Assessment of a Trick Horse- Addressing the "holes"

As part of my duties here on the ranch in Texas, I have been asked to evaluate different horses… One horse in particular recently came up as an interesting “case and point” to my continually trying to show people just how many “holes” are present in most horse’s education. 

This particular horse was a half draft and half Quarter Horse, and for any little girl with romantic ideas of a horse galloping across the pasture with the wind blowing through its mane and tail, this was that horse, with her blond 2’ long mane and flowing tail…

I had been told this horse was bought because she was a “trick horse,” and the gal that mostly rode her in the past used her as a turn back horse for cutting, rode her on trails, etc.  Most other folks who knew the mare rolled their eyes at the mention of her and her “issues.”

I had seen a young gal ride the mare for a few weeks and said she was a little “looky” when riding out and about in the pastures, but never did anything bad.  That was about all I knew of the horse.

The first time I rode her I treated her like the rest of the horses here, not assessing her from my standards, but more from a mainstream rider’s perspective, the difference being the latter is solely focused on what the horse does for them, rather than what they can do for their horse.

I caught her (with grain,) led her (with her hanging on the lead rope walking very, very slowly with no regard as to how fast I wanted to walk.)  She stood quietly while I groomed her (but she did dramatically swing her head away anytime I got half way up her neck with a brush or my hand,) she was quiet while I saddled her, and stood while I mounted. 

She was relatively quiet as we rode out in the front pasture, and she was okay in general for not being ridden in a few weeks. She was bit heavy clamping her jaw down on the bit, didn’t really look where she was going, but would turn, walk, jog, lope, halt, etc. without much issue.  But asking her to stand for more than ten seconds really bothered her.  In the course of my 20 minute ride she blew her nose 27 times.  No joke.

A few days later, when the weather was warm and I had time, I decided to start working with her on “my terms.”  This meant asking her to be caught (in a several acre pasture with other loose horses around) without the bribery of grain.  She had just been switched with this “new herd” that clearly had no interest in having her be a part of their herd.

Often people ask me how catching a horse in the pasture differs from how I would work to get one’s attention in the round, and there is no difference other than the cardio workout I get!  Through spatial pressure, every time the mare focused on or tried something I did not want, I created just enough pressure to get her to quit doing whatever she was doing.  So she searched and searched… At first it was all “brainless” movement, meaning she’d gallop off, then stop and stare and try and think about what happened.  She was shocked the herd wouldn’t accept her, and she was shocked at my behavior, or lack thereof.  I would create just enough pressure to influence her, but was not “busy” with lots of moving or walking around the pasture.  I wasn’t trying to “corner her” into submission to be caught, and I wasn’t trying to micromanage her every movement.  I wanted her to take responsibility to come up with the “right” answer, in this case, presenting herself to me to be caught.

Galloping off, snorting, pawing, and rolling, whinnying, passing manure twice, her emotionally charged reactions showed just how bothered this horse was.  Eventually after circling closer and closer to me, turning and facing me, creeping in behind me, blowing her nose, licking her lips and chewing and dropping her head, she finally came over and stood quietly next to me.

Instead of haltering her I just stood, not touching her, but allowing her to recognize that when she “found” what behavior I wanted, that I offered a quiet in my energy and behavior, allowing her time to “let down” and mentally process that it felt good to “be with me.”

Still without touching her I walked a few steps to my right and would pause, she’d turn and face and then creep a few steps following, though not convinced being with me was really going to be “okay” for her.  A few steps to the left… same thing.  Lots of pausing, and still not touching or haltering her to avoid me creating any physical pressure towards her. 

At this point something spooked the rest of the herd and off they bolted a mere 20’ from where we were.  The mare just stood calmly and watched, showing now desire to go flee with the herd.

Eventually I haltered her.  Then we just stood.  She breathed.  She licked.  She sighed.  She sighed again.  Blew her nose.  Then cocked a rear foot and dropped her head. 

Using the lead rope I asked her to look to her right, she looked shocked and confused.  I asked her to yield to the pressure of the rope when I drew her forward towards me or to step back.  She responded with a brace and locking up her entire body.  I asked her to drop her head by drawing the lead rope down towards the ground, she responded by trying to pop her head straight up in the air.  Hmm, some major basics in her initial education had been clearly missed.

Having no idea how she had been “trained” to do tricks, I thought I’d experiment for the moment and tapped her front left leg above her knee, with no response from her other than the whites of her eyes showing.  Then I picked up her same front leg, as if I were to clean her hoof, and as soon as I did I felt her relax, so I turned with my body facing her shoulder, and then held her cannon bone in my right hand, and used barely any pressure with the fingertips of my left hand to touch her left shoulder, and like putty, she quietly and quickly melted to the ground, folding her head between her front legs and gave me a deep bow dropping her left shoulder until it touched the ground.  She quietly waited until I released my hands and then stood up.  She blew her nose, and then looked at me with this expression that seemed to say “Finally you figured it out human!”

