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When Winter Keeps You out of the Saddle, by Clinton Anderson

AndersonFor a lot of horsemen, winter weather means  being left with no place to ride, which means a lot  of us end up not working with our horses at all.   But even in the dead of winter, you don’t have to  completely abandon your horsemanship.   Here’s  an idea to continue building on your horse’s  education that doesn’t require you have an  indoor arena and will ensure your horse is calmer  and safer when you are able to get back to riding.

When winter weather keeps you off your  horse’s back, take the time to desensitize him to  common objects lying around the barn.   What is  an object? An object is anything that doesn’t live  in your horse’s stall or pasture.   If it lives in your  horse’s stall or pasture, it’s not an object.   Because  he spends so much time around it, he becomes  desensitized to it.   Horses are especially scared  of objects that move and make a noise, and I  guarantee that you have plenty of them lying  around your barn.   It’s important to desensitize  your horse to as many objects as you can  because it’ll make him calmer, more respectful  and get him to use the thinking side of his brain.   Two of the most common objects in the barn that  horses are scared of are shavings bags and feed  bags.   Not only are they objects, but they also  make a noise that frightens most horses.

The best way to get a spooky horse to  accept objects and gain confidence in himself is  to use the Approach and Retreat Method.   You’ll  approach the horse with what is scaring him and  keep that object there until he stands still and  relaxes.   You’ll know the horse is relaxed when  he shows you one of six signs: he’ll take a deep  breath, cock a hind leg, lower his head and neck,  lick his lips, blink his eyes or stand still for 15  seconds.   Once the horse stands still and relaxes,  you’ll take the object away and retreat.   If a horse is really worried about what  you’re trying to desensitize him to, the last  thing you want to do is go toward him with the  object.   Instead, retreat and go away from him.

Remember, the opposite of fear is confidence.   You’re always a lot more confident when you’re  following something or chasing something, as  opposed to having something chase you.

The first step is to walk away from the horse  with the bag either attached to the end of the  Handy Stick or held in your hand.   You’ll slap the  ground with the bag from side to side about 10  feet in front of your horse and walk away.   In the  beginning, the horse will probably be reluctant to  want to follow you ““ he’ll drag on the lead rope  and be a little bit worried about the bag.   It’s no  big deal, just keep walking forward, slapping the  ground with medium energy from side to side.   Basically, you’re trying to tell the horse, “Look,  see this bag? It’s going away from you.   You don’t  need to be worried about it because it’s running  away from you.” The longer you do this, the more  confident the horse will get.   Encourage him to  follow you and investigate the bag.   You might let  the bag drag behind you on the ground.   A lot of  horses will actually try to touch the bag with their  nose.

Once you’ve built your horse’s confidence  by letting him “chase” the bag, continue on with  the desensitizing lesson by approaching and  retreating the bag near his body.   Stand at a  45-degree angle facing your horse’s shoulder, an  arm’s length away.   This will keep you in a safe  position because you’ll be too far to the side to  get struck with a front leg and too far forward to  get kicked by a hind leg.   When desensitizing a horse to an object,  start by desensitizing the airspace around him.   If the horse can’t handle the object being next  to his body, he won’t be able to handle it on his  body.   Wave the bag next to the horse’s body.   How close you can bring the bag to the horse  depends on the individual.   With one horse you  may have to start with the bag 10 feet away  from him, and with another horse you may be  able to bring the bag within 6 feet of his body.   Wave the bag with rhythm, and when the horse  stands still and relaxes, take the bag away.   Then  wave it again, bringing it a little closer.   It doesn’t  matter where you start as long as you establish a  starting point and gradually bring the bag closer  to the horse’s body.   Once the horse can tolerate  the bag 4 feet away from him, then bring it 3 feet  away from him until eventually, you can move the  bag up and down right beside his body.

It’s common in the beginning for the horse  to want to run away and get defensive because  he’s using the reactive side of his brain.   If your  horse does, remember to keep two eyes on you  by bumping on the halter and follow him wherever  he goes.   He might make you think he can back  up forever, but he really can’t.   Keep following  him while moving the bag in a rhythmic motion  towards him.   When the horse is good with the bag being  waved next to his body, you can start to rub it  on his body.   When you bring an object to the  horse’s body, always start with his topline first ““  his withers, back, hindquarters and neck.   From  there you’ll move onto his flank, under his belly  and finally his head.

Save the horse’s head until  last because that’s where he’s the most sensitive.   When you begin to slap the horse’s body  with the bag, remember to stand at a 45-degree  angle to his shoulder and use rhythm.   If he goes  to move, keep the same motion in your hands  and follow him until he stands still and relaxes.   Once he’s standing still and relaxed, retreat and  rub him.   Then approach him again.   After you  have one side of the horse’s body desensitized  to the bag, move onto his other side.

Remember,  when you switch sides you switch brains so you’ll  have to start from square one.   Finally, you can desensitize the horse’s  head to the bag.   Stand at a 45-degree angle to his  shoulder, an arm’s length away, and desensitize  the airspace around his head first.   Wave the bag  back and forth around his face until he stands  still and relaxes.   Remember, how close you can  initially bring the bag to his head depends on how  frightened your horse is.   Once he is confident  with the bag being in the airspace around him,  begin to lightly rub the bag on his face.   If he looks  away, bump two eyes back on you, and continue  to approach him until he continuously stands still  and relaxed.   Don’t stand directly out in front to  desensitize him until he accepts it really well on  both sides of his body.   You can use the same principles I described  to desensitize your horse to any object you  want””clippers, spray bottles, etc., and by the  time spring rolls around, you’ll have a quiet, calm  and confident partner.

Author ‘s note : A native Australian,  Clinton Anderson began his quest  to become the best horseman he could be  by apprenticing under nationally acclaimed  Australian trainers Gordon McKinlay and Ian  Francis.   In 1996 Clinton moved to America to  continue training horses and apprenticed under  Al Dunning, winner of multiple AQHA World  Championships, before beginning to train under  his own name.   Clinton loves training reiners  and cow horses and has been successful in  both competitive arenas.   Clinton is the host of  Downunder Horsemanship TV, the number one  rated RFD TV program that airs at 10 and 12 pm  Eastern Standard Time on Tuesdays and pm on  Sundays.   To find out more about Clinton and how you can  transform your horse into the partner you’ve  always wanted, log onto  www.downunderhorsemanship.com.

We would love to hear what you plan to do this  winter!  Email us with your stories.   Stay warm and  Ride safe!

[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 5, Issue 11.]

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