There was a time when I would walk into a pasture with a halter and my pony would walk the other way. When I walked after her, she might move into a trot. When she was really feeling spunky, she would canter off. On a number of occasions I put in several hundred yards trying to catch this pony to bring her in off the green grass. It was not an enjoyable experience.
Now, I’m surprised when a pony doesn’t come towards me when I appear with a halter. So the other day when my stallion Apollo barely looked at me when I appeared, I had a choice. I could walk up to him to halter him and risk him moving away, or I could encourage him to come to me. I chose the latter.
Ona Kiser and Margaret Beeman in their book Training for Safety observe: “Every herd has a pecking order and rules. One of those rules, enforced by the more dominant horse over the less dominant horse, is ‘move when I say move.’”(1) Another way that this is expressed is, “He who moves loses.” My ponies tell me so much about their state of mind when I appear with a halter. If they move towards me, I know I have an opportunity to proceed with my agenda. If they don’t, like Apollo didn’t, then I have an opportunity to reassert my leadership.
When Apollo didn’t come to me, I stopped and watched him. When he would turn his head toward me, I would bow my head or take a half step back to try to draw him to me. When this didn’t work after a few tries, I bent down and picked up some pebbles the size of peas. I then tossed one so it hit Apollo. These pebbles were so small that their impact was enough for him to notice but not enough to bruise. They were meant to be annoying, like a fly. Each time the pebble landed, Apollo turned his head to look at me, then he looked away again. He didn’t move off; he just continued to stand there. After about the fifth pebble, though, he shifted his weight. I took a half step back, and he came to me and let me halter him.
In her article “Putting the Relationship First,” Linda Parelli writes: “Don’t just put the halter on him; feel what it feels like. Is he putting his head in there eagerly, or is he braced against you, or shut down and non-reactive? If you can make the haltering/grooming/bridling/saddling experience as important as the things you want to go have fun with or train for, your horse will give you more.” (2) Carolyn Resnick says something similar: “I put my attention on letting go of my agenda and watch for when the horse and I feel a mutual connection. This point is so important to learn….if it took days of doing nothing with a horse but waiting for a feeling of connection it would change your whole experience with horses to magical proportions.” (3)
I have found it to be true that my ponies will give me more if I take the time to connect with them in the seemingly trivial things like haltering (for a related story about bridling, click here). That day when Apollo needed to be convinced to come to me, we then went off and did some ridden work, and it was almost magical. He was light and responsive in a way he hadn’t been the last time we were together.
Every pony is different when it comes to the ‘catch me’ game. That pony that I chased around the pasture many years ago surely knew that she had won the game by having me move my feet in pursuit. Even she now comes to me when I appear with a halter, most of the time. And when she doesn’t, I invent a way for her to catch me (by coming to me) rather than the other way around. The ‘more’ and the ‘magic’ are worth it.
- Excerpted on the Rural Heritage Facebook page.
- Parelli, Linda. “Putting the Relationship First” at:
- Resnick, Carolyn. “Creating a Connection With Your Horse – Practice and Focus” at: http://www.carolynresnickblog.com/creating-a-connection-with-your-horse-practice-and-focus/
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013