On this page you’ll find discussion on many topics regarding principles that are encompassed in Good Horsemanship
In addition there are several articles and description of practical aspects of horse training and equipment.
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The Philosophy And Principles Of Good Horsemanship
Myth No1- A Horse Must Show You Respect
This is a pet peeve of mine, so I will begin with the issues of respect and disrespect.
We have all heard folks describe a horse as being disrespectful or needing to learn respect. Most often it is talked about when a horse is pushy to handle or when he rears or kicks at a person etc. But is it really fair or even helpful to think in terms of respect or disrespect in good horsemanship?
Firstly, what is respect and disrespect from a horse's point of view? To respect a person a horse would have to put a value on a person and what that person is doing with them. Clearly horses can't do that. A horse does not wake up in the morning and decide whether or not a person is worthy of their respect. The concepts of respect and disrespect have no meaning to a horse and really do not relate in any way to how a horse operates in his decision making.
A horse responds to us purely in the way they perceive their safety and comfort. If (in their eyes) we compromise their safety and comfort and as a result they barge into us or bite us or buck us off in order to restore their sense of safety and comfort, is it really disrespectful or is simply a survival strategy? If somebody tries to force a claustrophobic person into a closet, is it disrespect if the claustrophobic punches, screams and fights to avoid being shoved into the closet?
Horses only have one agenda and that is to survive the best they can. They don't plot and scheme on how to get the better of a human. They don't try to prove they are stronger or smarter than people. They have no interest in proving that we are weaker and incompetent. It is not in their make up to even consider these things. The way a horse operates in response to the world in general and people in particular is to try to maintain their idea of what is safe and what is comfortable. Nothing else matters to a horse.
It is not being disrespectful for a horse to do what he thinks will be in the best interest of his survival and comfort. In fact, it is totally disrespectful of us humans to try to make a horse do things that he feels threatens his survival and comfort. By putting him in that situation we are basically indicating to him that his survival and comfort don't matter to us.
In my experience, what most people really mean when they talk about respect in a horse is whether the horse sees the human as being higher than them in the pecking order or not. But since a horse will never see a human as anything akin to another horse, this concept is quite bizarre. In terms of herd hierarchy, it makes sense that a horse can only see another horse as having a place in the pecking horse - not a human - since humans have no place in a herd.
It seems to me that for many people, respect is really equated to submission and obedience and this is achieved by dominance over the horse. We often teach obedience by asserting dominance. When we fail to dominate a horse we also fail to achieve obedience and submission. So when a horse barges into us or threatens to kicks us or refuses to pick up a foot and our friends tell us that he is being disrespectful what most of them mean is that we have failed to be dominant. Dominance is not a virtue and certainly not something that a person imposes if they truly respect a horse.
In the end, I believe that thinking about horses in terms of respect and disrespect is really counter productive to good horsemanship. It puts blame on the horse for things that go wrong and validates the idea that forcibly dominating a horse with fear and strength to achieve respect is okay.
Myth No.2 - You Can't Let the Horse Win
Ever since I was a boy I have heard this. I still hear it these days, in fact I read it on a web site from a trainer who was responding to an e-mail question.
Winning or losing doesn't even enter a horse's mind. No horse is out to beat us or prove us wrong. Training is not meant to be an adversarial sport. It is not about having a winner and a loser. When interacting with a horse, the horse should always be a winner. Anytime you leave a horse feeling like he was the loser, you have taken something away from him. The only road that I know for getting a horse to want to go along with me is if by trial and error he has learned that I offer him a good deal. My job should be to do whatever I can to make it as easy as possible and with minimum trouble. So when he does give it a try it feels okay and he hasn't lost anything in the process.
That might all sound "airy-fairy" and some might be wondering how do you get a horse to do what you want if you don't show him that you are in charge?
Those that have hung around me will have heard me say many times "never ask a horse to do anything unless you get a change - if you don't get a change you should never have asked in the first place and you are teaching him to ignore you."
At first read that might sound similar to "you can't let a horse win." But it all depends on what you call a change. When you ask a horse to do something you need to get a change, but a change only has to be something different from what the horse was doing. A change does not have to be exactly what you wanted him to do. If it is, that is wonderful. But in reality a change is just something that's different. Getting a change means your horse is searching. He knows doing what he is doing is not working for him because you keep persisting with some pressure (using just enough pressure to motivate him to search), so he starts searching to find something that will get rid of the pressure. When he does, rejoice. If he is doing something even slightly in the direction of what you had in mind, release the pressure and rejoice some more. That's called a "try". If he tries something counter to what you had in mind, just persist with enough pressure to keep him searching and release when he stumbles on something better. Soon he will have discovered for himself what he should do to stop the idiot from annoying him.
This approach is not about making him do what we want or letting him get away with anything. That's human thinking - not horse. A horse just wants to find the safest and most comfortable option he thinks is available. So allow him to discover for himself what works and what doesn't by letting him be a winner every time he gets close to what we had in mind.
Often we make a bad situation worse because we refuse to let our horse win. Float loading is a good example. A situation that came up recently was in regard to loading a horse into a float. A lady was taking her horse to a show. The horse would go about half way in and stop. The lady got more insistent and then the horse would run backwards. The whole episode went on for about 2 hrs before she gave up in frustration. She rang me to ask for advice because she was very concerned that she had let the horse win and now she would never get her horse in a float. Long before the lady had given up things got worse. The horse got to the stage where she couldn't even get it within 10 metres of the float and he was rearing and striking. It would have been much wiser to have realized earlier that things were deteriorating to a bad situation and to have given up. There would have been no harm done. The problem of getting the horse in the float is very fixable. The horse had it's reasons for not going in the float. When she fixes the reasons the horse will load fine.
There is a theory among some people (even professional trainers) that if you let a horse win you have ruined it. Firstly, as I have said a horse doesn't have any concept of winning. But secondly, every situation is salvageable. If it wasn't then every mistake we make with our horses would be ruining them for life. A substantial proportion of our business is re-educating horses that people make mistake with. All a horse needs is to find a way to behave that feels better to them than the way they have been responding, then they will choose the better option every time for themselves. You will soon reverse the damage done by your mistakes.
So keep in mind that training is never an "us vs the horse" pastime. The object is to help the horse find a better way to respond and sometimes that might mean backing off rather than allowing the horse's feeling to become more troubled. You are always training for tomorrow and not everything has to be perfect today.
Myth No. 3 - The Muscle Under the Neck Cause a Horse to Be High Headed
I first heard this theory when I was a kid. The theory is that a horse that is ewe-necked or carries his head high has too much strength in the muscle of the neck that are below the spinal column. It is the lower (or under) muscles that get the blame for this type of posture.
Fortunately, I went to university and studied physiology and biochemistry and was awarded a PhD in Physiology and followed that with 15 years in medical research. This has given me enough understanding of how muscles work to know that the concept of the under muscles of the neck causing an upside down neck posture is rubbish.
I will keep the explanation as simple as possible (maybe even over simplify) and only talk in broad terms so that those with little understanding of muscle function will still be able to follow.
Muscles work in pairs. For every muscle that does something there is another muscle that does the opposite. For example, our biceps contract to cause our forearm to move closer to our shoulder (ie, our arm closes). But to open our arm again we use a different set of muscles called the triceps. When the biceps contract, the triceps relax to allow our forearm to close. When our forearm opens again it is the triceps that contract and the biceps relax. The biceps Do Not push our forearm open - they simply relax so that when the triceps contract the forearm can open.
Now lets look at the what happens with the neck of the horse when he lifts or lowers his head. Again, we have groups of muscles working in opposite pairs. One group causes the neck to be raised and another group causes it to be lowered. The spinal column of the horse runs roughly through the middle of the neck in an "S" shape. The muscles above the spinal column we can refer to as top muscles and the muscles below the spinal column we can call the bottom or under muscles.
Contrary to what the majority of people believe (even top level coaches and riders) it is the top muscles that contract to cause the neck to be raised, while at the same time the under muscles must relax. In order to lower the neck the top muscles must relax while the under muscles contract.
Myth No. 4 - In a Circle The Hind Feet Track the Same Line As The Front Feet
This may cause a few people to get a little warm under the collar because it challenges ancient wisdom.
The myth is that when a horse is balanced in a circle or a turn that the inside front foot and the inside hind foot of the horse are on the same track. It was a theory that I was taught when learning. I heard Anky Van Grunsven say it at a masterclass at Equitana. I have read it in many books. So this theory is very strongly and widely held by riders and trainers at all levels. But I am prepared to stand up and tell you it is not true.
I want to make it clear I am talking about a balanced and correct turn or circle - not a crooked turn or circle.
When a horse bends through a turn there is very little lateral flexion through the spine between the wither and the croup. There is a very small amount, but for all intent and purposes it can be considered that there is none. The bend largely comes from the neck. It is important that the neck flexes laterally, but it is equally important that we realize that the horse is fairly rigid when it comes to lateral flexion from the wither back.
It is because of this rigidity that when a horse makes a balanced turn the inside front foot follows the curvature of the turn and the inside hind foot steps slightly to the outside of the curvature of the turn. Let's say a horse is circling to the left. The left fore follows the arc or circumference of the circle, but the left hind follows a track that is a little to the outside of the circumference of the circle. If the left hind tracks the same as the circumference, the hindquarters push the shoulders to the outside. That is what happens when a horse falls out of the circle.
It might help to think about a car. A car is also rigid through it's body - like a horse. When you corner a car the forces are set up to push the car to the outside of the turn. You turn the wheel to the left to direct the front end of the car to the left, but the rear wheels are on the same track as the front wheels (due to the rigidity of the body of the car) so there is a loss of balance and you need to hold the steering wheel to the left in order to stop the forces from making the car be pushed to the outside of the corner. Now think about 4 wheel steering. A few years ago some manufacturers such as Volvo came out with 4 wheel steering. When you turned the car the left the front wheels pointed left to carry the front of the car to the left, but the rear wheels pointed the right (the outside of the turn) to bring the rear end of the car to the outside of the turn. So while the front of the car was traveling to the left, then rear of the car was being directed slightly to the right to the outside of the turn. This enabled the car to corner much more balanced and a person could travel with more speed without losing control by the car to the outside of the turn.
This is just like a horse. By having the HQs pushing a little to the outside of the turn and the shoulders to the inside of the turn a horse is much more balanced and can follow the circumference of the circle with accuracy and be balanced. This is not possible if the fore feet and the hind feet are on the same tracks. Just watch a video of a horse executing a balanced turn or circle and you will see it as I have described it. Interestingly, at the masterclass that I mentioned, Anky Van Grunsven talked about how a horse's fore and hind feet fall onto the same track during a circle, but then went on to demonstrate a balanced circle with the horse doing exactly as I have described. It is like she was repeating some old wisdom that had been passed from generation to generation to finally reach her, but then never questioned how wise the wisdom actually was. If the horse laterally flexed through the spine from the wither to the HQs, then it would be possible for the horse to be balanced in a circle and still have the front and hind feet on the same track. But without that lateral flexion it is not possible.
In any case, experiment for yourself and watch other horses performing turns and circles and think about the consequences that the placement of the feet for the accuracy and balance of a turn.
The debunking of this myth has implications for my next discussion on Myths regarding the importance of the outside rein for executing a balanced turn - another very controversial topic.
Myth No. 5 - Turning with Inside Leg and Outside Rein
For me this is quite a controversial topic.
At some point most dressage riders are taught that a correct turn or circle is established by (i) feeling with the inside rein to get an inside bend, (ii) pressure from the inside leg to stop the horse collapsing to the inside of the turn and finally (iii) contact with the outside rein to control the degree of bend and to prevent the shoulder from falling out.
I was certainly taught this when I was younger and I have done enough clinics to know that people are still being taught this almost as a gospel truth. In fact, many people who come to our clinics are shocked that anybody would question this golden rule.
So why do I know longer use inside leg and outside rein when asking a horse to turn?
Well, lets begin by looking at what is the function of the reins. I believe the reins have two functions. Firstly, they are meant to direct a horse's feet and secondly to shape the horse's posture (for self carriage and later collection). The primary purpose of the reins is to tell the horse where to go - forwards, backwards, left, right or stand still. This is what a breaker tries to instil in a young horse. But no matter how educated the horse becomes in life, he should never lose this basic understanding of the reins. With training the ability of the reins to direct the horse's feet should become more refined and softer and never be lost.
As some of you who have hung around me already know I strongly believe that a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking. If he is thinking to the right her will turn to the right. If we want him to go to the left and he is thinking to the right, there will be resistance to the reins which will cause him to be crooked and heavy in the hand. So if we want a horse to be soft to the reins, then the reins should be able to not only direct his feet, but also direct his thought. If we can direct his thought to the left by contact of the left rein, then he will turn to the left with no resistance - because it was his idea.
Most people miss this fundamental concept of the reins directing the horse's thought. The result they get is having to do much more to get him to turn to overcome the resistance of his thought wanting him to do something else.
Now read again what I have written regarding Myth No. 4. Go to any show and you will see horses circling that are crooked and mostly it is because their inside fore is not on the track of the circle. Instead it is stepping to the outside of the circle. Now look at where those same horses are looking. Most often you will see their noses turned to the inside of the circle, but their eyes are looking to the outside of the circle. Their eyes are telling you that their thought is to the outside of the circle. They are not looking to come around the circle, but rather to fall out of the circle. If the rider let go of the reins those horses would go straight ahead instead of staying the curve of the circle.
This is where the concept of the outside rein comes into play. If your horse is falling out of the circle with his shoulder, more contact with the outside rein will prevent it from happening because the outside rein acts like a barrier. The outside rein is like a wall stopping the shoulder from leaking to the outside. Try it yourself. Ride a circle with only inside rein and no outside rein. See if your horse is looking to the inside or the outside of the circle. Does his shoulder follow the circle or fall out of the circle? If it falls out pick up your outside rein with a firm contact. Did he suddenly stop falling out of the circle? If you did enough with the outside rein he should have made a change. Now let go of the outside rein again. Did he keep following the circle or did his shoulders fall out of the circle again? So there is no doubt that using the outside rein will stop your horse from falling out of the circle. But does it get a change in where the hose is thinking? Does he still have his thoughts leaking to the outside of the circle or did the inside rein change his thought and get him to think about following the curve of the circle?
If picking up the outside rein helped the horse be correct on the circle, but it fell apart when you let the outside rein relax again, then there was no change in the horse's thought. The outside rein did not change where he was thinking, it only put a band aid on the problem of the horse being crooked. If this is true then you will always and forever more have to use outside rein in the turns to cover up the flaw in the horse's training where the rein does not direct your horse's thought. The long term solution is to teach a horse to follow the feel of the reins with accuracy. This means being able to direct where he is thinking using the reins. If you do this, then contact with the outside rein to execute a circle or turn correctly is superfluous. If we don't teach a horse to follow the feel of the reins, then we are setting the horse up to be resistant to everything we do with them under saddle.
To summarize, the outside rein is used in turning a horse because it blocks the shoulder from leaking to the outside of the turn. However, the reason the shoulder is falling out is because the horse was not taught to follow the feel of the inside rein. Outside rein will not fix the cause of the problem, but it will cover it up - like putting paint over rust in a car.
There are times where outside rein is appropriate in training. In the main I believe outside rein has huge value when training lateral exercises like shoulder in, traver, renver etc. But when training a horse be correct in something as basic as a turn using outside rein is a poor substitute to teaching a horse to follow the feel of the reins with both his thought and his feet from the very beginning.
