Friday, October 9, 2009

Princess and the Pea

Half Dozen Farms brought up an extremely good point that comes up often around this blog.

It's the issue of sensitivity.

She has an OTTB who is very sensitive. This mare also likes to buck and refuse to give on one side.

This is a very common problem.

Sonita would strike and fret if she got sand in her sport boots.

She would shudder, sweat, roll and generally freak if her blanket was itchy anywhere.

My yellow mare hates sweat.

When she is worked hard enough to have sweat trickling down her face or flanks she flips out, shaking her head, trying to rub her face on her legs, kicking at the sweat on her sides.

She also doesn't like to get her feet dirty or wet.

I was practicing my cutting one day before I quit training. Our cattle were having digestive issues. Cattle always have digestive issues, but this day was particularly gross.

As we were cutting my mare kept blowing up and jumping out of position. This is a horse who normally does a really good job keeping her eye on the cow.

So I pulled up, checked her feet, her legs, under the saddle. Nothing.

I asked my boss to watch her.

I rode back into the herd, kicked out a cow and we went to.

She jumped again and my boss burst out laughing.

Turns out my mare didn't want to step in the digestive issues that were pouring out of our cattle.

I don't call this sensitive. I call it a pain in the ass.


I admit, some are goosier than others. But every horse I've ever known, dull or sharp, will shake a fly off its flanks. That's pretty sensitive.

We want our horses to respond to the lightest touch. Some are quicker to pick up on this than others.

There are countless ways to try to explain over-sensitivity or dullness. It's easy to label a horse as bad, or abused, or crazy when all it comes down to is a sensitive horse that's been mishandled.

The Big K used to tell me to handle the dull ones with the softest touch and to bang and hang and thump and jump all over the sensitive ones.

A sensitive horse needs to survive out in the world. She needs to deal with an unexpected poke with a spur, a saddle thumped on her back or too much pull on the bit.

In defense of the OTTB, they often are very thin skinned. A metal curry is torture, a saddle pad caked with sweat can drive them to distraction. There are plenty of QH's out there with the same issue. So I get it.

BUT. They still have to cope. These sensitive souls don't get to kick at our feet, run through our leg, trample over the top of us, etc. Because that makes them end up in a dog food can.

The way I handle these horses is not particularly different than other horses, except I decide how I'm going to handle them and become extremely precise.

I use my eternal 1, 2, 3 method of teaching. One is the feather light question the sensitive little souls crave. Two is a sharp demand, not hard enough to start a fight, but very clear. Three gets them in trouble. The trouble keeps coming until the horse does what I want.

If I go to step three I will continue with the cue until the horse listens. I'm ready to deal with whatever the horse throws at me. Remember, she was offered step one and two already. She chose to go to three.

If a horse kicks at my spur I will keep spurring until I get what I want. I know if I back off I will be teaching my sensitive horse to fight.

My horse has too clearly understand my spur means move away and until she does I will continue to spur.

If the horse bucks I'll keep at her until we're loping the way I want.

Angry or frightened horses fall back on old behaviors that used to work. I know I have to fix it again but it won't take as long this time.

Now here's where I'm on the side of the sensitive horse. Once I get my point across I try to help them out.

If you don't want to use spurs then get to where you don't have to. Put them on when your trainer tells you to. Give your first cue with the barest whisper from your calves. Then go to stronger leg. Then use the spurs as step three until you win. Then take them off. Only use your spurs when your mare makes it clear she won't listen. Eventually she'll get it.

When you practice on your own do simple work that you know you can succeed at. Practice your cues with a tiny bit of leg, then more, then spur. She will start to respond to the second cue, then the first.

Help your mare learn she doesn't want step three, ever.

Then when it gets down to a fight she'll remember step three.

A horse is only truly light if she understands the consequence of not listening.

Sonita had to work doubly hard in her sandy boots until she listened.

Then I took them off, washed them out, and began to rotate two pairs of boots so she always wore a freshly washed pair. I put a clean pair on right before she showed, I rubbed and brushed her legs before I put her boots on and made sure the boots were wrapped tight enough to keep the sand out.

I would clean Sonita's clock if she rubbed on me or rolled while I led her, but I would try on countless blankets until she was comfortable.

My yellow mare, the princess, the valley girl, the epitome of high maintenance, got ridden through mud, cattle pens, wet sand, anything I could find to gross her out.

