Metallica – Training Heavy Horse

I can tell already I’m going to have fun with her name.

Yesterday was a day of straightforward run of the mill successfully uneventful horse training! The goal was simple: take a horse that had fairly limited experience with me, build on the trust relationship we’ve been establishing, and introduce medieval weapons… a rattan sword and a 12 foot lance… both for the record are very blunt 1-inch minimum rounded edges… to the equation and get her to calmly accept their presence. Uneventful was the goal! And uneventful is what I got!

Here’s how…

Ally has an awesome foundation in natural horsemanship. Rock solid foundation. I took the extra time yesterday to take advantage of that fact and stack the deck in my favor from the get-go.

Beginning with leading out of the pasture with calm presence of authority, I took the time to very pleasantly do a thourough job playing friendly with various grooming supplies and tools, ensuring a happy, well scratched and contented horse entered the round pen.

I spent time starting at square zero with the lead rope over all quarters of the body. I ran the rope around legs, etc etc; and did the same with a carrot stick. All quarters, all angles, rubbing with the stick, and tracing with the rope. At convenient points she was clicked and rewarded for calmness.

After Id exhausted the possibilities of friendly, I ran a couple cues to make sure she responded to pressure and cues, trotted her once around each way to break up the boredom, and set about the real task: weapons training.

I started off just holding the sword in front of her until she sniffed at it. After we had that calmy accepted and rewarded, we just rubbed along all parts of the body and neck gently and friendly, just like the carrot stick. After that, waving the sword back and forth, up and down, slowly by her face. Click! Reward! We’re done here!

The lance was a bit more scary and difficult… but only like walking into a light breeze. It -is- 12 feet long, and may in fact be the first large stick shes seen not firmly in the ground with leaves. I held it vertically for control and weight, about 6 inches away from her.  She moved away at first, but I just followed with the lance until she stopped and rewarded the calm. Soon thereafter, I was rubbing the 12 foot lance everywhere on all quarters and down both sides. Rewards galore!

We finished up with a brief, in-hand introduction to the quintain. No reaction at all, even when the wind pushed the shield against her nose. Our last little bit was an in-hand walk through the reeds and on the correct pathing for the heads games.

Praises galore!!!

That was a fine time to leave well enough alone and so we wrapped up the day with radical success… a radical success built by careful planning, encouragement, and solid foundational work setting the correct tone for trust, communications, and learning.

9 days left until showtime. And I hope to continue applying the principles of horsemanship in a careful and accurate manner to achieve not only the short term goal.. Siege of Glengary… but also the long term goal of educating the horse to implicitly trust the human!

Until next time!


Natural Horsemanship Training with Cavaletti

Natural horse trainers look for creative ways to use their environment to help train their horses. Cavaletti, also called ground poles, are unsung heroes in creating a bridge between horse training equipment and the horse’s environment.

Cavaletti, the Italian word meaning “little horses,” are traditionally poles stabilized by X-shaped supports at each end. The word has come to refer to any raised or unsupported ground poles used in horse training.Cavaletti are placed a particular distance apart to regulate and shape the horse’s stride. For the average horse, standard distances are:

* Trotting: 4-5 feet apart

* Walking or cantering: 9-10 feet apart

Adjust the standard distances for your horse’s individual stride. Begin with just one pole when training the horse. Gradually add additional rails, consistently and correctly placed. Eventually your horse will be comfortable maintaining his rhythm and impulsion through a series of 6-8 rails.

Training your horse over cavaletti brings a barnfull of benefits. Correct use of Cavaletti will:

* Strengthen the horse’s topline

* Build agility, strength and endurance

* Increase regularity of rhythm

* Develop suspension in the gaits

* Prepare a horse for jumping

* Add refreshing variety to a training session

Once your horse is confident through a series of poles comfortably placed, you can enhance his natural gaits by modifying the excercise. Shorten the distance between the rails to collect the horses stride. Increase the distance to lengthen the horse’s stride. To train a horse to increase the suspension and elevate his steps in all his gaits, raise the ground poles on safe, secure supports.

Each time a horse steps correctly over cavaletti, he steps closer to acheiving his full athletic potential.  Move to the next step in your cavaletti training GRADUALLY and backtrack a step if the horse gets confused or frightened.

Safety Tip: Because Cavaletti influence the horse’s strides, they increase the chance of the horse interfering with himself. Considering outfitting your horse with sturdy, well-fitting leg protection to minimize the chance of injury.

Pick the Perfect Horse Trainer

Spring is the traditional time for young horses to get started under saddle, or mature horses to get a pre-season tune-up. Spring must be coming soon because my horse training roster is full and the waiting list is growing!

With all the trainers out there, how do you know who is right for you and your horse?  Here are some suggestions to make sure your new trainer will make a great addition to your team.