I removed her halter and she just stood there.  So I scratched at her withers until her muzzle wiggled showing her pleasure.  Then I walked off a few steps, and she followed.  We just stood for a while, and eventually I walked off and left her. 

The next day because weather and time permitted, I went out to the pasture, where she met me standing at the gate.  I caught her and headed over to the round pen, where I let her go, and as I had done on the previous day, offered her the opportunity to decide to be with me, even with the distraction of other turned out horses running around, tractors working nearby and dogs chasing one another.

She quickly sorted through her options and was happy to turn and face me, but closing the four foot “gap” between us, was a whole other issue.  Every time she stopped, she’d always have an “escape option”- meaning if I created too much pressure, she could whip around and leave.  So even though it looked like she was “with me,” she was still tolerating addressing me, rather than offering to be with me.  As the session progressed I communicated using basic spatial pressure, without a lot of running around by the mare, and she mentally and emotionally realized she had a choice to be with me.  She gradually offered more of herself, creeping in closer and closer.  Finally she offered to follow me all over the pen and stand quietly.

I knew touching her created a bit of anticipation and stress, just by barely touching her shoulder and watching her skin twitch and her entire body tense up.  So through physical pressure of my hand touching her a few seconds than removing it, then me walking off, I allowed her to make the choice to continue to be with me.  We continued this and I was able to touch more and more of her with more confidence from her that “it” would be okay.

Eventually I haltered her and we worked on looking left and right, yielding to the pressure of the lead rope as I drew her forward, backwards, or asked her head to come down.  Each response she offered had a softer and more thoughtful action. 

By the end of the session the wrinkles that had been above her eyes were gone, her head was low, and she was finally breathing at a normal rate.  She seemed totally shocked that the session ended when it did.

The funny part was there were two other horses I’d started working with in the past few weeks, and they were in a turnout next to us.  As my session progressed, the two loose horses kept coming over and leaving and coming over and leaving after watching for a few minutes.  By the last quarter of the session the loose horses stood at full attention quietly watching what I was doing with the mare in the round pen…  I wonder what they were thinking.

My approach when working with horses irreverent of their age or experience, is to offer the horse a clean slate no matter how much they have “done” or been trained because in my experience behavioral issues arise due to a lack of solid foundation and communication.  I am always amazed at “how much” stress horses experience on a regular basis caused by people who demand things of the animal all the while having a complete disregard towards what the horse is thinking or feeling.

At some point, the horse reaches their “breaking point” and although he may have tolerated doing a task that was asked of him, once he is pushed beyond his comfort zone, the dramatic responses appear, from an unwillingness to be caught, to a lack of ability to stand still, to spookiness, to dangerous behaviors.  There are only so many ways a horse can tell a person he is having a problem, and often the initial “quiet” ways the horse tries to convey his concern, fear or worry is ignored, and so he has to magnify his behavior until he can no longer be ignored.

So in the case of the mare I was working with, obviously a human had their own “agenda” without considering the horse or what she needed from the human to “feel better.”  Why did she “yield” and do the tricks?  I don’t know.  I still don’t understand why as many horses put up with people hammering away on them as they do.  But the real point here is to assess as I work with this horse and decipher what she needs from me, in order help her get mentally and emotionally quiet, so that she can physically relax when being worked with.

One last point that you may ask is, if she is so jumpy and tense, why would she get so quiet when she bowed?  My thought is that she probably discovered the only time she was “left alone” was when she complied by doing a trick.  So her willingness to do them is probably her way of finding an “okay” moment when near a human.

Horses Searching For An Opportunity

I have to admit that it had been years since I rode multiple "broke" horses before my fall arrival to the northeastern Texas ranch I’m currently based at. This winter I’ve had the opportunity to work with over 30 horses varying in degrees of experience in an assortment of disciplines including ranching, roping, reined cow horse, driving and cutting prospects all varying from two to 10 years of age.

One by one I rode each horse with my initial purpose to familiarize myself and assess the horses here at the ranch. Each horse had been broke with what I call the "mainstream" approach and were "quiet" in their behavior during the basic saddle, mounting, tying and standing for the farrier. Tacking up and mounting in the barn aisle was the "norm" and there was not any concern for the horse’s brain or emotions.

Wind, cows, the indoor arena, nearby running tractor equipment, welding, loose dogs and goats, being hosed down or standing tied for hours at a time, these horses were what appeared to be "fine." But to me, a "lot" was missing in their confidence, willingness and performance.

