I adopted a Paint Cross colt a Month ago who’s now 7 Months old. He lives out with my 4 other horses who are all way taller than him.
He’s a sweet little guy who loves attention but he has no emotion. He’s so calm and cool and thinks he is stronger than anyone. He walks into me, through me, nibbles me, pushes me with his head and all the rest. Doesn’t know his space and does everything a colt can at that age.
I know it’s normal so I’ve decided to tackle his problems NOW instead of later on when he will be stronger.
I read you’re not supposed to be violent with them when they are so young but he’s emotionless. He only responds when I smack him.
Do you think you could give me some basic tips on how to earn his respect? Am I right using physical force on him when he misbehaves?
I have no intention of training him under saddle alone but I want to at least get his ground manners in check. Thank you, Laura
Answer from April Reeves: Hi Laura. I first want to speak to your comment “I’ve never actually trained one.” I have this theory/understanding that anyone who has been in the presence of a horse has had influence on the ‘training’ of that horse (what he knows of humans). This is because horses ‘soak’ everything a human does. All your movements, signals, voice and body language ‘speak’ to a horse. That non-verbal language translates into what the horse will become. So while you may think you have never trained a horse in all your life, you have actually spent years training horses. Humans believe that training is simply a matter of learning techniques. While this is true to a point (and it’s best to learn good techniques that produce happy results) humans need to understand the horse at a much different level first before entering into a relationship of any kind. Humans must learn to speak their language first.
This is where we will start.
I’m assuming this little guy is still a stallion colt. At 7 months he will be feeling the hormones beginning to flow, and this is the beginning of your rigorous training schedule, if you plan to keep him a stallion. If not, I suggest to castrate him in colder weather (no bugs) and to do that before the age of 2 or if he gets totally out of control, and you do not have adequate places to keep him.
He has lots of emotion. Emotion can either be displayed or it can sit under the surface and bubble. If you were to challenge him, you would likely find it.
Your process now will be to redefine the boundaries and pecking order. You are the boss mare, starting now. Just don’t add that title to your business card!
I will start with ground exercises that you can do immediately to establish respect and control.
Groundwork is the foundation of all the other things we ask from our horses. Good groundwork done previously would have prevented the horse from getting pushy. You are not in a bad spot though. He’s young and small.
It’s important to purchase and keep the following equipment. These tools can be used with any breed or discipline. A trainer is only as good as his/her tools:
Traditional halters have a nice elegant look to them and are easy to put on a horse. Unfortunately, some horses tend to pull against them and drag their handlers around, as the wide bands of leather (or nylon) are practically comfortable for a horse.
Rope halters are generally made of soft round rope, all neatly tied into a halter that you tie up instead of buckling. Done up properly, they are easy to untie should the horse pull back in one, and there are no buckles to rust out or break. They come in another variety that has several knots in the nose, and a bit stiffer rope, for the really ‘bad boys’. They don’t need oiling to keep them soft, and can be washed.
Their function is to create pressure and ask a horse to pay attention and listen. They take the place of having to resort to nose chains, lip chains and other various ways to dress up a traditional halter to maintain control. They are very difficult to break should a horse get hung up in it, so never put a horse out with one on. They are NOT to be used when teaching a horse to tie for the first time, or to be used when trailering.
Rope halters work on the horse through pressure around the poll area and the nose. The thinner strand of rope is soft enough to not burn a horse, but small enough to allow more direct pressure points. When in use, it asks the horse to “pay attention and listen” without causing anxiety or abuse, as opposed to painful methods such as lip chains. Pressure teaches; pain builds resentment.
You may want to try one on your horse and see what you think. Rope halters are used by English and Western trainers, as many disciplines are finding the value in their simple design. (There is a good “halter tying” article on my blog under Natural Horsemanship – ”I ride English. Do I need a rope halter and how to tie it?”)
Lead Rope and Horseman’s Stick
You will need a soft rope no shorter than 12 feet.
The Horseman’s stick is durable and won’t bend like a traditional whip will, and it has a ‘tail’ end of rope that also aids in teaching. If you do not have one, a dressage whip or anything with a bit of length to it that you can control easily will do.
The horse you lead is the horse you ride.
You are going to get your horse to be compliant in these areas:
1. Lead without pushing you or getting into your space
2. Stand quietly away from you without reacting to external stimuli
3. Keep both eyes on you attentively
4. No fear of being touched or handled anywhere
5. No vices such as biting, kicking, rearing or head bouncing
Here is an exercise you can start in the aisle way of a barn.
Stand the horse in an aisle and face him. Keep your lead loose, and tap the whip/stick rhythmically on the ground for a few seconds, on front of his chest.
If he backs up at all, stop and tell him he’s good in a quiet voice. Continue, and praise him for the smallest try.
If he does nothing, tap the whip in 3 stages, softly, asking him to back up, for about 6 taps, then tapping harder and close to his chest, with the intention that he had better back or else, and if this does nothing, it’s time to connect. Tap him with intention and firmness once on the chest between his legs. Mean it. Do it and when he startles and backs, keep the lead soft (no pulling what so ever) follow him and stand and look at him for about 5 seconds.
