The world of thinking people creates thinking horses…

Anyone who has heard me teach or read articles I’ve written are by now familiar that I use the term “It’s the thought that counts,” as a way to sum up the mental availability we are seeking in our horses. But, we cannot achieve that in our horses until we find it within ourselves. Just the words “mental availability” can overwhelm a lot of people. What is that? Why do we want it? It all stems from years and years of riding (without knowing it) being mentally unavailable and riding “shut down” horses. They looked okay, they tolerated me, sort of, and they performed to the least the minimum necessary levels, so why “rock the boat?”

I had never approached a horse before a ride and had thought, “Where’s your brain today?” As I worked on the ground or warmed up a horse I never noticed things like his ears, the worry lines above his eyes, the wrinkles from stress on his bottom lip, his inconsistent breathing, the inconsistency in the size of his steps, the tightness in his back, if he was moving as if he were on a tightrope or more like he’d had a few beers, if his tail was clamped down against his hindquarters, if the muscles along the underside of his ribs was engaged in a resistant manner, if he was turning left but “quietly” leaking out towards the right, the degree of his “heaviness” or subtle resistance against my aids because eventually he’d get the job done. And for me, whether it was racehorses to Three Day Eventing horses to Jumpers to Dressage horses to young horses, as long as I kept one leg on either side and we managed to “survive” any negative portion of the ride that was good enough. I had no standard other than performing “close enough” to the ideal (which was a very broad spectrum to measure the quality of a ride by.)

It NEVER occurred to me that the note I was finishing on today was going to affect tomorrow’s ride. I never imagined I was there to HELP my horse, but rather it was a dictatorship, which sadly too many times led to constant badgering from me towards my horse on all of the things he WAS NOT doing right. I NEVER assessed my horse from the ground before the ride. Fussing, fidgeting, pawing, and spookiness were all NORMAL parts of working around horses, right?

There was never room for my horse to have an opinion, because they only opinion I ever saw was not a good one, such as when he refused a jump or behaved like an “idiot” on the trail with a group of horses. It never occurred to me that there could be a quality TWO WAY conversation.

To me training with the mentality I’ve described above was an uphill battle as you can imagine. Theoretically we all talked about the ideal ride, the soft, light, balanced, supple and collected horse, but reality included whips, spurs, martingales, severe bits and other “torture” devices so that we could manhandle the horse into eventual submission. If this didn’t work, the animal was deemed a bad horse, and you got another one.

So long story short it took a lot of re-evaluating everything I thought I knew and having to spend many hours assessing, questioning and thinking about ME and what I was doing. For me it will be a forever ongoing process, which is exciting because you never know how “far” on the journey of quality time with the horses can bring you.

And this all brings me to a funny little story; it’s moments like what I’ll describe below that makes it all worth it. The occasions that catch you off guard, the ones where an accumulation of the hours, energy, and effort pay off with simple experiences that leave you smiling with that warm and fuzzy feeling for a long time.

I was heading out of town and was moving all of the horses off of the property to another facility where they could be turned out for the week I’d be away. But instead of hooking up my big trailer, I figured I’d make two trips with the smaller trailer which is a slant load with dividers.

I’d already loaded two horses that were waiting patiently with their dividers closed and the main rear trailer door was left open as I headed out to the infield to catch several other horses to be moved. I noticed one of the loose horses in the field Pico, a colt that had been orphaned that I’d adopted years before, went galloping up towards the trailer area and a pasture I’d left open. Not thinking much of it I caught the two horses I planned on moving and headed back to the trailer and was just thinking, “I wonder where Pico went?” as I didn’t see him. As I came into view of the trailer from the rear, there was Pico who had self loaded himself. He wasn’t just standing in the trailer, but he was lined up as close to the divider (ahead of him) as he could be so that I could easily shut him in with the next divider. I laughed out loud and while still standing outside of the trailer I asked him to look at me, which he did, and then asked him to come to me, he promptly took one look, and then dramatically turned his head to line up straight staring out the window in front of him. Ok, fine, he was going anyways so what would it hurt?
"Pico" at 3 months

