Monday, December 28, 2009

show your horse the whip!

Woohoo, that heading should cause a few ripples :-)

So I'll start this post with the statement:

There are no bad bits, whips or spurs. But like all tools, they can be used to create or to destroy something.

To elaborate on that, what makes a bit "severe" isn't the measurements or the design, it's the hands of the person which hold the reins. Whether the person is ignorant, insensitive or deliberately cruel, any bit can cause pain to a horse and destroy the trust between horse and rider. That said, there are bits and nosebands which (I think) are made sloppily (eg: have sharp edges) or are designed to cause pain (because the inventor thinks that's the way to make horses do the rider's bidding), but even crappy bits in good hands can work. And then there is the issue of correct fitting and suitability for the horse and purpose... But that aside, it's generally the person who holds the reins who inflicts the damage, not the bit in itself.

But I digress!

What I really wanted to write about was my ride yesterday on Flamenca.

It's been a long time since I've been riding while carrying a stock whip. It used to be second nature when I lived in Albury and clip-clopped along the streets in the suburbs. Was really handy for keeping yapping dogs away. And my horse, a seasoned Stockhorse by the name of Horse (how inventive is that?) didn't give a toss about whips, so I could crack away to my heart's content.

Since then, I've only rarely used it. A few times when I competed in Stockhorse classes on Yallatup Regal Remedy, and a few times here on the farm. The last horse I used it on was Reina, a Peruvian mare, when a bunch of the neighbor's sheep invaded our horse paddocks. Reina was cool with it.

Off the horse, it occasionally comes out for lunging, but rarely indeed. I seem to have enough "energy" to send horses out on the circle without it ;-)

Reminded by Natalie's reports of wild dogs in her area (Kyogle, NSW), I've been thinking it would be nice to again have a horse that's whip proof. Just in case we need one. We're pretty lucky around Dereel, there are dogs, but most leave you well alone when you are out riding. But you never know...

I had the one short try on Flamenca a few weeks ago when I showed her the whip for the first time. Not impressed! Photos here. She JUST put up with it when we stood still, but that was it. But I have to add that when I just ride her around the shed, she gets notoriously wound up, and the spins, levades and terre-a-terres probably would have happened with or without whip :-).

Yesterday afternoon I saddled her up and out we went. With Whip. She was in a bit of a hurry, but no more than normal. Once we were off the road in the forest, I started swinging the whip and "accidentally" (and gently) touched her butt, her neck, her legs etc with the fall. I let it drop down on her left and right side, then started to make noises with it. The whoosh did't impress her but she coped. Then, shock horror, it touched her ears. AAAaaaa! Aaah! She didn't die. I nearly did from laughing so hard. I pushed her eyes back into their sockets and on we went. Further (deliberate) touching of ears was ok. Not long after, I added a couple of small cracks and that was fine. The walk was awfully animated, but she coped ;-). The worst part was the bracken fern on the side of the track, the fall got tangled several times, and then I had to reef it back which meant it came flying back to my poor, poor horse.

All this took maybe 5 minutes. Then we had a good toelt down the trail. Magnificent, that mare can really motor along! Went through the forest, turned up the main road, had a bit of a breather at the walk and then turned towards home via Swamp Road.

I started swinging the whip again and she was pretty cool. The lo and behold, a dog started barking and next thing a Maremma comes bounding out of a driveway. Dragging several meters of chain behind it. I told it to go home. I have a Maremma so I know that's futile. I gently cracked the whip. No effect. Flamenca wasn't too impressed about the dragging chain, but the dog stayed a little way away and in any case after seeing my whip drag alongside her for some considerable time, I think she was pretty desensitized to that. So I kept walking. Shortly after, a woman and a girl came racing out in hot persuit of the dog, which promptly lost interest in my horse and took off up the road at quite a speed. The woman told me the dog always takes off and it's not theirs anyway, they are looking for the owner.

Then they came back without the dog but said he's coming back, let's stand behind the tree and see if we can jump on the chain to catch him on the way past. I offered to walk back the other day to help them. Dog comes trotting past. Girl jumps out from behind tree. Dog sees girl and takes off at rocket speed in the other direction. Girl and woman run past me, thanking me and all three disappear in the distance in a cloud of dust. Wow (headshake). I turned Flamenca and we took off towards home.

Had another fabulous toelt across an open paddock and down a sand trail. Did some more sporadic whip cracking here and there, had a gallop and got home pretty soon.

I enjoyed it, and I'm pretty darn sure my hot little Paso enjoyed herself, too. She is now our designated Peruvian Stockhorse!

Now I need a new cracker on the end of that whip. The one on it is a little bit worn from all that dragging along, and lost a bit of it's bark. I've never had success making them from horse hair, so I'm sticking to baling twine. And I have the choice of bright blue, pink, yellow or drab black.

So that's what happens when you show your horse the whip. It's all in how you do it :-)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

hay, hay, hay!

Oh, it's that time of the year. Silly season. Town clogged with cars driven by people on a mission. Mission being the buying of presents and the stocking up on food (because - shock horror - the supermarkets will be closed for a couple of days!!).

I've avoided most of it. Braved town yesterday for the last time for at least a week (hopefully until next year!), to get a bit of food for me and some feed for the horses. And this morning, I did my last trip for the year to the farm up the road where I buy hay. They are busy harvesting their crops and I doubt they'll take more than a day off over xmas.

