Settled in for the Winter

I've settled in after an uneventful drive with abnormally beautiful and warm fall weather throughout the 1440 mile drive.  Our field is coming in nicely and after seven years of maintenence on the property here in Yuma it's finally looking "neat and tidy"- even after a six month absence - instead of the normal human size tumbleweeds and overgrowth.  I will resume teaching next week.  Feel free to email to schedule lessons and training.

Word of the Day: Trust

Trust- the quiet, confident relationship established between a person and horse using clear two-way communication that allows the horse to mentally, emotionally and physically be available and receptive to requests and direction from a person.  The more the horse can trust the person, the more "try" (mentally, emotionally and physically) he will offer during any circumstance.  This helps decrease the level of "reaction" from the horse in a situation that bothers him, and instead it can become a confidence building experience. 

Newly Updated Website!!!

If you've never browsed our website or if it's been a while since you last perused it we have made LOTS of changes, updates, re-organization and additions!  In the last few weeks we have spent hours upon endless hours trying to make it more user friendly and easier to navigate.  Make sure if you've visited it before to refresh the pages or delete your old cookies so that all of the changes will appear!   If you find any issues or problems be sure to send us an email and tell us what you think!

A Happily Ever After Story...

Hello Sam,

We purchased Honest from you last fall. My daughter calls him Q.T.  I thought I would send you a little update.
She has spent the past year getting to know him. He had to learn how to be a family guy, we made him nervous for months for no apparent reason, nothing crazy he just always had his guard up. He now knows we all love him and he is safe and he is relaxed.
He is Kolby's ( my daughters) best friend and I trust him now too. She has competed in 4h with him this year and will add reining next summer and then they will join the high school equestrian team fall of 2011. (she is just in 8th grade) She has it all planned out LOL. They were a big hit at the Spokane Fair too!
She has to learn to work his gas pedal, that boy can move.... they did some gaming in 4H and had a blast. He changes leads like melted butter for her in western eq patterns. I don't even ride him anymore. He works better for her and he likes/trusts her, they are a team. He will follow her around like a dog. When she is having a bad day you will find her in the barn talking to her horse.
I am attaching a couple of photos for you to see them together. Thank you for picking us to be his family.

Sincerely, Ronda

Real World- Having to Medicate an Insecure and Defensive Horse

Sometimes there comes a point where we don't have the option to interact with our horses in the "ideal" situation.  Below is an example scenario showing that even under less than ideal circumstances, you can still "help" your horse without making him defensive- and get the job of medicating done.
Hello Sam,

I have a friend who speaks fondly of your experience and your approach with horses. So I am hoping you can help me. Currently I have a horse with infectious conjunctivitis (sp?) aka Pink Eye. He is not trained and rather strong willed but well natured and wants to please we just don’t seem to be able to communicate with each other.
I am currently trying to get medicine in his eye and he is refusing, so far he has been backing up, turns his head or throws his head really high. This is not my preference but his eye is pretty bad and I have to get this medicine in his eye, I think he has already lost his sight.

Here is what we have tried to get him to succumb. Twine under the lip, unsuccessful lip twitch (Romeo knew what that was and refused altogether) I am worried I pushing him too hard. So we stopped asking our neighbors for help and I am just trying to get him to relax and trust me, again. Not going well, so now that I am well aware of the fact I have truly screwed this whole thing up I don’t know what to do. Tonight he was a little sheepish avoiding me (I think he is mad at me) and he back himself into the corner of his stall (it surprised me, he actually looked rather defeated). Fortunately, he did finally let me pet him, brush him and rub my hands on his face.
If you have any suggestions or ideas that will help me I would really appreciate your feedback.

Romeo is 5 years he has not been broken, I bought him year ago, with big dreams of breaking him myself and training him. He was a rescue horse that was left in a stall to starve when the owner abandoned the home.

