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horse problems

Planning for horse care before you can’t be there

When you own a farm or are the primary care taker at a horse facility, one of the toughest things to do is to leave. I’m not talking selling the place, I’m talking a vacation or even a celebration day or two with family. Unless you have reliable staff that’s supporting day-to-day operations, finding someone you can trust to show up, do what you ask, and not create a problem is challenging. This is particularly difficult when you live in a remote area.   

Finding good horse help

I spent 20 years running a horse farm at my residence. During that time, I’d be on pins and needles any time I took a trek out of state for holidays or business. It seemed whenever I returned, something was amiss. This included everything from water left on that flooded the barn – not easy to do as this was a BIG barn – to hired help that simply decided not to show up. It boggles the mind.

Things happen when you don’t expect it, so it pays to be ready with qualified help when you need it.

My biggest eye-opener was when I broke my leg. It was a bad break that had me hopping for three months. Less than a week into my recovery, the hired help came knocking on the door. One of my mares was being stubborn, she said. I hobbled out to the barn to find a nail lodged three inches into her hoof. It had been there for days. Apparently, a head bob to the floor didn’t cue her in something was off. It took the horse refusing to move to get her attention.

The mare survived. I figured out how to get down to the barn twice daily to and treat and wrap the wound. That incident, though, made me determined to never put me or my horses in that situation again.

So many of us who care for horses skip vacations, shun travel and assume we’ll always be there to manage the herd. Sometimes, life throws us things we don’t expect and can’t predict. It took almost losing a horse for me to realize I needed a better plan.

So how do you prepare for the unexpected? Better yet, can you create a situation that lets you enjoy holidays and other events without spending every moment away worried? Yes and no. You can never be certain things won’t go wrong while you’re gone. You’ll probably always wonder if your horses are ok in your absence. What you can do, though, is try to set things up ahead of time to reduce issues and stress.

Test drive horse help

The worst time to audition horse care support staff is when you’re not there or are incapacitated. Wondering what you’ll come back to makes any time away filled with angst. You can’t predict everything they may face, but you sure can get a read on whether your intended coverage has any horse sense. You can also get clear on what responsible means to them. This interpretation varies widely, especially with younger adults. It’s almost never what you’d expect.  

Instead, consider paying someone at least weekly to first shadow you for training then do chores independently. There’s no guarantee here either, but at least they’ll know the horses, and visa versa, learned how you like to do things and demonstrated they can show up for more than one day in a row.

It can be really difficult to find help when you’re a distance from populated areas. Although my farm was only a ½ drive from a dense horse area, people seemed to feel 10 minutes was a haul. That made it tough to attract knowledgeable equestrians, no matter how much I was willing to pay. I eventually realized if I wanted reliable and happy help, I’d have to train them. Sometimes that’s better. It takes more time.

Mares with foals can be a a bigger challenge when you need to find the right kind of horse help
Babies come with their own set of concerns when seeking the right kind of horse help.

Consider the benefits of giving yourself a day off a week. Right, that never happens, but if your goal is to pay someone to handle most of the horse chores even just one day a week, you’ll be a lot better off when you need emergency coverage. The time and money you spend training them and keeping them loyal will be worth it. You’ll have more hours to handle neglected farm activities and reduced stress when you must leave the property.   

Watch how they handle things when they think you’re not looking. That will tell you a lot about how they’ll perform when you’re away. If they have a good work ethic, some common sense, and a desire to do the right thing by the horse, this bodes well.

I had a window in my office where all the paddocks and pastures were visible to me but others couldn’t see inside. It was the second story of a garage. This helped a lot in assessing problem-solving skills and an employee’s nature. If you have a spot you can watch from that’s not visible to your help, you’ll be amazed at what you learn.  

Listen to your horses

Horses are great at telling you when something doesn’t feel right. It’s funny, I used to walk into barns at the racetrack and could assess a trainer’s style immediately. That was a good thing because I was getting tossed onto a lot of horses I didn’t know. You could tell which barns pumped up the horses with hormones, which trainers were nervous and afraid of their equines, which shedrows had violent grooms and where the horse was included in the exercise decisions.

You have the advantage of knowing what’s normal for the horses at your barn. If they get anxious, aggressive or agitated when someone walks into the barn, listen. That’s not a good sign. Reconsider if the person you’ve chosen for help is a good fit for your stable care needs.

Guide with flexibility

No one’s ever going to be able to do things exactly the way you do. Sometimes, that’s an opportunity for you to learn too. People with experience have ideas and processes that may offer better approaches you hadn’t considered. Of course, people with experience also like to do things their way.

Training help with little or no horse experience gives you the opportunity to mold someone to do things the way you like them done. It takes a lot more time to work with a novice, but often the results are better.

Either way, it’s unlikely your barn and horses will look the same as when you do the work. That’s OK if horses are comfortable, happy and safe. If you get too focused on everyone doing things just like you, you’ll lose a lot of help and sleep. Realize people need some freedom to do a job the best way they see it.

Try to focus on and encourage the strengths of the staff you engage. You can comment on the items that frustrate you, but if you put heavy focus on this, you’ll discourage your help. Let them have some freedom to come up with solutions that work for them. You might be surprised at how impressive their effort becomes.

Finding help in remote areas

I’ve engaged everyone from neighbors to my vet in horse care coverage. Some worked out better than others.  

