A session with the guru

No one has made a greater influence on my horsemanship in the last ten years than Ellen Eckstein.  While most riders go to Ellen for her expertise in dressage lessons, I get giddy at the anticipation of a ground work lesson with her.

If you don’t know who Ellen is, read her biography here.

I brought Blue to my lesson with Ellen because he has been more committed to bracing against me than Corny.  Happilly, the previous day’s session with Blue had given us a break through.  I could now turn Blue’s neck without his body turning.  I could also now have an influence over the direction his ribs roll.  I was excited to build on this in our lesson with Ellen.

First we worked on yielding Blue’s haunches while he was at the end of the line.  I had been striving to do this over the last month and made some progress.  In my session with Ellen, she made some minor changes, that made a huge impact on blue.  She told me to step backwards and towards Blue’s haunches when asking him to yield.  It went so much better!  We even got him to step away from his body laterally with his outside hind a few times!

Here’s a clip of that work https://youtu.be/23H8dN0U1A

Of course, none of this would have been possible without all our hard work on longing on a circle.  This was the first day that I’ve worked Blue that he didn’t make an unsolicited direction change, and didn’t pull hard on me every time I asked him to turn his head.

After we longed and yielded haunches for a while, we put on Blue’s bridle.  She  took Blue and did some rein yields.  A rein yield is where you ask your horse to move his head to the side and he responds by moving his hind feet laterally away.  I didn’t recognize it at first because it looked different when a shorter person does it (Ellen) than a towering monster does it (me).

The rein yield from the ground is something I have been doing with all my horses.  In this session Ellen made me aware of the precise feel on the bridle that I needed to have from Blue before I give my release.  Blue’s habit when asked to yield to anything is to brace  against it.  This exercise was no exception.  Blue tended to brace his outside hind, and just before picking it up and unbracing it he would lift his nose and pull on the bit.  It was reminiscant of a racehorse leaning down into the bit to move his legs faster, a habit that had previously brought Blue much success.  By the end of the session we got him to softly turn his head and move his hind feet without this additional tug.

Ellen coaching me through a rein yield while Blue’s owners look on.

Standing on stuff

I’m not into 100% arena work.  With two months of groundwork for the brothers, it’s got to be more interesting than circle after circle.

Luckily, we have some good stuff to practice standing on.  I like to have the horses stand on things for a few reasons:

  1. Get accustomed to doing things for seemingly no reason, just because I asked it of them
  2. Get enough control of their feet to place them exactly where I want, even if it isn’t convenient or natural for the horse.
  3. See how they respond to pressure of placing their feet in a very specific place.
  4. Gain some skills to help them load into my trailer, an inconvenient, not natural, unsensical, place for a horse to go (according to the horse).

  I tend to stand on things first as an example to the horse that they are acceptable to stand on.  It will also give the horse an idea of the sound the object will make when their hoof hits it. In future sessions, I will try to get the horse to step on something novel before I do.

Here we have a mock bridge for the horses to stand on.  I like starting with this obstacle because I can ask the horse to crosd the broad side of the bridge first.  That way it is easier for me to make it clear that the horse is to go over the bridge.

After Blue went over the broadside of the bridge, we approached it from a narrow side.  Blue didn’t mind the hollow sound the bridge made under his feet.  He also had little resistance to stopping on top of the bridge.  
Next, we went over a tarp.  So easy for Blue!  He obviously had tarp training before.  We did it both on the line, and off the line in the round pen.  I’m glad we did it though, even though he was pretty good at the tarp, he still hesitated a little before it and sped up going away from it at the beginning of our session.  

If you want to see video of that, look here https://youtu.be/4h4aybZPZPU

Blue on the tarp

Finally, Blue stood on the low pedestal.  This was the most challenging because it was the easiest to go around, or over without touching.

Nope, that’s not it.
Blue and I had some struggle about wether he should stand on its or not.  During the session, I stopped to reach in my pocket for my phone so that I could take a picture of Blur straddling the pedestal with his front legs.  This is the photo I ended up getting:


I had been putting too much pressure on Blue bell!  I guess it was clear what I was asking him to do.  He just needed a chance to take a breath and step up on his own.  In keeping constant pressure on him, whether it be moving his feet, or having clear intent that I wanted him on the pedestal, I was providing him with opportunities to resist.  When the pressure was off, he was no longer resistant, and he stepped right up!

What fun it is to work with this horse. Like any horse, he’s going to make me a better horse trainer.

