Training Older Horses



I happened upon your blog as I was searching for answers to my training questions… you seem to know your stuff so I figured it would be worth a shot to see if you had any advice for me! About a month ago I was introduced to a friend of a friend who has 5 horses out in a pasture. He was looking for someone to train them but couldn’t afford to send them off to anyone. I offered to give it a shot, but am afraid that I might be in a little over my head. One of them is already broke and just needs work; I think I can handle that. However the other 4 are proving to be quite a handful. They haven’t been “messed with” for years (one just turned 2 and the others are around 4 years old) so they are very disrespectful in the round pen, even running towards me with their ears pinned and kicking in my direction. I do have experience training horses, but not ones that haven’t even been taught to respect humans.

Two of the horses won’t even let me catch them in the pasture- one of them will turn away and kick at me and the other with throw her head up or turn away when I extend my hand with the rope in it towards her. Another one is fine with being caught, but then refuses to be led anywhere other than back towards the herd. The two year old is the sweetest one and I have no problem catching or leading her, but she has kicked at me when I swing a rope toward her trying to get her to disengage her hindquarters.

The older horse that is already broke is making progress, but he has an extremely hard mouth and it’s nearly impossible to get him to turn away from the herd when he’s under saddle. If I try to ride out of sight from them, it turns into a rodeo.

Next time I go out there, I’m planning to put all of the horses in their stalls except for the one I’m working with in the hopes that they might be able to focus better without the distraction of an audience… but I was hoping that you might have some suggestions as to how to handle the situations I’ve described. It’s hard to attempt a “join up” if the horse would rather run you over than come sweetly to your side for pets and treats!

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to hearing back from you!

Thank you for your email, I do enjoy hearing from people and attempting to help them with their horse situations.

The scenario you have described sounds like a lot of hard work, but also very rewarding if you can help these horses gain a better life and better interaction with humans. Please remember that you are adding value to these horses, and really deserve payment of some kind in return (if the owner cannot afford to pay you, perhaps you can suggest an arrangement where he gives you one horse in return for training two or three of the others?) Just a suggestion. I know from personal experience that it’s more enjoyable if you have a return on your investment.

As for the horses that are threatening in their behavior to you…you have a few things to your advantage: one, that you have a round pen, and two, that you recognize their lack of respect as a danger to you. I think your idea of working with just one at a time is a great one. If you can lock the others away in stalls or another pen, and then work one on one with these wilder ones, you will gain ground more quickly.

Some suggestions I would offer: Arm yourself with a lariat rope, lunge whip, or some sort of stick with a flag (or plastic shopping bag tied to the end of it). This tool simply becomes an extension of your arm, it’s not to hurt the horse, but it will help stop him if he’s coming at you with teeth bared.

Also, do some basic round pen excercises to encourage the horse to face up to you (and begin to join up.) Your goal is to begin to control the horse’s feet in the round pen by using your own position and body language. Get the horse in the pen and stand in the middle. Using a lunge whip and a vocal command (I like making a “ck-ck-ck” clucking sound) to ask for forward movement around the pen. Depending on the horse’s sensitivity, you may have to swish the whip or create more pressure on the horse to get him to move out strongly–some horses will just run with no pressure, some will require a tap with the whip, you can just judge what is necessary for each individual horse, but do get him in a trot at least. Insist that the horse circle the pen at a trot or lope for several revolutions. As you remain in the center and turn with the horse, he is going to begin to wonder about your presence and will begin to look to you for a way out of the pressure you have put on him. In other words, after several turns around the pen, finding no corners or way out, he will begin to look to you for direction and furthermore, for help. If he is still seeking a way out (whinnying, head over fence, attempting to turn back the other direction unasked, etc…) ask him to continue to circle the pen at a trot, he is not ready to stop yet. Remember, by directing his feet forward, or driving him with the lunge whip, you are not causing fear in him, you are actually letting him move and release stress and work out tension so that he is in a better frame of mind to learn from you. So this beginning workout is not a punishment, it’s an exercise.

I should say, that if at any time the horse runs towards you or comes at you, leaving the outer circle of the pen, correct that behavior IMMEDIATELY, it is an incorrect decision on the horse’s part and you need to communicate that with him loud and strong. Body language should be enough: arms up high—level with a horse’s eye it will almost always produce a shying back in a horse; a louder, stronger voice—say,”Hey, get back!” loud and sternly; follow with a blocking motion with your lunge whip, or if the horse is continuing on towards you, you may have to actually swing it at him to get him to stop. But protect yourself if he comes into your space. The horse should remain on the outside of the circle until you have invited him in (done later, with body language, so don’t let him misinterpret what you’re saying to him through your body language–speak clearly).

