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Customize young horse training for better results

Seasoned equestrians and novices alike can gain more benefits from customized horse training programs than formula approaches. It’s not just the lost in translation challenge when you try to implement rigid techniques designed by others. You’ll find even more disconnects with rote tactics that assume each horse reacts the same. If you’re not keeping your horse in the conversation, you’re losing opportunities to bond on a much deeper level.

Is it you or your horse that’s stuck?           

If you keep doing the same thing and your horse doesn’t get it, is he dumb or are you? As Albert Einstein quipped ““Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

To be fair, most novices that get stuck really try to do the right thing with their horse by seeking out knowledge from people they believe to be good advisers. I really feel for them. Not surprisingly, they tend to gravitate toward the most heavily publicized and artfully marketed products. Just because a method is popular doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you or your horse. What the promoters fail to disclose – in fact they do the opposite and tend to claim if it didn’t work you did it wrong – is that each horse is different. How they respond to you depends on how you respond to them.

To bring this back to the media for a moment – sex and violence sells (sadly) so this is most of what we see in the news. Today, what seems to be the rage with horse training is the “easy, do-it-yourself kit” that promises your ‘Bucky’ will magically transform to ‘Rover’ if you simply follow the program. Which begs the question – even if that were so, do you really want an obedient horse that blindly does what you tell them or is it better to encourage a horse to think for himself so he can save your butt when you get him into trouble?

Customizing a young horse training program that works

If you’re determined to bring your horse along without help from a competent trainer or instructor, there are some things you can do to make it a more pleasant experience – for you and your horse.

  1. Reward the tries. Any time you’re teaching your horse something new, it’s important to acknowledge the try immediately. If you demand he respond perfectly to your first request, he’s not going to understand what you want and will likely get frustrated.
  2. Get the timing right. Mot novices tend to either bribe the horse too soon with rewards before the horse responds as desired or take too long to reward the horse for effort. The latter often leads to reinforcing an undesired behavior (e.g. the horse comes forward when you want but you congratulate him as he’s backing away from you – so you’re unknowingly teaching him the back is what you want).
  3. Keep lessons short. Two hour drill sessions are rarely effective with young horses – and not too welcome with older ones either. When tackling something new or unfamiliar, strive for 10-15 minutes of training time, tops. End on a good note so you both feel good and can start with the progress you gained the next time.
  4. Don’t rely on a single method. No one is absolutely certain what’s going on in a horse’s mind. You can guess and get it right sometimes, but not always. Plus, every horse is different. Instead of rallying behind a single approach as the only right way to reach every horse, take the time to read, watch and learn what others are doing so you can incorporate a mix of techniques to find what works. There’s merit in every approach (even if it’s learning to never do that again) so it makes sense to be open to what your horse is trying to tell you as you experiment.
  5. Watch what more experienced people do. There’s nothing like seeing it live to help gather understanding for reaching your horse. Books, videos and other at-home resources aren’t the same as seeing what’s going on unedited. There are tons of clinics you can audit for a small fee, lesson stables that will let you watch and even some trainers who welcome the public on certain days to their facility. Ask around to find someone local who’s known for their ability to reach challenging horses. Make a call to see if they’ll let you watch. They might say no, but they might say yes. Imagine how much you could learn.

The next time you blame your horse for misbehaving, consider what you may be doing to cause misunderstandings. Just because a rich guy or a celebrated gal claims they’ve discovered the cure-all for every horse issue they’ve encountered, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Trying to mimic what someone else designs (or copies) is rarely a good way to connect with your particular horse. The best trainers customize their approach to build a responsive rapport with every horse.

If you find yourself challenged with a horse training issue, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I’ll try to help. We also offer on-site assessments (for your horse or one  you’re considering for purchase or adoption) in the Western New York area. Call (585) 554-4612 for more information on our services.

Trouble loading your horse on a trailer?

It’s so much fun when you can reach a horse and human at the same time. Recently, I was asked to come to a client’s aid. Both came away from the experience with a new understanding, a better rapport and all puffed up as a result of what they accomplished independently and then, later, together.

Horse trailer loading trouble solutions
cc license by eXtensionHorses

Fun with a reticent gelding – interpreting horse and human signals to solve loading issues

When you get stuck, you can either keep doing what’s not working or call for help.

The owner of a young gelding that’s only home had been her farm (he was born there) started working on trailer loading for the first time this year. She had started him under saddle but made the decision to send him to Halcyon Acres® to do some polishing and get him steady on the trails.

Things went well, until they didn’t.

I always applaud those wise enough to know when help is warranted. It’s not always something easy to admit, but doing so can transform the relationship you have with your horse almost immediately.

What’s the real horse training issue?

We spent almost an hour and a half addressing and correcting the problems the first day. Actually, the horse loaded without incident on the first several attempts, but changed his tune after we tried to lift the ramp to close him in. This wasn’t a great trailer to be working with, which complicated things a bit, but the bigger challenge was this guy’s habit of backing rapidly without being requested to do so.

Patience and understanding was an appropriate early reaction. Soon it became clear, though, that he was no longer wary, but merely having fun controlling a game he designed.

In conversation with the owner, or perhaps, more importantly, observing the horse, it became clear he had learned that flinging himself backwards at a rapid pace ended a lesson he wasn’t too keen about. So, it’s not surprising he embraced this cool tool that provided a reward.

