Lesson Learned…Less is more!

sandi riding mcpherson

I truly believe that horses are our best teachers. Through their response, they clearly let us know if we are communicating correctly. They just do not get it wrong when we get it right! I learned this lesson many years ago when I changed my perspective from “why doesn’t he do this right?” to “what am I doing wrong?”

sandi riding mcpherson
McPherson and me

A wonderful Arabian stallion, McPherson, was my teacher. “Mac” was talented, sensitive, and intelligent. He was a champion in reining, western pleasure, and dressage. He could stop on a dime with just a breath, spin like a top, perform effortless clean lead changes, collect, extend, and move laterally effortlessly.

So why was I having so much trouble doing trot-halt transitions? I was certain I was executing the aid properly: my hips were in position, my thighs closing, my breathing correct – so why did he insist on hollowing his back and moving through my request? I resorted to clarifying (or so I thought), with my reins and voice – it did not help! I did what felt like hundreds of transitions to no avail. Confused and somewhat frustrated, I just would not give up.

As I paused in contemplation, I remembered something I had just said to a student…”stop trying so hard – less is more!” So, I walked off then simply quietly just thought of stopping. Mac stopped immediately. Was this a mistake? I wondered.  I tried it again and again and again with “just a thought.” Each and every transition was amazing.

I realized what Mac was telling me: he was not stopping because I had been asking with an overuse of my aids, which caused him discomfort. It would be like I was shouting into someone’s ear instead of talking. Did this mean I only had to “think” and through telepathy he would “hear” me?  Well, maybe not, but just the thought of stopping was shifting my position in a manner he could feel, without getting in his way.  Mac must’ve thought, “It’s about time you got it right!”

His prior response was just him trying to avoid the unnecessary pressure. Being human, I assumed I was doing everything correctly. But I wasn’t asking, I was controlling. I wasn’t listening to my partner. I wasn’t being a partner, I was being a dictator!

Some horses with less independent spirit and sensitivity may allow you to overuse your aids, but not Mac. Mac taught me to listen to horses by paying attention to their reaction to my aids. He taught me to be a better rider. Most of all he taught me to be a better partner. I am so grateful to Mac for all he gave to me.

Why does my horse shy? – Understanding equine eyesight

I frequently say that a large part of horsemanship is studying the horse in nature. Yesterday while working with a student, I witnessed a great example of this.

My student and her horse seemed to be connected and the horse appeared focused on his work. Then without warning, he shied. I glanced around to see what he was looking at and saw nothing visible to my eyes. I heard nothing, I saw nothing, but unlike some horseman who believe the horse is “making it up,” “playing games,” etc., I don’t for one minute doubt this horse’s honesty.  He was working, energetically forward, he was focusing on his rider, and he was not playing. One stride he was exactly where we needed him, but the next he was ten feet to the right! People think if they don’t see or hear anything that indeed, nothing is there. In most situations that is simply not the case. We may not see it, we may not hear it, but something is there, causing the horse to react honestly.

I teach my students to deal with shying by quickly refocusing the horse and continuing on the path of their ride. If you stop to look at whatever caused the shy, or if you reprimand your horse, you are using negative reinforcement. Both approaches reinforce the horse’s fear by showing him that whatever it is he was worried about IS a big deal after all. In contrast, when you refocus and continue on, you simply stay in a leadership role that through your aids says, “I’m here, we’re okay, ignore it, continue on.” In a future post I’ll talk more about positive vs. negative reinforcement, but today’s food for thought will be on equine eyesight.

The horse’s eyes are set wide apart. This allows them to see each side of their body, which is part of nature’s protection from predators. Horses have both binocular and monocular vision. Binocular vision means the same object or scene is observed with both eyes at once. It also enables the horse to judge distance.  Monocular vision allows the horse to see a separate scene or object with each eye at the same time. I can only imagine what that would be like! Horses do see colors, but the hues are different than humans see. Their eyes also adjust well to darkness.

So, one would think the horse would see everything clearly, right? Well, not quite. The horse has a blind spot directly behind his hindquarter, and he also cannot see directly below his head. If an object is within four feet in front of him, he cannot see it using his binocular vision. Although a horse can see his entire circumference when in a grazing position, he must raise his head to see objects that are close, and he must lower his head to see faraway objects (I really struggled with this point, but research says it’s true…it just seems so backward!).

Now think about what we do when we ride, as we guide our horse’s head carriage in a balanced position. He may not be able to adjust his neck and head to focus on his surroundings, and so in some instances, he is temporarily blinded from seeing something clearly. Bearing that in mind, it makes a little more sense when we see a horse shy at an object that hasn’t moved, or something we haven’t noticed at all.

So, instead of humanizing the situation simply because you cannot see what it is that caused the horse to shy remember that horses in nature are neither complex nor simple. He is just a horse, different in physical and psychological make-up from us, and he is only doing what his prey instinct tells him to do!

Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”

Horses will keep you humble! In the last post Lily was finally accepting Amy’s leadership. Their bond was strengthened and trust became deeper. We were steadily moving forward in a positive direction, however, not without challenges.

