Western Horseman Articles
Content courtesy Western Horseman Magazine
Article by Karen Boush
Photographs by Jane Reed
Copyright © 2001 by Karen Boush
Part 1: The Ties That Bind
The ONLY way to have a friend is to be one,"Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely pointed out, and his advice can aptly be applied to our relationships with horses. The horses in the greatest need of a friend, however, are often the most difficult to befriend. How do you get physically let alone emotionally close to a horse who's busy biting, rearing, and bucking? Or to the horse who's a bundle of nerves and shies for the seemingly smallest of reasons? In other words, how do you help anxious, distrustful, and downright nasty horses?
Horseman and clinician Frank Bell, Larkspur, Colo., does it with kindness. Having built his own particular brand of horse handling on the cornerstones of touch and intimacy, he's created a seven-step safety program he teaches in 3-day clinics around the world and demonstrates at fund-raisers for therapeutic riding groups. Last year he raised $25,000 for North American Riding for the Handicapped Association centers across the country.
The philosophy underlying Bell's work is straightforward: Lasting, positive behavior changes come about as a result of the give and take of any close friendship. "It's like with people,"he says. "You want to develop a rapport with someone before you ask them to do something for you. If you give, give, give to horses, then they'll want to give back."
Bell first establishes a relationship with the horse on the ground, long before he gets in the saddle or asks a horse to do something that might frighten him, like walk into a trailer. Whatever the problem, whether it's loading, saddling, cross tying, bucking and rearing, or being ridden, Bell bonds with the horse before addressing the problem.
The first three steps of his program are the most important part of the process and can deepen relationships with any horse. Each step builds on the previous one by creating a stronger level of trust and laying the groundwork for the following four steps, which include desensitizing the horse to loud noises and strange objects, simple dressage movements on the ground, and-the final step-riding. Bell stresses the need to gain the horse's trust before you're actually in the saddle. That way, both you and the horse have familiar techniques to fall back on in case there's a crisis or a differing of opinions. In other words, you have a plan.
"I've got to have a friend, a relationship, before I get on," Bell says. "With some of the dangerous horses, you have to be more careful and go slower, but when you build a relationship on the ground, they'll let you know when they're ready for a ride. I get an invite. That head will go down and they'll say, 'Hey, let's ride.'"
The following steps hold the secrets to building a friendship. They can break seemingly cemented barriers in minutes. Remember to go slow, however, and never use intimidation. A horse's respect needs to be earned.
Step 1: Bonding
Before Bell asks anything of a horse he's just met, he bonds with him through touch, the first and most important part in gaining trust. Drawing on the hands-on healing methods of Linda Tellington Jones and the gentling techniques of the Plains Indians, he "search touches"for the places the horse likes to be stroked, caressed, and rubbed.
"I want to make the most incredible first impression with a horse,"Bell explains. "I touch them in the vulnerable places they can't reach. I rub their eyes, get inside their nostrils, and stroke under their tails. It sets me in a whole other league with a horse."
Bell suggests getting to know the horse and finding his favorite spots, the ones where he just melts when you indulge him in a good rub. Begin on either the forehead or upper neck with a firm, reassuring stroke, then massage the ears and eyes, inside the mouth and nose, around the girth and flank areas, and under the tail.
Most horses appreciate having their eyes rubbed and the bug-bitten hollow of the jaw scratched. Avoid "patting" the horse horses prefer soothing rubs, either hard or soft, rather than the more common slaps of encouragement. When you can get to the point where you have one hand on the horse's face and the other stroking lightly under the tail, know that the horse is expressing ultimate trust in you by allowing two of the most vulnerable parts of his body to be touched.
Step 2: Take and Give
After getting to know the horse, Bell asks him to demonstrate his growing trust by "giving"to gentle downward pressure on the lead rope. This exercise indicates a willingness to yield to pressure and relaxes the horse's spine muscles.