I was very fortune to have an equine vet buy a property nearby after years of challenges with the local “go-to” vet for every kind of animal – jack of all trades, master or none – or needing to truck horses to facilities where knowledgeable professionals worked. That’s a rare stroke of luck, I realize, but sometimes there are opportunities to engage the very best available for affordable horse care. I was on the ready to help with her farm emergencies or care needs too.

You might be surprised, though, who is willing to be available if you only ask. Vets, blacksmiths, chiropractors and all sorts of other horse professionals you pay to help you keep your horses healthy and happy might be open to giving you coverage. If they’re horse lovers and owners, chances are they’ve had the same challenges finding someone they trust to jump in when they need help. That kind of quid pro quo can be priceless.

If your tact is to depend on neighbors, make sure you spend a good deal of time “educating” them before you call on their help for solo coverage. That mare with the nail in her hoof – that was missed by a neighbor who had owned horses and claimed to be an experienced caretaker.      

Enjoy some time off  

Finding the right help to give you comfort and ease while you’re away is invaluable. If you spend some time paying and preparing help to properly care for your while you’re away, you’ll find it’s worth it.  

You really do need that occasional relief from farm chores. Whether that’s someone covering morning feeding and turnout or a week while you take that vacation you’ve been putting off for a decade or more, coming back refreshed will serve both you and your horses better.

Consider taking the time now to get someone in place that’s ready, willing and able to give you coverage before you need it. Whether it’s an emergency, family vacation, holiday retreat or just a day a week where you have an extra few hours to devote to things you’ve been neglecting, you’ll appreciate the break.

It takes some planning to be able to do this without angst. Done right, though, even if you’re in a remote area, it’s possible. Think about how much easier your life could be with someone on the ready you trust when you need horse coverage. Get ready before you need the help. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way what happens when it’s done frantically. You don’t want to do that.

Horses can surprise you with how they react to moving

It’s been interesting to witness how Remi (my canine mutt) has (or hasn’t) handled a temporary move to the suburbs. While I’m not a proponent of applying dog training techniques to horses, I did find some curious reactions from her that reminded me of odd horse behavior I’ve witness.

Remi’s spent her life (from 11 weeks on) at Halcyon Acres® (the farm). She ran free with Gatsby’s keen and careful supervision and guidance. He kept her safe, taught her the property lines, showed her how to hunt – FAIL , and tried to coach her on farm duties– another FAIL. Remi was born a pet. Gatsby must have come from some serious work dog bloodlines.   

Although Remi’s usually heartless, I was shocked at how she reacted to the move. Interestingly, when I trucked the two remaining Halcyon Acres® horses to new (different) digs, they provided some big surprises as well.

Moving horses to new farms

irish draught sport horse filly
This is Leah during her first ride at her new digs – with a gal aboard she had never met. Want to see more (video)? Go to

I figured the old-steady, Dixie, a former impressive racehorse with a prior history of shipping to many different locations annually, would handle the move with ease. She walked on the trailer like the seasoned champ and kind accommodator she’d always been. All hell broke loose between when I dropped her off and returned an hour later.

Leah, the 4 YO Irish Draught Sport Horse, who had never been off the farm, was my big concern. I thought loading might be tough (it wasn’t) as I had only been able to get her standing on the ramp in schooling time alone. She was uncomfortable being first on, so we simply switched it up so she could follow Dixie. After our first stop (Dixie’s new temporary home) we simply took both off and easily loaded Leah back on alone. Now that she had ridden in this contraption, she seemed to understand the request and realize it was easy. Special thanks to Faith Stiles for providing such a safe and comfortable ride.

The filly shows us how to shine

Faith and I had each scheduled about 3 hours for Leah (we laughed together as we realized how wrong we each were with our private thoughts on the anticipated ordeal). As it turned out, it took about five minutes to load and another ten for us to unload, turn her out, see she was fine and then add her two new pasture mates.  

Faith had smartly brought ‘the girls’ into the barn so Leah could explore and accept her turn-out digs first, then get acquainted with her roomies. No angst, no issues, no big deal. Leah’s old-soul mentality was a factor, but we were still both amazed at how easy it all went. As expected (this wasn’t a surprise), Leah adopted the new routine in less than 24 hours and was a helper once she knew the drill – and continues entertaining the caregivers with her cleverness. 

Challenges with the seasoned mare

[caption id="attachment_3116" align="alignright" width="300"]pretty mare head shot Sweet, beautiful Dixie had a tough a time moving off the farm.

Meanwhile, Dixie, in a panic about being indoors alone in a new locale, busted through the rope/chain strung across the barn door where she was confined. We spent almost two hours trying to separate her from a tight herd of six with a gelding lead horse intent on savaging her. Ultimately, she did settle in, but the first week or so was dicey. How dumb was I to assume this mare would easily transition to a location away from the only place she’d known as permanent?

Fear can look like ferociousness

The things you think wouldn’t be a big deal seem to bother Remi the most (I’ve found this to be the case with horses too).

She has no problem with monster trucks, indoor living (being a couch potato is her new favorite thing), vehicle traffic or leash courtesy.

She’s terrified of cyclists, pedestrians and especially street hockey.

Remi’s always been a very attentive dog. Still, I was surprised to discover how adept she was at recognizing subtle cues from a leash without any prior training. If she’s not on my heels (her choice at the farm), she’s gentle at my side or in front. Animals who put primary focus on you generally strive hard to do what they think you want.  

This (spayed) female dog now lifts a leg and then throws dirt on her spot with considerable zeal. Gatsby never felt a need to mark his turf (he knew he was top dog).