TPR: Temperature, Pulse, Respiration

A couple years ago I was at my in laws house for Thanksgiving.  My baby was about 6 months old, and I was nursing her when I noticed my phone was blowing up.  Seemed like one of my clients was having a veterinary crisis with her horse.  I excused myself and called her back.  She told me that her horse was behaving oddly, and doing something funny with her leg.  She was getting ready to call the vet.

I really like my vets, I consider them friends and I don’t want them to have to leave their families on a holiday for no reason.  I also really like my clients, many of them are friends too.  I don’t want them to have to needlessly pay a huge emergency call fee.

So I asked some questions to determine if the horse needed to see the vet right away.  Is she breathing normally? Does she have a fever?  What’s her pulse?  The answer to all of these questions was “I don’t know.” I was able to walk her through the procedures on how to collect this information.  With the assistance of a more knowledgeable boarder who happened upon the scene, I was able to determine that there was no real emergency taking place. 

This incident got me thinking, how was this client supposed to learn to do these tests to determine if her horse is ok?  If she were in pony club, or horse masters, it probably would have come up in preparation for a testing.  Even the D1, the most basic test that the walk/trot kids take, includes a portion where the kids had to know their mounts’ temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR). Many riding lesson students don’t want to pay for lessons in horsemanship, they want lessons in how to jump higher and dressage better.

So I started requiring everyone who leased a horse from me to take a lesson to learn how to take the following measurements:


Have a digital thermometer on hand as well as some lube.  If no lube, use spit.  Many years ago I was in a class at UC Davis where we examined a mare’s cervix.  The instructor told us the motto at the horse barn was “when you think you have enough lube, put some more on.” Pretty good life advice, if you ask me.

To take your horses temperature, stand to the side of his haunches, lift his tail, and slide your well-lubed digital thermometer into the rectum until only the screen is visible.   A horse’s normal body temperature can range from 99-101·F. Elevated temperatures can be signs of infection or illness. 

Last month Mark learned to pick his horses’ hooves, this month he learns to take a temperature.  This should be a basic skill for every horse owner.


Watch your horse’s sides, not his nose, to determine breaths per minute. 8-15 breaths per minute is considered normal for a horse at rest.  Some horses breathe faster than that so it’s important to know what is normal for your horse.

Ann watches Blue’s flanks and counts his breaths per minute.


The”P” in TPR is the most difficult for most horse owners to assess.  Practice finding a pulse by pushing a vein under the horses jaw into the inside of his cheek.  For shy pulses, it’s often easier to find a vein around the eye to push gently on.  

The average adult horse’s pulse is 30-40 beats per minute when at rest.  Higher than that is an indicator for pain or other physical distress.

Ann finds Corny’s pulse near his eye.

The brothers both had very difficult pulses to find.  If the horse was in pain, it would probably be easier to find if it was throbbing.  The difficulty finding a pulse might be a sign of well being!


It’s important to know your horse’s baseline metrics for two reasons.  The first is so you will know what is normal for them.  The second is so you will have experience finding TPR when you are freaked out about your horse’s health.

I keep track of all the horses in my program with an ap on my iPhone.  The one I use is called Equi Sketch Records.  Blue’s record looks like this 

Compare his medical normals with Poni’s:

You can see the difference in what is normal for each equine. Poni’s resting  respiration is way out of what is considered normal.  If Blue was breathing 42 times per minute at rest, I would be very concerned.  For Poni, it’s just how she is.

If you don’t know your horse’s healthy TPR, please make a point of checking it the next time you visit him.  Write them down, and keep it in your tack box just in case.

The Double Longe and Interpretive  Dance

Blue and Corny are the thoroughbreds I hope to take to Kentucky in October for the thoroughbred makeover competition.  Niether of these full brothers longed very well, so my last entry was about how I taught them direction and speed cues while they were loose.  Now it’s time to put the lines back on and try longing again.

Both horses might have had a little bit of Parelli training at their previous farm. My guess is that this is why they turn in to face me as soon as they feel the slightest pressure on the longe line.  Usually when a horse does this, I hurry to get behind them to send them forward again in the same direction.  I tried that first with these two, but that seemed to confuse them more and make them a bit frantic.  That certainly isn’t going to help me.  Being frantic is not a mindset that fosters learning, so I’ve got to figure out how to explain things more clearly to the brothers.

Enter the double longe!  Sometimes called long lining, it’s a way to have influence on both sides of the horse independently.  I am fairly it experienced with double longing, but it’s best to learn on horses that already longe pretty well.

