Category Archives: Horses

Loving ’em, training ’em, thoughts in general

Miss Manners for Equines

Manners aren’t something that an animal or a person is born knowing – they are something you are taught by others and by experiences. If your horse is hard to catch, throws his head when you try to halter or bridle him, blows up when you cinch up, walks all over you and refuses to stand quietly for the farrier, guess whose fault that is? That would be yours. They say that children are 50% nature and 50% nurture – in other words half of their personality and way that they act and react is due to their genetic and specific nature, and the other half is the way they were brought up and what they have learned is acceptable behavior (or at least behavior that they can get away with, whether it is deemed acceptable or not). The same seems to be true with horses. Some horses are gentle by nature and seem to have a good understanding of space requirements, will hold their feet handily for a farrier or to be cleaned, and basically do all that they can to make their owner’s life an easier one. Other horses range from arrogant to flat out ill-tempered, and make their owner’s life a living nightmare!

Just as a human can learn new manners and ways of behaving, horses have the ability to relearn behavior.

Keep his distance. Ever had a horse step on your foot or strike your heel walking too closely? If you haven’t yet, you probably will, as it can happen to the most careful of horse persons. It’s important to teach your horse how to keep a respectful distance when leading, especially when you are passing through trailers and gates. The primary error to make with this skill is cuddling your horse. For many people, horses are big, fragrant, and frankly pretty cute… but don’t cuddle your horse! Give him a hug on his neck while standing at his side if you like. If you just can’t help snuggling his head, only do it off halter. Your horse has to learn that you are the boss, and the boss keeps some space around themselves. It’s not going to break their heart; it will remind them that you are the leader and must be respected.

There are several methods to use while teaching a respectful distance. You may keep an arm’s length of lead rope between the horse’s chin and your hand, and when the horse steps into your space, stop and turn (quartering) to the horse. If he doesn’t stop and step back out of your space, wave your rope-holding hand back and forth so that a wave travels up to the horse’s chin. Horses find this uncomfortable and should step back. Maintain this spacing by repeatedly stopping, facing them, and waving the lead rope as necessary. Your horse should learn to respond quickly by backing off when you stop, without your needing to face him, or give him the wave. Depending on how spoiled you’ve allowed your horse to become, this may take some time.

Another method is to keep your hand on knot of lead rope so that you can push yourself out of the way if he leaps forward for some reason. This is a good leading method to use with an unfamiliar horse, or with your known horse in a busy situation when he may become startled and try to jump or spin without warning. Of course, if the horse is prone to bite, be sure to keep your arm situated (bent away) so that your wrist isn’t in chomping range.

Another skill for your horse to master is to willingly accept his bit, including lowering his head for the halter and bridle. His behavior in this situation will be quite a reflection on how he has been treated in the past. Your own manners with him, as far as being gentle around his ears, pushing them forward with other hand while settling the bridle, and being careful not to clink his teeth with the bit, will have a great deal to do with how he behaves. Have the veterinarian check your horse’s teeth every 6-12 months to make sure he hasn’t developed hooks or sharp edges which might make carrying a bit particularly painful. Likewise carefully check his ears for mites or waxy buildup which could encourage his resistant behavior with halter and bridle straps.

Remedial training for this

You and your horse should display considerate manners for your farrier. During the course of many discussions about the poor manners of other horse owners with our own farrier, the following items were discussed. The owner should be on site if at all possible, to catch and hold the horse (if the horse hasn’t been trained to stand tied) for the horseshoer to do their job. Horses are good with remembering humans, and even a normally “easy to catch” horse may kick up their heels and avoid being caught by someone who catches them to make them stand about having their feet rasped and banged upon.

Ideally, the owner will also apply fly spray to the horse before the farrier’s session, clean out their feet (especially if the day is particularly muddy), and provide a shady place to work if at all possible.

Remember that it is not the farrier’s job to teach your horse manners. Owners put him or her in a position of having to retaliate with nubby end of rasp if your horse steps on, leans on, bites, stomps, or kicks at them. You should teach your horse to stand for several minutes on 3 legs, all the way around. No leaning! You do this by first using a looped lead rope around his foot to lift it safely, keeping yourself out of range of an inadvertent (or intentional!) kick as well as saving your back. Get the horse accustomed to the hammering sound and feel on his foot by lightly tapping it (followed by firmer taps as he becomes used to it) with a small hammer.

Your horse should stand quietly for saddling. This is another area that will reflect the care you have taken in the past. Your responsibility to the horse is to first take your time. If you slam the saddle on his back and cinch him up quickly, you could find yourself fighting a sour attitude for quite some time when you begin riding, wasting the effectiveness and pleasure of your ride. So take your time while saddling and keep his pleasant demeanor.

Don’t slam the saddle on his back. Watch that the stirrups do not thump him, as they can weigh up to a few pounds apiece and can even cause bruising on your horse’s sensitive back and sides. Remember that he can feel a fly landing on his back; he will definitely not enjoy having a 30-40 pound saddle flung up there. Make sure that your cinch doesn’t loop up under saddle as you are laying it on his back. Granted, saddles are hard to place properly when fully outfitted with cinches and heavy stirrups – do some upper body workouts if you have to. Simple hand weights are great for developing shoulders, biceps and triceps.

The Good Rider’s Rules for Saddling
• Don’t over-cinch him. Cinch up in stages and maintain a bit of spacing so that your horse’s massive lungs can still perform effectively. Keep in mind how uncomfortable it is when we humans wear too tight of jeans, and imagine that discomfort around your chest with 10-20% of your own weight balanced on the band of tightness – this should keep your consideration alive for your horse!
• Your own balance is what keeps your saddle from slipping, not an over-tightened cinch. Spend some time riding bareback to learn how to keep yourself in the middle of your horse. If necessary, take riding lessons to learn that skill. A really good rider rides the horse, not the saddle.
• Back cinches should be lightly touching your horse’s belly with no pressure. Keeping space between the back cinch and the horse’s belly merely negates the effectiveness of the back cinch in keeping the saddle from flipping up in hard maneuvers.
• Always check your keeper strap between primary and back cinches. A back cinch can quickly become a bucking strap and make the gentlest gelding lose control if the keeper strap breaks or comes undone and the cinch slides back into the horse’s groin area.
• Place, don’t throw, the saddle atop your horse.


