ON SAFE GROUND
By Karen Boush, Photographs by Jane Reed
Western Horseman, December 1999
Using his seven-step safety system, horseman
and clinician Frank Bell of Larkspur, Colorado, teaches riders that a gentle
touch and reassuring voice can work wonders with all horses. The first three
steps of his system--bonding, take and give, and intimacy -- were reviewed in
the September 1998 issue. They guide riders through the initial stages of
building a friendship with a horse. Steps 4 and 5, discussed this month, focus
on ground exercises that ease horse and rider into a deeper level
Step 4: The Dance Begins
The first goal of this step is to get your
horse thinking rationally while he walks or trots around you in a circle.
Standing on the horse¹s near (left) side, start by running a 12-foot lead
rope under the horse's neck, then reach over the horse¹s back and take the
rope in your right hand. Run the rope around the horse's off side, then behind
the upper hind legs wellbelow the dock of the tail.
The Wind Down
The dance culminates in the wind-down,
essentially a one-rein stop on the ground that takes the horse back to the
safety zone. Introduced in Step 3, the safety zone is established by using the
horse's "nose handle" to gently guide his head around to the girth
area, where he is praised and stroked.After the horse has completed two or
three circles, start the wind-down by slowly gathering the lead and walking in
toward your horse's hip bone. As the distance between you and him grows
smaller, reach your hand out and stroke the horse's flank and rib area. As you
continue winding around, the horse's inside hind leg will step in front of the
outside hind leg, and the outside front leg will step in front of the inside
front leg. This action indicates that the horse's hindquarters have disengaged
and the horse is relaxed.
Step 5 DesensitizingBell tells riders that when it comes to desensitizing horses, the only limit is imagination. His primary concern is that riders spend plenty of time discovering what frightens their horses and helping them get over it. "I can't stress desensitizing enough. I go out of my way to find problems, because if you don't desensitize your horse you're waiting for an accident to happen," Bell says. "Most people live in the zone where they avoid problems. They live a whole life where the horse dictates what they do and, before too long, what it amounts to is the horse has the person really well-trained. The idea is for you to be training the horse and building hisconfidence."
Bell suggests gradually drifting into the process of desensitization during the dance. Twirl a couple of feet of the lead rope in front of you as the horse circles. If he throws his head up or tries to dart, Bell says he is clearly communicating that he is afraid. Stop and offer reassurance bystroking his neck.
"You don't want to push him over the edge. When I find a problem, I settle him down, rub his forehead, get his head down, work his mouth, and love on him and bond. Go back to bonding and the safety zone. Anytime that the horse shows you that he's really afraid love on him just like a child andnurture him back to being okay with you,"he says.
In time, your horse will get to the point where he can tolerate the swinging rope without shying and even think nothing of it. Once he's okay with this stimulus, test him in other ways. With the horse standing still, hold on to the end of the lead and loop the rope over the horse's ears and head, or drape the rope over the horse's back and jiggle it over the offside legs, shoulder, and hip area. Or try slapping the saddle with the rope, at first lightly then more aggressively. The real test comes when you ask your horse to tolerate the rope being near or on him while he's moving. One of Bell's favorite tests entails tossing the end of the rope over the horse's back during the winddown. He also will swing the lead rope so it wraps aroundthe inside hind leg as the horse is walking.
Eventually, the process of desensitizing will extend to your time in thesaddle.
"I don't care what horse I'm riding --I'm always shaking branches and jiggling gates and banging on buildings and slapping my own leg becaue, when it starts to rain, you want to be able to put your slicker on without getting off your horse. That¹s the idea. You don't have to be riding on pins and needle s. That¹s no way to ride, and it's no way to live," he says. Be sure not to run your lessons into the ground, and offer your horse a lot of praise and strokes. Bell advises tha t you make the work fun and intersting and give the lessons time to sink in. When you see that the horse is working his mouth, a sure sign of understanding, he says it might be a good time to stop for the day. "Having empathy is what it's really all about," Bell explains. "It's our responsibility to help these animals through their issues. Don't beat up on them. When the animal is having trouble and getting afraid, you help him with it. Before too long, you'll end up with a really confident, well-rounded animal who can pretty much handle everything.
When you find problems while desensitizing the horse, it's an opportunity tobuild your horse's confidence and to raise the level of mutual trust between the two of you. The process should never, never end."
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Updated: October 2005.