The Vet, the Farrier, the Fear

I wish farriers and vets more widely understood the need to go beyond “coming to work on the horse”. The need to connect with the horse and have what a horse can interpret as a reliable and reassuring “bedside manner” is a critical element in the mental and emotional health of the horse. It pays off especially well when in a situation that can be an emergency or may include pain from the condition being dealt with.

Too many of our equine service professionals are on some sort of schedule and seem reluctant to spend a few minutes focusing on the horse and his comfort prior to commencing work. They also seem generally unaware of training principles and learning theory and can easily engage with the horse in a way that creates a learned anxiety for the horse.

In the course of training several horses for the farrier, I’ve learned that most horses who farriers interpret as aggressive simply don’t have good balance. As a result they try to move, hop, take back their feet, kick out when not allowed to regain their balance, and in general have what both owners and farriers see as “issues”. Worse yet, the farriers who rush through working with these horses or who use restraint or counter-aggression tend to create fearful behavior patterns in horses whose only fault is not knowing what to do when their feet are handled for long periods.

Of course, it’s not fair to put the onus for training the horse on the farrier or the vet. But a farrier who doesn’t understand or sympathize with the horse’s need to be balanced and feel safe or the vet who is just there to “inject and go” or “take blood samples and go” as if the horse were a car or a machine are also part of the problem and can actually create fears and behavior problems where none existed before.

One example comes from Lensman’s experience. We had a new vet come out and draw blood for a Lyme test. Lensman was clearly a little worried about the new person, but the vet ignored this. He cornered Lensman in his stall and went to draw blood, which terrified Lensman. The vet missed the vein and had to “fish around” with the needle, prolonging the discomfort and fear, and obviously making things even worse for Lensman.

Since then, for years, Lensman has had anxiety about vets and a fear of blood draw that none of our other horses have (it goes without saying that the vet who did this has never been invited back, but the harm that was done is now projected onto all of the vets who visit). As time passes and he has more positive experiences with vets, the anxiety declines, but it never needed to happen in the first place.

Horse owners often paper over the problems their horses have with routine procedures, using sedation as a way to protect the professionals from the danger of a horse running away or striking out. Unfortunately, this is a never ending fix, because a) horses under sedation do not have their fear removed, they just can’t do a lot about it and b) horses who are sedated learn more slowly than alert horses. There is no substitute for training a horse for medical and farrier procedures.

Enabling horses to tolerate veterinary and farrier procedures requires them to have a strong foundation of self-control in standing still. You can and should work on this all the time. If your horse is “antsy” when nothing is going on, he won’t be more self-controlled when something potentially uncomfortable is being done.

In terms of the specifics of training for vet and farrier, few trainers do this sort of foundation training, especially in older horses (rescue horses often need this unfortunately), and so it often falls to the owner to do it. But if you can, find a sympathetic horse trainer in your area who does foundation training for young horses, explain the problem and ask them to work with your older horse.

To do the work yourself requires a lot of patience and some specific skills and tools.

In all cases, the primary training methods are progressive desensitization and overshadowing. It also requires a mindset that sees the horse sympathetically as a fearful creature in an alien environment, being placed under stress and discomfort for reasons they cannot understand (literally).

“Progressive desensitization” requires you to bring the aversive object or process either slowly closer (for instance hypodermics – you can use a pen or a hypodermic without a needle and approach to the “fear distance” and hold there until the horse loses anxiety and then withdraw, which is the release of pressure that tells the horse this is what you want, then next time go slightly closer, etc.) or slowly extending duration (lifting one foot for a second, then for two, etc., trying always to put the foot down before they do).

Overshadowing is putting a pleasant experience around the less pleasant experience. I use this during a farrier session, handing the horse very tasty hay while it stands in the cross ties, or performing the wither scratch while the horse is standing well.

In summary, work with your vet and farrier to help them connect with your horse. Make sure they are aware of things your horse is afraid of and why. Pre-train your horse to stand well when supervised and in cross-ties. Be aware of the potentially threatening appearance of various veterinary procedures and make sure the horse does not feel trapped by them. Be there while the work is being done and correct your horse with a halter snap when he does the wrong thing, or simply stop the procedure and reinforce the right behavior for a few moments before continuing.

Always remember that horses are rightfully fearful of the alien things we do to them and that we need to help them be comfortable and comforted without reinforcing risky or dangerous behavior.

Horses, horses (sigh)

I love how complex it is when I really visit with horses. When I am with them, whether being as they are with each other or being my task-oriented human self, I have a chance to watch their behavior, leverage what I’ve seen in the past, hypothesize, look for confirmation, and learn more about how they think. Yet, inevitably, I bring my own values and I have emotions about them and their relationships.

I go up in the near full moonlight to the sacrifice paddock under luminous clouds. Lensman is lying down just past the edge of the moonshadows from the trees, looking sleepily over the landscape. I sit down near his head and he looks at me, breathing softly. In the background, Gunsmoke wanders restlessly, going into the shelter and looking out at us. Then he walks purposefully toward Lensman and eventually stands over him, deliberately reaching his mouth, open, down over the middle of Lensman’s mane and equally deliberately biting down with gradually increasing pressure until Lensman shrieks and leaps to his feet. The two of them stand over me, and then Lensman turns and walks away, swishing his tail.

It’s not the first time Gunsmoke has wanted to monopolize dealing with creatures from outside of the herd. He once let Lensman be the first to communicate with new horses in a neighboring paddock and then shouldered him aside after a few minutes, when it seemed he was sure it wasn’t going to go horribly wrong. When Lensman was first getting used to the deer at the Ranch, he often seemed to want to be one, as he stared at them, eyes wide, following their motion. But once, when Lensman was really close to the deer, Gunsmoke raced down the hill in the sacrifice paddock and sending Lensman running one way and the deer the other way. He trotted back up to me, looking very satisfied.

Sometimes horses don’t even want each other enjoying something as simple as rolling and they hurry over to break it off. Both Lensman and Gunsmoke have disturbed each other in the middle of a good roll for no apparent reason.