Equestrian Vaulting

Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road –
The Value of Vaulting
– TJ Wierenga

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2006)

Equestrian vaulting. The term conjurs up mental images of sleek gymnasts performing dangerous maneuvers on the backs of galloping horses. How then, can you equate the sport of vaulting with a team of over-50 ladies who have been known to show up for practice dressed in overalls? Granted, the overalls costume was a gag for April Fool’s Day, but nonetheless…

The American Vaulting Association (AVA) calls vaulting “a unique and growing sport that combines gymnastics and dance on a moving horse. It’s a wonderful way to develop coordination, balance, strength, and creativity while working in harmony with your equine partner.” And in fact, vaulting is so safe that AVA sponsors a National Council for Therapeutic Vaulting program, in which “special needs vaulters—including children, teens and adults with diagnoses ranging from cognitive problems caused by developmental disabilities, to physical challenges ranging from blindness to amputation—learn to better themselves both physically and mentally” through the unique sport.

Pat Walters is a lady in the “over 50” age group who rides out of Lewisville, TX. A rider since she was a young child, Pat is also a Therapeutic and Centered Riding Instructor who began vaulting to help with her own balance. “I was in training in dressage at Meg Fletcher’s (the coach of the Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club in Burleson, TX) and she suggested that I do a couple lessons on the vaulting horse… since I am a Centered Riding instructor I thought this would be a great way to also center myself. Well, it not only helped me with balance and centering, but vaulting also gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. When I was done with my lesson I felt as if there was nothing that I couldn’t deal with that day. It was so much fun, what a great way to de-stress! I smile the rest of the day!”

The AVA notes that vaulting is the safest of all equestrian sports, and in fact is safer than riding bicycles or any team sport such as baseball, softball or soccer. This is credited to the “Three Points of Vaulting Safety” observations which include a controlled environment, safety training, and the nature of the sport and horse. A great deal of research has been done on the causes of equestrian-related injuries, and it has been found that rider loss of control, riding environment/suitability of the horse, and rider knowledge about safety are cited as major risk factors with 60 percent of injuries caused by the rider losing control of the horse and 80+ percent of rider injury attributed directly to falls. Vaulting as a sport directly addresses each of these risk factors and builds upon a foundation of having first taught riders how to proceed safely before beginning any maneuver, no matter how simple or advanced, and in fact the AVA points out that there is less risk for a head injury (for persons under the age of 15) in vaulting than there is in incidents involving shopping carts! Of course, for riders over the age of 15, shopping carts involve more risk for wallet injury than head injury.

In fact, the nature of vaulting, with so much emphasis on safety and rider awareness, improves riding safety in all other areas of equestrian activities as well. “I first seriously considered vaulting while watching some cross country jumping,” said Meg Fletcher. “A horse tried to jump over the water rather than into it, displacing the rider. The only thing attached to anything was the rider’s left foot in her stirrup – she was completely off the left side and obviously headed for the ground. And yet – she shoved her left foot down, threw her right leg over, picked up her reins and galloped on.” This common vaulting maneuver-turned-save really got Meg to thinking about safety. “I thought how terrific it would be to finish the course rather than hit the ground, and started saving for a (vaulting) surcingle right away.”

With a degree in Equestrian Science, dressage experience with Bodo Hangen from the German Olympic team, eventing with Jo Struby, and as the Educational Director for the Fort Worth Pony Club, Meg found herself with a wide equestrian background and an ever-increasing interest in the sport of vaulting. “I have been consistently surprised that vaulting is not more popular. It is more fun to watch, cheaper by far than riding lessons, and the safest equestrian sport on record! If nothing else, vaulting is a great workout that is so much fun you forget that it’s work. My grown-up vaulters are having a blast while improving strength, flexibility, balance and confidence.”

Vaulters begin learning their craft on a practice barrel, something like a mechanical bull. However, the barrel does not move, and vaulters learn basic procedures like mounting, dismounting, “the flag” and “the stand” from the safety of a stand-still. Once distances and maneuvers are trained, riders can begin working on one of the typically large, wide-backed and notably patient vaulting horses – generally warmbloods.

Vaulting is a team sport and the team consists of the horse, the vaulter, and the “lunguer” or lunge-line holder. Vaulters may also compete as a pair or on a team. The lunguer (generally the coach) maintains control of the horse, which must proceed in a stable, dependable speed at all times.

A typical day begins with gearing up the horse, then warming up the vaulters. “We see who this week can get their leg up past a certain area,” Pat explains. “Linda does the best leg stretches. We listen to moans and groans and laugh as we try to do things younger people do without thinking. We all take turns playing the wheelbarrow crawl, now that’s a funny one, most of us just start laughing. We talk about what happened during the week as we stretch and just get bonded again through our love of the sport, family, kids, jobs, and latest jokes.”

The first maneuver learned by vaulters, and practiced daily, is the mount. “We practice getting our leg up and our head down at first. When you get on a vaulting horse you MUST swing your leg up while at the same time throwing your head down. Now at our age the “throwing your head down thing” is a weird and scaring movement. But it gets the body up and onto the horse. Amazing, but it works!” Pat says.

Linda Smithee is another lady in the Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club. She has over ten years experience in equitherapy, and over two years learning dressage and centered riding. She became involved in vaulting when she says “I was looking for something energetic for my two sons (age 9 and 10 at that time), and introduced them to vaulting. It really was a lot of fun and a challenge.” After watching awhile, Linda found herself drawn to the sport. When asked about her best memories of it, she laughs, “Leaving the back of the horse with my body still intact! Actually each experience is a great memory. If I had to pick just one thing I would say, standing on the back of a moving horse is phenomenal!”

To find a vaulting club near you, check out the AVA website ( or do a web search on “vaulting” in the local area in which you reside. Pat notes that vaulting is one of the least expensive equine sports you will find anywhere, as vaulting lessons tend to be inexpensive and equipment for the vaulter includes only comfortable, stretchy pants and soft tennis shoes or ballet shoes with rubber bottoms.

