Let me start by saying whether or not you will be successful with your horse doesn’t depend on how long you’ve been around horses. Horses do not read résumés. What horses do look for is whether you are a Confident, Consistent and Kind Leader to whom they can give their Trust, Obedience and Respect.
This simple concept is the foundation for absolutely everything I do with horses. Each letter in the formula (CCKL = TOR) is essential, because if you don’t demonstrate all of the behaviours on the left of the equation (Confidence, Consistency, Kindness, Leadership), your horse will not demonstrate the behaviours on the right (Trust, Obedience, Respect).
Many horse owners believe success with their horse depends on having the horse’s respect. But they forget that before you can gain respect, you must build a relationship through confident, consistent and kind treatment that establishes trust and shows you to be the sort of leader your horse wants to follow. Your horse will then demonstrate the respect you seek by yielding and moving out of your space and by paying attention to your requests.
Horses will either trust you or not. You can’t force it any more than you can force understanding, but you can demonstrate whether or not your horse should trust you every time you handle him.
Leadership in Attitude and Action Through confident, consistent and kind leadership, your horse will learn to trust you and develop the calmness and focus that means he will not be easily distracted or confused. He will follow you into difficult situations (think about water crossings or introducing spooky objects) because he will know that you are there to help him. He will know that you will work to put your requests in a way that he understands, and always reward even his smallest attempts to do as you ask.
What is a confident leader? To me, a confident leader is one who is matter-of-fact and uses assertive, but not aggressive, body language that the horse understands. Horses with strong personalities may push passive or hesitant handlers around, knowing instinctively that the verbal or physical message is inconsistent with the intent.
What is a consistent leader? Horses are 100 per cent consistent, 100 per cent of the time and they look for the same in us. Consistency leads to understanding; inconsistency confuses the horse and creates stress that leads to undesirable behaviour. Many people describe their horses as “good to ride some days, but not others.” I don’t believe horses want to misbehave. These horses simply reflect inconsistent handlers. This inconsistency could be something as simple as correcting a horse one day for nibbling your arm or walking ahead of you and not the next. Something is either okay or not okay, every minute of every day.
What is a kind leader? To me, kindness is about understanding the horse’s nature and working with it. It’s about providing good leadership, ‘asking’ the horse and giving him time to work out what is being asked of him and being completely consistent.
Putting it All Together Think about it this way: if you’re consistent and kind, but not confident, your horse may trust you, but that does not mean he will respect you or see you as a worthy leader. If you’re not confident in your own abilities, why should he have confidence in your ability to help him? What if you’re confident and consistent, but not kind? Your horse may obey you and follow you, but he won’t trust you because your leadership would be based on fear and intimidation. That’s not a relationship based on
Once you have your horse’s respect, based on confident, consistent and kind leadership, he will have no reason to react to you in self-defence, even if you need to nurse a wound or give an injection, for example. Horses don’t reason in the same way a person does – they can only interpret your actions as a horse. And actions speak louder than words.
From the Ground Up How your horse sees you on the ground indicates exactly how he will behave under saddle. That’s why everything I do on the ground has a purpose under saddle. It’s also why I do a few minutes of groundwork whenever I handle or ride my horse. Groundwork begins the minute you go to get your horse from the paddock and ends only when you turn him loose again. It gives you regular opportunities to enhance the partnership with your horse, as well as the chance to make sure your horse is sound, he is focused on you and he sees you as the leader.
Horses are born in fear and it is up to us to take the fear off the horse and, in these cases, patience is often the key. Patience means waiting. It means being absolutely sure that the horse has the time to develop understanding. It means being willing to give the horse as much time as necessary to be comfortable with the things I ask of him. I use the term ‘thinking time’ to refer to the time it takes for learning to soak in. To me, patience is the ability to keep going when the going is slow and difficult. That’s why I say that people need a PhD to work with horses – Patience, Heart and Dedication.
Thinking Time Tip I choose to ride bitless because the best control of your horse you will ever have is through understanding and clear, pain-free communication – not a bit. I always say, the only bit a horse needs is a bit of understanding.