Top 10 Tips to Pick the Perfect Trainer

1. Interview trainers that fit your goals. Jane Cowgirl might have trained the last 5 world-champion reining horses but that won’t help you if your goal is the show jumping arena.

2. Be open-minded. Tip #1 being said, if your show jumper has holes in his basic education or you just purchased an unstarted but incredibly talented jumping prospect from Europe, Jane Cowgirl might be a great fit IF she is well known for phenomenal foundation training she gives every horse.

3. Check credibility. Though the horse training profession is largely unregulated, research the trainer’s professional credentials. Read testimonials from happy customers. Ask for referrals. Find out what her previous clients think about her services.

4. Are the facilities safe? Bear in mind that you are visiting a working farm not a static showplace. Tack may be hanging on hooks along the aisle or arena walls and cross-tie areas may show signs of recent use. Beware if the tack is lying in tangled heaps on the ground waiting to trip passing horses, or the grooming area is fetlock deep in dirt and hair! The overall sense should be neat, functional and orderly.

5. Are the facilities adequate for your goals? If you’re looking for a cutting trainer, expect to see cows. If you want your horse to jump courses, look for jumps!

6. Watch the trainer work a horse. If anything happens that you don’t understand or are uncomfortable with, ask the trainer about it.

7. After the training session, ask yourself three questions. Is the horse calmer and more confident than when he began? Has he learned something new or progressed further along the path? Did the trainer stay calm and levelheaded through any dicey situations? If the answer to any of these is no, ask the trainer to explain or interview another trainer.

8. Does the trainer consider the whole horse? Does she ask that the horse is up to date on vaccines, dental work and hoof care before the horse begins her training program? Do the horses on her farm show evidence of up-to-date health care? Many training issues are the direct result of physical imbalance or pain. A comprehensive training program addresses the whole horse: mind, body and emotions.

9. What value does the trainer offer? Notice I said value offered, not price charged. Jane Cowgirl might charge more than lower-priced competitors but if she produces better results in a shorter time, or produces results that are meaningful to you, you have gotten better value for your money

10. Educate yourself. Your horse is going to school. Do you need to brush up on your own skills in order to keep up with him? Take some lessons, read some good books, audit a clinic with a top trainer in your discipline. Book a session with your trainer at the end of the program to make sure YOU are able to cue your horse’s new skills.

11. The responsibility is ultimately yours. You are your horse’s spokesperson. He depends on you for everything. If at any point you feel like he is being mistreated or abused, remove him from the situation, no matter how many prizes hang on the trainer’s wall.

Do you have any nuggets you’d like to add?  What have been your experiences finding a horse trainer?

And by the way, if your horse needs training (and is a good fit for our program), we’ll see what we can do to fit him in!

Clicker training saves the night!

There are times when training is a calm sunny day in a round pen with a brave, intelligent horse. There are also the times when conditions are less than optimum, yet even a frightened horse can achieve a major breakthrough.

This is one such success.

A week or two ago we had a cold, bitter storm blow in from the Arctic. Caught by surprise by the cold pellets stinging our faces, and the 20 degree, gale force winds howling around us, we set out in the dark to blanket the few remaining horses who still needed the added protection from the fury of elements. With wind chills in the low zeros, blankets were not a request, they were a requirement. Our yearling Friesian-cross did not agree.

Spotteigh, usually calm, compliant, and friendly, had only worn a blanket once in his life… on a calm day at that. This night of all nights, the blanket seemed to have a life of it’s own as it blew around in Kirsten’s arms. The blanket for pasturemate D’Art was laying on the ground and moving of its own accord.

You could see it in Spotteigh’s eyes: “It’s gonna EAT ME!!!” That’s one of those moments where either all your training clicks together or you or someone else gets trampled. Short lead in hand, we danced in circles until he calmed down enough to try again. And try we did…

We have this little secret we’ll share with you! From the moment one of our horses sets hoof on the farm, we instill in them clicker-training. A bridge signal (in this case a ‘click’ sound) marks a behavior as desired… an implicit yes that says “You’re doing things right!” A click is always rewarded with a healthy tasty little snack treat. Think the trained Orcas at Sea World.

Face and hands going numb in the cold, we began the process of introducing Spotteigh to the blanket… the moving, scary looking mass that would give him warmth if he could trust it. Sniff…click… reward. Touch… click…reward. Touch on side… click…reward.

Each step was building on the success of the previous step until the surcingles were buckled and the front straps closed… and we were back in the truck thawing out.

All with the power of a click and a pocketful of hay stretcher!

Losgelassenheit and Natural Horsemanship

Breakthrough day for June!  This formerly stiff-as-a-board but quick-as-a-whip little mare learned to release to the pressure of the bit.  We’re not talking turn or tuck her head.  We are talking release negative tension throughout her entire body. This elementary lesson is June’s first step towards losgelassenheit.

