On the last day of my clinic in Perth just 2 weeks ago I had a lapse in judgement with a horse. The horse was there for only a one-hour lesson and there was much to do. My mistake was a momentary misjudgement in both the amount of pressure I put the horse under and the expected response. He pulled away to the side, the lead rope whizzed through my fingers and the horse took off to the nearby yard where his buddies were watching (the arena was unfenced). No harm was done and I was able to begin again with helping the horse make a change. It turned out fine in the end, but my brain fart did not help.
It’s happened before that a horse has pulled away or tried to pull away from me. I think the last time was a clinic in South Australia earlier in the year. In this case, leaping to the side and pull the rope through the handler’s hand had become a habit every time the horse was asked to load into a trailer – it was an automatic response.
When I was training horses for people I’ve had a few cases sent to me exactly because pulling away had become the default response of a horse even when there was only a small amount of pressure.
It’s a horrible habit for a horse to learn and the best solution is to never let it get started. Like any unwanted habits, pulling away gets started by accidentally learning that when they put a real effort into leaving, the horse gets relief by escaping to a better and safer place. If this happens again, it is more likely the horse will try it repeatedly. The more success the horse has in finding comfort in pulling away, the quicker this behaviour becomes ingrained.
So what to do when pulling away does become habitual?
There are several options. You can always dial-a-prayer to your deity of choice. But if the line is busy or your call goes to voice mail, what else can you do?
In the end the solution for a habitual escape artist relies on the horse learning that pulling away does not offer an option of comfort and safety. Pulling away needs to become futile.
Many people who own a good saddle horse would choose to handle the problem from horseback. When the puller tries to leap away and brace against the rope, the rider needs to dally the lead rope to his saddle horse with quite a little length in it to allow the horse to escape a short distance. When the horse hits the end of the rope, it will be jerked short with a look of amazement on its face as if to say, “well, that didn’t workout how I thought it would.” With repetition and good timing on the part of the rider, the propensity to pull away will become more and more distant.
However, with this method comes a warning. You need to look after your saddle horse first. If your saddle horse continues to get pulled and pulled by the problem horse, it can become sour and sore and eventually reach the point where it stop working or begin to attack the other horse. A friend told me of an extreme case where he was working a big Clydesdale that had the habit of pulling away. He said it took more than 30 times before the Clydesdale started to prepare to stop before hitting the end of the rope. But in the process his saddle horse became very sore in the wither and continued to have soundness issue after that. So give priority to looking after your saddle horse first.
If you don’t have a good saddle horse, another approach is to use a smaller yard instead. Put the horse in any type of yard that limits the escape perimeter enough that the handler doesn’t have to let go of the lead rope when the horse pulls away. This is the method I used on the horse in South Australia with the trailer-loading problem.
It means that when the horse tries to escape the pressure of the lead rope doesn’t give up. It’s still there even when the horse reaches the fence of the yard and stops its feet. When that happens the handler should ask the horse to yield to the feel on the rope and face them. For it to work effectively the handler should move in order to try to keep themselves at ninety degrees to the horse. This makes it easier to reduce the pull of the runaway horse and keep it off-balance.
When it stops, go up and love on the horse gently and start again. With practice the horse stops trying to flee and you can then move to a bigger yard with a long rope. Keep working until the problem has all but disappeared. If it resurfaces, check that you are not asking the horse for more than it has to give and go back to working in a smaller yard again.
The third approach uses a second person with a second rope. Michèle and I have both used this method successfully with each other’s help. Both people need to be skilled with good timing and an ability to read each other without shouting and cursing (well, maybe a little cursing when it goes wrong and it is the other person’s fault).
Here is an important tip. In my experience, I have observed that horses almost always leap in the same direction – mostly to the opposite direction the handler is standing – it is a very consistent pattern. So if you are working on the left side of the horse, most of them will leap to the right and take off running to the right. It is important you know which direction the horse is likely to leap towards before you begin. For this example, let’s say the handler is on the left and the horse leaps to the right.
The second person needs to be on the right side of the horse, but back and out of the way – so maybe several metres away from the handler and the horse. There is a second rope attached to the halter or around the horse’s neck that reaches back to the second person on the right side.
The horse is worked in the normal way and the job of the second person is to move their feet in such a way that they don’t interfere with the work. They also need to stay on the right side of the horse and keep their rope from interfering or getting tangled with the horse or handler. So for example, if the handler is asking for a hindquarter disengagement by bending the horse to the left, the second person needs to move their feet quickly, keeping their rope from blocking the horse or getting tangled around the back feet. This is why good communication between both people is vital and why the cursing is sometimes displayed.
When the horse gets ready to invoke its old habit of trying to escape, it will brace against the handler’s rope on the left and leap to the right. The handler knows this is about to happen and if the second person is not aware, the handler needs to tell them (without cursing).
Now the second person’s timing is vital. As the horse leaps to the right, the second person uses their long rope (attached to the halter or around the neck) to keep the horse turning right until the horse is facing the second person. They usually don’t have to pull hard on the long rope because all the horse’s resistance is to the left and they are moving to the right with hardly any brace. So often the horse can be turned all the way to right by letting it feel the end of the long rope or with a semi-firm pull. Again, the horse will have a look of shock or WTF (Where’s The Farrier) on its face as it stands looking at the second person. Go up and gently pet the horse and start again.
It will take some practice, but it has never taken very long before I’ve seen solid changes in horses.
However, there is an important consideration that needs thinking about. The problem of pulling away arose because of a mistake the handler made. But it wasn’t just a one-time mistake. It was repeated enough times to make it a habit. If a person is to solve the issue, they need to understand what they did to cause it and how they can change to ensure the feelings that created the habit don’t come back.
Using a slick trick to make a horse learn the futility of pulling away is not enough. If a person wants to develop a long term harmonious working relationship with a horse, then the causes of a behaviour need to be addressed, not just the symptoms.
In the photo Michèle is using her mare, Birch to teach a young Clydie not to drag on the lead rope.