Discipline and Backing

After a fantastic weekend with Ellie I couldn’t resist writing a post, even though I should be studying for my fast-approaching exams! Over the last few days Ellie and I have worked on our Groundwork, handling and grooming, and also on her yard manners – things like standing tied without having a tantrum, and moving over when asked to allow people to pass with other horses or move out from the wall so I can handle or groom her other side. All in, those things are coming along very well. It took a little while for her to get head around moving over – she was convinced that pressure on her side meant back up. She eventually found the right answer but still sometimes tries backing up first, which is only natural.

On Sunday I started to think it might be better if I could get her saddled sooner rather than later, so that while we do groundwork between now and my exams, she could also be getting used to the saddle too. I had planned to just start desensitising her to the saddle without putting it on her, but she had no reaction whatsoever so I went ahead and put it on. Nothing. I thought maybe when she started to walk or when I did the girth up it would bother her, so I did the girth loosely and walked her out – not a bother! Over a few more minutes I walked her and did the girth up a little more, and repeated that until it was tight enough for riding. Ellie was more interested in trying to find bits of hay around our feet than in me tightening this strange contraption around her. I let the stirrups down, thinking that might worry her a little, made snapping sounds with the leathers, banged on the seat of the saddle, and then trotted her up and down a little to get to stirrups moving, but she wasn’t bothered. A little irritated by the irons bumping off her but not worried in the slightest! Finished up by lying my weight on her saddle from a tall mounting block and couldn’t believe my luck with how quiet this little filly is. I’ll have to re-gig my plans for now until exams, as I had planned to spend about a week on saddling her and a week on working her off the fence or a mounting block – neither of which bother her in the slightest. I might start ponying her off my boss’s 18 yr old polo pony I have in for conditioning at the moment.


On another note, it’s not all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Ellie likes to be cheeky and test the boundaries and I’m having two specific issues with that. The first being that she chooses a new vice every few days to try out. When I first got her, it was kicking. With discipline she became a lot less fond of that tactic so decided to try biting instead, and even bit/nipped me on the top of my head while I was bolting her stable door. She has stopped the biting now, but has started to do tiny rears when she wants to have a tantrum – she lifts her front legs just enough (barely a foot) to stomp them on the ground loudly. Who said humans and horses were completely different?! Where my issue lies is with discipline systems. Buck Brannaman says that discipline is a precursor to good behaviour, and never occurs after bad behaviour. Punishment occurs after bad behaviour. I would never beat or even hit a horse out of anger, and I probably wouldn’t hit an older horse for having a bold moment either. However, in possibly the only way I would disagree with Buck to date, I can’t help feeling that allowing a young horse to kick you without consequence is a dangerous trend for the future. I like to think of herd dynamics when I’m trying to sort through this. In a herd, the leader would never allow a young colt to kick him – he would drive the colt away with aggressive body language, or give him a small bite or kick in return. So my strategy is, I stay calm, patient and understanding, but I give her one smack before the kicking foot has even returned to the ground, or while her teeth are heading my direction. I wish I could consistently use the “discipline, don’t punish” philosophy but I feel that it’s not always practical. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Buck’s methods, the idea is to predict that bad behaviour is coming and redirect the horses energy into a difficult task. However, I find that works for things like biting, as I can see it coming a mile off, or kicking during groundwork, but it’s extremely difficult when I’m bent over handling Ellie’s back legs. She doesn’t swish her tail in warning and I can’t see her facial expression. It’s something I’m constantly considering, so I can’t wait for my next clinic with Ricky Quinn (one of Buck’s students) – I’m very interested to hear his perspective on this problem.

The second problem that I’m struggling to get around is that Ellie has adopted a very positive, affectionate, trusting and respectful attitude with me (95% of the time), but she is a bit of a tyrant towards anyone else. I think it’s partly because she has decided that I’m ok but that she hasn’t decided about the others yet, and partly because I’m the only one handling and disciplining her at the moment. She becomes tetchy, defensive or even aggressive towards others. She lures them in with an adorable expression of curiosity and desire for cuddles, and then tries to bite them when they approach her. I think she needs two things to sort this out: to have positive experiences with people other than me, and to be disciplined by people other than me. My problem though is that I don’t feel comfortable asking others to get involved. I can’t very well say to my barn friends “can you please come over and touch my horse? She might bite you but feel free to give her a little smack on the nose if she does!”. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt and no one in my yard has experience or an interest in working with completely green horses, so they are very nervous of these vices. If anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear from you below!

So, that’s everything for today. Quite a long post but there was a lot to get through!