Lily has a background of abuse. I believe horses, like humans, can have flashbacks to situations that have caused them distress. One of the difficulties in working with abused horses is we can innocently trigger a negative memory. During training sessions with Lily, it became apparent that she has deep-seated trust issues. She accepts leadership only until she feels threatened. Her cerebral energy heightens and her survival instinct kicks in. Since her flight instinct is inhibited when working in an enclosed space, her fight mode takes over. One minute we’re all good and the next Lily will be doing “airs above ground.” It’s how one handles these situations that either guides the horse comfortably forward, or not.

I have explained to Amy and Brian the importance of allowing Lily to work through these situations. Amy has a tendency to back away at times of resistance, allowing Lily to avoid the situation that caused the reaction. She sympathizes with Lily and only wants to be her friend. I explained to Amy and Brian that they had a choice: they could either work through the areas of difficulty and keep taking steps towards an eventual true leadership/partnership, or they could keep Lily as a pasture pet, at liberty to do as she wished.

I truly feel Lily enjoys the interaction with humans. My training is always with the utmost respect for the horse with the goal in mind of “partnership” not “dictatorship.” However, in order to become a partner with Lily, the Morrises have to ask her to work with them. If we don’t allow our horses to work through these situations, they will not improve. In order to be a safe riding partner for Amy, Lily must show respect and trust.

By introducing her to obstacles and new challenges, and then allowing her the time to express herself, she would find that at the end of the “expression” things hadn’t changed. Amy was still there, still guiding her, and she was okay! She would eventually understand the relationship. Lily would develop the foundation so necessary for success.
Regardless of whether a horse is with or without human guidance, it is of the utmost importance for the horse to move forward through stressful situations. The natural instinct of a frightened horse is to move. Standing still would be inviting the predator to lunch! However, horses seem to have a need to understand what it is that is frightening them. They often run from some object of concern, only to stop, look back, and eventually head in the direction towards it to investigate. They may have inner radar telling them when and if it’s okay. Human-made objects are not natural to a horse, but through exposure, they become accustomed to them.

When faced with a stressful situation, the horse must react. If we encourage the horse to move forward through the situation and allow them time to absorb, breath and sort out the situation, they will. This is quite different from forcing a horse through a fear. Regardless of what has caused the fear, one can’t deny the posture, breathing, or actions of a frightened horse. I’ve heard comments from handlers regarding horses “faking” fear. Horses do not fake fear! Forcing a horse to overcome fear simply will not have a positive outcome. If their leader becomes aggressive they have all the more reason to believe the situation is indeed a bad one. You may accomplish the task at hand, but you will not have a secure or willing horse. But if you do not turn away from a situation, and allow your horse to absorb and work towards resolve, acceptance will follow.

One final thought on this aspect of training, I see horse handlers forcing horses to stand in front of an object to “look at it.” I do not believe this approach brings the best results. By forcing the horse to stand still, we take away his natural instinct and completely humanize the situation.

Lily had proven her ability to work through being hobbled, tied, and locked in a tiny stall. She looked for a way “through the open door” and found one. Given the opportunity, I was sure she would do the same in training. I must clarify that we are not asking anything of her other than the basic foundation of bonding, which includes trust and respect, oh, and a little time with her nose out of the green grass in order to entertain her humans! Her people give her a wonderful home, lots of pasture, a pasture mate, plenty of feed, monthly pedicure, salon styling of mane and tail, and the best of veterinary care, so putting a little time in to give them some fun is only a fair trade. Mentally, coming to a place of peace regarding the process of training, the Morrises were ready to move forward.

We graduated to a lovely grass fenced arena surrounded by trees – a quiet and serene place to expand Lily’s horizons. There I did it again…I just humanized the horse! Quiet and serene to me, but to Lily it was initially an unknown enclosed area with trees hiding those ever present Dragons. We turned both horses (we had brought Olympia along to lessen the trauma) loose and allowed them to investigate the area at their comfort. Once settled, we then hand walked Lily around the perimeter, asking her to focus on Amy and to move when and where she asked. Trust, simply trust, is what we needed. She did well, so we moved towards lunging.

Soon, we moved into trotting straight along the fence line, then circling in the corners using many transitions in order to keep her focus on Amy. Lily started out high-headed and wide-eyed, but remained obedient and soon began to lower her head and relax a bit. Over the next few sessions we saw amazing changes in Lily. The wide-eyed “ready to flee or fight” attitude seemed to diminish. For the first time in training, her general posture was more relaxed and she wasn’t quite as worried or over reactive to new challenges. We were able to ask for canter without her standing on her head, hind legs waving at the sky! Obstacles were added to the routine. We asked her to back through poles, weave in and out of cones and walk then trot over poles.

Lily and Amy

One point of interest is how Lily responds differently to Amy vs. Brian. Amy normally works with Lily, but Brian is always present to learn and offer support to Amy. On occasion, I ask him to take over. Sometimes, Amy is unable to attend a session and I feel all will benefit to have him participate when possible. Brian is tall and lanky with a very gentle and quiet manner. But as soon as he is on the other end of the line, Lily will posture and show her willingness to fight. Brian doesn’t fight! Lily has had to learn that. Perhaps Lily was leery because her last owner was male, or just simply because she had worked out many things with Amy but had not with Brian.

