Equine Safe Handling

by Nettie Ban

Animals and people: we belong together! We spent a great deal of time evolving together and are meant to be partners.

Of some 4,000 mammal species in the past 10,000 years, the horse is one of only a dozen that has been domesticated successfully. The horse is an incredibly astute animal that thrives on "Natural Horsemanship," a training process that rests on mutual communication, the sharing and understanding of an idea, and psychology. Often we think that horsemanship or natural horsemanship, is mystical or there must be some sort of secret involved. The "secret" or "mysticism" behind natural horsemanship or horsemanship is the ability to control the movement of the horse. It is that simple! There are two ways to earn a horse's respect: the ability to move the feet and reward the slightest try.


It is where we feel of, feel for, and feel together. Think about when we shake hands with one another. At no time do we need to verbally communicate the different steps of when to connect, and when to release in a hand shake. Rather, we do this by reading one another's body language. We also want to learn and develop the ability to effectively read a horse's body language to communicate, creating a partner rather than a beast of burden.

Avoid "muscling" a horse. A horse on the average is approximately 1200 lbs, and more in draft horses. That is a lot of pounds of opinion! No matter how strong you are or how sturdy you are built, you cannot muscle a horse. You want to build mind and the body will automatically Mow. Focus on building to responses rather than reactions, and acceptance rather than tolerance. Remember the horse is a flight animal, but if pushed too far will fight.


When introducing equipment, or even yourself to a horse introduce yourself by letting the horse smell you or what you have in your hand. I refer to this as a "handshake." When offering my hand I do not have my hand in the form of a claw, but rather palm down so the horse can smell the top of my hand rather than the palm of my hand. Try not be in a hurry. I understand that veterinary procedures at times must be performed quickly. But if you have the choice, slow down: it will take less time. Even when you're hurried, try to have a relaxed, quiet, conversation in your mind. Your hands will reflect what your mind is saying. You can move efficiently without being abrupt to the horse. Be sure to rub rather than pat a horse.


Are you tense? If so take a deep breath, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. You will notice that when you do this exercise, your core muscles will relax. If you are bracey, the horse will be bracey. Avoid too much direct eye contact and be sure to take all the pressure off and get out of their space to allow the horse to "soak" information. Pressure for a horse can be something as simple as your hand or arm still pointing in their direction, or holding the lead shank up higher with your hand than having your arm down and relaxed. You may even need to turn away from them rather than facing directly, or take a step away and stand quietly. Doing nothing is doing something: it is allowing the horse time to process some information.


When we are assertive, we have emotional fitness, based on principles of safety and fairness for both you and the horse. When you are aggressive, there is no emotional fitness, nor is there any considerations for safety and fairness. Being assertive does not mean that we are a pushover with horses. Do as little as possible, as much as necessary to be effective. If I am in doubt, I always give the horse the benefit of the doubt first, unless my life or the horse's life is in danger and I am left with no other option. Have your heart in your hands. "Horse's don't care how much you know till they know how much you care." This saying originates from US president Theodore Roosevelt who said: "People don't care how much you know till they know how much you care."


Keep humaan emotions out of horsemanship. Animals operate from a very simplistic, primal base of emotions. They do not have the ability to have more complex emotions as we do since they do not possess a higher cognitive brain that allows them to reason.

The horse is the fastest learner of all domestic animals. Undesirable behaviours are learned as quickly as desirable behaviours. Generally if a horse has done something three times with an understanding they will remember for the rest of their lives. So remember when you are teaching or handling a horse, you are "programming" the horse. Horses are a lot like computers, they don't do what we tell them to do, they do what we have programmed them to do. You can never delete a file, but you can help a horse close a file.


The horse MUST respect your personal space. Have them get into position for you rather than you getting into position for them. If a horse invades your personal space, have them move back out of your space rather than you taking that step back. Horses play dominance games with one another by who moves whose feet for whom first. A good example of how large your personal space should be is by drawing a circle with the horseman stick around you. You want to establish that you are the lead horse rather than the dominant horse. In a herd, there is a dominant horse. This horse is generally on his or her own. They tend to be the "bully" in the herd. There is also the lead horse. This is the horse that everyone Mows to the water, or back out to the field. You can relate this to your own life. You would not wish to be called the dominant person in your workplace. This has quite a negative connotation to it. Rather, if I refer to you as a leader in your workplace, it suddenly takes on a more positive meaning.


Training is broken into two categories: desensitizing and sensitizing. When we desensitize a horse, we apply pressure; when the horse relaxes we take off the pressure. When we sensitize a horse, we apply pressure; when the horse responds we take off the pressure. Evaluate success on a scale of 0 -10. We want the horse to score a 5, which is an understanding, before moving on to another task or step. Over time, the 5's soon become 6, 7, or even 8's, bringing the horse to a higher level of understanding, acceptance and responses.

Horses are sensitized to either rhythmic or fingertip/leg pressure, with the intention being phase one, slowly increasing fingertip pressure. Rhythmic pressure can be applied with a rope, horseman stick/string, hand, etc. with the intention being phase one, slowly increasing rhythmic pressure. Fingertip pressure is applied with either your fingertips or can also be applied with the horseman stick or leg if under saddle. Rhythmic pressure is applied with pulsating, steady, even pressure. Slowly increase the pressure. Both rhythmic and fingertip pressure teach the horse to respond, yielding to pressure. Always begin very soft and light. Have slow hands to ask and quick to release.


The principles of horsemanship are always the same no matter the task at hand. The formula for teaching is first to reach an understanding: quality, then quantity. Training is a series of introductions, Mowed by bringing the horse to a state of relaxation. Take the time it takes and reward the slightest try.

Nettie Ban is a recognized Horse Specialist/Clinician who is a program developer, consultant and motivational speaker. She is a Board member of the Horse Industry Association of Alberta and a Registered Paint Horse and Azteca breeder. Recently Nettie was honoured as a Professional Horsewoman for both the APHA and the AQHA.