Being Responsible For A Horse

Today I received a message from a friend asking me for my views on questions related to my last post where I discussed principles. She asked:

-    Why do people stagnate in their horsemanship?

-    Why do people fall away from their principles?

-    What causes people to not question their knowledge?


I tried to give a semi-detailed response to the questions, but as I wrote my answers I realized that most of the causes boil down to people making their horsemanship all about them. The bare-bone essence for why people behave this way is that the needs of a horse take second place to the need for people to fulfill their ambition of having their ego stroked. Our need to feel good about ourselves prevents some of us from questioning our horsemanship. If we do, we run the risk of discovering we are amateurs – and not good amateurs – and our horses are no more than slaves. Some of us – particularly some professionals – can’t handle the revelation that we are not as good with horses as we like to think we are.


But when we aspire to do the best we can by our horses, the need to appear to always be right loses its importance. Our ego and self-esteem can be sacrificed for the betterment of our horses. It becomes about making our work with horses foremost about the horses and less about us.


I wrote about this topic almost exactly 3 years ago and I think it might be timely to publish it again. I hope you think so.



As some of you may have guessed I am a keen student of horsemanship and all things horses. I’ve read a lot of books about training and horses in general. I have particularly been interested in studying some of the old masters of dressage. But these books never provided a window in the sort of approach to horsemanship that interests me nowadays. I’ve read some of the classics of horsemanship like True Unity, The Thinking Horseman, True Horsemanship Through Feel etc. All of them are excellent books and worth reading several times.


I remember years ago reading that Tom Dorrance recommended a book called Kinship with All Life to his students. Initially, I thought that it was a strange choice because it was not a horse book. But after reading a copy it is easy to see the parallels between the stories in the book and working with horses.


Yesterday I was looking for one of my favourite books on falconry among the disorder of my bookshelves. I came across a book I hadn’t read for a few years. I first read it when I was in my mid-teens and then re-read it at least once every decade since. With each reading, I gain new insights about the relationship with horses that a human should never forget.


The book is the classic French children’s book called The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It was written in 1943 and is definitely the first book I read that offered insight into what I was missing with my relationship with horses.


It tells the story of a young boy who lives on a tiny planet not much bigger than a house. He can walk from one side to the other and see as many sunrises and sunsets as he wishes. He shares his planet with a rose that is vain and demanding of the Little Prince and that drives him mad, but he takes it upon himself to care for the rose. He doesn’t know why, but he loves his rose despite how annoying it is to him. His other responsibility is to clean the three volcanoes that exist on his planet.


Eventually, he leaves his home to explore the universe. Along the way, he meets many interesting characters among the stars with their own tales to tell and allegories to share. But when he gets to earth he meets a fox. The fox tells him that the truth of what the eyes see can only be clearly seen by the heart. It was only much later that I started to understand what this meant.


But for me, the message that I most remember that stuck with me about working with horses was when the fox told the Little Prince “that you are responsible forever for what you tame” and “it is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.”


Even with the first time I read the book, these two messages really caused my little brain to whirl around. I realized that a horse is important because I am responsible for it. The importance of a horse doesn’t come from it being useful or fun or pretty or talented. The importance comes from the fact that I am responsible for it.


Even more than that, it was a huge revelation to know that I don’t own a horse. I am just responsible for it. Just like a parent doesn’t own a child, but they are responsible for it. The responsibility comes from inviting a horse into my life (or as the fox would say “tamed it). It doesn’t come from a bill of sale or registration papers.


The fox taught the Little Prince about why that damn ego-driven, demanding, pain in the backside of a rose was important. And the fox taught me why each and every horse was important.



So when I was answering my friend’s questions I was thinking that some people had either not learned or have forgotten that when you invite a horse into your life, you are responsible for it in every way. When we make it about the horse, we are forever a student.


Photo: Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The Paradox Of Learning Principles

Many years ago while I was fiddling around with ideas when I came up with a mathematical description of what I termed the Unique Paradox. In short, it deals with the basic premise that everything in the universe is unique if you look closely enough at it. Nothing is absolutely identical. I could go into a long-winded explanation of why this is true, but it is unnecessary right now. Just accept that for now that it is true that nothing is identical. Therefore, everything is unique. But if you accept this premise, the only unique thing would be to have two things that are identical. Yet, how can something be identical and unique at the same time? Anyway, that’s the sort of thing I was mucking around with trying to find a mathematical explanation. Paradoxes fascinate me and the world is full of them.


I believe there is a paradox in horse training too. I can’t seem to find a satisfactory solution to it, but maybe you can.


