Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Approach and Retreat

Isn't it just annoying when you want your horse to walk past a scary object and your horse completely freaks out? Or what about when you want your horse to cross a stream and he digs his feet in, refusing to move? How do you deal with this?

You might try to smack your horse, thinking he is misbehaving. You'd use your aids more strongly, hoping your horse will give in and just move along. Unfortunately, horses are by nature skittish about unfamiliar objects. They are merely prey animals trying to survive. To us the object might be nothing (a bin, a plastics bag, a little stream, a butterfly!), but to the horse it might look like some monster out to get him. It is this fear response that allows the horse to survive in its natural habitat,however, in the “humansville” it can get them into trouble. So what should you do?

Since, we are the horse's leader in “humansville” it is our responsibility to prepare the horse for what he will have to face in “humansville”. You would have to get the horse to trust you, knowing you'd never ask anything of him that will harm him. Now... there is a good way and a “bad” way to go about this...

The “bad” way is not necessarily bad, but does not suite all horses. This method will involve you forcing your horse to accept the scary object/s without acknowledging the horse's mental and emotional state. You would just take your horse straight up to the object and hope for the best. Now some horses might be brave enough to get close enough to the object to get a better look, but most horses will put up a fight.

The good way is to get your horse familiar with the object/s that is more natural for the horse. In nature horse's hardly ever walk straight up to a scary object to investigate it. They would approach it in a zig zag pattern, rather than straight, and move a little bit at a time. Once they are convinced the object is harmless, they might get close enough to touch it with their noses and eventually maybe their feet. So, to get your horse familiar with an object you just have to emulate this...

Start off by walking your horse past the object (not to it) while keeping a safe distance away from it. How far you want to be away from the object depends on the horse. You will want to be as far away from it as the horse feels comfortable. You then walk past the object (with you positioned between the object and your horse), pretending it is not even there. If your horse chooses to stop and have a look... allow it! Watch your horse for signs off worry (flaring nostrils, tense muscles etc). If your horse looks worried move further away from the object. Once your horse is okay with being that distance away from the object, you can get a bit closer (but only as far as your horse will allow). Again you just walk past it until your horse is comfortable. By to and away from the object will actually help build up your horse's confidence. The more you retreat, the more confident your horse will get. The more confident your horse is, the closer he will be able to get to the scary object. Eventually your horse will be able to get right up to the object without trying to bolt off.

Approach and retreat... that us all you have to do! And it works. What makes this method so valuable, is that you end up enforcing your bond with your horse. Your horse will respect you more, because you didn't punish him for being scared or forced him to jump off the cliff. At the end your horse will be emotionally and mentally fitter. Most important of all... you preserved his confidence.

Approach and retreat can be used for anything from getting the horse used to being saddled, to having his ears touched to crossing a river! How long it will take the horse to get used to the object will depend on the horse. Some horses may only need 4 hours where others may need 2 weeks. However, don't be tempted to rush things. Take the time it takes and it will take less time. It is all worth it in the end for both you and your horse :)

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