I have to say “my bad” I got caught up in the whole childhood “Black Beauty” fantasy, only to realize at 41 truth of the matter it is a much bigger project requiring someone who is much more trained than me. He is a bright strong willed horse with a real sweet side. Unfortunately, I am the only one who sees it. I truly believe he has so much untapped potential.Thanks M

 Sam's Response:
Hi there… I’m sorry to hear of your/your horse’s situation. Sadly it’s become very common - the person falls in love with the blue sky potential of a dream and the horse pays the price. But never the less they are incredibly forgiving and most can “come around.”

You’ve got a lot of stuff to address- without the ideal “take your time” mentality because of his current eye condition. So this will be slightly “crash course” advice rather than the ideal long term. Trying to manhandle your horse into submission won’t work- certainly not if you’re going to try and get any ointment in his eye. The conjunctivitis would have to be really severe to cause blindness- he may also have other issues going on. I’m not sure if you’ve had a vet’s opinion- although Yuma is lacking for any quality equine vets- there is a clinic in El Centro that brings in good vets from San Diego once a month. If you’re looking to physically help the horse you want to be sure you’re aware of all possible health issues. Starvation and lack of nutrition in horses can have very long term affects depending on the severity of the situation.

Number one thing you’re going to have to attempt is recognizing pressure. There is spatial pressure and there is physical pressure. Right now I’m sure your horse has only been around physical pressure- holding on to the lead rope, rubbing on him, etc. Just as people like personal space, so do horses. I would start of with desensitizing “101” by having a halter and lead rope on him- leading him around, stopping, rubbing on whatever body part he presents- (head, side of face, under jaw, neck near head, etc.) and as soon as it seems to feel good, walk off and let him follow you. Too many times people “love” their horses and hover around them, constantly touching and “harassing” them and it drives the horse nuts. The length of the time you are rubbing him may start off at 3 seconds or less. As he shows signs of becoming more relaxed to your touch, you’ll touch him slowly increasing how long you’re rubbing on him before you walk off. I’m sure right now he’s pretty convinced that when you’re handling him it’s to do something that makes him uncomfortable, and therefore he acts defensive towards you to avoid having his eye messed with.

I also have a feeling a “pattern” has emerged in how you interact with him and how he responds to you. Horses are great people trainers. You’re going to have to establish that when you do something, it means something. Like when leading him with the rope, if you walk off, he should be right with you. If you halt, his feet should stop as soon as yours do. Too many times horses have a “teenager” attitude and only offer the bare minimum and people accept that. Until a situation like trying to get eye ointment on arises, people don’t see the “holes” in the level of respect or lack of from their horse towards themselves.

You’re going to have spend multiple short periods daily (3 to 4 minutes or less to start in each session with him) catching your horse, rubbing on him and then turning him loose again, because you’re going to have to re-establish you’re not catching him ONLY to medicate him. You’re going to need to establish being able to rub with your hand and rag ALL over his face, neck, etc. without him trying to “slam” you with his head, knock you away, or flee from the “pressure” of your hand touching him. You’re going to need to establish him yielding to the pressure of the lead rope. If you draw it towards you, he should follow the pressure of the rope, as soon as he does, you should be releasing the pressure the rope is causing, to show him you’ve acknowledged his effort. You’re going to need to establish if you draw his brain (and head) towards your left or right, he needs to lightly turn his head towards or away from you… If you send a “feel” down the rope (having the line ripple until the snap under his chin pops him the jaw) he needs to stop immediately what he’s doing.

All of these tools you’re going to need to get ointment in his eye. Because every time he tries to avoid you- you’re going to have to have multiple “tools” of communication that MEAN something to him, in order to address what he comes up with as an “alternative” to when you’re trying to medicate. After he runs through his “options” and you’ve addressed each one, he’ll finally stand and let you medicate him. Again, by the time he’s reached this point of being pretty confirmed that being around you means discomfort and stress, it’s going to take a bit to “undo” that mentality and build trust so that he can stand quietly for you. Short and multiple sessions of working with him- not hour long “harassment.” You want your horse to want to participate. Remember, always end on a good note- if your horse “tries” you MUST acknowledge it by leaving him alone. Too many times a horse finally “tries” for a person, and then the person takes advantage of the effort and demands more from the horse.

