Sign-up for our newsletter to receive news, updates and more from Nanette Levin!

Young Horse Training

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

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

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

Alpha extraordinaire, LuLu turns almost immediately

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

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

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

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

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

Update on LuLu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolving rearing: Carrot shows her alpha mettle

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

Alphas will make you pay

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

Carrot expessing herself
Carrot expessing herself

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

Alpha filly intimidation
Alpha filly intimidation

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

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

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

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

Had enough?
Had enough?

Discouraging a rearing horse

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

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

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

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

Secret tip for educating alphas

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

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

Spread the word

If you like this blog (or even if you don’t), please comment and tell your friends about it. Have a question or issues you want to see addressed? Just ask and we’ll try to answer or find a resource who can. Have ideas you’d like to see explored in a future blog post? Let us know and we’ll try to cover it. Feel free to Tweet (we have TweetMeMe set up now), share on Facebook or share with any other equine community you belong to. We can take the heat of contrary comments, and welcome them as an opportunity to learn, explore and change perspectives.

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

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

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

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

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

Clever Clover keeps life interesting, exciting and daring

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

Now we’re ready to hit the trails

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

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

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

Planning ahead, or not

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

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

Dominate an alpha and pay

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

What’s your favorite train the trainer story?

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

Spooky Horse? Desensitization isn’t the lasting cure.

While instinct, bloodlines and breed will cause some horses to be naturally spookier than others, most of the horses that come into Halcyon Acres are jumpy and jittery due to angst. They’ve been asked for too much too soon, handled with impatience and intolerance, not encouraged to develop self-confidence or handled by a frightened person. Usually, the younger the horse is, the easier it is to reduce or eliminate spooky behavior, but horses of all ages can be calmed and encouraged to enjoy new experiences.

Try listening instead of training

There’s a whole lot of literature being put out there now (and even more DVDs –much higher profit margin) that asserts all you need to do to stop a horse from being concerned is to inundate him with objects, noises, contact and lessons, and thus, by rendering him ‘desensitized,’ you’ll have a ‘bomb-proof’ horse. It usually doesn’t work that way, but if you do manage to create a steed that is unflappable as a result, he’s probably also now devoid of spirit, having been taught to quell his mind.

Instead, if you learn to read your horse, he’ll tell you all you need to know to help him resolve his concerns. It’s not about force, repetition, one-way respect, quick tricks or formula systems – it’s about understanding. Each horse is different. You need to allow yourself the liberty of learning vicariously. Let your horse be a participant in the decisions you make about activities and limits by letting go enough to ‘get into his head’. Most spooky horses have little confidence in themselves and no confidence in their rider/handler. Give them the opportunity to shine with unwavering confidence and support from you and you might be surprised at how courageous your heartless horse becomes.

Get on the ground

Most fearful horses (and that’s really at the core of a spooky horse’s behavior) learned to distrust humans at an early age who failed to keep them out of harm’s way. While it’s not always necessary, there are distinct advantages to going back to ground work as you begin to strive to undo the damage. Body language is huge with horses (both ways) and it’s a lot tougher to ‘talk’ to your horse when on their backs if you haven’t established good communications out of the saddle.  The same holds true for what you say to the horse – if he can see your entire body, he can gather information about what you want much more easily. Just be sure you get good about picking up what he’s trying to tell you and being clear about what you’re asking.

The roundpen isn’t the best place for this long-term. It’s a good tool for early lessons (for you, mostly) if you are looking for a place to keep the horse in close proximity and note how your body movements, positions, eye contact, behavior and requests affect the horse. It’s also a decent way to get a good read on what may be troubling your horse and take small steps to alleviate his concern.  Resist the temptation, though, to use this area for drill sessions or intensive training. Keep it short, light, fun, informative and a stepping stone to really engaging in meaningful connections.

Spending time with your horse in the stall, the pasture, on long lines, exploring areas around the property and beyond with a halter and lead rope and watching your horse without bothering him are more productive ways to build rapport and gain insight than forcing him around a 20 meter circle. Get creative and listen to your horse to find ways to get him eager, excited and confident about your activities together. This is foundation that starts rebuilding the trust and security of a spooky horse.

Oh, and if you’re horse is terrified about an obstacle you face while riding, consider hopping off his back to be the first to show no fear or harm in passing. There’s no shame in providing a more comfortable experience to a new challenge.

