No matter how long you’ve been doing the horse training thing, you’re never immune from making mistakes. I’ve found that one of the easiest mistakes to make is to jump the gun and ask a horse to handle something they’re not fully ready for. It happened to me just the other day.
Before The Mistake
I was at a roping event in my hometown. Some friends were there and asked me to jump on one of their horses. They told me that this mare was pretty gentle and had been roped off of some, but still had confidence issues. She would seem to be okay with everything….until she was not. She would basically lose her mind and go berserk.
So I picked up a rope and played around with it a little while standing beside her. I asked her to untrack her feet while I was rocking the rope back and forth to make sure she wasn’t frozen in place by the presence and movement of the rope. She seemed okay with that, so I got on her and did the same thing. I rocked the rope back and forth and after a couple of minutes she started to ignore it.
After about 5 minutes on her back, I could build a loop and make 2-3 swings. If I tried 4-5 swings, she got too bothered. My goal was to stay just this side of getting into trouble. I didn’t want to do more than she could handle. But I did want to push her to the line she was clearly drawing without going over it.
After 10 more minutes of riding her around and swinging the rope, I could swing it several times and even throw it on the ground like I was roping something. As I slowly increased her exposure, she raised the line of what she could handle. So far, no horse training mistakes were made. This was Horse Training 101 and it was working beautifully.
Learn more about how to increase your horse’s bravery here: Mashing Your Horse
The Horse Training Mistake
Here’s where it went south.
They had one of those plastic hollow roping dummies in the arena. I decided the horse was now good to go, so I walked her up to the back of the roping dummy. When she got within 10 feet of it, she started looking for a way out. She would look to the left or right and start leaning that way. I could feel her teetering underneath me. She was not solid in her feet. She was telling me that she was not sure about getting behind this roping dummy.
This is where I made the big horse training mistake. I skipped too far ahead.
I was ready to have some fun roping, and figured the horse would be okay with a little more exposure and repetition.
Now if you’ve ever thrown a catch rope at one of those hollow roping dummies, you’ve heard the noise it makes. It can be loud and obnoxious.
Add that noise to the fact that the horse had not yet become sure about approaching the back of the roping dummy. So, obviously, she was now really looking for a way out. She’d duck off and I’d bring her back and try it again.
Fixed The Horse Training Mistake
Finally I stopped what I was doing and listened to the horse. It was like she was saying, “Carson, I know you are having fun roping this dummy, but you skipped some steps. You got me to 8th grade and thought that would be enough to get you by. You figured you could wing it and have me doing 10th grade stuff”.
So I hung the rope on the fence and changed my plan. Then I spent some time simply walking the mare up to the back of the dummy. Every time she would point her ears at it and begin to gravitate towards it, I petted her, gave her slack in the reins, and made that feel good.
Pretty quickly she actually wanted to be up against the back of the roping dummy. She became curious about it and would even sniff it and feel it with her whiskers. And I began to feel her insecurity melt away. Now, even riding one handed, I could point her at it and barely tell her to go, and she would freely walk right up to the back of it. To the exact place that she was unsure about before.
After The Horse Training Mistake
Now I got the rope back in my hand. But this time I was careful not to make the mistake of jumping ahead. I let the rope just barely rub against the dummy to softly make the noise that had bothered her. At first she would start teetering, so I would back off and pet her. I slowly increased the noise until she would just stand there and basically ignore it.
Then everything changed. The horse hit this high point to where she was now confident and secure about the whole roping process. All of the sudden none of it bothered her.
The horse owner had been watching and witnessed how bothered she had been. I told him, “Hey, it just clicked”.
I walked the horse up to the back of the roping dummy and banged it with all the coils of my rope. She stood there sniffing and licking it and didn’t even seem to notice. I got a loop built, came back around, and pointed her towards the back of the roping dummy. Just gave her the reins, she locked on to the dummy, and walked right up to it while I was swinging the rope. I roped its back feet while she stood there and licked her lips and chewed.
Now up to this point, I had been riding this mare in a rope halter. The owners weren’t really sure that was a good idea because they had seen how frantic she could get. But my plan was to purposely not have too much control of her face. Not having a bit in her mouth was intended to prevent me from overexposing her and force her too far past her comfort level.
But I proved that when you try to jump too far forward, and don’t listen to the horse, that mistake can happen even in a rope halter.
Read more about Listening To Your Horse
After I roped the dummy for 5-10 more minutes, I pulled the halter off. I put the lead rope around her chest. A guy hooked on to the roping dummy and started pulling it around the arena. For the rest of the night she tracked that dummy all around the arena brideless as I roped the heels. NOW it was really fun.
There was an obvious night and day difference. The owner said he’d never seen a horse go from where she was to riding bridleless within an hour.
Confessing The Horse Training Mistake
Now I’m not telling this story to toot my own horn. I’m telling it to confess a horse training mistake that I made and share a lesson that I re-learned.
Here’s a video of me telling this story: Note To Self: Let The Horse Decide
The huge change happened when I stopped trying to go from 8th grade to 10th grade. I gave up what I wanted to do and did what the horse was telling me she needed me to do. And what she needed became my priority.
So don’t get ahead of yourself. A horse will tell you where their comfort threshold is. And it’s our job to help that line to move upwards. Once the horse realizes you will not unfairly cross that line, it will begin to dissolve.
Then the horse will give you anything you ask.