Today was my first day participating in the natural horsemanship classes at The Center for Americas First Horse in Johnson. The class is held every Saturday for 6 weeks, 2 hours per session, starting at 10 am. It’s called “Fall” classes but come December we may be leaning more toward “Winter-Freeze Your Butt Off Cold!” classes. This morning wasn’t too bad though, especially since I was well-prepared. I wore thick fleece long underwear under my jeans and had on three tops along with a down vest and a windproof shell. I also had a toque and gloves. I was determined to stay warm.
Once all 15 participants (3 were children who came with their parents and participated as a group, sharing one horse) arrived we picked up our folders, grabbed a name tag, and got prepared to meet the horses. Stephanie, Jo, and I brought the horses in from the back of the arena and pulled the door down so they would stay inside the arena with us. They were still chomping on hay and were a bit more interested in breakfast than in coming inside the arena, but once they were in Augustine promptly began meeting people.
The others horses wandered around a bit, checking people out, before settling down in a little group and having a nap. We all introduced ourselves and talked a bit about what we hoped to get out of the 6-week program. Karen had moved to Johnson recently and found the ad for the program in the newspaper. She was hoping to gain some skills to deal with her somewhat flighty Thoroughbred filly. Christy had miniature donkeys and was attending Equine Science classes at UVM; she wanted to learn as much as she could about everything horse. Elizabeth felt connected to the breed and wanted to reignite her relationship with the horses. Jo also felt that the breed was unique and their spirit brought out self-development in people. She wanted to share in the experience and joy of spending time with the horses. Heidi hadn’t spent time with horses for 10 years and wanted to bring them back into her life again. Katie loved all things horse and was very interested in natural horsemanship–she also had a miniature horse and looked forward to practicing her new skills. Cher was intrigued by natural horsemanship and wanted to work on her coordination and also bring horses back into her life. The final group was a family of five who had recently got a horse and they wanted to learn how to be with him safely and effectively. And then there was me . . .
As you know, I am new to natural horsemanship and am always keen on learning, learning, learning! Out of this course I hoped to gain a better awareness of the horse’s body language, to be able to read what they offer and why and how my actions create or inhibit the behavior. To communicate with the horse. To be the leader. To have a reciprocal relationship. This is a tall order that won’t be filled in a 6-week course, but the course is a great place to build from.
Stephanie talked to us about natural horsemanship, how the ground skills transfer to being in the saddle, and how before we get in the saddle we need to be safe. We also talked about horsenalities and how some horses are more extroverted while others are introverted; how those behaviors can shift from minute to minute or day to day and how we need to be ready to adjust to what the horse presents. Stephanie said that the course would offer us a few tools for our toolbox so that when we go home to our horses and are faced with a situation we should be better able to respond effectively. And even if we don’t find the answer right away at least we have a few options to choose from.
After introductions and the course outline we let Maya out of her stall and watched the herd dynamics, which changed quite dramatically once she was added to the mix!
Morado started protecting his buddy, Adelentado, and Maya started driving Turtle around. There was a lot of running, movement, and some subtle queues from the horses asking each other to get out of the way; and if that didn’t work, then a kick or bite was in order!
We watched the herd dynamics before Stephanie joined the horses and became their herd leader. It was interesting to watch her drive the horses until they were ready to accept her leadership, and at that point they all turned into the circle and faced her. It was kind of like magic!
Eventually, we were assigned our horses and went about the techniques of catching them. Karen and I walked up to the barn to get Midas. She was assigned Midas because he seemed most similar to her horse that she was hoping to help become less flighty.
While Karen and I caught Midas the rest of the class watched as Stephanie helped Heidi and Elsie catch Coyote and Destiny, who were running around the pasture, trying to avoid getting caught. A great teaching moment! When a horse doesn’t want to be caught (really we should think of the horses catching us), it’s time to make the experience not about being caught. Time to take the time it takes to get the job done. A bit of driving and approach and retreat will make a non-responsive horse ready to catch the human.
Once we had our horses haltered we watched as the family of 5 caught their horse, Thunder. The children used the same approach and retreat and driving techniques that Heidi used.
Once we had our horses haltered we walked around the arena and talked about not pulling our horses along when leading them, but giving them about 4 feet of roping and letting them be responsible for following the leader. Pulling the horse behind you does not create a draw for the horse, and the horse, a flight animal, is not safe for us if we hold him by the halter snap–he could run right over us if he gets scared–and does not feel safe being held so tight, but rather can feel claustrophobic.
We talked about moving the hindquarters and asked our horse to move their hineys away from us.
We also previewed the zones (as you have read about previously on my blog) and talked about being able to rub the horse in all zones, and knowing which zones need more work before the horse becomes comfortable. If the horse is uncomfortable with touch in a certain zone, we would use approach and retreat rubbing to get them accustomed to our touch.
And with that it was time to quit for the day. We talked about putting the horses away properly, removing the halter but waiting to let the horse go until we are ready to walk away. As leaders we need to be the ones to walk away. I removed Adelentado’s halter and said a little thank-you to him. I could tell we weren’t connected yet, after only a short time spent together, but if I continue to spend these classes with him I bet we’ll get to know each other, and maybe next time he will be more glued to me when I take the halter off.