Monday, January 18, 2010

Desensitize or Sensitize? Part One

When I first trained a horse for somebody else I was a punk 17-year-old who thought I could ride anything.

I still would have been the first to tell you I wasn't a professional. Nor could I teach them much beyond go forward, go left, go right, stop and back. I just had complete and utter confidence in my ability to stick it out as a rider.

As I progressed as a trainer I started to study John Lyons, Monte Roberts and of course, Ray Hunt.

During that time I began to break down each step of a horse's training. I would teach them to be caught, haltered, how to stand tied, how to lead and so on, sticking with each step until it was soft and good before I progressed to the next one.

I then went even farther, and began to break each task down into a set of steps before I would progress to the next one. I waited for the ear flick before I asked for the eye contact, before I asked for the hesitation and so on.

I spent a lot of time working on pressure from the ground. How many steps into a hip before the horse moved, did my whole body create the same reaction as a wave of my hand?

My "feel" increased by leaps and bounds.

After a while (when I was starting to get busy) I learned to combine steps to get moving faster. I learned I needed to get riding in order to get paid.

I taught my horses to stand stock still while I got on. I taught them to move a single foot of my choosing over a pole. I figured out my rhythms and pressures. I learned the subtleties of a good seat.

My horses progressed very slowly, yet steadily. They were broke, broke, broke. You could walk them over tarps and sling a milk jug around them on a rope.

They were nicely tuned to me and would extend the same courtesy to their owners.

I became busier.

Then I saw a reined cowhorse event.

I almost lost my mind.

I had never witnessed such a high degree of horsemanship. The horses were magic and the cow work was beyond my comprehension.

Karma plunked a horse in my lap who was made for the sport.

Out of ignorance and wild desire I started on my path to learn how to create a reined cowhorse.

As I progressed in my obsession I found out the little details I had clung onto as a trainer were completely obsolete in my new world.

Our horses were shown before they were particularly broke.

I assumed it was because they had so much to learn there was no time for the niceties I had learned was so important.

I'm sure I told clients and friends this as the years went by and I was beginning to get a handle on the cowhorse thing.

I would have a colt ready to ride within three days. There were trainers I rode with who could get on the first day. The wild young thing may not let me touch his feet, pet his nose or lead him, but he was ready to throw a leg over.

I might not be able to catch him, he might leap and bolt and skitter on the end of his lead rope at the sights around him, but he was going to accept a rider.

We started to train the rest as we went.

I remember when I first started to ride two-year-olds for the Big K. Sometimes they would cower and leap in their stalls when I came to halter them.

They often jumped and blew while I saddled them.

They shook and stamped as I wrapped their legs.

They opened their mouth for the bit, shivering at the thought we might touch their ears. We didn't.

When I led them to the middle of the arena they would jump and start at the end of the reins, but never pull them taut.

I would check my cinch, my stirrups, my bridle and then crawl up.

The little babies would stand still, every muscle vibrating.

"Don't make him wait!" The Big K would call.

I would raise my hands over their necks, my reins loose and my seat as relaxed as I could make it. The colts would scoot forward as if they were trying to run out from under me.

We would find our lead and be off. The second the babies were loping they relaxed into big, perfect, very fast circles. All I had to do was look where I wanted them to be. Rarely did I need my reins or leg.

The little boogers ran like they were trains on a track, every foot exactly where it should be.
They would run with their heads up and their eyes bright.

It was absolute magic.

I threw everything I had away and became a sponge. I wanted my horses to ride like the Big K's.

Showing was simply a way to check my progress. I could compare against the others. I could hang with people who were trying to create the same magic I was.

I didn't start to question what I was doing until about a year before I started this blog.

If you have read since the beginning you have a pretty good idea of the problems, both moral and emotional I wrestled with.

I began to bring back some of my own training techniques. I spent up to two or three weeks getting a horse ready to ride.

They were despooked. I would handle the horse from one end to the other, over and over.

They weren't the same. I blamed the breeding.

But for some reason I didn't think through I left my yellow mare alone. She hates having her ears handled so I didn't. She doesn't like being stroked on her face so I didn't. She shivers, she spooks, she is so hyper vigilant she can make a person crazy.

She will leap in the air and buck like a loon on the end of her lead rope without ever pulling it tight.

My yellow mare spins like a whirling dervish. She slides deep and long, she drives into her bridle and pushes, her head down and her neck level as she flies through her circles. She is a soft and easy dream on a cow.

So everything started to click with my "Only make contact once" theory with my colt. I didn't know why I was doing this. I figured it was just a way for me to create a challenge on an extremely easy colt. I was having fun.

But this game is getting more serious. Because we'll be riding soon and I doubt I'll have handled him more than 20 times.

He's extremely sensitive. He really watches every move I make. He is mentally a colt who would normally be dull and quiet. Potentially bomb proof.

But for what I do I don't need bomb proof. I need an explosion.

The light bulb finally went off was while I was working a mare at the horse rescue. She is a little, stunted, probably could have been nice if she hadn't been starved, bitch of a mare.

She's one of those sneaky things who can strike like a snake over nothing. So I was working with her feet, teaching her to keep her weight on the leg closest to me unless I asked for her foot, and getting her ready to ride.

The last time I saw her the operator of the rescue, Julie, told me about a go round she had with her.

"I went to brush her face and she went crazy," the Julie told me.

"She must have pulled me around backwards for almost an hour before she finally let me brush her face."

