Category Archives: 2003 Articles

Training with Energy and Feel

As we ride or train our horses, we give our horses mechanical cues so they can perform mechanical maneuvers. In the early stages of training, this is necessary for our horse to comprehend what we are asking. As we progress in our training things should become less mechanical. When our horse is comfortable with what we are asking energy and feel should be more prevalent. How do we feel our horses and how do we direct our energy? Feel is both physical and emotional. We need to be aware of how our horse feels in body and mind. Energy is something that is in us and around us. It flows through us into our horse and back to us. We relay our energy through our hands, legs and seat to our horse. When we ride, our horse feels us. How does he interpret the feel? What does it mean when your legs touch his side? What does it mean when you bump, kick or squeeze? Is there energy in your legs when you bump or is it a mechanical movement? He knows the difference but do we?

Intention and focus are valuable when trying to train with softness. Intention is knowing what we want to do. Focus is concentrating on the intended maneuver. By focusing on what we want we are directing energy. We direct it through our body to his body. If we have focus and intention, we can control our horse with less pressure. This will increase awareness of our horse and awareness in our horse. It should ultimately lead to a more trusting respectful relationship.

Can you feel the energy in your body? Our horses feel our energy so we need to feel theirs. When we can feel it, we can interpret it. Is it nervous energy, scared energy, focused energy, or relaxed energy? Creating a relaxed feel will have a calming effect. Putting more energy into our actions often gets a more energetic response from our horse. Energy and feel can be intangible. We give off energy without focusing or controlling it. Our horses sense it and respond to it. How does your horse act when you are scared, or mad or happy? They often reflect how we feel.

We should be aware of how much energy or life we are putting into how we ride.

How do we feel to our horse? Are we just luggage or are we riding with feel? If we are just luggage, we are probably not that comfortable to our horse. If we feel our horse, he should respond with more confidence. If we do not feel our horse, we are probably not helping him out as much as we could. When we know what position our horse needs to be in to complete a maneuver correctly we can adjust our position so we are riding with our horse. If we do not feel our horse we are in the way and it will be difficult and uncomfortable for our horse to be athletic. Have you ever doubled someone on a bicycle and had them lean the wrong way in a corner? It is not impossible to make the corner but it is uncomfortable and unnatural. If we start to pay closer attention to our horses body and energy, we can help them do what we are asking.

When we start to feel the little things that our horse does, we can start to get in tune with him. When we tune ourselves in to him, he will really appreciate that we are finally aware of what we are doing. When we cue our horse for something our horse probably noticed three or four things that we do every time we cue it for that response. The horse noticed things that we do not even know we do. He probably responded and we did not notice. He needs to know that you noticed that he noticed what you did. To quote Ray Hunt “it is what happens before what happened, happened that is important”

Does your feel have life or is it just mechanical? When you pick up the reins can you feel how much contact you have with your horse’s mouth or are you just pulling? When your feel has life, softness and rhythm, you can expect a softer more willing response from your horse. Having a feel for your horse, he will be more responsive, more respectful and more comfortable.
© 2003 Will Clinging

Why we do groundwork

Groundwork is an important part of the training process. It is an essential component in having a “broke” horse. Groundwork can help to establish good basic manners that our horses need for us to be safe. Groundwork can be to exercise your horse or to teach a specific lesson. Horses young and old will benefit as well as green horses or horses with issues. It is with a solid foundation that our horses learn to trust us. Without trust, we will never have a partnership with our horse.

Groundwork that creates good ground manners does not need to be done in a round pen. Manners can be taught just as effectively with a halter and lead rope. Things like space boundaries, and good leading habits are important for horses to learn. A round pen can be a useful tool when working horses without a halter.

Groundwork in the young horse is very important. At an early age horses can learn to accept us as the leader of their herd. They can learn to respond to different forms of pressure whether it is from leading, picking up their feet or putting them in a trailer. Pressure does not have to mean physical contact. Pressure can come from other horses, equipment, trailers etc . The better a young horse responds to pressure the safer it will be.

Groundwork is just as effective with older horses. We can do groundwork with an older horse to keep them keen. Sometimes when we are working, showing, or enjoying a trail ride we let our horses get away with ignoring a cue. Through groundwork we can remind them of what we still expect from them.

Groundwork is the key to preparing a horse to be saddled and ridden. Though groundwork takes time it should encourage a willing attitude so the horse can accept a saddle and rider. In a willing partnership, most horses never feel threatened enough to feel the need to buck.

Groundwork is the basis of fixing behavior problems. Many behavior issues stem from a lack of respect and trust. Which is best established from the ground. If your horse does not respect you on the ground, it will not respect you on its back.

How much groundwork is necessary? The amount of groundwork will depend entirely on the horse. How fast the horse learns, the number of issues that need worked out and previous training all play a role in

the amount of groundwork that should be done. Horses will get bored if we spend too much time on the ground doing the same exercises. Adding more difficult exercises to your routine will help keep your horse interested.

Groundwork as valuable as it is, is not the only training that we should do. Saddle work is the only way to teach a horse to be a safe mount. Groundwork before you ride is a good way to build on your foundation and tune your horse under saddle.

