Training Mustang mishaps and mistakes, or any breed of horse for that matter, are bound to happen. There are many techniques to starting horses, but some of the older techniques or rushing every step may backfire.
Typically, when horses come in for starting, they are nervous and unsure, so taking extra time to allow the horse to get to know and trust you will go a long way. A non-stressful, non-evasive technique that is used in the Harmony Horsemanship method is called Positive Association. Horses have a fear response because they’re prey animals, and we want to turn that into positive association, especially with Mustangs.
The idea of positive association is to help the horse see a human as a positive leader, to help the horse feel confident and comfortable with its human. The easiest way to achieve this is with food and to be careful not to chase the horse. If you have to throw the food away from you to start and then slowly approach the horse with the food is a great way to begin. At this point, you want the horse to know that you aren’t going to hurt it and you are something that they don’t need to fear.
The second major tip is that you need to have healthy boundaries. Many horse owners are afraid to create boundaries because they’re worried that the horse will not like them or become fearful, which is the opposite if done correctly. When you create a boundary, they have to be clear and healthy, which will help the horse feel safe and secure like a horse would toward its leader in a herd. Horses communicate based on body language, respecting each other’s quadrants, and drive lines. So, when you don’t have that, it usually causes the horse to become more anxious.
Another simple way to create a healthy, non-aggressive boundary is to stand tall and still. Think about pretending like you’re a tree, grow roots, let your feet sink into the dirt, and try not to move your feet. When a horse is in a herd, a boss horse will assert dominance by forcing the other horses out of their way, essentially moving their feet. Once a horse has purposefully moved your feet, it has the upper hand. It’s okay to gently shoo the horse out of your space using your hands by waving the end of a rope or flag.
The third tip is teaching the horse to give to pressure. This can be obtained by using positive reinforcement, which boosts motivation, lowers stress, and makes it an entirely more enjoyable experience for the horse. When teaching the horse to give to pressure, the key is not to give up but to give in to the slight give because then, if we give up or do not release the pressure when the horse gives in will teach the horse to brace against that pressure or think that there is no point because it isn’t getting the release. So, whether you use positive reinforcement or not, the horse must learn to follow that feeling. So, for example, if you ask your horse to go forward and put pressure on that halter and the horse stops and says no, you must keep applying gentle pressure to the lead rope. You don’t need to add more pressure or pull harder. The key is to be patient and wait for your horse to realize that it can respond to that pressure and give.
If you’ve never taught your horse how to give to pressure, and they feel pressure on their halter, stepping on their rope or being tied becomes a much more scary experience because they feel trapped; the same will also happen on other occasions. Asking your horse to lower its head and have them relax and give to pressure will help them in those situations. The same will go for trailer loading, introducing new obstacles, etc. Horses are flight animals, so teaching them to trust and give to pressure will make your starting/training process much more straightforward and stress-free.
To recap, start with positive associations, then make sure you have passive leadership, which means standing your ground, maintaining direction, speed, etc. Third is that your horse needs to learn to give to pressure. Not in a mean, aggressive way, but in an assertive, respectful manner. They just need to understand if they feel that pressure, how to move and give to that.
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