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Alpha Mares

Horse tales that are made for the movies: a trio of alpha fillies starting under saddle makes life interesting at Halcyon Acres

It’s a good thing I like alphas – and have a knack for reaching them. Right now there are three uber alpha fillies at Halcyon Acres starting under saddle. This trio has the ability to make my blood pressure rise or make my day, but mostly, they keep me smiling with their clever approaches, dramatic communications and immense staying power.

A lot the alphas come here after someone has tried to “break” them with major resulting issues that can be a nightmare to resolve. With these three, I’m fortunate to have relatively clean slates. Of course, with that, also shoulder the blame when things go wrong.

Yesterday was one of those days where my fortitude, understanding and inventiveness were tested.

Over the next three days, I’ll spotlight each of these fillies in separate blog posts. This is my first attempt at a blog ‘series,’ so please let me know if it works – or doesn’t.

Clever Clover keeps life interesting, exciting and daring

This four-year-old registered Irish Draught Sport Horse was put into a regular riding schedule about a month ago and loves to work. Clover was a brat the last time she trained (of course, since the primary plan was to capture video to share publicly – she made sure it would be embarrassing). So, knowing what would irk her most, this filly was given about a week to think about her behavior while she watched other horses get saddled up. First she was mad as a hornet and expressed herself with impudence.

Now we’re ready to hit the trails

Once she realized that wasn’t going to work and pleaded sweetly for a couple of days, I tacked her up. We headed straight for the back acreage. She was at a trot in eager anticipation before we hit the trail head. The trip out was a pleasure.

After about ½ a mile, I turned her around to head home. She didn’t want to go home yet and used a temper tantrum to be sure I understood this. We both know how to push each other’s buttons. She has a tendency to go just about too far, stopping right before my boiling point. Clover knew she had reached it. In an athletic harrumph, she jumped way into the air and before starting to descend, let out a buck vigorous enough to ensure I lost my irons and added a twist to shake my balance a bit on the way down (and that takes some doing – I have pretty good glue). Of course, if she really wanted me off, a spin on the landing probably would have done it.

I swore at her and gave her a few growls, but quickly decided not to do more. She made her point. I wasn’t interested in making this a battle-of-wills event that would last another two hours. Plus, we both knew she had figured out a way to loosen me in the saddle. I wasn’t really in the mood to trek home alone. Neither was she. So we agreed to disagree. She proceeded to walk and trot home good as gold at the point of my choosing after I refrained from fully expressing my displeasure with her antics.

Planning ahead, or not

Next time, I’ll let her go a little further. She’ll probably appreciate it enough to be a team player – or maybe not. Still, it’s hard not to laugh at Clover’s clever and physically expressive approach to life. The thing is, she’s quick, athletic and smart enough to draw from a huge arsenal. I don’t think there’s a rider alive that could stick with this one if she decided it was time for them to go. Keeping her intensity channeled, her mind engaged and her attitude toward training positive has been critical with this little spitfire. Fortunately it’s easy to do with eyes toward the future.  The qualities that make her such a challenging project now are what will make her a great competitor in the future as a hopeful Grand Prix jumper.

Of course, there’s little that’s predictable about Clover, beyond the fact she’ll almost always surprise you. The same goes for any training plans set before the ride begins. She’s a filly that demands to be heard (and, OK, you’re acknowledged, permission denied, is a necessary answer sometimes, but she’ll throw in an athletically punctuated sigh prior to acquiescing). If you come into training activities with an attitude focused on having her get with the program without a willingness to modify plans based on her mood, you’re in for a very long an tiring day, or a sure loss if you aren’t prepared to match her staying power (which is immense). Conversely, she can be sweet, willing and prepared to deliver beyond your expectations when she’s included in the conversation. That’s a typical alpha, and what makes them so special when offered training opportunities that engage the equine mind toward positive responses that allow them to flourish.

Dominate an alpha and pay

It saddens me to see so many advocating for dominance of the horse or suggesting you must “get the respect” of an alpha. I’ve always found gaining respect through a mutual process to be a lot more effective.  In fact, I would relish the opportunity (although wouldn’t dare do that to her) to sick Clover on some of these people who espouse with arrogance the effectiveness of particular formula training programs – particularly those who use one-way respect for their training foundation.  I don’t imagine there’s any form of torture tool they could use to dominate this filly that would convince her to respect them. She’d more likely see it as a challenge to prove her physical prowess and mental acuity as she awarded herself points for dumping riders and putting handlers in the hospital. It would be fun to watch the schoolers get schooled. This gal would be the one to do it.

