Ask A Teamster Headstrong Mustang Onion
Ask A Teamster Headstrong Mustang Onion

Ask A Teamster: Headstrong Mustang Onion

by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana

Ask A Teamster query:

I need advice/suggestions on how to solve a problem that I have with my pony, that I am teaching to pull a buggy. I already asked several trainers, but nobody had that problem before and they don’t really know how to solve it. I will try to provide you with as objective as possible information on the situation.

Last year in March I adopted a 3-year-old Mustang mare.

She is very respectful and affectionate in her ground manners, but she is VERY head strong. For example, I can trail ride her since this spring, in groups and by herself. When she decides, with no obvious reason, to turn on to a different trail etc., she will put a lot of physical effort in changing the direction. It doesn’t matter to her that her head is turned the other way and I keep riding her in the direction I want to go. She argues a lot before she gives up.

I have long lined her a lot. All last summer and winter and this spring. When she got tangled in the long lines at the beginning, she was never scared and tried to kick. She accepted the work harness with a collar and the breast collar harness without a problem. Her only concern was during the first few hours, the blinders of the driving bridle. She used to be very orientated on her sight and tried to turn around and face me. But she hasn’t tried that for months. Her “whoa” is very good. She waits patiently for me to hitch her up to the single tree.

The photo you see was taken in May this year (2002). She is strong enough to pull that tire plus a 180-lb. person.

In May when she pulled that tire (without a person) over surface with a few rocks that caused some resistance, she would launch forward. After practicing a few times, she could pull it across those areas without launching forward but still being very tense and agitated.

A few weeks ago, I long lined her with the single tree across those areas where she could feel resistance until she was walking perfectly relaxed.

Then I hitched her up to the big tire again. I had two people on two leadropes attached to her halter to the left and to the right with me. She started off okay. The further we went, the more agitated she got. So I drove her back and long lined her without the tire until she was relaxed again.

The next time we decided to hitch her up to just a small car tire. Because it was obvious that she was, with the big tire, just mad and not scared. I was hoping with less weight she would be more willing to pull. It was the same set up: My two “human emergency brakes” with leadropes attached to her halter, ready to guide her head or hold her back if she would get scared. Making a long story short: As soon as we passed the driveway to her friends, she started a battle. Even with three people, there was no way for us to prevent her from spinning around as fast as she could and wrapping the long lines around and having the single tree unsnapped. When I asked her to go forward she would rear. When I made her go forward for rearing she would launch in the air like a “Lippizaner” (except she didn’t kick out) and trying to throw herself against a tree or telephone pole. And then she would throw herself on the ground no matter what. After 3 hours I could long line her with a circingle calmly around. That day she definitely learned that she doesn’t have to do “it” if she rears, throws herself to the ground. She definitely didn’t recover quickly. After the first battle, she anticipated every single time that she needed to be mad, even though we tried to set her up to be successful, like taking the tire off, asking for just a few steps, etc. All I learned is, that even if you just pull with your hands on the tugs to apply pressure on her shoulder, she would get agitated. I couldn’t find any signs of soreness on her shoulders and the collar seems to fit her just fine.

All the trainers I have talked to can’t help me.

When I ride her, I can trim trails off her, I took her to a camp for kids with cancer to do pony rides and she did absolutely awesome.

She is more curious than fearful. In scary situations I have never seen her doing anything “stupid.” She is VERY independent.

I just refuse working on driving with her until I have advice. At this point it looks like she would hurt herself and humans in the process. When I look at her, if she wouldn’t have that particular problem, she would make a great driving pony.

But I have to find a way to break that dangerous behavior successfully. If I need to haul her to a professional trainer, that’s fine.

If you have further questions, I would be happy to answer you.

Carmen Heidecke
Scotts Mills, Oregon

How I wish you had been able to attend the SFJ Work Horse Workshop and Starting Colts in Harness Demonstration this past October in Sisters, Oregon. Using real live horses, Lynn Miller and I were able to demonstrate philosophies, approaches and techniques that are perfect for you and your mare, Onion. As you can imagine, it’s difficult and speculative to evaluate, diagnose, and make suggestions on a case like this without actually observing and working with the horse – often working with the owner is even more important. It’s absolutely impossible for me to give you a concise description or formula for what you need to do with your little mare – if I were working with the two of you, I would be trying things, then making adjustments and judgment calls based on responses, and figuring things out and making stuff up as I went. Can’t do that here. Your graphic descriptions are very clear and helpful. However, working as we are from just your letter, means that a lot of significant details are unknown to me. Of course, lack of information or facts has never stopped me from spouting off with my opinions before. So, in the absence of an opportunity to work with the two of you personally, see how you work with her, get her side of the story, experiment and so forth, I’ll go out on a limb and offer you a whole wagon load of stuff hoping most of it will apply and be helpful. Please filter what I offer here and take and use only what you find applies and fits and works for the two of you.

First of all, I don’t think that your situation is as hopeless as “all the trainers” that “can’t help” may have made it seem. I have all the confidence in the world that, properly handled, Onion can be the “great driving pony” that you foresee. I compliment you both on all that you have accomplished – you with her, and her with you. As I read and reread your letter, the list of positives is very encouraging – respectful and affectionate in her ground manners, tangled in the lines and didn’t get scared or kick, accepted the harness without a problem, her whoa is very good, waits patiently to be hitched up, became perfectly relaxed pulling the single tree over the rocks (after having been upset pulling the tire), I can trim trails off her, did pony rides for kids and she did absolutely awesome, in scary situations has never done anything stupid. Wow, you two have a lot going for you!

On the other hand, you have just a few situations where Onion, being the great teacher that all horses are, is providing you with some real challenges. In doing so she is merely fulfilling the preordained destiny of all horses. Yes! It’s as though all horses have a mutant gene that enables them to link up telepathically with our horsemanship skills cortex, whereupon they have instant and complete knowledge of the limitations and vulnerability of our personal equine skills. Then, having been born into this earthly existence for the sole purpose of forcing us to evolve into better horsemen and horsewomen, they begin challenging us well beyond our limits (usually after a strategic period of allowing us successes that falsely inflate our self-confidence and egos). Horses know instinctively that most would be horsefolk are unwilling or unable mentally, psychologically, physically, and/or financially, to face the challenges that they (horses) orchestrate in this dimension. Consequently, this segment of the horse owning population inevitably abandons equestrianism and counter evolves toward impotent pursuits such as golf, bingo, NASCAR races, etc. Many other repeatedly failing the challenge to evolve upward as horse persons, but unwilling to accept that reality and give up, tend to suffer repeated insults, abuses, and injuries at the hands (hooves actually) of their equine professors (trained and authorized to use tactics up to and including deadly force if necessary). After apprenticeships of various durations they eventually qualify for certification as Professional Remedial Pseudohorsefolk – often by that time not tracking well, slurring their speech, or prematurely crooked posturewise. This brings us to a growing segment of enlightened folks, like you Carmen, who are willing and able to accept all manner of equine borne challenges by learning, changing, and evolving upwards horsepersonwise. This evolutionary learning of, and committing to, horse friendly approaches, philosophies, and techniques is just what horses like Onion need, and will respond to best. After all, it will allow her to have fulfilled her true horse destiny and become a little angel. So let’s get started.

First, in all seriousness, I congratulate you for your willingness to seek help, and for waiting to work with Onion on driving until you have it. Onion’s behavior, plus the fact that she is a horse, tells me pretty clearly what she needs to have happen in order to become a cooperative working partner with you. However, putting it into words will be a challenge – please bear with me.