I'm not taking any time off, either. Horses (strangely) want to be fed every day ;-)

This morning, I had a very brief ride on Samba, Yvonne's Paso Fino mare. We had started the mare over a year ago (more like two) and she's had a foal and been turned out since. Yesterday, we did a brief reminder in the yard. Saddled, brief lungeing session, me leaning over, then getting on, and finished off with five minutes of riding in the big yard. Today, two minutes of lunging in the big yard, I climbed aboard, rode her in the yard for a few minutes and then we headed out. I rely on my gut feeling a lot with green horses. There are some that I feel comfortable doing stuff with and others where I don't. Samba wasn't overly impressed, like most horses she prefers eating to being ridden ;-). But she is a good soul and aside from minuscule expressions of princess behaviour, she really was very good. And I certainly had that safe gut feeling.

Yvonne came along with Flamenca as usual, and we had a very brief ride up the road. First time for Samba from what I remember, and she took it really well. And what lovely gait on the way home.

We've also spent a bit of time with Yvonne's Dacio. He was also briefly started and turned out. Coming back in, he was a bit hesitant. Mostly unsure, really. So I got the job of taking him out riding. I always joke that my butt is on fire, as I tend to get horses moving forward quite easily. That's good for the slow ones, but has been known to become a bit exciting on the already "goey" ones :-))). In any case, the first ride started with fits and stops and sideways excursions. Looky here and looky there, all was highly scary. But forward we went, and the further we went, the better we went. By the time we came home, he was going just about straight, yielding to my legs (most of the time) and yielding in his jaw to lateral cues (most of the time).

Second ride out was much better, and by the third ride out, he was happy to go in front of Flamenca. We also went one way along a narrow trail through the scrub when Yvonne took Flamenca another way. He wasn't completely happy about it, but soldiered on, over branches, through a gully and up the other side. It really was fun. It always is on a young horse that is basically willing and just needs a little reassurance. I really don't mind if they have a good look at stuff, and I totally understand if we have a sudden stop or a little sidewise prop. They are young and green and it's a big wide world out there. My job is to support, encourage, guide, coax when necessary and laugh at their antics. If it's fun for both of us, that's the best.

So guess what we'll be doing xmas day??

Happy xmas to everyone who drops in and reads this blog. Wishing you have many happy hours with your horses next year!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

some you win and some you lose

We've been having a lot of fun with Eladia and she is going really well now. Every horse is different and presents us with new challenges, and therein lie both the difficulty and the fun of working with horses :-).

She had been a delight to start and had been turned out. When we brought her back in, she decided to be a bit of a princess and deemed being ridden as below her dignity. There was a small issue with her being funny about things happening on her right side. We spent a lot of time on that, using some novel approaches (might write about that later) which let her work through her little fear issue at her own pace. She basically taught herself to stop, look, think. And in a short time, she was ok with everything on her right hand side. There had been no indication of any issues on that side when we started her, so I'm not sure where it came from. It is of course possible that I rushed or overlooked something at the time.

The other problem was her hot Paso blood, I'm not kidding when I say that some of these horses just say NO on principle sometimes :-). So showing in no uncertain terms that she is a high-born princess, she didn't want to be ridden. She pulled faces when I got on her back, she humped up and threatened to buck and all that jazz. So we basically re-backed her, with me spending lots of time leaning over the saddle and Yvonne leading and rewarding every little quiet and polite step. I hate that part of training, it's damn hard on the lower ribs and abs, leaning over a stocksaddle. This is another one of those times when my martial arts training pays off!

Anyway, Eladia worked through her issues and we are back to riding her. And what a terrific riding horse she is. So cool out on the trail. Very forward but not rushing, goes in front or behind, looks at everything but hardly shies. And she is so smooth to ride! Yes, she is a proud little thing but now I think she enjoys the attention and the going out. I'm sure that her new owner will have loads of fun with her, she really embodies all the qualities of a Paso.

We didn't do quite so well with Amira, the Arabian mare. Right from the beginning she was untrusting and hair-triggered in her reactions. We soon found out that she was also inconsistent. No matter how slow we progressed with new things, everything was an issue to her. And worse, she would appear to be ok with something for a few minutes and then it would suddenly be an issue again. Or it would be ok one day and all forgotten the next day.

For example, I like to spend time standing near a horse and either touch or not touch it while it stands still. That includes being able to walk around behind and standing next to it with my arm over the neck or back. Basically I want them to be ok with my body near or touching them. Until this is the case, I won't even dream of getting on their backs. Amira seemed to accept this pretty fast in one of our earlier sessions. But later in the same session, she started to run away from me again with all signs saying she'd never seen me before. We repeated and left it at that when she stood still and breathed and started to relax her topline.

Next session, it was all forgotten, with much blow and snort and eye rolling. So back to square one.

I don't do much lunging, it's really a preparation for under saddle work only. However, it's my opportunity to study a horse and to set up basic communication. In addition, I like to make sure that they stay light and soft and that they follow the bend of the circle so that the inner hind leg steps under well. Some horses only need a rope headstall, others understand better with a cavecon. We tried both on the mare and she was bending beautifully in the cavecon. However, the whole thing for her was just an opportunity to run the nervousness out of her system. A lot of horses want to rush when they are a bit worried and that's ok because they soon realise that it's easier and nicer to slow down, breathe and relax the topline. Amira couldn't get that worked out. I think in the whole time we worked with her, she willingly followed down transition cues a couple of times, and the neck stretched down once briefly, all followed by starting to run again. She acted like a horse that gets high on it's own adrenaline. Also, whenever she felt uncertain, she started crowding me with her inside shoulder. While it wasn't hard to send her out, it didn't help in getting her to settle.

