Uncertainty. Confusion. Ever feel that when riding? Do you ever see it in a horse? When I see a colt step into the round pen, often, the first thing I see is uncertainty. When people show up with their horses and need help, many times I see they too are uncertain. In both cases, if a colt and the horse person don't find success the horse’s value goes down perceptibly. No trainer or owner wants their investment of time and money to lose value. So, it is up to the trainers and riders to communicate logically with their horses so they can be confident with what they need them to do. A confident horse is worth more and certainly more enjoyable to ride. So what do you do?
The first thing is that a horse, no matter what, is ALWAYS searching for a place of peace or comfort. As horsemen, we need to continually have that thought in the back of our minds. Here are two examples of how we can apply that principle of seeking comfort that will make sense to the horse:
Many people will either start a horse or mess around with a green horse in a round pen. Generally, when a horse steps into the pen for the first few times it demonstrates uncertainty by looking around, pawing, neighing, and showing signs of agitation. If the horse is halter broke, I like to start out by having a hold of him so I can better control the situation. I initiate some minor amount of pressure with my flag and then, as quick as I can, relieve that pressure, often by backing my horse (I start colts horseback) so that the colt finds relief from the flag while facing me. When my saddle horse backs up, it creates a natural response in the other horse. Movement away from the stressed animal creates comfort in him. After that release of pressure and him finding that little piece of comfort or absence of pressure, he will casually come to that spot of comfort faster. I go right back to the same source of pressure
and the same source of release. It looks simple but I am communicating to the horse that there is relief from pressure.
There is a way out. If that out comes, he will hunt around to find it. I have to show him the “out.” As I do this, he knows he will find peace and he builds a certain tolerance for pressure,
which all horses have to have no matter what job they have. Often I see people simply moving that flag in a way that creates constant pressure but they never have a goal for the pressure. They create the pressure but to no specific end. They just keep flagging. In this case, the horse usually gets panicked then dull.
Dull and unresponsive horses are not desirable. It is never a great selling point to say, “Boy this is a great horse, he is so dull I can barely pull him around. Want to buy him?”
In my opinion, having a horse watch a cow is one of the most exciting and enjoyable parts of being horseback. But they don’t do it on their own. They don’t just drop their head and start cowing around for you. The principle of them seeking comfort though can be applied to this training level too.
If you have a cow in an arena or in the pasture the first thought is very simple. The cow becomes the place of comfort or lack of pressure. Everything else is fluctuating between minor and major pressure. As you ride to the cow, the horse wants to jump away. He must be made uncomfortable until he heads back to the cow. Then the pressure stops. Often he will go by the cow, and again he must be made uncomfortable until he is headed back toward the cow. Let your horse make the mistakes, let him go by until he finds the pressure. Also, let him find the peace when he stops with the cow. Let him settle.
The principle is the same, there is relief from pressure. I want that horse to know that I WILL bring relief. As I do that, from the first encounter with the flag to tracking cattle he knows I will bring relief. I am actively trying to teach him how to find the place where there is peace. If I can achieve that, life makes sense to him and his value goes up.