Methods Are Not The Same As Principles

There seems to be widespread confusion between the principles that training methods are founded upon and the application of those principles. I have noticed over several years that both professional and amateur horse people confuse principles and methods a lot.


For example, an Australian horseman recently wrote on his FB page that a person should never use tarpaulins or flags when training a horse. He says, “… Every day, all over the world, horses are chased and harassed with tarps and flags.” He’s right. That does happen every day to some horses. He has also stated categorically that round yards should never be used in training, only square or rectangular yards because round yards encourage a horse to run. It’s true. Some horses do run in round yards. But he confuses what some people do with “that’s what all people do with flags and in round yards”.


Another Australian trainer has written that natural Horsemanship (whatever that is – he doesn’t define it) is only good for teaching ground manners to horses and not for educating horses under saddle. Again, there is confusion between what some people ride like who practice natural horsemanship and what all people ride like who practice natural horsemanship.


In my regular perusal of the internet to keep up with what is being taught and advocated in the horse world, I see blanket statements like these all the time.


I understand where they come from. They come from ignorance and bigotry.


Why ignorance?  Because for example, they see or hear about somebody chasing a horse in a round yard and instantly dismiss round yards and people that use them as anti-good horsemanship. They don’t bother to look deeper into the use of the round yard. They got the information they wanted and therefore they are not interested in examining the ways a round yard is used by other people in other ways.


Why bigotry? I say bigotry because when a person sees a method that they don’t use, being applied badly, it reaffirms and justifies their non-use of that method. It makes a person feel better about their own horsemanship when somebody else stuffs up. Gore Vidal once said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Well in the horse world the reverse is also true, “Whenever another trainer fails, I feel better about myself.” This form of self-induced ego inflation creates a bigotry and bias that causes people to look for the bad in another’s training methods (which is different from critical analysis of other methods). So people who see bad results from horses trained with flags or whips, or in round yards or square yards, or with bits or without bits, or with hobbles or without hobbles, or using natural or traditional or classical horsemanship, want to make blanket labels that allow no room for a conversation regarding the principle behind a method and the method itself.


For example, the fellow who stated categorically that flags should never be used in training happens to use whips a lot in his training. He also rides a lot with spurs. No doubt he has seen flags used poorly resulting in bad outcomes, but has he also not seen whips and spurs used inappropriately resulting in bad outcomes? I know I have. I tend not to use whips or spurs, yet I don’t condemn the use of all whips and spurs because I know they have a purpose and can be used to benefit a horse when applied well.


Every method and piece of equipment exist simply because it worked for somebody with some horse at some time. That does not mean to say I think that every method or piece of equipment is okay and justifiable. I choose the methods and the equipment I use based on how they fit into the set of principles I bring to my horsemanship.


If I can apply a method in a way that is consistent with my principles, then I have no problem with using it. For example, I like round yards, but I have worked many times in rectangular yards and achieved just as much and remained just as true my philosophy and principles. I also like flags, but have used whips many times and have always felt they were almost interchangeable in the way I use them. I have ridden with bits and without and have had as much success with one as the other. I don’t use the Parelli’s 7 games in my normal training, but I have taught some Parelli fans to apply the games in a way that fits into my approach to horsemanship.


The point I am trying to make is that people confuse a person’s ability to apply a set of principles for training horses with the principles themselves. When they do that, they make judgments about the principles when they should be making judgments about the practitioner. When two people use the same method in their training, but one does a better job than the other, where does the fault lie – the principle or the practitioner? No doubt the trainer with the better feel and a better understanding of accommodating the emotions and thoughts of a horse would still do a better job whether they used a flag or a whip, a round yard or a square yard, a bit or no bit.


Photo: Here I am using coffee as a training and teaching aid. I find coffee is an invaluable asset in my teaching tool box when used well. But of course, it takes great skill and experience to be able to use coffee in a way that benefits the horse and rider. You shouldn’t condemn coffee just because some trainers have not learned to incorporate it properly into their training principles.

A Horse Thinking Where It Is Going

People who have been to my clinics will have heard me repeat ad nauseam the importance of having a horse follow the inside rein with their thought. For me, it is always about directing the thought. Over and over I harp on about it.


I say things like “get him to look where you want him to go first” and “take that thought over there and he will try to catch up to it with his feet” and “get him to think about it first.”


When things go wrong I’ll often say “he’s not thinking where you want him to go” or “his leaning on your hand because his thoughts are pushing forward” or “you need to get this thought in front of him so he can go forward.”


In every aspect working with a horse, I am always trying to point out how our reins, seat, legs and lead rope influence the all-important role of changing a horse’s thoughts.


I believe that with everything a horse does it’s their thoughts that play the key role in shaping behaviour. If there are any people who have ridden with me and have not got that message, then I have failed in my job.


However, in the process, in trying to instill this message in students, I seem to have messed up. It seems a number of people have taken my words to believe that a horse’s thoughts should always follow the feel of the inside rein. While much of the time we are trying to direct a horse’s mind to yield to the inside rein, it is not always strictly true that a horse’s thought should follow the inside rein. It’s a misconception.


An important exception to the idea that a horse should be thinking in the direction of the lateral bend is when performing lateral movements. Let’s take a really simple exercise like a side pass. This is a movement where the horse moves sideways without moving forward. Purists can argue whether the horse should have lateral flexion or not, but for training purposes, I always insist on flexion in the direction away from the movement. So if I am asking my horse to side pass to the right, I want a left bend while the feet are crossing over to the right. In this case, the inside rein (bending rein) is the left rein, yet the horse should have its strongest thought (primary thought) going to the right in the direction of travel.


This would be equally true in any form of lateral movement such as shoulder in, travers, half pass etc.


The rein that establishes the lateral bend is always the inside rein and it should be to the most influential in encouraging a horse to soften its mind and body via a horse’s secondary thoughts. But the primary thought should be following the direction of movement. In other words, a horse should always be thinking where they are going.


So if we are performing a balanced circle to the left, the inside rein (left rein) creates the inside bend and the horse thinks to the left following the perimeter of the circle. But if our horse is doing a circle to the left with a counter bend (right-hand flexion), the right rein establishes an outside (right) bend while the horse is thinking to the left on the circumference of the circle it is moving. In either case, the horse’s thoughts should be directed left on the circumference of the circle because that’s where the feet as being directed by the horse’s thoughts. This is irrespective of which direction the horse is laterally flexed.


How do we know if our horse’s primary thought is in the direction we are asking it to move its feet? We know because the effort to move in that direction is almost weightless.


Instead of thinking about a horse’s primary thought determining the bend, consider the idea that the primary thought should direct the movement. Where a horse is thinking is where is should be moving.


I hope that clears up the misconception.


Photo: This was taken at a clinic earlier in the year in Ben Lomond, California. My friend Sheri, is asking Scout to leg yield to the left with a right-hand bend in his body. Notice Scout is looking to the left in the direction of travel. 

Don't Make Work Something To Dread

I have horses because I like them. I ride and teach because I like horses. I trained horses for people for many years because I like horses. I see them either as friends or as friends-to-be that need help.


It’s because I like horses that I care as much about the emotional welfare of my horses as I do about the way they work. I don’t want work to feel a chore to them. I don’t want my horses to feel work is a grind and something to dread. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can make the challenges of riding and training something that we can willingly do together with minimum stress and zero drudgery. To me, that’s as important as any of the cool stuff I might be able to teach them to do.


That is why training that deliberately sets out to make work seem like a burden to a horse, confuses me. I am not kidding. There is a lot of mainstream training that is purposefully designed to make a horse hate work. It is derived from the old adage of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” I first heard this at a Ray Hunt clinic very many years ago, but since then it has been incorporated (in a corrupted form) into the teaching of a lot of trainers – both popular and unknown. I can think of a handful of trainers who largely base their entire approach to horse training and teaching along those lines.


The first time I was aware of this was at a clinic in the 1980s where the trainer was helping an owner load a horse into a trailer. The horse refused to take more than a couple of steps onto the ramp, so the trainer backed the horse out and lunged it in circles at high speed just outside the trailer. The horse whirled around and around for a few minutes and then was invited to load into the trailer again. The horse walked about half way in and stopped, so the trainer backed it out again and began sending it around like a satellite orbiting at the speed of light. After four tries at loading the horse, it finally stepped all the way into the trailer. Everyone was impressed at mission accomplished.


In another example about 6 years ago, a visiting clinician was assisting a fellow whose horse had bonded to another horse in the group. In order to help overcome the separation issue this created, the trainer had the rider allow his horse to wander of its own free will towards its buddy. Then on cue from the trainer, the fellow picked up the reins and applied leg to put the horse to work in close proximity to its friend. He worked his horse hard for several minutes, until the trainer told him to point his horse to the opposite end of the arena to see if the horse would willingly walk away from the second horse. The horse went a few steps and then drifted back towards its friend. The owner was instructed to make the horse work hard around the other horse once more. After about six or so repetitions of this exercise, the horse would finally walk to the end of the arena without looking back for its friend.


Then, of course, there is the all too common liberty round pen work where a horse that won’t be caught or hook on to a handler (or join-up) is chased around the yard until it decides being with the person in the middle is less stressful than being run around the perimeter at speed.


There are many more examples I can quote, but they all have one important thing in common. Their effectiveness in changing a behaviour relies on using work as a punishment for the responses we don’t want.


I am not saying that such a strategy is not effective in changing an unwanted to a wanted behaviour. It clearly works when it is done well. However, I believe there is a price to pay when we use work as a punishment.


I never want my horse to hate its job. When we want a horse to see work as something we do together and it feels okay, how can a horse distinguish when it is meant as a punishment and when it is meant to feel like two mates sharing a satisfying experience? How is a horse expected to feel comfortable about being lunged for balance and focus and also feel uncomfortable about being lunged for not loading into a trailer? How is a horse expected to feel okay about being directed around a round yard to build focus and relaxation and then feel bad about it when it doesn’t want to hook on? How is a horse that is looking for safety in another horse expected to feel good about us and working with us when we use work to trouble a horse?


I believe there is a lot of merit in the philosophy of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. But the concept is applied too often too broadly and without an appreciation of the negative consequences of using work as discourager of behaviour. The risk of this approach getting in the way of a good relationship with a horse and a horse’s willingness to work is too high a price for me. There are alternative strategies that can be applied that don’t have the same negative consequences. These can be tried and experimented with if only people would not be so lazy and think a little more about the health of their relationship with their horse and less about creating obedience.


Photo: Running a horse in a round yard to convince them hanging out with people is a good deal is not the best formula for a good relationship in my opinion.

The Power Of The Inside Rein

I want to briefly talk about the inside rein (I know, you probably don’t think I can talk about anything briefly!).


The ability of a horse to soften in response to a feel from the inside rein is arguably one of the most powerful tools in the training of a horse. It is because of its ability to alter a horse’s thoughts that the inside rein can influence the lateral flexion of a horse, relax the top line of a horse, connect to the inside hind leg and via all these mechanisms it can mediate the balance, straightness, and softness through the entire horse. The inside rein is like the Swiss army knife of correctness when riding and training a horse.


Yet, despite its importance, it is rare to come across a horse that does not resist the inside rein. This resistance comes in various forms. Most people think of a resistance to the inside rein as a horse that leans on the rein. Often this is true. Many horses add to the heaviness of the rein when a rider applies a feel. But it is not the one and only form of resistance. Sometimes this resistance presents as lightness on the rein, but a brace across the top line, a leaking to the outside, a tightness in the hindquarters and lack of activity of the inside hind leg. More often than not these issues appear together or in various combinations.


When a horse stops resisting the inside rein and yields mentally to the feel it is amazing how straight, balanced, calm and soft a horse can become. But when the yield is purely a physical giving to the pressure there continues to be resistance in the way a horse moves. This is because a mental change affects the whole horse in a physical way, whereas giving to the rein pressure generally results in only a partial evasion of the pressure in that part of the body that the horse feels  the most discomfort or in need to escape from discomfort.


It can be hard to feel the difference between when a horse mentally yields or when it physically evades the inside rein. To the novice rider, they can feel the same. Most times when a horse is physically evading the inside rein they will flex their neck both vertically and laterally to avoid the discomfort of the bit. To some, this can look pretty and feel great because the horse feels light. But to a rider whose is aware of feeling the whole horse, from mouth to hocks, it becomes apparent when there is a superficial change on the outside of a horse and when there is a mental change to the inside of a horse. This aspect of feel is not something riders can appreciate and usually remains theoretical and confusing until the first time they feel the difference. Then it is often a cathartic experience that changes everything about their understanding of correctness in a horse. It’s a skill all riders should develop as they progress.


I read an article recently about the importance of a horse learning to yield to the outside rein. It was such an interesting article because there was almost no mention of the importance of the inside rein and getting that right. But even more importantly there was no mention of a mental yielding. The emphasis was only on how the outside rein affected the shoulders. Whether you want to argue which is more important, outside or inside rein, the value and effectiveness of the reins will always come back to the ability to get a mental change in a horse.


Nevertheless, for me, this all begins with an appreciation of the power of the inside rein to influence both a mental and physical okay-ness in a horse. Until that’s in place, it’s hard for a horse to be anything more than a polite robot. That’s why for many years to come students at my clinics will have to suffer me yelling at them to “get him to soften to the inside rein.”


Photo: I said inside rein, not inside rain!

Winners - Caption Competition

We have two winners of the Photo Caption Competition. Both came up with the same caption, so Lorena Russell of has kindly donated a prize each to the value of $30 for them.


Catherine Lloyd - Wales, UK

Kim Gibson  - Queensland, Australia


Thank you everyone who entered.