Getting Acquainted: Groundwork Exercises
Leading Leading is a good indication of how your horse sees you, and how he’ll behave under saddle. It’s also an easy way to see and understand what I mean when I say I want my horse to be soft and “follow my feel.” I lead in front, just as a lead horse would, on a loose rope and without looking back. From this position, the horse can follow my feel, moving when I move, just as he would in the herd. I also lead so that the horse is behind and to one side, so that I can see him in my peripheral vision. Then, if he spooks or is pushy, disrespectful or scared, there is less danger that he will run into my back.
Whether you are leading your horse from the paddock on foot, ponying him from another horse, or using a quad bike (ATV), doesn’t matter, because it’s his understanding that is most important. The horse demonstrates this in his willingness to follow, not because he is being dragged or pulled around, but because he understands. He sees you as the leader and is happy to follow.
Becoming Sole Mates Handling your horse’s feet is another opportunity to demonstrate good leadership and develop understanding in your horse. Many people are hesitant to work with their horse’s feet, particularly the hind feet, but it’s critical to the well-being of the horse that he is comfortable with having his feet handled, and it’s not the job of the farrier to do it. Too often, the horse paysthe price. This area requires a confident handler with good awareness and timing. If you are hesitant or nervous, I strongly suggest you seek assistance from a professional trainer.
I always start with rope work, to make sure the horse is comfortable with things touching his legs. I need to help the horse to understand it’s okay before I move to touching the feet with my hands. Then I can move to pick up her feet with confidence.
Change of Eye on the Circle Being prey animals, horses are governed by a natural flight or fight instinct which influences the way they interpret what they see. In my experience with brumbies (Australian wild or feral horses) and most domestic horses, around 98 per cent of them are “left-sided,” in the same way that most people are “right-handed.” That’s why I find horses will try to block you on the right side and want to look at you predominately with the left eye to assess the situation, and they tend to use their right eye to determine whether the situation requires flight, fight or freeze. I find that they will be much more reactive on the right side, particularly when you’re presenting a new or scary object. It’s why I do more work on the right side, why I will get on the horse from the left and off on the right (and vice versa). I want my horse to be an “all rounder” not a “one sider.”
It’s crucial that you work both sides of your horse and work on both sides of your horse. Too often, we work only on what is easiest for us, but the real benefit comes from working on what is the most difficult.
A horse needs the chance to calmly look at the environment and what’s in it, as well as the time (however much that is) to understand what he is seeing. By giving the horse enough time to satisfy his natural cautiousness and curiosity, fear can be turned into confidence.
Horses easily spook when they see things move quickly from one eye to the other. I use the change of direction on the ground to help them become more comfortable seeing me on either side. When you do several changes in each direction quickly, it also helps to improve the horse’s eye-body coordination. At the same time, the horse must rock back on his haunches, shifting the centre of gravity to the back, lowering the croup and engaging the hindquarters.
Transitioning to Under Saddle Work
Forequarter Yield I want my horse to follow the feel of my body, whether I am on the ground or under saddle. In the case of a forequarter yield, when I turn my body to look in the direction I am going, the horse will feel my weight shift through my seat and follow that feel rather than the pull of the rein. This is called a turn on the haunches.
Try it first on the ground. Stand next to your horse, with his ears at your shoulder, facing the same direction. Turn your shoulders 45 degrees to the horse and walk with intent “through” his neck and head, looking where you want to go.
Thinking Time Tip I believe food is a distraction and does nothing to help the horse’s understanding. That’s why I don’t use it. I don’t want to cheat the horse and rob him of the opportunity develop that understanding.
If the horse doesn’t understand at first, you may have to bring up your hand holding the rope and lightly touch him on the cheek to encourage him to yield to you. But as soon as the horse starts to yield, drop your hand and release the pressure, encouraging him to follow the feel of your shoulders.
In the saddle, look where you want to go and feel your weight shift in the saddle. You may have to help your horse lightly with the rein to go in the direction you are looking, just until he becomes more focused on your seat and leg aids.
Application: The forequarter – and hindquarter – yield is important in the many different jobs I give horses in training, such as manoeuvring through a gate or even holding cattle. Some cattle are more comfortable going past a horse in a narrow pass (such as into a pen or loading chute) when the horse’s hip is toward them instead of his forequarters. If I put the horse’s hip at about 45 degrees to the cattle, they move past more calmly and the horse still has an opportunity to keep his eye on them.
