Sunday, March 2, 2008

What's Up with Arabian Halter? Good, Bad, Ugly? Part 2

Part 1

As I stated in yesterday's post, some people believe everything about Arabian halter is bad. They think that people only show in halter to show off and that there is no benefit to the horse. They think that halter is abusive and should be stopped. They read the horse's reactions to the handler's cues as proof the horses have been abused instead of reactions and sometimes over reactions to cues. I used to be one of those people.

I probably would still be one of those people if I hadn't spent some time in a couple of barns with trainers who did halter as well as performance. I got the opportunity to see how halter horses are trained by good horsemen. I also got the opportunity to see what halter did for the horses themselves.

The other reason that my perceptions have changed is because I know have breed and raised a number of horses. Raising youngsters have given me a better understanding how young Arabian horses deal with stress and react to new things. I understand their body language and all the different things it can mean.

For those of you who don't know the video is mostly a yearling colts class. Some people don't think that Arabian horses should be shown that young. They think it is to stressful for the horse. Others will tell you that the sooner a horse is exposed to something, the easier they adapt to it. The older the horse the more difficult the transition is.

For me, I learned the latter was true. My first foal, Dandy, didn't leave my farm until he was two years old. I took him to a horse show so he could have the experience and to show him to some people. I was dying to show off my baby after all.

The whole weekend was a wreck. Dandy was huge even at two. At the show grounds the young horse spent a lot of time standing on his hind legs on the asphalt that was in between the show barn and the arenas. I was scared to dead to correct him afraid he would fall and be seriously hurt.

In addition to that, the horse dropped about 150 pounds between the trailer ride to and from the show and his time there. He was so stressed part of the time he didn't really know which end was up. The rest of the time he was so excited to see the other horses he totally tuned me out. It wasn't pretty.

Since that time, I make sure all of my babies (and I mean babies) take a trip. Somewhere, anywhere as long as it's a trip where the foals has to deal with the trailer, new surroundings and other horses. Many of my foals have gone to horse expositions and been on display in breed alleys. None of them have ever lost a single pound in one of those early outings. They travel well and adapt to new surroundings easily. Never again have I experienced another nightmare weekend like I did with Dandy.

Most of those yearlings in the halter class have never been shown before. This is their first experience with not only all the horses and handlers in the ring, but the crowds, announcers, and other distractions. Depending on how much or how little they have been exposed to before now, this is really a big deal to many of these young horses. The reactions are as varied as the experiences of the horses.

With that being said, I want to address some specific situations on the video. The very first colt that stands out on this video is nodding his head up and down feverishly. The horse is clearly stressed. In my opinion, this horse is the most stressed of any on the video. The handler is trying to get the horse to pay attention to him.

To some putting pressure on the horse's head at this time might seem like being mean. The horse, however, has been taught a tight line means he is to focus on his handler. If the horse would focus on the handler, it would alleviate the horse's stress level.

The handler was being quiet applying pressure that was not working. For a brief instant he flicked the shank at the horse applying more pressure. This correction lets the horse know the handler is serious about getting a response.

The colt tried to escape backwards. The handler stayed with the horse with his eyes averted (the averted eyes is actually a break of pressure for the horse). When the colt stopped and the handler could feel the colt responding to the pressure the handler looked back. This cues the horse to pay attention. Then bringing his whip hand forward the colt begins to reach for his target. Just as they switch the camera away the colt is showing signs he may be calming.

Some may not understand how making the horse pay attention works to alleviate stress but it's true. By focusing on his training, the horse actually gets distracted against what's causing the stress.

The same is true for a horse that is misbehaving and getting rowdy because of all the other horses. Making the horse focus on its training will distract it from being naughty and cause the horse to relax.

For example Storm, when I showed him halter last, decided to rear in the ring. He was telling me he wanted loose to check out the other horses. I shanked the horse and sent him backwards to get him to pay attention. Backing is hard for a horse and takes more concentration. It puts the mind on backing and where the handler is and off getting into trouble.

Even with a riding horse that is stressed, getting them to focus on their job eleviates their stress and settles them down. I like to make my riding horses flex and bend when they are stressed or frightened. Flexing and moving off my leg is difficult for the horse to do. They must really pay attention. If the horse does it right it also lowers its head, this will release endorphins that will aid in the relaxation of the horse. It's amazing how quickly a horse can come back to being soft after a major blowup with just this simple exercise.

To be continued...............


