Typical Training Session

A typical lesson lasts two to two and half hours. It starts with a discussion, usually while the handler and I walk to wherever the horse is kept. The discussion centers around what has been going well since the last lesson. I like to start with what’s going well because in the end that’s what we’re here to do, make progress and celebrate it. As the horse is prepared in whatever way the owner sees fit I take the time to observe the horses behavior and the interaction the handler has with it. I try to just take a mental note but not intervene. I want to see what is really going on without my influence on the horse or rider. During this time I try to sit off to the side and just carry on conversation with the handler. Building a relationship where we can trust each other is just as important as the horse and handler building a good relationship.

Once the horse is ready and we’ve figured out what is going well, I’ve got a good idea of our basic plan for the day. The next step is to head to arena where we’ll be doing our work for the day. With any luck we’ll start at liberty in the round pen. I always want to do a quick check on how the horse and handler are interacting without any lines attached. Once a horse has been in training with me for several weeks this is a quick check, just a few minutes similar to a preflight before an airliner takes off.


I’ll use this time to talk about what might not be going well. There’s usually something that isn’t going quite the way the handler would like. We can usually use an exercise to test the problem and find out exactly where the hole in the training is. I’ll then work this into the lesson plan and we begin the formal training for the day. Where we go from here is dependent on the level of the training but will usually begin with ground work. We’ll move however fast or slow the hors requires and then move into the new maneuvers. I find it easiest to first explain the task and then demonstrate it slowly before asking the handler to perform whatever it is we’re working on. From here I can make suggestions and recommendations or corrections. When the handler is comfortable with the lesson we can move on to the next task.


At the end of the lesson we’ll go over what the handler will work on until our next meeting and talk over the progress from today’s lesson. I like to stay through the “putting away” process. But this time rather than just observing I’ll bring up anything I notice. We work these changes into the exercises we’ve already planned. I like to end the day as we put the horse away, talking about how the handler is feeling about the lessons. I always want to make sure that they are feeling like we’re covering enough ground, and working on what they feel is important. I also want to give them one more chance to ask any questions they haven’t gotten to.

Being Boss Mare

One of the hardest lessons when training horses is learning to be the boss mare. The boss mare is the leader of the band. She is who the other horses look to for direction and what she says goes. Occasionally others will test her, but ultimately they know exactly who is in charge. She isn’t mean, and she isn’t a tyrant. She is a well-loved member of the band who can elicit a full on gallop in any direction with a look in her eye and a twitch of her ears.


She is who we have to learn to be.


But being boss mare doesn’t happen overnight. It takes consistency, and some well-timed smacks on your horses’ rump. And just as important are some well-timed rubs between the eyes. Everything is a balance.


The hardest part of becoming boss mare is being willing to escalate your energy to meet our horses and prove that you are in fact the bigger badder person in the relationship. This is not an attempt to use fear to influence your horses behavior but instead it is how we gain respect. And from respect and fairness we gain love. Being a loved leader is the ultimate goal.


Becoming boss mare means that we have to be aware of our timing, we must be aware of our horses slightest try, and we must reward that try as fast as we possibly can. The faster our reactions and the better our timing the softer our horse becomes. When we are truly in boss mare role our horses get them benefit of being relaxed. After all there’s nothing to worry about if you have a good boss mare watching over you.

When is it too cold?

Here in the northwest one thing we deal with a lot is the cold. And for most of us that means our horses are out in the cold as well. So when is it too cold to work your horse? In Montana we tend to tough it out and use grit to make it through the winter. We put on layer after layer of clothing. We start with long johns and bundle up until we’re reminiscent of the Michelin man. Only then do we venture outside and even still the inside of our nostrils seem to fill with icicles the moment you step outside.


And then we start working. We get our heart rate up and we start to warm up. And before you know it we’re shedding layers like we’re in a sauna.


But what about our horses? They come with their own winter coat. And we can certainly bundle them up in blankets to keep them warm when they’re outside but training a horse in a blanket is not only hard, it’s often impractical or impossible. And since they have a thick winter coat most of the time we either look at clipping or keeping them inside so their coat stays short. This can cut down on their sweating but makes it harder for them to stay warm.


We also must consider where we will be working with our horse. If you have an indoor arena you can usually get away with pulling a horses blanket and putting them to work. But if it’s well below zero asking your horse to go to work in an outdoor arena where you’re both cold and miserable may not be the right decision. Add to that that a heated indoor arena can make a horse sweat and then catch a chill which poses its own problem.


The best advice is to ask yourself if what you’re looking to do has to be done that day, or if it can wait a day or two for the weather to improve? We might be willing to tough it out, but we can’t ask our horses if they are or not.


Go with your gut. If your horse is working hard and burning calories to stay warm, and you’re not looking forward to going outside, it’s perfectly ok to skip a training lesson and stay inside.