Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC
Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Thursday, January 28, 2021

I don't break horses, but I do start them under saddle.


I have enjoyed starting many horses under saddle over the years.  I've started two year olds, I've started 20+ year olds, and I've started many ages in between.  Years ago I got a phone call from a rancher in Wyoming, who had "30 head to get broke" that year.  He was hoping I'd come to his ranch and over the summer get them to be green riding horses.  I politely declined, as even at that time I didn't travel to outside ranches to train horses, and I wouldn't leave my facility here in Colorado (to likely go get killed trying to ride baby horses who had never been touched).  Now when I get phone calls asking if I "break" horses, I reply saying, "I do my best NOT to break them.  I do start them under saddle."  

This diagram showing the approximate ages when growth plates mature in horses.  There is some variability in when the growth plates finish maturing, as geldings tend to mature a little later than stallions and mares, and the larger the horse (17h vs. 14h) the later they mature.  I grew up hearing the conventional wisdom that you should "wait until the growth plates close in the knee" before working the horse really hard.  Now that we know more about the growth process, it makes more sense to me to wait longer.

The growth plates closer to the ground mature first, and the last ones to finish are at the top of the body, in the back and neck.  Since when riding we sit on his back and the horse needs his neck for balance, it makes sense to wait until he's older to start riding him.  To be honest, the simplest horses I've started have been in the 6-10 year old age range.  I suspect this is not only because they have had time to mature mentally, but they also are physically capable of doing what I ask.   

Often these horses were purchased as youngsters and then life got in the way for their owners, and eventually they realized the horse was an adult and had no riding training.  I really enjoy working with horses from these situations, because they often have had time to grow up and hang out with a herd learning social skills, which makes starting them under saddle much easier.  Baby horses have the attention span of a flea, but I can work with an adult for the better portion of an hour without losing their attention. 


In my barn I have several larger Thoroughbreds.  Highboy and Dewey are currently my tallest, Highboy at a half inch over 17h, and Dewey at 16.1h.  Highboy continued getting taller until he was eight, he finally hit 17h in his eight year old year.  Dewey grew his final half inch of height during his eight year old year.  They both had been ridden as youngsters as they were both off the track, but hadn't been ridden hard as they were abysmally slow.  I restarted each of them gradually, and didn't ride them hard until they were more mature.  I think that's partly why Highboy is totally sound and loves his job eventing at 12 years old, and Dewey is such a nice mover despite his somewhat wonky conformation.  Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I can list many just like them who have been in my barn for years.  

In my own ideal situation with no time constraints (no futurities, no young horse or future event horse competitions, no need to push the horse in its training to get it sold), I prefer this tentative schedule for starting a youngster and avoiding overuse injuries:

Yearling: Come for 1 month of in-hand training to learn ground manners when leading, how to stand tied politely for grooming, loading in and and out of the trailer, picking up feet for the farrier, standing quietly for the veterinarian.  Introduce obstacle work such as bridges, tarps, hula hoops, anything else found at the dollar store to desensitize the yearling to new things.

Two years old: Come for one month to continue ground work.  Refresher on yearling skills, plus learning to free lunge with voice commands, how to wear tack from surcingle/pad to saddle/breastplate, free jumping to assess natural ability and whether he likes it.  May begin attending competitions as good exposure to "real world" situations.

Three years old:  Come for a month to review previous training.  Add to it minimal lunging on a long lungeline, introduce wearing a basic snaffle bit, introduce ground driving, clicker training to finesse obstacle work, begin ponying while I'm riding one of my older horses.

Four years old:  Come for 3-4 months to begin riding if the horse is ready.  If the horse is not ready mentally or physically, repeat three year old work for one month instead.


Five years old:  Come for 3-4 months to begin riding if not previously started.  If the horse is not ready mentally or physically, repeat three year old work for one month instead.  Starting under saddle includes learning to carry a rider at the walk, trot, canter on both leads, halt, back, turning, and riding both in the round pen/arena as well as out in the fields and on trails.  Long walks with lots of gentle hills develop the horse both physically and mentally.

Six years old:  Horse can be put into full training if mentally and physically ready.  This includes reviewing everything from year five, plus introducing small cross rails for jumping and low cavaletti work. Sliding and spins may be gradually introduced at this time.

