Tag Archives: natural horsemanship

Hey Now, That’s A Fancy Mustang!

People, the show was amazing!

Sue warming up the best Mustang at the show. Also, the only Mustang.

Sue warming up the best darn Mustang at the show. Also, the only Mustang.

Sebastian was his usual self. Calm. Obedient. Hungry!

His stall was full of hay! Clandestine hay is way tastier.

His stall was full of loose hay! Apparently, clandestine hay is way tastier.

Things started off with a bang when he got a second in his warm up class!


His remaining two classes for the weekend were very large (21 horses each) and full of fabulous horses. The competition was fierce! Each ride was judged by two judges, so it was fun to compare scores and comments between judges. In the USDF Regional Championship Class there were 15 horses above 70% and 2 horses above 80% (that many rides with scores that high is raaaaaaare), so I was crazy excited that Sebastian got an 8th with an average score of 73.9%!

"People get so excited about these things. They must be edible"

“People get so excited about these things. Surely they must be edible.”

Watching him line up for the awards with all the giant warmbloods was hilarious. And made me so proud! Here’s the victory gallop (er, trot):

Trying to keep up!

Trying to keep up!

For The California Dressage Society Horse of The Year class there were two separate rides judged by 2 judges each, so in the end each horse’s score was an average of 4 judges’ opinions.

Suuuuper free walk.

Suuuuper free walk.

According to all those judges’ opinions, Sebastian and Sue are an excellent pair! After the first class Sebastian was in second place with an average score of 74.7. Whoo hooooo!


In the end his average score among the 4 judges was 72.4%, earning him a 4th for Horse of The Year! What further blew me away was the the consistency of the comments. Lots of “lovely” and “willing horse.”

A very good boy.

A very good boy.

The best part of looking at the scores, however, were that Sue and Sebastian got a NINE on harmony between rider and horse not once, but TWICE!! Getting a 9 is crazy wonderful. Something that essentially never happens to the average rider, and very, very seldom to an amazing rider like Sue. And here it was- twice in one show! That is one special way to know you that you picked the right trainer. Oh yeah!


So now Sebastian is home and riding him is such a joy. All the hopes I had for him going into training, to help him learn to move in the best possible way and mature his mind with lots of outings, have been greatly exceeded. Riding him now is like driving a sports car (albeit one with very eager brakes), as compared to the station wagon I sent to Sue. I’m even thinking that this dressage thing might be something that Sebastian and I can do together. I’m finding the precision needed to ride a good test to be both challenging and invigorating. It’s going to be my turn to start showing him in October. I must say it’s a little intimidating to show him in this new-to-me discipline after watching Sue ride him so beautifully, but I’m excited to try it out none the less. Here’s to at least not embarrassing myself next month at Greenville!


Little Mustang, BIG Horseshow

Well, the summer was fantastic for Sebastian, the wonder pony, and Sue, his wonder trainer. So fantastic, in fact, that we have decided to take him to the California Dressage Society championship show.

People, I am READY!

People, I am READY! Juuuuust as soon as someone tops off this hay bag…

Whoa. Big time stuff!

I’m so proud of what Sue and Sebastian have done this summer. He hasn’t magically transformed into a giant, splashy mover (although his movement has improved a ton) but what he lacks in flash he sure gains in consistency. He was always 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in his classes. His median score at the moment, going into championships, is a 71.2%. To a non-dressage rider that doesn’t sound that great (it’s not a C minus!), but in my intro to dressage showing this summer I have learned that that is a really good score! BTW, there is this amazing website, Centerline Scores, that lets a person totally nerd out on scores from dressage shows.


I may, or may not, have looked up every horse in Sebastian’s class and found that, in fact, only two of his competitors have median scores higher than his. That consistency thing really works for him! I am keeping my expectations low, however. There are a good number of horses in Sebastian’s class who have gotten 78’s at past horse shows and everyone will be riding their very, very best. This show draws the fanciest horses from throughout the state and the classes are huge! No matter what happens, it’s an honor just to have him there and know that he earned his place among the European imports and soon-to-be six figure superstars.

Stillwater's Bastian, imported from Nevada!

Stillwater’s Bastian, imported all the way from Nevada!

