Patient, Until…

Sometimes it’s easy to be patient “until.” Patient until you’re running out of time, patient until you think the horse should get it by now, patient until you’re tired, cold, hungry, sick of waiting.

Don’t get greedy with the horses efforts. Reward and acknowledge each try. It’s not about getting it done today, it’s about setting it up to be successful for their lifetime. If you don’t have the time or the patience, maybe today isn’t the day to work on it- go back inside and try another day. Don’t discount the damage that can be done with just one time of “making it happen.” It can set you back for days, weeks, maybe even the rest of their life. Take the time it takes and it will take less time.

Why Accurate Lead Rope Work is So Important

When I get a new horse in training, regardless of its experience, I generally spend a good amount of time working on leading. To some, this may seem like a trivial waste of time – “he already leads! He’s here for canter work!” Or some such thing. Firstly, I’ll start out by saying accurate leading is so much more than putting a halter and lead on and dragging a horse around. And secondly, a horse that leads accurately is safer, more responsive to riding aids, and will more willingly load or cross into areas that might have otherwise created resistance.

So to begin, what exactly is accurate leading?

To me, a horse that is properly halter broke is one who understands and responds to the feel of the lead rope without resistance. This horse leaves the slack in the lead rope, and does not drag behind or pull ahead. This horse knows how to speed up, slow down, stop, back up, and turn when the feel of the rope changes without resistance. They don’t pull back, step on top of you, or crowd you.

Why does it matter so much?

I can tell pretty quickly from leading a horse how they’re going to handle under saddle. If they drag on the lead rope, pretty frequently these types of horses are heavy in the hands, stiff in the neck, and heavy on the forehand. If they are tough to speed up on the ground, you can pretty well bet they won’t respond to the leg promptly, and if they’re running over the top of you, well, you have some big problems there, too.

If I can get a horse operating on the lead rope well, not only can I tune up these riding issues before I’ve ever stepped in the stirrup, I can also make a more peaceful horse. Horses do not love being pulled on, and they also do not love pulling on you. They’re just doing what they know, and what their education has set them up to do. I can get them lighter in their shoulders and more balanced from just proper lead rope work – a horse who is resistant to lead forward is often very heavy on the forehand, therefore canter work (if that’s what he’s here for) is going to be a battle if he’s dragging around. The more little pieces I can help him make sense of and connect, the easier the more advanced stuff will be for him.

It makes a much safer horse. I don’t need to tell you that a horse that steps on you isn’t too fun to handle. Teaching these guys where to be and when makes all the difference. A properly halter broke horse will NOT jump on top of you when scared by something (provided you have given them enough space and have not trapped them and given them no other option). They will load in trailers, lead into wash racks, and walk over scary things on the ground, if you give them time and preparation, because they know how to respond to the lead rope. They will not pull back when tied (again, assuming you have not put them in a situation where they have no choice).

So many times, a riding issue can be cleared up by just tuning up your leading. If all you did was commit to better leading for 30 days, you would find a much easier ride the next time you climb I to the saddle. It sounds simple, because it is, but it isn’t always easy.

Fear and Exposure

When a horse shows fear over something, sometimes there is a tendency to barrage them with the thing that scared them. You can find a million videos on YouTube showing you how to throw tarps, balls, flags, ropes, you name it, at, over, and under your horse.

It’s interesting that these same people, when they have riding fears of their own, beg to not have them addressed in their lessons. Please don’t make me canter! Please don’t make me give up my inside rein!

More exposure to the thing that scares us alone does not create confidence. What creates confidence is a tool set to handle these fears, and controlled exposure that develops positive interactions. You don’t get over your fear or flying by being on the most turbulent ride immediately. You take short trips on smooth rides, learn about what all the noises mean, learn to enjoy your in flight entertainment, and realize it’s a great place for a nap.

A horse has little to gain from investigating and thinking logically, and everything to lose. (Any horse thinking “Is that a cougar or a plastic bag? Hmm…upon further investigation it seems it IS a cougar!” might be dead)

Think about something you’re afraid of next time you find your horses fear come up, and train with compassion.

Some thoughts on tying:

Tying is an important skill I believe all horses should be confident in.

For many horses, this has become an extremely dangerous thing. A horse that pulls back on the halter or drags on the lead rope is not safe to tie. A horse that learns to break out of his tie or headgear is pretty difficult to reform, which is why I avoid breakaway ties at all costs.

Make sure you are tying to safe, secure posts only!! If a horse can pull it out in a panic (you’d be surprised what a horse can pull when scared), do NOT tie to it. Nothing destroys confidence like a panicked horse dragging a post around behind them.

Safe tying starts with correct leading. If a horse knows without a doubt how to give to the lead rope, and is taught in little pieces what the meaning of his halter is, he will learn to tie safely.

