The Tanja Kraus Horsemanship Philosophy
Putting the horse first
I’m all about being ‘for the horse’. Each time I work with, play with or train with my, or a clients horse, I constantly search for the good deal. The place I can leave them where they have learnt something positive, where they are relaxed in my company, where they are happy.
Sometimes this can happen quickly. I have had horses at home that have had a really great session in 15 minutes, and if it’s an option, I will leave them there. Maybe Ill go back and ride them later that day, or in a couple of hours, but I try to let them ‘cook’ for a while on the greatness. And it must be great – of course during a session I give the horse rests or breaks or time – whatever you want to call it, so they learn they have done something correctly. If they give me exceptional learning, attention and performance in a short period of time – you can bet your last dollar that I’m going to leave it there.
Sometimes I may not have this luxury – I may be giving a lesson where the owner has paid for the full hour, 2 hours or what have you. If I am at the 45 minute mark, and its been great, then Ill say to the owner that we will leave it there for this week, and have that 15 minutes ‘up our sleeve’. Sometimes a session may take an hour and 15 minutes – you just don’t know, there’s not much about ‘an hour’ that has to do with a horse.
If you are out trail riding, or mustering for the day, then perhaps you don’t have the luxury of stopping altogether – think of other ways to give your horse the signal that he is performing well, and you appreciate that. I know I get great results keeping the ‘good deal’ in mind, and really making it clear to my horse that I am happy with him.
Often when I’m teaching, I say to my students ‘do less’, and It always reminds me of this part of the movie forgetting Sarah Marshall – funny to watch, but I really do mean it – DO LESS! The busier that you are with your riding or your ground work, the more your horse has to feel and think about – and the busier you are the faster he learns to ignore your cues – if you always use your legs to make him go – you will always need your legs to make him go. Make sense?
Enjoy the clip – and do less.[youtube=http://youtu.be/PKIpCPS-oZc]
Expect More, Wait Longer
I have a couple of horses in for starting at the moment. One is a gelding that I started about 6 months ago, he went home to grow up a bit, and he is back to get some further basic education before his ridden career starts. The other is a 3-year-old filly here to start her ridden career as a pleasure (pleasure as in for fun, not western pleasure) horse.
We had ‘first times’ with both of these horses today. The gelding went out on his first bush ride, and being the first ride I have to be pretty forgiving in a lot of respects – I have to remember that he has NEVER SEEN any of the stuff that I took him to today, with a person on his back. We struggled for a bit at a water crossing – the first time we went over it I led him across – it has a bit of a ‘dicky’ entry, so I was happy to do so, on the way home however he stopped meters back from even the water and made the decision to not go further. Now I took this as a premature decision on his part – we were well back from the waters edge, and he simply decided no – so we discussed it. I have had horses at that crossing genuinely scared and worried about it – and I’m happy to get off and lead them through – but he did not seem worried by it at all, it was just an argument that he felt like having for whatever reason, so I waited. I asked him to try – that’s all. I wasn’t necessarily going for a crossing, but he had to try – as in look, go forward, something to indicate he was going to give it a go. And with much backwards, sideways, I don’t want to etc. He tried. And I stopped asking and let him rest. And repeat. After a little while we were in the water drinking, and then we were through – awesome.
The little filly I have been on 4 times, all in the round yard. I started with some ground skills and then mounted in my arena. We happily walked around and trotted in the arena, and I could see that she was a bit confused about going around and around in the arena with no real direction (which most of the horses do, thus the reason that I like to get them out on trails as soon as possible). We headed out into the ‘big paddock’ (about an acre) to walk around, and she was so happy with that that we headed into the next ‘big paddock’ which includes hills and a dam. She was so happy to have somewhere to go.
I think it is important to empathize with the horse – understand where he is at and where he has been, what he knows and what he doesn’t know. If you set the bar a little bit higher, but wait a little bit longer for him to achieve – you will both have a successful day.
