Tag Archives: horse whisperer

Happy New Year!

Freezing rain and ice-slick roads confine us to the farm tonight… and there is no place we’d rather be! Mark and I play with the horses well after dark. I trim Grace’s hooves and start teaching her a new trick, and we all marvel at how well Dolly’s hoof is healing.

I flash between enjoying the present, and jumping from past to future. Our culture trains us to make these leaps back and forth through time at New Years. I join the bazillion other pensive people pondering goals achieved– or not–in 2009. I measure the value of addressing last years shortcomings in 2010 or simply letting them rest as outgrown or simply irrelevent.

2010 unfurls before us! More than a day or a week in my planner pages… here is an entire year to dance with! I recall the quote but not the author: “you can have ANYthing you want, but not EVERYthing you want.”

So the question rises before you, before me, as we balance on this cusp between the years (between the DECADES I realize with a start!)

What are the ANYthings that will totally transform your world, your horses and your horsemanship in 2010?

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Flymasking the Un-halterable, Headshy Horse

You remember the story of belling the cat. We were handed a similar scenario…

The challenge: To put a flymask on a horse who is not halter-trained and is known to be headshy.

The solution: Clicker Training to the rescue!

Crockett is an Appy gelding, part of the PMU rescue herd we are currently helping with. His pale face and light skin require protection from sunburn and the torment of flies.  A long-nose flymask is a simple solution, but Crockett was headshy and unhalterable.  I clipped on my treat bag and began.

The scene unfolded like clockwork.  Crockett’s pasturemates, Gypsy and Betty, abandoned us for the comfort and shade of the loafing shed. No worries about other horses mugging us for treats!

Crockett immediately conncted the audible “click” with the treat that followed.  We began racing forward one baby step at a time. I held out the mask. After a minute he checked it out with his muzzle. Click! After several successful repetitions I upped the standard. It was no longer enough just to touch the mask. He got a little frustrated and tossed his head-and happened to rub his head from his eyes to his muzzle along the mask. Click!

We continued on in this fashion. Solidify a step. Add another level of trust. Before too long the mask was on- and so ill-fitting! Off came the mask and I tried another one. Baby steps again, and a few minutes later the new mask was on. Sigh-too small. I rummaged around in the barn and found a few more masks to try.

This glitch was not a frustration, but an opportunity for reinforcement.  Each successful masking solidified both my newfound communication with Crockett and his victory over being headshy.  I found a mask that fit a little better and sent him off into the herd.

When I finished my sessions with Gyspy and Betty, I walked out to visit with the others. Crockett saw me, pricked up his ears, and threaded his way through his pasture mates to join me. I call that a double success!

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Saturday Afternoon With Grace

Grace has spent the week hanging over the fence watching me work clients’ horses.  “Am I next?” she seemed to ask continuously.  Despite the bitter chill, Mark and I brought her out today for some quality family time.

While I was getting organized, Grace went over to check out the mounting block.  She put her hoof on top. *Click!* Treat!  Operant conditioning at it’s finest! Operant conditioning is when you build on a behavior that is freely offered.

“I may end up regretting that one day,” I joked to Mark, but I was already thinking about the bridge, or Pirate’s plank as we call it,  he’d built recently for a training obstacle.  This was going to shortcut the process.  Clunk went the hoof on the block.  Click.  Treat.  Clunk.  Click.  Treat.

I got my gear in order and put the surcingle on Grace for the first time.   She moved on and felt the band around her belly, much tighter than her blanket.  She tossed her head and bucked once in protest, but responded to my request for more impulsion and soon forgot the annoying squeeze.

As she moved around the ring she swerved over to the mounting block.  Clunk went the foot.  “Now’s not the time Grace, move on!”  As important as developing her curiosity and initiative is teaching her context: how to figure out when things are appropriate.  Sometimes the block is a pedestal for her to stand on, sometimes a step for the rider to mount from, right now just ring clutter to be ignored.

Grace quickly made up for lost time. In short order she was ground driving for the first time, catching on quickly to voice commands and directional changes.  We swapped back to a single longe and headed out of the roundpen to explore the challenge course in our open riding field.

Remember the hoof on the mounting block?  Grace was initially intimidated by the Pirate’s plank sitting in the middle of the field. She sniffed -click! She touched it with her hoof-click! The lightbulb came on.  She remembered this game!  Before long she was walking that plank like an old salt-YARRR!

On the way back to the barn Grace learned to navigate raised cavaletti (no, you don’t step on it like the plank!) and jump a little crossrail.  Nothing was ever an issue.  Our attitude was let’s take a stroll… and oops! how did that get in the way?! Let’s figure it out!

Grace is fascinating to work with.  She is so CEREBRAL.  She needs to be continually questioned, challenged, engaged–and supported in those rare moments when she gets confused or scared.  Clicker training adds motivation to her innate laziness, as well as shapes her natural curiosity.

Mark snapped some pictures with his cell phone before we wrapped up for the day.

Walking the Plank:

Friesian on a bridge

on the plank

pirate plank sign

Gracie, modeling her new halter from the Expo!

Friesian Head


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Horsemanship Practice… At the Mall!

Kathy made my day today!  During a break in her lesson she told me she’s taken up walking at the mall.  Today she walked two miles.  More importantly, she confided, “I kept thinking about what we’ve been practicing in our riding lessons.  I keep reminding myself to breathe, and put on my cloak!”

For people who are visual learners, I use a lot of imagery in my explanations.  “Wearing the cloak” is one of my favorite and most effective visualizations to bring riders’ shoulders back into a supple but strong posture (exactly the opposite of how most of us march through our days!)

I ask the rider to picture the cloak clearly.  What color is it? What kind of fabric is made out of? does it reach to your saddle or stream along your horse’s back and hindquarters? Now, as you ride forward, feel how it flows and billows behind you in the wind.  The more senses you can involve in your visualization, the more effective the results. Go ahead! Try it Now!

Kathy realized that practicing good horsemanship doesn’t always require a horse.  Good horsemanship requires acute body awareness and control. You can hone your awareness and improve that control while walking, driving, standing in line… where ever!

The habits that you carry on the ground carry over into the saddle.  The silver lining in that cloud is that breakthroughs from the ground bring breakthroughs from the saddle.

As you walk the malls in search of the perfect gifts this season, I encourage you to seek your own breakthroughs!

Comment below and share your experiences–we love to hear from you!

Posted in Balanced Seat Riding, Challenges, Ideas & Exercises, Natural Horsemanship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Horsemanship Practice… At the Mall!

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!

Posted in Dressage... Naturally!, Horse Training Basics, Horse Training Philosophy, Natural Horsemanship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Losgelassenheit and Natural Horsemanship

Horse Training Tips Contest

“Horse Training Success” is running a training tips contest.  We just submitted this entry:

I love all the posts that include training with treats! Do you know they actually funded a study in France which “scientifically proved” that horses learn faster when they receive food rewards? Hahaha, horsemen since the dawn of time could have told them that!

My tip brings even more impact to the power of treats. When a new horse first comes to the farm, we teach them a “bridge signal.” They learn to associate a clicking sound with a treat. More importantly they learn that whatever they are doing at the exact moment of the click is what they are getting rewarded for. This way, we can reward them “in the moment” no matter how far out of carrot range they are (great for liberty training or speed work.)

This has infinite applications! We have taught a horse who hated having his feet handled to stand in a bucket of warm water and epsom salts to soak out an abcess. We have taught rowdy youngster to quietly hold their hooves on a hoof stand so one person can trim their feet without needing a second handler. We made horses who refused to be dewormed look forward to the dewormer. We have taught flying lead changes to an off the track TB who would only take one lead, and curiosity and courage to a “chicken-heart” who spooked at anything and everything. The list is endless!

The photo shows a recent– and FUN–success. The mare in the photo is an off the track TB. We brought her to a medieval equestrian reenactment. In no time she accepted the flowing, jingling costumes, the swords and lances swinging around her head, the loud cracks of impact and flying targets–all through the power of associating the click for the right behavior with the treat that says “well done!”

lucy jousting the quintain at a medieval equestrian reenactment

Check out the contest and vote for our tip!

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Thoughts on Natural Horsemanship and Horse Whispering

The Horse Whisperer. Both history and the pop culture notion of natural horsemanship paint an image of the silent, mystical horseman whose mere presence calms the wildest equine outlaw. By using skills invisible to the average human, the horse whisperer inspires the most savage horse to willingly submit and perform any feat.

People attributed this ability to “whispering” after the sensational 19th century “horse tamer,” John Rarey. Among other things (primarily immobilizing the horse with a leg strap), Rarey would gently blow into a horses nostrils or ears. With this, a myth was born that grew along with the development of natural horsemanship as we know it.

But ask the successful modern day “horse whisperer” her or his secret. The key to success with horses (just as with people) begins with LISTENING.

The effective horse trainer “listens” with every sense available. The more acute the trainer’s awareness, the more accurate the understanding of the horse which emerges. Natural horsemanship is based on using the horse’s nature to make the right thing easy. To understand the horse’s nature, we need to listen.

