What can you do to help a horse that pulls back? – With Glenn Stewart –
Contrary to some people’s way of thinking, horses do not enjoy, like, or think it is fun to pull back. It hurts and they are very worried, scared and claustrophobic feeling when they pull back. It is much more difficult to teach a horse not to pull after he has started pulling than to learn some exercises and then use them with your horse to avoid the pulling in the first place.
The exercises that I would use to help a horse overcome their pulling are almost the same as I would use before they started pulling. They are the exercises that prepare a horse for being tied. It is important to always ask the question WHY they are doing what they are doing before trying to figure out a way to help them. If you don’t come up with the real WHY then you won’t be able to come up with a real solution. We know that they don’t pull because they like it, so we can get rid of that idea.
There are generally three basic areas I use to answer the question WHY. I keep it simple and ask myself if the reason they are pulling back is a respect issue, a confidence issue or an understanding issue. Sometimes it can be some of each of these areas. Once I have the answer to why then I can either build their confidence, earn their respect, or get a system of clear communication established that the horse understands.
Usually it falls under a confidence issue. So we build their confidence. It also usually has some to do with respect as in they probably don’t yield to the pressure of the halter very well, and certainly not when they are pulling. It also has some to do with understanding. If they understood that they had nothing to fear and that yielding to the halter was best, there would be much less chance of pulling.
So how do we build their confidence and get them yielding to the halter better? The very first thing I would check is to see if my horse enjoys my touch all over his head, not just accepts, but enjoys. He needs to be completely comfortable being rubbed everywhere on his head, eyes, ears, poll, nose, lips and so on.
Having the whole horse enjoying a rub would be better yet, if not, you use approach and retreat. Approach by rubbing towards the areas that worry him, moving as close as he can handle, rubbing there and getting him braver, then look for any sign that he is trying to relax then retreat. Keep rubbing your way in and then away from the area until you have convinced the horse there is nothing to be worried about. I would do the whole procedure again with my halter. Sometimes they will accept the touch of a hand but not a rope.
They sometimes throw their head around trying to shake your hand off. Don’t move so close or as fast to his area of worry. If he can shake your hand away, he will perceive this as a release and try again the next time you try to rub. Take your hand away when the head quiets. It may only happen for a second to begin with so be ready to release. While I was checking these things out and making sure there were no issues with being touched and rubbed I would keep in mind that horses are claustrophobic by nature, some more than others. Once I was sure there were no issues of being handled around the head I would start helping them get braver in small spaces. I would see how many places I could lead, back and send my horse. Find places that my horse has to go thru, under and over sometimes separately and sometimes all at the same time. Always start with the easier things like leading through a gate then maybe back him through then send him through.
Anytime you can send, by that I mean stand still and put some feel on the rope and ask your horse to follow the feel and go where you sent him. This is one way to see if your horse understands how to follow a feel and that he has been taught to respect the feel of the halter and yield to the pressure being applied.
There are many things you can use to help with this such as going into the barn, in and out of the trailer, between, under and over trees. Use your imagination and if possible send, lead and back through the areas that allow it. Another thing to make sure that it is working is to use steady pressure on the poll. Use your finger tips to ask the head down, and use steady pressure with the lead line to ask the head down. Ask with light but steady pressure. If there is no response do not release, add a little pressure and wait 2 or 3 seconds and add a bit more pressure. The moment you get any kind of a yield downwards immediately release the pressure, rub him to say thanks and start again. Teach him to put his head down each day for a few days in a row until the response you get from your horse is positive. Think about how much pressure it would take to push on the hair or to just get to the skin and his head goes down. He also needs to be confident enough to keep it down. If he is in a big rush to lift his head up you are not finished with the exercise. He might not put his head down at all at first he might even go up but if you hold the pressure until you get downwards even a half inch, release and start again his understanding, respect and confidence will grow. Pressure motivates and the release of pressure teaches. Your timing of the release and effectiveness of the phases you use to apply the pressure is what will teach your horse wanted and unwanted behaviour. The better our timing and effectiveness; the better the behaviours.
