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Young Horse Training

Maybe dogs and horses aren’t so different

I’m not a big fan of tricks for treats. I was steadfast in my resistance to this with horses through all the “new and improved” training techniques over the decades that heralded food as a “positive training” motivator. That’s good for creating muggers and distracting the horse from what you’re trying to communicate, but not very good at creating lasting understanding with your equine pal.

I’ve never really been a big fan of food bribes with my dogs either. Due to a couple of recent events, I’m digging my heels in deeper here too.

Maybe horse and dog training isn't all that different
Morrie, the puppy monster, giving Remi a roar as he celebrates his conquest.

Curiously, when I tell trainers that Morrie (my seven-month-old pup whose smarts can make him a tough one), is fixated on treats, they say “Yea!”. I say neigh. I’ve learned in working with both horses and dogs, using food as a motivator isn’t very good in the building rapport and a thinking animal department. It’s hard to get the full array of communications working when attention is singularly focused on the treat location.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not against giving quick and ample rewards for the responses you seek. A scratch in a favorite place, “good boy,” a break with something your horse (or dog) finds great fun or a release are all great ways to offer gratitude for understanding. It’s the food lure that bothers me.

Sure, I get clicker training became the rage and redirection vs. correction is a great sign of the times, but you won’t convince me that treats represent the best way to build a communications bridge.

With horses, you lose that critical aspect of training that creates a team of two minds working together to solve problems. There are many times I’ve welcomed an equine cohort ready, able and willing to get me out of a sticky situation I’ve gotten us into.

With dogs, I’ve found you might gain a happy and groveling companion, but you don’t get a partner that enjoys having a job. Sure, domesticated dogs became so because they learned to please for food as a survival instinct, but like horses, I don’t think most people give them enough credit for having independent minds.

Gatsby was the best assistant horse trainer I ever had (and I still miss him terribly). Of course, he had spent enough time on the city streets before the dog catchers wrangled him that his skin had grown around the collar on his neck. So, he had a pretty strong independent streak and knack for finding (killing) his favorite “treats”. I realized almost immediately with him (he was always the dog obedience class “don’t do” example), the standard obedience school technique of bribing with treats was a bad idea.

Morrie’s now learned to leap for treats (not the plan) and ignore simple commands like “sit” without a visible reward. When I stopped using treats for the pre-agility training class we’re in (I pretend for the teachers he’s getting them always, as I did with Gatsby), his understanding and performance improved dramatically. He loves to train. Getting rid of the treat reward made him more excited about the activity understanding and “good boy” accomplishments.

Remi (my 11-year-old mutt), quickly transformed from the most trusted and obedient dog I had ever known to an unresponsive and aloof brat after spending time with a couple and their Vizsla playing the in park. The Vizsla would only respond to treats. Remi delighted in the daily hour of gorging herself on cheese then decided she wasn’t coming when I called without a bribe in hand. This was a dog I trusted enough to let her off leash in public places with no concern she’d return to my side immediately on request. No more.

I’ve made the argument before that horses aren’t dogs and what works for canine compliance isn’t a good standard for young horse training. I’ve since decided tricks for treats isn’t a good teaching method for any species. Just look at what’s become of the generation of kids who have grown up on the “everyone wins” philosophy.

All that said, I was delighted to watch this video Colleen Kelly shared about a clever dog who set records for understanding and performance – without food bribes.


If you have trouble viewing this video here, the direct link is:

What is ground work with horse training?

From the way some present it, you’d think good horse training ground work requires a deep knowledge of trick training, horse whispering (a misnomer for sure), professional stature or hundreds of hours in planned activity.

Nope. All you really need is common sense mixed with a bit of horse sense. That’s something that can be applied by novices and, sadly, isn’t always by those calling themselves professionals.

Effective ground work – particularly when you’re focused on young horse training – requires mindfulness. If you’re not paying attention to how you’re interacting with your horse at all times, you’ll miss what he’s trying to tell you. Plus, he’ll get confused when you suddenly change your language.

Simply put, ground work is every you do with your horse when you’re not riding him.