Linda encourages people to “forget your age, and any experience you may have with horses. If you would like to get in shape and have lots of fun, then vaulting is for you!” Pat adds “the act of vaulting you find yourself not only connected to the horse, the rhythm of movement, and the fellowship of friends, but you find yourself connected with you. So you smile, you laugh, you dare yourself, you grow!”

The Welsh Rabbit Vaulting Club’s “Ladies Over 50” group members joke that they have allowed at least one participant in her 40’s, with a waiver for her youth. The April Fool’s Day gag mentioned in the first paragraph really did happen, when Pat Walters and Linda Smithee decided to liven up the day with farmer apparel. “We were quite a picture,” Pat grins, “We looked like two hillbilly chicks on a large horse.” Despite the gags, Coach Meg brags with pleasure on her team, and in particular her “Ladies Over 50” participants. “These women make me so proud… they are awesome! I hope we actually make it to Regionals next year, but even if we don’t, I know vaulting will still be a positive influence in their lives.”

Long Distance Hauling

Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road-
Long Distance Hauling
by TJ Wierenga

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, November 2006)

In September, my husband Mark, six-month old son Colton, 4 horses, one cat, entire household goods and one very understanding mother-in-law Kathy moved from Liberty Hill, TX to Billings, MT. While the move itself had been in the plans since I was about ten years old, the physical effort involved in moving our horses and household the entire width of the United States was somewhat stunning. We learned quite a bit on the trip, everything from rewiring a trailer to tow behind a 24’ rental truck (for the uninitiated, that’s one of the BIG ones) to keeping an infant-turning-toddler happy for 12 hours at a time locked in a car seat (thanks Mom Kathy!) to what exactly happens when you haul horses across one time zone and 1,550 miles.

Having sold one truck and trailer rig to friend Rheetah Pritchard, we were left with our Chevy 2500 pulling a Century 3-Horse slant load trailer, which I drove with Colton in the backseat and Mom Kathy as Entertainer Deluxe. Mark drove the rental truck pulling a 16’ car trailer which he had converted into a homemade box trailer (the reality of which looked a lot better than it probably sounds) loaded with our possessions, including several bales of very expensive feed store coastal strapped to the top. Don’t even get me started on hay again.

We hauled Mark’s 11 year old Thoroughbred gelding “Doc”, our 3-year old APHA tobiano “Bonitas Freckle” and my 18-year old AQHA/NFQHA gelding “Bubas Pepper” in the horse trailer. Bubba is, as those of whom know him can attest, what you might call an easy keeper. One of those horses who can lick rocks and stay fat. His ground manners are impeccable and he managed to keep the other two on the ground, most of the time. Our fourth horse is Mr Peponita Zan (we call him Monte) and we ended up asking Cheyenne Horse Transportation based out of Leander TX to haul him for us, due to space considerations (or the lack thereof). Over the next four days, we learned several things.


It should go without saying, but it’s best to say it anyway. Transportation companies are not horse trainers. “The first thing of major importance is getting your horse used to a trailer, loading and unloading seems to be the most traumatic for horses who are not used to trailering.” says Holly Whitecloud with Cheyenne Horse Transportation (see advertisement this issue). “Having them trained for the trailer will help cut down on chances of the horses injuring itself when the time comes that it needs to be transported.” While our horse Monte, hauled with Cheyenne Transportation, reportedly was an ace at loading and unloading, we found that our Thoroughbred was a little less than amused at the theory of folding his over-16 hand body into what he sneeringly referred to as “a short, fat Quarterhorse trailer”. However, we did notice that this improved day after day, as the changing scenery and increasingly cooler weather most likely made the 3 horses feel that their own trailer was the safest place to be.

Current, negative coggins test results and health certificates are generally required for overnight stops as well as entry into certain states. Check with your destination state as well as the states you must pass through, as health certificates may be required to be 30, 15 or even 10 days from date certified. Most states do not require an inspection, particularly if you are hauling your own horse. But if you are having a horse transported, it is very likely that you will need a health inspection both for the state inspection stations as well as any overnight boarding facilities that the transport company may utilize.

When checking into state specific laws and regulations, ask if certified weed free hay is required. You may also inquire, if given enough time between initial consideration and the horse’s trip, whether any area-specific inoculations are advised by local veterinarians.

One thing to keep in mind while traveling and staying with overnight boarding facilities is that all hay is not the same. If your horse is accustomed to coastal Bermuda grass, the wisest thing you can do is to keep him eating the exact same hay all the way to your destination. All grass hay is not the same, but swapping out legume hay alfalfa (as they often feed in more northern climates) for coastal grass hay can be a very bad idea when done abruptly. The last thing you need when you are on the road is a colicking horse, without medical facilities and assistance nearby.

Whitecloud recommends that horse owners to be sure and carry a water and/or muck bucket on their trip. Trailers should be cleaned out daily, and occasionally overnight facilities will fail to offer a water bucket. She recommends a hose, as well.

Climate and altitude are further considerations. A slick horse born and raised in a humid, low elevation climate such as central or southeast Texas is going to have a harder time adjusting to colder temperatures and higher elevations. Higher elevation atmospheres contain less oxygen, something you will notice if you ever visit the mountains and try to hike or exert yourself – you will find yourself breathing harder and probably needing to stop to take deeper breaths. Your horse has even more muscle mass to try and oxygenate, and his respiration will likely increase along with his heartbeat until he acclimates. Conversely, a horse accustomed to cold weather extremes will also have a hard time when he reaches a warm destination. Blankets and clippers will work either direction to help keep your horse more comfortable.

During shipping itself, it is important to use an appropriate halter. Use flat nylon web halters; it’s a good idea to wrap the buckles, or use a product like “Soft Cheeks” to protect your horse’s face from rub. (Soft Cheeks are high-quality fleece covers that attach with several precisely-located Velcro strips and completely cover the square hardware on a flat nylon halter). Tied nylon “cowboy halters” work on pressure points on the horse’s face, and you risk damaging nerve endings (or at least causing unnecessary pain and aggravation) using these while hauling, during which time your horse may inadvertently pull back against the halter.

