Category Archives: general training & care

Doc Answers Questions about Issues when Bridling a Horse

“Bridling a Horse: It’s a Relationship Thing”

This student has generously given her permission to share her story of challenges and triumphs she is experiencing with her horse in hopes that it might benefit other people and their horses.

A bit of background:

Heather is one of our many very committed students and is incredibly dedicated to her horse and to using gentle/natural horsemanship techniques with her. It is very common for us to work with people who want alternatives to using force, pain, and physical punishment when working with their horses. These people seek our advice because they do not yet have enough effective and gentle “tools” to achieve their goals and deal with the many levels of challenges horses can and do present us with. Our student’s horse came to her owner with a long-standing issue with difficult bridling. Lucy is a wonderful horse, very gentle, generally a willing and cooperative mare; and has the dominance qualities of a lead mare. The mare has been responsive to the new techniques her owner is using, and has responded extremely well to the techniques of natural horsemanship compared to the more conventional style of harsher training from the horse’ past.

The text that follows is our students’ questions and concerns, Doc’s responses, and the students’ response to Doc’s statements.

Hi Doc and Cathy,
I was hoping that you could help me with a problem I am having with Lucy. A horse-friend of mine has a great horse facility in this area, and lately he has invited me there to attend a monthly training session with a local trainer. She does English, Dressage, Western, and driving. He even trailers Lucy there and back. We have gone 3 times. I figure just trailering her anywhere is great for her, no matter the reason. She is still trailering pretty well I think. Anyway, I think these sessions have been generally beneficial to Lucy & I. Last Sunday, I asked for help with 2 basic problems that Lucy came to me with, bridling (you knew that one) and mounting. We really made great progress actually. We made progress on Sunday, and I have been able to repeat our success several times since then (success on every attempt). I have also seen Lucy every day since then. We had an absolutely awesome time together last night. She bridled perfectly, walked and stopped perfect when led, and mounted perfectly. I was on a cloud all day today because of it. Then tonight I went out to see her, just clean her stall & bridle her again, just because I thought that was a good idea. I expected success, we both seemed just the same as we were last night, she had finished her dinner just like last night, and for some reason it went terribly. I tried to bridle her for 45 minutes tonight, without success. I did exactly the same things that the trainer had shown me, which had worked perfectly at least 4 sessions in a row. I just don’t understand. I am so sad, upset, confused, and tired right now. I’m afraid it is going to be as bad or worse next time because we didn’t even get the bridle on tonight. Do you have any advice at all for me?

Doc working with Lucy

Hi Heather,

Horses are our ultimate teachers, they make us soar and they humble us, teach us patience and persistence and constancy and the value of repetition and baby steps.

Hi Doug, Thank you for taking the time to send me your thoughtful reply today.

– Yes, they are the ultimate teachers… I am trying to do better with the consistency and the baby steps, I guess I’ll always be working on those things.

Most of all they teach us that relationship is about visualizing the best and accepting best efforts and best responses – no regrets, no judgments, no guilt, no shame, no blame.

– At least I had part of that right; I did visualize “the best”. … I know, there is no right…

Several times in your letter you mention variations of the words “success” “progress” and “perfectly”.You also mention the word “problems” and the phrase “…went terribly”.

– I knew that you would say something about that, too, but I didn’t know how else to say that everything had gone so well, and then so not-well.

As long as you give Lucy (or anyone else) the power to cause you to be “sad, upset, and confused” you will bounce between euphoria when you get what you want and sad, upset, and confused when she gets what she wants.

When we do this we set things up as a competition and in competitions someone wins and someone loses.

– It made me smile when you said that it is basically a bad idea to let anyone “make you feel happy, sad, or upset”. The funny thing is that I TOTALLY know that, I never let human people affect me that way, I just never thought of applying my thinking about this to animal people. Maybe that is why my sadness and upsetness (sic) was so profound, I’m just not accustomed to being affected like this, I have no practice (thank goodness). You also said that when I did this with Lucy, I set us up for being in competition. I know it is a very bad idea to be in competition with Lucy, there is no way I could ever win, and I do not want to go there!

Rather than spend 45 minutes trying to get her to do anything that is not working, evaluate in the first 10 to 30 seconds if she is resistant or receptive to what you are starting to ask for (accepting the bridle). If she is receptive proceed in baby steps and pause often to reward her cooperation.

