Riding & Groundwork on a Grey Desert Day

greyday090915WWe’re closing in on the end of the summer monsoon here in Arizona, rejoicing to have survived the worst of triple-digit heat paired with stifling humidity. To remind us that autumn is descending, the sky stayed overcast all day, providing a cool, contemplative atmosphere for riding lessons and ground exercises.

solangehasabsTwo of my rehab “graduates” put their riders through a comprehensive core workout, with the warmblood mare carrying her human through a soft sprinkle of rain in their first-ever connected, comfortable sitting trot sans stirrups.

So nice for horses and riders to feel the relief of a cool, misty morning after months of blazing-hot and sticky-damp sessions, even at the crack of dawn. And such a rare and welcome treat for me to work in relative cool later in the day as I walked my miles on the ground with one horse starting back to work after a year of healing and another entering a new phase of his education.

A gentle sprinkle of rain misted my clothing and their slick summer coats and beat a quiet rhythm on the metal barn roof. The young rehab horse practiced changing bend through the barrel in sweeping S-turns and perfected the fine-tuned lightness of my “pendulum” exercise. And the gregarious gaited gelding practiced impulse control – he’s got a bit of an oral fixation – and learned to “waggle,” the first building block in building the posture and muscle tone needed to develop self-carriage.

The forecast calls for a scorching weekend, hopefully the last hot gasp of summer, so the memory of today’s mild mist will have to carry us desert-dwellers through the waning season. Whatever the weather next Thursday, I’ll be back to work with these horses and people who make my days so interesting, rain or shine.

Who Knew There Were So Many People Who Don’t Do Natural Horsemanship Anymore (or Never Did!)


What a fascinating week this has been since an article from my website “went viral” online thanks to social media and a web-based horse publication. Written by Allana Kereluk, one of my guest authors, “Why I Don’t Do Natural Horsemanship Anymore” had more than 17,000 views on HorseNation.com as of this writing.

This little whirlwind started when a friend shared a Facebook post of the article. I was pleasantly surprised to see something that old from my website show up on my FB timeline. Curious whether the article had been traveling wider on social media, I did a search and found that it had, indeed, circulated among about a dozen people on FB. Interesting, especially for a piece that had languished on my site after a few responses when I ran it in my December 2010 newsletter.

I figured a few more FB shares would be mark end of the article’s second life. But the next day got a nice email from one of the editors at HorseNation.com asking for permission to re-publish the article. Allana gave her blessing and I granted permission with a bit of trepidation. We agreed that while we relished the chance to start a conversation about whether some of these training techniques are detrimental to horses, we fully expected a nasty backlash from the NH hardliners.

We’re both surprised that the comments have been very balanced, both on HorseNationand on social media sites like SnarkyRider (from where it’s shared just under 250 times at this writing). The people who disagree have, for the most part, been polite and sensible. What truly fascinates me is the sheer volume of people who wrote things like “This post really resonated with me.” and “Interesting!” and “Amen.”

And I got a number of very nice private emails of the “thank goodness I’m not alone and someone else thinks the way I do” variety.

I’ve been quite encouraged by the overall civil tone of the “conversation.” I haven’t seen a single really nasty personal attack on Allana. Although, inevitably, there are a number of “she must just be a bad rider/trainer/horsewoman” and “she must just be doing it wrong” type of comments, they’re generally lacking the vitriol I admit I was fully expecting. Even the commenters who scolded Allana, assuming she must have been trying to learn NH only by watching YouTube or the NH training gurus’ DVDs weren’t overly pedantic. (And I can assure them their assumption is absolutely not the case.)

The only FB commenter whose two-cents-worth irked me aimed his disdain at me, not at my invited “guest.” Seems he spent enough time looking at (but clearly not “getting”) the informational articles on my site to pick out and criticize one about using the TTEAM bodywrap to improve horses’ balance. “I can’t [take] this person’s opinion seriously when they promote something like this,” he wrote.

