Help Kids Overcome Fear With Understanding

Leslie Desmond Style
Published in the April 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled
Small as this pony is, he intimidates children by charging off. Taj gets her confidence up by sending him around on the halter rope, with backup from Will.

Kids and colts naturally explore their worlds with a timid posture and tentative trust. When faced with the unknown, they search curiously, fueled by a little kernel of inborn confidence, but can, if need be, lose that confidence the next instant with a full-on panic. The form it might take may vary with the circumstances and the individual, but alive inside is the most basic instinct that Mother Nature gives us all-the will to live. When we face a threat to life, or sense an unknown danger, it helps us to choose whether to fight or flee. The instinct to survive may ultimately be the perfect function of shyness, but it is a sad irony that timid children suffer socially from an inevitable lack of confidence and the low self-esteem that rides along with it.

Feelings can be so easily hurt when shy children really try. Harsh or misplaced criticism, or failure to praise at the right moment can blow the whole thing. Few instructors are prepared to deal with the feelings of a timid student, quiet often making a bad situation worse.

Parents and instructors who joke and tease in an effort to “loosen the kid up” when they compare the fearful to brave riders, in reality, just thrash the child for trying in the only way they know how. What the timid student brings home from this type of riding lesson has nothing to do with horses, and a lot to do with closing the door on learning-long after the riding ring and its early appeal fades from memory.

Effective, tuned-in teachers customize the lessons of the day to fit the student. They employ the right mix of skill, experience, intuition and probably some plain old luck. It means paying attention to the moment and the moods of each child for the duration of the lesson. It means having eyes in the back of your head. It means learning to trust the inner voice when it warns you that “things are not as they appear,” when it tells you “there are too many in the class,” when it tells you “this child isn’t ready to get on.” That voice is there for a reason. Believe it.

I remind my young students who have timid students of their own, that timid beings are likely to open the doors as wide as they can for new information in the beginning. But, it is impossible for a fearful or shy student to exist in an open and vulnerable state for long if they’d don’t receive direction and support. It’s no different, I remind them, than working with a green horse. I consider a student’s vulnerability as their gift to me. If it isn’t trashed out, it’s the very thing that enables me to teach better.

1eb5787428Directing with her left hand and sending with her right, Sarah, age 9, loads Old Paddy Boy into the two-horse trailer.         
38028a7571Taj practices stepping Cookie over on the halter rope. Angela, age 11, stands by for support.

The Food and Favors Approach Is Out

All too often, timid kids are taught to survive difficult moments on a ration of what I call “food and favors”. These are bribes. Offer enough of them, and that’s all the child comes to expect from a lesson because that is the lesson. Pavlov had a dog that understood it, too. But we aren’t teaching dogs to drool here, we’re trying to teach children how to operate safely and independently with and around horses.

Here are some examples of food and favors teaching:

  • Just one more time around the course, and if you don’t knock a pole down, we’ll quit and order a pizza.
  • If you ride Blaze today, you won’t have to ride him tomorrow.
  • If you tack up Sugar without making a mistake, I’ll pick her feet for you, because I know that’s scary for you.
  • If you stop crying, you can get off.
  • If you get it right this time, we can stop.

Consider the pitiful reward in each of these situations: quitting, getting out of work and eating. When bribes are exchanged for a show of courage or endurance during the lesson, it actually makes the so-called “timid problem” a lot worse. This is just one of many destructive, albeit common, approaches to teaching timid children.

What do you do about a timid student? As little as possible. Accept it. Be creative and patient. As the head coach for many younger coaches, I place the highest emphasis on their patience with new riders. Acceptance of their student’s emotions and abilities, however trying or lacking they might be, is a pre-requisite. They get the best results when they begin working with the horse and their beginning students right where they are in the course of their development. I remind them that’s how I approached them in the beginning.

Redirect Their Attention

Even children as young as four can understand when I explain to them that the dangerous part of being fearful is the “ful” part; when anything is full, there isn’t much room for else! So we chat until I can figure out an angle or the fearful child gives me his or her own prescription for becoming fearless. Here is an example:

An 8-year-old girl arrives in tears for her first one-hour private lesson. Other kids are busy with their horse and barn chores. She’s so choked up that she can’t speak. I ask an older girl to inquire about the problem. The girl was bitten by a dog last week, and she is positive the horse will bite her the first chance it gets. So, her first lesson is out the window before it starts. Finito.

