A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Training Horses

Today was a lazy day.  I woke up with no motivation, I went out, and it's HOT, rather humid, and then there's this pain in my neck.  No really, I pulled a muscle.

So, I decided I was only going to work one horse today, and today was Velvet's turn.  Empress Black Velvet (ApHC) is a beautiful mare, who carries a bit of extra baggage.  This is her with her 2008 foal, Velvet Equinox (Nox).  Velvet is a wonderful brood mare, and has been for most of her life.  Unfortuantely, she's not working out as a broodie for me.  Add to that the slow horse market, and I really don't need another brood mare.  Her only flaw is that her foals are short.  I mean Nox is LOVELY, but she'll probably mature to 15 hands at best.

Velvet was very much an impulse buy.  I had seen an ad for her, and my mother was looking for a black horse, and wanted a mare for the breeding business.  Velvet has a nice pedigree, so I decided to go look at her.  I arrived at this place to see horse upon horse, and not a blade of grass or bale of hay in sight!  Everything was thin, and everything was in sad shape.  The seller admitted that she had been boarding her horses, and was financially strapped so hadn't been able to visit.  When she did go see them, they were all skinny.

We snapped up 3.  Sadly we passed on one that we didn't think would live out the week, but took the ones that we thought would survive with feed and love.  I have to mention here that while I am a "breeding farm"  part of what I do is help horses.  I can't say rescue, because I'm not a non-profit.  I do take in unwanted horses, and do my best to fix them up into being VERY wanted horses.  I try hard to be logical about this, but Jae is awful about egging me on.  Usually when we hear about a horse in need, he's the first one to say, "but Heather, you can fix it, can't you?  Lets go check it out!"

Ladies, there are worse things then a husband who says no.  It's a man that is always saying "aww c'mon, what's one more?"
The other 2 have found great new homes, and Velvet I put into my own operation.  She was skin and bones and baby when she arrived, and was left to fatten up and foal out.  I rebred her, and we got the lovely filly above.  And now, Velvet is on the sales list.  I will not sell a horse that is not broke, unless I know I'm selling it into a good home that has the ability to train the horse.  I also prefer to keep tabs on all of my horses!  But making sure the horse has a great training is the best way to give it a good future.

So, while Velvet is supposedly broke, I don't find her to have a lot of training.  Her previous owner was a timid woman around the horses, and allowed Velvet, a very strong willed horse, to push her around.  Velvet is passive aggressive.  By this, I mean that she pulls small tricks to upset her owner, and then feeds off that negative behaviour.

A few examples:  Velvet was being taken out to pasture by my mother.  I can't recall what the problem was, but Velvet "accidentally" stepped on mom's foot.  When mom yelled, Velvet so calmly turned to look at her, then leaned onto the foot.  OUCH!  When asking Velvet to work, she will do everything to anger her handler, rather then simply doing what is asked.  With her last trim, she refused to lift her leg.  I know she picks up her feet well.  I know that she had no pain or issues to prevent her from picking up her foot easily.  Velvet just doesn't know any other way to deal with humans.

So I have been working with Velvet recently.  I started with ground work, both in hand and lunging.  When working her in hand, Velvet thinks that she gets to call the shots.  I am very serious about work time, and play time.  When leading a horse, that horse shall not try to graze, unless I allow it.  The horse should focus on ME, not everything else (safety issue here, a horse that is lolly gagging can easily step on it's handler).  We have gotten to the point that Velvet is very easy to deal with in hand, and most of her issues there have gone away.

So, we began lunging.  Now, my mother usually does the lunge training.  Nita is very calm and patient, and this works well with a horse that is learning.  Nita, my mother, began training Velvet, and kept having to call me over to help.  If mom asked her to reverse, Velvet wouldn't.  If mom asked for a speed increase, Velvet would reverse.  I picked up the line, and tried her out.  Yep, Velvet would work twice as hard to get out of work, as she would to simply do what is asked.  Do I blame her?  Nope... that's how she was trained!

Her previous owner was very consistent with putting Velvet away anytime Velvet would act up.  To Velvet's horse mind, this simply said "good girl, you acted up just like I wanted, so here's your treat!"

So, I had to untrain, and then retrain.  I showed Velvet that I would calmly and clearly ask for a response.  If Velvet gives me the wrong response, I ignore it, and simply ask again.  If Velvet gives me the right response she is praised!  If Velvet gives me attitude, then we kick up the work a notch.

I got her working in the gaits I asked for, but reverse was the kicker.  When I asked for reverse, Velvet would toss her head, duck inside the circle, and completely lose her rhythm or gait.  I began lunging Velvet into the fence, to teach her the reverse.  She fought me every step of the way.  From ducking in to speeding up.  Each of these mistakes was met with another request to "do it again".  Finally she would reverse.

I moved her back into the middle of the arena, and tried to repeat the request.  Nope!  Velvet would reverse, but that's ALL she would do!  Eesh.  After about an hour of this, I decided to quit on a high note, and try again the next day.

That next day, Velvet was back to square 1.  She had lost everything I had taught her.  When I tried to show her again, her mind went elsewhere.  She would rather run at light speed in circles, then to make any attempt to learn.  So, it was time to change the subject!

I brought out the ground poles and the barrel jump.  The ground poles are spaced evenly on the ground, and the horse is lunged over them.  If the horse isn't focused, then the horse will step on them, and horses usually don't care for that.  The barrell jump is just 2 barrels on their side, with poles that lay on the top of one barrel, and point to the ground at the other.