If he runs back and wonders what hit him, just let him back, staying soft with the lead line, no pulling, letting it out as he moves back, and stand very quietly. Let him blow on his own; it will teach him to take responsibility.
Then repeat. Keep repeating until you only have to tap the ground and he responds.
Now take this lesson outside and test it. This exercise gets him to pay attention to you by keeping two eyes on you all the time in anticipation of your next ‘question’ to him.
I really like this exercise and it is the first I often do with horses who generally don’t have anything really ‘bad’ about them. When you do stand quietly, let the rope rest on the ground with you holding the end, as this is the prelude to ground tying.
I also like to start in a barn aisle, as the horse has to face you and pay attention. They have less chance of moving around and running past you.
These exercises help with keeping horses out of your space, respecting your speed, keeping up and general obedience.
Leading against the fence
Take your horse out along the side of a fence and with rope in one hand and stick in the other, letting the ‘tail’ drag along behind you, ask him to move with you and stay at your hand, not in front of you or behind you (rope is in the hand by his head, stick is in the opposite hand) If he lags behind, flick the tail of the stick behind you as a lead mare would flick her tail at a lazy herd member. Move at a reasonable pace. If he gets in front of you, use the stick in front of him to ask him to stay back. Keep your hand up at his eye. This asks him to stay out of your space while you walk along. As you get better with this you can keep your hand lower. I like to hold my hand in a ‘leading gesture’ – just below their eye and in front of it, once the horse understands to keep their distance.
Always work both sides. Two eyes, two horses (don’t buy another horse, just work the two you already own). Work one side first and get it down fairly well before moving to the other side. The fence line keeps your horse beside you. Do not use your hands to move the horse around; always use your stick. Horses move into pressure from your hands pushing them. If the horse gets into your space, bring your hand up to his eye and if he continues to move into you, ‘pulse’ your hand rhythmically near his eye without hitting him. If he does continue to move into your space, you will have to use your hand in rhythm and let him run into it. Horses seem to know the difference when they run into things and when a human hurts them. By allowing the horse to run into you, you set him up to learn to be responsible for his own actions.
It’s important to practice the ‘pulsing’ with your hand. It is a continuous, same speed of movement; don’t increase your hand speed if the horse gets pushy. Keep the same rhythm and speed in a moderate pulse.
Another exercise is a ‘squeeze’. Ask him to walk in between two barrels. Keep them far apart for now, but gradually decrease the space until he has to squeeze between them. Do not pressure him to do this; go about it slowly until he is comfortable with the process of having both barrels hit his sides as he moves through. This gets the horse over the claustrophobic issues they encounter, and builds trust that you will not put them in harm’s way. There is always a way through.
You can also back him through the barrels also, using the first method above that you did in the aisle way, to tap the stick and ask him to move backwards through the barrels (again, another test for obedience and submission).
An advanced exercise with barrels is to lay them on their side, and split them for the horse to walk through. Slowly bring them together as the horse gets confidence, and eventually you can join them and jump them on the line. Go slow with this and don’t force the horse over the barrels until his confidence is there.
This is one of my favorite exercises and I use it extensively when horses begin to lose their brain. It’s called a sending exercise, and the point of it is to keep their feet moving and to tire them out a bit to encourage their thinking brain to kick in once their lungs get tired.
Its roots are similar to longeing but there are some subtle differences in how you apply the techniques.
To begin, stand still and ask him to move away from you to the left. Take your left hand and hold it out away from you to the left, guiding him, through the halter pressure, gently away from you. Most people pull on the halter towards them, tipping the horse in and guiding the horse in towards them. Be careful how your body movements speak to the horse. Move slow but deliberately, not letting him run into you. Keep using this technique until he gets it, and when he makes the effort to walk to the left, let the rope out, soften and stay quiet (do not move your feet). You will have to start this exercise on a smaller circle so that you are close enough for the horse to ‘feel’ the pressure to one side. Once he begins to understand, change directions often, asking him to go left and right about every 1 1⁄2 times around. This is called ‘moving the feet’ and the purpose of this exercise is to create leadership and get the thinking part of his brain engaged.
If he gets moving too fast, pull him in and redirect him the other way. Never let him move your feet. Never let him stop and hang out. Eventually he will understand that he needs to conserve his energy and begin with quiet demeanor. This is another one of those lessons that can take time. Just start with a quiet gesture to move out, let him respond by moving out where you suggest, feed him some line and stay quiet with your feet. If he is fairly calm, reward him by letting him stand and ‘soak’ once in a while. Never wind a horse. It will sour them and turn them apprehensive about training and learning. If he has had a rather energetic time trying this exercise, and he is breathing hard, let him stand and catch his breath before starting up again.
To get a horse to stay out at first, you need to become ‘large’. Bring your hands up higher and bring up your energy to match the challenge. Never let a horse move your feet. If they come in too close and crowd me, I hold the stick out, and let them run into it with their shoulder or ribcage. It they posture you with their hindquarter, use the stick to spank it away from you. This is the advantage of a Horseman’s stick; it is stronger and not as flexible, and when you tip it into the ribcage of a horse, they are going to move from it quickly, as they can’t bend it.
