Category Archives: 2008 Articles

Personality profiling

When I start work with any horse I am never sure what I am faced with. In order to make my training time with that horse more efficient I need to know more about the horse’s personality. There are many factors that influence how teachable a horse may be. I use the first few sessions to help me put together an individual profile on the horse. In order to be accurate I have to look at any and all information I am given about the horse. Age, breed, past experience, the type of home he comes from etc. The owner’s personality will often help me out as well. Are they timid, aggressive, unsure of what they want, I can use this to help me understand if the horse has been over handled, allowed to get away with things, or left to his own devices. When creating a profile I try to remember that the horse’s genetics is only half of the equation. The environment the horse lives in or grew up in is the other half.

By this I mean you could take an exceptionally well bred horse and put him in a neglectful or abusive environment and he will never meet his potential because he has not had the opportunity to do so. Or on the other side you could have a Heinz 57 mutt of a horse and put him in a supportive, nurturing, environment and he may develop beyond what was ever expected of him because he was encouraged and allowed to.

When profiling a horse I then need to actually study what the horse is doing or how he is behaving without me adding any pressure at all. In a round pen I just let him go and watch what he does. I want to see is he is scared, acting threatened, behaving aggressively, running is circles trying to escape, is he trying to distract himself or is he paying attention to me. This will help me roughly establish a self confidence level or lack of self confidence level and a basic understanding of the horse’s threshold for stress and how they respond to that stress. Putting the horse in a strange enclosed environment with a strange handler can be very stressful for a young inexperienced horse. Or in the older horse how they respond may indicate poor past training or an anticipation of being worked a certain way.

I then want to see how he behaves when I do start to apply pressure. Does he get faster, slower, more distracted or more attentive? Does he get more expressive in his movements by kicking or rearing or bucking? This will help me judge the horse’s sensitivity levels and give me an idea about his desire for authority or need for leadership.

By controlling the horse’s movement I can also get an idea about his willingness to learn. Is he a confident horse that just wants to please, a scared horse that just doesn’t want to be hurt or a princess that just wants her own way? These are just three examples of how a profile will contribute to personalizing the approach I take to working with any horse. There are endless combinations of personality traits that if left unaddressed will affect the progress of the training.

I believe that there are three important parts to the training process, philosophy, approach and technique. Philosophy is the general intention about how results are achieved. For example natural horsemanship is a philosophy as is training through force and domination. Approach is how you present yourself when teaching. Do you come on strong and force an issue or do you work quietly and allow the horse time to work through his options. Technique is the specific teaching tool employed at any time. Technique is affected by approach and approach is affected by philosophy.

Philosophy is fairly constant but approach and technique must be flexible to achieve success. The more horses I work the more I believe in the necessity to modify any and all techniques based on the personality of the individual horse I am working. Being adaptable as a trainer is important. I have learned many things from many people and sometimes the technique just isn’t working the way it should. I try to adapt techniques that are fundamentally sound but just aren’t working. Sometimes by changing things it makes it easier for the horse to grasp the concept.

The horse personality will help me decide if I need to change and how if it is necessary. With the very withdrawn horse I may need to get louder or for the hyper reactive horse I may need to be smoother. I try not to over look anything about the horse when trying to figure out my approach. Things like facial expression, muscle tension, the comfort in how they move and the speed of departures and transitions all mean something. It is then trying to interpret what they mean in terms of training. A single gesture could mean many different things so it is important not to jump to conclusions. Look at the whole horse and even better SEE the whole horse. If what you are doing is not working do some research? Get too strong, get very quiet, move faster, move slower move smoother. Watch how the horse responds differently when you do something differently. If things change for the better you have successfully modified your technique. If things stay the same or get worse don’t quit, just keep changing. I am sure I have said this before but I will say it any way. The best piece of advice I was ever given about training horses was from Ray Hunt and he just said”think”.
&2008; Will clinging

The Green Horse; Confidence in Movement

When working with a green horse progress is not always consistent. The horse will plateau as he becomes confidant performing what he has been taught. How much we expect from the horse, his physical and mental ability to handle increased expectations for performance will be major factors in how quickly he improves. There are times when the horse can scare himself by doing something he did not fully understand. Movement can get bigger or faster than the horse is capable of handling with the level of training he has. The power that they have can get away from them and send them out of control. You could equate it to learning how to drive in a grand prix race car. An uneducated driver will not know how to handle the speed and sensitivity of the car, and will likely be out of control.