Remi thinks everything is going to kill her so puffs up and sounds vicious with new sights and sounds. Gatsby assumed everything was safe until proved otherwise, rarely barked and felt no need to intimidate. He approached life with an amiable, fun-loving fascination. Of course having a jaw that could crush marrow bones and lightning-fast reflexes made his bite meaningful.

Horses can fool you in a similar fashion. Almost every hostile horse I’ve met is scared. True herd leaders are rarely combative, but instead, gain a following because of their calm and quiet confidence.

Helping horses handle new circumstances

It’s always interesting to watch horses adjust to new situations. Leah’s always been pretty fearless (her mom breeds this through) but has also had a life that’s given her no reason to be afraid. It’s easy to expect a young and inexperienced filly to be reactive. I guess Leah figured I’d never put her in harm’s way before, so there was no need to worry. Plus, she hasn’t been one to form strong peer attachments. She likes company, but doesn’t seem to care much who it is.

Dixie’s never been fearful, but she doesn’t have Leah’s confidence. She develops extremely strong peer bonds. Apparently, the farm provided a continuity she never had previously. Ripping her from that predictable comfort created a lot of angst. In hindsight, it would have been better to either introduce Dixie to one of her new pasture mates at Halcyon Acres® or figured out a way to keep her with Leah.  

Horses will surprise you. Sometimes retrospect provides great vision on equine reactions, but even when you’re keen about paying attention, you don’t see it coming. It’s curious that Dixie’s behavior was described as bad and Leah’s good. Dixie is a kinder horse. Leah’s had an easier life.

Of course, that doesn’t explain the dogs. Remi’s lived the Life of Riley. Gatsby’s suffered abuse and scavenged loose on city streets so long his skin to have grown over the collar on his neck. Genetics can be a wild card with mutts (and unregistered horses).

Still, knowing how to interpret what your horse is trying to tell you – and not making assumptions based solely on behavior, can help both you and your horse understand and adjust. Before you blame a horse for causing trouble, ask yourself what they might be thinking.        




Introducing a new horse to the herd

It’s always interesting to witness herd dynamics. Just when you think you have the players and likely responses figured out, horses surprise you.

Heard hanging close together as usual

Grania has been here a couple of years (since her second arrival at Halcyon Acres®) and even though she’s now a farm-owned horse for all practical purposes (her owner died and the surviving husband has put decisions regarding her care in our hands), she hasn’t joined the herd – until now.

For a long time she was a client horse here to be transitioned as a future stroke recovery therapy horse. Sometimes there’s a good reason to add a transient to the mix, but usually it’s not worth the angst for the herd – nor me – to introduce a temporary resident to the home gang.

Judie, the client, a friend, New Mexico resident and determined survivor was getting mobility back from the stroke when she succumbed to cancer. One of her last wishes was that we ensure Grania was provided with a happy home for life. As an aside, we know ultimately it’s not here (Grania loves to train and there’s just not time to give her the kind of attention she relishes).

Finding company for Grania

Grania tried some initial posturing when introduced to the herd. She's the one with the wide blaze in the background snaking her head.

Recently, company became important to this previously independent loner. In the past, we found companions (victims) to put her with, but she usually responded with unwarranted aggression until they retreated to an area far away from her space and path. Putting such a mare with the curious and social farm herd crew could be dangerous.

Interestingly, Grania took a liking a to a docile TB mare that came in here for starting under saddle lessons, and later, winter conditioning training. For the first time since she’s been here, Grania allowed a horse to graze alongside her and even nickered when she left and returned from riding time. Grania’s buddy trucked out this month. Suddenly, Grania developed a desire to be near the other horses on the property. After she jumped a fence then thundered toward the big pastures (I stepped out of the way as it became clear she had one thing on her mind and halting at my feet wasn’t it), it was clear her loner tendencies had changed and so must an approach to keep her happy.

Over the years I’ve met some horses (they’re rare) that don’t like other horses. You may recall Lulu from prior blog posts. She’s home now and happily segregated into her own private pasture. We tried all sorts of company arrangements and tactics to help this filly learn to appreciate equine companionship. It just wasn’t in her wiring, nor a case of prior trauma. She simply doesn’t like other horses. Porky, my best ever farm hand, was another. She’d get along fine with everyone, but preferred human companionship to horse company. The more horses that came to the property, the less she liked it. In fact, she was happiest when she was the only horse here. Grania, though, is the first I’ve ever seen go from happy loner to herd attached.

Considering a new turnout arrangement

Crooked is the photo bomber in the foreground. She was facinated with the new introduction to the herd and the only one besides Leah and Judie who demonstrated a fearless desire to be friends.

Part of the reason we delayed culling a companion from the farm herd is because it looked like Grania would be changing homes to take care of a kid through the Pony Club ranks. She liked this gal and was an ideal fit with her joy of jumping, some exquisite foundation dressage training and an ability to handily adjust to the level of the rider aboard. That fell through and it was time to make a decision about how to handle her new desire to be social.

Since we’re getting ready to start rotational grazing, it didn’t make a lot of sense to allocate an entire pasture to a single horse or pair. In fact, it would have required two (six acres) to make water delivery easy and shelter readily available with the current configuration. So we decided to take a shot at introducing her to the herd.

Preparing for a safe herd acclimation

Judie and Grania are in the background - far away from the rest of the closely gathered herd. Redford's resting place is in the foreground. Still not sure what to do with the spot.

We picked Cowboy for Grania’s initial single companion. The two shared a couple of pastures adjacent to the herd with access to the other horses over the entire fence length.  This 8 YO TB gelding is one of the most amiable in the herd, big (16.2hh) and unflappable enough not to be bothered by her possible aggressive behavior. He also didn’t seem to have any strong peer attachments. Bad decision.

