By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Horses need to build off your energy, not the other way around says Jason Irwin, of Jason and Bronwyn Irwin Horsemanship near Port Elgin.
Referring to nervous horses, Irwin says he’s seen people working with a nervous horse who walk up slowly, with shaking hands, saying “easy, easy, be calm, easy” and then say the horse is very spooky.
“No kidding,” laughed Irwin who showed no lack of confidence speaking to horse enthusiasts at Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week Horse Day held January 5 in Elmwood. The event is hosted by Grey Agricultural Services.
“You want to be the leader and have the horse follow your guidance,” said Irwin.
Horse day featured trainers Jason Irwin and Ellie Ross of Wag and Train in Kitchener who had different ways of training horses, though both believed confidence in your method is key.
Irwin said he gained his confidence from a neighbour who was a “character” and whose main goal was to keep him and his brother in the saddle no matter what.
“He would whip a soccer ball at us while we were on the horse and if we fell off, it was our fault,” said Irwin, laughing now. Another time, the “trainer” hauled off and hit his brother’s horse on the butt with a shovel.
“Well, that horse went the length of the arena, bucking as hard as he could,” remembers Irwin. “We really got darn good at holding on and if you were alive at the end of the program, you passed.”
Eager to learn how to train horses, young Irwin was given a horse training video series by Ray Hunt. “It was three VHS tapes on how to start a young horse under saddle and I would watch those tapes, go and try it on our horses, and watch the tapes again,” remembers Irwin, growing up on his parent’s beef and horse farm. He wore out the tapes as he developed his own system for training horses based on Hunt’s methods.
By the time he was 18, the Irwin family had sold off their cattle and were focusing primarily on horses. Irwin fine-tuned his skills in colt-starting competitions and then Liberty training.
“That really taught me to watch the colt to know what it is going to do before it does it,” remembers Irwin.
Irwin then outlined what horse owners need to know before sending their horse for training ... or choosing to train it themselves.
“It is important to start with a horse you think you can have success with,” said Irwin. This may seem incredibly obvious but he remains surprised by some of the animals he is asked to train.
“Someone will bring in a horse and say it bites, kicks and fights but they bought it for the grandchildren,” says Irwin. “I didn’t realize how many grandparents hate their grandchildren!” he joked.
A horse should have the basics and its owner should have a sense that the horse can be what they want it to be.
Also, horse owners need to take honest stock of their own abilities. “Ask yourself if you are a good rider. If you know, deep down, that you aren’t, it’s not a black mark against you. It just means you may not be the best person to train that horse.”
Ask yourself how you handle stress. A young horse is already stressed. If it bucks or bolts, and you clamp down to stay on, you are throwing “gas on the fire”. A stressed rider will stress the horse while a calm rider will calm a frightened horse down. This is obvious, says Irwin, but adds that not every horse owner really assesses their own skills.
Moreover, horse training takes time. Just like you can’t send your children to school one day a week to get a proper education, you cannot train your horse once a week and expect results.
When sending a colt or horse to someone like Irwin, he says there are things your horse should already know. Irwin expects the animal to be halter broke and can stand to be tied. He wants them to be calm when being touched all over their body. “And I want them to respect my personal space.” Irwin says he can train these skills but they take time and there is only so much a colt can learn in a day before it freezes, locks down or turns off.
Sometimes Irwin gets half-trained colts where the owner tried to start training and soon realized he or she was overmatched. That’s okay, says Irwin, but “be honest about it.” This gives the trainer a heads-up on the best way to train the horse
In his line of work, Irwin says he sees five kinds of horse personalities.
1) The quiet, respectable and well-mannered horse. This is rare.
2) The trained but rude horse: This is the horse that tries to push you out of the way. Basically, this horse needs a firmer hand and everything becomes a “yes or no” with that horse.
3) The respectful but scared horse: This is the horse that backs up in the stall and prefers to be away from people. This horse will need more patience, less firmness but a lot of confidence. It needs to draw on your confident energy to learn and be confident.
4) The rude and scared horse. “This is usually a horse that has been really, really spoiled,” says Irwin. This horse might run the owner over or bite and kick, while the owner lets them do it thinking they are just being “friends.” This one is hard because being too firm makes it scared, but not firm enough and the horse will run over you.
5) The dominant horse. This is a horse that has not been handled much, might be feral and is willing to stomp you if it feels you are a danger. “But you probably won’t run into that kind of horse around here,” says Irwin.
