Can Horses Be Happy With A Job?

From time to time I get asked if I think horses can enjoy work. It’s a tough one to answer because so much of the time I believe I see unhappy horses. In fact, it is so common to see horses that one would say are unhappy in their work that it is easy to assume that happiness and working with people would appear to be incompatible.


Even if we see a horse that appears not to be unhappy, can I say it is happy?


But before I get onto the idea that horses can be happy in their work, the question makes an assumption that people have been debating about for a very long time – centuries, in fact. Can a horse ever experience happiness? Does a horse have the capacity to feel happy?


A few years ago I was on my way to visit a neighbour by cutting through our paddocks. My eye caught the curious sight of my neighbour’s racehorse reaching for a lead rope hanging on a wooden rail. I watched as the horse began to fling the rope by tossing his neck in a circle. Very soon the rope started to twirl a circle in the air. This continued for perhaps a minute before the horse dropped the rope on the ground and walked away. The horse spent a couple of minutes picking at grass before returning to once again pick up the rope in its teeth and commence to twirl it in the same perfect circle before dropping it once more. I was so transfixed by this act that I hung around to watch the horse repeat the exercise several times.


This was the first time I can recall watching a horse do something out of the ordinary just for fun. The horse had not been taught this as a trick. There was nobody around to give the horse a reward for its performance. This was a racehorse that had no training out of strict race training, so I knew it had not been taught to pick up a rope. It appeared that the motive for this horse’s behaviour was simply the joy it felt at being able to twirl a rope in a perfect circle. I can’t think of a better explanation for the rope twirling other than it made the horse happy.


In another example of self-inspired fun, my horse Luke was moved into a paddock with about 25 cows and steers. Luke had never been with cows before and had certainly never worked with them – his training was in dressage and jumping. One day I watched from the house as Luke put all the bovines in one corner of the paddock. Then he selected one particular cow, chased it to the bottom end of the paddock and steered in a very precise pattern around a group of trees. He then allowed the cow to return to the mob in the corner and selected another victim to repeat the exact same pattern. This went on for sometime until almost half the herd had taken their turn. I can only assume Luke gave up this game when he became tired or bored. There was nothing in Luke’s training or past to suspect this was a learned behaviour. There was no reward at the end of the game to motivate his behaviour other than the sense of enjoyment he received from the act itself.


When you think about it, the idea that horses can exhibit behaviours just for the fun of it should not surprise us. We don’t question it when a dog plays with a stick or a cat taunts a mouse without eating it. We accept they are showing behaviours that they are neurologically wired to perform and have fun doing them.


Behaviourists with a neuroscience bent may offer different explanations for Luke chasing a cow or my friend’s horse twirling a rope, but it does not seem too implausible that a horse can exhibit a behaviour purely motivated by the experience of having fun.


So if we accept that a horse can do something and feel happiness, is it possible to experience those emotions when we are directing the behaviour? Can a horse have fun when we ride?


People often assume that horses love chasing cows or that showjumpers love to jump or pleasure horses love to head out on the trail. I’m not going to argue for or against these notions because people will argue both sides of the coin when it comes to their own experience with their own horse. What I will offer are some thoughts on the pre-requisite that I believe must be in place if a horse is to find happiness in his work.


I have already suggested that the times I have seen horses really performing for the fun of it are when it came from them. I didn’t tell Luke to chase those cows or how to do it. nor did I instruct the racehorse to twirl a rope. Those behaviours derived from inside those horses. This suggests to me that for a horse to truly enjoy its work , it must feel like it came from inside and not from pure obedience.


If we impose a response or behaviour on a horse, I have serious doubts that a horse could ever feel happy about it. This comes back to the age-old adage that we should help our idea be the horse’s idea. Pointing a horse to a cow to a horse that enjoys moving cows could be fun for the horse, but doing the same thing to a horse that is not interested in cows or wants to be somewhere else (like its home paddock) can never be a joyful experience.


The second consideration I would offer is that there is a difference between a horse not being troubled by a job and finding happiness in that job. Most of us (including myself) strive to help a horse not be bothered when we ask something of it. That means training to high levels of focus, clarity and softness. This takes the trouble out of the work and introduces the okay-ness in our relationship. I think that’s as much as any of us can expect in most of the work we do with a horse and is worthy enough in itself.


But to add happiness to the work is a very different phenomenon that requires finding the jobs that your particular horse enjoys. Not every horse enjoys every job. I would even go so far to say that not every horse can ever be okay being around humans. If we want our horse to be happy, we need to find what job or discipline it feels happiest doing.


When somebody says their horse loves jumping or dressage or cow work the questions that needs to be asked before making such an assumption are (i) is my idea and the horse’s idea to perform a job the same idea or do I impose my will on my horse, and (ii) am I asking my horse to perform a job it is comfortable doing? This is the starting point before we can decide whether or not a horse enjoys its job.


The bottom line is that I believe horses can experience joy or fun or happiness, but whether they can experience it when working with us is entirely dependent of us.


Video: This is the annual horse race in Siena, Italy from 2016. Do you think this is a job many horses can enjoy?


Calming A Horse That Gets Scared Or Panicked


How can I keep my horse calm when he is panicked?



Much of the answer depends on what we mean by "panic". For me, a horse that is panicking is not able to engage its mind and is acting purely out of blind fear. In this case, there is nothing to be done until the panic subsides and the horse can engage its mind again. The best thing to do is stay out of the way of the horse and hopes it does not run off a cliff.


However, I suspect the question is really referring to a horse that is exhibiting a strong fear where it is still possible to communicate with a horse, but the behaviour is potentially dangerous. In this scenario, a rider has to know the limits of their ability to help a horse.


It’s not enough to be able to sit on a horse through bad behaviour. A rider’s job is to help turn a bad ordeal into an okay one – otherwise, there is no positive learning experience for the horse. In order to help a horse through a fearful event, the horse needs to feel the trigger that initiated the anxiety has either been removed or diminished. For example, if a horse is frightened by the sudden appearance of a kangaroo, putting some distance between the horse and the kangaroo will help reduce the fear behaviour. Later, when the horse’s emotions are calmer, a horse can learn to be okay with kangaroos using controlled training situations.


However in my experience, what most people deem as a fear response to an object or event is often not what it really appears. For example, a horse that shies and spins at a stump is generally not really worried about the stump. Horses see stumps all the time and seeing one on the trail is not usually the cause of shying. The fear comes from the worry of being away from home or an inability to stay focused on the rider or separation from other horses etc. The common thread is usually that the horse’s mind is flying around like a balloon on a windy day and does not focus on the connection with the rider. It is constantly on the lookout for something that might get it killed instead of mentally checking in with the rider. Shying at a stump is just a symptom of a much larger problem of a lack of focus. I believe this is the source of most people’s problem.


The solution is the rider’s awareness of when a horse is focused and when it is not. When a horse loses mental connection with the rider, the rider’s job is to give the horse a reason to connect again. This means interrupting the horse when it takes an interest in something else by asking it to perform a task that requires it to pay attention. Don’t ask the horse to do something it can do in its sleep, but give it a job that requires a mental effort. It is more important that a mental effort is made rather than a physical effort because the fear behaviour is the result of a mental/emotional problem, not a physical one. Despite what some trainers will say, getting to a horse’s feet is far less important than getting a change in its thoughts.


If a rider can be vigilant and consistent with directing a horse’s thoughts and concentration, dealing with a panic is rarely an issue. It’s better to fix the problem before it begins than when you are in the middle of it. If a rider can build a stronger mental connection with a horse, they are fixing the cause of the panic behaviour. If they wait until the horse is already having an emotional meltdown, they are just trying to control the symptoms.


Clinic Update - Montana

The Right Trainer

I was asked to re-post this article I wrote from last year about what I look for when deciding if I like a trainer or not. I hope it helps some people re-examine their love of the trainers that are all show and look for those that are sincere in their horsemanship.


I try to watch as many horse people working with horses as my busy life permits. In particular, I am always interested in observing other professionals to see what they do that maybe I could adopt or do better. I’m always on the look out for good ideas that could make me a better horseman.


Add to that I am regularly asked for my opinion on the horsemanship of other horse people. “What do you think of so and so?” and “Who do you think I should get help from?” or “Isn’t so and so brilliant, what do you think?” are very common questions I get.


Most times I know at least a bit about the people being referred to, sometimes I know a lot but sometimes I am not familiar with the name at all.


Before I talk about the topic I want to discuss, I want to say something about the political correctness of giving an opinion on someone’s horsemanship skills.


Despite being criticized from time to time for giving my honest opinion, I will continue to give my honest opinion. I believe the importance of this is beyond the niceties of the old adage “if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” I feel that is a nonsense view that does nothing to help horses or the horse owners that ask for my opinion. I am more interested in the welfare of horses than I am in the courtesy of being supportive of people whom I think work in a way that does not benefit horses. Nevertheless, I always try to be polite and respectful and fully explain the reasons behind any appraisal I make.


I have said before on this page that I believe it is a responsibility of professional horse people to openly and politely discuss the methods and philosophy of each other so that the students who are looking for guidance can examine the pros and cons of each trainer or clinician. I don’t believe a polite “no comment” helps anybody – particularly the novice horse owner.


This is why I don’t censor different views and criticisms of my work on this page – as long as the comments are polite and respectful. Yet, I keep coming across other professionals who have a strict policy of deleting dissenting comments and banning those who make them.


So having made that clear, what I really want to talk about is what I look for when I am weighing up the quality of a person’s horse work.


It is my experience that many people get caught up in the hoopla of trainer’s presentation that they don’t see the real quality of the horsemanship behind the smoke and mirrors. Things like clever catch phrases, humorous presentations, a gift of the gab, wow-factor horse tricks, polished videos, long list of competition ribbons and awards etc, contribute a great deal to how we perceive a person’s horsemanship. The glitz, the tricks, and the smooth talk are so up front and attractive, that we often fail to see the emotional state of the horse behind it. It takes a lot of self-discipline to put that stuff aside and focus on how the horse is doing.


