Wednesday, September 30, 2009

FHOTD attacks again

You've done it yet again, Cathy. You know, the more and more I am around people, the more I really do like my dog! And horses.

I'll make this short, but I read the ad Cathy posted prior to its being removed (which always happens after Cathy attacks an individual - the media piece is removed). The other photos of the horse in question did reveal a horse who is pretty thin. However rather than using a select photo or two and writing an educational blog on thin horses and breeding - how to body score, how to put weight on those hard-keepers (we'll have one here soon, promise), etc etc, Cathy posted the actual ad for her followers to harass the sellers. This way, though, she can claim innocence - "I never told them to harass the ad posters!" No, but you broadcasted this horse, slapped the owners in the face (yes, the horse is too thin, but there is always another side to the story and Cathy could have politely, respectfully, and compassionately helped the ad posters out with a little education rather than tearing a strip off of them - people learn nothing from that), and provided your sheep with the means of verbally abusing the ad posters - resulting in the ad being removed from Craigslist. As far as Cathy's followers: why do you think it is ok to verbally abuse people over the internet when you wouldn't dream (I hope, anyways) of doing so in person, at say your workplace? A little education, in place of snarky commentary, could have gone a long ways to helping that horse. Seems like the Dalai Lama isn't just needed in Calgary...

On that note, I don't want people to harass Cathy if they disagree with some of what she posts either. We should all be demonstrating compassion toward one another; it would make our world a whole lot better place. In that light, I struggle with even posting this blog, but at the same time, I feel like Cathy should be called out on what she is doing, and I'm not verbally abusing Cathy. *sigh* call me a hypocrite, that's just my two cents.

Heavy horses

The “heavy” horse is the horse you’re under the impression will never be nimble enough to turn on a dime (I know I have, and clients of mine have been!), or who is constantly leaning on your hands (aaah, we love our OTTB’s, but they can love to lean!). How do you lighten such a horse up?

If you’re under the (typically, false) impression your horse cannot pick up that shoulder and give you a clean, light turn on the haunches – you might want to re-think the situation. It usually is not that the horse can’t physically do it (unless it's a skeletal/muscle issue), it is often that he won’t do it – either (1) due to lack of respect for his rider, (2) due to tension, or (3) because he has never been taught to be light.

1 - If it is a lack of respect that is the issue, the job is yours to earn your horse’s respect – play games on the ground that get your horse moving his feet more than yours: moving his front end around, moving his hind end around, backing up. Use assertive body language and increasing phases of “ask” until you get the response you desire. The Parelli 7 games are one great way to earn respect, roundpenning with plenty of changes in direction can be another. You can also earn respect under-saddle by working on impulsion through transitions, etc.

2 - If the issue is tension in the horse – circles circles circles – work on all sorts of patterns that include bends and circles. Keep your own body relaxed and free of tension. Earn your horse’s trust (not only in you, but in your leadership) and be consistent and fair. Challenge your horse and work on some wet saddle blankets! Use exercises that encourage relaxation and suppleness (Jane Savoie has some fabulous exercises that address such) so your horse does not 'lock up'.

3 - Teach your horse to release to pressure by asking him, first on the ground, to release to various points of pressure you apply on his body. Ask in increasing phases (hair, skin, muscle, bone) and release the instant your horse responds. Have long phases to start, and shorten the phases as your horse understands your request and thus as you ask more of him. Keep yourself light and always allow him the chance to be light!

For the horse who is leaning on your hands – quit giving him something to lean on! It’s as simple as that! A leaning horse is the result of a vicious circle - horse pulls, so your hands brace and harden, horse leans further, your hands toughen up even further...and so it continues. It's a two-way street. If you take away the contact, your horse no longer has anything to lean on. The first thing we did for my mom’s OTTB when we first got him off the track, was to remove all bit contact under-saddle and ride him on a looped rein. It was a little hilarious, because he felt like a fish out of water, floundering about as he tried to figure out what he was now supposed to do. No one was directing his every (leaning) step!! He had to take responsibility for himself, think for himself, and be light – there was no longer anything to lean on! He was a little confused at first, but quickly figured it out. Once he had a solid foundation, we then took it back up to the next level – contact. This is not to be confused with asking the horse to pick up the bit, which comes as a result of progression along the dressage training scale; picking up contact on the horse who is ready for it consists solely of picking up the slack in the reins to the point where you can subtly feel his mouth at the end of your reins - that's it. At that point you start developing the horse to where he eventually picks up the bit of his own accord, as a result of the exercises and patterns you're asking him to perform (using bend and inside leg to outside rein). For the less enthusiastic or established leaner, you can do two things when he goes to lean: close your legs and close your hands. Your legs should gently but abruptly bump him, effectively driving his hind under him a little more and causing him to pick up his front end. Simultaneously, close your hands abruptly as he reaches down to lean, allowing him to "hit the end of the rein". Lateral work and poles on the ground - exercises that require increased engagement, will also prevent your horse from leaning.

Please make sure to not confuse a horse reaching down and stretching over his back with a horse who is leaning - a horse who is leaning is putting a lot of weight in your hands, you will feel your arms and shoulders being dragged downward. The horse who is stretching over his back should be doing so while remaining engaged (at least mostly) and should be light in your hand. If you're not sure what your horse is doing or why, consult a professional.

Many times I feel horses are thrown into contact work without sufficient basics. A horse should be light on a loose rein first, should be responsible for himself (ie, maintain gait, self-carriage to a limited extent, and balance), and should know how to think for himself, first. He should be very responsive to weight shifts, to leg aids, and should be soft, supple, and relaxed. There should be no resistance on a loose rein and there should also be no dependance on that rein for control; it should be an intimate means of communication! Only then should the slack be taken up in the reins and the horse progressed up the training scale. At that point, the rider is solely taking up slack in the reins - not pulling on the horse's mouth or trying to initiate contact by the horse or what.

Another tip for the leaner is: impulsion. Transitions as well as changes in pace within a gait (such as a trot) work to get the horse working more off its hind end. A horse on his hind end is, obviously, not on the forehand and in a position to lean. A little squeeze when your horse goes down to lean forces him to step under himself better for a moment or two, which causes the poll to come up. In dressage, you work to the point where eventually the poll is the highest point in the collected horse - obviously he is not leaning on your hands by that point! You don't have to be a dressage rider to achieve the same lightness and level of collection, but you can do the same or similar exercises. Really effective can be to squeeze and bump gently with your hands simultaneously, as previously mentioned. Don't nag at your horse, but only correct him when he actually makes a mistake. On the note of exercises, I have found the book: Progressive School Exercises for Dressage and Jumping, by Islay Auty, to be extremely beneficial - I use it on a constant basis, whether working my western horses or my dressage and jumping prospects. A specific exercise you can do is to set up 4 pairs of cones, one pair at each "corner" of a 20m circle (creating a "+" or "x"). Space each pair of cones 3-4 feet apart, along the circumference of the 20m circle, with the goal of riding between each pair. Start by riding the circle at a walk, then progress to a trot, then finally a canter - don't progress to the next gait until the former is well-established. Ensure your horse is bent, supple, relaxed, and balanced going around the circle. As you ride between the pair of cones, slow the horse (if you're working on contact, don't pull back, just close your hands and relax your seat). As you leave the pair of cones, open your hands and allow the horse to move out again (you should just have to open your hands, if not, give a light squeeze - if impulsion is a problem, play some Point-2-Point or other such simple exercise). The goal is to teach the horse to sit back on his hindquarters and work off his hind end - by slowing he sits back in the first place, by asking for impulsion afterwards he works off that hind end. With the western horse, your hand and seat cues are essentially the same, even if you are working off a loose rein (if your horse has trouble "hearing" you, use heavier reins or shorten up the rein length).

Keep in mind also that the horse who is leaning is likely doing so due to lack of strength and balance. He is using his rider as a 'fifth leg' so as to balance, as opposed to using his hind end. The ultimate object is to work the horse in such a way where he has to increasingly engage (ie, lateral work, poles, hills) so he develops strength and the habit of carrying himself in a more uphill manner. Horses with a downhill build (ie, top of butt higher than top of wither) or with a low-set neck (ie, below the point of shoulder) will have a stronger tendency to lean and will have more difficulty rocking back onto their haunches - be patient! Such a horse will have limits to his ability to move in a more uphill manner. Horses, just as people, can also be lazy, which means they are not driving from behind and engaging as they should be. Same principles as previously mentioned all apply.