The first three hours were uneventful. In fact, the pair didn’t even go through any squealing or striking rituals, but instead, merely planted their heads in the grass next to each other and grazed without much notice of each other. Of course, everyone in the herd ran over to the fence line to investigate the new scene and gathered like soldiers in formation (wish I had a picture of this one), but ultimately went back to routine.

I was working in the vegetable garden when the sound of pounding hoofs caught my attention from more than a half mile away. The sight was horrifying. Cowboy, neck out-stretched, teeth bared and hoofs chasing at 30 mph went into an attack-mode frenzy (I’ve never seen this kind of behavior from him – and he was born on the farm) aiming for the jugular. I’m not entirely clear what set him off (didn’t see the engagement moment), but suspect he was reacting to a separation from Leah. She was running the fence line with the pair. I bolted out to the pastures, opened the gate, Leah entered and Cowboy exited.

That actually worked out better than I had envisioned because Leah was my second choice. She gained alpha status in the herd (we have several with this designation) because she refused to move when the most aggressive mare in the herd (she’s so not an alpha) tried to chase her out of the run-ins or away from water. She’s a leader that’s been appointed even though she’s never shown any aggression toward others in the herd. She’s only three.

Leah was great about being kind and accepting in her requested role as Grania’s baby sitter and short-term friend for herd introductions. I had promised Leah a single day of separation, but it wound up being two because Cowboy’s continued aggressive behavior over the fence line was a concern.

Meeting the farm herd

After the Cowboy incident, I was anxious when the time came for herd introductions, but fortunately, it was basically a non-event. Crooked (a fearless yearling filly) was most curious about this new herd sight  (she’d been with the same crew since a couple of weeks after birth) and spent time touching noses with Grania for hours. Leah helped keep her safe (what a gem this filly is) guiding her away from herd infractions likely to result in a beating. Grania did err as she tried to command one of the run in sheds as her own (she learned that lesson quickly and exited at a gallop), but didn’t make that mistake again.

Judie apparently figured the best way to show friendship intent was to introduce Grania to the only tiny mud hole available in this 26-acre pasture. It was amazing to witness Judie's willingness to offer herself as a fast friend to keep Grania safe.

Interestingly, Judie (yes, her nickname was given to honor Grania’s former owner while she was still alive – her registered IDSH name is Halcyon’s Keepsake – karma or what?) decided to be Grania’s buddy and secluded herself from the rest of the herd to provide companionship and guidance.

Maybe it was a good thing Cowboy went into stallion attack mode. It seemed to humble this mare that was previously an unrelenting aggressor. As I picked up my head from garden activity to see what all the noise was about, even at the distance, it was clear Grania felt she was running for her life. She probably was. Teeth marks (fortunately all superficial) were apparent along her jugular. She did get in some good kicks (mostly on Cowboy’s chest – all superficial but well-aimed).

Curiously (or maybe not – this is an incredible filly) Leah jumped in as the kind companion and artful leader she is with all. While she wasn’t initially thrilled about being separated from the herd, she seemed to quickly understand she had a job to do and managed to help Grania easily transition with wise and watchful counsel. She even stepped in to put herself between Grania and Cowboy when he became threatening with body language. Leah’s only 15.1hh and dwarfed by Grania’s bulk and Cowboy’s height.

I continue to be amazed at how intuitive horses are. Whether they’re picking up signals from me or jumping in to ensure a safe and peaceful living arrangement, I don’t know, but it sure is neat to witness.

Alpha horses make you laugh when you reach them

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Microsoft Images



Natural Horsemanship should be happy for humans and horses

Friday’s Opinion

This summer has provided a wonderful opportunity to focus on some of the farm-owned horses at Halcyon Acres. We shipped out the last Thoroughbred client horse at the end of May (with only a single talented older client horse remaining – a  non-TB therapy project) and had a couple of months before the next wave of starting under saddle horses began shipping in. That hiatus provided a great learning experience and an excuse to put full-focus on listening to the horse.  It’s been an enriching endeavor for both the humans and horses involved in this awakening.

Natural Horsemanship –Really?

There’s a whole lot of buzz – and controversy – going on right now about current popular horse training precepts. While much of the criticism is centered on one business entity (and that corporate mentality is the problem – whether horsemen once or not, much of the focus has turned away from the horse and horsemanship in deference to the marketing machine minds that now rule these profit centers), the hubbub isn’t the result of a single method (or individual). There has been a festering groundswell of distaste for messages that are being put out there that stop considering the horse (and the novices trying to establish an understanding and bond) and, instead, are designed to drive maximum traffic to products or services for sale. This is starting to backfire for some. The resulting conversation about the wisdom of formula approaches for equines should lead to a savvier human component and happier horses.

It’s not that tough to listen to the horse if you’re willing to patiently watch and learn how each communicates. This usually requires spending time with an open mind around a particular horse, or horses in general, to get a feel what they are trying to tell you. Some people have a natural talent for interpreting a horse’s messages. Still, every horse is different and few equines appreciate an inflexible, pre-determined and dictatorial game plan (and yes, pun intended, this applies to what some label as games too) that has the human calling all the shots and the horse reduced to begging for treats or tuning out to avoid torture. Novices (and some so-called professionals) rarely realize how much damage they can do when they get the urge to orchestrate training with rituals. Horses appreciate a routine they can count on, but I haven’t met any that enjoy a training regimen that ignores the horse’s input in the process.

