Spook Busting

I ride Arabs. And much as it pains me to admit it, since I love Arabs, they can be a little bit spooky.  Not all of them, and not all the time. But they are definitely not dull horses.

Consequently, I do spend some time working out spooking issues. I’ve been reading a lot of training books lately, and watching the occasional video too. I really enjoyed this particular series of videos on spook training from Jason Webb, who is an Australian trainer now based in the UK. His specialty is starting young horses.

It’s a very quiet, methodical set of strategies that starts on the ground, and then moves on to ridden work.




Dressy has been showing signs of problems with her teeth over the last few days. Crossing her jaws, wadding hay, and most alarming of all, her face swelled up quite badly. So when Kathy, our dentist/vet came today, I was expecting her to find work to be done in Dressy’s mouth.

Once she got in there though, there wasn’t anything serious. Just some sharp edges and evidence that Dressy had bitten her cheek on one side. She’s a very thin-skinned and sensitive mare, despite being tall, dark, and imposing. So I guess that’s what the swelling was about… biting her own cheek.

After Dressy, we brought out McCool. I figured we’d find some work to do in his mouth too, although he hasn’t really shown any overt signs of discomfort. But in fact, he had a lot more nasty stuff going on than Dressy had. Most of his teeth were razor sharp, and he has scarring and divots all the way up the inside of both cheeks, and was only able to grind in one direction. He must have been quite uncomfortable. He’s probably never had his teeth done in his life.

Although I’m not exactly happy that McCool had so many problems in his mouth, it’s nice to be able to identify things that can be fixed.  It pays to go through a checklist of all the various possible pain issues a horse can have before you blame bad behaviour on a bad temperament.

McCool was quite cooperative about the whole process. He’s a sweetheart to handle.






McCool on Trail

A friend and I took Diego and McCool to the Vivian Forest today. McCool has been very good under saddle so far. But this was a little more of a test. Since he came from the stockyards, via a dealer, there’s very little history on him. All I know is that he was occasionally very difficult on trail. So Chrystal came over and we loaded up the two horses.

First though, I had to convince the Ladies to vacate the the horse trailer…

Evicting the Ladies.
Evicting the Ladies.


It suddenly occurred to me on Monday, while planning this outing, that a little trailer loading practice might be in order for McCool, before I tried to take him anywhere (Yep, I’m a genius).  My trailer is an old four horse head-to-head. So the first few loading sessions can be confusing for a horse. They have to walk in, turn, and then back into a stall. With a couple of days of practice, McCool was loading quite nicely. He’s very calm about things, so it’s just a matter of teaching him what to do. And convincing him that it’s a good idea. He doesn’t panic or fuss. Just politely declines if he disagrees. Patience and some clicker training, and he now loads right up.

He stands quietly in the trailer, and although he looked interested in his surroundings when we arrived in the parking lot at the forest, he was not at all alarmed.  We tacked up and headed out. Chrystal on McCool. She started laughing right away. She’s a forward kind of rider. And, zoom! McCool is a forward kind of horse. They trotted out of the parking lot. Trotted down the trail. Cantered down the trail. McCool didn’t spook at a thing. His ears were up, and he was travelling on very steadily. Bold as brass. He’s way faster than Diego. Holy cow.  I had to beg for mercy, since Diego was not at all interested in doing that speed (in fairness, Diego has a fresh cut on a hind leg… I think he was a bit sore).

Partway through the ride though, we ran into McCool’s issue (hopefully there is only one). He started hiking his hind end going down a hill. We slowed down and took stock. He swishes his tail, pins his ears, and hikes on every downhill. Hmmm.  Saddle fit seems likely. He’s fine on the flat and going up hills (in fact, I’d say that he’s a born endurance horse… so he’s better than just fine!). But on the downhills he very consistently gets grumpy and difficult. Chrystal got off and led him down any bigger downhills and got him to walk slowly down the smaller ones and that seemed to work okay. The aussie saddle has long flaps, and on some horses it will pinch a bit behind the shoulder if the saddle slides forward. And it did look like it might be doing that on him.

