Dominant horses view us driving them very differently than their submissive counterparts. A Submissive horse will be happy to have someone in control and making the decisions. The drive is making their world safer and less stressful. In the herd they are used to being sent through the scary places by the Dominants. This makes any drives we do with the Submissives very easy whether it is lunging or a send out onto a circle or over a fence or obstacle. In the round pen the Submissives will go out easily with little resentment or attitude
Now how does the Dominant horse view being sent or driven? They will most likely shoulder into you or if you try to drive the hind end, constantly disengage the hind, all the while trying to keep their heads on you - the better to control you with. Most of us have been in the position trying to teach them to lunge where they are putting in a lot less effort than us. We are running around and around to their hind end and they keep facing us and making us appear foolish, looking like the tables have turned and they are lunging us. To get the job done we usually have to get very tough and then they go out but out with a lot energy and attitude, usually with a buck and a kick on the way. The expression will be angry and resentful or fearful. Not our willing partner that we are trying to create.
The old school of training will state that you must dominate horses if you are to get them to work for you so just get on with it and let them know early on where they stand. This is where problems arise with horse partnerships when you have a strong Dominant horse and a strong Dominant person, the fighting begins and a win/lose dynamic has been set up. If the person wins the horse must lose and they will become the obedient, shut down personality that we often see or they rebel and the person loses in that relationship and goes off to find a more easily intimidated horse to work with. As more and more horse owners are rejecting the old way of training horses, we needed to find a way to work with Dominant horses that did not create this fight response. So, if driving the shoulder creates resentment and anger, and driving the hind end is almost impossible, it lead us to search for a new position that will work for the Dominants. They need to understand a drive as that is the ground exercise that lays the work for our future riding. This new driving exercise works equally well for the Submissive horse, but it is not critical for them as it is with the Dominants.
Let’s start where we want to finish – as partners. We will be beside one another, going forward together. After all when I am riding I am going to be in the middle of them, not leading and not driving. So to set this up: I am going to position myself beside them, approximately even with the saddle. I will begin with desensitizing, as you should always desensitize before you sensitize. If we have not desensitized first and we start to drive, then we will be teaching our horses to react to us rather than respond to us from learned conditioning. This is where I see the greatest weakness in lunging as an exercise for starting young horses. For many of them they are merely reacting and running away from us because we have not started with desensitizing and built trust before respect.
Desensitizing their sides – can we rub them up and down each side? Do they like us touching them? Can we touch them with our rope on their body or with a stick? We must have that trust before we ask something of them.
Before we start let’s check in on ourselves and make sure we know exactly what we want and how we are going to ask for it. The most important thing that we can bring to this relationship with our horses is clarity. Most of the time we are a jumble of disconnected thoughts and a body that is totally unaware of its posture and the language that it speaks. We will begin with clear intention, clear thought and clear body language.
Our intention – let’s make it very simple – we want our horse to walk forward. We are not asking them to maintain it or to do a circle or to go to some specific destination. Just forward and as soon as they give us a few steps we will say thank you and turn our energy off and allow them to rest. This turning off of energy is of equal value to turning it on. This is where our trust we have built will make this exercise easy.
Our thought is going to be “let’s go somewhere”, and we will look in that direction.
Our body language is what we want our horse to learn to read when we are riding them so let’s get started with that language now on the ground. How are we going to say “ready, set, go”? Let’s try eyes up, chest up, energy up, extend the leading hand and ready the driving hand at the rib cage and ready, set, go.
Now we may need to have four phases so the horse can start to anticipate what our language means. It may take them until 4 phases the first couple of times but soon they will become lighter and quicker to respond. If our thought is number 1, our body language number 2, then number 3 can be raising our driving hand and rope by the rib cage, and number 4 will be a touch of the rope on their side. Any time we are using a four-phase system, remember, if we get to four and we get no result…we can’t just keep repeating that 4 or we will actually be desensitizing our horse. So, if our horse ignores the 4, we’ll go back through the first 3 but this time adding a stronger 4. They will start to get the idea very shortly and meanwhile we have gotten better and better at our sequences.
From the repetition of this exercise the horse will also start to realize that we are going to follow through and be consistent. They do not have to worry about us suddenly flying off the handle if they make a mistake or do not respond. We are learning to be emotionally consistent which will serve us well through the rest of the training.
What does our body feel like when we are following the movement of the horse? As soon as our horse responds by moving off we need to develop a way of moving with them that is neutral, that also helps tell them that they are doing the right thing and that they can relax in it. Let’s really feel into our body and feel what loose and relaxed feels like. This exercise we will do again when we are riding, we need to be able to be a passenger before we can influence. Can we be in motion but totally relaxed and loose. As we walk beside our horse let’s check into our posture. Are we walking freely with our hips moving and are they aligned? Is one shoulder up or down, more tense than the other? Now let’s turn off our energy. This will not be an active stop. We are just winding down, our eyes are down on the ground, our head and posture is down. It sometimes helps to add a verbal cue to help later when we ride. It could be a sigh, or a trill or tongue roll as the drivers use, or a “good job”, or a “ho ho”, although I find that one too close to an active halt. Whatever we chose, we stick with it so our horse can really understand when it’s time to turn off and have rest and reward.
In the turn-off, if the horse does not stop, do not pull on them. Just keep the contact and let them wind down and come to a resting stop with you. We will get good at the three body postures with our horse – energy up, neutral and turn off.
In no time our horse is moving off on a thought or suggestion, so we can begin to go longer distances before we turn off. We do this exercise from both sides so that they stay laterally balanced. If the horse is also Curious we can set up poles and tarps or any variety of fun obstacles to drive them over. It the horse is Afraid, we must remember to give them repetitive patterns to help them learn and feel safe.
We will add on to this later by having them circle on a longer rope but still with us in the parallel position. On the circle we will see if they can keep walking as we go out and give them a rub and then return to our center spot. Can they stay walking on their circle? Can we make our body language and intention clear enough that they know of what we speak.
When we are walking with them in neutral it is very similar to when we are mirroring them at liberty. Sometimes we are leading, sometimes they are leading. This again is very important for the Dominant horses. The bond that we form from this exercise is strong and it is interesting as to why it has such a profound effect. My guess is that in some way we have become energetically linked with them as they are in the herd. Just as we watch birds move simultaneously, we also see the herd move as one on occasion. Is this not how we want to ‘be’ with our horse?