By Howard J. Cormier, LSU AgCenter Southwest Regional Equine Agent
The successful horse sale last month at the Gray Ranch is a refreshing sign of a strong horse market. A few things struck me about the horses being offered for sale there. Even though this is a ranch operation where horses are raised almost totally in the pasture, the sale horses were all clean, with manes, tails, hooves and hair coats properly groomed. The horses that were ridden in the sale ring were under typical, working ranch saddles and tack, with no bling or chrome, but the horses themselves were healthy and presentable.
This is just part of good salesmanship. It could also be called good showmanship.
Showmanship is not only presenting your horse in a show ring situation but presenting your horse well whenever you want to make a good impression. As the 4-H Horse Show season approaches, it is a good idea for kids to know how to properly set up a horse. Adult leaders and parents helping kids need to know what showmanship is, too, if they are to teach the youngsters. Nothing belies the knowledge and skills of a person more than how they train and present their horse to others. If a horse is walking all over the owner, pushing them around in a disrespectful manner, and is unclean, ungroomed and unfit, there is much less chance to make a good impression. One of the first things most knowledgeable buyers look for is structural correctness. It’s hard to see the feet and legs on a horse that won’t stand still, or walk out straight, or lead at a trot.
A horse must be able to be set up squarely with feet placed under it on all four corners. You can teach this to any horse by setting its feet up a few minutes each day. You can do this while brushing, saddling, bathing or in the normal course of the day’s events. It’s easy to simply ask the horse to place its feet squarely each day before you take the halter off to release the horse, whether in the stall or in the pasture. You can do this from the halter, without touching the feet or legs, by leading it up or back, and releasing the pressure when it moves a foot in the right direction. The easiest way is to pull down slightly to signal the horse that you are focusing on the rear legs. Move only the near side hind foot. As soon as the horse takes a step in the right direction, release the pressure, and lift the lead up to signal the horse that it did the right thing. Focus only on the left rear leg, unless the right is totally out of position. As the horse learns that it will not get a release until it moves that one rear leg, it will begin to move it back and forth, searching for the spot where it will be released. If it doesn’t move or try, back it up, then lead forward again. They figure out what you want by your persistence and consistent asking.
After the back is in good enough position, meaning squarely placed under the horse and even with the other back leg, then start working on the front feet. Lift up on the halter to signal that you want the front feet to move. When they are close to being even, quit by releasing the halter pressure. It’s o.k. to pet to let the horse know it did the right thing (as long as you’re not in the show ring). Tap the leg with your boot if the horse doesn’t make any effort to move. When it moves, quit. Do a little each day until the horse understands what you want. This is all part of groundwork.
Did you ever think that your horse sees you as the herd leader? It needs your acceptance and approval to be part of the herd, even a herd of two. It seeks safety in the herd. If you are too demanding, it will either ignore you, or always be focused on other horses in the herd, instead of giving you its full attention.
Did you ever consider how you greet your horse when you go out to feed or ride? Do you acknowledge your horse by a simple touch on the nose, or a pat on the neck? Some will dismiss this as baloney, but remember that this horse is looking to you for support and safety. A simple hello in any way you choose is natural for the horse. It’s what horses do with each other. (By the way, horses don’t give other horses treats!)
Master Horseman program participants learn the value of proper groundwork in class. But it’s not something you do only in the class setting. It’s something you live daily, each time you interact with your horse. You strengthen or erode the respect your horse has for you, and vice versa, by how you interact with it, how you demand respect, and how you release and reward by taking pressure off when the horse does the right thing. It takes a lifetime to be a good herd leader, but it only takes a moment to decide that it’s worthwhile learning. Once you learn the value of “dancing” with your horse on the ground, you won’t ever go back to how you were before. It not only makes your horse look good, but it can make you a better horseman, and it is especially important to teach kids and their horses at an early age!
Rather than simply showing the horse who is boss, we need to be a leader that our horses depend on to make them feel safe and protected.