Okay, after the horse has settled a little (the repetition of the circle will relax him slightly, even at a lope or trot you will see a lower headset, ears flicking back and forth or even chewing as he slows down his pace), back off your pressure and with body language ask him to slow down, stop, and turn to look at you. Lower your arms, take a step back, speak softly, extend your free hand in a welcome gesture. The horse may stop, look, and snort or whatever at you, let him relax and breathe a moment. If he does not stop at all, you may need to back away towards one side of the pen, creating a different pressure since to continue the circle would put him in close proximity to you, so he will likely stop if you back away to one side of the pen. If he wheels back and runs the other way, simply move back to the center and encourage him to continue circling awhile longer in the other direction, he isn’t ready to relax. So repeat the first step until he will slow down and begin thinking about the situation.

You will make it a goal to get the horse to face up to you. You want the horse’s head, not his rear end, when he is changing directions in the pen. This is the first step of join up. So, as he is circling, you will want to step in front of him, cutting off his path around the pen, and asking for a reverse in his direction. Most flighty horses (and threatening ones) will wheel sharply into the fence, turning their heels towards you and shooting off in the other direction. This is typical, at first, but to change that behavior and get the horse seeking help from you, you need to increase pressure with perfect timing whenever this happens. At the exact moment the horse is turned away from you, you need to create a disturbance that will spook him forward. If this sounds counterproductive, bear with me. When his heels are towards you and he is making his turn with his face to the fence, change your body language and increase pressure: arms up higher, whip swishing in the air, you make a sound such as “Ah, ah, ah!” like an error message like “no, no, no, you got that answer WRONG!” whatever feels comfortable to you to say to tell this horse “don’t you turn your butt to me like that!”, you can also advance quickly (just not within kicking distance!) and scuff sand towards his heels—whatever you can do to create a commotion loudly, quickly, instantly whenever he decides to put his tail in your face. With a sensitive horse, you might only have to do this once, maybe twice. He will NOT like it, and will stop doing it, because you’re actually in his blind spot when he turns that way, and if your body language and pressure increase when he offers you his blind spot (his butt) then he will stop doing it, because it is very scary and uncomfortable for him. With a not-so-sensitive-or-smart horse, it might take longer, but stick with it, because turning tail is never okay in horse handling.

When you do ask for this reverse turn, you want to give him space to face you and make his turn towards the middle of the pen. To do this, there’s a footwork sequence I will try to describe. The horse is circling the pen to the right. You choose a momeent to ask for a stop and reverse, and from your position in the center of the pen, you strike an angle ahead of the horse but to your right, and take two or three steps quickly to that side of the pen, using a calm voice “whoa, reverse”, quiet body language, lowered arms and whip, etc. The horse is going to be coming towards you and halt (since you’re in his path), and you need to quickly while he is facing you, back up two or three steps and invite him to look at you, and then turn towards you, then towards the middle of the pen and eventually away to the left to circle the pen the other direction. I hope this makes sense. It’s much easier to observe in person than to describe in email! :) As he makes his turn, you will start to pick up pressure again, i.e., arms higher, clucking sound, lift whip, etc. to get him to move out again in a trot to the left. If he fails completely and turns his butt, amp up the pressure to a loud voice and the actions described in the previous paragraph. But a good reversal is quiet, which is his reward for doing it correctly.

As the horse begins to slow down and think and look for ways of reassurance from you, this is your chance to buddy up. As you repeat the aforementioned reversals, both directions, and continue to consistently reinforce with body language what you’ve already said (turn towards me, not away, etc.) the horse will show signs of wanting to stop all movement and face you. When this happens, do NOT discourage it. Give the horse a moment of rest (as long as he is looking at you, giving you his full attention), lower your arms, quiet your voice, put your whip down to the ground, and speak encouragingly to him. I usually put out one hand and take a step or two forward and watch his body language. If he wheels and flees, simply cluck to him and encourage him to circle some more. If he shows aggression, raise your whip and speak very loudly and correct it immediately. Likely, he will show signs of wanting to figure you out, sniffing the air, blowing through his nose, chewing his teeth, licking his lips, flicking ears back and forth. That’s all good. If he will let you inch closer and let you pet him, that’s REALLY good. If at anytime he gets uncomfortable and runs, just (almost nonchalantly) pick up your whip, cluck to him and make him trot some more. Your body language and actions will produce a huge effect on the horse as you do this.

