Author Archives: willclinging

starting process 1 – philosopy

When starting a horse under saddle there are many different things that are involved in the process. Although every horse is a little individual in how things need to be presented to him there are fundamentals that are necessary to instill in a young horse to make him safe and reliable. Historically starting or “breaking” was a rough process. It did not often consider the horse’s ability to learn willingly. Although it was not the kindest way to work with a horse it was often the only way that those doing it knew how to get the job done. The horse world was dominated by men that had to get a job done with that horse so there was no time to teach it to be gentle. Things are considerably different today. The horse world is now dominated by women and the horses are primarily for recreational use. Women are generally less aggressive than men and we now have more time and access to more information about how horses think and behave.

Natural horsemanship has given many people the tools to start their own horses but misinterpreting part of the process can cause things to stop progressing. There are step by step methods that will work fairly well on an average horse with no problems but does not allow the versatility to get exceptional results from a horse, especially if the horse did not read the same training book as the person doing the training.

Over the past several years my methods have changed from getting the job done to mostly “natural horsemanship” methods to combining conventional methods to prepare the horse for a specific job. That job is to be willing, to be soft and relaxed in mind and body, to be light in my hands, to be balanced and forward. Over the evolution of my training I have been fortunate enough to have learned from outstanding trainers in disciplines from colt starting and reining to jumping and dressage. Input from these different disciplines has led to improved understanding of how the horses need to perform after they are started. The different breeds used for different disciplines learn in different ways. Quarter horses and warm bloods learn differently and English and Western trainers train at different speeds. Having a specific goal for your horse at the end of the starting process can help dictate the process you use to get it started. The fundamentals are the same but the details are slightly different.

When I start a horse I do it is stages, the first stage is establishing leadership. This is generally a round pen exercise but can be done on a line. This involves controlling movement, setting boundaries for personal space, parameters for pressure, getting and keeping a horse’s attention, and expectations for behavior. The second stage is introducing equipment including saddle, bridle, longe line and one side rein. Other equipment I use would be a lariat, a training flag, and a longe whip. Stage three is mounting and dismounting, carrying a rider comfortably, basic steering and a few exercises to regain control if a horse gets scared and possibly becomes violent. By stage four I am usually out of the round pen and into the arena, where I start to incorporate all the previous stages to build confidence and slowly improve responses towards pressure. Stage five is teaching basic body control under saddle, bending and softening, improving forward movement, and balance. Stage six is upward and downward transitions through the gaits, shortening the horse’s stride and working towards going on the bit.

Throughout the process there is always overlap of stages and how long I stay at a particular stage is based on the horse’s progress or lack of progress. There are always problems or issues that arise and I deal with them when they occur. Any difficulties take precedence over the stage of training that I am currently working on. Only when the problem has a satisfactory result will I continue or progress. A satisfactory result with a problem does not mean it is fixed but that it is improved upon to the best of the horse’s ability on that day. By the time I get to stage six and the horse has comfortably understood all that I have asked the horse should be well on his way to becoming reliable and ready to progress to intermediate training levels. The process that I follow will change if horses are extremely difficult to deal with or if a client has different requirements for their horse when it goes home. Any process is simply a guideline and does not need to be followed to the letter. I modify as I go and I would encourage you to do the same. A specific process taught by any trainer is an accumulation on things that worked for that trainer. That does not mean that all those things will work for you.
The method I use is just that, a compilation of things that have made starting a horse easier and faster for me with more consistent results. What works for me may not work for you but you won’t know until you try.

