I’ve just descended from the back of my lofty, three-and-a-half-year-old Clydesdale gelding. I can’t seem to wipe the smile from my face. This was our very first trail ride, his very first time leaving the safety and security of his pasture under saddle, and my very first time riding a horse of this magnitude on the road.
To prepare for our maiden voyage I did a bit of long-lining with him around the neighborhood. This was always fun due to the height of Raleigh’s hindquarters and my lack of height. I was not visible from the front. I can’t tell you how many times people stopped me with their hands on their hearts saying, “I thought he was loose! I couldn’t see you!”
Our long-lining lessons began completely pressure-free. I taught him to target his feet to a stationary concrete paver where he learned to stand completely still without being tied. He learned to lower his head for the bit by targeting my hand. He even learned to walk-off in the long lines by targeting a ball that I had thrown. I later paired a tap of the driving whip with the verbal cue walk and the toss of the ball so he’d understand that both the verbal and the touch cue mean walk.
It felt really good to teach him to walk away from me without pressure. I think in his mind he wasn’t walking away from me, he was walking towards his beloved ball. Later when I started him under saddle I used the ball for the same purpose. (See the category “Videos”)
Raleigh is the first horse I’ve started. I’ve owned him since he was 15-months-old. His very first lesson off the trailer was click means treat. During this time I kept wondering if starting a horse using pure attraction-based methods would make a difference.
I starting seeing signs early on that it was. For instance, Raleigh has never shown any signs of being buddy or barn sour. In fact, just the opposite. If he hears my back door open, he’s the first to gallop to the gate in hopes it’s his turn to do something.
I just spoke to my close friend, Candee Niss,who is a phenomenal rider, eventer and instructor, who is starting a young Friesian cross with attraction-based clicker work. She echoed the same sentiments.
We concluded that when we train this way we become more attractive to the horse than its buddies or the barn. The horse doesn’t suffer any separation anxiety because the source of all good things (us) is with them. They feel secure with us because their main needs are met — first, the ability to eat small bits of food often, and second, the safety and security we have to offer.
Candee also added that the yearling she’s working keeps this focus regardless of the location. He can be in a familiar arena or a completely foreign location and still maintain his connection to her without becoming “lookey” or spooky at the change in scenery.
This realization was exactly what I felt within ten strides of leaving my property on Raleigh. At first I was a wee bit nervous, especially when passersby kept asking me, How’s the weather up there? Do you need cotton for your nose? But all that nervousness washed away with his calm, purposeful walk. To my surprise he was steady, forward, and straight, even with the changing scenery.
Accompanying me on this outing riding Juliet, our Paso Fino mare, was my wonderful husband. (He’s actually extra wonderful because he prefers to ride things with two wheels over things with hooves. So for him to join me in the hooved arena seriously increased his wonderfulness.) Juliet was slow poking it along because Romeo, my other Paso Fino, was expressing his discontent that we had taken his mare. Even though Juliet was lagging behind, Raleigh acted as if she wasn’t there. He kept right on with a steady clip, clop of his pie-plate hooves along the road.
If I saw that Raleigh was getting a bit lookey at the herd of goats we were passing or the decorative flags on the mail box, I just said, Head down, or tuck your nose, and like magic, he answered. I felt a unique connection with him that felt so different compared to my other three horses.
It was as if I was a radio station and he was tuned to my channel, loud and clear. My other horses, mainly Romeo and Juliet, have a tendency to change stations now and then and I have to work to play really good songs for them to listen to. I think by starting Raleigh with attraction from day one, I created a place where it feels better to listen to me than to outside distractions.
My other horses weren’t started this way. I have a feeling they were made to listen to music that didn’t feel good. This may have caused them to develop associations with humans that made them want to change the station and look for other ways (besides listening to humans) that would make them feel better.
After our official first ride off the property, I’m thrilled to report on what I felt as I was 16+ hands off the ground on a young, large horse. I felt a strange and wonderful sense of grounding that I haven’t felt before. It felt as if Raleigh was sending out feelers directly to me for guidance rather than looking around at his surroundings for direction.
The only downside to this amazing ride on Raleigh is that he’s making my other horses look bad. So now, I’m off to find new ways, or should I say music, for the rest of my herd so they’ll enjoy tuning in just like Raleigh.