First the Mind, then the Feet

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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On Tuesday, finally, we managed to get our new horse hauled down to our barn. After a couple false starts coordinating the trailer and her owners and ourselves, we were happy that the haul went smoothly. I was prepared to spend some time persuading the new girl that the trailer wasn’t scary, but she following me in with only the tiniest hint of hesitation. A short drive later, we turned her out to meet her new herd in failing light.

Happily, our herd is both small and mellow. The introduction was a non-event. We left her for the night, and I came back the next afternoon, armed with a halter, a flag, and a name.

Although her previous owners had called our new horse Lola, we have a lot of mares with names really close to that around our barn. We decided to call her Piper instead.

I found Piper eating with some of her new friends. She was a bit uncertain when I approached, but it only took me a minute or two to sidle up to her and get the halter on. She was hesitant about crossing the mud and ice between us and the barn, but a teeny bit of pressure on the rope found her willing enough to follow. We worked our way through two gates and a sliding door, and achieved the indoor arena.

Inside, Piper was definitely tense. I’m not sure if she’d ever been in this kind of building before. She wasn’t dancing around or freaking out, but her entire body was totally rigid. My first job was to try to make her feel a little more comfortable.

We explored the indoor arena and the tacking area. She was more curious than afraid about most things, including the flag, the rope, my vest when I took it off, and the barn dog. The biggest problem was actually the herd. There is a mare in our pasture who gets instantly and intensely attached to any new horse, and she was outside calling her head off. This was not helping Piper relax.

Brian and I recently watched a Peter Campbell video in which Peter is working with an almost completely untouched three year old filly. This was actually a really great thing for me to see right before getting Piper, because our new horse has less handling than any horse I’ve ever worked with before.

Peter spent a lot of time emphasizing the point that horses don’t get in fights with people, people get in fights with horses. There were a couple of moments in the video when the horse reacted to things Peter was doing, and he let it go and changed his approach. At the end of the video, he specifically addressed these moments. He said how, as a younger man, he would have stuck it out and pushed harder instead of backing off. He would have made it into a fight, and the horse would have gotten significantly more troubled. Those moments of fear would have come back down the road to make things harder for that horse later on.

I have heard every trainer we admire say some variation of this statement. Since I’m not in a position where I can starts hundreds of colts and learn the hard way, I try to take the advice I can find. So, my number one goal with Piper this first day was to teach her a few things, but not pick fights, and not get her scared.

We worked on a number of basic exercises, and she was pretty good with all of it from the get-go. She would yield to light pressure if I gave her a moment to figure it out. After a while, though, I noticed she was getting more tense instead of less so. Also, the calling from the herd had escalated (another somewhat socially impaired mare had joined in), and all the noise was really distracting for her.

I thought of something else Peter said then. It’s also something I’ve heard Martin Black discuss. Basically, it boils down to the concept that, if you don’t have the mind, you don’t have the feet. And if you don’t have the feet, you don’t have anything.

In my desire not to pick any fights, I had set things up so I was being passive enough that Piper was putting me fairly low on her list of things she needed to think about. Which meant, every time I asked for something I was waiting on her to decide I was important enough to warrant her attention.

And this, I feel, is one of the trickiest areas with horses. When to push vs when to wait. In this context, I have a horse who knows essentially nothing about working with people. She’s tense but not flying-off-the-handle upset. What do you do to get her attention, without getting her troubled?

My solution was to ask for more movement. In spite of being a bit anxious, Piper was fairly sticky with her feet. So I used the flag to get her to move out some. When she softened up and looked towards me, I let her stop and relax. When she strained to look to the outside of the circle, I asked for a bigger trot.

This worked really well. Soon I had some disengages that were soft instead of choppy. Piper was showing signs of feeling more comfortable. I alternated for a while then between grooming and moving her feet around. By the end of our session, we had some pretty soft disengages of both the front and the hind going, and a lot less staring around with big worried eyes. I figured that was a good place to quit.

The moment I turned Piper back out, she was enthusiastically greeted by the two ninnies who’d been yelling for her the entire time I had her inside. The rest of the herd turned from their hay consumption to wonder what all the fuss was about.

For my part, I continue to be super excited about Piper. She’s going to be an interesting project. She’s almost five, and she’s almost entirely untouched. It’s a great opportunity to work with a horse that’s physically almost mature, but is mentally pretty much a clean slate. I’ve no doubt she’s going to teach me a lot.

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5 years ago

Now if only we could get our human education system on-board with the idea of going at the pace of the learner. 🙂

~The South Dakota Cowgirl~

Teaching a group of folks on horseback makes you better at helping your horses. I think the thing the to remember about the way you're handling your horses is that you're going at the pace of the horse — you're not pushing them through things, so they're truly learning. that's why when you leave them alone for a week or two and come back to them, they're either better than they were when you left them, or they're where you left them. This style teaches horses to search for the answers, so they're truly taking it in, as opposed to… Read more »

5 years ago

"When to push vs when to wait" I think this is the most difficult thing about teaching anything, horses, dogs, parrots, and even human students. You always want to keep them just on the edge of what they know and are comfortable with. Not so far out that they get really scared or frustrated, but not so far in that they're bored and not learning anything new. I will say, it's a lot easier to do with critters, because you can usually work with them one-on-one (or in small groups), as opposed to human students where you can have 20-40… Read more »

~The South Dakota Cowgirl~

Often, older, untouched horses are more challenging than a colt — because in the general scheme of their life, they have probably spent more time with horses than with humans. It sounds like your mare is already pretty gentle, so that's a plus. Older horses tend to be less forgiving than the babies, in my experience. I'm excited to see how your project goes!