A couple weeks ago we had a brand new pedestal dropped off from some amazing friends; and since then I've gotten a lot of questioning looks from those outside of the Natural Horsemanship community.
"Why do you make your horse stand on the elephant circus stand?" - one of my favourites so far.
So I've decided to let everyone else in on our little secrets; and I'll start with saying that it's not just because it looks cool.
There is a multitude of benefits for using the pedestal, but I'm going to stick with the top three for now...
1) Trailer Loading Confidence
Horses have a pretty hard time figuring out a trailer the first time, and even if they get it, they are still pretty nervous about it for a long while after. Trailer loading is one of the most difficult parts of horse ownership; and speaking from experience, I've seen every gadget under the sun to get a horse on a trailer. So... wouldn't it be nice if a horse could just walk on a trailer and load themselves? Maybe be soooo confident that they can just put those feet right up there and walk up, wait patiently and be tucked in for the drive?
Working a horse on a pedestal is a great first step to trailer loading practice. Horses are claustrophobic by nature, this means they are uncomfortable in small spaces (like a trailer); but they are also nervous stepping up onto things from a lack of proprioception (wiki: from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own", "individual," and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.) So teaching a horse to trailer load with a trailer from the get go, is making them deal with 2 pretty innate fears for a flight prey species all at once.
This is where the pedestal comes in. The pedestal allows the horse to learn how to lift it's hooves (both fronts and the hinds) and legs up onto something solid; without having to squeeze into a foreign and scary place too. They can gain confidence with their proprioception of their front hooves going up, and backing off. As well as eventually progressing into standing up with both fronts, and then adding hind legs without turning or spinning. Being able to teach and reward this behaviour creates a building block of trust and confidence for when you finally ask them to step into the trailer.
2) Multi Height Confidence
Horse's do not naturally walk over anything off the ground. They walk on hills that take them up and down, and over logs and trees for brief moments; but there are very few situations where they are standing up over the ground on an object. That means they are not used to stepping up and being confident there. This makes the pedestal an ideal candidate to test your horse's willingness and trust in you, but also to create a building block of trust in themselves.
Well trained horses are those who have a high level of emotional fitness; they are comfortable in their own being and can work or play without panicking and throwing a fit. They can respond to their environment, rather than react to it. This makes them an ideal partner for sportsmanship and a great athlete in high pressure situations.
A pedestal can be a training tool, as part of a training regiment, to build confidence and emotional fitness. It's also a great bonding tool for growing a partnership.
3) Building a Partnership Based on Trust and Respect
Teaching a horse how to step up on a pedestal (or any new scary object) allows you to show your horse how confident you are, how knowledgeable you are and how safe it is to do what you ask of them. It also shows them your patience, and encourages them to try. Once you can get your horse to trust you to put a foot up, and they can immediately see it's not going to hurt them.. they can find trust in your guidance. Especially if when they stand up on that pedestal they learn about happy treat time.
I use the pedestal with all of my clients, pleasure and show alike, to build a partnership based on trust. A horse can learn to stand on a pedestal for anyone over time, and it can be a triggered trick for sure. But those first few times of progression together; to let go and trust each other is what makes this exercise so useful.
It's also a great place to create a "safe place" in your training regime. If your horse can get stressed out easily, teach them that every time they are on the pedestal it's quiet time; treats, love and relaxation. So they can learn how to self soothe in high stress times. And trust that you understand that they need a break too. When I'm working with Johnny sometimes we'll get a little too high strung and he'll go to the pedestal and demand his own time out to breathe and regroup. He is a highly emotionally fit horse now; and the pedestal used to be an absolute nightmare for him.
And yes, it's even fun to ride up there too!
Until next time, don't forget to keep on keepin' on!