Lick, lick, lick…

Licking, and licking, and licking…

 This is McCoy on his pedestal.  Not licking a human, just the air in this instance.  However, People Licking seems to be becoming a thing.  What is with that? 
I’ve had a few people mention this happening after they have waited for a ‘release of tension’ response from their horse. Often it’s a horse that has been living in tension a very long time, and has been in a state of ‘shut down’.
 We at the frothy edge of horsemanship are familiar with the idea of ‘licking and chewing’. Obviously horses do this a lot, and for many different reasons, but as a direct response to feeling safe after an experience of stress, it seems that this is definitely one of those times too.
 Whether we are aware of it via our own first hand sense of what is going on, or via the senses of teachers we trust who observe and share, or via studying the science that backs up what is going on when a horse ‘licks and chews’; it’s generally agreed that this is often one sign, however you put it, of a horse emotionally rebalancing itself.
 There are a few famous sayings, which are possibly misinterpreted sometimes.
 ‘Eating humble pie’.
 ‘Digesting a thought’. 
 The science says that when a horse has experienced a stressor of some description, he reflexes into the Sympathetic aspect of the Central Nervous System (that which activates flight/flight), and saliva production stops as a part of this.
Makes sense to me.  I know that ‘dry mouth’ feeling myself.
 When the ‘all clear’ is given, the Parasympathetic System kicks back in and the horse can relax again, the saliva comes back and the horse ‘licks and chews’.
There are a few theories and interpretations around this; including newer knowledge of the Reticular Activating System and it’s role; and which system ‘owns’ the freeze response, but finer tweaking aside, for the lay person like me, ‘it’s a thing’.
This process can be seen to begin with a few involuntary twitches of facial and body nerves, lip quivering, sighing, mouthing, and even full on yawning, eye rolling, and sometimes even laying down.

However, I have seen and heard of an interesting extra development. The horse starts licking the human. Sometimes obsessively! The longer he licks, the wetter the human gets. Then you’re in a sort of timeless no man’s land, which can stretch and stretch the moment, trapped standing there while an apparently blissed out horse licks your sleeve.

What’s going on? Is this helpful? Or not?

Is it a part of the let down, or does it interrupt it?

 I recently spent some clinic time with Elsa Sinclair of Taming Wild. Her Freedom Based Training compliments everything we do with horses; and dovetails nicely with the Anna Blake calming signals that I also learned more about on Anna’s recent ‘Relaxed and Forward’ tour in NZ.
 Calming signal from Katie-Kai. Time to wait, and breathe.
Both Elsa and Anna are amazing, and I highly recommend.
 Anyhow, one of the many things Elsa said was that we usually ‘stay too long’.

Elsa will take up one position, match and mirror the horse, breathe, wait to see if it’s getting better or getting worse, and when a change either way occurs, change it to suit.

 Eg with a wild horse. He will either get better (show some sort of positive change via the recognisable twitches/licking/yawning; in which case time to try another spot or distance) or worse (show aspects of flight, freeze or fight- in which case it’s over threshold and need to reset at a distance/spot so that he feels safe).
 One key factor at this clinic was that when the release happens we need to get out of that spot.
I think the idea behind this is that if the let down response is an indication of feeling better, then the horse will associate you with that feeling. If we hang around, the tension might build again. So leaving that space when the horse releases, as in ‘my work here is done’, leaves the horse with a pleasant association of your being present when the stress dissipates.

It doesn’t necessarily mean leave altogether. It might mean just changing the subject, picking a different place to stand, or a different distance from the horse.

This of course ties in with many aspects of good horsemanship; but mainly zeroes in on ‘Feel & Timing’.

 This ‘licking the human’ thing that is occasionally occurring though, does put the human concerned in a bit of a quandary.

He’s still ‘licking’ so is he still ‘processing’? It’s gone on a while now. Is this helpful, or is it a displaced behaviour or some aspect of dysfunction?

