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Staci Layne Wilson is a full-time equine writer and photographer (with over a thousand published horse articles in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific Rim) and busies herself with HorseAid, a worldwide equine relief and adoption programme she co-founded. She is also a Director and the Secretary / Registrar of the International Generic Horse Association (the world's largest all-breeds registry).

Staci has kindly allowed CarriageMart.com to print some excerpts from her book 'The Horse's Choice'. This article is part two of a three part series, we hope you enjoy them.

You can buy Staci's book at her website: http://www.staciwilson.com/horses/

Putting Your Horse at Ease (and Vice Versa)
courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson
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A horse who is at ease has his head lowered, his neck just about on line with his back, creating a level profile from stem to stern (hence the term "level-headed," which was coined by the cowboys of the American West). He may be standing with a hind leg resting on its toe and his tail will be swishing softly as he draws regular breaths.

A horse who is ill at ease will have his head held high, his tail clamped tight or sticking stiffly out and his feet poised for flight. His ears will be flicking back and forth, he won't be blinking and his muzzle will be tight with his lips firmly closed.

Needing to know how to put your horse at ease is important. But why, you may have wondered when reading the heading above, should I need to know how to put my horse ill at ease? Perhaps "ill at ease" is a misnomer: the reason you will need to know such a thing, however, is because it is far better to challenge your horse's brain than it is to hit him or intimidate him with physical pain. Horses who may need some "mental muscle" persuasion are those who are disrespectful and try to push you around. For example, swinging a rope in a circular motion in front of you when you walk beside a pushy horse will make him feel uncomfortable about rushing forward and running his tender muzzle into that rope.

If you have horse who tries to cut corners on the longe, or who crowds your space, you can intimidate him by squaring your shoulders, standing tall and leaning toward him. Waving your arms or making big movements toward a horse who strays from the outside of the circle makes him feel threatened and he'll move away. When grooming or doing ground work with a surly horse, looking him hard in the eye and growling "Qui-i-it!" will usually help him to remember that you are the dominant partner in the relationship, not him.

If your horse is fidgeting or chewing your leadrope, don't strike him. Instead, clap your hands together and if necessary, take a menacing step toward him. Give him something else to chew on. There are lots of horse toys available on the market, or you can even allow him to nosh on an old leadrope tied next to his new one: horses are smart enough to tell the difference between what is OK and what is not OK, as long you lay out the ground rules.

Such exercises as swinging the end of a leadrope or letting a cranky horse's muzzle connect with your sharp elbow will in a sense make your horse feel ill at ease and should encourage him to choose the easy, comfortable way of doing things (which is course, your way). It is essential that you mark your boundaries and make them clear! Otherwise, your horse will learn that it's OK to "walk all over you" and when you get stepped on it won't be his fault: it will be yours for not teaching him any better.

Teach your horse to move away from pressure. Standing in front of him and just off from the left side, tap his left gaskin with your long whip. If he doesn't move, keep tapping. If he still doesn't move, tap a little harder and keep tapping. Don't be concerned if the horse kicks out or backs up. Keep tapping. The object here is to be annoying. Tap, tap, tap. Chinese water torture. The instant he swings his hindquarters away from the pressure, stop tapping! Praise him and tell him that was what you wanted. Repeat the procedure on the right side and keep doing this exercise every few days, pretty soon, all you'll need to do is raise your whip toward the gaskin and away those quarters will swing. Learning to move away from pressure will be beneficial for leading and for riding your horse.

There are also several things you can do at the opposite end of the spectrum. To help a nervous, confused or frightened horse feel at ease, you can blow gently into his nostrils or scratch his withers in a firm but gentle circular motion. Both of these actions are often employed horse-to-horse, and they do have relaxing effects on most. (However, Smokey hated having his nose blown into whether it was human or horse. He would lay his ears back, wrinkle his nostrils in obvious displeasure and swing his head sharply away. "Haven't you ever heard of a breath mint?" he seemed to be saying.)

Just letting your horse stand for a moment and allowing him to absorb a lesson is a great reward for him. If he is blinking and licking his lips, that is good: he's thoughtful and relaxed.

Don't pat horses. Patting is harsh and abrupt. Stroke them instead.

A useful thing you can teach your horse is to have him lower his head on cue. Standing beside him, lay one hand on the bridge of his nose and the other flat against his poll (the bony bump between the ears, which is very sensitive). Exert gentle downward pressure. If he moves his head down even a fraction of an inch, let go. Remember: the release of pressure is a reward for a the horse. Some resistant horses will require a more insistent, side-to-side pushing to lower the head, and some respond better to a downward pull on the leadrope. Whatever works for you and your horse is fine, as long as you never force his head down. That will defeat the purpose. The idea is to get the horse to assume a 'level-headed' posture and in doing so, you can kind of trick him into thinking he is relaxed. This particular exercise has worked well with Peregrino. He gets high-headed and nervous when he's in a noisy environment or around lots of strange horses. All I have to do is touch his poll and nose lightly, and down the head goes. Just assuming this posture, even though it wasn't his idea, gets him into a relaxed state.

Finally, observe how horses in groups touch each other and try to learn from that. I don't mean that you should start biting and kicking your horse when he invades your space, but start doing more thinking and taking less aggressive action. Do you know what lies between aggressive and passive? Assertive. That's your goal.

Horses use such minute, subtle cues to communicate with each other: a flick of the tail or a cocking of the hind leg by another horse does not go unnoticed. Humans need to realize that the raising of a crop or the tensing of an arm muscle doesn't go unnoticed, either.


This article was provided courtesy of Staci Layne Wilson.

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