Category Archives: gentle horsemanship

Teaching Equines to Pull Loads

Horse Drawn Stone Boat


Good morning Doc,


I have a question related to a pony pulling in harness.
What would be the appropriate size of a stone boat for a pony that is approximately 12HH and 600 pounds?

Thanks,  Jeri

Hi Jeri,


Good to hear from you.


 

The size of the stone boat will not matter as much as the weight you put on it and the terrain/ground conditions on which it will be pulled.

 

We have a wooden stone boat about 3′ wide and 6′ long that Cathy’s pony (about the size of yours) can pull easily with 50 to 100 lbs. on it over a hard surface or grass. He can pull it with greater effort loaded with 150 lbs. for short distances with air/rest stops in between pulls. In conditions like loose dirt, sand, mud, up hill, etc. it would pull harder with whatever load was on it.


 

There are two very important considerations when asking any equine to pull a load: 

  • 1. What are they physically capable of pulling? 
  • 2. What are they psychologically capable of and comfortable pulling? In my experience most animals are physically capable of pulling more than they can handle psychologically.

 

However, if we train and manage them skillfully they will get better and better at pulling – if we don’t they will go the other way.

 

Always start with a very light load to test them out each time you work.Then gradually increase the amount they are asked to pull. In other words, warm them up and give them confidence before asking them for the heavier pulls.

 

The most common mistakes people make are to ask them to pull too much before they are ready, and to pull them too far without a stop for air and rest.


Repetition, repetition, repetition with gradually increasing loads is critical. 

If they get anxious or confused stop, calm them down, lighten the load (rather than removing it), and proceed when they are relaxed and comfortable. Lighten the load to a point where they can pull it and remain relaxed and comfortable as they work.  Add weight in small increments to keep the equine comfortable and working in a relaxed way.


 

Please contact me if you have more questions.


 

Take care, stay safe, and enjoy those horses, ponies, mules, and donkeys!

Doc

Jay Jay and Tom Triplett

Here is a photo of Tom Triplett and Cathy’s Welsh pony Jay Jay, approximately the size of the pony Jeri inquires about.  Jay Jay is a great cart pony and he also ‘pulls his share’  around the ranch by hauling loads that are suited to his size.  Here, he is dressed in the collar style work-harness Tom made for him (notice the antique wooden hames: some Tom’s father had used ranching in Montana in the 1900’s).   Smaller equines, like Jay Jay and Jeri’s pony, can make  great working contributions on your ranch or farm.  Smaller equines are well suited to get into (and out of) some of those tighter spaces that are trickier for our larger equine workers. 

 



 

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?
Sincerely,
Heather



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.

Doc

– 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.


-Heather

Horse-Logging with Draft Horses: Natural Horsemanship in the Woods

Cathi and I love to work in the woods. It’s even better if we can work with our horses in the woods. On March 8 we had some fire wood logs ready to skid out and each of us took a horse to do the job. Here we have Kate and Ann, our Suffolk Punch Draft Horses.

Kate was very relaxed, comfortable, and interested as I prepared the first log to hook to her.

However, when she started off with the first small “warm up” log she became a bit anxious and was not very responsive to my attempts to calm her and slow her down. As so often happens, a training opportunity (not a problem) presented itself.

After stopping several times, letting her relax, and then attempting to start her again in a more relaxed and easy way I realized she was not able to control her anxiousness.

I was not willing to hold Kate back with the excessive force that would have been necessary I asked Cathi to bring Ann over and drive her in front of Kate – to set an example of a relaxed and comfortable working pace.
Not to mention creating a moving physical barrier as we each drove our respective horse down the skid trail.
Kate was not happy with the slower pace initially. However, once she realized she would not be allowed to go around (“pass”) Ann she started to relax and accept the job on my terms. We made it difficult for her to do the “wrong” thing and easy for her to do the “right” thing. Thanks to Cathi and Ann I was able to avoid heavy pressure and harshness on the bit in order to get the job started at a safe and comfortable pace. It doesn’t matter that Kate has done this type of pulling in a relaxed way many times before, what is important is that for whatever reason (and they always have a good reason as far as they are concerned) she became anxious on this particular day, in this particular location, at this particular job. Rather than fight with her we used some gentle “creative horsemanship”.