I revise the lesson into a short course in the anatomy of the equine oral cavity. I don’t tell her this, we just keep moving through the trouble. I get help from other kids to see her through it. I assign the title of “supervisor” to the scared girl. This gives her immediate emotional relief and a sense of pride; she’s been asked to do something that she can do without having to confront her fear too closely. She learns at the same time that she doesn’t have to perform or to fail because she either can’t or won’t perform. She and her tremendous anxiety can be at home, and have the space she needs to sort things out. In other words, she wins.

When it’s scary, remember to keep it simple. Her only job that day is to yell for me when the horse bites the kid I’ve asked her to supervise. By doing so, I validate her fear so it becomes her clear choice to abandon it. She and I agree: Yes, it’s not a matter of if, but when the horse will bite the other child. And when he does, let me know. Of course, the understanding we’ve reached without expressing it, is that we’ll just go and straighten that big, awful horse out. In her mind, it will also take care of that darn dog. She’s game.

A more experienced child will then ask the horse to lower his head and tip the bridge of the nose toward her. As the top lip is lifted, those incredible huge yellow teeth with the horrid brown stripes are unveiled, and so begins the counting of the teeth.

With the supervisor busy at a safe distance, the counter suddenly wonders aloud, whether one or more of the horse’s teeth might be missing!! It appears that there is a big space on either side of the jaw where some teeth are missing. By this time, the supervisor has forgotten completely about the dog. She has simply got to know where in the world that poor horse’s teeth went, and is there such a thing as a horse dentist, and can we call him right away? Which leads to a discussion about how they chew their food, how we take the tongue aside and feel back there to see if the molars are sharp. Before you know it she’s got her little face half-poked into that old horse’s mouth counting teeth and being grossed out by all that green half slime-chewed alfalfa, but laughing anyway. From there, it’s easy!


What Children Can Learn From Good Horsemanship

Published in the March 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled
Copyright © 1995 Leslie Desmond, Diamond Lu Productions. All rights reserved.

I don’t encourage competition in my students because I’ve noticed that most children want, more than anything, to feel at home around a horse. Once they feel at ease on the ground and can move a horse around in a pasture or on a halter rope, they set more realistic goals for themselves on horseback, and enjoy the process of reaching them.

Most of my students, no matter what their ability when they start, have some fears or misconceptions about horses that should be worked out before they’ll be safe around a horse on their own. Unfortunately our society promotes aggression and competition at a very young age. Winning, at any cost, is usually rewarded.

The lessons students learn by trying to improve with the horse, in having the desire to do well and even to lose graciously, don’t seem to get much attention from the riding instructors I have known. The cost of win-for-the-sake-of-winning approach is high. It builds a brace into both kids and the horses that can taint their experience unfavorably for years to come.

These days I am able to learn and teach without much of a brace, but it didn’t start that way. From experience, it takes a lot longer to erase a brace than it does to have one installed!

I’ll never forget the way I felt as a clock-watching schoolgirl, when the little hand crept toward 2 and the big hand seemed to stick on 10. Those painful minutes before I was free to spring home to the horse I had behind our house were as hard on me as oak chairs. I’ve met and taught a lot of horse-less kids, and they all agree the only seat in the world that’s worth a whistle is on the back of a horse.

Several years before I enjoyed those long afternoons and dawn-to-dusk weekends on the bare back of a horse, I tried figure skating, ballet and finally piano lessons. Piano wasn’t hard. I was able to memorize the scales in their entirety by simply zooming my thumb up and down the ivory until I drove the music teacher absolutely nuts. She gave up, and that marked the joyful end of time wasted. My commitment to horsemanship began in earnest from that day on.

As far as the adults in my life were concerned, there were a couple of hitches. First, they didn’t know beans about the huge horse the neighbor lady gave me, nor were they inspired to find out. That suited me fine. What did trouble them was that, at the mention of a riding lesson, I’d vanish.

They had convinced me that teachers of any stripe didn’t know much and cared even less, especially when it concerned me and what I thought was important, which was horses. So I was left to sort out the whole works for myself. It was the “staying on” part of it that had me stymied in the beginning.

Learning by experience

Brown Jug was over 16 hands and came complete with razor-like withers and a jump like a jack rabbit. He bucked me off all the time, but I never held it against him: he always waited. I would get up, gather my reins and lead him home. We did that for a year or so until one day it got harder for him and easier for me. As things between me and Brown Jug continued to improve, I officially expanded my riding “business” to include horse training. By this time, most of my friends in the fifth grade had learned how to stay on.