Last but not least, our horses are a reflection of us, so a tense body or hard hands = a hard mouth and/or a heavy horse. Keep your body and hands soft!! There is many a time I have had to consciously remind myself to lighten up my hands or legs – instantly the horse I am riding would lighten up as well. Tension in your own body can also reflect as tension in the horse too. Often, too, we just have to give our horses the chance to be light with leg aids - they sometimes surprise us! Always be as light as possible but as effective as necessary - make your corrections to be effective but always return to being light. On a related note, be sure to maintain correct position, as a leaning rider will also create a leaning horse who is on his forehand.

Don’t think your horse can be light and responsive in his mouth, or that he is physically capable of being light in his body? Think again - he can feel a fly landing on a single hair. It's about the horse's mind and responsiveness to your aids, not about whether or not he can feel you. He feels you - your job is to teach him he can be light.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leaving halters on

I have to go back on my word a bit in regards to leaving halters on hard-to-catch horses…there are special circumstances where I feel leaving the halter on can be ok. Special and rare, but they exist.

This comes about as I admit to leaving a halter on our newest horse, Cody. Where we are at for the month of September and part of October (until the Thanksgiving weekend), there are no facilities to make catching Cody easier. I cannot really lock him into a paddock as he would not have enough feed (the horses are on grass - hay out here isn't feasible/worthwhile; they'll be back on hay upon returning home) and he would have no water (not really feasible to pack it to him every day). In addition, even in a small paddock, it would probably take a good hour or more to get a rope on him. He remains suspicious of people (though he is coming around), but is particularly suspicious of ropes yet (we haven’t done too much work on it yet and will tackle it more directly once we return home). Working on ropes with him is something I want to take on while I have a rope and halter on him – doing so at liberty (unless in a roundpen, which we do not have right here but do have at home) would just result in him losing trust in me and then being impossible to catch. Anyways. So in the mean time, due to his substantial fear issues, I am leaving a rope halter on him – one that easily comes off in the event he catches himself on something (and it has come over an ear a few times). I do not advise someone to leave a halter on a horse who just doesn’t want to be caught (for whatever reason) – in that event, there is a lot you can do (usually): walking down the horse, cornering the horse, approach and retreat, using body language to have the horse face you, bribing the horse (short-term while you work on the issue from the other side – getting the horse to the point where he enjoys being with you so much he wants to be caught), etc etc. We’ve discussed leaving halters on horses and hard-to-catch horses in the past. Leaving a halter on a horse can be dangerous and is a last-resort option; it is also a temporary option as you work on a horse’s fear-based reactions. I still cringe when I see pastured horses with halters on, particularly foals (because they haven’t been taught to release to pressure or to think situations through). On the other hand, I can understand the odd time where leaving a halter on a horse is necessary. So, what can you do to make your horse as safe as possible while wearing her halter?

1. Either have the halter as loose as possible (while still staying on) or as tight as possible (while remaining comfortable to the horse) – not in between. It has always been a debate throughout my years with horses of which option was best (I think Pony Club usually recommended a snug halter), with pros and cons on either side of the fence. If you have the halter on snug, the possibility of a foot becoming entangled is reduced, yet if the horse gets his halter caught on anything, there is less chance of the halter coming off in the event of an emergency. However, a snug halter reduces the risk of something being caught in the first place. With a loose halter, there is more of a chance the horse could get a foot caught, but the halter can also come off the horse’s head in an emergency. Either way, use a breakaway halter or rig one by using a breakable tying material (thin baling twine, etc) to tie the halter together rather than doing it up as usual. This allows the halter to break apart in the event of a caught foot or other. My recommendation would probably be to have a snug, well-fitting halter that will break apart should the worst occur.

2. Check the pasture/paddock and remove anything (possible) the halter could be caught on.

3. Make it a temporary “solution” while you work out your horse’s catching issues – the longer that halter is on, the greater the risk your horse could be injured. The minute that horse starts being possible to catch (even if it takes 15min and takes some work), remove the halter. Be willing to do what it takes to catch that horse and to improve future catcheability.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Just as humans, horses will have the tendency to perform better on one side than the other. Our OTTB Link, is quite obvious yet in his one-sidedness when he is under-saddle: his left side is slightly less responsive and he is less inclined to relax and soften completely when travelling on the left rein. On the ground, however, his right side was the side that gave us so much trouble at the start - he was downright reactive and untrustworthy on that side and if he was ever to kick at you, it would be from that side.

What are some reasons for one-sidedness?

Brain studies rule out the common myth that horses lack corpus callosums, or that a horse's corpus callosum is under-developed. Transfer of information between the right and left hemispheres occurs easily.

The function of a horse's vision can also have a part in a horse's "apparent one-sidedness" (more on horse's vision in the future).

Since we, as humans and creatures of habit, typically only handle horses from the left side (something stemming from those sword-wearing days), we have the potential of creating one-sidedness. Always saddling, haltering, etc, from the left side, can (in an extreme case) create a horse who is unused to people on his left side and who lacks trust in people on his left side. Mounting a horse consistently on the left side, for example, can change a horse's musculature. Longeing a horse unevenly - more on one side than the other, will create a horse stronger on one side than another. One myth I want to dispel briefly is that horses off the track are one-sided because they are only worked solely in one direction. This is completely untrue, as anyone who has any horses off the track can appreciate. Horses on the track are worked on a track with a broad turn that feels much as if the horse were travelling in a straight line - it is not like longeing a horse on a 20m circle. Also, racehorses are taught to pick up both leads as equally as possible.

Another reason for possible one-sidedness is chiropractic misalignment. A horse who is sore or uncomfortable on one side (perhaps imperceptibly so) will favour one side versus the other, which can further exacerbate the problem by building up muscle on the side the horse is using more.

How can you tell if your horse is one-sided?

Sometimes a horse's one-sidedness is obvious - either to the rider, to a spectator, or to both; other times the changes are so gradual we don't notice them with time or the one-sidedness is imperceptible to us. Being acutely and consciously aware of your horse's movement is vital to figuring out if your horse is experiencing one-sidedness. Have a professional set of eyes on the ground (both with the horse under-saddle and without wearing a saddle - assessing movement as well as musculature). Assess your horse without the gadgets and equipment - loose wearing just a halter and lead or even at complete liberty, in an arena or (preferably) roundpen. Is he arced to the outside in one direction, without you there to (perhaps inadvertently) support and direct him? If you and your horse are at an appropriate level to do so, liberty riding can really show where a horse is at - a one-sided horse will arc on circles and/or along straight lines.

How can you fix one-sidedness?

First off, try to make sure your horse does not become one-sided in the first place by working each side equally (both mentally and physically). Ensure your horse is properly chiropractically aligned. Mount equally from both sides and, preferably, from a mounting block, which reduces the strain and pressure on your horse's back and whithers. If your horse is already one-sided (whether to pressure or muscularly), work the "off" side more often than the "good" side, until your horse is "even". Persistence!!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Actually, you don't ride in Parelli

Honestly. We just don't ride (sarcasm intended).

*sigh* yet another ignorant post coming from Cathy over at FHOTD:
Well I guess they are safer if you never actually get on them!

This is a common misconception among some, that those who practice PNH don’t ride…which is absolutely ridiculous. Have any of these individuals ever been to a savvy conference?? Seen Pat ride Casper bridleless among mares? I have to say that my methods are primarily based upon the PNH system…and *gasp* I ride. Every. Day. I know, shocking, right?

Cathy’s ridiculous ignorance-filled comments in purple.

“Linda was jumping with no helmet”
So? Cathy, are you hoping to impose your riding beliefs on everyone else? Shouldn’t this (helmet use) be a personal choice? You yourself posted, in this very post “I do believe in freedom of choice for adult riders who are aware of the risks”. So what’s your problem?

Re: the Parelli’s response (as per Cathy’s blog):
Pat and Linda are not telling people not to wear a helmet, they are simply explaining their reasons for not doing so. They point out that you can still be injured despite wearing a helmet, and that their program is designed to address the root issues that often are cause for injury to the rider – an unsafe horse - rather than to bubble-wrap someone prior to throwing them on an unsafe horse. If you create a balanced partner, you significantly decrease the risk to yourself – moreso than a simple helmet (or vest, etc) would. Plain and simple.

“Seriously, you’re not this stupid, right? You can’t be. First of all, you seem to be arguing that ALL horse accidents are caused by bad behavior on the part of the horse.”
Cathy, are you actually reading any of what the Parelli’s say? Or is their message just washing over you because you’re so caught up in seeing through your own rose-coloured glasses?

