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Teaching horses: Hargis encourages slow steps in teachings

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Douglas – During the Big Wyoming Horse Expo, people working with their horses learned that they could solve any problem by reducing it to the ridiculous. Van Hargis, who is a well-respected horsemanship clinician, shared his problem-solving techniques for helping horses past their fears. 

“A lot of times, horses will reveal to us what their issues are,” Hargis said. “It is up to us to determine what horses are bothered by, what they shouldn’t be bothered by, and what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of.” 

He explained, “It is my job to help the horse learn to manage those fears.”

Working with fears

Hargis encouraged horsemen to show some restraint and avoid punishing the horse for being afraid or revealing its fears to us. 

“We need to try to understand its fears and anxieties,” he explained. “Don’t condone him for being afraid, but don’t give him something else to be afraid of either. It is important to resist the temptation to react when the horse shows its fear.”

Hargis shared an anecdote about his own fear of snakes. He recalls finding a dead snake by the pop machine when he went to buy a can of soda. 

“Snakes will make me flinch,” he said. “Even though I knew that snake was dead, I still flinched. When I am riding a horse, and he flinches, I call it grabbing his butt. Most riders will say, ‘Gosh darn it, you shouldn’t be afraid of that,’ and poke or jab at their horse.”

“They are punishing the horse for being afraid of something,” he stated.

“What if there would have been some ole boy back by that soda machine, and he slapped me for flinching at that dead snake?” he asked the crowd. “We don’t realize that while we are trying to teach the horse not to be afraid of something, because he is frightened of it, we are punishing him because he screwed up.” 

Understand the horse’s fear

Rather than punishing the horse for revealing its fears, Hargis encouraged people to try and understand them. 

When the horse jumped or flinched, Hargis said the rider should drop those reins and resist the temptation to knock him in the face with the reins and hold on. It is also important to resist reaching for the saddle horn or vocally reacting. 

“What usually happens is the rider will pull up those reins hitting the horse in the face, grab the saddle horn and poke the horse in the ribs – all at the same time,” he said. “Try to resist doing that.”

Hargis demonstrated in a round pen how he helps horses overcome their fears. Using a rope, Hargis worked it around the back legs of the horse and up into his flank. 

“I don’t care how good you are with a rope,” Hargis told the crowd. “I do this with every rope horse or prospect I train because there will be a day when that rope will wind up someplace it isn’t supposed to be. I want to have the horse prepared for that.” 

While working the rope up into the flank, the horse is visibly uncomfortable, but Hargis tries to keep the horse calm and quiet. 

“When the horse reacts in a positive way, stop working the rope and rub and praise him for doing the right thing,” he said. “Then start at the bottom of the legs and slowly work the rope up into the flank again watching for a response. Eventually, he will get used to it.”

Types of pressure

Hargis shared his philosophy about the two different types of pressure that can be used to train a horse. 

Implied pressure is when the horse perceives the trainer putting pressure on him. 

“If I walk into an arena with a mustang who has never seen a human before, and he immediately is fearful and hits the fence, that is implied pressure,” Hargis explained.

Applied pressure is purposely applying pressure to the horse to teach him not to be fearful or reactive to the rope being up in his flank area. 

“With applied pressure, you are looking for a very specific response or non-response,” he said. “In this instance, you are looking for a non-response from applying pressure in the flank area.”

When working with a horse, Hargis said it is important to ask yourself, what you want the horse to do? 

“When you do something, watch for his response. If he looks like he will react, widen the pass,” said Hargis. 

Noise training

Hargis showed how to use a folded tarp to get the horse used to noisy, big items moving around him. He moved the tarp around the back legs of the horse, up into its flank and over its back looking for a reaction. 

“It is not up to us to show them what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of,” Hargis said. “It is up to us to teach them how to manage those fears. The only way they will allow us to teach them how to manage their fears is if they trust us.”

Hargis finished his presentation with a final thought. 

“Do things in slower steps. Whenever you think you are going slow enough, go even slower,” he said. “I once had a pretty good horseman tell me that if I notice my improvements, I am going too fast. When working with horses, or introducing them to something new, reduce it down to as many small, slow steps as possible.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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