Working Horse / by Marian Michalson


     I wasn't planing on writing again so soon, but circumstances as they are prompted me to get started with the first day of retraining. Anybody who knows a grandparent who retired from their job but refuses to quit working, can understand Bartletts' mindset. He is a working horse and working horses Don't sit idle. 

   Just 24 hours after arriving, Bart was practically begging to get out and work. In the afternoon I decided to go ahead and take him out to get to know him. I bought him sight unseen off of a brief trot video as many people do, so I was anxious to figure out more about him.  

     I started off with just leading him around the ring with a rope halter and a yacht rope line. I did some walk, halt, back transitions and while he complied, he wasn't really with me. He has probably never worked by himself with as many horses as there are on the backside.  

     Next, I wanted to see if I could send him away from me into a lateral lunge. I have no idea if he had ever been lunged, but it's best to just assume he had not. This way, there would be no expectations and everyone learns. I concentrated on keeping my energy as quiet as possible while explaining to him where I wanted him to go. Horses who have only been led on the left side struggle with understanding how to move off to the right. They would much rather keep you in their left eye. Think of it as trying to mount from the right. It just feels wrong and unsafe. Keep encouraging them to move off, staying in their right eye, and they will become comfortable. 


In the video (excuse my attire, the wind chill was 17) you can see how when he is uncomfortable or unsure of what I'm asking, he looks for support elsewhere calling to the other horses or traveling with his head up looking away. The more he understands the exercise, the more he relaxes his head down, and bends his body around. He starts to keep an ear on me. A few times in the video I ask him to put his head down manually. A horse who lowers his head, also relaxes his mind and body. I will also put his head up for two reasons. One, it is easier to get him to drop his head slightly if I raise it above his comfort level. Him dropping his head slightly gives me a chance to release the pressure as a reward. I'm then able to get it even lower as he figures out the que. secondly, when I have put his head low, I will raise it to his comfort level before he raises it on his own. He will learn to wait to lift his head until I tell him. This will make bridling easier for my short self. 

  Next I worked on "siding up."  I am 5' tall and had hip surgery. I'm not very flexible. Getting on from even a mounting block is hard. I teach mine to side up to the fence so I can gently ease into the saddle. I highly recommend this method when starting horses under saddle. There are a lot less fireworks sitting on them from the fence than leaping on them from a mounting block.   

  The premiss here is to annoy the horse to get his feet to move. I bounce the line, sometimes adding energy but never yanking, until he moves his hind feet towards the fence. The timing of the release of pressure is important. If you keep bumping after he has moved a hind foot toward the rail, the horse will think he got the answer wrong and try different answers eventually getting frustrated. In the video, you will see if I feel stuck I will sometimes reward any foot moving, or a weight shift in the right direction, but these pauses are briefer than a full step with the hind end. The video is raw, uncut beginning to end. I'd say he's a pretty quick learner! 

    We ended the session with more leading walk, halt, back transitions. This time he was very much with me, the difference was amazing. I won't bore you with this video unless requested. His eye was soft, his head was down, and his body was relaxed. The work certainly settled his mind.  I will repeat this same ground work in the days to come.