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Alpha Mares

Young Horse Training Tip #2: Keep Lessons Short

Try it. Give it a few weeks, or even better, a couple of months. You’ll be shocked at how quickly your young horse surpasses the neighbor’s project being drilled for hours a day. It may not make sense to you, nor be the norm at the training facility down the road, but it works.

Young horses can’t process much more than 15 minutes of new stuff in any given session. Your goal shouldn’t be to load a month’s worth of training into the first few days. You’ll brag about your horse’s first-week’s progress then wonder why he sours to training before you hit the 30 day mark.

Think long-term as you try to justify drill-sessions that leave you and your horse frustrated about ending on a bad note (or exhausted after fighting for the win – you’ll pay for that tomorrow).

Training should be fun for both of you.

If you don’t make it easy for your horse to understand what you want, he’ll stop trying.

Young Horse Training quick tip#2. Find one  every day on the Horse Sense and Cents Pinterest board or expanded bi-weekly at http://HorseSenseAndCents.comMore importantly, give him a chance to do it right (one thing is enough for young minds – then quit).

Young horses tend to get very excited when they learn something new that pleases you. It’s important to offer praise immediately (what this is will depend on your horse – food treats are not a good reward for young horses – see Young Horse Training Tip Seven for more on this).

If you adopt a totally disciplinary approach to training, your horse will come to resent training or, worse, shut down his mind to docilely follow your commands. That’s not a good horse to trust to get you out of trouble. Consider, instead, offering acknowledgement for the tries for faster and long-lasting results than what punishment for bad acts will bring.

Stern horse handling has its place

That’s not to say there aren’t times when it’s appropriate to be swift and firm with a correction. You’ll see this done in the herd all the time. It’s rarely necessary during training time, though, with a horse that’s been handled properly prior to saddling up. If you’re dealing with aggressive behavior, consider going back to ground work (your horse needs a better foundation).

Even ground work should be brief, but there are times when it can’t be. As an example, we had a two-year-old filly ship into the farm that unloaded from the trailer, proceed to mow down the person leading her to barn then happily ran loose, celebrating her triumph.

The owners laughed, noting she did that all the time at home. While there are few, some rules are firm at Halcyon Acres®. Basic manners are among them. That was the last time she went outside before learning to lead politely.

It took two hours in sweltering heat and stifling humidity the following day before she decided to accept what she already knew as proper behavior. This gal was a very strong alpha and had become extremely dangerous having learned her size (she was big) permitted her to be a belligerent bully.

All that was asked (we did add some equipment to get control but the only time pressure occurred was when she created it) was for her to wait to exit the barn until invited to do so. She threw tantrums rivaling the most determined terrible two-year-old child.

Backing at break-neck speed, rearing, striking, charging and attacking were in her arsenal. She wound through the barn isles, up and down steps backwards, into the shavings bin (we had a large area inside downstairs to deposit sawdust from upstairs), around stalls, into the rafters (those low barn ceilings provide a wonderful deterrent for manipulative flippers) and through obstacles not strong enough to withstand her force. The entire process involved quiet and calm insistence, but no aggression (from the human – the horse was quite another story).

Eventually (she was literally dripping wet), she understood. We never had a problem leading this mare again.

Of course, that’s an unusual situation and one a novice should never try to undertake. The point is, sometimes, finishing a lesson requires longer than ideal. It’s a rarity, though, if you’re working with a horse that hasn’t been taught by some other human to act out in dangerous ways.

If your project starts as a foal, make sure you set some fair limits early. It’s a lot tougher when they get big (in this mare’s case, she was over 16hh already, agile, strong and unruly). It’s not funny to have more than 1000 lbs. trampling over the top of you because someone else found this cute when they were littler.

Why drill young horse?

You’re probably wondering why you should adopt a short lesson approach to training your young horse when so many training stables start young horses under saddle with hour-long sessions from day one.

Understand, people paying for the service wouldn’t likely feel the fee is justified if riding time was limited to fifteen minutes – or five. This is a lucrative aspect of most equine establishments. Keeping the owners happy often supersedes horse sense. Sadly, this approach tends to produce quick short-term results with lingering long-term problems.

When owners can come out and watch their young horses doing an hour’s worth of work, they see the investment justified. Most aren’t knowledgeable horsemen (otherwise they’d be doing the work themselves). They don’t realize a juvenile equine mind can’t absorb as much as their older kin. Nor do they recognize conditioning growing bodies with long drills will do more harm than good.

With a little bit of knowledge (some say this can be a dangerous thing), owners put demands on facility owners based on what they think should be right. Facility owners put pressure on trainers to ensure the revenue keeps coming in from repeat clients. This means incorporating expectations into training regimens. Or, they don’t think much and simply do what most others are doing.

What’s a good young horse training alternative?

For both engaging young equine minds with short rides and conditioning in a safe way, hills and trails are fantastic. You can spend five or ten minutes for the first week or two (you’ll spend additional time on the ground prior to heading out) traversing a trail head with a clear boarder. Even if you just go 100 yards, that’s fine. Keep it simple and feel safe so both of you come back home feeling accomplished.

Once you put a bit of a mouth on a horse (stop, turn – this can be done on the ground first with long lines) and you get enough response to the leg so your horse understands move forward and how yield as a backup for steering, it’s likely the trails will be a much better place to keep you both happy than an arena or worse, a round pen.

