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Crazy Name = Common Sense: Journey of the Homing Pigeon

Crazy Name = Common Sense: Journey of the Homing Pigeon

I can never figure out how she does it. Her inspirations are distillations of pure common horse-sense, informed by classical horsemanship in the kindest tradition. They seem to come from Linda Tellington-Jones as modern-day transmissions from a kinder, gentler age.

Take a look at this image:

This 1648 illustration shows how timeless the "Homing Pigeon" leading position is! Note the use of a training bit, wands, and people leading the horse from both sides.

While there are many creatively-named positions and techniques for teaching people and training horses to do a number of basic and more advanced tasks, the most basic and versatile of these is the Journey of the Homing Pigeon. Linda’s crazy names for TTouches and leading positions puzzled me for a while. I get it now. Not only are they excellent mnemonic devices, but they also force us to use both sides of our brains while working and thinking about what we are doing. The image of a homing pigeon, guided by instinct and the care of expert training, is particularly applicable here.

By using two people on the ground at 45° from the horses’ eyes, plus a potential rider, the Journey of the Homing Pigeon guides a horse rather than directs a horse. It is a calming position for learning a number of tasks, because it virtually eliminates the anxiety of trying to decide what the handlers want. That’s pretty clear if the handlers communicate well. Another exercise in effective nonverbal communication for riders on the ground! Because there are handlers on both sides, the horse uses both sides of the brain. Telltale licking and chewing (“I’m thinking!”) begins much earlier. EEG studies on horses support this. Relaxation and real learning occur with surprising speed.

At first I thought it an impractical exercise. Who has the time and manpower to lead a horse in tandem all the time? What I have found is that it only takes a few times for the horse to learn what you need, and to gain the necessary confidence to move out with a single leader or rider.

According to Linda Tellington-Jones,

The Journey of the Homing Pigeon keeps a horse from leaning on or crowding you. It is useful for horses who have never been led, or who pull or are difficult to control. It speeds learning by influencing the horse from both sides, and it helps horses who are one-sided, or reluctant to being led from the right side.

This leading position is done with two people, two lead lines and two “wands.” (This is somewhat like a dressage whip, but very supple, white in color and never intended to strike a horse. They know the difference.) It’s important to designate the leading handler who will be in charge from the very beginning. The leader’s chain lead line is fastened in the usual TTouch way — over the noseband and up the opposite side. The support person’s soft lead rope (called a Zephyr) loops through onto the side ring of the halter nearest her and is twisted back on itself.

Both handlers should be far enough ahead of the horse so that they can see each other in front of the horse’s nose. This is vital for communication between leaders and so that the horse can keep each handler in view. Both wands are held at the level of the horse’s nose, well out in front, which helps the horse to focus on where he is going. To walk forward, the leader gives the voice signal, and both people “open” their wands in front of the horse, leading gently away from the face with their leads.

Here is a bird’s eye view of Linda and Kirsten Henry leading a horse in the Journey of the Homing Pigeon:

You can see how the handlers can keep the horse between their wand and hands, as well as between one another. A horse led in this way can learn calmly and attentively.

Changing directions and stops and starts takes coordination between handlers, but the result is a calm and very attentive horse. I have used the Journey of the Homing Pigeon to calm and focus fractious horses who have a tough time being led for whatever reason. After a few tries, the skill seems to stick. Of course there is always the possibility of returning to it in times of stress. It is an infinitely more effective technique than hanging onto the halter or being the swinging knot on the end of the lead rope I’ve seen so often, especially at horse shows, when horses are high and people are nervous, and all training seems to go out the window. It is adaptable to use with a single person (my next post will address this) as well.

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Positive Reinforcement In Horse Training

Cheryl Ward of I Feel Good, My Horse Feels Good and Painting says,

… just as the dog training world has expanded to include positive reinforcement techniques, I think there’s also room in the horse world to do the same. It’s my hope that all horses, regardless of their genetic tolerance for pressure, will experience the joy of interacting with handlers that can train using methods that feel good to the horse.

She writes a really good post about the breeds of horse favored by the natural horsemanship and negative reinforcement training communities. It leads me to wonder if it’s not a coincidence at all that natural horsemanship originated in the Western horsemanship world, where Quarter Horses are so prevalent. Making some interesting observations about breeds and styles of training, Cheryl refers to Quarter Horses “the Labradors of the horse world.”

