The Forehand Yield

I was recently teaching a student how to help their horse perform a forehand yield. A point came up about the importance of correctness, which I think is worth repeating here for the sake of people’s clarity.


First, let me describe what a forehand yield is when done correctly.


Just as it sounds, it is a maneuver where the forehand of the horse yields to the inside rein. This is what should happen. The rider applies a feel to the inside rein to encourage the horse to think and flex to the inside. In the process of teaching, this usually entails a direct rein aid where the rein is applied away from the horse’s body. No outside rein is used. In turn, the horse shifts some weight to the hindquarters, lifts the shoulders and steps the inside fore to the side. In short, the forehand turns around the hindquarters. If you are unsure, check out the photos below.


Just to clarify the essential points:

1. A direct inside rein asks the horse to think and flex to the inside.

2. The outside rein and the rider’s legs play no role and are simply passive (see 2nd photo).

3. The horse shifts weight to the hindquarters.

4. The horse takes the weight off the inside fore and lifts it and steps it to the inside.

5. The hindquarters act as a pivot point.


Now I want to talk about the reasons for doing this exercise because they explain why I would do this movement the way I do rather than a classical turn on the haunches or walk pirouette, as many others teach.


I have previously discussed the difference between a hindquarter yield and a turn on the forehand (see August 18, 2016) and almost the same rules and reasons apply to the distinction between a forehand yield and a turn on the haunches.


For me, there is no greater or more fundamental function of the reins than to connect a horse’s thought to be able to direct the feet in any way I might desire. This underpins everything that comes later. It is much more important that a rider can influence the horse’s idea of where to put its feet using the reins, than that it can be done with a rider’s legs and/or seat. Many people fixate on teaching a horse to move directionally in response to the rider’s seat and legs before the horse has a clear and soft understanding of yielding to the reins. To my mind, this is backward because the reins offer a much more subtle and refined way of communicating with a horse than a rider’s legs, which are a crude form of communication in my view.


Therefore, the primary purpose of teaching a forehand yield in the early training stage is to embed in a horse’s mind that the inside rein connects a horse’s thought to direct the inside foreleg. There are some others reasons for teaching a forehand yield early on, but none are more important that this.


Why is it so important that the inside rein directs the inside fore?


It’s because it is one of the fundamental principles of teaching balance and correctness of movement in a turn. When a horse turns to the left, the left fore should step to the left and left hind should move diagonally to the right in order for the turn to be balanced. This should happen because the horse’s thought is focused to the left. That shift of focus should come from a feel offered by the left rein.


The part of the discussion at the clinics that prompted this post is that my student had her horse stepping the outside fore foot across the inside fore foot as the first foot movement of the forehand yield. This is wrong. This is a walk pirouette, which is a different movement and taught much later when a horse is already showing balanced turns and a moderate level of collection. It is a common mistake and my student was quite confused at first. But I had to explain that she was trying to build a house before the foundations are laid.


For a horse that is still learning to follow the feel of the inside rein, you want to avoid the outside leg crossing over the inside leg as the first step in the movement. This is because firstly it will cause uneducated horses to crash inwards on their shoulder during a turn, putting more strain on the inside leg and shoulder. And secondly, it can encourage horses to rush the turns because their lack of balance causes physical stiffness and mental hurry in order to recover their balance.


The inside leg should be leading the outside leg and not the other way around. Again, look at the photos below.


In essence, by teaching a horse to perform forehand yields and hindquarters yields we are setting a horse up to be balanced and straight in the turns and circles so it is working its body correctly and not straining one side more that the other. It is also laying the groundwork for much more advanced movements later on. Teaching forehand yields and hindquarter yields (August 18, 2016) not only makes the performance better but also ensures a longer life of soundness.


The photos were taken in Bondurant, Iowa at a clinic last September. Thanks to Betsy for letting me ride her sweet pony, Honey. And thanks too to Neal for taking the pictures.


A: The start of a forehand yield from a standstill. Notice the inside rein applies a feel to the side to encourage a horse to look to the inside.


B: Same as the previous photo, but from the front showing that my legs are not being used.


C: A forehand yield at a walk. Notice the inside fore getting ready to step to the inside.

Patterns Of Responses

I thought this was a good discussion about the importance of a horse and rider having an open communication. I have said many times that working with a horse is a constant stream of conversation where questions and answers are forever passing back and forth between then two. It’s important that patterns of responses are not set up because it kills the conversation and diminishes the need for a horse to search and ‘try’.
I don’t know the people in the video, but I thought it worthwhile for you to hear these things from another’s perspective.
One thing that really struck me when watching the clip is how asymmetric the horse’s head is!