I am sure some people would debate my views on this topic and I welcome their input. Feel free to write to me because I think healthy discussion is a positive thing. Anything that encourages people to think about their training is a good thing whether or not they ever agree with me.
Myth No. 6 - Don't Look Your Horse In The Eye
Many people believe that if you look your horse in the eye he will interpret that as a threatening gesture. If you watch Monty Roberts' videos on 'Join Up' you will see he turns sideways from the horse to get it to 'Join Up' and then looks away from the horse when he tries to catch it.
We have had more than one client who has watched a Roberts video or attended a demonstration who catches their horse that way. I remember the first time I saw it I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I asked the lady what she was doing.
"Monty Roberts said that you shouldn't look at your horse straight in the eye."
"Why," I asked?
"Because you are acting like a predator and he will feel threatened."
"Is your horse hard to catch," I asked ?
"No, he is good to catch."
"Was he good to catch before you ever heard of Monty Roberts?"
"Yes," she said.
"So why change?"
I have even heard Mark Rashid (an American trainer) tell people not to wear sunglasses when working a horse because they will think you are staring at them and will feel threatened.
It leaves me to wonder how people come up with these whacky ideas.
How a horse feels about being approached is not determined by if you look at them in the eyes or if you wear sunglasses or even if you wear pink underwear. It is the overall demeanor and energy with which you approach a horse that counts. For a nervous horse you need to have low energy and a relaxed posture. But with a horse that is comfortable with people you can walk up to them a lot more casually. Our horses can be caught even if you walk up to them waving a plastic bag. I can approach a horse while making eye contact in a way that is non-threatening and a way that is threatening. Similarly, I can walk up to a horse with no eye contact and be threatening or non threatening - depending on my energy level.
Myth No. 7 - Lowering a Horse's Head Calms Them By Releasing Endorphins
This is a modern day myth. I first heard that you can release endorphins in a horse by lowering their heads from Pat Parelli in the early 1990s. He made the claim while trying to explain why horses can become calmer when you lower their heads. I don't know if Parelli was the first to spout this theory, but since then I have heard it many times from horse owners, trainers and vets. Yet, to this day I have not been able to find any scientific evidence to support the view.
Endorphins are peptides (small proteins) related to opioids (like morphine) that are stored in the anterior pituitary of many mammalian brains. When they are released from the pituitary it is thought that have a calming and euphoric effect in some species, including humans. Some horse people believe that when you get a horse to put his head down below wither height it causes the release of endorphins and the horse goes quiet. Alternatively, when a horse raises his head above wither height it is suppose to release adrenaline and cause the horse to become excited. So a horse putting his head up causes excitement and putting his head down causes relaxation - all through changes in hormones.
Despite the fact there is no hard evidence to support these explanations, they seem to have become facts in many circles.
I have a different theory. I want to emphasize that it is only a theory and has no more evidence to support it than the alternative.
It seems to me to be far more logical that when you ask a horse to lower his head and he does with no resistance, that it is the change of thought or willing submission that causes the calming effect. He changes his thought from being on alert, trying to tune the human out and resistant to what we present to being focussed on us, softer and less ready on alert mode and stops releasing stress hormones like adrenaline. Likewise, when a horse gets anxious or goes onto alert mode he raises his head, tunes us out and then releases flight hormones. I propose that rather than the posture of the neck determining the calmness or agitation of the horse, it is the thought determines the emotional state and that then determines the posture of the neck.
If it was the position of the head that determined whether or not the horse was anxious or not, then you could take a quiet, relaxed horse and raise his head to produce a horse full off beans. Alternatively, you could take a horse in full fear mode and force his head down and he would suddenly become relaxed. Neither of these cases are true. You only get a change when the horse lowers his head easily and willingly because he has let go of his anxiety - it was his idea and something he chose to do.
Perhaps one day there will be scientific evidence to support one of these theories, but until then they are only theories and nobody has the scientific authority to claim one as being the truth.
Myth No. 8 - The One Rein Stop Is An Emergency Safety Brake
For those that don't know what a one rein stop is (ORS) you use one rein to bend the horse's neck around and keep them bent and circling until they bring their feet to a stop, then release the rein. Here is a video clip of John O'Leary talking about it and demonstrating it on a horse www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmpDSbXPtzU
The ORS has been promoted widely as the only tool for stopping a bucking or bolting horse. Many trainers and clinicians teach it and there are testimonials on lots of web sites how the ORS has saved the life of horses and riders. I use to teach it myself. But what you don't see or hear about is how many times they have caused an accident and turned a minor tantrum into a serious wreck. I have witnessed several instances where somebody using the ORS to control a horse has made things far worse and caused a greater loss of control.
Why is this?
The ORS can be effective in regaining control of a horse when the horse is ready to listen. But if a horse is so panicked that he NEEDS to move his feet, a ORS can cause further panic. Horses are primarily flight animals. When they get scared their first option is to flee. If you try to stop the flee by shutting down his feet with a ORS (or any type of stop) you are trying to take away his main survival tool. Sometimes this will worsen the situation and make the horse even more desperate to flee. So you set up a situation which will cause the horse to fight any attempt to stop him. This can escalate the problem and be very dangerous. It can lead to a much bigger problem than the one the ORS tried to fix. I have seen it several times, so I know it is real.
So what is the alternative to the ORS?
Rather than try to bend the horse to stop, just use enough bend to get the hindquarters to yield then release the rein and move forward. When you use a ORS it is not the stopping that keeps you safe, it is the disengagement of the hindquarters. The HQ yield (or disengagement) takes away the ability of the horse to buck or bolt. The stopping only gives the rider a chance to get their composure back, fix their hair and check their makeup. Once you have disengaged the HQs and the horse has relaxed his back a little you can allow him to move. If he goes to buck and bolt again, just disengage the HQs, release and move again. By doing this you avoid the panic that can come with trying to get the horse to stop his feet. This approach has never failed me and never made a situation worse - unlike the ORS.
Before finishing discussing the ORS there is one other aspect about it that I don't like. Because a horse is being asked to bend and not move his feet, he is being taught to disconnect the feel of the rein from the movement of the feet. This promotes an inaccuracy in how a horse moves when directed by the reins. It can encourage a horse to "rubber neck" - where he is being turned one direction, but he keeps moving in another. I never want my horse to have a lateral bend that is not directing the feet - especially in a young horse.
I am not saying that a ORS does not work. But in a percentage of cases it can cause a greater panic and a more dangerous uncontrollable situation and it is not necessary. By disengaging the HQs then releasing the bend you allow the horse to move and minimize the risk that things running out of control.
Myth No. 9 - Collection Begins With Engagement of the Hindquarters
When a horse attempts to collect there is a complex cascade of changes in his body that has to happen for there to be true collection. The postural changes that we see when a horse collects is a shortening of his frame by rounding his neck, raising his back and engaging his hindquarters. Many people believe that true collection begins with an engagement of the HQs and not with a rounding of the neck. It is generally thought that rounding the neck without concomitant engagement of the HQs causes a false collection and a hollowing of the back. It is certainly true that if you get a horse to round his neck and not engage his HQs then you are causing him to become stiff and not truly collected.
But let's first look at what happens when a horse collects. We will begin at the back end.
I have already said that collection happens when a horse rounds his neck, raises his back and engages his HQs. But for a horse to be able to increase the engagement of his HQs and have the back legs reaching further under the body the stifles have to have freedom of movement. The ability of a horse to do this is very dependent on the individual conformation, but lets talk about the 'generic' horse. For most horses there is a block to reaching forward with the back legs. When the stifles try to push forward enough to engage for collection they run into the last rib. This rib gets in the way of further engagement.
In order to get the rib out of the way a horse must raise his back which clears the way for the stifle to achieve that little bit extra engagement. But the back can't be raised until the wither is raised. The wither must come up a little bit in order for the horse to lighten his forehand and free his front end to allow the back end to engage. To do this a horse must raise the base of his neck which comes about by rounding his neck with correct flexion from just behind the poll (where the atlas of the spine is located). If a horse does not raise the base of the neck, but rather jams the neck down between his shoulders (as happens in false collection) he can not soften his back and engage his HQs.
Therefore, collections comes about by a horse telescoping his neck and raising the base to allow the front end to be raised which in turn allows the back to lift and clear the ribs out of the way so that the HQs can increase their engagement.
So while I understand why dressage folk talk about collection coming from behind, in reality it starts with the neck and cascades it's way through the horse until it reaches the rear end.
Myth No. 10 - You Need a Bit to Control a Horse
When I was a kid it never even entered a person's thought to ride a horse without a bit. I remember the first time I rode a horse in just a halter. I rode with more hope rather than certainty that everything was going to be okay. But these days Michele and I ride most horses that are sent to us in a sidepull to begin with before we progress to a snaffle bit.
These days more people are riding in a bitless bridle, but there is still a large contingent that believes that a bit is necessary to control a horse. The racing industry is particularly backward about this. It is not allowed to even lead a horse on a race course without a bit in it's mouth. Most horse shows require a horse to be bridled with a snaffle for a led-in class. You can't compete in dressage and other riding events without at least a snaffle and in some cases a double bridle.
I am not against riding a horse in a bit - I do it all the time. But I know that a bit is not for controlling a horse. Control is something a horse gives you, not something you impose with a bit. The harshest bit in the world will not control a horse that does not want to be controlled. Control comes from a horse learning to give to the feel of the reins no matter if the reins are attached to a bit, a noseband or a cavesson. As a horse becomes softer and more focussed you don't even need reins to direct a horse. The seat and legs can be enough.
So why should you ever use a bit?
Firstly, a bit adds refinement. With a bit in a horse's mouth you can do less with the reins to achieve more. The bit allows a level of sophistication to the feel of the reins that is not achieved with just a noseband or cavesson. It means you can be quieter and more subtle with their use than you can otherwise be. Just like spurs are not meant to make a horse go forward that doesn't want to go forward. Spurs add refinement to the action of the leg - not fix a dull horse.
The second use of the bit is that is can be used to influence the posture of the horse. Some bits are designed in such a way as to alter the way a horse carries himself just by sitting in the mouth - even without an affect of the reins. A common example of this is in the way vaqueros educate their horses in the "bridle". These riders use bits that by their very design encourage a horse to flex at the poll and carry themselves more upright in front. Here is a link to a clip by Martin Black that has a brief mention of the use of the bit in making a bridle horse. He also has some shots of the different bits they use in the training.
I believe it doesn't matter if you ride with or without a bit. The bit is not the secret to control. But I also believe that even if you never intend to ride with a bit, that your horse should be trained to be comfortable with a bit. It is possible that someday, somebody is going to want to ride him with a bit and you'd like to think that it was okay with him.
Myth No. 11 - Timing Is Critical in Horse Training
I hope I can be very clear here about this notion of the importance of timing.
We hear a lot about how one of the secrets to being good with horses is to have really good timing. Choosing the moment to release pressure is very important in horse training. The earlier you release the pressure when a horse has had a change of thought, the easier it is for him to associate the response with a relief from pressure. In theory, this should mean he will learn the correct response more quickly.
I don't believe timing is critical. I don't believe that if you have poor timing and are late with your releases that a horse can not learn the correct response. I my view, consistency is more important than timing. If you are consistent in the way you present pressure and release pressure your horse can still learn to respond correctly - no matter how late you are. It will probably take him longer to learn, but that just means you need to do more repetitions.
Many trainers believe that you only have a few seconds to release the pressure once a horse has responded if he is to associate his response to the removal of pressure. John Lyons talks about a 3 second rule where you must act within 3 seconds for it to have meaning to the horse (this hold true for punishment too according to John). Andrew McLean believes that you have less than 10 seconds.
I don't believe this at all. I am not saying that a horse's memory can reflect on his response and the person's response for an unlimited time in order to connect a meaning. But I do believe that if a person is consistent and repeats the scenario enough times, the timing is not nearly as critical as many believe.
A few years ago I was working at a property that had a feed room with a very squeeky door. The squeek was so loud it could be heard almost all over the property. Every morning and evening I would go into the feed room to make up the feeds. It usually took me about 20 minutes to make the feeds before I would take them to the paddocks to give to each horse. All the horses would be waiting for their meals at their gate. They could not see the feed room or see me come and go from the feed room, but they would hear the squeek and have no idea that the noise came from the feed room door.
When a new horse arrived on the property they would hear the squeek too, but because it had no meaning to them they would not be waiting at their gate for meals when I did my rounds of giving out the feeds. But after somewhere from a week to 10 days the new horses would begin waiting at their gates just like the others. It took about 20 minutes between hearing the squeek and their feed to appear in their feed buckets, yet they learned the association between the noise of the door and being feed in just a few days of being fed. That meant that anywhere between 14 and 20 repetitions was enough for the horse's to learn this behaviour despite the timing of the reward being incredibly late (20 minutes late!) in the eyes of most trainers.
When I began to notice this behaviour I started to experiment and play around with this to try to determine the trigger that got the horse's to wait at the gate. At first I thought that because I fed at the same time each day that horse's were working off their biological clock which told them it was getting close to feeding time and so they waited at the gate. But I started varying the feeding times by several minutes and then hours and the horse's were always waiting. I then tried feeding the horse's as usual, but at different times of the day I would open and close the feed room door without actually showing up with any feed. The horse's always wandered to their gate when they heard the squeek. The next thing I tried was to fix the door so that it hardly made any noise. When I did this and went to feed the horses none of them were waiting by their gates.
My experiment with the feeding was not definitive and by no means conclusive. But in my work as a trainer I have watched and thought about the notion of the importance of timing of a reward a lot. All my work and experience leads me to conclude that while early (good) timing is important in training, consistency of timing is more important.
Myth 12 - If I buy A Young Horse It Will Have Less Problems Than An Older Horse
Through my career I have heard from many people that they are sick and tired of buying other people's problems. They have bought a horse that had been handled/trained by others and didn't like the problems it came with. They figure if they get a young horse with very little training then they are starting with a clean slate. They won't be inheriting the crap that others have put in the horse.
While there is a certain logic to this argument, it is not sound logic. The trouble arises in the level skill of the purchaser. I believe that if a person does not have the skills to fix the problems that a horse may have from the training of previous owners, then they probably don't have the skills to ensure they don't put problems in the horse themselves.
The same ability to handle and train a horse are required whether you are dealing with existing issues or in teaching a young horse things for its first time. The timing, feel, awareness and judgement that is required to make sure you don't screw up a young horse is the same for re-educating an older horse.
So don't be fooled into thinking that buying a young, untrained horse is your answer to having a trouble free future with your horse.
Myth 13 - Rugging and Comfort
As winter is getting closer I notice the saddlery catalogs are filling with pages of advertisements for horse rugs. In my experience of working horses in N. America and Europe, it seems to me that we are a nation of ruggers. No where else have I seen so many horses rugged. Here on the hottest continent on the planet we rug more than anywhere else!
When talking to people there seems to be three major reasons why fold rug their horses.
1. To keep them from being cold and losing condition
2. To keep their coats clean and reduce coat thickness
3. For health reasons, such as sun sensitivity.
Lets take the health reasons out of the discussions because no one would argue that a horse's health is not important. Besides, if people just bought rugs for horses that had sensitivity to the sun then the manufacturers would be broke.
Fitting a rug to a horse to keep the coat clean has to be a secondary consideration behind the horse's comfort and protection from the cold. If a horse is wearing a rug to be clean, but is suffering being overheated, then the owners needs to rethink their priorities even if there is a show on the weekend.