This includes:

  • Grooming
  • Leading to the pasture
  • Preparing for vet visit demands
  • Holding for the vet
  • Preparing for the first blacksmith visit
  • Handling during blacksmith sessions (you have taught him to pick up his feet already, right?)
  • Quiet time you spend together in the barn or pasture
  • Introductions to tack, long lines, lunging, an area specified for training work and the trailer
  • Any time you spend together learning from each other when you’re not in the saddle

Sure you can get into fancy stuff to keep your horse (or more often you) entertained, but the lasting lessons will come from the daily, more mundane tasks.

Here’s the thing about ground work – it all counts. Most fail to recognize this.

Do you blame your horse for being disrespectful after you taught him to bolt from you at the gate because you’ve been in a hurry the last few dozen times so release the halter halfway through?

Do you get annoyed when you decide you want him to walk his shoulder to yours after you spent the last month leading three horses at a time or chatting with your friends not noting where your horse is while you trek to pastures together?

Do you rush through grooming with a “buck up” attitude when she tries to tell you something’s uncomfortable?

Do you make time together stressful, frightening or painful then wonder why your horse doesn’t gallop to you when you call?

It’s not so much about what you do, but much more about what you don’t do.

Smart strategies for successful ground work training

First, don’t think you need to be a seasoned equine professional to be good at ground work. Just use your head. What’s important is that you notice things, are consistent and work to ensure your horse understands what you want.

This doesn’t require a “teach them respect” tactic (this is particularly counter-productive with Alphas – you must earn this). Nor is it effective to take a “let’s all be friends” approach. Like kids, horses won’t understand what you want unless you’re clear about it. Sometimes this entails setting some boundaries. Other times, there’s a need to listen.

If you pay attention, you’ll be able to pick up a whole lot from your horse to help you get where you want to go (no horse whispering certification necessary).

Using ground work to address horse issues and personalities

Learn what ground work is and how easy it is to apply to any horse training goal at http://HorseSenseAndCents.comI’ve found it easiest to get the best read on a horse’s personality by watching him with a herd. Don’t assume the bully is an Alpha. More frequently, this is a scared horse pretending bravado. Instead, watch which horses they buddy up with. See how the herd responds to them (your Alphas are generally followed and not feared – that bully at the water trough or round bale is usually avoided, not revered).

Sometimes there’s history that needs to be worked through. A horse’s past is going to affect how she responds to you in the present. Know this and adjust your approach appropriately.

Are you dealing with an Alpha (be sure) that’s intimidated or bossed a former owner? This requires a stand your ground approach (NOT aggressive or inciting) where you calmly ride through the tantrum as you continue to ask for cooperation. So, let’s say you’re dealing with a bolter at the gate. Secure the horse (if this means putting a chain over the nose so she doesn’t burn your hands as she rips the lead rope through them, do this – just know how to use it right first) so you have enough control to get through the gate and shut it behind you. DON’T pull on the lead. Let her pull against it if she wishes. Slacken your hold as you can. Turn her to face you and the gate. Wait to release her until she stands quietly.

Do you suspect (or know) your horse has been abused or neglected? Trust issues are going to surface here, requiring a very different approach. This horse will initially assume you’re not going to keep him safe and comfortable. Short, easy, patient lessons are best here. Can you find a favorite place to scratch? Go there any time he gets brave. Did he let you brush his belly (for a few seconds) without jumping away for a change? Spend a few minutes rubbing his “oh, that feels so good” spot. Having trouble leading? Work on short distances, quit early and give lavish praise. Make your requests of him short and your time helping him feel comfortable long.

Getting to know your horse

Perhaps the biggest value of ground work – particularly with young horse training or work with horses that have issues borne from prior history – is, done right, it helps you get to know your horse.

If something isn’t working, try a different approach. Yes, with certain horses, you need to finish the lesson, but that doesn’t mean you must insist she work off the cues you choose.

Watching how your horse reacts to the little things you do daily will teach you a lot about him too.

Everything you do is teaching him. Don’t forget that and you’ll learn to master ground work training in ways you never imagined. The added bonus is, with a bigger focus on what happens on the ground vs. in the saddle (hopefully those aren’t happening at the same time), you’ll be able to create an incredible bond with your horse. That mutual understanding will morph so it seems all you have to do is think a thought and your horse responds with your wishes.

Have fun with this. Then, your horse will too.

Young Horse Training Tip #4: Pasture time is training strategy

It’s not fair to expect a young horse to be focused on your requests if he’s not allowed time to kick up his heels. A tiny paddock available through the back stall door isn’t enough.

