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.


When Multitasking Pays Off

There’s a lot of research out there disparaging multitasking. Scientists say it’s inefficient. They say ideal productivity and

Warwick Schiller on Avoiding Horse Accidents

efficiency requires focus.
But often horse handling requires a certain lack of focus and an ability to take in, understand, and react to multiple developments all at the same time. The key, I say, is to be in that moment.

When I visited with BestHorsePractices Summit presenter Warwick Schiller in Phoenix last weekend, we shared some thoughts on the issue. His video “rant” (his words, not mine) explains so-called Freak Accidents and the many warning signs horses give us leading up to these usually completely avoidable accidents. Watch it here.

Consider working with a horse in a paddock with other horses:

As you approach a horse for haltering, you must assess:

  • His temperament
  • His location and relationship compared to the other horses (like whether he likes to screen himself or whether he gets bullied)
  • How hungry they may be.
  • How bothered by bugs they may be.

As you halter and move your horse, a whole new set of tasks appear:focus

  • How does he move through gates?
  • Will the others want to come, too?
  • How well does that gate close?

You answer these questions by:

  • Watching ears and lips and tails.
  • Watching for bracing or willingness.
  • Listening for movement that you might not see.
  • Being aware of the environmental conditions (like an approaching storm or slippery surfaces)

Our work is not unlike that of an Office Manager or Stay-at-Home parent. On any given moment, working with horses requires us to be all there, but it doesn’t require us to focus on just one thing. If we were to focus on just haltering a horse, we might end up hurt or horses might get loose.

The wider lens often serves us better.
Read article on Feel.

Don’t Touch My Horse!

Amy Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and is a frequent guest columnist for our sister site, NickerNews. Read her columns here.

Here, she writes about the need to understand horses’ sensitivity to touch:

Amy Skinner

Amy Skinner

People who come to my barn are probably befuddled by my posted sign: “Please do not feed or touch the horses.” While many are familiar with the request, it can seem a bit harsh.

Let me explain:

Some people are extroverted. Some are introverted. Some people like to hug, while to others the thought of being touched by a stranger makes their skin crawl. Anyone requiring a larger “bubble” knows the discomfort of being forcibly snuggled by a well-meaning person without feel for the the recipient’s body language.

People emit feels just the way horses do. They can be: inviting, closed off, accepting, listening, or not. Many people seem to talk without noticing whether the other party is engaged or listening, but a person who is feeling and truly engaging reads the other person’s body language and adjusts accordingly.

When a person approaches a horse just to pet it, they often disregard the horse’s appearance, its telling signs, and its general needs. Many times people go to right up to the horses face and crowd it, or immediately go for its lips and muzzle. This is the equivalent of hugging a person who you’ve just met. It can also encourage a horse to crowd, or lip, or nip in response.

chey-by-horse-touching-niceMy Morgan gelding, Geronimo, has a tendency to be pushy and nippy. He often approaches or follows people, crowding them a bit. A well-meaning person may think he wants to be petted. In a short time, they’d find themselves next to a pushy monster with a bay muzzle and lips exploring their skin in a way they probably hadn’t hoped for. Being petted in this way doesn’t make him happier or feel loved, it makes him frustrated and pushy. He is much happier when he receives space and is asked in turn to also give space. When I do pet him, it’s in a way that provides reassurance and helps to calm him.

My fiery chestnut mare, Dee, usually prefers not to be petted. She is not affectionate except in some occasions with some people. To be respectful of her, I pet her when it’s appropriate and usually in a very slow and still way. Sometimes for her a touch on the forehead or neck is just enough.

Every horse’s needs are different and each moment may require a different type of touch.

paint-mustangsAs a kid I grew up riding jumpers, and a “pet” for them when they responded correctly was a type of smack on the neck. Sometimes people pet their horses in brisk or hurried ways. But a pet should be reassuring and peaceful in order for it to be beneficial and meaningful.

Horses rely on feel to survive, which is why I prefer people don’t pet my horses. Each touch should mean something. If I’m riding my horse and I notice its attention is off somewhere but I need it back on me for a left turn, for example, I could initiate that left turn by a touch on the left side of its neck. Over-petting or rude petting dulls this essential form of communication, making stronger aids necessary.

Most people know to ask before petting a strange dog.  The same should go for people and horses – if it isn’t yours, ask, and even if you are given the go ahead, pay attention to the horse and pet in a way that doesn’t encourage rudeness but does encourage peace and relaxation.

It’s not that petting is bad. It’s not that treats are bad. Talking isn’t bad. Affection isn’t bad. But if our words and touch are to be meaningful, then silence and quiet have to be a factor in our conversation as well.



Another Call against Cross Ties

Amy Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and is a frequent guest columnist for our sister site, NickerNews. Read her columns here.

