Friday, November 26, 2010

Splish Splash I Was Taking A Bath

When I was a teenager I owned a big, rowdy, opinionated gelding named Mort. For the most our learning was a mutual experience. I don’t know what he knew, but I knew just about nothing, so we had to start at the beginning for everything.

Crossing water was one of the first trials we went through. I wanted to, he didn’t. It was pretty simple.

There was a narrow creek which trickled below Mark Reynor Stables in Palmer Park. I used this as my first water crossing. I would point Mort at it and kick, he would eventually jump it.

I thought this was great fun and jumped him over it again and again. Eventually Mort tired out and walked through the water. From then on I assumed he would cross, and he did.

I rode the tar out of that horse. He was my major mode of transportation and I rode him all over the place. He learned to cross sand bars and swim in reservoirs. We would run and jump into streams and ponds. I never really thought about it, it was just the way Mort and I travelled.

Once I grew up and began training horses for a living I decided there needed to be a technique involved in training horses to cross water. So I got all “trainerly” and developed a system to get my horses in the brink.

First I would find a water source to train with. It can be hard to find water in Colorado, so sometimes I had to wait for some good sized mud puddles. But I could usually find a trickle somewhere.

I would give my young horse a good work out and then trot him to my water crossing. When he stopped I’d let him. He couldn’t leave, he had to stay facing the water, but he got to air up and relax while we stood there.

The next day I’d follow the same pattern, except this time I expected him to get closer. Usually I’d make him get close enough to the water to sniff at it and play in it a little.
I still didn’t cross, but I ended his training session at the water.

Pretty soon my little horse would cross the water and get his rest on the other side. I took as long as I needed to get this done. Usually it only took two or three tries and the colt would be crossing. If the horse was particularly spooky I would work him up to it little by little. It always worked, as long as I was patient.

Once he would cross at his spot I would meander up and down the creek, crossing back and forth.

I kept him looking forward, got him across with gentle encouragement, and let him think it was his idea to cross. I was pretty proud of myself.

There was a small problem with my method even though it looked cool and horse whispery.

When my colts went home they took something else with them. An opinion. My young horses were no longer afraid of crossing water, they knew they could do it, but they also thought if they didn’t want to cross, they could just stand and look at the water.

This problem went deeper into my training methods. It just tended to show up at water crossings. I had approached most of my desensitizing problems this way.

I would ask the horse to approach whatever was scaring him, then take him away when he relaxed. Then I would move on to the next problem. Eventually all of the problems would fade away to nothing. I figured this was the way to deal with things.

My horses were quiet and confident.

Then they would go home and start giving their owners fits. The little stinkers would hesitate when asked to do a task, and would feel perfectly free to argue about whether or not they completed it.

They didn’t do it all the time, just once in a while, and with a little work with the owners it would generally straighten itself out. But it was definitely a hole in my training.

What was I doing wrong? I started to think it was a respect issue. My colts behaved an awful lot like my daughter. Which isn’t all bad, it’s pretty good actually, but try getting her to do something she doesn’t want to. Like clean her room. Or vote Republican. I raised her to have an opinion too.

I asked the Big K for some input.

“I’ve never felt your horses don’t respect you,” he said, “but I know what you’re talking about.”

I waited while he mulled it over.

“They hesitate for a brief second before they do what you tell them. It’s almost like they ask you, ‘Are you sure you want this?’”

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked him.

“Probably not, but the question that comes up to my mind is, how do your horses respond when you don’t ask them, you tell them?” he answered.

Now it was my turn to ponder.

For the next few weeks I studied every move I made with the horses. Every now and then I wouldn’t ask my colts to go, I’d tell them. The Big K was right. My little guys felt perfectly free to sull up and argue. Not bad, no rearing or bucking, just a belligerent stiffening through the shoulders and neck. Which of course turned into a couple of front legs rammed straight into the ground.

This was the hole I was looking for.

I’m sure everybody has dealt with this one. It shows up at different times on different horses, but I see it most when a horse is entering a show ring, a trailer, leaving their buddies, and of course, crossing water.

I could wiggle them back and forth and kick them out of it, but why was it there?

It was because I cared what they thought. If my horse stops and look, I do too. If they don’t want to do something I tend to acknowledge it, ask for a little try and then move on.

I was forgetting something. Sometimes we need our horses to go right now. This second. No thought, just blind trust in me, the rider. My horses needed to know they would be OK if they simply trusted me and did what I said.

All of my approach and retreat training was just fine and dandy, but I had forgotten something I had instinctively known as a teenager.