Under my “direction” we all tried to unravel the mystery of diagonals and leads. Looking back on it, I cringe for poor old Jug. We spanked him for missing his leads at the trot and for picking up the wrong diagonal at the lope.

Then one day, and none too soon, an old Irishman named Joe Small came by. He trained horses at Green Mountain race track in Pownal, Vt. He had some things for sale and some free advice. He was the rural horse-owner’s Fuller Brush man, and he slipped me a lot of helpful pointers as I poked through his inventory.

Several visits later he concluded that my enthusiastic response to his frequent visits would only lead to one sale. Our final exchange of $4 left me with a beautiful 30-foot canvas long line that I got tangled in for years afterwards. Had I taken Joe Small’s advice, Brown Jug and I would have been better off. But Small spoke quickly in soft tones, so I missed the part about not tying Jug the full length of my canvas line. It wasn’t our first wreck, nor our last, but it was memorable. And so were the words Small spoke to me on his last visit, “I think you’ll find those diagonals a little easier to notice at the trot,” he said. “And those leads you’re after, they might turn up for you one day while you’re cantering down that trail.” This advice got me thinking that somewhere, someday, there might be another person who could teach me something worthwhile about horses.

In the meantime, I would be the teacher, right or wrong, and with that brace as my credo, I rode and taught, got thrown and fought with all the might a 75-pound kid could muster. By the age of 11, I had a rocking little horse training business underway.

Since then, I have come across some excellent teachers, and I’m sad to say I had to cover many miles and confuse many horses before I found them. If I have come to appreciate one thing about learning, it is that I can’t learn much from an uninspired teacher. I have learned the same thing about teaching: that I am not able to teach effectively if my students aren’t prepared or inspired to be with me mentally. For best results, the two need to go together.

I hope that my enthusiasm for improving my own horsemanship rubs off permanently on these kids. I try to ensure this by letting them get to know me as a fellow student. I think it’s important for them to see that I make mistakes and get corrected, that I need to have things simplified and re-explained until I “get it,” just like they do. A lot of them ride alongside me in clinics with Buck Brannaman, Brian Neubert and Joe Wolter. They pack along with me to lessons with Tom Dorrance when we’re able to arrange it, and they’ve watched, for days on end, Ray Hunt start colts and work out the braces in his students and their horses.

How fortunate these kids are to have parents that care more about their children’s safety and confidence than they do about competition. It’s terrific to have their support for my quest to find better ways to help these kids develop patience with themselves and their horses and to keep their appetite for new information growing all the time. In a broader sense, I hope it’s a sign of changing times.

Will Wyckoff, one of Leslie Desmond’s young students, demonstrates the correct way to tie a halter knot on a rope halter.         
743e45869fWill shows a young roper how to shake out a fresh loop.
9587b96427Will and young friend move this horse and rider around on the halter rope.         
608d6e15feWill and Tom Dorrance loading a two-year-old colt.

Bit & Bridle Basics

Almost everyone has trouble bridling a horse in the beginning. Most of the problems come from a lack of preparation. The horse is either uncertain about what you want because the presentation isn’t clear, or he resists the presentation because he finds it offensive. You are helping him to "get dressed", and this should be pleasant for both of you. If it becomes a wrestling match, stop right there! This means some important things have been missed in your understanding of the process and in the way you’ve prepared the horse to understand what you want. If there isn’t a sense of calm and understanding when you bridle your horse, then your safety is going to be compromised--and your safety must come first!

Kaity shows us the unsafe approach! Notice how the bit is pulled out of the mouth as she tucks the left ear under the headstall first. Always tuck the ear farthest away from you under the headstall first. (Remember, cup the ear and tip it forward gently to slip the headstall into position.)         
9862bdad13Word of caution! Kaity is demonstrating a vulnerable position. If this pony raises his head, her face will catch the impact! Always plan for your own safety, don’t lean over the top of your horse’s head.         

It’s only a lack of understanding and a loss of confidence in you that makes a horse unwilling to cooperate. There are no stubborn or bad horses, but plenty of them are confused and some are spoiled. The horse will change his behavior when your approach to him changes.

