Episode 56: Q&A: Rescue horses, boring riders, why striking & kicking?

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[00:00:03] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

[00:00:22] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy and successfully train your own horses.

[00:00:31] And today I’m celebrating the one year anniversary of this podcast. I’m kind of shocked. I sat down to record and realized that it has been one year this week and I’m planning on celebrating by answering some of your questions. But the very first thing I want to do is listen to some feedback. I listen to all the questions that come in and I read all the emails that you guys send. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for sharing it with others. Thank you for responding to me. Because while I’m sitting here recording in my closet, I like to picture all of you out there listening. Thanks again for making this year possible. And let’s listen to Ron’s feedback.

[00:01:16] Stacy, this is Ron Andrews. I left you a voicemail several months back and you featured it actually in one of your podcasts about hot horses. And I talked about my 16, 17 year old gelding who had been a ranch horse and I was having trouble bringing him back down after any kind of cantering or trotting. You wanted to just keep going in and you would come in and you thought he probably really wasn’t a hot horse necessarily, but that he just needs more training. And you talk in your podcast that time about the repetition, kind of boring things, doing the cloverleaf and then also about doing the hug or you kind of do a squeeze and apply all the pressure gently at once (hug). I have to tell you now he’s the best he has been and the hug especially. But I think both of those things together have really put him in a good place. And we’re able to have not gone up to a canter yet, but we’ve been up and down out of the trot a number of times over the last few weeks. And it just keeps getting better. And we keep going back to the cloverleaf. And at first, when I do the hugs, he’d kind of squirm like he wanted to do something. Now most of the time he just lets me do it. And if he is getting a little energy up, so to speak, then he will squirm a little bit and then he settles down. So I just wanted to thank you and tell you how well those couple little tricks have worked for him.

[00:02:43] Ron, I want to thank you for leaving this voicemail feedback because you articulated the process very well. And I think sometimes it’s more powerful when people hear the results coming from other people who are in the process of learning it, because really you can hear something on the podcast, but you have to go out there and put in the work and then hearing you explain the process of those little tiny things and the horse getting a little bit squirmy. That is a very accurate representation of what happens. And I think that’s going to inspire some other people to know that when that feeling happens, that’s OK. And I’m gonna encourage you that repetition is the key, because this does need to become second nature for you and the horse as a response. So if the horse is used to having somebody put a leg on or put pressure on and getting, you know, released when it leaves, then this horse needs to get kind of like rewired. It needs to become second nature that sometimes that hug actually means bring yourself together physically and emotionally. And I know this personally, because when I went to college and learned all kinds of stuff about training horses and then when I graduated and my husband and I started training, I did a lot of training and riding.

[00:04:08] I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of hours as a professional who kept horses in training. It was not uncommon to spend 10 hours a day riding horses five or six days a week. But when I went back to trail riding, because I didn’t get a chance to do a lot of trail riding during my college years and then my beginning training years, when I went back to trail riding, it was shocking to me how my body, my muscle memory automatically went back to my old trail riding habits that I had from my teenage years. And really on the surface, I would think, you know, I would have thought I did think then and I can still see how that thought error happened in my mind right now. It just seems like, well, sure, if you put hundreds of hours in doing something differently on a horse than those old habits would go away. But I’m telling you, going back out onto the trail, into that exact situation, the old habits right back. It’s interesting, isn’t it? So just keep that in mind as you keep practicing, because it sounds like you’re totally on the right track. But also be aware it needs to become second nature for you and for him.

[00:05:17] Thanks again. That was really fun feedback.

[00:05:21] Now let’s listen to some questions. This one’s from Virginia.

[00:05:25] Hi, my name is Virginia. I’m calling from Westchester County, New York. Thank you so much for your podcast and learning so much. I recently rescued a gelding they think is between 15 and 18 years old. We think he has a new century. We don’t know too much about his history, though. He came to the new barn underweight and I’ve been feeding a lot, but he’s been very pushy on the ground and in the arena. He trots and canters off before I cue him. It goes to the gate and stops as if he’s saying, I’m done. I want to just go back to my and eat, because when I do lead him to his stall, he pushes right through me. So any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much.