When she fusses over sweat she gets worked until sweat is the last thing on her mind.

Then she gets a bath. I will wash her legs off for her every ride, she likes to be clean. I have switched out her pads to find one that didn't create quite as much of a river trickling down her flanks.

I braid her forelock to at least keep the wet hair out of her eyes.

See what I mean? I try to help my horses with their sensitivities, but not until they understand they have to listen, even when they have to cut through cow goo and have it splash in their face.

If I had enough of a problem that I knew I'd back down, I might get professional help. But I would be afraid my horse would get pushed too much. That the fight would be created and the punishment too severe.

Instead I might try to back track to exercises I knew would work, then start to build back up in smaller increments.

Teach her she has to listen in a non-confrontational setting. Then build up to the problem areas and don't be afraid to fix her.

If it is too much then I would get help.


  1. "If a horse kicks at my spur I will keep spurring until I get what I want. I know if I back off I will be teaching my sensitive horse to fight.

    My horse has too clearly understand my spur means move away and until she does I will continue to spur."

    this, of course, assumes that the training to know what the spur means is already in place. Correct? You don't *start* here.

  2. haha..I knew a cutting horse "Sonita's Last Cadillac" that apparently blew a cutting because of cow pee. He WOULD NOT step in puddles etc, and apparently, he was cutting when there was OHMYGOSH COW PEE! I did not witness this, just heard the story. lol

    Jazz loves to chase cows, its her passion. But WHY oh WHY does she freak out and get scared when one cow mounts another???

  3. Thanks Mugs.

    It never ceases to amaze me the "common sense" answers to questions that I SWEAR are more complex! LOL!

    Why I never thought of taking my spurs OFF after I had gotten after her with them is beyond me. I read that, and said "Duh!" while smacking myself in the forehead. Instead, I ride around with them on, trying desperately to keep them away from her which makes me ride with a stiff leg... *sigh* I feel like an idiot.

    I really appreciate how you spelled out the delicate balance between making them "tough it out" and also doing things to make sure they're more comfortable in their work. I definitely have some thinking to do here!

    All in all, she is a nice mare. I keep telling myself this when the thought crosses my mind of selling her (in this market? - yeah, right!).

  4. Oh, and the title to your post is TOTALLY accurate, and made me laugh! :)

  5. Holly-I don't use a spur on a horse until she understands the one, two three sequence for forward without them.
    I don't use spurs until my horse understands to move away from pressure.
    If the horse then kicked at the spur I would indeed continue to use it until she did what I had asked.
    Although the only horses who have ever kicked at me were horses who were already used to spurs and were misbehaving.

  6. I always found it an interesting problem - the issue of loving to have a horse or pony that was light and sensitive, and also being able to sell them on - I would never call myself a trainer - I just did what a number of people around us did, I tried to improve a horse or 5 and sell it on to go to uni. you want the horse to be senstive to aids, however you don't want it blowing up and the average pony clubber not being able to ride it. Some of the best money was made from taking a smart sensitve horse that was in the bargin bin from blowing up too often and get it used to working again, then just doing stuff on them - opening gates, throwing an orphaned lamb across the front of the (english) saddle and and taking it up to the yards,(I wish I'd had a saddle horn to hang onto for that one... we went sideways a little for a start and when the lamb bleeted!) they got used to things going on around them and on them - legs moving back and forward - weight shifting in the saddle, and the world didn't end so it became acceptable.

    As for the funny habits - Jan had to be jumped in competition in a drop noseband - first round was normally fine, but when she was against the clock, she'd sometimes eye up the closest jump and want to go for it, and open her mouth - never did it in practice, unless you tried to jump fast after rining a bell of buzzer over "proper jumps" .... and having to work that one out her system would have been intresting and hell hard on her legs as the fences had to be 4 foot high to be proper! (again - the "arena" was an area of a field - the footing was dependent on how much rain we'd had - summers were dry, winters muddy) If a drop noseband was on only just tight enough, she listened - however she hated when it got sweaty and slobbery - so after her round when you dismounted she would poke her nose out eyes half closed waiting for the wet cloth wipe down and rub when it was taken off - she looked so silly!

