Category Archives: 2005 Articles

Princess Complex

With today’s horse world being highly recreational there are many horses that don’t have to earn a living. These recreational horses are often very well cared for and sometimes even coddled. I will not use the term “spoiled” as I think a spoiled horse is one that has become a serious problem for his owner. I will say though that some of these pampered horses are well on their way to developing “princess complex”.
Many horses are allowed to behave badly due to the affectionate blindness of a loving owner who thinks that the poor behavior is not serious. This is certainly not always the case and I do believe that a horse deserves to be treated with respect and well cared for. There is a difference between a horse treated with too much affection, too much food and not enough work and a horse that is handled with fairness.

Princess complex is how I like to refer to horses of any age that are coddled and allowed to get away with disrespectful behavior. These horses are often affectionate, seemingly well adjusted and scared of very little. They like their easy life and will tolerate a certain amount of handling or training as long as it suits them. If a horse has become a “princess” or a “prince” for that matter it is because they have been taught to get away with not being obedient. I am not trying to offend those horse owners that pamper their horses but it is my experience that a horse with princess complex is more likely to injure someone than a horse without it.

A horse with little or no handling can be more intimidating to handle than a princess. This causes us to be more cautious when we start the training process. A nervous or scared horse tells you he is concerned about things so we are careful not to get too complacent. A horse that is not used to being handled is often scared and if they react to something we do it is usually in a defensive way. A scared horse is generally dangerous if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A horse with good handling and a disciplined daily routine and training program can also be potentially dangerous but the diligence of the handler ensures that there are established rules to reduce the risk. A horse with a good understanding of basic manners both on the ground and in the saddle will take much less effort to train and maintain those good habits.

With a horse that suffers from princess complex we are often not so careful. These horses are not scared of much due to the amount of handling they have had. Early training progresses very quickly but also plateaus because they realize that if the training continues they may have to work for a living. These horses then start to resist and resent the training because they know that if they put up a fuss they will be allowed to do what they want. They essentially have a temper tantrum and if they react to something it is because they are mad. A mad horse is dangerous because they want to get their own way and if you are the reason they can’t have what they want they can lash out in aggression or frustration.

Once a horse has established princess complex all is not lost but it can be a slow, sometimes difficult process to bring them back to a more manageable, respectful state of mind. Once they have been convinced that life is actually more rewarding for them when they behave many of them will remain well behaved. This of course depends on the handler’s desire and ability to maintain better standards for their horse’s behavior. There are a few that will over time become spoiled because they have a greater desire than their handler to be in control.

The best way to prevent this in the first place is to decide on a set of fundamental rules for both you and your horse. Establish rules that you will consistently enforce and re-enforce if your horse should challenge you. Your rules do not need to be my rules or any one else’s rules but make sure that there are some rules. I generally believe that rules were made to be broken but in this case if the rules are not in place and upheld it might be you that is broken.

Helmets, from a cowboys point of view.

I recently started to ride with a helmet. Fortunately there was no traumatic accident to myself or any of my friends, family or students that prompted my decision. I just decided that it might be a smart thing to do.
I started my equine career working full time as a “big outfit” cowboy. Helmets were never talked about let alone worn. This was, and still is, the accepted practice. A cowboy hat was just fine, and I still find it a highly functional piece of cowboy equipment. A cowboy’s hat has a lot of character and the style of hat can say a lot about the man wearing it. Helmets just seemed unappealing to wear and they lack the ability to say much about who is wearing it, don’t they? They all look so generic and bulky. There is the pride thing. Or maybe it was the macho cowboy thing or that I thought I would look stupid. None of those are very good reasons for putting myself at risk.
As a professional horse trainer I specialize in starting young horses that haven’t been ridden and I deal with many horses that have developed problems, sometimes very serious dangerous behaviour.
When working with the kind of horses that I am used to I exercise extreme caution. I work methodically to eliminate risks to prepare the horses to be as safe as he can be. This is sometimes still not very safe.
Last summer my kids started riding quite a bit and were not allowed to ride without a helmet. My wife started her first horse last year and was diligent about wearing a helmet.
With my wife and kids setting a good example riding their quiet ponies and very well behaved green horse. I would get on some half wild horse without a second thought about a helmet. Since they were less experienced than me they needed the protection. I, as the professional, felt no need for the same protection. I guess they started to rub off on me and I started to think about buying a helmet. But since I couldn’t find one I liked I wasn’t in a rush.
I eventually accepted that I should make a bigger effort to protect myself. I actually convinced myself that I wanted to start wearing one, but my ego wouldn’t let me. When I finally did buy one I would wear it at home or when I was by myself where know one could see me. The arena I ride in is about 100 meter’s off a road where much of the traffic is local. Whenever I would see a vehicle I recognized I would take it off hoping not to be caught. Eventually I realized how foolish I was acting and forced myself to keep it on. Wearing it at home was now not that big a deal but what about in public, could I wear it in front of my clients and students? In the past year or so I have started to work at quite a few English barns. This helped a lot because at many of these places I was the only one without a helmet. One day last fall I got up the nerve to put it on at a clinic. I now make it my practice to put it on especially in public when riding green horses.
I now feel that I should be the example Maybe it will be easier for my clients and students to put one on if they see me taking nothing for granted.
I now have a different opinion about those that choose to protect themselves by wearing a riding helmet. A cowboy hat has character and says a lot about the person that wears it. A helmet may not show as much character but the person wearing it certainly does.