[00:06:12] Thanks for the question, Virginia. When I was listening to your voicemail, I was taking notes and I always find it kind of humorous what my brain comes up with as kind of my first thoughts as I’m listening. And some of my notes say (you don’t know the background), parentheses. That’s good news because you only need to deal with what’s there today. And I definitely find that true. I also put he’s pushy and I put parentheses (asking questions) and I put he trots and canters off before I cue him. And again, I put parentheses (asking questions). So I think when I listen to your description, of course, I’m going to do generalizations of a lot of other horses and a lot of other riders/handlers that I’ve seen. So I want to give some general advice here. And the first piece of advice is that. At times like this, I definitely look at the horses like they’re giant toddlers. They’re kind of giant, very young children who just basically express their thoughts or ask their questions, which is kind of the same thing as expressing their thoughts just in question form. And so I would like it if you challenged yourself to come up with five other ways to look at this situation. So, for instance, one of the things that if I were in this situation would come to my mind is I would actually be like, oh, look, he trotted over to the gate and he’s looking out. One of the things I say a lot of times is, huh? I must not be that interesting because he’s finding something else more interesting.

[00:07:54] Now, that could be the gate. Sometimes it’s the dirt. Sometimes horses will put their heads down while I’m working him and they’ll be scratching the dirt. Or maybe they’re really into looking at a toy or a tarp or a ball or a tire that I have in the arena. And if I want them to be paying more attention to me, what I’ve trained myself to think is, oh, I must not be that interesting if he’s more interested in something else. So that’s just a little shift that you can play with. And I want you to come up with five other ways to look at this situation. I’m going to go ahead and give you one and a half more. I’m going to give you the idea that maybe he really is thinking food is great, but maybe not necessarily in a negative way. Maybe he’s just like, yay! Food is great. And I’m only gonna count that as half credit for me because you already kind of are on that track. I’m just rephrasing it to a slightly more positive thing where he’s just like, food is awesome. Awesomes over here. And that makes me picture a toddler in a grocery store. And I had three of these little toddler people at one time. And, you know, that checkout aisle is designed to totally trigger this in children like all those candy bars. Pretty much lead to little children having the same response, which is like, let me show you where the good thing is. Mom. Here it is right here. So it doesn’t have to be negative.

[00:09:25] It can just be observation on the horses part. And I’m gonna give you one other thought. This is the full other thought, because remember, I only gave myself credit for two and a half ideas. You get to come up with the other two and a half. He could be saying, hey, look, we always leave through this gate. So maybe he’s helping you see the answer that you’re always showing him at the end. And that one’s got a little mind twist in it because it does become very interesting how we leave and what places we reward. So I’m going to give you like another little nugget to chew on with that one. If he’s always seeing the gate as the reward. What could you do in the arena or even at the other end of the arena, opposite of the gate? What could you do to make that area down there? An amazing place to be. So this is going to have to make you think positive, what’s going to make the opposite end of the arena. Amazing. So those are a few tips, but I actually want to look at this through another lens, which is that four-square model. So when I am looking at this, I wrote down the rider’s mind. And one thing that comes up a lot of times, as soon as somebody says that they have a rescue horse is there’s a little like red flag, you know, did this horse have a difficult background? How difficult was it? And I know personally that when those questions come up,.

[00:10:51] I have to watch myself that I don’t just want to overcompensate and try to make up with something there, so I just know that that’s one of those areas where those things can trigger that in people. So check your mind on that, because the other way that this ends up showing up is the rider’s body. So in the rider’s body, in a situation like yours, you could be reflecting things like, I’m not sure how to get him out of my space. So you might not physically know the coordinated cues system for getting him out of your space, which can be as simple as the funky chicken, which is just flopping your elbows around. So he doesn’t want to be in that space all the way to tapping on the can and bones or other things like that. But here’s where it ties back to the riders mind. A lot of times if you’re not really confident in your mind about what you’re trying to achieve and whether he had a difficult background and how you feel about that. The question in your body ends up coming out as how do I get my horse out of my space and parentheses (without driving him away physically and mentally). You know, so it’s like a lot of times riders are like, yes, I want them out of my space.