  7. My mare is incredibly sensitive and hot (typical Morgan mare). I find one of the best things I can do is to acknowledge that she doesn't like something, then continue. For example, she just plain doesn't like to be touched anywhere past her shoulder. Clearly this isn't okay. If I curry her belly, I tell her I'm sorry and I let her nudge me. As long as she can express that she's upset (in an acceptable way!) and I acknowledge it, she puts up with it just fine.

  8. I agree with you 100%. My mare has not learned that step 3 means her $%# is mine. She is an awsome horse with a lot to learn.


  9. Wonderfull post. Thank you so much for writing good horsemanhip and training advises. It can be so rare on the internet.

    Your yellow mare sounds very much like my red mare, she won't put her feet in the mud or in a puddle. She does not even roll in her paddock mud or not. My other mare used to roll in the mud but not on hard ground, because hey! it was too hard .. eyes rolling.

    I love mare's sensitivities. I get on better with them.

    BUT I make my Princess walk in the mud, and stand in a puddle! It is a question of leadership.
    If it starts with a puddle where does it finish? It is opening the door to so many unwanted behaviours.

    I thoroughly wash, massage, groom my mare. I only wish somebody will do the same to me!

  10. This is a wonderful post. My mare (I call her Prima Donna Diva) hates mud(tho she has gotten used to it here), and when sweat runs down her face...particularly when she starts slobbering around her bit (I use a French Link with a copper roller). She will shake her head, roll the roller, and even reach down and rub her face *when trotting*! I make her work tight circles when she does this...I don't want to go off over her head! Besides I just don't want her to do it at all.

    Will be interesting today...week of rain, off trail riding. Lots of mud :)


  11. Muriel- I agree. I'm completely sympathetic to the things that drive my horses batty. It seems the higher the level of ability the fussier the horse.
    Your point of leadership is a good one, I always look at it as the difference between asking for help and throwing a temper tantrum.

  12. Hi Mugs, I'm a long-time reader, but haven't ever actually shown my face around here. I have a question for you, in terms of sheer horse power and bits.

    The gelding I'm working with is a Perch/Thoroughbred X, about 16.3hh, and a bit of a tank. He's lighter boned for a draft X, but is still a massive beast, and I'm a slender 5'3" so I don't have a lot of weight to through around when needed.

    The problem I'm having is at the canter, and then after the canter when he gets excited. At the canter, he likes to tank around on the forehand, pretty much 80% of his weight on the forehand and 20% on the backend. I know he needs to build the muscles necessary to rock back and use his hind end, and that this will take a lot of time. He's gotten a lot better at the trot, and is now capable of collecting and extending his stride while staying soft and round and moving level, not downhill. But the canter is another story. I can get about 3 strides right away of nice, collected uphill movement, but then he just drops his head, and tanks around. I'm just simply not big or strong enough to get him to lift up and listen, and no amount of sitting deep, driving forward and halfhalts seems to get him to come back. His canter stays fairly quiet considering, but I'm afraid if he ever did find reason to take off, it would be impossible to pull him up because he's just so much horse.

    Do you think this would be a reasonable situation to move to a harsher bit? He's currently in a eggbutt snaffle, and I was wondering if possibly a slow twist, or snaffle kimberwick would help? Normally I don't like doing this, and would rather take the time to work things through without bitting a horse up. But he's so powerful there's not much I can do when he starts rooting and literally pulling me out of the saddle.

    Not sure how familiar you are with English bits, but I would love to hear your opinion, as well as those of others'.

  13. Hi Everyone. I am long time lurker, first time posting. I have a 8 year old OTTB named Blue and a 4 year old QH named Cowboy, both geldings. My OTTB is typical thin skinned almost prissy while my QH doenst worry about much. I look forward to talking with everyone, but it is late and I need to go to bed. :)

  14. LaB...While I am not a trainer, I know that dressage people will use their whips and tap on rear to drive the horse under and forward. I did that with my mare and now all I have to do is think it and she responds.

    As for the stop, Mugs has a lot on that already. It's in the training.

    My mare spooked good today...forward hard when some deer ran up behind us (I will blog that). I lost my balance somewhat, yelled "Whoa" and she stopped, even though she was afraid, stood and trembled and snorted until the herd passed.

    I only use a french link with her, and only pulled a little when I tilted back, so I know it was her training that stopped her.