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  1. My horse is taught to put both eyes on me when he is facing me for just that reason. If he doesn't, he will get a correction by a bump on the leadrope. If he still isn't paying attention, I will back him up.

    He's a QH from halter lines, so maybe that's why it makes sense to both of us.

  2. This was an informative post.

    That did make sense, a lot, about getting a horse to focus to bring down the stress level.

    I also think that getting a horse exposed to new things at a younger age is important for their short and long term well-being. I've never had any experience raising babies, but I've seen the difference with people who do.

  3. Thanks for clarifying that. I was very interested to hear your take on it. You're obviously a lot more used to a far more sensitive type of horse than I am!

  4. I agree totally with exposing babies to anything and everything. I have some very laid back relaxed babies here that we've done that with and then I have one who was NOT exposed to anything before I got her and she's constantly stressed. Getting better but still stressed alot of the time.

    As for halter horses themselves, well there's a lot of controversy on what else the horse itself is good for. Some of the halter horses today really can't hold up when performing under saddle, so their job is to just look pretty. That I don't agree with.

    But, I teach all of my horses to 'stand' like they would for a halter class, whether they're built for halter or not. It helps focus their attention, teaches them little cues that will help when it comes time to train them to saddle.

    Every horse here will 'stand' when I say 'stand' it may not be a perfect halter stance but they know to stand still and not move, and not because I was mean to them. It helps in so many situations too. There can be many benefits from 'halter' training in young and old horses.

  5. I have not shown much halter.

    The season I was on the open circuit w/ Puke the Saddle Bred, I learned all about 'parking'. It was odd for me coming from strictly QH shows but I adapted.

    Since I am a lover of all horses, I can accept and appreciate their long as they are humane :)

    beautiful photo!

    The backing technique is always a good way to get a horses attention, I will agree with that 100%

  6. Exactly what I have learned... on the trail if you horse spooks, do flexing and leg yields and sorta trick them past the horse eating object. The more they focus on the scary issue, the scarier it is.

  7. This was rather informative.......I liked this post and I'm looking forward to the next.

  8. Before I start,I'd like to say I'm not one who thinks halter in any breed is "bad". It's an opportunity to really see structure. I'm with you on exposing babies (even at the side of a good quiet mare) to lots of stimulus. Perhaps not taking them to a huge show, but maybe getting them into and out of a trailer several times, perhaps going around the block, or to an empty show grounds as weenies. I .do. think however that care needs to be taken that you don't over stim the baby, it all needs to be a good experience. I'll add to this that colts (esp. yearlings)are a whole different ballgame than a filly, experienced and well handled stallion or mare. They tend to be somewhat like adolescent boys, easily put over the top and hard to get back down. I say shame on those handlers for taking an inexperienced youngster to a huge show like Scottsdale for the first time out.
    More in another post

  9. We agree on the the most stressed horse there. Even if this colt has been taught that pressure on the line = look at his handler, the behavior will not hold if generalization has not been worked on (and this is true for any species). If this is the first show or even .one. of the first shows this colt has been to, it is unreasonable to punish the colt for the handlers error in not working on the generalization. If the colt was not stressed to this extent before this show, the chances are that the handler had not taught the "look away from you" = less pressure. Again, to punish the colt for the handlers lack of training is not fair.

    Paying attention can equal a reduction in stress, however, if there are competing stimulus, the colt may not be able to focus and work if he feels threatened. If the colt is now less sure of the handlers reaction (ie he has been punished in a situation he would have been reassured in previously), is trying to look at the other colts in the class, hears the loudspeaker for the first time, is hearing cheering and clapping for the first time, etc etc, he is going to have a .very. difficult time responding appropriately to the handler. To punish him by flicking the lead, is again unreasonable.

    I think it would have been far far far better to teach a conditioned relaxer AT HOME that would transfer to the ring. For instance, teach the colt 1)a smile = good boy 2)look at the handle of the whip = smile = good boy. The handler always has a smile available and he will have the whip handle with him too. If these are taught before they go into the ring, and are so heavily reinforced, it will become an auto response. A conditioned relaxer the handler can use anywhere.

  10. I have another question here. Every horse that was corrected went to the end of the line and got their face horizontal. Do handlers want their horses at the end of the line like that? Is that the purpose of sending them backward?

    Another observation.....

    there are two men handling babies, one has a number 148 on his jacket. As he's standing there, he's desensing the colt to the chain....very very good handling on his part I think. The colt doesn't act stressed, and isn't over reacting. He's using the chain lightly and freqently but not harshly.

