It is very important to remember, despooking can be quite dangerous for both you and your horse. Great care has to be taken to ensure you and your horse are properly prepared for this task.
When I take a horse in for handling or breaking, despooking usually falls on or around day 6 (or day 1, week 2). They will generally have 5 days of prep work before I get into the scary stuff.
Safety is always paramount for me when working with any horse. The first 5 days are spent creating a safe working relationship between me and the horse. What naturally occurs through this process is respect, trust, obedience, friendship and calmness.
Until these 5 elements are cultivated, the horse will not be prepared to have his boundaries of “fear” expanded. Now obviously every horse is different. Some horses are naturally fearless, but I will assume, if you are reading this, your horse is not one of these!
So, unless you have achieved respect, trust, obedience, friendship and calmness with your horse, you are not ready to attempt a despooking session.
Since this is part one, I will attempt, in an interesting and not over winded manner, to help you achieve those 5 elements. So lets start from the beginning. I think the best way to explain this, is to go through an average week of work on an average horse that lands in my yard for training.
The average horse is 2-4 yrs old with little to no training or handling. Some have had more, such as head collaring and leading, some have had less, such as completely untouched. The average owner wants the horse broken to ride (horrible word, I know), or made show or sale ready (Cavan sales particularly). The first week is the same regardless of the end goal.
We will assume the horse in this example has been head collared and can be led.
Day one. Lets make friends, and move our feet.
Day one starts and we head to the arena. I am aware of how the horse behaves with me. Is he pushy, walking on top of me, reluctant to lead, pulling back, nervous, not paying attention, swinging the head around looking for the other horses, etc.
The first thing I do is create my personal space for safety. Backwards and forwards, until the horse gets the idea to move back off me. In parelli this is the yo-yo game. Its important, and there is no need for me to recreate the wheel, so I will call it what it is. If you are unfamiliar with the yo-yo game, google it, I’m sure there are a million videos.
Once I have established that I can move the horse off me, I move on.
I always use a stick on day one. I start by seeing if the horse doesn’t want to be touched anywhere, using the stick. Ears, front and hind legs, under the belly, the tail. Anywhere that gets a “no” I work with.
Approach and retreat, keeping my stick on the horse, rubbing gently, until he stands for it. Remove the stick as a reward for standing. Repeat as necessary.
If this all goes well, I give the horse a good grooming, establishing a bit of friendship after being a bit dominant with the forwards and backwards.
Day two, more moving of the feet.
I become less tolerant of poor behaviour while leading.
More forward backward, now being aware of straightness. I also now start expecting more attention.
More working on any spots the horse didn’t want touched.
I introduce the idea of moving away from pressure, so I can achieve circling. Pressure on the face to get the horse turned, pressure at the girth to get the horse to move forward. This will be important later when the horse will be ridden. I always click when I ask for forward movement. Makes backing a lot easier.
I will hope for some rudimental circles.
Day 3, no work, soak time.
Day 4, more of the same.
Forwards, backwards, better circles, better turns on the haunches. More attention on me. I now introduce the idea of moving the hind end away from pressure. So now I can start drawing the front end (while pushing the hind) around instead of pulling it. Pushing and pulling creates respect, but draw creates willingness.
Day 5, leading in hand
Now the horse understands to move the face away from pressure, and pressure on the girth means move forward, the circle becomes straight lines. Initially I will have to face the horse, this is the position he understands, and ask for forward, but then go with him. He won’t like it, but patient persistence is key.
When I can get this, I then turn to the leading position and flick my rope behind me like a tail. It will not be anywhere perfect, but the important thing is that he gets the idea.
Day 6, more of everything.
Trying to make it all “prettier”, moving up and down through the gaits. Lots of turns on my circles, looking for lightness. Try to do less to get more. By this point, after a session, the horse will willingly follow me around with no ropes. We have draw, respect, willingness, trust and friendship. The horse ends his sessions calm and relaxed.
He now gets another day off to soak in his lessons.
A lot more would happen in these 5 days, such as some loose jumping, introducing a roller, perhaps a bit and bridle, but none of that pertains to despooking so I have left it out.
We are now ready to start to think about despooking. If the horse on day 6 does not sound like your horse, you are not ready to despook. Always remember, I am more then happy to answer questions or elaborate further. Natural horsemanship is not magic, it is a skill anyone can learn with practice and patience. It is an attitude, and there are many traditional trainers that would easily fit the natural horsemanship ethos, so don’t ever discount a good trainer that produces calm and happy horses!!
Next time we get into the “nitty gritty” of despooking, so stay tuned!!