This was a very smart horse. He also responded gleefully to attention and praise – much more so than the food bribes that had been offered in the past. Sweet by nature, this solid guy wanted to please. He just wasn’t confident enough in people to be comfortable following their lead. He needed to understand that his backing frenzy could cause harm to him or human and was not acceptable.

The training shifted from trailer loading (this wasn’t the real issue) to addressing the backing penchant.

An unusual approach to solve the loading challenge

While it’s rarely appropriate to intensify the pressure to discourage a young horse from bad behavior, in this case, it was. This guy used his bulk in an attempt to mow over the human or fling them off the lead.

We put a chain over his nose to gain some additional leverage. As expected, he didn’t like it. He quickly learned, though, that his actions were merely responded to in kind. We never applied any pressure to the lead in the trailer, but once he was out and trying to fling or knock a human off their feet, pressure was applied. The moment he offered a smidgeon of cooperation, it was released. Timing is critical. The release needs to be immediate. Also note this wasn’t a jerking on the lead action, merely some weight against it. He quickly realized his nose got comfortable the millisecond he stood still.

After that, loading was basically a non-issue. The backing off without request ended too. He’d stand for many minutes as asked then stepped off slowly, one stride at a time as pressure was applied with some fingers to his chest. He glowed and responded with delight as attention was lavished for little attempts and food bribes were eliminated from the mix.

Gleeful owner reports positive trailer loading experience

Several days later I received an ecstatic call from the owner who, after witnessing the schooling session and listening to next step recommendations (give him a few days to process and gloat, no chain, walk on with confidence, immediately recognize tries, use attention vs. food bribes as a reward, etc.) that all went as we discussed – no, even better. Her loading challenges seemed to be history.

It’s always exciting to find eager learners who can process information easily in both horse and human form.

We’ll do another session together before we lock him up in the trailer for a short trip to the Halcyon Acres® facility, but both sessions should be uneventful. This guy really wants to be a good boy, he just didn’t understand.

Why horses resist trailer loading

Every horse is different. Understanding his concerns is the first step to resolving issues. Seeking help when you can’t is critical too. Forcing a horse on a trailer only works once. The damage you do to his psyche with such an approach will cost you big time in the future.

Instead, try to get into their head. You’ll be amazed at how much you may learn when you take the time to try to understand and respond in accommodating ways.

Unfortunately, many professional truckers or so-called seasoned trainers tend to resort to tactics that serve to reinforce a horse’s fear or dislike for the trailer. What’s more important than any tactic you use is getting a quick read on why your horse is being difficult. Usually it comes down to one of three reasons:

  1. He’s afraid. This can be due to unfamiliar trailers, first time introductions or memory issues associated prior bad experiences.
  2. He’s playing you. Some horses (interestingly with trailer issues it tends to be the geldings even though mares tend to present clever facades during under saddle training) offer resistance because it’s a fun game and/or they sense your lack of confidence and take the lead.
  3. You’re sending him the wrong signals. If you face a horse when trying to load him, his tendency is going to be to either stop or back. People who are helping you load also send body signals to the horse that can be problematic. Some don’t like being crowded. Others load better with a person close by to help keep him on the right path. Noticing how he’s reacting to the people involved and how you might be unintentionally asking for undesired behavior is important.

The most important factor in forging the path to better loading experiences is paying attention. This includes recognizing why your horse is responding the way he is, noting what he’s trying to tell you and understanding how what you’re doing is encouraging or discouraging his cooperation.

If you’re in the Western New York area, we can come out with on-sight. If not, consider our e-coaching services. Capture the scene in video, send it along and we’ll work with you providing customized ideas and suggestions through all the challenges. This month we’ve added an introductory e-coaching offer to new clients for one month of support at $65.

Horse temperament trumps just about everything else

There are a lot of people out there with a mission to ‘save a horse.’  Heartstrings pull when they encounter one suffering from poor early experiences with people, a bad attitude, health issues, soundness problems or a free price tag. Do people cause many of these problems? Yes. Is it worth the emotional, financial and time drains associated with trying to bring back an equine with lots of issues? Sometimes it is, but usually not for your average amateur seeking an enjoyable partnership. (more…)

Having fun with horse blogs and video

Popular horse blogs and successful equine industry businesses are incorporating video into their marketing mix. Early this year I set a goal to learn more on this front and make it a regular component of the Horse Sense and Cents blog. I haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate this into the copy writing/marketing site and blog, but I will.

Perhaps a bit behind the times with the normal crowd, but ahead of many in the horse industry, video capture, resource discernment and editing are skills goals I’ve set for mastery this year (OK, probably more like passable familiarity). As result, I’ve been playing with a number of of tools and approaches in a quest to make video a big part of strategic marketing activities in the latter part of this year and more professionally so in years to come. Of course, I’m also looking for ways to entertain those long-standing readers of this blog, as well as others who come to visit seeking free information.

Recently, I discovered It’s free for some stuff, with paid upgrades for more enhanced features. This is best when offering humorous messages (most of us have seen the vet vs. horse owner dialog – I believe this one was created on Xtranormal, but found the process there more challenging with a lot of hidden fees). But, if you can craft something that gets people nodding and smiling with a bit of a marketing message somewhere, it’s a fun way to make a point.

