December 15, 2012


The best horse handlers I know get inside the animals' heads in order to work their magic. They know the powerful beasts are capable of but one thought at a time; on an intelligence level they're somewhere between a box of rocks and a hop toad. They know, however, that even dunces amid the herd have excellent memories. But they've also discovered such memory needs constant reinforcement if a pony is asked to do something not of his own choosing.

For instance, I can, on foot, drive my four horses from a sixty-acre field into a corral located at one end . . . provided those animals haven't just came in for water and are feeding their way from the corral back into the pasture. In that case, their mind set is to graze out, not drift in. I must then take additional time to turn that mind set from drifting for pasture to consider the corral as either sanctuary or opportunity. 'Maybe he'll let us do a little lawnmowing on their lawn clover!' Or, 'Maybe he's planning on taking us on another wilderness adventure!' But try to drive them into a corral against their mind set and they will most often break around to dash for freedom.

They can be driven against their will, yes. But it requires sufficient numbers of people shouting, waving their arms, and throwing stones. A couple of well-mounted cowboys can do it, whooping and hollering, and pounding pell-mell behind. But the corralled cayuses will then be wild-eyed and snorting and blowing and hard to halter. You might then have to shake out a lariat and rope them, sometimes snubbing them to a hitching post until you can get a halter over their heads and tied off in a corner. Even then, one might decide to fight the halter and the snubbing until he throws himself in a frenzy. And who wants to ride an animal that crazy?

Better their mind set is to yawn and begin drifting for the corral. Do it right and you can tail along behind, kicking at an occasional clod in boredom. Soon it's into the corral, close the gate, and relaxed steeds standing theire as if to say, "What's next, boss?"

When a horse sets back on a halter rope, it's because he's momentarily alarmed. And when he comes up short, he might fight the rope until crazed, sometimes until exhausted. If I have a halter-puller, I won't tie him hard and fast. Instead, I'll take a couple of wraps around the hitchrack without tying it hard and fast. Then when the animal throws his head at a fly, he won't get jerked up short and become momentarily alarmed. Even if he does pull back, the rope will slip with him -- to his surprise. Usually that's enough to change his mindset. Instead of snorting and fighting in alarm, he looks around, sees the other ponies all standing placidly at the hitchrack. He calms and moves back into place.

The best horse handlng is a bit like judo, where one never pits strengths directly with his opponent. Instead, he goes with the flow, using the opponent's own strength and movement against him -- to bring him to the point you wish him to be.

There's another way to train a horse: the carrot or stick approach. Either works. Sort of. Sometimes. It's true that you can change a pony's mind set through force, but you'll have him working for you instead of with you. Similarly, it's true that bribery works on horses. Ponies'll come for sugar cubes or a nosebag full of oats. But again, you'll have them working for you instead of with you. And the big question: what happens when the day comes and you have no bribe?

Get into your ponies' heads and wriggle into their minds often enough and you'll someday reach their hearts. Along the way, you'll learn to think the way they do. They'll begin to trust you, enjoy doing the kinds of things you do, eager to become partners in whatever it is you think they should do.

If you're really lucky, you'll someday be owned by a really great horse. When that happens, trust me, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven.


Next week? Another walk on the wild side.


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