It confirms my beliefs that horses do not instinctively trust you. They need the opportunity to develop a relationship with you. A talented horse person or a brute of a horse person can generally accomplish whatever they ask of the horse without developing a relationship, but it doesn’t make it right. Horses should not be “passed around” like an inanimate object. It’s not respect if we don’t take the time to allow the horse to get to know us. I try and impress upon my students what a wonderful gift and privilege it is to have a partner in a horse. It’s a beautiful things and well worth the effort. So, we quietly take some time to allow Lily to see the truth in the situation and to breathe…and she does!

I do not know if Lily comprehends how lucky she is to have chosen the Morrises. Perhaps that is also a human thought. Personally, I am thrilled to have the honor of working with people who truly wish the best for the horse. She always comes first. Although I am sure they are anxious to be mounted and riding their horses on the trails, they are also completely committed to move at a pace that Lily dictates through her acceptance. It may take a bit longer since they have chosen the path to work with Lily themselves (with my guidance). Our sessions are once weekly. This allows them time to practice and develop each step we work on it before I return.

Being newbies, obstacles do show up along the way. Without experience, it’s that much easier to hit setbacks due to honest mistakes. Even the most experienced horse people make mistakes! Amy still has a tendency to want to give Lily her freedom to do as she pleases, but she knows that in the end it’s not the healthy thing for anyone. So much to learn – when to apply pressure, how much to apply, when to be firm, when to be supportive and soothing. A “feel” must be developed and I assure Amy and Brian that no one learns without mistakes. It’s what we do with them that matters. So, she’s getting better at biting her lip and following through when Lily argues and… all is good!

I am looking forward to sharing the next chapter when Lily is under saddle again! I believe it will be soon. Stay tuned!

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

Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader

Lily’s in-hand work progressed quite nicely. Initially, she was difficult to catch and halter, but that was quickly fixed. She learned to follow Amy and Brian’s body language. She would move forward freely, back up, step laterally, and would stand at a halt, coming forward when asked. She appeared to enjoy the interaction during training. Could we breathe a sigh of relief? In a “Stepford” world, perhaps!

What at first seemed of interest and enjoyable to Lily soon appeared to be an imposition. This is common in basic training. Putting it into my own human thoughts, I can imagine a horse weighing whether they’d like to be leisurely grazing with their herd, or being asked to do human things in a round pen?! Given that choice, one might not find too many volunteers.

So, a reversal of attitude had occurred, and sweet Miss Lily showed she could and would emphatically express her opinion. When approached, she would turn and walk away. When asked to move, she would plant her feet firmly in refusal. At one point, I was standing with Brian discussing her new behavior, when Lily walked up to us, stood for less than ten seconds, then pinned her ears and swung her hindquarters as a threat to us. She needed to be leader of the herd, including her humans. Before, when Amy and Brian weren’t asking her to do anything, before she was being “controlled,” she would follow them anywhere. She walked into the greenhouses and tried climbing the stairs to the house. She was like a huge dog! She was content and not threatened. Placing boundaries on Lily brought out her instincts to run, and if she couldn’t run, she’d fight. This is the very trait that had saved Lily, but now that she was safe, she had no way of knowing she would never be hurt again. She could not have known we wanted a partnership with her, so her behavior was understandable.

I know firsthand how those who truly love their horses want to believe “if I just love them and give them lots of carrots they’ll do anything I ask.” But you have to make a decision whether to let your horse rule you, which may mean never being able to ride, or to train him.

Many years ago, I was given a lesson in reality by the “love of my life horse,” Solitary Man. Carrots, apples, sugar, hugs, begging, and crying were not going to get him to do something he didn’t feel compelled to do! Through tears, frustration, and anger, I had to come to terms with the fact that what I wished for was actually humanizing the horse. It took some time to accept horses as they are and not as my naïve dreams had wanted them to be. Once I understood horse instinct, behavior, and language, however, I was in awe of the fact that a horse is willing to partner with a human. What a marvel!

The key is in discovering how to achieve a harmonious relationship and to cause, not force, a horse to work with us. And Lily, despite her difficult background, is no different. So, up the first incline of the roller coaster we headed. We moved our sessions to the round pen – a safe place to establish the necessary leadership role. The round pen provides a boundary without the physical restraints of a rope.

Herding Lily around, I began a demonstration of round pen bonding. I then stepped out and asked Amy to take over. I was sure Lily would adjust fairly easily… wrong again! Lily’s normal gentle spirit became a fire-breathing dragon! She was not to be herded, corralled or controlled easily. She’s smart enough not to try and climb the panels or crash through, but she acted aggressive and threatening to Amy. She pinned her ears, reared and lunged towards her. I’ll always remember Amy’s courage. This gentle woman stood shaking, on the verge of tears but trusting my guidance, as she followed through with the session. I try very hard to never allow neither horse nor handler/rider to get hurt during training. I do not believe in running a horse in the round pen in order to exhaust and force their cooperation. Instead, I use the technique of asking the horse to move forward and to continually redirect them as a herd leader would in establishing the pecking order. Insisting the horse move without frightening them will develop respect without fear. However, when a horse comes at you in a manner that indicates YOU will be herded, you must stand your ground and insist they move. It’s important to remember the horse is looking at you as simply another horse. It’s not personal; they are just trying to establish their place in the herd. Using a rope in a twirling motion, or using a lunge whip to “equalize” you may be necessary.