  1. Her name is appropriate. The root of the word onion is unio from Latin and means oneness – singleness of mind, purpose, or feeling (so, keep things simple, don’t surprise or confuse her with too much or too fast, give her time to process, prewarn and prepare her ahead of time for changes and new experiences). Like an onion she has a complex structure (nature) made up of many layers – work through one and beneath you will find another deeper layer, and another, etc. She may make you cry from time to time but will add spice and flavor to the soup of your life.
  2. She is sensitive, intelligent, and learns quickly.
  3. She has a lot of spirit, heart, and determination.
  4. She is apt to lose trust and respect, resent you, resist, argue, flee, fight, or freeze if subjected to force or pain – or if not distracted or given a chance to calm down at the earliest signs of anxiousness, confusion, frustration, upset, fear, etc.
  5. She is apt to resist or fight steady pressure on the bit, but should respond nicely to what I call the pressure-release technique (see Ask a Teamster, SFJ, Winter, 2001, Vol. 25, No 1).
  6. She will be unwilling to pull a load well if anything causes her to be uncomfortable physically, mentally, or psychologically. This is intelligent – she takes good care of herself.
  7. She probably will pull a load well (once properly reconditioned to pull) even if it is hard work, but only if doing so is comfortable for her physically, mentally and psychologically.
  8. She has developed some negative memories and associations that need to be overbalanced by many, many positive experiences (successes).
  9. She has sustained some emotional traumas which have affected her levels of trust and respect. They need to be reestablished – stronger and more complete than before.
  10. She has some negative learned (acquired) behavior that needs to be relearned as positive behavior. This is not her fault – we often allow or teach negative behavior without even realizing it.
  11. She acts and reacts in normal, predictable ways considering the inherent nature of horses, her individual personality, and her learned behavior. Let’s discuss these a bit.


A. Inherent Nature of Horses:
All horses are born with and will always have the inherent nature of a horse. This means that each horse has certain characteristics, reactions, and behaviors that it shares with all other horses. It is important that we understand and respect the inherent nature of horses in order to interact with them in ways that work for them. They cannot, nor can we, change this nature. Trying to do so will result in frustration for us and torment for them. We must accept what they are – horses – and not expect them to reason, react, and behave like humans. However, we certainly want them to be well-behaved horses – and they can be if we do our job.

Timidness is the most basic inherent character trait of the equine species. Horses are naturally suspicious and basically fearful creatures, with their primary defensive mechanism being that of fleeing. They are also inherently observant, alert, high energy, full charge, and tend to be claustrophobic. None of this is surprising, when we consider that horses evolved as preyed upon animals who survived by being successful at quickly detecting and escaping feared predators. Most of the trouble we have with horses is caused by their capacity for fear.

“Colts or unbroken horses are especially susceptible to fear. Almost every step in their management, as shown in Colt Training lies in overcoming resistance excited by fear. It is the principle cause of kicking and running away, as well as many other annoying or dangerous habits…” – Jesse Beery, author of Colt Training and Horse Breaking. 1896.

“Almost every wrong act of a horse is caused by fear, excitement, or mismanagement. One harsh word will increase the pulse of a nervous horse ten beats per minute.” – John S. Rarey, author of The Art of Taming Horses, (late 1800’s).

However, in spite of being timid, horses have a remarkable capacity to put aside fearful instinctive responses (flee, fight, freeze) once they learn that a frightening stimulus (a sight, a sound, a smell, a touch, a person, etc.) is harmless and painless. This means that if we introduce frightening things to horses, a first time harness for example, and they are not harmed or hurt by it, they will eventually lose their fear of it and become comfortable with it. Were it not for this ability of theirs we would, no doubt, still be afoot. Turning this around, it would be inherently unnatural for them not to react by attempting to flee, fight, or freeze when something or someone frightening does harm, or hurt them (bad news for us veterinarians). Hence, the supreme importance of eliminating confusion, harshness, force, discomfort, and pain from all of our interactions with horses. It’s amazing how completely horses can accept some terribly frightening things if they are not harmed by them – and with the non-confrontational methods it happens so quickly.

Horses accept domination naturally. They are gregarious herd animals and live in a dominance hierarchy. It is natural for them to be dominated by, and try to dominate other horses, thus forming a social structure known as the pecking order. Whenever we interact with horses, we are vying for position in their pecking order – whether we realize it or not. For safety, and to be able to accomplish things with our horses, it’s important that they are subordinate to us, and that we are dominant over them – their boss or leader. Most horses are uncomfortable without a leader – they need a leader. We can be accepted as their leader in one of two ways as Mark Rashid relates in his book, Horses Never Lie, 2000:

“It seems to me that if we want to emulate horse behavior during training, we must decide what type of horse we are trying to be like. Should we try to be like the boss horses that others seem to respond to out of fear or distrust? Or do we want to be like the horse that can find a quiet solution to even the most difficult problems – the leader that other horses want to be around and look up to. The choice is ultimately up to us. But I do have to wonder…which one would our horses prefer?”

“Horses are by nature herd animals that live in small bands where cooperation is as powerful a theme as competition and where affection for one another is so strong that it is easily transformed into a horse human bond. …[They have an] amazing willingness to cooperate with their human companions and to struggle as best they can to please us. This temperament…stems from their naturally sociable life-style in the wild.” – Desmond Morris, author of Horsewatching, 1988.

So, the questions for us are: Do we want our horses to obey and work for us out of fear or distrust? – OR – Do we want our horses to obey and work for us because they have affection for us and a willingness to cooperate and to please us? Anyone who answered yes to the first question can stop reading right here – your PRP Certificate will be mailed to you. The rest of us have a lot of exciting things to learn about and practice with our horses. What horse in his right mind would choose us for a leader (in his perception, his protector and maker of decisions upon which his comfort, safety, and life depend), trust and respect us completely, and not try to leave us, if we not only fail to protect him from, but actually contribute to, participate in, or cause him stress, anxiety, confusion, discomfort, upset, fear, and maybe even pain? Of course, they need reminders of our dominance, but if we learn their language and use it, our messages never have to be harsh, cruel or painful. Nothing should be done to cause fear – fear makes horses unreasonable.

Horses are motivated by two major emotions – comfort and fear. Their system of reasoning is structured around seeking comfort and avoiding fear.

“The type of intelligence people have is based on reasoning power. We use logic to figure things out and get what we want. Horses, however, base their thinking patterns on comfort. Horses want to feel safe and comfortable. Anything that interferes with that can cause fear and anxiety in horses. Most people are inadequate when it comes to horses because they think like people.” – Pat Parelli

In order for horses to want to be with us, and not be anxious or fearful around us, we must consistently be comfortable (safe) to be with. Various degrees of avoidance will occur if our behavior, or part of it, causes anxiety or fear in them. At minimum, we will always be suspect – mistrusted and not respected on some level.

B. Individual Personality:
Horses, like people, have individual personalities – a set of innate personal characteristics and ways of being and relating to others that are unique to each individual. Each horse will act and react in ways that are not only consistent with the inherent nature of horses, but according to the dictates of their individual personality. It is very important to understand, accept, and get along with whatever personality a horse has because, like inherent nature, it’s not going to change. We will cause them aggravation if we try to change personality associated characteristics.


What I’ll mostly be talking about from here on is – horse behavior, and how we humans influence and affect it (both consciously and unconsciously) – our attitude and behavior when working with horses – techniques and strategies – philosophizing.

I feel that we humans are the greatest external influence on, and have ultimate responsibility for, our horses’ attitude and behavior. They reflect our attitudes and behaviors right back at us in the form of their attitudes and behaviors. It may not be obvious on a minute to minute basis, but over time it sure holds true.