[00:12:03] Being stepped on by this gigantic horse is not comfortable. But then when it comes down to the reality of actually moving them out of your space, the question of if I move them out, will they ever come back? And if I move them out, are they feeling rejected? And if they feel rejected or are they going to dislike me? And then this riders mind and riders body thing can really do a loop in there. And then what typically ends up happening is the horses either find you just confusing because you’re confused in your own mind, therefore it reflects in your body because it’s reflecting that your thoughts or they are very much like toddlers and they can quickly kind of use the grandmama’s rules situation again. I talked about it again in the last episode and basically they figure out where the loopholes are and that’s not a mean thing. It’s just a thing that humans and horses and dogs and it’s just a energy saving thing that we all do. And if you’re aware of it and you’re not offended by it, you’ll see it even more clearly. So be aware of that. Now, if I’m using the Foursquare model, let’s jump over to the horse’s mind and the horse’s body. Let’s just pretend that your horse is saying this isn’t very interesting.

[00:13:21] I have an idea. And OK, how many of us go to food like I was out Christmas shopping and I had no idea that I wanted to reward myself by going and buying fast food.

[00:13:33] So like food as a reward is so easy to choose. So if your horse in his mind is thinking it’s kind of boring out here, I’ve got some ideas. He might be popping up some ideas and exploring those. And actually in his body, when he’s changing speed and changing directions at will and going places at will. To me again, this is another reflection of him saying, well, I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be doing here. So let me make up some things. And again, I call that asking questions. So a lot of times you’re going to see that the horse’s body is reflecting what is going on in their mind. And if he’s not really focused on you, let’s just go with the lump idea of it’s not maybe you’re not being very interesting or very clear and try on some of those ideas.

[00:14:27] But thanks so much for your question, because I know a lot of people deal with this. Now let’s go on to the next question.

[00:14:39] Hi, Stacy. Thank you so much for your wonderful podcast. My question for you is what prevents a well-trained horse from kicking out or striking out at its handler? I am kind of new to the horse running and have quite a fear of being around the hindquarters or the front end and within striking distance. And I’m looking for a good answer that’s going to kind of give me a peace. I for example, let’s say I’m behind the horse, washing his tail, washing his lower legs or even on the side putting on his saddle. What prevents him from kicking out is there’s one small thing that frustrates him.

[00:15:20] Let’s say he doesn’t like it when you wash his tail or he doesn’t like it when you squeeze his lower leg when you’re trying to get the water off.

[00:15:30] So what makes him say, you know what, I’m just going to handle this?

[00:15:33] I’m not going to kick my leg out because because I feel like in his herd dynamics, that is definitely what would happen if the horse was frustrated with another horse. He would not hesitate to kick out.

[00:15:45] So what prevents him from kicking me or striking out at me even as he respects me, even if I don’t know even if what, but just what prevents him from striking out and kicking out if I do something he doesn’t like? Is it just that there’s a line of respect and he knows not to cross that?

[00:16:04] Thank you so much for this question. I love this question because I think people would be really surprised to find out how much of the time I ask myself these types of questions, because I think part of staying open minded to learning about the horses is sometimes also asking these questions that people maybe just assume that they maybe don’t need to look at or that you somehow get past or something like that.

[00:16:39] But to me, the you know, why doesn’t a well-trained horse strike out or kick out is really interesting because I deal with horses across the board. So I deal with horses that have never been handled before that are older. And I deal with, you know, well-trained horses and everything in between. And I’ve done a lot of colt starting. And when ever I get a horse that’s less trained and, you know, it always brings up that knowledge that this horse could, you know, feel trapped or feel challenged or be aggressive and could lash out in some different way. So naturally, when I’m handling this unknown horse that’s, you know, not very trained. There’s that unknown. And so I am on guard. But the reason I’m saying that I think people would be surprised how many times I ask myself this question is because even when a horse that is supposed to be well-trained comes into my barn, let’s just say somebody shows up at a clinic and I’m out there when I take hold of that lead rope. The very first thing I do is I have that horse out of my space, at least the four feet back, the length of that stick, part of the stick and string. And then I say we earned the right to be in each other’s space.