We’ve done everything, except ride her
I get this a lot. Someone will ring me with an enquiry on starting a horse, and when I get to asking questions on the horses history, they will tell me that they have ‘done everything except ride her’. Sometimes the horse has even been ‘saddled’ or ‘sat on’.
I know that the owners are trying to do the right thing by the horse when they do all the ‘pre handling’. They also think that it is going to make my job easier (I have heard a few times ‘we’ve done everything we just need you to ride her a couple of times). It doesn’t make my job any easier – I will still stick to my starting program – I’m not going to skip any steps by assuming that the horse ‘knows it’. This is for my safety, the horses safety, the horses well being, and the horses longevity. If you are looking for someone to just ‘jump on a couple of times to make sure that she doesn’t buck’ you’ve come to the wrong place – there are plenty of ‘breakers’ out there that will be happy to hop on and ‘ride the bucks out’.
I don’t want to ‘ride the bucks out’. In fact my program revolves around the horse not bucking. At all. Not when I put the saddle on, not when I get on for the first time, not ever. And on the horses that have been sent to me that haven’t been ‘messed with’ I’ve got a 100% success rate.
I believe that the first ride of your horses ridden career is its most important. An old horseman once said to me that a horse is like painting on a canvas – everything, good and bad, stays in there – you can paint over it, but its still there. That’s why I don’t want to ‘ride the bucks out’ – I don’t want the horse to ever think about bucking with the saddle or a rider. Especially on his first 10 rides.
I’m not saying that a horse I start will never buck – no one could ever make that sort of promise – they will buck for all kinds of reasons (and when I say buck – I mean buck, rear, bolt – the bad stuff).
Back to the point of the story. It is a lot easier to start a horse that has not been given any impressions on what riding is – no saddle, no sneaky sits, no passenger, nothing. Even if nothing ‘goes wrong’ when you put the saddle on, or sit on your horses back, you could be giving the wrong rewards and in turn the wrong impression of what is expected of the horse.
The ‘flip side’ of this is if something does go wrong – what if he does buck / bolt / rear? What if you fall off? Then the horses first impression of riding is if I do ‘this’ – they get off. You have put an issue in the horse that never needed to be there.
I start horses with their longevity in mind – I’m thinking 20 years down the track, not just tomorrow. I put a lot of groundwork in to help the horse understanding what is expected of him – in terms of his action to my action, or his answer to my question.
Before I do anything with my horses, I think about what outcome I am looking for.
The start of your horses ridden career are some of the most important days of his life – make sure you are setting him up for success, not failure.
Mr. Miles and Wet Saddle Blankets.
The number one trait that most people seek in a horse is ‘quietness’. But what we are really after is ‘experience’. We aren’t looking for a horse that is ‘quiet’ or ‘dull’, what we are after is a horse that is not going to shy, play up, get over excited and out of control. The only way that you can achieve this is experience, or as we like to say ‘Mr. Miles’ – miles under saddle, hours in the saddle. ‘Wet saddle blankets’ this is wet from your horses sweat – wet from doing miles, or hours or whatever you want to call it.
Yes, there are horses that are ‘quiet’, but quiet horses that are inexperienced can just as quickly turn into out of control horses that you cannot communicate with.
For example: I take a horse out on a ride and she shies at something. If I want her to go forward, or sideways, or backwards – whatever it is that I am asking her to do – she has to have done it hundreds of times before – because once her blood is up, she is a lot less capable of listening to me. If I want to avoid her shying at things in the future – I have to ride her lots, and lots and lots, so she gets confident in being ‘out and about’ and in new places – she gets to looking to me for the answers instead of getting into flight mode. The only way to do this is miles under saddle. This is exactly why when I send a horse home after he has been in training or started under saddle, I stress to the owner that the horse needs to be ridden – rain, hail or shine for a minimum of 30 days straight after he gets home – he leaves my place in ‘work mode’ he needs to stay in ‘work mode’ for at least a month after that. Then you can give him a day or some days off – but it is vital that he remains in some sort of a work program – once a week is not a program!! If you are after a horse to ride once a week – you need to buy something with age, and experience if your relationship is going to be a good one.