If your horse is at your home, there are many ways you can design space with what you have. Sometimes you can do this at a boarding facility too. Any good young horse training strategy must include time for your baby to kick up his heels.

A horse around the house

Your spouse might get a little cranky about this one, but it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to put temporary electric fencing on a lawn. Just make sure you spend time working with your horse to ensure he’ll honor the boundary first. Also, it’s best not to do this during the muddy season.

Be prepared to rotate frequently or your lawn will get gone.

If you have some land, consider fencing it in (bigger is better in this case – you can always subdivide a perimeter with cheaper and mobile materials).

Mowing actually improves pasture condition. Don’t hesitate to cut back the weeds once in a while so tenderer, more nutritious (and palatable) plants can grow.

While there are a slew of cautions out there about poisonous plants you must scour your property to remove (do this if you have the time for a safer approach), horses are generally pretty good about knowing what’s bad for them (or what they need to supplement what they’re not getting from you) if ample, nutritious feed is provided.

Don’t forget the importance of salt (and know horses have different needs than what’s provided in the typical 50 pound blocks designed for cows).

Always make water available. This means ensuring no ice crusted water. Colic is a big issue with horses that are dehydrated.

What are good options for fencing in a pasture? It depends. With over 20 years spent fencing acres at Halcyon Acres®, we’ve tried it all. Some solutions worked better than others. What’s necessary for training facility with hot bloods and transients shipping in frequently, though, may not be essential for your particular situation. Even so, sometimes it’s surprising what works best.

We’ll cover what worked and what didn’t including some creative approaches for fencing on a budget in the next blog post.

Getting creative at boarding facilities

Young Horse Training Tips from
If you think you can keep young horse training a happy time for your horse without time to buck and play, you’re in for a big challenge.

If you don’t have access to a barn that offers enough pasture space for your horse to run (with equine companions for him to frolic with), you might be able to use land available but not yet fenced. See the section above for some ideas on things you should consider as you envision a plan borne from sweat equity and an open-minded facility owner.

Get an agreement in writing before you invest heavily. It’s fair for you to incur the cost of time and materials to construct a pasture where your horse gets first dibs, but you don’t want to pony up without assurances you’ll be able to use the space after your project is completed.

If you don’t put pen to paper before you begin, the property owner can enjoy your work product without your horse ever doing the same. They can ask you to leave any time. It’s also important that you both understand what the other expects in terms of materials used, access, responsibilities for care relative to turnout and other concerns.

If you’re boarding at a place that has no possibility of pasture turnout, consider a move.

Land available means opportunity. It’s relatively inexpensive (although can be labor intensive) to pound in T-posts (cap them to be safe) and string an electric fence. There’s tape, rope, wire and other options available.

People tend to put a huge emphasis on stalls (mostly for their convenience). Most horses are happy turned out 24/7 if there’s ample water, food and shelter. Run in sheds work fine for most situations. Horses tend to seek shelter more in the summer (for protection from bugs, sun and heat) than winter, so make sure during any time of the year shelter is provided if a pasture is your horse’s home.

Of course, the most important factor for the majority of horses is your company and attention.

Pasture living

You could save a lot of money housing your horse if you’re willing to consider turn-out board. Just ensure this provider is attentive to keeping water filled and cleaned, closely checking each horse at least daily, supplementing for nutritional needs throughout the year (hay, grain, salt, supplements as necessary), able to at least handle minor injuries and knows when an issue needs a vet, has safe fencing & pastures and enough shelter to accommodate all horses in the herd. On the latter point, there’s usually at least one bully in the mix, so you should look for multiple sheds or an L-shaped shelter so lesser ranking equines can escape from the elements.

Freedom without turnout?

If there are no options where you live besides stall residence and/or tiny paddocks (we have a lot of UK readers where this is the case), let your horse loose in the indoor or outdoor arena daily. Teach him to lunge (take it easy here – if it’s his only release let him play without reprimanding him too hard for doing so or chasing him around to get him tired). Figure a way you two can play together (safely) while you’re off his back with whatever you can find for space.

You can also talk to neighbors who may have existing pastures and compatible companions and negotiate visiting rights. If you’re in the country, chances are you’ll find a generous soul who welcomes you and your horse into their home without an eye toward reciprocity (although you should consider what you can do to help make their life easier).

