The Importance Of Leading Well

How do you know if your horse leads well? It might surprise you to know that it is not as simple or obvious as you think.

I can’t over emphasize the importance of having a horse lead well. The way your relationship starts, begins with the way you teach your horse to lead. If a horse does not lead well, things are not okay no matter what advanced movements it is capable of in the arena.

In all the years I have been training for people, I have never once had a horse come to me for any type of training that l believe led well enough. I find that surprising. It emphasizes the lack of importance people place on the quality of leading. A lot of people feel that as long as they can get their horse from the paddock to the saddling area without too much trouble, things are okay. But then they wonder why their horse won’t pay attention to them when they ride. It begins with your relationship on the ground and for most of us that means how our horses lead.

I want to stress that the test for leading well is not that a horse does not drag on the end of the lead rope, or that it follows you around with very little pressure on the headstall. That by itself is not an indicator of a horse leading well, because any horse can be taught to do those things on autopilot. Leading well also includes being able to direct a horse anywhere you like without stirring emotional trouble in a horse.

The ability to direct a horse with softness is a much more important indicator than a horse that can follow you around. You should be able to ask a horse to wait for you to go through a gate first, or you should be able to send it first and have it wait for you on the other side. You should be able to adjust a horse’s position at any time with no feelings of trouble. You should be able lead from in front, from the tail, from either side with no trouble. The list goes on and on.

The important thing is that your horse maintains focus and it causes it no emotional worry however you ask it to lead. These things are fundamental to getting the same feeling from a horse when you ride.

Many years ago I was trekking through the bush with a couple of my horses. I had an accident and suffered temporary blindness. My horse, China was able to lead me to the creek twice a day for me to wash my eyes. I couldn’t see where he was taking me. I couldn’t negotiate the thick lantana bush or the log in the path – but he could. He led me. I didn’t lead him. I didn’t teach him to do this. It was possible because he had learned how to feel of me when were together. I could not have relied on China if he didn’t lead brilliantly.

People will come to clinics with a horse that is bouncing around on the end of the lead rope like a helium balloon on a windy day. When I ask them what they’d like to work on they inevitably say something like the canter or sidepassing or shying or whatever – totally unaware that their problem begins with what is happening on the end of the lead rope while they are talking to me.

How a horse responds and feels on the lead rope tells a person a lot about the relationship they have with that horse. In my view it’s not possible for a horse to be the best it can be to ride and still be mediocre on the lead rope. Some horses are better to ride than they are to handle on the ground, but I am certain that if they were better on the lead rope, they would also be even better to ride. In a horse’s mind, leading and riding are the same thing.

donkey leading


Why Would It?

I got into a conversation a while ago with a lady who was saying that she teaches her horses to never turn their bum towards her. I asked her why and she said because he can’t kick at her if he can’t have his rear end facing her.

I said that it didn't bother me if my horse’s bum was facing me. She fired back, “But what if he tries to kick you?”

“But why would he,” I responded?

“But what if he did,” she asked?

“But why would he?”

“But what if he did?”

Clearly she was not getting the answer she wanted.

I may have given her an unsatisfactory answer, but it was a legitimate answer. I was trying to get the woman to ask herself about her own horse, “Why would he?”

At a clinic awhile back a lady was about to mount her horse. Before putting her foot in the stirrup she took a hold of the reins and tightened them up so the bit was pulling her horse in the mouth. I asked her why she shortened the reins and she said, “So he wont walk away while I get on.”

I said, “But why would he?”

“But he might and I need to be stop him before he does it?”

“But why would he?”

I asked her to let the reins hang loose and the horse stood quietly while she mounted.

If people asked themselves, why would he? They might get an insight into how things are between them and their horse.

When it comes to my own horses I have not taught them to stand still when I mount, they just do. I have not put any time into training them to tie up or load onto a float, they just do. Likewise, I do not get concerned if my horse’s rear end is facing me. Kicking at me doesn't even cross their minds or mine.

Horses do things for a reason. They walk away for a reason when a person mounts. They pull back for a reason when tied up. They turn their bum to kick at things for a reason. All these things are based on what a horse believes to be good and solid reasons. But he doesn't kick at a person just because that person is in the firing line. And he doesn't walk away when a person puts their foot in the stirrup just because the person has a loose rein.

If the horse feels okay about being mounted or feels safe when person is behind them, they have no reason to act defensively when these things happen. It comes back to how thoroughly we get our horses feeling okay for what is about to happen. Preparation is the key.

If you have a horse that kicks when a person is behind them, then prepare him before it happens. Help him feel there is no need to kick at the person. But don't punish him for turning his rear end towards you. That goes back to what I believe about not punishing a horse for having the feelings he has. It’s not good horsemanship and its not good relationship building. Instead help him replace the poor feelings with good ones and things will be a lot safer.

Likewise, if a horse walks away before the rider is seated in the saddle, then fix the feelings that make the horse want to leave. For instance, getting on a horse that is squirming and fidgeting even before you try to mount is ensuring trouble when you put a foot in the stirrup. Do some ground work first that has the horse feeling soft and mellow. When he feels okay inside, he won’t be in a hurry to walk away before you ask.

It doesn’t matter what the situation maybe. It might be riding along the road and keeping a tight rein n case the horse tried rushing home or perhaps using a twitch in case the horse flung its head when you tried worm paste it. In everything we train it is important to be mindful of the horse’s thoughts and feelings as the root cause of every issue.

The long-term success of training comes from changing the feelings that cause the horse to do stuff we don't want him to do. It doesn't come from creating enough resistance to block a behaviour or troubling him enough for doing the wrong thing. It comes from altering the turmoil that causes the problem. It is amazing how many things just get better because the horse feels better without having to address each individual problem.

I like this photo mainly because of the kelpie finding shade in the shadow of the horse.

Stockman mounting


Training Police Horses 1967

Hopefully methods have changed in the last 40 years. I think the music is hilarious.


The Role OF The Prey/Predator Relationship In Training

You have probably heard people talking about the human/horse relationship being based on the predator/prey relationship. This idea has been polluting the thinking of horse people – and particularly natural horse people – for decades. In my opinion it is nonsense and has little merit in affecting how we relate to our horses. Some horse people have taken a small bit of scientific information about prey vs predator behaviour and blown it into a whole philosophical approach to training horses that is based on little more than imagination. It comes from the oversimplified concepts that:

Horses graze and eat vegetation.
Humans hunt and eat meat.
Horses have a natural fear of animals that hunt and eat meat. Therefore the horse must fear humans.

But for this bit of deduction to hold true a horse must be able to recognize a human is a predator that will eat them. So how does a horse identify a predator?

I believe horses recognize predation, not predators. That is, they don’t recognize a species as a predator. But they do recognize a behaviour that is predatory. The body language of an animal that is hunting is what sets off alarm bells in horses. For example, it is well known that zebras do not fear lions that are wandering around the herd. They even tolerate them calmly walking into a herd. But they do fear a lion when it is stalking a zebra. It is a lion assuming the hunting posture that alerts a zebra, not the fact that a predatory species is in the vicinity. So horses don’t categorize the species as friend or foe, but rather they judge the behaviour of another species as friendly or threatening.

It is true that horses with little or no experience of humans are often fearful of people. But they are fearful of narrow spaces too. That does not mean they perceive the narrow space as a predator. Horses are fearful of the unknown. But I don’t believe they view every unknown as a predator either.

The prey/predator model does not contribute anything useful to our understanding of horse behaviour or horse training. The only thing it tells us is that horses do not like it when we act like we want to kill them. We already know not to act aggressively towards a horse, or a dog or a bird or gorilla or a grizzly bear, if we want to get along with it. This model adds nothing to our understanding.

People have taken the prey/predator principle out of context.

We know that when a lion stalks a zebra it stares at it with both eyes. Therefore, many trainers tell people not to look directly at a horse.

Other trainers talk about not presenting your body squarely to a horse and rather we should angle our shoulders when facing a horse. I’ve had students come to clinics who will actually turn away from their horse when asking it to walk up to them. I think these ideas are premised on the notion that only a predator would stand square or face up to a horse and therefore that type of behaviour will worry a horse.

I have discovered that these ideas have no real merit when developing a relationship with horses. My dogs will approach a horse squarely and will look at it with both eyes. Yet I see no concern about that in the horses. In fact I have known a horse or two to chase a dog it didn’t know out of the paddock. Who is the predator in that case?

I believe it is wrong to think that humans are the natural enemy of the horse. Some trainers have espoused that we need to overcome this so-called natural perception of us as predators in our training regime. But I truly believe it is a false premise.

horse chasing dog


Bitless Dressage Competition

Robyn Gillies Tabrett sent the link to an article in the DailyMail newspaper (see below) in the UK to me for comment. It is about a British MP lobbying to have legislation introduced into parliament to force the governing bodies of British dressage to allow horses to compete without bits.

From the outset I should say I don’t see that governments should be getting too involved in the regulations of sports through legislation. I think the case for no bits, as an animal welfare issue needs to be much stronger than is presently warranted for the government to step in. It does not seem reasonable to pick on the use of bits in dressage competitions, but not other competitions or when used at home.

At present the rules of dressage (and many other disciplines) around the world require horses to be ridden with bits.

For several years there has been a call by non-mainstream dressage groups to allow people to compete on horses without bits. But the governing bodies are resisting the pressure. Most organizations offer the excuse that they are required to fall into line with the FEI, which require all horses to compete with bits. So it seems the buck stops at the FEI.

So that’s the background to the story.

The arguments for and against bitless bridles in dressage competitions have many facets and both sides of the debate are entrenched in their own mindset where reason is lost. I‘ll try to offer my thoughts on the subject as I see it.

Firstly, I am neither against bits nor for bits. I believe every horse should be okay with being ridden in a bit. But I also believe it is not necessary for a horse to wear a bit for either performance or safety reasons. However, I feel if a horse is not well educated to the snaffle, its education is not complete. Equally, if a horse requires a bit for control then its education is not complete.

The main argument from the bitless brigade is that bits can be cruel by causing pain to a horse when used harshly. This is true. But if it happens, it is due to bad training. The function of a bit is not to control by pain. Its job is to add refinement to the way the reins are used. If a rider uses a bit harshly with a horse, they will also use a bitless device just as harshly or perhaps worse. This is because they lack the understanding on how to teach a horse to be soft to the reins. Having a bit or no bit is not going to change that lack of understanding.

It can be argued that when a bit is used badly it will cause a horse more pain than when using a bitless device badly. So there is some justification to believing that a bitless device is the lesser of the two evils. But in both cases, the horse will still be subjected to long-term discomfort due to a rider’s lack of knowledge.

bitless dressage
The dressage fraternity argues that a bit is necessary to encourage correctness in a horse. Many believe that true softness and collection is not possible without the connection that a bit creates. They believe that a bit has a mechanical action that brings clarity and softness to a horse in a way that bitless devices cannot. But let’s be really clear about what is the function of a bit.

The primary role of any bit is to have something to attach the reins to on a horse’s head. At first that may seem a silly view, but if you think about it, it explains everything about a bit.

A rider’s intent is conveyed to a horse’s brain via their hands, legs and seat. For all these aids we need a way for the hands, legs and seat to make contact with a horse’s mind. In the case of a rider’s hands we have reins to transmit the feel of the rider’s hands to a horse. But the reins must be attached to something in order to work. So we attach the reins to the head. Most people use a bit to do this. But there is nothing to stop people from using a noseband or a ribbon through the horse’s mouth or piece of wire or a ring through the nostrils etc. There are many ways the reins could make contact with a horse in order to transmit the intent of the rider’s hands.

Having said that, there is good reason why we use a bit instead of a ring through a horse’s nostrils. That is when used correctly, a bit balances the sensitivity of the mouth with the clarity of the reins. Nevertheless, the main purpose of a bit is to connect the rider’s hands with the horse’s brain.

With that in mind, it is easy to shoot holes in the arguments against allowing bitless headgear in dressage competitions. One of the strongest arguments I hear dressage people use is that the rules require a horse to show submission to the bit. Therefore, dressage requires a horse to wear a bit.

But the FEI and the judges and higher echelons of dressage are missing the point.

Submission to the bit is a meaningless concept and doesn’t exist. The rules are wrong and the governing bodies don’t know it. This is because what is really required is submission to the rider’s hands. The bit does nothing on it’s own. It just sits in the mouth. But the rider’s intent is conveyed through the hands, then through the reins where is connects to the horse. How it connects or what it connects to is not terribly important. The important part is how clearly the rider’s message is transmitted and interpreted by the horse. If a horse can be submissive to the rider’s hands without it wearing a bit, what do the authorities require a bit?

If my wife wants me to pick up the dry cleaning, it doesn’t matter if I get her request from a text message or a phone call. As long as my wife’s intent got through to me and I understood it, what difference does it make how I got the message? The same is true whether the horse receives and understands a rider’s intent with the reins attached to a bit or a noseband.

This simple concept seems to have escaped the brilliant minds of the higher dressage authorities. They seem incapable of understanding that a bit is the servant of the rider’s hands and not something that has great power over a horse by itself.

In my mind the biggest plus in favour of riding with a bit is the refinement it can bring to the riding. A bit is more accurate at transmitting the energy of the reins to a horse. This is because a horse’s mouth is far more sensitive to small changes in feel of the reins than say a noseband. This means a rider can do a lot less with the reins to achieve more from the horse. So as a horse becomes softer and more responsive, riding with a bit can seem like a horse is working from nothing more than a rider’s thought.

Nevertheless, anything a horse can do when wearing a bit, it can do without a bit. There is nothing magical about a bit that makes a rider a better rider or a horse a better horse. Considering how heavy handed so many top-level dressage riders are, I think allowing riders to compete without a bit can only be a good thing for the future of the sport.

I cannot think of a rational justification for not giving rider’s the choice to not use a bit if they want. Who can they be hurting? Dressage is a sport where the performance of the horse is judged, not the equipment. If the FEI is correct and a bit is necessary to produce top quality performance from a horse, then those competitors who choose to ride with no bit won’t win. But it shouldn’t be the FEI telling riders they must compete with a bit. Instead leave it to the horse to tell their rider its preference.

If the FEI and other bodies continue to resist the change it can only be because they don’t understand how horses operate OR because they allow tradition to blind them to a more progressive thinking.

Negative Reinforcement

I think this trainer from Canada has some good thoughts to express.


A Horse's Breathing

I saw the video clip linked below a few days ago and it reminded me of something that comes up quite often in clinics. It’s about a horse’s breathing.

Firstly, I am not criticizing the training or the riding in the clip. But I just want to make an observation that may give people something to think about in their own horsemanship.

How a horse breathes can tell you quite a lot about how it feels. Just like people, horses have a different pattern of breathing when they are stressed and anxious than when they calm and relaxed. It’s because of the influence that emotions have on the muscle tension that a body carries.

The pattern I most want to mention in horses is the “choof” sound they can make when trotting or cantering.

I see this at almost every clinic with at least one or more horses. They can be ridden or unridden. The horse is breathing quietly when walking, but as soon as it begins to canter (and sometimes when trotting) there is the sound of air being expelled with great force through the nostrils. The sound is always in time with the feet hitting the ground and it always occurs from the very first few strides. A horse doesn’t have to be working hard to display the breathing pattern.

I don’t know the exact cause, but I suspect the jarring of the feet impacting on the ground causing the diaphragm to be suddenly pushed upwards, causes the sound. The sudden and forceful movement of the diaphragm forces air from the lungs and out through the nostrils causing a “choof” sound.

It’s a pretty common phenomena and I think it is because the tension in the horse causes the diaphragm to be held tightly in place with only shallow movement (tense horses tend to have shallow breathing). But the sudden jarring impact of the horse’s feet hitting the ground forces the diaphragm to push air out in a burst.

Imagine somebody grabbing you around your stomach with both hands and suddenly squeezing, as in a Heimlich maneuver. The sudden force of the squeezing forces your diaphragm to abruptly push upwards and expel a rapid burst of air through your mouth and nostrils. I suspect it is a similar mechanism that happens in tense horses at a canter (and to a lesser degree at a trot).

I also believe that constriction of the horse’s nostrils could sometimes plays a part in creating the noise by forcing the air through the narrow opening. But I don’t know for certain or by how much.

In my experience the sound is always associated with tension in a horse. I have never observed it in a truly relaxed horse. But I have noticed that most riders are unaware of this. It seems to be mostly passed off as the result of a horse breathing harder because it is working harder at the trot and canter. I don’t believe this to be the case, because (i) hardly any of the horses are working hard enough to be gasping for air, and (ii) I have never heard it on horses exhibiting a light canter in the paddock.

I think the video clip shows the phenomena really well. The horse clearly makes the “choof” sound at the trot and canter. And notice how tight the horse is in the abdominal region – as if it was tucked up (the 1.29s mark gives you a clear picture of the tightness in the horse between the rider’s leg and the hindquarters). Most people would assume the horse is feeling ok because it is not misbehaving or exhibiting overt signs of stress such as excessive tail swishing or head tossing etc. The horse is polite and obedient.

But the tension in the body and the breathing pattern are dead giveaways as to the true feelings of the horse. This is supported by other indicators of tension such as the lack of energy and engagement of the hindquarters and the way the horse plays with it’s mouth despite being ridden in a halter with no bit.

However, just because a horse exhibits this behaviour does not mean it is doing anything wrong or the training is going in the wrong direction. Most horses will exhibit signs of stress at various stages of training.

But I want to point out that breathing patterns are things to look out for when working with a horse because they can tell you a lot about how your horse is feeling. You can’t make a horse breathe in a more relaxed fashion, but you can help it avoid the worry and anxiety that can create a poor breathing pattern.

I believe most people are unaware or give too little importance to the quality of a horse’s breathing when assessing the training.


Training With Food

We all like to eat. Even a very small amount of food that tastes good is hard to resist. We don’t even have to be hungry to give into temptation. If it looks appetizing, we want it.

Horses love to eat too.

If I feed my horses with so much grain and chaff they can’t finish the bucket, they’ll still greedily grab an apple I drop on the ground like a miser reaching for his wallet.

The need to eat is one of the basic drives that is instinctive in animals – along with survival and reproduction. This explains why food can be such a powerful tool in training. If an animal does not feel its life is in danger, we can train them to do amazing things using food as the motivator. How else could we ever train sea lions and falcons if not with food?

For this reason it is easy to see the attraction of using food as a means of shaping a horse’s behaviour. Food rewards are extremely potent for most horses. In general, food is a far more effective means of altering a horse’s behaviour than the removal of pressure - provided the pressure is not life threatening. If pressure is strong enough that a horse feels its life is in jeopardy, then the prospect of a food reward is not likely to influence a horse’s behaviour. But when the pressure is mild or moderate, food reward trumps the removal of pressure almost always as a means of motivating behaviour.

Many people use food treats in their training because of its power to be used to influence a horse’s behaviour. Horses will jump through many metaphoric hoops to find a response that will trigger a person to give them a treat. But it’s exactly because of the hold that food can have over a horse’s thinking that is both its advantage and disadvantage.

Good horsemanship primarily encompasses gaining a horse’s focus on the handler or rider and secondly being able to direct that focus to influence a horse’s movement or action. But always it is first and foremost about influencing a horse’s focus.

Food, as a training tool, gets in the way of our ability to influence a horse’s focus. The idea of the food so overwhelms a horse’s mind that any influence people have only gets in the way of getting the food treat. Most horses have an emotional response to being given the food or being denied the food.

Imagine there was a family crisis and it was very important that you get home as soon as possible. You jump in your car to drive across town. Everything that gets in the way or delays you from getting home creates an emotional response in you. The car won’t start, every red traffic light, every car that cuts in front of you, every lane closure on the bridge, every pedestrian crossing that forces you to stop etc. They all create a negative emotional response because they get in the way of your getting home.

A horse is not much different. The way we use food to train behaviour is that we deny the horse food until the horse does what we want. This can be very stressful to any horse that has an emotional attachment to being given a treat.

This is also true when we use pressure and release to train behaviour. Except that most horses do not have nearly as strong an emotional attachment to the release from pressure (sub life threatening) as they do to food. The psychological stress associated with being denied the removal of pressure is often less than the stress of being denied food.

The other major difference between using food versus pressure and release is that when a horse finally receives the food, it wants more. Once a horse has been rewarded with a treat, most don’t stop searching to see what they can do to get the next morsel. Instead they generally keep searching for something that will get them fed. This doesn’t happen with pressure and release. Once a horse has received the reward of removing the pressure, they tend to stop searching.

This has consequences to the quality and type of relationship we have with our horses. Horses understand pressure and release. They live everyday with the stress of pressure and release from other horses - the heat of the sun or the cold of the wind, the zap from the electric fence or the bot flies buzzing around their legs. Horses know very well how to respond to the pressures of negative reinforcement.

But the special treats of food reward that humans use are not so familiar. It is not hard to turn a horse into a treat-aholic. The result is that horses often view people as nothing more than vending machines that require having the right button pushed. It’s not a relationship based on the horse and human being on the same page.

But I do need to finish by saying that not all food reward is damaging. There are rare times when I think it can be useful and even the better option. The trouble is so few people know how to use food without being detrimental to a good relationship.

The woman in the video clip thinks she has something really positive working between her and the horse. But notice when the woman thinks the horse is responding to her body language that the horse is actually responding to the desperation for a treat. The horse is constantly pushing on her to see if there is a treat available. In this case, food gets in the way of the horse mentally being with the trainer and it’s damaging the relationship.

Please don’t harangue the woman in the clip. I’m not putting it up for anybody to ridicule her. I just wanted to use it to illustrate some of the problems that I see when most people use food rewards for training horses.


Making It Easy

“Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.” Most of us have heard this many times. Most of us believe we know what it means and why it is relevant to training horses. But I don’t think a lot of people have given much thought to what “easy” means.

It’s widely believed that “easy” should be as easy as possible and “difficult” should be slightly more difficult than “easy”. But in order to know what is more difficult than easy, it seems that knowing what “easy” is would be a logical pre-requisite to knowing how difficult “difficult” needs to be.

To examine the question of what is “easy” we need to see it purely from a horse’s perspective.

When we ask a horse to do something, the response it gives is the one it views as the best option among all the choices available to it. So in a horse’s mind, what it is already doing is the easy thing. To ask a horse to change its response is to ask it to do something that it sees as being more difficult than the easy response.

If we accept that a horse chooses it’s response from a belief it is the easiest (and safest) choice, then in order to alter the response by making the new response “easy”, we should try to make the newly desired response as similar as possible to the one the horse is already doing. Imagine a horse has five options to choose from when we ask it to do something. A horse will try those five options in order of preference. It will try the one it sees is the easiest first and the option it sees as the hardest last. I don’t want to give the impression that a horse has its options written down on a piece of paper and ticks them off one by one. But when a horse discards one thought, it will try the next thought that comes to mind, which will be the next easiest option.

By making the new response that we want closely resembling the old response the horse has been giving, we make it easier for a horse to find and to feel more comfortable about.

For instance, imagine you are riding a horse that does not understand to move forward off a rider’s legs. You apply your legs to the sides and the horse refuses to move except to swish the tail and toss it’s head. The refusal to move is a horse’s response to confusion about how to respond to a rider’s leg pressure. The horse sees not moving as its best option. But we want the horse to walk, trot and canter when we apply leg pressure. So how do we get a change that is close to what the horse is doing; yet still getting closer to what we want it to do?

In a horse’s mind, the 2nd easiest option will be the next thing it tries when it decides not moving is no longer the best option. So we should try making not moving harder and see what happens.

We could try asking with a slight leg pressure and then tipping the horse’s thoughts to the left with the left rein. If the thought goes to the left strong enough, the horse may shift its front feet to the left. We would rejoice at this change. If we repeat this exercise over and over again, the horse will gain confidence that stepping the front feet to the left is now the easiest option when we apply leg pressure. Then it becomes time to ask for a bigger change by asking for more steps to the left and not making only one step the easiest option. When more steps become the easiest option, then we might ask for the hindquarters to move too and that becomes the new easiest option. In time we build up these incremental changes in a horse’s mind as to what is the easiest choice, until the horse is walking, trotting and cantering in response to our leg pressure.

I know many people use the idea of breaking down training into small steps to achieve a final result. But I don’t think too many people understand that what defines a step as being small enough is determined by how close it is to the thought a horse is already following. The greater the difference between the thought a horse has and the thought we want it to have, the harder we make it for a horse to choose our idea.

I still haven’t give you an answer as to how easy “easy” needs to be when trying to get your horse to change a thought. But now that you understand the concept and you know that the easiest thing for a horse is to keep doing what it is already doing, it gives you are starting point at which to begin experimenting and playing with making the right thing easy.

Who doesn’t like cheesy photos of Frank Sinatra?

Sinatra , Frank Nice n Easy


Bad Training With Food

The lady on the video is oblivious to the fact that everything the horse does is in response to its need to scavenge a treat off her. She thinks the horse is listening to her body language, but this is not true. To the horse it’s all about the food.


Courage To Experiment

When I was a kid my parents were not excited that I had a passion for horses. Ever since a friend of my dad’s had lost a daughter due to a horse accident, they thought horses were terribly dangerous.

It was a good thing that my parents were battlers and didn’t have much money because it meant I never bothered to pester them to buy me a horse. I knew it was beyond their financial reach. Instead I came up with a workaround to the problem by getting a weekend job at a riding school. At first my parents said “No.” But I think they could see the advantages of encouraging me to have a job and responsibilities, so they begrudgingly allowed me to take the job.

I started the same way most kids begin any job – doing the crappy jobs that nobody else wanted to do. I would start each day with feeding, then rake the arena by hand followed by cleaning stables and gear and finally ending the day with the night feeding. In return I received a 1 hour lesson each day. Looking back it seems the owners got a really good deal out of me, but I am also aware that the experience started me on the right road. By that I mean I learned early how much hard work was involved with horses. I learned I could care about a horse even when it crapped in the stable I just cleaned or knocked over the water bucket I just filled.

Over the years I graduated from being chief waste management officer to much higher stations where I was working with horses and teaching.

After I had been at the riding school for quite a long time some of the boarders would ask me for advice or help. One girl was having problems with her horse refusing to walk through puddles. The horse would rear, leap to the side or run backwards. She asked for my help. I tried leading the horse through a puddle, but it already knew this game and had a prepared evasion. I soon worked out that I had to try something new that it didn’t yet have an answer to. I won’t go into detail what I did, but I spent about half a dozen sessions teaching the horse to lead brilliantly from a rope around a front foot. I could take that horse anywhere by leading the foot. With a bit of time and repetition the horse could be led through a puddle and finally accepted crossing under the direction of a rider.

Unbeknown to me the boss had apparently watched some of the work I did with the horse. During a lunch break he talked to me about the horse. He wanted to know why I hadn’t asked him for help. I told him I knew he could have got it done much better and quicker than I did, but I wanted to figure it out for myself. I apologized if I hurt his feelings. He said to me that he wouldn’t have done it the way I did, but thought I did an okay job. But it was what he said next that changed my life. He told me he thought I was smart and fearless. He said being smart without being fearless is pretty useless and only marginally better than being fearless and dumb.

At first I didn’t understand what he meant by fearless because I knew I had ridden a couple of horses that put butterflies in my stomach, so I asked him. He said that I don’t fear experimenting and trying things when the outcome is uncertain. I don’t fear failing. Being fearless means taking a gamble and seeing how it turns out. I don’t have to go to the books or wait until somebody tells me what to do before trying something.

Those that have come to my clinics or have contacted me for advice about a problem already know that I almost always finish with telling them to give my suggestions a try and play around with the ideas I talked about. Chances are things won’t go exactly as I described, so people should take the principles and find a way to make them work. Don’t be afraid to screw up and try again. Sometimes we screw up for years before we hit upon a better way. But fear of making a mistake will ensure the screwing up is forever.

Whenever I sit on a horse or take the lead rope I have no idea what I am going to do at the start. It’s not until I try an experiment and gauge how the horse responds does a plan form in my head about how to ride or handle the horse. Most people will be aware that I don’t often present a method for how to do something either in my clinics or my writings. This is because I never know what I might do when presented with a horse. But I’m not afraid to try something. If things get worse, I’ll fearlessly try something else. I say fearlessly because in everything I do with a horse I try to present myself as being confident that things will get better. I don’t want the horse to feel I am unsure. It needs to believe that I believe I know what I’m doing.

By being fearless, it means you are always the student and never the master. Thinking about new approaches and being brave enough to try them ensures you are constantly learning and your horsemanship is constantly improving. Being a student is much more preferable to being a master in my view.

So my advice is to be fearless and be smart. Think critically what you learn from others and what you teach yourself and be fearless about putting everything to the test. Try new and inventive ideas. Fear of making a mistake is not an option for people who want to practice good horsemanship.

Here I am fearlessly trying to figure out what the hell I’m going to do next to help this horse!

Ross scratching head


A Horse's Attention

Here are some interesting ideas from Charles de Kunffy who is considered by some to be a dressage master.


The Story Of Satan - Ch 23

The winter had passed by like an unwelcome visitor making the warmth and bright colours of spring a tonic elixir to invigorate daily life. The horses were feeling well, I had just received a promotion and one of my closest friends from Canada was coming to holiday. I lived in Canada a few years beforehand and made some wonderful friends that I missed very much. It was never enough to catch up every couple of years at some international symposium because you were always surrounded by work and the talk was always shoptalk. Even the evening dinners and drinks were about work. So I was really looking forward to Ben’s visit, even though I knew we would not be able to completely avoid talking about placental cell lines and IGF receptors.

With Ben’s stay and the preparation for examinations and honour theses needing to be read, there was no time for horses. Even the horse that had been sent to me by a friend for starting under saddle vegetated in the paddock for a few weeks with little more than a pat every few days. I actually didn’t mind too much. As much as the horses are important to me, it’s nice to take a break. I was feeling at times that I had been doing so much with the horses that it was starting to lose its glitter. Turning a passion into a job has its pitfalls.

A few days after life had settled down, I got the urge to take a couple of horses out for a ride. There were no theses needing to be read. There was no committee report or research paper needing to be submitted. Ben had returned home to life in Ontario. The breeze was light and the sun was bright.

I decided to ride Chops and lead Satts up the road and across the Harkaway road towards Cardinia reservoir. Being early on a Sunday the traffic was light. The ride was particularly uneventful, but lots of fun. Even the appearance of a couple of wallabies bounding out from behind a stand of trees did not cause the horses alarm. Considering how little attention either horse had been getting lately they behaved “above and beyond” as they say.

I had already unhaltered Chops and let her go and was about to do the same with Satts, when I noticed a small lump on the side of his right nostril. I tried to feel for a thorn or insect bite, but it just seemed like a swelling inside the flap of nostril tissue. I figured an ant or small spider had bitten him.

That ride to the reservoir had given me back the bug to ride more. It was time to start breaking in the horse my friend had sent me. I knew there was no hurry and I could take my time. My friend was a nervous rider, so I wanted to be sure to take particular care to give her back a really quiet horse.

A week later I was in the round yard with the horse. I spent a couple of weeks here and there doing some groundwork and filling in the gaps that had been left in the mare. She was a sweet natured animal and I was sure she would be as close to perfect as I could expect for my friend. I just hoped my friend could be just as perfect for the mare.

Before it was time to begin riding the mare I decided to introduce Satts to the process. My plan was to ride Satts and do some ground work with the mare to get her okay with having a person above her eye. At first Satts indicated he didn’t like the mare. I guess he had been out of work for too long and had forgotten his manners and his job. I let the lead rope attached to the mare drop to the ground and spent a few minutes reminding Satts how to be a workhorse. He seemed a little reluctant to let go of his thoughts about the mare. Every time I asked something of him he was late in responding because his attention was on her rather than on me. I made a mental note to get some more hours on Satts over the coming days to tune him up.

Finally Satts was in a slightly better frame of mind to continue with the mare. He was still late at times and seemed too interested in her, but I had enough of a handle on him to get the job done. The mare quickly understood that having me above her eye was nothing to worry about. She learned to accept when I swung my leg over the seat of her saddle while I remained seated on Satts. The thing that worried her most was bumping her flanks with my leg. But with Satts’ help she came through like the smart and good-natured horse she was.

When the session was over and I was unsaddling both horses I noticed that Satts had knocked his head on the mare. There was a slight trickle of blood from his nostril. Clearly it was only a small injury and he didn’t seem to pull away when I touched it. I chose to ignore it.

It was the time of year when I always had the dentist visit for my horses. It was a ritual that at the same time of year Mick would come out and attend to the three horses. It worked out perfectly for me that he was coming because I wanted him to float the mare’s teeth. I always had a dentist check the teeth of every breaker before I rode them in a snaffle. It was one of the few golden rules I had about horses.

Mick arrived on the Thursday evening on his way home from a day of dentistry at Caulfield where he had worked on twenty-seven horses. I knew he’d be tired and so I figured he should do the mare first while he was at his freshest. Mick was excellent at handling first-time and difficult horses. He was patient and let them try whatever antics they felt they needed to try. But when they were ready, he was ready. There was hardly any dust kicked up or airs above the ground. This is how he was with the mare. He chose not to use the gag for her first time. Mick put his left hand in her mouth and followed her as she walked backwards into the corner of the yard. When she felt the rail pressed into her hind end, she stopped arguing and finally allowed him to do what was needed. I couldn’t have been more pleased with her. Even Mick made a comment about her being a very nice mare - this coming from a man who gave out compliments like Ebenezer Scrooge gave presents at Christmas.

After he finished with the mare I left him with Satts while I led my friend’s horse back to her yard. I knew he would be okay with Satts. I was about to step into another yard to halter the next horse for him when I heard Mick ask, “D’ya know he has a lump on his nose?”

“Yeah, I noticed one about three weeks ago. Is it still there? I thought it was probably an insect bite. It’s pretty small so I’m not worried about it,” I said.

“I dunno Ross. It doesn’t look so small to me. I’d keep an eye on it, “ Mick responded.

I went over and had a good look at the lump. It was probably three times the size when I last noticed it. There was no tenderness, no scab.

“Does it look like a tumour to you, Mick?”

“I couldn’t say. But it’s probably nothing. Maybe a reaction to something? Just keep tabs on it and maybe have ya vet look at it the next time he comes out,” Mick suggested.

I made a mental note to check it often.

Every few days I gave Satts a light workout. The lump didn’t appear to be changing much, which gave me peace of mind not to worry so much. A few weeks later I had arranged to go for a ride with one of my neighbours. Like me, she didn’t have people to ride with her, so every few months we would make a date to ride together. We loaded the horses into the float and drove to some bushland in Gembrook. We both took sick days from work and because it was a weekday we had the trails to ourselves. It was a perfect sunny day made for enjoying a ride.

Both Satts and Megan’s horse were great. There is no riding more fun for me than to wander through the bush, enjoying the bird songs and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. We had been riding for about ninety minutes when Megan challenged me to a race. The last one to the fallen down gum tree at the next corner had to buy cappuccinos on the way home. It was a distance of about four hundred metres. I knew Satts would fly past Megan’s Anglo Arab as if it was standing still, but I only felt a slight twinge of guilt when I said “okay.”

Of course Megan cheated and said “go” even before I had gathered up my reins. Nevertheless, I put the pedal to the metal and Satts took off like he was shot out of a cannon. I figured we would pass Megan in the first hundred metres. I was surprised how fast her little mare was going. Satts was struggling to make ground on her. By about half way we were nearly at the mares tail when she began to pull away again. I urged Satts to go faster, but nothing was happening. It felt like the tank was empty. I gave him a solid kick with my heels, but he just kept lagging. In fact, Megan was getting further ahead. As hard as I tried, Satts couldn’t find the acceleration he was renowned for as a racehorse. Finally we reached the fallen tree where Megan was waiting for us with a grin too big for her face. Her horse was puffing, but Satts felt ready for a lay down. He was sweating and puffing like he had run a Melbourne Cup race. I knew something was not quite right with him. He was breathing very hard and I suspected he might have a cold or respiratory infection.

Megan looked ready to boast.

“Okay, you win. I’ll buy you that coffee…” I said.

The grin on her face drained away.

“What’s wrong,” I asked?

“It’s Satts. Look at Satts. He’s bleeding.”

“What? What do mean he’s bleeding?”

I jumped off and saw a trail of blood from his nostril down his muzzle and dripping off his lips. I felt a moment of panic. This was more than a trickle. Hell! What was I to do?

“Megan, go back as quick as you can and get the car and float. I’ll meet you at the corner near where the dam is.”

Satts and I got to the meeting place long before Megan. I had plenty of time to imagine the worse was happening. The flow of blood had slowed to almost a stop. I washed his face with water from the dam. Maybe he just burst a few nasal capillaries like any normal nosebleed. Or maybe he had a tumour. But I guess it could be a cold or some pneumonia type infection. He was breathing normal again. I checked his gums to confirm his blood refill time was normal. And his pulse indicated he had a normal heart rate. It seems Satts was not in too bad a shape. As time passed I realized my initial reaction was an over reaction.

Megan arrived with the float in tow and we headed straight home. The coffees were long forgotten.

I decided to keep Satts in a stable overnight and brought Chops up to the adjacent stall for company, which did not impress the paddock princess very much.

During the night I lay awake running scenarios through my mind trying to solve the riddle of Satts’ bleeding. I’m a physiologist for crying our loud. I work in medical research. I should be able to solve this. But unfortunately I was not a diagnostician. I did not know about diseases and I did not know how to diagnose them.

The next morning I called my vet early. He said he’d be out after lunch to see Satts. This meant phoning into work and cancelling appointments with another sick day excuse. Satts had only eaten about half of the feed he’d been given overnight. This was particularly uncharacteristic of him. Satts had always been a good eater, even as far back as the day he first arrived breathing fire from both nostrils. I knew there was nothing wrong with the food because Chops had eaten all of hers and was even eyeing off the hay in Satts’ hay net as if to ask, “Are you going to finish that?”

The vet finally arrived around mid afternoon. He checked Satts’ vital signs and confirmed that everything appeared normal. But the lump on his nostril did appear suspicious to him. I was drilled with twenty questions about how long it had been there, if it had grown much, had I noticed other lumps? Satts was a grey horse and greys are notorious for developing melanoma tumours in all sorts of body parts including noses. He gave Satts a thorough going over for other odd lumps, particularly under his tail and around his penis and sheath. But no obvious signs of tumours were visible. I got a strong sense that the vet was not able to put all the symptoms that Satts exhibited into one story. In the end he decided to take a biopsy from the lump in Satts’ nostril and send it off for expert examination. This would give us the answer as to whether or not it was a tumour and should I be worried about it.

I waited almost a week to get a phone call from my vet. Meanwhile I returned Satts back to the paddock with his friends to enjoy the warm weather. He seemed less interested in life and I often saw him on his own just standing around or reclining on the ground. He had a growing tendency to leave food in his bucket for LJ or Chops to finish. He was not okay. I knew no matter what the biopsy result might tell me something was wrong.

I was in my office discussing some results with my research assistant when the phone call came from the vet. He said the lump was not cancerous. My worst fears melted away instantly and I almost hung up the phone without waiting to hear the rest of the report.

“So what it is Neil?” I asked.

“They sectioned the tissue and stained different sections for different markers. The only result was a positive stain for amyloid. The pathologist said the tissue lit up like a city at night for amyloid.”

“Amyloid? That’s a protein, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Neil answered.

“Well, what does it mean then?” was my next question.

“Ross, he has amyloidosis. The production of amyloid within the cell goes haywire and out of control and the cell over produces the protein. Nobody knows what causes it. The cell fills up with amyloid and enlarges. In simple terms it chokes the function of the cell.”

“What do we do about it?” I asked.

“There is no cure. He will get worse. It will eventually spread through all his vital organs and one by one they’ll shut down. You tell me he has become lethargic and off his food. This indicates to me he already has developed lumps on his kidney and liver and maybe even his heart. I suspect when he bled the other day, it was coming from lumps either in his airways or his lungs. I’d like to come out and scope his airways to confirm the diagnosis. I’m sorry, but if I’m right there is nothing anyone can do. He will continue to get worse and you’ll have to consider putting him down at some point.”

I hung up the phone feeling numb. I told Jan we would finish looking at the results the next day and she left so I could take in what I had just been told. She later told me I sat motionless at my desk for over an hour. I had no idea how long it was before I left to go home. I have no memory of the drive. The only memory I have of the rest of that day is hanging over the gate looking at Satts lazily grazing. I was there until it was too dark to see anymore.

I had made a time for the vet to scope Satts the following Saturday morning. His examination confirmed there were several lumps lining Satts’ upper airways.

Now that I had a definitive diagnosis I knew I had to call my father with the news of his horse. Dad loved Satts. Every phone call I had with him in the past couple of years required a two minute summary of a week in the life of Satts. And dad never failed to tell me once again about the time Satts won a race at Canterbury or how a jockey boasted to him about what a great horse Satts was to ride or some other tale that would ensure the legend of Satts would be whispered around campfires for millennium to come.

Needless to say my father was very upset with the news of his horse’s illness. He offered to pay for any medical treatment or care needed. I think he was hoping there was a cure to be found if we just searched hard enough.

I had stopped riding Satts immediately and allowed him to live the life of a retired gentleman. Over the weeks it was obvious he was losing weight and even with the amount of food I was trying to pump into him his illness was winning the battle. The lump on his nose had drastically increased in size and I noticed some lumps had developed under the skin of his neck.

One morning I picked some not quite ripe apples from the tree behind my house. I knew the horses would enjoy a treat. I stood at the gate and called them. From the bottom of the hill there was a thunder of hoofs. LJ and Chops headed my way in a hurry. Satts was trotting not too far behind. As I gave each of them a piece of apple, I heard a rasping sound coming from the big grey. He was out of breath and wheezing. I made sure he got some special attention and extra apple.

I called Neil the vet.

“Ross, I’m sorry but that wheezing sound is because the lumps of amyloid have become so enlarged that they are interfering with his ability to get enough air. He’s gasping for his breath.”

It was time for Satts to be given rest. I didn’t want to call the guy with the gun and the truck. I have never been good at losing friends. But losing Satts would be the hardest of all. Too much had happened to get where we were. We had gone from being each other’s biggest challenge to being best friends. From combatives to companions. How could I let him go?

The guy arrived with his well-used rifle. He smooched with Satts for a short time then lined him up for the shot. I saw the trust and softness in Satts’ eyes. What a long journey he had made from the savage horse known as Satan to the horse standing quietly in front of the man with the gun. With a sudden burst of noise Satts was gone. My heart cracked opened with emptiness. It was like opening a door to a room filled with your dreams but finding the room is empty.

After the man took Satts away and left the only sign that he ever existed - a congealed patch of blood on the ground - I went into the house. I pulled out the box of photos that was covered with dust under the stairs. One by one I went through each and put aside my collection of Satts pictures. I then took out an old book of blank pages and began to make a scrapbook about Satts. Tears kept dropping onto the images as I placed each one. By the time I positioned the last photo I cried my last tear. My memories of Satts had a new home where I could find them any time I needed a smile.

The photo is of Satts after winning a race at Rosehill, Sydney 1991.

Satts Rosehill


The Story Of Satan - Ch 22

Soon after the few sessions of Satts working with LJ a new horse arrived on the property. It was a 13-hand pony Highland cross that my landlord had purchased for his daughter to learn to ride. It was a classic Thelwell pony – huge barrel of a body on stubby little legs, an overgrown mane that needed tending with a hedge trimmer and a head that was two sizes too small for its body. Its name was Basil, which says it all in my book.

Basil had been owned and ridden by a teenage girl at the monthly pony club rallies. The girl had recently had an excess production of growth hormone and mum decided it was time for her to upgrade to 15.3 hand Thoroughbred mare. So Basil had to go.

My landlord asked me to put a little time into the pony before his daughter rode because he had been left to rot in a paddock for the previous six months. I saw this as an opportunity to once again give Satts more practice at working other horses. I really enjoyed riding Satts when I was training horses, so working the pony was an excuse to have some fun.

Basil gave Satts plenty of practice of working with spoiled ponies that didn’t want to move and that sometimes let you know what they thought of you with their threatening gestures. At one point Satts was nailed by Basil in his flank. There was no harm done, but it shocked both Satts and I. He certainly was a brat of a pony who had been spoiled into believing his manure had no odour. But I was grateful for being able to give Satts the experience. After a few sessions I told my landlord that he should send the pony back because he was unsuitable for his daughter whose entire life experience amounted to no more than thirty or so rides.

Progress with Satts was interrupted for nearly two months after this. I was booked to speak at a conference in the USA and then spend six weeks at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh doing some collaborative research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I was looking forward to the trip. It was an opportunity to catch up with long time friends and also to get my hands on some rare cell lines that I had been wanting to culture in my own laboratory for the past three years. Nevertheless, it was a long time to be away and horseless.

I was fortunate that one of the girls in the lab was happy to housesit for me. She lived with her parents and was glad of the chance to move into my house and be on her own when I went on trips. I knew the dogs and the cats and the horses would be in good hands with Wendy.

After my return I was swamped with ‘catch-up’ jobs at the university. For two weeks my phone was constantly ringing, students and colleagues were lined up in the corridor outside my door to talk to me about things they needed me to do or things I should have done before I went on my trip. Plus in my absence I had been volunteered to chair a PhD advisory committee in the department. Add to that was the pressure to analyze the enormous amount of data I collected in Scotland and have it ready for publication before the next grants were due for submission. In all it was probably another month of being back home before I had a chance to work with any of the horses.

On about the sixth Wednesday since being home I was in the operating theatre making small talk with the crew while catheterizing a fetal sheep. The surgical technician, Cheryl, asked, “Are you going to ride in Riding of The Bounds?”

“What’s that,” I asked?

“You know. It’s when everybody rides their horse around the outskirts of Berwick. They close off the streets to traffic and people ride around the northern boundary and through the main street. They do it every year.”

“I’ve never heard of it. That sounds like fun. How do I find out about it,” I asked?

“I’ll bring in a cut out from the newspaper tomorrow. It’s got all the details and contact. But be prepared ‘cause some of the people don’t have much control of their horses. It can get a bit out chaotic,” Cheryl said.

I checked the dates and rang the organizers. It seems it is a tradition that goes back to Berwick in Scotland of riding the boundary to watch for invasion by crazy clansmen from other tribes. Somebody obviously thought it was a good idea to bring the tradition to Berwick, Victoria because of the problems they have with hoards of invading tribes.

The ride was scheduled for the following weekend. I hadn’t had any time with the horses since going overseas. I guess I could take LJ because he was the quietest, but I worried about his knees on the hard bitumen roads. I decided that I’d ride Satts and bugger how he goes. If he plays up, so be it. It will be good experience for him. He hadn’t been in a big crowd since his racing days, but I was sure he wouldn’t be the worst behaved horse on the day.

I managed to get one ride on Satts before the big day at Berwick. He was okay, but he was not at his best. On the Saturday morning I loaded him into the trailer and trundled the 20 minutes into Berwick. The parking area was at Arkoonah Park and it was chockers with horses and floats.

I unloaded Satts and tied him to the side of the float while I checked in with the stewards and got my gear ready from the car. Satts was on edge. He leaked energy from every corner. I had never seen his eyes grow so large as they did at the sight of a mini horse pulling a sulky. There were people riding like the man from Snow River with stock whips in hand. There were three kids riding one pony. I saw horses of every size, colour and breed. I saw people in fancy dress from period to clown costumes. And there were loud hailers – boy those loud hailers were loud.

I figured it would be the smart thing to do to ready Satts with some groundwork before the ride began. I found a small space in which to work and as we worked the space grew much larger. In those days groundwork was almost unknown. It was considered that anything more than lunging a horse was wasted time on the ground. People would stop and watch what I was doing, but nobody asked. They would stare, whisper to their friends and then walk away. I did my best to ignore them and concentrate on tuning Satts up to be more attentive to me and less to the mini horses and the other 200 or so equines.

Satts surprised me how well he was doing. He had been out of work for almost three months and add to that the large number of horses and activity, I was expecting more of the ‘old’ Satts. It crossed my mind that maybe one ride every three months was enough work to get the best from him.

The steward asked everyone to gather to begin the ride. Satts and I were stuck somewhere in the middle of the crowd. There was considerable bustle around us and a couple of horses only a few yards away had decided to have a kicking competition. This created a big push outward and we were jostled along as others tried to stay clear of the kicking horses. The riders were also at loggerheads as they cursed at each other for not controlling their horses.

The leaders of the pack had already been moving for a few minutes before the wave reached us and we could begin our trek. I spied a buggy with one horse and two people off to our right and chose to head towards them. I wanted Satts to follow in behind the buggy to gain confidence that like the horses in the round yard, he could move these dangerous looking contraptions with his presence. At first he was not sure, but he relaxed considerable as he learned that the buggy kept moving out of his space.

People were lining the footpaths to wave at the riders. Every amateur photographer was out that day. I stopped while somebody took our picture and was bumped hard from behind by a horse jogging sideways. “Sorry” was the voice of the rider and she continued sideways up the street knocking other horses out of her path. It was like watching bumper cars at the carnival.

I was very pleased how relaxed Satts was walking. He was probably the most “together” horse on the ride. A young girl on a palomino rode up beside me.

“He’s beautiful,” she said. “What’s his name?”

“Thanks. He was named Satan, but I call him Satts. I like your pony too.”

“Can I pat him?”


She leaned over and stroked the side of his neck and mane.

“Mum, look at this horse. This is the colour I want for my next horse,” the girl had turned and was speaking to an older lady behind us. I thought every girl grew up wanting a palomino and here I found the one girl with a palomino who wants a grey.

As the ride continued I noticed the throng of horses had thinned out. Several people had pulled out because their horses were too fractious during the ride to continue. It seemed that by the end of the two-hour ride there were two categories of horses. Ones that lost fifty kilograms in tension-induced sweat and ones that looked like they had spent the day with their feet up reading the newspaper. There were hardly any horses in between. I was proud of the fact that Satts was one of those that looked like he had an afternoon nap.

When everybody completed the ride there was a presentation in the car park. I decided not to hang around and get Satts home as soon as possible. As I was unsaddling and sorting out the gear several people stopped by and congratulated me on what a nice horse Satts was and how calm and he had been. I exchanged small talk and thanked them as I packed the car.

All was ready for the trip home. I led Satts around to the back of the float and asked him to walk up the ramp. He hesitated and took a step back. I repeated my request and again he stepped back. What the hell was this about? He never baulked at loading. I slapped my chaps with the end of the lead rope and put a feel in the rope to indicate for him to go forward. He hesitated again, then stepped a front foot on the ramp. The moment he heard the sound of his hoof on the wood, he jumped in the air and leaped backwards. The folks who had congratulated me on how well Satts had done were watching. I tried to smile but under my breath I was saying “c’mon you bastard – don’t do this to me now!” I turned to the people and said, “He obviously had a good time and doesn’t want to go home – haha.”

I took a firm hold of the lead rope for Satts to come straight ahead towards me. He leaned back against the pressure and I slapped my chaps again and again, waiting for him to stopping leaning back. At first he pulled even harder, but I persisted with whacking my leg until he made a half-hearted attempt to come forward. We rested and I stroked his neck. I led him up to the base of the ramp and then stepped out in front facing him. I urged him forward towards me as I walked backwards up the ramp. He again hesitated, but I held firm. I sensed he was worried about going under the roof, so I put a downward pressure on the rope to encourage him to lower his head. When he gave to the feel of the rope, he was able to take a couple of steps forward. I stopped him and stroked his neck again. Then I backed him out.

“D’ya want a hand mate,” a voice from the small crowd boomed? “Ya don’t want to let him out. He needs to go all the way in and ya don’t let him out til he does otherwise he thinks he’s won.”

“Thanks anyway, but I’ll be right,” I said.

“Here mate, I’ll herd him up from behind and get him loaded for ya.” As the words came out of his mouth he charged towards Satts flapping his arms, clapping his hands and yelling ”here ya, here ya.”

I immediately went into protector mode.

“Look thanks mate, but I’ll do it my way. Don’t be coming up behind him scaring him. Leave it to me, thanks.”

The fellow turned with a shrug and I heard him say to the others as he walked away, “bloody mug.”

I again asked Satts to lower his head and walk up the ramp. As he approached the edge of the roof he tried to raise his neck and stopped. I blocked his head from going higher and directed him forward. After a moment of indecision he walked all the way to the front where he discovered a net of lucerne hay waiting for him. This was enough for him to forget about me as I walked out and locked the ramp shut. The drive home was uneventful even though it took about twenty minutes to crawl through the traffic jam of the car park.

During the trip home I was mad at myself for not thinking about Satts and the height of the float. I always knew from day one that the float was too small for Satts. But he had learned to load and travel so well that I figured we were getting away with it. But clearly I was only getting by due to Satts’ good nature. He showed today that he was not happy about the smallness of the float and he had come to the end of his patience with it. Enough was enough were his thoughts.

Satts had been going so well since coming back from racing that I felt a lot of pride in the work I had done. He had done everything I asked and always had a “try”. In my mind The Riding of the Bounds in Berwick had confirmed to me what a great horse he was and what a good job I had done with his training. But the floating loading episode had reminded me I was a bloody idiot who didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about horses. It is a story that has repeated itself over and over in my life. When things are going well with the horses I start to believe I know what I’m doing, then something always happens that reminds me that I’m an idiot who doesn’t have a clue.

This video clip is a news report taken recently of Riding Of The Bounds. It appears a lot less chaotic in the video than in real life and with a lot more horses and riders.


The Story Of Satts - Ch 21

My work at the university had not given me a lot of time to spend with Satts in the past week. For some mysterious reason, academics liked to have staff meetings at 7:30 in the morning. But even harder on my puny metabolism were obstetric rounds. They were held at the hospital every week and they always started at 7am! Unfortunately, my collaboration with several obstetricians required me to attend. For somebody who lived about an hours drive from work, that makes it near impossible to get anything done before work.

Nevertheless, I managed to squeeze twenty minutes or so after work with the horses over the next several days. I repeated the flagging work with Satts and Chops. Each day Satts gained in confidence and I even think he quite liked having the roles reversed where now Chops had to get out of his way.

I decided Satts was ready to begin training for working close in with Chops. This meant having Chops on the end of the lead rope and using Satts to help direct her. It’s not just a matter of leading her around from Satts – although that’s part of it. But more important than that is being able to direct her shoulders and her hindquarters in any way I choose. Stepping her back, bringing her forward, getting a lateral bend, side passing, changing direction, lunging etc are all part of working close in with a horse. It’s no different than if I was working Chops while standing on my own two feet, but in this case Satts’ feet are doing the job of my feet.

This part of a working horse’s job is the hardest because it requires them to be at their most confident and most attentive to the job. Sometimes you need them to be so subtle that a just a shift of weight will get the job done and other times you need them to get in the middle and create a dust storm. Your horse has to be ready and willing for those things at a moments notice. A saddle horse also needs to be brave because they are almost always within striking range of a client’s horse when working in close. They can get bitten, bumped off balance, stood on, kicked and climbed upon by a client’s horse. Just a few years ago my horse, Riley had a splint bone fractured by a client’s horse. A friend of mine has had a client’s horse try to climb over the top of his workhorse and into the saddle. It takes guts and confidence for your working horse to tolerate those kinds of antics and still be trying to get on with the job. I was sure Satts had the potential to be one of the best.