“Nearly all men that keep tractable and well trained horses, are good, kind hearted men, men who never lie to their horses or deceive them by giving commands in such a manner that they cannot be understood. I believe it will not be saying too much for my experience and observation, that in a number of instances I can tell the disposition of a horse by looking at the man who owns him.” – Jesse Beery

A great precept that I’ve adopted into my work with horses is to ask myself, whenever things aren’t going well – “what am I doing, or not doing, that is causing this problem for the horse?” (rather than feeling the horse is causing the problem, or causing me a problem). Seems I always find something too! Until I ask myself that question, I often don’t recognize that some perceived misbehavior on the part of the horse is related to things like – discomfort or pain from the equipment that I failed to notice, perhaps my anxiousness about an upcoming IRS audit, me being short on patience, my attention wandering away from the horse(s), me expecting a problem, irritated by the horses’ personality, etc., etc., etc. In spite of our best efforts, or at times unconsciously, we can be the source of anxiety, confusion, upset, fear and/or pain to our horses – unnecessary roughness with the bit, throwing harness on inconsiderately, holding a foot up to work on it in an uncomfortable position. The potential seems endless – probably is. One of my star pupils and good friend, Gerry Stratelak, shared a gem of a quote with me, “If someone else is the problem, there is no solution!” I’ve modified it to read – if the horse is the problem, there is no solution!

As I catch myself using the word problem, I am reminded to emphasize that there are no problems when working with horses – only opportunities. Opportunities to spend more time learning, trying again, doing better, and having more fun with our horses. Just our perception of outcomes as being problems, and our reacting as if they are problems affects our attitude, which in turn affects our horse’s attitude. We really need to watch our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions around horses – they read us microscopically. Opinions and judgments can get us into trouble – so, there is no good, no bad, no problems – just opportunities. This attitude and approach does have one risk. If you get real good at it there can be spill over into your human relationships and you will become the target of resentment from opinionated, judgmental, people with problems.

Throughout all of our work with horses, attitude is crucial – ours and theirs. Our attitude has a great influence on theirs – whether positive or negative. We must strive to never become impatient, irritated, frustrated, upset – nor anything but completely accepting of whatever occurs. That is not to say that we don’t respond appropriately to what happens with an appropriate reward or a consequence, but we learn to do it all with a chuckle, a smile and a twinkle of wonder in our eye – no negative feelings, reactions, or responses. Notice that I did not say never show our impatience, irritation, frustration, upset. It’s not enough, with horses, to try to cover up those feelings. Instead we must learn to not have them around horses, because horses can read our innermost feelings and emotions – and they will respond to them on some level. Maintaining a proper attitude, and developing and using an infinite collection of appropriate responses while working with horses is quite a challenge for us. But if we become artful, their responses are predictable, honest and magical. You see, training horses is more about our own self-control and training ourselves, than it is about training and controlling them! Whatever a horse does or doesn’t do seems a perfectly logical choice to them at the time (under the circumstances). It’s our job to give them choices that they can understand, and make the behavior and performance we want from them the most logical choice from a horse’s perspective.

Starting at birth all horses begin to amass Learned Behavior. They first learn from their mothers, then from other horses and humans. The good news about learned behavior is that we do have the potential to influence, modify, and change it. But there’s a catch, we can influence and change horse behavior in negative as well as positive ways – often without realizing that we are doing so. Also, it can be difficult to determine which of a horses’ actions are attributable to learned behavior, and consequently subject to being changed, and which are personality and inherent nature related, and therefore fixed. When we work with a horse, it’s important that our attitude, energy, approaches and techniques be tailored to the horses’ personal mix of inherent nature, personality, spirit, and history which includes learned behavior.

Will Not – Cannot – Should Not

From your description, Onion seems to be a gentle and cooperative horse until what you ask her to do is:

  1. Different than what she strongly wants to do – against her will (She will not).
  2. Something she cannot handle, accept, and do without becoming anxious, uncomfortable, and/or upset – too mentally and/or emotionally challenging (She cannot).
  3. Perhaps physically challenging enough for her that she should not be asked to do it yet (She should not).

One interpretation of number one above is that Onion is willing to accept you as her leader, submit to you, and let you call the shots, as long as she does not have a strong opinion otherwise. However, when she does have a strong opinion, she is inclined to challenge what you are asking her to do (and your role as the dominant leader) and be willful about what she wants to do, or not do, instead. It’s true that this behavior on her part is a form of lack of respect, but what is causing her to be like that at times, or in some situations, and not others? Throwing her tantrum, “as soon as we passed the driveway to her friends,” is an example of her strongly resisting and challenging your leadership. She obviously respects, submits, and cooperates with you up to a point, but her respect for you (and consequently for your requests) is not as complete and consistent as it needs to be. In short, she is telling us very clearly that she will not cooperate and do some of the things she is being asked to do. At this point the tough question must be asked, “what am I doing, or not doing, that is causing this problem for the horse?” Or, another way, what is the leader doing, or not doing, that is denying Onion the information, support, comfort, trust, respect that she needs in order to choose to cooperate, rather than become insubordinate? It’s common to settle for just enough trust and respect to get by, often thinking they are stronger and more complete than they actually are. Then one day, when trust and respect are really needed, they break down and fail – the foundation of trust and respect was not strong and complete enough for a big test. Things often go downhill from there. When this is the case, as I feel it is with you and Onion, the thing to do is what I call, go back to Kindergarten, and solidly and thoroughly rebuild trust and respect piece by piece, stronger and better than ever. They must be acquired first and foremost on the ground. This you can do by working with her in a round pen, which will be a non-confrontational way of addressing many important issues, including this one of trust and respect. I can’t over emphasize how important it is for them to be rock solid before we start driving or riding a horse. More on the round pen work later.

It is not the inherent nature of horses to be uncooperative unless given a reason to do so. In addition, Onion has demonstrated in many ways, over time, that she has the personality and learned behavior to be a cooperative little horse, a good student, and willing worker. But, notice that when Onion became really confused or upset, she tried to escape from you in almost every possible direction – “spinning around” (I assume both right and left), “launching” (forward), “rearing” (up), “throw herself on the ground” (down). I don’t know about back? Once a horse becomes confused or upset beyond a certain point it CANNOT reason, nor learn, nor obey! At that point, escape can become an irresistible impulse, a reflex reaction, a shortcut to survival. This is leading to what I feel is the single most important thing I can offer you and Onion. However, it gets a little tricky here. Although reason itself is impaired, or sometimes completely gone, by the time a horse actually tries to escape – the act of escaping itself is a reasonable (logical) response at that instant. Horses are hard wired to flee when they perceive they are in danger. The sum of all the confusion and upset that led up to that flash point eventually added up to enough to convince Onion that she was in life threatening danger. At that point the logical instinctive preservation reaction, that all horses have, kicked in – and she blew up. Once conditioned by previous unpleasant experiences the flash point can be reached very quickly – often triggered by anything that even slightly reminds them of the previous episodes. The key, then, is for us to never let confusion or upset build up in a horse – to derail it at its earliest recognizable beginning, or better yet learn to prevent it. We will be talking a lot about this. And guess who I propose has the ultimate responsibility to insure that the horses I’m working with don’t become even a little bit confused or upset, let alone get anywhere near that flash point? Yep, I’ve met him and he’s me. Now this doesn’t mean that I’m always successful by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m learning to stop the action sooner and sooner, and find more effective ways of preventing its even beginning. We don’t need to identify every one of the things that contributed to “the sum of all that led up to that flash point” – they can be a million different things. It would be impossible to identify and deal with all the individual external causes (stimuli) which might upset our horses in their lifetimes (an exception here is that we must be thorough and persistent in eliminating possible sources of physical pain, from equipment or injury for example). What does work, however, is to take action immediately at the first sign of discomfort on the part of our horse(s) and do whatever it takes to make them comfortable again – and I mean pronto. Generally, the younger and less experienced the horse is, the more crucial this is – but it’s very important to give all horses this consideration for their well being and peace of mind.

Another aspect of Onion’s resistant behavior, it seem to me, is that she becomes focused in a single minded way, sort of goes on autopilot, decides she knows where she’s going and tunes you out – and it then becomes difficult to untrack and redirect her. Your example of her rubber necking and going her way rather than turning for you is an example – she is not being asked to do something she doesn’t understand, or cannot do, or is frightened to do. It’s as though she simply has something else in mind and won’t change her plans for you – or is it? Once again I propose asking, “what am I doing or not doing that is causing this problem for the horse?” Perhaps we need to figure out more effective ways that you can keep her attention focused on you. The key to this with horses is keeping our attention focused on them at all times. By being eternally attentive to them and observant of their every nuance, we can come to know what they are about to do – before they actually begin to do it. They are far more receptive to redirection before they initiate an action or choose a direction than after.

