This page highlights some of the horses I have worked with, the issues they faced and how I helped them find harmony with humans. Reading through these case studies may provide you with ideas if you have a horse with similar issues.
Training Case Study – Jackson
- Handsome, left brained Tennessee Walking Horse gelding, gentle, kind, playful and willing
- Jackson paced rather than gaited. He stumbled frequently and had fallen down with his owner under saddle. He would not stand on a loose rein, dragged his front feet through the dirt when backing up, would dive for grass on the trail, was inclined to run through your reins or legs, and could be difficult to stop at the canter.
Jackson’s owner, Terry, loved Jackson's winning personality but was unhappy with his gait, his lack of agility and how heavy he was under saddle. I checked out his ground work and found Jackson to be sweet tempered but pushy on the ground and inclined to ignore me in favor of exploring his new environment. He was surprised that I expected him to stand quietly on a loose line. Jackson had a long stride and was inclined to walk or gait ahead of me. I taught him to regulate his speed so that we stayed together on a loose line. If he accelerated, I would first lift the hand holding the lead line while I sighed, and if he ignored that, I would lift my stick and block his forward. Within a couple of sessions that was working well so I turned him loose at liberty and asked him to synch in with me. It worked close up, but as I got further away from him, Jackson decided that I did not control his feet. Rather than stop with me, he spurted out into a trot. I asked him to pick up a canter, then after a lap or so, would sigh him down to a trot again. If he could not slow down to a sigh I would ask for a faster gait, then sigh him down again. It took a while, but as we started each session playing the walk, trot, canter game, Jackson became softer and more balanced in his transitions, tuning into my energy and relaxation. This is a critical skill for the horse to learn. Until it is willing to synch up with the human at liberty, you won't be able to have it synch up and flow with your body language on its back.
I next taught Jackson to parallel park next to the rail so that I could mount him. He learned that easily, but I discovered that Jackson believed that a loose rein meant that he should walk off. I want a horse to stand quietly on a loose rein if my seat is quiet. I introduced the concept of fence posts to Jackson. Knowing that he was likely to walk off, I prepared myself so that if he tried to walk off, I could raise one hand in a half halt that blocked his forward motion, having him bounce off the immovable barrier of my hand, then immediately releasing back into a loose rein.
Once he understood that he should not leave without being asked, I started to teach him about neutral and straight. If I asked Jackson to go straight, he was inclined to look left or right and to go wherever he was looking. His "neutral is straight" was non-existent. Again, I used the concept of a fence post. I asked for straight, keeping my hands and legs soft. If Jackson looked left, my left leg swung slightly forward and blocked him from going in that direction as my right hand blocked his nose from turning in that direction. When he bounced off and returned to straight, I went immediately back to neutral. Jackson is a strong boy and I strapped on some spurs and braced my hand against his shoulder or the saddle in order to be effective at getting him to return to neutral. Teaching Jackson to parallel park next to a gate to open or close it would not have been possible without spurs. He insisted that his butt was swinging out, ran into the spur, bounced off, tried to swing out again, ran into the spur again and finally decided that he could leave his body parallel to the gate. We had a similar discussion on him trying to grab grass without permission. I had the reins crossed over his withers so when he tried to dive his head down, he pulled against his own skeleton and gave up. Only after he believed that I would be effective at blocking him could he discover that following my feel was nicer than running into immovable fence posts. We did get there!
Once he understood neutral and straight, he started to notice when my energy increased for an upward transition, my seat and legs opened for a turn, or I sighed him down to a stop with a lifted rein that would turn into a fence post if he ran into it. Over time, he got softer and more responsive to my seat, energy and relaxation shifts.
With basic body language communication working, I started focusing on his balance. Jackson consistently wanted to look away from his direction of travel and lost his balance, falling onto his forehand. It was no wonder that he stumbled so often and had difficulty gaiting under saddle! Teaching him to stay straight in neutral was helping, but I needed to use half halts to help him rebalance his weight. I would massage one rein slightly upward while shifting my own weight slightly back. Mirroring me, he would shift his own weight more onto his hind quarters, regaining his balance. As he got better balanced I took him up to an intermediate speed and discovered that he had a nice lovely gait on the straight or uphill. If he became distracted or anxious or was moving in a circle he would lose his balance and fall out of gait. For the next month I did a million half halts with Jackson. From needing a half halt every other stride, Jackson started to be able to hold his balance for longer periods of time and to maintain longer periods of gait. Becoming more balanced also helped his back up, allowing him to step his front hooves back rather than drag them back through the sand.
With things working well in the arena, I started taking Jackson out on the road and on the trails. In new places and going down hills he became heavier again, but we now had a language to address that. Half halts and fence posts meant something and comforted him. I regularly asked him to gait and canter, slowing to a sigh and stopping to a sigh and a touch of rein. Coming out of the canter he tended to trot so we did lots and lots of transitions with me using a half halt as we transitioned down from the canter and back into gait. He will continue to need half halts to remind him to remain balanced, but with that reminder he no longer stumbles or paces.
Jackson is still a work in process, but he is a super horse. He changes gaits and directions largely off of your energy, focus and seat. He is very curious and brave and tends to stop rather than spook. When he does spook, he regains his mind quickly. I look forward to watching Terry and Jackson as they continue to improve their harmony together. Read more about Jackson's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Jackson out on trail
Terri taking him out on trail
Nadja riding him on trail
Training Case Study – Xan
- Gorgeous left brained Friesian gelding, gentle, kind, playful and brave
- Asked to start him under saddle. Pushy on the ground, afraid of people being above him or getting on his back, weak stifles that gave under the weight of a rider, inclined to run through your reins or legs, easily bored in round pens or arenas.
Xan’s owner, Erin, had raised Xan from birth, saving his life when he was bitten by a rattlesnake. The two had an incredibly strong bond of mutual love and trust. Xan trusted humans, was inclined to be a little pushy and was very self-confident about his environment. He had a definite sense of humor and loved playing with other geldings during turnouts or with people at liberty. I checked out his ground work and found that Xan lightly responded to basic yields, though he bumped into my space when leading him, was sticky on backing up and sticky about following when I trotted off and asked him to follow me.
Xan had some difficulty at first in the round pen believing that I could control his direction and speed at liberty. He tried changing directions and bucking in protest when I blocked them. After that issue was resolved, he quickly synced into my body language and energy for upward transitions from the walk to the trot, wasn’t inclined to pick up the canter, would drop down to the trot easily from the canter, but had trouble doing the downward transition into the walk. Friesians are, after all, trotting horses. I’d sigh and go soft and ask for the walk. He would continue trotting. I’d block him half way ahead and he would try to change directions. I’d block him again and again until he was able to walk in the requested direction. More licking and chewing as he realized that I controlled his direction and gait, even without a lead line. As we started each session playing the walk, trot, canter game, Xan became softer and more balanced in his transitions, tuning into my energy.
When I started to teach Xan to parallel park next to the rail so that I could mount him, I discovered that Xan was seriously afraid of having me or any human above him. No amount of simple repetition seemed to overcome this fear. What finally won the day was bringing out a hay bag of alfalfa and presenting it to Xan when the human slid onto his back. Greed won out over fear and Xan decided he could parallel park to be mounted. Roger decided that Xan should be mounted from the ground and got Xan standing quietly for that as well. I never could get my foot all the way up to his stirrup so I continued to mount from the fence or mounting block.
Once we started getting on Xan’s back, we discovered two new things: first, Xan was round and every saddle was inclined to slip off of him and second, that his stifles were weak and his hips would give out from under you. Erin’s saddle was definitely dangerous on Xan, but we found two saddles of mine that would stay on him, my Rebecca Underwood treeless saddle and one of the heavy western saddles. When the vet came out to check Xan’s stifles he confirmed that they were weak, but advised that was common for young Friesians and that cavaletti and hill work was the best regime to strengthen them. Mitch was right, Xan’s stifles became progressively stronger as we rode Xan 5 days a week although even more credit for strengthening Xan’s stifles may be owed to Prince who played boxing games with Xan during every turnout. By the time he went home with Erin, his stifles were doing fine.
Once again, getting the horse to understand the walk, trot, canter game at liberty paid off when I took my first ride on Xan. He parallel parked to be mounted and was very good at doing walk, whoa transitions off my seat and energy and started doing some nice figure eights following my feel as I changed my focus. What a clever horse. I asked for a walk, trot transition and discovered that Xan has a huge movement in the trot! Glad I had stirrups.
By the next session, Xan was doing some lovely walk, trot, walk transitions – with the upward transitions requiring me to squeeze with my legs, but the downward transitions coming just from relaxation and a sigh. Indeed, the amount of effort required to get Xan to trot was the first sign that Xan found the round pen and arena boring and when Xan becomes bored he deflates into a heavy slug. I started riding Xan with a stick, using it to reinforce that light squeeze of my calf muscles to ask for the trot and to reinforce my focus, seat and legs asking for a direction change. I’d ask for gait and direction changes with my seat and focus, added light leg and reins if he didn’t comply, then raised the stick and tapped with it until he did. Similarly, while he would stop to a sigh if he was inclined, he could almost pull you off his back if he wasn’t inclined. Knowing this, I would throw a loop of his reins over the saddle horn and when he started to pull, let him pull on himself. That worked pretty well on getting him to stop pulling on the reins. Since Erin lives in mountain country, we knew Xan needed to be comfortable out on the trails and started riding him down the road and on as many trail rides as we could. Roger started riding Xan more and quite simply, fell in love with him. Who could blame him?
Xan was very self-confident being ridden out on the trails. He wanted to lead the way from the beginning. When he lost confidence, he would stop, we would sigh and relax, and wait for his breathing to even and for him to lick and chew. Then we would ask him if he would step forward again. By honoring his thresholds and not pushing him, Xan grew in his self-confidence and his trust in us becoming more relaxed exploring new places. We used the natural obstacles on the trail to set him up to ask for directional changes and leg yields, using turns to fall behind and then asking for a transition to a trot to catch up to the other horses. Seeing the purpose to these transitions, Xan responded with lightness and enthusiasm. We found long, straight, uphill sections that were perfect for practicing walk, trot, walk transitions, with his trot becoming softer and Xan learning to lead the way at a trot with confidence. We then started to work on trot, canter, trot transitions. Initially, he would startle himself going into the canter, giving a huge leap forward, but as we did more transitions, he was able to pick up a softer canter and drop back to the trot with a sigh.
Xan is still a work in process, but he is a super horse. He changes gaits and directions largely off of your energy, focus and seat. Because he will still ignore your leg when disinclined to go somewhere, carrying a dressage whip or stick to reinforce your leg is helpful to avoid getting him numb to your leg. While he still has a lot to learn, he is a safe horse. He is very curious and brave and tends to stop rather than spook. He has only spooked a few times. Indeed, one of the nice things about Xan is that he so quickly regains his mind after he loses confidence or is startled. I think he will make a great horse for Erin and I look forward to watching them grow into harmony together.
Read more about Xan's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Xan playing with Prince
Erin riding her Xan
Xan cantering up the road
Xan's first trail ride with Roger
Erin and Xan the magnificent
Roger loved this horse
Understanding Thresholds and Leadership
- Beautiful, little Paso Fino gelding, brave, sweet, cooperative, trusting, and very smooth gaited
- Wouldn’t stand to be mounted, spooked when cows approached him, entered water with a little leap
Smidge is a beautiful 6 year old black Paso Fino gelding. His owner Laurie adored him and loved taking him out on the trail, but had noticed that he was uncomfortable with cows and when one turned to approach Smidge, he had spooked from the cow and Laurie came off hard. Smidge needed to either get braver or Laurie needed to consider whether she should be riding.
As I evaluated Smidge, I found him to be very sweet and cooperative and the smoothest horse I had ever ridden.
Our next door neighbors have 7 goats, 2 llamas and 2 cows that graze next to our pasture and on the hill right above my arena. When I led Smidge into our arena, the llamas and goats came over to the fence, 10 feet above the arena, to watch. When Smidge saw them, he froze. What were the signs that he had hit a threshold? He stopped, his head popped up, his eyes were wide and fixed, his breathing was shallow, all his muscles were tight, everything focused on potential danger, prepared to flee for his life if needed.
But here is the great thing. When Smidge first saw potential danger at 100 feet away, rather than spinning and fleeing a quarter mile, Smidge froze and tried to evaluate that danger. He was thinking, not reacting, a great trait.
Having identified potential danger, while Smidge appreciated my calm assurance that he was OK, he needed time to assess that danger himself. I could have insisted that Smidge walk forward before he had decided the animals weren’t dangerous, and he would have complied. He is that trusting and cooperative. However, I would lose some of his trust in my judgment and my ability to protect him and he would have been on edge, with a hair trigger response if something else startled him. I’ll bet that is exactly what happened the day that Laurie met those cows and had that accident. My job was to convince Smidge that I was as perceptive to danger as he was, that I evaluated it, rather than assumed it was OK, that he could trust my judgment about what was and was not dangerous and that I would never force him to do something that would hurt him.
We hung out until he decided the goats and llamas weren’t going to come over the fence and attack him and he relaxed a bit. He blinked and licked and chewed and I asked him to walk closer to their side of the arena. He stopped a few more times and each time I waited for him to say it was OK to proceed and we made it to the end of the arena, looking up at our goat and llama audience.
