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Is my horse deaf or does he have ‘selective hearing’? Have you ever encountered a deaf horse?

“Stacy, I also have a 11 year-old deaf child, however he is of the ‘four-legged’ kind. I have had my 11 yr old APHA gelding for 3 years now and I’m still discovering to what extent he is ‘deaf’. I write that with emphasis because he too is subject to the rumor that he is deaf. The previous owners were NOT horse people but WERE animal lovers and took him in from a family member that had to move across state and could not keep him. The ‘not-so-horsey’ owners were trying to place him and warn me that he was deaf. I took him in for his forever home. Many people I have met since that new him and his original owners, have told me they ‘heard’ he was ‘deaf’ also. I have been riding for almost 10 years and encountered many horses with ‘selective hearing’. In the last 3 years I have learned that he is of the ‘selective hearing’. With questionable consistencies in the history of his training he is more responsive to visual and physical cues than vocal commands, but he does ‘hear’ some things. I learn ASL in an after school club at my high school and have considered brushing off my signing skills to help further his training. Tell me, have you ever encountered a deaf horse? or know of any one that has had experience in training one?-Kristen”

I have seen both horses with ‘selective hearing’ and those that are deaf. Most horses who choose to ignore some cues, like ‘Whoa’, will often give themselves away with listening to other cues, like a verbal cluck or kiss to ‘Go’. Popcorn, the horse I trained during the 2006 Road to the Horse Colt starting competition was very much like this. Months into his training he seemed deaf to the word Whoa. He would stop off the bridle reins and leg/seat cues but he completely ignored ‘Whoa’. I often joked that he could pretend very well that he was deaf….except that when I ‘kissed’ to ask for a lope, he took off like a race horse!

It was also obvious that he heard other noises;shake the grain bucket, crack a whip, etc and he could hear it even if the noise was coming from around a corner where he couldn’t see the noise maker. Deaf horses don’t do that.Gunner

Consider the following excerpt from The Quarter Horse News:

 “Although it’s rare among horses as a whole, deafness has become more frequent in the reining arena as Gunner’s descendants and relations show off their talent. Trainers who have ridden them say their schooling just requires a bit of creativity. A horse that can’t hear “whoa” needs to learn different cues than a hearing horse.

But the desire for a talented reining horse seems to outweigh the challenges of dealing with deafness. Gunner stands to a full book every year at a $7,500 fee, and mare owners are well aware of the chances of getting a deaf foal.” for full article click here


I have never trained a deaf horse but I have spoken with many trainers that have. As the article above made note of there has been a definite increase in the number of deaf horses in the reining events. Most of the trainers also agree that there are just some adjustments that need to be made when you are riding or training these horses.

Personally, I have been joking for several years about finding a deaf Gunner bred horse that wasn’t quite making it as a reiner…I would like to try one out as a mounted shooting horse!


Posted by on August 28, 2014 in Members Question, Thought provoking, Video


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Is my horse paying enough attention? How focused should my horse be while I am riding?

“Stacy-When I am riding my horse at home, I notice that she is watching other things while I am riding. She isn’t doing anything wrong, but she appears to watch people walking around even when I am loping. I am preparing to show her and I am concerned that she isn’t really  focused on me. What should I do? Should I be concerned?” Linda Y.

Having a confident, relaxed and attentive horse is a balancing act.

Ideally, the horse is confident and relaxed as we ride…but some horses will go a little too far and move towards ignoring the rider.

Other times, it is possible to see horses that are attentive to the rider…to the point where they no longer look relaxed and confident. These horses may have all the ‘right answers’ but they also appear intimidated…the opposite of relaxed and confident.It is very possible for the horse to be attentive to you and be aware of her surroundings. In fact, this is ideally what I want. Stacy Westfall

When you are working with your horse at home and you can tell she is watching or aware of other things going on, it is not necessarily a problem. It would be a problem if she doesn’t notice your cues or ignores you because of her lack of focus. The only way to know if this is the case is to ‘test’ her. The next time you notice that she is watching something else, ask her to make a transition. If you are jogging, ask her to walk. Did she hesitate or was she sharp? If she was responsive then you’re fine, if she didn’t pick up on your cues easily because she was distracted then you will know she is truly not focused on you.