– I knew I was in a death-spiral, but after I had missed that 10 – 30 second clue that this wasn’t going to work, I didn’t know I could stop asking her to accept that bridle. I wish I had figured that out then…

***If she is resistant: FIRST create a consequence for resisting and then SECOND immediately ask for (and reward when you get them) a series of other things you are pretty sure she will willingly let you do (back up, pick up a foot, disengage (move) her rear end to the side, disengage her front end to the side, put her head down, flex her head and nose to her side, etc.)

– O.K. – that gives me a game plan that was what I was missing (or at least an important thing that I was missing). That looks like a good plan. Even after last night’s “whatever-it-was”, there were still things she would still do willingly for me, and I will assume that she will still be willing to do some things with me today. Thank you, I felt lost, not having any idea where to go next.
I still can’t stop myself from wondering, though, how long it will be before she will accept the bridle after what I did last night, if I were her, I don’t know why I would ever accept it. I might not be able to ride her for months that would be sad. I will do what you suggested, and I’ll keep you posted.

Better yet test her out on a bunch of these things each time BEFORE you try to bridle her. If she won’t cooperate and do these small, easy things for you the chance of her accepting the bridle is low. Build a pattern of successful requests and responses before you ask for her to accept the bridle. However, if you meet inattentiveness, resistance, or refusal at any time you must create a soft, appropriate consequence or she will take advantage of the situation and increase her inborn tendency to have her own way – this is just a natural part of being a horse. Anna Twinney, an amazing horsewoman, explains it best, “If there is a leadership void somebody must fill it; the horse will if the human doesn’t.”

– Thank you. I need to remember this. Do you have a suggestion as to a appropriate consequence? I have one idea, but I’d guess that you have a better one. I am so happy that you got to meet her, so you have her & I in your mind as you think about this. I think I should be paying you for this much of your time.

How long did you work with her putting her head down for you before you went and got the bridle?

– I did almost not at all. She had been accepting the bridle with my barely doing it for maybe 2 times previous.

The mere sight of the bridle is a concern to a horse that has issues with it. We can’t expect to hide it from them but if we get cooperation on some other exercises and get them relaxed and comfortable and cooperative first we sometimes have a better chance with the thing that concerns them.

– I watch for her reactions when she sees brushes, saddle/blanket, harness, halter, & bridle. She has a reaction to all of these, but only an acknowledgement that she sees them, not an upset or uncomfortable reaction. She doesn’t even react if I place the bridle along the front of her face. If I get a reaction, it isn’t until the bit touches her lips, and then she first wiggles her lips to keep the bit out, then throws her head if I persist.

I’m working with  mare here at the ranch on bridling issues and some days we never get to the bridle because she does not become completely comfortable and cooperative with the preliminary test things I ask of her – so we work on them that day.

– That is good to know.

If you approach next time with the fear of failure you are expressing you will be going backward and doing her a great disservice. You did not fail, she did not fail, she did not win, you did not win. There is no win or lose, there are no problems when playing/working with horses only learning and relationship building OPPORTUNITIES.

The goals of gentle/natural horsemanship are – 100% trust, 100% respect, and 0% fear.This goes for the horse and human alike as far as I’m concerned. You cannot fail with her, give up your goal, success, and judgment based thinking, beliefs, and fears; have fun and learn with and from your time with this horse. You trust her and she trusts you. Work on her respecting you. Eliminate your fears and concerns (completely and at all times) and hers will evaporate.

Become emotionally neutral when with her – there is/are no right or wrong, good or bad, problems or perfection – everything just is and we accept it and move either forward or backward which doesn’t matter because there is no forward or backward either. We just move on to whatever we think of to move on to.

– So much Zen… It is so weird. I don’t know why this work/play/learning with Lucy affects me so strongly, I am NOT normally like this. I am reading your words and thinking about them and crying for some reason and I don’t even know why. Weird.

You are doing just fine, relax, breathe, and smile – especially when she won’t accept the bridle.

– … And laughing now, too….

Thank you for seeking help. Let me know your thoughts about this please.

– I profoundly thank you for your help. I added my responses and emphases’ to your words above.

I appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to spend time with you and Lucy, and enjoy sharing things I hope are of value to both of you.