I said OK and went to working with the mare. We had to back track a little because she kept hauling backwards every time I tried something she didn't want to do, but she eventually caved, let me pick up each foot with a rope and stroke each leg from top to bottom and was ready to ride.

On the way home my friend and former assistant Kathy asked me, "I couldn't believe you didn't say anything about brushing her face."

You see I hadn't touched her head at all except to halter her.

"Obviously she needs her horses to let her brush their faces. The needs are different here.Julie didn't hurt anything, I have to pay attention to what she wants."

I wish I could say my thoughts lined up like a bolt of lightening but they didn't.

I thought about how I need to start approaching things a little differently at the rescue. The horses there need to be happy and relaxed and looking for carrots when the city folk come out to visit.

They need to be potentially your best friend. They can't hurt Granny or the kids.

They need to be desensitized. They need to learn to tune out outside stimulus and tune me in.
Pleasure horses, trail horses, kid horses, they all need to tune out the outside world and internalize their focus. They need to mentally stay attached to their rider.

So they are rewarded for tuning out much of the sights and sounds around them. If the horse doesn't spook he gets a pet, a rest or a cookie. If he walks through the spooky stuff and tunes out the scariness he gets rewarded again. And so on.

The reward system is based on not reacting.

The reward system I learned as a cow horse trainer is based on reaction. We reward it by release.

Punishment comes to a horse who isn't reacting.

I taught my horses to not spook, or cross water, or put on the slicker, whatever, by ignoring the spazzing and rewarding the positive response.

I would ask them to stand by a fence post, try to pick up the slicker, they jump, I put them back on the post, pick up the slicker, they jump and so on. The point I make is the horse was told to stand by the post. The slicker means nothing. Eventually the colt will stand where he's told and I'll get the slicker on. He's learned to stand where he's told.

This is where the training can get rough. Except this is also where I started to learn to reward the correct effort with less contact.

I would imagine a 1/4 inch of air between my legs and my horse. I would pretend my reins were attached with thread.

My horses were taught to seek my 1/4 inch of air space.

When he stood by the post I released my reins and legs even more. I simply put on the slicker.

They were sensitized.

I have found that if I spend too much time teaching my horse to accept my hand on their ears or a brush in their face they become much quieter. They also start to learn to tune me out

My cowhorses work a lot on their own. If I react it's because I want an action, not inaction.

I ran this thought past the Big K and he said I was totally on the right track.

"I find the less I do the better I'm getting along with the youngsters," he told me.

Can you freaking imagine what those booger heads are like to crawl up on now that he's doing even less? I am so glad I'm just playing with my own horses.

So there's the beginning of my thoughts. I finally understand why we did things the way we did.

I have learned on my own to allow my horses to learn as we go. By just riding I'm getting lots done.

The best example I have of this nonsense is this one.

At my last barn there was a llama who lived down the road.

He would hide behind his little shed and then charge the horses as we went past. Great fun for him. My boss would hang on and get after the jumping horses until they learned to jig past sideways. Not my solution, but hey, you do what you can.

A client of mine spent hours leading the horse up to the fence and letting him smell the charging spitting llama. He started spooking sooner and sooner as she approached the beast. Why not? Every time he fretted she stepped down and started cooing and petting on him as she led him along.

I thought about it for awhile and approached it like the Big K had me go to buffalo.

My daughter and I rode out there and put our horses on that hairy, spitting, rotten thing like we were cutting. They reacted by working the llama. They were rewarded for being wired and alert. We sensitized them to the llama.

So lets dissect this thought.

I am NOT saying it's wrong to brush your horse's face. I'm just picking through how things work. It's fascinating to me.


  1. Mugs, have you read True Horsemanship Through Feel. I think you'd enjoy. It was written by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond. Much of the talk is "the life of the horse" meaning keeping life in their feet through feel, but yet still (for lack of a better word) desenitizing. For Bill Dorrance, every presentation and intention is important to the horse, and there is only his concept of "feel" he uses for training. It is ever elusive. You sometimes know when you have it, and certainly know when you don't.

  2. Man, Mugs, your posts are always worth waiting for.

    Something like this has been a theme in my work with my horse for about 3-4 months now. She used to be pretty freaked out and would totally shut down mentally, so I spent a lot of time desensitizing her - I am not going to beat you with this whip, or yank on the reins, or let my coat eat you. I got her fairly calm and then I went a bit too far and she got really dull and unreactive at times. Now I'm headed back towards the middle - I'm allowing her to be hot and forward, as long as she's not ignoring me. It's hard to find the balance, but it's fun trying.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  3. Awesome thoughts Mugs - I think a lot of the sensitivity level that is desirable depends on who the end user of the horse will be and what the job is going to be for that horse.
    I love a firecraker horse, particularly if they really only go forward when they explode!! However I know that a lot of the people I used to ride against were very nervous when they had to ride my horses at pony club because they were way more senstive to leg and hand than there horses were. It also made selling them a hell of a job.
    I ended up getting my horses to work on the softest contact I could get, however I also taught them that you don't go too nuts if the rider moves around on your back and to work with more contact than what I'd normally have. I also taught then to handle the normal boring tasks - clothing on and off - carrying mismothered lambs in front of the saddle, jumping slickers that were blowing in the wind and had been placed over jumps - it just made them eaiser to sell on to godd homes and made them more likely to get good homes in the future (thank god we don't have quite the over pop. problem you do).
    As for hadling the head and face - I expect to be able to brush/wipe the face, and touch the ears, however if I have a horse that is senstivte about it I don't expect it to stand there and enjoy snuggles... I guess it comes down to the individual horses - I expected my horses to do was told when told, including giving me what ever part of their body I wanted, when I wanted it - and to put up with what would be considered "normal" activities with out wild spooking, but I was training showjumpers eventers and pony clubber type mounts, which don't need to be as reactive.