This moniker has been hijacked from those who had a deep understanding about personally connecting with a horse and redefined and assigned to a branding strategy to create revenue from money makers that offer answers without regard for the horse. Sad.

Novice horse riders need better information

Novices aren’t to blame when they believe the messages they are inundated with that offer tips and tricks to “easily” go it alone without regard to their horse’s issues. Of course, these secrets are only revealed to those that pay $97 for a DVD or learn from someone certified through an expensive qualification process (where money trumps skill for the designation). It’s a crime that beginners are “blamed” by their selected cult leaders if things don’t work out for them “because they didn’t follow instructions”. People who claim they have a “one size fits all” solution for horse training are charlatans, in my opinion. It’s sad to see what happens to the people and horses that adhere to practices that expect the horse to “get with their program”.

There’s no exact science when it comes to working with green horses. The secret isn’t a method – it’s learning how to read each horse with a willingness to include them in the conversation.  It takes time and experience to get there. Those who continue to encourage novice riders to pair up with green horses because their silver bullet (available for cash, credit card or cleared check) provides a catch-all solution to any horse/human challenges should be called out, shunned and shut down. There’s no horsemanship left in the minds of these folks – only dollar signs. it’s unconscionable to put novices in such potentially dangerous situations that also damage the horse ‘s psyche – sometimes for life. It’s ironic that the current blame being put on so many for unwanted horses doesn’t seem to include some of the biggest remote contributors.

If your horse doesn’t beg for the opportunity to train (and this doesn’t mean doing tricks for treats), you’re doing something wrong.

Ask the horse what they want to do

Buster is special - here he is helping Carl enjoy a safe first ride alone.

The nice thing about schooling farm-owned horses (vs. client projects), is you can ask the horse what they want. Even young horses will tell you when they’re ready to begin working under saddle (and in the case here sometimes – way past ready to the point of getting frustrated that they don’t have a job). Watch, listen and then offer training as an activity (keeping it fun by including the horse in the conversation), and you might be amazed at how eager the horse is to work. Even better (provided you’ve developed a skill for reading a horse’s proclivities), you can be flexible and insightful as you set the foundation for a career path that a horse will enjoy.

We culled out three to train in earnest this summer. One was a four-year-old Irish Draught Sport Horse filly (Clover) that has been begging to go back to work. The second, a six-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (Cowboy), has been our go-to farm hand since the age of two and was showing signs of boredom. Play Play was our third selection, who was sidelined with a hock injury that resulted from a kick (she probably had it coming – she’s the only mare in the herd who is aggressive without cause – likely due to fear issues, but still, with this amiable herd, being nasty too often has a price).

Clover’s back in training (for the third time – shoemaker’s children) and loving it. We started this filly late in her three-year-old year, spent a little time on her this spring and have recently put her into a daily schooling routine. She, along with Cowboy, dismisses herself from the herd and is waiting at the gate at the scheduled time they come in for training.

Miss a training day with Clover now and she’ll let you know about her displeasure that day – and pay you back the next (she’s a character). Cowboy is so thrilled to be transitioning over to English and a direct rein vs. the Western riding that sometimes confused him. He’s relishing dressage and jumping work and eager to understand new requests. He’s a character too. He begs (to train, eat, move – whatever he wants that he’s not doing at the moment) by curling a front leg and will stand as a tripod until his wish is granted.

Speak up

It’s sad that some of the most celebrated equine “gurus” these days lost sight of their horsemanship and altruistic ways a long time ago. Most started with some decent ideas, accomplishments and intentions. The harm they’re doing to riders and horses now, though, with pat answers that include “I have a product to fix that horse,” is immense.

I’m not seeing a witch hunt, I’m seeing and industry correction. And it’s a good thing for the future of our horses and the people who love them.

Attacks won’t help the horses – nor the novices who have been buffaloed by the material they’re eager to soak up as gospel. Better guidance and solutions will. It’s time for those who operate with integrity in this industry to reach out to people who don’t know what they don’t know. Offer problem-solving tactics they can embrace and understand – including cautionary notes on marketing messages that appeal to their emotional drivers, but fail to reveal the truth. Be there as counsel to help those struggling with ideas to guide them with insight to reach their horse in a customized fashion. It’s time too, for industry players with character around the globe to align in a way that helps those thinking about a first horse purchase or stuck with a project beyond their abilities to reach out to people who can help – and really care.

Be a part of the solution

Who’d like to be a part of a free forum at Horse Sense and Cents (we may need to locate this on the BookConductors site, but we’ll offer a seamless link here) that offers novice riders and first-time hours buyers input from seasoned equine professionals for good strategies and decisions from the onset? Whether you’re an equine novice or professional, please share your ideas on how we can make this a useful resource. Feel free to e-mail me directly, comment on the blog or call (585) 554-4612 if this is something that appeals to you.