Be the rock

If you’re nervous, tense or unnerved, you can’t help a spooky horse. Either learn to get rid of these feelings when you’re around this horse or get someone else to help (and stay out of it until the horse is progressing). Sure, it’s tough to sit aboard a horse that is a notorious wheeler without tensing up, shortening your reins, tipping forward and transmitting concern. The fact is, though, the added tension is going to create more concern for your horse and be sure to spur a spook he may not have considered; no matter how close your hands are to his ears he’s going to do it anyway; and leaning forward and tensing up will increase the likelihood you’ll be dumped. If you give the horse his head to explore; relax; sit back; and calm down, he’s less likely to react and you’re in a better position to over his center of balance (and comfortable in yours) to stay with him if he does.

The same holds true for groundwork. If you can’t be confident, calm, consistent and trustworthy when handling or working around your horse, he’s not going to learn to trust you to keep him safe.

Don’t push your horse to ‘buck up’

Spooky horses are scared. Getting rough or demanding with them is only going to increase their concern. Give them the time and encouragement to carefully approach items that are frightening. Pulling out the whip, chain, spurs or temper is only going to create more fear and less trust in you. If you think beating a horse over water the first time you encounter a stream is going to make happy about crossing it the next time, think again.

Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.
Isn't he cute? Buster stood out as special early on.

Anyone who is looking for a teacher about the importance of patience and understanding should experience a horse like Buster. He was already an ‘old soul’ when we started him under saddle as a three-year-old. His wisdom shined through from day one. He was unflappable, but careful. The funny thing about Buster was, he’d do anything you asked, so long as you respected his need to be given the time (and head freedom) to survey the situation. One day (he had only had about eight days under saddle), we faced an obstacle course in front of the trail head that would have made a seasoned horse baulk. Contractors had strewn insulation, lumber, packaging, vehicles, tools, saw benches and all kinds of debris so that we had to pick through a narrow, winding path for about 20 feet. Holding the reins at the buckle and giving him the two minutes or so he wanted to survey the situation and choose a path, proved to be a sufficient response to his needs for him to proceed on his own, without prompting or direction. The thing with Buster was, if you pushed too hard for him to tackle a new sight or obstacle before he was ready, he’d stop. Keep it up and he’d go into backing mode. That was Buster’s kind way of saying ‘too much, too fast.’ What a wonderful teacher he was! He’s moved on (his career choice, not our imagined one for him) to an unexpected home that will probably keep him out of the limelight, but with a job that’s going to be very rewarding for him and an owner who will appreciate him more than most. Keep us posted, Sarah!

Help your horse get brave with a companion

The equine buddy system seems to be a standard today for most. It’s easier early, but can create problems later when the horse learns to draw his confidence and direction from another horse instead of the rider. We stumbled on a much better approach (animals can be so intuitive). Gatsby (our 90-pound mutt) provided an ideal solution. In the thirteen years he’s served as assistant trainer at the farm, no horse has ever become herd-bound over a dog. For the young ones just starting to learn how to handle a rider aboard, he tracks at their heels until we hit a spot that alarms the horse. Then, we ask him to take the lead and he escorts the horse through areas they see as trouble. All the horses here get to know him during ground work training (he’s an artful contributor here too), so they learn to trust him before we hit the trails.

Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres
Gatsby greeting a newborn foal at Halcyon Acres

If you’re dealing with an older horse that’s spooky, you’re better off having an equine lead that’s seasoned and confident than going it alone to start. The more you can make riding experiences fun and non-threatening, the better. You can wean him off the company in time, but old habits die hard and you’ll be safer, and able to gain more confidence, if you let another horse blaze the trail as you start to work to calm your horse and yourself.

Forgo the formula equine approaches

Spooky horses are usually taught to be so. To undo the damage, you need to get personal. This can’t be done with rote lessons that are planned ahead and applied to all cases. If you’re not willing to customize an approach to meet your horse’s indicated needs, you’re not going to build a trusting, confident and mutually respectful relationship. You might be able to get him to tune out and mollify his brain into an absent state to escape the stress, but it won’t result in a happy partner you grow with. The rewards you get from being open to a communications process that includes the horse will be huge, if you have the desire and patience to go there. Here’s hoping you do!

Do you have a story to tell about a spooky horse? A problem you’re currently facing that you’d like some guidance on? Have a question about how to work with your horse? Please comment below.

