Our horses do amazing things for our participants. Today I wanted to touch on a few very small and simple things we can all do for them to be considerate while handling them during lessons (and before and after) to contribute to their success in the ring!.
Horses prefer to be out in the pasture eating grass with their friends. Everything we expect from domesticated horses is completely unnatural to them as a species; from living in stables, being touched multiple times per day by humans, eating processed foods, and drinking water out of plastic buckets - not to mention being mounted and ridden. Their natural instinct tells them to run away from things they fear. But with proper training, desensitization, setting clear boundaries, and earning their trust, we are able to get them to learn to face those fears and respond in a positive manner. This allows us to do things with them like jump obstacles, pull carts through city streets - and as they do here at Southern Reins - provide an invaluable service to children and adults with disabilities through equine assisted activities and therapies.
Part of the way we are able to get them to remain so willing to do what we ask and respond in an appropriate way to certain situations is by being considerate of the fact that they are sensitive animals by doing our best to provide a safe and healthy environment for them to work in. I wanted to provide a list of a few things we can do as horse leaders to be considerate of their natural tendencies, and help keep them happier and healthier while working in our program.
Remember that everyone needs personal space. We ask that people always approach and stroke the horse first at the neck and shoulder. If the horse turns to you and engages being pet on the head, give them a brief and gentle stroke on the forehead. Avoid petting too much around the muzzle area, as this can result in mouthiness. Some of our horses crave touch - but really prefer not being touched on the face at all. If the horse flips their nose up or moves away from you when you try to touch their face, take this as a sign that they do not wish to be touched there.
Gentle strokes when petting are typically preferred over patting. Horses are large animals and sometimes a person may feel they need to pat them hard. This can be abrasive to the horse and isn’t a sign of affection horses would show to each other in their natural environment. Be gentle and stroke them softly in the direction that their hair falls, and you will build a better bond with your horse partner.
Do not apply unnecessary pressure on the crossties or lead rope. I frequently see people holding the cross ties close to the horse’s face for no reason. If a horse moves a little while being tacked or groomed; that is really OK. Pressure on the cross ties is pressure on the halter and on the horses head. This can be unpleasant to the horse and cause tension in their neck and back.
When leading horses, hold the rope palm down. This makes for a more relaxed arm, therefore reducing tension in the rope that goes all the way up to the horses halter and head. Not only will this be more comfortable for you as the horse leader, it will also be more comfortable for the horse.
Use your lead rope in a new way to encourage your horse to walk forward. If a horse refuses to walk forward after several attempts providing pressure to the lead rope, swing the tail of the rope behind your left hip in the direction of the horses left hip. Do not actually strike or touch the horse with the lead, just the swinging of the rope is typically enough to encourage them to move forward. Always remember that a gentle pull immediately followed by a release is always best, and this step can be repeated if needed. You will find that our horses tend to step out on the release and not when the pressure is applied. Again, constant pressure and pulling causes tension in the neck and back, and can even result in pain.
There are so many things that humans can do to provide a more natural environment for our equine partners that typically results in a happier and healthier horse. These are just a few pointers specific to working with our horses that I wanted to share.
At Southern Reins, some other things we do in an effort to provide the best environment possible for our horses is allow them maximum time out in the pasture to move around and graze. This aids in digestive health, keeping stress levels down, blood flow and circulation, joint health, and overall
fitness. We use Porta-grazers in the stalls that I’m sure some of you have noticed. These are a slow feeder for hay that allows the horses to have something to eat the entire time they are stalled, because they have to pull and tear the hay to get it out of the holes in the top this simulates the same way in which they pull and tear the grass in the field. Not only does it make it more natural to them, but it also aids in saliva production that helps with overall digestive health.
Our horses are some of the best in the world, and we want everyone to have the tools in their tool box to treat them as such. We are so thankful that our volunteers and participants love them as much as we do, and appreciate your help to set them up for success in serving our community. - Sara