Riding a green horse should not be taken lightly. It is very easy to get beyond the horses and or the riders comfort level. Patience and preparation are very important to ensure every ride is successful. Success is a relative thing and should not be yet measured by correctness or performance. Success is building confidence and encouraging the effort to perform. Improvement is inevitable with effort, support and patience.

In practical terms, When I am working a green horse from the ground I am trying to prepare him for what I will ask him for later in the lesson when I ride him. I try not to jump too far ahead and teach maneuvers that he does not have all the tools to perform successfully every time I ask. For example if the horse I am riding only has a few rides I am still working at the walk. Eventually I want to have a comfortable canter. If I only concentrate on the canter and overlook more fundamental skills I may be able to get the horse to canter before he is prepared properly. The canter will not be of good quality. The departure will not be smooth, he may scare himself because he is off balance and I can not steer, or stop him because I overlooked developing the confidence and skills he needed to canter. What also happens is that the horse develops tension and anxiety while being ridden because he was not prepared for what happened.

If I can develop a nice forward walk, and work on the skills he needs to trot the transition to trot will be easy. The same is true from trot to canter. Forward, soft, straight, with comfortable transitions from walk to trot and back to walk, then canter is just around the corner.

A way that I evaluate the quality of the movement in preparation for an increase in movement is done on the longe line. In the early lessons I taught him how to longe in a basic way. Introducing the side reins and the concept of contact and straightness makes the longing more difficult. I try to encourage mechanical correctness as much as I can and evaluate the comfort in the movement more than the quality. If the transition from walk to trot is comfortable and he is comfortable maintaining the trot I will ask for canter. If things fall apart and he starts to race or bulge out or drop in excessively on the circle then the canter needs some work. I try to think to my self “would that feel comfortable to ride”? If my answer is no then I will not ask him when I am riding to do something that he can not do on the longe line.

Each ride should build on the last ride and lead to the next ride. I may work on the trot on the longe line for a couple of weeks before I ask for it under saddle. I should be able to give a specific aid and get a consistent response. Then when I ask under saddle I know what to expect from the horse and I am more likely to get a comfortable departure with a calm relaxed trot. It is much more important to have that consistence when going to canter. There should be no guess work if you want to have things work out the way you hoped. Actually if you are hoping it will work I will bet that the horse is not ready. You should KNOW that the horse is ready. This is a lesson that I have learned the hard way. Teaching the quality in movement on the longe line however slow is faster and safer than the weeks or month of trying to teach it to a scared horse after things have gotten out of control.
© 2008 Will Clinging

Riding the green horse- the first ride out

The longer that any horse spends in “training” the more monotonous the work can become. The rate the horse learns at is always changing based on how much you are trying to introduce or improve. If there is too much challenge in learning because we are teaching faster than the horse can learn the horse will start to tune out and stop improving. If we never challenge the horse to improve and let him get comfortable with what he knows for to long boredom will set in. With the green horse there is also a safety factor that is not always there with a schooled horse. If we do too much the potential for the horse to react violently is very real. To continue learning there must be a challenge to improve every day. How much improvement is different every day, but there must be some. There is a difference between teaching a new concept and improving a skill already taught. The hard part is to know when to ask for improvement and when to teach the next skill, and how much to expect from the horse on any given day. I am a big believer in allowing the horse enough down time to think about what he has done for us. I think it keeps them mentally fresher. Long term breaks are good but if they come too frequently we never get to enjoy the horse and what he can do for us.

A horse that is starting to have a difficult time learning or improving what he already knows but has had an extended period of time off may still need a break. Or maybe just a change would do. There are other ways to work the horse and allow him to use the skills he has developed. Getting out of the arena and trail riding or hacking around the barn may be just what’s needed.

The horse must be safe to take out of the arena or there is no point going out. Hacking or trail riding should be relaxing and casual. So a few days before I take a horse out I will start to prepare him so it is a good experience. On the first day I may work the horse as usual and instead of cooling him out in the arena I will then lead him around the farm just to show it to him. If he can take the place in and be curious and relaxed it is an indicator that there should be no problem. If he is freaked out by something I want to know about it before I am riding him. I ride by myself most of the time so I don’t have another horse to be there for him to follow. He must be prepared to take to the big bad world without much help. I may not take the horse too far depending on whether a change of scenery is interesting or terrifying.

The next day I will change my lesson a bit and try to work the horse as if we were on the trail. I will ride with slack in the reins, although not at the buckle. I will see how responsive the horse is with less support and guidance from me. Can I steer him, stop him and get him going as if he were a broke trail horse? If not then I either help him do so or cancel the field trip, (pardon the pun). At the end of the lesson I will again cool him out by leading him around the farm and go a little farther than the day before.

