Establishing your body space and asking your horse to stand still
If you start by establishing your body space you can often get the horse’s attention and also bring down his adrenalin levels. All the horse needs to do is to stand still. You need to position yourself directly in front and facing the horse with about an arm’s length to his nose (putting your fingers on his noseband as you step back will help with this) and then ask him to maintain this distance. Facing the horse means everything towards the horse – your shoulders, your eyes, and your tummy. Keeping your hands down will prevent you from fussing with his face and stop you inviting him to touch you. Maintaining eye contact with the horse often helps to keep him where he is but eventually you should be able to completely relax.
If the horse moves forward into your body space then he should be promptly asked to step back out again. For some horses it will simply be a matter of taking a determined step towards them, for others you may need to make your body language bigger.
Once the horse accepts that he should just stand still and do nothing, he will often relax and the “adrenalin graph” of his neck will often drop dramatically. When you relax and breathe deeply, even yawn, you will help him to relax even further.
This is the most important thing to establish with the horse and forms the cornerstone of your future relationship. The horse learns that when you are around he can completely relax and let you take the leadership role. He doesn’t need to worry about a thing.
From here, you can also teach a horse to “ground tie” with his lead rope on the floor.
Moving forwards and backwards – the step by step approach
By asking a horse to step forwards or backwards just one step at a time, the horse will learn to listen and should be easier to handle at gates and during loading. Backing up is also incredibly useful in ridden training and by teaching them on the ground first you will make the ridden work much easier.
To ask for a step forward I remain facing the horse but look at his feet rather than his eyes. I need to now when he is about to step forward so that I can make sure I release with my rope and give him a cue to stop moving forwards. The first thing to do is to step back out of his space without any pressure in the lead rein. If the horse moves forward to this visual cue then he has no pressure on his head at all. However, if he doesn’t come forward I apply a gentle and easing pressure on the halter (using my ring finger only) until he steps forward. At this point I “conduct the orchestra” by raising my hands gently to ask him to stop. If the horse gets it right he will get a lovely rub and a “good boy”.
To ask the horse to step backwards I also like to give a visual cue first – I will step next to the horse, looking at the foot that I want to move. If the horse doesn’t step back then I will gently slap my rope against my coat three times and if he still doesn’t move, more assertively three times. If he still doesn’t move then I apply pressure to the halter. Some people prefer to press the horse’s chest. In any event, the aim is to ask the horse to become lighter and to respond to the slightest cue or body language. If the horse gets it right he gets a lovely rub and a “good boy”.
It helps to be aware of the “into pressure” reaction when asking a horse to move by using pressure on his body. A horse’s natural instinct when they feel a push against their skin is to push forward; they have to learn to do the opposite for humans.
Moving the hindquarters
To move the hindquarters, I start at the horses head and move to his shoulder. Here I give the horse a lovely rub at the withers in order to establish a “neutral position”. This is important when it is time to mount the horse as you don’t him to move his hindquarters away the moment you walk down the side of his body. With a slack line I then walk along the length of his body before stepping out so that I am opposite the horse’s bottom and facing it with my eyes, shoulders and tummy. The more accurate your body language, the better the response that you tend to get and frequently the horse will step away immediately and bring his head round to you with no further pressure. This exercise can also be done by applying thumb pressure to the horse’s bottom until he moves over but be aware of the instinctive into-pressure response.