Monday, May 25, 2009

Working With the Alpha Mare

I got Lily, our big grey mare, in late 2001, intending to compete her as a hunter.  She quickly made it clear that, while she would jump anything, she liked to go big and as fast as possible.  She found the hunters dull and insufficiently challenging.  My daughter was interested in doing jumpers, and started riding her in the spring of 2002.  Although Lily, to our knowledge, had done very little jumping before we got her, she turned out to have exceptional ability - my daughter jumped her 5 feet in one lesson, and the trainer's daughter jumped her at 5'6".  She is an Oldenburg/Quarter Horse cross, and was both fast and powerful.  It's probably not surprising that she had jumping ability, as her grandsire is Furioso II, an Oldenburg sire renowned for producing horses of exceptional jumping ability.  She's only about 16 hands, but is massive and powerful, with a naturally long stride and round jump - hard to ride as she tends to throw you up out of the tack.  She's never had an unsound day in her life, although she started to develop heaves, a progressive respiratory disease, and was unable to compete at speed any longer, although she could still jump cleanly.  Here's my daughter, who was 15 at the time, riding her in the last class in which they competed, in the fall of 2004.  They had a clean round - as you can see from the photo, Lily isn't having much trouble with a jump of this size and spread.

My daughter, who at that point had started doing her own training using the methods of Mark Rashid, had succeeded in working with Lily so she would go, and soften, in a simple KK snaffle, instead of the double twisted wire bit with tight figure 8 noseband our prior trainer espoused - which by the way had done nothing to slow Lily down or make her more manageable.  Even though she would intensely focus in the jumper ring, she was almost impossible to ride successfully in the warm-up ring (even when she had deceptively been standing tied to the trailer asleep with one hind leg cocked).  She also would not "lunge down" - no amount of work on the lunge line would tire her out, and once she began to develop heaves, extended lunging wasn't a possibility anyway.  So the final year my daughter competed on her the routine would be to take her to an area where we could lunge, lunge only as long as needed to warm up her muscles, then my daughter would get on and go straight into the jumper ring.

We retired her from competition, which raised certain challenges since she disliked arena work (not involving jumping) and demonstrated an (explosively) strong aversion to trails.  Lily is our alpha mare, and she is intelligent, strong-minded, alert and reactive.  Due to her agility, speed and power, she has the ability to do a split-second bolt and amazing bucks.  After her retirement, we didn't do much work with her.  My older daughter was in college, my younger daughter had her own mare (Dawn) to work with, and I had three horses of my own to take care of (plus the whole barn in the mornings).

I think that working with alpha mares like Lily requires a certain way of thinking.  Alphas are usually intelligent, sensitive and alert, reactive and used to being respected.  An alpha that is mishandled can easily become sullen and resentful, or dangerously explosive.  If you think about it from the horse's point of view, I can hear an alpha mare say to herself, while giving the human a skeptical look:  "Wait a minute - here comes this human, who's demanding that I respect her, when she's not sure of what she wants, is inconsistent, gets upset easily, gives me no respect and doesn't listen to a thing I try to say to her - why should I respect her or do what she wants?"  I think you have to prove yourself to alpha mares - not by dominating them (although I think it's very important to set limits for acceptable behavior, particularly on the ground) but by communicating with them in a way that enables a two-way conversation.  Alpha mares care a lot about fairness - if you tell them that biting isn't acceptable, they will understand that - but if you're inconsistent or insensitive they'll write you off.

I also think that, if we want our horses to respect us, we need to respect them - an alpha mare should be respected for her intelligence, resourcefulness, responsiveness and knowledge.  I think it's always important to listen to what the mare says to us.  I know that for Lily, at least, getting bored is an issue - she likes a challenge and to have new and interesting things to do - I think that is why she liked jumpers so much.  Lily would not be a good horse to do endless repetitions of an exercise, or to do the same groundwork with every day.

So yesterday I decided to try working some more with Lily.  My Maisie is waiting for the farrier to come, so I'm not riding her for a few days.  So yesterday afternoon after feeding all the horses (I do this every Sunday afternoon), I brought Lily down to the barn, groomed her and saddled her up.  I used my dressage saddle, as it's the only one I have that fits her - I sold my close contact that fit her a while ago as my daughter didn't like it.  We had to do a little approach and release work on bridling, as she hadn't been bridled or worked with in over 6 months.  My objective was to do a little ground work with her and if all went well, to ride a bit.

Here's Lily, ready to go - the ears were flickering back and forth and she wasn't as unhappy about the whole thing as she looks in the picture - I just caught the moment when the ears flicked back:

I left the halter on underneath the bridle for our groundwork:

There was some wind, and a number of distractions - people were working in the community garden and there was a fairly loud party going on across the pond behind the arena.

The first challenge was to come up with some quiet groundwork exercises that would also be interesting for her and hold her attention despite the distractions.  For our first exercise, I constructed a circular lunging pattern with ground poles as the radii of the circle.  I asked her to walk with me as I did this and dragged the poles from various corners of the arena. She was nervous at first about the dragging poles, but stayed right with me and calmed down as we were working - I just told her that I assumed she would walk quietly with me and she did. She walked through this lunging pattern with attention and precision in both directions. 