To keep bridling from becoming a dangerous hassle, the basic of mutual trust, respect and understanding must be built into the process. Practice makes perfect, as long as you practice the right things! (By the way, there are plenty of adults who have bridling troubles. So, when you get this mastered, you’ll be setting a good example for the adult beginners who haven’t yet learned this safe and sensitive approach to bridling.)

If your horse isn’t easy to bridle, these suggestions can help you identify the reasons why and guide you toward a more successful approach:

kids6 1

Let’s Ride But Let’s Get On and Off Safely!

Published in the April 1997 issue of Stable Kids Magazine

If you haven’t prepared your horse for mounting safely, don’t get on. If you aren’t sure how well prepared your horse is, ask someone who can show you. Before you scout out the closest stump or boulder, climb the nearest fence or recruit a friend to boost you up...be sure to learn how to prepare and position the horse so he can stand comfortably while you get on.

7 Important “Do’s”

  1. Learn how to prepare and position your horse to stand still while you get on. It is safest if your horse waits until you ask him to walk, after you are secure in the saddle.
  2. Ask a capable person to hold your horse for you while you experiment with the best way for you to get on.
  3. Practice raising and lowering your stirrups on both sides of the horse from the ground and from the saddle. (NOTE: The old rule about only leading from the left side, and mounting and dismounting from the horse’s left side is just that: an old rule. Both the horse and rider will be better balanced if mounting and dismounting are practiced from both sides.
  4. Recognize the difference between a stirrup that is adjusted for mounting a tall horse and one that is well-adjusted for riding.
  5. From the ground, practice adjusting your reins for mounting on either side. Think and plan ahead for the time when you will need to stop your horse’s feet if he starts to walk while you are halfway up.
  6. Face the back of the horse when you prepare to mount, unless some physical problem prevents it. It is a harder, but safer way to mount. Why? Because when you face the back of the horse with your hip at, or ahead of, the shoulder you are in a better position to see most of the horse’s body and all four of his feet-you are ahead of the action. Always wait until the horse’s feet have stopped moving before swinging your leg over his back.
  7. With your full weight centered over the withers in your hands and arms (not hanging off to one side in the stirrup) practice kicking your foot out of the stirrup and dropping back to the ground instead of getting on. A time may come when your ability to get free of your stirrup could save your life!
Adjust the stirrup so your foot can reach it--before you try to get on. With one hand, take the reins and a manehold. Bear down as much as you need to on his neck with your left hand to steady yourself as you pull the stirrup toward your foot with your right hand.
kids6 2Grasp the horn or pommel with your free hand and pull yourself up. At the same time, push off the ground with your right foot. Don’t be tempted to pull yourself up by the mane.
kids6 3Keep your left foot steady, so your toe doesn’t jab your horse in the ribs as you shift your weight from the ground into your arms. Rise smoothly to the saddle, don’t stop with your full weight in the left stirrup.

...and 8 Important Don’ts:

  1. DON’T face the front of the horse as you prepare to mount. In this position, you can’t move quickly if the horse kicks at a fly, or at you, with a hind foot. A horse can reach you with a hind foot even if you’re standing in front of his shoulder. (If you doubt this, notice how accurately a horse can scratch his own muzzle and ears with a hind hoof.) From this compromised position it is also more difficult to stop the horse’s feet if he walks off, bolts or bucks you as you mount.
  2. DON’T use your reins for balance and support.
  3. DON’T haul yourself up with both hands gripping the saddle. If the horse moves, your hands will be too far back on the reins for you to stop his feet and get on safely. If the cinch is loose, you could pull the saddle out of position. The saddle, and you, might slip under the horse.
  4. DON’T grab the back of the saddle to pull yourself up.

Here’s why:

  1. Your hands will be too far apart as you swing up. You’ll have to rely on the stirrup you’re standing in too much, which compromises your balance and stability.
  2. You will have to release your hold on the cantle of the saddle in order to swing your leg across his back. This leaves only one hand for balance, managing the reins, and controlling the placement of the horse’s feet.
  3. DON’T kick your toe into the horse’s belly when you pull yourself up. Whether you meant it to or not, to the horse this means, “move your feet.”.
  4. DON’T drag your leg or foot across his rump.
  5. DON’T plop your weight down in the saddle.
  6. DON’T use the stirrup as a step ladder when you dismount-get both feet free of the stirrups before one foot hits the ground. This way, you will never be dragged by one foot if you lose control of your horse while you are getting on or off.
kids6 4Here’s what happens if you swing your leg over before you shift your weight to your arms. Burch has taught his horse to stand still during this practice session. Notice that he was careful to avoid using the reins for support.
kids6 5Practice getting free of the whole horse and all the equipment before getting off. In time, you will learn how to keep a hold on the reins.
kids6 6In this picture, Burch has generously offered his support at the critical moment-when no friendly support might have made a more lasting impression! on this new rider. Remember, even the best riders have had ungraceful moments, as they were learning.
kids3 1

