Ask Our Expert - Clinton Anderson - July 2012
Since moving from his native Australia to the United States in 1996, Clinton Anderson has captured the attention of horse lovers. His no-nonsense approach to training, which begins with ground work, is the basis for his Downunder Horsemanship.
Anderson presents clinics at his ranch in Stephenville, Texas, and around the country. “Downunder Horsemanship” is one of RFD-TV’s highest-rated programs, and “Downunder Horsemanship TV” airs on the Fox Sports Network. Anderson won the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition twice, in 2003 and 2005. He also competes in reining and reined cow horses events, with several championships to his credit. In 2008, he won the National Reining Breeders Classic Limited Open division on Princessontheprowl, a High Brow Cat mare he bred and raised out of Princess In Diamonds, a leading producer of reining horses. In 2011, he won the Limited Open at the Southwest Reined Cow Horse Association Kalpowar Futurity on Thecrowdlovesme, a stallion by Smart Chic Olena.
Anderson was one of the trainers featured in “Horse Sensibilities,” which focused on the value of, and potential problems with, sensitizing and desensitizing horses, in the August issue of Western Horseman. For more information on Clinton Anderson, visit DownunderHorsemanship.com.
Q: My horse has started lifting his head when I go to put the bridle on. He has never been resistant before, and I've had his teeth checked. How can I teach him to lower his head when I bridle him?
A: Great job of ruling out a health problem as the cause of your horse’s resistance to the bit. Also, keep in mind that a lot of horses get fidgety about the bit because they’re made to feel uncomfortable when the bridle is taken off. Some people remove the bridle quickly, raking the bit over the horse’s teeth or pulling it off at an angle, which makes him feel very uncomfortable. Whenever you take the bridle off your horse, be sure to do it slowly and give the horse time to drop the bit out of his mouth; don’t just yank it off his head.
Sometimes horses just get smart and realize that if they raise their head up really high, you can’t reach them. If that’s the case, you can teach your horse an exercise to lower his head all the way to the ground whenever you gently press between his ears. Once he has lowered his head, then it’ll be easy for you to put the bridle on.
Stand on the left side of your horse facing his head. Hold the cheekpiece of the halter with your left hand. If your horse is really tall, stand on a mounting block so that you can reach the top of his head. Then put your right hand between his ears and gently touch his poll with your thumb and index finger; your fingers should be on either side of his forelock just behind the hard lump between his ears. Gradually increase the pressure by pressing with your fingers, then pushing harder and finally digging your fingers in until he responds by lowering his head. The instant he drops his head even slightly, immediately release the pressure and rub his poll.
Initially, your horse may dislike the pressure and will react by throwing his head up. If he does, keep your hand on his poll as you maintain the pressure until he finds the answer by dropping his head. The key to this exercise is to reward the slightest try. If he drops his head even slightly then reward him by releasing the pressure and rubbing his poll with the palm of your hand. Through repetition, your horse will gradually lower his head until it eventually touches the ground.
When you’re ready to bridle the horse, put your right hand over his ear to pull the bridle up toward his ears while holding the bit in your left hand. Rub the bit over the horse’s muzzle and put your thumb in the corner of his mouth to ask him to open his mouth. Pull the bridle up with your right hand and use your left hand to guide the bit into his mouth - do not force the bit into his mouth. Put the horse’s ears gently through the headstall one at a time. Then take the bridle off the horse by sliding it down his face, taking care not to hit his teeth with the bit. Practice these steps to bridle your horse until eventually he no longer tries to escape you by raising his head.
Q: I've been trying to work on rollbacks with my mare, but I'm having trouble getting her to stay on her hindquarters. She wants to go forward and make a sort of small circle instead of staying on her rear end and turning around. What are some exercises I can do to improve her rollback?
A: When I first teach a horse to roll back, I do so on the fence because the fence forces the horse to get back on his hindquarters and jump his front end through the turn.
Canter a 50-foot circle next to the fence. It’s important to use a sturdy fence that’s at least 5 feet tall. Stay away from barbed wire fences or fences that are short because your horse could easily get hurt. Every time you circle, you should come close enough to the fence to touch it with your hand. When the horse is relaxed, come into the fence at a 45-degree angle to create a “pocket” for him to turn into. If you come up to the fence parallel, the horse will be forced to kick his hindquarters out in order to make the turn, which is the opposite of what you want to have happen. You want him to stick his hindquarters in the ground, roll over his hocks and go the other way.
