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June 19, 2018

Smoke and Sirens and Fire, Oh My! Canadian Horses at a Mounted Police Clinic

Ken Morris and Willowview Dawn Writz (Westrey) walking through fire at least year's clinic. As impressive as this might look, this was not the most difficult obstacle...

by Ken Morris, CHHAPS Western U.S. Liaison

Most Canadian Horse fans know that several mounted police units use the breed, including the Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary Mounted Police. Did you ever wonder how horses are trained to do this? This past weekend (May 5-6) three Canadian Horse owners in Oregon found out how it works, when they attended a mounted police clinic taught by Bill Richey and Karen Swanson of National Mounted Police Services, Inc.  Bill and Karen travel across the U.S. (from Florida to Alaska) and sometimes even other countries (they’ve trained mounted police in Israel!) to help both officers and civilians prepare themselves and their horses not only for police work, but a variety of civilian applications, such as mounted search and rescue, parades, and ceremonial functions. Even if you never plan on doing these things, mounted police training helps riders cope with everyday situations at shows and trail rides. Trail riders, how many times have you encountered bicyclists or ATVs? How many times have you come up to a narrow stream that your horse thinks is a ditch and is hesitant about crossing? If you’ve ever ridden in a parade, you know you’ll encounter big floats, loud vehicles and bands, and crowds who often know nothing about how to behave around horses, or even deliberately try to spook them.

It was a big class, 19 horses and riders of all descriptions and disciplines. We had all kinds of rider: timid adult beginners, recreational trail riders, dressage riders and even an ex three day eventer and polo player. We had Quarter Horses, Paints, Arabians and Arabian crosses, Draft crosses, Connemaras, a Friesian, a 13hh Icelandic, and three Canadians: Caribeau Maximilian Kushla ridden by Kathleen Robinson; Gahn Yaar Brulot Karisma, ridden by Don McGregor; and my mare Willowview Dawn Writz, nicknamed Westrey. As luck would have it, all three were not only mares, but as Canadians go they are all quite sensitive, energetic types. Quick and athletic too–which meant that if they did spook, they were going to go big! (And sure enough, mine did.)

Mounted police units typically select horses that are most suited to the job of patrol and crowd control: that means, big, laid back geldings. In the US, most cops ride Quarter Horses and Draft crosses. But Bill cautioned us that every horse, no matter how mellow, has SOMETHING that he initially will spook at, or refuse to go over or through. For example, we had two draft cross geldings in the clinic. They were normally calm and nonreactive, but each had something they didn’t like. One refused to walk under tarps and “cowboy curtains.” The other was fearless about everything…almost. The “pop” of a smoke canister going off caused him to spook violently. So, the main point of this clinic was to learn more about your horse—to find out WHAT your horse reacts to and HOW he reacts so that you can prepare and/or respond appropriately. (Wouldn’t you rather know what your horse is going to do instead of being taken by surprise?)

So, to find this out, horses were exposed to a variety of “sensory obstacles” (meaning, they engaged all the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell). Obstacles were also presented at various heights, from on the ground to above the horse’s heads (as in archways.) This is vital since some horses that aren’t scared of, for example, foam fingers set low are scared of them when they are above eye level. Some were obstacles that a horse had to push through. Before we started on obstacles though, Bill gave us a lecture and powerpoint on horse perception. (Did you know that horse eyes act like trifocal lenses, which is why horse move their heads down to focus on near objects, or up to focus on distant ones?) Once you understand exactly how different their vision is from ours, their reactions—which might initially
seem “stupid” or unreasonable– make perfect sense. Then we mounted up and learned basic drill to get horses used to working in a group (some had never been in a group before, and certainly not in a group that big.)

Finally, we were ready for obstacles. We started simple, with foam fingers set low and a piece of plywood on the ground. Gradually, more obstacles were added, increasing in difficulty. Then Bill brought out a gas can, poured a line of gas onto the dirt, and lit it. Yes, we were going to walk our horses through fire! But as Bill said, a horse doesn’t know that fire will hurt him. Rather, he’s worried because it moves, it looks like unstable ground, which no horse ever wants to walk on. The important thing was to keep the horse facing it (not allowed to turn away) and keep his feet moving. “This is not a race,” Bill cautioned. “Don’t be in a hurry.” Patience is the most important thing. Having the big group of horses there helped.

Bill then popped off a canister of orange marine signaling smoke. “A horse perceives dense smoke as a moving wall.” Typically, horses don’t want to push through a solid wall, much less one that is moving. My horse had been fine with going though fire, but the wall of smoke was another matter. I walked her through an area where the smoke was less dense and after that was able to get her through dense smoke. Another major point in this clinic is to build desirable habits in your horse. Many riders allow their horses to go around obstacles that they “don’t like.” The horse learns that he can say “No.” But there are times (we’ve all been there) where a horse MUST go through or over something he doesn’t like. Your safety may depend on it! So a main point of this clinic was showing you how to build desirable habits in your horse…the habit of saying “Yes!” when you tell him to walk forward!

Another sensory obstacle we worked with was Bill’s squad car, complete with flashing lights and a 150 watt siren. (Fire trucks use 200 watt sirens, to give you an idea.) If you’ve been to a lot of riding events sooner or later you’ll encounter an emergency vehicle, or even have to escort one in. I know I have! We started with all the horses lined up boot to boot, facing the car as he “bumped” the siren a bit and used the loudspeaker. Then walked the horses forward bit by bit until they were right next to the car. Bill told us that with noise, “Distance is your friend.” Always start far enough away that the horses aren’t panicked, that is in “Survival” mode, where all they can think of is getting away. Horses learn best when in a calm state, and can still learn (albeit more slowly) in an Alert state. Our goal here was to create enough distance to keep horses in a Calm, or at worst, Alert state, and only move forward when the horses had gotten to a Calm state. At the end of the clinic, we got to escort the squad car (that is, surround it as it moves). Westrey was good with this and was even eager to move forwards towards the car!

But remember how I said every horse, no matter how calm and mellow, has something that scares them? Well, for Westrey, it is (and always has been) hissing sounds. A sprinkler or hose, a tire being filled, the sound of sand being dumped out of a PVC pipe, the sound of a line dragging in the dirt. I’ve gotten her used to hoses and sprinklers, but each situation is different. On Day 2 of our clinic, we had a new obstacle, fondly christened the “Gates of Hell.” This was a metal archway with holes at 3 inch intervals, hooked up to a high pressure propane tank. Westrey wasn’t scared of the flames; it was the shiny, white, hissing tank off the to the side that was going to eat her! She would blow sideways when we were still 30 feet from the tank. The fact that most of the other horses were quietly going through the Gate—a hot little Arabian actually led the way–made no difference to her. (And I generally found it to be true that a horse that was really afraid of something didn’t care if other horses were not.) So I kept her facing it, moving in closer and closer. Finally, I felt like she was ready to give it a try. Bill coached me through. Since she wanted to blow to the right, he told me to leave my right rein a bit slack, turn her head left, and give her some right leg. It worked! After a couple of tries, she was going through with head low and relaxed. (As for Kushla and Karisma, I think the photos tell it all.)

Was I scared? Yes! I’m pretty sure all of us were at one time or another. One of my friends, an excellent rider on a 20 year old Quarab who had “been there, done that,” called it “the hardest riding I’ve ever done.” But we all learned that, armed with knowledge of horse perception and psychology, proper training techniques, and great clinicians, we could face our fears and go forward, no matter what!

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