[00:17:57] And that’s what a lot of these exercises that I teach and ground work are. They are me focusing your attention and you learning to focus on me. And it’s this me reading your body language, you reading my body language and was building this communication back and forth. And I’m always asking these questions like when will they. What do I think would make them? Why don’t they? Because these all tie together. So let’s look at this from your Worst-Case scenario and say, when would they be more likely to strike or kick? And so I tend to see horses that if they feel like they’re really trapped, then you’ll get a horse that might want to strike or kick. You can find that on YouTube videos or horses that really feel like they’re really being challenged. It could be by another horse or really being pushed, you know, maybe, you know, if that’s kind of a trapped feeling in that training situation or physically trapped. So I can see that happening. You can find again, YouTube is great for finding all kinds of nightmares, situations or, you know, maybe a more straight up one that you’d picture is like an aggressive stallion because they’re just kind of hardwired to ask some of these questions. Maybe a mare 

[00:19:34]  that’s protecting a foal, you know. And that one would attack. But what’s really interesting, I think, is that if you were gonna explore one area of your question, I think the one to explore a lot would be. Do horses kick out a lot in the pasture at each other? So when I’m listening to the question and I’m and I’m trying to show you how to find your answer so that you don’t just have to take my word for it, I’m saying, first of all, you know, horses do have places where they’re going to kick out and strike and and stuff. So I want you to do some research on when that would be. And then I want you to really question how often horses really kick out at each other in the pasture, because I love turning horses out together and watching all the dynamics. And if you’re on my email list, you’ll be seeing little video clips of horses turned out together and their dynamics. And what’s interesting is they do a lot more pushing on each other and they do a lot of I’m going to say body language. I’m over here like moving my hand. Like, you can see it. They do a lot more body language with, you know, and they’ll reach out and they might threaten to bite and threaten to kick or do different things. But here’s what I’ve observed, is that most of the time horses are reading each other really well.

[00:21:00] So, sure, I look at Willow and Willow when she goes out with a horse, she knows she can push around. She kind of like, you know, flings around body parts and pins her ears and shakes her head and, you know, will, you know, kick around with her back feet. She’s just making a lot of this bluffing noise and stuff. So I want you to watch how often the horses just kick out at each other in the pasture, especially in a situation like where you’re describing. So let’s say your situation where you’re talking about standing there washing the tail. So to me, I’m like, oh, what would the equivalent of that being the pasture? Well, let’s just say that they’re standing there scratching each other or standing there swatting flies with each other. You know, how often do they just kind of out of the blue kick? And it’s actually not that often. But I want you to do your own homework on this. I want you to watch videos online. Watch that stallion of the Cimarron. Like, watch all these like. Was that a cartoon? No. OK. Watch. Watch. Like the Cloud documentary. I think that’s what I was looking for in my brain. And so so watch and and really try to see and question if horses really do just lash out at each other that often.

[00:22:24] And I’m not going to say that you won’t find some horses that have poor social skills. Yes, for sure. I’ve seen them. But in general, the whole idea of them being a herd animal is that they tend to have some consistency in the way that they communicate. They have a ton of consistency in who they are. Meaning that if they tend to be super chill with, you know, all these different interactions, you can probably expect that to be a little bit across the board. If you see one that’s, you know, temperamental and pinning their ears and kicking in the pasture, you’re more likely to see that when you’re handling it. And it’s human to horse because you saw it when it was horse to horse. So you start watching and seeing that their temperament kind of reflects around in different places. But I’m thinking when I start all these horses, if the horses don’t feel trapped. And let’s just take stallions out of it, because they just they will get a little bit more aggressive at times questioning. But, you know, in general, when I’m sitting there washing my horse or brushing my horse or whatever. Typically, if they’re not that interested, they’re just going to try to move away. And this goes back a little bit into what I was talking about last week, about like how much do you really want to trap them with an aide to force them to be there versus working on their mind? And to me, this is one of the greatest, you know, gifts that teaching your horse to ground tie can bring you is, if nothing else, the knowledge that the energy output for kicking out at you for some simple thing.

