Friday, August 30, 2013

Making the Right Thing Easier

It's been very hot and humid, and we haven't been riding - we don't have to and I don't see any reason why my horses and I should be any hotter and sweatier than we are already - there will be other days to ride.

Now for a bit of a detour - that's really not a detour at all.  I try - and often fail - to make sure what I say to, and about, others is "right speech" - is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?  This isn't easy for me - like all of us I have my opinions of how things should be, particularly with horses.  And there are others at our barn who ride and work their horses using different philosophies than I do, some of which I believe to be pretty ineffective and lacking in respect for the horse.  Sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut, especially when I see someone struggling or an unhappy horse.  (I will speak up if a serious, immediate safety issue exists - say, tack not fastened properly, or a serious wreck is brewing - or in the case of obvious abuse.)

The two things I've been working on are: first, to not talk about others behind their backs - it's easy to backbite and criticize and barns can be very cliquish, and second, to not offer advice to others on working with their horses unless I'm asked.  I'm a bit better generally about the second - I'm no expert and it's not the case that what I know or think I know is correct, even if it may be working for me; people are on their own horsemanship journeys and I used to do many of the same things I see these people doing now; and people who aren't asking for advice generally aren't ready to listen to it anyway - even if it would help them or their horses (at least in the opinion of the person offering the advice).  The first - not criticizing or backbiting behind people's backs - is harder for me but I'm working on it and at least I'm a lot more conscious of it now when I do it.  Small steps . . .  There's some stuff in this post that could be characterized as criticism but I don't know how to talk about it here - in this forum - without talking about it.

Anyhow, even though I didn't ride yesterday, I got to help someone out.   Mostly I just ride and handle my horses the way I do and hope some of it will rub off on others through example.  There's a lady - an experienced horsewoman whose approach is generally pretty thoughtful and effective - who rides an Arabian several days a week as a shareboarder - her own horse is laid up at the moment.  This little guy is often a bundle of nerves - particularly with his owner, who's a high-energy and loud person, and with the "trainer" at our barn (she's of the whack-them-until-they-do-it and saw-on-their-mouth school of "training" - oops! there I go with the criticizing thing, but it's hard to describe without describing . . .).

The Arabian is reluctant to go on the trail and often gets to a certain point in crossing the pasture to the trail gate where he starts to get nervous, his head comes up, he balks and then spins.  At the trail clinic a couple of weeks ago the trainer who had come in to do the clinic gave her some advice that I thought was wrong at the time, and in fact advice you commonly hear from many who purport to do "natural horsemanship" - this trainer says that's what she is.  Her advice was to "make the wrong thing hard" - you hear this a lot.  (Aside - I think the term "natural horsemanship" is pretty darn useless as a descriptive, and sometimes results in folks being pretty mindless and rigid about how they approach their horses.)  Her advice was, whenever the horse started to act up on the way to the trail, to bring him back to the arena and work him hard so that he'd think getting out of the arena to the trail was a good idea since it was therefore "easier".  This is the same advice people get when their horses act up - to lunge or round pen them hard, so that is "hard" and the thing you're trying to do is "easier".

To be very blunt, although I like the trainer running the clinic and think her approach to horses is generally pretty good, I think this advice is bogus.  I think it's ineffective for a whole variety of reasons.  First, it interrupts the work you're doing and takes your and the horse's eyes off the ball.  Second, I very much doubt that most horses make any association at all between the hard work/lungeing/round penning and the other thing you were asking them to do and then interrupted to "make things hard" - I myself have a lot of trouble making the logical connection and I've got much bigger frontal lobes than a horse does.  (The only part that's effective perhaps is that at some point the horse just gets so tired that they just give up - is that how you want to train your horse?).  Third, if the horse is already amped and worried, why would you want to add extra energy to the equation - maybe, just maybe, this could work with a laid-back, lazy type of horse who just prefers to stand still, but with a horse that's already somewhat high-energy it just adds fuel to the fire.  Fourth, I think a lot of this "make the wrong thing" hard stuff just turns into a type of punishment for the horse - and why would I want the horse to think of the work we do together as something bad or punitive, particularly since they likely don't understand what it means anyway? - sort of like poisoning the well.

Anyhow, the rider and horse were out in the pasture yesterday, struggling.  The horse's head was high, and he was balking, she was pushing, he was spinning and they were getting nowhere.  She came back in the arena and did the "work him hard" thing, and went back out.  Rinse and repeat.  I was wandering back and forth through the arena doing various chores and bringing my horses in out of the heat while this was going on.  Finally, as I was leading Pie through the arena, she came back in, sat on her horse and said "This isn't working and I don't know what else to do."  There were a couple of other boarders on their horses standing around listening to her.  She was looking for some advice, so I felt that it was OK to say something.