Basics of the Human World

Apologies for not getting a chance to post over the last couple of weeks. It has been difficult to find the time to write after horsing around and studying for my Christmas exams. Unfortunately, the weather has also been a disaster here for more than a week now so I haven’t been able to get Ellie out to do Groundwork.

In the mean-time, Ellie has been busy overcoming some hurdles that we take for granted in an older, more domesticated horse. She has had her feet trimmed, which was interesting experience to say the least. Suffice to say that Ellie can do a wonderful three legged hop! Anyway after just 10 or 15 minutes (which seemed like an eternity) she settled down and politely let the farrier do her feet. So for that weekend (the 7th and 8th) I spent most of time on handling her legs, and doing halter work so that I could manage her when the farrier came, and in the hope that she wouldn’t kick him. Unfortunately, all of my handling didn’t help much as she’s decided that I’m ok, but she’s still not sure about the other 2-leggers. She tried to kick him anyway but thankfully he has good reflexes! I discovered that Ellie’s also very ticklish so a friend in my yard suggested I regularly hose her legs to reduce that reflex to kick every time she feels a tickle. I honestly can’t endorse that method enough now! I had tried flag work with Ellie but she didn’t even register its existence so the hose was a great option for handling at a distance.

We also did some preliminary work on tying up that weekend. Again, I felt it was something I’d ideally have left until later but it was proving impossible to do anything with Ellie around as she kept jumping out over the chain of her stable and I couldn’t tie her anywhere. So again I sought the advice of the same guy. He starts all of the home-bred polo ponies in my yard and they all turn out relaxed, confident, soft and affectionate – he is gentle but firm with them and has buckets of experience. When it came to teaching Ellie to tie up, I realised it was something I always took for granted and I had no idea where to begin, especially with it being such a controversial aspect of horse training. The one thing I did know is that since Ellie may well become a polo pony she will have to respect the tie, regardless of what distractions are going on around her. So my friend kindly offered to take Ellie (and me) through it. Since his strategy was to tie her hard to a triple loop of strong twine and let her fight it out, I was quite apprehensive.

  • This was on a soft surface of deep-bedded straw, firm enough that she wouldn’t slip.
  • She was tied to a completely sturdy gate, at her eye level.
  • We were able to access the other side of the gate and had a knife to hand should we need to cut the twine.

So once she was tied and he stepped back, Ellie tried to follow him after a moment and realised that she was tied. She thrashed around and fought the tie for about a minute, maybe two at most and then stepped up closer to the gate to slacken the rope. Within 10 minutes she had relaxed completely and was standing quietly watching the world go by. A couple of times over her various tying sessions that weekend she fought again for a minute but returned to being relaxed again very quickly. All in all, I felt it was successful – it caused her momentary stress but didn’t seem to cause any mistrust or lasting stress. She was still eager to get her halter on again after lunch, and stepped up to her tying spot without hesitation. Having said that, perhaps this might have gone very differently with a different horse. I’d love to hear your thoughts and methods in the comments below!

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Not wanting to let this post drag on too much, I’ll leave you with the news that Ellie is now standing tied very well. When she gets bored or other horses leave the yard, she occasionally paces within the confines of the slack on her rope but Rome wasn’t built in a day! I also began tying her in her stable for short intervals last weekend (the 14th and 15th) which seems to have solved the problem of her jumping out over her chain, even when she’s untied!

Another post to follow soon on our progress these last 2 weeks with handling, attitude and nipping vices in the bud.

Wheels in Motion

Had an amazing, but exhausting day with Ellie today – day one of a long weekend of work with her. At the moment my pillow is calling me, so I’ll write a full post and update on Sunday night. Have a great weekend everyone, hope you all get lots of time for horsing around! 

Impossible Standards

After Ellie’s first session of groundwork and handling in the arena this morning I felt at first that there was nothing worth posting about. But as the morning’s work with Ellie niggled in the back of my mind I realised that there are a thousand valuable lessons I could take from just that one hour with her lovely self. I’ll try to choose just one or two or I’ll be here typing all night!

So my plan today was to try to catch Ellie from the field where she has two new companions, and see where we’d go from there. After a weekend which could only be described as life altering for her (being separated from her yearling sister, transported 3 hours and entering the human world) I was unsure and slightly nervous about whether she would want to have anything to do with me when I tried to catch her. But little Ellie surprised me and came straight to me. She seemed a little unsure but after letting me touch her nose and walk away a few times she came looking for a scratch on the neck and her halter.

