“Clinton, how important are the little things horses do that might not be perfectly right? For example, my horse turns away from me in his pen when I go to halter him. It doesn’t bother me, but a friend says I shouldn’t let my horse continue doing this or it will become a habit. Which one of us is right?”
Your friend is correct. Whatever a horse practices, he gets good at. If he practices turning his rear end toward you, he gets good at that. If he practices being respectful and always turning to face you, he gets good at that.
Here’s a little saying I have on the matter: “When a horse does something once, it plants a seed in his mind. When he does it again, it starts to grow as a habit. When he does it a third time, the behavior starts to mature into an ingrained response.”
So, if it’s a good behavior, it becomes a good habit. If it’s a bad behavior, it becomes a bad habit.
Here’s another way to think of it: Picture an old LP record going around and around. Now imagine that the horse’s mind is the needle—the kind old record players have—with a really sharp tip. This needle doesn’t move inward, however. It stays on that one section of the record.
Each revolution of the record represents an action of the horse. As the record turns, the needle wears a groove into the record. With the first revolution, the groove is started. With the second, the groove is deepened--the action is becoming a habit.
With the third revolution, you have a pretty deep groove—an ingrained habit. Now, the more times the record goes around (the horse repeats the action), the deeper the groove gets (the horse’s mind is invariably drawn back to it).
You can see the effect of this especially in older horses. If a horse is 10 and has had a habit all his life, that record could’ve gone around thousands and thousands of times. By now, the habit has made a great big groove in the record.
Obviously, you don’t want a bad habit to become ingrained like that, so you must get after the behavior immediately. It’s also why it’s so important to get to foals as soon as they’re born, to begin imprinting them with good experiences that can lead to good habits.
So—a horse that turns his rump to you when you enter his pen? Correct him the first time he does it, and every time it happens, until he forms the right habit.
Accomplish this by making the wrong behavior (facing away from you) difficult, and the desired behavior (turning and facing you) easy.
In other words, when your horse shows you his rump, swing the lead rope toward his hindquarters to create pressure that makes him feel uneasy.
The moment he turns and faces you, giving you two eyes, step back and stop swinging the rope. This removes the pressure—and the discomfort.
Over time, his mind will create a groove that makes the correct, respectful response a well-ingrained habit.
Train All The Time
To keep good habits developing in your horse, require some sort of obedience from him every time you’re together. when you’re cleaning his stall, for example, have him move around you, rather than vice versa.
As you’re leading him, insist that he follow obediently, without hanging back or dragging you forward.
If he puts his head up when you’re putting his blanket on or taking it off, pause a moment to desensitize him to the blanket and remind him to remain still.
Your horse is constantly reading you in an effort to deter- mine, “is he/she serious, or not?” he’ll test you in small ways—push into your space, wait a heartbeat before responding to your request, attempt to “get an inch” here and there—then observe how you respond. if you don’t correct him on these small cheats, he’ll eventually pull a much larger one.
At that point, you might feel he’s acting out of the blue. But, in reality, he’s been telling you for some time, via those little cheats, that he’s losing respect for you. Problem is, you haven’t been listening—or correcting him.
The old horseman’s adage is true: you’re either training—or untraining—your horse every moment you’re with him.