At this point, Lily fired her engines, using her wonderful athletic abilities to try and outmaneuver Amy. Several times she came towards Amy in an intimidating manner. Amy stood her ground and quietly but firmly insisted Lily move in the direction she asked. I don’t recall how long this session lasted, but it took longer than most. I’m sure Amy thought Lily would never relent to direction. I can only imagine the doubts running through her mind. But, YES it happened. Lily just suddenly stopped her threatening posture, began to lick, chew, drop her head, and look at Amy. She began to change direction quietly, and when asked, she turned and walked in to Amy respectfully and peacefully. It’s a beautiful thing to see a bond between horse and human! Amy appeared to be in slight shock! This one session stopped Lily’s behavior of threatening people. She would allow herself to be haltered, and she once again showed her sweet side. We had successfully climbed that first hill!

lily and amy

It would be great to say that we’ve not run into any more obstacles; that Lily was always cooperative; but that would be shy of the truth! As we continue her training we uncover aspects of Lily that have caused us to step back a few times. Her past experience in riding was just as horrific as the way in which she was kept. As we move through the process of ground work to lunging, saddling, bitting, mounting, etc., we find triggers that must be addressed. I have learned so much from Lily, most importantly to watch and listen to what the horse is telling me. We cannot train without treating each horse as the individual they are. I believe horses are all individuals, and therefore they will not respond the same. I would like to share these experiences with you, so, if you check back again soon there will be more lessons from Lily!

This is the fourth part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!

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

Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings

Lily was now safe with her chosen people. Many of the neighbors had farms with horses, and yet she had passed them all by to get to the Morrises. One has to marvel that she knew where to go and how to communicate her need. Perhaps the Universe had a plan!

The farm was now “horse friendly.” Amy and Brian settled into the daily chores of feeding and maintenance. Lily quickly established her ranking as herd leader over Olympia. Harmony spread over the farm.

Yet as time passed, questions began to mount. There was so much to learn about these beautiful horses. Reading, researching on the internet, and asking neighbors was not enough. At first Lily was just as sweet as can be. But as she became comfortable and secure in her new home, she began to express her power of leadership. She started letting Amy and Brian know that she would be led to the barn or pasture only when she wished. She would simply plant her feet and refuse to move. Amy was both intimidated and sympathetic. She felt that, considering the horrific treatment Lily had in her past, it was reasonable that she would not want to be controlled in any way. She was afraid Lily would become fearful if she insisted she move. So, she would soothingly talk to Lily, and if Lily didn’t want to follow, well, she didn’t!

What began as a subtle resistance to leadership grew. It wasn’t long before Amy & Brian realized they needed some professional assistance. They first called Dr. Logan King to examine both horses. They wanted to rule out any physical discomfort. Dr. King discussed general care and management, and gave them a clean bill of health. It was then they discussed hiring a trainer. Dr. King knows that I often work with individuals with special training needs and do not use force. The recommendation was made and shortly I was to make my first visit to their farm.

In meeting Amy and Brian, I was struck by their warmth and caring manner. They were eager to learn. They introduced me to Lily and Olympia, and I immediately saw the rising difficulty through Lily’s body language. She was curious and walked right up to me in a friendly manner. As we stood talking, I noticed Lily taking steps towards me as though she were taking over and asking – no, telling – me to move. I quietly put my hand on her chest and backed her up a few steps. She repeated that a couple of times, and then with ears pinned, turned and walked away.

I did not say anything to Amy & Brian regarding the interaction since my habit is to observe and ask questions during the first part of our original meeting. Recognizing their lack of knowledge of horse keeping and handling, they were willing and eager to start with the very basic of basics. Both were like super absorbent sponges! We worked on proper grooming and then went outside to begin a session on handling.

lily and amy in the round penWe worked with both horses, enabling both Amy and Brian to partake in the experience. Olympia is a bit of a bull at times, but good hearted and easily redirected to constructive habits. Lily immediately “postured” her lack of desire to be led. It was obvious that we were dealing with a learned behavior.

Horses that have been abused will protect themselves in various ways. Some fight, some go quietly inside themselves and some simply become frozen in stance. I never once thought Lily was misbehaving; she was simply doing the only thing she knew to do when she felt she was not in control. Loss of control meant pain. Horses “brace” against pain, and this is what she did. Of course there would be no pain coming from us, but she is not a human, and we needed to find a way to communicate this to her. I know from experience that horses that have been abused must be asked to work through their fear. If they don’t, the behavior will always be present.

