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Young Horse Training

Gatsby spent one life too many

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

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

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

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

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

Determined and stubborn to the end

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the memories!   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a character!    

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Gatsby

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

gatsby on couch
Goodbye, Gatsby.

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

Horse leadership doesn’t work well when you demand respect

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

Creating confidence with young horse training

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

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

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

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

Trails are the best for starting horses under saddle

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

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

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

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

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

Why are the horses we remember most fondly so devilish?

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

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

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

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

Childhood horses remembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching the hard horse

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

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


Young horse training behaviorial problems – sometimes it’s about pain

Stefanie Reinhold offered a wonderful article recently on her a Horse Wellness site that included nine short video tutorials (actually ten videos, with the last one more of a promotional message, but fun to watch). These videos were culled from YouTube material posted by Jochen Schleese  of Schleese Saddlery Service, who is also a former Olympic Rider, Certified Master Saddler and faculty member of the German National Riding School. Here’s a sample (the first lesson) of the spotlight.

It occurred to me, as I watched each one, how many young horse training issues could be resolved with knowledge gleaned from these lessons provided to ensure your horse is comfortable with the saddle you choose (and how much the wrong one can hurt).

We’re lucky at Halcyon Acres® to be dealing with primarily young horse training assignments from clients (most equines that come in here haven’t started on their career path yet) so usually aren’t to a point where pain and memory issues – or soundness concerns – are irreversible.  Usually these projects involve horses who have never been started under saddle or had an initial bad experience; sometimes it’s a mere failure to communicate; and on occasion, it’s a case where a horse has escalated the volume of his comment because he’s in pain and not being heard.

Tack fit issues and associated pain are rarely something clients consider. Admittedly, I learned I am guilty of this too, with eyes opened from the third video (gullet channel width). Here’s a surprising instructional lesson on that one from Jochen.

I’ll be taking a look at this as an issue with a super pleaser farm owned mare that’s been resistant to requests the next time she’s tacked up.

This series that Stefanie’s compiled from Jochen’s material is definitely worth the time to watch. In fact, I’m feeling a twinge of guilt from ignorance and the resulting unintentional pain I may have inflicted. More importantly, I’m grateful for some new knowledge I’ll carry forward with every future mount. No matter your level of riding or knowledge, I imagine you’ll pick up something you didn’t know from these great lessons.

Consider subscribed to Stefanie’s blog. It’s a good one. Seems she’s posting with some frequency now (it was quiet for quite a while). I always enjoy learning from her posts. She’s toned down the technical nature and language of late, which now makes her content a great read for any level horseman. Check it out.

If you find yourself with a horse behaviorial issue you can’t resolve after eliminating pain as a possible cause, we’re starting to produce very affordable e-booklets (about 5000 words each). These currently include Reaching Alpha Horses, Bringing home and off-the-track Thoroughbred and Preparing you and your horse for the first off the property ride. There available on this website (PDFs) and at Amazon as Kindle editions. For $2.99, they’re worth a look if you find yourself stuck or enjoy reading stories and insight from lessons learned the hard way.

Do you have stories to share of pain discoveries that have transformed your challenging horse into a willing partner? Please share in the comments below.

Good young horse training people aren’t parrots

Who would have thought Conan O’Brien could provide insight into young horse training faux pas?

Whether you’re a professional trainer or a horse owner trying to connect with your buddy through young horse training efforts, you’re not likely to reach the horse if the methods you use are based on formula approaches. Forget about the lost in translation dilemma when you try to implement step-by-step programs designed by others to accommodate their way of thinking, feeling and seeing. You’ll find even more disconnects if you assume each horse processes the guidance you provide in a similar fashion. Genetic wiring, prior experiences, personality styles and horse proclivities all play a role in designing an effective strategy to build a partnership with the horse. If you’re not keeping your horse in the conversation, you’re losing opportunities to bond on a much deeper level.

