Monday, November 8, 2010

Walking the Horse

Kristen asked an interesting question in comments on the last post - is dismounting and hand-walking a confidence builder or not, and when is it better to ride through?

And Muddy K has the following question - how to break down the work, and whether to begin at the beginning or work on things as they come up?

I can only tell you what I do with my horses and this may or may not be applicable to you and your horses.

This afternoon, Pie and I worked in the arena for a while (two rides in one day on Pie!), after sidepassing up to open the gate - he does this very well - doing the "squaring the circle" exercise I'd been doing with Dawn a while ago.  We trotted to a cone, then circled at a walk around it, then trotted to the next cone.  I was trying to stay out of his face since his teeth haven't been done and the sidepull hasn't arrived yet, but his head was still pretty high.  He got the idea pretty well, but there was some wavering from straight lines and some wide turns - this was really our first work session in the arena so it wasn't too bad.

Then my husband arrived - I had asked him to walk with us on the trail - I wanted to revisit the sections of the trail near the barn where Pie had had his worries yesterday.  We walked past the goat, who promptly flung himself at the fence and put his feet up on it, bleating.  Pie was completely alarmed by this and showed signs of wanting to bolt.  But he didn't - just spooked - and I dismounted.

To answer Kristen's question, I make a decision to either ride a horse or dismount and lead depending on the horse and its skills - some horses are more confident when ridden and some are better when led - and to lead a horse that is worried or agitated, the horse must have excellent leading skills that won't come unglued under stress.  Pie leads really well and seems to take comfort from having a person on the ground.  On the other had, I never lead Dawn when she's worried - Dawn tends to "go away" when stressed and that can be a real recipe for disaster on the ground.

After I dismounted, my husband and I headed down the trail with Pie - I wanted to go back over the ground where he'd had his issues yesterday and go back over them in a more calm frame of mind.  Pie seems to really like my husband - perhaps he like men because of the old man who owned him and started him.  So we walked along - Pie was nervous but very well behaved.  When we reached the farthest point I wanted to reach - we'd been over the areas where he'd had trouble yesterday, I remounted from the ground and we turned back towards home.  He began to relax and was completely responsive when I asked him to slow.  His attention was captured for a bit by Charisma trotting fast in the arena, but he continued to be well-behaved until we got back and I dismounted and put him away.

To answer Muddy K's question, how and what order to address a horse's issues has no open and shut answers for me.  I think some things are really essential - ground manners and leading, mounting and tying/ground tying - I think these building blocks are ones that are foundational and I'll usually address them first - Pie came with these so I don't need to do much there.  I also think it's a good idea to have an overall plan, subject to adjustment, for each horse depending on its strengths and deficiencies (see below about Dawn).  Next is basic softening, with a halter and then bridle - I can't do any work with a bit with Pie until his teeth are done and maybe even not then, since he'll still be shedding caps as he grows his adult teeth.  Softening work allows a horse to engage his core and carry himself more effectively, and also has a direct effect on calmness - a soft horse is soft from the inside and that has direct neurological calming effects, I believe, due to the relaxation of the top line.  Pie and I also need to deal with what comes up on the trail - he's got good skills but has some holes relating to the buddy-bound issues and some things he's worried about, like bicycles and large dogs.  We'll keep doing our trail work, and as soon as his sidepull comes we'll be doing a lot of softening work, starting in the arena.  So I guess it's all of one piece, and worked in together - I know that's not very programmatic, but that's how I work.

Dawn is a very different horse from Pie, with different issues - read my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . ." if you want to understand the work program I have with her.  Before I rode Pie this afternoon, I rode Dawn - she's been a bit neglected of late - we did more figure and transition work in the arena, and also walked around the outside of the arena and around by the pond just to the north of the barn.  She was pretty amped up - good in the arena though.  On our short excursions, I rode through (bareback) a pretty big forward and sideways spook, and she did several other smaller spooks.  She was trying very hard to be good, though, and I told her what a wonderful mare she was.  When I turned her back out, she bolted from the gate, bucking high to show how strong and powerful she is!


  1. Well stated with good, sound principles. Every horse is different and even though I believe the principles apply in every case, how you use the principles can vary from horse to horse.


  2. I always ride my mare through scary situations, but I usually end up getting off and walking my gelding. The difference is that one horse trusts me enough to go through/past the obstacle with a little encouragement, and the other horse is SO terrified that he just will not go unless I'm leading the way. (He should have been born a chicken instead of a horse...)

    Neither one will bolt or rear, but they both prefer to plant their feet and not move. Sometimes my gelding just needs help getting to the obstacle, usually water, and once he's seen that it's ok, I can get back on and ride him through it.

    Each horse is different.

  3. Kate, You are making such good progress with Pie! And I admire how calm you are in a variety of situations. The question of dismounting vs riding through is a good one. For me, if I sense an immediate safety issue (e.g., if Buckshot's alarm rises very very fast and feels like he might bolt) I will dismount. If I sense he is being argumentative rather than alarmed/agitated, I will ride through it. How the horse feels to me helps me make the decision of which way to go. You have great instincts and judgment on these things.

  4. I agree, it really depends on the horse. If the horse has good ground manners and I feel like I might get thrown then I'll get off and lead otherwise I prefer to ride it out.

  5. Hmm. I wonder why Mark was okay with my softening work with Smokey given his age. I suspect he knows I'm only able to ride for a limited amount of time.

    Hopefully we'll be getting teeth done soon. I'm trying to get the name of a local dentist since ours does power floating.

    I agree, getting off depends on the horse. I'd never get off Lily. I rarely do with Smokey. But when I do I really see him appreciate it. You have to find the line and endeavor not to cross it and undo all that trust.

    I imagine Dawn misses your work sessions. She sounded like she was very engaged in the work.

    I'd say it's time for a few more Pie photos. Is he getting wooley?

  6. I just love your posts, they help me more than you know.

  7. Another great post Kate. I tend to get off Bonnie and lead her when I feel that she's reached her limit. She has a horrific buck/spin/bolt to her that I've successfully ridden once and only once. If I slip to the ground and stand with her she will relax and soften and life is good.

    Having said that, she very rarely refuses that violently and the times she has, if I had pushed her through whatever it was we most likely would have been seriously injured. Like bad bridge, loose over head branches that crashed down behind me, etc.

  8. Well you know how I feel about handwalking horses through unfamiliar territory :)

    I will get off if it becomes obvious that I'm going to have a fight on my hands if I don't. But if I get off the horse has to spend more time around the scary bits than they would if I had stayed on. That's my trade off. Usually I only have to do this once or twice and then we never have a problem in that spot again.

  9. I do like to consider one other thing than just the advantages of the horse when deciding whether to ride through a problem or get off: rider confidence. When I first started back into riding, I still had a lot of the balance and "feel" to stay on, but I didn't trust my abilities. As a result, if "scary" things happened, I was better off on the ground because I wasn't confident enough to give my mare confidence. That can (and has) changed, but it's something to think about.

  10. It's just so interesting to me to hear that b/c for years I was always told to PUSH PUSH PUSH the horse via on it's back, and to dismount to teaching them to fear it. It's's working with my and their ability. It's funny but it's like what I learned for years, has been crap. lol! Thanks Kate!!!!

  11. Scout and Fritz were really excited about seeing Pie at a distance with no rider. They love the call of "loose horse!", which causes them all to gallop and celebrate, and they were at the fence scrutinizing at full attention to determine whether Pie had made a break for it, or if there was a person they couldn't see through the brush.

  12. Kate, thank you for taking the time to address these questions. Your thoughts are always so well reasoned and consistent, and I appreciate them.


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