If you’re in the suburbs or a wealthy area, people are likely going to want to be paid even if you only walk or truck in for short day trips. Still, that’s not a bad idea if you’re only boarding option(s) have no pasture space. You might be able to negotiate a trade with stall cleaning, turn-out help, holding for the blacksmith or other duties you can perform to save them time.

Make turn-out part of the young horse training process. A horse locked in a stall all day will get bored, fresh and frustrated. That makes it a lot harder for him to pay attention to what you’re trying to teach him.

Young Horse Training Tip #3: Ride every other day

Trial and error is always a big teacher when it comes to young horse training. Sometimes, what you discover will surprise you.

For many years at Halcyon Acres®, young horses were lucky to get a day off each week once training started. Probably a big part of this thinking came from the racetrack, where young horses ship in, get pumped up with grain & supplements and are denied turnout time to release the energy their youth and diets are struggling to contain. Many owners are afraid to pasture Thoroughbreds even on the farm, concerned about injuries.

Imagine how much fun it is trying ride out the exuberance that explodes after a day or two off with this combination of high energy feed and confinement. It’s more fun to watch than do – at least once you get out of your 20s, learn you break where you used to bend and lose that thrill for the challenge no one else can master.

On the trial and error front, fortunately, when you’re working with your own horse, you can experiment with him in ways that might be difficult to justify with a paid assignment.

Buster provided one of these learning moments, more due to neglect than intent.

Better young horse training approach discovered by accident

Young Horse Training Tip #3
Good young horse training requires you remember he’s still a baby.

About the time we were ready to start Buster under saddle, a large number of client horses shipped in. So, when time ran out in the day, Buster was the one who lost his turn.

Curiously, he progressed much faster when not ridden daily. With Buster, three days off to one day on proved to be the best approach for his pleasing personality and somewhat simple mind.

Given the chance to process lessons longer, Buster was able retain everything from prior days (instead of getting frustrated with poor progress). When we switched to two training days a week, he eagerly tackled each next training session ready to understand and enjoy a new challenge.

That experience held the key to new thinking contrary to precepts held by a majority of young horse trainers.

We started trying a day off for every day of training with dozens of young client horses. As we tested daily and less frequent under saddle training, we found most learned faster and enjoyed training time more with an every-other-day approach. Of course, these horses had ample time to frolic in the pastures between riding sessions.

While each horse is different (yes, this is an important consideration with everything you do to bring a youngster along), it’s worth experimenting to see if daily or a less frequent training schedule works best for your horse.

Remember, he’s still a baby

Young horses don’t have the attention span, nor the mental and physical capacity to train like an older equine. They can only process a little bit at a time. If you are able to teach your horse one new lesson with each training session, great! Quit and congratulate both of you for the achievement. You won’t get lasting success, nor a happy horse, if you try to cover too many things in too long a time period. Your horse will start to push back or shut down and resent training time.

In most cases horses are started long before their bones are done growing. Giving them a day or more in between riding trips gives their young bodies time to recover. Going slow keeps them comfortable enough to get excited about the next ride.

Are you wondering how you can you achieve that bonding experience promised from chasing a foal around the perimeter of a round pen and not risk soundness (of mind and body)?

You can’t.

Young horse’s soft tissue in particular, but bones too, are at risk anyway. This circular, prolonged pounding speed is not natural. There’s a better way to encourage your horse to do what you want – by helping him discover it’s what he wants.

Protect your horse’s mind and body with restraint

Spending daily hours in the saddle will undermine proper physical development of the young horse as well. Bones are still soft, the horse is still struggling to balance himself while carrying your weight and soft tissue is fragile. Keep lessons short and give his young body and mind time to recover and process his experiences between rides.

There’s no reason you should need to spend more than 20-30 minutes at a time riding in the first couple or few months of training, even if you’ve adopted an every-other-day or less frequent approach that suits your horse’s learning style.

Unless, of course, you’re dealing with a true alpha (most are mislabeled and misunderstood) where it’s critical to finish what you start. It’s best to choose your battles carefully with these types.

On those days where you wind up in an unexpected battle of wills, do plan to schedule time the following day for a (hopefully) short ride. If you can get past the prior day’s challenge without incident, quit quickly and give her a couple of days off to reward her “understanding.”