Here, Skinner writes about the Cons of Cross Ties:

I recently sold a horse and delivered him to his new barn. I relayed the basic information of the four-year old gelding to his new owner: walk, trot, canter, trailers, clips so-so, etc. Basic four-year old stuff. I watched him get settled in, said my goodbyes, and was heading back to the truck, when she said, “oh by the way, I forgot to ask, and this is probably a dumb question – he cross ties right?”

cross-300x248“Uh…not really. Never done it,” I said.

“Um…so how do I tie him?”

She stared at me blankly for a second, and I explained I rarely tie my horses for tacking up and routine handling. I prefer to teach my horses to stand on their own accord as much as possible, though I do tie on some occasions and believe horses should know how to tie safely. But cross tying as an option is something that doesn’t even cross my mind.

Read more about the Cons of Cross Ties.

What bothers me about cross tying is that it doesn’t make horse sense. When simply tied, if the horse is educated to release himself off of pressure, he can learn to stand safely without pulling back and getting himself into trouble. He has enough space usually to figure out how to untrack his hindquarters and step forward.

With a cross tie set up, the horse has pressure on both sides of his face, nowhere to go forward without pressure, and nowhere to go backward without pressure. Depending on the cross ties and their length, sometimes just standing there in the center maintains a steady pressure on the horse’s face (those clips are usually pretty heavy).

screen-shot-2012-08-23-at-1-51-38-pmHorses understand and learn by seeking relief, either from pressure, pain, or some type of stress – and the cross ties don’t provide a horse with a clear path toward this relief. There isn’t a place where they can stand calmly with slack in the rope generally, and the potential for injury and panic is high.

If startled, upset, frustrated or antsy, the horse naturally wants to move. Imagine that something behind the horse startles or spooks him.

  • His instinct is to go forward, but in cross ties he is met with pressure from both sides of his face.
  • The only option for him to relieve this pressure is to go up, and depending on the footing (which in many barns is concrete).
  • His potential for slipping or flipping backwards is quite high. I’ve seen too many horses flip themselves over in cross ties to ever consider this a safe option in my book again.

If something startles him from in front of him, backwards into the cross ties can be just as dangerous. Even a horse who has become habituated to the cross ties and can stand there quietly learns to lean into this pressure, making him heavier on the lead rope, heavy on the bridle, and heavy in his mind. He’s been dulled through repetitive lack of relief from pressure.

If your interest in cross ties is to keep your horse still and to prevent him from moving away from something he isn’t interested in, like a saddle, a vaccine, or a trim, there are more meaningful ways to educate a horse to stand relaxed. Cross ties make a horse feel trapped, and if he really isn’t interested in standing still he will find a way to move anyway.

Amy Skinner

Amy Skinner

If your goal is a relationship based on trust and communication, trapping your horse and forcing him to stand still is not a great way to achieve it. If I had to round up my students and force them to stay and listen in a lesson, it would probably reflect a bit about me and the way in which I present information to them. I hope they come because they’re interested and stay because it helps them, not because they feel they have to. If a horse can be taught in a way he can understand, he’ll often stand there on his own accord. Horses are generous that way.

In horsemanship, we seek lightness, and if your interest is working off a feel, cross ties can only muddy this goal. In dressage, jumping, and many western disciplines, we seek “forward, straight, and balanced.” The cross ties take out the forward, by teaching the horse to lean into pressure and discourage a horse’s forward movement.

Everything is closely tied together when working with horses, from the way he catches to the way he handles on the ground to how he rides. If a balanced, quiet ride is what you seek, then it starts here, on the ground, in all the tiny little details. If you can take the time to teach your horse to stand relaxed, you’ll be amazed at the difference in your horse’s demeanor in general.

Read more about the Cons of Cross Ties.


Open Letter to Mountain Bikers

The recent opinion piece in High Country News sparked a viral amount of dialogue on that magazine’s site and on other platforms that picked up the piece, like Adventure Journal. It begged a follow-up on improving understanding for all who use multi-use trails.

yield-trail-sign-tempeBelieve it or not, bikers and hikers must yield to horse riders on many trails. This rule isn’t some snooty, “we were here first” deal. It’s just common sense. It’s much easier for hikers and bikers to yield to horses than the other way around.

Horses are prey animals. Bikes approach like predators, quickly and silently. Even the best-trained horses can spook, bolt, or jump sideways when they encounter bikers or hikers with big packs.
The results can be harmful to all. Think of a moose-vehicle collision. Now, take away the vehicle.

To avoid collisions and flared tempers, take these simple steps:

Download a pdf and share it with your local bike shop.

•    Announce yourself: Once you see horse and rider, let them know you’re approaching as soon as you can. No yelling necessary, just a friendly “Hey, how are you?” will do.
•    Slow down or stop: Ask the rider if she’d like you to stop and step off or if slowing down and passing is okay.

