Thursday, May 27, 2010


Rearing can occur for a number of primary reasons:

1. The horse feels trapped or restricted
2. As an evasion

Reason number one is the most common and is borne of fearfulness or reactiveness on the part of the horse. This can be the horse who is being held back by its rider and who thinks the only answer is 'up', or the horse who simply becomes right-brain on his own and explodes upwards.

Reason number two can be a result of number one (the horse feeling trapped) as well, or can simply be the result of a horse who doesn't want to try and figures rearing might be a successful method of evasion. In my experiences however, most horses do not rear as a result of evasion, yet rearing is often misinterpreted as such.

In either situation, the answer is both to develop a stronger partnership between horse and rider and to develop the horse to think as opposed to react - to be calmer, braver, smarter. Safety first, which means working the horse from the ground rather than under-saddle, if necessary. It is okay to dismount!! With the horse who is reactive and fearful, the ultimate goal is to develop greater confidence in the horse himself as well as his confidence in your leadership. As prey animals, horses are very claustrophobic animals whose primary instinct is to flee and so if they are restricted up front by the bit, they might perceive their only option to be 'up'. Often a rear is preceded by head tossing - the horse's attempt at gaining control of the front end. Keeping this in mind can enable us to possibly avoid causing the horse to feel trapped. What, specifically, can you do?

- if your horse is flighty, develop relaxation and suppleness in your horse on the ground first
- remain calm and ensure your own body is relaxed
- allow your horse some slack in the rein - if you must correct your horse (ie. slow forward movement), you can either correct by squeezing the reins gently, as if you had a baby bird or a sponge in your hand (half halts) whilst simultaneously relaxing your seat, or gently (gently!) bump the outside rein to slow your horse or close your hand on the outside rein (using one rein rather than two prevents 'trapping' your horse)
- encourage your horse to be left-brain and thinking, rather than right-brain and reactive, by having him think - use patterns and have him disengage his hindquarters often

What about the horse who is simply evading your pressure and perceives the right answer to be 'up'?

Spend undemanding time with your horse - grazing, grooming, just hanging out. Try to change his perspective from one of resistance, to one of willingness. Prey animals will naturally resist and do the opposite of what a predator tells them, so it is your job to act more prey and less predator, and to ask in such a way that your horse can, and wants to, answer 'yes'. Sometimes this means earning further respect under-saddle (check out the 'point to point' exercise) and on the ground, and other times it means not offering a force the horse can oppose against (for example, don't micro-manage - constant nagging with, say for example, your legs, offers pressure your horse can and will eventually resist against; instead, allow the horse to make the mistake then correct, and make the right answer easy and the wrong one hard). Use phases of 'ask' so that your horse has the chance to respond to a lower phase of pressure, and reward with rest (etc - whatever motivates your horse) when your horse chooses the right answer. 'In the moment', you may correct your horse via a bump with ONE REIN to set him off balance and force him to drop back to all fours. This is best done in a bitless or a plain rope hackamore, so you are not bumping the horse's sensitive mouth via a bit.

What not to do in the rear:
- do not push a rearing horse forward until he is back on all fours or unless he is yet only a couple inches off the ground - you run the risk of fueling the reactive horse's response and having him flip himself
- do not whip a rearing horse - you will more likely only add fuel to the fire
- do not pull back on the rearing horse or you could pull him off balance and flip him
- breaking objects (eggs, boards, glass) over the horse's head - it might 'work' but it did not solve the root cause of the rearing and carries the major risk of causing head trauma and killing the horse (I've heard too many stories of horses being accidentally killed this way!!)
- put a tie-down or martingale on the horse - it is a band-aid solution that only further restricts the horse and can incite further claustrophobia and panic in the horse. Futhermore, if a restricted horse rears too high, he runs the risk of losing his balance and being unable to regain it due to being tied down by the tie-down or (standing) martingale. If you fear the horse might smash its head against your jaw, get off and work it out on the ground - whatever the issue, it can be solved on the ground! Safety is paramount. A running martingale can help in some circumstances, but it can also limit your use of the rein. Such equipment should ONLY be used to re-teach a (extreme) rearing horse in a professional's hands, and will be accompanied by training methods that address the ROOT issue while keeping the trainer safe.

