Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lip chains

Lip and nose chains are often used as a means of control. Of over 1,000lbs of pure muscle. Yea, cuz that's going to happen.

How are they used?
Nose chains are often wrapped around the nose: a chain can go through the bottom or the side ring of the halter, go over the nose, through the other appropriate ring(s) along the nose of the halter, and snap back onto itself at the bottom or side, where the lead also snaps. It can also go through a side ring, over the nose to the opposite side and through that ring, then up the horse’s cheek to the ring closest his ear. The lead then snaps onto the side ring (at the nose) where the chain comes out. A lip chain usually goes through a side ring, over the horse’s gums (tight, or else they get it loose), through the opposite side ring, and up to the side ring, where it snaps. Yes, this does cause marks on the horse’s gums and while it might maintain “focus” in some horses, it can drive others downright crazy.

So, necessary?
In my opinion, no. There is the rare case I would use a nose chain on a horse, as a temporary measure, to keep myself safe in the mean time (while I developed the horse to the point where he was safe without it). My opinion is that chains are turned to much too readily by people with lack of savvy, or knowledge. On yearlings that won’t stand still because they’re still young and impatient, because they don’t understand the request, or because they’re nervous and are not being handled correctly. On stallions because their handler didn’t bother to earn their respect (and I’m not referring to the people who put a chain on a stallion as they lead him to the breeding pen, as a signal – I’m referring to those who are actually using that chain, yanking on it). On racehorses because they’re “acting up”. The “unwritten” protocol in our barn at the track was to put a nose chain on any horse acting up, that we wanted more control over. If the horse continued to act up (either in hand, on the walker, or in the paddock), a lip chain replaced the nose chain. These are the cases I speak of when I say I have used a nose chain on a horse – horses where I put the chain on for “show”, as a show of control to make others in this horse’s presence comfortable (in this case, I wouldn’t use it, but it would just be there) – like in the paddock or on a particularly difficult horse. The other scenario where I would use a chain was on very difficult horses where I felt my safety could be jeopardized otherwise. For example, we claimed a 7yo gelding after one race whom I did regularly put a nose chain on. The first time entering his stall, he tried to both bite and kick me. At the same time. Leading him down the shedrow felt like an accident waiting to happen; I was always nervous he would bolt past me and kick me on his way past. The chain was the only thing that kept him at my shoulder as opposed to running past me with a good swift kick as he passed. On the track though, your ability to “re-train” a horse is rather limited and restricted. You can’t just take them out and work them in a roundpen, or even an open space. There isn’t the room, and where there is, it just isn’t safe. You cannot just take a valuable racehorse out of his stall during the day and go work on his ground manners (even if you did have the time); if he was injured or escaped, you’re in a tight spot. This means that in some cases, a chain is often – sadly, the safest bet for a person to use on some racehorses. In most cases though, racetrack workers are just as liable to overuse chains as the general public (perhaps moreso in some cases). There was many a horse that passed through my care on whom I removed a chain – either lip or nose. If they normally wore a lip chain, I usually demoted them to a nose chain immediately. Once I worked on earning their trust and respect, had taught them what I wanted and expected, and had taught them to focus on my body language and what it meant, I usually was able to remove the nose chain as well. As a sidenote: I do believe that if some of these racehorses were "trained" properly in the first place and if that training were maintained, that they wouldn't have to have a nose or lip chain used on them in the interest of safety.

Lip chains v/s nose chains
Most consider lip chains to be the next level up in control from nose chains. The only time I ever used lip chains was in the paddock, on one particular mare who would throw a (potentially dangerous) fit otherwise. The lip chain kept her focused. However for the most part, if I felt like I needed something to back me up with a difficult horse, I preferred a nose chain. You can snap a nose chain to get a horse’s attention, to snap them out of a certain frame of mind (sometimes) – you can’t snap a lip chain with much effect, however, because it is already tight across the horse’s gums. Also, a horse can lean up against a lip chain and pull. In my experiences, I actually therefore found nose chains to provide more “control” than lip chains. In the grand scheme of things though, this is a 1,000+lb animal. No chain is going to stop him. So if you’re relying on a chain to control your horse, think again. It’s a short-term measure that will eventually falter. Also, if you consider yourself and your horse the rare case where a lip or nose chain is necessary (temporarily or permanently), think again – you’re probably not.

I consider the racetrack (and a few other rare scenarios I can’t think of right now) the rare exception, because those are situations where maybe the horse is presenting a danger to the handler and the situation does not allow for re-training. However I think, if you’re having to use a chain, you should be considering why, and how it affects the horse. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t hurt the horse, or that it (the chain) is the only way. Whenever possible, it should be a temporary measure – personally, I would never use a chain (nose or lip) on a horse we owned/trained barring very rare exceptions. We have the opportunity to place the horse in a situation where a chain would not be necessary, where we could communicate with the horse in a fashion much better for the horse. My opinion is that if you are having to use a chain on your horse, you need to consider why. And fix it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Handling foals

Recently someone asked me what they can do with their young colt prior to having him started in a few years, and I thought my answer to the question would make a great post, as it is a common question!

SO, my answer:

Definitely handle your colt a lot, but the biggest thing I see with horses who come to me who have been handled a lot is that while their owners earned their trust, they failed to earn their respect. Exposure is great for a young horse:
-Picking up his feet (including banging them in simulation of being shod)
-Throwing ropes around him (all over him!)
-Throwing tarps on him
-Having him walk over/through/under/into things
-Putting a rope/cinch around his barrel ("tighten" it like you would a cinch)
-Playing with his mouth in preparation for having a bit/dewormer/etc in there
-Touching him everywhere (use a stick as an arm extension first if your horse is sensitive and prone to trying to kick when touched in some areas)
-Take him to shows just to experience the atmosphere
-Etc, etc, etc...anything you can do, do.
He can do a lot of things without actually carrying a rider (even pack him - albeit lightly - if you're on trails, if possible). Packing a horse strengthens him physically, teaches him body awareness, teaches him how to handle himself with weight, and accustoms him to the actual weight itself.
However, while exposing him to everything and earning his trust is great, make sure you remember to also earn his respect. Too many young horses come to me thinking it is okay to walk all over me, which can be dangerous. Practice things like having him move out of your space (both using physical pressure - the Parelli Porcupine game, and using body language - the Parelli Driving game). Make sure he does not come into your space unless invited - ever (just do this by holding yourself in a manner that commands respect, by moving him out of your space when he does come in, and by playing games that earn his respect in the first place). Of course do not ever try to force him to do anything, but at the same time set him up so that he does act respectfully, and always be assertive (yet never aggressive). I am just as guilty as any to be won over by a cute foal face, but we have to remember to always be assertive (though we can still just be super friendly and undemanding as well at times). I would highly recommend the Parelli 7 games with him and even the Liberty and On-Line patterns. Just listen to him as to how long/short his sessions can be (though if you're interactive enough and he's having fun, you can usually go on for quite awhile), but he can play all those games/patterns at his age (even a foal can).

Expose expose expose those foals. I highly recommend Dr.Miller's Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal as well as the Parelli 7 games and patterns. Just remember to always earn a young horse's respect as well as their trust; you're creating the foundation for a horse who is one day going to be 10x the size he is as a foal! Anything he gets away with now, he is going to figure is fine when he is later 1,000lbs.

If you're unsure, take a look at momma and how she interacts with her foal - she'll deliver plenty of lovin' but she also won't hesitate to give him a good nip in the rump when he's being disrespectful toward her (this does not mean you should be hitting your foal, however there should be boundaries - little touches are okay when they are accompanied by phases and by proper communication).

If you're really unsure and don't feel you have the expertise to deal with a foal, a) get professional help and b) turn the foal out with older horses who will set a good example and who will teach him to be a behaved and balanced horse. Not 5 or 6 year-old geldings, either...20yo broodmares (or the like). Don't turn teenagers out with teenagers, or kids out with teenagers - make sure your young horses have a (or several, preferably) good examples to follow and to keep them in line. Don't underestimate the importance of such - raising a foal with other foals only or with a gelding or mare who never establishes boundaries could easily create a monster.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Helmet use

This is a follow-up on the earlier blog I wrote, in response to Cathy’s attack on the Parelli’s and what she and her sheep perceived to be the Parelli’s view on helmets. The following is an email I received from the savvy team in response to my query as to their position on helmets:

Thank you very much for your email. We understand your concern about safety and helmets and we are grateful that you took the time to email us so we can better address the issue. Our goal at Parelli Natural Horsemanship is to make the world a better place for horses and humans, and a critical component of that goal is safety. We support any protective gear - including helmets - that gives the rider a safer experience, and we require children under the age of 18 and recommend beginners wear helmets no matter the circumstances. We encourage each rider to thoroughly evaluate their situation, enroll in a training program and research and consider all available protective gear and safety procedures.
Thank you for your support.
Sincerely, Parelli Natural Horsemanship
Savvy team

So there you have it folks, the Parelli’s aren’t actually out to kill children. I know, surprising – I am sure.