When I am confident with horse being able to put his training to work in a less mechanical mode and a more relaxed one I am ready to venture out. I will start my lesson as usual in the arena walk and trot around for only a couple of minutes. I want to take note of any environmental factors that could be an issue. I don’t want to protect my horse from scary things but being forewarned is being forearmed. Then I will head out at a casual walk and ride him as casually as I have been the past few days. I will head out on the same route that I have been walking in previous days so the surroundings are somewhat familiar and I won’t take him farther than we have already been. The ride should only take a few minutes and then I will head back to the arena. A few circles and then I will either put him away if I think that another circle is unwise or we will do another lap and then put him away. I will keep him at a walk the whole time we are out and I will let him stop and look around, especially if there is something that he is concerned about. I am not going to fight with him if he will not go past a particularly scary spot. I will get off and lead him past before we really argue and taint the whole experience. I try to remember that we are supposed to be relaxing not stressed. If he is too stressed then I will turn back and do some light work in the arena.

The point of all this is to expand his world and give him some down time during the training process. Building confidence out of the arena will help him become more reliable in less predictable environments. Don’t try to teach him anything when out on the trail, his mind is too occupied by where he is going to learn effectively and the ride will just become a fight. As Dominique Barbier would say “just listen to the birds”
© 2008 Will Clinging

The green horse; getting back to work

Getting back to work after some time off can be difficult. The holiday is never quite long enough so it’s nice to be able to ease back into the job. That is true of the horses that have had some time off. Several of the horses that I am presently riding have had a month off. They are mostly happy enough to go back to work but the first few days there is also reluctance to perform. How much training the horse had before having some time off plays a big role in how long it will take to get them back to the level they were at before their holiday started. They have not forgotten what was taught but it may or may not have become habit either. It is a matter of putting them through a condensed version of the starting process over again. This should only take a few days rather than weeks or months to re establish guidelines for behavior that I had been working on before the layoff.

When I start back I want to give the horse credit for what I know he knows, but I will expect a few things to be challenged by the horse. This challenge could simply be them re confirming what they thought I did or did not want. It is a time when I try to find out how much the horse really learned or how much he was simply coping with what he was expected to do. Often during a layoff the missing pieces of the various puzzles that we call training get found or assembled in the right order. This happens because of the reduced stress levels of the horse and decreased expectations that we have had during his time off have allowed him the time to process all the information I threw at him.

As I work with him I re touch specifically all the major points of training that the horse worked on. The authority will almost certainly need re confirmed; I just put him back in the round pen for a few minutes and get re acquainted.

Equipment shouldn’t really be an issue and I don’t make a lesson of it unless he tells me I need to. Any lesson that I work on that he has exaggerated difficulty with is an indicator that he may not have learned that lesson well enough in the first place. That means I will spend time on it now. If there is no real difficulty then I touch on it quickly and carry on.

Work in hand is important to cover to make sure the horse is still comfortable with contact from the bit. He should be able to perform the lateral work on the ground with relative ease. Moving forward with contact, bending to the inside and doing a turn on the forehand, and a turn on the haunches with him relatively straight and soft will remind him to pay attention to the bit.

Longing with the side reins loosened initially so I can help him remember to go long and low with light contact. I try to remember that the horse’s fitness level has changed for the worse. Muscle tone and strength need developed again so it is important not to force him into a frame that he may have been able to handle a month ago. Rhythm and balance won’t be as good as it was, and he may not be able to perform for as long until his fitness level increases.

I want to make sure that he will park next to the mounting block with little or no help and be able to stand quietly.
When he has accepted my authority again, is comfortable in hand and on the longe and he is willing to wait at the mounting block for me to get on I will start to ride him again. I usually allow a couple of days before I think about too much work under saddle. The first few days will be dictated by how comfortable and responsive he is. If he is apprehensive I will just ride him as if it were his first ride all over again. Things will quickly come back to him if he is not pushed. He may be in a fragile frame of mind for a few days as all the training comes rushing back to him. I like to keep the first few lessons short and sweet. Each day could be the equivalent of a weeks worth of sessions so I won’t try to teach anything new until I am confident that the horse is at least as good as he was before he got a break.
The horse once he has had a chance to get back into the swing of things is about ready to move into the next level of training. The basics are all falling into place and it won’t be long until he will be performing as a reliable horse that shouldn’t need to be treated as a youngster unless his age dictates that he needs more time to mature. It is the horse though that should decide when he is ready to go to more advanced levels of training. This should be a long, slow process with the learning curve not nearly as steep as it has been in his early fundamental training. If the horse is very young I would just continue to build his confidence at the level he is at for another month or two and then give him another month or two off. The older more mature horse should be able to handle longer periods of work before they get an extended break. As with everything in life balance is essential. If we can balance work and rest the horse will be happier for it.
© 2008 Will Clinging

Riding the green horse – When is it time for a break?

