The illusions of the "broke" horse...

I recently had a mare arrive for training that had been used as a trail horse. Her job had been to take care of a handicapped rider.  She’d supposedly “gone everywhere” and had done everything.  When some folks tried her out, they put a novice rider who hadn’t ridden in many years on her, and rode out.  She was “fine.”

The first issue that become apparent at her new home, was how pushy she was towards the other horses in the herd.  She wasn’t aggressive, but she always maneuvered herself to be in the “middle” of whatever was going on.  The next “surprise” was the extent of her herd bound-ness; when she first came to my facility she literally attempted to climb through my fencing to get to other horses that had been trailered onto the property for lessons.   She didn’t even know the other horses and yet felt she had to be near them.  Even after several days, irrelevant of which horses were coming and going, she literally could not stand still.
She was initially sent to me just for “fine tuning,” but it became apparent within a few minutes, she had no concept of following, softening or yielding to pressure, she had no concept of looking and moving at the same time. It was also clear that although a gorgeous mover in a straight line, her physical coordination was so far off that she literally couldn’t trot and turn at the same time. She was incredibly insecure about all human contact and although she’d let you catch her, it felt as if she were counting down the minutes until you would let her go.  She wasn’t mean, didn’t act overly dramatic, but could not let down her internal agitation.  She would hold her breath so strongly when you’d get near her, that if you asked her to turn her head, take a step back or draw her forward, she’d literally grunt.

The problem is horses like this are very common.  She’d do whatever you asked of her.  Even if it was new, she’d figure out within a few tries and seemed to comply.  She wouldn’t cause issues or fear in her rider.  She was an easy keeper.  And she was pretty, very pretty.  The problem is she’s the most dangerous kind of horse there is.  Not today, nor tomorrow or perhaps six months from now, but at some point, the level of stress she is stuffing internally is going to come to a peak. 
It isn’t a matter of “if” but rather “when” she can no longer handle what people have been asking of her. Because she seems “mild” in her current forms of resistance, which is based on her insecurity, worry and lack of confidence, she is the type of horse that will be unintentionally pushed, and pushed and pushed until the day something is asked that is overwhelming and is the catalyst that triggers all of her emotions to come to a head and her to physically act out dangerously.

Most humans don’t believe or want to consider what the horse is offering unless that horse creates enough dramatic and dangerous behaviors that the human can no longer ignore the horse’s mental and emotional state. But often, until then, the horse is never considered by the human.  It is usually the person’s riding goals or desires where the focus is directed, irrelevant of if the horse is ready or able to be a complimentary partner for those particular goals.
Below is a video of us at a halt on day two.  If you watch her “backwards” thinking while standing, and her constant swinging of her head attempting to look back at me as we stand, there is no forward or intentional thought.  Her ears are at a rear angle, thinking about what is behind her rather than what is in front.  Thinking about what is behind them, is a way for a horse to avoid addressing what is ahead of them.  This behavior is common in insecure, barn sour, herd bound horses. Watch how hard and fast she is breathing.  We had only taken a few steps and halted; the shallow breaths are a reflection of the tension in her ribcage from anticipation. 

Even within the first two sessions, which I started on the ground and at liberty with this horse, there were some huge changes.  Just for her to blow her nose the eight or nine times in a row, lick her lips and drop her head while I was in her proximity, was a big change.  Although initially resistant and a bit mentally checked out, she started to realize I was there to help her, and clarify the “chaos” humans had thus far presented her with. 
With each tool I established, I then had a way to clearly communicate what worked and what didn't; this allowed her to soon be able to let go of her initial defensiveness. This led to her learning how to soften to pressure, follow mentally or physically, look before moving, think towards wherever I directed her brain, and remain emotionally relaxed throughout our sessions… The blowing and licking and chewing that came out, was years of pent up frustration finally being "let go" of. 

The clearest evidence of a lasting change was not actually when I was with or on her, but rather when she was left in the pasture alone and the other horses left.  There she stood, foot caulked, head dropped and eyes half closed.

The following are some of the more common reasons I’ve encountered in what can contribute to “broke” horses becoming dangerous:
Most folks often don’t see the dramatic issues in their horses because they don’t ask the “right” (or wrong) questions; they  unintentionally create routines and patternized behaviors in how they interact with their horses, leading to the illusion that the horse is behaving.  Which he does, until the day the person attempts to change the pattern, and then they get a fire breathing dragon.

People tend to not recognize, nor do they understand and therefor tend to misinterpret what the horse is communicating, and so many patterns and behaviors of quiet resistance are created unintentionally.
Most people don’t realize without boundaries and definitive leadership towards their horse, the animal is going to feel the need to “take over” in the decision making process. Which may be fine as long as the horse comes up with what you want, but what happens on the day he comes up with something you don't want?  Can you influence a change in his brain during a moment of chaos, stress or unexpected events?