Keep encouraging him to stop again and look at you. Whenever he does, and his look is towards you and the middle of the pen, cease all pressure, become “sweetness and light” with your voice and motions, and see if he will stand and look or even let you step closer. If he will let you touch him, or if he will take a step towards you, back up with a friendly hand extended. Even a very wild horse will begin to follow you. It might not let you touch it, but it will quickly learn that to run means pressure, to face up and come closer will decrease pressure, and the horse will learn to follow you and want to be close to you at all times.

You will get a horse that no longer wants to circle the pen. He wants to be in your pocket, following you around the pen. If at any time the horse turns his butt, amp up the pressure. If it’s him threatening you, REALLY amp it up to correct that. If he’s just forgetting you’re there (whinnying for the others, looking over the fence, etc.) then add pressure accordingly. I usually respond to the horse with pressure that’s even for his offense. For instance, if he stops looking at me to look at the barn, a simple “ck-ck-ck” and advance towards him with arms a little higher to make him circle the pen again is enough. If he’s following me or facing me, arms completely lowered, soft voice, encouraging him to come closer or follow me around the pen. As you walk or circle around the horse, he should turn his face to you, whichever way you walk around the pen, he should follow. This is called “hooked on” or “joined up”.

As for the horse you can catch but can’t lead, that’s a tougher one. I would suggest maybe using a rope halter with knots at the pressure points for added sensitivity….it’s hard to “drag” a full-grown horse around. Leading is something best taught to a baby-sized horse. :) But work in the round pen and use a lot of sideways pulls to get response. For instance, if the horse won’t take a step towards you, move to the side of the horse and give it one VERY strong pull, so it’s off-balance and has to step to catch itself. The instant the horse moves its foot, make a huge deal of it “good boy! here let me pet you or give you a treat! you did it!”. You’ve got to exaggerate everything in the beginning. Make your sideways tug a strong one to get a response. Then when you get a response, make that reward and release of pressure just as strong. As the horse begins to respond more easily, or quickly, then you don’t exaggerate it as much. For instance, after a few strong pulls, maybe the horse will start to figure it out and take a step towards you without such a strong pull first. This is the best way to progress. The sideways pulls will not get you very far, but it’s a start. You want to encourage and reward any forward movement of the horse’s feet, even if it’s sideways movement but in response to your pull on the rope. That’s the only way to start out leading a really stubborn horse.

Also, in the round pen, you can work on getting the horse to give its hindquarters and turn towards you. This will also help with its leading. You can position yourself at the horse’s left shoulder, facing forwards in a leading position, and your right hand under the horse’s chin, your left hand holding the lead rope, and begin forward motion, make a clucking sound to signal “let’s go”, and when the horse doesn’t respond, use your left hand to swing the end of the lead rope around behind you to your left side to flip the horse’s left hip or side, getting a forward response. You must reward all forward movement, even if it’s a huge leap ahead, etc. Say “good boy”, continue forward, and repeat the steps to get the horse moving around the pen with you.

In all these scenarios, some things will work, some won’t. Each horse is an individual and has different needs. These are just a few ideas I had that might be a help to you. I wish you the best of luck, and would love to hear of your success stories!

She then responded with this email:

Thank you so much for your wonderful advice… it gave me the confidence I needed to really make some progress with “the five” as I like to call them. I spent two hours yesterday and three today just lunging them and working on gaining their respect- I’m pretty sure that none of them have had to work that hard in who knows how long! It was amazing the difference I saw just as a result of being more confident in myself.

After about 30 minutes in the roundpen at a time, each horse came out acting completely different than when they went in. The stubborn one didn’t even give me much trouble, just a little encouragement to leave the barn. I was grinning ear to ear like a little girl each time one of them would turn to me and start following me… I can’t wait to get back out there tomorrow!