She had a very bad reaction to the pad. First ok, then not and she ran off. Started again and she put up with it (not ok, just tolerating). Same thing next day. The following day, she also had a strong reaction to the roller although I introduced it very slowly. I always show a horse the new object, gently touch them with it, if it has buckles, I make noises before I put it on etc. I put it over the back slowly from both sides, encouraging the horse to look at it. Then I gradually let the end down and touch the belly with it. Before I do it up, I make sure that pressure comes on gently, I release and praise. When that's all ok, then I do it up, and only just tight enough that it won't slip. All that preparation aside, when I asked Amira to take one little step forward, she went into a full blown bucking fit with grunts. I had the impression it was more of a hissy fit than a fright. I watched briefly (lunge still attached) to see if she would stop (didn't), then I asked her to whoa. The ask didn't work, so I told her. I will admit that it took a couple of hard tugs on the lunge and a dose of my evil voice. But then she stopped, looked at me. That was when I decided it was a hissy fit.

I walked over and patted her and asked her to bend her neck to release some tension. That seemed to work a little. I asked her to take another step, which immediately led to another outburst. This time I strongly demanded her to stop right away which she did. We repeated that a couple more times until she walked forward without jumping around, then a brief trot. At that point, session ended, gear off, a pat and back to her paddock. I was again left with the impression that she tolerated it all only because I forced her to, and if I hadn't interrupted her bucking, she would still be at it.

Next day we had exactly the same deal. Saddle pad was "terrible". Roller was "no". Me standing next to her was "terrible". We kept it as brief and pleasant as possible and stopped every time as soon as she stopped saying no and tried to do as asked. But those moments were pretty rare. She was pushy, couldn't stand still. Scared herself with her own tail and couldn't keep her feet still.

By this time I was pretty sure that I didn't really want to get on this horse, and Yvonne agreed. We had another brief session, as low key as possible, looking for tries from Amira. But basically the impression we got was a horse that was incapable or unwilling to try. Even if we had been able to work through the bucking issue and the fear of being touched and the skittishness, there would never be any certainty that at some point in the future, it wouldn't all be forgotten. Basically she was the sort of horse where the rider or handler can never relax because you simply don't know how she will react to the next new thing. Unpredictable and explosive.

I've rehabbed some pretty interesting horses and have had good success even with a couple which were called unrideable. I have only ever had a couple of horses in the past which didn't work out. In once case we suspected a brain problem (the horse had an aberrant tooth growing out of his ear and we suspected there was another going inwards causing pressure, as he became increasingly weird in his behaviour). The other was a young mare which originated from a mob of horses which had been near starved over a long period of time. She was lovely but would suddenly lose the plot and buck/rear/bolt for no apparent reason. I don't know if Amira had any issues with her brain, but her owner said she always was jumpy and inconsistent.

I consulted with her owner and we decided not to go ahead with further training, as she would always be a potentially dangerous horse. I felt pretty down about it, and so did he. But I guess we would be much more upset if someone would have been hurt either here while working her or later on (assuming that we would have successfully got her going under saddle, which I doubt anyway).

The owner told me that the other mare I started for him is going really well and that he's enjoying riding her. And that there are two more young ones he'll send over next year.

We learn from each and every horse. Some are bitter lessons, some are sweet ones. On the balance of things, horses are fantastic critters and I really enjoy being around them. They have a sense of humour, they have pride, they like to show off. They make me happy most of the time :-).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

when I retire...

It's good to see that I'm still stirring the pot :-). There are quite a few comments coming in (not via this blog's comment system unfortunately).

It seems I need to clarify myself. No wonder, with all the rambling I'm probably a bit unclear at times. So here we go...

I said I like to take things slowly with horses, as I like them to be not just OK, but happy around me. I said I always ask politely first when I ask for anything. In most cases, that's enough and they follow my request. I said I only increase the pressure when necessary, and only as much as is necessary.

What I did not say is that I enjoy putting pressure on a horse or that a lot of pressure is necessary to achieve most things. I did not say I like to yell at a horse, nor that I like to use strong body language to get my point across.

These things I do if and when necessary only.

So to those who who still think I'm a cruel and uncaring meat-head who likes to beat up on poor horses, I say this: Wear your pussy-footsy hats proudly. There are lots of horses in this world who do not have the good fortune to be owned by caring people like you. There are lots of people who don't have the means, time, good fortune, education or possibilities to be so kind to their horses. You and your horses are lucky to live in relative luxury and in enlightened times. Good for you and good for your horses. Keep up the good work.

I'm looking forward to retiring from horse-starting and horse-training. When that happens, and I'll have my couple of beloved horses only, I will no longer need to do anything other than gently. When people stop sending me a horse that they can't handle themselves, don't have the experience to start under saddle themselves or have allowed to pick up scary habits, then I will no longer need to raise my voice or use loud body language. I guess I'd like to be like that right now!

However, between economic necessity and requests from people to work with their horses, I guess I will go on handling and riding unknown quantities and known problem horses. And while ever that's the case, I will continue to go as easy as possible and as hard as necessary to ensure that these horses are given the best chance to be someone's beloved riding horse.

Hope that makes sense.

Yvonne, Greg and I had a lovely ride today on Flamenca, Darah and Carlos respectively. Lots of toelt for Yvonne and I :-) How nice to just go for a ride and enjoy the horses and the landscape. The weather was beautiful and the view magnificent. Photos here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

different look

Yvonne told me the white on black writing is too hard to read, so here is the blog with a new set of clothes.

Yes, it's boring and I'll change it for something far more nice when I get the chance.


being confronting

When I woke up this morning, my thoughts as usual involved horses and jiu-jitsu :-)

I gave a lot of thought to the concept of the mental pressure, or stress, I put on a horse during training. And how horses react to that pressure. The Arab mare we are working with at the moment can't tolerate much pressure at all. Mental pressure that is. I'm not yet talking about physical pressure, though there is a little of that obviously. Say for example, I put my finger on the mare's chest to ask her to back, there is small amount of physical pressure. But there is, at least for a flighty sort of a green horse, much more mental pressure involved.

So the first point that comes out of that is that if my system relies on removing pressure as instant reward for wanted behaviour, I need to remove the mental pressure as well as the physical pressure.