The person who can stand on the back of his horse and start a chainsaw attracts a lot more attention than the person who can inspire a nice soft trot from their horse. The person who can be riding an unbroken horse in 2 hrs gets a lot more cheers than the person who has a horse happy to see him when he walks into the paddock. And the person who can train a horse to perform high-level movements after 4 months of training attracts a lot more students than the person whose horse will softly lower its head to accept the halter.


It is the nature of people that we are impressed by the glaringly obvious and miss the brilliance of the subtle things.


Now back to what I look for when I am watching another horse person working.


The first thing I look for is how the trainer approaches a horse for the first time. I want to know if they adjust their approach and touch for what the horse is feeling in an effort to help the horse feel more comfortable. That tells me how much they care about the horse in front of them.


The second thing is perhaps the most important and I feel speaks volumes about the kind of horse person I am watching. When a trainer asks a horse to do something I look to see if they start by trying to direct the horse’s thought or do they immediately begin by driving the horse? If they start by driving the horse, I am almost immediately turned off. I don’t mind if they try to initially direct the horse and then find they have to drive them. But if they begin by driving the horse; it is an immediate loss of 100 points of credit. They would have to be pretty bloody amazing in everything else they do to make up for the crime of going directly to driving horses.


(As an aside for those that don’t know the difference between directing and driving a horse, directing is sending a horse towards where it is thinking and driving is sending a horse away from where it is thinking. More information is in my book “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.)


This thing about first directing a horse’s thought is fundamental as to whether a person is the kind of trainer who is only concerned with a horse being mindlessly obedient or whether they are interested in a horse willingly following an idea the trainer presents.


The classic example of this can be seen at clinics and on groundwork videos when a trainer asks a horse to lunge around them on a circle. Trainers who begin by approaching a horse while at the same time spinning the tail end of the lead rope or slapping their leg or waving the coils of a lariat etc are missing the part about working co-operatively with the thoughts of a horse.


However, let me be clear, I am not saying that it is wrong to drive a horse if a horse does not understand how to respond when you try to direct its thought. But starting by driving a horse speaks volumes about whether a person sees a horse as a slave or a friend.


The third important thing that I look for when watching another professional horse person is how much they understand about why they do what they do. I believe a person needs a clear and rational understanding of the things they want a horse to understand. If the explanation does not stand up to critical scrutiny then I can’t see the point and I question the credentials of the person doing the teaching.


Take for example the exercise of lateral flexion, where a horse is expected to stand still while a rider uses the reins to flex the neck left and right. I have seen this hundreds (maybe thousands) of times and have asked the question “why” nearly as often. I have never received a logical explanation from anybody that made sense to the horses or me. Yet it is an almost universal exercise.


To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “If a person cannot correctly explain a concept in simple language then they do not understand their subject well enough.”


There are other aspects of a person’s horse work that can influence my view of them, but I consider the three elements I have mentioned form the basis by which I judge the horsemanship of everybody I come across. You may have your own set of criteria that differs from mine, but whatever they are, I urge you to utilize them with everybody you see working a horse.

The Rein Back

Approximately ninety percent of horses that attend my clinics for the first time do not rein back well. They usually lean on the reins, lock up their hindquarters, swing their hindquarters to one side or the other, have a 3 or 4 beat footfall, rush backward, throw their head and hollow their back or some combination of any of those things.


It is thought by some folk that training a horse to back up too early will damage the forward response and confuse a horse. But this has never been my experience. I suspect that the anti-backing brigade is fixated on the idea that a young horse can’t differentiate between the exercise of going forward and going backward until one of those exercises is firstly confirmed solidly in a horse’s mind. However, I feel this notion is rooted in misconceptions.


Firstly, the movement of backing is just as natural to a horse as going forward. It is not foreign, as some people believe. If you have ever seen a horse backing in order to kick another horse, you’ll know they can do it easily and at lightning speed. I’m not saying it is as easy a movement as forward is for a horse because their hocks make backing a more clumsy maneuver. But nonetheless, backing up is not something horses find foreign or worry about when it is their idea.


I believe those who train cues rather than concepts are generally the most ardent, diehard opponents of backing horses in early training. It appears to derive from believing that training is about moving a horse’s feet. [Regular readers will know that the idea that training is about moving the feet of a horse is a pet peeve of mine and in my view one of the biggest roadblocks to building okay-ness in horses.]


In this discussion, I am going to concentrate on the process of teaching a horse to back while under saddle for the purposes of this article because it brings up a couple of subjects that I want to discuss.


My approach when teaching a horse to back up is to rely almost exclusively on the use of the reins. I introduce my seat as a precursor to backing a horse by tilting my pelvis back so that my seat bones roll to a slightly flatter position. Now a young horse won’t know why I did this or what he/she should do about it, but I do it anyway as my first polite attempt at directing a horse to prepare to back up. If I am consistent, one day the adjustment of my seat will be a clear signal to a horse to prepare its body to move backward. But please note that I DO NOT sit with the leaning back slouch and my legs pushed forward of my hips, like so many riders do. Without a doubt, this inhibits the free movement of the horse.


I follow tilting of my pelvis with an application of feel in both reins. The pressure is steady and not pulsing, as some people attempt to do. The amount of feel or weight of my reins is the bare minimum I sense is enough to inspire a horse to search for a relief from the pressure. As long as a horse is searching for the correct response, the pressure is steady while the horse tries various options. If there is an over reaction, I remove the pressure and being again with about half the amount of pressure. If the horse does not seem interested in seeking relief from the reins, I will increase the feel in my reins and then wait for a try.


At this stage, I am not looking for softness or correctness or a 2 beat footfall. I may not even care if my horse moves a foot back. At this very early stage, I am looking for a ‘letting go’ of the thought to push forward. This is the very beginning of teaching a horse to back up – a change of thought to stop pushing forward. A lot of horses will back their feet and still be mentally pushing forward. Some do this all their lives. But I want to establish very early that my aids are there to induce a change of thought first and foremost because this will lead to focus and softness, as clarity becomes established.


I keep building on this concept of holding until a horse has a change of thought. As it becomes clear to the horse that when I pick up both reins it should stop thinking forward, it is only a small step to creating a backward thought. This then leads to the feet moving back of the horse’s own will and not from being pushed back by the reins.


Now we have come to the next point where I differ quite a lot from my peers. When the horse begins to respond with a backup, many trainers will apply their legs to create more energy in the horse’s feet. I don’t encourage this use of the rider’s legs until much later and here’s why.


In very early training, the most important job of the rider’s legs is to implant the concept of ‘forwardness’ in a horse’s mind. I don’t believe the rider’s leg should be directing a horse’s mind to do anything but think forward. It is not until this role of the legs is well established will I use my legs for anything else. I don’t use my legs for directing lateral movement or backward movement in early training. This becomes the role of the reins – which I have discussed in previous posts and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.


At the time that I am introducing the reins back into my training, a forward response to my legs is still evolving and not yet established. For this reason, I don’t want to muddy the meaning of my legs to a horse at this time. I don’t want my horse to think the legs mean more ‘forward’ sometimes, and more ‘backward’ at other times, which is often the result when a rider uses rein and leg aids simultaneously when asking for a rein back. This would be sending contradictory signals to my horse at a stage that it is not yet ready to understand. So when I require a more active backup, I apply a stronger feel on the reins.  If I have done my job well, the life in my horse’s back will parallel the strength of feel in my reins.


Later, when my horse is comfortable and clear about the most basic role of my legs and reins, I will introduce the concept that my legs can both evoke more energy (irrespective of the direction) and also be directional (by triggering ideas of backward and lateral movement). Eventually, this can be extended to riding a horse without reins.


I hope this helps clear up some of my thoughts that people at clinics have been asking about lately. Like most things in training, the concepts of teaching a horse are simple. But it is important that refinement of the rein back movement is approached slowly and stands on the shoulders of well-established basics. 


Photo: Betsy is learning to yield back in response to a feel of the reins. Unfortunately, Betsy fell at a hurdle, broke a leg and we had to put her down!

Classical Principles: Directing and Driving Horses

There was a recent discussion on another forum that asked people for their definition of classical principles. Most people talked about working towards correctness of movement or using the principles to build strength and agility.


I took a different view. This is what I wrote, “For me, the principle of classical training is when the horse and rider are as close to possible to working as one. This means striving towards only directing a horse's mind and not driving the body.”


Which brings me to the subject of driving versus directing.


It is a topic I discuss at nearly every clinic, but it seems it is difficult for some people to grasp. I put this down to two reasons. Firstly it is made more difficult by the fact that most trainers and clinicians don’t discuss or teach directing, only driving horses. And secondly, I do a sub-standard job of explaining it. So this is my attempt to correct the latter problem, even though it is discussed in my yellow book and I have written about it on this page in previous posts.


I’m going to start by offering my definition of driving and directing and I urge you to refer back to these definitions as you read on.


Driving – the act of using pressure to separate a horse’s feet from its thought.

Directing – the act of using pressure to inspire a horse’s feet to go with its thought.


I saw a quick example of the difference just a couple of days ago. I was called out to do a lesson with a nice woman who owned a smart gelding. The woman wanted to get her horse to face up to her before sending it somewhere around the pen. To get the horse to face her she applied pressure on the horse’s hindquarters in order to get them to move away from her and in the process have the horse standing directly in front facing her. This is an example of driving a horse’s feet to achieve a result.


But if she was to direct the horse to face her, instead of driving the hind end away, she would have drawn the horse’s thought towards her by creating space between her and the horse’s front end. In other words, rather than pushing the hind end to go away from her, she could have asked the front end to come towards her. That would be directing the horse because the horse’s thought would go towards her and her feet would move to line up the horse’s body to face the owner.