  11. I know some people take offense to the stance required by Arabians ie - stretched out and head up and out, but perhaps all they see is the exaggeration and don't know the reason behind this breed being shown like this. Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the stretched stance used to show the flatness of the croup, according to the breed ideal and the high arched neck to accentuate the beauty of this trait and the head up and out to showcase the cleanness of the throatlatch and the chisel in the head? Fire and brilliance are an important trait in an Arabian and judged as well(?).
    What most people don't realize is that halter horses are shown against a breed ideal and presented to showcase that ideal. Of course it can always be taken to the extreme, in any breed. If a particularly fine-boned individual is winning, within a year or two that is all that will be represented in these halter classes. Most people do not breed to the ideal anymore, they breed to get what is winning. The AQHA did not deal with this problem years ago and now have created another class-Performance Halter-for people with actual riding horses to compete in. How ridiculous is that?
    Hey-give us a post on the Arabian Western Pleasure scene too please - the last time I was at the Scottsdale show(a couple years ago) it looked like they were trying to imitate a QH WP horse. How disappointing. If I wanted to see a nose dragging, toe dragging turtle race, I would go to a QH show.
    And just so I don't offend anyone - I train and show WP horses - just not that kind. Maybe that is why I am not at the World-LOL.

  12. just as a contrast, in the beginning with the stressed colt, put your attention on the colt being handled in the bottom left corner. He's on a loose lead, relaxed and curious. He watches the other colt fly back and becomes a tiny bit anxious (see his tail raise up a bit) but doesn't react much.

  13. Kudos for adding that part at the end about lowing their head and releasing endorphins!

    I have a halter bred paint filly who gets SOOOO excited at feed time. She, if not corrected, will toss her head in dismay when not allowed to eat. To correct this, I have taught her to lower her head to have her halter removed. Now, instead of jerking her head out of the halter, she lowers and waits patiently. Talk about night and day difference!

  14. Thanks for an interesting and informative post. I am still not sure I really understand the purpose of halter classes yet. I agree that young horses need to get out, but am not so sure they need to go to a huge show ground in the beginning, some of the horses looked a little frightened by the whole thing. I don't mean to offend anyone and hope I haven't I am sure there is a perfectly good reason for this class, I just don't see it.

  15. Very interesting. I know nothing about showing at halter.

    I'd think it would benefit everyone if the babies went to the show and got to walk around and see things without being asked to do more than behave reasonably.

    I also think that anything that helps a horse focus when under stress is essential. Circles, serpentines, asking for just about anything is a good way to handle it under saddle.

  16. Very interesting! Absolutely agree with lowering the head as a calming/relaxing exercise.
    It all makes sense but I still dislike the way they are shown.
    Not sure why this head carriage they want the colts to keep should be attractive? It looks so unnatural :(

    There is this photographer who specialises in photos of Arabian Horses (Zofia Raczkowska). Her pictures always drew my attention and made me think that Arabian horse is the most graceful of breeds.
    Seeing them shown like on the video seems to take away their natural beauty and pride and makes them look somewhat artificial.
    I absolutely adore the pictures of your horses when shown free - such expression and extraordinary look on them!

  17. Very interesting MiKael, the one thing I did notice with the guy who got the lead rope around the horses leg is that he didnt drop his whip and was waving it around which probably didnt help. When I am lunging if I get into a situation like that the first thing I do is drop the whip.

    I also know what you mean about the eye contact, it works, get a horse that is being a butt head and turn and walk away from him and ignore him (while knowing exactly where you are of course) and they will approach you no problem, they are nosy and dont like being ignored.

    JMHO and 2 cents worth LOL


  18. Well, I've missed a lot these past few days! You're doing a wonderful job of addressing all these issues here, and it's all very interesting.

    I had to laugh about the comment a few posts back from the blogger who said older dressage riders do it b/c they're afraid to jump - it's not the only reason but I often say I like staying flat on the ground these days. :)

  19. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that you can have a halter horse that isn't good at anything else. I'm not experienced and so maybe this is naivite on my part, but a halter class is to jusge conformation, yes? Correct conformation leads to correct movement. Correct movement leads to versatility in disciplines. It just seems like a horse that is conformationally correct enough to place in halter classes would move well enough to do well in at least lower level showing, given the right training. Am I smoking crack here? I dunno. I am TOTALLY open to hearing from someone who knows more than I do if my suppositions are way off base.