Developing the Young Horse Series: Part 1 Personal Space

When most people think about starting a young horse they probably think of groundwork.  Maybe longeing, maybe in hand.  Many horses come to me who have already been on the longe.  They may have been bridled, or felt the saddle and girth or even side reins.  Unfortunately, many of these horses know nothing about personal space.  I take them on the lead and immediately they are pushing their shoulders into my personal bubble.  If you watch a herd of horses in a field, you may observe how they will run into each other as they spook from a strange noise.  If you see two geldings playing, you may notice how they move their chest or rear into another horse to move it away.  Now imagine a horse doing this to you, very abruptly.  Imagine you are holding a young horse and you haven’t even begun to start working, but a plastic bag floats by and their immediate instinct is to run right into you.  It’s innocent, but it’s dangerous.  In my field of work, it’s safety first.

So the first thing I teach is personal space.  Depending on the horse and it’s living situation, this could be done in 5 minutes, or it could take a month.  I teach it to my foals, but they typically live in a field from weanling to 3 years old, at which point they will need a refresher.  If your horse is being handled by someone else who allows it to go anywhere and doesn’t correct this unwanted behavior, it will take longer for them to understand that when you are handling it, it must respect your space.   If you have a horse at any age that doesn’t respect your ‘bubble,’ you may want to go back to working on the ground.  You may thank me one day.

How a horse handles on the ground is paramount to a successful and positive first mount and personal space is easy to teach.

First, when you have the horse on a lead take note of where it is standing.  I have been jumped on and ran over enough times in my career that it is second nature to know when a horse is in a dangerous spot.  The horse should leave you enough space that if he spooks, you have time to react.  If they are ‘in your bubble’ you will not be able to see enough body language to predict a sudden move, nor will you have time to react. My bubble is an arms length all around my body.  When the horse is facing you, this distance is from the horses nose – NOT their chest or shoulder.  (I hope I don’t need to point out the distance needed from the hind legs or you aren’t ready to be handling any horse)  Many horses don’t seem to understand that their head and neck extend at least 2 feet from their body when lowered and by standing with their head tall and alert when facing you, they think they can get a little closer.  I also feel this body language is about being taller than me and is slightly aggressive if not dominant.  It may also be that they are insecure, but it’s time to learn that they will be ok on their own as this is a dangerous place if their front feet decide to come off the ground.

This is a perfect time to teach a horse ‘back.’  If practiced enough, it will also come in handy when mounted as they will already know the voice command.  I use pressure on their chest with my thumbs to ask them to move away while saying ‘back,’ which typically leads to a multitude of reactions, none of which is ‘back.’  Remember that this is a part of the learning process.  You asked a question in another language, and they gave you an answer.  We must also remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.  So I ask again, and if I don’t get the desired result, I follow up with a waving movement of my arms.  This will typically spark some sort of movement away from me in which I reward with a pat on the neck and ‘good boy/girl!’  I may need to use a crop or a whip – gently.  Sometime an upright wave of a dressage whip will wake a stubborn or confused horse.  I repeat this process until I get the correct answer to pressure on the chest and the horse stays back.

Exercise done.  (I will explain personal space while leading in the my next blog.)  This is a very important key to training a young horse.  Don’t drill.  They are typically smarter than us and you will have plenty of time tomorrow to reinforce your training. If this process took 2 minutes, you can move on to the next phase.  If it took anything longer than 5 minutes, put the horse away.  You just taught your horse the most valuable lesson of it’s career.  MOVE AWAY FROM PRESSURE and don’t fall back on it.

How many of you have a horse that takes excessive leg????  This is one of the tiny details that I never let go.  Many of my clients will watch a first session of this and a short lesson in hand and wonder what the heck they just paid for.  Trust me.  It all fits together just right in the end.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Working in Hand.

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