•    Keep talking: Being friendly and communicative isn’t just nice manners, it lets the horse know you are a person, not a predator.

•    Anticipate around corners: Avoid tearing around blind angles. There could be large, dangerous animals around the bend! If you can’t slow down, make noise to alert possible trail riders.

•    Take the low road: If you’re on a grade and are trying to move past a horse rider, take the downhill side.

trail-clipart-TRAIL6Horse riders are not victims here. Nor are they guilt-free when it comes to trail conflict. Let’s recognize our contributions to the problem:

  • Be a polite advocate. As we noticed in the comments on Adventure Journal, mountain bikers have plenty of stories of rude, entitled horse riders. Don’t be one of them!
  • If it’s been rainy, stay off trails where horses can do serious damage. It can take a long time to renew and repair trails that have been trashed when horses move up and down them in wet conditions.
  • Got a horse who’s spooky around bikes? Practice. Expose your horse to bikes in a more predictable environment. Make it a positive experience.
  • Assume the worst. Don’t put yourself or your horse in a position where things can go sideways. If you see or know of mountain bike presence, set yourself up for a safe encounter. If this means hustling off the trail, so be it.

Have fun sharing the trail!

Tackling Fear and Confidence Issues

We had a lovely note from a NickerNews & BestHorsePractices reader who struggles with confidence and fear issues:

She writes: Last November, you wrote about moving as being like riding and you raised the issue of fear and extending oneself.

I have a great, kind, sensitive horse and I would love to take him out on the trails and ride alone (as you often do with your horses). But I am not a good enough rider. I am not confident enough to help him through his scary moments.

His scary moments become mine. How do I gain the experience and confidence? I do attend clinics but I practice alone in an arena afterwards. We do well, but things fall apart when we head out alone on the trail.

Do you have suggestions for helping someone like me gain experience and confidence to head out alone?

smilThank you for the great email!

Here are some additional ideas:

Confidence and Riding, personal experiences and links. Click here.

Bolting and other thoughts from Buck Branaman

Joe Wolter writes about here.

Chrissi McDonald, who is married to Mark Rashid, writes often about post-trauma riding and getting back in the saddle. Click here.bolt-300x200

Amy Skinner considers the “bombproof” mentality here.

Mostly, dear Reader, remember that it’s a journey. Be patient, try to relax, and enjoy the progress (even baby steps) with your horse.

Good luck and happy trails!


Three things to know when trailering

I was hauling horses from Utah to Colorado earlier this month. Just south of Moab, Utah, with temperatures in the 90’s, two horses in the trailer, and three dogs in the truck cab, I got a flat.

After 30 sweaty minutes, I was back on the road, but the event prompted a series of “What Ifs” that, in turn, prompted a series of steps to be better prepared when it happens again.

Don't get stuck out here!

Don’t get stuck out here!

And it will happen again.

That’s the right attitude to assume so that you can be ready and unflustered when it happens.

We have a great check list written by longtime trailer pro, Bobby Fantarella, of Elm City Trailers. Check out the tip list here.

And you can read some cross country travel thoughts and concerns from myself and Mara Miles.

Three additional thoughts to consider:

The Spare:

Most trailers don’t come with spares. Believe me, you do not want to be caught spareless. Spend the extra dough and make sure it’s good to go on every trip.

The Jack:

You do not want to try to jack up your trailer (with or without horses aboard) with a car jack. It likely won’t even work. Carry a drive-on jack like a Trailer Aid, made by Camco.

Swapping tires:

A long, sturdy pipe to help with lug nuts has been added to the essential cargo.

A long, sturdy pipe to help with lug nuts has been added to the essential cargo.

If you’re like me, you might not be able to get machine-tightened lug nuts off the flat. In this recent case, I could only get four of them off. I had to rely on a Good Samaritan with a powerful drill (and the right size bit) . Thank goodness he stopped.

Since then, I carry a simple and cheap solution (instead of buying a power drill and then having to make sure it’s properly charged every time I haul.) A five-foot length of thick pipe. It fits snuggly over the tire iron and increases its leverage. Lug nuts, even those that have been machine-tightened and on the trailer for ages, now come off easily.

Safe travels and happy trails.

Summer fun: snakes and ticks


Meet Brian

Back East, ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. They and the linked prospect of getting Lyme Disease, represent one of the biggest impediments to carefree outings. Here in Colorado during the summer months, it’s rattlesnakes. The possibility of harm and crisis – for horses, humans, and dogs – is enough to motivate several preventative strategies.

