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Slowing down the Pace

Slowing Down The Pace…The first six months of training Police Horse Thorne. published Equi Ads magazine August 2007.
Equi Ads slowing the Pace


After purchasing Thorne we had a change of pace, starting a long term commitment of training rather than testing. I also had to balance Police Duties with training Thorne.


As a rule I will get stuck in with my duties with the young horse, but on occasion Thorne had to be left behind at the Police Stables, for example a gangly teenager horse cannot do an extended duty being ridden for up to six hours. In fact we ran into trouble with tiredness when he was introduced to the steep hills of Sheffield on a normal duty, so we temporarily restricted his work until his developing body caught up.


Thorne started to regularly patrol the housing estates, but also the major City and Town centres. He quickly learned to keep level headed even in the busiest conditions; he learned to have push chairs and children thrust under his nose, to stand in the road and stop vehicles, and to let me write whilst on board, using his neck as a temporary desk for the paperwork. He is happy in the heaviest of traffic, although he finds standing still while I deal with members of the public tiresome. He is like a toddler; I can almost hear him saying “I’M BORED!” He can manage unless he is near gardens; I think he believes that privet and roses have obviously been planted as a perfect snack with him in mind.


We also routinely attended quiet football matches at all of the football grounds, he had to learn to wear the nose plate and plastic visor over his eyes for protection, and to show polite interest in fans shouting and chanting. We attended some busier matches as an “extra” where we really soaked up the atmosphere and started to feel what a more aggressive crowd feels like.


Although Thorne has so far been an exemplary horse in his approach to life, in the end most young horses come across something where they just say “NO”! In Thorne’s case we had to patrol a government building for security outside the perimeter fence where the ground was rough. On the route was a ditch, the like of which Thorne had never seen. Our partner went first, straight over the ditch, and Thorne strolled up to the ditch as if he would do it. Then some of the wet ground gave way and his front legs slipped forwards, Thorne felt unsafe and almost sat down on his quarters in his hurry to reverse!


I rode him back to the ditch and asked him to go forwards, looking up and thinking forwards, but Thorne had decided it was dangerous, and was not to be tempted. I soon realised that the harder I pushed forwards, the more he wanted to go back.


One way to deal with the situation would be to keep asking the horse forwards, and if he does not comply to use the spur, and if he does not comply to hit him with a whip. The trouble is that if the whip is not at first successful the horse ends up being hit repeatedly, the scene can get ugly. It is the same principal with ditch jumping, water obstacles and trailer loading; if the horse is successfully bullied over/into the obstacle often the horse ends up not wanting to even go near or look at the obstacle again, let alone go in/over it. In effect you may win the battle but lose the war.


Horses that are trained in this way can look from the outside to be quiet obedient horses. But if you look closer they are actually hiding their real feelings under a façade, they may seem too quiet, and if stressed they can react violently and out of proportion to whatever the hazard is that they are facing. So this day I was facing a ditch with a horse that was refusing to move forwards, and our horses need to be obedient and confident, what to do?


If you have been in this situation, and many of us have, you can feel that the horse will frequently dither in front of the ditch and ALMOST go. This is usually the moment the rider glimpses possible success and redoubles their efforts with kicking the horse forwards. Unfortunately that is in effect punishing the horse just as the horse makes the mental effort, the “try”, the horse backs off again, and more trust is lost. I started to work on the principal that I would ask Thorne forwards and if Thorne was trying, even just THINKING forwards I would lighten up as a release for him. After all, this was the first time he had ever seen a ditch, and it HAD just tried to swallow him up (in his eyes at least)!


I found that even with the best will in the world to work “with” Thorne on this I was kicking him forwards too strongly, causing confrontation, so I dismounted and worked on foot. The principal is that Thorne was encouraged to look and sum up the situation but was not allowed to stand still; I kept him moving to prevent him getting “stuck” where he could mentally shut down. The movement I could produce may have only been side to side, but it was movement. If he started to go forwards I relaxed and he had a break.


It is SO HARD not to let frustration or impatience get the better of you (especially when in uniform, with an audience and up to your ankles in mud), however I stuck with the plan and eventually Thorne realised that forwards was the line of least resistance, gathered himself together and hopped over the ditch. After a rest and a lot of praise I mounted up and did the same thing. And again. We had the security patrol to do as well that day, so we went and did our patrol, and I left not entirely convinced that we had “sorted” ditches. I was at least happy that we had left it where Thorne was not scared by the experience, and he had gone over each time, albeit with a delay.


Some months later, whilst on patrol, we came across another area with ditches. The escort horse went first, and Thorne followed, he hesitated only slightly, with his head down, thinking and summing up the problem, gathered his feet and neatly hopped over the ditch. That day we did 3 ditches, the third he did in the lead, no hesitation.


Approaching the problem in this way is harder on the rider than merely reaching for a whip, requiring confidence in the method and great patience. Although the horse is not hit, it is not easy on the horse either, he had to think and keep moving and trying, not mentally shut down. And we WERE going to be over the ditch before we left that day, however long it had taken. It’s funny that often if you act like you have all day then it takes only a few minutes. If you are in a rush it will take all day!


The Police horses are big and need to be obedient. The training must be done with their psychology in mind so they can be trained effectively and with respect. It is important to see where a horse is scared and to help the horse over the fear without losing the horse’s trust in the rider, at the same time not compromising the discipline required.


Over these six months Thorne and I have built a rapport with each other, it is now time to start full duties, including becoming a resource at football rather than an “extra”.




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