Personally, though I do fully support the use of helmets (and other protective gear, such as vests), I recognise that the decision of whether to wear or not to wear a helmet is a personal decision; I never look down on an individual for not wearing a helmet (heck, most of time I just do not even notice). Each individual needs to weigh out the risks appropriated to not wearing a helmet and decide what they are comfortable with according to their beliefs and values, their horse, their horse's level, their riding level, etc. On one side of the coin, you can say: what does it hurt, so you had might as well wear a helmet - better safe than sorry. On the other side, I believe that you can also go too far. Pony Club requires (or at least some of my clubs did - the ones I can recall) their students to wear helmets even when the child is on the ground around their horse. Where do we stop - at bubble wrap?? Yet again though, kids + horses = maybe it is best to wear a helmet at all times, even on the ground. I believe that all kids should wear helmets at least while on a horse - our kids will for certain. However once again, it is still a personal decision (even if it be a parent/guardian).

Racing aged equines

It's Churchill Downs, not the wheelchair races!
Holy cow, you guys haven't taken this one too far now, have you?

Just real quick, but I thought I would post the following comment as an example of some sanity:

Painted Hill says:
November 24, 2009 at 12:47 am
Sorry Fugs, but I’ll have to disagree. 12 is not too old to run, especially without the wear and tear of constant training. She hasn’t been beat up and used up. Look at the Grand National horses, they race over much tougher courses often into their teens…(not that i am a fan of the GN, just sayin…). And yes, they are usually kept fit over their life, but horses don’t lose fitness like people do, you can bring them back if you do it right. As far as losing bone density with pregnancy, that’s usually from lactation, from her record, doesn’t look like she ever had a viable foal…. And yes, she would also lose bone density sitting around, but the wonderful thing about bone is that it responds to stress by remodeling. She’s in work and likely has had some remodeling going on. Do you have any evidence that physiologically speaking this is a bad idea? I’d love to see it. Is she fit? Maybe, you don’t know what kind of workouts she’s been getting. Maybe she is , maybe she isn’t. The track vet has watched her work and has pronounced her OK to race. trust me Dr Peckham didn’t dod that because he believed in the dream, in fact I’m sure he would have loved to find a reason for her not to race, but he did not find one. Will she win? probably not, but so what. If the mare loves to run and is sound and fit, why not let her…. As a former stakes horse (albiet a smaller one) she might have a chance against nickel claimers. And I’m sure the owner knows what a claiming race is, and I doubt anyone would claim this mare for 5K (other than someone trying to “save” her from racing). Anyone who knows anything about racing realizes that a fair number of horses you care about will be in the claiming ranks….just look at any race card, they aren’t full of stake and allowance races.
And there are two sides to every story, you assume the old owner is telling the truth (even though he himself changed his story…) He never said she could not race, only could not be bred. And trust me, that was NOT to protect the mare….. Now he doesn’t want her raced, but it’s not his mare. And did she get “fired” as you said, or laid off as is reported. There is a difference.
BTW, I’ve seen horses go back to the track and perform well after extended layoffs (many years), it is not impossible.
Oh and about that 17 year old, did you see why they brought him back? He was miserable being retired….He came back to life at the track. Wasn’t that a good thing? Yes, he now probably has a job that will keep him happier, he can stay at the track and not have to run…..
Maybe the owner is a little loopy, aand it’s probably not the smartest decision in the world, but you guys have gone over the edge on this one. People run horses on a dream all the time, you see at every track. As long as they aren’t hurting them, why not? Of course you all think this fragile grandma mare is gonna break down, but there really is no evidence for that….

I'd love to see some evidence too, because if I honestly believed this mare would break down - as evidenced by studies and facts, then I would have to agree that racing her were dangerous. Fact of the matter is, I don't think anyone knows whether or not this mare can be successful on the track, or whether or not she will break down. However I highly doubt that she runs a higher risk than those 2 and 3yo's of breaking down, when in condition. Everyone seems to be acting like this mare was taken from the pasture then run the next day when that most certainly was not the case. As far as this woman's age and apparent lack of experience - how do you know what she does or does not know? Or who is supporting and helping her train this mare? Horses do race into their double-digits, Grand Prix jumpers are considered young to be jumping in international competition at 9 and jump well into their late teens - 12 is not old for a horse and that mare is definitely still in her prime. If the track vets pass her, her works are approved, and she is sound and fit - why can't she race? Because we don't think so? We're not even there! How can we purport to know the situation!!

Now, on the other hand, a horse who gets "higher and higher" when ridden, as this mare's owner claims, just needs development - it does not necessarily mean she wants to race. However, I know one of our Thoroughbreds would absolutely love to return to the track. He is highly competitive, absolutely loves to run, and is excited just at the sight of a track. If it is not hurting the mare, well, then, so be it. Who are we to judge. Cathy, your posts lately have just been one bash after another - education? Where? My stomach turned when I read your sick excitement in the comment section at someone mentioning it possible to post this mare's owner's alleged comments from another board. How low can you sink? *sigh*

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mexican dancing horses

After reading Cathy's blog I blame Dancing With the Stars for this, I just had to comment. I don't bother commenting on the actual blog (in the comments section, that is) though, as I usually have too much to say in one limited comment box, and then your comments are lost in the multitude of others anyways. So to start, a few example videos of Mexican dancing horses:

Obviously I do not approve of the method displayed in the videos above - tying a horse to pillars and whipping it to do a sort of piaffe is not in the horse's best interests. It is a very false piaffe due to the manner in which the horse is taught. You can see by the horse's body language in each of the above videos that they are very anxious and fearful as a result of this method of training: the feet are fast, many of the horses resort to rearing and bucking, ears and general facial expressions are of that of worried horses, tails are held tensely, and most are ready to explode. It is a method that is abusive and is done out of force and fear; a happy, relaxed, supple horse it does not create.

The original videos have since been deleted, but Cathy's comment pertaining to the very similar video she posted on her blog:
All so that a human can get on him in a … WTF! shanked bit and do this.

As far as that particular horse being ridden in a curb bit, while it is impossible to tell exactly what type of bit is inside his mouth, the rider does maintain a nice loop in the rein and has seemingly soft hands (in the short video clip provided, at least). Curb bits do have their use, as advanced bits - for refinement. They allow a rider to communicate more subtly with the horse. In experienced hands, a curb bit is used as a tool for more intimate communication and thus advanced maneuvers stemming from that advanced communication...not as a source of increased control. Cathy's snide comment in regards to this horse being ridden in a curb bit does not really have all that much merit here based on the available evidence. On the other hand, I doubt a 2yo has had sufficient work on it thus far to warrant it being ridden in a curb bit yet. Still - the actual use of the curb bit itself does not constitute abuse or force in itself - in the videos shown at least.

Then Cathy goes on to say the following:
Now, I know someone will pop up and announce that you can train a horse for this kind of “dancing” without abuse. OK. Can you post a video of that? All I ever see is someone whipping on a horse in cross-ties, and that’s not training.

Well Cathy, I am sure you are perfectly capable yourself of opening your eyes and thus being privy to seeing riders out there who are training their horses to piaffe (and other complicated dressage maneuvers) without abuse.

I found this video interesting (posted in the comments section of Cathy's blog):
Horse Dance 3
It is described in the comments section as a Pakistani horse, however I cannot confirm that, as I do not read/speak Arabic (or whatever the language posted and spoken in the background is!). This, to me, appears to be a good example of someone training a horse to dance sans abuse. The horses are wearing boots to protect their fronts from their hinds possibly hitting, their body language is relaxed and calm (note how they relax immediately after a "dance", even cocking a hind leg), and though they appear to anticipate here and there, they do not appear to be fearful or worried. On the one hand, I am not sure what all those ropes are doing, however they do appear to be loose at times so I am assuming they are simply a communication aid. My only other concern is that the horses are clearly over-flexed...however they are permitted breaks and it does not seem they are kept dancing for extended periods of time (note how they switch out horses). I like how the handlers are constantly rubbing the horses reassuringly, petting them in their spare time, and even spongeing water down their faces - they obviously care!

Another video featured in the comments section was that of Blue Hors Matine. This video has to have been sent around the web at least a hundred times and while I do find it impressive, I still dislike the constant wringing tail. To me, that does not appear to be a horse who is happy and having fun - the wringing (not simply swinging rhythmically) tail indicates to me tension in the back... which also is a 'tell' that the movements performed are falsely and incorrectly executed.

Last but not least (as far as video clips go), I wanted to feature the following:

The Akhal Teke stallion Absent performing a piaffe.

