Teach the horse ground manners!
I have had the opportunity to play with a few racehorses lately and it seems very few trainers or handlers teach the horse ground manners.
The thoroughbred is indeed a beautiful creature, although a thoroughbred in full race training, on hot feed and confined to a small yard is not perhaps a true representation of the breed!
I had cause to play with a lovely gelding a few days ago whose handler is becoming quite wary about having to go in with him, and rightly so. This young chap is well out of his box!
Your horse has responsibilities
Yes, as we all do, your horse also has responsibilities. It is up to you to teach him what they are and to enforce them, if need be, from time to time.
These responsibilities are designed to keep you safe, but they also create a horse that is a good equine citizen.
A friend and I were talking about this the other day, the only way to ensure your horse has the best life is to make him the very best equine citizen he can be. These horses are a joy to be around, people love them and therefore they have an inherent value. They are the horses that you never see for sale, they are less likely to be passed around and if they are they will be spoken for long before the need arises to advertise them.
These horses have manners and they understand their responsibilities on the ground which then translates under saddle.
So what are your horse’s responsibilities?
Today we will touch on the two that I think are the most important for your safety and a really good place to start.
1. Keep your attention on me
Back to the lovely thoroughbred from a few days ago, we will call him Harry. His buddy had been taken away to be exercised, so Harry was worked up and experiencing quite severe separation anxiety. His confidence at that moment was very low, he was on the verge of panic, and his attention was everywhere but in his yard.
His handler needed to get a halter on Harry so he was ready when the trainer returned.
When I entered his yard he didn’t want to pay any attention to me what so ever. I was of no consequence to him in that moment, and this is how he treats all his people. To Harry, we are insignificant, not very interesting and simply something to be tolerated (if that).
This is a dangerous situation, if your horse can’t even acknowledge that you have entered the yard he will have no problem running straight over the top of you or kicking you if you get in his way.
Make yourself more interesting
Harry is known to kick people, so to keep myself safe what I wanted was for him to turn and face me, give me two eyes and acknowledge my presence.
What I needed to do was make myself far more interesting to Harry than everything else that was going on. BUT Harry didn’t need any more pressure at this point, his cup was overflowing already.
What Harry needed was a calm confident leader, someone he could look to provide him with some peace and what I needed was to keep myself safe. At this point it is not about getting a halter on the horses head.
So I started moving Harry’s feet with the aim of disengaging his hindquarters and getting them away from me. Harry doesn’t know how to disengage his hindquarters, he’s a racehorse and only knows to go really fast in a straight line.
And this doesn’t matter. My positioning is correct, I tap gently on his rump and as soon as he took one step with his hindquarters away from me, I stop. He didn’t truly disengage, his head didn’t face me, in fact he kept it turned away from me because he still couldn’t acknowledge me.
I gave him a little moment to think about that and start again. Tap, tap, tap on his hindquarters. He turns his neck to see what I’m doing but this time not his feet. I stop and give him another moment to think about what’s happening. Then I start again – tap, tap, tap.
This goes on for about 2 – 3 minutes, with me asking “can you move your hindquarters away from me?” and with Harry responding in all sorts of different, and some acrobatic, ways as he tries to find the right answer to my question. His brain is engaged, he’s stopped thinking about his buddy and everything else that’s going on.
Why? Because I am more interesting and I don’t go away.
I don’t get mad, I don’t raise my level of effort and I don’t give up.
Then he makes a solid try and steps under with his inside hind, his body turns and he is facing me with all 4 feet on the ground. I immediately turn and walk away to give him a complete release. Out of the corner of my eye I see he’s still looking at me, his ears are pricked and his eye looks just a little softer.
I reach the end of the yard (it’s not very big) and stand facing away from him but with him in my peripheral vision. Harry is intrigued, usually people put a halter on about now, or make him do something else, but this is different. I have offered him an opportunity for peace, he is a superstar in my eyes and he knows he is a winner. He finds that he can believe in my actions, they are consistent and he is rewarded for a job well done.