Here is what the Parelli’s said that sparked Cathy’s comment above:
“Our program is intended to address the safety problem at its root – which is behavioral – rather than address the symptoms of it. Our message is about developing the relationship with the horse, and the savvy level of the rider, so that unsafe behavior is addressed long before the rider gets on the horse – rather than allowing the unsafe situations to continue to occur and hope that the helmet, body protector, etc, will protect us from the consequences.”

In language Cathy and her sheep can comprehend: the Parelli’s are NOT saying that ALL horse accidents occur due to bad behaviour on the part of the horse, but that their program is designed to prevent the accidents that are the result of inadequate savvy on the part of the rider and/or behavior issues (spooking, bucking, rearing, bolting, exploding, etc) on the part of the horse…which, we have to admit, are most accidents. Do people get hurt simply sitting on a horse? Sure! Do they get hurt in freak accidents? Yup. Can we eliminate a lot of accidents by educating our riders and developing our horses? Yes!

“Secondly, you seem to be arguing that there is some way to 100% cure bad behavior in a horse so that the horse will never misbehave again and therefore no accident will ever occur…It’s a living creature! It is going to have bad days! There is something out there that will scare it and you can NOT do ANY kind of training/desensitization that will 100% prevent that from happening.”
Comments such as this really broadcast your ignorance of the Parelli method, Cathy. Let’s deal with this point-by-point:
1. “There is some way to 100% cure bad behaviour in a horse so that it will never misbehave again and therefore no accident will ever occur”
First off, just to get it out of the way, there is always the potential for an accident, so no one can ever say that no accident will ever occur. I don’t think that is what the Parelli’s are saying either (I say that based on the email provided as well as what I have heard them say over the past 6 years I have stayed tuned into them).
Is there a way to 100% cure bad behaviour? Well, is there a way to have a harmonious partnership with your spouse? Your friends?
2. “it is going to have bad days!”
Yes, horses have bad days, just as people do! Fighting in a marriage is normal – but it is about how you fight, not that you fight. The same can be said for your partnership with your horse. Want to know if they’re having a bad day? Work with them – even just 5 minutes on your way in from the paddock – on the ground prior to a ride. You find out what side of the paddock your horse woke up on and work out any kinks – you re-focus them on you, re-cement your partnership with them (re-establish respect and trust), get them thinking rather than reacting, and work them into a better mood. Sometimes it takes me an hour to get a horse “balanced” through groundwork (rare), sometimes it takes me 2 minutes (particularly if I have been working with them for awhile). Sometimes I don’t ride a particular horse that day (rare)! It depends on where that horse is at in its development, it’s base horsenality, etc. If you sufficiently develop the horse and develop a partnership with them, bad behaviour IS eliminated. That’s what a part-ner-ship is all about. It involves efficient and flowing communication between both horse and rider so that any disagreements are worked out before they manifest as escalated “bad behaviour”.
3. "There is something out there that will scare it and you can NOT do ANY kind of training/desensitization that will 100% prevent that from happening.”
In addition, what people often deem “bad behaviour” (such as spooking) can also be the result of a horse’s lack of trust in their rider’s leadership – as you develop a partnership, one of the foundation blocks you construct is that of trust. Horses who are fully trusting in your leadership are not spooking (unless you are), because they’re trusting that where you ask them to place their feet is safe! My horses might ask me about certain scenarios, but if I say it’s ok, they accept that it is ok and continue on – yes, without spooking. The most “spook” I get from a higher level horse is a surprised body shiver. Also, as you teach a horse to think, they react less. PNH isn’t about training or desensitizing a horse to not spook, it is about developing the type of partnership between horse and rider to the point where the horse is following the rider’s direction and therefore not spooking because their rider is offering them solid direction and leadership.

“Or what if the horse has pain you haven’t discovered yet? Back soreness turns many a safe older packer into a bronc, sometimes with very little warning.”
Really?? Are you kidding??! Bucking without (or very little) warning due to back soreness? What have you been doing to your horses, Cathy? Horses don’t just explode for no reason due to back pain. They go through phases – unless maybe you typically ignore all their “quieter” prior warning signs, then yes, a horse might escalate his communication to bucking without “apparent” warning (only “not apparent” because you ignored it). The warning signs were there, you just didn’t see them.

“Ok, you heard it from the Parelli people. If you are not supposed to ride until your horse is “safe,” you are going to have a long wait because there is no way in the world to accomplish that! HORSES ARE NOT SAFE. They’re a thousand pound animal with a mind of their own.”
How would you know whether or not you will have a long wait, Cathy? Have you tried it? In my twenties, I already have a terrible back I am re-habbing, so now, more than ever, I am careful what horses I ride and when. I now am thankfully privy to a method at my fingertips that allows me to work with horses and develop a solid foundation from the ground up, before ever getting up into that saddle. I can work out all those kinks on the ground without jeopardizing my safety in the saddle. Why wouldn’t I do it? As a horse trainer, sometimes I admittedly do have to push the envelope a little and get on a horse before I feel they are completely safe, but thus far the preparation PNH has allowed me to do with horses has ensured that I can be safer than ever. Some examples of the “long wait” it took to get on a horse’s back?
Horse #1: Dutch Warmblood cross mare, previously abused – session #2
Horses #2/3/4: QH mares, unstarted – approximately one week
Horse #5: Percheron x TB mare, highly reactive and unstarted – approx. two weeks
Horse #6: QH gelding, unstarted and very untrusting of people – approx. two weeks

Of our own horses:
Experiences range from PNH enabling me to ride some of our horses in the first place, to continuing to ride them while doing the Parelli groundwork (and thus building a stronger foundation) simultaneously. Parelli Natural Horsemanship actually – surprise surprise – has a huge riding component. The new Patterns are about 50/50 groundwork and riding and can be worked on simultaneously.

Take the time it takes so it takes less time – Parelli.

Groundwork can create a strong foundation and if it means staying off a horse’s back for a little bit to ensure that that horse is later safe enough to ride, that is what I am going to do! Safety first!

If horses are not safe, Cathy, we should perhaps be re-thinking riding them at all! Why can’t they be safe? As far as them having a mind of their own – yes! They do! Which is why you learn to work with that mind and to develop a partnership where a) they want to work with you and b) where communication is harmonious between horse and rider.

Cathy, do you honestly think that your methods, and that riding a horse is the ONLY way of working a horse through problems and fears? Personally, I find that most, if not all, problems between horse and rider are solvable on the ground first. Honestly. Then you take what you have on the ground, up into the saddle, for success and safety in the saddle! Knowing that there is another way, I sure as heck don’t want to work a horse through “problems and fears” in the saddle if I don’t have to and if my safety might be compromised! This is a 1,000lb animal – I’d rather NOT be on its back if it might explode in fear!!! Let’s work it out on the ground first, then progress to working under-saddle.

“…trying to argue that a rider ISN’T safer with a helmet…”
The Parelli’s are not arguing that a rider is not safer with a helmet, but that they might not necessarily be safer with a helmet (depending on the situation) and that there is a root issue to address that can do more for a rider than a helmet alone.

“…or that somehow good horse training can eliminate the need for any helmet…”
No, but it can reduce the risks to the point where some choose not to use a helmet.

“…completely IGNORING the part that rider skill/balance and just plain luck play in how accidents happen.”
“Our message is about developing the relationship with the horse, and the savvy level of the rider”. (Taken from the letter Cathy posted, from the Parelli’s.) Cathy, do you actually read what you post and write? The Parelli’s DO address rider skill and balance, and if you had any knowledge of their program, you would realize that they are ALL about the rider’s skill and balance. This isn’t a horse-training program so much as a people-training program. It is about developing both horse and rider, through proper horsemanship skills.

This isn’t about the Parelli’s advertising that people should not wear helmets. I will try to dig up an old email they sent out in their Savvy Newsletter that accurately portrays this. The Parelli’s do advocate for helmet use, but they also advocate for free will – it is up to you to weigh out the risks and decide whether or not to wear a helmet. PNH is a method that has been around for eons but that has been marketed by the Parelli’s and developed so the average person can develop a strong partnership with their horse and limit the risks we take with our horses.

Sometimes what people say just boggles my mind. If you don’t like a particular method, fine. But take the time to realize that you might not know all about that method, that you just might not fully understand it and how it works. Cathy, your ignorance of PNH is just as appalling as your closed mind – why would you comment on a method you obviously know so little about??! Furthermore, if you have all these qualms and questions, ask them of the professionals within the method itself!!! Simple? Makes sense to me – that way you find out the real answers rather than surmising what they could be saying based on your own faulty interpretation.