Secondly, if we are constantly communicating our wishes to them, giving them direction (leadership), constantly reminding them of the route, speed, rhythm, etc., that we want – letting them know we are awake and flying the plane – they are less apt to think they have the right, or need, to take over the control. Without continuous reminders from us they test whether they are free to make a choice they want. Of course some horses are more so inclined than others. Onion, is an intelligent and capable little mare and is willing to make her own decisions (choices) and stick by them if given the chance – that’s not bad, just part of her personality. A horse with another type of personality and spirit might just go along staying on course and waiting for you to make occasional major adjustments – more like a train going down the tracks. Onion, by comparison, is a jeep going down a gravel road – keep using the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brakes or she could be headed for the ditch. The challenge is to constantly send her rhythmic signals through your thoughts, the lines, and verbally (when riding, via your body as well) – “I’m right here with you girl” – as you use the pressure-release technique to very lightly send caressing messages through the lines (right, left, right, left, etc.). “Easy – slow down a little” (pump together, release, pump together, release, left, right, etc.) “Thank you.” Refer to Ask a Teamster, SFJ, Winter 2001, Vol. 25, No. 1.

The third part of all this is to continuously monitor and evaluate whether or not you have Onion’s attention – and whether or not she is responding promptly to your cues in a relaxed and comfortable manner (without resistance). It is our responsibility to keep our horses focused on us and to keep them responsive to us. I suspect that with Onion, corrections need to be made at the first hint of inattentiveness or unresponsiveness – once again, prevention is even better. At times, particularly for a while now, this will involve stopping a lot for “time out” to relax her before proceeding – and using other strategic tactics. In fact, whenever anything we’re doing with a horse begins to not work, we need to immediately – STOP – take a time out to settle, then try again. Or, if good judgment suggests, retreat back to something we know is easy and comfortable for them, or make some other change that will keep things from escalating into an argument or a battle. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. I understand that you have used some of these techniques, but my strong sense is that Onion needs a lot more work with them in an upgraded form. Try retreating farther back to Kindergarten, using smaller baby steps as you work your way back up, and more repetitions at each level. Advance ahead in baby steps but frequently retreat back to reinforce and review previous work – then advance back up. Constantly watch and evaluate Onion to be sure you have her attention; that she is relaxed and comfortable; that she is willing, responsive, and gives to the bit and flexes easily. At any time you don’t have all of that – STOP – then after a time out, when her body language tells you she is comfortable, try again. Be a kind, gentle, supportive, quiet, confident leader for her – and be sure that all of your verbal commands and signals through the lines are simple, clear, and not confusing. For example: (this is a scenario that would occur only after the round pen work and other work I’m suggesting had been successfully completed) You are ground driving Onion with the little tire in tow and come to the notorious rocky area (your whip is at home in the garbage can), she gets anxious and immediately you stop her, tell her she’s a good girl, and put a steady hand on her rump. You unhook the tire and the single tree, hang the traces up, and put your hand back on her rump. When she is completely relaxed again (looking around; swishing her tail gently; muscles, eyes and ears soft), you step back into driving position, wait and evaluate her response to your moving back there. If anticipation of going again causes her any anxiousness at all go back up and stroke her rump. Repeat this until you can go back, make contact with the lines and start with her relaxed. Drive her up and down over the rocky area this way going past the tire each time, stop often and take time out. If everything is working (she remains calm, etc.) make 30 (the magic number of repetition for complete acceptance) round trips up and back. But, if driving her this way isn’t working, do up the lines and lead her with the halter rope until you get 4 or 5 completely comfortable trips, then try driving again to get 30 trips. If at any time you need to go home, choose a calm successful situation to end on. Orchestrate a success if necessary by asking her to do something you know she will easily and willingly do – maybe take a few steps back, or let you pick up her feet, whatever, just so you end on a successful, comfortable note. If you can’t get her home comfortably by driving her, quit on a positive note and lead her home. Leave the tire if you must but don’t do anything with it that will concern her. Her last memory of this place and work must be a good one. Horses hold on to the memory of the last thing and the worst thing that happens to them in our sessions.

Assuming you continue, after ground driving 30 successful trips, attach the single tree and drag it (an intermediate baby step would be to drag the trace chains on the ground without the single tree). You don’t always have to do 30 repetitions, but it’s better to do more than you think she needs than not enough – the important thing is to constantly evaluate her comfort level and make adjustments accordingly. We want her to show us she can be perfectly comfortable at one level for awhile, and with some variations (like different patterns, or going different directions) before we move up a baby step to the next level. And keep in mind that we will be going back to lower levels as often as prudent. Most people don’t break tasks into small enough steps, they try to advance too fast, don’t take enough breaks, and use too few repetitions. It’s so very common to have our own opinions about what the horse should be able to do or handle, rather than letting the horse tell us. Our next baby step, this session, or the next, will be to have Onion drag a fence post over the same area. However, we want to go directly from the single tree to the fence post. So if it is to be the next session you will drive her first with traces up (but only a few more trips than it takes to tell you she’s okay with it), next the same thing with the single tree, then the fence post. It’s critical to do all the stopping with time outs, rump rubbing, watching for concern, waiting for relaxation, at each level. If, when you first try the fence post, she can’t handle it comfortably, I say you need to go back home to the corral and work there getting her more solid in that environment – using all sorts of contrivances up to and including things that are worse spooks than the rocky area and tire. (Of course, you will have already done all of this in the corral before ever going back to the rocky area in the first place – but never hesitate to retreat back to Kindergarten for the slightest reason – done well it can only help.) On the other hand, if the two of you succeed with the post for 30 repetitions, try the tire. After three separate sessions (on different days) of success with the little tire, it’s time for the big one, or find a middle sized one if you think it better. Remember to work back up through the different stages each time you begin a new session – not necessarily every stage but several below where you finished the previous session.

The artistry of your part in all of this comes in being constantly tuned into Onion and reading her emotional vital signs constantly – in knowing when to progress to the next step and when to retreat back – and how many steps to drop back – then how to work back up. All the while calculating when to stop for time outs – how long for each time out (it varies – she will tell you) – when to comfort her rump, or maybe go up and rub her head this time instead – etc., etc., etc., etc. Throughout ALL of this the ULTRA IMPORTANT GOAL is to never allow your horse to become anxious, confused, or upset (at least for not over 0.000000000265 milliseconds).

I am confident that this non-confrontational way of working with horses, that I’m struggling to explain, is the most important thing Onion needs from you – the greatest gift you, or anyone, can give their horses and the partnership – what she has been pleading and arguing and battling for. I have a passion about this bordering on radical, I have seen it change and enrich the lives of thousands of troubled horses and many hundreds frustrated horse people. I teach workshops, do clinics, demonstrations and lectures where folks come to learn about driving and working horses – but this is what I pray they will take home to their horses – this heart and soul of horsemanship – this horsemanship with a conscience.