  4. Really interesting topic, Mugs. Honestly, it's one I don't think of too much, being a lower level rider. At least, I don't think of it much intentionally. But in reality, it's something I deal with quite often. Whenever I'm riding my mare on my barn's old racetrack, there are 50 things for my reactive little thoroughbred to spook at. On her super good days, she'll really stride out and can be left on a long, loose rein because she remembers that I'm up there and the forwardness of her walk keeps her concentrating on where she's going. But on any other day, I just pick up the contact, move her forward, and ask her to focus on me instead of what's going on around her. When she focuses on something else and forgets about me, that's when she gets away from me. I can walk, trot, and canter on that track, but it's all a matter of keeping her with me. At the same time, I do praise her when she continues on her way after a spook. It's not a big deal as long as she can handle what's going on and come back to me. I don't mind that she's reactive because it's what makes her sensitive to me, and fun. But I will admit - hot, spooky horses scare me and my confidence can go downhill quickly.

    I'm on the fence about the sensitivity of our horses. On the one hand, the bombproof ones are relaxing and simple. But the ones that tune you out or require strong cues? They drive me crazy! I'm still finding the balance of using light enough cues and keeping my mare's focus on me - she likes to look around and it gets both of us in trouble sometimes. It's a work in progress, but I feel like we're heading in the right direction.

    Thanks for bringing this up, it's something I'll be keeping in mind from now on.

  5. Very interesting post. I want a balance - a horse that is calm and focussed, and very soft and responsive at the same time. I don't do formal desensitization with my horses except to deal with particular problems that could result in injury to me or the horse, and I approach it as rewarding curiosity, rather than getting the horse turned off to sensation. And I want my horses to be all-round, not just trained to one task or competitive situation - and I'm a lot older now and I'd rather have a horse that trusts me and is soft mentally on the inside rather than just super-responsive on the outside. And since my horses aren't in competition, I often think "what would happen to them if I weren't here?" I don't want a horse that can't find a home because it can only be ridden or handled by a very skilled rider - I've had at least one of those - she sure won in competition but wasn't much fun to handle or be around.

    Your posts often challenge me to think. I think each of us has to find our own path with horses. There's a lot for me about horses that I care about that isn't about riding - in fact most of it isn't about riding for me, although that's in there too. I don't do endless repetitions or sacking out with my horses because I don't want to lose the "horse" - I think you get a mechanical tuned out horse that way - but I do want a honest horse to person relationship where we both listen to each other and do tasks as a team.

    I like that you think and write about this stuff - it challenges me to think.

  6. My horses are both innately non-reactive. I love them that way, but my four-year-old illustrates your point perfectly. She never needed desensitizing. Her first experience with a tarp had her flapping it all over the pasture within two minutes! She does, however, need sensitizing. I think in some ways that is a harder task. I do appreciate that we can ride anywhere - past operating bulldozers, 18 wheelers - without fear. She is safe and easy, now we just need forward and responsive.

  7. This series of posts really hit close to home as I am starting another 2 year old - for showing.

    I really took the time to reflect, and decided to approach her in a different way than I have any of the other youngsters I've started.

    She'd already worn the saddle (lunge line) several times, and really didn't give a crap about it was time to get on for the first time. I did something I had never done before, and I took the saddle off and jumped on bareback.

    I didn't climb up the fence and ease my way on. I grabbed her mane and threw my leg up and over (15.2 hands a 2 years). She stood stock still. I wiggled, I petted, I asked her to give to the pressure of the bit (walking circles both directions). Within less than 20 minutes I was satisfied that we were both comfortable, and that this had been a great experience. I hopped off, and the lesson was done.

    That was about a month ago (awesome Nebraska weather!), and I can't wait to see how she does when I get on her again in the next couple of weeks.

    If your theory is correct, the next ride will be absolutely no big deal, and we will move on to the next lesson.

  8. that is some thought right there.

    I have a horse that, to me, is bombproof. He'd never (never say never!) run with me from a loud noise, a flapping tarp, a big truck or trailer. But he'll spook at an empty pig house, or a newly painted gate, or a rabbit in the hedge. His spook is a mini leap. I know when it's coming, it bothers me not a bit. I love that he goes out at a forward walk, looking around, mouthing the bit, on the lightest contact. He may jig, he may whinny, but he knows his job/limits.

    Would another rider find him bombproof? It's hard to say

    What you've written makes me feel a lot better about my relationship with him. I didn't spend time when he was five desensitizing. He lived and learned. Me too, along the way.

    But that's just one horse and one horse-and-rider relationship. Now I'm a bit older, I'd be nervous on a spooky youngster that I didn't know.

    Great topic though! Thanks :)

  9. I think Kate has a good idea of rewarding curiosity. I don't want my horse to ignore his environment so much as be an active participant. I want my training to lead to a confident horse that trusts my aids enough to get through novel or scary situations. I do agree that bomb proofing does lead to a "dullness". You lose the spark. I don't like a lot of the "sensitive" show horses either though as they seem very stressed and unhappy even though their "fire cracker" explosions are impressive. I have seen a lot of stress colics in the show would in the more high strung animals and I think that may be why.

