Pushy Horses

Over the years I have seen many problems that people and horses have with their relationship. There are probably few relationship issues that I haven’t seen. Perhaps the most common thing I see that comes up time and time again are when horses creep up and crowd people. It seems an almost universal issue and is the same no matter what level of education a horse or person has, or performance discipline or age group or what country I’m in.  A bloke could make a living just out of teaching people how to stop their horse walk all over them.


So let’s look at why this happens and why it is such a common relationship problem.


People often refer to a horse trespassing into their space as being disrespectful. This is invariably not true. It has nothing to do with respect or disrespect. To understand what is going on we have to examine why a horse moves into the space occupied by another.


In a herd (wild or domestic) there is no democracy. No horse has equal rights or the same voting power as any other horse. They all occupy a specific place in a herd that is determined by which horse they can dominate and which horse dominates them. Horse A dominates horse B, and horse B dominates horse C. This can be complicated further when horse C dominates horse A. Nevertheless, this order of hierarchy determines each horse’s place in the herd and where the leadership lies.


The importance of this should not be underestimated. It shows that horses seek leadership. Leadership in any gathering is a must for a horse to feel safe and comfortable. Evolution has shaped horses to seek where the leadership exists. They need to know which horses they can lord over and which horses rule over them to feel safe and comfortable. Having an equal is not an option for a horse. The horse world is not an equal opportunity world.


How do horses determine who they are in charge of and who is in charge of them? The answer is that the one who directs the feet of the other is the one in charge. It is that simple.


When a horse enters a herd, they very quickly try to establish which horses they can direct and which horses can direct them. Initially, there may be some shuffling of position and instability, but fairly quickly order descends and stability is re-established by each horse knowing their place in the group.


Knowing this very simple principle of horse behaviour, one has to ask why so many people have trouble with horses invading their space?


Again, I think the answer is very simple. Consistency!


When a horse and a human come together, neither knows which is the leader. It is the nature of horses to ask the question of the human, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” They do this by trying to move the feet of the human. There is nothing wrong with this. It is perfect natural and should never be thought of as disrespectful. Instead it should be looked at as the horse trying to establish the rules of leadership of this new relationship. The horse is just asking the question in the same way it would ask it of another horse.


Some human answers the question by giving up space to the horse. Instantly, the human has told the horse that it is the horse that is the leader. Other times, the human does not yield up space and may even convince the horse to give up some of its own space. In this instance the human has told the horse that it is not the one in charge, but the person is the leader. Again, the horse is perfectly fine with that too, because it just wanted an answer to its very simple, but essential question.


However, when the relationship is new and the rules are not established in concrete, sometimes a horse will ask several times, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” It may get asked over and over until the answer is clear and believable in the horse’s mind. This is where people get into trouble.


Good horse people never have a problem with offering a clear and consistent answer to the question their horse asks. As a result, in a fairly short time their horse understands with crystal clarity the relationship and stops asking the question. However, a reasonably large proportion of owners do not answer their horse’s question with clarity and consistently. Sometimes, their reply to Flossy’s question is “I’m in charge of you,” and sometimes it is “You’re in charge of me.”


This lack of clarity and consistency leaves Flossy confused and stressed and without an answer that they can rely on or believe. The relationship with their owner is in jeopardy because they do not know who is in charge and offer leadership. As I have already said, leadership and knowing who is in charge is a vital component of a horse feeling safe and comfortable.


The outcome is a horse who either keeps asking the question all the time in an effort to have a final resolution they can rely upon or they shut down and becomes much more unresponsive. Either way, the human has filled their horse’s life with stress.


At clinics I see a lot of horses that have resulted from owners not providing clear and consistent answers and leaving their horses in limbo as to their role in the relationship. It’s not disrespect. It’s not rudeness. It’s not wilfulness. It’s simple people being unclear as to who is leading the dance.

Spruce Meadows

For the show jumping enthusiasts among you, here is a short clip about the annual Sprice Meadows championship


Good Horsemanship Is A Discipline

I have something to say from my soapbox. So listen up!


I was recently contributing to a forum set up to discuss classical dressage. I made comment about how little people truly understood the principles of good horsemanship – even horse people riding at an elite level of dressage. Naturally, I was derided for my comments and told about all the horrible things people who twirled ropes did to horses. The overall consensus seemed to be that any good horse rider already practices good horsemanship by default because to achieve a high level of proficiency as a rider means you already know how to have a happy and relaxed horse.


I have to be very blunt here to ensure there is no confusion about my views. The idea that somebody actually believes that being good with horses is something that a person absorbs along the way to be a good a rider is beyond stupidity. To believe such things is proof enough that a person does not need to be a member of Mensa (an elite club for people with IQ in the upper 2% of the general population) to be a horse rider or trainer.