When we got back to the trailer, we checked him over.  He has a knot on his left side just behind the scapula. And it’s substantial. He’s reactive (flinchy) to hard pressure there, and enjoyed the massage (Chrystal is an equine massage therapist). So my operating theory now is that he had a serious saddle fit issue in his past.

I’ve ridden him at home in the Aussie, but not going down hills. And I’ve ridden him at home in the treeless, and he went down hills fine in that. So maybe just switching saddles will help. But he also acted like this in a Reactor Panel saddle that the dealer was using. So I think he needs body work as well. Massage, stretching, and/or chiropractic.  Chrystal says his shoulders are both tight.

The dentist comes tomorrow to look at all the horses’ teeth. I think he’s got something going on in his mouth, since he’s clunking in one direction when he chews. So if that gets sorted out, it may also help. He seems to be worth putting some time and effort into 🙂

I neglected to take pics on trail, but here they are right after they got home. Sigh.  Grey horses. 

Grey horses. Perennially filthy.
Grey horses + wet clay soil = Yuck.





Ana and I have been working with McCool every day over the last week, and Ana rode him for the first time on Friday. I rode McCool myself yesterday. He was a good boy. But I must say, I’m getting old. I really don’t enjoy that first ride on a horse that I don’t yet fully trust. When I was younger, I’d hop on any horse and just go with the flow. McCool has not been at all difficult. But he was good for his previous owner too and then after a couple of rides, gave her trouble. Particularly with any sort of repetitive work (he got balky and cranky). So I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I always wear a helmet of course. But I put on my crash vest too, which helps the confidence a little. 

Riders and horses have to learn to trust each other. It sort of goes back and forth, from rider to horse, and back again, building on successes.  That’s why ground work is important. Not so much because the horse is being trained to perform a particular action. But because the horse is learning to trust that this particular human is going to be clear, patient, and consistent, so they can let down their guard and learn. And at the same time the human is learning how the horse reacts to cues,  what is likely to trigger problems, and how to help the horse to relax and focus. It takes me longer to trust a new horse, and to trust that my own skills are sufficient now that I’ve been humbled by a few horses over the years.

I’ve done a lot of groundwork with McCool in the last week. I go out several times a day and do short sessions with him, and Anastasija generally does one session in the evening as well.  You can eliminate a lot of variables using groundwork. But in the end, the only way to know how a horse will respond to being ridden, is to actually ride them.  Ana does not have time to ride him every day, because she ponies (leads fractious racehorses from the back of another horse) at the track in the afternoon on racing days. So if McCool is going to get regular sessions, we have to share the task.

First, I got on him in the round pen and worked on responsiveness to cues. Bending, circles, changes of direction, etc. I taught him the basic one-rein stop. At least the beginning of it. He was very quick to pick it up. Took only a few tries on each side before he was touching my boot at a light lift of the rein. So perhaps he’s been taught that at some point in the past. 

His backing is good, but a bit dull. So I really focused on the lightest rein cue possible and then throwing the reins the moment he softened backwards. Exaggerating the release as much as possible. I wasn’t even asking for a step, just a shift to the rear. And within a few minutes he was flowing backwards in a much nicer, soft reverse with a low head and hind legs underneath him.

He doesn’t seem to understand leg aids very well. But he is very soft-mouthed. Although I didn’t test it much, I did think he was just slightly goosey about my right leg. So I will do some body work on him to see if he has a rib out or something.

Veronica tacked up Ella while I was working in the round pen. And once she was ready, we went out for a short ride around the farm. All we did was walk. I just wanted to let McCool look around and see what his attitude was about it all. I was going to tuck him in behind Ella, but he thought she was much too slow, and went out in front. He marches right along, looking at stuff with interest. We went back, past Aunt Sue’s house, and around the back field, which borders on the golf course next door. He peeked curiously through the trees at golfers and golf carts.

