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Clinician Trains Horses To “Think”

“It’s what I see arranging inside the hide and hair that tells me when to quit and when to add pressure. My pressure is only to encourage her to think – she’ll take care of the rest.”

– LEE SMITH, HORSE CLINICIAN

Ahorse that won’t jump into a trailer easily can be a real pain in the fanny.

Instead of reaching for a whip, yelling or getting into a tug of war with the horse, clinician Lee Smith takes a patient, relaxed approach to trailer breaking.

“I want to put the horse in a position where what I want to have happen becomes her idea,” said Smith, in a demonstration at the three-day Horse3 educational event at Brandon’s Keystone Centre April 18.

By working patiently with the horse, and paying close attention to the “slightest change, the slightest try,” the expert horse trainer from Wickenburg, Arizona was able to trailer break a mare that – prior to the session, had only ever been driven onto a trailer like a cow – in less than an hour.

Smith’s strategy is to make it easy for the horse to do what it’s supposed to do, and difficult for it to do the opposite, without resorting to any obvious use of force.

PERCEPTION

When teaching a horse to do something new, the trainer’s skill depends on his or her ability to perceive the animal’s attempts to comply, no matter how small or fleeting they might be, with the aim of building on each incremental step further toward the goal.

Directing the feet means looking beyond the “hide and the hair” to see what the horse is thinking, which is indicated by the presence of tension in the muscle and when it’s relaxed. When applying gentle pressure to force a reaction from the horse, the trainer must give the animal time to respond within its comfort zone, Smith added.

“It’s what I see arranging

inside the hide and hair that tells me when to quit and when to add pressure. My pressure is only to encourage her to think – she’ll take care of the rest,” she said.

“The interest of the horse, to me, is everything. I don’t like the feeling of when a horse is afraid of me. It might have to happen before he understands, but I’ll adjust my presentation to get a different result if I can.”

When the horse indicates that it wants to back away from the trailer, Smith lets the horse move away for a moment, but then brings it back into position in front. When its attention wanders, she bumps it under the chin gently to bring the task back into focus.

STAY IN FOCUS

“I’m not asking the horse to load, I’m asking her to get

ready to load. I leave her be when she’s trying,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t realize that the horse might step back before he goes in. How many of you would take a step back before you step up in this trailer?”

Because the horse is a prey animal, its greatest fear is of being trapped, added Smith. With that in mind, once the horse makes its first timid attempt to climb up into the trailer, it should be allowed to walk back out immediately whenever it wants until it is totally comfortable with the whole process.

That flexibility on the part of the handler lets the horse build confidence, and trust that something bad won’t happen if it goes inside. Eventually, the horse will show a willingness to stay inside the trailer for longer periods of time, and move freely in and out, without hesitation.

“It’s her idea. I only support or direct it,” explained Smith. “If I put you in my car and then I didn’t let you get out, would you want to get in the next time I asked?”

Taking the time to do it right, and using a patient attitude with horses gives the animal room to learn a new task, she added, and in the long run ends up saving the owner a lot of grief and frustration.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t teach them how to load. We just took the butt rope out and stuck them in there. So that horse never learned how to organize his thoughts to get in the trailer.” [email protected]

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