Training Exercises: Join Up

Joining Up is the first step in a partnership between you and your horse. It builds his trust and overcomes the “fight or flight” instinct inherent in all animals.

The object of this lesson is to teach your horse that you are his leader and require his respect as well as friendship. You tell him what to do and when to do it. He must give you respect at all times. He learns to pay attention to you and follow your lead. He learns that standing near you (head toward you and rear away from you) is the most comfortable position in the world.

This exercise is the place to start with any horse, whether it is a new colt or an older problem horse. You will learn a great deal about your horse during the few days you work through this series of steps. You will learn how sensitive he is, how lazy or hot he is, how cold or stubborn he is. In the end you will come together with his respect and your insight into what makes him tick.

This lesson uses three of the training principles used by all trainers:

Intention Pressure: If a horse feels threatened (intention pressure) he will move away from the “pressure”. (see Pressure)

Release is the reward that the rider or trainer gives the horse for executing the proper maneuver. (see Release Training)

Shaping is the term used for GRADUALLY lengthening or fine-tuning a response. (see Shaping)

This exercise is done in a 50 – 60 foot round pen – preferably 6 feet high with an easy-open gate. It is important that the pen be round because that leaves no corners for your horse to use as “shelter from the storm”.

If you stand in the middle of a round pen with the horse on the fence line, you will be about 25 feet from him. With your lead rope twirling or your handy stick to your side, stand squarely facing your un-tethered horse’s side. To get him started, point in the direction you want him to go and toss about a 12′ section of your rope at his rear legs. Usually, contact is not necessary – just intent. Just the fact that he perceives you might reach him is generally enough to move him away and off. (The more skittish or frightened the horse, the more softly you toss the rope.) He will begin to move away from you – circling the pen as you continue to “pressure” (threaten) his rear with your gaze and intent.

The exercise is not to mindlessly run him around the pen or to wear him down with exhaustion (He has a lot more stamina than you do). The rope toss and rope twirling is to show him that you are his leader – you will be calling his movements – initially pressuring him to circle the pen in the direction you have indicated – eventually circling it in the opposite direction at your whim.

Concentrating your gaze and moving your rope toward his rear will tend to drive him forward. Using your arm and rope toward his head (forward of his shoulder) will tend to slow or stop him.

Find your beginning pressure. If he won’t move smartly, raise your energy. If he seems frantic, lower your energy. Use as much energy as it takes to get him to move off quickly and cleanly. Point the direction you want him to go, make a loud kissing sound, twirl your rope at his rear (even slap the ground if he is very stubborn). If he is a very lazy or disrespectful horse, get your handy stick and string. Point, kiss, slap the ground and then slap his fanny with the string until he gets the point. Ask, tell, threaten, then follow through with vigor.

Soon it will take very little body motion for him to learn which way you are directing him to go. Ultimately a tip of the head and a small hand signal will do the trick.

The first few trips around the pen, he can be allowed to trot, get his bearings, find the edges of the circle. After a few “get acquainted” passes, make him canter. The faster you require him to move, the faster this exercise will progress and the more respect you will gain.

To change direction, you will slow his forward motion, step back to give him room to turn, then resume rear pressure in the new direction. Practice pushing him one way and then alter your position slightly (concentrating your body energy and gaze forward of his shoulder) and raise the arm closest to his head. He will stop or attempt to turn away from you as your energy inhibits his forward movement. Then point, kiss, and twirl at his rear to encourage the new direction.

Using his instinctive flight response, you can turn him around again and again by interrupting his forward movement and giving him an “escape” route in the other direction. (see Pressure).

For the first few turns it is not relevant whether he turns into the fence or away from the fence when he makes his changes of direction. We just want him to know that you are the leader, calling the shots, and that he can tell what you are signalling by watching your body language.

Once he moves off into the circle, he must continue to move in that direction at the gait you specify until you do something to change his direction or speed. When he complies, lower your pressure immediately. Don’t chase him. Stop twirling the rope. Drop your handy stick to a nice, neutral position. Make life pleasant when he is moving as requested.

If he tries to take control by making his own direction changes, cut him off quickly. Run ahead of his circle to move your body energy and gaze forward of his shoulder, and force him to change back to the direction he started.

