Day One – Desentization.

Today was the first day of formal training of the fabulous Pony Sue.  As expected, there were problems.

When training a horse, expect problems.  Problems should never be considered obstacles, but instead opportunities.  Each time a horse behaves badly, they are giving you the opportunity to change the issues now – instead of suffer from it later.

Pony Sue – well let’s just say he was packed full of …opportunities today!  That’s right – I meant to type “opportunities”, not something else.

Today’s important concepts:

Desensitization:  causing a horse to be less sensitive to objects or happenings which might bother them.  In layman’s terms, removing the threat of the monster that lurks behind every plastic garbage bag, running dog, or shadow just waiting to eat your horse up like a duck eats a June bug.

Sensitization:  causing a horse to be more sensitive to cues and other happenings or objects around them.  In layman’s terms: adjusting the breaks, steering, and airbags of a horse.

Left-horse-right-horse:   in humans, the left and right brain (the feeling and reasoning sides) are connected by a large and complex section of the brain called the corpus callosum.  In horses, there’s a scrawny little ineffective connection.  In short, the human corpus callosum is like high-speed internet while the horse version is like smoke signals.  On a windy day.  At night. You get the picture.

In humans, this great communication system means that you can learn to wave with your right hand and your left hand can figure it out pretty easily and with some practice.  In horses, this lack of communication means that when you teach the horse something on their right (usually stronger) side, the left side was taking a nap, dreaming of oats, and generally not paying attention in class.

When teaching a horse anything, think of it as being two horses:  the left-horse and the right-horse.  Anything you teach to one of these horses must be taught to the other as if it has no clue – because it really has NO clue.

Pressure and release:  when training any horse, the concepts of pressure and release are very important.  You put pressure on a horse with your eyes (known as “the stink eye” ), your body (known by cowboys as “bowing up”, or by others as “puffing up”), with the rope (known as swishing the rope, swinging the rope, or tapping or popping with the rope), or with your arms (known as waving them quite like a windmill or perhaps a crazy person, hoping your neighbors don’t drive by just that moment).

You put pressure on a horse to get them to move.  You take the pressure off, release it, to stop movement or to reward them for doing what you wanted when you put on the pressure.

Releasing pressure means looking like you really don’t care about anything.  Think of this as being like 12-year-old daughter’s reaction to your lecture on school:  no making eye contact, don’t seem to know or care that the horse exists, and remain in your own immortal and confident little world.  Get the picture?


Push as many of Pony Sue’s major hot buttons as possible without resulting in a trip to the hospital because of bruised or broken shins.  Let’s face it – it’s not like he can kick or bite any higher than a couple of feet off of the ground.

Teach Pony Sue that SpookyPonyEatingMonstersTM really aren’t that bad, and that when I touch his flanks the correct response is not kicking the perfect image of the underside of his hoof in my forehead.

Teach Pony Sue that when I want him to stand still, he also really wants to stand still rather than run in a circle around me a million-gazillion times.  In short: playing like you’re a pony statue is gooooood.


On a loose lead, use the lead rope and my hands to touch, approach, or tap areas to which he is sensitive.  In other words, pester him constructively.


  • One too-large nylon traditional halter (remind me to remedy that),
  •  One ten-foot long, heavy nylon lead,
  • One small, surly, smoky-palomino mini horse, and
  • Proper footwear – aka boots. No tennis shoes for groundwork, please.  Not unless you play to donate your toes to the Institute for Studying Pancake-shaped Tootsies. Thank you.

So today Pony Sue was in a pretty good mood when I took him out of the pasture.  It was nap time, as afternoons are for most horses. When I want to teach a horse to do groundwork which results in them being quiet, I do sometimes purposefully pick nap time when they’re a little more laid back.  Today was one of those days.  Also – it’s easier to sneak up on a napping Pony Sue than it is one that is running around like a pony on speed.

PS easily took the halter and lead and was led away from the other horses – who wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of the training.  I led him to an area of flat ground and few distractions for this first day of work; distractions can be added later, like salt and pepper to a good stew, for more learning.  I figured I had enough spice today to deal with as it was.

My first goal today was getting Pony Sue to stand still.  Both of him:  Pony-Sue-Right, and Pony-Sue-Left.  Pony Sue is relatively good on a lead.  As with any horse, I gave Pony Sue a good deal of slack in the lead.  For a large horse, this would be an arm’s length of rope.  For this little guy, it was just slightly less.

Helpful hint:  giving horses room to make a mistake allows them to learn and grow, just as it does humans.  This means physically as well as mentally.

