Doing the Right Thing

I don’t sell horses, I don’t trade, I don’t give them away. My horses are my friends, they are part of my very being. If they cannot work due to lameness or disease they simply stay with me until they leave this life. I am honored to take care of them and joyed to enjoy my time with them whether they can work or not. They are not used cars, they are beautiful beings. So when I tell you this story you’ll understand the difficulty of my decision.

Horses bring so much joy to those of us fortunate enough to have them in our lives. And in turn, I’d like to think that most horse owners also want our horses to be content and enjoy life. Allowing the horse to be a horse is a great way to start. Time to graze, a herd to socialize with, shelter from the elements are so important to the horse’s mental and physical well-being. These basic needs are obvious, but going beyond the obvious is something not all horsemen do. What may not be obvious is whether or not your horse enjoys his time with you, whether he likes his required “job,” or whether he is compatible with his pasture mates. Simply because a horse can do something does not mean he should.

aceI recently made a very difficult decision to let a horse go back to his original owner. Ace came to live with me through a student four years ago. When the student decided to move on to another horse and no longer wished to care for him, he was offered to me.

I thought he would be a great lesson horse for my students without their own to learn on. I was wrong. He is a very bright, athletic horse. His mind is active and he is easily stimulated, which is what he loves. As time went on I started to see signs of his dislike for his work. Using him for beginners means lunge line lessons, very slow work, and for him it was very boring work. He has never been used more than 5 days a week, and generally 3; only an hour each time. He certainly is not overworked. His riders all adore him, but he is quite simply bored! He was previously an endurance horse, and going around in circles is just not his cup of tea. At times he would express that displeasure in very clear terms.

For quite a while I kept thinking that it wasn’t too much to ask of him in trade for the very cushy and pampered life I give to him. But in my heart, I’ve been troubled by his unhappiness. If he were happy living here I would have happily allowed him live a life of leisure. But he also does not fit in with the herd. When I look at him, I see a horse who just is not where he’s meant to be.

Still, I held back, since I know that some of my students truly will be sad to lose him. But the universe again stepped in, and I finally was led to the decision to talk to his original owner about taking him back. I was so pleased at her instant enthusiasm to do so. She originally had to give him up due to life circumstance, but always has missed him. She adores him and expressed the desire to do some endurance with him again, which I do think he will come alive and enjoy.

So, my lovely, beautiful Ace will be leaving soon. Laura will be smiling in anticipation and I am heavy in heart. But it’s the right thing to do. As much as I wanted to see Ace happy here, it was not going to happen. The wonderful thing is he will go back to live with one of his old pasture mates that he enjoyed. Laura and I have an agreement that if she ever needs to let him go again, he has a home waiting for him back with me.

If we are going to use horses for our pleasure, they should be happy with their life… but in this case doing the right thing is bittersweet.

Stop Hurting Your Horse!

spy-kissedTwenty-five years ago I attended a John Lyons clinic where he said something that has stayed with me throughout all of my own training, the training of horses, and my teachings to my students. He said, “There are two rules in all training of horses: one, the horse should never be hurt and two, the rider should never be hurt.”

Throughout the years I have witnessed both. Generally, if a rider gets hurt, it’s through a mistake of their own. Horses are not out to hurt us, but they are large and can be very quick when they are motivated to protect themselves. Sometimes a rider is just in the wrong place at the wrong time or we don’t read the situation properly and we get hurt. Just today I read about another knowledgeable horseman who was killed while leading a horse out to pasture. She had put the lead rope on her shoulder. The horse took off running as the rope went around her neck and she was dragged 250 ft. So very tragic. According to the article the farm where she worked did not use this practice and it was perhaps a moment of distraction where she was not focused. It cost her her life. Was it the horse’s fault? Absolutely not. He was being a horse: something startled him and he bolted. Should he be punished? Of course not! Tragic and sad, but the horse did not intentionally set out to do harm. Horses never do; they simply react.

It’s our choice to take the risk of getting hurt when we work with a horse, but the horse does not have that choice. He is under the control of the rider/handler. When someone is hurting their horse – for example, kicking the horse’s sides or yanking on their horse’s mouth, the most common thing I hear them say is, “he makes me mad!” What??? Suddenly, the horse has an agenda? No, he does not. Horses are NOT humans; they do not think like humans. They are simply responding or not responding as a result of something we are either doing or not doing. It’s really that simple. The horse may have had a previous experience that was not pleasant. They never will forget, and in a similar situation may revert back to that experience and react in self-protection.

One mistake many people make is humanizing the horse. People will say, “but he knows it’s me!” Yes, he does, but remember, horses live in the moment and are conditioned-response animals. A condition is placed upon them and in that moment they will react out of instinct unless the handler/rider is aware and reacts to assure the horse is focused on them and trusts them to guide them. Slapping, kicking, and yanking is not convincing a horse to trust you.

A young student of mine, a beginner, was trying to guide her horse around the arena. The horse was just meandering around, stopping constantly. I could see that her aids were inconsistent – she pulled and fidgeted with her reins, her legs didn’t relax after she asked the horse to move, her posture was slouched, etc. We had several discussions on how to show her horse what she needed from him, but she was still doing the exact same thing. Finally she got frustrated. She suddenly took both reins and yanked them… hard! I was in the arena and a second from making her dismount. But I realize why it happened. Frustration turns to anger. It’s also because she humanized her horse. Her horse wasn’t trying make her mad; he was probably as frustrated as she was. He was receiving so many conflicting instructions, he simply gave up on listening. Thankfully, he was gentle enough not to react violently – he could have bucked her off instead! I will not allow horses to be abused and she received the message loud and clear! She felt badly and later apologized. It was the horse who needed the apology, not me, but horses don’t understand apologies. Our mistakes will be remembered.

Horses are not machines. They cannot be programmed and left to run by themselves. Creating a partnership with a horse requires stride by stride communication and connection. Any horse would rather be out in pasture with their pasture mates than carrying a human around on their back doing what probably seems like insane movements. How many horses would volunteer to run barrels, ride circles, jump courses, go around an arena hundreds of times in an exact posture that the human requests instead of grazing and enjoying what they naturally are intended to do? I think the count would be small. That’s not to say horses do not enjoy working with us sometimes. I’ve known several horses in my life that are so very willing and seem to shine when working. I have to believe it’s because their well-being comes first in my training. It’s never how perfect something is, it’s the “try,” the “intent,” that I reward my horses for. If I myself never made a mistake, maybe I would expect perfection, but that is not a reality. Putting myself in the horse’s place, I would not appreciate someone who only criticized me for my errors without praising my accomplishments. I would rebel. I would certainly react in self-protection if I were being hurt. I would not trust that person again.

The surprising thing is, most of the people I encounter hurting their horses in frustration are truly in love with their horse. Perhaps they are displaying a flaw in their own being. Instead of reacting with anger when a horse is not responding properly, we should look at it as a learning opportunity. We should evaluate ourselves as well as the horse. I doubt any of us are free of making mistakes, so why should we expect the horse to be? You’re training your horse with every ride, and problems occur when we are not teaching properly. Please think about the harm you are doing to your horse and your relationship when you purposely hurt your horse. It’s not what you want in the end, and it definitely is not what will bring you success. If you have anger issues then as a trainer once said to a former colleague of mine, “jump off your horse and go punch a tree instead.” Good advice! Do what you have to control your anger, just please… STOP HURTING YOUR HORSE!

Unmounted Horse Safety

Vet working on horse
Vets and farriers have to get into a precarious position while working on a horse. Proper horse handling can help keep your vet or farrier safe.

Working with horses daily for the majority of my life has taught me many things. One of the most important is the issue of safety. Surprisingly, this is sometimes less of an issue when we’re around horses that are nervous, high strung, or otherwise unruly. In those cases we use caution and awareness, and we generally don’t get hurt. But when we’re working with horses that are quiet, relaxed, “solid citizens,” we sometimes get complacent – especially with horses we know and trust. This is often when we get injured.

This was not the case last evening when I was trying new boots on a horse. EZ was in his stall, happily munching hay. I was focused, and I was positioned properly. But as I was fitting the boot on, another horse made a sudden loud banging noise on the wall and startled EZ. There was no warning, no second or two to protect myself, when he jumped into me, slamming me into the wall and to the floor. I am so grateful that he stopped with a hoof that was inches from my face. My arm was bruised, but my head was fine. I was a bit dazed, but recovered quickly. Could I have put him on cross-ties instead of fitting boots in the stall? Absolutely. But that would not have been a guarantee of safety; in fact it might have been worse since he would not have been able to do what nature tells him to do: run.

The same day, I was standing at the head of another horse, Ace, to adjust his bridle. Something behind him startled him and he leapt forward. Again, I was fortunate, because instead of running over me as he could have done, he stopped. Thank you, Ace!

Another time I was simply fastening the buckles on a horse’s blanket when she shied and ended up jumping into me knocking me back against a wall. When I landed face down in the stall she stepped backwards onto my foot. Painful and frightening. She eventually stepped off my leg and I crawled out on my belly.

My point here is that accidents can happen anytime, and are often beyond our control. Horses are horses and they sometimes do unpredictable things. However, I often see people around horses doing incredibly dangerous things. Why would anyone put themselves at additional risk through carelessness? Just recently I saw Facebook posts showing a woman sitting with her bare feet touching her horse’s front hooves, a man cleaning a hind hoof squatting down with the hoof level with his face, someone allowing their 3 year old to lead a horse by himself, and two young girls diving into a pond off their horse’s back. No helmets, no protection. Once I saw a 2 year old walk under the belly of a horse, and the mother saw no harm in it. I once witnessed a groom at a show, lying on his side sanding a horse’s feet. Even the most settled horse is still first a prey animal and a flight animal. One never knows when a horse will mentally “return to the wild” and defend him/herself the way they were intended – which is often violently quick, and with tremendous power. If you are in the path of that power you could be seriously hurt, or worse.

As horsepeople, we understand the inherent risks. But to become careless is just plain foolish. Horses don’t intend on hurting us, but they do react to a stimulus. We don’t have to be paranoid, but we should always keep in mind the nature of the horse, and act appropriately for safety.