Last response/comment I wanted to make. Posted in the comments section of FHOTD was the question as to whether or not these horses (who are taught to prance) can be taught to move out without the prancing, and how hard is it. In my opinion, the answer is yes (albeit depending on the level of damage done psychologically). We have one OTTB who does a similar sort of dance when he is tense whereby he elevates his motion and shortens his stride similarly to these mexican horses in the above videos. The answer has been slow, patient work. He is so used to being held back from forward movement, that he has learned as a habit to simply elevate his forward momentum as the result of a tense back, as opposed to stretching forward over his back. Since he knows he cannot burst forward (thanks to his track training), even when I have him on a loose rein, he shortens his hind steps and directs all his impulsion upward. At first, this was all he did. Now, however, his "cat-like" trotting is becoming more and more sparse as relaxation and suppleness replaces tension. The key is to teach your horse he can relax and move forward. Whatever is occurring in the mind reflects in the body, so if you teach a horse to have a calm mind, to think rather than react and try to flee, it will reflect as a relaxed back and body. Develop your horse to be calmer, braver, smarter - balance out his emotions. Then, further develop his body with circles, serpentines - all sorts of patterns that encourage him to be supple, relaxed, and loose. Then start using patterns that encourage him to track up, and others that encourage him to extend. It does take a lot of time and patience to re-train a horse who has been taught to move and/or think incorrectly, so be prepared to take the time it takes. It will be worth it!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shoulders up!

One of the latest epiphanies I have now been working on over the past few weeks is shoulders up! I have a terrible habit of hunching my shoulders when I concentrate while working a horse (and I don't think I am the only one to do this, as while looking for photos of horses in extended trot alone I found tons of photos of riders - even professionals - hunched over their horses!). I do it at the trot when I'm asking for a leg yield, I do it as I ask for a canter...I do it often. I always straighten up afterwards, but it's important I learn to just stay straight in the first place. Although this is something I was already aware my body was doing, and I have always been aware of its effect on my horses, I never really realised quite the extent of the effect my hunched shoulders have on my horses...until a few weeks ago.

I was working Link (our Thoroughbred) down the center of the arena and was asking him for a leg yield. He was being a bit sluggish and not quite as sharp and responsive as I wanted, so of course I applied more leg. As we passed X, I realised my shoulders were hunched and made a conscious effort to straighten them up. Immediately, Link responded by leg yielding lighter, by being more responsive and by giving me a cleaner yield.

I always talk about how our horses are a reflection of us and how what we do with our bodies affects their performance, but sometimes I think we all still forget at times, particularly when we are concentrated on a specific task at hand. This was definitely one of those times! I still do hunch my shoulders of course, however now I make a really conscious effort to keep them up and it's working - when I do, Link's leg yields can be beautiful (for our current level).

The same follows for when you are asking your horse to do shoulder-in's, haunches-in's, sidepasses, trot to canter transitions, extended trot, etc. If you are asking your horse to sit back on his hind and lift his shoulders, you must do the same. Try it out - particularly if you have developed your horse to be very sensitive (and even moreso if he is already very sensitive and responsive naturally), you should notice a difference. Whatever you are asking your horse to do - from weight shifts to rib placement, you must do yourself, in your body, to enable him to succeed. Always try to be self-aware and keep your own position in mind when riding and training.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Forever Horses

I just wanted to take a quick moment to showcase a fellow blog: Forever Horses. The blog is a new one but is updated regularly and contains a lot of really interesting and relevant information. Thus far the author has taken on some of the cruelty in the horse industry, nosebands (how and why), anatomy, HYPP, genetics, etc. So check it out, lots of new information to be found and it is well-written.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Mongol Horse Derby update

So, rather than parroting what has already been thrown out there, I will instead send you on to the following links:

The Mongol Derby

Hey, most everyone came out of it in great shape! You know what I find most interesting? How strangely quiet all the initial criticizers of this competition are. Heck, Cathy Atkinson (Fugly) didn’t even bother to follow up on the race after the huge furor she set up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Too young?

Are we starting our horses too young?

Cheval (a filly I groomed on the track - a 3yo at the time) and I in the paddock

Throughout the horse industry it seems we are working horses younger and younger. TWH’s are being ridden – sored, on stacks, and wearing huge curbs, as “well-broke” two-year-olds. Racehorses are usually started as yearlings (heck, I’ve seen videos of yearlings living on the track in Kentucky!) and some owners/trainers race their two-year-olds hard and heavy. Recently, I stumbled on an ad for a very nice 2yo gelding. He had 180 days on him already and was very well started. It isn’t just professionals competing within the industry that are partaking in this, it’s also your every-day owners and trainers who want their horse to have an edge on the sale industry. I just sold a 5yo mare who I considered green (all her dressage basics and even packing around green riders at a w/t/c, etc) – she had had 60 days on her last year (when I started her), then had about 90 days put on her this year, but spread out due to my work schedule. I had a number of people come in, impressed with where she was at, but I also had a lot of people come in expecting a lot more out of her. Her eventual buyers came in initially expecting her to fully collect, neck rein, and be all sorts of robot-like perfect. I had to gently explain to them that this was a young horse and that I don’t start young horses the way they had obviously expected me to. There is a lot of general industry pressure, I think in particular from individuals not realizing what it takes to make a solid, lasting horse. They see horses like the 2yo mentioned above and expect all horses they see thereafter to also be at that level. Of course then trainers and sellers are pressured into producing such horses!

The Effects
As much as I am about not judging others, I am also about the welfare of the horse. And a horse’s growth plates do not finish fusing until approximately 6 years of age (some horses may appear to mature prior to 6, but they are not finished maturing). Here is an interesting article. Obviously starting a horse young can have the short-term advantages such as a sale edge over others (unstarted) its age or the potential as a money earner in its designated discipline. However these horses are often eventually losing out. Their hocks start needing to be injected within a few years, fractures occur, tendons bow, hooves start breaking down – the horse breaks down in general. Sometimes the break-down occurs right away (as in, the first year), sometimes the damage does not become obvious until years later, maybe when the horse is in his teens. The horse loses out when he becomes unusable, a pasture ornament. Horses are expensive luxuries to most people, and feeding a pasture ornament is not always an option, so the horse moves from home to home until he likely eventually winds up in a feedlot. While it is important to note that exercise - which might include lightly starting a young horse under-saddle at the age of say 3 or maybe even as a late 2yo - can be advantageous to a young horse, the issue is that (in my opinion) many young horses are worked and pushed too hard at such an early age, before their bodies are capable of such work. Light work and lots of exercise (such as in a large pasture with herdmates) will build, develop, and strengthen ligaments, tendons, muscles, and even affect bone density positively. However it is very easy to cross the line into negatively impacting the horse and, in my opinion, such is done often. Personally, I much prefer extensive groundwork and other extensive exercise (ie, ponying, large pasture with playmates) to applying weight to a young horse's back potentially too early. By applying weight to a young horse's back too early (and "too early" is subject to that individual horse), you create a habit of tension. This is because when the young horse does not possess the strength to carry the weight of a rider, he must tense his back to support his rider. Since everything - ligaments, tendons, muscles, bone - are interconnected within the horse's body, tension in one area creates tension and stress in other areas. This eventually creates wear and tear which can affect longevity. When we create a habit of tension as opposed to a habit of relaxation, we potentially cause damage to the horse physically.

I can understand a lot of people might start a horse young out of lack of knowledge (in which case education is the answer, not condemnation), while others do it out of greed or impatience. For the latter case, I think industry standards are the key – racetracks should move their big races up a year, eliminating 2yo races. Or offer incentives for an owner/trainer choosing to forego 2yo races. In fact, the same could be done across the board in the horse industry – stop offering incentives (either directly or inadvertently) to start horses so young. I think we as participants of the horse industry though need to take a stand on starting horses. Educate those around us, set a good example by waiting to start our own horses (slowly) until they are more mature, and refuse to bow to the pressure of a client requesting you start a horse you deem too young. Personally, the youngest I start a client horse is at a full 3 years of age. Most of the horses I have started thus far have gone on to be lightly ridden enough that I do not think it was harmful to them. In fact, starting them at this age was likely greatly beneficial in a number of ways. As a trainer however, I might start a youngster only lightly but how am I supposed to regulate what an owner does with their horse after it has been started, in a responsible fashion? Of our own homebred horses, I started one (very lightly) as a 3yo and the other as 4yo. Both, now at nine and fourteen, remain sound. Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t actually start anything of my own under-saddle until they were four. In fact, I am casually looking for a mare to train alongside our Thoroughbred, as a jumper, and am looking at unstarted 3yo’s. There is so much you can do until then, to make the youngster a better future partner under-saddle, anyway!

