Ask Our Expert - Pat Parelli
This Month's Expert
Pat Parelli makes his living teaching horses and people the fundamentals of control and communication in horsemanship. At 14-years-old he started working with a horse trainer, and has been a leading clinician for more than 25 years. With facilities in Colorado and Florida, Parelli travels the country giving demonstrations and clinics to get across his goal, "to make the world a better place for horses."
Parelli will compete against Clinton Anderson and Chris Cox in the 2011 Road to the Horse competition in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on February 25-27. The February 2011 issue of Western Horseman includes an in-depth look at the Road to the Horse competitors in "Their Own Roads to the Horse."
Q: I have a nice four-year-old gelding. He is great when I take him to different arenas and isn't scared or nervous warming up or working cattle. However, if I haul him alone he gets very nervous and worked up, and also has runny stool. Do you know of a good way to help him be more comfortable when he is alone in the trailer?
Jatona Sucamole, Springtown, Texas
A: The key is to prepare your horse in advance for emotionally unsettling situations. If you can plan ahead, you can also make sure that plan includes simulations and preparations for a specific event. For example, when a horse is hard to load into a trailer, I'd have trailer loading education be a part of my every day training and not leave it until the day of an event that required me to load my horse! I know the loading isn't the problem you're presenting here, but I think the story will help you understand the concept. So what do you need to do to help your horse? Is he afraid of being alone, of being in the trailer, or of the trailer moving, or...? Once you have the correct diagnosis you can embark on the right cure. So if your horse is afraid of being alone, then teaching him to be more confident by himself will be part of the every day development of your horse starting with just 30 seconds of aloneness, and gradually building from there until he learns that he can feel safe by himself. Do not make it a sudden event, or too big a jump like from 2 minutes to 20 minutes or you'll make him even more afraid or cause a panic that could get him hurt. You must never forget that you are dealing with a prey animal who knows he tastes good. In his DNA lives the most incredible survival instincts and his survival is based on living within a herd because every horse knows that lions can get the sick, the weak, the slow... or the ones that stray from or are on the outside of the herd.
I have a daily program that is constantly preparing my horses for everything I'm going to need them to be able to cope with - mentally, emotionally and physically. So all my horses spend a portion of their day tied - even if it is in their stall, because one day they're going to have to stand tied in a horse trailer for many hours as they travel across the USA or overseas in an airplane. Every horse learns to become more self confident and to trust their leader, because that's a large part of what my program is based on. Every horse learns to feel safe in the company of a human, even if all the other horses leave or we have to leave the other horses. Every horse learns to become more mentally, emotionally and physically fit and they get to believe that we care about their trust and confidence more than anything else. Of course this is not something everyone knows how to do automatically, but it is something a horseman has learned how to do. That's why I encourage every horse lover to become way more than a rider... to become a horseman.
Q: I have a new horse, she is 13-years-old, has done roping and neck reins. She rides in a straight [solid-mouth and shanks] bit. The previous owners say she does not take to a snaffle and mouths it a lot. I feel she is a bit stiff and would like to work her two-hands. Do you have any suggestions about doing this? She has not been ridden for months.
Anne Schwan, Arcadia, Florida
A: It's usually not about the bit. When a horse mouths the bit it tells you about their mental and emotional state - either they don't know what you want, or the way you are asking is scaring them. A quiet mouth is the goal and this takes feel and skill when handling one of the most sensitive parts of the horse's anatomy. There are a lot of horses that have trouble with snaffle bits because they have direct contact and no tongue release, so any of the rider's imbalances are felt directly by the horse. This is why many horses tend to go more comfortably in shank bits because they apply indirect contact to the mouth and distribute their effect in more areas - such as under the chin through the curb strap and even on the poll to some extent. So while the previous owners had trouble with using the snaffle, you might not, especially if you are more sensitive in the way you handle the reins and if you are able to inspire confidence vs tension in the horse.
Q: I have a 13-year-old Arabian mare that is a lot more go than whoa. When I am riding with my friends, whose horses are her pasture mates, and they head back to the barn or back to the trailer, and we are hanging back for some reason, she will take off with me to catch up to her friends. Being with other horses doesn't make a difference if her pasture mates are leaving. I have to keep her in front of them, or make sure we all leave together to avoid this problem. It is a safety issue as she can really go! I can get her to stop with the one rein stop, but it can be scary, and I am afraid she could lose her balance. If I try partial disengagement, she can run sideways! Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
Eileen Coe, Fort Myers, Florida
A: Horses are herd animals. They feel safe within the herd and, more importantly, when with their alpha. Leadership is the biggest issue you are dealing with because when your horse wants to be with the other horses more than with you, that is telling you something. There are various techniques to control a horse, but the real answer is the trust and respect you have from your horse. It's important to know that when I talk about respect I don't mean they behave because they are afraid of being punished, I mean that your horse truly respects you as her leader - she feels safe with you and trusts you with her life.
Let's talk about safety for a moment. I advise all my students to get off a frantic horse, preferably before the situation escalates and becomes dangerous... and the difference between "manageable" and "dangerous" is a few seconds, so do it the first moment it crosses your mind. Once on the ground you have a better chance of controlling your horse and staying safe, provided you have learned ground skill strategies such as those taught in natural horsemanship because you have to do much more than longe the horse!
Now, let's talk about how to build that bond. You need to learn how to become a leader of horses based on the same principles that horses use - when in horseville, do as horses do. In my program I teach students how to use love, language and leadership to prevent and solve problems and in this case the leadership would also include preparing your horse to avoid that separation anxiety. This is like a mare and foal being weaned... you can do it forcefully and suddenly which causes a lot of stress and risk of injury, or you can do it gradually so you've well prepared the horse for the final separation and it's seamless. So I would be practicing and simulating this situation at home, well before you get to the trail and a foreign situation that can make your horse feel insecure.