When doing groundwork think about how it should translate to work under saddle. Many of the concepts that we teach when we ride can be taught or at least introduced on the ground. We can teach our horse to move forward, stop and backup. We can disengage their hindquarters or do a turn on the haunches. We need these basic maneuvers first in order to get consistent results with more difficult responses are cued.

There are many good trainers with different methods designed to make our horses more respectful and more responsive. Round pen work, leading, lunging and ground driving are all valuable when done correctly. Good horsemanship is simply that. Natural or otherwise we should not overlook the benefits of doing groundwork. At the end of the day we are all after the same thing: a safe reliable horse that is willing to do what we ask.
© 2003 Will Clinging

Helping our Horses Deal with Fear

Horses have survived for thousands of years because of their strong survival instincts. Of all their instincts, flight is the strongest. Horses need to be able to move their feet. If they are aware that they can run away at any time, they are more likely to think about what is scaring them. When we restrain a horse by tying them up we take the ability to follow that instinct away from them. Once fleeing from danger is no longer an option they will pull back, bolt, and rear, kick etc. When a horse gets to this point its own safety is not important to them. They will risk injury to themselves to ensure survival. They will also run over you if you happen to be in the way. Horses simply do not think when they get scared and their instincts take over. When they are panicked, they can work themselves into frenzy. At that point, they genuinely fear for their lives. They do not understand that whatever is scaring them is literally not going to eat them. How would you react if you were in a situation where you were restrained and you thought your life was being threatened? Would you not do everything physically possible to escape with your life?

Once we understand why horses react the way they do, we may need to adjust how we handle our horses to keep them from feeling so threatened. When introducing new and scary things to your horse do not tie them up. You can not stop a horse from being afraid but you can help them overcome their fears. Let them move their feet so they feel that they can escape if they need to. They will not feel the need to defend themselves. This allows their brain to remain in control of their body and keeps their instincts in check. They will realize that what was scaring them has not hurt them. When horses spook at things when we are leading them our natural reaction is to hold on and not let them move away. By doing this we only increase the stress level for the horse. They are scared of something AND we are trying to force them to stand still. Instead of bracing against them move with them. If they try to back away walk back with them. It they jump to the side control the direction they go in and let them run around you. Do not let them turn away from the threatening object. Once they get their head turned away from us we have lost control and they will get away. If this happens it is likely to happen again and again. If the horse escapes it has rewarded itself by removing the pressure it was resisting.

Horses unlike dogs will not deal with fear for a treat. Horses in the wild have food all around them. Why would they put themselves in danger to get something they already have? How often have you seen a horse trying to be bribed with grain? How often has it worked? Treats given at a time when the horse is acting poorly will only be rewarding the poor behavior. This behavior will then become a conditioned response.
We often introduce scary things too quickly. The more time the horse has to get used to new things the more quickly they will be accepted. We can not force a horse to accept new things. We must make it comfortable for them to do so. If you have two hours to introduce something new to your horse it will take five minutes. If you only have five minutes, it will take two hours.

How we present things to them is important. We must be slow and smooth when approaching them so it is easier for them to handle the new object or idea. If we are too quick and jerky in our movements, we are more likely to scare them. I always like to leave the horse before he feels the need to leave me. If I feel that he is about to run away I will stop and back off. It is critical to leave before your horse starts to leave. After each time I stop and back off, he should be able to handle just a little bit more the next time I approach.

If you ever feel that your horse is scared and he is about to panic, he probably is. Help him out if you can. Your horse is already afraid that something is going to bite him. If you get after your horse for being afraid then something did bite him. Then he is justified in his fears. Having a scared horse is not fun. Nor is it safe for you or him because a scared horse will eventually turn into a wreck.
© 2003 Will Clinging

The round pen and round penning.

There is much debate about round pens and how they are used. I believe most of the debate stems from the misuse of the round pen as a training tool rather than good round penning practices. The round pen is a valuable training tool if used correctly. Like the spur, the “carrot stick” and many other training aids, the round pen can be misused. It is important to understand the theory and philosophy behind the round pen, without it the round penner is simply chasing his or her horse in circles.

The round pen creates a safe, controlled environment ideal for certain horse-training situations. The round pen should mainly be used to teach ground manners, to start young horses and to deal with behavior problems. The round pen should not be used to exercise your horse, this just teaches a horse to run around in circles with no purpose. Gawani Pony Boy calls the round pen a “classroom”. I believe that it should be a learning environment used to teach specific lessons.
There are those that argue that “chasing a horse around in circles is not natural”. Little that we do with our horse is natural. The round pen works because it contains the horse’s natural flight instinct rather than restraining it. A horse’s strongest survival instinct is to run away from danger or perceived danger. If the horse is restrained rather than contained his options are even more limited. If he can not run away, he is more likely to get instinctively defensive. When this instinct is in operation their mind is not absorbing information. The containment of the horse’s motion gives the horse time to engage his brain so that we can work with him.