I believe in order for somebody to be a good horse person they need to have a strong sense of their training principles. There needs to be a consistent path that guides their every decision and by which they judge their results. Without a concrete set of principles to show a person the way, a trainer is subject to changing their approach every time somebody suggests a new idea. Every new method or principle that sounds sort of okay becomes part of a person’s repertoire. They have no strong basis to judge the good ideas from the bad ones. As a result, they tend to be very inconsistent in the way they train, which causes enormous trouble for a horse. I don’t believe it is possible for a horse to be emotionally okay without a high degree of consistency and clarity in their work.


For this reason, we need to work on establishing our philosophy of interacting and training horses very early in our career.


So the question remains, how does one formulate a strong set of principles? Answer = experience and critical analysis (thinking).


This is the paradox.


In order to be good with horses, a person needs to have a foundation of principles. However one can’t start out with a clear set of principles because a lot of experience is needed to establish them. So we all have to start off by being crappy horse people. This would appear to be a paradox.


In the early stages, we don’t know enough to be confident in choosing the principles we will carry with us for our entire careers. The principles by which we work horses will come and go as our experience evolves. But with each year our understanding grows and our confidence to question what we are taught by others also grows. Time and experience enable us to sharpen our principles into clear defined concepts that we will apply throughout our careers irrespective of how our methods evolve.


To re-state the paradox in another way, we all want to be good horse trainers rather than bad trainers, but we need to be bad horse trainers so we can accumulate enough experience and mistakes in order to become good trainers. Horrible I know, but I don’t know any way around it.


Well, that’s not quite true. I do know some trainers who avoided the paradox. They do it by stagnating and not learning any new set of principles from their years of experiences. The horse person they are today is the same horse person they were in the 1980s despite the horse world having moved on a great deal. I find this sad because it is my experience that every new aspect of horses and training that I learn makes my mind explode with more questions. I never seem to be able to find an answer to a horse question that closes the chapter on that issue. There are always more questions. It’s like when you have two mirrors opposing each other and the image in them reflects infinitely back and forth. It just goes on and on, endlessly. Aren’t you glad you don’t live in my head?


I should say that I think everybody becomes better with the mechanics of working with a horse just by doing a lot. A person’s timing, awareness, and judgment are honed through experience. They don’t even have to be aware of the changes. It just happens from doing. So there is not much thinking or critical analysis required to develop the mechanical skills – just a lot of practice.


But evolving a set of principles is different. It takes a lot of commitment to thinking about what you are doing and being your own harshest critics.


So when you are getting cranky and putting a lot of pressure on yourself to be a better horse trainer keep in mind that you can only be talented with horses by having a strong set of principles and you can only have those principles by starting out being ordinary (or worse) with horses and screwing up a lot.


I have often said that the difference between me and people who come to my clinics is I have worked several thousand more horses, many thousand more hours and made millions more screw ups.


Photo: Here I am as a young trainer learning a valuable principle through experience and mistakes – get dressed before starting the day’s training.

Side Passing With No Feel

People who have attended my clinics, read this page regularly or read my books will know the emphasis I place on building a connection between the human and the horse. They already know that I believe that working with a horse is a matter of a constant and unceasing conversation between people and their horses. This conversation occurs via the feel we present to a horse and the feel we read back from the horse. Both are vital for a good relationship. This is irrespective of whether we are talking about ground handling, riding or just being in each other’s presence. We talk and they listen. They talk and we listen. Nothing could

be simpler.


But for this to work, everything we do should have a feel to it. When we apply pressure there should be a feel to it. When we remove pressure, there should be a feel to it. Whether it is rubbing a horse or applying a spur it is all the same. Feel is what keeps the connection and conversation open with a horse.


With that in mind, I don’t have a lot of use for approaches that present a message without feel. When I say this I think of gadgets as an example where a gadget is used to present an idea to a horse without feel. In fact, I define a gadget as a device or tool that can only be used as an all or nothing presentation. Examples of this would a drop noseband, standing martingale, side reins, Pessoa lunging equipment etc. Once fitted these devices can only be applied on or off and can’t be adjusted in a moment-to-moment manner as best benefits the horse.


I would like you to keep this principle in mind as I now discuss a really common practice in horse training that most people don’t consider is an improper use of a gadget.


I was watching a video recently of a trainer teaching a horse to side pass for the first time on the ground – but I have also seen similar videos of horses being taught to side pass from the saddle.


In the video, the trainer led the horse up the wall of the arena with its nose almost touching the fence. The trainer proceeded to drive the forehand and then the hindquarters to move sideways while using the fence to prevent the horse from moving forward. The process was repeated over and over until eventually the horse got the picture to side pass when the trainer applied pressure from the side.