I called our neighbors, and got their permission to bring Smidge over to meet their animals. We walked next door and, at eye level this time, Smidge got to meet the animals. We took maybe 15 minutes with the goats and llamas, allowing Smidge to decide when he was ready to step closer, but he ended up at the fence line touching noses with a couple of the goats. The llamas stayed back out of range. We moved on to the cow pasture. Smidge was more worried about the cows (after all one had caused his beloved Laurie to be injured). It took longer before he could lick and chew and he might only be able to take a few steps before he would hit the next fear threshold. No problem, I was teaching Smidge that I wouldn’t force him past a threshold and that he got to set the time line, not me. It wasn’t all that long before he was standing at the fence line with the cows some 20 feet away. Good enough for one session. We came back to the neighbors several times over the next month, finally being able to ride into the pasture and get the cows to move away from us at a walk. We had a program. We went together and when he stopped to check something out, we both considered it, I waited until he licked and chewed and then asked him to go on again.
On a smaller scale than cows, Smidge was worried about entering water. While he would go into water, he would freeze before it and tended to enter the water with a little leap, a clear indication of unconfidence. Leaping into or over water can be dangerous and I wanted Smidge to think his way into water. I led Smidge into our pond and splashed around in the water, hanging out until Smidge relaxed, took a drink and splashed himself. I made crossing our pond into part of our daily routine until Smidge was completely at ease with it. I then took Smidge to the Denman Preserve on a trail ride where there were some 5 places you could ride your horse into Little Butte Creek and Smidge and I walked into every one of them, even splashing in the last. Great!
Laurie came out for some lessons on her adored Smidge. I started by teaching her to use her body language to talk to Smidge. People want to know what cues I teach the horse. I tell them horses mirror people – our relaxation, our tension, our focus, our energy, the straightness or turns in our body. It all boils down to asking the horse to do in its body what we are doing in our body. It is such a simple concept but it requires that we are responsible for what we do. We have to be clear, consistent, relaxed, balanced and confident. We have to have a plan so whenever the horse asks a question we have an answer that takes into account his physical, mental and emotional state. In short, we have to be a good leader.
We started with what does it feel like to bring up energy and focus, to not leave your horse behind but to leave with him? What does a balanced halt feel like – in our bodies and how is that mirrored in your horse’s body? How does the horse mirror us when we go straight or we bend our body into a turn? Smidge gave clear feedback as to what our body language did or didn’t mean to him. Laurie was having Smidge stick to her at liberty, walking, gaiting, stopping, backing up and turning to Laurie’s body language. Smidge had always liked being with Laurie but this was a level of connection she hadn’t had with him before.
Next up was having Laurie get down on her hands and knees so I could show her what a rider felt like when Laurie was the horse. Suddenly, she understood why this isn’t a question of teaching a horse cues for desired movements. Body language is universal. She didn’t need to be told what a cue meant. She flowed with me instinctively. I then had her stand up and hold the reins in her hands as the horse while I demonstrated a directing rein, suspension rein and why allowing a horse to run into a fence post is far more effective than allowing them to run through a rein.
Smidge had not been good about standing to be mounted because doing so hadn’t been something he had chosen. I showed her that she simply had to ask Smidge to “park” for her to mount, sending him off if he didn’t land parallel or if he moved, then re-inviting him to park again until he chose to stand square and still for her to mount. Parking was now his and he owned it.
Laurie mounted up and experienced riding Smidge using this type of body language. While it will take practice to become second nature, I could see Laurie light up with how Smidge flowed with her when she became relaxed and softly clear in her requests. Poetry in motion; addictive harmony.
I next taught Laurie how to deal with confidence thresholds. The key for Smidge is to allow him to pause and think about something that worries him. Just relax, wait for him to lick and chew and then to ask him to try again. We demonstrated the technique with our pasture gate that always swings into the horse when the horse is pushing it closed and the muddy entry to our pond. The rules are simple. We ask the horse to face his fears, stay where he can until he relaxes, only ask for another try when the horse CAN say YES, reward that slightest try with relaxation. Repeat. Build his confidence that you are there to help him overcome his fears, not make him do something he is afraid of.
I love this little horse and I love the relationship that Smidge has with Laurie. It made me so happy to know that if I was going to lose Smidge back to his Mom, he was going home to someone who would truly be his partner.
Read more about Smidge's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Learning body language
Smidge going into the pond
Smidge facing cows bravely!
Robert Miller on Top Ten Things to Know About Horses.
An article worth reading if you want to understand horses.
The Equine Mind: Top 10 Things to Know
by: Erica Larson, News Editor
March 24 2012, Article # 19734 thehorse.com
"Why does he do that?" "What is she so scared of … there's nothing there!" Most—if not all—horse owners have been there and asked those questions. Even though we don't always understand equine behavior, there's got to be a reason behind it, right? Absolutely. Horses' behaviors date back to equine evolution, and horse owners greatly benefit from an understanding what goes on in a horse's brain, according to one veterinarian. At the 2012 Western Veterinary Conference, held Feb. 19-23 in Las Vegas, Nev., Robert Miller, DVM, a former equine practitioner from Thousand Oaks, Calif., relayed the top 10 things horse owners, caretakers, and riders should understand about how the equine mind functions.
"There are 10 genetically predetermined behavioral qualities unique to the horse that have been established by natural selection over the 50 million-year period during which the horse evolved," Miller began. "Failure to understand these qualities makes it impossible to have optimum communication with horses."
Flight—"We tend to attribute the flightiness of a horse as stupidity," Miller said, but when horses spook and run from things, it's simply their innate instincts kicking in. He explained that unlike the majority of prey animals that depend on horns, tusks, or antlers for defense, the only mechanism horses are armed with—their "life-saving" behavior—is the ability to run. The following nine qualities, Miller said, stem from the horse's flight response.
Perception—"The horse is the most perceptive of all domestic animals," Miller said, adding that this quality allowed for the quick detection and escape from predators in the wild. He gave examples using the five senses:
Smell—Miller said horses have an "excellent" sense of smell.
Hearing—"The horse's range of hearing is far beyond that of a human ear," he said. Additionally, he noted, the ears swivel, giving the horse the ability to pinpoint where sounds originate. This was critical for survival in the wild.
Touch—"A horse's sense of touch is extremely delicate," Miller said, which is why an ill-placed saddle pad or a single fly can cause extreme irritation. "The sense we have in our fingertips is what the horse has all over his body."
Taste—Ever tried to sneak Bute or a new supplement into a horse's feed, only to have him turn up his nose? Horses have a very tactful sense of taste. When grazing in the wild, it's important for horses to differentiate between good grass and moldy forage.
Sight—The sense that varies most from ours is the horse's eyesight. While horses' depth perception isn't particularly strong, other factors enable them to "see things we're not even aware of," Miller said. The horse's laterally placed eyes allow for nearly 360° vision, a crucial survival mechanism for the wild equid. Additionally, Miller noted the horse has superb night vision and sees in muted, pastel colors during the day. The equine focusing system is also different from humans, he said. When a human eye transitions from focusing on close-up objects to far away objects, it takes one and a half to two seconds to adjust (Miller encouraged attendees to try it—look at something close up and then look at something far away, and try to focus on how long it takes the eyes to focus). Horses, on the other hand, make the transition seamlessly. This is because different parts of the eye have different focusing capabilities. Horses use the top portion of their eyes to see up close, which is why they often lower their heads when investigating something. The lower portion of the eye sees far away, which is why the animal will raise his head when looking at something in the distance; when the horse holds his head up high, he's considered to be in the flight position.
Reaction Time—Miller said horses might have the fastest reaction time of any domestic animal, which likely results from evolving with flight as their main defense mechanism. To illustrate the concept, Miller showed video clips of Portuguese bull fighting and cutting horses working cattle, in which attendees could clearly visualize that although the bovines made the first move, the horse always countered and arrived at the destination first. While a fast reaction time is quite useful for escaping predators, it can also be dangerous for humans working around horses. "It's important that we, who make our living with horses, expect their reaction time," Miller stressed. "If (a horse) really wants to strike or kick you, you can't get out of the way fast enough."
Desensitization—Although it's equine nature to be flighty and sometimes timid, Miller said that horses appear to be desensitized faster than any other domestic animal. "If an animal depends on flight to stay alive, and if they couldn't rapidly desensitize to things that aren't really frightening or dangerous, they'd never stop running," he explained. As long as the horse learns the frightening stimulus doesn't actually hurt them, the majority will become desensitized, he said.
Learning—Miller believes "the horse is the fastest learner of all domestic animals—including children. If you stay alive by running away, you better learn fast."
Memory—The horse's memory is infallible, Miller said. One of the best memories in the animal kingdom, he noted, horses are second only to the elephant in this department.
Dominance—Equine dominance is not based on brute strength, Miller explained, which is why humans can become dominant figures in a horse's mind. He related an example of a horse herd in which an older mare is typically the boss. While these mares generally aren't in poor physical condition, they're certainly not the strongest herd member physically.
Movement Control—What horses do look for in a dominant figure is movement control. Matriarch mares, for instance, assert their dominance by either forcing or inhibiting movement, Miller said, which allows a human to step in as a dominant figure. Miller suggested a quick way for a veterinarian to assert dominance over a horse for safer examinations and treatments: Before treatment, walk the horse in a few small circles. This forces movement and asserts dominance.
Body Language—Unlike humans, who can express their feelings through words, horses rely on body language, Miller said. "If we are to be competent horse handlers we must be able to understand and mimic the body language of the horse," he explained.
Precocial Birth—Horses are born in a precocial state, meaning that shortly after birth they possess the ability to move, eat, flee, and follow, and all of their senses and neurologic functions are mature, Miller said. What does this mean for a human? Aside from providing enjoyment in watching a young foal gallop and buck excitedly around a pasture, it tells us that the horse's critical learning period takes place shortly after parturition. Thus, Miller recommends socializing and imprinting foals in the very early stages of life.
Of course, every horse is different and should be treated as an individual. That said, having a basic understanding of why a horse functions the way he does provides equestrians with the knowledge needed to forge a strong relationship with the animal and also stay safe when working around him.
- Adorable 4 year old chestnut quarter horse mare, innately intelligent and brave and full of play.
- Pushy and in your space on the ground, inclined to move around when cleaning hooves, saddling or mounting, tossed head when bridling, and would pull on the reins or run through your leg if she wanted to go elsewhere. Maya’s trot was very rough and while she would pick up a trot or canter easily under saddle, slowing her back to the walk wasn’t pretty.
- Goal? Have improved ground manners and get her started under saddle.
My first impression of Maya was that she was adorable; the second was that she was pushy, shoving you with her shoulder and having a difficult time standing still on a loose rein. Rather than trying to hold Maya still, I sent her to the left, disengaged her hind quarters, moved her shoulders over, then sent her to the right, disengaged the hind quarters, continuing until she realized that all that movement was getting her absolutely no where and she asked to stop and stand on a loose rein. I reward horses with treats for learning new skills and Maya was grabby about taking the treats. Rather than slapping Maya for nipping, I treated each attempted nip as an invitation to play with the inside of her mouth, rubbing her gums, tongue, bottom of mouth, etc. until Maya dropped her head in submission. I then offered her my hand and asked if she would like to nip me again. She turned her head away and licked and chewed. This was not how I was supposed to play the “nuzzle – nuzzle – nip” game. A few iterations of Aunt Jackie’s version of this game convinced Maya that she didn’t want to nip me.
Although Maya was right brained when she first arrived at the ranch, she clearly was a smart and brave little horse, picking up on Parelli’s seven games easily. Next I taught her the “stick to me” and “walk – trot – canter” games in the round pen at liberty. Maya picked up on my energy shifts between the trot and the canter and back down to the trot fairly quickly, but had a hard time dropping down from the trot to the walk off my energy. It took close to a week before she would consistently change gait from a walk to a trot to a canter to a trot to a walk off of my energy and follow me around at liberty, walking or trotting, stopping and backing when I did. Once she figured these games out, she tended to follow me no matter what I was doing, even when I was cleaning manure or working with other horses.
The two on line ground issues she had difficulty with were parallel parking for me to mount and learning not to barge her shoulder into me. To teach her to “park please”, I stood next to the rail and sent her out staring at her rear end. Initially, she would land at a 45 degree angle to the fence, I'd wait a moment, stare some more at her rear end, pick up my stick and string and start to twirl it at her inside hind. The first few times I did that, she reacted by trying to run me over. I phase 4'd her and backed her off and asked again. Eventually, she realized she could move her rear end sideways without running me over. I would back her off, send her out in the other direction and again stare at that inside hind. She started landing closer to the fence and out of my space. After she understood the concept from the ground, I moved up onto the fence or mounting block and taught her to position herself next to me to mount when I asked her to “park please.”
Ramming me with her shoulder was another habit we had to break. I made a deal with Maya. She did not have to do something she was afraid of (like going through the car wash or into the pond initially), but she was not allowed to slam into me with her shoulder. I would give her plenty of room to squeeze between me and the thing that frightened her, but if she tried to ram me with her shoulder she would run into the carrot stick instead and we would keep asking her to squeeze past the frightening object until she could walk quietly past it, staying out of my space. As she began to trust that I wouldn’t force her past her limits, she was able to stop at her thresholds rather than trying to take me out.
Doing this work paid big dividends in our communication and respect when I started to ride her. I saddled her and did some parallel parking and then mounted. She was unconfident about being ridden in a strange place, but I kept my deal with her. If she froze, I simply sighed and waited for her to lick and chew before asking her to walk forward again. She kept her part of the bargain too and rarely tried to pull on the reins or run through my leg. When she did, I brought down the carrot stick in a circle towards her head and she yielded to it after the first couple of taps. That first day we never went above a walk but she started to learn to walk, whoa, back up and turn off my body language and energy and most importantly, she started to trust me.