I think this subject could be explored further. I wonder what you all have to say?

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Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Just when I start to have faith in the intelligence of trainers and horsepeople, a reader question to Julie Goodnight on the category of horse behavior, on her website sets me back.

The questioner relates problems associated with a four-year-old draft mare in training under harness who is respectful to people but aggressive toward a pasturemate gelding.

Generally they get along fine. However, sometimes she just lays into him kicking, biting, running at him and charging him. Sometimes we are in the pasture with them when this behavior is going on. Needless to say, we are a bit nervous about getting caught in the crossfire.

Two questions for you:

1) Some of this is no doubt just normal horse behavior. Is there an underlying training issue though that we should be addressing with our mare?

2) She has never demonstrated any tendency at kicking towards us. We do recognize the risk to our safety when she is acting this way towards the gelding and we happen to be in the way. But is it likely that a horse acting this way with another horse will start getting that kicking tendency with humans?

Clearly, the questioner is new to horsekeeping. That’s not a problem. Everyone is new in the beginning. They depend on good, safe advice from those who have experience. One would think that well-known trainers like Goodnight would dispense sensible, time-tested advice on how to deal with such issues. This is the problem: wait until you read what Goodnight suggests as an alternative to learning about horse behavior and how to handle horses on the ground. I wonder if she gets a kickback from the manufacturers of the product she obliquely endorses.

While the behavior you describe could be chalked up to normal herd behavior, some horses can be classified as bullies. These horses are unnecessarily aggressive towards others. In other words, even after dominance has been fully established, they continue to attack other horses around them—seemingly for no good reason other than just to pick on them. If the gelding is not doing anything to deserve these attacks, then I’d say your mare is a bully.
There is one sure-fired method of curing aggressive horses and I have used it a few times for this purpose. It is a shock collar. It straps around the horse’s neck and is operated off a remote control, issuing a mild and brief shock when you push the button on the remote. Shocking her for her two or three times for her unwarranted and dangerous behavior would probably be all it would take to permanently resolve her of the aggressiveness.

The Vicebreaker

It is intended for use with extreme behavior that is harmful to horse, humans and/or property and it is highly effective. I’ve used it for stall and trailer kickers, for aggressive horses and for a tantrum throwing horse, who threw a wall-eyed destructive tantrum any time you’d take his buddy away. In most cases, one or two training sessions resolved the bad behavior; for the tantrum thrower, it took a few more.

Many people are initially turned off by this approach—I suppose thinking it is cruel or too harsh. But in my opinion, in certain circumstances, it is the most humane approach. I know of a horse who has now kicked and killed two horses by kicking them and breaking their legs. Then, take the case of a stall kicker—whose behavior can cause him serious injury and is destructive to property (and may result in him being evicted from a boarding barn). The most common training technique for this vice is to hang “kicking chains” on the horse’s hind legs which wrap him in the legs every time he kicks (and bumps his legs every time he moves). It will discourage him from kicking but you have to leave the chains on forever—not a very nice thing for the horse. Whereas one or two sessions with the shock collar would permanently cure him of stall kicking and prevent him from injury.

I would think it might have even more effects than that. Like shock collars for dogs, this seems to me to be a case of thoughtless overkill. The horse’s sense of touch is very keen. To assault him via this avenue strikes me as cruel and extreme. But maybe I’m being naive. There are situations in which horses can be even more dangerous than the horse the reader describes. This from Stopping Aggression Problems With an Equine Shock Collar from the AAEP Convention, 2004 by Stephanie L. Church:

Veterinary expense, property damage, loss of use of affected horses, and the emotional cost associated with the death of an animal if injured severely during an aggressive act all demand a reliable way to change this behavior in the horse. Kennedy has experienced success in using an equine electronic collar with a number of horses.
Aggressive behavior in horses results in a range of injuries that often must be attended to by a veterinarian, from minor cuts and bruises to career-ending or life-threatening injuries. These injuries are a direct result of being bitten or kicked, or chased through or over a fence.

We have all seen horses that have experienced these injuries. We have all pondered how to prevent them from happening. First step in prevention: veterinary examination to rule out health issues that might contribute to the dangerous behavior. Cryptorchidism, ovarian cysts, pain, conformational issues that negatively affect perception can all cause aggressive behavior. Stop right there if these and more are detected. You know what to do. But what if no possible medical cause is detected? The next step is determining how to stop the undesirable behavior.

