Lakefield horse trainer gets horses, their owners to relax
LAKEFIELD -- The day Tiebo arrived at the Dead End Ranch, he was a nervous wreck. Already hot-blooded and spooky, the Arabian-Thoroughbred horse was away from his familiar environment and without his herd. The new experiences had him tense with fear.
LAKEFIELD -- The day Tiebo arrived at the Dead End Ranch, he was a nervous wreck. Already hot-blooded and spooky, the Arabian-Thoroughbred horse was away from his familiar environment and without his herd. The new experiences had him tense with fear. Tiebo was at the Dead End Ranch to be trained by Natural Horsemanship trainer Cathy Larsson, the owner of Trusting Hands Equestrian Teaching. Her job over the next few weeks would be to teach Tiebo to be cool, calm and collected. After that, she had to teach Tiebo's owner the same thing.
"I'm communicating with him through body language," Larsson said as she worked in a round pen with the horse, waving a flag to get him moving. "I'm using guidance and support to replace fear and intimidation. I want to convince him that I'm just a two-legged horse."
The goal, Larsson explained, is to get Tiebo to ignore his natural instinct of fight or flight and depend on his rider's leadership.
"He needs to let me be the leader of the dance," she added. "He needs to be on my side of the fence."
She does this by asking Tiebo, through body language or with the flag, to do a variety of tasks, such as move his hindquarters, pick up speed or slow down as he moves around the pen or turn toward her rather than away. She rewards him when he does as he is asked. When he doesn't do as asked, there is no punishment, just another try. He is already scared and spooky -- punishment would be detrimental.
"It is a lot like raising a child," Larsson stated. "Positive reinforcement."
Horses have very readable body language, Larsson said. A relaxed horse has his head down, will lick at his lips and even yawn.
"A yawn is the biggest compliment a horse can give you," Larsson stated, smiling as Tiebo did just that. "It means he is relaxed and comfortable."
A horse than is nervous or at attention will keep his head up, ears turning in all directions. He may blow or snort. Tiebo, a bit of a nervous nelly, blew and snorted, shied and jumped when unexpected noises or movement caught his attention. Learning to trust his handler will go a long way toward calming him down.
Larsson only takes on the training of four horses at one time and works with each for two hours a day. Even during simple chores such as feeding and grooming, there is always teaching -- always working to earn trust.
"I'm teaching him to communicate with a human," she pointed out. "Then the owner has to learn how to communicate with the horse."
Larsson starts horses and restarts problem horses. While working in the round pen, she is also conscious of a horse's posture and physical condition.
"My goal is to ride this horse," she said. "But he's ready when he's ready."
She often quotes the first line from a book by Tom Dorrance, a man who pioneered many of the Natural Horsemanship methods.
"The slower I go, the faster I get there."
It means, she said, that rushing a horse is not the answer. Taking the time to learn the horse's body language and earn his trust before asking him to ignore his instincts is more important than pushing too hard and too fast. Then, the owner must also be taught.
"Without teaching the owner, I'm not doing the horse or the owner justice," Larsson said.
The length of time it will take varies by horse -- they each have specific personalities and traits and are as unique as humans. Some are hard-headed, some anxious to please. Some are very people oriented, some are loners.
How much time a rider or owner has to devote to the training is also important. For those that sign up for a 90-day program, the owner signs a contract stipulating how much time they will spend learning with their horse.
Besides the 90-day program, Larsson offers a two-week apprenticeship program, which involves the owner and horse spending five days a week for two weeks working one on one with Larsson. They can start a horse, work on a problem or get a horse safe for trail riding.
Weekend clinics can also be hosted at an owner's facility. The clinics can focus on starting a colt, halter lessons, horsemanship, dressage, trailer loading, trail riding or bridge crossings.
Participants learn how to read their horses and how to apply that knowledge.
"It is not what you put on your horse's head," Larsson states. "It's what you put in it."
She also holds clinic weekends at the Dead End Ranch, located off of 390th Avenue in Lakefield. Six horses and their riders can participate in the clinics and spectators are welcome.
The next clinic is June 7-8 in Lakefield. To learn more about Trusting Hands and what kinds of training are available, visit her Web site at www.trustinghands.net or call her at (712) 330-8585.