The Worst Question

So once again the issue of horse slaughter has come up, as it seems to do every few months or so. Under normal circumstances, it’s a subject I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole. As a matter of fact, it’s a subject that I purposely run away from whenever it presents itself because it is such an inherently ugly subject. The only reason I’m touching it this time is because when this article came up on my news feed-screenshot_20160916-192446_1

-followed by this post-


they also came with questions. And because you asked, I must answer.  Please bear in mind that I am not an investigative reporter, and so I have to work with what I can glean from the internet (which as we all know is a terribly reliable news source) and try to base things off of logic. Also, I am only one opinion, and while I’m talking about large groups having just one opinion, I am generalizing and obviously cannot speak for everyone who (figuratively) has a dog in this fight. And yes, I’m so wary of this subject that I have to put in a disclaimer that I don’t know everything and am not an authoritative source.  It’s an ugly subject, and I’m trying to represent both sides with as much depth and fairness as possible.  Just remember as you read: This is a blog, not an academic research inquiry, and I’m doing the best I can. 

These questions were along the lines of “Why are they even considering this? Why would anyone do this? Can’t they come up with any other options?”

The first thing I’m going to say is that when it comes down to it, nobody wants to slaughter these horses. Yes, there are plenty of advocates of horse slaughter being brought back in the US for both domestic and wild horses, but even the most avid advocates for horse slaughter don’t wake up in the morning and say, “You know what would make this day perfect? Going out and killing some ponies.” If you  have that kind of mentality, you have much bigger problems than horse slaughter and I would recommend starting with psychoanalysis and therapy to start sorting those out. Even if you are a stone cold career politician, being responsible for the slaughter of 44,000 horses is not a great resume builder. So whenever horse slaughter comes up and is followed by public outrage, I imagine that the people who would be responsible for the horse slaughter are relieved because then they can say “Due to public outrage, we cannot follow through with this decision.”

So if no one wants to be responsible for the slaughter of all of these horses, why does it keep coming up?

The main reason that the BLM has to consider it very seriously is that even when you’re not doing anything with them, horses cost money.

Bear in mind, this isn’t like picking up a new household pet, like a goldfish, where you spend thirty to a hundred bucks on a big fish tank and then buy a few dollars worth of fish food every few months. Horses take up a lot of space and need a lot of good food. If you don’t want to buy hay, one adult horse needs approximately three acres of good forage for grazing. I would prefer more, but three acres is the minimum.  I want to say that a lot of the horses that they are talking about are in places like Nevada. Nevada is famous for two things: Las Vegas and being America’s Frying Pan. Where you may only need three acres in Pennsylvania or Ohio to feed a single horse, that amount of land could easily triple (or more) for an arid state like Nevada. If there’s not enough grass for the horses to graze on, then the BLM has to buy hay for them, and they may not have the budget or infrastructure to make sure that all of the horses get the food they need.  On top of that, whatever land the BLM runs these horses on, they also have to try to maintain, which also costs money. Without the funds to back them, even wild horses suffer.

The cattle industry is obviously going to advocate for horse slaughter because they want access to that BLM land to graze cattle on. The reason that the cattle industry wants access to the BLM land is because they can lease it for about a third of the cost of what it would take to lease private property. The BLM has to consider what the cattle industry is offering because a) right now no one is leasing that land, so the cost of maintenance isn’t even being covered b) cattle will usually be run on BLM land seasonally, so overgrazing isn’t nearly so much of a hazard c) cattle have stronger stomachs than horses (having four stomachs each really helps) and can eat some forage that horses usually avoid, so it’s more efficient use of the land, and of course, the most obvious of all reasons d) The cattle industry has a lot of money (I think my husband and his love for 72 oz steaks has contributed greatly to their wealth), and the BLM needs it.

Now, what may be surprising is how many people in the horse industry condone horse slaughter. Now, before you go wondering what is wrong with horse people, remember that every time we see these horses, we see our friends, our coworkers, and our partners. For the horse industry, it’s a socioeconomic issue, and unfortunately it’s one where the wild horses are most inclined to suffer.

Image result for diamondHorses are like diamonds. They’re shiny, pretty, make girls happy, and the going price is greatly determined by supply and demand.  The difference is that 85% of the diamond industry is controlled by De Beers; from mines to distribution. Because De Beers just about has a monopoly on the diamond industry, they can control the industry’s supply.  Diamonds aren’t actually all that rare nor all that valuable; they’re essentially shiny pieces of pressure-cooked coal. (Even if we occasionally use them for industrial purposes, we pay the big bucks for a bunch of rocks because they’re shiny.  That is the marvel of advertising.) The horse industry is NOT controlled by one body, which is great, because I think I would curl up and cry if the horse industry was controlled by one corporation. We need a lot of diversity in this business. But this means that we can’t control supply and demand, and right now, we have a lot of supply and not enough demand.

For the sake of brevity (and clarity), I’m going to break down horse breeding into three main categories: Registered Horses, Grade Horses, and Wild Horses.

Registered Horses are animals that have been bred within the restrictions and confines of a governing body or association.  Probably the most common of the breeding associations in the US are the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and the Jockey Club (which governs Thoroughbred breeding in the US).  The main requirement for a horse to be a “Registered Horse” is that they are documented in the breed book, which means that they have paperwork showing the horse’s illustrious pedigree.  There can be additional requirements, like the coloration of the horse (ex: Friesians), or requirements based on the horse’s conformation and capacity to reach a certain level of training by a certain age (ex: Trakehners and Holsteiners).  Stereotypically, the way that you produce really nice registered horses is that you pay a stud fee, bring your expensive mare to a pretty expensive stable to meet a very expensive stallion and hope that they produce exceptionally expensive babies, and then you raise those expensive babies to become very expensive grown up horses who can make even more expensive babies.  It doesn’t correlate exactly, but Registered Horses are about the equivalent of purebred dogs, just without so many genetic issues from severe inbreeding.

Grade Horses are more like the mutts of the horse world. Now, they may be pure bred horses that the owner/breeder never bothered to register with the governing association, or they may have no specific breeding whatsoever.  A lot of the time, these horses are “backyard bred.”  Essentially, all that means is that two domestic horses got put in a pasture together and decided that they liked each other very much, and the owner walked out a little while later and discovered that the mare was pregnant and the stallion was looking very pleased with himself.

Wild Horses are, well, wild. The closest equivalent might be that they are like the dingoes of the horse world, where they can be domesticated and trained, but they’re generally considered feral and prefer not to have a whole lot to do with humans. Most of the wild horses that the BLM deals with are Mustangs, but there are some horses that just got turned loose because the owner couldn’t take care of them, and within a generation or two their offspring don’t have much desire to deal with humans either.

Now, in places like Germany, where breeding regulations are pretty strict, they are producing some really nice horses that go for a lot of money (I usually see them selling for approximately $30,000-$100,000, depending on the amount of training).  We have Registered Horses in the US, but they often don’t sell for nearly so much. The problem that we have in the US is that the horse market is completely flooded with grade horses that have been backyard bred and that people are trying to sell because they can’t afford to take care of so many horses, and selling their excess animals is a way to make a quick buck.  It used to be that you could sell a grade horse with minimal training (30-90 days, usually) for about $2,000.  Now, I would say that you’re lucky to get $500-$1,000 for one of those horses, and it’s not necessarily that the quality of training has gone down, it’s just that everyone has a greenbroke, grade horse to sell, and no one is buying.

wish that I could say that the increased supply of horses and the drop in prices means that more people are getting interested in horses and buying them and taking lessons and generally falling in love with horses again, but that’s just not really the case. The main reason is the same reason that the BLM is considering slaughtering so many wild horses, which is that horses are not cheap.  Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of it is that you can’t sneak a horse into your dorm room when you go to college and expect to get away with it.

Image result for video game horse
Video game horses are much easier to train and ride.

The reason I say that is because I tried to convince my mom to let me keep a horse in my closet when I was younger, and for some reason she didn’t fall for it. With the way that the US’s economy is right now, with the cost of living rising, and with increasing expectations for all of the things that people are supposed to do with their lives, I think a lot of people know that they can’t devote the time that a horse deserves, and they realize that it’s more cost effective to just buy a gaming system instead.

Do you see the problem?  We did kind of shoot ourselves in the foot with all of the backyard breeding, but many horse people find themselves condoning and advocating for horse slaughter (of both domestic and wild horses) because since we cannot increase demand, all we can think to do is decrease supply.

Okay, whatever, that’s nice. Now we know why a bunch of people want to kill horses.  But aren’t there other options besides horse slaughter?  What about adoption?  What about castration?  Why aren’t those on the table?

Those options are on the table.  The BLM is trying soooooooo hard to get these wild horses adopted.  They will PAY you to adopt these horses and train them.  For a while I was going to start doing this, but I ran into a few issues along the way.  Number one was that it involved a surprising amount of paperwork.  Some of this was to describe your capabilities as a humane horse trainer, some of it was to help develop a budget for how much it would cost for you to train and sell these horses, and some of it was to set your business up as a government contractor.  Eventually, I chose not to do it at this time because a) I don’t own the land and facilities that would be required, and b) I am not confident enough in my own skill yet to set myself up as a business (ever tried thinking up a really good, original business name?), let alone to become a government contractor.  If I find myself in a place where I can do it, will I do it someday?  Heck yeah.  But for some people, the reason to not adopt a Mustang doesn’t have to do with paperwork: it has to do with the Mustang.

