5 Common Mistakes

Story by Mike Kevil

Photography by Jennifer Denison

When it comes to training horses, there is an abundance of information available to us through books, DVDs, the Internet, television and clinics. That should make horse training a breeze. However, the reality is that people make mistakes. The cool thing about horses is that they can be pretty forgiving.  If you just stop doing the wrong things and start doing the right things, horses will make the positive change that you want.

Mike KevilI talk to a lot of people who run into difficulties when starting their own colts.  Here are five of the most common problems I hear about, and how to address them.

Sometimes when we're not sure of what we're doing, we jump around and try different things. There is nothing wrong in trying something new, but give the horse time to figure it out. You'll confuse your horse if you jump back and forth between contrasting methods.

You also need to be consistent in how you apply the method. You can't allow bad behavior some of the time, then reprimand for it at other times.

I've given people lessons with horses that were dull or rooting with their nose. After we made improvement with the horse, I'd tell the person to take a break and let their horse relax. During the break, I'd notice the horse pulling on the reins and rooting with his nose, and the person not doing anything to stop it.

Mike KevilIf part of the time you let your horse lean on the bit, then he learns that part of the time it's all right to lean on the bit. If you are consistent about not letting him lean, then he will get consistently better. Being consistent removes confusion and speeds up the learning process.

Feel and timing go hand-in-hand, so I always talk about them together. Both are equally important, but feel comes first. If you can't feel when to release pressure, then your timing will always be late.

If you don't look for the small changes in a horse, then you won't notice them. You have to feel for that small change a horse makes to let you know he's trying. If you look for it, you'll find it sooner. The sooner you feel that change, the faster you'll release pressure. Your horse will improve more quickly, with less confusion. Your timing and feel can always be improved, but it will never be perfect. That's why the best trainers I know continually work to improve on these two things.

Here's an exercise you can practice with your horse to work on your timing and feel. Standing next to your horse, put your hand on his nose above the nostrils. Gently squeeze with your fingers. You don't want to cause pain, just make it mildly uncomfortable. He will start to move his head around to get away from the pressure. Release the pressure when the head moves down.

This is a good relaxing exercise and can make it easier to bridle the horse. With a little practice, you can get him to put his head down to the ground. What will make your horse learn this faster is you feeling his head start to move, then immediately releasing the pressure.

Gaining respect from their horse can be really hard for some people. It's really not that difficult, but some people have a hard time making themselves do what's required to get the necessary level of respect.

If you want your horse to do what you ask, you have to have his respect, but not instill fear. The problem most people have is they think if they reprimand their horse, then the horse won't like them anymore. I do not encourage people to beat their horse, but they may have to be firm in their request for a horse to try.

When reprimanding a horse, you can cause fear by asking too hard and not rewarding the small try. Using fear to train is self-defeating, because eventually the horse will get numb to what you're doing and then you'll have to increase the fear to keep him working. This comes to an end when the horse finally decides that he can take whatever you can dish out. You won the battles, but lost the war.

When you use respect to train, the horse does something because you ask him. You can eventually use voice or hand signals to get the desired response. You may be able to ride without a bridle or halter by using nothing but a shift of weight or a light leg, but it all starts with using the necessary tools to give you control that leads to respect.

A lot of problems happen because a horse is allowed to do something wrong that the owner doesn't perceive as a potential problem. Then the owner will say something like, "All of a sudden, one day he bit me." It didn't happen "all of a sudden." Over a period of time, the horse went from friendly, to pushy, to bold, and then to biting. When you don't see it coming, it just seems like it happens all of a sudden.

Respect starts with the groundwork. Your horse should lead without dragging. He should not walk on or too close to you. He should stop when you stop and go when you go. You should be able to back him up easily. When longeing, he should walk, trot and lope when you ask and without begging. Doing things on the ground, like disengaging the hindquarters and moving the front feet to the right and left, are drills that earn respect because you're making the decisions and you're in control.

This is one of the most common problems I am asked about. People do a great job of getting the horse quiet and relaxed. And when they get on, the horse just stands there. They can't get him to move.

There is more information out there on how to desensitize the horse than there is on how to sensitize him, but when starting a horse, you have to do both. If you work on getting your horse to respect you, it won't be a problem to get him to go. If you don't have control of your horse on the ground, then he's not ready to ride. When I say control, I mean he should walk, trot, lope, stop and turn when you ask. I want a horse to react to a cue when I ask once, and have him move immediately but calmly. Then I know I have respect, but not fear. If he moves out of fear, you're in for a wild ride.

Mike KevilHere's something that can help him move out on that first ride. As part of your groundwork, stand beside the horse, holding the lead rope in one hand and your stirrup in the other. Cluck to your horse, then bump the side of the horse with the stirrup until he moves. Do it on both sides until he moves out easily, and always cluck first before you bump him. You will condition the horse to move to pressure on his sides just like when you're on him and your feet are in the stirrups. On that first ride, if you cluck and he doesn't move, then you can reinforce with your legs because he now understands to move forward with leg pressure.

It's okay if the horse is reluctant to speed up. That means he's trying to do what you ask, he's just worried about it.  It's a new feeling having a rider on his back, and it feels different at each gait. But it's not okay if he refuses to try or ignores you. It's all about the "try" in a horse. If he's trying to do what you ask, then back off and wait on him.

A lot of times when I am teaching somebody about starting colts, I use the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears as an example. Papa Bear's porridge was too hot, Mama Bear's was too cold, but Baby Bear's was just right.

When we work with a horse, we want the training to be just right. When it comes to advancing your horse, even the experts disagree on what's too fast or too slow. Papa Bears advance at a speed that they want, not always when a horse is ready. Mama Bears creep along, always afraid the horse isn't ready to advance, and they'll review the same things over and over until the horse is bored to death. Baby Bears do it just right. They are eager to advance, but not afraid to back up if the horse starts having problems.

Here are a few rules for becoming a Baby Bear:

• When teaching a horse something new, remember that this is the stage where he is acquiring this skill. If he's struggling with a maneuver, he is more likely trying to learn than refusing your cues. Don't punish him for not knowing. Help him learn.
• With something new, always reward the smallest try.
• Don't be so timid that you're afraid to ask him to try.
• As long as he is trying, give him time to figure it out.
• Be obvious, even creative, in helping him figure it out.
• Take smaller steps to make it easier for the horse to learn them.

Once the horse understands what you want, practice it until he is comfortable doing it. It doesn't have to be perfect, but he should respond easily, in a timely manner and not struggle with it. Do not wait for perfection at each level before you advance. You can still improve a lower level as you're working on something new.

Now, let's all go out there and be good Baby Bears.

Mike Kevil has more than 30 years' experience training horses, with a specialty in starting colts. Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, he has traveled throughout the United States offering clinics. In 2008, he competed at Road to the Horse, a colt-starting competition in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Kevil wrote the Western Horseman book Starting Colts. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.