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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The first step in training

It's actually hard to say what the FIRST thing I do in training is.  That's mainly because it depends upon when I meet the horse.  If I'm present at its birth, then my first thing is to allow the young foal to be curious.  That teaches them that humans are ok.  If not, then it really depends upon what they already know.  It's always easier to teach a horse the first time, then it is for them to unlearn bad things, and start relearning good ones.

But, here I'm talking about training a horse to ride.  Now, I suppose that means that the first thing I teach a horse is to lunge.  You can read all about my thoughts on lunging here.  Since I've already rambled on about it recently, I'll spare you from doing it again.  Suffice it to say that lunging, no matter how you spell it, is required for how I work with horses.  I need them to know the verbal commands, and to understand pressure.  Pressure from the bit, the saddle, the girth, my presence.... with out being able to accept that, then I don't have the first clue of how to work with a horse.  Some do, I don't.

Remember when I said I trained slowly.  Well, this is what I was talking about.  Think of it like trying to teach someone physics.  The first thing you really need, is to have a common language.  Lunging is what gives me that common language with horses.

But many still consider lunging to be "ground work".  Well, it's true, since my feet are on the ground.  So, when it comes time to actually RIDE a horse, my first step in training, is teaching the horse to stand to be mounted.

I have no idea why every one loves to get pictures of me doing this, but I have a dozen of them. 

The important thing for me though, is that the horse will stand calmly.  For those of you who have worked with young horses, you might be thinking "well how long does THAT take?" and the honest answer it that it depends upon the horse.  Rooster here had NO interest in standing to be mounted.  He would step, shy, bolt, and basically do anything to make me hurry it up.  And this horse was broke when he came here.

See, standing to be mounted is important, but it's boring as hell to teach.  My method is simple.  I walk the horse up to a mounting block, step up, and begin to mount very slowly.  If the horse moves more then simply to brace up, then I lunge it.  Eventually the horse learns that it has 2 options.  It can stand, or it can move, but it can't avoid the work.

But it's the nuances here that vary depending upon the horse.  Some horses are scared, and rightfully so!  Their instincts scream at them that only a predator would want to be on their back.  We are predators.  Hence, they wonder if their time has finally come.  I tend to anthropomorphize my training steps so that the owners can better understand it, so here's how I think about this.

Imagine if your best friend or spouse was to suddenly pull a gun and put it to your head.  You can't really see the gun, so you don't know if it's a toy, or real, and this person has always been kind gentle and caring to you, so you can't believe that they would be serious.  Fear would jump in your gut, and your body would tense.  You might widen your eyes, brace your neck, or try to step away.  Sound familiar?  It's what most young horses do the first time you want to step up on them. 

Eventually you might realize that there's a greater purpose there.  No matter what it is (maybe it's a ploy to get you out of danger?  Maybe it's for candid camera?  Who knows!) and you'd consent to the play, and relax with that gun to your head.  Maybe you wouldn't until it was explained to you in very careful detail.  Just like a horse does when thinking about accepting a predator into it's most susceptible area.

So I often find myself going slow at this point.  I use a mounting block because it reduces the distance for me to haul on the horse.  I am not exactly a little girl, and when you add the weight of me, and the weight of a saddle, it adds up.  To a horse that has never used those muscles in that way, hauling my butt from the ground into the saddle can pull muscles.  Pulled muscles hurt, and that reinforces the feeling of fear in the horse.

So, I stand on a mounting block, and pet the horse.  I do my best to make this a pleasant experience.  I ask the horse to "Stand" (not move its feet) and then slowly pet it all over.  Depending upon the horse's level of comfort, I might do nothing more.  If the horse accepts it, then I move on to wiggling the saddle, patting its rump, and touching the horse all over.  Especially on the off side of the horse.  I want the horse to understand that things happen on both sides of it.

From there, I lay on the saddle.  We start with a bit of pressure, and build up.  Just pushing the saddle tree into the horse's back can sometimes cause another set of panic issues.  Most horses don't care, but it's always best to go slow in my opinion.

Depending upon the saddle we us, Western or English, we may stand in a stirrup, or simply lay across the saddle.  The trick is to balance your weight completely over the horse, just as a rider would be balanced.  Balanced enough that you can be carried around with out slipping off.

Now, as you can see, I tend to use a ground person.  This makes the horse feel more confident, as there's something similar to the previous set of lessons (Lunging) and someone for the horse to look to for guidance.  Not every one has this option, but I've found it results in happier horses who progress faster. 

So, from putting pressure, to completely laying on the horse, we begin to move forward.  If at any time the horse begins to panic, bolt, or spook at any of this, we slow down, and go back.  Nothing explains a new task like repetition.  Remember that horses are completely honest, and they can't lie.  If the horse is acting scared, then it's scared!  They don't know that this is "work" or something to dread, they simply know it's weird, and that they would rather be eating.

Taking the first step bearing weight is one of the points where a horse is most likely to spook.  This is why I have taken to laying over them rather then sitting astride for this step.  If the horse spooks, bolts, or bucks, the "rider" can simply step off to safety, and remove the cause of fear.

Of course, if that happens, you have to slow down, take a few steps back, and repeat.

One thing I've learned though, is that nothing seems to help a horse learn as much as time.  If a horse is scared and bolts, simply go back to what the horse was good at, end on a good note, and call it a day.  Give the horse the night to think about it, and on the next day, the horse will likely act as if it has been doing this a while.  Just letting a new idea sink in often is the best trainer.

