How do you you teach a young horse to stop bucking, kicking and walking backwards every time you get on him?
I admit there are a lot of things about training horses that I picked up from dog training. Working with a clicker is a big one. Horses respond well to the clicker and it can be used in all kinds of applications. There are a couple of differences in training a horse versus a dog. The first being, watch out for creative stuff. You don’t want to put your body at risk with an animal 500 times stronger than you are.
Which brings me to my point. Kerry 7th Gen, now 6 years old, has run the gauntlet of experiences, all involving the clicker. He has learned a couple of tricks, including how to play fetch. He has been to a couple of horse expos with me and even done a training demo for an audience. He has traveled five hours north to the Upper Peninsula, where he spent 4 months running free on Drummond Island, learning all about the woods and water and what trail riding will eventually be like.
One would think he would be handling everything with aplomb by now, especially after traveling from Oregon to Michigan at the tender age of 3 years old!
He is a super friendly horse, always the first to greet you in the pasture, and always the first to volunteer to stick his head in the halter, come out and do stuff. He gives kisses freely. He loves people.
He is also a bit of a herd bully. He chases others away from me, from the hay pile, he pins his ears and bites and kicks. He kicks, in fact, when anything upsets him. My older horses, both in their twenties, just submit to him.
Therefore, I was pretty surprised earlier this year when my friend Stayner tried to ride him on the Waterloo Rec Area trails. I thought this horse had confidence. I was so wrong. Beyond that, I have discovered that the little darling is herd sour. He will now not even walk around the back yard with me astride, unless he has the other two horses — especially Trudy — within view.
A couple of days ago, July 1, I decided that I should stop procrastinating and get on the little bugger. My hesitation wasn’t based on fear so much as, I am really too old for this now and I don’t bounce like I used to. I have already fallen off Jr. once. In fact, that was a year ago today. In my experience (Clifford) riding a green horse means falling off — A lot. Twenty five years ago, it didn’t matter. I learned that it was most important to fall free of the horse and “fall good.” I could climb on Clifford, he’d step to the side and I would roll ride off and thud onto the dirt. I fell off that horse almost daily for awhile. I was a terrible rider.
But these days, there is nobody else to cajole into doing it, and it must be done. Let’s face it, a horse you can’t ride is the most destined for the meat factory if anything happens to you. If I get hit by a bus, or gunned down by a drunken sibling, I don’t want Jr. to wind up on anyone’s dinner table. Least of all, my ex husband, who had the gall to tell me he had eaten horse. This was after he moved out, of course.
So I saddled up and climbed aboard and I wasn’t expecting any big incidents. I had ridden him on the trails, with Stayner on Clifford, and he acted just fine. I thought that last time, it was mainly because he didn’t know Stayner. Well, that may have been part of his problem. Besides, last year I rode him a few times around the property.
This year, he had regressed into brainlessness. Had I waited too long to get back on? I thought all those 2016 lessons in courage would stick. But I was faced with a lot of the same problems that Stayner was — the horse seemed to know one gear, and that was reverse. Oh, no. Two gears. Reverse, and crow hop.
I had the clicker ready, and a treat bag full of cut up carrots. I wasn’t scared so much as annoyed. I hated the whole experience. I am sure he could tell. But I clicked him for every time he took a step forward. I had to keep turning him in circles, around and around and around. So, that’s what we did, for about a half hour.
Luckily, I had my whip in my hand and I was able to tap him with the verbal cue to “stay”. We had worked on this ad nauseum from the ground. This was mostly to discourage the moving of his feet. I want him to concentrate on keeping his feet still — in trying to end a bad behavior (kicking) you have to replace it with an incompatible behavior (keeping all four feet on the ground). I have used this technique to stop dogs from jumping up, with the same theory. It takes a long time to fix jumping in dogs, which is highly compulsive, and I imagine with a horse, kicking works the same way.
Thanks to having worked so hard on this last year, he is now safe to groom, walk around, and even mount and dismount. He is very good at “stay.”
So because he had this behavior pretty well locked in, I tried it from under saddle, tapping him with the whip instead of my hand. and it worked. He settled into a nice, balanced stand. and I was able to click and treat him for that. I circled him a few more times, and then we just kept stopping. Finally when he calmed down reasonably I was able to get off, ending the lesson on a somewhat satisfactory win-win. BIG sigh of relief!
That night I went online and looked up herd sour horses. I consulted notes by John Lyons and Josh Lyons, both whom I consider friends, and the best in the way of humane methods. I learned a couple of things that made perfect sense and didn’t conflict with my reward-based training.
First, a herd-sour horse should be made to work harder when the herd’s around.
Second, a horse remembers a lesson, and the next time is easier.
So I took a day off and the following day, yesterday, I decided to go with some ground work first and I put a saddle on him and longed him like a real horse person would. He didn’t mind the longe line. He was completely calm. Besides, Clifford and Trudy were enjoying a meal together right on the other side of the fence. So he walked and trotted, trotted and walked, and then I moved him a little farther away from the fence.
That was when Clifford and Trudy decided to mosey on over into the barn and get out of the sun.
As soon as they were out of sight, he lost his mind. He leaped into the air, and started to run. He ran around, and around, and around me in circles while I held onto that longe line for dear life. He ignored my commands to slow down and just kept on going. So I decided, okay. I snapped the whip and told him go for it.
He ran, and ran, and ran. I just continued spinning, careful not to trip on that longe. HE was working up a sweat, snorting in the 80+ degree heat, and galloping as if his life depended on it.
Finally, after what seemed like about six or eight minutes of this nonsense, he got tired and slowed to a trot. I praised him and stepped forward and then he stopped and looked at me.
So due to this tantrum, he had to do more longing. We did a calm couple of passes at the walk, both directions, with lots of stops, a lot of clicking and treating.
He was fried.
It was time to get on him, and for the first time in my life I sighed and hesitated before climbing aboard. Ugh. I hate this. I am old.
Then I realized, my own thinking is a part of the problem. I had to reassess my thinking. “This is just another clicker session. It’s fine.”
He was standing there waiting as I had taught him, like a little gentleman.
He stepped forward when asked, and we walked into the back yard, and just made some big circles around the yard. He was wobbly, unbalanced. I had a mix of licorice and peppermints in the treat bag and just kept clicking every time he felt relaxed or did what I asked.
At the end, I was able to dismount, and I could feel his relief when I did.
We probably both were thinking the same. One more ride down. 10,000 to go.
All the ground work, all the trail rides (for him, riderless) and all the experiences we in dog training know as “socializing” are not the same for a horse. We call it a learning curve, but it’s more like a jagged line. Hopefully, at this point, we are on the upswing.