Welcome to the Cardinal Points Farm blog !

Dear friends and fellow animal lovers, here it is ... a blog to discuss training.

My specialty is horse training and dressage, but I’ve applied to my horses many invaluable lessons from other animal trainers. Together we can create a greater awareness of the unlimited potential for greatness that your animals (and you) possess, once you acknowledge that many animal species are intelligent and capable of reasoning and communication.

So let’s get started ! Let's share insights, lesson plans, techniques, videos, pics, stories ... what have you.


Sian Min The
Cardinal Points Farm

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If you'd like to post your training stories, send your stories to me for consideration. Please specify how you'd like the attribution to read, i.e. your full name or your online name.

Coping with thunder, and other boogeymen

Here's an article I wrote last year for a dog forum. Event though this is about my dog, Bosco, I use the same technique to help my horse cope with scary stuff (and you know in the equine world, there's SO much of that).

An explation of my vocal cues: the sound "X" reinforces of a behavior. For more on this technique, send me an e-mail, or leave a comment.

End of June 2008: Bosco is terrified of thunder. It doesn't have to be loud, and it can be very distant rumblings, for her to tremble so hard to make her chair rattle. It's pitiful. I always feel sorry for her.
Then, I realized that by feeling pity it confirmed her suspicions that thunder is a BAD thing.

Sunday's storm: she had been cowering and trembling for a while. Then I said "ready ? here comes thunder" ... BOOM ... "that is thunder, X!" BIG smile from me. I did that about 3 times to name the thunder sound. She does her all-over-body tremble.

Then I said "at the next thunder, easy right shoulder" ... (lightning flash) ..."are you ready?" ... BOOM ..."thunder, right shoulder easy (CR by massaging her right shoulder), X! (when the right shoulder stops trembling).

"At the next thunder, easy right shoulder, then easy right hind" ... BOOM ... (again CR on her right shoulder and also right hind, and TB the minute she stops trembling for an instant).

As the storm progressed (and it was a long one), she got the idea. Then I had to start dinner, so I couldn't massage her with every thunderclap. I just had to say "ready? here comes thunder ...BOOM... is your right shoulder easy? X ! is your right hind easy ? X!"

She got some beef gristle when her relaxation was particularly good, and I made a big deal of it.

Eventually, she rested her chin on her front paws, and closed her eyes. No more trembling, even as the storm raged on for a while longer.

That was the first time I truly felt she succeeded in conquering the thunderboogeyman.

July 24, 2008 update: There have been few thunderstorms since the above , but with hurricane Dolly making landfall (thankfully way south of us) we had some thunderstorms. Bosco dealt with these on her own. I did not intervene, because I didn’t have to: most of the time while the storm raged, she slept.

Wormers, and other oral “nasties”

Oh joy, you think to yourself, time to paste-worm your horse. Or is it paste-bute this time? Regardless, visions of broken cross-ties and spat-out medicine float by. Or, you brace yourself for a battle of wills with that 17H joker who’s figured out all he has to do is raise his head out of your reach.

Truly, your horse is not hell-bent to make life difficult for you. The simple fact is, you’re violating his space, as well as insulting his intelligence, by presuming to stick a foreign object with a nasty taste into his mouth. The first time you did this, he was na├»ve and trusting, and the everything went off without a hitch. As the same unpleasant experience is repeated every other month (as can be with rotational worming), you must credit the equine’s excellent memory for recognizing that white tube in your hand.

People don’t like surprises either; especially if it involves some invasive medical procedure. A skilled physician/nurse can elicit a patient’s cooperation by taking the time to explain the procedure and to prepare the patient mentally for what is to happen. This approach respects the patient’s feelings, intelligence and personal space.

Why, then, don’t we treat horses with the same respect? It would certainly make life easier. Can it be any easier than when the horse offers it’s full cooperation, no strings attached? Check this out ...

Don’t take it so personally! How to conquer fear

So one day your horse dumps you after a buck or a spook; or you have a big welt on your arm where his foot hit you while you were crawling under his belly trying to spray him for flies.

Most likely you were in some pain or discomfort after these happenings, and most likely you felt a torrent of colorful language rising to your lips. As well as the desire to “whup his a—“ ... so to speak.