Given my prior media experience, I laughed out loud at the Conan O’Brien skit featured below. Often reality is stranger than fiction. As a former daily newspaper sports department staffer (my position involved evening hours wrapping up content for later editions as scores come in after the early versions are put to bed), I’ve witnessed how the staff responsible for culling late night wire service stories operate. This is usually done at breakneck speed as each deadline looms. Stories are culled from national and international feeds. Since the primary role of this department is to select stories provided by others, edit content for space constraints and craft headlines to fit the newspaper column width (which is why you sometimes see some very odd decisions here), errors often get carried across the nation (or globe). Proofing copy and verifying accuracy isn’t usually part of the job description. The distance your newspaper must travel to get to you can dictate how old the news is you read. And you thought everyone received the same paper, didn’t you?

As a former radio program producer and host, I’ve also watched local radio station ‘news anchors’ grab their stories from the local paper headlines, or more often, when laziness strikes, mimic the news relayed by broadcast market competitors who provide news segments earlier in the morning. It reminded me of how some see horse training. Conan’s lampoon isn’t so much a reach as it is a reflection of reporting reality.




How does news reporting relate to young horse training?

Of course, there are two facets to the dilemma associated with this comic illustration as it pertains to reaching your horse. One is the fact that every horse processes information a little bit differently. Perhaps more importantly, if you keep doing the same thing without getting the desired response from your horse, maybe it’s time to change your message. As Albert Einstein quipped ““Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

The next time you blame your young horse for misbehaving during your training, consider what you may be doing to cause misunderstandings. Parroting what someone else designs (or copies) is rarely a good way to connect with your particular equine. If you’re seeking a professional to work with your horse in areas where your expertise is lacking, ask if you can spend some time watching him work with a variety of horses. If you see him putting every student through the exact same regimen, question his talent at reading horses. The best trainers customize their approach to build a responsive rapport with every horse.

If you find yourself challenged with a young horse training issue or even one involving a more seasoned mount, feel free to shoot me an e-mail (or leave a response in the comments below) and I’ll try to help. We also offer e-booklets,  e-coaching, horse issue assessments (at your home for one you own or input on a horse you’re considering for purchase or adoption) and starting under saddle and/or reprogramming services for horses that have issues. 

Willful ponies help kids learn

Any of us who started riding as a young kid likely encountered a pony that saw it as his mission to knock us down a peg – or four. My first was Wally – a Welsh cross who starred in the lesson program my parents signed me up for as the cute little black bundle most likely to whip into the center of the ring and screech on the brakes during canter sessions. He was crafty – so long as I was paying attention and on the ready, he’d be an angel. The moment I relaxed and started enjoying the rhythm and ride, he’d grab the opportunity to introduce me to the arena footing.

Of course, the irony of the whole situation is I never would have been paired with Wally if the instructors and barn management were allowed to exercise their wisdom on selecting an appropriate mount. I was in heaven atop a 16.2hh grey mare named Gretchen, a seasoned, kind, careful and responsive mount. Sadly, other parents watching their kids in this group lesson expressed outrage over such a tiny kid (I was five or six at the time) on this tall horse. So the pros succumbed to pressure from couch quarterbacks and reassigned me to this devilish steed.

Challenges create better riders

Before I met Wally, the only time I had come off a horse without intent was with Popsey. She bucked me off in my third lesson as a beginner five-year-old. She taught me horses kick. I donned a hoofmark on my right cheek for weeks after I charged after her angry and ready to show her who was boss. This was a good lesson to learn.

Wally taught me how to handle falling off as a regular part of riding – and he gave me the courage to handle spills without concern. I grew very fond of Wally, as much as I resented being assigned to him initially. Still, I never did come to truly enjoy the rides on his back. Getting dumped was embarrassing at that age. It happened with such frequency, he kept me humiliated for much of the time we spent together. Sure, I learned to pay attention more, but I always reached for that moment of relaxation, rapport and connection – and every time I thought we were there, he’d get me.