Whether in their stall or among a herd in a large pasture, not a single horse looked with any degree of enthusiasm or interest as you approached, and most, if they had the opportunity, walked off as you neared with the halter and lead rope in hand.

What I had been told were the "best" horses in each discipline, were often the most difficult to catch and most defensive in how they carried themselves and maintained tightness in their bodies (noticeable even while just standing tied.)

Not a single horse was able to walk with any sensitivity or respect towards personal space or in response to pressure of the lead rope; so as you lead each one, it felt as if you were draggy 1,000 lbs. of horse with you.

Although they would stand still while tacked up, about half of them would get a concerned look as you swung the saddle blanket onto their back.

The "typical" order of doing things here on the ranch was to tack up and mount without any consideration or evaluation of the horse, his brain, etc. Although most of the horses stood quietly while you mounted every single one would "drag" along in their walk to wherever you were heading. There was NO consideration as to being able to walk with varying degrees of energy.

I had the opportunity to watch and be reminded of how the "mainstream" thought process was in regards to training performance horses at several facilities that were considered by most within the industry to have "top notch" programs. The almost non-stop "fussiness" of rider’s hands constantly taking up on the reins and asking the horses to yield at their poll and jaw vertically and horizontally until the horse’s nose almost touched his chest, made my jaw ache as I imagined how the horses felt being ridden in such a manner and with such severe bits. And yet to the uneducated eye, it would appear that each horse was accepting their rider’s actions and aids because he was not "acting out" dramatically.

Things that I consider as "the basics" such as asking a horse to look where he was going as I rode, or to increase and decrease his energy within a pace in response to my change of energy in the saddle, commonly got either a "fleeing" response, or the horse would totally lock up or "brace" his entire body in resistance towards my aid.

Many of the horses responded as if shocked by the things I asked such as taking a specific step or movement, whether it was a turn, a transition, yielding laterally, moving one specific foot, backing, etc. I could feel the patternization in these horses by their response or lack thereof, in how they "expected" me to ride. In anticipation the horse seemed to prepare himself for the expected busyness and severe aids, and would mentally check out.

I find horses and humans at times can be very similar. The more boundaries and clear black and white instructions you offer the better and more enthusiastic the response is, even if there is initially some resistance. In the long term, it seems horses and humans offer a respect when the communication presented is clear, honest and consistent.

A majority of the horses would brace against my reins and gently "leak out" acting like they had had a few drinks, when asked to carry themselves using their

hindquarters rather than dragging themselves around on the forehand.

Every time I would offer an aid in an attempt to ask the horse to participate with me, rather than submit to my aid, it was like there was this mental and almost physical pause in their response. It usually took three or four times "showing" the horse (by offering a quiet in my own energy, actions and aids) that got them to start to fathom that they might be "rewarded" by their efforts and participation, rather than being taken "advantage of."

My goal was to get these "shut down" horses to first consider mentally what I was asking of them, then to address my aid with a physical effort.

With most of the horses you could feel "surprise" in them as they realized that each time they tried to address what I was asking, there was an acknowledgement in me, rather than greediness with me continually hammering away at them.

The biggest "red flag" in all of the horses was that you could feel the "quantity" they had been ridden with, rather than a quality. I am so adamant about not brainlessly asking something of my horses (or human students!) over and over and over to the point of nearly driving the horse nuts. If the horse isn’t "getting it," I believe it is the human’s responsibility to change how they are communicating with their horse, in order to get a different response from their horse.

Sometimes when I hear folks talk about their horse’s resistance it seems that the person feels the horse is scheming as he stands in his stall all day about the new and creative ways he will "resist" his rider.

I believe the horse is a mirror of his rider. Often people don’t like that statement, because they don’t always like what they see in their "mirror."

So from day one to 10 and then by week three, it almost seemed as if when you sat on some of the horses they weren’t even the same animals. The quickness of their willingness to try, or their ability to "let go" of an initial resistance was so fun to experience. It felt as if the more you "opened the door" and encouraged them to participate in the ride; the more they wanted to offer.

Now I’m not saying that in a few weeks I "undid" all of how they used to "operate"; the old saying is, "It takes me six hours to fix what it takes someone else six minutes to wreck."

Because of the craziness of my schedule I find I only have so much time and so I have to pick carefully in each session with a horse what I want to address, as I see it is my responsibility to help increase that horse’s confidence and willingness by the quality of what I present in each session.

Another HUGE factor in all of the horses increased levels of "search" during a ride, was by literally changing the routine of where, how and when they were ridden.

The facility I’m at has an amazing variation in terrain, rolling pastures to wooded trails, numerous horses, cows, dogs and goats roaming about. It allows for me to "work" on something, but in a totally new setting, and just by changing the scenery, it is as if all preconceived ideas the horse had about something being asked of him, disappears and is replaced with a curiosity.