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This may not be the healthiest interaction to have with humans (but horses are really hard to herd).

Mustangs are almost notoriously hard to train. They’ve usually had very few positive interactions with humans, and it shows. Training horses can be hard enough, but training one that is legitimately wild takes a lot of time and patience, and not every horse trainer has those in spades. For example, trying to get a domestic horse into a trailer for the first time can be an extremely trying experience.  The idea of getting a wild horse (who has never been so trapped before) to climb into a metal box on wheels kind of makes me cringe.  Not a lot of trainers look forward to that.  Many of the trainers who take on Mustangs do so as a way to test and show their training prowess.  But most trainers out there will choose a cheap, grade horse who has had the chance at positive interactions with humans long before they take on a scared Mustang.

Okay, so what about castration?  That’s a way to reduce the mustang population without slaughtering them all, right?

Yes, it is.  As a matter of fact, we castrate a lot of domestic male horses because a) they’re easier to work with when you don’t have all that extra testosterone mucking things up, and b) you can keep them in a pasture with all of the mares without coming out one morning to find a new little life that you weren’t prepared for out there.  But the reason that works is because we can regulate the fact that those geldings and mares are out in the field together and that there is not a stallion out there with them.  That’s not really possible for the BLM, because even if they were to turn 90% of the males into geldings, the 10% who remained stallions would be perfectly happy to step up their game.  So the population wouldn’t really be reduced: it’s just that the gene pool would be less varied.

If the BLM wanted to go with the castration route, what they would have to consider doing is castrating some of the mares as well as the stallions, which is how we’re able to keep so much of the dog population manageable, and it really is a great tactic to use when you want to reduce the population of stray dogs over time. There are two problems with that though.

1) The reason that you castrate both male and female stray dogs is because then the dogs are able to maintain control over their territories and keep other stray dogs from moving in. Horses aren’t territorial in the same way that dogs are though, so it sort of defeats the purpose.

2) When you castrate a mare, you greatly reduce the likelihood of her being adopted.  Even though many trainers will choose a grade horse over a Mustang, there are still people out there who will adopt a mare for her breeding capacity.  The foal will be much easier to work with because it will have had exposure to humans, and one thing Mustangs are valued for is their toughness. If I recall correctly, I think the US Cavalry (back in the day when they still used horses) used to cross breed Thoroughbreds and Mustangs.  It gave the offspring the speed and athleticism of the Thoroughbred and the stamina and toughness of the Mustang.  Apparently it was a pretty potent cross; one that I wouldn’t mind testing out one day.

One Final Thought

When you talk to some horse people about horse slaughter, they will specifically say that they are advocates for bringing back horse slaughter, specifically in the US.  The reason for this is that some time ago, the sale of horse meat was banned in the US, and that effectively shut down most of the horse slaughter industry. Now, I totally appreciate why that ban was passed, because the idea of eating horse meat makes me want to cry and vomit all at once, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people feel the same way.  The big reason that so many horse people want to bring horse slaughter back to the US is because horses are still being slaughtered: just not here.  They’re being shipped across the border into Mexico to be slaughtered, and it’s not an easy trip.  As often as not, the horses are neglected, starved, dehydrated, and abused by the time they reach a slaughter house in Mexico.  The reason so many people want horse slaughter brought back to the US is so that it can be regulated, and as far as I’m concerned, you can regulate the crap out of it and I will be fine with that. Deciding to put down a horse, whether it’s domestic or wild, is an ugly decision to make.  But many horse people want to know that if they have to make that call, that their horses won’t suffer, and that’s a fair thing to ask.

Not Good Enough? Here’s some more to get you started.

Take a look at

  • The BLM Adoption Program
  • Consider becoming a TIP trainer
  • Learn more about mustang training and adoption
  • Learn more straight from the BLM
  • Consider donating- just type “Wild Mustang Donations” into Google and you can take your pick. However, bear in mind that some of the charities may not put donations directly toward the horses, so do your research and choose wisely.
  • Talk to your representatives in Congress to voice your opinion
  • JUST KEEP LOOKING for more information and learning everything you can
  • As you encounter more and more information, keep as open of a mind as possible and examine all the facts carefully.

I am not able to post any links directly to groups who advocate horse slaughter at this time because I cannot sort through all of the impossible and ugly websites out there to find the good ones. I apologize for the inconvenience.


Please and Thank You

Manners: The habit of treating everyone with respect. What we hope parents will instill in their children so that we don’t have to call in Nanny McFee.  And the thing that we try to train into our horses so that someday when someone else rides them, no one has his/her face bitten off by an over-exuberant pony. And of course, even if you have never been around horses before, you may be able to guess what kinds of manners we like to teach our horses. No kicking or biting. Don’t step on my feet. Don’t eat the grass with a bit in your mouth. Please refrain from bucking me off. Do not pin your ears back at the horse next to you when we are working.  Don’t bolt across the pasture with the small child on your back. When I’m leading you, do not take off in front of me and drag me along. Do not run me over to get at the grain bucket when I’m trying to feed you. Essentially, Say “Please” and “Thank You.”

Please and Thank You

But what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” just don’t quite cut it? More importantly, what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” don’t mean anything?

When I was in college, I had a roommate who I loved very much, and she was raised to be very polite. She said please and thank you for everything, which was great. The problem was that after a while I discovered something curious about her: “Please” and “Thank You” didn’t actually mean anything. They were just words coming out of her mouth. “Please” sometimes translated to “Give it to me now because I already expected to have it” and “Thank you” was just a hollow response. Now remember, I love this roommate dearly. But I think that because she had never wanted for anything in life, she didn’t really have any deep appreciation for what she was given. “Please” and “Thank You” were nothing but words, with no honest feeling behind them. Essentially, the manners that she had been taught were not much more than a learned response to a situation.

IMAG0473You remember Little Joe? Cute little pony, part halflinger, supposed to be a kid’s horse, still bucked me off four times in the course of an hour? He’s the sweetest little pony, and he has grown so much in such a short time that I am frequently boggled and astonished. But I struggled for quite a while with him to hold a conversation, and I think that it’s because when he was initially trained, he wasn’t trained to have a conversation with a person, he was trained to give a response. When he was trained, no one was listening to him, no one was paying attention to what he had to say about something. His discomfort didn’t matter: what mattered was that he obey right now, instantly.

For example, let’s talk about the Down Under method of lunging, which I am quite certain he was trained with. Here’s how it should have been working:

I guide him through a circle with a whip. When he’s ready to give me his full and undivided attention, he should turn in toward me and stop while facing me, allowing me to approach and give him love.

Here’s what was actually happening:

I started to guide him gently through a circle with a whip.  He saw the whip, bolted across the round pen, nearly slipped and fell in the mud, almost crashed into the fence, and then suddenly froze and turned in, staring at me with nostrils flared and eyes wide. When I tried to approach him, he startled away from my hand and then froze again, thinking that if he moved he was going to be in trouble.

Do you see the problem? We’re getting the same response both ways: he stops and turns in.  Either way, I guess you could say that I have his attention. But even though he was giving me the “correct” response, it was exactly what I DIDN’T want. He had been taught that his side of the conversation didn’t matter, and so he had essentially shut down and was falling back on a trained response: one that was useless and potentially dangerous to both of us.

I don’t want a response parroted back at me. I want to be able to hold a conversation.

As I started working with him, I found myself saying the same things over and over again: “He’s not a bad horse; he’s actually really sweet.” “He’s just scared of everything, it’s like he thinks everything is going to eat him.” “I feel like whoever trained him initially just trained him to have a specific response.” “It’s like he doesn’t know how to have a conversation with me; he just keeps doing what he thinks I want.” “I don’t think whoever trained him really ever listened to him and what he had to say.” And Amanda, being a good teacher, nodded and said, “You’re right. So what can you do as you work with him to start changing that?”

Image result for communication two way streetSo I thought about it for a while and then went to work.

A little while later Amanda came back out to the barn after taking care of some business (which took her a good hour, probably), and saw me standing in a stall with Little Joe with the bridle and surcingle and side reins and halter on. Thinking that we had just finished lunging, she said “How did it go?” and then just sort of smiled when I explained that we hadn’t actually even gone to lunge yet: that I had just been in the stall with him for the last hour grooming him all over and flapping all of the jingly tack in a calm, rhythmic manner until I could see that he didn’t think that it was going to eat him anymore.

The next time I came back and we did that whole routine all over again, except that this time it went markedly quicker. He was starting to have more interest in what hay might be left behind in the stall than what jingly stuff I was swinging around. This time we went to the arena, and before we started lunging, we just walked around the arena together, practicing a method called “heeding” (which may be one of the best training techniques I have run across).  For the first few times around the arena, he kept trying to dodge back behind me and hide away. I put him between me and the fence and made my goal to stay next to his shoulder.  And then he stopped suddenly, thinking that I would keep walking and he could slip into his learned response of hiding behind me.

I stopped with him.

He looked at me, and I kid you not, I could see the wheels turning in his head as he considered what had just happened.  He decided to experiment with this.

He started forward again.

I started with him.

After a few steps, he stopped suddenly again, this time just to see what I would do.

I stopped with him.