Above all, in either scenario, it is never fair to punish the horse for being a horse. The rearing horse is simply the horse who is resorting to an escalated level of communication - 'shouting'. Figure out the root cause of the behaviour and solve that root cause, whether it be ill-fitting tack, misalignment chiropractically or muscle problems, other health or physical issues, or rider problems. Develop the horse, develop the rider, and the miscommunications disappear. If you are not sufficiently experienced or you find yourself becoming frustrated, walk away and seek out a professional. Rearing issues can be serious so if in doubt, consult a professional.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jump refusals

This video was passed around the interwebz community awhile ago now, but I still wanted to comment on it myself:

Michael Morrissey on Crelido, USEF WEG Selection Trials #2.

Here is some additional info on the case.

13 times, he hit that horse. I fully understand what he was doing, though I honestly do feel that his attempts at pushing the horse over the water jump a second time - ensuring the horse did not refuse twice, was fueled by frustration and anger. They were not simply a result of 'nerves' and I do not think that one can say 'he did not know what he was doing' (as some of his supporters have claimed). If he lost his temper so bad that he had no idea what he was doing, we've got problems. We all have days or times when we are frustrated with a horse, but that is the time to get off, or to quietly finish what you are doing - with the restraint not to punish the horse for your own emotions. Self-control and self-discipline is paramount and I would expect someone competing in the Grand Prix ring to be the absolute epitome of self-control and discipline. They have to be - they have spent years getting to where they are at so they've had plenty of time to develop themselves as horsemen and riders, and they are in the public eye.

Personally, I do not believe in punishing a horse, barring only some (minor) circumstances. That doesn't mean there are not boundaries and that I do not establish respect (which goes both ways!) between a horse and I, but I do not usually punish specific behaviours - I find it either creates a resentful horse or a scared one, at either extreme ends of the spectrum. Even if it does not incite 'extreme' behaviours in the horse, you at least see the results of punishment in moderation in the horse who is slightly jumpy, or in the horse who isn't quite giving its best. At the GP level, you see the results often - the horse who jumps after a refusal because it thinks it is about to be punished (which it likely is at home!), or in the horse who is bucking or generally fighting its rider. How can a horse concentrate on the jumps if it is busy fighting its rider or if it is worried about its rider's response to something it might do? He cannot possibly give his very best effort.

Punishing a horse after a refusal or runout is definitely a no-no in my books. If it is done judiciously in certain circumstances - fine. The reason I say no to punishment though specifically in regards to jumps? The horse is a prey animal and as such, it has got to have a lot of confidence both in itself and in its rider (in its rider's ability to keep it alive) before it is going to place itself in a situation it thinks could potentially go awry for it. This includes jumps - anything a horse has to go over, under, in between, or through represents a potential 'cave' or 'trap'. To go over a jump, a horse is exposing its belly, and to go between those standards, he has to essentially go through what could become a 'squeeze' that could potentially (in his mind) trap him. As such, he's got to fully trust his rider and have confidence in himself. If he is particularly worried about a certain jump and lacks confidence, or senses something wrong in the ride, or does not have the greatest partnership with his rider - a refusal is going to happen. A horse might be obstinate about a jump, but they are still refusing for reasons relating to their natural instincts - you cannot blame a horse for fear. So, instead, I have always just worked on the root of the problem, whether it be respect, or trust/confidence, or a combination of both. You build the horse's confidence in general, you build the horse's confidence over jumps specifically, and you build up the horse's confidence in your ability to lead. If it IS a respect issue whereby the horse is simply saying 'NO!', the answer is simple: earn the horse's respect.

When I first purchased my Thoroughbred, getting him to go over jumps on the ground was a trial and he was always very reactive about it. I hadn't jumped him either on the ground or under-saddle for months and last week I put him over some barrels (about 2') both on the ground and under-saddle. On the ground, he floated over them beautifully without any hesitation and completely relaxed and calm. Under-saddle, to my surprise, was the same! It was not that we had worked on jumping specifically, but we had worked at developing our partnership, and him in general, and the result was a confident horse and horse/rider team that was calmly jumping.

I think that Morrissey might have simply made a mistake and his methods at home are not necessarily abusive, however it takes a certain mindset to hit a horse that many times, regardless of how you typically work with a horse. You have to regard your horse in a certain manner to feel it is okay to hit him 13 times. This may have simply been a 'bad moment' for Morrissey, but a) it is never ok to have such a 'bad moment' and b) he set a fantastic example for all other riders out there. An example that said: it is okay to hit your horse to get it over a jump. This is NOT okay.