15 Quick Tips for horse pasture management

  1. Cull horses into smaller areas and rotate frequently.
  2. Schedule a rotation management program that gives pastures enough time to regenerate (depends on area, time of year, number of horses, water, etc.).
  3. Mow pastures after moving horses off an area or follow them with livestock (such as cows) that can help manage parasite issues and/or eat what horses will leave.
  4. Use salt instead of pesticides to control unwanted plants (such as growth under an electric fence wire, burdocks or thistles). This will take more time but can be as effective without the potential harm to horses and the environment. Plus, it can be administered to paddocks being currently grazed. It’s also inexpensive in 50 pound bags.
  5. Break up manure piles to kill worms that may be ingested later.
  6. Build gates between paddocks to make transfer to new areas quicker and easier.
  7. Use herd leaders to help move horse groups to other pastures. If you grab one of the herd leaders (this works best if you can pair her with number two as you begin the migration) to encourage the rest of the herd to follow. This isn’t necessarily the horse that is hostile to the herd to get first dibs on feed or water. Watch the herd to see who they follow. It’s usually a kind mare that doesn’t command respect, but is chosen due to confidence and operatives with seeming indifference.
  8. Supply shelter from sun, wind, bugs and cold. There are many affordable run-in sheds available for purchase. We’ve found Wood Tex ( to be exceptional on the quality, price and customer service fronts. In fact, we can’t build a shelter for the price of their delivered units. If you’re building and have an aggressive horse in the herd, an L-shaped shelter works best.
  9. Clean out shelters at least daily. Depending on the usage, bedding may be necessary.
  10. Pick herds to help school young horses. Do you have an arrogant and aggressiveyoung colt that bullies other horses (or humans)? Turn him out with a pregnant mare (or two) for a quick and lasting attitude adjustment. Are you challenged with a young alpha filly that’s torturing and dominating elderly mares? Kick her out with an established younger herd with an established hierarchy. Have a timid or insecure horse? Find a kind mare (or gelding) they can spend time with one-on-one to bond with and build their confidence. Struggling with an aggressive and violent mare that beats the daylights out of other mares she’s introduced to? If you’re determined to attempt socializing her (we go by the two strikes rule with hostile horses – then they’re permanently solo), try putting a young gelding in an adjacent stall first and if they bond, see if pasture companionship works . Watch carefully for signs of aggression and remove the boy if you have time, but don’t get between the two once a battle ensues.
  11. Ensure horses have clean water at all times.
  12. Watch the horses’ weight. Heavy horses can be prone to more problems than skinny ones. Limit grazing for obese horses and supplement as needed with those that are harder keepers.
  13. Stay current on vaccinations. In addition to the standard 4-ways (or 5-ways), we also add West Nile and Rabies. Issues are often geographically-based, so it makes sense to keep apprised of area concerns.
  14. Make salt and/or a mineral block available.
  15. Check each horse daily for abrasions, hoof problems (pick them up to make sure nothing is lodged in the foot and/or the health of the frog and sole is good), eye issues, filling in legs and general health and attitude.

Whisper, shout or click – is your system hearing the horse?

Friday’s Opinion

“A gun gives you the body, not the bird.” -Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)

Getting a horse to do what you want is usually a pretty easy task. Most horses succumb to treats, threats, routine or demands if they understand your message. Still, there’s a difference between compliance and engagement. Today, there are a lot of training systems being touted as universal. Sadly, when template solutions are applied without regard to the particular horse’s needs, they tend to diminish the equine soul. Do you want a horse that responds to your demands, or a partner that is ready, eager and able to jump in and protect you when you face trouble or err? If your goal is building a partnership, consider how you can make your horse feel a part of the team.

Is it really a good thing to have a horse licking and chewing prior to turning on the training juice?

Kudos must go to those who have spent time with wild herds and offered to share their observations and experiences. They’ve given us valuable information to apply as we interact with our horses.

Domesticated equines, however, seem to have a different dynamic than those born free – at least when it comes to rapport building with humans and horses. Certainly, it’s valuable and useful to look at what others have learned from integrating with wild herds, but what seems to be missing from these teachings and lessons is the realization that each horse is different in how he learns and responds to human interaction. Sure, you can model training around creating a submissive horse that will respond to you demands, but is that the best way to develop outstanding team-players and performers?

The most respected domesticated alpha mare seems to earn a following with an understanding, protective and fair approach through a calm confidence that earns vs. demands respect.
It’s a rare moment when she asserts her prowess – usually done only to intervene if another is being victimized or to respond definitively when being attacked – as kindness and wisdom is her norm. Those that rule by violence and or intimidation and achieve submission get their way when it comes to first dibs on feed and water, but they’re avoided, usually feared and rarely followed.

This begs the question – what kind of horse do you want to develop? Sure, you can gain compliance with techniques designed to present you as an inflexible, hostile, demanding alpha – but do you really want to train your horse to drearily accept your demands? Wouldn’t it be better to foster a relationship that responds to the horse’s indicated needs and learning preferences? It might take a little more time, but the associated mutual respect you build will last for the lifetime of your equine partnership.

I see young foals licking and chewing when they approach some of the older horses in the herd (certainly not all – it’s the aggressive ones they feel a need to placate), but don’t see this from horses after they reach a year or two of maturity. Of course, one of my rules for permanent tenants here is that they get with the program – and part of that includes getting along with the gang. So, if a new member decides to be unnecessarily violent and the herd isn’t able to force a behaviorial correction, this critter is the last to be brought in from the paddock and the last to go out. If that doesn’t send the message and they continue to harass unnecessarily, they’re provided walking papers. It’s a rare equine that doesn’t get the message and come around quickly between the herd help and the human ‘alpha’ component.

Dominating trainers will sometimes prevail

Granted, some seem to go too far in the horse consciousness mantra, but those who continue to see violence, pain and domination as a good way to create willing and effective equine performers hit the other extreme. There’s a big difference between standing your ground and getting a horse to comply through fear, pain or immobilization.

Sadly, some who see horses as an animal to be conquered and beaten into submission are successful equine professionals. Some horses will succumb to mean handling and go on to be standout performers. Of course, this begs the question, how special could they have been if handled with kindness and understanding?

