How Much Time to Wait?

How do you know if you’re making progress with a horse, reverting back, stalled out, on the wrong track entirely?

This is a really good question, and one that does not have a simple answer. Horses work on their own time, and the path to progress is not a straight line, but more of a squiggly roller coaster loop. It can have a steep rise with an even steeper drop off, some twists and turns and even twistier emotions.

Sometimes it can take a long time and waiting is necessary, and sometimes if it’s taking a long time it’s because something essential was missed in the beginning. And sometimes a horse can make progress, but revert backwards for a little bit before making their breakthrough. So how can you know if you’re on the right path?

First it’s important to know if we’re asking the appropriate question in the first place. If we’re not getting progress, we might be asking for the wrong thing at the wrong time. Here’s an article on the subject to get you started:

When the Horse says “No”

As for progress, I tend to think that if you start things off in the right direction, get the horses mind shaped up toward what you are striving for, the rest is a matter of time. How much time? Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. Others a matter of years. But if you set it up right, the rest is just time.

A few things are helpful for knowing:

-reading posture and expression. Is the horse thinking in the direction you’re hoping for them to go? For example, at the trailer, we tend to read the horse physically going in as progress, but if his ear or eye are turned that way; that is progress. The whole horse getting in is just a matter of time and asking in the right way- but if the horse is avoidant, backward, anxious, or not even in the same planet mentally as us, we can spend hours without getting anywhere.

A word about posture and muscle: muscle takes time to build. The rate depends a lot on the horses age, condition, type/intensity of riding and frequency, physical limiting conditions and much more. But posture can improve immediately. If I see a high headed, hollow backed horse, their posture can change in minutes or certainly within an hour lesson dramatically. But, they will take time to develop the postural muscles to maintain that posture easily.

-experience and experimentation: I always say you find the line by accidentally going over it. I have a pretty good idea about what pressures to not put on a horse when trailer loading and such because I have lots of experience accidentally pushing horses over their threshold. Obviously I’m not advising anyone to put too much pressure on a horse, but I am advising folks to relax a little enough to experiment, especially if you have some good guidance, and find the line you want to stay under, and the one to stay over. Just enough pressure to change thought and motivate, then wait. How do you find that line? You might have to play around with it, using posture and expression as your guide.

-not getting so hung up on progress is the key to progress. I know this sounds counter intuitive. But if we desire progress and get kind of stressed about it, we tend to get kind of tense, hard on ourselves and can get rigid about plans. It’s best to have some key things you want to see, such as relaxation and better posture, keep the timeline flexible, and enjoy the ride. The best breakthroughs I’ve had with difficult horses were when I just about gave up entirely- they didn’t turn around because I was giving up, but because I wasn’t so uptight about what we needed to get done anymore.

How do you know your horse is headed in the right direction? Your horse should overall be working toward relaxation, understanding and better posture. If you have that, or even small snippets of that, the rest is just a waiting game.

If you are having Groundhog Day each session, repeating the same rigmarole just to get through it, and your horse is staying tense, you might be missing something small or large, but either way important to the horse.

In Hand Work or Groundwork?

What is the difference between in hand work and groundwork? And when is it appropriate to use either?

Defining both can be a little confusing, because both are done on the ground, both can be done in a halter, cavesson or bridle, and both serve the purpose to educate a horse to the basics.

But a simple way to think of it is this-

Groundwork is the teaching of basic skills, responses and mindset in our work. It involves things like leading, circling, backing, and other movements that make up the basic building blocks of what a horse might be expected to do in his life. This is where I start a horses education.

This can be done from the ground, from horseback off of another horse, from a fence- wherever. It is the essence of teaching the horse to follow the lead line and connect it to his feet.

Groundwork can be a great tool to introduce new things, like a flag, a tarp, a log to drag, or more, because it requires nothing of the horse that they don’t know clearly. When you add a new stimulus the horse might be unfamiliar with, you can direct them in movement without restricting them, yet still guiding them and helping them understand what you want- it’s a nice bridge between escape and trapping them with the scary new thing, and the movement you’ve asked them to do is one they are already very familiar with, so you aren’t stacking too much on at once.

