Amy Skinner on Freeloading, II

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.
Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on horses and riders. Read Part I of Freeloading

Skinner writes:

When people bring me a horse and go right to name calling right away, my heart sinks. I regularly hear people regularly call their horses:

  • lazy
  • stubborn
  • uncoordinated/clumsy
  • unathletic
  • moody

When I hear these things, though, what I really hear is that rider’s own personality flaws.  They may be telling me that:

  • they are ignorant to the horse’s real nature
  • they tend to humanize their horse
  • or, that their ego gets in the way of finding the best ways to work with their horse.

I like to give riders the benefit of the doubt and consider that they are on a journey of learning. They are frustrated because the horse won’t cooperate in some way and they don’t understand why and don’t have the tools to work through the problem. Consequently, they resort to name calling.

Folks hear me talk about ego, conflict, and nod in agreement, as if those faults applied to other riders, not them. But we all struggle with our egos.

For example: My ego makes me crave recognition for my work, and I have to be careful that I don’t let it get in the way. I don’t want to satisfy my ego at the expense of the horse, by pushing it in a direction they’re not ready for just to look like a better trainer.

I have to be careful not to attach my self-worth to a student or feel that their riding ability is a reflection of my own.

We all have our struggles. Having an ego isn’t a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it so that it doesn’t interfere in our horsemanship.

Let’s assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re seeking real horsemanship and not wanting to achieve “success” at the horse’s expense.  If we really want to figure out why we run into problems with our horses, we need to change the labels we put on them and maybe change the habit of labeling altogether.

  • ‘Lazy’ could really mean the horse is unresponsive.
  • A ‘stubborn’ horse could just be confused.
  • A ‘clumsy’ horse is off balance.
  • A ‘moody’ horse could be frustrated.

When we consider these behaviors, we first need to look at ourselves.  If the horse is unresponsive, how have we taught him to ignore our cues and messages?  How can we help him understand that our aids have meaning? How can we nurture when and how he responds to them?

Often, the rider doesn’t realize her hands and legs create so much noise for the horse. Then, when they really want their leg to mean something, the horse has tuned it out, the same way that we do at a restaurant with background chatter.

Or, the horse could have been dulled down by other riders. Now, you need to help him understand that what you ask has meaning, and that you’d like him to respond to lighter cues.

Either way, it’s human error.  It’s our responsibility to make things clear and easy for the horse to grasp so he doesn’t get frustrated or tuned out.  It’s our responsibility to help him be balanced.

Horses want to get along.  They want nothing more than to find peace and know what their role in our lives is.  If we want to be fair, decent horsemen and women, then we need to drop the name-calling and start looking at ourselves.

Read Part I of Freeloading

Equine Affaire Art Sends the (Wrong) Message

We’re big fans of the Equine Affaire. We’ve attended the annual version in Massachusetts (there’s one in Ohio, too) for years and have even had a booth there.

So it was with a big “Oh, no!” that we saw the organization’s logo art for this year. It shows a horse grazing in a pasture with its halter on.

Say all you will about so-called “field safe” halters. The consensus here is that any halter left on a horse at liberty is a bad one.

Just ask the guys of Unbranded, who left a halter on one of their mustangs and then woke up to a severely injured horse. (It likely happened when the horse went to scratch his chin, as shown in the illustration below.

Just ask Julie Goodnight, who wrote about it on her social media page:

It’s a scene that irritates me every time I see it: 

horses turned out with halters on…I am not sure whether this is done out of ignorance, laziness or simple incompetence, but I am sure it is not a good idea.

In my opinion, there’s no good reason to turn a horse loose in a halter and leaving a halter on 24/7 is very poor horsemanship. It is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous to the animal and it will not resolve any training issues that the horse might have. Turned loose in a halter, the horse may potentially snag the halter on something and be stuck. Maybe he’ll panic and break free, maybe he’ll throw himself on the ground and struggle; either way the potential for hurting himself is huge.