Time passes, I am not sure how long, and it doesn’t matter, because Harry is still in the same spot, with his focus on me and he blows out, what sounds like a sigh of relief and then ambles up to put his nose on me.
Had I had more time I would have remained like this for a while longer, ended the session and left Harry’s yard completely. This would have given him the chance to soak in the event, to really consider that there might be a different way for him to be. Unfortunately I didn’t have this luxury and had to halter Harry as the trainer returned.
2. Stay out of my bubble
We all have a personal “bubble”, that invisible space around our person that when someone invades we feel uncomfortable. Some people’s bubble is larger than others. I’m from the country and I find country people’s bubbles are quite a bit bigger than those of our city friends.
We all know those people who like to get all up in your face, they stand too close and generally encroach on your personal space. They are inside your bubble and it’s generally not pleasant.
You also have a bubble when it comes to your horse. Likewise, your horse also has his own personal bubble.
My rule with my horses is that they stay out of my bubble at all times unless I invite them in. At no time are they allowed to push into my bubble uninvited.
As a courtesy to my horse I also don’t invade his bubble without asking. I try to always approach politely and allow my horse to acknowledge me before proceeding into his personal space.
This includes teaching him to lead off a long rope and have the confidence to stand away from me once we stop so that I am not having to be in his bubble, nor he in mine.
Depending on the behaviour of my horse my bubble might be quite large. Before feed time my two boys like to play quite rough with each other, my bubble grows to include half the yard at these times and they know to stay well away from me.
If I am doing close up groundwork my bubble will be quite small and my horse knows he can approach closer but still not rub on me, or generally push on my person.
At no stage should I have to get out of my horse’s way. It is his responsibility to be as far out of my bubble as necessary to avoid me, if I step towards him he needs to maintain that distance and move away from me.
In the story above with Harry I didn’t want to send Harry out of my bubble once he offered to approach. His demeanour was calm and he was seeking approval and so I allowed him in, but this should be an exception to the rule not something you allow regularly.
You have responsibilities too
It is your responsibility to teach your horse his responsibilities and then be consistent whenever you are with him to enforce those rules.
Don’t allow your horse to turn his rump to you, ask and expect your horse to face you and acknowledge you when you arrive at the gate or step into his yard. This behaviour is rude and disrespectful, as well as being dangerous.
Put in the time consistently to ensure your horse will turn and face you and before you know it your horse is looking for you over the fence.
As you progress you might want a little more than just greeting you. As my mentor puts it “you want your horse to see you coming, stand up, salute and say YES MAAM what would you like me to do”.
Don’t allow your horse to come into your bubble and rub all over your person one day and then the next day be hustling him out of your space because you now want to enforce the rules. This is unfair and your horse will think less of you for it.
The other area you have a responsibility is to develop “presence”.
This is a difficult concept to put into words and if you have ever seen a truly great horseman/woman work with a horse you will have noticed how they seem to have that “something extra” that horses respond too almost immediately the person picks up the lead rope or takes the reins.
The horse become more responsive, but calmer, they seem ultra attentive towards the handler and so eager to please. Wouldn’t you love it if your horse acted like that with you?
This is presence. It is an energy and a confidence that comes from experience, from having developed a good solid set of skills and having a toolbox of ideas you can try in any given situation.
You can develop presence, and while you can’t “fake it till you make it” with horses, you can commit yourself to being the very best person you can be every moment you are with your horse. This includes learning the skills and then putting them into practice until you are the confident leader your horse needs and wants.
Teach your horse ground manners and you will have a safer, more confident and more enjoyable horse to be around.
I came across a wonderful article from Ian Leighton Horsemanship, called The Importance of Body Language which I encourage you to read. Ian explains how our energy affects our horses and how to use your presence effectively with horses.
I will do a follow up blog shortly from the Mindfulness and Horses one, in which we will elaborate on Chi (our own personal life force) and horses which will delve deeper into the use of personal energy.
We’d love to hear your stories about ground manners and horses if you’d like to share and as always if you have any questions we’d love to help you out just leave your comments in the box below.