But what about using rugs to keep a horse comfortable in cold weather? Do horses suffer the cold like we do? Is it correct to believe that because we are cold that our horses must be cold too?
Firstly, horses evolved in northern Europe where summers are mild and winters are cold. So it would be reasonable to consider that perhaps horses evolved to do well in cold or cool climates. If this is true we have to examine something called the thermoneutral temperature of a horse. This is usually describe as a range of temperature and is "... a limited range in effective ambient temperature over which an animal's metabolic heat production is minimal and independent of changes in the effective ambient temperature (1)." In other words, the thermoneutral temperature is the temperature of the air that an animal neither has to increase metabolic rate to stay warm or use mechanisms (like sweating and increased breathing) to stay cool.
In horses, the thermoneutral temperature is about 5 deg C at the bottom range and about 16 deg C at the upper range (2). There are some differences that depend on body condition and length/thickness of coat etc., but overall the temperature of most comfort for a horse extends from near freezing to the mid teens. In humans, the thermoneutral temperature is around 21 deg C and this why most air conditioned buildings are set to this temperature. If the room temperature falls down to say 15 deg C most of us put on a sweater and if it gets to 25 deg we open a window and enjoy the cooling effects of a breeze.
So a horse can find comfort in temperatures between 5 and 16 deg C. If the temperature falls below freezing he will increase his metabolic rate and even begin to shiver. And when the temperature rises to 20 deg C or higher he will try to find ways to cool himself down.
Yet, I regularly see horses with one or two rugs on them on days that are well with the horse's thermoneutral temperature range. The science tells us that these horses are being over heated by the rugging which will cause physiological changes in order for them to stay cool. Rather than helping the horse stay comfortable (which seems to be why many people rug their horse), owners are heat stressing their horses.
Have you noticed that on warm days horses tend to be lazy and not have much energy, but when a cool change comes through or on cold days they have more "go" than some people wished? The heat zaps them of energy because they are trying to maintain a normal range of body temperature by keeping the metabolic rate low. But the cool days brings them alive because they feel good. It is just the nature of how horses evolved.
In this country, it would be a rare day when a healthy horse needs to be rugged in order to maintain body temperature. People that regularly rug horses in Australia are either not thinking of their horse's welfare or are placing a higher priority on having a clean horse than a comfortable horse.
(1) Veterinary Medicine: A Textbook of the Diseases of Cattle, Sheep, Pigs ... (2000) Otto M. Radostits. Elsevier Health Sciences Press.
Myth 14 - Natural Horsemanship is a More Gentle Training Method Than Other Methods
Firstly, what is Natural Horsemanship (NH)? When talking about NH many people equate it with Parelli Natural Horsemanship because Parelli was the man who first used the term. He used it to refer to his school of horsemanship. Since then it has developed a much broader meaning and is often thought to refer to almost any method of horsemanship that is not "old school". It seems to be synonymous more with the type of equipment used than the methods. Objects like rope halters, 12 ft lead ropes, western saddles, flags, bridles with slobber straps and mecate reins have all become associated with NH.
But for me, a better concept of NH is a school of training that attempts to work from the horse's point of view. This idea is as broad as the equipment used by NH trainers. Everybody has their own idea of what the horse's point of view is. But for some reason this concept has taken on an almost universal meaning of training with gentleness. I get a lot of phone calls from people wanting a trainer who only uses gentle methods and they start looking for an NH trainer. I don't really know what to say to them because I don't know what they are wanting. What is a gentle method? Does it mean no blood dripping from the horse's flanks or does it mean a method that does not raise the blood pressure of the horse?
I have to say from the start that every method that teaches a horse to change their behaviour causes a horse some anxiety and stress. There is not one method that does not create a worry in a horse. This is because it is the anxiety that gets a horse to search for making a change in their response to pressure. Without some anxiety there is no motivation for a horse to change.
Having said that, there are some trainers who leave the worry in the horse long after they have learned a new response and others who are able to help a horse feel better once the horse understands his new response. In this regard, I believe there is no difference between most NH practitioners and traditional trainers. People often think that because a person calls themselves a NH trainer that they must use gentle and kind methods. But this is not true in my experience. The vast majority of NH trainers are no different than the vast majority of traditional trainers in the way they work a horse and in the final outcome of how a horse responds. I say this because most NH training is simply an increasing level of pressure until the horse makes a change. This is also how traditional training works. There may be differences in the equipment and in the exercises and even in the language they use, but to the horse these differences amount to nothing. To the horse the only difference that matters is the way a person practice their craft and in that area there is very little to discern between most NH and most traditional. In reality the difference is just in the label and the marketing and gentleness does even come into it.
Myth No 15: I Want to Buy an Unbroken Horse to Avoid Getting a Horse With Problems Already?
A lot of people have asked themselves if they should get a horse with a clean slate that has not been messed up by poor training. They want to avoid the pitfalls of inheriting problems from previous owners.
I think it is a false premise to assume that training a horse you bred or buying an untrained horse will ensure you get a well behaved horse. For me the skills that a person requires to solve problems that already exist in a trained horse are the same skills needed so that problems don't arise in an untouched horse. I believe that if you do not have the skills to fix problems in a horse, then you don't have the skills to ensure you don't put problems in a horse. You need to be just as good a horse person to solve issues with horses as you do to make sure you don't screw them up. I don't think enough people recognize that it is not just other people who create problems in horses - we all do - every one of us. The better the horse person you are the smaller and fewer are the problems you create. But if you are that good a horse person then you can also help re-educate a horse that comes with inherent problems that others have created.
The one advantage of buying a horse already messed up is that you can blame somebody else for it!
Myth No 16: Mineral Appetite In Horses
I have often heard people say that when a horse chews on something or licks something that it is a sign they are lacking a mineral in their diet or are mineral deficient. Usually this refers to salt, iron or calcium. People seem to think that horses have the ability to sense their mineral requirements and to regulate them. While this has been shown to be true of some species, there is no evidence that it exist in horses. The most well known example of appetite regulating animals is the rabbit. It was discovered decades ago that rabbits have a “salt appetite” and will seek out salt-rich foods when they are deficient. They will also avoid salt-rich foods when they are not deficient in salt. But horses don’t seem to be able to do this. Humans can’t do it either.
When a horse licks your hand or a rock or a fence post, it is probably because he likes the taste. Horses are able to discern subtle flavours and can detect tastes in foods that would seem tasteless to us. Sometimes you can see horses put strange things in their mouth like manure or thistles or after birth. I’ve seen all these things and somebody has always put it down to proof that the horse was deficient in one or more minerals. But the simple fact is that they like the taste. So if you ever go to dinner with a horse, don’t let them order for you!
I can't emphasize strongly enough the importance of what I want to talk about. It comes from a culmination of years of working with horses and thinking about how they tick. It comes from long discussions with people whose experience and ideas I greatly respect. For me, what this article is about is the fundamental basis of what defines good horsemanship. In my opinion, an understanding of this topic marks the divide between those who ride and handle horses as if they are a utility to be mastered and those who are on the way to forming a harmonious partnership in the true sense with their horse.
A horse's thoughts! All horses have them. In fact, many of the problems people have with horses stem from the inability of owners to understand that very concept. For a horse to do anything it begins with a thought. Even the quickest shy begins with a momentary thought on the part of the horse. For a horse to do anything without some processing of the brain that involves recognition and decision making would require the response to be purely reflex. In animals with a sophisticated central nervous system - like a horse - spinal reflexes account for very few behaviours. Sometimes, the responses like shying or bucking can appear to happen so quickly that it seems like a reflex, but in reality that is pretty rare. If a horse's response was a reflex they could not learn to modify their responses. For example, if a horse was prone to shying so fast that it appeared that he could not have possibly thought about it, no amount of experience or education would ever allow that horse to change his shying response. This is because reflexes can not be trained. But we know that is not true. Horses can and do learn to modify their shying behaviour. So such reactions, no matter how fast they appear to be, require some thought processing on the part of the horse.
"Everything a horse does begins with a thought"
Horses are not particularly talented at multitasking. It is hard for a horse to be thinking about one thing while doing something completely different. A horse is always trying to make his body do what his mind is thinking. The stronger his idea the more determined he is to try to make it work. For example, suppose a group of friends is riding down the road and one of the horses trots on up ahead. The other horses may not get too bothered by only one of the horses leaving the group to go ahead. The riders may have to pick up the reins a little to remind their horses to stay with the others, but that's not too hard to handle. Now suppose the rest of the group canters off over the hill ahead except one. There is a good chance the one horse left behind may want to go with the rest and if the rider tried to tell him to just keep walking they could end up riding a volcano that's jigging and jogging sideways the rest of the way home or until they catch up with the others. When only one of the horses left, the others had a thought to quicken their pace, but because there were still plenty of friends to keep each other company, the thought to hurry their feet was not a very strong one. But when all but one of the other horses went ahead, the horse that was left behind got pretty strong and you would have had to be getting pretty strong to stop it from happening. His mind left with his friends and he was trying to get his feet to catch up with his mind. If his mind had stayed with the rider, so too would his feet and he would not have tried to rush forward.
"A horse is always trying to get his body arranged to carry out his strongest thought"
This proposition can be observed in every moment that we ride or handle our horses. Another example is when a horse is working in the arena. Most horses (particularly in their early training) will be drawn towards the arena entrance. Their walk gets a little quicker when heading towards the gate and slows when walking away from the gate. When circling in the arena a horse may fall out on his shoulder on the side of the circle closest to the gate and fall in on the circle on the side furthest from the gate. Why? Because his thoughts are on the gate because the gate means end of work, unsaddling, back to the paddock and maybe feeding. Sometimes, the horse's thoughts are so strongly fixed to the gate that when the rider tries to force the horse away from it, he rears, pigroots or some other unwanted behaviour.
You can see a good example of a horse trying to carry out his idea and resisting the idea presented by the handler. The horse is being asked to circle to the left, but you can see even though his nose is turned to the left and he is circling to the left, he is trying to push out to the right. See him looking to the right. If he was really trying to go left he would be looking to the left because he would thinking to the left. But his friends are out of the picture on the right and that's why he is trying to align his body to push his shoulder out of the circle.
One example that easily comes to mind is the case of when a rider picks up the reins to ask a horse to stop. The horse stops, but as soon as the rider relaxes the reins the horse starts to move forward again without being asked. It's like driving an automatic car. The moment your foot lifts off the brake pedal the car begins to roll forward. Sometimes with horses people ride with the brake half on in order to control the forward. The reason the horse goes forward when the reins are relaxed is because the horse's thoughts are forward. He is looking up ahead, he wants to be up ahead and his thoughts are to be up ahead. So when the reins are slackened enough to allow his feet enough freedom, his feet move in order to be in the same place as his mind - up ahead!
From everything I have said up to now I suppose you have guessed that next seed I want to plant in your minds.
"For a horse to make a change in what he is doing, he must have a change in what he is thinking"
If you accept proposition 2 - that a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking - then it seems fairly self evident that if you want him to change what he is doing, you first want him to change what he is thinking!
Let's look at some examples. The horse that goes forward from the halt when the rider relaxes the reins does so because his thoughts are in front of him. He is trying to go forward because forward is where he is thinking. In order to teach this horse to halt and stayed halted until he is asked to move the rider needs to change the thoughts of the horse from being ahead of him to be with him. How do you change his mind? Well, one way that might help is that when the rider picks up the reins and asked for a stop, and find the horse leaning on the rein (because he thinking forward), that they ask for a rein back. When you do this it is likely that the horse will be heavy in the hand because his mind is pushing forward and therefore his body will be pushing forward. Keep backing until there is a moment of softness where the horse is light in the hand and his feet are light on the ground. Why? Because you can be sure that when the horse changes from being heavy to light on his forehand that you got a change of thought in the horse. You'll find at that moment he will stand quietly on a loose rein for a little while until his thought changes again. This is just one approach to the problem, but it illustrates the point about getting a change in the horse's thoughts.
Another example comes to mind from a foal that I was working recntly for a client. I was teaching her to carry a rug for the first time. When I presented the rug to her she rushed forward in fear. Her thought was to flee the scary object. I allowed her to flee, but in a circle around me by holding onto the end of the lead rope. As she ran I kept presenting the rug to her until the moment she slowed her feet a little. That change from a big rush to a little hurry represented a change in her thought. At that moment I stopped presenting the rug to her and rubbed her gently with my hand. I then again showed her the rug and again she rushed forward. But very quickly she slowed her feet to a steady walk at which time I removed the rug. I got a change in her thought from one of fearing for her life to acceptance of a the rug by repeatedly showing her the rug. This change in her mind caused a change in her feet from a flee to a relaxed walk.
If I had handled the rugging issue or the horse that wouldn't come to a proper halt in a way that did not get a change in the horse's mind I would always be fighting with my horse to get him to do what I was asking. You see this often with horses. A horse may always lift his head when the bridle is presented. Some horses shy a lot when ridden away from home, but not on the way back. Some horses require the rider to constantly nag with their legs to prevent them from slowing up. Some horses always crowd the owner when they are carrying the feed bucket no matter how much the person tries to "shoo" them away. The list goes on. These are examples of what it is like when we only try for getting a change in how the outside of the horse is behaving and not doing enough to get a change on the inside - the horse's thoughts.
Thought No. 4:
"Before a horse can accept a new thought, he must let go of an old thought."
This is probably self-evident, nevertheless we often don't realise that the problems we have with a horse are often the result of a horse not being able to release the thought that occupies his mind right now. Once he lets go of his present thought he is open to accepting a new thought. That's the time we can be most effective in directing his mind with a new thought and thereby get a change in the way he responds. Most horses don't have trouble accepting a new idea from a rider once they can let go of their old idea. The stronger the thought, the harder it is for them to let go of it and therefore, the harder it is for them to accept a new idea. This is why most of us have trouble directing a horse. It's not that the horse won't take on board our attempts at directing him, it's just that he has a hard time forgetting about the idea that he already has. You can see this any day of the week with horses that hoon around a jump course with the rider hauling on the reins with all their might to steady the horse before each jump. Or perhaps you have ridden a pony that would suddenly dive his head down to eat grass and all your strength was needed to get him to stop and move. The horse that pigroots regularly in the canter transition is another example of a horse who has difficulty letting go of his idea to make room in his mind for following a rider's direction. Humans are no different. We too need to let go of re-existing ideas we may have about things in order to accept new ideas. I'm sure some of you reading this will have difficulty accepting some of the notions I am proposing because they clash with ideas you already have accepted. But just like I try to do with my horse, if I am going to sway you towards my ideas I need to help you give up other ideas. Whether or not I am successful will depend on how strongly you hold onto your thoughts, the merit of my ideas and how convincingly I make my ideas sound like good ideas and worthy of your consideration. This is exactly the same process we need to take with our horses if we are going to establish a harmonious partnership and convince them we are worthy leaders and they should make a try.
And Yet Another Thought....
Earlier I presented the idea that every action that a horse takes is preceded by a thought and a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking. The key to building a partnership with a horse is to teach him three things. Firstly, he should be attentive to the rider. Secondly, when asked by the rider he should let go of the thought that he already holds. And lastly, he should then make his mind available to accepting a new idea presented to him by the rider. This process is what I call the ability to direct a horse's thoughts. In my view, this is a good definition of trainability. Once we can direct a horse's thought, the horse's posture, movements and maneuvers come easily because there is no mental resistance coming from the horse. You now have a horse with a "try".