Besides, how would you like to have that thing on your head all the time? Maybe some people think because we leave collars on dogs, it is ok to leave halters on horses, but a dog does not have the same capacity for panic and destruction that horses have.

Julie Goodnight

Often I hear people say they leave a halter on because their horse is difficult to catch. But guess what? That’s not fixing the problem—it’s avoiding it. Training and good handling will fix a hard-to-catch horse. Leaving a halter on 24/7 will not. I’ve worked with many wild, unhandled or traumatized horses and the temptation to leave a halter on is great. But until the horse is desensitized to your approach, your touch and the halter going on and off, your problem is not solved.

Thanks, Julie.

We visited with the Equine Affaire’s Executive Producer Coagi Long. She said of the watercolor, “It’s a piece of art and is not necessarily meant to be instructional by any means.” During the process for selecting the painting, the fact that the horse was wearing a halter was not addressed. But, Long said, “it’s something we could address in future.”

Thanks, Coagi, we hope you do!

Curious about other practices that we’ve given Thumbs Down?

Read about Cross Ties

Read Amy Skinner’s take on Cross Ties

Read more about Haltering

Who’s the Freeloader in Your Horse-Rider Partnership?

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit

Here, Skinner shares some notes on horses and riders.

Read Freeloading, II

Skinner writes:

Ray Hunt said, “The first time you ride a horse, he’ll cost you money. The second time he’ll hold his own. The third ride, he’s on the payroll.”

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this process. It has a different meaning to me now than it did years ago. The young horses I started always came up with some resistance to my leg or rein or body aids during the first week of riding, and I always figured they needed more time to sort things out.

This month, as I start a group of young horses at the Bar T, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany:

Amy Skinner

Before riding them, all the work I did with them on the ground was directly related to riding. I asked them to carry themselves a certain way. I looked for lightness and relaxation with my cues.

Beyond these requirements, I also asked the horse to play a part. In other words, I’d ask myself, “How can I get this horse not simply to accept what I’m doing, but to be a part of it?

  • When I caught a horse, I asked it to participate by facing up, lowering its head, softening its poll, and tipping its head toward me. I would want it to find those movements through relaxation and learn to get in these habits without my forcing it.
  • When saddling, I stopped going around the horse to get to the cinches. Instead, I moved the horse around me, moving the shoulders around the front end and putting itself in place for me to cinch it up.
  • I asked my horses to lead up to a block, fence, or wherever I was standing for mounting. I most definitely asked horses to stay still when I mounted and dismounted.
  • I asked the horses to find relaxation in whatever I was asking and to participate rather than tolerate.

What were the results to my new approach?

  • Better first rides with less trouble and fear for both of us.
  • A better connection between what I’d taught on the ground and what I was asking for under saddle.
  • A working horse in fewer rides.

My group of colts right now are on their second and third rides. They are walking through water, going out on the trail, opening fences, and loading cows up onto a trailer.

I believe the reason these colts are so handy and relaxed is because they’ve been contributing since Day 1. Everything we did under saddle was just the next thing from what they’d already been doing on the ground. It wasn’t a shock or big change from their pre-riding life to going under saddle.

I think of bosses I’ve had. In jobs where bosses told me what to do, I complied because my paycheck depended on it. I did what I was asked, nothing more.

In jobs where my bosses asked me to participate and treated me like a work partner, I felt valued and offered more. I noticed things that needed to be done and did them without being asked. I was part of the whole, not just someone being directed and waiting to get done and go home.

I believe horses feel the same. At the risk of humanizing the horse, I feel that when horses who are asked to take part and have jobs, they have pride in their work. I see this when my colts get confident after moving a cow, or ponying another horse, or opening a gate. They know they contributed to something and feel confident about their ability.

I feel sad for horses who just get ridden around in arenas, show pens, and trails where they are just told to perform, go, stop, and turn. I hear people blame their horses regularly, but to me it sounds like excuses for poor horsemanship:

“He’s too much of a baby to do that.”