Onion shows characteristics of a basically tolerant but sensitive personality, and in view of your recent episodes, is probably susceptible to overload if too much happens too fast. Horses are by nature timid (cowards actually) and they look to us for leadership, direction and confidence – they take their cues from us, even if we don’t realize we are broadcasting them. In some of your situations with Onion the intensity was, without doubt, enough to cause adrenaline release into her blood stream and the resultant anxious, nervous survival responses – flight, fight, or freeze. Once a horse releases adrenaline into the blood stream it takes about 40 minutes for it to be metabolized and for the horse to calm back down. It can take much longer if something (or someone) continues to excite them and stimulate further adrenaline release. Also keep in mind that what is easy and comfortable at home, or in one particular location, often becomes confusing, more complicated, uncomfortable, or even frightening when new surroundings, people, horses, temptations, and other stimuli are introduced. When we, the leaders, find ourselves in challenging situations with our horses we often tense up and unconsciously send messages of our own concern to our horses. They are so perceptive that it doesn’t take much. Through our energy, attitude, muscle tone, posture, voice, lines, and more, we tell them loud and clear – the boss is anxious, uncomfortable, or upset – and they reason, “the boss is upset, something is wrong, if my leader is worried it must be bad.” A progressive cycle of anxiousness, concern, confusion, misinterpretation, upset, fear can develop between us and our horse(s) -–and the momentum can build as we feed off one another. This is a logical reaction and natural cycle for the horse with other horses (maybe for us too for all I know). They are wired like their ancestors who went on high alert in preparation to jump and run whenever a herd member (especially the leader) got edgy. Merely having your two “human emergency brakes” in position likely sent a clear message of concern to Onion. The combined human emotional energy present, on top of her preexisting confusion and concern about pulling the big tire, was enough to spell danger in horse language – and danger begets fear – and fear begets flee, fight or freeze. Any additional noise, movement, harshness, force, discomfort, or pain that may have found its way into the episode would have confirmed for her that a life threatening emergency did, in fact, exist. I say life threatening because – “Once a horse becomes confused or upset beyond a certain point it CANNOT reason, nor learn nor obey!” – nor tell the difference between life threatening or not – nor tell the difference between friend and foe. We have here a good example of “the sum of all the confusion and upset that led up to that flash point.” Perhaps I’m being insensitive in using this example. My only intent is to try to provide a measure of understanding which will enable receptive horse people to help some good horses. We can’t help but harm or hurt our horses when we argue or battle with them, so we must simply become skillful and creative enough avoid argument and fights altogether. Another quote comes to mind that can be twisted to apply to horses – “Our greatest duty and our main duty is to help others ——— and please, if you can’t help them, would you please not hurt them?” – The Dalai Lama

Perhaps with a story I can illustrate another chain reaction scenario that tends to plague mostly neohorsefolk, but of course many pseudohorsefolk remain susceptible to it for life. In fact, I learned about this type of chain reaction myself the hard way – back in my CroMagnonhorsefolk days. Once upon a time long, long ago (all great stories start this way), Bob, a nicely started teamster, is driving his mare, Star, who is just as nicely started in harness. They hit a stretch of rough road (or whatever) and Star tenses up and becomes anxious – likely because the roughness is transmitted to her as unfamiliar sounds and sensations (at a time when she’s away from the security of the home place). Bob, being caught a little off guard reacts by tightening the lines, somewhat roughly, which unbeknownst to him bumps Star’s mouth with the bit. The discomfort in her mouth fuels Star’s apprehension and makes her even more anxious. At this point Bob is holding too tight a line on her – which makes him feel he has better control (and more often than not the Bobs of the world hold with steady pressure rather than using the superior pressure-release technique). But what Star is feeling is not control but confined, confused, and frustrated – quickly on their way to FEAR. She pushes harder into the bit as horses are apt to do against steady pressure. Fearful that she is attempting to take off, Bob, pulls even harder and steadier on the lines. At this point moving forward is causing more pain on her mouth, so Star gives to the pressure, even though it’s still steady, and tries to stop. Bob has not asked her to stop, and he knows the rule (archaic) about being the boss and forcing horses to do what you want them to do – so he touches her up with the whip. However, being half flustered himself he neglects to release the lines and give her freedom to go forward. Consequently, as Star lurches forward in response to the sting of the whip, the bit hammers her jaw as she jerks two feet of lines through Bob’s hands – which convinces him she’s gone mad. Bob’s response is to roughly saw on her mouth in an attempt to bring her to her senses and stop her. But of course it has the opposite affect – the chaos and added pain ignite her FEAR into panic – and in desperation she: (choose any two or three) 1. rears up and goes over backward into Bob’s lap. 2. makes another tremendous leap forward landing on a nest of yellow jackets. 3. kicks the cart apart. 4. throws herself to the ground on the yellow jacket nest. 5. runs away rendering the cart into kindling. 6. drops over dead with a heart attack on the yellow jacket nest which results in more yellow jackets on Bob because everyone knows no self-respecting yellow jacket will waste ammunition stinging a dead mare.

As it turns out, Bob’s sister, Carmen, a nicely started teamstress, is driving her gelding, Firecracker, who is pretty darn green in harness. They are traveling down a nearby road on the same day. Ironically, they too hit an even rougher stretch of road (or whatever) and Firecracker tenses up and becomes anxious – in fact he twists his fuse and gets a match ready. Carmen was not caught by surprise, however, because she had already been visualizing them calmly handling the rough road as they drew near it, and was prepared to help Firecracker if he needed support from her. Even before Firecracker reacted, she was attempting to steady and support him with the lines using her usual finesse and her usual pressure-release technique. When he lurched, she continued smoothly with the lines actually releasing some as he lurched so as not to hurt his mouth, while at the same time wrinkling her mouth into an affectionate grin, and thinking to herself, ‘Firecracker, you silly boy,’ and then in a calm but firm voice – WHOA. Firecracker stopped, but still worried he’s striking his match when he feels Carmen’s stick begin caressing his aft parts, and hears her say, “What a good boy, thank you for stopping so nice,” in a honey tone voice. Now she’s got him thinking – ‘here we are in mortal danger and my boss lady doesn’t even know it – that doesn’t make sense. Oooh that stick feels good, a little to the left please. Hey, I don’t hear that horrible rattle any more, and since we stopped I’m not feeling the buggy jerking on me like it was. Up a little, over to the right an inch. Maybe she ain’t worried because whatever was trying to git us is gone now. Oh well, she ain’t worried so it can’t be too bad’ – he blows out his match and relaxes his fuse. Carmen, noticing how relaxed he’s become, tightens the lines enough to make light contact with the bit, slowly pulls on one line until his head moves that direction just a tad as a wake up call (prewarning), and asks him to go. Of course the rattling and jerking start in on him again but before he can twist his fuse, and long before he can reach for a match, she pulls him over on to the grass beside the road and keeps going. Now he’s startin’ to figure it out – ‘she knows how to get rid of that danged monster, she ain’t scared cause she’s the boss lady, I wonder if she’s ‘fraid of anything.’ As Carmen steers Firecracker back onto the road the monster, or a close relative, returns. Now ole’ Firecracker is really tuned into boss lady to make sure she isn’t maybe just a teeny bit scared, but she’s humming a tune, which distracts him for a moment before he notices that this spook is taking longer to skedattle. Carmen steers him onto the grass before he even has time to think ‘fuse,’ and of course the grandfather monster (old and slow so he took longer to go by) is gone. After a mile or so of alternating rough road and smooth grass, with a few stops for time out thrown in for good measure, they’re staying on the road and ole’ Firecracker has it all figured out ‘that woman has the power of God; we’re surrounded by them demons and she’s made both of us bulletproof. They’re rattlin’ and jerkin’ constant now, but they can’t even scratch us let alone draw blood. As long as I’m with her I ain’t gonna git ascared of nothing,’ that is unless she’s gets ascared of it first.’ After another pleasant two miles they see an ambulance racing down a nearby highway, sirens blaring, with a swarm of yellow jackets in hot pursuit.