I recently emailed the Savvy Team concerning helmets and will post their response shortly.

Lastly, the following comment from FHOTD (in response to other comments posted there), by "Bianca", I found hit it spot on:

Okay, I have got to speak up because this is just ridiculous for intelligent people like you all to be judging a program you obviously are not informed about. We’re grown-ups right? Let’s be reasonable and rational. Please hear me through. I have to first say that I believe in safety first and I wear a helmet most of the time.

First things first, Caton Parelli (Pat Parelli’s son) did NOT get “kicked in the head” by a horse!! He was born with hydrocephaly and had a stroke very young. Please check your information before you go using it as evidence against something. If you want to check on this yourself, see Pat’s autobiography “Raise Your Hand if You Love Horses” for the full story about Caton (and you can always get it from the library). And for the record, Caton Parelli is now showing in cutting, riding bridleless and bareback and doing extremely well. All this when doctors said he would never walk or talk. Now if that isn’t determination on the part of a father and son, I don’t know what is. Pat Parelli is an amazing father and has helped Caton go above and beyond all odds.

Okay, I feel that you may have mistook the point of the email. If you go back and read the email from the Parelli’s you will see that when they refer to “behavior” they are referring to both the behavior of the horse and person, with the emphasis on the person. In your argument against the first paragraph you state several situations in which it was the mistake of the person where they got into an accident (i.e., not tightening the girth, dismounting incorrectly). The email states “developing the relationship with the horse, and the savvy level of the rider”. The Parelli’s entire first level focuses on safety and teaching the person savvy (savvy = know-how) in understanding and handling their horse and what to do in “uh oh!” moments. They teach “flight checks” so we know whether the horse is safe to get on and they teach how to be constantly cognizant of the horse’s state of mind the entire time we are with them (whether riding or playing on the ground). We practice, practice, and practice getting off in an emergency!

The comment you made that the Parelli’s completely ignore balance is said out of misunderstanding of the program. If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to educate you a little. Linda Parelli has come up with amazing and wonderful concepts of fluidity with horses: striving to physically become “one with the horse”. She goes through the biomechanics of the horse and the rider and what happens in the horse’s body when you are sitting a certain way. This is taught through simulations, explanations, and experiments. When I first started riding years ago I had a natural, balanced seat. Then, to my demise, I took jumping lessons (now I’m not bashing jumping, just the way I was taught) from an instructor that taught me to sit on my croch and bow in my lower back. This brought on a lot of back pain and I felt VERY insecure; like a top just barely balancing on the saddle (which is what happens with you sit even the tiniest bit forwards). Because of the pain this brought on, I thought I couldn’t ride anymore because that was the “proper” way to sit. Now that I’ve learned from Linda Parelli’s concepts and practiced them with simulations before getting on a horse and practiced them on the horse, my natural seat is back and I have security and balance again! And best of all, I do not have any pain when riding!! I can ride bareback and sit a trot easily because I am in tune with the horse’s movement.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t wear a helmet and neither did the Parelli’s. They have no qualms about people wearing helmets and they tell their students that it is up to them whether they want to wear a helmet or not. What Parelli is saying is that no one should use a helmet or any other safety device as an excuse for poor savvy and a poor relationship with a horse. Wouldn’t you agree?

Accidents happen. I know, I’ve been there. But I have not had a major accident since starting the Parelli program 5 years ago. And when I had a minor incident it was because I made a misjudgement and I take full responsibility for that. I then say “whoops” and go back and learn more, analyze the situation, and think how I can better prepare for a situation next time. And believe me, I have avoided many situations in which I could have been seriously hurt because I read the horse and adjusted the situation.

And as for the comment about having extraordinary numbers of accidents in the Parelli world, that is also said out of lack of information. I have a wealth of Parelli friends and I RARELY, if ever, hear of even a minor accident. And if I do hear of an accident it is because of some freak incidence where no one was at fault and usually the person was wearing a helmet anyhow.

If you don’t “like” the Parelli’s that is fine, but do not judge their principals and techniques if you don’t even know what they are. As for the comment on the incidence of someone “beating their horse over the head” I’m sure that was not a true Parelli person and I would have had to see the incidence first-hand. A stick, bit, rope, halter, or anything else (even a bucket!) can be used for ill in the wrong hands. Putting an orange stick in someone’s hands doesn’t make them a Parelli person and doesn’t make them beat their horse with it. Sadly, I have met people who “say” they “do Parelli” but in fact they do not. Lesson there: take everything with a grain of salt.

And as another educational opportunity, the carrot stick is not something magical, it is an extension of one’s arm…that’s all it is. If you’d like more information on how it is used, I’m more than happy to explain that further. Please, if you don’t know what something is used for, please don’t make fun of it. If I didn’t know what eye glasses or a bluetooth headset or an arm prosthesis were used for, would it be intelligent or polite to make fun of someone who used it?

In closing, if you don’t like the Parelli program, that is fine. We’re not shooving the program down your throats. It’s a resource here if you ever want it. Those of us who are in the program are very happily living our dreams safely and progressively. If you are too, that’s great! More power to ya! You do your thing and we’ll do ours, how about a truce?

Blessings and savvy on!


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Natural Disasters

The following is a magazine article (Horse Canada magazine, Sept/Oct 2009 issue)that I felt hit the issue right on the head! My personal comments in orange.

Natural Disasters
By Laurie J. Blake

Like any other training system, natural horsemanship doesn’t provide a magic bullet but requires education and commitment to get results.

Levi Walchuk on No Public Dncing in the Bridleless Cutting at the Big Sky Futurity and Aged Event Aug 11-16, 2008 in Great Falls, Montana

A few years ago, a group of us travelled to watch a show Pat and Linda Parelli were presenting in Guelph, Ontario. My friends were keen about “natural horsemanship” and the Parelli system; I went to see what all the fuss was about. I intended to be unimpressed, but I wasn’t able to stay that way.

While there was certainly a good sales job for the Parelli system going on, the horsemanship of the husband and wife duo was clearly evident. The main part of the show involved each of them working with an unfamiliar horse chosen by the audience, applying groundwork techniques and their seven games.

I left impressed with the skills of the husband and wife duo, and more than impressed with natural horsemanship than I had intended. And yet, even before attending that show, and many times since, I have worked around, instructed or cared for some “natural horsemanship trained” horses and have been just as unimpressed.

I’m not alone in this. If you gather together a group of horse people and talk about natural horsemanship, for every success story told, you’ll likely hear just as many, if not more stories of huge failures.

Nature vs. Nurture
Maybe, then, the question we need to ask is: Is being a natural horseman (or woman) something that certain people just have, something they’re born with? Or, can anyone learn how to become a natural horseman?

According to the three different natural horsemen/women I’ve talked with over the last couple of months, it is absolutely possible to learn the skills and acquire the ability to “speak horse,” as “Canada’s horse whisperer” Chris Irwin calls it. In fact, these trainers maintain that until one learns to understand the way a horse thinks and responds, it’s really not possible to be truly successful in working with horses at all.

Equus in: I completely agree, regardless of whether you’re an Olympic rider, or what. I’ve seen high level riders competing at the international level still not getting along with their horses – they could be so much more successful with that horse, even.

Surprisingly, despite their disparate approaches and methodologies, most “natural” horsemen and women agree: learning how to understand how a horse thinks, how it “speaks,” and using that knowledge in how you approach a horse, ride it, and train it is what “natural horsemanship,” or horse whispering – choose your term – is all about.

“Whether you call yourself a horse trainer or not, as soon as your horse sees you heading towards him, you’re teaching him to respect you or not,” says Ron Pyne, an Elgin, Ontario-based Parelli 3-Star Trainer.

In this age of self-awareness and self-help, it’s probably not surprising that most of us who spend much, if not most, of our time around horses realize that what we do directly impacts our equine companions. Maybe that’s why the idea of training horses, particularly training our own horses, has moved to the forefront of many riders’ minds over the last few decades – and, perhaps, why we’re seeing so much attention focused on “natural” training techniques.

Lyons certified trainer Wendy Downer says she used to train horses and was almost always disappointed by how owners subsequently worked with the horses. Now, under the banner of Kinder Horsemanship, the Elmvale, Ontario-based natural horsewoman trains owners and riders to train their own horses.