If you’re starting a horse under saddle that’s less than 5 years old, realize his mind is going to take longer to absorb what you’re trying to teach him than a more mature horse. Also know, his body is still growing (some breeds mature more quickly, others, like the Irish Draught, take longer). That means you can do a lot of damage to his long-term soundness if you push too hard. An every-other-day approach with short rides can help his body heal and mind catch up.

Be happy and he will too

Test your horse to see if he learns best with daily training time, every other day, or more days off before you tack up again.

You can still do training on the ground in between. This doesn’t have to be formal training time. You should be thinking about helping your horse understand how you’d like him to behave with everything you do. He’ll retain learning from leading to grooming to how you respond to his behavior at feeding time with your next lesson under saddle.

Give your young horse short lessons, time to process between training sessions, praise the moment he does what you want and a chance to be included in the training conversation and you’ll find him nickering when he sees you, running to the gate and excited to tackle new challenges come riding time.

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.

Young Horse Training Tip #1: Listen to what your horse is trying to tell you

So much is lost when we focus more on telling a horse what to do than what he’s trying to convey. The joy that comes from making a connection can’t be fully expressed in words. There’s that ah-ha moment in young horse training when human and horse understand.

It’s surreal and often sudden. You’ll never find this place if you don’t learn to listen. Often the simplest things can mean the difference between an amazing rapport and grudging compliance – or dangerous resistance.

Young horses usually misbehave because they don’t understand what you want. If you give them a chance to be a part of the conversation, most will get excited about figuring out how to please you. When you’re both in synch – able to predict the others’ needs or thoughts before they are spoken or shown, it’s an incredible feeling that will change the way you approach every young horse you meet in the future.

young horse training tip #1That doesn’t mean blindly following a horse’s lead or caving the moment they push back. True rapport comes from a partnership where you are willing to listen to what your horse is trying to tell you, but are also able (and courageous enough) to know when it’s right to stand your ground.

There’s been an interesting development in recent decades masquerading under the moniker “natural horsemanship” encouraging people (especially novices – very sad) to establish themselves as the “alpha” by aggressively asserting demands on a horse. This often backfires (particularly with true alphas but also timid horses) with either violent responses or lost trust.

Most horses enjoy the opportunity to relax with a leader they believe will keep them safe. You can’t earn that kind of respect and trust by being a dictator. Wild horse watching convictions aside, if you carefully observe the interactions of a domesticated herd, most embrace an alpha that’s kind, confident and often only aggressive when they see another herd member being treated unfairly, or getting cocky and demanding in ways that undermine herd harmony.

Frankly, in my experience, most don’t want (nor ask for) the leader designation – they’re appointed.

I had a farm herd of 10 – 20 horses running on about 30 acres for a number of years. The lead mare (it was almost always a gal) changed almost as much (sometimes more) than the seasons. I even had a yearling filly assume this position. Each former delegate seemed to enjoy the break, although took their turn periodically.

This whole idea of equine domination by intimidation seems wrong-minded, particularly given how most lead mares assume the position in a farm herd.

Sure, there are the violent, domineering, selfish horses that demand they drink first, eat first, have a single shelter area to themselves (until a true alpha says no with non-aggressive confidence) and be first, but most of the time, this behavior is fear-based. They’re not leaders. These horses are masking huge insecurities with bravado.

I’ve found the same holds true with people who subscribe to a philosophy that that best way to reach a horse’s mind is to forcefully control his body.

These people have considerable monetary successes to brag about (and huge marketing machines to promote their status claims). They are adept and artful at getting horses to do what they want.

The problem is what they don’t tell you: even with a domineering approach (not my preference), they’re adjusting what they do based on what they’re reading from the horse in real time. There’s also the issue of the horse checking out.

It’s very sad to see so many novices and even experienced horsemen get blindly focused on formula to the point of spoiling the horse (or getting hurt as the horse acts out to be heard amidst rigid and rote demands).

The systems created around these trainers’ experiences and the associated products have worked well for a good number of people (not so sure what the horses would say). Not too many, though, are dealing with Thoroughbreds – nor alphas.

Working with hot breeds (Arabians are even more challenging with their sensitivity and smarts) gives you a very different perspective on how to really reach a horse in a way that convinces them to want to help you get where you’re trying to go.