It does not take a genius to realize that these two techniques evoke two different emotions from the horse. Obviously, using directing techniques is a clearer path to a better relationship and happier, more compliant horse. Driving methods may produce obedience, but it only achieved through anxiety and evasion of pressure.


Now that you have an outline of the principles of driving and directing, let me go into more detail regarding the things that I think confuse people. Again, I suggest you keep in mind the definitions I gave you.


The secret to teaching a horse to be direct-able is to always offer a directing feel to whatever aid you choose to use as your first polite ask. Under saddle, it might be the rein, leg, or seat or any combination of them. In the groundwork, it could be the feel of the lead rope, the energy, and muscle tone of the handler’s body, the wiggle of a finger or the walk in their feet – anything that says to the horse “can you think about this?” It should be a signal and energy that you want your horse to eventually yield to one day. So start with how you want to present a feel when your horse has finally got the picture. This is the most important part of training a horse through direction instead of driving.


Now if the horse does not understand what it is to direct its thought before moving its feet, you need to consider why this is before choosing your next course of action. If a horse is searching for an answer but struggles to figure it out, just give it more time. Don’t ask more or less, just persist with your first polite request. However, if a horse does know what it is being asked, but has been taught to ignore or tune out the feel you present, you need to consider enacting a driving pressure. This is the tricky part.


The role of driving the horse is not to make a horse move its feet. Most people think driving is about moving the feet of the horse when it is too lazy or not being obedient. This is wrong. The job of the driving pressure is to give importance and meaning to the first polite feel of directing a horse’s thoughts. This cannot be repeated too many times. The job of driving a horse is not to make it do something, but to make it think something. Most of the time this means using enough pressure to block the thought a horse has to not be attentive to the directing feel you offer. It does not mean to create a thought, but to block the thought a horse already has to ignore direction. Once that is overcome, a horse is ready to accept any new idea you might present – including being directed.


One thing that seems to confuse people is that they associate gentle pressure with directing and firm pressure with driving. Most times this is a legitimate association – they are often linked. But in a strict sense, they are not because the difference is not in how much pressure is applied but in the relationship between direction where a horse’s thoughts are relative to where its feet are moving. I refer you back to the definition I used earlier in this essay.


If you haven’t seen this at work by somebody who knows their stuff, it can seem very confusing and even intangible from just reading about it. But it is real and it makes a huge difference to both the relationship you might have with a horse and the performance that results.


If you watch enough trainers or attend enough clinics, you’ll be aware that the vast majority of professionals apply driving methods most of the time without first offering a directing pressure. I’m not kidding. It’s more prevalent than teenage acne and a much bigger problem.


I can only guess why is this so? Perhaps the concept of directing a horse’s thoughts is so elusive or difficult that only a few horse people can grasp it? Maybe it’s because the notion is unfathomable or unheard of in the wider world of horse training? Possibly it is because trainers are stuck in what they know and are too comfortable to think or experiment outside of their comfort zone? Or conceivably I am wrong in thinking it is a much more fitting and beneficial approach to working with horses? I don’t know why driving is so prevalent and directing so rare in the horse training world. But I do know that the best a horse can be is when its mind is available to be directed rather than its feet available to be driven.


Photo: I present a plan to direct the horse and the owner's thoughts at a clinic in Colfax, California 2015

Innovation In Horse Training

I hear people talk about good old fashion common sense horsemanship. They refer to the horsemanship of days gone by as a better time. They speak of their father, aunt, grandfather as being their biggest influence and among the best horse people they have ever seen.


Even some professional trainers speak of the old timers as being the best and modern trainers are only re-inventing the wheel. They see today’s most venerated horse people as standing on the shoulders of past masters. In Australia, people speak of Kel Jeffrey and Jim Wilton from the 1930-1970’s in revered whispers, as if God gets training advice from them. I will stick my head out a little and argue that in the US modern horsemanship has been largely shaped by Prof Berry and later by Tom Dorrance and they receive the same level of reverence as their Aussie counterparts.


When I look closely, it appears to me the last golden age (note, I said “the last”, not the only) for innovation in horsemanship was in the 1970-80s. This period represents a time when people like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt were at their peak and most influential. It also saw the dawn of training behemoths like John Lyons and Pat Parelli – where formula driven horsemanship was introduced to the masses.


We are now in 2016 and what Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt were teaching in the 1980’s is still considered by many to be the pinnacle of our understanding of training horses. There is a global reverence given to these two talented horsemen and any critical analysis or debate is widely met with disdain and even accusations of blasphemy. To say a person studied with Tom or Ray or works in the style they tried to convey to the world is to give a person instant credibility, without any real analysis of their work. There is even an organization and semi-regular events are held dedicated to the devotion and preservation of their teachings (Legacy of Legends).


This is all okay with me, but I feel it both creates a problem and begs a question. The problem is that it has lead to a stagnation of innovation in horsemanship. And the question is, if the education of horse people is stuck in the 1970s and 1980s, where is the innovation of new ideas and new approaches going to come from?


It is true to say that horses have barely changed in thousands of years. But it is equally fair to say that our knowledge and understanding of them and how they operate has evolved dramatically in the past few decades.  First, we know more about their biomechanical function and the limits of their bodies. We also know much more about their care, whether it is dental, hoof, nutrition, disease, equipment fit etc. But more importantly than that we understand more about the psychology of the horse. We have a greater appreciation of their emotional needs in the training process and how the old style master/slave relationship has no place in good horsemanship. Furthermore there has been a global shift in attitude towards horses from being merely tools to get a job done to being friends, partners and playmates who deserve our passionate devotion and our best care.


Given our evolved understanding and attitude, where are the innovations of the future going to come from?


It appears to me we are slowly moving towards approaches that are designed to address the mind of a horse as a way to influencing the movement and our relationship. However, there is considerable resistance to this idea from those trainers still stuck in the 1980s where the notion of moving the feet was the way to influence the mind of the horse. It’s not that they outwardly disagree with this approach, it’s just that falsely believe they are already using it. It’s because they mistakenly believe this that they resist any change. For example, just go to any clinic today and you will see training that only initiates movement by using driving techniques. This is classic 1980’s style training that has not evolved for thousands of years and seems impervious to modernization. The move away from this approach is slow and largely resisted by those whose roots are entrenched in the 1980s because they don’t see the problem and refuse to examine their approach with a critical eye.


Even the innovation of adapting positive reinforcement training to the world of horses has not moved beyond its early inception in the training of sea mammals very many decades ago. It too has stagnated despite proving to be a less than perfect approach in my opinion.


So where else could the innovations of the future be sourced?


Andrew McLean has claimed that in 50 years everybody will be using Learning Theory combined with Equitation Science principles to work with horses. He believes behavioural scientists hold the key to the ultimate innovations in horse training and horsemanship. But at this early stage of the science, the evidence would appear to point to the opposite truth. The science of horsemanship has so far proved to be decades behind the horsemanship of good horse trainers. It is stuck even further back than the horsemanship of the 1970-80s because it is all about the mechanics of training and has very little understanding of feel. Today’s science seems focused on explaining why present day training methods work and has no clue how to develop new and innovative approaches. Whereas a lot of modern training is still working the same way that was new in the 1980s, equitation science is still working at what was new in the 1950s. It’s hard to see how equitation science will ever be able to catch up with good horsemanship practices in the foreseeable future, let alone take a leading role in innovation. But we live in the hope that perhaps the next generation of behavioural scientists will learn to be horseman and not just laboratory technicians.


I am not blameless in the slow progress of new ideas. The limitations of my ability to experiment with weird and whacky ideas for training horses makes me as much part of the problem as anyone else. I wish I had the ability to be more of an innovative thinker and trainer that I am. But one thing I feel I don’t suffer from is contentment with the present situation. I feel eager for somebody with great innovative ideas to show me a better future for horses and horsemanship.


I truly hope that we have not reached the end of the evolution of horse training ideas. I choose to believe such great horsemen, as Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt would agree with me on that. But at the moment the almost universal closed door mentality on re-evaluating the work of training from the 1970-80s, makes it appear that progress and innovation will be blocked instead of steady. Where will the next Xenophon, Berry, Jeffrey or Dorrance come from?


Albert Einstein once said there are children in the playground today that could solve some of physics biggest problems. Wouldn’t it be great if the next generation of horse men and women broke through the dormancy of today’s thinking?

A Horse Is Always A Horse First

At the clinic in Cambridge Iowa that was held last weekend, an unusual thing happened – 3 Peruvian Paso horses and their owners took part. The week before, an Icelandic horse attended my clinic in Colfax California. This may not be unusual for many other clinicians, but in Australia gaited horses of any kind are unusual and cause for interest. There would be many Aussie clinicians and trainers who would never have experience with a gaited horse in their entire careers. I have had limited experience in the past with a few Paso Fino, Peruvian Paso, Rocky Mountain, Tennessee Walker and Fox Trotter horses. Maybe this is more experience than a lot of trainers have in Australia, but it is not enough to understand their gaits and the traditions of training methods used by those who specialize in working with them.


However, what I do know is that horses are horses.


The three Peruvian Paso geldings I worked with over the last 4 days had been trained in a traditional Peruvian manner for the show ring. This means they carried themselves with a very high head carriage, hollow back, and the movement was a quick staccato 4 beat step like a wind-up toy (ie very short and rapid fire). The owners of two of the horses (Mike and Debbie) used traditional Peruvian gear, which comprised a spade bit (complete with a central plate to impose a head carriage), used one handed and a quirky saddle based on traditional Baroque saddle design. The other horse owned by Ellen was worked in a snaffle bit and western saddle.