  10. I have taught my horse to be not too reactive. In part because I was extremely out of riding shape when I got him and while I *know* how to sit crazy bucking and spooking, if you haven't been on a horse in 3 years your muscles just don't cooperate the way you think they should. Perhaps an unbroke 3yo Arab stud colt wasn't the best choice at that point...

    Also because I do have to realistically look at the fact that I may not be able to follow through on my plan to keep him until the day he dies. Sure, I'd like to and that was the plan when I bought him, but face it, shit happens and that's not always possible. I want it to be easy to find a new home for him. If I DO get to keep him, I want him to be a horse I can toss rank beginner friends on then come over and not have to worry he'll kill them. And he is. Go figure, the 4yo Arab is the one we'll toss friends on over the 12yo QH. We'll also probably be having a kid or two in a few years. He's large pony sized so he's not a bad size for kids either.

    He's smart enough to figure out the difference between a deliberate light cue and just someone brushing his side because they don't know what they're doing. He's fairly hot with me, but I can turn around and throw a kid up on him two seconds later and he's back to plodding. Loose reins to him mean 'be chill'. Consistent contact means be hotter and more reactive.

    I think this way because of my first horse. He was a completely kickass polo pony, but he was the worst lesson horse on the planet. Turn your head and he'd turn. Shift weight and he'd turn, spin or bolt forward. It was great if you knew how to ride well, but he was in a lesson program. I wound up with him because he was a terrible lesson horse. Who buys a horse in their late teens that isn't a beginner horse? No one really. I had ridden and worked with him for a couple of years by the time the club decided to sell him and I was extremely attached to him. Had I not taken him, his life would probably have ended on a double decker. I vowed when I got a new horse that the new one would be ridable by anyone so if I ever did have to sell him, he'd have a chance of a decent life without me.

  11. Recently I read this article:

    It fits in this topic, I think--what are people's thoughts about this type of training?

    As someone relatively new to horses (about 4 years), I'm always interested in these topics.

  12. I actually tried this for myself. I have found out two things.

    1) When I got my horse Dandy, she was unworked and had picked up bad habits from her previous owners not being firm with her. She would charge, kick, buck, rear. I got on her about 2 weeks after I got her. I had done a bit of leadline work and then I led her to the fence and climbed on her bareback. I only had a halter and lead at first. The horse wasn't particularily trained so I started slow. She was 2 years and 2 months old. I kept her in a pen and proceeded to get her to move forward by making kissing noise. Of course, she would start like she waas trying to get me off. I got her to flex her head and neck by gently pulling on each side. She began to understand. She offered to buck 2-3 times, but never unseated me. Her training went on from there, next we got a saddle on and I jumped on, she wouldn't go near a wooden trail and now she can't get enough of it. She has learned to stand absolutely still while I get on and off. I have thought her that she can jump, but not run off with me, water, mud, trees... I really didn't do much with her but practice, practice, practice. I would lead her and correct her if she got past me or ran into me and by repetition, she got it, same for saddle work.

    2) I have trained a filly from the ground up, she was from a wild mare (that I also ended up training). I worked her on the lead for over a year before I ever thought of putting a saddle on her. She was led through the woods, over creeks, fields and was desensitized to plastic bags, people falling and things being thrown up over her head. She had work with a saddle on her back, could lunge both ways at WTC, did long rein work with her. When I got on her back, she was a true bucking bronc, she did a full circle of the round pen bucking like a mad bronco. I fell, of course, but got right back on her. It took way longer to train her than it did Dandy and she had much more work under her belt.

    My feeling about all of this is that if you feel that you want to put a saddle on your horse (given it is old enough), do it. Horses seem to work well under stress and pressure... don't cross the line and don't get them to the point of exhaustion, this is supposed to be fun for both of you!

  13. Interesting post for sure Mugs - I'm looking forward to your next post and more thoughts. Lots to think about!

  14. This was something I really learned a lot about a year back when I spent a month learning with Martin Black. He's one of the people who has a horse ready to sit on in about half an hour of work and in a few days they're going out on the trail and seeing the world. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

    What he talked about was how much of the desensitisation we do is in effect a case of taking the horse out of the horse and bringing them down to our level. The alternative is to bring ourselves up closer to the horse's level, which sounds a lot like what you were discovering with the reined cowhorse work.

    Two things I thought at the time were that this was amazing and I really really want to be able to pick myself up as close as I can to the horse's level in that way but also that probably if I was ever to be starting horses for other people here in the UK, they would prefer to sit on horses that have been desensitised a lot further.

    There's also the distinction you can set up between working with intention and working without - I would like to be able to build and throw a loop from my horse's back without them changing what they are doing, but if I'm asking for forward and I don't get it straight away I'd like to be able to get a strong reaction from just swinging the tail of my mecate which in terms of energy and movement is a much smaller thing than using the lariat. Someone asked one of my teachers at a clinic about how the horse can tell if he's asking them to be sensitive to something or to ignored it, he just replied "how do you know I'm talking to you?"

    Desensitisation is a tricky thing for people learning about horses though - it's easy to do but it is equally easy to overdo and it can be a lot of work to undo...

  15. I had to read through the post twice to get it! I'll probably never make a good cowhorse person because I like my horses to be on the calm side...can there be a balance?

    In training the wilder ones, I find it's best to keep going forward with new stuff at a fairly quick pace. They seem to get more worried about things when you keep drilling and drilling on the same thing. And like you said, they catch onto the other stuff as you ride and do the daily routine. I've heard of people doing a year's worth of ground work before ever getting on them...which seems really overboard the other direction!