When I’m riding a horse I felt was initially mentally "shut down," to feel him actually take interest in our ride, tuning in to his surroundings, blowing his nose, taking huge sighs and turning to putty in my hands, I believe I’m on track that will better help him.

Then of course after the ride, to suddenly find playfulness in the horse searching for physical affection, or gently blowing down my neck sending goose bumps down my arms, it makes it all worth it.

So the next time you have the opportunity to work with a horse that seems obedient, patternized or tolerant, experiment with offering the horse "what he thought he knew" in a totally different way. You might be surprised as the horse’s personality "comes to life" as he begins searching for an opportunity!


Hoofprints & Happenings Fall/ Winter 2012

Please enjoy the latest copy of my newseltter!

Full Immersion Clinic September 7-9

I have two participant spots available for my last Full Immersion Clinic of the season.  It will be held at The Equestrian Center, LLC, in Sandpoint, ID, September 7-9 from 8am-5pm each day with a one hour lunch break.
Auditors are welcomed and encouraged! For details on the clinic visit
For registration please visit

Chores and clocks... Changing what defines a "training session"

Over the years as I try to give people ideas on how to keep their interaction with their horse “interesting” so not to fall into the seemingly inevitable “patternized” routine I often suggest for folks who keep their horses at home, to do chores with their horse.
Recently I just saw a great photo of a numeral clock with no hands on it titled “Horse Time.”  I re-posted it on Facebook adding, “When I have a horse in training often people will ask how long a session is, and this picture of the clock is my answer.”  After posting it, I realized I ought to expand my thoughts on what I might consider part of a “training” session.

I believe that every moment of interaction with your horse increase or decrease the quality of your relationship based on what you “offer” your horse.   Society often likes to categorize and contain things, and it is no different in the horse world.  The 45 minute or one hour lesson.  The “magic” 30 days of training.  The feeding two or three times a day.  Keeping horses in stalls.  Tying their heads down.  Changing their natural movement into unnatural gaits.  We try to contain and suppress the horse until he becomes whatever the “ideal” goal is in our head and all too often we take the “horse out of the horse.”

What if instead we started to question our current acceptance of the “rules” in our head, and at the same time no longer accept the preconceived notion of “this is how we do _______________ because that is how we have always done _______________.”  I never ceased to be amazed when talking with a completely non-horsey person and having them watch a session, whether ground work or riding, and their clarity of being able to literally “see” what is going on with the horse’s behavior tends to be far clearer than the person who has spent their entire life around horses and who has taken a lot of lessons.

I get a lot of colts to start each year, and typically most owners have been waiting a long time to get on their horse want to get on and “go.”  I on the other hand like things really, really, really boring.  Even if I’m galloping, it needs to feel soft, balanced and boring.  Most people approach interacting with their horse with a “survive” the ride mentality.

I believe the foundation of a horse’s education should include him learning things such as becoming mentally available towards a person, learning to focus on what is being presented, learning patience, and increasing his confidence and independence while still participating in communicating with me in a reasonable manner. 

So what does doing chores have to do with what I’m writing?  My “practical” mind tries to make my life more efficient as I run a “one woman” operation so all property maintenance, training, teaching lessons, bookkeeping, etc. are included in my day.  When I have a horse in for training I’ll often use some of his “training” session as a good opportunity do chores.  By doing so, it can help present “scenarios” that can teach him some of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Let me give you a few examples.

For my Dressage arena perimeters I have white chain, which can break when loose horses or wildlife crossing through the property and step on it.  I’ll often take a horse, whether lead or riding, and find a broken link, and ask him to stand and wait while I fix the fence.  If I’m riding, it may require I mount and dismount multiple times (from both sides,) and the horse starts to realize the ride isn’t “over” just because I’ve gotten off.  As I fix the fence, the horse needs to stand at attention almost as if he was watching (I try to imagine I’m doctoring a cow), so there is no mentally “tuning me out” or grazing just because he has to wait.

I have tons of weeds this year with all the crazy rain, so I may actually have a horse that is standing at the end of the lead rope or ground tied as I use a shovel for a few minutes to pull weeds.  The motion of the shovel, the gently “tossing” of the weed clumps, great desensitizing, and again the horse needs to be focused on what I’m doing, either ground tied or with the lead loosely slung over my arm.

Cleaning out/scrubbing water troughs is another great one, especially because the “flooding” of the emptied tub makes a great muddy water hole for the horse to learn walking through, without me leading him, never mind the sound of the automatic waterer refilling.

Opening and closing gates is another great opportunity for him to learn to be helpful and participate.  One time I may lead him around the gate, another send him in and turn around to face me while I’m still standing on the opposite side.  If riding it is a great opportunity to use the initially taught literal “one step at a time” tool, also a great time to show him WHY he needs to be able to move his front end independent of his hind end.  The clanging of the gate, the shifting of my weight in the saddle as I fuss and fidget with the gate are also great ways to improve his confidence of movement.

