Horse Training

Without Pain…

“The whole idea of struggle brings you to a point of conflict, the antithesis of horsemanship.”  If things seem to be going wrong in your training, first look to the possibility of confusion.  The horse wants to please.  It is his nature to yield and to avoid conflict.  If he seems unwilling to comply with your wishes/requests/demands, consider the possibility that he is confused and does not understand your aids.  First look to fixing yourself.  Make your language clearer, your communication more basic.  Go to a simpler task, a slower gait, a smaller jump, use a milder bit, remove force, and concentrate upon influence.  If your hose is acting out of character, consider that he feels poorly or that something is hurting him.  Check your equipment, his body, his hooves.  Give your horse a chance to tell you why he is not cooperating before you decide to attack him.

My beautiful picture

Consider how often he is ridden.  If you work him hard every day, be sure to vary your routine.  Drilling him over and over with the same patterns of schooling will either bore him into quiet, dull submission or drive him to rebellion.  Neither is appealing.  If you can only get to him once a week, the excitement and newness of your contact with him many be overly stimulating.  He may have trouble concentrating for the first hour you are together, so do not make any demands upon him in the beginning of your time together beyond simple safety.  After the freshness has worn off, begin a schooling session that takes into account the time that has passed since your last contact.  Much improvement can be had with a review of old skills, a lesson on new, logical movements, finishing with a session of easy, well-honed skills that allows the horse to feel successful.


This building of successes for both of you can eliminate the use of pain as a training tool.  Equipment that inflicts pain is unnecessary if you take the time to school every small detail consistently from the most basic to the most complex.  It is important that your horse feels successful and be rewarded for his cooperation.  His desire to repeat the experience will be increased.  If he feels that he can never please you or that he is never quite food enough, he will lose all desire to participate with you either under saddle or in the stable.

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And the winner is…

A “Win – Win” situation… I hear that often. It is a truly profound statement when it is used. Most times our society is equating winning with being higher, better, stronger, smarter than others who must, therefor, lose.

And it is dramatic when a rider is told to “show him who’s boss”; “you must win the battle with your horse”; etc.

Battle? If a battle ensues within a relationship with a horse, the human is 99% of the time the instigator. A battle can demoralize one of the parties and it invariably ends up being the horse.

snookie jump

So, this “Win – Win” situation sounds like the best way to approach relationships and dialog with horses… heck, with all beings! I have personally found my way there through decades of experience and relationships with Appaloosas. Oh, I have owned and schooled Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Mules, Quarter Horses… you name it! But the time I have spent with Appaloosas has honed my skills as a proponent of “The Middle Way” and brought me to a place of thoughtful consideration of the other party in each relationship. Appaloosas have an acute sense of what is fair and the ability to know if you are honest and mean what you “say”. They will hold you to task. And I appreciate that.

If we seek that “Middle Way” of partnership with our horses (and family and coworkers and neighbors, etc.), with respect for the other’s feelings – knowing that there are always reasons for how we all respond to life – we will All Be Winners. No One has to lose!


I once was told that my ideas were too “simplistic”; that the way I lived was “idealistic”. How COOL! I will gladly fly the SIMPLE flag and hold myself to the idealistic standards of compassion and trust. If we all just cave in to the idea that struggle, brutality and force are the normal aspects of life and relationships… well, what sort of life and relationships will we experience?
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Yes and No

When you run a Sanctuary for horses, every day is unique… sometimes every hour! When you live in harmony with Nature (especially in the high desert), you have to cultivate an attitude of flexibility when it comes to weather, finances, social interactions, relationships and goal setting.

My beautiful picture

We are up with sun, we are online into the night, we are juggling bits of money to be spread across payments that grow exponentially. We see the shining stars every night with barn checks and we fall into bed having missed a bath or a shower 4 days in a row…

Then we wake to gentle rain and the scent of suppressed dust in the paddocks, soft nickers wanting breakfast and a stillness on the stable yard that gifts us a day of introspection and rest.

My beautiful picture

New volunteers often say they don’t know how we do it, day in, day out… old students remark about the changes in the past couple of years that leave us all spellbound. Visitors ask if this was what I had always wanted to do…

Yes… and no.