– I am grateful, and you know I think these thoughts of yours are valuable.

– Heather

Heather, in the photo above, observes Doc working with Lucy

Dear Doc,

I have been thinking about all of this “Lucy & I” stuff non-stop. I’m sure something must be gelling in my sub-conscious; we’ll see how long it takes to make it into my unconscious mind.
I just wanted to give you an update. I went out to see Lucy after work today, with Aaron for moral support. Lucy & I worked on leading & stopping (she has been doing willingly, something we have developed lately), then I decided to try the bridle. I took baby steps again, lowering her head, touching her lips, putting my thumb in her mouth, putting the bridle up to her face, no resistance. She gave me a small clue that there might or might not be resistance to bridling when we got to that, so I decided to see if she would let me. I went back to the way I held the bridle before, which was easier for me (I’m not so coordinated sometimes, so making this easier for me was a good idea). She gave me just a touch of attitude, just on principal, but she allowed me to bridle her. So, I took a breath, petted her, and then just led her to where I tie her. I picked her hooves, then unbridled her and put her back in her stall, where she likes to be. I feel much better now, I was worried about how long that would take after my “whatever it was” the other night.

Thank you for your help, patience, & support.


Teachable Moments with Horses

Recently I was watching as Doc worked Kate, one of our Suffolk mares. As he helped her through an anxious moment, I was struck by how easily Doc was able to help her through this time of concern, and actually use it to help build Kate’s confidence. How often do we miss these opportunities with our horses? I thought I would share what I observed here on
Doc’s Blog.
While ground driving, Doc noticed that Katey reacted fearfully in a familiar area. She had been through the area many times in the past, however, Doc knew she had not seen or been in the area covered with snow, and she had never seen the newly installed snow-covered sign at the side of the gate. Kate’s fearful reaction to this sign told Doc what he and Kate needed to focus on in that moment.

This photo shows Doc encouraging Kate to examine the sign. He gave her the consideration to gather her own information about this sign. Doc lets her see and smell the object that caused her to worry. Rather than force her to approach the object or ignore her concerns (which could create more fear or greater concern for the horse), Doc allowed Kate the choice to check it out, take a closer look and gain understanding.

Giving our horses the opportunity to check out a worrisome object, helps their understanding that this thing need not be feared, therefore building the horse’s confidence and trust.

Communicating with horses

From Cathi

Hello Doc…

Just thought I would write to you about a little work I have been doing lately with my Welsh pony JayJay. I recently brought him home; he had been away for a few years, and as it turns out the last two he spent languishing in a pasture with his older equine companion and a goat. He is “Mr. Personality”, a beautiful dark bay, 13.2HH, driving pony. In harness and cart I’ve thought of him as my sports car; he is quick, agile and flashy. He had very little contact with people for the last two years, was down on his weight, had forgotten his ground manners, and was very much in need of some attention and ‘tune-up’ time.

I feed him grain and hay in a large feeder that is placed about 10 feet inside an open ended run-in shelter inside his paddock. He is very interested in that grain, and the good hay he is now getting. So interested that he charged in on me to get at the feed. He saw me as merely part of the food delivery system, showing no respect for me or my space; he just wanted his food. This sort of behavior was unnerving to me, and felt dangerous and unnecessary. I decided that it was important to start working on boundaries with him at feeding time.

On the first day of boundary training, I walked into the shelter, carrying the grain canister in one hand and my 4 foot long, 1 inch diameter stick in the other. JayJay rushed along behind me and crashed ahead of me to the feeder. I set the feed canister on a high shelf and turned, facing the pony directly. Coincidentally, there is a railroad tie on the ground across the opening of the run-in shelter. I decided that rail road tie was the ‘boundary’; It helped me as much as it did him to have a very real physical boundary to work with. My intention that morning was to drive him back behind the boundary and wait until I gave him a signal to come in and eat.

This took some doing, as he was used to getting the food right away; not getting it made him even more focused and somewhat anxious about getting to that food. I got his attention with my voice and used body language to drive him off. Not being completely successful with the body language, I also used ‘eyes on eyes’ to reinforce that I wanted him to go away from the feeder. Once he was on the other side of the boundary, I used the stick as an extension of my hand and arm (not touching him with it) to keep him back.

