Occasionally in our journey with horses it may be appropriate to put a blanket, sheet, cooler or fly sheet on our horses. In this moments it is almost always better to be prepared than to wish you were. As Pat says at nearly every event where he speaks (taken from the 45+ ‘P’s”) “Prior and Proper Preparation Prevents ‘P’ Poor Performance.” Another great thing about preparing horses for the blanket is that it can help prepare them for their first saddle and/or help you see how the horse’s confidence is with “things” that wrap around the whole horse. To set horses up for success we can take our time with the blanket preparation and help the horse become a more willing and confident partner. The following steps are some ways that I think of preparing a horse for a blanket and the photos are of my new weanling filly who needed this lesson in preparation for winter (just in case).
The first thing and most important for this exercise is to help our horses understand friendly game. As Pat has so often reminded us: “A horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care.”
Here we are going to play friendly game in two forms; accepting us the human and accepting our tools (carrot stick, string, blanket, etc.).For safety reasons it is often best to start friendly with the stick, this way if the horse is feeling defensive and we misread the situation they will hit the stick not us. Begin by checking that the horse is confident with the stick being rubbed in all zones (neck, legs, belly, tail, etc) and that they don’t have any “yeah but” spots (these are areas where your horse says “You can touch me anywhere but there”). Using approach and retreat build the horses confidence until they are calm with the stick and might even enjoy it, like another horse grooming them.
A great thing to check out next is the horse’s acceptance to friendly game with the stick and string in all zones. This will help prepare them for the motion of the blanket when we toss it over their back and the motion they will feel when trotting or cantering with the blanket on. While playing with this more active friendly game we need to be sure our energy stays friendly, this is how the horse will tell the difference between friendly and driving games as you advance.
Now that the horse is prepared and we feel as safe as possible with the friendly game it is important we can play friendly with our hands. After all it will be our hands reaching between the hind legs for the straps and positioning and adjusting the belly straps! With this in mind it is a great time to over prepare our horses for this reach. Play a little exaggerated friendly game with your hands, rub with some energy and be sure your horse is accepting particularly in zones 3-4.
Another great preparation for the “just in case” situation is porcupine game specifically with the legs. This is great for preparing horses for a malfunctioning blanket that falls partially off, or drops a leg strap. By preparing horses for the possible and probable we can often avoid injuries or emotional trauma in our horses. Using phases for porcupine and a 12’ or 22’ line we can ask our horses to follow a feel/porcupine on legs off of steady pressure from the rope. By using the rope again we get a little more space in case we need to allow our horses to drift or they get a little concerned. Keep in mind even with your hands on the rope it is important to use phases; 1. Hair 2. Skin 3. Muscle 4. Bone and to release for the slightest try. The goal in this exercise is to help our horses understand how to follow a feel rather than do what is natural and push into it. There is some great information on the Savvy Club Website about leading by the leg.
The next preparation or “test” before blanketing can come from using friendly game with a towel or saddle blanket to toss over your horses back. This tests out the horses acceptance of friendly game with our tools (things that are an extension of us, like our carrot stick and string). Applying the same approach and retreat method used for friendly with the stick and string or saddling we can now prepare our horses a step further for the blanket with a towel that falls off much easier (just in case they take a fright). Using a towel also allows us something small enough that we aren’t getting tired “heaving” it over the horses back. Also, sometimes in the winter static can build up between the horses and blankets/towels, if this happens a quick spray of water or water with a hair moisturizer in it will help tame the static so that the horse is not getting shocked!
Our goal is that by the time we get to blanketing it is easy and that we have over prepared our horses for the situation. After all, the quote “Take the time it takes so it takes less time.” Is nearly a Parelli anthem. This way horse and human can relax when it comes to blanket time and trust that the preparation has laid the foundation for success.