15 quick tips for building trust with your new foal

  1. Give him time to gain his senses and bond with mom prior to forcing training (or desensitization) on him. Of course, birthing emergencies require immediate attention, but if the birth is normal (most are) there should be little need to control the foal prior to IgG bloodwork and the initial foal exam unless he needs help standing to nurse.
  2. Move slowly when entering the stall, approaching him in the pasture or attempting to get near him.
  3. Let him get comfortable with you by being patient, quiet and responsive to his concerns instead of tackling and restraining him when you enter to the stall to work on or with him.
  4. Spend time giving attention to the mare while he watches how she trusts you and enjoys your contact.
  5. Find a spot he likes to be rubbed and reward him by scratching or petting that area when he approaches you and/or when he responds to a request.
  6. Don’t put yourself between the mare and the foal during the first few days of his life. This will not only likely cause both to panic, reducing trust, but can also get you hurt.
  7. If the mare is overly protective or busy about herding the foal (this is common with maiden mares), tie her to the wall as you calmly encourage the foal to come check you out (foals are naturally curious – most will approach on their own if you’re not in a big hurry).
  8. Don’t try to chase, herd or corner the foal – instead, back off when he expresses fear and let him know you are willing to take the time necessary for him to be comfortable with your approach.
  9. Get lower by squatting or sitting in a corner of the stall to be less threatening. Most foals will have their nose in your face within a few minutes if you’re still and at their level.
  10. Calmly stroke the foal (in the direction of the hair) once he’s comfortable enough with you approaching and interacting. At this point, you should be able to curl your arm around his chest to stabilize him for a few moments as you demonstrate your touch will not hurt him.
  11. Take your time about forcing early training on him. While there are a few immediate tasks necessary for the health of the foal, if you wait until your baby indicates he’s ready to interact with you as a trusted guide, you’ll set the stage for a partnership in the future that is built on trust and mutual respect.
  12. Be the purveyor of fun or relief before you jump in as taskmaster. Little things like giving him the opportunity to kick his heels up during pasture time or providing relief from the bugs with barn shelter can be great ways to encourage the foal to appreciate and trust you.
  13. Use the mare to help direct the foal in a way that puts him near you. Many mares will herd their foals to walk in front of them, which provides a great opportunity for you to be beside the foal for early trips to and from the pasture in a non-threatening manner. With sick foals, many moms will know (provided you’ve established a trusting relationship with the mare) you are trying to help. Let her assist and you might be amazed at how much she’ll do to restrain and/or discipline to foal to be still.
  14. Be happy when you spend time with the foal. Horses can sense when you’re angry, afraid or upset and even if the young foal doesn’t immediately pick up on this, the dam will. Get yourself in the right frame of mind prior to interfacing with your baby.
  15. Listen. Foals (and their moms) will tell you when they are alarmed by your behavior or receptive to your guidance. Merely showing you are willing and able to hear such communications can go a long way in your effort to build trust.

Some are in a big hurry to accost a foal with training regimens the moment he drops. This may create a compliant equine, but it rarely teaches a baby to view human contact as interesting and engaging – and to enjoy building a trust together that offers a lifetime of opportunities for collaboration. Usually, it’s just a matter of days spent giving the foal the opportunity to choose that means the difference between forcing a conciliatory attitude and building a reciprocal, exciting and special relationship. It’s quicker and easier to dominate and control, but can be a lot more satisfying to include the foal in the conversation. Try it. You might learn something along the way – even if it’s that you decide it takes too much time to let the foal decide when training begins.

Fun with new foals – would you rather engage or dominate?

Friday’s Opinion

Dr. Robert Miller ( popularized imprinting foals with both the term and practice. He’s famous now and deserves credit for the time, research and material he’s put out there to encourage breeders to interact with foals at an early age.

Granted, Miller’s convictions concerning early handling makes first encounters for vets, other service providers and trainers easier, but is it less traumatic for the foal? Does his immediate repetitive approach produce a trusting foal, or one who has been conditioned to capitulate? It doesn’t include the foal’s input – or permission – in the process; let alone the mom. Some may view obedience as the ideal permanent state of a horse, but, provided alternative approaches, most who seek a partnership with a horse would probably opt for a more cooperative strategy.

Desensitizing is overdone

Desensitizing has become the buzz word of late in the horse industry. The way people are interpreting the concept – including imprinting techniques that assault the foal before he can see, stand or react – seem to go too far. Horses that are exposed to sensory overload, presumably designed to teach them to ignore instinct by dulling their reactions to reasonable concerns, tend to lose some of the spirit that makes them a special animal. This includes the bevy of techniques designed to scare the fright out of the horse in the starting under saddle process. It’s sad to see how some of these rituals are scrambling the horse’s brain.

