Monthly Archives: October 2014

Back Off! How to Handle a Nosey Horse

How do you handle a nosey horse?  It might be simpler than you think.

Several months ago I had a horse-owner friend overnight at my place while on a trip up north. After we had his horse settled, I was giving him a tour of my property and we were walking through the pasture.?  As expected, Chip came trotting up to see who the visitor was.

horses space comfort

Chip and his buddy are obviously comfortable sharing their space in this photo.

A little background on Chip. He had just turned four. He is playful and very curious; traits I encouraged because they are such an incredible asset: they produce in him try, recognition of success, and comfort in exploring his environment; be that a new trail or a new obstacle on my course. Does he get to do anything he wants?Absolutely not.  But there are better ways of showing him that boundary than others.

Anyways,  Chip walked right up to my friend, and put his nose near his jacket.  I don’t feed any of my horses treats, but my mom has taught him, on her visits, that sometimes pockets can contain goodies.  I don’t think that was his motive though. This was a jacket with lots of pockets. Pockets mean zippers and Chip prides himself on being able to open and close a zipper. He has become pretty good at it. It’s totally non-aggressive. If he is asked to stop and back off, he is fine with that. The key word here is ask.

Unfortunately my friend took offense and took the very un-horsemanship-like action of clocking poor Chip in the face with his elbow. Chip was surprised. And rightly so.  While my friends motive may have been correct (I don’t want you in my space, his actions were anything but.)

The problem is that we don’t naturally have a handle on space when it comes to a horse.  We are too quick to go to our hands before we try anything else. This makes sense to us – as humans we are used to manipulating our environment with our hands. Therefore, we attempt this instinctively with a horse, because we need another method of communication since the horse doesn’t have a full English vocabulary. Horses however, use a different form of communication to ask another horse to move. Thus we have a powerful tool: we can emulate the horses behavior.

Consider only using your hands to support and shape an action, not as a primary method to force your intention.

Compare Chip’s actions to a close talker human. We have all had those people that like to stand in your bubble when they talk to you. I personally do not enjoy that and prefer to be at least two feet from anyone I am talking to.  If someone intrudes on my space, I will increase my back off energy and hope that they pick up on that.  If they are too tuned out to get that, I will politely say, Do you mind stepping back a bit, please?  I say this not to offend the speaker, but to allow us to have a conversation in comfort.  And my comfort is important: if I am irritated I won’t be a good conversationalist because I will be distracted.

But what if, instead of asking the speaker to step back, I just hauled off and punched him in the nose the moment he got too close?  Would there be anything wrong with that?  If you think there is, then you are fairly well acquainted with social norms.  If you think that would be all right, as tempting as it sometimes may be – you belong to a social minority and are probably reading this from your prison cell.

Punching the close talker in the nose and clocking my horse in the face are the exact same thing. The horse is further in your space than you feel is appropriate.  Or more likely, someone at one point told you that it is bad for horses to do that and the solution is to get physical with them. This is akin to jerking on the lead rope or rein; all these actions simply tell the horse, Hey buddy, I am just confirming that I am inconsiderate and not interested in communicating with you. Perhaps you have never given a thought to learning how to communicate with the horse in his language. Space is one of the most basic equine communication elements.

So what to do about it? Look at it from the close talker example.  What I won’t do is back away.  This will just invite the close talker in, back to where he was. And by doing so, I have let him know that it’s OK to be there. I have submitted to him.  Now we are playing a game. This is not desirable. With a horse, particularly one like Chip,  it’s dangerous road to go down, because now he knows that HE can move YOU. Effectively you have  given the horse the reins and you’re wearing the bridle.

horse in your space

Spud is clearly in my space.

This is a Kodak Moment. You know all those times you wished a camera was there?  Well this time, there was.  A friend was taking pictures of Spud when I first got him.  This intimate shot captures the moment when Spud decided that we were going to have a positive relationship.  Previously he did not want anything to do with me, or any other human for that matter.  Spud is clearly, and voluntarily in my space.  The decision to be there was his alone. What did I do about it? Well, I totally relaxed and enjoyed every second of it. His reward for his decision to include me in his life was to enjoy peace and contentment in my space.