A common misconception is that round penning a horse means chasing it in circles until it “joins up”. A horse will not “connect” with you after being chased in circles. Chasing a horse around will teach the horse to run away from you. The round pen should be used to teach a horse to come to you. You are a safe place and he will not have to run if he is with you. I want to push a horse away, as another horse would, quietly move him and have him think about the pressure I am applying. I do not want to chase him away like a predator and have his defensive instincts kick in. It is my job to respond to the horse’s actions. The horse through their body language will tell me if I am too passive or too aggressive. I want to elicit the desired response with the mildest pressure possible, but as much pressure as needed.

Many people have legitimate concerns about horses that try to jump out of the round pen. A properly round penned horse should not feel the need to escape. There are many factors to consider in regards to horses that try to jump out of the pen. The horse’s instinct to survive is over-riding his ability to think. This may be the case if the handler is chasing him. Round pen, size may also be an issue. In a small round pen, it is easy for the trainer inadvertently to apply too much pressure. A poorly constructed pen may encourage the horse to try to escape if he feels the pen is weak. A combination of these things can lead to disaster.

Round penning is about mental awareness not about physical exhaustion. When a horse is paying attention, I make things comfortable by letting him rest. When he stops paying attention to me, I make it difficult for him to ignore me by causing movement. By causing movement I do not need to make him run around and around. I might only move him a few feet before I offer to let him respond again.

I will not round pen a horse just for the sake of it. I will use it to prepare a horse mentally to be with me. It is a valuable place to start a young horse under saddle, or to deal with behavior issues in an environment that is secure. The round pen, like any training tool is frequently abused or misused due to lack of experience or knowledge of good round pen techniques. Bad habits are taught just as easily as good ones. Used incorrectly it will become punishment and help to justify horses in their fears and bad habits. The round pen in not a cure for bad training but simply a tool that if used wisely can help achieve incredible results.
© 2003 Will Clinging

Is your horse a pleasure or a pain?

Most people that own or lease a horse do so because of the enjoyment they get from their horse, however there are many of us that do not enjoy our horses as much as we could. Do our horses enjoy us as much as they should? Horse personalities are as different as those of horse people. We all have our issues, some good and some not so good. Unlike ”horse people”, horses are unable to express their opinions on how they are handled, ridden, fed, etc. Our horses put up with our quirks as we put up with theirs. Over time, our riding and handling habits become the norm for our horses and our horses; habits become accepted normal behavior for us.

What happens when our habits are confusing to the horse, or we are not consistent in how we handle them? What may have started, as a personality quirk can quickly become a problem? Once we have a problem, what do we do? Some problems are not that serious so we just put up with it and eventually accept it as normal. Problems that are more serious we might fight with for a while, realize it is getting worse and then ignore it and hope it will go away. We adjust how we work with the horse so they do not have to deal with what is causing the poor behavior in the first place.

In my experience, problem horses have been taught to become problem horses by us, their handlers. Not on purpose but through bad advice, poor handling, inconsistency, ignorance, and unwillingness to try a different approach. Behavior problems are usually only a symptom of something deeper that causes the horse to exhibit potentially dangerous behavior. They will not go away unless we deal with what is the root of the problem. For example, a horse that kicks when I try to pick up his feet may not be worried about his feet being touched. He may be worried that he can not run from danger if his feet are restrained. That horse is willing to defend himself to ensure his survival. This is a trust problem not a foot problem. If I spend the time to earn the horses respect, I can gain the trust it takes for him not to defend himself. The solution to most problems is the same.

Horses are extremely sensitive animals and as such inconsistent handling easily confuses them. Timing and presentation are important factors when we work our horses. If my timing is poor, I may be rewarding the wrong thing and if my presentation is not smooth and confident, the horse will not be smooth and confident. When I am trying to put a saddle pad on a horse, I want him to be standing quietly. If he moved while I was lifting the pad towards him and I take the pad away and stop trying to put it on him I have rewarded him for moving. If I hold the pad up and wait until he stops moving before I take the pad away then I am rewarding him for standing still. I need to be aware of my timing so I do not teach him to move away when I want to saddle him. This is how poor, behavior starts. If I do not correct my mistake, my horse will not get better to saddle. This is only one example of how bad habits are taught to horses.

I have yet to come across a horse that did not have some sort of a problem. Some problems are extremely dangerous while others are only mildly annoying. Are your horse’s problems worth dealing with? Has the horse you bought for fun become a pain? Problems are not as difficult to deal with as they may appear. The toughest part of problem solving is admitting there is a problem to solve. When the time comes to deal with a behavior issue most of us should get some help. This is because we are possibly the cause of the problem. I do not suggest you send your horse out to be fixed. Rather have a trainer deal with the problem and then teach you how to continue dealing with it. If a professional trainer works with your horse, they will probably handle him differently than you would. You must be willing to change how you do things or the problem could come back. There are no such things as quick fixes so be prepared to work on it for an extended length of time. It could be weeks or months before bad behavior is replaced with a good habit. The more established the bad habit is the longer it will take to stop.

You might find that once you change your attitude towards a problem and start to address it your horse will resist you even more. Remember that it is always darkest before the dawn. Do not give up and in no time your horse will again be a pleasure.
© 2003 Will Clinging