 I’ve been mulling this a while, and just based upon my own experiences and what I have learned I have a bit of a theory. Or maybe it’s a hypothesis! I could be wrong, I could have entirely misinterpreted my teachers (please remember that- all this is merely my interpretation and opinion) and I’m still open to changing my interpretation, but I think it’s worth discussing.
 You see, after the Anna Blake clinic, I was able to solve a long standing problem with my ‘overly licky’ puppy. While maybe not directly related to the same problem in a horse, someone might see a correlation and join some dots with their own ‘licky’ horse.
The dog, Poppy, still a puppy really, is 12 months old and has a slightly nervous feel around strangers. She was a rescue, and weaned very early too. I got her at 12 weeks of age after she had been passed around a few fosters. She’s a gentle dog, orally fixated (carries toys everywhere) and quite confident now in herself generally and in the pack.

However she has not yet gotten over her slight wariness of strangers, and with people she knows and accepts, she is a chronic licker.

I put up with it but I didn’t like it, so eventually found I was constantly telling her ‘no’ and even pushing her off me…not fun for either of us.

 Something Anna Blake had said about ‘some calming signals actually demonstrate how the horse would like us to behave’ gave me deep pause.
 The mirroring that Elsa models is something horses crave from each other. Elsa explained that doing anything alone when you’re a herd animal is dysfunctional. To best make it functional (as in a useful behaviour to dissipate stress) you really need company.
So relating this to the Tom Dorrence quote:
 ‘Feel of the horse’

(Read the horse accurately and gauge how he feels)

 ‘Feel for the horse’

(Act with empathy- ‘match and mirror’? That’s how another horse does it)

 ‘The horse feels back to you’
(he notices he’s no longer alone in how he feels) 
 ‘You feel Together’
(it’s no longer dysfunctional, because you joined him, so the horse can start with you from a base of calmness)
 Thinking along these lines also started me considering it from another point of view- the human side of the deal. I’ve spent a lot of time matching and mirroring. I’ve seen how the horses respond positively when you join them in their behaviours.
What about using the signals they understand to encourage them to join us in our behaviours?
 I have seen my super calm Senior Dog, Fred, use calming signals to diffuse not only attacks upon himself, but also to break up spats between other dogs. Once, he stood up and calmly inserted himself, side on, soft bodied, between my then 11 year old nephew and a fully grown Great Dane who was getting a bit possessive over a toy.

Dogs ‘get’ that universal ‘turn side on’ gesture for calming others.

 ‘See,’ says Fred, ‘behave like this.’
All these thoughts led me try the universal calming signal of deliberately and silently just turning my head to the side when that long puppy tongue headed my way.
 Well! It was a miraculous and instant game changer.
The puppy veered off, and she sat looking at me a short distance away. By using this signal in subtle ways to encourage approach but discourage tongue, I can now pat and play and cuddle with Poppy without being ‘washed’!
 My theory is that the pup ‘washing’ is actually anxiety.

I feel that her original fear of strangers seemed to mitigate for her when she was licking them (probably initially simply because patient and kind people tolorated it?) and so, in her mind the licking was responsible for giving her some control over the situation (‘while I lick, time stands still, the human doesn’t hurt me, and all is well…I can be safe but only while licking). In other words, anxiety held in check.  Could it be that the licking itself was an extreme calming signal that morphed from a displaced behaviour into a soothing mechanism for both the situation, and the self, for the pup?

 In other words, she created a self soothing pattern that LOOKS like ‘licking and chewing’ (or the dog equivalent of a quick lip-lick) but actually is serving a different purpose- a preventative of anxiety building behaviour rather than the actual physical response to a real flip to the parasympathetic mode?
 Mammals are pattern animals. We all do it and we tend to fall into patterns to self soothe in times of stress. Like many of the ‘stable vices’ we hear about- not so common here in NZ as most horses are kept outside in groups, but a very real displaced behaviour that helps a horse self soothe, such as weaving, cribbing, and wind sucking.
 It’s also a bit like how, when reinforcing desired behaviour in a horse (positively or negatively- it applies to both) the horse can often associate a totally random behaviour with the release/reward.
 Eg click/treat for getting on pedestal; horse happens to lift foreleg as the click sounds, therefore ‘go on pedestal’ cue becomes ‘go on pedestal with a leg waving’ cue in the mind of the horse. (No accident I mention this!)

