Driving & Natural Horsemanship
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
How do these two things go together? It turns out they are a perfect match. Natural horsemanship is all about creating confidence and calmness. Two things that all driving horses should have in spades. But how often are driving horses calm and confident? Based on what I’ve seen over the years, not very often.
Something I hear often is the horse just needs more time in harness. They need more experience and more desensitization. Which is often very true! BUT sometimes we just need to go back a step, or two or three and work on our relationship without the harness. It’s amazing how doing some ground work, in a consistent manner, with the entire goal to be calmness, can change how a horse goes in the harness.
Last weekend my friend Molly and I went over to the Bitterroot to have private lessons with my friends and instructors, Ethan Zimmerman and Lorri Roy of Foundation Horsemanship.We both had an idea of things we wanted to work on. Zorro has been feeling grumpy about working with me lately so relationship was #1 on my list. But he also has been struggling with finding relaxation with the bit in his mouth. Bitless is not an option, at this time, because he has such a sensitive face, putting pressure on his nose with a halter or bitless bridle just makes him lose it. So I asked Ethan if he would help me help Zorro find some peace with the bit in his mouth. And even though Ethan doesn’t agree with using bits he was extremely helpful with my issues!!
Molly wanted to work on confidence with both of her minis. They have separation anxiety issues and get anxious when in harness. (Zorro does sometimes as well and we also got to work on this at one point!)
The first day we spent the morning working through obstacles with our ponies just in a rope halter and lead line. They have a new obstacle course all set up and we had a blast!! There is a teeter totter, logs to jump, a big bridge to play on, several different styles of pedestals, two water obstacles – on big one and one water box- a car wash, a gate to open, the boulder field, cavalettis, and a narrow teeter totter. So for the morning we went around and just played with the obstacles with the goal of having a pony that was confident and calm when going over them. This meant that we had to repeat and repeat and repeat until we HAD a calm and confident pony. The ‘ask and wait’ was key in creating a calm pony.
For instance, the water box. This is a hard obstacle because the bottom of it is a black stall mat and there is water in it. I’m sure to the pony it looks like a deep dark black hole. So for them to trust us enough to step into it is HUGE. We would ask them to approach and our first goal is to get their nose OVER the obstacle. Typically once you get their nose over it, then wait and let them think, they will lower their head and LOOK at the obstacle. Sometimes they are so scared they can’t even do that but typically they will at least look. If they look and then snort and try to leave you simply re-set them and ask for the nose over the obstacle again. When they can stand with their nose over the obstacle then you can ask for a step. This would be touch it with the foot. This step can take quite awhile and having good timing is key. If you push them too hard they can blow up. If you don’t ask at the right time you will miss the green light and won’t really progress with that obstacle. It was so fun watching all three of the ponies work through this and get so brave that they could walk up to it, lower their head to look and then just walk straight across it.
The afternoon of the first day we did two rein driving. We could use a halter or a bridle, but because of our biting issues I opted for a bridle.
I learned about closing my fingers slowly on the lines and opening fast, without throwing my pony away.
I learned how to help Zorro with his extreme mouthiness when the bit was in his mouth. He will chomp and chomp and chomp when I pick up my lines. This is a result of me being too fast to close my hands and also being to snatchy at his face. I usually drive with a fairly loose line, which is ideal, BUT this also can cause me to snatch at my lines if he acts out.
Everyone was so jealous and wanted to come play with us on the playground!
So I now have a few more tools in my tool kit to help him overcome his anxiety about me lifting the lines. I am so excited and motivated to take him out on my driving track and work on transitions, transitions, transitions. I can always count on Ethan and Lorri for bringing up my self confidence, even as they help me bring up my pony’s confidence! They are excellent at inspiring me when I have been feeling stuck and frustrated.
The second day we started with two line driving and repeated the transitions we had done the day before. I played around with the obstacles while driving a bit more and we did some trot/canter/whoa transitions as well. The ponies were doing an awesome job so we took a lunch break and then came back to drive them!
Both Molly and I had some anxiety things to work through in the cart and we learned A LOT about how to help our ponies.
At one point Molly went to switch ponies and Zorro got very emotional because she and Goldie left. My normally quiet pony turned into a whinnying, pooping mess! LOL! He couldn’t stand still so I didn’t try to make him. Instead I let him go out and trot or canter as small of a circle as we could then offer him the chance to stop. He couldn’t so we would do another small circle. We had to do many many circles, with me switching the direction of the circle sometimes until he started to walk the circles instead of needing to canter and trot them. And then he suddenly offered to just whoa. And since that was the goal we stopped and just thought about our life for awhile.
Ethan drove Goldie and Lorri got to drive Zorro… you know that meme that went around Facebook?
Well Ethan and Lorri are on our very short lists 🙂
I always love watching my ponies learn a new pattern and make some significant changes. Having someone coach you along is so valuable! I highly suggest getting a hold of Ethan and Lorri and participating in their obstacle clinics as well as taking some private lessons!
If you don’t live here in Montana then take a look at the natural horsemanship trainers in your area. You may be surprised how they can help you with your driving horses and ponies!