  16. I've adopted a feral pony mare that I'm using negative pressure(?) to get to be handled. She has responded to round pen pressure(by someone with actual experience) by running away and never giving.

    So my theory is, she has to do all the work. She approaches and gets her click and treat. Touch my fist with your nose-click/treat. Forehead to hand(some truly elephant worthy nose wiggling while she figured that out)click/treat. Now I'm up to standing by her shoulder while I briefly stroke neck to forearm.

    I'm not caring if she spooks when I trip/scratch my leg/pet a cat. But her spooks don't get her anything either.

    I'm letting her desensitize herself to a degree, but now I'm adding in a bit of pressure by standing beside her-she got a click/treat for not moving when I stepped beside her the first few times.

    So I guess I'm on the calmer horse side of the equation. Some of Big K's babies would make me a little worried for them....

  17. I agree it depends on the end product desired =D

    I do eventing (lower level, but have worked for upper level riders). We obviously need our horses to listen to rider input, but also to have that extra leg and sense of self preservation to get us out of tricky situations, all too often caused by rider error.

    I believe a horse should understand and respect a driving aid like whip or lunge whip, so those people who train their horses to stand and accept a lunge whip flicked with great energy all over them make NO SENSE to me. I only use a whip to guide GO.

    Under saddle, FORWARD is always the answer, so we expect obedience to the leg, immediately backed by whip if they don't listen to the pleasant request. They sensitize and catch on pretty quickly. In a situation where you need impulsion or you'll have an ugly accident, your horse's muscle memory for GO helps you out.

    We teach them to think for themselves, too, since ultimately their wellbeing and ours is dependent on them understanding the questions posed to them by the fences. A great event horse tends to have a rather conceited attitude, a Doctor=God complex that we actually encourage.

    Things I do differently is how we think about teaching/developing gaits and whoa, and a different way of rewarding. Occasionally, I will push a horse to their physical edges, ask a bit more than they might want to give, and then really reward that. Our rewards are strokes on the neck, verbal praise, things we can give them while running & jumping cross country.

    I understand the rationale, but I would never teach a horse whoa by wearing him out, or working him to the point so that he wants (is looking for) the whoa. I know I will never get a lovely slide like western people get.

    Reasons for my way: 1)Some of these are TBs, they can go FOREVER, or hurt themselves because they think they can go forever. 2) If not out on hack, I'm looking for perfection in the gaits as ultimate goal, granted different on a flat or conditioning day than a dressage day. I ask them to always carry themselves as best they can for the style I'm doing that day. they do of course get stretches and breaks.

    A tired horse can't carry himself, and we don't want him to stop trying to always carry himself, if that makes sense. He must always want to carry himself, that's a large part of how they have a fifth leg available for ugly jumps. I want a horse to think he can go forever... We don't want them to think riding is an exhausting process, but constantly strive to keep it lively and interesting, so they WANT to carry themselves expressively in dressage, enjoy cross country and the trappy fences as much as the galloping, still look with joy at the stadium fences after two tiring days.

    Sorry so long...

  18. Thanks Mugs this hits just when I needed it!!

    My new horse is a show horse (AQHA, Congress the whole deal) The real problem was that he was a shell of a horse. This paragraph really fits him...

    "They need to be desensitized. They need to learn to tune out outside stimulus and tune me in.
    Pleasure horses, trail horses, kid horses, they all need to tune out the outside world and internalize their focus. They need to mentally stay attached to their rider."

    However he completly tunes out, put him on the rail jerk on his face, then let him go and you have a perfect HUS horse (very perfect actually...). Ask him to do a pattern or god forbid collect him on the rail and he panics... It was like he lost the ability to think on his own, just follow the program.

    Hes better than he was when he came, he even is starting to show some personality! He got turned out with the herd, so hes learning how to be a horse again and thats really help in the ring as well. He still panics if you walk into the stall too fast.

    Im walking the line, I want him to be happy and expressive, but I want him to be safe for me to ride.

  19. I think it's possible to have it all--sensitivity/reactivity along with desensitizing. But it takes longer to do, and you have to explicitly teach it. I think it helps that I have a performance-bred mare, though, and she's engaged by my ongoing effort to refine my aids to be lighter and lighter--that's how you keep that sensitivity on (that and swapping tack back and forth between English and Western).

    I've trained manners into her, to the nth degree, but she's still pretty sensitive to all my cues--but I try to shoot for getting everything off the seat, then the legs, then the hand. However, I alternate training between simply conditioning and working on forward, then working on more and more collection/responsive/schooling of higher level moves.

    I think variety is often the key, and keeping that same level of sensitivity and responsiveness while having manners requires a bit of careful work. Plus having new tricks up your sleeve to throw at the "know-it-all" type of horse.

  20. crappyrider- I studied Ray Hunt extensively, which meant I read Dorrance.When I first started working my way through things as a trainer his definitions were what I was striving for.

    Funder- Balance is what I'm looking for too, but wouldn't it be great if we could figure out what balance we're after and have steps available to get them?

    Deered- But does a horse have to be a firecracker just because he hasn't been desensitized?

    thenamesmarry- again, wouldn't it be cool if we could define what tools we could use in a combination to better get what we want? This is what I'm going for here, so keep adding your input,if it doesn't make sense or apply to you then say what would.

    Kate-exactly. If I hadn't shown to the level I did and then get to help in the development of cow horses way beyond my ability I wouldn't have known the balance I'm looking for.
    I have always maintained there should be a way to train and show a horse even at the tippy top without destroying the poor horse. I just didn't know how. I think that's why I'm so bug eyed excited at the moment.

