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training young horses

Maybe dogs and horses aren’t so different

I’m not a big fan of tricks for treats. I was steadfast in my resistance to this with horses through all the “new and improved” training techniques over the decades that heralded food as a “positive training” motivator. That’s good for creating muggers and distracting the horse from what you’re trying to communicate, but not very good at creating lasting understanding with your equine pal.

I’ve never really been a big fan of food bribes with my dogs either. Due to a couple of recent events, I’m digging my heels in deeper here too.

Maybe horse and dog training isn't all that different
Morrie, the puppy monster, giving Remi a roar as he celebrates his conquest.

Curiously, when I tell trainers that Morrie (my seven-month-old pup whose smarts can make him a tough one), is fixated on treats, they say “Yea!”. I say neigh. I’ve learned in working with both horses and dogs, using food as a motivator isn’t very good in the building rapport and a thinking animal department. It’s hard to get the full array of communications working when attention is singularly focused on the treat location.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not against giving quick and ample rewards for the responses you seek. A scratch in a favorite place, “good boy,” a break with something your horse (or dog) finds great fun or a release are all great ways to offer gratitude for understanding. It’s the food lure that bothers me.

Sure, I get clicker training became the rage and redirection vs. correction is a great sign of the times, but you won’t convince me that treats represent the best way to build a communications bridge.

With horses, you lose that critical aspect of training that creates a team of two minds working together to solve problems. There are many times I’ve welcomed an equine cohort ready, able and willing to get me out of a sticky situation I’ve gotten us into.

With dogs, I’ve found you might gain a happy and groveling companion, but you don’t get a partner that enjoys having a job. Sure, domesticated dogs became so because they learned to please for food as a survival instinct, but like horses, I don’t think most people give them enough credit for having independent minds.

Gatsby was the best assistant horse trainer I ever had (and I still miss him terribly). Of course, he had spent enough time on the city streets before the dog catchers wrangled him that his skin had grown around the collar on his neck. So, he had a pretty strong independent streak and knack for finding (killing) his favorite “treats”. I realized almost immediately with him (he was always the dog obedience class “don’t do” example), the standard obedience school technique of bribing with treats was a bad idea.

Morrie’s now learned to leap for treats (not the plan) and ignore simple commands like “sit” without a visible reward. When I stopped using treats for the pre-agility training class we’re in (I pretend for the teachers he’s getting them always, as I did with Gatsby), his understanding and performance improved dramatically. He loves to train. Getting rid of the treat reward made him more excited about the activity understanding and “good boy” accomplishments.

Remi (my 11-year-old mutt), quickly transformed from the most trusted and obedient dog I had ever known to an unresponsive and aloof brat after spending time with a couple and their Vizsla playing the in park. The Vizsla would only respond to treats. Remi delighted in the daily hour of gorging herself on cheese then decided she wasn’t coming when I called without a bribe in hand. This was a dog I trusted enough to let her off leash in public places with no concern she’d return to my side immediately on request. No more.

I’ve made the argument before that horses aren’t dogs and what works for canine compliance isn’t a good standard for young horse training. I’ve since decided tricks for treats isn’t a good teaching method for any species. Just look at what’s become of the generation of kids who have grown up on the “everyone wins” philosophy.

All that said, I was delighted to watch this video Colleen Kelly shared about a clever dog who set records for understanding and performance – without food bribes.


If you have trouble viewing this video here, the direct link is:

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.

15 quick tips for building trust with your new foal

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

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

Ten Quick Tips for keeping horses happy while training

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

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

Fifteen tips for starting young horses

Horse Quick Tips

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

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

Excerpt from Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners

Most of the prior book excerpts featured on this blog were culled from Section Three, Tips from the Trenches. These snipets spotlighted perspectives, tips and stories from a variety of trainers from a diverse array of disciplines. In the coming weeks, we’ll feature the stories of real horses and how challenges were met and resolved (or not). Below is the introduction to this section.     

Section Two

Developing a work plan

Stories can help make learning easier. This is especially true when dealing with riding horses, a discipline that uses most of our senses, particularly when trying to turn a challenging mount. Therefore, the following chapters include instructional guidance with ample anecdotal information to illustrate some of the cases we’ve dealt with at Halcyon Acres. Working with equines that have learned to misbehave is always a trial-and-error process. We hope you’ll discover a winning plan for your particular problem child with ideas from the many success stories, while also learning to exploit and avoid some of the mistakes we’ve learned from along the way.

Often, young horses are misunderstood during the “breaking” period and forced into situations that overwhelm, frighten, or annoy them due to the trainer’s failure to communicate. This can last a lifetime, if these animals aren’t reprogrammed — by restarting training from where things first went wrong. Caught early enough, these problems can be redirected for amazing performance results, but this process requires a lot of patience, staying power, and intuitive responses. There are few lost causes with horses, but a lot of lost opportunities due to misunderstandings. Problem mounts are more often the result of problem handlers and riders early in life, rather than inborn reactions. Get to know what your horse is trying to tell you, and you may be amazed at how much progress you can make with just a little bit of listening.