“My horse hates water, he’d never go through that.”

“That’s all well and good on a gelding, but try doing that with a mare.”

“Oh but he’s an Arab/Warmblood/Showhorse/donkey/mule…”

When riders insult their horses, what they’re really saying is that they as riders are too afraid, ignorant, or unwilling to change. Horses need to be respected as intelligent beings with a lot to offer.

So who is the freeloader? You or your horse? As my teacher Alicia Byberg said, “Pet your horse and slap yourself.” I still haven’t heard better advice to this day.

Gerd Heuschmann: A good cowboy IS a classical rider

We hear this week from Andrea Haller of Wellborn Quarter Horses. She will host Dr. Gerd Heuschmann following his appearance at the Best Horse Practices Summit. She submitted a multi-part feature to help us learn more about Heuschmann.

Haller writes:

What does good riding have to do with any specific discipline? This is the rhetorical question that Dr. Gerd Heuschmann often asked audiences.

His response:

For me, a classical rider is able to train his horse for what he wants to do, without damaging the horse’s body or mind. A good cowboy can be a classical rider, if he is a good cowboy.

Heuschmann gives us this example:

“I was visited by a cowboy from Montana a few years ago. It was his first time out of the United States. He is a great horseman, and has spent his life with cattle and horses. This cowboy worked my horse on the ground, and, I saw he was doing exactly the same thing as I do, which my biomechanical explanations say that I ought do:

➢       what happens while moving laterally?

➢       what happens to the back?

➢       what happens to the shoulders?

➢       what happens to the poll?

He’s doing the same things I do– working with his rope and he says, ‘now we open the poll,’ and he says ‘this brings the mind to the ground.’

I say, ‘Oh! He stretches the upper muscle system and the neck.’

At the end we recognize that we are both right. When the horse relaxes the muscles and starts chewing, his mind gets ‘to the ground.’ This is why we should talk more with horsemen from different disciplines.”

There are “properly-trained” Western horses who can compete Hunter under Saddle, Hunter over fences, lower-level Dressage, jumping, and 3-day eventing with no additional “training.”

How was this possible?

Heuschmann’s new book, Collection or Contortion? Exposing the Misconceptions and Exploring the Truths of Horse Positioning and Bend” is a critical examination of two concepts—flexion and bend. And it explains why this “untrained” horse with a Western background transitioned so easily to English disciplines.

In this new book, Heuschmann cites the many masters of classical dressage who wrote essays and even entire books about flexion at the horse’s poll and longitudinal bend of the horse’s body.   Dr. Heuschmann strives to fuse the complex classic literature with the results of his own studies as an expert in equine anatomy and biomechanics.

He meticulously describes various movements used, their desired effects, and the truth behind the rider’s role in each. In addition, he unveils his recommendations for dealing with the horse’s “natural crookedness” and “false bend,” providing basic guidelines for schooling that ensure correct movements with the end-goal of a more athletic, collected horse, and happier, healthier horses in the long run.

Dr. Heuschmann will be speaking at the upcoming Best Horse Practices Summit, Oct 8 – 10, in Durango, CO.

He will also be appearing Oct 21-23, 2017 in Florida, where he will present his Equine BioMechanics Lecture, Demonstrations and lessons. Please contact Andrea Haller for further information on this symposium. andreajhaller at gmail dot com Or click here.

Other clinic locations are Washington, Colorado and North Carolina.   The 2017 USA Clinic Tour is sponsored by Omega Fields (makers of Omega HorseShine) and Photonic Health of Ocala.

Riders: Mean What You Say!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Juliana Zunde of Hillsborough, North Carolina as a BestHorsePractices guest columnist.
Zunde was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1981. She has managed large horse facilities, competed at high levels, and taught extensively, especially to hunter/jumper enthusiasts. She runs Trakai Farm in Hillsborough.
Zunde coaches harmony and balance for the hunter, jumper, and dressage ring.
She has studied with George Morris, Joe Fargis, Jeff Cook, Ann Kursinsky, Dr. Gerd Heuschman, Maclain Ward, Buck Brannaman, and Martin Black.
Read more about her here.