This evening, I took a first stab as I learned how this system works (it’s pretty easy). Here’s what I ‘produced’ in about an hour (the learning curve was a factor here, as was the copy writing – I had no idea where I would go with this when I entered the site so wasn’t working from a script):


FulcrumCom’s Animation by FulcrumCom on GoAnimate

Animated Presentations – Powered by GoAnimate.

Frankly, my plan was to do something hilarious with no marketing aspect to the piece, but I’m not feeling particularly brilliant tonight after an exhausting day and long week. Regardless, I figured a lot of readers could have fun with this resource for personal, business, cause or just plain laughable moments.

Please share in the comments below what you think of this video, links to films you’ve created with this tool and ideas for a future commentary that could be fun for all. Give me an idea and I’d be happy to run with it. After 43 years of riding, with a good chunk of that time witnessing some of the stranger than fiction things that go on in the horse industry, I have a lot to draw from.

Thanks for being such a great group of devoted readers!

Young horse training turns to older mounts

This month, we put a bunch of horses back into training at Halcyon Acres®. While our primary focus is young horse training for clients, it’s been an absolutely delightful experience hopping aboard the farm broodmares.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you a good temperament isn’t a critical quality in selecting a horse. It breeds through. Riding equines with a willing attitude is always a pleasure. New experiences are invigorating instead of riddled with angst. Time around these special creatures is always pure joy.

Midge has been our primary Irish Draught Sport Horse producer. She has decent bloodlines, is very correct, full of heart, loves to train, is game for anything new or different and her lovely head breeds through to all her foals.

I actually purchased Midge as a lead pony for client horses coming into the farm. She was so much fun to ride, gutsy, clever and had a calm energy that made her an ideal candidate. My go-to gal was getting older (some of you may remember Porky). She was asking for a person that was all hers I needed to respect her wishes.

Anyway, after spending so many years with Porky as my savior (the most amazing lead pony I’ve ever encountered), I came to recognize the beauty of small mares with young Thoroughbred client horses. Tall geldings aren’t good at smartly schooling cocky colts, usually have no heart and can intimidate the youngsters with their size.

Midge didn’t wind up being a lead pony for reasons that weren’t her fault, but instead, has spent more than half her life being a mom.

Up, Up and Away on an alpha mare with years off

My intent was to spend a few days getting Midge used to wearing tack again before adding a rider to the mix. Midge didn’t feel this was necessary.

You never know with certainty how a horse is going to react after a long hiatus. This mare really liked her recent job as mom. I wasn’t sure if she’d still be so enthusiastic about being ridden. Her nature hadn’t changed a bit – nor her aptitude. It was as though she hadn’t missed a day of riding, let alone seven years.

I gave her a few quick days at the walk and then felt she was ready (OK – it was really me – she was game from the start) to do more. The memories came flooding back about why I found this little mare so special. I had approached the owner the first time I rode her indicating I wanted to buy her when he was ready to sell.

Midge was the horse I dreamed of as a kid. Riding time was her favorite thing. Her gates were fun. Talk about cornering – she could turn on a dime at any speed. Temperament and smarts made her a standout.

This is my vet (she’s wonderful in so many ways) aboard Midge for the first time:

Starting a horse back after time off

Don’t do what I did with Midge. Yes, it harkens back to parental hypocrisy, I know, but seriously, it’s a rare horse that can handle jumping right back into a riding routine without creating big problems. Midge has always been a tough little gal that’s unfazed by stupid and unfair human behavior, stays naturally fit and balanced, is close-coupled enough to be able to handle a rider easier than most and seems to be indestructible, but she’s a rare find.

  1. If your horse has been off for a long time, particularly if this is due to injury, start with ground work. Liberty training or long lining is best, but if you must lunge or round pen, keep the sessions short, the equipment non-restricting and the pace slow. You can introduce him to full tack at this time.
  2. Engage a ground person or a watcher with a cell phone for your first few rides. Even if it’s just to keep you relaxed, having someone there in case your horse reacts strangely to unfamiliar weight and requests will make you more comfortable (and him too, as a result).
  3. Be careful the first time you hop aboard. Use a mounting block, leg up or lowered stirrup so you don’t put undue stress and twisting on his spine. Belly over to start just to make sure he’s not going to freak out with weight aboard.
  4. Stay at the walk for the first week or two – preferably on hills and trails – to begin to help the horse get balanced, stretched and muscled up. This will help avoid injury and build confidence for both of you.
  5. Spend time giving the horse attention before and after you ride. Most horses will appreciate riding time more if you bookend the experience with kind grooming, bonding and caring periods.
  6. Once you begin arena work, use circles, serpentines and other activities that provide regular change in direction.
  7. Listen to your horse. If he’s refusing, objecting, pinning ears, swooshing his tail, fighting the turn on the barn side or offering other behavior that seems sour, he’s probably hurting or confused. Shorten your ride time or change activities and seek a quick happy win for both of you.
  8. Stop training if your horse is lame.
  9. Know your horse. We have one mare here that is off about every third day. Some days she’s sound but sore. She tells us how she’s feeling. Often, when she’s uneven, she still wants to train. We’ll give her a quick goal to accomplish and that makes her happy. On the days when she asks to stop, we quit immediately – even if she seems 100%. This gal is a super pleaser that knows we’re listening.
  10. Be careful how much seat, hand or leg pressure you apply. Your unfit and sensitive horse is likely to object to aids you’re accustomed to applying to a fit horse used to harder rider cues.
  11. Hold off on canter until your horse is balanced, comfortable and responsive at the walk and trot.
  12. Keep the ride time short for the first month or so (10-30 minutes).
  13. Give your horse tons of praise for doing what you ask. If you introduce him to starting back in a way that makes him proud to please, he’ll strive to do more.