So what was Gunsmoke doing? “I want what you have”? “You need to move when I show up or else”? “Just a reminder – I’m in charge”?

No way to know. But I tend to think that it means something like “No socializing without me.”

I won’t reward Gunsmoke with attention or pets after that, and I gripe at him as I walk away to go get their halters so they can go out to pasture for the night. I stop to pet Lensman for a moment on my way out, because I feel a little as if I might have caused what happened through some unexpected ignorance.

But you know, Lensman took it all in stride after he left, and he didn’t even mind standing next to Gunsmoke – though he did put his nose up against Gunsmoke’s side and I worried he might try a cheap shot.

But he didn’t.

Once the two of them are haltered and out of the paddock, they each sigh with that extra sound, a little throaty rasp, that turns a sigh into a sound of resignation –  “I’m leaving my friends” perhaps. Horses are so in the moment that it doesn’t matter that they are going to grass or that their friends pretty much always rejoin them within ten minutes. The timeframe for those events is so long as to just not be connected to what we are doing right now for them. It’s part of how alien they are.

But as we go down the hill, they seem sensitized to the lights of the house, the odd moon shadows, and who knows what else. They snork softly from time to time – not really distressed, but faintly uncomfortable with the strangeness. And I can understand that. They don’t go down often at night, so they are not so used to it, and going down is not the same as going up. They keep looking up to the right, as if wondering where their friends are.

About halfway down, I can feel them walking faster and see them licking their lips. It’s likely that they have finally connected our journey to going out on pasture.

In the pasture, Gunsmoke wants to eat, but Lensman wants to tease him – with a bite threat and them galloping off and snaking his head until Gunsmoke races after him and there’s bucking and galloping, until they stop and Gunsmoke starts to eat. But Lensman hasn’t had enough – he trots over, stops, fakes a run away. When nothing happens, he gives Gunsmoke a nip, and starts to gallop off, but Gunsmoke just glares at him and goes back to the grass, so Lensman gallops a bit more, then gives up and starts eating. He’s so cute when he wants to play, and Gunsmoke is equally cute as he plays the stolid, bored, mature version of himself.

Such is the stuff of horseplay.

I hike back up the hill to the remaining two, and they are ready to leave. But they seem to be able to relax, probably because they know that going too fast leads to a headache from all the halter jangling they get. As we walk, they each have their own personalities in their walk, but both are pretty relaxed until we get to where the white Ethernet cable crosses from the arena to the Ayrmesh hub antenna. At that point, Bella stops dead and looks down. And then I realize it looks like a fence rope on the ground and laugh. Of course she won’t go over it. Every horse knows that a low fence rope emits a force field that goes up into the sky. So I encourage her and she goes with me. I think that I may find it a good idea to change the color of that cable so I don’t inadvertently train her to walk over the fence with those long Thoroughbred legs.

At the pasture, I always walk into the space, turn around, close the softgate top strand, and then walk them out into the pasture.  This prevents horses from thinking that they should anticipate taking off when they cross into the pasture. When I release them, they take a few steps and trot eagerly over to the separating fence, but Bella heads for the gate strand in the fence, investigating it, as if hoping it will go away.

They sure like to be together.

Every horse is a complicated little drama.

Every moment with horses provides a mystery or a clue or an answer.

If you listen.

Horses, horses.

Best Friends

The grey paint horse, Gunsmoke, steps through the gate into the paddock, looking around. In the shelter, his old friend, a bay quarter horse, Lensman, looks up from his hay box.

It takes a moment, but Lensman’s eyes widen. He takes step forward, slowly, as if he can’t quite believe what he is seeing and as if he doesn’t dare take his eyes off his old friend. A next step, another, then he trots a few steps and the two horses are sharing breath, necks curved so that their combined profile is like a stylized heart. It’s passionate and intense.

Then the two walk away side by side. They pause overlooking the farm and again share breath in the stylized heart. They stand, side by side and then restlessly walk away, sharing breath one last time near the gate.

They separate, and one goes to drink water, the other goes to eat hay. The moment of the reunion of best friends is over.

The emotions horses have for each other as friends is a real, important, individual relationship. It may be born in stress, as when these two horses were uprooted from a boarding stable where every horse lived alone in a separate paddock to be living together in the same field while they waited for us to figure out where they would go next. Or it may be born in the first escape from loneliness as when an isolated horse first gets to live with another. Or it may simply be something that starts over a fence with the innate need horses have to be together.

A horse alone is one of the loneliest things in the world. But the two horses in the story above had not been separated for years across continents. They were separated for three weeks across a fence and each had a partner in the half paddock they occupied. They could see and interact with each other across the fence.

The best friend relationship is not transferable and the horse left behind will not generally be consoled with another companion. The best friend across the fence is not the same as the best friend in the same paddock, eating, drinking and sleeping side by side – even if they never allogroom. And horses do not console each other when they feel sad, so a new horse with the horse left behind will not make an effort to be closer to the horse left behind to relieve its loneliness. As far as we can tell, horses don’t care to console each other, and for them, the concept of consolation may not mean anything at all.

For horse owners, this bond is poorly understood and often irritating. Pacing and bellowing from the horse left behind. Reluctance to walk or ride away. Bellowing from the horse taken. Difficulty in getting work done.

So how can we give our horses the relationships they crave but teach them to leave their best friend when needed?

First, we need the compassion to understand what they are feeling and how hard it is to control. For the horse, the fear of being alone is like the human fear of heights or of being in a confined space.

And yet, we teach horses to overcome many equally powerful instincts – such as fear of having things on their back – saddles, people, packs. Fear of sprays and smells. Fear of confinement. So why not fear of being alone and fear of separation?

The training that horses need for loneliness, like most training, is about self-control. So let’s look at what horses need to control when it comes to the departure of a best friend.