This exercise was awkward and probably confusing to him, still, I persevered in holding him back. He was so persistent to get to that feeder, me just as persistent to keep him behind that boundary, using all the body language, eyes on eyes, and arm and stick waving and loud a voice as I could muster at that early hour of the morning. Finally, I saw my opportunity to reward a behavior; his feet stopped, his head went down, he licked and chewed-showing me his submission. Whew! I said, “O K”, to him, grabbed the canister, dumped the grain into the feeder, and let him walk in quietly to eat. I scratched him on his rump and left him with a verbal “Good Boy!”

Each feeding since, I’ve asked for quiet feet and quiet signs of submission from him, before dumping the food and giving him permission to enter the area and eat. One day I was on the phone to you, Doc, while going through this procedure, giving the “O. K.” after JayJay lowered his head, licking and chewing. I said to you then, Doc, “I feel like he isn’t telling the truth, that he is going through the motions, but only to get that grain, not truly giving in.”

You suggested that it was time to bump up my request from him. At his next feeding time, I waited until his feet were quiet. He put his head down, licked and chewed, but I didn’t give him the verbal approval he expected, he tried to move over the boundary. I had to use body language again to keep him behind the boundary. He again quieted his feet, look at me, and then put his head down licking and chewing. I knew that he was getting frustrated; this exact behavior had been rewarded before. I thought to myself, “What am I looking for, and how am I going to let him know what it is? And there it was, the behavior I was looking for! His feet and body had become quiet; he looked at me, and randomly and quietly turned his head away and he looked over at the neighbors’ horses. I gave him the verbal cue, “O K” and dumped the feed into the feeder. He quietly walked in to the feed area and began eating. I’m thinking, “Hmmmm, this is working, we are shaping this pony’s behavior.”

He and I have worked this way now for about a month. Some days, he walks with me to the barrier, stands and waits, looks at me, looks away (as if casually looking over the landscape). I say “O.K.” and he gets his food. Other days he doesn’t show up right away. I now wait t see him, dump his feed and wait for him to come to the barrier and stop. I now say, “Woah!” as he gets to the barrier. He stops, looks at me, calmly looks away, and I give him the “O.K.” signal. JayJay is such a good student. This training is fun and thrilling for me.

Doc, I am so delighted with how this has worked. It feels good! It feels good because this relationship is based on clear communication, trust, and respect; it also feels good because I have a gentle and kind working relationship with this pony. There is a deeper reason for this to feel good.

Have I ever told you about my communication resolution? Several years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I was in my barn feeding the Fjords their Holiday evening meal. I was touched and moved by their gentle spirits and felt fortunate to be in their presence and spent quite a bit of time that evening observing them eating and enjoying the sound of their munching.

I could see that they communicated information to each other, moving one another over, away from the food, inviting one to come in closer. Was it a look, a tail swish, what? The communication was so subtle, I saw it all, but I didn’t know what each movement meant. Another big question for me was what was I missing that these equine were communicating to me? The understanding was not intuitive for me and seemed both mysterious and sophisticated at the same time. How did they share information with each other without speaking! I realized how fascinating this was to me, and I made a New Year’s resolution to seek understanding of equine communication. I have since followed a path that has given me wonderful communication opportunities for a higher connection with these equine I am privileged enough to spend time with daily. This is just the beginning! I am excited and imagining the opportunities, they are the previews to coming attractions. Thank you for your help and guidance. This has such meaning for me.

JayJay and I are interacting gently and quietly, and we are both getting what we need. Doc, You tell me that this ground work all transfers to working with horses in harness and under saddle, wow…I get energized at the possibilities! Do you know I think this sort of communication transfers to human relationships too?

Paige takes a big stride forward

From Steve Wood:
A wonderful chapter has opened in Paige’s driving career this week. She has become comfortable with a vehicle behind her, as well as a human or two being in the vehicle. She has been hooked to this vehicle as well as the single two wheeled cart, but has never been comfortable in the past. This is rather an involved story, but it is a great one!

Last week, after returning from the Natural Gait, I noticed Paige and Val (our most talented helper horse), looking for each other and occasionally calling to each other. Both Val and Paige made the trip to The Natural Gait, but did not work together while there. They also traveled in separate trailers. The closest they got was being paddocked in adjacent paddocks. These paddocks are about 15 feet apart. Somehow they got to talking to each other.