Yes, this is common sense, but it’s amazing how few apply it. If you’ve ever broken a leg back or neck that’s required bed rest or have torn a tendon or ligament, you know how difficult and frustrating it is to get back to just being able to do normal things. A horse needs time to adjust and condition for a rider’s weight after time off. Take it slow and you’ll likely find a happier, sounder and more willing horse as a result. Of course, this applies to young horse training too – perhaps moreso.

If you know of anyone looking for a suitable horse, we have a number of quality equines for sale. I’d appreciate it so much if any of you could spread the word. We’ll be updating our You Tube channel and our Halcyon Acres® website in the coming weeks to spotlight some of these special kids. Good homes are a must. Equally important is the right fit. Full-disclosure will be a staple on my end – including horse’s faults and proclivities. I’m also quick to note if I don’t think a horse will be a good fit for a rider or career choice. Please help spread the word. Thanks!

Horse happenings at Halcyon Acres®

It’s been a crazy month at Halcyon Acres®. We spent much of it struggling to get temporary water to the house, trucking it in to the farm and figuring out a fix. Last week we were finally able to get an available backhoe in here to dig a new water line. Might sound like a simple task, but wasn’t.

Diagnosing the problem took a while. First, we suspected the well was dry (we’ve been dealing with horrible drought conditions here). Seemed odd given the super producing underground stream, but I can’t recall a time when we’ve had so little rain fall coupled with high heat.

It wasn’t the well. Good news on the biggest problem front, but not so much on the ‘when will water flow’ question. Ultimately, we determined it the line.

By the end of the week a temporary fix was rigged. The problem was, we were asking a pump that was already working pretty hard to draw a longer distance and up an extra five feet of height. Holding the prime became a challenge. It was enough water to brush teeth, flush toilets, wash dishes and take rapid showers – all spaced throughout the day to put as little stress on the pump as possible – but we’ve been trucking water in for everything else.

The backhoe was a bigger challenge. The narrow, steep terrain, shale (and a foundation, as it turned out) and mud (getting to the well required digging through this productive underground stream) required a gutsy yet agile machine.

Seventy-five percent of the organic produce crop is gone. We had to resort to some insecticide treatment in the end.

The rain dances have paid off and water is flowing again at the farm.

Funny, I never realized how much I depended on water for most waking moments of my life. Now I do. It’s wonderful to find a new appreciation for something most of us take for granted.

Young horse training help found

Good kids horse for sale
Sweet Dixie charmed her rider who was aboard her for the first time.

This past month marked the hire of an assistant trainer. It took a while to find someone qualified. Many applicants had been riding a long time, but didn’t know how to do much more than be a passenger. Ultimately, we settled on a gal who was kind with the crew, had enough experience to be able to work with some of the greener horses and could operate independently. She set the compensation rate and her hours. She loved the horses, was awed by the beauty of the property and enjoyed the job. She pulled a no-show after a week’s time and later quit via an e-mail message claiming time constraints.

My wonderful vet stepped up and offered to lend a hand. This week we videotaped some of the kid-friendly stock under saddle and captured a bunch of conformation shots of others. Advertising will commence in the coming weeks.

I was also put back in touch with a lovely young rider/trainer in South Carolina. Some of the horses will be shipping down there for polishing and rehoming.

Remi’s stepped up and is trying to lend a bit of a hand with the horses in Gatsby’s absence. None of the horses have taken on Redford’s role.

Horse life on the farm

Crooked (she’s not any more – probably should come up with a new nickname) continues to grow and show how clever she is. She’s probably close to 15.3hh at only a year old and has a lot more growing to do. Her new game is to eat grass only on the outside of the fence. We’ve been doing a lot of work around here so the fence has been off. She knows it.

fun kids horse for sale
Cute little Midge is so much fun. You can see how intense she is in this shot.

Einstein has a different approach. He’s a jumper. Of course, he can’t seem to figure out he can get back in the same way he left. At least once a week I hear thundering hoofs and screaming through my office window. Fortunately, he knows where the primary entry spot is so it’s a merely matter of calling him and swinging open the gate, then watching him whoosh down the hill, corner the ninety degree turn at 35 mph and gallop full speed to the herd hollering all the way.

Midge hasn’t lost her spark. She’s loving being back in training. Riding her again is bringing back the old memories on what attracted me so much to this delightful mare. It’s so funny to witness her energy, enthusiasm and stamina. She’s game for anything, handy as can be and always ready to go, go, go. You can feel her smiling through every request and especially the new challenges.