First I asked if she was interested in what I would do - not necessarily the only thing that was right, but just what I would do - I'm not a trainer and don't purport to be one or to be in a position to give others advice. I started by saying that, although I liked and generally respected the trainer who given her the advice she was following - and I do, I thought the approach she recommended isn't a very effective one, for the reasons I listed above.  Then I told her what I do with Red, as an example - who is also a nervous, easily worried horse - in fact it's exactly what I do with him as we work our way out on longer rides in the pasture.  I'd characterize this as making the right thing - the thing you want - easier for the horse. (To paraphrase Mark Rashid - if a horse is struggling with something the wrong thing is already hard enough, and why would you want to make it harder?)

I work him - doing things that engage his mind and feet, that he knows how to do successfully with me and that lead to softness, like circles and serpentines - within his comfort zone in terms of distance from the barn.  Then, while continuing to do the work, ask him to move up to the boundary of comfort.  Keep working, with frequent retreats into the "safe and comfortable" territory.  Work back to the boundary again, rinse and repeat.  Never put yourself into a position where you're pushing - that just creates a brace that will cause the horse to brace against you and balk.  If there's resistance, retreat slightly and just keep working.  Lots of praise and strokes for every tiny bit of progress.  Bring the horse back to the "safe zone" for some relaxation. Keep extending the boundary of comfort while working - you'll find that the boundary will continue to expand as you work without having to do anything else. Don't expect to get there quickly - it sometimes takes a lot of time - but the progress you make tends to stick.

She said that made a lot more sense to her and they went right back out and tried it.  I kept doing chores and kept an eye on them.  Occasionally she'd fall back into the push/balk mode, but she's a good rider with good feel and mostly she kept to the plan.  It worked really, really well - before long they were several hundred yards from the barn, including going through areas where he'd been very balky before. His ears were relaxed and his head and neck were low.  She was praising him a lot and he looked pretty darn pleased with himself.  She came back to the arena and said that the plan was working very well and that she'd keep working on it with him next time she rode.

It felt like a good thing to me - it was a good day with horses even if I didn't ride.


  1. I agree with you on so many levels. Working them hard when they're insecure to begin with never has been a good idea for my mustangs. They just get more and more and more upset and they lose trust. Granted, there are lots of times when moving their feet is very beneficial, but only when done thoughtfully. I have been wishing we had a local trainer to hold my hand through this saddle starting process with Joseph, especially to do group lessons with so he can be around other people, but there is noone I trust to make the right calls with him.

  2. Kate, this is the same advice I've been hearing a lot lately, from bloggers and even experts like Deb Bennett. I have to ask, how do you do this if your horse's comfort zone ends in a street with cars occasionally needing to pass? Or on a trail, when the horse finally gets one step too far and it becomes overwhelming?

    I also have come to the conclusion that making the right thing hard - forcing the horse to go fast so it wants to go slow - just adds more energy to an already high situation. I've heard several good trainers say to do that with tense horses - make them want to stand still. I don't think I could do that without damaging my horse's joints, the joints would be damaged before the horse decided it's better to just stand still. I wonder if the people who give that advice would actually use it if they only had one horse to call their own, and whose legs are supposed to last 20 years.

    I can also speak from personal experience that lunging a horse at home and letting her just graze or walk just outside the comfort zone does not work. Some horses would rather canter circles in their comfort zone than eat sweetfeed 100 meters from the barn. Lesson learned: )

    100% agree with your quote, "I very much doubt that most horses make any association at all between the hard work/lungeing/round penning and the other thing you were asking them to do" - There is no way a horse thinks, "Oh, I balked, so I had to go home and work." The horse thinks, "I balked, and I got what I wanted - to go home." But I know you were using this example for a lady having trouble bridling a horse too.

    1. lytha - your situation is particularly challenging - you're riding alone and in circumstances that may be unpredictable. All I can offer is to work on building trust with her - and try not to push into the zone where she "snaps" - take her right up to the boundary, then retreat, then right up to the boundary, then retreat, and only when that's (more) comfortable for her, ask for that next step. Even on a narrow trail, it's possible to do shallow serpentines or ask for change of bend from one step to the next - anything to keep her mind on you and working rather than focussed on what's she's scared of. And it's also just a matter of time and miles, and working to build in automatic softness in all the work you do at home - the head getting lower, the top line relaxing and the core engaging - so that if her stress level starts to rise you have that to call on and she'll be able to deliver it almost automatically which will help her calm down.