So without a halter or anything else on him, I shut Pico in with the divider, loaded the remaining two horses and was on my way. I arrived at the next facility and began unloading horses. By the time I got to Pico I slipped in under the divider and threw a lead rope around his neck, opened the divider and slowly back him out, one step at a time, asking him to pause and stay focused on me and what we were doing rather than getting distracted by the horses running around loose and making noise in the pasture next to us. So one step (literally) at a time he unloaded and quietly was turned out in the pasture.
"Pico" at his first Ranch Roping age 4

I didn’t for a moment ignore the obvious safety issues and all that could have gone wrong by doing what I did with my horse; but this was balanced out by years of creating a trusting relationship with two way communication. I had a sliding scale and bucket of “tools” to communicate to Pico with. This came from the time and effort I’d invested in working with my horse in order to create a foundation with which the underlying fundamental was that anything I presented, no matter if we had done it before or now, my horse had to stay mentally available to try. This in turn led to a building of the horse’s confidence and ability to make his own decisions, in this case self loading into the trailer, and not just keep the natural “follow the herd” mentality, but at the same time being able to maintain availability towards me as we unloaded by waiting and for me to offer when and how he moved in and outside of the trailer.

Now I know there are plenty of horses who load quietly and of course plenty who don’t. But my point was how many people have ever created the opportunity for the horse to make a decision- and feel good about it- while the horse still retained the ability to hear what the person was communicating rather than just completely taking over? For me that’s the point. No matter what is presented, whether we’ve done it before or not, (Pico had never done this before) my horse needs to participate and think of how to behave reasonably with an intentional manner. It’s those scenarios that build the confidence for a horse like Pico to come up with the idea that he too, wanted to go, wherever the trailer might have been going. The two horses in trailer weren’t even his pasture buddies and there were other horses loose that he could have easily stayed out grazing with. But HE made a choice to participate. And moments like that, are the ones that make it all worth it!

As the song says “Little moments like these…”


The Learning Curve: Horses & Owners

Many people in the United States have adopted and accepted that when starting a young horse there is a magic “30 day” training period needed to get the horse in “safe” rideable condition. I on the other hand offer all training by the week, with the first week a horse is with me known as the “assessment week.” Time (the hour lesson, the month training period,) is a man “made” thing- not a horse thing. Horses don’t work by the “clock.”

"Star" a 3-year-old TWH on her first ride in the mountains.
I find more often than not, many “trainers” who specialize in working with the horse, but not the owner. I won’t accept a horse into training without being able to work with the owner and their horse together. But for most, there is lack of communication between trainer and owner becomes so incredibly important. Too many trainers tend to “assume” the owner will have an understanding of what is happening, not realizing how lost the owner is. The more lost the owner is, the less they can “be there” to help their horse which leads to a lack of clear communication and respect from the horse towards the owner.

It is just as important, if not more so, to get the owner on the “same page” as their horse that is in training. Here are a few common statements I try to share with owners:

• Just because I can get something done with your horse doesn’t mean that you will be able to.
• If you spent as much time with your horse as you pay me to spend with him, you’d have a lot better understanding of who he is and how best to work with him.
• Based on your (the owner) experience, you may be “stuck” on futuristic goals or dreams for your horse, rather than riding or working with your horse to help him in the “here and now.” If the here and now isn’t addressed, you and your horse will never get to the “future” with any quality or confidence.
• Treat your horse as you would a young child. Your job is to be here to help him through a scenario, rather than challenge him through one.
• Horses, people, and common sense don’t always go hand in hand.
• Too many riders are “reactive” towards their horses. This means, they wait and see if their horse can “survive” a scenario, rather than helping him in steps (literally) in order to come out the other side feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically relaxed and confident.
• Too many owners interrupt an unwanted behavior, rather than helping the horse get to the ideal “answer” or result.
• Slow and “boring” is the ideal ride you are going for with your horse. Think back to all of the “stories” and adventures of past equine experiences and it usually involves highly stressed riders and horses.