Giving Satts the experience of working in close with another horse was made really easy by Chops. She was already very good on the lead rope and not bothered by being close enough to rub the hair off Satts. But Satts still had his doubts. Every time I asked Satts to walk into Chops to move her away, his feet became a little more stuck and ears flattened. He was not sure this was a good idea. He had learned it was okay to move into her from a distance because the flag was always there to make sure Chops got out of the way. But it was a different story when she was so close that she could turn her tail and kick him. I figured that all he needed was more confidence and I did all that I could to help. When I asked Satts to move into Chops’ hindquarters, I put a good feel in the lead rope to let her know she needed to disengage her hind end. Just as Satts took a tentative step towards Chops, her hind end yielded away from him. I stopped Satts and scratched under his neck. I repeated the exercise again and again. I don’t know if Satts knew I was helping with the lead rope, but soon he was boldly pushing on Chops without holding back.

It went even smoother when we worked on moving her shoulders across. Again I did my best to assist and it only took half the time for Satts to feel confident that he could drive Chops’ front away. I was soon having Satts help me direct Chops from a forehand yield to a hindquarter yield and another forehand yield without pause. Once he realized he was not going to get nailed by Chops he seemed to relish the job. Over the next few days, Satts was learning how to be a real help to me. I was soon able to side pass Satts into Chops and push her away. Chops could lunge around us and Satts stand there like the centre upright of a maypole.

For me, one of the hardest things about training a horse to work other horses is to keep my riding horse soft and responsive. It is the nature of having one horse under you and another on the end of a lead rope or lariat that causes you to divide your attention. This is especially true during times when there is a lot of activity in the arena. It is easy to be oblivious to the feel of your reins when you have another horse pulling the lariat out of your hand or to forget to take your legs off your horse when the other horse is standing on two back legs. These are things that you might never do if it was just you and your riding horse. But with another horse in the mix that’s acting like it is the end of the world, sometimes your saddle horse suffers for you lack of attention to them.

This is where a good horse learns the job. When a horse knows what is going on, they can also learn to know what is expected of them. Some people call this “filling in”, where the horse knows what he has to do and just gets it done with or without your help. You see this all the time among eventers, jumpers, roping horses, milk delivery cart horses, working cow horses, etc. It’s this ability that allows my horse to do what I need even though my reins and my legs might be getting in the way. He knows what I need and will get it done in spite of me. Satts was going to prove to be great at this without taking over and ignoring when I really needed him to listen. But that’s for later. Right now he needed more experience.

That experience was going to be my older and tougher horse, LJ. As I have described before, LJ was the herd boss. He was tough, but not mean. Chops did the entire running around keeping the herd manageable. LJ rarely lifted a hoof because he didn’t need to. But when he did speak the ground shook, thunder clapped and the skies turned dark. This was not to say that LJ was a difficult horse to handle or ride. He was great and I knew that with my help, Satts was ready for him. But he was a strong minded and determined horse. When he had a thought, it was difficult to convince him that there were better options or even other options.

I began with flag work again. It proved to be really easy and comfortable for Satts, which was the idea. LJ knew how to yield to the pressure of the flag and was not at all intimidated by Satts. But the work on the lead rope was a little more challenging. While LJ was good with following the feel of the lead rope, he was less than forgiving of the big grey gelding moving into his space. This was a new experience for LJ and he felt it needed sorting out. I had to remind him a few times with the feel of the lead rope that his priority was to give to it and not be concerned with anything going on with Satts. Likewise, Satts needed to be reminded several times that when I picked up a rein or applied a leg aid, it had importance and he needed to listen to it rather than be anxious about LJ’s threats. Once I even had to let the lead rope drop to the ground in order to firm up on Satts listening to my leg. I spent nearly a minute reminding him what the leg aid meant. When the discussion was over, I trotted over to LJ, leant down and collected the lead rope and tried again. Satts’ response was much better.

The real test came a little later when I set it up so that LJ was standing ninety degrees to us. I asked Satts to walk into LJ’s hindquarters. I wanted him to push on the horse and knock him off balance. I had enough feel on the lead rope that if LJ felt the need to defend himself against Satts I could interrupt up with a swift bump down the line. It is important that a working horse learn to bump against another horse when it is required. Some horses will plant their feet and not budge when they are either confused or overly stressed. If that happens sometimes you want your saddle horse to be able to push against them to break the idea of freezing up. It’s a big ask for a horse that is either new to the game or lacks confidence. So you can imagine my excitement when Satts used his chest to bump into LJ’s flank and throw him off balance. Initially there was some hesitation by Satts to step into LJ on a collision course. He held back against my leg, as if to ask was I sure? But with some minor reassurance and a little more insistence, Satts nudged LJ like a bumper car. I think Satts was just as surprised as LJ when LJ lost his balance and swung his hindquarters out the way. It proved to be a very big moment for Satts because it gave him the confidence to soon try offering most things I asked with little or no hesitation.

I repeated the exercise several times from either side and I could feel the confidence in Satts growing. Soon I even had LJ on the lariat and was allowing the rope to wrap around Satts’ rear end and legs. Satts initially jumped around to find a way out of the tangled mess, which was a good way to remind me of the athleticism of the horse. But his mind was so settled that he was soon able to think his way out of the tangles. When LJ ran behind Satts and the rope tightened around his tail, Satts learned to step his hindquarters in the direction of LJ and release himself from the pressure. This was one smart horse. The level of cool-headedness that he revealed gave me the confidence that Satts could be the best working horse I had ever seen.

I was later proved right. About a year later I was sent a big Clydesdale/thoroughbred cross mare that was very difficult to lead. She had a penchant for running off whenever she felt she had had enough. It was a trick that she learned well because nobody could hold her and she was constantly rewarded in her flight response. Dozens of rope burns had taught the owner to drop the leap rope the instant she felt the mare get ready to leave. This taught the mare it was okay to pull away for the most trivial of concerns.

The mare weighed about 150+ kg more than Satts, but I figured if I handled the rope right he could handle her. I knew I would need my longest rope, so reluctantly I threw the loop of my sixty-foot lariat over the mare’s head. She immediately took off before I could dally the lariat to the horn of my saddle. It swizzed through my hand and I felt the burning by the time I got a couple of wraps around the horn. The mare had travelled about twenty-five feet and pulled up with a jerk that caused Satts to buckle at the knees and stumble forward. The mare hit so hard that it was only by the grace of a sturdy rear cinch that I didn’t get catapulted out of the saddle.

The mare stood looking at us with a confused expression. She must have wondered how we stopped her from so far away. I side passed Satts towards her and coiled my rope as we approached. I was hoping to get a hand on her neck, but by the time we got within twelve feet she took off straight again. I turned Satts ninety degrees and dallied my rope at the same time. This time I managed to slide my rope a little so that she didn’t hit the end like a wall. This was kinder on her and on Satts. Nevertheless, Satts still shuddered and lurched when the rope tightened. I’m sure she still didn’t know what stopped her.

I repeated the process of approaching her and then dallying my rope to the saddle horn when she left in a hurry. By about the sixth or seventh time, I felt Satts brace himself for the inevitable crunch that was to come when the mare hit the end of the rope. He would lower himself and spread his legs slightly, like he was hunkering down. I can only sympathize at the dread he must have felt every time he saw that mare ran off. But by about the fifteenth time the mare began to slow down. She still left in a hurry, but the urgency of her flight response was beginning to diminish. This gave me hope that the mare was starting to make a change just at the time when I began to think she would never get it. I think it was somewhere between number twenty five and thirty of her leaving that for the very first time she stopped her feet before the rope became tight. She felt the slack being taken out and she stopped running. It took a few more sessions (without Satts) before the mare was reliable to lead and didn’t try to bolt away anymore. But my biggest concern was Satts, not the mare.

Satts had taken a beating. The next day his wither was swollen and bruised. It was hot and tender to touch. I gave him nearly three weeks rest before saddling him again. And I didn’t have him work another horse for more than two months. But the episode with the mare proved to me what a great horse he was. Nobody could have blamed him if he had quit in the middle of working the mare. He was working far outside his weight class with a mare than would not give up. His body and his mind were being pummelled, yet he gave no sign of objecting. In my book he was a very special horse.

I thought this was a great photo of three mates hanging out taken in 1921. It reminded me of how I feel about all my horses.

A Girl, a Dog and a Horse (1921)


The Story Of Satan - Ch 20

My plan was to get Satts prepared to work other horses. Breaking in and training can be hard on the body for a fragile little flower like myself. Although I have never been seriously hurt by a horse and never had any injuries worse than big ugly bruises, it is still a physically demanding way to spend your day. You get pulled around, so your shoulders ache. You’re always exerting yourself in positions that strain your back. Your knees get worked overtime with all those hours in the saddle and your legs become weary from miles of traipsing through sand arenas. And that’s not counting the rope burns, the crushed toes and the love bites. So being able to work from a horse that can take a lot of the physical strain for you is something any trainer can appreciate.

My other horses were able to do the job to some extent, but they were not ideal. LJ was getting too old and his knees could not take being worked more than a few days in a row. Chops was only 14hh and although she was wonderful to ride she was too small to stop a 16.2hh Clydesdale ready to leave the scene at high speed. Besides, I had really screwed up early on when teaching her to work other horses. She was proving to be great at first. I was so impressed with her boldness for such a sensitive horse that I got greedy and pushed her into working tough horses too early. She had helped me with about half a dozen settled horses and had taken to the work with gusto. But then a lady sent me an Anglo Arab gelding that was pretty sure of himself. He commanded all within his sight. I found him difficult to get moving forward when working him from the ground. So one day I rode into the round yard on Chops with a flag in my hand. Bruno came up to Chops like he was going to initiate her into his harem and I bopped him on the nose with the flag. I then started to direct him around the yard at a trot. Chops was doing terrific and listening well. But Bruno was not putting much effort into moving. I manoeuvred Chops to come alongside his hip about 2 metres to the inside and I flapped the flag. Bruno flung his head in our direction as if to tell me where I could put the flag. Then I raised the flag high and came down pretty hard on his rump. Bruno jumped forward, spun around and charged at Chops. I managed to bop him across the nose again, but Chops was turning and heading for the hills. She got nailed in the hip. I kept trying to flag Bruno away from us while at the same time trying to get Chops to turn to face him. I guess it would have been comical if I hadn’t been in the middle of it. Eventually, Bruno backed off and Chops stopped trying to escape over the fence.

That one mistake of presenting Chops with a horse like Bruno too early in her career and at the same time pushing Bruno too hard, was the ruin of her. After that, she was only good for working horses that were pretty quiet. She lost her confidence and if a horse threatened her she would back off no matter how much I pushed her into the fray. It was a mistake I promised I would never repeat with Satts.

Now that Satts was back in work and I had been riding him quietly around the paddocks and the horse trails, I could feel him gaining the focus he had lost while playing at being a racehorse. I could also see that he was becoming physically stronger. The ligament injury that had forced his retirement from racing did not seem to bother him at all.

I began introducing him to the things I would need him to know and be okay about in his new life as a working horse. I had already taught him how to neck rein before he left for racing, so I was ahead of the game in that respect. But I needed him to be good about being ridden with a flag and have that flag flapping like a politician’s gums around his head and his body. He needed to see it change sides and still not be bothered. He had to be okay when I picked it up from the fence and when I dropped it on the ground. He had to know when I was directing the flag to something else and he was to ignore it or when I was directing the flag at him and he need to know how to respond. I spent a lot of time shaking that flag at gates and trees trying to get them to move and then suddenly turn the energy of the flag towards Satts and get him to move from it and then back to the tree or stump. He needed to know the difference between when the flag was talking to him and he needed to do something and when it was talking to another horse and he didn’t need to bother about it. It sure helps to have a smart horse!

Another project was to get Satts feeling unbothered when I threw a rope from his back. He needed to be settled if I swung a loop above his head, around his side and when I threw it 5 metres away on the ground or at a post. The flag work helped prepare him well for this task. The hardest thing about the lariat for Satts was not to tuck his tail and run when the lariat got under his tail. This really bothered him and I spent quite a bit of time getting him to accept a rope grabbing tight around his hind end. The big breakthrough came when I taught him to back up into the loop around his rear. He discovered that when he backed up into the rope I released the tension in the rope. It was his way of controlling the rope. Although I had no intention of roping Satts’ bum, it has been known that when you have another horse on the end of your rope, it can occasionally position itself behind your saddle horse before you have time to do anything about it. More than one trainer has been bucked off their super quiet and experienced saddle horse when this has happened. I knew it could never happen to me (…again), but I figured it was best to be prepared.

Then it came time to get Satts okay with dragging a tarpaulin, a jump rail, a horse rug, tyre etc. This proved a bigger challenge than the rope training. I started on the ground with dragging a chaff bag on the end of my lariat. Satts took to this pretty quickly. From both sides and with all sorts of objects to drag, Satts was doing great – even at a canter. But the real challenge was when the object was being dragged along the ground from in front of him. If I faced him to the object and dragged it towards us, he tried to turn tail and run. It really scared him. Coming at him from behind was okay, but coming from in front was a matter of life and death. But time, patience and consistency paid off and I was able to ride him while dragging objects from all directions and even being able to use my rope to flip a chaff bag from the ground and into my lap while he trotted around as if he had being doing it since birth.

The progress Satts had made was enough to make me think I actually knew what I was doing. But I wanted to be sure I didn’t repeat the mistakes I had made with Chops. Satts was sensitive, but he was also bold. He had come a long way. In the process of teaching Satts the things I needed him to know, other things developed between us that I had not taught. I hardly ever used a halter or rope on him now. He came up to me when called and followed where I lead. I could even direct him with a little energy to where I wanted him to wait. He would ground tie and wait patiently while I walked away to get something from the tack room or house. I could direct him with pressure I had never taught him. For instances, if he walked away I could stop him and have him back up by grabbing his tail – something he had never had a lesson in. Satts had never had a lesson in ground tying or following at liberty or coming when called or backing up when I touched his tail. To me, it indicated that Satts had a bigger picture of our relationship than just “I press button A and you perform behaviour B.” It occurred to me that Satts had learned that pressure and energy from me had intent and meaning and it was his vocation to try to make sense of it and respond accordingly. He was not just performing a bag of tricks I had taught him. He was interpreting my actions in a way that made sense to him. So while I had been teaching him lots of different behaviours, he was also learning things far outside those lessons that go to the heart of the relationship between horse and human.

I was very excited about starting Satts with another horse in the round yard. My aim was to make it easy for him to gain his confidence, so I volunteered Chops for the mission. They knew each other really well and although Chops was higher up in the pecking order, she threatened a lot without ever following through. If Chops decided to assert herself with Satts it would take almost nothing to call her bluff. I saw it as my priority to look after Satts’ confidence and make sure he listened to me. If things were going awry I would forget about Chops and take care of the horse under me. I had invested a lot of time and hope in Satts and I needed to make sure he developed into a quality working horse.

The first step was to work them together at liberty in the round yard. This would give Satts confidence with working in close proximity to another horse, but at the same time to listen to my direction.

For a minute or two I let them get familiar with each other in the yard. There was some squealing from Chops, but Satts followed her around like a bad debt. When I started to move them around together, Chops held the lead. After changing direction Chops again went out in front, flicking her head at Satts as she went past. Soon I asked Chops to change direction, but Satts was to maintain the same direction. As they started to pass each other, Satts tried to turn to go with Chops, but I blocked him with the flag. After several laps, Satts settled in the rhythm and didn’t seem at all bothered by passing Chops going the other way. I figured this deserved a little break for both of them and called them into the middle where we all rested for a couple of minutes. Then I sent Chops out to the fence, while I asked Satts to stand behind me. Satts shadowed me as I followed Chops around the yard. Every time I asked Chops to change direction or slow down, Satts was with me like fly paper. Then it was Chops’ turn to stand by my side while Satts was working out on the track. I don’t think I could have asked for the work to be going any better. Both horses were listening and working well.

I gave them both a few minutes of rest, but added lots of rubs and scratches to the mix. Finally I slipped the bridle on Satts and stepped up into the saddle. I turned Satts away from Chops and walked to the fence to collect the flag.

I held the flag high in my right hand and passed it over to my left side and back again. Everything seemed okay, so I repeated it with a little more vigour. As I walked Satts around the yard I started swinging the flag as if I was swatting a fly. Chops was not bothered by this because she knew it was not about her, but nevertheless, she kept out of our way. As I trotted and cantered Satts, Chops was aware that there was no where she could stand where she would not encounter the man with the flag every few seconds, so she decided to stay ahead of us. I was not driving Chops, but she was intent in staying out of our way.

I brought Satts back to a walk and Chops parked herself by the gate. I approached her with a gentle wave of the flag as if to tell her she needed to not be at the gate when Satts and I got there. She walked on. I pointed Satts across the round yard to get in front of Chops. It was enough to stop her halfway and turn her in the opposite direction. I repeated this a few times and I could tell Satts was picking up on the job. Despite the fact that Satts seemed to work out what I was trying to do I decided I had better change the job because I didn’t want him believing he knew what I was asking and taking over. He needed to stay listening to me and not just doing the job because he thought he knew what coming next. I needed to make the work a little less predictable for Satts.

I turned him away from Chops and asked for a side pass to the fence. When we got there, I climbed out of the saddle and stepped onto the fencing rail. I sat on the fence and scratched Satts’ wither. Chops wanted in on this and wandered over. It surprised me that she did not tell Satts to get out of the way. She just found a space to squeeze through and sidled alongside.

After a short time, I mounted Satts again from the fence and flagged Chops to move on. We followed behind. The next lap I moved Satts up to a trot and pushed Chops along harder. We cut her off on the other side and had her trotting in the opposite direction. I then flagged her into a canter, but told Satts to follow her at a walk in a tiny circle in the middle of the yard. Initially, Satts wanted to go with her and I had to drop the flag while I worked on him coming back to the walk. I firmed pretty hard on the reins and told him to stand quietly while we watched Chops lose a few kilos. Even though he was doing what I asked I could feel him bubbling away underneath me. When I felt him hit a good spot, I dismounted and picked up the flag again, than got back on.

As Chops slowed to a walk, I urged Satts alongside her. He was on the inside, so he could easily out pace her. As we caught up to her rear, I reached across and petted her croup. Satts was easily out walking Chops, so I petted all along her back as we made our way to the front. Then I stopped and petted both horses. It was good way to finish Satts’ first day of his new career.

The photo shows Chops on the job in her days as a working horse.


The Story Of Satan: Chapter 19

I hadn’t seen Satts for about 16 months and was a little apprehensive that he might come back to me in the same freaked out state that he was when I first met him. But the instant the driver swung the divider to his stall across, I knew he was okay. Satts stood at the top of the ramp gawking around as if he was trying to get his bearings. He made one call and received a reply from Chops in the nearby paddock. That seem to satisfy him that he was where he thought he was. At the request of the driver, Satts gingerly followed him down the steep decline until he was on firm ground.

I led Satts the twenty metres to the stable that would be his home for a short while. It had fresh bedding, hay and water. Once I returned the halter and lead rope to the truckie, he wasted no time in wishing me luck and hopping into the cab to make his way to the next job.

Before going to the house to telephone dad with the news that his horse arrived safely, I made a cursory examination of Satts. He had the greyhound frame that all racehorses have when in work. His leg was clearly still swollen, but apart from that it was hard to tell if he had an injury. He stood equally on all four legs and did not seem to be protecting the damaged limb when he moved.

He took a momentary break from eating his hay to come to the door to sniff me, but my intrusion was not enough to distract him for long from filling his belly.

Dad had arranged for copies of the scans of Satts’ leg to be sent to my vet. So when the vet arrived two days after Satts’ arrival he was already armed with the necessary information. After a thorough examination of the leg, watching Satt’s movement and reading the report from the Sydney vet, my vet was not as optimistic as dad seemed about Satt’s prognosis. He said it was a very bad tear and there appeared to be some damage in the other foreleg too. He didn’t think Satts would ever be able to do much more than walk around the paddock. And even that may cause him some discomfort.

My next move was to insist on a referral to Geoff Hazard at the Werribee Veterinary Hospital. I had some experience with Geoff in the past and found him to be brilliant when it came to diagnosing musculo-skeletal and leg problems in horses.

The next week I loaded Satts into the float and drove across Melbourne to meet Geoff at 9am. We were there for three hours while Geoff went over Satts from head to toe, took more scans and consulted with colleagues. With each minute I was becoming less sure that I wanted to know the verdict. One vet had already been pessimistic, did I really want to hear it confirmed? Finally, Geoff met with me and said that he thought Satts would come good for normal riding. He’d be no super athlete again, but there was no reason that with rest and time that Satts would not be able to cope with light riding in the arena and on the trail. No jumping, no racing, no barrel racing or polo or cutting or reining or anything that was going to raise his heart rate! I was to take him back for another examination in six months time.

Satts spent another two weeks in the stable before I introduced him back to the paddock. I didn’t want the other horses running Satts around the paddock, so I put him in a paddock adjacent to the others. Over the next few weeks I introduced each horse one at a time to Satts’ paddock. This gave Satts and each new horse plenty of time to get settled with each other before adding another horse to the herd. Overall it worked pretty well, but of course it was going to be impossible to ensure there was absolutely no galloping and cavorting. Nevertheless, Satts showed no sign of further damaging his suspensory ligament and except for the swelling in the leg, it was difficult to detect any injury.

It was close to three and half months before I was certain that the swelling in the soft tissue has significantly subsided. At the six-month mark when it was time to visit Geoff the vet again. Palpation of the lower leg revealed ongoing healing in the soft tissue, but he remained relatively even in his movement. Geoff was pleased with the progress. The scans showed a lot of remodelling of the tissue. Geoff said he would look at Satts again in another 3 months. In the meantime, Satts was to be kept rested and living the life of a spoilt horse. Geoff made mention that Satts had lost his hard-bodied ripped muscle look and replaced it with the look of an overfed show hack. At least his appearance now fitted in with the rest of my herd.

A couple of more visits and finally I got the all clear from the vet that Satts could begin light riding again. It had been 15 months since he arrived and I’m sure it was a surprise to him to see a saddle again. I think Satts had become use to the comforts of retirement and was not expecting to ever be inside of a round yard once more.

I had formulated a plan that Satts could become a workhorse. He was big and strong and able-bodied enough to bear the brunt of the pushing and pulling that young, green horses can do. If his legs stood up to the workload, I was going to use Satts to work other horses from. But it was to begin with just getting him use to being a riding horse again. I needed to see what he remembered from the training I gave him and also how his emotional state stood up to the months of racing.

Our first session was just some groundwork with Satts wearing a saddle. His whole body froze when I girthed up my saddle, so I loosened the girth a couple of holes and walked him around in hand until I felt him soften. Then I buckled to the next hole and walked him again. I threw in a few hindquarter yields and some backing. Finally, he melted into my hand and I was able to snug the girth to its proper firmness with no sign of worry.

After doing a few minutes of work in hand to check out his response to the lead rope, I removed the halter and walked away. Satts watched me leave for a few strides, then looked left and took off with lightning speed like he was a fashion model being chased by a Big Mac. There was no bucking, just running. He ran so fast he struggled to stay on his feet. As I stood and watched him, I was glad the sand was not very deep and there was little chance of him damaging his ligament again. Since he had the fitness level of a pie eating contest winner, it didn’t take long for him to slow down and regain his composure to the point where we could actually get some work done.

That first session jogged my memory to recall what a nice horse Satts had become. I guess he was always a nice horse, but he hadn’t always had a chance to prove it.

The next session came the next day. I did a bit more groundwork and then rode him in a side pull. After a few turns and transitions from walk to trot to canter, it was time to open the gate and head out across country. He seemed to be holding back going down the driveway. He was not very forward, but I put that largely down to the fact that he did not have shoes fitted and the gravel was making him a little hot-footed. When we got to the gate I was able to turn him left and walk along the grassy verge. He seemed more comfortable in his movement, but was still travelling like he was towing a barge. I could tell his mind was fixated on going back to the paddock. I had not planned on doing little more than take him for a ride to the gate and back, but this was an issue that I felt needed addressing now.

I stopped Satts about 30 metres past the gate. I sat quietly on a loose rein and waited. He called back to Chops in the paddock, but there was no answer. Satts began to look around. After a few seconds he turned his shoulders to the right and made a move towards the gate. I picked up my right rein and continued his turn. At first he pulled on my rein every time he became lined up with the gate and then tried to spin quickly through the turn to get his nose pointing back at the gate. But I kept turning him. I was waiting for a change of thought. Just when I considered he was never going to give up on trying to make his way back to the gate, I felt a lack of rushing and softening through his turn. My rein dropped quietly on his neck and he stopped, facing the other side of the road. I didn’t care where he was pointed. I only cared that he was no longer trying to get back home.

We rested for a few moments before I nudged Satts forward where he was facing. But after the first step he veered right again and looked to the gate. My right rein asked for more turning until he again let go of the thought that the gate was the most important thing in his life. When I put slack back in the rein we stopped, facing the gate. But with my left rein I asked him to about face and look up the road. A few moments of rest and I ask him forward again.

It took maybe seven or eight repetitions of the same exercise before Satts gave up the idea that he needed to be heading home now. We rode on for about another hundred metres before turning back. Satts was clearly glad to get home and see his mates. Although I could see there was potential for a problem developing with regard to being homebound, I figured today was not the day to be doing too much about it. It was Satt’s first ride in more than a year and I didn’t want to make the experience too much like work. There would be plenty of time and plenty of projects in the coming weeks and months.

Overall, I was pretty happy with how Satts handled the session. Obviously, he had picked up some bad habits; with a lack of focus being number one. But dad’s trainer had not done a bad job of keeping Satts settled and sensible. He had neither turned him into a fruit loop nor killed his personality – which I found to be fairly uncommon in retired racehorses. But most important was that I didn’t feel Satts favour his injured leg. I was sure Satts would go on to be the working horse I needed.

Riley and Ross


Laying A Horse Down

I have not seen this method for teaching a horse to lay down. What do you think?


The Story Of Satan – Ch 18

A couple of days after Satts had left my place I got a phone call from my father letting me know the horse had arrived safely at Rosehill in Sydney. The only other comment was from dad’s trainer who thought they brought the wrong horse because Satts looked like a late gestation mare.

Despite being anxious about Satts’ future I had enough on my plate to keep me occupied and not linger too long on the matter. My research was running in high gear. I had just published an important paper in the journal “Endocrinology” and I was riding a wave of popularity among the ivory tower fraternity. Requests for speaking engagements and collaborative studies were arriving daily. It made me wish I had included a request for funds for a personal assistant to my last grant application.

In addition to all that I was asked by a neighbour to help her with a troublesome horse. I really didn’t have the time, but since Satts’ departure I was yearning for another challenge. The horse was actually not so bad. My neighbour had been to a few Parelli clinics and was trying out her new found skills on her horse. Unfortunately, she had not done enough of the training to be clear in her own mind about what she was doing and she was passing this confusion onto her horse.

The horse was fairly simple and it was obvious that most of the problem lay with the owner. To be honest, it is a project that could have been dealt with in a week, but from the very start I enjoyed the company of my neighbour and chose to drag out the training as an excuse to spend time with her. But it was soon clear that she also enjoyed our time together and I no longer needed to find an excuse. It had been five years since my divorce and this was the first time I had kept company with anybody

So life was good. I was at the top of the world with my work and my private life was invigorated. This is why Satts did not pre-occupy my thoughts to a large extent.

One evening about three weeks after Satts was back in Sydney I received a call from dad. The first couple of minutes were taken up with the usual preliminaries; “how are ya son?”, “how’s work?”, “d’ya need any money?”

But then dad got to the meat of why he was calling.

“Kevin tells me that he sent Satts to a fellow for pre-training. He says Satts settled in pretty well, but he can’t take the reins. The training bloke nearly flipped him over the first time he picked up the reins. The vet and dentist looked at him and couldn’t find anything wrong.”

“Dad, Satts has a good mouth – not a racehorse mouth. Tell those blokes to lighten up on the contact. He doesn’t need somebody hanging on the end of the reins. He thinks he is being asked to run backwards. They have to stay off his mouth.”

Dad’s response was, “Well, I guess that’s okay for a riding horse, but a racehorse can’t react that way. Jockeys need to use the reins to balance in a race. They can’t have a horse that won’t let them use the reins.”

This made me a little irate.

“Listen dad, it’s not the job of the horse to be okay with bad riding. A good trainer and a good rider will feel what they have under them and adjust the way they ride. It’s not the horse’s responsibility to take care of crap riding. Tell Kevin to find a bloody trainer and jockey who have good feel for a horse and they will get along fine with Satts.

“Satts came to me a monster because of what bloody Kevin put him through the first time. I managed to turn him into a really nice horse that is safe and a pleasure to ride. If you’re going to listen to Kevin, I can’t help you and you’ll never see Satts on a racecourse. He just won’t make it. You might as well cut your losses now and retire him. Or you can listen to me and you have a chance of finding out what sort of athlete he really is. If Kevin does what he always does, he will get Satts to respond as he always did. Do you remember how that turned out?”

A week later dad tells me that he sent Satts to a trainer in Cobbity, south of Sydney. Two weeks after that the news is that the trainer likes Satts. He was riding the horse himself rather than send him to a pre-trainer. Satts had settled in really well and was being given light work to get some condition on him. The new trainer told dad that Satts didn’t need any education. He was good about the barriers; he listened to the rider and was really sensible. But what most surprised him was how bold Satts was about squeezing between other horses. He said most green horses needed to be pushed hard to convince them they can fit through a narrow space, but not Satts. He was full of confidence.

The biggest problem was going to be finding a jockey that could ride a horse with a super responsive mouth. Dad’s trainer talked to a lot of jockeys and put several on Satts during training sessions, but none seem to get along with the horse. Finally out of pure frustration he gave a new apprentice a try – only fifteen years old. The kid had come through pony club and done a lot of camp drafting. He had good balance and unusually quiet hands. It worked a treat. He found that the faster Satts travelled the quieter he needed to be on his back and Satts would settle quickly into a rhythm. It sounded like the horse and the kid were working each other out and it suited them both.

One evening I got a phone call just before I sat down to eat.

“Is this Ross?”


“Ross, this is Doug, your dad’s trainer.”

“Oh, how are you? This is a surprise. How’s Satts doing?”

“He’s great. That’s why I’m calling. Your dad said you really loved the horse, so I wanted to let you know what a fabulous job you had done with him. I heard from different people that he was a mongrel and should have been put down. Well, you proved them all wrong. He’s going so well.”

“Thanks Doug. You don’t know how relieved I am that he is doing well. He’s not easy and you seem to be the right bloke for him. He a super horse, “ I responded.

Doug said, “We stretched him out in a barrier trial today. He was running third with about one and half lengths between him and the horse running first at the 250 mark. Then young Steve told him to go and the bloody kick on that horse was tremendous. He passed them and took the lead in about four strides. It was like they were standing still. Steve said he had to hold onto his mane for dear life because of the acceleration. I think we’ll be able to win a race or two with him for your dad. We’ll give him another trial next week and if he does okay in that we’ll start him at Hawkesbury in a 1000m run in about two and half weeks.”

After I hung up the phone I was feeling a little elated. It made me wish I could see Satts running at Hawkesbury.

Satts did not win at Hawkesbury. The track had been subjected to heavy rain in the days preceding the race and Satts ran third. Two weeks later Satts won a 1200m maiden at Newcastle by two lengths. But he pulled up a little shin sore and was rested for six weeks. Over the coming months Satts had three wins, four seconds and two thirds. The highlight was a win at Rosehill. Dad was so proud to own a city winner. I still have the video clip of mum and dad being interviewed after the race by the TV commentator. Dad’s face was beaming. I was so happy for them both.

Then one morning I was working in the surgery halfway through an operation to remove the pituitary gland from the brain of a fetal sheep when Alex, the surgical technician, popped his head through the door and said my father called and could I ring him back as soon as I was out of surgery. Immediately my heart skipped thinking something had happened to mum or some equally terrible disaster.

I completed what was normally a four-hour operation in three hours, changed clothes and left the sheep and fetus in the capable care of the animal technician.

“Dad, what’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry for pulling you away from work, son. Is everything okay?”

“Yes, dad everything is fine. But why did you call me? Is mum okay?”

“Yes, your mother if fine. It’s Satts. Doug called and said he tore a suspensory ligament at training this yesterday. It’s a bad rip and the vet thinks he should be retired. He said his leg probably wouldn’t stand up to the strain of racing ever again.”

“Aw dad, that’s horrible. I’m so sorry for you. Will he be okay? Does he need to be put down? Will he recover enough to be rideable,” I asked?

suspensory ligament
My father replied, “The vet thinks he will recover in about eight to twelve months and be okay for normal riding, but nothing too strenuous.”

“Well, what are you going to do with him?” I asked.

“Well, he needs rest. I was wondering if you could take him. I’d cover all your costs – feed, vet, anything,” dad said.

“You don’t need to worry about covering anything. Send him down. He’s got a home for life. I’ll look after him. We’re mates,” I said.

Two weeks later the same truck that took him away came rumbling up my drive. Satts was home again.

This diagram shows the suspensory ligament and extensor branches. Satts suffered a severe tear of the ligament. It’s an injury that leads to the premature retirement of many racehorses.

The Story Of Satan - Ch 17

It was a busy time at work. As well as the usual tasks of supervising research students, setting exams, writing manuscripts, the head of my department had chosen me to volunteer to sit on two new committees. Not only that, but I apparently had volunteered to chair one of those committees. After all the effort over several years I had put into avoiding committee work, I was finally roped and hog-tied with all my usual excuses expired.

Anyway, this was the excuse I told my father for not calling him about my progress with Satts. But the real reason was that I was delaying as long as possible sending the horse back to Sydney. We had become good mates and we had shared difficult times together that gave us a bond. Well that’s what I felt. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Satts felt he was doing okay before he met me and he didn’t need any help from me to kick some human butt.

I told dad that Satts was doing great. I told him about a ride a few days earlier where I took Satts along a bush track, crossed the main road and road him around a lake reserve where people were having Sunday picnics and dads were playing soccer with their kids. My father seemed to think that was pretty impressive. But when I added that I rode Satts bareback and with just a stirrup leather around his neck, there was stunned silence.

“Do ya mean you only had a head collar on him,” dad asked?

“No dad, nothing. No bridle, no halter, no reins – nothing! Just a strap of leather around his neck.”

“Ya can’t do that son. That’s dangerous. He’s a racehorse. He’s bred to run. He could’ve taken off anytime!”

“Funny. That’s what the lady in the Mercedes said. We just crossed the Belgrave-Hallam Rd and gone up Horswood Rd, when a Mercedes came around the corner. The driver jumped out and screamed at me how dangerous it was to ride without a bridle out on the roads. She said I had no control and anything could happen. So I cantered Satts in a circle around her $80,000 car and asked her if it looked like I was out of control? She got in her car and took off fuming.”

I told dad Satts was ready to go back to Sydney and begin life again as a racehorse. He said he would contact Kevin, his trainer, and arrange for a truck to pick Satts up for the long haul back to Sydney.

I tried hard not to think about it too much. When the decision was made to send Satts back I stopped riding him. I would go out in the evenings when I could and sit under my favourite tree with a cuppa tea in my hand and watch the horses. Satts was always the first to wander up for a scratch. LJ would be next followed by Chops. LJ had given Chops the assignment of clearing the way for LJ’s arrival. Chops was like an eager groupie who took delight at moving Satts out of the way for her master. Once LJ felt I had given him the appropriate amount of attention he deigned to allow Chops her share of the scratches. Finally LJ would wander off to other important matters and Chops would follow, keen to find other ways to please her master. Then Satts would return and hang out. This time under the tree was always my favourite part of the day.

It’s easy to dismiss the value of time hanging out with your horses as unproductive. Nothing is really getting taught or learned that will make a big difference to the results of your next competition. But I think there can be great therapeutic value in hang out time. I know for me, to sit with my horses is a great time to think and unload the stresses of the world. It reminds me that life is not about how much work I can fit into a day. When you are in the middle of stuff, it is so easy to believe it is the most important stuff there is. It’s easy to think the experiment I have started will get me published in Nature. Or the rising price of petrol is going to ruin us all. Or that bald patch on the top of my head where nothing will grow means I’ll never be kissed by a girl again. But I believe “hang out” time can help put those things into perspective.

It helps in other ways too. One thing I reckon I’ve learned from hang out time is how to be better at doing nothing when there is a horse in front of me. We spend most of our time with horses being busy. We know it’s our job to be giving them jobs. We have to do something. It’s so hard for us to do nothing. I see in my clinics people who cannot do nothing with their horse. Even if they are not doing a job with a horse they can’t let a horse be within reach and not pet it. They have to constantly be stroking, petting or correcting. I think it has been difficult but important for me to learn to be around a horse and do nothing.

From the horse’s perspective, hanging out with people that having no expectations and no demands goes a long way towards learning humans can be associated with other things besides feeding time and pressure. A horse can learn that being around humans can be easy and not always something to dread.

In any case, I enjoyed my time spent under the tree, sipping hot tea and talking to the horses as if what I had to say was the most important thing they would ever hear.

A couple of weeks passed before I heard from the transport guys. We arranged they could pick up Satts on the Wednesday morning around 6:30am. This gave me a few days to double check his trailer loading skills and make sure he would be good on the day. Not all transport guys have the patience necessary when it comes to loading reluctant horses. Theirs is a hard job and I can see why they quickly reach for ropes and broomsticks. But I wanted to ensure that Satts was not going to be the victim of such methods. I had invested too much effort, energy and skin into changing his idea that people were the enemy. I didn’t want to see that undone in 2 minutes by an over eager truck driver.

I was having a cup of tea when I heard the truck rumbling up the driveway. They were early – it was 6:20am.

When I went out to meet them, lo and behold it is the same two characters that delivered Satts. We shook hands and the first words after “g’day” were “how d’ya get on with that mongrel?” I was not surprised they remembered Satts. You’d have to have advanced Alzheimer’s to forget him.

I told them I’d go get him while they turned the truck around and set up the truck bays. By the time I was bringing Satts through the gate the truck was ready and waiting.

“Just put this halter on him would ya mate,” the bigger fellow asked? I swapped my rope halter for a tattered webbing halter with a puny cotton lead rope attached.

“He can go in the back one and face him backwards. There’s a clip there to hook him onto mate.”

Satts walked up the thirty-degree slope and into the last bay. I swung his bum around and clipped him to the chain in front of him. The two drivers rushed up the ramp to swing the divider shut, almost trapping me inside with Satts. They were so eager to make sure he was captured that they almost scared him into trying to come out again.

When he was shut in with no possibility for escape the big fellow said, “Well that was easy. Betta than last time for certain.”

They said they had two horses to pick up at Cranbourne, then back to the depot to load another horse and then straight to Sydney. They estimated Satts would be at Rosehill in Sydney by about midnight.

I felt a wave of sadness as I watched the truck disappear down the driveway.

I didn’t know how Satts would take to racing. The factory setting of a big time racing stable was not something that Satts would automatically fit into easily. His temperament was too sensitive to be treated like a factory product whose relevance was counted by the fleetness he could cover 800 metres. I had my doubts if Satts would survive the process and even get to a barrier trial. He was the shape of mother’s show hack and a person could be forgiven for failing to see the athlete that lay underneath. So it was going to be a long time before he was ready to show his stuff and he might just fall apart before he gets that far.

If I ever saw him again would it be as a highly prized running machine or as the same crazed man-hating horse I first met? Both outcomes made me feel a little sad.

This is a photo of 5 year old Ismaila from Gambia sitting on his horse Jumpex. I thought it was a really good reminder to find the time to hang out with our horse.

ismaila and jumpex


Laying Out Ground Rails

Here are some tips for laying out ground rails to help a horse become a more confident jumper.


The Story Of Satan - Ch 16

Over the next few weeks I had plenty of time to ride Satts in all sorts of circumstances. He was becoming more confident and bolder. In fact, a few times I felt him get the idea that he was in charge and I just needed to sit in the saddle and enjoy the ride. He was becoming so certain of how this riding caper was suppose to work that there were moments when I had to remind him not so gently that his job was not to take me somewhere, but to listen to me 100% of the time.

It happens so often with green broke horses that people ride them and ride them in an effort to get the horse use to be taken on rides. But in the process, they let the horse believe that his only responsibility is to head out where the rider points his nose. People forget that good training is not about miles in the saddle. It’s about educating the mind of the horse to be attentive to the rider and pliable enough that a rider can influence a change anytime he needs. One of the most strongly held myths in horsemanship is that nothing is better for a horse than miles of riding. While a lot of riding can help get a horse use to going places, it does nothing on it’s own to give you a focused, soft and contented horse.

This was the problem I faced with Satts. He was smart enough to learn that saddling up and pointing out the gate meant we are going somewhere. He got good at that pretty quickly. But a few times, when I wanted to change what he thought we were going to do, he expressed some dissatisfaction with my decision and told me what he thought of me in my role as leader of the expedition. It was never anything too big and was always resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties after we formed a committee to hear all sides and an independent arbitrator was called in to make a ruling that took into account the legitimate concerns and demands of both the biped and quadruped species involved.

All it took to overcome the problem was for me to be aware of those times when Satts was not mentally connected to me and instead was listening to the birds and smelling the flowers. The moment I sensed this happening I would make a change with my reins or seat or legs to make the issue a non-event. He was so smart that even I was surprised how good Satts became at staying with me on our rides after a little effort on my part.

I continued to ride on the cricket ovals and even occasionally in the round yard. He was coming along so well with his softness to the reins, that teaching him to side pass was simple. I always start with lateral movements from my reins, using no legs except to say, “go forward.” I don’t start with my legs asking for side ways movement – it all comes from the reins in the beginning. This is because on a green horse I don’t want to confuse the action of the leg that means “forward” with the action that means, “yield laterally.” So I always begin with the reins alone. When that becomes established, I introduce the inside leg by first applying the leg to the girth and back that up with the reins asking for a lateral step. With repetition, the horse soon learns that a touch with the inside leg is quickly followed by the reins asking for a side step. From there it takes nothing for the horse to understand to yield to the inside leg. Within a few days we were working on shoulder-in, which was designed to really helped him engage his hindquarters and lift his back.

At one point I decided to play with some bridle-less riding. I had done lots of it over the years, but only ever with my own horses. I had my doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to teach a horse destined for the racetrack. But the temptation to have fun with it was too great for me to resist.

For me, the training usually begins with teaching to neck rein. I put Satts in the round yard and had an old stirrup leather buckled loosely around his neck. For headgear, I resorted to the side pull once again. I hopped into the saddle, put my left rein into my left hand and the stirrup leather in my right hand. I started wanting Satts to turn to the left, so I passed my right hand across toward the wither which caused the leather to press against the right side of Satts’ neck while opening up the left side of the neck. At the same time I rotated my upper body to the left in the direction I wanted Satts to turn. At first Satts shifted as if to walk directly ahead. At that moment I used my left hand to tip his thought to my left with an open rein. I felt him immediately lift his shoulders and yield to the left. It was a good start. Over and over I repeated the exercise of first asking with the stirrup leather, followed by supporting what I wanted with the inside rein. Always offer how you want your horse to respond first, and then if you don’t get the response you wanted, clarify what you are asking for with your secondary aid. It’s a principle that is in everything we do with horses.

It took no more than about two minutes for Satts to clue into the idea of turning left when he felt the stirrup leather against the right side of his neck.

There was some initial confusion in Satts’ mind when I changed sides and asked for a turn to the right. But I patiently kept asking for what I wanted, while blocking what I didn’t want. Soon he was able to turn right or left without me having to touch to reins.

This followed the same pattern when he was asked to walk forward. The turns were always preceded by my use of the outside of the stirrup leather and turning my body, but supported if I had to with the inside rein. It took maybe thirty minutes from when I started to have Satts walk, trot and cantering with changes of directions all over the round yard.

The next session I didn’t bother to fit the side pull on him. I was sure he was going to be great, but just in case I decided to start in the round yard. Yep! He was great. I opened the gate and ride him down the driveway thirty or forty metres, turned around and rode back up to the yard. I turned around again and rode him all the way to the front gate and headed a little way towards the neighbour’s property. I rode him over a couple of small logs and backed him up an embankment before pointing towards home again.

The next day we rode towards the main road where we sure to see traffic. This time Satts was dressed in a bridle and training bit. As we got to the intersection, cars were whizzing past at unlawful speeds. Satts had some experience with light traffic including trucks, tractors and one or two motorbikes. But that had always been one at a time. This was different. Streams of cars and trucks were flying by in front of us from left and right. We tried to cross the road, but had to wait for almost two minutes before the break in traffic was long enough to calmly get to the other side. Satts was legendary as he patiently waited for my signal to walk on. I didn’t really expect him to handle so much activity at high speed as well as he did. But I was learning that as Satts learned more things, stuff I hadn’t taught him was being taken care of too.

Finally, it came to try out float (trailer) loading. When Satts arrived on the truck he was a mess. The transport fellows described him as crazy and were quite scared of him when it came time to unload him at my place.

So it was with cautious optimism that I hooked the float to my car and led him toward the ramp. I had done a hell of a lot of groundwork with Satts by this time. He was leading as well as any horse I had pass though my hands in recent times. I knew he had to be better than when he first arrived, but I didn’t know how much better or what kind of trouble was about to erupt from inside him.

I walked up the ramp and into the float with Satts behind me. He stopped at the base of the ramp and sniffed all around. He looked inside, sniffed the sides, looked again, sniffed the ramp and did a poo. When the tail went down again, he lifted his front left leg much higher than necessary and slammed it onto the ramp. I waited with no pressure on the lead rope. His other leg went almost as high and again slammed down onto the ramp. Less than five seconds passed before Satts shifted his weight backwards then launched himself up the ramp and into the float. I scrambled to get out of his way. Once he discovered the chest bar was blocking his path, he stepped back to halfway out and stopped. I rubbed his neck and forehead, and then asked him to step down the ramp backwards. His movement was slow and deliberate – just the way I liked it. A few more rubs transpired while standing outside of the float and then I asked him to walk back in. This time there was no sudden lurching or nervous exploration of the smells. He walked into the float like he was passing through an open gateway. When he reached as far as he could go, he went to step out again, but a quiet hold of the lead rope caused him to still his feet and wait. A few seconds later and I asked for him to quietly back out again. Each step was like he was tiptoeing his way through a landmine.

I loaded Satts a couple of more times before quitting. The next day it took about thirty minutes to have him loading and unloading one-step at a time while I stood outside. If I led the lead rope past me Satts walked quietly into the float. If I lifted his tail, he slowly walked backwards until all four feet were on the ground. At any moment I could stop him, send him the other way or continue with what he was doing.

By the third day, I had him on a long rope and was able to sit in the car and send him into the float and stand quietly. In a further two days he was doing the same trick, but with no rope on him. I joked to some people at work that it would be perfect if I rigged up a button on the inside of the float that Satts could push with his nose and the ramp would rise hydraulically and lock itself. The only problem was that I could envisage driving down the road and Satts pushing that damn button again.

I knew that loading Satts onto a float was only possible because his groundwork was so good. Almost all floating loading issues are leading issues. The same was true when it was time to teach Satts to tie up.

When he first came to me, Satts was so reactive to the feel of a halter that I knew I couldn’t tie him up. He was the sort of horse that if he didn’t break all my gear trying to get away, he would probably have killed himself trying. But after doing a lot of halter leading work, I had to try to teach him to tie up. Most racehorses are tied in crossties. But I wanted to teach him properly. If Satts could handle being tied up with a lead rope, crossties would present no problem to him later.

I used a long rope clipped to his halter. In the round yard, I positioned Satts about half a metre from the fence and wrapped the rope three times around the fence post. I then stepped outside the round yard and sat in a chair directly opposite Satts with the end of the rope in one hand. I waited for Satts to do something. Once in awhile he went to pull away and felt the snug of the halter and stopped. He did this several times, but even after twenty minutes he didn’t try to pull away like he meant it. Clearly the many hours of halter training was doing its job.

I went back in the yard and walked behind him. In one hand I held the end of the rope and in the other I held my flag. I passed behind him from left to right waving the flag up and down (but not at him). He almost instantly pulled away with some force. I fed the rope through my hand and allowed the friction of the wraps around the post to offer some resistance. The rope fed through about two metres before Satts stopped. He looked at me as if to ask what just happened. He had never pulled away before and the rope went with him. He was so smart to realize that no matter how much he pulled the rope would give and the pressure on the halter would still be there. What was the point of pulling back when there was nothing to pull against? I repeated the exercise a couple more times before Satts stopped going backwards and instead stepped his hind end from left to right in response to my flagging from right to left. I did the same exercise with Satts tied to the limb of a tree and to the side of the float and to a tie-up ring outside the stable.

One night I tried to replay in my mind the past few months. I rewound to when Satts was impossible to catch and the times he had hurt me. I remembered building that stupid laneway so I could run him into the yard to clean his stable. I couldn’t forget the fear in Satts’ eye when he first arrived or the cat leaping and roaring when I first saddled him. My leg almost hurt recalling Satts’ teeth sinking into me and throwing me out of the saddle. And then I remembered the first time he walked up to me in the round yard and how much he cuddled to me when I found his itchy spot. Or how amazing it was when we fell into a sinkhole and he still let me get back in the saddle and didn’t hesitate when I pointed him at the very next puddle. I almost laughed out loud at remembering how ridiculous I looked riding in cricket pads.

I was in awe of a horse that a short time ago was leaking pee from fear when he felt trapped by the belly rope and now would let me ride across a busy road or canter in an open field with only a leather strap around his neck. The thought was tinged with sadness too because I knew I would soon have to send Satts back to Sydney. He was with me for a reason and that was to get him ready for life as a racehorse. I just wasn’t ready to let him go yet.

The photo depicts how I might help a horse that pulls back when tied up.

tying up


The Story of Satan - Ch 15

In the following days most of our riding was done along the closed gravel road outside my front gate. Across the road from the property were two ovals where the local cricket club played on summer weekends. But from April through to September the playing fields were abandoned except for the occasional dog walker and council green keeper. It was also used a lot by some local horse people, as an equestrian reserve. Having 20 acres of flat, mowed open space was too good for them to resist. However, a year earlier the council and the cricket club had decided to fence the reserve to keep out anybody whom they decided shouldn’t have a key.

But the local authorities didn’t count on the ingenuity and unscrupulous nature of a local horse trainer who was able to cut the fence and make a gateway hidden in the bushes. The gate was out of sight to anybody who didn’t know it was there. This meant I now had a 20 acre riding arena for working Satts.

The first time we rode on the ovals I could sense Satt’s mind feel a little lost. There was no track or fence or line of trees to guide him as to where to go. There was only open space all around him. The options for him were far too many for him to feel comfortable. I knew my challenge was to keep him busy enough to stay mentally connected to me. I walked him where his nose was pointed, but every few strides I interrupted him with either a change of direction or a change of gait. Every time I felt Satts mentally wander away I was right there to restart a conversation with him. At first I was kept pretty busy, but slowly he was able to hold the connection for longer while at the same time study his surroundings.

At one point I asked him to walk over the artificial wicket that the cricket club had installed on the grounds. He hesitated at first, and then put a foot on the pitch. The sound that came from the ground caused him to leap over the wicket and stop. He stood shaking like an old man. When I turned him to walk back over the wicket, he began to prance on the spot with his neck almost vertical. I used my right rein in a wide arc and turned him to the right followed by a similar action to the left. I kept doing semi circles with only the inside rein directing him. The prancing dissipated very quickly, but it took a few moments more before I felt his back relax and his neck droop down to wither height. I kept doing this exercise as I edged him closer to the wicket. Just as he was about to step onto the wicket his neck flew up, but he continued to walk over the wicket. We did another three passes over the wicket before there was no need for any input from me.

Satts was becoming softer off my leg with each ride and moments like this when he was worried to go forward, yet did, gave me a huge thrill. He was so different from the horse that would try to bite my leg and throw me out of the saddle only a few weeks before. It wasn’t long before I could trot and canter him all over the cricket grounds with smooth transitions.

The ovals became a regular training ground. I figured that as long as I didn’t use it on the weekends, there would be no trouble. Well I was right about no trouble from the council, but there was trouble. Let me tell you about Satts’ bad day.

It was a Saturday mid morning and I decided to take Satts along the road, past the cricket ovals and the last neighbour on the road and continue to the end of the road where I knew the gravel turned into a mind field of mud holes and water puddles. The ride down the driveway was by now routine for Satts and he handled it with confidence. But as we turned out the gate to follow the road I felt Satts suddenly stiffen and stop. Before I looked to see what he was looking at I heard the shout “howzat.” The oval was peppered with middle-aged men in white uniforms. Satts had never seen a cricket game before. The wicket keeper had made a catch off the batsman and the entire fielding team was running and shouting to congratulate the keeper and bowler. To Satts it must have looked like a tribe of Bedouin warriors coming over the hill to cut his throat. I knew he had an urge to turn and flee, but he held his ground and quivered under me. I figured I only had a few seconds before Satts’ flight instinct kicked in, so I turned him to the right and urged him to ride the opposite direction. His response to the rein was stiff, but he managed to unlock his feet and turn away from the killer cricketers and walk in a shuffly-prancy sort of way. I used serpentines to try to help him relax, but that didn’t help a lot. Then I tried traversing over and around obstacles like ditches, logs and trees and within about fifty metres I felt him relax his mind a little. The obstacles gave him something else to focus beside the cricket game. We stood quietly for a few moments.

I then again pointed Satts in the direction of the cricket game and walked him forward. I couldn’t say that he gave me a free walk, but he was trying. He stared wide-eyed at the movement on the oval. His poll was level with my eyes. I kept a loose rein so as not to interfere with his mouth, but not so loose that if I needed to act fast I would not be caught out with no reins. We passed my front gate and Satts’ walk became a little upright and less forward. His energy level had multiplied but he was covering less ground. I began to ask for serpentines again. At first they felt terrible because he was almost spinning around in the turns. But on each turn I did not release him until he softened a fraction to the reins, dropped his neck and his feet hit the ground with less force. I was working really hard to stay on top of his feelings and prevent him from tipping over the edge into panic. Just when I thought I was getting nowhere, I felt him take a huge breath. I couldn’t believe the sudden change.

We were only about a hundred metres from the players and Satts was the most relaxed he had been on the ride so far. Just as we rode by the wicket, there was a shout and commotion from the players because another batsman had met his end. Satts scooted sideways and forward at the same time and began to trot. This time I decided to let him go as his own speed since the trot was not out of control. Satts just wanted to put some distance between him and the crazies and I couldn’t see a problem with that.

In another hundred or so metres I asked Satts to slow down and then stop. I took him over towards the neighbour’s fence for a pick of lush grass growing by the road. We were both enjoying letting down from the stress of the last several minutes. Satts was just about to get his second mouthful when he leapt side ways across the road. I tried to hang on as he spun to the right. I was falling off the side and decided I had better give up trying to stay on. I kept the left rein in my hand, but my body lay sprawled on the gravel. Satts was pulling away from me as I struggled to get to my feet. “What is wrong with you,” I shouted at him.

He was blowing steam through his nostrils making the sound of somebody brewing a latte. His body shook from nose to tail. I managed to get my hand to him and rub his muzzle, but he seemed oblivious to my existence. When I finally looked to see what had unnerved him so much, I made out the shape of a dirt brown monster through the densely packed bottlebrush that lined the neighbour’s fence. It took a second or two to realize it was a camel. My neighbour was an animal nut who kept camels, alpacas, donkeys, horses, sheep and pigs. Normally the camels were kept in a paddock at the other end of the property, but today was different. Poor Satts. How could he be expected to cope with cricketers and camels all on the one day?