It is very possible for the horse to be attentive to you and be aware of her surroundings. In fact, this is ideally what I want. I love watching Roxy’s body language during the bareback and bridleless ride because it is so easy to watch her switch her attention. When I am walking into the arena it is easy to see that Roxy is watching the crowd; her ears are flicking around, and she is looking around with her head and neck.

However, when I ask for her to do something more intense, she quickly and seamlessly switches her focus back to me. Watch her ears when I ask for the spin or when I run my fast circles, Roxy pulls them both back tight as a sign that she is very focused. Then when I back off, she relaxes them again…look at her, she is watching the crowd with both her eyes and her ears during all of my slower maneuvers.

Roxy arrived at this point because I use training cycles in my program. During these cycles there are times that I increase my expectations and times that I have fun and enjoy my horse. By cycling through this mental, and physical, training I eventually end up with a horse that can be both very aware and very in tune with me.

Here are links to some other blogs about training cycles:


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Bridling questions: accepting the bit, head tossing while bridling, ignoring the handler; Jac review week brought to you by Weaver Leather

I have received many questions involving bridling a horse. I could answer each one of these questions individually, and I still may at some point, but I have chosen to present them all here in an attempt to illustrate the power of having an entire program.

Horses put things in their mouths all the time...but sometimes not when we ask.

Horses put things in their mouths all the time…but sometimes not when we ask.

Each of these questions has an unique answer such as; drop the head, wiggle your fingers in the horses mouth, or earn the horses respect in other areas. But each one of these problems must also be viewed as part of a ‘whole picture’. For example, several people referred to how ‘easy it looked bridling Jac in Episode 13. If you go back and watch Episode 13, at six minutes in you will see the very first time that I ever stuck my fingers into Jac’s mouth. If you continue watching you will also see the first time that I put the bit in his mouth. And it goes well…but…

Would it have gone as well if I had tried to stick my fingers into Jac’s mouth back in Episode 2, at one minute in? I don’t think so. I predict that he would have hit me in the head with his head as he was trying to move me around AND I would have been at risk of him pushing over the top of me with his shoulder. The pawing would have been a problem also as attempting to bridle him would have put me in his range.Keep in mind when I say this that Jac was not specifically being aggressive but he was ignorant and pushy. Unfortunately if his head hits my head out of ignorance or aggression… it still would have hurt.

Watch just the first two minutes to get an idea;

As you rewatch episode 2, keep in mind that Episode 1 and 2 were both filmed the same day. That means that Jac had already been out and running around for 20 minutes…and yet you can see him tossing his head and pawing the ground after over 20 minutes. Yet in Episode 13, Jac has only been out for six minutes and look at how well he is standing. Why?

Because….MENTALLY Jac is not the same horse he was in the earlier episodes. I can give you physical exercises to do with your horse, but if you don’t view the training process as a whole picture experience then each individual technique will be limited in its effectiveness.

Now watch at least the first ten minutes of Episode 13. If you are crunched for time you can even start by watching from minute 6-10 to get an idea of what I am discussing.

Now for the questions and answers…and I’m going to be asking questions also!

  • “Stacy, Thanks , like the idea of using the soft rope for teaching to except the bit, think this was episode 13. Silly me never thought about the bit bumping the teeth . Cause I wouldn’t like that if I was a horse. lol Do you know anymore ways to help with bridles. Please let us know.  Thanks love all your videos they help me tremendous.- Pam M”

Tip: keep trying to improve your ability to see things from the horses point of view. One thing that works well for me is to try to think of at least three ways to do the same thing. For example; using my fingers in the mouth, using a rope in the mouth, using a bit in the mouth. Are there any other things you have ever taught a horse to put in their mouth? I have also taught several to enjoy having a water hose, with gently running water, put in their mouth. It could be used for flushing their mouths out…but I was just being silly. The more I try to open my thinking the easier it becomes for me to think like a horse. My question for you would be, “What other bridling issues do you see and what are three ways of solving each of these issues?”