    Golden the Pony Girl-This is what I mean. If the right balance is found why can't a horse be OK and still have a show career?

    Nancy-I didn't get the whole link, could you try again?

    Shanster - Thanks. I'm glad you want more because I'm a little on this one. I am hoping this can be a group thought process.

    Glenatron- I'm jealous. So very, very jealous.I also think the newer the rider the more they should work on desensitizing. It teaches a lot.

    Gttyup- the balance is what I'm looking for.....and a balance which fits in with each horse and rider.

  21. "A client of mine spent hours leading the horse up to the fence and letting him smell the charging spitting llama. He started spooking sooner and sooner as she approached the beast. Why not? Every time he fretted she stepped down and started cooing and petting on him as she led him along."

    I think this is backwards. He didn't start spooking earlier because she got off, he started to spook earlier because he knew the llama stuff was coming. Had she stayed within his comfort zone, he would have quit spooking.

  22. Hmm, interesting thought Mugs - I guess it kinda depends on your definition of "firecracker". A firecraker to me is a horse that if over pushed/over stimulated will fizz, or when asked to go - GOES!

    One of my last horses, an OTTB, took a long time to get out of racing mode, and took a long to time "desensitise". However I sold her to my sister (I needed the $$ for uni) and she ended up selling her to a kidwho was quite young - Jan (the horse) was getting fired up and eyeing up anything she could jump after going through a warm up line - she was wanting to jump the full wire fence - the young girl was put on and she unwound immediately - but with my sister she was super light and moving from my sisters seat - however with the girl she needed proper english aids!
    A couple of years later with the young girl getting more experience, she was back to her fired up speed demon against the clock! So even though she could be an "old plodder" ask her right and she was breathing fire again... so were does that leave her???

  23. So, as with the horse deered describes, can the aim be to have a horse with adaptable moods for different tasks?

    is this even possible?!

  24. So I have a question for you all. I have a mare who before I sent her to the trainers she would stand rock still to be mounted. At the trainers she would stand great for the trainers and reasonably okay for me. Now that shes home and not having the trainer work her she will hardly stand to be mounted and once I'm in the saddle she trots about 20-50 feet before shes willing to stop. Any advise on getting her to stand well for mounting again?

  25. I knew the working of the llama reminded me of something-the Premack Principle.

    "As a rule, preferred behaviors can be used to reinforce unpreferred behaviors. This is called the Premack principle after psychologist David Premack who proposed the rule. A formal statement of the Premack principle is as follows: high-probability behaviors (those performed frequently under conditions of free choice) can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviors."

  26. Holly:
    "A client of mine spent hours leading the horse up to the fence and letting him smell the charging spitting llama. He started spooking sooner and sooner as she approached the beast. Why not? Every time he fretted she stepped down and started cooing and petting on him as she led him along."

    I think this is backwards. He didn't start spooking earlier because she got off, he started to spook earlier because he knew the llama stuff was coming. Had she stayed within his comfort zone, he would have quit spooking.

    I don't know if that's really the case - his comfort zone was getting further and further away, if your theory is right.

    I also experienced the "deadly llama" situation with my idiot gray horse, who had been going by that llama and his herd of sheep countless times over the course of a year. Then on a blustery late-fall day, when all the leaves had fallen off the trees and the field where the llama was living now more exposed (it had never been completely hidden), he had a complete meltdown. I wish I had read Mugwump's ideas on this then, though they wouldn't have helped all that much: we couldn't actually *get* to the llama, there was a stone wall and the llama was in a separate enclosure. He's cowhorse bred and I know in a past life he's been worked on cows, so maybe the prior training would have kicked in.

    I did move him forward towards the llama, but ultimately ended up getting off mostly because the idea of being thrown with replaced hips scared me. I did not coo - I yelled and told him to stop being an idiot, just quit, fer crissakes... but he'd gone too far over to the other side of sanity at that point for me to make a dent. I just walked him away and got back on and continued the ride.

    I made sure to bring him by that area every day afterwards, and he managed to walk by it (though often putting another horse in-between him and the killer llama).

  27. About the llama thing... I also think that sometimes a person starts expecting the horse to act up at a certain place or under certain conditions, so the person tenses up, the horses senses this and complies with the expectation.

    Rianne, could there be something hurting you when you get up so she is trying to avoid it?

  28. Heila,
    That is often the case... though for better or for worse, that simply isn't me. I always assume the horse is going to be fine in every situation, until the booger proves me wrong. Most of the time I'm right.

    Whenever a horse does start getting the giraffe neck and light on its feet, if I can see the reason for it, I laugh at him and will either work him around whatever it is until it's no big deal or make him go past it as if it's no big deal... the main thing is that for the most part, it really is no big deal, and I refuse to let it become one. I use derision a lot. :)

    Of course, I don't live anywhere where, like Mugwump posted about a while ago, hungry mountain lions could be lurking...

  29. Scamp wrote: I don't know if that's really the case - his comfort zone was getting further and further away, if your theory is right.

    I did not explain well. Of course his comfort zone was getting further away, he knew what was coming. In order to get past that you have to start where the reaction is .not. occurring, before it occurs. It likely did not have a thing to do with a rider being on or off. I always ask the question: can you do it HERE? Yes, good. No, back up till you can answer yes.

  30. Wow!

    I haven't read all the comments yet. After reading Mug's post and Bif's comment, my brain hurts! But, I think I get it.

