When Horses Train Themselves
By Lynn Acton
My horses taught themselves to walk across a tarp. It started one summer day when I was doing a painting project in the barn aisle. Hard up for entertainment, all three hung over their stall doors to watch me spread out the crinkly blue tarp, haul out the sawhorses, and get busy. No one worried; after all, I was the one walking on the tarp. They soon lost interest, and went to sleep, our two-year-old flat out and snoring a few feet from the tarp. That evening at turnout time, I shoved the tarp aside, leaving most of the aisle clear for the horses.
Coming in the next morning, each horse placed a hoof or two experimentally on the tarp. At turnout time that evening, I arranged it over the center of the aisle, leaving a walkway along the edge. All three chose to walk the full length of the tarp, just slightly alert to it. The next morning they strolled across the tarp as if it wasn’t there.
This passive approach to training can be very powerful because it maximizes the horse’s learning in multiple ways. First, the horses were under no pressure; I arranged the tarp so they could walk on it or not, as they chose. Second, I modeled for them how to act around a tarp: walk on it like it’s not there. Third, the entire process was spread over several days, allowing them time to process the new information.
Pressure distracts a horse from learning to cope with a new situation. A friend, attempting to get her reluctant green horse across a ditch, urged him forward with legs and voice, just as most of us were taught to do. When he backed up, she employed her crop. For fifteen frustrating minutes the horse danced in place, increasingly anxious and resistant. Then his rider agreed to a radical experiment. She positioned her mount facing the ditch, at a distance where he was alert to it, but calm enough to stand still. As he studied it, she sat quietly, one hand holding mane in case he decided to take a flying leap. She did nothing except re-direct him when he tried to back up or turn. Three minutes later he strolled across the ditch as if he’d been doing it for years. She admitted, by the way, that doing nothing required tremendous self-discipline.
Dr. Temple Grandin explains this dynamic in her book Animals Make Us Human. Horses have what she calls a “seeking” drive that arouses their curiosity about new things and situations. It is a positive emotion, essential to their mental health. When we allow horses to use their seeking drive, they can explore new situations at their own pace and proceed with confidence. Pressure is counterproductive because it arouses anxiety, frustration and ultimately rage.
A recent study showed that horses also learn by observing other horses, no surprise to anyone who has used an experienced horse to introduce a youngster to trails. Likewise, horses learn by observing people they trust. The first time Sassy stepped on a wooden bridge, he was startled by the hollow sound, and quite sensibly jumped back to solid ground. When his owner walked across the bridge ahead of him, Sassy followed without hesitation. Before I vacuumed my horses, I let them watch as my sister and I vacuumed each other. We started far away from them, casually working our way closer. By the time we turned the noisy little shop-vac on them, they paid no more attention than if it were a new brush. I have also blow-dried and “clipped” myself, letting the horse watch until he was bored.
Horses, like people, process information as they sleep. If I’m stymied trying to teach a horse a new skill that he just isn’t getting, I review something he knows well to finish the lesson on a positive note. At the next session, the first time I ask the horse to try the new skill, he often performs it correctly. When I asked a group of trainers how many of them had similar experiences, all said it happened routinely. We joked that horses discuss these things with their friends overnight. “Hey, when my rider squeezes with one leg and not the other, what does it mean?” The time-honored method of introducing a horse to shows involves placing no expectations on him the first time. Bronzz came off the trailer at his first show in his most flamboyant Arabian style, higher than a kite. We spent hours watching from the edge of the show grounds, easing closer only as he got calmer. By mid-afternoon he was standing on the busiest side of the arena, calmly watching each class. At his next show, only a brief observation period was required before he marched through the in-gate, focused and ready for whatever I asked of him.
The same principles apply to trailer loading. “Plan to spend all day,” says our local trailer loading genius, “and it will take 10 minutes. Plan for 10 minutes, and it’ll take all day.”
Whatever the new situation, the horse’s first impression will be lasting, especially if it provokes fear. Their wild ancestors couldn’t afford to forget anything that was potentially dangerous. That’s why those momentous “firsts” (first saddling, first ride, first trailer experience) have such a lasting impact.