If possible, avoid having your horse’s hooves trimmed within the last week prior to being hauled. Whitecloud remarks, “a horse should not have their feet trimmed right before leaving on a long haul as their feet can sometimes be sensitive and the nerves may not have adequate padding” against the vibration of the trailer floor. Shod horses are more protected, but the sensitivity issue should still be noted.

Pros and cons of leg wraps – some consider leg wraps a helpful item to keep the horse’s legs from getting dinged up or bruised during the shifting movements of hauling. However, Whitecloud advises against leg wraps, stating “Many people like to use leg wraps, tail wraps and boots. We do not advise any of these to be used do to the fact that while in transit if a wrap becomes undone, it may be stepped on, tightening the wrap, which can cut off circulation. If the horse has had an injury and wraps are needed, use the adhesive type that the vet carries, making sure the wrap is secure but not tight enough to cut off circulation. But check with your vet to see if it is really necessary. Boots also can come off or partially off. If this happens it can bruise the foot as well as making it harder on their balance.” If you do decide on wraps or boots, don’t wait until the morning you are loading your horse to accustom him to wearing these items! Consider this a training issue just like loading and unloading quietly, and have him calmly accepting of wraps before the big trip.

The Trip Itself
Each night while traveling a long distance with your horse (or even by day if you plan to travel by night to avoid hot southern summers), you will look for temporary stabling. Some people will set up electric paddocks on their horse trailer and make sure to park in a safe area, should their horse somehow become free. For actual overnight or temporary boarding, you can look online with searches for “horse hotels, overnight horse boarding, temporary equine boarding”, etc. There are several directories and websites that will list and advertise available facilities.

Whitecloud notes that they will look online on an area’s Yellow Pages for boarding stables, as oftentimes stables will be listed locally but not list on sites specific for overnight boarding.

Failing to have found an overnight stable, you may also try what we did in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Having started on our trip over five hours late and with our infant son vocally indicating limited traveling ability, we used our cellular telephone while driving up the highway to contact the Ardmore Sheriff’s department and explain our predicament and the fact that there was no way we would be able to drive all the way to our reservation north of Oklahoma City. They were extremely helpful, going so far as to send a deputy out to the local fairground to locate the on-site manager for us. The fairground manager called us back promptly and we were able to arrange overnight stabling at the very nice Murphy Fairground facility, with indoor stalls, shavings, and friendly personnel. The follow-up call by the Ardmore Sheriff’s dispatch was very considerate, and appreciated!

The “Kansas law dawgs” (to quote a favorite movie) weren’t quite as friendly, with the sheriff’s department dispatch suggesting that we find a hotel for ourselves first and then ask at the hotel desk about horse boarding. While we were skeptical, we hit paydirt on the second hotel when we discovered that the large-animal veterinarian across the highway had actually recently begun offering overnight stabling. The bonus was that the (outdoor) pens were only $6 per horse, a big savings over the fairgrounds indoor stalls. If you find yourself in an area and absolutely cannot find overnight stabling, check the local directories for equine or large animal veterinarians, as they may either offer stabling or know of a facility that does.

Once you have arrived at your final destination, don’t be too surprised if you find that your horse has “drawn up”. Even with frequent stops, lots of water, overnight exercise, and good stall mats in the trailer, horses will tend to respond to the stress of a long haul by losing a bit of weight. Even good ol’ chunky Bubba was a little hollow-hipped when he swung off the trailer at his new stable, let alone the others. However, just a few days of rest, plenty of water and hay, and our horses were as good as new.

We also found that feeding your cat a veterinarian-prescribed “kitty ace” pill once a day goes a long way toward toning down the “MeROWRS” and occasional upset tummy that tends to plague cats, especially when they’re being hauled in the front seat of a 24’ rental truck.

Tom & Holly Whitecloud of Cheyenne Horse Transportation out of Leander, Texas
are available at (800) 575-4817, (512) 260-2929 or

Soft Cheeks ™ Halter Hardware Covers are available through Comfy Horse, at 817-307-3859 or via email to

Stretching Exercises for Horses

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2005)

From big, beefy bulldog quarterhorse types to rounded Arabians, from tall slender Thoroughbreds to rangy, muscular Tennessee Walkers, there is one thing that all horses have in common. Muscles get sore.

In years past, the common ways to overcome stiffness and soreness in your horse would be to either turn them out to pasture for a few days or to administer a drug like phenylbutazone or “bute”. However, with the newly re-found therapies such as chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture come a new way of looking at our horse’s health.

Equine massage and stretching can provide much of the benefits of time off and normal healing in a shorter amount of time. It can decrease muscle soreness by removing the toxins normally generated by overexertion. By increasing the flow of blood and of synovial fluid (which lubricates the joint itself), you can help your horse’s body heal at the cellular level. Stretching helps restore smooth muscle fibers, which prevent painful knots and spasms that can be caused by the normal small tears and toxin build-up in an exerted muscle.

Stretching is neither weight training for you, nor an aerobic sport for him! The most effective stretching exercises are done after a short (5-10 minute walk or trot) warmup, but prior to actually working your horse, just as a human athlete will first walk a bit, then stretch hamstrings and quadriceps prior to beginning to run. Keep in mind that stretching your horse is not a matter of brute strength, in fact it is the opposite – stretching cold muscles should always be done very gently so as not to tear delicate muscle tissue. This is not a fight between you and him over possession of his leg, for example! As with any effective work you do with your horse, you should maintain a calm demeanor and speak to your horse in a relaxed, unhurried manner while you perform these stretches with him.

The simplest stretches are natural movements for the horse. In fact, many people call these “carrot stretches” because they use a carrot (or other favored treat) to help guide a horse into position for his stretch. The person does not actually put their hands on the horse to stretch any muscle; the horse performs the stretch of their own will. For example, beginning on flat, level ground and preferably, using a horse handler with your horse on a 12-15 foot lead line, position yourself beside your horse. Show him the carrot and ask him to bend his head around as far back as his hip before giving him a small bite. Keep in mind that you may need to start off just bending to his shoulder, girth line, etc before he limbers up enough over time to reach his own hip. Make sure to do this on both sides. Two or three stretches per side should be adequate, and you should encourage your horse to hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds.