So why is it so difficult to change and influence a horse's thoughts? To answer that, you have to look at training from the horse's point of view. A horse has no concept of what is the point or purpose of a particular exercise. He sees no long term benefit to training. But worse than that, a horse very often (in fact most times) views working with humans as counter productive to his safety and comfort. To add a human perspective to this idea, think about dieting. If a person puts themselves on a diet it is only because they view the long term benefit as being good for them. But in the short term, diets are not very pleasant and if people could not grasp the long term benefits, nobody would ever voluntarily go on a diet. In the short term, the hunger one experiences would appear to be counter productive to a person's safety and comfort.
Now back to the horse that has no longer term vision - only thinks in the here and now. A horse does not see the benefits in a square halt at 'X' or an extended trot across the diagonal or having his teeth rasped or being shoved into a tin can on wheels or having to go through a puddle when he can just as easily go around it. So since a horse does not automatically see such things as good ideas, he will be thinking of alternative ideas that to him are more conducive to his safety and comfort. If the horse thinks an extended trot is too hard, but a canter is easier, he'll do his best to canter. He'll think about cantering because that is a better idea to him. If a horse thinks loading onto a float or having his teeth rasped threaten his safety and comfort his thoughts will be on ways to avoid these dangers to his well being. This is where we often get into a fight with our horse and try to use force to shape his behaviour.
The problem with using force is that force does not get a change in a horse's thoughts. It only gets a change in what he is doing, but not in what he is thinking and feeling. Forcing a horse into behaving in a certain way, results in a mental and physical resistances, poor attitude and prolonged difficulties which damage your relationship with your horse. Force can be either instilled by out muscling a horse (just being physically strong) or with mechanical devices such as harsh bits, spurs, martingales, nosebands, side reins etc. I won't get into a discussion here about such devices because that is a whole other subject that I am sure could cause some very lively debate. The bottom line is that if you are not getting a change in a horse's thoughts and feelings, but you are getting a change in what he is physically doing, then you can be sure that you are using force in some form.
The tricky bit about being good with horses is learning how to get a change in a horse's thoughts. Again, let's go back and look at what motivates a horse's behaviour and see how we can put that to use for us. Horses are always searching for safety and comfort. It is the most important factor that dominates their thinking. When you go into a paddock to catch a horse and he keeps his distance and leads you are merry dance around the property, he is thinking that being caught will compromise his safety and comfort. To him, allowing a human with a halter in their hand to get close is not in his best interest. His motives are nothing more than that. But if you go into the paddock with a carrot, he may come right up to you when he realizes that you have a carrot. That's because he associates humans with carrots as beneficial to his safety and comfort.
Many of you have probably heard the adage, "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult." It is mostly credited to Ray Hunt when he talks about training horses. Although, I believe Ray's words are wise, I am afraid that the interpretation that many of us place on this phrase is where we often get into trouble with our horses. Most people place emphasis on the "… and the wrong thing difficult" part. We try to make the wrong thing really difficult and sometimes almost impossible, rather than the trying to make the right thing easy. This is a very important principle when it comes to being effective in directing a horse's thoughts and therefore a good horse person.
If we ask a horse to do something and he chooses to try doing something different, it is because he either did not understand what we wanted or he figured that what we wanted was too hard and compromised his safety and comfort. So he chooses an alternative response to our request. We in turn try to make the wrong thing difficult for him. For this to work we have to make the wrong thing more difficult than the difficulty the horse perceives the right thing to be. Often we make the wrong thing an impossible choice in an attempt to make him choose the right thing. Now we have a horse that is stuck between choosing an unpleasant response and a horrible response. He may indeed choose the one we want (which is now only the unpleasant choice), but we have done nothing to make our idea any more pleasant and the horse's thoughts and feelings about our idea are still going to be resistant and searching for a better choice of safety and comfort. All we did is put the horse between a hard place and a harder place. He still does not think our idea is a good one and we have not helped him feel better about allowing us to direct his ideas. There is trouble brewing inside this horse even though he may appear to be doing everything we ask. That trouble will surface under pressure. That's why you often see horses that behave really well at home, but lose control when they go to a horse show.
I think rather than quote Ray Hunt, I would change the words slightly. "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy - but not impossible." Give horses clear choices! Don't make one choice so difficult that the horse would never make a mistake. Allow him to make mistakes and discover for himself that your idea is the easier, safer and most comfortable option. When this happens he will have more confidence in giving up his ideas and following your ideas.
A very good example of what I am talking about occurred a few years ago in Arizona when Michele and I were visiting Harry Whitney. A lady had brought an Anglo Arab gelding that seemed very quiet and almost bombproof. Harry arranged to do a liberty float loading demonstration where the horse would be presented to a float in a round pen and given absolute freedom to choose whether or not to go into the float. The owner had assured us that it would only take a few minutes because the horse was a dream to load and never baulked to go into the float on his own. The float was parked at the entrance of the round yard and the horse was loose in the yard with the owner sitting in a chair in the centre of the yard. The owner was not allowed to leave the chair nor was she allowed to direct the horse in any way. The only influence she could place on the horse was to whack the ground (not at the horse) with a lead rope when her horse was mentally looking outside the round yard or ignoring the float. Whacking the ground with the lead rope was not meant to direct the horse, but to get him searching to where would be a good place to be in the round pen. It was a type "warmer, colder" game that kids might play. After a few minutes the horse was parked at the ramp of the float just as the owner predicted. But the horse did not go in. Several times, he put one foot on the ramp, then pulled it back and ran around the pen frantically - as if he was totally desperate to find a way out of the pen despite the owner putting no pressure on him to do anything but notice the float. He was clearly conflicted between what he wanted to do and want he felt was being asked of him. Over and over the horse came back to the ramp and tried several times to make himself go into the float, but again and again the horse found it far too difficult to follow through with this idea when the human was not there to impose some restrictions on his choices. He knew he was supposed to go into the float, but his thoughts were that it was not in the interest of his safety or comfort. After thirty minutes the horse was in a terrible sweat despite the cool temperatures because of the inner tension he felt. After four hours and maybe thirty or forty attempts by the horse to go into the float without success, the horse finally managed to step all four feet into the float. But he immediately exploded out again. This was a fantastic demonstration of what the horse was feeling inside about going into a float, despite being trained to be an excellent float loader. The owner was blown away by the revelation that her horse was so bothered by the float and that she had spent all those years making him do something he felt so bad about doing. It was clear to her that her horse was so willing and polite that he would go into the float when asked despite the fact that she never got his thoughts to go into the float. His thoughts were for him to always try to be somewhere else.
The German Training Scale was developed as a guide to the training of the dressage horse. The steps are not meant to be rigidly adhered to, but as a framework to help the dressage trainer assess and establish the training of the young horse. Elements of the scale are also used in the judging.
The terms originate from the German language and exact translations are not always possible. For the purposes of this article I have taken the definitions and descriptions used by the USDF on their web site. I will follow these with my own personal interpretation of each element of the training scale. I will give the USDF interpretation of each element of the scale (in order) and follow it with my own thoughts.
The recurring characteristic sequence and timing of footfalls and phases of a given gait. For purposes of dressage, the only correct rhythms are those of the pure walk, trot, and canter, and reinback and piaffe (not those of amble, pace, rack, etc.). [Note 1: "Rhythm" is sometimes used mistakenly to mean "tempo" (rate of repetition of the rhythm). This usage is not consistent with the correct English definition of "rhythm" (per Webster), nor with its normal usage in music. Note 2: In English, there is no one term that covers both the rhythm (as defined above) and the tempo, as does the term "Takt" in German. This has caused confusion because "Takt" has commonly been translated as Rhythm. For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the German term "Takt" is translated as "Rhythm" and is used as shorthand for both the rhythm itself (as defined above)
and the suitable rate of repetition of the rhythm (tempo). See Foreign Terms and Pyramid of Training, in Appendix.]
Note that the USDF talks about a pure gait, but does not interpret what that means. They limit their meaning to the timing of footfalls. I don't have a problem with this meaning and most riders should be able to feel the purity and rhythm of the gait.
1. Referring to the horse's mental/ emotional state: calmness, without anxiety or nervousness.
2. Referring to the horse's physical state: commonly used to indicate the absence of muscular tension (contraction) other than that needed for optimal carriage, strength, and range and fluency of movement.
Often the physical and mental/ emotional states go hand in hand. [Note: For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the German term "Losgelassenheit" is translated as "Relaxation" by the USDF and as "Suppleness" by the FEI (see Foreign Terms and Pyramid of Training, in Appendix).]
I find it interesting that they separate physical from emotional states. I believe the emotional tension determines the physical tension. It is extremely rare these days to find competition horses that are relaxed. The lack of relaxation or tension is the determinant of the resistance in a horse. The more anxious a horse is emotionally the more resistance he will maintain in his body. This is because a horse's emotions direct his thoughts and it is his thoughts that we tap into and try to direct in our training.
Where I believe modern dressage begins to lose it's way is two fold. Firstly, most people (including judges) are not trained or adept at recognizing what is going on behind the surface. It is my experience few folk can see anxiety in a horse except when a horse is jumping out of it's skin. I think that there is so little awareness about this aspect of training that it is the first place to begin in re-training our trainers and judges.
Secondly, I think the approach to training is philosophically flawed these days. When I was younger and worked with a master trainer I was taught that you begin at the beginning with a horse. At first the horse exhibits tension and confusion, but as he progresses and understands what is being asked, he will gain confidence, relaxation and strength. At that point you move onto more difficult exercises. Again, the horse shows some tension and confusion until these exercises become confirmed in his mind and body. He becomes more relaxed, softer and stronger. Then you move onto even more difficult maneuvers and so on and so on. The idea being that you work at the horses level to get softness and relaxation before moving onto the next level. So as the horse advances he becomes softer and more relaxed. This does not appear to be the philosophy of modern training. It would seem that as a horse progresses today that he becomes more and more tense and bothered. It would seem that the movements and their mechanical accuracy are what is important and not the quality with which the horse executes them. I believe it is a mistake to sacrifice the quality of how a horse is feeling for the sake of doing the exercise. It restricts how much effort a horse will put into his work and limit his potential.
The reins are stretched so that they form a straight line, not a loop. "Correct contact" or "acceptance of contact" is determined by the elasticity of the connection between horse and rider. [Note: The third tier of the Training Pyramid is represented by the concept of "Connection" in the US, and by the concept of "Contact" (translation of "Anlehnung") by the FEI (see Foreign Terms, in Appendix).]
Contact-the third level of the pyramid-is the result of the horse's pushing power, and should never be achieved by the pulling of the rider's hands. The rider drives the horse into soft hands that allow the horse to come up into the bridle, and should always follow the natural motion of the animal's head. The horse should have equal contact in both reins.
This is a most controversial topic. Everybody has their own definition of contact. For most riders it means holding the reins in a way that when the horse drives forward he meets a small resistance of the reins to encourage him to raise the base of his neck and reach forward into the bit. The idea being that contact is the amount of feel between the horse and reins that allows the rider to change the horses movement and posture. In other words, it is the amount of feel in the reins that allows communication between rider and horse.
One must ask why? What is the purpose of contact. I agree that contact is the amount of feel on the reins that allows a rider to direct a horse. But my problem lies in that for modern dressage practices this feel is so heavy that it is one of the reasons why horses are so tense. For me, contact is when 'X' amount of change in the reins results in 'X' amount change in the horse. If my aim is to have the softest and most responsive horse possible, then clearly the goal should be to have a loopy rein and yet still be able to direct a horse's movement and posture. The dressage fraternity does not believe that you can have both a loose rein and a responsive soft horse that exhibits all the requirements of Grand Prix dressage test.
Compare this short clip of Bent Branderup on a Knapstrup stallion riding a half pass with a change of flexion on a loose curb, one handed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=294nfabaSKQ
In my mind, there are close parallels between the strength of the contact the riders use and the resistance and anxiety of the horses. It is more evidence that in modern competition dressage there is the tendency for a horse to exhibit greater resistance as he progresses to more advanced work leading to the need for riders to use more contact. To me, this just seems to be the opposite of the principles that dressage was built on.
Thrust, releasing the energy stored by engagement. The energy is transmitted through a back that is free from negative tension and is manifested in the horse's elastic, whole-body movement.
[Note 1: Impulsion is associated with a phase of suspension such as exists in trot and canter, but which does not exist in walk or piaffe. Therefore, impulsion is not applicable to the walk or the piaffe.
Note 2: Compare the original French with the later English translation of the FEI score sheets under "Impulsion." The English translation of the French reads "the desire to move forward," whereas what the French actually says is "The desire to carry itself forward" ("Le desire de se porter en avant").]
ImpulsionNote 3: For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the German term "Schwung" is translated as "Impulsion" (see Foreign Terms and Pyramid of Training, in Appendix).]
I think it is nonsense to suggest that a horse can not have impulsion at a walk and piaffe because there is no moment of suspension. The walk can still have engagement with a release of energy from the hindquarters. Secondly, I think it is a very limiting view to consider that impulsion is all about carry the horse forward. While I accept that forwardness is an important attribute in any training, I don't believe forwardness has anything to do with what we desire when we think of impulsion. The word that comes to my mind when I train is 'effort'.
I believe that impulsion should really equate to effort. A horse should be putting in an effort no matter what he is doing. The notion of effort incorporates energy, focus and precision irrespective of whether he is performing an extended trot, rein-back or a halt. For many folk impulsion is about getting a horse to go faster or bigger and I think this is where the notions of forwardness and impulsion get confused. But impulsion should be more than just engagement of the hindquarters for forward propulsion. I think this concept helps create horses that are rushing or fleeing in their forward movement. But effort is really about a focused and directed energy that is independent of speed or gait. A horse can show effort in his long rein walk or his tempi changes and never flees or rushes. It is interesting that most agree that impulsion is an important component of collection (in order to achieve the degree of engagement required). You can train a collected walk, but according to the definition you can't have impulsion at the walk? Piaffe is consider the highest degree of collection in competition dressage, but you can't have a piaffe with impulsion?
Effort is hard to develop in a horse because it means the horse is forever mentally focused and participating at a high level in his work. He can't be working on autopilot or working in a purely mechanical sense. It is hard to achieve because it requires that the horse never becomes bored and his work never becomes routine. Take a look at the Branderup clip again (above) and you will see a horse working at a slow tempo, but with a lot of effort.
1. Parallelism to required line of travel (e.g., haunches neither left nor right of centerline or circle line), or to line of reference (e.g., in leg yielding -haunches neither leading nor trailing).
2. Proper alignment of the horse's body parts from poll to tail (e.g., not a popped shoulder or twisted neck).
3. Directness of line of travel (e.g., not weaving).
A horse is straight when his hind legs follow the path of his front legs, on both straight lines and on bending lines, and his body is parallel to the line of travel. Straightness causes the horse to channel his impulsion directly toward his center of balance, and allows the rider's hand aids to have a connection to the hind end
When a horse is traveling in a straight line the left fore and left hind legs should fall on the same track. Similarly, the right fore and right hind should fall on the same track.
But on a bend or circle is where I disagree with the USDF definition. If a horse is straight and on a bend his inside fore will follow the curvature of the bend. But his inside hind leg will travel to the outside of the bend - almost like he is fish-tailing to a small degree. It is an old myth that the front and back legs follow the same path on a bend. It ain't true. Just watch a video or watch your own horses and you will see what I mean. The line that the USDF uses is the same line that most dressage coaches and riders use. It has been passed down for generations without question. But it is wrong. You don't have to believe me. Just watch horses. If the back legs do follow the path of the front legs on a circle, then the horse is crooked - not straight! It only happens when a horse is falling out on his shoulder or drops in on his shoulder.
