In this brand new, exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine will take you deep into starting a horse under saddle. Join us for the whole of 2018 and watch the un-started, five-year-old Friesian gelding, Romeo, gradually work through each of the foundation lessons and, why not follow along with your own horse? Part 1 starts with haltering and tying up and picking up your horse’s feet.
All of the lessons will be suitable for any horse and are designed to build a solid foundation from which to train. Plus, you will have free access to accompanying video of each lesson!
So, whether your horse is already going under saddle, but you feel there are some areas that need a little work, or your horse’s foundation training has a few ‘holes’ and resembles Swiss cheese, you’re in the right place!
Work your own horse through each of the foundation training lessons with Romeo and you’ll be amazed at the results you achieve.
Meet Romeo, our case-study horse for the next several training articles. Romeo is a five-year-old Friesian gelding who has been, up until now, enjoying life in the paddock with his herd.
Romeo was gelded as a four-year-old, and had sufficient handling required for veterinary and farrier visits, as well as trailer loading lessons (as discovered when he moved state six months ago).
In this, the first of the series, we’ll take Romeo through the basic handling, including haltering and grooming, tying up and picking up feet.
Before we do anything, we need to catch the horse! Romeo is 16hh, and I haven’t yet taught him to put his head down for bridling or haltering.
Many of us halter a horse by flicking the head piece over the poll and then buckle it up but there are a couple of problems with this popular method. It’s often very difficult to do with a tall horse and we risk slapping the horse on the cheek when passing the head piece over.
I have an alternative haltering method that I developed when working with Australian Brumbies.
For those tall or nervous horses, there are three steps to easier haltering:
- Hold the long end of the head-piece with your right hand and have the halter on the righthand side of the horse’s neck. (Download the pdf version of the article to see Image B).
- Hold the nose-piece with your left hand and maneuver the halter, so the head-piece is close to the poll. (Download the pdf version of the article to see Images B, C and D).
- Pull the head piece tight and, at the same time, slip the muzzle into the nose-piece. (Download the pdf version of the article to see Image E).
- Lastly, fasten the halter.
Of course, when it comes to grooming, we all know what to do, but you can also use this time as a test of your horse’s emotional level and decide whether or not they are ready to continue with a new lesson.
I like to do as much work as I can with these educationally young horses with the horse free, rather than tied up, because I think we get more information from the horse this way.
I keep the long, soft lead rope on and pop it over his neck if I feel he might move off. If he does move off, he’s telling me something – he’s not ready for whatever it is I’m doing.
Romeo is quite an emotional horse, he’s very vigilant when in the paddock and very aware of everything going on in his immediate vicinity. This makes him a delight to train, because it’s so easy to see when he’s not 100% confident with the lesson I’m teaching.
You’ll notice in the photos his ears are always on me and, as each short lesson progresses, his head elevation lowers albeit ever so slightly.
So, while it looks like I’m grooming Romeo to make him pretty for the camera, I’m actually building our bubble of communication – I’m getting Romeo into the Engagement Zone, focused and ready to learn.
I do this by being very aware of his head elevation and ear positioning. I want him to be slightly more emotional than he would be in the paddock, but not emotional enough to want to leave.
As his emotional level increases, so does his head elevation (this will happen before his feet move). I like to see his ears relaxed, but on me so, when his attention leaves and he looks at something in the distance, I know I need to bring it back on to me.
This pre-ride or pre-lesson time is precious and informative. This forms a good deal of what your horse will take away from the day’s activities. We’ve all done it – been in a hurry and impatient, or late to ride and rushed through this fundamental preparation work. It only needs to take five minutes. We’ve all got five minutes, right?
Tying up – the Idolo advantage
The are many different schools of thought on tying a horse. As a trainer, I see a lot of horses that have learned to pull back when tied and require re-training. For this reason, I now teach all horses to tie using a idolo tie (or similar). This simple plastic device prevents the horse from getting hurt, should they pull back. (See images E, G & H on the next page.
