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problem horses

Positive reinforcement can encourage the wrong things

Let’s set aside the technical definition of positive reinforcement in deference to yet another case of common use morphing of the language. Uncle – this post will use the term to designate reward practices as such. We’ll assume those advocating for positive reinforcement are against any actions that involve a correction that discourages a horse (or human) from bad or dangerous behavior. It still doesn’t work as well as people might think.

young horse training needs different approachesSociety seems to be focused these days on a ‘don’t say no’ mentality, for fear the mere act of providing guidance to direct behavior through disapproval may undermine the self-esteem of our youth or label someone who sets limits as cruel to their animals. What this approach is producing is a bunch of confused, aimless and narcissistic humans along with a new generation of horses who long for a human that has guts enough to challenge bad behavior and provide them with the comfort of a guide they can trust to keep them out of harm’s way.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not an advocate of ‘keeping their feet busy,’ ‘teaching a horse respect’ or reckless punishment, but there comes a time when it’s appropriate to say no – and mean it. That’s never a good first approach with a young or confused horse, but if you’re skillful at reading what’s being projected, there will come a time when misunderstanding turns to manipulation or bullying.

Foals appreciate clear direction

We have a fifteen-month-old colt here that’s recently been feeling pretty proud of his appendages. He’s not very bold or confident, so we’ve taken extra time with each request keeping it kind, patient and encouraging. His behavior during the last blacksmith visit merited a different reaction. He figured he’d give biting and kicking a shot. One quick and timely correction (a thump to his belly) ended the antics. He was testing, seemed to appreciate having some boundaries set and handled the rest of the session with ease and grace. A scared or confused horse would have reacted very differently. It was time to say no with this coming cocky colt.

 Youngsters live happier with limits

If you think you’re doing your horse a favor (or your kid for that matter) allowing them to find themselves without negative reinforcement to help them understand appropriate social behavior or avoid danger, you’re not. People, like horses, are better adjusted and more joyful when guided on how to be a productive contributor in life. Even in wild herds you see this. Regardless, horses have been domesticated for millenniums. Most I’ve encountered seem to be hard-wired to seek out humans for work fulfillment.

Done right, horses appreciate the attention and engagement riding time brings. For most, finding a confident and responsive leader makes activities a lot more fun.

Keeping the horse in the conversation is critical.

That doesn’t mean you always have to agree or cave, just listen. Acknowledging the horse’s perspective and then saying no is a happy place for most equines, provided you let them express their views and, when appropriate, contribute to decisions on training activities. Some days this can mean a shorter session or none, others a longer one. Often a horse will suggest a different approach than you had planned, making the learning experience better for both of you. Why not let your horse help decide what you do in a session if it keeps you both happy and moving forward? He’ll be quicker to accommodate you when requests are less negotiable.

Negative reinforcement isn’t a bad thing

Honestly I don’t get this mindset that discouraging bad behavior is wrong. Most creatures appreciate direction that helps them better cope with the world we live in. In fact, a majority out guidance and approval from those they respect (something you can’t teach, but instead, need to earn) to help keep them safe, happy and fulfilled. Setting limits isn’t evil. In fact, done right, it’s a kind way to show you care. If you never intercede to guide one away from danger, why should they trust you (or themselves) to make right decisions when faced with new challenges?

Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean violence. It’s simply a matter of making it less comfortable to act out in ways being discouraged and more pleasant to proceed in the requested direction.

Horses are being discarded these days in growing numbers. It’s sad. Many novices take on a project they’re ill-equipped to handle. Most are good-hearted and well-intentioned, but lack the ability to understand how their actions are shaping horse behavior. You can literally kill a horse with kindness when only positive reinforcement (applied to both good and bad behavior) creates an equine that’s dangerous to themselves and others. These horses are being turned loose, dumped in auctions and left to starve. The horse is blamed and labeled a problem by merely doing what he’s been taught.

Horses and humans can live happier lives with clear boundaries. Sometimes a little bit of conflict is a good thing. It’s how we learn.

Horses can be wonderful teachers: particularly those that shatter your convictions

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

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.

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.

Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners sneak peak

Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners due for public release in 2010. Discounted bulk pre-publication orders now being taken.