You can also use the carrot to stretch his neck and topline out by lowering the carrot all the way down to the ground, passing it to your other hand, and moving it slightly behind his front feet. Let him take a bite only when he is in proper position. You’ll find your horse handler invaluable to keep your horse from walking around trying to get to the treat! You may also set up against a wall, horse trailer, fenceline, etc to keep your horse from swinging around in a circle, especially for the side-to-hip stretch.

A third effective carrot stretch is to hold the carrot between the horse’s front legs and close to his chest. He must arch his neck and tuck in to reach the carrot.

Passive stretching is the act of using your hands to physically manipulate your horse’s body into stretches. This type of stretching is very effective, however, it is also more dangerous to the horse because if it is not performed carefully and in a knowledgeable manner, it can easily cause muscle and/or tendon damage.

A good way to begin passive stretching is by performing hoof rotations. Pick up your horse’s foot and once he has relaxed, gently rotate. Then gently place the hoof back on the ground. You should not exert any pressure, rather, you are building his trust in you. Perform this on all 4 feet. As with any horse training, repetition is vital to the success of your goal! If you can do this every time you ride your horse, or every day you groom him, do so. He will become accustomed to having his feet and legs handled by you and will be much more relaxed and confident (resulting in less resistance) as you continue your stretching exercises.

There’s a great book on horse stretching called “Stretch Exercises for your Horse” by Karin Blingnault by JA Allen Publishers out of Australia. We recommend further reading for more information and many effective stretches!

Building Trust With Your Horse

Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road
-by TJ Wierenga

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2007)

Trust is the third area we will be working on in this three-part series on Round Pen Basics. Once you have established Communication (July issue) and Respect (August issue), you have set up your relationship with your horse to allow him to trust you. Just like with other people, trust is a delicate and valuable gift from your horse. It’s hard to establish but once it is firmly developed as part of your two-way relationship, your ability to relax and be confident in your animal will greatly increase your enjoyment of riding him, let alone your performance levels.

Trust is defined as “having faith in”. Belief, hope, conviction, confidence, expectation, reliance, dependence are all words that mean roughly the same thing. Imagine having a bond or rapport with your horse that involves those verbs! If you ask him to cross a creek or river and he’s never stepped into water before, he’ll do it. If you want to start working on cattle and he’s never been around those snorting, smelly beasts before, he’ll do it. If you want him to step up into a strange trailer, or cross a wooden bridge, or allow you to start swinging a rope over his head, or enter an arena filled with lots of activity/horses/people… he’ll do it. Why? Because he trusts you.

Much of our horse training program at Fear Not Horsemanship involved re-training, or dealing with what people termed their “problem horses”. These tended to be horses reacting with strong fear in a particular situation. What we found is that horses which react with apprehension and fright do so time and again because they remember the fear that they experienced previously. It is why many horses are afraid to be clipped, or load in a trailer, or stand tied. We were even brought horses which indicated a fear of cattle, never a good thing in an American Quarter horse! But something caused them fear in that situation and they remember it.

The way to overcome that negative emotional environment in the horse is to give him lots of POSITIVE emotional memories that will reprogram his mind. Ask him to come close to the scary situation, just to the point where he starts to become anxious – not to the full-blown fear, “fall apart or blow up” part. Back down a step and let him relax. Let him take all day if he needs to – if he can’t relax, back down one more step. Then take baby steps, as slow as molasses, until his feelings of calm and safety overcome his previous negative state.

Even if your horse is not fearful or apprehensive, building a solid foundation of trust in your relationship is a great way to set yourselves up for success down the road.

Develop Trust
a. Consistency is key – be the same person every time, so he knows what to expect.
b. Set him up to succeed – make it possible for him to understand & meet your requests.
c. Be fair – You’re responsible for the team, not him. Consider his point of view.
d. Be the Safe Place – no matter what else is going on, be the place where he is emotionally safe. Training your horse is not the time to throw a little temper tantrum because your horse isn’t responding the way you want him to just yet.
e. Be the Responsible Party – no matter what happens. He most likely did not come get you out of the living room to go play in the roundpen for awhile… you took him in there. So don’t blame him if things go wrong, just find another way to try and fix it.
f. Rhythm and Relaxation are big elements here. If you act like a predator, you will put him in a prey animal response mode. If you are relaxed and rhythmical, you show your horse a predictability that helps him gain confidence and calmness. Remember the speed and rhythm of his tail swishing lazily at flies.
g. Never wreck his trust in you to accomplish one task (like loading a resistant horse in the trailer, or forcing him across a jump or creek he is not ready for, for example).

Your horse needs to see that you are consistent, predictable and fair. He needs to believe that it won’t kill him if he does the strange things that you are requesting. Take into account his feelings and emotional state… while they may be quite simple, horses do have feelings, they aren’t motorcycles. Remember not to give him more requests or to expect more response than he is ready for at the time – take baby steps.

For the rare horse who is actually afraid of cattle (or llamas, goats, etc), the key is to allow him a limited exposure with you firmly in control, and build from that point forward. We would pasture a horse in the paddock closest to our small cattle herd and let him become accustomed to the sights, smells and sounds of cattle in a non-threatening environment where the cattle could not actually approach the horse. This would evolve into putting one weanling calf into our large round corral (80’) and giving the horse the experience of successfully moving the calf. Finally we’d start working one cow at a time, and ending up being able to cut one cow out of a herd, or push an entire herd as the situation warranted. The key is little successes building on top of one another.

Once you start making progress, give him time to figure things out before you move to the next level. Always give him time to relax, at least several seconds, after he has successfully given you the right answer. Try to apply the least amount of pressure possible to show him what you want, and give him the opportunity to think it through and try it before you escalate the pressure. You are setting him up to succeed, and rewarding him with a break, a removal of pressure, when he does. The goal is to make him feel a positive emotional experience, so that he stays “on board” mentally and emotionally with the team. Partnership is different from simple obedience!

And remember to trust yourself as well. You might not have this down pat the first time you try it. You will likely “mess up”. But your horse will forgive you…. forgive yourself, and keep trying.