Problem Horses

Problem horses are not generally born problem horses, they have been taught to be problem horses! There are certainly a few exceptions to this but as a rule they behave they way they do because of the handling they get or lack of handling as the case may be. They most effective way of dealing with problem behavior is to prevent it in the first place. Unfortunately this is not always possible, and if you find yourself with a horse you can not manage what then? There is a solution to most problems that horses develop. Unfortunately there are some that are so well established in their problem behavior that they are not fixable. Fixable is also a relative term as there are several factors that determine whether a problem horse has actually changed their behavior permanently.

If you have a young horse that is essentially a clean slate you are in a fortunate position. You are capable of creating and directing behavior patterns that the horse will live his life by. This is a big responsibly and one that should not be taken lightly. Many young horses are spoiled by inexperienced hands. It is not the inexperience itself that causes this but a lack of understanding of how horses learn and often input from other horse people offering bad advice although given with the best of intentions or good advice taken out of context. When this advice is received by inexperienced handlers they are not able to tell whether the advice is valid. Mistakes are made and not resolved and this leads to horses developing resistant or evasive behavior because they know their handler does not know how to get what they are asking for.

If we can understand why horses behave the way they do we can start to notice problems before they are developed. This is best accomplished by studying your horse. If you pay closer attention to your horse when interacting with him he will tell you all you need to know. How does he react when you ask him to do something? He will ignore you, challenge you, anticipate what you are asking for, respond correctly or run away from you. Which response you get should indicate what you need to change if anything. Maybe you need to be more difficult to ignore, or be less predictable, maybe more confidant, or more assertive, possibly more sensitive? If you try a different approach it might be enough to change the response you are getting for the better. If you teach good habits you won’t need to fix bad ones.

If you have a horse that is already established in his poor behavior you will have a tougher job. Remember that your horse is not bad rather he behaves badly. There is a difference. Before you can start to change things you need to determine a set of guidelines for you and your horse. Do not set unrealistic goals for either of you. Be prepared to consistently correct the behavior you don’t want and reinforce the behavior you do want. Inconsistent handling will not change problem behavior and will more likely reinforce bad habits rather than good ones. The beauty of horse training is that there are no set rules. If you are your horses’ leader you are allowed to make all the rules! Be disciplined, if you do not fix the things that go wrong every single time as they are going wrong they will never be right.

There are solutions for most problems. There are unfortunately several limiting factors that can slow or prevent progress. It has taken me many years to accept that I can not help them all. The older the horse is the harder to change his behavior. The quality of the early training the horse has to fall back on. If he had a good start he will often remember with a little help how he is expected to behave. If he has been abused he may be very difficult to help. Mental trauma has a way of building walls around what a horse has left of his true personality. These horses are sometimes unwilling to accept our offers of help. These horses need special sometimes extreme measures to get through to and are not for the inexperienced handler. Love and gently handling will not always get through to them.
Some horses are just plain mean. Just like people there are a few bad apples. No amount of training will discourage this type of horse. If you feel you may have a truly bad one get a few trusted opinions before you decide what to do.

Economics is the last limiting factor in changing behavior that I want to mention. Is your horse worth what he might cost you to try and change him into a horse you can enjoy? There is the emotional cost also to think about. Are you prepared for disappointment if the money runs out before he is reformed? What if he is beyond salvage? There are no guarantees in life or horse training. We all have the occasional disappointment. Given enough time (possibly years) I believe that they are all fixable but that brings us back to the limiting factors for changing behavior.

Most horses will respond positively to remedial training. The handling he will get when he returns to the environment where the behavior was established will dictate how long he remains well behaved. If the handler is not part of the solution, the problem behavior will likely return. It is important for the handler to understand the remedial training and continue it or the time money and emotion involved in the process may be wasted. To quote Ray Hunt “they live what they learn and they learn what they live”

Does your horse need a job or a vacation?

What does your horse do for a living? Does he need a change from your routine to keep him mentally fresh and physically rested or does he need a challenge mentally and physically to make him safe to be around? For this article I will concentrate on horses that are constantly working and horses that are never working. Both of these scenarios can be detrimental to the horses’ mental and physical well being. Horses can get bored, physically tired and sore; they may not enjoy their routine and develop problems because of this. Some horses need miles and not training while others need training time rather that just riding time.