If I’ve “left” things such as halters, lead ropes, etc. hanging on the fence, teaching the horse to sidle up the exact spot I need him, leaning off to the side of him to reach for ropes, “dragging” stuff along his shoulder, over the saddle, etc. as I carry it back to wherever I need it.  Again, the goal isn’t to pick up my stuff, but rather to have the horse learn how to participate in a reasonable manner for whatever the task may be.

Changing jumps in the arena is a great time for loose horse to learn to follow, wait, follow, wait, as I drag jump poles, standards, walk distances, etc.

Sometimes I’ll teach a lesson to someone else while I’m sitting on a young horse.  They have to learn to stand relaxed and wait, and yet be ready as soon as I pick up a rein to participate.

Now further along in their education we may get to clearing the trails in the woods.  If a heavy limb or branch has fallen down, I’ll teach a horse to drag it, just like he was dragging a calf.  Him having to learn to shift his weight according to what he is dragging, getting used to movement and noise behind him, etc.  I can do this whether I’m leading him or riding. 

Another similar one is instead of hiking a ladder all through the woods, I’ll sit on a horse and with small clippers I’ll trim the slightly overgrown trails.  Patience, movement from above his head, and branches falling down.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!!

My point is that based on the quality of the initial relationship and respect of how you communicate, you can use your horse as a practical “tool” but also be improving your relationship AND furthering his education. 

Now you could go through each of the ideas I’ve suggested above, and if there is brainlessness in either you and/or your horse, there is no point in doing the tasks.  And really, the point isn’t to accomplish the task.  The point is you have a task which mentally gives YOU intention, whether you realize it or not, that then gives the horse the sense that what you are asking of him is “important.”  Also, by specifically having to accomplish the task, it will help you slow down and assess where your horse is perhaps starting to tune you out, offer less than 100% brain and effort, etc. 

BUT REMEMBER… If your horse isn’t “doing” what you want, always, always, always, stop and assess what YOU are doing and offering your horse in terms of clarity.  Most times the horse doesn’t “get it” because the human is unclear.  If you’re feeling stuck, start describing (out loud ) first what you want from your horse, and then literally how and what you are going to do to communicate each “step” in order to get him to understand.  If you horse gets “stuck” a portion of the way through, check to see if you may be “trying to do it for him” without realizing it, and therefor may actually be accidentally preventing him from accomplishing what you want.

At clinics I often do an exercise where I have a human “play” a horse, and another human play a “rider”.  The rider has only a lead rope held lightly in the human-horse’s hands across the front of their waist, to communicate to their horse (whose eyes are closed) and certain tasks I’ve assigned to the rider (the human-horse doesn’t know what they are.)  No voice, no clucking, no physical touching of the human-horse, no nothing except using the lead rope to communicate.  Afterwards everyone who plays the part of the horse talks about how they had to keep guessing at what the rider wanted.  The riders, all usually say it took a huge amount of mental effort to figure how to communicate and be specific.  Then I remind people that what they felt as a “horse” is usually what their real horse is feeling, and I always ask that if they addressed their real horses with as much mental effort as they did their human-horse, they’d probably see a big difference in their relationship.

Now what did this blog have to do with clocks without hands?  Well for all the ideas I suggested above, none I would every present in a “we have to get it accomplished in this amount of time” manner.  If it takes three minutes until we find quality, fine.  If it takes a lot longer, so what?  My goal is quality, not quantity.  So if I have to take a lot of “baby” mental and physical steps in order to accomplish a task, so be it.  When there is quality, your horse should feel like putty in your hands.  Light, sensitive, responsive, reasonable, participative, curious and much more. 

So if you’re a rider who is used to only have a certain amount of time to be with your horse, try and experiment with perhaps changing when you work with your horse so that you don’t feel the “pressure” of always having to hurry up.  If you’ve had a great session, even if you have more time… stop early!  If you present something and your horse makes a really big improvement, leave him alone… that is the best reward you can give him!  The irony is the more you initially “leave them” when they get it right, the more they want to be with you and the more they offer you because they realize you recognize their efforts and don’t just try to take advantage of them.

I haven’t worn a watch for almost fifteen years, and it isn’t an accident.  But then again, I live in a lifestyle where I go to town once, maybe twice a week, and in my world, it doesn’t even really matter what day it is… Perhaps I’m living on a horse time?


The value of a voiceless day...