The Mental Aspect
Just as a brief sidenote, I wanted to point out that while some horses might be physically mature enough to deal with being lightly started, they might not be mentally mature yet! Mental and emotional fitness and maturity definitely reflects in a horse's body - his relaxation, suppleness, etc, and can obviously then play a role in both his short-term and his long-term mental, emotional, and physical health. Most of the horses we had in our barn on the track were decently mature enough to handle the training, however I can recall this one gelding in particular, with a ton of potential, who was not even close to being mentally or emotionally mature yet. Though he was a 2yo, he looked like a 4 or 5yo. Had he been my horse, he would have been out on pasture for at least another year, if not more. On the other side of the fence, I recently sold a Warmblood mare who was not started until she was 4. She was then turned back out onto pasture and returned to me as a 5yo for another few months. I had dressage professionals come in and comment on how loose and supple she was, they couldn't believe it! Contrary to what happens much of the time in this industry, this mare was not started until she possessed the maturity - including mentally - to handle training. This resulted in a horse that was relaxed mentally and ready to learn - which reflected as a loose and relaxed horse physically. Starting a horse before he or she is mentally mature will reflect in his body as a tense horse and tension in the horse's body can be detrimental, especially if that tension becomes a habit. That tension will stress ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones, and may contribute to future break-down.

I am of the personal belief that a horse should not be started until at least three years. Yearlings and 2yo’s are a no-go. For me, it is a matter of not only evaluating that individual horse, but also of ultimately simply playing it safe rather than sorry. What are your experiences or opinions?

Sidenote: the horse in the photo above, Cheval, sustained a hairline fracture to one of her knees while training and racing as a 3yo.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Sorry these blogs were a bit delayed - I was busier than I anticipated last week prior to leaving for work, and did not have the internet access I was supposed to have on my computer once at work to post these blogs this past week!!

I found the following reader letter, from Horse & Rider (Sept 09, p14), interesting:

June's Mail Call asked what readers thingk about those who are taking in unregistered horses and planning to breed them. The obvious answer is that these grade animals should not be bred, and that doing so will only add to the unwanted-horse burden.
But if these owners shouldn't be breeding, where do you draw the line? No one should be breeding? Only pedigreed horses should be bred? Only winning show horses should be bred? The problem isn't so much one of breeding, but rather one of imposing judgement: If we judge others, then they have the right to judge us for something they think we shouldn't do. Already have three children? You shouldn't have any more. Watching TV? You should be volunteering at the homeless shelter instead. Buying a new farm truck? You should be buying a smaller, more efficient vehicle. You should/you shouldn't.
There's always someone with an opinion on how we should live our lives. Certainly there's a line where we need to interferere, such as in cases causing pain or permanent harm. But this is America, and Americans do have the right to breed their horses, whether others think they should or not.

I am the first to say that breeding should always be done responsibly: breed the best to the best with the goal of producing a foal exceeding its parents in quality. However, this reader, I feel, is right – who are we to judge? It is not so black and white…

Some arguments both for and against to consider:
With registered/pedigreed horses, you can be aware of any genetic/health problems that could arise in bred foals and thus make an educated and fully-informed decision. You also know the bloodlines and genetics that might enable you to breed for a specific goal - for a foal best suited to a specific discipline or purpose for which you are breeding.

Knowing a horse's genetic past can aid you in creating a foal with the correct conformation to ensure it a successful career and life (hopefully one outside of feedlots and slaughter houses).

In my opinion, I think a registered horse has a better chance than a grade horse at staying in a good home and out of a slaughter house. That is just my opinion.

Who are we to judge who breeds what? Some of the best horses have come from unknown or unremarkable pasts, and grade horses can be bred to create horses with just as much talent and ability as a registered/pedigreed horse.

How many of us have seen conformation-train-wrecks - of both grade and registered? Or high-quality animals that were grade?

Maybe the problem does not lie within grade/registered, but within individuals breeding or not breeding with adequate conformation and general knowledge? In that case, perhaps the answer is education, rather than criticism. One part of me wants to have some type of program, like in European countries, that regulates breeding - to ensure only the best are bred and thus that every horse has a standing chance. On the other hand, the larger half of me wrestles with over-regulation and control. For one, I am sure a good many horses are "missed" simply because they did not pass the correct tests and were not given the appropriate opportunity. Furthermore, there are likely others who pass the appropriate testing but do not positively impact - or who even negatively contribute to - the gene pool. The judges at tests are only human, after all.

Food for thought!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bad ways to lease your horse

Well, I was browsing ads, passively looking for a new mare, and came across this ad:

"I was wondering if anyone out there would be interested in leasing my 12 year old Palomino Quarter Horse mare? She needs an experinced rider, I am looking for someone who can get her back into shape and keep her in shape and ride her lots, as I currently am trying to sell her....
She is out by ---- so super close to the city!
I am asking $110 a month for leasing.

Um...not to point out the obvious here, but does this not sound like someone asking to be paid to have someone fine-tune their horse for them? Isn't that something a trainer would do, y'know, for something we like to

Okay, so here's a couple tips and a re-write that won't rub potential leasees the wrong way and that will give you a better chance at getting your horse leased:

12yo (height?) palomino Quarter Horse mare for lease. Needs an experienced rider and has not been ridden in (time?), so is a little out-of-shape. $110/month. Located near ----; super close to the city.

Noting the mare's accomplishments or riding history would be helpful as well. Also, post a quality photo or two (or offer it upon contact at least). Rather than telling potential lessees the mare is to be sold and you're looking for a "trainer" to pay to train your horse, just simply set it up as a short-term lease. Then, if/when you decide to sell your mare, go ahead and sell (just set up some sort of fair arrangement with the lessee - either a pre-determined lease length or a specific length of time for "notice"). If you're looking for someone to actually train or fine-tune your horse though, either do it yourself, or pay a trainer. It is not fair to pawn an unfit, rusty horse off onto some unsuspecting individual looking for a project horse to learn from and work on, then snatch that horse away to make a profit off of as soon as all the hard work is done... unless all is presented upfront.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Bear with me please upon my return home. I arrived home at 2a.m. this morning after a 19-hour day. Then I somehow managed to slap myself awake enough to start my day with a dressage lesson. Don't ask me how. If this "update" blog is not coherent? Now you know why. I have a bunch of blogs lined up and will have one out by Monday, but first I must engage in this foreign thing the locals call "sleep". I'm going to give it a shot and see how it suits me anyway. For now, you have the following near-future blogs to look forward to (*ahem* I fully expect you to be sitting on the edge of your seat):

- Horses being ridden young in various disciplines
- Mongolian Horse Derby update (*gasp* that's right, no one died!)
- Parelli's + helmets update (email)
- Lip chains (yay!)
- Conformation practise pen
- Surprise blog (just to jog my goldfish memory later, it involves a 4yo Hanoverian mare)

Some of the preceding blogs are inspired by other blogs lurking around the great World Wide Web. Others are inspired by my own recent experience(s). Lastly, if any readers have any specific subjects they wish to discuss or have a blog written up a propos, feel free to comment.

Friday, October 30, 2009

When to tranquilize a horse

I thought I would address this one after a couple questions regarding tranquilizing horses was put to me by a friend. So, when should you tranq? Whenever your safety or that of your horse is compromised. Simple as that. However, I am of the belief that tranq'ing a horse should always be a temporary measure (whenever possible). Obviously, there is the odd situation (such as having your horse's teeth floated with electric tools at the vet's office) where tranq'ing a horse is necessary at all times. On that note, I don't think it is always necessary to sedate every horse to have its teeth done, but most vets won't do your horse's teeth, particularly with electric tools, without sedating your horse first (or at least that's how it goes up here in Alberta, Canada, anyways). And for good reason. How do they know how your horse is going to react when they power up those dental tools? Their safety has to come first.

So what are some situations where sedating your horse could be okay as a temporary measure?

Farrier work if your farrier's well-being is going to be jeopardized by a fearful or disrespectful horse, it might be time to sedate your horse to have his feet done before they get into really bad shape. Keep in mind though that it should be a temporary measure - in the mean time, you can work directly on having your horse pick up his feet or indirectly on his general attitude.

Clipping there's the odd time it might be absolutely necessary to clip a horse but your horse won't allow it. Whilst working on desensitization and earning your horse's trust enough to clip him the next time, you can sedate him so as to clip him safely.

These are just a couple examples; I am sure there are many more. In my experiences with tranq'ing horses thus far, it does not solve the specific "issue" with the horse on a permanent basis, but it can make your work with said horse safer so as to successfully accomplish a particular task. I have never had a horse tranquilized myself, however we used to do it on a few specific horses at the track; one of which was Link, the Thoroughbred we purchased last fall. He absolutely refused to stand for the farrier and so would be sedated each time the farrier came around to work on him. At that time, while holding Link, I usually played with his ears in the hopes of desensitizing his ears to being touched (he refused to allow his ears to be touched, which could make for a lot of trouble while trying to trim him a bridle path!). It never worked. Not only did he remain a terrible actor with his feet (he would allow me to pick them or pack them, but that was it), he still wouldn't let you to so much as brush his ears when he wasn't sedated.