If this were you, and someone you dearly loved were to depart without announcement, without any idea of when or even if they would return, where they were going or what was going to happen to them, it would be very hard for you. Horses don’t know about our goals and intent – in fact, they don’t even have concepts for for goals and intent. While they have some limited sense of what Piaget called “permanence of object”, which is to say, that something exists when it can’t be seen, it isn’t like ours. So for all intents and purposes, when the best friend goes out of sight, he may as well have vaporized. Gone, maybe forever, to who knows where. Even when only separated by a fence, best friends know they can’t reach each other, can’t participate in their important relationship, can’t really be together – it’s like the booth in a prison, with impenetrable glass and with a telephone as the only means of contact.

The good news is that horses give very clear signs of how they are feeling. When they are lonely, they stare, they bellow. When they are frustrated, they pace, they run and buck and fart, they toss their heads, they stomp. When they are afraid they trot madly and canter.  When they are relaxed they eat or wander around at a slow pace with their heads down.

What we need to do is to teach the horse left behind that…

  • Your friend will come back
  • When you are lonely, you don’t have to act out – you can act normally
  • When you are frustrated, you don’t have to act out – you can act normally
  • When you act normally, you will feel better and your friend will come back

I’ve been able to teach this without an assistant. It’s more complicated than it is with help, and it requires a certain facility layout to be effective, which you may not have or which you may need to be creative to achieve.

In my case, I have a stable entrance visible from the paddock and I have one stall that can see through a door into the indoor arena.

So, inside, I started by always letting them say goodbye by walking the best friend to the stall so breath can be shared with the horse left behind (saying goodbye – or perhaps “aloha”). Then I…

  • Took the best friend into the arena.
  • Walked the best friend around and only let the horse left behind see the best friend when the horse left behind was quiet (not bellowing or pacing or stomping)
  • Did the same thing when riding
  • If the horse left behind paced for too long or was clearly escalating, I tied him to the bars and left him, but watched / listened, and came back and untied him when he was quiet
  • Gradually increased the length of the best friend being invisible until the horse left behind relaxed and spent more and more time eating – the first sign of success

Then I extended this technique to the paddock, using the door at the back of the stable…

  • Backed the best friend away from the horse left behind – oddly enough, horses don’t see that as being left behind compared to when the best friend walks away normally, so it reduces the initial stress
  • Groomed the best friend in the doorway
  • Gradually moved the best friend to a position where he was less and less visible, only bringing him back when the horse left behind was quiet
  • When the horse left behind went and ate hay, I left and then quickly at first and with extended intervals thereafter, came back; this was the second sign of success.

It’s also possible to work with the horse left behind if you have an assistant (you can do it by yourself, but it’s a little harder, you have to take the best friend away to a remote stall or paddock and then come back to work the horse left behind)…

  • The horse left behind is put on halter
  • You or the assistant take the friend away
  • Each time the horse left behind shows lonely or frustrated behavior, redirect them to food or motions that are relaxing (head down) or distracting (lots of orders) or use discipline (lead rope snapping) for a higher level of distraction and rebuke (but do as little of that as possible)
  • Bring the best friend back when the horse left behind has behaved well for a reasonable period and seems to have at least a slightly lower level of anxiety.

No matter which way you do this, you need to understand that it takes a fair amount of time, it’s never going to be perfect so that the horse left behind doesn’t ever miss his friend and perhaps call out sometimes, but with patience, empathy, and an understanding of the mind of the horse, you can minimize the issue and help the horse left behind cope with his loneliness.

Do remember:

  • The return of the best friend is the reward. Only do it at a moment when the horse left behind is acting relatively normally. This tells the horse left behind that acting normally brings back their friend. Don’t teach them that lonely or frustrated behavior brings back their friend
  • Reward normal behavior by the horse left behind whenever possible, sometimes with food, sometimes with a wither stroke, sometimes with the return of the best friend
  • Just leaving the horse left behind alone with its distress is not training the horse to cope with the situation; allow this only for the limited periods needed to train
  • Gradual departure and slow increase of distance is easier for the horse left behind to cope with and makes it possible to develop self-control a step at a time

Living on the Rail

When I boarded my horses at other barns, I would constantly encounter people whose horses basically lived on the rail. There was a huge rut at the rail that always caused me problems as i was using the other 10 or 20k square feet of the arena but occasionally would have to hand gallop into the rut, worrying that my horse would pull a tendon going over the dip of it.

To some extent I didn’t mind that most of the other riders were on the rail, as I liked having the entire center of the arena to myself (unless the jumpers had filled it with a jump course). I used that entire arena every day and asked my horses to go wherever I asked whenever I asked, and I asked often. When the jump course was up I had my horses ride around it as if it were an obstacle course, and did circles and eights around or between the jumps, forward and backward.

I eventually decided that the folks who rode in the rut were not confident of their ability to ask more of their horses or to change things if they did not get the result they expected. I always felt a little sad about the untapped potential of both rider and horse. Now, when I give lessons, I work to make sure students are comfortable asking what they want, when they want it, and insisting if it doesn’t happen.

After all, why waste a horse’s life on dullness when they can do so much more and are so much happier when they learn how?

Today I was doing a quiet turn on the forehand with Gunsmoke and remembering how hard that had been for him. He was a ranch horse, after all, and the closest he came to this was opening a gate. We would work on this and his lips would wriggle, his tail would switch and it was clear he was generally worried about what response he should offer.

But if I hadn’t ever asked him, he would never have gotten good at it… and that would be sad, because now he seems to enjoy doing it well and having it be part of his work. And for me, I enjoy it, because it makes a demand on me that I would otherwise miss.

Don’t get me wrong, we have days when we’re just riding circles or working on rate and we even sometimes ride the rail for a few laps. But we don’t live there.

Keeping Horses Safe

Horse ownership is a commitment that people should be discouraged from undertaking except when they have the persistence, passion and means to carry out that decision throughout the lifetime of the horse – which means for at least thirty years. There are so many ways to participate in the life of horses and the world of riding: lesson stables, part leases, full leases… you really don’t have to own a horse to enjoy them, and you can help stop the trajectory that leads horses to the auction floor and potential death.