This horse is getting ready to be saddled, so my lariat can help her experience what the cinch might do. This way she won’t be unprepared or scared when I do cinch her up.

In hand work I tend to think of more specifically toward postural development. With in hand work, we can teach alignment, posture and positioning, and build strength and carrying capacity, without the impeding weight or confusing aids of a rider.

With in hand work we can teach rythm, straightness, lateral movements, stretching and much more.

The appropriate time to use either can depend a lot on the hose and scenario. Both require skill, coordination and thoughtful connection from both horse and rider. Neither should be done carelessly or sloppily with just the intent to burn off energy, but to connect and educate. Both are useful and necessary tools in the tool bag of a horse and rider.

The Abuser, and The Supporters

We have a problem of abusive trainers. We have a problem of peoples absolute adoration, support and refusal to acknowledge their faults, and willingness to idolize them blindly. I know this because I get messages from young women who’ve escaped such situations, and older women who’ve held onto their shame for decades. I know this because I’ve been through it too.

They put on a good show sometimes, but they don’t hide it very well. The public knows, maybe not the whole picture, but they know. They’ve seen the rough handling of horses, the insensitive and humiliating teaching, the tears of students, the insults, the injuries. The public knows and worship them still as if they are a God.

When you leave a situation like this, the problem is not just the loss of confidence, the loneliness, the harm to your physical body, self esteem and career. Now you have to contend with the followers. People who are abusive often have great reputations and are liked by many. How is a young person with feeble reputation supposed to stand against someone adored by the public?

“You’re so lucky you got to work with him, isn’t he great?”

“He has his way, you have yours, neither are wrong.”

“It couldn’t have been that bad, it was great experience at least!”

“You should be grateful for what he gave you and move on.”

“You have a great career now, so it obviously wasn’t that bad.”

I left such an experience with my arm in a sling – I still have trouble with that arm years later – out of work for months, worried about speaking out for fear of ruin to my career – I was expecting backlash. What I was not expecting was the response from people. People who had been injured themselves told me to be grateful. People who’s own horses were harmed. People who knew, who saw, told me to move on. They asked me to be quiet, or continued working along side such a person.

It isn’t just me- I get messages of similar stories all the time. People too afraid to make the comments publicly, for fear of backlash, harm to their career, or just the inability to feel the sting of invalidation again. People who are now afraid to teach or train at all. “It couldn’t have been that bad…”

How do we help horses by bolstering up braggarts, narcissists, abusers, and elbowing the byproduct of our pride out of the way? The price of all our comfort is the ruined lives of young women, the injuries of horses and people, the abuse running rampant behind a flashy Instagram photo.

Is this really what we want to foster?

The things I have seen go on in public are astounding enough, and I always believed of people saw what went on in private they’d be convinced. But having seen what people are willing to ignore or explain away, I now don’t believe they can, or want to, change their minds when facts are present.

Is this really the kind of world we envision for ourselves and our horses? For up and coming young people seeking a career in horses? If trainers are going to change the world and make it a safe place to be vulnerable, relaxed, and healthy, we cannot keep bolstering up the narcissists and abusers. You know who they are- you can feel it deep down. Don’t ignore it. These are the people who are threatened by change, and elbowing anyone with real empathy out of the way.

This is the problem of everyone in the horse world, not just the up and coming trainers. Choose carefully who you support. Make way for vulnerability and empathy.

The Importance of Handling From Both Sides

One thing I harp on a lot is leading and handling from both sides regularly. Aside from helping your horse be comfortable with a wide variety of sights, experiences, and positions, leading from both sides is good for your horses posture.

Most horse folks learned to do everything from the left. We don’t even notice how often we do stuff on the left side. We halter, lead, saddle and mount from the left side. When’s the last time you did stuff from the right? If it felt awkward, it might not have lasted that long before you went back to the comfortable side.

But unfortunately, this has postural ramifications. From the first halter we put on a foal, to interactions done day in and day out, we are building postural habits in the horse. The ones shown in these photos are ones I see very often, and they are the result of (among lots of other factors) habitual handling on the left side.

