Author Archives: willclinging

starting process 6 – parking

By the time I am ready to climb on a young horse all the things I have written about in the past several months need to be in place. The horse’s attitude needs to be willing, he must be comfortable with any and all equipment I will use and he should be especially comfortable with the feel of the bit I am using. He should understand how to move forward with a little contact from the bit. He should longe without trying to escape and without leaning on the bit or my longe line. When I am happy with the horse’s effort in all these areas there are just two things keeping me from getting on, fear and common sense.

We are at the point of no return. This is where I have to have faith in everything I have done to prepare the horse for its first ride. This is also where the way the horse has responded to what I have done will indicate the success of the first ride and ultimately the rest of his life as a saddle horse. If he is not ready to be ridden it is irresponsible and foolish to proceed until he is ready. Before I do get on I mentally take note of how I feel about getting on, If I am feeling apprehensive or not comfortable with the idea of riding the horse in question I will err on the side of caution and not get on. Whether the horse is ready to ride or needs just a little more work there is one last thing I like to teach before I put my life in the hands or hooves of a young inexperienced horse. I will teach him how to park up to the fence or mounting block.

Parking a horse has several benefits. It will teach a horse to accept and move away from an outside aid, it will teach him that he can move into the blocking pressure of a fence, it will help him get used to seeing me from a higher vantage point, it will also help him learn to deal with things on both sides of his body at the same time and finally help teach him some responsibility, that is to stand patiently and wait for me to deliberately get on.

The method I will describe I learned from friend and colleague Jay O Jay. I start on the ground with my flag in my left hand and I will stand on the right side of the horse. I will put a halter under the bridle and tie the reins up and use a nice long lead rope. Holding the lead rope right under his chin I want to have enough contact on the halter to prevent the horse from walking forward. I will tap him on his right hip gently and with rhythm until he moves his hind feet away from me. One or two steps is enough to reward. I will ask this several times until the horse is comfortable with moving away from the tap of my flag. I want him moving slowly sideways and not forward. When he is consistent and correct I will lead him to the fence.

I will sit on the top rail and lead him up and try to position his head just left of my legs. I want to make it comfortable for him so I will just pet him for a moment until he is ok with me sitting above him. I will then reach over him with my flag and tap him on his right hip and ask him to step towards me. It will often take a moment or two before he will feel comfortable moving towards the fence so I try not to rush things. Any movement towards the fence and I stop asking and give him a quick pet. I keep asking until he is standing parallel to the fence. I will then climb down and lead him away to give him a break before I repeat the exercise. I am quite picky about how the horse parks himself. He does not need to do this quickly but I will expect him to repeat it until he is correct. I do this for a couple of reasons. One is I want him to take the responsibility to park himself properly, if he is out of position or not waiting for me to get on it can be dangerous to mount from the fence or a mounting block. Another reason is that I do want him to learn to wait quietly without anticipating that he should walk off. If at any time while I am sitting on the fence he moves away I will ask him to park again.

Once he has parked and is waiting quietly for me I will make it comfortable for him to stay there. When I am sitting on the fence I always have one hand holding on to the fence. If he moves away while I am doing something to him I do not want to fall off the fence. I will lean over him so he can see me with both his eyes. I don’t want to startle him when I swing my leg over him so I will reach over and move the off side stirrup around and make some noise with the saddle so he does not anticipate something hurting him. I try to be louder and sloppier and a little carefully careless in how I handle him. My reasoning for this is that anticipation or the fear of the unknown that causes stress to sometimes be overwhelming. If I am louder and sloppier than normal and I allow him time to get used to a higher level of stress he learns that he can cope with it. I do not keep it up for long periods of time but I do want him to know that I am not hiding anything from him, that I have no surprises for him. That way he has dealt with the highest level of stress before I get on, and because nothing I did actually hurt him he will not be waiting for the unexpected. In fact he will be expecting things to be loud and scary so when I slip my leg over him while still sitting on the fence and I am slower and quieter he is not afraid.