To put it in human terms – there is a reason that when you are first learning to drive you must log a certain number of hours, or months before you can drive on your own – because you might be capable driving around the paddock or farm, but once their are external factors in place your reflexes and responses aren’t those of an experienced driver. You need experience behind the wheel and time to become a responsible driver – just as your horse needs experience and time to become a responsible mount.
Are you taking the mountain to Mohammed?
An interesting question when it comes to our day-to-day interactions with our horses. The particular thing that got me thinking about this is the use of a mounting block.
I have no problem with the use of a mounting block – IF the reason you are using one is for your horse, and not so much for you. I will use a mounting block if there is one nearby (I don’t own one but I often use one at clients places etc.) and the reason I do this is simply so I can have the girth at a comfortable firmness, instead of screwing it on tight so the saddle doesn’t slip when I get on. How tight you do up the girth is a whole other story that I won’t go into now. If you use a mounting block because you are unable to get on your horse without one, then (here comes the controversy) you need to do exercises and learn how to get on by yourself. If you have an injury that prevents you from getting on your own then no problem, but if you just ‘can’t do it’ then you need to train to do it. The reason I say this is because if you are so weak in the legs that you can’t spring up onto your horse, then your leg strength and suppleness is probably letting you down in your riding.
Back to the actual reason for this blog. Are you taking the mountain to Mohammed or do you take Mohammed to the mountain? When you do use a mounting block – are you taking the mounting block and placing it next to your horse, or are you positioning your horse next to the mounting block? This may seem like a really trivial question but it means worlds to your horse – and it speaks volumes on your behavior patterns around your horse.
I’ll try and explain. If you are in the habit of taking the mounting block to your horse and placing it, then you are ‘catering’ to your horse too much, and you are giving up the opportunity that arises when you choose to place your horse next to the mounting block.
When you take your horse to the block, you may have to ‘fiddle’ a little and ask your horse to go forwards, backwards, and sideways – before he is in the correct position – what a great opportunity to communicate! It isn’t always about the ‘ride’ itself – its about the communication before, during and after it.
It isn’t just about the mounting block either – when you are grooming your horse and need to change sides – do you change sides? Or do you ask your horse to change sides? When you are leading your horse – do you dictate the path or does he? Do you dictate the pace or does he?
Food for thought…..
Starting Horses under saddle
This is a subject that I am very passionate about. It is one of my favorite parts of my business – starting horses under saddle. For me I find it rewarding, fun, exciting and I love having sent a horse home with a great foundation for the rest of his ridden career.
I truly believe that your horse’s start under saddle will set him up for life – be it for success, or failure. Of course, subsequent riding after your horse has been started is important to his well being, but if the start is no good – then the continued riding can only build on a bad foundation.
There are a lot of methods out there when it comes to starting young horses and it is a good idea to do some research when deciding where to send your horse.
Timing is of great importance – is your horse physically and mentally ready to start his ridden career? We see so many young horses at futurities, racing and out and about – but are they really ready for the pressures of competition? Are they even ready for some advanced maneuvers that are being asked of them?
Sometimes we forget about the mental maturity of the horse in question – often with bigger breeds we see a horse in front of us that is physically capable of being ‘ridden’ (as in weight bearing / basic riding) but do we pause to think about his mental attitude and aptitude?
The way we raise our young horses has a huge bearing on their riding capabilities – is he learning social skills in a mob situation? Or is he a million dollar baby that was weaned at 6 months and put in a paddock all alone? It makes a huge difference.
I’ve met horses that were considered ready to start (because of their size) when they were young – and they are still not mentally mature – this can cause worry and nerves before you even start walking.
Age is not the only factor when it comes to when to start your horse – we need to consider age, physical maturity, mental maturity, the trainer, and the rider when he first comes home. Every horse is different – there is no general answer.
The most important thing when starting your horse under saddle is going to the lengths required to make sure his start sees him become a confident, happy, stable and safe riding horse.
Is it Guaranteed?
I was booked recently to do a float loading lesson with a horse, and one of the questions that the owner asked me was “Is it guaranteed that he will get on the float every time, once you have been out?”