What’s your favorite train the trainer story?

Have you ever witnessed a smart and determined alpha reeducate an inflexible trainer? I laugh as I witness such events. Do you? You should. Please share your stories of lessons learned either directly or vicariously as you’ve watched a true alpha in action. This could be a lot of fun and a great learning experience for all who follow this blog.

Eleven Quick Tips for dealing with alpha horses

Alpha mares and fillies can present some interesting challenges where training and handling are concerned. They also become some of the most loyal high achievers you’ll ever encounter if you learn how to reach them. All seem to have heart beyond the norm, smarts and a wilfulness about them that will test your fortitude. Try to dominate these gals 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 leaders.
  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 and 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 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 quickly 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 and/or failing to recognize an effort when she needs to be congratulated.
  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.

Alpha Mares – how do you define them?

I’ve seen a lot of chatter – and some interesting convictions – concerning the alpha equine. Some base their comments on alleged scientific fact culled from published and apparently credible herd observer gurus and others either expound on what they’ve been told or make it up as they go. Admittedly, I’ve logged many years as part of the “don’t know what I don’t know” crowd of horse handlers, but like to think I’ve crossed over to a place that has me watching, thinking and learning more while defending precepts a whole lot less.

Does a boss make a leader?

These days, there seems to be a lot of agreement that alpha mares need to be bossy and aggressive. Interestingly, this hasn’t been what I’ve observed with the herd here. Sure, there’s always a nasty mare in the mix who intimidates the herd so she gets first dibs and dines alone, but she’s feared and not respected, nor followed. There always seems to be another mare (or filly – my four-year-old took over the biggest herd last year) that quietly and kindly gains the respect of the herd by being confident and fair. Horses in the herd gravitate to her not because she rules, but instead, because she doesn’t.

True leaders attract and don’t demand

I’ve changed my mind a lot about alpha mares in recent years. In fact, I wouldn’t define the bossy bitch as an alpha at all anymore, as I’ve come to see that most of these characters’ behavior comes from fear, not confidence. The leader, on the other hand, rarely inflicts any pain on the others in the herd. They choose to follower her willingly, relishing the opportunity to choose a leader who doesn’t demand subordinates. Her calm, unflappable and fearless demeanor seems to encourage the herd to gravitate toward her naturally. Sure, she’ll jump in occasionally if another is being harassed and will stand up to a horse that attacks her, but otherwise, she does little to discipline or control the herd. Yet, she’s seen as chief without asking for the job.

Horses in the wild may be a different story – I can’t speak to this dynamic as my first-hand experience has been limited to animals coming through the domesticated systems. Even so, humans have been breeding horses for millenniums and I wonder if some of this intervention makes for a different kind of alpha mare than what might be ideal for a predator-rich setting.

Herd lessons learned for horse training

What I have learned from watching all this unfold in the herd is training techniques modelled after a dominance approach do little to encourage respect and camaraderie from the horse. Even with alpha mares. Instead, I’ve discovered the best approach to horses that are wilful, smart, blessed with tons of heart and/or belligerent, is to not only be steady, consistent, unflappable and clear in your requests, but also responsive to the horse’s comments with understanding. This requires a human ready with an approach that shows no fear, but also, no aggression. I do believe horses seek a leader they can respect – especially alphas. Interestingly, as with humans, horses seem to respond better to a leader who deserves respect vs. one who dictates compliance.

The next time you encounter a strong-willed horse (or human), think about how much more effective you may be taking some tips from a mare the herd chooses as leader.

Alpha sneak peak excerpt from Chapter Five

Overwhelmed and cagey

Rosie spent two days at the racetrack after being “broke” at a

distant farm. She wheeled about thirty times in a single trip

jogging around a half-mile training track, terrified of oncoming

traffic and the scene that presented itself to this unprepared,

frenzied baby. At Thoroughbred racetracks, generally jogging

(or trotting) horses travel on the outside rail moving to the

left; galloping horses and those moving at a faster pace track

right toward the inside rail. On day two, in a half-mile gallop

(we tried a different approach to the oncoming traffic concern

and started tracking right), she slammed into the rail at least a

dozen times and ran at full speed in a panic — sans steering or

brakes — not seeing, hearing, or feeling anything in her path of

sheer, all-out, running terror.

