I have been thinking a lot lately about why so many trainers place so much emphasis on controlling a horse’s feet as a means of controlling their minds.
If you look at the way many people use a round yard to get a horse to hook on or do “join up”, it’s by driving a horse around the yard. It seems most schools of training that try to get a horse to “join up” use the technique of moving a horse until he gives up. It’s as if by moving a horse’s feet they will want to be with the person.
I watched Michele’s horse, Guy pacing the fence a few days ago. He is a super horse, but he loves routine and he loves food because of his insecurities. He gets fed about the same time each day. About an hour before his usual feeding time he stands around the fence closest to where he is normally fed. The other five horses might be at opposite ends of the 30-acre paddock, but he leaves them and comes up the fence. He then paces about half way along the fence – back and forth – until the food arrives.
Consider the message that many people took home from Ray Hunt’s clinics. Let’s look at a couple of Ray’’s most often quoted sayings
“… get the life in your body, through his mind and down to his feet.”
“… get the feet soft and they’ll be soft in the head.”
I have mentioned this before on the Horse Talk page under the topic Training Is Not Just About The Feet. Many people took these sayings to mean that if you could control the horse’s feet you can control his mind. I’ve heard Buck Brannaman say at a clinic “…it’s all about the feet.” Even Ray’s widow when asked what was Ray’s enduring message responded, “… it’s all about the feet.” So it is possible that with such esteemed people telling us “it’s about the feet”, that I could be wrong when I say I don’t think it is ALL about the feet. But you can read my piece on the Horse Talk page to discover why I have a different view.
What I want to mention here is how it has dawned on me why people believe the secret to controlling a horse’s mind is by controlling his feet. I feel kind of stupid about this because the answer if sort of obvious and one of those things we all know in the back of our minds, but was not fully formed in my conscious.
I believe the pacing is an expression of his anxiety. Being fed is so important to him that the idea of food arriving builds an anxiety inside of Guy. When either Michele or I appear with the bucket, his pacing quickens and he might even trot until we are actually at the gate. He knows to go and stand by his bucket and wait until the food is in his bucket and we have stepped away before eating. He is very polite about this, but his tension is obvious.
This is the part that I feel stupid to admit, but Guy made me realize that a horse’s emotions are expressed through his feet. When a horse is anxious, he moves his feet. Few horses will choose to stand still when worried unless they are so worried they freeze. The amount of anxiety is often reflected by the energy in their feet. When a horse is relaxed and feeling okay, they generally don’t choose to move a lot. Horses are by nature fairly lazy animals – like some Aussie horse trainers who shall remain nameless – so most need a reason to move.
When you see or ride a horse with more energy in his feet than necessary to get a job done, you can be pretty sure there is anxiety driving the feet.
This revelation finally explains in my mind why then people get so fixated about using the feet to tap into a horse’s mind and emotions. It’s hard to separate a horse’s emotions from what he is doing. And it is hard to influence a horse’s emotions. But in comparison it is fairly easy to influence what a horse is doing. We can direct him to move much easier than we can change the way he feels without him moving (without using pharmaceuticals). This being the case, it is easy to see why driving or directing the feet of a horse is a commonly recommended way of getting a change in the way a horse feels. And it is does work if done properly.
I’m not knocking moving the feet as a way of tapping into a horse’s emotions. I do it myself all the time. But where I think the message has gone wrong is that “moving the feet” has been sold as the answer to people’s problems. But in my view the answer lies in “changing how he feels” with or without moving the feet. Moving the feet in itself serves no useful purpose other than to exercise a horse. You can direct the feet without getting a change in how he feels – most people do. However, if you move the feet and get a change inside your horse then you have made progress. But it is not necessary to always move a horse in order to change how he feels either.
I guess what I am saying is that the important thing is to evoke a change in how your horse feels. Most people try to do this by moving the horse in some way (eg join up) because the way a horse moves is very often linked to how he feels. Therefore, people think if they change how he moves they will automatically change how he feels. But this is not necessarily true – it might be, but not necessarily. But what is always true is if you change how he feels you will change how he moves.