I had wanted to live in Australia when I was young. I had wanted to raise half Thoroughbred show ponies when I was a teenager. I had wanted to operate a school of gentle, classical horsemanship paired with dance when I was in my twenties. In my thirties, I wanted to write novels. All my life I wanted to grow my own medicines for my family… all my life I wanted to be cherished, just as all beings do.

This Sanctuary, here in the New Mexico high desert, in the middle of a winter rain, warm and drenching; this is a huge YES. The “no” part is that I did not realize in my youth how important this life would be.

A mentor of mine when I was young, Mr. Charles deKunffy, wrote a note to me decades ago. It said, “Kathy, out of great dedication grow fine things. YOU will contribute to the equestrian arts”. No kidding!! THAT motivated me to push on when I was exhausted or discouraged. THAT made me push on when my hand(s) couldn’t even lift a coffee cup. THAT made me push past the mental whiplash inflicted by an alcoholic father and the degradation of molestation. A simple declaration of one’s worth by an admired teacher can be the difference between life and not living.


So, I contribute; in ways I hadn’t realized would be my destiny. I have my connection to Australia that I now realize was a deep song in my heart. I have taught thousands of students, owned hundreds of horses, schooled hundreds more and stood by another hundred as they passed over… knowing that someone loved them, even though it was only me. I have healed and nourished and held more horses than I can count. Charles was correct… I was and am dedicated. I care.

And the horses here, a jumbled up group of almost every breed and age and background that one can imagine, these horses are the story to be told. Their stories. Colliding with humans, dancing with humans, fearing and respecting and loving humans they know us on levels we don’t know ourselves. I hope they know that I love them. Totally.

Am I pleased with direction this life of mine has taken? Yes. Just yes.



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In the presence of horses…

Time spent with horses is always time well spent. I remember my own childhood with horses and even when things went “wrong” for me and I was frustrated or angry – the horses taught me how totally nonproductive that was! As I work with new and young students in Horsemanship, I see how it takes them a while after first arriving, to settle and connect deeply not only with the horses, but with their own feelings and needs.

There is a great deal more to our Horsemanship than just riding. Being in the presence of horses helps us see our own issues in a new light. We can process problems while cleaning hooves and the horse will tell us if we are congruent or not – if he feels safe lifting a hoof for us; if he feels that we are clear and assertive; if he feels that we care or just do not!

Darj and Katharine

Our relationship with a horse is like a dance. It is based upon communication and mutual concern for the other. “Love is the active promotion of the well being of the love object” (E. Fromm) When we learn how to love a horse, we learn how to love. When we learn how to communicate with a horse, we are more clear in our communications with other people.

Horses need to know when they are successful and are pleasing us. We often let them know when they are “wrong”, but forget to tell them when they are “right”…

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The Well of Experiences….

The Well of Our Experiences


The first step in awareness is to examine the external world. We learn to cherish all that surrounds us. We learn to observe without judgment. We strive to not only preserve life, but to honor and enhance life. Horses do these things effortlessly when they live a natural life. We can learn from their example and we can support their natural awareness.

Horses need to feel that they are participating in life.

“The way horses live their lives is a metaphor for life’s priorities. It’s not always about winning or losing, it’s also about the quality of the experience, the journey itself, and putting your heart into what you do.” -Diane Lane actress, Secretariat

equine eye

Horses start their lives in one of three ways:

  1. Born into the wild with no initial contact with humans
  2. Born into a farm situation with human contact & other horses
  3. Orphaned early or at birth & raised by humans

Each situation creates unique perspectives and expectations in the horse. His language will be formed by the horses that raise him (#1), the horses & people that raise him (#2) or the humans that raise him (#3). This “language” becomes the first series of “drops” in the Well of Experiences for each horse.

We can add positive “drops”/experiences or negative ones to the lives of those around us.

As he matures, the horse’s experiences are positive and negative in nature and begin to fill that “Well”. According to the predominant type of experiences he has, he will learn to expect something positive or something negative with every new situation – if we wish to change this for him in some way, we must provide consistency in the things we bring to his awareness… we must flood a well of negativity with so many clear and compassionate positive experiences that the well no longer holds anything else.