Too funny. Pretty sure he’s not going to gain much traction dissing Linda Tellington-Jones, whose TTEAM and TTOUCH work predates all the “natural” horsemanship marketing geniuses, if I’m not mistaken. Stick that in your Brannaman-wannabe hat and stir it with your $50 orange training stick buddy. (Yeah, that was a bit snarky. I’m over it now.) What I really meant to say was, “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.”

Seriously, though, I know versions of these “natural” techniques were used by honest-to-goodness Horsemen and Horsewomen for ages before the marketing geniuses turned them into mass-market, dumbed-down, grade-school circus acts. What I have serious issues with is the the lack of knowledge of and attention to posture and biomechanics and correct carriage. Addressing this lack by teaching anatomy and movement and feel and an eye is what I do, one horse and human at a time.

So I’m very grateful to Allana for agreeing to take public the quiet cyber conversations we had been having four years ago and for allowing the re-publication of her piece to a wider audience this week. And a big thank-you to everyone who read and shared and commented and emailed, keeping the topic alive.


No Excuse for “Training” Trauma

From a Facebook “conversation,” here’s a new one: using religion as a reason to employ the horse “training” technique known as “laying a horse down.”

The spirited discussion started when a friend shared a post promoting a horse-training demonstration by Paul Daily of Wild Horse Ministries, a portion of whose online photo gallery is shown in the screenshot below.


The Facebook poster used the bottom picture with the caption “No life is more secure than a life totally surrendered to God.”

Apparently one way this trainer illustrates “surrender” is to make the young horses in his training demonstrations lie down in full tack. From his website:

Paul does not “break horses”, he “gentles” them, with words and pats, until they let him bridle, saddle and ride them – all within two hours. Occasionally, Paul can get the horse to totally submit by lying down. Paul says the Lord has given him this ability and is using him to reach people who shy away from organized religion and church. As the horse submits to Paul’s ministrations, people submit to God’s. “We have witnessed individual lives being changed because of their willingness to submit to Jesus Christ”, says Paul.

I’m sorry, the average young horse being saddled for the first time in a public setting is not going to simply choose to lie down and rest in response to “words and pats.” The “laying a horse down” method is accomplished with the force of leverage.

Mr. Daily’s demonstrations require that organizers provide “an untamed but rope/halter broke colt two to three years old.” For a young, inexperienced horse all the new sensory input of being in a strange place plus wearing a bridle and saddle plus the spectators surrounding him equals the type of stressful situation in which a flight animal needs to be allowed to move. Take away his legs and he has no relief, no hope of escaping to safety and surviving this encounter. He does what any prey animal is hard-wired to do – he checks out, freezes, plays dead.

Therefore, just because some horses who experience this “laying down” technique stay down without restraint doesn’t mean they enjoy or are even okay with being rubbed all over and sat or laid on as some “trainers” do. They have checked out, disconnected their brains from their bodies, so to speak.

It’s a function of neurobiology called “tonic immobility.” Search and you’ll find the condition referenced in relation to instinctive behavior of prey animals when facing imminent death, as well as to humans experiencing such trauma as physical abuse or sexual assualt.

For a prey animal, “to surrender all” is to die. I have written about this before and I also recently came across an excellent blog post on the same topic. The thoughtful writer has researched (and footnoted) her journey from supporting the “laying down” technique to questioning it.

I’ve seen “laying a horse down” defended as an effective way of creating trust, making the horse safe to work with, ensuring obedience and “extinguishing” a horse’s fear and I think they’re all nonsense. Dangerous nonsense that creates a horse with PTSD that’s going to show up sometime, maybe many years and several owners later. You know the one: that tried-and-true horse who just completely blows up one day with no apparent provocation, seriously injuring himself or his rider/handler?

The person posting the photo of Mr. Daily’s use of the technique on social media was all about the importance of “submission” and wrote passionately about her relationship with God. I support her right to choose to submit to whatever or whomever; what I don’t support is anyone forcing a horse or any other flight animal into a submissive position that triggers the same autonomic response as being captured by a predator.

I want to be absolutely clear here that I have no objection to either the poster’s or the trainer’s references to religion or to the latter’s attempt to find parallels between horse training and being a good Christian.