Truly, people do have this tendency to attribute mishaps to some “thing” that must be “out to get them”. This society’s bent to sue is a symptom of that. I do believe that a good part of the fear of horses, or of riding horses, stems from a deep suspicion that the animal has it in for you. Particularly so, if serious injury or worse is the consequence. Then your verbiage changes to “dangerous unpredictable animal”, or something similar.

Isn’t this a somewhat egocentric view of our role in the universe? Why does it always have to be about US? Sometimes it’s just an accident in the purest sense of the word. It's not the horse's fault (it may actually be our own carelessness). The proverbial “s—t” just happens. I firmly believe that we humans do not rank that highly in importance for an animal to spend his precious feeding hours contemplating ways to hurt us.

In my younger days I, too, experienced a fear of horses. It was not easy to conquer but I did. There were a few things I had to do for this. I learned to get to know, understand and communicate with the horse. I accepted the horse for what it is: an intelligent, expressive prey animal, with very strong survival instincts. I also acquired the physical skills and fitness necessary to minimize the likelihood of accidents. And, I wear safety gear.

So, due diligence has been done. Now riding horses is no more frightening to me than driving on the Houston freeways at rush hour.

To spook, or not to spook

Day after day your horse happily grazes, totally unconcerned, within a few feet of a flapping tarp. He yawns and dozes off on one side of a pasture fence, while chickens are noisily squabbling on the the other side. Totally unflappable, you think happily – a seasoned trail horse.

So you saddle him up one day for a hack. A short while into your ride, you notice a flapping tarp. And you feel it: his gait no longer swings, and his ears are pricked. Just as you notice this transformation, he violently shies away from the tarp, and you’re desperately hanging on to stay with your mount.

Later, when your ride is about to take you past a hen house, your horse stops dead in his tracks. The chickens, who are peacefully pecking about their yard, seem to come across to your horse as vicious (horse)meat-eating dinosaur descendants. Actually, the only way you make it past the poultry is to dismount and lead your horse in hand.

What the ... ????

This is a phenomenon that baffles the most seasoned horsepeople. It used to intrigue me, too. Until I realized that, to horses (and if you think about it, humans also), the context in which a stimulus is presented must determine how it is perceived.

Some horses are more sensitive to it than others. I have a horse who will perceive the same object differently depending on where it is, whether it's upside-down, or whether I’m holding it in my hand, etc. It’s not inconceivable then, that your presence on his back could change the context of a perceived object.

If you have experienced spooks on multiple occasions under similar situations, it is also likely that you have become “sensitized” to these situations: you may anticipate your horse’s spooking, and will therefore tense up. The horse can feel this. Unless you're one of those yogi who can control all subconscious reactions, this is likely to always be the case - I know I'm that way. From the horse’s perspective, your alarmed posture confirms his suspicions: the upcoming situation must be nasty indeed.

Such situations may be hair-raising, but they’re also valuable trainng opportunities – both for you and your horse. I deal with potentially scary situations using the SATS technique of Name & Explain, and Conditioned Relaxation. In a nutshell, my horses are trained in SATS, and I can literally name objects and situations for them. I can also ask the horse to physically relax, and bridge him when he does.

So, for example, as soon as I realize he has noticed the flapping tarp I might name it “tarp”, then ask him to be “easy”. It may take several cycles during one encounter with the tarp, or even several encounters, for the horse to master the relaxation and be comfortable with the presence of the tarp. Yes, it works, but it does require that the horse and rider be trained in SATS.

Ok, so that’s for the horse. I have to work on my body's reactions, too. Meditation, anyone ?

One more thing I want to add: don't worry about being too specific when you name something you think he's reacting to. Why? Because you can't be sure what exactly he's reacting to. Is it the entire tarp? The cobweb six feet up? A shiny object under the tarp ? One of my horses is so into the naming of things that I risk losing credibility if he realizes I'm naming the wrong thing !

You're ready to own a horse when ...

... you have the time and ability to care for, train and ride it yourself, OR can pay a professional trainer to do this for you. Otherwise, the horse will end up as a (very expensive) lawn ornament; or worse, parked in a stall like a prisoner serving a sentence.

Texas wildflowers

Had to share this ... spring in south-east Texas after a wet summer brings out this profusion of wildflowers. Mostly Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes. I wish I were a better photographer: I tried to capture the seas of color stretching into the distance.