Sedating a horse does not work (in my experiences) long-term because you are neglecting the root of the issue. There is perhaps the odd situation I can think of off hand where sedating a horse and then working on them could actually progress their training (such as in "sacking out" or such perhaps), but that's just a theory to consider as a last resort. Anyways, it works on a temporary basis obviously because the horse is too dopey to react negatively. However the reason the horse did not want to be clipped/trimmed/shod/etc in the first place (usually) persists and thus when the horse awakes he will still be just as head-shy, clipper-shy, itchy with his feet, etc as he was prior to being sedated. On the other hand, it does not affect a horse adversely to sedate them to perform a task on them, then allow them to wake up. Thus far, when done properly, I have yet to see it destroy a horse's trust in a person or set a horse back in its training...because it really - in itself - isn't doing anything (either negatively or positively) in the first place. In the mean time though, work on the "trouble spot" from another direction. To be honest, after we purchased Link and brought him home, I never actually worked on his feet, nor on his ears, directly. Instead, I worked hard at earning his trust and respect. He now stands good for the farrier 90 percent of the time, and we're working on the other 10 percent by further "unwinding" him emotionally. I can touch his ears almost anytime (or spend a second or two before he gives me permission to touch his ears the times he doesn't allow me to immediately) and he will allow anyone he trusts to touch his ears (those he does not yet trust, he'll raise his head out of reach)...and I never have any problem clipping his bridlepath.

I would definitely consider tranq'ing a horse if yours or the horse's safety could be compromised during a procedure vital to the horse. No, the actual tranquilizing itself should not set your horse's training back, but neither will it likely help you on a permanent basis. So don't consider it a permanent solution, work on a more permanent solution in the mean time and seek professional help if you're stumped! Any experiences out there with sedating horses where it did or did not help?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Ah, deworming has got to be everyone's favourite activity. *ahem* just kidding. But it doesn't have to be as hard as it often is. We've got two horses over sixteen hands and there's no way I want to struggle with getting some stupid tube into their mouths. Oh yea, then hold their chins up all those 16++ hands of neck to make sure they don't spit out the paste (our Quarab holds the paste in his mouth, very purposely, then tries to wipe it on you afterwards if you're not careful). So, this is going to be a brief post with one suggestion: molasses. Or some other type of dense liquid you find your horse likes. Put some molasses in empty, previously-used dewormer tubes and "deworm" your horse as usual (just use a little bit at first, so that it doesn't get all over you). It usually takes a try or two, but before long your horse is grabbing for the tube. Then - oops, one day there is actually dewormer in there! Make sure to put some molasses in a time or two afterwards though so he's back to remembering the dewormer as a good thing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Handling feet

This summer I was contacted by an individual who had recently purchased a 3yo TB/Appy sporthorse gelding. Among some of the dangerous behaviours the owner was having trouble managing in this horse, she couldn't handle his feet. When she tried handling his hinds, he would kick out violently, almost nailing her in the head during one occasion. With anyone tried to pick up his fronts, he reared.

Now, this horse had a lot of issues stemming from a strong lack of respect and thus that had to be addressed as well. Many issues, in fact, stem from something underlying rather than the issue itself - often an insufficient level of trust or respect. A horse who lacks sufficient trust in her handler will refuse to pick up her feet as well and may even defensively kick out with her hinds; she's not going to let a predator take away her only mode of escape! We had 2yo Thoroughbreds fresh off the farm arrive at the track who were skittish to begin with - getting them to pick their feet up off the ground was sometimes like climbing Everest! While it is always important to address the root issue, there is also a lot that one can do specifically with a horse's feet to accustom their feet to being handled or to work on a foot issue, directly and specifically. Keep in mind though that there often is more to it, more that can be done in addition to just handling the horse's feet, even if the horse's only "issue" seems to be with allowing its feet to be handled - it can be less about the feet than it is about the horse's overall state of mind toward you. I highly recommend the Parelli 7 games and Patterns of course, though there are other methods that also address respect and trust while building a partnership with a horse.

Desensitize your horse
Work on your horse until she allows you to touch her anywhere. Use approach and retreat, and reward the slightest "try" (if I have a horse who does particularly well at something, say accepting a tarp for example, I'll walk away to give them a break before continuing - I might do this several times in a session even). Use all sorts of materials once she is relaxed when you use your hand - it's not that if you play with a tarp your horse will now accept tarps forever more, but it builds trust in your leadership and exposes your horse to various situations.

Use ropes first
With a young horse I often will just get down and dirty - get right in there under their feet. However if they are particularly violent with their feet, if they're older, or if I'm unsure of the horse and how they will react, I will use ropes. If you're unsure, use ropes - it never hurts and it could keep you safe! You can take a long leadrope - something soft and thick (Parelli's 12' line works great) and loop it around your horse's pasterns, attaching it back on itself (close the snap over the rope once it is passed around the horse's pastern). Make sure the rope can come loose if it needs to, or that it won't stay tight after you remove pressure, and make sure that your horse is comfortable with having ropes touch her first. Start with the front feet, as horses tend to be more comfortable having their front feet handled than their hinds. Standing out of the way, gently apply pressure. If your horse starts fidgeting nervously, use approach and retreat to accustom your horse to the pressure. Otherwise, apply gentle pressure and increase the tension in the rope until your horse releases - reward the slightest try (even the thought or weight shift) by releasing tension in the rope immediately. Ask for more of a "try" each time (not rewarding until you get the "increased" try) until your horse will hold its foot up. End when she releases (lifts her foot) and relaxes. If you're having a lot of trouble though, it is ok to end without as much progress - just make sure to always end with relaxation (if possible). Once your horse is relaxed with the rope, you can get underneath her to ask her to pick up her feet. I teach all my horses the 7 games, including the Porcupine game; when I ask for feet to be raised I use the Porcupine game, pinching the chestnuts on the front legs and the caps of the hocks on the hinds to ask for a horse to lift its feet. You can use your own method/cue, but I really find this one to be effective.

Sometimes it is a combination of issues that give reason for a horse not lifting her feet or acting badly when her feet are worked with, but sometimes simple work such as above is what is needed :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009


There are always a number of horses that, at that time of year, are nearly impossible to vaccinate, who are needle-shy. Though some might never get over their fear of needles (in which case you might want to consider a sedative paste or, reluctantly, a twitch), there is also much one can do to desensitize a horse to needles or otherwise get the job done in a manner that is not harmful to the horse.

One way to start the process of desensitizing your horse to needles is to get your horse very accustomed to having your hands on his neck, occasionally pinching skin between your thumb and pointer finger. Progress to pinching in areas where you will be vaccinating, and harder pinches held for longer periods of time, with smaller amounts of skin. Reward or even distract to start, with sugar cubes, cookies, carrots - whatever works. Next you can progress to using toothpicks to simulate a needle, poking your horse. Do this at random and often times to the point where it becomes a non-event to your horse.

Some other ideas might be: to blindfold the horse (only do this if you are very experienced) - make sure the blindfold may be easily removed or can come off if the horse were to get loose. If you gently pull the horse's nose toward you, you will find the tension in their neck is released a little, in which case they might not react so violently to a needle sliding into muscle on that side. A last tip is to ice the area you intend to prick with the needle; numb the area and the horse might not notice the needle.

Make sure that whatever roundabout ways you might use to vaccinate your horse, that you always have correct technique in applying the needle: the actual application should be quick. Personally, I often stick the needle in the horse's neck then attach the vaccination syringe to the needle. Before you do this, practice removing and re-attaching the syringe to the needle a few times, to get the right feeling. Once the needle is in the neck and the syringe is attached, draw back on the plunger to ensure you have not hit a vein or artery, then assertively (but not too quickly) inject the vaccine. Ensure you know where to place the needle in the horse: the hindquarters are the best muscle to inject because they are large however the neck is usually the safest with most horses. The pectoral muscles, though also appropriate as a vaccination site, can become sore if injected because they are a smaller muscle group. This site clearly outlines appropriate vaccination sites.

For information pertaining to what vaccines are appropriate to your horse in your specific area, consult your veterinarian. You can also ask your vet about performing blood titres to assess immunity and thus the necessity (or lack thereof) for vaccinating your horse.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The untouchables

What do you do when you cannot even touch your horse? I've had quite a few of these horses in this year and have assessed a few more, so obviously this is not a rare problem confined to the odd horse-owner.

I recently received the following email from a friend:
I have a girlfriend who got this 4 yr old mare who had never been touched and now a year later (she doesn't have much time) the mare will follow her around and eat out of her hand but she can't pet her cause she either takes off or she begins to shake horribly... she has spent a little time with her everyday and no matter how much time she spends she can't get close enough to this mare to pet her never mind halter her (she has never been haltered)... I am not sure what to suggest other than lots of undemanding time and friendly game... but she says it still isn't helping... and she is getting frustrated cause this mare has never been dewormed or had her feet done and they need to get done!!! Any ideas or suggestions?