If you just make then go and they survive, the next time it will be a little easier. Your horse will not only trust you to make decisions, but begin to count on it.

So I let go of some of my trainerly notions. When I needed to cross water I was still patient. But by God, we were going to get across, that day, right now.

A broke horse on the other side and the end of my romel did the job. If I needed to get through a series of gates or open an arena door I started to do it from horseback. We got it done. I would periodically hop on and take off at a high trot or brisk lope, straight from the tie rail. No warm-up, just straight to it.

As soon as they began to automatically respond, the better they behaved in general.

The biggest lesson I learned? Sometimes I had to forget the “right” way to do things and simply “getterdone.” My horses will still flick an ear in question, but for the most time, when I say,” NOW!”, I get it.

During a recent ride my yellow mare crossed a major piece of water she had never seen before. She went first, without a fuss. Every time we cross it’s just getting easier. Our trust is becoming a mutual thing. It's coming from a combination of what I’ve learned and how I rode as a kid.


  1. Wow this comes at the right time!! Lucas has been 'freezing' about two walk circles into the ride I half think its me being stiff and unforgiving though my body but Im starting to think hes just being a jerk. Any tips? Hes not dirty although he has hopped once off his hind end with me. (and belive me the wrath of god decended on him!) but how do I get him going again without turning it into a battle?

    Now when he does it I take a moment to get myself 'right' then boot and turn him out of it but hes still a pain...

  2. justaplainsam- I would accelerate to a trot about 4-5 strides before his "freeze" spot. Trot until he is actively forward, not tail cranking jog...then go back to the walk.
    I would do this until I felt him start to anticipate the trot, then I would keep the active walk, but not trot. Does that make sense?
    I would also practice fast walk, slow walk cues away from my circles so I could cue him up before the problem starts...

  3. Hey Mugs,

    This year we had a lot of rain...trails were flooded belly-deep. My mare last year started like yours...didn't want to get her feet wet or muddy.

    I was doing what you did...letting her look, and we ended up looking a *anything* she wanted - and it was hard to get her to go forward. I finally got tired of it and started walloping her with my reins or bat when I felt her start to hesitate.

    Anway, we went through all that deep water without hesitating on her part after I started making her *go* no matter what. We even crossed a shallow lake with a group, and I know she'll cross alone now.

    I really think it taught her to trust me, and since she is a "guardian" type mare, a big deal on her part!


  4. This is a subtle thing I'm just now ready for - excellent post, and thanks!!

  5. This is what we refer to as "double secret probation". Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.
    My gelding is undergoing this now, as he has problems with being all by his lonesome. He's rapidly figuring out that he doesn't have the luxury of having an issue.

  6. Makes sence, If I trotted him off as soon as i get on he wouldnt have time to anticipate that the trot was coming.

  7. This is a bit complicated for me. I like that I have two active brains working when we trail ride. In a questionable situation, I don't want my horse to go forward without question, but I do want her to go when I say, "Yes, I'm sure". I do a lot of photography from horseback, and I need for Jet to be paying attention, as I am often distracted by what I see in my view finder. In six years, I've pushed past her hesitation twice, only to find out that she was right, and I was wrong. That's a humbling experience. Since Jet is a willing and forward horse, it's not a big issue, but it may be more of an issue with our other horses, who might have a wider, deeper lazy streak.

  8. Yes! A "broke" horse submits or trusts the rider without fuss. If every stress point becomes a "conversation" or "training exercise" then no wonder the horses learn to respond to stressful situations by stopping to "converse". Someone who is paying to have a trained horse wants to skip the conversation part. And how can a horse learn to trust if that trust is never tested, if you never ask for something outside their immediate comfort zone? My trainer gets this at a basic level. I am figuring it out. Your post helped to crystallize it for me. Thanks

  9. I get into trouble this way... I hesitate and think "what's wrong" and that is where the door squeaks open for bad behavior. I need to get in touch with my inner fierce and just do it.

  10. I love Big K stories. You make him sound like such a Buddhist guru.

    If you get time, I'd love to hear more about how you balance trusting the horse with having the horse trust you. I ride endurance, so I want my horse to have a fair amount of free will - I need to trust that if she balks at a steep downhill, then I need to walk her down it. But at the same time, I want her to by god speed up when I say speed up... unless she's too tired! Then I have to trust her to say "no"!

    Horses are complicated. :)

  11. Hey, all...did an interesting experiment yesterday along these lines...

    It was 30 degrees F, Starlette and I were the only ones on the trails, it was getting towards dusk, and the deer had been hunted in the adjacent game forest for about two weeks.

