Volunteering 101: Come Get Me.

WMPippiThis week spring hit the Colorado prairie. You can tell because the temperature and the wind speed are the same. Tumble weeds broke into my barn and sure, Edgar Rice Burro eats them like Cheetos, but there’s only so much even he can do. Tumbleweeds are so deep in the gelding pen that the boys are sleeping on them like prickly feather beds.

I’ve written about the benefits of riding in the wind (read here) but it hasn’t caught on yet. Consequently I had some extra time to spend in my Pen for Wayward Ponies. Meet Pippi, (at the Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue website.) She’s new this week. See those flattened hairs over her nose. Yes, she came in a halter with a tab dangling. You know what that means…

I love my work and I get to train some fancy and challenging things, but hands down, my absolute favorite thing to train is this: I walk into the pen holding a halter and lead and say, “Come get me.” At first Pippi gave me a lovely view of her hind end complete with a madly flashing tail. You know what that means, too. A week later and I’m getting this more attractive view. She has very sweet eyes when she isn’t afraid.

What do you believe? Is there any reason a horse shouldn’t have as good a recall as a dog? Or depending on breed, even better? Recall with horses and dogs start at the same place; coming to their human should be fun and happy.

This seems obvious enough, but most of us sleep-walk through this part or are in such a hurry to get in the saddle that we forget our manners. Take a moment and listen. If your horse avoids you, passively or actively, he’s being honest. It’s the clearest way he has to let you know he isn’t happy. Do you think it’s just a random habit that doesn’t mean anything? That’s okay, but when it’s reflected later in the quality of his work, connect the dots. If we want them responsive to a smaller cue, then we have to do the same.

On the threshold of the pen is where the relationship begins each day. We set the tone for everything that follows and it could be the most telling and important moment of your work session. Does your horse volunteer? Do you give him a chance?

At the very least, ask for his eye, ask his permission before the halter. Wait and breathe. Give him a chance to take a step towards you. Check your body language, cock a hip and give him a minute to volunteer. If he does, lots of reward before the halter. Remember that catching a horse doesn’t actually have much to do with a halter at all. I like to rest the lead rope over his neck and thank him for catching me.

Most of all, don’t act like a coyote; don’t think you can stalk him with the halter hidden. You aren’t fooling anyone, least of all your horse. And it’s fundamentally dishonest and you can do better. Pay attention to your feet. The more you move them, the more he will run. Go slow, one step at a time. He knows what’s going on, give him some respect. If you need to, move him into a smaller pen to start. Take the drama and chase out of the equation and the conversation improves right away.

If he’s resistant, begin the practice of not catching him. Carry the halter out with you and take as much time as you need until he volunteers a little bit. Reward him for that lavishly and turn and leave. Mess with his mind in a good way. And don’t be surprised if he starts to follow you.

Does he come every time when you shake that can of grain? Good start. I use treats as rewards, but involve yourself deeper than that. Make sure the treat works as a training aid to better behavior and not a license for poor ground manners while you wrestle the halter on. If he grabs the treat and runs, it isn’t working. Sometimes replace the treat with long moments of scratching his favorite spot. In other words, you be the treat.

I have three diminutive equines here now, and all of them are learning to catch me. Breezy, the pony, has the longest distance to come. He got baited with treats and then pounced on, so treats actually scare him. Treats are his cue that something bad is about to happen. The only thing scarier than treats, are people who act like coyotes while giving treats. Breezy wants to remind you that honesty is always the best policy.

If the devil is in the details, then an angel must be there, too. Change, either good or bad, starts small. Good horsemanship requires even a reluctant and somewhat lazy human to see a can-of-worms horse behavior that would be easier to ignore, as an opportunity for creative communication and mutual partnership.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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