Directing and Driving Pressure And Comfort

In my previous article, I argued the case that the cause of anxiety in horses always stems from a lack of clarity. But I want to briefly take that assertion one step further today. This is going to get complicated and knee deep in detail, so put your thinking caps on.


As I stated a few days ago, when a horse understands the meaning of pressure sufficiently, pressure can become a comfort. This is because pressure can act as a guidepost to what is expected from a horse. It can give them a “light bulb” moment. Horses get a lot of reassurance when they know what the answer is and what is the expected response. This is why when there is enough clarity as to the meaning of pressure, the outcome is a horse that feels okay and experiences minimal emotional trouble.


Before I go any further, let me remind you the difference between pressure that drives and pressure that directs. This is very important in understanding where I am going in this article, so please take the time to understand the difference between directing and driving pressure. There is a fuller explanation in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.


Directing pressure sends a horse towards where its thoughts are, eg using feel on a lead rope to ask a horse to think to the left and then allowing it to move to the left is directing pressure. The horse’s thoughts are to the left and the feet are moving to the left. Therefore, the horse’s mind and its movement are in the same direction. Anytime a horse’s thoughts and its feet are going together there is a directing pressure at work.


Driving pressure sends a horse away from where its thoughts are, eg swing the tail end of a lead rope on the right side of a horse to get it to move to the left is driving pressure. The horse’s thoughts are on the swinging rope and its feet are moving away from the rope. Therefore, where the mind is and where the feet are going are in different directions. Anytime a horse’s thoughts and its feet are being separated there is a driving pressure taking place.


To reiterate what I said a few days ago, clarity brings comfort. But this is the tricky bit.


When a horse does not have a clear understanding of how to respond to a pressure, most times we resort to driving pressures. This is meant to block a horse’s unwanted idea (eg to go right when we want it to go left) so we can replace it with a wanted idea. The only justification for applying a driving pressure is to bring clarity that enables a horse to recognize and comprehend a directing pressure. Once our horse understands well enough that we can dispense with using driving pressure and replace it with directing pressure, clarity becomes possible. But to do this we must always first present a directing pressure to a horse to give it a chance to respond. A driving pressure should only ever be used after a horse has ignored our initial directing pressure. This is very important – directing pressure first, followed by driving pressure only if necessary.


Therefore, it is the ability to direct a horse (ie, a horse’s movement follows its thoughts) that is the source of a horse feeling comfortable about pressure. If we are not able to present an idea to a horse in a way that influences their thought to take their feet somewhere, it is not possible for a horse to feel okay about working with us. At best, we can expect a polite resignation to their lot in life, which is a long way from a horse feeling okay. At worst we produce a worried horse that is either very reactive or shutdown.


If we accept the premise that a calm, confident and happy horse can only be the result of being able to work with directing pressure, then we are at a crossroads when it comes to choosing what to do with that information. This is because of one simple fact. The vast majority of trainers/clinicians I can think of, rely on driving pressure almost 100 percent of the time. I could fill pages with the hundreds of names of trainers who only apply driving pressure in their work – many of them would be well-known and perhaps even held in high esteem by you. Very few trainers/clinicians are working towards being able to only ever direct a horse. Their goal is to establish obedience of the feet and this can be achieved through driving techniques, without ever the need to consider directing a horse. I can think of perhaps 20 or fewer trainers/clinicians that I am familiar with whose work is aimed at applying directing pressure and eradicating driving methods from their work as quickly as possible.


This observation may seem extreme at first, but remember how I defined driving and directing pressure. They are not defined by the amount of pressure used but by the whereabouts of a horse’s thoughts (focus) in relation to where its body is moving. When you think of it in terms of where is a horse’s focus and where is it moving, it is not so hard to visualize that most trainers rely on driving pressure, even if it is very subtle. It is perhaps one very important reason why I see so few happy horses in the world – even those owned by many professionals. There does not have to be much activity or energy for a horse to feel driven. So it is a mistake to assume that just because a trainer is using subtle cues a horse’s feet and its thoughts are going in the same direction.


