Monday, April 25, 2011

One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time
By Janet Huntington

I have a little dun colt who isn’t particularly fancy. He is a little on the small side and doesn’t have any of the hot bloodlines I’m so fond of.

I am however, very fond of the mare he’s out of and the stud is a very talented cowhorse. The mare was no slouch either. He has a pretty little head and a kind and easy nature.

Since I no longer have the pressures of riding as a professional I have been able to take my time with this horse and have approached his training in a fairly unique way.

I was lucky enough to have him born and raised pretty much the way I prefer. He grew up out in a field with lots of pasture mates and wasn’t even halter broke before he was two.

Other than shots, worming and having his feet trimmed he was pretty much left to do his thing until it was time to start him as a three-year-old.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways we approach starting a young horse. The idea of desensitizing a horse to every single outside stimulus we can think of has bothered me just a bit.

It didn’t at first. The first several years I was training I used a lot of desensitizing techniques. I created quite a few steady, reliable horses. I learned to take my time, teach the horses to accept all kinds of scary things and to stay calm through new experiences. They did what they needed to in a quiet, trustworthy way.

Then I went to work for a Reined Cowhorse trainer. There were a lot of colts to be started and they needed to learn a bunch of technical stuff fast. There was no time for desensitizing them, we had to get on and get going. The colts learned to deal with the stuff the world threw at them as time passed. We needed them working cattle, sliding, spinning and changing leads within their first year of riding. They needed to react fast to our cues and the action of the cattle.

As the years rolled by I started to really think about the two different approaches I had learned to train young horses. No matter how busy I became I still had stalls to clean and there’s no better time to sort out horse training theories than while you’re wielding a manure fork.

The horses I had turned out during the first several years I were easy enough, but compared to the cowhorses I turned out later,
a little dull. The more I taught a horse to tune out things which would normally startle him, the more I seemed to teach them to tune out me.

On the other side of the saddle, the colts we just started riding and training maneuvers to still seemed to build trust and confidence as time went along, but were also a lot more reactive then the horses of my earlier days.

I started thinking about what horses would tune out and what made them react. It kept coming back to repetition. For example, if I waved a plastic grocery bag on a whip around a colt’s head every day for a month, and nothing ever hurt him, he would eventually ignore the flag. He was also learning to ignore me and my whip. I was showing him there were times he didn’t need to pay attention to me.

I began to think about a hard fact of life anybody who has ever trained their own horse has had to accept. A horse never forgets anything.

If your horse pulls back and breaks his lead rope he’s going to remember it and periodically suck back and test his rope forever.

If he learns how to open the chain on a gate and escape, for the rest of his life he’s going to try every gate he comes across. It’s the nature of the beast.

If I teach him he needs to periodically ignore me then wouldn’t he want to test me, at least once in a while, forever?

Because my colt is kind and mellow I decided to try an experiment with him. I was going to assume he would remember everything I taught him after the first time I showed it to him. Every step, one time. The next time I saw him I would go to the next step and trust him to remember the last.

The trick was going to be to build on each step in a way that related to the one before it. If each step made sense to him I could count on him to be ready for the next one.

It’s been a fun and interesting experiment. I began halter breaking him when we brought all out stud colts in to be gelded. I drove him and stopped, drove him and stopped, in and out through his corral mates, until he stopped and looked at me. Then I quit.

I figured he had learned I could drive him and I would quit when he looked at me.
We went from there.

So far my plan has worked out pretty well. He has learned some pretty decent ground manners, to haul, be good for the shoer and the vet, to walk, trot and take his leads, stop and turn, all from being shown once what I expected from him.

We ran into a bit of a glitch when he learned to run off when I went to catch him in the pasture, but we’ve worked it out. It only took once for him to figure out he didn’t have to let me catch him though, so I guess we’ve stayed on the right path. He also decided he didn’t want to lead anymore, but after one fairly frustrating session with a longe whip he got over it.

Now we’re entering the point in his training where we’re going to have to repeat, because it’s time to begin creating muscle memory. It takes repetition to learn where to put his feet during a spin or how to hold a straight line. Practice makes perfect is starting to come into play.

The nice part about it is I have a cheerful, willing colt who’s interested in what we’re doing every time I get him out. He works hard to figure out what I want and tries to do what I ask instead of tuning me out.

I’m still trying to keep things interesting with very little repetition. I can’t wait to start him in the cutting pen. I can’t help but think the muscle memory he builds by cutting will help him understand his reining and fence work when the time comes.

Working with a cow is different every day and it will teach my colt to think and move without my interference. So far, so good. It’s going to be fun seeing where this experiment takes us.


  1. I have thought a lot about this topic too and the desensitizing a lot of us are told to do. I found personally it did teach my horse to occassionally tune me out. He can also lack go from my leg. I dont know is this is related to the ground desensitizing, or if at one time I was using my legs more then needed. But I have found too that once they learn something, they never forget. And in reining and cow work, a more reactive horse is a better one.

    BTW, like the new look. This must be Madonna?

  2. I wondered how Leland was doing! Your approach to training him is fascinating, glad you're writing about it again, can't wait to hear how he progresses. Did he have the winter completely off?

  3. The reason my pony is so clean over fences is that he is a little bit of a spooky horse. He is very sensitive and looky, and hates hitting jumps, so he has a bit of an overjump. It is also crucial in cross country, were you definately dont want to hit those jumps. I've ridden the broke-to-death hunter horses at my old barn and hated it. They just plodded around in circles and barely made it over the jumps -- not fun.

  4. Nice to see Madonna at the top of the page! She darn well knows she's pretty, eh?

    I've been wondering too how Leland's education is going. It is really interesting - keep us posted! Another picture of the cute little guy would be nice too!

