Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Can Feel Every Pair of Hands

I sat on my little buckskin colt, Odin, early this morning. The sun had only been up for the last thirty minutes and the air was still sweet and cool.

Heavy gray cloud banks were already pushing over the mountains and the air was so humid I could taste it. Another rainy day was coming.

Satisfaction and a deep sense of joy made me sit quiet and soft on Odin's narrow little back. He stood relaxed and cheerful, chewing his bit in a contemplative way.

This morning I remembered why I love starting colts.

We had clicked.

After several frustrating rides he had just shown me he got it. He understood where I wanted his feet to go and he was putting them there. Not with the awkward stiffness I had wrestled with for over a week, but with a lovely flow and an easy response to my legs and hands.

He never pulled against my hands or stiffened his sides against me, he gave me every maneuver with a quiet confidence that thrilled me. The same shiver-down-my-spine thrill I have felt with every young horse I have ever started, on the day they stop working against me and start working for me.

Odin (formerly known as Leland) is the colt I began working with as an experiment that was a test of my own skill and the respect I have for the working of a horse's mind.

I have had complete control over how Odin has been handled since he was born. I was retiring as a professional trainer and had the luxury of time.

So I have trained him in a way I have long wanted to try.

The first thing I did was nothing. He stayed with his mother on pasture until he was eight months old. He lived in a herd with several babies his own age and ran and played and was disciplined by the mares around him.

I didn't halter break him or pet him. He learned about people by watching us care for the herd, seeing the mares nicker in greeting when we came out to feed. He watched his mother be haltered, saw her feet being trimmed, was there when I groomed her or doctored a cut.

If he came up to sniff me I would relax and let him taste the rough fabric of my Carhart or lick the salt off my arm, but I didn't try to pet him or catch him.

When it was time for his shots and worming we gathered him and the other foals into a pen and wrestled them down.

He learned I could catch him, hold him and let him go. He learned I was kind to his mother. He saw the respect I demanded from the other horses while I distributed feed.

When he was a yearling I brought him in with the other stud colts and kept them in a large pen. I had decided I would teach him each step only once. I would then progress to the next step and assume he understood the last lesson.

I began by moving him around the pen until he flicked an ear at me and then I quit.

The next day I moved him until he looked at me.

Then I worked him until he took a step towards me and so on.

He was halter broke in no time and seemed to understand that we were building something. then I turned him out again until he was three.

Fast forward until now.

He is well started under saddle, even though the last year has been very hit and miss with the time I could spend on him.

Odin could walk, trot, take his leads, stop and go left and right.

He was a little pluggy, a little sticky, but no more than any other youngster I have started. The amazing thing is, up until recently I never had to repeat anything.

He learned to tie, load, handle a trim, be saddled and ridden all by taking just one lesson for each step. I could leave him for two months, go catch him, saddle him, swing on and go for a ride without a flick of his ear.

I was working off the premise that a horse will remember a negative experience for the rest of his life. I saw no reason for a horse not to remember a step in training the same way.

I have recently entered the phase of having to build muscle memory. Repetition is the key to balance, reliability and instant response.

Still our progression was incredible, because Odin has become a thinking machine. He works hard to connect the previous ride to the next and in return I work hard to make each lesson be the next sensible progression.

The only drawback has been he has treated my riding him with kind of a bemused tolerance. He is a kindly little guy and saw no reason for argument but felt no need to give one ounce beyond my most basic request.

No one had ridden him except me and Kidlette. Since we are almost interchangeable as riders (except she is fast out pacing me) there was no reason not to let her crawl on when she felt like it.

When one of my favorite past students, a young woman who I trained from her first ride to her first World Show came to visit I let her ride him too.

When I became tied up in my own personal whirlwind I let the girls ride him without my being there.

"Guess what we did today Mom?" Kidlette asked me.

"What?" I answered.

"We took Odin on a trail ride. He was great, we let Beauhunk ride him."

"Say what?"

Beauhunk is the boyfriend of my old student. As far as I know he has absolutely no horse experience.

"Do you think that was a good idea?" I said.

" Everything went fine, Odin spooked once but it wasn't bad and Beauhunk didn't fall off."

I decided it was time to take back my colt.

When I went to get on I immediately felt a difference. Odin shifted towards me instead of away from me as I stood in the stirrup and walked off.

He had never moved out before I asked him to before.