How much mental pressure I apply to a horse is a function of how it perceives me and it's current mental state. One physical step towards a horse can be either no pressure at all (or even an invitation to some!), or it can cause enormous mental pressure if I approach a scared horse. Particularly, where it's retreat is restricted because of a yard fence or a rope I'm holding that's attached to the horse.

To be able to accustom a horse to things, let alone begin to teach it something specific, I cannot avoid exerting pressure. There will be stress.

Stress of course is a word with very negative connotations. But think on it, there is no development in anything without stress. If I don't stress my bicep muscles through exercise, they won't get stronger. If I don't stress my brain trying to learn something, my knowledge will remain static. If an economy isn't stressed, new industrial developments aren't necessary. The same applies to horses. The envelope needs pushing for development to take place. Stress, unless it's unrelenting or way too much, is a good thing.

So now let's translate that to horse training. I see my job as horse trainer (well, educator or teacher is better, but let's use trainer as that's the term everyone uses and knows) as someone who applies pressure in appropriate doses to achieve a learning effect in a horse. I need to know how and when to apply pressure and when to remove it in a timely manner.

Back to the Arab mare...

She is here to learn to be a riding horse and all that goes with that. To that end, we have a limited amount of time at our disposal. This is the real world. Her owner isn't a millionaire who can afford to pay me for years of training and I'd like to get her done before I go old and grey or before she dies of old age. So there are some outside constraints which influence my decision when and where to apply pressure.

I've said in previous posts that it's largely the horse which dictates how long this process takes, and that still holds true. However, it must be within the framework of practicality and do-ability. Simply put, if this mare cannot learn to be a riding horse within a reasonable time frame, neither her owner nor I can afford to continue. That's the cold, hard facts. Reality.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

training, respect and public perceptions

The Arabian mare I mentioned in a previous post is receiving some attention on a couple of equine forums. Yvonne often writes little reports about the interesting horse personalites we encounter and how we work with them. She also takes photos and puts them up on the web for all to see. They include the good, bad and ugly which can happen, and are edited only to make them clearer to see. We've also uploaded a few video clips to youtube, mainly in response to questions asked on those lists.

It's great to get some feedback, and we've had some very interesting and constructive comments back from the lists and privately. Due to feedback received, I thought I'd start a series of posts here which might answer some common questions that arise.

I didn't set out or plan to be a professional horse trainer. I've always started my own horses and I rode and competed a lot until a few years ago. Then I was offered work on a horse stud and that work included starting horses there. That was the really the first time I was paid for working horses. Since I left the place three years ago, I've been asked to start and train other horses. Some are horses which I sold as weanlings, but most are unknowns to me.

I used to start horses on my own but these days I have the luxury of help from my friend Yvonne. As starting horses is inherently dangerous, and I'm sometimes here on my own, having someone present is a safety issue in case something goes wrong. Also, there are so many times when an experienced person standing next to a horse when I do things (like get on for the first time) will prevent the horse from getting bothered in the first place. We bounce ideas off one another, we tell each other stupid jokes and sometimes we just go riding together.

We're working with a fair variety of horses. Just old enough to start to fully mature. Mares, geldings and stallions. Straight start from nothing and barely handled to previously started but having problems. Pasos, Saddlebreds, Arabians, Spanish Horses, Icelandics and others. There is never a dull moment. We ususally don't work more than a couple of outside horses and maybe one of ours, so we have plenty of time for every pupil.

Facility wise, we have good basics. A 12 x 16 metre yard made from steel panel (relocatable), and two adjacent yards. There are 3 additional yards (one with crush for pregnancy testing of mares) and a sturdy tie-up rail. And a shed which houses the gear.

I have a good size collection of saddles, bridles, bits, things and more thing. But our daily working equipment is very simple. A selection of rope headstalls which are nice and thin so they can be worn under a bridle. A good weight long rope with beautiful feel. Two lunging cavecons, different weight and feel. A tying up strap and a heavy rope headstall for tying up. A dressage whip. An old roller and a crupper. Two basic bridles with medium thickness snaffle bits. A couple of nosebands/sidepulls with heavy rope reins. My faithful old Syd Hill Superdrafter saddle and a decrepit old Wintec which is the first saddle we put on a horse (because it's light and expendable). Aside from that, we have a selection of thick saddle pads including spaghetti cloths (Easy Clean Go Between).

We do not use sidereins, tie downs, martingals or even nosebands on the snaffle bridles. I hate gadgets. Just the basics. Depending on the horse and the owner's wishes, we might work a youngster in snaffle or training noseband, but they always start off in the noseband.

Yvonne uses Clicker Training and CAT. The latter works very well on shy horses. Clicker Training has good results if used by a knowledgeable person. Clicker training with bad timing is like any bad training and if there is no discipline in taking the food, the horse turns into a mugger monster. While I don't use clicker training as such, I often use a click to mark a particularly good response to a cue I've given, and Yvonne rewards from her clicker bag ;-). I personally use timed releases and voice to reward. Horses don't seem to be confused if we switch from CT to non-CT in one training session. Or from CAT to CT.

My primary concern during training is safety. Yvonne's and mine and that of the horse. Plus any bystanders or participants. I've had enough close calls and actual oopsies. Nowadays, I'd rather upset a horse or person and have everyone stay safe to train another day. I don't really care about salving egos (mine or others') or looking good. I'd rather hurt a horse's or person's ego and stop anyone from getting hurt. This is a very important consideration, as it is truly my biggest responsibility.