If you are a horse owner, and even if you have made the “all-in commitment”, you need to make sure your horse is “safe” by ensuring it is and remains well trained, experienced with people and easy to handle. It needs to at least be safe and quiet at walk, trot and canter, to back up and stop easily,be able to be groomed, to have its feet handled and shod, to stand for the vet and his procedures and to be able to handle being ridden on trails. Horses with these qualities can almost always find someone to love them and care for them. But nearly feral horses with a history of bucking riders to the ground, horses with lousy ground manners or which can barely be mounted before running off are at risk if they ever have to enter the market.

If your horse has problems, find a compassionate trainer and spend the money and time to get that horse’s handling and capabilities up to at least the baseline the market will require. If something happens to you, that action will help make sure your horse can still have a future and the potential for a forever home.

In terms of health, every horse owner should have major medical insurance (this is part of having the “means”) – many horses end up having to find new careers as a result of injuries that owners couldn’t afford to treat. Insurance helps to avoid that risk and is one more thing that can save a horse from ending up on a sad trajectory. For the price of a month of board per year, you can be sure you can treat potentially career ending injuries with the certainty of being able to afford it. I use and recommend Markel, but there are many good companies that can help you and your horse.

There are also things you can do as a rider to help reduce your horse’s tendency to be spooky, worried, tense and to exhibit unwanted behaviors. Don’t set up conflicts with the aids. Don’t follow the very poor advice of “pushing the horse into the bit” to achieve collection – it doesn’t work that way and all you do is generate conflict behaviors, degrade the stop and degrade the horse’s willingness to go forward. Don’t be confusing, listen to your horse as it moves with you and beneath you, and be compassionate for its complex situation.

Think about your horse like a person – don’t anthropomorphize, but realize that like people, horses need to earn their living – and to do that, they need to be able to get and keep a job. It’s your responsibility to keep your horse employable, and if you are constantly working to perfect your horse’s thinking and behavior while also keeping them in good health and fitness, you have done what you need to do to keep your horse safe.

If everyone just does these basic things, the horses who get lost in the market and lose their lives as a result of degraded / non-existent training or poor care and fitness will be fewer and fewer. That’s true compassion, and it’s what our horses deserve.

Stillness Is Good

Horses often find doing nothing to be very challenging, and busy horse owners often fail to correct horses who move while being groomed, tacked, mounted or rested in the arena. Many trainers fail to include standing in the foundation training for horses, which leads to issues with being still anywhere. So it may fall to you to solve the problem. To do so, you need to rely on understanding the mind of the horse and the way in which they learn.

Horses are prey animals and they want to move when they want to move. That’s what keeps them safe. Constraints on movement for a horse, if not built on a solid foundation of self-control, are claustrophobic, making them feel the way you might feel in a deep, dark small cave. You need to understand that so you can be sympathetic.

The goal of stillness is to have the horse understand that it is rewarding to just stand. This doesn’t have to be too long a reach for them – they love to stand grazing or snoozing. But the self-control, self-carriage part of this lies in getting them to do it on demand for as long as you need.

Like everything else, stillness starts with a cue, but ultimately should be installed as a default behavior “If you are with me and I put you somewhere and don’t tell you anything else, just stand there”. But for a horse new to the behavior, this is some distance away.

Let’s start with standing in the aisle. This is a foundation for standing elsewhere. Ideally learning to stand in a familiar and somewhat constrained space with limited distraction is easier – so you have to pick a low volume time in your barn to work on this.

While somewhat tedious, the method is fairly straightforward. You need to approach it with focus, not casually, and dedicate about 10-15 mins a day in the early stages. Bring the horse into the aisle and position it. You will want to position it so that all four feet are making a “square” and so that the horse is not in a lean that suggests readiness to move. Say “Stand” in the tone of voice you will consistently use going forward (horses know sounds not words) – this is the cue. Normally, I recommend against reinforcing anything with treats, but used carefully, treats can help during the initial stages. For this, I recommend about five baby carrots in your pocket, easily accessible for rapid reinforcement of good behavior.

You need to set progressive goals for the length of standing and be realistic. A horse new to standing will move within seconds, and a five second length stand (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.) is a good starting goal for the first day. If the horse moves, correct it by putting it back in the desired position and stance with the lead rope and then start counting again. When the horse goes five seconds without correction, use the phrase “good horse”, scratch its shoulder and give it a carrot. Say “Stand”. Then start counting again.

It is all right for the horse to look around, but be careful not to let the head motion turn into moving its feet. If the horse leans in a particular direction it is signaling a desire to go in that direction and you will want to press it back into a balanced “stand”.

Each day do this, and as quickly as you can, lengthen the time – in the first few days, adding 3-5 seconds per day is reasonable, but there will be days with setbacks and there will be days with breakthroughs. When you get to a half minute or so, only intermittently give treats but consistently use scratching and “good horse” as a reward. Eventually phase out the treats.

If the horse becomes mouthy about treats, don’t hesitate to correct it.

Stillness at mounting is the same process. You need to realize in this case, you have been rewarding (or at least not correcting) walking off. You now need to change your approach. The horse must never walk off, and it must stand for progressively longer periods. Mount with the reins on the withers. As soon as you are in the stirrups do not move at all and keep your legs in a relaxed contact with the horse.As soon as you mount, if the horse moves you must instantly go to a moderately harsh contact UNTIL FORWARD MOVEMENT STOPS. Do not release the pressure until the horse stops or the horse will not learn. As soon as the forward movement stops (the moment it stops), release the contact to a loose rein. This is the reward. The horse will almost certainly move forward as soon as you do this, so you must again exert moderately harsh contact until the forward movement stops and then instantly release to loose rein. Once the horse is still for about three seconds, walk it off using your normal cue (typically tip forward and squeeze lightly with legs). After a short distance, stop the horse, by removing your legs. Use the reins if the horse does not stop from the leg release. Wait for three seconds and correct the horse if it attempts to move, using the same technique you used when mounting. Get a three second stand and get off the horse. This is the ultimate reward. Pet the horse and put it away for the day. You’ve made the first step.

