In which I stand on a soapbox and talk about training Miss Fiddle

Let me begin by saying that I'm not a professional horse trainer, and I don't even want to pretend to be one. I do not fix problem horses, I don't offer advice about tack or equipment for other people, and I don't put my horse on a pedestal as an example of a Well-Behaved Horse.

I do, however, believe that every time you interact with another living being, you are teaching something and you are learning something. Every single time.

Think for a moment about the last interaction you had with another living soul. Did you order the dog out of the kitchen? Did you kiss your son on the forehead? Did you promise your spouse that you would pick up bread and milk at the store? All of those creatures learned something about you. What did you teach them?

Those creatures had some reaction to your behavior. Did you like the reaction? Do you intend to change your behavior to get a different reaction, or repeat your behavior to get the same reaction again? They are shaping your behavior at the same time you shape theirs.

Cool, huh?

It's not always completely straightforward, especially in a new relationship. The other creature, be it horse, dog, or new co-worker, has experiences that lead her to believe that if she does this, then you will probably do that. A dog who sits on command at my house can reasonably expect a scratch on the nose or a nice cookie. Dogs from other households might expect a cookie every single time, and they might be confused when I praise them without food. I learn (by watching their initial confusion) that praise wasn't what they expected. They learn, eventually, that there will be cookies, but not always.

When we have understanding about behaviors, we are both happier.
So, how did we get Fiddle from this:(July 2007)
to this:(May 2009)
to this:
(March 2010)?

It was a long, slow road, actually, and although I did the lion's share of training with her, I didn't do it all myself.

What I wanted was a reliable trail and endurance horse who could move forward with ears forward on a loose rein, could behave appropriately in a crowd of unruly others, and could pay attention to me and follow my instructions all the time. That's a tall order.

I needed her to be able to do the following:
* Control her impulses
* In an unfamiliar situation, do something that has been "right" in the past
* Look to the handler for help and guidance

I like to start my dogs and horses with a trick or two, some default behavior that is always "right." For dogs, the default is "sit." A sitting dog is a good dog.

For horses, the default trick can be anything that will allow the horse to communicate, "I do this because I want to be good." Fiddle's trick is to hold up one foot and arch her neck down.
This trick teaches control of the feet (we teach it for all four feet), and control of impulses. She can't bite or kick anybody when she's doing this trick. She is being good. For Fiddle, it's a relief to have a behavior that is always good. She can default back to it when she is uncertain, and that lets me know that she wants more guidance.

When I first got Fiddle, she seemed to be a very angry young horse. Although she was nearly 5 years old, she acted more like a cranky toddler than a nearly-mature mare, and she hated to be confronted with unfamiliar situations. She frequently tried to kick and bite people, she would plant her feet and refuse to walk properly on a leadline, and she pinned her ears at everyone.

Because she had learned elsewhere that she could scare some people by trying to bite them, we kept her away from timid people who might allow that behavior, and surrounded her with canny people who would get in her space and make her move her feet if she was inappropriate with her face. Every single time she tried to bite someone, that person (who was warned in advance what she might do and how they should respond) would crowd into her and make her yield her hindquarters, trot in circles, or back up--in other words, we were teaching her that "biting" equals "working".

We gave her the same response for her threats to kick. If she aimed a foot at someone, that person would work her. Eventually, she learned to keep all her feet under control when she was around people, because "kicking" meant "working."

The key at this point in her life was keep timid people away from her. This mare believes that if you give her an inch, she deserves to take a mile. If she ever succeeds with a threat to bite or kick, she would learn that sometimes she could get away with it. This is much harder to eradicate than the absolute you will always have to work if you try to bite.

To help her cope with her fear of uncertainty and new situations, I took Fiddle into every weird situation I could find:
We travelled to Standardbred Play-days in Canada, I hauled her to the ocean, rode her into the backcountry, and took her to ridecamp to build and mark trails.

It's important to note that, although I rode this mare extensively, I did not put her into endurance competitions for three years--until I was reasonably sure that she could do the work correctly. Remember, she is always learning. If she learns that one of the things she can do is throw a bucking wobbly at the start line of a ride, it might take years to convince her to quit doing that.

Instead, she learned that camp is a place where you go stay for a week, and you have to work every single day, so it doesn't take much for me (now) to convince her to walk quietly through camp and over the start line.

I took her out in crowds whenever I could--to local poker rides, to playdays, and to trailheads that I knew would be crowded--and I enforced the requirement for good behavior while she was there.

I put all kinds of bizarre tack and equipment on her, and then asked for the same good behavior.