Isolate the horse?
Rehome the horse?
Euthanize the horse?

This article says,

some horses are emboldened by a barrier since they know the target horse will be less likely to show retribution since a fence is in the way. Not every horse owner is blessed with dead space between fence lines, and many boarding stables aren’t able to accommodate a horse requiring isolation. Isolation can lead to further behavioral problems. Then we reach our final option, which is to sell the aggressive horse. Many do not want to do this because the horse may be exceptional in every other way–they just have a hard time getting along with others.

What does the research say about the effectiveness of equine shock collars? Do they eliminate aggressive behavior in the short or long term?

One study looked at a group of 15 horses that were either aggressive toward a new horse in the pasture, aggressive toward a horse on the opposite side of a fence, or aggressive within an established herd.

About the collar used: The collar rests anywhere behind the throatlatch, and it does not matter where on the neck the receiver is touching the horse.

When you see the horse doing what he shouldn’t, you push the button. Start at the lowest (shock) level–I didn’t count horses that were just posturing with their ears back, I only corrected them when they made an aggressive move toward another horse,” she explained. On the transmitter, which has six levels of intensity, the required levels ranged from 2-5 to stop the aggression, with a mean of 4. One to four stimulations were used on each horse, but most only required two to change their behavior.

Aggressive mares in a pasture responded to stimulation when they were aggressive toward a new mare added to the pasture. Upon the first stimulation, aggressive mares would have instant posture changes. Those mares tended to follow the new mare around for a few minutes, apparently trying to figure out if the new mare was responsible for the shock. After the second shock, the aggressive mares apparently decided to befriend the new mares, seeking to graze next to them and accepting them as part of the group.

he total time before first and last stimulations required to change the behavior ranged from 10 minutes to 2 and a half days. Collars remained on the horses for one week, and aggressive behavior was monitored for a period of 30 days following the initial correction period. None of the horses exhibited aggressive behavior during that interval. The collar was determined to be extremely effective in deterring aggressive behavior.

The authors of the study say that the collar is effective because the correction is instantaneous and concurrent with the undesirable behavior, and invisible. There is no apparent agent of discipline. As such, they say, the collar can be used to deter aggressive behavior against humans, too.

Most issues are not mean horses. Usually it’s a lack of respect, and they know that they can dominate the owner and can avoid a whip. Most know it’s bad, but think they can get away with it. If the client can be consistent in observing the horse, the collar can work well for cribbing and stall walkers as well. These types of behaviors won’t be stopped by one or two sessions of use. However, many cribbers can become collar-wise and any time the horse is likely to crib, the owner needs to be present with the transmitter.


Group 1: Pasture Aggression (Six Mares)
Number of times stimulated: 1–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 10 minutes–1.5 hours
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 2: Aggression With Barrier (Three Stallions, Two Mares, and One Gelding)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 15 minutes–2 1/2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 3: Paddock Aggression (Two Geldings)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 1.5–2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 2–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

Group 4: Aggression Associated With Feeding (One Mare)
Number of times stimulated: 4
Time between first and last stimulation: 2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week
Levels used: 3–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

*Other observations that were made in the pasture and over fence groups were that the results, although long-lasting for that particular neighbor or new horse, did not extend to a new neighbor or additional new horse being introduced and the process had to be repeated.

I honestly believe that the same results can be achieved with less harmful and, if you’ll pardon the pun, shocking means. Training and companionship with humans along with other horses by professionals and well educated owners cannot be replaced by a torture device. If a horse has aggression issues, a lack of “respect” may be the result of many deeper causes. Only with time, patience and inquiry will these issues be discovered and resolved. A shock collar is a cruel bandaid.

I am appalled that Julie Goodnight would hawk such a contraption when her claim to fame is the training of horses. If we can’t trust the trainers who are supposed to teach us how, then who can we trust?

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Science Friday: Posture, Behaviors Indicate Horse Well-Being

Science Friday: Posture, Behaviors Indicate Horse Well-Being

Another in the long line of “duh, we already knew that” articles, this time out of the University of Rennes in France.

Why Does My Horse Do That?

If a horse spends most of his time standing in the same position in his stall, would you say he’s just bored? And what about a mare that threatens to bite when you approach her stall–is she vicious?