Trails are great for engaging a young horse’s mind. They also offer a challenge he can feel proud about accomplishing. Add hills and you can put a great bottom on a horse doing only walk and trot.

The other great thing about working a young horse on the trails is you can let the horse decide when he’s comfortable trotting or cantering while carrying your weight. Forcing this in an arena makes it much tougher. On the trails, a horse will naturally ask to progress into a faster gait the moment he feels ready. If you’re not, pull them back after you let them enjoy a few strides, but let them try and don’t punish them for the growing confidence they’re feeling by slamming them in the mouth.

Spend five to fifteen minutes a day (every other day) as you start your young horse under saddle. Focus on a single, easy new task and you’ll be amazed how quickly your mount gets eager to learn something new to please you. Reward him for the tries so he understands what you want. Keep things interesting so he doesn’t get bored (or sore or sour) doing circles in an arena.

That horse you spent a total of 4-8 hours training under saddle last month compared to your neighbors 30-60+ will make you look brilliant by month two and three with how much faster he progresses.

Teach your horse to get excited about training time and he’ll surprise you with how smart, brave and eager he is to figure out what you want. That’s a much better horse to have than the one that hates training, distrusts humans and complies with servitude or launches initial resistance. The foundation you build with your young horse will last a lifetime. Make it short to make a lasting happy partnership.

Are you listening to what your alpha horse is trying to tell you?

Even with alpha fillies and mares, there’s usually a good reason for an animated objection to a request. It’s rarely because they’re being belligerent. Before you jump to correct a horse for bad behavior, consider what your alpha horse is trying to tell you. If it’s a fair response, let it go and move on. Effective young horse training, assuming your goal is to develop a horse that trusts you and enjoys schooling sessions, requires you to keep the horse in the conversation.

This weekend, I was working with a couple of alpha gals.

Arab mare with an attitude

This young Arab mare was resisting the right rein a bit dramatically. This isn’t behavior I’ve seen from her before. She’s willful and opinionated, but has always been comfortable with a bit in her mouth and responsive to light hand cues. Anything else I asked of her was met with an impressive attempt to understand and deliver. There are times when it’s necessary to say no in a clear and commanding fashion. This wasn’t one of them.

There were good clues to suggest her reaction wasn’t combative. She responded willingly to all other aids. Working the left rein wasn’t an issue. Her attitude was kind, forward and eager until I put pressure on the right rein. She seemed relieved and appreciative when I went to strong leg cues for turns and left her mouth alone (ordinarily this mare would clearly communicate her annoyance to too much leg pressure). She was totally focused on me throughout the time we spent together.

The owner is going to have her teeth checked to either confirm my suspicion, or discount it. Regardless, something wasn’t right with this gal.

When working with any equine, but particularly with young alpha horses, it’s important to be able to quickly distinguish between obstinate push back and a fair objection.

Filly teachers her trainer a few things

alpha mares from Registered Irish Draughts are creativeOver the past couple of months, I’ve been working with a delightful 4 YO Irish Draught Sport Horse (IDSH) filly. She’s honest, expressive, smart and a super character that has this artful way of letting you know exactly what she’s thinking.

Recently, she showed her usual pleasure during grooming time (this always includes some good scratches in her favorite places – she still doesn’t quite understand my objections to mutual grooming). Her ears pricked up and stride animated as we headed toward the training area. As usual, she advanced through what usually would have required a week’s worth of riding time – in her mind – during the week-long training lapse.

During the week (while she wasn’t ridden) she had lengthened her stride a foot or more. Her frame was longer and lower and more relaxed. She’s always excited about the prospect of learning something new.

We started canter last week(end). She seemed to intuitively know when the request came. She took a stride or two to figure it out, but then transitioned to a lovely canter on the correct lead.

It’s a small area requiring some tight turns.

She even made the turn, responding to the left-rein half-halt and right leg pressure with ease.

That was more than she was ready for, but she was a good girl about it. No matter how long you’ve been working with horses, everyone does dumb things. I figured since she handled that so well – even commenting to the farm owner how surprised I was at this – to demand more.

You never have to guess what this filly is thinking. I closed my leg on her (she’s not super fond of leg pressure) and encouraged her to continue around what amounted to about a 20-meter circle. She let me know emphatically I was asking for too much. She was right.

She slammed on the breaks and reared. It was a fair complaint. So, instead of correcting what could have been construed as bad behavior, I simply let her finish expressing herself (it was brief) and gently asked her to take up a trot. We went back to some circles and figure eights at the walk and trot – something she was confident and comfortable with – then I asked for one last canter transition. She responded to the cue immediately, on the correct lead, willingly. After five or six canter strides – before we hit the turn – I gave a light check on the rein. It was time to give a good girl pat and call it a day.

Correcting honest expression with alpha horses can be hazardous

Things could have gone very differently with this IDSH filly. If I had gotten after her for her expression, she would have rightfully escalated things. She’d remember the conflict. It probably would have taken weeks to overcome her resistance (she is a Warmblood, after all) and resentful attitude toward training.

Horses seem to naturally appreciate and trust someone willing to include them in the conversation.

With most issues that occur with alpha horses, calm, patient insistence is a good approach. That wasn’t the right reaction here. Instead, riding out the tantrum with no reaction and asking for less was much more appropriate.