The show is this weekend, September 19-22. Please wish us luck!

Does Your Horse Get Paid?

Giving horses food rewards is an area that people have some strong feelings about. I admit that the common scenario with horses and treats looks more like a mugging than a training session. Picture a horse with his muzzle all over some misguided person who has trained the poor beast that humans loooove to be shoved and frisked and will hand over cookies when treated accordingly. The trainers I respect in the natural horsemanship world have differing opinions about treats- some will use them in some circumstances but some never do. For many years I thought of this as the high road, that if the relationship was good enough one shouldn’t need treats.


Times have changed! While I don’t think anyone needs treats, I think they can be very useful. It was Robin Gates that shifted my opinions on food rewards for good. Robin does use treats in her liberty work with horses, with wonderful effect. She points out that some of a foal’s most salient first experiences are with it’s mother, who allows the polite foal to nurse and can push away one that is being rude.

When thinking about giving my horse treats, I think about what going to work means for me. I love my job and get a great deal of satisfaction from it. Would I go if I wasn’t getting paid? Nope. Would I go if someone made it very uncomfortable to not go and much more comfortable to go? Probably, but I wouldn’t feel as good about it as I do in the scenario where I get paid. Much of natural horsemanship relies on making the wrong behavior difficult for the horse and the right behavior easy. The reward in these methods is the release of pressure. I use these methods all the time with my horses. In the hands of a good trainer, a horse will gain a great deal of comfort from understanding that the human is a good leader and can be trusted enough to follow. These methods are very effective and mirror many of the methods horses use with one another to communicate. The difference between when horses use these methods and when we use them, however, is that horses get a lot more out of being with one another than they do out of being with the average human. We just don’t have an innate pull for horses the way they do for one another, quite the opposite. A horse must get over the fact that we look, smell and move like something that would like to eat them. Assuming that we care whether or not our horses like being with us, it’s worth looking at their motivation. I like thinking that my horses get more from our interactions than simply the avoidance of feeling uncomfortable. Hopefully knowing that I am the leader in the herd does help them relax and feel good, but I like to use food rewards to take things to the next level. What I strive for is fun for my horses. Yes! Fun! With treats the horse get into seeking mode, trying to solve the puzzle of what I want them to do with enthusiasm. Indeed, just like me, my horses get paid when they go to work.

Take hoof trimming for example. I trim my own ponies and I am not a speedy trimmer. My poor beasts have spent many an hour balancing hundreds of pounds of horse flesh on three spindly legs waiting for me to get the job done. When they are particularly aggravated by the flies tickling their ankles or just done with the whole thing they start wanting to take their feet back. It works to stop at that moment and do some groundwork to impress upon them that taking their foot away means a lot of hard work is about to be done by them. After this reminder the calm is restored, often for the rest of the trim. It is usually effective, but it’s not super enjoyable for me or them. Since I have started using treats, however, the horses grow interested at the sight of my trimming tools, usually will follow me into a stall to be trimmed and sometimes even lift their feet in polite anticipation as I am reaching down for them. The result is basically the same, I get the trim done, but there is a different feeling throughout the interaction.

Food rewards are really powerful, which is part of why I believe many people don’t use them. In no time flat you can teach your horse to be a complete jerk! Their use requires careful thought. At a minimum the horse should learn that coming at you with its mouth will not result in treats. It seems awkward at first, but training your horses to turn their heads slightly away from you before they will be given a treat will go a long ways to avoid turning your horse into a pocket diving disaster. It’s as simple as standing there with a treat he can smell in your closed hand and waiting for him to give up trying to nuzzle it out of you and look away- bingo! Give him the treat. Repeat till he gets it consistently and then be consistent in the future yourself- no treats for nosey ponies.

Also consider the relationship you and your horses have. It needs to be clear that the treats belong to you and that they are only given to ponies who are trying very hard to do whatever is being asked of them. The next picture is of where I found Annie after I went to put away some tools and organize a couple things in the tack room. She was standing there, hoping I would come back and give her a treat but not taking one. Those treats are not hers! Sure enough she was given a treat for that kind of respectful waiting.