OWN the training outcome: mitigating dog aggression

As animal trainers, whether of horses or dogs, we are accountable for the consequences of our training: we own the results. We should not shift responsibility to the animal, nor to the training tools we use. Why? Because we humans are supposed to be, and some have insisted that we are, superior in intellect and dominant in role.

For example, how people deal with animal aggression is often based on emotion. News reporting is rife with terms like "vicious", "mauling", "attack", "killer", "dangerous", "rogue", ... you get the idea. These words are eye-catching, but they offer no solution to the problem. What is needed here is understanding and appreciating the animal for what it is, and skillfully channeling its behavior to productive outlets.

Here is an article by Julie K (a familiar contributor to this blog), originally written for a discussion group on the SATS methodology for animal training:

“ Since we have many members here who own pit bulls, I wanted to start a topic here we can discuss this characteristic.

” What is aggression? It is a chemical activity in the brain. It is the expression of and surrender to that chemical release.

” The breed was created for combat (as were many other breeds), and if presented with the correct conditions and ingredients, and allowed to develop to fruition, you may one day experience the perfect storm. Much time is wasted in trying to discern what caused it or which label to give it.

” Our emotional reactions are useless as this is not the way to end the problem, which in truth is only a problem in keeping any animal as a house pet.

” One of the keys to being successful is management. This is a SATS themed list, so I won't discuss that here, other than to say if your dog is expressing, it is your job to stop it from happening and that you should always think in terms of safety first.

” SATS can help us to replace the expression of aggression in many ways. Learning can fill the same neural pathways; aggression cannot occupy the same spot at the same time. We can teach them conditioned relaxation and we can teach them to control their impulses. What you want to teach your dog is up to you and the individual dog; here you will find and learn to use tools to help you teach your dog. Dogs can learn far more than conventional expectations of dog training allow, much of which is designed to repress behavior.

“ The (pit-bull) breed, perhaps more than any, needs useful outlets for its' courage, determination, and intelligence. You may, at first glance, not see the value of some of what we teach, but it is learning and building a communication system with your dog. This is an integrated teaching method, designed by a Master of Ed(ucation), with a lifetime of experience with many species, where the results can be amazing once put together.

“ I recently saw a man in a blues bar with a bad case of Asperger's; think Jerry on Boston Legal--- then he picked up a guitar and all his 'ticking', both verbal and physical, went away as if he had switched neuro-channels. We have the ability to teach our dogs to do this. We encourage you to explore, read, and ask questions, whether your goal is a dog who is well behaved in the presence of others or a title in your chosen venue”.

Julie K, April 10, 2009

Thank you, Julie!

Get your horse's attention ... with another fun game

... and in the process teach him to reinback.

These attention-getting exercises (or games, as my horse sees them) can be very brief and ad hoc. Here's a clip taken on a windy day. In it, I ask my big brown gelding to step back, pause, step forward, then place his chin in my cupped hand. All the while, a flapping yellow object on the fence barely merits a glance from him.

Some observant readers may note the lunge whip in my hands, but they'll also note I do not use it (it's there in case my other horse decides to crash in on the action).

When I speak, he listens. That's what will save me at a show, when tarps are flapping and plastic bags are flying in the wind ...

What happens when the show doesn't go just right?

Here is a wonderful account of a REAL day at a dog show. Horse folks, substitute in the trappings of a horse show, and can you just picture yourself in this situation?
Thank you for sharing this with us, Julie K !

" This Saturday we went to a dog show. It was painfully cold, gusty, and in a covered cowbarn out in the country. I debated whether we should just turn around and go home, donating the entry fee. This particular show is an old one, run by a kennel club which supports my breed, offers trophies, etc., and I wanted to give it a try. It would have been great to have earned a title there, but things just didn't go that way.

" The ring gates had fallen over and were staked into the ground. In the time before we showed, we walked around and investigated the area, saw the sights, named and explained all sorts of different objects, people, and other dogs. The area was roped off with that plastic tape which they use for crime scenes and many of the dogs were afraid of it. I had my little dog investigate it and jumped her over it, which she enjoyed.

" The judge was an old friend and a very nice man, but seemingly dyslexic, often calling the wrong direction in the heeling patterns, and taking a looong time to get through his classes. We didn't show until almost five in the afternoon.

" She did me proud on the heeling, she had rapt attention and great rhythm. I got a bump when she passed the judge, some foot pattering on the stand, lost a bit on the off lead, had nice recall with front and finish. It felt good, like we were really clicking.

