Former President Ronald Reagan used to say “trust but verify.”
It is common for horses to be bought, or brought to a trainer without really knowing what it is that the owner has, or what the trainer has done. There are some basics that we need to check out to avoid surprises when we get a horse home. These are the same basics that trainers should show us when we leave a horse with them, and then again when the horse is being picked up when they are done.
We should never bring a broke horse home without saddling them, and we should never, ever saddle a horse without testing it first. Whenever I visit a training prospect, or it is brought to me to train, I will spend from 20 minutes to two hours evaluating it, and usually working on weak points I find. The owner needs to see where their horse is at, and how I go about working on them. This also drives a stake in the ground so we can see how the horse has progressed during the time it was with me. We can get an idea of the horse’s personality and how they learn as well.
To get started, I first like to see how easy I can halter a horse. If a horse wants to leave when I come up to them with a halter, someone has skipped an important basic. A horse needs to know that they should never show us their rear end unless we ask them to. After I halter a horse, I will test how well they give to pressure. Do they give easily to pulling pressure forward or laterally through the halter? I also test how well it moves over through pushing pressure with my fingertips. This tells me about steering, brakes, and all around maneuverability, way before I get on a horse’s back. After testing the responsiveness of a horse, I will see how well it lets me touch and pet it all over (including feet), starting slow, then picking up speed. I will then try to stress it to see if certain movements will intimidate it. The two basic kinds of movement are repetitive (like jumping jacks), and spontaneous (like the crack of a whip). This involves me or my equipment swinging or bouncing around a horse, starting slow, then building up speed to see the effects. I make noises with plastic bags, whip-cracking and other things. Generally when we find stress areas in a horse, we need to remind it not to pull away, push into us, or lean on our frail bodies in any way. This is when I will test the response to rhythmic pressure to find out whether a horse knows and respects it.
“Rhythmic pressure” complements “pure pressure” much like “dad” supports “mom.” If a horse is spoiled, pushy or disrespectful, it is usually because dad (rhythmic pressure) is either missing, or sitting on the bench. This “hitting air” before “hitting horse” (dad) motion should begin any time a horse is ignoring, or leaning on gentle pressure (mom) we are applying to the horse. Before I get on a horse, I want to make sure that we have a clear communication system established between mom and dad. We will get hurt from a horse through either fear, or disrespect. If a horse does not clearly understand that they must not turn their rear to me, or invade my space through fear, or run me over through disrespect, then I am foolish to saddle and ride.
There are two more things I will test before I get on. I will test a horse’s work ethic by seeing how well it circles on its own without me nagging (on line, or at liberty). I will also see how comfortable the horse is moving beside me. I call this the Jesus Christ principle (the God down-to-earth partnership test). If a horse is nervous about me riding it (on the ground) with my arm over its back, it does not make much sense to put a leg over its back until it is calm, partnering with me on the ground first.
Next time I will go over testing maneuverability while moving next to horses, then saddling them during “break time.”
Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.