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A Star Reborn: Holistic Natural Horsemanship- Part 1 of 3

When he arrived his mane was dreadlocked, his body covered in numerous flesh wounds and his knees were skinned. The beautiful buckskin paint Arab had just been gelded at the age of 5, only two weeks before coming to my place for training, (that explained the skinned knees). Frightened and angry, ears pinned and hooves overgrown he was very unhappy. His owner wanted him started under saddle with trail training for which I require a minimum of 120 days, but she added two extra months because “Star may need it” she said. “Hmm, maybe he will maybe not” I thought. I’ve had horses here that I started under saddle, finished with trail training and sent home in 75 days, so we’ll see.

My first session with Star was spent untangling his mane for an hour. Typically my first session with a horse is an “at liberty join up” to establish my leadership, but this guy seemed to need touch and gentleness before I began moving his feet NHT#1.

NH Tip #1 - “Speaking the Language - Herd Psychology”; He who moves the other’s feet first is in control.

Star’s high head began to lower and his worry melted away as I brushed and cooed over him. I touched and rubbed him gently all over looking for “issue” areas and found under the belly, flank and general rear area (yeah he was just gelded) were his problem spots. He had obvious foot handling issues too which explained the overgrown feet, so I did some touch and retreat NHT#2 around each leg. I scrubbed Star’s wounds with Natures Balance Care (NBC) Groomer and applied NBC Bare Skin Barrier to keep the flies and insects off while it accelerated the healing. He seemed content to be cared for and quietly accepted a carrot as I put him back in his paddock. Note: I only give treats after a session and use carrots for chiropractic stretching. I do not use treats to train. I want a partnership, not a circus animal.

NH Tip #2 – Touch Retreat. If a horse doesn’t want to be touched in certain areas, for example the ears, rub in areas close to the ears and then touch the ears quickly and retreat as if you were never there. Continue to do this until the horse stops noticing and accepts being touched in that area.

The next day I did an “at liberty join up” in a 60 x 96 training arena (“at liberty” means with no halter or lead rope so the horse is free to move at will. The join up/latch-on is when the horse chooses to follow and mirror your movements). Our first “at liberty join up” took about 30 minutes for Star to latch-on. He floated over the arena floor in a beautiful natural pace with his tail flagged and ears forward. Star was a majestic sight showing his stallionesque beauty for all to see. He didn’t stay latched on for very long the first attempt so I ran him off (NH Tip #1 above: he who moves the other’s feet first is in control AND I’m the leader so I move his feet!), but he never kicked out as so often many horses do sassing the lead mare, “me”. I gave him more time at liberty watching for signs of submission NHT#3.

NH Tip #3 – Signs of submission: first, I want to see his inside ear back which says he is paying attention to me; lowering his head and licking his lips is a sign of submission and indication he’s beginning to understand that I’m the leader; second, when I ask him to change direction he turns into me not away from me; third, he will start mowing the ground by lowering his head almost touching the ground as he is moving at a walk or trot.

Once Star began “mowing the ground” he was ready to join up. I stepped in front of the drive line NHT#4 and he turned to look at me. I immediately dropped my pressure NHT#5 by lowering my eyes and turning my shoulder to him, and I said “good boy”. I walked up slowly with an outstretched hand, shoulder turned, not making eye contact and rubbed his face. I tickled under his chin as I moved to his shoulder and yielded his hind quarters while he followed my outstretched hand. As I got his feet moving we made bigger circles until he was following me in a forward direction quietly with his head relaxed. After a moment of forward movement I stopped and loved up on him while I put his halter on. Now Star was ready to be assessed and begin his training.

NH Tip #4 – Drive Line. The drive line is the area from the girth forward. To step in front of the driveline I simply take one step to the side without moving my other foot. This is a step in front of the drive line and a signal to the horse to stop and turn to me. Once a horse turns and looks at me when I step in front of the drive line I immediately drop my pressure, i.e. drop my eye contact, turn my shoulder to him and say “good boy”. The horse has an “aha” moment and realizes he answered correctly.