Let’s look at this in terms of pressure. We are all familiar with pressure and release when it comes to working with a horse.  What you might not have considered is that there are many types of pressure, and many levels of pressure intensity.  Consider pressure on a scale from 1 to 10.  A 1 in pressure would be increasing my energy to show the close talker or horse that they are in my space. If that doesn’t work, I won’t continue to repeat it, but change the type of pressure to something more obvious, like politely asking the close talker to take a step back. With a horse this could be stepping forward into his space with more energy.  More pressure does not mean that you should get angry or be forceful.

Remember, you are striving to be a calm and effective leader.

If there is still no response from the horse after this then you are now having a conversation about leadership via space. And you need to clean it up properly.  Going from a 1 to a 10 on the pressure scale and hitting the horse or close talker is unreasonable at this point.  I would do this in a case where the horse ran in and tried to bite me with malice, or if the close talker ran at me wielding a knife.  If you feel your life is being threatened, then sure, do anything you have to in order to save your own hide. But simply stepping in my space? An offensive physical move like hitting is totally uncalled for in this situation and not the mark of a horseman.

Instead, take this approach.  Just like asking the close talker to step back, put your hand on the horses nose.  Apply firm pressure, but don’t push,  because then you are just inviting a challenge, and the horse pushes back with the same or more force.  Simply make it clear that there is an invisible wall there.

Now, just wait.

Waiting is hard for people–but learn to wait, you will  go way further when working with a horse if you give him the opportunity to be right and wait on it.

horsemanship space

Chip and The Hand- – the palm of my hand is very gently resting on Chip’s nose. He’s lifting his head up to find another way into my space. I don’t increase the pressure; I simply follow his movements and when he backs off, he finds release.

The horse may push against you.  He may move his nose to a different position in order to continue with his original mindset.  Keep your hand in the same spot on his nose, with the same amount of pressure, as long as he is still on your invisible wall. The horse may push against you; but you do not push back.  These might feel like the same thing but there is a huge difference in meaning.  Eventually, the horse will take a step back.  It is totally expected that initially he might repeat the same challenge two or even three times. Chip is a horse like this.  If he moves in again after he has correctly yielded to my pressure, then I will repeat the same exercise because now we are successfully training with repetition. I don’t step up the pressure because he got it right: he yielded to my space. After the third time a really cool thing happens.   Chip stands back and puts his head down and relaxes. Or maybe walks away contentedly.

Why does he respond this way?   He does because I have answered a question for him: Whose space is this, mine or yours?  And when I calmly provide that answer, he is no longer bothered by the question.  Space and herd order is a huge deal for a horse.  Lack of clarity in that area will bother him.  Once you provide that clarity your horse will find peace, having answered the question and taken that stress off his plate.  It’s simply how their minds work.

So why not hit him?  Won’t that say the same thing ?  Absolutely not. Consider the response of the close talker if I were to hit him.  He would most likely be shocked and then would respond with one of two actions: 1) Take a swing at me, ready for an all out fight or 2) Leave, thinking I was a complete jerk.

The horse will do similar things in response to being hit.  Either come into your space with more force, because now you have made it obvious that this is a challenge; or he will shake his head or even kick out as he is trotting away.  In this case, Chip took it as a challenge.  He didn’t back away but instead put his head way up in the air, out of reach, and stepped back in.   Now we had a real issue. Instead of clearing up the space question, it escalated into a challenge/leadership issue.  Not wanting the situation to get bigger, I stepped in and had Chip stand on the other side of me.  Chip and I have a defined understanding about our spatial relationship.

I want any horse I work with to be comfortable and clear with our spatial and leadership agreement. I don’t want him to fear being around me, or anyone else, for that matter. I want to make the space around me a good and peaceful place for him to be, but with a respectful boundary.

This is absolutely essential because when you ride, you and your horse are intimately within each others space.

Scott Phillips

October 2014

Nature is the Best Teacher

Nature really is the Best Teacher

Almost a year ago, I decided to look for a two-year old that had been introduced to the halter and nothing more. Upon meeting a woman wanting to sell her young gelding so that she could move on to other things, the blank slate I was searching for had found me.