There seems to be too much focus these days on practices aimed to disengage the mind of the horse. Wouldn’t you rather engage a foal in a way that gives him permission to contribute to the conversation? Sure, it may take a little more time and some give and take, but the lessons learned (by both of you) may mean the difference between good and great.

Imprint later and more kindly to include the foal

Simply postponing ‘imprinting’ for a few days and doing it in a way that honors the foal can have a huge impact on how your baby approaches future challenges. Sure, you can immobilize the foal at birth, repeat poking 30-40 times in each place and produce a compliant pet, but if you wait a few days to start interacting with the foal once he can stand, see and consciously respond to your activity, you might find a responsive and interactive process more rewarding as you strive to encourage this foal to become a willing, eager and participatory partner. This begs the question – do you seek to condition a submissive steed, or one who feels welcome to contribute to solutions? There’s no right answer – it depends on what you want. Personally, in working with performance horses, I’ve found the stand-out performers talk back a bit – and usually have good reason for their objections.

Encouraging a trusting, thinking horse

If your aim is a thinking and contributing horse, it’s probably better to start messing with him at about day two or three of age. Of course, you’ll want to ensure adequate transfer of IgG (done with a blood test – learn the hard way once and you’ll never skip this needle again) and it’s a good idea to have your vet do a foal exam at this time, so they’ll be some handling at 18-24 hours of age, but this can be done quietly and easily.

By postponing your ‘training’ of the foal until he’s aware enough to express himself, you set the stage for mutual respect and a foal that regards humans as fair and accommodating leaders to be enjoyed and trusted. Foals are curious anyway, and if you proceed with patience, they’ll come to you. If the mom trusts you, she’ll usually help.

Horses know more than most people give them credit for. Establishing trust can be huge in laying the foundation for future training. That doesn’t happen by immobilizing a frightened foal and forcing repetitive acts on him to ‘desensitize.’ Instead, consider spending some quiet time in the stall or pasture and letting the foal approach you.

At some point, you’re going to want to put an arm around his chest to get him to stand still for some touching and petting, but this should be after he’s decided you’re not a threat. Even at three days old, you’ll rarely have to flip a tail and can always position his hind end near a wall if you’re working alone to hold him still until you chose to release. One calm and kind lesson teaching the foal to stand when you need him to for as long as you require (keep it short, but make sure you decide when it’s over) will probably suffice

With most foals, you’ll be able to find a spot that they love to be scratched. It’s a good idea to start each handling session rubbing that itch. Teach your foal that your approach means pleasure and he’ll appreciate your presence and be more likely to try to understand your requests.

Early foal training goals

Sometimes, you’ll get a precocious foal (it’s usually a filly) that needs to be taught to lead almost immediately. We’ve had a few that have literally headed for the hills alone at day two or three of age as mom went crazy on the end of a lead rope.  Usually, it will take less than five minutes to teach those foals to accept a halter and lead (a butt rope helps, but is rarely necessary with these bright critters). For most foals, though, it’s not necessary to start this training for at least a couple of weeks – or a couple of months – it depends on the foal.

The basics at only days old are to be able to approach and touch the foal without him panicking (so you can at least dunk the umbilical cord without trauma), stroking the back, shoulders, ears, face and legs and to encourage the foal to come to you and appreciate your presence.

By three to four weeks of age, you’ll probably want to be at a point where you can pick up all four legs and have a blacksmith pretend to work on a hoof. Of course, haltering the horse should be a non-issue at this point. The foal should be excited to see you and welcome the attention and turnout freedom you provide.

Happy foals make it more fun for you

If you’re in a hurry, you can always capture and immobilize a baby with force. This will set you back, though. Foals that are handled with patience and kindness as the training process begins are a lot more eager to please. They also become more well adjusted performers as serious training ensues.

Anyone can take short cuts to dominate or desensitize a horse, and sometimes, it’s necessary to do so for safety sake. But, most of the time, you can engage a foal so he gets excited about the new game you’ve planned for the day. Allowing the foal to participate in the process produces eager learners and more determined performers as time passes. At least, that’s been our experience.

The next time you embrace the fad of the day (or guru of the decade), ask yourself if what they are advocating allows for customized approaches. Each horse is different and there’s rarely a solution that works for all. Usually, it’s best to take bits and pieces of ideas offered with an open mind so you can test what works for you and your horse with a bit a scepticism applied. Horses are usually born happy but it’s humans that make or take their glee with the domesticated crew. If you’re passionate about horses, why not help your foals develop an attitude that includes a zeal for learning from you? You’ll likely find such an experience a lot more rewarding than developing a dictatorship aimed at mindless obedience.