Here was my response:
Are you sure she was never touched before? I just say that because usually a horse who has not been touched before comes along pretty quickly (in fact, they're my favourite to work with - they're a clean slate). It's usually only the formerly abused horses who shake (I've met a whole number so far this year) and who take so long to trust. It's just a thought to consider.

With a mare like that, I would push her a bit now. Obviously, lots of undemanding time. Friendly game (touching her all over, etc) - use approach and retreat. But I would probably do some liberty work with her in a roundpen (heck, even in a small paddock, but a roundpen is much easier; though not just simply running her in a roundpen) - getting her to "catch me" (check out the Parelli Liberty - Beyond the roundpen DVD). Also, I would work with her over a session or two with approach and retreat, and liberty work, until I had a halter on her (even a rope at first - you can rope a horse or even corner a horse, to catch them, without sending their development backwards and losing their trust, if done correctly, with the appropriate body language). Then, it would be to teach her the 7 games and later the patterns. I find the 7 games do a lot in themselves; they teach a horse that you are predictable, they teach the horse its own language "in your words" and thus they can read you better and are not be afraid; they teach a horse to think, to be calmer, and to be braver, they teach the horse you can act like a prey animal - like a horse, rather than a predator, etc.

My last suggestion, which can have the biggest impact I find (especially in combination with the above), is to have her in a seperate pen if possible - completely away from other horses (not even within sight, if at all possible). Feed and water her daily (even if it means leading her to water when she finally gets a halter on) so she is completely dependant upon YOU for food, water, companionship, and security. It's a temporary measure - horses are herd animals and they should be kept in herds if possible, but if she can be in a situation where she is as dependant as possible on her owner as her "herd" (just as she is with her herdmates), she'll learn to trust her more and will progress further.

A lot of this though is really dependant upon how well your friend can read this mare; she needs to know when to approach, when to retreat, how to portray herself as another horse rather than a dangerous predator, etc. If she's having trouble reading her or still has trouble handling her, I would recommend a professional helping her out with the mare (lessons, training, etc) for greater success.

Each E-News letter the Parelli team sends out, they include a Q&A. The following is from a recent email:

I am currently studying Level 2 of your program, and I am having lots of success with both of my horses. I have had my mare since she was 4 years old, and she has never been any problem to halter out in a field until about a month ago. She started running away from me when I went out to the field to play with her and is basically playing the "you can't catch me game." At first, she would play this game for a few minutes and then "catch me" and put her head into the halter. However, the time period for playing the "you can't catch me game" has continually and dramatically increased. I feel that this is becoming a bad habit for her, so I decided that I needed to move her into a smaller space so I can be able to put continuous pressure on her until she yields her hindquarters and catches me (versus being out in the field where she can just run and I cannot put pressure on her to influence h er behavior). Is it fair to keep her in this area so I can have the opportunity to play the catching game lots, or am I just going to make the situation worse by keeping her somewhere where she is uncomfortable?

By isolating her you will have less problems catching but this doesn't necessarily mean she'll maintain the behavior when back in the big pasture again. What you need to do is establish a spot in the relationship where she comes to you when you see her or call her. And it's actually quite easy. First of all consider her situation. She has her friends, can play all day if she wants, has plenty of food and water. Why does she need you? We always make sure our horses need us in some way and if ever we have a horse that is difficult to catch we set up a little pen around the water tank. We then open the pen for access to the water two times a day (or more if it's really hot). We also do all the feeding in that spot. Pretty soon you'll see your horses watching for you and then even waiting for you by the gate. Their first thought on seeing you is "Oh boy!" not "Oh no" and if you combine your approach with a special call or a whistle, it soon becomes a habit to come running when you call. Keep the fence around the water and you can eventually leave it open all the time, only closing it if the horses start not to need you anymore. Also, set your feed and water situation up so it's by the gate and this encourages horses to hang near it. A lot of people have feed and watering areas that are a long way from the gate and this teaches horses to stay away from it and even to run away when you turn them loose.

We recently acquired a Paint who was originally abused. I never isolated him, however I spent some undemanding time with him, about half my time playing games on the ground with him, and the other half taking him out on the trails for some "undemanding" quality riding. He was slowly coming around, but the most dramatic change in him occured during (and thereafter) a roundpen session. We essentially played, in the roundpen, all our 7 Games at liberty with lots of Friendly game (ie. rubbing) interspersed to create lots of draw. Playing with a scared horse at liberty, I find, can make a huge difference because they feel less trapped by a leadrope (with a predator on the other end, I might add). Should they feel the need to leave, they can, and they do. It allows you the opportunity to communicate to them in such a way that earns their trust and draw (draw meaning they are inclined to come in to you, they want to be around you - you want to develop a balance of about 51 percent draw, 49 percent drive - where your horse respects your space). Giving your horse the power to make the choice to be around you or leave, allowing your horse that power, can create in your horse more of a desire to be around you.

Another thing I did with Cody (the Paint) was to leave him with two of our other horses, who had a lot of draw. Anytime I came out they would be in my face, trying to nuzzle some attention out of me. Of course Cody would follow and observe. Studies have been done that indicate horses do learn from watching other horses; I have shown a horse what I want a number of times now, through demonstrating what I want with another horse, in front of them. The horse I was teaching definitely demonstrated obvious improvement after watching the "demo horse". Lastly, though the horses were on grass, I fed the horses at least once a day - morning feed (minerals in some grain) and sometimes a "night treat" (handful of sweetfeed each)...this created a sort of limited dependance on me. My rule with Cody though was that he was only allowed to eat his grain (which he really wanted to do) if he allowed me to rub him. At first he was pretty skittish, but by the end of our stay a the ranch, he was allowing me to walk up to him and rub him without any complaint.

Last year, I acquired a Warmblood mare for training - she had been abused by the last trainer and deemed "untrainable". She definitely was not entirely touchable. First thing I did was put her in a small paddock by herself. I fed her daily, I spent undemanding time with her, and I played the 7 games on the ground with her. Eventually she allowed me to catch her easily and as time wore on, she started to actually look for me and whinny when I appeared. Now (I am currently working with her again this year), catching her in a herd situation is not a problem.

So! Those are my tips on earning an "untouchable's" trust, particularly one who has been abused; they're all techniques I've used seperately or in combination with one another that I've found to really work well. Have any of your own? Don't forget to share! The next couple of blogs will be short ones on what to do if you have got a horse who is skittish or shy of being handled (or dangerous) and how to get their feet done in a desperate situation. Also, how to deworm a horse who doesn't care for that lovely and scrumptious paste ;)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Canter leads

So many times when a horse does not pick up a canter lead, we blame the horse. Yet our horses go out to their pastures or turnout every day, and pick up both canter leads; heck, they even do flying changes! Sidenote: it is important to note though that horses, just as people, will have a preferred lead. Sometimes it is a balance issue, particularly with a young horse who is still learning to handle itself and a rider's weight (especially in an arena, with corners). Often however, the reason a horse is not picking up a lead might be because of its rider!

I have been taught, throughout my riding career, a whole variety of techniques to get a horse to pick up the correct lead. Crank his head around to the outside to free up his inside shoulder, push the hind end to the inside, ask him on a corner, canter him on the wrong lead on a small circle until he offers to pick up the correct lead. While some of these do have tidbits of truth to them, many techniques just end up causing the rider to sit in a position that unbalances the horse (like sitting forward over a shoulder) and/or unbalance the horse directly.

So how do we get those correct leads? Some tips and exercises:

Reflect what you want your horse to do
Your horse is a reflection of you, so it only makes sense that what you want your horse to do, you should also do. Translation? If you want your horse to pick up the inside lead, "lead" with your own inside shoulder and hip as you ask for the canter. Place your inside hand just ahead of your outside hand, allowing your outside shoulder to lag. Look to the outside wall even if it helps. Try to keep the positioning as natural and relaxed as possible, remain on your seatbones (as opposed to tilted forward onto your crotch) and evenly balanced, and relax. With a young horse, you can be a little more obvious in your movement and refine as you go along (to the point where an observer would not spot your hip and shoulder movements as you quietly and minutely shift).

Where a horse's weight sits
A horse's weight shifts throughout gaits: from 60/40 (60 percent on the forehand, 40 on the hind) at the walk/halt, 50/50 at the trot, 40/60 at the canter (40 on the forehand, 60 percent on the hind), and 51-70 percent of the weight shifted forward at the gallop. Keeping this in mind can ensure that you also shift your weight appropriately and remain balanced in an independent seat, so as to best help your horse. When asking the horse to pick up the canter, shift your weight onto your seatbones slightly to encourage and allow your horse to do the same.