So, on Monday evening this week, I decided to try to put them together in a large paddock overnight. They calmly said hello, went to separate piles of hay, and began to eat. I watched a while a went to the house. About 1:30 in the morning a loud horse argument was in progress, so I got out of bed and headed out to investigate. When I got to the paddock, the two horses were standing very close to each other, and both were resting a hind leg. When I went into the pen, Paige got very vocal as I approached Val. A very Low voice, but very intense. Val had no marks but, Paige had two significant marks. One from a set of teeth, and one from a glancing hoof. She let me investigate them, but swished her tail at me as I got my hands close to them. They were sore. I watched the two of them for about an hour, and twice during that time, I began to catch Val to move her out to another, adjacent paddock. Paige nearly put herself in between Val and me, and talked in that low voice. (Very interesting,She controls from a subordinate position in the herd). Finally I added a bit more hay, the first piles were not completed, and went back to bed.

Tuesday morning, when I pulled Val out to go into her day stall, Paige and Val both began calling and looking for the other. They called and fidgeted for 2 hours, ignoring hay!! Finally, I harnessed Val and brought her to the barn where Paige was still calling every 30 seconds, and both went silent. Next we harnessed Paige in a farm harness. She has not worn a farm harness in over two months. I put them together and they walked out of the barn as calm and quiet as any old team would. Once outside we hooked to a team stone boat and they drove around for about an hour with calm, steady steps, quiet stands, and just plain a sense of calm all the while. For Paige, that is way longer than in the past.

Tuesday night they paddocked together, and Wednesday’s driving was a monumental day!
We harnessed in farm harness, and walked out to the waiting Fore-cart. We had Paige step over the tongue, and she stepped over like an old pro! We stood still, and then walked away calmly when I asked for them to walk. This weird sense of calm is still here, so I just stepped them over the tongue again, and they stood perfectly still for lifting the tongue, and then hitching to the eveners. I stepped up into the seat and wiggled it around a bit. I asked the team to walk and they stepped out together, and walked around the woods for about an hour. What a joy! When I returned to the barn, a loaded spreader caught my eye. We stopped, backed up to the spreader, stood still, hooked onto the spreader, and walked off calmly when asked. Can you believe it???

We walked out to an unused pasture, and stopped to put the spreader in gear. Still calm. When I asked them to step forward, Paige was bit quicker than Val, and kept leaning on the collar until Val joined in. That is Big Time Comfortable Horse behavior!!! As we unloaded I just could not contain Myself, and I called Karen while we walked calmly down the pasture.
We finished the load, I disengaged the spreader, and then continued to talk to Karen as we oh so calmly walked back to the barn through the woods. There was no one to take a picture.

Today we had Cathy home to get photos, so we did it all again. What a day! Thank you all for your part in this story. Team Paige has many members who helped us find a few of the pieces to this 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Come out for a wagon ride someday in the near future and see your project in action.

(You can read more about Paige here.)

Spring:Time to ease into work

From Theresa Burns:
This past weekend the weather was great for getting some manure hauled with the horses. Harley used his veteran team Tom and Charlie with one load on Wednesday and with two loads on Thursday.

I was there to help him on Friday. We took one load out and it is about a mile to the field and the road has a couple of hills on it. Harley asked the horses to stop on the crest of a hill on a flat spot so the horses would not need to hold the load.
They stood quietly and we could see that the respiration rates of the horses was quick and shallow. To see respiration watch in the flank area and you can see the in and out of the flank as the horse breathes. Not sure how long we stood there, but waited until the respiration rate slowed. We rested the horses again once we were in the field as we had some grades to pull up and down and we had full load of manure.

Once we got back to the barn and parked the spreader, we unhooked the horses and tied them to a post while we loaded the second load of manure. It is a tight area and thought it would be safer to not have the horses so close to the skid steer. Before we took this load out we offered the horses some water. They drank. Harley asked about them drinking water with the bit in their mouths. Horses will figure that out and it is better to offer water than to skip it.
So Saturday we went for a six mile tour with Harley’s Prairie Schooner along the Raccoon River Valley. The wagon weighs about 1600 pounds with us it using the same pair. I was in charge of applying the brake on the downgrades to make it easier for the horses. Here again we would stop after the horses had climbed a hill to let them breath. I could apply the brake so parking on the level was not as critical.

