Friday, August 6, 2010

Retraining The Charro Horse

This is a topic I did a great deal of thinking about before delving into it for so many reasons. In no way should any inference be taken that we're discussing cultural or heritage issues, this isn't about race, racism or anything of that nature ~ it is only about what it takes to retrain a horse that has been abused through a specific training and handling process that is outside the norm of commonly held theory on training horses within our society. Some facets of society condone this manner of training horses, though in my opinion none should.

While there are major differences of opinion on what constitutes good training, there is no doubt that some methods are indeed abusive. One form of abuse is what I'm addressing here. That said, let's begin.

Living where I do in Southerm California definitely has it's advantages, but there are also drawbacks. Particularly when it comes to buying horses for resale. Looking for bargains frequently means understanding that a horse will almost certainly have issues that will need to be corrected before offering the horse to the public as a reputable broker. A severely traumatized or abused horse simply can't be sold without going through an often lengthy process of gaining the horse's trust and ensuring there are no residual issues left from the initial abusive training.

When a horse is labeled a "charro" horse by knowledgeable horsemen, generally speaking that means the horse has been exposed to harsh living conditions (often small, dark, dirty stalls), long shanked bits with way too much mouthpiece (such as high ported spoon, cathedral or spade bits) used by inexperienced or harsh hands, ill fitting saddles and exposure to large spurs as well as whips that are misused (for punishment and torture as opposed to being a training aid). Add these things together and you've got a horse who has an incredible amount of baggage. Some are actually dangerous, though only insofar as they are frightened of human contact due to the abuse they have suffered in the hands of humans.

For a skilled trainer, these can even be difficult to overcome. Step one is to check teeth and float as needed, then to have a competent farrier evaluate and tend to the hooves. As many of these horses are also on the thin side (not necessarily emaciated, though some are, but most tend to be ribby and in need of groceries), getting the horse on a decent diet is paramount. These steps on top of plenty of TLC (petting, rubbing, scratches in the right places, treats/carrots etc, and a soft, soothing, gentle voice) will encourage a change in the horse's usually standoffish behavior.

With one of these horses, not unlike starting a young horse under saddle for the first time, the first few rides will be in the round pen or an equally small area to allow the horse freedom of movement but give me a greater chance to discourage bad behavior like bolting and running away, bucking or anything equally undesirable. I'll use a smooth snaffle bit of various configurations (French Link/dogbone, oval mouth, Dr Bristol or standard single jointed) depending on the horse's mouth, keeping in mind factors like a low palate, thick tongue or thick lips, and will include a cavesson noseband along with a running martingale as part of the wardrobe.

Fear is generally the biggest issue with a charro horse, because he's likely been horrified about tack and equipment ~ which includes those whips and spurs. He should be motivated by praise and taking little baby steps, just like the green three year old who's just started into training. Understanding that nothing bad is going to happen and that he's not going to be jabbed in the mouth, beaten or spurred relentlessly just for the sport of it only comes after some riding time. We'll work on gentle lateral flexing, stopping easy through seat and weight shifts, lots and lots and LOTS of calm, slow walking. Not until the horse has learned that he can relax and reach downward in a calm, easygoing manner will I even think about asking for a nice jog.

Eventually these horses are comfortable at the jog and even the lope. When you can lope around the arena easily and relaxed, you've got the beginnings of a well rounded and safe(r) horse. Safer than you started with, at least. Sadly, some of their fear issues do return when they are exposed to conditions similar to those they were saved from, or for instance they're ridden in a group of horses for the first few times and make the assumption that they might be scolded when a nearby horse does something naughty. When they have the urge to bolt (one of the most common reactions), if you're outside an enclosed arena a one-handed stop along with plenty of reassurance can nip recurrent issues in the bud.

There's a lot more to say on this subject, but I'm out of time for now. It's likely to be something we revisit in the future ~ especially considering how many charro horses are in need of being rescued and rehabbed right here where I am from. Sad, but true. Until next time........