Ed the naughty pony

I laughed out loud at the antics of ‘Ed the naughty pony’ in the video below. Today, most parents would be horrified to see a kid suffering such potential danger, but if you were a kid on a pony that taught you to be brave (and humble) once, you understand what a powerful learning experience this can be. There’s something about the bond that occurs between a child and a difficult horse that most adults can’t comprehend. As you watch Ed very carefully step over Ross as he’s thrown over his head, it’s clear Ed’s not looking to injure Ross, but is pretty determined about underscoring who’s boss. This relationship is one of conflict, but also a lot of caring.


Just to be fair, here’s a video (it’s longer) of Ed being (pretty) good.


Ponies and kids belong together

There’s something about kids and ponies that provide unparalleled learning experiences – or at least great fodder for future stories. Personally, I think the fears many adults instill in kids about the dangers of riding and the horror in falling may make it more dangerous for the child (and horse). We all know how stiffness and tension works against our connection with the horse, adds to the horse’s angst and makes staying with a horse – or having a safe landing – much harder. Plus, the lessons you learn as an unabashed youngster working through problems together with a difficult pony is a state you never quite capture as an adult focused on consequences (and mortality). If kids aren’t allowed to be exposed to situations with horses that surprise or unseat them with their antics, we may be hurting the quality of future equestrians that come up through the ranks to be solid competitors or teachers. Kids fall. They usually bounce and rarely break. The only way a rider gets good is by facing their fears and surviving to tell about it. It’s amazing how much more confident you become as a young rider after you brush yourself off and remount to achieve success. Those who have never taken a spill seem to ride with the fear that they will get hurt if they go off. Plus, a naughty pony can help kids learn about balance and connection a lot quicker than an old master who moves on cue to the ground person’s voice commands. Is it scary to let kids learn the hard way? You bet – particularly with the litigation lottery mentality that is ever-present today. Still, you can’t beat the education and talent a bratty pony can give a kid determined to truly understand artful horsemanship. It’s a quandary.

If you’re looking for tips, stories, lessons learned, insight from a variety of professional perspectives and a fun read, check out Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners for a signed by author copy or you can find it on Amazon as a print book and Kindle edition.


Recalculating – what a Garmin can teach you about horse training

I’m one of these types that embrace technology kicking and screaming. When I was in college, we had a rudimentary computer lab, but I preferred to drive ten miles to have my term papers typed (I was fast on a keyboard but way too inaccurate to create anything that wasn’t more White Out® than ink). What a gem I found in this gal willing to pound away on short notice while I waited for the lofty price of $15 (even then, I was making more on an hourly basis in my part-time job than she was – delegation is a wonderful thing to learn to do effectively). I still own a Smith Corona® which might even get dragged out one of these days to keep writing when the power is out. Of course, if I were up to speed on eBay, I could probably sell it for a fortune as memorabilia. I digress.

Women's Horse Industry Network Conference in TN
DeeAnn Dominy was an unexpected treat

Anyway, I decided to invest in a Garmin recently as I considered the best way to navigate to Tennessee for the Women’s Horse Industry Network Conference. All the area AAAs have shuttered their doors assuming everyone was getting their information online, so a Trip Tik® created with an actual live advisor was out. The last time I used MapQuest I was winding through back roads in Deliverance West Virginia that had me turning left or right every thirty seconds on roads that didn’t exist. Google Maps couldn’t find my destination.

I decided it was time to invest in a tool that would give Big Brother access (imagine my disabled OnStar® already does) and offer me directions I could easily understand in the dark.

This is GREAT (hearing Kent Dorfman in Animal House)!  It was amazing having this tool on the ready through five states during a fourteen hour trip beginning about an hour before sunset. Of course, it would have started an hour earlier if the darn thing included any directions in the package on how to use it. At the conference, Randi Thompson informed me everyone goes online to get product instructions. Funny, there was nothing in the product packaging that provided this educational note. Guess I’m way behind the times.

