Sunday, Sep. 24, 2023

Appalachian Trainer Face-Off: The Horse Under The Fear



Virginia-based trainer Justin Haefner is participating in the Appalachian Trainer Face-Off, a 100-day challenge in which horses taken in by Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue are paired with trainers to learn new skills and, ultimately, make them better candidates for adoption. Over the next few months, Haefner has agreed to take us along on his training journey with his assigned horse, Scottie. Read his first blog here.

I slipped a boot into a stirrup that hangs from a familiar saddle, stepped up, swung a leg over, and took a deep breath.

First rides are special, almost sacred. They are the chance to show a horse that life will be OK, that new things don’t have to come with fear. They are a true test of all the steps that came before them. My first ride on Scottie was by far one of the most special first rides I’ve had so far.


A moment during Scottie’s first ride where he is moving forward with energy, though he remains focused and connected. I’m primarily riding as a passenger, but here I’m reaching down the rein to check in that I still have Scottie’s attention. Erin Gilmore Photo

It’s been just over two weeks since my last blog about Scottie, and so much has changed in that time. Progress has seemed both incredibly fast and painfully slow as I try to find the points where the timeline of the horse intersects with the timeline of the Appalachian Trainer Face-Off competition in which we are entered.

I’ve thought of Scottie as a tightly wound spring that teeters on the edge of snapping. Each day has been an effort to unwind that spring, but early sessions with him were often a toss-up between progress and regression. Sometimes, something would bother him, and that spring would end up twice as tight as it was before. Each day a step forward, one or two back, and many to the side. It has been a game of helping him unwind without avoiding the realities of life.

Our latest sessions have felt like that spring is not only unwinding but beginning to melt away. Scottie has turned a big page, and I feel like I’m getting through in the way I’ve been waiting for. It feels like the window I’ve been peering into is beginning to open, and I can see this brilliant new horse underneath his fear.

The dark outlook he’s had about the world of people seems to be slowly slipping away. It has been most exciting to see his attitude toward new things change, and to watch him replace violent reactivity with a thought process that allows him to respond softly.

My goal is to help Scottie build an ability to adapt to “new”: to have a greater degree of emotional regulation and develop a deep sense of safety that he can carry with him when he leaves here. Doing that requires patience, repetition and thorough preparation. Preparation is what creates good experiences, and it builds on itself exponentially.


Preparation is what creates a great first ride. It’s each piece carefully introduced at a time when there is little resemblance to the final product. It’s trying to see the whole picture so that thoughts can be presented and responses can be taught long before they become tension.

Tension was Scottie’s initial reaction to anything new, so when I first settled into my saddle and felt him take a deep breath, I understood the depth of the changes we’ve made so far.

Once I had climbed aboard, my focus was to help Scottie feel safe and relaxed. We stood still for a long time while I rubbed every part of him I could reach, making sure my shifting weight and touch didn’t cause concern. Slowly I began asking him to bend left and right, allowing him to see me in each eye. Based on the groundwork we’ve done already, I was able to move his hindquarters in either direction and ask him to feel my weight as he shifted his.

I start most horses, including Scottie, in a rope halter for the first several rides. My reason for this is twofold: The rope halter is what he is most familiar with at this point in time, and when I introduce the bridle, I like to separate the process and do it very purposefully. He has worn the bit in our groundwork, and I will begin to work him in it from the ground, doing classical in-hand work. I will wait until I feel like he’s educated enough in a bit before I ride him in it.

I like to do early rides with some help from the ground, so I had my friend and colleague Kelsey Schruefer help me from the center of the round pen. Scottie is familiar with being worked loose in this way, so the idea is that other than me being mounted, few of the parameters of our session would change. Then, over the next couple of rides, we will shift the responsibility as the giver of information from my ground help to me, the rider. It’s a method that allows for a quiet and easy introduction to the world of being a ridden horse, and provides me a great degree of backup. In case he doesn’t understand something, I’m not in the best position from his back yet to create the clarity he needs.

So, with Kelsey’s help from the ground, we began to move. We played between walk and trot all around the pen. Never once did I feel him get tight or worried with me on his back, and several times he breathed deeply and blew out. When I stepped off, I was beaming.

There are a few things I often hear when talking to people about what I do: “You start young horses? You must be so brave!” or, “It’s a good thing you’re young!”

Sure, both bravery and youth are wonderful things, but while I am fairly young, I certainly am not brave. In reality, I’m an absolute princess when it comes to horses, and while it’s lovely to be young, frankly it also means that I feel like I am too young to die.


For me, everything with horses comes down to how I prepare. It’s the checklist in my head, and the green lights that I take advantage of. I was absolutely anxious about that first ride on Scottie, but when it comes to him or any other horse, nothing is a fantastical feat, just a slow, step-by-step preparation toward a goal: helping this horse learn to be OK, feel safe and understand the world. In the end, this has little to do with the ATFO competition or expectations for performance, but when these moments present themselves, we move forward.

Nothing is magic when it comes to horses, it’s just a string of decisions dictated by observing the small things.

Observing the small things is where I’ll leave you. When the path forward isn’t clear, and you can’t see the step ahead, take a deep breath, find a quiet place and listen. The horse always has something to say if you’re able to find a way to hear it.

Scottie has turned a corner, but we have a long way to go. This is certainly a case where the path forward is hazy, so each day when I show up to the barn, I will bring my best, take a deep breath and listen. This is his story being told truly as it unfolds.

Justin Haefner is a born and raised Virginia horseman who dedicates his life to helping riders and horses reach their full potential. He specializes in the foundational development of young high-performance horses, and with a background in vaquero-style natural horsemanship, Justin has developed a passion for creating a style that incorporates the teachings of classical dressage and equine bodywork to best understand the psychology and physiology of every horse he trains. In his partnership with his father, Dr. Paul Haefner, Justin runs Riding Far, LLC, which brings together modern psychology and foundational horse development to help horses and riders work through their individual roadblocks to reach their full potential. 






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