Think about safety the next time you’re handling a horse for your vet or farrier. Often a horse is nervous or distracted, while the vet or farrier is in a precarious position. I have seen people obliviously chatting away not paying any attention to the horse’s body language or how they are positioning the horse. I’ve known people who will even groom their horse while the farrier is trying to work. There are things you can do to help keep your vet or farrier safe. For example: if the vet is doing an exam on a hind limb, turn your horse’s head towards the side the vet is on. If the horse were to threaten to kick and you pulled the horse towards the vet, the hindquarter would move away from the vet. (If you had the head turned away from the vet and the horse went to kick, he would be coming toward the vet – not safe!) Little things like that can help everyone stay safe, as well as just being aware of your horse’s body language so you can warn the vet or farrier when they’re in a position where they cannot see or feel when the horse is warning them.

People aren’t the only ones who get injured because of our carelessness; our horses do too. The animals we love are often put in harm’s way because we aren’t paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted when other people are in the barn. I understand wanting to socialize, but the focus should be on the horse and socializing later. Don’t leave a horse untied with a halter or bridle on – they might stick their heads in places where the headstall can snag, causing them to panic and pull back. Equipment may break, but that’s repairable. A horse’s mouth can be damaged, neck and back muscles pulled, and/or spinal damage may be done. Be careful leading your horse through a gate. Riders often open the gate wide enough for themselves, forgetting that their horse is much wider. The horse does not know the danger lurking and needs his human partner to take care of his wellbeing.

There are no guarantees when handling horses – accidents do happen. But we owe it to ourselves and to our horses to focus and make choices that will keep everyone safe as possible. Horses’ body language can be very clear in warning us of potential danger but we won’t know that if we don’t pay close attention.

When Horses Shy: How to Give Your Horse Confidence

herd of horses

You’re walking along a beautiful trail; your horse is happy, relaxed; all is serene – suddenly, you find yourself in a spin that would do any reining horse proud, followed by a mad gallop! Yikes! One might think a bear had come out from behind a tree! So why did your horse go from complete relaxation to total panic?

Why horses shy or spook

herd of horses
If the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit. Photo credit: Mike Kamermans
The first step to making sense of it is to understand who the horse is and what is in his nature. First and foremost he is a prey animal. Secondly, he is a flight animal. Third, he is a herd animal. No matter how much training a horse has, his instincts and natural behavior will always be there. In the wild, horses’ survival depends upon their ability to see, hear, and smell danger. They must respond immediately to survive nature’s predators. The gift of flight is their tool for survival.

Being a herd animal, the horse needs a leader. Have you ever seen a herd of horses peacefully grazing when suddenly one horse picks up his head and without hesitation spins around and gallops off? You can be assured if the leader flees the entire herd will follow suit before even checking to see why they’re running. The leader guides the herd.

The horse looks to the rider

While handling and riding the horse we strive to become his leader. Through ground work we teach the horse to follow us, to move his legs forward, laterally, and back. We teach him to focus on us through laterally giving at the pole, the jaw, and the wither. We should not have a problem with him shying at this point, right? No, it’s not that simple!

Even a focused horse can be startled when suddenly a squirrel jumps down from a tree as you pass. It’s a sudden movement that causes his natural instincts to kick in. No matter how much “desensitizing” is done, I have not seen many horses who don’t react at a sudden unseen object. How violently he shies depends on you, the rider. Your body language, your reaction, your timing, and his trust in you all play an important role in how quickly the horse will regain his composure.

Bluntly said, you cannot lie to a horse! You can put on a brave face, but he feels and sees your truth. If you become tense he will absolutely know that, indeed, this is something to be frightened of. If you are unable to react quickly and guide him quietly forward by asking for his focus through laterally giving, by properly asking him to move forward from your legs, and by sitting softly in a balanced manner, then he will take matters into his own hands. You have inadvertently deserted him as his leader, and he will believe he must watch out for himself.

In the same situation, if you are able to react quickly and confidently, he might just take a few steps sideways or scooted forward a moment, then refocus on you and realize he is being guided by you. We should not expect to change the nature of the horse, but rather to give the horse confidence in our leadership.

I realize this is easier said than done: a shying horse can be frightening to the rider, and if the pattern continues, it can become a vicious cycle that’s tough to break. But after working with many riders with fear issues, I do believe that, with guidance, a committed rider can and will work through this. One of my students who deals with fear is constantly saying to her horse, “you’re ok, you’re ok.” I chuckle because what she really means is “I’m ok, I’m ok.” The words don’t help the horse because her voice and her body are full of tension. The horse listens to body language.

Leading by example

So how do you overcome fear and become a confident leader for your horse? I believe understanding your role with the horse first from the ground cannot be understated. Ground work is invaluable as a first step. If he doesn’t follow and trust you from the ground it will not be any better once mounted. There are many methods of ground work and I do not condone bullying in any way. On the surface, you might get the response you’re looking for, but he will neither want to be with you nor will he trust you.

Once mounted it is important to learn how to sit in a balanced seat without gripping. Your journey to developing confidence starts by learning the correct use of legs, seat, and hands, and becoming proficient in your ability to use them independently or all at the same time. Confidence, in turn, allows you to react, allows you to stay soft in your body, and ultimately allows you to guide your horse and pass that confidence on to him.

Many years ago I was riding a horse on a small, narrow country road. There was no breakdown lane, only a deep ditch. I heard the unsettling noise of a tractor trailer truck coming in our direction. They were not allowed on the road so it was not a normal occurrence. I had nowhere to find safety, and he was fast approaching. The horse I was riding was young, skittish, and prone to bolting. I felt the panic rising in me, and then the voice of my instructor came to me saying, “If you relax, breath deep, and trust him to follow you, you’ll get a much better result.” Believe me, relaxing with a huge, noisy truck coming within a few feet of us was not at all what I was thinking, but I did it! As he got closer I put my hand on my horse’s neck, stroked him and breathed really deep. I put my calves on and asked him to keep walking. I asked him to give to the bit. He did nothing! He tensed a bit but did not do his normal spin and bolt (to which I had been subjected so many times). Since this is a “family blog” I will not say what I was muttering to the driver after the fact! He never slowed down or moved over one bit. Scary, and thankfully, I never had to repeat such an atrocious incident, but it made me a believer in the power of leadership through body language. I think I knew it was do or die! The ability to change my own normal reactions became easier each time, and it can for you too, with practice, patience, and understanding technique and horse behavior.

Becoming a rider instead of a passenger takes study and practice. It is not generally a quick endeavor, but in the end the rewards far exceed the efforts.

Dragons in the Bushes: Overcoming Fear of Riding

rider falling off

Over the 40 years that I have had the privilege of teaching horsemanship, I find the number one obstacle that deprives riders of both progress and pleasure is fear. Fear of riding horses does not discriminate, nor does it have boundaries. Equestrians of all ages, levels, and disciplines can find themselves afflicted with fear.

rider falling off
Fear can develop after a mishap, but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a specific cause or origin. (photo credit: Andrew Pescod)

Although fear can often develop after a mishap where the rider was injured or frightened, it may also develop without a specific cause or origin. No matter how it started, once fear is present, it seems to have a mind of its own. As it begins to grow and spread, fear can affect your ability to guide and direct your horse. You are the horse’s leader; if the leader is frightened then the horse will follow your lead. The very presence of fear will transfer through your body language to the horse, and the horse will react accordingly, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.

Fear causes many horse lovers to give up on their passion for riding. It can leave you feeling incompetent and vulnerable. It takes away the joy you once found on horseback. Fear is often the reason horses are sold or become “pasture ornaments.”

Is there alternative to “putting up your boots”? Yes, you can overcome fear! Through my own personal experience, and in guiding my students, I have found overcoming fear to be entirely possible. I would like to offer a realistic approach to facing the fear that holds so many riders back. If you begin to understand how horses think, learn to read your horse’s body language, and increase your skill level as a rider, you can develop the confidence necessary to become a leader to your horse, and reverse the cycle of fear.

Understanding the equine mind

If you understand how a horse thinks, what instincts are necessary for his survival, and how a horse silently communicates through body language, it will begin to open the door to greater confidence and better communication. There are many books written on horses’ instincts, behavior, and language, but I must warn you that there are vast differences in interpretation of the horse’s mind among authors. I believe horses are always your best teachers, so studying how horses behave in a herd can tell you a great many things. Robert Vavra’s book Such Is the Real Nature of Horses is a wonderful study of horses in the wild. Of course, the photography is amazing, but Mr. Vavra has excellent insight to what he photographs. Mark Rashid has also written wonderful books. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse.

There are three of aspects of the horse’s mind that are always an influence in every reaction the horse has:

  1. The horse is a herd animal. In the herd the horse has a leader. This leader guides the herd, and the herd follows the body language of the leader. If the leader reacts to an unknown potential danger, the herd will follow suit. Without a leader every horse will take care of himself. If you, the rider, are not a confident leader and a situation of concern arises, your horse will instinctively take over in order to survive. Simply put, one of you must lead! This is why learning how to become a good leader is such an essential part of riding.
  2. The horse is a prey animal, and must protect himself from the unknown. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why horses are constantly looking for “dragons in the bushes.” In nature, horses will generally graze in areas that allow for observation of their surroundings. Being oblivious of their environment could put them at risk as prey to a predator, so it is clear why horses are always interested in the slightest movement or strange sound.
  3. The horse’s gift of survival is flight. His primary defense is creating distance from the object of concern. If your horse does not have confidence in your guidance as you are riding or handling him, he will instinctively want to flee from an object of potential danger.

Knowing how the horse thinks helps us see the importance of leadership and correct guidance through your body language (aids). But how can you transform from “vulnerable passenger” to “fearless leader”? You’ve got to learn your horse’s language.

Understanding body language

Your horse is reading your body language, and it’s just as important to learn to read his. Understanding your horse’s silent communication will help you to read his awareness and reactions. I like to focus on four basic areas of body language:

  1. The ears are amazing in their telltale positions. They are like radar! If the ears of the horse are positioned forward we know that he is noticing or “looking” at what is in front of him. If his ears are gently (not pinned), back he is noticing what’s behind him, including the rider. Pinned ears express anger and imminent reaction accordingly. I am most comfortable when a horse will flick one ear towards me and one ear in front or both back to me and perhaps a flicker in front for brief seconds. It shows me that the horse is aware and alert, yet willing to focus on me, his leader.
  2. From the saddle we can also notice the position of the neck. Is the neck relaxed, comfortably positioned in balance or is it raised with tense muscles? Nature has provided the horse with a valuable tool of survival by positioning his neck to see far beyond his immediate surroundings! A raised tense neck is telling us something is worrying the horse. Will you be there to guide the horse’s confidence to you?
  3. The eyes are more difficult to notice under saddle, but are clear signals from the ground. Horses have both binocular and monocular vision, meaning they can use their eyes either together, or independently. This gives them the ability to see objects behind, beside and in front of them at the same time! When a horse is “with you,” you will notice a flicker of focus looking towards you, albeit briefly. Remember, their focus is only about 3 seconds — another tool for survival.
  4. And finally, the mouth is an indication of tension or relaxation. If the jaw is relaxed, if the horse is perhaps softly working the bit, (not chomping on it), if he allows his tongue to occasionally lick it, these are indications of comfort.