Next day, do the same thing, but this time after the first stop ride on. At various times during the session, go for a three second stop. Each time you get one, about halfway through, say “good horse” and scratch the top of the shoulder (this timing is to avoid the horse thinking “good horse” means “go”).

Then as the days progress, lengthen the time spent stopped. When a horse can stand for a minute or so without correction, you are in a good place.

Horses who learn this often are worried when stopped and anticipate going, so you need to be crisp and consistent in your reinforcement and corrections. You need to be compassionate and not get frustrated. Most horses being trained in this have been doing the opposite for years and think that’s what people want. They are bothered and conflicted that what used to be OK is not any longer. You need to be patient and consistent, and eventually they will embrace doing nothing and put their heads down and yawn. You also need to stay focused and relaxed when teaching this so that the horse is instantly corrected. Don’t get on your cell phone when the horse is doing nothing. Pet the horse with a scratch instead and think how nice this quiet time is.

In the more advanced stages, I like to integrate standing as a reward between maneuvers. They enjoy that and start to anticipate resting when they’ve done something right. And you can appreciate it as giving you time to assess and think and plan what comes next.

Tell Me With Anticipation

I first learned the nature of the best horses from Tex. We were doing circles and as I came through the center of the arena, I felt his hip twitch, and as if he had spoken, it said to me “do you want to change leads here, Boss? I can do it if you do.” I didn’t take his offer that time, but I did the next time around – I wanted him to know I might or might not want to.

A year or two later, when that sensitivity and ability to learn had shaped my purchase of Lensman, I was working with him to fix his anxiety about lead changes and each time we would do one, I would trot him out afterward to help him understand to not rush off after changing. Then I found I created a “training shadow” on one part of the circle, where he would slow slightly, as if to say “I can drop to the trot here if you’d like, Boss.” I started to not always take the offer, and gradually it disappeared.

Lensman’s lead change anxiety itself was a great example of a fearful anticipation. Apparently his previous owner would spur him into the change and then yank on his face when he rushed through the change. When asked to change, he would go inverted, throwing up his head and tail in a frightened “U” shape. I had to simply ride him through the change again and again – and always be soft and leave the reins slack through the change. With all that, it still took almost a year to get rid of this negative anticipation.

As I went into training an off the track thoroughbred (OTTB), I saw more of this darker side to anticipation. She would throw up her head and prance, dangling her tongue from the side of her mouth. I realized that this was a behavior she had learned when being ponied to the starting gate and that the conflicts of inconsistent riding and lack of retraining had not only left this untouched but led her to anticipate a whole complex of stressful treatments of which this was the expression.

It’s in the nature of horse learning to be anticipatory.Once a horse learns a behavior past “basic attempt”, it will try that behavior repeatedly in the same context and even in inappropriate contexts until shaping by the trainer encourages connection of the response to specific aids and discourages connection to space and time. In cases like the OTTB mentioned above, it was necessary to remove a number of contextual cues (snaffle bit, riding at hard contact) and replace them with a different context (mullen bit, loose rein / touch contact and immediate release on stop) and do this long enough to ensure the extinction of the negative anticipation.

When this same horse started to walk more rapidly to the mounting block, her head low and eye soft, it was a sign that she anticipated something good would happen there – otherwise, why rush? There was nothing behind her to be afraid of and she was not worried.

When we first trotted, it was a disaster – her walk had become very good and and her head was down and she would lower her head further and yawn during rests. The anticipatory deranged headset was gone and her rhythm and straightness were good. But at the onset of the trot, her head flung up and twisted, she jigged crazily and with no consistent rate or rhythm. We trotted fifty feet like this and then dropped to the walk. Once again, an anticipatory landmine. In the style of a typical meltdown, this conflict shocked back through the quiet of her still shallow walk training and disrupted relaxation, rhythm and straightness at the walk through to the end of the session, even with no additional trot. It took a week to bring back the good walk and then be able to try the trot again. Gradually the trot improved and now it is just an inverted horse doing an OK trot – one of the best OK trots I’ve ever ridden because of how much underbrush had to be cleared away to make it possible.

I love horses that anticipate – they are vigorous learners who are willing to offer behaviors that may work when they are asked for things they don’t know. But this willingness also creates anticipation of negative consequences and conflict behaviors or other undesirable context sensitivities will arise unless properly dealt with.

Some rules can help:

  • Obviously, watch yourself for habits that can create inappropriate or negative anticipation- always doing lead changes in the same place, always stopping on the same trajectory, always changing gait at a particular place, frequently correcting even when the horse is performing correctly, punishing (rebuking or correcting beyond the 3 second effective window or the 10 second causal connection window).
  • Tend to not take up the offer of a maneuver during a regular session; only accept during training. In a regular session, do the opposite of what’s offered – turn left if the anticipation is to turn right, back up if the anticipation is to go forward.
  • Look for negative anticipation – locations or other context that make your horse feel a fear or conflict or elicit a negative behavior. Either remove the context to allow extinction of the behavior, overshadow the conflict with a variety of requests or ride the negative anticipation without reacting in the way the horse may expect in order to allow the anticipation to self-extinguish.

Horses are wonderful creatures but their minds work in ways that are like and yet unlike ours – and anticipation is a two edged sword in their cognition. Under saddle, they can only communicate with us by the shape of their form, the barely perceptible movements of major muscles and their head position. If we are not listening, anticipation can undermine training – so pay close attention to what your horse is telling you and know when to go along and when to go another way.

In The Snow, Wind and Rain

Before I brought my horses home, I would tell my boarding stable operator to blanket my horses when the highs for the day were 40 or less. I felt I was being compassionate. If I was chilled, they would be, right?

But after I brought them home, the next winter I was able to read them well enough to try them without blankets and look for behaviors (running, crabbiness and shivering) suggesting they were cold and feel reasonably confident of detecting it. Day after day I watched the temps slipping further and further below my old level and the horses were fine. They ate more (about 150%) and had occasional short bouts showing cold symptoms, and then their hair would catch up within a day or so.