The whole idea of struggle brings you

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In radio, you have transmitters and receivers and transceivers – horsewomen have to become “transceivers” to effectively connect with a horse.

My beautiful picture

Riding and teaching lessons yesterday and turning horses out today, I have been thinking about how we communicate our desires and directions to horses through the reins, lead, line, etc.

We must become light, consistent, clear and immediate with our language of the aids through these lines… we will really miss out, though, if we neglect to “hear the horses” through these same lines of communication. When I am leading a horse to the field, I don’t just pull him along like a red wagon, nor leave him floating in the breeze like a bobbing balloon at the end of a string. No. I keep a light feel of the lead rope and listen to every signal and pre-signal he communicates to me as we walk down the lane. This is why I prefer all cotton, long lead ropes with trigger snaps – they just feel right in my hands.

When riding, I stretch my outside rein, feeling what the horse is saying to me. I keep an elastic, massaging inside rein (barely perceptible, the nuance of a tiny vibration…), allowing the horse to ask me questions and tell me how he feels about his balance and his pace.

On the longe, I’m not sending the horse out on a circle like a model airplane to zoom about and possibly crash – I am “riding” with my body language and listening through that longe line to every signal conveyed by my equine partner.

It is more about a conversation than it is about a performance, and, if we think and act this way, our horses sigh a sigh of relief about finally being heard.

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Grandmother Moon

I had an interesting experience this morning while feeding the horses in the mostly dark. My big Thoroughbred, Wally, was ill at ease and acting oddly even after he got his hay. It has cooled down now with the monsoons, at least at night and in the early mornings, so a snake was unlikely, but it was on my mind. A friend had a wild trail ride because of a rattler; another friend found one on his porch. I gridded my place way back with osha root and amethyst to protect us and we have a very big bull snake, Miss Bessie, who stands guard under the giant hawthorn bush.

There was no snake this morning. Now, normally my instincts tell me when to take the pepper spray out with me (back when a friend lost geese to a mountain lion, I wore the spray on my hip)… and, actually, my instincts were right because I did not need it. But, I sure was thinking about what to do if I found a scary snake in Wally’s pen. Miss Bessie, I would catch and carry her to her “apartment”; a rattler… no way. So, while I know we are safe here and I know what to do in case of a bite (my Darjeeling story tells that tale!), the reality of my inability to catch a scary snake has hit home. I use a “tin cat” (humane, catch & release trap) to catch mice in the house, sonic doo-dads in the tackroom to repel them and I only kill black widows because of the damage they can do!

So, I took a moment this morning and watched the crescent moon as the sky became light and just exhaled. It’s okay, I heard me tell myself. You don’t have to solve everything. Just BE.

Visions of the half dozen roadrunners that live here filled my mind. “Oh, nature knows”, I thought. I looked at the goathead crop covering my whole farm and saw the dodder overwhelming it… hmmmm, nature knows. The moon seemed to say, “Relax, don’t make things happen, let things happen” and I listened.

I watched Wally and decided that he is simply feeling the cool, changing weather and pretending to see spooky things for the fun of it. A little excitement… a little adrenalin, I think it can do us all good sometimes. I needed to feel less in charge of and more a part of things this early morning. I’m ready for some adventure and to awaken my heart. Lighthearted – I like that expression, I need to practice on that!


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Monsters in the Portable Corral

Years ago I was at a Dressage show in Albuquerque judged by a friend, Brooks Busby, who I also had ridden under a lot. I had my Appy, Breath of Snow (Snookie) and we were “stabled” in pens made of pipe panels. Snookie’s had a bar over the gate where he just missed hitting his head until the second day when… he hit his head going in.

I had my ride time that afternoon for the Adult Medal class at Second Level which required four riders and we had four.

I went to get Snookie to warm up and he was afraid to go back out under the head banging pipe bar. I worked with him quite a bit and decided it was too traumatic to force the situation and sent word to the judge that I had to scratch while I ran to my van for essential oils and a shovel (I thought I might dig under the doorway).

The other riders at second level sent word to me that the judge would allow my ride whenever I got Snookie ready (just please don’t scratch!) and the lady told me, “Brooks said to remind you that a blindfold will do the trick”.