Given time to explore a situation, ideally with a trusted leader (horse or human), horses tend to retain what they’ve learned and apply it with confidence. Bronzz demonstrated this as a 3-year-old when I used a no-pressure approach to teach him to cross creeks. Day 1, I let him hand-graze next to the creek; he decided that the best grass was fetlock deep in the water. Day 2, I let him watch a group of horses cross the creek as they set off on a trial ride; he tried to drag me into the creek to follow. Day 3, I saddled him up and let him stand creek-side while my husband rode his seasoned trail horse across the creek; Bronzz chose to follow her to the other side. Allowed to observe other horses, and progress at his own pace, Bronzz was happily crossing the creek in a fraction of the time I had expected. In the 13 years since then, the only problem we’ve had with creeks is that he thinks water is so much fun he wants to stay and play in it.
Allowing horses to investigate new situations without fear of pressure builds their confidence in themselves and in us. We just provide calm, low-key guidance, and enjoy watching the thought process as they train themselves.
About the Author: Lynn Acton is a CHA Certified Instructor from Berkshire, New York.
Building Friendships out of Trail Dust
By Jack Breaks - Back Country Horsemen of British Columbia
Photos courtesy of Janet Schmid
For many horse owners, there is nothing better or more relaxing than time spent on a trail ride. A lazy summer day, crisp fall sunrise, or a sunny spring afternoon are all improved by making a few hoof prints. Time with your horse, time with your friends, time to make new friends. This is the basis of many trail riding clubs, and an anchor even for some clubs which focus on other riding disciplines.
Members and guests participating in a club-sanctioned ride have an expectation that the ride will be organized and safe. Written policies regarding such issues as whether dogs, stallions or loose pack horses are allowed on rides will save a lot of argument and bad feelings. The ride leader may also impose some requirements for a particular ride, such as the speed or gait (no loping), shoeing requirements (to fit trail conditions), maximum number of riders, experience level of horses and riders, etc. The point of this is, everyone who arrives “ready to ride” will know these things beforehand, instead of having to deal with them at the trailhead.
One of the advantages of belonging to a club is that some of the experienced people are happy to share their knowledge and abilities. A few of these may be willing to “mentor” inexperienced or new members on trail rides. This creates a one-on-one relationship which can greatly increase confidence, safety, and enjoyment for any green rider. A list of those who volunteer to mentor could be made available to anyone who leads club-sanctioned rides.
Many clubs require their members to have equine liability insurance. The club’s policy regarding insurance for guests on rides should be communicated to each person who may attend or bring a guest. Before the ride leaves the trailhead, the ride leader should verify that everyone present is in compliance.
If any equipment owned by the club (first aid kit, radios, GPS, tack, etc.) will be used on the ride, it should be verified to be in good working order. Some type of periodic check system should be in place, and records kept of when each item was checked.
2. The Ride
It is important that everyone know the approximate length of the ride and difficulty of the trail. A list of needed items (lunch, slicker, water bottle, etc.) should have been provided to each rider. If relatively inexperienced people will be along, the “saddle hours” should be kept short, and frequent breaks taken. Figure on a slower pace, too. Inexperienced people or green horses should not be encouraged to ride difficult trails.
No matter the length of the ride, a “rider’s meeting” should be held just before leaving the trailhead. The ride leader should gather the group, introduce himself and the drag and flank riders, and communicate his expectations. Such things as trail hazards (bee’s nests, road or railway crossings, bridges, etc.) and procedures (putting on slickers, watering stops, stopping for photos or bathroom breaks) should be discussed. Every rider should know where the first aid equipment and any communication devices (cell or satellite phones) are located. A list of local emergency numbers should be kept with communication devices. A final tack check should be made just before leaving, and a stop should be made about 15 minutes down the trail to check cinches.
Riders should be spaced a minimum of one horse length apart during the ride. The spacing should not become too great however, as some horses will try to “catch up”. This can be difficult for the inexperienced riders to control. The ride leader and the drag and flank riders should be in regular communication either by voice, radio, or visually. If any member of the ride has to stop, the ride leader should halt the ride until everyone is ready to move on.
3. The People
The ride leaders should be the first to arrive at the trailhead. This gives them an opportunity to evaluate each horse and rider as they unload and tack-up their horses. A conscious evaluation should have been started before the ride during any communication with each of the riders. This evaluation should continue throughout the ride, as people and their horses can change when facing the wide variety of trail conditions that can be encountered.