Image result for lightbulb momentThat was when it clicked for him, and it was incredible to see. I think for the first time he realized that I didn’t just want a learned response from him- I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say. The fact that I took the time to respond to him instead of the other way around let him know that he had some power in this relationship too. And that led to an almost magical transformation.

Little Joe was no longer scared. His ears went forward, his breathing slowed, his steps became more fluid. He understood that we were just walking together and just talking and listening to each other. And that changed everything. No more trying to hide ten feet behind me. No more bolting away from the whip. No more senseless turning and freezing on the lunge line. No more acting like I was a demon trying to chase him down and eat him.

Now I grant you, it’s not a complete transformation.  When he’s not quite sure what it is going on, he still tries to find the response that he thinks I want. He’s still a bit bothered by mounting practice, because that’s a time when we’re all still scary cougars trying to eat him. Honestly, I don’t ride him much because, ummm, I’ve gained a lot of weight, and I don’t want to break him. But he’s been developing in leaps and bounds.

So far, the crowning achievement came when one of our 4-H girls (Miss M) came out to ride Bonnie, who she has always loved more than any other horse. Because she’s small and light, I asked her to come help me with Little Joe. I had her catch him and groom him and get him ready to work, and she took her time and he was gentle and they were both listening really well to each other. So we went out to the arena together (supervised by Amanda), and we did some mounting practice. When Miss M got on, I started to lunge them, and this girl started to go through and do some different warm up exercises. Little Joe was a bit bothered by some of them, still thinking that her hands going toward his head meant that she was a cougar trying to jump on his face. But we all just walked and practiced, and after a little while, Joe calmed down. He stretched into the side reins. He started chewing on the bit. He started to enjoy having Miss M rub his neck and butt.

We were all ecstatic.

The next day Miss M came out again, and she was excited to work with Little Joe. Image result for weather forecast heat indexSo we did it all again. This time he was a little bit quicker to trust us to not eat him, and we were able to do a little more, like trot on the lunge line and start introducing some leg aids. After 45 minutes we stopped (I was running out of new ideas), and Miss M said “Are we done already? I don’t want to be done!” Bear in mind that it’s about a hundred degrees down here, and 45 minutes on a horse in the Louisiana sun is usually more than enough to drive us all to giving the horse a break.

So I took her off the lunge line.

Now in case you think that I’m an irresponsible teacher, I did NOT take them off the lunge line and then just leave a student with a training horse while I went off to eat ice cream or something. I stayed with them, I walked with them, and I told Miss M that she probably should just practice walk and halt transitions off the lunge line (no trotting or cantering today!), and I gave her some advice as they made their way around the arena.

THEY. ROCKED. IT. Now Miss M doesn’t even want to ride Bonnie anymore: she just wants to ride Little Joe.

Amanda came to watch and said (and I’m treasuring this, by the way) “I’m not sure who to be the most proud of: You, Miss M, or Little Joe.”

Honestly though, I don’t feel like I can even take credit for everything that has happened (Which is obviously why I wrote a full blog post talking about all the great things I did). The only thing I did was open up a possibility for Little Joe, which is that he is being heard.

He did everything else by himself.



Sweet, Sugary Success

So for the last month or two it has been kind of hectic because of trips that my husband and I have taken and will be taking still. So my time with the horses has been somewhat limited, and I’m afraid that in some ways it shows as I continue to try to work with both Little Joe and Sugar.

Little Joe is doing marvelously. He’s sensitive and sweet and gentle and willing, and when you take the time to have a conversation with him, he learns so quickly what you want and is eager to please. I have another post all about him in the works which is just awaiting more pictures (because I rarely have my phone on me when I’m picking up horse poop or riding, and I never remember to take pictures anyhow), so more about him later. Today we’re talking about Sugar.

Sugar is well and truly my Achilles Heel right now. There are some things she does that really irritate me, the chief of which is that a) she tends to be spastic when she’s excited or nervous, and b) she has a really bad habit of getting into my personal space, and since she weighs 900 pounds more than me, I am not a great fan of that bundle of spastic energy stepping all over me.

My first instinct is to assume that she’s purposely being disrespectful and naughty when she’s not listening or when she runs me over with her shoulder or butt. And that train of thought really bit me in the butt last week, because I lost control over my own emotions. Amanda had to pull me out of the stall and go in to work with Sugar instead, because both Sugar and I were too frustrated and confused to get anything done, particularly done right. I was on the verge of tears, because when it came down to it, I KNEW that it wasn’t Sugar’s fault: I KNEW it was because I wasn’t communicating with her the way that she needed. I made assumptions about her that were completely incorrect, and it was unfair to her and useless to me.

Assumption 1: Sugar is already trained and ready for work.

Yeah, that was a dumb assumption to make. Just because Amanda had worked with her for a few weeks a few years ago does not mean that she’s a finished dressage pony who is ready to go ride in the Olympics. ‘Nuff said.

Assumption 2: When Sugar gets into my space, it’s because she’s being deliberately disrespectful, and she needs to be put in her place.

Massive fail on my part. Sugar is actually not trying to be disrespectful at all. She has the approximate personality of an extremely friendly (and slightly drunk) sorority girl: She’s very friendly and curious and really wants to be with people, and she has no inhibitions about showing it. She essentially wants to be cuddled and loved on as much as possible. She loves to be groomed, pet, fed treats… essentially, she would have been a great lapdog in another life. That’s actually great for a lesson horse, but it means that I do have to set some boundaries because I am physically incapable of cuddling a thousand pounds of horsey goodness, however much I may want to.

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That is one happy pig.

Assumption 3: When Sugar gets loud and spastic, it’s because she’s trying to dominate me.

Actually, no, and I am okay with giving myself a break for not figuring this one out faster, because I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered this before. Sugar gets loud with her body language when she’s nervous or excited. Generally when a horse is nervous, they go into fight or flight (or freeze). I was pretty sure it wasn’t flight, because I know exactly what flight looks like, and it wasn’t freezing, so that meant that it HAD to be Fight.

Not so much.

Picture this. Sugar has the personality of a very friendly frat girl with no inhibitions about personal space. When she’s feeling calm you can set some boundaries with her about personal space and she really works hard to respect those boundaries.

Now take that frat girl and put her in a haunted house and imagine exactly what her reaction will be. (Hint: A lot of people have it. Except for me. I walk out in front of the group, straight through the horrors, and leave my husband to the killer clowns. I may not be the best wife in the world.)


Sugar doesn’t really have fight or flight reactions to stressful situations, at least not the way that I expect. Instead she goes into what I can only call “‘Save Me Mommy!’ Mode.” She loves people so much that she already trusts them to protect her when she’s scared. Honestly, that should be a gift for a trainer, because that means that when she does something for you, she doesn’t do it because she’s afraid that she’s going to get in trouble: she does it because she loves you and wants to please you.

Assumption 4: When Sugar gets loud, I have to be louder still to talk over her.

I guess any grade school teacher near the end of the school year can tell you that that’s not always the most effective thing. Sometimes, yes, I think it is, but the more frequently you yell to be heard above everyone else, the more likely you are to be ignored, especially when the person you’re talking to is either a) a really excited kindergartner who is seeing the class pet for the first time, or b) a thousand pound animal who is wondering why the arena looks different because you chopped down some low hanging branches so that students didn’t get whacked in the face anymore. Sometimes it’s more effective to let your student explore the source of their excitement and let them come back to pay attention to you when they’re ready again.

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Also, we want to be as quietly effective with our riding as possible, because if you have to “scream” at a horse to get them to walk forward, you’re gonna get really tired really fast.

The Miracle

So after Amanda sat down with me and essentially told me that I needed to get my act together if I wanted to make any progress with Sugar, she then gave me a reason to put in the effort. Essentially, it went something like this, “If you really want to train in the horse industry, you’re going to run across a lot of mares that are way pushier than Sugar, and you know why? Because those are the horses that are hard to train, and people can’t do it themselves, so they’ll bring them to you to fix.”

The problem is that I do want to be a trainer, and there’s no way around that argument. So we did one work session on the lunge line (which was totally terrifying for Sugar, and she really, really wanted hugs from Amanda the whole time because she had no idea what was going on), and then I went home for the weekend to ponder, get my head on straight, and come up with a game plan for how to approach Sugar. Here’s about what I came up with:

  1. Lower your expectations. You’ve been asking too much of her.
  2. Be okay with setting your boundaries about personal space.
  3. After you reprimand her for something naughty (aka, knocking you into a wall with her butt), be done reprimanding her. Go back to being quiet and working on the next thing so that you don’t get locked in an angry cycle.
  4. Use her friendliness to your advantage. Every time she does something well, give her love and scratches and tell her she’s a good girl, because she responds to that positive reinforcement very well.
  5. When she’s curious or distracted by something, consider letting her investigate. That doesn’t mean letting her put absolutely everything in her mouth like a two year old (Saddles are too expensive to be chew toys), but let her investigate on her own terms. When she’s done, let her bring her focus back to you, and you can go back to working quietly together.

A lot of these things probably would be easier for me if it was some other horse who I communicate more naturally with, but none of this comes easily for me with Sugar. So when I came back on Monday we went into a stall and we just practiced things that most people take for granted. Walk together. Stop. Back up. Turn away. Walk together. Turn towards me. Stop. Back up. Start thinking about moving away from pressure instead of coming in toward it. As soon as she moves away from my finger, release. Praise, praise, praise.