At my clinics, there are often people that I help teach their horse to side pass or leg yield early in the training. But I think in my entire career I have not advocated or used a wall or fence to restrict the forward motion of a horse when teaching them lateral movement. I have always used the feel on the lead rope or reins in place of a fence to present the idea that sideways is a better option than forward.


Using a lead rope or reins allows me to offer a horse a feel when it tries to move forward or when it softens to the thought to move sideways. I can use this connection to constantly adjust for what the horse needs and give them a reason to focus on the feel I present. But when using a wall or fence, there is no feel for a horse to connect to. The wall or fence has only one function and that is to act as a physical barrier to the feet of the horse. A horse does not learn to mentally connect to what the wall or fence is offering. The wall does not soften as the horse mentally stops trying to push forward. It is just a device to make a horse’s feet obey. In essence using a wall to train a horse to side pass is not much different to using a tie down to train a horse not to raise its head.


In the training world, people use all types of objects in a way that they don’t consider is gadget-like. Some examples that come immediately to mind are things like a pole behind a horse to prevent it from backing out of a trailer or using rails to fan out from a jump to prevent a horse from running out or galloping a horse at a wall to train a sliding stop or using the corner of a yard to catch a horse. In all these cases, we rely on communicating an idea by forcing it on a horse with no feel. It’s not a matter of making the wrong thing less easy, but of making the wrong thing impossible. This is a path that can never lead to a good relationship between an owner and their horse.


Any training approach that allows the trainer to adjust the feel of the thing that is presenting the pressure is okay. Ropes, spurs, legs, voice, reins, seat, whip etc all allow the rider to present an idea with feel. But walls and fences do not, and anything that does not, is a bad idea for the long-term health of a relationship with a horse.


Photo: Maxine is asking Indy to side pass without a fence to block the forward movement! Taken at Canberra clinic December 2016.

The Advantages Of A Non-Arena

My wife, Michèle has suggested that I should hold clinics at our property on the northwest slopes of New South Wales, to negate the need for me to travel so much. We live in a place where to go anywhere to teach a clinic is a long way. It usually means that I am away from home for several weeks and sometimes even a couple of months at a time. So one solution to this problem would be to have people come to me rather than me to go people.


At the moment we have decided against this idea mainly because our property is not set up to host people and their horses. We have no horse yards and no accommodation for students. But more than that we are reliant on off-grid solar power and rainwater and the cost of expanding those systems to fulfill the needs of a clinic is out of reach for us.


However, we do have a few advantages that I don’t often see in my travels. One of the big benefits to having people here is that they can immerse themselves in days of living and breathing horses. The distractions of normal life are left at home so their attention to the learning process is uninterrupted.


But more importantly than that is that we don’t have an arena! I love not having an arena with square corners, soft manicured surface and a fence to smack into. What I do have is an 8ha paddock that is even with a gentle slope, sandy soil, tough Coolatai grass and a smattering of trees. It is the best non-arena I have ever had the pleasure of working in.


Firstly, the soil drains brilliantly and it never gets muddy or dotted with puddles. Even with 50mm of rain, I can ride on it immediately after. And the Coolatai grass holds up well no matter how much pounding it takes. I couldn’t have designed a better or safer surface. So from the point of view of a teaching arena, it is close to perfect.


But the second advantage is the best thing I like about my non-arena. It is big. It is so big that one could gallop endlessly around it without worrying about negotiating tricky corners. If a horse needs to move, that’s no problem in my non-arena. I know some people like smaller working spaces in case their horse has too much energy. The fences give them a feeling of security that they don’t get in large, open spaces. However, I believe this is a false sense of security. When a horse needs to move, confinement only leads to more worry. Having the latitude to move somewhere can make the difference between a small amount of anxiety and a wreck.


Of course, I can also make my non-arena an arena by riding as if it were a dressage ménage. I simply use markers in the paddock as my corners. This offers the advantage of practicing my dressage movements with some precision as well as ignoring the markers to help my horse when needed, without being confined within the borders of a fixed fence.


The third plus to come out of riding in a large area routinely is that it better prepares a horse for trail riding and the great outside world. It is my experience that horses that are ridden a lot in a fenced arena often have anxiety the moment they are introduced to large open spaces. The fenced arena can become a crutch that supports the routine of their ridden work. This can be just as true of riders too; whose confidence disappears the moment the arena gate is swung open. Getting a horse and rider use to and comfortable with, riding in an open area before heading out into the great yonder can be very helpful.