Elizabeth Shatner kept us all charged

Redirects can give you – and your horse – confidence

On the way back, I hit several unanticipated detours (and a bridge out on a major highway in KY). The signage was so horrible (make a left-hand exit on 70 mph roads with 20 yards notice) I continued to miss the Highway Department’s suggested route. That’s when I started appreciating the ‘recalculating’ mantra.

Being so calm through this challenge that would have ordinarily had me ready to scream caused me to reflect on how applicable this device approach is to horse training.

Technology and horse psychology compute

One of things that occurred to me as I continued to make wrong decisions on the road was the way the Garmin paused, stated “recalculating” and then offered a completely different path toward the desired destination. This is a lot like good horse training.

How much time do you spend pausing to consider an alternative path when things aren’t working with your horse? Even with this globally-connected satellite-driven tool it took at least five seconds to resolve confusion over a misdirected path. Funny, it never suggested a U-turn (even when I was headed in the wrong direction on exits – necessary coffee and associated bladder issues made these more numerous as the trip hit morning hours). I’ve seen trainers (or amateurs, or novice riders or instructors) take a whole lot less time to punish a horse over a misunderstanding. Most of the time, the process was to go back to a prior demand offered in the same way it was misconstrued.

In this case, technology does offer a better way to approach hands-on equine training challenges. Imagine how much more effective the outcome could be if those expecting a response from their horse made a request and considered a different path for understanding before they blamed the horse for misbehaving.

One thing I have found since relying on the Garmin, is I pay less attention to my direction. That’s a good cautionary note for horse interactions too – if you let someone else write your playbook, you risk missing what your horse is trying to tell you.

The next time your horse doesn’t do what want – or what your trainer demands, consider taking a moment to recalculate the directions you are giving. You might be surprised at how quickly and easily he responds to your wishes if you take a slightly different path to communication.

Please share your ‘recalculating’ stories in the comments below. If you’re challenged reaching a horse that’s not hearing you, consider how the book “Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners” might help you both in your journey.

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.







Working with into-pressure horses

Horses are instinctively into-pressure animals. Sometimes, though, you encounter one where this behavior goes to the extreme. You know the type – as you push them to move they sandwich you against the stall wall; when trying to avoid an obstacle under saddle they move toward your leg cue and wind up in it; leading’s best done with hard boots and curled toes as they seem to want to use your feet as a cushion – if you’ve had one, you know it.

Moving into pressure is rarely rude

There’s a big difference between a horse that doesn’t have a proper foundation and one that automatically comes toward you with pressure because it’s so deeply ingrained in their psyche. Rude behavior needs to be addressed very differently, but in these cases where the horse is responding honestly, you won’t get far if your tact is to ‘teach him respect.’ In fact, that term always puzzles me when it comes to horses – doesn’t seem that’s something you can teach if it doesn’t go both ways. I digress.

Traditional approaches are very counterproductive with these types. The more you ratchet up the pressure, the more they’re going to lean into you. That is, until you find a way to communicate that they can understand.

Working in the stall

Probably one of the most dangerous behaviors of these types occurs when you’re in close quarters. If you manage to get yourself between the horse and a wall and try to push them away, invariably you’ll find yourself immobilized between 1000 pounds of flesh and a solid structure designed to withstand flying hooves. It’s a scary place to be.

Interestingly, many of these horses also tend to be kickers, so the easier solution of moving the hindquarters first can put you in a precarious place. Lots of people will advocate using tools such as ropes, whips or other extensions of your hands, but since my goal is to build a relationship and rapport with the horse, I try to rely on communications tools that can be implemented without them.

The first thing to remember is the harder you push, the harder they will. Hitting doesn’t work either. Using hand signals, the voice, creative touch and other tools your body provides are good ways to help reinforce what you’re asking.