Tuesday, we came back to the stall and did it all again, and I discovered something: Sugar is a fast learner. If you show her how to do something, she remembers. So we got a little more complex. Walk together. Stop and back. Walk together. Turn on the haunches away from me. Turn on the forehand. Bend away from my pressure on your shoulder. Back and turn all at once. I was able to start mixing some signals together for more complex commands, and after a little bit of initial confusion, she picked up on it. So we went out to the arena to try it all again, just to challenge ourselves with new surroundings. Perfect.

I had an appointment on Wednesday, so Thursday we came back and started it all again. And she was so quick to listen and to communicate with me that day that we ran through everything within ten minutes, and I was delighted. So I groomed and saddled and we went to ride.

Image result for Sunset person silhouette sun salutation
I was as excited as I would have been if I had finally managed to do this. (I can’t do this, props to those who can.)

It was a downright miraculous ride. We were both quiet and listening to each other. She was relaxed and willing, and oh so soft and supple. I was able to communicate without hardly any use of the reins. There was no bracing on my aids, no running off in confusion. We could set a quiet rhythm in the walk and the trot without discomfort, and do it all through seat and legs. She was stretching for contact with my hands and chewing cheerfully on the bit. It was such a good ride that when Amanda came back down to the house and saw us working, she stopped and said “If you stopped right now with that beautiful stretch, I would be tickled to death.” and I was able to look at her and say, “She has already exceeded my expectations for today. This stretch is just a bonus.” So we went back to the barn, I gave Sugar a bath and kisses (Amanda gave Sugar treats, which she never does), and I was totally euphoric for the rest of the day.

What astounded me was that it only took three days to reach that point. Three days of quiet consistency, even though Sugar is not a horse that I naturally work well with. Three days of just managing my own emotions. Three days of making it my priority to communicate with her, to have a conversation with her. I thought it would take months for me to get to that point with Sugar, simply because of my own issues and limitations. But there it was. The surprisingly perfect ride.

Now, it may be that the next time we go to work together, we slip back to just having to do some work in the stall again. One step forward, two steps back, and all that. Right now, I’m figuring out that I’m pretty much okay with that. The world is a much more pleasant place when you forgive yourself for not making the perfect progress toward the perfect goal. Turns out, Sugar does better when we only take things one day at a time and when we only work on that day’s needs. Frankly, so do I.

Amanda and Sugar


Falling For Joe


The bruise that is already beginning on my ankle may suggest otherwise.


Meet Little Joe, who is some kind of a haflinger pony cross. At 12 or 13 hands, he is actually pretty stinkin’ sweet and adorable. He is also the first horse at Harmony Equestrian Services who has managed to toss me onto the ground.  And honestly, he did a marvelous job of it.  I’ve been here for a little over a year now, and until today, I’ve managed to avoid letting gravity take its toll. Little Joe decided to give gravity that little extra edge.  He managed to toss me today not once, not twice, but FOUR times, with a little step on top of me for toss number three.

Now, to be fair, I had several things working against me today.

  1. I haven’t ridden a pony in YEARS. I think it’s been about twelve or thirteen years since I bounced around on top of Pete the Pony.
  2. I didn’t saddle him because I’m not entirely certain how well any of my saddles would fit him (even though measuring at 16.5″, my english saddles are almost considered kid saddles). Also, it’s hot and I was feeling lazy. And I really miss riding bareback.
  3. I haven’t ridden bareback in a few months either.
  4. I’m not entirely certain how long it’s been since Little Joe has actively been ridden.
  5. I don’t care what people say, just because ponies are smaller does NOT make them easier to ride.

under 14.2

You know what’s so sick and twisted about this?  Even though Little Joe ran out from underneath me and bucked me off at least twice and stepped on me once (this had better turn into a really awesome bruise!), I’m really not fussed about it. Matter of fact, I’m actually pretty happy. The reason for this bizarre response? We made progress. And by progress, I think what I really mean is “it was a good learning process.”

Little Joe tossed me off twice before I managed to even sit on him. I had to go back and just lean my weight over the top of him and pat him while he turned his face and investigated my face and butt.  Then I stood on top of the mounting block and just put one leg over the top of him and let him investigate that (fortunately he’s small enough that I can do that).  Then I slid very gently on top of him, waited a few seconds for him to buck, and then gently squeezed to see if we could make our way around the arena.

Turns out, when I asked him to walk, I may have been moving too fast, because it wasn’t long before I made friends with the ground again.  So back we went to the mounting block, and we started all over.  Lean on top, slide my leg over, keep patting until he calms down, then slip on top of him.  This time I waited and let him decide when to walk.

That was better, but it turns out, you have to be really careful with how you balance on him, and my attempt to ride him on a long, comfortable rein seems to have backfired.  Apparently thinking that a loose rein means “let’s go faster,” he started trotting off, whereupon I lost my balance. Little Joe then spotted the jump that was still set up, decided that it was going to eat him, and I ended up kissing dirt again.

So we went back to the beginning, all over again.  Lean on top of him, pat him.  Slide a leg over, pat him.  Slide my body on top of him, pat him.  Let him decide when to start moving.  Don’t use loopy reins; tighten them and use some contact. Rejoice to yourself when he doesn’t stick his head up in the air and start freaking out. Try to have a nice, soft holding seat. Be very careful with your balance.  Let him choose the direction.  Occasionally, suggest moving a different way.  Let him investigate the jump and decide whether or not it’s carnivorous. Then after about ten minutes of successful riding when you see that he’s starting to breathe hard (I don’t exactly weigh 40 lbs you know), ask him to stop somewhere else than at the gate.  Discover that stopping isn’t his strong suit. Practice it another time or two.  When you stop and he holds for about two seconds, swing off of him.

Praise profusely and bring him back to the barn for some after-ride loving.


The experience really kind of makes me question myself a little bit though. Like, why am I so pleased after having what should qualify as a crappy ride? Amanda has been accusing me lately of being a disciplinarian: After all of my talk in my last post about how I draw the line on behavior that could get people hurt, why wasn’t I doing more to discipline Little Joe when he bucked me off? Why am I not all that bothered or angry about being tossed so much? Did I really handle it the way I should have? And for goodness sake, why am I so lenient with Little Joe when I’m a disciplinarian with Sugar?

Well, I guess I have some answers for some of those. I guess I’m happy with my ride today because we made progress. Rather than getting more and more frustrated every time I fell, I chose to take it as a sign that we needed to go back to the beginning and go a little slower. Dead MiceI could see that Little Joe was nervous and maybe a little overwhelmed by everything (although judging by the four falls, I might still be pretty slow on the uptake). I think punishing him wouldn’t have discouraged the bucking; I think it would have frightened him even more. I wanted for him to be able to trust me. I guess my first priority was to try to help him feel secure enough that maybe learning could happen.  I grant you, that learning seems to have been “how to let someone sit on top of you” and “how to walk around the arena without a carnivorous jump eating you.” But we found little solutions that made it possible to continue working. As small as it was, it was progress, and I’m delighted.

Of course, there remains one final question that I have no answer for.  I am willing to be lenient and open with the nervous Little Joe, but I am still too much of a disciplinarian with the outspoken Sugar.  Why is that? And how do I change it?

Errors in Discipline

I screwed up.

Not just because I haven’t written any blog posts for the last two months or something (I have about 4 or 5 blog posts that I’m working on). I made a big boo-boo working with horses this month.

So let’s start at the beginning (ish).

Batman is gone.  He’s now at Miss Amanda’s mom’s place enjoying the good grass and piles of donuts.  This makes it infinitely more convenient for Miss Hannah to actually spend time with her horse.  I think she feels bad for “taking him away from me,” but honestly, I’m very okay with it.  I mean, Batman is her horse.  It’s only fair that she should have the opportunity to ride her horse more than I do.  I had my fun, I learned a lot, now it’s time for him to enjoy his time with someone who will spoil him rotten.  At this point, I feel like he’s pretty well earned it.


Dazzle also went out to Amanda’s mom’s place, as she’s been having some recurring strained muscles.  We’re hoping a few months of good pasture rest will help her recover, because otherwise we will have to have her in a stall for a few months without any turnout time, and we don’t want that.  So Amanda brought back one of her mom’s horses to fill Dazzle’s slot as a lesson horse, and she looked at me and said “It’s your responsibility to get her ready to go into lessons.”

I’ve been noticing a pattern. When Amanda “gives” me a horse to work with it usually has very little to do with my skill as a rider or as a trainer.  I think it has more to do with the fact that Amanda has figured out that if she lets me think that I am training a horse instead of the other way around, I tend to work harder and learn more.  Essentially, she’s using my arrogance against me and letting the horse prepare me to listen to her instructions. I think she knows that in the long run it will save her time and energy. Sneaky Amanda.


World, meet Sugar.

Sweet Sugar Yawn

Sugar is a new type of experience for me.  I feel like I’ve progressed enough with my work with Einstein and Batman to be able to start Sugar on her training journey, but considering the pattern that seems to be developing with Amanda giving me horses, I’m starting to think I may be deluding myself again.  But I do have to draw on a different set of skills with her than I did with Batman and Einstein, simply because her physiology and psychology are a little bit different.  She’s pretty decently balanced, she has a nice strong back, and she really does want to please.  But she’s still pretty young in her training, she has very little sense of personal space, and she is FAT.  She has fat deposits in places I never would have suspected.  Like above her eyes.  That was both endearing and bizarre.