Use common safety sense here. Don’t run into his path. He doesn’t have to be running full speed, but if he is, and if he is particularly strong-willed, a loud, ground-slapping rope in front of you will get his attention and demand that he change his direction. If he is particularly sensitive or frightened, don’t put so much pressure on him. He needs only enough pressure to move in the direction you indicate and stop or change his direction when you change your position – not to run him into or over the fence.

When he is not freaking out at direction changes (and only then) we will shape his “dance” in a particular manner. We want him to make his turn TOWARD us instead of away from us.

Why is it important for him to turn TOWARD you? We want him to get in the habit of keeping his rear turned away from you for respect and safety. His rear is safely away if his face is toward you.

In the early stages most horses will turn away and may even try to press against the round pen bars (some try to jump over) to escape the pen. It’s pretty tight to turn into the fence, but they are looking for an escape. You must remain CALM but persistent. There is a balance of energy transmitted from your body that will move him around without totally freaking him out. Experiment to find that posture: enough energy directed at his mid-section or rear to keep him moving but not so much that he is panic-stricken.. He should be cantering around the pen but not frantically running.

He will get over the idea of escaping the round pen fairly quickly.

To introduce him to to inward turns – rear away and face toward you – we must inhibit his forward movement, then back away to give him room to turn toward the center. Move energy to the front, then back away.

animation of round penning technique

As he comes around, point your belly button forward of his shoulder. Raise your blocking arm (holding the rope) to stop him. Then back away quickly to give him room to make his turn toward you instead of into the fence.

In effect, you are giving him more room to turn toward the middle of the pen than he has to turn into the fence. (Plan your moves ahead of time so that you can beat him to the spot you want him to turn. It sometimes takes some running.)

Use caution here. This is not a “body block”. Don’t step directly IN FRONT of him. Just move your gaze to his head and outstretch your arm to “block” him. Some horses get so scared that they can plow through you if you actually try to body block him against the fence.

If he is panicking, lower his speed around the edge of the pen by lowering your energy, and plan your blocking spot to give him more warning.

If it is a very “forward” horse, slap your rope on the ground or swing it large at the blocking point to present a bigger obstacle to him. If you are small and he is large or very sensitive and scared, you might carry a handy-stick during this exercise to enlarge your presence in front, keep you further away from him, and to protect yourself. (A handy stick can be very effective and keep you out of harm’s way. The trick is to practice with it and not be seduced into over-pressuring a horse with it. It’s not for beating the tar out of him.)

The Stand and Face
Now we will shape his behavior further. We will ask him to stop moving and actually face his trainer.

Why is it important for him to stop and face you?
1. We want him to know that when he is frightened, he should stop moving immediately.
2. We can’t teach him anything if he is not looking at us.
3. We want him to get in the habit of keeping his rear turned away from us for respect and safety. His rear is safely away if his face is toward you.

Stop and face: Be vigilant for the turn in your direction. The MOMENT he turns TOWARD you, IMMEDIATELY and quickly back away and stop “pressuring” him. Drop your rope arm, lower your stick if you are using one, your gaze, your energy.

Done correctly (with good timing), he will instantly stop running when you move backward. He will be standing, slightly facing you, relieved that you stepped back, and relieved to be catching his breath.

Give him a minute or two to think and feel the “sweet spot”. (Notice that my posture here is relaxed).

Horses (like humans) are inherently lazy and dislike physical exertion. After several trips around the pen he would like you to stop pushing him, and he would like to stop exercising to catch his breath.

Where is the reward here?
Reward #1: No more pressure.
Reward #2: No more exercise.

How many times do you think it will take for him to realize that turning, stopping and facing you is the way to stop you from “pressuring” his body and making him canter/trot around? Lesson #1 learned. Face your trainer and stand still. It’s a lot more comfortable.

horse turning to face handlerHold his Attention

Now shape his behavior. Make this pretty.

When he stops, he will probably not be facing you squarely. As he stands and looks at you, move ever-so-slightly toward him in an arc with your shoulder to his side, looking slightly at his buttocks. Stay out far enough that he is not panicked at your approach.

He will be torn between leaving (which means more work around the pen) or standing still but uncomfortable at your approach. He is suspicious of you. What are you doing?