Zunde writes:

I’m with an acquaintance and she looks upset. I ask what’s wrong. The answer is, “Nothing’s wrong.” But the words coming out of her mouth don’t match the look on her face. My answer to her answer is often: “Which would you like me to believe, your words or your expression? They don’t say the same thing.”

As humans, we are very good at covering up how we really feel, saying one thing when we really mean something totally different. The strategy doesn’t work with horses. Their communication is literal and direct.

In training and riding horses, we need to use this inherent part of their nature and their way of “talking” with each other to communicate our needs to them. Horses don’t ever show one thing and mean something totally different. When ears go back, it means move or there will be a consequence. There are no discussions at the water trough as to who would go first. The alpha goes first unless he decides to let another join her. Either way it will be very clear. There is no saying one thing and meaning another.

This also holds true for our communication with them. If you inadvertently use your leg when it should just stay quiet, your horse will respond. He has no clue that you did not mean it.

I see riders and horses get frustrated because there is too much extra clutter in conversations:

  • a leg in the wrong position
  • a sequence started wrong and not in rhythm with the footfall of the horse
  • aids clashing rather than working in concert with each other
  • asking too little or too much at the wrong time

In order to truly have a conversation with your horse, you have to first be in a position to really listen. Read more here.

You have to unclutter your mind, tune into your horse, and feel where she is at that moment.

Secondly, you need to start asking questions. If you don’t get the right answer, look to yourself:

  • Did you ask the right question in the correct sequence?
  • Was it loud enough for him to respond?
  • Did you ask too loudly, causing him to overreact?

The well-trained horse can give you the right answer if you ask the right question with the right meaning and the right intent at the right time. In the same fashion, the green horse will never learn correctly if your aids keep changing or if you are giving him different cues at different times for the same thing. As you can see, there are a lot of things you must do correctly.

In your horse’s world, the right question asked in the right way with the proper intent, and then rewarded with the soft relief when it is willingly answered it something more gratifying, more satisfying than any food treat.

Horses know if you are truly their leader and with them all the way. They won’t believe you unless words, actions, and intent all say the same thing. Horses will always take you at face value. They have no ego that needs protection.

Learn to be true in your communication with yourself and the world around you. The same can hold true for human interactions. The next time someone asks you how you’re feeling, make your words and facial expressions match. Our relationships might improve if we tried to say what we mean honestly and politely.

Think Riding is Hard? Try Teaching It

In a recent BestHorsePractices post, we wrote about Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do. It discussed the challenges of thinking, balancing, and connecting with your equine partner.

We then heard from several clinicians who talked about the challenges of nurturing that complicated, multi-faceted horse-rider partnership and communicating effectively enough to be understood and appreciated.

West Taylor, who with Dr. Steve Peters will present at the Horse Science Seminar next month in Park City, helped articulate the challenges.

Taylor shared these thoughts:

My horse training program broken down to its simplest form is: Pressure, Release, and Seeking Relief.

  • Pressure motivates the horse to “find something.”
  • Release tells the horse “you have found the answer.”
  • Allowing the horse the time to “seek relief” after the release of pressure puts it together with a reinforcing dose of dopamine.

From the time I release pressure, that horse is the seeking relief. I don’t know how much value there would be in the release if there weren’t time for that relief. However, if at that time the horse and rider are in a getting-something-done situation, then it’s different. As horsemen, we tend to toggle between these two situations.

I focus on Timing, Balance, and Feel.

Read more about Mastering the Elements here.

There is timing with pressure, timing with release, and timing with balance.

What does the balance of pressure mean? That’s knowing for example when to put on a little pressure and when to add more.

West Taylor’s client at work with her horse

Feel is everything, right?