Amanda had worked with her for about two weeks a few years ago, and so she told me that Sugar just needed some consistent work before she went into lessons.  And so I thought to myself “Alright, she seems to be a pretty sweet girl, and Amanda did some work with her, so this should be pretty quick, easy work.”

That was mistake number one.

My first day working with her was… unpleasant.  I had gone out to do some ground work with her, just to get her moving and listening.  Probably because I didn’t have any treats on me (she is on a strict diet right now– NO TREATS!), she decided that she wasn’t going to do either.  She went over to the gate, turned her nose to the barn, and no matter how much I tried to get her attention, she turned her butt to me and ignored me.

problem ridersWas it particularly malicious?  Not really.  But it was rude, and I don’t like being ignored.  If she’s ignoring me (and I’m not easy to ignore when I want attention), I didn’t think the odds of her listening to a timid little kid were going to be great either.  So we spent that work session having a “Come to Jesus” sort of discussion, where I laid out my expectations and my boundaries and she discovered that I was serious.  By the by, I hate having work sessions like that.  They’re exhausting and emotionally upsetting.  To her credit, after that she really got her act together.  She no longer stood in the corner and said “Screw you:” she became more of a “Yes, ma’am” sort of horse.

Mistake number two: When she had clearly corrected her attitude problem, I failed to correct mine.

The next time I went to work her, I came prepared to have another “Come to Jesus” session, even though there was no reason to be so belligerent.  And then I made mistake number three, where I left her alone in a stall without being tied up and with my saddle perched on top.  I came back and found her down on the ground, preparing to roll on my saddle.  And I got mad.

So we went out, and I continued on to make mistake number four: I let my emotions get the better of me.  This led to mistake number five, where I pushed her too hard and asked for too much.  She doesn’t really have much of an idea about what to do with leg aids yet, but I was demanding that she work like a Grand Prix pony (I’m exaggerating a little bit: it was more like level two) when she wasn’t even ready for training level work.  And Amanda came out and watched the way I was riding and said very kindly “Why don’t you ride her like a western pleasure horse?”


A few days later I returned to work with her again, having had enough time to mull over my decisions and feel properly ashamed of myself.  I went to Amanda and declared that I had really screwed up.  And Amanda, knowing that I was now in a place to listen, said “Yeah, you really did. These are all of the ways you screwed up, and here’s some ideas about how to fix it.  Now what are you going to do?”  And I hung my head in shame and decided that it was time to start all over again and do it right this time.


One of my greatest failures with this whole experience was my perception of my role as a teacher and a trainer.  I fell into the trap of thinking that my job was to lay down the law and to discipline the horse into proper behavior.  But here’s the thing about discipline: it has very little to do with the teacher or the trainer.  It has everything to do with the student.

The word “Discipline” actually comes from the Greek word “Disculpulos,” which means student.  That should be a reminder that discipline is not meant to be a teacher punishing a student.  Discipline is about the student choosing to take steps in their education. Once we realize that, it should open us all up to greater possibilities.

So what is my role as a trainer?

Well, yes, trainers should and do set some boundaries that are non-negotiable.  For me, I think of these boundaries as societal rules that are specifically meant to keep the horse and rider safe.  For example, I ask that Sugar doesn’t turn her butt to me and ignore me, because if that behavior continues and someone startles her, that puts her in a perfect place to kick someone.  I don’t let a horse get too much into my space because I don’t want to get stepped on or run over (it happens more frequently than I’d like).  I tell a horse that putting their teeth on me (“but it was just a love bite!”) is not okay.  And I set out the same rules for riders that I do for horses.  I ask riders to be conscientious of the horse’s personal space and state of mind.  I ask that riders wait to give treats until after the horse has finished working because I don’t want the horses to think that humans are treat machines and start biting.

Those are the points where I put my foot down.  But outside of that… my role is never to dominate the horse.  I am not producing a machine or a slave to do my bidding.  Just like how Amanda lets me experiment until I figure out what I’m doing, my job is to do the same for the horses. My job is to train a partner in crime and to open up a world of possibilities for the horse.

Half of my goal is to encourage good behavior and teach proper manners.  Horses respond very well to positive reinforcement.  This can be a “good boy!” or a pat on the neck or a break from a difficult exercise.  Horses are great at leaving the negative behind them and taking the positive with them.  Give them lots of positive to work with.  You’ll see great results that way.

The other half of my goal is to help develop a horse athletically.  This includes things like moving off of aids correctly, and it’s a slow process.  Trying to rush it is counterproductive. You cannot demand half passes from a horse before the horse has learned how to walk in a straight line. All you’ll do is confuse the horse. Probably the best thing that you can do is to provide the clearest aids possible and then simply give the horse time to figure out what they mean. When they catch on, reward away! Don’t punish for failure. That horse is probably trying as hard as it can, and punishment will only lead to confusion.  Just be patient and provide the horse with possibilities.


I’m pleased to say I seem to be making progress on that front again.  Sugar and I have had pretty successful rides since. I think yesterday was the day that it clicked for her that I keep coming back. She’s quick and eager to please. I’m looking forward to seeing where we can go from here.

A Brief (But Still Too Long) Break from Horses

A few weeks ago my husband brought home a coffee table that he bought for $20 at the thrift shop. It was a bit broken down and wobbly, but the bones were good, and I think he thought it would be a good woodworking project for me.

My husband, bless him, seemed to think that I was just going to sand down the top and maybe glue some fresh pieces of wood wherever they seemed to be needed. It was a rainy, soggy, nasty week and I didn’t think I could do a lot to help in the barn. So I took measurements, ripped apart the table, took more measurements, went to town to buy a sander, new wood, screws, and all kinds of other junk, and I set to work.

IMAG0360I spent a few days working on it, cutting out the mis-matched lattices, sanding and reinforcing the frame, and gluing together my nice new wood for the top and the shelf. And then once it was all reassembled (to prevent myself from going completely insane), I set it in the living room and left it.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m happily continuing to study for the ARIA certification and compiling a list of riding exercises, and over the course of a few days my husband keeps “hinting” that I should finish working on the coffee table. So since it was a little bit drizzly the last few days, I buckled down and did just that. I pulled it all apart again and sanded and cleaned and pre-stained and stained and cleaned it some more before I reassembled it all over again.

I won’t go into the intricacies of what went into fumbling my way through it, like the fact that the $150 budget that I was planning to spend on my own breeches (that fit correctly) all got spent on this project, or how I ended up using three different stains instead of the one that I had planned on. Is it perfect? Since I know (and created) most of its flaws, the answer is obviously no. But it’s sturdier, it’s all real wood (not the particle board that the original top was made out of), it’s an okay color (even if the top does look a little pink in some lights), and it’s totally serviceable. The biggest downside is that I had to bring it in almost right after the stain dried, so now I’m getting a headache from the leftover fumes.

Happy (early) Anniversary, Honey. Enjoy your smelly present. Now we can stare at Netflix while eating dinner with style.

… Now can I please go back to cleaning horse poop and playing with ponies?


The Pelvis: The Center of Good Riding

And now, Dear Readers, let us delve deep into the world of biomechanics.

broken-vaseActually, not that deep.  Usually I find myself shying away from subjects like this, because as important as they are to good riding, if I don’t have a degree or certification or some kind of formal education about a subject like this, I feel less than qualified to write about it.  I think to truly understand it well I would need a degree in sports medicine and a subscription to a couple of medical journals.  As it is, I have neither of those things, and my knowledge consists of what tidbits of research I’ve been picking up along the way, my making logical guesses as to how it all connects.  It’s a bit like gluing together pieces of a broken vase and hoping that when you’re done that it holds water.  Messy and substandard as my knowledge is though, I’m still going to give it a shot.

Since the pelvis is literally at the center of your body, having a healthy and properly aligned pelvis can be a key factor in maintaining body conditioning for any activity.  Personally, I notice that when my pelvis isn’t nicely aligned I tend to have pain in my lower back and in my knees, particularly when I try to run.  Just for kicks and giggles, take a look at this advertisement for a Japanese Pelvic Alignment Belt.

I can’t vouch for accuracy because if you look closely you may notice that they misspelled “constipation” in their first draft.  Besides, it’s an advertisement.  The goal is to sell a product, not provide accurate information.  Still, I think it’s an entertaining sales tactic.

Taken from Centered Riding by Sally Swift.  If you’ve never read it, consider buying a copy.  It’s fabulous.

For horseback riding, ideally we need to be balanced on our seat bones (or “butt spears,” as my brother-in-law has ever so lovingly dubbed them) without tipping forward onto the pubic area or back onto the tailbone.  The seat bones are essentially supposed to be our center of balance when we’re on a horse.  If we tip forward or backward, our balance essentially becomes stuck, throwing off the horse’s balance as well.  One of the rider-seat-positionsbetter images I’ve come across in my research is to think of your pelvis as a bucket of water.  In order to not spill, that bucket must be balanced vertically.  If we sit with our pelvis tipped forward or backward, the bucket will spill. The same goes for when we cock our hips side to side, but I can only focus on the front to back aspect today.  We’ll play with lateral balance some other day.