      But as I said, I'm certainly no expert and taking horses who may spook on the trail is probably my weakest area in terms of my self-confidence.

    2. Kate, thanks for replying. What you said is interesting based on this idea I had yesterday. Since I have to go either up or down our road to get to the trailheads (leaving our driveway either left or right), and since there are challenges along both ways, I thought ...hmm....what would happen if I rode her up the road until she started to tense, then turned her, walked her past our house, and down the road, til she started to tense, and then back up again, repeating, seeing if I get any distance improvements over repetition. It would be an exercise demanding a lot of patience on my part, and the neighbors would think I'm nuts. It's part of the "ride on by" recipe for barn-sour horses I've read about, so the horse never knows when he's done. Then again, it might encourage the balking because for a good period of time, she will think I've given up and decided to go home. I haven't decided whether or not this would be helpful or deleterious.

    3. lytha - you'll only know when you try it, but it's certainly an idea to try and might keep her thinking and focussed on you - the only thing I'd add is as you go further you might want to add more frequent changes of direction - go left for a bit, then right, then left again, then right for longer - so there's no predictability or long stretches for her to build up worry and so she'll have to be listening to you all the time in order to keep up with the requests. Might take her mind off spooking or balking. You'll have to try and see . . .

  3. I too ride alone. I had a horrible experience at a clinic a couple of weeks ago. My 19 y.o. OTTB reverted to his four-year-old self--he reared up and threw himself over backward, TWICE, while I was trying to tighten the girth. I knew this had been his m.o. on the track and was the reason he was "retired" from racing. (I got him when he was four and a half).

    In the past when he did this, I would get his attention, he'd start to chew, and I would make him walk forward with me. The key was FORWARD, NOT up and over. All those years ago, his nervousness was a regular thing. I had the vet would check for pressure points and ulcers--but I didn't have the horse scoped. Eventually the horse got over it (or so I thought).

    His reversion to bad behavior two weeks ago caught me by complete surprise. NOTHING was new--saddle is several months old, we've clinicked at this site many times, he knows the people, the clinician, everything was the same but there was no "getting his attention," this time, no chewing, nothing. He'd freeze--stop breathing--and then ka-boom. He has never done this while anyone is behind him OR on his back. It's all on HIM--and the tack.

    The second time he landed on his side, he just lay there. I got the saddle off (it's not new anymore--there is a tear in the leather flap that covers the "leathers bar") and he got up. I hosed off his scrapes (he was bleeding a lot), paid the clinician her fee (I was the third rider and she requires three for her clinics), loaded him into my trailer and came home.

    Next day the vet squoze us in and diagnosed my horse with ... an ULCER. And I got a Rx for omeprazole powder, which the horse will not eat, so I drench him a.m. and p.m. Vet also suggested a longer girth (I had a 28" Kieffer neoprene with those damned elastomer bands that do NOT make it easier to tighten the girth from the saddle--I don't care WHAT the advertisement says). I now have a 34" CoolMax nylon girth with fleece. And we'll try the clinic setting in another couple of weeks to see how that goes. I've ordered non-prescription omeprazole paste for clinic mornings.

    My feeding program is, in the vet's word, "awesome." There is not a lot of sweet feed or "standing around with nothing to eat." Lots of hay (breakfast, lunch, AND dinner) and as much exercise as I can muster for him with my part-time job and the unseasonably hot summer. I'm doing the best I can, but as you say, some days are definitely better (and more productive than others).

    The ladies who are part of the clinic (and the instructor herself) are a nice bunch. The hostess, the clinician and the other rider either called or PM'd me on Facebook to find out how the horse was, and the clinician said she would not cash my check until the next clinic. If these ladies say anything to anyone else, I doubt it will be something I would consider catty.

    "Stuff" just happens with horses--and sometimes it catches us all by surprise.

    Making a horse work hard to "punish" it so it gets the idea that the "other option" would be more fun just makes the horse more FIT (like lungeing a TB to calm him down. That ain't gonna happen. I know that and have never thought that was the answer to a behavior issue).

    Anyway, Kate, I'm glad you were able to help the gal with her riding issue--at least you gave her another door to open if the others aren't leading her and her horse where she needs to go. And having a happy horse is the whole point.

    (A side note in my already lengthy post: I put the bitting surcingle on my horse the other day in the wash rack, which has never been a happy place because I think he associates it with the saddling paddock at Santa Anita. The surcingle also buckles where the old girth buckled--down low and on that "pressure point." He took two dancy steps, and then began to chew).