“Training the riders and horses together takes longer, and the progress may be slower,” Downer says, “but the two, rider and horse, learn how to complement each other.”

Creating our own problems
So why then, when applied with the best of intentions, does natural training (like any other type of training) so often prove ineffective? In some cases, misguided training has created horses that are so poorly trained that they spend their lives as someone’s lawn ornament, or are sent off to auction to become someone else’s problem, or become residents of the meat-man’s feed lot.

One person who was part of the group with whom I first saw the Parellis was impressed enough that he followed the system with his horse Dax, to some effect. “Dax and I were working on level 2/3 of the Parelli system – say “system” because that’s what I think it is. I don’t believe it’s a new paradigm on horse training, however, I do believe that what the Parellis have done is to systemize a set of procedures that were not available to the general public before. In this way the Parelli system has brought a new level of understanding to horsemanship for the average person.”

Equus: man, I couldn’t agree more!!!!

He did warn, however, that “if it’s not done correctly (ie. with proper supervision or instruction) most often what happens is that incorrect behaviour is encouraged instead of discouraged.”

As I talked with and listened to the three natural trainers, I realized the answer lies, as it does so often, not with the concept itself, or with any particular system, but solely in the way in which natural training is applied and understood, or misunderstood. As I discovered from my original contact with the Parellis, the proponents of the systems are compelling, knowledgeable, and passionate horse people who are well aware of the risks of natural training and more than willing to suggest ways to succeed with horses.

What you really need to know about horses
“A horse is ‘naturally’ a paranoid, attention-deficit, passive-aggressive victim waiting to happen,” says trainer, communicator and coach Chris Irwin. But, he says, what you see with a horse is what you get. Horses don’t lie, as the title of Irwin’s first book states: they tell you exactly what they’re feeling and even what they want from you, if you know how to listen.

Yet, Irwin has not been shy about uncovering problems with some of the application of natural horsemanship principles. “I believe we can “aid” our horses to evolve their nature into being calm, focused and willing partners.

David O'Connor jumping bridleless

Equus in: this is what I mean when I talk about “developing” a horse.

(cont.) But there are a lot of people playing games with horses in the name of natural horsemanship and the horse’s body language is upset: swishing tails, inverted backs, bending/pushing their body laterally into the person during the groundwork, flattened ears – but people don’t see it. They just live in their romantic illusion of ‘natural’.”

Equus in: this happens so much. On the other hand, some of the above body language can happen as part of the progress, or evolution, of the partnership between you and your horse. However it should eventually disappear as the partnership progresses.

Wendy Downer agrees that there are many people attempting to apply natural training principles without understanding what natural training really means. “Humans tend to carry too much emotion into training,” she says, “but horses live in the moment and don’t carry the emotional baggage we do.”

Natural training, she believes, does not equal aggressiveness, but it is about safety – for both the horse and the rider. People need to know where to draw the line with horses and how to establish the pecking order, as horses themselves do very clearly in a herd.

It’s not the round pens, fancy sticks, rope halters or other equipment that either make the training work, or cause the problem, it’s how people use or misuse them, Downer believes.

Equus in: like Jonathan Field says, “the bit doesn’t train the horse”. That follows for any piece of equipment. The person is what trains the horse. The tools you use make a difference, but they are not what actually "train" the horse.

“We still have to ‘know horse’, have that horse sense,”
she says. “This can’t be learned in a weekend or through occasional instruction, but through experience.”

“How often is it not the system that is the problem, but the misunderstanding or misapplication of the system that is causing stress in a horse?” asks Chris Irwin. “Depending on the system, this is happening a LOT! It happens to us all and I will be the first to admit that there are people are there trying to do what I teach – thinking that they are doing it correctly – but not doing it correctly and, therefore, the results are often limited."

“And it’s not just the riding. In the round pen or in ground work games in natural horsemanship there are too many horses being stressed out because of the body language of the person,” he says. “HOW you are shaping your body is far more important – it suggests whether or not you are in fact herding the horse or sending the message to capture it, which always stresses a horse out.”

Speaking horse
Through the Parelli system, Ron Pyne believes there are seven keys to succeed in natural horsemanship: attitude, knowledge, tools, techniques, time, imagination, and support. If all of them are not present, success will be limited.

For Wendy Downer, becoming a natural trainer means changing the way you think. We need to be constantly and actively aware of what our horses are doing and learning, not simply reacting to what they’ve already learned, often unintentionally. Riders and trainers need to be in control of training, the horse, and the situation – at home and away.

“In fact, we need to expect 110% from our horses at home, so that when concentration is down, say at a show, everything still remains safe,” she says. Sometimes, this control is achieved simply by relaxing. She suggests three simple rules to apply when training horses:
1. YOU can’t get hurt
2. The horse can’t get hurt
3. The horse (and trainer) has to be calmer after the session is done than when it started.

What is the goal in natural horsemanship? Chris Irwin says, “While people talk about partnership and harmony and respect and trust, too often they are taught to be “alpha” in their approach. But, very few horses need us to come on as alpha. That’s too much and it sabotages trust. It’s not balanced. I teach that we need to read our horses well enough to be just who they need us to be to find the balance of respect with trust.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Training phases

Btw the photo currently being used under the blog title is of the newest addition to our herd, Cody. He's a 6yo Paint gelding with QH influence (looks to be cutting horse) whom we acquired from a prospective client. I love the look in his eyes and wrinkles on his neck in this photo. You can follow the progress of this wonderful horse at Through the Eye of Equus.

I had just started into the Parelli method and was struggling with my Warmblood cross, Koolaid – a 3 year-old at the time. It seemed like every step we took in our training, we took ten steps back! I was at my wits end, I couldn’t understand what was going on.

“It’s alright,” the barn owner reassured me, “for every two steps you take, you will take one back as well.”

It did not make sense to me at the time, but I accepted it – it certainly was an answer to my frustrations! Since then, however, I have learned otherwise.

If you are communicating effectively with a horse, there is no reason to actually take steps back! There are a few situations, however, where your horse might seem to digress in its training. Take note though that your horse is not actually digressing but that you might rather just be working out kinks – working out existing, underlying issues in the foundation. Once the foundation is solid, the training can continue in leaps and bounds again. You are temporarily going back and re-building the foundation, without actually "taking steps back", so that you can then pick up where you left off to continue progress. This is of course assuming that you are communicating with your horse efficiently and training in a successful fashion! So, assuming that the issue is not you, here are a couple of phases I have found some horses to go through:

The fearful
We just recently acquired a 6yo Paint gelding whom we call Cody, who was apparently abused by his original owner (we’re the third owners since the abuser). As a result, he is extremely suspicious of strangers and wary of peoples’ intentions – very fearful at times. Our first ride out, he did everything I threw at him, without question. By our third ride out on the trails now though, while he still does everything I ask, he is starting to question me a little. He might pause outside the gate, “are you sure we should go out on a trail ride?” Or before a creek “are you sure this is the way to go?” Once I assure him that yes, we indeed should be going out on a trail ride or yes, this is where I’d like you to go please, he plunges ahead willingly. But there’s that one moment of question, where he just makes sure.

Why would he do this when before he would just go where I asked without say? Why would he start questioning me now?

Answer: because he is now becoming comfortable enough in my presence to do so.

With the fearful horse who has been abused, they do what you ask without question, for fear of the repercussions that may occur if they don’t. They might not even be all that reactive about it, but they won’t question you – they dare not. However as you work with them and earn their trust, they become more comfortable with you, and so they also feel more comfortable with questioning your leadership because they fear repercussions that used to occur, no longer. As you further develop your partnership with your horse, however, you begin to work more in harmony, in true partnership, to the point where they do not question your leadership (they might pause or flick their ears, but they won't flat-out balk or such).

