Sometimes a special horse comes into your life. Perhaps he’s been rescued from abuse or neglect, has sustained a significant injury, or has simply been turned out in a field for years without being handled or having a job to do. Each of these horses has special mental, emotional and physical needs: healing, recovering, and reaching his best potential.
Healing and recovery often involves special care from vets, farriers, chiropractors and acupuncturists, as well as serious TLC from his handlers! Sometimes, however, the biggest challenge is not the physical healing, but the mental and emotional recovery. Stressed horses may be fearful, anxious, aggressive, pushy, depressed or withdrawn, so establishing a safe, positive relationship can be more challenging.
Connecting with the horse
Once they are physically ready, our favorite way to connect with healing or recovering horses is the same as with every other horse we work with: we begin with the turn and face lesson in the round pen. The goal is to teach the horse to literally turn and look at the trainer with both eyes wherever he/she is in the round pen.
When this lesson is taught well, a pecking order is established in which people (those who consistently use the correct cues) are at the head, giving the horse the leadership he craves and the safety he deserves. Communication is established through body language, which is, after all, the language of the horse. Throughout the lesson, we gain insights into the healing horse and how he thinks and learns. But when poor, rough, crude or simply unskilled round penning is done, more damage may be inflicted and trauma may be increased. Therefore, especially with rehab horses, only an expert in round pen training should be used.
“Very Special Safety”
If you’re not an expert in round penning, don’t worry. Our VSS (short for Very Special Safety) is another great option. This in-hand lesson has many benefits: your horse will learn to respond lightly to the halter and lead rope, an important skill in preparing any horse to tie safely.
Furthermore, you cause him to move, which is exactly how a lead horse establishes leadership in the first place. The VSS is ideal for giving the horse something complex to think and learn about, but in a series of small chunks that make it easy for him to succeed. Because the lesson includes a spectrum of specific maneuvers, the horse must focus on the work, which has a calming, settling effect. The horse forgets to panic or worry, becomes increasingly able to ignore distractions, and his attention span becomes longer and more consistent. His confidence builds and he learns to trust again.
Perhaps most importantly, if you give your horse a release every time he tries, you will encourage his desire to put forth effort to figure out the lesson and work with you, instead of against you (and against himself!). The release (of cues, pressure, etc) is crucial because it says to the horse: “Thanks – that’s the right answer!” We cannot overemphasize the degree to which good, consistent releases clarify the lesson to the horse, and therefore expedite his progress. Because we have a window of only three seconds to respond to any behavior that a horse displays in order for him to associate the feedback with the action we want, timing is critical, so stay focused and be ready!
We begin by teaching the horse to go forward from the ground. This has the added benefit of laying the foundation for impulsion and good upward transitions in hand or from the saddle. After all, impulsion is the prerequisite for all training, so a good go cue is mandatory.
The “go cue” on the ground
With your horse in a halter and a ten-foot lead rope, stand at his left shoulder, facing him. Show him the dressage whip, then sack him out with it: the whip is simply an extension of your arm, not a weapon, so help him get comfortable with it before you begin. Then hold the dressage whip in your right hand, and the lead rope in your left hand, near the clip. Looking at the point of his left hip, extend your leading arm to the left, as if pointing the way, and begin tapping lightly on the point of his hip with the whip.
Continue to tap lightly until he moves forward, and cease tapping immediately when he does (this is the release). Relax your arms and in the beginning, walk with him for a few steps to emphasize that he got the right answer. Make sure he moves forward, not because you’re pulling him with the lead rope, but of his own volition. When you stop him the first few times, praise him heartily with some gentle pets, a hug, or whatever he’s comfortable with. We find that many horses love a good rub on their necks, just behind the poll, on both sides of their manes. They often drop their heads and relax into the touch.
Practice on both sides until your horse consistently gives the correct response, lightly and energetically, before moving on to the next step.
Getting both eyes on you
Once confirmed in the go cue, switch to a longer rope (14 to 22 feet) and ask your horse to walk around you in hand on a 10 to 20 foot circle. As he walks, gently take the slack out of the lead rope to ask him to softly bend his neck and look at you with both eyes. The goal here is not to keep him straight on the circle, but rather have him circle while focusing both eyes (and therefore all his attention) on you; when done correctly, your horse will be bent as if leg yielding on a very small circle.
Be sure you are seeking eye contact with a welcoming expression; if you’re frowning in concentration he may think you’re angry and respond by avoiding eye contact. Give him four or five chances to respond to light pressure on the lead rope – if he ignores it or is simply tuned out or distracted, maintain tension in the rope and add sufficient pressure to pull his head toward you. Be sure to use as little pressure as possible. Do not abruptly jerk on a loose rope; this is an unclear, useless act that confuses rather than clarifies. Simply increase your pressure on the lead rope consistently and efficiently until you see both your horse’s eyes looking at you; then release.
Once he can circle around you in either direction while looking at you with both eyes, you can get fancy!
• Ask your horse to disengage his hindquarters: shorten the rope until the slack is out, look at the point of his hip and, as you take a step towards it, point at it with the hand holding the rope. Release as soon as he begins to move his hindquarters away and disengages. You can then use the momentum and ask him to back up a few steps.
• Or ask him to move his forehand away from you as he circles by gently driving his shoulders until he takes a lateral step with his front feet. Build up to multiple, floaty steps.
• Finally, once these moves are easy, circle in one direction then step back and invite him to change directions and circle around you the other way. Once he turns in to face you, walks past and begins to go the other way, all the while steadily looking at you with both eyes, you can put it all together and choreograph your very own dance!
Most horses are great candidates for the VSS lesson, but because you’ll be working in very close proximity (read “striking distance”), we do not recommend you teach this lesson to a horse who is aggressively biting, striking, rearing or kicking. This is for your own safety. Horses like this must first be worked in the round pen to learn to respect people and resolve these dangerous behaviors. Then they can safely progress to VSS.
If you truly release on each tiny improvement, keep your body language clear, and your position correct, you’ll definitely help your healing or recovering horse succeed! His emotional healing will have begun, and because a truly healthy, happy horse is calm, forward, supple and focused, you’re well on your way to healing the whole horse.