Jump Starting your Riding Season

Spring is here, now what?

For those who are not competition motivated, or who have to address “obvious” advancement with their horse, such as working with a baby and teaching them ground manners, I find often find pleasure horse owners reach a plateau with their equine partner, and often lack a direction, which in turn can create patternized routines and rides, lack of motivation, lace of mental presence from human towards their horse.

Up here in the pacific northwest, many horse owners are lucky enough to keep their horses at home, and have the opportunity to “just ride” whenever; though the ease of accessibility is awesome, it can often become a “lonely” experience without another equine enthusiast to share ideas, thoughts or experiences with.

Of course then there are sometimes the horror stories of folks trying to expand their equine associated friends, but large groups of all levels and mentalities in varies levels of dangerous scenarios can often turn someone off from participating in group gatherings.

So what can you do?  Here are a few ideas…

1.)           Every two weeks “add” one small new concept, idea, or thought to YOUR knowledge base regarding any equine related.  This can be read, watched, heard.  You don’t have to either “totally get it, understand it or want to use it.”  But it will be something new to think about.  It often can take a long time of “mulling something over” before you can have an opinion about it.

In this day and age media allows us a lot of opportunity to see, hear and read things we would have never had access to in the past.  Take advantage of it.  Even if you just sit back and watch all of the amateur horse lover videos on YouTube, audit a local competition or other horse related gathering.

2.)           Go take a lesson or audit a lesson.  Even the “top” horse people in the world take lessons or continue to expand their knowledge through learning from others.  Lessons often can be associated with “having a problem,” but really they may just be a way to get another person’s assessment of “where” you and your horse are at, with some ideas and suggestions for future improvement.  To get the “most” for your money, if you can find someone to video you (to film in close proximity to the instructor so you can hear what they are saying), you’ll be able to watch the video in the future, and some of the things you may have missed while riding, you might be able to address after watching yourself in the lesson and reminded of the instruction offered.

3.)           Find a riding buddy.  I don’t mean someone who you will brainlessly gossip with when you ride out on the trail, but rather someone with similar horse related interests who might share and/or motivate you.  There are always notice boards at the local feed store, and often online there are plenty of websites (horse and non horse related) where people can freely advertise or search for other people with the same similar interest.  It might take a little time, you may have some “misses” but eventually you’ll find at least one person who you can share you appreciation for the sport with. 

I was reminded yet again just a week ago, how clients who live quite far apart, but who met at one of my clinics a year ago, are still in touch and have on several occasions done horse activities together.

There are plenty more ideas but, these few can offer you an affordable jump start to your riding season.

Because I offer training by the week, I find many folks who come for a week or two as a “spring tune up” to get them and their horse on the “same page” in order to go home with some realistic and plausible future goals and ideas.

Good Luck,



The "Foreign" Horse

Several times now in the past few weeks a topic has come up in regards to the misconception people have about horses and their expectations and disappointments due to their totally unfounded preconceived notions.
I was having a conversation with one of the country’s top ropers the other day, and as I was giving my quick "run down" and assessments of a few horses we were sending with him to promote in the competition arena, I casually commented as to my disbelief of how many Texas horses were "missing" major portions of what I’d consider a basic education.

He laughed and quickly listed off the same major gray areas that I’d noticed as I was assessing the ranch’s "proven" show horses. And that was the spark of inspiration for this blog.
As I began to think back over the years I’ve spent involved in all aspects of the horse industry, I started realizing how many people I’d encountered that had "gotten into trouble" because of their belief that "foreign is better."

It does not seem to matter what equine discipline you are involved with, each one over time has acquired certain "assumptions" or "idealisms" in regards to stereotyping horses from certain places on the planet! Not to be cliché but, the grass does seem greener for a majority of equine enthusiasts as for the opportunity to pick that "perfect" horse for their sport from some far off land.

For show jumping, South America has been a huge hotspot; for Dressage, Germany still holds the "golden ticket" horse that will offer the perfect passage riders are striving for. In Three Day Eventing New Zealand long ago was put on a pedestal for producing bold, safe, sane and sound horses that would carry their riders to the top of the sport. Those in the south or southwest USA have long let their imaginations carry them away with romantic images flashing through their mind when imagining that perfect "ranch horse" that was smart enough to carry their rider safely, sturdy enough to navigate the most treacherous terrain and had the old time "authentic" working horse look; if you were anywhere else in the USA, Montana hands down carried that "romantic concept" of a person working cattle, covering vast amounts of land, and camping out under the stars with their trusty steed.

But then there is reality… And the reality in my opinion is there are multiple factors that are proving "wrong" the preconceived notions.

NOTE: My opinions are based on my experiences and although I will use generalizations, I know there are always exceptions to every "general" statement I may make.

First let’s just look at the quality of horses these days. I believe there are really only a handful of places nowadays producing mentally, physically and emotionally durable horses; most of these have "let nature take its course" and allow their broodmare bands and babies to be raised in "real" country, realizing that keeping the horse’s natural instincts intact will only help produce a better riding partner in the future.