Which brings me to comments which been made several times in response to descriptions, photos and videos posted by us. For example a young mare which came here for starting and with the request to sort her muggy, pushy behaviour and habit of literally knocking people over when led through gates for example. This mare wasn't remotely scared of people. I had sold her as a weanling and I know both parents very well, and the granddam. The people who own her are lovely but they were relatively new to horses when they bought her some years ago. The mare had just learned she could get away with being pushy. A bit pushy is ok and needs a minor behaviour tweak. But squashing people against walls, running over them and mugging them for food is a safety issue. It's just not on and needs to be corrected asap.

Knowing the mare had no fear of people and an inflated ego to go with it, I enforced strict rules of behaviour straight from the start. I say stop, she stops. I say go, she goes. I say wait, she waits. Sounds simple and should be. But well established bad habits need to be erased before new good habits can be learned. Rather than waiting and beginning saddle training on a basis of bad habits, I worked through her issues mostly in the first session in the yard. Started at the gate. As I walked through, I made her stop and back up, then we walked half way through again and waited. Then we backed again and walked through until it was all done quietly.

Showing her how to go around on a circle was easy, she is a very smart horse. In no time she thought this was boring and started pushing in towards me. I use very "loud" body language when necessary, and I was certainly loud to send her out. Then we had a discussion about who had the say on when to walk and when to stop. Basically, I figure that if I am to ride a horse, we have to have the command structure well sorted by the time I set foot in a stirrup. It's not about some desire I have to dominate, or that the horse is some slave that has to do my bidding or else. It again boils down to safety. Sure we are a team. I am the leader, not the horse though. It's not a democracy and I can't tolerate backchat. Simply because it's a human world with dangers a horse can't even perceive. Say I ride down the road and I see a truck in the distance. Knowing my horse might get scared, I want to turn him down a side road. Can I tolerate him saying NO? Let's say I know there is flooding forecast and my horse is in a low lying area. I get the float to get him out of there to save his life. Can I tolerate him saying NO?

I take the leadership and the responsibility for that leadership every time I pick up a rope or rein with a horse attached to it. So when I educate a horse, be it on the ground or from the saddle, then I will be a leader who tries to act in the best interest of the horse. However, that means that if I say go, stop or turn or back, I mean it.

Simply, neither I nor anyone else can afford to have a horse that does not comply with basic requests, such as those. So if a horse arrives here which acts in a way that can be dangerous to me or anyone else, or to itself, then it is my first job to change this behaviour.

In a perfect world, I can achieve this through understanding, kindness and gentle nudging. In the real world, I have time constraints. Firstly in terms of having to justify weekly training fees and getting results. Secondly, in terms of not wanting to spend any more time than necessary around a horse that might hurt me. And quite honestly, there is some horse behaviour which I doubt can be corrected only by gentleness and soft approaches. For example, a horse that nips, a stallion that gets out of hand when you lead him past other horses or a mare that knocks you over when you lead her because she disrespects your personal space.

In those cases, I still ask first. And then I tell. As loud and as clear as necessary, but no louder. So often, these horses react very strongly. Not out of fear, but out of surprise, even annoyance that you are not giving in like all the other humans it's encountered. Sometimes they back right off. So I instantly take the physical and mental pressure away. Instant reward! Sometimes they will not back down and I have to up the pressure. Again, as soon as I get the slightest yielding in the direction I ask, I back off, remove the pressure. Horses are smart, they figure this very fast. Horses, in almost all cases are also happy to have a leader, and as soon as they find a leader they actually respect, they seem pretty happy. It's just that they never had a leader (human) so they took matters in their own had.

I think of it as being assertive so I can re-establish respect. I don't want to dominate or enslave the horse. I want a safe relationship where we respect each other's space. I am as gentle as I can be, but as hard as I need to be to get there.

So to come back to the comments on the mare... Some people watched the videos and they saw me putting a lot of pressure on a horse and they saw a bit of jumping around. I think they interpreted what they saw in the wrong context, namely that they made certain assumptions about the horse's attitude. So where the mare finally backs off when I send her backwards strongly, they interpreted her face of surprise as a face of fear. Ironically, the heavy duty "correctional" part of the early training took no more than a few minutes over a couple of sessions, after that, we could shower the mare with kindness without getting mugged or trampled. She was a breeze to start under saddle. Her owners can handle her with safety these days.

A set of photos or a video only shows part of the story. That is why we went to a great deal of trouble to explain what and why we did it at the time. A lot of feedback indicated approval but some feedback showed clearly that once people make up their mind about something, they are not willing to change it, no matter what. Most of the negative feedback came from single horse owners with limited experience and the professed belief that all in life and with horses can be sorted with endless patience and love. I envy these people in some way, that kind of romantic phantasy is lovely to have. Fortunately, I'm a realist. I have responsibility for my own actions, my and other human's health and wellbeing, and of course for the health and wellbeing of the horses.

I'm sure there are other, maybe even better ways of doing things than how I do them. I'm not an expert (please don't call me that!), or a guru and I'm only human. In the end, the proof is in the pudding and I should be judged by how horses look and feel under saddle when they leave here.