If you’ve ever read any of my past blogs you can probably imagine that in person I talk a lot.  It is always a challenge as an instructor to convey to the student exactly ALL of the information I want to offer in a single session.  Amazingly my voice holds up over my 3-5 day long clinics (thanks to the best-investment-ever PA system I have)… But usually once a year I’ll lose my voice for 2-3 days.  Although it can be annoying, I find it can be a great reminder forcing us to raise our awareness in how to best communicate with other people when we can’t talk, so too could we use that same awareness in how we interact with our horses.

It is also the time of year in which I invariably get a few calls about young horses that are progressing in their education and have “suddenly” started acting dangerously; bucking, kicking, bolting in response to something their rider has asked of them…   I find (and perhaps this comes from WAY too many hours spent pondering as I mow the property on the tractor and the riding mower) that there is a relationship in the various ways people “react” to my having no voice and how they attempt to interact with me, to being similar in how people approuch working with their horses in using “body language” when we communicate.  I know the comparison may seem a little odd, but bear with me.

The times I have lost my voice and have been around young children, when they realize my voice is gone and I can only barely whisper, I’ve noticed an entire change in the child’s mannerisms.  Behaviors such as responding to me in a whisper because I’m whispering, or literally changing their posture into a more “submissive” manner with their shoulders rolled forward and head slightly hunkered down as if they were telling me a secret when we were “talking.”  There also seems to be a slow tentativeness in their behavior such as when passing me an item or taking something from me. 

I find the same goes with young horses.  Horses are born with a curiosity that all too often humans diminish rather than support.  But initially that young colt or filly is curious about everything.  You go out to fix the fence, pull weeds, etc. and if you do it long enough, eventually that youngster will come over and inspect your activities.  If you’re “hunkered down” fixing fence, they will actually lower their posture as they inspect what you are doing.  Now they may bolt off and then come back again, but there will be gentleness to their curiosity.

Back to the days of no voice, when interacting with teenagers, at first there is a shock that I have no voice, and then you can almost see the impulsive, mischievous thought, “So if she can’t talk, then maybe I could __________.”  They may not actually act on that thought, but any initial intentions tend to be focused on restraining themselves from acting on those thoughts that might get them in trouble.  Then as they continue to interact, they will often come up with a sudden bunch of answers for you every time they ask you a question.  But none of their answers will really be appropriate and most will just be a result of them brainlessly talking.

All too often from a horse’s two to four year old age, which is usually the most common time people really start to handle, saddle and start young horses, the horses wind up getting anticipative while they get more “creative” in how they are reacting to the human.  The horse doesn’t really mentally slow down, so they wind up with a lot of excessive movement and chaotic thoughts, which eventually leads to them scaring themselves and not feeling too good around the human.  Because of the anticipation, they get defensive, usually by starting to offer dangerous behavior as a preventative measure to stop the human from asking more of the horse.

When voiceless and dealing with humans who are in their 20s-30s, often when they realize I can’t speak out loud, they tend to immediately “shut down” and end any form of communication, as if to say, “Since you can’t ‘talk’ there is no point in interacting.”

Often with horses from 5-10 years old they will have enough confidence and exposure to “get by” in how they interact with humans, but they have started to become accustomed to patternized behavior in how people interact with them and what performance is expected of them.  These patternized horses that often are calm and “quiet,” can suddenly turn into a fire breathing dragon when something is presented in a way they are unaccustmed to.  People don’t realize how their complacency in working "routines" with their horse can actually teach their horse’s brain to “shut down” towards anything new.

When dealing with people in their 40s and 50s when I have no voice, they tend to become the “let me do it for you” sorts… Meaning, that if I have no voice, in their good efforts and intentions, they will take over “all decision making” as if my ability to do that was directly related to whether or not I had a voice.  If you show signs that you do not want them to takeover, they tend to blow you off and continue.

Take a horse in their early to mid-teens and often their rider is someone re-entering the horse world after years of “having a life with school, work, and family” and now finally have to time to get back in the saddle.  All too often this group of riders has fantasized so long about “how it used to be” that they often lack the ability to really “see” what their horse is communicating to them.  They tend to assume they always understand and “know what is best” for the horse.  This can often lead to another version of “mentally shut down horses” that are old and mature enough to have the patience to put up with their riders ignoring them.  But they also are the group of horses that many times wind up having harsher bits, spurs, crops, etc. in order to get a response from them because they are “dull” or “stubborn”.

When dealing with older folks while I don’t have a voice, at first they think it is them that is having the problem in hearing me.  Then they realize it is me that can’t speak.  Then their eyes light up, as if they have nothing else to think about, and all the time in the world to “play” guess-what-I’m-trying-to-communicate.   They have the time and enthusiasm and can usually decipher what I’m conveying pretty quickly.