Once he has decided what kind of horse he is working with, Irwin prefers to work his colts with a snaffle bit in a round pen. “This way I can focus more on riding than steering and the colt can’t pick up a lot of speed if it decides to go running,” says Irwin.
Then he uses sensitizing and desensitizing techniques. Sensitizing is asking the horse to do something, and as soon as it responds, releasing the pressure to reward it for learning. Desensitizing is creating a stimulus until the horse does not respond. An example of this would be putting a saddle on and off, on and off, until the horse stands quietly.
“It’s all about effort and reward, says Irwin. “We aren’t looking for a manouevre to be performed perfectly at the beginning. You are just looking for a good, honest try. You want to reward for trying, not completing.”
Other tips Irwin offered include:
• Train your horses in multiple places. You want the horse to learn that not only does it have to listen to you in an arena, it has to listen to you everywhere.
• Arena training teaches finesse. Trail riding offers exposure. Do both.
• Natural horsemanship is great but people get too fluffy. “People want to look their horses in the eye, connect and ride into the sunset. But often they look their horse into the eye and get tossed over the fence.” There needs to be a balance.
• People want their horses to like them. But in a herd, there is a pecking order and you need to be the leader. You do not have to be mean to your horse to be the leader. Think of this situation: You are riding and a transport truck comes by. If that horse is not confident in you, it will get scared and make its own choices which might mean jumping in front of the truck. If it trusts you as leader, it will still be scared but it will trust you to get through it.
• When someone asked how to connect with a horse that does not want to be caught, Irwin suggested catching them sometimes just for a treat. Or a scratch. So that they don’t associate being caught with having to work.
• If a horse doesn’t pay attention while on a lead rope, extend the rope and walk backwards. As soon as the horse looks away, walk in the opposite direction. Quickly. “Your horse will soon learn to keep his eyes on you because he realized every time he looks away, that sneaky bugger (you) disappears!”
• Irwin uses spurs but doesn’t recommend others use them unless they understand that spurs are meant to be rolled, not poked. “If you use them like a harpoon and poke, that’s bad,” says Irwin. “I wear spurs to get them used to spurs. Not to scare them.”
Following Irwin’s talk, Ellie Ross, the Director of Animal Behaviour and Applied Training at Wag and Train, Inc., in Kitchener, talked about using understanding and treats to train horses.
“One of the most common things I see is that the horse and the rider have a misunderstanding. Often horses try and try because they want to do the right thing. But they get frustrated,” says Ross.
The only way horses can communicate is with body language so it’s imperative to watch it and learn.
Also, owners should check their horses for medical issues. Ulcers and other painful afflictions explain a lot when a horse is acting up.
Also, examine the horse’s environment. She shared the story of a veterinarian who was called in to assess why there were behaviour issues with Royal Canadian Mounted Police Horses. When the veterinarian visited the stables, he saw each horse stall had solid walls with bars in front. Horses could not interact and were not given enough time to graze and socialize. He made them rebuild the stables.
“There was a transition time because these horses had serious social deficits. There was biting and injuries,” says Ross. However, the majority of behaviour issues diminished over time.
When it comes to training, Ross believes in using treats even though a lot of people highly object to it.
“The principles of behaviour are this easy – any behaviour that gets rewarded gets repeated,” says Ross. “I use treats as that reward.”
She is very careful how she does it. Any horse that asks for a treat, doesn’t get one. “If a horse invades my space when looking for a treat, he is being rude and obnoxious and doesn’t get one. The horse learns when his head is close, good things do not happen. When his head is over there (where it is supposed to be) good things happen.”
It’s all about thinking how to reward good behaviour, even when they display bad behaviour.
For instance, if a horse doesn’t like to go though water, allow it to rest after being in water. “Horses want to get out of work. They want to rest. If you teach a horse that going through water means it earns a rest, you will find they will actually go into water to earn that reward.”
For a herdbound horse, treats can work amazingly well. First, work the horse five feet away from the herd. Give it a piece of licorice. Then lead it 10 feet away and reward it. Gradually, the threshold increases.
Another specific Ross discussed was pawing. “This is a common behaviour and can be very destructive,” says Ross. You want the horse to learn patience.
“A patience post is a lost art and it needs to happen. Horses need to be tied up for long period of time so that they learn to cope,” says Ross. “They learn to realize they are tied and get to rest while their buddies are working. Tying for long periods of time as a training tool is very effective,” she concluded. ◊