  15. LaB, Sounds to me like your horse is struggling to keep his balance at the canter, not trying to go faster. Going to a stronger bit may not be the best approach. I'd try using transitions, lots of them. Take the lovely 3 strides he can canter now, then ask for the trot for 6 steps, then back up to the canter, etc. You'll be surprised how quickly he'll build strength and the correct muscles. And because you're asking for the downward transition, you're pro-active and won't be getting dragged downhill.

  16. LaB- A bit is a bit. A twist is the same no matter which world you ride in, an egg butt is the same and a kimberwick is common enough I'm familiar with them.
    Being small doesn't apply in the horse world.
    A 250 pound 6 foot man cannot stop a horse any better than a 100 pound 5 foot woman if the horse chooses not to stop.
    I became an honest to God horse trainer when I learned to go to a lighter bit when I was having trouble instead of a bigger one.
    I agree with Horses and Turbos and Still Learning - this sounds like a balance problem and may be turning into an "I won't listen, I'll just run" situation.
    I would be working heavily on my walk, trot, extend trot transitions with this horse. Then I would ask him to lope, with my hands and legs quiet until he wants to slow down.Then I would speed him up. Every time he slowed, would hesitate a few strides, then speed him up again until he was really ready to stop.
    Then I would ask for a Whoa, let him air up and go again.
    I would not stop this horse until he really wanted to.
    I would not worry about his frame until he was listening to me.
    When I had a consistant Whoa, from my body language, not from pulling on him, I would start to include the lope in my transition work.
    That being said, I have used a twist on horses who hang on me or consistantly try to take off instead of loping. Then I have two bridles set up.
    I warm up my horse thoroughly in his regular snaffle, then put on the twist and work on transitions for about ten minutes.
    When I'm getting the soft feel I want, I put the regular snaffle back on.If the horse gets heavy I put the twist back on.
    I switch back and forth until I'm getting the horse to quit dragging me around.
    I have only had to use this method on horses with man-made issues, I've never tried to solve balance problems with it.

  17. Hey Mugs,

    My mare *loved* spin and lope! First time it was spin and collected canter while she was trying to figure out what I wanted (I love to see her think!), second spin a little faster, third and fourth I got a healthy hand-gallop and lots of excitement and "can we do it again?" Since I had trail rode her yesterday after almost 2 weeks off, I didn't want to make her sore, so we quit, but she really got into the new game!

    Guess that's the ticket to my mare...thinking of new things to do along with the routine!


  18. Heh... sensitive...

    I'd never ridden a sensitive horse until my boy and I love it.

    He wants his forelock braided, hates mud (show ponies don't DOOOO mud!) ... I could go on really BUT I've never asked of him something that wasn't tolerable. I think he's simply smart enough that if I let him fuss too much over something he uses it not to work. I try and remember to braid his forelock but don't always for a trail ride. He lives.

    Mug's 1, 2, 3 method is perfect for him... I never get beyond 2. He knows better.

    mugs - You know how you talk about a horse being 'trained' to watch out/stay out of your space? So that in emergency situations they automatically watch for you and stay out of your space? My boy tripped up in a deep spot in the arena as he was transitioning up into a canter Saturday. He tripped and, a first for me and him, did not recover and fell with me. I gently hit the ground in the corner of the arena- waited for the impact of 1000lbs of horse that never happened. I look up he's on his head/neck ass in the air - my first thought - broken neck as he was jsut sitting there ass up on his head/neck. We made eye contact then he rolled away from me. I would have thought I was anthropomorphizing him or making it up had it not been the first thing the bystanders who saw it said. Everyone said he obviously waited to roll on his side until he knew exactly where I was. We're both fine. And I do know how lucky we both are. He's getting to do a lot of carrot stretches...

  19. Thanks for your reply Mugs, and to the others who posted as well.

    I'm definitely not one to jump to a harsher bit, and wouldn't do it without a lot of thought and consideration. I do agree that he's having trouble at the canter, I think it's because he doesn't have the muscle in the right places to maintain his balance and a more uphill canter for more than those 3 strides. I will try doing lots more transitions, between and within gaits.

    I have tried what you suggested, of pushing him forward and asking him to move forward, until he realizes it's easier to just come back to me the first time I ask nicely. But I haven't yet reached a point where he gets tired and would rather slow down right away. Twenty minutes of strong canter/hand gallop later, and he's still going strong.

    I'll work lots on transitions and adjusting his stride at all gaits, and see if it makes an improvement. Lots of canter/trot and canter/walk transitions I guess!