Chapter Eight

Sometimes they’re just plain crazy

On occasion, you really do find yourself burdened with a nut. While preliminary bad breaking definitely exacerbates problems, when you strip it all down and finally get past the baggage, there are times you must admit that the horse you’re working with is simply just not right in the head. Interestingly, these critters can be very predictable in what sets them off, but how they react is never a given. Surprisingly, they can usually handle distractions and circumstances that should make a sane horse blow, but freak out with stuff that shouldn’t be a concern.

Crazy horses rarely give you an opportunity to completely relax. There will always be issues that make them occasionally frustrating and often dangerous. Horses that are totally governed by fear rarely consider their own welfare when reacting, and this is a common trait of equines who are nuts. Mean horses are always limited with what they will do by a self-preservation instinct, making them at least predictable in how far they will go. Not so with crazy horses. They’ll crash through fences, impale themselves, flip, run off on unsafe ground, and have occasions when they go deaf, blind, and oblivious to immovable objects that cross their panicked path, while reacting to ghosts in ways that make no sense.

Sometimes, you’ll encounter a psycho that has so much talent it seems worth the effort. Usually, it isn’t. Still, we’ve had some success with crazies, and some failures too. Most, ultimately, leave you shaking your head on the time and money spent to get them two strides forward and ten steps back, wondering if the sanity issue extends beyond your equine’s behavior and if there’s a white jacket in your size.

While it seems prudent to try to recover your investment, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. Time and money gone is just plain lost — and putting good money after bad is rarely a good idea.

If you’re determined to proceed, the anecdotes below may help guide you in your quest.

Flash — hurdler extraordinaire

Flash was a narrow, five-year-old, 15.1-hand Thoroughbred that somehow wound up as a lesson horse at an area riding stable. He was a terror with students, running off at will and occasionally unseating the brave kids who dared to try to conquer him. One of our former riding instructors asked us to take a look at this horse. She was considering buying him. He was deemed unsuitable as a lesson horse (imagine that) and was on the block. We hopped on him in the arena, and after a brief flatwork primer, pointed him at a 2’6” line (there was something about this horse that squealed natural talent over fences). He cleared the fences easily, correctly, and with a ton of finesse. He had never jumped. We leapt off immediately and said “buy him.”

She didn’t, and we landed the prize for $500.

The next three years netted unimaginable nightmares. We figured he had just been mishandled, poorly started, and conditioned to react inappropriately. Certainly, with patient and skilled guidance, he’d transform into a cooperative steed. We were wrong.

We’d spend minutes or hours working with this horse one day, progressing to a new understanding, only to find those lessons not only lost but problems magnified by the next day.

Compounding the frustration was the fact that this horse would willingly clear jumps of any size placed before him, but was out of control after hurdling the fence, not to mention during flat exercises. We progressed to the point where we were competing in events, and if we didn’t get eliminated in dressage (this was a common occurrence — he had no qualms about hopping over the arena perimeter, particularly when the judges used a horse trailer for shelter), we were sure to go clean during cross-country and stadium, almost always finishing in the ribbons. Consequently,

we were thrilled if we were able to complete the first phase. We were also convinced his incredible talent over fences made it worth the temporary embarrassment and extreme frustration borne while we worked through his issues.

Encouraging a timid equine

Sneak peak excerpt from Chapter Six of Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners (due for release in winter, 2010).

Timid horses are very different than those that have been
conditioned to be scared. Usually, they’ve been rushed and
overwhelmed. Consequently, a timid horse is generally insecure
about surroundings and new experiences but not terrified
about how their handler or rider will react when the horse responds
with a fearful instinct. While many of the strategies in
dealing with a scared horse apply to the timid mount, the process
for undoing the damage is often considerably easier and
less time-consuming. It’s critically important, however, not to
reinforce the learned fright by overfacing these horses. Slow
and patient introduction to lessons and challenges is essential,
as is being able to read the horse’s readiness to proceed, if your
intent is to turn your mount into a reliable and confident steed.

Exorcizing the crazies
Spook was a claimed four-year-old Thoroughbred filly immediately
deemed crazy by the new trainer. We were told she had
spent little training time on the track, instead logging most of
her exercise days in the pool, presumably due to behavioral and
resulting soundness problems. She was promptly sent to Halcyon
Acres for some reprogramming to settle her mind and enhance
her conditioning for sustained soundness. Obviously, the
endgame was to improve her racing performance.