Here is Hattie in her normal posture. She essentially fills the space between herself and her handler, and is almost always leaning toward the person on her left side.
I call this the “splat posture.” The horse leans toward the handler, looking away with their head. Front legs far apart, hind legs close together, and a loaded left shoulder.
Here’s a closeup of how she positions her feet (yes they are laminitic and bad- there is a lot going on with hatties rehab program to address that). This stance is typical of a forehand heavy horse: wide in front and narrow behind, especially with the left front forward (which is typical of a left lean)
When the front end is loaded, the hind feet often turn away from each other and the hocks point toward each other. This is the result in a blocked low back, which impedes the ability of the hind legs from making a full step underneath. This perpetuates the cycle of front end dependence
We went right to work on leading from the other side. Hattie was confused but willing.
We did some poles to show Hattie how to move her body differently too
With a focus on accuracy in leading, asking Hattie to not just lead parallel to us but to understand how to slow down, speed up, turn, stop and back with lightness helped her learn how to organize her own feet. Mindless leading had produced postural habits that were very ingrained, but luckily, a little attention to detail can go a long way!
Hattie started to organize her body differently – you can see her head is away from her neck and her neck is away from her shoulder, with her body much straighter
Hattie is happier and straighter
She is starting to find a better balance
Her handler is doing a jaw release here but Hattie has found all 4 of her feet under her body
It’s amazing how such a simple change can lead to big changes for the horse! Along with diet changes, correct trims, and more movement, Hattie is well on her way to better balance.

A Day In My Life: Alternatively: No Work/Life Balance

Every morning, my daughter Josie wakes me up around 6/6:30. If she doesn’t wake up first, my eyes pop open anyway. I make a pot of coffee in between getting her dressed, changed, fed, and cleaning up whatever destruction lies in her path.

I usually write an article while I drink my coffee, get sucked into Facebook land and reading or responding to comments, regret the time waste, and remember all the things I have to do.

Then we feed horses, dogs, cows, cats, and whatever else is nearby with a mouth and tail. Josie enjoys holding the hose, throwing grain in the air, and riding the 4-wheeler. My two dogs enjoy chasing birds, scolding horses who get too close to the fence, and finding gross stuff to eat or roll in. It’s a family affair.

My husband Travis watches her while I go to work shortly after. A typical day usually involves a handful of lessons, a trim or two, and working with 6-8 horses. They can be anything from BLM mustangs to gentle, zonked out show horses learning to live outside, young dressage horses to develop, or behavioral or postural rehabs. It never gets boring here.

I sometimes do video lessons or phone consults at the end of the day, and having zero reception at home means I do them from my “office” – an old boarded up gas station about ten minutes away from my house.

On the weekends I often do clinics, either local to NC or around the country. People of all kinds, usually really nice ones, reach out for help and make a fun little community.

Evening means more chores, reuniting with a chatty little girl, feeding her, dogs, cats, cows and whoever else is standing around hungry again. Then it’s a race to put Josie to bed before the grumpies hit – and by then I have a sink full of dishes, a messy floor, a pile of laundry and other such household tasks to ignore on my way to bed.

By this time, there is usually an average of 9,000,000 texts, emails and messages I have not responded to. I get to a couple before falling dead asleep, and try to get back to the rest in the morning.

Work life balance doesn’t exist. There is a blurry line between a day off and work for me, because tasks and texts pile up – but, I pretty much live out the dream life I envisioned since I was six years old. So while I’d love 24 straight hours of sleep, a huge pile of money, and to throw my phone out the window, I know I get to live a full life in every single day. And you just can’t beat that.

Preparing to Go New Places

So you’ve gotta go to a clinic, a show, a new trail, or some such thing that requires you to take your horse away from home. What can you do to prepare your horse? We’ve all been there with a horse in over their head, nervous and out of control, and just as we aren’t having any fun, they aren’t either – and what’s worse, they aren’t learning anything good.

I’m a big fan of preparation work. One of the worst things you can do is take an unprepared horse to an event, clinic, show or what have you without the necessary work done beforehand. An overwhelmed horse shuts down, becomes reactive, makes poor associations and unfortunately, can become more reactive in the future. It’s easy to make assumptions about what a horse “should” be able to handle, but once you’ve gone over the line, the best you can do is damage control. Your best bet is to prepare ahead of time.