[00:24:00] Unless this horse is known for that, then it’s much more likely to just kind of want to wander away. So I know at the end of this, whether or not I’m going to have helped you as much as maybe what you were looking for, because maybe I’m supposed to just say, well, yeah, I mean, you look at the majority of horses don’t. But the reality is, when I’m first handling a horse, I don’t know. Well, and that doesn’t matter if they have very little training or if they have a lot of training. I don’t just walk up and assume that everything’s fine, because what if that horse has some physical pain brewing and it’s hurting? And so I’m always looking at their body language and I’m always letting them have kind of a way out. So typically horses are going to move out, meaning away from you before they’re going to lash out. But is there 100 percent case on that? No, but I’ve been around horses a lot.

[00:24:59] And the thing that is controlling that horse’s feet is that horses mind. And so the more things you can do where you work with that horse and you ask that horse different questions and you put him in a different situation. So you lunge them and you send them over tarps and you have them stop and you whip around them and you ask them to back up and you ask them to back into their stall and you ask them to back out of their stall and you ask him to walk through tires and you ask them to lunge up and down a hill and you lead them around and you do all these different things and you are not within striking or kicking range the whole time you’re doing that. You need to be looking for evidence of who this horse is and what their go to things are. Now, if this is a horse that when somebody claps and makes a noise, the first thing that happens is they like dart and kick out with a leg. Then maybe you have a right to be a little bit concerned because that can be something that horses could do in a startled situation, but that can actually still be trained out of them, even if it was their first response. So I think what I would tell you is that in order to convince yourself that this is not likely to happen, you need to actually be at a distance where it’s less likely to happen and be looking for evidence one way or the other.

[00:26:20] So personally, when I’m washing the horses, I’m kind of standing off to the side. If I’m washing their tail, I’m kind of off to the side beside the hind leg. And then what it comes down to is striking and kicking. And this is going to sound a little bit funny, but if I’m standing right beside you and I try to kick you, I’m not going to be will get up very much swing. So you’re more likely to get pushed by my kick than you are to get like impacted by my kick. And that’s why when you’re learning to be around the horse, the a lot of times will teach you if you’re keeping one hand on the horse as you’re walking around it, that’s going to increase the horse’s awareness that you’re there because it can physically feel you as you’re walking around behind from one side to the other. But also, it’s going to keep you within a range where if that horse did kick out, it’s going to be more of a of a push out than it is a high impact, where if you’re like four feet away and that horse can get like maximum swing and impact you, then that’s kind of that’s why there’s that danger zone there.

[00:27:20] And then, of course, you can be far enough out that you’re not going to be hit at all. But I wouldn’t force yourself to be convinced any other way than kind of looking for the evidence yourself, because I personally look for that evidence every time I’m around a horse, even a horse. I know you basically get really good at having your own mind in two different places, meaning my mind, even when I’m reaching over to grab my saddle pad and turning back around. Part of my mind is on my horse. And this is no different than when you were learning to drive a car and you were learning to have awareness of your vehicle and how to operate it, but also awareness of everything on the right road. All the other drivers, all the deer, all the other animals, humans and animals acting like animals. And as you’re learning that, you realize that you could have that split awareness. And I think that’s what you need to develop. And then you’ll realize all these horses are individuals. And thankfully, the number of super aggressive horses is fairly low, but they are out there and you need to be able to identify them. And I think you can learn that if you start looking and watching.

[00:28:36] Thanks again for the question.

[00:28:38] I’m going to wrap up this week’s podcast with that last question, because my husband and I are packing up and we are driving to Georgia tomorrow from Ohio to attend the USDF Gala and awards ceremony where I’m going to actually be able to pick up my bronze medal in dressage. Little Willow helped me earn that this year and I’m still just shocked that it happened. So this is this is one of those weeks where I’m hitting my one year anniversary for podcasting, which was one of those goals that if you go back and listen to Episode 1, I think I sound much shakier back then. But it was a goal of mine to do the podcasting, and I’ve done it and I want to continue doing it. And then earlier this year I set the goal to go ride some dressage and learn more about traditional dressage. And that ended up leading me to my bronze, which I didn’t even know what that was when I started. And at the end of the year, one of my goals had been to do the Western dressage and Gabby and I managed to win two Western dressage world titles. And yeah, it’s been quite a year. If I had to reflect back and got a chance to add one more thing to that whole fear conversation in episode one, it would be, wow, if you put yourself out there and challenge yourself…

[00:30:24] It’s super cool. Where can lead you. So thanks again for joining me this year.