She was trucked to Halcyon Acres that week for some reprogramming

authorized by a trainer in a huge hurry to get her

back. He failed to recognize the increased challenges associated

with retooling a horse that had been poorly started. Still,

we were determined to help this filly cope with what would be

ahead of her. Of course, the idea of the imminent broken human

body parts that would result if she wasn’t removed from

the track for a more controlled turning process was a factor.

Since time was of the essence, we started her in the round pen

the day she was trucked in. It’s preferable to give young horses

time to settle into a routine prior to tackling performance challenges,

but, sometimes, you make less than ideal choices with

the horse’s ultimate welfare in mind. We began with a brief lesson

in responding to body language and voice commands that

set the tone for future success with a quick reward for responding

to easy requests. She understood.

Day two was a lengthy session, as was the case for the term

of her stay, struggling to encourage a filly who had apparently

no good ground-handling experience to perform simple tasks

like picking up her feet and accepting basic grooming. First, we

spent more than an hour each day in the stall, tackling activities

that most yearlings are prepared to easily tolerate. This was

a filly that was expected to perform on cue with a rider atop at

the track! No wonder she was unresponsive, as terror set in, to

requests she was woefully unprepared for.

We proceeded to the round pen and then the trails for under saddle

activities with Gatsby (our canine assistant trainer) as a

constant companion and teacher. Generally, it’s best to implement

short sessions, quitting as soon as a win is achieved, but

we had twelve days to get this filly ready to go back to a track

with a trainer who wasn’t likely to permit patient daily regimens.

Plus, Rosie wasn’t very cooperative and it often took more

than an hour to achieve a proper response to a single request.

The trails were tough at first as Rosie had little confidence in

her mount and seemed to have no confidence in herself. Gatsby

helped lead the way through troubling areas and trotted at her

heels the rest of the time, getting her accustomed to traffic and

noise behind her . . .

Athlete baby of the decade returns as bronc champ re-break

Jay merits mention in both our Turning Challenging Horses and

Don’t Get Thrown Starting Horses Under Saddle books because

she was a dual challenge that came to Halcyon Acres for initial

starting (which wasn’t completed) and then back to fix her

subsequent, learned talent for unloading riders at another farm

that tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to take her on.

We were making good headway with this difficult Thoroughbred

filly during her first stay at the farm, having gotten to the

point where she was accepting a rider on her back and handling

some basic leg, seat, and hand commands at the walk indoors,

but were far from finished when the owner made a decision to

stop for reasons that were not related to training efforts. Jay left,

but the owners were given a dire warning concerning future

handling and an advisory to keep others off her back until she

returned for finishing.

She came back all right, but it wasn’t until after another tried

to “start” where we left off and managed, in the process, to reinforce

her penchant for winning — effectively launching and

terrorizing anyone who dared hop on her back. Taking her back

was a tough call. One of the things we had avoided in early

training was giving this filly any reason or opportunity to use

her athleticism to unload a rider. She didn’t during the time she

spent at the farm, but it required very careful and observant

handling. We knew, if she learned how to use her extraordinary

ability and determination to unseat her mount, that even an extremely

able rider would have a tough time sticking with her.

Yet, we also saw the tremendous, albeit latent, talent she possessed

and were convinced if it could be channeled, she would

become an impressive performer. The owner contacted us with

a query on what to do — just about convinced she wasn’t worth

the trouble and ready to log her as a lost cause. With no guarantees,

we persuaded him to try one more time to see if the filly

could be reprogrammed and properly prepared for a racing


When she arrived, we spent some time working with her off

her back in the stall and round pen to try to reestablish some

ground rules. These she accepted pretty readily and easily, having

recalled earlier lessons (a typical trait of Alphas is that they

retain information seemingly forever — good or bad — and it’s

rarely necessary to revisit a successful session).

Once we introduced a rider into the mix, the big problems

began. Reprogramming can go both ways — and in her case,

what she had learned during her absence was extremely detrimental

to the forward progress initially established under saddle.