Handling the Hooves - Good Horsemanship Still Applies

Published in the January 1997 issue of Stable Kids Magazine

When I was a child, I wished my own feet were hooves. I wanted to hear that magical clip-clop first thing in the morning as my feet hit the floor. I was fascinated by the movement of a horse’s hooves because they often took me to special places.

I learned early on that most accidents involve the hooves in some way. It’s best to get well acquainted with the way a horse’s mind and body works --this determines how he operates his legs. If he feels threatened, a horse will use his hooves to defend himself against you, just as he would against any natural predator. A young or confused horse is likely to kick or strike in his own defense if you aren’t informed and careful--be both!

Don’t Take What Isn’t Offered

Before you touch the horse’s leg, notice how he’s standing and exactly where his feet are placed. Don’t try to pry a hoof off the ground if it’s bearing weight. Depending on how his feet are placed, he may need to lift a foot up and replace it in order to maintain his balance. Don’t shove against his shoulder or his hip to cause him to “give” you his hoof. This approach builds resistance in the horse when willingness is the objective. If you ask, you can receive what’s offered. If you take the hoof without asking first, don’t be surprised when it is taken back. As your “feel” and timing improve, the horse will eventually offer you his hoof as you reach for it.

kids3 2Checking hooves daily is an important part of maintaining a healthy and useful horse. Notice that Trisha lets this horse know where she is by sliding her hand over his hip and down his hind leg before asking him to raise his hoof. This gives the horse time to shift his weight to the other hind foot.
kids3 3kids3 4If you have been taught to pinch the tendons to get the horse to give his hoof it is best not to lean over and simply grab his leg. Prepare him and help him understand what you want him to do. Once a horse knows what to expect, he’ll shift his weight and lift the hoof for you.
kids3 5Once the hoof is raised, don’t pull the leg too far out to the side or back, or it will be difficult for the horse to stay balanced.
kids3 6Support the hoof firmly. Remember to pick the hoof thoroughly with the sharp end of the hoof pick pointing away from you.

Stay Out of Harm’s Way

There are two simple guidelines:

  1. Work beside the horse and when you must reach beneath or move behind your horse, be alert and cautious.
  2. Keep your feet out from under the horse’s hooves. Allow extra space for a horse that might possibly kick or strike.

If you follow these guidelines, you won’t get hurt. Of course, it’s a good idea to discourage kicking and striking long before you reach this point in handling. If you have a horse that simply doesn’t want to have its legs handled, ask an experienced adult for help.

Go With the Flow and Get Good at Groundwork

There are times when a horse might yank a hoof from you. If he tries to pull away, you must either let go immediately or hold on and wait for him to stop struggling. Be patient. Remember, always stay in his sight and be aware of your position in relation to every part of his body. When you are out of position you are potentially in danger.

Learn to handle his legs thoughtfully, with a sensitive feel and accurate timing. This will build confidence by permitting him to maintain his balance.

Of course, handling your horse’s legs must begin with good groundwork skills. You should be able to maneuver your horse’s feet from gentle pressure and release on the lead rope. Lots of practice is the key: forward and back, left and right--thousands of times. The more you work with your horse to move his legs as you want him to, the more comfortable you both become. As you get more accurate, notice how he shapes his body in an arc that starts at the end of his nose and goes to the tip of his tail. This is what you want. You also want smooth, fluid movements. It can’t happen easily when there’s tension locked in his body. Notice, too, what expression he wears before he moves his feet.ed537c7623

Plan for Success and Success Will Be Yours

If you work at teaching your horse to help you to position his feet as you wish, he won’t become sour and unmanageable about giving you his feet when you ask for them. This willingness is the result of good feel and timing--applied to thorough, accurate and patient groundwork. Best of all, it ensures the safety of your shoer and vet, yourself and anyone who needs to handle his feet in the future. It’s just good horsemanship!