The disrespectful
The horse who pushed me into Natural Horsemanship is our Warmblood cross gelding, Koolaid. He was three at the time and none of our (light) under-saddle work was resembling…well…under-saddle work. I could count myself lucky if he so much as trotted a couple of steps. A canter? Hah! You could forget that! My 4H leaders at the time had no brilliant ideas and in the mean time, he was becoming worse. He was pushy, he kicked when he pleased, he was nippy, he struck, he reared, he bucked, he resisted – he could be downright dangerous when the mood hit him. When I attended the Parelli tour stop that year, I was awed, and determined to forge a partnership with Koolaid akin to the one I had seen Pat and his stallion Casper share. Someone forgot to tell Koolaid though. Throughout the first three years of his life, I had unwittingly created a monster. All my handling from day three of his life onward had made him comfortable around me, but I had failed to earn his respect (major mistake on my part). Now, all of a sudden, I was challenging his authority with the Parelli NH games. He’d been playing games with me all along, getting me to move my feet, making sure I was below him in this two-beast hierarchy, and when I started knowingly playing the games with him he’d been playing with me all along, he stepped it up a notch to make sure he stayed on top. Suddenly we seemed to digress even further. At least pre-Parelli, he would walk under-saddle, or follow me on the ground! He became even more dangerous* and I felt like all the work I had put into him thus far was falling apart. In reality, we were returning to the foundation, to the roots, and fixing things from the inside out. So, temporarily, it did seem like we were going backwards, when in fact we were simply building a stronger foundation - and addressing the underlying issues to do so - so as to later leap ahead. I have found the same will occur with any horse who has (usually inadvertently) never been taught to respect humans. At first they might rebel (even lightly) against someone asking them to step down from that little pedestal that has been created for them, but if you keep at it diligently, they come around and that foundation of respect that was previously missing is built so that you may continue in all areas of training, in harmony.

* I am not saying that PNH, specifically, might bring out dangerous behaviour in your horse, but that any work that challenges your horse’s authority might cause them to retaliate. The key (as I later learned) is to push your horse to grow but not to retaliate towards you – challenging a horse who thinks he’s top horse can be dangerous and is usually not necessary. However, some retaliation may occur when you start to play with your horse, particularly games that involve dominance (ie, where you ask your horse to move his feet, etc) – this is normal for some horses. Please seek professional help if you are having difficulties with your horse – safety first at all times!

Another phase that I find some horses go through is a hard-to-catch phase…most often with left-brained horses. Right-brained horses are typically naturally very willing and want to be part of a herd, want the security of a herd – which they soon learn you can offer. Left-brained horses, however, I find are more comfortable being by themselves and are ok with not being caught. Left-brained Introverts especially, I find, don’t really care to work. The first week, everyone is happy to be caught – working with you is new and intriguing. By the second week, however, they’ve got it figured out and don’t really care to be caught. Week three, same deal. In the mean time, you’re working hard on creating a partnership where your horse enjoys being around you. By about week four, however, they’re figuring out that being caught isn’t so bad after all. They enjoy being with you and even playing with you in the arena, and even become keen on being caught.

So while it might seem at first that your work with a horse is moving backwards, in reality your horse’s newfound pleasure in avoiding being caught is simply a reflection of everything else that is going on. Sometimes the timeline is shorter, sometimes it is longer, but it is the timeline I find most typical with some of the horses I work with.

These “backwards” phases (when we are doing things correctly) are simply the result of having to build (or re-build) something that is lacking in the foundation – respect or trust, etc. It’s like a house with a crumbling foundation. You pick up the house, re-build the foundation, then set the house back down on its new, solid foundation and all comes together! If you were actually going backward, you’d have to work your way all the way back up to the top – knock down the house and re-build the house and foundation from scratch, but since it’s simply an issue with the foundation, you can cement the foundation and still have everything at the “top”. Keep in mind that these are just phases – if you keep on working on the path to success, everything will eventually come together. How do you know if you’re on the right path? You don’t always, which is why it can be important to seek help from a professional who can teach you to communicate efficiently and who can tell you what is and what is not normal or to be expected when you’re on the correct path. Keep in mind though that phases such as the above can occur, be normal, and that you just have to have the tenacity to work through them!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Barbed wire

Quick quip on barbed wire fencing after once again hearing Cathy spout off against it in yet another blog last week (…sorry, I still don’t think you need to own one). First off, it is a pet peeve of mine when someone yet again incorrectly reports that Pit Bulls were the aggressors in some attack, chase, etc.

1. There is no such thing as a “Pit Bull”. There are three breeds that are commonly referred to as “Pit Bulls”: the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. I am not really going to get into it here except to say that “Pit Bull breeds” are breeds that require strong leadership or structure and guidance, same as some horse breeds require stronger leadership than others.

2. Dog breeds commonly referred to as “Pit Bulls” are commonly demonized for the wrong reasons – for the breed, when the owner is often to blame either for mishandling the dog directly (ie. training dogs to fight) or indirectly (ie. not establishing adequate leadership). Cathy allowed herself to be yet one more individual to mis-report and demonize.

3. How often has an individual mis-guessed your horse’s breed? The same happens all the time with dogs. I’ve been asked on occasion if our Doberman cross dog is a Greyhound. A Greyhound! When we actually had a Greyhound, no one had any idea what it was (and btw, the Doberman cross throws strongly to the Doberman side – you can barely detect the other breed). If you do your research, you find that most often what was once first reported to be a “Pit Bull” was actually something like a (as in this case) wire-haired mixed breed (how different could you get?). Or a Lab. If you’re going to report a dog attack, wait until the full details surface before reporting dog breed, unless you are knowledgeable on dog breeds and have seen the dogs yourself.

Sorry, just had to rant on one of my biggest pet peeves. But back to horses. Here, Cathy spouts off again about barbed wire:

“AGAIN…barbed wire is NOT under ANY circumstances, horse fence.”

Okay, so you’re going to front the dollars and time, Cathy, to re-build everyone’s fences? The reality of the situation is that many people do have barbed wire and, for many people, that barbed wire is their only option. I cannot speak for other areas of the country/continent, but up around here (BC and Alberta), nearly everything is barbed wire. To re-fence a quarter section (160 acres), including paddocks and smaller pastures, with something other than barbed wire is not only expensive but also very time-consuming. Personally, when we do eventually purchase a property, all our smaller paddocks and pastures will be fenced with something other than barbed wire. However re-fencing an entire quarter section (or more) just might not be possible – definitely not right away, prior to putting horses in it! When my family ranched, our horse paddocks were board, but our pastures on the rest of the 160 acres were all barbed wire…with never a barbed-wire-related injury to any of our horses. So, can barbed wire ever be safe? In my opinion, yes. Optimal? No. Worthy of condemning people because they used barbed wire? No.

What can you do to make barbed wire as safe as possible?
1. Keep it tight, with no sag
2. Check it regularly! Downed trees can destroy your fence, other animals might break through it, it might become rusted and break, etc.
3. Use 3 (minimum) to 5 strands
4. Walk the perimeter with your horses when they are first set loose in the pasture and/or turn them loose in the pasture during the day so that they can see the fence
5. In areas of low visibility (for whatever reason), tag the top strand with coloured tape that your horses will see so that they can see the top strand of fence
6. Don’t leave loose ends lying about

While barbed wire is not the favourite horse fence, horses can successfully be kept within its confines, especially in larger areas and in smaller numbers. If you can afford (both time-wise and financially) to replace all your fences…be my guest. Just understand that barbed wire is not some evil contraption designed to kill all horses and that it can be safe for horses with proper management (both with the horses and with the fences).

Monday, September 14, 2009

He walks so nice too

This is sort of an extension of the blog Horses as our Reflections, my apologies if it seems I am repeating myself.

"He walks so nice too!"

The above words were ones I overheard as I walked down the street with our dog, Aly. Never mind that Aly is a girl and so it should be “she walks so nice too”…but that’s besides the point. The individuals passing us in the street were obviously commenting on our pup to one another and thought she was well-trained as well. This is the same dog that, whenever I drop her off at a kennel or return for her after a weekend away, is dragging her handlers about. She’s over 50lbs of wagging tail that has the strength to tow your average human wherever she so pleases. Yet despite her renegade leash-walking with any stranger bold enough to take hold of her leash, that pup always walks obediently next to myself or the SO, without so much as threatening to pull. In all likelihood though, the individuals passing us on the sidewalk probably would have been added to Aly’s pile of leash-pulling victims. So what does this have to do with horses?

So many times I am given horses to train or I hear of horses in training, where the owner seemingly expects their horse to be a robot. Their “he walks so nice too” is a “oh, he walks/trots/canters/spins/jumps so nice”. What people fail to understand, however, is that what we make in the trainer’s pen is not always what goes home to the owner. At times the owner can get more out of the horse than we did and at other times the horse goes home and the owner gets less out of the horse than we did (more common). So far I have been graced with wonderful, understanding owners, however as a trainer you will one day stumble upon the owner who becomes disappointed upon bringing their horse home and finding out their horse does less than they expected. As an owner, you might one day bring a horse home to find it performs at a lower level than you had expected, than you were told. Keep in mind it might not be the trainer’s fault, but rather yours.

