Written by Sylvana Smith
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.2
Those quick feeding-time or social visits can build—or undermine—your relationship with your horse.
I would love to spend my days immersed in horsemanship, but that’s not what I do. I commute two hours to a corporate cube, work all day to pay for kibble and mortgage, and try to maintain an old farm by myself.
So, the reality—which probably looks familiar to any horse owner who juggles multiple roles—is that time with the horses is limited. My weekday horsemanship is often compressed into 10 minutes before breakfast and 10 minutes after work in the dark.
After two decades of such 10-minute encounters with my horses, I’ve come to appreciate how much I can build on our relationships and skills or undermine our good work—by what I do and how I do it in those precious 10 minutes.
Along the way, I’ve made mistakes, experimented and learned, and gathered ideas from groundwork clinics with Buck and others. From all those sources, I’ve assembled a simple framework of dos, don’ts, and activities that work for me—to extract maximum value from those brief feeding-time and social-time moments with the horses.
Guiding philosophies for 10-minute success
Don’t feel guilty if 10 minutes is all you have. I used to anguish over giving my animals short attention because they seemed so needy and grateful when I did offer it. Then I was snowed in for 10 days with nothing to do but fawn over them, and guess what—they are bottomless pits of attention-seeking need. Ten hours a day isn’t enough to assuage the guilt, so perhaps that guilt was misplaced in the first place. Maybe it was really misguided flattery—the belief that the horses needed me to make their lives complete, when they actually seem pretty content with each other too. If 10 minutes is all I’ve got, I’ll make the most of it, without apologies.
Do acknowledge that your relationship with your horse is forged by every interaction, no matter how brief or seemingly inconsequential. Those 10 minutes can either build or undo your training just through subtle differences in how you feed, check over, and socialize with your horse. It’s important to use careful technique in every minor interaction, not just when formally schooling.
Some years ago, my obedience-trial spaniel and I attended a seminar on “positive motivational dog training”—basically the canine equivalent of natural horsemanship. The participants didn’t know we were being videotaped as we entered the building with our show dogs, signed in, picked up name tags, and chatted with friends.
The videotape was revealing. While we were distracted by socializing, thinking we weren’t yet “training” our dogs, the dogs were learning that sometimes it’s okay to wander off from a “sit-stay,” pull on the leash, wrap around the handler’s legs, and sniff and tangle with each other. The clinician’s point: How can the animals differentiate when a request from us is optional and when is it essential? Why would the animal respect our decision-making ability if we abdicated that responsibility at whim?
Don’t mistake inappropriate closeness for affection. The horse that rubs, nudges, nuzzles, and nibbles does seem to be showing kinship, but he’s also pushing the limits of mutual respect. I love snuggling my horses, but now I’m more careful about how that snuggling takes place. I draw them to me, rather than letting them command me for affection. I define an appropriate distance between us, and I expect the horse to maintain that distance.
My Thoroughbred mare loves having her belly scratched, so I started doing it every time I came home from work. Soon she was following me around, sidling broadside and begging me to scratch her belly. I obliged. With each encounter, she got pushier about it, and I overlooked the trend because I was so pleased to have won over this aloof horse. Soon she was greeting me at the car, shoving her body sideways into me, and getting cranky if I didn’t scratch her belly. Unwittingly, I had told her, “Mare, you define the parameters of how we interact, and I’ll do what you command.”
Don’t hand-feed treats or allow the horse to grab the meal being carried to his feeder. The horse that gets delectables by hand will soon be begging and stealing, and the horse that snatches from the feed bucket en route already is. Either way, the horse is saying, “I decide what I want from you and when.”
Granted, there are exceptions. One friend routinely feeds sugar cubes to her dressage horse, and her mare is an absolute angel, not a trace of begging or pushiness. I hand-feed carrots and apples to my Amber-Lou every day, and she is demure and genteel about it, never begs or snatches. Then again, she’s a cow. My horses would become sharks.
Do pay attention to details; the horses do. In fact, horses seem to be more attentive and careful about listening to our moves than we are about delivering them. We’re so busy being verbal creatures that we may overlook valued opportunities to improve our communication in the horse’s language of choice: body language.
Drawing on countless examples from Buck Brannaman’s and Ray Hunt’s clinics, I try to remember three key factors to make the small details add up:
(1) Make sure to get a response for every request. I don’t accept “naw” or “maybe later” as an answer. Suppose I want to move the horse aside to put down his hay—I push my fingertips on his neck, nothing happens, so I move the hay somewhere else. I just told him, “Some of my requests have meaning, and some can be disregarded.” This may sound like a trivial disconnect, but I just missed an opportunity to build fineness. The next time I need to move the horse, I’ll probably have to do more to get a response. I’m supposed to be seeking to always do less.
