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Brent Graef, Young Horse Handling, Part III

Published: 3/23/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

In this new multi-part article, Skinner discusses a visit to Texas to work with Graef.

Read Part I
Read Part II

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

The third day of Brent’s halter starting clinic graced us with gorgeous, sunny weather.  We all sorted out our colts, one in each round pen, and began catching them up.  I found mine to be still hard to catch and needed the other students to help by blocking him.  They stood near him, closing off any gaps he might head toward while I walked carefully up to him.  

I was learning to get more coordinated with the ropes in my hands so that by the time I was up toward his head, I didn’t have to make any sudden movements or fumble in any way that would frighten him and cause him to leave.  

I had to experiment each day with what the best spot was for me to approach him, and Brent pointed out I was in the habit of expecting to approach him in a certain way I was used to, rather than watching how he reacted.  

“Pay attention to what he’s telling you,” he told me.  “Don’t go by what you think you know.  Go by what’s happening in front of you.”  
For me, this advice re-established the notion that there are no set guidelines to go by for succeeding with horses, only feel.  Things change from moment to moment, and so having true feel means learning to develop awareness at all times.

Once I had him caught, we began working on our circles again.  I found he was harder to get to circle left than right, and worked a bit on getting him more comfortable with the harder direction.  Then we worked a bit on leading.  Brent and Kris walked behind us with flags to help “unstick” any sticky youngster as they learned about leading up without taking the slack out of the lead rope. The colts learn to follow the leading feel of the rope.  The Graefs’ intent wasn't to shush the colts forward, but to help them hook onto the person leading them.

Brent emphasized the importance of not pulling on the lead rope at any time, but to have one of them come behind and add a little reinforcement with the flag.  Pulling on the lead rope would lead to them pulling back, and at this point in their educations, Brent stressed that they needed to not experience it.  “You’re teaching them to lead toward the slack,” he said, “not be pulled forward with a brace.”

We led them around a bit in the round pens, and then opened the gates up to lead them out into the outdoor arena.  There, we worked at leading them around a bit and working toward some obstacles.  

“Don’t make a big deal of it,” Brent said.  “Don’t stay at anything too long.  If they’re curious, let them explore, but don’t make them go over anything.”  
We were all pleasantly surprised to find the colts were brave and very curious.  Most of us had little trouble leading them over railroad ties and toward tires.  

Brent said when you start them off right, each new thing is just “the next thing,” and stressed that this way of starting horses methodically and smoothly, with an emphasis on preparation, could lead to a lifetime of confidence with people.  I reflected on my own horses at home and thought about how my so-called “educated” horses didn’t even lead up like these babies with only three days of education under their belts.  

We quit while the colts were still feeling curious.  I closed the round pen gate and unhaltered Comanche, and as I walked away I watched him perk his ears up and follow me toward the gate.  Every time I left him he looked as if he were saying, “wait, don’t leave!”  
Brent watched all the curious and confident colts do the same as we picked up to go in the house for lunch, and said, “that is how you should leave a horse.  Leave before they resent you, and leave them wanting more.”

At lunch we discussed leading, and how important leading was to prepare them for tying.  A horse that pulls back or does not lead up will never tie safely, Brent said.  Getting them to lead up well is essential to their safety as a riding horse.  I thought about all the wrecks or near wrecks I’d had with my own horses, and had to agree that the two restarts I had who pulled back when tied did not lead up well.  

After lunch, Comanche was easier for me to catch.  He was still a little hesitant, but I felt I was smoother at haltering him, and so he stood for me.  
We practiced circling a bit, and leading a bit, before moving on.  The colts would need to be wormed by the end of the day, and before the end of the week would need to have their first hoof trim.  I worked at moving away from Comanche’s head where he preferred me toward his withers and hindquarters.  

After some time of working my hand over him, I could rub his back and haunches, and started to work down his leg toward his knees and hocks, being mindful I didn’t startle him.  Once he was feeling pretty confident with my hand, I worked the same areas with a curry.  At first he was startled, but with his coat being pretty thick and it being a warm day, he soon realized he was itchy and it felt good.  His big eyes softened and closed while he leaned into my brush, and I was able to brush his entire body while he snoozed.  I was feeling pretty happy with our little friendship, and amazed at the amount of trust I’d gained in a few days.

Next, I moved back toward his head and worked at being able to touch his face, ears, and muzzle.  Surprisingly he had very little issue with me having my fingers in his mouth, and when Brent came by to worm him, he did not resist.

Before I knew it, the sun was dipping below the horizon, bathing the flat Texas plain in hues of pink and purple.  I was tired and covered in that red dust, but feeling very satisfied with the progress of the day.  We headed inside to clean up before dinner, where we would discuss our day’s work.

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3/26/2016 Dr. Steve Peters
I love this article. It really highlights how important ones approach is..especially a flexible approach that can adapt to where the horse is...vs. going with rigid techniques that may not consider the state the horse is in. People often want to know about "feel".. I think this is a nice example.

"Want to end up with a million bucks in the horse business? Start out with five million." - Anonymous