I firmly subscribe to the version of “religious freedom” I grew up with: everyone is free to worship – or not to worship – as he or she sees fit. That means nobody has the right to impose his or her religious choices on anyone else; that would be denying religious freedom, not practicing it.

Organized religion is not a priority in my life, but I readily acknowledge there can be a spiritual element to the human connection with horses. And I also know from decades of experience that working with horses inevitably brings up issues from and teaches lessons applicable to the lives we live away from the barn. If your religion is of prime importance to your daily life and your relationships with other people, that’s going to show up the way you connect with your horse, as well.

I just don’t think that connection is best explored by forcing a horse to submit to this traumatic technique. No matter how gently it’s done or how pure the motives, making a horse lie down while you touch him, stand over him or sit/stand/lie on him is not training.

I would go so far to say that in any situation other than, perhaps, to administer life-saving medical treatment, “laying a horse down” is plain and simple abuse right down to a very deep cellular level. The animal’s own physiology belies any assertion that this method should be regarded as humanely training or gentling a horse.

Definitely Not Your Grandmother’s Western Pleasure Horse

There’s a video making the rounds on social media that perfectly illustrates one of my biggest fears as a professional horsewoman: that the perversion of horses’ natural movement I see in most show disciplines today will persist – to the detriment of horses – for generations.

For example, I can’t stand the idea that today’s young riders, the professional trainers and judges of the next generation, may have never seen a pleasure Quarter Horse who doesn’t four-beat “lope” jammed on the forehand popping up and down like an oil pumpjack. How will they ever know that’s not how a stock horse should (or even must) move.


The clearly intelligent, accomplished young woman who posted this “educational” video to her Facebook page is exactly the type of professional I’m worried about. She seems honestly to believe this perhaps slightly less egregious peanut-roller posture should be celebrated.

Compared to the worst of what has been in the showring in the past three-plus decades, it’s just parsing degrees of awfulness, I’d say. Considering how stock horses were shown up until the late 1970s, there’s just no comparison.

I keep asking myself what can this winning trainer possibly be seeing when she remarks how “forward” these horses are moving when clearly not one of them is stepping through from the hindquarters?

How can she not see that all of these horses are dumped on the forehand, four-beating and their polls remain well below the withers except in that portion of the lope when they have to pop their necks up to drag themselves forward? There’s no push, no engagement, no impulsion at all in these horses.

The answer must be that she’s seeing what she’s used to seeing, what she has likely seen every minute of her equestrian life from the first time she sat on a horse or went to a show. Hence my fear. When horrific, unbalanced, joint pounding gaits are all that stock-horse show riders have been taught and practiced and rewarded with ribbons, how can we expect them to cringe at every step of this awfulness? They simply can’t see what I see.

I give the video’s poster credit if she really is working to move her industry to back from the brink of absurdity and encourage more sensible and humane standards. But this video’s value for showing the industry’s return to biomechanically correct movement is miniscule and this performance is certainly worthy of kudos for the AQHA or anyone else involved.

The only thing I do agree with the FB poster about is her statement that this class of the top 20 youth pleasure contestants in the nation “.. is not your grandpa’s Pleasure class.” Well, I’m old enough to be these riders’ grandmother and I still have the buckstitched tack to prove it. I can tell you no stock horse of any breed moved like these horses back when I was showing Quarter Horses.

Here’s a little background: I had my first horse in 1967 at age four and I grew up riding daily except in the worst of winter on a ranch in northeastern Colorado. Although in my family the lines between men’s and women’s tasks were pretty traditionally drawn, at those times of the year when riders were needed to work the 400-head Hereford herd it was all hands on horseback.

I gathered and drove cattle in all weather, rode fence lines looking for strays, and roped and dragged calves to the branding fire. My absolute favorite horseback task was pasture sorting steers bound for the sale-barn from heifers retained for breeding.

Third place 9 & under Western Pleasure, September 1969.

I also showed my horses, starting out at open shows at age six, adding 4-H shows when I was old enough and then expanding into Quarter Horse shows after I got a young registered horse in junior high.