What was easily apparent to everybody, including the owners was that the movement Mike and Debbie’s horses displayed was produced by tension. The horses ran on adrenaline. There was nothing soft or relaxed in the way they moved. I am told that trainers want this in their show horses because it looks impressive to those who like the tradition. Yet, the horses are wired tight like a violin string and can’t relax their top line or get a bend when executing a circle or turn. They can’t use their hindquarters correctly because they are upside down.


This may be okay for those that want a show horse, but what about those that want a Peruvian Paso as a nice quiet and relaxed riding horse. Does it mean that if you want a trail horse or a kids pony that you have to look outside the Peruvian Paso, Paso Fino etc breeds? Of course not.


I asked the owners over the weekend of two of the Peruvian horses did they know their horses were not Peruvian Paso horses. There was a look of shock on their faces as if I was about to tell them they had been duped and had paid a large sum of money for two pit ponies. I said, “You’ve got two trail horses, who happen to have Peruvian bloodlines. They are not Peruvian horses that go on trail rides.”


This is an important distinction. Because instead of treating and training them like Peruvian Paso horses, they need to be treated and trained like trail riding horses.


Every horse is just a horse. In my mind, this is impressive enough without having to assign royal breeding to it. But it also means that everything that I want to offer as a basic education to a trail horse is the same thing I want to offer to a racehorse, dressage horse, roping horse, carriage horse, polo horse, barrel racing horse or Peruvian show horse.


From the day a breaker becomes rideable, many people start training for a specialized discipline. Some even start their specialized training before they are started under saddle – look how messed up Arab show horses are before they are even under saddle!


Racehorses go from the breaker to pre-training to the track and are racing without ever learning to be riding horses. How many dressage stars ever see a trail or know how to step around to open gates? How many reining horses know how to offer a relaxed forward trot? How many carriage horses know how to bend in the turns? How many eventing horses know how to be soft on the reins? You get my point.


In addition to the two Peruvian Paso horses that had nothing but experienced traditional training, there was another that had been with Ellen Kealey for 3 months because the previous trainer was unable to stop it from bucking when ridden. It too had originally been trained in the traditional Peruvian style as the other two horses at the clinic. But Ellen had changed all that.


I was glad everybody got to see Ellen’s horse working. It was able to walk, gait and canter quietly and relaxed. There was a level of okay-ness inside Ellen’s horse that is rarely (if ever) seen among the more highly-strung gaited horses. It was proof to everybody at the clinic that riding horses are riding horses first and whatever else we want them to be comes later.


Mike and Debbie were wonderful students. Their passion for their horses and their interest in helping their Peruvian Paso geldings be calm and comfortable riding horses gives me a lot of hope for the future of those horses. It was a pleasure to work with such people who are searching for something better.


Photo: I apologise for the poor quality of the photos, but I am really bad at capturing horse’s movement in low-light conditions. On the left is Debbie riding Swave and on the right is Ellen riding Kaluha. Debbie wants Swave to one day feel as emotionally comfortable as Kaluha.

We Begin By Asking One Question

I arrived in Iowa yesterday for 2 clinics over the coming fortnight. Last night I sat around the dinner table with a few friends catching up on news and talking about horses and the upcoming clinics. One friend asked me which of her horses I thought she should bring to the clinic.  I replied that it didn’t matter to me because clinics are not about training her horses, but giving her information that would help her train her horses at home. I would always find something to work on no matter if she brought along her brilliant horse or her deeply troubled horse or something in between. I then asked her what did she want most help with? She listed a long litany of projects that could fill a book.


My friend conflicted because she realized that we only had 4 days to tick all the items off her list and every time she thought she would focus on one particular aspect of her horsemanship, another item of equal importance came into her head and then another. She was having trouble figuring out what handful of issues were going to be the most helpful to her and her horses over the coming year until I returned in 12 months when we could tick off more items.


I asked her, “Imagine we were at a dinner party and sitting across the table from each other. Even crazier, imagine you thought I might be an interesting person and wanted to know something about me. How would you go about finding out my life story?”


Another friend at the table piped in with, “You’d ask a question.”


He was right – you’d ask a question. And my response to the question would determine what might be my friend’s next question. Each response I gave would reveal something about myself that would lead to the next question. And so our conversation would unfold both information about me, and an impression of me, that would form the basis of our relationship (good or bad).


For me, working with people or working with horses requires the same approach.


When I first sit on a horse or walk into the pen, I begin by asking the horse a question. I don’t have preconceived ideas what I will do, how I will do it and how much of it I will do. I just ask a question. The question could be anything, but it is usually something simple such as, ”can you look at me” or “are you able to soften to the reins” or “can you stand still?” It doesn’t matter what question I ask. What does matter, though, is that I listen to the answer.


Now, here is the important part. We need to learn to be really good listeners because most of the time the important information is not in the obvious answer but in the subtext of the answer. For example, if I ask a horse, “can you walk forward?” Getting a “yes” or “no” answer is usually less informative than the information that the answer is shrouded in.


Let me be more specific. If the horse says, “yep, I can walk forward,” and does so, often times the important information is not that it does walk forward but how it walks forward. Does it walk out straight? Did the rider need to apply a lot of leg or just have the thought to walk forward? Did the horse walk off relaxed or with worry? Was there a rush or was it slovenly? Did the head come up or stay low? Did the horse brace itself with a shudder through its body when it felt the rider’s leg? Did it push into the reins? Did it lean on one rein or both? Did it start with a push from the hind end or a drag from the front end? Did the tail and/or mouth become busy? Did its breathing or eye blink reflex change and how? And so much more.


You get the picture. There are a zillion bytes of information that can be gathered by the response a horse gives from asking just one simple question. All of them have a meaning. So when a person asks how you can know what a horse is thinking, it makes me wonder if they are very good listeners.


It is no different for me when I am teaching people. If I don’t know much about a person or where they need help, I begin by asking them a question. Sometimes this is a question that requires a verbal answer and other times it requires them to do something with their horse so I can see how they interact. It usually involves some basic skill, like leading their horse.


My next response is entirely dependent on how they respond to my question. Little by little each question and each answer contribute to building a picture that tells me what area of horsemanship they need help understanding and practicing.


Even when I know a horse or a person or know what I want to work on with them, I never begin by trying to put my plan immediately into action. I have no idea what or how I might go about activating my plan to teach them something. I always begin by asking them the first question. For example, in last week’s clinic in Colfax, California I wanted to help a horse be more forward. But rather than begin by asking it to have more energy to go forward, I instead asked if it could look at me and relax. It couldn’t. So I worked on getting a change in that before I even thought of addressing the forward issue.


So my friend’s dilemma about which horse she should bring to the clinic is not really a dilemma. It doesn’t matter because we won’t have a plan until we see what the response is to the first question. She finally decided to bring the horse with the least amount of mud on it on the day, so she didn’t have to devote too much time to brushing.


Photo: Before asking Dakota to think about offering a more forward gait, I begin by asking if he can look to his left to gauge where his mind is thinking and how he is feeling.

Why Is Knowledge So Specialized?

Most of my clinics are attended by people with a wide range of experience and interests. As well as many amateur and occasional riders I often meet very experienced horse people at my clinics. Many have been riding most of their life. Some have even competed successfully at a high level in various disciplines. I get a smattering of trainers from various horse sports. A few have been judges in various disciplines such as dressage or jumping, reining, halter breed classes etc. These are people will a lot of experience and many skills in their chosen field.


When I first started doing clinics, things that the experienced folk needed helping with often surprised me. I remember one dressage rider who was competing at Prix St George level wanting help teaching her horse to politely load into a trailer. Another person who educated reining horses for a living needed tips on catching a horse. Then there was the person that was a top-level dressage judge in Australia whose horses would always nip and then walk away when they mounted. Even with the amateur riders who have regular instruction, I am sometimes dismayed at why their instructor has not been able to help with the most simple issues like ear shyness.


These are just a few examples of experiences that mystify me.


It seems that in this era, horsemanship has become a specialized discipline in itself. When I was a kid, the basic skills of being good around horses were part of everything we did. If a horse would throw its head during bridling it was fixed before we worried about going out to the jumping paddock. Yet, I see horses at clinics that have been ridden for years and fuss about bridling with no recognition from the rider that this might be a problem. How has this lack of recognition crept into our work with horses?


I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (thanks Charity for recommending it). Harari describes that Neanderthal humans had bigger brains than us Sapiens. One theory for this suggests that Neanderthals were poor communicators and did not work well collectively with other Neanderthals. This meant that each Neanderthal needed to know how to track and kill an animal and what plants were edible and how to read the stars and weather and how to cook etc. But Sapiens learned to communicate and share knowledge, so we evolved to use a collective knowledge where each person could specialize and share their expertise with the group. This meant that each individual Sapien needed to know less about the world than an individual Neanderthal.


Reading this book began me wondering is this why so many riders understand so little about the basics of horsemanship? Have we become a group of riders where each individual becomes an expert specialist and uses the collective knowledge of other specialists to care for, train and ride horses?


I do appreciate the power of collective knowledge, but there is a problem that stems from such a dependency on others. It means that we get lazy and don’t inform ourselves enough to know which specialist to believe.


For example, my specialty is training people to train horses to follow a direction with their thought to produce a performance and build a foundational relationship. That’s what I do for a living (or try to do). But at the same time, I have learned a working knowledge of saddle fitting, hoof care and trimming, dental care, gear and gear fitting, basic nutrition, good riding, stable and trailer design, arena and yard design, correct movement and gait analysis, soundness, veterinary care etc.


My knowledge in these areas is not specialized, but general and broad. I would not trust myself to diagnose and treat an injured back or to perform a corrective trim on a horse. But I do know enough to know when a horse is sore and when the feet are unbalanced and if a saddle fits well or not and why. I do know enough to assess equipment or why a trailer is unsuitable for a particular horse.