With the Arab, if this is a pain issue, it’s wrong to chance she might associate training time she’s come relishes with an unfair rash correction. She was willing, eager and focused with all else.

If your horse is acting out, consider asking why before you correct. You might discover interesting new ways to understand what they’re trying to tell you.

Have you found yourself assuming an alpha horse (or any other) was testing you but then came to realize something was wrong? I sure have. It pains me to reflect on some of the mistakes I’ve made. Or maybe you had one of those wonderful moments when your understanding caused your horse to melt? It’s your turn to enlighten me in the comments below. Look left and share, while you’re at it. Thanks!

What’s new at Horse Sense and Cents®?

It’s been a whirlwind few months with so much going on. Time’s streaked past in a way that has me wondering why we’re not still in August. Almost reminds me of the first time I sent a horse down the lane for a track breeze – kind of a joyous blur seeing but not fully able to focus on the milestones passed along the way to the finish line.

Halcyon Acres horsesWe’ve been doing a lot of work on the Horse Sense and Cents® website and products over the past few months. There’s still much more to go, but hopefully the changes will make it easier for you to find what you are looking for on the site. Do feel free to reach out (full contact information is available at the bottom of almost every web page) if you have questions, want to see us offer something new or are having trouble locating the information you seek.

Do take the time to look around a bit while here as there’s tons of free information designed to help you reach your training, career or equine relationship goals. Much has been added to the Inventing Your Horse Career pages (although we’re still working on a better organizational strategy).

For those still seeking last-minute gifts or stocking-stuffers for the horse lovers in their life, we have some great gifts that can be downloaded for $2.99, $6.95 and $15.99.

Inexpensive equine audio and printed e-booklets

Reaching Alpha HorsesWe’ve just started making titles available as audio products. You can now buy the Reaching Alpha Horses e-booklet for to enjoy as a listening experience via for $6.95 or on Amazon for only $6.08 – or at no cost with a free 30-day trial membership.

We expect the title to be available on iTunes and other major online audio retail outlets within the next week.

Alternatively, if you prefer reading to listening, the Kindle Edition of this title is only $2.99. You can buy it as a PDF document here on the Horse Sense and Cents® website.

Who hasn’t scratched their heads over the challenges an Alpha can present? This resource will help you customize approaches to get that special, opinionated equine excited about building a partnership.

Look for Bringing home an off-the-track Thoroughbred in audio next week. Or, buy the Kindle Edition or PDF if you want a fun, quick read for only $2.99.

Valuable, affordable equine career insight for time-starved horse lovers

Inventing Your Horse CareerMore than a dozen equine professionals had a lot of fun coming together last year to create the Inventing Your Horse Career Series. We’re running a half-price special on the 9 CD boxed series right now (just enter the discount code HSACLA2012 to save $119). We’ve also created individual MP3 download options for those who want the material in smaller and more affordable doses. You can get the Inventing Your Horse Career MP3s (about an hour a piece) for $15.99 each or $29.99 for three.

More free training tips and fun tools you can use

Beginning in 2013, we’re going to try to publish articles in the blog on a regular schedule, but back it off to twice a month. Of course, if we have something exciting or timely to share, we’ll jump in off-schedule, but it seems better for all to know when new posts are coming. Is there a particular day that’s favored by you readers? If so, please note this in the comments below or send me a private message. The day of the week makes no difference here, but frequency does. Also, if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered, say so and we’ll try to respond accordingly.

Horse Sense and CentsWe’re going to start producing the free newsletter monthly (if you’re not signed up, just enter your name and e-mail address on the right column of this page). This wound up taking a lot more time to create than anticipated so to keep it interesting, fun and relevant, quality over quantity seemed like a good move. For those who subscribe, we’ll send out some other fun surprises periodically, but limit the formal treatise to twelve times a year.

We’re in the final production stages of the long-awaited title by Rob Fera (the working title is Bringing Up Baby, but we need to change this as John Lyons already claimed that one) focused on foal care and handling pre-natural through 18 months with great information on nutrition, health issues, ailments, training and all sorts of super tips on being smarter about raising a young horse in a way that helps him be his best. This has been a much-anticipated book that we’re excited be close to finishing. Watch for free sneak peak chapters here as we get closer to a publishing date.

Hope you all have a very happy holiday season and prosperous new year. Thanks for being such a loyal, active and supportive following. I look forward to joining with you next year to ‘Enjoy the Ride.’

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!

Alpha horses make you laugh when you reach them

Everything you do with an alpha horse counts. If you think they’re not watching and reading you every moment you’re with them, you’re probably experiencing some predicaments. Just because they seem like they’re not paying attention doesn’t mean it’s so – instead, they’re probably chuckling about what you think they’re not noticing.

Try to dominate these gals (and guys) without an ear and eye toward their communicated needs, and they’ll give you a schooling you won’t soon forget. In the truly sad cases of dominance and violence, some will give up and yield, but lose the qualities that made them so special in the process. When you give a strong alpha horse the opportunity to choose to respect you the results are awe-inspiring. Below are eleven quick tips for dealing with alphas.