All my horses, from the bomb-proof Welsh pony who was my first show mount to the cranky King Ranch mare who neither of my parents could ride to my really nice papered Hancock gelding, had to do double duty: working ranch horse during the week and prettied-up show horse on the weekend.

I guarantee you not a single horse shown in the video above could do that, at least not without some serious re-training including months of bodywork and rehab.

My only hope for the “AQHA Pro Horseman” who created the post and others like her is that they spend a good long time with some of the folks who excel in the increasingly popular Ranch Versatility competitions. I’m so thankful there are still ranches where the wonderful working Quarter Horse bloodlines have been preserved and that those people have some public outlet to show how a stock horse should move.

Here are some examples of what grandma’s pleasure horse actually looked like:

This young horse and rider could easily have been one of my competitors in youth Western Horsemanship at a show in the 1970s. The rider’s turnout and way of sitting the horse, the horse’s conformation and flat movement, and even the pattern look very similar to what would have been in the ring back in my show days.

The only obvious difference is the tail; back then we shortened tails to hock level on working horses to avoid picking up brush and stickers on the ranch and to emphasize the powerful hindquarters in the ring.

Here’s a bit more experienced horse and rider pair that also could have been plucked right out of the ring at any Quarter Horse show I went to in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. This solid, workmanlike pattern probably would have earned a ribbon the open Western Horsemanship class.

You would even have seen a few horses with suspension like this mare’s both on the ranch and in the ring. She wouldn’t have won the Western Pleasure, which was strictly a walk/trot/lope rail class back in the day. But any rider who could sit that trot well would surely win Western Horsemanship, the class judged on equitation and often run as a “pattern class.”

These horses really could work stock, and some of them probably do. A Quarter Horse is, above all, supposed to be able to perform the work he is bred for. And that’s what makes a beautiful horse.

I hope there will, some day soon, be a full-scale revolt against the showring peanut-roller parades so horses with sound minds and bodies will once again be prized.

Swimming Lessons?

One night recently I had the strangest dream, one of those vivid mental movies that sticks with you, sharp and clear as day, even after waking.

I was teaching a lesson. Three women (none of whom I remotely recognized) all in proper English attire – boots, helmets, jackets. And three horses (also unknown) also kitted out properly in English tack. And a big indoor swimming pool.

Yes, you read that right. Apparently the point of the lesson was for each pair to ride around the concrete pool deck and then horse and rider would jump into the water, with the rider somehow leaping off the horse in the process to land in the water a few feet away.

Then the rider would climb out and the horses would somehow jump out and the rider would remount and do it all again.

Just before my alarm woke me, I was yelling at a rider who just kept going around the pool too fast and jumping in before the rider ahead of her had time to clear the space. Her horse had just nearly landed right on top of the other rider and I was telling her in no uncertain terms what I thought of her unsafe behavior.

Where does that stuff come from? Nobody who knows me at all would imagine me teaching anything anwhere in or around a swimming pool. I don’t do water. I cannot imagine what in the world made my sleeping brain conjure up a bunch of strangers — four-leggeds and two-leggeds — doing something I would never remotely do.

Oh well. It did make me start my day laughing at myself. And later I recalled pictures I’ve seen of the Atlantic City diving horses and the movie I once saw telling the true story a blind girl who performed that feat. In that context, maybe my dream wasn’t so strange after all.

The Beginning of the End of the “Big Lick?”

Things are heating up in the fight to end the barbaric practices endemic in the “big lick” Tennessee Walking Horse industry.

A Kentucky congressman has introduced a bill to help end “soring” by strengthening the Horse Protection Act.

The former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association has been threatened with bodily harm and taken his family into hiding.

And the Humane Society of the US has created a program called “Now That’s a Walking Horse!” that provides grants of $500 for individuals or $1,000 for groups using TWHs outside the showring.

You can weigh in for or against HR1518 and read some very interesting comments by people on both sides of the issue.