© 2006 Will Clinging

Dealing With Strangles


As I write this article I am surrounded by various bits and pieces of tack that have just been disinfected. I am having trouble getting the smell of bleach out of my nose because my wife and I have been going through it by the gallon. On Easter long weekend we had two horses get sick, we suspected strangles and lab work has confirmed this diagnosis. To date we have six sick horses and holding. Strangles is a highly contagious equine form of Strep throat. I will not go into the scientific explanation of the disease. Basically the horses go off their feed, get a fever and a grossly runny nose and in some cases develop abscesses under their chin

What I want to talk about is not really about sick horses but the management nightmare that Strangles can become. I have been vaguely aware of Strangles for many years but luckily I have never seen it before. I have become quite informed in past weeks about Strangles, vaccinations, different symptoms, treatments, complications, and ways to prevent the spread. I have found that it is not as uncommon as I thought, many clients and colleagues I have spoken to have come across it in the past. Talking to people about it evokes many different responses, some panic thinking that the horses will die, some brush it off as if it were a common cold and some take a methodical approach to dealing with it. A very important factor in deciding how to react to Strangles is the amount of information people have about it. How would you react if you got a call saying that there is a case of Strangles in your barn?

The information available on Strangles is overwhelming. The problem with the information is that much of it is contradictory. There seems to be little consensus on incubation periods, whether to treat with antibiotics or not and how effective the vaccine is in preventing it. There is also a lack of agreement on how long the bacteria lives in the ground, equipment and fences and how long horses shed the bacteria after they stop showing symptoms. In my opinion a good relationship with your vet, access to up to date information and bleach are the most important things you need.

It is our experience that the horses do not all show the same symptoms or the severity of the symptoms differs. The over all health and well being are big factors, the horses here that got sick are all young, some were in training some were not, some were fit some were not. Some only seemed to be sick for a day or two while others have been ill for 10 days so far. There is a big difference in how sick they got, from a mild snotty nose and elevated temperature to dripping snot and puss from erupted abscesses. At the time of writing this article we are on day 12 with strangles so it is still possible that more horses here will get it or symptoms will get worse.
Several of the sick horses I have were vaccinated before they were exposed. The vaccine is only moderately effective in preventing the disease but it does help them get better faster with decreased severity of symptoms. The treatment varies, I have three horses on penicillin with good response, two are on homeopathic remedies also with good response and one has only had bute to help with the fever. One client’s vet told her that Strangles is harder on people than it is on the horses and I am inclined to agree with him. Barring complications they seem to get sick and then get better. This happens over the course of a couple of weeks. Managing the disease can continue for months.

For those people with a closed herd once the horses are better it is often not an issue. In boarding barns it can be much more difficult to deal with. As a trainer I bring client’s horses home to work on so I do board horses here. Many of the horses that come here go home in 90 days or less to locations all over the province. As a result I have quarantined my farm to horses coming or going so the disease will not be passed on. Unfortunately I did send a clients horse home after he was exposed but before he was sick. He has been quarantined at home and hopefully that is where it will end. For me the management of this disease has changed the dynamic of my business. I can no longer bring in outside horses for fear that they get sick before the bacteria in the ground and on the fences have ceased to be viable. So unfortunately and effective immediately I will no longer be accepting clients horses for training.

Between quarantining the farm, isolating horses, foot baths, coveralls, rubber boots and surgical gloves we think we have a handle on the disease. My wife and I have spent considerable time on the phone and computer contacting clients and clinic hosts informing them of our situation. Everyone has been supportive and understanding. Several people we spoke to asked us if we didn’t want them to tell any one about strangles on our farm. As much as I would like this to quietly go away we feel that it is our responsibility to inform everybody that I am likely to come in contact with what is happening. Trying to keep this a secret would only hurt more later on down the road. I am hoping that my clinic schedule will be relatively unaffected by this and I will be re locating my business to Vancouver Island for the summer since I can no longer work from home.

I will not offer advice on dealing with Strangles, everyone seems to deal with it a different way based on the information they have. I will say though that the more people you talk to about it whether you have it or not the better. We all know that in the horse world there is a certain amount of gossip and if more people were forthcoming with information the better off we would all be. I don’t want anyone spreading stories behind my back so I will say it now WE HAVE STRANGLES ON OUR FARM!

© 2006 Will Clinging

Spring is here, is your horse ready to ride?