On that note, whip overuse is not restricted to the jumper ring. Just as a short aside, I attended, as a spectator, a schooling show at Amberlea Meadows a few weeks ago. We'll put aside the fact that 95 percent of the riders were see-sawing and forcing their horses into a 'frame' (croup-high, tense necks, behind the vertical - all inclusive) and take particular note of use of whip that was obviously occurring at home. A good 95 percent of the riders we saw that day had very choppy walk-to-canter departs. The horse would frantically 'hop' into a canter. It took me a couple of riders to figure out what was going on, why these horses were reacting and moving in such a way. They are using whips at home. The friend who lives locally and who had accompanied me confirmed my initial thought - "oh yea, they use whips all the time at home". She was referring to the dressage riders at her barn. Rather than getting a clean and smooth walk-canter depart that was natural and flowing, these riders were smacking their horses into the canter, to ensure there were no trot steps between. You guys do realise a correct walk-canter depart can be taught, with no trot steps, without the use of a whip?? It boggles my mind why someone would reach for the whip. It's no wonder the horses are tense and stiff beyond belief. At a hunter show at Rocky Mountain Show Jumping (John Anderson's Farm), I watched a girl pop her mare hard on the nose with her whip for - yup, whinnying. Calling out to another horse. Her parents and trainer stood next to her and continued their conversation with her as if nothing had happened. They were lucky it was just one pop and thus what is considered 'the norm', else I would have been in that ring within seconds. A non-horsey friend was with me and was baffled - "they can do that?" he asked, turning to me. I hadn't even said anything or expressed shock yet. "Yea, that's what happens," was my reply. Because it is. All my life I've grown up with that type of behaviour. To the horse world, it's just punishing a horse for 'bad behaviour'. To the outside world, it's 'hitting a horse on the nose because it whinnied to its herdmates' (who represent to it, its survival). Personally, and this might sound 'harsh' to some, but I do not see too much of a difference between Morrissey's behaviour and that of the dressage riders or the little hunter youth who smacked her mare on the nose, beyond the extreme and obvious, of course. You're operating from a certain mindset to pop a horse for what you deem as 'bad behaviour' - typically, anyways. It's a mindset that, in general, lacks respect for the horse and its dignity. Not okay.

Roundpens & Trainer's Competitions

Alright, bear with me as I get into the rhythm of things and get into a proper posting schedule! I had a number of blogs I would like to do over the following weeks, including some that relate to some of Cathy Atkinson's blogs.

The following is a response to Even the Lord Did Not Try to do it in 3 Hours! It is actually a very good topic and one I can definitely speak on, having done a Trainer's Challenge myself (whereby I had 4 hours to train a colt) and being a horse trainer myself as well. Below is the video Cathy specifically comments on:

Some highlights of the video, so we are all on the same page:

0:00 we can see the trainer push the horse to seek comfort in him (the trainer), by pushing the horse away whenever it goes to leave, and by removing pressure when the horse shows signs of wanting to come in and 'join up' with the trainer
0:20 the trainer teaches the horse to follow the feel of the rope and to give to pressure
1:10 general desensitization
1:21 the horse is following the trainer of its own accord, at liberty (no rope)
-> more desensitization, particularly to the rope around the pastern
1:56 the horse's leg is caught in a rope so that the ground person maintains control

"God wants us to scare the living shit out of unhandled horses and exhaust them into submission!" - Cathy Atkinson

I don't know what video Cathy is watching, but in the one I saw, the one above, the one Cathy is supposedly commenting on, I don't see any horses 'scared to shit' or exhausted into submission! I fail to see the sweat streaks, severely lowered head, stumbling steps, etc of an exhausted horse, and while the horse reacts occasionally (as to be expected), the horse calms quickly as well and is never scared to an extreme. The Arabian mare I am currently working with shows more fear than those horses, and that is if her shadow moves or her tail blows (in the wind) unexpectedly! Oh, the horror! It is not rocket science and it does not take an animal behaviorist to see that these horses are not excessively stressed. Is it the way I train at home? No. Does that in itself make it horrid? No. I honestly think that how the horses were worked with in this video (at least what was shown) was not outside the horses' best interests. The result was a calm, relaxed horse who was willingly following people on the ground and who was quietly moving out under-saddle. Due to the prior and proper preparation (given the time constraints), the horse is not even excessively worried and relaxes considerably and visibly throughout the session and particularly after a few moments under-saddle. This is not how a person would work with a horse at home, but in this case working with a horse in such a short time frame where auditors can see and better understand the overall process of starting a horse under-saddle (albeit condensed), can be beneficial.