Good Luck,
Horse Owner's Response:


I just wanted to give you a progress report as to how Romeo and I are getting along and the small steps I have been taking to re-establishing trust. Early this morning when I cleaned his stall I just gave him his space and feed him. He pretty much avoided me like the plague. However, after I finished with all of the horses I headed up to the house and returned about 30 minutes later to see how he was doing, fortunately, he came to the fence and let me tickle his nose and pet the left side of his face I let it go at that and left the area again. I returned again and this time walked into his stall with a halter he walked to the other end of the stall. I decided to approach he didn’t move or refuse so I haltered him we walked the field and worked on some basic commands, he was receptive. I remained only on his left side since he is very cautious of his right side. After a little while, I did push a little bit, (because time is an issue in this scenario) I tied him to the tree so I could give him a bath. He seemed receptive, I started on the left and gradually worked my way to the right, at first he was very leery and defensive then he realized this was a good moment. I am not sure he truly relaxed but it was a turning point. After he was done with his bath I rewarded him by letting him pasture for awhile and return to his stall on his own. I gave him his space.

A couple hours later I returned again, casually waiting outside his stall for him to approach to be scratched this time I didn’t have to wait so long. I gave him some affection and then moved on by using this opportunity to give my other horse a bath and check her eyes (so far so good – knock on wood). As I returned to my stock area I would take a few minutes to pet and scratch Romeo, after a few trips I could rub my hands on the right side of the face but only for a few seconds. After about an hour of grooming and cleaning Chelsea I wanted to try haltering Romeo again, so I entered Romeo’s stall he returned to far end of his stall this time I didn’t follow instead I stood, halter in hand waiting patiently for Romeo to come to me. He was puzzled but came forward cautiously trying to figure out what I was up to. I just waited until his head was practically in my chest ready for me to halter him. At this point, I placed the halter on his and we simply walked around then tied him up in his stall. This time I applied fly spray using a cloth so I had to touch his body with a cloth and my hands. The sound from the spray bottle made him a little uneasy but I backed off and let him think about it when he took a step toward me and leaned in I continued. He was fine at this point. When I removed the halter he followed me wanting more affection.

We have not attempted the medicine, however I was able to wash his eye and I figured I could attempt some medicine on a cloth tomorrow and see how reacts. I figured after three days of fighting he deserved a break. I am sure medically this may have been a bad decision but we were getting nowhere and relations were taking a drastic nose dive, so I made judgment call. If you have any suggestions beyond your prior advice or believe I am missing the point I would appreciate your feedback especially before I return to the scene of the crime.

Again, I really appreciate your feedback.
M and Romeo

Ask the Trainer: Introducing a new horse into the herd

Ask the Trainer: Introducing A New Horse
Location: New Jersey

What is the best way to introduce a gelding into the herd (3 other horses)? My horse was the alpha horse until he was injured and had to be separated for 6 mo. He has recuperated and now needs to go back with the other geldings. He still thinks he is the alpha horse. There was one new addition, added a couple of months ago, which my horse has never been with. When we turned them out it was not good. My horse is not mean but wants it known he is the alpha horse. The newcomer also thinks he should be the alpha horse. I can give you other additional info because I have had someone send me a trainer's advice I did not like.

I personally think the more socializing horses do, the happier and healthier they are mentally, physically, and emotionally. But at the same time if a "new" (in your case returning) horse is creating a stress or is stressed, being with the herd can cause a continual stress and anxiety.

Whenever introducing one horse into the herd I like to take the lead horse away from the herd and let the new horse and one of the "low man on the totem pole" horses from the herd get to know each other without the distraction or overconfidence from the rest of the herd. Once the first two horses get to know each other then I would add another "low man" from herd. I would keep doing this until eventually you have introduced all horses with the lead or dominant horse last. This way, if the lead horse challenges the "new" horse, the "new" horse has a few buddies already in the herd and will be able (if space if not an issue) find a balance to "hang out" without confrontation from the lead horse.