I also know enough to know when I don’t know enough and require input from more expert opinions. But in saying that I feel I am informed enough to know which expert opinion to use and which not to use for most things.


I often find horse people do not have a broad knowledge of the basic information that most people did going back say 100 years or so ago. In the past, there was not the specialization that we see today. The onus of knowing how to treat a horse’s teeth or train a horse to load into a trailer or know what bit to use was on the owner, not specialist consultants that we have available today.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe it is fantastic that we have such expert knowledge available to us. But what concerns me is that we rely on other people to tell us what we should at least have a working knowledge about. Every time somebody asks me to check the fit of their saddle on their horse, there is always a group of people who gather around to watch and ask questions. Something as important but mundane as knowing if your saddle fits should not be in the realm of a specialist. In my opinion, saddle fitting is basic enough that every horse person should have a working knowledge of it. I include in that category things such as knowing when your horse’s hooves are balanced, teaching to lead, tie up and loading on and off a trailer, catching, body condition, basic medical treatment, assessment of conformation and movement, teaching to be quiet for bridling and saddling – the list could go on.


If these are things that you struggle with, please don’t think I am pointing the finger at you and saying “bad owner.” That’s not the purpose of this essay. Instead, I want to inspire you to gain as much knowledge as you can about the things you presently rely on other people to tell you. Take an interest in understanding things like proper hoof trim and how to develop a quiet mind in a horse and what makes a good trailer or a bad one. Information is so accessible nowadays that there is no obstacle to obtaining it if you have the will. The more we rely on other people for answers the more we are susceptible to being lead down the wrong path at the expense of our wallets and our horse’s well-being.


Photo: Neandethals (left) dominated the earth because of the individual knowledge, until Sapiens (us) came along with our collective knowledge and out-competed them into extinction.

The Difference Between A Hindquarter Yield And A Turn On The Forehand

I was asked recently about the difference between a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield (disengagement). They are different, but some people are confused by the difference. I’m going to explain the difference from my perspective, but that doesn’t mean there are not other perspectives. I teach these movements to a horse for very different reasons, but apply them each as stepping-stones towards more difficult and complex maneuvers in building correctness and softness.


Firstly, the hindquarter yield is an exercise I use to connect the inside rein to the mind of the horse, whilst the turn on the forehand is intended to connect the rider’s inside leg to the mind of the horse.  Those are the two big reasons for teaching these exercises and if they weren’t such important reasons I would not care so much if people ever worked on hindquarter yields or turns on the forehand. There are other reasons, but none so important that I want to spend time discussing them. So I will focus on these exercises from the viewpoint that I am primarily trying to teach my horse to connect with the inside rein and the inside leg.


The next thing to consider is what is a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield? On the surface, they can appear similar, because they both require the hindquarters to step around the forehand. In each case, the front feet of the horse are almost pivoting and the hind feet are crossing over. It’s as if the front feet are making tiny steps around the centre of a circle and the hind feet are stepping on the circumference of the same circle. But this is where the similarity ends.


Let’s look at each exercise individually.


Hindquarter Yield (disengagement):


When a hindquarter yield is executed correctly, the horse has an inside flexion in response to the feel of the inside rein and the hindquarters step to the outside.


The way I teach this exercise is quite different to the way most people do because I do not allow the rider’s inside leg to drive the hindquarters. When I apply a feel to the inside rein, the horse’s thought is directed to the inside. This alone should be enough reason for the horse’s hip to move to the outside. A horse should try to line up its body with its thought, so when a horse is thinking to the left, the hindquarters should move to the right so that the body is facing in the direction of the horse’s strongest thought – ready to go forward in that direction, if asked. No inside leg should be necessary.


If a horse flexes its neck to the inside, but it’s feet remain fixed in place I would apply some feel in my seat and BOTH legs to encourage the horse to move. But where and how the horse should move is determined by the inside rein getting to the horse’s mind to think to the inside. The rider’s seat and legs should just create movement, not influence the direction of that movement.


You may ask, “why not use inside leg to direct the hindquarters?”


It’s because the purpose of this exercise is to teach a horse that the inside rein can and should be able to influence the action of the hindquarters by directing a horse’s thought. It is one of the most basic functions of the reins to direct a horse’s mind to influence the hind feet and front feet both independently from each other and in unison. Without that ability, a horse can never learn to be accurate and soft in response to the reins.


This is perhaps the most important reason why I do not recommend lateral flexion as an exercise for young horses. Lateral flexion is where a horse is taught to flex their neck in response to the inside rein, but not move their feet. For a young horse that is still learning how to follow the feel of the reins, nothing is more important than to ensure the inside rein changes a horse’s thought in a way that goes all the way to the feet. Lateral flexion can be so damaging to building correctness and softness into the meaning of the inside rein. When applying the inside rein to ask a horse to think to the inside, always make sure that the thought is strong enough to go all the way to the feet without requiring the inside leg to drive the hindquarters away.


Turn On The Forehand


Once a horse understands to yield its hindquarters in response to the inside rein, there comes a time when we want to teach it to yield to the inside leg. This is why I teach turn on the forehand to a young horse.


When executing a turn of the forehand, there should be no inside flexion. Instead, the alignment of the spine should be straight and the hindquarters step around a pivoting forehand. The object of the reins is simply to block what we don’t want (movement of the forehand) and allow the inside leg to direct the mind to move hindquarters.


I recommend that people sit neutral in the saddle and gently apply inside leg against the horse (often just behind the girth, but it will depend on the horse) with enough feel to motivate the horse to want to move. When it goes to move, the reins block the forehand from moving. Initially, the horse will fidget and maybe even dance a little as it tries to go forward or move the forehand to the side, but eventually, the hind feet will take a small step to the side – which the rider will release for. In time, the horse associates the feel of the inside leg with an idea to yield its hindquarters away from the feel. Soon this turns into the hind end stepping around the forehand in response to the inside leg (with no flexion).


I meet a lot of people at clinics who apply inside leg to influence a horse’s hindquarters in everything they do. It’s an epidemic in the horse world that inside leg is applied whenever a horse is asked to do a turn or circle. Yet the vast majority of horses I see don’t know how to yield to a rider’s inside leg. When a rider lays their inside leg against their horse it only means, “go forward” – not yield the hindquarters. This is because no time has been devoted to teaching this to a horse. Most riders seem to think a horse just knows this information from birth or has absorbed it through reading a rider’s mind. This is just plain wrong. If you believe your horse yields to the inside leg, ask your horse to standstill then drop the reins on the neck and apply ONLY your inside leg and see what happens.


Using these two exercises (hindquarter yields and turn on the forehand), we can teach a horse to yield just to the inside rein or just to the inside leg or to yield when both are used simultaneously. The power of these two skills opens up a world of correctness in both straight and lateral movement that otherwise can require years of struggle.


I have not talked about forehand yields and turn on the haunches, which are intended to give meaning to the inside rein and inside leg but via directing the mind of the horse to yield the forehand. However, with a little thought and experimentation, I believe most people can figure out how to take the information I just gave and apply it to the forehand exercises.


Photo: a diagram of a turn on the forehand.


I friend wrote to me a few weeks ago and expressed her feelings of being alone and isolated in a world where she feels surrounded and pressured by horse people who approach their training very differently. She is trying to get her head around the concept of directing a horse’s thoughts and grappling with how to make that work for her. And even though she has a growing client base and her clients are loyal and impressed with her work, she feels the disapproval of other people in her area.


I know this feeling well. For a lot of years, I was training horses for people and would regularly hear on the grapevine that my approach was considered eccentric or even bizarre. Every other trainer in the district was working at making a horse do something and not worry too much about a horse’s mind. They figured if it was a good horse, the mind would step into line and if it wasn’t a good horse, well who cared if it’s mind was fried because it wasn’t worth spending time on it anyway.


I was struggling to cover my rent and pay bills, yet all these other trainers had thriving businesses. They were in high demand with a 6month waiting list while I prayed each night for the phone to ring. I was constantly hearing how this trainer and that trainer was brilliant and had saved their horse from a trip to the fertilizer farm. Or how Mr. Amazing Trainer had fixed a dozen horses that everyone else had given up on.


But I saw the results from some of these other trainers. I saw the troubled animals that were only a shadow of the horse they could be. I knew in my heart that I was on the right track, but I still felt terribly alone.


I am forever grateful to the clients I had. They stuck by me month after month and year after year (many are still sticking by me through my clinics). I was a struggling ex-academic and medical researcher who was trying something different to all the other trainers they could have chosen. I love them for that. You guys know who you are.


But what my clients didn’t know (well, I hope they didn’t know) was how much I doubted myself. When everyone around you is having to turn away business and the rumour mill has tales of their amazing skills, and you hear that you are looked down upon by those same people, it is easy to question if you are on the right track. Was I the crazy one?


When you are the only one around you that is trying to do what you are trying to do, you need support. Without support, it is too easy to doubt yourself. By support I mean somebody you respect whom you can bounce ideas off, somebody who can watch you work and throw ideas your way, somebody whom you can learn from, somebody who thinks the same way about training but understands more than you.


In Australia, I had no such support for a very long time. But I got lucky. I met Harry Whitney (thanks to Gail Ivey) and he became my de facto support team through those early years of starting my own training business. It was initially problematic because we lived on different continents, but Harry was so generous and supportive that he invited me each year to spend several weeks with him in Arizona. I did this for about 10 years or more and it was my salvation whenever I doubted myself. If I was the crazy one, then Harry was the craziest of us all. Since then, Harry has offered the same support for a number of people who have gone on to become good horse people in their own right.


My friend needs support too. I hope to give what support I can because I don’t want her to start thinking she is the crazy one.