As I write this article I am sitting in the lodge at Sun Peaks ski resort. I am on holidays. I have been looking forward to taking a break for a while. Quite a while actually, as the rigors of work at and away from home take their toll on me mentally and physically. I could list a variety of aches and pains that haven’t healed because I don’t get much chance to get away and enjoy some rest and relaxation. This leads me to think about the horses I ride for a living. When do they get a break from the training that we so often impose on them? In the series of articles I have been writing about starting and riding the green horse I have shared a lot of information. This information depending on who is using it has been taught over a few days, weeks or months. Since I started this series the horse has come from being just halter broke to now being ready to start canter work. The approaches I have offered have been a methodical introduction of skills that build on the skill previously taught and are important to have for the skills yet to teach. The end result at this level is to have a horse that understands all that has been taught. This understanding of authority, responsibility, and mechanical dexterity should help develop a confidant, reliable horse.

Much of what I teach is much more mentally and emotionally challenging than physically difficult. There comes a point that we all reach when we are just plain tired of working and or learning. It can be detrimental to continue training until this mental and physical fatigue has subsided. The difficult thing to know is when we are getting close to the horses threshold for work or learning. This is often just a matter of paying close attention to small things you horse is telling you. Things like he is getting more difficult to catch, he is having trouble concentrating, he is making mistakes when normally he would not, is there a diminished effort on his part, is there more evasion or unwillingness in areas where he once tried his best?
The learning curve when we start the training process was very steep. It seems every session that the horse learns and accepts a noticeable amount of information. If you think of your horses mind as a glass of water, when we started it was almost empty, every day we add more water, some of this will be absorbed by the horse leaving room for more. If we start pouring information in faster than it can be absorbed the glass will spill over. When this happens we are often unaware and just keep pouring but the horse is already saturated. This information that spills out is lost. Now think of the horse with too much information as a jig saw puzzle, the lost information are lost pieces, he can assemble much of the puzzle but there are holes in it that he can not fill in. This causes confusion and incorrectness. Continuing to teach will not help the confusion and will just add to it.

Older more schooled horses can usually handle more work than a young green horse. Even they need time off to allow the mind and body to have a break. Training at any level is stressful, the higher the fitness levels the higher the expectation for performance. This expectation can become unrealistic even in schooled horses. Prolonged mental fatigue can lead to increased evasive behavior. This evasiveness can escalate into real problems, and some times a break can help change the pattern of behavior from continuing to get worse. The Problem may need addressed any way but it can be easier to deal with if the horse is fresh of mind and body.

When I was a full time cowboy I used to have six horses in my string. A “string” for those not familiar with the term is the group of horses that are reserved for a cowboy for his sole use while working for a ranch. Every cowboy will have his own string of horses that are usually owned by the ranch he works for. I would keep two to four horses in at any given time to be used for work. The reason behind this was that with two horses in the horse would only have to work every other day. As the days were long and the miles were many, fatigue would set in quickly. As a horse got mentally and physically fatigued he would be turned out with the ranch remuda, or herd to rest and recuperate. A horse could easily spend six month turned out before his turn in the rotation came up. Any young horses that went to work were only expected to do light duty and that might only last a few weeks before being turned out again. This meant that I always had horses that were mentally and physically fresh, and if they weren’t it was time to change.

Training is not easy at any level. It is especially not easy if the horse or horses we are working are tired. A horse can be tired of work or learning in a single lesson and then be tired or fatigued from weeks or months of lessons. If we want to have a long successful life of training with our horse it is important to take breaks and let them absorb the lessons we have taught. When ever you start to think about having a holiday you are probably tired of the routines of work or school. Your horse should deserve the same holiday. Don’t be afraid to give him some time off, it will only do him good. Give him credit for knowing what he has been taught, horses have memories like elephants, they don’t forget anything. Yes you may lose some fitness but you will gain a horse that is happier in his work.
© 2008 Will Clinging