It takes observation, constant awareness, and time to learn the subtleness of a horse’s body language. By understanding how your horse thinks and being careful not to humanize the situation, your reactions will be more appropriate and effective, and your confidence level will improve. Being able to read your horse is vital for the third piece of the puzzle: communicating effectively.

Developing your skill as a rider

To successfully combat your fear, you must also develop your skill as a rider. No matter how well you understand equine behavior, and how accurately you can read your horse’s body language, you must be able to communicate effectively, confidently, and appropriately with your horse to break the cycle of fear. Developing an independent seat, correct body position, and the appropriate use of the aids are necessary for feeling secure in the saddle and being able to give your horse the leadership he needs to feel secure as well. Though there are many books written about riding, there’s no replacement for in-person instruction. Especially for riders dealing with fear, finding the right instructor is important. Your instructor should have the right skills and qualifications for your discipline, and must also be someone you feel able to trust. Once you have found a possible instructor, either through recommendations or advertising, I suggest asking to observe a lesson. This will allow you the opportunity to see if the instructors’ approach and theory is right for you.

Just like training a horse, the process of rebuilding your own confidence is gradual and incremental. It can seem like an uphill battle at times, but a mountain does not have to be conquered in a day. Determination combined with knowledge of the mental and physical communication, as well as natural behavior and instincts of the horse will help you to finally re-experience the joy you once found in riding your horse.

Cavesson fads and fashions – resist the pressure!

horse wearing flash noseband

In the 1970s, cavessons created for the purpose of closing a horse’s mouth (flash, figure 8, crank, etc) became popular, and since they seemed effective, I, like most, followed without question. But a few years later, a well-respected equine dentist, Ron Ross, visited my barn in Connecticut, and changed the way I thought. Ron was always willing to help educate his clients on the finer points of the equine mouth. He explained that in order for the lower salivary glands to operate effectively, a horse must “work” his lower jaw. The bit alone makes it difficult for the mouth to do this properly, and strappings on the cavesson only amplify the restriction.

horse wearing flash noseband
Cavessons designed to clamp the mouth shut can cause unnecessary harm and tend to mask problems rather than solve them.

Cavessons can have other negative effects too: if the noseband straps are adjusted a bit low and snug (as many are), the nostrils are no longer free to expand, and natural breathing is restricted. A low noseband might also apply constant pressure to the bridge of the nose.

Even though the damage they cause is well understood, these cavessons are so pervasive that many people use them simply because everyone else is. Many people don’t even realize their purpose. They might just like the look of a flash noseband, or they didn’t give much thought to the type of cavesson when bridle shopping (it can be hard to find a plain noseband these days!). Others think they need it to solve a problem.

Understanding the goal

Even for someone who aspires to “natural horsemanship,” most of what we do while riding or training horses cannot be considered “natural.” Putting saddles, bridles, bits, and other tack on a horse is undeniably “human.” But we can begin to bridge the gap between the horse’s nature and our own unnatural interventions by studying equine behavior, instincts, and habits.

We know that horses naturally need and want a leader, and our goal in training should be to become the kind of leader the horse needs. In training horses, we should aspire to a quiet, steady contact with the bit. Forcing a mouth shut through the use of flash, crank, or figure 8 cavessons is no substitute for correct training.

Finding the real problem

Instead of jumping to a new piece of equipment to correct a problem, it’s important to understand why horses chomp or gape their mouths. In the case of a young horse just being started, it will take time to accept cold, cumbersome metal in his mouth. Or a horse may need dental work. The bit may be the wrong size, diameter, or type to fit a particular mouth conformation. Some breeds, for example, tend to have lower pallets than others. The ever-popular loose ring snaffle can easily pinch tender lips if not properly fitted. Riders’ hands are another possible culprit: unsteady or aggressive hands can easily cause a horse to avoid contact through gaping. A less obvious cause could be an ill-fitting saddle, back soreness, feet or leg discomfort – all of which can also show up in busy mouths. Understanding that gaping is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself, is critical. One can only begin to fix a problem after you know what’s causing it.

Pressure and release: the keys to horse behavior

Horses demonstrate their intentions through body language. They have an entire language derived from the application of pressure. The important factor in herd communication is that pressure begins mildly, and is only accelerated to accomplish the point if the milder pressure has failed. Once the point is made, pressure is released. Horses understand instinctively to move away from pressure; what they do not understand is constant pressure without relief. If the pressure is there whether they respond or not, there is no reprieve. A horse can learn to accept constant pressure (such as from a cavesson designed to clamp their mouth shut) if they have no other choice, but it damages or destroys the harmony between the horse and rider.

If you can make your horse more comfortable and therefore more content by not using devices that cause unnecessary pain or pressure, I can’t help but think we will all win! Your horse’s care and well-being are ultimately your responsibility. We tend to follow our mentors without question, yet questioning is a positive approach which enables us to make the correct choices for our horses. When in doubt, listen to your horse. He’s always the best teacher.