Tying hard and fast and letting the horse “figure it out” leads to panic, injury and future panic when tied. I have a mustang with facial nerve damage due to being tied and left to figure it out on a patience pole. This is not a humane way to educate.

Teach your horse the little basics – how to give to the halter. How to follow the lead rope, not just drag around or follow a person. He needs to know how to speed up and slow down from the feel of the rope. How to untrack his hindquarters if he needs to move without taking the slack out of the rope.

Then start small with little tying experiences. I don’t begin tying hard and fast – I start with the lead rope draped through a fence like in this photo and a second person to help the horse discover what is needed for him to do to not hit the end of that rope.

Teach him it’s ok to be alone for a bit of time before you tie. Teach him he doesn’t need to be alarmed at outside stimulus before you tie. And set him up for success by giving him good experiences a little at a time til he can tie patiently and calmly if something scary happens around him or he becomes frustrated.

Don’t leave you horse unsupervised when teaching him to tie. Injuries and panic are not good ways to build confidence and understanding. A bad experience can last a long time.

Don’t forget that tying is the result of understanding. You don’t start out with tying, you start out with teaching the little pieces that go into tying.

Learning Through our Filters

When it comes to horses, I’ve been an avid learner all my life. Looking for ways to improve my riding, handling and care of horses has been part of my life for my entire professional career, short as it may be. But one thing that I’ve noticed as I participate in clinics, seminars, and the like is the urge to use new information to justify what we already do. It’s fascinating how each person interprets the same data as we filter it through our knowledge base and experience – but the urge to justify how we already do things when faced with contradictory information is so human, so normal, and so hard to not indulge in.

We’re all on this planet learning and growing together. It’s really hard to change our habits; to see ourselves clearly, and incredibly hard to admit we’ve been down a path that doesn’t work for the horse. I promise it won’t kill you to admit you have more to learn, and that the way you know might not be the best. Anyone who thinks less of you for admitting this doesn’t belong in your circle anyway. Your horses will benefit from this admission, and you’ll be in good company- myself and every teacher I admire is right there with you- constantly re evaluating our work and swallowing the bitter pill of personal responsibility for our growth.

Trailer Loading as a Personal Reflection

Trailer loading has been fascinating to me over the years that I’ve worked with the public, because it’s where people’s emotions seem to come up the most. Trailer loading shows you with crystal clarity what you really have going with your horse, in terms of lead rope work, and your relationship. It also shows what’s really inside of a person. It’s where horses start shoving, panicking, avoiding, or are responsive, willing, and soft. It’s where people get frustrated, push, bribe, force, or wait, direct, and stay calm.

Another fascinating aspect of trailer loading to me is how often people need help, but are unwilling to turn over to someone else completely. Maybe they feel the whole process isn’t happening fast enough, so they might try to help out by bribing the horse with treats, pushing or pulling, while someone else is working with your horse to get in the trailer. Sitting and waiting and watching might feel difficult to do, especially if you’ve just spent some time frustratedly trying to get your horse in the trailer. The thing about trailer loading, though, is that it absolutely does not work if the two people working on loading are not on the same page, and if both aren’t willing to give it the time and space it needs to happen. You can’t set the horse up to wait, but just get in there for one little nudge or push. If emotional control is out of reach in this task, if you can’t watch without interrupting, or getting frustrated, it’s better for you to go inside and have a glass of water, or better yet, a glass of wine. Negative emotions and horses do not mix well.

Sometimes people ask me when there are folks around struggling to load their horse, why I don’t offer to help them. I’m happy to help anyone, but if you have different ideas about how loading should go, what I do will not work. It’s less confusing for the horse if I just let them keep doing what they’re doing, until they’re ready to give something different a shot.

Some Thoughts on Colt Starting

Some thoughts on colt starting for the public-

It’s my job to prepare the young horse for their life with their owner. That means preparing them for seeing all kinds of things and being able to deal with them with confidence. It also means helping them be prepared to deal with some fumbles on the riders part- we talk about preparing the horse for their rider, not for us trainers. That means your horse should be able to tolerate something like a leg dragging on their butt while you mount or dismount, or putting on a saddle somewhat less than perfectly.

But I believe I have a responsibility to the welfare of the horse and clients safety first. Some horses are naturally more tolerant than others. Some always will be on the more sensitive side, and others in time have the potential to be very amateur friendly. But it is not my job nor is it ethical to subject your horse to poor feel, bad hands, or sloppy legs. This is incredibly frustrating and scary for a young horse who is just learning about life with people. If you worry about the steadiness of your hands or legs, or confidence in the saddle at the walk, trot, canter, gallop and a few little acrobatics here and there, a young horse is not for you. There is absolutely no shame in finding the right match for you. Riding is a lot more fun for both horse and rider when you both aren’t soiling your pants.

Why Isn’t the Advice I Sought on the Internet Working?

