When I was a kid, I dreamed of living among horses in the
wild, free as they were to do as I pleased. I figured that unfettered lifestyle
would make me happy. Of course, I also imagined I could talk to horses like Dr.
Doolittle. It was just me and that herd bonding, sharing and taking care of
each other with a rapport and blissful existence of unencumbered pleasure.
I learned a lot when day dreams gave way to reality.
Observing horses in what I expected to find euphoria in that freedom to roam
taught me something else.
After decades of running a farm with big acreage pastures, I
discovered most domesticated horses would prefer to have job than run free. I
learned this lesson on 117 acres with more than 30 of those fenced as pasture.
Here, I witnessed the behavior of horses ranging from new born foals and
formerly active broodmare competitors to client horses bred for racing or
intended for a particular amateur career such as competitive trail riding or
Granted, they’re not always fit to do what we intend for them,
but if you can find their passion, they’ll bolster yours.
Admittedly, I had a pretty good work ethic starting at a
young age. I served as a vet assistant when I was six; my duties were scaled
back after I passed out during a surgery assistant role. By age ten, I had a
paper route with 60 houses. That took some doing as a girl in the 70s, but I
wore down the powers that be with my pestering to finally get them to give me a
chance. I was a waitress and bank teller during high school as soon as I was legally
old enough for salaried work.
It took me another couple of decades to realize the animals
we’ve bred to be our companions and servants for millenniums want a fulfilling job
too. Not all of them, of course. Just like people, there are the lazy, unmotivated
and takers in the bunch. But my earlier belief that a domesticated horse’s
dream life was to be free was shattered after I spent time witnessing horses
who loved their job put to pasture.
Some horses get too old or too crippled to continue in a job
they seemed to be born for. This includes racers, high level eventers &
jumpers, rodeo performers and even some amateur mounts. Even with these aged
steeds, they tend to relish an opportunity to find a new career that provides
purpose. This could include broodmare, child protector, trail trekker, therapy
horse and a whole bunch of other possibilities that allow for less strenuous
tasks that fit their nature.
Morrie reminded me of how important it can be to find the
right job for an animal we care for. He’s a wiry mutt of the canine variety,
but, funny enough, he’s found agility to be his game. It seems the higher the
jump or the faster the course the more he enjoys it. Of course, we’re still
working on that control thing – funny I’ve had a lot of horses with that issue
too – but, his joy for the game turns heads everywhere he goes.
Finding that joy activity with horses is key. If your horse
truly relishes what you’re asking him to do, he’ll amaze you with his try.
It’s so much fun when you can reach a horse and human at the same time. Recently, I was asked to come to a client’s aid. Both came away from the experience with a new understanding, a better rapport and all puffed up as a result of what they accomplished independently and then, later, together.
Fun with a reticent gelding – interpreting horse and human signals to solve loading issues
When you get stuck, you can either keep doing what’s not working or call for help.
The owner of a young gelding that’s only home had been her farm (he was born there) started working on trailer loading for the first time this year. She had started him under saddle but made the decision to send him to Halcyon Acres® to do some polishing and get him steady on the trails.
Things went well, until they didn’t.
I always applaud those wise enough to know when help is warranted. It’s not always something easy to admit, but doing so can transform the relationship you have with your horse almost immediately.
What’s the real horse training issue?
We spent almost an hour and a half addressing and correcting the problems the first day. Actually, the horse loaded without incident on the first several attempts, but changed his tune after we tried to lift the ramp to close him in. This wasn’t a great trailer to be working with, which complicated things a bit, but the bigger challenge was this guy’s habit of backing rapidly without being requested to do so.
Patience and understanding was an appropriate early reaction. Soon it became clear, though, that he was no longer wary, but merely having fun controlling a game he designed.
In conversation with the owner, or perhaps, more importantly, observing the horse, it became clear he had learned that flinging himself backwards at a rapid pace ended a lesson he wasn’t too keen about. So, it’s not surprising he embraced this cool tool that provided a reward.
This was a very smart horse. He also responded gleefully to attention and praise – much more so than the food bribes that had been offered in the past. Sweet by nature, this solid guy wanted to please. He just wasn’t confident enough in people to be comfortable following their lead. He needed to understand that his backing frenzy could cause harm to him or human and was not acceptable.
The training shifted from trailer loading (this wasn’t the real issue) to addressing the backing penchant.
An unusual approach to solve the loading challenge
While it’s rarely appropriate to intensify the pressure to discourage a young horse from bad behavior, in this case, it was. This guy used his bulk in an attempt to mow over the human or fling them off the lead.