Ella crowded up on his behind at one point, and McCool backed up and hopped a couple of times to warn her. He didn’t connect, but he definitely told her off. While it’s not good behaviour on McCool’s part, it really looks good on Ella, who is very rude with her hind feet. I didn’t get after McCool too strongly, just warned him verbally and moved him along. He didn’t threaten again, but then he didn’t need to. Ella was quite a bit more respectful after that.

When we got to the back corner of the field, there was suddenly the CRACK! of a golfer hitting a ball just on the other side of the tree line. McCool startled slightly and looked over his shoulder. “Holy cow!” he said, “what the heck was that?”  Ella had also startled a little bit and rushed forward. So McCool decided that maybe he’d walk behind Ella for safety. That didn’t last long though, because Ella was still too slow.

As we came back up the big hill, and big flock of turkeys wandered out into the driveway in front of us. I wasn’t sure if McCool saw them, because he didn’t react at all. So I sort of pointed his nose at them to make sure. He walked faster. Hmmm. Yep. He saw them. He dropped his head a little bit. Walked faster. The turkeys rushed off the side of the driveway. He turned his head and watched them. I think the little beggar was thinking of chasing them.

At the top of the hill, I was going to turn into the barn. Nope. McCool was exploring the farm. He wanted to go all the way to the mailboxes (about a quarter mile round trip). So we marched on down. McCool was asking to trot. Fairly politely, but he did want to go faster. I didn’t clamp down, but just brought him back to a walk. “Well, okay” he said, “but I’m WILLING to trot, just say the word!”

At the mailboxes, we stopped and watched traffic for a few minutes to see how he reacts to cars. But he seemed to have no concerns. He was kind of interested in heading out into the great blue yonder. But I am not ready to take him that far yet. There’s still that little voice in the back of my head warning me that he has caused some trouble in the past. Young, sound, well-broke horses don’t usually end up at the stockyards if they’re perfect gentlemen. But each little success is a building block.

Oh, and lest anyone think McCool is actually a PERFECT gentleman… he decided yesterday morning that being quarantined in a round pen was not to his liking any longer. So he moved out. Right through a panel of hemlock boards. They are in shards on the ground now. And McCool is living in the main pasture with the rest of the herd. [All except for Ares, who as usual wants to kill the new guy. So Ares is living in the barn yard while McCool works out the politics in the main field. ]




Meet McCool

So, I am not quite sure how this happened. But there’s a new guy here on the farm. His name is McCool. He’s an 8 year old Arab who had nearly run himself out of chances in life.

He came off a rental string somewhere up north, and ended up at the stockyards. He had no name, no papers, and very little history. Someone spotted him, bought him, and had him delivered to a dealer who tried him, and found him occasionally balky and a bit difficult. So she (not having the time or the inclination to work through those sorts of issues) was going to send him to auction. Canter On Equines, the rescue that found Wise Affair, sort of talked me into buying him to give him another chance.  I brought him home Saturday evening.

All week I’ve been trying to come up with a name for him. We tried and discarded quite a few. But McCool (after Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the Irish mythical hero) is finally the one that stuck. McCool is a confident, cool guy. He doesn’t fuss about being separated from other horses, is not easily startled, and is a smart as… well… smart as King actually. In fact he reminds me rather remarkably of King. Even in looks. Though McCool is smaller than King at 14.3hh.

Anastasija is helping me with him. She’s been ponying at the racetrack lately in addition to her regular job as a groom, and her riding skills are coming along well with all the extra practice. Not to mention that she’s young and energetic (and has no recently broken body parts). After doing groundwork with him all week, Ana had a short ride today after his lungeing session. Just walk/trot in the round pen. It was incident-free, and he got tons of praise and scratches. All of which he loved, since he is a seriously friendly guy.

