Is your horse with you? Probably not something you’re thinking about when you greet your beloved horse with a halter in one hand and a handful of treats in the other. You’re likely thinking about your day and possibly how to get organized for your ride and wondering why your horse had to roll in the exact spot in the paddock where there was still a lingering puddle of mud.
With the idea that we should always be present with our horse, I learned something very important recently from a kind and well-educated natural horsemanship trainer, Pat Lambert. Pat works with the young horses at our stable and I always marvel at how she commands such respect from these youngsters and maintains a keen sense of what to do when they don’t understand her request and/or refuse to try. According to Pat, when a horse tries, they must be rewarded to let them know they are seeking the correct response. This is the first step that owners must do and continue to build on in order to gain the horse’s trust."
I recently sat down with Pat to talk about a phrase I had heard her say, ‘is your horse with you?’ Not knowing what that really meant, I thought having a sit down with her might give greater understanding of this important concept.
Me: Hi Pat, thanks for agreeing to conduct this Horse Talk interview. I’ve heard you ask me in the past when we’ve worked together, ‘is your horse with you.’ Can you explain what you mean by this?
Pat: Thanks for this opportunity to share with your readers. Sure, happy to answer that question. What I mean by ‘is your horse with you’ is exactly that. Is your horse present with you; is your horse paying attention and connecting with you and vice versa. For example, does your horse greet you when you open the stall door or does he/she turn their back to you or do they walk over you to barge out of the stall? Can they stand still on their own; do they walk away while you’re mounting them? These are all areas where we can improve the communication lines with our horses so by the time we are ready to ride our horses, they are attentive and ready to go to work."
Me: Ok, well with my beloved Bailey, she usually looks up at me with no interest and then goes back to what she was doing. No connection, but then again, I might be distracted when I approach her. However, I kind of feel like that’s an improvement from several years ago when she would greet me with her lovely backside!
Pat: Ok, this is exactly what I’m talking about. What we want to create here is a willing horse that connects with you when you walk in the stall or ask them to do things such as stand still, wait for you as you are walking them, mounting them, etc. All the things you do with your horse before you are ready to ride. You want to make sure they’re paying attention, listening to you and respecting your simple and clear forms of communication. This connection happens the moment you greet them. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a dominant or insecure horse, you need to be firm in your communication and use simple signals to move them around with your energy…not the other way around. If your horse is with you on the ground, they will be so much more attentive and willing once you’re in the saddle.
For example, when you are presented with what I like to call ‘big energy’ from a horse that simply barges out of its stall, they’re literally and figuratively walking over you. This sets the tone for your relationship and connection for the rest of the time you’re with them. They will continue to be difficult with you when you’re grooming, tacking up, mounting them, riding them, untacking them and finally, putting them in their stall for the night. As in all relationships, human or equine, it’s about developing a rhythm of communication and when one of the pair walks over the other, it doesn’t leave room for either one to communicate or understand.
Me: Where do you suggest starting this process of creating a horse that is ‘with you?’
Pat: It begins with you taking the lead, not the other way around. It’s simply dangerous when an animal 10xs your weight is in charge. You can start by taking them by the lead rope and putting them where you would like them to stand. When they start to walk off without you, simply set them back, one foot at a time, to where they were standing. Remember to reward them with a firm rubbing, usually on their neck, for trying and honoring your request. Have you ever watched horses scratching each other in a pasture? They are often scratching or rubbing each other's necks. This is horse talk for showing affection and trust. These rewards are the building blocks that keeps your horse seeking to please you.
Do this with clarity and consistency and an expectation that they will listen to you. With clear directions, they should respond to your requests with ease. When either party becomes demanding or frustrated, you lose your power to connect and relate to one another. When this occurs, remember to take a deep breath, check in with yourself to confirm you’re bringing the right energy to the exercise and be willing to take your time. This process doesn’t happen immediately – it requires patience, effort and a little time to get the results you’re seeking.
I like to say that preparation pays off. That is, mentally prepare for the presentation of the request or transition. Whether it’s leading them out of the stall, asking them to stand in one place, mounting them or any other ground work you’re engaging in, think about what you want to achieve first. Then, ask with clear physical instructions that are simple for your horse to follow. Remember to mentally prepare for a successful outcome and then finally, reward your horse with a firm touch.
I like to follow these steps:
1: Prepare for the presentation / prepare for success
-are you prepared to ask something of your horse and what is your intention?
-what is your energy when you’re asking them to do something?
-are you calm / focused or anxious / distracted?
-are you executing your intent with clarity and consistency?
2: Be consistent and firm when asking your horse to do something
-does your horse understand what you’re asking of them?
-if not, how can you ask again with greater clarity?
-how can you correct this within yourself and then, gently ask with positive affirmation?
3: Mirror their attention and intention with positivity
-when your horse responds positively, are you rewarding them for each little try?
-please remember to reward a positive response with a loving rub
-each horse has their favorite spot to be rubbed; pay attention and they will let you know what that spot is
-remember that they can feel a fly on them
-rub on them where horses rub on each other – the non-sensitive areas
Me: Wow, Thanks Pat! Great information. Thanks so much for sharing this all too important information with us. I feel like no matter how experienced you are at riding horses, we can never be too knowledgeable when it comes to horsemanship skills.