Hindquarter Yield The more suppleness and flexibility a horse has through the hindquarters (the hip, stifle and hocks) and ribs (although there is very little at the ribs), the better his ability to get his hindquarters under himself. The more the horse can reach under himself, the better he can distribute his weight, and the weight of the rider, to the hindquarters, lightening the forehand. When the horse reaches across underneath himself, he must come around more with lateral bend through both the poll and neck as this allows him to come under himself farther. Hold your rope loosely and with your eyes looking over your horse’s hip, not on the ground! Walk toward and “through” your horse’s hindquarters with purpose. Under saddle, this is known as a turn on the forehand, and you may have to use the reins to guide your horse until he learns to respond to your leg. Begin with work on 90-degree and 180-degree turns, gradually building up to a full 360-degree turn.
Application: When you do a turn on the forehand from a standstill, you are asking the horse to yield his hindquarters. Although it may take a few times, asking creates learning and understanding. When we tell the horse, there is no time for understanding. I only tell a horse when it comes to the safety of horse and rider, for instance in the case of a bolt, buck or rear.
In an emergency situation, disengaging the hindquarters when the horse is moving forward is often called a “one-rein stop,” although a horse can still run forward if all you’re doing is pulling his neck around with the reins. When you disengage the hindquarters and he must step deeply across and under himself, you’re literally disengaging the horse’s “gearbox.” Hold your inside rein tightly, but be sure to release the outside rein as you use your inside leg to disengage the hindquarters. Timing is crucial, but you must disengage the hindquarters in the case of a bolt or buck and you may have to drive the horse forward quickly and then disengage his hindquarters if the horse tries to rear.
Leg Yield Once we establish calmness and forwardness with the horse, we can introduce a bit of leg yielding to school the horse to understand, among other things, each individual leg aid, to move out to a larger circle, to keep from dropping the shoulder and to slow down without the rider having to pull the horse around. Most evenness problems with horses lie in leg pressure issues. Leg yielding is crucial for straightness, as well as advanced manoeuvres such as lead changes, departures and a variety of other movements, such as a change of diagonal, a reverse arc circle, change of direction on a circle, etc.
It is also a good technique to use to re-establish rhythm, which goes hand-in-hand with calmness. The leg yield should not be over-done, though, as it may place horses (especially young horses) more on the forehand. However, asking for a few lateral steps while moving forward slows the horse down, as he needs to step under himself a bit more as he moves sideways. But we’ll look more at the leg yield and the use of lateral work in the next article.
Take Home Message I can’t emphasize how important “thinking time” is. You absolutely cannot force understanding, but you can create an experience for the horse through which understanding develops. In fact, we owe it to the horse to help them in this way and to treat them as we would like to be treated.
INTRODUCING CARLOS TABERNABERRI Australian-based trainer Carlos Tabernaberri is making waves in traditional horsemanship circles. Known worldwide for the remarkable results he achieves, whether handling foals, starting young horses, improving the performance of competition and pleasure horses, or rehabilitating abused horses, Carlos has been described as the “next generation of horsemen” and the “gentlest horseman yet to touch a horse.” He’s also been described as the “only horseman who truly puts the horse first.”
Growing up in Argentina, Carlos watched the “traditional” way of “breaking in” horses, as it is called. Saddened by this approach, he decided he wanted to follow the horse, his master teacher. He became passionate about schooling horses by establishing a sound foundation through understanding and trust, not force. He learned from the horses themselves and, in return, made a moral contract with them to be their tireless advocate and to share this knowledge. Carlos puts his heart and soul into sharing “what the horse wants us to know.” The results, through the horses, speak for themselves.
“As a trainer and educator, my focus is on the horses and people with whom I work and on helping them to achieve their full potential,” said Carlos. “We shouldn’t be divided by discipline; we should be united by good horsemanship. Regardless of what we call it – natural, western, English – good horsemanship is about consistently considering the horse’s well-being first and foremost.”
Carlos puts his words into action not only with the horses and people he works with privately, but also through the numerous equine charities to which he donates his time, skill and financial support in an effort to improve the plight of horses. In July 2012, that work was recognized when Quest Equine Welfare awarded Carlos their prestigious annual Equitarian Award for his passionate advocacy on behalf of the horse.
Now he’ll be writing regularly for Horse-Canada, helping readers to develop the confidence to work successfully with their horses in a way the horses understand. Regardless of your discipline – dressage, eventing, show jumping, western or hacking – the results you can achieve together with your horse are remarkable.