Off to the arena we went, passing by some Slurry machinery that would scare an old pro, but El was an absolute champ and strolled straight by. I was eager to start handling her some more today but decided to do some groundwork first to settle her and get her quarters rolling away, in case she felt like kicking during handling. I have only ever groundworked slightly older horses who are well halter broken so the mess that ensued was pretty unexpected. After 10 minutes of fumbling around, trying to keep her attention, and trying to get her to move out in a circle around me without falling in and running me over, I started to wish that she had refused to go by that farm machinery! Ellie was groundworking me like a pro and I was too nervous of her quarters to really send her shoulder out. Finally something clicked and I realised that I was setting a really dangerous precedent, so I set my fear aside and got to work sending her forward and firmly laying down what was my space and what was hers. Within minutes, El was walking a lovely relaxed circle around me, and her attention span was much better.


Clever me then decided to move on to rolling her quarters and in hindsight I gave her far too little reward for respecting my space. I was relieved that she had stopped running me over but rather than stopping to praise her to the moon and back for that I felt a pressure to keep the momentum going and achieve more great things… WordPress, meet my Achilles Heel: The simple, seemingly innocent question, “What’s next?”, often accompanied by the phrase, “That was great but I’d really like to improve this other thing and then I’ll be especially happy with her”. This is not news to me; It did not dawn on my while I sipped my fifth coffee of the day. Attending a clinic with Ricky Quinn (a student of Buck’s) last Spring he gave me a pretty frank talking to for not giving the horse time to soak and always wanting more straight away. This insight almost knocked me off my feet.. as I realised that I do this to myself too. I have no need for an over-bearing parent who is in constant pursuit of the unattainable ‘more’ or ‘better’ as I have that person within myself. Since that clinic I’ve learned to be a bit easier on myself but I can’t deny that some of that seeped out in Ellie’s direction today.

After some mucking about with very messy efforts at rolling her quarters, Ellie began to get frustrated, lose her rhythm and fall in towards me again. So I decided to backtrack and work on her circle again and dropped it as soon as I got one nice circle with her respecting the ‘bubble’ between us. All in, it was probably about 30 minutes work. Feeling awful about pushing her so much, and also not wanting her to the leave her first arena visit thinking it was the worst place in the world, I opted for rubbing her down, massaging her and scratching in all of the places she loves. I would swear she read my apology as she relished the attention with pricked ears and a relaxed expression, nuzzling me affectionately. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to have such a forgiving horse, and that only intensified my affection for her in that moment. While rubbing her down, it occurred to me how far this little horse has come in just 4 days. Ellie is not going to be the ‘finished product’ by Christmas, or in a year’s time, or likely even in 5 years time, but she is trying – and it is those tries, whether big or small, that I have to reward.

Buck says that with a horse you can “look like one mind and one body, if you got a taste of it, you couldn’t get enough of it, you’d rather do that than anything. You may spend your whole life chasing it…but it’s a good thing to chase”. I’m on that chase, but I have to remember that me and Ellie will get there in our own time.

Whose Journey?

Well, if you’re a horse person you might have guessed that this blog is a bit of a misnomer. This little filly I’ve taken on has no intention what-so-ever of taking a journey of any kind. In fact, I’m fairly sure she just wants to stay out in the field with her buddies and eat some grass.

Indeed, this blog might have been better named “Under-Qualified Rider Tries Her Hand at Colt Starting”.

I found myself driving home across the country a few evenings ago with a two year old unbroken, and largely unhandled filly in tow. It has long-since been my ambition to work with a horse who is a close as possible to being a ‘blank slate’. A student of Buck Brannaman’s style of Horsemanship, I have tried to apply his way of interacting with, communicating with, and feeling of a horse over the last year or two. However, working as a groom in the polo world where horses often change hands from groom to groom every couple of weeks, I felt that I was somewhat swimming against the tide and longed to work with a horse of my own – to give them a good start with the most consistency of handling, softness, and feel I can provide. I also thoroughly believe that horses’ behavior mirrors what we teach them, and the flaws in that teaching. In that sense, a horse who has had little or no contact with humans is the perfect test of my methods, my attitude towards the horses I work with, my patience, my feel, my timingbuckquote. No longer will the excuses “her previous owner spoiled her” or “it’s obvious he was handled violently before” have any place in my yard.

So that’s where Ellie comes in – she is my Blank Slate. The mirror reflection of myself, my attitudes and my horsemanship. In return, I hope to offer her a peaceful, clear, safe, and relatively stress-free entry into the world of the riding horse. And as to whose journey this is – I have no idea! But I have a feeling that Ellie and I will be learning from each other in equal measure.