Many people that own horses feel obligated to ride or work with them nearly every day. I agree that as horse owners we have a responsibility to interact with our horses. But we get days off from our jobs to rest and relax, I think that horses need the same. Horses as highly intelligent animals get bored easily. If a program is too routine they will lose interest and will start to fly on auto pilot. A program should be systematic not routine! A horse that does nothing except eat will get bored because they have nothing to do. They can become difficult to manage just because of a lack of handling and they have too much time to think up ways to get in trouble.

When horses work too much they can become physically fatigued. A sore or tired horse will not perform well and run the risk of injury. If your horse is tired he will not have the energy required to learn what it is you are trying to teach him. A horse has a finite amount of energy and if you use it all up physically there is not enough left mentally. He needs a vacation! The horse that never works runs the same risks but for different reasons. He is likely soft and fat and not fit. He will have no stamina due to the lack of exercise. He could injure himself because he has no muscle tone and he will not be as responsive as he could be because he is not expected to do much. This horse needs a job!

When horses are ridden are you training them or just putting on miles? I think that there needs to be a balance between the two. If the horse has an issue or is unsafe to ride he needs training time. If the horse is well trained and needs something different to do to keep him fresh then a few miles might be just what he needs. Paying attention to your horse and how he responds to the things you do with him should help you decide what is best for him. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. Or maybe a rest is as good as a change?

Whether a vacation or a job is needed for your horse it is important to use both of these in moderation. If you just turn your competitive horse out he will lose fitness, but a few days off might not hurt. Horses that are used a lot often like working and they do need to keep their job, it is just important to give them a mental and physical break from time to time. If you can keep them interested in what you are doing they will be more capable of dealing with the daily stress of training.
If your horse has been on an extended vacation you can run into them resenting gainful employment. The lack of training or riding time will show when they start back to work. They will often need some training time before they are fit enough for any amount of riding and you will likely need to regain some of the control both on the ground and in the saddle that you may have had before they got laid off their last job. If they have never had any job start slow and assume they know less than they do. This will help you find the holes in the training that need filled in before they are employable

Finding a balance between stressful training and relaxing riding can be difficult. If you are prepared to adjust how you ride or train to help your horse he will appreciate it. You in return will get the benefit of a happier horse.
© 2005 Will Clinging

Fight or Flight.

It is not uncommon for a trainer to say that the horse is a “flight animal” that is a simple enough concept but how do we deal with this instinct?
Most Horses use flight as their primary defense mechanism. Fight in usually their secondary instinct for survival. When faced with danger or perceived danger a horse will instantly run away. There is no thought process that triggers this. In fact there is no thought process at all when in flight mode. A horse will essentially run blind with no regard for personal safety as long as he can escape and survive.
When we train our horses we can use this to help the horse learn. By giving the horse the option to move his feet he can think about what we are asking him. The key is not to make them stand still – it is to control where they go as deliberately as possible. The slower a horse is moving the more capable he is of processing information.
When he can move his feet he knows that he can utilize his flight instinct if he feels too threatened. As long as the option is available he can deal with the stress he is faced with unless it becomes overwhelming.
If he cannot move his feet when stressed he will feel he has no other option but to fight. This secondary survival reaction varies from kicking, biting, striking, and pulling back to bucking, bolting, freezing up, or throwing themselves down. Essentially they will do whatever it takes to stay alive. They feel cornered and these secondary instincts can be very sincere in their delivery.
There are some horses that have a stronger fight instinct than flight instinct (in these horses it is important to encourage as much movement as possible). Stallions, alpha mares, some ponies, or horses that are very self confident can be less flighty than most geldings and less dominant or less confident horses.
If you think your horse is a fighter not a runner you do need to approach them differently than an average horse. They are often more stubborn and need to be approached with more patience. They are often likely to be slow to accept new concepts. Although they may not be as willing to learn once they do accept something they will have little trouble with it again. These horses need more persuasion and less coercion. Often we need to slow down and expect less from them to encourage more effort and less resistance.
The horses that are inclined to fight can be a little less predictable until you are more familiar with the horse’s tolerance level. They will only accept so much before they decide they will challenge what you are asking of them. They need to know that you are a mentally strong leader that will be fair. It is important not to directly pick a fight unless you are prepared for your horse to accept your request. They are happy to oblige but may resent you if the situation does not have a satisfactory result. Once you have a bolder horse convinced that you are worthy of his respect he will likely be a very reliable horse.
Horses whether they are inclined to run or fight otherwise learn in basically the same way. They will both anticipate punishment if not enough emphasis is not placed on encouraging them to be correct. When we can help them be correct in the first place they will not need to be constantly corrected. If your horse is too quick to run away or to fight it is probably something you caused. Be critical of your own actions so you do not force your horse to instinctively protect themselves. Changing the way you cue your horse may be enough to keep them from getting confused or frightened. Present yourself so your horse can respond comfortable, not so they react defensively.
It is important to study your horse and his behavior patterns. He is constantly telling you how he feels. When you understand how your horse thinks, learns and reacts you will be more capable and prepared to help him be the horse you want.