Crookedness in a horse comes about by a resistance in his body. Usually the resistance is stronger on one side than the other side and that's why he appears crooked. Most training will teach that to make a horse straight again that you correct the wayward portion of his body by using leg, seat and/or rein to put him back on track (so to speak). In my experience, this can help for a little while but it never fixes the problem. It never addresses the resistance, it only tries to hide it. For me, the best way I know to correct crookedness is to teach a horse to bend softly. Break down the resistances by teaching them to be soft and supple in their bends - like they were a flexi-curve. A good example of incorrect training to cure crookedness is the over use of the outside rein in a turn. Riders use outside rein to prevent the shoulder from falling out of the turn. But by using the outside rein you are not addressing the cause of his shoulder leaving the turn which his inability to follow the feel of the inside rein. Instead, the outside rein is used to act as a brick wall to stop the shoulder from leaking. You will never get the horse soft and bending correctly if you don't fix the problem and will always have to use more outside rein to fix the crookedness. I believe it is the use of the outside rein in a turn that is the cause of so many dressage horses being laterally stiff.
Straightness is hard to achieve because it is a function of relaxation. Since most horse are tense, most horses are crooked. Even in straight lines at high levels of competition you see many examples of crookedness. For example the clip of Hors Martine Blu http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKQgTiqhPbw shows examples of rope walking (where the horse crosses her front legs in front of each other as if she was tight rope walking) and in the piaffe there are many times where the horse does the opposite of rope walking and the front feet hit the ground in a splayed fashion so it appears that the shoulders are rocking from side to side. Both these examples are caused by tension and show a lack of straightness. Yet the performances continues to wow audiences and judges. Why?
Increased engagement and lifting of the forehand, with shorter steps relative to the other paces of the gaits, while maintaining energy and self-carriage. The horse's outline becomes shorter from bit to hip, with the neck and withers stretched and arched upward.
At the apex of the training scale, collection may be used occasionally to supplement less vigorous work, but is only focused on (through the collected gaits and more difficult movements, such as flying changes) in more advanced horses. Collection requires greater muscular strength, so must be developed slowly. When a horse collects, he naturally takes more of his weight onto his hindquarters. The joints of the hind limbs have greater flexion, allowing the horse to lower his hindquarters, bring his hind legs further under his body, and lighten the forehand. A collected horse is able to move more freely. When collected, the stride length should shorten, and increase in energy and activity.
Collection is the "holy grail" of dressage. Everybody is aiming for it, but few understand what it is or how to achieve it. Most people never achieve true collection and are left with a horse that can only mimic the appearance of collection. There have been an abundance of gadgets invented to help a rider on the road to collection - side reins, market harborough, chambon, pessoa, draw reins etc. But the purpose of these items is to help a rider "out-muscle" the resistance a horse has to yielding. They are not designed to alter a horse's feelings in order to help him have a more yielding frame of mind, but only to force his body to yield to what many riders are looking for when they try to achieve collection. That's why I say most horses only mimic collection. The softness that is required to achieve true collection comes from the inside of a horse. However, in modern competition there is little evidence that riders and coaches pay little more than lip service to this concept. Most top level riders and instructors agree that collection is something a horse gives you and not something that you impose on a horse, but very few actually walk that walk.
This is why the growing popularity of "rolkur" or hyperflexion has found a home in top level dressage. If you are unsure what I am talking about watch this video to see what I mean click here
You can see here that Anky is working Bonfire in a frame that stretches the top line to an extreme and she does this by using the curb bit with an lot of force (note the angle of the curb). The idea of this practice is to stretch the horse over his back so much that it breaks the physical and mental resistance of releasing the top line in the competition ring where it is required that the horse be in front of the vertical. In other words, it is like taking a spring and over stretching it so that it is not so tight a spring when you come to use it. But again, the hyperflexion is all about physically forcing a horse to yield with no consideration for the horse mentally yielding. You can see in the clip that Bonfire is pretty tense, but he is such a powerful athlete that he is able to still move forward easily despite the restriction that Anky places on his front end.
Anky van Grunsven is considered among the top dressage riders today and is probably the most successful rider competing at the moment. So she is no doubt a role model for many riders and who will try to emulate her and train their horses using hyperflexion. There is nothing good about hyperflexion, but while judges reward the results it will continue to become popular and perhaps one day be common place.
I feel that anybody who believes they should use mechanical devices and tricks to help achieve collection is not ready as a rider to be asking for collection. The understanding and feel required from a rider for a horse to learn to give from the inside can not come from gadgetry and trickery (like hyperflexion). True collection will remain elusive for these riders even if they are adorned with blue ribbons awarded to them by judges who don't know better.
German Training Scale and Competition
The problem with competitive dressage is not so much the German Training Scale, but the corruption of the concepts it attempts to convey by the need to win. Where once dressage was a pastime of the wealthy and purest of equine pursuits, it is now a pursuit based on adversarial principles. That is it is a competition between horse and rider and rider and rider. Few people train for dressage at the higher levels and don't compete. It is assumed these days that if you train dressage you must compete. Hardly anybody trains for movements that are not required in competition. Many consider levade, canter to the rear, Spanish walk etc to be circus tricks and not something that serious dressage riders would bother with.
Competition has corrupted the system and ideals of dressage. It has encouraged short cuts, gadgetry, the training of 5 year old horses to Grand Prix and the loss of classical principles. It is the nature of people to take healthy competition and turn it into an unhealthy pursuit where
If this is the case, then why is it not the most obvious thing in the world that the first duty of training a horse is to address his feelings? Minimize the troubled feelings and elicit the good feelings. This seems axiomatic – it doesn’t need to be proved – it’s self-evident. Yet, lately I keep hearing from various sources that training is “… all about the feet.” A few weeks ago I heard it from another trainer. Over the past weekend I heard it from a person who came to watch our lessons. A week or so ago I read it on a horse forum. I keep hearing that training is about a horse’s feet. The principle seems to be that if you control the feet you control the mind. But I disagree. Over and over again it is proved to me that controlling the feet has very little to do with influencing a horses feelings or thoughts.
An entire industry has developed around inventing, making and selling gadgets designed to control the feet. By the term “feet” I really mean the horses musculoskeletal system, which includes his feet and his body (posture). But gadgets never help a horse feel okay inside because a gadget has no feel. A gadget cannot help a horse learn that it is okay to change how he feels. Rather a gadget can only teach him to give up the fight. All gadgets are about teaching submission and nothing to do with evoking the good feelings that go with having a soft, responsive horse that is not troubled in his work.
I don’t want to dismiss the importance of having a horse open and responsive to being directed by the rider. It is importance that a horse be able to move his feet as the rider directs. But this does not come from controlling the feet. This comes from the horse giving the rider the influence to direct his feet. It comes from the rider talking to the horse via the reins, seat and legs and the horse making a conscious decision to go along or not with the rider’s idea.
Ray Hunt was possibly the most talented horseman I ever got to see. When he died, his wife was asked in an interview what she thought was Ray’s most important message in his teaching of horsemanship. She replied, “it’s all about the feet.” Many of Ray’s students have gone on to become successful teachers and trainers and I have heard many of them say “it’s all about the feet.” So it is not surprising that controlling the feet has become the catch cry of a lot of good horse people. But let’s look at what Ray Hunt really had to say more closely.
“… get the life in your body, through his mind and down to his feet.”
This is one of Ray’s most repeated quotes. Most people I know use it to justify addressing the horse’s feet. But they forget the important part that Ray says to get to his feet by first getting to his mind. It is the horse’s mind that addresses the feet, not the rider’s life.
“… get the feet soft and they’ll be soft in the head.”
I think here is a good example of where we often get it wrong. This quote can be taken to mean that when the feet are soft the mind will be soft. But in reality it is the mind that determines the softness in the feet. If a horse has a troubled mind, no amount of moving the feet will create softness in them until the mind becomes less troubled. So I prefer to see what Ray is saying as when the feet are soft you know you must have a soft mind because you can’t have soft feet without it.
“… try to keep his mind soft and mellow.”
Again, address his feelings and thoughts and the rest will take care of itself.
“… if you haven’t got his attention you don’t try to direct it.”
When a horse is thinking about something else, don’t try to direct him until he is thinking about you again. Get his thoughts back to the rider before trying to direct him. I know this seems self-evident, but I believe it is not very well understood by most of us.
“… watch the gauges just like the indicators in the car – watch his ears – watch his eyes; they are the indicators.”
By being aware of your horse’s ears, where he is looking, how he is shaped in his posture, how crooked he is, how busy is his mouth and tail, you are able to see into his feelings. Be aware of his feelings.
In my experience it is a lot easier for a horse to commit to moving his feet than it is to changing how he feels or what he is thinking. This means that it is also a lot easier for a rider to get a horse to move his feet, change his posture and go where we want than it is for a rider to change the way a horse feels. We are physically able to put enough pressure on a horse to force him to physically respond. For example, it is possible to use leg restraints (eg hobbles) to teach a horse that he physically cannot move when we try to mount. But there is not a leg restraint in the world big enough that can force him to feel that having a rider get on is not a problem for him. We can make a noseband tight enough that a horse cannot possible open his mouth and put his tongue over the bit when we ride. But no noseband can be made tight enough to make a horse feel okay about the reins and bit and not think about wanting to open his mouth when the rider picks up a contact. A rider can use as much outside rein as they like to block a horse from fall out of the turn with his shoulders. But no amount of outside rein contact can force a horse to think about not falling out of the turn and the rider will always need outside rein because the horse will always think about falling out of the turn. The outside rein will do nothing to change his thoughts about where he wants to put his feet (out of the turn). It just blocks it from happen like the fence of an arena.
I believe there are two reasons why riders concentrate more on what a horse is doing rather than what he is feeling and thinking. Firstly, most horse people don’t understand the concept. They are not taught to understand how horses operate and how their feelings influence their training. There is a certain amount of lip service paid by some coaches, trainers, clinicians and riders about the importance of having a relaxed and willing horse. But it is rarer than rare to find horse people who then don’t just go about training a horse by focusing on the obedience of the feet despite their talk about the importance of how a horse feels. The result is that most riders are not taught to be aware of the subtle signs of how a horse feels. How many of you notice the width of your horse’s nostrils? Are you aware of minor changes in the depth and rate of your horse’s breathing? How often do you pay attention to the direction he is looking when you ride a circle? How often does your horse not look at you when you try to pat him? For most of us unless our horse is chomping the bit, swishing his tail violently or some other equally obvious behaviour we assume he is feeling okay.
The other reason that I believe riders focus on the feet is because it is fairly easy to change what the feet are doing. A horse can be pretty much made to do just about anything with enough coercion. But changing what he is feeling and thinking is much more difficult and less clear for most of us. The easy route is to just get him to do what we want him to do and forget about how he feels. After all, we can always use more pressure to overcome his resistances that the ill feelings cause. For example, if my horse rushes around the jump course it is easier to get stronger on the reins or use a more severe bit to stop it from happening than to change the worry that is causing it.
So where does a person go to learn about the inside of a horse? I can only think of a few people across the world who are really working on an approach to training that truly puts how a horse feels as the first thing to address ahead of what his feet are doing. If the horse’s feelings are right, what the horse is doing will automatically be right. So how do you learn this approach? I guess you have to find the best horse people you can find and spend as much time as you can sucking up all their knowledge. You also have to commit to making it as important to you as it is to your horse. Notice the small things about how your horse responds and ask your instructors “why is he doing that?”
A lot of people who have not seen this approach to training (and that’s probably most horse people) instantly think that working on a horse’s feeling is airy fairy, cosmic consciousness, crystal gazing, incense burning nonsense. But that’s a long way from the reality. On the surface it’s not so different to a lot of training that people might have been exposed to. At its basis is the same type of negative reinforcement most of you use every day with your horses. But the fundamental difference is that the release of pressure comes when a horse changes his feelings and thought and not just his feet. For example, if a person picks up the left rein to ask a horse to turn left most people will release the rein when the horse has turned the direction they wanted. But I might hold the contact until the horse has looked to the left – I mean LOOKED, not just moved his feet left or bent to the left. When he looks left the body will shape up to give a really soft and correct turn. But if he is looking right when I pick up the left rein the turn will have resistance and be crooked despite him turning left. That’s a very simple example, but it illustrates how by switching the emphasis from what the feet are doing to what the mind is doing you can instil correctness in a horse that comes from him rather being imposed by the rider trying to physically correct the incorrectness. Training is a mental process much more than it is a physical one. But most training involves repetition of exercises in the hope the horse will give in and just do it.
I don’t know how any of you got your horses. But every horse I have ever had in my life was chosen by me and put in my paddock by me. Not one of them ever knocked on my door and asked to come and live with me. I imposed myself on them. To me, this means that I accept the responsibility of their welfare – mental and physical. I don’t have the right to abuse my position and ignore their emotional welfare just because I supposedly own them. I have the moral responsibility that if I am going to ride my horses that it should cause them the least amount of bother within my ability. For me, that means riding is not primarily about the feet.
WHAT IS ABUSE?
I was on one of my regular visits to America a few years ago when I heard of a clinic being held near Sacramento, California. It was the annual Buck Brannaman clinic for the area. Buck has visited Australia a couple of times and was a student of Ray Hunt in his younger days. These days Buck is a big time clinician/trainer in his own right. He is the author of several books and videos and was consultant and trainer on the movie set of the "Horse Whisperer."
I arrived just as Buck was beginning a session in the round yard with a little buckskin stud. The colt had not had much handling in it's life and had been brought to the clinic to be started under saddle. From early on it was evident that colt did not have much interest or time for anything the human had to offer. It was as if the horse considered his own manure did not exude an unpleasant odours. Buck was riding his chestnut mare while working the buckskin. The colt tried a few times to mount Bucks mare and when that didn't work he took to trying to double barrel her. Buck went to town trying to convince that buckskin that he should move his feet when and how Buck wanted him to move. For a while there was a lot of dust flying and both Buck and the colt began to sweat profusely. From my point of view, it was fascinating to watch Buck working such a difficult horse. But it was clear that many in the crowd were somewhat uncomfortable at the level of assertiveness and strength that Buck used in the round yard. There were several times when Buck used such a degree of pressure that colt was threatening to try to clear the fence.
The session dragged on for perhaps 2 hours. During that time the colt had gone from a dominant and dangerous horse to a frightened and almost panicked horse to a quiet and contented horse. That little fellow had gone through a life change in a matter of just a couple of hours. Life with humans was no longer full of stress and adversary. He learned that life around humans could be ok.
When it was all over a lady from the audience asked a question that seemed to echo the thoughts of many present that day. "You put that horse through a lot pressure that it almost seemed cruel. Wouldn't it have been better to go slower over maybe two weeks rather than stress him to the max in order to get the job done in two hours?"
I'll never forget Buck's reply. "Ma'am, I could have done it the way you suggested. But what favour would I have done that horse by letting him stay screwed up for another two weeks. If I can make life around humans better for him in two hours, why would I want him to feel as bad as he did when he arrived here today for another two weeks. What benefit is that to the horse? I can fix it today for him so I'm gonna. You may not be able to get it fixed today and you may need two weeks or two months or two years. That's ok for you. But I'm gonna get him feeling better today."