The skills of good horsemanship are not something that a person acquires by osmosis as they learn to saddle a horse or load it on a trailer or perform canter pirouette or reining spins or even break a young horse in. The skills learned by those things are the skills of learning traditional horsemanship. However, the skills and knowledge of good horsemanship are something else. They go beyond the skills of being able to make a horse do something, that traditional horsemanship does.


Most people learn horsemanship on their way to learning their chosen discipline. Their aim is to learn enough horsemanship to be able to focus on their real purpose of riding dressage, jumping, polo, endurance or horseback archery. People generally don’t view horsemanship as a discipline in itself that is just as difficult and demanding as any other horse interest. They acquire the bare minimum skills needed to make their horse manageable for their needs. So when I see some of the world masters of dressage who can’t lead their horse without the danger of being trampled or who has to have a groom hold their horse because it moves when mounting or whose horses have a melt down if ridden outside of an arena or don’t know how to teach their horse to quietly load and unload into a trailer/truck, I feel horribly depressed.


But it gets worse. Watch the horses of the dressage masters with their excessive bit chewing, tightness in mind and body, inability to walk freely on a loose rein, lack of softness to the reins. Watch those things and tell me that these people understand and have the skills of good horsemanship. Hear them when they hold master class workshops and tell their students that teaching hindquarter disengagement will ruin a horse hindquarter engagement or that teaching the rein back too early will destroy a horse’s forwardness. Watch those things and tell me that good horsemanship is something a person picks up in their travels to being a good rider.


In my opinion, there is an across the board lack of understanding of horsemanship throughout the world. Even among the enthusiasts of natural horsemanship (who you’d think commit the most time to studying horsemanship) there is a lack of fundamental understanding of what it means to get in touch with the inside of a horse. Most horsemanship programs are devoted to making a horse do things, as much as most dressage or jumping training does. This focus on making a horse obedient is the cornerstone of most dressage, jumping, roping etc, and horsemanship (natural or some other variety).


That’s why the classical dressage fraternity dismays me when they tell me that horsemanship is common sense and something that all good horse riders practice. It’s just not true.


The skills of working with a horse, in as close a partnership as possible, are a life-long pursuit. Good horsemanship is a discipline that requires as much devotion and commitment as any other, yet in an ideal world it would form the basis of every other equine discipline.


The good news is that, like many other horse disciplines, you can pursue the art of good horsemanship while at the same time learning dressage, endurance, ranch horse, etc. Just like you can practice dressage while riding down a trail or training for barrel racing, you can also practice good horsemanship while following your desired path in other disciplines. All it needs is an attitude that says I will not ignore any mental or emotional disconnection or disharmony between my horse and myself, irrespective of when or how it shows up.


To dismiss good horsemanship as a secondary consideration in the sport of horses or to suggest that the best practitioners are less skilled than the classical dressage masters is ignorant and stupidity beyond stupidity.


I will now step down from the soapbox (until next time).

Where To Begin

During the last clinic, every morning we would gather to share breakfast together before venturing out to the arena to work horses. When hunger was satisfied and enough coffee was consumed to waken the dead the discussion would drift towards horses and horsemanship. Often this would turn into a Q & A with me at the centre.


Katie asked, “When you have a horse that needs ten things fixed, how do you decide where to begin?”


Surprisingly, I couldn’t remember ever being asked that question before. It was an excellent question and one I reckon most people ask themselves many times during their life with horses.


However, the answer is very simple and it never changes. It is always the same answer no matter what unwanted issues your horse has developed.


You begin with relaxing your horse emotionally.


I believe that as far as training is concerned, emotions drive behaviour. Bad emotions create resistances and poor behaviour. Good emotions promote soft responses and compliant behaviour. Anytime you experience resistance, agitation, mental distraction, sluggishness or reactive behaviour, you can be sure ill feelings are the root cause.


As we have all heard a million times, training for the day begins the moment you approach your horse to catch it and doesn’t end until you’ve walked away at the end. A horse does not differentiate between when you are doing actual training and when you are just leading your horse somewhere. Each experience has implications for how a horse will feel and behaviour during the next experience.


With that in mind, in answering Katie’s question, you begin with how your horse feels when you approach to catch it.


That may sound too basic to matter, but let me tell you the overwhelming majority of people have no clue how their horse feels when being caught, haltered, led, saddled, etc. They incorrectly assume that just because their horse is easy to catch or walks up to greet them to be caught, that the horse feels good. This is not true for most horses, most of the time. Yet people are not aware of this.


This concept of checking how your horse feels continues through the entire process of working with a horse. At each step, it is important to do whatever can be done to eliminate as much tension and worry as possible. That might be in how it leads to how it executes flying lead changes. It all matters. No resistance or worry is not important or should be ignored.


The reason that a horse’s emotional comfort is so important is that without a calm and quiet mind there can be no learning. When a horse’s mind is bouncing around looking for better ways of finding comfort and safety, there can be no room for learning the lessons we are trying to teach. It may succumb to obedience, but it cannot learn to let go of resistance. A horse will struggle and argue in the training until the end of its days, unless it feels emotionally comfortable and mentally quiet.