When Cathy mentioned the horse's back leg was pulled up, I admit I was worried. I imagined the horse's front or hind leg tied up so that it was immobile. Common practise in some circles and obviously not my (training) cup of tea. That definitely can be traumatizing to a horse. That was not the case here, however. The horse was desensitized to ropes from the start and in particular was desensitized to ropes around the pastern, beforehand. The horse was also taught to release to pressure. Then, as part of due process, the trainer mounted the horse. The horse's leg was not pulled up at all. The rope around the pastern was simply used as control by the ground person - to ensure the horse did not buck (which could potentially encourage a habit of such a response). Viewers can see the horse consider bucking, then realise it has a hind leg trapped - and re-consider. No fight, no drama, no traumatizing of the horse. The horse knew to release to the pressure due to prior and proper preparation, was comfortable with the rope in general, and it realised it did not have the power to buck with one leg snared. No issue.

As far as Cathy's apparent dislike of roundpenning, she can be right on certain accounts. When an individual either longes or roundpens a horse 'to death' and then gets on, with the sole purpose of wearing the horse out so that they can work with it - no, you're not accomplishing much. Can Grandma still ride said exhausted horse though? No. Because even a tired horse can still blow (uh, trust me!). While you might not be accomplishing much, you are nonetheless creating a horse tired enough to perhaps re-think bucking or such other reactive activity, and to think things through and work with you instead. However, ultimately, it is a band-aid solution if done in such a way. Real roundpenning (and correct longeing), as shown in this video (or at least as apparent in the clip provided), works the horse's mind. It's what trainers such as John Lyons do - it's what I was taught and it is what I use when need be. You're moving the horse out and making 'out there' uncomfortable by increasing the pressure whenever the horse is away from you. The minute they start showing signs of submission and focus on you (lowered head, licking lips, eyes/ears focused on you), you are releasing the pressure and seeing if they come in. If they come in, they are rewarded with rest - you are making the right answer (working in partnership with you, 'join-up') easy (rest and pets) and the wrong answer (working independently) hard (running). If they choose to leave or to keep running, you push them forward. Changes in direction encourage submission (by asking the horse to move his feet more than yours and by your directing his movement) as well and cause the horse to have to think, rather than run blindly forwards. Roundpenning done in such a fashion can actually be a very useful tool because it works the horse's mind moreso than the body. A horse might still become sweated up, but they are rarely truly tired by the finish of a session. Honestly though, I have worked the odd horse pretty hard in the roundpen and have never come back to an injured or sore horse the next day, as Cathy claims will happen. That is not to say it can't happen, just that horses are not as fragile as Cathy seems to think. Granted, one must always be careful with any activity that is repetitious, such as longeing or roundpenning. Over time, excessive use of such activities could promote unsoundness. This does not occur with a sound horse over even a few sessions however, and not when the activity is done judiciously.

"As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Training takes time and patience. Anybody trying to sell you on a shortcut is selling you snake oil – EVERY time. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS. You will never develop a solid, enjoyable, rideable horse with shortcuts and they have a nasty way of backfiring. A horse who isn’t trained in a slow, patient manner is like a piece of swiss cheese — he’s full of holes, and you’re going to fall through one when you least expect it." - Atkinson