But just as with most other things man has attempted to "improve" (i.e. look at the dog breeding situation) horses nowadays don’t even resemble what they once looked like. If you ever have the opportunity, try and find some pictures of breeds such as Morgans, Walkers, Thoroughbreds, and Quarter Horses, from the 1950s, then the 1970s, the 1990s and then present day to compare the general physical features.

In most cases, I don’t think that we have improved the breeds, and just as we have diminished bone quality and hoof size, I believe too we have decreased the production of "thinking" horses, by ignoring mental genetics and prioritizing breeding genetically for whatever the popular "look of the moment" may be without considering what sort of "brain" our horses were passing on to their babies.

Next, lifestyle has obviously changed from WWII on to diminish the percentage of our demand for working horses and replaced a majority of those with "pleasure" horses. As our lifestyles changed and agriculture became increasingly reliant on mechanized equipment, horses had less and less time spent with them.

Nowadays, a majority of horse owners in the US have their horse as a "hobby", which sadly and all too often causes the horse to be low on the list of priorities for the time spent with it. This also means that with less time with the human, there is less exposure to "the real world."

So in the past the plough horse was also commonly a family’s only mode of transportation whether it be hitched to a wagon or ridden by all family members. Irrelevant of the quality of what it’s owners taught it, the horse had miles and miles of exposure and therefor had better chances of becoming that "take anywhere, do anything with" kind of equine.

Fast forward even to just twenty or thirty years ago, folks who were die hard equine enthusiasts but without supportive parents, had to figure out "how to make it work." By the time they finally found someone’s leftover, half broke, goofy looking equine, they were so obsessed and committed, it didn’t matter how many times the "crazy" animal unseated them, mashed them against the trees, bit, kick or stomped on them… Eventually they and that same mount were the ones who would ride three miles to the local horse show, compete in every single class irrelevant of their knowledge, lack of proper equipment or training, and then ride home at the end of the day.

Society today has for one become so built up, that it is almost impossible to ride from point A to point B without serious planning and permission from private property owners, and second, people these days just don’t have the same level of "die hard commitment" in their horse endeavors. I believe a lot of the "instant gratification" our westernized society promotes is a huge problem in how we approach our horsemanship and riding.

When I lived in Europe 16 years ago, riding under two Gold Medal Olympians, their early successes (one was from the land down under) was mostly due to their perseverance, the fact that he rode a Kiwi horse had nothing to do with winning the Olympics, rather back then, Eventers were certifiable insane (click the Bromont Three Day Event from 1970s on YouTube and your heart will be in your mouth every moment watching the cross country rides). They crashed, they got beat up, they had many, many mishaps, but through sheer perseverance and the horse managing to stay sound, 10 years later, he was an Olympic champion.

In the Dressage world too, for decades it was a "known fact" that if you were real about following your Olympic dream, you had to go and be "slave labor" in Germany where for the first six months you would ride on a lunge line after a long day of grueling labor and "abuse". It was sort of like a "survival" challenge and if you made it through the first six months, then maybe, just maybe you’d get some real instruction.

Obviously Europe due to historical reasons will have a lot more variation and longer lineage of horses they produce, but I truly believe it is not the horse that "makes" the rider, but rather the rider that "makes the horse."

What I mean is that in the example above, part of where the Germans excel in "self-discipline" will obviously affect their level of commitment to their horses, and although it may seem like a far reach in comparison, that die hard kid with the backyard pony who rides every moment of every day, has to some degree the same perseverance as the classically trained rider from Europe.

Let’s also look at the Texas or Montana romanticized ranch horse. Obviously stories, legends and folk lore over the years associated with certain "looks" or dress codes, mannerism and adventures of the "Wild, Wild West," have caught the imagination of even the most deeply rooted city folk.
Hollywood has attempted to offer its version, though often I find they are totally missing the most basic foundation for their characters. Through the various folks I’ve met, worked with and had the opportunity to just "sit on the fence and watch", it is not about the location or "unspoken codes" or traditions of the Wild West. It is more about the simple truth that if a person is relying on a horse for their survival and livelihood, if they do not take the time to thoroughly offer a quality education to their horse, they are greatly decreasing the chances of their success and well-being. It is as simple as that.

Those true horsemen and horsewomen have nothing to prove, no one watching them, no statements about making statements whether it be through fancy gear or attire, but who do it because they know it is the "right" way to create a lasting and rewarding partnership with their horses.

Somehow once in a while an "outsider" may see one of these folks riding one of their finished horses, and it makes the outsider almost salivate! The horseman and their horse work as one, the communication is subtle, their work with livestock is efficient and effective. And thus, the legend of the "ranch horse" is born, and spreads like wild fire.

So just as I myself have "suffered" from believing the clichés different sports carry, I have realized over the years that although you can obviously find a more quality horse mentally, physically and emotionally over another, what it really all comes down to is YOU!

What do you offer the horse? How available are you to "growing" with your horse? How committed are you to your horsemanship and riding? Every answer will be reflected in your horse’s performance and learning.

Good Luck,

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! http://www.learnhorses.com/newsletter/Dec%20H%20&%20H%2012.pdf

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 http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/camp.htm
For registration please visit http://www.learnhorses.com/Clinics/tec_registration-non-java.html

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?