So to reiterate my answer to Katie’s question, each day begins with whatever it takes to help a horse become more emotionally comfortable. In training, there is no greater responsibility than to work at that.


In the movie Cat Ballou, I think Lee Marvin overdid the concept of getting his horse emotionally comfortable

Accepting The Bit - What Does It Mean?

Alice Kra asked if I would talk about getting a horse on the bit. It is a huge subject that would require many pages of explanation, yet the principles are very simple. I will make a modest attempt at explaining my thoughts on the subject.


The first thing to know is that being “on the bit” or “accepting the bit” has nothing to do with bits. It’s a common misnomer to think that when instructors talk about having a horse working on the bit, they are referring to the bit. The confusion about the term “bit” leads to many people believing that without a bit a horse can’t work correctly. This is just wrong. Bits have nothing to do with how a horse works. As I have said before, a bit is nothing more than a transducer that converts energy from the rein to a meaningful pressure via a horse’s mouth t0 it’s brain. So forget about thinking of terms like “on the bit” as being about the bit.


“On the bit” actually refers to a horse’s back. It’s how it carries its posture. A horse that is “above the bit” or “below the bit” tends to be hollow in their backs and the base of the horse’s neck is pushed downward. Both are evasions of “accepting the bit”.


When a horse is “on the bit” the horse has a rounder back, where the muscles along the topline are more relaxed instead of contracted. This allows further engagement of the hindquarters, which is why it is important that a horse relaxes the muscles of the topline.


Most often people look at the roundness (or flexion) of a horse’s neck to judge whether a horse is accepting the bit. But the roundness of the neck is not very revealing about the way a horse carries his back. There are many examples of horses with rounded necks, hollow backs and dragging hindquarters, where the “yielding” travels from the poll to the wither and no further.


This so-called “false rounding” often comes about with the help of gadgets (such as draw reins, side reins, pessoa, chambon etc) or the hands of a rider who does not know the feel of a horse softening its topline. Riders who do not feel a horse’s back often release the rein pressure in response to a horse rounding its neck rather than softening the back. This causes a lot of confusion for many and results in horses offering false collection. Even some elite dressage riders succumb to a false degree of collection rather than the real thing – the world champion dressage horse, Totilas is a perfect example of bad training; yet brilliant competition results.


To effectively teach a horse to accept the bit and carry itself is a long haul. It takes time. This is because it takes considerable muscle strength for a horse to sustain the correct posture. A horse may be able to offer moments of being on the bit in the early stages, but it can’t be expected to sustain it for the length of a dressage test until there is sufficient muscle development.


In my view the old tried and true method of the classical masters are still effective in teaching a horse to work correctly on the bit, although there are newer and quicker methods being developed all the time (please don’t write to me asking about rolkur).


It begins with teaching a horse to reach down with its neck to achieve what is called a “long and low” posture. This is where a horse’s frame is stretched out or elongated. The poll should be at wither height or slightly lower. The horse is encouraged to move freely forward at all paces, and the rein contact is minimal. In this way a horse will learn to relax it’s topline. Even though, it will be carrying itself on the forehand, the freedom of movement and elongation of the frame will encourage a more relaxed back. You might have to deconstruct a badly trained horse before you can construct it again for correctness.


As this becomes normal and easy for a horse, it can be asked to shorten its frame incrementally. However, in doing this it is important that the horse learns to yield to the reins and no push into them as they ask for more over time. As a horse accepts the reins more, it yields to the reins more. This means that in the process of shortening its frame in response to the reins, the base of the neck lifts and the roundness of the neck is more from a telescoping effect than a contraction of the neck. At the same time, the back lifts and the hindquarters engage further to carry more of the burden of weight. At no time, should the reins jam the neck. It’s hard to explain, but when you feel a horse lift its neck and back it becomes hard to confuse the difference between softening to the reins and bracing against the reins.


The last piece of the puzzle that I want to emphasize is that accepting the bit or correct response to the reins or whatever you want to call it, can’t be imposed on a horse. It comes through a horse accepting the action of the reins, seat and legs as a result of understanding and softness. Anytime, tension enters the picture resistances will appear, which will hinder a proper acceptance of the bit. So the first and foremost responsibility of the trainer is to ensure worry and tension do not creep in. This means a horse can only carry itself correctly and allow the reins to influence its mind when it understands, is willing and ready. It is not something you can fix with the correct tool.


That is a very scant and inadequate outline of what is entailed in teaching a horse to accept the bit. However, there are very many books and videos devoted to teaching correctness to the horse and I recommend people study them. As I said, it is simple in principle, but difficult in practice.


The photo is from my last clinic showing Katie helping her horse to reach down and stretch is topline. There was considerable change in how the horse strided forward and softened it’s back once it began to relax its back.