Standing to the side of the horse with your own head lower than his, pull down on the lead with light pressure. If the horse doesn't respond after 15 or 20 seconds, gradually increase the pressure and don't let up until the horse lowers his head. Do not use force instead, maintain steady pressure and wait until the horse has agreed to give on his own. When he yields, even slightly, immediately reward him by releasing the pressure and praising him.
Continue with the take and give until the horse's head is near the ground. Lavishly reward him each step of the way. Make sure he's working his mouth during the process-use your index finger over his tongue if necessary. A chewing action means he's relaxed, understanding the mechanics of take and give, and enjoying the learning process.
By asking the horse to lower his head early on in the relationship, Bell teaches the horse the basic vocabulary of all training pressure and release.
When you ask a horse to do something, whether you apply a subtle shift in weight or a firm push, you're using pressure. Always start small and, if the horse fails to respond, increase the pressure gradually.
Bell calls this "V thinking."Your initial request-symbolized by the bottom of the V-is barely observable, optimally only a thought. Your last resort is the top of the V - extreme pressure, perhaps many pounds. Always start at the bottom of the V and move up as necessary, all the while anticipating compliance. At the moment of compliance, it's your turn to give, and do so immediately. If you consistently reward the horse by releasing, in time compliance will fall nearer the bottom of the V.
Step 3: Intimacy
Bell is now ready to ask the horse to bond with him on yet a deeper level, one akin to intimacy. Using pressure and release, he asks the horse to bend his neck to the side and rest his face next to Bell's for as long as he's comfortable. Eventually, Bell says, the horse will turn his head at just "the inkling of a suggestion."
Standing on the near side, put your left hand on the nose " handle"just above the horse's nostrils. Be sure to keep your hand here throughout the exercise, whether the horse complies with your request to turn his head or altogether refuses and pulls away. It's important the hand remains, even if there's no pressure, so the horse can learn that the best way for him to escape pressure is by following your direction. It's his choice.
Lightly tickle the girth area with your right hand while softly applying pressure to the handle. Most horses will turn their heads in response, and when your horse does so, even just a fraction of an inch, immediately release 99 percent of the pressure and praise him.
As in the previous step, continue with the take and give until the horse's head is close to, and even touching, his own side. Then bend down, speak to him reassuringly, and blow in his nose. If the horse seems relaxed, Bell suggests moving your left hand up the nose to cover the horse's outside eye. This technique focuses the horse's attention on the cocoon of warmth the two of you have created. "You can block the world out for them,"Bell explains. "With the really nervous horses, it's a big deal. You can feel their whole demeanor change-it's wonderful."
Bell calls this intimate position between human and horse the " safety zone,"and riders can use it to reaffirm mutual respect and trust whenever the situation warrants. Bell says every time the horse's head is circled around to this spot, he'll remember that humans are capable of caring for him and feelings of calmness will be triggered. If a rider feels out of control in the saddle, the rein can be used to turn the horse's head around to the safety zone, and both horse and rider will relax, thereby remedying a potentially dangerous situation in seconds.
Never Ending Love
The importance of bonding with a troubled horse can't be underestimated, Bell stresses. With these three simple steps, Bell makes friends quickly and the horse's trust level skyrockets. "I love loving horses, and that's basically what I'm doing,"Bell says. "I take these horses to places they've never been before, and I get where I get in seconds. Usually, if I can get a hand on them, they're in my pocket because I can find their favorite spot."
As with any good friendship, the giving never ends. Bell tells his clients to praise their horses often and to practice these steps daily, whenever they're with their horses. "Bonding is something that has to be continuous,"Bell stresses. "You would never stop bonding with your child. The horse needs to know that what you and he are doing has meaning, so continue to let the horse know he's doing a good job. Give them feedback and make it fun for them. I treat horses the way I like to be treated. If you ask the horse to do something for you, say thank you. And how do you say thank you? You do it by stroking the horse's neck, through love."