When Spook arrived, we discovered that the perceived crazies were merely an expression of her insecurity, likely exacerbated by fearful riders who bolstered her concerns. We weretold later that exercise riders working for her former trainer were terrified of this gal, and proven right as her behavior deteriorated.

Sometimes, it’s amazing how much the humans handling a horse can unknowingly dictate the horse’s attitudes and reactions.

As is the case with most tentative horses, this filly needed
some basic groundwork to build her confidence and learn to
trust people. We started in the round pen with tack for a day or
two. She almost immediately relaxed and settled into a comfortable
routine that asked no more of her than she was ready
to handle. We were able to hop on her back pretty quickly. Of
course, consistent focus on praising her for quiet and responsive
reactions to our requests was an important step in gaining
her trust and confidence. Once she was calmly walking the
perimeter of the arena, stopping and proceeding to walk when
asked, we brought her to the center of the round pen and lowered
a stirrup to climb up on her back. Interestingly, after a couple
of days of discouraging her penchant for ripping around the
round pen’s perimeter, while encouraging a calm and slow approach
to training requests, Spook didn’t blow when asked to
stand and bear weight on a stirrup, likely for the first time in
her life. (Few Thoroughbred racehorses ever learn to stand
on their own and bear weight on their left side prior to a rider
landing in the saddle as they are generally held by a handler
who “legs up” a rider by tossing him into the saddle.) Still, we
took our time and watched her eye, bellying over her first before
slowly and gently swinging the right leg over her back, after ensuring she was relaxed and ready. The first two days under saddle were spent walking and stopping. Sessions lasted less than
fifteen minutes.

Once we were convinced that this filly trusted her rider and
was ready to proceed in a slow and composed manner, we
hit the trails. The first few days, we only walked. Interestingly,
she tackled challenging terrain and the steep hills with relish,
gaining confidence from her rider and blossoming from the
praise she received for handling requests boldly and artfully. Of
course, Gatsby, our canine assistant trainer, helped her tackle
the goblins along the way by forging ahead to prove scary-looking
objects wouldn’t attack. It was critical to never react anxiously
to her fear. She had already had enough of that. Instead,
calm, patient, and insistent reactions to encourage her to proceed,
while giving her time to assess and accept the sights and
sounds that unnerved her, was a necessary approach.

Alphas provide the biggest challenge and greatest joy

Sneak Peak excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners, due for official publication in winter, 2010

Chapter Five: An A for effort comes with Alphas

Some of the toughest fought battles are the most rewarding. Interestingly, it seems the most determined cases, able and willing to wear you out to the point of giving up, acquiesce right about the time you’re ready to walk away. These are almost always Alphas and will make you earn their respect — with the bruises to prove it.

Alphas are idiosyncratic horses to deal with and are fairly easy to recognize. They are also your most likely — albeit toughest — cases to turn. Most rule the pasture, and the strong ones have yet to encounter a horse or person who has stood their ground with them long enough to persuade them to “listen.” Once they find an animal or a person that has the staying power to earn their respect, they often soften and relish the opportunity to have a leader. These horses usually turn instantly and dramatically when they acknowledge you are a worthy guide. They also tend to be extremely willing, predictable, dependable, and outstanding performers who aim to please those they esteem — to extremes. Of course, getting there is no easy task.

Usually, discipline and hostility toward an Alpha is a mistake. Never back down; instead, demonstrate your power by holding your ground and remaining calm, fearless, and insistent as they launch a bevy of scare or avoidance tactics at you. Typical young Alphas will throw tantrums anytime they are asked to comply with a request that doesn’t suit them. They can be kind, smart, and compliant foals for early handling and lessons they find interesting, engaging, or fun. Once they are asked to respond to a request that isn’t on their agenda, however, they can turn into monsters. Those that are effective at intimidating a novice or tentative early handler into compliance tend to be difficult horses to start under saddle. If the attitude isn’t rectified in early under-saddle activities, it escalates, and these animals become problem children who need reprogramming if they are to be safe and honest mounts.

