Thursday, January 28, 2016

Training the Sensitive Horse

Courage is a sensitive and complicated horse. I say that not to excuse his "bad" behavior, but to explain my training technique, if only to myself. I have been raised under good horse trainers and I appreciate the theory of what they do, most of the time.


Because horses are individuals and because sensitive, complicated horses are a world unto themselves, pretty much every gold standard for training has at least seven caveats when applied to my specific horse. And it's hard for me to admit that, because like or not, pretty much everyone who's anyone at training horses likes to take it upon themselves to explain to me why I am Wrong and Bad and what I am doing will Ruin My Horse.
um but great saddle pad. Thanks JenJ
And I know that my horse is my problem and I need to just let their opinions roll off and I know that despite whatever gospel most of them spew, once they were seated on my horse, they'd all pretty much do the same thing I'm doing, because it's the only bloody thing that works.

Bear in my that my absolute favorite quote about horse training is this: "Any behavior a horse offers is just information about how he feels. The only thing that makes that information good, bad, or indifferent is the importance we put on it."--Mark Rashid.
almost a year ago
In our 2.5 years together, Courage and I have worked with... four? No, I think five six different trainers. Each of them provided something different at a different time, but the one who has done the most in terms of really unlocking Courage's potential and putting us on a good path together is our current dressage trainer. She is a relentlessly kind and patient person and she has done wonders for Courage and I.

On our first hard schooling ride outside the other day, Courage and I were once again flailing and leaping across the arena. (Because trotting and changing bend. Omg.) And instead of just responding to it, I found myself feeling like a failure. I could see these ticker tapes running through my head simultaneously:


Right? All of those things are good general training principles. Forward is a great thing. Giving up at critical moments is piss poor horsemanship. Not addressing undesirable behaviors frequently makes them worse. Desensitization is the root of domestication. We can all agree on those things.

Well, all of us except Courage. Who remember, is sensitive, complicated, and outweighs me by a thousand pounds.
not afraid to express opinions
So for my specific horse, forward is not only NOT the answer, it's actually usually a terrible idea BECAUSE (hear me out), he knows all about frantic upside down running from the racetrack, and no one needs more of that in their lives. To him, going correctly and pushing more from behind is HARD and STRESSFUL and frequently results in leaving the scene in a mad leap/flail combo. If he's having a hard time with something and I push him forward, he will physically leave. Period. (I do hope that we can eventually change this, but that's where we're at right now).
no sense doing this faster
Items 2 & 3 on the list are highly linked--if your horse takes off flailing and leaping, it's fairly common to just keep kicking on so that he doesn't "get away with it", learns that it is uncomfortable, and that leaping doesn't get him out of work. AND I AGREE IN PRINCIPLE. But. In practice? No. Not with my horse. Again, let's look at his history. This horse was on the track for 6 years. He knows how to do a job. He has a FANTASTIC work ethic. And also, he's good at running. And also running in a panic is a kind of adrenaline surge that COMPLETELY changes what his brain is thinking about. So. Yes. Making him "run it off" or whatever has really only ever escalated the situation in a bad way AND TRUST ME I HAVE TRIED.
doesn't. work.
And then there's item 4. Desensitizing. Do it more. There's a definite merit to this idea, right? I mean, giant tractors can fly by 2" from Courage's nose and he doesn't even blink. The horse really isn't spooky. But. (See? All the caveats!) Think about that training quote for a minute. Courage flailing is Courage giving me information about how Courage feels. If how he feels is stressed out, overwhelmed, and trapped, how does me making him MORE stressed out, MORE overwhelmed, and MORE trapped make the situation any better or build his trust in me?


Right? Like it might sort of work, but the person doing it is definitely an asshole and you don't ever want to see them again.

So back to Courage. He flailed and leaped extravagantly across the (very large) outdoor arena. I got him pulled up with the help of the fence. Instead of kicking him forward and making him rodeo it out or jamming him back to trot and trying to provoke him to flail again, I calmly turned him around, walked off, and repeated what we were doing but at a slower gait. Over and over and over, to show him that he could do it. I rewarded him for trying, and he rewarded me by trying harder.

