Everyday Handling for a Safe Horse

By Dan Kuhn

When her horse begins to follow too closely, Sara firmly and immediately reinforces her personal space in a way her horse understands - by stopping, flapping her elbows, and stepping backward, if needed, to back him up.

Owning, leasing, or using a horse that is safe is not a luxury - it is requirement. So how do we achieve such safety? For years and years people looked at this topic from the perspective that it was the horse's responsibility, when in fact it involves understanding the rights and responsibilities of both the human and the horse. Horsemanship is a life-long educational and developmental process, for both the horse and the human, and whenever that development fails to progress, or whenever we become complacent in our actions around horses, unsafe situations follow.

How do we begin to make our horses safe?

We should adopt a practice that each and every time we are with a horse - whether it be for five minutes or for a much greater time - it has to be a safe and educational session based on a system of solid communication. The rules are that we can't get hurt; the horse can't get hurt; at the conclusion of each session, the horse knows more than when the session began; and the communication between the horse and human is more effective than when it began.

We must recognize that the horse and human by nature do not communicate using the same system. The educational and reward systems of both species are dissimilar, and to truly be effective we must recognize that, and employ solid concepts with consistency.

How do we develop clear and effective communication with a horse?

Effective communication begins when we develop an understanding of the Prey-Predator concept and recognize that body language is critical. Humans use both verbal and body-language messages among their own predatory species, yet humans often times communicate ineffectively with other humans, resulting in the delivery of unclear and inconsistent messages that lead to misunderstandings, misdirection, and, with the horse particularly, mistrust. Horses, with their use of primarily body language, are very effective communicators with other horses. They use clear and concise statements and don't hold back when delivering the message.

By their nature, horses will never change the way they communicate to horses or humans. Their behavior is instinctive and they are prey animals that are herd oriented. The human must adjust to communicate effectively with the horse in a way that the horse comprehends. Horses require leadership in order to survive and the human must furnish this leadership through effective, consistent communication. If he doesn't, the horse will have to assume the herd leader role to feel safe for his survival. Horse leading human can obviously create unsafe conditions for the human, whether on the ground, under saddle, or in the hitch.

Horses naturally learn in phases: teaching, controlling, reinforcement and refinement. Each step is an important part of their way of learning, but humans have a tendency to want to teach and then move immediately to refinement - which causes frustration and anger for the human, and may cause the horse to resort to survival tactics. Controlling and reinforcing are necessary steps to keep us safe.

Communication is two-way, so the human must not only deliver a simple, well-defined, clear message, but more importantly must listen - through observation - to know how well the receiver has received the message. All of this begins while on the ground, before he is mounted or hitched.

How do we teach basic skills?

There are many methods for training to achieve results. It is a matter of preference and what works best for each of us. For a safe and reliable horse, we must teach him solid ground skills such as moving his various parts away from pressure and learning how to follow the feel.

Basic skills:

- When you use pressure, whether from the end of a lead rope, some other extension of your arm, the palm of your hand, the tip of your finger, the heel of your boot, the tip of a spur, the pressure of a rein, or the pressure of your personal space, always apply slowly and incrementally - and only to the degree necessary to effect a positive change.

- As his reward, remove the pressure instantly - the moment he gives the slightest try.

- Be proactive and always try to get your horse to move with less and less pressure on each request.

- Praise your horse with brief, rhythmic rubs.

These are vitally important skills that most riders and horse handlers don't even think about, but teaching these will teach lightness as well as safety.

How do we put the basics into everyday handling?

These basic skills are utilized in all that we do with our horses, and they reveal who is the leader. To refine our body language and to maintain our leadership, we should expect the horse to willingly, confidently, and reliably do activities such as the following, first from the ground and then mounted:

- Walk respectfully with you. He should stay at a safe distance and comfortable pace, free from physical aids such as nose chains or other unnatural aids, every time you walk with him. Practice walking (forward, backward, sideways) to and from a trough, a barn, a paddock, or grazing area. Practice taking regular steps, fast steps, slow steps. Send him back if he steps ahead of you; away if he steps into you. Lead him around and through sets of cones, poles, or barrels.

- Stop quickly and reliably. Practice walking, at various speeds, and stopping, without pulling on his lead rope - he should be 'with' you. Practice trotting him and stopping. If you can run fast enough, have him canter and stop. Practice stopping halfway through gates and doorways.

- Back up. Teaching your horse many ways to back up gives you a bigger safety net. Back him from in front of him, beside him, behind him. Back him with your hand on his nose, his chest, his neck. Back him by lifting your rope. Back him by waggling or swinging your rope. Back him by pulling his mane, his tail.

- Respect your personal space. Practice leading your horse in smaller areas. Redefine your personal space if he encroaches upon it. Watch your feet - if you are moving out of his way, he is moving into your space.

- Stand still to accept the tack and the rider. Practice this at different places and different times, getting on and off from both sides, getting on and off quickly, slowly, and even clumsily. With practice, you may be able to get on and off your horse from his neck and rump.

- Load quietly and confidently onto a trailer. Load him part way, all the way, from in the trailer, from outside the trailer, and perhaps even load him backwards if possible. Do this in different places and at different times, and on different trailers.

- Cross an obstacle. Practice crossing tarps, stepping over ground rails, walking through water, walking over bridges, and stepping in and out of tires, etc. Be sure all the obstacles are sturdy and safe.

- Stand still while tied. If your horse has been properly taught to yield to pressure, particularly pressure behind the ears, to drop his head, and to lead forward and sideways with a pull on the lead, he can be taught to tie. Consult with a qualified professional to prevent or correct a pulling-back problem

These simple routines are fun and will pay off later when you want to do more complicated maneuvers from the ground, mounted, or hitched. You will have a solid foundation from which to build. If you commit to communicating effectively with your horse and expect the above from him consistently, you and your horse will be on your way to safer and more enjoyable times. Always adopt foundation principles that are natural for the horse to understand, and you will be setting your relationship up for a win-win situation - for you and your horse.

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Natural Horse-Man Services

About the author:

Dan Kuhn is a Certified Horseman, well-known motivational speaker, and author. He developed Natural Horse-Man Services, for training horses and humans, located in Clifton Park, NY. Dan travels throughout the eastern United States conducting lectures, seminars, clinics, encampments, and training forums on the Art of Communicating with Horses in their natural language. Dan conducted Natural HorseManShip demonstrations and presentations at the 2004 Austrian Haflinger Festival in Pfunds, Austria and he is making plans to present in Austria and Germany in 2005. Dan believes that equine education is a life-long process and continues his own education on a regular basis.

Natural Horse-Man Services
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