Section-1 Basic Handling

About Basic Handling:


The first layer of training is especially useful for horses with moderate to severe behavioral issues or novice horse owners who need a safe place to start. The skills outlined are about as basic as you can get when handling a horse, but they are skills that wild horses do not posses. These skills help a horse function in the human environment.

The real aspect of training in this section is learning how to achieve each skill with the horse consistently in a calm, attentive, willing and adaptable state of being. The horse must overcome defensive fight, flight or freeze patterns of behavior to be able to do each skill in a Learning Frame of Mind.

The Learning Frame of Mind specifically means that the horse is calm + willing + attentive + adaptable all in the same moment. A horse in flight defense may be willing, but is seldom calm or attentive to you. A horse in fight defense is often calm, but seldom willing or adaptable. The defensive patterns are not the horse’s personality or breeding traits. Fight and flight behavior denotes emotional or mental imbalance in the horse. Just like a human, personality can only shine through once a horse feels safe on the inside. Horses demonstrating fight or flight behaviors do not feel safe.

Every horse has the potential of using both fight or flight defenses depending on the situation. It often surprises people when a horse changes strategies and suddenly acts like a “different” horse.  This is quite common. When a horse is out of balance, feels unsafe and acts out defensively, the horse may bounce between flight or fight expressions. Every horse has this option and given the right situation a horse that normally tries to get away may suddenly turn aggressive. A normally pushy horse may suddenly decide to run off. The positive side of this ability to bounce is that every horse also has the potential to be in balance. No matter the breed, age or work the horse does, the potential is there to overcome defensive patterns and develop only the useful parts of either extreme. Hot blooded, sensitive horses can learn to be calm and attentive. Stubborn horses can become willing (light) and adaptable. This is the point of developing the Learning Frame of Mind.

The world is a big, unpredictable place. It is simply not possible to “de-sensitize” a horse to every possible thing that might make a horse question its safety. Instead of learning a million techniques, I find it far simpler to use the Learning Frame of Mind as my beacon in all contexts to know if I need to back off or push forward in any given situation. A horse that does not feel safe on the inside is not a safe horse to work with. Developing a Learning Frame of Mind as the need arises is the premise of good leadership and builds trust. By giving the horse a feeling of safety, your own safety is secured as well.


Theory Topics For Basic Handling:


Recognizing and overcoming defensive behavioral patterns

Fight, flight and freeze defensive behavior patterns are often misconstrued as “personality” or “breed” but they actually demonstrate that the horse is out of balance emotionally or mentally. Severe imbalances are easy to recognize and the most dangerous to deal with, but they began with mild or moderate warning signs.   Learning to recognize the mild expressions helps nip the bigger problems in the budding stage.  Overcoming defensive patterns takes time and consistency. The problems did not develop overnight, nor will they be solved overnight. For some, this level of work may only take a week, while for others Basic Handling could take a year. The more extreme the problems are the longer this part of the work will take. But overcoming negative patterns and building positive patterns as habits is what allows the rest of the work to progress at a more rapid rate.


Developing optimal emotional and mental patterns

Bad habits cannot be eliminated, only replaced. As long as a horse feels the need to be defensive new, negative behaviors will simply replace the old ones that you have been able to resolve. Cultivating the Learning Frame of Mind replaces negative behaviors with positive ones. Making anything a habit takes consistency and repetition. Allowing negative behaviors to persist strengthens them. Taking the time to focus on calm, willing, attentive or adaptable makes new habits. These habits become a part of the horse and create deep, internal and lasting change from negative behavior to positive.


The Comfort Zone model and how to use it

The Comfort Zone model was developed by psychologists for people and is extremely useful in the context of training. Understanding this model allows each horse and rider to progress safely and systematically at an appropriate pace. Because every horse/human combination is absolutely unique, time lines of progress are hard to predict. Both horses and humans typically get pushed into situations that become unsafe in the name of progress, learning or “leadership”. The Comfort Zone illustrates how to set appropriate boundaries for you and the horse so that progress moves steadily forward while always remaining safe.