Most people don’t have any concept of what standard they can hold for both themselves and their horse.
So the next time you encounter that “quiet” or “bombproof” horse, perhaps watch the horse with a new perspective.  You’ll probably be surprised to see that the horse may not be as settled and “relaxed” or reliable as you once thought; typically the "calm" demeanor is really a reflection of being mentally and emotionally shut down, rather than warm and fuzzy.

Herd Bound Behavior- Resistance between Human and Horse

Many of us have experienced varying degrees of resistance from a horse due to their strong desire to be with another horse.  Scenarios may arise when leaving stablemates at the barn area, during competitions with constant calling to a buddy horse who is out of sight, to not wanting to be ridden in a different spot on a group ride or when attempting to leave another horse on a trail ride, etc. Whatever the case, the herd bound horse’s behavior is frustrating, can be dangerous and does not lead to a satisfying ride for either the rider or the horse.

Unwanted scenarios- opportunities for improving your partnership!

Many times when folks are working with horses, they’d like it to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience.  Yet often horses and humans need to build a quality partnership in order to achieve a rewarding ride for the both of them.  What most riders forget is that no matter how “trained” a horse is, they are still looking to their rider for guidance, confidence and boundaries.  They are a herd animal and they are deciding if they or their rider is the “leader” of their herd. 

The horse will question the pecking order of the herd the rider and he create, but it may not seem apparent on calm, ideal days.  When circumstances beyond our control arise, and stress levels increase, typically only then do we as riders start to realize that perhaps the quality of the partnership we share with our horse is not as “ideal” as we would like to think.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, if you give most riders the option, they will do everything they can to avoid a confrontation or uncomfortable scenario with their horse.  Horses often realize this and have mastered becoming fantastic “people trainers” as I say- teaching the human how to work around them in order to avoid any conflict.  The ideal for me is that the horse asks “What would you like?,” and learns to work around the human.

The idea to write this blog came up as I went to work a horse this morning.  I spend my winters in the desert, where one would think life is a lot more boring than my summers spent in the inland northwest, but actually that is not the case.  Down here near North America’s largest sand dunes we have wind, (it took ten years before it occurred to me that ALL of that wind was what built the sand dunes), and when I say wind I mean sand-blasting, scary-discarded-trash blowing, tarps constantly flapping, scary-animal-dashing-from-citrus groves, horse-tails standing straight-out-to-the-side kind of wind. 

I’ve experienced wind in other notorious places such as Texas and Wyoming- and of course the ever present wind in Patagonia, but somehow the wind here in the Arizona desert has extra elements of “scariness” in terms of horses.  Add in the fact that this is the produce capital of world during the winter, so heavy duty farm equipment randomly appears at various times.  There’s also a marine base and I’m near the flight approach/take off path; military personal from all over the world come here to “practice” and so it is very common to have a “Top Gun” show as a daily occurrence.  Nothing like getting on a colt for the first time with the horse’s body literally vibrating from the sound of six F18s flying low and overhead. 

Then of course there’s the sheep.  The town here is a mixture of new and old, traditional and modern.  Often after several cuttings of alfalfa hay have been raised, herds of sheep are escorted down the main roads (herded by a few men with flags, a couple of dogs, a ram and a goat,) and will randomly appear in an old hay field with three strands of temporary hotwire fence strung up.  A few days later they’ll be moved on to another field.  That’ll get every horse in the barn to stand at full attention and often they display physical feats of aerial acrobatics as if trying out for the Spanish Riding School

In this desert, there are no mountains in sight.  Any activity happening can often been seen and or heard from miles away; to the A.D.D. horse you can imagine how distracting that might be. 

Anyhow one of our wind storms began brewing last night and by this morning the sky was thick with sand and debris, the trees were bent over and the air was heavy with the horses concern.  Most people avoid heading out to work with a horse on a day like today, but for me, I see it as an opportunity.  Just as when I look to buy a horse I want to see the “worst” side of the horse rather than the sales pitch, when I’m working with a horse, I’m looking for opportunities to create a solid citizen.  I’m not striving for the “perfect” ride, but rather to be there to help and support him experience a naturally scary scenario and perhaps influence a change in his brain and emotions as to how he perceives the chaos around him so that he learns to react in a physical respectful, calm and safe manner.

Because the horse is a prey animal, the natural instinct when unsure is to run.  But my job is to teach the unnatural response of, “Stop, think, and ask what the rider wants,” then offer a physical movement.  This not only decreases the chances of a dramatic reaction from the horse, but also builds confidence in him and the fear switches to a curiosity as to what is happening around him.  Changing from the instinctual fleeing to curious mode literally allows more “time” for communication between rider and horse, a mental participation from the horse which in turn creates a physical softness.  This builds his confidence emotionally and mentally when a situation isn’t ideal.