" Then came the group stays. On the sit stay, I turned to face my dog from across the ring, and the wind started gusting. The ribbon behind her began to flap. A few seconds into the exercise, it occurred to me I was in the recall position, arms down at my sides--- but it was too late to change it now. About 20 seconds in, she looked at me, and trotted lightly across the ring. We were invited to complete the stays and I had to tell her twice to down, she didn't want to. The three minutes was extremely long, even worse than with most novice dogs; I didn't want her to bust both exercises. The wind was blowing dirt around and the ribbon was making a lot of noise. She tried very hard to comply, even laid her head down several times while her ears were swiveling around. She did it!

" I was disappointed not to have qualified, but will reflect upon what we did right and will work on the things we can better. We have a long future of showing and titling ahead of us, we're in it together, for the duration. What I will remember in the long run is not each individual show, title, win or loss, but our teamwork and relationship".

Julie K, March 30, 2009


Well rounded athletes do cross-training. I believe that this should apply not only to the musculoskeletal structure, but also to developing the mind in problem-solving and stress management. And I'm referring to the horse's mind. It’s fun, especially in disciplines that are prone to monotonous routines, like dressage.

Below are videos of two of some games that I play with my horses in training. All my games have a practical purpose in making my horses more manageable, more cooperative, and more focused on me as their trainer.

In one session, I showed my horse Orion how to put his foot in a rubber bowl (harder than it sounds: he kept missing it at first), and then to keep his foot in the bowl. Not perfect yet, but we’re working on it. Handy, if I ever need to soak a foot for an abscess.

Then, in another session I wanted Orion to stand at his ‘station’ (a yellow disc that I’d placed on the ground), while I gave my other horse Q some treats in the same pasture. Orion is the dominant horse and ordinarily would chase Q away from me. This game has now evolved to the point where I can ask Orion to stand at his station in the pasture, while I bring in other horses into the pasture without Orion harassing the newcomers (video of this coming soon).

Foot in Bowl

Wait at Station

Fool-proof humane animal training, or ... ?

Animal training is complicated. There's no 'one-size-fits-all' training approach. Did I say complicated? Add to this a good dose of moral confusion (thanks to the media and some special interest groups). In the context of animal training, few terms are as emotionally charged as 'punishment' and 'abuse'; and few terms are as misapplied (intentionally or otherwise) as 'humane' and 'cruel'.

Professional dog trainer Lori Drouin was recently asked to explain her beliefs and values in this arena. The result is a superbly insightful article that applies equally well in the training of dogs, horses and, indeed, any animal:

" ... First of all, I value dogs for their humor, for their reflections of the social interactions that we seek and don't always find among other humans, for their many talents, humor, and their very real view of the world. However, I KNOW that they are animals, as are we all, but they as animals don't get quite the philosophical or religious or social welfare information given to them on a global level that we do as humans. They are models for us to prove that xenophobia is not a prejudicial choice, but a survival mechanism in the wild, and one that we as humans can speak about overcoming, but obviously don't succeed too well at it in all cases. But that's another list. They show us that aggression is sometimes just a conversation about fear or uncertainty; but if you're the one on the receiving end of it, you're not going to be happy about the message. So while I get all of that, and understand that in an ideal world kindness is the best way to engender reciprocal kindness from others, I find it necessary to sometimes accept that physical communication is also part and parcel of being a dog.

" My belief as a trainer is that I should be as gentle as any particular dog will allow me to be. But in order for that to succeed, I have to be very clear in my own mind about what I want to teach, or what sort of behavior is socially acceptable in every context I am going to put my dog in. And frankly, I think that a complete communication system involves a means of saying, "That is wrong, and you will stop it right now!" That is different from, "That is incorrect, try again." If you have a dog that requires that message, the message must be timely and obvious enough for the dog to perceive it, and it must be delivered with committment (sic) and no apology. Sometimes the means is physical.

" However, I am not in favor of abuse. What is the difference between punishment and abuse? Abuse is when the intensity of the message exceeds what is needed to stop a behavior. Abuse is when the efforts involve physical pain NOT for the purpose of stopping the designated "bad" behavior, but for the purpose of making the trainer feel better, or for the purpose of making the dog feel extreme fear for the trainer's personal empowerment. Sometimes punishment is needed for bad behaviors; but it stops as soon as the bad behavior stops, too, and then the dog should be taught how to behave instead right away when possible.