Thanks for checking up on us on our blog,

Doc

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.

Introducing a horse to new implements

From Walt Barnard

Hello. Here is a brief description of how we introduced a particular horse to some new implements. The horse, Belle, is a Suffolk and there are some earlier posts about her training on this blog. Anyway, Kris and I had been working her up to actually pulling real farm implements by skidding a small tire for short periods.

I occasionally would sit on the tire to add some weight and change the ‘feel’ of the pull for the horse, making sure to not overwhelm her with too much weight for too long. When we actually had some real work to do over the past few days, Kris drove one of our broke horses and I drove Belle along to investigate and later, if she was mentally ready, to participate. With each new implement, I first lead Belle to it to investigate, lead her along behind and to the left, right, and front of the implement as Kris and the broke horse worked, then ground drove her as I had lead her above. If she was mentally ready, I then hitched her to the implement and Kris lead her while I drove.

Kris gradually dropped back to Belle’s shoulder and then as all was well stepped aside to let Belle work by herself. I had the lead rope tied up to the hames so if Belle needed more mental ‘support,’ Kris could easily get control of her head with the halter.

Of note, I would not try this technique on a horse that didn’t have a solid foundation of training that Doug describes in his DVDs on starting colts. The horse has to accept you as their leader and be responsive to the halter. Even with a horse with a solid foundation as Belle has, we were very careful to make sure she was comfortable with each step in the process, and would have backed off if things escalated to where we were beginning to see signs of discomfort, fear, or flight potential.

Also, I would not try this by just leading the animal, someone needs to be on the lines. Here are a couple of pictures of Kris driving Jerry on the disc, while I drive Belle along with them. She did well with this introduction but, since the disc is a pretty heavy pull in our deeply tilled hoop house, I didn’t think she was ready to pull a load heavy as this.

A couple of days later we started Belle pulling a section of spring tooth harrow. This is a good starter implement, because you can vary the draft by adjusting the depth of the tines. I started her very light and gradually increased the draft to a moderate amount for a single horse. As I worked her, I changed the draft from time to time, to give a different ‘feel’ on the collar for her. As you can see we lead her initially, then dropped back. I also only worked her for about an hour with lots of standing time and praise.
Here is Belle’s first experience skidding logs. Kris is driving Ray, our grouchy yet excellent mare, skidding small poles to the wood pile. As you can see, I am leading, then driving Belle, getting her used to the sounds, visuals and smells of skidding, as well as the fact that the longer poles are a different experience than a shorter harrow and can kick up brush and debris in sudden and strange ways.

Later Kris and I hitched and successfully skidded some of the lighter wet Doug Fir.

Belle did well.

Here is Belle now working on the disc. We broadcast peas and oats in the hoop houses, then disc it in with the groffdale disc. If you don’t sit on the disc it pulls real light.

I did a lot of short pulls and Kris walked ahead for much of the time for support. She did not stand as well as I would like when facing the barn but overall, for her first time I was pretty happy. At one point, we were standing inside the green house. I was adjusting the lines and accidentally hit the top of the hoop house with my bamboo stick causing a loud noise and plastic movement over her head. She got pretty alarmed and jumped forward, but immediately stopped with whoa combined with line pressure (her bit is tied to her halter in such a way to minimize pressure on the bars, so it functions like a halter more than a bridle; a trick Doug showed us at a past workshop). After she stood for a while we kept discing but she was still a little worried, so we unhitched the disc and ground drove her back and fourth thru the hoop houses until she was calm again. Then we went back to discing in a relaxed manner.