So rather than “challenging” the horse to be obedient on a scary day, I would rather break down the “scariness” of it all- starting on the ground.  Rather than trying to avoid what may be bothersome, I will break things down and ask the horse to only mentally consider one or two things, and then offer ways for him to find softness in his body, brains and emotions, so that he can figure out how he really feels about something.  The more he learns how to think while I’m on the ground working with him, the more this increases his confidence while I’m in the saddle. 

The other part of avoiding the less than ideal circumstances is that people are taught that things cannot get “ugly”- by this I mean many people have the goal be striving for the ideal ride.  But often the ground work during less than ideal scenarios, such as when a horse mentally and emotionally is falling apart needs to be addressed so that the horse can learn how to let go of feelings of concern, worry and fear.  If he is taught to “stuff” those emotions, they will continue to build inside of him, even if on the outside he is appearing as being obedient.  It will only be a matter of time before all of those pent up emotions come out physically dramatic.

I on the other hand I would like an honest “response” from the horse for whatever he feels.  That being said, there are spatial and behavioral boundaries that need to be established before the scary day along with effective communication aids, so that when the horse becomes brainless and reactive, the person has a way to help the horse work through the stress, rather than reprimanded him for not behaving.  As I say, embrace the tantrum, but don’t leave him in it.  Help the horse “get” to the other side.  Remember the physically dramatic behavior is a reflection of the horse’s brain and emotions.  Change how he feels on the inside, the behavior on the outside will decrease in dramatic, dangerous reactivity.

Every time a horse starts to get bothered and a person critiques him or instead uses it as an opportunity to build his confidence can detract or contribute to the quality of long term partnership and physical behavior of the horse.  Unwanted behaviors/insecurities/worries/fears do not randomly disappear.  Attempting to “desensitize” the horse through repetitious behavior may temporarily work for that scary tarp, but it is only teaching the horse to tolerate the scary tarp, rather than changing how he feels about it.  The day you move the tarp, it’ll feel like you’ll have to start all over again.  Instead, change how he feels about the tarp, then it will not matter where the tarp is.

So the next time you have an opportunity in a less-than-ideal circumstance, of course prioritizing your safety first, perhaps experiment with approaching your horse’s concern with being a supportive influence, rather than a critical one or just avoiding the situation all together.

Good Luck,


Full Immersion Clinic 2016 Dates with Samantha Harvey

2016 Full Immersion Clinic Dates Finalized...
Please visit the link for details
­June- Full Immersion Clinic #1
The Equestrian Center, LLC, Sandpoint, ID
June 3-5, 2016­­
July- Full Immersion Clinic #2
The Equestrian Center, LLC, Sandpoint, ID
July 15-17, 2016­­­
August- Full Immersion Clinic #3
The Equestrian Center, LLC, Sandpoint, ID
August 5-7, 2016­

When not to trust the “equine professional”

In the last week I received three different phone calls from potential clients around the country.  Although each had varying equine experience, each had the same underlying root cause with their horse’s current dangerous, insecure and dramatic behavior.  Each person had sent their horse to a “reputable” trainer; once their horse returned home they each were surprised to find their horse an emotional wreck and physically dangerous.  The owners are at a loss and are trying to do damage control and figure out how to cope with their now unrecognizable horses.

Sadly I hear these stories all too often.  The horse owner blindly trusts the “equine professional” thinking that they know best. Often because trainers are not located nearby, the owner is unable to witness what is happening during the “training” with their horse. 

Here are a few suggestions you might consider to perhaps decrease the chances of a potentially negative and traumatizing training experience for your horse. 

1) GO AND WATCH the trainer work with other horses before you commit your horse to their program.  If they won’t let you watch or make it difficult to set a time to visit, this is a red flag.  There should be nothing “secret” about what they do with the horses.

2)   TRUST YOUR INSTINCT when watching the trainer.  Ignore their sales pitch of “experience”, their show record, etc. and see what your immediate mental response is when they handle a horse, ride a horse and talk about a horse.

3)   LANGUAGE can be a huge indicator as to their mentality and approach when training.

Words such as “stubborn, tough, ornery, dumb, slow learner, lazy” should be red flags and immediately display the trainer’s lack of empathy and inability to read the horse if it isn’t easily complying with the trainer’s style.

4) WHAT DOES THE FACILITY look like? It doesn’t have to be state of the art and it can be basic, but does it prioritize safe and happy horses?  Does the hay look fresh?  Do the other horses look to be at a healthy weight, calm and relaxed or do you see them pacing, weaving, chewing, bothering their neighbor and generally stressed or anxious?