  1. Choose your battles very carefully. You can’t back down with alphas if you want to gain their respect, but plan on hours of combat if you pick the wrong activity. Better to spend some time watching and listening to the horse prior to training to gain some insight on their nature, needs and passions prior to deciding on a training approach.
  2. Make sure you can be fearless or get the help of another who can. These equines are used to calling the shots, but usually relish the opportunity to find a leader they can respect. They’ll test you to see if they can intimidate you or if you will hold your ground. Fold and you’ll spend weeks gaining back ground.
  3. Don’t get combative. Alphas rarely tolerate violence or unreasonable requests and will ratchet up the stakes if you challenge them. Most already recognize their weight and strength advantage and respond in kind if you pick a fight.
  4. Build rapport and respect on the ground prior to trying to teach lessons under saddle. It’s a lot easier to communicate with any horse, especially alphas, when you can both see the full range of communications tools. Lessons implemented prior to getting in the saddle will be remembered once you put your foot in the stirrup.
  5. Don’t be in a hurry. It’s better to skip the lesson than rush a plan. You’ll wind up getting frustrated, encouraging a possible stand-off and missing your meeting. Or, if you give up prior to finishing the request, you’ll pay for it the next day.
  6. Be firm, but fair. When you do decide to tackle an issue, make sure you’re clear about what you’re asking and then proceed until you get the response you set out for. Alphas can be very kind until you ask them to do something they don’t want to do (for some this can be something as simple as standing still). It’s a big mistake to start a training direction and give up when an alpha objects. You’ll wind up teaching her to train you as a subordinate and will never gain the respect or bond afforded only to perceived peers and embraced guides.
  7. Make your alpha feel special. It’s OK to spoil an alpha once in a while so long as you’re not teaching her bad behavior in the process. These horses are smart and will show you what makes them extra happy (it’s rarely a click or a treat) if you pay attention. It might be as simple as calling her over for an extra rub in her favorite spot or letting her jump after a well done flat lesson (it depends on the horse – it’s up to you to figure out what gives them great pleasure). Most alphas will try extra hard to please if you acknowledge their effort with a reward.
  8. Vary the routine. Alphas are easily bored. If you spend too much time drilling a point when they’ve already done what you requested, they’ll protest. As quick learners, alphas expect to get on to something new and exciting once they think they’ve mastered a task. Mix it up enough to keep them interested and engaged.
  9. Pick one issue to tackle in a day. Consider it a great day if you chose the right lesson and are able to end quickly on a good note. Sometimes it’s a five minute success; other days it may be hours before you accomplish that simple task request she’s decided to turn into a call for war. Regardless, particularly with young horses, don’t be tempted to finish the week’s plan for training because you seem to be having a good day. It’s better to end early on a good note than risk ruining a day of great rapport.
  10. Learn to read your horse. Alphas are extremely telling if you pay attention. Come to recognize when she’s having a bad day and be ready to change or cancel training plans if you can. Watch her when you’re working with her to pick up on when she’s getting irritated or when she’s feeling proud about an accomplishment. There’s a difference between being insistent and pushing too hard. Failing to recognize an effort when she needs to be congratulated won’t earn you any points either.
  11. Have fun. Alphas are some of the most rewarding horses you’ll ever work with. When they finally find a leader they choose to respect (and they’ll give you some physical and ego bruises to show for it getting there), they can be the most dedicated, trusting, loyal, eager pleaser equines you’ll ever encounter. Once you’re able to get past the bravado by demonstrating you are a worthy leader, they’ll repay you with 110% effort toward performance requests, a love for training few horses exhibit, a determination to take care of you at all costs and a sweet and gracious temperament you never imagined possible.

If you’re dealing with an Alpha or are curious about ideas you may find to offer to others, we’ve produced a more comprehensive e-booklet entitled “Reaching Alpha Horses.” It’s only $2.99 and available at or as a Kindle Edition.

Photo Credit: Microsoft Images



How’s fighting with your horse working for you?

“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” -William Butler Yeats, writer, Nobel laureate (1865-1939)

Few seem to have mastered the activity of standing your ground without being combative when it comes to horses. Of course, being insistent isn’t even always appropriate, depending on the nature of the horse you’re working with, but fighting with him will rarely get you the results you seek (unless your goal is an angry, untrusting or frightened horse).

So often what we do affects how our horse reacts. Have you argued with yourself lately to explore what you’re doing to create your ‘problem horse’?

This Yeats quote applies to horse/human relationships in so many ways – perhaps moreso than it’s intended direct at people to people. Rhetoric isn’t just about language, as critical as that is when it comes to reaching horses on their terms – it’s about arrogance (look a little deeper into the definition and you’ll find bombast – a synonym for bluster). Ah – and what a glorious moment it is when we look inside ourselves to discover the communications breakdown with our equine friend and alter our approach to make poetry in motion with the resulting partnership.

My horse needs to respect me

Respect is a two-way street (uhg – did I just use and idiom?). Sure, you can create a subservient horse that succumbs to your direction by demanding respect, but you won’t get one that appreciates and trusts you (no matter how many cookies you give him to show your love). Nor will you build a relationship that results in a partnership that includes a thinking horse that will do more than you imagine to accommodate and protect you.

If you’re really looking for an equine experience that comes from mutual respect, listening to what your horse is trying to tell you is key. That doesn’t mean you always answer with ‘yes,’ but you do need to acknowledge his input. If you merely stick to your training plan for the day without considering his concerns or issues, sooner or later a fight will happen. Sadly, even if you think you won, you didn’t. Your horse will remember and his attitude will suffer.

How do I read my horse?

