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Horses Value "The Little Things"

Posted by Tanya Drayton on December 10, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Many people tend to ignore “the little things” when dealing with their horses, which becomes a major roadblock on the trail of the human-horse partnership. “The Little Things” are extremely important to horses. Why? Because first, foremost and last, above all else, they are prey animals. Ignoring the little things could cost them their lives and horses are hard-wired to survive.


Everything counts – all the time.


I tell my clients and students, ad nauseum, that there is not a time when “it doesn’t count”. Everything always counts to a horse whether you are at home, in the show ring or on the trail. For them, it always counts, no matter what “it” is. From the horses point of view the “boogieman” could be real. Every time you handle your horse, you are teaching the horse something.


If your horse is difficult to catch, do you really believe that it trusts you implicitly and that it will behave well the rest of the time you handle it?


If your horse is difficult to halter do you honestly feel they should be willing and cooperative with the bridle?


If your horse can’t leave the herd at home and walk around the neighborhood or an adjacent field calmly, why on earth do you think he could do it at a trail head?


If your horse isn’t good about having its feet picked out, what makes you think the farrier is going to have an easier time of it?


If your horse freaks out when a rope or branch touches its leg or underbelly are you truly certain you will be OK out on the trail?


The bottom line is this: if your horse has behavior challenges at home, those challenges will not magically disappear when you take the horse to a new and, from its point of view, potentially dangerous environment. Those challenges could be exacerbated, potentially to a level that is dangerous for everyone involved.


There is a magic bullet for success!


Time. It’s such a simple concept and yet it is so often ignored. I spend quite a bit of time on the little things but I do it in small chunks. A minute here, a minute there. A clinician named Harry Whitney, the only one I have ever spent my money on (to audit or participate) in a clinic, said once (where I actually heard it – he probably said it a lot…;) that horses are gamblers. If they get away with something one time, they will try 100 more times to do it again. But, what happens if you take that concept to the other side of the equation? When the horse does something that you want it to do and the reward for doing it is worthwhile from the horse’s perspective, then wouldn’t it try 100 more times to get that reward? The answer is YES!


Catching the elusive horse...


Therefore, I break it down for the horse. For the purposes of this article and since it is a huge problem for many I will use catching a horse as my example. For every time I want to catch my horses to ride them, I “catch” it three to four times just to love on it. When I have only minutes to spare I will go out to the pasture and score them a treat in their buckets then scratch them when they come up. I may or may not carry a halter when I do this, but when I do carry it, I don’t bring it with the intention of using it, I just want them to see me carrying it. When I have more time but not enough to ride, I may actually catch them and halter them before I score them their treat.


We may even make it up to the hitching rail where they get a good scratching but no food incentive at all. For that matter, I may enter the pasture without treats to touch and scratch them, just to make sure there are no injuries. For horses, getting a good scratching is a treat within itself and I have literally turned many horses into “scratch addicts”. The potential to score a good scratch overrides any desire to escape work. The point is, if they never know whether or not your there to ride them, they will take a gamble on the “not”. I have seen this work hundreds of times and, I personally, don’t know or own any elusive horses because once they understand that things can be different (another Harry-ism) they become pocket ponies.


Having patience will give you the advantage...


Although I know this works, it won’t happen overnight. The horse’s owner has to commit to making this “new” behavior habitual and in order to do that they have to invest…wait for it…TIME! The time and effort investment could be 5 seconds or 50 years (it normally falls closer to the former) but the point is, if the owner isn’t willing to try, why should the horse? Aside from the obvious, another payoff is that someday, when they least expect it, one of their friends will say, “Wow, your horse is so easy to catch! What’s your secret?”


This method of small increments of time, invested wisely and done correctly, will reshape many of your horse’s “bad” behaviors into “good” ones. When things become habitual for them,, the horses will begin to anticipate your expectations, becoming more cooperative and your equine relationship will improve exponentially.

Copyright 2010, Tanya Drayton, Equi-Praise


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