My set up is:

  1. A surcingle 
  2. A folded saddle pad 
  3. A halter
  4. A slip (a snaffle bridle without a noseband or reins)
  5. Long lines

Corny ready to learn double longing

In an ideal world my surcingle would have turrets, but I get by without.
 Unlike longe lines, long lines are rolled, for the first few meters.  The first couple years that I did double longing, I preferred to use two different colored longe lines.

I have already gotten the horses used to ropes moving around all their legs and tail.  I also introduced their boots previous to this session.

Week 2, day 1

I worked both horses in the roundoen wearing all the equipment, but not hooked up to the long lines.  I noticed that Corny has a real problem with holding the bit in his mouth and keeping his tongue steady.  I’m not going to attach lines or reins to his bit until he learns to hold the bit calmly and quietly.  

After a quick review of speed and direction cues, I attached the long lines.  The line closer to me clipped directly onto the side of the halter, or inside bit ring.  The line on the opposite side ran over the horses back, through the top surcingle ring, and then to the bit.  Now I could  influence the horse to turn to the outside, while they could still see the inner line run from their face to my leading hand.

Here’s some footage of Corny’s first session on the long lines.


Week 2, days 2-3

Long lining went well in the round pen  yesterday, now it’s time to try in the arena.  I was able to keep the horses moving forward by using my outside rein to keep them from turning in or cutting in.  I could also use my outside rein to keep them from drifting out to some extent.

However, both brothers are pretty convinced that the”circle” I want them to do looks like this:

Corny and Blue’s idea of a longing circle

They are super consistent about making this god awful shape! It’s the same in both arenas, and flips over when we change direction.

Seriously, what is that?  Are they football fans? 

Or maybe it looks like 


Oh, I get it!  They are trying to tell me they want to go to

To see Corny’s interpretation of the circle, check out his first day on the double longe:

This clip shows the 3/4 circle where he turns to face me when he hits the inside rein.  This happened pretty  much every time before we started the double longe.  It also shows me using my body language to shoo him away.  This is the dance of the giant demented bird. thehttps://youtu.be/4eMHL92f8Z8

Now he’s getting the hang  of ithttps://youtu.be/rInC4yrrKzE

In any case, that’s not a circle. However it’s great progress and I will take it!

The before picture, part 2

Blue and Corny are doing great with their ground manners.  They are able to be handled by their inexperienced owners, and are relaxed around the ranch.

I like to make sure that there horses in training with me understand several concepts of human partnership before I climb aboard.  The first day I worked with the brothers, I had a pretty unsuccessful time longing them.  I knew I was going to have to start from scratch with this concept.

On week one, day two I put the horses in the round pen.  At first I only cared about the direction they were going on the circle.  Corny tried to change direction once on his own, but was otherwise content to do as I ask.  Blue challenged my leadership about the direction of travel several times, but eventually settled into the routine. 

 Next, I worked on establishing a cue to go to the next faster gait when I lift the finger on my driving hand.  When working on the ground, I refer to the driving hand as the one closest to the horse’s tail (maybe holding a whip).  I refer to the leading hand as the one closest to the horse’s head (maybe holding a line).

To get a horse sensitive to my gesture to change gait, I go through the following process. Each step takes about two of the horse’s strides.  I stop the process when the horse moves to the next faster gait.

  1. Lift my index finger on my driving arm
  2. Lift my driving arm
  3. Lift the butt of the whip
  4. Point the whip at the horse’s haunches
  5. Tag the horse with the whip

This process teaches the horses how to go forward from a light cue before being ridden. Its consistent escalating sequence gives the horse a chance to think about the initial cue without waiting so long that they forget about it.  Done with repetition, most horses pick up on this quickly.  The brothers were no exception and understand the concept after this first session.

The last thing I worked on was changing direction. I made sure the horses would stop and turn towards me when I stepped in front of their shoulder.  They did this well, though Blue did try to run past me a couple times.  

I was looking for signs of relaxation in the horses.  I didn’t see many once we went faster than the walk.  I want this to improve before I consider mounting.

The next day (week one,day 3) I reviewed these concepts in the big arena instead of the round pen.  I asked for direction changes, changes in gait, and drawing the horses towards me.  Sort of like a turnout/roundoen hybrid session.

It’s taken long enough, but behold the before video of the horses moving free on the arena!

Here is Blue, see if you can spot his subtle signs of disrespect.https://youtu.be/1q-mH96EUXM

Blue cocking his hip at me.  I’m just out of frame but you can see my shadow

And here is Corny https://youtu.be/tLji4dp1RVw

The before picture,part 1

Every makeover show worth its salt has a “before” reel.  Since Blue and Corny are aiming for the Thoroughbred Makeover in October, I figured they should have one too.