Cathy is correct here. Good training takes time. On the other hand, clinics/competitions in which the trainer only has say 4 hours to train a young unhandled colt to accept working under-saddle, I do not feel are particularly detrimental to anyone. No trainer - or none that I have met, who has competed in such challenges or put on such demo's actually trains client horses in '4 hours' (as done in the trainer's challenge/clinic). They recommend 30-90 days minimum. Including myself. Why are they done over such a short time span then? Convenience to the public. I think such short clinics and challenges can be beneficial to the public because it does showcase how training can be accomplished, albeit in a condensed manner. Real training is done in a very similar manner, simply with more emphasis and time spent on each step. Spectators get a quick synopsis of how to train a colt and may even pick up a few tips and trainers usually even mention throughout their demo/competition the extras they would throw in given time (I know I do and have heard others do the same). Trainers get the chance to show the public how it can be done - the poor trainers, under such time constraints and with the challenge increased due to such a short time-span allowed, will really demonstrate a terrible job on their horses, and the solid trainers' impeccable techniques will hold still under the increased challenge. On the other hand, the reason I am not particularly fond of such competitions/demo's is that Cathy is right - you're creating a horse akin to a brick of swiss cheese. You leave a ton of holes in the horse's training in your quest to 'get by', and you end up rushing the horse. Some auditors (the ones missing the point) might be misled into thinking this is how a person can train their horse at home. Yet on the other hand, it presents more of a challenge to the trainer - to accomplish what would normally take weeks, in a few hours, and see how much of it they can get done, with a quiet and relaxed horse at the end. Judges do not reward uptight, exhausted, and scared horses in the finals at trainer competitions and will in fact reward a trainer for not pushing the horse and failing to accomplish certain 'tasks' in the best interests of the horse. Furthermore, most individuals watching do understand though that the horse is yet essentially green and will require loads more training for the average individual to work with it. On that note, if the horse is uptight and unsafe due to poor training over such a short time span, most individuals would have the presence of mind to recognise the poor training as well and not follow it! In conclusion, while there are certainly some 'cons' to such trainer's challenges, I feel there are many more 'pros'.

Hopefully that explains my thoughts on the matter...for additional information concerning roundpenning, definitely check out John Lyons or even Pat Parelli or Jonathan Field (liberty work, for the latter two). All three trainers have great ideas and tips in regards to working with horses at liberty and all three, to my knowledge, have also worked with horses under very short time constraints, to demonstrate what is possible and why their techniques work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Direct-line thinking

What got me thinking about direct-line versus indirect-line thinking in particular was a mare I am currently working with, a 6yo Arabian mare who tends to be a bit spooky/reactive. She is not so keen on one end of the arena in particular, but I can't say I really blame her. A large door (think: semi truck garage door size) stands at that end of the arena and typically during the day, rays of light slip through the space between door and wall to essentially illuminate the entire one of those movies where light shines around the door and the person opens it up - and hell roars back at them in full force. Yup. She was typically skittering past this door sideways rather than walking straight past it, so finally I simply pushed her sideways myself - if she wanted to go sideways, she most certainly could...but by my choice and not hers.

Horses, as prey animals, are not direct-line thinkers and if you watch them, typically, they do not approach something directly, by walking straight up to it. They usually approach an unknown object or even a hay pile in a zigzag fashion or something such. It is fairly rare they will boldly stride up to something with 100% confidence and no break in stride. That's (typically) only something predators do. In addition, when we push a horse who is unsure or resistant, they tend to push back in opposition. It is how they survive in the wild so it is what comes naturally if they feel they might be pushed and trapped.

When I tried to push the mare in question toward the 'bad' side of the arena, she just balked and tried to back away. Even though she knew leg aids, she was sufficiently tense in her ribs and focused on the door that I could not arc her barrel into the door and thus prevent the spook. But she moved sideways on her own like a pro! So what did we do? We went sideways. I pushed her sideways back and forth along that end of the arena and finally tried walking her past it again. She walked past it this time (and every time afterward) - straight.

The same can follow for horse trailers. Rather than grabbing your horse and walking them directly up to the trailer, have them play some games around the trailer first. Casually saunter up to the trailer with them and have them move between you and the trailer, have them sidepass along the sides of the trailer, have them back past the trailer - anything you can think of that does not involve directly walking them into the trailer. Get them thinking and relaxed - interacting with you and following your leadership, then ask them to walk into the trailer. Don't just pull them in though; instead, send them in by themselves. By sending them in a) you are not packed in an enclosed space with them and thus at possible risk of being run into a wall or crammed into a corner, and b) they can offer less opposition than if you were to try to lead them in, where they can pull back. If they back up when you try to send them in, there is less opposition - you simply resend them. However if they back while you lead them in, they end up placing tension in the rope and creating something they can push against.

Lastly, I wanted to point out the value of making the wrong answer hard and the right answer easy. By asking the mare in question above to sidepass, rather than walk straight, I was a) giving her something to do and keeping her brain busy and focused on what I was asking in lieu of the spooky door, and b) creating more work for her when she chose the wrong answer (focusing on the door). Set it up so it is their decision alone and so that what you want becomes what they want.

Final point: rather than always approaching a scenario in a direct line, see if you can approach it from another angle, from an angle that might be more natural to your horse and encourage your horse to do what you ask.