For an excellent explanation of how different types of cavessons work and the effect they have on the horse’s mouth, see

Do no harm: understanding the function of tie-downs, martingales, and draw reins

jumper wearing a running martingales

“Brutality begins where knowledge ends. Ignorance and compulsion appear simultaneously.” ~Charles de Kunffy.

It’s rampant in every discipline, every breed. I see it in training barns, show arenas, boarding facilities, and backyards: people using devices that restrict their horses’ natural movement. I am appalled at the practice, but what really baffles me is how many otherwise loving owners there are who daily subject their horses to painful devices in order to force a particular look or position.

I am convinced that the majority of horsemen using devices just do not realize the harm they cause to their horse. Unfortunately there are also many amateurs and professionals who DO know and choose a quick result over the well-being of their horse.

There are too many devices to discuss all in one post, so for now, let’s focus on draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales. Their general purpose is to create a certain head carriage that imitates the natural posture of horses when they are motivated to “strutt” in elegance and grace – art in motion.

horse trots freely with neck arched
a rider’s goal should be to preserve and encourage natural movement – not inhibit it (photo credit: Rachel Gutbrod)

When a horse is excited we see a natural arching of the neck and vertical position of the head. But this is only the front end of the horse. Looking at the whole horse, we can see that this arched neck and vertical head position is created through hindquarter engagement. The horse shifts his weight back, and the head comes up. It is a balanced lightness resulting from a natural rhythm and suppleness. Headset is the last step, not the first, so this is not something that can be properly achieved by forcing a horse to carry his head artificially.

Draw reins, tie-downs, and martingales not only artificially set the horse’s head, they also prevent a horse from moving his back, neck, and hindquarter freely. The horse may have the “look” of being naturally arched, but the artificial head carriage will take its toll on the body. Such restrictive devices can cause both mental and physical damage, often beyond repair. Damage to the jaw, neck, back, and hocks often lead to the eventual breakdown of the horse. Lameness develops and behavior problems frequently surface. Gaits can become irregular. Strength, elasticity, and balance diminish.

See for pictures of draw reins in action. Notice how restricted and unnatural the horse’s movement is.

horse trotting freely
when a horse moves freely, the flexion is at the poll (photo credit: Spanish_Girl1)
Now look at the poll when a horse naturally arches his neck. It will always be the highest point, no matter how high he holds his neck. The flexion is at the poll, not a few vertebrae behind the poll.

comparison of two dressage horses
Compare the horse on the left, bending behind the poll, with the horse on the right with a more natural headset. The damage caused by forcing a horse into an unnatural headset can be irreversible (photo credit: MissTessmacher)
Using head-setting devices can force the horse to bend behind the natural point of flexion, which in time causes lasting, irreversible damage. Look around at shows or at photos online and you can easily spot horses that have been forced into this artificial bend during their training. If only judges refused to award horses carrying themselves this way, maybe these devices would not be so popular.

I often tell my students not to “humanize” the horse, but in this case, I think there is a credible analogy to be made: pretend your head is tied so your neck is bent in any direction. Keep it there. Walk, jog, and run like that. Stand like that. How long before you feel cramped, painful, tired, frustrated, angry? If you were really tied that way, how would you try to release the pressure? Would you fight for relief? I expect it would become difficult to move with grace and beauty.

The horse in comparison is limited in his ability to protect himself and relieve the pain. His power is greatly diminished. Remember, he is a flight animal. Unable to flee, he may resort to fighting to get relief. But if he fights, he’s called a “rogue” and punished. It’s a no-win situation for the horse.

jumper wearing a running martingales
You can easily see signs of pain and frustration in a horse whose natural movement is being restricted (photo credit: Tiffany)
I find it incredibly unsettling and sad to see a horse with eyes that show pain, anger, or resignation. Please look at your own horse. Be honest with yourself, and if you have been using such devices, question your own motivation. Do you want to win so badly that you’ll sacrifice the well-being of your equine partner? He has no choice…but you do!

Horses CAN be trained without causing pain and long term damage. Take the time to learn the methods of lateral and longitudinal bending, and how to engage the body and communicate with the mind. Understanding all of the physical aspects we observe in the horse’s natural posturing: impulsion, relation of the spine, rhythm, and flexibility, is the first step in learning to duplicate it under saddle.

It might take a bit longer than the tie-down method, but the results will last a lifetime. You will have a physically healthy horse as well as a willing partner.

Unnatural Horsemanship: Standing up for your horse – and yourself

For years I have watched, read, and listened to a growing number of natural horsemanship trainers. As a natural horsemanship practitioner myself, I want to be pleased at its increasing popularity. But I was recently an observer at a natural horsemanship clinic in my area, and feel the need to speak out against something I see far too often.

Natural horsemanship is about respectful leadership and creating a harmonious partnership

I began my own study of natural horsemanship in the 1970s when I read the wonderful book Such is the Real Nature of Horses by Robert Vavra. It wasn’t about training, but rather a book of Mr. Vavra’s beautiful wild horse photography along with his insight into their nature. It has remained one of my favorite reads and was the beginning of my journey into the study of natural horsemanship. Thirty plus years later, I am still learning.