Now let’s consider number three above. We know something is causing Onion to be unwilling to pull at all now when she was willing before. She is not refusing to pull for no reason – they always have reasons for what they do, or won’t do. Our job is to undo the conditioning that has made her uncomfortable with pulling (mentally, emotionally, physically), and to recondition her to be willing and comfortable pulling a load – any reasonable load, anywhere, anytime. Although she may be, as you state, “strong enough to pull that tire plus a 180 lb. person,” my feeling is that she should not be pulling that heavy a load until she has developed (or perhaps redeveloped) more complete confidence, obedience, and willingness with lighter, less physically challenging loads. In fact, at this point, it sounds like any pressure on the traces is more than she can handle. By launching forward, not being able to work through being “very tense and agitated,” and finally “launch in the air and throw herself” she is trying to tell us, with increasing urgency, that something is seriously not working for her. On some level and for some reason it’s not worth it for Onion to pull that tire across those rocks – in her mind it’s not a logical option to choose and put up with. And since she is an intelligent, logical, comfort loving horse she makes the choice not to suffer the discomfort and do it. The cost to her is greater than she can afford right now. For another horse, perhaps less sensitive or more seasoned, it might be no problem – but for her it is. It makes sense to us that she should pull the tire, but we don’t yet know the price she has to pay to pull it. Is the work too strenuous; does it hurt her in some subtle way; problems associated with the bit or the pressures or motions through it; too much pressure, vibration, jerking, friction or other irritation on her shoulders; on and off pressure via the collar which she tries to give to rather than steady pressure which by nature and training she would normally push into; combinations of these; or things we may never think of?

In England in the old days there was a place along a road where the rocks terrified horses. After years of problems they were removed and hauled away. Thereafter horses passed without batting an eye. Shortly, the rocks were discovered to be radioactive. Who knows what spooks horses can perceive?

Although she knows exactly what’s wrong, we don’t – not everything, and not for sure. One thing I do know is that she should not be asked to do certain things at this time. Temporarily, this includes many things she has been able to do in the past. Once again, back to Kindergarten (basics) to gradually and progressively rebuild with a series of successes. In concluding this section, I want to reemphasize that all the skill, techniques, finesse, strategies, etc. in the world will not compensate for a weak foundation of trust and respect.


Here is what I propose:

Starting with round pen work, go back to the basics (kindergarten) and gradually build (or rebuild) a solid, trusting, respectful, comfortable, cooperative partnership using baby steps, repetition, time outs, and appropriate rewards and consequences (and probably some other things that I’ll think of as we go along). Harshness, force and anything that causes pain are not acceptable options. Only non-confrontation techniques will be used.


  1. We need to simplify things for Onion as much as we can – for a while. So for the time being, I strongly encourage you to limit her to either driving or riding. In time she can be used for both, but right now she needs to focus and become competent in one area before branching out into others.
  2. Get rid of your whip and replace it with a stick (pole). Learn to use the stick as described in the Ask A Teamster column, SFJ, Summer 2001, Vol. 25, No. 3. The last thing we want is for her to become fearful or experience pain at any time.
  3. I’m concerned that in the course of some of the “battles” her mouth may have been unintentionally traumatized. Check for injuries and sensitivity in all areas that the bit may have affected.
  4. Use collar and hames, not a breast strap. Under the circumstances, I recommend a pad with the collar, just in case some type of sensitivity in her shoulder(s) is a factor.
  5. Recheck the fit of her collar. I find that lots of folks are misinformed about proper fit on collars. It’s very common to think they fit when they are actually too large. Lack of detail in your photo precludes evaluating the fit of the collar to any degree, but the point of draft looks low to me and other relationships lead me to speculate (guess) that it’s too large. My partner/ mentor, Tom Triplett, had a similar suspicion (uncertain guess). However, only looking and feeling will tell the real story. And of course, I must caution against going the other way and having a collar too tight/small which will also cause problems. Have someone, whose opinion you can trust, check it before you proceed.
  6. In the photograph it appears that the trace carriers on the harness are adjusted too short. If so, they will put pressure downward on her hips via the hip straps when she is pulling a load – the greater the pull the more this could bother her. If necessary, lengthen them so they are loose when the traces are taut. I realize that she is not pulling in the photo and that the single tree and traces will come up when she tightens the rigging, but drawing a straight line from the point of hitch on the tire to the attachment of the trace on the hame indicates the trace carriers should be lengthened.
  7. Read and study the following Ask A Teamster articles: SFJ – Winter 1999 Vol. 23 No. 1, Summer 1999 Vol. 23 No. 3, Fall 1999 Vol. 23 No. 4, Spring 2000 Vol. 24 No. 2, Winter 2001 Vol. 25 No. 1. In the articles you will get more detail on many things covered here, plus information and concepts not included here but of importance to you and Onion. The pressure- release technique recommended here is explained in Winter 2001 Vol. 25 No. 1 – it is very important for you to learn and use with Onion.
  8. Decide on a consistent set of simple and clear verbal commands that you will use with her from now on. Use no more than necessary – one each for start, stop, and back will do for now. Keep in mind that the tone, volume, timing, and emotion (yes emotion) of your voice are every bit as important as the actual words spoken. Don’t forget to use liberal applications of please, thank you, and good girl. Otherwise, I encourage you not to say too much when working with her. The language of horses is basically a silent language – our attitude, posture, position, and especially touch convey more than our words. A steady, calm, reassuring hand on her rump will comfort, relax, reassure, and reward her when you are stopped for time outs – which are employed to calm down, allow processing time, or break tasks into baby steps. She will learn that she won’t be expected to go anywhere, nor will she be asked to do anything (except stand quietly) while the hand is there. It will confirm that all is well between the two of you and beyond. You can rub her if you wish but don’t pat her – that means something else to a horse. Later when riding on a vehicle or equipment the stick can serve as an extension of your arm to caress her rump and send the same messages.
  9. Learn to prevent, or at least quickly recognize and defuse, Onion’s anxiousness, nervousness, confusion, frustration, resistance, etc. This is the big one. Work hard at learning everything you can on this subject and practice, practice, practice. As we’ve already discussed, this involves learning to recognize the very earliest symptoms of such things as concern, anxiousness, confusion, upset, insecurity, fear, resistance, etc., in your mare. Muscle tension is often our first clue. In a state of comfort, muscles are typically relaxed and soft. However, they tend to tense up and become more rigid and less flexible when there is concern, anxiousness, etc. – they actually look tense and feel firm or hard. This generally shows up in the head(ears, eyes, lips, nostrils, and even position) and neck earliest, but the tail is often a close second or at times even first. A relaxed, slowly or occasionally swishing tail is a very good indication of a relaxed state. A tense clamped down or rapidly flipping tail is just the opposite – of course flies could be the cause of the latter but that’s significant to. Another early warning sign is when her gait becomes more animated (bounces), and less smooth and relaxed. I frequently go up and put my hand on the horse’s rumps when we stop, especially if I’m trying to help them calm down. I can tell by the feel when they are relaxing – with practice you can even feel it when rubbing them with the stick.

I want to re-emphasize – the most important thing you can do for Onion is to not let her get confused or upset. Because once she starts you have a good chance of losing her attention and cooperation, at which point the process, that for her, leads to an argument or a fight is underway. Be prepared to change what you are doing with her, or how you are doing it, or just plain quit at any time to keep her comfortable. The goal with all horses is to avoid argument – not to try to win them – nobody wins an argument or a fight.

Horses cannot argue if we refuse to argue back. For example, before you get to a fork in the trail, (or any other situation where you suspect she may try to make a choice that is different than the one you want) begin visualizing the two of you smoothly executing your choice. As you get closer begin pre-warning her with light signals on the side of the bit to which you wish her to turn. Use pressure/release to do this, never pulling with steady pressure.

The main problem with pulling a horse’s head around with steady pressure and holding it there is that horses, being into pressure animals, have a natural tendency to pull or push harder and harder against steady pressure. With her head pulled around “the other way” (your way) with steady pressure she will attempt to pull it back (a natural reaction), thus taking her body away from the steady pull and away from the direction you want to go. So, pulling on a rein or line with steady pressure can contribute to a horse going the opposite (wrong) way.

On the other hand, with the combination of rhythmic, intermittent pressure and release the head is pulled to the side a bit and then released before resistance and pulling against the pressure had time to begin – then cyclically pulled again (farther this time) and released. By this time you should know if she intends to resist, and maybe even how seriously. If resistance is shown, now is the time to take creative counter measures.