The extremely short answer is, no.
Firstly there are never any guarantees when it comes to our horses – they are living, breathing thinking animals who make decisions – the ones we don’t want or the ones we do, either way – they still make decisions.
We can train horses to do any number of things – really only limited by our imaginations. But, it does depend greatly on the handler whether the horse will perform the action being asked of it. Don’t get me wrong – I will go out and train the horse to get on and off the float, and we will fix any issues that he has about getting on the float, and from that day forward he will load perfectly – providing that the handler is confident that he is going to load, and does not hesitate on approach.
My partner Phil does a lot of float loading ‘fixes’ and we have seen it ‘ a thousand times ‘ Phil will have the horse going on and off the float at a mere suggestion that they get on – and then the owner comes and takes hold of the horse and has an energy of ‘oh I hope he gets on’ and the horse thinks ‘hope is getting you no where’ and refuses.
The only difference is that Phil and I expect that the horse will load – and the horse picks up on that energy, if you hope that they load, then it is a hesitant energy that you are putting out and the horse doesn’t understand it.
This attitude applies to everything – sending your horse to a trainer doesn’t ‘fix’ him. Yes we can build confidence in the horse, sort out any issues that he may have – but if, when he gets home you treat him like the horse he used to be, instead of the horse he is today – he will start falling back into his old habits.
Getting it right the first time.
Just a little story from today. I had 3 horses arriving today to be started and restarted under saddle. Phil was asked to go and trailer load 2 of them for the owner, and as it turned out I went with him and watched. The horses were a 7-year-old brumby (caught wild at 6) with limited handling that had never been on a float – only a truck twice – once from Guy Fawkes National Park to Dorrigo, and then from Dorrigo down a winding mountain to Bellingen. The other a 9-year-old Brumby mare that has been ridden and handled and floated before. Phil started with the 7 year old, beginning with desensitizing to the flag (the tool he was going to use), Teaching the horse to yield from the flag, and then to the trailer – he probably spent just under 10 minutes on ground skills before approaching the trailer. The horse walked up to the trailer, had a smell, Phil asked her to walk on – and on she went, stopping briefly to smell once she was inside. Phil then taught the mare to unload from the tail, and reloaded her several times to make sure that she had learnt what the expectation of her was in regards to the trailer. During his training she pooed once – and was quite confident and happy throughout.
He tied her up to a tree and began the same training with the older, more experienced mare – who at the sight of the trailer pooed, stopped and began expressing that she was insecure and afraid of the float. The training proceeded exactly the same as with the younger inexperienced horse, but with perhaps more ‘resting time’ when she advanced to the float and up onto the tailgate. This horse was clearly emotional about the trailer – she bit it when she had her head in the back, she stomped her feet, she pooed about 5 or 6 times in the 30 minutes that he worked with her and once she entered the trailer she trembled. I want to interject here and point out – this is where you need to do what is right for the horse – not what you feel you need to do. Let me explain – what most horsey people do when they see a horse trembling in a float is reassure her – and I sure do too. It breaks my heart that this poor horse has had such a terrible experience that she is physically trembling – but if I go into ‘mollycoddle’ mode – all I am doing is justifying her fear. What I need to do is support her through confidence. Phil allowed her to rest in the float, and then asked her to back off – she came off rather quickly which is a little undesirable – but he did not trap her in the float. After a break of a minute or so he asked her to load again – and proceeded to load her and unload her several times.
He then loaded them both and the owners drove them to my place.
Afterwards I was chatting with the owner about her decision to ask Phil to come and float load the horses – she told me that it was worth the money to have the horses done right – the first time, rather than trying it herself and having to fix it later. The 2 horses were a perfect demonstration of this – the little less experienced one has now been trained properly to go on and off the float and she should remain confident through her life about floating. The older mare who has had experiences that have caused her to be wary of the float will carry them forever – sure, she will improve with the correct training all the time, but it will always be in there.
