7 questions and answers about horses at Best Friends

Horse trainers answer questions about how horses are trained, the philosophy behind the training program, and how horses are prepared for adoption.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

Smiling woman wearing a teal shirt leaning on a fence with a dark brown horse next to herMany of the horses in the Sanctuary’s scenic pastures have difficult pasts. Some were abused or neglected, others are old, injured or unrideable. Some were given up when their families could no longer care for them.

At Horse Haven, they all have access to outstanding medical and farrier care. They get good food, TLC and room to roam in a beautiful canyon that is their home between homes as they heal both physically and emotionally. But they get something else that’s just as life-changing — excellent training and an education that sets them up for success when they move on to homes of their own.

Horse Haven trainers Linda Alvey and Ann Hepworth have been working with the horses at Best Friends for a combined 33 years (13 and 20 years respectively). In the following interview, they answer questions about what it takes to get horses ready for a home.

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What kind of horses do we have at Best Friends, and how has that changed over the years that you’ve been here?

Ann: Historically, we’ve taken in horses with tough physical or behavioral challenges who didn’t have any other options. A lot of them end up staying here their whole lives, and that’s limited us on the number of horses we can help overall. Lately, we’ve been taking in horses who are likely to be adopted more quickly. We still get in the older ones and those with significant challenges, but we’re taking in more young, healthy horses who need taming or training before they are eligible for homes. This way, we’re still helping horses that have a real need, but because they’re unlikely to stay here as long, we can help more horses in the long run.

What determines whether a horse will be adopted out as a pasture pal (companion) or whether a horse is sound and ready for riding?

Ann: It depends on the horse and how well they’ve been cared for. Some horses can be ridden into their late 20s, but others are done by 15 or even 10 because of genetics or the way they are used. Tony the Pony, a former pack horse, has an old knee injury, so he’ll never be ridden, but his quality of life is awesome and he’ll make a great companion.

Brown and white paint Tony the Pony leaning his head over to a smiling woman wearing a blue shirt

Linda: We’ve deemed some horses unrideable because of behavior, but it’s far more likely to be because of physical issue.

Let’s start with pasture pals. As Horse Haven trainers, what skills do you want these horses to have before they’re ready for adoption?

Linda: My goal as a trainer is to get every horse as safe as I can. By safe, I mean that they trust us, look to us for the right answers and understand our language and intention. I want to help them be confident and to give them basic skills they’re going to need out in the world by getting them used to trailering, veterinary care, having their feet done (farrier work) and general handling.

Ann: Also, sometimes even the older horses who come in are not very good at letting us catch them. We want to get them to come to us rather than running away, and then we want to get them safe to lead around.

For me, safe means two things. It’s what Linda said — plus she mentioned intention. They need to understand what our energy and intention or direction means. A lot of horses see everything as scary, so we teach them what shouldn’t be scary, and then we also teach them, through our direction and energy, that they need to listen to us.

Person riding a dark colored horse and leading another paint horse in a grass field with rock formations behind them

Because they’re so big, they really need to respect our space and listen when we focus our energy on their lead rope or on their bodies to move them around. They need to understand our intention. At Horse Haven, we have a high expectation and awareness of what that understanding should be. Part of the journey, for Linda and me, has been learning how to teach that appropriately and respectfully.

About horse adoption

What about horses for riding? What skills do you teach to prepare them ready for adoption?

Linda: They need to know everything a pasture pal needs to know and then a whole lot more. My personal criteria for riding horses is that they can walk, trot, lope or canter, move sideways, move backwards, and stand still to be mounted. I also like to teach the horses I train to come and pick you up to mount from something — like a platform.

Ann: There’s a couple of reasons why we do that. First, your horse is saying, “Yes, I’m happy to come and get you.” If you step up on something to mount, and the horse runs the other way, that’s like saying, “Don’t get on me,” and that’s something you’ll have to work on. Number two, it’s just another cool thing that they know how to do, and number three, it’s easier on their backs that way. We intentionally train them to do that and then to hesitate and wait before moving forward.

Linda: Out on the trails, it’s amazing how many horses can’t just stand still. They get worried. They paw at the ground. It’s been great to teach them to stand there and rest for a moment and relax. It’s a useful skill, for example, if you’re riding with others and decide to stop to discuss where to go next. These are all basic skills. I’m not going to teach show skills or anything like that, but I want them to develop good habits. And horses like to know what is expected. It makes them feel safe when we are consistent.

Ann: There are lots of other considerations, too. Horses need to be nonemotional and not on adrenaline when they are being ridden. It’s common for horses to be bothered or worried when they are being ridden. But if you have a horse you want to ride, they’ve got to be confident in new environments and with all kinds of noises and things in their environment. We’ve got to consider saddle fit, what kind of bits to use and the right kind of shoes, so that their bodies don’t hurt while they are being ridden.