I also knew that I was asking beginner handlers to begin a task which was normally performed by experienced professionals. Amy was clear that they did not wish to send Lily out for training, and wanted to learn and develop along with her horse. Perfect! If one possesses determination, dedication and follows proper guidelines this is a method I find highly successful. Although many owners do not wish to do this difficult stage in training, those who have the desire and possess the right attitude will develop their knowledge of horsemanship with a clarity that will be with them forever. I explained it would be a long process, since I would be working with both beginner handlers and a horse with a history of abuse. If they were willing to take the journey I was willing to be there for them every step of the way.

We spent the rest of the session in discussion/demonstration of horse behavior and language. Explaining the importance of not humanizing Lily’s behavior, I began working with both Amy and Brian on yielding exercises to the bonding with a leadership process. Wanting to keep both humans and horses safe during training, I asked if they might consider getting a round pen. They agreed, and by the time I arrived the following week, it was in place and they had already been working on the ground work I’d instructed them on. The roller coaster ride was about to begin!

This is the third part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!

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

Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue

After the discovery of Lily’s deceased pasture mate and their call to Animal Control, Lily’s visits came to an abrupt halt. Amy and Brian were confident that Animal Control had intervened, and that Lily was now in good hands. They also realized they would not be welcome or allowed on the owner’s property.

Time passed, but the pretty and proud horse haunted Amy and Brian’s thoughts. It was as though Lily was telepathically communicating with them. Soon they found themselves sneaking through the acres of pasture and trees between them to visit Lily. What they found saddened and concerned them. Lily was confined to a very small stall in what can only be described as a shack. Conditions were deplorable. She was thin. Amy and Brian knew Lily was once again calling out for help. They did not know that there was an Equine Division at the Department of Agriculture, and were at a loss for what to do. They continued their discreet visits with carrots in tow, while trying to sort out their dilemma.

But the determined horse was not waiting to be rescued. Lily once again took it upon herself to seek help. Looking out the window one morning, there was Lily on their front lawn. The sight broke their hearts. Lily was dragging a rope tied to her neck that she had managed to break. Her hind legs were hobbled and all four legs were rubbed raw. She had laboriously traveled all the distance between them. She couldn’t have spoken any clearer. Amy & Brian knew they could not allow Lily to go back to this person or she might not survive. Fearful that the owner would harm Lily if he found out she had escaped, they had to come up with a plan to save her. Amy and Brian decided to buy her, but first, they needed to convince the owner to sell. Amy knocked on the neighbor’s door and simply told them they had fallen in love with Lily and would like to buy her. It worked! The deal was sealed and Lily was saved. She would never be in danger again. The life she had chosen was about to begin.

Lily was home at last… but the farm was no longer set up for horses! The Morrises began the transformation of clearing the barn of landscaping equipment and turning it back into a horse barn. Fencing had to be erected, supplies had to be purchased. Being total novice horse owners, they even had to search online for instructions on how to lead a horse! They asked neighbors for advice on feeding, handling, and care. During this time Lily was simply free to come and go as she pleased. This was not a concern because it was clear that Lily had finally made her way to a home where she would be loved and treated with care. She had no intention of going elsewhere.

It was both exciting and intimidating for Amy and Brian, but the sweet horse was gentle and friendly and it felt exactly right… except for one thing. They began to think that Lily must be lonely for a partner, a horse partner. Of course! Lily is a herd animal and needs a herd. Not having any criteria or guidelines on purchasing a horse, they spoke with their neighbors and found Olympia, a very handsome Tennessee walking horse. They were thrilled at the opportunity. Olympia became their second horse, and Lily had a friend. Now they were really a horse farm! Or were they? What was ahead? They saw neighbors riding their horses through the fields and wondered about riding Lily and Olympia. What about saddles, bridles, bits? They were completely unaware of hoof care. They had no knowledge of veterinary care. Neighbors were generous, but not completely knowledgeable. There was so much to learn, where to begin?

lily and olympia with the morrises

This is the second part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!

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

Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily


Lily and Amy

This is the story of an appaloosa mare, Lily, and her people, Amy & Brian Morris.

lily and her people

Amy & Brian purchased a lovely farm in Jackson, GA. The property was formerly a horse farm, and although the Morrises are animal lovers, the farm was intended for Brian’s commercial grower’s business.

It has a horse barn and 38 acres of beautiful land. They used the barn storage and equipment, and soon the property was dotted with large greenhouses. Horses were not on the agenda!

One morning Amy looked out her window to find a beautiful horse peacefully grazing on their front lawn. She visited with Lily, then canvassed the neighborhood until she found where Lily lived. The owner came to fetch his horse, and off Lily went.

After this first visit, Lily’s presence became a regular occurrence. She was always friendly, and quietly meandered around their farm eating grass. The Morrises would contact her owner and he would come for Lily. Not having any horse experience, the Morrises didn’t realize that Lily showing up on a daily basis was not a normal thing for horses to do. But they did notice that Lily appeared to be losing weight and was definitely on the thin side.

One morning, as Amy and Brian were preparing to take their two dogs for a walk Lily came towards them up the drive. But instead of her normal grazing pattern, she turned back down the drive. She would stop periodically and shake her head at them. She pranced and stomped her foot at them, and they realized that Lily was trying to get them to follow. Lily led them to a hidden area on her owner’s property where Amy & Brian were horrified to see Lily was leading them directly to her pasture and her DEAD pasture mate. The horse had been dead for some time.