Dixie is a gem. She was one of our video-taping projects. My vet couldn’t get over how sweet she was. This is another gal that was put back into training after a long hiatus. I forgot she’d never been ridden at the farm. She handled mounting with a stirrup and the trails like an old pro.

On the young horse training front, Judie’s old-soul mentality makes her one of the steadiest and easier horses on the trails. She seems to enjoy quiet rides alone. She comes running when she’s called and relishes her individual attention. As one that’s relatively low in the herd ranks, she appreciates a new routine that has her in the barn during the day. Clover and Leah are back in training too – both sharp little gals who pretty much started back right where we left off last year.

The herd’s starting to segregate. They were running as a band together until recently. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics. Sometimes you can learn more about a horse by watching how they interact with other equines than you can through direct contact.

Hope you all are enjoying the seasons and the horses that make them so interesting.

Gatsby spent one life too many

There’s an emptiness in my heart that I’m not sure will ever be fully refilled. I was prepared for this –but I wasn’t. At fifteen (ancient for a dog his size – 85-90 pounds for most of his life), Gatsby had lived long and happy. Still, it seems surreal to be going through the motions around here without him. My favorite little man has been my loyal and forgiving friend, security stalwart, varmint eradicator, best ever assistant horse trainer, 911 fallback, constant companion and blissful steadying force going back to last century.

Dog and cat getting along
Pillsbury (the cat) was extremely fond of Gatsby. The two palled around the farm for 15 years together.

It was a heartbreaking experience to see this fighter loose the spark in his eye and wag in his tail on Wednesday. We euthanized him at the farm, his lifelong home, on Thursday. The place just isn’t the same without him.

For all the ‘lucky to have had him in your life,’ ‘he lived a good life,’ ‘he’s in a better place’ and ‘it was his time’ comments, it doesn’t lessen the pain.

This dog knew me better than most people do. He’s been my protector, eager and intuitive farm hand and rock through some of the toughest years in my life. How do you fill that void?

Determined and stubborn to the end

My vet’s described Gatsby as cat-like for years. She doesn’t know the half of it (I was lucky to find her about five years ago). He’d probably already used up more than nine lives before she came on the scene, and many more since then.

There have been a lot of times in the past nine months or so I thought it was over – starting with the October WHIN Conference in Tennessee where I pushed up speaking commitments to rush back home after he fell down the stairs. It’s been a roller-coaster ride over the recent months of vet calls figuring it was time. But Gatsby always ultimately said no. This week, he said yes.

In typical Gatsby fashion, it took close to an hour for the multiple heart injections to stop his breathing and heartbeat. Fortunately, I was blessed with the kindness, comfort and understanding of a vet willing to come out to the property for this. One I’ve come to call friend.

The horses freaked out as I gathered tools and waited for a friend to arrive to help. Remi (we both decided to give up on making her a working farm dog at about a year ago) didn’t seem to notice or care at the time, but seems to be mourning his loss now.

Gatsby’s now buried in a place I think he would have appreciated – with a view of the horses and pastures, the house, my office, the barn and the trail head that served as the launch to his playground for so many years.

Oh, the memories!   

gatsby the dog
Gatsby stayed pretty spry for most of his life. There wasn’t a road trip we made together where toll collectors and drive-through servers didn’t exclaim – ‘Spuds MacKenzie’ or ‘The RCA dog’ or ‘Petey’ with the older set. He insisted riding shotgun and his head towered over mine in the passenger seat.

Gatsby came into my life shortly after my ex-husband left. He’s been my rock for fifteen years – and a huge helper around the farm.

This dog grabbed me when I visited the Rochester City Pound. As all others were barking fiercely and nervously at the cage doors, Gatsby rolled on his back, wagged his tail and offered his belly to scratch (of course I couldn’t reach it through the bars) before he greeted me with a calm and happy demeanor. He’d been running the city streets for months (the skin had grown around the collar on his neck) and still had a joy for life that was uncanny.

It was clear he had been tied and tormented, but that didn’t seem to have any impact on his zest for life and joy for living. Trying to do the right thing, I set up a long run for him where he could be outside but safe from the road and wildlife while I was busy doing chores. He always managed to free himself the moment I left his sight. After different collar configurations, a full harness and all sorts of other ideas to secure him, I finally witnessed how he did it. He’d back up until the line was taut, run at full speed toward the other end, then send himself ten feet into the air as he reached the other side with such force his airborne state ripped the collar or harness off. I never tried to restrict his freedom again.

Gatsby came to learn the property lines (it took a while to teach him to stay off the street) and forged a three-inch trench that represented his patrol route around the perimeter. Ultimately, the only time he’d cross the street was to get help if I was in trouble. All the neighbors knew this. So, I never felt like I was alone or without help when riding the trails, running farm equipment or doing dangerous work on the property. Forget about intruder threats.

Gatsby never seemed loyal to the casual observer, but anyone approaching the property knew exactly where I was by noting where he was planted. His devotion wasn’t the racing to greet you, helicopter tail, face licking kind of display – it was much deeper.

dog couch potatoes
Spoiled? Perhaps, but Gatsby earned a few privileges over the years (he didn’t always have them) with all the hard work he did around the farm. Plus, his example through the constant state of bliss he carried with him probably saved me a ton in possible shrink bills. Remi (on the left) has adopted an ‘if he can than I can’ attitude, so there’s not much point in expecting her to earn rights. She’s 65 pounds, by the way – Gatsby’s a big dog.

He eradicated the entire ground hog population on the property. We filled in over 200 holes of gone gophers prior to a recent 26-acre fencing project. Gatsby also encouraged a huge coyote population to find a better place to live. Raccoons were his play toys. He’d carry them home, chase them up a tree, then run up behind them and bring them back down. Besides a scar across his nose (I don’t imagine this aggressor fared well after that move), he managed to have his fun without getting hurt. Still used to put my heart in my throat to witness this, but it wouldn’t have been very wise to put myself between Gatsby and a coon (there were some things that just weren’t negotiable with Gatsby – meals he secured were his or else).

What a character!    

When I called Gatsby to come, he’d give me a look and either decide to amble over to me at a slower than normal pace or merely turn his head to acknowledge he heard and is now ignoring. He ultimately became stone deaf, but it was hard to figure out when selective hearing ended. Ultimately, I added hand signals to the mix, but still got ‘the look’ periodically.

His instincts with the horses were amazing. For more than a decade I felt safer with him along on the ride than any person/equine combination I could have conjured. He knew exactly what to do to bolster a young horse’s confidence, was artful at patiently desensitizing for career demands and quick to take the lead when a tentative mount needed to be encouraged over or past something scary. He had an incredibly calming effect on any horse not only during training time, but also during vet emergencies.

Gatsby with my dad
This photo was taken last month during my dad’s visit. Even with his hind end giving out and weight loss challenges (cancer), he remained a happy-go-lucky guy – and happy as ever to have my father here.

Gatsby loved my dad more than anyone in the world. When I’d tell Gatsby he was coming (my father lives out of state) Gatsby would bounce, spin, squeal and keep looking down the driveway with the eagerness of a child just given money for the ice cream man. When my dad left (Gatsby always knew when he was getting ready to head back home – no idea how) it was without a goodbye. Gatsby would hide. Seems he figured if my dad couldn’t offer proper adieu, he wouldn’t leave. Then he’d sulk for hours after his departure.

I had to teach Gatsby how to bark. Actually, I’m sure he already knew how, but wouldn’t. He probably learned at a young age it was easier to skirt the dog catcher with silence. Anyway, I’d lavish him with praise for every little muffled woof he’d offer when a stranger approached. Eventually he learned to signal unknown company, but rarely barked otherwise – except when hunting ground hogs. For that, he’d stand atop a hole and bark incessantly until the critter popped his head out to strike an annoyed blow. Gatsby was quicker.

Goodbye Gatsby

Gatsby touched a lot of people in his life – especially me. He was also a trusted and appreciated teacher to hundreds of equines over the years. There wasn’t a vendor, friend, business associate or other visitor that didn’t develop a fondness for this guy – except for maybe my mailman (apparently he tried to put a package inside the screen door one day when I wasn’t home). Vendors even came to bring their dogs along for a romp because they knew Gatsby would keep them safe. There was just something special about him that everyone picked up on.

gatsby on couch
Goodbye, Gatsby.

Gatsby wasn’t in pain. In fact, he handled increasing physical disabilities comfortably and without complaint. He simply decided he had enough. I’d never seen this determined, stubborn dog give up. Now I have. That hurts.

Horse leadership doesn’t work well when you demand respect

Young horse training is an art that works best when you cast aside the lesson plan and listen to your horse. Often a horse that’s labeled spooky or timid or uncooperative or afraid isn’t. They’ve been taught to react this way by the humans who have touched them. Yes, horses are naturally flight animals (although our eight-year-old Thoroughbred farmhand Cowboy would beg to differ on this point), but there’s nothing natural about riding and the way horses are introduced to this activity – or treated as seasoned mounts – will affect how they handle each new request.

Creating confidence with young horse training

keeping it fun for the horse with young horse training
Hills on trails are a great way to build young horse confidence, balance and an eagerness for training challenges.C

I always try to help the young horses that come in here to be brave. Beating them past an object that concerns them isn’t going to make this so. It just adds more fear and pain to existing fright that’s likely to cause them to react more dramatically the next time something scary catches their eye. Yet, if you quietly encourage a horse to proceed while giving him time to process the sight, he’ll want to show you how courageous he can be the next time.  Of course, if you’re timid or alarmed or tense or even shaking, the horse will pick up on this, so it’s important, if your goal is to help a horse get gutsy about new situations, that you are confident, relaxed, encouraging and clear.

One of the best approaches to building confidence in young horses (or taking a little bit of the cockiness out of a pugnacious one) is with hills. Obviously, you don’t want to tackle a cliff your first day out, but when young horse training is geared toward building confidence and a partnership, there’s nothing like a hill to improve balance, help the horse learn how to carry himself (and you) properly and encourage the horse to look to you for some guidance in maneuvering through difficult terrain. Plus it provides the added benefit of legging up a horse at slow speeds with low stress on young bodies.

It’s remarkable to witness the glee a tentative horse shows after successfully handling a difficult downhill slope. What’s incredible is that finishing this feat also tends to reduce spookiness and hesitation with all other issues encountered on the trail afterward. They know they did it and are grateful for your help – and confidence in them.