Duh! I thought! I hurried back to the stables. And there I saw a member of the staff of the barn inside with MY horse, beating him with a longe whip while another idiot held the end of a longe line, pulling from outside the pen. I went INSANE!

I won’t repeat the things I said (in the old days, I could reduce anyone to tears if necessary) because it was a tirade of profanity fit for any situation of horror spilling from a sailor’s mouth. The two girls left in a huff, giving Snookie a last swipe with the lash to which I screamed, “Hit him again and I will beat you to a pulp!”

Then, with lavender oil in hand, I sat with him and apologized and cried and held him until I felt I could place my jacket over his face/eyes and slowly ease him out of that horrific pen.

He was so trusting. We got out, went for a walk in hand then I tacked up, rode the test so everyone’s scores would count, untacked, loaded him in the van and left for home, crying.

I no longer compete. That was just one experience in a long line of personal traumas, dramas and observations that convinced me competition was rarely in the horse’s best interest. But, I share this today because of the miracle of that blindfold (my jacket over Snookie’s eyes). Had I thought of it right away, the monsters who attacked my horse in my absence would never have had the opportunity. I never want anyone else to go through such a brutal experience.

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Turn and face the strange

I cannot imagine what it must feel like for a horse to change homes. If he has mostly positive drops in his well of experiences, he will expect good things to happen – if his well is full of negative experiences, he will be expecting more of them. But beyond that is the idea of how he must wonder if he will be fed. I think about the horses that come to Dharmahorse and they get over looking worried after a few meals arrive on schedule.

hank and grits

To be totally dependent upon another for all of life’s requirements must be overwhelming. I started thinking about all of this today when I was with my Mom and she quietly said, “I’m feeling a bit hungry” and I rushed to fix her a sandwich. She is so sweet, she would never be demanding (and she should be, she should tell me exactly what she needs, but she drops hints instead).

A horse stands in his new stall or his pen or his field and I know he wonders what his new life holds for him. And I am not anthropomorphizing. I live directly with a herd of horses. Horses are not the simplistic creatures humanity confined them as in the past.

A horse in a new environment deserves compassion and empathy. We must make him feel secure and cherished.

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A Deep Breath

Years ago, I took my Lipizzaner mare, my friend Judy and my little Iberian bay mare to a Maj. Gen. Jonathan R Burton Dressage Clinic at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. We were joined by a student of mine, Pam, driving her own truck and trailer while I took us over in my big horse van.

As I pulled off the highway and made my way to the base, the van suddenly began groaning and making scraping sounds that were every bit as scary as the startling sound of a blow-out! I still had control, so I pushed onward to the stables and leaped out of the cab as soon as I could park.

We pulled down the ramp and sides and got our mares out quickly. They both had strange expressions across their faces.


I walked around the van, smelling a hot but not smokey odor… I looked under the box, but didn’t really know what I was looking at. So, I went over to Pam’s pick up and looked under it. I saw that her drive shaft was held up by a little cushioned bracket (I came to know as a “pillow block”). I observed that my van’s drive shaft was tilted downward and there was no similar object supporting it.

We all rode in the Clinic and worked with our horses. Then I started searching through my boxes and bags in the cab of the truck. I found a hugely thick leather strap with a clunky buckle, a can of hoof dressing and a big piece of wire that I figured might serve me.

I pulled the drive shaft up with the wire and secured it to another shaft running along the length of the van’s box. Then I covered the inside of the strap with hoof dressing and fastened it also to lift and hold the turning drive shaft. Then I started the engine, pulled forward and back a few times… it all held, seemed to be balanced… so Judy and I loaded the mares and set off for Las Cruces!

We made it!!

A few years later I was backing my old (very old!) Suburban out of my driveway when it made a hideous sound reminiscent of that horse van – drive shaft episode. I figured I was in real trouble (financially). I called my friend Judy (same Judy). Her husband immediately came out to try and fix my Suburban. Judy and I went in the cottage for tea and biscuits while he crawled under…

He walked in with a tiny stone in his hand, smiling. That stone had gotten itself into my brake pad or shoe or whatever and had made the sound that stopped my breathing for that awful moment.

My car was fixed. No big repairs. No bills. No problems. I taped the stone to the metal glove box as a reminder to think of the simple things first!

And to take a Deep Breath!

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