Gentling Techniques for the Inexperienced Horse Owner

NOTE: This article is geared primarily toward a horse that has had at least some training and handling. Remember, animals are as unique as people are, no two horses will react in exactly the same manner. If your horse is particularly wild, high spirited, or hasn’t been handled at all, I recommend starting in a round pen with an experienced horse trainer standing by. And under no circumstances should you ever attempt to immediately mount a new horse, even if the seller has assured you it is well broke. Take the time to get to know your animal. Remember this simple rule of thumb, if your horse doesn’t respond to your commands or cues on the ground, he won’t respond under saddle either.

There it is. The creature that galloped through every dream you ever had from the age of two. It’s better than candy, more valuable than gold, and bigger than a pony. Your first horse. And all you know about the magnificent animal in your pasture is that you love it. Christopher Stone doesn’t always get the proper credit for his infamous quote, but he’s the fellow who said, via the London Times; “A horse is dangerous on both ends and uncomfortable in the middle!” No truer words were ever spoken, as you will soon find out! This article will address some of the most common issues concerning new horse ownership, and some basic horsemanship tips and tricks that I have learned through the years. Before we even begin with techniques that you can use on your horse, I want you to repeat with me: There is no “pick up man” here. If you have an accident, no camera crew is going to stop tape, and no rescue crew is going to rush in to assist you. First and foremost – safety first.

At this point you don’t know anything about anything, and let’s assume for the sake of this article that your horse doesn’t either. So, the logical place to start is with catching your horse. I recommend using a feed bucket with a little grin in it, a lead rope and a simple halter. Try to encourage the horse to approach you by luring it with the grain. Once the horse is feeding from the bucket, slowly wrap the lead rope around the neck, forming a loop that you can hold closed with one hand. Never wrap the rope around your hand or clip the lead to anything on your person. Slowly withdraw the bucket and gently raise the halter toward the horses head. Once the halter is clear of the mouth and nose, you can return the bucket and allow the horse to feed if it helps him remain calm. Let go of the lead rope now and continue to secure your halter. Once the halter is firmly in place, you can attach the lead rope to the halter and remove the feed bucket entirely. If the horse resists, you should repeat these steps several times in this order until he becomes comfortable with the procedure and allows you to complete putting the halter on.

Until you’ve successfully caught your horse and attached a halter and lead rope several times, I recommend you remain within the enclosure with your horse for now. The next step is to familiarize yourself with your animal, and to desensitize the animal to you and his tack. You can do this by running your hands up and down the full length of your horses body, making sure to cover both sides. At this stage, it’s important that you stay more toward the shoulder of your horse, and always approach him at the shoulder. Until you’ve spent some time with him, it’s not recommended you get in direct line of his back feet and legs. This is not where you would want to be in the event he decided to kick or back away unexpectedly. Make note of sensitive areas, and repeat the process of running your hands up and down these areas until your animal becomes comfortable with you doing this.

Next you should introduce your horse to the feel of the lead rope coming into contact with his body and moving within his line of vision. You can do this by tossing the rope over the back and pulling it slowly toward you until it falls off. Do this several times, and make sure you do it from both sides of the horse equally. You can toss the rope around the neck, around all 4 legs, over the rear, and in any combination or manner that you choose. Just remember to repeat the same process in equal amounts on both sides of the horse. Once the horse appears comfortable with this procedure, you might notice him licking his lips or chewing. This is a sign that your horse is thinking and digesting what you’ve shown him. It’s not uncommon for a horse to want to look at and smell his tack. Go slow and allow him to look, smell, and have the time to think.

You may now begin to do some simple ground work with your horse. Some trainers prefer voice commands, some prefer physical commands or cues. I recommend a combination of both. Begin by gently tugging the lead rope and saying a vocal cue such as “get up”, or “walk”. Don’t continue to pull on the lead rope, or attempt to drag your horse. You cannot win a tug of war with a horse. If the animal refuses to respond to the tug or the vocal cue, go to one side and pull. If he continues to refuse to respond, try the other side. Continue this until he is responding and moving forward. This may take several times, so don’t get discouraged. Once he is moving forward, lead him slowly around in a circle, or if you prefer in any direction that has a clear path. Do not allow the horse to bump into you, or to pass by you on either side as you walk along with him. The optimum walking stance for you and your horse is to have the horse on either your left or right, at least 3 feet behind you, and slack in the lead rope at all times.

If the horse does bump into you, or pass you by, you should immediately stop him and tug the lead to let him feel the corrective cue and say “no” or “stop” or “whoa”. I suggest backing the horse up at least 3 steps before allowing him to try again. What you’re trying to teach your horse is to respect your lead and allow a safe space for both you and him. He needs to be made aware that bumping into you or passing you by is not something he will be allowed to do. By stopping him, giving the corrective tug cue on the lead, and backing him up – you’re giving him physical signals and time to think. As your horse becomes more confident and comfortable with being led, you can keep his attention and awareness level high by stopping and starting often. In time, he will learn the procedure and actually enjoy this ground time with you.

You can now move on to a more challenging lead. Change your course, take him around in a circle, around obstacles, and expose him to things he might not generally see in the pasture. This process takes time, but will further desensitize your horse to his environment. Always allow him to smell, look, and have time to think as you walk him through new obstacles. I also recommend making him turn in a different direction each time. Again, it is important that the horse respect your space and your lead. There should always be slack in the rope and he should maintain a safe 3 feet distance from you at all times. As before, if he passes you by or bumps into you, you should stop him, give a corrective tug cue and make him back up a few feet and try again. In the event he completely refuses to pass an obstacle, it’s best to go slow, expose him to it many times, giving encouragement until he finally passes the obstacle. Once he’s achieved this, reward him with lots of scratches and rubs, and vocal praise.

When your horse is successfully responding to the ground work, you can now move on to introducing him to the idea of having weight and a human on his back. I recommend casually leaning on him as you brush him, applying a little weight and allowing him to feel you on him. Every day you can brush and apply a little more weight for a little longer period of time. Slowly work with him until you are able to lift both your feet for several seconds without him resisting. Do this from both sides, petting him, brushing him, and talking to him all the while to help build his trust and confidence. Soon you should be able to jump about half way onto your horse from both sides and hang there without him protesting. This process may take several weeks, even months. Go slow, and always give positive reinforcement to the horse when he does respond properly.

Your horse is now ready to be introduced to a saddle blanket, and later on a saddle and rider. I recommend consulting with a professional trainer for this stage of the process. But by now your horse is well on his way to being gentle broke for his first saddle experience and your first ride!

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