The camel didn’t seem to care too much about us, but the feeling was not mutual as far as Satts was concerned. I spent several minutes working Satts through a series of exercises to help him settle about the camel. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make Satts forget about the camel and besides what would be the advantage of that? So I went to work trying to help him feel not so bothered by his new friend. Eventually, I felt we were winning and he was focussed on me enough to get back in the saddle.

I mounted up and we continued on our ride. It did cross my mind that Satts might have had enough for one day, but I chose not to listen to my inner voice. We had another couple of kilometres to ride before we got to the mud. On the way I took full advantage of the terrain and rode Satts up and over embankments, backed him over a log or two, bashed through some thick bush. I even started him on a little leg yielding around mounds of dirt. By the time we had gotten to the end of the road Satts was feeling like a steady trail horse. He was calm, listening and responding to my leg and reins much better than a lot of older horses with much more experience. I was feeling pretty good about how far Satts had come and the changes he had made.

When we arrived at the end of the road there was plenty of mud and water to work with. It’s not as if Satts had not seen enough mud during the winter months. He had seen a lot and had no trouble walking through both mud and water when he saw a purpose. But it can be a very different deal for a horse to negotiate these things when it is our idea and not theirs. Often no matter how many times they have done it on their own, all hell can break loose when we ask them.

I started by riding up an embankment where there was a long strip of water laying at the base. It meant Satts had to cross the water to climb the ridge. At first he tried to avoid the water by side stepping to the right and then to the left. I used the reins to keep in the middle. There was no pressure for him to cross the water – just that he couldn’t turn away from it. Finally, in his eagerness to try something Satts leapt onto the bank of dirt, while putting one front foot and one back foot into the puddle. Next we tried another puddle that was about 2 metres long and 5 metres wide. I took Satts to the edge of one corner of the puddle. He shifted to the right a bit, trying to arc his way around the edge. But my left rein blocked him and he managed to walk into the water and out again in one stride. I was very happy how little fight there was in Satts about the puddles. I had expected much more resistance considering the trauma he had already suffered today. With a few more repetitions Satts was walking calmly through the middle of the water. He seemed to like the splash it made and was pawing with his front feet to get his undercarriage soaked. The thought crossed my mind that water puddles might be a good way to get Satts started on Spanish walk.

As the final exercise, I saw a wide dark patch of mud on the road. On one side was a stand of tall green grass and other side it was bordered by a one-metre mound of loose blue stone gravel. At first, Satts hesitated about traversing the mud and tried to make his way to the grassy verge. But I kept him in the middle and after a few seconds I felt him get ready to try to make it. I relaxed the reins and urged him forward. He quickly scooted forward like he was crossing hot coals in his bare feet. But two steps into the mud he jumped to the side into the grass. What neither of us realized was that it was grass only on the surface. The moment Satts landed he sank though the grass and was almost chest deep in mud. He scurried panic stricken to avoid sinking. We had fallen into a sinkhole. I let go of the reins, took my feet out of the stirrups and rolled out of he saddle into the mud slurry. Meanwhile, Satts was using all his strength to scramble out of the hole to safety. It must have only taken five seconds for Satts to free himself, but it felt like I watched the scene before me for an hour. Finally, he was up and out of the sinkhole. I scurried to him and hugged him like I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We were both blanketed in mud. Satts was no longer a steel grey and I was no longer my usual pasty white colour. My beautiful and very expensive Keiffer saddle looked more like an old stock saddle found in a clearance sale.

I checked him all over for cuts or injuries and only found a small nick on the heel of his left front foot – no doubt caused by the flailing of legs when Satts tried to extricate himself from the mud hole.

After I scraped as much mud as I could from the saddle, bridle, girth, Satts’ face and my arms, I walked him around before mounting to go home. I figured Satts had had enough challenges for one day and wanted to just give him the easiest possible ride home. Besides, I had mud in my boots and down my pants and I just wanted to find a hot shower and change of clothes. But just because I couldn’t help myself I asked him to walk through one last puddle on the way. Even though I was expecting him to say “No”, I was not surprised when he did not hesitate or try to evade the water. I couldn’t have been more proud of him. For all his troubles I had come to learn that Satts was actually a very brave and even bold horse when presented with a challenge.

The camel was no longer grazing behind the bottlebrush trees, but Satts took a long hard look at them just in case. The cricket game was still in progress. Satts didn’t seem bothered by them until there was a loud shout and flurry of activity as a batsman hit the ball for six. I felt Satts apply the handbrake a little. My legs reminded him that the way home and back to LJ was ahead. He smoothly rolled into a trot with his ears and eyes looking for the property gate.

As soon as we got to the house, I unsaddled Satts and gave him and my saddle a thorough hosing. Then it was my turn to take a hot shower and change into clean clothes. What a day it had been.

Even though that ride was filled with more challenges and stresses than I would ever had chosen to expose Satts to, it didn’t turn out so bad. I think it was one of those rides that proved to be a turning point for him. And for me, it finally convinced me that there was a way that Satts could go back to racing and still survive. I could see the day was coming soon when I would have to send him back to Sydney to fulfil his destiny. My job would soon be done.

The Story Of Satan - Ch 14

It took a few days for the pain in my groin to completely subside. The jibes from colleagues at work about my growing list of injuries only added to my discomfort. Nevertheless, it was the price I needed to pay to make a break through with Satts and his worry about going forward. If he had not bucked as hard as he did and I had been able to ride it out I may not have learned the lessons I did.

I had plenty of time to think long and hard about Satts’ problem and it occurred to me that one of the obstacles to his forwardness could be that he had gotten sour about the round yard long ago. He had been worked a lot in the round yard and only had a little groundwork training out of the yard. I had not trusted him under saddle enough to ride in an open space and chose for safety sake to wait until his response to the reins and leg were much improved. But I started to wonder if the round yard was part of the problem.

Being worked in a small space whether it is a round yard or any other type of enclosure is great in the early stages. It helps keep a horse’s mind with the trainer and also limits his options enough to give the trainer’s idea some chance of being one of the options a horse will try. But there comes a point where it becomes boring and even counter productive for a horse. This is especially true when dealing with trying to develop a “go” button on a horse that doesn’t want to go. A horse likes to have somewhere to go to and round and round a yard quickly becomes a hindrance to offering a horse a place to go to. He sees no purpose to going anywhere when he gets back to the same spot in just a few strides. It becomes mundane and monotonous and can quickly sour a smart horse. I decided to smother my worries about riding out of the round yard and try riding somewhere new.

I didn’t have an arena on the property. I also didn’t have a paddock that was empty of grazing horses. My only option of riding out of the round yard was to ride down the steep and narrow driveway and along the dirt road. The driveway was more of a goat track about 700m long and surfaced with loose gravel for much of the way. It was mostly tree lined with deep drains on either side. There was no room for a horse to shy safely without falling into a drain or hitting a tree. The road outside of the property was a quiet gravel road with a wide verge. The property was the second last one on the road. Beyond the neighbours place was impassable by anything but walkers and horses. This made the road a great place to ride young and green horses. But first we had to negotiate the steep driveway.

I brought Satts into the round yard for some warm up ground exercises and a little riding. He was feeling terrific. The softness and level of okay-ness about the reins was better than most horses I had ever ridden at the same stage of training. I knew that if I could get Satts feeling the same way about leg aids, I would soon have a horse that could work from a rider’s thought.

I sidled Satts up next to the gate of the yard. The latch was deliberately set in a way that it was easy to open and close from the saddle. I reached for the latch and shook the gate enough to make a rattle sound that caught Satts’ attention. Then I pushed the gate open. I surprised myself how much effort I used to swing the gate because it opened with a bang. I guess I was more tense than I realized. Satts immediately went to walk through the gate, but I turned him away before he had time to get his nose out the yard. I realized that it was a habit for us to leave the yard whenever the gate was opened. Satts was only trying to do what I had trained him to do from habit. I could feel his thoughts clinging to the idea of going out the gate even though I was asking him to walk around to the other side of the yard. When we got to the opposite side, I stopped him. We sat for a few seconds. There was a little energy bubbling away under me, but not enough to cause his feet to fidget. I backed him up, stepped his forehand to the left and stopped him again. Then moved his forehand to the right and halted once more before he had a chance to drift forward. I backed him up and then asked for a hindquarter yield to the left followed by one to the right. Again, I backed him up a few steps until I felt him melt into my hand. We sat still again. This time there was no energy looking for release. Satts and I were just hanging out together with nowhere special to go – his mind was with me and not leaving through the gate. About twenty seconds had passed before I asked Satts to walk again. This time we were on the track, heading towards the open gate rather than away. But I felt no change in Satt’s energy level. A couple of strides before we got to the gate I turned Satts away from the gate and towards the middle of the yard. It felt effortless. I hardly touched the reins and Satts had the sweetest turn I could have hoped for. It was a great feeling to have asked him to turn away from the gate and sense no trouble inside him. Just a short time ago that would have been impossible.

I turned Satts right and headed straight towards the middle of the gate. A stride away from the gate, we halted. I stroked his neck while sitting there with a loose rein. I asked him forward and halted again with just his front feet on the outside of the yard. After a few seconds of calm patience, I asked Satts for another step forward so that his hind feet had cleared the gate too. I waited there for a few more seconds before directing him to the left down the driveway.

The first hundred metres was quite a wide path and it allowed Satts to meander along like a drunken sailor. He was not sure of his feet on the loose gravel and the steep decline. Every few steps either his front or his back feet would skid along the ground making him tread carefully like somebody on skates for the first time. But he continued on his forward journey.

However, soon the path narrowed and the verge on either side transformed into 30cm deep drains. Trees overhanging the driveway appeared to form a guard of honour to celebrate Satts’ first venture into the wide world. He clearly did not think going any further was a good idea. He called out to any horse that might hear him. But none bothered to return his cry for reassurance. Satts was still going forward, although with faltering steps. I couldn’t blame him. It was easy to see why it was so scary. We had about 300m of narrow, tunnel-like road to go before it widened out again and the sky was once again visible. I knew if I could get him past the trees he would feel a great deal better and confident.

It occurred to me to get off and lead him through the scary part. But I decided I would wait and see how he would handle it. If Satts fell apart, I could always get off then. But I wanted to see how he would do on his own.

We continued down the driveway on tiptoes. Thankfully the loose gravel had turned into solid road base and Satts was no longer slipping and sliding. We had travelled about 50m when Satts came to a wall and wouldn’t go any further. I urged him forward with my seat and legs, but that just made him try to turn left and then right in an effort to head back up the hill. I blocked his turns with my reins and did my best to keep him pointed down the driveway. With every touch of my leg on his sides, he swished his tail and tried to bring his head around to bite my leg. I had forgotten to bring the dog toy. I was wondering if I was going to be in trouble.

I noticed that Satts would look down the driveway in the direction we were travelling and then every so often he would look off to the side, as if he had forgotten about the scary laneway for a second or two. I kept him pointed where I wanted him to go. Then when he looked away I put both reins in my left hand, raised my right arm high and slapped my thigh with an almighty thwack. The chaps I was wearing made a very good thwacking sound. Satts jumped vertically with all four feet at once. He landed and trotted forward for a few strides. When he stopped I stroked his neck and then asked him forward with my leg again. He swished his tail and bobbed his head a couple of times. I asked with a firmer leg and got the same answer. Now I kicked him hard with my right leg and slapped my thigh with my hand as hard as possible. Satts took off trotting down the steep slope. I worried about him tripping on such uneven ground, but decided it was best to just let him go without interference. When I felt him slow the rushing a little bit, I asked him to stop. He was feeling quite on edge and still wanting to go home. A few seconds of a quiet halt was enough to satisfy us both and I nudged him forward again. There was a moment of hesitation from Satts, but a second nudge quickly followed and was enough to convince him to walk onward. It was not the free walk I experienced in the round yard, but he was trying. Satts’ eyes kept darting left and right for bogeymen. Once we were through the tunnel of trees I felt him relax marginally and with just a slight urging from my legs he trotted down to the front gate.

Finally we were on flat ground and solid terra firmer. Without even knowing it, both Satts and I let our breath out and guard down. We had survived and lived to tell the terrible tale. But in the next second three teenagers on mountain bicycles flew past within about four metres. I was as surprised as Satts because neither of us had any idea of their presence. I expect the kids were just as surprised to see a horse come trotting at them from the side because they swerved and yelled in one motion. Satts leapt to the side and ended in the shallow roadside ditch. I was lucky to stay seated. He scrambled out of the ditch without harm and watched the cyclists zoom off with a “sorry mister.”

Poor Satts, I thought. For his very first venture out of the safety of the round yard, he was not having a very good day. I wouldn’t blame him if he chose never to ride out again. It was just too dangerous out here!

I made the decision to make it up to him in some way and let him eat from the lush grass growing by the side of the road. There was enough rich grass to keep any horse happy for days. I dismounted and waited for Satts to have a pick. But he was a little interested in exploring this new strange land instead. I knew that for Satts to delay filling his belly that he must be seriously on edge. I led him around and showed him some strange new things like a mud puddle and the sheep grazing across the road. Eventually his stomach got the better of him and he put his head into the middle of some long grass. I allowed him to eat for about ten minutes and mounted again. I pointed him up the hill towards the house. We walked and trotted homeward and he felt pretty good. He didn’t hesitate about going through the tunnel again. He obviously knew where home and safety was and nothing was going to get in his way.

When we got to the top of the driveway I rode him into the round yard and picked up the squeaky toy I had left on the fence post. I then asked for some trot/canter transitions and was thrilled that I didn’t have to use the Tess’ toy at all to motivate Satts to think about those transitions. They were the best he had ever given. After that I unsaddled and gave him a small feed before giving him back to LJ to boss around the paddock.

That night I reflected on the days ride. It was not the best first ride out that I had ever had, but it wasn’t the worst either. I felt Satts had made progress in listening to my leg aids. When I asked him to trot towards the gate at the bottom of the driveway I used as much leg pressure as I had when he bucked me off in the round yard. It was very satisfying that he chose to go forward rather than dump me into the gravel. I counted that as progress.

There was still a lot of riding to do before he was ready to send back to Sydney. And there were still some things he would need to know and feel okay about if he were ever going to race without coming back to me totally fried again. But it was clear now that he had a future as a riding horse. I had come to really love Satts and care a lot about what happened to him. If he was going to be trained for racing, I was going to make sure he was the best prepared horse dad’s trainer had even had through his stables.

Here is a pic of a traditional Spanish way of catching wild horses that dates back to the 16th century. I thought it was interesting (among other thoughts I had).

catching horse in spain


The Story Of Satan - Ch 13

After my success with using the squeaky dog-toy to re-wire Satts’ brain not to bite at my leg and to instead move forward, I was sure I had made a major breakthrough with the horse.

It took a few sessions to establish the proper response to the rider’s leg with no sign of aggression from Satts. At first, I settled for just a casual walk. But when it came to ask for a transition to the trot, the old feeling resurfaced in Satts. He was not as aggressive, but more sour about the pressure from my legs. Applying the legs with enough of a squeeze to ask for anything more than a lackadaisical walk, brought out the worst in him.

Luckily, I had my back-up option with Tess’ dog-toy. I began with a feel from my lower leg and waited for a free walk. But Satts just rolled forward like he had one foot on the brake pedal. I asked again from my leg and when nothing changed I squeezed the toy on my pocket – squeaka –squeaka – squeaka – over and over in rapid succession until I felt a freedom and energy come up in Satts. Then I stopped and allowed him to wind down into the “Satts 4-beat shuffle” again – which was quickly becoming the latest new dance craze around my place.

The next time I asked with my leg, I wasn’t going to accept the pitiful walk he had been giving me anymore. Satts was doing well enough that what was a “try” in response to the feel of my leg a lesson or two ago, was no longer a good enough try. People recite the mantra of always accepting the smallest try, but forget that if you accept the same level of try that a horse gave you when it could do a job easily, then you are damning a horse to a life of mediocrity. I was about to move the goal posts and expect more from him.

I urged Satts forward with my legs and almost instantly the dreaded loud sound started emanating from my right hand jacket pocket. Satts leapt into a trot like he had somewhere to be in a hurry. I sat quietly and rubbed his neck as his flee dissipated into a forward walk. Shortly after I got him stopped by bending him on a left rein. I asked again from leg and again used the noise from the rubber toy to make it clear that my seat and legs were talking to him. Again and again, I repeated this process. Within about 10 or 15 mins Satts was walking freely when I lifted my seat and trotting with a forward rhythm when I squeezed my legs against his side. It was a nice change. But the best of all was that he was no longer getting upset about my legs being applied to his sides. His brain had connected the dots that if he simply moved forward there were no need to defend himself against the pressure. Satts felt better and I felt I didn’t have to keep wearing cricket pads to stay safe.

The next session was interesting (a euphemism for “I didn’t expect that!&rdquoWinking. I worked with Satts on a consistent forward response to my legs at both the walk and the trot. It was going so well, that I had no concern about trying for a canter.

It is my usual practice on young horses not to ask for a canter, but for a horse to offer the canter. This means that I would establish a trot rhythm and then build it into a bigger and bigger trot and keep building it until the trot was so big that the horse would fall into the canter. So I would normally let the horse find the canter himself rather than demand it. Later on, when the transitions from trot to canter were smooth and unrushed, I would start training the canter on demand. But that was for later. Right now, I just want Satts to explore the option of a canter transition.

It didn’t take much to ask for a steady trot with only occasionally needing to use the dog-toy as back up. Satts was travelling to the left in a nice loose rhythm. I applied a bit more leg hoping for a little more “oomph”, but all I got was his tail swishing. I tried again with a slightly stronger application of my legs, but this time his tail was whipping around as if in anger. And I noticed the feeling that he was holding back from being forward - like the hand brake had been quietly applied. Now I was even firmer with my leg. Big mistake.

Satts’ head suddenly disappeared in front of me and his back elevated me to the top of the mountain. I could see New Zealand from up there. There was air between the saddle and me. I landed back in the saddle with a thud and I felt a lightning bolt of pain shoot through my groin. I grabbed the bucking strap across the pommel of my Keiffer saddle just as I was airborne once again. There was noise coming from somewhere under me. It wasn’t until later than I realized that Satts was letting out a roaring sound. This time when I landed Satts was no longer under me. He had moved to the right and I hadn’t. I landed on my left shoulder and hip. Satts kept bucking for another couple of laps of the yard. The sound coming from him was scary. I managed to get to my feet and stay out of his way because I was sure he would never have known or cared if he had run over me.

Finally, calm descended over the yard. I walked over to him, but felt a searing pain. I suspected something had been stretched beyond normal limits that shouldn’t have been. Nevertheless, I manage to catch Satts who seemed far less bothered by what had happened than I was. He was blowing some smoke, but it appeared to be more from the exertion than the stress. I led him again and did a small amount of groundwork before putting my foot in the saddle to try again. However, as I swung my leg over the saddle I felt partly crippled by the pain.

With calm and grace I lowered myself into the seat, not really feeling confident that this was a good idea considering the pain spreading through my muscles. After a couple of hindquarter yields and a steady walk around the perimeter of the yard, I asked Satts to trot. He felt okay. I asked for a bigger trot – remembering not to do too much with my legs. A slight squeeze and I felt him ball up again. My hand quickly went to my pocket and a couple of squeaks from the toy was enough to encourage Satts to change his idea to wad up under me. He shot forward with an energy that surprised me, but I went with it as much as the pain would allow. The trot was much freer than before, so I allowed him to slow down again of his own accord.

Once again, I asked for a bigger trot, but needed the dog-toy to support my idea. When Satts let go of the brakes, I relaxed and let him come back to a slow trot. Up and down the trot we went several times like a kid practicing his musical scales. Finally, I felt there was a moment when Satts could offer more. He trotted around the yard and I kept nagging him to give just a little more. I had learned my lesson not to try to make it happen and I just waited until he felt ready. We must have completed at least 4 or 5 of laps at a hell-fire pace when I felt a letting go under me. I sat, clucked with my voice and squeezed with my legs. Satts rolled over into the sweetest canter transition I could wish for. I rode as quietly as I could in the saddle and allowed him to decide how fast and how far we would go before falling back to the trot again. He was a smooth ride for about half a lap when I felt him get a little tight and quick. I tried rubbing his neck to ease his worry, but to no avail. He suddenly hit another gear like a rabbit being chased by some greyhounds. It wasn’t until we had done a few more laps that I felt I could interrupt him without triggering another bucking panic. When I touched the inside rein I felt his mind come back to me and he smoothly returned to a large striding trot. I continued to turn Satts smoothly with one rein and follow him down to a slow trot, then a walk and finally a halt. We sat there while I rubbed and petted him from front to back. I then turned him to circle to the right and repeated the exercise. This time he felt better at the canter and the rushing that I felt when going to the left was hardly evident. Another couple of canter transitions in both directions saw the end of the session.

I had almost forgotten the searing pain until I tried to dismount. After taking care of the horse I went inside and grabbed a handful of ice from the freezer. The discomfort of the cold replaced the pain of my muscles. I was lucky because it turned out to be a minor strain and I was walking pretty well by the next afternoon.

I spent some time reflecting on the bucking episode. I realized that it did not come from nowhere. Satts gave me clear warning not to push the issue. He was struggling with just trotting with some freedom. He told me not to use my legs to ask for more. He warned me not to go there. But I chose not to listen. If I had used Tess’ toy instead of my legs it probably would have turned out quite differently. But you can’t fix stupidity.

The other thing I learned from the experience is that, as much progress as Satts had made with regard to feeling better towards the rider’s legs as a riding aid, there remained remnants of trouble about them. In no way was he feeling that the legs were a comfort to him and gave meaning to the cue to go forward. Somewhere deep inside the horse there was a feeling that pressure from the rider’s legs was to be tolerated only to a point. A feeling of acceptance and okay-ness was missing. The squeaky toy was a device that allowed me to circumvent being firm with my legs to avoid the type of response I suffered during the days work out. But it had not addressed the fundamental problem that my legs caused Satts a lot of troubled feelings. If I didn’t fix this issue, there was sure to be other times ahead when I would need more ice from the freezer.

the getting of wisdom


The Story Of Satan - Ch 12

Kimberley, thanks for your questions.

These days I don’t normally turn a horse loose when I saddle them for the first time. This is because I have learned that many horses will recover quicker and better if I can give them some guidance on the lead rope rather than let them go to sort it out by themselves. However, I will leave them to their own devices to buck as they feel in cases where I sense their bucking is random and unpredictable. By that I mean if I can’t be sure that a horse will buck away from me or in a straight line, I will often remove the halter and get some distance between the horse and me. It’s a safety thing. That was certainly the case with Satts. After the belly rope experience, I wasn’t confident that he would not turn towards me bucking and that I would be agile enough to keep out of his way. So I got out of there and climbed the fence just to be safe.

Using a roller before the saddle is just not something I do. When I first started out as a kid I would use a roller on a horse to lunge and long rein them before getting on them. But long ago I got out of the habit of using a roller and long reining.

I think after the work with the belly rope, I don’t see any big advantage to using a roller before using a saddle – especially since the horse still needs to become accustomed to the stirrups bumping them, the rear of the saddle bouncing, the flaps flapping and the feel of the pommel pulling laterally on their withers etc. In a western saddle this is even truer because the horse might have saddle strings flapping and a rear cinch to deal with. But I also don’t see any disadvantage to using a roller.

So my opinion is that we should experiment with these things ourselves and come to our own conclusions. There isn’t any problem with either way and both can be right and both can be wrong, depending on the particular horse and the skill of the handler.

fergus bucking


The Story Of Satan - Ch 11

It seemed it had taken forever to get to the point where I felt Satts was now ready to start life under a rider. I have never been the sort of trainer that would jump on a horse and ride through a storm. I’ve ridden plenty of bucking, bolting and rearing episodes, but never did I expect it. When I throw a leg over a horse I always expect a minimum of trouble. I always expect things will be okay and I don’t get on a horse hoping they will be okay. Sometimes I get it wrong, but being cautious has meant I have never suffered the plethora of broken bones that I know other trainers think are just part of the job. My most serious damage has been a fractured rib courtesy of a frightened Clydesdale running over me. But mostly my war wounds have been made up of bites, bruises and crushed toes.

But apart from my strong sense of self-preservation I also don’t wish the first ride for a horse to be so terrifying that they feel the need to buck or rear. I would like it to make perfect sense to a horse when I step across the saddle for the first time. All the work that came before should have prepared my horse for the first ride. I don’t want it to be an ‘Oh my God” moment, but more of a “that’s interesting and different – what do you want me to do now?” experience. It makes the relationship between us more open to negotiation and less stressful. It means I have a horse I can talk to about how things are going to go rather than a horse whose sense of self-preservation has taken over the situation and now the only thing to do is ride it out until he gives up in futility.

I felt I had got to that point with Satts after the many months of sporadic preparation. He was great to catch and be around. He was following the feel of the lead rope. He was maintaining his focus on the job and me. He was okay with the saddle and carrying me around as I lay over his back. He was listening to the reins and I was able to direct his forehand and his hindquarters. And most importantly, he was becoming so much more laid back when things became stressful. He handled trouble in a more controlled manner and was beginning to show signs of thinking his way through a bad spot rather than losing control. But I was about to learn that there was something I had missed.

Satts followed me into the round yard. Today he seemed especially happy to leave his buddies behind in the paddock as if there was a special treat waiting for him in the round yard. I dropped the lead rope on the ground and he stood quietly as I walked to the fence to where the saddle was waiting. He turned his head towards me a little, but turned back with a nonchalant expression once he saw the saddle was going on his back. Before riding, I did a little ground work and moved his feet at speed to make double sure he was comfortable in the trot and canter transitions. Satts had come a long way from the first time he was saddled. To his credit the early memory of the saddle slipping under his belly when he was at the racing stable seem to have dimmed sufficiently that it was no longer an issue.

I slipped the side pull over his head as he lowered his neck and bent towards me. I took a few moments on the ground to check out his response to the reins. Forehand yields and hindquarter yields were followed by a several steps backing up. Nothing was being left to chance. I was being particularly picky that every request was met with a soft response. Obedience was not enough. You can have a horse’s obedience without having his mind. Knowing how explosive Satts could be made me super cautious that Satts was feeling better than just okay before I climbed into the saddle.

Satts and I were both ready. I stepped up into the stirrup and stood above him. As I hung onto the pommel and reins with my left hand, my right hand stroked along his neck and over his flank and rump. Satts raised his head when I touched his flank. He didn’t move, but his reaction told me something worth knowing. I kept stroking his flank and rump as I stood in the stirrup. Satts looked yonder to horses in the paddock and I used my left rein to interrupt his mind drifting off. When he refocused his attention back on me I went back to stroking his sides and rump. This time he was distinctly better.

I stroked his neck on the right again and quietly swung my right leg over the saddle. There was some adjustment made to my position, but I didn’t yet search for the right stirrup. After a few seconds, I swung back over the saddle and stepped down to the ground. I lead Satts forward a couple of strides and then repeated the mounting. A few seconds later, I got off Satts and directed him around me. Now I repeated the process on his right side. I mounted from the right with no problem. I got off and repeated it once more before again mounting from the left.
Getting on again seemed easier for Satts. He appeared to know what was coming and what was expected. He stood quietly and even braced his legs a little to prepare for the pull on the saddle. I hadn’t ridden such a tall horse in sometime and I took the time to admire the view across the paddocks. But it was soon time to ask him to walk. I knew he is softer on the left rein (most horses are when they are green), so I softly took hold of the left rein and drew it out towards my left knee to tip his nose to the left. At the same time I made a clucking sound. The slack had hardly come out of the rein when Satts walked a couple of steps on arc to the left. It’s really common that horses get stuck at this point and all you get is a horse that has planted his feet to the soil and leans on the rein. But Satts gave me everything I asked for. I was thrilled.

Once more I used the left rein and clucked and he again moved on a circle to the left with no pressure on the rein. After he stopped in about three strides, I asked with the right rein. He was distinctly heavier, but nevertheless he followed the feel and walked a couple of steps before stopping.

It was obvious how unsure he was about carrying a rider. His steps were tentative and wobbly, so I gave him as much encouragement as I could without insisting. I tried to get him to move just from using one rein or the other, but he was not ready yet for that. I backed up the use of the rein with some clucking and that made a difference. I had already taught him that clucking meant move, so it was a good tool to use now to support the idea of moving with a rider. I had only been riding for probably less than five minutes, when I dismounted from the right side and unsaddled. I felt as a first experience under saddle Satts had done well and shown none of the panic he had become famous for.

The next day began much the same as before. At first I encouraged Satts again to attempt to walk by using one rein and making a clucking noise. I got pretty much the same response as yesterday with Satts offering just a few steps before stalling. I felt it was time to ask for more. I used my left rein to tip his nose to the left and then I clucked just like I had done before. Satts walk to the left in a lackadaisical manner, like he was sleepwalking. But just as I felt him about to come to a stop I nudged him with my left calf. The reaction was not what I expected. Satts suddenly pinned his ears and like a bullet reached around to the left and grabbed my shin between his teeth. He sank deeply into my flesh and pulled with more strength than I had to resist. I felt myself flying then lying sprawled out in the sand with him looking over me. I noticed the rip in my jeans and the trickle of blood long before I felt the searing pain. But the pain did come a few seconds later – damn that hurt. Satts was staring at me wide-eyed. My first thought was “Why is he mad at me? He’s not the one bleeding in pain and with a good pair of jeans wrecked.”

I raised myself onto my feet, but hardly being able to put weight on my left leg. At first I didn’t know what to do, but I soon was aware that I was too hurt to get back in the saddle. I figured the best course of action was to put Satts away, think about what just happened and regroup for next time. It was a struggle to move enough to lead Satts back to his paddock. My leg really hurt.

That night my lower leg had a bruise and swelling the size of an emu egg. It was painful to walk on it and I found hopping was the easiest way to get around. It took about five days before I was mobile enough to consider working a horse again.

Satts and I returned to the venue of our last confrontation. There was an air of gladiatorial contest about the day. I know several people who would have paid money to watch if they had known.

Once Satts was saddled and readied from the groundwork, I returned to walking beside him and bumping him with the stirrup when asking him to walk forward. There was no sign of his reaction from the previous session. He responded on both sides just like I wished.

A little more preparation with the reins and I hopped aboard even if the strain on my left leg caused me to wince a little. I stroked Satts from front to back on both sides and then used my left rein and a cluck to encourage some forward movement. Just as I felt him slowing to a halt, I clucked louder and gently pressed my left leg against his side. In a flash his head whipped around to grab my leg once again. But I was ready. I shifted my leg forward and tugged hard with my right rein. It was enough to void his teeth, but my leg came into contact with his jowl in exactly the same spot where I was bruised. I couldn’t contain my foul language and yelled at the top of my lungs. Well, at least I had my answer as to whether the first bite at my leg was just a one-off incident. There was definitely a problem here.

I leapt off Satts and hobbled to the house leaving him in the round yard wondering what I was doing now. When I returned after ten minutes I was suited up in my cricket pads. What a bizarre sight I must have looked. If the neighbours had been watching they would think I was crazy riding a horse with cricket pads strapped to my legs.

I strode up to Satts and climbed aboard once more. He seemed a little worried about the massive pads to his left and right, but I was simmering with too much emotion to care at this stage. I asked him to walk to the left again with the reins and used my left leg to squeeze him forward. Immediately he took a swipe at my cricket pad. He actually grabbed it between his teeth and nearly had me out of the saddle before I was able to reach down with my arm and bop him hard on the nose. Thankfully Satts released my leg instantly.

After thinking about Satts’ reaction for a few seconds, I thought I had better try something a little different. The next time I used my left rein to ask for a left flexion, but then applied my right leg to the girth area instead of my left leg. Satts reefed the left rein from my hand and reached around to bite at my right leg. As he did, my toe came into contact with his muzzle and he failed to make any teeth indentations in the pad. Just as he straightened his head again, I once more touched his sides with my right leg. With the determination of a white pointer shark smelling the blood of his next dinner, Satts sunk his teeth into my white pad. I jerked and tugged with both reins of the side pull until he let go.

It was clear that using my leg to touch Satts’ side was a serious issue for him. It didn’t appear to bother him if I used my hand against his side, but for some unknown reason being in the saddle and applying a gentle pressure from my legs was too much for him to handle. I figured I was not going to win anything by going into battle with this horse. History had shown that if I persisted and insisted, his behaviour could elevate into far more serious and dangerous behaviours. I needed time to think of another approach.

I dismounted and put Satts away. I know some people might think that it was wrong to finish the session without getting Satts to make a change about how he responded to a rider’s leg. Some would argue that it would be teaching a horse that if he attacks the leg with his teeth he wins and that would reinforce the behaviour.

But of course, that would only be true if Satts had a plan that biting my leg was going to teach me not to apply my leg. At this point, biting at my leg was an instinctual response to something that was seriously troubling him. There was no plan and thought on his part to hurt me or throw me out of the saddle. It was my leg pressure that he was trying to get rid of, not me. My leg was more like a really really annoying fly tickling his sides. He wouldn’t care about the fly or be mad at the fly. He would just want the tickling to stop.

There would be no harm in stopping the session without fixing the problem. There were going to be lots of other sessions and opportunities to help clear up Satts’ confusion on how to respond to a rider’s leg. But right now I needed to figure out how best to help him before the next ride and not go into battle with him about who was going to yield first. Nothing good comes from making a horse feel like his needs are not important to the human, so rather than bully Satts into going forward from my leg I had to invent an approach that gave him the idea that moving off a rider’s leg was a better choice for him than trying to bite at the leg.

Besides, my left leg was throbbing badly despite the protection of the pad. I needed to deal with my leg first and Satts later.


The Story Of Satan - Ch 10

I was very busy at work with a number of experiments on the go and a few honour student theses to mark before the examiners board met in a couple of weeks. But there was good news too. My major medical grant had been approved with only a minor drop in my requested funds. It was normal to expect a cut in the grant budget. Everybody knew that you always padded out your budget with an item or two of equipment that you didn’t really need or want because every grant would get some level of funding cut. The funding authorities needed to be able to show the government they were being hard nosed with their money. It was a game played by everybody with eyes wide open. But it meant I had a guaranteed salary for another three years and I could take on another postgraduate student.

By necessity the next couple of sessions with Satts were fairly short. They were mainly targeted to reinforce the “okay-ness” of being saddled. There were some initial remnants of worry-induced bucking in each session, but this neither surprised me nor disturbed me. After saddling I grabbed the lariat once again and snugged a loop around the left stirrup iron. Satts was sent around me on a left circle and after I was certain he was not overly stressed about the saddle I gently pulled on the lariat to cause the saddle to pull Satts to the left. I think the surprise of the pull was what caused him to jump forward. But I held firmly onto the rope until he found an even rhythm again. I relaxed the lariat and waited a few strides before trying again. With each repetition Satts appeared less imposed upon by the pull of the saddle. Both the left and right sides were addressed and the changes that Satts made gave me the confidence to be sure he was ready to accept a rider stepping up in the stirrup.

However, this would have to wait for a few days. Work demanded more time at the university and less time in the round yard. I knew if I had done my job properly that there would be no detriment to Satts’ progress. In a few days time he would be mentally just where I left him. As it turned out, it was almost 3 weeks before I had enough time in daylight hours to work with Satts again.

I led him into the round yard as the other horses crowded around the paddock gate like fans at a red carpet gala. It was almost as if they heard the gossip that something was going to happen.

I saddled Satts and moved him around. I constantly interrupted him with a new job in an effort to forestall his mind wandering to the paparazzi by the gate. Mentally he was in a really good spot. I pulled and slapped the stirrup leather on either side. Then I jumped up and down beside Satts as he walked around the yard. It was time to put a foot in the stirrup.

I started on the left side because that is my strongest side and with Satts at 16.3hh tall I knew stepping up on the right side would be more difficult for me. I didn’t want my clumsiness to scare the horse. I put the lead rope in my left hand. I stood beside Satts facing forward and lay my right hand over the saddle holding onto the right side of the pommel. My left foot was lifted into the stirrup with just the toe purchased on the bar in case I needed a quick exit. The next thing was to bounce two or three times. Satts watched wearily without turning to look. He was okay. I took my left foot out of the stirrup and walked him forward a couple of steps. I always walk them a little to ensure that the reason they are still is NOT because they are frozen to the spot.

I organized Satts and myself again in the same way and bounced some more. He felt much better the second time. We strolled another couple paces and he came forward with much less resistance. I was really pleased to feel him not hold back against the lead rope this time. Again, I stood beside him with the lead rope in my left hand. I put my foot in the stirrup and at the same time I used my right hand to tap the saddle and work towards his rump. I rubbed and tapped him back and front while I bounced with one foot in the stirrup. Finally, I sprung upwards as smoothly as I could. But with such a tall horse I find it necessary to throw quite a bit of energy into my spring if I’m not going to stall and crash land half way up the horse. Satts was quite startled by the suddenness of my burst of energy and took a hurried stumble away from me. It was times like this that I thought it would be better to mount from a fence.

I managed to keep my foot in the stirrup as I landed on the ground again. As Satts moved I was able to hop around with him with the help of my grip on the pommel. In a second or two he stopped and I took my foot out of the stirrup and stroked his forehead.

We began again. However, this time he was not so surprised by my leap into the air. Satts threw his head up and braced his back, but did not move. I stayed airborne for less than a second. I walked him forward once more and rubbed his chest for a moment. He was a little more stuck to come forward this time, which told me that his level of worry had risen. Nevertheless, the second time I was able to stand for longer with my foot in the stirrup. Satts still raised his neck and still felt tight, but it was a pretty good result compared to what I know he was capable of offering. With the next effort I raised myself over the saddle and used my right hand to stroke his right side, from his neck to his flank. I was expecting a little jumpiness when I touch his flank, but I made sure he knew my hand was heading that way, which was enough to cause him not to be surprised.

Satts’ response was better than I expected and good enough that I decided to push it to the next stage. Experience had taught me that Satts was best handled in increments rather than leaps of change. But I was confident that he could be pushed just a little bit farther.

I raised myself up into the stirrup again and lay across the saddle. Again, I rubbed him all over his right side. Then with my left hand I used the lead rope to tip his nose to the left and clucked with my voice. He leant against my hand a little, but not badly. Nevertheless, he didn’t move. I released the lead rope, stroked him some more and stepped down onto the ground. I stood beside him and laid my right hand over the saddle and tapped his right shoulder while using my tongue to cluck. At first he stepped back, but I persisted with the tapping and the clucking until he walked forward. Again and again I repeated this to be sure he was understand that clucking and tapping the right shoulder with my hand meant forward movement.

Once more time I hoisted myself above the saddle and lay across it. I rubbed him all over and then tipped his nose to the left. He didn’t move. I then clucked and tapped his right shoulder to encourage some sort of movement. At first he hesitated. He didn’t know how to move while carry this enormous lug of a man. I maintained the bend in his neck and waited for him to do something. I wanted Satts to unglue his feet. I think he wanted to move in order to re-balance himself, but he dared not. I continued to wait. Finally, he felt brave enough to move his legs in an effort to regain his balance. He stumbled to the left. I slid down his side and petted on him. After walking him forward again, I stepped up and used the lead rope to turn his head to the left. He locked his feet again, but I kept the bend while tapping his shoulder and clucking until he moved. This time he took a couple of hesitant steps and stopped. While still standing in the stirrup, I relaxed the pressure and just rubbed his neck.

I tried again. It took a few moments before Satts became mobile. He was very unsure of where to put his feet as his balanced wobbled around. I was prepared to accept anything he offered as long as he moved – even a rush or a back up would get a reward. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when he walked six paces before hesitating to a stop. He turned to look at me as if to ask “is that what you wanted?” I stepped down and made a fuss of him, making sure to pay attention to his favourite scratching spot.

I walked him around the yard and stepped up again on his left side. When I asked him to walk he moved with far less hesitancy, even though he still felt unsure. He had walked about six or so steps when I felt him think about stopping. I tapped his shoulder and clucked again as I tipped him to the left and he continued on. This time I urged him forward even more by tapping his shoulder with my hand. He threw his head up and almost stopped, but when I tipped him to the left even further, he strode out with much more confidence. It was the first really free walk he had offered and it felt great. We had gone half a lap around the yard and I bent him tighter to the left to ask for a stop. Initially, he tried to reef the lead rope out of my hand, but when that didn’t work he disengaged his hindquarters and stopped still.

It was enough for one day. The next couple of sessions were repeats of the same, except I was mounting from the right side as well as the left side. At first the right side was more troublesome for Satts. He was more resistant to walk, but when he did finally walk he was more hurried about it. This was no more than an expression of his tension and was sorted easily by taking the process in smaller steps and adding a lot more quiet time.

By the time the session ended Satts was walking around the yard, with me hanging off one side or the other, as if we were on a stroll through the park.

The idea of hanging off the side of the saddle when starting a horse seems to bother some people. I have been told that it scares horses by unbalancing them. I have also been told by some folk that they find it too difficult to balance in the stirrup without pulling the saddle over, so they would rather sit in the saddle. I understand this because I have seen enough people try to lean over the saddle from one side, but struggle to stop falling off.

In my experience of starting a lot of horses, this approach works well and can be learned by anyone with enough practice. You can start by working with a quiet horse that has already been broken in. Learn the technique on some old fellow before trying it on a young break.

The technique of pulling on the stirrup with a lariat rope as a horse walked and trotted on the circle, also helps avoid the fear that standing in the stirrup will cause the horse to be unbalanced. He gets okay with the idea of being pulled from either side

The main advantage is that if a horse gets scared and tries to buck or bolt, it is really easy to slip off the side and not get hurt. It’s a way of slowly introducing the notion of carry weight on a horse’s back in stages that a horse can handle. It’s a way of not flooding a horse with the pressure of carrying a rider, but where the horse can be exposed to the idea in increments. It’s also very safe for the rider. There have been a few occasions when I have used this technique and thanked my lucky stars I didn’t throw my leg over the saddle. There are some storms brewing deep inside a few horses that you just don’t want to ride. The method I describe has kept me from being hurt a few times when I thought a horse was okay inside and I was wrong.

It was a more than a week before I could get back to Satts and ride him. The riding part turned out to be quite different to the groundwork part. Things showed up with Satts that I had never seen in other horses and I didn’t know how to handle. He pushed me beyond what I knew about horses and made me wish on several occasions that I had somebody like Walt and Amos to call upon for advice.

The photo shows the first time I stepped into the saddle when I started my mare, Six.

ross and six 17


The Story Of Satan - Ch 9

I repeated the exercise with the belly rope each day until I Satts began to feel quite okay about the tightness around him whether at a walk, trot or canter. I had removed the lead rope and allowed him the freedom to choose the direction to travel. It took about 5 days for Satts to overcome his fear of the rope and I could now use the belly rope to ask him to walk, trot, canter and stop on command.

I have to admit that I held some hesitancy about saddling Satts. The belly rope was one thing, but if things became too hairy with the rope I could always release the pressure. This was not possible with the saddle. Once the girth was tightened the saddle wasn’t coming off until he either accepted it or killed himself. I had no idea how I would explain to dad that I murdered his horse. But I could no longer put off the saddling. The time was now or never.

I grabbed my Keiffer jumping saddle from the tack room, along with my long lead rope, flag and lariat. The belly rope was left hanging on its hook for the first time in a week. The Keiffer was the only saddle I owned and had been used for breaking in a few hundred horses, trekking a few thousand kilometres across the country and winning more than the occasional jumping competition. I was hoping this was not going to be its farewell appearance.

Satts was grazing among the other horses. I noticed how much he was accepted now into the herd. When I first put him with the others he was chased off by almost everybody. They seemed to sense how emotionally disturbed he was and that he would upset the workings of the herd. All the horses snubbed him for weeks. But as Satts changed and became less of an emotional basket case, he was slowly allowed into the group. He posed less of a threat to the tranquillity of the herd and was more and more accepted.

I haltered him and lead him to the round yard once again. He was getting to know this routine pretty well by now. I asked for a couple of hindquarter yields, back ups and forehand yields. He was instantly soft and focused. I directed a couple of changes of direction on the lunge. This gave me confidence that he was ready to be saddled.

I threw the lead rope over his back and turned to walk to the fence where my saddle was looking nervous – but maybe that was my imagination. Satts followed behind as if to see where I was going. When I swivelled back to him he noticed the saddle blanket in my hand. He took a sniff and I rubbed his neck and back with it. I lifted it high in the air and dropped it onto his back a few times. He moved away a little, but I just followed as I carried on dropping the saddle blanket on his back and used my lead rope to circle him around me. He stopped quite quickly. I position the blanket and walked Satts over to where the saddle was reachable. This time I swung the saddle onto his back calmly, but without hesitating. He didn’t move, but he was watchful. I removed the saddle and swung it up again – this time a little less careful. Again he drifted away, but stopped when I offered a feel on the lead rope.

I walked to the opposite side and lifted the saddle and blanket from Satts’ back. I laid them on the ground at his feet and rubbed him all over. I picked up the saddle blanket and gave it a shake to flick any sand away and casually swung it on his back. Satts was a little more bothered by this and I rubbed him and walked him around me in a tight circle. His steps became a little freer in a couple of laps, so I stopped and rubbed the itchy spot on his chest. As I reached for the saddle, ready to swing it on him I noticed he was looking out towards the other horses. I stopped in mid swing and used the lead rope to encourage him to look at me. At first he was sure that was not going to happen. But I blurted a huge raspberry and he suddenly spun his neck around to see what had happened. When he realized it was just me having another silly tantrum he relaxed and forgot about the thing that was so interesting in the paddock.

I lifted the saddle and placed it on and off Satts’ back, then went to the left side again and repeated the process. He sometimes drifted his focus away from me and I kept reminding him to check in before I lowered the saddle on each time. I figured that Satts’ attempt to mentally disconnect was his way of telling me was a little unsure about what was going on.

I walked around him, slapping and rocking the seat of the saddle from either side - gently at first and then firmer as I felt Satts relax. Then I asked him to walk around me as I did the same. So far, so good!
I bent down to reach for the girth with my left hand and brought it up under his belly while I used my right hand to steady the saddle. Slowly I let the girth touch his belly and snug it against his skin just a little. Just as slowly that I tightened the feel on the girth I then released it until the girth was hanging loose. Satts appeared a little worried, so I repeated the process until he seemed fine. Then I asked Satts to walk forward and again I slowly snugged the girth against his belly and released it. He was doing great and I felt confident to lift the girth tighter and tighter until it approximated the feel of a saddle during riding. Satts handled it like a 20-year-old kid’s pony.

Finally, I buckled the girth to a level that was just tight enough so that the saddle would not roll if he bucked. I removed the halter and lead rope and stepped away from the horse. At first Satts tried to follow me as I walked backwards away from the horse. But I swung my arms gently to discourage my stalker, but not enough to scare him. He wandered to his right towards the opposite side of the round yard. When he got to the fence he stopped and looked out towards the other horses. This was no good. I needed him to move and think about the saddle, not the herd.

I tried clucking and walking towards him, but nothing happened – he was still fixated on something. He had a distant gaze. I still had the halter and lead rope in my hand, so I slapped my chaps gently. Nothing. I slapped harder and this time there was a loud thwack noise. Suddenly the memory of his last saddling must have awakened. Satts turned and bolted. He bucked and roared. The stirrups were flapping madly like wings and bumping his sides, so he bucked harder. I knew I was safe because he just kept to the track. I decided not to interfere and just observe to allow him to figure it out because I noticed how much less intense was his response than the first experience to the belly rope. I was sure he would settle soon. And he did.

After perhaps three laps he suddenly stopped and looked at me. I gave him a few moments to rest and when he looked out towards the herd I clucked him to move on. That startled him and he offered a couple of bucks and then trotted around. I then stepped across the yard to get in front of him and asked him to change direction. He spun to his left and gave another couple of bucks as he came out of the turn – but that was the worse of it. I kept asking him for changes of direction until his turns smoothed out and the bucking and jumping ceased. When this happened we both just stood still looking at each other as if to ask what do we do now?

My next move was to take three steps to the left to see if I could draw his thought towards me in a strong enough way as to cause him to walk closer to me. Satts followed me with his gaze, but his feet seemed stuck. One of the hardest things for people to do is to wait. We are so accustomed to making things happen that allowing a horse enough time to come up with his own decision is often incredibly difficult. So I stood waiting anxiously wondering if I should do more to induce Satts to move his feet. It felt like we were in a staring competition. But I knew that Satts was thinking about his choices. He was looking at me, but there were tiny shifts of weight that indicated to me that he was deciding to move one way or the other. I kept telling myself to do nothing until he does something. I know it was at least thirty minutes, even though my watch said it was one and half minutes, before he did move. Satts stepped his hindquarters across in order to face me squarely. Here we were standing face to face, teetering on the edge of calmness or panic. In an effort to confirm in Satts’ mind that he made the right choice, I calmly walked towards him and rubbed his neck. His posture immediately melted. He turned his nose into me and sniffed around for reassurance. A few seconds of bonding in this way was enough for him to feel it was okay to follow me around the yard.

Eventually, I re-haltered him. With the lead rope in my left hand I reached for the cantle of he saddle with my right and started to rock it left and right. Satts was a little stuck in his feet, so I stopped moving the saddle and had him walk around me in a circle before beginning to shift the saddle from side to side once again. His back braced against this for about half a lap, but then he relaxed. I used my right hand to tap the seat of the saddle and eventually to slap it quite hard. I had to tighten the circle once or twice to discourage him from trotting around me, but that was all it took. Next I grabbed the stirrup iron in my right hand and slapped the leather against the saddle flap. It was not a hard slap, but enough that the sound of leather against leather caused Satts to launch himself forward. All four feet left the ground simultaneously and he landed taking off for who knows where. When he hit the end of the lead rope, Satts spun around so quickly I had to release my grip on the stirrup iron. He was now facing me again. But the bump he felt from the iron hitting his sides surprised him so much that he leapt towards me from two metres away. I know it was not Satts’ choice, but his shoulder knocked me sideways and I hit the ground bum first. The horse stood looking down at me and I briefly wondered if this was how he metaphorically looked at me every day.

After brushing the sand from my sides and seat I collected the dangling lead rope, petted Satts and then picked up the stirrup iron once again. This time I slapped the leather with about a third of the energy of the first time. Satts jumped, but not much more than a shudder. I repeated and repeated until he was acting nonchalant about the slapping of the leather on the saddle. Then I directed him to walk around me again and commenced bumping him with the stirrup leather again.

It is important to me that horses not ignore anything that happens to them. I didn’t want Satts ignoring the fact that the stirrup leather was slapping the saddle or my hand was rocking the saddle. This is desensitizing a horse and there is a big difference in my book between desensitizing a horse and having a horse feel okay about things. I want my horse to not over react to events because he feels okay about them and is not bothered, not because he tries to tune it out. So I began use the stirrup leather to teach Satts to walk or trot when I slapped the stirrup, but to make no change when I used a sharp bump to pull down the stirrup leather. In this way Satts would learn not to ignore the stirrup leather, but also learn that how I use it will have meaning in a way that does not worry him. Being the genius that he was, this did not take long.

Things were going so well, that I decided to quite for the day. I unsaddled Satts, hosed his sweat spots and let him tell his mates in the paddock all about his day.

I was really happy with the session. I was expecting a lot worse. I was thinking maybe a broken board or two in the round yard or a busted girth or a few gashes on Satts or me. But none of that happened, so it was a good session.

That evening I spoke to my father on the phone. Ever since I left home at eighteen most of dad’s phone conversations went something like,
“How are ya son?
Do ya need any money?
Here’s ya mother.”

But since Satts’ arrival, it was more like,
“How are ya son?
How’s my horse?”

Dad wanted to know if Satts was going to make it to the racetrack. He had been talking to his trainer and the trainer told him that if it was taking this long to get Satts rideable, he couldn’t be any good. Dad wanted to know why was it taking so long and was it worth it?

This was one of the few times I got pissed at my father. I asked him why was he listening to a bloke who wrecked the horse in the first place and wanted to send Satts to the doggers? I said Satts is smart and sensitive and wouldn’t tolerate the idiots he has had in his life. Satts will make a wonderful horse if he is allowed the time to work things out. But if people try to push him into a program they might as well do the horse a favour now and put him down.

Dad could tell I was mad about that he was still taking advice from the same bloke that had screwed up Satts’ mind. He knew I had made more headway with the horse than anybody before and if he didn’t like it I was likely to tell him to take the horse back now. But I think what worried him most was that he knew that if that happened he would have mum to deal with after that.

So dad then told me he was happy with everything I had done and appreciated all my work. We ended the conversation with,
“Do ya need any money?
Here’s ya mother.”

The photo shows a horse I started a few years ago going through its first saddling experience. This is not Satts.



The Story of Satan - Ch 8

Satts was a very different horse to that one that arrived off the truck from Sydney, breathing fire and ready to kill the first person that looked wrongly at him. He was now living in the paddock with the other horses. And like the other horses he had to learn to live by LJ’s rules. LJ was a very dominant gelding, but sort of a benevolent dictator. He didn’t hassle the other horses. He had his second in command, Chops to do that for him. The exception was when one or more of the mares came into season. Then LJ would kidnap the mares into a corner of the paddock and drive away any gelding that showed the slightest interest. Satts fell victim to LJ’s wrath on several occasions before he gave up the notion that he had propriety rights to any of the mares. After about a day, LJ would release his captives from the corner and calm and tranquillity would settle over the paddock once again.

Satts’ groundwork was going well. He was a now easy to catch, responsive to lead and his forehand and hindquarter yields were becoming reliably soft and accurate. I had just started teaching him to lunge and it seemed the time was right to try saddling him again.

I knew from the trainer in Sydney that the first breaker had tried getting Satts saddled, but it ended badly. The one time he put the saddle on Satts’ back he managed to get the girth buckled moments before Satts jumped. But the girth was not snug and after the first leap it rolled around the horse and lay under his belly. From there it went from bad to horrible. Satts clearly thought he was being attacked under the belly and panicked. He bawled, bucked and bashed into the round yard fence for several minutes. At one point he flipped over and landed on his neck because he stepped onto his dangling lead rope at high speed. The breaker thought he had killed the horse because Satts lay there for a few seconds. But when the breaker went to approach, Satts leapt to his feet still bawling and kicking at the saddle clinging to his belly. When exhaustion overtook Satts he stopped panicking and stood still. But the moment the breaker tried to approach him, it would set him off again. The fellow was afraid Satts might not stop until he killed himself. He decided that he and a mate would throw two ropes on Satts and sort of crosstie him between two posts of the yard. With this done Satts fell to the ground and the breaker was able to sneak close enough to unbuckle the wrecked remnants of his saddle. That was the first and last time anybody had tried to saddle Satts.

From past experience I had learned that when a horse has a bad experience with his first exposure to being saddled, it is often a difficult process to put that behind them. With horses as sensitive as Satts, sometimes they never get over it. So I decided to begin with a lot of preparation before he was saddled.

I did about ten minutes of groundwork to ensure Satts was having a good day and on his game. There was no point starting something that I knew was going to be very traumatic to him if he wasn’t in a good spot from the start. I already had butterflies and was expecting the worse, so I should at least start off okay even if I screw up and finish badly.

