Horses, by nature, are claustrophobic. They are instinctively afraid of small or tight spaces because these areas usually spell disaster for prey animals. How long would a horse survive in the wild if he weren’t guided by Mother Nature to steer clear of caves that house mountain lions and bears? What do you think happens to horses that don’t worry about narrow canyons or rock outcroppings where predators might attack from above? A horse’s main source of survival is his ability to flee and out-run predators. Once he is confined, cornered or squeezed into a narrow area, he loses his main form of defense. If he continues to feel threatened, he will be forced into fighting as a last resort. Because he feels trapped and afraid he may start rearing, striking, biting, kicking, pulling – or any other maneuvers he can think of to save his life. Saving his life is exactly what is on a horse’s mind when he’s not convinced that the trailer, four-foot jump or tight area is safe. When a horse’s sense of self preservation is activated, he isn’t worried he is going to be hurt — he’s afraid he is going to be killed! That’s why the Friendly Game (the first of the Parelli Natural Horse•Man•Ship Seven Games) is so critical. Before you ask your horse to do something that he fears, you must have his trust. Then, after gaining his confidence with the Friendly Game, the other six of the Seven Games build the language that helps your horse see you as his leader, his alpha. He knows he will be safe with you. Remember, the Seven Games are progressive and you need to have the other six in place before being able to successfully play the Squeeze Game.
It’s true that a lot of people are able to get a horse into a trailer, over a jump or across a mud puddle without first having the horse’s trust and respect. Many of us have witnessed a group of strong men muscling a horse into a trailer or people whipping or pulling a horse in the mouth to get him across water. That’s not my style. People who don’t have good relationships with their horses are the ones using sheer force along with whips, butt ropes, chains over the nose, four strong men and scare tactics to get the job done.
Because using force, intimidation and mechanics are especially common when trailer loading, transporting a horse is usually considered to be highly stressful, often resulting in colic or a mess of injuries. This entirely avoidable drama is tragically repeated over and over in a horse’s life at the wash rack, starting gate, a narrow bridge and any other place that the horse would rather avoid.
Think like a horse
Look at things from the horse’s perspective. How do you think your horse feels about getting into a metal cave on wheels? How does he feel about putting his safety in your hands? Have you proven that you are calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic by outmaneuvering him at the other six of the Seven Games? That is how an alpha horse proves himself to win the respect of his herd, and what your horse is looking for before he can place his safety in your hands.
Horses are not only natural-born claustrophobics, they are also natural-born cowards and panic-aholics. This means they are skeptical of most new things and their natural tendency is to panic and run first then think later. When you think of your horse as a 1,200 pound prey animal (like a deer, elk or very large chicken), it may help you have more patience with his insecurities and “unreasonable” fears.
I like to say that where savvy ends, force begins. Many people tend to get more forceful and slightly aggressive when things don’t go just right with a horse. Frustration and anger flare up quickly and are felt by the horse through tight hands, a frown, yelling (growling) or increased force. These aggressive actions only prove to the horse that you are not to be trusted and his level of fear and resistance will increase, causing his behavior to become worse and worse.
Long ago I identified the ‘Eight Responsibilities’ for the horse-human relationship. These Eight Responsibilities have kept me on track during times when things weren’t going too well. They were a constant reminder of what needed to be in place in my horse and in myself to get the job done naturally and with kindness.
There are four responsibilities for the horse and four for the human.
For the horse:
1) Don’t act like a prey animal (Learn to be calmer, smarter and braver)
2) Maintain gait (Don’t shift gears unless I ask)
3) Maintain direction (Stay on course even if I’m not steering)
4) Watch where you are going (Be responsible for your self-carriage)
For the human:
1) Don’t act like a predator (I won’t use force or lose my temper, no matter what)
2) Have an independent seat (I never grip with my hands or below my knees for balance)
3) Think like a horse-man (I consider the horse’s perspective)
4) Use the natural power of Focus (I concentrate on what I want, not on what the horse may be doing)
How does the Squeeze Game help your horse?
The Squeeze Game teaches your horse to become calmer, smarter, braver and to squeeze through narrow spots without concern. By playing the game you allow your horse the opportunity to work through his innate fears in a safe environment. Starting slowly, without much pressure, helps your horse enormously with his naturally claustrophobic tendencies, allowing him to become more confident, calm and willing to try new things.