Seven year old:  Horse can be in full training if mentally and physically ready.  Jumping under saddle with a rider over various obstacles both in and out of the arena, gymnastic work, with spins and sliding stops.  Cross training in various footing, sand, dirt, grass, rocky trails, hill work.  

Eight years old: Horse can really begin to compete in his preferred discipline.  


I recognize that my "ideal" schedule is a generous one regarding timeline.  There are very few horses who are allotted this much time to grow up and learn their job. It's understandable from a financial perspective.  Who can afford to give their horse this much time and training before starting to compete?  What about all the young horse competitions, such as futurities, maturities (still for young horses), young event horse, future event horse, or FEI young horse dressage competitions?  What about having the young horse move quickly up the levels as a way to prove its athleticism and value, as well as the trainer's value?

In this industry, a traditional way trainers try to make money is by getting a horse, putting some training on it, and selling it for more than they invested.  People tend to think that the horse is "better" if it's farther along in its training at a younger age, that a trainer is "better" if they have horses who are quickly moving up the levels.  People want to purchase young horses with lots of training.  This may be the standard in the equine industry, but is it the best thing for the horse?

So many issues, both physical and mental, can be from overuse.  Of course horses are flight animals, and some do their very best to injure themselves as often as possible.  But if I can avoid problems by starting my horses later and slower, I'll choose long term soundness for them every time.   I'm extremely fortunate to be in a position where I could take years to get Highboy jumping around a cross country course with prelim level questions.  I'm also grateful that I was able to develop Dewey slowly and correctly, so that his superficial scars and injuries are from accidents while playing, and nothing that will limit him athletically.  I recognize this is not an option for so many people and horses, and I'm extremely thankful to have the options I do.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Training Progression

I'm a stickler for correct physiological training and development, and one of the simplest ways to address it with horse training is the dressage pyramid.  I've recently come across a diagram with sketches of the horse's posture at each stage, and after looking at it for a while I decided I should have photographs of each of the stages...  So I created my own pyramid with photographs to illustrate!

This is the reference diagram, I love how it shows the horse's balance gradually shift to the hind end as you move up the pyramid.

This is the pyramid using photos of horses who have been at Bit of Honey over the years.  As expected, there were many Rhythm, Relaxation, and even Contact photos on my computer, since they are at the bottom of the pyramid most of our riding and training time is spent on those foundations.  I was able to find a decent impulsion photo - you can tell because the horse is really reaching underneath herself with her hind legs and her haunches are significantly lower than her withers but she's definitely moving forwards so has the "thrust" required of impulsion.  

Straightness had to be a halt photo - apparently we don't save enough pictures of horses coming straight towards the camera or going straight away!  Lastly the collection photo had to be of a horse placing all her weight in her hind end, loading the springs in her legs to take off over a jump.  We don't spend a ton of time in true collection because it's the most physically taxing for the horse and it's more important to build the foundation before you place the top on the pyramid, but we definitely see true shifting of weight entirely to the hind end with good jumping form in the horse!

What is "Feel"?


At the risk of being negative, one of my pet peeves is the use of the word "feel" in lessons, clinics, or while training horses.  I don't mean, "Can you feel that these bristles are softer than the hard brush?  That's why we use the soft brush for a final polish on the horse's coat"...  In the horse world, particularly in certain genres of horse training, "feel" is one of those mystical phrases that everyone uses but never explains.  It's a vague indescribable quality that some horsemen have and some don't, but good luck trying to find someone to explain what it actually is or how to get it.  It's extremely common to hear things like:

"Feel is THE most important thing"

"Without feel, you will never accomplish your goals"

"That person has a great feel of her horse"

"You must learn feel"

"A person either has a good feel or they don't"

All these statements beg the question, "Then, dear Equine Guru, do share with us, what exactly is 'feel' and how do I learn it?"  Most of the time, responses are merely a repetition of how important feel is, and declaring you either have it or your don't.  I don't find this line of conversation particularly helpful, and it certainly doesn't describe what "feel" is.  As a result, I don't use this expression.   

"Feel", as often used in the horse world, is really just timing.  Horsemen tend to use the word feel when they mean a person did a good job of releasing pressure at the appropriate time when training with negative reinforcement.  For example, if I'm lunging a horse and trying to get him to step forwards, I'll sometimes lift my whip off the ground to put psychological pressure on him.  As soon as he takes a step forwards, I lower the whip.  Applying the negative stimulus (lifting the whip) to get a certain behavior (stepping forwards), then ceasing the negative stimulus when I get the desired behavior is called negative reinforcement.  