And then we trotted a small circle and trotted down the long side each direction, did a downward transition, and called it a day. It was the best quality trot I've had all year. I didn't re-address changing the bend at the trot. I didn't get after him for flailing. I didn't move on and push for more.

I'm not the be-all and end-all of horse trainers and I know that. All I can do is what works for myself and my sensitive, complicated horse. In my world, that means it's so much more productive to take a deep breath, slow things down, and explain again from the beginning.

If he's not getting it, doesn't that reflect more poorly on me as a teacher than on him as a student?


  1. I like this - and think that the really good horse trainers are always taking feedback and adapting to the horse faster than they can articulate. So it's easy to have you know, your 4 or 5 ticker tape mantras, but in practice they are constantly amended, adjusted, reframed.

  2. Look, I'm no horse trainer. But I do believe that the important thing is to have tools to deal with issues. And then you try them. And maybe the most conventional doesn't work, and maybe it does. But once you find something that DOES work, I think you should stick with it.

    At the end of the day it's about YOU and YOUR HORSE. Something different might work with you riding another horse. And something else might work for another person riding Courage. But that's not what's happening -- it's you AND Courage. Together.

  3. Love this, and I so appreciate trainers that take horses' individual dispositions into account. Dino is a bit the opposite - he will not run and flail, but he will mentally shut down and plant his feet when pushed to his 'edge'. A lot of people have told me that beating the crap out of him with a whip & spurs to 'make' him move will rid him of that habit. Guess what? That only pisses him off and causes the situation to escalate to bucking in place (and, apparently, rearing and spinning when he was at the college). If I beat him, I don't get his brain or his respect, I get a pissed-off pony that hates his job. So I have to negotiate creatively and quietly, being firm in just the right way, until forward seems like his idea. This works for us. I may look ridiculous and it may take a long time to get him going some days, but over the years this tactic has helped us make tremendous progress. Keep on keepin' on, girl.

  4. My dressage pony is very sensitive as well and liked to go faster when put under any kind of pressure or when new/harder exercises were introduced. Because he is basically honest but can get freaked out, I have found the best way to deal is to do exactly what you did with Courage. Stop, go to the easier slower version of the exercise, get something half way acceptable, praise, and move on. Over time this has turned a pony who sometimes freaked out about new things into to one who when I try something different has an attitude of "Hmmmmm what does she want, this is different, oh ok I can do that..." They start to trust you when they know they won't be overwhelmed with a new exercise and the art of horse training is to get a bit more most rides without it being bridge too far. JMHO!

  5. My previous OTTB needed me to slow things down too. Then he would re-start his brain and settle down. I did discover he needed constant chiropractic/acupuncture treatments, though, as he had some chronic soreness. I also wish I'd known back then about treating for ulcers as I am completely convinced some of his inexplicable erratic moments were due to ulcer pain. It is a very common condition for track horses and any horse with competitive stress. He was not a horse to bully and would try his heart out to do the right thing, but sometimes his emotions just got the better of him.

    Sounds to me as if you are training Courage just fine. First level success is well within reach.

  6. Slowing it down is so important - if you slow down their feet, it seems to slow down their little hamster brains. Certainly doing slow walk work, with lots of changes and laterals and things that require focus, prepare Paddy much better for when we're ready to trot. But you can be slow and forward - i.e., engaged and working. It's the running around "forward" that doesn't seem to work for us.

  7. I like this a lot. I think of "training" Eli as continually negotiating the terms of a successful partnership. No way in hell am I ever going to try to desensitize him to anything, for exactly the reasoning you give.

  8. This is great! Reminds me about how students learn differently too


    That is all.

  10. You know him the best. You spend the most time with him. You ride out all of his shenanigans and best moments and everything in between. Sometimes it is nice to have trainers guide you through the next phase, but you know how to deal with all of the rest.