EXERCISE #1: Lunge Line Confidence – Jumping
Goal – to increase your horse’s confidence in your leadership.
• Begin walking your horse around the roundpen on a lunge line.
• You should hold the lead rope with some slack, and encourage his forward movement with your voice, body language, and a lunge whip (NOT used to touch him!) only if required.
• Get the horse working freely at the walk and trot on the lunge line.
• Ask the horse to jump over a pole or small hay bale set up midway thru the course.
• ADVANCED – You should be able to do this with the horse at liberty (without halter or leadrope).

EXERCISE #2: Lunge Line Confidence – Water Simulator
Goal – to teach your horse to confidently follow your directions when you ask them to cross water, and do so in a calm and steady form instead of jumping it, balking, or resisting.
• Lunge your horse at a walk or trot on a lunge line.
• Ask him to approach a folded tarp on the ground. Let him spend all the time he needs to sniffing it, touching it with his hoof or nose, and exploring. Wait to proceed until he has sighed heavily (if he initially showed any fear or resistance) and looked completely away from the tarp.
• Ask your horse to cross the tarp at a walk. Use your lunge whip only to encourage him, NOT to hit him with! If you do touch him with the whip, do so in a light and repetitive manner on his hip, not below (you’re asking him to move his body forward, not kick out with his feet).

EXERCISE #3: The Dreaded Plastic Sack
Goal – to show your horse that you will not hurt him, that he can trust you, and that it is safe to allow you to touch every part of his body.
• Using a plastic sack attached to a lunge whip to give you an extension of your arm (as well as a measure of safety), approach your horse quietly and begin sacking him out. Yes, that’s why they call it ‘sacking out’.
• Again, you are looking for a big sigh and a relaxed demeanor. It helps if you yourself will keep in mind your own body language. Sighing, relaxing your shoulders down, wiggling your arms, rolling your head will all help you to relax and have the second benefit of letting your horse know that you are calm about this situation too – so he can follow his leader.

Communication in the Round Pen

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine)

Round Pen Series – #1 Communication

Wintertime is normally a time of rest and restoration for many of us. Depending on where you live, either rain, snow, or just plain cold winds and weather often have detrimental effects on our riding. This is a great time of year to consider the purchase, renovation or use of your existing round pen.

You hear a lot about the importance of having a round pen, but many folks are not sure exactly what you do with them once you get the panels or wood purchased, the area leveled out and/or sanded, and everything installed. I am sure that everyone else has seen nice round pens set up (on other people’s property of course), with weeds growing up to a few feet high inside! This series of articles will address many ways that a round pen can be useful to you and your horses.

Uses vary for round pens, or “round corrals” as they are known in our area of the country. In this series we will discuss many of the training exercises you can do to work with your horses in a round pen, including developing communication, respect and trust, hobble training, ground tying, catching issues, stretching horses, mounting/dismounting from the offside, warming up/frisky behavior/buck-outs, as well as the more traditional training colts, remedial training, and problem resolution.

Developing Communication

We believe that there are three main areas that should be considered and developed with horses: communication, respect and trust. These two-way concerns build understanding between horses and their riders. Most, if not all, “problem horses” that people bring to our clinics or in for training have a lacking in one or more of these areas. You don’t have to be experiencing a problem with your horse to benefit from better mutual communications, however. A horse that you more fully understand, and who better understands you, is a more trustworthy and enjoyable partner down the trail, or in any arena.

Human beings have a habit of wanting to be liked. We show our friendliness and harmlessness by smiling, looking at our subject square in the eye, and holding out a hand to be touched or shaken. Of course, in a prey-type creature’s language, those three actions translate to a baring of teeth, a hostile glare, and an attempt to touch or strike which is completely against a prey animal’s etiquette. Horses see us as being loud, aggressive animals with our ears pinned back and the ability to hurt them without even getting close… and they do have a point. While we cannot turn into a horse to show them that we understand their equine protocol, we can mimic their mannerisms and way of communicating to show them that we are not really so bad, after all.

For the skeptics who would ask “What’s the big deal?” and “Why should I bother with all this touchy-feely natural horsemanship stuff?”, my answer is simply that there is a big difference between PARTNERSHIP and OBEDIENCE. A partner does what you want because it is his idea too, and he understands, trusts and respects you. Obedience is just physical performance, and when the horse’s emotional state is negative (fears, anxiety, frustration develop), his mind and emotions will wander and you will be more likely to find yourself in a storm. I ride horses because I enjoy that relationship with a living, thinking creature. An appropriate quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson states that “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him.” That’s the kind of friendship I want with my horses.

How in the world does running our horses around in circles in a round pen help train him? What is the point? Is it exercise, to burn off his excess energy, to teach him obedience, or what? Simply, this is our method of establishing communication. We let him move, which helps him to feel safe, and we try out a few “words” until we figure out a common language between us. The round pen in this format is all about communication.

Groundwork, especially in the round pen, helps us establish the communication skills and rules for the interaction before you try to get on their back (out of their direct view). This is why a lot of people find Pat Parelli’s “Seven Games” so effective – they are learning two-way communication with their horses on the ground. Horses are emotional creatures and have simple emotions: fear, anger, frustration, jealousy, excitement, happiness, curiosity, calmness. They are also extremely sensitive to our emotions and intentions. They are looking for a comfortable emotional place – where they can feel happy, curious and calm. So our goal when we’re working with our horse is to create a positive emotional environment for him. We have to “feel for” his emotional and mental state, not just his physical response, to understand where he his coming from.

One thing that I think a lot of people have a challenge realizing is that they are communicating physically whether or not they intend to. They do not realize how their expressions, body language and posture, and focus is coming across to others. Did you ever notice when someone close to you has a lot on their mind, their focus is on a problem or something at work, or they are frustrated about something – they can come across to you as not listening, being cold, angry, even angry at you – when the truth is that they are just focused on something other than Right Here, Right Now… and it shows. Their jaws and shoulders might be stiff, they move with jerkier movements, and there is a brusqueness about their manner that is not normally there. Well this is especially true with how horses perceive us. These prey animals have existed since Creation by being very attuned to their environment, particularly to the predator-type animals who inhabit it!

