Volunteering 101: Come Get Me.

WMPippiThis week spring hit the Colorado prairie. You can tell because the temperature and the wind speed are the same. Tumble weeds broke into my barn and sure, Edgar Rice Burro eats them like Cheetos, but there’s only so much even he can do. Tumbleweeds are so deep in the gelding pen that the boys are sleeping on them like prickly feather beds.

I’ve written about the benefits of riding in the wind (read here) but it hasn’t caught on yet. Consequently I had some extra time to spend in my Pen for Wayward Ponies. Meet Pippi, (at the Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue website.) She’s new this week. See those flattened hairs over her nose. Yes, she came in a halter with a tab dangling. You know what that means…

I love my work and I get to train some fancy and challenging things, but hands down, my absolute favorite thing to train is this: I walk into the pen holding a halter and lead and say, “Come get me.” At first Pippi gave me a lovely view of her hind end complete with a madly flashing tail. You know what that means, too. A week later and I’m getting this more attractive view. She has very sweet eyes when she isn’t afraid.

What do you believe? Is there any reason a horse shouldn’t have as good a recall as a dog? Or depending on breed, even better? Recall with horses and dogs start at the same place; coming to their human should be fun and happy.

This seems obvious enough, but most of us sleep-walk through this part or are in such a hurry to get in the saddle that we forget our manners. Take a moment and listen. If your horse avoids you, passively or actively, he’s being honest. It’s the clearest way he has to let you know he isn’t happy. Do you think it’s just a random habit that doesn’t mean anything? That’s okay, but when it’s reflected later in the quality of his work, connect the dots. If we want them responsive to a smaller cue, then we have to do the same.

On the threshold of the pen is where the relationship begins each day. We set the tone for everything that follows and it could be the most telling and important moment of your work session. Does your horse volunteer? Do you give him a chance?

At the very least, ask for his eye, ask his permission before the halter. Wait and breathe. Give him a chance to take a step towards you. Check your body language, cock a hip and give him a minute to volunteer. If he does, lots of reward before the halter. Remember that catching a horse doesn’t actually have much to do with a halter at all. I like to rest the lead rope over his neck and thank him for catching me.

Most of all, don’t act like a coyote; don’t think you can stalk him with the halter hidden. You aren’t fooling anyone, least of all your horse. And it’s fundamentally dishonest and you can do better. Pay attention to your feet. The more you move them, the more he will run. Go slow, one step at a time. He knows what’s going on, give him some respect. If you need to, move him into a smaller pen to start. Take the drama and chase out of the equation and the conversation improves right away.

If he’s resistant, begin the practice of not catching him. Carry the halter out with you and take as much time as you need until he volunteers a little bit. Reward him for that lavishly and turn and leave. Mess with his mind in a good way. And don’t be surprised if he starts to follow you.

Does he come every time when you shake that can of grain? Good start. I use treats as rewards, but involve yourself deeper than that. Make sure the treat works as a training aid to better behavior and not a license for poor ground manners while you wrestle the halter on. If he grabs the treat and runs, it isn’t working. Sometimes replace the treat with long moments of scratching his favorite spot. In other words, you be the treat.

I have three diminutive equines here now, and all of them are learning to catch me. Breezy, the pony, has the longest distance to come. He got baited with treats and then pounced on, so treats actually scare him. Treats are his cue that something bad is about to happen. The only thing scarier than treats, are people who act like coyotes while giving treats. Breezy wants to remind you that honesty is always the best policy.

If the devil is in the details, then an angel must be there, too. Change, either good or bad, starts small. Good horsemanship requires even a reluctant and somewhat lazy human to see a can-of-worms horse behavior that would be easier to ignore, as an opportunity for creative communication and mutual partnership.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

19 thoughts on “Volunteering 101: Come Get Me.

  1. Sandy filippi

    Love this post! If you start with a willing partner your session will reflect it. I forgot that for awhile and paid for it. Now I am reaping benefits hand over fist!

  2. terrybg

    I love that you recognize that not all treats are rewards. The connections you think you’re teaching aren’t always the ones that happen. I tried to teach my dog that baths were fine by giving her cheese sticks. In two short “lessons,” when she saw me get a cheese stick from the fridge, she ran! (My dog is a very good teacher of humility when it comes to my training ability.) BTW, along with teaching a “come” to my horse, I also teach a “stay.” You never know when having the horse stand still while you walk away is going to come in handy (or life-saving!)

  3. Sandra Murray

    It’s never about the ____ (fill in the blank) Once I wised up about this fact, my horse would actually run to meet me at the gate and then stick his head into the halter. What a joyous high!! By the way, I also teach both “stay” and “wait” to my horses as well as, “Don’t even think it!” My dogs are taught “back” and “over”. Is this another example of cross training?

  4. Guilty: of hiding a halter and lead rope inside my sweatshirt! But that was to catch my first horse–a somewhat naughty Quarter Horse. Reading this post reminded me of how happy I felt every time my third and favorite horse DC would automatically come to me when out in the pasture. He would see me and start walking over. One time he even galloped and whinnied. It made my day. I agree with Nina.

  5. I knew a school horse (one of my personal favorites to ride, that boy loved to jump grids!) who met every student with a halter in their hand with the firebreathing dragon act. He bared his teeth, flattened his ears and looked all the world like he was going to eat somebody. He wouldn’t run, would in fact advance on you if you weren’t quicker. The thing was, as soon as you put a hand on his neck he was a perfect gentleman! It was just for show, or better, Clyde’s test of your mettle…how bad do you want to ride? Happily he was bought out of the program by one of my adult students – he did his schoolhorse duty of creating countless brave girls.

  6. Cat

    I totally enjoy reading your blogs and the comments. I hope they will sink in and make me a better horsewoman. I have a question today, though, and hope it doesn’t show me up as too ignorant, but I do not think I know what having a tagged halter necessarily means. Sale? Slaughter? Implication was negative so I’m very glad Pippi is with you, regardless. Cute, cute critter.

    1. No, thanks for asking for clarification. I wasn’t sure about ‘tag’ but it’s a word we used. Pippi had a foot long length of strapping dangling from the bottom ring of her halter as a catch strap so she could be grabbled. Now that I think of it, catch strap was the right phrase. It works well in the interim, but then they have to keep halters on which can be dangerous. Pippi and two others were relinquished to rescue and she is here for training. No one was headed to slaughter thankfully.

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