At that moment Buck helped me greatly. I had been struggling for many years for some sort of guide line to help me define what I believe constituted abuse or cruelty. I knew what abuse was when I saw it, but I didn't know how to define abuse and what was common about all the forms of abuse that I had seen. If somebody asked what was animal abuse I could tell them about what a terrible crime it is to starve an animal or leave them in pain etc.. But I didn't know how to encompass all the forms of abuse in one definition. Buck helped me over this hurdle on this one day in California.
So the Ross Jacobs definition of horse abuse is anything that we inflict on a horse that does not benefit the horse.
I am sure many of you won't agree with this definition, but I have tested and re-tested it over the years and it has never failed me. There are a couple of assumptions that go along with this definition. The first is that horses and humans do need to get along with each other. And secondly, that horses must fulfill certain needs asked of them by humans. If you take these two points as not open for argument, then my definition holds for me. If you don't accept the assumptions, then you can consider domestication of horses to be an abuse. That's ok because each to their own.
You may be asking how my definition works. What is the use of it? Well, when I see something going on with a horse I can now be sure whether or not in my mind there is abuse or cruelty. For example, even though many thought what Buck was doing in the round yard to the buckskin colt was cruel I know that it wasn't. It wasn't because what Buck was doing was for the benefit of the horse. The horse went through hell and back, but after two hours life was much better for that horse. It wasn't just that Buck made the horse give in. He actually got through to the inside of the horse and taught him that all those worries the horse had about humans that caused him to be so dominant and dangerous were totally unnecessary. That life around humans could have it's good moments. Some may have called it "tough love."
On the other hand, the owner who smacks their horse on the nose after they have been bitten has acted abusively. Why? Because punishment has no benefit for the horse. You can smack your horse for biting, but you haven't actually done anything about the reason he bit you in the first place. Even if he never bites you again, he will still habour those same feelings inside that prompted him to bite you. Normally those feelings will surface and be exhibited in some other form of unwanted behaviour such as head tossing or stomping or fidgeting. But if you acted before he bit you to alleviate the worries that will lead him to bite, then you have done something to benefit your horse.
I'm not trying to force my definition or values regarding abuse on anybody. This is not an area where right and wrong are written in stone. But I am trying to provide something for people to think about. I'm sure we all agree that starving a horse is cruel, but what about a slightly less obvious example like using a drop noseband to keep a horse's mouth shut? Is that cruel? What advantage does a noseband have for the horse? In what way does a noseband help the horse feel better? These are the sort of questions that challenge us to provide a definition of abuse that satisfies each of us.
By my definition I guess you could make a list of abuses that would fill a large book. Anything from beating a horse with a cricket bat to rugging on a warm day. But it is never black and white and there are an infinite number of degrees of abuse. Is it just as cruel to ride in an ill fitting saddle as it is to keep a horse in a paddock by itself? Who knows? Is it just as bad to hobble a horse to make it stand still for saddling as it is to beat a horse for not standing still? Who knows? Is it just as abusive to dock a horse's tail for the sake of beauty as it is to not trim his feet regularly? Who knows? In my opinion, all these things are an abuse because they are of no benefit to the horse. Many would disagree with me. Perhaps you do.
Training Tips and Practices
(i) If the horse jumps forward the rider will be swung around and knocked over and may not be able to remove the foot from the stirrup.
(ii) In the process of swinging around to get the leg over the back of the horse, the toe of the rider's left foot can sometimes poke the horse in the girth or elbow and cause him to jump away.
(iii) As the rider raises up and swings their body to face forward, the rider has to move more weight away from the horse which causes more of a pull of the saddle on the withers. This can unbalance a horse and even frighten a green horse. It can also eventually lead to sore withers from the saddle.
Rather than mount from the ground facing the rear of the horse I prefer to mount facing forward.
(i) If the horse gets a fright and scoots, the rider is less likely to get a foot caught in the stirrup and they won't be spun around and knocked over as the horse leaves.
(ii) The toe of the rider is less likely to jab the horse because the toe is always facing forward parallel to the horse.
(iii) When a rider mounts facing forward, instead of pushing themselves towards the horse's body the rider simply steps forward, as if they were stepping onto a bus. There is a lot less sideways pull against the horse so there is minimal exertion of the saddle on the wither.
Mounting from the ground is almost the first thing a person is taught when they start learning to ride. I hope that teachers put more thought into how they teach it so that the old method is gone forever. I would really like to see more safety conscious practices such as this become common place.
I'd like to than Alex Rooney for demonstrating the mounting procedures, and Jenny Ashley for the loan of her New Forest pony.
But learning how to tie a rope halter on your horse's head takes no special skill. But few people ever know the difference between what is correct and what is incorrect. These photos should help clear that up.
I've shown three pictures here of a well made rope halter. Our model for this evenings display is the very glamorous Chops showing the elegance of a little number made by Ralph Wilson from Washington State, USA. In my opinion, Ralph makes about the best rope halters I have ever used and Chops is clearly wearing it with poise and style.
This photo shows the rope halter correctly fitted
Here is an incorrectly tied halter. Notice the knot is tied above the loop of the cheek piece. When a horse pulls, the loop has the effect of loosening the knot. At the very least it will cause the halter to loosen and at worse the knot can come undone and the halter fall off.
This is correct. Here you can see the knot is below the loop of the cheek piece. This means that as the lead rope is pulled the loop pulls down onto the knot and will tighten the knot rather than loosen it as would happen in the photo to the left.
However, a sidepull is a very different beast. It acts just like a snaffle bit except that the rein acts on a noseband instead of a bit. They are like riding in a web halter when you attach the reins to the side rings of the noseband.
You can also see that the noseband is made of thick leather. Some sidepulls have stiffened lariat rope for the noseband - I don't like them because they can be abrasive on the nose and cause the horse pain if you need to be firm with the reins. The leather noseband has the advantage of never causing pain no matter how much pressure you have on the reins. The other advantage of a sidepull over say a rope halter is that because the reins are attached at the side of the noseband they give much more directional aid in the turns compared to a rope halter where the reins are attached under the chin. In this way the sidepull acts similarly to a snaffle and helps give a meaning to the reins which is easily translated if and when you use a bit.
So the question is... why use a sidepull on a horse instead of a bridle with a bit?
There are a few good reasons for why we use a bitless bridle such as a sidepull or lunging cavesson or web halter.
Firstly, we mouth all our horses using a sidepull because we can teach the horse the meaning of the reins without ever risking causing him pain. So he never learns to be afraid of the bit during the breaking in. Each horse gets his first few rides in a sidepull before graduating to a snaffle.
We also use the sidepull on "hard mouthed" horses during their re-mouthing so again we don't cause them pain - this includes horses that come to us for a bolting problem. Often you find a "hard mouthed" horse goes instantly better with a sidepull because they have had so much hardware put in their mouth in an attempt to control them that a sidepull offers them such a different feel that they don't know how to respond against it.
We will use a sidepull on horses that have anxiety issues about a bridle. They may be hard to bridle or they put their tongue over the bit or they roll their tongue out of their mouth or they head toss in response to the reins. Again, the sidepull offers them a different feel so their response is often different to the reins. It gives us a window in which we can start to break a habit that is often fairly ingrained.
Once a horse is going well in a sidepull they are then worked in a snaffle bit. Every horse is worked in a snaffle bit eventually - even if the owner tells us they will never ride with a bit.
As a horse's training advances I will always prefer to ride a horse in a snaffle. The first reason is that there is a high probability that somebody is going to want to ride that horse in a bit some day. And the second reason is that a bit allows me to add refinement to the meaning of the reins - I can do less with the reins to get more - with a sidepull this is more limiting. But there is nothing wrong with riding your entire life in a sidepull if that's what lights your candle.
I should add as an afterthought, that the sidepull shown in the photos is made in the USA by Champion Turf Company and we buy them from California when go there each year for clinics - we have no association with them other than we like their product.
My QH gelding has been home from the breakers nearly 2 months and has started to pull back when I tie him up. He seems panicked when he does it. He will stand for a few minutes and hits the end of the rope. When he feels the rope tighten he really pulls hard. He had broken our tie up rail once and a lead rope clip. He seems to be getting worse. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks.
Barring that, it sounds like your horse does not give well enough to the feel of the lead rope. When he feels the pressure on the halter he pulls harder. This suggests he has learned to fight against the pressure rather than give to it. I would be very vigilant about teaching him to lead well and give to the slightest feel of the lead rope. This needs to get really good before tying him up again. We never train our own horses to tie up. We just teach them to lead very well and the tying is taken care of in the process.
The other factor is that your horse should learn not to panic about being confined. He may be pulling harder because he knows he is trapped by the lead rope and wouldn't be able to get away if he needed. Some horses are like this. They are not so worried about being tied up, but more worried about not being able to flee if they need to.
Many trainers would recommend using a rope collar, a strong rope and a sturdy post. They would suggest tying him using the collar to a post and letting him pull until he gives up. Some will even fit hobbles to a horse in this situation and some will sack a horse out in an attempt to force them to struggle to learn they can't escape. I advise you to stay away from these methods. Even though some horses do eventually learn to stop pulling, these methods are dangerous and horses do get hurt and some have been killed. Not only are these practices potentially dangerous they are not necessary.
Get a long rope, between 7 and 10 metres, and clip it to your halter. Wrap your rope around your tie up post 2 or 3 times or 4 times. The number of wraps will depend on how much resistance there is for the rope to slide around the post. You want enough resistance that if your horse gave a half-hearted attempt at pulling away the rope would not slide around the post. But if he panicked and pulled with almost everything he had you want the rope to slide around the post, albeit with some resistance. Once you have wrapped the rope around the post, take the tail end of the rope and go and sit in a chair with the end in your hand or where you can grab it quickly. Wait for your horse to pull away.
When he pulls away hard allow the rope to slide. The horse will pull for a short distance and then stop. He will discover that pulling away does allow his feet to move, but the pressure of the rope stays with him. I have never had a horse pull away more than 7 metres before stopping. When he stops and comes forward a fraction off the feel of the rope, go up to him and rub him gently. Lead him back to the post, shorten up the rope and start again. Sit in your chair and listen to the radio or read a book while you wait for him to pull again.
When he can stand there for whatever time you think is a good improvement, put him away for the day. The next day repeat the process. Each day choose a different location to tie him and different things to tie him up to such as a tree or float; if that's possible - make sure you alter the number of wraps to ensure the rope slides just enough when he pulls hard. It won't take long before he gets very comfortable about being hitched to a post or tree or float.
The reason I believe horses respond so well to this approach is that they don't feel trapped because it allows them to move - this inhibits the horse from escalating his panic (which is what gets them hurt in the method of tying them firm and letting them pull). But at the same time pulling takes considerable effort with little reward for the horse. It is the sliding of the rope that makes the change from a feeling of panic to feeling okay and also keeps the horse safe (as long as you are smart enough to make sure they are not pulling back into an electric fence or over a cliff!).
It takes effort on your part to be consistent and put in the time, but we have had great success with using this approach.
This is something we teach each client who brings us a horse for starting. We use it ourselves on the first few rides of every horse that we are either starting or are not very familiar with. It's no guarantee that a ride will be safe, but it reduces the risk of a horse exploding when you first mount up.
In this series of pictures Michele is working with a breaker who is about to have his first ride. But you could use the same principles for any horse that you weren't sure about. I recommend it to people who are just bringing a horse in from a spell or they had a bucking problem on their last ride or their horse just seems unusually fresh.
Very Important: always travel in the direction that you lay. If you step up on the left side, only ask your horse to move to the left and the opposite is true if you step up on the right side. Never have your horse turn right if you are balanced on the left side and visa versa.
My husband and I have just moved to a new property and want to build a round yard. We are going to be using it for general things, but maybe break in a horse or two later on. Can you tell me what size you recommend. Also what is the reason for a picadero?
Some breakers prefer much smaller round yards (35ft or less) because the horse is much more limited in where he can go and how fast he can go. I even know one trainer who starts his horses in a stable. But I don't like limiting the ability of a horse to flee by relying on a small yard. If a horse needs to move his feet I'd like to know about it in the round yard and not when I first take him to a large arena or paddock.
In Europe some people use a rectangular yard called a picadero, rather than a round yard. They believe that the corners give a horse more security. But I have worked many horses in 4 sided yards and I don't think this is true. I also have a problem that in a 4 sided yard it is a lot harder for a trainer to maintain a constant distance from the horse because the corners are further away from the centre than the sides. This means the trainer is constantly moving just to maintain a constant contact. I also believe that picaderos are losing favour in Europe over round yards due to the influence of the American horsemen like Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts and Ray Hunt. I hope I have answered you query.
Round Yard Training
Once upon a time round yards were only to be found on the properties of professional horse people. They were very commonly used by race horse breakers and a few old bushies. But it was rare to see a round yard being used by non-professional trainers and riders. But thanks to people like John Lyons, Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts, round yards are almost mandatory on any horse property.
But just because many people have a round yard at home does not necessarily mean that they know why and how to use them. Some folks just use the round yard as a type of lunging ring. Others use them to ride in because their lack of confidence does not allow them to ride their horses in bigger spaces. Neither of these reasons are good enough to justify a round yard, but they don't concern me nearly as much as the people who use the round yard to drive their horse around in an effort to get them to come into them. This activity or approach to training is probably to blame for many of the problems we see in horses.
It is a great thing to have a horse who wants to be with you. But note that I used the word, wants. Most people (including trainers like John Lyons and Monty Roberts) drive their horse around and around the yard until they will do almost anything to be allowed to stop. John Lyons even says in one of his books that a horse should be run until his "lungs ache". This attitude to using a round yard has become the norm. It seems that most people feel that if a horse does not respond in the appropriate way (such as facing up to you) that they should made to run even harder.
The problem here is that such an approach does nothing to help a horse feel good about being with the human. If the horse felt that the best place in the round yard was right next to the person, that's where they would stand the moment you entered. But when a horse decides that being on the track or hanging by the gate or the side of the yard closest to his paddock is a better option than being next to the person, we make them run. We try to make being away from us such a miserable place to be that they eventually give up and resign themselves to the idea that standing near us is better than having to run more miles. Yet, we have done nothing to make them feel good about us, we have just make them feel more miserable about not being with us. We have given them the choice of a bad idea and a worse idea. We didn't make the right thing easy at all. We just make the wrong thing really miserable.
I bring this topic up because we have seen several horses lately who have had considerable round yard work in the hands of professional trainers who have driven them around and around for a long time in order to make them submit. The result has been very worried horses who are always on alert to flee. If asked to just walk a circle in the round yard, these horses take off trotting or cantering as if they had been hit on the rump with a cattle prod. If you ask them to slow down they get very worried because they have learned that their job is to run. It's very sad. But it is very understandable when you consider how they have been trained.
There is no excuse for driving a horse in a round yard or any yard. It does nothing towards the education of the horse or towards your relationship with the horse. Directing a horse is one thing, but driving is another. Driving just brings the flight response close to the surface. So when asking a horse to walk, trot or canter in the round yard or any circle, think of sending his thought forward. Think of directing him with a feel.
As for teaching him to come to you at liberty in a round yard, think about making yourself as least threatening as possible, while directing that his thought not drift to the gate or outside the yard to his friends. If his thought leaves the yard in hard way, apply just enough energy to give him a reason to bring his mind back into the yard. Let him search where in the yard he should be. While he is searching do nothing. But when he stops searching and his thought begins to leave outside, do just enough to motivate to keep searching inside the yard. How much is enough will depend. You want to do as little as possible, but as much it necessary. Sometimes, enough will just be a shift of your foot or cluck of your tongue and other times you will erupt in a fit of energy (never at the horse). It will be just enough to get a change from the horse thinking outside the yard to inside the yard. Then you do nothing but wait.
