Ride Out of the Box

It's too buggy to ride in the woods and too hot to ride circles in the arena. Think out of the box or boxes as may be the case with this lesson.
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It's too buggy to ride in the woods and too hot to ride circles in the arena. Think out of the box or boxes as may be the case with this lesson.
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Ever notice toddlers on Christmas morning? Cardboard boxes often provide them with more entertainment than the gifts that came inside. Maybe you remember playing with cardboard yourself, building a fort or trying to see if you can walk with a box on each foot. Tap into that same creativity and have a play day with your horse, improving his (and your) training at the same time.

Just to make it challenging and productive, set some ground rules for yourself and your horse. We know that the best way to control our horse is to tell one spot on the horse to do something. So instead of telling the horse to move over, we tell him to move his shoulder away from us. You're going to use that same technique and tell the horse's nose, shoulder or hip to move. Here's how John and Charlie Horse did that and made playing with boxes a good training exercise.

First, John assembled lots of boxes that were ready to be knocked down for recycling. He removed any big staples that could scratch or injure the horse if he stepped on them wrong, and John used his imagination in putting them in various positions in a pasture.

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Think Out of the Box

  • Find ways to go play with your horse.
  • Make it fun, but set performance standards so both you and your horse feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Limit yourself to using specific cues.
  • Remember to "talk to" one part of the horse at a time - the nose, hip or shoulder.
  • Warm up by reviewing the cues. It will make the real exercise go smoother.

Warm-up and Review
John put a snaffle bridle on the horse and set out to tune him up, using specific cues. John had taught Charlie the "go forward" cue, tapping high on Charlie's hip with a whip to tell him to go forward and stopping the tapping as soon as Charlie took a step forward. John also "kissed" to Charlie when he used the whip, so by now Charlie understood that the kiss meant "move." (If you've read Josh's article about "pre-cues" on page 10, you'll recognize that John's "kiss" is a pre-cue. If Charlie doesn't respond to the pre-cue, then John will follow up by tapping the whip - the real "go forward" cue.)

Once Charlie walked forward, John picked up the left rein and pulled it toward Charlie's body. Charlie already knew that as the signal for him to move his hips away from John, so he swung his hips away and came to a stop. John petted him.

Having reminded Charlie of the "hips over" cue, John then reviewed the rein sequence he'd taught him. (See the May 2005 issue of Perfect Horse.) He asked Charlie to walk forward again, and he pulled the rein lightly toward Charlie's shoulder. Charlie turned his nose slightly toward John. Though if you were watching, it would look like the same cue John used to say, "Move your hips," Charlie knew the difference. John gave a mini-release of the rein. That told Charlie he'd done what John wanted, but that John wanted something more.

Charlie felt that John was focused on his ear, so Charlie dropped his head. Again John gave him a mini-release, and again he picked up the rein. Charlie tuned in to see what else John wanted, though he already knew, since he had learned the sequence. When Charlie relaxed the long muscle on the left side of his neck, John gave a mini-release of the rein and then picked it up again. Charlie swung his hips away, as he'd done at the beginning. John totally released the rein and petted him.

They switched sides and did the same exercise with the right rein (which Charlie's not quite as good at). Hips over, release. "Give" with the nose, release. Drop the head, release. Relax the neck, release. Move hips over, Release. After about five minutes, John and Charlie were ready for the box exercise.

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Approaching the Boxes
John had piled the boxes all in a heap, and as you can imagine, when he led Charlie toward them, Charlie looked at them suspiciously. (He probably couldn't figure out how that pasture had "grown" boxes overnight.) When Charlie paused, John petted him and allowed him to stop.

Charlie was telling John that's as close to the boxes as he felt secure about. If John had pressured him to go forward then, Charlie's fear of the boxes would have risen. Instead, Charlie was able to drop his head and get a good look at them. John reviewed the exercise he'd done earlier, so that called Charlie's attention back to the cues, and he realized that the boxes were OK.

After about 30 seconds, Charlie was ready to approach the boxes. John's goal was to have Charlie walk through the pile.

John ignored that they were boxes and pretended that he was teaching Charlie to load into the trailer. He asked Charlie to put one foot forward toward the pile. Charlie started forward, and John stopped him after one step, asking him to relax his neck. John knew that if Charlie got a box caught on his foot when he walked into the pile, he might get frightened.

Charlie dropped his head and sniffed the boxes. John petted him. He asked Charlie to step forward again. Charlie did, and John stopped him after one step asking Charlie to step back. He had wanted Charlie to step onto one of the boxes and then off again, so Charlie would realize that he wasn't trapped.

After a few times of one foot on a box and then off, John allowed Charlie to take two steps into the box pile and stop. Naturally, Charlie was worried, and he raised his head and stiffened his neck. That's where having practiced the earlier exercises came in handy because John could immediately ask him to drop his head and relax.

John continued to play with the cues until Charlie was marching through the boxes as if they were just cardboard grass. John's next idea was to ride Charlie through the boxes.

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Saddle Up
John reviewed the same cues from the saddle. Instead of the "go forward" cue, he used the "speed up" cue, the squeeze of both his legs to tell Charlie that he wanted movement.

John reviewed the same rein sequence as he'd done from the ground. Charlie doesn't care whether John's on the ground or in the saddle when he picks up the rein. He just wants John to release the rein. It gets to be a game, with Charlie trying to give John the right answer the instant he feels John pick up the rein.

John rode toward the boxes, and Charlie marched forward as if he was proud that he was an experienced box-walker. They had a ball, with John trying to see how many boxes he could get Charlie to step on and squash.

John asked Charlie to sidepass through the pile. He rode around the pile, stopped and had Charlie back through it. You wouldn't have wanted to be a cardboard box in the pasture that day, but Charlie and John had a great time.

Beyond One Pile
Now that you've seen John ride out of the box, you're ready to tackle the exercise, too. But don't limit yourself to one pile of boxes. Pretend that you're 10 years old and see how many ways you can make the boxes work for you.

Line up the boxes in two rows and lead your horse through the "alley" that you created. Or make a line with a box about every five feet, and play "in and out the windows." Form a triangle with three boxes and see if you can ride a circle around each box, and make all three circles the same size. The possibilities for having fun are endless.