Below are some other things to keep in mind before re-introducing your horse.

Separating the sexes:
I typically keep my mares and geldings separate so that we don't have any "ego" issues with the geldings when the mares are cycling (which they tend to do at the same time).

Young and older horses:Generally the older the horse the more confident they are. The young horses are going to be like "little brothers" that are constantly testing the boundaries of where they fit into the herd. Do not be surprised if you see them physically reprimanding the youngsters for a few days until they sort out the pecking order.

Pasture size:
The size of the pasture should be plenty adequate for the number of horses you are planning on having turned out... There will always be one or two horses that typically prefer spending time away from the herd, and you would want to make sure there is plenty of room in their pasture that they can do so without being bothered by the rest of the group.

Depending on the quality and safety of your fencing and how much the horses respect it I would rather not have new horses messing around over the fence trying to meet their new neighbors...

More accidents and injuries have happened with horses kicking or trying to climb over fences when introduced to new horses... Although there are also plenty of horses that show up somewhere new and could care less about their neighbors... Arabians usually are very curious about life and wind up "inspecting" everything and anything new... Remember that even if your horses have been "okay" with mediocre or not horse friendly (such as barbed wire) fencing does not mean that the new horses will be just as okay or safe in it.

Feeding time:
Make sure if you are feeding in the pasture that you space out the piles of feed and always add one more extra pile than the number of horses eating. You don't want to have "warfare" at feeding time because the more confident horses are worried about getting enough feed and are constantly chasing off the less confident or "low man" horses. Battles at feeding time can cause numerous long term issues both physically and emotionally to the insecure horse being chased away.

Change in diet:
Also be sensitive to any sudden changes in diet with the new herd. If they have been kept in stalls all of their life and you suddenly change them to grazing 24/7 if their bodies are sensitive you could have health issues. You mentioned a few of the horses were older, I'd check every body's teeth to make sure they do not need any dental care so that when they transition from their old lifestyle to the new one they at least do not have any physical concerns.
The list can go on and on of things to keep in mind but above were a few basics.
Good Luck,
Samantha Harvey

Possible Full Immersion clinic with Samantha Harvey

I’ve had quite a few people write to say that the dates I had for the first two Full Immersion Camps were too early in the season. So this is a feeler email for a possible five day clinic that would be held here at TEC in Sandpoint, ID from Wednesday August 4th through Sunday August 8th. Participant fee is $700 – includes clinic instruction, pasture board and grass or alfalfa hay. The auditing fee is $40/day or $150/wk. If you would be arriving from out of town Tuesday night arrival is suggested. All out of state horses negative Coggins and Health Certificate required. Horses do not need to be shod as we are on all sand footing. To find out more about the camps please view the above link. If you have any questions feel free to email or call. If you are interested a 50% non-refundable deposit will be required.

Riding Out- Make it Matter

The idea for this blog came about as we FINALLY had a break in our depressing rainy weather that has covered the Pacific Northwest for the past many months. I took out a young horse of mine along with another horse and of course four dogs in tow for a ride up in the mountains. As I rode along asking my horse to address the puddles, mud, bridges, water, etc. I thought about how many people could have ridden the same trail and had a really different outcome with their horse.

It was a nice break for me to get on one of my horses that was beyond the “starting” stage and I could enjoy the ride, but this did not mean that I was brainlessly sitting on him like a sack of potatoes. Somehow the words “trail ride” over the years have been interpreted as a “relaxing” form of riding for those people who are not looking to “train” their horse. The irony is that over the years some of the worst incidents and situations that I’ve witnessed or had to help “pick up the pieces afterwards” have occurred on these “relaxing” trail rides.

