When A Horse Feels Worried - What To Do

I present some general principles on how to handle a horse that feels upset and worried. Please excuse the poor lighting, but it was filmed late at night in a motel room.



Speed Versus Energy

There is a very common misconception among horse riders that a horse’s energy equates to their speed. The belief is that if a horse is putting out a lot of energy they are traveling faster than when they are utilizing less energy. I understand why somebody would believe this. It makes sense that if a horse is traveling quickly it is using more energy than when moving slowly. But it is not necessarily true that a horse that is traveling slower than another horse has less energy or less impulsion than the faster horse.


I bring this up because in my travels teaching people I see the majority of riders not understanding this important but simple concept.


When a rider asks their horse to transition down from a trot to a walk they almost always see it is a slowing down of the horse and reduction in energy or effort on the part of the horse. So what happens much of the time is that the horse shifts from a forward moving trot to a sluggish walk. This is because the horse stops thinking “forward” and thinks either “stop” or “dull” instead. When the rider asks the horse to walk, they think in terms of going slower and less energetically and this is how the horse interprets the transition. The result is a leaching away of the horse’s energy like water draining out of a tub.


However, this is what I want people to think about. When I want my horse to perform a downward transition from trot to walk or canter to trot or canter to walk etc I don’t want it to be thought of as a slowing down, but as a change in the arrangement of the footfalls while keeping the same amount of energy or effort into the gait.


For example, moving from a trot to a walk should be keeping the same level of energy output coming from the horse while re-arranging the feet from a two-beat to a four-beat footfall.


This is hard for people to do because the easiest way to establish the walk is to remove the effort or energy out of the trot. But the problem when we do this is that in the process we also kill the thought to go forward, which makes having a forward and free walk or the next upward transition to the trot much more difficult.


Even when asking a horse to perform a slow movement like a slow walk or a slow trot or a slow canter, we still want the horse to be thinking forward and putting our an effort to move forward even if slowly. A free and forward slow walk or slow trot or slow canter is very different from a sluggish or lifeless one.


So when training the downward transitions I urge riders to think in terms of changing the rhythm of the horse’s feet, but not energy.


Photo: Kim is doing a good job of keeping a free and relaxed walk in Jive.

How Do You Know If The Training Is Good?

My last post clearly caused a lot of interest. The large majority of comments were in support of the post and appeared unbothered by the photo that accompanied it. But there were a small number of people who seemed to agree with most of what I said, but didn’t like the use of the photo I chose.


I was a little surprised that almost all the comments focused on the problem of colt starting competitions, when the post was really pointing out that the issues were much broader than that. However, in light of people’s fascination with the colt starting events and what is possible to make a horse do in such a short time, I want to once again highlight a very important principle.


I am convinced that there are a lot of people (perhaps the majority) who continue to believe that the quality of training or the degree of education of a horse can be judged by what we can get it to do.


I don’t think I am alone in this idea because nearly every training demonstration at any horse expo has a trainer showcasing some “wow” tricks in order to convince that they are the best. If people were not so easily fooled there would be no reason for trainers to show horses standing on pedestals or going to sleep while a chain saw is waved around them or a line of horses working at liberty. These performances are designed to sucker people in and extract money from them at some future date.


It’s not the trainer’s fault; they are only trying to make a living. It’s our fault for being so naïve as to believe that a horse working at liberty is automatically happier and better trained than one working on a line. We are the market they are catering to. If we paid money to watch somebody ride a happy horse on a loose rein at a soft, straight and rhythmic trot, trainers would stop teaching their horse’s to kick beach balls. But when was the last time a crowd went wild at a horse offering nice, relaxed trot at a horse expo?


Now that I have gotten that off my chest, this is the important point I want to make.


How do you know when to be impressed by what a trainer can get a horse to do?


Hint: It’s not the nice soft trot. It’s not cracking whips while standing on the horse’s back. It’s not from when a horse puts its head in the halter. And it’s not when it jumps through a hoop of fire. In fact, it’s not from anything it is doing.


Speaking for myself, the thing that I look for when assessing the quality of training is not what a trainer can make a horse do or how a horse feels when it is performing a task, but by how it feels when the horse is asked to change what it is doing.


I constantly ramble on about good training being primarily about changing a horse’s thought. Without getting a change of thought, a horse is no more than a polite, obedient slave. Most horses can get by performing tasks that have been drilled into them or where submission is the primary ingredient. But what gives it away are the tell-tale signs of resistance or anxiety when a horse is asked to do something different it was not expecting.


Let’s look at a really common example.