When we went into the arena he was a mess. He stiffened his neck and stuck his head in the air at the simplest request. When I asked him to go left he would take his shoulder, flop his head and take off to the right. When I asked for a right turn he would sull up and stick in the ground.

When I asked him to lope he took off and ran to the arena fence, a bag of bone jarring, running through my hands, jello and rocks.

"Ahhhh shit."

We went to work. There was a lot of  head tossing, taking off, kicking at my heels and a big gaping mouth I had never seen before.

By the time we were done I was a sweaty, heaving, pissed off mess and so was Odin.

He had learned to evade, resist and refuse in a few short rides. I could tell he hadn't been abused or hurt, just ridden ineffectively. He was off kilter and rigid ad was acting like a spoiled teenager.

On the way home I was feeling just terrible. All those months of work down the tubes.

"Kidlette, no more greenies on my colt," I said over the phone."As a matter of fact, just you and me on him from here on out.'

"Uh oh, what happened?"

"I could feel every pair of hands that's been on his reins and it's like he's been taken over by aliens."

"OK, I'm sorry."

"Just because he's gentle doesn't mean he's broke."

"I know Mom, I wasn't thinking, I won't do it again."

"If you want to ride with your friends put them on your horse or Rosie."

"Mom, I get it."

"This is my colt."


It became obvious I wasn't using the say it once and assume it's understood approach with my daughter. I was going with the beat the road kill with a big stick approach.

So I dug in and went to getting my colt back.

We had quite the battle over the next week. He picked a different fight each day and we went at it until I got at least one good response. I was getting pretty down, he was turning out to be a willful little booger.

Then a funny thing happened.

My shoer, Ed, came out to trim feet.

Odin was a total butthead. He spooked when Ed used fly spray on him. He sucked back, knocked over his stand and jerked his feet out of his hand. His ears were back and he had a decidedly muley look to him.

He's never raised a fuss with Ed before.

When I rode him the next day he still had a sour, nasty look on his face, but he stood for his fly spray and behaved better in the arena. As soon as I got an ounce of try I quit for the day.

Yesterday was about the same, he had this pent up nasty look on his face and was slow and pokey. Again, when I got the least amount of try I quit.

Don't think I was all sweetness and patience, there was quite a bit of tussling, whacking and pulling, but it was pretty mild compared to some.

Then today he greeted me with a soft nicker.

When I was saddling Madonna he put his nose on my neck and whiffled my hair. I turned around and he very gently put his forehead on my chest.

And then, in the arena, we had our moment. He was sweet, responsive and better than ever before. It was like my hands were the only ones he had ever known and he was soft as a feather. He was better than he was before the incident with Beauhunk.

I think that moment, that click, is one of the finest feelings in the world. I have sworn Odin would be my last colt. But I found myself thinking, maybe I'll have time for just one more.


  1. Wanted to stop by and mention that I took your advice and implemented it as well as I could.
    (I had asked you how to practice working cows without having cows)
    I track, move, push the dogs, cats and other horses ;)
    It does seem to be working, I am getting much better results at our sortings. Thanks!

    ps - I have an Odin too, a grullo yearling.

  2. I just love your writing, it keeps me wanting more. I've gone back and read several of your older posts and I just can't stop reading them. I feel like I'm right here with you. I can't wait for your next post.

  3. Fascinating post - thank you. I've never started my own, but I do know what you mean about feeling other people's hands on your horses, and having to get the horse past that and find the soft spot that you can bring to them if you can get them to listen and respond.

  4. SO true about feeling other people's hands on your horses... and their butts in the saddle too. It can be frustrating when you know that having your horses exercised, or even just letting a friend hop on for a fun ride, may mean that your horse will no longer quite be an extension of your own body. It can definitely take a few rides to get that back!

  5. jeni- the interesting thing for me was to see the huge progression in my colt after we straightened things out.
    Was it the processs of having to work through our setback?
    Did having a different rider or two help him sort out what I was doing, or was it as simple as I had to whack him around and we reached a new level of respect?

  6. I'm so glad you got your colt back :)

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  9. LOVE the new color!

    By the way, I don't know why you're surprised he found his butthead side... you named him after the God of war/death. It's a good thing that Odin was also known for wisdom and poetry, or you'd be in for a real mess!

