Making a Long Day Easier
It’s not unusual for horse people to load up their horses at the crack of dawn, and head off for a full day of activities; trail rides, competitions, clinics, play days … all enjoyable but also a long day away from home. Those long days can be really stressful on both the humans and the horses who are “on the go” for eight, ten or even more hours.
The role that exhaustion and hunger play in our horse’s performance at events was demonstrated to me years ago by a notoriously grumpy gelding that a student of mine bought to show on the Pleasure circuits. Harley and his owner were in the running for some year-end awards, and so they were generally showing all day, in up to 12 classes. Harley would do beautifully in the morning, but by early afternoon he started to get grumpy. By the last classes of the day, he would simply refuse to move, kicking out when asked to increase his gait and threatening humans and horses with laid-back ears and bared teeth. He frustrated his rider to tears as she watched her lead in the point standings slip away.
Because the horse was behaving so badly, the previous training approach was to punish him – he was often ridden by the trainer during the lunch break, spanked when he would not speed up, or longed heavily to “get him over” his attitude. But it wasn’t punishment that turned Harley around; it was a few simple steps of kindness.
1. We made sure he had a decent breakfast. Harley was not a horse who ate hay during the trailer ride, so we made a point of giving him a ration of high quality complete feed pellets before loading him up to go to a show. Pellets offer balanced nutrition, and are eaten fairly quickly compared to hay, so we knew Harley was starting the day with a good meal, with the energy available to do his work.
2. We only warmed him up enough to make sure his muscles and joints were loosened up and ready. When we arrived at the show grounds, we would hand walk Harley around the grounds, letting him warm up his mind by seeing everything, rather than trying to wear him out into good behavior.
3. We found ways to make him drink. This can be a challenge – strange water in strange buckets at a strange place and many horses refuse to drink. We brought water from home, and developed a few tricks. Letting a horse graze for a few minutes, even if they are “grazing” on dried weeds or nibbling bits of hay off the ground, will often get them to drink. Bring water from home if possible, and use a familiar bucket. Since Harley was at first way too unsettled to focus on his water, we used acupressure and Bach Flower Remedies too. His young owner delighted in giving her horse a squirt of the Bach Flower remedy for calmness and focus, and then giving herself one. Sounds goofy, but it worked.
4. We scheduled feeding times throughout the day. For a long show, we might be there from 7:00 AM until 6:00 PM or later. We brought enough pellets that Harley could eat a half ration (about 5 pounds of the product we were using at the time) every two to three hours. This meant scheduling time to bring him back to his stall or trailer, and give him some uninterrupted quiet time to eat. We looked at the show schedule and picked times for his chow breaks, writing them on the schedule so that when the team came out of the arena they knew to head directly to the trailer.
5. We only worked him when we had to. Harley’s young owner learned to set goals and enter only those classes that were required for those goals. If she wanted to go for the High Point Western award, she did not enter English or just-for-fun classes. Conserving her horse’s energy became a priority, and she was rewarded by the results at the end of the day.
6. Get off the horse! At the shows, the youth riders would often use their horses as a grandstand, sitting in the saddle while they watched their friends and teammates compete. But this would add up to hours of extra time under saddle. For the horse, standing still with a rider in the saddle is in ways more tiring than moving. When working, all of the horse’s muscles are actively supporting the rider’s weight. When standing, strain is put on the back. Harley’s rider learned to dismount and loosen the girth when she had a few minutes to wait, and to go put him away with some feed whenever there was a wait of 30 minutes or more.
The improvement of the horse’s performance was quickly apparent – within a season’s showing, the balking, kicking out, and nasty attitude faded away. The next season, the team were competing well together and they have the trophy saddles and belt buckles to prove it.
Next Month, taking care of the rider.
Eraldi of Eraldi Training in Potter Valley, specializes
in training for all around horsemanship. She can be
contacted at 707-743-1337, or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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