The older folks who interact with horses of all ages often have quality relationships because they aren’t in a “rush” to hurry up and accomplish anything.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t have goals, but often they enjoy the process of getting to the end goal, rather than just value in the sole accomplishment of the goal.  They also tend to notice a lot more of what is “going on” with their horse, even if they aren’t sure what to do about it.  If things don’t go “as planned” they don’t get stressed out.  Their horses also tend to respond a lot more positively to change and trying new stuff.

 So my point is, we affect and have the ability to influence every moment of how we interact with our horse.  The slower and more open minded we are, the greater the opportunity to take the time to really “see” what is going on.  Somehow I think being able to communicate vocally in the rest of our life, allows us to rush in our intentions, energy and movement when we work with our horses.  If for one day we had to rely more on our senses and pay attention to what we were actually doing, we might re-sensitize OURSELVES and be in awe of the mirror affect it would have on our horses.

Doctoring the Defensive Horse

So this latest blog came to my mind as one of the young horses I have in training put a nice little puncture in his front leg half way between his knee and the point of his shoulder.  It seems to be a “rite of passage” as I can’t remember how many four year old geldings I’ve seen that seem to have the “need” to put a hole in their leg…

Anyhow, this particular horse came to me pretty defensive about most things in life and certainly when it came to anything around his legs.  His nature in general would appear to most horse folks “relaxed” or “quiet.”  What I was “translating” was that he was mentally shut down, or unavailable, and his resistance made him appear, slow and quiet, whereas I saw a horse constantly looking for “a way out” from anything associated with humans. 

I’ve mentioned in past blogs about Not Embracing the Brace, Filling the Holes in your Horsemanship, and so on… this horse is the absolute epitome of why I at times might seem a bit “over the top” in really laying down the basics and creating clear communication.  Any time something concerned, bothered, or worried him, he’d mentally check out and physically “lock up” or “blast” his body in any direction possible, including considering running over the top of me.  In scenarios away from the other horses he’d seem like he was “in your pocket,” but in reality it was the lessor of two evils- him being alone, or him being “with” a human. 

With the distraction of other horses, if he was loose, I witnessed him actually consider climbing my four foot metal gate to put himself back into the pasture to be with the other horses.  Even in the herd, he had a hard time respecting the “leader” and had quite a few marks from his “delayed response” after being warned by the herd leader. 

The first time I was working him in the round pen (he happened to be trotting) and the horses on the outside of the pen moseyed off; he literally turned and ran straight into one of the pen panels.   

When his brain “checks out” his eyes literally glaze over and he looks “empty.”  Then when he checks back in, it is as if a lightning bolt cracked him on the backside and his body will spring into multiple directions at once.  Watching him loose trying to make up his mind just as to which direction in the pen or how fast he wants to move would be stress inducing for the folks who’d want to “do it for him.” 

I honestly believe he never was asked to think before he got here.  This is not at all to nay say his owners who specifically took their time to go slow and not rush him.  The problem is their lack of experience and ability to recognize and translate his behaviors has now led to a horse whose level of anticipation about “anything” about to happen is pretty extreme.

But horses are amazing… In just a few weeks he learned he could use his brain to make decisions in a reasonable manner, participate but be respectful while being groomed, tacked up… He learned about yielding to and following pressure.  He learned that he could move backwards when asked.  He learned how to move one foot individually without a chaos.  He learned how to “wait.”  That he didn’t have to “flee” anytime anything more than a walk was asked of him.  To literally look and think to his right and left before he moved.  To increase and decrease his energy, to line up to the mounting block (loose), to be able to be “sent” through obstacles on his own without mentally checking out, to push his way through hanging tarps, to work at liberty in a 100x200 grass arena… To jump over cavalleties, etc… And to bring himself “in” to his night pasture when his name was literally called from the opposite end of the property.

But there was still a very long “list” that I wanted him to learn to be reasonable about.  On that list included movement near his legs… He’d tolerate (which did not mean I believed he was “okay” with it) ropes swing on top of his neck, back and rump, but as they slid down to any of his legs he’d either try to flee or slightly kick out at the rope.  I’d been working his front legs in being able to just dangle a rope to rub all over them, and then with each end of the rope held in either hand to gently apply pressure against his leg, releasing as soon as he “followed” the pressure I was applying.  I didn’t want to just see him physically yield his leg, but rather to feel better about the moving, touching, etc. of his legs and feet.

And then I walked out one morning and there was the swollen knee and upper leg.  It wasn’t extreme, but I realized the smooth scratch about the width of my pinky I’d seen the day before, really had a hole under it.  I’ve dealt with many wounds that turn most people’s stomachs… and this one was a pretty petite one.

So I had an already defensive and anticipative horse, who now was 100 times more on edge with the pain of the wound.  Which meant that even when I just stood on the side of the wound and patted his neck, he’d try to turn his head to block me from getting anywhere near his injured leg.

