Help Your Horse Feel Secure
It’s almost Christmas and a good time to do something special for your horse and yourself. What I would like to see is folks teach their horses that they can be secure when they are with their human leader. Of course the human has to act like a good leader. The leader quite simply has to offer security to the follow. One of the best ways to achieve this is by using a flag, as Buck Brananan would say, “to keep the horses feet in our rectangle”. I like to call it a box. A SECURITY BOX. It is not about just waving a flag around to desensitize the horse. It is about causing a calm security in the horse. A sense of trust. thereafter.
I first have my horse on a lead line where I pressure it to move away from me. More specifically, I move its nose, head and then shoulder directly away from me as in the first step of a spin or roll-back. Then I elevate the line towards the horse’s hindquarter so it bends towards me and crosses over with its hind quarter to a stop. I also will make sure the horse knows how to back up from me when asked. This creates my bubble so the horse learns that I am important and should not come into my space unless specifically invited. This is best done several feet away. If you get in their face you may provoke them into feeling they have to defend themselves. Whatever I ask the horse it has to understand there is a path out of this pressure (and this should be the path I made available to them). I make sure these yields are SOLID!!!!
I can then show the horse that it doesn’t have to fear the environment, nor me, when it is compliant with my clear guidance. My favorite way of doing this is with a flag whip. My whip is double ended with a flag at one end and an endotapping ball at the other. This tool is an extension of me. I can cause the horse to understand it cannot ignore my request and I can cause the horse to feel DARN good. Possibly better than it has ever felt before. When waving any tool that carries energy/noise, like fluttering or snapping, be careful to allow the horse to see what it does AWAY from them first. With some horses this could be some distance from them as they have an explosive fear excite cycle. For some, their only experience with a tool like this was with someone who intended to cause fear to move them. Fear is difficult to avoid but it should be a phase that we spend very little time in. We should progress through that insecurity as quickly as possible. A horse that is fearful is learning nothing positive.
I first ask my horse to stand still with it four feet in place. I will flap the flag further away from them, perhaps even looking away from them if they are very sensitive to this pressure. If the horse attempts to move I show it how to return back to where I established my “security box”. I gently move them back to that spot but become more specific every time. The horse has to understand that security is in the spot I chose and no other. I guarantee to that horse that nothing bad will happen to it when it stays in that box. On that spot the horse has nothing to worry about other than staying there. I will take care of the noisy contraption, the social order, and then make the whole deal very comfy. This is such a simple concept – if the horse moves its feet, I move them back. I increase the activity and proximity of the whip action in a confident relaxed manner. I correct the horse fairly and calmly (never punishing). I am cognizant of the fact that if I wave the flag to close to the front or hind feet it may strike or kick at it if it doesn’t understand so I make sure I am at a distance first. I go from shoulder to girth, to neck to head, then to rear and legs. The key is as soon as the flag can be waved near the horse we should go from an energetic wave to a calm quiet touch on the horse. The energy gets the horse paying attention and when it starts to think “well it hasn’t killed me yet” I then touch it before it puts up its guard. I then take it away almost as quick. When the horse has no time to react and nothing bad happened it is less inclined to move away from it the next time. I build this so the horse gets confidence in the rhythm of the activity. I touch them with comfort and care and when I swish the whip there is never intent to cause fear or harm.
Now when I ask the horse to move out onto the circle with a very light rein I will use the flag to suggest they should not ignore my request. The flag is not to scare them onto the circle but to bring to their attention that my light request requires an immediate response. If the horse looks like this experience is getting a bit much my whip will be flipped around so I can endotap the horse into relaxation. We have to be able to diffuse the excite cycles through manipulation, stimulation and then understanding which will lead to trust. Say what you mean in a quiet, light way and back it up in a way they can’t ignore.
This process can cause an incredible calm in the horse where it totally relaxes, yet the horse is alert and ready to respond when requested with no fear of outside stimuli. The reason being the stimulation of endorphins in its body, combined with the knowledge that there is nothing to fear when with you. You ask in ways that make them feel successful with no emphasis on failure. It is not about how quick they get it but rather that when they do get it they feel good about what they just learned and won’t forget it. This is the responsibility of a good leader. Developing the security box in a stationary position can lead to skills like tying, trailering, standing calmly while waiting for an activity or just relaxing while taking in a scenic view. Later, we move the box with us – but that is fodder for another article.