We have been starting some young horses since the end of show season. Over the last couple months I have read a few things on equine stress. Stories are told of how in the “old days” people would break horses, meaning they would break the horse’s spirit. I won’t discuss that too much. Here is the story of two colts.
When we start the young ones the first few days are just seeing how the horse is going to react to being worked. Some are curious and some are standoffish. The curious ones are a blast to work because you can make a game of the training. I love to lead the colt over to the bridge, walk across it myself and stand on the other side and then call a friend. This usually gives the colt 10-15 minutes of looking at it and thinking. You can see they are thinking “what is this dumb ass doing?” Then after a while they will sniff it, and then paw at it and then stand on it. As soon as they stand on it I pull them off. After doing this a few times it’s their idea and they have confidence.
The other kinds of colt are the standoffish kind. These are usually more difficult and sometimes can get into trouble. We had one that wasn’t interested, but wasn’t scared. He didn’t try to do anything. We had to tap him with the whip to keep him trotting on the lunge line and bump at the lead because he was pulling as we lunged him. We went ahead and threw a saddle pad on his back and again he was not interested. We threw a surcingle on his back with no issue and slapped the cinch under his belly. No problems. So we tightened it up a little then his world came to an end. Bucking and striking and kicking ensued. The rope got tangled around his legs and that made things worse. After the storm had calmed we got him back organized and worked through his stress. Glad to say that the next day we broke down the cinching process into a few more steps to relieve his anxiety and got through it with way less headache.
After 25 years of starting horses I have a pretty good feel for what a horse is thinking and if he is ready for the next step in the process. Obviously I was wrong with this one. I am really glad that he came back well the next day. The point of all of this is the only real problems horses have are stress related and most are created by what we do to them. If I would have taken 2 more steps before tightening the cinch I could have avoided the storm. I could have used a rope around his belly to check how he was going to react to tightness around him. I could have used a breast collar on the surcingle and not tightened the cinch much at all.
If you find a horse is stressing then think of how to break the one new step you are teaching into 2 or 3 steps that will be easier for him to learn. You can teach the most stupid and uninterested horse anything if you break the process into small, easily learned and non-stressful steps.
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