Two women riding two brown horses with dust flying up in the air

Most important of all, we want to make sure they are safe before we get on their backs. It’s like doing a preflight check. You wouldn’t want to get onto an airplane without someone making sure that everything is working, and that’s what we do with horses.

Linda: There are obviously no guarantees, but safety is my number one goal. The more relaxed a horse is, the safer they are. That’s why, the more confident I can get them, the safer they’ll be.

Can you describe our natural horsemanship training program and the reasons why Horse Haven uses it?

Ann: Natural horsemanship is learning to see things from a horse’s point of view and learning how they really think. It’s about what the horses need and understand.

Linda: It’s not about techniques. It’s a horse psychology program. It’s about putting the horse first.

Ann: Putting the relationship with the horse first doesn’t mean that we don’t ever challenge them and ask them to do difficult things. We do, but we do it in a way that puts our relationship with the horse before our goals.

Pat Parelli coined the phrase “natural horsemanship,” which is what we use here. Our goal is to be the leader of our horse, but not in a way that makes the horse subservient to us.

Linda: Because they are prey animals, they are easy to subjugate, and that’s not what we want to do. We want the relationship to be fair and more of a partnership.

Ann: We strive to have very high rapport with our horses — a lot of respect of and from them. That’s a difficult balance. One thing I like to tell people is that it’s possible to be firm while still being fair and friendly. We want horses who are partners — thinking, feeling, participating partners.

Brown horse's head leaning in to a woman who is sitting down and wearing a gray sweatshirt

Linda: Today in a demonstration, I was up on the pedestal and the horse, Laura, was circling me at liberty. I called her in and she came and kind of snugged up to me like, “Hey, do you want to get on?” That’s a good example, because she did it on her own. It means she’s offering things and being part of the conversation — not just doing what I want (her to do).

Ann: The proof is in the pudding with natural horsemanship, because all our horses are friendlier, they’re more interested in us and they’re easier to catch. At the same time, they’re more respectful, confident, safe, calm, playful, more excited about training and happier. In every way, they improve, so we know we’re on the right track.

Is that why we require adopters to have knowledge of natural horsemanship training?

Ann: The program we use here is so different from traditional training methods that we wouldn’t be setting the horse or the adopter up for success if we send them to a home that uses traditional training methods. We don’t kick our horses to go, for example. We expect them, when they are being ridden, to follow our energy and direction and to be obedient and safe, but we do less physically. Here, they get used to very polite riders.

Woman wearing a helmet riding a brown horse and leading another brown horse with an orange rock formation behind them

That being said, adopters don’t have to be experts. Some of our best adopted homes have been those where we’ve set them up with trainers in their area who can teach them the same method.

Linda: If people are willing to listen and to try, we’ll bend over backwards to make an adoption happen. We recently had a couple here that adopted two horses with difficult challenges, and now they’ve adopted a third horse from us. These folks learned natural horsemanship, and they have the right attitude. Attitude is a huge part of our adoption process. It has to do with not blaming the horse when something doesn’t go as planned, and not coming in with any preconceived notions.

Is there anything else you want to add about preparing horses for the real world?

Smiling woman wearing a teal plaid shirt next to a brown horse with a white star on his foreheadAnn: People ask me if I’m a horse whisperer. What I always say is that what I’m trying to be is a horse listener. I’ve gotten a lot more aware of what my horse is trying to tell me, and how to help them. When horses come in, we are always trying to evaluate them, to find out where they are at and what they need — before we respond. We specialize in foundation training, so we make sure they have a strong foundation. Natural horsemanship is the ABCs and 123s that everything else is built on. It’s your foundation. If there are holes in it, it’s usually a lack of understanding of our energy and intention, and a lack of understanding about how to respond to that.

Linda: The holes can become clear when someone is going along and all of a sudden the horse starts having trouble with something. If you skip over it and push through instead of addressing it, you’ve gone on to the next thing before the horse was really OK moving forward. At some point, that missing link is going to show up. We diagnose these things when a horse comes in. We start at the beginning of the program and go through to see what they really know. It’s like making sure your cake is fully baked before putting the icing on, so it doesn’t fall over to one side.

Ann: The main thing for me is to be able to really listen to the horse, to understand what they are trying to tell us and what they need. When we do all those things well, then all the hard things are easy.

Linda and I have been working at this for so long, but we’d still need another lifetime and a half to learn it all. That’s what makes it interesting and provocative and stimulating. There’s always something new, and every horse has something to teach us.

Meet the horses at Best Friends

Photos by Molly Wald and Ann Hepworth