Tom is the more aggressive puller of the two horses and he seemed a bit upset with some of the noises of the wagon or brake and external noises. We need to work on some of that desensitization and refer back to Walt’s blog entry on January 12 about noises.

As we headed back to the farm, we had a very long grade. The question was do we let them rest half way up and will they be able to start the wagon again or do we wait until we have arrived at the top of the grade. We thought it would be safer and easier for them to continue to the top.

All the decisions that we make as we work horses depends on their attitude at that time and if they are acting normally and not over tired or stressed. The more you drive horses the more you know them. With ay to day work you get a good sense of what that horse can handle, because of how he handled previous work. But if you have not done the day to day progress then you should be more conservative. I would rather say at the end of the day that the horses did their work well than have to say I have pushed them too hard today.

For me each outing with the horses is an experience to learn from as you are always making decisions and always need to be paying attention and driving the horses. Driving in that you have rein contact and they know you are the leader. It is your responsibility to be aware of their physical and mental boundaries for that day and to build on those and improve.

It was a beautiful tour to see the trees and the forest floor and to see the river valley. Once we arrived back at the barn and unharnessed, we loaded both of the horses in the trailer and fed them hay. They need to get accustomed to the new trailer and the loading and unloading process. You can do that in small steps weeks before you want to haul them which will make the trailering a good experience for them.
What always assures me that the horses took the day okay is the fact that they are hungry and ate the hay aggressively at the barn. The more you work with them the more you know what is normal and what is not normal.

With the way Tom was acting on Saturday, Harley thought it would be a good idea to drive on Sunday also. We took a shorter ride that was less challenging. Tom seemed more settled and it was more relaxing for him. Harley and I talked about our weekend and the good points and the things we want to work on with the horses. We are looking forward to our future days with the team whether it is a tour with the wagon or some type of field work.

Training all the time

From Cathi:

I just finished reading Doc’s latest article, “Who’s the Boss? Part 2, Gently Becoming Your Horse’s Trusted and Respected Leader” in the Winter 2009, Small Farmer’s Journal which reminded me of something that I thought maybe others would find interesting.

Doc’s concept of Training all the Time has been a powerful tool for me. I used to think, “I am not a trainer,” little did I realize that I actually was training the horses! When one considers that horses are learning all the time, we do train horses every time we are with them. Taking that thought to the next level, it becomes our responsibility to be mindful in our interactions with them. We can use every opportunity interacting with them as a training session.

This model has taken me from thinking of ‘training’ as isolated formal lessons I scheduled with myself and my horses to training anytime I am with horses. As I feed, water, catch, groom, lead, tie, harness, trailer load, drive, ride, or simply move them from paddock to pasture, I do so in ways that teach lessons dealing with behaviors I desire from the horses. I set up situations that will make it easy for the horses to make the choices I want, and then reward those appropriate behaviors. I move, speak, and interact with them in ways that consider the horses’ natural language.

Every lesson, no matter how small the step, is also intended to help them remember that I am their herd leader. This idea has made me a responsible horse owner, given me more confidence, helps the horses behave in ways that are safer (for me and them) and certainly helps me appreciate the positive changes I see in their behavior. Training is no longer a mystery that was somebody else’s responsibility (ever heard anybody say they needed to “take the horse to the trainer”), but it is my opportunity to interact with horses in rewarding ways every time I am with them.

Here is an example of one way I have used this. Have you ever taken a flake of hay into your horses’ feed area, and have your horse crowd into your space, and take a bite of the hay you are carrying? Maybe it is dark outside, maybe muddy, or icy and you are not sure of your footing, and the crowding horse makes the situation unsafe. I currently must walk through a paddock with three horses to get to the barn where the feed is kept. The horses are so happy (or are they just hungry?) to see me at feeding times that all three are right at the gate when I get there. I greet each one with an affectionate scratching on their forehead, and then make each one “go away” from me. I make them go 10 or more feet away.

