I’m writing this having just arrived home from an amazing 2 weeks in Texas with my wife Penny and the kids. We came out for a friend’s wedding and hired a motorhome to explore the Lone Star State in. We mainly stayed in wonderful State Parks, but I still managed to get a horse-fix by spending a couple of days backing some friends’ homebred Australian Stock Horses and helping at the local polocrosse club.
It was also kind of friends from home to email a photo of the article on backing horses in Horse & Hound magazine – I’ve always wanted to appear on the pages of Horse & Hound!
The trip could not have come at a better time as the past few months have been exceptionally busy and a little stressful as we have been trying to get a few projects completed alongside running a very busy yard. There’s no end in sight either as I am running a 2-day course and a Retraining of Racehorses demonstration in the coming week!
The weekend before we flew out I took part in Horseman’s Calling. I thought it was an extremely successful event and the spectators, exhibitors, competitors and owners of the horses were all incredibly enthusiastic and supportive of the goals and the format of the event.
Tom and I were really pleased with the progress we made with Winnie, who was the horse we had to start over the weekend. She was a 5yo grey part-bred Arab who had bucked off the first person to try and back her. She was a reactive horse and easily distracted, which is a common problem that many owners face with their horses.
Once I gained some trust and got her to focus on me, we were able to progress to Tom “lead ponying” her off Diesel, who once again proved very popular! By the end of the first session of 1¼ hours, I was able to walk, trot and canter on her, which allowed us to work on developing control, steering and putting her over some obstacles in the second session on Sunday.
Aside from the time, the main difference with my usual starting program was that I felt there wasn’t enough time for her to accept the bit so I only rode her in a halter at this stage. She was such a star and finished by being ridden over tarpaulin and over a bridge and poles, which shows just how much confidence a nervy horse can gain in a short space of time. I am looking forward to seeing her progress into her ridden career from here.
We also had a problem loader to work with. I felt with our horse the problem stemmed from a lack of respect on the ground and I worked on being able to move his feet on cue with no delay. Once that work had been done, it was great to see him confidently trotting onto the horsebox within 20min and his owner loading him happily too.
We also had another young horse each to do some groundwork with as, quite sensibly, the organisers deemed them too immature for backing. My horse was another flighty little mare called Snippet who I desensitized to bags, the roller and ropes, which will stand her in good stead when she is mature enough to start riding.
At one point, I was leaning over her and giving her a rub and I thought she was accepting enough for me to bring my leg up to get her used to the feel of a little more weight. Unfortunately I touched her flank as I did so and she quite rightly gave me what for! Not what you want to happen in front of an audience, but these things happen and it was a not-so-gentle reminder that each stage has to be consolidated before asking for more.
Horseman’s Calling was great experience and it has been very interesting to read the feedback about the event and each trainer’s techniques. In the main, it has been very positive but there are also critics, depending on which style people prefer.
My philosophy is to teach the horse to look to me for answers when there is a problem, as they would in the wild to their herd leader, so my program includes desensitizing to different objects and environments. I want to encourage a horse to work through any resistances or fears before it goes back to its owner as a safe, content riding horse within an affordable timeframe.
However, I know that with horses nothing is ever black and white and there are many ways to get from point A to point B. I am always interested in different ways of training horses and I am looking forward to chatting to +R and clicker training practitioners in the UK, who use positive reinforcement in the way of treats or “clicks” to train their horses, and to watch the other methods on display when the event is aired on Horse & Country TV.