Ask Our Expert - Jon Ensign
This Month's Expert
Horseman Jon Ensign’s techniques are drawn from Ray Hunt, Martin Black and Buck Brannaman. He uses these techniques to educate in clinics around North America, and to work with horses at his facility in Belgrade, Montana. In the July issue of Western Horseman, Ensign discusses ways to gentle your horse, minimizing injury to both horse and rider.
“I don’t want to desensitize a horse to the point where I take the life out of one, but I need to get them good and gentle to be around,” says Jon Ensign. “They need to be gentle to be safe, and that is what my goal is.”
Here, Ensign answers reader-submitted questions on crossing water, riding in spurs and suppleness. For more information on Ensign, and his techniques, visit jonensign.com.
Q: My horse refuses to go across water when I’m riding him. Occasionally, he will just balk but then follows another horse across. I can lead him across easily, but when I ride him we have problems out alone as we have several streams to cross. It is limiting to keep him in areas where there is no water to cross, and he can be a handful when he acts up. What can I do to get him over this problem?
Cindy, Kalispell, Montana
A: I can really relate to the water-crossing issue. That can be frustrating at best. When this problem arises, our ultimate goal would be to keep our horse between our legs and our reins. The first thing we need to make sure of is that he can move forward freely with no hesitation from our legs. We get this by asking with our legs for him to move forward and instantly releasing with our legs when we get the desired response (which is forward). Now that we have our horse moving forward freely, we can approach our water crossing. We need to pick a spot that is six to eight feet wide and not very deep. A horse’s depth perception is not very good, so we pick a wider spot. This will discourage our horse from jumping. As we approach the stream, our hands will get wide on the reins so we can control our horse from going left or right. Now we need to get our horse as close as we can to the water and let him settle. If he acts up at this point, take him away from the water and put him to work; therefore, making your horse uncomfortable away from the water and comfortable at the water. This may take some time but it is time well-spent. When back at the water, encourage your horse farther forward. When he makes effort to move forward, release the pressure and give ample time for him to think. Watch for several signs: lowering his head, licking his lips, and blinking his eyes are some encouraging signs. If you use this approach to build each other's trust, your horse will be crossing water in no time.
Q: I have a 4-year-old that rides great. I recently started riding him in spurs so I could give more subtle cues. The first time I touched him, he jumped straight up and bucked. He is fine when you poke him in the sides on the ground, but when I’m on him, he cannot stand to be ridden in spurs. I tried several times, but it got to where he was shaking before I got on. I don’t want him to fear me, so I quit using the spurs. But, I feel that being able to ride in spurs is something that advances both he and I. Is this a big problem, and if so, what can I do to get him to accept the spurs without losing his trust?
Chad, Texarkana, Arkansas
A: A friend of mine told me one time that spurs can be razor blades in the hands of monkeys (no pun intended). What he means by this would be the overuse of spurs. The first time you used spurs on him you may have asked too much with them; this scared him and he bucked. Horses forgive us for some of these things. If he is so sensitive about them, maybe you don’t need to use them. If you feel that you need to use spurs, take a softer approach. Try bending him left and then apply your left spur—lightly—but do not poke! Wait for his hindquarters to step over, then bend him right and do the same thing. When you get him good at this, then you can ride him forward with ease. Now you can work your way to refinement.
Q: My horse is very stiff when I ride him. I have tried to do some flexing exercises I’ve seen, but he still keeps his neck pretty straight even when I rein him around. My vet says nothing is wrong with him physically. I don’t know what to do to make our rides more comfortable.
Jane, Kiowa, Colorado
A: Thanks for the good question. To get your horse more relaxed, we definitely need to work on flexing, where we bend left and right with no resistance. Just bending our horse will not get this; we need to have a good release. When our horse is bent, we need to wait for him to look in and down, and then we release. This will encourage him to look for a spot where there is no resistance. We can also help with our legs. If we bend to the left, we can add a light left leg. This will encourage our horse to look slightly to the left without resistance. Do the same to the right. This will get you on the path for getting him more comfortable on your rides. Good luck and happy trails!
Next month’s ASK OUR EXPERT features Colorado horseman Aaron Ralston. (Learn more about Aaron here.)
View more horsemanship articles here.