When I do slip my leg over him and sit on him I at no time take my left hand or left foot off the fence. This is my safety net and if the horse bolts I will not try to stop him until he is out from under me and then I will ask him to come back to the fence and I will repeat the whole process.

Parking at the fence is an important lesson for a young horse to learn because it is when he has to use all the skills he has learned in order to trust me to sit above him and wait patiently while I make a fuss above, and over him. When he can handle all that pressure and be comfortable with everything that has happened to this point the fear and common sense that has prevented me from getting on until now is replaced with faith and trust.

It takes an incredible amount of faith and trust for a horse to let us do the things we do to them. At some point I must have faith in him and in the work that I have done to prepare him. I trust the methods I have tried to describe over the last several months and I should trust the horse because he has proven to me how much he is capable, and willing to accept. This is when I need to be honest with myself about whether I am ready to get on. I know that the horse is ready but If I have any doubts I will wait until tomorrow.

© 2006 Will Clinging

starting process 5 – work in hand

The process of starting a horse: work in hand and longing

Before I start working a horse in hand or on a longe line I am happy that the horse is reasonably comfortable with the previous lessons in this series of articles. The relationship with the horse is developing through leadership, respect and trust, and is reconfirmed with each additional lesson. The horse is comfortable with the introduction of the saddle and bridle. I use the work in hand that I will explain to help the horse learn how to multi task. It should help the horse learn to deal with multiple forms of pressure and understand what each means.

I use this to teach the horse to learn how to go forward and how to accept and give to contact from the bit. I try to be careful initially to isolate my aids. The horse will often have trouble with pressure to move forward and pressure in their mouth, remember the horse has no experience to draw from. So when I start I am either asking him to go forward OR to accept contact from the bit but not both, not yet. It is very important that the horse becomes soft and relaxed when you have contact with the bit. This will help prevent fear and confusion when we start to ride. When a horse is not comfortable or does not understand bit contact he is much more likely to become upset which will get me in trouble if I get on before he can deal with it.

I have the horse saddled and bridled and I am using the round pen as the controlled environment to teach this lesson. I will start the work in hand using a longe line. I will either tie up the reins or remove them from the bridle and I will start on the horses left side. I run the longe line through the cheek piece of the bit from the outside and run it down and clip it around the girth or cinch of the saddle. I want a generous amount of slack between the girth and the bit and I will then hold the longe line in my left hand about 8 – 10 inches below the bit. I am holding the line that runs from the bit to girth as well as the line that goes from the bit to my hand. I have a whip in my right hand and I am facing the horse. If the horse gets upset and tries to get away I will let go of the side of the longe line that is nearest the horse which will leave me holding the longe line with some length between me and the horse. If I pull on the longe ling it will cause the horse to bend towards me so I can keep from totally losing control. I am careful not to get on the opposite side of the horse for the same reason, if I pull he will bend. If I am on the wrong side he will bend away and I will not be in control any more. If it does happen wait until he stops and get re organized. This is one reason I am working in the round pen and not in the arena.

I will use my whip gently on his rib to ask him to move forward. It does not matter how far he moves, only that he moves. Each time he moves and is supported by the release of the cue he should move farther. When he will walk forward I will walk with him and then take contact with the bit and ask him to walk in a circle around me. I expect him to stop or fuss with his head when I do this.
If he stops I will release and ask again for forward. If he fusses I will try not to release but to keep him bent and just let him fuss. When he stops I will release him. I will continue this back and forth, forward – contact – forward – contact until he can start to walk in a small circle with a very slight contact. I want to keep my left hand with the longe line low and in towards his shoulder to encourage the head, when I have contact, to flex towards me and down slightly. I am not trying to put him on the bit only to help him learn that he should not be afraid of contact but that he can bend and soften towards the pull. I will do this on both sides until the horse starts to understand what I want and is not trying to escape from pressure. This can take several lessons for the horse to understand how to accept forward with contact without complaint. The more comfortable he is with theses concepts the less he will worry about them when I get on for the first time. We are setting the stage for his life under saddle and establishing life habits about how he accepts pressure from the bit. I will repeat this lesson for a couple of minutes every day that I work the horse. Each day he should get softer and lighter to both moving forward and accepting pressure from the bit. As he improves then I will encourage him to perform this lesson on the bit.