What have you learned from the foals you’ve worked with? Please leave a comment below so others can learn from what’s worked, and what hasn’t, in your experience.

Ten Quick Tips for keeping horses happy while training

Want to bring along a young horse that loves to train so much he nickers when he sees you coming? It’s not that hard if you’re willing to hear the horse. Below are some easy ways to ensure your horse is excited about performing the jobs you request.

  1. Keep the sessions short. When starting young horses, 10-15 minutes is plenty. Five minutes is fine too. Pick a lesson they can easily understand, enjoy and accomplish quickly.
  2. Hear your horse. Sometimes they don’t want to train. With a young horse, it’s better to recognize this and offer a day off rather than forcing a session when they’re not receptive. Other days, it might be best to choose a simple (or complicated) request as a goal. The more you get to know what your horse is trying tell you and the better you are at reading such cues, the easier it will be to end each day with an accomplishment that makes you both proud.
  3. Customize lessons. No two horses are identical (contrary to some of the popular ‘horsemanship methods’ of the day) and offering flexible training approaches that incorporate his proclivities will help your horse appreciate and respect you and his job immensely.
  4. Include the horse in the conversation. Too often, trainers (professionals as well as novice experimenters) craft a lesson plan that’s all about them and then wonder why the horse objects. If you let your horse participate in the learning strategy instead of trying to apply formula approaches, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the horse gathers, retains and applies what you’ve requested. Plus, you’ll find you’ve helped create a partnership that’s richer, safer, more rewarding and more fulfilling than you might imagine.
  5. Always be confident and clear while recognizing the horse with kindness and understanding. Horses melt when they find a leader and a teacher who sees respect as a two-way street. Sadly, some have interpreted the herd mentality using bossy, aggressive and demanding Alphas as the behavior model. Watch and you’ll see these horses aren’t the leaders – they’re avoided. Leaders of the herd are followed by choice, not according to water and feed pecking order. These are the heralded Alphas.
  6. Stand your ground. While combative or aggressive behaviour doesn’t usually encourage a horse to enjoy training, backing down once you encounter an issue often leads to a difficult and obstinate horse that views you as a pushover and/or inappropriate guide. There’s a big difference between unflappable insistence and ‘teaching a horse a lesson.’ If a horse turns into a drama queen over a simple request, keep your cool but make it known that in a battle of wills, you have the staying power to quietly continue asking for cooperation until it happens. Some young horses (particularly strong-willed fillies) will test your mettle to see if they can intimidate you (and if they are successful, your productive training days are probably over).
  7. Ask your horse what he likes to do and reward him at the end of the training session with a task he relishes. You might be amazed at what you discover. There’s no right answer to this one as it depends on the horse. Some view the trails with joy; others want to jump; maybe there’s an area they love to be rubbed; it could be time with a special companion; or a grazing place that’s not usually available. Funny thing is, most horses who love to train want to do something they find fun under saddle. Figure out what that is and you’ll have a horse that gets excited about doing right so they can continue the riding time.
  8. Be patient. When young horses act out, it’s usually because they don’t understand. If you react to this with escalating pressure or demands, they’ll learn to resent you. Give them the time they need to figure out what you are asking before you punish them for confusion or move on to another lesson.
  9. Appreciate the smallest attempts to respond to your requests. Don’t expect the horse to be perfect the first time. If you’re asking him to move forward and he takes a step, recognize and praise the effort. If you’re working on steering and he turns his head or moves off your leg for a moment, stop pushing and give him a reward and a break.
  10. Strive for fun. If you make training something your horse anticipates with joy, you’ll have a ball. As you work with your young horse each day, remember that anything you do to make his job interesting, engaging and enjoyable will encourage him to want to please you and come running when you call. Include him in the process and you’ll be awestruck by his eagerness to learn and perform.

Training made painful – what not to do when starting a horse under saddle

Do you cringe when you see what some people do to young equine minds? You will. Common sense should prevail when a horse starts acting out to be heard so dramatically he becomes dangerous, but sadly, it doesn’t in many cases. Usually it’s ego or ignorance that that leads to such stupidity, and unfortunately, it’s the horse that suffers (and future owners who must undo the damage).

Horse training done wrong

Recently a gal was staying at Halcyon Acres (when Hyde showed up in this Jeckle it was clear goodbye was the best response) who ultimately revealed she viewed animals as possessions to be neglected and then punished when they became confused about intense intermittent demands. The occasional time she was able to wrestle away from her self-proclaimed busy life to devote to ‘training’ was fleeting, cruel and unappreciative. Regrettably, her self-centered perspective seems to be more the norm in our youth today than the exception. If this is representative of the new generation of ‘adults’ we’ll be seeing coming into this world, we’re in trouble – and so are the horses.