As Maya gained in confidence, fear was replaced by druthers and “why should I?” discussions. For the next couple of weeks, I rode Maya in a halter and lead line with the carrot stick and I was very consistent. I’d ask for gait and direction changes with my seat and focus, added light leg and reins if she didn’t comply, then raised the stick and tapped with it until she did. She soon concluded that she preferred to respond to seat and focus or light leg and rein rather than have me raise that darn stick. To keep Maya’s mind engaged, we mixed up her lessons, doing patterns in the arena, playing in the trail course, riding the pasture, across the pond or down the road either by herself or playing leap frog with another horse. Lots of variety kept her interested and she was settling down and acting like a grown-up horse.
In many ways, Maya was an A+ student, smart, playful, brave and eager to please. The biggest challenge she posed was her trot. Maya was unbalanced and carried too much weight on her forehand, which resulted in a jack hammer trot. The solution was to teach Maya to carry herself with better posture with more of her weight on her hind quarters. I asked Maya to think about shifting her weight back – for every downward transition and every back up and every leg yield. When I rode her, I kept my weight back and got a balanced, forward walk, then would ask for her to trot in balance and for as many strides as she could manage. I would take her back down to the walk when I felt she was starting to fall on her forehand, slow her to a balanced forward walk, take her back up to the trot. We did lots and lots of transitions with the focus on maintaining her balance and relaxation. The jack hammer trot was replaced by a pogo stick trot as long as we kept her relaxed. To my delight, I started to see her moving at liberty carrying her weight further back and getting some lovely extended trots. With work and maturity, she would find a suspended trot.
By this time Maya was responding fairly well to my energy and focus shifts for gait and directional changes so I felt she was ready to be re-introduced to her snaffle bit. Maya willingly dropped her head to pressure, but when I presented the snaffle bit, she clamped her teeth closed and tossed her head. I waited patiently, rubbing the inside of her mouth with my thumb until she reached for and accepted the bit. Bridling came more easily when I asked her to “bridle please.” During the next few days, we had a flashback to early days with Maya pulling on the snaffle bit and I went back to riding her with the carrot stick. She settled down again and started to give to the bit, rather than pulling on it, even offering me a soft feel for a few strides at a time.
The other side of the harmony equation was Sierra. Sierra started her lessons on Mystic and was thrilled at being able to ride a horse that accelerated when she increased her energy and would slow or stop to a sigh and was smooth as silk. Sierra has a superb seat, fluid and slower gait, but she didn’t believe it would work with Maya. I had Sierra hang her reins on the saddle horn and ride Maya’s canter in our 60 foot round pen with relaxation until she felt Maya actually blow out and relax, flick an ear back at her and then asked Sierra to sigh Maya back into a trot. The first time it took a couple of laps of cantering around the round pen before the two could relax, the second time a half lap of the round pen and soon Maya was slowing within 12 feet of Sierra asking her to with seat and relaxation. Trot – canter – trot transitions without pulling on reins worked! We moved to the arena and the greater space was initially too much – off to the races they went. Back to the round pen to re-establish trust and confidence, then back to the arena and the barrel and cloverleaf patterns - first trotting the straight lines, slowing to a walk when circling the barrels or making the sharp turns. Those patterns are great for building speed and brakes into your horse because horses like to accelerate on straight lines and like to slow down for sharp turns so when the human’s body language suggests those things, the horse is happy to comply and thinks you are a good leader. When Maya was slowing from the trot to the walk without pulling on the reins, we moved it up to cantering the long straight lines and slowing to the trot for the turns. Bingo. It worked! 200 feet to build up speed at the canter, yet she would still slow to the trot upon a sigh.
With that question settled in the arena, Sierra started riding Maya down the road. The first issue was what should Sierra do if Maya gets spooked or unconfident about something (deer, barking dog, strange ATV)? Maya is a pretty brave mare so her typical instinct is to freeze and examine the strange object until she figures out whether it is a horse eating monster. I pointed out to Sierra that when Maya’s ears and eyes are fixed on something, she isn’t blinking, her jaw is tight and her breathing becomes shallow, Maya is screaming unconfidence. A good leader checks out what is worrying the horse, relaxes and reassures her that she is OK, without trying to force the mare to go forward when she is in that state. When Maya blinked, licked and chewed, then Sierra could ask her to go on and Maya could comply. We tested this same approach by having Sierra ride Maya through our pond – keeping Maya facing the pond, staying relaxed and letting Maya choose to enter the mud and then walk through the belly deep water on a loose rein. The second question in Sierra’s mind was whether Maya’s brakes would still work when Maya was out on the road or being ridden home. The answer was the same as it had been in the arena. If Sierra could stay relaxed and trust that Maya would slow to her relaxation, then Maya would do so. If Sierra got tight or unconfident, then so did Maya. The more transitions these two do together in harmony, the stronger their faith and trust in each other will become.
Maya’s stay with us was over and she went home to Sierra. Maya is still a work in process, but she has come a long way. She changes gaits and directions mostly off of your seat and has largely given up on biting, pushing into you or pulling on reins and running through your legs. While she still has a lot to learn, she is a safe horse. She is brave and balanced. After Maya understood the basics well, I had Sierra start taking her lessons with Maya. The slow work went fine, but Sierra and Maya lost confidence in each other at the trot and canter, resulting in Sierra reverting to holding on with her legs and pulling on the reins, while Maya ran through the reins. From riding Mystic and Tori, Sierra knew how to relax a horse into a her spooks tend to be short. I think Sierra will do fine with her and I look forward to watching them grow into harmony together.
Sierra has a terrific seat
Riding Maya through the pond
Riding her down the road on a loose rein
- Gorgeous left brained Bay warmblood gelding, well trained on Parelli ground work
- Asked to start him under saddle. Quick to learn and very self-confident, agile and light when cooperative, heavy and unresponsive when bored or confused and not one to tolerate drilling or boring repetitive exercises.
Sky’s owner, Sally, had raised Sky from birth, imprinting him and doing extensive Parelli ground work with him before asking me to start him under saddle at the age of 5. Like many imprinted foals, Sky trusted humans and was inclined to be a little pushy, using the human as a good scratching post for his itchy head. Sky had been given free range of Sally’s 200 acre heavily wooded hillside property and was very self-confident about his environment. I checked out his ground work and found that Sally had done a great job with him. Sky lightly responded to basic yields, though he was sticky on backing up during the yo-yo game, sticky about following when I trotted off and asked him to follow me and ripped the lead line out of my hand the first two times I asked him to canter on line in the arena. My increased body energy asking for the canter didn’t mean anything to him and raising the stick and string had him saying “I’m out of here.” The third time I was able to catch him before he jerked the rope to leave, but it was clear that picking up the canter on request scared him. While I typically have horses boarded at my place while I start them, Sally asked that I give Sky his lessons once a week at her place so she could participate in all of his schooling. I asked Sally to set up a round pen for me to teach Sky the walk, trot, canter, trot, walk game at liberty where he could work out his upward and downward transitions without having a lead line to pull on.
Sky had some difficulty at first in the round pen believing that I could control his direction and speed at liberty. He did a fair amount of trying to change directions and bucking in protest when I blocked them. After that issue was resolved, he quickly synced into my body language and energy for upward transitions from the walk to the trot, lost his balance and scared himself going into the canter, would drop down to the trot fairly easily from the canter, but had trouble doing the downward transition into the walk. I’d sigh and go soft and ask for the walk. He would continue trotting. I’d block him half way ahead and he would try to change directions. I’d block him again and again until he was able to walk in the requested direction. More licking and chewing as he realized that I controlled his direction and gait, even without a lead line. As we started each session playing the walk, trot, canter game, Sky became softer and more balanced in his transitions, tuning into my energy without becoming scared by it. I also taught him to parallel park next to the rail so that I could mount him. Sky had no fear of having me above him and picked up parallel parking very easily. Climb a fence, call him and he will come over to parallel park for you to mount.
Once again, getting the horse to understand the walk, trot, canter game at liberty paid off when I took my first ride on Sky. He parallel parked to be mounted and was very good at doing walk, whoa transitions off my seat and energy and started doing some nice figure eights following my feel as I changed my focus. What a clever horse. Sally helped him understand my body language for backing up by reinforcing my request with a shaken lead line on the ground. I asked for a walk, trot transition and discovered that Sky was quick and has a huge movement in the trot, one that I could better sit with stirrups instead of the bareback pad!
By the next session, Sky was doing some lovely walk, trot, walk transitions – with the upward transitions requiring me to squeeze with my legs, but the downward transitions coming just from relaxation and a sigh. Indeed, the amount of effort required to get Sky to trot was the first sign that Sky found the round pen and arena boring and when Sky becomes bored he deflates into a heavy slug. I started riding Sky with a dressage whip, using it to reinforce that light squeeze of my calf muscles to ask for the trot and to reinforce my focus, seat and legs asking for a direction change. I’d ask for gait and direction changes with my seat and focus, added light leg and reins if he didn’t comply, then raised the dressage whip and tapped with it until he did. Sky also loved treats so I began rewarding lightness and responsiveness with carrot coins. Still, by the end of our second session, I knew we had to get Sky out of the arena and I suggested that we take Sky’s lessons out onto the trails around Sally’s place.
Sky was very self-confident being ridden out on the trails. He wanted to lead the way from the beginning. When he lost confidence, he would stop, I would sigh and relax, rub him gently and wait for his breathing to even and for him to lick and chew. Then I would ask him if he would step forward again. By honoring his thresholds and not pushing him, Sky grew in his self-confidence and his trust in me becoming more relaxed exploring new places. I used the natural obstacles on the trail to set him up to ask for directional changes and leg yields, using turns to fall behind and then asking for a transition to a trot to catch up to Sally and her horse. Seeing the purpose to these transitions, Sky responded with lightness and enthusiasm. We found long, straight, up hill sections that were perfect for practicing walk, trot, walk transitions off my seat, with his trot becoming softer and Sky learning to lead the way at a trot with confidence. We then started to work on trot, canter, trot transitions. Initially, he would startle himself going into the canter, giving a huge leap forward, but as we did more transitions, he was able to pick up a softer canter and drop back to the trot with a sigh. Sally and I took Sky and another horse on a long trail ride with a lot of other horses in a strange place. He was quite right brained when he first got out of the trailer, but within a short time, settled down to his normal brave and curious temperament and finished the trail ride looking like an experienced trail horse.
I was very pleased with Sky’s performance on trails, but mind you, he could still sull up fairly quickly if I asked for him to yield without an obstacle in the way that needed to be avoided. It was time to start teaching Sky that sometimes life can be boring and you still need to do the job. As part of his weekly lesson, I took Sky back into the arena and started him on the Parelli patterns, asking him for upward and downward transitions, leg yields, circles, halts and back ups. The arena will never be his favorite thing, but Sky started to respond more positively in the arena.
Sky is still a work in process, but he really has come a long way. He changes gaits and directions largely off of your energy, focus and seat. Because he will still ignore your leg when disinclined to go somewhere, carrying a dressage whip to reinforce your leg is necessary to avoid getting him numb to your leg. While he still has a lot to learn, he is a safe horse. He is very curious and brave and tends to stop rather than spook. He has only spooked a few times. He has only bucked once when asked to slow from a canter when other horses were cantering past him. He also bolted once for about three strides. Indeed, one of the nice things about Sky is that he so quickly regains his mind after he loses confidence or is startled. I think he will make a great horse for Sally and I look forward to watching them grow into harmony together.
Sally and Sky
Sky on the trail
So good for his mom
- Adorable 3 year old Palomino Haflinger mare, familiar with Parelli ground work
- Very sociable, but pushy and mouthy, and could be argumentative and balky when she didn’t want to go and would pull on the reins or run through your leg if she wanted to go elsewhere.
Namaste’s owner, Grace, had raised Namaste from birth and done extensive Parelli ground work with her and she had sent her away for 120 days to be started under saddle by a local trainer. That trainer had noted that Namaste could be a handful. Grace had asked me to help her with some of the issues she was still encountering with Namaste.
When I first met Namaste, my first impression was that she was adorable, my second impression was that she was pushy, literally shoving you with her itchy head and shoulder and very mouthy. Rather than slapping Namaste for nipping, I treated each attempted nip as an invitation to play with the inside of her mouth, rubbing her gums, tongue, bottom of mouth, etc. until Namaste dropped her head in submission. I then offered her my hand and asked if she would like to nip me again. She turned her head away and licked and chewed. This was not how I was supposed to play the “nuzzle – nuzzle – nip” game. A few iterations of Aunt Jackie’s version of this game convinced Namaste that she didn’t want to nip me.
Grace mounted Namaste (who did not stand still to be mounted) and her request that Namaste walk forward was met with a balk and an immediate right hand turn running through Grace’s leg and reins. I volunteered to try her out and had a similar initial response, except that when she balked, I swatted her on her butt and she added bucking to her repertoire. I lost my visor, but not my seat and we tried again. Rather than letting Namaste pull on the reins, I used the dressage whip to block her attempted turn and asked her to go forward. We played the follow the rail pattern a couple of times, stopping and backing up (with brace), changing gaits and circling some barrels. While it was not a long enough session to see a huge change in Namaste, her forward improved and she seemed more interested and cooperative. Grace decided to send Namaste to us to see what we could accomplish in a month of consistent work.
