2. Pick up your horse’s hoof as though you are going to clean it out and pull the bell boot onto the hoof.  The wide base should go on first, so that your horse’s toe sticks out through the smaller top of the boot.  Shimmy the bell boot on by pulling it near the edges of the hoof (see the arrows in the picture below).

3. Once the boot is over the foot, gently place your horse’s hoof back down on the ground and pop the boot down over his foot so it is rightside out. Easy as pie!

To take them off:

1. Stand just behind your horse’s shoulder, facing his head.

2. Pick up his hoof and place his toe on your leg.

3. Pull the boot off over his heel!

Tricky Trails: Bikes, Runners and Baby Strollers

The Scenario:  You are out on the trail for a nice, peaceful ride and a biker rounds a bend in the distance, heading in your direction.  Your horse spots the biker and his head pops up, he begins to get ansty and as the biker gets closer, he pivots and bolts for home.

The Fix: Regardless of the cause, it is never a feeling that we like to experience when our horse turns tail and heads for home. Thankfully, when this action is brought on by something man-made, it is generally easy enough to fix with a little training.

To deal with a horse who spins and/or bolts when presented with something scary, start in a controlled enviroment.  If you don’t have an arena available, a small paddock will do just fine.

The first step is to get the horse listening to you while you are riding.  Before introducing the scary object or individual, warm your horse up, asking him for leg-yields and haunches in.  If you don’t know how to do these elements, find someone who does and have them give you a short lesson because they will be incredibly useful.  These are good tools to get your horse in tune with and focused on you.

The second step is to introduce the scary thing in the controlled environment from the ground. Starting from the ground, have someone slowly ride a bike, push a buggy or jog towards you and your horse, leaving a wide gap.  If your horse gets too worked up  and makes you nervous from the ground, ask your helper to stop and allow your horse to observe and investigate the scary object.  Give him as much time as he needs to calm down and then ask your helper to continue on, slowly(<–this is the key, if you go flying past the horse, you will do nothing to help him see that the object will not hurt him.) It is important that you give your horse a long rope and that you, yourself, remain calm.  You horse will pick up on your emotions, so if you tense up because you think he is going to react poorly to a situation, it is far more likely that your horse will feel stressed and act out.  When you relax and act like the bike/jogger/buggy is nothing to worry about, your horse may be more inclined to have a calmer reaction. Remember though that you need to remain attentive.  ‘Relaxed’ does not mean ‘inattentive.’ Be ready to move with your horse as he reacts.  Pass the horse as many times as it takes until he has no negative reaction to the object or person passing him on either side.  Then repeat the whole process as you walk alongside your horse.
[Quick tip: If you are standing on the left side of your horse, have your helper also pass on that side.  If you are standing as a barrier between your horse and the scary thing, his reaction may not be as negative.]

Once your horse allows the scary object to pass him with no reaction while you’re on the ground, it’s time to get on him.  While you keep him halted, allow your helper to pass your horse. Hopefully the ground training has helped him realize that the object coming at him is not quite as scary as he thought. This doesn’t mean that he won’t react however, because now you are not there to act as a barrier.  From his back, you can act as a barrier in a different way. Remember the leg yields and haunches in from step one? Now those are coming into play.  As the scary object comes toward your horse, ask him to tilt his nose away from it. Don’t take his eye completely off of it, but don’t let it be the center of his vision. By giving your horse a job to do (turn his head), you are giving him something to think about other than how scary that thing coming at him seems.  When he will stand for your helper to pass with the scary thing on both sides, move him into a walk. With the movement, you can ask him for a haunches in (which, assuming the scary thing is the ‘inside’, will put the thing farther from his line of sight), turn his nose or leg yield away from the object. It is your choice if you want to practice this at a trot, but to make things easier and safer on the actual trail, you should always be walking to pass someone else during the ride.

Once your horse is comfortable in the arena, its time to take what you’ve been working on to the trail. To start, pick a quiet time of day and/or a more secluded path to practice on and have your helper come along again. Have your helper move up the trail a ways and then come back towards you.  Think about the relaxed movements that you used in the arena.  Going out on the trail may seem a little stressful at first, so remember to keep breathing and stay as relaxed, yet alert, as possible in the saddle.  When you and your horse are relaxed on the quiet path, you should be ready to try something a little more crowded.

Just remember:

  • Safety first! Your horse may learn to accept the ‘trail monster’ quickly or it may take a bit of time. Don’t take shortcuts in getting to the end result because it will never give you the results you hope to achieve and can get both you and your horse hurt.
  • Never be ashamed to admit you moved on too quickly.  No step is ever finished.  If you feel you rushed any part, go back a step or two until you and your horse are truly comfortable.
  • You may have setbacks. Things may be going well and then a biker may come flying around a turn and frighten your horse, causing his old behavior to surface to some degree.  Go back to the start and work through it again.
  • For horses, the faster something occurs, the scarier it is likely to seem to them. If your horse is getting worked up, ask him to slow down either within the gait or through a down transition.