Horses do not understand humans being angry or frustrated about the traffic or their job or their cellphone bill. eave the problems in the truck, and be with your horse in the MOMENT. Really focus your mind and attention on NOW.

So how do horses communicate with each other? We need to use these words that they understand, because they are incapable by nature and design to understand things from our point of view. To communicate with one another, horses use:
• Eye contact & expression
• Ear position
• Body position/angles
• Teeth bared or covered
• Nostrils open or pinned
• Squeals, neighs, nickers, whickers, whuffs, sighs
• Grooming one another
• Biting
• Striking with forelegs or kicking with back feet
• Rubbing against another horse

We cannot give a 5 year old human child a book and expect him to read it immediately. First we have to teach the child the alphabet, then the concept of words, then sentence structure, paragraphs, punctuation, etc. The words “see dog run” might be slow and boring for an adult, but those written words are an amazing way to open the world for a child. It is the same with your horse – he has a whole new world to understand when he begins working with a human. Horses process differently than humans, they have a different perspective. Keep this in mind!

Two-way communication is the key – By developing a balance in your communication, not all one-sided “I SAID DO THIS” and not listening for his response, just his obedience, but actually listening for what he might be trying to tell you too, you are developing the mental and emotional balance that will help improve your physical balance later, in the saddle. You are developing a team.

There are a few things to keep in mind when we’re with our horse:
1 – Mental – keep your focus. Keep your attention on your horse. Keep your mind on what you want to achieve with him. Keep thinking about his point of view, and setting him up so that he can understand your point of view. Don’t think about yourself, what you look like to other people out there, or what you want to eat for supper. Focus strictly on your horse.

2 – Physical – Stay rhythmic and quiet in your actions. Let your horse relax around you no matter what you are doing. You certainly don’t need to be slow and silent around your horse, you can move quickly and efficiently, but make sure that your horse perceives your lack of intent to hurt or punish him if he doesn’t understand something. Funny as it sounds, humming or singing helps horses relax, as well as the musician! And don’t look the horse directly in the eye unless you’re trying to get his attention and respect, never for just normal working around him.

3 – Emotional – keep your emotions positive, because your horse will feel the storm inside you and react accordingly. There is nothing wrong with emotions but there is a time and a place to allow them to affect your behavior; don’t make it his problem too. If you are too angry, upset or distracted to focus on your horse, leave him alone until a more appropriate time. You can do more damage, or undo more training with one inappropriate day’s work with your horse than you would believe – just like in any relationship!

4 – Remember – This is not a set of procedures to follow like a manual – step one check, step two check, step three check, end product = Ideal Horse. It is not mechanical and is not a process. This is a relationship that you are building day in and day out, moment by moment, with your horse. Your horse, especially if he is reacting from a negative emotional state (fearful, worried, frustrated, etc) needs to be moved into a more positive emotional state. He needs to be brought along with you just as slowly as he needs so that he continues to feel good about your training – happy, curious, calm, safe.

A quick word about halters, when following the exercises. The broad web nylon halters are less desirable than the “cowboy tied” halters. The tied halters have the benefit of very rapid communication, in that any tug on them is quickly felt and as quickly released. The cords are much thinner than the typically one inch wide flat nylon halters, which helps that response time. The knots are designed to lie against the sensitive nerve areas on a horse’s face, so that the gentlest tap on the halter, or the feel of the lead rope floating, is noticeable to the horse. Like spurs, bits and riding crops, horsemanship aids can cause a horse discomfort or even pain if improperly applied… they can also help us to quickly and softly express our request to the horse without having to haul, thump or yank to get his attention.

Following are three exercises that will help improve your communication skills with your horse.

EXERCISE #1: Helping Him Relax
Goal – to let our horse know that he can safely relax in our presence.
• Stand with a lead rope over your arm or a handler holding your horse.
• Begin to groom your horse. Search out his favorite scratch spots.
• Breathe deeply and quietly.
• Keep your eye pressure down – don’t look him dead square in the eye. Eye contact works with people and dogs, it does NOT work with horses. It is an indication of hostility.
• Keep your movements relaxed and rhythmical. Think about the swishing of a horse’s tail when they’re standing out under a tree, lazing in the shade.
• Drop your shoulders, ease your posture. Show your horse with your body language and breathing that you are relaxed.
• Look for your horse to lower his head, to breathe deeply and sigh, to lick and/or chew, to blink. A relaxed, cocked back leg is another good sign.
• If he can’t relax around you when you are indicating friendliness (grooming is a sign of friendship between horses), you shouldn’t progress any further until you resolve the situation!

EXERCISE #2: Softening the Request
Goal – to communicate our requests with lighter and lighter pressure, until we are working together smoothly and lightly with less stress on both sides.
• Start by moving his front left hoof, release the request the instant he responds and begins to shift his weight off that foot.
• Use the following request sequence: Look at the hoof/focus on it/concentrate on it/move toward it/point with your finger tips toward it/touch it/lightly poke it/firmer poke until he responds by moving the foot even slightly.
• Reward him by stepping back, sighing, completely releasing the “pressure” you were using against him. Some horses like having their shoulder pat or scratched lightly. Give him at least ten or fifteen seconds of “release” before you ask again.
• Then start again. He should begin responding more quickly to lighter and lighter cues.
• Move to the front right hoof and try again.
• This is NOT a shoving match! Pulse & release pressure, not steady.

EXERCISE #3: Physical Communication
Goal – to improve our communication process by UNDERSTANDING his physical status; and to improve our own body control so that we are better able to communicate with him.
• Ride on a lead line, with a handler, with the rider’s eyes closed.
• Riders may hold the saddle horn if they would like, although it will prove more helpful if they can release it and place both hands on their thighs.
• Riders should tell their handlers when their horse sighs, the direction they are moving, and their perception of what their horse is feeling (calm, curious, excited, nervous, etc).
• Riders should count out the tempo of the walk – 1,2,3,4 as the horse steps.
• Handler should lead horse in a series of circles and figure 8’s, around obstacles, etc.