In this way, when the horse looks at you or turns to you or walks to you, it will be because he figured out for himself that it was a good idea. It won't be because you made being on the track such as horrible place to be that he gave up trying to avoid you. In time he will begin to consider hanging out with you is the best thing that could happen to him. You will become a comfort in his life. With my horse Riley I have seen over and over when he is by himself and struggling with being separated from his best friend, that once I show up he settles completely. He looks to me as a comfort; as someone who he can rely on to provide the same good feelings that being with his friend gives him.
Six has developed her annual dose of mud fever. Each year she gets badly infected on 2 legs. In the past I have tried many veterinary recommended treatments. They have all worked, but they have always been a prolonged treatment that required not only a plenty of time, but removal of the scab which caused Six a lot of pain.
A client recommended a treatment that she had successfully used on her gelding after a 6 month battle with various other treatments. I tried it on Six and within a couple of days the improvement has been dramatic.
It requires a concoction of vaseline (petroleum jelly), sulphur and tea tree oil. It is applied thickly daily on top of the scabs - no need to remove the scab. Keep the area dry - don't let moisture near the scabs - which means either stabling, yarding or paddocked on short grass. Six is in a paddock with short grass so the legs are not affected by dew.
This is the recipe that I have been using.
Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline) - 100g
Sulphur Powder - 1 teaspoon
Tea Tree Oil - 30 drops
It needs to be mixed well because the sulphur will clump in the vaseline. I used a small dish and mixed it up with a spoon for about 10 minutes. Don't use a good silver spoon because the sulphur will tarnish the silver. Make sure you use disposable gloves when you apply it to the leg or wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
How much does it cost?
This is probably the most common question and often the first one that people ask. The answer is of course "it depends". The length of time is a big factor. Some trainers quote a flat fee to start a horse. If your breaker does this you want to make sure that he/she will take the time it takes to do the job well. I think it is not possible to say from the outset how long any horse will take to be started properly - each horse will vary and each owner's needs and expectations will be different. So while a flat fee is great in giving an owner an accurate idea of their costs, a flat fee should not commit the breaker to doing the job within a pre-determined set time. That's why most breakers charge on a weekly or daily basis.
Secondly, I don't believe price is a good indication of quality. Some trainers charge at the high end of the scale because they have huge overheads and need to cover the cost of maintaining their property and pay staff. Others charge more than others because they only train a few horses at a time and need to make a living on the earnings that fewer horses bring in compared to other trainers. Some trainers are cheaper because they are part-time trainers. Trainers that break in a horse in a few days are often cheaper than those that take a few weeks to train a horse for saddle work. Trainers in country areas are sometimes cheaper than those that live on the urban fringe because their costs are lower and because the market (their clients) won't pay the higher prices. And some trainers can charge less because they accept lots of horses into work at any one time. However, this also means they probably spend less time with each horse than a trainer who accepts only a few horses for work.
From my observation, I think most professional trainers range in their charges from $250 to $450 per week. I understand that most everybody is on a budget when it comes to sending a horse to a trainer, but I also believe it is false economy to base the decision of which trainer to use solely on the cost of training.
How long does it take to break in a horse?
This is the next most commonly asked question. Again, the answer is "it depends".
When I was younger and began breaking in horses I used to take about 14 days. By the time I was in my late teens I was getting the job done in 10 days. If I managed to finish breaking in a horse in 8 or 9 days I figured I was getting really good. As I got older and learned a lot more I began taking longer. My understanding of what it is to really make a change in a horse has changed over the years and I have learned to look for things in a horse that I didn't even know existed when I was younger. The better the horseman I have become the more time I spend taking care of the little things that I didn't even know about a few years ago. These days Michele and I average about 6 weeks to finish a breaker. The easier horses might get done in 4 weeks and the very difficult horses may take 8 or more weeks. It depends.
I have seen a lot of other trainers break in a horse. Monty Roberts demonstrates getting on a horse within 30 minutes and I know a trainer who teaches his students to take a year to break in a horse. If you have seen "colt starting" clinics by Ray Hunt or Buck Brannaman you'll see horses started in 3 days. I have seen Curt Pate, John Lyons, Bryan Nueburt, Tink Elordi and others riding horses in within 2 hours. But at all these clinics and demonstrations I have never seen any horse far enough along to go home with its owner and be ready to go to work. In fact, at least two horses I saw after they were started by a famous trainer at a "colt starting" clinic were pretty messed up by their experience.
So if some trainer tells you he will start your horse in 1 week and another estimates 12 weeks, you still have no idea how good a job either of them is going to do. It should take what it takes and a trainer who believes breaking a horse in should only take a set amount of time is a trainer who also thinks horses are vehicles absent of emotions, psychological needs and spirit.
Do you break in horses for dressage or western riding?
A lot of people are looking for a breaker to start their next top level performance horse. There is a view that if you want a dressage horse, then you to have your horse trained by somebody who is a good dressage rider. The same is said for western enthusiasts and western trainers. I don't believe this view is true. My background is in dressage and jumping, but many think I am a western trainer because I ride in a western style saddle. Before I had the money to buy my first western saddle I broke all horses in a Keiffer jumping saddle. It made no difference to the outcome.
Starting a horse is about establishing the basics. The basics are the same basics for every discipline. There is nothing special about any discipline that requires the basics to be different from any other discipline. It doesn't matter if you want your horse for dressage, cutting, endurance, polo or harness. The basics are all the same.
Once a horse is broken in and the basics are established to a high degree he is ready to be moulded into whatever area of interest you may want to pursue. But until those basics are established by the breaker (and followed up at home) there is no event that he is ready to pursue. It is like saying that you want your child to ride at the Olympics one day, so you send her for her first riding lessons to an Olympic coach. The basics of riding that your child needs to learn would be better taught by a good teacher who specializes in helping novice riders. There is no advantage to choosing an Olympic coach until your child is ready to ride at Olympic level.
Should I do all the ground work and just send my horse away to be backed?
I think a lot of trainers are like me and cringe when we get a phone call from somebody asking to send us a horse to be backed. They tell you how wonderful their horse is to handle and they have lunged him and mouthed him and saddled him etc. I can tell you all now that as I professional trainer I dread those calls.
I have never, ever, never, ever (am I being clear enough?) had a horse come to us who is going well enough by our standards to be backed. In fact, we have never had a horse who leads well enough by our standards. The one basic thing that I like in a horse is that they are easily caught - that's the one thing that makes life a lot easier. So when somebody tells me their horse is great and they just want us to ride him I tell them good luck finding somebody. If you do send us a horse that you think is ready to be backed, we will still go over everything we want them to know first. If your handling has been good, then we will be able to breeze through that part of the training smoothly. But we will spend time tweaking the things that need improving and passing over the things that are pretty good. When he is at a level that we are happy about we will start riding, but not until then. This is for the benefit of both us and your horse. Which leads me to the next question…
Should I break in my horse myself or send him to a trainer?
Most people think that breaking in a horse is simply a matter of getting on them with no buck, teaching them to go, stop and turn. If that's all you want from your horse then most anybody who can half-way sit on a horse can get that achieved. But what if you want a horse that is not simply a robot? What if you want a horse that feels good inside and wants to get along with you? What if you want a horse that tries to stay focused? What if you want a horse that still tries to keep it together in the face of trouble? What if you want a horse that hasn't lost his personality by the demand for obedience of a trainer? What if you want a horse that enjoys his work instead of just tolerating it? What if you want softness through the whole horse - mind and body? I didn't know about these things when I started and it has taken a lifetime for me to get the understanding I have today. Maybe I am just a slow learner, but I think most people don't know these things exist let alone how important they are to the final outcome of your relationship with your horse. And if you don't know they exist or don't truly understand what they mean, how are you going to build them into your horse? When I was breaking in horses in 10 days I didn't understand these things - I thought I did, but I didn't really understand them. I may not understand them well enough now, but it has more meaning to me than before and it has a lot of more meaning to the results Michele and I get with horses now.
I believe that we owe it to our horses to provide them with the best start possible. For most people that means getting professional help and not using their horse as a guinea pig in their quest to learn how to break in a horse. If you want to learn how to go about starting horses, spend a lot of time hanging around a good trainer and suck all the information you can from them. Send your horse to them and spend as much time as you can finding out the 'whys' and 'hows' of what they do.
Should I buy an unbroken horse and avoid getting a horse with problems already?
A lot of people have asked themselves if they should get a horse with a clean slate that has not been messed up by poor training. They want to avoid the pitfalls of inheriting problems from previous owners. I think it is a false premise to assume that training a horse you bred or buying an untrained horse will ensure you get a well behaved horse. I say this because I believe that if you do not have the skills to fix problems in a horse, then you don't have the skills to ensure you don't put problems in a horse. You need to be just as good a horse person to solve issues with horses as you do to make sure you don't screw them up. The one advantage of buying a horse already messed up is that you can blame somebody else for it!
Final words of advice when shopping for a trainer.
If you are not familiar with a trainer yourself make sure you visit and watch them working a horse before committing to sending your horse. A recommendation is a great starting point for narrowing the list of prospective trainers. But you need to make sure that you are comfortable with the trainer. Every trainer has people who bad mouth them and people who tell you they can do no wrong. You will hear good and bad about every trainer. You have to decide these things for yourself. Your needs and ideas of what you want from a trainer may be very different from your friends.
When your horse is with the trainer make sure you visit regularly (make appointments) to watch your horse being worked. When you visit ask every question you can think of. As your horse progresses get some hands-on experience under the guidance of the breaker. Make sure you have ridden your horse several times before taking him home. Make sure you are comfortable with how your horse is going before taking him home. Get some guidance on things to do when working your horse at home. Be prepared to learn from the breaker and change several things about your riding and handling skills. See it as a learning opportunity for you as much as it is for your horse.
For a short time it is quite normal for horses to not go as well at home as they did at the breakers. Owners often lack the confidence at home that they had when the breaker was guiding them and keeping them out of trouble. But after a short time, most people work out how to get along with their horse.
There are so many factors to consider when looking at a horse that it is beyond the scope of anything I could write on this site. I’m not going to discuss conformation because there are hundreds of articles, books and dvds that already cover that aspect of choosing a horse. But if you are looking for a credible source of information about structure and function of a horse, for my money you can’t go past Deb Bennett’s series on conformation, which is available through the Eclectic Horseman web site.
Before even looking at Horse Deals or classifieds you need to be clear on what you want your horse to be capable of doing. There are basic things to consider which can help you narrow and focus your search. If you want a horse for serious showjumping then you probably need to look at horses around 16hh and above. If you want to jump at lower levels than most likely 15hh hands and above will suit you fine. If you want to play polo, 14.3-15.2hh is a good size. If you want to pleasure ride then size won’t matter too much. You have to narrow your options by knowing your needs.
Most people have an idea of the breed they are wanting. But don’t be too fixed in your ideas about this either. It is my experience that there is as big a difference of horses within a breed as there is between breeds. You can find Appaloosas that make wonderful dressage horses and Warmbloods that can work a cow. Percherons that can jump brilliantly and Arabs that can drag logs out of your back paddock.
For me, if a horse has good enough conformation that it won’t hinder the work, a horse’s mental attitude is the most important factor in choosing a horse. By that I mean, the build of a horse does not need to be perfect or even close – it just needs to be okay for doing the job. I have never had a perfectly put together horse, but I have never had a horse that has disappointed me. Of course, the higher the level of performance you might require of a horse, the more particular you should be abut conformation. But plenty of horses have been highly successful performers despite some serious conformation faults.
When checking out a horse for a good mind, the training it has had is only a small part of the equation. I look for trainability. This often means different things to different people. But to me it means the horse’s aptitude to search through a problem. It’s how they handle a problem that they don’t know the answer to. If there is a training problem that is not too monumental such as a hard mouth or lacking in focus or crookedness etc., I tend to not pay too much attention to these because I know I can help most horses be better. But if you are not sure that you can, then don’t ignore these issues. If you are not able to offer a horse better training than he already has had then you had better be sure he has had really good training to begin with. If he has had good training, he will always come back to it as you also become a better horse person.
In regards to determining if a horse has a very trainable mind you can try teaching him something he doesn’t already know and see his reaction. Of course, you need to get the owner’s permission before doing that first. But things that are easy such as backing over a pole or leading from a rope around a front leg or dragging a log or tarpaulin make good tests. The aim is to see how he handles the pressure of learning a new or difficult task. You want to take him out of his comfort zone and watch what happens. See how he handles this new experience. Does he panic? Does he pretend nothing is happening? Does he look confused, but tries to do something (even if it’s the wrong thing first off)? If he appears to be steady but looking for a way out of the pressure, then I think you might have a winner – he has a searching type of attitude and the “try” has not been killed in him by the training he has had.
There are plenty of exercises you could try to teach a horse to test his temperament. If it is a foal, most foals have not been taught to back up on the lead so you can try teaching him that for a few minutes and gauging his reaction. Remember, you are not testing how good he does the exercise, but how he handles the pressure of something new. With older horses you can try to teach him to back up by lifting his tail or to line up on a fence next to you as you stand on the fence or teach a step or two of Spanish walk or back over a ground pole one foot at a time. Anything that is different for the horse will suffice.
I have a couple of warnings with regard to looking at horses to buy. Firstly, never ever get on a horse to ride unless you have (i) seen somebody else ride him first, or (ii) you have had plenty of time to work with him on the ground to be sure he is safe to ride. I have come across incidents where the owner made excuses for not riding the horse they were selling, but letting the prospective buyer get on first. This is a big mistake and more than once has led to bad accidents.
The second warning I have is to be wary of super quiet horses. Some might think I am talking about drugged horses, but I am not. I refer to those horses that the owner jumps on in the paddock with just a rope around it’s neck and trots it up the hill even though it hasn’t been ridden for 3 years – it doesn’t shy or even look at anything. Sometimes horses like this are either totally shut down and a ticking time bomb just waiting for a tourist in Stockholm to blow his nose before the horse explodes OR they don’t care about pressure. In either case the horse is pretty troubled. In the first instance, horses that are seriously shut down carry a lot of worry that they shove deep down inside like a pressure cooker. Sometimes they wake up and you find yourself suddenly riding a hurricane. In the case of a horse that does not care about pressure, you can find them very difficult to train. They may be super quiet and calm, but if they don’t care much about pressure how do you get them to care when you ask them to go forward or to stop or turn? In training pressure is used to motivate a horse to try something – that’s how training works. But a horse who is highly unmotivated by pressure is pretty hard to train.
But in any case, if you do the check I recommended regarding testing their trainability you should detect whether or not the horse you are looking at is shut down or doesn’t care.
Lastly, it is always a good idea to get a third party who has no interest in the horse or doesn’t care whether you buy it, to look at the horse with you. Sometimes we fall in love with a horse for no rational reason and even though we see lots and lots of faults and reasons not to buy the horse, our hearts speak loudly. A third party who knows their stuff can help you avoid this pitfall of buying a horse when your brain is in hopeful mode. When you purchase a horse you need to be confident that it is the horse for you and not buy it hoping that one day it will be the horse for you. You need to love a horse for what he is and not for what you hope he will be one day. It’s a bad idea when you marry a person and it’s a bad idea when you buy a horse.