    I don't know - I could be wrong - but I think that regardless of whether someone else rode him you would have eventually gone head to head with him... it just seems like every animal goes through a rebellious phase. Puppies who were previously well-trained suddenly forget what "sit" means when they're 14 or 15 months old... teenagers start talking back, etc, etc.

    On the other hand---it's really interesting that he connected the bad riding from his back and was able to apply it to the shoer. A lot of horses seem to have two different mindsets when it comes to people - lazy, friendly horses who are great on the ground are spastic when you ride them, and I have met quite a few trail horses who are borderline dangerous until you managed to crawl up on them. So it seems like your experiment turned out a colt who reacts the same to people whether they are on his back vs on the ground - he understands they are one and the same?

  10. I'm with Becky, I think sooner or later they are going to try something.

    I also have a "colt" who's now 5. I also believe (swear) this will be my last colt. Ever. I'm not kidding. I've had him since he was weaned. I also thought of him as an experiment. I wasn't going to handle him beyond leading and picking up feet until 2 1/2. Then a hunter decided to shoot him. I had to handle (manhandle)him and treat his wound for months. Thank god he survived and wasn't lame.

    He was "supposed to" be about 15h, an average horse, like his mother. Not a very challenging horse. He turned out to be 16h, very strong, and very athletic, and sometimes a butthead. And, I had almost turned him into a Fluffy in my concern for his wound. I've been riding him for over a year. I never felt like we clicked. I felt like he tolerated me, but he wasn't really into it. I finally got the nerve to take him on the trails, and the second time I felt the click. What a feeling.

    I have a question/problem for your Mind Meld. I spent so many months poking him and doctoring him, and shooting meds in his mouth, when I want to bridle him he gets very tight jawed. I've been riding him in a side-pull and would like to switch to a bit. I've been playing with his mouth and putting fingers in it, and I can get him to open his mouth. When I try to put anything else near his lips he flips his head in the air and clamps his teeth together. Any ideas of where to go from here? Before anyone asks, it isn't his teeth. Thanks.

  11. Mugwump is back! I am happy. Out of curiosity, why the name change?

  12. Fantastic! This post just made something click in my brain too.

    I"ve been thinking that when my gelding The Plug is so slow he almost quits, I'll ask once nicely with my calves then get after him with the motivators until he picks up the pace and does a decent walk. (Holy cats he can be lazy. Plus we're both out of shape.) When he's moving for real I let up on him. It's exhausting. And really frustrating when I have to teach a lesson while holding the ol' magic motivating stick.

    I"m thinking if I do that once and get the right response maybe I'll untack him again.

    He tends to be a spoiled brat and resents having to actually work. He prefers the grooming and fussing part of the riding lesson!

    I like the name "Odin" and I have been wondering what he's been up to. I love that feeling when it clicks. I'd like to have more of that.

    Also. "Beauhunk." That's great. Now he can stand there in his cowboy boots and be hunky and admired rather than ride your colt. heh heh heh.

  13. @redhorse: What about rubbing his poll, above his eyes, cheeks, etc till you get a lick & chew, then approach him with the bit (just in your hand, not in a headstall). When he gives it a good sniff without jerking his head away, give him a "good boy" and a scratch. Gradually introduce him to the bit in the headstall but without trying to put it in his mouth -- just reward him for putting his nose to it. Eventually you should be able to rub it on his lips without a head jerk reaction. Rub his bars with a finger to get him to open his mouth, tickle his lips with the bit but don't put it in. Then work up to massage bars to get an open mouth, then slide in bit.

    I had to do something similar with my horse after he associated a bit with the vet sliding in the speculum for a float. I had to remind them that they're two separate things!

  14. probably don't want to know what I do...but I'll tell you.
    I just put the bit on. I wade in with a ring snaffle on a bridle with the browband and throatlatch off. I mak the bridle a little big so the bit is hanging low, just so it's easier to get on.
    No good boy, no bad boy, I just stick my thumb in his mouth and get in on.
    If he flips his head I hang on with my arm over his poll and my hand over his nose.
    Yes I've been flung, I just go back at it.
    The horse isn't tied, so I often get dragged around.I don't yell, cuss or beat rthem but I don't praise them either.
    once it's on I praise him, rub him and take it off again. then I put him up.
    If he's being ridden I ride with a sidepull and put the bit on as the last part of our ride.
    That way it's only about bridling, not about riding too.
    Probably not the most tainerly way to go about things, but it works.
    I'd go with Kel's advice if I were you, it makes a lot more sense.
    Heidi- I'd try it. When you get what you want, get off. It blows their minds.