Many people teach their horse to load into a trailer. A lot of horses can go in and out of a trailer politely and quietly from just a hint from their owner. The quality of training that it takes a horse to do will impress very many people – especially if they battle just to walk their horse up to a trailer. But what if the horse is asked to load into the trailer and then when it is halfway in, unexpectedly asked to stop and stand still or back a step and stop? What happens when the horse’s idea to walk into the trailer is interrupted and we ask it to alter its idea to something else?


Most horses I have come across in my working life cannot do this exercise without feeling some inner trouble. Some horses will experience a little anxiety and others will tear up the inside of the trailer. This is because the horse has been trained to perform the trick of trailer loading and not learned to stay mentally connected to the owner.


Good training should be attempting to mentally connect people and horses in everything they do together before fixating on movement. Obedience just gives you movement, but mental focus and emotional softness create the quality of movement.


So when you next watch a demonstration of somebody executing some “Wow” movements with their horse, check for signs of worry or resistance when the trainer asks for a change that is not part of a routine.


Photo: This is an example of a horse that changed its thought. It just didn’t change it in the way the rider wanted.

Good Ideas Turned Bad

A lot of the time we take a good idea and turn it into a stupid idea. It seems there are few limits when it comes to people stuffing things up that could otherwise be brilliant. I know this view can be applied to most human endeavours, but let’s look at a few examples that pertain to the horse world.


The idea of testing your skills and your horse’s training against those of other horse people and before a group of expert judges has a lot of merit. It’s a way to assess your horse’s progress, gain valuable input and receive positive recommendations. It’s also a great way to give people goals to strive towards and maintain the enthusiasm for the sport they love. There is a lot to recommend about competition.


But then we give out prizes and human nature screws it all up and tosses out most of the benefits that competition bestows. When people get competitive very often the horse becomes just a vehicle for winning. Instead of the horse being the object of our joy, it is the ribbon or medal or prize money that brings us happiness. We are happy when we win and despondent when we lose.


But worse than that, the desire to be successful in competition has meant we adopt training programs and practices designed to suit the fashion of competition. Instead of the horse telling us how to train, our training is dictated by ever-changing rules and judging standards. This is particularly true in professional ranks where a person’s livelihood is dependent on meeting those standards and regulations and satisfying sponsorship demands. Few things are more corrupting of a good idea than money.


Yet, the problem extends to even non-serious or casual competitions. These days there are horse-starting events held all around the world. They began as an opportunity to showcase some of the best practices of some of the best horse people when starting a horse. They were meant as an educational event for the public to learn more about the process of beginning a horse’s life under saddle.


However, it has taken hardly any time at all for these events to turn into a race to the bottom where the goal is to get as much done with an unbroken horse as possible in 2 or 3 days. Just about every trainer I know who has competed in such competitions would say that starting a horse should take as much time as a horse needs. They all say what they did in competition is not how they start horses at home. Yet, put them in front of several hundred people and challenge their skill against 2 or 3 other trainers, all their good intentions are instantly forgotten.


It is made worse by event organizers requiring that in order to win the event, a trainer should put their horse through an obstacle course. There is no judging of the calmness, relaxation, willingness, and softness of the horses. It is 100 percent about what a trainer can make a horse do. As a result, the horses are flooded with enough pressure to create mindless submission. The opportunity for this type of event to be an educational occasion is lost because making it a competition has put the trainer’s reputation and business on the line.


Is the problem entirely to be blamed on calling these events “competitions” and pitting people against each other or vying for prizes and rewards?


I have noticed over several years how many people have built obstacles in their paddocks or arenas. As I go to different places I often see an assortment of poles, bridges, see-saws, stand alone gates, pedestals, tyres, roping dummies, large logs, barrels, trotting lanes etc all scattered around where people ride their horses.


The intention behind the obstacles is to offer a horse jobs that engage their mind, develop responsiveness, challenge their comfort zone and build confidence. These types of toys are fantastic tools to assist in this purpose. That is until people screw it up.


Even when there is no competition, people seem to find a way to make something into a competition. In my experience, when people start working their horse in a horsey toyland the intent of building focus, confidence, softness etc is quickly replaced by the need to successfully complete the task. When asking a horse to stand on a pedestal or walk across a bridge, we feel a sense of achievement in just getting it done. Our ego and self-esteem are given a boost when our horse successful negotiates an obstacle challenge. The goal of helping our horse feel better becomes a nice idea rather than a mission. We turn a good idea of using obstacles to help our horse into a crappy idea about what we can make our horse do for the sake of our ego.


I think fundamentally, the problem stems from the fact that people find it nearly impossible to be selfless. It’s part of being human. In the preface of The Essence Of Good Horsemanship, I wrote that winning ribbons and teaching obedience is just stuff, but first prize really comes from the happiness of having a good relationship with a horse.