I think it’s quite possible we accidentally train a lot of behaviours.

Interesting huh.

 So back to the licking horse; I don’t have the answer, but I have a list of ‘perhapses’.
if I’m onto something here, then perhaps the best way to avoid it is ‘do less sooner’ and get out of range before it becomes an established pattern.
 If the pattern is established, and the timing doesn’t work out for you to beat the lick outta there, perhaps try the turning aside of your head and waiting.
 Or in some cases remove yourself from reach and wait may be necessary. Stand behind a fence.  Use protected contact.
 Perhaps the answer is to try the same position at greater distance, then thinly slice the distance until you can get the real let down in close quarters without the obsessive lick?
 Perhaps a combination of all. Or perhaps something else entirely.
 What I would not do, because I have tried this with horses (and my pup) and it does not help, is push the horse away, or use an elbow to ‘block’.

Blocking is something horses do themselves, granted, and it’s good and sometimes necessary in the case of aggressive behaviours, but licking is not aggressive, and it’s easy to just end up with a wet elbow if all the horse is craving is to lick what he can reach! Also blocking is itself often too aggressive- a passive aggressive ‘see what happens in my space’ which could undermine all your work if what you are dealing with is really anxiety, as I believe is the case with my pup and possibly some horses.

 Food for thought!
Apache and McCoy, mid lick.

Experience is the Sum of our Mistakes

‘Experience is the sum of our mistakes’.

This gem of a quote was one of the pearls of wisdom from the super instructor, Russell Higgins.

I’d like to elaborate on this.

No matter how savvy you are, how much you know, and how much you do around horses, there will always be mistakes. No one is perfect, or precognitive (or at least perfectly precognitive!)

Being savvy is about knowing where to be, when, why and how, and like a horse, knowing what happens before what happens, happens.

However we all make mistakes. And thinking logically, we know that being around horses is inherently dangerous, especially when we are unaware of all the potential ways things can go wrong.

But even if you’ve years of experience, and know well what could happen, just because you’ve been doing it for a while does not mean you won’t screw up royally, at least occasionally.

Its actually quite possible to do things badly your entire life, if you won’t learn from your mistakes. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect!

In fact, if you work with horses professionally it’s probably much more likely to get yourself in trouble, because the ways things can go wrong are infinite, and professionals don’t usually get to work with the easy horses. You are always, always facing yet another horse, and yet another opportunity to balls it up.

Like being more likely to be involved in a crash if you work as a full time driver over thousands of km; you may drive better than many, but every km still contains a risk.

How many times have I stood in the aftermath of a big mistake, rolling my eyes and thinking ‘I actually know better than this!’

Wearing my retrospectacles, I can look back upon many personal doozies that I know should not have happened. I’d like to talk about two standouts; both involving trailer loading/unloading.

Trailer loading is an art form. It can be sketchy, or it can be a masterpiece, no matter what your ‘method’ may be.

This blog is not about method, so please put that aspect aside when you read this. It’s about being mindful.

The first incident was with a student who had come for a lesson with her own horse and trailer.

That little mare did not want to load up after our lesson. It was getting late, the lessons had gone on longer than planned and dark was looming. There was also a child with us, and responsibilities for my student to get on with. We needed the pony to load.

First mistake- we left it too late to start.

Second mistake- we assumed that because the pony always loaded, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Once the mare said ‘not likely’ I offered to help. I’ve loaded a lot of horses, including this one, and I thought I probably would be more effective sooner, because of that.

Another assumption! Not to mention a tad arrogant. Had I butted out, its quite likely that my student would have come up with the solution that eventually saved the day much sooner herself, as she knows how food motivated the horse is!