One time I put a windbreaker sheet on my reining horse and found it disarranged in the morning – as I unfastened it he reached over and yanked it off. I tried to put one on our ex-ranch horse and he tore it off twice before I could fasten it. These were behaviors they had never performed before.

I kept waiting, but it wasn’t until -7 (F) that they showed cold behaviors. That was the low for the winter. so I was never able to find out if they would have adapted. But it’s possible.

As for the idea of wetness – yes, if it gets through the coat, they can get cold. But a normal coat can carry surprising snow load or a surprising exposure to rain before the liquid touches the skin. You can tell, because the snow doesn’t melt. Resistance to rain is harder to see, but is certainly improved by not bathing your horse – of course, brushing is important – and can be improved by feeding horses higher fat diets like rice bran that support the skin and hair oils they need to be water repellent.

Horses need shelter in some circumstances, ideally outside with at least some freedom of movement. Yet when they have this, they often seem to stand inexplicably out in rain and snow. Of course, the reason they do this is that the weather doesn’t bother them any more than it would bother us if we were dipped in water-resistant fleece. When it bothers them, they go in.

Never blanket? Well, probably not. If you don’t have shelter, you may sometimes need to windbreaker / rain blanket. Have shelter but you’re getting horizontal sleet in 30MPH winds for a day or two? Might want to bring horses in or blanket with the windbreaker / rain blanket. But while the extensive blanketing does not permanently reduce hair coat, it is true that exposed areas will grow more and longer hair than blanketed areas, so early blanketing can affect the possibility of the horse being unblanketed later in the winter.

Now, of course, I look back on my old blanketing guidelines and shake my head at how misguided I was. Horses weigh a thousand pounds or more. Their volume to surface area is so different from ours, that for them shedding heat is more problematic than retaining it. Their coats are like a windbreaker over fleece with a significant water resistance, and the ability to retain so much heat that the temperature at the surface is below freezing and a scant fraction of an inch below that is over 70 degrees, rising to the 90s of body temperature in an even shorter further distance. Horses can stand in the snow and be covered with the stuff and it’s not melting on their fur. That’s very alien to us… bareskinned monkey descendants from the tropics trying to live in difficult and cold places, trying to retain heat in our tiny bodies.

But do remember that you need restraint to give horses the chance to grow out their hair. Pre-winter weather fluctuations can lead to temperature drops that are too fast for their adaptation to keep up. But if you blanket at that time, you damage the opportunity for the weather to signal the horses’ follicles to grow more and better hair. The weather will rebound to average and the horses’ coat will catch up and they will be ready for the real cold to come.

Horses are not people and we do them a typical disservice by judging how they feel about cold through projecting how we feel about the temperature. Remember to think of horses as horses, watch, test and learn, don’t rush to action – and you can help them live as natural and right a life as possible – which will make their minds tough, happy and relaxed.

Who’s Confidence?

Riders often worry about why they are not confident in their riding. Sometimes confidence can be traced to a bad experience -falling off the horse, being kicked or bitten, having a horse rear up or behave in a frightening way.Other times, it’s not so specific, but may come from events elsewhere in their life becoming unstable, an awareness of the size and power of the horse, or even a sense that the person is just not fully in control – perhaps the end result of many little events rather than something large.

It’s natural to look to ourselves for the problem and the cure in this situation, but one perfectly valid cause lies in the horse itself.

Many of the horses I’ve had to train only poorly carry a single speed, or offer odd little behaviors to normal requests, such as a crow hop when asked to trot or canter. Others find a straight line – either a real one or a crisply executed circle – to be a big challenge. And there are innumerable horses who walk off upon being mounted, who stop reluctantly, who don’t want to turn or who turn the wrong direction.

Sometimes this is from the horse’s background – poor or incomplete training, an OTTB not transitioned to being a recreational horse, a green rider with a green horse, or even a boarding situation that generates tension and anxiety through poor ground handling, irregular or insufficient feedings / watering, or lack of social contact or turnout.

Less confident riders often do not directly confront this. They love their horse and they don’t want to look for faults or failures in their companion. But failing to see the horse for what it is in this situation leads to a spiral of increased lack of control, increased anxiety, and a further deterioration of the horse’s training.

I love my horses. They changed my life and I now have a ranch where I board horses, train horses and instruct students. But I also very carefully shape and keep my horses sharp. I don’t hesitate to correct my horses when they aren’t living up to their best behavior. This means I can put riders who are not confident on these horses and they can help that rider become more confident because the horse will be quiet, predictable, obedient, rhythmic and straight, These are the characteristics every rider should insist on from their horse, and that are especially critical for the less confident rider.

Making your horse into a companion who can give confidence rather than take it away starts from the moment you pick them up in the paddock or stall and doesn’t end until they are fully released back to horsey business. There’s no room for “just chatting” or or other distractions until and unless your horse is very well behaved and self-carries all those good behaviors with only the most minor of corrections; and even then, making any distraction a high priority in the aisle or on horseback is not a good idea.

So, to be a more confident rider, you need to start to take charge of your experience and your horse from the moment you get out of your car, putting yourself in the mindset of what behavior you expect, what you will reward and what you will correct. If you don’t know these things, it will be harder for you when you reach your horse, because there will be so much to think about and react to.

When you pick up your horse, assess its mental state. Is it relaxed, head low, walking rhythmically and easily, or is it tense, head held high, eyes a bit wide – or somewhere in between? If your horse is relaxed, your focus will be on sustaining that state throughout the session (and if your horse is relaxed in your session, you’ll be relaxed, too).If your horse is tense, your focus will be on relaxing the horse. This doesn’t mean treats. It means a gentle stroking touch, staying away from the horse’s face with your hands, brushing their coat more softly, maybe even working on cueing the horse to lower its head (a position that generates its own relaxation for the horse).