I once read an insightful forum post by a backyard horseman. In convincing a novice to send a young horse to a professional horse trainer, she pointed out that the pros can see a wreck coming well in advance. They perceive the signs of the impending explosion and can prevent it from happening.

The horse trainer in this scenario is listening to the horse more sensitively and more completely than the novice. The pro can see the look of concern growing in the horses eyes, can hear the speed of the hoofbeats slightly increase, can feel the horse’s tension mounting. The pro can immediately redirect the horse to defuse the situation before it gets worse.

The novice, whose “listening” is still rudimentary, doesn’t notice these details. She continues on. As the horse’s tension and confusion increases, so does the “volume” of his nonverbal communication. If the novice still doesn’t “hear” the horse’s concern, the horse starts “yelling:” bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking. The horse’s training backtracks and someone could get hurt, simply because the human wouldn’t, or couldn’t, listen.

Natural horsemanship and classical dressage training share the tenet of starting in lightness. When you apply an aid, begin with the lightest suggestion, increasing in strength until the horse responds. The horse learns to listen for the whisper of communication, knowing that it will increase to a “shout” if ignored. No one likes to get yelled at.

The effective horse trainer “listens” the same way she “speaks.” Listen for the horse’s lightest whisper.

Horses are generally happy to listen back.

Posted in Horse Trainer's Mindset, Horse Training Philosophy, Horses and Life, Inner Natural Horsemanship, Natural Horsemanship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stormy Sunset

WOW! I would be speechless but the words tumble over each other in their hurry to get out. Stormy was AMAZING tonight. She could have been the poster pony for natural horsemanship!

Now what made that training session extraordinary in my mind was this: through no fault of her own, Stormy’s training has been backburnered since summer.

I pulled her out of the field just before evening feeding on a whim. After a hectic week, I really just wanted a little time to BE with a horse, no pressure, no outside expectations. Under a glorious sunset, Stormy and I remembered the dance together.

Start with the basics. Are the fundamental communications in place? Yield the shoulder, tip the hip, glide backwards on the lightest cue.  Click.  Treat.  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!

Slip off the halter. Pat Parelli says “when you set your horse loose, you’re left with the truth.” Stormy’s truth was empowering indeed. Canter left. Stop on a dime. Canter right, dancing across the crackly tarp.

The sky blazed purple and gold. I pulled out tack. I was going way further than I’d planned, at Stormy’s own invitation. Saddle and bridle, no problem. Long lines came next. I’d only long lined her a few times before her extended hiatus.

I had no need to worry. Stormy trotted off cheerfully, then responded when I asked for sweeping turns across the round pen. The original horsepower- “almost like driving a ferrari” I tell her!

Off came the tack.  We’d completed the circle.  I  showered Stormy in gratitude as I set her loose in her darkening field.

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Knutsford Edward, Angus’ Sire

WOW! We just found this awesome video of Angus’ Sire, Knutsford Edward. Enjoy!

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Antietam Battlefield Ride

I had the horse trailer hooked up and loaded by the time Mark got home from work. We grabbed the horses and a chilled bottle of Monavie and headed down the road to meet Scott and Noel at the Antietam battlefield for an afternoon trail ride.

I brought Lucy. We believe so firmly in building a solid foundation in our horses through a variety of cross-training. Even though this phenomenal Thoroughbred mare has the mind, talent and movement for the show hunter arena, she needs to be a horse first and foremost. I looked forward to seeing how she would handle the traffic, pedestrians, and ever-present monuments, placards and cannons around the battlefield.

What an amazing trail ride! The reality of the bloodiest battle of the civil war entwined with the sun-soaked afternoon and the joy of riding wonderful horses with great friends. The horses were champs. Lucy soaked in all the new sights like a sponge. She has such an incredible mind!

We explored a corner of Antietam we’d never seen. The wide, well-kept verges welcomed long, fitness-building trots. Dolly the Belgian even gave Mark his first triumphant steps of canter! Our loop covered paved roads, grassy verges and mown paths. The battlefield monuments provided plenty of fodder for creative training challenges.

The four humans joined in a refreshing Monavie toast as the sun set and horses happily munched hay. That Lucy just impresses me more and more all the time!

Thanks, Scott, for this great shot of Mark, Dolly, Lucy and I!

Trail Ride at Antietam Battlefield

Posted in Dolly, Horse Training Philosophy, Lucy, Monavie, Natural Horsemanship, Natural Trainer On The Road!, trail riding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Antietam Battlefield Ride