The float was parked on a wide grass verge but it was not far off from the roadside. It’s a quiet road- a dead end; but still I had a niggle that said hmm, would be best to move this; but I didn’t act on it.

Another mistake.

This pony is not usually unconfident about loading. She’s had problems in the past but they were more about responding to a send forward than being scared. I assumed her reluctance here was the same deal, and used the technique that ‘always worked’ which was busy outside, rest when thinking about getting in.

At one point, she overshot the ramp and the verge to the side and momentarily was on the tar seal- and her foot slipped. I noticed and thought ‘ok best be careful’.

The next mistake! I should have thought ‘this isn’t a safe set up’ and actually moved the float, right then and there.

Then it happened again. The mare went wider, a foot met the tarmac, a slight skid occurred. It was less drastic this time, but instead of taking the hint, my thought was ‘this will work, I’ll just not let her go wide just there’.

Slow learner! Like I thought I was in control of the situation, right?

I was already feeling uncomfortable about it, my subconscious was hard out firing flares up from the basement, but time was ticking obliviously on, and this had worked before…

I should have listened to my gut.

This little mare had got to the point where she would go and stand on the ramp but no further, so I set it up that she could choose to go in or pass it by, and because she was typically quite confident, I was still treating her like we normally would. The game was ‘go in, or I’m going to playfully tag this spot behind you if you choose to pass it by’. This was sort of working, to the point that she would choose the ramp and a rest about half the time. Then it happened. She ‘passed it by’, I tagged the ramp behind her, and she got ‘playful’ back,aiming her butt to kick out at me in passing.

I couldn’t blame her. I had started it! However my self-preserving instincts kicked in and I automatically stepped forward to tag the foot coming my way and ‘finish it’ as well with a flick of the string.

She did what trained horses usually do, and went to yield her hq- and we ran out of grass. She was suddenly on the tar seal, and her back legs slipped out from under her and she fell on the road.

Thankfully, luck was with us and she was not badly hurt. She had though scraped her hip. I felt terrible, I was completely responsible, and we were very, very lucky the horse was ok.

She loaded quietly after that, with her owner in the float holding a bucket. Much less drama and I was kicking myself. Why did I not think to just suggest that in the first place? Was it pride, some sort of chauvinism about ‘doing it correctly’ while actually dropping the ball entirely? Pride before a fall..?

There were so many ways I could have handled this better. This was before we had a good alternative strategy to pressure/release training confidently installed as well. Today that student, that mare, and I myself are better educated in positive reinforcement for example. That method with a confident, food motivated horse ended up being a far superior ongoing choice for that mare especially.

Much licking and chewing on my part after that incident. However, plainly not enough. The next incident was just a couple of months later, and whilst it was a different scenario, different horse, different person, and a truck instead of a float…there were many similar themes.

I went in my truck to pick up a horse for delivery to a nearby clinic. The TB mare lives locally, and originally was going to be walked to the nearby venue, but had suffered two abscesses recently and so I was asked could we truck her round.

We also had a timeline- I had another horse to go fetch after this one. First mistake.

At loading, the area outside the truck was sharp metal gravel and we were very aware that the mare was still a bit tender. The owner couldn’t move her around on it much in general, much less now in terms of approach and retreat, because of the sore feet.

Second mistake. Set up the environment so you can do what you need to.

In approaching, the mare told us she was not keen on just getting in. She had been in the truck a couple of times previously and loaded and travelled easily. Today though, she was showing signs of lack of confidence.

Third mistake- we assumed today would be the same. Is this starting to sound familiar?

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The mare did not actually take long to load, but in the back of my mind tickled a little thought that she definitely wasn’t happy about it. She was not feeling safe, and it was obvious. No amount of buckets would have worked in her case, because she was not at all calm. I myself would have liked to do much more subtle approach and retreat outside to raise her confidence before asking her to load, but the ouchy feet and the gravel allowed minimal outside movement, we were on a schedule, this was purely a truck loan, not a training session with me, and I had other horses to collect.

