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Your Horse Doesn't Love You! OR

12 Step Program for Training Your Horse

Next to Step 0: Before Training, You Need Respect

Editor's note: This article is the lead-in for a multi-lesson training series.

We love our horses. We try to give them the best of care, feed them treats, make sure they're healthy and safe, and take full and complete responsibility for them. Surely, we have shown them that we love them. Then why do they do things that hurt our feelings? Why do they run away in the field when we go to catch them for that great trail ride we're about to go on? Why do they try to bite us as we put on their saddle? Why do they run us over when we're leading them past something scary?

Horses don't understand the concept of love. But, animals can feel affection and learn respect. So if we want our horses to "appear" to love us back, we need to explain things to them in their own language. We need to earn their respect and get them to see us as their safety zone and source of comfort. Just feeding and brushing our horses is not enough — correct training is the key. My translation of what Natural Horsemanship really means is simply working WITH the horses' natural instincts rather than against them.

People who work against the horse usually use force to achieve their goals, whether it's with a harsher bit, a spur, or a whip. These things are just tools — they can be misused, or they can be used in a "correct" context to teach a horse. But once the horse learns what is wanted, the tool usually disappears or is hardly needed because we have open communication between horse and rider/handler.

When using any tool, there should never be any anger behind its use. I've seen loose ring snaffles shred a horse's mouth in the wrong hands, yet a set of spurs will make a piaffe look flawless when used properly. Every tool, from a whip to a saddle, is something that helps us, not the horse. Ultimately, we should use a tool until it's no longer needed. We come full circle in Natural Horsemanship from starting with just a horse and a human, to a human using tools to teach the horse, to ending with a "trained" horse and a human — nothing more, i.e., no more tools.

Not all of us have the time or money it takes to complete this full circle and go off on trail rides completely bridleless and bareback. But, we can learn a few simple steps that will help form a stronger bond between our horses and us. These twelve steps are aimed at earning a horse's respect, maintaining control in any situation, and ultimately keeping our horses and us safe in any situation.

The 12 Steps (Plus a little about respect.)

The order of these steps are not set in concrete, although I do find that if you follow them in the order in which I've laid them out, your horse will more naturally and quickly progress from one step to the next. Step One, for instance, leaves you with a foundation to build on for Step 4 and Step 10. And, Step 5 will help you later in Step 11. But, if you think your horse already leads and backs up well, but doesn't like being passed by others on the trail, you can skip to Step 11 as long as you realize that Step 11 assumes your horse already knows the lessons taught in Steps 1-10 — that's how this article series will progress.

Most people assume you need a round pen in order to teach Natural Horsemanship to your horse — this is not the case. It's true that round pens are excellent tools with which to teach a horse. And they're probably almost necessary to properly start an unbroken horse under saddle. But, if your horse is a good "broke" horse needing some fine tuning or problem solving, you can do all 12 steps without a round pen.

Round pens help establish control of your horse's feet and create an environment for a horse that's similar to that of the herd. By simulating the herd environment, the horse is far more receptive to learning and I find they will generally learn quicker in a round pen than outside of one. Also, the round pen itself is a convenient size for working with a horse and keeping you and the horse safe. So if you don't have a round pen, try to find an enclosed small space about the size of one so you can work in a safe place with your horse. A small paddock, but preferably NOT the one used for your horse's turn-out, will work just fine.

The tools you'll need to train your horse are:

  1. 2 lunge lines without chains
  2. A 14 foot lead rope of 5/8" diameter
  3. A lunge whip
  4. A dressage or driving whip
  5. A rope halter
It'll be helpful to also have a tarp (4' x 6'), cross rails, mounting block or chair, and other additional items when you work on de-spooking. Yet, you can be creative if these items are not available to you. I've used raincoats, umbrellas, and balloons as well, for many exercises with my horse.

The most important thing to remember when training your horse is that there's NO GRAY AREA. Everything IS black and white to a horse. If you're the type of person who can't make a decision about what movie to see or what restaurant to go to, you'll need to train yourself first to think like a horse. When you pick up a rein to ask your horse for something, you're committed to seeing that request through to the end. If you pick up that rein to ask your horse to move his hip over and the horse hasn't moved his hip and you drop the rein, you just taught him you want him to not listen to you when you pick up that rein in the future. It doesn't matter if you were just trying to get a better grip on the rein, or you changed your mind and wanted him to back up instead. You're not a mind reader and neither is your horse! You MUST stay focused and know that you're teaching your horse every time you're with him whether you're just brushing him or taking him for a walk. If you want your horse to look to you for guidance, you need to establish trust with him that you'll guide him well. And, as we all know, trust is not established overnight. It takes constant affirmation and consistency.

So if you think you're up to the challenge of completing a 12 Step Program For You And Your Horse, get your tools, ready your mind, and watch for my upcoming series of articles. Each one will address a specific Step and how to achieve it's.

And above all, HAVE FUN! Your horse will sense your enthusiasm and enjoy the lessons with you.

Next to Step 0: Before Training, You Need Respect

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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