That said, keeping your young horse in the conversation, no matter what breed or mix he may be, will give you a much richer experience and a more able partner willing to give you more than you imagined. If you’re lucky enough to be working with a horse that doesn’t have issues associated with prior handling, you’ll be building the foundation for all future reactions to the challenges this equine encounters.

Done right, your ability to listen and customize your approach will create a horse that loves training, a bond beyond what you could have envisioned and an equine ready and able to protect you from your stupid mistakes in ways you never would have considered to ask for (or demand).

Listen to what your horse is trying to say. If you think young horse training is all about telling a horse what to do, you’re missing the joy of making a connection. Your equine will teach you amazing things if you’re willing to pay attention. The bond you build will give you tales to tell that last a lifetime.

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!

Mean horses can surprise you in good ways

turning challenging horses into willing partners
Bred mean doesn’t mean you can’t reach them.

After more than a couple of decades in the Thoroughbred racing arena, I do believe some horses are born mean (or crazy). With no breed registry incentives for most owners (many never see or handle their horses except from the grandstands or winner’s circle) to consider the softer side of breeding, generations of speed-only focus have created some interesting results. Things like temperament (this does breed through), conformation (ignorance is big a culprit here), bloodline maladies, bone, feet and other factors beyond black type in a pedigree get forgotten in the race to produce the next superstar.

Sadly, few consider that that speed won’t produce win pictures and earnings checks if the stud produces nut cases that get banned, spindly-legged, bad-footed horses that break down or mean horses that are so singularly focused they’re unsuitable for a career. Mares that are mean, slow, crooked or heartless don’t help either (even if you got them for free).

You can turn mean horses with customized and thoughtful young horse training

That said, it’s rare for me to encounter an inborn mean horse in other breeds. Handling can certainly make a horse mean, but few are wired that way. In the last year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a Morgan cross that’s just that, but so amazing in what he’s decided to do with it.

His father is vicious, according to what I uncovered after starting to work with this guy. You can tell his go-to place is violent. What’s so incredible about this gelding, though, is even with blood boiling, he wants to be a good boy. Give him an immediate acknowledgement for a try and his attitude transforms.

Of course, he’s one that needs boundaries and a swift response for those moments when his instincts overtake that alter-ego trying to come out on issues that have already been addressed and understood (which is curious – ordinarily this type of response with a mean horse will escalate things), but he’s decided he wants to learn, participate and be appreciated. You can almost see the warring factions duking it out in his brain as he tries to process what’s going on around him. Somehow, the praise seems to weaken the power of instinct with this confused fellow.

Be careful asking young horses too much, too soon

mean horses can be hard to reach but some can make you smile
If you dig deeper with your mean horse you may be able to reach him.

Recently, he was introduced to driving. This kid’s not the brightest bulb in the barn, so can only handle very small doses of input and insistence. It’s typical for young horses to be this way (he’s five), but much more so with this critter who doesn’t have a whole lot working between the ears.

Apparently, these driving lessons made him unridable. Over the phone it sounded like the young man performing the driving lessons had triggered his mean side by failing to praise and pushing too hard. On site, it became clear his trust was shattered. This gelding still wanted to connect and play with humans, but no longer had confidence in himself – and certainly not people after experiences that were too confusing for him to understand when he was doing what was being requested and when he wasn’t. It was incredible to see this boy, who is clearly constantly fighting a mean instinct, still wanting to be a good boy.

We worked through it in about an hour. The owner was smart to recognize the issue and call for help.

The joy you get from reaching a tough horse is priceless

Severe bridling issues were resolved in about ten minutes (he has a favorite rub spot between his eyes that has a huge calming effect) to the point that the owner was able to bridle him with ease – then and every time after.

Riding time was a joy after that as I joined the pair on foot through the trials. This was a horse that had previously settled best by moving to trot when concern was overwhelming, but now needed to stop, look and settle to resolve his angst. That was a thrill for his rider too, who was dreaming of quiet walk outings together through the woods.

What we discovered is this guy needed more one-on-one riding time with his owner to bond and learn before he was ready to take on new people, new demands and new approaches. While this gal is a novice, she has great instincts in responding to what this horse needs and does – knowing when he’s testing and when he’s honestly concerned. She’s still learning on the quick praise front for tries, but can see how dramatically the horse responds to this, so recognizes the importance of being there soon.