Everything was low key, at a walk, no dust flying or undue pressure.

I had actually worked with this mare before. A couple of times, I have ‘squeezed’ her between myself and an obstacle, and she had tried to shove me with her shoulder. I knew she has this tendency, and that it was a work in progress. I should have paid more attention.

This was another mistake.

She loaded after about 10 minutes or so. She went in, with momentum, in one go. I didn’t step up and do what I normally would, which would be to take her out and do it again until she was able to load completely calmly.

I knew she was a bit tight. But we had jobs to do, and we closed the door.

Third mistake!

On arrival a few minutes later (literally a couple of km away) we opened the door to see a sweaty, frozen horse. Another sign of how stressed she was.

My truck is an angle load so she was facing outwards and to the right. As it is my truck, I knew the best way to undo and safely get the partitions out of the way, so I went in, undid the side bar, put on a long lead rope ready for the owner, and unclipped her from the truck tie, and stepped aside to the far left of the ramp to allow room for her to unload.

She had the entire width of the ramp in front of her to walk out.

There were people I knew there, and for a moment I took my mind off the horse, the owner, and the situation to greet them.

Last mistake!

The mare panicked. She ignored the open expanse of ramp in front of her, and her beckoning owner at the foot of the ramp, and instead bounded right at and over me. Perhaps she thought of safety in numbers, and I was in closer proximation at that point than her owner, as I was tucked inside the truck at the top of the ramp and her owner was at the foot. Whatever, I was thrown off the truck, onto my hands and knees on yet more metal gravel as she bowled right over the top of me, bouncing off her owner as well for good measure, and was away.

We were all incredibly lucky. The horse and owner were unhurt, and I was only scraped and bruised myself.

The picture I chose shows a similar move by a kaimanawa mare disembarking from the same truck. In that case, curiousity had gotten her in the truck in the first place- she had broken into the front yard, and (typical Kai) had gone exploring. The dramatic exit that I caught on camera was initiated by the inexplicable (to her) appearance of a casual Dalmatian strolling by wearing a bucket on her head…now that was a severe error in controlling the environment!

So what have I learned?

  • Always set them up for success.
  • Always ensure the horse is calm.
  • Always be open to using different means if it would mean the horse is calmer. In the case of the first pony who was not usually worried about loading, had we offered the bucket first we would have avoided the entire drama.
  • Never just shut the door because the horse is finally in!
  • Don’t leave it until it’s too late to take the time you need.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Like many things, until they happen to you, the risks do not always seem real.
  • Always pay attention to my intuition.
  • Always set up the environment as best as possible before I fetch the horse.
  • Never stop paying attention.

Experience is the sum of our mistakes!

Katie-Kai: Home

Katie-Kai has been here since just before Christmas. She’s a pony who arrived with several buckets of worry.

She was worried about ANOTHER new home (she reckons she’s had a few); new herd, and worst of all, new people.

She tried very hard to be a good pony, and yet was so worried that she might be punished that she flinched at everything we did. She was especially scared of humans carrying anything that looked like a stick.

She was scared of getting her legs trapped by anything.

She was terrified of bits, and worried that I might make her wear one.

She was worried about her feet, because they still hurt from the laminitis that could have been the end of her had she not been rescued by (hero!) Tracy of Kaimanawa Krazy.

She didn’t want to be caught, and whilst she could be eventually (helping hard to catch horses is a special hobby for me, like trailer loading) she was so skeptical and over humans that she gave feedback the only way she could. She ran away. She startled at things.

She still had a delicate tummy from the starving condition that she had been saved from, and the stress. Even a little bit of time without food could mean it would hurt again.

She snatched at food all the time, and even at humans. She was so worried about being starved again- snatch all you can right now, because there’s no grass allowed for laminitic ponies, and she did not trust humans to remember that she needed access to hay all the time to stop her belly pain.

She would snatch and flinch. Snatch and flinch.

She even worried she might be hit for trying to eat.

We gave her food.

We listened to her troubles and slowed everything down.