As I walk to the barn through the paddock, I insist that they all stay away, no crowding into my space, or coming any closer than 10 feet. Once I get to the barn, I have established a routine of putting each horse’s feed bag on, one at a time. The routine has gotten fairly elaborate, and I am surprised how willing the horses are to follow it. Sometimes one or the other of the horses will break the routine, and I go back to square one to remind them what that routine is. It is worth it to me to take the extra time to go get a horse, lead them back to the feed area, and resume the routine, so that we all keep the pattern going.

After they are done with their grain, they are given hay. The hay feeding station is inside the paddock; the hay must be carried through a gate and placed into the feeder. My arms are full carrying the hay; I used to feel vulnerable to their crowding and not very safe at this point.

Again, I have worked with them, and the three must go away as I come through the gate and carry the hay to the feeder. They are, after all horses, and frequently need reminding to stay away, however are willing to go back to the routine if I follow through with my request. If I let up on my requirement of them staying away, they would be back into my space; I have learned to be consistent. When I have placed the hay in the feeder, I tell them, ok, and they may then come in to eat. I am so much more comfortable feeding using this approach. It has been fascinating to me to watch the willingness the horses show to follow a routine, and the expectation they have for me to be consistent if they are going to be.

Starting Belle

From Walt:

Hey Doug! Thanks for helping me start Belle, our Suffolk mare, at the last Winter Workshop at our farm. Since then I have been working with her every day. Basically, I used your DVD Starting Colts as a guide to what exercises to do and added a few things of my own. I would watch part of the DVD and then go out and do it. One thing I noticed about you ‘moves’ in the round pen is that you have a really fast reaction time; where did you get that reflex speed?!!

3/2/09 You worked with Belle about 1.5 hrs. As I recall, she was defiant and you spent most of the time establishing yourself as the leader by pushing her away. You worked on keeping her attention focused on you. By the end of the session, she would turn her head to follow you and eventually turned a few steps to follow you. You called it good and then we left her in the round pen for several hours to ‘think about it.” I thought your idea of leaving her alone in the round pen to process what just happened was a great idea and hadn’t occurred to me before, but, as I thought about it, when your done with a session, if you leave the horse by itself and later come back as the leader to lead the animal back to the herd group; this act is a strong reinforcement of the lesson we are trying to impart.

3/3/09 I had Belle in the round pen. I did some basic lead rope exercises until she demonstrated that she wasn’t completely with me, so I pushed her away with the plastic bag on a stick (PBOS), until she licked and chewed. She was only bending her head in a little, and not dropping her head much, however by the end of the session she would turn to face me as I walked (with pressure off) to her left and a little to the right from the opposite side of the round pen.

3/4/09 I pushed her hard away from me with the PBOS to get more signs of submission than the day before. I was able to get lots of licking, chewing, and her head would bend in from the rail to me some. She would turn to follow me both directions from a distance and at her head, but I would loose her if I walked out straight, so I would continue walking but make an arc to pick her back up. Then I roped her out with rope, burlap bag, plastic baggie, and a plastic bag on a stick. I rubbed these items all over her and with the bag on the stick waved it in the air all around her. She accepted all of this readily and stood quietly.

3/5/09 I pushed her away and she early on licked and chewed. I hung out with her, brushed her out, roped her out and then tried to get her to follow me. She would follow me in arcs but not straight ahead, however she definitely had her attention on me. I had to do something elsewhere on the farm so I left her in the pen for a while. When I returned she readily followed me around both directions and straight ahead for a few steps. If I got out to far ahead I just arced around to pick her back up. Called it good for the day. This is when I discovered that leaving the horse alone to process things adds a reinforcing dimension to the lesson of who is the leader, as I mentioned above.

3/7/09 I laid a big piece of plastic down in the round pen. She was a little hesitant about it initially, but picked me up and followed me around readily without a lead rope. (I guess I should mention that when I say follow, I mean without a halter or lead rope in all cases unless otherwise stated.) I initially could not get her to walk across the plastic but by arcing and having her turn in circles I worked her closer to the plastic, eventually getting her front feet on it. I would stop and praise her, then continue. Eventually, I got her to walk over the plastic sheet several times. Then I worked with her feet during which she stood readily for.

