Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spooky horse

Barbara asks:
I have a mustang/Morgan who is sweet, kind and respectful but a little fearful of things like smoking burn piles, moving noisy electric gates with plywood figures on them. He refuses to go past them unless lead. The real issue is my friend says I should wear spurs and force him to go on. The smoke had him trembling. She says I’m letting him call the shots. I’m 63 I don’t need to get dumped. Should I force him when I know he’s scared? He minds me pretty well and will even leave my mare while she is screaming for him and goes down the road alone with me. Thank you.

Rick's response:
Barbara, you have good instincts. You are observant and thoughtful. You are trying to come up with the best deal for both your horse and yourself. Most important, you are not allowing someone else to pressure you into doing what you feel is wrong.

Now, let’s get to work. First, your friend's analysis is partially correct. Your horse is not completely confident in your leadership or ability to keep him safe. However, spurring an already frightened horse is liable to escalate the fear. I don’t think that’s the right approach for you. Instead, give your horse a job to do to take his mind off what scares him. This requires that you be an active rider, not a passenger. This will change how your horse sees you and how he sees the scary object.

Let’s say the scary thing is the burn pile. First, expect your horse to walk right past it with no problem. Visualize your horse doing that and carry yourself as if that is happening. Often horses live into our expectations of them. If your horse still spooks, stay calm and direct him away from the scary thing. Be careful here because he might want to pick up speed. Put him in a tight circle and disengage his hind quarters repeatedly if he does. Once he is calm, trot around where he feels safe. I don't mean a dainty little Western jog. Get him really moving and using his air! When he gets a bit winded, let him walk toward the scary object. Even let him stop and rest there. Repeat as needed until he is calm near the thing that scared him.

You see, horses are naturally worried about things that are not familiar to them. But they are also worried about using up their energy and air. At some point, the latter concern becomes greater than the former. What used to be scary is now a place of rest and comfort, a place to replenish his stores of energy and air. Incidentally, this is a good underlying strategy for getting a horse to load in a trailer. Make the inside of the trailer the easy place to be and the outside of the trailer the difficult place. Final thought: You are your horse's ultimate protector. Never abdicate that responsibility to someone else.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Aussies win RTTH 2012

Let’s see. If you count the two wins of native Australian Clinton Anderson, the three wins of Florida native Chris Cox, who grew up on an island off the coast of Australia, and add in this year’s two Aussie winners, Guy McLean and Dan James, you come up with seven Road to the Horse buckles that have been won by horsemen with ties to Australia. Crikey!

The Aussies of 2012 earned their buckles the hard way. Trailing Team USA at the end of Day One, they suffered a setback when Dan James, scheduled to step back into the round pen at the start of day two, fell ill. While Dan rested and received IV fluids, teammate Guy McLean took the first slot and Dan’s business partner, Dan Steers, advised and assisted from outside the pen. By the second session on day two, Dan James was back in the contest, still not 100% but determined to compete. On day three, the Aussies were the only team to take Tootie Bland’s offer of an extra 30 points each if they would switch horses for the test. Using the saddling pen as a training pen for more than half of the 40 minutes allotted for their tests, each Aussie was able to connect with the horse his teammate had trained and go on to produce a winning performance. The most memorable moment came when Guy McLean coaxed his mount into the optional water obstacle, stood on the horse’s back, cracked two stock whips as fast as machine gun fire, and followed it all up with an emotional bush (cowboy) poem written especially for the occasion.

Jonathan Field and Glenn Stewart of Team Canada got extra points before training began for switching the horses they had each chosen, and they made exceptional progress near the end of the event, but time worked against them in catching the Aussies.

Team USA was the leader at the end of day one, which was actually a bad omen; historically, the person or team who leads after round one does not prevail at Road to the Horse. Team USA faced an additional challenge when Pat Parelli’s colt was scratched for medical reasons after the first day. Per the rules, Pat had to pick a new colt, start over on day two and show up at 5:30 am on day three to get in his second training session. The fatigue factor aside – and it was a factor for all of us at this marathon event – Pat was under the continuous scrutiny of all six judges during that second session, something no other RTTH competitor has ever had to endure.

All in all, Road to the Horse International made a fitting farewell to the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, home to seven of the nine Road to the Horse contests thus far. For 2013, the event will be held in the Alltech Arena at Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park. Tickets are already on sale. Get 'em early.

Other notes: Publisher Darrell Dodds presented the Western Horseman Award to Dr. Robert M. Miller in opening ceremonies on Saturday. Only a handful of other horsemen have received the award, including two other RTTH judges, Bob Moorhouse and Jack Brainard.

This was the first year that judges' scores were posted on the big video screen during the event. Everyone loved the added suspense.

Finally, I'd like to thank my good friend and 2009 RTTH champ, Richard Winters, for assisting me with the hosting of Road to the Horse 2012. I could not have done it without him and I hope he will share the duties with me again next year.