We found the best herd who accepted her and allowed her some respect instead of bullying her.

We gave her time.

During this time we spent a little bit together, when she could bear it, and never asked for more than she could willingly give. She came for a couple of walks with me. We explored the beach.

Eventually, each new day she started to trust us more.

A couple of days ago we had two visitors. One was a young girl. Instead of running away, Katie-Kai came up to her. Of her own accord. She looked hopeful. Optimistic instead of fearful. The girl looked back, let Katie touch her with her muzzle, and stroked her gently.

We had a problem with our water supply. It comes from the farm next door, and being the highest point in the system, any leak anywhere means we run out first. The farmer found several small leaks, but there was a big one still on the system because we stayed dry for several days. I welcomed the rain as it meant that at least our horse troughs were full, but we were having to bring water in for the house. The farmer was stumped. He couldn’t find the leak.

Yesterday, during a break in the ex cyclone Gita weather, I decided to take a horse and go looking myself. I had an inkling that it must be leaking into the creek, because despite the rain, the farm drains really well and the farmer could see no telltale pooling.

Katie met me at the gate. A volunteer.

Katie carried me carefully around the farm. She got to pick at grass while I looked and listened, following the creek. In the silence we shared, I heard the telltale chuckle of water where it shouldn’t be. It actually sounded like muted cicadas, barely discernible over the creek. Where was it?

Katie waited for me while I searched with my eyes, staring at a point in the creek, and finally saw an eddy that shouldn’t be there.

Katie waited while I climbed down the bank and across the knee deep water, and she kept a careful watch while I delved into the thick plants clinging to the far side bank. About a foot under the green mat of eucalyptus scented weeds I found it! A fair torrent hiding in the shrubbery, pouring down the bank into the creek below.

Katie celebrated with me! We shared an apple.

Katie carried me to the farmer’s shed way up the other end of the farm and we showed him the way back to the cheeky leak. She waited while I helped him.

Katie didn’t neigh for other horses, even though they were calling for her. She didn’t try and run away while I tore through shrubbery on the wrong side of the creek from her. She didn’t flinch when I got on and off as I searched. She walked out willingly. She trotted confidently to the far shed. She has never set a hoof on this neighbouring farm before. It was interesting. Different. She was calm, connected, responsive, and curious.

Coming home, the grass opened up before us, smooth and damp, and I asked her if she would she like to canter. You know what? Maybe she would!

A calm, smooth, completely loose rein to her halter, she carried us safely home.

Nuts, and BOLTS!

A bolting horse is a terrifying experience, and so it should be.

I can remember once, a long time ago, asking my wise instructor: ‘what do you do when a horse bolts?’

He paused. His reply was very clever. ‘Look down at the saddle’, he said. ‘You’ll notice that somewhere between the pommel and cantle, there’ll be a nut loose in the saddle’.

Funny guy! And ouch! Bang on the money.

His meaning, as I took it, was that I was the one in control, I set up the situation, and I had to take responsibility for how it turned out.

Riding horses has an inherent risk. We know this before we start. We are putting our bodies on top of 500kg prey animals, and horses are horses, we can’t blame them for acting under instinct- instinct is a lot older than we are in their psyche.

Any healthy horse, no matter what his advert says, can and does kick, buck, rear, and bolt if he is given the freedom to do so. That is a part of being a horse. That he doesn’t under saddle is a big deal, but instinct has a flashline to his go button, a superhighway in the brain built by millions of years of evolution as a prey animal, that gives priority to safety, every time. The moment he thinks he is not safe- and horses can think that a lot- the adrenaline is ready to fire,. We have a tough act to follow- we need to make sure that we are a go to instinctive source of safety/calmness for that horse as well. Can our horses override the need to flee to accept the potentially claustrophobic alternative of bending to a stop before it’s too late?

We are talking emergency brakes. Your lateral flexion and hindquarter control may be great at home, or from a standstill or walk, or even trot and canter; but how is it when he is overexcited, adrenalised, or frightened?