I'm sure I'll think more on this subject, and I'll come back to the Arab mare later :-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

glossary additions

Today's instalments :-)

expert = person who knows everything, tells everyone that he knows everything, doesn't need to learn anything. Often an expert will tell you that he did //insert activity here// when you weren't even born, to show you how experienced he is. You are not allowed to notice that after all that time, he's still not doing it properly. Experts are numerous at horse sales, other gatherings of horse people and of course on internet forums and on youtube.

pussy-footsy = person with romantic notions about horses and their handling and riding, usually convinced that ALL can be achieved with endless patience and lots of patting. Doesn't mind spending 5 years trying to teach a horse to headshake on command, and doesn't mind being dragged, trodden on or wiped off by a horse. Talks about riding more than riding. Engages in endless hours of internet forum exchanges about teaching horses stuff and loves to opine on perceived wrongdoings of other horse people.

horse hugger = pussy footsy. Adapted from the term tree hugger.

purple ant(s) = imaginary monster lurking in forests, tall grass or behind objects, particularly dangerous if they tap dance or show their fangs. Only visible to horses.

intimate zone (aka the horse's ethic space) = any part of the horse which it doesn't like to have touched. Mostly the girl or boy bits, but especially in horses with the princess syndrome, this can be anywhere on the body. According to some pussy-footsies, horse trainers must respect and stay out of those zones.

keyboard rider = person who spends much more time on a keyboard in forum discussions about riding than on a horse. Adapted from the term "keyboard warrior" which describes the know it alls in martial arts who type much and fight never.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Since we always bandy about all manner of funny terms when we work horses, I thought I might put some of them in a list. Seeing I also use them to describe horse behaviour in this blog, it might be a useful tool for readers in terms of understanding what I'm talking about ;-)

I might update this as I go, but here we go for a start....

brain fart = sudden and/or unexpected behaviour

western moment = bucking or pigrooting

princess syndrome = behaviour showing the royal blood flowing in their veins, expressions of disdain for common tasks (including but not limited to being asked to move, step over or being ridden) usually in mares (but can certainly be found in male horses and humans)

hair loss (from the German: Haarausfall kriegen) = stress shown as big googly eyes, running away, jumping around, snorting etc.

horse bait = horse feed used for the purpose of attracting, catching and pacifying horses

furry critter = animal

horse hassling = horse training

purist = person who is convinced that breed //insert breed here// is the bee's knees and the only thing worth having and that it's sacriledge to crossbreed with horses from this breed, and who espouse the qualities of //insert breed here// to everyone who will stand still long enough to take notice

gadget = training item/equipment which clever marketers sell for lots of $$'s to people who don't know better, gadgets can range from just harmless but useless to dangerous for equine critters and humans

guru = any of the current "in flavour" horse whisperers/tamers/communicators

eyes like piss-holes in the snow = the look on a stallion's face when he's served a mare

tight-arse (from the German "Arschkneifer") = human (usually female) who spends a load of time talking about riding and has all the know-how but suffers from a severe tightening of muscles in the nether regions when actually placed on a real horse, leading to tight hands and legs and unhappy horses

diplomatic hands = hands on reins and ropes that ask politely and give/release immediately when the horse becomes soft

wet saddle blankets = the extended process of educating a horse in the post-starting stage

sense of humour failure (in horse) = assorted expressions of disgust, can be triggered by not handing over horse bait, being asked to go when I say stop or vice versa, particularly if the princess syndrome is involved

sense of humour failure (in me) = expressions of upset or digust, such as when a horse has a western moment or a brain fart, but can also be triggered when I'm berated by a purist or when I watch dressage riders or gurus

wrinkles (aka wrinkle city) = refers to the high wrinkle count associated with the facial expressions which accompany sense of humour failures or when I ask an equine princess to do something she isn't in the mood to do

ugly ears = refers to ear positioning and often goes together with wrinkles, some people refer to it as "pinned" ears or "ears back"

voice from hell = the tone of voice I used just before, during or right after a horse's sense of humour failure or brain fart, sometimes it's handy even during the wrinkle & ugly ears stage, as it sometimes fends off SOHF's

NICE! = what I say when a horse does good. I'm going away from using "GOOD!", as that sounds too much like "WHOA" and tends to result in a stop

Monday, November 30, 2009

Saddlebred and Arab

I've been told I need to post here more often! I guess it's been a while since my last post, ahem..

We recently sent home Keyanna, a young Saddlebred mare, after starting her. She is actually a horse I bred and sold as a weanling. Knowing her parents was a definite advantage. Her dad is Max (aka Mad Max), my favourite horse on the place and the stallion I ride the most when I have time.

It's great to see them again after they grow up. I'm lucky in that a lot of people who bought horses from us keep in touch and at the very least they occasionally update me with photos. But it's very special to have the horses back here for starting.

Keyanna was a bit of a scatterbrain, always busy and strongly convinced of being the centre of the universe (I call that the Princess syndrome). So she was pushy and used to getting what she wanted. She was quite put out by the new management when she arrived. Being a very smart girl she understood NO very quickly though and very shortly she was quite happy to be on the receiving end of instructions. She was particularly scatterbrained and touchy when she was in season. As it was early spring, she was in season a lot :-)

I have a rough programme I follow when I start youngsters, but I modify it as needed and I have not set timing for doing stuff. I take the next step when the horse tells me it's ready. How do I know? Boils down to the feedback I'm getting from the horse and my gut feeling and experience.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Keyanna needed a lot of time at the beginning due to her short attention span. And we had terrible weather for weeks which delayed us anyway. But once the basics were programmed in, she rapidly progressed and we were out riding in no time. Just like her dad, she took most things in her stride, doesn't worry about much. She loves people and will do (almost) anything for you. Praise sends her to seventh heaven. She has her moments, she's still a princess at heart and she has a sense of humour. So she gives you the odd bit of excitement, just because she can :-). And she'll never put up with boring routines or inconsistent humans.

Oh yes, she is lovely. Yes, I wish I'd kept her. But that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Now we have another mare in work, a purebred Arabian mare, about 8 years old I believe. Unlike Keyanna, she thinks people are scary, at best ok for bringing food. She is highly reactive, jumps or twitches at every noise or movement. Is worried about being touched anywhere but the head. Doesn't want to be caught (though horse bait works). She is accordingly tense and looks at everything with suspicion. I can see that she wants to look at what I do and she actually wants the touch (on the head) and like all horses, she wants to be OK. But she is finding it very hard.