Age, experience, physical ability, and temperament are the four main things to evaluate. Besides looking for those who will need help and careful watching, the wise ride leader will earmark the “old hands”. He will find out if anyone has first-aid training, can replace a horseshoe, is carrying an extra cell phone, etc. These people can often be given some of the responsibility, such as pairing-up with a green rider, tying horses safely during stops or emergencies, or helping other riders with a problem.
The ride leaders should also be aware that riding in large groups may be a brand new experience for both skilled riders and beginners. Many veteran trail riders do nearly all of their riding alone or with just one or two friends. Experienced riders, especially, can sometimes be caught off-guard by an unexpected change in their horse’s behavior, and the situation as a whole.
4. The Horses
It is common for horses who normally behave well for their riders to become difficult when riding in a large group. This is often a total surprise to the rider, but should not be a surprise to the ride leader. Other horses are naturally spirited and difficult to control. It is the ride leader’s job to evaluate each horse and decide how to deal with those horses/riders that could be a danger to the group. A green rider on a difficult horse may not understand the risk he is placing the group and himself in. Possible solutions could include having an extra horse available to ride, or pairing the problem horse with a buddy or two and allowing them to ride well in front or well behind the group.
The experience, age, temperament, and training level of the horses are important. Horses used to flat ground may not understand the consequences of stepping off the trail on a steep mountainside. Some horses may not have ever been exposed to wildlife, ground wasps, vehicle traffic, bridges, creeks, etc. If these horses are the type who tend to panic and try to escape violently from problem situations, they may need a more gradual exposure to trail riding. Factors such as group size, number of experienced horses/riders in the group, weather, and length and difficulty of the trail need to be considered by the ride leader. The safety of the group must come first and it may be necessary to excuse a horse from riding with the group on that day.
As you can see from these considerations, it can be quite an undertaking to organize trail rides with clubs or large groups. It can be done safely and enjoyably however, with some planning and care. New friendships will be made and old ones reinforced. The smell of horses and trail dust can be among our fondest memories!
About the Author: Jack Breaks is a certified CHA Trail Guide and Master Instructor, C.O.R.E examiner and Leave No Trace Trainer. Jack is the winner of the 2008 CHA Volunteer of the Year Award. He is an active member and Vice President of Back Country Horsemen of BC, and past chair of both the Aldergrove Happy Trails chapter and the Fraser Valley chapter. He also has served on the Horse Council B.C. Board of Directors. Married for 31 years to Paulette, they have a daughter and a son. The family lives on a small farm in Aldergrove, B.C. where they keep a few horses and mules. Jack has many years of experience exploring BC’s wilderness trails on foot and by pack train.
Canter and Lope Upward Transitions
By Ramona Palm-Oslin Photos by Ashleigh Hamill
One of the challenges faced by riders, and a test of teaching ability for a riding instructor as well, is how to execute smooth transitions into the canter or lope. Usually, a rider’s early education involves getting an older school horse to move forward (and building up a whole lot of leg muscle in the process!). Once a rider learns to send a horse forward, challenges arise because intermediate and more advanced horses can be a bit more sensitive to a rider’s aids. When the rider is accustomed to asking a horse more emphatically for the canter or lope departure, sometimes horses that are more sensitive to pressure will lurch forward or rush into the lope, rather than smoothly and subtly transitioning into it. So, how can instructors prepare students to make these transitions smoother?
The process of teaching a student to make smoother transitions takes time in the saddle and patience. It involves some muscle retraining, as well as improved body control, so it will not happen overnight. However, there are exercises that will help put a student on the path to better transitions. Before we go into detail about smooth transitions, it is important to discuss why lurching or rushing into the canter or lope is not desired from the horse; first, safety reasons.
A less experienced rider may get left behind by the motion of a rushing horse and will be less centered on the horse and at increased risk for falling off. Also, a horse that is rushing will be carrying more weight in front, or “on the forehand,” rather than pushing from behind. This puts the horse at increased risk for tripping and falling, causing possible injury to the rider or horse. Horses that move on the forehand too much also experience back pain and will not develop muscle as efficiently as a horse that uses itself properly. As an illustration, if a person used just his or her arms and back and not core to lift heavy objects, he or she would be setting themselves up for future back problems. This applies to horses in a similar way. A horse needs to engage his hind end in order to lift the rider and move forward. Pushing forward from the hind end prevents rushing and is more correct in form and function.