As you look inside yourself for the answers, one of the most critical discoveries will be new insight into reading your horse. If you don’t know why he’s objecting to what you’re asking, you can’t offer an effective solution.

Equine Pain?

Is he in pain? No amount of discipline will assuage physical discomfort, so before you decide your horse is acting up, make sure he’s not acting out because he hurts. Get him well (or change your tack to fit him, riding style to accommodate him or career demands to adress his aging body).

Is your horse testing you?

Does she view you as an unworthy guide? If your horse is a confident, strong-willed and dominate mare, she won’t respond well if you sublimate every time she challenges you. The best course of action with this type of horse is to stand your ground – but pick your battles very carefully. It’s not about getting nasty – that’s the worst thing you can do with this personality. Merely continue asking no matter how intimidating they get until they agree. There’s a big difference between asking and demanding. Don’t make the mistake of choosing the latter with these girls. Either they’ll wear you out past resolve or you’ll rob them of the spirit that makes them so special.

Do you have an equine lacking confidence?

If you’re dealing with a horse that’s afraid or doesn’t trust you, insisting they buck up isn’t going to get you very far in your confident partnership quest. Here’s where the calm insistence doesn’t work. Instead, you need to be unflappable and patient encouraging them to face their fear with your quiet, clear and unreactive response to easy to accomplish requests customized to your equine’s penchants and offered in a way that encourages him to do what he’s comfortable with at his own speed.

Bad start?

It’s sad, but so many horses get their brain’s scrambled by people who usually have good intensions, but lack the knowledge to understand what they’re doing to the horse’s mind. These critters can take a lot of time to reach, but most can come around. In these cases, usually you need to figure out where things went wrong and go back to a time during the schooling trauma prior to that point and rebuild. Groundwork is the best way to start with such equines. What you build in terms of trust, understanding and rapport can transform the horse’s attitude in a way that translates to subsequent under saddle work. The benefit of starting on the ground is it makes it easier for both of you to see how each is trying to communicate.

Get personal with your horse

There are so many other reasons equines may act out when you ask for their cooperation, but each will respond best if you offer a customized approach that includes your horse in the conversation. Interestingly, the more you get in touch with your issues, the easier it is to see what your horse is trying to tell you. Quarrel with yourself and you might find the debate results in a better relationship with your horse. Think about it.


Do you have a story to share where self-discovery has resolved issues you’re having with your horse? Please share in the comments below.







Is your horse talk saying what you mean?

I was in the grocery store recently and overheard a customer say to the cashier “What we have is a misunderstanding.” The guy was trying to be clever, but not only was he talking to a gal that was born decades after Cool Hand Luke hit the screen, be he also messed up the quote. In this context, there’s a big difference between what he said and “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” His intonation clued me into what he was trying to allude to – and why he thought he was being so cute, but his comment came across as rude and ridiculous to its intended recipient.

This is something that happens often with horses. Subtle differences in how we move, feel or react speak volumes to our equine partners in ways that can send them in completely opposite directions (literally and figuratively) than we intend. Invariably, the horse gets blamed for intentionally misbehaving. How many times does an instructor hear “He won’t do it.”? Really? It’s amazing how often that comment comes after he’s just performed the task for someone else. Rarely does a student consider their request isn’t clear. Ever had a bad day and discovered your horse is tense and anxious too? Is your horse pushy or timid? Have you thought about what you may be doing to encourage this behavior?

Horses are great teachers

This year I did something most would deem crazy. I elected Leah as a teacher for a green employee. Here’s the batty part – Leah’s one of Halcyon Acres’s® Irish Draught Sport Horses and her teaching role was to be performed as the student muddled through starting her under saddle. There’s more to the story, but in short, this young adult has been the beneficiary of riding lessons for the past seven months (often three times a week) and a variety of suitable horses for her level and ability, is extremely talented about being able to process verbal explanations into physical results when on a horse (she’s not a natural rider but progresses quickly with her interpretive talents) and spent the winter watching and then participating in some of the training of selected client horses in for starting under saddle. Leah is one of these incredibly smart horses who will let you know she doesn’t have to do what you ask, but then (usually) does it anyway. She’s also kind, careful and wise well beyond her years.  That seems to be a relatively common characteristic of the purebred Irish Draughts that carries through to the Sport Horses.

This employee is eager to get more involved in client training activities, but she was starting to get ahead of herself and making potentially dangerous mistakes as a result. Hence, the creative way to foster her learning.

Who’s really teaching who?

Look at this little chunk. Even as a foal, Leah was a confident and cunning Irish Draught Sport Horse

Fortunately, Leah’s special in so many ways. This filly’s the only one who’s been able to challenge and subdue the single aggressive and territorial horse in the farm herd – and she did that as a yearling without hooves or teeth. She’s unflappable. She seems to understand her size and weight could injure people, so is very careful about how she moves or reacts around humans. She’s smart and likes to let you know how clever she is, but only does so to underscore she’s choosing to cooperate. She’ll call you out in a second if your communications cues are off. Leah’s just one of these horses that is so wise and confident, she spends most human interaction time teaching the teacher – and does it in a way that’s safe, albeit hilarious at times. She seems to know more about what the human wants then they do – so this is one of these rare young equines horses that could be handed off to a novice without risk of ruining the horse or injuring the student. The irony of who’s teaching who is our little secret.