Interestingly, she often seems to tolerate something, say the saddle blanket. Then, after a little time, she can't any more. And then she becomes hectic and electric... So you have to start again. Means of course I'm going too fast. Unfortunately, the feedback from her is that it's ok first. So I'm adjusting my approach with her to take that into account. Slow down even more.

She is highly intelligent, of that I'm sure. She is also playful and has a touch of the princess syndrome. But it's all overshadowed by fearfulness. I know she's not been badly treated, she has never had much done with her except feeding, worming, foot trims and being transported here. So it's fear of the unknown, not fear of people due to bad treatment.

She is pretty much hair triggered and you can see the whole horse intantly turn into a taught bundle of muscles, ready to explode in some direction. And explode she does. My best friend and fellow horse "hassler" Yvonne often takes photos. Yesterdays efforts are documented here.

Although I took a lot of time to introduce the roller and I gently put it on and held it, she still exploded when I asked her for a step forward when I did it up (not very tight). It's very rare indeed that we have a horse buck in training, because we do it step by step. At some stage though, you have to close the buckle and the horse feels the restriction. Unfortunately, the odd one fights it, no matter how careful you are. But better we sort this now and she moves on so to speak than that we have that reaction when I first sit in the saddle.

She was never relaxed until we finished, but at least she was able to walk and trot and stretch down with the roller on after a little while.

Today we repeated the roller, but put a pad under it. Same slow approach. She was even more skittish today, but it was a bit windy and she has come in season, so that would account for some of it. Started bucking again, but as soon as I used the voice from hell (I'm really good at that), and told her to stop, she did. Finished with a couple of rounds trotting and walking and practicing neat stops and standing still. She doesn't like to stand there alone, she wants to come and crowd me which is insecurity.

After that, Yvonne did a bit of targetting with her, but the mare's mind was obviously elsewhere. Yeah, that's the problem in spring with mares in season and so many stallion about the place. Can't blame the girls, so many good looking boys to look at ;-)

Ah yes, and some Keyanna photos are here. And some of Bluey, another young mare in work (ours) and me being silly, which is soooo unusual...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Festina lente

German: Eile mit Weile
English: Haste without Waste

If ever there was a maxim that applies to horse education, this is it!

What is a horse owner's first question when sending a horse for starting to a trainer? A wise trainer will reply that it takes as long as it takes, because it depends on the horse.

Haste in training usually leads us to not giving the horse enough time to be OK with things or to skip necessary steps altogether. We miss the little signs that should tell us the horse is not OK, and consequently we push the horse too much mentally. We can also push a young horse too much physically. But I believe that the horse's mind is the most important thing. He needs time to learn new things. Familiarization with new signals, objects, situations, learning the 'correct' response and then refinement is what are involved in the learning process. If we skimp on any of those steps, the learning process isn't happening the way we wish. Or maybe even worse, the horses learns something we don't want him to learn, for example that a situation is scary and he should bail out, simply because we haven't given him enough time to look at and digest the experience the first time.

Once we've created a problem by rushing through steps, then we have two jobs instead of one. Before any more learning can take place, some unlearning has to take place. Once a horse has learned that stepping onto a board is scary, you have to break down all the fear barriers in his mind first before anything else can progress. Only then can you ask him to engage his mind and give it a go.

So instead of asking him to put all four feet on the board in one session, allow him to get used to the hollow sound of the board, and maybe end the session when he touches the board with one foot. Next session he might put his weight on it. He may even volunteer the other front foot. And so on. And in a matter of a few short sessions, each of which will be a few minutes, he will confidently walk onto and stand on the board.

Is that not a better investment of your time than pushing him hard to get all feet in place in your first session, which he will probably not manage anyway? And next time back, he looks at the board with suspicion because last time he was near it, you put a lot of pressure on him. So it takes nearly as long as the first time, and he won't be keen on the idea even next session.

So what took longer?

Oh yes, I've been down both roads. And I can honestly say that in the end, taking the time it takes, takes less time than not taking the time it takes. He, that was fun to write and if it's not a tongue twister, it's close to a mind bender ;-) But you get the idea.

I see this in working with horses all the time. The youngsters which come for starting vary enormously in the time they require to absorb and be OK with various things. And there are times, even now, where I could tear my hair out thinking we are not progressing. But we go one little step at a time. Some days we even do less than the day before, because that's what the horse tells us he's happy with. We quit when the horse is OK, and because of this, in due course, usually very soon, the day comes where you know you can ask more.

Because the horse is always OK, you have solid foundations which you are building on. So when you get to what I call a sticky spot (let's say: a scary dog out of the bushes the first time you take the youngster out on the trail), the horse only has to concentrate on that, because he is OK with everything else. If your foundations are insufficient, this is the time you'll know about it. If your horse props because of the dog, and he's OK, he won't mind that you also make a little involuntary move in the saddle, and your reassuring hand and voice will calm down the rest of his unease. But if your horse isn't quite OK, then maybe the bounce he starts which bounces you in the saddle is just enough reason to go into mental meltdown, and next thing you are right in the middle of a western moment.

So take the time it takes with your youngsters, they will thank you for it. You will thank yourself for it, too.

Festina lente.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

High time for a change

For a long time I've been disgusted by what is called "Dressage". Mainly that which falls under the general heading of competitive or sport dressage.

It was bad enough to see the wooden looking horses performing lifeless if accurate movements under the heavy hands (and often spurs) of grim looking riders. To my mind, if dressage is the art of educating a horse to be a light and responsive mount, so these riders weren't practicing dressage! And then someone thought that wasn't enough and perfected the already common system of tying the horse's heads and necks down, by any means necessary, by adding systematic hyperflexion of the neck to the training schedule.

