Use this desensitizing exercise to keep your horse from kicking on the trail. From Horse & Rider magazine.
Q: MY 8-YEAR-OLD-PAINT GELDING, TUX, kicks at other horses when we're trail riding. I try to keep one to two horse-lengths between myself and the rider behind me, and always tie a red ribbon to his tail as a warning. But I'd like to stop the problem. What can I do?
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A: YOU'RE CORRECT TO ELIMINATE THE problem-don't be content just learning to live with it. I'll give you ways to do so in a minute. But first, make sure Tux has a behavioral problem, not a physical one. Check him for anything that might be troubling him-a pasture injury you may've overlooked, a sore tooth or irritated gums, an ill-fitting shoe. Consult with your veterinarian or farrier, if necessary.
When you're certain there's no physical cause for his kicking, consider this: Horses don't drop out of their mamas wanting to hurt other horses. They learn this behavior, and then it becomes a habit. Your goal is to teach Tux an alternate behavior that will replace his propensity to kick.
As with any behavioral problem you're trying to fix, you must break the lesson down into steps your horse understands. To be successful with my approach, communicate your cues as clearly as you can.
Begin by ponying Tux around your home arena or other confined space, so he learns he can travel in close proximity to other horses without kicking. (By "ponying" I mean riding another horse while leading Tux alongside.) If possible, choose a well-broke horse he's familiar with, such as his pasturemate. He'll be less likely to kick a horse he knows. If a familiar horse isn't available, an experienced trail horse will do, preferably of the opposite gender. (A gelding is usually better mannered with a mare, and vice versa-it's a hormonal thing.) Now, follow these steps.
- Outfit Tux in a good-fitting halter and snap on a 10-foot cotton lead line. (Nylon can burn your hands.)
- Mount the riding horse-we'll call her "Belle." Snug your gelding to her, leaving no more than about 4 to 6 feet of lead line between your hand and the halter. (The safest place for the ponied horse is tight alongside the riding horse's hip.) You're not expecting Belle to kick, but it's best to be on the safe side.
- Hold Belle's reins in one hand, and the lead line in the other. Coil the excess lead line and rest it on your thigh. Steady the coil by placing the hand holding the lead line on top of it. Do not tie the line to your saddle, or wrap it around your hand. If Tux explodes and needs to leave-let him go.
- Begin to move: walk, stop, jog, lope, turn. Travel both directions. Keep Tux moving. This helps him focus-if he's thinking about where his feet are going next, he doesn't have as much time to think about kicking. As you work, be aware of the warning signals a kicking horse will transmit: flattened ears, rounded/arched back, crow hops, etc. If Tux shows any of these signs, immediately turn Belle to face him. (If they're nose-to-nose, he can't kick her.) Give a loud, "Whoa!" Pause. Take a deep breath. Then, face forward and proceed. Command Tux's attention with turns and transitions from one gait to another.
- Once you've completed three to four rides without any kicking, saddle Tux, then pony him without a rider for an additional three to four successful rides.
- Now ride Tux and pony Belle. By now, the horses are friends, and it's unlikely Tux will be inclined to kick her. But do remain cautious. If you sense him considering a kick, turn and face the mare. Practice at all gaits, in both directions.
Once you've completed five to seven successful schooling rides, it's time to take Tux's new skills on the trail. Ask your trail buddies to come along for a schooling ride. Again, ride Belle first, ponying your gelding. Bring up the rear, and ride in an open area to avoid crowding. If he acts up or is aggressive, break away from the group. While they walk forward, fast-trot a big circle. This will refocus and tire him. He'll then be glad to rejoin the "herd" and will associate misbehaving with work.
After several successful rides, switch mounts and continue to apply your schooling techniques. Take it slow and easy. Don't hesitate to spend all season at the rear, if need be. When Tux consistently ponies Belle like a gentleman, try riding in various locations within the group. If he becomes uncomfortable at any point, go back to the last step where he was comfortable, and try again. Once he's successful ponying Belle anywhere in the group, try him on his own.
Ron Copple grew up on his family's ranch in Black Diamond, Washington, making countless pack trips into the Cascade Mountains. For several years, he operated Ron Copple Training Stable, in Yakima, Washington, preparing Quarter Horses and Paints to compete in Western and hunter divisions. Today, Ron and his wife, Carrie, live near Tacoma, where he trains Arabians for Larry Lewis Stable.
This article first appeared in Horse & Rider magazine.