I took her for my riding lessons, and insisted that she try new things. When she is naughty, she has to work harder. When she is good, she gets quiet praise and sometimes a cookie.
She learned that the things we do together are FUN, and that often there are cookies.
When I find something that she feared (white plastic bags, for example), I incorporate that thing into her everyday environment, by hanging the scary thing on her fence, or having it poke out of my pocket. Her feed in camp comes wrapped in white plastic bags!

Horses can't learn to cope with something if you avoid the situation. Rather than say, "my horse can't do endurance because she hates being in unfamiliar places", I taught her to accept new places. Rather than say, "I can't use white plastic bags", I taught her to control her impulse to flee from them. This is ongoing, BTW, she still hates them.

In fact, it's all ongoing. Every time I interact with her, she learns something, and she will continue to learn stuff for the rest of her life.

So, there's my philosophy of horse training: Whenever you interact with your horses, you are always learning and you are always teaching. Pay attention to what you are teaching your horses, and pay attention to what they teach you.


  1. Great Post! I too have done 995 of Stars training since I bought her an as unbroke 3 year old 6 years ago.

    It took me along time to learn , that she likes variety and does NOT like the pokey stick.However, a pokey stick reminder is a good thing every once in awhile.

    She is CRAZY smart, has a big heart and a FOUL temper. So I work with what I got! Hopefully one big endurance season will get her over the " personal space bubble" and her "hell no and spins" when she is afraid or stubborn.

    You have done a superb job with Fiddle! Hopefully we will be able to ride together someday. Red Tail ribbons on them both !

  2. Totally agree with you. I'm not a horse trainer bit I understand that everytime I do anything with a horse I'm training it. I won't to roll my eyes and then shake the snot out of people that say "I want to buy a horse that is broke because I don't want to train". They obviously don't get it (coincidently these are te same people that continually gotheough horses because they progressively "untrained" each and every one). Sorry. You have obviously touched on one of MY soapboxes!

    I won't claim to be perfect with my horse AT all. Behavioral I decided at te beginning I didn't mind, now I'm deciding that yes, I do need to fix that. I think sometimes it takes a couple of horses before you really figure out exactly what horse you want, and therefore will"train".

    These are the things I judge my progress on:

    Does she still greet me at the gate and let me she's looking forward to going out again?

    is she better than when I got her? So many people end up with worse horses than they started with and they seem confused bythis phenomenon (because I board I get to see a LOT ofthis!). I'm happy with the progress farley has made. For example, farley sill pulls back occasionally. But she doesn't do it very often and the response during the pull back is minor, therefore I know I'm on the right track. (used to do it a lot). She used to not load in the trailer when I first got her, now she loads like a dream. Another example-she regularly bucked when I first got her-she does it so rarely it isn't even worth warning people about when the ride her.

  3. MEL: yes, exactly. In dog training, we say that the dog you have after a year is the dog you deserve, i.e. you will eradicate all the behaviors that drive you crazy in the first year, and the behaviors that remain don't make you (as) crazy.

    With horses, I think the timeline is longer.

    EXAMPLE:Fee has a lousy canter in the arena. When I got her, she refused to TROT, so I had to fix that first. Now she trots beautifully. When we started working on canter, she refused to go forward (would buck, kick, etc. instead). Now she canters, but not very well...still, it's huge progress, because she doesn't refuse anymore. As long as we're making forward progress, I'm happy.

  4. In Laura Crum's blog (or rather the blog she contributes to) she mentioned in a post that you pretty much know your horse after 2 years. That rings pretty true in my experience.

  5. Stellar post!

    This makes me realize that even though I'm not a horse trainer, but because I have goals for me and my horse to achieve and have went forward in doing them together, with a planned program....that....that...yes, I am traning my horse. Wow.

    And throughout this traning, like you said, I am also learning, too.

    Totally awesome!


    ps, Question:
    How did Fiddle do the first time you tried walking through that tunnel? Whew! I'm sure most horses would be thinking, "I am positive there must be a mountain lion in that cave"
    It takes an extreme amount of trust of their human for a horse to walk through a dark tunnel like that. You've done good by Fiddle.

    Question: Is Fiddle the first horse you've worked like this and for this long?

    Question: Noticed the camper....Are you able to sleep and live in the camper with it not inside the truck bed? If so, how? That would be so cool!

  6. LISA: I've had bad experiences in a different tunnel (Boylston), but only because another horse was a knucklehead and crashed the horse I was riding (Toad) into the wall. A few years later, I wanted to ride Toad through the tunnel to get both of us over our bad experience...had to get off and walk and sing to get him through it. Fee hasn't had those experiences, and she walked right into the tunnel. The tunnel in the photo is short, and you can see daylight at the far end, which helps a lot.