When I sensed Satts was as relaxed and focused as I was likely to get him, I reached across the fence of the round yard for the belly rope. The belly rope is simply an 8m length of lead rope with a 45mm diameter steel ring (like a tie up ring) spliced onto one end. The idea is to pass the tail end of the rope through the ring to form a loop. Pulling or releasing the free end of the rope can adjust the size of the loop. I also swapped my 4m lead rope on the halter for an 8m rope so that I could give Satts as much freedom as he needed to move around the yard, but still maintain contact if I wanted.

The end of the belly rope with the ring attached was passed across Satts’ back and down his right side. I reached under his belly and grabbed the ring bringing across to his left side. I made extra sure that the rope did not touch his belly. While keeping the belly rope loose I fed the other free end of the rope through the ring enough to make a loose loop around his body – just behind his wither and coming up near his elbow. I could feel Satts tense, but he didn’t move. I spent a few moments talking to him and scratching his favourite spot. At the same time I asked him to lower his head. When I finally felt him relax, I directed him to walk around me to the left.

At first Satts seemed a little tentative in his steps, but I urged him forward and kept the loop of the belly rope loose. In a bit more than a couple of laps his walk freed considerably, telling me he was getting more use to the feel of the loop around his body. Now the moment of truth had arrived! As smoothly as I could I took the slack out of the rope until the loop was now held against his stomach and sides. It was not tight, but could definitely be felt by Satts. He suddenly planted his feet and humped his back. The feel around his belly must have caused those muscles to contract and lift his back. I waited for less than ten seconds and clucked him to walk on. I clucked again and then again, but Satts was frozen on the spot. I needed him to walk. He was not going to feel better until he moved. I released the feel on the rope and clucked. He took a few hesitant steps and finally relaxed again when he realized the rope was not going to grab him.

Again, I slowly took a feel on the rope and once again the loop closed in around his belly. Satts went to stop once more. I tried to get my cluck out before he froze, but to no avail. Satts planted his feet firmly to the spot. In an effort to get him to move, I tugged slightly on the belly rope. Nothing happened. I tugged again a bit firmer, but nobody seemed to be at home. He stood there hunched up like an explosion was working its way to the surface from deep within him. I knew no progress was possible until Satts learned he could move while having the belly rope firmly around his girth area. I needed to help him try something other than an impression of a statue. Next time I tugged the rope even firmer in an effort to convince him that standing still was not the solution to making the belly rope disappear.

This time when the rope grabbed his girth, Satts shot forward like a cannonball. As quickly as I could I put slack in the rope, but he took off running. I was happy to let the fence limit the distance he could escape me so I could hold the lead rope. I waited and waited until Satts had slowed to a walk before shortening the belly rope again. As soon as he felt the rope snug against his body, Satts prepared to stop. I bumped the rope gently, which was enough to cause him to trot. This time, however, I didn’t release the belly rope. The combination of being bumped by the belly rope and the snug fit around his girth was enough to trigger a panic attack. Satts leapt like a cat in the air and roared. When his feet hit the ground he bucked, twisted and reared. Memories of being attacked by the saddle gripping his undercarriage seemed to fill the pen. He brought his hind legs under to kick at the rope gripping his belly. What was quite a sizeable 16m round yard a few seconds ago suddenly seemed too small to fit the both us. Satts was twisting and leaping to all points of the compass and I couldn’t be sure until the last second which direction to move to stay out of his way.

belly rope
I did my best to maintain a hold on the belly rope, but that was not always possible. Sometimes it seemed too loose and others it was too tight. Occasionally, Satts tried to change direction, but a feel on the lead rope was enough to block him. The storm continued much longer than I had ever experienced with any horse before. Many horses would react with their first experience of the belly rope, but I couldn’t ever remember any horse whose response came close to this. The sweat was pouring down his sides after a couple of minutes and his tiredness was starting to cause a subsidence in his panic.

Eventually, the bucking turned into a canter. I figured that if the bucking had stopped it was a good moment to relax the belly rope. Satts felt the release instantly and was trotting and then walking again within a lap of the round yard. I stopped him and let him relax for comfort. We both needed a respite from the adrenaline.

After a few minutes rest we regrouped. I directed him out on the circle again and smoothly tightened the rope against his belly. It took about two strides before Satts was bucking and kicking. But since he didn’t instantly jump forward I took that as an improvement. About five laps had passed before Satts was cantering smoothly. I released the belly rope and allowed him to trot, walk and finally stop again. After a few moments of rubbing we started again. This time it took only a couple of laps of bucking before he was going forward more relaxed. When he found the walk, I tried to keep him walking with small tugs on the belly rope just before he looked to be stopping. It didn’t take long for Satts to realize he was being asked to keep walking with the loop loose. I then tightened the belly rope once again Satts trotted and gave a couple half-hearted bucks and kicks and then just trotted albeit a little tighter than I would have liked. With a few more repetitions I was able to adjust the tightness of the belly rope and have Satts maintain his walk without objection.

The next step was to have Satts trotting around the pen while I manipulated the belly rope. At first trotting and a tight belly rope together were too much to handle for the Satts. But it didn’t take long before he showed significant improvement. When it came to repeating the exercise at a canter, Satts’ fear took over much stronger than I expected. He reacted like it was his first time with the belly rope. I wondered if I had done as good a job at the walk and the trot as I thought I had done for him to be so upset at the canter. I continued to work at it like I had done earlier and the change in the way he felt that I was looking for eventually showed through.

I knew I still had to repeat the whole process on the right side, but first Satts needed a break. I put him in a stall with fresh water and a small amount of hay while I went to the house for a cup of tea. There were two phone messages on the machine, which I decided to check later. But then the phone rang. It was one of the honours students in my lab. She was in a panic about the final presentation of her work to the university department. It was scheduled for a few days time and she was having trouble with the statistical analysis of her results. I think Satts was less panicked about the belly rope than Adele was about her presentation. So what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute break for Satts turned into an hour and fifteen minutes!

When I finally managed to get back to the round yard with Satts, his sweat had dried into a salty crust. I began the exercise with the belly rope from the start again, but from his right side. It was almost an exact repeat of the experience of the left side, except the changes that Satts made came around much quicker. There was the same level of reactivity, but the improvements happened quicker.

Satts had had enough for the day. I was sure I would need two or three more sessions like this one before Satts was okay about the tightness around his girth. With a horse as reactive as Satts and with the bad history, it is never a mistake to double check that each stage is okay before moving to the next stage. I hoped that this exercise was going to be enough to better prepare him for giving the saddle a second chance. His previous bad experience meant it was probably never going to be possible for me to avoid causing him intense fear about the saddle. But my hope was that the belly rope would help him recover much quicker and open the door to Satts making a “try” to work it out.

I knew I was making good progress with Satts. But there was a still a long way to go before he was ready to be a riding horse. Even when Satts feels okay about wearing a saddle and being girthed there are still lots of things to check before knowing he is ready to accept a rider without too much trouble.

The photo shows what using a belly rope on a horse for the first time can look like. The horse in the picture is not Satts.

The Story Of Satan - Ch 7

The next several sessions were taken up with teaching Satts to respond to the lead rope with more feel and less effort on my part. One thing that most people don’t realize is that the way a horse responds to the feel of the lead rope is much the same way he will respond to the feel of the reins. It’s just that one has you sitting on his back and the other you are standing on the ground. A horse does not distinguish in his mind the difference between leaning on a lead rope and leaning on a set of reins. The same mental process that goes into one is also involved in the other. So teaching Satts how to listen and respond to the lead rope was the start of mouthing him.

I began with hindquarter yields. This entails using the lead rope to ask a horse to flex either left or right. In the process he must look in the direction he is flexed. Many horses are taught to turn their head left or right, but their eyes are pointing the opposite direction. A horse is always looking where he is thinking, so if you are asking him to bend left and he is looking left, you are okay. But if not, there is trouble brewing in how he feels about yielding to the lead rope. Once you’ve got your horse thinking in the direction he is flexed, the horse stepping his inside hind leg across and in front of his outside hind leg while his forehand is almost pivoting completes the hindquarter yield. This is an oversimplification and it is a lot harder to do correctly than it is to talk about, but I hope you get the idea. The purpose of this exercise is to teach the horse that the lead rope (and eventually the reins) can direct his hindquarters. I don’t use any driving aids to make the hindquarters move. I allow the bend of the horse to initiate the yielding of the hindquarters. I feel this is very important in a young horse. This is about a horse learning to give to the feel of the rope and not about escaping the pressure of having his hindquarters driven.

Satts’ first attempt at a hindquarter yield was pretty typical of a lot of horses. He stiffened through his body and braced his neck against my lead rope. When I wouldn’t release, he began walking backwards trying to find a way to make me let go of the lead rope. After walking about three quarters of the round yard in reverse, he gave a slight flexion and lightened his feel on the lead rope just a fraction. I released and gave him a scratch on his favourite spot. I repeated the exercise again. It probably took longer before he gave to the rope this time, but the try was a bit stronger. I had to repeat this over and over before I could pick up the rope on the left side and Satts could give to the rope softly and look left.

Now it was time to get him to move is hindquarters in response to the feel of the rope. As I shortened the lead Satts yielded and looked left, but instead of releasing I held a constant feel. In a few seconds he tried to reef the lead rope out of my hands and when that didn’t work he began to walk backwards again. I stayed with him while still trying to maintain a constant feel on the rope. While he was exploring his options there was no need to be stronger with the rope. By the time we started our third lap in reverse gear he made an effort to stumble his left hind leg to the right. It was a big moment for the young fellow. I was all over his itching spot in a heartbeat. It was a very exciting moment for me.

Describing the process to teaching Satts how to yield his hindquarters could take up the best part of a huge chapter of a book. Needless to say there were hiccups along the way, including a couple more attempts on Satts’ part to sink his teeth into my arm during his more frustrated moments. But the progress was steady. As his focus increased, his resistance diminished.

It was soon time to add forehand yields into the mix. Where hindquarter yields are designed to teach a horse that the lead rope can direct his rear end, the forehand yields do the same for his front end. Pretty soon the lead rope is able to influence his front end and his rear end independently from each other or in unison. It all depends on the feel a person sends down the length of the rope.

In the perfect forehand yield a horse looks and flexes in the direction he is being asked to yield, then shift his weight back onto his hindquarters. At the same time he raises his front a little and steps his forehand across to whichever direction the rope is directing him. The forehand steps across while the hindquarters are stationary. Once this is mastered a person can combine the movement of the forehand and hindquarter yields into one fluid motion. To the outside observer it looks like two people doing a beautiful waltz.

Because Satts was such a sensitive horse he tried an exhaustive range of options and was constantly searching for an answer that might work better for him. So it took a while for Satts to settle on one answer – the right answer. He’d try various other answers and because they offered no better solution he’d keep trying. But when he did hit the right answer he sometimes kept trying alternative responses just in case there was a better result waiting. A lot of really sensitive horses are like that. But through repetition he would eventually convince himself that the answer I was waiting for was the also the answer that worked best for him. When that happened gaining the softness to accompany the movement came really quickly. It may have taken a little while for him to decide the right response, but once he was sure of the response he was super quick to add quality to his responses. He just needed to be confident of the question and the answer. Then he stopped holding back and keeping his efforts in reserve in case he needed to save his life at a moments notice. He gave all he had.

He was wonderful horse to work with in this regard. But this facet of his personality gave me a huge responsibility because of how strongly he hung onto an answer he was sure about. That’s a great thing in a horse that has the right answer, but a horrible thing in a horse that is just as sure about the wrong answer. I believe that’s why Satts was labelled “no good” and “dog meat” by the last trainer. Satts had learned a lot of wrong answers, but he was confident those wrong answers were going to keep him safe. The treatment he had received at the racing stable only confirmed in him that attack was the best defence. It kept him alive.

Now that I had Satts leading well with his forward and backup feather light, and control of his hind and forequarters, it was time put them to work and teach him to lunge.

The purpose of lunging is not to exercise a horse. It’s to build focus and correctness in how they move. A circle is a line that is curved. When a horse is correct his thought and therefore his feet follow that curved line. But often the reality is that a horse’s thought is elsewhere with the result being that his feet are not travelling on the line. How can you tell? The first thing that is obvious is to notice where he is looking. If his eyes are looking outside the circle, he is not thinking about following the curve of the circle. The next obvious point is to notice his body. By definition a circle is a line where every point on the line is equi-distant from the centre. If you assume that the person is the centre of the circle, then the distance between the person and the horse’s shoulder should be the same as the distance between the person and the horse’s hip. If one is closer than the other, the horse is not travelling a circle correctly and the horse is crooked. This is happening because the horse’s thought is not following the line of the circle.

From this description I hope you can see how lunging can be an important tool for training a horse to allow his thought to be directed and setting him up for the correctness that maybe required as a riding horse.

For me, lunging begins with a forehand yield. I ask a horse to step his shoulders to the left or right and then lead past me on a circle. The only equipment I use is a lead rope and halter and sometimes a flag or whip. I have no time for gadgets and rollers. Side reins, Pessoa, running reins and other devices are only for making a horse do something in spite of his resistance. They do not remove the resistance because they are not capable of changing a horse’s thought.

Getting Satts to start his circle was easy because the idea of the forehand yield was already planted into his mind. He began to walk around on about 2m of lead rope. His circle wavered quite a bit and was far from ideal. But to begin with I let him just get a feel of walking around me. I stopped and changed direction. It was worse going to the right. A couple of laps went by and I changed direction again. I figured it was easier to start on his easy side before tackling the right side.

When I asked him to circle around to the left, he walked about four strides before the slack in the lead rope was gone. This was not what I was wanting. If he was taking the slack out of the rope now, he would soon be pulling the rope away from me and leaning on it. Naughty Satts! This was not softness and not correctness. He was leaving the circle through his right shoulder because his thought was causing his hindquarters to push his front end out of the circle. If I could get him to think around to the left rather than the right I figured he would leave some slack on the rope. It seemed that my options were to either to us the rope to pull him towards me, draw his attention my way or yield his hindquarters away from me in order to bring his thought to the left. In a nutshell I could either try to get him to think to the left and let that fix his feet or fix his feet and use that to bring his thought to the left. Neither choice would be wrong, if they worked. But how to know which one would work was not clear. I figured the only thing to do was to try something and if that didn’t help, try something else.

With my left hand I tightened my grip on the lead rope without shortening the line. I then stomped my feet really quickly for a second like I was trying to crush a bucket full of cockroaches. The suddenness of it caused Satts to jump and pull away, but I held the line firm and when he hit the end of the lead rope he spun his hindquarters away and looked at me. His head was high and nostrils wide, but I sure got his attention. I walked up to him and scratched his favourite spot. I felt him melt under my touch and asked him to walk out to my left once more. This time he kept a close watch on me and managed a beautiful circle for about half a lap. Then my ever-helpful side kick, LJ called out. Satts threw his head up and started trotting around the circle while trying to pull the lead rope out of my hand. I used the tail end of the rope to slap my chaps causing a crackling thwack sound that had Satts leap in the air and spin around to look at me once again. He had lost focus and I needed to suddenly make myself more important that LJ. I had to draw Satts’ thought back to me and our unfinished business of the circle. The loud sound of rope hitting leather was enough to make Satts forget about LJ for the moment. I took a few seconds to stroke and relax Satts before going on. It is not so difficult for most horses to understand that the same person can play the role of both “good cop” and “bad cop.” In the herd the same dynamic of a horse that establishes the rules and enforces the boundaries is often the same horse that can be relied upon during mutual grooming sessions.

Again, I asked for a circle to the left. As Satts walked around me I was very happy with his circle. After about three quarters of a lap when he was about to come past the gate of the arena I saw he showed an interest on the outside. It was hardly noticeable, but his hindquarters were just a little tighter than the earlier steps. I took one step to the right. This was enough to register in his mind and yield his hindquarters away and faced up to me. This time I offered only a soft swath of my hand down his face and asked for another circle. Every time I felt I was losing his attention I interrupted him to draw his thought back to me. Sometimes, this took 3 or 4 attempts just to complete one circle and other times he could walk an almost perfect circle for 3 laps.

Over the next few days I worked on the forehand and hindquarter yields and the lunging. It took about 3 weeks before I could lunge Satts on a 15m circle at a walk, trot and canter in either direction and have him follow the line with a soft bend. When he was good enough on the short lead rope, it was time to see how well he lunged on a large circle. I didn’t own a lunging cavesson or a lunging line, so I put a loop of my 20m lariat around his neck and lunged him from that. Using a lariat is a good way to see how much of your horse’s thought you really have because without the advantage of a noseband it is really easy for a horse to take his thought elsewhere and have you and your rope dragged off too.

While I was spending time improving his groundwork and his lunging, I was also getting him ready to ride. A couple of days after I started the lunging work Satts had his first experience with a belly rope. He didn’t know it yet, but the belly rope was going to be the precursor to his first experience with a saddle.

It seems my stories are of interest to a wide variety of readers!!

Reading a book


An Example Of Bad Lunging

This video has to show one of the worst possible ways to teach a horse to lunge. There is not reason to swing a rope and chase off a horse that is desperate to find and answer.

It’s curious to me that the author of the video posted the clip thinking that the reason people would watch it is to see the horse fall over. But the most interesting thing to me is how poorly the fellow understands how to direct a horse.


The Story Of Satan - Ch 6

I was really busy at work for the next several days. As well as the usual responsibilities of running a busy research lab and preparing for an overseas conference, I had forgotten I had agreed to be an examiner for a PhD thesis. It had been sitting on my desk under a pile of “to do” documents for about 8 weeks. It wasn’t until I got a reminder from the PhD committee in Oxford that I felt the panic of letting down a poor student in the UK who was getting more stressed by the day. I had always resented examiners who didn’t take their responsibilities as seriously as the student’s and here I was turning into one of them. This led to many late nights in the library until 1 or 2 am pouring over every word, table, graph and diagram of the thesis and pulling out reference material as well as running statistical analysis. To do it well is a horrible job, but I did take the responsibility of examining a thesis very seriously.

Needless to say, Satts did not get a lot of attention for about a week. Each day I would catch him, feed him, take him for a 5-minute walk, clean his stall and give him a brush. But there was no time for some serious work. Nevertheless, with each little bit of handling he became more relaxed and agreeable. There were hardly any episodes of ear pining or attempts to gnaw on my flesh. I felt he was at the stage where I could leave him to hangout in a good size yard during the day and move him to a stable at night. This appeared to work well. I think Satts appreciated having space where he could trot around or roll in the dry dirt. I reckon rolling was one of Satts’ favourite things because each night I would come home to find him with a thick layer of dust over his body and each day I would brush him clean again. Being in the yard also gave him and the other horses a chance to socialize. LJ and his band would come up to the fence, sniff noses, squeal, stomp their feet and do the usual posturing that horses do. But they would also groom each other and snooze side by side, so I figured it was working out okay.

I finally got a day where I could devote a couple of hours to working with Satts and decided to address some of the drag in his leading. In my experience people always seem to underestimate the importance of having a horse lead really well. For most people it is enough that they can lead their horse from point A to point B and the willingness of the horse and the quality in the way he leads almost never comes into their thinking. But I believe the way we catch and lead our horses is a window into the quality of our relationship. There is a huge difference to how a horse feels about us depending on whether we are going together or they just go where we pull them. One represents a horse that has to come along and other is one that wants to come along. If he has to be led with heaviness in the lead rope, a horse holds back from giving as much as he has to give. You only get a fraction of his willingness and participation and people often find out just how little their horse is giving when they try to load him onto a trailer or take him away from his friends. Anytime a horse lets the lead rope weigh more in the hand than the weight of the rope itself, it’s holding back from being with the person as much as it could.

Satts carried so much trouble when it came to dealing with people that his rehabilitation was to begin with his leading and groundwork. This is where I was going to get the biggest change in the way he felt in preparing him to be ridden one day.

I walked into his yard with a rope halter over my arm while I rested my flag against the fence. He looked up and watched me while I closed the gate. When I approached Satts and stroked his face he lowered his head to the height of his wither. This was a lesson he had learned well. I reached across the top of his neck with my right arm while I used my left hand to pass the tail end of the rope halter under his neck and pick it up in my right hand. Now that I had the free end of the halter around his neck I tied it securely.

The horses in the adjacent paddock wandered over to have a ‘sticky-beak’. As I stroked Satts’ neck and scratched the spot on his chest that caused him to melt into a big marshmellow, the others lined up one by one watching. The scene reminded me of photos I had seen from the 1950s when people would crowd outside the windows of electrical stores to watch the miracle of television.

I fed out the lead rope to almost the end and reached over to grab my flag from the fence. I didn’t know Satts’ eyes could grow so big. In fact, everything about him grew much bigger. He now stood 22 hands, eyes and nostrils suddenly dilated to twice their normal size and air blew in sharp bursts from his nostrils at twice the speed of sound. If I didn’t have his attention before, I certainly had it now.

I guess I should describe a flag for those who don’t know what they are. The flag is an extension of your arm like a whip or the tail end of a lead rope. At the time, I used a 2-metre long lightweight fishing rod. I removed the reel and line guides so it was just like a fibreglass stick. I then attached about a dozen strips of plastic. I made these out of plastic bags from the supermarket that I cut into narrow strips and then attached the strips to the tip of the rod with duct tape. When I was finished it looked like a stick with feathers at one end. As you can probably imagine some horses find flags quite confronting the first time or two; and Satts was no exception.

I tried to touch Satts on the face with the flag, but before the plastic got within a whisper of him he was charging around the yard. I kept a firm hold on the lead rope and tried my best to touch his rump with the flag. He was cantering around me on a 4-metre circle, while trying desperately to turn it into a 100-metre circle – but my rope was pretty effective at keeping him within reach even though it was taking all my strength. Finally I managed to touch his croup and hold the flag there as he ran around me. It took about 3 laps for him to slow down to a trot and another 6 before he walked. I took the flag off Satts and rested it on the ground and he stopped to look at me. It seemed to me he was due for another scratch for his effort. Several seconds of praise and scratching was enough to get him to lower his head and relax a little bit. I then raised the flag to touch his rump again. This time I was able to touch him just as he leapt sideways. Satts pulled me with him and I managed to keep contact with the flag. Within less than a lap of his panic to flee he stopped. Again I took the flag away and rubbed his face with my free hand. I presented the flag to him again and his body shuddered, but he did not move his feet.

I started to run the flag down his flank and over his topline. Satts did not move. I was worried he was frozen in fear and trying to pretend the flag was not happening. I took the flag away and then clucked him to walk around me. At about the half a lap stage I raised the flag once again to touch Satts on the rump. He trotted forward and then suddenly stopped. This was not what I wanted. I knew from experience that a horse can learn to stop running in response to an extreme stress, but it becomes a trick without the horse learning to feel any better about the flag. I asked Satts to keep walking by tapping his back with the flag. Initially, a fair bit of dust flew around us, but it didn’t take long before I was rubbing Satts with the flag all over his side as he walked around me. I changed sides and repeated the process on his right. The pattern was similar as before, but he came around much quicker.

However, Satts was very defensive about allowing the flag near his face. I raised it towards his muzzle. His worry caused him to exhale a jet burst of air, which caused the feathers to explode in front of his eyes. Satts leapt skywards and nearly fell over backwards. When he regained his balance, I rested the flag on the ground and rubbed his face. When he calmed down I thought I would try a different approach. Since he seemed most scared when the flag approached him perhaps he would gain some confidence if he knew he could make the flag scared of him.

I stood about 2-metres in front of Satts with the lead rope slack in my hand. I raised the flag to his head level, but at a distance that he didn’t need the feel to rear. I then walked backwards, all the time urging Satts to walk towards me with the flag in front of his face. At first he pulled back forcing me towards him instead of the other way around. This caused him even more worry, but I held firm and if he was getting close to the edge of what he could handle I created a bigger gap between the flag and Satts. After he pulled back about half a lap of the yard he stopped. I lowered the flag for a few moments and then began again. I raised the flag as before and asked for him to come towards me. This time he took a step forward and I took a step backwards. Another step and then another followed. With each step he seemed to gain confidence because he was finding the flag was moving away from him. I repeated the exercise several times. Every time I repeated the process I closed the gap between the flag and Satts. Before Satts even knew how it happened I was stroking his face and forehead with the flag as he walked towards me. It wasn’t long before he was feeling better as I waved the flag over his body and face, down his legs and over his tail. Whether walk or trot or standing still, Satts was making friends with the flag. He was learning his actions were controlling the flag.

You might be asking what was the point of the flag exercise? Well, now it was time to make use of the flag to train Satts to be better on the lead rope.

I gave Satts about a metre and a bit of loose lead rope while holding the flag in my left hand. I turned and walked away as if I was going somewhere important. I wasn’t abrupt but I was purposeful. By the time I was into my second stride I ran out of lead rope. Satts stood watching me leave as if he was seeing me off at the train station. I kept trying to walk even though I was no match for his stubbornness. I was like the little red engine that thought he could. Satts took a few steps forward, but he never kept up enough to put slack in the lead rope. He was going to have to learn that he was with me when we led, rather than it was okay for me to go ahead and he’d catch up sometime. Leading a horse is meant to be like a dance, but Satts was convinced it was a spectator sport. Satts had been taught that it was just fine to be dragged along and nobody had taught him it could be different. He just didn’t understand the benefits of being a partner in this dance.

Within a couple of seconds of Satts letting the slack out of the lead rope I made a half turn with my upper body to the left (ie, my shoulders did a half turn away from Satts). At the same time my left arm holding the flag came around and wiggled the flag slightly behind his left shoulder. He was so startled that he catapulted forward, like being shot out of a cannon, and nearly landed on me. He ran right past and I allowed him to circle around me for a few steps. When he calmed down I petted him. Again I began to walk off and again the lead rope got heavy in my hand. The flag came around again as I kept walking and wiggled gently just behind the shoulder. He jumped forward and as he passed by me I held firm onto the rope so that he would hit the end and stop. I don’t know how many times I repeated this exercise, before Satts saw me prepare to walk away and he prepared to follow. But anytime the lead rope felt taut the flag backed up the idea that he now had a new job of keeping slack in it. This was not a monumental task for a horse with the IQ of a genius, like Satts.

Dad’s horse was developing the notion that by keeping a focus on me he could keep the lead rope soft, like cooked spaghetti. This was my goal all along and it was finally beginning to be cemented in Satts’ mind. I felt he was ready to introduce the thought that he could also maintain a position that I chose while being led. He was getting the idea to go with me, but he was not sure if he should pass me or be behind me or off to the side. Satts would feel much better if he knew what was expected and could rely on the fact that by maintaining his position life was good. Again, it’s like dancing with a partner who was trying but who didn’t know the steps.

I used the flag to reinforce in him that he was to walk beside me. At first he wanted to tail gate behind me, but by putting the flag between us he felt being beside me was a much better idea. Likewise, Satts sometimes would want to shoot past and be ahead of me. But he was quick to learn that another job he had was not to let his nose pass my nose. If he tried to go past, the flag would suddenly appear in front of him. If he weren’t keeping up with me the flag would appear behind his shoulder. And if he crowded too close and tailgated me, the flag would remind him that he would find life much easier if he stepped to the side. It took no time at all before Satts was walking when I walked and stopping when I stopped. For the most part he kept pace with my speed – whether slow or fast. He turned when I turned and trotted when I trotted. I could see the processing going on in his mind as he tried to search for the answer that would give him the least amount of trouble. It was exciting to watch the learning evolve.

As I discovered time after time, Satts was a quick student. It was obvious to me that the monster that had arrived off the truck so long ago was not a monster at all. He was the product of a lack of clarity in his life. I shuddered at the thought of his future when he returned to the racing stable at the end of his stay with me. I contemplated telling dad that he was just too dangerous and would never make a racehorse; and being the good and loving son I would offer to look after him.

I spent the next session with Satts reinforcing our leading lesson and making sure he was okay on his right side as well as his left. But my mind was already on the work ahead. Next would come teaching him lateral bends, hindquarter and forehand yields and backing up on the lead. Once these lessons were started it would be time to introduce the saddle.

The Story Of Satan - Ch 5

The next day was a long day at work. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to have a chance at building on the progress I had made with Satts the previous evening.

My thigh where Satts had bitten me had swelled considerably and it was painful and difficult to wear trousers – especially sitting down. I never thought I would envy Scotsmen and their kilts. Hardly anybody at work mentioned my gimp because by this stage most just assumed that I had been playing with horses again and wasn’t very good at it – so what’s new?

I spent the day working on a presentation to the Fetal Endocrine group meeting in San Diego next month, gave two lectures to post graduate students, attended a meeting of the honours committee and interviewed eight people for a research position. I didn’t get home until about 8:30pm.

I moved Satts via the laneway into the adjacent stable so he had a clean stall for the night. I fed the dogs and chickens and collected the daily quota of eggs, which I scrambled for my dinner. Eventually the cats showed up after a big day of snoozing on their hay bales. After they were fed and locked inside I finally went to bed.

At the first crack of light I went out to continue my project with Satts. I didn’t know what he’d be like after our last session, but I went out to the stable in hopeful mode. It was a pretty brisk morning and I found him curled up, leaning against the back wall of his stall. There was a slight plume of vapour from every breath. When I approached the door of his stable he looked casually at me, but stayed nestled among his bedding. He looked so comfortable and relaxed that I got a wild hare of an idea to try something risky.

I slid the bolt of the door across and swung the door about halfway. Satts became a little more alert, but didn’t move. Once I stepped inside the stable and bolted the door behind me, he got up on his front legs and lurched himself to a standing position. His action reminded me how powerful and graceful he was. His movement was effortless.

I knew I should not be creeping when I approached him, but my self-preservation kept reminding me what he was capable of doing. I did my best to conceal my nervousness as I walked calmly towards his shoulder. I think if he had not been against the wall he would have jumped away much sooner. But as it was he allowed me to get within about a metre. I saw him getting prepared to wheel away from me, but I was too late to stop myself before it happened. I was mad at myself for not planting my feet earlier. As it turned out he did the whole thing pretty calmly. It was more to avoid me rather than flee from me. Satts turned his forehand away like a turn on the hindquarters and stopped in the other back corner. He looked at me to see if I was following. I waited for less than a minute to make sure he had parked himself and was not teetering on the edge of moving again.

I walked slowly, but as casually as I could to his shoulder. This time I saw him thinking about escaping and I stopped in time. The wait seemed endless, but eventually he looked at me again with both eyes and relaxed his neck. I took another step, then another. With each step I waited for him to look at me and relax before taking the next one. When I finally touched him he froze and his body felt like granite. But I remembered his itch at the base of his neck. Within seconds of rubbing this new found magic spot he started to crane his neck and curl his lips. I then used my other hand to stroke his neck and shoulders. It may have taken only a minute before I felt I was now stroking a demanding cat rather than a nervous horse.

To Satts’ surprise I stopped scratching and walked backwards about three steps. He watched me carefully without moving. When I approached him a second time he was initially worried, but melted into my hand much quicker once I began scratching the base of his neck. I repeated this exercise again and again and by the fifth time he began to follow me when I walked away. It took about ten minutes for him to learn to follow me around the stable and another ten minutes for him to stand while I stroked all along his body to his belly and eventually his tail. Another fifteen minutes were needed for him to accept the same level of attention on his opposite side. Satts had made a huge turn around in his ability to accept a person approach and touch him. But there were two problems that showed up during this process. Firstly, he felt troubled when I crossed from one side to the other. And secondly, when I stroked his side where the girth might fit be pinned his ears and tried to bite me. But I had learned to be vigilant about Satts and his fondness of using his teeth as a weapon, so I was able to block him every time. Nevertheless, this was going to be a problem.

I left the training at that for the morning because I had a 9am meeting with the university registrar. I fed Satts and the other horses, ate breakfast, showered and took off for work.

The next day was Saturday and I had no plans, except to work on the talk for my San Diego trip the following month. I had a late start in the morning and didn’t get around to putting some time in with Satts (except to throw him some hay) until immediately after lunch.

When I went out to the stable I hung a halter and 2 lead ropes on the door. Satts acknowledge my appearance with a nicker, but stayed in his corner. I entered the stable and secured it behind me. Just like the last session, I casually but calmly walked towards his left shoulder. It almost seemed like he was going to be okay to let me touch him, but just as my hand brushed his skin he jumped violently and spun around to the opposite corner. No problem, I thought. I started again. He seemed better if I approached from his right side. This time I was able to touch his right shoulder with just a modicum of tension in his body. But this dissolved much quicker than the previous day once I begun working my fingers into the base of his neck.

I repeated the exercise of walking away and returning and pretty soon Satts was following me around his stall. He followed me over to the stable door where I took one of the lead ropes I had left hanging there. I rubbed his shoulder and neck and face with my free hand until he showed no concern. Then while I continued to rub him all over I used my other hand to clip the lead rope to the ring on the halter he had been wearing since he arrived. I don’t think Satts even noticed he had been caught.

I asked him to lead around the stall from the lead rope and he was surprisingly obliging. I didn’t put much pressure on the rope, only a light feel and waited. There was plenty of time to work on improving his response to the feel of the lead, but right now my priority was to teach him to soften when I haltered him. This was not the time to go into battle to teach him to smarten up on the lead rope. I was just beginning to make inroads into his trust and confidence and introducing conflict could unravel things pretty quickly.

I picked up the rope halter and lead that was hanging over the door and began stroking his neck and shoulders with it. I passed it along his body and back towards his head. It took no time before I was able to rub his face with the halter and rope. When the time seemed right I used my right hand to start stroking his neck and body with the halter on the right side while I stood on his left. Satts’ body went rigid at the feel of something touching him on the opposite side to where I was standing. Nevertheless, I kept up my gentle stroking and patting. Eventually he relaxed and I was able to repeat the procedure from the other side.

As I rubbed his neck and face I used a gentle downward feel of the lead rope to ask him to lower his head. There was an awful feeling of resistance as he pushed back against the pressure. I began to slightly sway the pressure on his head left and right while maintaining the downward pressure. Within a few seconds there was a perceptible give in his neck. I released the pressure and scratched the base of his neck again. I tried once more to convince him to lower his head. This time he threw his head even higher and ran backwards. Satts stopped when he hit the back wall. I re-applied the pressure and waited and waited – all the time slowly rhythmically tipping his head left and right - and then I felt a small give again. I gave him a moment to think about that and started again. It took only about five minutes for him to yield his head down with minimal amount of feel on the lead rope.

I gathered the rope halter and lead and organized them over my arm ready to put them on Satts. With my left hand I lowered his head and tilted it slightly towards me. My right arm reached over his neck while my left hand reached up under his neck with the halter. I grabbed the loose end of the halter with my right hand and brought it over to his left side, across the top of his neck. Satts started to stare off into the distance with a glazed look. I realized this was familiar to him and familiarity had bred contempt. He was shutting down. I needed to interrupt his mental vacancy by doing something to move him. I stepped back used the rope halter around his neck to draw him towards me. It was like pulling on an elephant stuck knee deep in mud. I gently pulled again, but got nothing. Okay, things needed to change. I took a large breath, leaned back and abruptly yanked him with all my weight towards me. He stumbled across and threw his head back. He now stood twenty-two hands tall with nostrils breathing fire in rapid bursts and looking down directly at me as if he was going to eat me. I was half expecting him to bellow “fee-fi-fo-fum.” My hands got to work immediately stroking him gently and asking him to lower his head once again. I walked him around the stall while rubbing his neck, face and body.

The vacant stare was now gone, so I reached over the top of his neck to grab the end of the halter once again. I asked to lead to the left from the feel of the rope halter around his neck. There was some resistance, but there was also enough give to know he was mentally tuned into what was happening. With my left hand I raised the noseband to slide over his nose. This was no problem at all. Satts knew all about being haltered. I was sure he didn’t feel good about it, but he understood it.

I took the halter off and put it on several times. Sometimes I sensed him going into that Satts world inside his head where the grass was green and plentiful and the herd gathered around him to hear his tales of glory and heroic deeds and where humans never trespassed. I made determined efforts to interrupt his daydreaming whenever possible. I knew that it was not going to make much difference to our relationship today, but I was not training him for how I wanted him to be today. I was working for how I wanted him to be tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that.

I took off the web halter he had been wearing ever since he arrived and lead him around the stable in the rope halter. Then I removed the rope halter and walked to the opposite side of the stall. After a few moments I approached him again and fitted the halter. Satts was a legend.

I pushed open he stable door and walked Satts out to the grassy area. This was his first fresh grass in weeks. At first he looked around. My dogs, Bix and Milly stood nearby with tails acting as wind generators. Satts looked at them and made a step towards them with his ears flat, but I interrupted him in mid stride with firm bump on the lead rope. He jumped back startled. I petted him and he soon relaxed. Finally he noticed the grass and put his head down to graze the long strands. He seemed content to fit as much as he could into his mouth before chewing. Satts grabbed each mouthful and ripped it viciously from the ground, as if he was angry at the soil for not giving it more easily.

I called the dogs to me and had them sit by me as Satts feasted. He was going to have to get used to the dogs and keep his manners with them, so continued exposure to Bix and Milly was now going to be a big part of his life. After about ten minutes I lead Satts into the clean stable and played catch and release a few more times.

The session finished with me feeling pretty good about what had been achieved. In a few days, Satts had changed from a reactivate horse that was a danger to himself and anybody near to a horse that was developing solid tries to do his best to get along. I reminded myself to call dad after dinner and boast about his horse – he’d like that.

The photo is of Subzero who was a half brother to Satts. Subzero won the Melbourne Cup and later became a crowd favourite as a “clerk of the course” mount.


The Story Of Satan - Ch 4

For just about any other horse I would have stopped at this moment and put him away for the night. But Satts was different. I needed to make a start with leading him otherwise the next session would not be any easier.

It was interesting to me that for a horse that had been handled and even an attempt made at breaking him in, Satts was about the most terrified and reactive horse I had ever met. He was worse than horses I had handled that were caught from the wild. It cemented in my mind something that I was once told, “no handling is better than poor handling.” Satts was just the horse they would have had in mind.

Now that I had Satts looking at me with both eyes, I took one step closer to him. The lariat remained slack but not so much that I wouldn’t be able to tighten it by reaching just a few inches down the rope. It was important that I did not try to make him stand still. If he needed to escape from a Ross attack then I had to give him some room to move. Most horses are made more afraid when they are not able to move their feet because their flight instinct is their first line of survival. So letting Satts move, but directing how far and what direction he can move was going to help alleviate his fear of imminent death while at the same time open the door to the idea that I am now becoming an important influence in his life and I’m not going away even if he does try to flee.

As I stepped forward, Satts remained frozen but he raised his head and widened his nostrils. His alert level had gone from amber to pink. I moved to my right and it took about three of my steps before he turned one of his steps in a half-hearted attempt to remain lined up with me. I continued to walk around him, but he didn’t follow. Instead his gaze was drawn towards the paddock where my horse LJ was calling. I realized he had checked out and wasn’t even going to try to follow me around the arc either with his focus or his feet. My left hand reached down the lariat about thirty centimetres and I pulled back with about a quarter force. It wasn’t enough to throw him off balance, but Satts swung around to me like it had. Again we stood there staring at each other. After a few moments he seemed less anxious. His breathing was almost normal and his head lowered to almost wither level. I began to wonder if he had had this experience before.

I took another couple of steps to my right, but as I did I also moved in a little closer towards Satts’ hindquarters. Satts didn’t wait for the pull of the lariat. While still keeping slack in the rope he turned to face me again. This time he was a little surprised to find that we were only about two metres apart. I repeated the process and walked another couple of steps. Satts did not hesitate. As soon I began to walk, so did he. I got such a kick out of that I nearly rushed to rub on him. Now there was only a metre separating us. I felt it was time to put a hand on him.

I walked only one step to the right and as he came around I stopped and reached out my hand. He leaned back against the feel of the lariat around his neck, which caused a mini panic. He started to rush backwards, but I walked with him. When his hind end reached the fence he stopped and so did I. He tried to turn to my left, but I used the lariat to keep him facing me and then relaxed the rope. Again I reached out my hand and allowed him to sniff the back of it.

I can’t tell you why I did what I did next, except to say it felt like the right thing at the time. As Satts was exploring the aroma of my hand, I reached for his neck and started stroking. He immediately began tossing his head like he was trying to throw off something. He stepped backwards and hit the fence. He then turned to my left and walked backwards along the fence. I did my best to keep up with him and kept stroking him, while using the lariat to try to slow his feet a little. We must have gone about a third of the way around the yard before he stopped moving. I took my hand away and took a step back from him. We looked at each other as if neither of us knew how this was going to end – in tears perhaps?

I approached him and started to reach for his neck again. He lurched forward and tried to escape. I held the lariat firm and he spun around. Once again we were staring at each other. I waited a few moments before walking up to him again. He was okay until I reached out with my hand. He attempted to flee the scene once more, but the feel on the lariat was enough kept his front feet from acting as anything more than a pivot point for his hind feet to walk around. He began to turn around and around as if doing turns on the forehand and I keep walking towards him and reaching for his neck and shoulder. After about ten revolutions, Satts stopped moving and allowed me to stroke his side. That’s when I learned that the bite I got when he first arrived was not a one off problem. Biting was going to become a major issue in the future. He lunged his head around at me and managed to get is teeth around my thigh. I was too late and too slow and it hurt. Now was not the right time to do anything about it. I tried to do my best impression that it was nothing more than a mosquito bite. I kept rubbing Satts, but had my elbow ready for his next attack. It came a few seconds later. As his head swung my way my elbow poked out from my body and at about the halfway point they collided. He got the shock of his life, but tried it again. Once more he was meet with the pointy end of my elbow. But this one must have hurt because he banged himself with so much force that he bled from his left nostril. After that he chose to retreat for the time being. But the look on his face told me that he was working on plan B and that I would be wise to sleep with one eye open tonight.

I stopped stroking his neck and stepped back a couple paces. Then I approached him again. The thought to leave passed across his face, but Satts’ feet remained grounded. I rubbed his neck, shoulder and sides. The rivers of sweat had dried to a salt crust since I first managed to throw a loop around his neck. His body was quite sticky to touch. As I approached his rear his tailed clamped as if it was a door being slammed shut. I stroked his rump casually, but didn’t linger and went back towards his head. I then tried to run the flat of my hand over Satts’ jowl, which did not seem to bother him. It was only when I tried to curl my fingers across the bridge of his nose did he indicate his discomfort by flipping his nose a couple of times. Again, I got in a couple of strokes and went back to the side with my hand. I kept this up for about ten minutes and as each second passed Satts seem to relax more. Then I got lucky. I discovered an itchy spot at the base of the neck. Gradually I worked by fingers more and more into the newly discovered pleasure spot. I was soon able to be quite rough and the more I dug the more Satts seem to enjoy it.

I figured it was time to try to the right side of the horse. I passed around in front of his nose. When he suddenly saw me from his right eye he got a start and stumbled to his left. I kept a feel on the lariat, which seem to steady his worry. As soon as I felt the moment was right I casually went about stroking his neck. My immediate agenda was to reassure him by getting my fingers to massage the base of his neck. At first he was too worried to allow himself to enjoy the experience. His neck was hard enough to chisel a headstone from. Clearly, Satts’ right side was going to be a bigger challenge than the left side.

I went to work rubbing him all over and as the minutes passed so did his anxiety. I even managed to pat his shoulder a few times without the light slap sending him into orbit.

My next challenge was to work on touching his head and ears. He was still wearing the headstall that the truck driver left on. Before finishing for the night (it was starting to get dim in the round yard) I wanted to be able take his halter on and off. Satts was a tall horse and I knew that if he tried he could raise his head high enough to make his ears out of reach. So I started by teaching him to lower his head on request.

The lariat and coils were in my left hand and with my right hand I hooked my middle finger around the ring where a lead rope would normally be attached. With a little pressure on the halter I waited and waited. Nothing. I could see Satts was getting that sleepy, far away look. He was shutting down and shutting me out. I put the coils of the lariat between my knees and with my left hand I started to stroke his face while exerting down pressure on the halter. He woke up with a fright and stumbled backwards about three steps. No problem, I said to myself. Let’s start again. This time I used my hand under his chin to not only ask his head to come down, but to rock his head a little left and right. The swaying of his head helped break the resistance of his poll and when I stroked the bridge of his nose, I felt a little give. Instantly, but not abruptly, I eased off and rubbed his itchy spot. I repeated this perhaps twenty five times before he could bring his head down to wither level without me feeling like I had just had a workout. Satts was proving to be a very smart horse and I started to feel a little less like it was a hopeless project.

When I was able to get him to lower his head fairly easily, I went to rub his left eye. He liked that. I passed my hand over his right eye and he pushed his head into my hand like he wanted a good scrubbing. Back and forth I went over his eyes and down to his muzzle, around his chin and back to his eyes. Satts thought this was fun. I then raised my hand to pass across his left ear from front to back. It was quick, but not quick enough that he did not notice. He suddenly raised his head in alarm and I immediately started to scratch the base of his neck. At the same time I used the halter to get him to lower his head. I still had the lariat between my knees, but I was ready to make a grab for it at an instant notice.

Working away at his itchy spot seemed to distract him from his worries. Again, I busied myself slowly towards his left ear - over his eye and then over his ear – there was no rushing and there was no creeping. My hand passed over him like we did this every day. He flinched and threw his head again, but it was a fraction of the reaction of before. Again and then again - each time better than the last. Now his head would lower by just the touch of his halter.

I knew before I could get too excited I had to repeat the process on his right side. But it took half as long to get twice as good. I was starting to become more and more impressed with how clever this crazy horse that somebody labelled Satan was proving to be.

There were only two projects that I thought needed to be addressed by the end of the session, but I was losing daylight and wouldn’t have time to start both. I hadn’t yet got Satts to accept having the headstall removed and put back on, but I chose to leave that for another time. My priority was to be able to walk away from Satts and then approach him again without him trying to flee. Making a start on this project would make our next session a lot easier.

I picked up the lariat in my right hand and turned to walk away a couple of strides. I let out a couple of coils in order to keep the slack in the rope. About two metres from Satts I turned and looked at him. He was looking back at me. I casually walked up to him being prepared at any time to take a hold of the rope. He immediately raised his neck and looked away as if he was trying to see what was on the other side of the horizon. When I touched him he shuddered, but did not move. I rubbed softly from top to bottom. He knew I was there, but he refused to look at me because his worry had built a wall between us. I put my hand over the bridge of his nose and asked him to tilt his head in my direction. When he gave up leaning against my hand just a fraction of a little bit, I scratched the base of his neck.

Next time, I turned and walked two-thirds of the distance of the round yard. When I turned around I saw he had followed me with his eyes. But my first step towards him caused Satts to look out yonder into the failing light again. I kept my approach steady until I saw him minutely stretch his neck downwards. It was a sign he was thinking about leaving. I stopped and waited. The seconds were the slowest on record, but to my excitement he settled his weight back on all four legs and flexed his neck around to look at me. I continued towards him and felt like loving the hair off him – I was so excited by the “try” he had shown. I gently stroked his neck, chest, face, and flank. I finished with a good ol’ scratch under his neck.

Again, I turned my back on him and walked casually towards the opposite fence. I felt something was different. When I turned to face Satts, he was looking at me with his whole body lined up. He had even taken half a step in an effort to follow me. I knew that if I can help him feel just a bit better, he would be able to traverse the chasm that was preventing him from walking with me.

When I walked up to Satts he didn’t turn away, but looked over the top of me as if something important was happening behind me. It was too hard for him to handle being approached and still feel okay. There remained that wall of self-protection between us, but he had made such amazing progress that I was not in the least disappointed.

After the appropriate amount of rubbing and stroking, I lowered his head and slipped the loop of the lariat over his head being extra careful not to let the rope touch his ears at this stage. I picked up a feed bucket and let him follow me out the gate, along the laneway and into his stable.

Today, I had seen a horse that had blocked out the world and offer no “try”, make a change. I knew there was hope. I wish my dad could have seen his amazing horse. He would have been so proud.

After I fed Satts and went inside the house, I remembered my leg was aching. I looked at my jeans and saw they were blood stained. The next day I could hardly walk and my left thigh looked like a colour chart from a paint store. I hoped this was going to be the last time I would be hurt by this horse.

you want to do what


The Story Of Satan - Ch 3

My arm ached all day from Satts’ love bite. I managed to find some paracetamol in the medicine cabinet at work, which took the edge off the throbbing for a while. Whenever somebody asked me about the bandage on my forearm I made a joke about a new girlfriend and shackles. That seemed to stop any further questions even if it started some rumours.

Over the next few days I spent more and more time hanging out at the stable with Satts. At first he would back into the farthest corner at the first sign of my approach. But each day he seemed less bothered. By the fifth day and after several hours of approach and retreat, he was quite accepting when I walked up to his stable door. I didn’t have to creep or be overly cautious. Yet, there were limits. I still could not be any closer than a metre or two without the horse feeling threatened. Nevertheless, I felt this was great progress.

Satts’ fear of me was a major obstacle. It was getting in the way of everything I wanted to do. I couldn’t catch him. I couldn’t clean his stable. I couldn’t begin to work with him. I couldn’t even touch him. Until he made a change and tried to let me into his life, I was going to get nowhere.

A solution as to how I was going to get a handle on him without being attacked again seemed elusive and I spent a few sleepless nights with the problem churning over in my head. Then one night a spark of an idea came to me. During my time working overseas I became interested in falconry. I learned about hawks and falcons. When I lived in Canada I owned a Harris Hawk. It lived in my back yard and I flew her a couple of times a week. My friends let me fly Goshawks, Peregrines and even a Golden Eagle. On one occasion I trekked for three weeks into the Arctic Circle with some friends to do a survey of Gyr Falcons that the Canadian government had commissioned. I loved the birds and it was a great blow to me to discover on my return to Australia that the government had made falconry illegal while I was away. Nevertheless, my experience with these amazing birds was the inspiration for the idea that gave me the break through with Satts that I desperately needed.

Birds of prey are by nature very timid and wary of strangers. It is not natural for them to perch on a person’s arm and be carried around. In nature they would not fly to a person. These things have to be taught. It begins by restricting their food. Birds have small stomachs and large appetites. They require lots of food, but prefer it in small amounts. By offering a hungry bird a titbit of food that is placed closer and closer to the handler, the bird’s hunger overrides their natural fear and the bird eventually approaches the human. Within two to five days a bird can be trained to jump from its perch to the arm of a handler in order to be rewarded with a morsel. If the person never betrays the bird’s trust, they soon learn to be quite comfortable with people and see the human as a necessary ally in their survival.

It struck me that a way into the world of Satts might be to restrict his diet to only small amounts of food at a time; and place the food where he would have to attempt to allow me closer each time.

I began by leaving the top door of the stable open while I was nearby. But when I went out, it was closed and locked. As much as Satts didn’t trust me, I didn’t trust him. The door feeder was hung on his stable door, but with the feed on the outside rather than the inside. This meant that if he intended to eat he would have to hang his head over the stable door. It concerned me a little to do this because he still wore the halter that the truck guys left and I didn’t want him to catch it on the metal hangers of the feed bucket. But I figured that if I was around I could keep a close eye on things.

At first Satts didn’t trust the door feeder. But after a couple of days of going hungry he finally gave into temptation and took some nibbles. This seemed to give him a lot of confidence. Every time I went to the stable I put a cup full of chaff and grain in the feeder and more and more his confidence grew to the point where he was almost enthusiastic to see me bring the feed. Within a few days he was glad to see me and would come over to the feeder when he heard the squeak of the feed room door opening. I didn’t seem to bother him to see me standing less than a metre away while he ate. But I figured it was important to keep him hungry for a while. I wanted his hunger to be a strong enough motivation to help break down his fear and timidity.

However, despite the progress Satts was a long way from being okay with me. He still didn’t let me touch him and whenever he approached he would pin his ears and toss his head. He was telling me that he was coming over, but that I had better not mess with him.

Satts had been with me about nine days and I had not been able to clean his stable. It stank and he was constantly standing in wet muck. I didn’t think I could wait any longer to do some housework. But Satts was not yet safe enough for me to go into his stable to clean it and he was not ready to catch and lead into the stable next door. What to do?

The next day I took an early mark from work. I had plenty to do.

My first project was to gather about twelve of the four metre gates that were lying against the barn wall. I used them to make a laneway. The laneway formed a semi circle from the door of one stable to the door of the next. The idea was that Satts would travel from his stable, along the makeshift laneway which would lead him to the stable next door – all without it being necessary to handle him. It kept us both safe.

Satts watched on cautiously, but with curiosity. At one point he hung his head over the door and attempted to sniff me while I was lashing a couple of gates together. He leaned out as far as his neck would stretch while I pretended not to notice. His nose got within half a metre and I felt like doing a little celebration jig - but I resisted.

When the laneway was finally completed and checked for sturdiness I opened the door of his stable and walked about ten metres away. It took about twenty minutes before he ventured out the door. Very cautiously Satts took the first few steps into the laneway. When he was about half way through he rushed into the next stable as if a banshee was chasing him. I casually walked over and closed the door behind him. The walk between stables became a daily ritual and in the short term at least it enabled me to keep him in a clean stable without getting my head kicked in.

Although I felt pretty pleased with myself that I had managed to solve a few of the logistical problems that came with having such a difficult horse under my care, I was yet to really make inroads into the training. Management of Satts’ needs was all I had achieved. Nothing had been solved. I knew I wasn’t going to make headway with transforming him into a safe riding horse until I solved the problem of catching him. That’s where the real training had to begin.

I came up with several plans on how to catch him. My first thought was to try to clip a lead rope onto his halter as he reached over the stable door to eat from the feeder. This was sound except I could see two problems. The first was that he might jump forward and over the door. Secondly, if I missed it would probably take days before he would trust letting me that close again. I would almost be at square one again. No, I needed a better plan.

I figured the best place to catch him would be the round yard. It was large enough to allow him to move as much as he wanted. It also meant that we could keep enough space between us for both of us to feel safe. It was solid construction with a 1.8 metre (6ft) high fence. He would not be able to either go through or over the fence. I needed a rope long enough that he could run anywhere he liked and I would still have hold of him on the end of the rope. My 18m lariat was perfect.

Satts was locked in a stable while I rearranged the gates I had used to build the laneway. Instead of the laneway leading from one stable to the next, I re-directed it to lead to the gate of the round yard only about 20m away. My idea was to throw a loop on Satts as he walked to the end of the laneway and was just about to take a step into the round yard. Timing was everything so I had to be ready.

When I decided everything was ready I opened up a good size loop with my lariat and then opened up the stable door. Satts obviously figured it was time to move to the adjacent stable where his usual portion of chaff and grain would be waiting. He strolled out the door and after a couple of steps realized something was different. I could see the thought to turn back pass across his face, but I had positioned myself behind his hip outside the laneway as a precaution against him trying to return to the stable. He scooted forward and I rushed to keep up with him. Soon he was near the round yard gate and I knew I had to chance my luck to throw the loop around his neck. Satts baulked at the gate, which I thought might just give me a chance even though I did not have the perfect set up. I threw my loop anyway, but it landed short and hit Satts over the wither. However, it was enough to scare him to leap into the round yard. I ran to the yard gate to close it shut. At the same I tried to coil my rope. I blew my chance to get a rope on him, but I had to be ready in case another opportunity came my way.