Keep in mind as well how a horse travels in the canter
First to hit is the outside hind, second being the inside hind and outside fore hitting in unison. Lastly, the inside fore hits to complete the 3 beats of a canter. So, if you aim your horse's hindquarter, you can encourage him to pick up the correct lead. This is why teaching your horse to yield his hindquarters can be so important. I teach the hindquarter yield as part of a three-part maneuver.

The 3-part maneuver:
I do this on a loose rein, in a rope hackamore (no bosal or shanks), but it can also be done with a gentle snaffle (use a full-cheek snaffle on a young horse if you are using a bit).

The bend
1. Pick the reins up high off your horse's neck, in the middle of the rein, and lift the rein directly up - with only one hand (your other hand can be slack at your side). This gives your horse notice that you are about to ask something (because normally the rein rests above the horse's neck in a loose and "neutral" position).
2. Still holding the rein up with one rein, "trombone" your other hand (run your hand up and down softly, mimicking a trombone player) up and down the rein 3 times (this is phase one, lightly asking your horse to bend his neck).
3. Pinch the rein, halfway down, with your thumb and forefinger (phase 2)
4. As you softly draw the rein towards you, slowly start adding your other fingers onto the rein to ultimately create a closed fist over the rein (phases 3,4,5).
5. Draw the rein in your fist to your thigh with your thumb facing out and your fingers facing up (phase 6) - as if you were stabbing the middle of your thigh with a knife.

Remember to keep your body relaxed, your weight balanced and equal, and your hands soft. KEEP YOUR EYES UP. If your horse fights you, go with him - allow your hand to follow, then immediately gently bring it back in a give and take motion. This is called having an elastic elbow. When your horse gives the slightest try, reward him by releasing; eventually ask for more and more. Your end goal is for your horse to soften and to swing his head around by your leg - and keep it there - when you ask, on a loose rein. Do not release on a tight rein (though your elbow can be elastic if your horse is especially resistant - maintain contact and continue to re-ask without release), wait for the release then release the rein.

Turn on the forehand
Once the bend is soft, move onto the next part of the maneuver - the turn on the forehand...hindquarter control. From the bend, lift your hand from your thigh up to your belly button, fingers facing up and thumb facing out in the fist (as if stabbing your belly button with a knife). This lifts your horse's nose up and helps encourage your horse to think about moving his hindquarters. Shift your weight slightly to your outside seatbone (on the opposite side of the bend), just as you are asking of your horse. Slide your inside leg back slightly and turn to glare at your horse's hindquarters. Hold your position. Release at the slightest try, even if it is just a weight shift at first. If your horse doesn't move, make the right answer easy and the wrong answer hard by making him uncomfortable just standing - you can switch hands so that your outside hand is holding the rein (in the same position, without releasing the rein) and your inside hand is free. While holding your position, gently tap your horse's hip with your hand or with a rein end and increase the pressure. You can also bump with your legs instead. If he starts struggling with his head, decrease the pressure down to a pressure that keeps him thinking, but does not over-pressure him. As soon as he tries, release and start all over again. Be careful your weight is not thrown around so that it throws your horse off balance - this is a very common rider error that will greatly affect your horse. The ultimate goal is for your horse's front feet to remain within a small circle (ie, a foot or two in diameter) and to pivot, while your horse's hind legs cross to disengage and travel along the outside of a circle. Your horse should not be taking actual steps forward (or back).

Work on the ground to develop lightness in your horse as well - whatever you have on the ground decreases by 1/2 in the saddle, so if you create a superhorse on the ground, you'll have a pretty responsive partner in the saddle! Developing the Driving game (having your horse move his feet by applying pressure to various areas of his space via body language) and the Porcupine game (teaching your horse to move off of physical pressure) to where they are light and your horse is respectful, will aid in teaching him the three-part maneuver in the saddle. Check out the 7 Games on the Parelli website.

Turn on the hindquarter
The last part of the three part maneuver is the turn on the hindquarter. Once the bend and the turn on the fore are soft, take your hand from your belly button and hold it straight out from your shoulder (so that your arm is perfectly horizontal and straight out), thumb facing forward. This rein position tips your horse's nose up and helps him lift his inside shoulder, which is key. Keep your seatbones weighted evenly, slide your outside leg (the leg opposite the direction of movement) forward slightly (cueing the forehand to move over), and hold. If your horse does not move, you can gently pressure his shoulder with a carrot stick or rein end (something that extends your arm) or by bumping him gently with your legs - soft rythmic pressure that increases until your horse moves. Again, groundwork will greatly contribute to your under-saddle work. The ultimate goal (although not necessarily what you achieve on first try!) is to have your horse's hinds pivot and remain within a small circle, say a couple feet in diameter - his hinds should not travel in actual steps forward or back. The inside shoulder should lift and the outside foreleg cross over the inside foreleg (ultimately).

Another position from which you can ask for the turn on the haunches is from the back up (as opposed to from the turn on the forehand as part of the 3-part maneuver). Ask your horse gently to back a few steps then when you feel him sitting on his haunches, use the aforementioned cues to ask for the pivot on the haunches.

Taking it a step up
Once your horse understands the three-part maneuver and is soft, you can "glue" the three movements together into one smooth maneuver. Once the yields are mastered at the halt, start asking for the hindquarter and shoulder yields at the walk (then trot and canter once the walk is mastered). Introduce shoulder-in's, travers, etc. Once you've mastered hindquarter control at the walk, you can then take it up into the trot to set your horse up to pick up the correct canter lead!

The Bowtie
I'll leave you with one last exercise (from the Parelli Lead Changes DVD) that can get your horse thinking in the right direction: the Bowtie.
The Bowtie is essentially a Figure-8, with the changes in direction along the rail so that it resembles a "bowtie". Horses are pattern animals, which is why they are so helpful to teaching your horse various maneuvers and getting him to think in the right direction. The bowtie gets your horse thinking in the right direction and thus aiming his hindquarters towards the corner that will enable him to pick up the correct lead. The pattern:

Like I said, it is essentially a Figure-8, but instead of doing the change in direction in the middle of the pattern, do them along the wall. Start at the trot with a soft and supple horse, picking up the canter each time you head toward the wall and dropping it again as you move off the wall. You're looking for the horse's hindquarters to aim for the next corner. Later you can, on a straight line (though start on a serpentine that you gradually straighten into a line), simply aim the appropriate hind foot for the lead you want; for example, aim the left hind for the left lead. Use the cues and weight shifts discussed above...and for a more in-depth description, check out the Parelli Lead Changes DVD...there's only so much that I can describe here, on paper, without you actually being able to see it for yourself :)

Remember: don't tip your horse's nose (at least not excessively) and remember that setting your horse up is only one part of the deal; positioning yourself is equally important (perhaps even moreso). For an idea, I took Cody (our new Paint) out for a trail ride and, out in the middle of some fields (no fence or wall), I asked him to pick up the canter. Each time I asked him to pick up the canter, I positioned my hips and shoulders according to which lead I wanted him to pick up. I used no other cues (he was on a loose rein, I kept my legs even) and we were on a straight line going up and down hills. Each and every time he picked up the lead I was "asking" for, just due to the position of my hips and shoulders! Our position up in that saddle makes a drastic difference to our horses.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Humouring your horse

I got thinking a few days ago, after being frustrated at one of our Thoroughbreds for wanting things his way, for being so independent – what is it that makes me think that things have to be my way? Why my way and not his? Because I pay board on him? Because he’s “mine”, because some money changed hands? What’s he care? It really hit me today that he has no reason to want to, or have to, do things my way all the time. What gives me the right to impose my will on him? He’s a living, breathing, thinking being too, with his own ideas and wants and needs. It really impressed upon me that I really have to earn the right to ask him to do what I want, the right to be his leader.

Someone commented a couple weeks ago, after a particular blog I wrote, that I might allow my horses to “dictate” what we do. I’ve thought about it since, while working with our horses, because there have been times recently where I’ve worked in such a way with our horses where someone could misinterpret that I am allowing our horses to have all the control. Some examples:

I couldn’t get our newest herd member, a formerly abused Paint, to work in sync with me – he was fearful, wanted nothing to do with me, and was intent on leaving, particularly while playing the circling game. So instead we played the circling game where he wanted to – close to one of the barns he wanted to walk through to return to his buddies and grazing in the pasture. Once I got him working with me though, I took him back to where I wanted to play, away from the barn and in an open space (so no fences to help us out). I compromised a bit, causing him to willingly compromise for me only shortly later.

The Warmblood mare I am currently working often loses focus and is not as attentive to learning when asked to work in the outdoor ring. My compromise is therefore that we learn in the indoor arena, where she has greater ability to focus, learn and succeed, then take what we’ve learned outside. Work with what she can give (inside) initially, then increase the challenge when she is ready by asking her to then focus and learn outside.