…Before you say “gesundheit” let’s pull our dictionary!

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) translates the German term “losgelassenheit” as: “Looselettingness” or “letlooseness,” shortened to “Looseness….”

The USDF further elaborates:  “The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”

For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the USDF uses the translation “Relaxation” … and the FEI uses the translation “Suppleness.”

Why pull out complicated foreign terms when we’re tallking about training a pleasure horse who will most likely never see be seen halting at X in a dressage arena?

Regardless of the owner’s goals a horse is a horse is a horse. “Dressage,” literally, is the French word for “training.” Classical dressage is the oldest, most pervasive, and most effective system of developing a horse into an athlete for war, for sport, for exhibition and for enjoyment.

Any effective training system, including what we’ve come to know as natural horsemanship, has its parallels in classical dressage. Every athletic effort between horse and human requires “the supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”  A fixed frame or headset results in athletic–and emotional–restrictions.

Horses can achieve their athletic best only when their physical framework is supple enough to transmit energy efficiently to the rider’s chosen task, regardless of what style of saddle they wear.  Unfortunately, this can be taken to the extreme. EVERY discipline has their offenders who persist even through threatened action at a regulatory level.

Detractors of natural horsemanship often point accusingly–and sadly, accurately– to well-intentioned novices who overuse flexions and one-rein stops to the point of abuse.  The result are horses whose necks are disconnected from their bodies. Their backs can can be rigid, their hindquarters trailing, but their heads and necks flop back and forth like some macabre bobble-head toys.  Such horses are difficult to ride and fall far short of their athletic potential.  They may even end up injured, or worse.

June “knew her flexions” when she first came. She was quick to snap that neck around.  But she bent through muscular effort, not release.  She stiffened to the bit and locked her back, even as she curved her neck. The intended antidote was instead the pathology.

For June, it all changed in that lightbulb moment.  The bit used to mean tense yourself and twist.  Now it means release your body and mind to what comes next.

NOW we can begin an athetic adventure!

On quality education…

It’s been a while since Ive taken the opportunity to post here. Silly, really, since I’m the guy who keeps the virtual places virtually intact :=) I had some really nice observations the other day as Dolly and I were working in the round pen… and later in the arena… with Kirsten. I’m not so certain I can give voice to everything I observed, nor communicate it clearly enough to create an accurate, concise picture. But hey, for all you beginners out there… hopefully strike a chord.

Dolly and I have been working on our teamwork for about a year now, off and on.  Obviously, I don’t have as much time at the end of the day as I would like to groom, prep, and ride. So we generally go once a week, better some weeks, worse others. Last week was the tail end of several missed opportunities to ride, and Kirsten and I, perhaps a month ago, had decided that we needed some time doing a more formal lesson in the round pen and the arena rather than my typical clean, tack, check brakes, and try stuff. Boy, did my eyes get opened to the bad positioning and misunderstanding of the basic forms of cues I had accrued  through early lessons dimly past. Its not that I was way off. I could move the horse off all points succesfully, get on, and in a general way, communicate my intentions, and barring any major desire for grain, barn, or grass, she was generally cooperative.  Sometimes, she was less so. It’s not that she didn’t like me, it was an issue of respect.

After correcting my little mistakes… body angle here,  clearer cues there… on the ground… I was back to having a full, crisp response. Almost soldierly. Which is amazing with an 1800 pound draft horse. After a trip around the round pen bareback and getting a new feel for her motion and biomechanics with a little bit more exposure under my belt, we put the saddle on and worked in the arena. What a remarkable difference 20 minutes can make when used wisely, and with a competent teacher! To anyone who wishes to really learn horsemanship and thinks they might not be able to afford a trainer… the rapid results, the clear and effective lessons, and the return on your investment is well worth the reasonable price of admission.

Happy Riding!


Horse Video Rental Discovery

I just found this great site that rents horse videos. They have a ton of stuff I would love to see, but buying them all would break the bank. A perfect solution? I think we’ve found it!

Great selection of natural horsemanship videos, too. You name the clinician, they got ’em: Clinton Anderson, Buck Brannaman, Craig Cameron, Chris Cox, Ed Dabney, Andrea Fappani, Tommy Garland, Gawani Pony Boy, Julie Goodnight, Cherry Hill, Ray Hunt, Linda Tellington Jones, John Lyons/Josh Lyons, Dr Robert Miller, Lynn Palm, Pat and Linda Parelli, Curt Pate, Mark Rashid, Kerry Ridgway, Karen Scholl, Sally Swift, Anna Twinney, Stacy Westfall and Charles Wilhelm.

Check it out! Your Horse Matters