When Namaste first arrived at the ranch, she was extremely right brained. I played some falling leaf with her to help her find her brain and then I asked her to do the seven games on line. Grace had done her homework with Namaste and Namaste understood these yields. Next I started to teach her the walk – trot – canter game in the round pen at liberty. Namaste picked up on my energy shifts between the trot and the canter down to the trot fairly quickly, but had a very hard time dropping down from the trot to the walk off my energy. It took close to a week before she would consistently change gait from a walk to a trot to a canter to a trot to a walk off of my energy and follow me around at liberty, walking or trotting, stopping and backing when I did.
The two on line ground issues she had difficulty with were parallel parking for me to mount and learning not to barge that shoulder of hers into me. To teach her to parallel park, I stood next to the rail and sent her out staring at her rear end. Initially, she would land at a 45 degree angle to the fence, I'd wait a moment, stare some more at her rear end, pick up my stick and string and start to twirl it at her inside hind. The first few times I did that, she reacted by trying to run me over. I phase 4'd her and backed her off and asked again. Eventually, she realized she could move her rear end sideways without running me over. I would back her off, send her out in the other direction and again stare at that inside hind. She started landing closer to the fence and out of my space. After she understood the concept from the ground, I moved up onto the fence and taught her to position herself next to me to mount.
Ramming me with her shoulder was another habit we had to break. I made a deal with Namaste. She did not have to do something she was afraid of (like going through the car wash or into the pond initially), but she was not allowed to slam into me with her shoulder. I would give her plenty of room to squeeze between me and the thing that frightened her, but if she tried to ram me with her shoulder she would run into the carrot stick instead and we would keep asking her to squeeze past the frightening object until she could walk quietly past it, staying out of my space. As she began to trust that I wouldn’t force her past her limits, she was able to stop at her thresholds rather than trying to take me out.
Doing this work paid big dividends in our communication and respect when I started to ride her. I saddled her and did some parallel parking and then mounted. She was unconfident about being ridden in a strange place, but I kept my deal with her. If she froze, I simply sighed and waited for her to lick and chew before asking her to walk forward again. She kept her part of the bargain too and rarely tried to pull on the reins or run through my leg. When she did, I brought down the carrot stick in a circle towards her head and she yielded to it after the first couple of taps. That first day we never went above a walk but she started to learn to walk, whoa, back up and turn off my body language and energy and most importantly, she started to trust me.
As Namaste gained in confidence, fear was replaced by druthers and “why should I?” discussions. For the next couple of weeks, I rode Namaste in a halter and lead line with the carrot stick and I was very consistent. I’d ask for gait and direction changes with my seat and focus, added light leg and reins if she didn’t comply, then raised the stick and tapped with it until she did. By the end of two weeks, she pretty much concluded that she preferred to respond to seat and focus or light leg and rein rather than have me raise that darn stick. Namaste also loved treats so I began rewarding lightness and responsiveness in her halts and back ups with carrot coins. To keep Namaste’s mind engaged, we mixed up her lessons, doing patterns in the arena, playing in the trail course, riding the pasture or down the road either by herself or playing leap frog with another horse, trotting through the pond, and trailering her to the Denman Preserve for a trail ride. Riding up the hill on our private road proved the perfect place to work on Namaste’s canter transitions and for teaching her to leg yield in criss-crosses across the road. Lots of variety kept her interested and she was settling down and acting like a grown-up horse.
By the last week Namaste was with us, she was responding fairly well to my energy and focus shifts for gait and directional changes so I felt she was ready to be re-introduced to her snaffle bit. Namaste willingly dropped her head to pressure, but when I presented the snaffle bit, she clamped her teeth closed. I waited patiently, rubbing the inside of her mouth with my thumb until she reached for and accepted the bit. During the next two days, we had a flashback to early days with Namaste pulling on the snaffle bit and I went back to riding her with the carrot stick. She settled down again then and started to learn to give to the bit, rather than pulling on it, even offering me a soft feel for a few strides at a time.
Too soon, Namaste’s month was over and she went home to Grace. Namaste is still a work in process, but she really has come a long way. She changes gaits and directions mostly off of your seat and has largely given up on biting, pushing into you or pulling on reins and running through your legs. It will probably be a good idea to carry a dressage whip to block her when necessary. While she still has a lot to learn, she is a safe horse. She is brave and her spooks tend to be short. I think Grace will do fine with her and I look forward to watching them grow into harmony together.
Riding Namaste in the halter
Riding her through the pond
Teaching her to give to the bit
- Gentle right brained introvert rocky mountain horse mare
- Was unconfident when asked to ride on her own, suffered from separation anxiety when taken from Fancy, worried about obstacles and trotted rather than gaited.
Lily’s Story: Lily is a beautiful little chocolate colored rocky mountain mare. She is a mild right brained introvert, a little uncertain of herself, herd bound to Fancy, a Palomino pony and looking for kind, relaxed and consistent leadership.
I started Lily on the ground, teaching her to yield her front quarters and hind quarters, back to light pressure, go sideways, squeeze between me and the fence and to circle. She responded very well to these exercises. When I turned her loose at liberty in the round pen and played the walk – trot – canter game with her, she very quickly learned to accelerate and slow down off of my energy and was happy to follow me when I invited her in. This was a mare that wanted a leader.
Once the groundwork was established, I started to teach Lily to sync into my energy and body language with me on her back and riding with a loose rein. Lily was such a sensitive mare that she very quickly learned to accelerate and slow down to my energy shifts and I quickly started riding her out of the round pen, through our trail course and pasture and down the road. To begin with I had to pick up a rein to slow her down from the faster gaits, but as time went on, I only needed to pick up a rein if another horse was passing her or she really wanted to head home.
Lily’s timid nature showed up when approaching new obstacles or when encountering blowing tarps, llamas or barking dogs down the road. Like Tango, Lily needed me to slow down when asking her to do things that she was uncertain about, like crossing the pond and the teeter-totter. I would ask her for just one step and wait until she took the step and relaxed, wait some more and ask for just one step. With that slow approach, Lily was willing and able to master all the obstacles on the ranch.
The only real discussions I had with Lily came when we rode her out with Fancy, a Palomino pony. During pasture turnouts the two mares were inseparable and if we started out riding the two horses and asked one to go ahead of the other, both mares became stressed by the separation, whinnying and pulling on the reins, trying to get back to the other horse. To address this issue, we played leap frog with the two mares, starting out together, having one trot ahead while the other continued walking, and then having the horse behind trot past the horse in front. At the beginning, these were short jumps that grew over time as the mares realized that separations were always followed by rejoining their buddy. They became less worried about their herd buddy and more focused on their job.
Although Lily is a Rocky Mountain horse and is supposed to be a gaited horse, she trotted rather than gaited, both at liberty in the pasture and when she was ridden. I didn’t worry about her trotting until after she understood she was to sync into my energy, accelerating and slowing down when my energy did and staying at the same speed when my body went into “active neutral” - moving with her. First, she had to learn to mirror me – to harmonize with my body and energy. Horses find peace in that harmony. I taught her that by mirroring her trot. Trotting is an up and down two beat gait. Gaiting is a side to side four beat gait. So, when she trotted, I trotted in my body. Once she understood mirroring, I asked her for a gait, but when she started to trot, I kept my hips moving in the four beat lateral motion of the gait, while vibrating the rein in one hand and my ankle on the same side. After being ridden in harmony, that just felt WRONG to Lily and she tried out different gaits to get back in harmony. Unfortunately, none of the gaits she tried was a smooth four beat gait. At length, I reluctantly concluded that if this mare has a four beat gait, it was beyond my ability to tease it out of her. Luckily, Tracy loves this pretty little mare, even if she is a trotting horse.
Read more about Lily's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Riding Lily down the road
Taking her through the pond
Kinsey riding Lily
- Friendly pony inclined to take over after years of being ridden by children
- She would pull on the reins and run through your leg, balk if she didn’t want to go or refuse to go faster or slower when asked.
Fancy’s Story: Fancy is a cute little Palomino pony mare, used to being handled by children and used to getting her own way. When Fancy first arrived, I had to convince her that humans could be good leaders.
We started out having some discussions about leading, with Fancy trying to lead me in the direction she desired. I lead horses on a loose rein, about 3 feet of rope. I had Fancy slightly behind me and when she started to pass me, I would turn, raising the line with one warning finger in the air to catch her attention. If she stopped, I would wait an instant to make sure she was waiting for me, face forward again and continue walking. If she ignored the warning finger and tried to pass me I would shake the rope to drive her backwards a few steps, relax, wait an instant to make sure that she was waiting on me, then turn and continue walking. In relatively short order, Fancy would walk when I walked, stop when I stopped and back up when I started to back up like a perfect lady.
Like Crumpet before her, Fancy had a hard time believing that I should be in control of her feet when I took the halter and lead line off in the round pen. As soon as I took the halter off of her, she left me, trotting to the side of the round pen to look around. Since she chose to leave me, I used a whip to cause her to canter around the round pen. At first she tried to ignore me, changing directions and gait. I blocked her change of directions and put more pressure on her when she tried to stop or slow down. As she realized that I was controlling her direction and speed, she started to focus her ears and eye on me, then her head started to dip down in a bob, and I released the pressure, stepped back and invited her in. She came to me and I spent several minutes standing with her, rubbing her, scratching her itchy spots, asking for her hooves. Then I walked away, calling her name, and she hesitated, and then followed me, walking when I walked, stopping when I stopped and backing up when I backed up. She was beginning to accept me as her leader, even without the halter and lead line.
I next started riding Fancy though I’ll confess I felt sorry for the little girl carrying me around. She didn’t seem to mind my weight but she didn’t see why she should go when I asked her to move. Rather than kicking her to go, I would bring up my energy, tilt slightly forward, squeeze my legs and give a kiss to ask her to move. Nothing would happen. I followed up by raising my hand and spanking her butt smartly. She started and, at the third or fourth spank, she would take a step forward. I relaxed completely and praised her. Within a short time Fancy realized that if she moved forward when I brought my energy up and kissed, I never raised my hand and spanked her butt and she decided to give up the balkiness game unless something really was bothering her.
Steering was also a problem with Fancy, who tried to ignore focus, body language and light rein or leg requests for direction changes. Rather than pulling on the reins or kicking her side, I started riding her with a carrot stick. I would change my focus for a direction change, followed by changing my seat and then my reins and legs all pointing in the desired direction. When Fancy ignored my focus, body language and the reins pointing in the new direction, I would bring the carrot stick down off my shoulder about 3 feet away from her head and make a circle towards her head with the stick. The first few times, Fancy was so busy going in the opposite direction from the one I had asked her to take that she ran right into the carrot stick. She was used to ignoring people pulling on her reins. She was not used to running into a stick. She tried a few evasions, ducking her head down or up to see if she could avoid the stick and still go in the direction she wanted. The darn stick was still there. The only way to avoid it was by going in the requested direction. I rode Fancy with a carrot stick for almost a month because periodically she would test my leadership by trying to head back home early – just to make sure I was paying attention.
Riley and Kinsey, the 7 year old twins, have continued their riding lessons on Fancy. They do a good job on getting Fancy to go faster and slower off their seats, but had more trouble with getting her to go where they wanted. To improve their steering, we have played the “follow the rail” and “point to point” patterns with them, first in the arena and then out in the pasture. Fancy loves getting paid in carrot coins for following the girls’ focus and feel from tree to tree. Once Fancy will go from tree to tree without quarreling, we will ask her to go across the pond to the tree on the other side to earn her carrot coin. Since Fancy isn’t thrilled about walking through the chest deep water of the pond, it requires strong focus and leadership skills for one of the twins to get her to walk through the pond. It has become the litmus test of whether they have the skills it takes to take Fancy for a ride down the road by themselves. If the challenge of getting Fancy into the pond is too great on a given day, we still go for a long ride down the road, practicing our walk – trot – walk transitions, but I have a safety line on Fancy. Riley in particular has fallen in love with long, long, trots on her Fancy girl.
Read more about Fancy's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Riley riding Fancy down the road
Riley riding Fancy in the pond
- Lovely black left brained introverted rocky mountain horse, here to have her ground and riding manners tuned up and helped with her gaiting.
- Very smart, didn’t pick up hind feet well, invaded my space on the ground, balky or would run through your leg when she didn’t want to go forward, trailer loading issue, cranky about being saddled due to a sore back.
Reba is a beautiful five year old Black Rocky Mountain Horse that her owner asked us to tune up and help her learn to stay in gait rather than trot. Robin had already done extensive Clinton Anderson ground work with her and my initial impression of Reba was that she was self-confident, affectionate, brave and generally well trained.
Reba liked people, but she had picked up a few bad habits. She was inclined to barge into your space, and pull or lean on the lead line. I did some walk – whoa lessons with Reba on a loose rein about 4 feet behind me. I would ask her to walk and if she started to reduce the distance between us, I would swing around with the hand holding the lead line coming up in a warning to keep her distance. If she didn’t stop to my warning finger I drive her back with body language supported by the shaken lead line. We repeated that process until she would lead staying in the position that I asked of her, stopping when I stopped and backing when I backed up. I balanced out corrections with lots of praise and scratching when she got something right.
I was delighted when I asked Reba to run through her ground exercises in the round pen. She was very comfortable with the friendly game, and would lightly yield to both steady pressure and rhythmic pulsing pressure. She was also light and respectful at the circling game, squeeze game and going sideways. Backing her up and having her stand and then re-approach on request (the yo-yo game) was a bit resistant but it tuned up easily. When I sent her out at liberty to play the walk – trot – canter game, asking her to accelerate and slow down to my energy and body language, she picked it up very quickly and happily followed me around when I invited her to do so. What a delightful mare!