As the horse comes up to the fence, sit back in the saddle and say, “Whoa.” Then tip his nose slightly toward the fence. You’re not trying to stop the horse and then turn; you’re just redirecting his energy and letting the fence stop him so that he has to get back on his hindquarters. By saying the word “whoa,” you’re introducing a verbal cue to the horse so that eventually he will associate the word with “stop and get back.”
At the same time, press with your outside leg up near the girth to ask the horse to turn into the open pocket you’ve just created. He should rock all of his weight back on his hindquarters and jump his shoulders through the turn. As you’re turning, look back over your inside shoulder. This will put your body in the same shape as the horse’s, which will make it easier for him to come through the turn. As soon as the horse is turned, hustle him back around the circle and continue to practice the exercise.
As you’re doing the exercise, repeat to yourself, “Slow to come round, quick to get out.” A lot of riders get excited and have a tendency to race through the steps, yanking on the horse’s mouth. Getting the horse to roll back doesn’t have to be fast. In fact, when setting the horse up for the rollback, you should gently pick up on the rein and apply pressure with your leg slowly. What should be fast is hustling him out of the turn. As soon as he brings his shoulders through the turn, you need to be hustling him back out onto the circle.
When the horse is good at the exercise, then you can canter him all over the arena practicing rollbacks along the fence. Eventually, you’ll be able to practice rollbacks off the fence and won’t have to worry about teaching the horse to stop, turn and stay back on his hindquarters all at the same time. He’ll already understand from this lesson that he needs to shift his weight to his hind end and jump his front end through the turn. And anytime you run into trouble with him shooting forward out of the rollback, you can always go back to the fence to remind him to stay back on his hindquarters.
Q: I bought a 10-year old Quarter Horse gelding this spring for trail and pleasure riding and he has been great except for one issue...he hates crossing water! Can I do anything to help him overcome this fear?
A: While some horses take to crossing water without a hassle, most will put up a fight when you first ask them to get their feet wet. And it’s no wonder when you consider what you’re asking your horse to do. Horses are naturally afraid of objects that move and make a noise. When a horse steps into water, it not only moves, it also makes a noise. The best way to tackle water is from the ground, and then as your horse’s confidence grows, you can move to the saddle and increase the size and depth of the body of water you ask him to cross. I’ll explain how to start the process on the ground, but you can use the same philosophy to build your horse’s confidence under saddle.
Whenever you’re trying to teach your horse anything, always establish a starting point. In this case, find a puddle or make one yourself. Don’t immediately try to get the horse to cross a big body of water. Then find a place where your horse is comfortable being next to the water. That may be 10 or 15 feet away from the puddle. Keep in mind that how far away you start from the puddle depends on how scared your horse is of it. If he’s really frightened of water, you may even have to start 50 feet away.
Once you’ve established a starting point, begin to send your horse between you and the puddle using the "Sending Exercise." You’ll ask him to pass in front of you and then yield his hindquarters when his tail has gone past your belly button. When the horse is facing you with two eyes, ask him to pass in front of you again following the same steps. Gradually work your way closer to the puddle by taking a step forward each time you send the horse back and forth in front of you. Anytime the horse acts nervous about going between you and the puddle, stay at that distance away from it until he passes by it relaxed. Then take another step closer to the puddle. Before moving on to the next step, your horse needs to be confidently going past the puddle in a relaxed manner. If he’s tossing his head and rushing by the puddle, he’s telling you that you need to spend more time building his confidence.
Now that your horse is confidently passing between you and the puddle, start asking him to step into the water by using the "Approach and Retreat Method." Walk your horse up to the water. If you think he’s going to stop in nine steps, stop him in eight. Then back him away from the water. You’re going to go forward and backward – almost like a yo-yo. Ask him to go forward again, and before he stops, stop him and back him up. The trick to using "Approach and Retreat" is to stop your horse and back him away from the puddle before he stops himself. That way, stopping is always your idea. The more you retreat, the more you act like you don’t want him to go in the water, which builds the horse’s curiosity. Keep approaching and retreating until your horse can step in the puddle and back out of it.
When he’s comfortable getting his feet wet, then you can walk him through the puddle using the same "Sending Exercise" as before. Try to keep your feet as still as possible and send your horse into the puddle. If he braces his feet at the edge of the puddle, back him up a few steps and then ask him to come forward again. Don’t try to force him to step into the water like a predator. You want it to be his idea.
Think of it like a game of “cat and mouse.” The more you act like you want your horse to get into the water, the more he’ll resist your efforts. Act like you couldn’t care less whether he steps in the water, and before long, he’ll be walking through it with confidence. When he can handle walking through a puddle, gradually increase the challenge by asking him to cross a small stream, then step into a pond, etc. Once you have his confidence on the ground, then you can use the same concept under saddle.
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