Satts was now in the round yard. His tail was up, his head was up and his nostrils were blowing like a flamethrower. The dozen or so horses in the paddocks ran to see what the commotion was about. Every horse on the property was calling, but none more than Satts.

I stopped for a moment to gather my thoughts. Satts was in the round yard. He was safe and couldn’t go anywhere. I needed to re-group to work out what to do next. I turned to walk to the house and put the kettle on. It would do us both good to have some time to allow our adrenal glands to recover.

From the kitchen table I could watch the activity in the round yard. I sipped my tea, listened to the calling, watched the antics and waited. Satts never stopped moving. He raced around; kicking at the sideboard and throwing his head is a semi circular motion. This went on for about forty-five minutes. Finally he slowed to a walk. His tail had relaxed and his neck hung low sniffing the ground and the fencing. I left him alone for another thirty minutes before venturing out.

The instant Satts saw me he started to run again with his tail in the air. I walked over to the yard and climbed to the top rail of the fence where I sat watching. I rested my lariat and a fresh mug of tea on a post as I sat on my perch. Satts paced at the far end of the round yard. Back and forth he paced opposite me like a prisoner on death row – which I guess he might have felt like. Occasionally he would glance at me with a look of disdain, but he never really looked at me. He knew I was there, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Finally, my tea was all drunk and I stepped down off the fence into the yard. I tried to stay vigilant in case it was necessary to leap back up the fence at any moment. It was hard to tell who was more nervous - Satts or me. I slowly walked around the track to my right. Satts quickly went to red alert and started to canter to the left. He got about two-thirds around the yard when he realized I was in front of him. He whirled around to go the opposite direction, but within a second we were face to face again. Satts appeared to misunderstand the basic geometry of a circle. Whichever direction he was going to travel, he would run into me within a few strides.

While Satts was trying to figure how I managed to be behind him one moment and in front the next, I let out another loop from my lariat. I knew I would only get one or maybe two chances to catch Satts before he totally lost the plot and tried to come at me. Because I am right handed and had only partially mastered the overhead and side arm throws, I had to catch him while he was travelling to the left. This would mean the loop would land from behind his head - perfect. I figured that I should time my throw just as he turns the other way to go to the left. That way he would be travelling his slowest and an easier catch.

Once I sorted my out my plan in my head, I waited until he was travelling to the right towards me. I was lucky because by this stage he had slowed to a trot. As soon as I saw him begin to set himself up to change direction to the left I made my move. I raised my loop above my hand and made one circular motion. At the same time I took two large strides towards the centre of the yard. As Satts completed his turn to the left the loop of my rope came flying from the heavens. Satts was into his first stride to the left when the loop floated effortlessly around his neck. It was a textbook execution. I doubt I could have done it twice.

But I didn’t have time to congratulate myself or glow in my personal glory. When Satts felt the rope touch him he flew into fifth gear. He was going so fast he was scrambling up the walls of the yard. I did everything I could to not put any feel on the rope. I just wanted him to carry the rope while he sorted out he was not going to die. At one point Satts lost his footing and fell to his side. I gathered the rope to ensure he did not become entangled in it. It took no time before he was on his feet and running again. It was blind panic and I doubt he even knew where or from what he was running.

After a few minutes his stifles and the inside of his hind legs were white with foam. Rivers of sweat were running down his sides and legs. I suspect this was as much due to stress as exercise. I waited and waited for Satts to show signs of feeling better or at the very least of getting tired. But the panic went on as if there was no end to it. I began to fear he might drop dead of exhaustion or anxiety or both. It was time to intervene.

I reached down the rope with my left hand and yanked backwards with all I had. Satts’ hind end spun out and he whirled around to find himself facing me. The shock of what just happened left him frozen. I let the rope go slack and we both just stood there looking at each other. After about a minute I made one step to my right while still facing him. He took off running to my left, but I coiled up the slack in the rope and spun him around again as he felt the loop tighten around his neck. Again we stood facing each other. Several moments passed before I took a few more steps to the right. Satts made a half hearted try to leave the other direction, but when he felt the rope tighten he turned back to stare at me once more. I knew then that he was a smart horse and despite all his fears he was going to be a fast learner.

Next: Halter Training

I hope you are enjoying the story because the cartoon shows just how much horses like a good read too.

50 shades of hay


The Story Of Satan - Ch 2

He was beautiful. I had never seen such a handsome head. It was not a particularly masculine head, but elegant. It gave the appearance of being regal, as if he was above the rest of the peasants.

The transport guy and his mate slipped one chain over the muzzle and another under the chin through the rings of the halter before opening up the divider. There was clearly nervousness in the way this was done. The helper held the end of his lead rope and scooted to the bottom of the side ramp and waited for the driver to cautiously swing open the divider. When Satan saw that there was a way out of his prison he leapt one giant stride to the ground without touching the ramp. He tried to dart to freedom and the driver lost hold of the lead rope. Satan’s attempt to escape seemed to panic the second fellow who reefed with all his strength on his lead rope. The chain around the horse’s muzzle caused him to jump to a stop and the horse reared skywards in an attempt to reach a cloud while flailing his front legs.

I didn’t like what I was seeing, but I decided not to get in the middle of this mess. When Satan floated back to the ground, the driver grabbed his lead rope again and with one fellow on either side they ran him into the stable just a few metres away. I closed the door as soon as both men were on the outside. They managed to unclip the chains while Satan did his best to sink his teeth into their forearms. Finally he was released and the top door of the stable was locked.

“Don’t worry about the halter, mate. You keep it.” I sensed the driver’s offer did not come so much from generosity as from relief at having lived through the experience of delivering the “crazy horse” safely.

I thanked both men and explained an easier way back to the highway for them. As they started down the driveway I turned to walk to the stable. It was my first proper look at what clearly was going to be one of the biggest training challenges of my life.

Satan was tall, very tall. He was steel gray all over except for a little white on one pastern and a half circle of off-white under the left eye. The first impression was that he was graceful. The way he reared and landed again when coming out of the truck indicated just how athletic and balanced he was. More like a gazelle than a young horse. It is difficult to sum up his build because he had a strong body, deep barrel and powerful hindquarters, yet his leanness and the length of his limbs gave the impression of a runway model that needed a good feed.

As I watched it was obvious that adrenaline was coursing through every tissue of his body. He moved constantly, around and around the stable, flinging his head in my direction as if to tell me I could procreate with myself for all he cared. Occasionally he kicked at the rubber-lined walls in case there was any doubt about his frustration. He ignored the oats, barley and chaff in the bucket I hung on the door. He didn’t even stop to sniff the hay in the feeder on the back wall.

I went in the house to give him some alone time in the hope that he would settle. I knew dad would like to know that he arrived safely, so I picked up the phone.

“Yeah, no he arrived okay, dad,” I reported. “He’s a bit of a looker, but he is very screwed up. It might be a bigger project than you think, but I’ll let you know how I get on in a week or so.

“Do you mind if I change his name? I hate calling him Satan.”

“What did you have in mind, son,” dad asked?

“Well, knowing what a huge fan you are of South Sydney, I thought maybe calling him Satts after Johnny Sattler would appeal to you.”

Dad used to play first grade for South Sydney Rugby League club in the ‘30s and had been to every reunion since the war. He loved the mighty Rabittos. Dad always said that Johnny Sattler was the best full back he had ever seen and had met Sattler a few times at club functions.

“Oh yeah. I like that. Satts it is,” dad was pleased.

The next morning I got up particularly early to check on Satts. He didn’t call much through the night, but I could hear him kicking the walls several times. I hoped he hadn’t done any damage to himself or the stable.

I saw he was still pacing the stable and that somehow he managed to get the feed bucket off the door and onto the floor where he had obviously given it a good pummelling. When he saw me approach he scooted to the farthest back corner. I opened the top door. He watched cautiously with his body turned slightly away. I could tell he was getting ready to flee somewhere. A wave of sadness crashed over me when it dawned on me how afraid this poor little fellow felt. But that didn’t last long.

horse bite
I opened the bottom door of the stable and stepped in. In one leap there was the flash of 450kg of horseflesh lunging towards me. I jumped back and out the door. Just as I managed to bolt the bottom door Satts’ teeth grabbed my left forearm. He bit down and I screamed in pain. My right arm came swinging across and punched him in the nose with all I had. The surprise of it made him release my arm for a moment and I made my escape. I was in terrible pain and so was Satts – except I was the only one bleeding.

I went into the house to clean my wound and see how much damage had been done. My shirt sleeve was ripped enough to expose the laceration. A bit of warm water and Detol was enough to swab the wound of any dirt or bugs. Then I used a crepe bandage as a wrap to ensure it stayed clean. Just as I was thinking about how much worse the pain was becoming I heard a crash and banging. Bugger! I left the top door of the stable open. I saw through the window that Satts had clambered over the door and was half hanging out of the stable.

I ran outside and when he saw me, he scurried backwards and fell on his hind end. At first I thought he had caste himself against the back wall, but he thrashed enough to get a foothold on the floor and lift himself. I closed the top door and made sure it was bolted

What the hell was I doing with this horse? It was beginning to feel like a mistake to have accepted to help dad with his horse. If this is what it was like now, what was it going to be like when I began the training? I knew I couldn’t back out at this stage, but I also guessed that just about everything I knew about training horses was about to be tested to the maximum.

However, all that was for the days ahead. My immediate problem was how to feed the horse and clean his stable without having to explain it all to an intensive care nurse. I decided to just throw Satts some fresh hay over the door. If he was hungry enough, he would eat it and if he wasn’t, he would stomp and pee on it. I had to get to work and figure out a plan for dealing with Satts before evening.

Next: The training begins.

The Story Of Satan - Ch 1

This is an account of my experiences with one of the most difficult horses I have worked, but also one of the most important horses in terms of what I learned. It happened more than 20 years ago, so both my methods and principles have changed quite a bit since then. It is a 23 part series that was published on my previous website, but I have had many requests to make the stories available again. So here is the first chapter. I hope you find it enjoyable, but also discover lesson to be learned. Before anybody asks, I don’t have any digitised photos of the horse in the story - sorry.

I had only moved to Victoria six months earlier. I was living on a 30 acre property owned by an absent doctor who was looking for a part time caretaker. It had a beautiful open plan house with an upstairs mezzanine. There were 2 stables and 6 paddocks, a round yard, 2 acre dam and a quiet dead end dirt road. The owner grew blueberries and wine grapes and would visit a few times a year to enjoy the country atmosphere and play farmer for short periods. My responsibilities were to mow the lawns, keep the irrigation working for the grapes and berries and provide security. There was plenty of room for my 2 horses and lots of time that I could continue my research career at the university. It was a perfect setup – no rent, easy responsibilities and all the space and facilities for riding my horses.

It was nearing bedtime for me when the phone rang. I thought about not answering it, but I had an important experiment running and it might have been one of my lab techs calling to say I was needed in the lab. It was my dad.

Dad didn’t usually call. Mostly mum did all the telephoning. Dad was not very good at small talk. He started with all the usual like “how are ya, son” and “how’s work” and “do ya need any money”. At this point is was normal for him to say “well, good talkin to ya - here’s ya mother.” But he didn’t this time.

“Son, I got a horse that isn’t doing too well. Geoff (the trainer) says he can’t race because he is too crazy. Nobody wants to handle him and they can’t get him broken in. Do ya reckon you could take him for a bit and see what ya can do with him. I’ll pay ya and take care of all the expenses. He’s a Karla Dancer foal and worth giving him some time.”

“Well dad I’m really busy at work at them moment with some big experiments that I need to get done before my application for a new NH&MRC grant is due in October. I have to have the preliminary data ready for that, so I don’t know how much time I’ll have for training a horse.”

“I’m in no hurray. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get around to him for a while, “ dad said. “But I don’t know what to do about him. He’s a Karla Dancer foal and worth putting in the time. I think he has real potential, but everyone thinks he’s nuts. I’d appreciate it if you could just check him out for me. Otherwise, I might have to put him down because nobody wants to deal with him.”

Dad said the magic words. I couldn’t stand the thought that a horse would be destroyed just because I didn’t find the time to help out.

“Okay dad. Let me check with the fellow that owns this place that it’s okay to have another horse here. I think he’ll be fine if it’s just for a while, but I had better ask anyway. Don’t worry about paying me. If I can help, I’m happy to help. Let me get Geoff’s phone number from you and I’ll call him and talk to him to get the story and make arrangements for the horse to come down from Sydney. Now let me speak to mum.”

A few days after I had cleared things with the good doctor that it was okay to have the horse for a while, I called the trainer.

“Well mate, we call him Satan and that should tell you all about him. He’s hurt a strapper when she was leading him and another when she went into his stall to check his water. He threw the breaker out of the saddle by grabbing his leg and reefing him to the ground. He can’t be put with any other horses. He’s a bastard and needs to be put down. He’s too dangerous and is going to kill somebody one day. The breaker won’t ride him anymore and nobody wants to handle him. I’ve told your dad that he is a pig and should be shot, but for no reason I can work out he’s seems fond of the horse. If you can do anything with him, good luck. But be careful ‘cause he will hurt you if you let your guard down.”

We agreed that Satan would be put on a transporter the next week heading for Melbourne. I felt butterflies in my stomach at the thought at what I had got into. If he really was this dangerous did I really want to work with this horse? What could I do when everybody else had failed? If the breaker refused to get on him, why the hell should I? Bloody hell, what was I in for?

Work had been incredibly busy with some really long nights and early mornings. My experiment had had a couple of near disasters, which had kept me up working late into the night and even into the wee hours. The stress and long hours had almost made me forget that Satan was coming to holiday, until the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning. It was the transport fellow telling me they had Satan at their Melbourne depot and would be delivering him that afternoon. We made a time that I thought I could be home by and gave them directions. I told them if I was late to just put the horse in the round yard, which was just at the top of the drive, by the house.

“Mate, ya don’t wanna be puttin this horse in a yard. He’ll either jump out or he’ll run you over tryin to catch him. Have ya gotta a stable to use until he settles in? It needs to have a top and bottom door that ya can lock.”

Shit! What type of tragic case is this horse? I told them I would be there to meet them and to keep him in the truck until I got home.

I went outside to check the stables. They had not been used for some time. I cleaned what was left of some old manure and topped up the bedding with fresh sawdust then raked it smooth. The automatic waterer was working, but the system needed to be flushed to clear out the grunge that had accumulated in the pipes. The stable could be locked with top and bottom bolts on each door, but the screws holding them looked flimsy. I went to the tool shed and managed to find 2inch screws and a hand drill. I replaced the screws and then checked the strength of the hinges. The doors were pretty heavy duty and the builder had used good, strong hinges and screws to set them with. The stables were lined with quarter inch rubber to a height of four feet up the wall. I figured this would be sufficient protection if Satan decided to use the stable walls for soccer practice. I didn’t know what sort of trouble Satan might cause, but I wanted to be ready for anything. I felt like I was preparing for war; and perhaps I was.

As soon as I walked into my office at work the phone rang. The departmental head wanted to see me about how I had been dodging teaching duties. As I was about to walk down the corridor to his office my senior technician came to tell me the control serum we had been using for the ACTH was contaminated. Halfway to the department head’s office the surgery technician told me he had double booked the surgery and we would have to postpone our experiment for a day. This was how my day continued until 4pm – one headache or complaint after another.

Jen, the research assistant knocked on my door as I was reading a student’s draft PhD thesis.

“You wanted me to tell you when it was 4 o’clock.”

“Okay, thanks Jen.”

I threw the thesis and a few papers into my brief case and headed for home with some curiosity and a bit of nervousness. I wanted to know what dad had sent me. But I was worried that Geoff was right and the horse should be put down. I certainly wasn’t going to get hurt for the sake of doing my father a favour, but I promised dad I was going to give this horse a chance. I felt every horse deserves a chance. Having been around racing people most of my life, I knew that they didn’t always do everything possible to make a horse’s life as easy as possible, with minimum stress. Maybe Satan was just misunderstood and didn’t fit well into the cookie cutter training methods of your average racehorse trainer.

When I drove my old Renault 25 up to the house the horse truck was already parked in the turning circle. When I got out of the car I could hear a horse calling from inside the horsebox. Two fellows stepped out of the truck.

“Well we got ‘im here. I dunno how we are goin to go getting ‘im out . Ya want ‘im in that stable over there?”

Yeah, that’ll do,” I said. “Do you want a hand?

“Nah, mate. Ya betta wait here. He might come out a bit quick.”

The whir of the motor on the side ramp of the truck caused Satan to begin to stomp and call even more. As the ramp lowered I could see the enlarged white eyes on an imposing steel grey head. He was beautiful.

To be continued….

Interpreting Body Language

I was asked if I would write some thoughts on behaviours that indicate a horse’s emotional state. We all know that excessive swishing of the tail or pinning of the ears is almost always associated with bad feelings, anxiety and stress in horses. Most people understand these behaviours. But there are some behaviours which are less clear and create some discussion.

The most common behaviour that people seem to pick up is noticing is when a horse licks his lips – some call it licking and chewing. It has almost universally become to mean a horse is processing an idea and gaining an understanding. Licking and chewing has become associated with a desirable outcome and people almost always think that when they see their horse licking and chewing it is a good sign that things are going well. I don’t know where this notion first began, but it is almost certain that Monty Roberts had a hand in popularizing the idea.

Other examples of horse behaviour that I hear people discuss at clinics are yawning, sneezing, foam around the lips, hanging down of a gelding’s penis, eye blink reflex, breathing pattern, shape of the nostrils, movement of the ears, wrinkles under the eyes, tension of the muzzle, tension of the tail and so on. All these (and other) signs are considered to have meaning about how a horse feels. And they should be given importance because generally they do mean something. A horse is almost always telling us something with its body. They can be real chatterboxes.

But where I see the problem of looking for these behaviours as indicators of what a horse is thinking and feeling is that people are taught their meaning is definitive. That is, these behaviours have one interpretation and it is the only interpretation.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Licking and chewing by a horse is almost universally accepted as a good thing. In my opinion, often times it does indicate a letting down of emotions and the start of relaxation. But experience has taught me that this is not always true. All horses in some situation will lick and chew as a response to stress and worry. Others will lick and chew not from relaxation, but from helplessness and feelings of futility. Much of the time when a horse licks and chews from stress the movement of the mouth will be a little more rapid and tight – but not always.

One of the behaviours I was asked about recently was the meaning of yawning in a horse. Most people see a horse yawning and immediately think he is relaxed. But this is not necessarily true. Some horses will yawn long slow and deep yawns suggesting he is letting down his anxiety. But others present with sharp and short yawns due to shallow breathing brought on by a horse’s stress. Then there are some horses that will present with persistent and repeated yawning that often indicates anxiety.

But it’s not only a horse’s body language that can vary in interpretation. There is a view among some horse people that when a person looks squarely at a horse, the horse interprets it as a threatening posture. I have even heard it said that a person should not wear sunglasses when around horses because horses are threatened by the dark eyes constantly staring at them. I know people who don’t even look at the their horse when they approach to rub them. They turn half away and look down in what is supposed to be a submissive posture. Apparently, horses don’t like people walk straight up to them.

I have to say I find this all very confusing and in practical terms a bit silly.

In my view body language is the most important form of communication we share with our horses. They use it to talk to us and we use it to talk to them. Being acutely aware in the subtleties of how our horses and we use body language is fundamental to be good with horses. And this is where I think the whole understanding of particular behaviours goes wrong.

I believe that any specific behaviour or posture is difficult to interpret on its own. A horse that is licking or chewing may be licking and chewing for various reasons and its meaning may be equally varied. In my opinion, it is best to examine the licking in chewing in the context of other behaviours and not in isolation. Almost never does a horse or human show their inner feelings by only one form of behaviour. When a horse is anxious, submissive, relaxed etc there will be multiple ways of expressing those emotions. Not just one. If a horse is licking and chewing and its ears are busy and/or its head is a little high and/or it won’t look at you and/or it can’t stand quietly, then you can probably be sure it is displaying telltale signs of anxiety. But if a horse is licking and chewing and has a soft posture and/or you can direct his focus easily and/or his mind seems alert, but quiet, then the horse is probably feeling quite mellow. You could include just about any other behaviour you wish to think of that we have been told is a sure sign of something about a horse’s emotions. None of them exist in isolation. They all need to be considered in context before assigning a meaning to them.

This is just as true of the body language of people too. A person can approach a horse while looking directly with both eyes in a way that is comforting to a horse and in another way that a horse takes to be threatening. It’s in the energy and intent we present to the horse. It’s not in the fact of whether or not we are looking at our horse or walking to him with square shoulders. Horses are not that stupid. Horses know by seeing the whole picture whether or not we are in a fighting or loving mood. Otherwise, since every person has their ears permanently pinned back, horses would always think we were cranky at them all the time.

It’s great to be aware of everything a horse shows us about how it feels and what it is thinking. But interpreting those behaviours is not simple and cannot be relied upon if you are only to look at each of them in isolation. Each behaviour should be interpreted in the context of the other behaviours a horse presents. As I said, horses are chatterboxes, but sometime we only pick up on the odd phrase or two and miss the whole story.



Warming Up A Horse

Today I want to talk about the “warm up” thing. Over the past several clinics the subject of warming up a horse has come up several times. I have even seen it discussed on some other trainers sites lately about the importance of stretching and warming up a correctly. I get the impression that warming up a horse is often done because people hear they are suppose to do it and have very little understanding of why or when it is important and when it is irrelevant.

Let me say that doing warm up exercise is never going to do harm. There is no reason to believe that it is a bad thing. But for most of us it probably does not offer many advantages.

The purpose of performing warming up exercises is to increase blood flow to muscle beds. Muscles are moving machines. They have muscle fibres that pass across the surface of each other during contraction through chemical reactions. This takes energy which is derived from oxygen and nutrients that are supplied by blood to the site where the work is being done. In addition the mechanical work of the muscle fibres produces metabolic waste products and heat that need to be shunted away from the site and dealt with largely by the kidneys, lungs and liver. So the idea of warming up a horse is to increase the flow of blood to the muscle beds in preparation for the increased amount of work they will perform during exercise. For most people warming a horse up consists of either mild exercise or stretches or both.

I should say that the way the body distributes blood flow to various parts of the body is dynamic. It constantly changes. Because the flow is driven by the nervous system in response to the bodies needs, changes happen very quickly. Think about the times when you have tried to stand up quickly and felt dizzy but didn’t fall. The postural change in standing up left a deficit in blood pressure that supplied blood to the brain. But within a second or so the body was alerted to the problem and fixed it so that you only suffered light-headedness. It is because the body can compensate so quickly to increases in demand for blood flow where it is needed that lengthy warming up of our horses is redundant for most of us.

But most people misunderstand “warming up.” They think that by riding their horse or lunging their horse they are asking a horse to do strenuous exercise. In reality most horses are sufficiently prepared for the work most riders will ask of their horse just by walking them from the paddock to the arena. The majority of horses do not go from being saddled to instant strenuous exercise without some walking either from the paddock or to the mounting block or to walking to adjust the girth before mounting etc. The importance of warming up a horse is most urgent when a horse is asked for explosive exercise like racing horses or horses jumping very large obstacles. But most of only ask a horse to perform moderate exercise and jump modest jumps (1.5m or less)

Yet I see so many riders spend 15min or so walking their horse around in order to warm it up for a 30min session of walk, trot and canter in the arena. I came across a web site today that described 30mins of warm up exercises for 20mins of training. Even a racehorse is only lightly walked before having to perform perhaps the most physically strenuous exercise any horse is asked.

But let me get onto the topic that is most bothering me about the aspect of the warming up process that some people use. A lot of people have told me they like to warm up their horse for several minutes before beginning to work with their horse. By work they have meant, “asking anything of their horse.”

I have said many times that training is all about directing a horse’s thought. And I want to stress that a horse’s brain is not a muscle. A brain does not have moving parts. Even when it is working its hardest the brain does not need warming up. I don’t remember when I sat exams at university that the first few questions were not part of the test because the professor just offered them as “warm up” questions. If I ask a person their 3 times multiplication table do I need to warm their brain up with the 2 times table first? I don’t think so.

Therefore, it’s not okay to let a horse lose focus or be distracted or not be soft and responsive to your aids just because you are warming it up and have not yet begun the “proper work.” Yet more than once in the past few weeks I have heard from riders that they are just warming their horse up before they starting the session. When I pointed out some things about their horse that I felt needed addressing, it seemed less important to the rider than warming their horse up. A lady was lunging her horse at a clinic and it was very counter balanced. When I brought this to her attention she said, “Yeah I know, but I’m just warming her up first.” To me this is a completely bizarre concept. How does a horse know that it’s okay to ignore a rider and straightness doesn’t matter during the warm up, but know to get it’s act together when the real training begins? Where does this idea come from?

As I said, it’s okay if you want to physically warm up your horse with light exercise and stretches before starting the more strenuous aspect of a workout – if that’s what you want. Most horses don’t need it, but it does no harm. But it’s not okay to let the mental and emotional part of the training fall apart just because a person wants to physically warm a horse up.

Last year in Minnesota I showed the type of stretching exercises I get to do at several clinics.

flying Ross


Dressage Is For Every Horse

At the clinic in Wollert a friend brought a horse that has showed real improvement over recent months and is going to make a really nice that she’ll be proud to say is hers.

While talking to her I heard a story that just riles me to the point of critically high blood pressure. She told me she had taken the horse to a clinic or workshop held by a lady who claimed to be an expert on performance, conformation and things related to structure and function with horses. The clinician told my friend that her horse would not be suitable for dressage because it had a long back and several other conformation faults. I hear this sort of rubbish from time to time and it makes me despair at how such people could call themselves ‘professional’ for such nonsense. I know a trainer in South Australia who has also handed out similar advice to people on his web site who have written to him asking for advice. It’s time these people were made to account for their Neanderthal ideas.

Dressage is for every horse and every rider – end of argument.

Dressage is not for just for the high priced Warmblood or imported Baroque horse. Dressage is not just for horses over 16.3hh. Dressage is not just for the people who have the money to afford expensive horses and expensive coaches. Dressage is not for just the people who have ambition to compete at Grand Prix level. Dressage is not just for the people who want to compete.

Dressage is for any horse where balance, straightness, softness, strength and mental and emotional fitness are important to a rider. Dressage is for any breed of horse from Shetland to Standardbred, from Arab to Akhal Teke , from Cob to Cleveland Bay and from Fjord to Foxtrotter – and every breed in between. Dressage is for horses from pony to Shire size. Dressage is for any rider who enjoys helping their horse become more athletic and maximize their chance of a lifetime of soundness. Dressage is for people who like to potter around on their horse in the paddock or have ambition to compete internationally. Dressage is for people who want to ride dressage, barrel racing, reining, jumping, eventing, roping, pleasure, hunting, liberty etc.

Dressage is not about ribbons, rosettes, medals and prize money. Dressage is not about owning the right type of horse or the right type of saddle, bridle, jodhpurs, hat or bit. None of these things matter.

Dressage is about building a solid foundation of good basic work that is the pre-requisite of anything you might want to do with your horse. Good dressage builds balance, straightness and softness – something that every discipline requires of every horse. I have said before I think every horse should have a solid understanding of the basics of good dressage before they are trained for any other discipline. Every horse should be a dressage horse before they are a roper, ranch horse, hunter, polo pony, jumper or whatever.

And every rider should have a good understanding of dressage so they know how to keep their horse correct, balanced and strong, which will make a huge positive difference to every horse’s long-term soundness.

The people who tell others that a certain horse is not meant for dressage don’t understand the principles of dressage. For sure not every horse is meant to compete at a high level or perform high school movements with devastating brilliance. But every horse can gain and should gain the benefits that good dressage has to offer. To label a horse as unsuitable for dressage is just pure ignorance of the purpose of dressage. If you don’t believe me take it up with some of the old masters that understood this principle very well.

I will now politely step down from my soap box.


Can A Horse Be Brave

I think this is a really poor study and it seems to me the conclusions are not supported by the study without making some very big assumptions about what is bravery, the relationship between stress and heart rate, the variability of temperament etc.


Changing The Thought

This post sort of relates to my article of March 21 about having a horse’s thoughts with me to help him to stand still when I a person attempts to mount.

I have mentioned previously on several occasions that when we ask something of our horse we need to get a change. If things don’t change what is the point of asking in the first place? We only teach our horse to ignore us by nagging him to do something without evoking a change inside him. But the only change worth getting is a change of thought. A change of thought is about getting deep inside a horse to evoke a change of feelings. Anything else is just wallpaper – it’s superficial and brief.

The majority of riders I meet are looking for a change in what the horse is doing and that is the yardstick they use to measure the effectiveness of their work. But lots of times a horse will respond with his feet while still trying to do something else. This is because he is thinking about something else. He drifts closer to the gate on is turns. He calls out to his friends. He goes faster too fast riding towards home and too slow riding away from home.

Without changing his thinking, changing what he is doing will have resistance and is only half the job. Added to that, a horse will think about doing something before he actually does it – this is no different than you or me. Once a horse has mentally decided to do something he is already committed to doing it. By waiting until he actually moves his feet before releasing the pressure a person’s timing is late. The time to release was when the horse made the mental commitment to following the feel offered by the rider or handler. Waiting until the idea reaches all the way to the feet is going to make our release late every time.

But what I have noticed a lot in past years is how people are unaware of when a horse changes his thought. People assume that because their horse did what he was asked that he changed his mind. But have you ever been told to do something that you didn’t want to do, yet did it anyway? Was the fact that you actually did as you were asked convincing proof that you wanted to do it? Can you assume that every person sitting at their desk filling in their tax return every year does it because there is nothing better they would rather be doing?

Just because you pick up both reins and your horse stops, can you assume he had the mental thought to stop before you applied the brakes enough to get his feet to stop moving forward? Just because a horse did as you asked does not mean his mind was not thinking about doing something else.

When you pick up the reins and your horses pushes through them and instead of stopping he leans on the reins and drags himself to an eventual stop, you might firm up on the reins to make the stop snappier and more responsive. But if you do that and the stop is more responsive and snappier, how do you know you got a change of thought? That’s the question people that struggle with most. The better stop response does not automatically mean there was a change of thought. Your horse might still be pushing forward with his thought and if that is happening you can be certain his response is not as good as it could be or should be.

So how do you know if the snappier response was due to the increase braking power you applied with the reins or a change of thought by your horse?

The easiest way I know to check if there was a change of thought is to repeat the exercise. Ask your horse to stop or turn or go forward or yield to your inside leg or whatever again. If your horse responds with less pressure from your aids and gives a better and softer reply then you can be certain he had a change of thought – even if just for a moment. But if instead you still need to apply the same or even more pressure to achieve the reaction you wanted from your horse, then there was no change of thought and reduction in resistance. This is a really important principle because if you don’t achieve a change of thought then the horse has not learned anything positive from the exercise. It means you will always have to use far more pressure than necessary to get the response you want.

Why does this matter?

It matters because by not getting a change of thought you will forever be firming up on a horse to ensure the feet are doing what you want. The result is that your horse will have to be burdened with much more pressure than he is comfortable with every time you ask for something that he is not already thinking about. Your attempts to interrupting his thought will constantly cause him some degree of anguish (small or large) and your relationship will suffer for it. He will hold back from trying his best because of the trouble inside him.

In my view the easiest way to avoid the issue of directing the feet without getting a change in what a horse is feeling and thinking is to always ask him again to do what you just asked him. Once you get a response that is softer and better and more like the one you had in mind, then move onto what was the next thing you were going to ask your horse to do. However, if it is not softer and better then keep repeating the exercise until you get something much closer to what you had in mind. It doesn’t matter how many times you might have to repeat the exercise to ensure you got a change in his thinking. It’s only then you can be sure that you don’t enter the pitfall of just working at the surface level of your horse and dooming him to a life of resisting your every command.

The photo is of a pushmepullme. An animal whose thought to go forward was also his thought to go backward.

Dr Dolittle - PushmePullme


The Link Between A Horse's Emotions And Its Thoughts

It is impossible to separate the way a horse feels from the way its thoughts operate. The feelings that a horse carries play an integral role in determining the way it’s mind works.

Trainers are always talking about the value of having a horse with a relaxed mind because a relaxed mind is more available for taking in new information. A horse that is relaxed is without doubt in a more “trainable” state than one that is running on adrenaline and high-octane nervous energy. This is because too often fear and worry cause the survival instinct of a horse to kick in, which sets up a barrier to the horse being able to focus and allow its thoughts to be directed by anything that it perceives is not part of its survival strategy. When a horse is worried anything that is not going to help it live through the experience is immediately considered a threat to survival.

On the other hand, when a horse feels there are no threats to its comfort and safety it can be like a sponge of learning. It sees, smells and hears everything; and all this information is compiled into its brain. But while horses are so good at gathering information, they not so good at sorting it. The things we want them to know and the things we don’t want them to know are lumped into together. Shifting the good from the bad is where our presence is most influential. We help horses find an emotional calmness from the things we want them to learn and a little emotional worry from the things we don’t want them to learn.

This last sentence highlights the interesting thing about anxiety.

When a horse feels a lot of anxiety it hinders learning and is counter productive to the training process. But when they experience a small amount of anxiety it aids in the training process by helping a horse to separate the behaviours that benefit it and behaviours that don’t benefit it. The ones we want them to learn and the ones we don’t want them to learn.

In general I have found that the more sensitive horses are easier to train than the more dull horses. I think this is because their sensitivity means they have a greater desperation to search for safety and comfort than horses that are more stoic. They don’t handle pressure and discomfort with the same ease and are always looking for a better deal. I’ve owned some pretty sensitive horses in my life and find it rarely takes more than a small reminder such as a touch from leg to regain their attention once it is gone. But it always takes something and I am always balancing their anxiety state between being too much that it blocks their ability to think and too little that they have no motive to change their thoughts.

I remember riding my pony, Chops who was a very sensitive and potentially reactive horse. She was constantly looking to me for what might be asked next. Her sensitivity made her great fun and meant that once she got the picture I rarely had to offer more than clearing of my throat to draw her thought back to me. But there was one time when we were riding on a trail and everything was right with the world. It was peaceful and quiet. Suddenly I heard a roaring sound coming through the trees towards us. It sounded like an engine. It was coming fast and getting loud. By the time I realized we were in a cloud of bees in mid swarm Chops was already taking off at high speed through the trees. There was nothing I could do to get her to pay attention to me until we got a hundred metres or so from the bees. Her thought was gone and her body did everything it could to catch up to her thought. So strong was her thought to save her life that there was no room in her mind for anything I was trying to get her do. It was not until Chops had put enough distance between her and those bees did her fear dissipate enough to allow room for her to hear what I had to say.

The point of this story is to illustrate that the strength of a horse’s thought is determined by how convinced he is about whether it will live or die. It also illustrates the point that there is a threshold of fear that a horse hits where if it crosses the threshold there is nothing that can be done until the horse becomes calmer. On the wrong side of that boundary a horse is incapable of listening or changing its thoughts until it believes safety has returned. I was not able to influence Chop’s thought until she had galloped to a safe distance from the bees. Until then it was impossible for me to affect anything. I had to wait until she crossed back to the safer side of the fear threshold before I was able to direct her again. Being aware of the line between too much anxiety and just enough anxiety to motivate a horse to change its thought is fundamental to being an effective horse person. If you cross the line to the wrong side you might as well put your horse away for the time being and try again later.

A horse’s emotions drive his thoughts. The more relaxed and calm a horse feels, the more he is ready to have his thoughts and focus changed. It’s hard to separate how a horse feels from what he is thinking.

The horse in the cartoon was clearly so anxious that it went rogue.

dressage cartoon


Is He With You Or Not?

I have discovered over the years that some people are totally bamboozled by the notion that we can work with a horse’s thought. It seems for some the concept is totally ridiculous and they can’t possibly imagine that we can know what a horse is thinking or affect its thoughts. The fact that I keep harping on about this subject is a major point of criticism I receive from people who have only read my articles. Even in the early stages of a clinic it is sometimes hard to convince participants about knowing a horse’s thoughts. This is especially true if it is their first experience with such a concept. So even though it seems so obvious and clear to me and I struggle to understand why others have problems with this, I have to accept that it isn’t easy. Experience has taught me that it is one thing for people to grasp the concept, but to use the concept in a practical way and offer benefits to the horse and the relationship it has with people is a far more difficult process. It takes time, perseverance and commitment.

Before a person can make practical use of the idea of getting a horse’s thought with them so that it can then be directed in a useful way, it is necessary to know when his thought is with you or somewhere else. The somewhere else is not too important. By that I mean it doesn’t matter where somewhere else is. Knowing where somewhere else is won’t change how you change his thought. What is important is recognizing when a horse’s mind is with you and you occupy the primary space in his brain or you are being out competed by other ideas that seem more important to your horse. Most people appear to be fairly poor at recognizing when a horse is mentally connected to them and when it he is not.

On the weekend I worked a few horses on the circle at the end of a lead rope. Many times I tried to point out to spectators when a horse’s thought was leaving me and when it was with me. I know a few people had a lot of difficulty recognizing the difference because most of the time the horses didn’t make a big change to the shape of the circle, the speed of their pace or their posture. On a cursory look the horses and the circle seemed to look the same whether the horse was with me or disconnected from me. So people weren’t seeing what I was seeing.

For a long time I struggled with how to help people become aware of when a horse was connected to them and when it was disconnected from them. Because seeing the difference takes a lot of awareness and can be quite elusive I had trouble understanding how to help those who were finding it difficult. Then I had a light bulb moment a few years ago that really seem to make a difference for people.

The easiest way I know for people to work out if their horse is mentally focused on them or not is to ask him to change what he is doing. It’s that simple. If a horse is concentrating on his rider or handler, when he is asked to change what he is doing it should cause him almost no emotionally trouble (assuming he is clear about what is being asked). But if you ask him something and he leans on the reins, swishes his tail, pins his ears, tosses his head, gapes his mouth, chomps on the bit, holds his breath, looses his straightness or any other behaviour that indicates worry, then you know he was not with you.

When I was lunging the horses on the weekend and I felt they were not listening to me sufficiently I was able to demonstrate that to the group by asking the horses to slow down or speed up or change direction etc. Any resistance or anxiety that the horses expressed told the spectators that I had lost the horse’s focus. However, by interrupting the horse’s thoughts I was not only able to confirm that I had lost their focus, but I was also able to get it back. Changing what I was asking the horses to do motivated them to check in with me again and listen for what I was asking. Regularly interrupting a horse’s thoughts not only helps you determine if you have his thoughts or not, but can help you get them back if their brain has gone walkabout. In fact, not interrupting a horse for a long period of time is a way of ensuring you will lose a horse’s focus.

The teacher can’t teach until the student enters the classroom. It is so important to have your horse’s attention. Therefore, it is equally important to know when you have it and when you don’t. It is worth putting in the time and effort to learn this particular skill because it is the beginning of then being able to direct your horse’s mind.

Although I pride myself at being pretty good at reading a horse’s thoughts, I have no idea what the horse in the photo was thinking.

Changing His Mind


Having A Horse's Thought Addresses Many Problems

I was approached the other day by an Aussie horse magazine to write something about teaching a horse to stand still while being mounted. I managed to rush off about 250 words in the 10 mins I had while waiting to catch my flight to Dunedin New Zealand where I am now preparing for the start of a clinic tomorrow. It will eventually be published in June/July.

But the whole idea of how I might go about teaching a horse to stand quietly during mounting sparked me to think about the bigger picture.

Firstly, when I have a horse in training I generally never have problems with horses wanting to move when I attempt to mount. I believe this is because the reason why a horse might want to wander away doesn’t occur by the time he is ready for me to step into the saddle. The cause of the problem is taken care of before the situation even arises.

Starting my mare, Six
The reason most horses try to walk away when being mounted is because their mind has walked away. A horse is always trying to carry out what he is thinking. If he is thinking he wants to be somewhere else when a person tries to mount, then you can bet his feet are trying to somewhere else too. Most people try to stop a horse from moving by applying the brakes and making moving too hard for the horse. They might hold the reins tight as they mount or they might flex his neck around or they might point his nose against a fence or they might even hobble his front feet. But whatever it is, most people try to physically prevent a horse from moving. However, in doing that they never address the root cause of the horse’s mind thinking about being somewhere else. All they do is physically stop him from moving, but not from wanting to move.

When a client at a clinic tells me they’d like to work on teaching their horse to stand quietly for mounting the first thing I do is tell them not to try to stop him moving. Don’t hold the reins tight or flex his neck or point him into a fence. Just attempt to get on. When the horse thinks about moving, stop trying to get on and move his feet in such a way that it interrupts his idea of going somewhere. A person might back him up and then move him forward and then back again until he is soft in their hand. Or maybe ask his hindquarters to disengage until he is soft and quiet with a nice bend. Or maybe just hold him under the chin with the reins and ask him to stand quietly with no leaning on their hand. It doesn’t matter what they do. The secret is not in what a person does. The secret is having what they do end with the horse being soft and quiet.

You might ask why does it not matter what a person does? You might ask what difference does having the horse soft and quiet make? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The reason is that a horse wants to move when a person tries to mount because his thought leaves. He is thinking he needs to be somewhere else. But when you ask a horse to do something and he is soft and quiet in your hand, you can be certain his thought is now back with you. So stop asking him to do whatever it is you are asking when he is soft and quiet and you know you have a change of thought. He is ready for you to try to mount again. You may have to repeat the process once or twice depending on how strong a thought it is for him to leave and how effective a change you make in that thought, But it has never taken me more than 2,894,374 and a half repetitions before a horse has stood quietly. ☺

So what do I do when a horse fidgets during saddling? I do what I need to do to get his thought with me. What do you think I do when a horse wants to pull away to be with other horses or when I am lunging him? I do what I need to do to get his thought with me. What about when a horse moves around to avoid having his feet picked up? I do what I need to do to get his thought with me. What I do I do when a horse tries pull on the reins like a steam train? I do what I need to do to get his thoughts with me. What do I do with a horse that tries to eat grass when I’m with him? I do what I need to do to get his thoughts with me. You get the picture.

Everything we do with a horse that is good and can be classed as quality has the underlying requirement that a horse’s primary thoughts must be with us – even before we can direct them to be somewhere else. Without that pre-requisite nothing will be as good as it could be. And when we have a horse’s thoughts it is amazing how many potential problems never arise.

The photo was taken when I was breaking in my mare, Six.

John Tells You How To Ride A Pony

This kid has it sorted.


Training For Dressage

I worked with a horse recently that was really heavy on the reins. I mean really heavy. It leaned on the reins when asked to stop, when asked to go forward and when asked to turn. It wasn’t that it was fighting the reins and told the rider that it wouldn’t stop, go or turn. It was just that leaning on the reins was something it always did, even if it didn’t feel the need to resist. It’s like driving a car that always drifts to the left because the wheel alignment was wrong. The car doesn’t particularly want to go left. The car isn’t fighting to go left. It’s just that drifting left is the cars normal way of operating. So it was with the horse I rode. Leaning on the reins and being heavy was just its normal way of operating. The horse has been doing it for so long that it’s resistance was not so much emotional as physical. It has become a habit.

But what might surprise you is that the horse and rider had been getting a lot of instruction from well-recognized and credentialed trainers. Even more surprising is that the horse was working at a reasonably high level and was training movements beyond what many horses do. To her credit the owner knew there was a problem (which I guess is why she let me ride the horse). But what I don’t understand is why the “well-respected” trainers that she had been working with were okay with the way the horse was operating on the reins. Why would you be training movements beyond the basics of stop, go and turn with a horse that had so much physical resistance?

One of the clues came from the owner when she asked me that since her horse was a Clydesdale cross, was it reasonable or fair to expect her to be soft on the reins and light on her forehand. The inference was that because the horse was half draught horse it might not be physically able to be any better than it was. I answered her question by riding the horse for 10 or 15 minutes, by which time the mare was listening and responding to a much softer feel on the reins and had moments where she was able to lift its forehand and stop ploughing through the turns. She couldn’t hold her self-carriage for long, but the difference in the horse was clear. As he horse has a clearer understanding and builds more muscle, one day the mare could carry herself brilliantly and be able to do so for as long as the owner required.

Nothing we do with a horse should end on a moment of resistance – physical or emotional – if we can avoid it. Everything we do from putting on a halter to picking up a rein or apply a leg in any manner should end softer than it began. It doesn’t matter if the horse is physically carrying out our will or not if there is no improvement in the degree of softness. It would seem this ultra important principle had been forgotten with the mare.

It should be concerning to everybody that there are high level coaches whose priority is to teach tricks rather than instil the fundamental principles that every horse and rider needs to know. What is wrong with the education of our horse trainers when it becomes okay for us to bully and go to battles with our horses to produce even basic movements? I was even more irate when you think that the trainers were supposed to be expert dressage coaches!! What happened to dressage being a discipline that espouses the very principles of softness and harmony? What happened to the idea that dressage is about beauty? What happened to the idea that without softness and calmness dressage is nothing but a bunch of badly executed arena exercises?

Vaulting Training

You have to admire the work these girls put into their sport


The Practical Side of Offering Feel To A Horse

I watched closely a lady working her horse on the end of the lead rope. There seemed to be a disconnection between what she was trying to do and what the horse was trying to do. I don’t think the horse was deliberately evading her, but it was obvious that at some level they were both speaking a different language.

As the session progressed the volume of conversation between the horse and the owner was increasing. It reminded me of the family Christmases that we had when I was a kid. There were always at least a dozen people sitting around the lunch table and feasting. Each person would talk at the same time. The voices would get louder by the minute in an effort for each to be heard. Anybody walking past on the street would think there was an almighty brawl going on. But it was just my family all trying to be heard at the same time. This is what I thought about as I watched the lady and the horse having their own conversation.

The other apparent thing was the level of frustration on the part of the horse. He clearly figured the owner was talking gibberish. It made no sense to him why she was bumping and wriggling the lead rope like it was caught in a tumble dryer. He was getting mad at what he thought was being told off for doing something he didn’t know he had done wrong. He pinned his ears, tossed his head and screwed his body into contorted shapes to express his frustration at being in trouble for doing nothing.

The owner was also feeling frustrated. To her credit her frustration was with herself. She could see the trouble in her horse. She could see how cranky he was becoming. But she didn’t know what she was doing wrong. Only minutes beforehand she had watched me working her horse. It seemed to her she was doing the same thing she had seen me do. But why was the horse not behaving for her in the same way he had behaved for me? Was it the chaps? The hat? The beard? The gender?

After giving her some time to work it out I got out of my chair to offer her some help.

I asked her to hold one end of the lead rope in both hands by her chest and close her eyes. I took the other end in my hand. Then I did my best impression of what I felt she was doing with the lead rope. The lady gave me a blank look as if to ask herself what the hell is he doing. Next I used the lead rope like I was presenting an idea to a horse. Her face completely dropped away and her jaw slackened. It was like an epiphany was drawing across her face. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a clear-cut expression of the penny dropping.

The demonstration was so clear to her that what she thought she was doing and what she was doing were so vastly different. But even more important than that is that she realized in a mechanical sense she and I were using the lead rope in very similar ways. She really wasn’t so far off the mark. The direction and energy that her arm put along that rope was similar to the way I used the rope. But what was so staggeringly different was the feel that I presented down the rope compared to the feel she presented. There was a very small, but important difference between our feel that made the difference between the horse becoming more agitated and confused and cranky; and the horse becoming clearer, more confident and less anxious.

People often say that you can’t teach feel. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do believe you can learn it. Everybody learns about feel in almost every aspect of their life. You learn about feel when driving a car or hitting a tennis ball or pushing a shopping trolley. So I knew the lady could learn to offer her horse feel too if she knew what it felt like to be the horse on the end of the lead rope. I believe learning feel begins with an attitude that you are having a conversation with a horse. You might ask the horse a question with the lead rope, reins, seat or your legs. Then you need to wait and listen for his answer. He might come back with a question of his own, in which case you adjust your feel to offer him an answer. The conversation goes back and forth until you both come to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Sometimes the conversation is loud and raucous like question time in parliament house and sometimes it is almost silent like two friends sharing a sunset. But either way there is a conversation in process and it has a feel.

One lesson on presenting a feel on a rope was never going to fix all the ladies woes with her horse. Presenting clarity to a horse is a lifelong pursuit and some guy showing you what you are missing is not going to instantly dissolve the problems away like sugar in a glass of hot water. But having the experience of what the horse feels when we present an idea in a clear and also an unclear way needs to be embedded in our brains so we have something to strive towards. Once you know what it feels like you know when you have it again.

The purpose of feel is to offer a horse clarity of ideas. It is much more than simply applying pressure in a direction and with ‘x’ amount of energy – like pointing a finger and saying to a horse he should go over there (wherever “there “ may be). Feel changes everything in a relationship with a horse because of the clarity that a good feel presents. It clears up the confusion that is a barrier to a better relationship. For this reason, despite the difficulty that most of us have in learning feel, the struggle is always worthwhile and never wasted time.

In the photo I am asking the horse a question through a feel on the lead rope and you can see it has his interest. In turn the horse is in the process of asking a question of me.

feel on a line


Horses For Courses

For some time I have been having an inner battle with ideas about horses and training them. There are two concepts that I strongly believe in, yet they appear to contradict each other in a way that makes it hard to explain to people.

When I see a horse that is struggling with something I also see a hole that needs to be plugged. Any problem with a horse is another project to me. I feel every time I see a ‘no-go’ area on a horse it can only make a horse a better companion by eliminating the ‘no-go.’ That’s why I find it almost impossible to sit on any horse and not be doing something. When I feel a change under my seat that doesn’t feel quite right and I have to address it. Sitting on a horse and letting it take me for a ride is almost impossible for me. The urge to help things be better overwhelms me and I have to do something about it.

I strongly believe that fixing every little issue one by one helps make a horse better than the sum of its parts. As people often say, “the devil is in the detail.”

But there have been occasion when I question the wisdom of fixing everything that is not quite right with a horse.

A few years ago a horse was sent to us for working. It was an Arab gelding owned by a teenage pony club kid. The grandparents told us that they bought the horse for their granddaughter to compete in show jumping at pony club level. The kid loved jumping and it was the one thing she wanted to do with her horse. But the horse kept running out on the jumps. He was very sure that he was not born to fly through the air over poles and barrels. It was so bad at times that if a person became too insistent the horse would become dangerous in his refusal. So in their desperation we were asked to work with the horse.

It was my wife, Michele who was the lucky one to spend time with the gelding. It immediately became clear that the horse had a problem just being lead to walk over a pole on the ground, let alone jumping over a raised pole. He would leap around, pull away, run backwards – whatever he could to avoid placing a foot over a pole. Michele worked hard at helping him gain confidence and relaxing about crossing a pole. As he improved he tried harder and things progressed well. But Michele was on a deadline. The owners went on holidays for 2 weeks and expected to pick up the horse when they returned. We explained that their granddaughter needs to spend some time working with Michele and her horse before taking it home and that 2 weeks may not be enough time for such a serious problem, but granddad was dismissive and assured us all would be fine. The horse went home and Michele felt that the owners had no understanding of the trouble still lurking inside the horse. We both questioned did this horse need to be a show jumper, even at pony club level?

Years earlier a friend bought a horse and was going to use him for working other horses. My friend’s horse was bought for the sole purpose of helping him start young horses. He was stout, quick and had a good, quiet mind. But very early on in his career as a saddle horse my friend discovered his horse was overly timid towards other horses. Often when my friend was riding his horse and had another horse on the end of a lead rope, his riding horse would shy away from the young horse. If the young horse crowded the riding horse or made a snakey face at him, the horse would back away. His horse was ok if he was moving a young horse with the flag or whatever, but working in close to another horse bothered him a lot. My friend was pretty sure it was a fear response. He was able to keep a lid on the horse’s reactions to a large extent, but was never able to help him overcome the feelings that working another horse caused. I question if my friend’s horse really needed to be used for working other horses?

On the one hand I believe that every horse can be a better horse if we address each little problem as it appears and not leave these issues inside a horse. But on the other hand I believe not every horse is suited for every job and question whether we need to subject a horse to the type of work he is not psychologically suited.

Would the Arab gelding have eventually become a handy show jumper if somebody else owned him? I don’t know. But I do know that given he was ridden by an inexperienced teenage girl and the nature of his fear; it was unwise to insist the girl took him to jumping competitions. He was not meant to be a jumping horse for a teenage girl.

Would my friend’s horse have ever been able to be calm and mellow when working a young horse? I don’t know. But given he was owned by a fellow who was unable to achieve that sort of change in his horse, I think it would have been better for my friend to find other work for his horse.

We all have our limitations. Some of those limitations are in how much help we can offer our horses. I don’t see the point in trying to make a horse be something he is not. While doing our best to eliminate as many holes in our horse’s training as possible, we have to respect the limits of our ability to do that and the limits of our horse’s potential. As I have said many times, don’t love a horse for what you want it to be, love him for what he is and go from there.

How many horses do you think they auditioned to find one that could be trained to dive from a tall platform into water? I bet a lot of horses are not suited to this type of work.

diving horse


Claytons Forward

When I was a student at university there was a drink being used at parties by people who didn’t want to drink. Claytons was the drink you drank when you weren’t drinking. The term ‘Claytons’ soon entered the popular lexicon to mean something that wasn’t real.

At a recent clinic a lady said one of the things she had been having trouble with was getting her horse to be more forward off her leg. She had brought the horse about 6 months earlier to another clinic with the same problem. At the previous clinic I gave her some tools designed to help her horse think more forward and at the time she made good progress and achieved improvement with getting a change in her horse. But 6 months later the improvement was only marginal.

It’s not that the horse wouldn’t go forward. He did. But only after the rider asked him politely and then very firmly. The message to go forward didn’t seem to hold with him from just a polite ask by the rider. Time and time again the rider would have to reinforce the idea that application of her legs against his sides meant he should get some life in his feet. But the thought to go forward just wouldn’t hold.

The first day of the clinic was taken up with a few other issues that the horse had and the problem of forward didn’t become my main focus until the second day. For a while I just watched. The owner would politely ask her horse to listen to her legs and go forward. When she didn’t get the response she wanted she would apply her legs much more firmly and added slapping a rope to the horse’s sides – like an over and under strap. Immediately the horse would lope off for some distance before the rider asked him to slow down so she could try again. But with each repetition, the rider would always have to demand a response from her horse before he would lope to the end of the arena. There was not enough change in the horse’s thinking to allow her to get her horse moving forward with freedom by just a polite request from her seat and legs. It always took a lot from the rider.

It didn’t take too long before I realized why the horse was not improving. And if a horse is not improving, then you are either not training (and just riding) or you are training badly.

What was clear was the rider was confusing the horse’s response to canter with a change in his thought about going forward. She assumed that the canter was a forward response. But in reality the horse’s willingness to canter was an evasion to going forward.

When the rider asked the horse to walk or trot with freedom and effort, the right answer would have been to walk or trot with a forward thought. The right answer would have been to not hold back like it was dragging an anchor. The right answer would have been to not be thinking about the moment when the rider would allow him to slow down. The right answer would have been to send his focus ahead of him and ramp up the life in his walk or trot (whichever was being asked of him) until he was interrupted by the rider (change in muscle tone, reins, seat position etc). The wrong answer was to canter forward as if there was a cliff in front of him.