Natural horsemanship, in its essence, is developing an understanding of the horse in nature, and working with the horse’s nature, rather than against it, to develop a willing partnership.

So, when I see “professionals” training horses under the guise of natural horsemanship, teaching techniques involving pain-inducing leverage, I am both saddened and appalled. Not only is there often nothing natural in their techniques or approach, they do not respect or consider the horse as a partner. They may be able to achieve an obedient and compliant horse, but they are doing it through fear.  Horses may submit to their request, but after what I see as brutality. These trainers demand respect, yet they have no respect for the horse.

There are two types of leaders: one that bullies and one that leads through example. If horses are put in a herd with two dominant horses, they will always choose to follow the “passive leader.” This should be no surprise — people don’t like being bullied either. So why would anyone think a horse would become a willing partner through the same techniques?

What distresses me in addition to the horses that suffer through this training is the vast number of people following like sheep behind some of these trainers. Yes, what they can accomplish may seem impressive, but have these people looked into their horses eyes? Do they not see the fear, the resignation, and the broken spirit of their horse? A student recently talked to me about a horse she had in training. She was worried that the trainer was terrorizing her horse. She expressed her concerns to the trainer but was promptly reprimanded and made to feel like she had no right to question what was being done — the trainer was the professional, after all! NO! IT IS YOUR HORSE AND YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT HIM/HER. IT IS YOUR RIGHT TO SAY “NO.” It is also your right to not allow a trainer to bully you!

Information on training techniques is so readily available to all of us. We can buy books, we can research the internet, there are videos, demonstrations, and seminars everywhere! Before following a trainer, I encourage everyone to take the time to do some research.  What is his/her background of study? What have they accomplished?  Watch them work with some horses and people. What is their rapport with them? You can easily see a horse is worried when approached by someone who has hurt them. Trust your instincts and continue your search if you have any apprehension.

Pain and fear are not the way to create a partnership with your horse. No matter what your experience level, you are ultimately responsible for how your horse is trained and treated. It is never okay to hit, tie-down, or in any other way cause pain to a horse. Horse lovers, people who strive to be good horsemen, know this instinctively. Don’t let anyone, “professional” though they may claim to be, misguide you.

Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on

Lily, Lily, Lily!! That’s what I heard myself say as I watched in horror as Lily exploded into the air… with Amy astride! Oh my goodness, there is so much to learn from this horse. In the last update (Part 5), I felt confident that Lily and Amy had turned the corner in developing confidence, trust, and leadership. But as I helped Amy up from the wet muddy ground, I was in stunned silence. I reviewed the steps leading up to Lily’s explosion.

Amy lies over Lily's back
Making progress

In the weeks prior, we had continued working in hand with Lily, and were continually pleased to see that she was indeed becoming comfortable with the process. She became accustomed to both saddle and bridle. She went over, through, around, and laterally over obstacles. She could trot and even canter without becoming mentally heightened. Amy had spent several days stepping up in the stirrups and lying over the saddle. She had mounted and just sat, peacefully praising Lily. Lily showed no difficulty with any of this, so I was perhaps a bit too comfortable when Amy suggested that it wasn’t necessary to lunge Lily before mounting. She also believed Lily was tired of the round pen and wanted to work out in the paddock instead. She reasoned that the round pen was a bit slippery from rain. This was a valid point.

I have started and worked with a large number of green horses, and my preference is to take all safety precautions until the horse is completely comfortable with walk, trot and canter in a controlled environment. I feel that some warm up, either free lunging or with a line, is important to connect with the horse and get a feel for their state of mind. But part of me thought Amy was right and I was being a bit too cautious. So we walked out into the paddock. With Brian standing at Lily’s head (another thing I don’t normally do as I feel too many people can cause anxiety and claustrophobia), and me holding the stirrup to keep the saddle from slipping sideways, Amy confidently put her foot into the stirrup and mounted.

I’m not pleased to say I did not follow my instincts and knowledge. I learned from a terrible explosion of an accident what can happen when a horse becomes girth-bound. When horses are girth-bound, they feel the girth’s pressure and panic – not understanding that the pressure will lessen by breathing and relaxing. They can become totally explosive. Because of this, I make it a rule to always tighten girths slowly, walking the horse a few feet between tightening, and then again before mounting. It’s also important not to squirm, move around, etc., until you allow the horse to relax and walk forward.

But I didn’t have a chance to warn Amy in time. She sat down in the saddle, and before I could stop her she tried to adjust a little crookedness in her saddle. It was 1, 2, 3, rodeo time! I must say Amy did an amazing job for a novice rider. She did try to stay on, and fought hard for it. Lily went up, then began bucking and twisting. Amy remembered me saying that if a horse is bucking, to sit back and bring one rein up and to the side to stop the buck. She was trying for all her might, but she had slipped sideways and lost her balance. And Brian, ever supportive of his wife, was innocently trying to hang onto Lily, which only escalated  the problem.

Amy turned out to be fine, but at the time she was hurting, unsure if she had done damage to her hip and shoulder, and the sun was starting to set. Not an ideal place to stop, but working in the dark would have been productive. We agreed to review the situation and begin anew the next time. Amy was not to be deterred from her progress… or so we thought.

By the next session, fear had set in and Amy felt she needed to step back. She was frustrate and wanted a break. We decided it would be best if Brian took over working with Lily until Amy was ready. Lily responds well to Brian’s quiet yet confident manner, and she seemed not be bothered by the incident at all.