Do you click to deliver equine treats?

Few horses wag their tails in anticipation of a food reward. Most will, however, learn to do your bidding once conditioned to expect a treat for a trick. Sure, this provides a quick and easy way to ‘train’ your horse to ‘perform,’ but at what cost?

Domesticated dogs seem to relish the idea of begging for food, but horses tend to prefer to choose to bond with a human that offers some understanding and allows the horse to decide they’ve earned respect. Personally, I’ve found there’s few greater rewards than those that come from allowing a horse to be heard and understood in a way that makes them part of the conversation and associated training decisions. I’m not suggesting letting the horse walk all over you (far from it – few horses respect a push-over, let alone one who defers the decision making to the horse due to fear), but, instead, an approach where the human is steadfast, yet observant enough to respond to what the horse is trying to tell him. Sometimes, with the more challenging cases, the message may be ‘I’ve been taught to hate humans and want to hurt you,’ but even with those extreme scenarios, treats and clicks may gain compliance, but they won’t create a partnership that’s reciprocal. You need to decide if you want to ‘break’ a horse or ‘find’ him.

Do you want to really hear your horse?

There are a lot of books, DVDs, television programs and clinics that boast a method that will work for all horses and all people – if you do it right (experience a failure and it’s your onus).  What I’ve found in working with various horses over the years (and sure, I’ve logged a lot of mistakes along the way), is that the best training approach for every equine is customized. Some horses are timid. Others are scared, confused, frustrated, bored – whatever. It seems the majority that come to Halcyon Acres deemed dangerous are merely alphas that have either been permitted to rule by intimidation and/or misunderstood. In each case, spending time on the ground getting to know the horse and building a rapport pays huge dividends once you hop in the saddle. It’s important to try to recognize the issues your horse may be carrying as baggage from prior experiences along with developing a keen eye for concerns and issues he may be facing. Be a firm, kind, confident and responsive leader and you’ll find your horse may surprise you with how talented he can be once appreciated as an individual and given the opportunity to express his penchants.

The next time you feel the need to preach to another (or your horse) a proven method that is universal, consider hearing what your horse may be trying to tell you. Listen a little bit and you may find a gem you never imagined.

You can possess the horse fully – but do you want just a body with an empty heart? Some like trophies that allow them to boast dominating accomplishments. Those who strive for horsemanship, however, understand the greatness that can come from encouraging and engaging the personality of the particular horse with approaches that let him live fully and individually with a human partner that listens and understands.

Twelve quick tips for safer horse boarding

If you’re used to taking care of your own horse, it can be a challenge to place his care in the hands of another. Leaving a horse at a remote facility can be even tougher. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Others view boarding as a standard feature of horse ownership and assume the owners of the property or the help they’ve hired have the best interest of the horse in mind. It’s best not to assume in such matters.

Whether you are shipping a horse for breeding or training out-of-state; are considering a permanent boarding arrangement at a stable; need to house you horse elsewhere while you travel; are considering a leasing arrangement where the horse will be moved; or have other reasons that the care of your horse will fall to others for a period of time, it’s smart to do some due diligence prior to loading your horse on a trailer. Here are some ideas and issues to consider:

  1. If at all possible, visit the facility. Don’t just go on the word of a trusted source – they may not be focused on issues that are important to you. Watch what goes on at feeding time (and what’s being fed), turnout routines and scheduled events. Inspect the facilities where the horses are stabled and/or turned out. Are they clean and dry? Safe? Appropriate for your horse’s needs?
  2. Talk to others about their experience with the facility. Ask about health and weight issues, behavior changes, facility maintenance, restrictive policies and/or liberal ones that may reduce the pleasure for you or your horse.
  3. Discuss feeding issues. Does the facility provide ample good quality hay? Do they feed on a regular schedule? Is water available at all times for the horses (don’t just ask – confirm it by looking around)? Are they willing to offer customized feed, supplement or turnout approaches for a horse that may have special needs?
  4. Ask about vaccination, worming and other preventative policies. Stables that do not require routine basic health care for equine residents may introduce your horse to unnecessary issues.
  5. Look at the condition of the horses that are there. Are they skinny? Fat? Long-haired and dull-coated? Cribbing, weaving, stall-walking, digging, hyper, hostile, afraid or anxious? These are warning signs.
  6. Watch the owner and/or staff interacts with the horses and the people in the barn. You’ll get a good sense about rapport and attitude by being a quiet observer.
  7. Read the contract and/or ask about farm policies. If it’s a riding stable – do they have rules about safety equipment, times of access, courteous behavior, outside vendors (including trainers, farriers, vets, etc.)? For breeding and/or boarding only facilities, will they respond to your calls and e-mails and provide updates on your horse’s status and/or health, keep you apprised of medical issues that may arise with your horse, get your permission/input prior to incurring considerable vet expenses on your behalf, offer direct access to their vendors and provide cost estimates up-front? If you don’t ask the questions, the surprises you get are rarely happy ones.
  8. Find out who is going to be responsible for the care of your particular horse and ask if you can talk to them. This will give you a good sense of the knowledge and nature of the caregiver.
  9. If possible, talk to people who have left the facility and find out why they moved.
  10. Google the facility. See how they present themselves, and what others may be saying. If you have the name of the stable owner, even better – you can get a good read on their character by digging into how they choose to behave on the social media front lines. Take it all with a grain of salt, but you may uncover some unexpected insight on what you’re in for.
  11. If the stabling arrangement involves turn-out board (whether this is a breeding operation or a home for a horse that is not being trained for whatever reason), inspect the run-in sheds (or other shelter provided – this is a must) to ensure they are clean, dry and adequate (a single 10 X 12 shed won’t work for three or a dozen horses – one will likely demand occupancy rights and banish the rest). Ask about how often the horses are inspected, fed, watered, handled, etc. Look at the size of the pasture and the number of horses housed there (3-acres per horse is a good rule of thumb if grass feed is a staple – but this requires a smart rotational grazing program that includes mowing,  time, warmth and water for the fields to rejuvenate). Is the pasture all weeds and scrub or seeded with nutritional forage? Is hay/grain provided as a supplement? How much? Are horses fed separately or must they compete for their rations? Is care taken as new horses are introduced to the herd? Does a vet get called if there is an issue or is it ignored and allowed to fester? Will you be contacted immediately with health concerns or issues?
  12. Once you’ve decided on a board situation for your riding horse (or other equine that is your pet), try to visit the stable daily. Even if you just stop in for ten minutes to give your horse a pet and ensure he’s OK, this can go a long way to ensuring he’s happy, healthy and treated fairly. Your horse depends on you to be a companion and protector.