The latest behavior research coming out of the University of Rennes suggests that these behaviors are not the result of viciousness or boredom as one might think. They have cottoned on to the fact that, chances are these actions indicate that something is not right with the horse.

snaffled with gratitude from

Equine behaviorist Carole Furieux, PhD of Univ. Rennes studies 59 horses in three equestrian centers In a study of 59 horses in three equestrian centers. Furieux and her team hoped to define the criteria for the evaluation of a very amorphous state, “well-being,” in the domestic horse.

Furieux et. al. discovered from this very small sample that certain posture positions and behavioral habits directly mirrored health problems such as back pain or abnormal blood parameters.

It turns out that the horses who aren’t feeling well physically or mentally are more likely to spend the majority of their stall time in particular positions.

Furieux said, adding that more precise descriptions of these positions will be released soon. “Researchers have already defined specific positions that reflect acute (immediate) stress, but it now appears that these can indicate chronic stress or pain as well.”

This might be useful as a glossy wall-hanging in a barn of novice horse owners. For anyone who has been around horses for 6 months, I suggest contacting Furieux with an offer to describe and illustrate the positions of distress, both acute and chronic.

Furieux also said that certain postures also appear to give insight into well-being, according to ongoing studies. Laboratory testing of stress hormone levels and other parameters are still underway.

The behavior and posture indicators we’ve discovered so far offer a reliable method to evaluate well-being. If a high percentage of horses in the same equestrian center are positive for these indicators, that should signal an alert about the level of living conditions being offered to these animals.

Furieux and her team plan to expand their research to greater numbers of horses and equestrian centers. Those results should lead to practical definitions and guidelines for evaluating equine well-being in the near future.

This is the foundational tenet of Tellington TTouch. Undesirable behavior is the result of pain, fear of pain or discomfort caused by health issues we may not have noticed. Add to that oversights in horsekeeping and the common horse sense that only develops over time, and you get a host of observable horsey behaviors or even non-behaviors, each with its own cause.

The key is keeping your eyes open and learning how to look, with eyes unclouded by preconceived notions of why a horse’s behavior should be a certain way, and what we should do if it’s not. The human brain organizes the world in such a way that we see what we expect to see, and we attribute to that the reasons we are accustomed to attributing. Truly open eyes, open mind, open heart–these things take a lot of work and some risk.

Could it be that your horse does that because you have neglected something in his horsekeeping?

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Affirmations for Horsepeople: Live In The Present Moment & Stay Out of Your Horse’s Way

Affirmations for Horsepeople: Live In The Present Moment & Stay Out of Your Horse’s Way

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

— Buddha

It has long been known that living in the present moment is the key to contentment. It is more than that, more than a way to live life to its fullest. It is an opportunity to participate directly in reality as it is created.

Often we bumble through it. We think we are paying attention, but really we are not.

I can’t tell you how many times I would lose focus simply trying to execute a simple 20 meter circle or serpentine. Or to get over a series of low jumps in a straight line.

“No Kim–were you paying attention? You lost it in the same spot as last time! Try it again!”
My horse was on point. No loss of attention there, because animals don’t indulge in that inner dialog that distracts us from participation in the present moment. I was intent on not making the same mistake I made last time. Like not thinking of the elephant in the room, we think of the elephant in the room. The mistake we made last time is in the consciousness if we are trying to avoid it. Better to eliminate it from the mind and focus only on current reality. Right now, it’s not there. Even better, holding the intention that things will go well increases the chances that they will.

But planning for the future, even a second or two into it, has its own disadvantages, as riders know. Your body does what your mind tells it, sometimes without your permission or knowledge. Better not to anticipate.

We hear it all the time, no matter the discipline: “Stay out of your horse’s way.” It’s hard to stay out of the horse’s way if you are a novice, and sometimes hard to do it as an advanced rider, too, if you are accustomed to over riding. For human beings, each stimulus prompts its own cascade of inner dialog or opportunity for spacing out. Like the half halt or the rein back, staying present is a skill that must be practiced. The key as both novices and advanced riders to staying out of the horse’s way and maintaining focus is living in the present moment.

As in riding, so in life. Or vice versa: stay out of life’s way. Don’t over-live and don’t go through blindly. Most folks move back and forth between these two modes automatically, moment by moment, without awareness of it. Can we take hold of the reins and greet each new stimulus as it comes? Not as easy as it sounds.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for mental presence and focus as you ride.

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Many thanks to Beliefnet for the idea for this series of posts and for the quotes used in it. Interpretations are mine.

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