    There's one question I have for Bif (while I'm digesting all the rest of this great stuff! Man, I LOVE this blog!). I love what you said about having a horse be an independent thinker and having self-preservation skills. I feel that these qualities are what make a truly trustworthy horse, no matter how much fire they breathe. I am absolutely, 100% spoiled rotten in the fact that I have a fire breathing, forward, trustworthy, independent-thinking mare that is the absolute best trail horse I've ever been on (and was also a great show horse before retirement). I think I may have actually lucked into getting a second horse with the same traits (she's a 5 yr old OTTB, and it's a little soon to tell yet). However, (finally, my question for you!) how do you balance the "absolute control" of dressage training in an independent-thinking horse without either squashing that great independence or driving the horse absolutely batty? The (few) upper level dressage horses I've ridden seem to wait for instruction at each step, and many seem very insecure if you're not constantly guiding. I would love to explore the world of dressage with my young mare, but I don't want to squash her independence with dressage training that develops that amount of "need for control". How do you eventers balance this? And, is this independence the reason that eventers typically don't make brilliant dressage horses?

    I hope that all makes some sense!

  31. I'm back- I didn't make it through all the comments. Deered- I think you're describing a horse not a training method or system or whatever.I'm not defining horses or riders for that matter.
    I'm looking for how we effect our horses by what we do and then how it ends up effecting the horse we're on.

    Justaplainsam - I used to get horse like this in for training. Usually when someone bought a rail horse thinking this would mean a slow comfortable ride. Which it is, as long as you don't take him out of the arena!
    A horse like this has been trained on the dark side of the way I was taught to train my cow horses.

    He was taught the only safe place to be was on the rail working at the speed his rider wanted him at (we trainers can be positively evil in how we convince a horse of this).

    Turning him out was the best first step you could have possibly taken.Jessica Jahiel said once it can take a pleasure horse up to six months (maybe a year) to get natural muscles back after being kept as a pleasure show horse.
    Of course I relize we alter the muscles of every horse we ride, but I still got her point.
    Just riding your new horse and having fun is the next step for your guy.
    Can he still pleasure and be a regular horse too? I would think so. And once he gets the middle of the arena can be a good place too he'll think you're the coolest thing ever.
    Scamp- This is where comfort zones come in, we were working the llama from the road. The llama was behind a fence, a ditch and then the road. We worked from as far back as the horses wanted to be. Once the llama turned off the horses thought they had won, so did the llama and everybody walked on by.
    Half Dozen Farms- This is why I love this blog too- I don't have a clue! But we have good dressagers here who can explain. See, this is what I'm hoping for, to find a balance I'm happy with, keeping the freedom, thinking animals I like so much, but being able to be kinder in my riding because our communication is more open.Yee ha!

  32. Half Dozen Farm,

    Ohh, that could get long. My posts always seem waaay too long, anyway ;-)

    Starting with a good tempered horse that is honest and happy to please may be the most essential ingredient. I think many/most horses handled fairly fit these criteria, as long as they know what the handler wants.

    The simple answer is for me, you make dressage a game, fun. For me, it was a max of 15-20 minutes of work not counting warm up(honestly, for me, often only 7-12 minutes of real work outside of walk warm up), once or maybe twice a week. I used my dressage saddle for dressage only. My guy got to be quite good at dressage, even though it wasn't his favorite thing, in large part because he knew it wasn't drilling. He would give his best very hard the whole session, and in return I kept it very short. You build up those muscles over months and years. The other days, you're hacking out, jumping or grids, conditioning work, whatever.

    You teach them what it feels like to move in harmony and correct, and they start to seek that, because it is the easiest way bio-mechanically to carry you. That is how you do dressage without taking away their minds. If you're not doing above probably fourth level, there is NO reason to dictate every stride. Leave the horse alone, he should know how to carry himself for the given level by the time you are ready to compete that level. On the bit means the horse is ready to follow a command with the appropriate action at any time. The rider needs to be coordinated enough to ask and follow the response without riding stride for stride ;-)

    His normal flat work after 6 months would be better than his "dressage" was at the beginning of those 6 months. That's how it should be. They take what they learn and carry themselves more and more all of the time. My way takes a while. My horses, however, always happy to work, always offering try. You want to keep and encourage the volunteer spirit.

    From the beginning, a super greenie, I like to ride in a large area, preferably several acres before you'd hit a fence. If the horse is craning to the right, I put him in a circle to the right, so his body is correctly following his nose. Don't worry about where you're going, but make corrections/ change your request so that whatever he is offering can be a picture of him doing something with a correct body. They learn carrying themselves, and strangely, that resistance is futile, because they are still working in the field, only it's easier than at first and you're not pulling on them :) Think from the true horse's perspective, not our version of it.

    For example, shoulder fore, should always be taught by asking for a few steps (only over time asking for more steps, or more angling for true shoulder in), and the reward in addition to voice or touch is continuing off the rail into the circle the body formed in the shoulder fore, NOT straightening back out to the rail. This makes more sense to the horse, keeps the inside hind engaged throughout, and enhances forward as the solution, since the release is forward, not another lateral move that makes no sense anyway to them.

    I like to make packers. Why? I like to ride a packer. They can have a lot of athleticism, a lot of go, but what they have that makes them a "packer" is wanting to please the rider, feeling confident in their job (what the rider is asking) and enjoying their job. Maybe that just means "trained" to people, not a packer, but I like to train a horse to take care of any rider that treats the horse justly, provided that they are doing things within their ability, and thus can be fair to the horse.