    Starlette was already on alert, but I let her stop and look at something that I could not see/hear - and after a moment she snorted, dropped shoulder, spun and tried to bolt. I made her go past, but from that moment on, she was twice as jumpy/looky, as if she took over the protector role. It took me another 45 minutes to convince her I was watching out for us and she didn't need to stop at every little sound or movement.

    I would say there is a balance, and it's probably individual for each horse/rider. Starlette is super sensitive and spirited, so I have to be more reassuring to her than probably a more average trail horse.


  12. My 6 yr old mare won't get close and face open water. She will do everything in her power to turn her butt to it. I have crossed streams with her, I can walk her along a pond as long as there are trees and/or houses between us and the pond. She will stand a ways away from the pond and square up to it when asked, but she turns her head away. She has never had any open water trauma. Anyone have any experience like this?

  13. I too, like others who have commented here, like my horse to be a free-thinker. I want her to be constantly evaluating the situation and giving me her input. There were just a couple of times that I didn't listen to my mare and pushed her through...when she was in fact right about the situation.

    I have finally come to recognize her "I'm stubborn and just don't want to do this" as compared to "there's something wrong here" and "nope, no way, this is dangerous and gonna get us both in a mess." It's a very fine line to measure at times, and it's only because I know her front and back, side to side, that I'm able to recognize it.

  14. I've been through this one too- erring too far on the side of "it's OK to look at things" and not enough on the "but it's not OK to stop unless I ask for it."

    At a clinic earlier in the year I had the sudden realisation that a horse who stops or slows down without being asked is taking over just as much as one who speeds up or bolts, we just don't think of it so much because it doesn't feel dangerous, whereas unexpected acceleration does. But on the day you have to go forward now it could be just as dangerous to everyone involved.

    I'm not there on this with my horse but I have noticed that if I give him any choice in a lot of cases I will have to spend the next five minutes or more in a big argument over whether he can make all the other choices as well. He's not the average horse but this is also a consequence of me allowing him to take over, consciously or otherwise, for far too long.

    Most people talk about the benefit of having a horse smart enough to let you know before you push them into danger. I love that theory, but I think you need a horse who is really on the same page as you before you can have that and with a horse like mine you have to go through a lot of other pages before you get there.

    A technical question: When you do getterdone what are you actually doing? Is it more a question of keeping the ask on until you have actually done the thing rather than settling for relaxing near the water ( or whatever ) or are you putting more push on there?

  15. Okay.. I had to chew on this one a while.. I really believe that training horses is an art, that you learn how to ask them in a way that they clearly understand in order to help them accomplish a goal. When I am working with a young horse, or a horse that I am unfamiliar with (as to their degree of training) its all about the ask. I love it when you can actually see them analyzing a task and then the feeling of them putting their trust in you to do something that makes NO sense to them.. well.. you know..

    BUT..I amuse myself because once a horse has learned the task.. then there is a time when I resort to telling.. and nothing frustrates me more than a horse (dog, cat or person) who *knows* how to do it but doesn't.. that is when a come to Jesus meeting is in order.

    My old mare was a pro at this.. when she was born I informed her that she was going to load on any trailer, anytime, anywhere.. this was a major issue on the gelding before her and I was not going to live that nightmare again! And she learned, and loaded and went. The everyone once in a blue moon, she would just hesitate; pull back, wander around mildly refusing to load.. I don't know what triggered it; a ramp, leaving her buddies.. but none the less.. it became an issue.. and I worked with her, asking, trying to analyze what I was doing differntly.. was she in pain, was there a problem with the trailer ..the whole gamut.. then I tgave up and just TOLD her to get her sorrel butt on the trailer.. and she did.

    Damn horses :)

    So I guess.. training with an ask is a great approach, but at some point, as you say, your horses have to move with blind faith that you will not willingly lead them into a dangerous situation if you can avoid doing so.

  16. Another thought I have had about this ( this post really got me thinking ) is that if you're letting a horse stop and wait somewhere until they relax you're also not really asking them to think about the thing you need to get done. They could be thinking about anything and if horses brains work anything like mine then if there's a problem that is confronting them they'll be trying to ignore it as hard as they can.

    So if we do give them that stop, it may well not be productive anyway.

  17. An excellent post, and kudos to you for developing what I call "Equine Ethics". It's amazing how much common sense can be shoved out one little window when there's a ribbon involved (and don't even get me started on trainers... ;o)