PUTTING HORSES IN THE CLOSET
A Hawaiian horseman opens doors to effective ground training
As written by Holly Foster for the Quarter Horse News
Culture. It permeates everything Harry Nakoa does. He is by nature and spirit a Hawaiian. He is by heritage and heart a horseman. Nakoa’s family has been deeply involved with training horses about as long as there have been horses on the islands. Their methods are the evolution of traditional Spanish horsemanship techniques brought to the islands combined with the spiritual respect for all life indigenous to native Hawaiians. The culmination of these two cultures has produced a tremendously effective, powerful, and respectful way of training horses that turns heads as well as making changes of heart.
For Nakoa, training is all mental. He believes mental discipline in a horse begins with mental discipline in a person, and consistency is the key. It all starts on the ground. Getting a horse mentally right on the ground translates into better results when saddled. Mental awareness creates respect. From the newest weanlings to road warriors in any breed or discipline, this Hawaiian horseman asserts that a horse’s level of respect for a rider begins on the ground.
Nakoa begins his method of mental conditioning with a technique he calls” putting a horse in the closet”. He gains the respect of a horse using equipment most people have in their backyard- a horse, a halter, and a soft cotton lead rope. This unique technique is the beginning of all of Nakoa’s training processes. It is also the step to which he returns when problems arise.
Putting the horse in the closet is a matter of baby steps. What may require an initial time commitment of fifteen to twenty minutes or more, will become a natural habit with the horse in due time. A horse that is mentally in the closet is safer and more pleasant to work around. This horse is also more mentally focused ont the handler and requests he may make of the horse at all levels of training.
Lowering the Horse’s head
Focus is a mental characteristic, so Nakoa emphasizes that it is only natural that mental discipline begins at the horse’s head. To “put a horse in the closet” is to cause him to lower his head while the horse maintains attention on the person handling him. Nakoa’s “closet” is essentially a term for a safe place for the horse to be mentally. He defines this area s any point between the ground and shoulder height, with the horse’s head in line with the rest of his spine. Working on a surface free of grass and other edible items will help to eliminate a false reaction to this procedure.
Effectively putting a horse in the closet means the horse’s head should remain lowered at all times when the handler is moving around him. Knowing that a frightened horse raise his head, getting the horse to lower his head helps to keep the horse in a more relaxed mental state. Nakoa uses physical pressure to relieve mental pressure and lower the horse’s head. Depending on the horse, the head may be lowered in one of two ways.
First, Nakoa may place a hand over the poll and one on the nose and apply light pressure. Both hands should be asking for a downward motion, being careful not to ask for the horse to also bring his chin inward with hand on his now. Only the slightest amount of pressure is applied initially. To be effective, the slightest downward reaction of the horses’s head to this pressure warrants a release of the pressure.
According to Nakoa, a horse will not raise his head to pressure on the poll unless pressure is not released at the horse’s first lowered reaction. Building on this initial reaction will gradually lower the head to the desired level. Using poll pressure to lower the horse’s head is most effective on horses that are not head shy.
For horses that are head shy, or that have a natural headset that is beyond the reach of the handler, using the halter to lower the head is a better place to start. Slight downward pressure on the halter a the lead attachment, or simply twisting the cheek piece of the halter, will get the same results. Again horses learn from the release. Maintaining pressure, no matter how slight, after the horse begins to lower its head will only cause the opposite reaction. Nakoa emphasizes that the release of pressure on the smallest gesture of the horse to lower its head is what makes progress faster later.
Once the horse is able to maintain this lowered head position, Nakoa begins to slowly move around the horse. Each time the horse raises or redirects his head, Nakoa will return to the horse’s head and immediately work on putting the horse back in the closet. He wants the horse to learn to remain in this mentally safe place, the closet, at any point where the handler moves around him. Nakoa will eventually be able to circle the entire horse in both directions, occasionally rubbing the horse, while the horse remains calm and in the closet.
Regardless of the method used to lower the head, a horse that is truly in the closet mentally will respond to cues to lower his head with the handler standing on either side of his body. The purpose of this exercise is to get the horse to remain in this relaxed, focused state all times while the handler is around him regardless of the motions of the handler. It allows the handler to work around the horse safely without the horse’s head being tied or his feet restrained.
Nakoa finds it effective to put every horse in the closet before riding. The degree of time and effort required to put a horse in the closet effectively reveals much about the horse’s temperament and personality. This can determine in which direction the horse’s training should proceed. Several sessions of consistently putting Nakoa’s principles to use will build a solid , safe foundation for any lessons that may follow.
Spending time around Harry Nakoa is a lesson unto itself. He doesn’t sugar coat his words. When it comes to training horses, he explains what and why- cut and dried. There seems to be a real sense of power in the practicality of his ways.
“If you open your eyes, it opens your mind. If you want to get results you are not currently getting, you have to try things you aren’t currently trying.” According to a student at a recent clinic. “Training horses is a thought process, and watching Harry work will really force you to think about what you are currently doing and evaluate what more might be possible. Putting a horse in the closet mentally is something everyone can accomplish with great results.”
Harry Nakoa is unique. If his heavy Hawaiian accent doesn’t get your attention, his non-traditional training methods will. He uses the most basic of equipment, a halter, a horse, and a long soft cotton lead rope to get the most desired result, a willing and responsive horse. His clinics are unequaled blend of philosophy and foundation that requires his students to examine their own habits and values before trying to impose change on their horses. Judging by the number of repeat students at his clinics, the message is hitting home.
Nakoa is an avid team roper these days. However, his competitive background includes cutting and reined cow horse competitions a the national and international level before returning home to Hawaii to take over the family ranch.
Harry Nakoa lives on Dahana Ranch on the Big Island of Hawai’i. He travels to the mainland approximately four times a year to conduct clinics and seminars and educate even the most talented horsemen on ways of using mental control to get major results with performance horses.
He may be contacted for more information or bookings at Dahana Ranch, Kamuela, HI. (808) 885-0057, or by fax, (808)885-7833, or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org