  15. BTW- Leland just wasn't working for me. Kidlette had named him, I never liked it.
    His mother's name is Loki, so Odin suddenly seemed obvious.
    It suits him.

  16. Congrats Mugs - must feel absolutely fantastic to have your colt back! :)

  17. You've really taught me something about smokey I hadn't thought of. Love to see you writing.

  18. Redhorse- Any chance he needs chiro work to adjust his TMJ, or poll?

    I would do it pretty much how Mugwump outlined. Ignore the bad, stick with them and remain calm and clear, praise when the proper response is achieved.

    If you want to try to do a "super positive" approach, recondition him with items he likes... Insert a carrot like it's a deworming tube. Insert carrot like a bit, asking him to open with your thumb and supporting carrot below his lips with your fingers.

    Get him to like applesauce/syrup, etc. Syringe him with those 'til he comes to find your requests for opening his mouth are beneficial.

  19. When I saw "Odin" I wondered if he's Loki's colt ! Perfect.

  20. I love how you put your "training brain" into words. So how to teach a horse to recognize between riders, some of which will be good, some of which will be otherwise? It really makes me appreciate my daughter's former horse, who instantly calibrated his behavior under saddle to the rider's ability. Wonder if this is trainable or an individual horse's gift?

  21. Mugwump, I loved this post. I love reading about how you try to understand the horse and find the best ways to train/teach, given the horse's mind. Your thoughts and observations are very inspiring. Although I don't train horses, I do work with my horse to learn new things/patterns/accomplishments and like you, I try really hard to take his inner world into consideration. Thank you for your thoughts and writing!

  22. Mugs, thanks for your answer. I've always used that method before, and it was the first thing I tried with this colt. It worked twice. Then I tried other methods, more like Kel's (thank you too). Then I thought of other things, like teeth, but even a vet and dentist can't get in that mouth without tranquilizers. Lots of them.

    Today I decided to go back to the beginning and do as you said. I took the browband and the throatlatch and the reins off the headstall. I used a rubber bit. I did it after I rode him, with a rope halter on, in the round pen where I wouldn't be flung against a wall (yeah that's happened). I didn't make any noise, say anything at all, or let up on the pressure until I had the bit in his mouth. Then I praised him and took him in the barn. He was mouthing the bit quite a lot, so I left it in while I hosed him off, and that seemed to take his mind off the bit. He was very good about putting his head down, and opening his mouth for me when I took it off. It seemed to take 2 hours, but I think it was only 45 minutes. I hope tomorrow's a little better. Thanks again.

    I need a shower.

  23. Mugs, you said "maybe just one more"... Can it be my colt???

    Ahh, if only you were closer! I am still looking for a trainer with views like yours (since they align well with mine)!

    Loved the post. Makes me want to run out to buuy another horse... one old enough to ride!

  24. Love the title and I know what you mean. I am my horse's only rider, but I notice what you described if I get on another horse, especially a lesson horse. I can feel the horse shifting all over like he is surprised that my leg stays there and my hands stay here and my seat sits on him and then he starts to feel more and more like riding my horse, but not quite. ;) Sometimes the lesson horse will do something like press into my leg, which I respond to with a fairly sharp tap of the whip, no hesitation. Usually they snort and relax after that, content to follow my lead. Glad you won your horse back and better than ever.

  25. I like the name Odin. A very fine Norse god to name your horse after. ... I can't resist mythological trivia here, though. Loki the god did actually give birth to a horse, and it was named Sleipnir. Essentially, Loki had to stop Odin's stallion, Svaðilfari, from being able to work, so he turned himself into a mare in heat and seduced Svaðilfari. Eleven months later, there was an eight-legged steed.

  26. Essentially, Loki had to stop Odin's stallion, Svaðilfari, from being able to work, so he turned himself into a mare in heat and seduced Svaðilfari. Eleven months later, there was an eight-legged steed.


    That's incorrect.
    Sleipner's sire belonged to a giant that had been hired by the gods to do some work. Definitely not Odin.

  27. Oops, that's right. He belonged to the builder, and Sleipnir became Odin's stallion.

  28. I'd been wondering how that colt of yours was coming along...interesting series of events. If anyone could get their horse back, it would be you~