  • ‘Hi Stacy, you made it look so easy bridling Jac. I have a 6 yr. old Rocky I’m restarting who’s never had a bit before (bitless). I am thinking of using a comfort snaffle instead of a traditional snaffle on him. What are your thoughts and is there any tips you can give me on easing this transition.  He also has forgotten how to gait.  Help!- Lindy B’

Tip: Keep in mind that all horses will be trying to spit the bit out. Give a child gum and they swallow it until they learn otherwise:) The horse will get ‘quiet’ in his mouth faster if you give him another job to do, as I demonstrated in Episode 13 right after bridling. Also, if you think the bit should be a problem…it will be. Horses can read YOUR body and emotions better than most people think. If you are tense and worried about the bit causing issues your horse will tend to react more. To relieve this tension try having the horse carry the bit while you do your normal routine. Try doing your groundwork while he wears it (without reins) and you can even possibly ride him in your ‘bitless’ set up while he carries the bit, unused, in his mouth. This prolonged step of doing nothing but carrying the bit may allow you to relax about it also. Gaiting is often ‘lost’ when collection is ‘lost’…which is also why naturally ‘collected’ horses gait…naturally. If your horse is being lazy, try the collection exercises found here.

  • “Hi Stacy, I basically have the same question as Lindy, you did make it look really easy to bridle Jac, I might be buying a horse that is un mouthed & i could really use some tips ? 🙂 Thanks!-Mikayla G”

Tip: I have trained ALL the horses I have ever ridden to carry a bit. I even trained a horse that had no tongue to be ridden in a bit (he had run head-on into a barn and bitten his own tongue off) without issue. Start by following the Jac series and continue learning! Head tossing during bridling:

  • “Stacy, I learned a lot from the episode on keeping your colt soft and willing to work . Since I have two youngsters that will be starting on saddle it will be helpful to teach them to use the bit.  I especially like the idea about working them from both sides…. There is one question I have though when I go to put on a halter or bridle my horse keep tossing his head when I get close to his ears…. what would you recommend to do for that?-Marilyn S”

Tip: Go back and do all the groundwork you have seen in the Jac series. During this time also spend time using the stick and string to rub up and down the neck, eventually touching the ears. I sometimes use the string part to go around their ears. Most horses will shake their heads at first but will also realize that the string is still there or comes right back. I also attach plastic bags to the stick and rub them all over their body including over their ears. Also watch Episode 14 and how I was rubbing Jac from above while mounted on Popcorn. Make rubbing enjoyable by scratching also. Make it a new part of normal, everyday life.

  • “How did you get Jac to accept the bridle when most colts hate their ears messed with? What kind of steps did you take to make it easier for him?-Kathy H”

Tip: I find that most colts don’t have issues with their ears unless they have been taught to by people. I do find that people often expect ears to be a problem and then they become a problem. One example of this would be when I visited Jesse (my husband) at a ranch where he was working in Oklahoma. None of the horses, about 20 of them, had ever had their ears clipped. They were handled just enough to get the tack on for riding, no special time spent on groundwork but no issues caused either. I clipped every single one of them in the same day by myself. I rubbed them all over, introduced clippers and shut them off when the horse stood still (before they even moved) and repeated. I might have shut the clippers off 20 or more times on each horse to ‘remove pressure’ and reward…and I was able to clip all ears. I didn’t expect a problem and no one had created one before me…so there was no problem.

  • “Stacy. I have bridling issues.  He hates having it put over his ears.  Constantly touch his ears with no problem.  Just hates the bridle Darlene  J”.

Tip: Ah! Perfect example of both questions above. This horse has come to the conclusion, somehow, that the bridle is a part of the ear problem. You need some creative thinking; what is different? Some possible answers are; the bridle is tight and the amount of pressure applied during bridling is different than during haltering or normal handling, the bit or some other part of the bridle is poking him at the same time that you are trying to go over the ear (touch his ear and poke him in the eye enough times and he will stop letting you touch his ear, lol) or…someone backed off and allowed him to say ‘no’ but only during bridling. There are more possibilities. Repeat the exercises in Episode 13. If he is fine with the pretend ‘rope bridle’ then, for fun, put the actual bridle on and then pretend to ‘bridle’ with the rope after the horse is already wearing the bit…does he respond differently to the ‘rope bridle’ going over his ears when an actual bit is in his mouth? Keep exploring from different angles. Horse ignoring rider during bridling:

  • “Stacy, In episode 13 Jac accepts the bit quietly. As a teacher I have some very small riders with bigger horses. Even though for me I can reach and get the horses to quietly accept the bit and even with teaching the horse to lower their head for bridling, the young riders are having a difficult time quietly bridling. We practice and practice, but I would love some advice on making a consistent change for them!  The horses tend to elevate in to giraffe mode and clench their jaw unless I am present.-Heidi H”

Tip: Get dummer horses. LOL. Just kidding! Your horses have gotten smart to who can hold them accountable and who cannot. Now the kids have to become smarter than the horses. Generally at this point, if the horses are truly good for you 100% of the time, then the kids need to learn how to make the same thing happen. Have you pretended to be the same height as the kids? Have you taught the horses to be bridled by you…while you sit in a chair? Try leaving a rope halter on under the bridle for awhile if they kids need a predictable way to be able to drop the horses heads down. Outsmart the horses!

  • “Stacy, When I’m bridling my horse he won’t open his mouth to take the bit. It’s not like he is refusing by throwing his head in the air or backing away. His head is low, eyes half shut and I can press on his mouth, tongue and gums but he doesn’t budge for a few minutes. Then once it’s in, he’s fine. Doesn’t act like it bothers him. Any suggestions on getting him to open up?-Renae P”

Tip: this is similar to the horses above…only the lazy version! Now you get to become more creative. You have tried pressing on his tongue…now maybe you need to try scratching it, or rolling it, or pretending it is a new toy. Can you stick your fingers in from both sides and touch them in the middle where the bit would go? How many fingers can you fit (no getting bit here) three? Four? Three from each side? Remember the point…which is to remove your fingers when he opens his mouth. If you get three or more fingers in each side and he is still asleep…you could pretend you were playing the piano…pick your favorite song! I hope you found these tips and the over all theories helpful. Remember that they all need to fit into the overall plan. A horse that is sleeping while being bridled often has this ‘issue’ in other areas. Make a change there and see if it helps to carry over. A horse that is reactive about his ears is usually reactive in other places…whole horse, whole program.


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What bit should I use with my horse? Why don’t you always use a snaffle bit? Doesn’t a bit hurt a horse?

What bit should I use with my horse? Why don’t you always use a snaffle bit? Doesn’t a bit hurt a horse?

A bit is a tool used for motivation.

A motivator is something that encourages your horse to make a change in his behavior. Most tools used in horse training are some form of a motivator; halter, your hand pressing on the horse, leg cue, bits and spurs are all examples of tools used to motivate a horse.

For instance, when you’re leading your horse and you want it to stop; you could put some backward pressure on the halter.  When the horse stops moving, you would then release the pressure. In this case,the halter is the motivator that delivers the cue to the horse. The release indicates to your horse that it has done the right thing.

How much motivation does a horse need? That largely depends on the horses commitment or outlook on his job. Consider the horse as an employee for a moment;

Employee One arrives at work early every day, happy to be there and ready to perform a good day’s work.

Employee Two goes to work every day, but is often the last one in the door.  Although slow to get going, once on the job their work can be generally good.

Employee Three gets to work late and misses entire days regularly.  On the job, this employee performs poorly.  Repeated reprimands have little or no effect. As time goes on, this employee does less and less each day in an effort to find out how little he can do and still pick up a paycheck.

Figure out what type of “employee” your horse is, and then find an appropriate motivator.  Horses don’t connect taking away their food or water (a form of paycheck) but you can take steps that an employer or a parent might take in setting consequences for inaction.

A correction, for a human child walking toward a busy street might be a verbal warning, followed by the parent physically touching the child and if still ignored some parents would spank as a consequence for disobedience.

When asking a horse to stop you could take the slack out of the reins as a first request. If the horse didn’t stop with this subtle cue, you could apply mild pressure with the reins. If the horse still chose to ignore the cue you could continue to increase the pressure.

Both Employees Two and Three need to be reminded the basics of their job. If your horse falls into either of these categories, it has somehow learned that ignoring your cues is an acceptable answer.  Possibly they were never properly trained for their jobs; in that case retraining is in order.