Here’s one from someone opposing the bill:

I grew up riding Tennessee Walking Horses. While my family and I are thoroughly opposed to soring, the use of pads and chains as performance and training aids are similar to training aids used by any athlete. Many basketball players wear special shoes in order to increase their vertical jump distance. The use of padded shoes on Tennessee Walking Horses is similar and enhances their naturally smooth, pronounced gait. The use of chains is similar to runners wearing weights on their legs to increase their strength.

Uh huh. Right. Makes me want to track down Anonymous there and send him on a long hike wearing four-inch platform heels and a pair of “action” chains. Bet that’d be real purty.

Update 12/13: Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, show judge indicted for animal cruelty

TWH Tide Turning?

The “big lick” cadre of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry faced another setback last week at the annual National Celebration show.

Honors, billed as the walking Horse of the Century, failed his soundness check by a USDA inspector before the class that would have qualified him for the “Super Bowl” of the TWH show season, the World Grand Championship class. Two other horses failed inspection in the same qualifier, leaving only three contestants.

Hope all those high-ranked competitors in the TWH “big lick” industry who have a history of soring violations will sit up and take notice that change is necessary. The horse-aware public is watching and many of us don’t like what we see.

The Dominance Paradigm, Right in My Back Yard

What are we doing when we repeatedly turn to violence and brutality to coerce our horses to do what we want or to force them not to do what we don’t want? Twice in one week recently I witnessed fellow professional horse “trainers” making that classic mistake: confusing aggression with communication and fear with learning.

Both incidents happened while I was involved in teaching lessons and both were egregious enough to draw my attention away from my students and their horses.

First was a Western trainer on a very young-looking little sorrel horse, repeatedly jerking the horse in the mouth, spurring it and hitting it with the reins over and over throughout the entire hour-plus I was on the property.

In this case, it was not obvious even to two educated, experienced horsewomen what exactly the trainer was trying to accomplish. The horse would spurt forward and the guy would grab with his spurs and jerk it to a stop. Then he’d grab it with the spurs again and hit it on the hindquarters with the reins, over and under, and the horse would spurt forward again. Rinse and repeat over and over and over. Tanque Verde Stables, Adam Bradley

Sure looked to me like a good way to teach a horse either to grab the bit and run off or to flip over backward. I found out later the latter was what the trainer was trying to undo, “fix” the horse in one session to stop rearing with its owner. Right. I expect that was not terribly successful.

I saw similar “training” techniques employed by this trainer over several months until, finally, my client couldn’t take it anymore and moved her horse out of the facility. Then found out later that the same professional seriously injured another client’s former horse ramming the animal into a fence to “teach her to stop.”

I generally find the only to entice a horse (or human) to give up on a habit is to replace the undesirable behavior with something else. To do that, it’s often necessary to explore the cause of the habit and to remove that cause. For example, removing an ill-fitting saddle as prelude to teaching a horse that bucking isn’t the only way to behave under a rider. Even in those instances when the source of the bad behavior isn’t discernible, you still need to find some way to connect with the horse’s brain, to physically prepare him to learn instead of just reacting to gross stimuli.

A horse in full-on flight response – or in fight mode, for that matter – is in no fit state to learn anything. He shuts down all his brain but the primitive part that is trying to save him from danger. When trainer = danger, the horse will never learn anything useful.

The second horse I saw being hit instead of helped by his trainer was punished during a jumping lesson for refusing to jump a small oxer off a right-bend corner. I don’t know how long the lesson had been going on when I noticed him, but my gaze was drawn to the horse refusing the jump by trying to duck out the right side.

I watched the rider circle again and set the horse up to refuse all over again – no right bend, no outside rein support and the horse so far on the forehand the rider had no horse in front of her leg at all. The horse kept ducking right, though really he was just continuing to fall over his right shoulder as he had done through the entire turn. (Not unlike the horse in the video who just kept falling to the left out of a poorly executed bending line.)

The fix for this is pretty straightforward: have the rider actually bend the horse, rock him back on his hindquarters and balance him up under her seatbones supported by the left rein. After a few stops maybe the horse needed the incentive of a small voice correction or a tap with a jumping bat on the right shoulder about three strides out. This was a horse I had seen in the past to be honest and willing when ridden properly, so even that might not have been necessary.