By offering a canter with no forward energy, the horse was preserving his thought to avoid going forward with a purpose. The canter is usually considered to be a faster gait and have more energy than the walk or the trot. And much of the time that is true. But it doesn’t have to be true. A canter can be just as lazy as a lazy trot - it's a Clayton's forward. It's the forward you have when you don't have forward. In fact there are situations where a horse would prefer to canter than trot simply because it takes less effort. Think about how many horses prefer to canter up a hill than walk or trot up a hill. In the clinic, the rider made the same mistake many of us do of believing that because her horse offered a canter he was also going forward. She figured he had changed his thought about holding back and changed it to one of effort in going forward. But this was not the case. The canter was an evasion from going forward with effort.

When I pointed this out to the rider it was clearly a light bulb moment for her. I asked her to trot her horse and if he tried to canter she was to block it using the reins. But at the same time she was to send him forward because she didn’t want to block the forward, only the canter. This is important. I told her to keep sending him forward, but do enough with the reins to block the canter and keep him trotting with more energy. It took some doing because either he wanted to slam the brakes on and stop altogether or he tried to keep cantering. But with some good timing and persistence on the part of the rider, the horse was able to trot out bigger with less and less input from the rider. By the end of the session the horse and the rider were doing fantastically. The rider, the horse and most importantly, the clinician were all happy.

It’s so important to distinguish what the feet are doing from what the horse is feeling and thinking. The outcome is only beautiful when our thoughts and our horse’s thoughts are the same. That is my definition of a unity of partnership.

dead racehorse



I enjoy Garrocha and this is a pretty good example.


Handling Aggression In Horses

If you are an amateur horse person who is really unlucky or a professional who works with hundreds or thousands of different horses, there is a strong possibility that eventually you’ll come across a horse that displays outright aggression towards people. I’m not talking about the frustrated pony who occasionally will try to bite or the horse that you can ride until it has had enough and starts to buck or rear or the cranky horse with the snakey attitude. I’m talking about the horse that will run you out of the paddock or arena. I’m talking about the horse that is determined to do you serious injury rather than just throw out warnings your way. I’m talking about the horse that will come at you walking on his back legs while his front legs are flailing in the air. I’m talking about the horses that any sane person would be reluctant to handle.

Almost all horses that exhibit that level of aggression are acting out of genuine fear for its life. Even if it is a learned behaviour, it has been learned from the necessity to survive what the horse thought were life and death situations. In my view, it is an infinitesimally small number of horses that show severe and genuine aggression that stems entirely from a genetic source or neurological aberration. In other words almost no horses are born crazy or their craziness comes from problems with the brain. It can happen, but it is extremely rare. There is almost always a component of experience with people that triggers their craziness. Of course, horses are a product of the combination of their nature and their nurture, so some horses are more prone to becoming aggressive with bad handling than others. But it is rare that at some point humans were not the straw that broke the camel’s back.

For this reason, I believe it is never the right approach to meet a horse’s aggression with human aggression. Trying to solve the issue by being bigger and scarier than the horse can only confirm in the horse’s mind he is correct to be afraid and he should do anything to try to save his life. Even if you can suppress the attacking behaviour to a degree by meeting aggression with aggression, nothing about how the horse feels and views people will change. You will always need to be tough with the horse and anybody who isn’t as tough as you will suffer the horse’s wrath.

But it should go without saying that when a horse’s teeth or legs are on the attack; you need to do whatever it takes to stay safe. I have not shied away from whacking a horse on the face that was lunging at me repeatedly in a flurry of aggression. It’s not something I would do in normal circumstances or ever recommend to people as a good way to handle most situations. But I’m going to do what I can to protect myself because being the selfless person I am I don’t want to deny the Australian government tax earnings from my future income – it’s just the wonderful altruistic type of person I am. So if you were in jeopardy it would be stupid to be concerning yourself with how the horse feels in an effort to save yourself.

So what do you do with a horse that can turn to attack you at any moment when pressure is applied?

With the notion that safety is paramount, in the past I have chosen to start by working the horse remotely. That is, I would try directing a horse in a round yard or something similar while I was on the outside. It wouldn’t be much different to how I might work a green or un-educated horse except there would be a fence between the horse and me. Initially it can be quite confusing for the horse, but with persistence and consistence they can learn to follow the feel offered by the person outside the pen. It might entail learning to be effective with a flag or stock whip or a long rope before you tackle such a project. However, the principle of directing the horse’s thought and being patiently persistent is the same as with the training of any horse. Teach them to yield the hindquarters and forehand, independently of each other and in unison. Teach them to follow direction around the pen. Teach them to listen and focus and build a ‘try’. Making them do anything doesn’t come into it. You’ll be surprised how quickly they will mellow once they let down their aggressive urge to defend themselves. When this happens, going into the pen and working with the horse close up becomes a much safer option. Yet the same principles apply because they can quickly resort to old habits if they feel defensive again. So always make sure you know where the gate is and which is the quickest exit (out the gate or climbing the fence) just in case.

But when working in close proximity to a horse that is prone to attacking, you need to present yourself in a way that when he lunges at you with teeth bared, he runs into trouble and not that you create trouble for him. For example, have the handle of a whip handy such that he might lunge and run into the whip handle. Two or three run-ins with the whip handle will cause him to reconsider his options – but he ran into the handle and not the handle ran into him (if you know what I mean). If a horse comes at you with front feet flailing in an attempt to strike you, take the whip and vigorously swish back and forth just in front of you about knee height. Let him run into the swishing whip and get the shock of his life. Don’t try to hit him with the whip, just let him learn there is a barrier between his front legs and you – like an electric fence. I’ve never yet seen an electric fence hit a horse, but I have seen lots of horses hit an electric fence and learn the line not to cross.

There is a fine line between being a brave idiot and sensible coward when working with dangerously aggressive horses. I’ve never been seriously hurt by a horse in my entire working life and I put that down in part to being a sensibly coward. When it comes to working with man-eaters it pays big dividends to be brave enough to work to the limits of your abilities yet be chicken enough not go beyond your limits. If you are too fearful or too macho you can’t help a horse make a change. The middle ground is the best place to be. Training is more of a mental discipline than a physical one. So be smart, not brave.

It’s important to remember that aggressive horses don’t find life much fun. If a horse knew how to be different while still being safe he would choose the alternative every time. So there is no point in getting angry at a horse or taking his aggression as personal. If you could see it from his point of view you’d give him a cuddle rather than a beating or a bullet.

The photo doesn’t have anything to do with the post, but I think it is funny.

funny horse attack


How Not To Do Ground Work


Touching The Untouchable

What do you do with a horse that won’t let you touch him?

Last week I was in Victoria and was asked to look at a horse that the owner had problems getting a hand on. It was a 3 year old unbroken horse that lived in the paddock. The problem was exacerbated because the owner had not been able to put in some consistent time into the horse. This is something we all face at some point – a horse with issues that we can’t commit enough time to fixing. But not being able to get a handle on a horse is a particularly troubling issue that could cost a horse its life. I mean what do you do if it needs serious veterinary treatment? I’m sure the owner realized that and that’s why it was particularly important that I give them some ideas on how to handle the problem.

catching horses in Mongolia
The first thing to consider is how to restrict the horse’s freedom. If a horse lives in a paddock, chances are that it has too much room to run and avoid humans. It makes it generally impractical to try to handle an untouched horse in a large open space, unless you are a gun roper with a great roping horse or you have one of those loops on a pole and can hang out the side of a Landcruiser like a ranger on an African game reserve. However, most of us need a yard of some sort that restricts the freedom of the horse to put several kilometers between them and us. In the photo a Mongolian horseman is trying to catch a horse using a pole with a loop on the end.

The approach we used last week was to herd the horse into a round yard. A round yard can be really useful, but any small-ish yard of any shape will suffice. The way you get the horse to the yard is an important consideration. I say this because there is a huge problem with consistency if you drive or herd a horse into a yard and then once you get him there you want him to let you handle it. On the one hand you are chasing or telling it to go away from you (even if gently) to urge it into a yard and then on the other hand you are telling it to stand still or even come to you so you can touch it. You can see how this may confuse a horse. That’s why I generally advise that once you are able to coax or drive a horse into the yard that he lives there for several days until catching him becomes consistent and reliable. That avoids the driving away problem. But you need to have a yard where you can supply water, feed and shelter (if necessary); and it needs to be sturdy and safe. A horse may run hard to dodge people the first couple of sessions and you need to make sure he can’t hurt himself and the fence won’t fall down in a breeze.

Once the horse is in a yard that is safe and the right size you now have 2 choices about how to approach the catching problem. The first is to impose yourself on him (which you sort of have done already by putting him in a yard) and let him learn that you are not as bad as the other horses told him. The second choice is to allow him to approach you of his own will as he searches to explore a better deal.

I guess most people would prefer the second option. But I believe neither choice is better than the other if done well. You can corner a horse in a yard or throw a rope on him and stir up a lot of dust as he initially runs for his life with the first touch of your hand or a whip or rope. Or you can encourage him to hook on and explore for himself you are an ok person in his own time. But when it’s done well with either approach your relationship with the horse should end up pretty much in the same place. Just because the first approach might start off with a lot of running and raised blood pressure doesn’t mean the horse will never trust people or have confidence in them. Both approaches can end up with a horse that not only is easy to catch, but is happy to see people.

I say all that because I know some people will tell you that you can’t upset a horse if you want him to trust you. I know some people would never send a horse to a trainer who would do something to cause a horse so much anxiety that he kicks out or runs around the yard in a semi-panic.

So what factors would make you decide whether to get on a rope on a horse or let him come to you in his own time?

The first thing I would consider is how much time do I have? Last week I had 5 horses to do in a few hours. This horse was clearly going to take a long time (may be a few days) before he was able to walk up to me and let me rub him and catch him. But if you have plenty of time and patience, teaching a horse to hook on and bit by bit let you touch him with a whip and then a hand and then a halter is a wonderful way to go.

The second consideration for me is whether the horse’s evasion is generated by his fear of people or because he has learned the habit of avoiding them. If would just rather not deal with people and he has learned he can keep his distance and life turns out ok, it is usually pretty easy to turn that around even with the hooking approach. But if his evasion stems from genuine fear, it will take much longer to overcome the behaviour if we try to get him to hook on to us. This is because fear trumps every other emotion in blocking a horse’s ability to search for alternative behaviours. If he is afraid and he has lived every time he stepped away from a person trying to catch him, he is going to cling to keeping his distance for a very long time. He lived, therefore keeping his distance worked.

The third consideration is whether the person has the skills for the approach they choose. If you don’t know how to gain a horse’s confidence with hooking him on, then that’s not going to work for you. If you don’t have the ability to throw a rope on a horse or loop one around the neck of a horse that is cornered, then it’s going to be difficult to restrict his flight in the yard. Perhaps before tackling the project of teaching a horse to be catchable, a person should hone his skills in these methods first. A few years ago, a trainer entered a horse starting competition in Melbourne. The horses were not catchable and the trainer didn’t come prepared with the skills for catching his horse in a round yard (despite have nearly a year to learn them). The other two competitors could rope a wild horse and were fairly well along with their horses by the end of the first session. But the other fellow was still trying to catch his horse by the end of the first day.

I’m not going to go into detail about what happened last week because what I did in that session probably has no bearing in what you might do with the same task with your horse. But I did rope the horse. He changed from a horse running desperately from my touch to standing calmly while I rubbed his face, neck and shoulders, as well as following me around in a relaxed frame of mind. But the most pleasing thing was that owner was able to do the same and the horse was so much happier to be there. Plus he knew how to proceed to the next stage by the end of the first session.

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Everything a horse learns is derived from something he learned before. Nothing ever comes from nothing. For example, how a horse gives to pressure when we direct him to move in a round yard might be related and traced back to the day he was born and his mother moved him to suckle from one side to the other. Every experience the horse had with giving to pressure from the day it’s dam taught him to yield to pressure shortly after birth, to when he was halter broken, weaned, saddle broken, taught to trailer load, etc had some impact on the way he yields to pressure today. Every experience is a learning experience.

This is a useful concept to keep in mind because it means that every resistance we come across in a horse has a starting point. A horse offers resistance because something that came before wasn’t good enough. In order to overcome the resistance it’s helpful to go back to the spot where resistance started to creep in. If you can’t find that spot, then go to the spot that the horse finds less troubling and build from there.

Training progresses in increments not leaps and bounds. Training is building layers upon layers of previously learned tasks. Each new step in the program is built on the step that came before. When you strike trouble, go back a step or two and establish more focus, better clarity and softer softness than you have. If you try to gloss over the lack of focus, clarity and softness and barge through the resistance, the problems will only become more obvious as the work gets harder and more demanding.

I believe that the secret to training at higher levels is no more than refining the basics of the meaning of the reins, legs and seat. The same meaning of the reins, legs and seat that we try to teach a horse when it first begins it’s career as a riding horse is the same meaning we continue to work on when we are performing at the Olympics. The only difference is in the refinement we have given the aids as our horse has progressed.

For example, when I start a horse under saddle I use my seat and legs to evoke energy in my horse – get some life in his body. I teach him that my reins and seat tell him where to direct that life – left, right, forward or back. This all begins with the first ride. It’s that simple. When I want to teach smoother transitions through the gaits, I want the same response to my legs, seat and reins as I did on the first ride, but only better. When I then begin to teach shoulder in, again I want the same response to the aids as the first ride, but even better than when I was teaching smoother transitions. When it comes time to train one time flying changes or canter pirouette or Spanish walk or levade, again my legs, seat and reins mean exactly the same thing, but again even better than what I had trained them to mean before.

The same thing would be true for any discipline. If I was a reiner, teaching a horse to spin is just a refinement of teaching a turn. Teaching the slide is a refinement of the stop command. If I was a show jumper trainer, the only thing I need to train is the meaning of the reins, legs and seat. If I was a trick trainer, teaching a horse to perform circles around me at liberty or to rear on command or pick up objects is just a refinement of the groundwork you have already taught your horse when he was halter broken. Float loading, tying up, catching, standing quietly for the farrier are all just refinements of halter training.

Training may not be easy, but it is simple. When I want to teach my horse to half pass, I might start with teaching him to shoulder in because the shoulder in is an exercise that will teach the refinement to the reins, legs and seat that I will need when it comes to the half pass. But before I teach shoulder in, I will teach leg yield (I know some people don’t, but I do), because it adds the refinement to the aids I need to teach shoulder in. But before the leg yield, I will make sure my horses are pretty good at forehand yields and hindquarter yields because of what they have to teach my horse about reins, legs and seat. I’m sure you get my drift here.

So when you hit a brick wall in your training program, instead of trying to blast your way through the resistance with more force, consider the option of going back a step or two and see if the meaning of your leg, seat and rein aids are solid enough for what you are asking of your horse. You should not move onto the next level of difficulty until you are sure you have the focus, responsiveness and softness to the aids that you are going to need for the next stage of training.

I think this issue highlights an attitude problem in the horse industry where people judge the quality of training by the movements that a horse has learned to do and not by the quality of the movement and how he feels inside when performing.

It has been my experience that most problems riders experience with any discipline result from an inadequate understanding of the basics that any horse should know. The basics that a horse needs to understand to be good at dressage are the same basics he needs to understand in order to be good at reining or polo or barrel racing or even pleasure riding. But in many circles it is believed that if you want to ride dressage or jumping or polo or western pleasure, you need a trainer who specializes in that discipline from the start.

Before a horse can be a competition horse or even a non-competition horse that is specialized in his training, he needs to be a good riding horse. If he is not a good riding horse first, he will never fulfill his potential in whatever chosen discipline because there will be holes in the basics.

There is a strong pull for riders to begin their horse’s specialized training the day the horse comes home from being broken in. And when there is a problem with things like straightness or rhythm they immediately run off to have dressage instruction or see their local western pleasure coach. Yet, if the basics are not properly in place, a specialized instructor is in no better position than any other good horse trainer.

Several years ago I helped a lady with a problem she was having with her flying changes. She had trained several dressage horses and had good success in competition. But she was lost in how to help this particular horse. A couple of years after that I came across a fellow who was competing in reining and had a horse that kept walking out of its spins. In both cases I addressed the way the horse prepared his hindquarters to solve the problems. With the dressage horse and the reining horse the same basic was missing. I don’t train dressage and I don’t train reining, but many would assume that these problems would require a trainer from each of those disciplines when in fact I only needed to reinforce the basics of how they used their hindquarters.

It has been my experience that good trainers from a specialized discipline are a huge help in understanding the minutiae required to get a horse to the top level. It’s the details that specialized training can add at advanced levels of training that make the difference between success and mediocrity. But for most people in any discipline, the problems they experience with their horse are simply gaps in the basics. The more advanced they become, the more obvious the holes become. You can have pretty poor basics in most cases if you just want to ride down the road and back in one piece. But if you start asking for more accuracy, discipline and physically demanding exercises, the better the basics need to be. But the basics are always the same basics no matter what you do with your horse.

Everything we do with a horse influences his perspective on how to operate when people are in the picture. Something done well will have a positive effect on other aspects of a horse’s training. Likewise, something that is done poorly will have a negative effect on the overall outcome of a horse.

Adelaide clinic


The Road To Softness

Attaining softness in a horse is a process that requires a range of elements coming together to make it work. It’s not one thing. In the beginning there is often very little softness in a horse. They can be bracey, resistant and unhappy. In extreme cases, they can be belligerent and dangerous. But we begin to address problems with focus. Small changes in being able to keep a horse’s thoughts lead to small changes in being able to direct a horse’s thoughts. It’s small to begin with – maybe even so small it can only seen by an electron microscope and a horse – but it’s never insignificant. People watching might not have seen any change, but a horse always feels it. That almost unnoticeable alteration in a horse’s focus, followed by almost imperceptible improvements in being able to direct his focus opens the door to a thin shaft of clarity to creep into a horse’s understanding of what the idiot with two legs is talking about. When this occurs, the road to softness has begun.

The purpose of years devoted to training is to chip away at problems with a horse’s focus and clarity. Layer upon layer of resistance to a horse’s focus and clarity is peeled off. With each layer removed we reveal improvements in a horse’s softness. Any time when softness is lost it’s because the degree of focus and clarity was not good enough for the task we asked of our horse.

It’s like learning any new task. You can’t learn to add or subtract numbers until you learn to count. You can’t learn to multiply and divide until you learn to add and subtract numbers. You can’t learn algebra until you can add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. And you can’t learn how to perform quadratic equations until you learn algebra. Anytime you have a problem with one of those steps you need to go back a level and address the problem with what came before.

Building softness into a horse is no different. If we have an issue with your horse lacking softness when leading, we might need to look at the level of focus when we are next to him. Or we might need to fix a lack of clarity to his understanding of the feel of the lead rope. If we do that and he then leads with a good degree of softness, we might expect he will stop with softness when ride him at a walk and then apply the reins. But what if doesn’t? Perhaps we need to improve his level of focus even more. Or we might need to address his level of worry when we interrupt his thought with the lead rope. Or perhaps we need to make the meaning of the feel of the lead rope even clearer than when we were just working on the leading issue. Or maybe we need to work with the bridle from the ground to provide the clarity he needs to be softer on the reins to halt.

As you can see, all the little changes we might have to make are just variations of improving the focus and clarity in the steps that came before we lost the softness in our horse.

Only teaching a horse to give to pressure tells him what to do. It’s softness that adds the quality to what he does.

Humans did not invent riding and training of horses. They discovered it. All the elements that make riding and training possible were already in place before a human ever sat astride the first horse to be ridden. The only thing people did was to discover those elements. They did not create them. How to train and ride a horse is not something we made. We invented bridles and saddles and round yards etc. But we did not invent horse training and how best to ride. We discovered it.

I want to make that point because it seems that nowadays many people believe that the rules we have created around how to ride and how to train are golden rules that are beyond question. The rules are designed to tell us how to ride and train correctly. But they are human rules, not horse rules. It’s not for us to tell a horse how he should respond to anything we do. It’s our job to discover how to get the best we can from each horse. When we are training towards softness, we are on a path of discovery that our horse already knows. If we start telling horses they must learn by our rules, we are doomed to failure in achieving softness. Concepts like softness, trust, confidence, partnership and harmony remain elusive or worse - they are lost.

This child is on his own path of discovery. Maybe sticking a finger up a ponies nose is the secret to achieving softness?

pony and kid


Teaching A Horse To Smile

This video is a good example of why using treats to train horses can go so badly wrong.


The Role Of Repetition In Training

It’s probably stating the obvious to say that horses don’t automatically perform an exercise correctly once and then know it for life. Exercises and responses are learned by a pattern of association. It’s not from doing it once. It’s from a pattern of doing it once, many times.

Various trainers have different opinions about how many times an exercise needs to be repeated before a horse has learned it. I have heard numbers like 5 times or 7 times or 21 times. In my view, the number of times you need to repeat an exercise correctly will depend on what you mean by having “learned it”, the individual nature of the horse, the clarity with which the trainer presents the exercise, the emotional state of the horse and the focus of the horse.

Firstly, I guess a person needs to define what they mean by a horse learning the correct response. How do you know when he has learned the lesson? Is it when he gets it right 100% of the time or 80% of the time or less? Is it when he knows it in the arena at home or when he can perform it in the middle of the Rio carnival? Is it when he knows when it you ask or when your second cousin (who has never touched a horse) asks? There are always limits to the declaration “my horse has learned it….” The notion of “a horse has learned it” is not definitive. How much an exercise needs to be repeated will depend on how you define the statement “he has learned it.”

The issue of how clearly we present a lesson to a horse is closely tied in with the issues of a horse’s focus, emotional state and nature of a horse. These factors are not easily separated and factor in to how much we need to go over a lesson before it is learned. For example, if we have 2 horses that pull back when tied to a post we may need to vary our approach and the number of lessons for each horse to achieve our goal of teaching the horse not to pull back. One horse may be pulling back because of habit that’s been ingrained through poor education. The other might be genuinely scared and very reactive to being tied up and allows his emotions to take over. These are very different situations requiring very different lessons and probably requiring different timetables.

Repeating lessons is a very powerful tool in bringing clarity to a horse. I don’t know how a horse can learn without repeating the lessons. But we must be vigilant and aware of when to stop repeating an exercise. There comes a point in every lesson where the lesson becomes predictable or even boring. It’s the point where the horse’s focus starts to drift away. It’s really important that we don’t go beyond this point. It’s when repetition becomes drilling. People drill their horse over and over because they are looking for perfection and not satisfied with improvement. Not only does drilling an exercise cause problems with a horse’s focus, but also they learn to dread or even hate the work.

A few years ago I was asked to ride a horse for a lady whose horse was prone to spontaneously bolt in the arena. She would be riding along with everything sort of okay and then with little warning the horse would spin and gallop as fast as he could to the other end and stop. At the start of the lesson I just watched the lady working her horse. I noticed that she was picking on the horse to perfect his hindquarter yields. Over and over she asked for a hindquarter yield. The horse couldn’t go more than 3 strides before he asked for another hindquarter yield. After several minutes of this she started riding around the arena. Within about 2 or 3 minutes, as she rode the horse into a corner, he spun to the inside and galloped beyond her control to the diagonally opposite corner. When he stopped the owner immediately dismounted and asked if I would ride the horse. I hopped in the saddle and instantly asked the horse to soften to the reins before he had a chance to walk off. Then straight away I asked him to trot. He was very crooked so I stopped him and insisted he get between my hands and legs. Then we trotted off again. When we got to the corner where he tried to bolt before I felt him shape up to leave to the other end. I immediately backed him up, stepped his shoulder to the right and told him to trot. We trotted and cantered all over the arena. We did leg yields, hindquarter yields, slow spins - you name it. He never tried to bolt on me a second time and finished much softer in both his body and mind.

The horse was fed up with the nitpicking he had been subjected to with the owners attempt to attain perfection. She repeated the same exercises over and over again until he was numb. I believe the bolting came from an expression of the futility he felt. He was never able to do well enough in the owners eyes.

I have to say that despite it being incredibly difficult for her, the owner changed her habit of turning repetition into drilling. The horse turned into a great riding horse that was fun and reliable.

There is another aspect of learn that involves repeating an exercise that has had me curious for many years. Despite thinking about it and experimenting with different scenarios, I still haven’t developed a true understanding of this pattern. But it relates to the importance of repetition in a horse’s learning. What I have observed occurs in a very high percentage of cases (at guess I’d say around 80% of the time). When a horse is struggling with how to respond correctly, he eventually hits on the right answer and gets relieved of pressure. But when he is immediately asked the same question, he gets it wrong again. In fact, it is my experience that it takes 3 more repetitions of struggling to find the right answer before a horse once again hits upon the right answer easily. I don’t know why 3 is the magical number, but I’ve observed this happens with the majority of horses. It doesn’t matter about age, breed or history - it’s nearly always the same. Approximately 70-80% of horses offer 1 correct answer followed by 3 wrong answers followed by another correct answer before they develop an association of what they are being asked to perform. Perhaps other people have a different experience, but it has always been very curious to me about what is so magical about 3 wrong answers. Why not 1 wrong answer or 37 wrong answers? I can only put it down to the nature in the way a horse’s brain operates.

I guess the message is that repetition is important in training. The amount of repetition needed for a horse to learn a lesson is not fixed and dependent on a lot of variables. But we need to be aware that repeating an exercise does not become but drilling of an exercise.

It looks to me that both horse and rider have been drilled into numbness?

bored cowboy and horse


When To Stop Working A Horse

Most of us understand the concept of trying to ensure that at the end of a session with a horse we leave him in a better spot than he was at the beginning. I have said myself at clinics that if you ask something of a horse you should make sure you get a change otherwise you shouldn’t asked in the first place. To ask a horse to make a change and not get a change is teaching him to ignore what you ask. Likewise, if a horse finishes a lesson no better than when he started, what’s the point of the lesson? Not only will you not achieve an improvement, but also you run the risk of making things worse. There are very few horse people that will disagree with this idea. As an overall good policy I agree with it too. But I won’t agree that it is a golden rule. I won’t agree that leaving a horse no better or even worse off is a mortal sin. I won’t agree that you MUST always ensure a horse makes positive changes before the work is finished for the day. It is a good policy to do what you can to help a horse finish better than when he started, but I don’t think it is a MUST.

I know this goes against the accepted wisdom that many of you have probably heard over the years, but I will try to explain my viewpoint.

The impression most people are left with is that it is vitally important that a horse ends a session in a better spot (emotionally, mentally and physically) than he was at the start of a work session. And while this is certainly desirable there are a couple of reasons why it is not vital.

The first is that any mistake or miscalculation or wrong path we make with a horse rarely leads to permanent damage. Horses are very forgiving and in most cases bad habits can be re-programmed. I have spent many years re-programming horses where owners have made mistakes, miscalculations or followed a wrong path for years before they sought help with their the horse. It may take more work to make changes in a horse where the owner has made mistakes over many years, but it is rare that you can’t teach an old horse new tricks.

If you finish today’s work session with your horse feeling pretty bad, there is usually no reason why the positive changes you were hoping to make today can’t be done tomorrow. We would all rather make sure we finish in a good spot, but there is no need to beat ourselves up if for some reason that doesn’t happen. It can be fixed next time.

The problem with the idea that the horse MUST be in a better place when we put him back in the paddock is that a lot of people have the impression that if things are going from bad to worse they have to continue until they see positive signs of improvement. They believe it is wrong to finish on a bad note. However, if the horse is not able to recover and feel better or learn the lesson of the day there is every probability those things will continue to get worse. It’s far better to end with the horse feeling poorly than to continue and having to finish with the horse feeling really horrible when you run out of daylight or you are both exhausted. It’s much better to stop for the day before it ends horribly and think about the problem overnight. Come back the next day with a new strategy to play around with.

Anna and Belle
With the training of most horses there is a point that if you go past, a horse will stop learning. He just won’t improve and can’t recover because he has reached the limit of his capacity to focus. Mental, emotional and physical fatigue will start to weigh him down. The onus is on us to ensure we recognize when a horse is approaching this point and finish early even if he has not made the changes we were wanting. It is potentially much worse to push beyond the point where a horse has had enough just because we believe we are not suppose to finish until he has reached a better spot than where he started. The photo suggests that Anna Bonnage may have reach the point of exhaustion before Belle (a.k.a Marg).

Now that I have told you it’s okay to sometimes finish a lesson before your horse has made a good change, let me tell you that it is not okay if you do it all the time. Not only will it hinder his improvement and get in the way of learning all the new cool stuff you are trying to teach him, but you also have a high risk of mentally screwing him up.

When a horse feels badly as part of his normal work routine two things happen. The first is that he learns to hate being worked. He may be polite and obedient. He may even greet you in the paddock. But he never stops feeling like a tortured prisoner who accepts his fate day after day despite how badly he feels. The result is a horse that goes through the motions of doing what we ask, but holds back from giving his best effort.

The second issue that happens is that in time a horse can become a tortured soul in the paddock and display a variety of aberrant behaviours. People often don’t appreciate the affect a 1 hour session with a human can have on how he feels the other 23 hours of the day. It is my experience with being associated with competition riders that if a horse is troubled in his work and is allowed to go back to his paddock carrying that internal trouble day after day, eventually those troubled feelings remain with a horse much longer after the work has finished and the human is tucked up in bed at night.

I compare it to a kid being bullied at school. The first day or two when the kid gets punched or humiliated, he shrugs it off by the time he goes home. But if it keeps happening each day, after a couple of weeks he becomes reluctant to go to school. After a month, he stops talking to his parents and starts fights with his little sister. After 3 months, his grades have fallen, he won’t talk to his parents except to swear at them and he hardly ever leaves his room. I’ve seen horses behave similarly in that what was once a quiet, easy-going horse no longer mixes with the other horses. They sometimes are prone to spontaneous gallops and bucking around the paddock every hour or so. They might bite at their sides. They pin their ears when being caught. They rip up their rugs (blankets) and chew on fence posts. The trouble inside them makes the other horses feel uneasy and the herd often ostracizes them. The list goes on and on. But it stems from the day after day bad feelings of the work sessions being carried over to the paddock.

I hope I haven’t confused you with the impression I’m giving mixed messages. Basically, it is desirable to finish work on a good note, but it isn’t essential. And sometimes you had better quit early before things go from bad to worse. The real problem with quitting before a horse feels better is when it happens regularly and the horse learns to hold onto those bad feelings longer and longer. We all need to read our horses more and not think of general principles as golden rules. People get so dogmatic about these principles and the dogma gets in the way of using our brains and common sense.


Training Obedience

We all want our horses to do what we want, how we want it and when we want it. Without obedience riding horses would not be very safe. But it is important to understand that horses are not machines. They have feelings, thoughts and needs and these set the limits to how much obedience can be achieved with a horse. A horse will not knowingly risk his life to save ours. He will not willingly put himself in harms way just to please us. A good relationship with a horse depends on people knowing and respecting the limits of obedience. I believe a horse has the right to say “No” to us - particularly if he is convinced it will save his life. It would be stupid of me to point a gun at another person and then get mad at them for throwing a brick at me.

But in good horsemanship obedience alone is not enough. This is because if you are working with a horse that only understands to do what he is told, you’ll find the horse will only offer the bare minimum in effort. His “try” will be about doing the least amount to keep him out of trouble. This has two limiting consequences. The first is a horse will hold back from doing the very best he can. The second is that once a horse comes across a situation that causes him more worry than the worry of not being obedient, you have nothing to work with. If crossing a rickety bridge troubles your horse more than a crack of your whip over his hind end, then you might as well go home for the day.

claudia clarke crossing bridge
Let’s look more closely at the issue of obedience.

Obedience comes from a horse doing as we direct him. Obedience is part of all horse training – good and bad. But obedience is only about a doing as he is told. A horse’s obedience does not reflect horse’s feelings or his thoughts. It does not indicate what type of relationship we have with him. Obedience says nothing about trust, confidence or calmness. Obedience is a part of good horsemanship, but it is only a part. There is much more. Nevertheless many people view training a horse to be highly obedient as the sign of good training. Their focus is on being able to train a horse to perform all sorts of fancy manoeuvers on command.

I think most liberty training is a good example where people believe obedience is paramount. Liberty horsemanship, where horses are ridden or worked with no gear attached, can be seen at virtually every horse expo by a dozen or so different trainers. In fact, it has become the tool for proving ones self as a talented trainer to the horse loving masses. Just about anyone who can display a horse’s obedience without gear has a ready-made following. But in the vast majority of cases the trainer is only working with a horse that is obedient and without softness. You’ll hardly ever see a liberty horse that is soft and correct in his movement because the focus is on the obedience. This is why you don’t see horses in competition being ridden at liberty. The liberty work has become a trick and very little good horsemanship is involved. A horse can feel just as trapped and with no choice to express his true feelings without gear to control him as he can with gear. It does not have to be that way; it’s just that people tend to train it that way.

The reason why obedience has become the main focus of most people’s training is that it is easy. Horses by their nature are very submissive, so with only a little talent most people can train obedience into a horse. If they can’t, there are tack stores filled wall-to-wall with gadgets that will help them teach it.

A pre-occupation with what the horse is doing, rather than what he is feeling and thinking is the hallmark of anyone who is fixated on training obedience. So much of horse training is about making the horse do something in the hope that he will learn to feel okay later. Really talented horse people are able to do this much of the time, but most people can’t. This results in most horses doing what they are told, but hating every minute of it.

In every discipline of equestrian sport people talk about the quality of a horse’s movement or the execution of a certain manoeuvre. In dressage, reining, western pleasure etc competitors a scored according to the quality of the movements. As a result people have come to assume that the focus of training needs to be on the obedience of the feet. When they do this they forget that the horse’s feet are controlled by the horse’s mind. The reins, legs and seat do not control the feet. They are just communication devices, which the horse’s mind interpret and then directs all the way to the feet.

But it is the mind that directs the feet. The quality of the movement is determined by the emotions of the horse. A horse that is worried and tense or defensive will have thoughts of tension and resistance. This leads to movement that exhibits tension and resistance. The opposite is true of a horse with a quiet mind.

However, it is true that sometimes we need to move a horse’s feet in order to get a change in the way he feels. An example that comes immediately to mind is the first time a horse is saddled. In many cases, when a horse experiences the girth for the first time they feel the need to buck. One of the most effective ways of dealing with those feelings is to direct him to move. Horses that freeze and won’t move usually internalize the eruption they feel and it stays there festering away until something triggers the inevitable explosion. But by moving their feet, they can express those feelings, buck for a bit and have it all over and done with. It makes them more ready to get on with the rest of the lesson.

Another common example is when a horse is worried about a rider and wants to rush a lot. Sometimes, rather than try to contain the rushing, it can be better handled by allowing them to rush, but direct them in circles or wide arcs to keep the situation safe without stifling their need to move. Let the emotions leak out through their feet and when it is over it is all over.

But even when we use the movement of the feet to address a change in a horse’s emotions, we are still prioritizing a change of emotions as the most important aspect of educating a horse.

How To Fall

The video speaks for itself.


Teaching The Meaning Of Pressure

Most horses that have little experience with people are sensitive to pressure. They are often more trainable than horses with a history of poor training. It’s often said that training a horse to do something correctly the first time is easier than re-training later in life. This is because bad habits have not been instilled in the mind of the younger horse that need to be overcome in the re-education process of the older horse.

When a horse is learning an exercise for the first time he has no idea what the correct response to pressure should be. For example, horses are not born with an innate knowledge how to behave when a rider uses his legs to apply pressure to the horse’s side. The correct response to move forward has to be programmed into the mind of a horse at the breaking in stage.

I said before that the purpose of pressure is to motivate a horse to search. It’s not intended to make a horse to something, but instead to inspire him to think of doing something. So when starting a horse under saddle and wanting to teach him to go forward from my legs, I apply the minimum amount of pressure to encourage him to think about what he needs to do to eliminate the pressure. As long as he is searching, the pressure does not have to change. I just need to wait.

But if the horse became reactive to the leg pressure, I would decrease the energy of my legs. If the horse ignored the contact of my legs on his sides I would increase the pressure until he began to look for something to do. As long as he is search, the pressure would be constant. It would only change when I released the pressure because he had a change of thought from standing still to moving.

I can’t over emphasize the importance of this principle. When a horse is searching there is no need to increase the pressure. Just wait until he tries something close to what you had in mind, then remove the pressure. For example, if when you first ride a horse and apply your legs to his sides the horse tries to back up, there is no need to increase the pressure to make him go forward. Just keep your legs on the horse until he stops going backwards, then release them and rub the horse. Then try again. You might have to repeat it a dozen times, but eventually he will learn to associate the feel of a rider’s leg with meaning he should think about going forward.

But what about an older horse that has been taught to ignore small amounts of pressure? How might you use pressure to re-educate him to give meaning to subtle amounts of pressure? It makes sense that with better education we should be able to do less for a horse to give more. We want to give clarity to a horse about why a rider applied leg pressure to his sides so that we can one day use less pressure to evoke a better response from a horse.

With a horse that has been taught to ignore small amounts of pressure, it’s going to take a lot more to get him to change his mind about small amounts of pressure.

In some forms of horsemanship people are taught about a scale of pressure beginning with 1 (the least amount of pressure) and ending with 10 (the highest degree of pressure). Riders are told they should start by asking their horse with pressure level 1. Lets say I have instilled some bad habits in my horse and taught him to ignore my requests until I get to about level 5, where the discomfort level gets too much for him to bear and he decides to respond. He knows all along what I am asking, but feels it is in his best interest to wait until the discomfort level reaches 5.

I begin by asking with pressure level 1. If the horse does not respond, I ask with level 2. If they still don’t respond, ask again with level 3 and then 4 and then 5. At level 5 my horse responds correctly and then he is rested and praised. The next time I ask I again start with level 1 and go through the levels until I reach 5 and he again thinks about responding. But the horse did not get better. He did not respond to less pressure. Why? It’s because pressures from 1 to 4 don’t place sufficient discomfort inside my horse to inspire him to change his understanding of subtle pressure. So now what do I do?

What if I start by asking him with level 1 amount of pressure, but if I get no response I go to level 6 or 7? I bypass levels 2, 3, 4 and 5 and go from asking with level 1 to asking with level 6 or 7. These are levels of pressure that I know will create discomfort in my horse and elicit a response. I rest him and praise him and try again. I again begin with asking with level 1 and if there is no response I immediately ask with level 6 or 7. Then I stop and praise him before trying again. Very quickly my horse will learn that level 1 has importance and it will be clear to him that when I ask him politely the first time what that means. He won’t want me to use level 6 or 7, so level 1 will soon be sufficient to get a change of thought.

You might ask “how is using more pressure than is required to get your horse to do something consistent with the concept of using the least amount of pressure?”

I have said any times that the only change worth having is a change of thought. So when I mean using pressure to encourage a horse to “do something,” the something I mean is to change his thought. A change of thought precedes any change his body makes. In the example above, when I use pressure level 1-5 the horse made no change of thought. I know this because each time I repeated the exercise I always had to use at least level 5 to get him to try something. He never got more responsive and levels 1 to 4 were still insignificant to the horse. It wasn’t until I applied a much great level of pressure than just the bare minimum that he would listen and became more responsive. So level 6 or 7 were required to evoke a change of thought in the horse. It created enough discomfort to motivate the horse to try something new – to have a new thought. I know using the higher level of pressure made the horse try and made him change his thought because each time I repeated the exercise I could use less pressure and get more effort from the horse. He changed his thinking about the meaning of pressure. By going from level 1 to level 6 with no intermediate step, the horse became clear about what level 1 pressure meant. If had gone to level 8, 9 or 10 it probably would have been too much and caused the horse to try to flee for his life,

These principles apply to all forms of pressure. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the way we ask with the reins, our voice, legs, lead rope, lunging whip or whatever. The principle is the same. When you have a horse that is learning a clear meaning to pressure, you ask with just enough to encourage him to search and wait until he finds the answer on his own. This is when your idea becomes his idea. But if you have a horse that has learn through a lack of clarity to ignore subtle amounts of pressure, then you had better not wait too long before increasing the pressure to a level that causes him to re-think his old habits. Otherwise, you are likely to miss a few meals while you wait for him to have a new idea.

This horse in the pic did not understand how to bend to the feel of a lead rope. The owner waited patiently without increasing the pressure until the horse changed his thought. The photo was taken at a clinic.

One Rein vs Two Rein Stop

I have a question. I genuinely don’t know the answer to my question. However, I am going to guess at an answer and see if people agree. If you have a better explanation I would really like to know it.

I am aware that when starting horses under saddle many trainers will first teach a horse to bend to a stop using one rein. They don’t use two reins to stop a young horse at all. In fact some even say it is wrong. I can immediately think of half a dozen trainers that teach not to use two reins on a horse until they are really good on one rein at bending to a stop. I’ve asked a couple of them why and one refused to give me an answer and the other told me because a horse finds it harder to resist one rein than he does two reins – which is just guff in my opinion.

I have already written at length that I don’t like teaching horses to stop by bending them from one rein. But briefly, the one rein stop teaches a horse to disconnect his hindquarters from the inside rein and I believe that when starting a horse connecting the hindquarters to the inside rein is of paramount importance. Without it you risk teaching a horse to drift out through his shoulders and in the worse cases he can learn to “rubber neck” where his is flexed one way and travelling a different way. I’m all for teaching a horse to disengage his hindquarters by yielding to the inside rein, but STOPPING his feet while flexed is something I strongly discourage in the training phase. So to be clear, it’s not the hindquarter disengagement that I don’t like, it’s the STOP part that I don’t like. I know horses that have been taught the one rein stop very early in their careers and have turned out well. But experience has shown me that the potential for creating problems later on is much greater with this method.

The other factor about bending to a stop that I know people use to justify it is that it can be used as an emergency brake when a horse is about to buck or bolt. But people tend to use the one rein stop for just about any reason that raises their blood pressure. In order to be safe you need to be judicious with the use of the one rein stop. If a horse feels the need to move his feet, telling him to stop with either one rein or two reins could make things worse. I’ve seen instances where using the one rein stop has gotten riders into bigger trouble than if they let the horse do his thing. So I don’t believe STOPPING a horse using one rein is a good safety brake and allowing the horse to disengage his hindquarters without insisting his feet stop is a safer way of dealing with emergencies.

When I start a horse, I begin by teaching them to be soft and responsive on the lead rope while I work them on the ground. This means when I apply pressure on the lead rope it directs a horse’s thoughts to think forwards or backwards or sideways and his feet follow. This also means that when I ask for a bend from the lead rope he tips his thought in the direction of the bend and yields his hindquarters. By the time I am ready to ride the horse already has a strong idea of how to respond to the reins. This includes when I pick up a feel on both reins he can yield to a stop and even back up. I do this most times from the very first ride. I see no problem with teaching a horse to yield to two reins from the get go. I’ve done it most of my training life and have not yet had a good reason to re-think the practice.

So why do I hear from some other trainers that using two reins is a bad idea? I suspect that the answer might be in the preparation.

I do a lot of preparation with the lead rope and side pull in my groundwork before I ride a young horse. I know not all trainers are as finicky about the quality of groundwork as I am and very often are anxious to ride a horse as soon as possible. It’s as if the real work of training begins in the saddle.

If this is the case, I can imagine that a horse might not yield very well to two reins when it is first ridden. But chances are they probably don’t yield to one rein very well either. But it is harder for a horse to push through the reins when he is flexed than when he is straight (with two reins). I am only guessing (because I can’t get an answer from the trainers I’ve asked), but insisting that a person not use two reins to stop a horse in the early stages of riding may stem from a trainer’s way of preparing a horse for riding.

I’ve seen enough colt starting clinics to realize that some trainers do minimum preparation before riding a horse and the best they can sometimes hope for is to muscle a horse to bend to a stop. I can see why in those circumstances a trainer would not tell the students to pick up both reins and stop their horse. But to tell people they shouldn’t teach their horse how to stop from two reins, as part of the early training seems nonsense to me. If a horse’s brain can handle being taught to lead in response to a feel on the lead rope, he can learn to yield to the feel of two reins from the first few rides. It’s not something that is rocket science to a horse or will make his life harder. It’s just basic leading from the saddle.

I want to be clear that I am not being critical of those trainers who don’t use two reins to stop a horse in the early stages. If bending to a stop with one rein is your thing, it’s okay with me. I know trainers who do that and their horses come out pretty well in the end. But what I am criticizing is to tell people or give people the impression that teaching a horse to stop from two reins is a big no-no and will teach your horse to pull or lean on the reins. No matter whether you use one or two reins in the training of a young horse, both can be done well and both can be done poorly.

The video clip gives Clem and Keith’s take on using one rein to stop a horse that has only had a handful of rides.


Having A Good Relationship With A Horse

Yesterday I went out to the paddock to trim my horse’s feet. It was warming up and I had 3 horses to do, so I sort of hurried with gear in hand to the paddock. As I ducked under the fence I dropped the rasp and hoof stand and they made a loud clanging sound. The horses looked up immediately and saw that I was coming into the paddock and it was time for a pedicure. I trim my horses every fortnight, so they knew immediately what it meant when I carried the hoof stand, rasp, hoof knife etc. The horses sauntered over to me from under the shady trees and stood quietly for a pat. I then went about trimming their feet one by one as they each waited patiently for the turn. When I was done they followed me as I left the paddock by the gate. Later I thought about why the horses would come up to me to have their feet trimmed, wait their turn and then follow me as I walked away? It’s not as if trimming is something a horse would wait excitedly to come around each fortnight. I don’t use food rewards, so I know they weren’t expecting a treat.
Petting a horse

Over the years very many people have told me that they want their horse to like them. There are whole schools of training whose primary mission statement talks about having a horse comfortable in the human company.

I’m not criticising these ideals. We all want to get along better with our horses. We all want our horses to want to be around us. But what I see so often in people who espouse these ideals are those who do whatever it takes to keep a horse’s life comfortable in the presence of people. Most times this means not asking anything of a horse that might cause it some anxiety. In order to keep the peace and have a horse feel that being around is a good idea, people often ask very little from a horse.

There is no great trick to having a happy horse if you never put it under pressure. I have seen people who don’t put pressure on a horse and are so happy that their horse is cuddly and smoochy. But that all changes when the day comes that an owner needs to put pressure on a horse. Suddenly the horses become worried, frightened and sometimes dangerous.

For me, having a good relationship with a horse is not about a horse being happy to see me or hang out with me – although, that’s part of it. But that alone is useless. A good relationship with a horse stems from being able to direct a change of thought without causing worry to a horse.

If I can’t ask for a change of thought without causing anxiety and bad feelings, then there is much more work to do. It doesn’t matter how much your horse likes being around you when the birds are singing and the sun is shining, if those feelings dissipate when you start trying to direct his thoughts.

I’ve had people bring a horse to a clinic and ask for help. They story often goes ”…he is really kind and loves to be around people, but he is just a little pushy sometimes.”

Yes, he loves to be around people because he owns the owner. Often these horses are very dismissive of people, but they are quiet and not bothered by people. Many times people cuddle their horse and sort of ask him to lead forward and sort of ask him to go into a float and sort of ask him to pick up his feet. And the horse sort of does it albeit in his own time and when he gets around to it. But the owners are happy and believe the quietness of the horse is a testament to their brilliant training.

This is not a horse that has a good relationship with its owners. This is a horse that doesn’t care and has little interest in the world of humans. Sometimes horses like this need a big wake up call. They need a reason to believe the human is important and they need to participate in what is going on between them and their owner. Often there can be a lot of activity and dust flying in the round yard. A horse may need such a big wake up call to bring down the barrier it has set up between itself and the owners that there is a lot of leaping and sweating going on before it makes a change. This is inevitably quite distressing to the owner that has pampered her pony and worked hard to avoid upsetting it.

But a good relationship with our horses is not measured by how much they hang around us when we sit under a tree in their paddock. It is measured by how they feel when they are asked to commit to doing something. It’s when you ask a horse to do something they would not normally choose to do themselves, that you can tell how good is your relationship with your horse.

Others have said that they want a horse to rather to be with them than any other place. I concur with this ideal But it’s not always easy to achieve when there are so many needs that a horse has to be get in the way of this sentiment. I don’t believe a horse needs us to be their friends and I don’t believe they need us to be their bosses. I think the best relationship lies somewhere in the middle.

Kel Jeffrey Method

Here is a classic film of Kel Jeffrey starting a horse. Kel is just about at the end of his working life here. He was an Aussie forerunner to many of the concepts that were to become the basis of natural horsemanship.


Coming From Behind

I read the Ray Hunt fan page on Facebook this morning and there was posted a quote from Ray’s “When I move my horse the impulsion comes from behind. Try to understand how important it is to know what is going on behind you, as well as what is going on in front of you. Ride the horse all the way through!"

While I agree that we should “ride the horse all the way through”, the first part of the quote about “impulsion comes from behind” has been something I have heard virtually all my horse riding life and a claim that I have questioned for a very long time.

As a very young rider studying the secrets of the dressage masters I heard and read about how collections begins in the horse’s hindquarters. I know this is still being taught because last week my young visitor from Denmark made the same observation.

In fact, it has become pretty widely accepted that engagement of the hind end of a horse is the starting point for just about any movement you might wish of a horse.

While I use to accept the wisdom of my betters and those that knew more about horses than I had ever hoped to know, I now am brazen (arrogant) enough to question that theory. I would argue that impulsion, movement, balance etc does not begin in the rear end of the horse, but instead in the front end. Specifically in the brain.

If this page has only one message to push it is that when done correctly riding and training is first and foremost about directing a horse’s thoughts. We do not control a horse’s body. Our reins, seat, legs and even voice have only one function and that it is to influence the mind of the horse. It is the horse that controls his body. Posture, movement and energy are slaves to what a horse is thinking and feeling. The horse’s body is not under a rider’s control. As I have said many times, control is something a horse gives you, not something you impose on him.

When people are talking impulsion coming from behind, they forget that impulsion comes from the horse mentally deciding to put effort into the movement. When they describe collection as beginning with engagement of the hindquarters, they are ignoring the fact that first the brain has to have soft thoughts to eliminate physical resistance so that the hindquarters can engage. When they describe a halt or sliding stop as starting from the rear end they have bypassed the very important point that a rider needs to communicate the idea to the horse’s mind first.

It would be easy for people to argue that when a person is talking about the hindquarters being the beginning of a movement or the engine of a movement that they are meaning the hindquarters are the first PHYSICALl change that occurs in a horse. I know this argument and have heard it many times. It’s an easy rationalization to accept. But I don’t buy it. And I believe you shouldn’t buy it either for good reason.

When we talk about a horse being resistant or being incorrect in the movement or whatever, we almost always refer to something we see that he is doing wrong. Inevitably we want to fix what he is doing wrong by focusing on the horse’s body. We practice a series of exercises to train his body to respond to the cues correctly. In my experience the majority of training amounts to a series of exercises designed to make the horse’s body perform in a certain way. Most trainers I have seen draw on specific exercises to overcome specific problems or resistance. Horse magazine Q &A columns, horse forums and training web sites are full of recommendations of what exercise to use to overcome any problem a rider may be experiencing without any firsthand knowledge of the issues. The horse industry is full of well-intentioned people willing to offer advice with no understanding of the mental process that is the root cause of the problem. It seems obvious to me that by describing any aspect of training as starting with a change in some aspect of a horse’s body we are placing our attention on trying to make the body do something or stop doing something. If the horse is crooked we try to straighten his body. If the horse holds his head high we try to make him lower it. If he is too fast, we hold the reins to make him slow down. All these things are designed to make the body conform to our will and we forget that it is the brain of the horse that is driving these behaviours. In attempting to control a horse’s body we hope we will get a change in how he feels and what he thinks. Not many people start with changing how a horse feels and what he thinks as a way of changing what his body is doing.

When I was a young jumping rider I found that I could stop horses from running out the side of a jump by jumping lots of obstacles with extensions added to the wings that kept the horse centred. Eventually, the horses would learn to stay in the middle. However, because I had not learned to direct my horse’s thoughts to stay in front of a jump and had relied of poles hooked onto the wings, often I had very little influence when the wings extensions were not there or I had to jump the obstacle at an angle. I thought physically making the horse approach the middle of a jump would solve the problem. But the real solution was making him think about the middle of the jump so that he would centre his body.

I know I have talked a lot in the past about directing a horse’s thought. But I want to point out the misnomer that most things a horse does begins with a change in the hindquarters or some other part of his body. It doesn’t. It begins with a change in the brain. I can’t think of one instance where (when it’s correct) this is not true.

The cartoon was sent to me by Linda Davenport

air amateur


Hindquarter Disengagement

In the past week I had a young lady from Denmark visiting to work horses with me. She was smart and enthusiastic and had worked with a variety of handy horse people in various countries. We had a few deep discussions on different topics because it was clear that my approach to working with horses was very different to what she had experienced before. Probably the subject that got the most examination was the hindquarter disengagement.

Most people think of disengagement of the hindquarters as a precursor to a one-rein stop or as a way of getting control of the hind end of a horse. Both can be true. But both are probably the least important reasons for teaching a horse to perform the hindquarter disengagement.

I think the problem arises from the terminology. Calling it a hindquarter disengagement or hindquarter yield or stepping over of the hindquarters or whatever you want to call it, gives people the impression that the important part about the movement is getting the inside back leg to step in front and across the outside hind leg. It’s as if the crossing of the hind feet is what people should be most concerned about. Even Bill Dorrance in his book “True Horsemanship Through Feel” emphasizes the importance of movement and control of the hind feet as the thing a rider should be concentrating on.

I am not saying that being able to direct the hind feet to disengage is not part of performing a hindquarter disengaging or even an important part of it. But it’s not the most important part.

Some of you maybe thinking I believe the most important part is the flexing of the neck. But again, even though that is part of it, I don’t believe it is the most important part.

turn on the forehand
I see many people training horses to perform hindquarter disengagements, but what I mostly see is a “bastardized” version of a turn on the forehand (see image). That is, the horse steps his inside hind leg across the front of the outside hind leg, with no preparation for anything that might follow after. It’s as if the disengagement of the hindquarters was both the beginning and the end. Whereas, I feel the stepping over the hindquarters should be a preparation for doing something else. If you are using the hindquarter disengagement as a means of teaching a horse to move his feet, then you are only teaching half the job and a turn on the forehand will do just as well and possibly better.

Let me give you a human example. When I was a kid playing soccer I could dribble the ball just as well with my left foot as my right foot. But my strongest side for shooting for goal was my left foot. About 80% of the time when I was going to shoot for goal I would put the ball on my left foot. But transferring the ball from my right side to my left side was not about being able run fast and move the ball from one foot to the other at the same time. It was about setting my body up to kick the ball at the goal from my left foot. Otherwise, why swap the ball over? This meant that not only did I need to pass the ball from my right to my left, but I had to square my shoulders, adjust my stride, shift my weight and balance over the ball at the same time that I swapped the ball from my right foot to my left foot. Moving the soccer ball from right to left in practice sessions was about preparing for what was to come next. It was much more than simply practicing passing the ball from one foot to the other. There was a big picture that needed practicing too.

Practicing hindquarter disengagement with a horse is the same. It is much more than being able to swing a horse’s hip from one side to another with his back feet crossing over. It is about preparing a horse for a turn. That’s the real value in this exercise. A hindquarter disengagement is nothing but a very tight turn (when done correctly). This means that when a rider uses the inside rein, the horse thinks to the inside, flexes his neck to the inside, he crosses his inside hind leg in front of his outside hind leg, shifts his weight to the inside hind as it lands on the ground, unloads weight from his forehand and prepares to take his shoulders to the inside – just like he would do if he was performing a tight turn correctly.