We decided to start in the stall to limit her movement and

reduce the likelihood of her getting up enough room or speed

to launch her passenger. Yet, she was now accustomed to a routine

that included a triumphant lesson with a swift dump in the

dirt for anyone who straddled her back. She was quickly aggravated

with the new approach that made it tougher to unseat the

rider and immediately began to integrate new tricks. It took her

less than two days, after exhausting her developed arsenal unsuccessfully

and throwing a whole lot of new ideas at the problem,

to learn to rear and flip over backwards. With this development,

it was too dangerous to continue in the stall, and we

moved to the round pen.

Often, with Alphas, it’s best to work with them one-on-one.

We found this an effective early strategy with this filly, so decided

to forgo a handler at her head for the move to outdoor riding.

For about a week, we bellied over her first, watching her eye

closely and dismounting prior to the blow, and then, as she accepted

a rider across her back quietly and willingly, put a leg

over her other side and sat up. During the first few days (these

lessons were anywhere from one to two hours in length), simply

standing and accepting a rider was a sufficient note to end

on. As the week progressed (although the time involved for the

lessons remained lengthy), we added walking and stopping on

cue to the mix. The mere addition of movement added some

athletic explosions to the sessions and, ultimately, we decided

it would be best to try to proceed with a lead pony as a companion

before she learned again that her gyrations and gymnastics

could dislodge her passenger. She had been exposed to

our lead pony, Porky, during her prior stay (albeit without a rider)

and appeared to enjoy the activity, and so it seemed a smart

and safe idea to put to the challenge.

Alphas provide the biggest challenge and greatest joy

Sneak Peak excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners, due for official publication in winter, 2010

Chapter Five: An A for effort comes with Alphas

Some of the toughest fought battles are the most rewarding. Interestingly, it seems the most determined cases, able and willing to wear you out to the point of giving up, acquiesce right about the time you’re ready to walk away. These are almost always Alphas and will make you earn their respect — with the bruises to prove it.

Alphas are idiosyncratic horses to deal with and are fairly easy to recognize. They are also your most likely — albeit toughest — cases to turn. Most rule the pasture, and the strong ones have yet to encounter a horse or person who has stood their ground with them long enough to persuade them to “listen.” Once they find an animal or a person that has the staying power to earn their respect, they often soften and relish the opportunity to have a leader. These horses usually turn instantly and dramatically when they acknowledge you are a worthy guide. They also tend to be extremely willing, predictable, dependable, and outstanding performers who aim to please those they esteem — to extremes. Of course, getting there is no easy task.

Usually, discipline and hostility toward an Alpha is a mistake. Never back down; instead, demonstrate your power by holding your ground and remaining calm, fearless, and insistent as they launch a bevy of scare or avoidance tactics at you. Typical young Alphas will throw tantrums anytime they are asked to comply with a request that doesn’t suit them. They can be kind, smart, and compliant foals for early handling and lessons they find interesting, engaging, or fun. Once they are asked to respond to a request that isn’t on their agenda, however, they can turn into monsters. Those that are effective at intimidating a novice or tentative early handler into compliance tend to be difficult horses to start under saddle. If the attitude isn’t rectified in early under-saddle activities, it escalates, and these animals become problem children who need reprogramming if they are to be safe and honest mounts.

Is being the boss really the best way with horses?

Friday’s Opinion

I’ve seen so much written lately about how critical it is to “be the boss” with your horse. Granted, I don’t have a degree in horse psychology, nor do I have the learned qualifications of some who have studied the horse brain and journals extensively, but I’ve sure had a chance to watch horses and herd dynamics for a good number of decades. I find it interesting to see how horses respond to a “boss.” They don’t like her (it’s almost always a mare).  Bosses in the herd are unnecessarily aggressive and often not trusted. Sure, she gets them to fear her, yield to her wishes and move away when she approaches, but that’s not who they follow when given an option.

Alpha boss or teacher?

I have two alpha mares in my herd right now (and one precocious three-year-old vying for the title).  “The boss” has won out in the pecking order, but she’s not who the herd follows. Most choose to avoid her throughout the day. If I want to move the herd, I grab the “teacher.” They trust, respect and like Midge because she’s fair, but firm when necessary. She’s not looking to dominate other horses, but instead, steps in to school a bad actor when they are disruptive.  It’s usually a quick schooling that only requires a single lesson, and leaves the student unharmed (except, for perhaps, his ego – I don’t care what they say – horses have one) and better equipped to deal with what life will require of him (yes, it’s usually one of the boys).