There’s not a lot we can do for horses aside from education, preparation, and engage our ability to keep calm and keep the horse calm. Check out these helpful articles:

UC Davis report on rattlesnake issues

Wyoming newspaper column on rattlesnakes and horses

Horse blogger’s tips for rattlesnake encounters

Since many of us have dogs, here are some canine-related thoughts. Like Frontline or other tick deterrents, the rattlesnake vaccine is something dogs can get and something dog owners can hope will help. With it, my 30-pound sprite, Peeko, might survive long enough to get to the vet and it may also help significantly reduce the vet bill.

JJ Belcher works with Kip

JJ Belcher works with Kip

Another preventative measure is a rattlesnake avoidance class, something my dogs unwittingly enrolled in last weekend. It involves a shock collar, a big-ass rattlesnake (who goes by the name Brian, is 12 years old, at least five feet long, thick as a Campbell’s soup can, and has had his venom glands surgically removed), and an experienced canine trainer from Arizona. Watch video. Read more about JJ Belcher and Sublime Canine here.

Individually, the trainer led Kip, Peeko, and Belle to the snake. When they got curious, they were hit with a jolt from the collar. Later, Belcher returned with each dog to visit Brian. My dogs had caught on quickly; as soon as they spied the snake, they went in the other direction. When I led each dog to a bag full of snake sheds, they also steered clear. Lesson of the Day: Stay away from something that looks or smells or moves like Brian. I’m pretty confident that the education will stick and that they won’t simply associate Belcher and the collar with a bad deal. We have all now seen a rattler and know theoretically to steer clear. Some dogs made bigger generalizations: I watched one goofy golden walk away from the training and then spook at a three-foot stick. Well…he had the right idea.


Tell Us Your Ah-Helmet Moment

Tell us about your ah-helmet moment!
ah helmet
Great news, readers! We’re teaming up with another top-notch company to bring you a series of spectacular giveaways.

We’re kicking off a six-month giveaway series with Troxel this week with the hope that our readers will keep their noggins safe during every riding season. The first helmet giveaway in the line-up is perfect for trial riders, and is actually the same helmet for which Dr. Peters chose to ditch his cowboy hat.

To toss your hat into the ring for a chance at a Troxel Sierra, send in a paragraph or two describing your ah-helmet moment (think ah-ha moment!) and a picture. When and why did you make the conscious decision to wear a helmet every ride (or for most rides)?

For the first round, we’ll accept entries May 14-20. Enter by contacting us with Sierra_Tan_2015description of your ah-helmet moment, OR send us a message on our Facebook page. The entries will be posted on NickerNews May 21. A week’s voting will run through midnight May 28. The entrant with the most votes will receive a brown Troxel Sierra helmet.

More about the Troxel Sierra.

Troxel touts the Sierra as the best-selling western helmet. Its rugged, leather-wrapped exterior not only looks good, but also withstands the toughest terrain on the trail while offering plenty of ventilation to keep you cool. The Sierra, which retails for $120, also offers a self-locking buckle, low profile, a visor and Troxel’s SureFit Pro™.

Click here to enter.

Stay tuned for next month’s giveaway— we’ll be offering Troxel’s Rebel Turquoise Rose.

Next month's Troxel helmet giveaway

Next month’s Troxel helmet giveaway

Progress with Ride Along Dog

Pep and Kip

Pep and Kip

Development of our Ride Along Dog took a long pause as we moved from Iowa to Utah last year. However, after a few outings here, Kip, the young Australian Shepherd, is making great strides.
Partial credit is due to the new use of an electric collar instead of a squirt bottle to discipline her.
Let the critics cry foul. I’ve found that the mere wearing of the collar encourages Kip to adhere more closely to rules and commands she already knows. It’s a bit like having cameras at road intersections, where drivers become newly accountable for their actions.
Many professionals use electric collars to train sport dogs. It provides a way to check the dog in off-leash situations. From my experience, it’s humane.  (Obviously, like any tool, the collar can be misused and abused in the wrong hands.) If the dog vocalizes in any way, the signal is too strong. Most often, Kip tilts her head when I press the button.
She knows she’s wearing it. Her behavior modification is not unlike that of a horse who sees its rider carrying a bwhip. Research shows eventers who carried whips but didn’t use them were more successful than both non-whip carriers and whip users. Read more.
Positive reinforcement is key. Kip gets tossed treats frequently when she’s jogging alongside. When she makes the mistake of getting too close to the horse’s back feet, I say, “No. Go on.” If she gets perilously close and starts riling the horse, she gets a collar warning. When she adjusts and comes along side us: more treats.
On a recent outing, I resorted to using the electric collar just twice over a span of two hours. Each time, she was getting just a tad too excited by our speed and was putting herself in harm’s way (at the horse’s heels).

What’s even better than the progress?

Now that horse, rider, and dog understand the game better, everyone’s having a blast.

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