Initially we weren’t thinking about the makeover, and I’m kicking myself for not getting footage of their first day in training with me.  Instead I’m going to have to paint you a word picture.

To give some perspective on timing, I work with the brothers three times a week.  November 2 was our first day together.  Initial assessment of their training is as follows.

Cross ties: it is unknown if the brothers had every been straight tied or cross tied before.  Owners Ann and Mark have never seen them tied up in any way.  Both horses showed separation anxiety to one another.  Blue weaved in the cross ties, Corny gaped his mouth, flipped his head and even pulled back once.  The pulling back wasn’t a big deal, we have breakaway cross ties and the brothers wear leather halters. 

Grooming: Blue was hesitant to pick up his feet, and very sensitive to brushing.  Corny kicked out a bit when I was working with his hind feet.  He’s also ear shy

Leading: They both have pretty good manners.  Blue likes to get in front of his handler and Corny nearly mowed me down when Blue went out of site.

Longing: so long as I could conform to their ideas of what longing is, it was kind of ok.  Both horses tend to turn and face me when they feel the slightest pressure on the halter.  Sometimes horses with a Parelli background do that.  I don’t want my horses to do that.  I had to walk along with them, and niether horse wanted to canter.

I planned to address each one of these topics.  My next couple sessions were done in the round pen.  I really got a feel of the brothers’attitudes, and boy are they different from each other!

Blue was the successful racehorse of the two.  He ran for the years and won several times.  He still has that warrior mentality.  Since there’s is no one to compete against in our sessions, he’s trying out competing against me.  He hasn’t done anything major, but I see him cocking his hip at me, snaking his head, and trying to choose our direction of travel.  I get after him for each of these little infractions so he doesn’t escalate these behaviors.

If Blue was a person

In contrast to his warrior of a brother, Corny raced only a little bit.  With him it’s more like they gave a kid a sword and sent him into battle.  He doesn’t seem to have any agenda towards competition.  He wants to figure out what I want and keep tabs on his brother.

If Corny was a person

So my work needs to help the horses become more confident in themselves and learn to understand what I am asking for.

To address Corny’s ear sensitivity I did some flagging with him.  After he accepted the soft flag over his ears while he was standing still and in motion it was much easier for me to rub him slowly and he was able to keep his head low for bridling after about a week of this.  
To address Corny’s issue with kicking out, we practiced lifting his feet with a rope.  This kept me out of harm’s way, encouraged his feet to yield to pressure, got him comfortable with ropes tangled around his legs, and started to develop his sense of trust in me. 

Corny quietly yielding to the foot rope.  

I did all this stuff with Blue too.  I also sacked them out with a saddle pad to help them not be so flinchy about putting on the saddle.  While Corny seemed to have bigger issues that were resolved with these exercises, Blue also benefited from them.  It became easier to handle Blue’s feet, he became less ticklish to grooming, and began to engage with me in a more positive way.

The brothers got rapidly better in the cross ties over the first two weeks with this sort of work.  In my next entry I will talk about learning to longe.

What I was hired to do

While the focus of this blog is my goal for thoroughbred makeover competition in October, that is not the reason Mark and Ann hired me to train the horses.  In my first session with Mark and Ann I asked them for their individual goals.  They both expressed that they want to get more comfortable working with the horses.  Mark wants to ride someday, but Ann doesn’t think her back will tolerate it. 
I asked about the goals for their horses.  They stated that they want their horses to be happy.  That means that I need to train the horses to do a job.  Mark and Ann aren’t picky about what job that is, they want me to explore their horses’aptitudes.

This all sounds like a lot of fun!  These ex-racehorses have to be among the luckiest ones in the country to have owners that are willing to do this for them.  Seriously, Blue and Corny have won the lottery.

My job is to make sure they remain in good graces with their owners.  That means impeccable ground manners on the horses, and good unmounted instruction for the humans.  Luckily the brothers are pretty well behaved already, and the humans are good students.

4 year old Corny waiting with 7 year old Talia for his dental appointment… These horses have exceptional temperaments.

After they took the first week to settle, learn to cross tie, and wear boots, we got to work.  After the first month in training Ann and Mark can now do the following things with their own horses:

  1. Halter 
  2. Lead
  3. Crosstie
  4. Groom/clean feet
  5. Turnout/bring in
  6. Apply/remove boots
  7. Blanket/unblanket

Blue out for a walk around the property with his owner, Mark

Ann and Mark have made great strides in their unmounted techniques this month. In my next entry I will start talking more about the training  I have been doing with the horses.