Amy & Brian were horrified at the scene and as they looked beyond the tragedy they saw that Lily’s living conditions were appalling. It was obvious that Lily’s insistence that they follow her was intentional. She had come to them for help. She chose them.

Not knowing anyone in the horse community, the Morris’ did what they thought would be the right thing and called animal control. In addition to inadequate housing for the horses, the owners had dogs tied to trees without shelter and roosters everywhere. The conditions for all of the animals were atrocious. Animal Control responded to their call, but took no action. In the meantime Lily’s visits stopped.

This is the first part in a series of posts about Lily. Check back soon to read the rest of this story!

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

When a horse avoids the bit

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: Sandi, I have been watching your site for a while. I got an OTTB a couple of years ago and am in the process of re-training him. I started out taking some Natural Horsemanship lessons. I am now trying to work with my horse to develop fitness and working with him doing dressage. He has a problem accepting the bit – I am using a loose ring snaffle. He opens his mouth and chews. My instructor says he is avoiding the bit by opening his mouth – he tightened the nose strap and then added a caveson. It makes me uncomfortable – how can we work through this without harsh tools? Any suggestions?

ANSWER: Hello! Since you’ve been to my website you may have read my article on Cavesons. I am very much against any device used to keep a horse’s mouth closed. This is not beneficial in any way in creating a healthy working relationship with your horse. It causes discomfort and makes him unable to use his mouth in natural movement. It also inhibits salivary gland function. If a horse is in discomfort, he will connect it with his work. Attitude and behavior problems can follow, or just general apathy towards his work.

You stated you were uncomfortable with the technique, and I feel you are correct to listen to your instincts. Regardless of who you work with, it is your horse, and ultimately your responsibility to keep him happy and healthy. Do not be hesitant in asserting your position. If your instructor does not respect your view she/he may also not respect your horse. We expect a horse to respect us and yet many people do not respect the horse equally.

Horses chew, chomp, and open their mouths for a variety of reasons. Being a TB, he may be a bit high strung and somewhat nervous of his new job. If so, the process of retraining him may need to be done slower, carefully watching his body language to know if you’re on the right track. Busy mouths can mean discomfort. Perhaps the bit is wrong for his mouth conformation, or it may be fitted incorrectly. Have his teeth been maintained? Mouthing can be a result of another physical discomfort, such as his back or limb soreness. It can be caused by hands that are too tight, unstable, or too busy. It can be caused by simply asking too much of the horse. Mouthing is simply an expression, but it’s an expression of discomfort. I urge you to take the caveson off, loosen your regular noseband and rethink all of the above. Herm Sprenger makes a wonderful training snaffle. I always suggest an eggbutt or a “D” ring versus a free round ring that can pinch lips easily. It’s important to know your horse’s mouth conformation. Some horses have a low pallet, some high. Lower pallets are harder to fit comfortably. Also, is the width of the bit correct? And how thick is the mouth piece?

Normally, I would start with checking the bit, the mouth, and the bridle for any possible problems. Then I check the saddle for a correct fit. I like to see the horse move freely on a lunge with a halter, then watch the horse being worked. Most often the problem can be evaluated through this process.

Without seeing your horse I cannot tell you exactly what the root of the problem is. Going through each of the above steps should bring clarity to you. Regardless of how you chose to proceed, I encourage you to trust yourself. If your trainer does not wish to be flexible in his thinking and open to possibilities, you will have to make a decision as to how to continue your training.

I often say “listen to your horse, he is the best teacher of all!” Please let me know if you have other questions or if I can be of any further assistance. I would also be interested in knowing your progress, and wish you much success!

Working with a “stubborn” horse

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: I was looking over your website and was convinced in writing this email hoping maybe you could help me with our horse Cyber.

We bought Cyber this Feb and he was untouched, untrained at the age of eight years old. He is a Belgian/thoroughbred cross and stands at 17.1. I bought him because he had a teddy bear personality and hoped he would make a good trail horse for my husband. We brought him to the farm where we board, gave him a couple of days to get settled in and then began working with him, first with leading because he wanted to run you over while leading… it was bad, but we got that fixed and he now does perfect.

We then started his lunging, he does good but sometimes he will try to kick at your face and I’m not sure how to fix that. After we got him turning well and his paces were good, we started with introducing the bridle. I started him off in a full cheek copper snaffle. He takes it well, but he has a very hard mouth and I’ll get to that in a minute.

To make a long story short, we have been riding him in a western saddle and he does well for the most part, but is SO stubborn. He will not turn well at all. This horse does not know how to walk in a straight line and will not listen to you. He will walk and trot, but if you ask for any more, he begins crow-hopping, or he will kick out with one leg and then freezes up and will not go any further. I have taken him out on one trail ride following two other riders, and he did really well for his first trail ride. We did not push him at all, but he will not go on any more. Me and my husband tried, and we got a little up the road before he bucked my husband off.