Many people whether they are competitive or not have finally after years of persuasion have come to realize that their horse needs more than just repetitive arena work. So mentally this can be great for variation for both horse and rider. The potential problem is if there is not intention and clarity from the rider towards the horse, it really doesn’t matter where you ride.

One of the fundamental “pieces of the puzzle” of riding that seems to be missing is the notion that just because you have bought or acquired your horse does not mean that he is currently in a place mentally, emotionally or physically that is appropriate for what you would like to do with him.

There seems to be three main categories of horse owners- and yes there are always exceptions, but generally as a professional, this is what I’ve encountered in the industry: those who are uneducated and are new owners- usually learning the hard way about the realities vs. the romanticized vision of being with the horses, the semi experienced horse owner who has enough experience to “know” better but is still hopeful that “it” (those small seemingly insignificant issues that manifest into dangerous and unwanted behavior over the long term) will all somehow work out with their horse, and then there are those people who are so focused on the final goal that their perspective and views of how their horse is behaving is limited due to their commitment that “at all costs” they are GOING to get the desired performance out of their horse.

I try to encourage people to use common sense when working with their horse- treat your horse as you would a child. You don’t just hope that a young child will figure things out in life; usually they require a lot of attention, effort and patience on your behalf in order to “educate” them with the tools to achieve independent success and confidence in life. The same goes for horses.

This brings up the second big issue. At one point in history we relied on horses as our mode of transportation, as our work animals to plow the fields to help us survive, and whatever other needs we might have living in rural America. These horses had thousands of hours of education and effort offered to them because people HAD to- as they relied on them for every aspect of life.

Today most riders in the United States are what I’d call pleasure riders, even if they compete at low levels. For the most part people do not have the time, energy or money to invest in their horses to create the “ideal” horse for their needs. So until the horse starts to become difficult or display dangerous behavior that the person realizes they need to enlist the help of a professional, (which usually becomes a long term situation because those “little issues” were let go for so long and the horse is now confirmed in how and what he thinks of people,) owners don’t seek help in advance. The irony is if the owner had initially put the time and effort into offering their horse a proper education from the start, they would have saved a lot of money and stress for both them and their horse in the long run.

Another issue is the current breeding trends (that in my opinion are reinforced by trainers, veterinarians and show judges,) we have basically taken the “horse out of the horse.” How many breedings does it take to produce that “one” ideal horse? And what happens to all of the remaining horses produced that are not up to that level of performance? Look at physical pictures of horse from 10, 20 and 40 years ago compared to those of the same breeds today and there is nothing similar within the breeds other than them having four legs, a head and tail! Never mind the physical, we never seem to realize what undesired traits mentally wise that we’ve passed on until we have a handful of horses all “suffering” from the same unwanted behavior.

As a result of our lack of standards towards looking at the entire picture of what we breed, rather than just the physical outward appearance or performance, we now have generations upon generations of horses that are mentally, emotionally and physically what I call “nut jobs.” As I tell people over and over, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. But somehow as a society, most people have lost any level of accountability for their actions and the sad part is it winds up being the horses and their offspring that pay the long term price for people’s “instant gratification” desires. The perfect example of that is the all too often backyard breeding scenario where one person has a stud and their neighbor has a mare and so they breed “to see what happens.”

If every person who owned a horse made the initial mental, physical and financial commitment to their horse with a “long term” outlook, I truly believe the horse industry would be a different place.

So what does any of the above have to do with heading out for a trail ride? Well stop for a moment and consider how many stories you might have told or heard about of that “eventful” ride. When people ask how a ride went, my goal is to be able to reply that it was “boring.” People laugh at this comment, but I say it with all seriousness.

Today it seems to be the rides that aren’t “boring” are the ones where both horse and rider are attempting to “survive the ride.” In most of these cases the foundation of clear communication, trust and respect, and educating the horse in baby steps has not been introduced. Therefore, as something unexpected (in this part of the country that could be anything from a range of encountering wild animals, to crossing rivers, bridges, severe ascending/descending of mountains, encountering off-road vehicles, traveling on very narrow trails, stepping over natural fallen obstacles, etc.)