Several things stood out about this gelding: he was clearly very sweet but also covered in bite marks; I counted over fifty hairless marks! He was also very indifferent towards people. I spent the first three weeks hanging out in the quarantine paddock waiting for him to introduce himself. This suited me fine because my intention in buying a young horse was to use only positive experiences to shape the training. In those first weeks, I enjoyed my book and he enjoyed the freedom to choose whether or not to approach me for a visit.

nature brushing horsemanship

Tahoe and Rebecca hanging around the barnyard.

As time went on, he blended into our herd with increasing confidence and grew an interest in people. After training him to ground tie and lead in a variety of paces and places, the day arrived when I thought I would familiarize the grooming process.  With the first stroke of the first brush, he hinted he wasn’t keen on the idea. He raised his head while fixing a stern eye on me and pinning his ears. In this single moment, he and I departed from the more traditional notions on horse training, which is to say, I failed to show him who’s the boss.

Instead of getting into a conflict, I moved on to other training goals he enjoyed. In place of trying to work out what drove his reaction to being brushed, I decided to wait until his coat was shedding and he was good and itchy. I also bought the softest rubber curry I could find, a goat hair body brush and a simple shedding blade. In the spring, as you have likely guessed, grooming was pleasantly received. In fact, he was very comical, straining this way and that to get me to target each particular itchy spot.

With roughly a two-month period between my first attempt at brushing my horse and the springtime, a few people I know shared their opinions on what I had chosen to do. Some worried I was allowing him to run the show. Others could not understand why I would choose to take so long to get to something so basic.  I appreciated the well-meaning advice, but I am really glad I used nature to assist in training my horse. Today, he hangs his head long and low and yawns during every brushing. He is realized my entire purpose in wanting to groom to enjoy it as a great time to relax together.

– Rebecca Babitzke

 

The Great K-Country Race: Horse vs Bicycle

Riding along the Elbow Falls Trail on horseback in Kananaskis Country, affectionately known as K-Country, offers sweeping vistas, boulder strewn creek crossings, aspen groves and a floral bounty through the warm seasons. An immersion into this sublime landscape after a weeks worth of urban living and stress, makes K-Country a blessing.

But, and there is always a but, especially on weekends, the trails are well occupied: from a family outing with strollers and picnic baskets attended with all the yelling and screaming and barking dogs to birders clad in dozens of zippered pockets, Tiley hats and binoculars drooping from the neck to the fitness crowd all spandexed up in neon athletic wear and bulging with muscles and water bottles.

The trails are multi-user and there was a time when I did training rides for endurance riding, attempting to ride without a lot of people on the trail–impossible if you’re working of course, weekends are usually the only time to do this. Parking the trailer at Station Flats, I’d tack up my mare, Sheba, to follow the Elbow Falls trail to the Powderface trail, linking to Prairie Creek and then return along Elbow Falls Trail.  As an endurance rider, I pride myself in preparedness for human and horse.  I rattled along with enough stuff to ensure a comfy night out in an epic snowstorm.  This included a stethoscope, sponge, water treatment equipment, matches, flare, TP, lunch, horse cookies, electrolytes, plastic bag, jacket, halter and shank, hoof pick and Lordy knows what else I stuffed into my saddle bags.  My little 13 3HH mare Sheba, an Arabian/Anglo-Arab never got the height or the nervy spooky attitude from that cross. A sweet, dainty and handy little lady got me from A to B without any fuss, although there seemed to be at time when spooking at white things on the trail, like a rock.  Really?  Or plastic bags hanging and/or flapping from barb wire fences along roadsides seemed to program 180s or 360s into her behavior.

Imagine a gorgeous summer day in K-Country: a cloudless heavens with those hard blue skies; a faint breeze shimmying the aspens, patches of summer flowers brightening the rich green meadows. And, it smells good.  A perfect day to boot and scoot over 30 or so kilometers of well designed trails.