Then a fellow boarder helped me with setting out a maze pattern.  Mazes like this help horses and handlers to develop attention to each other and the ability to make lots of adjustments of position and balance. You have to think about it one step at a time. We started out with the poles at a reasonable spacing - a challenge but not an unreasonable one.  Here's the maze (with Lily's nose in the picture):

As we worked, I moved the poles closer together to make the maze more challenging.  After I led her through this a few times - Lily was really listening to me at each step and made careful adjustments to her position and balance at each turn - and after I made it tighter and we did it again a few more times, Lily delicately reached over and plucked the forearm of my sweater with her teeth.  It wasn't aggressive, it was just her saying:  "OK, we've done this and it's starting to get boring, can we do something else?"

I said OK, so we moved towards the mounting block, and then did a little softening and backing in hand using the bridle, and we also did a few turns on the forehand just using one rein. She was alert, but had been attentive and responsive, so I decided a small ride was in order.  She knows how to stand at the mounting block without being constrained.  It took her a moment of circling the mounting block to offer to halt.  Once she was standing still, I kept my reins completely loose and did a few tests to be sure that she was OK with the whole thing - I leaned over the saddle, and then put one foot in the stirrup and put my weight on my foot.  All OK, so I swung my other leg over and sat.  She stood completely still, on a loose rein.  I adjusted my stirrups, and, keeping my energy low, off we walked.  We did a few circles, walked over some poles and then did the maze (in its tighter configuration) a few times in both directions.

She was softening well at the walk, and was willing to do everything I asked.  It was fun to ride her again - she's incredibly sensitive and responsive, and feeling all that power under you is an amazing experience.  We called it a day, and I put her away.


  1. Your description of Lily reminds me a lot of one of my horses that I did the bigger jumpers on. She was also the type that really tempted you to load her up with equipment. One trainer literally had the horse looking like a demo for every piece of tack out there almost.

    Finally I just chucked it all and went to a french link three ring snaffle with the rain on the second ring. For whatever reason she always preferred a snaffle that spread the leverage over the poll vs. just a plain snaffle. No martingale, no garden implements for a bit, and tons of flatwork. We were both much happier. Cricket was an amazing horse who could jump massive jumps that were as tall as she was. She was 15.2 on her tiptoes and did smaller Grands Prix. I'm sure she was thrilled the day I just accepted her way of going, quit trying to change it, and let her be herself!

    I am a mare person myself. All things being equal between two horses with one being a mare and one being a gelding I will always pick the mare. I am an oddball.

  2. Lovely mare, Kate - and what a beautiful photo of your daughter and Lily!
    Total concentration in both horse and rider, and a lovely bascule in the horse and a good position of the rider too!

    Nice post, as always.
    I would imagine that a mare like her would be bored after a time just going out on pasture.
    Did you try her out on trails just after you retired her from show jumping, or was it recently?
    Maybe she finds trail riding more interesting now if she has had time to think it over for a while, lol!

  3. Melissa - I agree, mares somehow call to me - although I've loved the geldings I've had - especially Noble - the mares are always the ones who seem to really connect with me.

    HorseOfCourse - I haven't tried Lily on the trails in a while - I may try some ground driving with her to test it out - that will avoid the risk of being dumped if the bolt-and-buck routine reappears!

  4. Lily is a lovely girl. What a nice jump she has!

    Note: we used Levamisole years ago to cure some horses with heaves. Don't know if vets use it today, but it triggers the allergy/antigen system somehow.

    "Bolt and buck" is not fun, anywhere, but especially not out on the trails. Long walks back are not fun, nor are loose horses.

    Too bad they don't do agility courses with horses as they do dogs. A smart girl like Lily would be great at that. *lol*

  5. What an interesting post! I do think the "oldies" like to do something from time to time. My old gelding (who's too lame to ride) enjoys just going for a walk.

    And thanks for reminding me about mazes!

  6. Jean - Actually, one thing I've tried with Lily, just a little bit so far, is clicker training. She's very smart and loves food treats, so it's perfect for her. So far I've got her to touch a cone set in various places on the ground for a click, and I had just started having her go over a jump to get to the cone. I'm thinking I'll try more of this with her - I'm thinking I might try hand gestures like the agility dog people do, and work up to directing her around a jump course - she'd enjoy that!

  7. Kate, love the picture. Liz and her look good.
    Glad she did alright with you riding her. another horse for you to get on! ;-)

  8. I loved reading your -totally correct- descriptions of the Alfa mare!
    ^Your daughter and she look absolutley gorgeous over the fence!

    My mare is not alpha..but ackts like it sometimes..she is definately needing one around if there is not>I have had to rise to the occasion and be strong for her..fair and always kind.She tries very hard to please and unlike Lilly...adores trails...jumping is her thing too.Lilly would like my trails..I have all kinds of jumps set up on them!

  9. Kate, thanks for the link to this post, really interesting. You have some beautiful horses.


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