Do not tolerate the horse barging past you in or out of the stall or paddock. Don’t slap him or get angry, just make him do it again, step by step, stopping him frequently.  If you don’t feel you have that level of control, work on this with your horse every day until you do. You can even do this instead of riding. It’s that important. Few things are more damaging to your confidence than nearly being run over by your horse before you even start riding.

When you walk with your horse, expect the horse to walk to one side of you, at your pace and no faster – and consciously make your own pace slower than your normal “out in the world” pace. If the horse speeds up or slows down, correct with pressure from the lead rope.

Don’t give in to the belief that nose chains or mouth chains are going to solve problems with this behavior. Additional pain NEVER makes a horse more relaxed and comfortable, which means that, at best, it just stores up tension for a later release. The horse needs to want to walk with you and to match your pace, and it will if you correct it gently and whenever it’s not with your speed and direction. If the horse rushes, stop and back it up with your body language. If it doesn’t back up from that, gradually increase pressure on the lead rope. NEVER release pressure once you start to use it until the horse does what you want or you will teach it to ignore your pressures. This means being ready to stand there exerting pressure forever if you need to (it’s never forever, though it can be a long time).

If the horse balks and won’t lead forward, increase the tension on the lead rope. Hold the tension until the horse takes one step forward. If the horse is balking and you are holding the pressure, there will be a moment just before they give in where they feel like they are pulling back harder and harder – don’t be deceived, the horse is about to give in. Release pressure as soon as they do. In the worst case, pull the tension to one side and as soon as you get one step (this unbalances the horse and they almost always step forward from it), release the pressure for a moment and then walk forward again.

Don’t be distracted in the aisle. I’ve seen people with a horse beside them, having a conversation with someone and the horse is pushing or pulling at them, and they are not noticing or correcting this disorganized and uncontrolled behavior. I’ve even asked them about this and they are often surprised, taking this poorly trained behavior for granted as normal.

As you tack up your horse, relaxed or tense, consciously slow your movements. Not only is this good for you, but it is less worrisome for the horse. Brush softly, pick up feet slowly and lightly. If the horse wanders forward, backward or to the side, correct this with lead rope or hand pressures.

Also, please don’t “reward” your horse by slapping on its neck. Lots of people do this, and I’ve never understood it. No human takes it as affection to be slapped on the neck and horses don’t either. Stroke them softly or scratch their shoulder where the shoulder and neck join (shown by experiment to actually reduce horse heart rates) and you will keep your horse relaxed.

The reason I harp on all this is that everything in your session is driven by how well this goes. If your horse is relaxed and obedient here, it will be more relaxed and obedient in the arena. If your horse is tense and disorganized here, that will not likely improve later.

As you tack up, look to see if your tack or the tacking up process makes the horse more tense. Does cinching make your horse grind its teeth? Does it avoid taking the bit with a high head? Go slower, go evenly, don’t pull hard, pull softly, ask the horse to take the bit. If the horse pulls its head up, work with halter and lead rope to get him to put his head down. Think about your bit. Even a snaffle is a hard bit. A tom thumb is potentially very painful. Twisted wire, gag, correction, spoon and double bits are just torture devices and never help a horse relax and enjoy their work, nor does the pain and discomfort they create make the horse behave better. Nosebands, chains, headbands, jaw straps, tie downs and martingales are all just uncomfortable, tension producing devices and actually do nothing to improve the horse’s performance that you can’t get from a better training approach. Get simple. For direct reined / English horses, a mullen mouth bit is the softest and most stable bit., I have eliminated head tossing and anxious behavior in several horses by transitioning them to this bit, because it just sits there and doesn’t move unless I move it. For Western horses, a mild ported grazing bit with a fairly thick mouthpiece, shanks no longer than three inches and a leather curb strap on its loosest setting is the best. And a single strap bridle with an ear loop is easy and fast to get on, facilitating the process of bridling and helping the horse want to take the bit.

All tacked up? Walking into the arena is just like walking anywhere else, so don’t let the horse do anything you wouldn’t let them do in the aisle.

Many less confident riders believe that they need to lunge their horse before riding to “blow off steam”. This is a sign that this horse is not disciplined, but it does not ever make the horse more disciplined. Avoid doing this. You can’t reinforce control or correct poor behavior from fifteen feet away. You need to be next to or on the horse. And teaching the horse to gallop around on the lunge line like a crazy thing just degrades its training and self-control, which will make you less confident. Work on the lead rope with go forward, back up, move hips, move shoulders and sidepass in preference to lunging.

When you mount up, you need to expect that the horse is not going anywhere. Misbehavior here does more than anything else to damage your confidence. But if you’ve been letting this happen, you will have to reinforce the horse not moving again and again by using the reins to stop the horse the moment it tries to move. It will probably push this way or that rather than stop at first. Just hold your ground, increase the pressure and then release the moment the horse stops moving. Be ready to reinforce the stop again because horses with this habit are sure (because you’ve told them so) that you want them to just walk off. Get obedience on this as quickly as possible, even if it means mounting, getting the horse to stop, dismounting and starting over again.

Faults on your part that contribute to the horse walking off include too much leg pressure and leaning forward. You want the horse to stand even when you fidget or adjust position, but it won’t at first. At first, you have to just sit still and try to lengthen the time after mounting where the horse stands. Target at least 30 seconds.

This is good for you also, because it gives you a chance to organize body, reins and thoughts.

Don’t warm up by mindlessly walking the rail. You and your horse need to be active and use this period to actively build your confidence that your horse is responsive and will do as you ask when you ask for it.

As soon as you start to ride, you need to work on obedience. Stop, start, turn – NOW, not later. One stride after asking, the horse should be doing what you want. Think of “ask”, “tell” and “command” (thanks, Julie Goodnight) as levels of pressure you use for each request. At each level, if the horse does not obey, go to the next level and increase (and hold) the pressure until the horse complies. Releasing the pressure without obedience teaches the horse to ignore your “ask”. Using “tell” pressures when “ask” doesn’t work helps the horse understand that obeying at “ask” is a good idea, and increases its confidence in your consistency.