It always bugs me when people comment on a horse “he’s so relaxed!” or, conversely, “he’s a nutcase!”, as if every horse is a tense wreck waiting to happen and this ONE horse stands above the others because he is SO calm, or as if most horses are calm, yet this one stands out because he’s “crazy”. Every horse is perfect and has the potential to be the perfect partner. Yes, horses have a base personality. We’ve got two horses, a Thoroughbred and a Quarab, at the moment who are extremely high energy – it’s a challenge to keep them relaxed and their minds busy. We’ve also got two other horses, a QH-bred Paint and a Warmblood cross, who are naturally very relaxed and laid-back. However, as a horseperson, you have the capabilities of “balancing out” a horse. The high energy horse can learn to think through situations and remain calm, while the low energy horse can learn to have impulsion and to answer with “yes sir, yes ma’am, how far how fast?”. When every horse is “balanced”, every horse really is equal. Herd situations can help “balance” a horse, and correct horsemanship can do the rest. So, with that said, it’s more about the rider/person than the horse.

Horses are our reflections – what we do directly affects their behaviour as well as their general attitude. Sometimes all the credit really should go to the horse – our horses put up with so much! Other times though, the credit should go to the person involved, for keeping the horse the way they naturally are and for further developing from there, or for developing a damaged horse into an appropriate partner. Or, for creating a complete wreck out of the horse! If you want a calm and relaxed horse who “walks nice” – create one. If you’ve got a “nutcase”, it might have more to do with you (either originally or through lack of horsemanship throughout your partnership with said horse) than you’d like to admit.

Case in point: I have been asked to do an assessment on a horse who has “catching issues”, likely, from the sounds of it, thanks to handling by his previous owner. Teaching a horse to be caught could be done in a way akin to teaching a dog to come, or to sit and stay…but it likely won’t hold long. The horse who’s been conditioned to come will only come when the appropriate conditions are met (treats, threat of a beating, etc etc) – if those conditions disappear, so will the willingness to be caught. However, the horse who doesn’t mind being caught, or who even goes so far as to “catch his owner” is the horse who enjoys being with his rider, who enjoys the work they do. Hard-to-catch is not about not wanting to be caught for the sake of being caught, it’s about not wanting to be caught for a specific reason: a pinching saddle, hard hands, fear of the rider, dislike of the work the horse is being asked to do, preference for grass, etc.

From the owner’s seat, it’s important to understand how much of a role you play in your horse’s behaviour, attitude, and performance. You might send your horse to a trainer, but your horse is not a robot! Which is why it is vital to understand your horse – why he does what he does, how to get what you want (including using the same cues your trainer used), how to further develop him, and that he won’t be the same in your hands as he was/is in your trainer’s hands. It is important to understand what your trainer is doing, why they are doing it, and how you can continue it once the trainer is gone. Horses are individuals and respond according to what we, as individuals, ask of them, either indirectly or directly. Lastly, every minute you spend with your horse you are training him - keep it in mind!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

World-class halter horses

Again. Yeah, I know, sorry. Fugly's latest blog re-surfaced my utter near hatred towards AQHA halter horses. I'm still trying to work out why these horses invoke such strong feelings in me... I guess it seems like such a waste of good horse, and I mean, these horses are hideous! And are they actually functional? At all?

Seriously Secure
Nice colour and chrome, but I can't decide whether he is morbidly orbese, or just a cross between some Quarter Horse mare and a Belgian Blue bull. 140 Open Halter Points, 27 Amateur Halter Points, 27 Grand Championships, 10 Res GC's, PHBA World Champion, APHA World Champion, 3 APHA Res World Championships, 2003 Honor Roll Yearling Stallion, 2004 Honor Roll Open and 2yo Stallion? What's this world come to?! He is THE definition of over-muscling, he's post-legged... I can't even articulate all his faults - I think I'm going to be seriously sick...and whatever happened to flat bone? Or, you know, CORRECT LEGS??? How, again, did he win Worlds? And Championships?? Of course, he is Hypp N/H - yes, let's keep passing THAT on. Seems his kids are just as "successful" as he is... if that is how you define success, anyway.

Here's Mighty Clue, another World Champion stallion. He's already got World Champion kids, as a 2005 model. We're not breeding for longevity and long-term soundness here - I want to see this guy WORKING under-saddle, and I want to see him in ten years. Oh, he's also HYPP N/H.

Just when I thought halter horse people couldn't get any worse, I see the most hideous mare I've ever laid eyes on - Sonny's Red Lace (top photo), being bred to Shanes Bake (middle photo). He's HYPP N/H too. The grey mare (bottom photo), also N/H, is a classic example of what Shanes Bake produces (she is proudly displayed on the breeders' website!). C'mon, halter horse people, shouldn't you know better? I want to know how these horses make it to WORLDS with such hideous conformation!?!! HOW ARE THE JUDGES ALLOWING THIS?!!! Why are the REWARDING it with championship titles?!?!! If I had have seen Cool Stylin Star: (second photo of him as a mature stallion):

as a yearling (top photo) in my barn, I think I would have cried. In between vomits. He would have been instantly gelded. What I want to know, is what happened to stallion Sir Cool Skip:

I think I could honestly mistake him for an elephant in the above photo. He died at 17 years of age. And was HYPP N/H. The breeders of these horses even go so far as to claim their horses are athletic. Yikes!!!

Is this a current, 4yo photo of this stud? I can't pick out a single quality trait in him that I would like to see passed down to one of my foals. Especially those legs. This is a stud - shouldn't we be a little more picky?? I don't care if he's a natural green, nevermind perlino! Shitty is still shitty, regardless of colour.

I realize this is old news to many, and I do not like to directly bash, but man, I just had to rant. Don't even get me started on these "World-class" breeders purposely breeding horses to pass on the HYPP gene. Shame on you. And shame on you, AQHA, for allowing these horses (N/H) to be registered and to compete. This isn't something new. Any last remaining speck of respect I had for the AQHA? Vanished.

A HYPP attack:

...a very mild one.

So, I'll leave off with that, and with a video of yet another AQHA favourite, Carribean Kid:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Photo shoot

I felt this was an appropriate post for those who are taking photos for fun or for sale...I find it frustrating sometimes to get a horse's ears pricked forward for photos, particularly recently with a mare we are selling, who often just rests her ears back, making her appear grumpy. Ugh!

So, some tips:

Shoot to Thrill (tips on getting those ears forward)

Taking Horse Pictures (tips on lighting, posing, etc)

Some further tips I have to add:
- have a minimum of 3 people: one to attract the horse's attention, one to hold and set up the horse (preferably even one to hold, one to set up), and one to take the photo! Don't make the mistake I have of thinking you can do it all yourself. Likely not possible!
- use something to attract the horse's ears
- teach your horse ahead of time how to set up properly - don't try to do it come photo time!
- have the horse cleaned up - bathed, clipped, bridled or wearing an appropriate halter
- be dressed appropriately and professionally
- appropriate lighting is vital

And, here is one of my newly-discovered favourites:

Fine Art Equine Photography

Yann Arthus Bertrand Photography
- an old all-time favourite of mine!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Intelligence v/s trainability

"When I hear somebody talk about a horse or a cow being stupid I figure it's a sure sign that animal has outfoxed them."
Tom Dorrance

As a horse trainer, I often hear stories about "stupid" horses, or an owner commenting that a particular horse is not the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, Google or YouTube "stupid horse" and you get a heck of a lot of results. Yet I haven't met a single horse yet whom I would classify dumb. Which got me to thinking. Is it intelligence people are rating, or is it actually just trainability?

I've seen horses do some pretty intelligent things, including things that pretty clearly required reasoning. I've also worked with some horses who seemed to have practiced what I taught them the day before, overnight - they performed what I asked, what they'd just learned, flawlessly the next time I asked. So how much can be attributed to trainability and how much is intelligence? It can be difficult to differentiate at times. In the mean time, some examples of trainability:

One horse I work with, a Thoroughbred, I thought maybe really was the first dumb horse I'd ever met. Until he actually did learn a few tasks exceptionally quickly. Which caused me to think, and re-evaluate. He learned so fast because he was in a setting he enjoyed, where he wanted to learn. When motivated, he is very responsive (notices every detail in my body language) and is an extremely quick learner, but when he isn't, he just doesn't even try (I think his young age and thus maturity level definitely has something to do with it as well). Which is why he never made it as a was never a problem with intelligence, just with trainability.