I don’t expect many of you to automatically agree with my deduction and final analysis. It is a very big statement to make that because most training involves driving horses with pressure, there can be very few happy horses. It’s even bolder to suggest that perhaps many trainers can’t produce happy horses because of their reliance on driving techniques. But the point of this essay is not to lampoon thousands of trainers. Instead, it is to encourage you to think about the relationship between driving and directing pressure in consideration to the clarity and comfort they bring to our horses. And in relation to that, I would also urge people to evaluate all the training they ever see at clinics or in videos etc, in the light of these vitally important elements of training.


You don’t have to agree with me, but it would not be a waste of time to give these ideas some consideration.


These two young knuckleheads are training on each other – Gus ‘the hinny' and Beaumont 'the mule’.

Anxiety Is A Lack Of Clarity

Today’s topic is very simple in its conception, but bloody difficult in its practice.


With horses, the source of their worry and anxiety is a lack of clarity. I’m trying hard to think of an exception to this premise, but nothing is coming to mind.


Think of an electric fence. When a horse first touches an electrified fence, all hell breaks loose as they think they are about to die. At first, they don’t know why the fence zapped them. They don’t know if the electricity is going to randomly jump out and shock them again. They don’t even know if from now on all fences are out to kill them or just some. Not only does a horse experience worry as a result of being shocked, but it also feels worried because it does not yet understand the rules by which the electric fence behaves. It is not until a horse understands the limitations of the fence to cause a shock that the worry dissipates. In fact, my horses are so clear about the rules regarding an electric fence that they can fall peacefully asleep with their noses just centimetres from the fence.


The principle of clarity is what makes horses comfortable in life and when working with humans. I believe this simple fact is what many people miss.


I know trainers who blame equipment for poor outcomes in the training of horses. One Australian trainer is constantly ranting about the evils of flags or round pens or rope halters etc as training tools. He claims they are used to unnecessarily terrorize horses into submission. Yet, at the same time endorses and uses whips, spurs and square pens in his own training. He mistakenly assumes the effectiveness of training comes from the equipment itself and not the feel and clarity with which these tools are applied. If the difference between doing a good job and a poor job is dependent on the shape of the training pen, or the use of a flag versus a whip then the concept of clarity has eluded the trainer. He is a trainer who is incapable of thinking outside his own tiny square pen.


Even with regard to the perpetual argument that supporters of positive reinforcement methods put forward regarding the emotional harm caused by negative reinforcement approaches, there is a lack of understanding that pressure can (and should) provide such clarity to a horse that the pressure becomes a comfort. Again, I refer to the example of the electric fence. The clarity that the electric fence provides is so obvious that it causes no more worry to a horse than a tree in a paddock – a horse learns not to run into the tree as clearly as it learns to not run into the fence, with no worry attached to either concept.


I may be over-romanticizing it, but I like to think that I am working towards the day that applying pressure as a teaching tool, feels like it might when a mare nudges a newborn foal to find the teat – clarity and comfort


In previous essays, I have described that when I first approach a horse I have no idea how I am going to get done what I have in mind to teach. I don’t have a prepared plan on what to do except to ask the horse a question. But what I do know is that whatever follows the initial first question will be my absolute commitment to bringing sureness to the horse. I know for certain that the only way to overcome a horse’s confusion and anxiety to is put beyond doubt the easiest solution to its troubles. This is why I might resolve the same problem in different horses with varied approaches because the common denominator will be clarity.


If clarity is the underlying aim of everything we do with a horse, then specific methods lose their hold over us. Most training focuses on certain exercises to teach new lessons and overcome bad behaviours. It doesn’t seem to matter what discipline interests you or what problems face you and your horse, somebody can always refer you to a particular exercise for every occasion. That’s okay because we need exercises as an excuse for giving a horse a job.


The problem becomes when we think the exercise is the solution when in reality the exercise is just an excuse to impart understanding, which in turn brings comfort. Exercises themselves have no purpose without clarity.


In fact, repeated exercises can become a huge problem. Horse loves routine because the predictability of a routine can become comforting to a horse. They will often latch onto a routine and even more so when they are stressed. But routine is not clarity, it is just a pattern that can’t be broken if we are to maintain a horse’s okay-ness. On the other hand, clarity allows us to not have routines and predictability because a horse learns how to always yield to a feel (any feel) and still be okay.


In my work, the methods are always changing and not terribly important to me. I can take any other trainer’s methods and use them in a way that brings clarity and comfort to a horse or I can use the identical method in a way that ensures they will need a lifetime on a couch with a good therapist talking about the relationship with their mother and their bed-wetting problems. But the principles with which I try to apply any method never change. They are unswerving in their goal to achieve clarity, accompanied by comfort.


Bringing clarity to our training is hard and skilled work. Different horses require different amounts of time and patience because they all have different agendas and hold onto old compulsions with different degrees of desperation. Some horses are more skeptical than others and don’t let go of established habits as easily as others. But the principle is always the same – clarity, clarity, and more clarity – is required to have a happy horse.


Photo: Clarity and comfort from mum.

Teachers Need To Tell The Truth

A couple of days ago I was talking to Jean about the lesson I gave her earlier in the day. I said to her that I was really happy with the changes she made and how she stepped up and helped her horse feel a lot better and also perform a lot better. It was a terrific lesson.


Jean said, “Well, I didn’t want to get a talking to.”


“What do you mean,” I asked?


“Two years ago you gave me a real talking to. You told me that I was doing the same thing I was doing three years earlier and what was it going to take for me to get serious enough to make some changes. You told me I had all that I needed to step up and help my horse and it was time to stop making excuses. It was really a wake-up call.”


I didn’t remember the incident but apologized if I was too harsh. But Jean explained that although at the time she felt bad, she also knew I was right and it was the best thing I could have said to her. She was glad I said the things I said because it changed everything for her and her horses. The proof of that is in how well Jean worked in this past clinic.


Most of the time a clinician does not know their students well. This makes knowing the buttons to push and not to push for each student very difficult to determine. Some students need to be handled with care because to do otherwise would paralyze them from making any progress. Other students want brutal honesty and equate positive adjectives with patronization. But most people want and need a mixture of honest criticism and gentle praise.


At another clinic a few weeks ago, a couple of students were relating their experience at a clinic where the clinician did nothing but spout sayings that were better suited to being on a wall poster with a photo of Churchill or Einstein – something wise like “if you always look down on people, you’ll get a sore neck.” The clinician was known for this and obviously felt that was good teaching despite the esoteric nature of his wisdom.


Then there were stories about clinicians who would say nothing or the ones they were prone to verbally abusing students for asking a question or misunderstanding an instruction. In contrast, we probably all know a teacher who spends most of their time telling their students how great they are doing and rarely share an fault-finding.


I think the best teaching is honest. Few people seem to learn much from teachers who don’t instruct and only praise. And even fewer learn from teachers that are aggressively blunt and make them feel undeserving of their time. I believe a good teacher can always find something good in what a student is doing, but also not step back from pushing a student to do better.


I see the way we should try to teaching people is very similar to how we approach teaching horses.


When a horse is struggling and not sure, I slow down, break things into smaller steps and keep presenting an idea until either they get it or it is obvious I need to change tactics in order to be clearer.


For example, I was recently describing how to ask a horse to leg yield on the ground. I told the woman it was a matter of keeping the energy up in the horse, but apply vector theory to inhibit the forward movement and use the excess energy to direct the horse to the side. After a minute or so of talking about the principle of vectors, it dawned on me that the student was mentally going away with all my physics jargon.


I decided to change tact and asked her to imagine 4 doors – one in front of the horse, one behind and one on each side of the horse. The horse can pass through any door that is open. Now imagine, the door behind is closed. And at the same time imagine the door on her side of the horse is also closed. The door in front of the horse is half open and the door to the other side is fully open. Now ask the horse to walk through the half open door and the fully open door at the same time. The student got that imagery and did a fantastic job of teaching her horse to leg yield. Just as I would with a horse that was having trouble with clarity, I chose to present the same idea in a different way.


When a horse is trying, I give them plenty of time to search and experiment with different options. When a student is trying I give them the same leeway to search for a solution. But when a horse is not trying and repeating the same old pattern and I am going to firm up to encourage them to believe their pattern is not as comfortable as they thought and they should search harder. This is no different than I’ll do with a student. When a student is doing something easily I will push them harder. I am sure this is why Jean got a “talking to” from me a couple of years ago.


I believe that teaching people is similar to teaching horses in that when they are struggling I need to be very supportive and be happy for the small victories. But when they are doing it easily, I will push the boundaries and express criticism for half tries. Some people like instructors that are only very supportive and rarely critical, but often there is little or no progress because they are not pushed. In my view, it is possible to encourage a student while at the same time pushing them to do better.


Photo: This is an example of my brilliant teaching skills.

Ross: Charity this thing is called a saddle.

Charity: Master, you are so wise!