In a lot of ways, it sounds pretty simple.  The problem is that there is a lot that goes into having a vertically aligned pelvis because so many muscles play into the way our pelvis sits.  There are at least four major muscle groups that all pull on the pelvis, and if any one of them is tighter, stronger, looser, or weaker than the others, the pelvis gets tipped.

248Bfig1-e1437409045963There are all kinds of fancy names for different kinds of pelvic alignment and issues, but for the moment I’m mostly concerned with Anterior Tilt and Posterior Tilt (aka, tipping forward and tipping backward), as these are the ones that we see most commonly in the horse world.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but these posture issues look something like this.

2849404_origPersonally, I struggle with Anterior Tilt because I have very strong quads, a tight lower back, and super weak hamstrings.  I think my abdominal muscles are getting stronger (finally!), but my next step is to balance it out with some hamstring strength.  I feel like a great many women are inclined to have an Anterior Tilt to their pelvis, which I occasionally refer to as “Ghetto Booty,” where we tend to stick out our butts to make it look more fabulous than it really is.  In terms of the mold behind this, I blame high heels.  Even if you don’t wear heels, odds are you see enough women who do that unconsciously you may pick up on the posture and mimic it.  In my case, it’s because a) sometimes I love to wear a sweet pair of high heels and b) because I think that if I stick my butt out it will help hide how thick my thighs are.

The opposite issue is the Posterior Tilt, which I occasionally think of as “Saggy Pants Syndrome” or “Gamer’s Seat.”  Most of the time I see this it’s in teenagers or preteens who probably sit in front of the television playing video games.  cartoon-wearing-baggy-pants-below-waitOf course, this can come from anything where you sit hunched forward for long periods of time, but the only things I can think of that keep me entertained long enough to sit in that pose is playing video games or watching TV.  You may also see this in boys who wear their pants low enough to show off their underwear (and yes, I know I sound like an old, unfashionable grump).  Since the point of the hip and the butt aren’t being used to hold up the pants, one way to keep them up while walking is to slouch back so that your thighs prevent gravity from taking its toll.  The other way as well as walking with a massive side to side swagger, which is murder on your hip joints.  However, I’m not saying that Posterior Tilt is limited to teenage boys.  You may also see a version of Posterior Tilt in women who are well endowed because the instinct is to try to disguise the size of the chest.

If you find that you have either of these, that doesn’t mean that you will never be a good rider or a strong athlete.  For the most part, having a tilted pelvis is just a posture issue, and can be remedied by simply being conscientious of your body and constantly practicing good posture.

I find that probably the biggest part of having good posture is engaging your core.  There’s a fairly significant gap between the base of the rib cage and the top of the pelvis, with only the spine connecting the two.  Rather than demanding that only your spine hold you up (the spine is supposed to be flexible!) or relying on only one or two sets of muscles and straining them (hurrah for back pain), use all of your core muscles.  That doesn’t mean just your abs: engage your abs, obliques, and your back.  It becomes almost a circular wall of support, taking the stress off of your spine.  If you need some practice finding the feeling, here are two poses that may be worth trying.

Mountain Pose

This is one of the basic yoga poses, and I find that when I’m talked through it, it’s a great exercise to help me ground myself down through my heels and really stretch out through my back and up through my head.  This is a good way to practice good standing posture.

Horse Stance

This is one borrowed from Martial Arts.  Bear in mind, this is not a squat!  With a squat, the butt sinks out behind the feet.  Horse Stance demands that the heels be in line with the hips.  If you need practice getting your feet under you, try standing with your back and heels pushed against a wall.  This wide stance encourages an open chest, a strong core, a properly placed pelvis, and centered gravity.

The core strength and the properly aligned pelvis are critical to having proper balance on the horse. The wild card is the Iliopsoas muscle group.


I talked about this before in this post.  When these muscles are tight, they pull our legs up to our chests, and vice versa.  What I have gathered is that even though the iliopsoas is so important and does so much work, for many of us it’s actually relatively weak because most of us don’t use its full range of motion.  When we sit and when we sleep and when we do a great many exercises, many of us usually keep our hips around a 90 degree angle, which seems to be the psoas’ favorite resting place.  This is what gives us riders “chair seat.”

While we all praise crunches and sit ups as being wonderful for building up your abs, it’s sort of terrible for your iliopsoas.  As you bring your torso up to your knees, you are shortening and tightening those muscles.  You would think it would make it stronger, but I don’t think it really is.  For good riding, running hurdles, doing gymnastics, dance, rock climbing, or many other activities, we need our psoas to be strong, and more importantly, flexible.  We need it to be very limber to allow us full freedom of movement.  Probably the best example of a beautifully limber psoas is the backbend.  Take a look at these two pictures and guess which one displays a flexible, strong psoas.

While both of these images kind of freak me out (He’s sticking his head between his feet backwards!) and I don’t think I’m at a place where I can safely perform any version of a back bend without having to be taken to the hospital afterwards, I will say this: As much as I admire the lady in the second picture for her strength, she really doesn’t display a flexible psoas.

If you google “iliopsoas stretches” or “psoas exercises,” there’s not really a lot that comes up.  Two of the main articles that I found are here and here. It may be that when you start, you just can’t stretch all that far.  And that is just fine.  Be patient with your body.  As you practice, it will get better.

As you recognize many of the patterns in these poses and stretches, you may want to look up “hip flexor stretches” and browse for similar stretches that may work for you.  But the remainder of this post I have decided to turn into a compilation of stretches and poses aimed at opening up the psoas muscle, developing core strength, or both.  I hope that you enjoy.


This one is a good beginning stretch.  The trick is to keep your resting leg still and your hips even.


These three are all variations on the runner’s lunge or crescent pose.  I also ran across pictures of people placing their hind foot on a raised area like a chair for increased difficulty.  This is one of my favorite stretches so far, because it’s the only one that I have managed to truly sink in to the stretch.  It makes me feel very accomplished.


I can’t do the second one of these.  I want to say that it’s some variation on Warrior Pose, but I am not a Yogi, so I can’t be sure.


These three all seem to be back bend related.  Camel pose is plenty challenging for me right now.


Sphinx Pose and Cobra Pose are both good preparatory poses leading up to Upward Dog, which requires a lot of core strength.


Pigeon pose is one of the most marvelous stretches ever, and there’s a variation which can be done on a horse.  It feels amazing after a tough riding lesson.


I haven’t tried this one yet, but it looks very interesting.  I imagine that this would also be useful for strengthening quad and hamstring muscles.


And just for extra credit, there’s this guy, doing all kinds of hip flexor stretches.hip-flexor-stretches

Why Western?

It’s come to my attention recently that I seem to be making a very fundamental mistake when I write blog posts.  A friend has been trying to very subtly point out to me that sometimes I come across as disparaging toward Western riding.  That is truly not my intent.  I began as a Western rider, and I owe a great deal to that background.  My mistake has been that while I have been learning Dressage the last six or nine months, I have been filling in gaps in my knowledge and extending off of what I learned throughout the years through my Western riding, and as I post about those discoveries, I often compare common practices in the Western world with training in Dressage, and I’m afraid I don’t always do it in a way that is truly respectful. I will try to rectify that.

Now I think it’s time for me to clarify: I don’t think that Dressage is better than Western.  I do not think that Western is better than Dressage.  I do not think that Reining is better than Jumping or that Jumping is better than Driving or that Driving is better than Racing or that Racing is better than Cutting.  As I have been learning more and more, I am becoming convinced that to produce some of the best horses and riders, it is essential for us to cross train across multiple disciplines.  As Sam and I have been talking, she made a comment that the reason that a lot of Western riders think that English riders are snobby is because most English riders would never consider cross training into Western.  I told her that Rabea, who has about as classical of an upbringing as it gets, is actually quite interested in some of the things that Western riding brings to the table, so don’t lose hope yet.

But when I talked to Rabea afterward, I discovered that Sam might have hit it right on the nose, more than I like to admit.  As I discussed this with Rabea and Sam, the main conclusion that I was able to draw is that the reason many English riders would never consider climbing into a Western saddle (Yes, I’m pointing fingers at you, some of our 4-H girls!) is because eventually all that classically trained riders see in Western is bad plumb lines, tight psoas muscles, and weak seats.  So I think it’s time to openly recognize some of the things that Western riding can teach us.

Sitting Trot

I’m starting to think that we don’t always teach this in a way that is conducive to the horse or rider, but let me tell you, we Western riders rock the socks off of sitting trot.  I am delighted to say that that is something that I was absolutely able to bring with me to Dressage.  Sometimes as English riders, if we haven’t taken the time to build up our core strength and muscle memory, rising trot can be… rough on the horse.  The purpose of rising trot is to open up the horse’s back and allow them to move.  If we don’t have the strength to rise well, we may find ourselves using the reins for balance and bouncing back into the rear of the saddle, which hurts the horse and is counterproductive.  Sitting trot won’t help open up the motion of the horse’s back as much, but done correctly, it may help the rider learn to stabilize themselves without bouncing on the reins or stirrups, and maybe in turn that will help with stabilization in rising trot.

voodoo-doll-with-pinsWestern Riders: Sitting the trot correctly means NOT bracing between the cantle and the stirrups.  Scoot your butt forward and stop jiggling around on the small of the horse’s back.  Try to stretch your legs down under you and learn to follow with the horse’s motion using your hips, not your feet.  You’ll thank me later.  After you’re done sticking little voodoo dolls of me with needles, of course.

