California Riding Magazine • November, 2008

Soft Touch Training Tip
A confident handler creates a confident horse.

by Teresa Kackert

In my previous article I mentioned that confidence is one of the key factors in the success of human to horse relationships. Communication is the other key factor. We can now bring them together and move on to the practical applications.

Positive mentoring and motivational coaching are the most successful techniques available and are critical in my confidence building and training program. After developing effective communication skills we then have the tools necessary to move on to confident handling. In this way, we can also proactively minimize our horses’ behavioral issues or upsets and set the stage for a more enjoyable, productive and safe time with them.

In order to effectively communicate with my horse, he must understand what I am saying and I must understand what he is saying. Body language is the primary means by which our horses communicate with us, and whether we know it or not, it is also the primary means by which we communicate with them. Before we handle our horses on any given day, we look our horses over (and they us), and consciously or subconsciously we read and interpret what their body is telling us. When we see pricked ears, a slightly elevated head and a square stance as the horse is walking toward us, we might expect the upcoming session to be enthusiastic and enjoyable. On the other hand, if we see a lowered head, droopy ears and a very relaxed stance we might expect a lack luster day.

Not to say there aren’t exceptions, but in my experience, these signs and interpretations hold true. However, when we see ears pinned, a flank pointed in our direction, the grinding of teeth or our horse walking away from us when we approach, this may shake our confidence a bit. It is also the time when skilled, confident handling is required. Whatever the case, the more we understand about communication, reading and understanding body language and speaking to our horse, the more confident we will be.

Common Confidence Killers

In my opinion, the two most common behavioral issues which deflate a handler’s confidence are: the “rude” hip or flank, and/or the “rude” or “pushy” shoulder. Both equine behaviors are clear indications of a need for additional training and/or behavior modification (and both have knocked me around more than once). A horse turning his flank to the handler is giving a rude and sometimes aggressive gesture. Similarly, a pushy shoulder is also rude. If left uncorrected, this behavior can escalate or translate into other undesirable behaviors or dangerous situations.

To begin addressing these behaviors, one must first possess the communication skills which enable you to recognize the behaviors, and then the training skills needed to address the behavior. Finally, one must have the confidence to do so. If needed, I recommend that a professional trainer evaluate the horse and address its behavior first. Again our goal is to preserve handler confidence, not erode it. By professionally addressing the horse first, an attentive student can be prepared for the handler to then safely and more effectively work with the horse. It gives the trainer a chance to demonstrate to the handler how this is accomplished.

By observing first-hand the manner in which the issue is addressed and resolved by the trainer, the handler is better equipped to acquire both the skill and the confidence to do the same on their own. I first try to resolve the issue with the horse in-hand by applying corrective pressure to the offending body part. I have found the round pen to be the preferred location when addressing behavioral issues as opposed to being drug across the stable at the end of a lead rope.

In the smaller round pen area, one can obtain the horse’s undivided attention more easily. One can also communicate with the horse more effectively (quickly and clearly) simply because of the proximity of one another. Proper body position will always be soft. By that I mean, his barrel will be bent away from me in a concave manner. Likewise his neck and shoulder will be soft and in relative alignment (curved) with his barrel, hip and flank.

If my horse is going around the pen counterbent (that is, in a convex orientation to me) he is in effect pushing me away; he is applying pressure to me and this is unacceptable. If this is the case, I will address and correct it with the least amount of pressure possible. I can accomplish this in the round pen in several ways.

Applying Appropriate Pressure

I start by applying pressure to my horse without ever physically touching him. I use my core energy, which emanates like an imaginary laser beam in a straight line from my belly button directly to its intended target. I could also point my crop or lunge whip at the anatomical area of upset without contact. Lastly, I can softly cast the lash of my lunge whip in the exact direction of the anatomical area of upset in my horse. One of these techniques should very effectively accomplish the necessary correction and thus leave us more confident to proceed with a better behaved student.

At the same time my body must remain soft to his when appropriate. The most common mistake or hindrance I see in achieving the desired result is in the handler’s inclination to be in front of the horse. At all times the handler’s “belly button laser beam” must remain behind the girth area of the horse when asking the horse to move forward—just like your leg would be if under saddle. Failure to maintain this position results most often in a counterbent horse or one that is constantly, dramatically changing direction. We can turn our horse or change his direction in the round pen by simply changing our body position—effective communication. However, I do caution that it may take some time for an individual to acquire the amount of skill and confidence necessary to remain effective and safe in the round-pen, so it is not to be taken on lightly, especially for behavior modification issues. On the other hand, the round pen can be a very productive area in which to hone our skills and build our confidence.

On rare occasion, there is the very strongwilled horse that requires physical contact—no more than is necessary—firm but fair at all times. In all instances, I am consistently conditioning my horse to give to pressure, and to mind his manners. I am teaching him that I am always clear, reasonable and fair in my workings with him. A positive partnership is always our goal.

If you’ve ever encountered resistance, difficulty or frustration with your horse while performing any of the basic activities mentioned you would find that many of these behaviors would resolve simply through effective communication (body language therapy as I call it) and confident handling. Yes, both the handler and the horse may need to be tuned up from time to time, but once acquired, practiced and applied, you will have another set of skills to put in the old equine toolbox of knowledge. When consistently and accurately applied, effective communication will result in increased handler confidence.

Good luck and enjoy the wonderful world of horses!

Teresa Kackert is Certified Gold by Chris Irwin, Master by Richard Shrake, and C.H.A. Clinic Instructor. She may be contacted via e-mail at GreatHorses@msn.com.