The Four Fundamentals of Leadership

True leadership seems to be misunderstood on a large scale in the horse industry. I no longer use the words ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ because of the abuse I have witnessed under the guise of those words. Yes, horses do have a herd hierarchy but humans tend to put a spin on ‘leadership’ that resembles having a bad boss. Leadership in a horse herd is a great responsibility and a position that is earned by vote, not by military invasion. If you cannot prove that you are able to provide safety to the horse, then you won’t get the vote. You may get obedience, but compliance alone will also carry with it resentment or resignation.   True leadership is what it takes to gain the Learning Frame of Mind and keep it.  The four basic elements are simple, but that does not mean they are always easy.

  • Control yourself
  • Control your personal space
  • Control motion
  • Control direction

This is how the horse is constantly evaluating your leadership capabilities. Ignorance of the laws is no excuse. If you don’t understand each element then you will forfeit the leadership position and the horse will become defensive as a result.


Basic Handling Skills:


1.1 Catching

If a horse is hard to catch then you still have a prey/predator barrier.   Even a horse that is ridden often can have this issue and it has significant meaning. Catching means that the horse feels safe with you and enjoys the work. Hard to catch tells you that there is a fundamental trust issue that runs deep throughout the relationship. Hard to catch horses still believe that humans are predators, not herd members.


1.2 Learning Frame of Mind 1 – Eye Contact at Halt/1.3 Learning Frame of Mind 2 – Eye Contact in Motion

Making direct eye contact with a horse is a topic of contention between training philosophies. Many believe it is “too much pressure” on a horse (prey animal).I believe that when a horse cannot make direct eye contact with a human in a calm, willing state then the prey/predator barrier is still in tact. Like catching, avoidance of direct eye contact denotes a significant lack of trust in humans. Horses look herd members in the eyes all the time. If a horse cannot be comfortable looking a human in the eyes, then humans are still predators in the horse’s mind, not herd members.


1.4 Leading

This skill is symbolic of how herd members travel together. Leading means synchronizing with the herd, not restraining or dragging from point A to point B.


1.5 Grooming

Much more than just getting a horse clean, grooming is representative of how horses bond with herd members. Grooming is also a way to restore or maintain the health of a horse. Living in a human environment and selective breeding creates health issues for domestic horses that they would never experience in nature. Not addressing these environmental changes can lead to severe health issues.


1.6 Tying

When tying goes wrong, it is usually severe. The results can be injured spines, broken necks or major property damage. Knowing when and how to tie a horse properly avoids these devastating scenarios and helps the horse build skills for riding.


1.7 Farrier Prep

It is not the farrier’s job to train your horse. The farrier is there to work on the hooves and deserves to be safe while doing so. Simulations and practice help prepare the horse for a safe, successful experience with the farrier.


1.8 Vet Prep

Again, it is not the vet’s job to train your horse. A vet visit and routine health maintenance is necessarily unpleasant for horses. But the vet deserves to be safe while working with your horse. Taking time in training sessions to prepare and simulate minimizes the stress of health care.


1.9 Feeding

Food is a necessary part of caring for a horse. Developing neurotic behavior around food is not. Learning to set boundaries around feeding time or treats is an important part of training. Food and affection can be great motivators used appropriately. Used inappropriately, food and affection can encourage bad behavior.


1.10 Trailer Loading

Like tying, the results of poor trailer loading can mean severe injury, death or major destruction of property. Trailer loading as a skill is in this first course because it is a part of life for the domestic horse and all the previous, simple skills outlined in this course are all you really need to help a horse load, travel and unload safely. Trailer loading does not have to be dramatic and it does not take a high level skill to make sure the horse is successful and safe.

Equine Imbalance

...."Many problems (of the horse) can be caused by unbalanced patterns of tension in the body"........
....."Uneven tension will often result in uneven body use, difficulty carrying a saddle and rider, stiffness generally 'through the back' or the body as a whole, behavioural problems etc..... " Gavin Scofield D.O.
Founder of Equine Postural Training &
Official Osteopath for the British Endurance team

Acknowledgements

Photos Contributed by:
Jim McCleary - McCleary Photography
Christianne Gentile - True by Christianne
Sarah Wengernuk - Essence Photography

Quote Of The Day

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