So, if you want to know what creates a fearful, miserable, uncooperative and leery horse, let her behavior be a lesson for you.

Teaching a young horse to misbehave

Watching this ‘horse breaker’ in the round pen one day with a two-year-old Thoroughbred that was starting under saddle was frightening. The trench that recently appeared around the perimeter should have been a signal that one of her ‘methods’ included chasing the horse to exhaustion.  Join-up precepts aside (and there’s a lot about embracing a process to create a submissive horse that should be questioned by those who want a horse that’s engaged and enthused), it’s hard to see how ‘sending’ a horse until he’s wobbly-legged helps create a solid and safe steed. This little gelding already had some trust issues and while making him too tired to react might seem like an effective approach – it wasn’t.

The moment of truth occurred after she hopped aboard. It wasn’t enough to go for a quick win when the horse complied with her demands and gave the wanted response ten minutes into the lesson. She had to extend it for another hour or so and end on a ‘lose’ (it was the horse’s fault, of course) because she had family watching and waiting for dinner.

By the time the ‘lesson’ was over, the confused and unappreciated equine (he tried, but his efforts were met with escalating demands instead of recognition for his kindness – funny how that seems to extend to people interactions with this youth too) was so frustrated, bewildered and fearful, his instincts told him to react with avoidance tactics.

During the combat hour, the horse reared, tried to flip, attempted to rub her off on the fence boards and crashed through the round pen after she hopped off and continued to punish him for ‘misbehaving.’ She escalated the conflict by failing to recognize and reward correct responses, ratcheting up the punishment with hands, legs and then a stick with no praise for his efforts while pushing this young mind way too far to be able to process or comprehend what he was being asked to do.

Horse head cases are usually created

He’ll be a head case for the rest of his life if this approach continues. Of course, he’ll be blamed for bad behavior even though the early under saddle conditioning taught him to distrust and dislike humans.  It’s funny how quickly horses who aren’t given a chance to be heard get labelled ‘bad actors’ when they apply and act on what they’ve been taught.

Great equine performers contribute to the conversation

Some horses will shut down and comply with such methods once tortured enough to decide it’s easier to simply tune out and acquiesce.  Rarely will such tactics encourage a horse to excel in people requested disciplines. Others become dangerous in their effort to avoid pain, misery and a human species they have been conditioned to hate. Sure, usually with the right breed (TBs are tougher), you can intimidate and force a horse to comply with your demands by teaching him to be submissive and compliant, but don’t expect him to like it – or give you the extra effort to make your relationship and performance achievements special.

Young minds (and older ones too – even the bipeds) need to be given the chance to be heard, recognized, appreciated and understood. Make it all about you and you may get a compliant horse – but not a happy one. Partnerships need give and take. Few thrive with dominance. Think about how you respond to a person who keeps demanding more without appreciating what you’ve already given. Imagine how the young horse might interpret such actions. The next time you decide you’re going to ‘teach your horse a lesson,’ think about how he may perceive your actions. Is that going to help you get to where you want to go?

Please share you stories and comments below. Thanks.

Fifteen tips for starting young horses

Horse Quick Tips

Whether you are a novice or professional, there’s a lot the horse you are working with can teach you about communications. Keep it safe, fun, engaging and interesting for both of you and you’ll be amazed at how much more effective short and collaborative lessons can be than long sessions you dictate alone. Below are some tips for drawing out your horse and making the process easier and safer for you as you begin the challenge of preparing your horse for tack and a rider while you forge a foundation for an exciting human equine/partnership that encourages performance beyond expectations.