I’ve found the safest place to be is at the shoulder slightly in front of the horse (don’t do this with a striker). Use any term you like, but I choose ‘off’ or ‘over’ because these are terms not easily confused with any other word that may be part of training and it makes sense to me. Then, I’ll place my hand between the horse and the wall with my body out of pinning range. With a forefinger, I’ll poke the shoulder on the side I want them to move away from just above and in front of the point of the elbow. At first they’ll move toward your cue. Keep doing it, a little harder as they lean into you, until they stop or make the slightest move away from you. Make sure it’s pulsating and not constant pressure. Praise them lavishly when they stop leaning or move a little. Try again. You’ll find in a matter of minutes the horse will begin to understand what you want. Remember, though, these horses will instinctively move toward you if you push them away so be careful about where you put yourself until you have weeks or months of careful and cautious handling. It’s also a good idea to have someone else at their head.

Under saddle challenges

Even with horses that have a good dressage foundation, I’ve found extreme into pressure horses revert to old habits when faced with a scary or new situation. This is particularly apparent on the trials. Sometimes it’s critical to have a horse move off your leg when holes, vines or old fencing comes into play – for their safety and yours. Just because they yield artfully in the arena doesn’t mean they’ll remember when fright kicks in.

If you know you’re dealing with a horse with this issue, slow it down. Give him time to inspect something of concern before you try to pass it. Oddly, these equines also seem to move toward what they fear as they try to scoot by it, so the more you can assuage their concern, the more likely they’ll hold a straight line.

As you’re passing it, look ahead, stay straight in the saddle, use your hands to control the front end and your seat to encourage a forward path. Don’t get twisting yourself around to look at the object because that will only increase the likelihood you’ll be in it.

While I rarely seek out equipment for behavioral solutions, I did find an interesting product this year that has proven to be extremely effective with into pressure horses.

Interesting tool to help with into-pressure horses

Spursauders were designed by Linda Hauch ( ) who was challenged with OTTBs overreacting to typical spurs. The unusual design increases the area of pressure on the horse, presumably decreasing the severity in the process. You need to use them a little differently than you would ordinarily to get a desired reaction from an extreme into pressure horse, but they work. Instead of placing it on the horse until they move off, if you rhythmically apply and remove the spur from their side it seems to send the message to get off your leg. They’re good to have in an emergency as it’s the only product I’ve found that can get your horse’s attention in a hurry when he’s hardwired to jump into pressure – and trouble – on the trails.

Leading your horse

With some horses, no matter how thorough and correct the foundation, when they’re anxious their instinct is to walk on top of you. The more you push them away, the more inclined they are to move toward you. Working to incorporate multiple signals (voice, hand cues, touch) during groundwork sessions designed to encourage the horse to move away from you helps. It’s important to establish these cues before you try to lead the horse (not always possible, I know).

In cases where you find yourself leading and in trouble, there are a few things you can do to try to regain control and safety. Stop the horse. If you have to get in front of him and face him to do it, so be it (but stay safe). Try backing him several steps until you have his attention. If he tries walking on top of your feet again, repeat. Once he stays where you want him (even for a moment), praise him and let him know this is what you want. It might take ½ hour to lead the horse 20 yards, but at least it will be a lesson that serves you both.

If they’re leaping and landing on top of you, curl their head in front of your body. That will push their shoulder and hindquarters out and even if you get your feet under their front hooves, it’s safer than having your head there. Work on establishing better control in an enclosed area (such as a roundpen) before you try to lead them again. Going back to the voice, hand signals, body language and touch can help here as well.

Horse sense to consider

Extreme into pressure horses revert back to this behavior when concerned, no matter how well schooled they are. Remember, pushing is likely to get them to push back. Instead of reacting in fear, stop, think and avoid steady pressure for preferred pulsating cues to try to get them off of you. Establish a voice cue they can recognize and respond to. Stay out of potentially dangerous positions. Go back to groundwork to try to reestablish understanding. You just need to be aware that what you do to get a normal horse to respond in a pinch isn’t likely to work with these sorts. So, pause before you act to think through what their reaction will be and get out of the way.

Have you found effective approaches to discouraging horses from moving toward you when you’re trying to push them away Please share your ideas – or challenges – 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.