(2) Look for and listen to the smallest responses. Suppose I’m snuggling the horse, and he creeps forward one baby step. I don’t care; he isn’t stepping on my feet, so I ignore it, or maybe I didn’t notice it in the first place. By mistake, I just told him, “It’s okay if you close up the space between us, uninvited.” The next time he’ll likely creep two steps, then three, and soon I’d find myself saying, “When did he decide he could walk all over me?”
Release when his mind has formulated the answer, rather than after the body has finished answering. Suppose I need the horse to back off so I can open the gate. I press a hand on his chest, and his weight shifts back and one foreleg lightens to prepare to lift backward. If I keep pushing on his chest until he has backed six steps clear of the gate, I’ve missed a half-dozen opportunities to release him for formulating the right idea—missed a half-dozen opportunities to build lightness.
Do pay heed to herd dynamics. I rarely have the time or inclination to halter and single out each horse for interaction time, so my 10 minutes are usually spent in the paddock or pasture with three or four horses loose. Working with one horse in a group of loose horses—especially in the dark—is not the safest strategy, and it makes me vulnerable to some aspects of herd dynamics.
I permit myself this less-than-ideal approach because these horses are a known quantity, being in my herd for years and all having groundwork basics in place. They understand the basic paddock rules of Ten-Minute Horsemanship, and together they form a normally functioning herd. When my gelding lived in an aggressive, dysfunctional herd at a boarding stable, I removed him from the field for every encounter. I had to.
Recognizing that there is a certain amount of posturing even in a normally functioning herd, especially at feeding time, I stay very aware of where the horses are, relative to each other and to me. I don’t want to be standing where the leader will likely send the subordinates. While flies are swarming, I don’t want to be behind the gelding that bucks vertical when a horsefly lands on his back. Nor do I want to stand between the gelding and the long-necked mare who swings her sour expressions at him.
I like to think the horses would squelch these gestures if they knew I was in their path, but why test the theory?
Do respect yourself and your safety foremost. Here are some examples where I think safety concerns make doing the “right” thing—being a conscientious, attentive horse owner—dangerous enough to be wrong, at least in a loose group, which is how my 10-minute encounters take place.
Bad footing. If I can avoid it, I don’t work on icy ground or deep muddy footing, not even for 10 minutes of “quality time.” There’s too much opportunity to fall and sprain an ankle or bog down in mud, unable to get out of the way.
Leg checks. I’ve concluded that hands-on, routine check of tendons and hooves in a loose group of horses isn’t worth it. It’s too easy to be run over because no one saw you crouched down checking a hoof.
Ruffians. Working while an aggressive or disrespectful horse is loose in the same area isn’t worth it. I came to that conclusion at that boarding barn, when my gelding and I found ourselves surrounded by a gang of bullies with their menacing version of trick-or-treat.
Do pattern the 10-minute encounter on a model of fair leadership—with the human more parent than pal, more democrat than dominator. We hear a lot of talk about being “alpha horse,” or “showing him who’s boss.” I prefer the metaphor Buck uses, of dance partners, in which one leads the dance, and the other willingly follows, for mutual gain. Mark Rashid favors the term “passive leadership” to describe a mutually respectful relationship in which humans lead with tact and diplomacy.
What to do in those 10 minutes
As to leading the dance, I select the dance from among many that I have picked up from groundwork clinics, equine massage therapists, observation, or imagination. These sample mini-exercises are scaled down to fit productive messages into a few free minutes.
Two-step.The horse takes two free steps backward in response to any choice of aids: maybe a hand on the chest, fingertip pressure across the nose, a wave of my hand, a point, a shake of the rope, tug on the turnout rug. Then, in response to a hand slipped under his jaw, he takes two free steps forward. And then back again. In both directions, and whichever method I use, I’m careful to release the signal at the first hint of compliance, when the horse is thinking about taking a step.
Line dance. For a horse inclined to leave during the two-step exercise, I’ll slip a baling string over his neck—there’s always one in my pocket at feeding time—and do any or all of these mini-exercises by signaling with the baling string, or just having it available as necessary. This mini-exercise helped prepare me for riding with a rope around the horse’s neck at Buck’s clinics.
Square dance. Picturing the horse as a square with a leg at each corner, I like to be able to move any foot out of the square in any direction, using different combinations of signals.For example:
Lateral step behind, away. Maybe it’s a fingertip touch on the flank to move a hind leg away without getting bend in the neck—perhaps curling the head around toward me to get the lateral hind step with a bend in the neck.
Lateral step in front, away. I’ll use a fingertip pressure at the shoulder to move a foreleg away while keeping the body relatively straight—maybe then fingertip pressure just behind the jaw to move the forequarter laterally away with bend in the neck.