  11. "Horses are individuals" Yup, you gotta do what works for Courage!

  12. first thing new trainer did with wiz and I was take away forward - she immediately said that's just stressing him out, and we need relaxed first. so when he started to get tense, we took away his jaw and had him flex right/left until he finally just took a deep breath. once he was relaxed and free swinging in the back, then we added forward. if we did forward first, we got explosions. after like two months of not giving a shit if we were barely trotting/cantering, he calmed the hell down and we could go FORWARD in harmony. so not always the answer, I completely agree. good for you for doing what's right for you and him and not just textbook.

  13. I think especially with OTTBs who DO get worked up, and who CAN run all day, and generally have a good work ethic/desire to please, most of the above applies at to some extent. Often the answer is just to re-approach the question, or slow things down and ask for less. This is all to say that you are in good company, and you have discovered what most really good trainers know: each horse is different, and requires a different ride and approach.

  14. With slowing things down, you have taken away the stress by going back to things Courage already knows how to do. Its your building blocks. Go back to what you know, reinforce the idea that you have mastered step 2, 3, and 4, then slowly add a new piece to the puzzle- step 5. You have to walk before you run.... So it goes with horses.

    I find with my OTTB mare that when she gets amped up, I have to 'quiet things down'. She's reacting to me. If I quiet my hands and give her soft even contact, she softens up and quiets down too. Sometimes but not always. She is a horse. She has her moments.

  15. Everyone always has a solution, but you are the one that lives with the results. From what I've read I think you know your horse and are doing exactly what he needs. Plus everyone in the horse world knows everything about everything... ;)

  16. Oh, yes. Trainer and BM are very much "slow everything down, no slower, EVEN SLOWER" when working through hysterics. I think it's been a big part in pushing to a new level in Crazy Robert's flat work.

  17. I agree - it's never simple. If it were, every 12 year old who got a riding lesson for their birthday would be a pro.

    I agree on your point about desensitization. With Pia it was KEY in getting her to be more confident and to trust me more - but I learned (slower than I should have) that I could only work on desensitization when she was STILL CALM. if she got overwhelmed - game over. Brain was not absorbing good info anymore.

  18. 'running it out' definitely DOES NOT WORK for my mare either. i tried. once. to disastrous effect. and then spent the entire night googling arabians bc i was completely out of my depth.... ahhh the good old days!

    but seriously, i love this post. and especially your response to the flail. it's clearly working for your horse too!

  19. Love reading this post- sometimes the hardest thing is to move past the emotional reaction or the urge to "force" them to do it. Ellie's a sensitive gal and the nuances of what might constitute "yelling" are really interesting.

  20. Chiming in a little late here, but I think that holding firmly to those four training ideals is actually a bad way to train a horse and any "trainer" who sticks to those guns is not a trainer I'd want working in my barn.

    I'd like to offer a different set of 4 ideas that make up part of the credo that my own trainer(s) use.

    1) "Forward solves a lot of problems." But not ALL of the problems.

    2) "Make him think it was your idea" This one comes from Dr. Christian Schacht. He suggests this for things like a a big spook that leads to a canter ... oh, good!!! I was really wanting to canter! :0)

    3) "Let him be uncomfortable." My trainer makes this suggestion when Izzy picks up the wrong lead and cross canters. I am too quick to bring him back to trot. She suggests riding it out as he will discover for himself that there are easier ways to get the job done. The added benefit is that it's improving his counter canter.

    4) "Change the Conversation." There's nothing wrong with moving on to something else for a while.

    The thing I most appreciate about my dressage trainers is that they are in this for the horse. They are always looking out for his best interests, not the rider's immediate agenda. That's not to say that they think horses should get away with being a jerk, both trainers are more than willing to use a whip, but they really want the horses to be happy in their work.

    I say do what keeps your horse willing to be in the conversation. :0)

  21. That really is such an excellent quote!


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