Trails are the best for starting horses under saddle

Horse trail riding for training young horses
Trail rides are a super way to help horses learn how brave they can be

Trails in general are a great way to start young horses under saddle. We’re fortunate at Halcyon Acres® to have a laneway that’s lined with cherry trees on about a ½ mile gentle slope at the start of the trail head (up heading out and down coming home). It’s straight so you can see if there are deer or other wildlife ahead long before you reach them. Behind that hill is a steep slope down that requires the horse to depend on the rider to navigate the trail without getting into trouble (there’s a bit of a cliff to the left). This second hill is a major milestone for young horses. Of course, we could ride the perimeter of fields and stay on relative easy rides, but these challenges help the horse gain confidence in himself. It’s so much more fun to ride out on a horse that’s eager to see new things and tackle new challenges than one that’s wondering what’s going to eat him next.

If you’re wondering what to do to start off on the right hoof, here are some quick tips on young horse training to consider as you begin to ride out. You can also find ten tips on keeping horse training a happy event for you both. Try some of these ideas if you’re struggling with a spooky horse.

 What are you doing to reach your horse on his terms?

I laugh when I hear the term ‘teach a horse respect.’ Really? I’ve always considered respect as something that’s earned. Sure, you can teach a horse to fear or obey you, but discipline isn’t going to build trust, which is generally a precursor to respect where horses are concerned.  There are times when a correction is necessary, but with young horse training, it’s rarely when you’re on their backs. You won’t get a partnership with a horse where he’s looking out for you as much as you are for him if you rule by intimidation or force. The most reactive horse, however, can become a trusted and steady mount if you encourage his confidence and demonstrate you’ll keep him safe. Building that kind of rapport is what true leadership with horses.

Why are the horses we remember most fondly so devilish?

Mouse was my first horse (short for Anonymous – probably because no one wanted to admit knowledge of this horse’s history). I bought him at the age of ten with paper route money and a generous birthday check from my parents. We didn’t engage a trainer or instructor to help us make the buy decision. He was the first we looked at and I fell in love immediately.  Did I mention he was black (OK – a really dark bay, but to a kid at the time enamored with The Black Stallion, black was it).

This is how I felt some days on Mouse. Photo courtesy of tpower1987 via flickr

Neither of my parents were riders, but they had watched and listened during my five years of lessons and served as the eyes on the ground in support of the purchase. It took some doing to find a stable that would take on a five-year-old kid (insurance required a minimum age of six for instructional coverage), but they were looking to shut me up and figured an eight-week lesson program would end my horse craze. They were wrong

Anyway, I don’t recall how we found Mouse, but he was housed at a very impressive looking facility and handily displayed (and drugged) for under saddle work that I watched, and then experienced aboard. I was in a total state of bliss as I expertly maneuvered this beautiful steed through instructions provided by the seller. Did I mention he was black?

Childhood horses remembered

Ultimately, I was banned from Pony Club games, and when that didn’t work, forbidden from riding Mouse at the facility where he was boarded (across the street from the primary Pony Club riding spot). With huge objections lodged and arguments lost, I finally agreed to let go of the love of my life with the promise of a more suitable mount replacement. We donated him to a very prestigious riding school (hehehheh).

Still, Mouse is one of my favorite horses ever. I trusted him to take care of me – and he did. He’d run off during our conditioning training mile loops with Pony Club parents thinking a mere 150 pound obstacle waiving arms in his path would slow him down.  He would ultimately tire. Mouse got crazy at times, but so did I. He’d dump me occasionally when his mind went somewhere into outer space, but never meant to hurt me.

We replaced Mouse with Bittersweet, a wonderful chestnut pony that had a heart of gold, an outstanding foundation and tons of miles as an able competitor. I loved her too, keeping her for way more years than I should have once outgrown. My excuse was my sister needed a pony. My sister had no interest in riding. Last I heard, Bittersweet was field hunting well into her 30s and had been passed from one delighted Pony Clubber to another over the years. It was fun being able to participate in so many activities not possible with Mouse, but his character was indelibly etched in my mind with the fondest memories calling for him often.

Roscommon (yes – he really came with that name – very fitting) had a stride shorter than mine, but he could jump. He was a stocky bay mutt that could get very unruly in flat classes to the point of being excused. I discovered the joys of eventing with this childhood mount and had a blast with a horse that was likely to go clean cross country and stadium if we only managed to get through the dressage phase without being eliminated.

Ross couldn’t swim but he sure tried. Photo courtesy of Mangrove Mountain Photography Club via flickr.

As kids, we had access to many hundreds of acres to disappear into for rides that often lasted the whole day. About 80 acres were owned by the parents of my riding companions. The rest by farmers who were happy to let us enjoy the land provided we stayed off their crops. This was before the days of litigation fears that tend to prompt a necessary no trespassing policy by all now. One of my favorite activities was swimming. Ross couldn’t swim. But, he’d happily go into the water way over his head when asked. We’d all laugh as he’d touch bottom then launch himself to the surface in a rearing motion – each stride across our swim spots. I learned to remove my saddle before taking Ross in the water.

My last childhood horse was a lovely Thoroughbred mare that had spent many years as seasoned winning show competitor at high levels. I don’t remember much about her except she seemed to be lame most of the time and her nice demeanor was the extent of her personality.

