At some point in its training, something will startle or frighten
an energetic, red blooded baby horse and he will rear or pull back
or run sideways while the trainer is leading him. Or he may jump
around just because he's young and he's feeling good. Or maybe he's
challenging his trainer like he would another horse in the herd
just to see who's who in the pecking order.
These things are actually the trainer's fault because they allowed
the animal's attention to wander. Then an awful lot of trainers
make a second mistake. To get the horse's attention back, they jerk
the shank or yank the horse sideways or pop him with the end of
the lead rope or they yell at him.
This is the "biggest, baddest wins" school of horse training. This
method sometimes looks like it works. If the trainer really is the
biggest, baddest one, they may get the horse to freeze and hesitate
before they startle or rear or pull back the next time. But the
horse hasn't really learned anything except that when they're frightened
or startled, they're going to get attacked so they better watch
out. That's not a lesson you can build on to teach the horse anything
The trainer intends these jerking or pulling or popping pressures
as punishment for the horse's "disobedience." They think if the
consequences of a particular behavior are bad enough, the horse
will avoid that behavior. But it doesn't work that way. The horse
feels shanking, jerking, yelling, or popping as an attack. So instead
of shaping the behavior the trainer really wants, these things just
accelerate the behavior they were trying to correct.
Most people are scared when a horse rears up. Their first reaction
is to jerk on the lead rope or get out in front of the horse and
pull on it. Pulling down on a horse's head gives the horse the feeling
of being trapped. The fastest way to put a rearing horse over backwards
is to keep pulling on his head because his natural tendency is to
fight back against the pressure. Just the same, if you get out in
front of a horse that's running back and start pulling on his head,
the horse will just go backwards faster. You'll see horses running
backwards with someone running right in front of them holding on
to the rope and jerking. To the horse, this is a head on attack
that just drives him back more. If it's a horse that's challenging
you or unhappy for some reason and you get in front of him, he can
get you with his left or right front foot or with his teeth.
The only really safe place to be around a horse is close enough
to it so that it can't get any swing going with anything. That means
at and right against the shoulder. When you work with a horse, you
always work from the shoulder back and from the shoulder forward
as you get to know the horse. When a horse rears as you are walking
beside it, you want to stay as close to the shoulder as possible.
The front feet are what will hurt you and if you can stay against
the shoulder, there is no way the front feet, back feet, or teeth
can get you. If you need to, grab a chunk of mane and pull yourself
against the shoulder. You give the horse all the lead line it needs
to go up.
The best way to deal with rearing or pulling is not to let them
get started in the first place. You do that by keeping your attention
on the horse and the horse's attention on you at all times. Every
stride. Nobody's perfect, however. So if the horse does startle
or pull back or rear, you just go about your business and put him
right back to work. Don't attack or punish the horse for "being
disobedient." Remember, there is no such thing as a disobedience
if you're not directing the horse. That means you have to be telling
the horse what TO DO and what NOT TO DO. Pulling or rearing or jumping
sideways may be a lapse of obedience but when they happen, you simply
interrupt them with instructions of what to BE doing. No punishment.
No fight. No fuss.
Your primary objective in any training session whether you're working
on the ground or from the saddle is rhythm and relaxation. What
the horse needs is steady, physical work at a mental level that
you have created which is alert enough and excited enough to pay
attention to you but not frightened and not tense. He's just looking
to have a good time, and that's what we're trying to teach him to
do--how to have a good time playing our game. If he gets startled
or frightened, you want him to come to you as the safe place to
be. You want to be a person he can trust for some direction to get
him past whatever is frightening or startling.
When you're working with a horse, pay attention to his ears because
they'll tell you where his attention is and whether he's relaxed.
Whether you're walking alongside him or up on his back, you want
one or both of those ears swiveled in your direction to let you
know you have his attention. If you don't, put him to work with
some heeding or change what you're asking for under saddle just
a little until he gives his attention back to you.
About the Author
© 1997-2004 Meredith Manor
International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
Instructor and trainer
Ron Meredith has refined his "horse logical" methods for communicating
with equines for over 30 years as president of
Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited
equestrian educational institution.