You can have a pretty good relationship with a horse when you build on trust, respect and obedience, but if you want to get into his heart and enjoy the magical connection you’ve always dreamed of, you need to learn to think like a horse, and play some games!
In addition to being a fun way to bond with your horse on a mental level, games that involve precision, focus and purpose will help you establish yourself as the leader of your “herd of two”. You can then break down and practice the ingredients of more difficult or frightening things, such as trailer loading, to increase your horse’s confidence in bite-sized chunks.
The best place to begin when playing games and learning to communicate more effectively with your horse is on the ground with a 12’ lead and a carrot stick, if you have one. Sticks are great, because you can be more effective from a safe distance by using steady or rhythmic pressure to teach your horse to move away.
It is important to have some basic ground skills before the games begin. You’ll need to be able to back your horse up and move both his hindquarters and front end independently of one another, using both steady pressure (pressing on your horse with your hands or your stick) and rhythmic pressure (teaching your horse to move away from your intention/energy). For more help with these, the Parelli Level 1 Home Study Program is available on my website at www.fawnanderson.com.
Focus and precision games
One of the most powerful tools you have, without even knowing you are using it, is intention (also referred to as focus). This is how herd animals communicate with each other. Every herd has a leader, and the rest of the group follows the lead horse’s focus.
People have a tendency to go “at” their horses with their intention or tools. This can cause a horse to feel attacked or threatened. As well, this is not a type of communication your horse can read. Instead, you should form a strong picture in your mind of where you want him to go, and then use body language to help support it.
1. Teach your horse to touch an object with his nose
In order to do this, you need to know how to drive your horse forward in front of you while standing at, or behind, his shoulder. This is a great task because it not only simulates riding (you are teaching your horse to go first, and this can bring up confidence issues you didn’t know your horse had when he was following you on the ground), but it also teaches you how to use your stick to support your direction from on the ground. These cues can later be applied the same way when you ride. So make sure you can ask your horse to go forward by lightly tapping him on the bum, and that you can direct him towards you with the lead rope or away from you with your stick. Got it? Great! Let’s get an object.
Pick something easy that is at the same height as your horse’s nose, and isn’t scary. Drive your horse forward towards the obstacle, and softly direct his nose so it is aiming where you want him to go. Think of his nostrils as being target sights – he will only go in the direction you want if his sights are set on it! Make sure your horse actually touches the object before you quit. Go slow and reward the slightest try, but keep going until he gets it. It’s sort of like playing “You’re getting warmer/colder”: back off when he’s getting warmer, and put a little bit more pressure on if he’s getting colder. Pretty soon he’ll figure it out, and will be looking for the things you want him to touch!
Look at what you want your horse to touch instead of at him. He won’t know what you want if you stare at him, and he might get a bit nervous!
Be careful not to lead your horse to the object with the lead rope. Direct him from behind with your focus and give him an intention to follow.
2. Put your horse’s foot on an object
This is a great game because it teaches you to be soft and refined with your aids. It also shows your horse that you are asking for something very specific, so it makes him think. The easiest way to start is by using Frisbees, or lids from pails, and asking your horse to put a specific foot on the object. Eventually you want to progress to where you can put any one of his feet on the object of choice. Your horse will get so good at reading your intention that he’ll know exactly which foot you want him to place on the object!
This may take a few weeks of practice, but it will really get you in tune with your horse’s feet. Once he gets it, you can play this game from his back and see if you can place his foot on the object without looking. You can peek to check, but you want to get to where you can feel exactly which foot is moving and where. When you can feel your horse’s feet with that much accuracy, you’ll have acquired a whole new level of sensitivity and timing that your horse will definitely appreciate.
Take your time! Don’t be in a rush, and make sure you stop and reward even the slightest try in the right direction. Otherwise, your horse will get confused and not want to engage in the activity with you.
Be careful not to get frustrated or mad. If you are too focused on the task, your horse will feel pressured, and this will cause him to get claustrophobic and bring out his natural opposition reflex. You need to go into the task with the attitude of “I’ve never seen it take longer than two days!” and literally not care if you don’t get it done that day. Just look for improvement.
Confidence and purpose games
1. New ways to play with balls
Many of you have probably heard of teaching your horse to push a ball around with his legs or chest. Once you’ve done this, another fun way to play with a ball is by bouncing it around your horse! This is a great way to desensitize him and get him more confident with rhythmic motion or commotion.
Start by bouncing the ball on the ground, walking away from your horse while he follows. This will create curiosity and build his confidence. Begin with small bounces until your horse is completely confident. Once he gets braver you can progress to rubbing him with the ball, and eventually to softly bouncing it off your horse.
Once you can do all these things, you are ready to try while riding. If you have a big enough ball, you will be able to reach down and start bouncing it from your horse’s back. Build to where you can bounce it in place, or even walk a circle around it while you keep it bouncing. Once you’ve mastered that, try dribbling and going somewhere with the ball. You could form your very own horseback basketball group!
Slow and right beats fast and wrong! Make sure you get the groundwork going well before riding, and don’t hesitate to go back to basics if your horse gets worried.
Be careful not to hold your rope too short or start too close to your horse. If he is worried, give him plenty of space and don’t expect him to follow right behind you. Keep retreating – it might be a few weeks before you can stand still and bounce the ball beside him. Be patient!
2. Platform games
Teaching a horse to step up onto a platform is a great exercise. Depending on the size and height of the platform, it can help with trailering and trimming issues.
A platform big enough for all four of your horse’s feet can really help him become more confident about backing off of objects. Some horses get quite scared when they are asked to back out of a trailer because they can’t see how far the step down is, and have never practiced it. If your horse has trouble with this, start with a low platform and gradually progress to a greater height so he does not feel like he is stepping off a cliff the first time.
Once he has learned the name of the game, you can also teach him to put just one foot up on something, such as a tire filled with dirt, and hold it there. If he takes it off, just ask him to put it back and build the time that he can hold it there. This will simulate what a horse feels when asked to hold his foot up on a shoeing stand to have his feet done, and will teach him that it is his responsibility to keep it there.
Keep your own feet still. At first, your horse will likely try everything but putting his foot on the object, and it is tempting to move in an attempt to block or redirect him. You’ll give him a better picture of what you want by staying calm and still and directing him from one spot.
Do not ask for all four feet at once. Just ask for one foot the first day, and gradually build to where you can get two, three and then four feet up on the platform. There are literally thousands of challenges you can create for your horse. These are just a few to get you started, and it is up to you how far you take it. Have fun and go play!
Fawn Anderson is the only Canadian Instructor to have taught on Faculty at the Parelli Center in Florida. She is also one of the top rated Parelli Natural Horsemanship Instructors in Canada, and travels across the country teaching people how to be better leaders and communicate more effectively with their horses. She can be found in Florida most winters hiding from the snow and riding with Pat, Linda and other mentors in order to keep her knowledge and training at the highest level possible. www.fawnanderson.com