  1. Stay away from formula approaches – customize a program – and each day – to respond to the horse’s proclivities with collaborate strategies (listen to your horse) designed to move forward vs. get you stuck in combative behavior.
  2. Know your horse – recognize her moods and be ready to alter the day’s plan to strive for a good and quick end to the lesson. Choose approaches that your horse can understand and enjoy given his particular issues and personality.
  3. There’s no such thing as too much ground work – the more you do prior to hopping aboard to gain the confidence, trust, understanding and cooperation of your horse before you begin to ride him, the easier this next phase will be for both of you.
  4. Limit time in the round pen – drilling or exhausting a horse in a small circular pen will not only lead to frustration and boredom, but can also create permanent soundness issues.
  5. Hit the trails – hills, varied terrain, wildlife, water and interesting scenery provide a great venue for building the confidence, trust and dependability of a young equine. This can be a wonderful early training approach once you have basic stop, steering and go cues understood.
  6. Go it alone – while company can be an easy early training crutch, this tends to create a horse focused on other equines for direction and confidence, taking the focus off you. This can lead to later challenges with barn sour or herd bound behavior.
  7. Patience and kindness trump egocentric demands – most horses will react better to someone who offers the time and understanding to process requests, responding to horse feedback over one who bullies them into compliance.
  8. End quickly and on a good note – it’s best to keep early lessons brief (both on the ground and under saddle) in a way that encourages the horse to follow requests, rewards them for their effort and ends with a quick win prior to pushing the horse too hard toward frustration.
  9. Belly over a horse for the first day or two – this keeps you safe and delays the added concern of you towering over the horse’s head (instinct can cause the horse to view you as a predator in this position). Getting your young horse used to carrying weight at a standstill and walking off with a moving load (many horses will react more dramatically to a person on their backs once they start moving than when they are still) in a way that is less threatening and easy for you to dismount unencumbered can ease the horse into harder lessons and save the time required to settle a horse that’s been traumatized.
  10. Get them away from the herd – you want to set the stage for your young horse to view training time with his focus on you. This can be tougher if the herd is in sight. Find a place on your property (or move the other horses into the barn or further away from your working area) where you can reduce the distraction buddies provide.
  11. Establish a training area that’s designated for work – don’t use the pasture you turn your horse out in as an arena for training. Conversely, don’t use your work area for recreation. Horses seem to appreciate a specified area that allows them to relax and another that signifies it’s time for your job.
  12. Try to stick to a schedule – horses thrive best (because they’re most comfortable) with a routine that they can expect and embrace. Pick a time to train and try to stay consistent. If you make training fun, you’ll find your mount waiting at the gate excited about the expected training lesson.
  13. Discover what your horse enjoys most – use this as a reward (try to avoid the temptation to offer treats for tricks) as praise for good work or an activity to end a session.
  14. Show your horse you care enough to return the respect – respect goes both ways and that means you need to be able to show your horse you hear him, even if you don’t agree. Give him the courtesy of listening and acknowledging before you levy demands.#
  15. Enjoy the ride – if you work toward trust and understanding in early lessons as you customize strategies to reach your horse in ways he understands and appreciates, you’ll be shocked at what he’ll do in return to please and protect you. Sometimes just a simple acknowledgement of the horse’s perspective can turn a frightened, frustrated or belligerent horse into a steed excited about pleasing and exceeding expectations. Pause the next time you have a ‘failure to communicate’ with your horse and consider the possibility he simply doesn’t understand. Corrections are fine when warranted, but most are too quick to blame the horse. Most equines will embrace your request if posed in a way that makes sense to them. Horses allowed to contribute to solutions will make you proud. Respect goes both ways.

Starting under saddle – how long is too long?

Friday’s Opinion

It seems the older I get, the more I’m inclined to ask the horse how he wants to proceed. Years ago, I’d relish the opportunity to engage a horse in a battle of wills that demonstrated my mettle and glue.  Granted, it’s hard to know how much of my collaborative approach comes from the wisdom of age, or the pain of aging injuries borne from younger and dumber years, but I have found the changes in my technique over the years seem to make training a lot more fun for the horse.

Of course, there’s the occasional alpha that’s already had a good deal of mileage schooling humans who chose to confront them with demands vs. understanding that requires staying power and athleticism, but most horses will choose to be agreeable if you listen to their concerns, spend the time required to ease them into new lessons and fortify your riding time with ground work.

Short is better with early horse training

One of the things I’ve learned when it comes to starting horses under saddle (or working through issues that have developed as a result of an initial bad start) is brief is best when it comes to the duration of lessons.

Sadly, most seem to feel the more time you spend riding a young horse (or, even worse, round penning him to exhaustion in preparation for carrying a mount), the faster he will learn. It upsets me to see people pushing young equine minds past engagement and enjoyment toward a resentful and frustrated state of resistance – or a mindless submissive obedience trance.

Ten to fifteen minutes of training time seems to be the sweet spot for most young horses being introduced to a rider (and this includes ground work done in preparation for this moment too). Usually this can be an easy goal to reach if you spend enough time getting to know your horse so you can gauge his mood, choose lessons that will appeal to him and quit after a request is met. Sure, there are horses and days when your quick lesson plan turns into hours of persistence when wilfulness and attitude surfaces, but these are rare situations once you learn to hear the horse.

