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Respect and trust when working with racehorses

Hello Franklin,

I found your website and the information in it very interesting and educational. I am an Equine Therapist that works on champion racehorses all over the country. Getting to know the horses better or ways to understand them has always interested me because my love for horses and my occupation is never ending. In my line of work, trust, intuition, and getting horses to trust you enough to show you where they hurt is imperative. I can read them pretty well and sometimes feel their emotions but I feel like a pushover or they bully me because I don't like to hit them. They bite me a lot and I still don't hit them. What is a good way to correct them without hitting or yelling and screaming to scare them? I want and need to learn as much as I can from as many people as I can because usually everyone has a different perspective. I call it filling in my KNOWLEDGE GAPS, which helps me and my clients in the long run. Eventually, I want to train my own Thoroughbred racehorses and I truly believe that there is a right way of getting your horse to want to compete and and a wrong way. I want to do it properly. Do you have clinics at your location? I have many questions on bonding, getting horses to trust you, and horse whispering. My schedule is pretty hectic and I don't have much free time. It's pretty cool that you're married to a Greek because that's my nationality also.

Thanking you in Advance,

Steve Bourmas
Equine Muscle Maintenance

Hello Steve,

Thank you for your very interesting question. For me, what you are seeking is respect for your boundaries. Along with respect will come trust, as they go hand-in-hand. If you trust someone, you respect them as well. The problem is that humans tend to think they need to dominate a horse. This is borne out of our fear that the horse is so much stronger than we are, that domination is the only way for us to stay safe. Likewise we are seeking obedience from this animal as opposed to cooperation. These paradigms and beliefs are inappropriate and create wars between horses and humans (as well as between humans and humans).

To understand what is really required to produce a horse that is very willing to cooperate with us we can look to the natural herd behavior of horses in relation to their leader (the lead mare) and the other lead horses in that herd. The lead mare is not the biggest or strongest or most aggressive. She does not lead and receive respect and trust by being an aggressive bully and dishing out punishment or harshly voiced orders. She can keep another horse away from her with simply a look and/or other body language that conveys the same message. She does not induce fear. Instead she absolutely and every moment, with great consistency, provides appropriate and embodied leadership. She is not pretending to be the leader. She absolutely is the leader and she know it and so do the other members of the herd. This is what earns their respect and trust.

Even with so called natural horsemanship, there are huge gaps in the understanding of what it means to be the great leader for a horse. It is never about inducing fear. It is about asking for a boundary and then maintaining it properly every instant I am with that horse. Here is an example: I have handled many untrained stallions who would severely hurt or kill me if I entered into their space uninvited. So, before I enter the close proximity of this horse (the stall for instance), I stand back from the door on the outside and have a flag in my hand (piece of plastic attached to a dressage whip, or some such similar tool). I offer the stallion a sniff of the plastic through the door (window bars) being careful to not scare the animal. Whether or not he sniffs it is of no consequence. I just want him to see it and then I immediate lower my hand. When I say immediately I mean IMMEDIATELY. This takes all pressure of the horse. I may do this a few times so the animal gets used to seeing the flag without it being a huge, big deal for it. Next I will use the flag and ask the animal to take a step back away from me. One step is all I need, or even simply to rock back, or even to turn his head away. When he does I IMMEDIATELY lower the flag. After doing this for a few minutes I may ask the horse to move to the back of the stall. When he moves back, I IMMEDIATELY TAKE A STEP BACK AS WELL. This is his reward. Building on this, I will begin to ask the horse go from one side of the stall to the other and always stepping back and lowering the flag when he gives me any effort. Learning to use the flag subtly and skillfully is an art within itself. Often people do not understand it is a communication tool and not something to scare the animal with.

I may then begin to invite him forward to the door, then ask him to step back, go from side to side, etc. All this is done by providing immediate reward of removal of all pressure by lowering the flag and stepping back for any and all effort. If he is not ‘trying’ it means he does not understand my request. So, I try to be very patient and even more clear. This process may go on for 15-20 minutes. When I feel the horse is beginning to trust me and respect my ability to be his leader, I ask him to move away from the door (do not allow him to crowd the door) and I crack the door and offering him another sniff of the flag. I then immediately remove it and step back. I may do this a few times until I feel he is even more accepting me the tool and my energy that is offered via my body language and through the tool. When I feel it is all good, I will step into the stall (making certain I can get out quickly if I need to) and offer more sniffs and nose touches to the flag. Often I can soon begin to rub the horse gently on the face with the flag. Often moving the flag (bringing it slowly down and then slowly back up again, always beginning at the nose) and bringing it back up. If all is going well I may then begin to rub the flag gently on the neck, shoulder and down the leg a bit. If all is not going well I go back to a previous step that did go well and do that some more before moving forward.

At some point when I feel it is the right time I will position myself closer to the horse’s left shoulder and while holding the flag a foot or so out in front of the horse’s nose, attempt to gently scratch his shoulder and gently remove my hand and lower the flag after a moment or two. I will continues with this process until I can gently rub or scratch his shoulder and gradually put a rope halter on the horse. I then begin to bend him around in little circles to the left, asking for a stop every couple of steps. I get the stop by simply raising my hand that holds the rope or raising the flag if need be. All the time being very gentle and careful not to move quickly. I may then ask the horse to move away from me by raising my right hand somewhat close to his eye and asking him to bend away from me to the right for a few steps and then stop and reward. Along the way, I will ask him to take one or two steps back as quietly as possible (either with just lead rope pressure, a raised hand, the flag or whatever). Notice I use the word ‘feel’ quite a bit. If you do not understand this word in relation to horses, forget about trying any of this.

Often, within 20-25 minutes, I can then have someone open the stall door and I ask the horse for one step towards the door and then one step back. Notice I say ASK.I never allow the horse to rush the door. I am the leader of each and every step he takes now. If he takes a step I do not ask for, he has to back up a step or two (only). I will practice this one or two steps forward and one or two steps back to assure his cooperation and respect for my ability to direct his every movement and and reward his compliance and cooperation. The next exercise is simple leading with a stop every one step. Then every two steps, then three steps, etc. Going only an extremely short distance and then asking for a stop keeps the horse thinking and keep his attention on me. Also, he does not build up so much momentum of movement that is is difficult to stop him. Often simply this sort of exercise will keep the horse’s attention in such a way that they are not so distracted with what is going on around them.

Please understand that this sort of horsemanship is like trying to teach someone to tango in a letter. If a person is at a somewhat higher level already, they will get it quickly if they can see it. But this does not mean they have the temperament or attitude or patience to do it. All I can say it that I have used the process with many dangerous (which comes from fear) horses and it has kept me safe, kept the animal feeling safe, gotten the respect I need to stay safe and have a compliant and cooperative horse. Once the respect for the boundaries is established, I have earned the trust of the horse and they challenge me much less. I can then be more like the herd leader in the wild and keep boundaries with just a look or a quiet but easily recognized, attention getting sound.

I am available to consult with you should you want more. I do provide clinics and seminars in several countries but primarily at the Silva Riding and Life Enrichment Center, here on the Greek island of Corfu. Good Luck and keep me posted and please remember that every moment you are with a horse you need to be the great and trustworthy leader, NOT THE BOSS. What you are leading the horse towards are FEELINGS OF SAFETY, TRUST AND RESPECT BECAUSE YOU ARE WITH IT. Guide and lead each and every step and keep the boundary every instant. Provide lots of safe and peaceful moments as reward.

Sincerely, Franklin

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