© 2006 Will Clinging

starting process 4 – bridle

The process of starting a horse: The first bridle

In last months article I explained how I saddle a horse for the first time. The next lesson is to introduce the bridle. By the time I am ready to bridle a horse for the first time the round pen lessons should be fairly consistent and the saddle should not be an issue to put on or take off or for the horse to wear. Once a horse has accepted the saddle a few times it is generally a source of little stress barring an incident that scares the horse or poor saddle fit, The bridle is often an easier lesson to teach but can become a long term cause of stress for a horse. Bits and bitting should not be overlooked and although it is not within the scope of this article, consideration should be taken to find and use an appropriate bit for your horse.

To start the lesson I will have the horse haltered and in the round pen. This is when I want to get the horse used to being touched around his head. I will not try to hold his head to stop him from moving but I will move my hands with his head if he has to move. Some horses can be fussy about their head being touched so this can require some patience, especially around their muzzle. When I am touching this area I try to measure the tension in their lips. If their lips are tense he is not ready to accept a bit, I will massage their lips and under their chin until he can relax. Once he does relax I will put my thumb in the corner of his mouth and waggle it around until he opens his mouth. I will repeat this several times until he is not bothered by me doing so. I will then take the lead rope I am holding and pretend it is a bit and put it is his mouth. With the lead rope across the fingers of my left hand I will put the thumb of my left hand in the corner of his mouth. When his mouth opens I will slowly slip it into his mouth. I do this with the lead rope to get the action figured out and to see how he will respond to me actually trying to put a foreign object in his mouth. The lead rope will not bump his teeth and scare him. Once it is in his mouth I let him chew on it or spit it out whichever he decides to do. I will repeat this process holding it in his mouth a little longer each time. Then it is time for the bit.

When putting the bridle on I will hold it from the brow band in my left hand and put his nose through the headstall so the bit is hanging below his chin. I then put my right hand between his ears and reach down so I can then hold the brow band in my right hand. My left hand will now hold the bit and I will repeat the process of putting my thumb in the corner of his mouth, and when he opens his mouth I gently pull up with my right hand which lifts the bit into his mouth. I use my left hand at this point to keep the bit from hitting his teeth. If he will not open his mouth I will try to wait until the lips relax a bit more, if he is tense I do not want to force his mouth to open. It is at this point important to remember that my goal is not to get the bridle on the first time, but to get him ready to comfortably accept a bridle every time. So I will wait longer and not get stronger. Once the bit is in I will hold it for a couple of seconds and then take it out of his mouth by lowering my right hand. If he holds the bit himself I will not pull it out, he will spit it out when he is ready.

I will repeat the process a couple of times and then I will slip the headstall over his ears and let him wear it. I usually take the reins off the bridle and let him pack it around for the next couple of sessions before I will start to apply any pressure to the bit. He needs to be comfortable wearing it before he will be able to handle the feel of the bit being pulled on.

Some horses because of their height are difficult to reach should they decide to lift their head. If I get a horse that is inclined to incline his head I will try to teach him to bring his head down before I proceed with the bridling lesson. I prefer to put my right arm on top of their head and hold the bridle so I can lift it into their mouth but if you are happier using another method it is better to do it the way that you are familiar and comfortable with. Technique is not as important as presentation.

This is not usually a difficult lesson teach a horse. There are horses that can be difficult to handle around the head but the same principles apply, success depends on how much time you are prepared to spend. If you rush things, especially with a horse having a difficult time it will cause things to take much longer.

Remember this is fundamental training, I want to set the stage for success by allowing the horse to learn that a saddle or bridle or rider are within his ability to accept and become comfortable with. I can not make a horse be comfortable with any of those things but I can allow him to become comfortable.

© 2006 Will Clinging

starting process 3 – equipment-saddle

The Process of Starting a Horse – introducing Equipment

In last month article I wrote about establishing leadership. The lessons taught in that stage of training should be maintained or re established as needed throughout the training process. I will take a few minutes at the beginning of the first several sessions to make sure my horse is attentive and respectful and prepared to learn. If I am not happy with his attitude the leadership lessons will preempt any other lessons until re established.