I brought out the saddle and was startled by Reba’s immediate reaction. She swished her tail and lifted up a hind leg as though to kick, with her ears pinned and a snake face. This was completely out of character from working with her without the saddle and I immediately suspected that the saddle didn’t fit her and was causing her pain. I placed the saddle on her back and checked out the fit. The saddle did fit her. I was puzzled, but thought her reaction could have been due to a poorly fitting saddle in her past. Reba didn’t want to stand to be mounted and again pinned her ears back. I played the parallel parking game with her, sending her out to the left and then to the right until she found peace standing parallel to me next to the mounting block, with me scratching her. I then mounted and sat, mounted and sat until she stood quietly for the process. I asked her to give me lateral flexion, then started to ask her to change gaits off of my energy and seat. She understood and responded to my body language, with a quiet demeanor. Leg yielding to the right and opening the gate off her back were sticky, but that wouldn’t be hard to correct. When I dismounted from Reba, she again pinned her ears back and I was convinced that she had back pain. I removed her saddle and lightly ran a fingernail along her back and indeed, she flinched in several spots. I called Robin and suggested that she get Reba checked out with Dr. Ferguson, our vet and chiropractor. The next day, I rode her in my bareback pad and Reba was far less unhappy while being cinched, mounted and dismounted. The day after, Robin took her to Dr. Ferguson who adjusted her back and asked that we not ride Reba for the next 2 weeks.
During her recuperation period we played on the ground, reinforcing that she needed to stay out of my space unless invited in, follow my lead, rather than trying to lead me, doing the circling game at liberty over caveletti, playing the other games and practicing her trailer loading. I also worked on her parallel parking herself next to the fence or mounting block, with me cuddling and scratching her in that position. I asked her to walk into the pond and took her over the obstacles in the trail course. She was happy and cooperative and went over all the obstacles during her first session, with the exception of the car wash, which required a few sessions before she became confident. Reba was a very smart and self-confident horse.
Once the vet allowed us to ride again, I rode Reba in the round pen, our arena, the pasture and trail course and down the road. She responded very well to requested gait changes from my seat and energy except when she had a ‘druther’ of her own. When I rode her away from the ranch, she would lose her forward and was inclined to try to change direction or run through my leg. Using phases (ask with focus, energy and body language – suggest by picking up my rein – promise by spanking her butt smartly with it) Reba learned to keep her forward going before we got to the spank. To avoid having her run through my leg I would ask her to go straight with focus and body language – suggested by tightening my calf muscle on the side she was pushing on and promise by bouncing my heel on that side until she came off the pressure. Then I would relax completely back into an active neutral, moving with her body. Reba began to believe I would keep my promises and responded when I “asked” or “suggested.” Although Robin had some difficulty with Reba trotting rather than gaiting, Reba picked up a lovely smooth gait for me and stayed in gait until my energy asked her to slow. I was going to have to work with Robin on asking Reba to gait properly.
Reba has been a pleasure to work with and Robin is lucky to have such a lovely, affectionate, smooth and responsive mare as her partner.
Reba loves to splash in the pond
Reba is a great trail horse
- Gentle right brained introvert rocky mountain horse gelding, who tended to be a little nervous and lacking in confidence
- Couldn’t stand on a loose rein to be mounted, was unconfident when asked to ride on his own, generally trotted rather than gaited and reared when asked to pony another horse.
Tango’s Story: Tango is a beautiful gentle rocky mountain gelding that came to us underweight and lacking in confidence. He is a typical right brained introvert, a little uncertain of himself, easily intimidated by being pushed too fast too hard and looking for kind, relaxed and consistent leadership.
I started Tango on the ground, teaching him to yield his front quarters and hind quarters, back to light pressure, go sideways, squeeze between me and the fence and to circle. He responded very well to these exercises, though he tended to leap through the squeezes at first until he learned to trust me. When I turned him loose at liberty in the round pen and played the walk – trot – canter game with him, he very quickly learned to accelerate and slow down off of my energy and was happy to follow me when I invited him in. This was a gelding that wanted a leader.
When I first went to mount Tango from the mounting block on a loose rein, he stepped away. I repositioned him and asked to mount him again. He moved again and I repositioned him again and spent some time just cuddling his head. After a couple of minutes, Tango took the couple of steps to get into position, sighed and stood quietly while I put a foot in the stirrup, went halfway up and came down again. Since he stood quietly on a loose rein, I mounted. Once mounted, he wanted to start walking, so I sighed, picked up a rein, backed him a couple of steps, dropped the rein and sighed again. We stood there with me scratching him for a couple of minutes and then I asked him to walk off. He was a little uncertain and I asked for lateral flexion. He turned in a small circle – two or three times to the left and about the same to the right – before he was able to stop his feet and relax the tension out of his neck. This became part of my pre-flight checklist for Tango. Was he mentally and emotionally prepared to let me mount without holding his reins tight and could he give me his head to the left and right without moving his feet?
I then asked Tango to walk forwards on a loose rein. Tango was such a sensitive boy that he very quickly learned to accelerate and slow down to my energy shifts and I quickly started riding him out of the round pen, through our trail course and pasture and down the road. To begin with I had to pick up a rein to slow him down from the faster gaits, but as time went on, I only needed to pick up a rein if another horse was passing him or he really wanted to head home. Although he had been unconfident being ridden by his owner alone, I found Tango to be generally brave and willing to go forward. He is a very nice horse.
Although Tango is a gaited horse, he generally trotted when he first arrived. I didn’t worry about his trotting until after he understood he was to sync into my energy, accelerating and slowing down when my energy did and staying at the same speed when my body went into “active neutral” - moving with him. First, he had to learn to mirror me – to harmonize with my body and energy. Horses find peace in that harmony. I taught him that by mirroring his gait, whatever it was. Trotting is an up and down two beat gait. Gaiting is a side to side four beat gait. So, if he trotted, I trotted in my body. If he gaited, I gaited in my body. Once he understood mirroring, I asked him to gait, but when he started to trot, I kept my hips moving in the four beat lateral motion of the gait, while vibrating the rein in one hand and my ankle on the same side. After being ridden in harmony, that just felt WRONG to Tango and he tried out different gaits to get back in harmony. The instant he took up the gait, I went back to mirroring his movement and stopped vibrating my rein and leg. He was so used to trotting that he dropped out of gait again after a few strides, but I maintained my seat movement and went back to vibrating rein and leg. Again he found his gait. Within a short time, Tango could pick up and stay in gait without being corrected more than a few times during a ride.
About two weeks into his schooling, I thought Tango was solid enough that I was going to use him to pony a mare. I had the mare’s owner pass me her lead line once I was mounted on Tango. The mare reached over to nip Tango and I flipped the lead line at her nose to defend him from the nip. He reared up close to vertical. I tossed the mare’s lead line back to her owner and rode Tango up to the round pen, where he reared twice more and then down to the arena, where he reared a fourth time. I dismounted and did a half hour’s ground work with him and he settled and I mounted and he was back to normal.
I wasn’t sure what caused the rearing. He may never have been asked to pony a horse, he might have thought I was aiming the lead line at him, not the mare, he might have been claustrophobic – but ultimately, I concluded that Tango needed new things introduced slowly giving him time to think them through. A couple of days later I ponied the mare off of Tango, but this time I had her owner walk along side of us for a couple of hundred feet or so before passing me the line. Tango accepted the responsibility of being the pony horse like a champ, allowing me to defend him from the mare’s nips and moving her around in a haunch turn. This insight into Tango’s character caused me to slow down when asking him to do things that he was uncertain about - crossing the pond and the teeter-totter or letting me punch in the code to open our electric gate. I would ask him for just one step and wait until he took the step and relaxed, wait some more and ask for just one step. Give him time and this boy will give you the world.
Tango’s owner, Tracy, was delighted to be able to ride Tango on a loose rein and have him stay in gait. Unlike her mare, Lily, Tango was more relaxed and comfortable with going at whatever gait Tracy wanted so she didn’t have to be as careful about remaining relaxed when she rode Tango.
Read more about Tango's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Tracy and Tango
Taking him through the pond
- Majestic left brained introvert Bay Percheron QH mare, well trained on Parelli ground work
- Here to be started under saddle. Quick to learn and supremely self-confident, agile and light when cooperative, weighing every one of her 2000 pounds when bored or confused and not one to tolerate drilling or boring repetitive exercises.
Baby’s owner, Sheral, had done extensive Parelli ground work with her before sending Baby to us, and asked me to start her under saddle. The first time I got on Baby, I thought I had done the splits and my first effort to get her to walk forward with me on her resulted in a buck – a clear “why should I?” Baby understood yielding to pressure on the ground. She just didn’t see why she should do so when someone was on her back. She needed motivation – reasons she accepted for doing something and leadership she respected.
With this mare, it was critical that I gain her respect and willingness to follow me at liberty at a walk before I went on to the next stage of asking her to change gaits at liberty to my body language.
I had never met a horse that could put me on ignore the way Baby did. While I typically start horses in the round pen, I started out scratching Baby’s itchy spots in her large paddock to build rapport. I then took a step away and invited her to follow me. She put me back on ignore. I then played the “catch me” game with Baby. I brought up my life, stared at her butt hard, got ignored, started to stalk her from behind like a mountain lion. She ignored me and when I got into range, I spanked that butt with the string. She jumped forward with a "what the heck?" snort and trotted away, glancing at me but then going back to ignoring me. We did it again. By the third time she trotted around the paddock a couple of times while I walked in relaxed mode in the center. She finally stopped and looked at me and I turned and walked away, while inviting her to join me. She didn’t accept my invitation, but she stared at me. Progress! At least I was worthy of looking at! We did that a couple more times and she cantered half a lap a couple of times. Finally, when I was slowly stalking her rear end and just before I got into strike zone, she turned her butt two steps away from me with her head coming that much closer to facing me. Since I was quite close, I went in and loved on her. By the end of that first session I actually got her to take 2 or 3 steps toward me as I started to stalk her rear end. Talk about a short horse! She wouldn’t follow me at liberty but she would if I had my hand on her fly mask.
On the second day Baby had obviously been chewing over the prior day's interaction. I scratched her a bit then I walked away and called her and she ignored me. I stalked her butt and tagged her. She cantered around the paddock and when I looked at her rear end, she turned to face me and came 2 steps toward me. I accepted that and went over to rub her. I left again, asking her to follow me and she took a step then stopped. I went around and stalked her butt and just before I was going to tag her, she turned to face me. I called her name and she took a step toward me and I went and scratched her. Two more tries and she started to come more towards me and finally she followed me when I left. At first, she only followed for a few steps, but by the end of the session we did two full figure eights around her paddock, having her bend towards me and yielding away from me.
I now had some rapport and respect in the paddock so I turned Baby out in our 12 acre pasture and let her graze for an hour. When it came time to bring her in, Baby decided she didn’t want to be caught and trotted off with a "bet you can't catch me" swagger of her butt. I returned to the stalking game. I approached, she trotted off. Five minutes later, she was starting to glance back at me as I patiently followed her at a walk, stopping and turning away each time she looked at me. If you saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid you will remember those scenes in which the Pinkerton posse keeps chasing Butch and Sundance even though they keep thinking they have escaped and one of them keeps asking the other, "Who are these guys?" That was the look on Baby's face. No escape. At the end of a half hour of having her wander the pasture, she stopped, turned and faced me and took a step toward me. I praised her and went up and loved on her. I threw my string over her neck and led her back to her paddock. She had more to chew on.
The next day I took her up to the round pen and checked out Baby’s ground work. She was brilliant. Sheral had done a great job with her on it. She did all her yields softly. The two ground issues she did have were picking up her feet for me consistently and learning not to barge that shoulder of hers into me and we resolved those issues quickly. She picked up my walk, trot, canter, trot, walk game very quickly, synching into my body language and energy for upward transitions, but had trouble doing the downward transition into the walk. I’d sigh and go soft and ask for the walk. She would continue trotting. I’d block her half way ahead and she would change directions. I’d block her again and again until she was able to walk in the requested direction. More licking and chewing as she realized that I controlled her direction and gait, even without a lead line.
Doing this liberty work paid big dividends as I got on her for the first time. I saddled her and did some parallel parking and then mounted. She was an angel. None of that balkiness that she showed the first time I test rode her. She walked forward with enthusiasm and her "whoa" was tops. We did some figure eights 80/20 off my seat and reins, disengaged the hindquarters, yielded shoulders a little and even took a couple of steps sideways. The biggest problem (pardon the pun) was that she was perfectly round, with no withers so the saddle slipped to whichever side you weighted the stirrups. I’d be riding this horse in her bareback pad. Much safer. All in all though, I was inclined to think that Baby girl would be pretty easy to bring along.
And indeed, during that first couple of rides when Baby felt she was learning something new, she was smart, light and agile. We added walk, trot, walk transitions off my seat and she proved to have a lovely soft trot. I then discovered that while Baby is smart and learns quickly, she just as quickly becomes bored and inclined to think that no one tells the 2000 pound girl what to do. Her favorite tactics? Pulling on the reins hard enough to almost pull you off her back or walking through your leg or just not moving. She was right in one respect. I had no intention of pulling on her.