So we have been working him back in the arena, but he just does not listen no matter what we try to do. He will walk straight into the fence with you, he will not turn, and it takes a lot to stop him. We have to do a one rein stop, and we end up going in a bunch of wide circles before we can stop him.

We have had a vet and a farrier come out and look for any problems and they didn’t see anything. I don’t know if I’m using the wrong bit or what. I don’t know what to do, I’ve never owned a horse like this before. When you are on the ground with him, he wants all the attention he can get. He is so sweet that I trust my little girls around him and he will lick you to death.

I cannot afford training these days, but I feel like I’m doing a very bad job doing it myself, so I put him up for sale. But everyone that comes out and gets on his back leaves right away, because he is so stubborn you can’t do anything with him – you’re just up there and he does what he wants. You pull on the right rein to go right, but he will side pass and take you left until you’re up against the fence, leg crushed.

I don’t want to sell him, Sandi, but I’m lost and frustrated. I hope you can give me any advice on what I can do for this big boy of mine. Thank you for your time.

ANSWER: Hello! I am struck by your desire to work things out with Cyber. Your open-minded attitude and willingness to learn is a great combination for success! Acquiring a new horse is only the beginning of the process in becoming partners. Both your role in training, as well as learning what Cyber is trying to communicate to you, require a clear understanding of body language. I am pleased that you had him vetted for potential physical discomfort. Did you also have his teeth examined? Have you checked his tack? Improper fitting saddles can pinch and cause pain.

The type of bit you’re using sounds fine. Is it the correct size? Is it placed correctly in his mouth? I do not believe in the theory of hard mouths. I do believe an uneducated mouth can cause a horse to protect himself by bracing against pressure. Horses’ instinctive behavior is to brace against whatever is causing them discomfort. The bit should not be used for control, but for communication. Cyber must learn to focus on you through the bit and give to gentle pressure in all aids.

First, understanding horses’ natural instincts, behavior, and language can help clarify so many issues. Horses are herd animals. In the herd they have a leader, and they look for direction and security in that horse. When horses interact with humans, they still need a leader. If you are not that leader, they will become yours! You can definitely be a friend to your horse, but one must have both trust and respect first. At eight years of age, Cyber is a mature horse. Without any early training, he may not understand the “pecking order” involved with humans. In nature, horses establish this pecking order in their own herd. The leader should be both trusted and respected.

In relating to humans, horses will react as though you are another horse in the herd. You must first establish a leadership with him in order to gain his cooperation. A 17.1 hand horse can be an imposing figure when unwilling. Since you’ve been to my website you already know I do not believe in being a bully to gain respect. I chuckle to think of those that would try intimidation on such a large horse to accomplish this! A frightened horse will instinctively want to run from his fear. If unable to run, he will fight. I like to think of training as placing the horse in a position that will cause him, not force him, to do the right thing. Aggressive training is designed to bully the horse into submission, but this does not result in the bully being appreciated or trusted. I would much prefer a horse that enjoys his work and time with me, rather than one that responds out of fear. If given a choice, the majority of horses will seek the gentle leader. It sounds as though you have already gained his trust, and now in order to gain his respect, ground work — lots of ground work — will be necessary.

I advise starting with relationship development in a round pen. It appears you may have done some, however, according to your description of Cyber and the difficulties you state, I believe you may need to take this further. You cannot have respect under saddle without first establishing it in hand. Round pens are wonderful aids in helping to keep a horse focused. When we are able to take the “wide open space” away, the instinct to run away is quickly discouraged. It becomes you and the horse. Regardless of whether Cyber is kicking out in playfulness, or as an attempt to control you, it is a dangerous expression and one that must be corrected. I’ve seen too many people chase horses around a pen to exhaustion, thinking that’s what you do. This can lead to disaster, potentially harming your horse either physically or mentally. One must know the difference between correction and abuse. Asking the horse to move forward in the round pen the instant he shows himself in this fashion will make him realize his behavior did not intimidate you, but instead to focus on your continued request for him to move on. It will also allow you the opportunity to reward him when he does move forward. Round pen or ground work done properly will cause the horse to look at you and focus. Studying body language and understanding the signs of leadership acceptance will clarify to you where the horse’s mind is.

I advise you look for a professional that is versed in natural horsemanship to teach you lessons in ground work. If there is not someone in your area that you are comfortable with, there are some wonderful videos by Monte Roberts on partnering with horses. Mark Rashid is also an excellent example of passive leadership. He has several wonderfully written books based on horse behavior. Two of my favorites are Horses Never Lie and Considering the Horse. There are numerous other books and videos written on this topic, but many “natural horseman” use methods that can hardly be termed as natural or kind. I would ask any prospective trainer to allow you to watch some training sessions. If this is not allowed, I would not recommend him/her to work with your or your horse. I always insist in working with both horse and rider together. You will ultimately be his trainer and need to understand the process. You must not hesitate to protect Cyber in any situation where you are not in agreement with his treatment in training. Remember, he is your horse, and ultimately it is your obligation to be certain he is in good hands at all times.