(a) I might try turning her the other direction in a circle, which if successful will bring us around headed in the direction I want to go at some place on the circle’s arc. As I come around I will be assessing her (always am) for willingness to go my way this time. If she’s still unwilling, I may make one or more additional circles to distract her from her intent, loosen her up, and get her responding cooperatively. Notice the similarity of these circles to the laps she will have done in the round pen when she was uncooperative there – you can bet she will make that association and the memory may well remind her that responding to your requests is her best option. (Many times my mentor, Tom Triplett, has actually unhitched a horse, or dismounted, and lunged him in a circle as a gentle reminder that it’s easier and more pleasant to cooperate and behave while being driven or ridden).

(b) As an alternative I might start doing a serpentine pattern before I get to the fork in the trail. By working her alternately to the left and then right in flowing arcs, I get her to give to the pressure (intermittent of course) and bend her neck and body to both the right and left. This loosens her up, distracts her, and allows me to assess her willingness to respond. If she seems inflexible or unwilling I have time before the turn to work through it in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Doing so might include some circles, stopping and taking a time out (or several), turning around and going back down the trail the direction I came from, or any number of other peculiar and amusing maneuvers that can actually be interesting and enjoyable for horse and human alike.

(c) If I ever do finally get to the fork, and in spite of my ingenious tactics she, at the last second, tries to go her way instead of mine, I am prepared with a whole new bag of tricks. One option is to simply stop, stand, and take a time out. However, I turn her around so she is pointed in the opposite direction from where she wants to go. When I start again, after I see her settle and lose her anxiousness, I may be able to make the turn since we’re going the opposite way and it’s on her other side now. Or, if riding rather than driving, I might actually choose to dismount after stopping, and simply walk and lead her down the proper trail some distance before remounting. An option that may surprise you is to actually ride or drive her down the trail of her choice rather than the fork of my choice. This option would be best chosen when you first perceive she wants to go that way and before you ask her to take the other fork. However, if at the last moment she catches you sleeping and starts down the wrong fork, make it seem like your idea – encourage her and steer her that direction. Then later choose a place to turn back, return and take your route. Of course, the two of you may have another difference of opinion about turning back but that’s perfect – more practice and more time playing with your horse – opportunity.

(d) Combine any or all of the above and any others you can come up with. The main thing is keep it all relaxed, peaceful, and enjoy it – it’s all just a big game.

  1. Study, practice, and use one of the non-confrontational round pen techniques for getting horses to connect (“join up,” “hook up”) with us, trust and respect us, and choose to cooperate with us. These methods are based on learning and “speaking” the silent language of horses; working with horses in ways that they understand and that make sense to them, that earn their respect, and that don’t violate their trust. All of the work in the round pen lays foundations for, transfers to, and pays big dividends later when we are driving or riding. Lynn Miller’s Training Work Horses/Training Teamsters, Monte Robert’s Join-Up video and new book, From My Hands to Yours, and my Winter 1999 SFJ, Ask a Teamster column would be good places to start. Three additional books that offer excellent insight are Horses Never Lie by Mark Rashid (particularly applicable to your mare), The Faraway Horses by Buck Brannaman, and Natural Horse-Man-Ship by Pat Purl. There are many other excellent resources available also. My personal philosophy, style and way of relating to and working with horses has evolved over many years of stealing ideas, philosophies, concepts, and techniques from a great many horses, people and sources – not to mention a little trial and a lot of error. I encourage all horse people to become serious students of the horse – read, take workshops and clinics, study videos, and use the internet – then carefully evaluate to decide what feels right for you and your horse(s).

Go To Work:

Using techniques recommended in #10 above, begin work with Onion in a round pen, no halter, no harness, just her and you. My idea here is for the two of you to build a more fail proof foundation of trust and respect that will carry through into your work from here on out – whether on the ground, under saddle, working in harness, when the farrier or veterinarian comes – whatever, whenever and wherever. The goals in the round pen are to be able to drive her away around the pen using eye contact and body language, and then at the appropriate time (when she sincerely asks), cause her to join up with you and accept you as her companion and leader. Next get her to stay with you, follow you wherever you go in the pen, stop when you stop, go when you go – all voluntarily without any physical control or equipment. If she doesn’t follow or leaves you, drive her away and make her do some more “laps” as a consequence. This is not a physical exercise to wear her out, it’s a mental exercise. If she chooses to leave you or not cooperate, she goes to work – no judgment, no opinion, no problem, not bad, not good, just is. When she reasons (yes, horses do reason) that it’s easier, more comfortable, and more pleasant to be with you and do as you request, she will “ask” for another chance. Learn not to miss or ignore her asking as this could be considered unreasonable in her mind. (But, on the other hand, don’t be bothered if you miss an opportunity, mess up on timing, or make a mistake. Horses are very forgiving creatures as long as we don’t hurt them). Don’t linger on a mistake and let it bother you because that will be making another mistake – one that your horse will pick up on and might be concerned about. When she cooperates she gets rewards – doesn’t have to do laps, and being with you as a companion and trustworthy leader is a big one. Kind, gentle touch is another. When she doesn’t cooperate she goes in circles – not that comfortable or enjoyable. Remember, horses are comfort lovers – given a chance, sooner or later, they choose the most comfortable option.

Watch for avoidance behavior – Onion turning head away from you (for example, when you try to halter her), turning her body away from you, moving away from you unasked, etc. Keep in mind that we are often unconsciously telling our horses to go away. Looking them in the eye, facing square at them and approaching them in a straight line means go away. Unless we know their language, we may often find ourselves asking them to go away and many other things that we don’t really want them to do. Also, be constantly aware of where her attention is directed. Her attention should be on you at all times. To keep a horse’s attention on us we must keep ours on them. If our attention leaves them, they have been given permission to direct their attention elsewhere – in effect, dismissed from class, told to take the rest of the day off, fired from their job. And when their attention wanders somewhere else, which it’s bound to do at times, it’s your job to get it promptly back onto you.

Whenever you encounter avoidance, or her attention goes elsewhere, you must make a judgment call as to whether or not the indiscretion warrants a consequence – driving her away to do some laps, or whatever. For example if a horse turns it’s head away as the halter is brought up to be put on but doesn’t move its feet, I might choose to retreat with the halter (but not with my body) and give a stroke on the neck. If she relaxes and brings her head back I will proceed with the halter again. You can just see and feel them thinking – “I don’t want that thing on my head. I want to leave but, if I do, he’ll make me do some laps and that’s no fun – at least after the first few, it’s not. I’ll try getting my head way over here away from it. Hey, it went away. I can put my head back. Wow, I got a nice stroke on the neck when I brought my head back. Oops, here is comes again, he’s serious about putting that danged thing on me, but if I go away I know I’ll get laps. He might even make me do some if I turn my head away again – he’s done that before. I guess that halter isn’t so bad after all. He always tells me what a good girl I am and rubs me nice once it’s on.”

Notice that she always had choices – she could leave or accept the halter. From previous experience she reasoned that accepting the halter would be more comfortable and less trouble than leaving. Importantly, neither choice was anxiety producing, confusing, upsetting, frightening nor painful. The halter is just one example. This type of giving choices and making the one I want the easiest and most comfortable, is the way I try to set things up for all horses in everything that we do. Now let’s take it another step. What if she turns her head away when the halter approaches a second time or moves away with one or more feet. We have another judgment call to make. There can be no set rules to go by because every time is different. One time I might accept one foot moving but not two, and another time one is unacceptable (maybe because she has been showing a little increasing tendency towards avoidance prior to this time). With all we do with our horses, the focus needs to be on how we do things and how we treat the horse rather than accomplishing a specific task or goal.