This morning I was riding my friend, mare Magic, through the sand dunes. It was windy, and spooky. Magic shied at a couple of things but came back to me immediately each time. When we emerged into the beach she scooted forward in a mini panic for whatever reason; and within three strides she was easily disengaging, turning, blowing out and soft, then ready again in a few seconds to head off again calmly. No panic, no fight, no tantrums. We were able to get up, and come quickly back down to calmness, our baseline requisite.

It wasn’t always like this. It was actually quite a breakthrough.

Magic and I have had our moments. I have owned her since she was 8 months old, she is now 11, and she has always been an interesting horse for me. She is self confident, sensitive, and opinionated.

But self confidence is not all there is to it.

There are 5 areas of confidence.

They are;

confidence in self;



the handler,

and in learning.

Magic is brave, but can be environmentally spooky. Also, because she is self confident, she is not the sort of horse who is generally looking for leadership. She is well trained in that you can pick up a rein and she’s soft as you’ll let her be, but in the past I had inadvertently created a bit of a problem.

Because I ‘knew’ Magic was sensitive, and that she was responsive because I had trained her to be, I expected this under all circumstances.

So what happened was that she wasn’t actually always soft under the duress of spookiness or a heightened adrenalin burst, and I wrongfully got righteous and critical about it.

I would bend her, she would resist, we would spin and argue until I outplayed her. Sometimes this meant getting off and groundwork, but it was always an argument, and not an ideal way to stay safe. She would be frustrated and stressed, and so would I.

She is not overly difficult, and it never happened often enough or ‘big’ enough to bother me, which possibly made it worse, because we got to practice mild forms of it a lot-bad idea!- and hey, if you know you can regain control, that’s enough for many of us until we can’t.

Magic would comply all right, I never ‘lost’, but we would have such a grouchy ears and a sulky face. It wasn’t prolonged fear; it was a resentment that superseded the initial behaviour trigger. As I grew more aware, I started to realise that actually, maybe I had ‘lost’ a bigger prize.

The good old one one rein stop has saved my bacon a few times with this horse, but it was upsetting that she plainly felt I was not helping. Her reactions seemed to say; ‘I was scared, but I don’t need you and you’re annoying me and making everything worse, get off me so I can deal with this by interspersing staring, and running away’.

Today’s ride was a complete contrast.

So what has changed?

I have. I have continued to learn and grow, and now I know better. I know how to prepare my horse so she is able to respond to me under worse .circumstances.

It will always be different for every horse, but I believe that every element that can exclude a horse from appropriate response to pressure is a vital one. In Magic’s case, it was attention, and priorities.

As a self confident horse on the lookout for danger, she puts energy into scoping out the countryside. I need to be able to interrupt that pattern before she fixates on a distraction from the job at hand, and have her happy to check in with me.

I started at home with exercises that gently and non offensively ask her up bring attention back to me as soon as she went ‘on guard’. It’s not about staring at me, or my egotistically demanding , but just asking for awareness. It was the very least I could do to get her attention, then leave her alone. Lifting the rein, touch her neck, make a noise. Noticing her signals. Maybe looking at what it is too and sighing. Breathing together. It’s a two way conversation.

I extended this outside, and built in little impulsion games of focus, as in ‘follow my focus now to this obstacle over here by the nice grass, then stop, wait, and I will cue you to eat.’ I used positive reinforcement as well as release, because she is a smart thinker most of the time and very food motivated. I showed her it paid to pay attention, and while, to start with, such a tactic would never supersede a panic, it helped chip away at myelinating that new superhighway brain access I was working on for attention to me.

It’s not what happens, it’s what happens before what happens, happens.

The ideal picture for Magic right now under saddle is flicking ears. I don’t say ‘don’t look around’ but I will say ‘remember me. Think about me. Follow my focus’. Her ears still have to look here and there, but so long as they are also checking in on me, we have softness and we have response and we have no brace. Zero brace means we have no bolts, and no bolts proves there are no nuts loose in the saddle!