Amy astride Lily
Back in the saddle!

I have to chuckle at Amy’s “break,” because it was only a week before she was back at the helm. We discussed the accident and what caused it, and all agreed not to take shortcuts when working with Lily. Back to the round pen…but not back-tracking! Lily settled quickly and Amy was once again stepping up until she felt she could sit down in the saddle. Yes! She did it! Lily was quiet and did not appear worried. We are back on track.

Mistakes will be made, accidents will happen. It’s how we handle them that will make the difference between success and failure. Blaming the horse or someone else for our mistakes, or repeating the same mistakes without searching for the reasons behind them can keep us from developing our horsemanship skills. Sadly, it means the horses usually suffer as much or more than us.

I am always disappointed in my own mistakes, but I have to remember that never are they done with bad intention, and never will I blame someone else for my responsibility. I ask the horse (and the student) for forgiveness and go forward without dwelling on the error. I commit to improve life for the horse. Horses are incredibly forgiving. They seem to know whether someone has good intentions rather than being intentionally abusive. If humans can be just as intuitive and forgiving, letting go of innocent wrongs, the horse will continue trust us and follow our leadership. Amy and Brian are great at this, and it’s one of the many reasons I believe in their ability to succeed with this complicated horse.

Lily and Amy
A growing partnership

Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on

Avoiding the Unthinkable: Steps you can take to keep your horse safe

horses standing in a pasture

Once, while driving down a country road I spotted a pony that appeared to be rubbing his neck on a fence post. As I got closer, I realized he was actually trying to free himself because his halter was caught on the post. I pulled over, released him from the halter, then went to the house and explained to the pony’s owner what I’d seen. Carefully, I suggested they remove the halter during turnout or use a breakaway halter instead. (Personally, I feel if you need a halter left on a horse to catch them then there is a gap in your leadership and bonding relationship, but I was not there to lecture, just to try to prevent a tragedy). I explained that the pony had been in danger of breaking his neck. The owners were polite, but something in their expression told me that either they didn’t believe me or they didn’t care.

horses standing in a pasture
Horses are naturally inquisitive – keep their pasture clear of common dangers

It was just one week later when I was driving down this same road that I saw the pony once again caught in the fence …only this time he was dead. Sadly, he had entangled the halter and in his struggle, apparently broke his neck. This did not need to happen!

But even the best, most caring people may unknowingly create avoidable dangers to their horses. One man I knew had decided to remove a fence made of T-posts. The line was down, and he was in the process of removing the posts. The day ran short and so he was forced to leave a few posts in the ground overnight. The next day he came home from work to find one of his horses had somehow impaled himself on a post and was hanging from it – it had entered through the belly, and exited through the chest. If he’d only known the risk, he could have put caps on the T-posts and saved his horse’s life. A horse can still land on a capped T-post if he rears up while playing near a fence, but the cap will prevent penetration.

These are, unfortunately, not unique events. Any of us who’s been around horses long enough has heard stories like these, or narrowly avoided disasters ourselves. Sometimes we pay attention and make the necessary changes, and sometimes not. Unfortunately for our horses, sometimes we learn lessons the hard way. I knew another man who did know better, but still left a halter on his horse because it was convenient and saved him a little time. His horse put his head through a metal gate and got caught. In his struggle, the horse actually tore the gate off the hinge and was found standing with his feet through the gate and the gate still on his halter. The horse lived, but had pretty severe nerve damage.

Traveling to farms I see a wide range of stable management practices – some good, some not! Horses are large, strong animals, and sometimes we forget just how fragile they are. But we must remember that the environments we are keeping them in are not entirely natural: halters, t-posts, blanket straps, equipment left in fields, cross-ties, gates, barbed wire, nails, poisons, etc. They do not have instincts that tell them to be wary of such dangers. They are inquisitive, sometimes mischievous, and left to investigate, they do – often to their own harm.

Even the most conscientious owner cannot prevent all accidents. A horse could step in a hole that had gone unnoticed in the pasture. A branch could fall down on a horse standing underneath a tree. (That actually happened to a student of mine – the horse was impaled, but is doing just fine after major surgery!) But there are many dangers that CAN be avoided, just by taking a little extra care, or being a little extra aware of what might go wrong. Here are a few things you can do to make your farm horse-safe:

  • Always turn out horses without a halter, or if a halter is necessary, make sure it is a breakaway style.
  • Make sure all T-posts are capped!
  • Replace barbed wire with horse-safe fencing (such as wood, narrow wire mesh, or electric).
  • Keep the pasture and stable area clear of equipment, trash, or debris that have sharp edges or might entangle legs.
  • When tying a horse, always use a quick release knot or quick release snaps, and never leave a tied horse unattended.
  • Position bucket snaps facing down to prevent a horse from tearing his eyelid when drinking.
  • Keep electrical cords and outlets out of horses’ reach.
  • Watch out for even temporary hazards: don’t leave a pitch fork in the wheel barrel with the handle sticking out. (I do know a horse that ran into one and impaled himself on that as well.)
  • Also, it’s a good idea to check fencing periodically to make  sure no tree limbs have fallen, etc.

Horses don’t get the chance to choose where they live or who takes care of them. So we have a huge responsibility to not only keep them healthy and happy, but also safe. What would you add to this list?