Why Isn’t the Advice I Sought on the Internet Working?

The internet is a valuable learning tool. We have google and YouTube in our pockets all day long, ready and waiting to answer our questions. Really, we have no excuse not to learn in this day and age. Lots of good horsemen and women are on social media, sharing valuable information for free with the public, eager to help. We want you to succeed, and we want horses everywhere to experience a better life through the education of their owners. Most of us don’t mind taking time out of our hectic days to help answer your questions, but when it comes to advice over the internet, it gets tricky.

So why doesn’t internet advice always end up with the desired effect?

-you may not have described the problem accurately. If you don’t understand the problem and its roots, it’s easy to miss important details. Or you don’t understand the relation of one problem to another. This isn’t a fault of yours, but it makes giving out advice without seeing the issue in person tricky. Why is your horse biting “out of the blue?” I don’t know, because I didn’t see how it was lead into the barn, I didn’t see the 12 treats it was given before it bit, I didn’t see it’s daily routine with you, so I really can’t say.

-you may misinterpret my advice. Without being able to physically show you and make sure you understand, my words have to run through the filter of how I perceive things, through the filter of how you perceive things. Then that has to be processed through your ability, and finally interpreted by your horse. So, like a game of telephone, the chances are high that what I said and what gets done are not the same.

-you could get hurt. This is the last thing any of us want. So if you ask me “how do I get my horse to stop bucking,” but your timing isn’t right or you misinterpreted the reason he bucks, and you take a spill, I would feel absolutely responsible for your injury. I don’t want you to be hurt, I want you to be safe and enjoy riding.

-you could interrupt a training program you already have going with your current trainer. Ask any trainer about this and watch their eyes roll back into their head, never to be seen again. No trainer wants to be working with a client on a program that is working, only to have them say “but YouTube Sensation So-and-So says…” I don’t want to be that person. I’m not there with your horse daily like your trainer is. So it’s best you take their advice first. Also, any good advice won’t work in fragments, so if you try to piece meal different programs together with a program that is incompatible, none of it will work.

-you could cause harm to your horse. This, along with you getting hurt, is about the worst thing I can imagine.

So don’t hesitate to reach out for help; but consider these things when asking for advice. We love to help, but we’re much more helpful in person.

Photo is of Mary Ann Downey and her lovely pony

How to Ride with Confidence

People often ask me how to “de-spook” their horses. They are afraid of their horses energy and physical capability. A horse is a powerful animal, so this fear is rational.

But a horses’ main job, after eating, is to be wary. To look out for danger. This ability has kept him alive and evolving for centuries. In my opinion, it is completely unethical to take the horse out of the horse by systematically dulling them to outside stimulus. Bombproofing clinics, methods and tools are wildly popular because the average rider grapples with fear as part of their ride experience frequently.

That being said, it’s incredible what horses can adjust to. They’ve been into battle, on ships, they pull carts and logging equipment, they work in inner city riots, they go into hospitals and nursing homes, and can handle quite a bit more than we give them credit for.

So how do you get your horse to relax and not spook? First of all, a good seat in IMPERATIVE. Even if you just trail ride, it is absolutely 100% important that you learn to ride well- at the walk, trot and canter. No way around this if you want to ride without relying on fear based control methods.

Get a strong core. See above, no way around this. If you don’t have an interest in this, might I suggest walking or a four wheeler?

Next, learn to communicate and direct your horse. Learn what bothers them, what tension and relaxation feel like under you, learn to read expression, and learn to get ahead of bother and help them come back to you mentally. You can’t just sit up there and hope for the best – you need to direct, watch, be a partner. The amount of people who say they want to be the horses boss or partner, but offer no support or direction is staggering. Direct, support, and help them.

And lastly, expose them to new things. Don’t expect the world around you to cater to your horses’ fear. Not everyone is going to call out “door” before they come into your groomed arena. Surprising things can happen when you ride – life is unpredictable. Give your horse new experiences, small pieces that they can handle, and keep doing it. When their (and your) comfort zone is not expanding, its shrinking.

After all this, ride with confidence, knowing you’ve prepared your horse, know how to sit, and can direct them through trouble if needed.

Developing Feel Means Tossing Assumptions

If you’re looking to develop feel and a really good seat, riding lots of different horses is important. It’s too easy to get complacent riding the same horse over and over, and making assumptions about how they behave and how they handle. It can get hard to strive for excellence – when you assume how much leg they are going to need based on the past, you always ride with that amount of leg, and they never have the chance to get lighter.

But when you ride a more advanced horse, or a greener horse, you can go back to your horse with fresh eyes and ride with feel, not assumptions.

Many of my students, when working with a new horse, express confusion about a particular problem, because their old horse “just did it.” So if you want to develop problem solving skills, excellent communication, and real feel, work with green horses, finished horses, and everything in between.