We put a chain over his nose to gain some additional leverage. As expected, he didn’t like it. He quickly learned, though, that his actions were merely responded to in kind. We never applied any pressure to the lead in the trailer, but once he was out and trying to fling or knock a human off their feet, pressure was applied. The moment he offered a smidgeon of cooperation, it was released. Timing is critical. The release needs to be immediate. Also note this wasn’t a jerking on the lead action, merely some weight against it. He quickly realized his nose got comfortable the millisecond he stood still.
After that, loading was basically a non-issue. The backing off without request ended too. He’d stand for many minutes as asked then stepped off slowly, one stride at a time as pressure was applied with some fingers to his chest. He glowed and responded with delight as attention was lavished for little attempts and food bribes were eliminated from the mix.
Several days later I received an ecstatic call from the owner who, after witnessing the schooling session and listening to next step recommendations (give him a few days to process and gloat, no chain, walk on with confidence, immediately recognize tries, use attention vs. food bribes as a reward, etc.) that all went as we discussed – no, even better. Her loading challenges seemed to be history.
It’s always exciting to find eager learners who can process information easily in both horse and human form.
We’ll do another session together before we lock him up in the trailer for a short trip to the Halcyon Acres® facility, but both sessions should be uneventful. This guy really wants to be a good boy, he just didn’t understand.
Why horses resist trailer loading
Every horse is different. Understanding his concerns is the first step to resolving issues. Seeking help when you can’t is critical too. Forcing a horse on a trailer only works once. The damage you do to his psyche with such an approach will cost you big time in the future.
Instead, try to get into their head. You’ll be amazed at how much you may learn when you take the time to try to understand and respond in accommodating ways.
Unfortunately, many professional truckers or so-called seasoned trainers tend to resort to tactics that serve to reinforce a horse’s fear or dislike for the trailer. What’s more important than any tactic you use is getting a quick read on why your horse is being difficult. Usually it comes down to one of three reasons:
He’s afraid. This can be due to unfamiliar trailers, first time introductions or memory issues associated prior bad experiences.
He’s playing you. Some horses (interestingly with trailer issues it tends to be the geldings even though mares tend to present clever facades during under saddle training) offer resistance because it’s a fun game and/or they sense your lack of confidence and take the lead.
You’re sending him the wrong signals. If you face a horse when trying to load him, his tendency is going to be to either stop or back. People who are helping you load also send body signals to the horse that can be problematic. Some don’t like being crowded. Others load better with a person close by to help keep him on the right path. Noticing how he’s reacting to the people involved and how you might be unintentionally asking for undesired behavior is important.
The most important factor in forging the path to better loading experiences is paying attention. This includes recognizing why your horse is responding the way he is, noting what he’s trying to tell you and understanding how what you’re doing is encouraging or discouraging his cooperation.
If you’re in the Western New York area, we can come out with on-sight. If not, consider our e-coaching services. Capture the scene in video, send it along and we’ll work with you providing customized ideas and suggestions through all the challenges. This month we’ve added an introductory e-coaching offer to new clients for one month of support at $65.
This winter a young gelding came into Halcyon Acres® for starting under saddle training that presented a host of challenges. He was dangerous to himself and the people around him because of the way he processed (or didn’t) information.
His reactions to imperceptible stimuli were explosive, yet he’d handle things with ease that would freak out a typical young horse.
It was obvious he was a kind horse, but that didn’t reduce the angst whe
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alpha mares and fillies can present some interesting challenges where training and handling are concerned. They also become some of the most loyal high achievers you’ll ever encounter if you learn how to reach them. All seem to have heart beyond the norm, smarts and a wilfulness about them that will test your fortitude. Try to dominate these gals without an ear and eye toward their communicated needs, and they’ll give you a schooling you won’t soon forget. In the truly sad cases of dominance and violence, some will give up and yield, but lose the qualities that made them so special in the process. When you give a strong alpha horse the opportunity to choose to respect you the results are awe-inspiring. Below are eleven quick tips for dealing with alphas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Be firm, but fair. When you do decide to tackle an issue, make sure you’re clear about what you’re asking and then proceed until you get the response you set out for. Alphas can be very kind until you ask them to do something they don’t want to do (for some this can be something as simple as standing still). It’s a big mistake to start a training direction and give up when an alpha objects. You’ll wind up teaching her to train you as a subordinate and will never gain the respect or bond afforded only to perceived peers and embraced leaders.
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.
Vary the routine. Alphas are easily bored and if you spend too much time drilling a point when they’ve already done what you requested, they’ll protest. As quick learners, alphas expect to get on to something new and exciting once they think they’ve mastered a task. Mix it up enough to keep them interested and engaged.