So back to starting and educating the young horse. We don’t send our kids to school for a short period of time expecting them to have learned all that they will need to know to be successful in life. Why do we expect that this human number of 30 days is enough for a horse to teach him everything he needs to know? The education of a horse (and rider) should be an ongoing process. To many people, they find this thought depressing. In a society that can’t wait to reward you with “instant gratification” results- riding is the WRONG sport for that mentality. It will only lead to frustration with both horse and rider.
I personally keep owners (as many horses as sent in from far away distances) informed throughout the training process via email or phone. This way I can slowly add new thoughts and ideas to the owner’s mentality as the horse’s training progresses so that by the time the owner comes out to work with his horse his mind is already a bit more “open” because of the background info leading up to this point.

The other point I’d like to stress is that I think it’s the professional’s responsibility to be as straight forward with the owner as possible in order to alleviate any expectations or preconceived notions from the owner BEFORE they might arise. The first thing I tell all owners is that I treat every horse as an individual and will work with him accordingly. This means the horse’s training will progress at whatever “speed” he shows as appropriate.

I do NOT guarantee (which is a word that shouldn’t ever be used with horses) that a horse will be at a certain “place” in his training by a certain point in time. This way, I haven’t promised owners an expectation that I may not be able to fulfill with their horse if their horse isn’t mentally, emotionally, or physically ready. Again, my priority in working with the horse for his long term well being. I feel it is my responsibility to educate the horse as best as I can, helping him learn how to trust, respect, and try so that in his future whoever may present whatever scenario, he can “deal” with it in an ideal and REASONABLE manner.
The other factor to consider is the length of a horse’s initial education is that the trainer ought to assess the ability and experience of the owner or person who will be riding the horse. Some people have years of experience but haven’t started colts but are “natural” riders who might feel comfortable on a less experienced horse, than perhaps a less experienced person who really needs their horse not just “started” but also “finished”- with the training offering the horse a lot more experience, exposure and confidence.

So the final part of the “colt starting” is the owner’s training. Helping them mentally get on the same page as their horse. Teaching them some of what I consider as the fundamental basics of THINKING when they are working with their horse. It’s my job to help take away the “mystery” of what the horse is about to do by pointing all the ways the horse is communicating with us trying to tell, ask or clarify what we are doing with them. It’s like presenting the owner with the entire alphabet so that they can spell so that they can read, rather than if they are missing letters and expecting them to be successful at reading.

It’s my responsibility to establish a clear understanding with the owner that his horse’s education is an ongoing and lifetime process. Every opportunity they work with their horse is another chance to expand their horse’s confidence.

I truly believed if more professionals and trainers put the responsibility of the ongoing education of the horse on his owner, not encouraging them to treat their horse’s like an inanimate object that they expect to just “be ready” because they are, horses and their owners would be a lot happier in the long run.

Embrace the learning curve- don’t let it scare you!


Training with Reality…

Too many times I’ve encountered horses that have been forced through the “school of hard knocks” training theories- whatever situations they had “survived” equaled to the description of being an “experienced” horse. I’m always surprised how often I see advertisements for horses for sale with “a ton of experience” but who need a “confident” rider. To me this blatantly translates into the horse has been manhandled through scenarios, survived them, but because he is so concerned about what might be presented next he carries a lot of worry, concern and stress with him making him a “hot” or “sensitive” horse. So he needs a “strong enough” rider to push him through the next experience…

The idea for this blog came to me the other day as I was working with a three year old mare I’m starting. Those of us in the northwest have been experiencing quite the rainy season with the last two weeks almost nonstop rain, wind, hail and snow up in the mountains. Not exactly ideal conditions neither for starting a youngster, nor for me who prefers my winters spent in the desert warmth. But without other options one must continue.