A light, calm, soft, brave and responsive horse is what we are after, but he might not be that way to begin with. If he has a pulling issue it is doubtful that pushing on the hair is going to get his attention so to be affective you may have to apply firmer pressure. Don’t be in a hurry to get firmer and as you add pressure give them time to think. We are not stronger and don’t want to try to be. What I tell people is a fly can move a horse so if you are pushing your fingers in him to his muscle he definitely knows you are there, so you might just hold and wait. Be more persistent than the horse. Teach him how to move off of pressure.
Teaching your horse to follow a feel and yield to pressure is something to be aware of anytime you are with your horse. Notice if you are applying any type of pressure and if you are what was his response. An example of pressure being applied accidently and no response is being asked for is holding the lead line short. It is something I see often. The owner/rider of the horse is standing beside their horse holding the clip or very close to it which often puts slight or considerable pressure on the horses head. They’re not asking him to do anything they are just standing visiting with a friend. The whole time the horse is feeling pressure on the bit or halter but isn’t being asked to do anything. The horse gets used to holding the weight of the persons arm with his head. So they become desensitized to the pressure. Then when asked to do something the pressure means little. It is like driving to town with your foot on the brake a little, sooner or later you don’t have any brakes or they don’t work very well. There is many times and ways to be accidently dulling our horses to the feel of our halters. Be sure to teach your horse not to pull, and be careful not to be a puller yourself.
One more thing to check on is your horses overall confidence. Does he get worried easily? If he does, then use approach and retreat again and desensitize him to things, sounds and objects. For example if he is scared of a flag on a stick, and even more scared if you waved it around. If he is scared of the sound or look of it then lots of other things might be scary to him as well.
Being tied makes them feel a bit trapped and then if he is scared of things moving and/or sounds one thing fuels the other and the pulling begins. Understanding what makes a horse a horse helps us prepare them better for things we want them to do and helps us undo things that have already been created.
In the meantime when you need to tie your horse, wrap the rope rather than tying hard. If the horse pulls and the rope will slide it is much less frightening to the horse. Wrap the rope around enough times that if you really pull hard it will slide. This way it is uncomfortable for the horse to pull, but it has a bit of give which will help him feel less trapped.
A long lead line will give him time to think before the rope comes completely unwrapped. Doing this in a smaller pen helps because the other edge of the pen also causes the horse to stop pulling. If he gets stopped and comes forward to find the release this will speed his understanding of the situation. All these exercises are creating a new behaviour and may take you some time. Horses that pull can be taught not to, but the people who do the teaching need to possess some skills and understanding.
1. Desensitize to your touch and rubbing.
2. Desensitize to your halter and lead.
3. Build their confidence with things, sounds and objects.
4. Make sure they understand to yield to pressure with your fingers and your lead line for bring the head down.
5. Make sure they can follow a feel.
6. Help them become less claustrophobic.
7. Wrap your lead.
If you are having limited success, get the some help from a professional that has helped other horses and people with pulling issues and that understands that horses are not pulling because the like it; they need their confidence, respect, and understanding developed. I was told for years that: “Once a puller always a puller”. I have since proven that statement wrong with numerous horses. Pulling is not easy to fix but is fixable. If the human and horse understands these concepts and puts them to practise your horse will stand quietly tied. Once you get him standing quietly tied you will have other things working better as well and probably notice improvement overall. Enjoy playing with your horse and developing their unending potential.
Glenn Stewart travels extensively conducting clinics, demonstrations, and colt starting sessions, and also offers Camps and a 3 month Horsemanship Course at his home The Horse Ranch, as well as the Horsemanship Learning Adventure Series; two completely different experiences, High & Wild in the Northern BC Rockies, and Working Equitation with Lusitanos in Brazil. He rides 30-60 client horses per year, including young horses, restarts, challenging horses, and foundation training.
More information by calling 1 877 728 8987 or visiting www.thehorseranch.com