Once your leadership role is established, I would recommend you move forward on rider education. One must be able to sit properly on a horse, using body language through your position and aids to communicate to the horse what you are asking. Just developing the basics of correct use of aids and body language will be tremendous help to you. A rider who does not sit balanced can easily cause discomfort to a horse by both gripping and bouncing. Cyber may be a substantial horse, but he still will feel any pain inflicted. Again, I feel seeking a competent trainer that will assist you in accomplishing would be a tremendous help to you. Horses do not automatically understand our language. Training with kindness is a process. Learning the order of training steps, and not moving forward until each step is solid, will build a foundation that you can rely on and continue to develop.

As a guideline for the use of any aid, I always ask with as gentle pressure as I possibly can, i.e. leg pressure to move the horse forward. If the horse does not respond, I will instantly release that pressure and quickly clarify the request by asking again with a bit stronger leg aid. I will continue this process until the horse takes just one step in the right direction and immediately release the pressure. This will clarify to the horse what you were asking for. Think of it as “an open door” for him to walk through. Teach him to seek those open doors by clearly showing him the direction you are seeking. Put him in a position that will cause him to take the right step, not force the right step and you will soon have a willing partner that enjoys his work with you. Your use of a circle to stop Cyber is quite clever. A horse being quietly asked to walk in a circle gets focused more easily as well as it’s boring to walk on a circle. He will eventually realize it’s to his advantage to stop. As you are circling continue using your body aids (seat) and voice commands to clarify your request.

In summary, I believe you, your husband, and Cyber would benefit greatly from some lessons. With the right help I doubt you’ll still want to sell him. I very rarely suggest selling a horse, if the rider has the determination and willingness to learn. Training can become complicated, and someone who uses a positive approach to training is of the utmost importance. I always feel we should downplay the negative and focus on the positive. Reward quickly for effort not just for correctness. A tiny step into the right direction will lead you to your goal.

Remember, Cyber is only capable to doing what you the rider/handler are telling him, or it can also be what you’re not telling him. The process of developing that wonderful connection with a horse can take some time and effort, but in the end it is an amazing feeling to have such a wonderful and noble creature as your friend. I wish you success and would love to hear of your progress.

How to improve your upper body position in the saddle

I sometimes get asked training questions via e-mail. Although nothing can replace hands-on individual training, I appreciate the chance to help people working with their own horses to find a kinder, gentler, and more effective approach to developing a true partnership. I will be posting some of these questions and answers on this blog. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see covered, please comment or email!

QUESTION: What would be the cause of a rider’s upper body moving (swinging) in the canter? This rider seems to have a secure and relaxed seat.

ANSWER: There are a few possibilities that would cause this to happen. The first thing I would look at is whether the rider is sitting evenly on the three points of his seat (two seat bones and pubic bone), forming a balanced triangle. This is the basic foundation for balancing, not gripping when one rides. If a rider is unbalanced, putting too much weight on any one point, it can cause the upper body to swing (i.e. weight too far back).

Second, check the vertical line of position (ear, shoulder, hip and heel). Any misalignment of the vertical line will cause an imbalance that may be preventing the rider from using his body in isometrics.

Third, once balance in the seat is obtained, the rider must be certain he is not either standing in the stirrups or putting pressure on them. The stirrups are there to support your foot only. The rider’s legs should be “draped” over the horse without squeezing or gripping. You should feel the horse’s sides gently moving in and out against your calf. This allows you to become a part of the horse’s motion instead of an obstacle.

Fourth, riders also have a tendency at times to squeeze their knees, which disconnects the upper and lower body and causes the whole upper body to swing in the canter.

Fifth, the pelvis must be free, without restriction in following the movement of the horse. Remembering, any misalignment and/or gripping, squeezing, standing, or pushing will cause us to distance ourselves from moving in harmony.

SOLUTIONS: Once all of the above are assessed and if necessary corrected, I find that working on the lunge line is a wonderful aid to teaching independence in the body. Ask the rider to first drop the stirrups (this should be done on only a reliably safe horse), then ask him to canter with their arms out to the side, palms up. Follow this with the rider twisting at the waist to face you and then twisting to face the outside, and then back to center. Repeat several times, being certain the  rider does not change position in his seat balance or any other part of his body while doing this. Riders tend to compensate, and this would defeat the purpose of this exercise.

Continue with asking the rider to put both arms in front of him, then straight up, then behind him. I would then ask him to reach his arms straight above his head and “climb a rope.” I love this exercise as it frees the waist and ribs. Make sure they are actually pretending to climb without changing the seat, legs or any other body part. Swimming the back stroke with your arms (alternating) with easy rhythmic circles will again help to isolate the pelvis.

If the rider is still swinging try asking him to swing one leg forward and one back at the same time. Hold it for two seconds and then switch. Continue with the legs by asking them to point one toe down and the other up. Using isolated circles (reverse) with first the ankle, then from the knee down, then from the hip down, will all assist in independence of the body.

A more quiet exercise is to ask the rider to simply drop one arm in a relaxed manner, placing it behind his thigh. In summary, any excess movement from our bodies will inhibit our effectiveness in influencing the horse. Being certain we are first balanced in our seat, properly aligned, and have no pressure, squeezing, or tightening throughout our body will allow harmony in motion.