For best results, think about what your horse is doing the moment before he gets the treat and realize that he will believe whatever that behavior is will get him more treats in the future. You are always training your horse, even in the most casual of interactions, so don’t throw the power of treats behind something meaningless or downright negative. It’s common for horses to get a treat after coming back to the barn after a good workout. This is in fact an awesome way to encourage your horse to be barnsour (as though getting off their backs and leading them back to their buddies were not reward enough!). Use the cookie power for good! In teaching the horses to stand for trimming, for example, I only reward them when they actually have their feet up on the hoof stand. It is no good to finish a foot, put it down and give a treat because the horse stood so nicely while you trimmed. The horse will conclude that putting one’s hoof down is just the thing to do in order to earn a treat. Yikes!


I haven’t found any magic in one treat versus another. Since they don’t make up much of the horses’ diet, I generally buy whichever ones are cheap and won’t dissolve into sticky powder in my pocket. For the portly or downright insulin resistant equines out there I recommend sugar free mints. Sebastian loves them! When he thinks he has been good he arches his neck, tilts his nose away and looks at me with one excited eyeball. I always think of it as him saying “please”.

How about you? Do you use food rewards with your animals?

Help Your Horse Walk

Like many competitive trail riders, I find the walk to be my horses’ most important gait. It is an area that Sebastian and I have found challenging. I would like 4-6 mph at the walk. Sebastian, after the initial excitement of the ride dies down, would prefer a pace more suited to sightseeing and frequent stops to sample the local flora. Maybe 1 mph. In the video below, Sue Corrie will give you some tips on influencing your horse’s walk correctly. Much of Sue’s teachings is based on the work of Mary Wanless- very good stuff. The video focuses on the way the rider’s seat connects to the horse’s hind end in order to control the tempo of the walk. It allows for a bigger walk that comes from stronger engagement from the horse’s hind end, rather than dumping the horse onto his forehand.

Here Sue is warming up Sebastian at a show. She is both on a long rein and her seat is actively connected to his back. She is asking him to use his hind end while he walks along, relaxed.

Here Sue is warming up Sebastian at a show. She is both on a long rein and her seat is actively connected to his back. She is asking him to use his hind end while he walks along, relaxed.

Before thinking about the concepts from the video, be sure your basic body alignment follows the classic shoulder-hips-heels rule: if a plumb line were dropped down from the heavens, it should pass through all those body parts. A way to check this is to imagine if the horse were whisked out from under the rider; the rider should always land on her feet. This is a good image to have in mind in order to stay balanced on ascents and descents, as well.

Sue talks about your seat bones in the video. If you are having a hard time knowing where they are pointing, you can sit on your hands to get a feel for them. Alternately hollow and round your low back to feel how those “flashlights” shine backward and forward. Find the spot where they point straight down. In this position you have the best chances of “plugging in” to your horse’s back and influencing his movement properly.

A final thing to keep in mind is that the movements that Sue describes are probably not as big as you might imagine. Big movements with your seat are very uncomfortable for your horse. Imagine moving at some speed down a trail with a big, sloppy backpack moving all over your back. Ouch. Now instead imagine a tightly packed backpack that is well secured to your back. Ahhhh. Be the tight backpack! Riders who *look* relaxed on a horse are riders with very active core muscles that hold them still in relationship to the horse. They can influence their horses easily because they are not sending a million extra signals to the horse through meaningless floppy body movements. Pay attention to the change in Sebastian when Sue uses her seat to make bigger movements and shove him forward- not a happy boy.


Initially you may need a helper on the ground so you can figure out how to coordinate your seatbone going down and back when your horse’s hind leg on the same side is in motion. In order to speed up the walk you will actually feel like you are opposing the motion of the horse to some extent as you take the lead and tell the horse to put his hind leg down at a faster pace. Instead of letting the horse’s movement carry your seatbone at the current speed, think about your seat bone being connected directly to your horse’s hind hoof.  Tell that hoof to come down sooner with a faster down and back motion with your corresponding seat bone. Change the speed your seatbones are moving at but keep the movements small- no floppy backpacks! This feels opposite to what lots of us do instinctually to try to get our horses to walk bigger- exaggerate the way our hips move naturally at the walk. This exaggeration may cause your horse to take faster steps but it will also shove him onto the forehand, hollow his back and make his back end trail out behind him. Done correctly, Sue’s method will have your horse reaching farther under himself with his hind end. The increase in speed will be powerful and correct.