Since Leah so capable of being a safe yet insistent teacher, I offered to stay out of it. Of course, I keep an eye on what’s going on, and offer help when I can see frustration mounting, but have let Leah do most of the schooling. And what a great instructor she’s been.

During liberty groundwork, Leah initially refused to stop (and ultimately taught the student what she was really doing with her body language). She was a sweetheart about accepting tack and a rider in a confined environment, picked up hand and leg cues immediately and willingly complied with requests. When work moved outdoors, though, and the student failed to get her attention, spent way too much time messing around in preparation for climbing aboard and failed to lengthen the leather to avoid putting undo strain on Leah’s spine, she walked off every time a foot was put in the stirrup as the would-be rider hopped around on the grounded leg for 30 paces or more. After chuckling about this for about a week waiting for a request for help, I decided to offer it. We resolved this in five-minute’s time. Every day Leah comes up with another clever way to foster the education. She knows what this gal wants, but refuses to give it to her unless she asks right.

Are you clear about what you’re really asking your horse to do?

Most horses aren’t as intuitive about intent or as amused by human missteps as Leah. A subtle error in body language, bad mood energy, tentativeness when they’re insecure, incorrect riding aids or a failure to include the horse in the conversation creates confusion or angst for the majority of horses. Expecting them to figure out what you want or characterizing their response as bad behavior isn’t fair. If your horse isn’t doing what you want, consider what you might be doing to confuse or frustrate him.

Honestly, I don’t know why that quote from Cool Hand Luke has stuck in my head for so many years (I’ve seen the movie once). This misquote was like nails on a chalkboard for me, though, because the chosen words and the way that statement encapsulated the entire message of the movie was crucial. Often, it’s the same way with horses. Things that don’t seem important to us are critical in fostering understanding and rapport with your equine partner.

The next time you have “a failure to communicate” with your horse, consider what you may be doing to elicit the response you’re getting. Chances are, you’re creating the problem. And if you haven’t seen Cool Hand Luke, it’s worth the watch – and probably one of Paul Newman’s better performances. Might even teach you a thing or two about the power of effective (or ineffective) communications – which certainly pertains to how unreasonable demands can lead to a pugnacious – and sometimes tragic – reaction from your horse.

Zenyatta gets her due

Honestly, it was shocking to see Zenyatta eclipse (pun intended) Blame as Horse of the Year, but it was the right thing to do. Kudos to the voters who decided it was OK to buck tradition and recognize this very special filly that was defeated in only her last race – the usual deciding benchmark for determining Horse of the Year. We’ll likely never see another one like her. Her name, heart and achievements will be remembered by so many for decades to come (not something that can be said of most bestowed with this honor).

So many who watched the Breeders’ Cup Classic this past year had a lump in their throat and a heavy heart when Zenyatta crossed the finish line so close (losing by a nose), but beat. Many wondered if the outcome would have been different with a cleaner trip (probably – but that’s horse racing).

Mike Smith has heart too

One thing that really touched me on race day was Mike Smith’s comments (he was the jockey aboard in all but three of her starts – and her only defeat). He choked back tears lamenting that he had let her down, knowing that she recognized the loss. Anyone who’s ridden competitive race horses gets this. Horses that are standout racers know when they lose a race. It bothers them. You can see it in their behavior after the race. They usually pick up their heads as the next race approaches, but this was Zenyatta’s last. His sadness for her is understandable – and demonstrates Smith’s character in his connection with the horses he rides.

While I couldn’t find the quote where he talks about her, I did find this one from Dan Steele’s column on (November 6, 2010). “It hurts more than I can explain,” he said, hesitatingly pressing his hands against his eyes, then choking up. “Just because it was my fault.” He paused again, then continued, his voice cracking, “She should have won, and it hurts.”  See for the full article.

The Eclipse Awards

According to, The Eclipse Awards (honoring horses and horsemen in the racing industry – and the deciders of choice for Horse of the Year) are voted on and presented by the NTRA, Daily Racing Form (DRF) and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters (NTWAB).

Is Zenyatta and Moss poised to change the industry?

Jerry Moss, who’s the owner of Zenyatta (with his wife) made some interesting comments after the awards presentation about paying more attention to fans of the racing industry:

“I came from an industry that sued its fans when they started stealing music through Napster,” he said. “There is sentiment in this business and you have to play to it. It is true in show business and it is true in racing. If you have a horse who gets people in the heart, then they want to come see them and get to know more about them, and you have the Beatles again.”

Given what the Moss’ are currently doing to make Zenyatta available to the public, he seems to be a man who lives by his words.

Moss (well credit really needs to go to trainer John Shirreffs, but owners can put a lot of pressure on trainers to put training on the fast track) also dismissed norms by taking the time to wait until Zenyatta was ready to race. She didn’t have her first start until the end of her three-year-old season (November 2007). She only had two starts that year. Trying to run this huge filly at two would have probably resulted in career-ending injuries. Many trainers would have insisted she get with their program. Early breakdowns are just an indication to them the horse wasn’t good enough. She was lightly raced by most standards the following two years, with seven and five starts respectively.

Hopefully Moss’s convictions about having an impact on racing fans will extend to activities that encourage some changes in thought in industry precepts The career of this mare and associated training that made it so provides a wonderful anecdote to illustrate how slow, customized and patient strategies win the race. I imagine any owner would be satisfied with the $7 million-plus she’s amassed (in 20 starts). Not bad for a $60K purchase.

