October/November 2014



Horse Behavior and How You Make the Most of It

What's in your arena?

Behavior and Training Links












Longeing in Balance

Virtual Lessons
1, 2 and 3


















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Desert Horse



Desert Horse Services Inc.
© 2014
Desert Horse Equestrian Services
3741 S. Cindy Lane
Tucson, AZ 86730


Unintended consequences.

Anyone who has been riding and training horses for any significant amount of time has, at least once, created an unwanted behavior. Trained in something that must later, and with much more time and effort, be trained back out.

Why? Sometimes we get in a hurry or lose our temper or just plain make a mistake that ends up sticking around to haunt us and our horses. Most of these unwanted behaviors can be replaced over time, but wouldn't it be nice to program in only the good stuff in the first place?

That means in order to train productively and humanely, we have to understand how horses react and learn. In a Horse&Rider article, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin provides insight into the way horses experience fear, which she asserts is more influential than pain. She explains how we can understand that emotional response to aid us in training more compassionately and effectively.

Fast Fear, Slow Fear
Another way horses and other animals differ from us is that they tend to experience fear “faster” than we do. There are two ways fear is experienced in the brain, depending on whether it takes what Grandin calls the “high road” or the “low road.” The high road gives you “slow fear” because its physical path through the brain is longer than the low road.

“On the high road,” explains the scientist, “a scary stimulus, such as the sight of a snake in your path, comes in through the senses and goes to the thalamus, located deep inside the brain. The thalamus directs it up to the cortex, at the top of the brain, for analysis. When it gets there the cortex decides that what you’re looking at is a snake, then sends this information – it’s a snake! – back down to the amygdala, and you feel afraid. The whole process takes 24 milliseconds.”

By contrast, the low road, or fast-fear system, takes half the time. You see a snake in your path, and the sensory data goes straight from your thalamus over to your amygdala, avoiding the cortex. The whole process takes 12 milliseconds. Nature gave us both systems because you can’t get hyper speed and accuracy in the same system.

“The fast road is quick and dirty,” says Grandin. “You see something long, thin, and dark in your path, and your amygdala screams, ‘It’s a snake!’ Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, ‘It’s definitely a snake!’ or, ‘It’s just a stick.’ The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed.”

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Q & A: Arena Footing

Q. Finally after many years of wishing for horse property of my own, I’ve found the perfect piece of land and have started building my dream barn. There’s a mostly flat spot for an arena, but I’m not sure what to do about footing. It’s desert, with some cactus that will have to be cleared, and doesn’t seem too rocky. I know I’ll have to have something added and my friend says I should buy sand, but I’m not sure about that. I’ve also looked into some of the rubberized products, but my budget for footing isn’t that big. I mostly trail ride, but have always wanted to learn some dressage.

A. The kind of footing you’ll want will depend, in part, on what discipline you ride. Riders in some of the western disciplines seem to want deeper footing, while dressage and jump riders often feel that overly deep footing puts tendons at risk. For good general-purpose riding surface I don’t like the foot of a trotting horse to sink more than halfway into the material after it has settled.

Probably the first material most people would mention when talking about arena footing is sand, either mortar or “washed” sand. Sand has several benefits, including good drainage, and it doesn’t get slick so you can generally ride safely in a sand arena even when there are puddles. But straight sand – even added to a mostly sandy native ground – isn’t my first choice for several reasons.

First, sand is dusty, which can be an issue if you have horses or riders with sensitive respiratory systems. Dust can also be a contentious issue between neighbors if you have any who live near enough to be affected by clouds of dust.

Second, I find that dry sand isn’t very stable underfoot, especially after it has gotten pitted up a bit from a horse’s hooves. Think how hard you work to walk on a dry beach especially when there are little hills and valleys gouged into the material from use. Your feet get tipped to the inside and outside depending on where you step and I don’t think that kind of torque is ideal for legs, whether human or horse.

Read more

On the Web


I'm starting to find more writing online from people whose philosophies of training and handling horses make sense to me or, at least, provide interesting food for thought. Here are a couple I've come across recently:

  • Does your horse have the right to say No?
    "...if you want to be more than ‘just’ a rider you need to be willing to listen to the horse and if he says No then you need to accept responsibility for that feedback."

  • Horse Myth #4, Busted
    “Your horse is trying to kick you/bite you/crowd you/barge into your space/drag you to that patch of grass because he’s dominant!"

And if you're working on developing your eye for correct movement and lameness, take this challenge from the University of Guelph Equine Centre: