Horse Training: With a Ball

A giant ball can be more than a fun horse toy. It also makes a practical training tool-and here's a true success story to prove it.

By Juli S. Thorson, Tommy Garland

A horse may fear the training ball at first, but his inborn curiosity will draw him to it. | Photo by Dawn Garland

As a second-generation pro horseman and trainer, I've been exposed to horses with problems and special issues all my life. And if there's anything I've learned from my father, also a trainer named Tommy Garland, it's that any means of teaching a horse to overcome issues, no matter how outside-the-box it might seem, is better than forcing him—and always worth a try.

The worst that can happen is your attempt to teach the horse doesn't work—and that's simply a cue telling you to move on and try something else.

This is my intro to the subject of what you can teach a horse—any horse, but especially a timid, anxious, or spooky one—by using a large, air-filled ball as a deliberate training tool. Working with the ball has rider benefits, too. At first glance, this idea may seem "out there." It has certainly produced some raised eyebrows and sideways glances from some, including fellow show-horse trainers, when I've demonstrated it.

To highlight the ball's value, I'll tell you how I used it as a problem-solver and confidence builder for a Half-Arabian mare, who was once so fearful she wouldn't go from one end of my arena to the other without spooking. After going through my training-ball program, this mare, Jeweliette, changed so much that she won a reserve national champion performance title at last year's U.S. Arabian and Half-Arabian National Show. I also presented a flag to her during a performance of the national anthem—something a fear-possessed horse wouldn't tolerate.

Here's how I had a ball, literally, helping this transformation take place.

Accidentally on Purpose
When Jeweliette was brought to me for training by her former owner Natalie Hunt of Ontario, Canada, she was 7 and had experienced minimal success as a show horse. It was easy to see why.

The mare had problems. She was nervous, "looky," mouthy with a bit, and when something upset her, her gaits tightened up until she moved like the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew—boing, boing, boing. Plus, with an Arabian sire and a Saddlebred dam, she was bred to be on the hotter side, and it showed.

The mare also had an obsessive fear of the large, sponsor-type banners that hang in my arena to simulate the ones horses will see at major shows. She wanted no part of those. By the time Jeweliette entered my program about two and a half years ago, I'd been employing a training ball for a couple of years. I'd become familiar with what it could do to desensitize a horse's fear response. But originally, I'd gotten the idea by accident. I had a horse in training that was scared of a basketball-like ball that'd somehow found its way into in my arena. To get him over it, I began rolling and tossing it toward him, experimenting with his reactions. His fear soon turned to curiosity. Before long, he got into dealing with the ball—so much so that he pursued it, then bit at it, like a horse sometimes tries to bite at a steer he's following, and then he busted it! Now, I have balls specially made for horse-training purposes and offer them on my Web site, Each ball is 40 inches in diameter with a thick bladder, handholds that allow you to pick it up and move it, and a tough cover that can stand up to the force of a horse. This is the kind of ball I brought into play to help Jeweliette with her issues.

Fear Vs. Control
A training ball is simple to work with. That's part of the beauty of it. Though its size, shape, and rolling action may startle a horse at first, the ball also activates a horse's natural curiosity. As he explores its properties, the horse learns the ball won't hurt him (basically, it can't hurt him), and he loses his sensitivity to it.

The desensitization benefit can expand to other areas, too. That was the case with Jeweliette, as I'll explain.

I introduced her to the ball from the ground, inside an enclosed arena-always safest for horse and handler alike, because a horse can blow up and spook the first time he encounters the ball. With Jeweliette in a halter and lead, and standing several feet away from her, I led her toward the ball and then rolled it away from her.

Some horses snort and jump sideways the first time they see this large, unfamiliar object move. Jeweliette just planted her feet, stretched out her neck, and looked. Pretty soon, her curiosity prompted her to walk up to the ball and reach toward it with her nose. As she sniffed it, she bumped into the ball with a knee (exactly what I wanted to happen), making it roll. The next time she approached it, the same thing happened—she picked up a leg, connected with the object, and caused it to move.

