Training an Appaloosa

Even when he's not the best student, Coffee gets a nice neck rub at the end of each session.
Even when he’s not the best student, Coffee gets a nice neck rub at the end of each session.

First, let me start by saying that I love Appaloosas.  They have been a part of my life for over forty years.  Anything I say below is said with love and amusement.  Second, I fully acknowledge that horses are all individuals, with their own personalities.  That said, there is something about training an Appaloosa that is rather unique, as many fans and detractors alike will agree.  As I assist my mother in training her beloved Coffee, I am reminded of my own experiences with my beloved Ben and the other Appys in my life.

I have started and trained a number of horses through the years, and with each come challenges.  The difference with the Appaloosas I’ve trained has been the deliberate nature of their actions and the challenges they place before you.  There are those who state that horses only react to what we do – they do not plot, or take deliberate action to misbehave.  I may reluctantly concede that for a breed like the Thoroughbred – but I know better when it comes to an Appaloosa!

I have written before of my first horse, Wicki, and the times he would take over if you tried to do his job for him.  That first cross-country course, when he tore the reins from my hands, he did not then bolt, buck, or in any way misbehave.  No, he continued on the course, making it clear that he was doing his job and I should just keep quiet.  It was a clear message, and a deliberate action – one I witnessed years later, when his then rider tried to over manage the ride in a Kimberwicke and running martingale.  I watched the wheels turning, the deliberate set up, the overt action, and the relaxation “all business” attitude once he got her off his mouth.  Since that day, no one has ever been able to convince me that horses aren’t smart!

Ben gave me my next lesson in how deliberate an Appaloosa can be in his actions.  About a month after we’d come together, we were working around the arena when he came to a dead stop.  Thinking I’d somehow sent a mixed signal, I asked him to go on.  Instead he slowly and methodically started to step backward.  The more I tried to get him to go forward, the more he plodded backward!  I tried turning him, hoping that would get him to take a forward step. “Nope!” was the answer I received, as he continued to take step after step to the rear.  At some point, for reasons I never understood, he finally stopped and, after a pause, willingly went forward.

This pattern repeated for several days.  The starting point was always different, but the actions were the same.  On some occasions we’d circumnavigate the entire arena in reverse!  The adults at the barn were full of advice, but nothing worked.  This was my first lesson that sometimes you had to actually outwit an Appaloosa.  I don’t remember where the inspiration came from, though I think it was pure teenage frustration – but the solution came when I finally said “Fine!  You want to back up?  We’re going to back up!”  It apparently wasn’t as much fun to go backward when that was what your rider wanted, so he was soon more than happy to go forward again.  That was the end of that game – but not the last one he would play in our 28 years together.

Most of the other Appaloosas I’ve worked with were labeled as ‘difficult’, when they were really just good at getting their way.  All became great partners, once I had their respect.  And by respect, I do not mean anything forceful – most Appaloosas do not take well to force!  No, with an Appaloosa you have to be willing to listen (as you should with any horse), but you also have to be willing to call their bluff.

The first time I rode Nash, my Appy experience came in immediately handy.  I’d been told the reason he was for sale was that the owner’s ten year old daughter couldn’t ride him.  He never did anything bad, but if he wanted to go back to the barn and she did not … well, you can guess who won!  So, I was riding him across the pasture when we apparently had gone far enough.  He planted his feet and refused to move.  Deja vu!  When I asked him to go forward, he tried to turn back.  After a couple of failed attempts, he began to rock his weight back and bounce his front feet.  Something about this move made me think “You’ve tried this before, and it usually works … but you don’t really want to rear.”  So, I settled deeper in the saddle, wrapped my legs around, and said softly “Go ahead, rear.  I dare you!”  I felt his muscles bunch, but he’s feet settled on the ground.  A few seconds of stillness was followed by a huge sigh that I felt rock his whole body.  Suddenly we were walking forward, and he was an angel the rest of the ride.

That brings us to Coffee, and the revelation my mother had today.  We’ve been working on refining the aids, and my mom’s control using her position.  Coffee is, at best, a distracted student.  His main distraction?  Food, of course!  If you train with treats, you can keep his attention – otherwise, the weeds and trees are more interesting than anything we have to say (our arena has trees on both sides).  The result is that my mom has been distracted by his many attempts to snatch snacks, and was losing focus on the purpose.  So, for the past few days, we’ve worked on getting her to focus on getting responses to her ‘asks’ and let the rest take care of itself.  This, by itself, largely blocks his attempts at snatching branches.

Another issue that had developed was that they’d developed a tug-of-war in trying to get anywhere.  Mom asks for a turn, he over turns, she corrects back the other way – and thus they’d zigzag around the ring.  As she improved her purpose and intention, something began to be clear – the turning issues were not about confusion, as one would expect with most green horses.  She began today’s session with much more clarity and purpose than she’s had – and Coffee’s reaction made it clear that he was just as willing to be purposeful with his wishes.  As they would walk down the rail, now tracking wonderfully straight, Coffee would suddenly decide he’d had enough of that, and attempt an about-face.  There was no drama to it, no speed, just a very clear and determined turn.

It was amusing to watch this battle of wills unfold.  Coffee had clearly recognized that his past methods of drifting hither and yon were no longer working.  Why not try the direct approach?  Would my mother be able to hold her own?  She did!  As it dawned on her that his actions were deliberate, and not just confusion, she gained even more purpose in her riding.  At one point, Coffee attempted no less than six times to leave the rail.  In every case, he was pulled up short and asked to move his shoulder back to the rail.  The next pass, she was able to keep him marching straight.  His whole demeanor had changed.  Where before I could watch him looking for the next branch, or scoping out the next opportunity; now, he was soft, relaxed … and maybe just a little resigned.

Coffee is smart and opinionated, as have been most of the Appaloosas I’ve known – so I am sure that he will come up with some new way to assert himself.  No worries, we’ll be ready.  After all, I’ve had some pretty good teachers in the ways of the Appaloosa!

Be good to your horses!


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