So far earlier than typical I started riding Baby with a carrot stick. I’d ask for gait and direction changes with my seat and focus, added light leg and reins if she didn’t comply, then raised the stick and tapped with it until she did. We had an interesting session or two until she concluded that she preferred to respond to seat and focus or light leg and rein rather than have me raise that darn stick. Baby also loved treats so I began rewarding lightness and responsiveness with carrot coins. She appreciated that and I was getting compliance, but not always that lovely lightness that I had when she was mentally engaged. Baby hated the round pen.
So, I started riding Baby in the arena to do turns, leg yields and gait changes around barrels and through the cones. She was a tad more enthusiastic because she could see the point of turning but would sull up fairly quickly once she figured out what I was asking of her. To keep her mind engaged, I introduced her to our trail course first on the ground and then riding her. Most horses are worried the first time they are introduced to obstacles. Baby was not particularly concerned though the car wash gave her some pause the first time she saw it. I rode her through the trail course, in the pasture, and down the road. That variety appealed to Baby and she gave me more energy and enthusiasm, but boredom would still arise and she could go from light and agile to heavy and sullen in a heartbeat.
The real breakthrough in understanding Baby came from a Tennessee Walking Horse mare named April who became Baby’s best friend and boss. April was supremely bossy with Baby. She made a point of requiring Baby to wait to drink or approach hay piles, enforcing her views with squeals and strikes and only after Baby yielded to her leadership would she groom Baby and graze nose to nose with her. Baby responded to this bossiness with lightness, respect, curiosity and adoration, following April’s lead. How interesting. Baby preferred bossy and particular to quietly reasonable and passively persistent.
Unfortunately, Baby pulled up lame about this time and had to go home for a month to get sound. When she came back, I applied what her equine friend, April, had taught me, becoming more particular and bossy, using the carrot stick with faster phases to gain her respect. Baby responded by getting softer and more respectful. Two weeks later, Baby pulled up lame again and had to go home for the winter to recover.
Baby returned this Spring to take up where we had left off last fall. We did a short refresher course to make sure that the basics were still in place and I started her in her snaffle bit. Baby would willingly drop her head to pressure, but when I presented the snaffle bit, she would toss her head up. I’d remove the bit and ask her to drop her head again. After 5 minutes of this, Baby left her head down and accepted the bit. Sheral explained to me that she used the cue “clam down” and always paid Baby with a treat when she accepted the bit. Baby’s head toss was a protest that I was violating the rules. I adopted “clam down” and a cookie under the snaffle bit and Baby became a delight to bridle. Sheral will have to wean her off of getting treats every time she is bridled.
The snaffle bit really highlighted what works and doesn’t with Baby. Where she is in harmony with you, the slack never comes completely out of the reins so we do lateral flexion, haunch turns, disengagements of the hind quarters and upward and downward transitions of gaits off of seat, focus and feel. Lovely. When she isn’t in harmony with you (whether because she has a different idea or is confused), she goes back to pulling on the reins and gaps her mouth. Baby is crystal clear about where she still needs work. I switched to using a dressage whip to reinforce leg cues and to block her pulling on the reins and she responded well to that.
I also started to work with Baby in the canter. I typically canter horses in the round pen until I have good upward and downward transitions off of my seat. That didn’t work for Baby. Whether the 60 foot round pen was too small for her stride or too boring, getting a canter out of Baby in the round pen left me more exhausted than her. Given that she did better outside the round pen, I took her down our quiet country lane and asked for canter departures going up hill on the way home. Bingo….. lovely canter departures with a touch and back to the trot with a sigh without ever having to pick up the reins.
Too soon, Baby’s month was over and she went home to Sheral. Baby is still a work in process, but she really has come a long way. She changes gaits and directions largely off of your seat. Because she still likes the idea of using her weight and strength to pull the reins or run through your leg when disinclined to go somewhere, carrying a dressage whip to block that direction is necessary to avoid getting into a fight with her. While she still has a lot to learn, she is a safe horse. She is brave and her spooks tend to be about 4-6 inches when they happen, which is rarely. She has never bucked since that first ride or used that enormous strength of hers to bolt with me. Indeed, downward transitions off my seat always work. I think Sheral will do fine with her and I look forward to watching them grow into harmony together.
Read more about Baby's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Baby's second ride
Going through the car wash
Picking up a canter
Sheral starting to ride her
Baby loves Sheral
Sheral and Baby, doing fine
- Very smart, self confident pony inclined to take over
- She wouldn’t always pick up her feet, would try to drag you on the lead line, would balk if she didn’t want to go or would refuse to go faster or slower when asked.
Crumpet’s Story: Crumpet is a lovely dapple gray Welsh pony mare – a bit pushy, but apart from that, well trained, and a great first mount for children. She is brave, tolerant, has nice gaits, and a lovely temperament. When Crumpet first arrived, I had to convince her that humans could be good leaders and that didn't take long with me being polite but persistent.
For example, Crumpet didn’t want to lift her hooves when asked. I would lean over, stroking her legs and settle one hand behind her knee and apply a light pressure while make a kissing sound. Nothing would happen. I would pinch lightly. Nothing would happen. Leaving my hand on the back of her knee, I would lightly tap the back of her leg with my hoof pick until she picked up her hoof. I immediately stopped the tapping and rubbed the leg before gently depositing the hoof on the ground again. I would repeat the process until Crumpet would hand me her hoof when I leaned over, touched her leg and kissed.
We had some discussions about me leading her. Crumpet was inclined to think she should lead me since she had decided views about heading toward spring grass. I lead horses on a loose rein, about 3 feet of rope. I had Crumpet slightly behind me and when she started to pass me, I would turn, raising the line with one warning finger in the air to catch her attention. If she stopped, I would wait an instant to make sure she was waiting for me, face forward again and continue walking. If she ignored the warning finger and tried to pass me I would shake the rope to drive her backwards a few steps, relax, wait an instant to make sure that she was waiting on me, then turn and continue walking. In relatively short order, Crumpet would walk when I walked, stop when I stopped and back up when I started to back up like a perfect lady.
Crumpet had a harder time believing that I should be in control of her feet when I took the halter and lead line off in the round pen. As soon as I took the halter off of her, she left me, trotting to the side of the round pen to look around. Since she chose to leave me, I used a whip to cause her to canter around the round pen. At first she tried to ignore me, changing directions and gait. I blocked her change of directions and put more pressure on her when she tried to stop or slow down. As she realized that I was controlling her direction and speed, she started to focus her ears and eye on me, then her head started to dip down in a bob, and I released the pressure, stepped back and invited her in. She came to me and I spent several minutes standing with her, rubbing her, scratching her itchy spots, asking for her hooves. Then I walked away, calling her name, and she hesitated, and then followed me, walking when I walked, stopping when I stopped and backing up when I backed up. She was beginning to accept me as her leader, even without the halter and lead line.
I next started riding Crumpet though I’ll confess I felt sorry for the little girl carrying me around. She didn’t seem to mind my weight and generally she was very responsive. Two or three times each session though Crumpet would lock up her legs and decide she was not going to move forward. I would bring up my energy, tilt slightly forward, squeeze my legs and give a kiss to ask her to move and nothing would happen. I followed up by raising my hand and spanking her butt smartly. She started and, at the second spank, she took a step forward. I relaxed completely and praised her. Within a short time Crumpet realized that if she moved forward when I brought my energy up and kissed, I never raised my hand and spanked her butt and she decided to give up the balkiness game unless something really was bothering her. The other issues with Crumpet were easily resolved and she is a delight to ride though she still tends to want to test your leadership a few times on each ride – just to make sure you are paying attention.
Rowan, Riley and Kinsey’s Story: Rowan is nine and Riley and Kinsey are twin 6 year olds. Kinsey had fallen off of Crumpet and broken her arm and was understandably reluctant to do too much with Crumpet at first. Rowan and Riley adored Crumpet but found her dominance frustrating. That frustration either led them to quit because “Crumpet won’t do this” or to use force or energy in the wrong way to get Crumpet to respond the way they wanted.
I started with Rowan and Riley and had them do some simulations on the ground where one played the human and the other the horse so they could try out different “feels” of touch and pressure with the lead line on each other and better understand what felt good or scary to Crumpet. They learned to always start by asking very softly and politely, with clear direction. Only if Crumpet didn’t respond did they support that direction with their lead line, stick and string, or legs in a clear and predictable escalation. Crumpet responded to them as she did with me and her ground manners were much better for them.
On the riding front, I had both girls start riding bareback on a long line so they could focus on developing their balance and an independent seat. They rode Crumpet as a passenger until they moved in rhythm with her and stayed balanced when I had Crumpet do quick, sharp turns. Then I had them start bringing their energy up and kissing to ask Crumpet to go from a halt to a walk and inhaling, sighing and sitting back slightly to ask her to stop. When necessary, Rowan would spank Crumpet’s butt smartly if she didn’t go forward. In short order the girls were able to have Crumpet go from a halt to a walk to a trot to a canter to a trot to a walk to a halt off of their seats.
I also made sure that the girls were comfortable doing an emergency dismount, jumping off of Crumpet and landing on the balls of their feet with their knees slightly bent, first with Crumpet standing still, then with Crumpet walking and lastly when Crumpet was trotting. To help their confidence and balance, I had them learn how to stand up on Crumpet, swing their legs around backwards and slide down her butt. As their confidence grew and they talked about the fun they were having, Kinsey decided she wanted to take riding lessons as well and she caught up to them during her first lesson. I took the girls around our trail course, leading them over obstacles so they could focus on maintaining their balance and looking past the obstacle. While they are at the beginning of their horsemanship journey, the progress they made was amazing and the expressions on their faces tell their own story.
Read more about Crumpet's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Going over the teeter totter
- Gentle quarter horse who couldn't relax on a loose rein
- Couldn’t stand on a loose rein to be mounted, or give you lateral flexion without moving her feet, became braced and tight whenever she was ridden and didn’t understand slowing down to your seat changes.
Lacy is a lovely buckskin used by her first owner for barrel racing. She is a very sweet mare, has nice ground manners, lovely smooth gaits and is fairly well trained, but she was never taught to relax and stay in gait on a loose rein. For Lacy, a loose rein meant go faster.
I started Lacy on the ground, teaching her to yield her front quarters and hind quarters, back to light pressure, go sideways, squeeze between me and the fence and to circle. She responded very well to these exercises, though she tended to be reactive to finger pressure asking her to yield her hind quarters. When turned loose at liberty in the round pen she left me and I caused her to canter. She quickly realized that I was directing her feet and when I took the pressure off of her she came to me. I rested with her scratching her shedding winter coat and, when I walked away, calling her name, she followed me. This was a mare that wanted a leader.
When I first went to mount Lacy from the mounting block on a loose rein, she stepped away. I repositioned her and asked to mount her again. She moved again and I repositioned her again. After about five minutes of this, Lacy came into position, sighed and stood quietly while I put a foot in the stirrup, went halfway up and came down again. She stood quietly on a loose rein, so I mounted. Once I was on her back I felt her start to tighten. I sighed a couple of times and she relaxed a bit. I asked for lateral flexion and she turned in a small circle – two or three times to the left and about five minutes to the right – before she was able to stop her feet and relax the tension out of her neck. This became part of my pre-flight checklist for Lacy. Was she mentally and emotionally prepared to let me mount without holding her reins tight and could she give me her head to the left and right without moving her feet?
I then asked Lacy to walk forwards on a loose rein. Every time she started to trot, I would sigh, relax my body, pick up one rein and gently bend her head until she stopped her feet and relaxed her neck. Then I would release her, stand quietly for a few moments and ask her to walk again. Once she was able to maintain a walk on a loose rein, I started asking her to stop by first inhaling, then sighing and relaxing while I said whoa. If she kept walking, I would first raise one rein to get contact with her, and if she still didn’t stop I would bend her to a halt. Only after she could go from a halt to a walk to a halt off of my seat did I ask her to go from the walk to the trot on the loose rein.
Speed tended to make Lacy tense so at the beginning we did very short periods of trotting before I would ask her to walk again by inhaling, sighing and relaxing my seat. We would stay at the walk on a loose rein until she seemed calm and then I would ask for the trot again, always slowing before she became braced and tight, letting her experience acceleration and speed with a calm mind. Like so many things with horses, it isn't just a question of knowing what you are supposed to do, but teaching the horse and human to believe in their bones that they will be safe if they to do it. As her confidence grew, I rode her down our country lane doing walk - trot transitions on a loose rein. Going away from home, she was able to change gait off my seat, coming home I would need to reinforce my request by lifting a rein until she slowed to the walk. Lacy was learning to relax.
Lacy’s owner Tracy was amazed when she first saw me riding Lacy on a loose rein. Lacy had always been controllable, but seemed to end each session as tight and unhappy as she began it. Tracy never expected to be able to ride Lacy bareback. It was a pleasure to have Lacy trot and canter without becoming braced and then to be able to slow her back down without having to pull on the reins. It is important for Tracy to ask Lacy to slow down before either Lacy or Tracy loses their balance or their confidence. There is no connection as close as that between horse and rider and if either horse or rider loses her balance or confidence, so does her partner. So, like Lacy, Tracy started doing these transitions in the round pen where she gained enough confidence to do them going down the road and in the arena. Several months later she was able to take Lacy on a long trail ride in her halter and tied off lead line on a loose rein and with a relaxed partnership with her mare.
