February 11, 2024

Pyro's Big Transformation, or, Kate Little is Amazing

I don't even know where to start with this post, but I have to start. I've been witnessing an incredible transformation in my barn and learning a lot about horsemanship through it, and it deserves to be written down.

A couple of weeks ago I was videoing my barnmate's virtual Dressage lesson, watching her futilely trying to pony kick her 5 year old around a big psuedo-turn on the forehand at our Dressage trainer's instruction, and I realized it looked a lot like a groundwork exercise Kate had me do with Connor. I asked my barnmate if I could borrow Pyro for a Kate lesson, and she agreed.

Pyro (foreground) and mom Missy (behind)

I need to pause here and give some background context on Pyro so that you'll understand how massive this change has been. My barnmate bred and raised him out of her heart horse, and despite doing everything right with him, he was never a horse you could let your guard down around. He had no sense of personal space and little respect or regard for humans. He is also a bit ADHD, constantly into everything, and sometimes nibbling or even biting. I never handled him without a whip, since even arm waving or throwing my gloves at him to get him out of my space was met with a blank stare.

So with that stage set, you will understand why this...

(We're doing a lot more than ground tying, but the ground tying is the only thing I can get a photo of while working alone.)

...feels so wildly unbelievable.

We are two weeks and two Kate groundwork lessons into handling Pyro in this new way, and he is a totally different horse. Our relationship with him, mine and my barnmate's both, in both directions, has profoundly changed.

In the first lesson, I was standing facing him and asking him to step sideways and turn around me in a big TOF. Following a prescribed and predictable escalation pattern that takes into account the speed at which horses' brains are able to process new information and take action based on that information, we arrived at maximum force "ask" with the whip, and he just stood there and flinched his skin in anticipation of the hit rather than moving his feet.

Pyro learning to Dressage, wearing, fun fact, former Blogger Carley's Bobby's Micklem


It was fascinating. He knew it was coming and simply did not care to respond to the ask - he didn't respect me as a leader, and had learned he could outlast humans if they asked him to do something he didn't want to do. So, Pyro reasoned, if he stood there and took it, it would end eventually, which made a lot of sense in the context of his day-to-day personal space issues - he didn't want to move, so he wouldn't.

But after one Kate lesson, I was able to move him in both directions with the lightest of taps, and after a week, I could move him simply by moving the whip toward him and "pushing the air" toward him. Which was far more a consequence of the relationship changing than it was him learning a new cue - clearly, he understood the ask before, he just didn't want to.

Week 2 - relaxed posture, staying out of my space, engaged with a soft eye waiting to see what I'll ask for next. This may as well be a different horse!

The general change since then has been jaw-dropping. He's happier and far more relaxed in all contexts. His posture has changed, and he stands around humans with his head down and his back relaxed. It occurs to me now that in the past, he was as tense around us as we were around him, although that body language was so subtle, I missed it until it wasn't there anymore. We are now, all of us, regarding each other with curiosity and respect instead of suspicion and guardedness.

Here is Pyro voluntarily giving me and my dogs a 10-15 foot bubble as I cleaned manure out of the drylot last week. I didn't park him there or ask for this, this is him seeing my relationship to him differently and making different choices than he would have in the past as a result.

As Kate said, horses don't WANT to be the leader. In the wild, the leader gets eaten. So, now that we have given him reasons to work with us and not against us and proven our trustworthiness as leaders, he IS able to relax - he doesn't have to look out for himself quite as much. He is willing to wait and see what we ask him to do, even as he is also enjoying the moments of personal "be responsible for yourself" we're giving him too within the work.

It's not all sunshine and roses - he still tries to get nibbly sometimes or challenge us, but now that we have mutual respect, a desire to work with and not against each other, and a common language, we have clear ways to communicate "you're out of line, brother", and even the nibbliness is slowing over time. 

After nearly 3 years of knowing this horse, to see this big of a change in two weeks is mind-boggling, and I'm finding myself looking forward to my next groundwork lesson with him. Who even am I?!


  1. That's so cool!! I wish I could take lessons with her as well!

    1. You can! These are virtual lessons.

    2. Oh really?? I am not sure where I'll find the time but I'm definitely interested!

  2. And the incredible piece is that YOU are doing the work! I can't take the rope from you or touch your shoulder to adjust your angle -- it's all you :) I feel just so amazing to read this and it's so fun to be helping this horse get along better with his people.

  3. Oh wow, this is really interesting. And what a quick change! Does it translate under saddle? Al really is pretty respectful and trusting of me on the ground, but once I'm in the saddle, he doesn't seem to have the same... respect? Trust? Both of those? I'm not sure. I don't seem to bring him the same confidence when I'm on his back as I can from the ground. Maybe this type of lesson might help us too.