One of our Thoroughbreds would pull back and paw when tied, working himself into a lather and becoming increasingly anxious. So I stopped tying him - for awhile. I worked hard at teaching him to release better to pressure and to be better collected emotionally and mentally - to be a calmer, braver, smarter horse. With prior and proper preparation, I then was able to resume - this time successfully (ie, no pulling back or pawing) - tying him.

During my liberty groundwork with our Quarab, I was trying to get him to do a specific task – instead, he gave me something else. He side-passed beautifully for me down a fence – at liberty. Hey, not what I was asking for, but I'll take it! I changed my body language appropriately and we side-passed in either direction down the fence. Now that we had the side-pass down, I re-asked him for the original task, keeping in mind the body language he had understood to mean “side-pass”, and making sure to communicate more clearly. It worked, and he gave me the double-spin I had originally been looking for.

I guess you can call it what you want, but I do allow my horses to have a say in what we do – it’s a part-ner-ship, after all. If I cater to them a bit sometimes, they are more willing to cater to me. Getting a horse to do what you want, willingly, is (relatively) easy. Establishing a work ethic in a horse who does not have one is even (relatively) easy. Getting a horse to do what you want, with exuberance, is harder and is the ultimate goal in my program. As Jonathan Field says, "take all the ropes off your horse and you know what you have". I should be able to take all the ropes off my horse and have him continue working with me in partnership - happily. He should actively seek me out. This takes work to accomplish however, and often involves some compromise as you increasingly earn the right to ask whatever you can dream up, of your horse.

Liberty work allows for expression from the horse – it’s the ultimate level of partnership. Your horse has to want to work with you, else, with no ropes to hold him in place, he is just going to leave. So you learn to work with your horse, allowing him to have a say in what you do as well, to express himself. The more you work with him, the more he works with you. Like Parelli says “you do a bit of what your horse wants, maybe he’ll want to do a bit of what you want”. Take what your horse gives you, work with him in a manner where he wants to offer up different things to you, then take what’s given and mold it. Pretty soon, you can ask your horse anything, anytime, and he will give it to you willingly.

Do I allow my horses to dictate everything? No, there are boundaries. There are times where a horse must be pushed, where he needs to be firmly guided and shown he can and should do what you're asking. Same as teaching a person - there are times to push a student and there are times to back off and return to that task later. You also need to make it fun to that student, which might include asking them what they want to work on today or what they want to do just for fun! If a particular horse really doesn’t want to be ridden and is excessively difficult or resistant, I’m going to a) respect their wishes and b) ensure my safety by not swinging my leg over. They've already made it clear to me on the ground, why would I ignore their wants and swing my leg over anyway? Doing so could cause them to escalate. If a horse is acting dangerous under-saddle, yes, I am likely going to get off. I don’t like getting hurt, especially if it is pointless to do so, if I can accomplish the same from a safer point (on the ground). Why would you get on a horse, or continue riding a horse, that is clearly not giving you permission to be on their back, who is telling you “no”?! Its 1,200lbs of pure muscle! Instead, I prefer to work with a horse in such a way that it wants to be ridden, to the point where, eventually, he never says “no”, and instead he always says “pick me, pick me!” when I go out to catch a horse to ride. If you become too frustrated with a horse because they won’t do what you want (for whatever reason), walk away – dealing with a horse while frustrated is inexcusable, we have to have the discipline to either not get frustrated in the first place (by arming ourselves with knowledge – but we’re human, so there are times where we will be frustrated), or to walk away and re-evaluate what we’re asking, how we’re asking it, etc. If it takes working with a horse in a particular area to get them to work with me, I am going to do it, so that I can then take that partnership we’ve built to ask that horse to now work where I want to. As in any relationship, there is a lot of give and take. It is not that a horse should "get their way” permanently, but you can back off a bit, better prepare them for what you are expecting of them (set them up for success), then eventually re-ask at a better time. This way their dignity is preserved and they want to work with you... respect is offered both ways.

Some won't agree with my take on training, some prefer a dictatorship or some variation thereof or between - so take my advice or leave it, but consider it. Personally, I don’t feel it should be all about us – this is another living, breathing, animal that we’re expecting to work with us, one we often rely upon and one whom we often also place at risk… shouldn’t it be about them too? I have a great respect for my horses – their dignity, their wants, their needs – are paramount to me. Wouldn't you do the same in a human relationship, with your husband or wife? Why would your horse be any different?

On a related (but seemingly not) note, check out the Parelli Liberty (Beyond the Round Pen) and Collection DVD’s – they were inspiring and really taught me a lot. They are what really got me thinking further on the above and inspired me to write this blog post.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NH applicable to the real world

One of the comments I hear from adversaries of Natural Horsemanship is that "it's great for groundwork but is not really practical for the real world". I have to be honest that I never understand what that is supposed to mean - how is a solid partnership with your horse not conducive to real world work like showing, or ranch work? I like being able to fully trust my horses because they fully trust my leadership, to be able to slow a horse with my seat rather than my hands (which should just be good horsemanship, really), and to have my horse working in full partnership with me, whether it be working cattle, doing dressage, or jumping. Using Natural Horsemanship-like thinking (which includes methods other than Parelli as well, including a lot of classical dressage, I find - etc) can enable a great working partnership that actually helps you excel in the real world. So to those who don't think Natural Horsemanship methods are practical in the show world, I give you (in addition to the O'Connors, Ian Miller, Karen Rohlf, and many other greats out there) the following exerpt from a recent Parelli e-news:

Parelli Trained Horses Win Big at the Missouri Fox Trotter World Show
Several Parelli students blew their own socks off last week with our Fox Trotters at the Missouri Fox Trotter World Show in Ava, Missouri. First up was showmanship, than came western pleasure. Horsemanship and reining were next. The Parelli patterns prepared their horses very well for these challenges. There were jumping classes and trail classes. One day was ranch horse day which included cutting, roping and working cow horse classes. They always remembered to put the horse first, occasionally scratching a class if their horse wasn’t mentally ready. By the end of the week they had accumulated 18 world champion titles, 26 Top 5 titles, and 5 top 10 titles! To top off our week, Nichole Copple riding Velvet, not only took home an amazing 13 world champion t itles, she was awarded the two highest youth titles that can be achieved. Nichole is the 2009 Youth Over-all Hi point World Grand Champion which included 13 classes. She also took home the Youth Ranch Horse World Grand Champion. Caitlyn Vaught with her horse Attu, came home with the Youth Ranch Horse World Grand Champion reserve. Caitlyn also came home with two world champion titles. So how old is Caitlyn? Just 9 years old!!! The Novice Hi-Point Championship went to Susan Engle on her horse Nova along with two world champion titles. Mindy Bertholdi came home with the Amateur Pleasure Hi-Point Reserve title. She and her horse Vegas are also the amateur reining World Champion. Hope Kohout and her horse Raffle were in the top 5’s and top 10’s. Tony and Jenny Vaught also showed in the open division for clients Lynne and Waland Burger and had a successful week as well. It was a wonderful time!

Point made :)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tethering horses

This is a short post, because I have only one recommendation: don’t do it!

I can recall one story my mom still relates whenever we happen upon a tethered horse together. A neighbour and good childhood friend of hers used to tether her horse for a good 7 years, with never an incident. One day, the mare’s owners returned to find their beloved mare with a broken leg, courtesy of the rope. This was a horse who had been tethered SEVEN years! She was as rope-safe as they come! Yet she still somehow wound up with a broken leg – and dead.

Others I have heard tell stories of how they’ve returned home at times to find their tethered, very rope-savvy, horses with rope burns on their legs. Horses are still prey animals! You can do your best to teach them to think (though many of these people tethering, I find, aren’t), to release to pressure, and all about ropes, but there is always the possibility that they might spook and become entangled in the rope. You’re not there to guide them or to help them. Prior and proper preparation can go a long way, but by tethering a horse you are constantly putting your horse in a situation where he is at high risk of being injured and killed. The longer you do so, the greater the chance that some day something will happen. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow – maybe not even with your present horse. But those chances are still there, and it could happen one day. It’s just not a risk worth taking, so please re-consider it.

If you feel you just absolutely need to tether your horse, here are a few tips I can offer to perhaps help:

1. Use thick, cotton rope that breaks away at either the snap (Parelli rope snaps are designed to break in the case of an emergency) or at the tether post

2. Use a well-fitting halter done up snugly that can break in case of emergency

3. Supervise your horse(s) at all times

4. Practise practise practise! Teach your horse to move off of pressure, to think through situations, and to (directly) work through being tangled in ropes (in a controlled situation).

Otherwise, you can also use electric fencing stakes to fashion temporary grazing areas for your horses, with one or two lines of electric tape/line. You probably only have to have the fence running hot the first few times, and then only the odd time thereafter, before your horses respect it enough not to go through it; teach your horses to respect fences by releasing to pressure and don't leave them in an area so short on grass they are tempted to test the fence.