Question: I have just purchased a small gentleman’s farm that came with a horse. He is a 12-year-old gelding who has never been trained. From what I know he has had a saddle on in the past, but never has taken riders. He is very friendly, but loves to do what he wants to do. If he does not want me in the pen he is very quick to turn around. Although he has never kicked at me (I move out quick) he seems like he would. I have never owned a horse, let alone trained one. I am not looking to train him on my own but for now I would like to learn how to at least build a trust between us, as-well as have him obey at least a little any help would be greatly appreciated.
Answer from April Reeves: I’m glad you have not been kicked yet, but it is a matter of time. Let me give you some insight into how horses think and behave.
Everything you do with a horse is training. You can train a horse to be good or really bad. Horses do not have a sense of reasoning like a human has, so the horse just goes along with what is in front of him or being offered. They do not know what is right or wrong; that is a human trait only (ego). Horses have distinct herd behaviors such as dominance, leader and follower. The majority of them are followers, and they prefer to be, as horses do not handle stress well and prefer to give it to someone else (horses, humans).
The dominant horses train the others by teaching respect more so than aggression. Horses that are aggressive end up being loners and often banished from the herd. Leaders on the other hand show dominance in the quiet, confident moves they make to each other. A dominant mare only has to look a certain way to get a younger horse out of her space.
When a horse moves another horses’ feet, they instantly establish leadership and dominance. When your gelding turns his back and you move your feet, you are becoming the ‘lesser horse’, and those horses are the ones who suffer injury from other horses. Eventually, this gelding will begin to see you as a lesser horse, and this is where you could get hurt.
Biting, kicking, turning the hindquarters to you, ears back, chasing you or flicking their tail aggressively are all signs of dominance over you.
Horses can feel your emotions, and if you ever approach him mad or angry, you may find he avoids you and runs away. Horses are incredibly smart; more so than we give them credit for. They communicate to each other this way, through body language and reading emotion. They cannot learn our language; we must learn theirs.
The First Lesson – Move Your Feet
Next time you go in to see him, bring a fairly long sturdy stick with you (or crop or longe whip), about 4-5 feet long (this stick will be an extension of your arm). Since he is friendly, give him lots of rubbing, as if you are a human brush, and rub him around his chest and neck. Watch his ears. If he has an area that is sensitive, his ears will go back or he may grind his teeth and posture with his head, showing irritation. Start slowly and rub him with confidence. Put a halter on him if you can, with a lead rope. Once you have rubbed him for a minute or two on both sides, step away from him, holding the rope not too tight. Step away at an angle, about 5 feet away, near his shoulder angle more than his head. Take the stick and gently tap him on the side of his shoulder until he moves. If he moves away from the stick, stop tapping immediately and stand very quiet, letting him think about this.
You have just begun to set up leadership as you moved his feet. You also are asking him not to point his hindquarters at you. Do not tap too hard; you don’t want him to run off – just enough for him to slowly move away for a step. If he moves one foot, let him stand there for a few seconds and go up to him and rub him. Then stand back again and ask him to move his feet again.
Practice this on both sides every day. You don’t have to do it for a long time; about 7 times one-way and 7 the other. If he is fussing after the first time, don’t make contact – just point the stick at him, and when he moves away, take the stick away and stand there quietly. This exercise is to be done very slowly and quietly. All you are doing is establishing a level of dominance. I do not want you to attempt things that may involve more experience on your part. If he keeps moving, just stand there and hold the rope, keeping it soft; do not pull. If he backs up just move with him until he stops. He will find a place for his feet. If you remain quiet you will instill that in him too. Always after every time he is good, go up to him and rub him, usually on the neck.
Lesson 2 – Back Up and Give Me Space
Another leadership exercise is done standing about 3 feet in front of the horse. If you have an aisle in a barn use it, as it will keep the horse from turning around.
Keeping the lead line slack, tap the long stick on the ground in front of the horse in a soft rhythmical fashion, for about 6 taps. If he moves back, stop tapping instantly, move with him and keep the rope loose. Don’t let him turn. If he wants to turn, pull one quick, effective pull (it asks him to face you) to bring his face back to you. One good pull and release is more effective than hanging on to the lead line. The release teaches. Steady pull only causes the horse to become numb. There is no reward in constant pressure with no release.
If he moves back easily, go up to him and rub him and praise him once he is standing still. Then take the stick, stand a few feet in front of him and ask again. Repeat about 20 times and if he does this easily, you are gaining respect very quickly.
