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Training a 6-year-old mare to walk faster & head shaking problems

I started this mare when she was three, and then got scared as she started rearing when I tried to take her away from home. Last year I went to your session at Stony Plain, and since then I've been working with her (slowly!) in the round pen. I've progressed to riding her again, and she is a delight. The rearing has not re- surfaced, and I'm having no trouble at all getting her to leave home. However, I do have a couple of questions.

She has a lovely trot and loves to trot; she also has a nice canter. But her walk is SO slow. Snails have passed her (okay, I'm exaggerating a little). Even in the pasture, she walks slowly; the trot appears to be her favorite gait. How can I encourage her to walk faster without breaking into a trot? I don't want to confuse her as I keep encouraging her to go faster and then telling her to slow down when she breaks into a trot. Also, a couple of times when we've been walking in muddy conditions, she's tried to lie down and roll.

The other question has to do with her head tossing. She tosses her head from side to side. I've read the archives and see that it is often a sign of some type of pain. But she tosses her head exactly the same way when she's running (or trotting) free in her pasture. Any ideas?

Thank you, Franklin.

Hello Maighread,

Great to hear from you. I remember you quite well. Sorry it has taken a while for me to respond. I have been in England teaching and training horses the last three weeks and only got back last night. Caught a lousy cold on the trip back as well and not feeling very good today. But the trip itself was terrific. Second time there in 4 months. Going back in the spring and to Greece again as well. I hope you are well. I'll be in your area again next spring sometime as well. I am delighted your attending that first seminar in Alberta helped with your horse. Lets see if I can offer some useful suggestions now....

As far as asking for an 'extended' or faster walk I would put the mare on a long line (lunge) and/or in a round pen and get her used to it that way. An addition would be to have someone ride her while this is done. That way she will begin to associate the proper cues with the desired response. Do you understand what I mean by this process? If not, please me know.

As far as the head tossing, the first thing to do is to have her teeth checked. Dental problems are the leading cause of head tossing. Pain is pain and always happens whether the bridle is on or not. Something going on with her ears could be part of it as well. When the vet checks her mouth, have him check her ears as well. Pain in the back is also a possibility as well as any pain in the feet. You may as well have the vet examine her fully while he is at it. If this is an Arabian they have a way of sort of snaking their heads when they move that looks like head tossing. It is a natural response for this breed. From what you are describing, it sounds like it is a pain issue which is easier to diagnosis. Unfortunately, habitual behavior resulting from the anticipation of pain is just as bad as the pain behavior. It is the same symptom. Lets say it was a dental problem and the vet floats the horses teeth and that handles to presence of the pain. The horse is still habituated to having the pain and even though the source is gone, the behavior remains. This can take a while to resolve and requires hours of patience and the reprogramming of the horse. First thing to do is look for a source of the pain.

Keep me posted and I shall do my best to help.

Sincerely, Franklin

Thank you for your advice, Franklin--and yes, I've been able to use quite a bit of what I learned at Stony Plain. It took me a while to get going, and an even longer time to get any confidence, but the ground work and the work in the round pen really made a difference with Fury. The first time I did "at liberty" work with her in the round pen was on Boxing Day. I couldn't help but remember your comments that the horse should be doing the licking and chewing ... because that day, it wasn't Fury who was licking and chewing; it was me! She was bucking and rearing and acting like a regular bronc. I climbed the fence! Finally, I figured out the problem. My cattle dog was "helping" me by chasing her from outside the pen; I couldn't see him because her body was in the way all the time. Needless to say, the dog hasn't been allowed to "help" since.

I'm glad to hear that you're getting a chance to share your expertise all over the world. Good for you (and good for them, too!)

A few questions again. I have had Fury on a long line, but again, she wants to trot rather than walk. I tried her on Sunday and did get her walking a little faster, but I'm not quite sure how to encourage her to walk faster without breaking into a trot. Is it by body position? I'd try having someone ride her, but this is basically a one-person operation.

I will get a vet to look at her, but I've had to put her on the back burner until harvest is done. She's a quarterhorse rather than an Arabian, but the description of "snaking" sounds quite like what she's doing. It's almost elegant and graceful. I was wondering if boredom would contribute to this behaviour. She's in a small field by herself, with the other horses out of sight. She and I went for a long ride on Sunday over to my cattle pasture, a completely new place for her. There was a little bit of head tossing (or snaking, which I think is probably a better description of it) as we started out, and when we got to unfamiliar territory, the behaviour disappeared. The only problem we encountered was getting past the horse- eating sheep (first time she's seen sheep).

Anyway, I've taken up enough of your time. Thank you so much for your help, Franklin ... and thank you, too, for helping me get back my confidence and joy with horses. I didn't realize how much I missed them and the ease I used to have around them until I started working again with Fury, and it's been very easy to see how my fear of being hurt influenced their behaviours. I'll try to make it to your clinic in the spring, too; once I've succeeded with Fury, I've got a bigger "fish to fry" with Phantom.

Take care,

Hi Maighread,

Good to hear from you again. As far as encouraging a faster walk without breaking into a trot, your body language, position, intention and energy all have to do with how your horse responds. It is quite subtle and requires practice and self-awareness. Sounds like you are on the right track though. Try using various aids to see which works best. Try flagging her (using a wand with a plastic bag attached to the end) as opposed to a longe whip. If that is too much, use a dressage whip. There are a number of tools you could try to get the best response. Beyond that it is a matter of how you use your body, energy and intention.

Again, head shaking is generally a sign of pain in the body somewhere (mouth, back, feet, etc.). A vet needs to look her over. It could be a little show of resistance to riding out as well. When you came to new territory that was enough to get her attention off of her resistance and the head tossing stopped. Generally it is a sign of discomfort though. Please keep in touch with me and Shannon. I look to see you again and let me know if I can be of additional assistance anytime.

Sincerely, Franklin

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