Monday, October 5, 2009

A horse training challenge

Meet Outlaw, my brother-in-law's Tennessee walking horse.

Piebald Tennessee Walking Horse

My brother-in-law recently left for Afghanistan for a year as a private security contractor. (He'll be training local police, supposedly, and not fighting.) I suggested that while he was gone, I ride his horse periodically so that Outlaw wouldn't languish in pasture for a year, and he agreed.

The last time I rode Outlaw was more than three years ago, shortly after we rescued little yearling Panama:

Piebald Tennessee Walking Horse

I remember him being a bit of a pill to ride then. All he wanted to do was run, and didn't have a lot of respect for his rider's cues. Of course, I was also pretty green then myself (as you can probably tell by the way I'm holding the reins — embarrassing!).

The background is that my brother-in-law bought Outlaw when he was only green broke. My BIL doesn't ride him much, especially in recent years, and isn't a very experienced rider anyway, so I expect Outlaw is probably just as green as he was several years ago. Perhaps more so, since I could probably count on both hands the number of times he's been ridden in the last year.

So for obvious reasons, I don't want to just hop on. (My BIL did that about a month ago, and Outlaw took off running before he could even swing his other leg over.) Rather, I want to do what Kate has done with Dawn, and go through the steps one by one to make sure he remembers his basic training. My plan is to first work on catching him (my in-laws never take their horses' halters off — grrrr), grooming him, and reinforcing ground manners. Once we get that covered, I'll move on to lunging him, and so on. Only once I'm sure he remembers his manners under saddle will I ride him.

Here's the challenge, though: Outlaw is deaf. How do I communicate cues, praise, and reprimands to a deaf horse — especially from the end of a lunge line, or even more difficult, if I'm free lunging him? My BIL has done some work with him using hand signals, but not a whole lot, to my understanding.

Obviously I'll need to use my body language to a degree that I haven't had to think about thus far. I expect it will be quite a challenge, but I'm actually looking forward to it because I think it will make me even more proficient at communicating with horses. If anyone has any suggestions for cues I could use when working with him on the ground, please comment! I'm interested to hear how others would approach the situation.



At October 5, 2009 at 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't use a lot of verbal signals with my horses anyway - hand signals and body language can go a long way and I think most horses are more sensitive to that than to verbal commands, although they can learn those as well. At least he won't spook at any noises!

Just think through how you will signal him what you want using your body language, energy level and hand signals, and you'll be able to do most anything you want!

At October 5, 2009 at 8:32 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Kate, it'll definitely be a challenge for me. I use my voice frequently with Panama, and he is extremely responsive to verbal cues, as well as verbal praise or reprimands. I've never seen a reason why you shouldn't use your voice, actually.

The main issue I'm anticipating with Outlaw is how to praise him when he's at the end of a lunge line. Panama knows when I tell him, "Good boy," that he got it right, and usually figures out very quickly what he did right. In fact, he totally eats it up -- you can see it in his face that he loves the praise. I'm at a loss as to how I'll be able to give Outlaw the same encouragement if I'm not close enough to give him a pat. Removing the pressure can take the place of some of it, but not all, and it won't generate the pride in accomplishment that a "Good boy!" does!

At October 5, 2009 at 10:45 PM, Blogger Reddunappy said...

Boy I know that your not to crazy about Parelli, but the 7 games would be wonderful with a deaf horse, communication.Thats what the 7 games are, hand and body and rope signals, when you can just point a finger and not say anything, to get them to change directions on the rope....well, its a great feeling.
Also use a rope halter so he can feel cues easier.
A deaf horse is not something I have ever had to deal with.

Oh and the reward for him doing things right would be the come in on line and a cookie! Could get great responses out of him.
Good luck!

At October 5, 2009 at 11:15 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Pam, you're right, I'm not. :o)

I think the problem with a cookie is that if he's at the end of a lunge line, it's going to take too long to reel him back in and give it to him. The reward won't be as immediate, and therefore not as effective. Remember how you talked about practicing quick reactions in your puppy training class?

I wonder if he will learn to interpret my facial expressions (a smile versus a frown) as the same as a "Good boy" or a "No." The only problem that I see is that not all animals interpret bared teeth as a friendly or approving gesture. If you smile at a chimp, you're being aggressive, not friendly. And I can't help but remember the part in Monty Roberts's book where he talks about what he learned from the deer -- and how horses interpret spread fingers as claws (i.e., a predator). Wouldn't bared teeth be similar?

At October 6, 2009 at 4:02 AM, Blogger Nuzzling Muzzles said...

From the ground, even when free lunging, I'll stop the horse by stepping ahead of it and then walk up and pet it for praise. Being able to rest is also a part of the reward. I usually don't reprimand, but just keep asking for what I want. However, if a horse intentionally kicks out at me I'll snap the long whip at it. Since he can't hear the snap, I'd probably hit his hocks or rear with the whip -- not enough to leave a mark, just enough that he can feel something. Same thing from the saddle: Pets and rest for praise and riding crop for correction.

