Master Horseman: Riders learn a firm, gentle approach to horse care

Linda Benedict, , Bruce Schultz  | 10/19/2015 12:31:00 AM

Johnny Boudreaux, of Vermilion Parish and a participant in the Master Horseman program, demonstrates a "suppling" move. Note the loose rein. Boudreaux is asking the horse to relax and yield to the rein. (Photo by John Wozniak)

The Master Horseman program consists of eight 3-hour sessions. (Photo by John Wozniak)

Howard Cormier demonstrates using sticks to simulate the horse's front legs. (Photo by John Wozniak)

Horses, like people, usually figure out it's a lot easier to comply than resist. Through his body position on the horse, Boudreaux is asking the animal to stop. Note the loose rein. (Photo by John Wozniak)

It might seem like that buckaroo who rides off into the sunset was born in the saddle. But the truth is he or she had to learn equestrian skills. And a good place to learn these skills is through the LSU AgCenter Master Horseman Program.

“The goal is to have a cadre of extremely well-trained leaders around the state and increase the quality of horsemen and horses,” said Neely Heidorn, equine specialist. “The idea is to bring them up several notches and teach them to teach others.”

To help raise funds to continue the Master Horseman Program, Heidorn has organized a polo match on Oct. 2 in Folsom. Read more about the AgCenter's first sponsored polo match

The Master Horseman Program’s purpose is to improve the horsemanship skills of adults and prepare them to serve as leaders in the 4-H Horse Program and within the Louisiana horse industry. It includes eight weeks of instruction on many topics related to equine science and horsemanship. Since its inception in 2002, more than 600 men and women have graduated from the program, and serve in leadership roles in horse organizations and youth programs across the state.T

he Master Horseman program consists of eight 3-hour sessions, starting with an hour lecture by various experts on scientific and technical advances in nutrition, health, management and care of horses. The sessions cover a wide range of topics, including nutrition, safety, conditioning, foot care, and dental health. The second hour is devoted to a demonstration of horse training techniques, and the third hour involves practicing the skills they have learned. All of that is followed by a test.

Volunteer service required

“When horse leaders complete the training they are required to give 40 hours of volunteer service to the horse industry to train other horsemen and youth,” Neely said. “The trained volunteers have subsequently been active in the 4-H youth program, conducting horse camps, clinics, seminars and workshops.”

Much of the course work is aimed at getting horse owners to learn more about the way their horses move and what motivates the animals. The old-school approach to training a horse, using corporal punishment techniques, is being replaced with a kinder, gentler way.

Some refer to it as “horse whispering,” which has nothing to do with talking in low tones to a horse, said Howard Cormier, equine specialist.

Use finesse, not force

“The concept of a horse whisperer should really be a horse listener or observer,” Cormier said. “Ultimately you’re developing a language with the horse.”

Once that language is developed, it doesn’t take much for horse and owner to communicate, he said. And horses will respond better.

“You’ve got to reward every little bit of effort,” Cormier said.

Punishment for bad behavior also is included in the training, he said.

“It’s similar to teaching children,” Cormier said. “The mistake most people make is they don’t make the horse feel there are consequences for their actions.”

That doesn't mean corporal punishment if a horse doesn’t follow a command, but it does mean small discomforts.

“You get better results quicker by learning how to do things with finesse and understanding the horse and its psychology, and not forcing things on the horse,” Cormier said.

Cormier stood in front of his horse to demonstrate that principle. Just by holding the end of a rope in front of horse, he could signal the animal to walk forward, backward and sideways. If the horse balked, Cormier flipped a small loop into the rein, and the horse complied.

Cormier said a horse will respond to pressure from a rider to move a certain way, and once the horse responds, the pressure is released, telling the horse it is doing the right thing.

“The release is the most important thing,” Cormier said. “If there’s no release, a horse doesn’t know what to do. You’ve got to respond to those positive things quickly and immediately.”

Understanding the mechanics of how a four-legged animal moves is accomplished by using two sticks to simulate the horse’s front legs.

“Until you try to travel like a horse and walk like a horse, it’s pretty hard to understand,” Cormier said, using the sticks to demonstrate the mechanics of a horse walking, trotting and cantering.

Cormier explained that a rider can get a horse to move more efficiently once the rider understands what a horse is doing during a particular gait.

Johnny Boudreaux of Vermilion Parish is a veteran of the first Master Horseman program in Vermilion Parish.

"It reinforced a lot of stuff, but I also picked up on a lot of things,” Boudreaux said.

Boudreaux’s specialty is getting stubborn horses into a trailer, and he said he had to change his thinking to get results.

“I messed up enough of them to know we weren’t doing something right,” he said.

Boudreaux starts by taking the horse to the trailer, letting it sniff the strange new object. If it balks at entering the trailer, he takes it to a clear area and works the horse by requiring it to trot in a circle for several minutes to tire them out.

“You don’t beat ‘em up. You make them work.”

And a horse, like people, usually figures out it’s a lot easier to comply than resist, Boudreaux said. He emphasized patience and advised against expecting too much of a horse too soon.

“You’ve got to keep asking. You’ve got to go slow,” Boudreaux said.

Boudreaux is convinced that riding horses requires a full understanding of equestrian fundamentals. “If you can’t add and subtract, you can’t multiply and divide.”

Richard Hebert of Indian Bayou, become a 4-H horse instructor after completing the program. He was named 4-H Horse Leader of the Year at the 2004 State Horse Show.

“I’ve been riding for 30 years, and the program put everything in perspective for me,” Hebert said. “It gave me more confidence in teaching.”

Hebert also teaches a session in the Master Horseman class that concentrates on negotiating obstacles that might be found on a trail.

“The key there is understanding, and that’s probably the hardest thing to teach,” he said. “The thing is a horse can’t talk.”

For Cormier, riding horses is about the learning process and the journey, never expecting to reach the end of the trail. “You don’t ever get to a point where you say, “‘I’ve arrived.’”

Horse enthusiasts who want to enroll in the Master Horseman program should contact Neely Heidorn or their local county agents.

The LSU AgCenter is one of 11 institutions of higher education in the Louisiana State University System. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, it provides educational services in every parish and conducts research that contributes to the economic development of the state. The LSU AgCenter does not grant degrees nor benefit from student tuition and fee increases. The LSU AgCenter plays an integral role in supporting agricultural industries, enhancing the environment, and improving the quality of life through its 4-H youth, family and community programs.

Master Horseman: Riders learn a firm, gentle approach to horse care
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