It’s not uncommon for a horse to have bad feelings or mixed emotions about halters and ropes. My book, WALKING WITH HORSES has a detailed section about developing a horse’s willingness to put his nose into a halter.
To help horses deal well with captivity, confidence with halter and lead rope needs careful attention. Essentially, putting a halter and rope on our horse is similar to putting on our ‘work clothes’, which will be an outfit or uniform suitable for the type of work we do. When we work for an organization or with other people, we adjust our behavior to what is appropriate at our job.
In the same way, a horse carefully educated about halters and ropes will recognize that he is wearing his ‘uniform’ and relate it to certain ways of behaving. Mainly, it limits his behavior choices. Ideally it also encourages him to pay careful attention to requests made via messages send along the rope.
We can use the rope to send text messages. But, obviously, we must first carefully teach the horse what the ‘letters’ of our text mean. The lighter the pressure of our ‘texting’, the lighter the horse’s responses can be. In other words, the horse can only be as light in his responses to rope messages as we are light in sending them.
A rope is a way of ‘holding hands’ with our horse, not a tether kept tight to stop the horse escaping our influence. There is nothing so heartbreaking as see a gasping dog at the end of a tight leash or a horse struggling to understand why the tightness of the rope won’t go away, no matter what he does.
The key to lead rope handling is that the rope is always slack except for the brief moments it is sending a message to the horse. The instant the horse complies with our request, the slack is returned to the rope. It is the instant release of rope pressure plus the simultaneous click (and the accompanying treat) that enables the horse to understand which task we are requesting.
- Horse is comfortable wearing a halter.
- Horse is comfortable with a lead rope.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse understands standing on a mat with duration.
- For the early sessions, it’s helpful to have the horse standing with his butt in a safe corner so that backing up and swinging the hind end away are not options. The first slices will therefore involve making sure the horse is comfortable and relaxed standing in a corner.
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
- A work area where the horse is relaxed.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- A safe corner the horse can stand in confidently. A safe corner is one where there is no chance of the horse putting a leg through wire or rails if he steps back or sideways. Hedges, sides of buildings or a corner made with barrels or jump stands plus rails tend to be the safest. Even a raised rail or a log behind the horse with a small barrier on the far side of the horse might be enough of a corner.
- A familiar mat to ‘station’ or ‘park’ the horse.
- A familiar hand-held target.
- When using the halter touch signal via the rope, be ready to click&treat for even the tiniest turn of the head at first. If we miss the horse’s first attempt to solve a puzzle, he can think his idea was wrong, and it can take a while for him to try it again.
- When we lead, long-rein or ride a horse, it does not take much movement of the head to cause the horse to change direction. What we are doing here is not an extreme flexion exercise. It is an exercise to see how softly we can give what will become our ‘please change direction’ signals once the horse is moving.
- To have the horse comfortable standing in a safe corner.
- To teach an ‘anchor task’ that precedes our request to turn the head.
- Use a target to teach head flexion to right and left; no rope.
- Add ‘right’ and ‘left’ voice signals to the task.
- Teach soft lateral flexion (turning the head right or left) using gentle touch on the halter via a rope until it feels equally smooth to the right and the left.
- Generalize the task to different places and situations.
A: STANDING COMFORTABLY IN A CORNER
Introduce the horse to each corner in small, easy steps. Thin-slice the process to what your horse needs. Use a familiar mat to indicate where you would like his front feet to be (see October 2017 Obstacle Challenge). Three kinds of corners are shown in the videos clips.
- If the horse readily yields hindquarters and forequarters we can use these to adjust his position.
- Or we can lead him through the corner and back him into it.
- If using a rail, we can walk him over the rail and halt with the rail behind him .
- Play with as many safe corners as you can find or set up, to generalize the ‘corner task’ to different situations.
B: TEACH AN ANCHOR TASK
VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Right side)
In the same way that music is made up of notes and the pauses between the notes, we must have pauses between asking the horse to repeat the same task. Because the horse is at halt for this challenge, the anchor task creates the pauses between our requests.
We begin teaching the anchor task once the horse is comfortable standing in a corner, on a mat, with reasonable duration.
An anchor task is what we do to ‘set the stage’ for what we will do next. For example, when I play with targeting body parts to my hand with Boots, our anchor task is lifting a front knee to my hand. It tells her what game we are about to play. (See January 2018 Obstacle Challenge.)
Another ‘stand quietly waiting’ anchor task might be to always hang a special nose target in the spot you would like the horse to stand (park) while you tack up.