[00:30:31] Thanks for the questions. I love answering them because they give me a chance to question my own thoughts and my own beliefs and I get to practice articulating the answers. And thanks again for listening. I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.


  1. Martina Brown on December 11, 2019 at 11:39 pm

    Congrats–Wow one year went by so fast! The hugging and massaging of the mouth has done WONDERS for Hildy. IT WORKS!!!! You have no idea how many years I have had to deal with Hildy not being able come back down to a walk after loping and feel relaxed. You showed me this technique at your two day clinic, I went home and practiced and now I can lope and walk around the whole arena. She is relaxed and not worried about when we are loping next. Who would have thought that someone would get so excited about a horse just wanting to walk. LOL I also love your thought process and how your mind works when you gave the suggestion to the lady–“What makes the end of the arena an amazing place to be. Congrats on getting the Bronze medal. Gotta love little Willow! Congrats on also getting a world title!!! Way to go Stacy!!! You have many things to be proud of and thankful for!!!

  2. Bruce Norton on December 11, 2019 at 11:43 am

    Stacy, congrats on one year! I’m a professional trainer in southeast AZ and always learn something from your posts. After several hundred horses complacency can set in…always good to be challenged with a different approach or idea, thanks. I appreciate your full transcript of the pod casts. I am hearing impaired and have trouble with audio devices, so i appreciate very much the ability to read the whole version.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work! Regards, Bruce

    • Stacy Westfall on December 11, 2019 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks for the awesome feedback! Especially about the full transcript. I just moved to that recently (as you noticed) and wondered if anyone would find it helpful. But I will warn you…the transcription service does mess with horse terms! So if it sounds like I said something crazy…lets just say it was the transcription place, lol!
      I’ve change cinch, rein, and almost every horse term…into actual horse terms. The word martingale was…well, not a word I’d ever seen before when they got done with it!

  3. Jenny Wood-Outhwaite on December 11, 2019 at 8:56 am

    Happy Podcast Anniversary!!!
    I am always keen to hear about how people are working with their rescues. I work with a small Therapeutic Riding program and we adopted a 17 year old Standardbred who was pulled from an auction pen in Pennsylvania last June. We did this with the hopes he will join our therapy program or be an EAL horse after I finish my course this spring if he couldn’t be ridden (due to effects of malnutrition and being overworked for so many years). We decided from the beginning that he needed time to rehab, reset and become a horse again before we ask anything of him. He is looking great now and we will be working with him this winter on confidence building with lots of groundwork. Of course recognizing every time we were in contact with him was a mini training session.
    I am a bit worried about the confidence building as he tends to just freeze when he gets into a stressful situation. He is the most kind, soft, well mannered horse that you can lead by a pinky finger, and it breaks my heart that he has so much fear.
    Any tips of dealing with a horse that freezes is greatly appreciated!

    Also – I just want to say a HUGE THANK YOU to you Stacy! A few years back you had a post about – “What is preventing you from doing what you want to with horses”. I said I wanted to get back to Therapeutic Riding and funds and training were my obstacles. You recommended I find somewhere to volunteer – so I did! Now I am working WITH the Program and am taking an Equine Assisted Learning Facilitator course that we will add to the program!! It was your suggestion to just take SOME Step towards my goals and dreams that lead me to this incredible past year set up for such an inspired and fulfilling future! I have you to Thank for that push to do SOMETHING towards my goal instead of waiting for ‘everything to be perfect’. I tell everyone who will listen that it was you who inspired me to get back into it! All my love, respect and gratitude, and a Merry Christmas to you and your family!

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