Horse owners are constantly plagued by bad manners and behavior from horses that's downright dangerous. Listen to people talk and you'll hear about pushy horses, biting, kicking, rearing, bucking, the horse that will not trailer, and running away. While everyone talks about these as separate problems, did you know they all boil down to one of two causes?
The main problem with horse training is a failure to establish leadership and build trust with your horse. Fortunately there's a step-by-step program, based on how horses naturally have and think that will help you do this. Here are ten horse training tips to help you get started.
1. Body Language is King
Horses pay special attention to and use body language. They can not talk, so body language is how they communicate with one another in the herd. The body language you're using demonstrates whether you're a leader or a follower. You can be a leader without being abusive. All it takes is a confident posture and lack of doubt. Walk with a straight post and look where you're going. Go through gates first. Breathe deeply to maintain a relaxed state of mind and reduce nervousness. Horses notice all of these cues and use them to size up where you fit in the herd.
2. Do not Rely on Treats
There's a time to give your horse a treat or two – when you're just relaxing in the past or grooming. Do not use trips to try to shape behavior. That means no worries or carrots when catching, trailer loading, or asking your horse to do anything. Using trees to shape behavior will actually lead your horse to disrespect you.
3. Lead a Horse Properly
People do not think much about leading their horses – except so much as there are problems like the horse being pushy or dragging. That's unfortunate because when leading the horse is sizing you up to see who is in charge of the "herd". First, do not hold the lead rope right up next to the halter. Hold it 12-18 inches down the line. Hold the rope loosely-don't be pulling tight on it out of a fear based attempt to control your horse. And, do not wrap the end of the rope around your hand, hold it loosely in case the horse decides to bolt. Next, watch your position. Does the horse edge past you as you're walking? Does he take one or two extra steps when you come to a stop? If so he considers himself the herd leader, or is at least challenging you. Work on this by changing direction when he passes you to reestablish your position. Spend some time walking and stopping. Walk backwards away from your horse (again putting yourself in front of the horse) and lift both hands up and breathe.
4. Teach Personal Space Boundaries
People often ask why do natural horsemanship trainers spend so much time backing up their horses. The answer is because backing up establishes respect and a personal space boundary for safe handling. Ask your horse to back up by shaking the lead rope from side to side. Then be consistent about personal space rules. Set up an imaginary bubble that the horse can never enter. When he does, back him up. You can enter his space, of course, to pet him and give him a treat (when not training), but he can not decide on his own to come into yours.
5. Utilize Round Pen Training
When beginning your training or dealing with any problem- no matter what it is, start with a couple of round pen training sessions. This is a fundamental training tool that establishes leadership and respect, and gains trust from your horse. The training is done "at liberty" which means go in the round pen and remove the lead rope. Move your horse with body language and look for communication signs from your horse. See my article on horse round pen training for details.
6. Establish a Training Foundation On The Ground First
Another question people always have about natural horsemanship is why are you spending all your time playing with the horse on the ground? Are not horses for riding? Well of course they're for riding! The purpose of ground training is to teach cues for riding on the ground first. It's safer to introduce the horse to important cues on the ground, and helps reinforce the leadership you established with leading and round pen training. Teach the horse his cues on the ground first and then carry it over to the saddle.
7. Do not do Mindless Lunging
Getting ready for riding, lunging a horse is one of the most important training tools for horse breaking or even working with an experienced horse. That is if you do not do mindless lunging- which is just having the horse run around in circles to wear him out. How many times do you hear people say they are lunging to "wear out" or calm down a "hot horse"? Lunging does not work that way, rather than having a star athlete train on a track would wear her down. In fact it makes the horse stronger and more athletic. To actually get something out of lunging, use it as a training tool to teach the horse to listen to your commands. Start by having the horse walk at first. Work on changing direction and stopping. Then work on having him trot, and then drop down to a walk. Throw in cantering after he is listening to you well at the trot. The purpose of lunging should be attention and listening. If a horse will not listen to you when you ask him to slow from a trot to a walk while lunging, he is not going to under saddle.
8. Drop the head
Dropping of the head is a communication cue horses use to indicate that they accept you as their leader and it also indicates a relaxed state of mind. A horse that's alert for danger has his head raised up high and his eyes bulging out. A horse that does not feel threatened has his head lowered, so maybe he can get something to eat! Promote relaxation and acceptance of your leadership by purposefully asking the horse to lower his head. Place one hand on top of the head and pull down on the lead rope with the other hand. Maintain pressure until he decides to lower his head, then release.
9. Horses Learn From The Release
This brings us to the next important horse training tip, horses learn from the release. Applying pressure is the cue to ask for something. On the ground you push on a certain body part like the hip to get him to move it away from you, in the saddle you press or kick with your leg. The reward for the horse is the release of the pressure. So when your horse does what you've asked, release the pressure immediately.
Flexing is one of the most important training exercises. Stand at the withers and use the lead rope to ask the horse to turn his head completely around without moving his body. This does two things, it makes the horse nice and light for cues you'll give while riding and teachers him for the emergency one rein stop, so makes riding safer.
That's it! These ten horse training tips will help you build a solid foundation with your horse.