By Kalley Krickeberg
Work on controlling your horse at liberty to help build trust and confidence.
Controlling a horse while he’s loose—in the great wide open—is something I first learned to do out of necessity, but now it’s an activity I teach for its fun and challenging nature. I used to move larg groups of horses, 30 to 75 head, between pastures; when you do this, you’ll learn how fast you can loose control if you don’t have herd sense and a good mind set in your horses. The biggest thing I learned is that horses allow us to control them when they are loose. They certainly don’t have to yield to our directions because they can out run and out maneuver you. The key is getting them to believe that control is a good thing, which is where your horsemanship and “feel” come in. For this article, I’ll use a single loose horse to better illustrate the moves I make and the concepts I like to teach with a group of horses.
When training loose horses, it’s all about the set up. And remember, if you work on training the mind first, the body will follow. This is an important distinction to make and it’s often over looked; a lot of times, we’re concerned about controlling the horse’s body and its movements without regard to the horse’s mental engagement, acceptance or understanding. When a horse is loose, it’s all about what he’s thinking and how he feels about the situation—that determines if we can get him caught or controlled again.
Second, size matters when it comes to choosing your workspace. I start in a roundpen, using the smallest logical area in size according to how many head of horses with which I’m working. This way, I can teach the basic moves without having too much area for the loose horse to gain speed, which compounds bad habits.
I’m sharing a few basic, but highly important, exercises that should be taught in a specific progression to attain the successful outcome of being able to move and control one or more loose horses in an open area.
1. Driving the horse around the edge of the corral.
When working with one loose horse, I walk my saddle horse towards his horse’s girth area to drive him forward. With multiple horses, I walk my saddle horse toward the “belly” of the group, treating the herd as one individual. This is the simplest way to begin controlling the horse’s movement. It’s generally easy because the natural reaction is for the horse to move forward. Directional control is less important in this exercise—the corral takes care of that.
The important part is building “feel” into my loose horse, which of course requires feel from the handler first. I want the loose horse to tune in to the rate at which I am traveling instead of picking his own pace. I want to be able to push the horse into a faster gait by increasing the pace of my saddle horse, and then slow my saddle horse’s pace and have the loose horse slow as well. This starts integrating speed control without having to get ahead to slow or stop the loose horse—that’s a losing battle once they’re in an area big enough area to take flight as they wish. I’ll work on building control in front of the “drive line”—an imaginary vertical line just in front of the point of the shoulder—in the next phase of training.
Because we’re working in a confined area, it’s easy to step in front of the drive line if the loose horse ignores my downward transition cue, but I only use this to reinforce the initial signal of dropping the energy of my saddle horse.
2. Drive line control and direction change from the front.
After I teach the horse to be in tune with following the energy of my saddle horse through upward and downward transitions, I start taking angles in the corral that puts my saddle horse in front of the loose animal’s drive line and, therefore, bring the loose horse to a stop.
Here’s the secret ingredient: I want the loose horse to stop or turn to look at me, instead of stopping and turning to the outside, away from me. If the horse turns away, all they’re doing is escaping by going the other direction; in the end, it inadvertently teaches the horse to escape, rather than paying attention to the directions he’s being given. As I take the angle that puts me in front of the drive line, I watch for the horse to look at me. When he does, I immediately turn my horse away and cease all driving pressure to reward that behavior. Then I just let the horse settle on that thought for a few moments.
After the behavior is reliable, I begin seamlessly changing directions without a stop in the middle. When the horse looks at me or turns, I walk toward the horse’s outside shoulder—the one closest to the arena wall—to drive him in the opposite direction. In doing this directional change from the front, you are “changing eyes” on the loose horse—now, he’s seeing you in the other eye. Building trust and obedience in this change is the No. 1 priority. It might seem insignificant, but it is crucial to continue the repetitions until the horse is comfortable changing eyes. It is natural for a horse to be resistant or bolt during this transition; as you’re changing eyes, you’re momentarily in a blind spot, which can make a horse feel like he’s in a vulnerable position.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.