Giving Pony Sue a lot of slack meant that I was not micro-managing this little horse.  Horses, when micro-managed, react to it quite like humans do: with resentment.  I wanted to allow Pony Sue to do all the bad things he might do when I’m not paying attention so that I could shape these bad behaviors into good ones.

Pony Sue did indeed wander around a bit.  When he crowded me but standing at the right place (at my shoulder) I simply reached the end of my lead around my back with my right hand and swished it at his side to tell him “hey – you’re in my space.  If my tail reaches you, you are too close.”  In this case, my tail was the lead rope.

There is no anger involved in this, NBD = No Big Deal.

NBD is an important concept to use around horses, people, children, and other animals.  Making a Big Deal out of a Little Deal is a lot of work.  As I age (yes, I’m aging – no snickering out there)  I have learned that as a human I am essentially lazy.  As it so happens, so are horses!  Embrace their laziness – and yours – by not making  more work for yourself than is necessary.

Back to Pony Sue.  Pony Sue was not much of a crowder today.  Instead, he wanted to push ahead of me.  When this happened, I turned around and wiggled the rope a bit (not wildly) so that he was startled and took 2 steps back.  When he did, I turned around like it was NBD.

Most of your time leading a horse should be in NBD mode.  Expect good things and allow them to happen.  Walk as if your horse is going to follow you; look in the distance to where you’re going knowing full well you will end up there; walk with the type of purpose and energy and drive you would like to be known as having.  You will be surprised how often if you do this – it works!

So I did that with Pony Sue, who usually is a bit of a goofball on a lead – and it worked.  Other than correcting his forwardness, he did it much less than often because I *pretended* to be the world’s greatest cowgirl.  He apparently believed me.  You’d be surprised how gullible horses are.

I didn’t stop to turn and stare at him.  Other than his vanity, he doesn’t like that – nor does your horse.

Don’t stare at your horse unless you want to make a point; they get paranoid.  Just assume that they’re going to see your brilliance and do as you wish if you guide them correctly.

I was careful today to show Pony Sue with my right, leading hand exactly where I wanted him to go.

Note: I didn’t DRAG him there – I pointed him there.  With the lead in my right hand, I extended my arm at length to use it as a pointer of where I wanted him to go.  I kept one bite or loop of lead in that right hand and let the tail of the rope rest in my left hand (ready to “swish” as needed).

Safety rules:  Always be certain to fold the rope into your hand, not allowing it to ever wrap around your hand, arm, finger, or anything else.  Arms/fingers/hands are useful; keep yours intact by keeping ropes from looping around them.

I found that by showing Pony Sue where I wanted him to go, he went there.  It is possible that I haven’t been being clear with my cues before, leading to general confusion and something like a badly choreographed pony-human dance.

When Pony Sue would stop, I would rub his neck for being good.  Then we would just stand there.  Horses are lazy – let them have a break.  If you see them sigh or chew like they’re eating, that means “hey this instruction sunk into my little brain – on this side anyway – and I’m relaxed.  I get it.”  That means you got through to them. When Pony Sue stopped and just stood there, I rubbed, he chewed, we were all happy.  I would walk a few steps and then stop him, correct his position only if necessary, and then just stand there.  Don’t belabor it – just do this til you get a few successful tries and then go on to something else.

The “something else” was desensitizing Pony Sue to the rope.  Turning towards Pony Sue in a relaxed manner (one leg slightly bent, relaxed in body), I took the end of the rope and tossed it over his back.  Of course he jumped then started to walk circles.

Rather than stopping and going “Oh dear – did I scare the little horse?  Let me soothe you”, I kept throwing the rope in a gentle and relaxed way onto his back.  Eventually he slowed down a little.  In this case, I stopped throwing the rope for just a moment when he slowed down.

Sometimes a partial success is exactly want you want.  In fact, most times any effort is rewarded by a release of pressure.  In this case, I stopped tossing that darned rope at him.

To make sure he would stand, however, I started up again.  He started walking and eventually stopped.  The exact moment that Pony Sue stopped walking, I instantly forgot the rope and rubbed Pony Sue gently in a soothing and positive voice telling him that he was good.  He looked at me like “That’s what you wanted?” and licked his lips. Success.

When I resumed tossing the rope onto him, he took a few steps but stopped more quickly.  Released pressure, a gentle neck rub, and a break – all a pony needs except 50 pounds of apples for Christmas thankyouverymuch.