Here are some tips for preparing to go off property:

1- make sure you’re working on balance and relaxation at home, where it’s easy. Get so that you can reliably relax your horse, and your work together in their comfort zone is actually going well – a lot of folks tell me their horse “doesn’t do this at home,” but what they miss is that their horse does in fact struggle at home- just in a less exaggerated way. What you get off property is an amplified version of what you have going on at home, so perfect the basics at home.

Then, when you go to a new place, work on the basics but expect less- make it easier, and wait longer. Don’t expect your horse to be as good off property as they are at home. Make the tasks you ask easier and possible for them to do. Try to take what they’re offering and make it constructive- for example, if they’re hot, work on transitions or bending serpentine lines. If they’re worried about a new corner, use it to leg yield away from it. Be creative, work with what your horse offers you, and be willing to abandon what you’d planned to do to help your horse relax.

2- don’t wait til you have to go somewhere to change your routine. If you always ride at the same time or same place, going to a show is going to rock your horses world. After your ride, take a lap around the arena to cool off. Go for a hand walk around the property. Try riding down to get the mail. Follow a friend on an easy trail ride. It doesn’t have to be big – in fact, it’s easy if it’s just small changes done frequently. Get your horse (and you) comfortable with changes in scenery, and you will both benefit from it.

3- practice trailer loading for no reason. Load up in the trailer, rub your horse and put them away. Don’t make trailer loading always about some stressful event. Sometimes it’s just for fun, a little snack inside, and the session is over.

4- take your horse to an event as a guest horse. If you can take your horse to a show just as a passenger, they can benefit tremendously. Take them along with a confident horse and let them just hang out- maybe walk around a bit, but have zero expectations for performance. You could do this at a clinic, or any event you are allowed to bring a guest horse along to.

5- hand walk or pony your horse first. Before going out on the trail, I pony my youngsters along, sometimes several times. That way, by the time we’re riding, it’s pretty much a non issue. Taking in the sights, managing the terrain, and adjusting has all been done by the time I’m riding them. I try to add just one thing new at a time: riding a new location is too much at once, so ponying on a confident horse is a great way to introduce a new thing like a trail.

6- remember the golden rule: one new thing at a time. If you’re going to a show, make sure you’re showing a level or pattern you and your horse know WELL. Going to a new place, showing something your horse feels stressed about and being away from home is entirely too much. Learn the material, get confident at it at home, take your horse to a show as a guest horse, then finally show a level below where you’re schooling. Keep expectations low, and if you can, bring a buddy for you and a buddy for your horse.

If you’re going out on the trail, don’t bring a new to you horse to a new rider to a new location- that’s too much. Make it easy, take in in bite size pieces, and if in doubt, make it even easier.

Happy trails!

Dressage Amateurs- Are You Having Fun?

I spend my time in a lot of barns of various disciplines. People and horses are alike in many ways all over the country, with subtle differences in habits and customs.

I don’t get called out to competition focused dressage barns that often except for when there is a significant movement problem or behavioral problem. I usually stick out like a sore thumb in many ways – jeans and baseball cap amongst the expensive breeches, shining tall boots, expensive and large moving horses. I take my little corner with my student while big, angry horses circle and stomp around me. I hear teeth grinding, loud, heavy movement, coaches yelling, students grimacing, veins popping, horses slobbering.

I often get the hairy eyeball from other coaches, or wondering eyes from other students. Who is this person? The other thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is my students horse- stretching, breathing, licking and chewing, relaxing. Why is this not the norm? Why is this even something that constantly has to be explained, brought up, shown?

Stepping outside of my peaceful little world into these kinds of barns is like being splashed in the face with cold water. The horses so often look miserable- and if they aren’t actively resisting, they have the look of quiet desperation, the living dead, the horse in learned helplessness.