    Also- very true that horses don't forget anything. Sometimes I wish they would... at least they can be quite forgiving as well.

  5. Really interesting! You're making me think! :)

    It seems to me there are times when it is more desirable to have a horse who is perhaps overly desensitized. Many people need a horse like that so they don't get themselves or their horse into trouble. People who aspire to higher levels of horsemanship, though, would seem to get more from a less sensitized horse.

    It's not something I've ever thought about before, but I love these types of discussions. Thanks for providing such intriguing observations.

  6. Heidi- If they didn't forgive us we would be so very, very screwed.

    Jane A- I agree completely. There are many places for the desensitized horse.
    I also think there are horses who are driven crazy by the process. They aren't meant to tune things out.
    My colt? Born desensitized. If I did anything more on my end he would become a very dull boy.
    My mare? Born highly reactive. Which is why we are hitting the trail, not so much to teach her not to react, but to learn she can count on me to get us through scary situations. It is also helping me learn how to work her through her emotions in stressful places.

  7. I really think the sensitizing/desensitizing thing needs to be dependent on the horse. I have one who is SUPER sensitive - not spooky, but responds to your slightest weight shift in the saddle, or even where your eyes are on his body if you're on the ground. Having him a little desensitized to his rider/handler isn't a bad thing, and I tend to let him "get away" with being less responsive than I would with another horse. My other guy is just a big lughead - sweet horse, but just not very responsive. With him he must do everything I say NOW and I work with him to pay more attention to me and react immediately. If I did that with the other one, he'd be a tense, sweating, mess in no time flat.

    Horses are such individuals.

  8. Jenj, I need to talk to you! I have a great and wonderful lughead. I need help getting 'NOW' across to him.
    Maybe the issue is getting 'NOW' cross to me. sigh.
    Any comments much appreciated!
    This horse stole my husbands heart and made him want to become a horseman. So he is a gem in all ways. Except 'NOW".

  9. I have a very reactive, alert, intuned to his surroundings, gelding. Sure he doesn't spook at the plastic bag in the round pen or arena.....those usually have carrots in them. On the trail, well, that is a different story.

    I believe you maybe able to desensitize to a certain degree in a 'controlled' environment; ie, pen, arena, close to home. But on the trail, or even a show environment, those bags, beach balls ( the middle of nowhere floating down Beaver Creek), raincoats, popping soda/beer can tops, balloons, umbrellas are a different story.

    I also agree with the sentiment to let them spook, so they can learn to lean on you and trust you during those scarey moments.

    One thing about a sensitive horse, you really have to participate in the ride and NOT let those sensitive brains take over.....*grins*

  10. Hey Mugs - have you ever come across a desensitized low-ranking horse? It seems to me that all the horses I've come across who were extremely reactive were low in the pecking order, and all the horses I've known who were "thick" (thick hided, slow to respond - usually because they didn't want to) were fairly dominant in the herd. Am I barking up the wrong tree?

  11. Becky- that's an intersting thought.
    In my experience it's breeding and training.
    I can desenitize my horses with training, a flag, a tarp, that kind of thing.
    I can also have a horse who is bred "cold' and doesn't have a huge flight response.
    A highly reactive horse will take longer to desensitize, and a not-so-reactivehorse will pick up on it right away. For what I do, this training can dull their response to me, because I'm the one teaching them not to react to stimulus.
    In your example the bottom of the pecking order would have been trained by the top dogs in the herd to be reactive and have a bigger flight response.
    So it makes sense.
    How that translates to the way they respond to me would depend on our relationship.

  12. Love the pictures!

    I think this is a very interesting topic.
    Getting the desired reactions, keeping the horse reactive but also keeping calm when necessary.
    How much can you train, and how much is within the personality of the horse?
    Do you get the desired result when desentisizing, i.e. is a plastic bag at home the same thing as a plastic bag out on trail?
    Desentisizing horses is not common here at all as a specific training, and I have been wondering a bit about how it works, and what results you get.

    I have a spooky and reactive horse who also has a very good memory, and that is really frustrating.
    I mean - how many times do you have to pass a spooky place without it being spooky anymore?
    If my horse was spooked at a place once, she doesn't forget. Even if it was years ago, and she has passed the same spot many, many times without anything bad happening.
    So even if it is not "desentisizing" as such, normally you would assume that over time her reactions lessened.
    And I don't believe it is me either. I just ignore her silly antics and sit her out.

  13. I have wondered about this too. I have a wonderful, wonderful horse. He's a thoroughbred, though apparently no one ever told him that. he goes around cruisey and relaxed and slow with his head low... looks like a western pleasure horse.
    He's not bothered by anything, traffic, gun fire, crowds, 12 ton diggers backing off of trucks... A friend of mine was holding him for me and sat on the electric fence. She leaped up and screamed in his face and he took two steps backwards and gave her a look like, "crazy lady, wtf are you doing?"

    This is all wonderful for me, as he's my first horse and a confidence builder. The problem is, When I'm on his back I need him to react to me. Now. And I dislike making my cues so big he can "hear" them. I know he hears the small ones, how do I get him to react to them? So far all the advice has been along the lines of ask the way you'd like to, then tell him, then make him. This doesn't seem to get us very far.

    I'd like to point out too that his halt is fantastic, as are downward transitions. It's only forward we seem to have a problem with. He'd love to stand still all day. Best way to get him really moving so far? Take him out on the trail for upwards of an hour. Once he figures out we're really going somewhere he gets his lovely long swinging walk on and offers more forward no worries. Its just... I want that when I ask for it, not when he feels like it.

    Any handy hints?