If we could look at first prize in all these different endeavours as having the softest, most relaxed and correct horse, then perhaps our need to be a winner would be directed in a way that benefits the horse. But while we continue to reward riders for the wrong thing, our desperation to be winners will remain misdirected.


Photo: This was taken during a 3-day horse-starting event in the USA called, Road To The Horse. On the final judging day Australian trainer, Guy McLean stands on the back of a horse while cracking a stock whip.

What Is Natural Horsemanship?

The debate about what is natural horsemanship and what is not has been going on since the 1980s. For the purpose of this article, I am using the generic meaning of the term ‘natural horsemanship’ as opposed to the brand name for the training system taught by the Parelli organization.


It seems the debate falls into two camps. One side claims that anything we do with a horse is unnatural. Horses were not born to carry a rider, yield to the will of humans and perform movements on command that are rarely seen in the wild. To train a horse is unnatural.


The other camp would hold the view that natural horsemanship is a matter of working with the innate nature of a horse. However, there seems to be no consensus what that means. Some people consider just using the right equipment is enough to count the training as natural. Others think that following the principles of their favourite trainer counts.


To be fair, very few people actually call themselves natural horse people or natural trainers. About the only time I hear the term being used nowadays is when one person is pointing a disapproving finger another person’s training methods. They make criticisms of a person’s work and top it off by calling them natural trainers. Just a few days ago I read a Facebook blog by an Aussie trainer criticizing the entire world of ‘natural horsemanship’ because it instructs people to frighten a horse by chasing it in a round yard with a flag. I don’t know why chasing a horse around a yard with a flag makes somebody a natural trainer or any other type of trainer. Or why does even using a flag automatically categorize somebody as a natural horse training? To me, it is a peculiar mindset.


Tom Moates wrote an article a few years ago suggesting that there is no such thing as natural horsemanship. From memory, the argument went something like this. Almost all training (natural or otherwise) relies on ever increasing amounts of pressure to create a specific outcome; therefore the difference between natural and more traditional forms of training is insignificant. You can’t really distinguish between most forms of training because in practice they use pressure in much the same way despite the nice rhetoric. (N.B. Tom, if you read this and I have got it wrong I’d appreciate if you would clarify your thoughts in the comment section. I don’t want to misrepresent you.)


I agree with Tom’s view, but for what it is worth I have a different take on what natural horsemanship is and why most horsemanship does not fit the label.


If we are to argue that natural horsemanship is any form of horsemanship that works with the nature of a horse, then the criteria for fitting into that category becomes quite simple.


As I have said so many times in the past that you are probably sick of hearing it, a horse is always trying to what it is thinking of doing. A horse’s primary thought determines its actions. When you watch a horse running in the paddock it is because it was its idea. When you see a horse wander over to the trough for a drink, it is because having a drink was its primary thought. When you watch a horse roll in the sand, it’s because that idea occupied its mind more than any other.


You don’t see too many horses pick up a rope in their mouth and twirl it in perfect rhythm, but I have. And because it was that horse’s idea to do this (there was no training involved), it was a completely natural act. It was in that horse’s nature to twirl the rope. It might be the only horse in ten thousand that would think to twirl a rope without training, but for that horse, nothing was more natural at that moment in time. It would be no different than if say a boy wanted to play with a doll and a girl wanted to play with a toy tractor. It may not be common, but it is natural because it is what they wanted to do. It is their idea.


Therefore, we could argue that any idea a horse has to do something is the most natural thing for it to do. Conversely, anything a horse does that is not its idea to do is not natural.


If you accept this premise, then obviously natural horsemanship is a way of training that aligns the horse’s idea with the human’s idea. The flip side of that is any training that does not work at the level of encouraging the horse’s thought to be on the same page as the humans is unnatural horsemanship. If it is not a horse’s idea, then it is in conflict with the horse’s nature.


So if you want to truly be thought of as a trainer who works with the nature of a horse you’d better get a handle on this concept of changing a horse’s thought, otherwise you are just making stuff happen and you’re an unnatural trainer.


Photo: This was taken at my clinic in Ben Lomond, California late last year. Sheri has done a terrific job with Scout over the last couple of years. Look where Scout’s eyes and ears are fixed. That’s where his thoughts are focused. Now notice how his body is aligned and where his feet are going. Scout’s thought is leading his action. This is a good example of natural horsemanship. Sheri offered Scout an idea. It became Scout’s primary thought and he got the job done. I am so proud of Sheri and the job she is doing with Scout.