Respect or domination?

Interestingly, a lot of the horses that come in to Halcyon Acres® (we work primarily with young horses – either starting them under saddle or reaching horses that have been “broke” and quickly deemed dangerous to their riders and handlers) tend to be strong alpha types. Reaching one of these characters is incredibly rewarding. They also tend to be the biggest achievers after they leave the farm. Often, they’ve never found a horse or a person they could respect. So, they melt when they find a leader that is fair, steadfast and not intimidated by their bravado.  What I’ve found with these horses is the worst thing you can do is be combative. You must stand your ground and be prepared for some very long and often exhausting showdowns, but if you get aggressive or create a win-lose proposition, you’re toast. It takes a lot of courage and a good deal of talent to fix an alpha that has learned to have it their way all the time, but it’s not about being a dictator. Instead, the key is to customize an approach that allows you to reach to the horse on their terms and work up from there. Offering yourself as a confident leader that hears what they try to say and responds accordingly is a lot more effective than being the boss.

Bully or leader?

So, I’m not a big believer in the boss theory (nor any of the current popular stimuli intensive or dog training approaches that tend to rob the horse of their mind and heart)  if the goal is standout performers. There’s a big difference between being a leader that’s confident, clear and patient, albeit unflinching in your insistence on accepting a request and adopting a boss posture that expects your horse to submit to your demands. I guess it comes down to whether you seek a partnership or a puppet. Sure, you can win some of the battles with manipulation, but this can be costly if you lose the fire that makes your horse outstanding in the process. I’ve seen how the herd here reacts to bullies. I’d rather be a Midge, who rules quietly with understanding and rapport – even if it moves me down the hierarchy to number two (I always liked Spock better than Kirk anyway).

Nanette Levin

Horse comedian of the week

Clover is a three-year-old Irish Draught Sport Horse filly. She’s always been precocious, a bit belligerent and an extreme athlete. This year, she effectively challenged her mother (who may school her after her current foal is weaned) and a newcomer last year to serve as the new herd leader. We started her under saddle this month with a whole lot of caution and a bit of concern over whether her ability to move at dizzying speed in leaps, bucks and directional changes might come into play when faced with a rider. Fortunately, none of this has been a factor, yet, but we haven’t ventured to the outdoors either.

Her personality was obvious from day one with her fearless, savvy and brazen attitude toward people and the fact that she was standing and nursing within about twenty minutes of being dropped. We knew an early blacksmith encounter was a wise and necessary duty. At week four, we introduced her to our patient and kind provider. Mind you, this filly was prepared with rituals prior to his arrival that involved picking up all four feet each day and having her do so with ease, tolerance and staying power as we required longer time periods for each foot to remain up and secured. She accepted this routine easily and willingly. We weren’t looking to trim her, just get her accustomed to the routine and some of the equipment. Of course, Clover had already demonstrated her alpha penchants in her proclivity for testing every new human she encountered to the max.

What unfolded was a scene we had never imagined. Two hours later, after unfathomable athletic maneuvers in response to mere request from the blacksmith to lift a left front foot, the light bulb went off. I sent the farrier off to a corner, picked up the foot in question (with ease) and handed it to him. We did each foot the same way and she calmly and willingly behaved.

This same filly was jumping in and out of our five-foot-high wood board paddock several weeks later just for fun while she was still nursing off her mother – with perfect form.

Later, she grew tired of this game, and found it more fun to send the entire herd through the fence (during winter months, of course, so replacing posts required hours of chipping through frozen ground) by getting them going toward the perimeter at about 30 MPH and slamming on the breaks inches before impact. Her dupes would slide and crash as she watched and chuckled unscathed. Then, she’d exit the paddock (never going much beyond the perimeter fence) and giggle at the crew who obediently remained in the pasture that was no longer secured.

She’s a hoot and we’ve been careful to channel her heart and spirit instead of defeating it. Each day, we chuckle at her antics and bravado, knowing this attitude is what will make her a stand-out athletic performer in the future.