Part of the less glamorous side to my lifestyle is the maintenance- the mowing, the pasture clean up of dead limbs, the dragging pastures, the fixing fences, clearing trails in the woods, etc. Usually there’s one big clean up in the spring when I return after a long winter, but this year with all of the blustery weather it seems to have become part of my daily routine…

Many times owners are shocked at the changes in demeanor, personality, confidence, etc. in their horse after a few weeks spent with me. Part of the change they are seeing comes from my prioritizing to spend quality time with the horse and to solely focus on creating a “warm and fuzzy” experience every time I work with them. The other part is that I always try to mesh “reality” with my horse training.

It does not matter to me what long term discipline or direction the horse may be destined for. For me, I want all horses that I work with to have a solid foundation. I always say I want my jumping horses to be able to chase a cow, and my cow horse to be able to pop over a fallen log on the trail. Basically the underlying theory of all that I attempt to do with horses is to create a mental availability to “try” no matter what scenario I may present for the horse. If the horse can mentally address what is being presented, eventually physically they will comply with what is being asked of him, without the stress, trauma and drama that is more typical when someone just tries to manhandle a horse through a situation.

So back to the young mare, bad weather and using reality to build quality experiences for her. I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting that everyone runs out and does some of the things I’ll mention below, but this more to expand your thinking for when you work with your horse. I also want to mention that there were many pieces of the “puzzle” I had to present to the horse before I did any of the following with her in order to create clear communication with both physical and spatial pressure, respect of personal space, and being able to direct her thought to something specific. Without that clear communication established, the rest of what I may want to present to her would be done with a “hopeful” feeling, rather than a “helping her” mentality.

With all of the windstorms I seem to have a continuous flow of dead limbs falling off of trees in the pasture. After proper preparation of desensitizing the horse to pressure, ropes around her body and legs, etc. I then used her to drag out the fallen limbs to wherever I needed them. Rock clean up time out of the arenas is another great “learning” experience for a young horse, them having to follow you around as you’re “focused” on finding the rocks, plus throwing them to the edges of the fencing, the horse can learn to wait, and get used to the sudden movement of the rock without all of your energy being directed towards the horse. If I have to run down to the far end of the property to fix fence I’ll pony her or just have her follow me and “hang out” while I fix fence. When she’s “just standing there” she’s not allow to eat, focus on the other horses, etc. it’s rather a great place for her to learn how to stand quietly, patiently and wait for me. As I’m moving hoses to different waterers, I use the hose dragging on the ground around her feet as another scenario to desensitize her. As I fix the hay tarps she gets to focus on the noise and movement of the tarp flapping, crinkling, etc. As I ride through my woods on a more experienced horse to cut small overgrown branches on my trails (done from horse back- no I don’t suggest this to just anyone) I pony the young horse so she gets used to noise above her head, the movement of the falling branches, and can pick up on the calm the horse I’m riding is showing about the situation. At the same time I usually have two dogs or more with me to help her with sudden movement from them “popping out” of the woods and running in front, behind, or next to her feet.

One of the hardest parts in working with a horse is staying creative enough to keep each session interesting. Depending on your facilities you may have to spend some time creating obstacles or ways of presenting scenarios with variation. Too many times the horse and handler can fall easily into the routine or “patternized” behavior. This creates the false illusion that the horse is doing “well”- until a new scenario or one that is altered from what the horse is used to has been presented. Then the “real” feelings of what the horse has been carrying around come to the surface. A lot of people and horses become really comfortable with what they know and do not like change. The problem is the day you don’t have an option and must present a change from the “norm” you’ve then opened a whole new can of worms with your horse and its usually not the time for a “training” session.

If instead you can prepare both you and your horse to view any situation as one to expand their experience, exposure and confidence you’ll be building a solid, trusting partnership for the long term. With this mentality you many not seem to “accomplish” as much as “fast” as someone else, but don’t worry about keeping up with what other horse people are doing. Go with your instinct and do what is best for you and your horse. Both of you will be happier in the long run.

Have fun,