Ask Our Expert - Michael Richardson
This Month's Expert
Michael Richardson has devoted his life to helping others achieve success with their horses. He and his wife, Tiffany, run a training facility in Hico, Texas, and travel to clinics and horse expos helping others better understand their horses.
Richardson has worked with Curt and Tammy Pate, Chris Cox and Pat Parelli, among others. Richardson's unique connection to the horse enables him to offer a fresh perspective when teaching others how to better communicate with their horses.
"Unfortunately, as an ambulatory person I didn't always ask or was concerned with what the horse thought. I was more concerned about getting the job done," Richardson says in "The Horse Connection" on page 35 of the April issue of Western Horseman. "Now, I want to present it in such a way that it becomes the horse's idea. Now, I want to create a line of communication, have a constant flow of information and be constantly evaluating what the horse thinks. [That way] I learn how to communicate with them in a better way."
For more information on Michael Richardson and his training methods, or to contact him, visit brokenrranch.com.
Q: I have a coming 2-year-old Arabian stallion. He is easy to manage on the ground and loves the attention. The problem is that he is a biter. He just started this over the winter when we aren't able to work. I want to show him in halter this year, but won't be able to if I can deter his biting. I don't want to hit him in the head and make him head-shy, but don't know what else to do.
Lisa, Crane, Missouri
A: First of all, I agree with you completely that getting physical or hitting a horse is not appropriate and certainly not the route to success in teaching a horse his manners and/or correcting an undesirable behavior. My goal with all horses is to help them think and understand what is being asked or expected.
Let's consider your horse, a 2-year-old Arabian stallion. The Arabian is an intelligent, thinking horse with a lot of energy. He will get bored easily, and with his natural energy and being a young stallion, he will be looking for ways to expend that energy. Having not being able to work over the winter, he could have a lot of energy pent up.
My recommendation is to give him plenty of time to get out and work off his intellectual, emotional and physical energy. Also, observe his behavior closely with you as well as with other horses. You will want to be aware of the non-verbal communication that he is sending to you as work around him. Before he tries to bite, do you notice anything in his actions or mannerisms that would give you any indication that he is going to try to bite? As an example, do his eyes squint, are his ears back? Observe whatever he is doing and as it begins to occur and try to redirect it. Reward him for trying to do as you ask; remember, horses learn with the release of pressure not the application of pressure. Progress to haltering and watch for the signs he might bite. As soon as you see the signs emerge, give him a job. For example, ask him to move around you, change directions, stop and back up. Be aware of not asking too much or increasing his or your anxiety and give him a chance to relax, lick and chew or just breathe. Just as you watch for signs of stress, watch for signs that your horse is relaxing.
We want to set the horse up to be successful by establishing parameters for the horse to behave within, without compromising the horse in anyway.
Q: I keep hearing people talking about a horse "hooking on" or "hooking up" in the round pen. I have a yearling filly I'm about to start working in the round pen. What exactly does this mean, and how do I know when I've achieved it with my horse? And how long does it usually take before I can tell if my horse is doing the right thing? I plan to start her under saddle next spring.
Brian, Columbus, Ohio
A: Hooking up, or hooking on, to me is shorthand way of saying that you and your horse have developed a rapport. In this rapport, the two of you are observing, understanding and speaking to each other in a way that the two of you understand and can be successful in your work. The most talked about and obvious sign of "hooking up" is when your horse stops and turns to face you. However, this could be a learned behavior rather than a sign of honest communication.
So the road to this rapport starts with observing your horse partner and understanding her expressions, her movements and her personality in a stress-free environment. Spend time with her in the pasture. Watch her. Move around and see how she reacts to your movements. Be relaxed. You build rapport through this observation and constant exchange, For example, is she stretching her neck out, is she lowering her head? Get to know her before you start asking her, because you want to know how to ask in her language. This is then carried over to the round pen.
The round pen is a useful tool because it's a more controlled environment. However, we don't want it to become a tool for mindless exercises. Make sure the round pen is not too small. She is a young horse and you don't want to stress her and cause her to torque her joints or hurt herself. Observe her as you did in the pasture. Allow her to walk; if she moves to a trot or canter, allow that as well, but don't drive it. Don't apply too much pressure in any one session, and consider the quality, not the quantity, of the work. My goal is to allow the horse to think, not be reactive. Building a rapport requires that both the horse and human are learning from and understanding each other. Observing your own intellectual, emotional and physical experiences is important as well, because frankly, she has observed them before you are conscious of them.
Q: My 6-year-old gelding is well mannered in the arena when I take him to a show or to a friend's place to ride in their arena, but he is nervous and spooky out in the pasture. I don't have an arena at home and have to ride him outside, so this gets tiresome. How can I get him to relax outside?
Susan, Denver, Colorado
A: My goal is to develop a rapport with my horses to help them meet their intellectual, emotional and physical potential. This rapport helps the horse build confidence in himself and his rider. Your horse may have developed a false sense of security in the arenas and may have some internal anxiety that expresses itself when he is in an environment with a lot more stimuli. The beauty of the horse is that they are wonderfully observant and sensitive. So let's use this to help the horse be confident in himself and in you in the pasture or open areas.
I would begin by spending small increments of time with him outside the arena or barn. Be aware of the comfort zone of your horse and yourself. Let's say the comfort zone is 10 feet outside the arena, barn or round pen. We want to be aware to work within the comfort zone to build his emotional and mental confidence, always looking for the slightest try and rewarding often. As you progress, be aware to always go back to the place he is most comfortable so he realizes that when you take him outside that environment he has learned the skills to maintain his composure. This will help him be safer to ride outdoors and it will increase the relationship that you and your horse have. Your comfort zone will ultimately increase from 10 feet to 30 feet, and further, and progress to the point where these issues that you are experiencing will be less and less.
Next months expert is reining horse trainer Casey Deary from Weatherford, Texas. For information on Deary visit dearyperformance.com.
If you'd like to submit a question, please email Assistant Editor Kate Bradley at firstname.lastname@example.org by March 25. Please include your full name, city and state in your inquiry. Depending on the volume of questions received, some questions may not be answered. Western Horseman retains the right to edit submissions for clarity.