Lastly, in my experience, the lack of fenced arena with square corners and a large expanse requires me to be more focused on a plan. I have to be more mindful of where I am going, how straight my horse is and the rhythm we are traveling. In addition, I have to be thinking two of three movements ahead. Having no arena and no corners and no markers also means a rider is less prone to falling into the trap of having a routine. It makes it less likely you’ll always be halting at the same place or circling at the same marker or asking for extensions in the same corner. The workout becomes less predictable to the horse, which is a good thing because it reduces the risk of a horse anticipating your signals.


I am not suggesting that people who don’t have a large open area to use for an arena are at a great disadvantage or that a person should stop riding in their arena. I’m not even saying that riding a lot in an open a space is going to make your horse problems go away. However, if you have a large working area with a great surface why would you even build an arena? I have been involved in the construction of several expensive arenas in my life and I can say that my non-arena paddock is the best I have ever used. And all it cost was the price of fuel to slash the grass with my tractor. If I ever hold clinics here, I’m keeping my non-arena.


Photo: Ben Moxon from England is having a lesson in my non-arena. Ben is riding my thoroughbred gelding, Riley.

Good Ideas And Bad Ideas

Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1747) once said, “You can not reason a person out of a view that he wasn’t reasoned into” (paraphrase).


Therein lies the dilemma for every teacher. A person’s irrational belief will always win over another person’s rational reason every time.


While this is true for people, it is not true for horses. Horses only need proof to change their view. A horse is always ready to change its mind if presented with strong enough proof that an alternative way is a safer and leads to more comfort. A horse will easily succumb to a better viewpoint because their only attachment to an idea is in how well it works out for them.


This is not true of people. A person will cling to a bad idea for reasons that have nothing to do with whether it is better or not. Ego is probably one of the most important incentives for holding onto a bad concept because ego is linked to a human’s self-esteem and self-worth. Even smart people who are very rational in other aspects of their lives will Velcro themselves to bad ideas because it feels better to them. Just look at how some people still dispute that evolution is a fact. In the face of irrefutable evidence that evolution is a real phenomenon, some people (even some smart people) prefer to believe in an alternative concept that is based on zero evidence because they are irrationally committed to a concept. Horses don’t do that.


For example, when a horse meets a human for the first time, it is perfectly rational for it to be afraid and avoid contact. But in time, a horse can change their mind about the dangers of human contact if we provide them with enough evidence of how good it can be to get along with people. We give the horse a rational reason for no longer believing that humans are dangerous. But it’s different with people. I once had a client who owned two horses. One of the horses was very reactive and dangerous and the other was fairly easy going but green. The owner was afraid of the green horse yet had no fear riding the dangerous horse. She knew her heightened fear towards the green horse compared the dangerous horse was irrational, but she couldn’t change it.


I think this is one reason trainers say it is easier to train a horse than it is to train people.


Most people who come to my clinics more than once do so because they like the rational way I present ideas to them. They are looking for approaches that make sense to them and their horse and the explanations and demonstrations they get at my clinics make sense to them. But once in a while, a first-time clinic participant comes along with a strong resistance to ideas that don’t already gel with what they know. Any ideas that conflict with theirs is met with a polite smile and nod of the head but in their mind, a brick wall is being built higher and higher. They come to a clinic mostly because what’s working at home isn’t working so well. They want expert input to help their horse. But their commitment to learning comes with conditions that limit their ability to help their horse and ties the hands of the clinician trying to help them.


Sometimes a person starts out being resistant to a new concept but their staunch opposition gradually melts away over time. This can take a few days or months or years. Often it requires something out of the ordinary to initiate a change of perspective like a really difficult horse or some light-bulb moments of understanding or even just personal maturity.


So I have two pieces of advice for people who want to get help with their horse work.


Firstly, I suggest you check out firsthand the instructor or clinician before committing to having lessons. Watch them teaching, quiz them on the things you don’t understand and get a feel whether or not you’d personally get along with them as a teacher.


The second suggestion is that if you are going to pay somebody your hard-earned money for a clinic or a lesson, go along prepared to try things you’d not normally try. That doesn’t mean you just go along with anything you are told. You have to use your judgment not to put your horse in harms way. But you also have to balance that with being prepared to experiment and try new, and even left field, ideas. I see no point in paying money for help you are not prepared to at least try with an open outlook. That is definitely a recipe for failure.


This essay is written from pure self-interest because a clinician’s life would be a lot easier if the people who come to clinics are putting all their effort into working with the clinician rather than against them.


Photo: Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1747) was a prolific author and an esteemed social philosopher.