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Don Jessop

Does your horse swish his tail while riding? Want to know how to get rid of it?

Before we say you should get rid of it, let me first tell you why a horse swishes his or her tail. Contrary to what people think, it's not always anger.

Sometimes a horse will swish or "switch" his tail to lift a nagging fly off his hide. Sometimes he will swish his tail to balance his body in an extreme maneuver. But most of the time, it's because he or she is irritated or defensive.

One horribly abusive strategy to stop tail swishing, is to surgically sever the nerve to the tail. Believe it or not, I've seen it dozens of times in my career. Tail swishing is not smiled upon by judges in high level competition. Therefore, many trainers do the worst, and psychically damage the horse for the sake of a blue ribbon.

But most trainers aren't that cruel. For the most part we live in a smarter world now. However, there isn't much information out there to solve the problem of tail swishing. Hence, I'd like to share what I know. Take it or leave it. I want you to succeed.

First of all, if it's related to flies. Simply get yourself some fly spray (something without too many chemicals) and solve the problem instantly. If your horse can't tolerate being sprayed with fly spray, consider reading my book on training. It's called Leadership and Horses - check it out here.

If the problem isn't about biting flies, then consider that fact that your horse is irritated by your signals. Maybe every time you apply your leg to get a response laterally or forward, your horse will swish his tail. His irritation is due to one of three things: Either you were inappropriate in the way you asked him (too sharp or abrupt), or he simply wasn't ready to receive the signal because his mind was somewhere else (distracted), or he doesn't actually understand what the pressure means. He may be confused. You may think he knows what you want, and he's trying not to do what you want. This is categorized as confusion. He may know you want forward or lateral when you apply legs but he certainly does not know why you want it. That's why I categorize this one as confusion.

Let's tackle each one separately.

Signals too sharp or abrupt: The solution here is simple. BE MORE PATIENT. Don't be in such a hurry. I often use a pop quiz for my students during the clinics I teach around the world. This is the question I pop: "What's more important? Snappy responses... or smooth responses?"

I hope you answered "smooth responses?" If my horse has to tense his body to make a lateral or forward movement, it means I've asked too quickly, or he's reacting to my signal rather than responding. I want "flow." I hate being the passenger in a car with a driver who is too quick on the gas and brakes. Smooth and elegant should always be your goal if you want to master horse training at the highest level. Unless a grizzly bear is chasing you out of the woods, you shouldn't ever worry about snappy departures. When you get to the mid levels of horsemanship and you start working on walk/canter transitions, keep "smooth" at the top of your mind and watch how repetition will speed up the departures. You never want to smash the gas pedal because all you'll ever get is ugly transitions with a tail that swishes.

Distraction: The solution here is nearly identical to the first solution. BE PATIENT! Ask and wait till you get his mind back. If, after a few seconds you notice he isn't going to focus on what you're asking. Do something subtle with your hands and rein signals to bring his attention back. Don't kick him harder or mash the gas pedal to get his attention back. Once you have his attention, you can ask with your leg again and he's likely to respond nicely.

Confusion: Patience is the key again. Don't let the tail swishing stop you from asking for what you want. But don't make the biggest mistake all trainers make at some point in their career. What's the biggest mistake?

The biggest mistake is when you ask for a response and you get the response you want. Except it also came with lots of baggage, just as tail swishing. But you fail to recognize the baggage, and reward your horse for the response. As a pattern you might continue to reward the response with baggage, hoping the baggage will go away eventually. But it doesn't. What you have, is a horse that thinks he knows what you want. When you ask, he gives you a response plus baggage. Because that's what he's always been rewarded for!

The best way to avoid this mistake is to ask for the response. Recognize the effort your horse puts in, even if there is some tail swishing. Then ask for the exact same response again. Then pause... Recognize the effort, then ask again. Then pause, then ask again, then pause, then ask again. Ask for the exact same thing until you finally get a response that is in the right direction and has no baggage. At that point. Get off your horse. Give the BIG REWARD. I call this the training cycle.

The training cycle has five steps and one rule. The steps are:
1. Ask for what you want
2. Support if you need
3. Release your signal and support when you get a response to recognize effort
4. Recognize the effort with small reward
5. Repeat until the rule is observed
The rule is, cycle through until you no longer need extra support. You ask and it's easy. Cycle until all you have to do is ask and you get zero negative reactivity. No tail swishing, no head tossing, not tension. Instead, you get a clean, elegant response. At this point, give the big reward. Then come back the next day and cycle through again. Day after day you will notice dramatic improvements in your horses understanding and attitude.
The training cycle is the most important facet of behavioral change in any category of horse training. Even if you're a novice. Even if you're an Olympic rider. If you want a better attitude from your horse, the only way to get it, is to improve his or her understanding of what you want, using the training cycle.

If you notice your horse is swishing his tail because he's either confused, distracted, or defensive, take into consideration the two main points of this article.

1. Be more patient. "Rome wasn't built in a day." Plus... I bet you don't usually have a valid reason to mash the gas pedal. Remember "smooth is more important that snappy."

2. Use the Training Cycle to change negative behaviors.

I've talked about the training cycle before. If you like, I can send you a video showing behavioral change using the training cycle. Let me know in the comments below.

Here's to your success! Thanks for reading. Also, don't forget to check out my books

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


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