Preface to first Horse Sense and Cents book title

This is a sneak peak excerpt from the first title of the Horse Sense and Cents series title, Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners, due for public release in February, 2010.


There’s something to be said for learning from the wisdom — and mistakes — forged by others before you. The Horse Sense and Cents™ series is intended to help the novice identify problems and potential solutions, including solutions that may require professional assistance.

The books are also designed to benefit the professional through lessons learned, case studies, and chapters that include insights of other equine authorities from around the world. The anecdotal approach of the series makes the reading fun and the material easy to implement.

While throwing money at a problem can be effective, it’s more rewarding if you can understand what it takes to address or resolve an equine issue. Even if you choose to delegate training, raising, breeding, or any other activity that involves your horse (if you insist on spending the money, we at Halcyon Acres® welcome your business — visit us at, eventually you’ll want to understand how your actions affect your horse’s behavior.

For those who are living on a budget, but oh-so-determined to have a horse around the house or at a neighboring stable, we’ve been there and offer tips and tricks that can save you money and frustration as you dig your heels in to stay the course or gallop off into the sunset.

If you’re looking for a down-to-earth, easy-to-follow, and imaginative guide to the equine challenges you face, this series provides an excellent tool for creative and effective solutions to what ails you or your steed.

We’ve chosen to feature our “turning” treatise as the first book because this is a concern almost every seasoned equestrian has faced, along with a good number of unfortunate novices to boot, yet it is a topic rarely covered in detail by the pros or the industry media. We use the term turning to explain the process of transforming a mount that has been taught to be uncooperative, scared, or mean into a willing companion. Usually, this is an equine that has been started badly and has major resulting issues that are the fodder for nightmares. Obviously, it’s best to start right; but this doesn’t always happen, and the ensuing quirks and behavioral challenges range from annoying to downright dangerous.

Our approach is different from the norm — we don’t prescribe formula solutions but, instead, believe that each horse is distinctive in the way he or she responds and reacts to handler and rider cues. The signals and stories illustrated in this guide should help you identify problems that you may be facing with your steed while enabling you to type your horse a bit by recognizing tendencies. Identifying such behaviors may help you pinpoint how your horse may have been previously conditioned to distrust, disrespect, or hate his or her handlers and riders. The successful solutions can be guides as you strive to create an understanding between you and your particular problem child. Of course, we also offer mistakes as fodder for thought and cautionary notes on when it may be time to simply call it quits.

The time and effort necessary to turn a horse that’s been conditioned to behave badly can be considerable, but the rewards associated with that moment of connection and rapport are immeasurable. Usually, the turn is sud-den and dramatic. Additionally, if you are truly successful with your turning efforts, you will likely join with a mount that offers you a willingness to exceed your requests while sharing a bond that’s more invigorating than any equestrian activity involving a made horse. I hope you are able to experience the joy of this amazing experience with your equine project.

Nanette Levin

Fleur Bryan offers colorful Irish perspective

Excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners due for release winter, 2010

Handling the crazies

“I spend a lot of time bonding with any horse, but especially one that has been started badly. I’ve had some that are so messed up you can’t even catch them in the stall. I’ll stand in the corner of their stall holding their feed bucket and won’t move until they come and eat. Some won’t come near me for hours, but eventually they’ll approach. I’ll do that for days. Then I’ll rub on them until I can get a halter on them. As soon as I can get a halter on them, I’ll take them out on the road for a walk with just the lead line for an hour. The next day, the breaking roll goes on in the stall. Then, I’ll teach them things like how to cross tie. I do get them to join up with me, but not in the round pen. When I am finished playing with a horse, they will follow me around without a lead on. This is what happens when you build a horse’s trust.