Part 2: On Safe Ground
Once you have gained your horse's trust, Bell suggest you treat your horse as you would any other good friend by finding out what motivates him. Does he seem to feel the world is an okay place or is he impulsive, certain that danger lurks around every corner? Whether it's a raised hand, a loud truck, or a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. Bell suggests that you discover what specifically frightens your horse before you get on his back.
"I like to think of every horse as a puzzle with at least one problem -- perhaps many more -- and I help him through it,"Bell says. "But I try to find these problems before they find me out on the lone prairie, and I've got a long walk home, or worse."
Everything the horse is asked to do in these next steps builds on the bond you've already created. With Bell's method, if you remain sensitive to your horse's emotions and continually offer reassurance, you can create a confident, trusting partner.
Step 4: The Dance Begins
The first goal of this step is to get your horse thinking rationally while he walks or trots around you in a circle. Standing on the horse's near (left) side, start by running a 12-foot lead rope under the horse's neck, then reach over the horse's back and take the rope in your right hand. Run the rope around the horse's off side, then behind the upper hind legs well below the dock of the tail.
Moving away from the horse, ask him to unwind when you apply light pressure with the rope. This seemingly simple movement teaches the horse to move away from pressure, switch his eye contact with you from his left to right eye, and step over himself properly.
As he comes out the other side, and begins moving to the right, lift your left hand to ask for impulsion. If necessary, you can also slap your leg, cluck, or lightly tap the rump with the end of the rope in an overhand, swinging motion. Do whatever it takes to get movement, but quit the instant he complies. Drive the horse from behind, maintaining a safe distance from the back legs and keeping slack in the rope. Use the hand closest to the horse's mouth (in this case, your right hand) to hold the rope, grabbing the lead in an overhand fashion so your little finger is nearest the head.
Ideally, you want the horse to move steadily in well-formed circles with his body bending in an arc similar to the circle. If the horse slows, use your left hand as the accelerator your horse eventually will learn that a raised hand means he needs to move forward. Block the horse from straying too close to you by pushing your right palm toward the horse's eye, bumping his cheek if necessary.
"Remember, this is not mindless longing it is purposeful communication,"Bell says. "You are teaching the horse to drive and move forward, and you're using your body language to tell the horse you want forward movement-, and you want it at a particular speed. Maybe push him up to a trot, then let him come down--you want the horse to ease up and ease down. If you have a slow horse, get him to move if you have a horse who wants to trot all the time, then you'll want to ask him to do things at a walk.
"It's important that when you ask him to go, he can understand your communication, he can think about it and he can go. And (that) he walk off rationally. If the horse's movements are really fast and sudden and impulsive, that's when a horse can get you into trouble in the saddle. And that can be fixed on the ground --that's the point."
The Wind Down
The dance culminates in the wind-down, essentially a one-rein stop on the ground that takes the horse back to the safety zone. Introduced in Step 3, the safety zone is established by using the horse's nose "handle"to gently guide his head around to the girth area, where he is praised and stroked.
After the horse has completed two or three circles, start the wind-down by slowly gathering the lead and walking in toward your horse's hip bone. As the distance between you and him grows smaller, reach your hand out and stroke the horse's flank and rib area. As you continue winding around, the horse's inside hind leg will step in front of the outside hind leg, and the outside front leg will step in front of the inside front leg. This action indicates that the horse's hindquarters have disengaged and the horse is relaxed.
"Keep a light but constant feel on the horse's mouth, giving when the horse gives,"Bell explains. "Use little mini-releases and keep the horse in the bend. Say Whoa' if you have to, but eventually he'll stop and give you his head. Once he gets in there, release immediately and let him know that's exactly what you want.
