Reflections on Z’s horse training

Perhaps one of the things that irritate me the most about the horse community is the rigid thinking. The idea that there is only one way to do something with horses and if you don’t do it your mentor’s way you are wrong, wrong, WRONG!

As I’ve told a certain friend several times, Z was bought as an experiment. I was still reeling from Pepper’s death and wanted to do something completely different – having a young horse, completely untouched, was that something new.

I was also going to try a pressure-free training system with her. I did this for 18 months, and honestly, it simply didn’t work. Z was an aggressive, dominant horse, who did not (and still does not), understand a gentle reminder to behave herself.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this idea could have worked perhaps with Brego, the half-Arab I once owned. However, it became clear to continue trying this experiment with Z was going to finish with someone being seriously injured. It’s not that I’ve suddenly “come to my senses” or “seen the light” – as I said from the very beginning, Z was an experiment in how I could train a horse and I wanted to see how far certain training methodologies would work and could be applied.

The one thing that did work with Z, but not quickly, was hours and hours, days and days of leading exercises as outlined in Klaus Hempflings’ book Dancing with Horses. This was not a quick method but was the safest and the most humane, and it became the most effective method to work Z those first 18-20 months (meanwhile, timewise I was also dealing with Tristan’s fractured pelvis, recovery and rehab when this was happening).

Clicker Training is very successful with Z. She doesn’t have a high food drive but it’s enough, and coupled with her curiosity and desire to be with people, quickly shapes behavior. This method will remain in the Training Toolbox.

I love the Masterson Method and I’ve seen already some real benefits in alleviating Z’s tight neck, specifically the right side. Equine Chiropractic work was also of great benefit to her and I want to find someone in our new town who can provide this for her come spring. I’ll also be adding some of the Core Stability Exercises by Hilary Clayton to the mix.

I tried out some Peggy Cummings Connected Work, and I just didn’t see the result I wanted. I’m not saying this isn’t a great method (I think for Tristan’ it would have been great work when I was re-training him), but with Z, I prefer the loose rein and Imitation work that Hempfling does. I may return to this next summer, when Z knows more about being engaged on a rein.

Sending Z off to the Dorrance-style trainer, RH, was a mistake and it wasn’t a mistake. I regret that she stayed there for as long as she did; 30 days would be what I would do now if I had to do it again. I will post (in a private protected post) more about why I consider this a mistake. The plus was that Z got used to a rider; the negative was that she came back with rattled nerves from being overfaced.

I feel the same about Rugby Guys’ riding work with Z. RG rode Z for me this spring, and while I think the first 45 days were good, the rest started becoming less and less productive. Primarily, IMO, this was because he was trying to use force to push her into work, and force with this horse pushed her into a defensive, tense state of mind and body. This too, should have been cut short, but I was beating myself up that she wasn’t actively in work, and I really, really didn’t like riding at WCS facility.

Ground driving continues to be helpful. I would really suggest that if you have any nervousness in the saddle, to learn how to ground drive your horse. Saturday, Z got very worked up and I was able to control and force her to get back into the right state of mind because I was on the ground and not at all intimidated. If I had been in the saddle, it might have been a different end result.

I will be upping our GD work by making her do it under saddle, and then adding obstacles. When I’m on the ground I can be more forceful with her, and, at the same time, observe body posture and behavior more readily. As we move into more and more saddlework, the ground driving will recede in importance.

My emphasis using Linda Tellington-Jones TTEAM will be on her under saddle work such as using obstacles (Labyrinth, Zig Zag, Star, platform) and her equipment (the Lindell Sidepull and the Balance Rein). I’ll be adding the mouth, nostril and ear work on a regular basis.

I’ve also returned to Bill Dorrance’s True Horsemanship book for some inspiration: controlling the feet especially due to Z’s No. 1 resistance to work which is BALKING! This is an entire post on it’s own as I find the book difficult to digest, as well as some of the photos (the roughness of some of the work) is so Cowboy-centric that it can be shocking what he feels is good interaction between horse and handler.

Since I haven’t been able to attend a Mark Russell clinic I’ve been going by inspiration rather then knowledge. The mantra of “relaxation” has really been singing around in my head when it comes to Z once I had my revelation that she is no way relaxed when being worked. You will read a lot in the next weeks and months about my idea that Z needs to be relaxed as the work progresses.

Achieving a Relaxed State is the cornerstone of how I will be approaching Z’s work.

Be sure to read a 2008 post about relaxation, tension and learning.

How will all this come together? Oh, it will. I’ve got a beautiful masterpiece in my mind of how Z is going to be brought along. Now if only SHE cooperates! LOL!


1.) Look for and reward relaxed states (physical and mental). Physical would be a lowered head, soft eye, using hindquarters for driving, as opposed to a high head, ewe neck, inverted back. Mental could be licking and chewing, soft mouth, snorting in a fluttering low tones. This is where Clicker Training, Imitative work, and releasing at the correct time can reinforce the desired state.

This type of work highly depends upon observation. You must really understand the appearance of the horse as it relates to their mental frame of mind as well as being able to zero in and instantly target desired behavior either with Clicker Training or releases.

