Sunday, February 27, 2011

Training Philosophies ...Theirs and Mine

If you talk to most of the 'natural horsemanship' people today, the less resistance / restriction you use in training your horses, the better.  I can buy into that philosophy to a degree, but some of them carry it too far ... asserting that halter breaking a two or three day old foal is 'restrictive' and not natural and, therefore, not good.  That's where we part ways. 

I've had one or two very young foals that managed to get themselves hurt and require daily medicating or doctoring for a week or so.  If that foal is unaccustomed to wearing a halter and unfamiliar with being constrained by a lead rope and handler, daily medicating and doctoring can turn into a daily wrestling match.  A newborn foal weighs roughly 60-70 pounds and will double their weight in a matter of a few months.  Even if it's a newborn and I still outweigh the little critter, it's all I can do to wrestle them into submission and hold on.  If I also have to handle a syringe or bandages, forget it.  It would take one of us to hold the bugger down and the other to do the doctoring.  That's trauma and stress on all three of us that, in my opinion, doesn't work in our favor as far as building trust, and certainly doesn't do anything for the healing process.  So we always introduce a halter the first day the foal is born.  They wear it for the ten or twenty minutes it takes their mama to eat, then it is removed.  They wear it again every time their mama gets fed from that day forward.  When they are about a week old, we introduce them to the lead rope. 

At first, we just clip one on their halter and turn them loose.  Then we lead mama off a few steps because we know the foal will instinctively follow.  Inevitably, they step on the lead rope as they walk and the sudden downward pressure on their nose always surprises and sometimes bewilders them. But they soon figure out that they are stepping on the rope and they move their foot.  It's fun to see the little light bulb go off in their heads.  I think some of them have those curly-que watt saver bulbs because the light is very dim at first and brightens up as the lesson sinks in. 

That lead rope lesson is the first introduction to 'give to pressure' ...a very important foundation for everything else they need to learn.  After a few days of dragging the lead rope while they follow mama, we pick up the lead rope and put gentle pressure on it just a fraction of a second before we lead mama off.  We are standing right in front of them and they can see that WE have the lead rope and WE are putting pressure on it, but before they have a chance to think about it too much, we lead mama off and their instinctive and immediate response is to follow her.

Timing is everything at this stage.  By letting their first step release the pressure you have on the lead rope, they are learning that the reward is in giving to the pressure and following your lead.  Just a few steps the first time, then we stop mama, pet all over the foal to reinforce good behavior and repeat the process. 

Most everyone I know with horses, even the 'natural horsemanship' groupies, eventually teach their horses to halter and lead.  But the one thing I find that people don't routinely do these days is teach their horse to just stand.  Stand tied or stand with a rider on their back, just stand and wait.  You might not think a horse can learn much when he's just standing in one place, but you're wrong.  A horse learns patience.  If he's tied up, a horse learns to wait however long it takes for you to come back and release him.  He also learns trust ...that you WILL come back and release him and that you have left him in a safe place.  If he's got a rider on his back, he learns that it's okay to just stand still and rest.  We teach our horses that unless we ask them to move, they should just stand still.  We might need to adjust the saddle or adjust something on ourselves, or whatever.  If you DO need to adjust something, having to worry about controlling the fidgety horse you're sitting on only complicates the task at hand.   These are very important lessons and, in our opinion, ones that horses are never too young to learn.  So we introduce the halter the first day, the lead rope within the first week, leading lessons soon thereafter and standing tied by their second month.  You have to be smart setting all these lessons up, always try to set the horse up for success and build each lesson upon the previous ones.

Mares and foals are instinctively very emotionally dependent on each other for the first few months, so we use that bond to enhance our lessons.  Just as leading the mare off to introduce the lead rope and leading lessons, the mare is also a great great tool for teaching patience.  When we have bred mares and new foals, we feed the horses twice a day.  They are stalled while they eat and it usually takes them fifteen or twenty minutes to clean their buckets.  Like all babies, by the time foals are three or four months old, they are taste-testing everything around them.  When mama sticks her nose in her bucket to eat, the foal is curious and wants to see what she's after.  Our mares are good mamas and, like all good mamas, they are patient with the babies in their feed buckets a point.  By the time the baby is eating a noticeable amount, mama is starting to get annoyed.  So we introduce the baby to their own bucket with a little sweet feed.  They are already comfortable with being haltered during feeding and familiar with the concept of a lead rope on their halter.  So a bucket is hung just outside mama's stall and the baby is led over to their own bucket.  They are immediately enthusiastic to having their own feed bucket and they are right across the fence from mama who is calmly eating her own feed, so we are set up for success with this new lesson.  While they're eating, we are scratching and brushing and handling the foal's feet.  Constant 'feel good' contact reinforces our bond with the foal and also ensures we are right there if foal gets in a panic over being tied.  As they become comfortable with the new routine, we gradually spend less time right there with them and they learn to be confident in the situation on their own.  Mama's la-tee-dah attitude and the distraction of yummy sweet feed right under their nose makes these lessons go that much more smoothly.