Good luck! Find the Big Walk!

The Little Mustang Does It Again!


I really, really thought Sebastian’s last show at Yarra Yarra Ranch was going to be a peak in terms of scores and ribbons. This weekend the competition was still at Yarra Yarra but with a new judge, on a new day.


After his first test (Training Level, Test 1) the judge commented to Sue, my trainer, “Thank you. Lovely test.” as she rode out of the ring. This is a big deal to hear anything but a “Thank you” as you leave, the equivalent of “you may be excused”. When I heard “Lovely test” I began to have some hopes that things had gone very well. To my eye, the test looked almost flawless but, as you can imagine, I am somewhat biased. Low and behold, he scored a 75.8%!!! For all the non-dressage folks out there, that is *really* good. For his second test (Training Level, Test 2) he was not as forward moving, and we found out why when he finally pooped right in front of the judge’s table. As Sue later pointed out- nobody likes to run around when they really have to poop. So he picked up the wrong lead twice in the trot to canter transition required at that moment and scored a 3/10 for that move. The rest of the test, however, was still awesome enough for him to score a 71.3% overall.


Yep, two more blues!

So there is our victor, enjoying a net-free flake of hay in celebration of winning some totally useless (translation: inedible) floppy blue things his ecstatic mother smooshed into his mane. I had this super cute picture idea where I pinned the ribbons to the mesh of the stall door and was going to have him put his head out the v-shaped cut out between the ribbons, but of course he was too short to stick his head out. Alas, a small horse showing in a big horse world.

On my drive home I was reflecting on the fortune of buying this wild little horse at auction and finding such success in the sports we have tried. There are the important factors of conformation bred through generations of hardiness and early conditioning in the rugged mountains of Nevada, but I also appreciate that Sebastian had time to grow up quite a lot before being handled by humans. There are horses who are fortunate enough to only ever interact with excellent horsemen who understand how to communicate the strange and often counter-instinctual things we ask of our ponies in a positive and effective way, but these horses are rare. I looked for about a year before I bought Sebastian, and I found a number of young horses who would have been huge projects not because of their age or inexperience but because of the interactions they had had with humans. Buying a wild horse with 90 days of training from a natural horseman was actually an easy way to start a good relationship. Sebastian knows how to be a horse, first and foremost. He has suffered from plenty of my mistakes over the past few years but he has a real training foundation (thank you Bob Mundy and Susan Dockter!) that has made everything else we have done so relatively easy. This next piece of dressage training with Sue Corrie is teaching him up to better use his body, correctly and efficiently. I have been fascinated to see how well this translates to show ring success when laid on top of his natural horsemanship foundation. He unloads from the trailer at a show and looks around with curiosity, not anxiety. Sue can hop on without any ground work or lungeing and find that he is mentally the same horse she knows at home. He can really show off what he has learned with Sue because he isn’t nervous. Nope, he doesn’t have the movement to be competitive at the higher levels of Dressage but for me that’s an excellent trade off for a horse that is just so easy to do things with.

Now watch, next show he’ll be a complete maniac because I tempted fate and wrote all those things down. I’m knocking on some wood here. I’ll let you know after March 30th- our next outing!

Fancy Shmancy, Kick Butt With A Mustang!

This last weekend Sebastian went to his first Dressage show at Yarra Yarra Ranch in Pleasanton. After less than two months of Dressage training, I had what I thought were realistic expectations for a horse whose breeding selected for the ability to stay sleek and fit on five mouthfuls of grass a day and the domination all the other scrappy stallions on the range. My goals are for Sebastian to learn to move to the best of his ability and to gain experience going places and not being a silly beast. A horse that carries himself well will stay sound in the long run, and a horse that goes places without fuss is just a delight to have. So the feedback from a judge and the competition are interesting elements, but not the things I really expected to define the day as a success.

The training has been a major indulgence. It is only justified by the fact that Sebastian needs to stay in work to stay healthy and I am too pregnant to tie my own shoes, much less ride a horse. I have him out in Brentwood with Sue Corrie and she has been doing an amazing job with him. What a difference a handful of weeks can make! In preparation for being worked and shown through the cold months he even got a real show hair do- a full body clip. Not a single heart or star shaved in! We were super serious.