Consider the following example:

“Stacy, This past weekend my niece and I were trail riding and both if our horses bolted. Specifically the horse I was riding is a “follower” and wanted to run too. I have heard and read a lot about what you should and shouldn’t do in a situation like this but nothing seems to work once they are up to full speed, and you have lost their attention. I had a good seat while he was running, And reached to grab the rein on the right side to try and pull him around hoping he would slow down. Instead he turned a little and I fell off. … do you have any advice for pulling them back once they have gotten so out of control? I have always been told to use the “emergency brake” which is just grabbing one rein close to the mouth and pulling them around, but it seems to me this doesn’t always work. I also don\’t want him to think he can continue to get away with that…”

A horse that doesn’t know how to properly respond to the bit will often become worse if you switch to a ‘bigger’ bit.  These horses need to go through some of the same steps that a young horse goes through to learn how to properly respond to bit pressure.  This includes everything that must happen before a horse’s first ride such as ground work (without a rider) bending while standing still and bending while moving (see Episode 16 & 18),  ground driving (see Episode 17), as well as mounted work. Once mounted up the horse should learn to bend, spiral out and counter bend before you consider moving up in bit.

A few horses in the Employee Two category are clear about what you want but they’re slow in responding.  If you find your horse ignoring you, you’ll want to make sure you review the basics and then consider a more motivating tool.  Make sure the problem is their laziness or inattentiveness and not their confusion about what it is you’re asking.

So when is it appropriate to move to a more motivating bit?  One reason would be when it is clear that the horse understands the basic lessons but at times chooses to ignore them. In the example above, the run-away horse may have lacked training but even with proper training many horses who get excited find a mild bit easy to ignore.

What is a mild bit? That depends on the horse. Watching a horses physical reaction is more indicative of the severity of the bit. Some horses actually prefer ‘solid’ mouth pieces over ‘broken’ mouth pieces; which is evident by less chomping or gaping of the mouth. Others are more relaxed in a bit that hinges and has a lot of movement.

Doesn’t a bit hurt a horse? Any bit it is only as harsh as the hands that use it. A snaffle bit can be misused. Bits, as well as the horses that wear them, respond best if they are understood.

*          *          *          *          *

These are the most commonly used bits in my training program. Remember that shorter shanks are more mild. Also using a smooth leather chin strap vs a chain strap will change how the bit feels to the horse.

smooth snaffle

1) a smooth snaffle-built in a way that it will not pinch the horses cheeks

twisted snaffle

2) sometimes a twisted snaffle, if the horse is dull before it can counter bend. Mouth piece should be the same diameter as the regular snaffle, not thinner.

shank snaffle

3) shanked snaffle, also known as a ‘Tom Thumb’ sometimes, technically this is not a snaffle as it has shanks

wide port

4) wide port

low port

5) low port


6) hinge port


Posted by on March 17, 2014 in Training


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How much motivation does a horse need?

How much motivation does a horse need? foal ignored subtle cues

That depends on the horse.

I was sure Maggie was a bad mother. Maggie was gentle with Newt at first but by the time he was a month old Maggie was removing small clumps of hair with her ‘corrections’. By the time Newt was three months old he had scabs from her constant reminders to respect her space. I questioned Maggie’s motherly instincts…but after he was weaned the same treatment was continued by the other horses. If a dominant horse wanted to move Newt it often took repeated bites or kicks to move him. Newt wasn’t aggressive…he just didn’t seem to perceive pain at the same level as other horses. He would stand and take the kicks with a pleasant, slightly confused, look on his face. Motivating Newt was clearly going to be a challenge…as evidenced from birth. some horses ignore subtle cues

Just as each person, dog, cat and horse is unique in personality-they are also unique in their perception of pressure. Newt showed from birth that he was willing to handle more physical pressure than the average horse. Does that mean that his mother was mean? Or that she used as much pressure as was necessary? I think only Newt could accurately answer that question.

One horse may respond to the subtle squeeze of a riders leg, while another may choose to ignore it.

How do we know how much pressure is correct for each horse?

By asking each horse.

Because by learning to read their body language the horse will tell you whether a bit is too big or if he will happily ignore it, or if the hand was too quick, or if he needs the lesson repeated again because he isn’t clear.

A horse will tell you a lot if you know how to listen….or you could also ask their mother.

Mustang stallion displays his battle scars...scars he thought were worth fighting for.

Mustang stallion displays his battle scars…scars that, in his opinion,  were worth fighting for.


Posted by on March 11, 2014 in Thought provoking, Training


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