JUST AS CHICKEN soup is good for the soul on a cold, rainy day, so is hunkering down and learning more about our horses.
Thus, I always read with interest horse trainer and Freedom Farm owner Mary Gallagher’s blogs on horsemanship.
Her training methods center around patience, patterns and communication skills between human and horse.
Because I thoroughly enjoyed her latest blog entry, “Pattern Learning: Accepting the Bridle,” I decided to share some highlights with you.
You can read her entire blog entry at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-Gallagher -Blog.
Gallagher writes of horses and humans as being pattern learners.
She writes, “humans tend to see tasks as wholes — bridling, saddling, mounting — and get frustrated when, for all our best intentions and care, things don’t go well.”
The horse, meanwhile, bases his reactions on past experiences, Gallagher writes.
“Let’s say bridling your horse tends to be a less than satisfactory experience — he has learned to evade the bridle, and is a bit shy around the ears,” she continues.
“How will we go about setting a new pattern?
“We will start by deconstructing our habitual putting on of the bridle, identifying steps which will address different aspects of the whole process.
“Then we will install new steps, one by one, setting a new, happier pattern for both of you.”
If a horse has learned to resist the bridle, Gallagher writes, it’s best to start with the basics, and that means without a bridle, such as when we catch the horse with halter or lead rope.
First, Gallagher suggests, stand next to your horse’s head with your lead rope on his neck and halter in hand. Then ask your horse to simply flex his neck, she writes.
“Begin by putting your finger tips on the off side of the neck (away from you), and ask the horse to turn his head toward you before slipping the halter on,” Gallagher writes.
“Get in the habit of doing this every time you halter the horse.”
She continues that next, you want to teach the horse to lower his head.
Start by “holding the halter clip (or knot) with your left hand, below the horse’s chin, place your other hand lightly on his poll,” she writes. “With gentle pressure downwards, ask him to lower his head.
“Important: the moment he relaxes downward, release the pressure.
“At this point, we have two steps or components to our program — still no bridle has appeared to trigger an old unwanted pattern.”
Gallagher says that if you stroke your horse from forehead to crest, that will help keep him relaxed.
If the horse is a little ear shy, then “with his head low lightly run your forearm (not your hand) over his forehead and over his ears, even up the crest of the neck, then observe and see how he responds to that,” she writes.
“If he handles it well, then let your hand try that motion and see how it goes.
“If not, return to using your forearm, getting him used to having something slip over his ears.”
Once the two of you have that down, Gallagher writes, you can start involving the mouth by giving the horse a cookie while his head is down. Then, with the lead rope still hanging “over his neck (so he won’t think he’s loose), remove the halter,” she continues.
“Repeat by lowering his head (with a cookie if needed) and putting the halter back on.
“Note: This is fun to do, but the point is not the cookie — just the release of pressure will reward your horse with comfort.
“For our purposes in this exercise, the treat gets the horse working his mouth.”
Next, Gallagher writes to try suggesting the touch of a bridle by using your lead rope. With the halter on, make a loop with your lead rope, large enough to go around the head, and hold the loop in front of the forelock and under the chin, as if you were preparing to present the bit to your horse,” Gallagher writes.
“Your upper wrist should be between his ears, lower hand under his chin.
“Ask your horse to lower his head again.
“This is the same as lowering his head in the earlier exercise, but with a subtle step further.”
Next Gallagher writes that you should suggest the bit.
“The lower part of the lead rope under his chin can serve as a pretend bit,” she continues.
“Again, with halter on, his head down, and the loop in place, have a cookie in the lower loop hand, and slide the lead rope into his mouth with the cookie.
“With your upper hand (between his ears by his forelock), lift the rope in his mouth right to where the bit would be.
“(The halter is still on, so if you need to, use your lower hand to lower his head again. And be sure to lower his head to take the rope out of his mouth.)
“You can see how, with just a halter and lead rope, you can prepare your horse for the bit and bridle.
“So, whether you are starting a young horse or retraining an unwanted behavior, you can work these exercises in anywhere, in small easy steps.
“When it’s time to introduce the bridle, the horse will be confident in what he knows. And by slowing yourself down and being mindful of all the components that make up a learned pattern, you’ve made progress, too.”
Thank you, Mary Gallagher, for your sage advice.
• Back Country Horsemen sponsored horse and mule packing class — 9:30 a.m. Saturday with instructors Ed and Sue Haefliger at 400 S.E. Kalium Drive, Shelton.
For more information, call 360-427-4297.
• Freedom Farms Cowmanship class — from noon to 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 18.
Call 360-457-4897 to confirm.
• Feet First: Hoof Maintenance and Trimming Class — 11 a.m. Feb. 25 with Jerry Schmidt and Mary Gallagher at 164 Spring Farms Road.
For more information, call 360-457-4897 or go to freedom-farm.net.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.