So, how does the rider encourage the horse to push from behind? To answer this question, let’s look at several causes of rushing and other common transition challenges, along with possible solutions. Keep in mind that these suggestions are not a “one size fits all” model because different horses require different techniques from their riders.
The rider rushes.
This is a common problem and can be caused by nervousness on the part of the rider and lack of preparation in the transition. CHA Certified Instructor Ashleigh Hamill, of Tresor Arabians in Fort Collins, Colorado suggests that the instructor coaches the rider to sit up, lift his chest, point his eyes out in front of him “toward the horizon”, and tilt his hip angle a bit upwards to engage a deeper seat. The rider should exercise caution to make sure he does not ask for too much forward motion by leaning forward, etc. It may also help for the rider to sit a little on his outside seat bone to help the horse to get ready for the transition. Some horses may startle into the canter if they do not know it is coming, so a weight shift, half-halt, or some other type of cue of what is about to come will help.
The horse just starts trotting from the walk or trotting faster.
This happens when a horse is heavy on their forehand. CHA Clinic Instructor Cheryl Kronsberg of CRK Stable in Yorba Linda, California suggests that, a rider first collects the horse from a trot and wait for a certain “visual marker” to cue for the lope or canter. She also suggests that the student practice until they can transition at the marker without the speed of the trot increasing during the transition. She says to also try the transitions from the walk at the marker without any trot steps. Hamill suggests, “plenty of half-halts to keep the horse collected in whatever gait they are in before cuing for the lope or canter.” If half-halts are not effective with that particular horse, another way the rider can approach the transition is, when the horse begins to trot at a faster pace, stop the horse, make it back, wait, and walk off. When the rider is ready, ask for the transition again, whether it be from the walk or trot. Repeat until the horse is transitioning smoothly and softly.
The horse tries to go sideways when cued to canter or lope from a standstill OR lurches forward into a fast trot.
“From a standstill,” Kronsberg says, “it may be helpful to ask the horse for a walk step to get them thinking forward instead of sideways.” Once the horse starts forward and before he takes a step, cue for the canter or lope. Timing is important here. The instructor can help the rider get the timing down for this by actually telling him or her when to cue for the walk and the lope several times, then letting the student try it just by feeling the horse.
The horse takes the wrong lead.
Most horses, like most people, have a side they prefer. Many times, when asked to lope or canter on the side the horse does not prefer, if the horse is not properly set up to take that lead, they will take the incorrect lead. Hamill says, “A good way to prevent this is to make sure the horse has an inside bend, using more leg than rein to achieve this, and to make sure the rider sits on the outside seat bone.”
The rider is nervous.
Because nervous riders have a tendency to tense up against the horse’s motion, it is important that the rider learn to relax. Hamill says, “Students often hold their breath, even clench their toes, and lock their hip joints and stop moving with the horse, which can in turn cause a horse to get nervous themselves and think that there is a reason to rush.” Instructors can help their students relax by asking them to breathe with each stride which helps them to relax and follow the horse’s motion. It slows the strides down in the rider’s mind, which will often slow the rider’s seat as a result. A lot of riding is mental and because the rider’s body tends to follow their mind, this type of exercise helps.
The horse is strung out in transitions.
Horses that travel too heavy on their forehands don’t usually execute smooth transitions. To encourage a horse to “lighten up” and carry more weight behind in order to make a smoother upward lope or canter transition, the rider should lift up on the reins very slightly, not back, and hold the horse with their calves in the middle of the horse’s barrel. Only when the horse has lifted its back and come back to the rider should it be asked to make the transition. A common theme among any instructor is to build on skills of the horse and rider team. According to both Hamill and Kronsberg, it is best for a rider to learn to lope or canter first from the sitting trot, then from the walk, then from the standstill, because walk to canter and stand still to canter transitions are both physically harder for the horse, and so it will be harder for the inexperienced student to support a horse through these transitions.