  33. Heila, I have double check saddle fit, used different saddles, had my trainer come out, bring her saddle and try her and then me try her. For the trainer she tried it once but after that decided it was best to listen to the trainer. Same response for me though even doing exactly as my trainer said. My trainer says its because my mare is spoiled and a drama queen and knows now with me she can so she does even when its actually more work for her because shes getting her way that way. My trainers suggestions make her stop with as much force as necessary to stop her once I'm on and the moving around technique that she should me for mounting. A little background info on my mare is she is a 9 year old dominate pony quarter horse cross mare that hates to work and until this last year had not been started under saddle. She is as quiet as they come after the first ten minutes of the ride but she still stays nice and responsive. It makes her a joy to work with after the first "I don't want to work ten minutes" of the ride. Even with the trainer she still has the first few minutes for the ride where your best luck with her is to trot her until she has calmed and burned off some of her steam and is more willing to just finish the ride and behave.
    Sorry for the short story. I'm just looking for someone elses take on it

  34. Bif:

    Thanks! So, I think this all goes right along with what Mugs is talking about - you don't drill. Teach a movement in increments, but don't drill the increments. Once you have the whole movement, keep it short and sweet. Right? :)

    So, in theory and just as an example, if I was teaching my mare the half pass and she was responsive off my leg for say, three steps of half pass, would she then be considered "trained" to half pass across the entire arena? Or do you continue to add more steps gradually until you get up to crossing the arena? How does this not become drilling the movement? Or do you gradually work up to half pass across the arena (the maximum movement required) and then back down and only ask them for a few steps of half pass after that, since they are now "trained"?

    I'm still trying to work all this out in my head! I think if I can figure it out, it will really change my training sessions!

  35. HDF,

    In your example of half pass, in teaching it I would ask for the movement, and see what she gave. If she does it well (or a decent approximation and fairly correct through her body) for one, two, or three strides, praise as she's doing and send her on again. I like to send them on before they start doing it WRONG, if that makes sense.

    Ask again a minute or two later in the ride; she'll give the same thing, or something different to see what it was you praised before. If she does it, let her go the same number or as many steps as you think she can do correctly and happily, and send her on right before she'd reach that point of slipping into wrong. What's correct in the beginning can vary from what is correct for a show; it's what is correct for that stage of learning you want to praise.

    If you ask for the half pass and she doesn't respond in the correct way, redirect her into forward and quite so you have the right mental and physical situation to ask again.

    Why didn't she try the movement? Does she not understand the lateral cue from the leg? Does she get confused by the rein contact? Is she not stepping under herself to direct the energy properly to start with, regardless of forward or lateral motion?

    Did you ask correctly? Do you have a good picture in your mind of the correct way to ask, why that is, and the feeling you want her to give as she's doing it correctly? If any of those rider questions are no, I'd try to fork out the dough to a good dressage instructor with good school masters that can help me learn that feel.. even one lesson covering harder/confusing moves can help a lot, and is worth the money.

    Figure out the problem and take a step back to get the reason she's not doing it fixed. You may be able to fix it right then, you may have to work on her balance and throughness, her responsiveness to lateral aids, a few more sessions before she is ready to try to learn half pass.

    ...two part response due to length (oh, no!)

  36. Part two of my overly lengthy response ;~)...

    As for number of reps... I think there are times it is good to let the horse relax in the gait, to be rewarded by being left alone doing the correct thing. In half pass, a correct one can be harder for a horse to do long term, compared to say balanced working trot is a respite and reward, so asking for it a few times in a session is probably enough. Asking for it and being praised, moving on to something else (in a matter of strides) before she gets tired, isn't work in the mind of the horse, it's a chance to please. Really confirming the movement while it is easy before asking for more that really requires work will keep the good attitude.

    Working on it most dressage sessions isn't drilling if you are asking for it a few different times, interspersed with asking for more jump in the canter, transitions between gaits and within gates, shoulder fore, haunches in, leg yielding, etc. Doing quarter line half pass, round the end quarter line half pass for four, six times in a row IS drilling to me, although popular among a lot of riders/trainers. It works for them, just not how I like doing it.

    Doing the above over and over if the horse really enjoys it IS ok for 3 or 4 reps... if the horse enjoys it, it isn't drilling. If you notice her over time her attitude sours on a movement, cut back on the number of times you ask or how long you ask and see if her attitude improves, if not check for a physical reason.

    So, it's feel. You want to do it enough she knows what it is you are asking. You want to ask for it and send her on just before it becomes too hard for her. That point should extend with training, so at a show you can do a few in your warm up (not necessarily the whole length then) intermixed with other things, and she'll still have the strength and try to do it in her tests.

    Another way to avoid drilling but get all the work in is practice the different moves of a given dressage test totally out of sequence, in different areas of the ring than tested, but still all the movements. My horse never rode the full test more than once or twice in the weeks before a show, and he doesn't know it's the test because it's stuff we work on all the time like that anyway. It also keeps him from learning and anticipating the test, transitioning early in front of the judge ;~)

    Did my version answer what you were asking?

  37. Rianne, there are so many people on here with more experience than I have, but I will put in my two cents worth. One thing I would try with your mare is to lunge her for 10 minutes before getting on, to warm her up and get her attention on you.

    Then make sure there isn't anything you do that is causing the problem. Have someone watch you when you get on. Are you kicking her in the ribs my mistake, tensing and leaning forward etc? Do you mount from the ground or a mounting block? I would suggest a block if you're not already using one.

    This discussion has some useful suggestions:


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