Once the pair get that deep connection under saddle (with rides being such a joy she’s now spending a lot of time trekking around to accomplish this), he’ll likely handle driving requests with ease – provided she’s there to encourage and supervise.

Instinct doesn’t always rule with horses

What makes me so fond of this guy (he’s not the overt endearing type) is his decision to fight what drives him, preferring a more engaging and fulfilling partnership approach to life. I don’t ever recall seeing a horse work so hard to stifle instinct drivers for a different reality. Watching him puff up and alter his ego in response to recognition of the little tries is an incredible experience. Seeing him quickly come back to that place after an encounter that would make most mean horses more resolved in their conviction to hate humans was inspiring. You gotta love that kind of discernment – particularly when it comes from a horse with less brain cells to rub together than most. What a special guy he is.

Have you encountered a horse that surprised you? Please share in the comments below. If you would, please also go to the left of this article and tweet, share, G+, Stumble or whatever else you’re into. Thanks!   

Sometimes young horses and mature riders are a good fit

Special young horse teaches trainer a new lesson

It stands to reason that putting a young horse with a green rider – or a more mature tentative rider who harbours deep fears from prior injuries – is a recipe for disaster.  This year, I was again reminded that there are no absolutes.

Once in a while, you find a very special horse that goes against all the norms and, in so doing, speaks to you (sometimes it takes shouting – he’d been telling me what he wanted for a good number of weeks – probably more like years – before I actually heard him). Buster is such a horse.

Buster’s Born

I bred Buster. He was born very correct, cute and unflappable. I wasn’t overly impressed with him at first because he was so nonchalant about everything. Everyone who met him fell in love. At first, I thought they were silly to be so charmed. Later, I realized I was the fool. For so many years, I’ve been focused on spotting high level performance prospects. Such equines usually show their proclivity due to what that kind of heart brings into mix in early handling lessons in ways that make them challenging, but delightful when you know what will happen if such energy and precociousness is channelled.

Once I started Buster under saddle, though, I knew I was working with a very special horse. He was old in his wisdom while careful in his youth as he willingly tackled new experiences. With far less than thirty days under saddle (I’ve never had a youngster I would have trusted with this one), he was carrying my young nephews around and figuring out their confused cues for steering, stopping and going (they had never been on a horse before sans a single pony ride).

Young horse has to scream to be heard

Last month, a trainer friend stopped by Halcyon Acres to look at a few horses here for a client, including Buster. She brought some friends. One gal had broken her neck in a horse wreck and wasn’t even looking for a horse, but had decided if she was ever in the market, it would be an old, seasoned mount. I turned Buster lose fully tacked after I hopped off him (he usually follows me around like a loyal dog in such situations) and he spent the trip to the gate with his nose glued to her back. The next week, I received a call asking for some time with Buster that resulted in an immediate offer (it was a shock). This was not the home or career I had envisioned for this horse.

I had a lot of interest in Buster, from Colorado, to Virginia, to Pennsylvania – places where he would have had a much more visible and esteemed career, and the purchase price would have been significantly higher.

Buster chooses a home – probably for life

Sometimes destiny plays a role in life, and with horses. A horse communicator friend of mine called me to let me know Buster had chosen this mature rider and pushed me to consider his wishes. I spoke to the trainer who brought the friend and learned more about the buyer and the home he would go to.

Yesterday, Buster trucked out of here to a new home where he calmly walked off the trailer, surveyed his surroundings with an easy and quiet comfort, gave a heavy sigh and dropped his head to graze. He’s three.

This little kid wanted to do this. He chose a job that gave him more satisfaction than glory (and I don’t care who may argue horses don’t think this deep – in my experience, some do). Buster will take care of this mature rider in ways that might not be possible with an older and more experienced mount, because he’ll quickly strive to understand her wants and cues and remake his reactions to reflect her needs. This old-brained soul has never spooked in his life and is as sure footed as they come – important considerations in this situation. His new project guide is a seasoned and patient equestrian, so he’ll thrive with her attention and give her the confidence to get back into the riding game.