Where did Zenyatta get her name?

On the small world front, Zenyatta’s name has a family tie. Moss signed the Police to A&M Records and named her after their Zenyatta Mondatta album.

What do you think?

Are you ready to offer solutions instead of jumping on bandwagons that attack problems? Moss and Shirreffs deserve a lot credit for doing the right thing the help make Zenyatta be her best. They both have a great success story to recount for decades to come on how going against the grain helped create one of the most amazing equine performers of the century. Zenyatta, in turn, chose to take care of them, and I imagine they will take care of her for the rest of her life. It’s interesting how happy this mare seems to be in everything she does (from her dance to the paddock on race day to her retirement videos). She’s a character. All the people surround her (owners, grooms, jockeys, trainers, etc.) seem to appreciate this with no desire to stifle her expression. That’s part of what makes this mare’s story so precious. How can we as individuals use this great example to help our horses delight in human interactions and suitable careers? What are you doing with the horses you encounter to help them shine? Do you have ideas for others on how to encourage a horse to be part of the conversation (and the owner to recognize what they’re trying to tell them?)? Please share in your comments below.

Starting under saddle with alpha fillies is always interesting: Part 3 and the last of a series

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you’ve met Clover and Carrot.

As a quick update on Carrot, the rearing issue might have been resolved today with a ‘knock it off’ response to her intimidation tactics. Time will tell, but once outside, she immediately resorted to rearing again, but relented once she realized this tactic wasn’t going to net anything but annoyance. It was a good test because there were a lot of horses in close proximity that could have occupied her full attention (usually the horses are in the barn or pastured further out when we train), yet she turned her full attention to the rider once she was discouraged from calling the shots.

Alpha extraordinaire, LuLu turns almost immediately

When this little three-year-old half Arab filly trucked in, I thought she might rank up there with some of the most challenging Halcyon Acres’ projects – including badly started horses that already had their brains seriously scrambled with early introductions to training and required considerable time and intuition to reach. LuLu underscored this conviction as she left a path of destruction in her wake – splintering boards as she kicked at horses in adjacent paddocks, jumping out of her paddock to go beat up other horses, breaking lead ropes and lunge lines and behaving in ways that made all the residents at the farm uncomfortable.

The day I entered the paddock without a cookie and was greeted with charging, teeth bared, kicking and striking is the day I decided to put her into training much earlier than planned. I like to give young horses a week or so to acclimate to the new surroundings and routine before engaging in a serious training regimen, but she earned an early start.

That first day was a knock-down drag-out battle of wills where merely asked her to move forward and/or stop with body language in the roundpen netted hostile responses. Ultimately, the goal was looking for her to acknowledge me, but we didn’t quite get that far. We did manage to reach a point, though, where she allowed me to approach her as she stood quietly and politely.

The next day was a shocker (apparently she processed a lot more than she let on). I brought her to the roundpen and then set up a video camera, figuring this would be a good lesson in what’s not working. She waited at the edge of the roundpen and watched as I set up the camera. I entered the fenced area, ignoring her and proceeding to the center. She trotted right up to me and stood. This filly had spent her life dominating all the animals and humans she encountered. She had never met a match that wasn’t intimidated by her, yet didn’t return her hostility in kind. After a day to think about all this, it seems she decided she liked the idea of having a leader she could respect from kind but insistent actions.

Today’s challenge was the bridle. While she’s been a bit uncomfortable with the bit in the past, she suddenly seemed terrified to have her mouth violated. This was honest fear – you could see it in her eyes. There’s no way to know where this was coming from, but it was real. This filly’s spent a lifetime being motivated by food and it’s incredible how excited she gets about the mere sound of vittles. With this in mind, it seemed coating the bit with molasses would be an easy fix. That didn’t work. What ultimately did was simply spending a good deal of time comforting her with the bit in front of her teeth, but not in her mouth. Once she calmed down and realized this wasn’t going to hurt, she calmly and willingly accepted the bit. The rest of the lesson went great and we put her out with the big girls – where she’s no longer queen bee, but seems to appreciate the reward of company over isolation.

Update on LuLu

We haven’t had a problem with the bit since our first blow up. In fact, she now opens her mouth the moment it’s presented (this gal is pretty oral anyway). She still has some issues with the girth being tightened, but if there’s food in front of her, she’s not bothered.

She became comfortable enough about the bit that we started long lining her and had our third session today. She’s still a bit confused about the signals, but an exaggerated leading rein seemed to help her understand.  It’s kind of funny, as she seems to naturally gravitate toward an indirect rein, and her intended career is with Western tack.

Starting under saddle: horse tales from a trio of uber alpha fillies, Part 2

Yesterday, you all met Clover. She’s a hoot. As much as I hate to make this so public, I’ve posted her antics on YouTube because WordPress doesn’t seem to like my computer files, so I gave up last night.

This video was taken after a short stint of training on the trails where she was all full of attitude and tuning me out. Her mood didn’t change.

After I opened the roundpen gate and headed her back to the barn (fortunately, I was remiss in removing the reins from behind the saddle), she decided she wasn’t done and took off toward the back 100 or so acres. Her playtime game lasted almost an hour. That’s probably why she got so belligerent about turning home the other day. She’d seen how exciting the world was on paths beyond her former reach and wanted to see more. That’s Clover.