"This takes him back to that safe, loving place I call the safety zone,"Bell continues. "This is the whole idea of the seven-step system. A horse learns when he brings his head around it means stop. It becomes a conditioned response, so you always have the safety zone to fall back on. This will all transfer over as the one-rein stop in the saddle, but it's critical to get it done on the ground first and show him there's this wonderful place. When you're in the saddle, it will make sense to him. When there's a problem, you can pull his head around, lean over, rub his forehead and say, Remember this?' The one-rein stop in the saddle is what can save your life."
Do the dance and wind-down in both directions. With practice, your body language and timing will improve. Your horse will learn how to move calmly and with grace, preparing you both for more precise dressage movements in Step 6 and the one-rein stop in the saddle in Step 7.
Step 5: Desensitizing
Bell tells riders that when it comes to desensitizing horses, the only limit is imagination. His primary concern is that riders spend plenty of time discovering what frightens their horses and helping them get over it.
"I can't stress desensitizing enough. I go out of my way to find problems, because if you don't desensitize your horse you're waiting for an accident to happen,"Bell says.
"Most people live in the zone where they avoid problems. They live a whole life where the horse dictates what they do and, before too long, what it amounts to is the horse has the person really well-trained. The idea is for you to be training the horse and building his confidence."
Bell suggests gradually drifting into the process of desensitization during the dance. Twirl a couple of feet of the lead rope in front of you as the horse circles. If he throws his head up or tries to dart, Bell says he is clearly communicating that he is afraid. Stop and offer reassurance by stroking his neck.
"You don't want to push him over the edge. When I find a problem, I settle him down, rub his forehead, get his head down, work his mouth, and love on him and bond. Go back to bonding and the safety zone. Anytime that the horse shows you that he's really afraid love on him just like a child and nurture him back to being okay with you,"he says.
In time, your horse will get to the point where he can tolerate the swinging rope without shying and even think nothing of it. Once he's okay with this stimulus, test him in other ways. With the horse standing still, hold on to the end of the lead and loop the rope over the horse's ears and head, or drape the rope over the horse's back and jiggle it over the offside legs, shoulder, and hip area. Or try slapping the saddle with the rope, at first lightly then more aggressively.
The real test comes when you ask your horse to tolerate the rope being near or on him while he's moving. One of Bell's favorite tests entails tossing the end of the rope over the horse's back during the wind down. He also will swing the lead rope so it wraps around the inside hind leg as the horse is walking.
Eventually, the process of desensitizing will extend to your time in the saddle.
"I don't care what horse I'm riding --I'm always shaking branches and jiggling gates and banging on buildings and slapping my own leg because, when it starts to rain, you want to be able to put your slicker on without getting off your horse. That's the idea. You don't have to be riding on pins and needles. That's no way to ride, and it's no way to live,"he says.
Be sure not to run your lessons into the ground, and offer your horse a lot of praise and strokes. Bell advises that you make the work fun and interesting and give the lessons time to sink in. When you see that the horse is working his mouth, a sure sign of understanding, he says it might be a good time to stop for the day.
"Having empathy is what it's really all about,"Bell explains. "It's our responsibility to help these animals through their issues. Don't beat up on them. When the animal is having trouble and getting afraid, you help him with it. Before too long, you'll end up with a really confident, well-rounded animal who can pretty much handle everything."
"When you find problems while desensitizing the horse, it's an opportunity to build your horse's confidence and to raise the level of mutual trust between the two of you. The process should never, never end."
Part 3: To A Safe Stop
When horse gentler Frank Bell performs a one-rein stop, he guides his equine partner through an elegant, free-flowing movement that involves solid communication and harmony.
According to Bell, teaching a horse "ballet,"as he calls the final segment of his seven-step training system, elevates safety to an art. Two simple maneuvers—a one-rein stop followed by a turn on the haunches—give riders the means to disengage the hindquarters in dangerous situations as well as teach the horse proper foot placement and weight shifting. Ultimately, once the steps have been learned and the moves polished, horse and rider are in sync both physically and mentally. When the hindquarters are properly disengaged, the horse cannot run off or rear.