The introduction of equipment starts in the leadership stage. My lariat and training flag are used to help me establish control of movement. They exaggerate the pressure I am applying to push or block the horse. This exaggeration increases the pressure I apply without having in most cases to make physical contact with the horse. A rope or flag or whip should be used slowly and deliberately, the movement should be smooth.

Once the horse feels safe with me I encourage the horse to stand still. The only time a horse will get a reward at this point is when he has stopped his feet on his own or has commited to standing still. I encourage this by making it comfortable by touching him comfortably and softly for short periods of time. As he gets comfortable with this I will ask him to tolerate it for longer amounts of time and I will also become more casual in how I approach and interact with him. This is an approach and retreat going from side to side until he accepts that I am comfortable to be with.

I will then add more pressure in the form of equipment like my rope, saddle pad and eventually the saddle. The process starts over and repeats itself each time the stimulus changes. When using something other than your hand to touch him I will offer whatever I am using for his inspection. I let him sniff and even chew on it momentarily until he becomes distracted from it. At that point he has convinced himself that it is not to be feared. This process will likely need repeated until he is comfortable with the item in question. I will not change items until he is satisfied that whatever it is is not going to hurt him. If he moves away from the item I try to judge why he moved and how he moved. What I want to see is a commitment from him. The commitment to stay and try to accept what I am doing, or the commitment to escape. If you do not have a commitment just wait until he makes up his mind about how to deal with it. Moving his feet slowly is not a commitment to escape, his brain will often work better if his feet are moving but I use this as a sign that I can not increase the pressure unless I want to force an error. I make it easier for him to stay by backing off slightly but do not remove the item either or I could teach him that when he moves away I will reward him by removing the pressure I am applying. This would be rewarding the wrong behavior. I will wait until he stops his feet then I will remove the stress. If he does make a commitment to escape I will not chase him away, I just ask him to come back and try again. I want to make it easier for him to be right rather than more difficult for him to be wrong.
If he continues to escape I will slow down or back up a step because he is not ready to handle what I am doing. When he puts more effort into staying he is ready to continue.

The first saddling is possibly the most stressful lesson a young horse will ever have. This lesson sets the stage for the rest of his working life so it is important to do it right the first time. It is not the saddle itself that is overwhelming but the pressure from the cinch or girth. That combined with the weight of the saddle with leather and stirrups flopping at his sides can send him into orbit. Many horses will buck or bolt when first saddled so make sure you have him in a safe place. If you have him on a line make sure it is long enough that you can get out of his way without having to let go. You may need to be very quick on your feet so do not stand directly in front of him unless you want him to land on you. Allow him to run or buck or whatever he feels he needs to do to deal with this very stressful lesson.
I am not concerned that by letting him buck I are teaching a bad habit. I think the opposite, if there is a buck in him I want it to come out in a controlled environment when I am not sitting on him. Just because he bucks when I saddle him does not mean he will buck when I get on him. I encourage him to move his feet but I do not push him too hard. He may be on the verge of exploding so I just push enough that his feet are moving. When he can walk and trot and canter comfortably I will take the saddle off and repeat the saddling process again. He probably will react much less defensivly this time. When he looks comfortable again I will unsaddle and put him away. I try not to introduce too much in one lesson. If I feel he is not ready to be saddled or not ready to be cinched up I do not feel obligated to procede. Better to wait and have it be a good experience.
Other equipment like the bridle will be another lesson on another day.

© 2006 Will Clinging

starting process 2 – leadership

The process of starting a horse: phase one

Establishing leadership.

Developing leadership is the first thing that I work on when I am starting a horse. It involves several things, controlling movement, setting boundaries for personal space, parameters for pressure, getting and keeping the horse’s attention and expectations for behavior.
Leadership is not the same as dominance. Leadership is about proving that you are responsible, consistent and capable of being in a position of authority over your horse. It is not about demanding things to happen or constraining your horse to perform correctly. If the process is done properly it is a confidence building, empowering experience for both horse and handler.