The students look, quite often, just as miserable as the horse. They imported the horse, bought the right tack, hired the top name, but sit in their saddle like it pains them to be there. The coach yelling, the strong horse resisting in self defense, the struggle to look good, the pressure to win ribbons and to keep up with the Jones…it just can’t be fun. All that money made in a job you possibly hate to spend your recreational time that tense, that stressed, for what?

So I have to ask- dressage amateurs, are you having fun? If you have a good teacher who values your horse and you, kudos to you! It doesn’t get better than that.

If not, why? A change might be so simple, like firing the tightwad coach who yells. It might be leaving your barn entirely. It might be selling the young, imported horse for one that suits you better and you aren’t afraid of. It might be a serious overhaul of the entire picture – no one can answer that but you. But if you aren’t having fun, ask yourself why. It SHOULD be fun.

Lord knows you pay enough, you ought to have a teacher who makes it fun, a horse you like to ride, and relaxing and uplifting recreational time.

It’s not the fault of the sport itself, but the culture that has developed to put performance above all- to put ribbons above the health of the horse- to put movement and obedience before relationship and relaxation. Is that why you got into riding? Is that what drew you to horses in the first place? Or did it get lost in the glamour of the barn, the prestige of the medals and the reputation for winning of the trainer?

Riding With Trauma

I had a lesson recently with a wonderful, sweet woman who began the lesson with an apology: “I’m sorry I don’t always learn well, I have some trauma I’m dealing with.”

This really struck me, especially for the topic we were discussing: horses in various stages and kinds of physical and mental trauma. We discussed a situation where she had worked with a horse who had behavioral issues, and she felt he was doing much better. Then, during a ride, he came apart and launched her, causing her great injury.

This is how trauma works: sometimes you are ok, sometimes you aren’t. You don’t always know what will set off flashbacks and memories, or trigger responses out of your control. Did she miss an important element in training with this horse? Maybe, I have no idea since I’m not her, I’m not the horse, and I wasn’t there. But likely, it was a traumatized horse and somehow a trigger was flipped- maybe she could have done something differently, maybe not.

Trauma, unfortunately, is incredibly common in humans. The statistics are incredibly icky: physical and sexual abuse in children are incredibly common (25 out of 1000 children are physically abused, and 1 out of 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys are sexually abused). Physical and sexual abuse in adults are very common. Illness, injury, abusive relationships, accidents, death, loss, military service and combat, you name it. You most likely know someone who has trauma or PTSD, if you don’t have it yourself.

How can trauma benefit our riding? Well- for starters, the obvious: empathy. Horses behavior is often a cry for help- A signal that things are not ok. Trauma can be anything a horse didn’t understand: a first saddling that went poorly, pulling back and breaking a tie, losing a rider as a greenie, a long stay at the vet hospital, you name it. We can’t downplay these events just because we understand them- to the horse, they were traumatic.

A person with trauma often knows how it feels to be brushed off, told “it wasn’t that bad,” “just live in the moment,” “they didn’t have bad intentions,” “be glad it wasn’t worse,” and many other dismissive and unhelpful statements. Similarly, people make comments like this with horses: “nobody has hit him in years!” “He didn’t freak out 9 times and on the 10th just lost it for no reason,” “he has a good life now after we rescued him, I don’t know why he’s afraid.”

If you’ve had trauma, you know nice treatment doesn’t erase the event that created the trauma, and that sometimes you might be ok and others not.

You know how unhelpful it can be to be dismissed, and how easy it might be to stuff it down and no longer show how you feel to keep others comfortable. You know how easy it might be for an explosively fearful animal to go internal, when they aren’t allowed to show fear behavior.

Your trauma can make you a better rider, trainer, and a better human. Because if you have trauma, you know what horses everywhere go through every day.

Thick Skin

Training as a career was all I ever wanted to do. Learning to teach and train better each year than the last was something I was always prepared to do. What I wasn’t prepared for, but probably should have been, was learning to accept failure, criticism, rejection, no closure, overwhelm and more.

Every horseman out there at some point will encounter these. Some put on rugged and steely personalities, and maybe get less criticism to their face as a result. Criticism will always happen, however, and learning to deal with it is essential. It might be in online comments- posts shared by groups that tear you apart like a pack of wolves over a piece of steak. People commenting careless and self righteous cruelties behind the anonymity of a screen.