So, if the horse will gladly walk around with weight, it probably isn't going to be walking around straight.  Young horses - or any horse learning to carry a rider - will wobble and walk like they are drunk.  It's simply the fact that they want to balance the extra weight.  Think about carrying a very large, and very full bucket of water.  If you don't want the water to spill, you tend to wobble while carrying it.  Not unless you do it a lot do you realize that walking in a calm relaxed manner and ignoring the water often means you spill the least.  Horses are the same way.  They want to balance you, not realizing that as they over compensate you simply wobble to the opposite side.  It takes hours for them to accept this, but once they do, they remember it.

Now remember that I use a ground person, and a mounted person.  As you can tell from the pictures, I have spent time working in both roles.  Once the horse is willing to carry a mounted rider a few steps, or a small circle, we start working towards riding.  Like real riding.

My ground person leads the horse around, just as if it was coming in from pasture and didn't have a rider.  My rider takes up the reins, and slowly begins to add pressure and commands from their seat, hands, and legs.  Lightly at first, and always in conjunction with the verbal commands.  So, if I'm the ground person, and Amy is riding, I start out in charge.  I will say "walk" and step off expecting the horse's ground training to be there.  She steps off, carrying the rider who is doing nothing.  When we are about to turn left, I will say "Left" and then slowly begin moving that way, same for right.  Before we stop, I will say "ready" and then "Woah".  We keep this up slowly adding in Amy's rein and seat and leg pressure, and then switching over who is in control. 

Amy begins to give the verbal commands, and I obey them.  The horse watches my body language if she needs a hint on what exactly we want.  Once the horse is listening completely to Amy's commands, and I'm just walking there on a slack lead, and reacting after the horse, then  I remove the lead.  We continue to do all of this with Amy in sole control of the horse, and only my presence there for guidance.  I step further and further away, until I am standing in one spot with Amy and my horse working around the arena with out me.

At this point, I consider the horse backed.  From here, we need to make the horse broke.  Once the horse has accepted working with out a person on a lead, I can begin to train the horse alone.  Granted, I like to take things slowly, so I often start the next session with a ground person, but with the rider giving all commands from the start.  Within a lap or 2 the ground person is dismissed and excused from the arena.  If the horse accepts this with no fear, then I no longer need a ground person.  If at any time the horse is stressed, scared, or confused I go back to a point where the horse is confident.  Naturally there is praise involved with the least little progress.  If the horse reacts in any way that I like, we praise her.  There's no reason not to, but it's so easy to forget that part.

See, praise is something a horse understands.  We've been teaching them for a long time that "good" means just that!  If they are insecure, a pleasant "good girl" will reassure them that their reaction is the one you want, and it helps them to learn faster.  This is what clicker training is all about, it's what Pavlovian training is all about.  With out thinking, you have likely taught your horse your phrase for what you like.  It can be anything, but I bet you repeat it often.  Mine is "good girl!" said in a specific tone.  When you say this, the horse releases hormones associated with other happy experiences, and has a good feeling.  This sets the training in the horses mind as being correlated to happy things.

This is where I am at with training Sweetie (the chestnut roan shown above).  She's my SDHR mare, the last horse bred by Everett Smith, and one of my treasures.  I love this horse to bits, and she's a very VERY good girl.  Soon we will begin working with no ground person, and I hope to figure out exactly what it is that I do to train a horse.

Before, I have always just done what feels right.  Working with Amy, I have had to explain what it is that I do, and that's not as easy as it sounds!  I figure that by writing it down, as I go through the process, I can get it all straight in my own mind.  So don't be surprised if I continue to make long, photo filled posts about what exactly I do, and how slowly I go about training a horse. 

Backing a horse is just the first step.  Even here I've jumbled so many things together, from asking the horse to stand still, to asking it to bear weight and respond to the aids.  Usually this process takes weeks for me, depending upon how quickly the horse can learn.

While it's something I can do, it's not nearly as easy to explain to people.  I work with horses, so tend to feel and react, rather then explain.  The horses respond to my body language more then my words, so detailed instruction is rarely needed.  With Daltrey growing up so fast, and more people coming out on a regular basis, I've decided that I really need to learn to speak to humans too.

It helps me greatly when readers ask questions about steps, and make me stop and put it into words.  It helps me tons when I have to think as I type, and make those feelings into a verbal image.  So bear with me as I vomit my experiences onto the blog sporadically for the next bit.  And here's  hoping that Sweetie doesn't send me to the ER!  This will be the first unbroke horse I'm working with since my accident in April.  So far, I'm feeling good about it, but another accident might be the last straw for me.

Thank goodness Sweetie lives up to her name!


  1. Great stuff - taking it very slowly and breaking it down - and keeping the horse's confidence - that's the biggest thing.

    I'm completely obsessed about having horses that stand for mounting on a loose rein and keep standing there for as long as I'd like until I ask them to move off. I've only ever had one "trained" horse come to me who would stand still for mounting - Pie - and that's because his old man trained him to stand. It's one of the first things I do with a horse - mine are already at least partially trained, if green - after being sure ground manners and leading are in place. My method's pretty similar to yours, although not identical.

  2. The first "trained" horse my family ever bought (Mom's mare Keeley) had this LOVELY habit of taking off quickly as soon as your foot was in the stirrup. She'd been trained in barrels at some time in the past, and was currently in reining training when we got her. Her riders had been very skilled, so they always just "swung up and went". As this was my mother's first horse, mom couldn't do that! I was pretty new to horses back then too, and it made me CRAZY trying to ride that horse. Thank goodness she's smart and sweet, and figured out to stand pretty quick.

    But she also wouldn't stop and stand when carrying a rider. Oh she'd stop, pause, and then walk on. Not very easy to stop and talk to someone like that! Since then, those 2 things have been the FIRST thing I teach a horse. How to be relaxed, and not moving.