You’ll notice when horses do pull back, they usually only go back a metre or so, just until the tie breaks (if your horse runs off it probably indicates something other than a tying up issue).
As great pattern learners, horses learn this pattern particularly fast, because pulling back hurts and pain is an effective motivator (but not one we ever want to use, of course).
The pattern becomes: tie up, pull back, resulting in pressure and pain, the tie or head collar breaks, and release of pressure (negative reinforcement) follows.
As with all well-learned patterns, this pattern usually takes less and less time to complete, and soon you have a horse that is pulling back as soon as they are tied.
The idolo tie breaks that cycle, because it allows the rope to pull through the device, and the horse doesn’t get hurt or loose. Once you remove pain from the situation, the horse quickly learns pulling back is unnecessary.
Of course, there are various other recommendations, such as tying to a piece of string. This is certainly better than tying an untrained horse hard to a rail, but pulling back will still cause a significant amount of pain, especially in a thin rope halter. Have you ever tried to break a piece of bailing twine?
The advantage of webbing or leather halters is they will break in these situations. So, while I wouldn’t normally recommend a piece of equipment on the basis that it was more likely to break, in this case I certainly would. Thin rope halters can do untold damage when horses pull back.
Picking up feet
Romeo came to me as an unhandled yearling and I used the following method to teach him to pick up his feet. This is also a great method to use for youngsters or horses that find this difficult.
As with the grooming, it’s a good indication whether your horse is confident with the handling, if they can be loose when you are doing the exercise.
If you don’t have a small, safe area, then tying the horse may be your only option.
Beginning with the front legs, start by grooming all the way down the leg and then use a stiff rope, such as a lariat, to rub the leg. Once the horse is comfortable with that, it’s time to lift the foot off the ground.
Picking up the feet is like any other lesson and has the following components:
- A SPOT on the horse you want to move – here it’s the left front foot.
- A DIRECTION you want that to go – in this case, we want upwards.
- A MOTIVATOR to get the horse to move – ours will be simply holding up the fetlock.
- A REWARD for performing the behaviour – by placing the foot down and praising the horse.
Simply holding the fetlock joint should be motivating enough for the horse to lift their foot. The aim is for you to be able to lift the foot and then place the foot back on the ground – hopefully, before the horse takes it away.
I know you often see people sticking thumbs into the tendons to get the foot up and then chasing the horse around the paddock, while holding on to the foot, but this isn’t a good introduction to, what should be, a simple lesson.
The more you can break the lesson down for the horse, the quicker they will pick it up. At first, the horse may just take the weight off the leg and you can reward that – this will shape the behaviour.
For the inexperienced or unknown horse, it’s best to be cautious when approaching the hind legs. I use a lariat because it’s stiff and I can get the horse to step into it, but you can use a long lead rope if you don’t have a lariat.
Loop the lariat around the horse’s left hind fetlock (see Image B) and lift the leg slightly off the ground (Download the pdf version of the article to see Image C).
The next step is to work your hand down the leg to accustom the horse to that feeling. Use the lariat to lift the foot a few more times, while you continue to handle the leg and, finally, you should be able to easily take the foot in your hand and place it back on the ground. (Download the pdf version of the article to see Image C, D & E).
There are three reasons it’s important you place the foot back on the ground and not drop the foot. These are:
- You’re teaching the horse a pattern so they need to have a clear start (cue to lift foot), middle (stand while foot is held) and end (foot is replaced on ground and horse is praised). Without this ‘end’ step, the horse may think the pattern ends with them taking the foot away.
- You don’t want to surprise the horse, as such, your pattern needs to be clear and consistent.
- When you drop a foot, it often lands on the toe and this can be very uncomfortable for the horse. As always, we want this lesson to be a pleasant experience.
In the next article, Romeo starts bridling and ‘give to the bit’ work. We’ll take a close look at how to introduce the bridle and take this use of negative reinforcement that we worked on today to a whole new level by starting to build our bubble of communication and get Romeo into the Engagement Zone.
Much fun, see you then!