It seems likely that he got sour as a rental horse. I am hoping that with consistent training and lots of positive reinforcement, he’ll enjoy his work a little bit more, and maybe we can find him a new, permanent home. He seemed pretty cheerful today anyway. So it’s a good start.

Click on the images to see full-size versions…


On the Buckle

I don’t seem to have had too much to write about lately. But I did have a nice moment with Diego on Sunday. Was riding in the Vivian with friends. One of the horses was green. Really very green. He bounced around on the trail like a pinball, careening from side to side.  So we tucked him in behind Diego, and Diego just ambled along the trail on a loose rein. Whenever Indy (the wild child behind us) got too ambitious and tried to careen past us, I asked Diego to step over and block. Which he did with perfect aplomb.

Diego really doesn’t have confidence in the lead. But he also walks really fast. So he slows down until the horse behind passes, then gets impatient and passes again when he discovers that horse is too slow.  I ask everyone who rides with me to tell me when they want to pass, so that I can ask Diego to slow up… as opposed to allowing Diego to make his own decisions about it all. On Sunday he only tried it a couple of times and then just marched along out front the rest of the day. So I think his confidence is coming along nicely.

Riding Diego in the Vivian Forest
Riding Diego in the Vivian Forest… Veronica and Ella ahead of me.

Veronica and Ella spent most of the day riding drag (at the back of the line). It’s safer that way, since Ella has not yet learned the “no kicking other horses” rule (actually, I think she knows it… she just hasn’t accepted it quite yet). But it’s really her only flaw. She is rock steady on trail. Veronica’s confidence has blossomed this summer, riding that mare. They are becoming a very good team. 

At one point we let Indy lead for a while to see how he coped. I think that little gelding would’ve gone off alone perfectly happily. One of these days, he’s going to make a terrific little endurance horse.  Unfortunately though, going down a very steep downhill, in deep sand, with quite a bit of erosion, there was a tack incident. Stirrup and breast collar somehow tangled, and the resulting chaos sent Indy off trail… cartwheeling downhill. Indy got loose and galloped off, with his buddy, Zoe, following a bit too fast for her rider’s comfort. 

Diego and I watched all this in wide-eyed horror. I decided that a cavalry charge down a steep sandy hill was not in anyone’s best interest, and asked Diego to walk. He tucked his behind under him, and carefully walked down. No fussing or rushing. Ella was following safely behind us (Ella never thinks rushing is a good idea). He stopped at the bottom and stood calmly on a loose rein while Indy galloped off in all directions for a few minutes before his brain re-engaged and he elected to return to his rider.  

During all this chaos, a large, obnoxious woman on a Percheron bellowed unhelpful instructions to slow down and demanded to know where our trailers were (my friend finally lost her temper and told the woman to mind her own business). It turned out that Zoe’s bridle had come partially undone, so that’s why her brakes stopped working. And both Indy and his rider were fine.  In fact I think the rest of us were a lot more shaken up than either of them. The large woman went off in a huff, informing us that we should not call her if we ever needed help. Sigh.

I really do not enjoy that sort of craziness. It’s not good for the horses or the riders’ confidence. But it was a bit of a test, and Diego (and Ella) passed with flying colours. He’s getting steadily more confident, quieter, and much more responsive to leg and rein. It is nice to feel like you are riding the most reliable horse in the crowd 🙂

Genius Pony

So… it’s kind of amazing really. But Venice has gone through something of a sea change in the last couple of weeks. She is now learning very quickly.

There is still a ton of work to do of course. She is very head shy, so I have to be very slow and deliberate when I’m clipping a lead shank to her halter. And I cannot touch her face yet. It’s okay if she makes the choice to touch me (and she does that often). But it must be her choice. The pressure is too great if I reach towards her. But I can touch her cheek now, and can take hold of the halter by the throatlatch. So there is progress on that front too.