How To Tie A Lead Rope To A Halter
Can you tell me the best way to tie a lead to a rope headstall? I recently read your posts on VicHorse and was interested in your reasons for not using a clip on your lead rope. It made perfect sense to me. But now I don’t know how to attach the lead rope. I tried a few knots but they seem to be either too clunky or they keep slipping. Any help is appreciated.
When you buy a lead rope they often come with the clip already attached. The end of the rope is spliced to form a loop and the clip is folded into the spliced loop. It is very easy to unfold the loop and detach the clip. Then use the spliced loop of the rope to fix it to the halter. This is by far the easiest way to tie a lead to a rope halter.
However, some clips are fixed to the rope by a very small spliced end. In this case it is not possible to use the loop at the end of the rope to attach it to a halter. The best solution here is to cut the rope at the level of the clip. We use a hot-knife, which seals the end of the rope as it cuts to prevent from the rope from fraying. But you can cut the rope with an ordinary knife and then seal the end of the rope with a flame or on a hot plate of a stove.
The photos below show how to make a simple knot. It is very similar to how you would attached the rope if the end had a spliced loop, but in this case the end if free rather than spliced back onto the body of the rope.
This knot is a little more complicated, but it never slips and adds a little more weight to the rope at the right point to make the energy in the rope more effective. It is an especially good knot if you have a flimsy or lightweight lead rope.
Horse Float Design
During the clinic the subject of horse floats (trailers) came up. I was asked my view of angle versus straight load floats, but I thought today I would expand on the subject and offer my view in what I want in a horse float.
Angle vs Straight
There have been very many studies done over the years to determine if horses prefer to travel in a straight load trailer or an angle load. Different studies result in different conclusions. However, a careful look at the studies from independent groups who used carefully designed protocols shows that overwhelmingly horses prefer to travel at approximately a 45 deg angle to the line of travel. Most studies that show horses liking straight load are poorly designed and performed by vested interests like float manufacturers.
About 30 years ago a Canadian study by a government research body measured stress hormones in horses during transport. They concluded that horses showed the least amount of stress when facing backwards and at an angle. The next best was facing forward at an angle and the most stressful was facing straight with the line of travel. Several other independent groups have confirmed these results over the years.
However, the problem with angle load floats in Australia is that the law limits the width of a float to a maximum of 8ft (2.44m). For most horses over about 15.2hh (1.57m) standing at 45 deg, it means that length of the bay area is too short to give sufficient space between the wall and his nose on one end and the wall and his rear on the other end. Horses can become quite troubled about bumping their nose on the sides of the float. Many horses travel with the head very low to prevent running into the wall with their face.
The way around this is alter the angle of the bay from 45 deg to make the length of the bay much longer. This may mean that your 2-horse angle load float becomes a single horse trailer and your 3-horse float becomes a 2-horse transporter. You can also remove the dividers that separate the bays and allow the horses to choose the angle that’s most comfortable for them.
I have already sort of covered the length of the bay in the angle load float. But by far the biggest hurdle issue when it comes to dimensions of float is the interior height.
In Australia, the height of the inside of a float can very between 6’9” (1.93m) and 7’2” (2.18m). In my view any horse over 15hh (1.52m) needs a float with an interior height of at least a 7’4” (2.23m). Add an extra 4” (100mm) to the height with every 4” (100mm) in height of the horse.
Some floats are sufficiently high for a horse, but the manufacturers often place a lip than hangs down from the edge of the roof at the entrance to the float. I saw a float recently that was 7’4” interior height, but there was a 3” lip that hang down as the horse went to duck his head to enter the float – making the height at the entrance 7’1”.
I know this is sometimes done to strengthen the structure, but there are many horses that are bothered about the risk of bumping their heads at the entrance of the float. I would not buy a float where this was a problem.
There are many different suspension designs available for floats. In Australia, most floats use either coils or a leaf spring system. But in my opinion torsion suspension is preferred. The ride for the horses is far superior. You can also get air suspension customized to your float, but it can be quite expensive.
Hydraulic vs Electric Brakes
If you have a choice, always choose electric brakes on all four wheels. Install a quality brake controller in your car that can be adjusted for weight of the trailer and road conditions
Good ventilation is essential. The average 2-horse float (with 2 horses inside) requires a complete change of air approximately every 7 minutes to keep gases, humidity and temperature within comfort limits for horses.
For this reason I don’t like fully closed floats with storm doors. I prefer the back of the float to be open. I also prefer open sided floats that have slats rather than windows.
Ramp vs Step Up Loading
It doesn’t matter. But if you are to use a step up system it is a very good idea to have a heavy-duty rubber bumper on the entrance to the float. If the horse slips off the float is prevents the leg from being grazed.
I do want the door to be easily secured. Some floats do not have safe mechanisms that ensure they can’t open during travel. I don’t like the old fashion arm that swings down and locks the ramp shut – these are notoriously unsafe despite being the most common.
I believe it is essential to have access doors into the float. Each horse should be accessible without having to enter the horse bay. If a horse has lost it's balance or is scrambling or fallen, it's important that you don't expose yourself to risk by being in the bay with the horse as you try to help him.
Steel vs Aluminium vs Fibreglass/Plastics
Many people like the non-steel constructed floats because they feel they are lighter to tow. But this is not always the case. It’s wise to check and compare the weights before buying.
I prefer steel construction from the point of view that it is easy to repair. I know it can rust, but rust proofing can reduce the problem and even when it does rust repairs are usually simple.
Aluminium repairs require a specialized welding and fibreglass or plastic construction also needs expert repair people.
However, some floats have aluminium flooring and I like this over wood flooring because it is long lasting and resists damage caused by urine and moisture.
A horse float should be light and airy. No horse likes going into a dark hole. Other considerations are safety, which I haven’t really discussed in depth. Look for overall quality of construction and make sure there are not things that stick out from the float that could injure a horse. Check there are no sharp edges on mudguards or areas that a horse could stick a foot into around the hitch. Tie-up rings should be strong and safe. They should sit flush with the float when not being used. Door handles on access doors should be recessed and not stick out.
There are many other aspects of floats that I haven’t mentioned, but I hope this gives you some thoughts if you are looking to buy a float. Not everybody is going to agree with my preferences, but if you do your research carefully you’ll make the right decision for what works best for you.
People have different reasons for lunging their horses. Some use it just for exercising and see it as an aid in getting their horse fit. Others use to it take the edge off their horse if they feel he might be a handful when they ride. Some people lunge to teach their horses to carry themselves and engage their hindquarters better. This usually involves some sort of head gear like side reins, Pessoa or chambon designed to restrict how stretched out a horse can go around the circle.
In the work that I do of starting young horses and helping troubled horses, the main purpose of lunging an additional aid in helping a horse become focused and soft to the commands. This is the same aim I have in everything I do in my training and lunging is just another part of that. I’ll talk about how I do that a bit later.
I like to keep the equipment really simple. I generally just use a halter and long lead rope. With a horse that struggles to go forward I sometimes use a flag or whip to support my body language, but try to wean the horse away from those things as soon as possible.
If I am going to lunge a horse on a circle that is bigger than say 5m radius, I often use a lariat around the horse’s neck rather than a lead rope or lunging line.
A lunging cavesson is a better substitute to a halter, but I don’t own one. If your horse is to wear a bridle, don’t attach the lunging line to the bit. Use a cavesson or halter under the bridle for attaching the line. Many people clip the lunge line to the bit, but this can cause confusion to a horse for whom you are trying to establish softness to the bit.
I never use gadgets such as side reins, market harborough, chambon or Pessoa. They don’t release the pressure and put the horse between a rock and hard place. They are purely designed for forcing submission of a head position on a horse. In my opinion, they have no place in good horsemanship.
Finally, many people use their voice as part of their equipment. I tend not to do this because I find it is not very helpful. Horses don’t have the ability to understand complex vocalizations – they only have 9 sounds in their own vocabulary! Whilst you can teach a horse to trot when you say “t-r-o-t”, the trot you get is the trot he gives you. If you want a different sort of trot, you have to use body language anyway. So why bother saying t-r-o-t at all? If a horse could understand when you said “working trot” or “extended trot” or “slow trot”, I would consider the voice command to have much more value. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with using voice commands if you want to, I just don’t see the point.
Vienna Side Reins
Lunging With A Lariat
When we think of lunging, we think of a horse travelling around us in a circle at a walk, trot or canter. But what is a circle?
By definition, a circle is where the distances (radius) from the centre point to the out edge (circumference) is equal at any point. This means that for a horse to be travelling a circle the distance from him to us (the centre) should be the same at any point of the circle. Not only that, but for a horse to be straight (or balanced) on a circle, the distance from us (the centre) and the horse’s shoulder should be equal to the distance from us to his hip.
Most horses are not correct on the circle. Most either fall in or fall out of the circle. Most flex to the outside as they go around the circle. Many lean against the lunging line. The most common cause of such incorrectness is that the horse’s thought is not on the circle. When he is thinking of being elsewhere he is also trying to set up his feet to take him elsewhere. When a horse is looking to the outside of the circle, he is thinking that’s where he wants to be and he leans against the line or becomes counter flexed to the outside.
The reason why lunging a circle can be so beneficial to your horse training is that when it is done correctly you are teaching a horse to follow the line he is travelling with his thought. He is learning that you can direct his thought. This is the absolute basis of all good horse training.
The Myth Of The Circle
Just about everywhere you read or hear there is the myth that during a turn or circle a horse’s front inside foot and hind inside foot travel on the same track. The same is said about the outside feet. This is not true. It has been perpetuated since Moses was a little boy and it wasn’t true then either.
When a circle or turn is CORRECT the inside front foot moves forward and to the inside. But the inside hind foot travels forward and to the outside (see photo). Therefore, if your horse is travelling on a left circle, the left fore steps slightly left as it comes forward and the left hind steps slightly right as it comes forward.
This happens because the horse cannot laterally flex his torso. A horse has the ability for a lot of flexion from his poll to his wither, but from the wither back he is pretty rigid. It’s just the way he is built. But it is because of this that in order to balance through a turn his inside hind foot must move slightly to the outside of the line of the turn to allow his front end to come around the turn. It is the same principle that cars built with 4-wheel steering are designed (not 4-wheel drive). The car can not laterally flex through it's body, so to make cars more balanced in their turns manufacturers designed 4-wheel steering where the front wheels turn in the direction of the corner, but the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to produce minimum body roll and under steering.
The vast majority of horses do not turn correctly when we ride because they are thinking outside of the turn rather than on the line of the turn. This is an important principle to remember when lunging or riding circles.
Most folks begin their circle by stepping out of the way and sending the horse forward by driving his hindquarters. This may work on a horse that already understands the notion of lunging. But on greener horses, more often than not it will cause a horse to turn into the handler and face them. This can be quite frustrating for the person who doesn’t know what to do. It’s also confusing to the horse that feels he has done exactly as the human has asked.
When I am teaching a horse to lunge, rather than drive the horse forward, I ask his shoulder to step to the side away from me. It’s an opportunity to help a horse become softer in his forehand yields. I direct my lead rope towards the horse and to the side in order to encourage the horse to shift his weight back onto his hind end and lift his shoulders to step his forehand across.
In photo A, you can see Kerryn directing her horse’s thought to the right by bring her hand towards the horse, but to the horse’s right. This gets Whistler to look to her right and shift her weight onto her hindquarters. Then photo B shows Whistler stepping her forehand to the right and beginning her circle. It is very important that a horse looks where you want him to go before he moves his feet. It is the horse’s thought that causes his feet to move, not his feet leading his thought.
A really common mistake is to pull your horse in the direction you want them to circle. Photo C shows the problem. It’s very easy to pull a horse onto a circle, but it encourages them to crash onto their forehand and to walk through the handler. Rarely does pulling a horse across cause them to think in the right direction.
The circle is continued by the trainer allowing the horse to go past them until they are in line with being behind the shoulder (somewhere around the position of the saddle is okay for most horses). At this point the trainer should walk a very small circle in the direction that the horse is travelling. That is, walk to the right for a right hand circle and to the left for a left hand circle. Photo D shows Michele walking in the correct position and direction to support Toby’s walking in a continuing circle.
The most common mistakes made by people at this point are to walk in the wrong direction, ie if the horse is circling to the right; the person walks to the left. This has the effect of encourage a horse to yield his hindquarters away from the handler and resulting in the horse facing the handler instead of circling.
The next most common mistake is for the handler to walk backwards in an effort to keep distance between him and the horse. This often results in the horse crowding the person.
People also sometimes walk too much. Their circle is almost as big as the horse’s and rather than lunging their horse they are almost leading him. Keep your own circle fairly small so that the horse is going around you. Later when the horse understands lunging, you can vary your circle as much as you wish to address specific problems.
Lastly, don’t get in front of the shoulder. It has the tendency to block the forward movement of the horse. Always have your energy come from behind the shoulder.
In order to achieve more speed or less speed or a new gait, I always ask first by changing the energy of my walk. The more life I have in my walk, the more life I expect in my horse. If the horse does not respond to an increase in my energy level I use a flag or whip or tail end of my lunging line to back up my request for more speed. But I always start with a change in me before using something else. I am trying to train my horse to respond to subtle changes in my body language.
This photo is of Ngaire and her horse Tempest. I broke in Tempest and this her last day with me before Ngaire took her home. In the photo, you can see Ngaire has an energetic walk that Tempest interprets as a request to trot actively. Ngaire has a flag in her hand as support in case Tempest does not listen to the changes in Ngaire’s body language.
Likewise, if I want a horse to slow its feet I slow my feet. The less energy I have, the less energy I want my horse to have.
I do not agree with the Parelli system where a horse should keep lunging around me while I do nothing but stand in the middle. As I said in the beginning, lunging is a useful tool to help teach a horse to focus. If I do nothing but stand in the middle, I give my horse nothing to focus on and his circles become mindless laps. When I lunge, I am always talking to my horse through my body language. I am constantly addressing his speed, gait and line of travel in an effort to keep his thought on the job.
Another thing to note is that many people find it very difficult to keep their position relative to their horse constant when they walk either bigger or smaller. Often when a person tries to increase their walk in an attempt to get their horse to have more life, they get in front of the horse and block them. It takes practice to have more energy in your walk, but still walk a small circle and maintain your position. For most people, having more energy in their walk means taking bigger or faster steps – which is not the case. It’s hard to do well when you start out, but with practice and vigilance it becomes second nature.
There are a variety of ways to change direction when lunging a horse, but I’ll summarize the approach I mostly teach and use myself. It has a number of advantages.
When my horse is lunging to my right, I walk to my right and keep my position relative to my horse constant. But when I want to change direction, I stop walking to my right and take a step to my left towards the horse’s tail (photo E). If my horse is paying attention to me, he will disengage his hindquarters away from me and step his forehand towards me in order to be facing directly towards me. Now that we are facing each other, I’ll use my lead rope and ask for a forehand yield to the left (photo F) and begin a new circle going to the left – in just the same way as if I started with a circle to the left. In other words, changing direction involves horse circling on the lunge, hindquarter yield in order to face me, forehand yield in the other direction and circling on the lunge in the new direction.
When you are learning this, it is best to break it down into the essential steps at a walk. Later on, as your horse progresses you can ask for changes at a trot or even a canter.
- lunging to the right
- yield the hindquarters to the left
- face up
- yield the forehand to the right
- circling to the left
I hope I have given you a clear picture of the basics of lunging a green horse. There is a lot more to it than I could fit into this page, and to lunge a horse well is a lot harder than it first appears. There are so many subtleties that can only be learned from trial and error. If you have questions about this topic feel free to e-mail me and I'll do my best to answer.