Pick one issue to tackle in a day. Consider it a great day if you chose the right lesson and are able to end on a good note. Sometimes it’s a five minute success; other days it may be hours before you accomplish that simple task request she’s decided to turn into a call for war. Regardless, particularly with young horses, don’t be tempted to finish the week’s plan for training because you seem to be having a good day. It’s better to end quickly on a good note than risk ruining a day of great rapport.
Learn to read your horse. Alphas are extremely telling if you pay attention. Come to recognize when she’s having a bad day and be ready to change or cancel training plans if you can. Watch her when you’re working with her to pick up on when she’s getting irritated or when she’s feeling proud about an accomplishment. There’s a difference between being insistent and pushing too hard and/or failing to recognize an effort when she needs to be congratulated.
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.
Horses’ rights advocates
There’s been a lot of discussion and controversy worldwide about a variety of horse riding and working disciplines with some groups clamoring for laws and practices that change the way horses are “used.” PETA is trying to lead a bandwagon aimed at banning carriage horses. Groups fostering a movement to end the “cruel” practice of riding horses are cropping up in different countries. The racing industry has been under attack from a variety of segments for decades. Some self-described equine mavens are blanketing the media with messages that advocate for a sensory overload approach to the point it renders the horse practically brain dead as a “kinder and gentler” method. Opinions and claims abound about how others should conduct their interactions with horses, but are these people talking to the horses? If they are, do they consider the horse’s opinion?
Domesticated horses are different than the wild, nomadic, free ancestors that offer a romantic notion of happy horses free from human encumbrance. Maybe it’s sad that we’ve made this so, but what’s done is done and it’s been in the making for a lot longer than any of us have been alive. It’s a good thing that the voices for fair treatment of horses are growing more numerous and louder. Some go too far, though, and lose sight of what a horse may need today to be happy.
It’s amazing how the years can change one’s perspective. Decades ago, I was among those slamming the racing industry. Of course, I had no first-hand exposure to the trainers, horses, practices and backside, but carried the message of supposed neglect and abuse to others with conviction. Are there bad practices and bad eggs in this sport? Sure. But the reality is that the accusations heralded by the uneducated masses miss the mark on where these are. Many owners and trainers of racehorses view them as commodities. Surprisingly for most, I imagine, this translates to more fastidious care than is seen at the most affluent show barn (or most other equine discipline facilities). The good Thoroughbred grooms know more about legs and related care than most vets I encounter. What amazed me most, though, was how much care and attention these horses get.
Those bred to race – particularly the good ones – want to. I’ve owned horses that have made more in a few years (not on my watch, unfortunately) than I will see in a decade. Even sore, they’re miserable at the farm and can’t wait to get back into the racetrack to train and run. They want a job to do – and relish the opportunity go play the game to win.
Herd experiment brings horse training insight
This year, we fenced in 26 acres at Halcyon Acres. We didn’t do 24/7 turnout because the run-in sheds simply didn’t provide enough relief from the relentless insect monsters that appeared during the day, but it was enough to foster a herd mentality.
What we witnessed through this natural approach to what should be a horse’s delight was surprising. Those we culled out of the herd to start under saddle or train for new careers were the most eager and quickest to approach the humans in the mix. They wanted a job and relished the work. No treats, clicks or other enticements played a role in this behavior, yet, the chosen transformed into happier horses, excited to greet the challenge of the day (and those who represented this opportunity).
This year at Halcyon Acres, it was Clover, Buster, Play Play, Courtney and the nursing babies who were culled out for lessons. Frankly, this really surprised me. I expected these horses to resent the fact that they were singled out for work. The opposite proved to be the case. The moment she was started under saddle, Clover went from a precocious, independent, aloof and sometimes belligerent filly to be first to run to the gait when she spotted her trainer. Quickly, she came to insist on a stroke between her eyes and immediately stopped her former antics with the vet and blacksmith. She needed a focus and now had a job that gave her a clear mission and some satisfaction that she had formerly garnered from schooling our vendors. Buster is now bored and a little lost since we decided to give him some time to grow up after a couple of months on the trails. He seemed to really enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out new requests and terrain. Play Play, always the pleaser, continues to relish new experiences and often asks to extend the lesson time. Courtney has gone back to his aggressive herd behavior and cribbing since we stopped his conditioning training.
That’s been our experience, and it’s been an eye-opener. So, the next time you see a campaign promoting the flavor of the month for horse advocacy, ask your horse what he thinks about all this. If you really listen, his answer may surprise you.