The point of this post is to express the idea that we all need support. It’s very difficult to become the best horse person you can be without help. By help, I don’t just mean instruction. Instruction is useful and can be important. We all need to learn the skills that go into being a better rider and handler. But to be a better horse person requires the kind of support that forces us to question, analyze and experiment. Being a mimic of our teacher will only make us a poor copy. But having somebody to guide and challenge us gives us the chance to find how to be the better us. I wouldn’t be the horse person I am today without Harry and half a handful of others guiding and challenge me along the way.


I hope I can do likewise for others who need support and are at risk of drowning in an ocean of self-doubt. I think mentoring should be an important part of the job of the older and experienced trainers. We owe to the next generation of trainers and horses.


In my book, Old Men and Horses, I tell the tale of Walt and Amos as young men watching an experienced horse-breaker at work in the outback and pestering with him questions. Walt suddenly realizes how annoying it must be for the breaker to have to answer all his questions and apologizes for bothering the man. The breaker tells Walt that it is never a bother because someday a couple of young blokes will be leaning over the fence of Walt’s round yard asking him a lot of questions and Walt will patiently answer them. He tells Walt that can only be a good thing for the horses.


Photo: Harry: “Ross do you see what I see?”

           Ross: “Naw Harry. I can’t see a bloody thing through these glasses.”

I Want First Prize

Many people place a lot of emphasis on getting horses use to scary things. A lot of time is devoted to exposing horses to a tarpaulin or umbrella or plastic bags or water or a bicycle etc. I think people who do this feel it is an important technique on the road to making a horse spook-proof.


The one big flaw in that plan is that there isn’t enough time in a horse’s life to make them spook-proof to everything that might spook them. I’m reminded of the adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But in this case, “teach a horse not to spook at an object and he won’t spook at that object on that day in that place, but develop a good relationship with a horse and he will always try not to spook.”


Getting a horse use to a challenge is never the better option because there are always limits to its effectiveness. Most desensitization involves using flooding pressure to shut down a horse by teaching the futility of resistance. It’s not a reliable or desirable pathway to having a good relationship with a horse. It’s often just another obedience trick that costs the horse something of themselves.


I am telling you these thoughts because they are an example of something more important I want to touch on.


In the preface of my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship, I relate an event that happened while I was driving through Melbourne on my way to a clinic. On the radio, a fellow known as Father Bob was being interviewed about a charity fundraising competition he was organizing. Most of you won’t know who Father Bob is, but he is a legend in Australia as a most decent and caring man who has devoted his life to working for the homeless and troubled youth. Although he is a Catholic priest, he is constantly in trouble with the church for his irreverent attitude to the hierarchy.


In any case, in the radio interview, Father Bob was describing the prizes to be won in the competition. Third prize was a large flat screen television, second prize was a weekend for two at a luxury hotel and first prize was serving for 2 days in a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. When the interviewer expressed their dismay at first prize, Father Bob set him straight. He said second and third prizes were just stuff, but first prize was happiness.


This was a light bulb moment for me. Father Bob’s succinctly expressed in one sentence my ambition for my horsemanship. Having a horse do stuff is just having a horse do stuff, but having a horse want to try to do stuff is happiness.


Desensitizing a horse to not spook is just stuff. Winning a blue ribbon is just stuff. Loading onto a trailer is just stuff. Being able to train a horse at liberty is just stuff. All these things can be achieved without caring a damn about our horse’s opinion of us or the things we ask it to do. I don’t see the satisfaction or thrill in that.


The reason why my relationship with my wife, Michele is the best and happiest relationship I have in my life is because we both care about how the other feels as much as we care about ourselves. I want that with my horses too.


I care about all our animals, including our horses. Their emotional and physical well-being is top of the list of things that are important to me in our relationship. That’s easy. I care about them and that’s not hard to do.


But it’s not enough that I just care about my horses. For my happiness to be complete I want them to care about me. I don’t believe horses can care about people in the way that people care about horses, but they can care in the way horses can care.


By that I mean a horse can be comfortable in my company. It can feel okay when I present a task to it. It can look to me for help when it feels troubled or confused. It can gain confidence by my presence. It can feel free to express its opinion (good or bad) and say ‘no’. It can offer the best try it has to give. I want all that. That would be happiness to me. The rest of the stuff like snappy flying changes or coming when called is nice, but it’s just stuff and not enough for me. I’m greedier than that. I want a good mutual relationship. I want first prize. I want happiness.

Photo: Hanging out with our 11 hand Welsh pony, May.

A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 3

This is the final installment of the latest correspondence between Greg and myself. I hope it won’t be the last.


I want to thank Greg for his very generous and thoughtful input and for allowing me to share this exchange with you. I hope Greg will continue to contribute his views and challenge me in the future. It is much appreciated. I further hope it will inspire some of you to participate in discussion and debate. It is important to me that you guys challenge me so I can avoid becoming complacent in my thinking about horses and horsemanship.


Thanks Greg.



Hi Ross,


You clearly have a deep empathy for horses; I wish there were more folks like you over here. 


Ok, re ‘giving interpretation’ as you mention below.  The thing I value about the use of LT is that you don’t have to guess, re the results of a stimulus and the response from the horse; yes, we might ponder what the horse is thinking, but if, say, we ask a horse to ‘walk on’ and it does so, then no interpretation is needed.  And if we can teach this with little or no stress to the animal, then so much the better.  We do know that the use of positive punishment (the BHS again!) and escalating –R induces stress (even distress to the point of flooding in round-pen and lunging work). 


Since, at this stage we cannot know (but only surmise) what a horse is thinking as a result of its interactions with us, an interpretation from that assessment could be misleading.  I’ve worked with birds for years, and although like horses they clearly lead highly emotional lives, I have to admit I don’t *know* what they think; I can only guess.  But again, we can now interpret the horse’s body language and facial expressions reasonably accurately, so we can tell if the animal is happy to continue with something, or prefers it to cease.  If the latter, then we stop for a while. 


And LT has been around for a very long time, growing out of Skinner’s (not always pleasant) methods! in the 1940s.   So I view LT as a progression from guessing to knowledge, in the same way that science replaced alchemy in the 17th C.   If science had not replaced alchemy, there would be no computers, and not much effective veterinary medicine!  I guess there are still aspects of alchemy which are of value, but a scientific approach makes predictions, including predictions of an animal’s behaviour, much easier.  It allows us to assess the pace at which we go with any training (of bird or horse).   And this is determined mainly be the animal itself, not by any fixed deadline.  I am  sure you do much the same thing; some horses will do things in a few days; while others take weeks to get to the same point. 


My own horse, Harry, was trained using mainly +r for groundwork and backing, and a mix of +R and –R for ridden work.  He is taught to change gait and direction using verbal requests, only using reins/feet/seat, if no response from voice.  He is about 75% reliable on voice requests.  I’ve attached an article which was published in the UK’s Equine Behaviour Journal, which explains how Harry was trained.  The following year, I went on my first camping trip with him around Devon and Somerset for a few weeks. 


All the best!


Greg Glendell



Thanks Greg for your explanation, but here is where we differ regarding learning theory.


LT teaches obedience - that’s all it does. It is purely a cue/response system of training and this is its biggest failing. A horse makes up its mind to do something long before it does it. Let’s look at your example of asking a horse to walk on.


LT tells us that the effectiveness of our training is measured by when we apply a cue or pressure, does the horse walk on or not? If the horse walks without conflict, the training is going well, if not the training needs more work. That’s fine if all a person wants is obedience. But obedience only gives you the movement, the quality of the movement comes from a horse’s emotions/thoughts.


Before I ask a horse to walk on I want their focus. Once I have their attention I then want to direct that attention towards where I want them to walk. It is only when I first direct their thought to be somewhere that I am okay about letting their feet move. This is because the horse’s thoughts control their feet, not the trainer. The human’s only job is to talk to the horse’s brain and the brain commands the horse’s body. 


If I can’t first direct a horse to think through a gate, making him walk through a gate will entail some trouble, some resistance or some bad feelings. LT does not take this into account and therefore misses all the vitally important internal stuff that gives the walk a decent quality. Using the LT approach a horse can still be trained to walk on and feel crappy. But by directing the thought first, you are addressing the feelings that determine the emotions and quality of the walk. When the horse’s thought goes first, the feet will follow without trouble or resistance. But when the horse’s thoughts and feet are in 2 different places, there will always be some degree of trouble and lack of togetherness.


Consider your own circumstances. Everything you do begins with a thought. Every action starts with a change of thought. You don’t just wake up in the morning and find yourself showered and dressed. Showering and dressing only occurs following thousands of little thoughts that tell your body to walk to the shower, how to apply soap, how to dry your hair, which shoes to wear and how to tie your shoe laces. Each action first involves a change of thought from one action to the next action before your body actually takes action. LT does not take this into account. It views each response a horse makes as a simple on/off switch.


This is hard to explain in writing and much easier when people come to a clinic to see it in action. But my point is that training involves teaching a horse a cascade of events that happen before the actual movement. However, LT only addresses the end stage of the task (i.e. obedience of the movement) and misses addressing all the stuff that happens first that determines the quality of the movement. LT trains horses to be machine like, not horse like. I have dealt with enough horses that have gone through the process of LT to know this is true. Even the most venerated LT advocates miss the point in their training.


Furthermore, most of the studies that LT is based on in the horse world are crap. The science is crap. Most of the studies are designed to prove a theory, not test it. I could site several studies that fit this category (eg remember the McGreevey study of the horse in a round yard being chased by a remote control car - one of the worst examples of behavioural science studies you’ll find anywhere, but hailed by many as brilliant and definitive). I think the problem is that most people doing the work come from psychology or ethology or veterinary labs and are not trained in the hard sciences to learn scientific method. Their studies are poor and most would not get published if peer reviewed by people who truly understood scientific method (edit: I know this is a generalization, but it is generally true).


It is my hope that one day the science will be good enough and offer real benefits to horses and horse people. But at the moment the science is decades behind what good horse people already know.