Now that spring has sprung those fair weather riders among us are coming out of hibernation. Before you go and jump on your horse there are a few things that I want to mention to prepare your horse to get back to work. There are a couple of physical things that we should be aware of but I am going to focus more on the mental preparation that our horse might need to be safely ridden. The physical things I want to mention are their feet, equipment fit and the possible low level of fitness. The mental things are reestablishing rules and expectations on the ground and in the saddle, allowing a re-tuning period and problem prevention.

The physical horse in the spring has softer muscle tone than when he was laid off last winter. Because of the amount of rain and snow that we deal with over winter a horses feet are usually pretty soft by this time of the year. Before you start riding it is important to make sure his feet have been trimmed or shod and that they are balanced. Equipment fit can also be an issue because of the change in the horse’s muscle tone or lack of muscle tone. A horse that is too soft due to lack of exercise is more likely to develop cinch sores or saddle fitting problems. Make sure your cinches are cleaned regularly because of shedding hair and dirt that can build up on a cinch will add to the irritation of an already tender spot. Most horses that have not been ridden for the winter are not going to have near the same physical condition as they did by the end of last years riding season, make sure to give them time to strengthen their muscles and build their endurance slowly.

The physical side of preparing a horse for spring I think is much more likely to be a concern for many horse owners than the mental preparation. Most of us can see if our horse gained weight and he has lost muscle tone or that his feet are soft but do we see that our horse may not be mentally ready to start being ridden.

I am a believer that ground work should be done on an as needed basis and not as a routine exercise. Some ground work might be needed now, especially if we have let a few things slide over winter like maintaining established behavior, and a respectful attitude. Or if issues have developed for whatever reason that have not been addressed now is the time. It is a good idea to make the first few or as many as necessary sessions to reestablish rules and expectations. If things have not been consistent for a while start with rules that your horse is already aware of. When old boundaries are reset your horse will be getting into a frame of mind that is more “work like”. If there are rules that you want to change or add now is as good a time as any.

When the attitude is good on the ground reestablish expectations under saddle. Work slowly through things you have worked on in the past. This will become a retuning period for you both. Things like balance, feel and timing will all be off just a little. It is likely that neither you nor your horse will be at the same level you were at a few months ago. Back up as far as you need to and regain the confidence necessary to reach the level of riding or training you are used to.
Taking a slow rebuilding approach will play a big part in problem prevention. It will make you aware of both your and your horse’s mental and physical limitations. It should also build confidence in you and your horse when you both realize that you remember more than you thought you might. Most problems that your horse will have will likely develop soon after you put him back to work. This will also be the easiest time to deal with them. The longer you wait the more established things become and the more difficult to correct.

Taking the time to get your horse ready to ride should not be a big chore, assuming that you could ride him before. The urge to jump on and go might be strong, but taking some time to evaluate his state of mind might save you some grief. When your horse is attentive and responding in a familiar way that you are comfortable with it is time to ride. If you are not happy with his behavior or his attitude you might still have some work to do.

© 2006 Will Clinging

The Fearful Rescue Pony

About six weeks ago we adopted a beautiful little bay Shetland pony mare (we guess to be in her teens). She was rescued from an auction two years ago. She was in rough shape and the new owner nursed her back to health. The new owner didn’t do much with the pony (training) and she was bred and had a foal this year. The foal was weaned (at the right time) and we have since adopted the mare.

As it turns out, this little mare is so afraid of people. She was delivered to us, and put in a stall. We cannot get anywhere near her. We have four other horses that are turned out together every day and brought into their stalls at night. We don’t dare put the little mare in with (any of) the others – not until we can hand
le her and catch her. Our stalls are (each) 10 X 20 and made up of panels, so she can see out. The other horses come into the barn often during the day to visit her. She is fine in her stall – calm, secure and safe. Once a week I put her in a new stall so that she has a different view of everything (I herd her to move her).

Every couple of days I shut the back door (so the other horses can’t come in) and let her trot around inside. She trots around me in a circle, and even hops a small x, and when I say ‘whoa,’ she stops on a dime. Then I slowly try to approach her, but nope – she runs away.

