Monday, January 11, 2010

Follow the feel

How do you teach your horse to “follow the feel” of a leadrope or rein to be softer? I play a number of games and exercises with young horses to teach them to be responsive and light from the ground…here are a few:

Teaching a horse to “lead” by its mane or forelock:
Gently pick up a piece of forelock or mane and apply gentle pressure in phases – hold.
Reward the slightest try (the thought, a weight shift, or a step) by releasing your hold and rubbing, then re-ask (start over through all the phases of asking again), gradually expecting more and more from your horse.
Your horse might not understand at first your request, in which case you may use the leadrope or halter to hint to the horse to back: apply gentle pressure (in addition to continuing to hold pressure on the mane or forelock) to the lead or halter until the horse responds, then release both the mane or forelock and the halter or lead.
I find it also helps if you take a step back as you apply mane or forelock pressure, as then your horse naturally tries to follow you.
Your goal is to develop the exercise to the point where your horse is responsive and light to the feel you apply. This is a handy exercise if you are bringing your horse in sans halter or other like situations, and it teaches your horse in general to release to pressure of various sorts.

Teaching a horse to “lead” by its tail:
For this one I highly recommend teaching your horse the 7 games first – the yo-yo game in particular.
1 - Start by teaching your horse to yo-yo backwards to a light phase while you stand in front of him.
2 - Teach your horse to back while applying the yo-yo exercise standing at his nose or neck and back with him, maintaining your position
3 - Apply the yo-yo exercise standing at your horse's shoulder
4 - Apply the yo-yo exercise standing at your horse's barrel
5 - Apply the yo-yo exercise standing at your horse's hind
6 - Finally, apply the yo-yo exercise standing behind your horse. When you stand behind your horse be sure to stand off to the side and not directly behind him, in his blind spot, for safety reasons.
7 - Next you can pick up a piece of his tail and gently hold it outward, applying increasing pressure - then hold. Be careful with the tail – always keep the pressure steady and light so as to not damage the horse's tail.
8 - If your horse does not respond, you can gently progress through your yo-yo phases with the leadrope until your horse is backing appropriately when you simply rely on the tail.
Reward the slightest try by dropping the tail and releasing the yo-yo – expect a lot but accept little!
Be sure to play with and manipulate your horse's tail - friendly game - other times in such a way where you are not asking for him to back, between exercises and at random times. It is important your horse understand the difference in your intent when picking up his tail so you can pull, groom, braid or manipulate his tail for massage purposes without his mistaking the manipulation for a request to back. This exercise teaches the horse to release to pressure in another form and can be useful for asking your horse to back out of a trailer or in other similar situations.

'Wrapping' your horse in ropes:
1 - Start by standing behind your horse and just off to the side, holding the leadrope
2 - Apply gentle pressure in phases and hold until your horse releases by turning towards you – do not pull - hold and allow your horse to release. This should result in your horse doing a 180 turn to face you. Comb the rope (as in the yo-yo game) as your horse turns to encourage your horse to not just turn and face you, but to also walk up to you.
3 - Do the same exercise while standing on the opposite side of your horse, at his hind, the leadrope looping behind your horse at his hocks. Maintain a safe distance where you may not be kicked in the case your horse is startled.
Note: please make sure your horse is comfortable with being touched and with ropes all over his body before attempting this exercise. Use the friendly game to prepare your horse.
4 - Perform the same exercise standing at your horse's barrel on the opposite side - the leadrope looping from the horse’s halter, behind the horse, and to your hand.
5 - Perform the same exercise standing at your horse's opposite shoulder
6 - Perform the exercise standing at your horse's head so he ultimately does a full 360 turn away from you and finishes facing you
In step #6 your horse starts out facing you, does a full turn away from you, and finishes facing you once again as he follows the feel of the rope. When your horse is comfortable with the aforementioned steps, you may progress to 'wrapping' your rope twice around the horse so he has to do two 360 degree turns to finish facing you. Apply gentle pressure in phases and hold until your horse releases – the goal is to have your horse turn and face you as he follows the lightest possible feel.
As noted above, please first make sure that you have played enough friendly game with your horse so that he is comfortable with the feel of the rope around his hind end, legs, and sides, and do not 'wrap' your horse if he is showing any signs of right-brained behaviour (reactiveness). Wait until he is relaxed with the previous steps first prior to progressing to asking more of him, including the 'wrap'.

Leg ropes:
Get creative with your ropes! Start by looping a (soft, thick) rope around one of your horse’s legs - anywhere on the leg whether at the fetlock or the knee or hock - and asking him to release to the pressure. I actually use this exercise to teach young or 'problem' horses to pick up their feet, from a safe distance where I cannot be kicked. Make sure the rope can loosen and come completely free immediately as soon as you release pressure, for safety reasons. Once your horse is comfortable with ropes around his legs and releasing to pressure with the rope looped around the fetlock, knee, hock, etc, you can move on to teaching him to “lead” by his feet or legs.
1 - Casually loop a soft and thick rope behind your horse’s fronts (I usually allow the rope to rest behind the horse’s knees) and apply gentle pressure (in phases, as always), particularly on the leg poised furthest back – the leg the horse automatically will want to lift if he’s to move forward.
2 - Hold pressure and use the halter or leadrope to encourage the horse to step forward if he does not initially respond to the leg pressure.
3 - Repeat. Apply pressure on the legs first then the lead or halter if necessary, with the goal of ultimately only using the rope on the legs.
The goal is to apply gentle pressure (imagine yourself using a tailhair) and have the horse step forward and ultimately walk forward. Start with the front, then work on the hinds, having the horse back according to light pressure on his legs (you can use the yo-yo game if he doesn’t respond to the pressure applied initially). Be careful with the hinds - only ask if your horse is properly prepared beforehand (calm and relaxed doing the preparation exercises) and ask at a distance where you are not within kicking range.

Other ways you may teach your horse to follow the feel:
Under-saddle, work on a loose rein and teach your horse the 3-part maneuver - keep your hands light and soft.
If you are playing the circling game, allow your horse to get “caught” on the wrong side of things such as barrels, trees (provided no branches are in the way), etc. When the horse goes to the wrong side of an obstacle, he runs out of rope and is forced to follow the feel to figure his way out of the situation (like teaching a leashed dog to go around a tree when he goes on the opposite side of the tree from you). Be sure to not give your horse too much rope length on the opposite side of the obstacle - set him up for success so he may solve the puzzle easily. If your horse gives the wrong answer, first look at your own cues and how you have set your horse up in this exercise or prepared him with prior exercises.

The goal is always to have your horse focused, responsive, and light – always ready to respond to the lightest feel of a rope, your energy, your legs, etc. Some of these exercises may not seem useful under-saddle however if you create a horse who is light and follows the feel on the ground and in general, he is more likely to think light and follow the feel under-saddle as well. Everything you desire in the saddle can first be taught on the ground. The above exercises also teach your horse to problem solve and to think outside the box. This is an advantage at times when your horse is faced with a challenge he has not experienced in the past.

If you are ever unsure of something and are struggling with it, stop, take a deep breath, and relax. Seek professional help. Don't annoy or frustrate your horse or yourself! If it is not something the two of you are ready for, take a break and come back to it another day.

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