(In case you didn’t know before, if you’re doing any riding for an extended period of time, like cattle drives, trail rides, or endurance riding, trying to do rising trot for hours on end will be unbelievably exhausting and I really wouldn’t recommend it.)


When you study Dressage, the ultimate goal is to create an athlete who draws both on strength and flexibility.  The training might be very similar to what a gymnast or a ballet dancer might go through.  There’s not a lot of weight lifting (although I imagine that it doesn’t hurt), but you can bet that ballet or gymnastics will make you very, very strong indeed.  Dressage teaches both the horse and rider to have strong cores and high body awareness so that we can be engaged and focused through every stride: we learn to draw on the power of muscles that we didn’t even know that we had.  We value that strength, and there’s no reason not to.  We need that strength to reach the higher levels of dressage.  But sometimes I think we forget that before we can ever develop strength, we first have to develop flexibility, muscle memory, and confidence.

woman bodybuilderOne of my friends is a bodybuilder, and the majority of her workout involves lifting weights.  Sometimes she gets so frustrated with some of the cross fit athletes in the gym because they don’t take the time to build the muscle memory before they start doing extremely aggressive lifts, and it’s begging for an injury.  She told me that when she started lifting, she spent two or three months just learning the motion of a lift before she ever added weight.  She goes back and draws on that training every time she goes to a weight set in order to prevent injuries.

If you look up “Dressage Pyramid” on Google, you will find that there is a section called “Relaxation- With Elasticity and Suppleness.”  Elasticity and Suppleness are both lovely terms, but they’re terms that we still throw around when demanding some fairly intense muscular engagement, like building contact or developing straightness, and I want a term that implies total looseness of motion; like a tall, gangly redhead running through the hills.  As I continue to learn, I find that I am starting to like the Training Tree used by Meredith Manor more and more, because there is no mistaking what comes before we ever start asking for the horse to engage all of those muscles: first we simply let them move and develop the confidence, freedom, and muscle memory necessary to simply carry us on their backs.

Probably one of the most magical rides I have had so far during my time at HES involved throwing a bareback pad on Batman, climbing on, letting him have as much rein as he wanted, and just holding on and letting him move.  I closed my eyes as much as I could and focused on allowing my body to truly move with his by letting my hips and legs swing with him.  I played a game with myself where I would close my eyes and guess what he was doing.  Was he driving forward with his shoulders or his hips?  Was his head bent to the left or the right?  Where was he stiff?  Toward the end of our ride that day, he was so beautifully soft and flexible and sensitive that I didn’t need to tell him what to do, I didn’t need to give him cues.  I got out of his way so he could move the way that he wanted, and when I wanted something, all I had to do was suggest it with the slightest touch of my heel, and he responded.  It was the sort of magical reining response that we all dream of.

Rabea told me that probably what she admires most about Western riders is that they have the capacity to let go and just trust the horse’s natural athleticism.  “Freedom of Gaits” is just that: getting out of the way so that the horse is free to move.  It is a wonderful time to train, because it’s a time when we allow the horse to figure things out on his/her own.  As the horse gains more confidence in a maneuver and begins to understand what it is that we are asking, he/she will move out freely, and this goes as much for lateral work as for our normal forward gaits.  After the horse has figured out what we’re asking for and can do it with confidence, that’s when we can start tweaking with our aids to help them perfect those maneuvers to be balanced and strong.  But first, we have to put aside our desire for perfection for long enough to just let the horse experiment and figure it out.

Flying Lead Changes

When I first discovered that flying lead changes are considered quite difficult for many English riders and horses, I was stunned, probably because we were asking for flying lead changes during reining classes in 4-H all the time as kids.  I’m finally figuring out why this is: It’s because when Dressage riders are working in the canter, we’re focused on so much already, like our balance, the horse’s balance, having good contact, and keeping the horse engaged all the way through without any sloppiness.  Amanda talks about how Western flying lead changes are “pancake” lead changes: we flip our balance to the other side, cue a change of lead and direction, and off we go.  We teach it through constant repetition, starting with simple lead changes (down transitioning to a trot between the two different circles on a figure eight) and then decreasing the number of trot strides between the two until there simply aren’t any left.

reining pattern example
Most reining patterns don’t ask us to drop the bridle into the judge’s lap.

I realize that I’m saying this because I don’t know of any other way to teach flying lead changes, but I wonder if maybe that pancake change (in all of its glorious sloppiness and batter flying everywhere) is maybe the missing piece for those beautiful flying lead changes in Dressage.  Of course, if there’s a top flight Dressage trainer out there who knows a better way to teach the flying lead change and they’re reading this and wanting to throw things at the screen because they’re so frustrated by my lack of knowledge, please know that I am all ears and I am always happy to learn more.  But I feel like maybe it hearkens back to that beautiful looseness, where we have to let the horse figure out how to make those lead changes on their own first and then we can go through and refine the movement.

If there’s anything that I want any of my English riding friends to remember, it’s that sometimes the best thing you can do for your horse is to take the time to simply let go.

native rider

Bags and Saddles and Stands, Oh My…

I am not OCD.

I am very, very, VERY far from OCD.

My house, under normal circumstances, is a comfortable mess, with piles of harmless clutter tucked away in the corners.  (Please note that as much as I am not anxious to clean house, I draw the line at clutter.  Biological hazards are not tolerated, and since it is frowned upon to use a flame thrower to dispose of mold, I usually just attack with bleach.)

But because I dream on a budget (thank heavens my husband is financially responsible- money stresses me out), I do tend to be fairly particular about my tack.  This may be surprising, considering that most of my tack has been acquired at bargain prices, from my battered old western saddle (retrieved from a dusty barn with parts that needed to be replaced and fixed) to my newest purchases, acquired at bargain prices with a helping of my husband’s chagrin.  If there is anything that I am OCD about, it’s my tack.  I want it clean, I want it organized, and I want it to remain in good condition.2015-07-30 20.47.08

But I am also naturally lazy.

There isn’t room at Amanda’s barn for my tack (her tack room is literally stacked to the ceiling with saddles as it is), and dragging my saddles down the stairs every morning and then back up every afternoon seems silly.  I know that it would be organizationally responsible, but of all of the things that I expend energy on, that doesn’t usually make the top of my list.

So when it comes to a certain portion of my equipment (whatever I’m using for an extended period of time), it usually ends up being dumped unceremoniously into the trunk of the car.  Usually it ends up looking something like this.

Because I am cheap and want my equipment to last a long time, seeing the fenders of my saddles get bent from laying on their sides or wide open sometimes makes me cringe.  So this week I shirked my poop scooping duties and decided to do something about it by building a saddle stand.

I know that you can buy saddle stands.  They’re not what you would call uncommon.  But most saddle stands are meant to be put on the ground and hold the saddle up high enough that you don’t have to bend over all of the time to pick it up.  But the fact is that those saddle stands do not generally fit in the trunk of a little car.  So I custom made my own.

I drew up a sketch, dragged my husband to the hardware store, discovered that they didn’t have the proper joints for me to make it out of PVC pipe as I had planned, drug my husband across the store, bought what I assumed would be a sufficient amount of wood and screws, and then dropped two eight foot long pieces of wood on the living room floor.  I then asked Amanda’s husband to cut it all down for me, borrowed their sander, turned on Netflix to keep me company, and went to work.

All in all, I think it turned out pretty well, and obviously I’m feeling very pleased with myself because now I’m posting it all over the internet.  I followed this up by making a bag to carry my riding boots and half chaps (because they also need to last forever) and then proceeded to organize the trunk.  I think I need to make another one, because it can only handle one saddle at a time well.  Otherwise my pile of saddle pancakes becomes too tall to fit in the trunk.  But for having almost no experience working with wood, I think I can safely be proud of the work I’ve done.


*Please Note that neither the saddle stand nor the photo bombing puppy will be sold on Etsy at any point in the near future.  This picture is posted only for additional cuteness factor.*

Know Thine Molds Part 3: The Horse

Plate of Molds

This is probably the hardest part of the three for me to write because there are so many things I don’t know how to talk about, especially without offending someone.  The reason I say this is that there are very few molds placed on horses naturally.  For example, they don’t sit in chairs, and horses cannot be traumatized by the lies of other horses because in my experience, horses don’t lie.  And whatever molds came from the herd and the horses upbringing, we generally don’t have the power to alter or change.  So all I can really discuss is the molds that we place on our horses.  Please bear in mind that this post is not meant to be offensive or critical of anyone.  Most of the horse people I know use these things as tools to help with the horse’s training.  But it is important for us all to be aware of some of the side effects of these tools.

Horse’s Body

Body position, body position, body position.  I’ve already harped on it, and there are multiple books out there from people who have been riding a lot longer than I have who understand and explain it better.  But if you need a refresher, go back to this post.  Also consider checking out this book, or one similar to it (I like Sally Swift a lot because she has a way of letting you know how good body position should feel.  That’s hard to do).  So on to our tools.