If I do it with correct timing the horse will learn that he should step forwards to avoid the discomfort of the whip getting higher in the air and closer to him.  If I repeatedly do this with correct timing, one might say I have good "feel" with ground work.  The phrase is a gross oversimplification of basic behavioral psychology techniques.  One does need a better understanding of behavioral psychology to explain using a lunge whip correctly, as well as more words to truly explain, rather than just labeling it "feel".

(This chart is the quintessential one used to illustrate positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, and merits its own blog post, but it's good to have it available as a quick referral to what each of the methods entails.)

When riding, "feel" is also about timing.  If a rider consistently applies a leg aid at the exact right time to get the correct lead at the canter, you'll hear people say "she has a good feel for canter departures".  A more accurate way to explain what happened is to say the rider pressed her horse's side with the calf of her outside leg at the instant the horse's outside hind leg was pushing off of the ground.  When the horse pushes off into the canter with the outside hind leg, the horse will be on the correct, or inside, lead at the canter due to the pattern in which the legs move at that gait.  One needs a good understanding of equine gait analysis to explain cuing a correct canter depart, as well as more words to truly explain rather than just labeling it "feel".

Sometimes you'll hear that a rider "took a feel of the horse" in preparation for a jump, a hard stop, a fast turn, or some other athletic maneuver.  In this instance it merely means the rider shortened the reins slightly, or moved her hands so that she could literally feel the horse's mouth with her hands through the reins and bit.  This also has to be done with correct timing, since it is a way to rebalance a horse in preparation for the maneuver.  One needs a better understanding of equine biomechanics and how the rider's hands affect it, as well as more words to truly explain rather than just labeling it "feel".

So really, "feel" is timing.  It's the ability to communicate with the horse using aids or cues with correct timing and strength, when applying or removing them.  It takes more words and a deeper understanding of the subject at hand to explain the how and why, rather than just calling it "feel".  Next time you hear an instructor proclaim the necessity of feel, see if you can figure out how timing of aids would influence the situation.  And if the instructor won't explain the how and why, perhaps they're using "feel" as a cop-out because they don't understand, or can't explain the particulars of the behavioral modification technique. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Ferriana Summary

Ferriana is a nine year old mare, half Hanoverian and half Dutch Warmblood.  She is super athletic and sensitive, brave and confident in all three phases.

Sire: Olympic Ferro - Dutch warmblood, international competitor 2000 Olympics, dual talent in jumping and dressage.
Dam: imported AHS elite Hanoverian mare, by Regazzoni (Rubinstein I/Davignon). She was the Hanoverian inspection site champion, and although she competed in dressage, received a 9 jump score at the inspection. 
Both dam and sire excelled in dressage but also contribute outstanding jumping ability.

Ferriana is a half inch shy of 16.1h tall.  She's barefoot with good feet (despite somewhat thinner soles she has never had shoes on and comfortably goes trail riding and cross country jumping without shoes or boots).  A phenomenal athlete, Ferriana has free jumped 5' or 1.5 meters with PLENTY of scope for more.  Under saddle she is very light, forward, and sensitive, riding in a regular snaffle for all three phases, and works best off of the seat.  Her riding career started as an eight year old, so she is completely sound, fully mature, and is ready to move up the levels.  Covid interfered with her competing in 2020, but keep an eye out for her in 2021 in Area IX eventing.

Here is some video of her free jumping 1.2m (4' high oxer with 4' spread)

Here are some free jumping photos of Ferriana in the chute in the arena.

Video from these free jumping rounds:

Video of Ferriana jumping through a gymnastic line with a rider:

Jumping a single small oxer with a lead change after the fence:

Here are a few photos of Ferriana doing flatwork.

Ferriana is available for $40,000 to approved home with references.  She is best suited to an advanced or professional rider looking for an upper level eventer or jumper with the quirks that can accompany that type of intelligent personality.  She athletically tackles a jumping or cross country course, and is an outstanding mover for dressage, but gets bored easily so would be happiest in a diverse training program. 

All of Ferriana's videos can be viewed here:


All of her blog posts are here:


Contact Kim for more information or to schedule a time to meet Ferriana.