Lastly, just a comment about using voice commands in your training. They are fine if you just want to keep life simple with yes/no type responses. But horses are not good at understanding voice commands. They only have 9 sounds in their own vocabulary, so don’t understand any complex sounds. This means that you can say “trot” to get a horse to trot, but the trot it gives you is the trot you get. A horse can’t give you a different response when you say “collected trot” or “extended trot” or “5km/hr jog” etc. If you want any variation on the trot from what the horse gives you, you need to apply reins, leg and seat. So from my perspective I don’t see any advantage to using voice commands when I know that I will have to intervene with feel to get what I really want. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with using voice command, it’s just they are extremely limiting and not very useful. As long as a person does not expect or ask for much from a horse when they use voice commands, there is nothing wrong with them.




Photo: Greg and Harry

A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 2

This is the second exchange between Greg and myself. It follows more on positive reinforcement and adds some thoughts on learning theory.


There is one more exchange between Greg and I to follow, which expands on our different views of learning theory and the idea that training is about directing a horse’s thoughts or its actions.



Hi Ross,


Thanks for replying; again, you have some good points there and I certainly agree that both +R and –R can be misused by trainers.  But I think this would be unlikely to be the case with behaviourists, as opposed to trainers.  In backing my own horse I made the mistake of seeking advice from two trainers; they had been ‘schooled’ via the British Horse Society’s system over here. I ended these sessions and realised that I could only get proper advice from qualified behaviourists, who helped greatly. 


Getting into the mind and thought processes of any animal, (including another person we share a conversation with) can be extremely difficult.   Perhaps we can never really know for certain what anyone or any animal is thinking or feeling about something.  This means we can only speculate as to their feelings.  So I tend to stick with what a horse (or more commonly my clients’ parrots!) are actually *doing*, not what they might be thinking.  If I work with a self-mutilating bird, and it reduces or ceases to self-harm, then I’ve helped make things a better for that bird.  When using food rewards with birds, the birds have access to all their normal foods.  It is only their favourite items they are asked to ‘work’ for.  I try to do this with horses as well.  So there is always hay or grass for them to eat while training, but the favourite items are given as rewards.  I think this reduces any pressure/ frustration they may feel re food rewards. 


If I can ride my horse and keep him calm in potentially risky situations, then I’m better able to maintain stimulus control and keep us both safe.


Perhaps –R training can be done well; and while I’ve seen some of this with behaviourists,. It’s rare to see it with trainers who have been through the UK’s BHS training system.  Again, I feel that where those working with horses have a sound knowledge of learning theory and the equine ethogram, then their interactions with the horse tend to be failsafe.  Where this is not the case, the methods risk being ‘fail dangerous’.  Our BHS system does not cover either learning theory or the equine ethogram in their course materials. 


I might one day get to OZ, you have some great parrots there which I only know as captive birds here, all too often kept in small cages. 


All the best,


Greg Glendell



Hi Greg,


I totally agree that the BHS is a very poor system and falls way short of the very best that training can be. Unfortunately, I also put learning theory into the same category. Learning theory continues to be at a very primitive level and I equate it to Galileo’s understanding of the cosmo. Good trainers are generations ahead of the best learning theorists. Nevertheless, if all you know are the big names in the horse training world, then I can see why you would think that horse trainers don’t get behavioural models. But there is so much better out there and learning theory has a long way to catch up.


In regards to truly understanding the thought process of animals, I agree it is difficult and we are only guessing. But I don’t see this as any different to behaviourists studying a horse’s response. Observing an animals response and giving it explanation is open to interpretation just as much as interpreting what it may be thinking. For example, very many people notice their horse gets excited when approaching a jump and interpret this as the horse loving to jump. In most cases, I watch the overall response of the horse’s behaviour before a jump and see it as most horses being afraid of the jump. We speculate which is the case through our own interpretation and bias rather than empirical evidence. Learning theorists are not immune from this problem.


I believe it is a lot easier to assign cause and motive when studying a horse’s thoughts and emotions than it is to just watch for reaction/behaviours. I don’t believe it is so hard if a person works at it. Horses are always talking to us - they hardly ever shut up. The problem is that people don’t listen. Just because we don’t hear our horse, doesn’t mean it is not talking to us.


My point is that emotions determine a horse’s thoughts and its thoughts determine its behaviour. If you know how to tap into their emotions and thoughts you can easily shape their behaviour. But if you rely on shaping their behaviour first, you can only hope that it may alter their thoughts and emotions.


To get the topic back to +r, I think +r is a good example where you can train a behaviour well and the horse still feels crappy, yet people are convinced it is a better way to train because they used less -r. From a horse’s point of view, I think crappy feelings are crappy feelings and they don’t care about the methodology that creates those ill feelings.


Finally, I would be more easily convinced that +r was a better way to go with horses than -r IF I saw examples of horses trained using +r going as well as horses trained well with -r. But I don’t. I have seen a lot of horses trained using both approaches and I have never seen a single instance where the horses felt and performed better from +r methods than those from -r methods.


I think you would enjoy the birds we have on our property - lots of king parrots, galahs, black cockatoos, sulphur crested cockatoos, rozellas, owls and raptors etc.





Photo: This is Greg’s Arab gelding, Harry. It seems Harry couldn’t wait for Greg to present him with a positive reward so he went off finding his own.

A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 1

I have been conversing via email with Greg Glendell from the UK regarding positive reinforcement and learning theory. Greg is a professional behaviourist and trainer of parrots, who also has n interest in horses and training.


I thought our conversations might be of interest to some of you and with Greg’s generous permission I am posting some here with minimum editing.


Let me know if you’d like to read more of our conversation.



Hello Ross,


Just came across your excellent website, via a friend on Facebook.  You have some really good info there and it’s good to see more horsey folks advocating more benign methods of training and managing horses.  But I’d like to comment on the problems regarding the use of food rewards. 


I trained and backed my first horse, Harry, Arab gelding, 3 years ago.  The conventional advice I got (from the British Horse Soc here in the UK) was dreadful, and potentially dangerous re training methods.  They use some very aversive methods when backing and schooling horses, which increases the risks to both rider and horse if the rider loses stimulus control.


I work as a behaviourist, but only professionally with birds, not horses.  I am reasonably familiar with learning theory, and some equine ethology.  So, I used the same principles of learning theory when working with Harry and my other horse.  This included food rewards (positive reinforcement) and allowing the horse to set the pace of progress, so he always remained calm and interested, not confused or rushed into doing something.   I don’t think the problem is the use of rewards in themselves.   The problem centres on how a *trainer* reacts the first few times a horse becomes too demanding/aggressive in trying to get food rewards.  If the trainer remains present while the horse is mugging them; then yes, the mugging will be reinforced and likely to get worse as it is repeated.  However, if the person removes themselves from the horse each and every time this might occur, the behaviour will not be reinforced, and most horses soon learn to cease the unwanted behaviour.  This ‘negative punishment’ is very effective.  It’s a passive way of informing a horse that any unwanted behaviours will result in an end of the training session, so, no rewards.   Horses can also be taught to turn their head *away* from the trainer to get the reward.  There are similar problems to those you mention, with some people who use clicker training; the horse appears to become ‘addicted’ to the sound of the clicker, thus wanting to work obsessively.   Again, if the trainer had a better knowledge of learning theory, (and was interpreting the horse’s behaviours accurately) this would not arise.   Well, just my thoughts. 


Best wishes,


Greg Glendell

Companion parrot behaviourist

For parrot care advice see:



Hi Greg,


Thank you for your thoughtful explanation regarding using food in +r training.


I completely understand how food can be used without teaching horses to get pushy and constantly mugging the human. Very few people know how to use food treats well (even professional +r horse trainers), but I know it can be done.


However, there is a bigger problem with food and +r. That is the problem of stress that food treats impose on horses.


As you probably know, in order to take a simple exercise further, food is withheld in an effort to encourage a horse to try something new. For example, it you want to teach a horse to pick up a stick in its mouth you begin by rewarding when the horse touches or sniffs the stick. When this behaviour is confirmed, the treat is withheld until the horse makes an attempt to wrap its lips around the stick. But the horse has no idea why the treat is not forthcoming and only starts searching for a new response in a desperate effort to get another treat. In a lot of horses this creates considerable stress and anxiety because they don’t know what they need to do to get a treat. They are desperate for a treat and yet have no idea what to do. This anxiety is repeated at every stage where the training is being advanced.


Even if a horse learns not to mug people for the treat, the thought to get a treat is never eliminated. The horse may have been taught not to grope around for a treat, but it still wants to because the idea of getting a treat is still a strong desire. This creates stress and in my view good horsemanship is about eliminating as much stress as possible.


All training involves some level of stress/discomfort because it is the stress that motivates a horse to search a behaviour that relieves the stress. But it is my experience that people who use +r claim is a kinder and stress free-way of training horses and I think this is not true. In fact, many horses trained with +r carry as much anxiety as those treated abusively with -r methods.


So while I understand that the behaviour we see with horses always trying to hunt for a treat does not need to be, the stress associated with needing to be given a treat remains. Just because a horse does not mug people for food does not mean it doesn’t want to. Plus the stress instilled by withholding food from a horse to advance the training is for many horses extremely troubling and possibly abusive because there is no clarity regarding what to do to get their reward.


What we train a horse to do and what a horse feels about it are not always the same thing.




Photo: This is Greg and his nice looking Arab gelding, Harry.


About a week ago I received a message with a series of questions. Among them was this question,

“…. have been asked to back a friend’s (horse) every time I stop it so it gets to the point every time I stop it automatic backs up. Won't this create a problem down the track as in things like dressage for the walk ….?


Of course, the answer is “it depends on.”


What it depends on is the intent behind the backing when asking a horse to stop. I’ll try to clarify what I mean by quoting what I wrote to the person.