At October 6, 2009 at 6:02 AM, Blogger Vectormom said...

He's so cute with that 'black eye'! LOL! Lunging for me is all body language cues. If need be a lunge whip can be used to reinforce the cues. Even changing directions on the lunge, I've always just done it with body language.
Your so right to start over at square one with him. Without having much training and then not really doing much for so long, it's a good idea to just take it like he's brand new to everything!
Muck luck and safe handling to you!

At October 6, 2009 at 11:22 AM, Blogger Reddunappy said...

Katherine, you have at least 3 seconds to respond to an animals reaction, or its to late, they have gone on to the next thing and wont remember why you gave them a treat, 3 seconds is really a long time and plenty of time to reel him in and give him a cookie, LOL he will start looking for it after a few repetitions! Body language, body language. Present the reward in the same manner each time, he will know what you mean.

At October 6, 2009 at 11:48 AM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

NM, I usually don't use a lunge whip, but I suppose I might have to in this case. Praise at the end won't be a problem, but it's the little things while I'm lunging him that I'm not sure how I'll praise.

For instance, if Panama is having a hard time with pulling, I'll praise him as soon as he responds to my requests to leave a little bit of slack in the line.

I do reprimand sometimes, though not very often. Usually it's just a low, "Quit" when he's acting up. That will be hard to replicate with a deaf horse. Also, I need to find a way to slow Outlaw from canter to trot, and trot to walk, rather than stopping him entirely every time.

Vector Mom, I've definitely used body language for changing directions on the lunge line, and I use it in other respects too. I don't use a lunge whip with Panama, but I tend to move faster or slower when I am asking for the same from them, and I slap the rope against my thigh when I'm asking him to speed up. These things won't be a problem with Outlaw. As I mentioned with NM, it's the little bits of praise and the occasional "Quit" during a lunging session that I'm wondering how do replicate without being able to use my voice.

Pam, I really don't think 3 seconds is enough time to slow a horse and get a proper halt before giving him a treat. I'm not offering my fingers in a drive-thru style snacking! LOL.

And actually, my biggest problem with that is that I don't believe in using treats for training. I do give Panama treats as part of our grooming routine, before I say goodbye, etc., but I've rarely ever given him treats as praise during a training session. To me, that's kind of like bribing your kids with candy to clean their rooms -- it's teaching the wrong lesson.

At October 6, 2009 at 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a strange idea - anything can be used as the signal that he's done the right thing - like the (sound) click in clicker - what if you were to carry a small flashlight, that you could click on and off quickly to signal to him that he had succeeded. Then the reward - food if you're using that, or a pat and face rub if you're not, could be delayed by a few seconds since he'll already know he succeeded. I don't know any reason why a horse, which is very sensitive to sight, couldn't be trained with a light signal. How's that for different?

At October 6, 2009 at 8:31 PM, Blogger Reddunappy said...

The treats are just one thing you can use, and just an example. How about thinking out of the box Kate! Love the flashlight idea, but not quit sure how it would translate to riding, but a great idea!!

I have to say it....

The release is the reward.

(per Parelli LOL LOL)

Its quite a challange youve gotten into! : )

At October 6, 2009 at 9:23 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Pam, yes, I did mention the idea of removing the pressure (release), but I don't personally feel that can be the entire reward. For one thing, the last thing I want to teach is that once he gets it right, he's done. Also, as I mentioned above, when I use release with Panama I don't find that it creates the same pride in accomplishment that verbal praise does. When he gets a hard-earned "good boy," you can just see it in his expression how pleased he is.

Kate, the flashlight is a great idea! I have a deaf cat, and I've noticed before that he is much more light sensitive than our other animals. So yes, I think that might work -- I'll get one of those clicker-style keychain ones, so that it is as easy to work with as possible. Thanks for the idea!

At October 31, 2009 at 1:41 AM, Anonymous Horse Training said...

The challenge is very interesting. Deaf horse or a normal horse or any animals mostly understand body language or hand signals, but some of them can understand verbal signals also.
If any information on how to train a deaf horse please tell us the tips please visit :

At January 12, 2010 at 8:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you would like to see someone who uses only body language training horses google Klaus Ferdinand Hempflinger. He trains all kinds of problem horses and a deaf horse would be just the same for him.

At February 7, 2011 at 12:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could try checking out the Deaf horse Association, I recently purchased a beautiful, loving 18 month old colt who is deaf. I have only had him for a few weeks and we are having to work on manners..( he thinks he is the size of a chihuahua and wants to play all the time) although I keep finding myself talking to him, he really doesn't seem to mind :) and I am learning to use more body language. In doing some research I found that there is a trainer who had an article published on the deaf horse associations website...don't remember the trainers name but the horses name was "Skipper". Good Luck...I will have to keep in touch as we tackle many of the same obstacles maybe we can compare notes!!If you would like you can e-mail me at


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