She is leading much more reliably now, and has not startled away or tried to bolt for a week or two. I can draw her towards me and back her away (either with a touch to the chest, or just by walking into her space).

In the last couple of days, she has learned several voice cues… “walk”, “trot”, and “whoa”. Trot and whoa seem to be solid already. The walk cue is a bit harder, but it’s obvious she understands it, she just has a bit more energy than is optimal for a walk and sometimes breaks up to a trot, especially when she’s a bit tense.

Her circles to the left are excellent. Round, relaxed and forward. She keeps her focus tightly on me, no matter what else is going on. Her inside ear is locked on all the time. She is soft, light, and nicely bent.




Her circles to the right are more difficult for her. But they have improved tremendously, and are now mostly round. She’s not totally relaxed, and so is not going freely forward yet (though markedly better each day). But she is moving on as long as I encourage her periodically. And even though she’s unsure going to the right, she’s still very focused on me, and responds to to the voice cues.



She is really a little darling!

Venice’s Papers are Reinstated

So the DNA tests have come back, and Venice has had her registration papers reinstated. She is who she is supposed to be. Sire and dam are both correct. The breeder had sent in hair samples from her full sister instead of Venice. So once I sent in a new sample, it sorted everything out. It also sorted out Venice’s daughter’s registration, since she’d had her registration denied (that’s how this all started… when Savannah’s owner tried to register her). The registry is mailing the papers out.

I haven’t done much with her lately. Last week was too hot, and I was not so energetic after Flesherton. But today I had a short little session with her to get her training back on track. She is a very soft little mare, now that we are past being panic-stricken all the time. Extremely responsive even (which is the silver lining of over-the-top reactive). She is more and more willing to take a carrot from my hand, so I hope to start clicker training with her soon. But so far, the risk of taking food from a human hand is more risk than reward for her.

Here’s a few seconds of video from today. Her dapples are not really visible, but I think the gorgeous metallic gleam of her coat sort of comes through. She’s not very big, but she’s got the trot of a much bigger horse. So with the trot, the brilliant light bay colour, and all the chrome, she’s pretty flashy isn’t she? Just don’t look at her feet too closely since they are dreadfully in need of a trim. They are starting to chip off now that she’s getting more turnout though.

Circles and Inside Turns With Venice

Going slow is really hard. I’ve been inching along with Venice, trying not to scare her timid little soul into panic mode ever since she arrived. And sometimes, I just want to completely overwhelm her and force her to accept human contact. More than likely, if I hadn’t broken my elbow, I would have lost patience somewhere along the way. Knowing that I didn’t have the strength to engage in any kind of battle with a horse has prevented that. But it didn’t prevent a whole lot of self-doubt and worry that I was never going to progress with her.

Lately though, there has been a change in Venice. She’s initiating contact with everyone, not just me. She has been reaching out to touch people when they have their backs turned to her. Lately, she’s been reaching out even when they are facing her. She’s learned to take treats (carrots mostly) from quite a few different people.

I can walk directly up to her in the stall and touch her shoulder. After a few minutes of rubbing her neck and talking to her, I can snap a lead shank to her halter. She leads quite easily and softly, but if something startles her, she bolts. I use a 22 foot line and gloves so that I can stop her if that happens.

Yesterday, I started working on circles. I used the 22 foot line, but no stick or whip of any kind. She’s extremely reactive, so all I have to do is raise my hand slightly to send her with energy. The first send was actually more of a controlled bolt. Because I spent so much time working with her at liberty, teaching her that I would remove pressure if she turned to face me, that’s become her default behaviour. When in doubt, turn to look at the human. That really worked in my favour for the circling exercise. She initially panicked when I sent her to the right, but hit the end of the line and turned immediately to face me (wide-eyed and snorting). I told her she was a good girl (she recognizes that as praise) and she took a deep breath and blinked at me. I let her stand for a moment, then sent her again. She semi-bolted again, but this time in more of a circle to the right (or maybe a triangle, but close enough). As soon as I dropped my driving hand (my left hand) and turned slightly away, she stopped and turned towards me. I told her she was a good girl and she stepped towards me (again, something that I have taught her… if she steps towards me, I will take pressure off her. NOT something I’d have taught King or Dressy!)