Reaching the hard horse

Over the years since, I’ve worked with thousands of horses – probably tens of thousands if you include racetrack mounts.  It’s the difficult ones I remember most fondly. There’s something about that delightful moment when a horse transforms from a confused, dangerous or resistant combatant into a grateful peer. That awakening when he decides you’re a friend to be trusted, appreciated and part of a team is incredible. It’s an amazing experience to be a part of this sudden connection that completely changes you interactions from that day forward. These are the horses that will give you more than you ever imagined. Not just in keeping you safe and through performance benchmarks – but with the memories of their quirky and comical character.

Do you have a favorite horse memory? Please share in the comments below.


Is keeping the horse you love a struggle?

Horses aren’t just tools – they’re friends. Photo courtesy of Gesina Smith via Flickr

It can be heartbreaking to look at a horse you envisioned as a family member, companion and partner for life as an expense you can no longer afford. ‘Buyer’s market’ is a mantra we’ve been hearing in the equine industry for too many years. When that translates to needing to find a new home for a trusted friend that’s been your spiritual rock, recreation and health club combined, there’s more to consider than the money of the matter.

Fortunately, if you’re willing to be creative, you can find solutions that may allow you to keep your trusted steed healthy, happy and home or at least ensure his life without you in it will be a good one.

Know you’re not alone in the challenge to make ends meet while having a horse around the house. In fact, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis, Americans pay more in taxes than for food, clothing and shelter. In 2012, we’ll pay approximately $4.041 trillion in taxes, which is $152 billion, or 3.9 percent, more than we’ll spend on housing, food and clothing combined.

Not to get into a political discussion here, but what’s scarier is the transfer payments (basically monies allocated through taxes that are given to citizens to pay for housing, food, clothing, health care and transportation). In 1929, the percentage was .05 percent. When Medicare began (1965) it grew to 11 percent. Now, it’s close to 35%. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate that a growing number of people in this country are depending on others to pay their way. For whatever reason this is happening, with so many unable to even care for themselves, it’s no wonder more are labeling horses a luxury they can’t afford.

But horses aren’t just recreational vehicles to be sold off as commodities when times are tough. They’re pets and partners representing ‘me time,’ emotional bonds, spiritual enrichment, psychological stabilizers and confidants. Before you decide you can’t afford a horse anymore, consider the real costs – and try to get creative about how you may be able to hold on.

In your decision to sell have you considered:

  • What you’ll do to replace the mind calming components of your horse relationship (or the toll of not having an equivalent outlet)?
  • Do you have another source for the affection and connection that comes from your horse?
  • How will you replace the physical fitness and connection to nature components of your horse time?
  • Will saying goodbye to your horse rob you of the only personal time you have?
  • Are you ready to deal with the stress of wondering where your horse lands during his life and how he’s doing? If you’re firm about selling, save yourself the misery of looking up the horse later unless you have a buy-back agreement.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways you can reduce, share or cover the costs of owning a horse. The possibilities are as vast as the ideas you can entertain. It’s not necessary to sacrifice if you’re willing to work a little more or make concessions that allow you to continue to spend time with your horse for less.

Saying goodbye is heartbreaking. It’s not always necessary. Photo courtesy of Tricia Hope via Flickr.

Here are options for getting creative about solutions to keep your horse:

  • Look at alternative, less expensive and often more effective feed programs that include quality pasture forage
  • Explore barefoot as an alternative to shoeing
  • Do bi-annual fecals instead of following a regimented worming approach
  • If you board, see if there are jobs you can do (mucking stalls, turn-out, fence repair, cleaning tack, etc.) around the facility to help reduce your monthly fees
  • Approach other horse facilities to inquire about board in exchange for work if it’s not something you can do where you are
  • If your horse is home, adding more fencing and outdoor shelter can decrease feed and bedding costs
  • Defray costs by offering a friend ride time in exchange for splitting care costs (with a contract vetted by an attorney that addresses liability)
  • Seek out a co-leaser that shares board and other costs of care (insurance is a factor here)
  • Sell the horse to someone close, who you trust willing to let you continue a relationship with the horse (this may involve a discounted sale price or a monthly lease fee – or, just a kind soul who gets it)
  • Craft a sale agreement that includes a for-life home and/or first option buy-back offer
  • Create a bank account where you put all money usually spent at retail outlets on coffee, fast food, bought lunches, lottery tickets, prepared meals, entertainment, restaurant meals and other items that are impulse buys or part of your routine and make your own or go without

Before you cast off your horse with the conviction he’s costing you too much, consider what you’ll lose when he’s gone. Money isn’t the only factor in the equation. If he’s not the right horse for you – or you’re not the right person for him – that’s a different story. But, if you have a horse that’s been your partner, your biggest enjoyment in life, your only exercise and/or your rock, the price of losing this lifeblood is a lot higher than the savings you’ll see by eliminating what you’re shelling out to keep him. If he’s really important in your life, take the time to get creative with answers to keep you both happy. Sometimes selfish is good.

Have you ever sold a horse and continue to regret the decision? Are you challenged right now with an equine you feel you can’t afford to keep? Please share in the comments below. You’ll certainly get some kindred souls sharing your pain and might even find the ideal answer to your challenge from blog readers.