I do still have a few specific issues that I would like to ask you about if you get a chance to answer this. First of all, the sweet little 2 year old is so “in my pocket” that it makes her actually the most difficult one to do anything with. She will not leave my side unless I use the whip to shoo her away and keep her on the edge of the ring. This makes it really difficult to do anything such as making her back up or throwing the rope over her back because she will literally jump on top of me trying to get as close as possible. I’m not sure how to deal with this without making her scared of me or the rope. 
Second… The horse that I couldn’t catch before is still really tough to get a halter on. She acts like I’m holding a bomb when I extend the halter toward her, so I have to slowly reach out and touch her on the neck with my hand that’s holding the rope and start rubbing as I put the rope around her neck before I can even think about putting the halter on. Once it’s on though, she’s perfectly fine and will even stand tied… I don’t get it! If I continue doing what I’m doing, do you think she will eventually become easier to halter? (I did this while she was in a stall- it would have been impossible to get near her otherwise)
Third… The older horse that is already broken has an extremely “hard” mouth. Would you suggest spurs or a certain type of bit to get through to him? I don’t want to hurt him, but I don’t know how to get him to go where I want. I’ve always started all of my horses out being very soft and teaching them to neck rein so that the only time I’m in their mouth is when I’m asking them to slow down or back, and then it’s only until I get a response. 
Once again, thank you SO much for responding to my email, and I look forward to hearing back from you!

And my final email to her:

I’m so glad to hear that your work with “the five” is going better, and I’m glad I could be an encouragement to you.  It’s amazing how rewarding horse work is, especially when you see immediate results! 

As far as the pocket pal you’re having a hard time with, I don’t think you’ll make her afraid of you by insisting that she move away when you ask her to.  I know what you’re dealing with, it’s like trying to train a very gentle horse to lunge….they just won’t leave you unless you are forcible with them, which makes you feel like you’re being mean.  I would again use the clucking noise (which always means “go”) and your body language to “ask” her to move out and away from you, and then if she doesn’t listen to your request, then issue an order by backing up your request with the whip.  She won’t be afraid of you, but she will learn to listen when she hears that clucking noise.  Each horse is different, and you have to go as far as required to get the desired result.  For instance, if she just refuses to move away from you when you ask her to, you have to do whatever it takes to get her to obey, even if it’s scaring her with the whip.  If she’s not afraid of the whip, tie a plastic bag to the end of it.  Or a bunch of milk jugs on pieces of twine dangling from it.  Anything to get her to move when you ask her to.  Soon she will understand that the clucking sound means “go”, and none of the props will be necessary. 

For the horse that’s hard to halter, I think repetition is the key, and just a lot more handling.  What you’re doing sounds like the only way to progress, so just keep doing that, and it will get easier and she will get more comfortable.  Also, work hard to make the end of each training session with this horse a nice, relaxed, enjoyable treat.  She will be easier to halter if she remembers that the last thing you did was fill her feed bucket and brush her.  For a horse that’s really afraid, I try to keep all of my movements very slow and easy for the horse to predict, be as nice as possible to her, and let her develop trust before asking much of her. 

For the hard mouthed horse, it depends on just how much of a danger the horse is to you.  To clarify, only get a stronger bit if you absolutely cannot ride him in a regular one.  I start every horse (broke or not) with a smooth snaffle bit, and the most severe I ever want to go is a snaffle with shanks (argentine snaffle or reining snaffle).  The shanks do offer a lot more control, as in stopping power, but the d-ring or o-ring snaffle is best for direct rein contact (which it sounds like this horse still needs, so I would not expect him to neck rein until his plow-reining is perfect).  If he is explosive or high-energy and is not safe to ride in a plain bit, you could try a hackamore or something with shanks, but I don’t like the idea of getting something really strong, like a correction bit, because it could just make him develop bigger problems.  Personally, I would make it my goal to ride him a LOT in a ring snaffle, and if he doesn’t give willingly to the direct rein pressure (when you pull left, his nose turns left), I would put him in the round pen and tie his head around to the stirrup.  Tie short on one side, so he feels rein pressure unless he bends his head and “gives” to the pressure, and then leave the other side rein completely slack or remove it from the bridle.  Leave him for half an hour while you work with another horse or clean stalls, and keep an eye on him, but let him work things out with the bit.  He should be turning circles or standing still with his head over to one side.  If he is standing comfortably with his head straight in front of him, you don’t have the rein tied short enough.  He will learn to give without making it unbearable for you to ride him.  Then when you ride, he will be all prepped to bend and turn when you ask.  Repeat with other side.  Don’t do this with a shanked bit, just an o-ring or d-ring snaffle, it’s the easiest on a horse, and it will still get results if you just work him enough.  He should get a lot lighter in the bit, no matter how hard-mouthed he is.  In my opinion, the hardest mouthed horses are the ones that didn’t get worked enough in the snaffle bit. 
Good luck!  I’d love to hear back from you, with updates on how the horses are doing, and what things you’re finding out that work with each one’s challenges.  Let me know if you have any more questions!