If he does not move right away when you tap the stick, you need to bring up your energy level and increase the tapping, moving closer to him. At any point he moves back, stop immediately and stand there quietly for a second, then ask again.
If he still does not move back, tap with more energy for a few more times, and then connect the stick with him between the front legs. This may startle him, so start slowly. If he jumps back in shock, follow him back, keeping the lead loose. Follow him down the aisle. If he gets nervous, stand there quietly, without speaking, and breathe out so the horse can hear you. Breathing out is a sign that the horse is calm, and if you are showing calm, he may respect that and follow your lead.
Licking of the lips, breathing and sighing, head down are all signs of submission.
Once you establish a relationship built on respect, you may enter his paddock with the stick. With a halter and lead rope, stand and face him for a second. Then move to one side and look at his back end, and tap the stick on the ground rhythmically, as you did in the earlier exercise. This time you are asking him to move his back end away from you and continue to face you. I did not get you to do this at the beginning as you needed to establish a leadership with him first that was more manageable for you. You need to look at the back end, as this is what you want to move, and you must do it with intention. Do not be mechanical; you need to make this move with intention. You need to create a level of energy in you that says “I would move that back end if I were you”. Say it if you need to. If he moves even a little bit, relax and start again. You do not need to get close to his back end to do this. In fact, do not get close. You can move a horse 20 feet away from him once you have respect.
If he does not move at all, move in and tap him on the hindquarter with the stick. Keep hold of the lead and let him move his feet. Do not move. If he comes in to you, put your hands up and get really big. Jump around, whatever it takes to keep him out of your space. If he kicks out but moves away from you, this is okay. The lesson is to move, and if that is what you got, you have done it correctly. The next time you ask him, ask a little quieter, and see if he will move without kicking. I don’t think he will be a kicker or you would have found out before now!
Do this exercise quite a few times, both sides. Work one side until he is quiet and obedient. Then move to the other side and do the same. You will find his left side is likely easier to work with. This is because most humans only work this side. Problem is, horses are two sided. Two eyes, two horses. You must train both sides.
This exercise should help you to establish a safe relationship with him until you decide to have someone help you with him. I just want you to be safe.
Eventually, you will be able to do these exercises without a halter or lead rope. You will be able to walk into the paddock with your stick, and ask him to back, face you and move his hindquarter away just by your moves alone. Then you will be able to drop the stick and just move him by pointing. When you begin teaching horses, you exaggerate to teach, and refine as you progress.
Once you two are getting along well, try to pick up his front feet. Stand at his front leg facing the back. Run your hand all the way down the leg starting at the top, and when you get past the knee joint, begin to squeeze into the hollow behind the big bone at the front (cannon) continuing to run your hand down to the hoof. This draws the blood pressure down into his hoof and makes it uncomfortable for him to stand on it. When he lifts his foot, pick it up by the hoof, and use your other hand to rub the inside of the leg, telling him he’s a good boy.
Another trick if the horse is stubborn lifting his leg, is to pinch the chestnuts above his knee. They are the little boney growths on the inside of his legs. Horses usually lift their legs very quickly when you do this so be prepared. Some find it irritating, so watch that he does not bite you. We don’t know enough about him to know how he will react.
To let his foot down, place his foot on the ground (keep your fingers out of the way), do not drop it. While you were holding it, the blood is restricted and his leg can ‘go to sleep’ much like ours do when we kneel for too long. The sudden drop will sour him from picking his foot up easily for you.
Another thing new horse owners like to do is feed them by hand. There are very few horses that you can do this with that will not pick up the habit of biting. You will know quickly if he is one of those horses you cannot feed by hand; he will be in your pockets and aggressively following you and getting in your space. I keep a bucket on a fence post, and put all treats in the bucket. That way the horse looks forward to me going near the bucket and still allows me to handle him normally everywhere else.
Feed him one carrot (beta carotene) and one apple (natural dewormer) per day. There is a good article on my blog about hay types and feed types, and what to feed and not to feed. Go to: aprilreeveshorsetraining.wordpress.com – go to ‘categories’, click on ‘Health & Nutrition’ and follow the article “My mare is expecting a foal. How should I look after her and feed her?” There are many good articles for you to go through if you choose.
There are many great exercises new horse owners can do on the ground. If you want to learn more let me know. For now, it should take you about 10 – 20 hours to complete the above well.
Also, you may email me if you have any other problems. This letter will be posted on the blog. Thank you Mike for emailing me with your question,