In this case I only had one pole, because it's lower, and gives the horse an option to choose to simply canter over rather then jump.  The horse shown is a 3 year old, so too young to be doing much more then what you see here, and only once in a blue moon.

The idea here is simple, when an object is in the horse's path, it has to pay attention to it!
And here is the 3 year old going over the ground poles.  Yes, it's Scorch again.  Scorch is rather flashy, and it's always easy to get someone to take pictures of him working!

Both pictures were taken from the same spot.  The barrel jump is just outside the shot on the right.  In this way I can choose to use one of the obstacles, or both, depending upon what the horse needs.

I also find that giving a horse obstacles like this sets the horse up for success.  I mean, it's not hard to walk over those poles!  When the horse does that, then they get praise, and learn to respond to positive reinforcement.  Believe it or not, but you actually have to train a horse to work for praise.  Horses actually work for the release of pressure, but we humans want to reward them.  Rewards are a concept that horses are not born with.

This is why so many horses become problems.  They get rewarded for things, so behave in a manner to get the reward again, not understanding our idea of working to earn something.  Horses think that pushing the human, or behaving in a dominant manner (like biting or kicking) should get them the reward, as opposed to performing a "trick" upon command. 

See, horses aren't dogs.  Dogs are predators, and horses are prey.  Most people unknowingly try to make horses into dogs - I know I did!  In the doggy world, a good leader is fair, and works to provide for their pack mates.  A pack leader provides food, and it is in charge of rationing that food.  In the horsey world, food is not provided by the leader.  The ground makes food!  A good horsey leader is one that makes sure it's herd survives.  Horses look for their leaders to be quick thinkers, exact about what they demand, and strong enough to live out the day.

This is completely backwards to what we humans do naturally!  So often I hear people say, "well I don't want to be mean to my horse!  He won't love me!"  Doesn't work like that.  If you're mean to your DOG, then your dog will assume you're a poor leader, since you're not providing for it.  If you're stern with your horse (since I do not advocate being MEAN just for the sake of it) then your horse thinks you are strong, and if it's hanging out with you, then it's likely to survive.  Horses love to have hard rules for things.

Oops, I digressed.  So, back to Velvet.

I began to work her over the obstacles, and I was shocked to see that this horse was loving it!  Now, she's not really good at it, but she was enjoying herself.  For the first time in her life, I think she was being challenged.  I asked her to jump, and jump she did... like a cow, but she still did it.  She was rewarded for this with hugs and praise and scratches, and of course, to get those I had to release the pressure of the lunging.  (see how I fit in the release of pressure with the introduction of praise?)

And since Kris was brave and decided to ride Velvet the other day, I decided that maybe Velvet just hates lunging, so I'll try to get up on her and see if that works better for her.  That was my plan for today, or so I thought.  Uh, we didn't get that far.

Today's lesson consisted of learning to take the bit.  Velvet felt that throwing her head, locking her teeth, and backing up were all good ways to get out of work.  HA! To me that just means "oh, so this will be today's lesson, eh?"

Yeah, I spent about 45 minutes putting on and taking off her bridle.  In the end, I got her to accept the bit twice with out hassle.  I really think that she wants to be a good horse, but she just doesn't know how!  When I work with her, I have to remain completely emotionally neutral.  If I get mad, then Velvet gets worse.  If I even just get flustered, then she gets worse, and feeds on it.  I must maintain the attitude that this is no big deal, and if she doesn't take it today, then she'll take it tomorrow.  I have time to spare.

I think that Velvet is learning though.  While she may not be learning the task I ask of her, such as taking the bit, or reversing on the lunge, she IS learning a new way to interact with humans.  Learning how to be a good pet horse is much more important then the tasks I ask.  Once she learns the concept, the details will follow quickly.

Hopefully I will get to ride her tomorrow.  She has no go button, and I don't think she has any steering either.  This should be fun.

Now where did I put my helmet again?


  1. I was reading Leah's post at Barn Door Tagz and when she mentioned your blog I had to sneak a peek.
    I read your first two posts and this latest one. Would have read them all but I am just sneaking a few moments online during a packing break.
    Once I get moved and settled in (and internet!) at my new place I'll be back :)

  2. You always taught me to do whatever it takes to get a win, even if it isn't the win you were originally after. And you KNOW I can relate to the emotionally neutral thing, because Poco was the same way. They're very sensitive to our agendas, and often want no part of it. Some BNHT says if you end up mad, you'll start there next time you try to work with that horse. So true.

    Got your gallon of M&T and will bring it tomorrow. Kris says she's in.

    Better find that helmet, girlie.

  3. I actually know EXACTLY where that helmet is. Yeah, I'll slack off when riding the old pros, because, isn't part of the horse thing the ability to swing up in the pasture, just barefoot with a halter and lead, and be a bit free? Oddly, I really dislike riding any horse down the road with out a helmet, I just have visions of watermelons smashing.

    But, then age sets in again, and I realize that I might need my noggin for a few more years. Although, what I really want is chest protection.

    Did you know that the majority of serious (life altering) injuries sustained while riding are NOT to the head? They are to the torso, which makes sense once you think about it.

    Makes me wonder why there isn't a "wear your chest protection" drive going on in horses.

  4. I was reading Leah's post at Barn Door Tagz and when she mentioned your blog I had to sneak a peek.
    I read your first two posts and this latest one. Would have read them all but I am just sneaking a few moments online during a packing break.
    Once I get moved and settled in (and internet!) at my new place I'll be back :)