    Fiddle is the third or fourth horse I've worked with on a long-term basis. I started Story under saddle, but she was so easy-going that she trained herself! I did almost all of the work on the Toad...and that wasn't so easy. I learned a lot from him. I re-started Hana when Jim got her. She had a lot of naughty habits, but nothing huge; it was difficult not to fall off of her from laughing at her antics. Fiddle has been a big challenge, but not nearly as difficult as Toad, and much more rewarding.

    The camper has electric jacks (yay!) so we take it off the truck when we're in camp for more than a day or two so we can use the truck. We did the same with the old camper (manual jacks, a PITA) but the electric jacks make it super-easy to load on/off the truck.

  7. Note to self: when I buy my camper (years and years away...) get electric jacks...

  8. ELECTRIC JACKS rock! Jim had the cost of the electric jacks added to the overall loan for the camper. Worth it.

  9. I had no idea Fiddle has been such a challenge! It does not show now, so it looks like the hard work has paid off.

    You guys look like you have a really good time out there and that is what I hope to accomplish with my boy- Cartman.

    I really like the idea of taking the horse to ride camp and working, I would love to volunteer to help mark trails or take ribbons down at a ride sometime and it sounds like that would be a good job for a greenie (maybe by next summer anyway!).

    Thanks for sharing! Karen W.

  10. A superb and well-thought out post. And well illustrated with both photos and anecdotes. It's obvious that your approach works! Nuff said.

  11. I am hereby offering free Pirate rum to anybody who wants to come early (or stay late) to camp and volunteer as a trail worker. You and your horse will be glad for the experience, I promise!

    ALSO: If you're in the Pacific Northwest and haven't yet signed up for the Trailmaster class, you've missed the deadline, but if you are in another region, run-don't-walk to sign up for your local class!!!

  12. Your post made me feel SO MUCH BETTER about my Phebes. You described the horse I so badly want, but am so impatient to get. You also made me feel so much better about letting Phebes set out a few rides to work on our partnership and to enjoy the summer and begin distance again in fall with a "different" mindset.

    Long distance hug.


  13. I love this post. You train horses in the same manner I do, though I have never thought to express it in the way you did. :) And neither of us are "trainers"....LOL!

    I so wish I lived closer....endurance rides and setting up camp and all that sounds SO fun. Sadly I am way over here in Maine. :(

  14. I love the fact that you pointed out that animals are training us as fast as we train them. Training == communication!

    My default behavior is "head down, pretty ears." I'm not quite good enough to teach anything with raised legs, not with a mare who defaults to pawing. If my reinforcements aren't perfect I'll just end up teaching her that pawing is what I want.

    Dixie's very bossy, and I've been very firm about keeping ignorant or timid humans out of her space. She pins her ears and "herds" anything that won't stand up to her. She never even tries it with confident horsepeople. I would never let a non horsey person try to catch her or feed her - it'd just reinforce something I don't want reinforced.

    Was Fiddle a pacer? Or did she just not want to trot under saddle in a way you liked?

  15. Fiddle is a pacer, but that wasn't the problem with her trot: the problem was that she would plant her feet, pin her ears, and REFUSE TO MOVE. Pushing her forward often ended in a bucking match. Yeah, that wasn't pretty--and she can be very stubborn, too. Fortunately, I am slightly more stubborn (and also I rode the bucking Toad for 8 years so I had some skillz). Whew.

    The "ongoing" training really is a daily thing. When we feed her, Fee is required to stand back with her head averted and "pretty" ears. If she is too close, or her ears are bad, she must work--backing or circles. No exceptions. The barn manager at her old barn didn't enforce this, so it's only been happening for a year (since we moved the mares here). It's not as firmly entrenched yet as I prefer--she still challenges us sometimes at feeding time. She is always looking for the "inch" that might lead to the "mile", and she hopes that maybe today we will let her ears be wicked. She will fix her ears or posture promptly when told to do it, but if you don't notice her badness, she figures she "won." Sigh. God save me from a smart horse.

  16. STB EVENTER: There's a ride in Maine at the end of June: Call ride management to see if they have an "intro" ride! It's so much fun!

  17. What a timely post! thank you, really enjoyed it.

  18. Heh, Fee is Dixie's opposite. Dixie doesn't want to stand still, ever, no matter what. Let's walk/trot/bolt somewhere, anywhere! We are so very slowly making some progress about the duration of our halts, but mainly I just work around it. Picking a fight makes both of us angry.

  19. I do need to fix that. I think sometimes it takes a couple of horses before you really figure out exactly what horse you want, and therefore will"train
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