“When I ask a horse to stop and it leans on the reins and it's thought is to continue pushing forward (even though its feet may have stopped) I will hold or increase the pressure of the rein to inspire the horse to stop pushing forward and to soften and bring its thought back to being with me at a stop.


“In the early stages, when I increase or hold the feel in the reins it will cause a horse to want to step back. But I hold until the horse actually thinks back. I can tell when this happens by the hindquarters taking a big step back (not a small step or shuffle). That tells me the horse has changed its thought from thinking forward to thinking back. I release when I feel the hindquarters take one big step back - don't worry if he is still heavy on the reins - release for the big step back. I release for a change of thought, not for a backup.


“With repetition, the horse will understand that the reins bring its thought back to the rider. When you feel the thought come back, release the reins. Pretty soon the thought will come back to a halt and it won't be necessary to wait for the hindquarters to move because you'll feel the horse's weight shift further back with almost no weight in the reins. Release for that. That's what you want to achieve - a softening through the entire horse when you pick up the reins. You are not trying to get a backing, but a change of thought and a softening - it's just that in the beginning, the horse may have to back in order to find the softness at first.


“Now if your friend backs the horse at a stop just to get it back up and not worry about a change of thought, then the horse will learn to back up automatically every time it is asked to stop. That's not something you want to teach the horse.


The difference between the two results is knowing what you are trying to achieve and knowing the timing of your release.”


I have quoted this conversation because I believe it is a good illustration of a really important point about how people misunderstand the process of training a horse.


It’s very difficult for a lot of people to see anything but what is going on at the surface of training. We find it easy to see the movement so we remember the movement. But we don’t find it easy to see the intent behind the movement, so we don’t concern ourselves with the intent. For example, we see a trainer back a horse when it halts and believe the backing is the important part. But it’s not, the reason why the horse stops backing is the important part and the part the horse is learning from. If we think the backing is what is important then our horse will learn to back each time we ask it to halt. But if the backing is an inconsequential part of asking a horse to soften, then the backing is soon forgotten and the softness is the part the horse learns.


This principle is in everything we do. Let’s look at another quick example. If I apply leg to my horse to ask it to walk off and stop it mid stride of the first step, what is the horse to think? The answer again is “it depends”.


It depends on the intent behind stopping the horse mid-stride. It could be that I stopped the horse to confuse it. It could be because I asked for the left foot first and it moved the right foot instead. It could be because the first stride was crooked and I wanted it to walk off straight.


People tend to see the horse being stopped mid-stride, but it is not the stopping that gives the intent to what I wanted. The intent comes from what happens next and when I allow the horse to walk forward off my leg. The horse doesn’t know that the way it walked forward was less than perfect until I give intent as to why I stopped its feet – clarity to my use of my legs and reins.


We could talk about a million different scenarios where people confuse movement and intent. It is one of the big stumbling blocks in the way a lot of training proceeds. A horse is usually very willing when it is not confused and believes it can complete a task without danger or discomfort. But it is only the clarity of our intent that eliminates a horse’s confusion. If we aren’t clear ourselves what our intent is, how can we ever expect a horse to be clear?


Photo: I’m riding a pony at a clinic that struggled to prepare to soften to the reins in the halt.

Training Rules

I have been thinking about the rules we make when discovering our path in horsemanship. I keep coming across new rules that trainers tell their students and they become non-negotiable or debatable rules. I know this because sometimes I meet a rider who tells me with a straight face that they won’t do what I just suggested because at another clinic or in a book or on a video Training God Number 1 (TG1) told them never to do that.


Let me say in the spirit of honesty that I have rules too. There are only 2 rules, but I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, so I will tell you my two rules.


* Nobody gets on any horse they don’t want to ride or don’t feel safe riding.

* Nobody has to stay riding any horse they want to stay on or don’t feel safe riding.


That’s my entire list of rules that I won’t discuss or debate. If you want to ride with me, you must follow those two rules or find somebody else to ride with. (BTW, to my knowledge I am the only clinician that has those rules. Out of all the clinics, I have attended I have not yet heard anybody publicly state those two rules.)


On the other hand, here are some rules that trainers seem very happy to state publicly at clinics and won’t encourage debate.


+ Never teach your dressage horse to disengage their hindquarters because it will destroy the engagement.


+ Don’t use 2 reins on a horse for the first the several months of their career.


+ Always work in a square yard and never a round yard when starting a horse.


+ When starting a horse under saddle never teach it to back up for at least the first 6 months.


+ When a horse gets worried always apply the one-rein stop.


+ When training a horse to jump, never ask it to stop in front of a jump because it will teach the horse to refuse.


+ Never let a horse turns its hindquarters to you. Always ask for inside turns in a yard.


These are just a handful of examples and you probably know many more. In every case, I can think of good reasons why they are wrong thinking OR lots of examples where the rule should not be applied. For example, if you apply the one rein stop on every occasion a horse gets energized, some horses will flip over on you because they need to move and telling them they can’t move can convert a worry into a panic. Another example of a silly rule would be that teaching a horse to halt in front of a jump will cause problems. Being able to stop a horse in from of jump is helping to keep a connection with the rider and being able to interrupt a horse’s thought at any time without stress is an important part of a good relationship.


I guess the point of this post is to point out that just because TG1 or anybody in authority tells you something, it is still your responsibility to choose to apply it or not. Therefore, before putting into practice any rule we all need to thoroughly understand the why and wherefores of every angle of the rule. The buck stops with you, so you had better be clear about what your horse needs before you starting holding tight to a new rule. For every rule that somebody has chiseled in stone, there is always a horse or situation for which the rule should never apply.

USA Clinics - 2106

In just 2 weeks I have to leave my beautiful young wife to begin my journey to the USA. I have to say goodbye to my wonderfully comfortable bed that I look forward to greeting each night. I have to explain to our dogs, cat, chickens, ducks, horses and gold fish why daddy has to leave them for a while. I have to say farewell to all that makes my home my home and travel to a foreign land with strange customs and even stranger language (what the hell is a yonder?).


If you live in the USA and feel even a pittance of pity for my sacrifice, you’ll make every effort to come to at least one my clinics over the next several weeks. It’s the least you could do!


You’ll find the contact information for each clinic on my web site where you’ll be able to get your questions answered and reserve a place.


The Importance Of Coping With Pressure

I come across people whose total priority is to have their horse relaxed. It’s an important goal and worthy of spending considerable time trying to achieve it. However, the trouble I see sometimes is that people are so fixated on having a relaxed horse that in order to achieve it they hardly ever ask anything of their horse that might be a challenge.


In my opinion, it is not an achievement to have a calm and quiet horse if it means you don’t ask much from it. The challenge is to put a horse under pressure and still have it working with a relaxed body and a quiet mind. We can all look like amazing trainers on our horse’s best day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But what about when our horse is struggling with emotional turmoil? What sort of horse person do we appear to be then? Do we fail our horses on their bad days?


As the expression goes, actions have consequences. And so it does for training horses. There are consequences for how we approach our training and not push the limits of their comfort zone. Here are three of them.


1. The horse we really have is the horse under pressure. We don’t know what sort of horse we are dealing with and what it is capable of doing unless it is stress tested.


My retirement (and I think the retirement of most trainers) would be completely funded if I had a dollar for every occasion an owner told me, “he’s never done that before.” People would send a horse to me for training and the instant I asked something a little hard of their horse, and a moment of crisis would follow, I’d hear the words, “he’s never done that before.” And they are right, he probably never has. But only because taking him out of his comfort caused all the emotional junk inside to surface. It was always there, but the horse was never asked to do enough for the owner to see it. And if you don’t see it, it can’t be fixed.


The horse we really have is not the one we ride every day in the arena or on the same trail when the weather is good and all is right with the world. The horse we really have is the one we take to its first show or when we ride with our friends and they canter off over the hill or they have to ride across their first bridge.


We need to know who the horse really is that we are sitting on so we can then know how best to help him be a better horse.


2. In my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship I wrote quite a bit about the importance of the pressure we apply to a horse being a comfort.


For many horses, being firm with pressure creates emotional turmoil. That’s because the horse has not learned with absolute certainty what that pressure means. They are not yet at a stage in their understanding that when a rider asks a question with X amount of pressure, they can be 100 percent sure the way out of that pressure is to perform response Y. Without that certainty, there can be no comfort for a horse when a rider applies pressure.


We should always be striving to do the least amount to achieve a good response from a horse. But when we need to make a correction by using more pressure or prolonging the pressure, we should like it that the pressure is a cathartic experience – an “Oh, I get it” moment, rather than “Oh hell, I’m in trouble” experience.


This is a really important concept if we are to establish a great relationship with a horse. We need pressure to be a horse’s friend because it brings clarity to their thoughts. This doesn’t happen very often and it never happens if we don’t use pressure to guide them out of trouble. Horses that are rarely under pressure rarely ever feel okay by pressure. There are few things more abusive to a horse than a lack of clarity, so we need to be vigilant that in our attempt to maintain a happy horse we fail to use enough pressure to bring them clarity.


3. Rather than avoid placing our horses in stressful situations, it is better to help them to learn how to recover from stressful situations.


We can’t protect a horse from everything in life that may upset them. There will always be something in their future that can’t be avoided. The more they see and experience of the world, the easier they will handle what the world has to throw at them. It is better that they learn that when life gets troubling, you’ve never got them killed (yet!) and won’t do it this time either. If you handle it carefully and with intelligence, a horse can learn to trust your judgment and have confidence that when you say he can do something, he can do it.


We all want our horses to be happy and not have undue stress. But it is a mistake to try to eliminate pressure from their life. We need them to learn that when we apply pressure it is not something to get upset about. And when the world applies pressure they have the coping strategies to laugh in its face.


Photo: Here are a few exercises to help your horse cope with pressure.