Some horses respond better to daily lessons; others need days to absorb what they learned so they can start the next training session ready to progress. Professional trainers and novices who try to make every horse fit into their formula training regimen create unnecessary roadblocks to building a happy partnership and an eager performer. The learning process accelerates exponentially when you customize your plans to respond to the horse’s input. Done right, this reduces the time in the saddle and makes each session a fun and collaborative game for the horse (this doesn’t mean you allow the horse to do whatever he wants – but does require a process that shows you are listening to what he is trying to tell you). Babies just don’t have the mind or body to handle hour-long drill sessions. If you can make each day fun, easy and rewarding for both of you, your horse will come to relish the opportunity to work and you’ll be amazed at how eager he is to learn and please as a result.

Longer prep time leads to better equine performers

I cringe when I hear people boast they “broke a horse in seven days.” These horses fear new situations, don’t trust people and expect every new experience to be traumatic. Who can blame them? Or, with some of the colder breeds, they’ve had their heart yanked out and have succumb to a life of submission and servitude.

Common sense should say that early preparation done patiently and thoroughly makes for an easier and better horse when performance training begins – but that doesn’t seem to prevail with many focused on the clock or calendar.

If you start the training of a young horse with the aim of building trust and rapport, most will strive to please you with responses that exceed your expectations. They also handle new situations with a confidence and interest that you don’t get from a horse that has been rushed or forced. Whether you’re a trainer seeking to put the basics under a horse as quickly as possible to please your client with your speed or a novice following a rote agenda prescribed by someone who’s never even seen your horse, you’re missing out on rewarding opportunities to engage and excite your project. If working with a horse that loves to train doesn’t grab you, you’re also putting early barriers in place for the horse to be the best he can be in the future.

It’s not a matter of losing a few weeks’ time with a slow and easy initial approach, but instead, a method that saves you months or years of time and sometimes a lifetime of frustration for you and/or the horse when you adopt a training approach that incorporates the horse’s particular penchants and responds to his expressed issues. Of course, you can’t get there if you don’t consider the horse as a participant in the process and allow him to give input.

How long is too long with a horse?

If you’re staring a young horse under saddle and he’s done what you first asked then becomes belligerent with subsequent requests, the lesson went on too long. Don’t be tempted to push harder because you’re having a good day (or a bad one and you just want to turn that screw a little further once he’s answered your initial request because you want to establish who’s boss).  Take the win and quit early, knowing you’ll have a willing and responsive horse tomorrow for giving him immediate credit for his efforts.

Foundation work for horses intended to be great performers takes time. A quick early start usually leads to problems later. No horse should be expected to be ready to start career training in a day – or a month. If you’ve spent 60 days with a horse, however, and are getting nowhere, that’s a bad sign. In fact, if you spend a few weeks with a horse and aren’t making any progress, you should probably look for another who may be more adept at reaching the horse. Each horse is different and some come with issues, are slow learners or cannot adapt to your style. Most, though, won’t be able to retain what you’ve taught them with comfort, confidence and the understanding to move on to more refined training demands in much less than a couple of months.  Rush them in the early starting training and you’ll usually pay later.

Make horse training fun

I’ve had a ton of fun lately having the luxury of letting the sport horse farm-bred horses tell me when they’re ready to start training and taking a leisurely approach to lesson frequency and demands. This is rarely an option with client horses, but it’s been a great learning experience to watch how this has played out with the herd. It’s been amazing to see how eager and interested these horses are when training begins when they say they’re ready and are allowed to express how frequently they’d like to train. In fact, all the young stock (along with the older horses in career training) are so eager to train, they express their annoyance with my busy schedule and associated inability to train them all daily. It’s a competition each day at the gate as to who gets the call. The chosen ones are eager to perform and learn and often ask to continue the lesson after its intended end. I’m having a ball working with horses that relish training so much they are determined to progress faster than asked. They seem to appreciate the fact that I’ll skip training plans on a horse if she doesn’t seem eager to come in.

If your horse (or horses) aren’t eager to see you coming and excited about the opportunity to work, you’re probably making the lessons too long, too structured, too demanding, too formula or too about you. Once you start responding to your horse’s requests, you’ll be floored by how eagerly they comply with yours. Try it. And let me know how it goes.

If you have a challenge with a current horse you’re starting under saddle, have questions about young horse issues, ideas to add to help others starting a young horse or want to shout about one of your proud successes, please comment below. Thanks.