“I had one Thoroughbred horse come through my hands going back about ten years ago. She was trained to race and had run. When she came to us, she was virtually unridable. She was a head case. She had no brain. I decided, along with my dad, that we would start her with the usual bonding and long lining. This mare was such a freak show that she actually jumped over a hedgerow in the long lines to get away from me. I could never get her to settle down. There was no reasoning with this horse. My feeling, and I know where she came from and it would surprise me if I was right, but my gut told me she was badly beaten and abused. She didn’t trust anybody. It didn’t matter if it was male or female. She had no work ethic. You know how some horses are always willing to please, even if they have been spoiled? You can always find a common ground if you use reverse psychology. You could almost make them think it was their idea to go over that jump. She had none of it. She was the kind of horse that wouldn’t even take a treat out of your hand. She was the first one that I could actually say got the better of me and I had to give up. I will say, I did spend close to fifteen weeks working with her before I said this is going nowhere. She was only four. It was very sad. What was even sadder was that her dad was a European Triple Crown winner. It’s funny, because a lot of his stock finished up being nasty pieces of work. I didn’t find that out until later when I was following the sales in Europe.

“Sometimes, it is in the bloodlines. I knew another Thoroughbred stallion like that. All his foals had a favorite trick. You’d be coming down to a fence with them, and two strides out the sucker would drop the left shoulder and duck. They all did the exact same thing, duck out to the left side, and dump your ass on the floor.

“I will say, though, I learned more off that Thoroughbred mare than I learned off a lot of the good horses. I learn from my mistakes. I’ve have had very few failures, but you remember them.”

About Fleur Bryan

Fleur has over twenty years experience breaking young horses and retraining problem mounts. While in Ireland, Fleur spent fifteen years breeding, training, and competing show jumping horses. Now based in Kentucky, Fleur breeds top-quality Irish Sport Horses and focuses riding time on turning retired racehorses into hunter/jumpers. She is currently available across the US for clinics with a specialty in working with problem horses and nervous riders as well as mature riders.,, (502) 649-2037 cell

Horse Training tips from Kathy O’Neal’s down home perspective

Excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners due for release winter, 2010

Defusing fear: Kathy notes she’s been trying to “engage horses’ brains more lately” by doing something as simple as walking over poles, or by rubbing them with a sack full of noisy items. “This makes horses think twice about running when they face a new situation. Of course, the horse’s first desire when they’re scared is to run,” she explains.

Reprimands: “If you do have to correct a horse, do it quickly. You can’t just do it once; you need to educate them until the bad behavior stops. Praise is as important as the reprimand and repetition is key. All my school horses get a big pat on the neck and a carrot after they are ridden. Some just live for that little pat.”

The Voice: “I use my voice a lot. Raising my voice can tell a horse to stop doing something because I have that relationship with them. I have used my voice in the process of correcting them and so now I don’t have to be physical at all. Near or far, they hear me and understand what I am asking because they have experienced my cues with the voice commands. Some of the horses around here seem to know English. Be direct and have key words like ‘Quit!’ and ‘Hey!’ and, of course, ‘Good girl’.”

Competing: “I’ve never been one to get the horse ready and saddled for students at shows or at home. That is part of developing a relationship with a horse, and I think that’s very important. Being around them is clearly how you can get the best out of your horses because they know who you are, and that you care about them.”

Correction: “I’m not opposed to putting a chain over a horse’s nose. My lead ropes are long, so I can use them across the chest to make a point. I’ve been known to use a whip, especially for pawing. If a horse paws at the gate, she gets slapped across the legs for misbehaving. It’s important to discipline a horse at the point of disobedience. For example, if a horse bites you, you need to get them across the muzzle rather than slapping another part of their body. If they’re pawing, use the lead rope or whip across their forearm so they understand where the disobedience is happening.”

Artificial Aids: “I like German martingales because you can allow an amateur to use it, too, and not fear they are going to do something wrong with it. I pretty much ride everything in spurs because I come from a horseshow background where the discipline is to the nth degree. Horses are expected to perform immediately and spurs put a finer tune on these horses. It’s rare to have to actually use the spurs on a horse once he’s been introduced to them. The spurs are always there, though, in case I need them.”

About Kathy O’Neal

Kathy has been the owner of and trainer at Livery Training Stable for thirty years.

In addition, Kathy serves as a judge at area shows and provides clinics for the local community. She continues to ride and has earned several reserve championships at national horse shows in the past five years.

Livery Training Stables specializes in creating all-around horses that can do English (including jumping), as well as Western, trail, and pattern classes. Kathy’s students excel at showmanship, which requires considerable discipline between horse and handler in these in-hand classes.

Livery Training Stables
(505) 688-0221