The Challenge

Riding from Station Flats to Powderface, I didn’t encounter another soul on the trail; walkers tend to do the short loops and cyclists have a few choices for longer distances. It’s a hilly, roller coastering stretch that goes in and out of a couple of coulees until the final meters drift along the paved road to the Powderface parking lot. It’s always full; people must arrive at dawn to secure any spot.  This particular day, there were small groupings of people wandering on the trail. A bit past the trail head, on relatively flat ground and still a distance from the mountain, a cyclist was just starting to go through one of the cattle gates. This was serious cyclist, if the mountain bike, clothing, helmet and muscular body meant anything. He kindly held the gate open for me, which I then closed with his help.  One of those gates in which closing a gate and holding a horse can cause exquisite moments of indecision. Trail courtesy means that you train your horse at home to lift the gate, pull it along and refasten it from horse back. It looks very cool and skillful. Unless the gate is six feet tall, weighs what it looks like and a struggle to drag the darn thing aside even on foot because it is not a real gate!  Just barb wire strung between 8 foot poles and held up by tension.  Help is good. He was shocked that I just didn’t ride off. But no: if someone opens a gate for you, you close it. Trail courtesy 101.  One final look at me and a pleasant “see you”, and off he rode. Hard.  What, I thought….see you???? No, no, no, no NO! Not only can I keep up, I can beat you with your fancy-schmancy bike. All in a mental dialogue, of course.

horse vs bicycle

Monika and her Arab-Saddlebred cross mare, Koko

Ok, Sheba, horse vs bicycle – the glove is dropped!?? I know this trail. I know where we can go fast and give me a break, I’m on a horse: the horse conquered the world for mankind, not the bicycle. And, thinking about local terrain, I can beat a cyclist on horseback, going up Powederface.  How many times have I jogged past cyclists pushing their bikes up the mountain, looking enviously at my very cool mare and I?

Climbing aboard, I trotted and cantered after the disappearing wheel of the cyclist or for the Western crowd, jogged and loped off, planning my strategy to–well not flip a bird, but to also say, “see ya” as I gracefully lope past, giving a queenly wave from my Ay-rab horse.

Round One

While the rules of the race hadn’t been discussed with Sheba, first across any finish line wins, right?  And, if it’s really just wanting to get in front, well, there are ways and means that a horse really does have the upper hoof.

This was MY territory and I knew these trails.

Needless to say, the cyclist peddled hard.  I stayed a good 20 meters behind at an easy pace until we hit the open meadow just before the serious elevation starts. The first hill, he did good.  But, I now had my furry four by four engaged and kept the same pace as on the flats. I very quickly trotted by.  Since this was pretty much at the beginning of my event, a “see ya” was inappropriate and I needed to look intent but conservatively eager. Helmet on lockdown, slight lean forward, heels down.

That was easy!

Feeling pretty cocky on my amazing mare and making mental raspberries to all those who don’t appreciate the physicality of a horse as I powered up the trail, climbing higher and higher up the mountain to the amazing vista that Powderface offers and seeing a blaze of mountain forgetmenots rivaling the blue of the sky. At the top, I always give my horse a breather, get off and check that the pulse is going down, let her have a chew and nibble on the grasses and take a short break. Naturally, the trail is relentless down on the other side of the mountain and the geology has springs, washouts and other interesting features that are not found on the “going up” side. Mounted again, I carefully trotted down, zigging and zagging with the trail to a point where I knew it would be boggy and then simply cut across the meadow a hundred meters or so to the Powderface road and about couple hundred meters to where the trail links up to the road. This was a day to enjoy and take my time walking along the road until the turn off to the Prairie Creek link.

powderface kananaskis

View from Powderface

Is it a bird, a plane?

Glancing back at Powderface, I saw a flash of colour between the trees, descending the trail. Descending?  it was the express elevator down the CN tower!  What the?…..And almost in front of our collective noses, THAT cyclist burst out of the trees seemingly teleporting from top to bottom in a matter of seconds. Then riding off in a dust cloud on the road in the same direction the Sheebs and I were going.  Had I been on Secretariat, at a flat out gallop, I would not have caught him.

I was shocked and awed. Regrouping, mentally and physically.

Ok, there is NO WAY that he could continue at that speed on Prairie Creek. I know that trail; I know that there are lots of different ground conditions and elevation changes that my Sheba can handle well at a decent clip.

Round Two

Allowed the Sheebs a quick slurp at Prairie Creek turnoff and thinking, thinking….And off we went !  A bit of speed on this section, so good ground for shod feet, no tricky turns, no sudden elevation changes.

Right on !