Another example is a mare I currently work with - very independent. I was working her in an outdoor ring until just recently, and she didn't seem to be picking up on things. This is a mare I know is brilliant, as I have worked with her previously - she has blown me away with her intelligence and/or trainability. Yet she just wouldn't learn and seemed to even have forgotten previous things I had taught her - so frustrating! Instead of focusing on what I was trying to tell her, she was so focused on extrinsic distractions. So I took her away, moved her into a small pen away from her old, distracting, friends, and started working her in an indoor arena. Suddenly she "remembered" what she'd previously "forgotten" and she was learning all sorts of new things. She'd always been smart, and her trainability skyrocketed in a different situation.

There are enough stories out there where horses have used reasoning and obvious intelligence to help their human or horsey friend, to get help, to let us know they are sick or hurt, and to do simple tasks such as open stall doors or otherwise solve a puzzle, that I don't think we can question the intelligence of the horse as a whole. In my experience, I have yet to meet a stupid horse and I honestly think such a horse is rare - perhaps one example could be a horse deprived of oxygen at birth and thus experiencing brain damage.

I think as well that our perceptions of why horses do the things they do also plays a role when we're evaluating a horse's intelligence. We're human, predators, and to boot, we're not in that particular horse's head. So we really have no idea what they're thinking - why they might do certain things. I think a lot of times people make assumptions about a horse's intelligence without looking at things from the horse's perspective. Maybe the horse is indeed intelligent, but just doesn't want to learn, or is just doing something because he's a horse. On a related note, in my opinion a person's assessment of a horse's intelligence is determined also via that person's training approach or methods. The trainer with the right approach for that horse might experience a great deal of success and thereby reveal the intelligence of a horse, whereas the trainer with the wrong approach for that horse might experience little success and thus draw the conclusion that horse lacks intelligence. This means a horse's level of trainability and the trainer's approach will both play a role in the determination of a horse's level of intelligence.

Here are some links to check out as they pertain to equine intelligence:

Testing Equine Intelligence - From Horse & Rider

The Thinking Horse - Cognition and Perception Reviewed, Evelyn B. Hanggi, MS, PhD

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The lazy horse

"He's really lazy!" Or stubborn. Or dull. Take your pick, we hear it all the time in regards to horses. Don't get me wrong, there are horses out there, just as people, who just don't naturally have the greatest work ethics or who naturally are not as responsive as we would like. But partnerships with said horses don't have to be frustrating and fraught with conflict.

It is not about the horse. You, as the rider, have the choice of creating either a soft and light horse who is responsive to your aids, or a dull horse who ignores you. What people a lot of times do not realize is that a horse being lazy has more to do with them than the horse. The horse might be more inclined to be lazy or stubborn, but if you are working in partnership with said horse, they're working in partnership with you...which means they're working in harmony with you rather than resisting you.

Lack of impulsion is a lack of respect. The respectful horse says "yes sir, how fast, how far?" rather than "do I have to?". This is not the horse's fault though, because respect cannot be expected until it is earned - by you, the rider. Build a higher level of respect between you and your horse, as well as a higher level of responsibility in your horse, and you get a higher level of impulsion. Build up your partnership and they'll do what you ask of them because they want to and not just because you said so.

So, how do you solve the problem? Under-saddle, here is what I do with all the horses I work with (...from the Parelli website - in blue, with my comments in boring old black italics...):

Most people are told to kick a horse to go, which is ridiculous when you think about it from a horse's point of view. Imagine if you were kicked in the ribs on the way to the dance floor... what would your attitude be towards that dance partner? Would you even want to go?

Kicking a horse to go is one of my pet peeves - it's got to be one of the rudest things you could do to a horse (in my opinion). Kick any of our own horses and you will either have a horse bolting because you just applied a lot of sudden pressure (unnecessarily), or a horse giving you a sharp little warning buck because he's ticked off you "spoke" to him so rudely. I remember John Lyons instructing the rider to spank in lieu of kicking and I could never agree more.

By using four distinct phases of polite assertiveness, the horse can quickly become a willing partner; happy to take our lead to the dance floor.
Phase 1 – Smile with all your cheeks! Take a long focus, stretch your hand out in front of you with the reins, and tighten your cheeks. If the horse has not moved forward from this suggestion, continue through the phases and be ready to release as soon as there's forward movement.
Phase 2 – Squeeze with your legs, starting at the top, then all the way down to your heels (turn your toes outward to make smooth contact). This is not a strong squeeze. If you are straining or getting cramps, it's too strong! Remember, a horse can feel a fly land on him.
Phase 3 – Smooch while holding the squeeze, do not let go with your legs.
Phase 4 – Spank. Start by spanking yourself lightly slap your shoulders from side to side with the end of a rope.
Allow the rope to grow longer and keep up the flapping rhythm until it starts touching your horse on the sides of his hindquarters, letting it get progressively stronger if he has not responded.The moment your horse responds, release your legs, quit spanking, and keep smiling. If he stops or slows, repeat the phases again. Always begin with Phase 1.

At first, release when the horse gives you the slightest try. It's the release that teaches, so it is absolutely crucial to release at the right time so as to teach the right thing and to reward the horse for the effort given. Expect a lot, accept little. Progressively ask for more. Also, when you're first starting, use long phases - as you progress with your horse, you can use shorter/quicker phases as you ask/expect more responsibility of your horse.

Some common mistakes:
- Probably the most common mistake is kicking out of habit, quickly losing whatever respect you just earned, so really keep a watch out for this.
- Another mistake is to keep squeezing and/or spanking after the horse has made the effort to go forward. This feels unfair and confuses the horse because they don't know what the right behavior is.
- Be sure to put slack in the reins. It's a common habit to put contact in the reins when the horse goes forward. This is sometimes enough to confuse a horse trying to do the right thing. This is where the Level 2 Harmony Program techniques can really help.

Begin each time at Phase 1 and be prepared to go to Phase 4. Finally, be sure there's enough 'life' in your body when you ride. Think about how fast you want your horse to go and bring up enough life in your body to stimulate that... then let the squeezing, smooching and spanking support it. Your horse will learn very quickly how to get in tune with you.

I also do a lot of patterns with the unmotivated horse, including one I learned in a Jonathan Field clinic - Point to Point. I start at one point in the arena - Point A - and halt. I turn the horse to another point in the arena - Point B - and go through my phases quickly to get a w/t/c (depending on where the horse is in its training) to Point B. Between Point A and Point B, I only correct - first with leg and seat, then with hand - as necessary, and I don't nag. If the horse is moving at a sluggish pace, I leave him alone unless he changes gait - I don't correct him as he is about to make a mistake, I only correct him once he actually makes the mistake. As soon as we get to Point B, I ask for a woah (relax my body, then use reins if necessary). The horse has to stop on the exact point I picked out - if not, I move her back to that point. The horse knows where that point is (you should have your eyes on it and your rectangle of aids - composed of your hands and legs - should have kept the horse in a straight line toward Point B), so expect them to stop on that exact point. If you don't care, the horse won't care - the lack of precision will reflect in all aspects. We rest a moment (depending on the horse, the really unmotivated horse gets to rest the longest - reverse psychology), I pick out a new Point B, and so we continue. Rest is a huge motivator, particularly to the unmotivated horse - I use it in everything I do; whenever the horse does something to my satisfaction, she earns a rest break. Essentially this game does a number of things:
- it teaches the horse responsibility and earns their respect (ie. do as I say when I say or I go through these particular phases, stop when I ask where I ask, etc)
- teaches snappy, light departs and responsive, light halts (I relax, horse stops) - great transition work (which is a result of respect). The horse soon starts offering more.
- motivates the horse to work for you!

Another thing to keep in mind is to do something the horse enjoys! Mix your patterns and games up in the arena, hack out, send your horse over ground poles and cavelleti, heck, even work on your patterns and exercises outside in a field. The best thing you could do: give your horse a job to do. Everything improves when you do, including respect level, because the horse wants to do what you ask. Pretty soon that carries over to areas they're maybe not so psyched about (like arena work) because you've set the precedence of them wanting to do what you ask and so they do as you suggest anyways, even if the activity is not all that enjoyable to them.

On the ground, you can earn a higher level of respect through playing games horses play out in pasture together. Personally, I use the Parelli 7 games as well as the patterns: I have the horse navigate patterns in increasing levels on the ground, have them move their front and and hind end around, have them circle responsibly (without my micro-managing) around me, etc. Get your horse moving her feet more than you move yours. Be fair but assertive (but never aggressive). your horse's friend and act like a worthy partner they want to work for.