“The attitude of a natural horseman is that principles are more important than purpose – that adjusting to fit the situation is more important than rules.” – Pat Parelli

A. I realize that the round pen work may seem redundant and unnecessary with Onion considering all that she knows and has done – but it could not be more important. In my opinion, it is ideal for all young horses and any horse that is having difficulties. We must insure that you and she develop and maintain a trust and respect relationship that will not break down in times of stress. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is with the round pen methods I have suggested. It is far better to deal with issues like trust, respect, cooperation, confusion, upset, fear, etc., in the relative safety of a round pen rather than outside in harness or under saddle. Each step in the process is critical to the outcome and repeating steps as necessary is the norm. I cannot cover the round pen work in detail here, so study my Ask A Teamster article, SFJ Winter 1999 to get more on my techniques. I encourage you to choose Monte Roberts’ Join Up procedure for your initial work. Once you have accomplished getting her to follow you and stand unhaltered for everything up to, but not including harnessing, use Lynn Miller’s system for the harness work (there are other good systems available but I can best answer questions or assist you as you proceed if you use the combination of these two). It may become confusing for both you and Onion if you try picking and choosing and blending too many different methodologies at this stage. I assure you that becoming proficient at the round pen work will require a major commitment to learning and developing self-control on your part – Onion’s up to it, are you?

B. Rope, pole, and plastic bag her out. When you think it appropriate begin seesawing a rope over every part of her body. This will come after the initial join up in Monte Robert’s method. Do it repeatedly in different sessions. I take things a step farther and rub my stick (pole) over every body part as well. It has a more solid feel than the rope so is a baby step up toward the feel of shafts, wagon or buggy tongues, single trees, and so forth. The next step is to use a pole or bat (a 4 to 5 foot whip like shaft without a lash) as a handle and attach a common plastic grocery sack to the end. Work the bag all over her body rubbing and making noise with it. Don’t pop it around like a whip, but don’t be hesitant and pussy foot around either. With all three of these “tools,” work from areas she is more comfortable being touched, like the withers, over the body towards more touchy areas. If she starts to get concerned, work your way back towards a comfortable area (retreat), rubbing there a bit then advance to the touchy region again. Each time you advance and retreat you should be able to go farther. However, if we force the issue and don’t retreat soon enough, they may become too uncomfortable to stay with us. The goal is to make progress but not cause them to have to leave us – of course they will sometimes. And we actually drive them away ourselves at appropriate times, before they leave us. Ultimately, we want her so she will stand without a halter and lead or anything else on, stay with you and completely relaxed while you rope, pole, or sack everywhere on her body. You will still be driving her away for laps if she becomes too unwilling, resistant, or tries to avoid or leave you – when this is warranted becomes your judgment call.

C. The next step is to get her to stand voluntarily for harnessing and unharnessing. For this procedure, have the halter and lead on her but try not to have to use it to keep her from leaving you – it is used in case you need to gently remind her not to leave. We don’t want her to move away partly unharnessed and become upset if some of the harness falls off or tangles her up. However, she is to learn to stand untied on a loose lead for the entire procedure without moving away from you at all, or even showing the slightest avoidance behavior, anxiousness, or unwillingness. Just loop the halter rope over your elbow with enough slack that you won’t move it and signal her and go to harnessing. Again, I realize she may do this the very first time, but harness and unharness repeatedly anyhow to create a solid habit. When you accomplish one goal you are not done with it never to return. We continually use reminders of past work as we progress – picking and choosing and going back to kindergarten and working back up as necessary.

D. The next step is to have her follow you with the harness on. Halter and lead are utilized but hopefully you never even tighten the lead rope – just a little two-fingered pressure for an instant if she hesitates is an acceptable reminder. Start using your commands for start, stop, and back at this time and use them consistently whenever moving her in harness from now on, both when she’s following now, and later when you are driving her. Work up to lots of different patterns, stops and starts, sudden changes of direction and backing (don’t back her far at one time).

E. Our next baby step is to drop the trace chains and have her drag them on the ground. Have her follow you without tightening the lead rope again. As always, work towards complete relaxation and comfort with everything the two of you do – but don’t take things to the point of boredom. Throw in some variation in the form of patterns, stops and starts, restarting back to previous levels and then back up (not because you need to necessarily, but for variation). Once the harness is fully secured, driving her away as a consequence, just as before, can be used safely.

F. Finally! You get to drive. Assuming that she is doing everything you ask, staying with you and not trying to avoid anything or leave you, perfectly relaxed and accepting and willing at all the levels up to here, start ground driving her. You will still be testing her on all the previous stuff regularly on an ongoing basis, however, because it all reinforces and rebuilds the allimportant trust and respect in ways that just driving her won’t – not at this time anyhow. Remember to incorporate everything I’ve shared here, and in my other referenced articles, into your work with Onion. Notice, that you have not done anything outside the round pen – that will come at the appropriate time. You know by now that you will be breaking tasks up into gradual baby steps (advancing and retreating as necessary) and repeating them until they are second nature to both of you. Remember to creatively incorporate time out, back to kindergarten, repetition (30 is the magic number for new or big challenges). Be impeccably consistent in your approaches and techniques, but endlessly creative in your solutions. Horses like consistency. It makes them comfortable. If we are inconsistent in how we ask them for something, or what we expect of them, or if we change the rules from day to day, we cannot expect them to be consistent for us – I also feel it affects their trust in us. But, horses can become bored so we throw in variation where it is appropriate and harmless. Keep things simple and clear, not trying too much at once, nor too fast.

“…the three things we found that helped more than anything else in keeping their trust were to be quiet, consistent, and dependable at all times – much like that passive leader that horses choose to follow when they live in a herd.” “…I’ve come to realize that the more consistency I use in my day to day work with them, the better response I get. On the other hand, the more inconsistent I am with my horses, the more problems they seem to develop.” – Mark Rashid

“The great mistake that most men make in breaking their colts is, that they try to teach them too many things at once.” – Jesse Beery

You will need a safe, larger area, preferably enclosed, outside the round pen to advance into at the appropriate time. It needs to be close by because you will, no doubt, be retreating back to the round pen at times. Be prepared to work in these two areas as long as necessary to have Onion driving and pulling every reasonable thing you can imagine – relaxed, attentive, and confident time after time. The time doesn’t matter – safety and results do. It’s a BIG step (whether we realize it or not) for an unprepared horse to go from home out into the big, bad, dangerous world. If we have trust and respect and they have been well prepared it’s just another baby step. Perhaps Onion’s intelligence, initial willingness, and ability to understand and trust you allowed you to progress somewhat too rapidly with her training initially. This rapid progress would not have occurred had you not made good choices and used good judgment and techniques in working with her. Your accomplishments together in one year are commendable. However, as you know, we need to rebuild stronger and better than before so that things don’t break down in times of over-stimulation, confusion or stress. This time we must be sure to take whatever time, patience, and effort that is necessary to build it better and keep it strong.

By now it should be obvious that in order to accomplish effectively what I’ve only scratched the surface of here, we humans have a far greater learning challenge and much more work to do on ourselves, than our horses do. We can’t change a horse’s nature, personality, or history and no one can force a horse to relax, so we’d best take the time to find, learn and use the secrets to making them comfortable.

My hope is that by offering these long-winded explanations and examples, with alternatives and layers of creative strategies, I can convey, not merely formulas nor recipes for solving particular problems, but a philosophy of sorts, principles, and a style of effectively but non-traumatically relating to, interacting with, gently influencing, and enjoying horses. If we adhere to good principles first and foremost, and put the task at hand and our immediate goals and expectations second, and forget the clock altogether – it becomes a win win situation for both the horses and us.

I could have worked with half a dozen Carmens and Onions in the time I’ve been sitting at this two-byte machine cranking out this goldarned, full figured, over punctuated manuscript. It would have been a whole lot more fun and less torturesome too! Which is not to say it isn’t worth it, nor that I won’t be back next issue – because the prospect that other horses and their horse folks may somehow benefit from my struggles with composition is a powerful motivation. Happy Evolving!

Doc Hammill lives on a ranch in Montana. He and his partner Cathy Greatorex help people learn about gentle/natural horsemanship and driving and working horses in harness – through writing, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, and his horsemanship video series.