I know that this may seem like common sense, but Stalls.  Stalls are marvelous tools.  They give us constant and controlled access to the horse, we can monitor their food and water intake, we can keep them from ripping off shoes when they overstep themselves (LUKE), and if nothing else it makes horses way easier to catch.  But if you ever pick up any basic horse book from any era, there will be a section warning about different vices, like cribbing or weaving, as well as warning that horses may kick or dig in the stall and injure themselves.  Horses evolved to be constantly moving and munching, usually at the same time.  The general idea is that many horses who have stall based vices learned them out of boredom, and we should be able to relate.  For some of us, when we’re bored we go straight to the fridge looking for something to munch on.  You may be bored before you eat and after you eat, but while you’re eating?  There’s nothing boring about the actual act of eating.

Ideally of course, we would all have sufficient land and resources to have horses grazing all the time with good grass so that they can get fat but never sick, and stalls will be available for training and grooming and medical care or supervision.  But for many of us, that simply isn’t a reality.  All we can do is be aware of some of the vices that may be learned along the way and try to prevent them.  Having frequent access to grass hay may be appropriate for some horses, and providing a horse ball to play with or a goat or pony for a companion may also be helpful to prevent boredom.

Side Reins, Training Forks, and Martingales can all be particularly useful tools for training.  However, they should be used with caution because sometimes they can teach exactly what you don’t want the horse to learn: Bracing.  Amanda mentioned this once to me early on, talking about how Luke was so inclined to throw his head up in the air because he had been ridden and jumped constantly in a martingale and so the muscles he used to pull up and brace against it had only been strengthened.  I thought it was an interesting correlation, but it didn’t fully click for me until I was studying this article yesterday.

Horses have a lot to do when we get on their backs, and it is a lot of work to not only balance themselves but balance us as well.  This is why a good seat is so important: it cuts down on the horse’s work.  But it also explains why contact is so important to dressage riders.  It’s not about looking pretty, and it’s not about giving the riders something to hold on to.  It’s about giving the horse a little bit of help with all of that balancing work.  I would like to point out that it’s about creating a healthy way to balance, where the back can stretch, the hindquarters can engage, and the horse can move forward.  Now you may think that that martingales, training forks, and side reins like the ones pictured above would help create this healthy posture.  But you can’t think of this like someone just learning yoga who needs a chair or a hand on the ground to balance properly.  Instead, you may have to think about it more like a water skier, who leans back against the line to maintain balance.

Tie Down

This is why I am now inclined to abhor tie downs, because they are almost guaranteed to create results like this.  I see this all of the time with ropers, barrel racers, and cutters, where the horse can no longer be ridden without a tie down.  What may have started as tossing the head out of anxiety has now been perpetuated by what was advertised as the way to fix the problem.

vaulting horse lungeI’m not saying that you should never use some of these tools, because I still have a training fork in my arsenal of tools, and we use side reins all of the time when we’re lunging.  But be critical about how you use them.  There’s a reason we use side reins with rubber donuts that do not connect to the girth between the legs.  By simulating that perfect, almost caressing contact, it allows the horse to press freely forward into the bit, balancing without the discomfort of jerking.  As a friend reminded me, tie downs are meant specifically to help protect roping horses from injury.  But it’s important to remember that sometimes misuse of these tools even simply over-using them, may have an adverse effect.   Instead of using my training fork to try to train the horse to keep his/her head down, I instead use it for one ride to remind myself to use a deliberate direct rein to guide my horse.  And then after that ride, I put the training fork back on the wall for a few months until I need it again.

Horse’s Mind

This may be the most important and yet the most neglected part of a horse’s training, and we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever poor results we create.  I find myself becoming increasingly more frustrated with some of the most popular training methods out there because while you may get results quickly, they are the wrong kinds of results, and it’s teaching and learning done so very, very, badly.  There is a trainer in the Louisiana area, who whenever someone calls him out on his methods as being thoughtless or unfeeling, usually rebuts that whatever he just did is the epitome of feeling and that the person offering criticism is just anthropomorphizing the horse (aka, actually making the horse more human than it actually is).  But in the words of a little boy from this weekend who didn’t realize just how wise he was being, “A horse is somebody.”

Humans and horses actually do have pretty similar brains.  Sure, we have a lot more gray matter devoted to things like speech and math and random facts about the Ancient Greeks, and horses definitely have a higher percentage of their brain devoted to the hypothalamus, but the way we learn is the same: we build off of already existing neural connections.  The best teaching, whether for horses or for humans, puts the new concept one step away from what you already know so that you can build that connection.  As a trainer, you have to choose what kind of a neural connection you want to teach.

This article explains the beef that I have started to have with many of the more popular training methods, including Clinton Anderson, Pat Parelli, and Natural Horsemanship.  It’s not that they’re done with the intent of doing harm to the horse, but often times our training methods are based off of out of date research and cliched phrases that can do just as much damage as good.  I am beginning to find many of the methods loud and unnecessary.  I still haven’t read the book that she refers to (Equine Behavior by Dr. Paul McGreevey), because it costs about $120 to $150 dollars, and I keep spending money on saddles and stuff instead.  It’s on my “to buy” list though.

I can tell you that I do struggle with some of the desensitization methods that are employed by many trainers.  Ron Meredith describes what was called “gentling,” and was once considered a necessary part of training.  Essentially, what it consisted of was tying a horse up and beating him/her with a sack, blanket, or other object until they stopped responding to it.  That sounds pretty bad.  Now many of the popular training methods have reduced that to simply whirling sticks around the sides and heads of the horses and calling it desensitization.

The simple fact is that there is no natural equine precedent for any techniques like this.  Horses do not push their foals into ponds to make them swim or leave them with a pack of wolves to learn to not be scared of dogs.  In terms of human neural programming, it would be referred to as Flooding.  An example of Flooding would be taking someone who has a phobia of snakes and tossing them into a pit filled with them.  They might just be garter snakes, none of them poisonous, but odds are pretty good that it will not do the patient much good.  Indy Jones SnakesJust ask Indiana Jones.  He didn’t start out with a phobia, but he sure as heck has one now.

Because there is no natural connection to build off of, the horse will usually start out confused, and that will transfer over to the fastest, easiest neural connection possible: Fear.  If my one semester of Psych 1000 serves me well, the region of the brain that is in control of your emotions and your survival responses (aka, fight or flight) is the hypothalamus.  Your horse is shuddering and pulling his head and trying to move away because if he doesn’t know what it is and why someone is doing this, then the brain is programmed to see it as a threat to their survival.  (This is also the root of Xenophobia and Racism as we know it.)  The thing is that when they do stand still, that is not necessarily a sign of understanding.  What that actually may be is that you just overloaded their hypothalamus for so long that they see no escape. Instead of going for fight or flight, they’ve gone for the only alternative left: Freeze.  It’s also known as Learned Helplessness, and is prevalent in rape and abuse victims.  Essentially what happens is that when you think you have no escape, you lay still and disassociate, waiting for either a) for it to all be over or b) for you to die.

Now of course, that is not the only method of desensitization.  The other technique used for phobia treatment in psychology is known as counter-conditioning.  In my opinion, this is the better method of desensitization, because instead of overloading the hypothalamus to obtain a physical result, counter-conditioning is about teaching a patient (or in this case, a horse) a relaxation technique and then when that fear is presented, letting them use that relaxation technique to change their physical response, thereby helping to change the chemical response in the brain to whatever is so stressful.  We start by creating something relaxing.  Ron Meredith talks about using rhythm, consistent behavior of the trainer, to help produce relaxation.  This includes even the use of rhythmic breathing.  That’s something that horses can understand as being calming and they will respond to it instinctively.  Then as we slowly introduce something that may be quite frightening, we are able to connect that object to a healthier response: Relaxation and trust in the trainer.

Every horse training method out there professes the importance of being the alpha.  Instead, what I propose is that as riders and trainers, we have to learn what kind of an alpha we want to be.  The best alphas do not push other horses around just for the sake of being the boss.  The best alphas ask other horses to move because the goal is to protect the herd from violence.  When Amanda is bringing out grain to feed and 16 hand Luke is trying to get the grain and about to run everyone else over, little 14 hand Tidbit goes between Amanda and Luke and pushes away the dangerous behavior.  When I go out to visit some of the herds on Fort Polk, I watch very carefully.  If a good alpha sees me as a threat, he calmly moves the other horses away from me.  He doesn’t tell them to suck it up and ignore the signals that their brains are sending. As human beings, we have been taught our whole lives to ignore the signals that tell us to be afraid.  Suck it up, be a man, don’t be a pansy, all of those things that tell us that our feelings are not important.  Horses don’t have that issue.  They know that their feelings are real and essential to their survival.  The best alphas know that and use them to keep the herd safe.

I’m not saying that you will be babying your horse and taking away everything that could ever cause stress.  That’s not possible, and a little bit of stress can actually be healthy because the horse can learn to self soothe.  But the best resource for them to cope with that stress is to know that you are safe and that they can trust you.  Then they will know that they can look to you for answers and for support while they’re working through that scary thing.  In an industry that professes the importance of trust between a horse and a rider, there is no room for rider or trainer produced fear or confusion.  If your horse is afraid, it’s time to step back and ask what’s going wrong, what you can do to reduce the confusion and make a neural connection somewhere else.  If you want a horse that isn’t spooky, let them learn that they can trust you.  If you want a horse to trust you, don’t be the source of their confusion or their fear.  Be their support for conquering it.  Be a good alpha.