Of all the techniques, methods and gimmicks to get our horses to do what we want, one of my favorites has always been a cow. By making position comfortable for the horse, whether it be offense or defense, we can encourage him to move at different speeds and direction with a purpose. The laws of nature are relatively simple and consistent that animals live by, although they are different for predators than for prey animals. That’s where the problem for us humans comes in. We think as predators, but we need to try to reason with the horse, thinking as a prey animal. We need to understand how prey animals think, and reason with them accordingly.
Some of the basic laws that horses naturally live by are:
Horses are herd animals; they go to their mother or the herd for security
They have a flight or comfort zone. This is the area around them, that, when penetrated, engages their self-preservation.
They respond to pressure and relief, mentally, emotionally and physically.
As prey animals, they are always cautious of aggressive actions by others.
Their first defense is flight, if they don’t feel that option is available, they fight.
By understanding and applying these principles, our communication can be much easier for our horses and us. Horses are instinctively drawn to the herd. Their earliest experiences naturally are to move to and with the herd when they experience any suspicion of danger. If we can apply this into our working with horses, the message is much clearer and we can capitalize on knowledge and experience the horse already has.
For example, to get a green horse to move out, we need a cow that will move away as the horse approaches. Then we can relax any pressure we are applying when the horse looks or moves toward the cow. When the horse’s attention is not on the cow, or he is committed to moving away from the cow, apply pressure to the horse. The horse will feel relief toward the cow, and discomfort away from the cow. This will motivate the horse to go to the cow for comfort as he has experienced in the past with his mother or the herd for comfort and security. When he makes this connection, it is like he instantly gained a lot of training, but in reality, we have just shown him he can use some of what he already has learned to make his life easier. With the cow leading us, we can get some direction and speed variance.
Another example is getting a green horse to turn on the hindquarters. We need to tap the horse’s knowledge on flight zones. The horse will have one and the cow will have one, since both of them are prey animals. Flight Zone is the area around an animal that when something approaches too close, they feel the need to move to maintain a safe distance.
If the cow is drawn toward the horse by wanting to return to the other cattle, or because the cow is against a fence, we will be able to engage the cow’s flight zone.
A fence corner or wings at about 30 degrees off parallel of each other is useful. The more the horse pushes the cow into the corner or narrow end of the pen, the more the fences pressure the cows’ flight zone. The closer the horse is, the more the horse pressures its flight zone. The cow is not going through the fence, so it tries to come past the horse. The only way to maintain position on the cow is to get away from it or get out of the flight zone. By taking the pressure away, the cow will slow down or stop, allowing the horse to slow down or stop. The horse can learn from this application that by pressuring the cow into the corner, he creates work for himself. When the horse gets out of the cow’s flight zone, and the cow stops, we need to let the horse stop, relax, and air up if needed. This pause will motivate the horse to look this position up next time things speed up. When we step in to turn the cow, if the horse turns with forward motion, we get deeper into the cow’s flight zone and the cow will speed up. This causes more work or pressure for the horse because the horse now has to speed up. We can help the horse learn that he can slow the cow down by staying out of the cow’s flight zone, or moving away from the cow.
We can put pressure on the horse with our legs and reins when the cow is close. The horse will interpret this like it is coming from the cow and it will encourage him to keep the cow out of his flight zone, then we offer relief when the cow is out of the horse’s flight zone. Since we are applying the pressure, based on our position with the cow, we determine where the horse’s flight zone is.
When this starts working, we can ride toward the cow until it moves then let the horse get out of the cow’s flight zone. With this, we can develop a stop and a back because the horse does not want to approach the cow’s flight zone and the horse wants to keep the cow out of his flight zone.
We can set up a turn when the cow is moving into the horse. This means we are pressuring the flight zone of the cow and the horse. As the cow turns into the horse, the horse will want to get back away from the cow’s flight zone and protect his own flight zone. The horse will then pull back, making a turn over the hindquarters.
The other main component that animals operate from is a balance point. This is the point that we influence the cow to change directions or stop. When the cow’s flight zone is engaged, and its route is blocked and the animal still chooses to travel or escape, it will choose another route. When the flight zone is not engaged or the animal’s safety is not threatened, we can block the cow’s balance point and we can stop the cow.
Again, the horse will already know about balance point if he has had the opportunity to play or fight with other horses in the past. Whether he is aggressive or submissive to another horse, the position from the left or the right of the balance point will determine the direction. The depth of the flight zone will determine the speed. He can be on offense or defense, delivering or receiving, and they will have experienced these components.
When we understand this experience and knowledge the horse already possesses before we influence him, and let him put this to our benefit, we can get ahead of the game quick.
The cow basically becomes an object that the horse is cautious to crowd. By approaching the cow, we can step up stops, turns, and backing, using the flight zone to pressure the horse and offering relief at the balance point of the cow.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.32