3/8/09 worked her with the plastic sheet still on the ground in the round pen. From the beginning she followed me readily all directions and over the plastic. Kris, my wife, came along which was a distraction to the horse, and I will need to work with her further on that. After Kris left, she readily came back with her attention on me so I elected to not make an issue of the distraction and continue with some positive work. The horse was back following and standing with me real well. I laid the harness and collar in the round pen and had the horse follow me near, around, and away from the harness which I accomplished like I did when I introduced her to the plastic sheet—in turns and arcs. I put the collar on her, which she readily accepted.

Then I moved the collar about on her shoulders and removed it. I repeated this several times and she stood well. Then I put the collar on and had her follow me about the round pen, over the plastic sheet doing turns and stops. Then I did the same maneuvers with the harness. I approached her with the harness, shook it and backed off.

Next, I touched her side, legs and neck with the harness, and then backed away. She accepted this test well. Next I put the harness over her back and removed several times. Finally I harnessed her with the collar and had her stand. I was real careful to get the harness on her securely so it could not fall part ways off and create a negative experience. After I had her stand for a while, I tried to get her to follow me about the pen. Initially, she didn’t want to move because she didn’t fully understand what was on her back, so I gently drover her with the PBOS. After she figured it out she followed me around the pen no problem. I left her with the harness on for about 30 minutes and removed.

Called it good for the day.

Hello from Wisconsin

From Theresa Burns, Mineral Point, WI:
This blog is a great idea for us to read, learn, keep in touch and contribute. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Doc. I also get inspired knowing others are working with horses and dealing with issues and looking for comments.

I read the post about the mare not standing still when she is pulling the stoneboat. It reminded me of last May when we were at your ranch cleaning up after the fire. We were using one of your Suffolk Punch mares to move some huge stones and other items that we could put on a stone boat sled. She was getting antsy, anticipating and not standing still. At first one of us stood at her head and helped her stand. You were behind her and you began rubbing her rump and talking to her, encouraging her to relax and wait. When she was getting the idea the person at the head left. But when we repositioned her for another load, you were quick to talk softly to her and rub her rump.

If she moved you asked her to return to her standing spot. She learned to relax and wait. I so appreciated watching you and your patience. It is not about getting the job done, it is about how the horse and human work together. In the beginning of a horse’s training it is so important to take the time in the beginning to establish the foundation. Then we you get out to do work it goes much smoothly.

When I work with young horses on the halter and lead, I teach them that to rub is to stop and relax. I expect them to move away from pressure either steady or rythmical and to stop moving when I rub them. It is their reward, reassurance and they learn to relax and take it in. It makes the next steps adjusting to the harness, poles and or shafts easier for them to accept. Another really important response is to put their head down when you touch the pole or put downward pressure on the halter. For them to know that makes bridling so much easier. After they know what is expected it takes so little pressure for them to repond. Of course, I word of praise and a rub helps too.

I have attached a couple of pictures from the cleanup event.

I am from SW Wisconsin, where the temps have been too cold to train horses and where the horses are getting bored and walking over the hot wire. We had to plow snow along the fence to make it harder for them to step over. The days are getting longer and hope to hook up my new stone boat sled for training my youngest horse.


Round pen question

I have a round pen question for you. I have received your latest video about round pen work. I haven’t sat down to watch it yet but look forward to doing so. My round pen instruction and experience is rather low, but I have used it with several horses in the past 3 years. I have been having a recurring reaction from working stallions in the round pen and I wonder if you seen anything like this or if you feel I am talking incorrectly to this gender group of horses.

I know horse’s body language does not lie but, I continue to have a reaction from Stallions that puzzles me. We work the entire process from the beginning as described in Monty Roberts’ book called “From My hand to yours” The stallions exhibit the normal progression of language. Ear locked on, tipping the head in, licking lips, dropping the head while moving. As I pull in my “claws” and rotate my shoulder to invite them in, and they almost freeze in their tracks and begin sniffing the ground and nearby manure piles. Even passing back and forth in front of them, rotating my back to them does not seem to get any attention. I have not been able to get any Join up type of response.

Is there a step I’m missing? Do stallions have a different way of interpreting the rotating shoulder since they usually work from the back of the herd? It does seem that, even though I don’t get a true join up type of response, the stallions are showing increased respect and are paying close attention in work after our round pen time. I’m puzzled. Do you have any suggestions? Is there a particular pattern in stallions that I just do not have enough experience with to be able to identify?

Hope to hear from you on this one. I’ll get time watch the videos real soon.

Steve Wood