5) IF THERE IS A RIGID PROGRAM that the trainer adheres to for all horses, then the trainer will not have your horse’s best interest in mind. Just as with people, who all learn differently, so do horses.  If the trainer is unwilling to adapt to work with the individual horse and what his needs are, this often leads to an “ego match” between human and horse.  All too often the outcome is dramatic and aggressive behavior from the horse trying to defend himself.

6) ASK QUESTIONS If there is a lack of patience, any sort of “blowing you off” or other disrespectful behavior this is a red flag. You’re probably not going to be kept in the “loop” with clear communication and updates about your horse’s progress.

Of course there are many other things involved with finding an appropriate trainer, and often it does tend to take a bit of time, effort and research on the owner’s behalf.  But much better to make an educated decision and find a good match, than have to spends thousands of dollars trying to undo destructive training to your horse.

A few glaring differences in the horses south of the equator...

When I have a few minutes I’ll sit down and write an in depth account of the fantastic seven weeks I spent at the southern tip of South America… But from the equine related aspects here are a few of the glaring differences I saw in the time I spent around the horses south of the equator.

1.) Treated Like Horses
The animals are bred in natural settings, born in nature without human assistance and raised in a herd.   Because the seasons are reversed, I was present to see several births (from a distance) and then watch within a few days the colts climbing sheer 6,000-10,000 foot cliffs.  They learned how to find wind blocks from the consistent 50-70mph winds.  They learned how to find the snowmelt and fresh water.  They learned how to forage and find the freshest grasses.  And when the “unknown” approached, they were alert with a sensibility, rather than reactivity.

2.) Exposure
Although for the most part horses are kept in open range scenarios, there was also the reality that basically horse trailers don’t exist.  The roads are bad at best, and it is often easier and faster to ride to where you need to go.  So as you rode down the road you’d pass a variety of cars, mini semi’s, barking dogs, piles of equipment waiting to be used, the hides of various animals hanging on fence lines (as all parts of a butchered animal is used, not just the meat), etc.  Keep in mind the wind is a constant, so any discarded trash, flapping tin roofs, etc. were continually flying about, making obnoxious noises, never mind the never ending barrage of random barking dogs that would appear out of nowhere.

3.  Get with the program
Once you arrived, there was nothing to tie to.  So it was totally normal to have a horse standing fully tacked, with the bridle on, ground tied in three feet deep lush grass, in the middle of nowhere, and wait.  This could be for five minutes or five hours. During this time other horses may come or go, but if you dropped the reins, the horse realized his “job” was to watch and wait.  When moving livestock on foot, the ground tied horses would move themselves to watch the working dogs and humans sort animals.

4.)  Thoughtfulness vs. fleeing
I witnessed on more than one occasion if gauchos were passing through the area, they would appear and randomly let three or four of their horses loose on the side of the road to graze.  FOR SEVERAL DAYS.  The horses would stay put only meandering a ¼ mile or so during that time.  Then the gauchos would easily catch them and ride on.

5.)  “Ride or die” kind of partnership
Most people don’t realize the hidden ecosystem and phenomenal landscape that awaits at the “ends of the earth.”  I’ve traveled to most continents and have been to many, many beautiful places in the world, but what I witnessed on this trip was jaw dropping.  Often with amazing scenery it is gorgeous to look at from a distance, but impassible.
Unless of course you have the 4x4 version of South American horsepower. For those of you who have seen the movie, The Man From Snowy River, and know the classic “off the cliff scene,” well, that had nothing on some of the places I rode.
And I can honestly say I’ve only ridden maybe two horses in my life that I would have trusted in that extreme environment, but down south there was this confidence in the animal that truly renewed my faith that there were still some horses that had maintained what “horses used to be”- mentally, emotionally and physically.
Oh yeah, and remember whatever goes straight up, must ride straight down, and yet I never felt worry, a misstep, or concern from the horses, even when asking them to do something they hadn’t planned to do…

6.) The horses that had issues
Ironically were the ones whose “training” was based on western society’s police/classical programs.  They were not the typical 14.3-15.1H local rough stock but rather imported Thoroughbred types.  They were tacked in standing martingales, double bridles, with officers holding crops and wearing spurs. The horses (and I saw this in several cities) displayed frazzled nerves as they “paroled” (or my guess would be probably “survived” in the horse’s mind) the streets of a town.  Agitated, fussy, worried, and insecure and stressed out. Hmmm…
I'll be adding more about the trip when I have a few minutes!

If you're a horse enthusiast here's an opportunity to help you: Understand how your horse's thoughts influence his...

Posted by Alternative Horsemanship Remote Horse Coach on Monday, October 26, 2020