Success, because a few minutes later, there he was, off his bike, having a break. Sitting to the side of the trail and eating a sandwich. I blew by. This time he looked at me.  I am hardly invisible on a horse and make a bit of noise.  But, there seemed to be a wakeup call his eyes. Maybe the unspoken challenge was making itself heard. Or maybe I was reading too much into a quick glance.

That said, Prairie Creek became a leapfrog of team Monika and Sheba verses the unknown cyclist, passing each other where the passing was good for the horse or the cyclist. Needless to say, this is a technical trail.  It follows a mountain stream that flows between rocky faces with good clambers up and down. This area also concentrates hikers on the narrow trails, so people, dogs, kids and other cyclists have to be thought about, in front and in the rear view mirror and on the sides.

There is a spot towards the end of the Prairie Creek where the occasional cyclist just seems to give up and abandons their bike on the trail and lies down in exhaustion.

That this is also a very scenic spot doubles the desire to stop here.  That this beautiful spot is also the size of an extra large beach blanket means that space is at a premium. One hiker and cyclist with the bike tucked in is fine to ride around.  Two hikers, a dog and cyclist and there can be carnage on the trail. With a few people, it does look like a seal pack eyeing a great white when a horse comes over and around the bend. Seriously, I am not going to ride over a bike, but I am also not going to dismount and drag the bike off somewhere. Fortunately, these unmounted humans tend to quickly recall that they have abandoned their stuff on the trail, and quickly tuck the bits and pieces into the shrubbery and pop back to their piece of prime real estate to relax and watch the parade go by.

Where did he go?

With all the wiggling and jiggling of attachments to my person and saddle, I had an equipment malfunction…..a water bottle fell off, requiring me to dismount and hunt for it. That took a few minutes backtracking.  It seems that the order of go on this trail was Powderface to Prairie Creek, not PC to PF.  And on a narrow trail, having a wall people coming at you, well, finding that water bottle had to be really important.

Yes, it was.

Final lap

Remounting and going with the flow was now a very steady, very slow walk. I totally lost sight of the cyclist and realized that I lost the race. It wasn’t a formal loss, no crossing a finish line, no ribbons or speeches by the winner.  No thanking the organizer (ok, thank you God, for this magnificent land) or sponsors (thanks Monika!).  And it certainly pointed out a few truths about strengths and weaknesses: up hills, rocking it; hills down, not so much unless I ask for speed, or get off and run down. Flats a coin toss. Ok, let’s do it over 160 km and see weighed down horse competing against pedal power.

Fortunately, the point of the training ride was just that. Training–my Sheebs did what I asked of her and she definitely passed my horse health check with a fit to continue.

The final kilometer or so of the trail notches up the technical aspects of the trail, ending in a downward approach to the creek.

There he was, derailer deep in the creek, cleaning up man and bike.  I rode in and parallel parked my horse, knee deep, and let the creek wash off a bit of the mud on her legs and cool her off. Horse vs bicycle – to finish is to win; yea!

Then he looked at us, followed by:

I didn’t realize a horse could go that fast !?

To which I replied, I didn’t think a human could !

I am sure the cyclist went the 50 meters to the parking lot at Powderface and loaded up his car, where on the other hand, would need to go another 10 or so kilometers back to my trailer at Station Flats, and with a lot of horse left over.

See ya!

Need a Bridge Moved?

Need a bridge moved? We get some fun opportunities here at Alberta Carriage Supply, but the chance to move a bridge into the back country with horses was one we were happy to take on.

David Farran with Dick & Duke, Terry and Linda Bailey driving Leroy (LeRoy) & Lulu, and myself and my wife Marsha drove Hank & Pete.

The Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association (GBCTA) is a purely volunteer group of Bragg Creek residents that are working hard to design, build and maintain trails and pathways for the benefit of residents and visitors of Bragg Creek.

The group had pre-built a bridge and needed to get the pieces to the construction site for re-assembly. That’s where we came in.

Being a flat-lander and not knowing the trail, I overloaded the gear. We got stuck in a bog on a hill and had to unload a portion of the load on the side of the trail and pick it up on the second trip in.

We did get the job done in three trips though, 6 power poles (32 feet long) and all the small pieces as well!

If you are interested in volunteering or donating, check out their website www.braggcreektrails.org

Dale Befus

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