Since horses are instinctively afraid of containment, because their survival is based on the ability to escape in an instant, they can be radically opposed to doing many of the common tasks that have become necessary in today’s world. So much of what a horse has to adapt to in the humanized environment involves small spaces, enclosed areas and restriction… and then we wonder why horses are often so much trouble!
Teaching your horse the Squeeze Game
Before starting the Squeeze Game, go back to the Circling Game (part 5) and make sure all three parts of the Circling Game — the Send, the Allow and the Bring Back — can be done with ease. The Squeeze Game requires the same three techniques, but instead of playing the game on a circle, you will now be playing it on a straight line.
Start the Squeeze Game by standing with your horse about six to eight feet away from a fence. This should give your horse plenty of space, but if he shows some fear, then just widen the space or send him between you and a barrel in an open area. As your horse gains confidence, you will be able to go back to the fence and make the space smaller and smaller until it is just three feet wide, like the stall of a horse trailer.
Send your horse through the narrow space by leading his nose and driving him forward from his hindquarters with the lead rope or PNH Carrot Stick. Once your horse is moving into the space, just allow him to go through. Turn with him and once he is on the other side, ask for the Bring Back by bringing your hand to your belly button to lead his nose and pushing his hindquarter away (refer to the Circling Game, part 5, if you have trouble).
Once you have both of his eyes focused on you, Send him back through the other way. Continue to ask your horse to go back and forth through the narrow area, with a short rest on either end to give him incentive, until he can walk through without a care in the world.
It is pretty common at first for your horse to turn and run around you instead of going through the space. The last place he wants to go is into a narrow space, so make it wider and have some patience. Keep asking while you walk backwards, making the space dramatically bigger as you go.
Once your horse becomes confident with that size space, take a big step towards the fence to make the space narrower. Allow your horse to get comfortable with the new width, then make it narrower again until you have worked your way down to about a three-foot distance between you and the fence. This process may take a day, or it may take several weeks, depending on your horse and your skill level. Just remember to end each session on a good note so you can pick up where you left off the next time you play together.
You can use the skills learned in the Squeeze Game to teach your horse to jump, go into trailers, wash bays, racing barriers, roping boxes, chutes and even help him get over cinchiness. All you need to do is Send your horse over, into, through or under the Squeeze obstacle. Allow him to try, using lots of approach and retreat, until he becomes confident with the obstacle. Once he goes over, into, through or under, ask for the Bring Back to stop, give him a rest and prepare to start again.
Play all of the Seven Games with your horse
The Squeeze Game is number seven in the Seven Games because you must have all the fundamentals in place to play it. You need the Friendly Game so your horse trusts you and doesn’t panic. The Porcupine Game taught your horse to yield to steady pressure so he can follow the feel of the lead rope. The Driving Game helped build your horse’s response to rhythmic pressure so you can move him forward without moving your feet. The Yo-Yo Game taught him to back up and allow you some personal space so you don’t get run over. The Circling Game gave meaning to the Send, the Allow and the Bring Back for you and your horse and the Sideways Game taught you how to help your horse stay in a thinking, left brain mode. The Squeeze Game puts all these pieces together to help your horse learn how to listen to you instead of Mother Nature in a “tight” situation.
The Seven Games are the basis of true communication with horses. Everything you ask your horse to do — in or out of the saddle, is one of, or a combination of, these Seven Games. After learning the basic techniques of each game independently, use some imagination to expand them with a variety of obstacles to have more fun. The better you get at the Seven Games the better your results will be with everything else, and the safer you will be because your horse is now your partner.
Don’t become a master of just one or two of the Seven Games and allow the others to be mediocre. This will create holes in your foundation that may surface in a bad situation that requires the polished skills of all Seven Games.
Become equally competent with all Seven Games by playing them before every ride. You will be amazed at how much smoother your rides are because you have built a solid foundation from the ground first. You horse’s respect for you will build appreciably.
As you progress, you can start using the games more creatively, but at first it’s important to play all Seven Games in the right order to make sure they are improving in quality. The consistency will be a huge help in your horse’s learning curve.
After a while, you can use them just as a pre-ride check (like the pre-flight check that pilots do) or you can turn the games into challenges, helping your horse become even calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic. Challenges could be things such as backing your horse up and down hills, through gates and stall doors, asking your horse to jump over a barrel or circle you while you sit in a chair. Could you go sideways down a trail? Could you go backwards down a trail? Using the Seven Games as your foundation, there is no limit to teaching your horse all those things you wish he would do well.