Read more about Lacy's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Tracy riding Lacy in a halter and loose rein
Lacy has learned to walk
She is the sweetest little mare
- Left brained introverted gelding, here to be taught ground manners and started under saddle
- Very smart, easily bored and not inclined to exert himself
Dutch is a beautiful five year old Palomino Quarter Horse who came to us to be taught ground manners and started under saddle. Dutch was Sheryl’s first horse and she wanted him to have a natural horsemanship start. Sheryl had told me that he was difficult to trailer load so I came prepared to spend whatever time it took to gain his respect and load him in my trailer. When I first took his lead line, he tried to ignore me and wander off, but it didn't take many corrections before he was looking at me and licking and chewing and after one squeeze between me and the open trailer, he offered to walk in. This horse was self confident and smart and, while used to being in charge, was willing to accept leadership.
It was clear that Dutch liked people, but he wanted to be in charge and was inclined to mug you for treats, barge into your space, and pull or lean on the lead line. He was also self-confident enough that he would happily ignore a mild correction as being a reasonable price to pay for being in charge. With one sharp correction, his whole attitude changed and he focused on me with respect and paid more attention to small cues. I balanced out corrections with lots of praise and scratching when he got something right.
Our first sessions focused on getting him to come off of pressure, yield to a suggested direction, lead politely, stop when I stopped, back when I backed, circle without pulling on me, face me as I moved around him, and give me his feet. We also played the walk, trot, canter game where I asked him to change gaits to my body language at liberty and I taught him to parallel park himself next to the fence in preparation for mounting later. He picked things up very quickly but once he knew what was expected of him, Dutch became bored and wasn’t inclined to exert himself. To keep his interest, I quickly started doing his ground work in our arena and obstacle course. I had him circling where he had to jump down and up the 18 inch and then 36 inch arena walls, around some cones, between two barrels, and then jumping over the barrels. Coming off the pressure included coming up those little jumps onto the arena, and up some steps to touch a six foot red ball with his nose, jumping over logs, going over the bridge, up and down the stairs and through the car wash. Dutch was one smart and self-confident horse.
Dutch made such quick progress on the ground exercises that I mounted him and started riding him a week after his arrival. We started out in the round pen, where I flexed his neck left and right and we worked on walk, whoa transitions and doing figure eights. We discussed the fact that the "don't pull on me" rule applied when I was on his back as well as when I was on the ground. In short order he was doing figure eights and going from a walk to a halt off of my seat. He had a little difficulty figuring out a back up from my seat, tossing his head when my seat indicated movement, but the reins wouldn’t let him go forward. I changed tacks by asking him for vertical softness with one rein. When he gave it to me, I continued vibrating that hand until he took a step back, and then vibrated the other hand and he took a step back on the other side. Bingo. He understood the connection and started backing off of my body language and seat.
When we started to trot, Dutch once more became bored and unmotivated. I could get him into a trot fairly easily, but he had very little energy and was inclined to peter out if I didn’t keep him going. Having the rider work harder than the horse is not desirable. I would ask for more energy with my own body energy, but if I didn’t get it, I would make “noise” with the ends of the reins and if that didn’t get more energy from him, I gave him a smart spank on the rear end. That got him moving again, but I could tell that working in the round pen bored him. I started riding him out on the road and he became more animated as he was asked to actually go somewhere. With many horses, when they get scared, they go right brained and think about bolting. With Dutch, when something startled him, he would freeze and examine it until he figured out if it was safe. Once he made that determination, he would walk on again. His ability to think things through quietly is a very good trait for a horse with an inexperienced rider. We started him in a snaffle bit and got him giving us vertical flexion and a soft feel. As we rode Dutch more we added the canter, leg yields, haunch turns and disengagements to his repertoire, mixing it up frequently to keep his interest and forestall boredom. By keeping him interested, we got him walking, trotting and cantering freely without it requiring a lot of rider energy or correction.
Dutch came to us as a smart and self-confident green horse, but he leaves with respectful ground manners, a good understanding of his responsibilities to his rider and a better attitude about work. He and Sheryl should have years of wonderful trail riding together.
Read more about Dutch's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Taking Dutch down the road
Time to test his education out!
- Introverted, fearful and unconfident gelding
- Hair trigger reflexes when startled & inclined to explode in a spin and jump
Magic is a beautiful chestnut Peruvian Paso who came to us as a boarder. His owner, John, had taken a bad spill off of him a couple of months earlier in which he had broken some ribs when Magic had spun and spooked. After John’s ribs healed, he went for a ride on his wife’s Peruvian Treasure and I was going to ride Magic to test him out. Magic was docile as I led him out of his stall but when I brought the saddle over to him, the whites of his eyes showed and he sidled as far away from me as he could get. I then started to gently ask him to do some yields backwards and sideways and he scrambled away from that light pressure. I paused and told John and his wife Robin that Magic was too fearful to be safe to ride that day. He needed to trust people not to hurt him and understand that he could yield to pressure rather than jump from it before I would want to ride him.
Robin asked that I work with Magic to make him more confident, in himself and in humans and less reactive to pressure and new stimulus. As I evaluated him, I found his ground manners were good, though he didn’t like having me on his right side. He would also move away rather than let me pick up his rear feet and would pull them away as often as let me hold them. To begin with I started grooming Magic at liberty in his stall while he ate breakfast. He didn’t trust me and started out by moving away from me. I just followed him as he moved and continued grooming him and in a matter of days he learned to stand quietly at liberty, eating his hay and letting me groom him and pick his feet.
Once that base line of trust was established, we started working on his yields on line in the round pen. He quickly yielded to light finger pressure backwards and forwards and with me on his left side. However, even light pressure on his right side asking him to move his shoulders over would cause him to jump backwards. Asking him to go out in a circle or go sideways had him leaping away from me, rather than departing quietly. Putting him between me and the fence also caused him concern.
I sent him out in the round pen at liberty and kept him cantering until his head bobbed and he was focusing on me. I then took off the pressure, stepped away and asked him to join up with me. The best I could achieve was to have him stop and look at me and not leave when I quietly approached him to scratch and rub him. He would not follow me, even with a hand under his cheek. The typical formula just didn’t work with this horse. Indeed, the way I finally achieved join up with Magic was by sitting on a mounting block in the center of the round pen, with my back to him, ignoring him and letting him find me. Only after he bumped me with his nose did I acknowledge his presence and start to rub him. This time when I got up and walked away from him, he did join up and follow me.
I also introduced him to the stick and string by scratching him all over with the stick, which he tolerated. When I started tossing the string over his body, he went introverted. Typically, if you have a horse that is afraid of the string, it will move away from it and if you continue to rhythmically toss the string over its body, it will eventually conclude that the string doesn’t hurt it. It will then stop moving its feet and to reward it, you stop tossing the string over its body. With Magic, he held still because he knew he was supposed to, but his eyes went glassy, his body became very stiff and still and I could feel the tension radiating off of his body. I wasn’t getting relaxation from tossing the string over his body nor was I building trust. On the contrary, if I tossed the string from his right side he would reach the end of his tolerance and simply explode away from me. I concluded that I needed to build a stronger level of trust with this horse before I could play the stick and string game with him.
For the next several weeks I worked with Magic teaching him to lightly yield to pressure instead of explosively reacting to it. Slow, low pressure, rewarding the slightest try, stopping when I got one or two steps with a given exercise, lots of praise and rubs. That was the formula that worked with him. He became light and responsive on his yields and began to trust me enough to join up with me and follow me, walking when I walked, stopping when I stopped, turning with me when I turned, dropping his head to allow me to scratch and cuddle his ears. I could drive him from behind and have him stay in the desired gait rather than trying to escape from me, squeeze him between me and the fence and have him move one step at a time, rather than bolting through the space. Once he knew an exercise, he could relax into it and yield softly.
Teaching Magic to yield to pressure proved easier than teaching him to trust when something new occurred. When I brought back the stick and string his tolerance for it was greater, but he was still visibly tense with it. Similarly, any new stimulus or requested movement triggered that spin and leap before he thought about what it meant. Still, I had made enough progress on the ground that I thought it was time to try riding him.
I taught him to line himself up with the fence or mounting block and with me above him, cuddled his head and neck, leaned against him and put my knee on his back. He finally seemed soft and trusting enough that I slid onto his back. The softness disappeared, he went stiff and within moments he did a 180 degree spin and jump. That horse had fast reflexes. His ground manners were fine, but he was not ready for his owner to ride.
We spent the next few weeks first doing ground work to make sure his mind was calm and yielding, then mounting and doing lots of bends, turns and gait transitions to keep his mind on us. Gradually, I started to see a change in his demeanor. His eyes became softer, his head dropped down, his neck became more supple, he licked and chewed more easily and, when startled, he started to spook in place and think, rather than react explosively. In short, he was starting to become more left brained, confident and trusting. I took advantage of shedding season to use that stick to scratch all his itchy spots, particularly his ears and right side. He finally began to look on the stick and string as friendly, not a threat.
I introduced him to our obstacle course, recognized his thresholds by backing off and asking again and continued to reward his slightest try. Within a short period of time he would go over the obstacles and easily load into the horse trailer. I rode him down the road, past deer, barking dogs, miniature donkeys, garbage cans and traffic and he moved with confidence. He would go from a stand still to a walk to a gait to a canter to a gait to a walk, to a whoa to a back up off my seat on a loose rein. He leg yielded diagonally across the road and did figure eights off my focus and legs. I had him open and shut the round pen and vehicle gates, took him over our obstacle course and he went through the car wash, over the jumps, up and down the stairs, over the bridge and teeter-totter and through the pond. He had finally decided to trust me and, with that trust, he became a much safer and happier horse.
Read more about Magic's owner's experience at Testimonials.
- Gelding with impaired vision in right eye, making him fearful and resistant on that side
- Owner needed better balance, confidence and assertiveness
Blue was a beautiful Black Rocky Mountain Horse who came to us for a month of training when he was sold to Nina, a 50 year old woman who was buying him as her first horse. Because Nina wasn’t an experienced horsewoman, Blue’s owner strongly recommended that Nina take a series of ten lessons from me while Blue went through a month of tune-up training.
When Blue arrived at our ranch I took him into the round pen for an evaluation. His ground manners were excellent and he had a very kind, calm demeanor. His right eye was blue and his vision on that side was badly impaired. His impaired vision made him fearful of unexplained noises or movements on his right side and reluctant to move sideways to the right. He was also quite claustrophobic. Sending him out in the round pen at liberty, he would not key into human body language at a distance and change his gaits in response, nor would he do a join up, even on his left side. Liberty work had not been a part of this horse’s education. I mounted him and he stood quietly and I asked him to walk, then trot, then walk, then whoa and back up off of my seat. He understood those cues, and he required little rein or leg pressure to obtain the desired gait changes. It seemed to me that Blue’s biggest issue was learning to trust me to act as his eyes on the right side and to believe (trust) that I wouldn’t ask him to do something that would hurt him. I told Nina that she would have to step up to the responsibility of becoming Blue’s trusted leader and I recommended that she take her lessons bareback to learn better balance and how to use her body language to communicate more effectively.
Blue’s Story: Liberty work is a great diagnostic tool. It tells you where the horse is mentally and emotionally and what it understands and is willing to do for you. Once the horse understands your body language, being at liberty gives the horse a clear choice. It can be with you with a respectful attitude or it can play the walk, trot, canter game. While it may take several sessions for the horse to decide that it prefers to be with you with a respectful attitude, once the horse chooses to yield to you as its leader you eliminate or reduce a multitude of other problems.
I started Blue out in the round pen, taking off his halter and asking him to give me his hooves at liberty. He did so willingly and then I asked him to follow me at liberty and he stood and looked at me. Since he didn’t stay with me, I sent him out at a canter and once he started focusing on me, asked him to slow to a trot using voice commands and relaxed body language. Upward transitions into faster gaits came more easily than downward transitions at liberty. It took a long time with exaggerated relaxed body language before he would slow down for me. He stopped when asked, but would not come to me, nor once I came up to him and stroked him, would he follow me. Blue was respectful; he just didn't understand what was asked of him.
The next step was to halter him and review the basic yields, come forward, drop your head, move back, move your shoulders, move your hind quarters, and move sideways. Blue clearly knew these yields and he was responding, not reacting to my body language. I then had him play the circling game on line, using the same body language as I had at liberty to ask him to go faster or slow down, but with the lead line connecting us, I could shake the rope to slow him and he started to make the connection between my body language asking for a slow down and that rope being shaken right after that body language. I could see the light come on in his eyes. Again, using the lead line to provide a connection, I asked him to follow me on a loose rein, beginning the process of join up.
Blue was already pretty solid as a riding horse, responding to shifts in my seat asking him to go faster or slower. He could leg yield fairly well to the left (his good eye) but balked at leg yielding to the right. To improve his confidence in me, I rode Blue down our country lane, where he wasn’t going toward a barrier and had a clear path and asked that he criss-cross it in diagonal leg yields. As he recognized the pattern he started to trust me not to run him off the road and the leg yields came easier.
Over the next few weeks Blue and I worked at improving his performance at liberty and on learning to trust me when I asked him to go into small spaces or leg yield close to a fence or gate. At the beginning of our relationship his claustrophobia in doing those things caused him to show fear and resistance. He soon realized that I didn’t get excited by his fear and, once it had run its course, would just quietly ask him to try again and give me one small step toward whatever triggered his outburst. As he realized he could do all that was asked of him and that each give by him brought a release by me, he relaxed and became softer. I have rarely met a horse that tried harder than Blue. I tested out him out by having him leg yield over to the gate, open and shut it from his back, taking him over our obstacle course stairs, bridge, teeter totter, car wash, logs, etc., down the road, past barking dogs and other potentially scary items. He was responsive and calm and ready for his mom to ride.