Turning Challening Horses into Willing Partners sneak peak book excerpt

Sneak Peak excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners. Due for public release in 2010.

Horse Sense for sour equines

• Rule out physical issues that may be causing pain and the horse’s associated frustration in his failure to communicate.

• Do not continue to push a sore horse, or you will only make him sourer and could turn him mean. Give him the help and the time required to heal prior to resuming training.

• Figure out whether routine or varied activities are the preference of your sour horse and give him what makes him happiest.

• Be patient, flexible, and accommodating with a sour horse when their behavior is justified. Conversely, if you’ve taught a horse to be sour by rewarding bad behavior, resolve to stop the pattern or get some help.

• Try getting a horse out of the routine with some fun activities, trail rides, and long walks if his sour behavior is likely due to too much of the same grind. Some sour horses will bounce back pretty quickly once relieved of the drill that has made them bored and cranky.

• It is rarely effective to discipline a sour horse for his behavior. If a horse has come to resent riding, punishing them aboard only reinforces this conviction. Instead, try finding an easy activity they enjoy and rewarding them for their cooperation. Once you’ve gained a rapport, reintroduce them to the discipline training in lighter doses and with greater rewards for their achievements.

• Horses that have turned sour rarely become standout competitors (unless you change their career to something they learn to enjoy), nor fun pleasure horses. If your aim is to put them back into the routine that created their sour nature (unless this is due to pain you address and correct), you are likely to be disappointed. Consider a different project.

• Find some riding activity that’s really fun for your sour horse and reward him with this after every positive response to a lesson (this could be trail riding, jumping, riding with a companion horse, going fast, going slow, a long rein, a swim in a pond – each horse is different and you need to figure out what makes your horse happiest).

• Know when to call it quits. Sour horses are some of the toughest to turn and sometimes there is no reward for the effort. If you come to hate riding or working with this horse, it may be time to say goodbye. Quality of life (yours and theirs) is something worth considering with these projects.

Sour horse approaches

Chapter Seven

Turning a sour mount

There are a number of circumstances that can make a mount

sour. One who has been drilled too hard in the arena and given

little opportunity to relax in different surroundings can often

be transformed by backing off of the flatwork and jumping.

Simply choosing a varied routine that gets them fit and supple

on the trails or in other new and interesting environments can

quickly improve your mount’s attitude. If your horse is sore and

hasn’t been forced to the point of resenting the mere appearance

of a rider, giving him time off to heal and adopting a subsequent

sensitivity to their pain can work wonders. Some horses

are inadvertently taught to refuse. If there’s been a pattern of

curtailing every lesson as soon as the horse starts acting surly

toward requests, this behavior will escalate, and the horse will

object more frequently and dramatically to even simple tasks.

These equines can usually be corrected with the aid of a seasoned

and clever trainer, but this will often require that you

watch on the sidelines initially, proceeding with closely monitored

riding lessons after the horse is sufficiently schooled to

discourage this behavior.

If you’re dealing with a horse that has learned to resent with a

vengeance the competitive arena for which they were intended,

however, it might be time to find another project. While turning

these animals to a point where they get the job done is possible,

they’re generally not very much fun to work with or be around.

Plus, their attitudes leave them performing short of their potential.

If they’ve turned mean, they add a considerable degree of

danger to the mix. Mean horses that have learned that violence

and refusal is their only recourse for avoiding pain are almost

impossible to completely turn. You can make a lot of progress

with them and often diffuse much of the mean behavior, but

if they are sour and have been taught that belligerence is their

only relief, they may be tough to tackle.

With any sour horse, it’s important to be creative and responsive

in how you approach the training and communication



All deemed Studley a lost cause, except his insightful, reticent

trainer who wasn’t ready to admit defeat with this horse and

his green owners, who were enamored by the idea of having a

racehorse stallion. The moment he arrived, we began to question

our creative capabilities with this monster, not to mention

our sanity. As noted earlier (see Chapter Six — Turning Mean to

Green), he was a vicious stud who had a history of maiming the

humans he encountered and a quarrelsome attitude that rendered

training attempts at the track impossible. After we developed

a strategy and system that, over time, was effective at dissipating

the meanness, moving from a survival to a success focus

to address his sour nature became a priority. Ultimately, it

was clear we’d have to work around his bad attitude to get this

beast fit enough for speed training.