Someone coined the term rollkur. The word is cobbled together from "rolling" as the neck looks rolled in. Rosskur is the german word for a medicine or healing practice for horses. In colloquial language, it means any rough and painful "fix" for a body, coming from the understanding that in olden days, some pretty rough treatment was doled out to "fix" horses. So you can see that rollkur is a pretty meaningful description when it comes to hyperflexion.

I've seen photos and video of horses trained using rollkur. Nothing, NOTHING that's said by the people who practice and propagate this crap can convince me that it does anything good or useful for the horse's health or it's education. All it is is a pathetic attempt to shortcut training and to control horses which are already so frustrated by the way they are ridden, that they are mentally fraying at the edges and are sometimes barely controllable.

Whatever happened to correct education of a horse's mind and correct preparation of it's body to carry out the task? Is this a sign of the times, that we need instant fixes, instant gratification and if there is a by-product in the form of an unsound or mentally ruined horse, well we do live in a throw-away society. So we just buy another promising young superstar and go and do it all over again in a quest for competition glory, money, prestige, ego....?

And just as I thought I need to become a hermit and move to an island, it looks like there is a movement to put an end to this idiocy. Little by little I see articles in magazines which decry the practices used in even the most famous dressage stables. Vets are speaking up, prominent horsemen are speaking up.

Dr.Gerd Heuschmann published a book called book "Finger in Der Wunde" in Germany in 2006 and the English version "Tug of War - Classical versus "Modern Dressage" in 2007. He also made a film which is still available to order in English or German from WuWei Verlag. But have a read on his website or go to Stimmen Der Pferde to see a trailer of the film.

I also take my hat off to Philippe Karl, who appears to have made it his personal mission to better the lot of horses in competitive dressage. If you don't know who PK is, google him, it's worth your while. His latest effort was a letter to the German Equestrian Federation. This letter was ignored until it was published in a magazine and over 10,000 people added their signatures by way of signing up on PK's website. Finally the Germans replied, in a fashion. PK has recently published his answer to that. Please take the time to go to PK's website where you can find the full text of all three letters. It makes for interesting reading.

I hope that Mr.Karl and Dr.Heuschmann have successfully jumpstarted a revolution of the competitive dressage scene which is long overdue. For the good of the horses, let's support them in their endeavour.

Friday, August 7, 2009

How to describe a Paso

Pasos are very lively and proud horses. They are a horseman's horse. They are very smart. If they like and respect you, they will work their little butts off for you. While they are a bit hot, they are generally very easy to manage, but you need their respect.

I've found they don't do well with riders that like slow ploddy rides and who worry when the horse shows a bit of go. They do not like riders who continually pull on their heads to keep them slow.

On the other hand, for a confident rider, even if not too skilled, they can provide a lively ride. Because they are proud and funloving critters, they are great when you engage their minds and give them things to do, both in your interaction on the ground and under saddle. They are not flighty and run away types like many Thoroughbreds and Arabians. Some are a bit hot but if you set boundaries and give them a job to do, they do great.

If you are a rider who likes a bit of flair in a horse and who can laugh when the horse puts on some airs and graces, then a Paso will enjoy you and you will enjoy him.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shift in Focus

Well, it has been a terribly long time sine my first post.

Many things have changed. I have changed. Horses are no longer the only or main burning passion in my life. I discovered the martial arts, but that will be fodder for another blog :-) . But of course, horses are, and always will be, a big part of my life.

Forced by circumstances and as a result of my gaining a bit of mental distance, we have significantly reduced our breeding herd. When something you love becomes a burden and a chore, not to mention a financial drain, then it's time to move on. When there is disillusionment with the way things are going in the horse world and the feeling that I wish to move to an island and become a hermit, it's time to move on. It's sad in a way as horses, riding and everything to do with it have been my burning passion for so long I can't remember when it started. But it may be a natural maturation process and the harsh light of reality which have brought me to this crossroad.

In either case, I'm more detached these days, while I still love my horses, still love working with them and going out for rides. Through this detachment, I think I can see more clearly the way things are moving in out there in the "horse business" and I'm not fond of what I'm seeing. I'm also more self critical, questioning my own methods and philosophies and am learning that I have taken many wrong approaches in the past. The more I learn, the more I realise I still need to learn!

From my involvement in the martial arts and the steep learning curve I'm going through, I have also learned lessons that directly apply to my involvement with horses, and the general horse - human interface.

I have started writing a book. Putting into words what I wish to say really isn't that easy. However, the process is a learning experience for me, and formulating my thoughts into coherent sentences will no doubt help me become a better communicator. I need to "boil down" the pot of loose ideas, concepts, experiences into a manageable dish I can serve up.

More about all that later :-)


Saturday, May 30, 2009

I haven't written much for a while. Motivation can be elusive!

My friend Yvonne and I have been working with a variety of horses, not only some of ours, but outside horses which have been sent here by their owners. Mostly the job is to start them under saddle, occasionally we have a specific problem to solve.

One of the horses we worked on is the young Peruvian Paso mare Carisma NS. I actually bred her and sold her as a weanling to Sue and Len of Gunspring Peruvians. Carisma came here for starting and to address a little "bossiness" problem.

Yvonne and I took some video footage and posted it on youtube. Yvonne posted the link to my youtube video page on a couple of internet forums. The reaction was mixed, to put it mildly. While every video had an explanation of the background and the reason for what we did, and Yvonne explained it further on her lists, it was interesting to see just how many preconcieved ideas exist out there. It was astounding to see how differently people not only interpreted our actions, but the actual difference in WHAT they saw.

Some threw rotten eggs, some threw flowers. But that's the way it is. A topic for another day maybe.

Carisma went home, her owner no longer fear for their toes and we truly enjoyed working with her, as she is a lively intelligent young mare. Every horse I work with learns good stuff. And every horse I work with teaches me some good stuff, too.

Enjoy your horse!