As in:

  • What do I feel like this horse needs right now?
  • What’s the feel in watching the horse seek relief?

I might ask a horse at liberty to walk across a tarp. The feel to me here is in the observing and reacting:

  • Do I have to step back one step, two steps, five steps?
  • What do I need to do for the horse to be able to do what I’m asking it to do?

Will I need to take two big steps away in order for it to lick and chew?

That’s the feel to me. I see a lot of clients that miss the feel. What I want my clients to find is that feel, that observation. Rather than tell them A, B, and C, I’ll ask them, ‘What did you see?

With clear communication, you will see the results. But can the clients see it?

When something happens with the horse, I like to say:

  • How did you cause that?
  • What did you not support?
  • What did you not adjust to?

From a pro-active standpoint, we need to see how we set it up or how we got in the way. How did we cause an action or behavior? I just keep asking them. Often clients just don’t know. That’s why they are here. That’s what they learn. Teaching horsemanship is the most masterful game of chess that we can play. It’s leading the horse and person to the right moves.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert, along with Neubert’s daughter, Kate, will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage. Kate Neubert was just a girl when she visited with the Dorrances, but she, too, is a product of their teachings.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!

 

Amy Skinner’s Young Horse Basics

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on starting young horses.

She writes:

Starting a horse is about providing a good foundation for the rest of its life. To help prepare it, I want to make sure it’s exposed to as much as possible and to instill confidence and curiosity at a young age.  I can’t prepare it for everything it will encounter, but if I can get a good mix of curiosity and confidence overall, the colt will have what it needs to tackle new obstacles.

The Challenges

Whether it’s a future dressage horse, jumper, cutting horse, or trail horse, I believe every young horse should know how to:

  • walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein
  • ride out alone and with friends on the trail
  • move a cow

All part of the process. A young horse learns the feel of a saddle

When a young horse is getting started, it can overwhelmed with new information quickly.  It has to learn to:

  • carry a saddle,
  • wear a bridle and bit
  • carry a rider

It has to learn to interpret the scary, funny feeling in its mouth when the rider tries to direct it. And it needs to do this while managing the rider’s moving weight on its back.  It has to handle being exposed to new and scary things: different places, obstacles, scary corners in the arena, cows, and more.

I hope to provide the horse with plenty of information for it to digest and to learn in a productive and confidence-boosting way. Starting, no matter how well you go about it, can be stressful on a horse. Young horses are still learning to balance themselves and you’ll often see them move in silly, awkward ways.  Their bodies aren’t fully developed and they can experience fear or concern while carrying the extra weight of a rider.

Providing Advantages or Dealing with Handicaps

Horses raised outside in a healthy herd dynamic and exposed to varied terrain and diverse situations are invariably easier to start.  These horses have a better sense of balance and a better awareness of their surroundings.  This is a totally natural development for a horse.

Unfortunately, many young horses are born in stalls, brought into stalls daily, and spend most of their time in small, groomed pens or sterile arenas with flat and soft footing.  This scenario offers the young horse no advantages. I’ve found these horses to be more nervous and less capable than a young horse raised outside in a more natural environment.

Horses raised in ‘positively unpredictable’ environments are also quicker learners, as they have had to adapt faster and learn to trust their instincts.  Stall-raised young horses are often shielded from unpleasant stimuli and never have to adapt to survive.  While learning to tolerate fly-spraying and blanketing may have some small benefits, humans take the more crucial adaptive abilities away from these horses, making them worse off.

If you want to have a super learner, an athlete, and a brave and curious horse, do him the favor of being outside without interference.

  • Let him deal with herd members, bugs, wind, hills, and rain.
  • Let him manage around the holes in the pasture. Horses and holes have evolved together over millennia and horses have not been wiped out yet because of them.

‘Going natural’ like this will not only make him healthier, happier, and more mentally balanced, it will make him a better learner and better athlete too.

 

His Rearing was the Tip of the Iceberg

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.

Skinner writes:

Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem.  He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.