The Colour Green

‘Green on Green makes Black and Blue’


Who hasn’t noticed how common it is for either a newbie to horses, or a ‘return to rider’ after a hiatus spanning years, to buy a young, un-started, or unfinished, very low mileage and inexperienced horse?  Sometimes it’s several horses!

Often the purchase is motivated by kindness and a desire to rescue animals from a bad situation.  Sometimes it’s literally life or death- as in ‘take him now or he is dog tucker.’

In these cases it is very, very common to ‘overhorse’ ourselves.  In fact, one of the most common problems many trainers seem to get called upon to fix is caused by green horses being bought by green humans.

the scenario often starts with these various thoughts:

  1. ‘We can learn together’.
  2. the horse is much cheaper with less training
  3. I used to gallop everywhere bareback 20 years ago, so I will be fine.
  4. The seller says she is ‘quiet’ but just needs some mileage. I can do mileage on a quiet horse.

It all starts out great.  A beautiful new horse is advertised, or a needy one that’s no less beautiful and the price is right.  a 15 minute successful test ride in an arena precedes quickly falling in love, the mind is decided and the horse comes home.  the problems will usually arise within 2 weeks, and these are some typical scenarios:

  1. the horse is hard to catch.
  2. They can’t halter him
  3. Or lead him,
  4. He fidgets when handled and uses his weight against you- and sometimes against the gatepost too.
  5. The human gets stomped on if she dares ask for a foot.
  6. The horse is completely different from when he was tried out and just won’t settle.
  7. you wonder if it was drugged for the test ride
  8. The horse won’t go, or won’t stop.
  9. The horse is a Master Grass Diver and this prevents you going out anywhere.  it’s a constant battle raising his head!
  10. The quiet pony is now hyper alert and spooky, or seems to be fast asleep every time you want to ride him.
  11. the rider loses his nerve.  it wasn’t what the horse did, it was how he felt.  or maybe it was undeniably what the horse did if he got the rider off.
  12. the pony will not trailer load.

Some people get the help they need and get lucky, and persevere through it to succeed with their horse.  Sadly however the most common result is the person gives up on their dream, and sells the pony.

Worst case scenarios also happen: the horse can be ruined by the inexperienced handling, and end up getting blamed, being sold cheap, getting a bad rep and eventually on the slide to the killers.  Sometimes a person is irreversibly injured or even killed by attempting to cope without the prerequisite skill required  to teach a young or green horse.

Here is something many folk do not realise.  Every time you are with a horse, you are training that horse.

Repeat that out loud.  it’s true.

So if you are an experienced trainer who knows this, then that’s a powerful tool in the hands.  However there is a long wide continuum of skills, and if you are on the green side, then all your unplanned, unconscious, unintended mistakes as well as all your doubt and fears are going to show up in that horse.  The horse gets pushy because he just spent two weeks moving you out his way, and you didn’t notice.  or he gets hard to bridle because you bang his teeth every time. Maybe he becomes tense and jumpy, because you yourself are terrified to ride but can’t admit it.  Or he just refuses to move because you are not clear enough and don’t know how to motivate him.

The thing is, we don’t know what we don’t know, right?  its possible to be super talented with horses and still make basic mistakes that will cause a horse to act in a way that is not helpful.  Pat Parelli once said “show me your horse and I will tell you who you are.’

He also said ‘ give me your horse and I’ll have him doing what mine does in a couple of weeks; but if I gave you mine she’d be like yours in two days.’


This is why it is critical to always train ourselves first, in everything you might need to know about horses.  Keep learning, and practise with an experienced horse, preferably before you buy your own.

We have a huge effect on our horses, and every one of us needs to make sure we have a bedrock solid foundation of basic skills to ensure the best chance for safety for all concerned.  Even if you think you are pretty good, there is always someone better to learn from who can help you.  Horsemanship is a talent, for sure, but it is also a teachable and very learnable skill,   Not a one of us is perfect, and we all benefit from upskilling.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that any effect we have on our horses is a good one.