October 5, 2010
Demos in the John Deere Reining Arena at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games help horsemen and women of any level.
By Holly Clanahan of America’s Horse
When spectators come to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, they’re here to see some of the best horseflesh on earth and the master horsemen and women who go along with that.
But let’s face it, most of us aren’t quite at that level. Some more basic instruction – things that horse lovers can actually take home and use – is being dispensed in the John Deere Reining Arena, which is being manned by AQHA and National Reining Horse Association staffers. One recent morning, AQHA Professional Horsemen Bob Jeffreys and Suzanne Sheppard of Middletown, New York, stopped by with advice on trail-riding problems.
Bob and Suz have worked together about 10 years in their Two as One Horsemanship teaching and training venture, and “The thing we love the most is trail riding,” Suz says. “There’s nothing better than getting out there with nature on your horse. Talk about a stress buster – if you have the right horse. When things are going right, they’re wonderful out on the trail, but when things are going wrong, you can have some problems.”
Instead of presenting a prepared program, Bob and Suz asked audience members what issues they were having on the trail, and the “buddy-sour” horse was one such topic.
Bob set up a scenario: “So you can’t separate these two horses, but you’d like to be able to canter that horse off, and you don’t want this horse to canter. You ask him to stand still, and he gets fidgety. You get in a fight, and it’s no good. What you can do is go to a place where they’re more comfortable, like an arena, to start with.”
Bob and Suz demonstrated what to do next. Starting at one end of the arena, they walked their horses off, side by side. Then each of them split off and did a circle – Suz to the right and Bob to the left – before rejoining each other as the circles closed.
“What we said to the horses was, ‘We’re leaving, but not for very long.’ So you build up that time that they’re away from their buddy,” Bob says.
Suz explains that when horses are buddy sour, it’s simply a case of separation anxiety.
“When horse separate from their buddy, they really don’t know if they’re ever going to see them again, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes buddies get sold, sometimes buddies get separated for a variety of reasons,” she says.
By circling the horses away from each other and gradually making them bigger and bigger, “they see that every time they leave, there’s a real possibility they’re going to come back together again. Basically what we’re doing is reducing the anxiety. With some horses, their buddy sourness is severe enough that you do have to start at this very basic level. Honestly, if you can’t do this without your horse getting upset, this is where you need to be working. Now once you’ve done that and you can make your circles bigger and bigger, you can eventually do it at the trot, and you can do it at the canter.
“We always start this type of exercise at the walk because we want to help the horse succeed. We don’t want to test them to failure by getting them excited. The faster you go, the more excited some horses get. Speed can get their emotions very agitated. Again, that’s why we do the work we do because we want to have a horse that settles. Whenever they get upset, we want them to settle. So a lot of this emotional work will start at the walk. But once it’s good at the walk, then we’ll bring it up to the trot. They do get a little more emotional, there’s a little more energy going on, and then we’ll bring it up to the canter.”
Once that is confirmed, Bob describes a second exercise.
“Let’s say we’re walking together. I’m just going to stop my horse here and have her horse walk away a little bit. Now if my horse gets antsy, I’m going to put him to work. I’m going to do a little circle, ask him to give, ask him to bring his nose in, maybe move away from my leg a little bit, maybe move his hindquarters. And then I’ll ask him to stand still again and let her horse walk away. What I’m doing, as Ray Hunt used to say, is making the wrong thing difficult. ‘You start to walk, I’ll make you work.’ And I make the right thing easy. If he is still, I’ll say ‘Good for you,’ and I’ll walk up and say ‘See, he didn’t leave us forever.’ ”
That exercise can also be done at the trot and eventually the canter, remembering that “speed brings emotion in,” Bob says. “Again, if the horse gets nervous or antsy, I’ll trot him in some circles here, and then I’ll offer him a chance to stand still.”
Suz mentions an important piece of the puzzle: “Notice that Bob does not hold his horse back. He gives him the chance to do the right thing. And then they just hang out there, but the second that he gets distracted by the fact that the other horse is leaving, Bob simply gives him a job to do. Horses can really only think about one thing at a time, and so if your horse is so worried about that other horse going, that means you need to fill his mind with something else, productive, to think about. You’ve got to channel that intelligence to something productive, so just give him some jobs to do. That’s how you always get a horse’s attention. Just give him something to do. And if he’s really smart and really talented, you’re going to have to give him a whole lot of fun, complex things to do.”
Once these exercises are good in the arena, “Then I’d take it out to the park and start all over again at the walk,” Bob says.
Suz says the next step would be to find a group of riders who agree to help you work through this problem with your horse. Riding down the trail, you’d start by having one walk away from your horse, then two, then three, until your horse is comfortable having all of his friends leave him. Eventually, they should trot away one by one.
“The idea is that you build your horse up successfully. We never test the horse to failure. We always design exercises to help the horse succeed,” Suz says. “That’s the first question we teach our students to ask themselves: How can I help my horse succeed? What can I do to help him be successful here?” Because if your horse is successful, so are you, and that ensures a higher degree of both safety and fun out on the trail.
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