“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear.  Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling.  He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.

Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:

— Bellus was used to going in a stall.  As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.

— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.

— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.

— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.

At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.

I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage.  I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.

Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance. 

But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.

With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them.  His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.

Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame.  He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.

With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them.  He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily.  He felt unbalanced and often panicked.  He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation.  In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.

After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements.  He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein.  He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.

In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope.  They asked me to take him. I was glad to.

My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly.  He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life.  As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Bellus returns to the arena with more relaxation

Downregulation in practice

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western at Jim Thomas’ Bar T Ranch. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. She

Amy Skinner, Dr. Steve Peters, and a horse brain

heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Recently, Skinner attended the Healthy Horse Seminar which featured Dr. Steve Peters. She writes about applying what she learned to her work.

She writes:

It’s a very exciting time in the horse world right now. There’s more information available to the layman than ever.  We have a better understanding of the horse physically and mentally, and with Evidence-Based Horsemanship, it seems like we literally have an operations manual with a scientific approach to the horse’s brain.

As a trainer, all this new science-y information swirled around in my head and I looked for ways to apply it. When Dr. Steve Peters talked about keeping horses interest peaked without panic setting in, I thought about how I often went about trying to introduce a horse to something new and scary.  I set out to experiment a little, to get out of my set ideas of how horses “should” be trained and just be a scientist for a little bit.

Peters will present at the Best Horse Practices Summit.

The Bar T Ranch is home to five cows. They live in a field behind the arena.  Sometimes, I think they get a kick out of seeing what sort of trouble they can stir up; they might lie down by the far end of the arena and stand up just as I ride a young horse near them. To the colt, I imagine this looks like a monster just popped up from underground.  Several horses in training have some aversion to the monster end of the arena.

One horse is particularly scared of the cows.  I’ve ridden him around them and worked the cows off him. He’d settle down for the moment, but his deep suspicion lingered and every new day in the arena he’d spot the cows and start snorting and bracing his neck and head like a submarine periscope.

Dr. Peters explained how a horse can vacillate between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In my new mindset of experimentation, I took the colt to the far end of the arena with a bucket of grain and set it right by the fence. The cows, curious and greedy, came running.  At first, the little colt eyed the cows with concern, unable to eat his grain. But after a few minutes he started munching, even with the cows poking their muzzles through the gate.  He lifted his head up out of his bucket and for the first time touched the cows with his own muzzle, then went back to eating.

Grazing is a good way to encourage engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system

After he finished the grain, I worked him on the ground and allowed him to stretch his neck down and sneeze. He let go of his back and walked balanced circles.  I then rode him past the cows for the next hour. He was buttery in my hands and stretchy through his back. From Dr. Peters lectures, I know that the colt had successfully down-regulated, in other words, with that healthy exposure, the horse was now responding less to the stimulus. He was no longer concerned about the cows and more interested in paying attention to me and having his body be aligned.

Read more about the comfort zone here.

I had another insight when working with my mare, Dee. For a long time, she has struggled with crossing Bar T Ranch’s tippy bridge obstacle.

Following the seminar, I had a new strategy to try:

I let Dee graze by the bridge for a while. She was able to be comfortable near it and engage her parasympathetic nervous system (“Rest and Digest”). She eyed the bridge while she chewed grass and hung out. Then I asked her to cross it. Success!

Dr. Peters reminded me that it’s not really about the food. “It is about managing where the horse is within its nervous system and less about the food. We are just using the food to activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” said Peters.

Now I’m realizing that I have no reason to hold on to old beliefs and habits that don’t serve the horse.  Learning new things can challenge my belief system. This is good! I urge you to be a scientist and a horseman.  Use your eyes, ears, and mind always.  Don’t just believe what you’re told:  think, compare, observe, and experiment.  You owe it to your horse.

Skinner heads to Maine next month to teach lessons.

Watch what happens after Dee is allowed to graze before tackling an obstacle.

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