Yesterday’s session was pretty good, and she showed some progress. After I got two sort of oval-ish circles, I called it a day and turned her loose.

Today though, she was a star. I guess she’d thought a lot about that lesson yesterday, because she responded instantly to my cues. She was circling beautifully, at a trot, with her head down and eyes soft. I never asked for more than two full circles before halting her and telling her what a genius she was and giving her neck a rub. After a few minutes of that, I decided to try her bad side. It took a months before I was even allowed to look at her left side. So I was expecting circles to the left to be considerably harder for her. She definitely spooked when I asked for it. But settled after only about two repetitions. She’s a bit more lateral – her hind end was scribing a much larger circle than her front end. But she understood what I was asking and was not terror-stricken.

Within a few minutes, I had her doing quite credible inside turns on cue. So I could send her to the right for half a turn, then switch hands, lift my right hand and have her come around and circle back to the left with no hesitation at all. And I really think, for the first time, that she was pleased with herself and aware that she was accomplishing something. She looked at bit smug by the end of the session. The first signs of real confidence.

For the last week or so, it’s finally felt like Venice is calm and confident enough to actually learn. She’s starting to think about what I’m asking her, instead of trembling and fleeing madly at every new movement or noise. And as a result, I’m seeing noticeable changes in her every day.


My farrier is very ill, and will not be back to work anytime soon. Generally, I have him come every six to eight weeks, and do my own trimming in between. It keeps me from getting too far behind, especially on the horses I’m not riding regularly. But between him getting sick, and my broken elbow, they’ve been getting a little behind this year.

So I got to work trimming Diego’s feet yesterday. He’s very prone to long toes and underrun heels. Over time, if he’s not kept trimmed really regularly the whole foot capsule tends to drift forward. And when it does, he’s quite trippy. He wasn’t actually too bad, since I’m highly motivated to trim him (trippy horses can be a little scary to ride). Even so, his feet look a lot better after a concerted effort to bring the toe back. I’ve beveled it quite strongly, which has brought the entire hoof angle into a better line. The bevel also gives him a better breakover, and he doesn’t trip. I still have to do the hind feet, since my arm gets tired and sore easily. But I will just pick away at it as I can manage.

After trimming though, I realized that I really have to deal with his reluctance to pick up and/or keep up his feet. Prying his feet off the ground is not ideal. And he has one hind that he doesn’t like to keep up in the air for too long (he needs chiro work – he also travels a bit crooked behind and drags hind toes). Today I did some clicker training with him to get him picking up his feet nicely. He sure changed his tune in a hurry. I had to pry each foot up and click/treat. Then pry it up again and click/treat. And then magically… “Here! Have my foot!” It was interesting that it was exactly twice with each foot before he got it that there would be a reward coming along for co-operation.

As always, there are unexpected benefits from this sort of training. Veronica and Anastasija wanted to go for a ride and were getting their two horses ready. I took Diego out and tied him to the trailer (where my tack is stored). He’s herdbound, so he always finds it stressful to be tacked up out of sight of the other horses. This time, he was rather mellow from all the clicker training. And after tying him, I repeated the foot pick-up exercise. He focused and relaxed, not thinking about the other horses at all. And that relaxation stayed with him right through the tacking up and mounting. I haven’t done a huge amount of clicker work with him, since he’s never been overly food-motivated (nothing like King!). But he seems a bit more interested in it lately.

We had a quiet relaxed ride, with no incidents other than the horde of mosquitoes that tried to carry Ana off for lunch. I wasn’t complaining really. They seemed to find her much more tasty than me 🙂