    1. TBDancer - Yeah, that problem with girth tightening seems to almost always be a pain issue - there's one horse at our barn who had some serious rib pain that was finally resolved by some chiro treatment - he went over backwards twice on the cross ties while being girthed before they figured it out. Glad you and he are both OK - ulcers apparently can be very painful and can pop up unexpectedly. That's an honorable clinician to not cash your check - hope the next experience goes better!

    2. I had read that horses can develop ulcers in "as little as 5 days." My horse had them in above 4 MINUTES. However, we are working our way through it and I too hope the next experience is better. With luck we won't have a recurrence for another 14 years ;o)

  4. Thanks for the good advice. you always have something good to say about ever horse related matter.

  5. I tend to think that taking the horse back home and working them hard is not what "making the wrong thing hard" is supposed to mean. I think exactly what you said, that it becomes punishment to the horse, but I think that some people willfully twist that approach to mean permission to punish their horse.

    The only times I have worked Panama when we got back from a trail ride was 1) after a ride where he wasn't paying much attention to me, and we only worked until I felt like I had gotten his focus back, and 2) the time he dumped me and ran home without me -- I have always felt it was better for both of our mental states if I always got back on and rode a while longer after a fall, so that's what I did. Neither scenario was really as punishment, but to accomplish something.

    On the whole, though, I think if you take a horse out of the situation that is making him nervous, and then work him in a wholly different location, all he's going to get out of it is that if he refuses, you'll stop trying.

  6. I use your approach as well when introducing a horse to trail work -- especially when going out alone. We go as far as is comfortable, then a few steps more while incorporating work that makes the horse think. The boundary keeps moving and everyone is relaxed, happy and successful. And I'm with you 100% on your assessment of "natural horsemanship" -- the label makes me cringe.

  7. This is definitely an issue with a lot of horses. I've found with Sugar that when she gets nervous about something, I just ask her to move a little, as you said, in a pattern I know she's comfortable with. I also will ask her to stop and just sit there until we both settle down. Every horse, like every rider, is different in big and small ways and it takes time, patience, and consistency to find what works for a particular horse. At the end of the day I want Sugar to feel as relaxed as when I went to get her with my halter.


  8. I think this is really good advice. I have used something similar when approaching a scary object like a tarp. I will walk toward it until I feel the horse hesitate or balk a bit, then circle back around. Eventually you keep creeping closer with each circle. I have always thought it was a comfort for the horse to be able to retreat back to his comfort zone. So he does not feel pressured.

  9. Gold Star on both Human and Equine fronts!

  10. I totally agree with you that taking the horse back to the arena and making him "work hard" is counterproductive. I think all your points regarding this "approach" are exactly right. But neither do I agree with the stay in your comfort zone and take one step (or two steps or ten or whatever) in the scary/stressful direction and then retreat to comfort zone (though I have complete respect for those who use this method and like it). I trail ride a lot and I have ridden a lot of spooky/hot horses on the trail in my life. My approach is, as much as possible, to ignore the "bad" behavior and move on. If I have to (and this has been pretty rare) I will get off and lead the horse. If I have a choice, I will definitely have someone give the horse a lead on a solid older horse. The reasoning behind this is that you want to send the horse the message that its all no big deal--that there is nothing to fear. If you retreat, you communicate that the horses fear/agitation is grounded in some sort of real problem--a problem you are acknowledging. If you get into a huge conflict with the horse you are again, reenforcing the problem. Best things to do are follow a seasoned horse, or pony the problem horse from a seasoned horse, and do it a lot--until the horse gets used to going down the trail and accepts it as no big deal. Another thing which is hugely helpful is to tie the problem horse in a good safe place for reasonably long periods. This is the most underrated training device in the world. You do not conflict with the horse, but the horse will become a great deal more calm and patient--about everything. All ranch horses (who are usually excellent outside on the trail) are trained this way. (And yes, I remember that some people called me cruel when I mentioned this training technique some time ago on your blog, but it is actually the opposite of cruel. Done right, it is a safe, non-conflictive way to get a horse in the calm, patient frame of mind that you want.)

  11. Laura - Your advice is very good - as usual - I think people who ride out alone struggle more with these things and the approach/retreat work can make a difference to them. Just keeping going can be very effective in those cases - to just keep going - without getting into a fight with the horse - the rider has to be quite confident - and a calm lead horse isn't always available. I also believe tying can be quite effective to help the horse learn to self-calm, but I think it also requires that the horse be able to safely move its feet (high line) rather than be hard tied to a solid object - that's for a horse who is already calm and not inclined to pull back.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  12. As someone who has been struggling with solo riding and reintroducing trails after a train wreck, I have to concur on the advance and retreat advice you mention Kate.