Instead of coaching the rider to correctly set the horse up to jump, the trainer appeared to blame the horse. The next time he ducked out, the rider leapt off, the trainer mounted and faced the horse toward the middle of the fence and proceeded to whale on him with the bat. Because, of course, it makes perfect sense to a horse that if he makes a mistake induced by Rider A, then Rider B will get on and hit him and he’ll know the next time what to do for Rider A. Or Rider B. Or anyone at all. Also, it will become perfectly clear while he’s being held at a standstill and hit with a bat that he must jump the fence the next time he’s cantered to it. (Just like the horse in the video clearly understood that dumping his rider and having a crop chucked at him were connected.) Mathias Fernandez

After the beating, the trainer bent the horse right on a circle and rode him very strongly to the fence with plenty of rein and leg support and then hit the him repeatedly as he was approaching and jumping without a sign of ducking out. This happened over and over until my lesson was finished and, thankfully, I left.

So, unsupported by a rider the horse runs by the fence and gets hit. And, supported by a rider the horse jumps the fence and gets hit. As far as I can tell, neither the horse nor the student, Rider A, learned a darn thing here except how not to jump an oxer on a right bend.

I did not see whether the student ever remounted to attempt the jump. I did, however, hear all about the big welts all over the horse afterward from a fellow boarder who was rightly upset and appalled.

What, exactly, did these professionals think they were accomplishing? Teaching the horse a skill? No. Creating new positive associations to encourage specific behaviors in the future? No. What they were doing had nothing to do with training or teaching or anything else productive.


To Sensitize or Not to Sensitize …

Training a horse to be a safe and solid partner while allowing him to express his personality and preferences is a challenging process that requires trust, respect and plenty of creativity.

I don’t want my horses so programmed to a narrow set of responses that they lose all their individuality and seem more like machines than sentient beings. I want to see a horse’s expression change as he considers his options and makes a choice that will earn him praise and comfort.

The question I have asked dozens of times of people practicing various versions of “natural horsemanship” is: after you’ve spent time desensitizing your horse to all manner of stimuli, when do you than selectively sensitize him to the things you want him to “hear” well and clearly? So far, I have gotten no substantive answer.

I’ve tried a number of times to organize my thoughts and write about the differences between exercises that desensitize and those that sensitize a horse, but I haven’t managed to finish anything that said all that I wanted to. It seems British horsewoman Susan Rainbird has had no such problem. She recently wrote her thoughts on the subject; coincidentally, so of mine as well.

Here’s an excerpt from her blog post on the topic:

During the desensitisation are we also numbing the horses’ natural ability to process information and replace their basic instincts with learned responses.  Horses throughout their lives process every external stimuli as either something to ignore or something to fear, it is important for their survival for them to do this, if they ran from every perceived danger using their basic instinct of flight they would never eat, drink or rest.

For our safety and enjoyment we need our horse to not react adversely to certain objects and situations, like cars, plastic bags, loud noises, etc, etc, so we put training in place to expose them to these things and then continue to expose them until they learn to ignore them.

There are some flaws in this procedure.  By continuously ‘dulling down’ the horses’ senses we are at risk of removing their ability to deal emotionally with new stimuli.

We often talk about us taking on the position of leader when we are interacting with our horse, it is important to establish a lead role but it does not mean that your horse has no role in the relationship. You need to work together as a partnership; your horse needs to remain an important and interested party in the activities you are undertaking.   You want them to look to you for direction and to trust your judgement, but you also want them to be confident and emotionally strong enough to investigate and develop positive learned responses to new experiences for themselves.

The danger of de-sensitising horses too much is that they become switched off and unresponsive. They can be emotionally unreachable. This state of psychological apathy can sometimes present us with an unpredictable horse, one that is normally docile and compliant, but has episodes of seemingly uncharacteristic and irrational behaviour.

Oh, yeah. Thanks to a total stranger for putting on paper what I try to convey to my students every day.