Now on to Right-Pony-Sue.   The right horse in Pony Sue apparently is a little more dense, but caught on after a few tries and was glad to stand still and sigh.

We used the same procedure on Pony Sue’s flank.  Toss the rope at it (being sure to stand well away from him).  When he stopped flinching or moving, I stopped tossing.  Repeat with the opposite horse, then take a break.

Here is where I think it is important to mention about dangerous actions.

Dangerous actions, the unforgivable actions, are biting, kicking, nipping, threatening in any manner, and certainly carrying out any of those threats. 

Pony Sue was smart enough to only raise his back leg once on the leg desensitization in the back.  He was NOT so smart on the front legs and my handling them.

When I ran my hand down Pony Sue’s leg,  he predictably picked it up and put it down so quick that you could blink and miss it.  I repeated, wanting him to leave his leg on the ground unless I asked for it.  After about four times, he nipped at me.

The “three second rule” came into play.  During the three second period, I ‘killed’ Pony Sue.

End of Blog.

(Just kidding.)

I don’t really kill Pony Sue, or hurt him, but it would be nice if he thought I was serious enough to do just that.  Instead, I made him back away from me, using my rope to move him very quickly back and away from me in a very aggressive way.  In his case, I didn’t have to pop him – but you would think I did.

During the three second rule, you have three seconds immediately after a horse performs or truly threatens a dangerous, unforgivable action to make them think you are going to kill them.  Thank you John Lyons for this concept.  You are never to strike the horse in the face, but using your rope on them within reason on their body is fine – and encouraged. Certainly making them move, move, move is a must.  Once three seconds are over, remember to go back to NBD mode.

Once three seconds was over, I turned away from him and acted like I had amnesia, then turned towards him and soothingly ran my hand down his neck.  “Well hi there Pony Sue – how long have you been standing there?”

He thought I was crazy.

He also was way less enthusiastic on bite-attempt-number-two.   That being said, I was just as enthusiastic on the killing as the first time and he was just as surprised.  Again – amnesia and release of pressure.

I took a minute or two to go a step backwards and run my hands on Pony Sue, toss the rope at him very casually, and do things he could do easily.  Then back to the leg.

I ran my hand down it and he left it there and just barely looked at me.

He got itched in his favorite spot, gentle neck stroking, and a very calm yet positive voice telling him he really was a very bright boy and I’m glad that I found him.

This was very effective with him, really so effective that I was even surprised.  The right Pony Sue was much better – no biting, no pinned ears, but you could see in his eye that he thought about it.

After this big lesson – and success – I went back to some of the easier points of the day.

Always end on a good, easy note.

I wanted to make sure that what Pony Sue remembered, his last impression, was “oh my – I’m such a smart boy and I so easily get rewards – I can’t wait to do this again!”  When he had performed his last miracle, taken his last deep breath of a sigh, and thought we would do something else – I simply undid his halter and walked backwards.  He was happy and completely relaxed, head about 4 inches from the ground, no tense muscles – and so was I.  Um, except my head was much higher off of the ground.

I feel that despite his stubbornness, we were able to take the first chunk out of our major issues.  Of course, horses should have these lessons repeated.  My plan is to do the same over the next 3 days – no days off in between so that the lesson sinks in.

The results:

My entire lesson was no more than 30 minutes and achieved a great deal.  Remember, achieving only one lesson in a lesson is a good thing.  Sometimes just maintaining is a good thing – as long as you end on a good note.  Don’t be afraid to go backwards a little; I wasn’t, nor should you be afraid.

Day one is over, and I’m ready for day 2 – and so is my little munchkin, Pony Sue.


2 comments on “Day One – Desentization.

  1. Hey there… today Fyre is getting less nippy pretty quickly. He hasn’t quit entirely, but he is doing much better. He hasn’t crowded me (but sometimes lags too far behind now?), hasn’t bit me, and not a single strike today. A little head tossing. I immediately corrected and when he quit would praise him. He kind of gave me a look the second head toss. “Oh. You like THIS?” ~smiles~

    The big encouragement was really the breeder and the fact he did the same – that it wasn’t me and something unconscious that was inviting him to misbehave makes me so much more confident. Kind of fascinating to recognize that in myself in hindsight. Glad to know it though, so I can move on and leave it behind.

  2. Oh – I really think he misses being able to walk along beside me with the lead rope draped over his withers vs. the regularly chained up in new grazing area that he has now. I’m sure it’s a lot more “normal” to be a horse wandering around unconcerned about where the rope runs out. Too bad I have a messed up knee, eh?

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