Before I start to work with a horse I try to be aware of my own mental and physical state. If I bring the wrong attitude into the session I will not get the result I want or if I am not fit enough for the necessary actions I will need to perform there is no point in starting. There are a couple of other considerations I want to mention about starting a horse. It is not a hugely complicated process but if you are used to handling or riding experienced horses it could be a difficult transition for you to make. Unstarted horses have little or no ability to compensate for your errors. Basically I mean that the horse will not be able to keep you out of trouble. It is our job to keep him out of trouble. This should not scare you off but be aware that if your horse is not responding the way you want in most cases he is responding the way he thinks you want. Your horse has little or no experience to draw from so do not expect him to be correct. Encourage him to try and eventually he will be correct. Confusion can set in easily and frustration is right behind it so always be prepared to accept less than what you asked for. This will keep your horse trying and as long as he tries you have opportunities to release and reward.

I prefer to do the initial work in a round pen but it is not necessary. A square pen or a longe line is just as effective. I start by controlling movement and I like to keep the horse at a walk or a trot most of the time. Controlling movement is not chasing the horse away it is pushing him forward or blocking his forward movement. Sometimes it is a change of direction or preventing a change of direction. I just want him to know that I am causing him to move or that I am preventing him from moving without forcing either one. I try to keep my movement as quiet and deliberate as possible to encourage quiet deliberate movement from my horse. This pushing also starts to establish a space boundary. It decides who pushes whom; this lesson will be expanded on when I start working him in hand.
I expect the horse to run and kick out at me and toss his head and be very expressive in his actions. I do not get offended by his behavior, since I use it as an opportunity to see how he feels about me. It is important that I note how he responds or reacts. A response being a thought out deliberate action and a reaction being a fear based instinct that was not thought out. The posturing is trying to prevent a fight on the horses part not start one, It is his way of showing that he has doubts in my ability to lead. I continue to push him in various ways until the posturing loses its intensity and then I invite the horse to stop and look at me. I encourage the horse to look at me with both eyes and I do it by easing out in front of him as he makes his way around the pen. I will stay in front of him, walking backwards so he does not stop or change directions. When asking him to turn in I always let him stop. If I want a change of direction I will approach him pet him and then ask him to go.
The pushing I am doing and the posturing he is doing is just a conversation to get to know each other. I use it as an opportunity to adjust my presentation to help adjust how he is performing. If he is too reactive it is because I am using too much pressure so I need to back off a bit. If he is not responsive enough I am not using enough pressure and I should be a bit more assertive. This is helping me establish parameters for pressure. When I know how much is too much and how much is not enough I know where to look to find just enough pressure to accomplish what I want.

If he is not tuning in I try to slow things down even more or I will only use half the round pen. Basically I will not allow him to complete a full circle until he starts to pay attention. If he gets moving too quickly his brain is not functioning because he is on a high state of alarm. The faster he goes the less he can think. The slower he goes the more engaged the brain has become. When all is slow again I need to be even more aware of what I am asking him to do and how I am presenting myself. The presentation is much more important that the action I am asking for. This is teaching the horse that I expect him to pay attention, and keep paying attention. When I do not allow him to complete a circle I am not allowing him to ignore me.
When the horse’s expressions soften and his actions become more deliberate I know that he is accepting what is happening. It tells me that he is not feeling threatened, and that he is considering whether he should continue to challenge for the leadership position. This is all I need to get from him in an initial session. All I have done is plant some seeds in his mind that I am comfortable, consistent and capable of protecting, supporting and leading him. Over consecutive days the seeds will grow and any doubt will leave him. Each session should build on the last one. Each day I will spend a few moments to push him until he starts the lesson where the last one left off, soft and comfortable with no posturing and no challenging. This helps set expectations for behavior; it tells him that I will not allow him to ignore me, to challenge me, or to push on me. It also encourages him to move away from pressure, to pay attention, and think about what is happening. When he does these things he will always find comfort and he will look for comfort more quickly when he knows where it is. Now he is ready to proceed to phase two.

© 2006 Will Clinging