NH Tip #5 – Pressure & Release. A horse learns from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. Your release of pressure must be instant; as crisp as can be in order for the horse to learn he made the right choice. Always use a rope halter when training along with a 12’ – 14’ lead rope. The rope halter applies appropriate pressure compared to a web halter. I do everything in a rope halter from training to riding, even stallions.

NH Tip #6 – Stick & String. I prefer to use a training stick & string for my safety and as an extension of my hand. The horse is in my space if I can reach out and touch him with the end of the stick. If I can touch the horse with the stick while lunging, the horse is too close and I’m vulnerable to a kick. Once I know a horse well enough a training session will consist of “forward and around & circle driving” which is bringing the horse closer to me and actually having the stick on their back as a desensitizing lesson. But, when first working with a new horse they must be out of stick range. Also, if a horse were to charge me the stick is firm enough to reprimand on the shoulder to avoid getting run over – a lunge whip is too flexible so I don’t use them. Always desensitize a horse to the stick as well as sensitize.

When I assess a horse the first thing I want to know is can he back up. My space is privileged and a horse is not allowed into my space without invitation. Backing up a horse is important for keeping a safe distance and showing respect.

I stood in front of Star with the lead rope in one hand and my stick in the other. I gently jiggled the lead rope and asked “back”, but he just stood there. I began increasing the pressure by jiggling the rope harder and harder as I walked toward him, my eyes fixed on his (pressure); he threw his head up and stood his ground. I began waving the stick under the lead rope and he instantly took a step back. Releasing the pressure I instantly stopped jiggling, waving, walking and dropped my eye contact and said “Good boy”. If he had not moved back I would have spanked him with the stick on his chest. With some horses while jiggling and walking towards them if the horse isn’t moving back I would have simply walked up and yanked on the shank under their chin and backed them up. But this was a newly gelded, pinny eared, biter: I did not want to give him any opportunity to take a chunk out of me.

I asked Star again to back up with a gentle jiggle of the rope, no response. I jiggled harder, eyes fixed on his, no change. So I started walking into him with determination and “voila”, he took a step back “Good boy” I exclaimed. He soon started backing with just a slight jiggle of the lead rope – “Good boy”!! I gave Star carrot stretches and put him away for the day to soak NHT#7.

NH Tip #7 – Soaking Time. As soon as your horse “gets it” quit for the day. The long way is the short way with Natural Horsemanship. Nerve endings in the brain cells called dendrites continue to work making new neuro-connections while at rest. Have you ever noticed when you come back to your horse a day or so later he has bumped way up from where you left off in his training? That is because they had time to “soak”. Their brains made new connections while at rest. It is important to stop, put him away when he “gets it”. Whatever “it” is that you are teaching him, give him time to “soak”. You will be amazed how quickly he learns and retains the training.

NH Tip #8 – Black & White Zone. You’ve got to make training black and white for your horse. The white zone is nice and loving. The black zone is real uncomfortable. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing uncomfortable. Be very clear about what you are asking. Increase the pressure until you get the right answer then immediately drop your pressure and make it a nice place to be in the white zone – lots of “good boy”, “good girl”. I like to verbalize because it reinforces my overall body language – horses read body language.

NH Tip #9 – Always end on a good note. If things are going badly, go back to something you know your horse is successful at and end on that success before you become frustrated and lose your temper. Come back later when you are in a better frame of mind. Always end the session at a place in training where both you and your horse feel good about the last moments.

Follow Missy as she starts this stallionesque gelding under saddle and discover pain issues and possible ulcers. Missy Axton-Wryn, Frank Bell Accredited Trainer/Instructor, “W”Holistic Natural Horsemanship Practitioner “Building a Partnership for a Safer Ride”.

You can purchase rope halters with lead ropes and stick & string at http://www.WHolisticNaturalHorsemanship.com. Call Missy with any questions at the Natural Horsemanship Center of Oregon toll free 1-866-821-0374 or email her Missy@WHolisticNaturalHorsemanship.com. Natures Balance Care is at http://www.NaturesBalanceCare.com.


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