I cannot imagine riding out without an array of established “tools” to help my horse throughout the ride for whatever may present itself along the way. But somehow many people and horses have survived many rides without clear communication and so they continue doing so. The problem is not “if,” but rather “when” something will arise that they will not be able to safely “survive” with their horse. These sort of events tend to trigger a lot of other concerns or issues that the horse has “emotionally stuffed” over a period of time, and then it all seems to “suddenly” all come out to the shock of the horse owner.

In what I do for a living I’ll admit I usually see the worst case scenarios and the “aftermath” caused by them. Which is why I’m so adamant that it is completely unnecessary to “wait and see” with horses. It’s not to scare riders into worrying about everything that could go wrong; rather it is to educate people that it is so unnecessary to “go” to those bad and scary places with a horse. Why not help you and your horse out from the start to help avoid all of the eventful riding “stories?”

By laying the proper foundation ahead of time, when things arise on the ride, which they always will, you’ll be able to expand your horse’s experience, increase his confidence and encourage his curiosity by presenting obstacles in a “fun” and quality manner with clear communication that will allow him to be able to mentally address, physically try, and emotionally relax as he encounters the “unknown.”

“Owning” a horse should not been seen as a “servant” type relationship. It requires a lot from both rider and horse. So take a moment and evaluate honestly you and your horse- you level of clear two-way communication, your levels of trust and respect, and your own efforts to help your horse through scenarios rather than challenging him to be successful. Your actions can make or break that ideal relationship with your horse!

To taking responsibility- and then the reins!

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,

Horsemanship: Getting Down in the Dirt- More than Theoretical Learning

This blog comes as a result of several recent comments I’ve heard from horse people as they are getting “amped up” for the upcoming spring riding season. I’m always amazed at how many people I encounter that have “read something” or watched a “TV show” and suddenly been inspired to start to interact with their horses. Especially in areas of the country that are affected by nasty, cold winter weather, it seems that winter brings on a lethargic feel, and so instead of the actual hands on time with their horses, people tend to try to learn via technology, books, etc. This is great, and as I always say the first step is getting the information transmitted into your brain and then taking the time to process it. The problem is there is a “glitch” in the communication system between the person’s newly educated perspective and that of the unsuspecting horse.

Just because you have spent countless hours reading and processing the latest and greatest ideas on how to work with your horse, does not mean that from the last time you worked with him on a sub 0 degree blustery day, that your horse has any clue that in the mean time you have been on an accelerated “learning” program. He had no warning the next time you headed out to handle him three months after your last visit, that you would have a new degree of expectations of him. I don’t know why, but people can easily fall into the habit with their thinking being “Since I have read this information, my horse should have also received the news via osmosis.” Then the person gets frustrated because the horse isn’t “on the same page” as he stares at his owner with a completely blank look on his face.

The next idea I want to emphasize, highlight, bold, underline, etc. is that just because you have read or received “enlightening” information does not mean that the way in which you have processed and interpreted it will be appropriate or suitable for your horse at this point in time.

I like to think of working with horses much the same as putting a puzzle together. There first has to be boundaries (spatial in the horse’s case- the edges in the puzzle’s case) and then there has to be an organization of addressing small areas of the puzzle- just as you would with your horse. Eventually as you piece these areas together, you start to see the “whole” picture. But you usually cannot just walk up and take a random puzzle piece and place it in the spot where it belongs- although you may get lucky doing this once or twice, statistically you’re not going to do well with a 500 piece puzzle if this is your approach. The same goes for horses; you cannot just randomly wake up one day and decide “today we’re going to work on this.” Your horse is not a book. He is not a machine. He is a being with is OWN mind and emotions and just because YOU woke up today with a newfound enlightenment does not mean that your horse has.