Instructors and riders alike should keep in mind that every horse is different, and so they will require different things from their riders. Some horses are taught with diagonal aids for canter (outside leg and inside rein) and some work better doing lateral aids (outside leg and outside rein). Some horses need to be supported with the rider’s inside leg through transitions to keep them from going sideways. Some horses will only need the rider to support them with their legs and to make a kissing sound to lope. Others will need to be given a stronger leg aid. The rider should start with less in the way of cuing and add more as needed, rather than the other way around. Some horses think they are being punished if you over cue them and doing too much of it can make them sour. It is important for the instructor to know the individual horse’s training level and personality to instruct the student on making upward canter/lope transitions. Remember that these suggestions may not work for every single horse. Lessons tailored to the individual rider and horse allow for success.
There are two suggestions that will work for every horse and rider. The most important thing an instructor can have a rider do is praise his or her horse for good behavior. Horses, like people, enjoy receiving praise and are willing to work for it. A rider that only corrects and never praises their horse will have more trouble than a rider who praises good effort from a horse. The second suggestion is to encourage the rider to start feeling the way the horse moves underneath of him or her, rather than being mechanical in his or her cues. This takes practice, but will ultimately help the rider with anything they are faced with, not limited to upward canter and lope transitions.
About the Author: Ramona Palm-Oslin is a CHA Intern and just earned her degree in Equine Business at Midway College in Kentucky. She has a life-long love of horses and has ridden and shown for many years on her AQHA mare. She is currently looking for full time employment.
Preparing for COLD Weather
By Laura Jones - CI and Region 3 Director
I live in Northern Ontario, above the Minnesota Border. In the winter we get snow and sometimes extreme cold (20 below or colder) for extended periods. Snow comes in November and stays until April. The earliest I remember snow coming and staying was before Halloween. The latest I remember winter snow still on the ground was June 3rd. Our fall project list is always long. However some of the jobs MUST be done before the snow to make the winter months more manageable. Here is our getting ready for the snow to-do list.
Check all paddock gates and raise any that have sagged, to a clearance of at least 18” for snow.
Shovel dirt and clear debris from beneath all sliding doorways, or snow and ice build-up will stop them from closing in the depth of the winter. I find it particularly annoying to use a pick axe on frozen ice and ground to close the main barn door in January. Apply oil to doors and hinges.
We either hire a bulldozer and operator or use our tractor to scrape bare all dry lots and outdoor shelters to remove manure. We try to get this done in early fall, before rain and cold make this an awful job.
Check that outdoor electrical receptacles and outdoor lighting is working (if ambitious, put up Christmas lights before it is 20 below). Check that all outdoor extension cords and water heaters are working, and purchase any necessary. Inspect all electrical wiring and clean and test any indoor room heaters, heat traces, etc.
Insulate and box up water tubs. We don’t do this with plastic tubs, but even getting ½ of a metal tub covered can cut down on electricity usage for outdoor water heaters.
Clean up flower boxes, logs, rocks, stray fence boards, sticks etc (particularly from all pathways which will be snow cleared). One year we had to remove our nice wrought iron fire ring from the tractor’s large snow blower. It looked like a pretzel when we finally freed it.
Move jumps to indoor arena, and keep outdoor ring clear. This past year the snow came without warning and we ended up digging jumps and trot poles out from a foot of snow.
Clean spider webs from stalls, aisles, etc.
Re-check all winter blankets (which in theory were already cleaned and inspected in the spring). Order extra leg straps.
Ensure there is enough room for manure in storage areas.
Contact suppliers of feed and bedding and double check availability. Have a contingency plan in place if these arrangements fall apart. We have three hay suppliers and keep straw in storage in case we can’t get shavings in the winter.
Redo indoor arena footing. This is an article in itself, but each year in November we add salted winter control sand. It is sifted, washed, sized and salted, so we have no dust and the footing doesn’t freeze.
Re-level all stall floors.
Check all fences and tension electric rope fences. Check electric fences for grounding problems. Rewire so only top strands are live (bottom ones will be buried in snow).
Create a place in the barn to store 2-3 days of hay, in case horses have to remain inside during bad weather (we have separate hay storage shed, and move hay to the barn every few days).
Check ditches and drains around buildings, paddocks and parking areas (the one year we didn’t do this hoof prints in the ditch diverted spring melt water into the indoor arena).
Clean up dog waste and keep doing it until snow arrives.
Then make a new list and enjoy riding!