Horses teach you new things every day

I’ve spent decades cautioning against putting green horses with riders who are not seasoned and/or confident. It’s tough to return to riding as a mature adult, and usually, a young horse would be the wrong choice for an older rider looking for pure pleasure. In this case, I was proven wrong. It’s a first, and may be a last, but I hope not. I hope to have the opportunity to breed another horse like Buster with a more cognizant ear on his or her wishes. As hard as it was to say goodbye, I’m thrilled to have played a role (thanks for the help, Buster) in putting these two together. The idea of producing a horse that loudly chooses to be a safeguard and partner with a rider who needs him is more rewarding than I would have imagined. It will be so fun hearing about and learning from the experiences the two have together.  I hope she’ll choose to share her updates and experiences publicly through this blog.

Do you have jitters about that first ride off the property ride with your horse?

Act fast (before June 4th) to grab our e-booklet Preparing you and your horse for the first off-the-property ride for free

preparing you and your horse for the first off-the-property rideNovices and professionals alike get butterflies (and sleepless nights) thinking about how that first ride away from home might go. Of course, for experienced riders this usually involves a first for the horse, where with novices (hopefully) they’re on a more seasoned mount. In both cases, the angst you feel is magnified as you express it to your horse. Fortunately, there are things you can do at home to help keep both the horse and the human calm, knowing your horse is ready to trust you to keep him safe.

Of course, that adrenalin will always flow with the excitement of new adventures (for both you and your horse), but if you’re both ready to team up to tackle challenges, it will be a rush instead of a panic. Knowing you’ve built that bond makes your first public appearance a lot easier.

We’ve recently released a new title through Horse Sense and Cents®, Preparing you and your horse for the first off-the-property ride. You can find it here as a Kindle Edition and soon, as an audio title. If you grab it now (May 31th through June 4th) you can get it for free. Please consider returning the courtesy of this complimentary offering (we love our readers) by leaving an Amazon review or at least doing a two-second click (this book will appear on your Amazon page after you download it – just click the cover and you’ll be given an option to rate the book) to give a (five 😉) star recommendation.    

Here’s an excerpt from the e-booklet:

Homework for travel success

After you’ve established a good partnership on the ground, it’s time to carry the confidence you’ve built with each other over to under saddle work. Keep the home lessons short with big rewards. From your ground work, you should have been able to find some way besides treats to let your horse know you appreciate his effort. It depends on the horse, but some respond well to a ‘good girl’, others have a favorite spot they like rubbed or scratched, maybe it’s letting them jump a fence, eat some grass, nuzzle with a buddy – you figure out what really gives your particular horse great pleasure and use this to thank him for a job well done.

Obviously, what you do to show appreciation for efforts along the way will be different than the grand thank you at the end of a session. Of course, it’s always important to reward the horse for the try, so be quick about acknowledging his effort any time he does something you ask under saddle with a quick ‘atta boy’ that he recognizes as a sign that’s what you’re looking for with a reward he appreciates.

If you want to keep your horse comfortable and confident as you ask him to perform off the property, make sure you don’t over-face him or put him in harm’s way at home (or the stable where he is boarded). This means keeping the lessons short enough so he doesn’t get frustrated, only asking for reasonable progression day to day, being calm and encouraging with new challenges and exposing him to what he’s likely to see when you get to your destination.

We’re trying the KDP Select program for the first time with this title. We’ll decide, based on how you all respond (with action, comments, reviews, etc.) whether we’ll offer future titles as Kindle library loans and free downloads for a five day period (this is a supposed perk of this program) as they are released. Frankly, I’m not sure if this is a good idea for Horse Sense and Cents®, nor how to make it work. I’m not even clear if it’s something you all would appreciate. Are any readers using the Kindle lending library? Are you comfortable downloading free Kindle offerings (you can do this with or without a Kindle Reader, although they do make it harder without one)? WE have a large UK blog audience (and book buying populace) – do you have access to KDP Select titles and associated free download promotions? Have you seen KDP Select participants leverage this tool brilliantly? Would you be willing to share strategies you’ve seen done well with this promotional program? Any feedback, ideas, thoughts or comments you could provide to help us decide how we proceed with this in the future would be so much appreciated.

Please help me (us – it is a team making all this so) decide on what we do in the future to make what we offer most convenient, appealing and useful to you. Call, e-mail, comment or share to provide some direction on future decisions.

Thanks so much for any help you’re willing to provide here. This blog is usually focused on providing great free tips and virtually no promotion or requests, but I could really use some help from all of you right now to help shape our strategy for the future. You’re awesome!