The first five steps of Bell’s safety system were reviewed in WH’s September 1998 and December 1999 issues and taught riders how to bond with their horses, build horses’ confidence through desensitization, and get horses to think rationally during ground exercises.
In the final two steps, which are the focus of this article, you will lead your horse through a dance that pulls together everything learned in the previous steps. The lessons require you to use clear, distinct body language and accurate timing to convey precise directions to your horse. According to Bell, the high level of communication and understanding you establish with your horse through this work will transfer into everything else the two of you do, whether it’s in the barn, in the show arena, or out on the trail. Your horse will become an athlete, and you will become his respected friend.
Step 6: Ballet on the ground
Using a halter (preferably of soft rope with no buckles) and a 12-foot lead rope, ask your horse to walk forward in a clockwise circle. As in Step 4, when you drove your horse on the ground before winding him down, hold the rope with your right hand and use your left hand as the accelerator.
As soon as your horse is working his legs energetically, reach across in front of your body with your left hand and take hold of the lead rope. With a light tug on the rope, tilt the horse’s head slightly to the right so he momentarily stops. Your horse will shift his weight forward and move his hind legs around, essentially performing a turn on the forehand.
Now, use the open palm of your left hand in a pushing motion toward your horse’s left eye to send him off in the opposite direction. Ideally, he will rock his weight backward, his hind legs will remain fixed, and his front legs will step over each other as he executes a turn on the haunches. Open your arms to help guide him into a counterclockwise circle, using body language to help communicate your wishes to the horse. Then repeat in this direction.
Bell points out that when first introducing this to a horse, you most likely will need to be extremely obvious about your blocking. He suggests getting your left hand up close to the horse’s eye to impress on him your desire for him to move off in the other direction, or even lightly bumping his cheek with your open hand if he gets too close to you.
"Don’t step back,"Bell advises. "Get a horse to respect your space. If you stand your ground, he’s going to have to arrange himself around you."Be sure, however, to hold the line lightly so you don’t unintentionally send him mixed signals by reeling him in toward you. Eventually, your horse will know how to do the dance on his own. "I barely touch the rope, and my horse understands what I mean,"Bell says. "My body language gets the whole thing done."
As with any dancing duo, a lack of coordination by either will affect the flow of the steps. So you, too, will have to perfect your own moves. Bell suggests practicing the cues without subjecting a horse to your missteps. Either have a friend hold the far end of the rope and circle around you as a horse would, or tie the rope to a fence post and practice on your own. Refining your ability to perform the steps before you teach them to your horse will save him from feeling needlessly confused.
If when practicing with your horse you yourself feel puzzled, Bell suggests using a wind-down to regroup.
"You can always gain time and gather your thoughts by doing a wind-down. For a lot of people, they’re overwhelmed the first time they do this—there’s so much going on, and you really are teaching the horse to dance. We’ve got two partners here, and you’re not very good at it yet because you haven’t practiced it. So when you start to lose it, do a wind-down, which is essentially a one-rein stop on the ground."
Beauty in motion
When you and your horse get to the point where you perform these maneuvers on the ground skillfully, it is a constructive use of the horse’s energy. "You’re deflecting his energy from one side to the other with a minimum of effort and engaging both his mind and body,"Bell explains.
The exercise also reinforces important lessons and ingrains invaluable patterns of movement in your horse. " He is reading your body language to understand what you want,"Bell says. "As he does it, he’s respecting your space, changing eyes, moving away from pressure, and using himself properly." Bell reminds handlers that a horse cannot perform these precise foot maneuvers and position himself accurately without his weight being properly placed—first shifted forward, then back.
"And you want your horse to do this slowly. When the horse moves abruptly, he’s impulsive. You want to see a horse think about it and do it rationally—that’s the big word here."Eventually, it will all come together, Bell says, and your horse will work his mouth, lower his head, and relax his tail. And that, Bell says, is the required invitation to ride.