These photos were taken after that.

Walt

A drive with Paige and Val

From Jane:
A friend of mine and I went out to visit the Woods and their horses on Friday. It was a gorgeous warm day and one of the highlights of our visit was a wagon ride with Val and Paige.

Steve hitched the mares up and drove us all over hill and dale around the farm. Paige was wonderful, and if I hadn’t known her history, I would have assumed she was just a part of his regular string. We went around the farm and down by the lake where the wagon hit a hidden stump or fallen limb and came to a very sudden and jarring stop. Steve told the ladies it was all under control and Paige didn’t even seem bothered.

Later we went out on the road. A couple of vehicles went roaring by, but again, the mares were calm and quiet about it all.

I continue to be amazed by Paige’s progress. Steve said she is progressing at a tremendous rate each day.

I apologize for the lack of photos. I didn’t even think to bring my camera with us. (I know, I know . . . ) Thanks for letting us come out and visit your beautiful farm, Steve! And thank you Cathy for the wonderful garden goodies!

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.)

Light, relaxed contact on the reins…

I get an email newsletter called “Horse Sense” written by Jessica Jahiel (pronounced ya-hell). She is a talented rider and excellent teacher. Her background and primary interest is ridden dressage, but she advises readers on a huge variety of other topics. I came across this thought-provoking quote in one of her articles that I think applies to driving every bit as much as riding:

“…riders who make a deliberate effort to let the reins sag and flop, with the idea that they will take up contact only when they “need” it, generally make their horses very uncomfortable and apprehensive because the horses can’t rely on the riders to provide instant quiet communication through the reins.

“The ideal is a light, steady, relaxed contact that lets the horse’s mouth feel every tiny movement of the rider’s hands (and vice versa). What too many horses are given – sadly, by riders who believe they are being “gentle” – is periods of NO contact (“Horse, you’re on your own!”) alternating with sudden jolts when contact is imposed abruptly.

“This is unpleasant and causes horses to worry and become hesitant. Some horses will even move hesitantly or with shorter strides; most, though, will shorten, tighten, and arch their necks and go “behind the bit” so that their riders’ sudden grabs at their mouths will be less painful and less surprising.

“Like a person walking fearfully on an ice-covered pavement, a horse in that situation will be extra-careful and tentative, always worried, always afraid, always ready for something painful and sudden to happen. It’s not a nice way to travel….”

Although Jessica is talking about riding, I think her words are also relevant to people learning to drive, especially if they are coming from a riding background.

Many of us who ride Western on a loose rein think the normal pressure on the driving lines is far too heavy. Many people incorrectly trained in English riding think the contact on the reins should be heavy and unyielding, because the horse has to be held in a “frame”.

It’s clear from your words and from Jessica’s that neither approach is right, but it is difficult for a new rider or driver find the appropriate middle ground of “just enough pressure”. This problem is compounded by the fact that “just enough” will vary depending on the horse and the situation.

I remember ground driving my mare Sissel and feeling how she wandered and became anxious without contact and tended to ignore steady, heavy contact after awhile. She responded the best to appropriate pressure-and-release contact. Sometimes the “appropriate pressure” was pretty firm, and sometimes it was a lovely elastic give-and-take.

The “instant quiet communication” and “light, steady, relaxed contact” on the reins that Jessica talks about seems similar to the pressure and release you have been teaching us to use. It occurred to me that Jessica’s way of explaining things might be useful for riders learning to drive.

–DJW

More information about Jessica Jahiel:

Jessica Jahiel’s HORSE-SENSE Newsletter www.horse-sense.org
Copyright © 1995-2009. Jessica Jahiel, Holistic Horsemanship®

Materials from Jessica Jahiel’s HORSE-SENSE Newsletter may be distributed and copied for personal, non-commercial use provided that all authorship and copyright information, including this notice, is retained. Materials may not be republished in any form without express permission of the author.

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.