" I am concerned that some aspects of dog training are getting too remote. People know how to click and feed, but forget how to pet and play. People forget that dogs will mirror behavior and emotion, but you have to give them some emotion to mirror. If you don't, then your dog may sit to get a treat, but not because he's pleasing you, because he actually doesn't know that it pleases you. Reward withdrawal is an effective training tool, but sometimes the "bad" behavior has its own rewards, and your dog will not even know that you withdrew a reward. It would be helpful if he knew that certain words, voice tones, and postures were indicative of a need to change his current behavioral tack.

" Finally, I believe that if you're going to own a dog, or be its guardian if you prefer, you have to be willing to be decisive about what you want as a trainer, clear about it on the dog's level, consistent in your expectations, and open-minded about the means of communication you have available to use because not all dogs (or people) will interpret a particular medium and it message the same way.

" I think in the world of dog training, there are very few roads that haven't been walked by others before us in terms of methods and tools. But always the road is a new one with each dog, and even further changed by the being on the other end of the leash. There are certain training techiques (sic) that are widely used in competition obedience training that I have used, and hope never to use again because I've found another way that works for me on a lot of dogs; but I understand the techniques, I understand why they work on a host of dogs, and I do not criticize other trainers who use the tools or techniques when they achieve clarity and consistency and have very happy dogs who are confident in their interactions. Frankly, I've met some clicker trained dogs who were basket cases in a constant state of anxiety about what they should do next. But I do feel critical of trainers using ANY method who stubbornly adhere to an approach that patently isn't working on the particular dog at the particular moment, especially if it's an issue that is imminently dangerous, and if not stopped with alacrity would result in an unsafe outcome for either dog or human. There are no moral or ethical excuses for continuing a process that is frustrating and ineffective for the subjects at hand.

" I believe that professional trainers NEED to listen to the needs of the owners and embrace them first; then we need to assess the importance in each case of expediency. Some things can be shaped out given enough time, and are only mildly annoying to live with in the meantime, while other issues need resolution or extreme management right away. Then we look at what we can do that will make this all happen in a way that will improve life for both the client and the dog long term. Just because you know a slick and esoteric progression for teaching something doesn't mean it's the best approach for a real person who is NOT a professional trainer.

" I used to be a member of APDT, but I gave up the membership because the tone of communications about training approach became militantly exclusive in favor of pure positive training, and vehemently vitriolic about the awfulness of punishment. Well, I've seen some dogs that were greatly helped by one well-timed and executed correction after months of shaping and desensitization efforts excecuted (sic) with POOR timing had actually escalated the aggression displays. I decided the organization was no longer encouraging open communication and exchanges of experience, and decided not to support it anymore as a member. I appreciate the strides many of its members have made in developing positive strategies. But in the end, we train dogs. Dogs don't have a non-egocentric view of morals and ethics. They respond to their own desires until taught otherwise. Sometimes we have to react to that reality. ... “

Lori Drouin, February 2009

Thank you, Lori !

A “good” horse gone “bad”?

Having always been obedient, sweet and generous, Orion quickly became my favorite horse to train. Any mistakes he made were honest (e.g. bird-in-the-bushes spooks) ... until recently.

The work had been getting harder: I’m requiring more engagement of the hindquarters, more strength, and more stamina. So lately I notice he’s been pouting, and finding “excuses”. Yesterday he actually ignored me (gasp!) when I asked for a trot. When I insisted, he gave me a half-hearted but defiant buck before complying. And he gave me that “look”.

What happened to my Perfect Boy? The answer is, he WAS the perfect boy. I never reprimanded him because I never needed to. He loved everything he did, so I never had to force an issue. In other words, I had neglected to teach him to accept and constructively address the “unpleasant” things in training.

My mare Chipper didn’t hesitate to test the boundaries the first time I rode her. She’s a brat, but as a result, she knows my rules inside out, and she is now fun to ride. She will always be an opinionated horse, but I enjoy working with her because of her confidence in the rules, and that I, too, will follow them.

So, what to do with Orion? Push on. Teach him how to accept and actually make the unpleasant tasks work in his favor. Show him that, while the schooling exercises may be boring and hard, he will have successes. And as he gets stronger, they will become easier. He’s still my Perfect Boy, and I’ll show him how to stay that way.
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