With the footwork already practiced on the ground, it transfers easily to work in the saddle. "I find that once this work on the ground is accomplished, and you’ve really got some finesse working on the ground, you’re in a pretty good place when it’s time to get in the saddle," Bell says.
Step 7: In the saddle
You can use the rope halter with the lead rope as reins or a snaffle bit to effectively and humanely communicate from the saddle to your horse. Once in the saddle, begin a one-rein stop to the right by walking your horse in a clockwise circle. When he is moving with life, bring your left hand and reins up toward your chin to pull the slack out of the reins. Then, simultaneously
- lean slightly forward (because that’s where the horse’s weight needs to be),
- slide your right hand down the rein and pull to the right, toward your hip bone,
- release the left rein, stroking the horse’s neck with your left hand if you can, and
- move your right leg back just slightly and bump the hindquarters over.
When your horse complies with your request by turning on his forehand, immediately release your leg pressure. Wait for the horse to come to a full stop and get soft to the right rein. Release the head slightly, then ask him to turn on his haunches by
- first shifting your weight back a little and waiting for your horse to follow and shift his own weight back, then
- laying the rein across the horse’s neck with your left hand, and, finally,
- encouraging him to step over in front by moving your left (outside) leg slightly forward and applying gentle pressure.
Note that your horse may take a half-step back with his inside front leg before he steps over in front, which means he has shifted his weight back. As you finish the movement the horse will walk off in the same direction you started.
Bell tells riders to remember the cues from the saddle as "inside, inside, outside, outside," meaning that for turns to the right first use your inside (right) rein and leg, then your outside (left) rein and leg.
Note that during the maneuver—both on the ground and in the saddle—one side of your horse will be stiffer than the other. "Your horse is going to be less accurate, he’s going to bend less, and he’s going to be a little more clumsy on one side," Bell says. "It’s your job to know which side is behind so you can get in there and help him with it and get him caught up."
Disengaging the hindquarters
The most fundamental and practical goal of this exercise is to disengage the horse’s hindquarters, which occurs when the horse’s inside hind leg steps over in front of his outside hind leg during the turn on the forehand. If your horse were a car, the movement would essentially throw him into neutral by disengaging the engine that keeps him moving—his hindquarters.
"We’ve all been run away with, with the horse’s head cranked around to the side 90 degrees while you’re yelling ‘whoa!’" Bell explains. "You can be pulling the horse’s head around, and they’ll still be going straight until they are disengaged behind.
"The idea is to have a plan. We’re practicing this so when an emergency comes and the horse freaks out, you have somewhere to go. Just like your foot pressing the brake, you’ve done it enough you don’t have to think about it. You just bump the hindquarters over and bring the horse around."
If your horse has trouble performing this move, it’s essential that you take the time to teach it to him on the ground. Press the stirrup or your thumb into his side (at the point where your leg would fall if you were signaling to him while in the saddle) until he understands that he needs to move his hindquarters away from pressure.
Once you and your horse have perfected this sequence at the walk, progress to the trot, then the canter. It’s critical, however, that the faster you’re going the bigger you make the circle. "If you bring the head around too abruptly," Bell explains, "the horse could lose his balance."Also be sure to determine which lead the horse is in and direct to that side.
Practice Bell’s routine regularly and use it as a way to warm your horse up mentally and physically for whatever you want to do. "It gets them loosened up and takes 90 percent of the risk out of riding," Bell says." And it’s the repetition of working at it that gets the whole thing going.
"It’s a step-by-step process. You’ll get it," Bell encourages. "It’s not easy, but what is? You’re creating an athlete who knows exactly what his feet are doing. He’s using his whole body and really separating it out. This dance allows you to have complete control."
As in all training, timing is critical. "Ask, anticipate, get it, release, reward," Bells says. "It is the accurate release of pressure that the horse learns from. People who are sharp and have good timing can get amazing things out of horses." Even a waltz.