This is where revisiting the pre-established basics comes into play.  Although he was pretty much dead set that there was no way I was getting near the wound (which he communicated to me with offerings to strike out, run backwards/sideways/forwards and considered running me over, locking up his body so that any moment of touching he would go straight up in the air, bracing his neck in his “got to bail” position over his right shoulder with his left shoulder trying to “push” on my personal space to keep me at bay, etc.

Now my “scale” of extreme behavior is pretty crazy compared to what the average horse person has seen, and by no means was this horse particularly “creative” in his resistance.  What really intrigued me was the way he “held” on to his anticipation causing him to emotionally come completely unglued mentally.

Lips curled up and pursed, chest muscles twitching, tail wringing, neck so rigid you could bounce a coin off of it, the whites of his eyes showing… He just knew I was going to saw his leg off, except because of his insecurity, as his defense he tried everything he could to avoid looking at me, thinking about where I was asking him to stand, or staying mentally “tuned in” as I touched him (not on the leg.)

So each time he presented a way to “avoid” mentally addressing me, I had to get him to “let go” of what he was trying.  It was a bit like an emotional roller coaster for him which was mirrored with dramatic movement; he’d initially lock up, then try and have excessive movement, then lock up, then tune in to what I was offering, and then start to take baby mental and physical steps/movement, then would take a huge sigh or blow his nose, and instantly all of the signs of stress and anticipation would dissolve from his body language.  Then I’d go back to whatever I’d originally been asking, whether it was where I was touching him, or with how much “energy”, etc.  Keep in mind my standard for him standing quietly was that I could “work on him” with him standing ground tied (the lead rope loose on the ground.)

Although my “goal” may have appeared to doctor his leg, it really was to help this poor horse feel better about life.  He had no trust that I was going to help him relax.  He had no belief that I’d really “follow through” until he made a change, which is why I believe he hung on to his extreme mental resistance for so long.  But as soon as he “let go” of his anticipation it was like he turned to putty in my hands- literally.

Eventually on day one I got a hose (by the way I don’t think he’d ever been hosed/bathed) on him for twenty minutes while he stood with his head low and relaxed and with a hind foot cocked.  That afternoon I put a sweat on his leg which involved applying ointment with a Popsicle stick (he would have sworn it was going to be a knife), seran wrap, cotton and then vet wrap.  The irony was that he didn’t care at all about the crinkly packaging of the vet wrap and cotton rolls or the actual touching of his leg as I applied the bandaged.

The next day I applied a new bandage after he’d gone through the night without one, and the swelling was definitely going down.  I don’t work by the clock, and although initially met with the similar “the world is going to end” resistance as the previous day’s initial session, in less than a quarter of the time he completely relaxed and let me doctor him.

That evening after he came in from grazing I asked him to stand (totally loose) and I was able to approach, although for one moment he thought about fleeing the opposite way from me, and then he took a deep sigh and stood relaxed as I undid his bandage and inspected the wound.

On day three of doctoring he just about put his leg in my lap to inspect; all signs of swelling were gone as was the heat and he was totally sound.

The next day when I actually went to “work him” his entire attitude and body language from the start was much softer and more participative without me having to “do” so much to get his brain with me.  We still have quite a ways to go, but it was like he realized I was there to support him through worrisome scenarios, rather than scare him through them.

So as much as it was on my list to gently and slowly address working around/with his legs and desensitizing him to movement, pressure, etc., by having him get hurt, it fast forwarded his “learning” how to be reasonable in a situation he clearly thought was going to kill him.

Every single one of the “tools” I used in how I communicated with his brain and then body was through the over simplified points of yielding to pressure, directing his brain, influencing his energy and a clarity of when something he offered was “correct” or not the desired response. 

I could imagine many other folks attempting to “take on” a horse like him, who to a certain extent you could probably “bully” into tolerating a scenario, but I’d hate to imagine where that sort of interaction might lead in the long run.  I’ve already witnessed a few of his “light switch” dramatic moments, and in my mind, “challenging” a horse like this to “get it right” is like lighting a fuse on the end of a stick of dynamite.

Over the years I have heard quite a few stories of the “wild and crazy horse” that of course gets hurt, and in the human’s commitment to “doctor” that horse, where under other circumstances the human would never had spent so much time with the horse, that the horse and human actually built a very trusting relationship and “fixed” a lot of the horse’s initial “problems” without realizing or trying to do so.

But all too often people wind up being distracted and aren’t really “committed” themselves to mentally focusing on their horse until the moment of an emergency.  So instead of “waiting” for a scenario like that, for those who don’t have an injured horse, maybe experiment with interacting with your equine partner as if it were as important as attending to a wound.  You might be surprised by just having the thoughts in your head how the difference in your energy and intention will be perceived by your horse perhaps causing a change for the better in him.

Here’s to “TLC”,