Next is rhythm, which is to say that the horse maintains a consistent speed in each gait. You need to be sensitive to speeding up and slowing down. If you pay close attention, you can sense when the horse is about  to speed up or slow down and have extra rein or leg pressure ready to correct. To do this right you have to pick a “default speed” you want for each gait and correct the horse when it violates that rule by using the lightest pressure that works. The instability of speed does a lot to decrease a rider’s confidence at a subliminal level. The horse just feels unreliable, somehow. Fix this and you fix a lot of what worries you. Work at the walk and get this right before going to the trot, and get it right at the trot before going to the canter.

Most important in your session is straightness. It’s a good idea to make straightness the core of your warm up because it lets you reinforce obedience and rhythm as well as the straightness itself.


A horse who is straight will have full control over its legs and will self-carry a straight line or an even circle without correction and with very light aids. Pick a beam in your arena and ride a straight line from that beam to its counterpart at the other side of the arena. When the horse starts to swerve or bulge or otherwise deviate from the line, correct course, ideally with seat or legs, but with reins if needed. Serpentines are another great exercise, because the horse has to come back to the straight line after a nice, even half circle. And of course, a horse can be “straight” on a circle by simply doing an even circle in response to even pressure.


Straightness is based on training and many horses are not straight. I have spent entire sessions on straight lines and serpentines just to build straightness and left feeling happy with the improvement. What this does is to give you confidence in your horse and in your control over your horse.

When a horse does what you ask within one stride of the request, maintains an even speed at every gait, and does nice straight lines and clean even curves, this is a horse that will inspire confidence in the arena. Even more, the horse itself will have more self-confidence and self-control and this will make the horse more relaxed – which will make you more relaxed and confident.

Master each of these things at each gait before going to the next higher gait, because each gait builds on the success of the gait below it. During your sessions, stop frequently and stop long – in fact, stop like this after every major maneuver – a straight line, a set of serpentines, a few circles. Stroke and pet your horse as a reward, don’t slap him.

There are many more things you can do to build on this foundation, but whether your horse is a trail horse, a reiner, a jumper or dressage horse, your horse cannot help you be comfortable or confident if this foundation is cracked.

Being done with riding is when you consolidate all these gains by creating a comfortable, attentive closure for the horse and its work. A horse who had a good session and is in a good frame of mind will often yawn as you untack it, stand with its head relaxed, and have a soft eye. Gently removing the tack, moving slowly, grooming with a soft brush and paying the most slow and careful attention when working near the horse’s head is how both of you can unwind together.Then, walk back with the same requirements you had walking in – slow pace, no rushing or slowing (e.g. good rhythm) and a willingness to go where you lead. Don’t just take the halter off. Walk the horse into the stall or paddock, position them, wait a moment, ask them to bring down their head with lead rope pressure and then slowly remove the halter. If you haven’t been doing this, you may find they rip their head out of the halter without waiting or “go giraffe” on you. Try to stop removing the halter when they start that motion and bring their head down and wait for them to stabilize before trying again.

Then walk away slowly, thinking about your session and all the things you did to help your horse be better and how well you did and what you want to improve next time.

If you want more information on how to be a more confident rider, visit

The Contract of Trust

“Trust” is a term often used in Natural Horsemanship, and is used to describe a relationship between a handler, rider or trainer and a horse. I worry a little about thinking about trust as if it were a contract between a person and a horse. I find it more helpful to think of it as a contract between an environment or a context and a horse.

If we think about trust as being entirely wrapped up in a relationship between a person and a horse, we have some problems with explaining situations where the handler / rider / trainer have always had positive outcomes but the horse is still wary, anxious or spooky.

I don’t think we’re even clear yet on whether or not horses realize that the person on the ground is the same as whatever produces the sensations they feel from the saddle. In addition, there are horses who appear to be willing to do things that a trainer asks them to do in a particular environment (e.g. the indoor arena) but not in another (the outdoor arena) – this is the “proof” stage of McLean’s scale of learning. And when a trainer approaches a horse they’ve never worked with who is anxious, the anxiety is projected onto the trainer despite a lack of experience with each other. You could argue they have no trust account, but equally you could argue that the horse doesn’t trust the environment of which the trainer is a feature.

The horse probably draws its assessment of safety and trust from many features of the environment. Do they more or less have the food they need when they need it, the water they need when they need it… are the features of the environment consistent in presence and behavior and do they react consistently to the behavior of the horse?

As the answers to more of these things are “no”, the more unsettled, irritable and anxious the horse is likely to be. This spills over into handling, riding and training – and definitely affects the readiness of the horse to learn. These  behaviors, though not in any way related to a specific person, can feel like an absence of trust between horse and human.

But trust is complex, high level concept if placed between rider and horse. Can horses even conceive of trust? Their own emotions appear to be mercurial and can segue rapidly from peacefully eating near each other to ear pinning, chasing and kick threats. In horse herds, members over time settle for mostly giving and receiving subtle body language but there still can be outbreaks of irritability that can escalate into unexpected antagonistic behavior. These sources of unpredictability suggest that horses do not look to create trust – as we know it – within their own social structure, much less with humanoid aliens like ourselves. But they do bond with certain other horses, even if not always treated well or consistently by them. And they may bond with us, but the complexity of what “bonding” means in this context, how it forms, and whether certain actions by the horse are indicative of a bond – these are all very hard to be sure of. The same is true of trust. So we need to be careful when we use these potentially anthropomorphic words.

And this is why it’s not enough to say “my horse trusts me, I’m doing a good job with our emotional bank account”  or “my horse is anxious, and doesn’t trust me enough – what can I do or what am I doing wrong?” – though that’s a good place to start and one we can control.

Sure, riders and trainers have a role in creating a consistent environment and thus can increase or decrease the horse’s level of anxiety. But they cannot ever be totally responsible for it, without owning every other factor in that environment. Barn owners, facilities, the equine social environment, feeding patterns, freedom of choice – all of these contribute to the end result – how secure a horse feels in its life and its work.