If he wants to keep his eyes on you and protect his hindquarters from you stare, he must turn his head to keep you in sight. In fact, he will have to move his hindquarters away to get a more fully-front view of you because you are moving toward his side-rear. That is exactly what you want. You want his hindquarters to move away and his head to come around to you squarely. This is subtle. If you are too fast or aggressive he will move off and circle again. Done correctly, he will move his rear feet away just a step or two to keep an eye on you. Accept just one step away with his rear that brings his face around. Stop!

There is no grey area here. He will either turn to face you more squarely (excellent) or leave (wrong decision).

If he takes off again, allow him to make that choice. Encourage him to continue to move around the pen again repeating the first exercises until you ask him to stop again. (That doesn’t mean “beat his butt”. Just send him again.) The contrast between standing placidly (your desire) and moving around the pen again is black and white.

whole sequence
If he stands, turns, and watches, relax your posture – even back away a step. Then repeat your slow approach to his rear – approaching with gentle, firm gaze, not predator-attack eyes.

Keep your energy calm. Use your “hindquarters”-hand or stick to gently pressure his rear away and your “head”-hand low. If he leaves, send him around again. If he stands, accept 15 seconds or some sign of relaxation (such as chewing) and then back away to rest for another minute or two.

Shape his “stand-and-face” into longer and longer time and with you coming closer and closer (Remember: reward baby steps).

Eventually you will be parallel to and next to him, close enough to touch. It’s tempting, bit don’t touch him. Just stand there relaxed or even turn your back to him. All pressure must be gone when he stands in close proximity to you!

Gently maneuver until you are standing with your back to his head. Stand and relax again.

Take Me as Your Leader

Now slowly take several steps away from him, assuming he is following. After a couple of attempts he WILL follow you. He will move forward when you do, head low and body relaxed, stopping when you stop. At this point, he has “Joined Up” with you.

denim and louis

Horses are herd animals. They WANT to take a leader.

caspian stallion joining upWhen “joined” with you, your horse has decided to give his power to you. This Caspian Stallion has joined with me for the first time, voluntarily following where I go. He shows me respect and follows my lead – quite a feat for a stallion – of any size.

If you have a particularly dominant horse, you may have to repeat this exercise more times than with a more laid-back animal. Stallions, late (proud) gelded geldings, head mares take longer to come down to a partnership because they are used to being a pasture leader. Hot bloods (like Arabians) because they are inherently more skittish and tense.

Clues to his thoughts as he moves around the pen:

Watch his ears for signs that his inside ear is focused on you instead of toward the outside of the pen. The more direction changes you request, the more focused he must be on you and the less time he has to calculate an escape.

Watch for him to begin to circle slightly closer to you or “check in” with you by slowing down and looking at you as if asking if he can come closer: a definite indication that he wants to experiment with “horse” talk – leader to follower. If he also begins to lick his lips or work his mouth, all the better. A horse whose mouth is moving is a horse that is relaxing, showing submission and thinking.

Danger: “Checking in” and slowly asking to have a conversation is very different from a horse who is looking right at you, head high, ears back, and coming in fast. Such a horse is contemplating or full-fledged charging you in a bid for dominance.
the charging horse
This is a very good time to have a “handy-stick” to show him how unpleasant it can be to try such a maneuver. The 4 foot pole keeps him out of your space. You might have to hit him with it quickly and meaningfully to intimidate him. MAKE him retreat to the outside of pen NOW! Make him trot or canter for a prolonged time before he is allowed to stop. This is one trick you want to nip in the bud. If you get a very dominant horse, read more about how to handle him in The Charging Horse: a chronicle of the rehabilitation of a problem animal.

Watch for him to lower his head – another sign of submission.

If you see any of these good signs, be prepared to release the pressure by softening your body, turning your shoulder to him, dropping your arm and rope to your side, turning your gaze away from him, even backing up a step. (see Release)

At the end of this exercise, your horse should seek you out when you enter the pen, joining each time you approach. When he is good at standing and facing you, following you, turn and rub his neck and face, talking low and giving him some genuine affection.

Thank you Kristull Ranch in Austin, Texas for letting me use your horses to demonstrate: Half Friesian gelding, Cadence. Rare-breed Caspian stallion, Terrani. Appaloosa mare, Denim.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

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