    "Retreating" might also be seen as acknowledging our horses feelings on the subject. A super strong, confident rider may feel good pushing their horse past it's comfort zone and dealing with the consequences, but personally - I'm more concerned with my horses' and my long term relationship (trust) than how much real estate we conquer on a given day. I think that's what you were getting at as well...

    As always - your posts are thoughtful, well reasoned and put the horse first. Thanks. :D

  13. Kate, I love this post for many reasons. I too need to practice biting my tongue unless asked at times. At my own farm it is easy, in Florida at the boarding barn, not so much. Especially problematic for me is the very kind trainer in Florida. She is truly a good horse person and seems thoughtful, but sadly relies on her "Natural Horsemanship" background of round pen free lunging for every problem. This does not solve anything in my opinion. Thankfully, she is very kind to me and allows me to work through balking on the trail my own way. (I dismount and walk the horse through the situation because I believe a horse balks from fear or equipment pain. Fear is reduced if I am leading as the "lead pony" and equipment discomfort can be assessed better if I am on the ground.) Because I've had a lot of success with my approach when we have visited (for two years with different horses) she allows me to do it my way and even seems to support me and my beliefs to others. But, she still uses that round pen for the NH "this is harder" lunging.

    I did a post last winter (December 6, 2012) about my "groundwork" with a problem trail balker vs. the Natural Horsemanship approach.

    I agree and use your circles and serpentines and I also like to introduce a horse to new trail spaces while I am on the ground leading. This is before there is a difficulty though. It is more like an out and back leading game where the distance is increased every day.

    Sounds like you offered this woman very sound advice without undermining her trainer. I believe there are many good horse people who sadly got tangled up in the not-so-natural horsemanship movement. I feel very sad that the term Natural is used.

  14. what a good thing you were around doing chores and were there to help out. Seeing a horse in a happier state is always good for the soul!

  15. Kate--I think it depends on your goal. If you want a happy non-conflictive ride on your horse and don't care if or how far you go on the trail, then your approach is perfect. If you really want to get out on the trail and go for a ride (or, in the case of ranch work, you need to check a fence or a group of cattle or such), then the "retreat" method isn't effective. I agree that leading a balky horse can be an effective approach if a solid lead horse is not available. I would do exactly the same if I had to trail ride alone on a horse that just couldn't deal with this.

    The tying is best done from high line--that's very true. My preference is to tie climbing rope to a solid overhanging limb of a stout tree in a spot where the horse can't reach the trunk. This is a really safe and effective way to tie--if you have this option.

  16. Hi Kate. I thought this post was really excellent - can I put a link on my blog please? Alison

  17. Doesn't it seem logical that horses react to certain things for a reason? And so many times it is the rider causing the problem. Patience and clear communication can be your best friends as opposed to cranking and muscling a horse. I sure wouldn't want someone ripping on my mouth or punishing me because I am afraid. Your advise made good sense to me.

  18. I think that it's great you are speaking up, especially when it will hopefully help someone's horse in the long run. I am so tired of seeing these beautiful animals subject to so much abuse by their riders. These horses try so hard to understand unclear messages. It's even worse, at least for me, when I try to learn bit-less and also want to work with people with bare foot horses. I finally found a place where I have the option to ride bare back and without a bit. It means more ground work and helping out with feeding, etc., but that's fine by me. I really am enjoying reading your articles on this site. Thank you. Angela

  19. Kate--I remember reading your blog several years ago after I met you in the UW (came in with a friend's little half Arab mare that was near Pie!)

    Anyway, this post makes a lot of sense to me and is able to verbalize what I was just thinking the other day. To an average rider, my goal of working with another nervous Arabian seems a little goofy. My goal was simple...ride all the way from the indoor to the outdoor arena and survive hanging out with the scary jumps in the outdoor. Seems simple...and plenty of people have suggested working her until she calms down, but it never seems to be that way. Just doesn't work and seems to create much more fear.

    Only exception I've found is if I bring her in and she decides to be a herdbound, upset horse. Some basic lunging work with frequently changing gaits, directions, and moving her feet laterally seems to help refocus the fact that I exist and that the other horsey world can exist without her for 15 minutes. But I have realized it's not burning off the energy so much for her, as refocusing her brain. Burning off an Arab's energy is kind of like asking Florida to not be so humid...

    So thanks again Kate & I look forward to reading much more on a daily basis! :) Lots to read, sit, and ruminate on.

    1. It's great to hear from you again, and hope all is well!


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