As I’ve matured (and this can be very good thing), I’ve started to question the wisdom of risking my neck (and other body parts) starting young horses under saddle. It was a lot easier when a spill had me bouncing off the ground in a nanosecond through a practically seamless move that had me back in the saddle, unscathed. Now, I know my bones can break (always figured they were too big, solid and dense for this to be possible – you might too if you had walked away from horrific spills), tendons and ligaments complain after too many years of neglect or abuse and older body parts take longer to heal.

Wouldn’t time travel be great?

The beauty of a good photographer catching the right moment - I don't usually look this good (thin) - but this photo's only a few years old, so I guess I can call this image a relatively current depiction.

How cool it would be if I could merge the fearless nature and athleticism of my younger self with the wisdom and horse sense I’ve gained over the last couple of decades. If only the horse reading and communications skills I now enjoy could be given to the twenty-something thrill-seeker who preferred a horse everyone else had been thrown from to one that was kind and agreeable.  Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t seem to be an option right now (I’d use the young me as the crash dummy aid at the farm now and throw some experience into the mix to ensure the particular horses involved were understood and accommodated better). Still, I pine for the days when worry was never a factor in hopping aboard a horse and the excitement involved in sticking with a mount no one else could was my biggest motivator. Of course, I don’t miss the youthful arrogance, stupidity and ignorance. When time travel happens, I’m also going back to teach my younger self how to take better care of my body by stretching, letting injuries heal and toning down the bravado a bit.

Now that I’m older I sometimes question why I continue to do this. Then, a horse comes along that reminds me how much of a difference my older self can make.

LuLu is a hoot

It’s inspiring and invigorating to reach any horse in a way that creates a special bond, but this is even more evident with a difficult project.

When LuLu shipped in, I was bit smug about the ease I’d have with a little horse that wasn’t the typical high-strung, speed bloodline bred Thoroughbred that comes into Halcyon Acres for training (when will temperament become a consideration in the TB racing industry?).

By about week three, I was questioning my sanity and ready to kick this one back to the owner with a refund of her starting fee.

I don’t know if it was pride, determination or a gut feeling, but I decided to hold the course and continue to try to reach this filly. We had made some GREAT early strides that made me believe this filly wanted a job (and a guide). Time was in my favor with an extremely patient and understanding owner.

Alphas can try your mettle, but if you hold the course, the rewards are huge

As discussed in an earlier blog post (, we put this gal into serious training earlier than planned because of the destruction she wrought on the property and her penchant for terrorizing other horses.  The first day was a nightmare, but the second day seemed like a remarkable and lasting breakthrough.  It was, until we started working on putting a rider on her back. It took another two or three weeks of biting, kicking and acting out in some very creative ways before she would accept weight across her back.

With alpha mares (well, technically she’s a filly at age three), you need to pick your battles. Early in training, it’s best to choose those you can easily win in a way that has the horse happy, or at least quickly capitulating toward the intended outcome. Get combative with an alpha and they’ll test your stamina, courage, resolve and talent in ways you can’t imagine. Usually, the most effective approach is to go extremely slowly initially, with the goal of building a rapport and understanding that encourages the horse to embrace training.

LuLu learning long-lining and enjoying group work training

So, we spent weeks putting weight in a stirrup and working to get LuLu to allow this without violent reactions (which were corrected, but ongoing). We always finished with her accepting what we had requested willingly, but didn’t push very hard for more. Some days, this took more than an hour to merely get her to stand and allow a rider foot in the stirrup. Of course, we continued to do groundwork training, which she was willing and eager to embrace, so we were making progress in other ways.

Alpha mares are so much fun once you reach them

Once LuLu was ready to accept a rider aboard, she blossomed quickly into a willing and eager mount. In fact, she was happily walking, trotting and cantering in the arena on our second day outside the barn. The next day, we hit the trails – which she tackled like a seasoned pro.

Of course, ground work, particularly long-lining schooling with this filly, had her prepared to handle, understand and respond to rider cues immediately. She’s smart too, and learned to relish training, so she gets good and puffed up about mastering a request – which she does much more quickly and easily than most.

It was wonderful to hop aboard this filly today with a Western saddle for the first time, hit the trails in a whipping wind, and know (after only three days in this environment) that she’d handle new terrain and sights with ease and confidence. In fact, she was steadier and braver than most of the farm horses with years of exposure to the property would have been in such gusts.

What’s so rewarding about a project like this is the results. Funny thing is, this is a spooky mare by nature. She would have been jumping, bolting and shying at every noise and movement if being led along the trail. She gains great confidence and courage with a rider on her back, though, and her demeanor under saddle is unflappable. It’s weird how you can have two different personalities in a horse that is started under saddle in a way that considers their needs and encourages trust in the rider. We both had a ball being totally relaxed and confident in our respective convictions to take care of each other. In fact, I spent the trip with one hand on the reins (an owner objective) without concern.

I also know if this horse had been forced into a human-driven training regimen during the early stages, this bold, kind and cooperative attitude would have never surfaced. With an initial slow, responsive and mindful approach to training, we achieved what would have usually taken 30-60 days under saddle in a week’s time – with a horse that will be much more confident and cooperative about every new task requested of her in the future. Granted, the groundwork time was extended, but future training time will be abridged with every new request. Plus, she’ll be a much more effective competitor for the rest of her life with the love for training and confidence in human partnerships that she’s gained. This gal has transformed from a hostile, bellicose and resistant witch into a keen student and eager pleaser.

‘Breaking horses’ doesn’t happen at Halcyon Acres, but starting under saddle rewards are huge

That’s why I continue to enjoy training young horses. The ability to reach a troubled horse in such a sublime fashion is an amazing experience.  Doing this in a way that ensures the horse will be able to handle rider and intended career requests in the future makes the task even more rewarding. It’s also wonderful to be able to pass back such great successes to the owners and/or trainers that entrust Halcyon Acres to prepare their young horses for future careers.

LuLu’s career path?

You might be asking, what’s LuLu’s intended lot in life? Sights are set on her being a competitive trail horse. She’ll be a great one. LuLu may be even exceptional enough to put her savvy ‘always learning’ owner on the map. Both have the right attitude to make it so.

3 Responses

  1. This is such a great article, Nanette. I’m sending it to my daughter who is in her twenties and starting to train horses as well. She has pretty good sense but it always helps to read others perspective especially those that have ‘gone before’ 🙂

  2. Loved this blog. By the way, ever hear of Ercel Ellis? He was a long-time writer for the Daily Racing Form, and does a radio show on the week’s results on a local station out of Lexington. Met him and his wife the other day…interesting people with a long history in the horse business.

  3. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Marie and Mark.

    Mark,I certainly should have heard of Ercel Ellis, but admittedly, don’t know him. Glad you had the opportunity to meet him and found him interesting.

    Marie – what fun for your daughter! Wish I knew then what I know now . . . and had the quick healing, fearless frame now that I did then :-). Your daughter is welcome to contact me any time if she wants to discuss ‘a project.’ Of course, she’d have to have more maturity at that age than I did to admit another might have different perspectives that might help :-).

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