A forgiving horse is one that, for example, sees a raven fly out of a bush right in front of him, gets frightened, and shies. But instead of staying scared and running back home, out of control, your horse forgets about the raven and remembers that you taught him to obey you instead of his natural instincts. He’s willing to put his trust in you again. But there’s another kind of forgiving horse. This horse has often been unfairly reprimanded or mistreated, usually because of ignorance on his owner’s part—and he forgives her for it.
In my case, could I undo the damage I had done to Gunsmoke—turned a friendly but occasionally nippy horse into a biter who no longer trusted me? I still don’t know. I do know he threatens me less and less often. I accomplished that with John’s help, by going back to the basics I discussed last week:. Keep your hands away from his face. Never allow him to play with your hands. Never physically punish him. I’ve been riding this horse for over a year now, and for the most part he’s very well behaved. So why go back to the basics of ground manners when he moves forward when I cluck and tighten my legs, stops, steers, and backs? Because he can’t bite me when I ride, so I have no opportunity to correct bad behavior or reinforce good behavior.
A few other tips from my horse-trainer husband if you find yourself in a similar situation.
One: train your horse every time you handle him—every day. When I first began ground work again, I would halter Gunner, lead him directly to the arena, and let him go. Any deviation from the nonstop corral-to-arena routine made him belligerent—and made me reluctant to lead him anywhere. Now I carry a dressage whip—any long riding whip will do—with a piece of plastic tied on the end. (Plastic makes noise when you shake it.) As soon as I get a leadrope on him, I walk him around the corral a time or two, telling him to “get out” if he wants to walk too close to me, and snapping the plastic in his face if he doesn’t. (No punishment—scare tactics) In the arena, I lead him, circle him, halt him and make him stand. I also leave the arena gate open, which allowed me to teach him to walk past it instead of ducking out of it.
Two: make the right thing easy for the horse by avoiding situations that can escalate into conflict. It’s a lot easier to clean Gunsmoke’s corral if he’s eating, so that’s what I usually do. To avoid trying to halter him while he’s trying to bite me, I bought him a breakaway halter, which he wears all the time. And I don’t stand by his head when I snap on his leadrope—I stand next to his withers, where it’s hard for him to reach me and easy to push his head away. When I work him, I open the arena gate first, and I open but don’t latch the gate to his pipe corral, so I can walk him through it both ways without taking my eyes off him.
Three: exert only as much force as necessary. Because Gunner is lazy, it’s hard to motivate him from the ground. (In the saddle, I’ve learned to use spurs—blunt, short, Prince of Whales spurs, the mildest you can buy.) On the ground I carry a dressage whip in my left hand which allows me to flip the whip so the plastic makes noise behind him. Quite often he’ll turn his head in my direction. It’s not a threat, it’s an intention that precedes a threat. When that happens, I use the blunt end of the whip and literally push his head back so it’s in line with his body. I don’t jab him with it. I use it instead of my hand to straighten his head out.
If your horse does bite you in spite of all your precautions, call in a professional immediately. A biting horse is dangerous and can seriously hurt you. Don’t risk it.
But if a horse has a solid foundation—good basic training, in other words—before the owner does something stupid, both horse and owner can put the incident behind them and go on with their lives. No association between horses and humans is completely error-free. The best you can hope for in a horse is that he has a willing attitude and a forgiving nature, and likes you enough to want to please you. That’s what I hope for with Gunsmoke.