The last bit about shifting his weight and preparing to step his forehand to the inside of the turn is important and I feel gets missed in most training of the hindquarter disengagement. In the majority of cases that I see, the horse is preparing to move his shoulders to the outside of the turn because his weight is still on his forehand. This happens because the horse is not thinking to the inside – he is thinking to the outside; ie if you use the right rein, the horse thinks to the left and pushes with his shoulders to the left. The opposite is true for the left rein. But most of the time people notice the hind legs disengaging and the horse flexing his neck to the inside, so they stop asking for anything else.

The difference is so clear when you have ridden a horse that understands that a hindquarter disengagement is a preparation for a small turn to the inside. When they get it, if you release the reins half way through the disengagement you’ll feel the horse’s body adjust as if he was going to walk forward on an inside circle. If he doesn’t get it, when you release the reins half way through the disengagement you’ll feel his body adjust as if he was going to walk forward towards the outside shoulder. The difference is so obvious when you feel it that you wonder how come you didn’t feel it before.

To go back to Bill’s book again, rarely do I see that Bill also mentioned that disengagement of the hindquarters was a way of making the “front end want to move freer.” I think this is the most important thing Bill said about hindquarter disengagements in his book and the thing that most clinicians, books and videos have either forgotten or not understood.

I want to be clear that I am NOT saying that hindquarter disengagements are not useful for getting control of a horse’s hip or as a precursor for teaching a one-rein stop etc. But I am saying that learning those things is only learning half the story and in my opinion the least important half.

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

When I was young I was an addict about jumping horses around the biggest courses I could find. I was brave and could sit virtually anything that was under me. It was fun to go fast and sail over obstacles. I didn’t own my own horse, but there was never any shortage of available horses at the riding school where I worked on weekends.

I remember one particular horse that was a regularly used for trail rides for groups visiting the riding school. But not only was she a reliable old mare that almost anybody could safely ride, but she also had the biggest jump of any horse I had ever sat on. So I loved to speed around the jumping course and make them higher and wider than anybody else was brave enough to try.

The trouble was that she was a very strong horse that would pull my arms out of their sockets in front of every jump. At the time I thought she just loved to jump and the joy of it excited her so much that she just had to go fast. It was only much later in my development as a horseman that I realized she was actually a troubled horse that was afraid of jumping, and that was what drove her to pull on the reins so hard.

I remember one day saddling her up and doing about 6 or 7 rounds of the jumping course. With each round I raised the height and increased the width of most of the jumps. And with each round she pulled harder on the reins, which I countered by pulling back even harder. When I finished jumping the last round I rode her over to the wash bay to unsaddle and hose down. It was there I noticed a small amount of blood seeping around the corners of her mouth. I looked closely to see a trickle of blood coming from one corner of her tongue and a small gash on her gums. I was mortified that the bit had cut her mouth and I had caused it.

I don’t think a lot about that incident these days but occasionally it crosses my mind. The latest time was two days ago when I posted the video link of the fellow riding the horse that flipped over backwards. When I first saw that video clip I was quite angry for what an idiot he was and how he deserved to get hurt for what he made that poor horse suffer. But then I remembered the incident with the jumping mare.

I don’t know anybody who on purpose intends to hurt horses or do the wrong thing to them. I am sure there are people who are deliberately cruel and abusive towards horses, but I don’t know any. I know that I did not intend to hurt the horse when I cut the mare’s mouth. I can guarantee that if somebody had shown me a better way to ride that mare I wouldn’t have been so cruel and abusive. I just didn’t know any better way. I’d like to think that the fellow that rode the horse in the video didn’t mean to be mean to the horse. I’d like to think that if somebody had shown him a better way, he too would have done it differently.

I didn’t post the clip with the intention of pointing out how horrible the fellow rode or how abusive he was towards the horse. My purpose was to simply illustrate the dangers of using tie downs. I believe that like the horse, the rider was doing the best he knew how – he just didn’t know any differently. Are any of us free of guilt of not knowing any better?

Is this not the look of a guilty man pleading ignorance?

Is this man guilty?


Keeping The Horse Inside The Horse

Some people may remember that on my old web site I had a slogan “Keeping The Horse Inside The Horse.” This slogan summed up what became almost a mission statement for the work that Michele and I practiced in our job as horse trainers. Now that I have swapped training horses for teaching horsemanship I feel I don’t talk about the idea of keeping the horse inside the horse nearly as much as it deserves.

I guess I should start with what do I mean by keeping the horse inside the horse.

I have heard people talk about the “spirit” of the horse. I am not a spiritual person and don’t believe that horses are spiritual animals. As I get older and learn more, I have become more convinced of this. But I do believe in the nature of horses. The way a horse operates in life is partly hardwired by the fact that he is a horse and partly learned by his experiences – nature versus nuture. Both influence how a horse deals with his world.

As people who interact with horses we are always moulding a horse’s experiences. Everything we do with a horse from housing to health care, trailering to training affect the way he goes through life. This is normal and in my view perfectly okay. It’s part of having horses in our lives.

But I think with regard to the hardwired part of the horse – the nature that lies inside him – we should not be playing around with too much. We should always make sure it is still inside our horse. It is the essence of what he is. Training may shape his behaviour, but it should not try to remove his essence. For example, horses are by nature flight animals. When a horse experiences fear the inside of him tells him to escape. Training can shape his thinking to teach him that he does not need to be afraid and therefore not feel the need to flee. But training should never try to teach him he couldn’t flee if he really wanted to. There is a big difference to a horse between feeling he doesn’t need to run for his life and feeling he can’t run for his life.

In the thinking of many people (even some professional people) obedience and submission is the gold standard by which you judge the quality of training. Almost all competition is based on that standard including jumping, ploughing, reining and colt starting. It’s like the job of training is to make a horse do something and do it better than anybody else. Yet, in the process of that the essence of horse is often forgotten. So much of what people do is to demand a horse offer perfection. It’s not always good enough that a horse does his best – he needs to do better than everybody else too.

We all know that horses are all different. In that way they are not so different from people. They have their strength and their weaknesses. They have their own peculiar idiosyncrasies and propensities. In my experience of re-educating troubled horses I know that some horses would rather buck when feeling desperate and others would rather bolt or rear. It’s their thing.

When we have a horse that it is the best horse we have ever had, we often find we want every other horse to be the same. It’s really common to try to make every horse as quiet as our quietest horse. We aim to make our most sluggish horse as responsive as our responsive horse. We work to make our most nervous horse as brave as our boldest horse. It seems we can’t help ourselves.

Rainbow Halter and Riley
My horse, Six is very sensitive but also very brave. It is rare for her to say, “No, I can’t do that.” On the other hand, Riley is fairly stoic, but a bit of a scare-dy cat. He won’t go near a goanna or a tree that fell in his paddock the night before. He is one of those horses that is vigilant, without mentally leaving the scene. It would be possible to train Riley in such a way that he would turn off his vigilance and learn he had no choice about riding past the goanna on the track. He’s a great horse and he would accept it as part of his lot in life. With work it would be possible to make him appear just as brave as Six.

Notice I said, “appear just as brave as Six.” Because in order for him to ride past a goanna in his path like Six might I would need him to ignore the existence of the reptile. He wouldn’t really be any braver; he would just be less reactive. I can’t alter the genetic makeup that gives him his essence. So instead of altering what is inside, I would need to suppress it. But if I were to do that I would be killing something inside him that makes him Riley – his acute sense of life and death.

All horses have their strong and weak points and all have something they are good at and not good at. It’s a mistake to try to make them all the same because it can’t be done without damaging the inside of a horse. When you realize that, you realize that keeping the essence of each horse inside the horse is a proud achievement and not something to suppress. We should celebrate each horse for what he is and not for what we want him to be.

Riley is wearing his rainbow halter, which was a gift from a couple of English friends, Ben and Sari. I have noticed that since wearing the rainbow halter that Riley has been a lot more in touch with his inner self.

Teach A Horse To Think

Lately I have written quite a bit about the importance of a horse’s thought and about rider’s learning to become thinking horse people. These are subjects that I think about quite a lot and try to practice in my work. But my ideas are evolving all the time. Today I want to talk about an aspect of thinking that doesn’t seem to be discussed very much.

I have talked about Focus as being one of the fundamental pillars of good training. In my view not only do we require a horse’s focus, we also need to be able to direct it in order to perform. For example, when I want my horse to turn left I need him to be aware of me and my cues to turn left, but in order to actually turn left I need him to think about going to his left. However, what do you do about a horse that has stopped thinking? He may perform the movement, but he is reacting on autopilot and not engaging his brain toward the task. How do you get a horse to open his mind and start thinking about what he is doing? The phrase I sometimes hear is getting a horse to participate.

Over the years I have dealt with several horses that fail to “participate” and simply go through the motions. It’s caused me to come up with several different strategies, but the principle is always the same. When a horse is mentally shutting out the human, but going through the motions, he needs a reason to open his eyes wide and take an interest in proceedings. His world needs a little shaking up, but without causing his survival instinct to spike. The comfort he gets by mentally tuning out and working on autopilot needs to stop being so comfortable.

So when I come across a horse like this I invent ways of making his life less predictable. I try to help him discover that what he thought he knew, he didn’t really know. I present pressure in a way that the answer to removing the pressure is not something he easily knows how to do. He has to work his brain to figure how to solve the puzzle.

Let me give a human example that might help. I’ve owned a Nissan 4WD for about 16 years. It’s done nearly 500,000km. When I get in the car I don’t have to think how to start it or how responsive the pedals are or where the light and turn switches are located. I just get in and drive without giving any thought to what I need to do. But very recently I bought a pre-loved Citroen. It’s wonderful to drive and for the first time in my life I actually own a car I enjoy driving. But the feel is so different from the Nissan and the switches are on the opposite side of the steering wheel. So for a while I was turning on the windscreen wipers when I wanted to indicate I was turning a corner. When I went to stop, the car would screech to a halt because the brakes were more responsive than I was use to in the Nissan. I realized that when I got in the Citroen I had to pay a lot more attention. Every time I went to indicate that I was turning a corner I had to think about which side of the steering wheel the switch was on. Even when I now drive the Nissan I have to pay attention and remind myself that it is not the Citroen. I am more aware of what I am driving. My complacency has been rattled a little.

If we think about a horse that is a little complacent, it’s obvious we need to shake it up too. One easy way is to not have a routine in your work. Routine kills a horse’s interest. So make sure you are not forming habits that encourage a horse to work on autopilot.

But I want to suggest you think about other approaches to your training that introduce novel ideas to your horse.

I had an example from a clinic I did last year. A lady brought a horse that was very dull to her leg. She had tied spurs, whips and trainers but the horse remained sluggish in response to her leg pressure. She asked that I ride the horse for her. I immediately knew that using strong leg pressure was not going to wake this horse up – he was brain dead to anything to do with leg pressure. I decided to try a totally novel approach that I hoped would wake him up. I dropped the reins on his neck and with my left hand I reached down and gently squeezed his wither between my thumb and forefinger. At first he took no notice, but as I gradually increased the pressure of the squeeze he tossed his head. I kept squeezing until he shifted his hindquarters, then released and rubbed his wither. I repeated and again released when he moved. With more repeats he finally walked forward. After about 10mins or so he started to walk off the moment I went to touch his wither. I then took it to the next step and was able to ask for a walk to trot by squeezing his wither. The next day I introduced my leg just a moment before I squeezed his wither. Again and again the exercise was repeated until he would walk forward from a feel of my seat and legs without touching his wither. By the last day of the clinic the lady was riding her horse at all three gaits off her legs. It wasn’t perfect, but the horse was now listening and had found his “try”.

The principle behind that approach can be applied to almost any aspect of training. I have taught a horse that would not acknowledge my presence learn to back up with a rope above its hocks and come forward when the rope was below the hocks. With some horses that leaned into the lead rope when asked to back up I have pinched the bridge of their nose (without pushing them backwards) until they lifted their shoulders and stepped back. I have taught horses to lead from a rope around one foot because they were constantly dismissive of their handler.

The list of ways I have tried to help horses engage in the work over the years is a very long list. But the exercises themselves are not important. The principle is to present something to a horse that he does not automatically know the answer to and let him find the answer. Don’t impose the answer on him because then he won’t need to think.

It’s another one of those fundamentals of training that we convince a horse that the work should be important and it is worth his time to engage his brain. When I ask my horse something it should matter to him.

I envy the optimism of the fellow in this photo.

Krall Zarif


When Is A Horse Broken In?

When people sent horses to me to be started under saddle, apart from asking about the cost, the most common question was how long would it take to finish the job. Of course, the answer is dependent on so many variables that it was impossible to give a definitive time when you haven’t even touched the horse yet. But people still expect an answer and that’s fair enough. But what I did notice was that people had different expectations as to what it meant to “finish the job.”

Ask 10 people what they expect from a horse when it is broken in and you’ll get 10 different answers. I had one regular client (who sent me horses every year) who was happy if her horses no longer bucked when a rider sat on them. The owner was proficient enough to complete the rest of the job, but not so confident about sitting a buck if the horses felt the need. Other owners expected and needed their breaker to be a lot further along before taking it home. A friend told me he had a client that expected her horse was doing canter lead changes before taking it home – which seems a bit ridiculous to me.

In all the years I have been training horses I have never found a satisfactory definition of a broken in horse. At what point is a horse finished being a breaker and now becomes a riding horse? It seems to me there is no cut off point where a horse stops being a breaker and suddenly turns into a broken in horse. I use to joke to clients that there was a demarcation line that marks when a horse is broken in - “When the owner runs out of money, the horse is broken in!”

In truth I think that training is a long continuous thread that starts with the foal hitting the ground on day 1 and ends with the horse being laid in the ground on the last day. Picasso said about art “a painting is never finished, it is just abandoned.” I think it holds true for horses and riders. You can expand the question to a much wider concept too. For example, when does a horse become a dressage horse? Is it a dressage horse when it competes in dressage or when the horse learns to listen to the reins during breaking in?

But back to the question of when is a horse broken in? My own view is not very satisfactory, but no worse than any others I have heard.

Drum roll please:

I think a horse is broken in when a schmuck rider can ride it with relative safety.

The problem then becomes defining how much of a schmuck does a schmuck rider have to be? And of course, how safe is “relative safety”? But I hope you get my drift. I’m trying to say that in my view a horse cannot really be considered broken in until even an dope can ride it and not get hurt.

I believe that if you accept that definition you also have to accept the probability that there are a whole lot of horses being ridden regularly (even competing successfully) that are not yet finished being broken in. One could argue that they are broken in enough for their owner. But if a horse is troubled enough that it can’t relax and get along with a rider who doesn’t know what they are doing, then I would suggest that the basics of focus, clarity and softness are still not established well enough for the horse to be relaxed and contented with a non-expert person on their back. It’s not that the training has been bad; it’s just not finished.

Having said that I can admit that Michele and I have 8 horses in our keeping (although one is on long term loan) and 2 of them are not yet finished being broken in because I can’t be sure that things won’t go bad with a schmuck is riding them.

This is Six. She’s one of our mares that is not yet ready for a schmuck to ride her despite years of riding and being ridden as a saddle horse for training young breakers.

Learning To Think

I am suppose to be re-organize the office to make room for more junk. I began by going through some boxes that I haven’t looked inside since we moved here nearly three years ago. That was a mistake because I immediately became distracted by what I found. In one box was a pile of old books that I hadn’t opened in years including such classics as Podhajsky’s “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider”, a collection of Oliveira’s writings and books by Cavendish, Fillis, Steinbrecht (photo below) and others. The pages are overflowing with profound wisdom from centuries of studying horses and riding. As a young fellow I used to paw over those books and try to absorb the knowledge of the old guys. I desperately wanted to know what they knew. The secrets of great riding and great horsemanship was trapped somewhere in those pages and I needed to find them. Anytime I needed to know how to each a horse to perform a canter departure or haunches in or prepare for a tricky jumping combination, I’d immediately referred to what the masters had to say.

Gustav Steinbrecht
But I have to admit that in time I became more disillusioned by the masters and their written words. I don’t think it is because what they wrote was wrong. I think it is because they almost all failed to teach the most important part of becoming a good horse person. They did not teach me to think. For every problem they had a method to solve the problem. Their teaching was learning by numbers. For the most part the masters did not emphasize how a student could learn to think to solve the problem. This still goes on today. I could name any number of esteemed modern day masters who pull out their favourite recipe for any problem you may come across. They teach their students “to do”, but not “to think.”

It’s really hard to teach people to think. Clearly there are some people (like me) who enjoy the intellectual challenge of working through a problem in a logical fashion. But there are many that don’t and only want to be told what to do. I have heard many times that in some people’s opinion I waste too much time intellectualizing training and horses. One well-known trainer even said to me that he doesn’t have time to worry about what a horse is thinking. This fellow has a bag of recipes that he can pull out for all occasions and it clearly appeals to a lot of people going by the following he has.

In my view in order to learn to be a thinking horse person what you know about horses and training should be placed in the back of your mind and not in the front. Don’t throw it away because you are going to need it later. But don’t let what you know and what you’ve learned from past experiences skew your thinking about the horse in front of you. When you strike a challenge with a horse the thing that should be at the forefront of your mind is what the horse is telling you.

For example, today I received an email from a lady that I have yet to reply to. She asked about a 12 year old horse that is very difficult to bridle. He has been difficult to handle around his ears since he was a foal. Both his mother and grandmother were difficult to handle around the ears. She has had times that have been better than others, but overall he has not gotten better despite a lot of help and a lot of time. From her correspondence it seems that everything she has tried over many years has not eradicated his need to be defensive. So she needs to think outside the norm for her. How do you get a horse to lower his defenses?

Clearly flooding methods haven’t worked. Approach and retreat methods haven’t worked. Desensitizing has not worked. She has to try something else that will take the edge off his protection about his ears. In my view, I think this is a perfect example where I might try positive reinforcement like clicker training. It’s rare for me to even contemplate clicker training as a recommendation because for various reasons I feel it can be counter productive. But here is a case where I think (given the history of this horse) it could be more effective in getting a horse to change his feelings than most negative reinforcement methods. The horse tells me what is not working, so despite any previous success with normal methods and despite my general aversion to clicker training, I would certainly try using positive reinforcement. Why not? What could go wrong? A non-thinking person would keep doing what they know. But a thinking horse person would try something new and experiment.

Ray Hunt
I believe Ray Hunt was one of the best of the thinking horsemen. He absorbed the formative lessons that Tom Dorrance had to teach like a whale feeding on plankton. But he didn’t become a Dorrance clone. Dorrance and Hunt were very different horsemen with different approaches, but their principles and foundations were one. Hunt took what Dorrance taught and used his brain to come up with his style of horsemanship and teaching. People often talk about the horsemanship of Dorrance and Hunt as if they were the same thing. But I don’t believe they were because from what I could see Ray Hunt had evolved his own style by thinking about what Tom had to teach. Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt were great thinking horsemen. However I feel that many of their students didn’t learn that same lesson. Many have graduated trying to parrot their message rather than evolve towards new ideas and new approaches with the teaching of Dorrance and Hunt as a foundation.

I don’t know how a person becomes a good horse person without becoming a thinking one. Yet thinking does not seem to be part of the curriculum of most horsemanship programs. I was lucky because I have such a strong background in research science that thinking about things rather than accepting them becomes almost my default way of operating in life. It’s by accident that thinking about my horsemanship evolved early in my professional career. Unfortunately, I don’t see that in most horse people and even most trainers.

Thinking is hard. But being good at anything is hard.

A Horse's Thought Part 4


This is the final part of the series on A Horse’s Thought. These 4 parts are by no means the end of the story or a comprehensive analysis of the importance of a horse’s thoughts in training. They are just a small section of what is a much larger study of the principles behind all horse training that forms a section in the book that I am currently writing. If you have any questions or need clarification, please ask.

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 paddock, 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 talked 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 already 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.

horse do the thinking
I would like to re-phrase the words to "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.

Let’s look at a simple example of allowing a horse to search for the right thing, not imposing the right thing on him and making the right thing easier than the wrong thing. In other words, letting a horse find the answer for himself with only a little help from us.

A common issue I see at my clinics is with regard to horses being stuck at the gate of the arena. I remember one particular occasion where every time a horse went by the arena gate he would prop and make a half-hearted attempt to rear. The rider tried her best to keep him going forward past the gate and when that didn’t work she tried disengaging his hindquarters before he stopped to rear, then giving him a swift boot to go forward. With every lap she managed to get the horse past the gate, but it remained a trial and he always tried something. It was not getting better. It didn’t take much convincing to get the owner to agree to let me ride her horse.

I started by trotting around the arena on a loose rein. The horse cut across the arena and zoomed in on the gate like a hungry shark on the attack. I asked him to steer away from the gate, but I felt a resistance as expected. So I changed tact. I just left the horse alone and went with him. When we got within about 7 to 1 metres I quietly began to gently slap my thigh with my right hand – about 2 slaps per second. I did nothing else but sit quietly and slap my thing. The chaps created quite a clear sound. This caused the horse to hurry his feet even more towards the gate, but I sat quietly slapping my leg in the same rhythm. When he got to the gate he stopped and pushed with his chest hoping it would open. Realizing it didn’t budge he began to paw at the gate. When this didn’t work he offered a small rear a couple of times out of frustration. I continued to sit quietly with no rein or leg contact while I slapped my chaps as he explored his options. Pretty soon the horse began to dart back and forth across the gate. As his desperation elevated his turns started to look more like something you might see on a trained cutting horse. He had a dilemma and didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to leave the gate, but staying at the gate was troubling tool. He found that the gate was not the answer to his prayers he thought it was going to be. He was going to have to decide whether to hang around the gate and deal with the idiot making the noise or leave the gate and see if the idiot would stop making the noise.

Finally after a few minutes I saw him look towards the long side of the arena and shaped his body away from the gate. I immediately stopped whacking my leg and rubbed his wither. But within a couple of seconds or so he was again fixated on the gate. The slapping resumed. It might have been another 30 seconds before he actually looked away from the arena gate and took a couple of strides towards to opposite corner. As soon as I was aware of his change of thought I relaxed the slapping and did nothing. Again he headed back to gate and I immediately returned to making a noise with my chaps. A few seconds passed before the horse turned away from the gate and made an effort to travel to the other end of the arena. My noisemaker ceased immediately. I even asked him to stop and rest while he was pointed towards the other end of the arena and away from the gate. A few moments later I asked him to move on a free rein and he walk about a third of the way to the opposite end before making a wide arc back towards the gate. I repeated tapping my leg again and after a few steps he turned away before even arriving at the gate. It took perhaps another 10 minutes or so before the horse decided the gate was not nearly as important as he originally figured and showed no keenness to rush towards the gate or reluctance to go away from the gate.

I only relate this story to show how you can help a horse change his thought without making it happen. I began by asking a horse to follow my idea to veer away form the gate, but when I felt a fight in him about that I applied just enough energy by slapping my leg to make the horse feel uncomfortable. I did it only when his focus became fixed on the gate. When his focus left the gate, I stopped bothering him and even allowed him to rest when I could. I did not apply so much pressure that the horse could not have stood pawing at the gate. I never told him he couldn’t stand at the gate and rear. I never told him he had to go to away from the gate. It was all his idea. The rearing, pawing and darting back and forth were symptoms of his frustration. They were not a result of the pressure I applied so much as a caused by the strength of his idea to want to go out the gate and back to his paddock. The stronger his idea to go out the gate the more frustration I’d have seen in his behaviour.

This is just an example and most of us see tons of them in every ride. But the point is that we have a choice to train using principles that make a horse our obedient slave or a partner who is on the same page by their own choice.


A Horse's Thoughts Part 2

To continue the series on a horse’s focus and thoughts


Thought No.1:

“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 them trots on 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 became pretty strong-minded and you would have had to be getting very insistent 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 would his feet and he would not have tried to rush forward.

Thought No.2:

“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. Take for example 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.

A further 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.

Thought No.3:

“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. If you release the rein pressure while the horse is still leaning and thinking forward, the horse will learn to stop his feet, but not change his thought.

I’m reminded of another example from a foal that I was handling 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 I limited her flight response to a small 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 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 realize 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 run 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 pre-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.

Vicki and PeeWee

The photo shows a horse being sent through a gate. Notice his thoughts are fixed on forward, but he is still mentally connected to the owner. This allows the owner to change or interrupt the horse at any point without causing much concern because he is aware and waiting to see what the owner may ask next.

A Horse's Thoughts

I’ve had a request from Marg Littler to post my article I wrote some time back regarding a horse’s thoughts. It’s a very long piece and I have added to it considerably as part of a chapter on focus that will form the first section of a new book. Because of its length I will break it up into different articles that will be posted over the next week or so.



According to the Webster dictionary focus is “an act of concentrating interest or activity on something.”

I think this is an accurate bare bones definition of focus. But I believe that when it comes to discussing focus in relation to horses it is much more than just a convergence of interest.

A horse’s focus is never complete. Like humans, horses have the ability to be attentive to more than one thing at a time. We are always competing with multiple choices as to what a horse will focus his attention on. Furthermore, a horse’s focus is often fleeting and changes constantly. It’s not like you have a horse’s attention captured and you can hold for the rest of the session. It can come and go so quickly that we can sometimes feel like a kitten trying to catch light reflecting from a wind chime.

It is the nature of horses to place sense of safety above all other instincts. Evolution made them animals of prey that were at the mercy of predators that stalked them. For this reason they have a heightened sense of their surrounds. It’s important to a horse that he be aware of everything around him and notices anything that moves or is out of place. Horses regularly scan their habitat for things that don’t seem quite right. They need to check out anything that is different. For this reason a horse’s attention can’t be locked in for very long. Their innate survival instinct programs horses to have a focus that does not fixate on any one thing for too long unless it represents a danger or they feel unusually safe.

It is almost impossible to teach if the student is not paying attention. When we are in the classroom ready to teach we need the horse to be mentally in the classroom too ready to learn. That’s the point of focus. There is no purpose in starting a lesson when the student is not mentally present.

I don’t believe it is realistic to expect a horse to pay 100% attention to us. If it is possible, I’ve never seen it. But I do think it is possible to get close to 100% if we take the time in our training. Often we start with only a little focus from a horse, but the job of good training is to increase the amount of focus a horse gives us and increase the amount of time we have it.


I want to discuss what is essentially the basis of my philosophy (and many other horse people) to training horses - that is a horse's thoughts and feelings. I have talked a lot in my clinics and previous books about a horse's thought and it's importance in good horsemanship. But I am not sure I have explained sufficiently the principle and how to use it in training. I hear people argue on the one hand that horses don’t have thoughts and on the other hand that they can’t process them and we can’t influence them. In my view, both views are wrong and fail to give horses enough credit for their ability to adapt and learn.

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 section is about the fundamentals 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.

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 or reaction 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 were 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 cannot 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.

In the next couple of posts I’ll discuss the 4 rules that we must keep in mind when training through good horsemanship.

Great minds think alike - Charlotte and Indy

Charlotte and Indy



It’s a strange thing that I was a pretty good athlete when I was growing up. I mean my brain was all screwed up in the way it worked my body. It seemed that my brain couldn’t decide if I was right sided or left sided. I would write with my right hand. Catch a ball, swing a tennis racquet, and use a cricket bat with my right hand. But when I played cowboys and Indians I would shoot the bad guys using my left hand. I play pool left-handed. I box leading with my left and counter with my right. Plus I am naturally left-footed when I kick a ball. As a young soccer player I had to work hard every day to teach myself to kick with the right foot. All of these were natural tendencies and not something that was drilled into me by others.

As a rider I still want to try to hold the reins in my right hand when I neck rein. And I have the bad habit of favouring my left seat bones and can be stronger with my left leg. I am constantly aware of trying to ride more balanced.

I would think that most people who are right-handed would have a natural tendency to be right-footed too and the other way around. But it seems it isn’t so – at least with everybody. There are a few outliers like me that don’t fit the norm.

In my work as a horse trainer, I’d say about 80% of horses could be categorized to fit into a mould. I’m not saying that they are not all different. But in a broader sense a large proportion of horses fit a “type”. For example, Arabs are generally smart and sensitive. But underneath that broad categorization each smart and sensitive Arab is different from all other smart and sensitive Arabs. But occasionally you find an Arab that doesn’t fit the broad category at all. He might be tough and stoic like a Fjord. I really enjoy the horses that don’t fit the mould. I find them fascinating.

When I was a passionate showjumper I often rode horses for other people in competition. One of the horses I had a lot of success with was a thoroughdred/paint cross mare. Her style over a jump was weird. Instead of tucking her back legs up under her body, she would twist her hindquarters side ways and let her legs dangle out behind her as they shaved the top rail. It was the strangest feeling to sit on her when she did this. The bigger the jump the more she twisted. It felt like she was spinning her hind end around like somebody doing “wheelies” in a car. Sometimes she twisted so much it felt like she was going to land on her side and it amazed me how she managed to get her back legs under herself again before they hit the ground. Everybody I know who knew anything about jumping horses said she shouldn’t be able to jump the courses that she did because her style was impossible. Yet she was able to beat some really good horses. She was an outlier.

I never met Tom Dorrance. But I have read a lot about him, seen the videos and heard the stories. This year I read “Tom Dorrance: More Than A Horseman.” I enjoyed the stories about how he had helped so many people with their horses and gave people a deeper understanding of horses and horsemanship. Clearly Tom was an outlier himself.

After reading the book I wondered what I would have asked him if I had had the chance to sit down and have a chat. I knew straight away what I wanted to know from him. I am not so interested in what horses and people Tom had helped. Instead I would like to hear about the horses that Tom screwed up. I want to know about the outliers that Tom had come across and what he learned from them. Everybody who has horses or trains them has had failures and horses they don’t quite understand. And if they haven’t had them, they haven’t worked enough horses. So I know even somebody as amazing with horses as Tom Dorrance would have lessons to impart from the horses that didn’t behave predictably and he couldn’t help.

A very famous scientist once explained that the great discoveries don’t come so much from the study of what fits into the norm. It comes from studying what doesn’t fit. The outliers. When you have 99 out of a 100 things behaving similarly, the really interesting one to look at is the 1 that doesn’t behave predictably. There is more to learn from that 1 thing than the other 99.

I guess my point is that if we want to become better horse people we have a lot to learn from the horses that don’t fit in. Many people dismiss the “difficult” horses. There is nothing wrong with that if you don’t want or can’t cope with the challenge. But without some challenge to our horsemanship we are doomed to become stagnant.

Why Do Ground Work?

This video offers something to think about for people who still don’t like to do ground work.


Voice Commands

I’m going to be really blunt about this and you can take it or leave as you wish. I think voice commands are a waste of time when it comes to training horses. There, I said it.

I know there are a lot of people who believe in the value of voice commands. And I know people who put a lot of effort in teaching their horse voice commands because they genuinely believe the voice is a powerful training tool. But I have never seen any evidence to support the theory.

But let me be clear. I am not saying horses cannot learn to perform exercises from voice cues. I know they can. What I am saying is that I don’t see those voice cues as being very important or useful. I’ll try to explain further.

Horses have a very limited ability to understand vocal commands. At last count I think it was established that horses themselves only make 9 distinct sounds. So they have evolved to have an innate understanding of 9 different sounds, no more. Therefore their vocabulary is very limited. This means they while they are able to learn to respond to simple sounds like a “cluck” or “whoa” or “trot”, they can’t put meaning to complex sounds like “collected trot” or “counter canter to the right” or “rein back in a left hand arc and stop by the third post”. It would be like expecting a kid who has learned to add numbers to suddenly solve a differential equation. When you use a verbal command to ask a horse to “trot” you are going to get the trot he gives you even though the quality and energy of the trot you have in mind might be very different. You say “extended trot” and expect he will give you an extended trot, but he might only give you a jog and then what are you going to do about it with your voice?

But what horses are really excellent at doing is understand body language and energy. They are brilliant at that. Horses are much better at it than most people. When you are riding or lunging your horse and you use the voice command to “trot”, if the trot he gives you is not the trot you wanted you are going to have to add another cue such as seat, legs, reins, whip etc in order to help him find the trot you had in mind. To my mind, I have to question what good is a voice command that I am going to have to adjust with other cues in order to give the horse the same idea that was in my mind? I might as well as forget using vocal cues and stick with physical cues because they allow me to be much clearer to my horse. It’s not that vocal commands create problems; it’s just that they are not very effective or useful. They lack clarity to a horse.

I think some people like to use their voice because it’s what people are most comfortable at using. We rely on our voice. We think it gives clarity to our meaning. That’s why language is so complex and has so many rules and different words that mean almost the same thing, but not quite. We want to be comfortable communicating with our horses, so we like the idea of using something that we are comfortable at using, like words. But this is not how a horse sees it at all. He understands the physical languages like movement, energy and posture very well. Adding verbal language to his life is only an added complication that is clumsy and unnecessary and lacks the element of bringing clarity to his training.

In addition to using our voices to training exercises, some people like to use their voice as a reward. They believe that telling a horse he is a “good boy” makes a horse feel better. I don’t believe this and I doubt horses do either. But what I think often happens when we tell our horse he is a good boy (or whatever phrase people might use) is that at the same time we offer a horse a release from the work and pressure. As the words come out of our mouth most of the time we stop working and give our horses a break. In time, the horse starts to associate the words “good boy” with a release of pressure. So the horse can learn that when a person says “good boy” it is a good thing, but he could have gotten just as much out of it if he had been given the release of pressure without the words. Without the release of pressure the words would have no meaning or purpose. Saying “good boy” without a break in the work would not be a reward.

I know some people reading this will bristle at any criticism of using voice commands. I’ve had people tell me that they know their horse works from voice commands and does most everything they want. But I can say that anytime I’ve asked them to stand on the other side of the fence and shout voice commands, nothing happens. Many years ago I had a stranger ride a ladies horse and told the rider to do nothing but sit relaxed. Then I asked the owner (who was convinced of the importance of voice commands in her training) tell the horse to trot and canter in the round yard. Again nothing happened. One time at a clinic a lady showed me how well her horse worked at liberty in a round yard from only her voice cues. When I had the lady put the horse in a nearby small paddock and asked her to show me the same thing, nothing happened. In all these cases I believe the horse failed to respond to voice commands when circumstances changed because the horse was really listening to handlers/riders body language and not so much the voice cues.

One day I might wake up and see my horses in the paddock flapping their gums and talking to each other like old friends at a school reunion. But until that day I guess I remain unconvinced about the usefulness or importance of verbal commands when it comes to communicating with horses.

If horses could talk


Riding The Walk

A lot of horses that I see at clinics really struggle to offer a good walk. About half of the horses plod around as if they were going to their own funeral. The walk is always the hardest gait to perfect. Generally horses don’t offer an active walk. It can be harder for a horse to really walk out because the walk has very little innate energy. A trot and canter have much more natural energy than a walk, so getting a horse to put in an effort at the walk can be tough sometimes.

The result is that many riders work overtime with their seat and legs to encourage a horse to walk out with an effort. With every stride they are urging their horse forward. Often the best they achieve is not so much to create an energetic walk, but rather just to block their horse from slowing down the walk. One of the commonest faults I see with riders is the overuse of their seat to drive a horse forward. I’d say at least half of the riders that I see try to constantly drive their horse forward with their seat and legs. With every stride a rider will push their pelvis forward as if they were polishing the seat of the saddle and bump the sides with their heels.

Today I want to just talk about using the seat because it seems that changing the way riders use their seat is a hard one for many people to get their head around.

The thing I want people to re-think is the use of what I call the “pelvic thrust.” This is the driving effect of pushing a rider’s pelvis forward. It’s associated with a tightening of the buttocks, lower back (and often upper thighs) and pushing the belly button forward. It’s a little like trying to push a swing forward using your seat.

The pelvic thrust can encourage a horse to stride forward with more effort. In theory it can help. But the problem arises in that to be able to perform a second thrust forward, the rider needs to bring their pelvis back again. A rider can’t thrust forward again and again without either rocking the pelvis back or risk a prolapsed vertebral disc requiring major surgical treatment. When a rider has to rock their pelvis back again, it hinders or blocks the ability of the horse to go forward with freedom. So by using the “pelvic thrust” method to help a horse put more effort into his walk, a rider is both encourage him forward (pelvis rocks forward) and blocks his forward movement (pelvis rocks back again). It’s a type of stop/start approach to improving the walk.

Here is a short video that clearly shows the rider actively using the pelvic thrust to encourage her horse’s walk.

Rather than teach riders to push their pelvis forward and backward, I try to help them roll or swing their pelvis left and right in time to the hind feet of the horse. Let’s step back and look at the walk.

When a horse walks his ribs roll left and right. If you sit on a horse and let your legs hang loosely as he walks you’ll feel your legs sway to the left and then the right as the horse’s ribs sway left and right. This swinging happens in time to the movement of the hind feet. As the left hind leaves the ground and starts to step forward, the horse’s ribs swing to the right. Likewise, as the right hind is about to step forward, the ribs swing to the left. The swinging of the ribs is an opportunity for the rider to swing their pelvis in time with the horse’s hind feet.

As the horse’s right hind foot starts to reach forward, the horse’s rib begin to rotate to the left. This is the moment that the rider can help the horse forward by rocking their hips forward and to the left. Then as the left hind is about to come forward the horse’s ribs roll to the right and the rider can swing their hip forward and to the right in time to the horse. If a rider uses this approach with their seat there is no backward movement to hinder the horse’s forwardness – the message to the horse’s brain is forward, forward, forward. The rider’s seat is saying “left and forward, right and forward, left and forward, right and forward.”

There is no doubt that if you are use to driving with the pelvic thrust, rolling the pelvis from side to side can be a challenge at first. It requires feeling the horse’s feet and getting in time with them. If you want to play around with this concept, but find if hard to get your timing right don’t hesitate to have somebody on the ground watch and call out in time to the horse’s feet to help you develop a feel for his movement. It can also help to not focus so much on where the hind feet are, but to feel the swinging of the horse’s ribs. For some people it is easier to feel the swinging of the ribs than the striding of the feet.

In time, a horse will feel a rider get with the rhythm of the walk. From there it is a relatively small step to being able to influence both the rhythm and length of the walk stride. But it takes hours and hours of consistent practice before you and your horse are feeling of each other.


What Equipment Do You Need?

Every time I walk in to a saddlery (tack) store I am often amazed at the variety of equipment on display. There are usually wall-to-wall choices of saddles, bits, halters and gadgets – all designed to make the life of the rider/trainer easier. And let’s not mention the huge range of books and dvds offering any purchaser the secret to success with horses and in competition. I don’t know how the average horse person is supposed to know what to buy. Very often the sales person is not an expert in the whys and wherefores of the items they sell and most buyers would be ill advised to rely on them solely for advice.

The equipment I use with my own horses is carefully chosen. I choose the gear I use based on my personal experience and the needs of my horses. But a lot of the time at clinics I have to ride or handle horses that are fitted with gear I never use or would never use at home. Generally I just deal with whatever equipment is on the horse at the time. Often I feel the equipment is not the right gear for that horse and on some rare occasions I have taken off some equipment that I felt was hindering progress. But there have been a lot of times I have had to ride with a curb bit on horses that can’t flex laterally. Or I have ridden horses that rush or bolt while fitted with a running martingale. Or I’ve sat on horses in a treeless saddle that have a tight and hollow back. I normally wouldn’t choose to use that sort of gear on my own horses even given the problem issues the horse’s display. But the point is that I sometimes do work horses at clinics with gear I wouldn’t choose myself and yet I still get the horses to make good changes.

I like to use the equipment I like. It works for me and I’m comfortable with its use and I get the results I am seeking with the gear I choose. But I don’t consider that using different equipment makes the difference between progress and non-progress. Using equipment that I might not find ideal for me or the horse does not mean that I just give up and go home. I’ve never found it a reasonable excuse for helping a horse make good changes. But there are people who don’t agree with me.

There is a well-known Aussie trainer who tells people that using if they use any type of halter other than a rope halter they are failing their horse. He describes the use of non-rope halters as anti-training.

Michele had some lessons with a popular dressage master for a short time. In her first lesson she rode her horse in a well-fitted western saddle. The dressage master told her that for her next lesson she should bring a dressage saddle because western saddles restricted the freedom of movement needed to do dressage and made it difficult to feel the horse under her. He considered using a western saddle would impede Michele’s progress in dressage.

Years ago I watched a clinic by a famous European dressage rider. She told people that a proper sized dressage arena was absolutely essential when training young horses for dressage. In another episode, I once heard a European horseman say that a round yard caused horses more problems than it helped should train only in a square (called a picadero).

Another trainer I know of refuses to ride or train his client’s horses using bits because he feels they are against the principles of good horsemanship.

I know a trainer who refuses to ride client’s horses in anything but split reins. He takes a set with him wherever he goes. He is outspoken about how only split reins are effective in communicating with a horse.

People are constantly in search the right gear to use for their horse. One of the most common questions people have when they get a new horse is “what bit should I use?” As if things will be headed for disaster if they ride without the exact correct bit for their horse. Yet with all the horses I have trained and started I can remember only one time where I needed to use a different bit to the one I normally use on every other horse (including my own) that I ride.

I get asked sometimes if it’s okay to lunge a horse without a lunging cavesson and roller. The inference being that a cavesson and roller are necessary to lunge a horse correctly.

Many trainers and clinicians sell their preferred gear. You can buy the equipment your favourite guru uses with the expectation that you’ll get close to the same level of results. I even know that some training courses require the student to purchase the equipment that they sell.

I don’t sell any equipment. I recommend where people can purchase things like side pulls or the rope halters we like – but only when asked and I never try to push gear onto people. The reason I don’t sell equipment or promote equipment and have declined offers of sponsorship, is that I don’t believe these things are important when it comes to offering your horse a better deal. I don’t want people to think I believe the difference between a web halter and rope halter or a ‘D’ ring snaffle and an eggbutt snaffle or a whip and a flag are important. These things have nothing to do with good horsemanship.

I am sure that most trainers and instructors don’t consciously want to discourage people from trying things just because students don’t have the equipment that the professionals recommend. But I know that the subliminal message that people receive is that if you don’t have the right gear, don’t expect good results. They are telling people (subconsciously or consciously) that if you don’t have a rope halter you are doomed to a life of having your horse run over you. If you can’t afford a dressage saddle you’ll never be able to teach your horse to offer true collection. If you don’t have the money to buy a bitless bridle your horse will always be miserable and feel abused.

We have all heard the adage “a poor tradesman blames his tools.” There is no doubt that having the gear you like to use makes life a little easier. But there is no magic to any of the equipment we use. The equipment itself doesn’t hold any special power to fix our horse. It is rare that it‘s the equipment that makes the difference between training and good training. I believe that being intransigent about only using specific equipment highlights the limitations of the horse person more than it does the limitations of the equipment.

Here is a photo of Amanda and her horse working in my patent pending half round and half square called the “Half and Half”! These yards combine the best qualities of the round yard and the picadero. They will transform your relationship with your horse and make riding fun again. Right now I am offering a special low introductory offer on the “Half & Half” yards of only $5000. Yes, that’s right only $5000!!! But wait – that’s not all! Order today and with each purchase I’ll include a set of steak knives. ☺

The 'Half & Half' yard


Human Baggage and Learning

A few years ago I did a demonstration on loading a horse into a float (trailer). There were lots of people watching. The mare was perfect for the demonstration. She showed every problem that stopped her from being an easy and reliable horse to load. Then when she made some changes, she showed exactly why she no longer resisted loading. I thought the demonstration showed exactly the steps that a person needs to go through to find out the issues and eliminate them one-by-one.

A month later I was holding another public demonstration. Before the demo began a lady approached me on crotches to say that she watched the previous demo and went home and did with her horse everything that she saw me do with the mare. But her horse ran into her in an effort to get away and broke her foot. She wanted to let me know that my method didn’t work.

I told her I was sorry she got her hurt, but she needed to keep three things in mind. Firstly, I don’t have “a method”. Secondly, I probably wouldn’t have loaded her horse the same way I loaded the horse at the demo. And thirdly, she only did what she thought she saw me do.

At clinics I spend a lot of time explaining to people an approach I want them to try. I very often demonstrate the approach I want them to try. It usually works out well. But when I hand the horse to the owner, it doesn’t work out so well. I get the comment a lot “you make it look so easy.” I often repeat the demonstration before letting them try it for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out as well for the owner as it did for me.

A lot of times people come to clinics and make great strides with getting changes in their horse. But when they go home and work at things the changes don’t hold for long.

In all of these scenarios where things work out better when I do them than when other folks try them, there are many possible reasons for that.

The two obvious reasons are that I have more experience and can present a different confidence and feel to a horse than many of my clients. The other reason is that I am not doing a good enough job at explaining my meaning. My communication skills need to improve. But in addition to those reasons there is another that I want people to think about. That is, people are mentally blocked from grasping the meaning of what I try to teach.

too much baggage
All the information we are given in life is absorbed and analyzed by our brains in the context of what we already know. The meaning of any new information can only be interpreted in the context of our pre-existing understanding of the subject. For example, when people talk about a horse being “disrespectful” I bristle because that term has a negative meaning to me. Yet others see it as a perfectly suitable description of how a horse is behaving.

Several years ago a lady came to a 5 day clinic. She described her horse as being disrespectful and willful. On the second day of the clinic I worked the horse in the round yard and was asking the horse to turn to the outside (towards the fence). The lady became very concerned because she had been taught that a horse turning away from the person was a sign of disrespect and I was making worse what she thought was already the problem. Even though I explained to her that her horse was doing exactly as I asked, she was very bothered by the exercise. Another trainer had taught her that what I was doing was wrong. She didn’t return to the clinic after that day.

The lady’s previous experience was blocking her from learning something new because the new stuff didn’t fit in with what her brain had already absorbed.

I see this all the time. When people try to repeat something that I did successfully with their horses, it doesn’t come out nearly so well because even though they saw what I did and heard what I said, the meaning is blocked by what they already know. Their understanding of what it means when I say things like “ask him to think over there” or “no contact” or “get him to listen” or “ask him to soften” or “do less” or “be earlier, not quicker” or “let him search” etc is very often totally different from what I did mean. When I tell somebody to ask their horse to step his shoulder over they more often than not think I meant make his shoulder step over. When I tell a person “don’t let him do that” they often think they have to punish a horse for doing that or make it so he can’t do that, rather than get him to change the need he feels for doing that.

When I instruct a person and try to give them an idea, I know exactly what I mean. The meanings behind my words are no mystery to me. But somehow the words out of my mouth or the actions that I demonstrate get scrambled inside the brains of other people and come out differently. I think a large part of this is because other people have to put my intentions into a familiar context that they can understand and sometimes this means the meaning of my intentions get lost.

Often times I see people doing things that they never see me do when they try to repeat something I showed them. I see people refusing to look at their horses in the eye or standing still when lunging their horses or bending at the waste and twirling the tail end of the lead rope when asking their horse to disengage the hindquarters. They do these things even though they saw that I didn’t do any of them only moments earlier.

Letting go of what we already think we know and the habits we already have is one of the biggest obstacles we have when learning new stuff. We judge other horse people in terms of the standards of our last mentor. We agree with methods and principles on the basis that they are consistent with our own. So when I coach on people or demonstrate something to them they hear or see what I wanted them to see or hear, but they very often don’t understand what I wanted them to understand. Seeing and understanding are two different things.

I work very hard at trying to be a better teacher. People tell me they see the improvement over the last few years, so I guess it is paying off. But I know I could be even better if I could help people approach the work with less baggage that gets in the way of the learning.

Separatng Two Horses

horses in love
Today I was asked to comment about what to do with horses that are inseparable because of such a strong bond. I thought it might make a good topic for today’s discussion.

We all know that horses are herd animals. Their sense of safety and survival is strongly linked to being part of a herd. Living a solo life is a stress on a horse and I might even add it could be considered a form of abuse. We isolate people to punish them, yet we give little thought to the emotional effect it can have on a horse.

When two horses are bonded strongly together what we are dealing with is actually a weaning issue. In order to break the bond that two horses might have means weaning them all over again just like you might do with a foal and mare.

With that in mind there are two options that I know to successfully separate horses that are strongly bonded.

The first is to do what most people do when weaning horses. It involves splitting them apart far enough that they can’t see, hear or smell each other and give them enough time to get over their anxiety. It means making sure both horses are in extra safe environments because chances are that at least one or both of them will run until they drop or push on fences or dig a trench as they pace back and forth across the gateway.

You can do things to try to alleviate the stress. Some use other horses as companions. But in my experience in most cases the new horse becomes the substitute ‘best mate’ and you soon have the same problem all over again. Some people put obstacles in the paddock and in front of the gate for the horses to negotiate in an effort to help focus on what he is doing. But there is the risk that in their desperation a horse might hurt themselves by running into one of the obstacles. Another idea is to work each horse two or three times a day and that can help if you are able to affect the way the horse feels in the work. But it does take a lot of time each day and requires a time commitment that not everybody is capable of offering.

This ‘cold turkey’ approach to separating horses doesn’t do much for helping a horse to deal with separation other than they eventually give up searching for their friend. In my experience, this approach doesn’t make a horse gain confidence in himself about being alone. He still yearns for companionship and will quickly form another strong bond with the next horse he comes in contact with. Few horses ever learn it’s ok to be by themselves with this method. In fact, I suspect that foals that are weaned from their dams using the ‘cold turkey’ method often grow up to be the worse sufferers of separation anxiety.

The second method of separating horses takes much longer and perhaps is more work, but I believe it is much more successful at avoiding the emotional damage that the ‘cold turkey’ method can cause.

It begins with separating the horses into adjacent paddocks. It allows them to hang out by the fence, sniff and groom each other. But it also means that the more confident horse can move away and not be shadowed by the less confident horse. They can put some distance between each other and come together as they choose. You can even feed them in different parts of their paddocks to encourage them to drift away. To start with I’d only separate them for about 30mins initially before putting them together again. Each day (or perhaps 2 or 3 times a day) I’d separate them into adjacent paddocks. Gradually I would increase the length of time they were separated until they began to show no sign of being bothered by being in different paddocks. Then I’d move one to a paddock further away. They should still be able to see each other. After 30mins or so, put them in adjacent paddocks again. In time, I would make the separation for longer. At some point they stop being bothered by being put in the farther paddock. It’s about this time that I’d take one of the horses to a paddock that was out of sight of the other. It might be only for 10mins or perhaps 30min. It would depend how much stress they displayed.

One thing I would add is that when you put the horses together again it is not necessary to wait until they stop running or pacing or calling out. People often think that you need to wait until a horse changes his feelings to end up with a better result. This is not true and I believe is another myth. Even if the horses have not settled and calmed down, still put them together again. It won’t matter because with repetition the horses will learn to expect that they will eventually be with their mate again. They will gain confidence knowing that separation is not forever. If you wait until they relax and stop pacing or calling you may be waiting for a couple of days and won’t gain anything by waiting.

Anyway, the idea is to separate them and put them together in increments to avoid the emotional crisis that a sudden and complete separation can cause a horse. Even though I have only dealt with a handful of horses that have gone through the incremental separation process, each of them appeared to be better adjusted than most of the horses I have met that were weaned abruptly. I don’t know if my impressions hold much water, but the logic of it makes perfect sense to me and my experience is consistent with the notion that it works.

Training Or Re-Training?

I was recently reminded how people viewed horses with problems as being different from horses with no training. It is a really common perception that horses that have been trained yet have behaviours that we don’t like are very different from horses that just haven’t been taught in the first place.

All horses that have had any experience with people come with training. Even if they are foals that have not yet been haltered, they have experience of people that leaves an impression on them. If they have only seen people from the other side of the fence they have formed an opinion, which has taught them something about humans.

If what they have learned about us is not what we want them to learn, they already have baggage that will impact on our relationship and how our training progresses.

3 month old foal leg
Michele and I use to work with a lot of foals. Every year we handled a stack of them. Teaching them to pick up their feet and hold them quietly for the farrier was always on the list of things to do. We always started with getting them comfortable with having their feet touched, then progressed to getting them to shift their weight to the opposite leg and then having them lift their foot off the ground when we cued them. Pretty soon they would quietly lift their leg and hold it up while we tapped their hoof and pretended to rasp around it. At each step we ensured the horse was soft and feeling okay before moving onto the next phase. The job was not to make the foal lift his leg for the farrier. The job was to stay focused and soft for every part of the process. If we did that, the foal was automatically ready for the farrier. The pic shows a 3 month old foal having it’s leg handled for the first time

I once worked with a horse that was prone to kicking the farrier. He was an 8-year-old Australian Stock Horse. The owner told me he was always bad about having his feet done ever since they bought him as a broken in 3 year old. Another trainer had used leg ropes to teach him to lift his leg and be shod. Even then he would fight a lot, but they could shoe him.

The horse had been this way for at least 5 years and had been shod a lot in his time. But he still argued about it and even kicked a person or two.

I started with getting him okay with me touching his leg and running my hand up and down it. At first he lifted his leg in the air, like it was a reflex. But I kept rubbing until he lowered it back down again. When he got really good at the rubbing part, I rubbed his inside tendon with my thumb to irritate him enough he would think about lifting his leg to move away from my thumb. The instant he shifted weight to the opposite leg, I stopped. I kept this up until he just lifted his leg. At first he would lifted it very abruptly and with tension, but I did not accept that and kept asking for the leg to come up and down again until there was some relaxation in the way he did it. I built on this approach until he could lift his legs and leave his hoof relaxed in my hand while I rubbed and tapped it and could put it softly back on the ground. If he became tense and tried to pull away or kick out, I persisted until a moment of relaxation came back.

In other words, I re-trained the horse in exactly the same way I would have trained a foal to lift its leg for the first time.

My experience has taught me that in the majority of cases, retraining is the same process as training for the first time. Why is this?

It’s because in both cases the problem is that the basics are either missing or have been corrupted in allowing bad feelings to creep into the horses thoughts. Whether a horse has learned bad habits or just doesn’t know how to respond, the problem lies in reprogramming the basics. It’s no different in my eyes.

I have said this before and Ill say it again. In the past, people have asked me about buying a young, untrained horse to avoid buying something that already has problems. I tell them that if you don’t know enough to fix problems in a horse that already exist, then you don’t know enough to ensure you don’t put problems in a horse. The skills needed to train a green horse are the same skills needed to fix a spoiled horse.

If you have a horse that has a problem, you don’t need to go looking for a trainer with a bag of magic tricks for fixing problems. You just need to go back to the beginning and fill in the holes that were left by the early training.


Fact or Fiction: Concepts of Horsemanship

Here is a short list of concepts that have been raised at recent clinics and which I believe should be dispelled.

1. Horses need to be taught respect.
This is a really common myth and regularly comes out of the mouths of professional and amateur horse people alike. Horses neither display disrespect nor respect to people. It is not in their thinking. Horses behave as they are taught and if they are taught to display unwanted behaviour like crowding people or biting or turning their back towards a person it has nothing to do with a horse’s intent to behave disrespectfully. This is a human concept that has nothing to do with a horse’s thinking.

2. Horses need rugging (blanketing) in cold weather.
There are many studies to show that the comfort temperature of horses is significantly below humans. While people generally find 20-22 deg C the most comfortable, horses prefer temperatures ranging from -10 to +12 deg C (different studies site different thermal neutral temperatures). Horses evolved in cool climates and tolerate colder climates more easily that warmer climates. People need to stop rugging their horses just because they feel cold.