My camera battery conveniently died halfway through the show, but here are Sue and Sebastian in the warm up arena:


Bastian, getting his Dressage face on.


Stillwater’s Bastian, aka Lucky # 244.


Tiniest horse in the warm up ring.

Sebastian took the change in scenery quite well, only occasionally worrying. Someone *crazy* had installed some terrifying brick pavers in the aisle the horses cross to enter the show arena, which required a lot of loud nose breathing and very wide eyeballs to cross. Fortunately they were not as deadly as they first appeared.

His first test (Training Level, Test 1) he got a little distracted and initially bungled picking up his left lead canter, but I felt it was a great first ever go in a Dressage class. Apparently the judge agreed- he scored a 68.958 and won his class! I was stunned. This was not at all what I was expecting from a real live Dressage show. Little range ponies can win?? Very disorienting. Also awesome.

Now it is true that I am awash in all sorts of prenatal hormones and therefore a bit prone to waves of emotional intensity, so I am not embarrassed to say that the second class (Training Level, Test 2) actually made me tear up. Sue rode him very well and it was just lovely. He didn’t have big extravagant warmblood movement or rhinestones glinting in his browband, but in my eyes he looked like he pretty much did belong there in that fancy arena. I felt so satisfied as we waited the hour it took for the class to finish (it was a big class). Then I was blown away again- he scored a 71.429 and won the second class! It was surreal.

Sue and Sebastian, victorious!

Sue and Sebastian, victorious!

Here’s to hoping this pending baby will wait until after February 10th to arrive so I can watch the next show. Until then, we will bask in the glory!

The Slow Food Movement. In My Paddock.

It isn’t always easy to have keep horses very naturally without large acreage. About 1000 acres of hills, sparsely vegetated with all native grasses would do nicely! Sadly those types of properties don’t generally fall within the boundaries of anywhere we could reasonably live. So, we do what we can for our ponies on this 1/2 acre of Oakland dirt. One of the most important pieces of this effort is using slow feeders.

I got on this kick when I learned about how common ulcers are in horses. About 60% of horses have ulcers. One way to help prevent them is to allow constant access to forage. A horse’s gut continually produces stomach acid, so breaking feedings into the usual 2 or 3 meals a day means longs stretches of time where that stomach acid has nothing to do but eat into the lining of the stomach and make ulcers. Lots of other things I do with my horses (trailer places, compete, ride long distances, separate them from their herd mate, etc.) increase their stress level and make ulcers especially likely. Slow feeding is the least I can do!

We started the journey with the gateway slow feeder: small mesh hay nets.

Sebastian, Professional Eater, working the small mesh hay net.

Sebastian, Professional Eater, working the small mesh hay net at a NATRC ride.

They’re inexpensive and definitely work, but stuffing them daily is a pain.

After years of trial and error and many iterations of larger capacity feeders, I think we have finally made my dream slow feeder. It may not look like much, but to she who has stuffed a zillion nets and cursed many a lacking feeder design it is a thing of great beauty.

Slow feeder 4.0. Really the best!

Slow feeder 6.0. Really the best! At three nets thick even the pro lost weight.

It is made from a galvanized steel trough (roughly 6′ x 3′), a trucker’s ratcheting tie down with “endless loop” webbing, and hockey goal nets. You can fit 3 90# bales into it at one go and double or even triple (for super professional eaters like Sebastian, and even he needed supplemental hay at this level of difficulty) the nets depending on how much you need to restrict your horses’ intake. I only have to feed hay about twice a month and there is very little waste. Our hockey nets have been going strong for 2 years of hard use without need for repair. The horses also seem to like the project. They will often chose to nibble through the nets even when loose hay is around. Always having something tasty to munch has also cut down our horse related property damage to almost nothing. No more 900 pound beavers to contend with.

A few warnings before you dive in to the slow food world for ponies: these small mesh type feeders are not safe for shod horses without extra precautions taken, and my equine dentist has found that feeders with metal grates cause unusual wear on the horses’ teeth.

Happy feeding, happy ponies!