This article was written by Lindsey Forkun, Equine and Natural Horsemanship Expert, and author of the book Natural Horsemanship Answering the What, Why, and How for ALL Disciplines.
Yesterday I worked with Prophet – a very sensitive and anxious quarter horse gelding. Deep down he is a sweet and loveable horse, but he is very timid and lacks a lot of confidence. He arrived 2 days ago to be started walk, trot, canter. In his past his owner did a lot of work with him and was progressing fairly well to riding him at the walk, but after getting thrown a couple times they decided to consult me for training. Prophet only ever reacted in fear – he is not a mean horse, just very timid. He is actually incredibly kind to people and animals, and not dominant at all in the paddock with other horses. His reaction is purely out of anxiety and tenseness from being scared and claustrophobic.
When I began to start Prophet last year, I realized he had a lot of confidence and anxiety issues related to the saddle and riding. Without the saddle he was a complete dream and responded to cues relaxed and confidently. With the saddle he was a lot more anxious and tense – like a bomb ready to explode. I did a lot of work desensitizing him to the saddle so that he would stand quietly while I tacked him without him being tied. I also did a lot of work to help him with his claustrophobia – this including sending him in between tight spaces like between barrels, and bumping his sides. We also spent a lot of time developing our communication and trust with a lot of ground games. By the end of summer he was doing amazing things on the ground with a saddle on like sideways over a barrel and responding to cues so softly that it was like magic.
I then progressed to mounting and dismounting from both sides, and eventually to riding him at the walk. The process was extremely slow because I know that Prophet has previous experience of tossing his rider to get rid of the tension – so my approach was to advance his training to the point where he was starting to feel anxiety, but not so far that he would have a melt down and try to get rid of me. The idea is to teach him emotional control – to push him out of his comfort zone slightly, to show him he can handle it, and then go back to things he finds comfortable. This process is time consuming, but it teaches the horse to be a thinker, and not turn into a crazy, explosive, ready to take off type of horse.
I was successful in that the times that I did ride him, he never tried to buck, rear, or run away – he stayed my thinking and willing partner. This is very important because once a horse learns they can toss you off, it is very hard to stop them from doing that unless they become a willing partner.
Over the fall and winter Prophet spent his time at his owner’s place not doing a whole lot. Then at the start of June he is back with me to finish his training. I did his first session of the year yesterday. I had the plan to saddle him up and do some ground work to refresh his memory.
Instead Prophet decided to be very anxious and wary of me – and didn’t want to be caught. I had to change my plans and instead use my understanding of horse psychology to try and get Prophet to want to be with me.
I followed him around the ring and if he looked like he wanted to come visit, I would invite him in. If he turned away from me I would send him away causing him to canter. I was trying to tell him the message of ‘being with me is easy and inviting, turning from me is hard work because you have to canter’.
After about 20 min or so he got the message and finally came over to me. I spent some time just rubbing him all over – I didn’t clip him to a lead rope. I didn’t want Prophet to think that if he visits me he will get trapped. Instead I rubbed him all over and then allowed Prophet to follow me at liberty (no rope attached). He followed me at walk, halt, back up, and through sharp turns around the ring. I then clipped him up, rubbed him all over, and unclipped him again.
I wanted Prophet to think that being caught isn’t a bad thing – I wanted Prophet to want to be with me. This is because if he is already trying to get away from me with just the idea of being caught, then it will be much worse if I try to add a saddle. I had to adjust my plan to suit the horse.
For those of you wondering why I don’t just saddle him up and ride the buck out of him… well, first off, that is dangerous, second even if I can ride the buck and push him through it he’s likely to try bucking again with a different rider eventually to see if he can ditch them so I’d be putting future riders at risk, and thirdly it’ll definitely make the horse harder to catch!
I am going to play with Prophet more this week. My plan will be to ‘hang out’ with Prophet this week and do only simple tasks. I want to get him to catch me (want to be with me), and then just spend time with me while I teach some lessons or read a book (right now I’m reading the Hunger Games series and I love it!) – this way Prophet can start to change his mind about being with me… something that is apprehensive right now into something positive.
I do have some tricks up my sleeve for new strategies to try with Prophet this summer for training (largely in part to lessons from Don Halladay at the Young Horse Start Clinic run by the Owens last year), but first I need his trust and willingness to be with me. Stay tuned for updates!
Key Learning tip this Week: Have a goal, but being willing to change it if the horse that shows up in the moment isn’t ready for what you want. A good horseman won’t let his own personal agenda or goals ruin the partnership.