Nina’s Story: While I was working with Blue I gave Nina her first lessons on my Paso Fino, Mystic. As an initial matter, her balance wasn’t good enough for her to ride bareback with an independent seat, which led to her sometimes tightening her calf muscles or pulling on the reins to catch her balance. One of the nice things about the Paso Fino is that their smooth gaits make it is easy to stay balanced on them and Mystic is tolerant of rider error.
There were four things that would make Nina safer and a better rider with Blue. First she had to find her center and learn to stay balanced on the horse’s back without using her calf muscles except for communication. Second, unexpected movement would startle her so she needed to learn how to relax her body, whatever happened. Third, she needed to learn how to whole heartedly bring her energy levels up to ask the horse to accelerate and how to relax her body completely when asking the horse to slow down. Lastly, she needed to learn to trust herself and her horse. Blue’s issues largely flowed from his impaired vision in his right eye. If he trusted you, he would move towards things he couldn’t see well. Trust is a two way street. Blue couldn’t trust Nina’s judgment if Nina didn’t trust herself and Blue.
Our beginning lessons focused on finding her center, learning to belly breath or audibly sigh to relax her body, and use the muscles between her knees and pelvis for balance, while reserving her calf muscles to communicate with the horse. Only after she started to develop an independent seat could she start working on using her body and energy to communicate gait and direction changes to the horse. We started her off on a lunge line where she didn’t need to concern herself about controlling the horse while she learned balance and bringing her energy up for acceleration and sighing, relaxing her seat and sitting down slightly on her pockets for slowing. Only after that was working, did I give Nina reins and have her start riding on her own.
Since Blue was quite good at responding to my seat for gait changes I quickly started Nina riding Blue during her lessons. Nina soon discovered that Blue would tune in and respond to the same body language that Mystic had and she could get walk, gait, walk, whoa, and back up transitions just using her seat in the round pen. Opening and shutting gates required that Nina learn to stay calm in the face of Blue’s nervousness but she stepped up to that challenge and found she could open and shut gates without causing either of them distress. We moved out to doing walk, gait, walk, whoa, back up transitions down the road. Initially, out on the open road, Nina wasn’t sure that Blue would slow to her seat and doubt became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you believe is what you will get. Saying whoa is not enough. Your body must relax into stillness for the horse to stop. A few moments later, she trusted her horse and he quietly went from a walk to a gait to a walk off of her seat.
Nina has made impressive changes over the last month. She has found her center, and with it her balance. She has come a long way toward learning how to say what she means and mean what she says. When she wants Blue to gait, she brings up her energy without self-doubt and pushes with her pelvis. When she wants him to slow, she sighs, sits on her pockets, relaxes her body and trusts him to slow or stop. These things haven’t become part of her muscle memory yet, but she gets them far more often than not. She is learning how to constructively channel her own frustration and fear out of her body and to be the trusted leader that Blue needs. She obviously loves him and Blue shows his reciprocal love and gratitude every time he yields in the direction of his bad eye. I’m glad that they found each other and look forward to watching their relationship deepen.
Read more about Blue's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Nina riding Blue down the road
Jackie taking Blue out on the road
Nina and Blue trusting each other
- Aggressive behavior with food
- Kicked when asked for hind feet
- Had no respect for humans
Ollie was a beautiful two year old Appendix Quarter Horse who came to us to learn some ground manners. His owners said he was “grumpy at grain time and minimally cooperative with the farrier.” In evaluating Ollie, I found the following: He was aggressive when I came into his stall with food, pinning his ears back and even charging at me or spinning to kick at me to get hay or grain. Similarly, while he would pick up his front feet without difficulty, he tended to kick at me when I asked for his hind feet. Leading was spotty. He might lead or he might try to drag me in the direction he wanted to go and, if startled, would spook over and try to go through me rather than yield to me. In short, Ollie had major respect issues.
I started Ollie out in the round pen at liberty, asking him to walk, trot and then canter, then trot, walk, etc. using voice and body language commands, encouraging him when he didn’t accelerate as requested and blocking him if he used a faster gait than requested. He started out being focused entirely outside the round pen at the other horses, trying to change gaits and direction frequently, but I blocked him each time. After a bit, he started to turn his ears, head and focus onto me and a while later we achieved a minimal join-up. He came in and stood with me for a moment, but then left again. We returned to the walk, trot, canter game until he came and stood with me for a couple of minutes.
Then I worked on rubbing and praising him at liberty, asking for a hoof and rubbing his leg when he picked it up. He cow kicked at me with his hind hoof when I reached it and I sent him away to play the walk, trot canter game. We continued this process until he stood quietly at liberty and let me rub him all over his body and gave me his hooves upon request.
Doing this work at liberty is critical as it gives the horse a clear choice. It can be with you with a respectful attitude or it can play the walk, trot, canter game. While it may take several sessions for the horse to decide that it prefers to be with you with a respectful attitude, once the horse chooses to yield to you as its leader you eliminate or reduce a multitude of other problems.
In addition to the liberty work, I also haltered him and taught him the basic yields, come forward, drop your head, move back, move your shoulders, move your hind quarters, and move sideways. Once he understood these yields, I started playing the “face me” game. When I asked that he face me, and he turned his rear end to me, I used the carrot stick to “bite” it. It didn’t take long until I could walk around the round pen and he would pivot to keep his head facing me, getting lots of rubs and praise for facing me.
By the end of three weeks work, both at liberty and on a lead line, Ollie was following me around consistently, walking when I walked, stopping when I stopped, backing up when I backed up and instead of having him try to drag me on his lead line, I could take him back to his stall without halter or lead line and know that he would follow me staying outside of my body space.
I next established that he was to face me in his stall. I would request that he face me and if he turned his rear end towards me for any reason, I would use the savvy string to “bite” it. If he faced me and came up to me respectfully, I petted and praised him. Within a day or so this behavior was pretty well established and, if he felt he needed to leave the stall when I was in it, he would back out.
Ollie now respected and wanted to please me, yielded to pressure, knew he was to face me and trusted me to be clear, fair and consistent. Only with that foundation in place could I address the aggressive behavior with food in his stall. For this I started feeding Ollie his grain, handful by handful as part of the training exercise. I would come into his stall with my savvy string lying over my hand that was stretched out in a welcoming gesture. In my opposite hand, I had a handful of grain. Initially, he reverted to his prior aggressive behavior pinning his ears back or charging at me. When he did that, the hand with the grain closed and the hand with the savvy string swung so the progress string “bit” him. He would back out of the stall, return in a moment and eye me. The grain hand was open again, I was speaking softly to him, the other hand welcoming once more, but the savvy string was still there. I could see him think it through and consciously decide to drop his head, prick his ears forward and take a step toward me politely. Within a couple of days, he no longer showed aggression when I entered his stall with food, though I continued to offer him his grain several times a day to reinforce the new behavior and counseled his owners of the new rules and that they should carry a savvy string on them whenever they fed him for some time to come.
Probably the best part of this month long training experience is the bond that it created between me and Ollie. I became his herd leader and he wanted to be with me, to have me stroke him and praise him, or just hang out with him. He was clearly calmer and a happier, in addition to, a more respectful horse when he went home.
Read more about Ollie's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Chris moving Ollie's feet
Ollie finding harmony with himself and Chris
- Dominant and sensitive mare
- Owner needed more balance, confidence and assertiveness
Shashoni was a beautiful twenty year old Arab - Quarter Horse Cross who came to us because, while her owner dearly loved her, she had not felt safe riding her for over a year. Georgia had fallen off of Shashoni and was intimidated by Shashoni pulling on her reins, and throwing hissy fits when she didn’t want to do something. She had taken Shashoni to other trainers and while they succeeded in getting Shashoni to behave, they never got Shashoni and Georgia in synch with each other.
I went over to test drive Shashoni. She bucked a little in protest at me controlling her direction and speed at liberty, reared when asked to change directions at liberty, did her ground school fairly well, if a tad reluctantly and crow hopped a bit when I asked her to go from a trot into a canter riding her and swished her tail grumpily when I kept her on the rail as she cantered. She also didn’t recognize changes in my seat for slowing down so I always had to use the reins to slow her, which irritated her. It seemed to me that although Shashoni had picked up some bad habits, she had a sweet temperament on the ground, didn’t seem flighty or spooky, understood yielding and would probably come along fairly quickly under my training program. I told Georgia that Shashoni was only part of the equation and that she needed to take lessons bareback to learn better balance and how to use her body to communicate more effectively before she could safely ride her mare.
Shashoni’s Story: I started Shashoni out in the round pen at liberty, asking her to walk, trot and then canter, then trot, walk, etc. using voice and body language commands, encouraging her when she didn’t accelerate as requested and blocking her if she used a faster gait than requested. Like most horses, her upward transitions into faster gaits came easier than her downward transitions into slower gaits, but she keyed into my body language fairly quickly. It didn’t take long for her to join up with me and stand quietly while I stroked her and picked up her four hooves. A few moments later she was willing to follow me as I walked in the round pen.
Doing this work at liberty is critical as it gives the horse a clear choice. It can be with you with a respectful attitude or it can play the walk, trot, canter game. While it may take several sessions for the horse to decide that it prefers to be with you with a respectful attitude, once the horse chooses to yield to you as its leader you eliminate or reduce a multitude of other problems.
In addition to the liberty work, I also haltered her and reviewed the basic yields, come forward, drop your head, move back, move your shoulders, move your hind quarters, and move sideways. Shashoni had clearly been introduced to these yields before and she quickly came up to speed, responding, rather than reacting to my body language.
The next step was to test ride Shashoni again in our round pen. She didn’t want to stand still to be mounted so I played the “back and forth” game with her until she elected to stand quietly next to me for mounting. Once mounted, she wanted to take off so I just backed her up to where we started and dropped the rein. She would move and I would reposition her and drop the rein. After a few minutes or so of this, Shashoni decided that she would stand quietly on a loose rein. With the liberty work as a refresher, I found that she was sensitive, responsive and less reactive when we did her walk, trot, canter, trot, walk, whoa and back up transitions. She didn’t understand that when I tilted my pelvis backward I was asking that she reduce her speed, but that would be easy to fix. She also objected to strong leg or rein pressure, which boded well for her picking up on body language cues that came before using legs and reins. I knew she would come around.
Over the next couple of weeks Shashoni and I worked on learning to respond to my seat for her gait transitions and the ability to stand quietly to be mounted, open and close gates or just to hang around. At the beginning of our relationship she did pull on her reins, shake her head, swish her tail or give little crow hops of frustration when asked to do something she didn’t want to. She quickly discovered that her hissy fits accomplished nothing but tiring her out and I would still be there quietly asking for her to do whatever triggered her outburst after she tired herself out. As she realized she could do all that was asked of her and that each give by her brought a release by me, she relaxed and she stopped having her little hissy fits. We tested out her new found manners by taking her over our obstacle course stairs, car wash, teeter totter, logs, etc., down the road, past barking dogs and other potentially scary items. She was solid, responsive and calm and ready for her mom to ride.
Georgia’s Story: While I was working with Shashoni I gave Georgia natural horsemanship lessons on a couple of my Paso Finos. She had attended some natural horsemanship clinics and knew how to do the groundwork easily. However, it was clear that her balance wasn’t good enough for her to ride with an independent seat, which led to her sometimes tightening her calf muscles or pulling on the reins to catch her balance. With a sensitive horse like Shashoni, that was a recipe for a hissy fit. One of the nice things about the Paso Finos is that their smooth gaits make it is easy to stay balanced on them and the two we use for lessons are very tolerant of rider error. This was particularly important since Georgia had taken some falls off of her horse, and losing her balance frightened her and had her tightening her muscles even more. I could see that the core of what she needed was learning balance, an independent seat and techniques to help keep her relaxed when on the horse. Our beginning lessons focused on learning to belly breath or audibly sigh to relax her body, and use the tripod of muscles between her knees and pelvis for balance, while reserving her calf muscles to communicate with the horse. Only after she started to develop an independent seat could she start working on using her body and energy to communicate gait and direction changes to the horse.
Another issue that we addressed early on was noticing the body language the horse uses to telegraph when it is about to do something she didn’t want it to do and how much easier it is to change the horse’s thought, instead of reacting to undesirable behavior. The horse’s thought is weightless; the horse’s body committed to an action weighs a thousand pounds. Instead of things happening without reason or warning, she started to see the horse considering an action and learned to counteract the thought so she could calmly avoid the potential train wreck. That too lowered her fear factor. All this came faster than she had expected and, at first, she attributed her ability to do this work to riding our Paso Fino Mystic. I was flattered on his behalf, but knew that Shashoni would provide the same responsive ride now that her rider had more confidence, balance and an independent seat.
At this point, I started having Georgia ride Shashoni during her lessons. While past history made her somewhat tense to begin with, Georgia soon discovered that Shashoni would stand quietly to be mounted, tuned in and responded to the same body language that Mystic had and she could get walk, trot, walk, whoa, back up transitions just using her seat and could open and shut gates without a problem. No hissy fits, no sudden unexpected leaps forward or sideways, just a calm, respectful, trusting, affectionate and responsive little mare. On their last day at the ranch we went for a ride down the road and she took Shashoni over the obstacles on the obstacle course. It did my heart good to see them together, relaxed and trusting in each other.
Read more about Shashoni's owner's experience at Testimonials.
Jackie and Shashoni
Georgia riding her mare again