Lateral steps toward. I’ll tuck a hand under the horse’s jaw and bring it toward me to bring the forequarter toward me. Or perhaps I’ll take up the slack on the neck string to bring the forehand toward me, seeking the lightest possible signal. Or maybe tug on the blanket surcingle at the girth to get a lateral step without the neck bend, or a tug at the rear surcingle to get a small lateral step behind.
Hustle. While it’s flattering to have the horse hook on, follow me and get close, I also need to be able to send him away. Maybe he’s crowding a gate, getting pushy over food or cutting in on my 10 minutes with a pasture-pal. There are plenty of reasons to have the horse light to drive away from me. I wished for it when I was surrounded by those boarding-barn hooligans, who reared, spun and kicked at me when I tried to shoo them off. If my horses show the least inclination to ignore a shoo, I make sure to do the Hustle in our 10-minute sessions.
Swing. A physical therapist showed me the hypnotic effect of swinging the horse—and he used as his model the most bristly horse I’ve ever known. He started by placing his hands across the center of the croup, just above the tail—and then gently rocked the horse back and forth until she relaxed and swayed. As he worked, she got more entranced. As she got more entranced, he moved to her lowered head and neck. He placed a hand on either side of her neck, and swayed her gently from side to side until her head was swinging freely from a loose jaw.
Electric slide. If I want to ease the spark out of an electric, high-headed horse, I’ll work to lower his head to knee level or below and stroke him along the crest of his neck. To lower his halterless head, I’ll start with a steady touch of a palm just behind the poll, releasing pressure with each give, until his muzzle is between ankle and knee. Then I ease off the requests and rub his neck, searching for what he enjoys most: vigorous rubbing or scratching, light stroking, kneading massage, whatever. I experiment and find out what that horse likes.
On a gentle horse that’s good about his head, I’ll slip my elbow over the neck and cuddle him down with both hands on either side of his jaw—maybe just stroke downward on his forehead in front of his ears—or take up a light pressure on the baling string around his neck—or slip a lead rope over his neck—or press on his crest behind the withers and move forward toward his ears until I find the point that works. There’s a place for all of these signals.
Whichever signal is used, this mini-exercise shows the horse that there is a comforting reward for lowering his head, relaxing and trusting.
Shag. I used to feel compelled to devote some of my 10-minute time to tidying up the horses—unraveling Rastafarian tails, sponging off mud, and such. A wise mentor pointed out that every time we comb a tail, we break hairs that take a year or more to grow back. Every time we knock off his coating of mud, we knock off his deliberately applied protection from sun and flies. Every time we bathe or hose him, we strip natural protective oils from his coat. “You don’t do the pasture-kept horse any favors by grooming it only to turn it back out,”she said.
I’m quick to accept advice that makes my life easier, so this stuck. My horses get shaggy in the winter, their tails stay tangled and their chocolate coatings stay on until I want to ride. Now I can devote my 10-minute sessions to more fruitful endeavors, like enjoying the shower of little sparks I can work up by rubbing their furry winter coats in the dark.
I try to pattern the activities of my 10-minute horsemanship on those models, setting up little activities that advance our training goals without necessarily being domineering. Rather than charging in to show him who’s boss, I can show fair leadership just by using careful technique as I check on him, feed him, move him, and touch him. The result is a pleasant, low-key encounter that we both enjoy while building softness, yielding, lightness, and trust/relaxation.
None of these little “dances” are very serious, and none very big or dramatic. I’ll do a minute of this and a minute of that, whenever the whim strikes me and a horse is within arm’s reach. Our 10-minute encounters don’t look or feel like significant training sessions. They’re just visits that happen to take place while I do daily chores or have a quick chat with them.
The power lies in close attention to every nuance of every interaction, applying our horsemanship principles cleanly and accurately every time I step them away from the gate, get them to leave the cow alone, show them to the fresh water, or walk through the paddock to deliver a pile of hay.
Seamlessly and without the horses noticing it, we’re getting those two-minute “dances” going well. By revisiting building-block skills in two-minute increments, we’re freeing up the feet, developing yielding responses to all sorts of pressures, establishing a climate of mutual respect, and sharing affectionate moments at the same time.
These are just kindergarten dance steps, to be sure, but when the volume gets turned up and we really want to tango, the foundation steps are there—better than before—even though I only had 10 minutes to spare.
1. Our relationships are defined in every encounter, even when we don’t think we’re training. The horse finds small ways to ask, “Where do I stand with you today?” We have to notice he’s asking, and have a consistent answer.
2. With only a few minutes to spare, and no equipment at hand, you can accomplish a lot to develop soft, yielding responses to fingertip pressure in any direction.
3. You can revisit mini-exercises whenever you’re within reach of a horse—even a minute here, a minute there—and the details will add up.
4. To improve safety, respect and rideability, you must be able to drive the horse away as easily as draw him in, without impulsiveness or resentment.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.2