2.) Transfer groundwork activities to under saddle, while shaping  a continued, relaxed state. Since Z becomes very tense once the saddle is placed, it’s important for her to learn that it’s no big deal. The same relaxed state given in liberty or leading work, can be done also with a saddle. I am expecting this to take the largest bulk of my time.

This will probably be as exciting as watching paint dry. But it must be done and done with an incredible amount of patience. Letting RH and RG ride and work Z has just increased her level of tension so I need to get her to release in order for us to move forward, literally and figuratively.

3.) Set boundaries and stay safe. Balking will no longer be worked around. It, as well as any attempt at kicking, will not be permitted. Z was totally shocked last week when she got a sound swat for attempting to kick me. The swat with the whip would have shocked many, but for Z all she gave me was a Look. She didn’t do it again though and so I stayed safe.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Z is too dangerous not to reprimand for this behavior. I offer this with no apologies.

4.) Strengthen and Shape Correct Posture. We’ve already returned to the Stand Square exercises, but this will also include the SeeSaw to load the Hindquarters by shifting weight backwards without moving feet to do so, and lifting the back.

The next two months will be busy ones despite the downturn in weather there is much we can do and will do to continue progressing.

This entry was posted in Bill Dorrance BD, Clicker Training, Core Stability Exercises, Ground Driving, Klaus Hempfling KFH, Linda Tellington-Jones TTEAM, Mark Russell RIL, Masterson Method MM, Z and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Reflections on Z’s horse training

  1. Patricia says:

    Your post here couldn’t have been timed better! I love the way you mix and match training techniques to fit a horse. You have a wonderful knowledge base. Why this post comes at a good time is that I’m just learning this lesson of mixing and matching techniques to a horse. I’m working with a mare and we have been struggling together trying to find what works for us. My initial problem was bucking at a canter and a resistant attitude. My colleagues told me I should ride through any negative behavior and force her to keep going until she behaved. I didn’t feel comfortable with this since I felt it would just bury my mare’s resentment only to resurface again later in a different way. Forcing her to “DO” something she wasn’t willingly wanting to do didn’t seem right. Where would the force end? Tying her down? Whips? What if she continued to resist or fight me? Should it really be a battle of win or loose where I must always win and she must always loose? Anyway that road didn’t seem right for me so I have experimented with various “methods”. Each time I found a method I would research it and implement it. Thinking “THIS” is what I need to be doing. THIS way is the answer. I realize now how wrong this is. My last effort really brought it to my attention combined with your post here. I recently started using CR’s waterhole rituals because I see the good in them in forming a strong “willing” relationship. My mare was visibly not willing and can put up a fight so these rituals seemed to be the answer. I especially like Carolyn’s definitions of a caring lead horse versus a dominate bully horse. Anyway after proceeding with the rituals 1,2,3 my mare is now biting aggressively and kicking out and not letting me saddle her because I think I let her have a stronger voice and an option to say no and walk away. She is a lead mare and not normally aggressive but very smart, opinionated and will try to lead or test her leadership. When I read that Z didn’t respond well to pressure free training and became aggressive … it was a wake up call. I need to correct this behavior before it gets worse but I really don’t know how or where to go from here. I feel like I’m really messing all this up. Can you explain more how you approached keeping Z inline. What should I do when my mare starts to nip. My thinking is to now do Klaus’s leading exercises but I don’t have any experience with Klaus so I’ll have to do some research. Also like you and Z I think I should look for states when she is relaxed and reward those relaxed states. Any thoughts or words of wisdom would be appreciated. Sorry for the long post…
    It really is a journey and luckily every day can be a fresh day…. thanks for sharing your journey with Z.

    • horseideology says:

      Hi Patricia, welcome to HI. Next time you post, give your email in the sign in (it won’t be visible to others) and I will email you a password so you can see some restricted, private entries on this blog. Some of it deals with Carolyn Resnick and you may find it interesting considering what you wrote.

      You are absolutely correct that the domination will only escalate. There seems to be two camps in the horse world today: Force and Zero Force. Like the political camps that are tearing this nation apart, extreme beliefs in either direction is just not overall desirable.

      I’ll be posting some more so stay turned.

    • horseideology says:

      Hi Patricia, I tried to deal with your reprimand questions in the next post

      While I understand your reluctance to use a whip or any sort of force, if you are dealing with a lead, dominant mare you will need to make sure she understands exactly what behavior is unacceptable. I would always, always protect yourself when dealing with these types of aggressive horses but never to do it out of anger, frustration or be unfair.

      Before you proceed much further I would consult at least a vet and a chiropractor about possible pain issues. Especially since bucking was an issue that started your quest there may be something wrong in the lower back or hindlegs.

      JMO but I did not find Carolyn Resnick’s method helpful in dealing with an aggressive or dominant personality horse.

    • horseideology says:

      I’d recommend checking out Mark Russell
      who has a classical dressage education.

      Another group which might give you ideas (but take some of what they do with a grain of salt – i believe some of their exercises are dangerous with an aggressive horse) is

      Some of their members have some awesome videos on Youtube that are very inspiring.

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