For me, I have a bit of a problem with today’s instant gratification society. This mind set has caused what I would call a de-evolution in the horse world. Kids that once grew up riding barefoot, bareback and in a halter who were constantly harassed by bad attitude ponies, learned balance, learned how to become clear with the pony, learned how to pick themselves up after a fall, etc. Now do I think there was quality horsemanship in these scenarios? No. BUT I do feel that the hours and hours spent with the animals instilled a certain “feel” in the rider’s balance, timing, thought and decision making processes? Absolutely. Nowadays I watch many new riders gets once a week lessons and parents wonder if their child is progressing fast enough. Time, miles, exposure, and experience all add up to the makings of a quality rider.

Adults on the other hand who have a job, a life, a family, etc. are finding it increasingly difficult to spend quality time with their four legged friends. This is fine, but then don’t expect your horse to have made leaps and bounds in his education if you’re only visiting him once a week.

Also because of the “hurry up and get it done” mentality I truly believe 85% of the horses on the market today are half the quality of what they were 20 years ago. The breeding quality has gone down, the putting time and a quality education into them used to be a priority, now many training systems seem to be “churning” the horses through their system, leaving in many cases, gaping holes in the horse’s confidence, sensitivity, balance, experience and exposure.

It used to be you could take your horse and ride him to the fairgrounds (who cared if you didn’t have a horse trailer?,) compete in ALL of the classes (English, Western, whatever- as long as you were riding,) ride him back home again and the next day go and chase cows with him. It used to be “fun” to do “everything” with our horses. Nowadays we bandage, stall, primp and shine these 1200 lb animals doing everything we can to “take the horse out of the horse” so that he will comply with our human demands and then wonder why he has all of these “issues.”

The number of horses I see that are physically broken down by seven, eight and nine years old is devastating. How is this all happening? My theory is back to instant gratification. Ever heard this story?

“This horse that was an “emotional” buy, turned out to not be what I wanted, so lets get another one.”

I can understand from a safety perspective how this makes sense, and I myself might suggest it. The problem is, many of these “turnover” horses with a multitude of past owners is due to the fact that many people are spending far less time getting their hands dirty with their horse! Then we wonder why our “partner” isn’t always easy to be around. Or we wonder why on our once a month ride when we head out with a group of 20 other people our horse is the one that’s jigging the whole ten mile ride? Or we wonder why that left lead after months of brainless riding is still hit and miss to achieve the few times we actually focus on it?

If money is tight and times are tough the cheapest thing you can do is go and hang out with your horse. I’m not joking. Find out who he really is. Honestly evaluate your relationship with him- I’m not talking about your long list of complaints of what he doesn’t do, but rather look at what he DOES do for you and then stop and ask yourself “Why on earth would he do this for me?” I’m serious. If our friends treated us the way most horse owners treat their horses (even if unintentional) we wouldn’t have very many friends. Before you try and find the next “magic solution” or attend the “life changing” clinic- put some hard hours in with your horse. Just the sense of movement, timing, rhythm, awareness, etc. will affect how you interact with your horse and how he views you in his life.

Don’t wait for someone to have to stand there and instruct you every step of the way. Take the initiative with a good dose of self discipline and start building that self you must have for when you’re in the saddle. As I tell my students, when you ride, there is only one leader, just like horses in a herd. If you aren’t even clear about your thoughts, your aids, your balance, your timing, your rhythm, how are you going to “be there” for your horse? It takes time. It takes discipline. It takes a clear head. It takes moments of frustration within you. But if you quietly and diligently persist you will start to see changes. And your horse will start to show his appreciation towards you for it.

We all hang on to the dream of glorious moments spent with our equines because there really is nothing else in life quite like it. But you won’t reach those moments and memories with effort and lots of dirt under your nails.
What’s stopping you really? No more excuses, no more half hearted, distracted riding sessions. On your journey of heading out to improve your horse, you’ll actually be improving a lot of qualities about you that will affect the rest of your life.

Here’s to down in the dirt!