We talk to her and crouch down so that we don’t look so big and scary. I spent three hours with her in her stall: I sat at one end and read a book. She stood at the other end the entire time. She watched me and whenever I looked at her, she would quickly look away. She will slowly approach me when I kneel down with a bucket of treats on my lap – but only if I don’t look at her. She will poke her neck out and reach for a treat, then she’ll hop away to eat it, and then repeat this process until all of the treats are gone.

She appears to be in good health, which is a really good thing because there is no way to halter her for a vet check. It is so sad to see such a beautiful animal so afraid of people. Something happened to her before the auction. We have no intention to ever ride her – we just want to offer her a wonderful rest-of-her-life. I just wish I could tell her that. She likes the other four horses and the dogs and cats. She will receive everything she needs (worming, shots, etc) but we will have to be able to catch her.

Apparently once she’s haltered, she’s fine. That’s great but it’s been six weeks already and we can’t even pat her, never mind halter her. Her feet look good but her forelock is full of burrs and her mane is way too long and totally matted. We have done nothing that should scare her. We only want to love her, brush her and let her have a nice life. She’ll just be a farm pony and hang out with the other horses.

Last night my biggest fear happened – the pony had an emergency and needed help. We returned home from work and went to the barn to do the chores and put the horses to bed – the usual. The pony was lying down and didn’t hop up when I opened her gate. She couldn’t – her hind leg was caught in her dread-lock mane. She must have lifted her hind leg to scratch her ear (area) and the leg went through the mane and she couldn’t free it. Whatever the case – she needed our help. Judging by the lack of manure in her stall, she was down all day. I hoped desperately that the back leg (or any leg, for that matter), was not broken. I was absolutely amazed that she laid still and quiet while we put a tub of treats in front of her and she ate while we cut the mane to free her leg. We put a halter on her no problem and we cut the rest of the mane to a safe length. She let me rub the leg and after a while she hopped up.

She was stiff (no doubt!) and hungry and really had to go to the washroom, but seems all right. We kept her haltered for about 2 hours – we brushed her and got rid of the burrs and patted her and spent quality time with her. I simply could not believe that she allowed us to help her.

Well, today is the next day and she won’t let me near her again. I’m confused – surely by now she knows that we won’t hurt her? It is a bit frustrating – but I don’t want to (ever) give up on this little pony. What is going on in her mind? Can you please help us? We really need some tips and advice. Maybe it’ll just take a lot of time? We plan to keep her – there’s only one other place that would likely want her, and I will never let that happen. We need to gain her trust (I thought we did that last night). We sure would appreciate any advice.

Thank you in advance.

Marianne Fraser
Box 41
Belle Plaine, SK
S0G 0G0

This month my article is in response to an e-mail that was forwarded to me. I am going to qualify that I have not seen the horse so I will make a few assumptions and this is just my opinion. I think that there are a few different things happening with the mare. Since the mare was rescued from an auction in poor health we can assume that there was neglect of some kind. If her rescuer did little with her except breed her there was physical healing that occurred but not emotional or spiritual healing.

If this mare has been let down in the past she will not be quick to trust the people in her life. As a herd animal she depends on the security of a herd for protection and comfort. If she has had no herd or an unreliable herd she will be more defensive that she should be because she feels that she has no one to protect her. She will be much more wary and quick to remove herself from stressful situations because she is always in an “on guard” position mentally.

In order to help this mare overcome the unwillingness to trust there will probably need to be a couple of things that need to happen. The first thing is not to coddle her. The second is to establish and re enforce boundaries in regards to ground manners.
There is a very strong inclination to pour love and affection on them because of what they have been through and we feel sorry for them. She needs empathy not sympathy. If we coddle her too much she may appreciate the affection and enjoy the treats but we will have a much more difficult time establishing the respect we need to start rebuilding the trust that we want. She will eventually become spoiled because she will see our kindness as weakness and she needs a strong leader. She does not want pity she wants encouragement, support and someone that can prove to her that they can and will look out for her.

If we do not have established standards for behavior we will allow unacceptable behavior to become acceptable. Don’t be afraid to hurt her feelings. If she needs scolded it will do more harm not to and if you are sincere she will know that you do not have malicious intentions. Without defined boundaries she will know that there is a lack of discipline and that she will get what she wants without having to give anything for it.

