Monty Roberts at Crofton Manor, Fareham. 5th November 2012
It is hard to believe that Monty is 77. He looks great, moves with stealth, never been better. What drives Monty? What is it that keeps him on his toes and holds his interest? What is that draws a man from his lovely Californian home to the cold wasteland of Britain in the winter. Of course the horses, and I don’t doubt her majesty has some part to play.
Every horse that comes to him with problems is a challenge and each challenge is what keeps his pulse ticking. For once this bonfire night was not cold, although in the building by 9 o’clock we were all shivering.
But as the stars came out so did the horses. One after another, Monty worked with a starter that went like a dream. Then he did a horse that refused to be mounted. He long reined it up to the mounting block, and rewarded it for impeccable behavior. Another large horse was head shy. He had hit his head coming in and out of the stable and refuses to load. So the tarpaulin was used above his head to desensitize him.
Another horse had a phobia of plastic bags and he got that one to accept the tarpaulin on the ground. The last horse was a non-loader and they are always the best demonstrations of Monty’s work. Monty understands what it is that the horse is finding difficult and he desensitizes it to that feeling, or thing, or action.
This time he walked it over a board so getting it used to the sound of a different footfall. He often used the se saw for this. Horse can be afraid of walking backwards down a ramp or going into a dark space, although the horse has great night sight. Horses often don’t like being squeezed. They are into pressure animals, evolution has seen to that. Perhaps it was a memory of a terrible or frightening journey has put them uneasy about travelling.
Most horses can be desensitized to most of these issues. Monty will show you how to accomplish it. His work has changed forever how we deal with these issues. His maxim that you never inflict pain on a horse is so important. When I’ve seen people who think that if they beat a horse it will suddenly go, “Ok I’ll do whatever you want.” Of course it won’t it just serves to remind the horse that humans are predators and need to be feared. In extreme cases the horse will attack. Monty always reminded me that his experience of being on the receiving end of corporal punishment as a child made him angry, he felt the horses suffered in the same way as he watched his father working to ‘break’ horses.
This demonstration was aimed at educating the public. It was intended to show what can be done to cure horses of phobic behavior and how it should be done. This demonstration is part of his now current theme that is to educate people.
I often get asked about desensitization, about how it works and about how we can also re sensitize our horses. When we work with animals and children we find they have similar responses to their environment. A good routine, regular meals and consistent handling create a happy child and not surprisingly a happy horse. Take all those factors away and trouble ensues.
A horse needs to know how to behave and what is going to happen to it. Routine is paramount to good behavior. If a horse is dealt with in the same way every day and fed, mucked out and ridden every day with consistency then it will be like its environment, predictable.
Most racehorses have a very predicable routine. Despite being highly strung animals they are manageable because they go out together, are fed together and have consistent handling. It needs to be the same for horses in the private sector too, but very often it is not. This is when trouble can start.
Horses are very much like us; they suffer with Monday morning syndrome. On Sunday the racehorse does not go out and because of that they are often difficult to handle the next morning. Some of this is caused by the anticipation of work. We are much the same. A good weekend with lots of fun and relaxation means that come Monday morning we are slightly out of practice at handling work pressures. It is a struggle to get the flow going again. So it is with horses.
Horses do suffer from nervousness. They also need stimulation too these are in direct opposition to each other. We need to make their lives interesting and they need to learn things, jumping and dressage movements and responses to aids. They also need to have a stimulating environment and that would include hacking out and going to shows/races, etc.
When a horse needs to be desensitized what is meant by that is that we need to get rid of the Monday morning syndrome. The horse needs to be helped towards being less nervous and more able to cope with new and challenging things.
There are many ways to do this:
- We can introduce the horse to new challenges, but watching all the time to make sure that the horse is responding to the challenge and accepting it.
- We can put the horse into a position where it can learn that whatever it is afraid or nervous of has been accepted and that it is no longer afraid. Working with plastic bags on sticks, tarpaulins on the ground etc. A horse can be made to think very hard about something to the point at which it finally says OK.
Overloading is like getting into work on a Monday morning and finding out that you have enough work for a week on your desk and more coming in tomorrow. It is not pleasant. But the effect of overloading is to improve organization, ask for help or/and learn to prioritize.
When a horse has decided that it no longer wants to be ridden and so bucks everyone off who tries to ride it, it becomes a special case for desensitization.
Before attempting any work with this horse one must:
- Check for skeletal problems
- Interview the owner to ascertain when and how the horse began the behavior.
If the conclusion is that the horse is physically in a good condition then putting a dummy onto the horse is not going to hurt or aggravate the horse further.
The owner will be able to give you a history that will throw light on how this behavior began and probably why it began.
Overloading a horse would in this case consist of fixing a dummy onto the saddle and then just letting the horse work it out. Step-back with the long reins let the horse buck to his hearts content and don’t worry about it. Do not ever take on any responsibility for the anxiety the horse is going through. It is the horse’s problem not yours. In the end the horse will calm down realizing that whatever happens he is not going to get rid of his workload, which is what it is, and he will have to buckle down to it and get on with life.
What is remarkable is that this desensitization is very effective, in much the same way that too much work on the desk on Monday morning finally gets a person to buckle down to it and stop worrying about not being able to cope. What one does need to be aware of is that if there is an underlying reason why a horse feels the need to buck then this too much be carefully investigate.
I used to ride a horse called Tircel. He was in training with Louie Dingwall at Sandbanks. He loved to buck just for the hell of it, but he always asked for permission first, then if I got slightly dislodged he would stop and wait for me to me to be comfortable again. Horse like people are individuals. They must be treated as such.
When we ride a horse that has a hard mouth, we are experiencing a desensitized mouth. The horse when feeling a pull on the reins just increases the pressure and pulls against it. What the rider has to learn to do is resensitize the mouth.
- We can start with a western exercise. Just raise one rein and put some steady pressure on the bit and apply light leg pressure. As soon as the horse bends his head round, and he will eventually, respond by giving with the rein. What we want the horse to do is to find out that if he gives to the pressure the reins are immediately given to him. Western horses work off pressure. They are ridden with a loose rein. It appears that many English riders still think that reins are handlebars for hanging on to.
If this exercise is repeated over and over again with more and more speed at the point of release of pressure the horse will develop and sensitive mouth. But it takes time.
The horse owns his mouth but you own the bit, he must give it to you whenever you ask. In many ways both of these techniques come from the same idea. They both reward the horse once it has responded to the request. But in the case of the dummy the horse is being shown that there is not going to be a way in which he will get rid of this encumbrance on his back. Whereas with the reining technique the horse is immediately rewarded when the pressure has been responded to.
Caroline Baldock © 2012