The process of starting a horse: phase one
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