All of this has been on my mind because I've decided to saddle break Lyric myself this year.  I raised her mama from the age of four months and did everything I could think of to prepare her mentally and emotionally for the day I would ride her.  But when she was finally old enough to be ridden, I sent her off to a trainer for 30 days to be professionally started under saddle.  Her daughter, Lyric, is five years old this April ...plenty old enough and plenty stout enough to carry a rider.  She's had all the same ground work and preparation that her mama had and we would have sent her off to a trainer a couple of years ago, but a long stint of unemployment and several other personal challenges got in the way.  Things are better for us now and we could scrape up the money to send her to someone later this year.  But I'm thinking it would be good for her and me both if I do the honors.  I'm no bronc rider and if she decides to buck, I will most likely hit the dirt and hit it hard.  But if I do MY JOB right, she won't ever buck.  So it's up to me to make sure I do things right.

We will start next week and I have a very specific game plan in mind.  I'll take pictures and keep you posted every couple of weeks as we make progress.  Hopefully it will be a success story in the end and I'll be riding her with reasonable confidence by the end of this summer.  But if we hit a few snags along the way, I'll own up to those as well.  We all learn from experience, even if it's not our own. 


  1. I've always liked the plan of breaking horses to a saddle at 2-3, but not riding them hard, then at 4-5, kick it up a notch. That's what I plan on doing with my fillies, even though I am getting them halter broke late. My 2 babies were range-bred, so they were untouched until they were weaned.

  2. Being five years old already, Lyric's mentally and emotionally mature enough to go quicker and further with her saddle training. We sold her as a long yearling to a (supposedly) experienced 4-H horse family who had her a year and did EVERYTHING wrong while they had her. We bought her back after a year because they contacted us and said she was 'crazy' and if we didn't buy her back, she was going to the meat auction. Of course, we bought her back. Expecting the worst, we were very careful with her the first week or so, but she has not exhibited a single 'crazy' moment since she's been home. We've continued her ground training and reinforced her manners every day as we do with all our horses. But because she was subjected to some rough mishandling for a whole year while she was away from us, I am all the more committed to starting her myself. If we don't sell her, I may send her off for some refinement after she's got a few miles on her. But it will be after I know she's calm and confident under saddle and it will ONLY be to a trainer I know and whose methods I trust.

    My husband's now 28 year old mare was a range baby and untouched until he got her as a two year old. She was his first ever horse and he was her first ever handler. They learned a lot from each other that first year or two. She's in her twilight years now and starting to fail as all old things eventually do. It will be a sad day when we lose her, but we just appreciate every day we have with her until then and do our best to make sure they are GOOD days for her.

  3. When I was in my teens, I bought myself a 4 year old mare that had never been broke. I spent about 3 months getting the trust of that half-wild mare before I even tried anything more than putting a lead rope on her for a few moments. My grand-dad had given me some advice and a clothespin. Yes, a clothespin. He told me, the first few times you do something *new* with a horse, clip a clothespin on it's ear. It will be so distracted by the clothespin, what you are doing will just be a *side-event* in it's mind. After 4 or 5 times, take the clothespin off and the horse will do whatever you were training as if it had done it all it's life! Believe it or not, it worked.
    I later found out that it's called a *twitch* by farmers and cowboys.

  4. "Natural Horsemanship" will only get your so far. At some point common sense needs to come into play. Sounds like you are well gifted in that department. Hope you will keep us apprised of the progress.

  5. @Lamby ...the clothespin is a modern adaption to the old cowboy days when horses were roped, tied, blindfolded so a rider could climb on and then ride the buck out of 'em. They called it 'breaking' back then and the horses weren't the only ones that got 'broke' sometimes. It was common for one of the guys holding the horse's head to BITE the ear ...the trick being to bite hard enough the horse thinks you MIGHT just eat him and not so hard as to bite a piece off. The clothespin trick was a kinder/gentler (safer for the handler's TEETH) adaptation of the bite method. Evolution is fascinating, don't you think? LOL

    The clothespin method gave way to the modern twitch which is a short wood shaft with a loop of chain on the end. The loop is spread and the handler grabs the horse's upper lip, then takes a twist on the chain. The lip is pinched and the horse is suddenly ONLY interested in keeping it's upper lip intact. I have seen a twitch used properly and seen it used to the point of abuse. I haven't ever found the need for one myself, but I've learned never to say never. IF a horse was badly injured and had to be constrained so it's injuries could be attended, I would use a twitch in a heart beat. But I would use it properly.

    I've already got a good foundation with this mare, so I don't expect to need a clothespin. If she was half-wild and didn't know me, I might ...I'd do whatever it took to make it safe for me and her both.

    : )

  6. Aw, shucks, BR ...thanks for the vote of confidence. I will post about the progress. My initial goal is to work with her on the ground three days a week and do some things horseback on Saturdays. I'll just pony her from her mama the first few times, then work up to riding her solo. How fast we progress from one stage to the next is up to Lyric. Everything I do with her is a teachable moment and every lesson she learns is the foundation for the next one. If I do a good job, she'll never buck pressure! LOL

  7. Thanks for your visit and kindness. This is all so interesting to me..I had a little colt once and it was the time of my life training him and loving on him! :D