Getting it right the first time is vital – you don’t get a second chance to do something the first time. This applies to haltering and handling a foal for the first time, to saddling, riding, bridling, worming, picking up feet, trimming, shoeing, and floating.
That first time is vital and sets your horse up for life.
Reactive VS Sensitive – which one is my horse?
This is a great topic – a lot of the time I see horses that are reactive labeled sensitive, and then some horses that are sensitive labeled reactive. So how do we tell the difference? Put simply, a reactive horse isn’t thinking about what you want him to do – he is reacting to a stimulus (or cue), and reacting instead of acting.
A reactive horses behavior or actions are that of a prey animal – fight or flight. You may not think that he is in flight or fight mode, as he may not bolt, or rear, kick, strike or do any of the things that we perceive as fight or flight mode. However he may simply jump or rush in response to a cue – this is being reactive. For example – you may ask your horse to go sideways, and he may rush sideways – he could be simply running away from your leg – he may not realize that you are asking for sideways, he may just be trying to avoid your stimulus. This is being reactive.
A sensitive horse is one who response to your slightest cue with the desired outcome. For example – If I am asking my sensitive horse to go sideways, I will simply open the rein and the leg on the side I want him to move into, then I will touch the hair with my boot and ask him to step across – Yes just the hair, just the boot – I do not have to dig my heel into him. Once I ask he calmly steps sideways with each pulse (1 Cue, 1 step). He doesn’t rush, I can choose the amount of sideways steps he does, and he remains calm. You will know if your horse is reactive vs. sensitive by his consistency and adjustability – if you consistently get the same action from the same cue, and it is smooth and calm AND you have adjustability in the action (you can control the number of steps, adjust the speed, direction,) you do not have a reactive horse.
But you do not necessarily have a sensitive horse.
A sensitive horse is one that responds to the slightest cue – not one that you have to continue to stimulate to have him continue a particular maneuver – i.e. once I ask my horse to trot – I don’t expect to keep kicking him to keep him trotting – he should continue to trot until I ask him to do something else.
In closing Reactive = Rushing, jumping, inconsistency, fear
Sensitive = Calm, adjustability, consistency, responsive, smooth,
It’s not all about you!
I recently saw a question posted on an online forum, by a person wanting to put the first ride on their young horse. They have, followed a program, and have arrived at the point where they are confident that the horse is ready to get on. The question posed was about the rider’s preference of riding the horse in a large paddock, as opposed to in a round yard. The rider said that she trusted the horse enough to ride in an open area, and that she would feel more confident in an open space rather than the confines of the round yard.
As someone who starts horses for a living, I have, many times felt that the horse was ready to get on, at what I consider ‘inappropriate moments’. Sometimes you are out in an open area, or even in a dressage-sized arena, or out and about, and you get this feeling ‘I could get on you now’. And you, as the human feel that this would be completely fine – but guess what – it is not about you, it’s about the horse.
All the preparation we do, all the careful skills that we teach, all the body language that we read – is all about making sure that the horse is right for us to get on. And most of us probably think that this is about keeping the rider safe – yes, this is part of it, BUT, I consider it my responsibility to give that horse the best possible first, second, third – and keep going, rides of its life. We must understand that this is setting our horse up for the rest of his life. If we have a stack or a bad experience – generally we can get over it, if your horse has a stack, or a scare in those vital first weeks of riding – his association with a rider is fear. Yes you can help him get over it – but is he going to be as confident as he could have been if he didn’t get scared?
Let me put it this way – when I learnt how to drive, I started driving an automatic car in a big paddock, around in circles. Then I progressed to a manual car, and mum would let me drive up driveways, and then we went onto quiet public roads, and finally when I started getting lessons my instructor took me onto busy roads and highways. If mum had thrown me straight onto the highway, I probably would have caused a few accidents, and lost my confidence in driving. Much the same as your horse would lose confidence in being ridden, if he is thrown ‘straight in the deep end’.
Many of you may have horses that have been started for a long time – but this principal applies to a lot of what we do with horses – next time you are teaching him something new, or doing something that gets him a little worried – remember – its not all about you.