It’s valuable to practice how to lift and lead the rope. Have another person at the horse end holding the rope and keeping their eyes closed. Lift and lead and have the person move one step to where you are sending them. This will help you to gain ‘feel’ in what you are doing. If the person moves toward you, it’s a signal you are not moving the horse away either. Keep your hand out and to the side. Change places with the other person and see just how subtle the ‘feel’ is to a horse.
These are basic introductory exercises; if your horse is not ‘behaving too badly’, they should be done every day. I do these daily with a few of the more aggressive horses I ride as I always want to know that the horse on the ground is paying attention and using the thinking side of his brain before I get on. For my more sensitive horses, I still do groundwork, but it’s more in the style of flexing and bending than obedience.
You can learn bending and flexing groundwork also, as it will without question help your horse in his riding training.
Work on your horse for a week or two, 7 days a week, or until the horse has made a significant change in behavior. From there, groundwork should be done no less that once a week for the rest of his life. All horses need to go back to ‘re-membering’ those lessons.
Just a thought – if he is a colt and you leave him with your other horses over the winter, there is a chance (small but I have seen it in my time) he could get a mare pregnant. We have a horse at my barn that came from a yearling Friesian colt.
A word about smacking him. Violence is when the horse’s punishment is stronger than the crime. Problem is most humans can’t tell a ‘crime’ from an annoyance that will disappear on its own. There are a few ‘rules’ to remember when you are faced with the decision to discipline or let it go.
Discipline is for a horse that is challenging you or trying hard to hurt you. Of course, it’s always another question as to why any horse would want to do this, but sometimes it’s a matter of being terribly spoiled and you happen to be the lucky trainer to have to undo the mess.
I had a big yearling appendix quarter horse filly that I traded because the owner said the filly was trying to kill her. When this filly arrived, she was unloaded straight into a large paddock to hang out for a few days. I watched her from behind the fence and on the third day I went in. I carried a long dressage whip and stood in the middle. She was in the corner eating and turned her head, ears flat back to say ‘stay away’. I didn’t leave, so she postured at me. I didn’t leave. Finally, she came full tilt at me, teeth bared. I didn’t move. When she got almost up to me I moved in to her and gave her a few good hard cracks across the chest, and then quietly stood there again without moving. She was so shocked she trotted around snorting at me. I stood there for a very long time, and she finally came up, head down, and we were best friends forever. She went to New York to a young boy who loved her for years. This is an example of a horse that assumed I was a pushover like her past owner. While my action was pretty extreme, it was an exchange of energy. She charged me with 20 pounds so I pushed back at 21. Had I chased her around and tried to beat her I would have been violating our friendship.
Whips are an extension of your hand. Once you wrap your head around this concept you will use a whip for much different purposes than you did before.
Never push a horse away with your hand; you teach them to move into you. They do this instinctually to each other, and you will be teaching him to walk on you. Again, humans don’t mean to teach this but everything communicates. Everything.
Never drag him around on the lead. He should walk next to you on a loose lead. He should learn to move with you and to watch your every signal. This can only come about if you are tight with your signals. Work on being consistent with your language.
Intention: this is one of the most important things when training. I have seen too many humans that carry the same ‘who cares’ attitude in everything they do with their horse. The horse can’t tell where the boundaries are since they communicate with senses and feeling. They can read energy as well as you can read black and white. When you want your horse to go somewhere, look there; throw your energy and intention to the place you are going to. If you want to increase speed, increase your energy. When you want the horse to be quiet, bring down your energy and soften. They will follow you. Eventually, if you are consistent, they will match you and you will have that ‘transparent’ relationship where other humans have no idea how you got the horse to do the things the two of you do. It’s that place of harmony with a horse few get to discover. It is only through hard work and consistency that you can obtain it, but it’s a wonderful place to be with your horses.
Many of the annoying habits disappear on their own once a horse has learned new habits that you want him to learn. These are the habits you are teaching him. They are often called ‘training’ but that is what training is about; the exchange of habits. The horse has a habit you don’t like so you show him another habit (that’s better for the human) and eventually the horse does it because it becomes a habit and he seems to please the human when he does it.
When your colt does goofy things, don’t get into the habit of disciplining them all. You will find in time they will be replaced. Things like fussing while being tied, or not standing still while being brushed. If he does that, just take him back out and do the back up exercise until he is listening to you with two eyes and two ears. If you smack him for not standing still you will only end up with a horse that becomes irritable and unpleasant to be around. It is not his language.
If you want to train him under saddle there are many articles on my blog you can use on your current 4 horses that will give you the experience to be able to start the colt. They will give you many tips and techniques to work on. Since you are training your horses all day long anyway, you may as well start learning some new material. I suspect you are probably a very good trainer. Otherwise you would not have asked for help.
Response: Thank you for your help. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into your answer. So much nicer than the one sentence answers I get from other horsemen. You helped me out a lot. Laura.