Ask Our Expert - Clinton Anderson
This Month's Expert
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. Anderson won the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition twice, in 2003 and 2005. He also competes in reining and reined cow horse 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.
For more information on Clinton Anderson, visit DownunderHorsemanship.com.
Q: How do I keep my mare from pawing in the horse trailer? I’ve had horses that kick in the trailer and I have successfully used kick chains in the past, but I don’t know how to fix pawing in the trailer. I don’t want to hobble my horse in the trailer because I would think she could lose her balance. What else can I do to stop this annoying habit?
A: Horses are prey animals, and when made to go in tight, narrow spaces - like a trailer - it's natural for them to feel trapped and claustrophobic. Your horse pawing while in the trailer is a sign that she isn't comfortable in it. Because their horses go on the trailer relatively easy, most owners in your situation think, "It can't be a trailer-loading problem; the horse will go on. It has to be a pawing (or kicking) issue." Just because your horse goes on the trailer, doesn't mean she's comfortable there.
You have to teach her to crave the trailer - thinking that it's the best place in the world to be. In order to do that, you're going to work her feet outside the trailer and let her rest inside the trailer. How you make her move her feet outside the trailer isn't important as long as you make her feet hustle and change directions. When I'm working with a horse like this, I lunge it or send it back and forth in between me and the trailer. After several minutes of hustling your mare's feet, let her rest inside the trailer. If she starts to paw, immediately back her out and put her feet to work again. You can even load her in the trailer and drive around your property and as soon as she starts kicking, stop, unload her and make her hustle her feet.
If you’re consistent, it won’t take long for her to realize that standing still and being in the trailer is a good thing because if she paws, there’s nothing but hard work waiting for her outside. With repetition, she’ll learn to stand still, not kick and relax. Remember, she is kicking because she really doesn’t want to be in the trailer. If you can get the horse to think the trailer is the greatest place in the world to be, she will no longer want to cause any problems in the trailer and instead will be happy to stand still and relax.
Q: I do not have a round pen, but want to do some groundwork with my yearling
gelding. I am teaching him to work on a lunge line and he's doing well. I've
watched you work with horses in a round pen, and would like to know how I
can modify the things you do since I am working in an open area. I realize a
lot of my success will be based on how well I use my body position to signal
my horse, but how can I do all those things effectively with the lunge line
in my hand?
A: You’re absolutely correct when you say that your success with your horse depends on how well you use body language. In fact, it doesn’t matter where you’re working with your horse – in a round pen or in an arena – body language is vital to a successful lesson. Horses communicate with one another almost exclusively with body language and are experts at reading our body language. When you work with your horse, you must be aware of what you say to him nonverbally because he is always aware of it, even if you’re not. This means that you need to be very consistent with your body language. When you want the horse to relax and stay calm, your body language must be very relaxed. If you want the horse to move, your body language should be more assertive and direct.
Ideally, you should start all horses in a 50-foot round pen with 6-foot high panels because it makes your job as a horse trainer easier. The round pen allows you to safely gain control of your horse’s feet without being connected to the horse. Anytime you’re connected to a horse by a lead rope, you have to be relatively close to him, so if he tries to do something disrespectful like kicking, biting or running over you, the chances of you getting hurt are much higher. After a few sessions in the round pen, the horse will already have a higher level of respect for you so when you do put the halter and lead rope on him, he’ll be in a better frame of mind to pay attention and learn.
If you don’t have access to a round pen, you have a couple of options. You can create a makeshift round pen. Any small, fenced area will work; your job is just going to be a little more difficult because if you’re in a square pen, your horse is going to have a tendency to stop in the corners. You’ll just have to adjust your position to continue to drive him around the pen. You could also set barrels in each corner, so he can’t get stuck in the corners as easily.
Or, you can skip the round pen exercises all together and go straight to work on teaching him the three primary groundwork exercises – Yield the Hindquarters, Backing Up and Yield the Forequarters. I refer to these exercises as primary because you’ll use at least one or a combination of them in every groundwork exercise you ask your horse to do. When your horse can do each of the exercises well, then you can expand your groundwork lessons to include more challenging exercises that will continue to build respect, communication and trust between the two of you.
In any case, it’s important to put the right foundation on your gelding, and it sounds like you’re already off to a good start.
Q: My 4-year-old gelding has always been great about loading in a trailer and
hauling. He is no problem, except that I can't get him to back out of the
trailer. I have to turn him around to get him out. He walks out quietly, but
I would really like to teach him to back out of the trailer. He's very
responsive on the ground and will back easily when outside of the trailer,
but when I try to back him out he locks up and won't go anywhere. I have a
slant-load and have to haul him in one of the front compartments so he has
room to turn around.
A: This is a fairly common problem, especially if you have a step-up trailer without a ramp. When some horses can’t feel the ground behind them, it makes them too nervous to back off the trailer. It’s like they think you’re backing them off the Grand Canyon to cash in their insurance. Even if you’re using a trailer with a ramp, backing off something that moves and makes a noise like the ramp does can be intimidating to a horse. It’s important to get your gelding over his fear of backing out of the trailer because you’re taking a big risk every time you let him turn around inside the trailer. Horses can easily get stuck or panic and severely injure themselves when turning around in tight quarters.
To solve your problem, it’s important that your horse can back up well on the ground. As soon as you apply pressure, he should readily back up with energy in his feet. If he’s sluggish about backing on the ground, he’s going to be ten times worse when you ask him to back off the trailer. It sounds like your gelding already backs well on the ground, so you can prepare him for backing off the trailer by recreating the situation outside of the trailer first.
Get a large wooden pallet and cover it with a couple sheets of plywood to make it sturdy enough for your horse to walk across safely. Then practice having the horse back off the pallet. First, ask him to step onto the pallet with his front feet. Then back him off. When he’s comfortable with that, then have him step onto the pallet with all four feet and back him off. Get him used to picking up his feet and backing off something. If you don’t have a wooden pallet, you can help prepare the horse for backing off the trailer by backing up over a log so that he has to pick his feet up and step back.
If you have a step-up trailer, you can place the pallet behind the trailer and practice the same process of having the horse back off it. Put his front feet in the trailer and leave his hind feet on the pallet. Move him on and off the pallet a hundred times. Then put three feet in the trailer and leave one hind foot on the pallet. Again, move him on and off a hundred times. Then put all four of his feet in the trailer and back him on and off a hundred times until he’s comfortable stepping down onto the pallet. Then you can take the pallet away and he should be able to back off the trailer with no problem.
If you have your horse backing really well on the ground and he willing backs over the pallet, he shouldn’t have any trouble backing off the trailer. Like everything else you do with your horse, you just have to find a starting point. Your horse doesn’t want to back off the trailer because he isn’t confident in the situation. So you have to show him, step by step, that it’s safe to back out of the trailer.
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