Stacy's Video Diary: Emotional training

We are always training the horse both physically and emotionally. Physical training is easy to measure; the horse stops better, spins faster or steers easier. Emotional training isn’t always as easy to see. A horse that is very stressed may show signs of stress through physical movements; pawing, prancing or sweating or they may withdraw and get a glazed over look.

In my travels I have observed two common mistakes:

  1. that professional trainers will more often make the mistake of overlooking the horses emotions and focus purely on the physical responses, i.e. better stops or steering
  2. that the non professional may go to the other extreme and worry more about whether the horse likes them (emotional) and be more likely to overlook the horse being pushy etc.

I think that there needs to be a balance between both. The horse needs to physically respect our space and listen to us but we also need to take into account what the horse is emotionally going through.

Just like building a relationship with your kids, spouse or a friend takes time, teaching a horse emotional lessons takes time. Often this ‘time’ is less structured time than traditional training although the main difference is getting the horse to think outside the box. This could mean that I add unusual obstacles to my ‘normal’ routine, or it could be that I take my work out onto the trail.

When I was training Jac, he was more like a blank slate. He had very little training but he also had few preconceived ideas on how things were going to go. With Al, and most older horses, this was not the case.  Al has a history of training and he has learned that one system. There are pieces of that system that worked well and will carry over into Al’s next career, but there are also parts where he could improve.

Keep in mind that my main goal during this trail ride was to show Al that every trailer ride doesn’t end in hard work. I noticed the first time that I trailered Al that he was very nervous. He loaded and unloaded fine or better than fine. He jumped on, never pawed, and was respectful…but he was very nervous. Physically that meant he was shaking and sweating. I don’t need to know Al’s history to make a plan. Many times people will get hung up on wanting to know exactly what caused this type of reaction. In reality many things could have caused this, maybe he has always been nervous in the trailer or there could have been some kind of incident or many more ideas we could think up. The great news is that I don’t need to know the history to be able to make a plan for the future. If Al says he is nervous then it is my job to figure out how to make him more comfortable. Try to picture ‘more comfortable.’

As soon as I said more comfortable, did your mind conger up images of extra bedding, fans and padding on the halter? Typically when people think about making something ‘more comfortable’ they immediately think about physical comfort. The discomfort Al was having was emotional, not physical, and I know this because I hauled him with other horses. I know they were physically dry and comfortable. What Al needed was emotional training.

I hauled Al on multiple occasions and repeated this same routine; short trailer ride (15-20 mins), unload, saddle, pony, unsaddle, load, return home. On each trip Al was less nervous in the trailer and by the time I returned him to New Vocations he was not showing any signs of emotional stress when hauled.

The other effect of hauling Al was that I was able to give him lots of new things to think about including trails, crossing logs, and playing in a stream. This is some of my favorite training to do with horses.

Can you see how keeping the core lesson the same while varying the routine adds strength to the training?



  1. horseworthy on November 3, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Reblogged this on Horse Worthy and commented:
    An excellent video and post from Stacy Westfall. I am guilty of this myself, putting a time frame on a certain aspect training wise and forgetting that we need to take into consideration the horses emotional learning steps as well.

  2. Kerry on October 31, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Hi Stacy. I love that you’re working with a Thoroughbred. I have a 15 yo mare that I haven’t ridden in over a year because of life. When I did ride her, we went on trails and everything. I want to start working with her again but she has some issues that make me less confident. She’s very nervous and high energy. And in the past, to get me off she has a bad habit of backing up and not stopping and then rearing. Also, she runs away from me all the time. How would you start with her again? I know ground training, but anything in particular? Thanks

  3. fran on October 30, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Popcorn showing Al how to enjoy life!

  4. johanna on October 29, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Popcorn is so funny 🙂
    it looks like Al sees Popcorn as a ‘big brother’ or looks to him for reassurance?

    i just love this post-
    spot on!
    thanks for your work producing these thoughtful videos and commentary.

  5. Jennifer on October 29, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    That sure made me smile 🙂
    Loved seeing Al enjoy the water!!
    I wish you could keep him Stacy…

  6. Lesia Lowe on October 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    WOW… PopCorn was pawing right with the beat of the music………..Great video!

  7. Bridget on October 29, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I love that people recognize the emotional aspect of training. When I was working with my Thoroughbred I feel that was frequently overlooked no matter what clinic I went to. Things kind of just happened. My first challenge was teaching Solo that he wasn’t going anywhere (13 year old horse and I was owner number 13). We have a stock trailer so we always let him haul loose in a box stall, we always got weird looks but that trailer became his own RV, we opened the trailer up so he had both boxes and opened the escape doors and put stall guards across them. He had his hay and water and it wasn’t uncommon to check in on him during a break in classes and find him laying down dozing, but it took a lot of work to get to that point. We also had to teach him that it was ok to move out and that just he wasn’t going to be punished for not having the balance or suppleness to sustain a right lead canter. I think the greatest thing was going to a show, doing well and having everyone walk up and say “That’s Solo from xxx farm? He’s a totally different horse, I didn’t even recognize him!” what he looked like when I picked him up:

    photo taken the day after our last show:

  8. Nikki Bieber on October 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    super. love it.
    always getting new ideas. love the kiddy pool! the ball always runs down our hills, so i cant use one on the riding area…. but in his Paddock i leave it every now and then. 😀

  9. ferg05 on October 29, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Hi Stacy. Love watching you with Jac and love seeing this video with Al. I have a question regarding ponying. I have mares and 2 of them are very bonded. One is always the same, meaning I can give her months off and hope on and go with no problems. The other (not sure why she intimidates me) she is what I consider more marish, herd bound, and barn sour at times and I have never ridden her out on the trail only in an arena and round pen. I have really wanted to pony the second mare from the first, but have read that ponying from a mare is a bad idea. What is your take on ponying from a mare? TIA ~CindyJo

    • Stacy on October 30, 2014 at 8:42 am

      I have ponied from mares without an issue. The determining factor is how well trained the horse is because it is important for the rider to have control of the lead horse.

  10. Lora Hawthorne on October 29, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    I have an emotionally stressed horse who is so scared of men that he bucks men off, won’t let my shoer near him but me, my mom, and kids can do anything with him. He has tried to buck me off once when I first got him. I have done lots of ground work and pony him and just go for walks leading him. I get on and off when he drops his head and settles down but I still do not trust him 100 %. I have had all medical issues ruled out and have decided that’s it’s completely emotional. I don’t want to think about what he’s been through but replace with good habits. I guess what I’m asking is what if he never gets over it and im assuming bucking has always been his defense and it’s worked for him in the past. I have all the time an patience in the world but I’m out of ideas. He’s so great on the ground just riding he’s so nervous.

    • Stacy on October 30, 2014 at 8:44 am

      It sounds like you have a big project. You are on the right track in several areas. You are probably wise to not trust him completely. It is also possible that you could replace enough bad habits with good. It is also possible that, just like people who have been changed by trauma, he may have been permanently changed by trauma also. You have lots to think about.

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