You get less in public but they exist – someone who wants to argue, and you don’t know why they even paid to be there. Maybe the barns trainer sneers at you, and wonders if you even have show scores- with a face that says who exactly do you think you are? You might be too soft, or you might be too harsh- you might not be doing the latest training trend, or not a hardcore traditionalist. Someone is always going to be miffed.

Maybe you aren’t invited back because you pushed the wrong button- you said the thing you were supposed to dance around. In your attempt to help people and horses, no matter how kindly you tried to put the truth, the truth came out and wasn’t well received. Maybe if you were a big gruff cowboy you could directly insult people and charge 50% more, but that is not your reality, so you leave behind a barn and walk on to the next.

You might spend long hours helping someone through a problem. You might give discounts, freebies and go out of your own pocket to help, only to have them leave mad for unknown reasons- and move on to someone else. Or worse, leave and get hurt.

Perhaps even more painful, sometimes, than direct criticism, is lack of closure. A clinic went really well, a student was doing great, and suddenly they vanish. You don’t know how they or their horse are doing, and wonder- what exactly happened? Did you miss something they needed? Did they move on to someone new? Are they upset or taking a break? You may never know, and you can’t waste your time trying to help folks who aren’t in front of you, when there is so much help desperately needed elsewhere.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to look back on horses you trained and wish you’d done the kind of job you could do now- but you didn’t know then you what you know now. You’ll have long hours on the road wondering whatever happened to horses you knew, how they were doing and if you helped enough.

You’re going to be overwhelmed-

There are so many who need help. So many questions, so many messages, so many emails. So many unbalanced and fearful horses, scared riders who’s confidence is lost, and there’s just one of you, one truck and trailer, and only so many hours in the day. You might answer to your best ability a ten mile long question from a stranger only to get “that didn’t work but thanks anyway” in response.

No matter what though, at the end of the day, you can go home to a barn filled with peace, horses quietly grazing, and satisfaction. Horses who were troubled and turned over inside now doze, and you know at least in a small way, you’re making a difference. Through all the noise of the public, good feedback or bad, the horse provides direct and honest feedback, and the day fades away.

Riding With Anxiety

I talk a lot about being mentally balanced to help horses. Being able to be in the moment with horses is essential to good horsemanship, but I think it would be wrong to say that you have to be mentally perfect to do well.

Folks who have anxiety and such types of issues can often feel like their mental ailments are a burden or disability to their work with horses. Certainly they can be, but if channeled correctly, I believe they can be a tremendous asset.

I’ll stick to talking about anxiety for the purpose of this article, primarily because it’s the one I’m most familiar with. Anxiety can take us out of the moment, overwhelm us with worry and tension, and interfere with our lives.

To be a good rider, we need to be able to be in the moment, and to feel for and direct a horse.

Sufferers of anxiety are often hyper sensitive to their environment. They pick up on every little detail and are aware of things that many people aren’t. Because of this. They can have an upper hand on other folks when it comes to horses because of this sensitivity, and ability to empathize with a horse.

So many horses experience chronic fear and stress as well. A sufferer of anxiety has a great advantage for connecting and helping a horse for this reason- they are painfully aware of how burdensome, exhausting and isolating it can be to be hyper aware. They understand how small things others might not think much of can trigger panic, and how hard it can be to relax. Because of this, a rider with anxiety can learn to channel their focus into supporting the horse in a way others might not even know the horse needs.

Riding, too, can provide much needed stability, mindfulness, and a feeling of calm. It might be one of the only places a person with anxiety can feel this way. Someone with anxiety can learn to develop a place of mental stillness in the barn or in the saddle more easily than other areas of their lives. Because it might have been harder to do this, a person with anxiety can often appreciate and capitalize on this calmness without taking it for granted.

Of course, without good mental care, developing good daily practices, and supportive friends and family, anxiety can make riding exceedingly difficult. For those who are willing and able to work on managing their anxiety, it can give a rider an upper hand that others might not have access too: empathy, sensitivity, and a deep understanding of how to guide a horse toward calm.