Remember that you are the one on two legs, and you are the one who should take responsibility for the team… his emotions as well as your own! Do not blame your horse if things do not go the way you wanted them to, just find a way to fix it. Understand his motivation, and put yourself in his shoes. Be willing to accept little steps, and build from them. And always keep in mind that horsemanship is about balance, not dictatorship.

Overcoming Rider Fear

Come with me for a moment, relax, and turn on your imagination! Now, picture in your mind the best equestrian you know – the one you most admire or even envy. What is it that makes them the best? Maybe they turn incredible times at barrel racing, they may be upper level dressage, perhaps they can rope a steer and turn him in just a few seconds, or they are perfectly balanced while jumping, or maybe they are just so relaxed and confident while riding the trail that you just can’t help but admire them. It doesn’t matter what their specific strength is, this is your ideal rider.

Now think about the picture, the setting of them riding a horse. Detail the thought in your mind. What do they look like riding – their facial expressions, their posture, their physical focus. What sounds do you hear? The breathing of their relaxed, calm horse? Their own quiet, deep breaths? The thud of perfectly cadenced hoofbeats? The creak of leather, a quiet swish of a tail? And what does the scene feel like? The rider and horse are perfectly balanced, rider deep-seated and secure. They have light finger pressure on the reins, legs and hips moving with the horse, smooth impact at each footstep. Do you have the scene in your mind?

The truth is, you can become like that rider. That particular person may have more experience in training or have ridden longer than you have, but they have the same basic physiology that you do. The limits to your performance, be it behavior or achievement related, is what you tell yourself. You can become that rider.

It all starts in your mind. Our thoughts generally affect our emotions, and that becomes an energy, which becomes an action. This is true with our relationships with horses, as well as the way we approach our entire life. It is therefore important to be completely integrated in your approach to riding. Your thoughts should be clear and precise about what you are doing and what you want to achieve. Your emotions should be in line with your thoughts so that you are not sending conflicting messages to your horse – you should expect and visualize success, so that you are able to respond appropriately emotionally. Your energy should be positive, and your actions clean and decisive.

1 – Visualization of a successful performance is a key element in your ability to actually perform that well during the actual event. Pretend that you are an actor or actress playing the part of a confident, relaxed, competent and successful rider. How would you act? Where would you hold your chin (up!), your shoulders and heels (down!), your hands (relaxed). How would your voice sound? What would the expression on your face show? How slowly would you breathe, how firm and quiet would your heart beat? When you’re working with your horse, become this person. Identify with them. Forget all about your own personal hang-ups, worries, anxieties, and other unnecessary issues. Be, in your mind and with your horse, the person that you want to be.

2 – Focus on the very best. Do you remember the very best ride of your life? How about a day unrelated to riding, in which you felt safe, secure and comfortable? Dwell on those feelings, make the feelings brighter and larger in your mind for a couple of minutes. Enjoy remembering how that felt. You can bring forth the same feelings of confidence in your body now by thinking about how much you are going to enjoy being a successful equestrian, however you have defined that personal goal. It is possible to ruin a great performance by focusing on how it feels to have a BAD performance, in the same way. If you focus on the good, you are setting yourself up to attain it. Your mind is the rudder for your actions!

3 – Repeat after yourself – come up with a phrase that you run through your mind to remind yourself of your strength, your goals, and the fact that horses are fun! For example, “My horse and I are a team, and we’re having a wonderful ride!” Even something that simple can help keep your mind in the groove to stay out of your body’s way in a great performance!

4 – Imagine that your horse can hear every word that you are thinking. Remember, you are your horse’s leader. You are the source of his confidence and feeling of security and safety. Your horse is a sensitive animal, and they become discouraged easily… so you have to make sure that you only use positive words in your thoughts, that you are upbeat, and that you believe in him! He can hear you… now what were you thinking?

SAFETY FIRST! Be aware of your surroundings, of the way your horse might perceive situations, and minimize any dangers by using smart horsemanship.

Remember to breathe – horses and humans both take about 12 breaths per minute when relaxed. Synchronize with your horse! Breathe from your belly, not your shoulders. Breathing releases tension and removes toxins from your bloodstream. It oxygenates your brain allowing you to think more clearly and be more receptive. Deep breathing will actually let you become calm.
– Breathe in for the count of 3 – deeply in hale through your nose, expanding your lungs to fill your chest and belly.
– Hold for a count of 3, and tell yourself in a strong, quiet, confident mental voice “I feel calm and in control now.”
-Exhale gently through your mouth for the count of 3, letting your upper body relax as you do so.

Focus your vision. Stress and fear cause our vision to lose focus and that ALLOWS our brain to panic. When you start to become nervous or apprehensive, make the definite, conscious decision to SEE everything. Notice detail in regards to your horse, your tack, your hands and body posture, your breathing, the environment. Pretend that you may have to report everything that happened to an interested friend later. See everything!

Think like your horse to understand his perspective. He doesn’t think like a human and he is not capable of doing so, but you are able to consider life from your horse’s viewpoint. Until they stamp the word “Suzuki” or “Harley Davidson” on his side, he has a right to his own point of view, emotions and attitude. Realize that he is not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, he is concerned primarily with the situation that the two of you are in at that very moment. Remember that his response to fear is generally “fight or flight”; if he is fighting against you or trying to escape, is it being caused by his fear? Is there anything you can do to help make him more comfortable and relaxed?

Consciously relax. Your hands, arms, shoulders, back, neck, seat, legs. Your horse can feel a fly land on his skin, he can certainly feel if you are tense, or confident! Square your shoulders, raise your chin! Be the confident leader that he can follow.

Smile like you mean it – it changes your intent! No one is forcing you to work with your horse most likely, you are doing so because it is your choice. So why not enjoy it?

And the biggest tool in the toolbox – accept responsibility! Whatever happens, do not blame your horse! You are the human leader, you are calling the shots, not the other way around. You need to accept responsibility and fix things that go wrong, to set yourself and your horse up for success. Your emotional control over yourself is far more important to your success as a team than is tight physical control over the horse himself!

And finally, remember the words of the inimitable John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.”