To a horse, this is an important piece of information. When he has the power to direct the movement of another something—horse, human, steer, dog, even a giant ball—he believes himself to be in control. That's the opposite of being afraid.

Once a horse learns to make the ball roll by bending a knee, it's amazing to see how he'll eventually get into the whole idea of making it move, and then following it to make it move again. I've never had a horse that didn't react this way when introduced to the ball. Jeweliette was no exception.

After the mare was comfortable with following and moving the ball, I stepped things up and rolled the ball toward her. The objective was for her to accept having the ball advance toward, touch, and bounce away from various points on her body. This was a bigger challenge for her, but another step toward helping her learn to be less reactive.

Courage Under Saddle

Among Jeweliette's issues was her fear of being approached or passed by unfamiliar horses—a big problem for competing in any event with more than one horse in the ring at a time. Our next phase of working with the ball with her under saddle helped a great deal with this. In a way, the ball acted as a surrogate for the approaching horses that bothered her.

With me on her back, we went through the same initial process of first letting Jeweliette see, push, and follow the ball. Next, I had an assistant roll it toward her and touch various areas of her body as I sat on her.

Before long, I was able to challenge her further by reaching down to pick the ball up and carry it while on her back, where she could see it with her peripheral vision. Sometimes I carried it on her left, sometimes on her right. I might roll it over her neck or rump, bounce it against her, or drop it and pick it back up. Other times I dropped it, then had my assistant roll it back toward her as I rode by.

Jeweliette's confidence grew as she learned that the approaching object wasn't going to hurt her, whether she had a rider on her back or not. She grew less fearful of my arena banners, too. If she got tight and choppy-moving at the sight of one, I'd redirect her attention to the ball, then lope off to go past the banners again.

Amateur Owner to Ride
One of the main reasons for my work with Jeweliette was to make her a better mount for amateur rider Natalie to ride and show. As the mare improved, Natalie made trips to my place in Virginia to ride Jeweliette, and I incorporated the training ball into those sessions, too.

Natalie's a good rider, so I wasn't worried that she'd fall off if her mare happened to spook while working with the ball. If anything, using the training ball improved her riding, and I've found this to be true with other riders as well. The rider has to concentrate, sit naturally, and coordinate use of hands, seat, and legs to guide and go with the horse.

Over time, Natalie could ride the mare toward me at a lope, and when I rolled the ball toward Jeweliette, she'd see it coming and keep loping as though it wasn't there. Her acceptance of other horses in the arena improved, too, as did Natalie's trust in how her mare would handle traffic.

The pair returned to the show ring that first year of training, and did well at the regional level. People who'd seen Jeweliette earlier found it hard to believe she was the same horse; using the training ball had been a real turning point for her.

The second year Jeweliette was in my barn, she and Natalie qualified for the U.S. Arabian and Half-Arabian Nationals. That was in 2009, and in October, they were reserve national champions in Western sidesaddle open, amateur owner to ride.

It was quite an accomplishment. Jeweliette accepted not just the arena banners that once terrified her, but also the billowing skirts of the sidesaddle contestants, the other horses, the crowd, and all the other potentially frightening elements of a big show's environment. Our work with the training ball really paid off.

That work paid off in another way as well. Jeweliette's demeanor and performance attracted buyer attention at the show, and she was sold to a new owner.

Today, I keep a training ball in my trailer, and when I take it out at shows, some people still think I've lost my mind. But as my dad taught me, and as Jeweliette went on to prove true, you don't have to lose your mind over a training problem.

You just need to keep your mind open. And maybe have a ball while you're at it.

Tommy Garland
Known as a top show trainer of Arabians and other breeds, with national and international titles to his credit, Tommy also conducts his CPR Horsemanship clinics that stress confidence, patience, and respect. He's based in Powhatan, Virginia. learn more at; videos of tommy in action can be found on YouTube.

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