Resolving rearing: Carrot shows her alpha mettle

Carrot came in for starting under saddle training about three weeks ago. She’s a 2 YO TB filly headed for the race track. With good handling and good care, she arrived at Halcyon Acres with some basic manners and a healthy body, which helps a lot. She also came with some warnings. It’s wonderful to work with clients who are open and honest from the onset. The behavior problems revealed and trailer loading to get her out here revealed her strong alpha traits.

Alphas will make you pay

Thursday the chits were called for a mistake I made during Carrot’s last riding session. Although this filly presented some minor initial posturing moves, we found a clear, no-nonsense approach netted an eager pleaser as we started the communications and training process. So, I got complacent and stupid in how I reacted to a known alpha’s behavior. Basically, I quit when I shouldn’t have because I was convinced her behavior was due to discomfort (and it probably was – but the price I paid for backing down due to guilt for training a filly that wasn’t quite right will be weeks of undoing the damage in our rapport).

Carrot expessing herself
Carrot expessing herself

She was aloof and distracted prior to my hopping aboard on our last ride. In retrospect, the lesson should have ended without riding time. It didn’t, and after some walk and halt work, she started to rear.

Alpha filly intimidation
Alpha filly intimidation

Not just a hop, but a perpendicular to the ground, striking and hanging pose that was made for the movies. After prompting her to move forward properly for a few strides I hopped off. I checked her out and couldn’t find anything (it seemed like a pain response, given her prior stellar attitude) and figured a little more ground work would help. When I returned to the saddle, she went back to rearing. Since my gut was telling me this was more than an alpha tantrum designed to intimidate, I walked her off for a few strides to get a requested response and demonstrate I wasn’t concerned (I was on a number of levels and she probably knew it) and ended the session with plans to give her a couple of days off and a good going over to try and find out what might be bugging her.

Are you hearing me now?
Are you hearing me now?

Coincidence, perhaps, but two days later her hock blew up. It was hot and painful, but she traveled sound. After two days of bute and ice, the hock was normal, treatment was stopped and she was given an extra two days off.

After some quick free longing and a ground driving session where she was perfect (long lining had been a huge issue for this filly in the past, but she accepted it easily and politely this day), I hopped into the saddle. We didn’t get two steps off when she started to threaten to rear again. She’s a quick learner and this time, it clearly wasn’t about pain, but instead, manipulation. She had learned well on the day I was kicking myself for being stupid and unfair to this horse, and my associated decisions taught her that rearing put her back in charge. Of course, I now more fully understand the behavior tendencies that produced the warnings from her owner. I saw the alpha in her from day one, but was arrogant enough to figure I had reached her so effectively that she wouldn’t consider challenging me.  Dumb move.

Had enough?
Had enough?

Discouraging a rearing horse

When the going gets tough, the mature rider gets creative. It was raining and severe thunderstorms were in the forecast and on the horizon. I wasn’t wearing my invincibility cape, so decided to let her teach herself a lesson. We headed to the historic barn on the property to offer her a close encounter with low ceilings and 2 X 8 supports 12 inches apart. Smart horses think twice about ever rearing again once they spend a few seconds with their head seemingly trapped as they flop it back and forth in the space between the boards. It doesn’t hurt them, but it does create a memory that connects rearing with a very unpleasant sensation.

Habitual rearers are more dangerous to themselves and their riders than just about any other behavior trait horses may pick up. Ending this tendency before it becomes ingrained is important for the safety of all involved. The barn environs at Halcyon Acres provide a good quick cure for this penchant. Of course, I wear a helmet at all times and have good balance so can put my body where it needs to be, but also know when and how to duck. Don’t try this at home.

Well, as is the case with most strong alphas, this gal was smart. She hopped a few inches off her front legs a couple of times, but once she realized I was ready to egg her on, the idea of rearing wasn’t appealing. She was clever enough to recognize the ceilings were too low for her to do her hi-ho Silver act without bumping her head. There was some good that came out of all this, though – it was clear this filly understood aids being used for requests. Previously, I had assumed she was frustrated and confused, but was now proved wrong.

Rearing in the future will get a stern response. It will probably take the better part of a week to fix this one, but Carrot is smart and athletic enough to know not to go past perpendicular and I’m balanced enough not to flip her over. Still, working through this type of issue can be a bit harrowing. Sadly, this now has to become a battle of wills. Bummer.

Secret tip for educating alphas

I’ve learned to use the herd to teach a lesson in a day that may take me a month. A few days after Carrot trucking and had time to acclimate to the property and routine, I turned her out with a couple of our farm herd members (Clover and Cowboy) to help soften some of her detrimental alpha tendencies. After a day out with the pair (neither are aggressive, but they won’t be dominated), she transformed from a hostile and combative stance in the morning to a horse that politely waited to be last in at dinner time.  Some might call it cheating, but using other horses to help instill a lesson can save tons of time.

You need to know the players and choose carefully as you do this (or vet bills will mount and you run the risk of teaching the wrong lesson to the horse in question), but over the years, I’ve found some gems to help me resolve issues immediately. To whit, Midge is my go-to gal (tiny but tough as nails) for cocky colts. Put one out with her when she’s pregnant and she’ll rip the hormone drive right out of them in a day’s time with nary a scratch.

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