"Usually you shoe horses that are against you, right?" asked world-renowned clinician Pat Parelli at the 16th annual Bluegrass Laminitis symposium Jan. 16-18 in Louisville, Ky. "You're on opposite teams. And when push comes to shove, the horse wins when it comes to shove.

"I'm kind of ashamed of the horse industry compared to other professional industries," he went on. "It's still full of wives' tales, myths, and bovine fecal matter. If you want to practice medicine or law, you need a license. In the horse industry, there's no such thing. What you're doing here (with the Symposium) is fabulous--you're sharing information, learning about the profession."

Parelli then discussed the state of the horse industry in the United States on his way to discussing difficult horses and the challenges farriers face with them. "People who own horses work, breed, play, or compete with them," he stated. "Eighty percent of horses in the U.S. are kept for play. Now we've got a horse culture that's completely different from before (when horses were the primary mode of transportation or power for work). Lots of people today store horses in the closet the way they store skis or basketballs," and take them out when they're ready. However, he implied, people need to understand their horses' physical needs and mental makeup in order to get the most out of the partnership.

Survival Instincts
"A horse takes getting beat up by another horse way better than a confrontation with a predator (such as a human or dog)," he noted. "That's because he knows another horse doesn't want to kill him. We have to have ways of analyzing the horse for fear. If he's afraid, don't try to dominate him, as this will panic him. If he's being stubborn, not scared, then you need to dominate him."

Reiterating a theme from his earlier presentation, he listed the main behavioral problems with horses as being afraid, disrespectful, and full of oats. If it's a problem horse, "Which kind of horse is it?" he asked. "If you know, you can work out a solution with the owner. If he's full of oats, ask to have him worked before you get there. You want him to be steaming. Idle hooves are the devil's workshop," he said with a laugh.

"Try never to put yourself into a situation where you could be the loser," he insisted. "The owner doesn't want to be the loser either--he/she wants a happy horse. It's all about preparation. A great horseshoer is a great horse handler who knows hoof dynamics and blacksmithing. But the horse doesn't care about your blacksmithing skills--he thinks about what's going on right now."

Scared Horses
"Think about horses from their perception and forget about yours," Parelli instructed. "Some horses just can't tolerate much. Their perception is that they need to be in a self-preservation mode. Learn how to stretch their envelope. Horses don't like things that come toward them--they can tell by the way you walk if you're predator or prey. Usually something walking in a straight line towards them that keeps coming is a predator; a prey animal keeps looking around and pausing to assess his environment.

"When a horse is acting like a prey animal, we cannot act like a predator in any way, shape, or form," he continued. "A nervous horse has a lot of adrenaline going, and if it can get Grandma to pick up a car off her grandson, think of what it can do to a scared horse," he laughed.

"The opposite of fear is curiosity--it's a lot different if you want to touch a snake versus if the snake wants to touch you," he explained. "Rather than walking up to a scared horse, if you can get him to follow you, you can change his perception. You'll be amazed at the difference that one little thing can make. Just lead him around until you feel a change. Some horses are more skeptical on one side than the other; figure eight following can help with this. Take an extra 15 minutes at the beginning of working on a horse that you know is a problem. It's better to work on this at the front end than at the back (when you and the horse are already frustrated). It's better to keep them from becoming any worse at least. This is bedside manner, building a rapport first with better horsemanship skills."

Getting In Closer
He then went on to discuss the next step--touching the scared horse. "You can touch most foals easiest on the hip," he said. "With mature horses it's the withers. Read the signs and let the horse tell you when you can go further. Use a different presentation of your body to them than straight on--such as approaching side on with a hand out versus bent down with a hand reaching under. (The latter) is how a predator in the wild will disembowel a horse.

"Horses are touchy below the knees because they're protective of their tendons," he continued in discussing predator appearances. "If you have trouble picking up a horse's leg, keep advancing, and growl, you've just sent him off the scale. Approach and retreat, and you might have to work on areas other than the feet first. Something most people don't do is contact to make the horse feel good, like massaging."

He gave the example of using a small cordless electric massager to teach a horse that the buzzing noise (like clipper noise) was a good thing by starting the massage at the withers. In four days, he said, he has brought around horses who were real clipping nightmares. The implication was that if a horse learns that contact is a pleasurable and interesting experience, not just a tolerable one, you're on the road to more compliant interaction with the horse in all areas.

Parelli also mentioned desensitizing hair-trigger horses by rubbing them in different areas with a stiff stick or flipping a rope around them once you've gotten them interested in interacting with you. This might include, once the horse is curious and following you, getting him to follow you while you are swinging the stick or flipping the rope. Then you can progress to touching the horse with the stick and/or rope once it doesn't scare them away from following you.

"The real key is that you need to get your clients to do this stuff," he concluded. "They have a lot more interaction with the horse than you can once every six weeks."

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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