There is another scenario that I will add to the one I have described. She is an intelligent little pony that has become a con artist. The initial trust issue is still there but she has learned how to dine and dash. She knows that she is not in danger anymore but would rather take advantage of her new situation than become one of the family. She likely has poor social skills because she has been emotionally alone for a long time but she has also learned how to make the system work for her. When she was caught she behaved just fine because she needed your help and she does not want confrontation. If we are a little more assertive when trying to catch her she may give in. If we quit trying when she gets worked up she will get herself worked up faster so we will quit trying and the cycle will continue. You essentially need to call her bluff and expect more from her. Do not accept less than a sincere effort from her and she will start to believe you are worthy of respect. Be a reliable leader to her and do not try to be the dominant horse. If we come across too strongly it could initiate more fear based reactions. Have confidence in everything you do with her, if you believe you can catch her she might believe you too. Do not try to prevent her from making mistakes. If you protect her from dealing with her issues you shouldn’t be disappointed when she never overcomes them. Expect her to be the horse you want her to be and she will be. It is always a slow process to rebuild respect and trust. If you take a long term approach it will be a rewarding process, there will be frustration and disappointment but success is only a matter of time.

© 2006 Will Clinging

The Reliable Horse

The last couple of articles I wrote were on understanding horses when they are confused and resistant. Ultimately what most of us want from our horse is for them to be reliable.
The key to having a reliable horse is understanding what makes a horse reliable. To help a horse become reliable we need to encourage our horse to try, to think, to understand, to be responsible, to be confidant, and to deal with stress. It is important to have all of these things individually but they are so interconnected that when one of them starts to develop they all start to develop. If all of these things happen the training will almost take care of itself.

When a horse tries he shows his willingness to learn. Assuming the horse does not know what we want If we notice the smallest effort from the slightest cue and reward it we will encourage the horse to keep trying. Initially it is not important that your horse is correct only that he tries to be correct. When we ask for movement he may not do what we want but any movement that is remotely correct shows effort. With effort we can then direct the movement more specifically until he tries something different. The different movement will then get rewarded or not based on whether it was more correct than the last time. This continues until the horse performs what we wanted him to.

Through this process the horse has also been encouraged to think. He knows his recent action got a reward so he will try it again the next time I ask. When it doesn’t work and he tries something different he has to think to realize that what he tried last time no longer got the release. This process of rewarding very little should also encourage deliberate movement. If he starts over reacting you are possibly using too much pressure. This is when confusion is setting in. Even a little can be too much and because you are looking for very little movement he will respond to a very subtle request. The less pressure you use the smaller a response you can expect until he is sure what you want. If your horse continues to overreact you should back up to the last thing your horse did right and start the process again. If his movement is deliberate and smooth he is thinking about what he is doing and what you are asking.

When the thought process is encouraged and your horse’s movement has become smooth and consistent he then understands what was expected. If you do not have consistency you do not have understanding.

Consistency and understanding will develop responsibility. When you then ask your horse to perform on cue it is his responsibility to do his best. He should continue to perform until you ask him to do otherwise. His best may not be great but it may be the best he is capable of on that given day. It is important not to give him more responsibility than he can handle. Less assertive horses need less responsibility than strong willed horses. If you give a strong horse too much he will think he is in charge and you will lose some of your authority with him.

When a horse accepts responsibility for his actions he is well on his way to being confident. Confidence can be slow to develop and is very fragile. When a horse is really confident he will believe in himself and he will believe in you.

Confidence will now give your horse the courage to deal with stress. Everything we do with our horse is stressful. Handling, training, housing, feeding, and transportation are major stress factors. He needs to know that he can cope when he is alone and when he is with you. If he is coping with whatever stress he is under his movement will be deliberate. It will stay deliberate because he has confidence in you because you gave him the responsibility to think. This will allow him to understand that if he tries he will get rewarded.

© 2006 Will Clinging