As an anchor task for this behavior, I’ve chosen to rest my nearest hand lightly on Boots’ withers while she keeps her head forward. It is the position my hand would be if I were to lift the reins in preparation to giving a signal while riding. You might prefer a different anchor task.
In our case, this is a bit tricky because I use the same anchor position I use when we do belly crunches while standing beside the horse. The handler’s body orientation is often a large part of an anchor task.
I decided that Boots is far enough along in her training to learn to pause in this anchor position and wait for the next signal to find out whether a crunch or head flexion is the hot topic of the moment. You’ll see that we have a couple of conversations about this.
- Stand beside horse’s withers.
- Lightly rest your near hand on the withers.
- Click&treat when the horse’s head is straight, or he is in the process of moving his head into the ‘straight’ position.
- Step forward to deliver the treat so the horse keeps his head straight, then step back into position beside the withers.
- Repeat until the horse confidently stays facing forward until you click&treat for 3-4 seconds.
C: LATERAL FLEXION TO A TARGET and D. THE VOICE SIGNAL
VIDEO CLIPS 1 & 2 (Left side)
- Hold the target out of sight behind your back and review the anchor task.
- When the horse stands reliably with his head forward in the anchor position, bring the target forward so he has to turn his head a little bit to touch it: click&treat & step forward so the horse straightens his head to receive the treat, putting the target out of sight behind your back.
- Step back beside the withers and put your hand back on his withers: click&treat for head forward until that is firmly established again (3-4 seconds). Be patient about establishing (and frequently re-establishing) this step because clever horses will want to skip straight from your anchor (hand on withers) to telling you that they know what to do – turn toward you (as Boots does in Clip Two).
- Repeat 2 and 3 above until the horse reliably waits for you to produce the target before turning his head. If he turns without your signal, spend more click&treat on facing forward. Make sure you keep the target out of view behind your back. If bending is harder, spend more click&treat on asking for the bend.
- ADD VOICE SIGNAL
- You will obviously want different voice signals for right and left. Voice signals need to be short, clear, and sound different from other voice signals you use. I use “and Gee” for right. I use “and Left” for left. “Haw” for left sounds too much like “Whoa” which we use a lot. The “and” in front of the key word is a bit of a preparatory signal that lets the horse know a request is coming. My voice emphasis is on the key word.
- Some horses do better if you teach something thoroughly on one side, then repeat from the beginning on the other side.
- Some horses may cope well with doing a little bit on each side from the beginning.
- Some handlers do better when teaching the task thoroughly on one side first.
- RESPONSE TO ROPE OR REIN SIGNALS
VIDEO CLIPS 3 & 4
- Stand beside the horse’s ribs just behind the withers, facing forward, rope in the hand closest to the horse. Keep a drape or ‘smile’ in the rope. Ensure that the horse can stay facing forward with relaxed body language for 3-4 seconds in the presence of the rope: (click&treat).
- When 1 above is ho-hum, say your voice signal and gently use both hands to ‘milk’ the rope, putting light pressure on the halter, looking for the slightest ‘give’ of the horse’s nose toward you. Release (click&treat). Step forward to deliver the treat in a way that has the horse straighten his head again.
- Work with 1 and 2 above until the horse waits for the touch signal on the halter and willingly yields his nose. If he turns before you give the rope signal, spend more click&treat time on keeping the nose forward.
- If he begins to turn his head as soon as you move back into position behind his withers, also go back to click&treat for a straight head.
- Some horses catch on very quickly. Others may need multiple short sessions.
- Teaching a horse with no rope experience is usually easier than teaching a horse who has had rough treatment with ropes. In the second case, you must adjust your training plan to help overcome any anxiety the horse carries from previous handling.
Some of these are shown in clip 4:
- Once the whole task is smooth and ho-hum on both sides of the horse, move away from the corner but still use a mat. Do the task in a variety of different places.
- Once 1 above is good in a variety of places, omit the mat and again work in a variety of places and spaces.
- Replace the rope/halter touch signal with a distinctive hand signal that can be used to draw the horse right or left at liberty.
- Once the horse understands the halter touch signal via the rope, plus the voice signal, the anchor task can morph into just standing quietly together.
- Use the touch and voice signals while in motion to change direction, keeping the pressure on the rope as light as possible.
- The YouTube playlist called Developing Soft Rein Response gives further ideas about how we can generalize the task further using reins but without being mounted.
- Building a strong history of response to directional voice signals is most helpful if you are planning to teach long-reining and if you take part in Horse Agility. The following clips suggest ways of strengthening the voice signals.