3. Spurs and whips are for making a horse to be forward.
This is not true at all. Spurs and whips are for teaching a horse to be more responsive to the rider’s leg, not for making a horse go.

4. Shoes are inherently damaging to the hoof.
Despite all that has been written about the evils of shoeing there is yet still no proof that shoes in themselves cause damage. As Gene Ovinecek said “shoes are there to protect the trim…” In all likelihood the trim of the hoof is more important than whether shoes are fitted or not.

5. It is better to purchase an unhandled horse than to buy one that may have problems from being handled.
The truth is if you don’t have the skills and knowledge to fix issues in a horse that may already have problems, then you probably don’t have the skills and knowledge to ensure you don’t instill problems in an unhandled horse.

6. Lowering a horse’s head calms the horse by release of endorphins.
There is no evidence that a horse’s posture releases endorphins. In fact, although some studies have measured endorphins in horses, to my knowledge none have used tests to specifically measure horse endorphins or shown that these hormones are involved in calming a horse. This is also true of the work done with the effects of twitches.

7. Horses lick objects to ingest minerals and salts that they require in their diet.
It has been shown that horses are unable to detect deficiencies in their diet of minerals and salts. They don’t lick things to make up for nutritional deficiencies. I suspect it is more likely they choose certain things to lick because they like the taste.

8. Foals respond to imprinting.
Horses do not imprint in the same way that Conrad Lorenz showed in ducks and geese. Early handling can mould the thinking of horses to accustom them to things, but this is very different to classical imprinting.

9. Foam around the mouth is a sign of relaxation and submission to the bit.
In fact, foam is caused by vigorously mixing air with saliva and inhibition of the swallowing reflex. Having a busy tongue to mix the air with saliva and decreasing swallowing are indicators of a tension. The photo shows a horse with an excessive foaming problem.
Foaming horse

10. You have three seconds to modify a behaviour before a horse does not associate behaviours.
Some people believe that if a horse does something and you want to influence or re-train the behaviour, you only have 3 sec to act before a horse can’t associate their action with your action. This is not true. Although, it is better to have good timing, consistency of the training is much more important in affecting the outcome than timing.

11. Licking and chewing is a sign of relaxation.
It is almost impossible to be definite about the meaning of any behaviour in isolation. You have to look at all behaviour in context. Sometimes licking and chewing can be signs of relaxation and sometime signs of stress and anxiety.

12. A horse that is working at liberty is a sign of a happy horse because he has the choice to escape at any time.
Many people believe this to be true, but it isn’t. A horse learns his lot in life and many liberty horses feel just as trapped as if they are imprisoned in a cell. I believe it is akin to ‘learned helplessness.’

13. Riding bareback is good for the horse and good for the rider
I don’t advocate bareback riding for extended periods. Firstly, it places undue stress on the horse’s back because the weight of the rider is only distributed over a very small area – creating pressure points. And it puts more weight on the horse’s spine rather than the muscle lateral of the spine. As for the rider, it tends to encourage a chair-like posture and teaches many young riders to grip with their legs – both of which are hard to overcome later in life.

14. A hard mouth comes from hard hands.
Hands that release the rein pressure before the horse softens his thoughts to the reins cause a hard mouth. You get what you release for. If you release because a horse stopped or slowed his feet, but didn’t wait until he softened to the reins then you teach a horse to be hard in the mouth.

15. Mounting from the ground can damage a horse’s back and people should always use a mounting block.
I have heard this many times and the evidence that I have seen is very unconvincing. In my experience people that struggle to mount from the ground have just as much trouble using a mounting block. So far I have not hurt one horse from regularly mounting from the ground, but I have seen a few people get hurt falling off mounting blocks.

16. Horses have short attention spans.
This is not true. A horse can focus for as long as required if something captures his interest. Most of us struggle to motivate a horse to stay focused because we repeat our steps so much. But I know if I place a bucket of feed in front of my horse he can stay attentive to that bucket for as long as it takes to empty the bucket.

These are just few concepts that I think people need to think about. I’m sure you can add many more.


A Horse's Fear

I hadn’t had my driver’s license very long, so driving was still a bit of a buzz for me – especially by myself. One night my folks let me borrow the car to go to a party held by some friends of some friends at Glebe in Sydney. The condition was that I drank no alcohol and was home by midnight. I wasn’t into drinking, so that was no hardship.

The party was fun and about 11:30pm I left and headed for home. I wasn’t too sure of the area, but I figured if I drove around a bit I would find a major street that would take me back to the harbour bridge and then I would be right. After a few minutes driving I started to think “where the hell was I?” I kept driving and ended up down some small one way streets that looked like nothing I knew. When I put on my indicators to turn down another street, the headlights dimmed to almost nothing. It dawned on me that the alternator has not been working and the car was working off a rapidly deteriorating battery. In fact, so bad was the situation that on the next turn the car stalled. I managed to let it roll to the kerb and off the street. I didn’t know where I was and dad’s car had broken down. I was getting a just a little bit worried.

I scanned the street and saw a phone box on the corner about 200 metres away – this was in the days before we all had mobile phones permanently grafted to our ears. I got out of the car and looked around to see if there were any dangerous types around. It was certainly not the sort of neighbourhood that a middle class suburban boy like me was familiar or comfortable spending too much time hanging around at midnight. I made a brisk sojourn towards the telephone box. When I got there I saw that it had been vandalised and was not in working order. Another burst of adrenaline was released into my system and my heart was beginning to race. This was not a good situation. I was cold, lost, alone, broken down and nervous. What was I doing here in the middle of the night?

I made my way back to the car to think about what to do next. When I got about halfway to the car four guys came around the corner towards me. They looked like locals looking for trouble. At first they were skylarking, swearing and pushing each other around. Then one of them saw me and stopped to point me out to the others. They all looked at me. I turned and started to walk back where I came from. I was sure I was in trouble. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I heard them calling out to me, but I didn’t answer. The only thing that kept me from running was that I was sure it would encourage the gang to chase me. If they did that I knew they’d catch me and beat the daylights out of me. I didn’t know what I was going to do. They kept calling and their shouts seem to be getting closer. I was scared and walked as fast as I could. I was walking so fast that I probably was going as quickly as if I was running.

When I came to the end of the street, convinced that the gang was just about caught up to me, I dashed around the corner and bumped full throttle into a middle age couple going for a walk. I was so crazed with fear that I was sure they were part of the gang there to kill me. With the shock of it all I dropped dead right there and they buried me the next week!

Some of you may not believe that is what happened or that I even died that night. And maybe you’d be right. But I bet every one of you has ridden a horse that has gone through the same or worse fears that I went through that night.

None of the things that happened to me were actually life threatening or even scary on their own when taken as individual events. At no time was my life in danger. Yet, when each unfamiliar circumstance is added to by another unfamiliar circumstance, they take on a whole different meaning to us. Things spiral out of control. It is not rational, but it is real.

If dad’s car had broken down near home and I had to walk home and came across a group of fellows walking towards me on my way home, it would not have bothered me in the least. But the unfamiliar and the lack of confidence that the unfamiliar bestows on us changes everything.

This is just as true for our horses.

How many of you have horses whose paddock this winter has been a mud bath? Yet how many of those same horses won’t ride through the mud or puddle when you take them out on a trail? What about the horse that is at a competition and flies off the handle when a dog barks, yet wouldn’t even blink an eye at the same circumstances at home?

scared horse
Think about the horse that is taken out of the paddock away from his mates. He’d like to be with his mates because he feels safe with them, but he goes along with you in any case. Then you load him onto a horse float. Now he never feels 100% comfortable in a float – especially alone. But he has done it enough times to feel he should be polite about it even if it takes you a couple of tries to get him in. He is driven along the freeway with traffic flying past. Trucks are sitting right behind him. The float is getting stuffy because there is never enough ventilation. He is away from everything that is familiar and he is by himself. You get to your destination at the showgrounds and your horse walks out of the float into a kaleidoscope of activity, smells and sights that are totally foreign to him. He spots other horses and thinks maybe they could offer some support or comfort to reassure him that things will be ok. But you drag him away from them because he has to be made presentable for his class. Your nerves and his nerves become cumulative as you take him over to the warm up ring. Horses are whizzing around and coming from all directions. The bunting is flapping, dogs are barking, people are pushing strollers. It’s all too much and your horse can longer hold his composure in check – goodbye blue ribbon.

But it doesn’t have to be something as big as going to a competition to challenge a horse’s confidence. Just leading a horse away from his paddock is enough for some to cause them to be afraid for their life. I have a horse in training at the moment that changes from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde just by putting a saddle on. This poor mare has a total personality shift because of the fear a saddle instils. Take the saddle off and she is a pleasure to handle, but put the saddle on and she grows two hands. This is not a matter of the saddle causing pain to the horse, but emotional stress. We sometimes see it has being naughty, but to the horse it is a matter of life and death.

None of us can really know how a horse feels, but we have to accept that their feelings are real. It is not fair or even good horsemanship to try to invalidate the way a horse feels by forcing them into a situation that they feel threatens their survival. There is not doubt that you can force a horse to submit to fearful circumstances, but you are only overriding his fear of one circumstance with his fear of disobeying you. It is slippery slope that is sure to fail in the long run either by causing a bigger behaviourial problem or by killing the “try” in a horse so that you never get the best that your horse has to offer.

Every time a person ignores a horse’s fears or puts the horse in a situation that the horse feels will jeopardize his safety, the horse is learning that his survival and well being are not important to the human. It is like saying to the horse “I don’t care if you are going to die, you’ll do what I tell you anyway.” If you do this enough times he will learn that he can’t trust you with his safety. You are not to be relied upon and he will try to take over in matters that make him feel anxious. It doesn’t make for a very harmonious partnership between you and your horse. In fact, it will tend to lead to a relationship that is more like a war zone and who wins will depend on the strength of will of either you or your horse.

So the message once again is to work on how your horse is feeling and not what he is doing. If you change his feelings you automatically change his responses. Good horsemanship is as simple and as hard as that.

Where Do You Learn The Basics Of Horsemanship?

Below is an article that I wrote some years ago that didn’t make it into either of my books. It tells about an experience that Walt had with a client. For those that are not familiar with the stories in my books, Walt and Amos are twin brothers aged in their late 70s. All the stories contain experiences of me as a teenage boy working at a riding school in Sydney and my relationship with the old brothers as they guide me in horsemanship. But before anybody asks me about Walt or Amos, they were not real people but instead represent people I have known in my life. I hope you enjoy the article.

I was in the middle of cleaning paddocks when I looked up and saw a very fancy truck pull into the driveway. It must have had space for 5 horses and the living space was almost bigger than my parent’s house. After I finished with the paddocks I went over to the arena and to see what was going on. Walt was talking to a lady standing next to a very large thoroughbred gelding. This horse was very fiery and couldn’t stand still. The lady had put both an anti-rearing bit and a stud chain on him and she still couldn’t get him to stand quietly. There were flames blowing out of his nostrils and every time the horse snorted the lady almost jumped.

I got as close as I could so that I could hear was being said, but without intruding.

“Well, Walt you can see how he is and he is like this almost all the time. Even at home when I lead him away from his paddock he nearly jumps on me. But it’s worse when he is at a competition. I can’t tie him up and I have to be careful not to let people walk too close because he doesn’t even know they are there and could knock them over. He is great to ride, but not safe to handle and if he doesn’t get better I’m afraid I will have to sell him because one day he might hurt somebody. I have kids and I can’t afford to get hurt.”

“Well, ma’m nobody wants to see you get hurt, least of all your horse here,” Walt said. “Would ya mind if I had a play with him?”

The lady handed Walt the two lead ropes with a look of relief. Walt rubbed the horse just enough to settle him so he could remove the bit and the stud chain and replace them with an ordinary web halter and lead rope. The horse was pretty fidgety and looking everywhere but at Walt, but he managed to get it done without too much fuss. He took two steps to the side at about a 45 degree angle from the horse, but the big thoroughbred just ignored Walt and kept looking at horses in another paddock. Maybe one second passed before we heard the noise of the tail end of lead rope hitting the ground with a loud ‘thwack’. Walt had sent the end of the lead rope smashing into the ground with a lot of energy and speed.

Almost as a reflex the lady screamed, “Don’t hurt him.”

Walt replied, “Woudn’t hurt him for the world, ma’m.”

I think the lady didn’t know what to do. She was shocked that anyone would be so strong with her horse, but unsure whether or not she should interfere. She must have decided to let Walt continue because she didn’t protest again.

Walt once again stepped to the side, but this time the horse followed him and Walt reached up to rub his forelock. As soon as Walt stopped rubbing the horse was distracted by some horses in an adjacent paddock and looked away. Walt moved away from the horse, but the horse did not seem to feel the need to concern himself with the movements of the old man. Again the horse was shocked to find himself the victim of a crazy lead rope. The next time Walt moved his feet the horse moved his too in an effort to keep track of the fellow with the lead rope. Pretty soon the horse was following Walt like a dog in an obedience class. He walked when Walt walked. He trotted when Walt hurried his feet. He stopped when Walt slowed to a stop. He turned and backed up all in response to changes in what Walt was doing. Not once did other things distract the horse and not once did he let the lead rope get tight. It was a very impressive display. The lady seemed speechless and was clearly bamboozled how such a transformation could take place.

The session with Walt and the horse continued for sometime. He talked to the lady about her horse and where the problems came from. Walt even pointed out some problems the horse had which the lady was totally unaware about, such as his sourness about being saddled and bridled. I watched for a while, but eventually had to return to my duties or risk the wrath of the boss.

Later, I went looking for Walt to tell him that I thought he did a great job with the thoroughbred.

“Well thanks matey that means a lot comin from a hand like you,” Walt said sarcastically.

“Did ya know matey that lady is a ridin teacher and she wants that horse to be a lesson horse?”

“What?” I said. “That horse is a long way from being a lesson horse. He doesn’t even know how to lead properly!”

Then I wondered about something.

“Walt, how does a person become a riding instructor and not know how to teach a horse to lead properly?” I asked.

“I don’t know matey, but it ain’t too rare. I see lots of folk, professional horse people who don’t know basic stuff. But I guess ya have to ask where do they go to learn to be good around horses? Most people have ridin lessons at some stage. And that’s a good thing. But who teaches them about the horse? It seems most people don’t consider it too important to know. These days horsemanship seems to be about how to brush ya horse and how to plait its mane and what knot to use to tie a horse up. Nothin about how to teach a horse to pay attention to ya, how to teach him to not drag on the end of the lead rope or how to teach him to go in a truck. When do kids learn how to help a timid horse be brave or an insecure horse feel secure or a rushin horse to not rush? It’s a puzzlement, matey.”

Walt was absolutely right. Recently, a lady brought her daughter’s horse to us for help. It was bucking in the transitions and the daughter had come off several times and lost her confidence. The girl had been having lessons for many months and the instructor’s response was to ride through the bucks and keep the horse forward. But the girl couldn’t ride the bucks and was becoming afraid to ride. Out of frustration the mother sent us the horse. The interesting thing was that the instructor had made no attempt to teach the horse that bucking was not necessary. When I worked the horse I showed the owners all the little problems that existed in the horse that together led to the bucking problem. The mother asked me “how do people learn about this?” I told her I didn’t know. She expressed disappointment that her instructor did not understand the horse’s problems and she was right to be concerned. Surely the daughter’s instructor had dealt with similar problems on her journey of competency and experience?

I see horses everywhere that drag on the lead rope. Why is this ok? Practically the first thing we teach a young horse is to lead. So why is it not done properly? Why do I get sent horses from instructors, judges and competitors that have such a poor understanding of the basics? Not so long ago I had a high-level dressage judge send me a horse that could not go on a float (trailer) without a fight. The reason was because the horse led so poorly. How does a person get to this level of professionalism and not only allow this but also not know about floating problems? A few years ago I had a client that competed at the highest level in this country and they wanted help with a horse that was very sour and tried to bite the owner when it was being caught, brushed, rugged, saddled, mounted and ridden. It was not a difficult behavioural problem and I could only wonder how somebody with that much experience and skill not know such basic behavioural training.

A few years ago I was asked to give a demonstration and some instruction at a pony club rally. I showed the kids how to teach their horse to lead without pulling and the horse dragging. During the lunch break I was taken aside by the president of the club who expressed concern that some of the parents and regular instructors had made about the way I was teaching the kids to lead their horses. Apparently the pony club manual allows for only one way to lead a horse and I was not teaching that way. Despite the obvious advantages in what I was teaching those kids, I was criticised and never asked back. Why is it ok for pony club to teach practices that are not only unsafe, but also detrimental to the kid’s relationship with a horse?

I don’t doubt that this article will cause more than a few raised hackles from professionals and amateurs alike, but the things I am talking about are so basic that one does not need to be a brilliant horseman to grasp them. You just need to be shown and make the effort to understand. If more people spent as much time and effort learning horsemanship as they do learning to ride, there would be a lot less remedial work for me to do.

Here is Kaitlyn getting some tips on the basics earlier this year in California.

Kaitlyn being taught some of the basics


Choosing A Suitable Horse For You

At just about every clinic I find there is at least one person who tells me that one of their major horse issues stems from their own fear. Either they have a horse that they find is more than a handful for them or they have had an accident with a horse that seared into their thoughts that every horse is dangerous. I am constantly in awe of these people who choose to repeatedly ride a horse that scares them into premature aging. I don’t think I would continue riding a horse that scared me as much as some of these folks experience. They are certainly braver than me.

So much of the time the fear comes from riding a horse that is beyond the skills of the rider. Sometimes people just make bad choices when buying a horse. I think there are different reasons for this. One of those reasons is that people over estimate their abilities.

Years ago a lady called me about a very nice Andalusian mare she had bought. She had owned the mare a few months and was finding the horse to be difficult to ride and quite reactive. She was afraid of her horse. I really liked the mare and found her to be very trainable. After I had the horse in work for a couple of weeks and was singing the praises of the mare to the owner, the owner told me she couldn’t understand why the mare was so difficult. The lady had been riding for 20 years and had owned a couple of other horses without any problems and figured the Andalusian was just one of those difficult horses. But the truth was just the opposite. The mare was terrific. The lady hadn’t appreciated that in her 20 years she had only had very easy going and tolerant horses, which had not taught her the skills she needed to be a good enough rider that the Andalusian mare needed her to be. She thought she was a better horsewoman than she was and the Andy mare was just pointing out her failings as a rider.

I also see kids graduating from their sweet child’s pony to bigger horses that are not as quite shut-down and easy going as they are use to. It seems a universal phenomenon that once a kid hits the age between childhood and adolescence they and their parents lose all ability to make good choices about the kid’s next horse. So many times when kids move from ponies to horses the wrong choice is made because they or their parents now believe they have earned their stripes to be riding a “real horse”. They credit their success on their ponies to their skills rather than the ponies filling in for them. When they start riding their “real horses” there is often a rude awakening.

So how does a person avoid buying an unsuitable horse?

Riley and Ross
I think firstly you have to define exactly what sort of horse you are looking for and why. You have to be realistic. It’s all well and good to want a horse with Olympic potential, but what’s the point if you don’t have Olympic potential? It’s all well and good to want an unbroken horse because you don’t want to inherit a horse with problems that somebody else installed. But what is the point if you don’t have the experience or ability to train a green broke horse? It’s all well and good to want to do long distance trekking, but what is the point of buying a thoroughbred that needs lots of feeding and has flat feet with thin walls?

Another issue I see with people shopping for a suitable horse is that they often fall in love with a horse at first sight, which causes blindness to whatever problems the horse may have. They become smitten. It’s not so much they don’t know the problems are there, but their love makes them irrationally hopeful that it will be sorted out. I know somebody who bought a horse that bucked when they went to try him out. Yet they still bought the horse because they hoped a good chiropractor and some rest would solve the problem. They decided it was a beautiful looking horse and they wanted him no matter what was wrong. I don’t have to tell you how badly that turned out.

Which brings me to one of the biggest pitfalls. Falling in love with a horse because it is pretty. It is very common. It is never a good idea to buy a horse for its looks, just like it is never a good idea to marry someone for their looks. Look at the horse’s brain and training before getting worried about conformation and “prettiness”. Most horses have conformation that is good enough for the purposes of most people. It is usually only when you are getting to elite levels that minor conformation problems limit the scope of performance. For most of us, our abilities as trainers and riders are a bigger limitation to performance than a horse’s conformation.

The best advice for anybody looking for a suitable horse to purchase is to have an experienced horse person (who knows your abilities) check out the horse for you. Most people get a veterinary checkup on a horse they are seriously considering buying. This makes sense and I recommend it to everybody before parting with your money. But very few people are willing to pay a professional to assess a horse and its suitability. A professional horseman can determine quite quickly if a horse will do the job you want it to do and can also gauge if your abilities and the horse’s needs are a good match. The professional is unbiased and not emotionally attached to the decision of whether to buy or not. This is why their advice is so valuable. Of course there are no guarantees, but using a good horse person for a second opinion does considerably reduce the risk of buying the wrong horse.

However, the risks are only minimized if you listen to your vet and listen to your professional assessor. I’ve done several pre-purchase assessments of horses for people and in my experience people don’t always take the advice. In fact, I’d say about 80% of people have already made up their mind before I ever saw the horse and instead of asking my unbiased opinion, they were really wanting me to confirm their choice to buy the horse. To my knowledge, in every case where a client bought a horse against my advice it was a decision they regretted. But in all the times I confirmed a horse as being suitable, only one person regretted their decision due to soundness issues that later showed up.

As I said at the beginning, many people have problems because they are afraid of their horse. Many times that fear stems from the owner and the horse not being suitable for each other. If people can make smart choices based on realistic and sound analysis; and not emotional and unrealistic evaluations there would be a lot more happy horse/rider partnerships.


Rubbing With Your Heart

What is it that we do when we first make contact with a horse; and every time from then on until the day we meet our last horse? It is in us to do from our very first contact with a horse whether we are a toddler or grandparent. We are told to do it by our teachers; whether they are a human or a horse. Yet for all this practical experience, we rarely give it a second thought. What is it?

The answer is of course a “PAT”. We pat our horses almost every time we see them. It’s often the first thing we do when we go to catch them and usually the last thing we do before letting them go. And then there are the many occasions in between when we rub our horses. But how many times have any of us questioned the why, the how and the what for of patting our horse? Why do we do it and what does it mean to the horse? It may seem obvious that patting your horse is the right and proper thing to do. It certainly seems that way to me. But until recently I never questioned and thought about the serious side of patting my horse.

For most of us I think patting our horses is a form of greeting when we first approach them. When we put them away after a ride we like to pat them as a farewell gesture. Then during a work session many of us pat our horses as a way of saying “good boy” and letting them know we are pleased with their work. But does any of this really make sense to a horse? Do we just pat our horses to make us feel good or does it have real meaning to the horse? Even if we teach him our meaning for the patting, does he or should he care that we are saying “hello”, “good bye” and “well done”? Some of my present views on the subject of patting a horse come from observations and discussions I’ve had over a long.

It began many years ago on a coolish February morning that Harry Whitney and I were devouring some French toast for breakfast with a group of people who had come from all points of the USA and even a couple from England. It was the first morning of a five day clinic and people are sometimes quiet and shy on the first day. Harry usually asked me to get some horse conversation going around the table at those times in order to break the ice among people who really don’t know each other. I would often do this by asking people something that might get them thinking about horses in the way that Harry and the participants would enjoy. On this particular morning I decided to ask about patting a horse because I really wanted to know more about this very important subject.

I asked “Why do we pat our horses? What’s so important about it? We mostly take it for granted that we should pat our horses, but why and what do horses get out of it?”

I think even Harry was a bit stunned by my question. Some of the people asked me to explain what I meant, so I did. But then people started giving fairly predictable answers.

“Well, I know my horse likes it when I pat him, so I use it as a reward when he is doing the right thing.” Someone else said, “My horse gets so itchy that I like to scratch him to make him feel good.” There were a few more similar responses. Then one lady said, “I know that patting my horse gives me confidence and helps me relax. It’s something I can do that won’t bother my horse when I am riding and feeling nervous.” This led to somebody else to suggest that patting their horse helped calm the horse as well as themselves.

Patting Riley
The conversation continued for sometime with both Harry and I sitting back and listening while everybody exchanged views. After a while there was a lull in the conversation and then somebody asked Harry what he thought. Harry didn’t give away too much and said he’d like to hear what I believed.

“Well, I’m not too sure what I believe about patting. I do think a lot of how we pat our horses is more about how we feel rather than how we want our horse to feel. You know the sort of thing where you see a rider come cantering out of the winner’s ring with ribbons adorning their horse and there they are slapping the horse’s neck as if they were beating the dust out of an old blanket. That can’t feel too good to the horse, yet people do it because it makes them feel good. But I do believe there is a way to patting your horse that can have a lot of meaning to him. I think if done in a way that really feels good to the horse you can make contact with something that is deep inside both of you. It’s a connection that can go some way to building the trust and bond that we all talk about trying to achieve. I don’t know for sure that it is real, but I feel it is. To me it’s real enough that when I get it for a moment I can almost taste the flow of warmth running between me and my horse.”

Harry responded, “I think patting your horse is no different from anything else you do with a horse. If it’s to have good meaning to the horse there needs to be a quality of patting that helps establish the connection you want with your horse. You can’t fake that quality; you can’t hide your true feelings behind the way you pat a horse. He feels the intent and emotion behind your pat.”

The conversation when on for a little longer before Harry broke it up with a suggestion that we stop talking and start riding. Everybody headed out to the stalls to gather their horses.

The next time the subject of patting a horse came up was three days later. A lady had brought a Mustang to the clinic that she had owned for a couple of years. She had a few problems with her mare, but one of the ones she mentioned on the first day was that the horse seemed to not like men. The lady said that anytime her husband tried to handle the horse the mare would get very nervous and difficult to handle. Harry asked me to ride the horse on the very first day of the clinic. The mare was a fairly nervy type, but after a few minutes on her back she settled and began to move around the arena in relaxed and comfortable. On the third day of the clinic Harry suggested that the three other fellows in the clinic handle and ride the little mustang mare in an effort to help her get better with men in her life. The owner seemed fine with this idea. What the fellows didn’t know was that Harry had spoken to all women at the clinic beforehand about what was going to happen.

The three fellows took their turn ground working and riding the mare. There was a middle age cowboy called Bill, a much younger fellow named Eric and a mechanic by the name of George. After this exercise was completed Harry suggested we all go for lunch. During the meal Harry announced to the men that they had been set up. He had schemed with the women that they should watch each of the fellows handle the mustang and pay particular attention to how they patted the horse. There was a round table conversation where Harry asked each of the women about what they had observed. The first thing that was interesting was that almost all the women had the same observations. They concluded that Eric was a little nervous and appeared tentative when he patted the horse. The result was that the horse was nervous and unsure of Eric. Bill presented himself to the horse as being sure and confident, but at the same time when he patted the horse it seemed to mean nothing to the horse. He rubbed the horse on the brow, but was firm and rough. The women concluded that the horse didn’t appear to like this at all. This was in contrast with George. George was quiet, but confident around the horse, but most of all he rubbed the horse on the brow in a way they appeared to cause the horse to melt into his hand. They described it as if George was comforting a child after it had a bad dream. All the women felt they could see that the way George patted the horse made a connection within the horse that neither of the other two men achieved. They said the horse seemed to settle easier and was finally relaxed to be in George’s company.

Long after the clinic was over I kept thinking about patting a horse and what it means. I no longer tell people to pat their horse. Instead, I suggest they “love on” their horse or they “rub their horse with their heart.” What I mean by this is that they should not just pat him mindlessly or that they should rub him like a burnt pot to be scoured. Instead, they should try to make contact in a way really matters to them and their horse. I don’t know for certain what exactly stroking a horse with your heart does for the horse, but I am pretty sure that there is a way of patting or rubbing a horse that makes a big difference to the way a horse feels inside.

Roger and Ben

horse cam

When I was a young fellow I was very serious about show jumping. And I had good success and plenty of ribbons to show for it too. Later in life I gave up competition because I found a new passion of working to help horses feel better and jumping no longer became important to me. I didn’t work at it like I did with my horsemanship. But when I turned into a professional trainer people who were having problems with their jumping horses would sometimes ask me for help.

There was a bloke who had a very talented and nice horse that he nicknamed Ben. Roger had no problem with Ben clearing jumps but he did have problems between the jumps. Ben would struggle to maintain a rhythm and would often run out on the turns. When Ben was in front of a jump you could rely on him, so combinations were easy for him. But getting him to the jump of an unrelated fence was never easy.

Roger had been getting help from a professional jumping coach for a few months. He had Ben working over grids and plenty of combinations. Which worked fine at home, but didn’t seem to be helping at an event. In frustration Roger sought me out.

After watching Roger working his horse around a course, I said I thought he needed more flat work and less jumping. Roger was a bit dubious about that idea, but I told him I’d like to work with Ben to show him some spots I thought he should see.

I first rubbed Ben on the forelock like I was trying to feel how soft his hair was. Then I picked up the lead rope and held Ben under the chin by the clip. The horse threw his head up, but I kept some pressure to urge it down. Ben dropped his head to wither height and then shift his weight back, but did not move his feet. I saw his weight leaning back and I held firm to bring his weight forward. Ben tried to take a step back and raised his head, but I clucked and just as Ben leaned forward again I held on the clip relaxed and Ben lowered his head again. There was no movement of the feet, but I was working on Ben’s mind. This went on for a few minutes and suddenly Ben melted into my hand. I asked him to step back, step forward, side step to the left, right, look left, move his shoulder left, look right, move his shoulder right. I was able to direct Ben with just a feather light touch of the halter rope and the horse happily complied with no sign of resistance or delay and no lifting of his head. It was like I was pushing a cloud around.

Then I asked Ben to lunge around me on the lead rope. Same result. Ben started out crooked and dragging out through his shoulder. I did enough to draw his attention into the centre of the circle where I stood quietly. This happened 3 or 4 times and soon Hank walked a perfect round circle with a drape in the lead rope. I could go on and on about what I did and what Ben did, but what I felt was that I could do less and Ben could give more. I knew I was getting a change in his thoughts. I told Roger that if Ben couldn’t go around on a nice circle at the end of a rope there wasn’t much hope of him going around a circle when he was on Ben’s back.

I asked for the bridle. In Ben’s usual manner he threw his head up when I brought the bit up. I asked for him to relax and waited. The bridle went on with a minimum of fuss. I then repeated what I had done on the lead rope with my hand under Ben’s chin.

Finally I go on and rode him around for a bit. Everything looked soft and relaxed, but I knew it wasn’t. I talked to Roger about what I was feeling and doing as I rode so that he could get a picture of the intent behind the work I was doing.

“If you watch carefully you’ll see I ask your horse to let go off the feel on the left rein. There! Did you see it? See how the horse glanced left and lowered his head a fraction. Watch again. See his shoulder followed his nose this time and now I’m asking him to glance right. There! Your horse gave. “

I told Roger when I was about to pet Ben and when I was going to get him to back up. I told him when I was going to be firmer and when I would release more; and I told him why I was doing these things.

Finally I asked Ben for a canter.

“I want to show you what this horse needs when you jump him.”

I came around the bottom corner of the paddock, heading up the hill towards the jumps. Suddenly, I was backing Ben from his canter. Ben threw his head violently and almost toppled backwards. I kept backing him until Ben took the weight out of the reins and his back lifted rather than his head. I pushed back into the canter, but they hadn’t gone 2 strides before I shut him down again and stepped his shoulders to the left from the backup. Ben stepped his front end across, but I asked for another one and another one.

“Ben is drifting out to the right on the corner. I asked him to get back between the reins, but he isn’t listening. I told him “NO!” and backed him up and lifted his front end to the left. But Ben was still leaning on the reins and still had his head up and his back hollow even though he did step his front to the left. I said “NO!” again. I’m waiting until Ben softens, lowers his head, raises his back and steps politely to the left with his shoulders. There! See it? It isn’t perfect, but it’s a change. It’s no longer good enough that he just did it; he’s got to do it with less resistance and feeling okay about it. Whatever I ask Ben to do isn’t good enough if there’s a fight in it.”

I wasn’t sure if I was talking a foreign language to Ben or not. I continued to ride Ben each stride asking for correctness and softness every stride. Every time Ben looked left when asked to go right, I was fixing it. Any time Ben thought about getting quicker or slower, I fixed it before it happened. When Ben bowed his ribs against my leg, it was addressed. When Ben offered more feel on one rein than the other, I took care of it. There was so much going on it was hard to keep up my running commentary for Roger.

I don’t think Roger expected it when I lined Ben up for three-foot oxer and took it like it was a ground pole. I turned him right onto a triple bar. Hank turned like a well-trained dressage horse in an arena and cleared the fence with no bother. The rhythm before and after the fence was the same it had been before the oxer. he had never seen Ben so “together” and trying so hard.

I relaxed the reins and trotted Ben over towards Roger and I wondered if Roger could see me fixing a little waywardness as we approached.

“Do you think that looked better,” I asked?

“I don’t think I can do that,” he said.

“Maybe, maybe not. But you can start with knowing what you are missing. Your instructor is teaching you to use poles to try to trick the horse into being right. He’s teaching the horse to listen to the poles and depend on the poles to make him rhythmical and correct. But that isn’t helping when the poles aren’t there. You go to a show and the horse doesn’t know what to do because the poles aren’t there to tell him how to be.

“What’s missing in the training is attention to the little things. The things that on the surface appear to not matter to us, but aren’t so insignificant to your horse. Whenever he leaned on the lead rope or the reins I said to him “that’s not going to work – don’t do it.” When I put him on the lunge circle or when I rode him around that bottom corner and he leaked out of the turn, I told him “that’s not going to work – make a change young Benjamin.” When I came over here just now and he drifted away from the line I was riding, I had to remind him where that line was. I wasn’t going to let him take another step forward until he got back on that line. When he put his head up at the bridle, I didn’t ignore it – I changed how he felt about that and got his neck to relax.

“These little things are important because when you put them all together they make up the big thing. So if the little things aren’t right, then the big thing can’t be right. That’s when you hit a brick wall and don’t make much progress with your horse. Once your basics of stopping, going and turning are established then your progress is determined by how much attention you pay to the little things. If you take care of the little things your horse can fulfill his natural potential. But if you don’t fix the little things you’re stuck with a fraction of what your horse has to give in a world of ordinary.”

I asked Roger if he would like to ride Ben for a bit and I would help him feel some of the things I was talking about. But he declined because didn’t have enough time. That was the one and only lesson I had with Roger and Ben. I never knew what happened to them.


Things Our Horses Think

This a long video (47mins), but the author makes some good points and if you have the time and bandwidth, it is worth watching.


The Betrayal Of Goldie

"He is worse today than he has been in a long time," she said. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

The fact was that the lady had not been doing anything she hadn't done a million times before. That was why she couldn't understand why her horse had so much resistance in him today. I knew why he was like he was, but I couldn't tell her. It was my fault. As I watched her working with her horse on the transitions, on her forwardness, on her bend in the circles, on pushing the beach ball around with the horses nose, on backing up, on standing on a pedestal etc., I knew I had betrayed her horse. I felt bad because I knew the horse felt bad inside and it was my fault.

The lady in her seventy something years came to a five-day clinic I held some years back. She was one of six people ranging in years from nineteen to seventy plus. Some of them had thirty years of experience and others were just getting started. Everybody came with their own horse and each had particular issues for which they wanted my help.

Cremello horse
The lady in this story had travelled several hours with her horse to come to the clinic because as much as she loved her cremello fellow, it was getting close to being his last chance. She had told me that Goldie was always looking elsewhere when she rode him and he could be quite spooky on the trail. But the thing that worried her most was that he would have a bucking storm every two or three rides on the trail. He never did it in the arena, but it was a semi-regular occurrence on trail rides. She figured that at her age riding bucking horses was getting to be tiresome and dangerous to her brittle bones.

During the early part of the week, I had the lady work Goldie in the round yard at liberty. It was pretty clear from the start that Goldie had ideas about what should be happening and he was reluctant to give up those ideas when the owner suggested an alternative idea. It seemed to me that Goldie got the idea that he needed to go in a certain direction at a certain speed and if the lady tried to change his idea about that he got a little panicky and tried to push through with his idea. I figured this was because Goldie felt secure with his own ideas and didn't feel safe at all when somebody tried to apply pressure to change those ideas.

I tried to explain to Goldie's owner that the problems she was having with her horse stemmed from Goldie's inability to trust her to present him with different ideas to his own that would not threaten his safety. A lot of the time that she asked Goldie to make a change, Goldie saw it as a threat to his survival. This would lead to Goldie doing whatever he felt he needed to do feel safe again. He was doing nothing wrong. He was just doing what nature programmed him to do – be safe and survive.

For three days we worked on softening Goldie's attitude towards his owner. I guided her through the ground and ridden work both in the round yard and larger arena. It was a struggle at first for the lady to get the mix of her energy and timing just right so that Goldie could make the changes we needed to help him. However, by the third day there was noticeable improvement in the horse and the owner. They were getting along much better and Goldie was trying very hard to trust this newly reformed owner.

On the Thursday morning, with only two days left of the clinic, I asked each student what they wanted to work on for the day. Goldie's owner was the first to pipe up. She said that she could see that Goldie was making progress, but felt there were still some hurdles in their relationship that didn't make her trust Goldie enough to ride her when they got home. She asked if I would work him today and help iron out some of those remaining sticky spots. I thought about it for a few seconds and then agreed. I figured that I could probably make enough difference that she would see that Goldie was able to be a really good horse and then maybe she would learn to trust him.

I worked Goldie as I had been trying to teach the lady to work him. Initially, Goldie was pretty stuck again with his own ideas about things. But within 20 minutes or so he really started to respond. Within an hour Goldie was as soft as melted butter. The owner was duly impressed and had a big smile on her face. I was so pleased to see both horse and owner happy that I knew I had done the right thing in riding the horse for her. Goldie had worked hard enough that day and was put away while I turned my attention to the other students.

The next morning another lady at the clinic approached me before the others arrived. She was a very experienced horsewoman and had been to other clinics. We knew each other fairly well. We chatted for a while about nothing in particular, but it was obvious that there was something on her mind. Eventually there was an awkward silence that followed the idle chat. She broke the void when she said, "Ross, can I ask you something about Goldie?"

"Sure," was my response.

"Why did you work Goldie yesterday instead of getting the owner to work her?"

"Well, she asked me to and besides I thought it might get the breakthrough she has been desperately seeking with Goldie."

The lady thought for a minute and there seemed to be nervousness in her voice. "I was impressed with the changes you got in Goldie and I could see he felt a lot better inside after you had worked him. But I can't help but wonder if you did him any favours."

"What do you mean," I asked?

"Don't get me wrong, but I felt that what you did today did nothing to help Goldie's owner be better with Goldie. All you did was show her what was possible, but she doesn't have what you have to make it happen. But what worries me even more is that now Goldie knows it can feel better with somebody else. But his owner can’t offer that better feeling to him. Do you think that when a blind man is allowed to see for just a minute, then you take away his sight away again that you are doing him a favour or are you betraying him?"

I didn't know the answer to her question. She made a good point - one that I hadn't considered very much. But her words echoed in my mind later when the owner rode up to me and said, "He is worse today than he has been in a long time. I don't know what I'm doing wrong." Maybe my friend was right. Was Goldie worse today because I had betrayed him? I had shown him a glimpse of how it could feel to work with a human then taken that good feeling away. Was that fair? Did I do the wrong thing?

It was from that time that I realized the responsibility I had to make changes in the riders and not just changes in the horses. It's hard to do. Horses are much more pliable and open minded than people. But if I was to keep the promise I made to myself to do my best to avoid betraying a horse again, then I had to do my best to help owners see what was going on inside their horses. It was obvious to me then that it is more important that I am a good teacher than a good horseman. I don't want owners to betray their horses either.

Horse Rushing Off A Trailer

I received an email from a lady asking for advice regarding a problem with her horse rushing out of her trailer. I see this problem a lot, so I thought I’d post my response to her on this page in the hope it might give other people with similar issues a few thoughts to consider.

Hi Ross

I am struggling with a horse that actually will hurt herself to get off the trailer. I have a fair bit of experience with this and usually can work it out with the horse BUT this horse has me stumped.

I have tried two different trailers straight load and slant load no difference.
She goes on well enough but as soon as you release her for the back she looses it mentally and smashes her head (poll) and panics not necessarily in that order.

I have not let this process escalate but it hasn't gotten any better. I work both from the inside and the outside of the trailer but that doesn't seem to make any difference, tried two lines one to steady her and one to guide her (to keep her from turning and getting stuck) and everything else that I have done before. I have been working with her quite a while with ground work and she has come along well but something happens inside the trailer.

I am afraid she is really going to damage herself so I have stopped trying with the trailer work.

I know this ask is a long shot but maybe you might have some form of input that will help. I understand without seeing her in the situation it's almost impossible but it's worth a chance to ask.
- Leslie

In all likelihood your problem stems from the horse putting more importance in escaping the trailer than trying to stay connected to you. There could be a dozen reasons for why she feels the need to flee out of the trailer, but in the end the reason isn’t going to make too much difference to how you handle it. All you really need to know is if her rushing is caused by her worry.

Trailer loading is normally no more than a leading exercise. The better your horse leads, the better she will load on and off the trailer. My horses have never had a trailer-loading lesson; yet they all load really well because they have had a heap of leading lessons. By “better leading” I really mean that your horse is focused on you and following your feel. Remember, directing a horse’s feet always should begin with directing their thought.

Therefore the first approach I might consider is to get your horse leading better. This might mean asking for her to move one foot at a time; carefully and deliberately. Anytime she moves more than you ask, correct her and put her back at the place it started to go wrong.

When it comes to loading on and off a trailer I usually begin by being in front of the horse and have it walking towards me as I walk backwards into the trailer. I begin by asking for one foot on the ramp or onto the trailer floor and have the horse stop. I don’t let it take more than one foot. Then when it is settled, I might ask for it to step the foot back again. It is very important that with each movement of the foot that the horse stops and does no more than I asked. It is also important that I wait until the horse is calm and settled before asking for another step. If the horse is fidgety, I wait before asking it to move again. This helps a horse learn to become attentive to me and to wait until I ask for something else. Horses can quickly get it into their minds that their job is to go into the trailer and then go out just because it becomes a routine and highly predictable. But in doing that we teach them to just do the job and not stay focused on us. So when they get an idea to rush out, we can’t stop them because they are not attentive. This exercise is about getting a horse’s attention throughout the entire process of loading and unloading in a trailer.

Peggy loading Bella Rose
So when you get the first step in and out, try asking for a second step. But make sure after the first step, you stop your horse and wait until she is settled before asking for another step. If she tries to push past you and take more than a step, block her and ask to go back to where you wanted her. Don’t let her take more steps than you asked.

Once she walked in two steps (one step at a time), then ask her to back out again (one step at a time). If she rushes back, bring her back in to the spot where she started to rush as soon as you can – don’t hesitate – straight back to the spot. Then try again. Keep trying until there is no rushing and you can direct her to move each foot, one at a time – in or out of the trailer.

Use this same procedure over and over again. When she gets comfortable and more reliable with each new achievement, go the next step of asking her to into the trailer a further step. Then come out one step at a time. At any time you should be able to stop her and ask her to come forward or back up by just touching the lead rope. If she is attentive and waiting for your next cue, she’ll wait to see what you are going to ask and then respond softly.

Eventually you’ll be able to get her to load into the trailer without hesitation and come out without rushing. It takes practice and repetition just like any teaching process. The more you reinforce the exercise the more reliable she will become. But remember, anytime she rushes out, send her back in and start again – moving her feet one step at a time.

With time, you can begin to teach her to self-load as she becomes more reliable. But even if she does self-load you never want to lose the ability to stop her at any time and change your mind about whether she goes in or out of the trailer and how fast she does it.

The thing to keep in mind is that trailer loading is not about teaching a horse to go into the trailer and come out again. It’s about having the horse’s attention on you to see what you might ask and being able to direct her mind first, followed by her feet.


From time to time I am asked why do I do ground work with a horse that is already broken to ride. I particularly remember one lady who was a spectator at a clinic and had a horse that she competed regularly in dressage. She said she had no need to lead him over tarpaulins and see-saws. He led well, loaded into a float with no fuss and competed successfully. She said she can give him all he needs to know when ridden, so why would she bother with doing things on the ground? Ground work seemed to have very little relevance to her. But I knew from history that she lunged her horse almost before every ride.

“Let me ask, do you ride a circle in your dressage tests?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” was the reply.

“How does he do with his circles?”

“He does fine. He gets pretty good scores at the walk and trot and his canter is getting better,” she said.

“If he already knows how to circle under saddle why do you lunge him?” I asked.

She explained to me that lunging was different to doing hindquarter yields and walking backwards over a pole. I said that I didn’t think it was any different and that the purposes of both were the same. The discussion went on for a little time.

To quote Amos from my book Old Men and Horses, “Matey, ya don’t have to get ya ground work perfect to get along with ya ridin work. In fact, ya don’t even have to do ground work. And ground work don’t make anythin in ya saddle work perfect. But what I do know is that if ya ground work ain’t good, ya ridin work ain’t as good as it could be.”

For years I sort of accept that I needed to do ground work to get my horses ready for the ridden work. I never really questioned it because it just became part of what I did with horses – like bridling from the left hand side. But as I got older and began to have clients and held clinics I was getting asked a lot about why do we do ground work and what is ground work. It made me re-think the whole issue all over again and question what ground work entails and why do we do it. The short answer is that Amos was absolutely right. Ground work is important in getting the best from a horse. It may not be important in doing ok with a horse, but it is important to getting the best a horse has to give.

Why would be this so?

Most people who question the need for ground work are people who have never really studied it and made a solid attempt to add it to their work. They don’t know what it is (except for maybe seeing the occasional Parelli or some other trainer’s video) and they don’t understand why they should waste valuable saddle time doing liberty work in a round yard or backing a horse around barrels or teaching hindquarter yields from the halter.

There are many reasons for doing ground work. There are the immediately practical reasons such as lunging to teach rhythm and balance; or teaching higher movements in hand such as piaffe and Spanish walk in preparation for riding these movements; or teaching a difficult horse to load onto a horse float (trailer) without difficulty; teaching them to stand while being hosed down or plaited; or teaching them to lead past others horses without jumping all around us.

The use of ground work in these circumstances is self evident to most people and even the non-believers will use a certain amount of ground work to get a job done like having a horse stand for the farrier. But for many it is really about using ground work as a means to an end. If we have a horse that is troubled about float loading, we tend to focus on getting the horse “float trained”. We lead him up to the float and work and work at convincing him to walk forward up that ramp. We usually do this until one of us gives up first. But we don’t see the value of teaching liberty work or leading work or backing ever poles as having anything to do with float loading. The connection between not wanting to go into a tin cave on wheels and having trouble walking backwards over a pole off a halter is a little obscure for many of us. However, in truth the connection is very real because the change in thought that a horse needs to make to back over a pole is similar to the change in thought he needs to make to walk into a float.

This brings me to the reasons for doing ground work that fit into the “not immediately practical, but long term beneficial” category. I have discussed before that in my view good training is nothing more than directing a horse’s thoughts. By this I mean that if we can do something that directs a horse to think something, doing that something becomes easier because a horse is always trying to follow his strongest thought. If we can’t direct his thought, then getting him to do what we want will be full of resistance. For example, if I pick up my left rein to turn left and the horse takes his thought to the left, the rein contact will be light and the horse’s feet and body will be responsive. But if when I pick up my left rein the horse is thinking to the right because his friends are in the paddock on the right, then he will lean on the rein and be dull and relatively unresponsive in his feet and body.

The ability to direct a horse’s thoughts is an indication of the relationship you have with your horse. Gaining and directing a horse’s attention towards a picture of softness, without tension, is a testament to a good relationship. Having said that, many horses work on autopilot. They perform a job because they know that job, not because they are putting much mental effort into performing. There are examples of this everywhere you see horses that have been drilled with exercises. The horse’s attention on the handler is minimal but the horse performs satisfactorily. You even see instances where a horse will mentally tune out the human and perform the routine they have come to learn. In my view these are very sad horses and often it is difficult to change their feelings towards people. It is a lot easier to start a horse’s life with quality work than to have to re-train after damage has been done.

Where ground work has its advantages over purely riding is that for most horses it is a lot easier to find a connection with a human that is standing near him. Most horses lose that connection when a person is on their back and it can take quite a long time to establish it if there has been no ground work to help establish it in the early stages. How many of you have ridden horses that refuse to cross a puddle, but when you dismount and lead them they don’t fuss much about the puddle? It’s that connection of you being on the ground and taking the role of leader that helps them. And when that gets better it is a lot easier to transfer that into the saddle work than if it had never been established through ground work.

There is no doubt that ground work when done well is highly beneficial in teaching a horse to follow one’s thought. Fundamental to good ground work is teaching and directing a horse’s focus. It doesn’t matter whose school of ground work you follow or whether you use a round yard, a rope halter, a lariat, a lunge line and cavesson, a whip or a flag. What is important about ground work is that you understand the basis of its aim and recognise when it is correct and when it is not correct. Just like riding, there is a lot of poor ground work being performed every day by both professional and amateurs, so the benefit of ground work is only as good as the quality of the work.

As an aside, I later learned that the lady that had said she had no need of ground work had been run over by her horse a few years before and had broken her leg.

What Is A Trick?

What is a trick? When somebody says they have taught their horse to perform tricks, most of us think of teaching a horse to bow or lay down or carry a something in their mouth or walking on their back legs etc. We tend to consider these things as tricks because they are have no innate purpose other than to entertain us. Every horse expo around the world usually has a trainer with his horses performing tricks at liberty to the applause and wonderment of the crowd. Trainers like Tommy Turvey, Lorenzo “The Flying Frenchman”, and Guy McLean make a good living from these performances. When I was a kid my folks took me to the circus where I watched in amazement monkeys riding on the backs of white ponies and horses twirling a pirouette while standing on their hind legs. Everybody loves a good trick performance.


But to the more educated horse lover, tricks are often looked down upon. Training a horse to rear does not have the same prestige as training a horse to levade for many people. Training a horse to stand on a pedestal is not as worthy an objective as training a horse to perform a square halt. Training horses to work in pairs at liberty does not have the same credibility as training horses to perform a pas de deux. There is without question a degree of snobbery about trick training versus training “proper” movements. In fact, I have heard people remark that teaching a horse tricks is degrading and disrespectful to horses. But teaching them dressage or jumping or team roping etc has a lot of merit in comparison to teaching tricks.

Before I get on to the reason I am writing this and the real point I want to make, let me say that in the mind of a horse there is no difference between having to learn tricks and having to learn “legitimate” movements. A horse does not discern the difference or make a judgment on the merit of learning to jump into a moving horse trailer or over an oxer fence at a show. It’s all the same to him. It’s only people that make judgments about which has merit and which does not. Horses do not hold prejudices or make value judgements on the type of work we do with them. That’s a human thing.

But what I really want to mention is my opinion (well it is my page) on what I define as a trick. I don’t consider that just because an exercise is not listed in “The Handbook Of Approved Legitimate Equine Pursuits” circa 1933 (if there was such a thing ☺) that it is or is not a trick. My own definition of a trick does not relate to whether the exercise is something that is seen in competition or in a circus. Either can be a trick or not a trick in my view. In fact the circus horse performing a rear can have better training than a dressage horse performing a levade. The notion of whether something is a trick or not is not in the exercise.

Any time there is a separation between a horse’s thoughts and feelings and what he is doing, it is a trick. To me, a trick is any movement or exercise where a horse is not emotionally invested in doing the best he can. A trick is when the elements of focus, clarity and softness are missing or poorly instilled in a horse.

Horses are very good at learning a routine and they can learn a movement while still be doing it on “auto-pilot”. Their feet can be doing exactly what the rider is asking, but their minds can be thinking about something else.

At clinics I often see horses performing tricks while being lunged or performing a dressage movement or a reining spin or a canter lead change or being mounted and saddled. Even a horse coming up to a person in a paddock or hooking on in a round yard can be a trick. People don’t see that because all they see is a horse approaching them or following them and because the horse does this without ropes or whips they assume the horse wants to do it. But of course this is very often not true. A horse can learn these things are part of his lot in life without having an emotional investment in making it work out the best he can.

It’s a tricky thing to be talking about tricks when I do a clinic. Very often people have the notion that their horse is doing great and it upsets them to hear that they have only taught him the trick of moving his feet. This can be very confronting to a rider who has worked hard to teach their horse to move his feet.

So how do you avoid exercises becoming “tricks”? I spend a lot of time at my clinics talking about and demonstrating the need for a mental and emotional change that must come in a horse before the change in the feet. It’s only when the horse changes inside first and on the outside second that the exercise does not become a trick. If your work gives priority to what the horse’s feet are doing you are doomed at best to have a submissive horse that only knows a lot of tricks. Anytime a change comes in the feet and body before a change in the thought and feelings, there is trouble inside a horse. The secret to avoiding a horse learning a series of learned tasks that he performs with poor feelings and only partial focus is to give priority to the horse’s mental and emotional state first and the exercise second. If you can do that, then everything you do from catching to half-pass side steps the trap of becoming a “trick”.


Fixing A Problem

Over all the years I was training horses for the public, there was hardly a week passed when the phone would not ring with somebody asking for a solution to fixing their horse from bucking or rearing or refusing to load into a trailer or pulling back when tied up or whatever sort of problem you can think of. When we strike a problem with a horse that leaves us baffled how to deal with it we tend to just want it fixed. We want the issue eliminated and gone forever. We want to never have to deal with it again.

When your car is running rough you take it to a mechanic to fix. You never want to have to deal with the issue again. The mechanic tells you that the problem is that you’ve been buying fuel contaminated with water. He tells you to stop buying the cheap fuel and instead you should buy another brand of fuel to avoid the problem coming back.

Let’s be clear what has happened here. Your mechanic did not eradicate the problem. He did not fix your car so it will never run rough again. He just cleaned out the water problem. Your car will still run rough when it is run on contaminated fuel. That issue has not been fixed. What your mechanic has done is address some of the damage done to the fuel filter. He drained your fuel tank and lines and put good quality fuel in your car. But he never made the car any more reliable when you use contaminated fuel. If we want to stop the problem from coming back we have to change our behaviour and stop buying the cheaper fuel. If we keep buying the same cheap fuel the problem will return pretty soon.

Fixing horses is like fixing a car running on bad fuel. We notice behaviours in our horses that are problems. We decide that we must fix the bucking or bolting or whatever. We then develop strategies to fix the problems. This is where we have the opportunity to make 2 broad choices. We can either do something that stops the behaviour or we can address something about the reason for the behaviour. We can clean out the fuel filter of our horse and keep buying cheap fuel or we can clean out the fuel filter and stop buying cheap fuel. One strategy addresses the symptoms and the other the cause.

I have to say that in my experience most people just want their horse to stop misbehaving. Most owners are less interested in why the behaviour occurs as they are in how to stop it. Stopping the behaviour is the most important objective for most horse owners. Likewise, most horse trainers also are more interested in stopping bad behaviour irrespective of the cause. Among owners and trainers, the universal measure of a problem being fixed is that the behaviour stops. Once a horse is no longer bucking or biting or walking away when being mounted we declare the problem is fixed and we are satisfied. Once our horse has passed the test of behaving as we want him to behave we don’t give it a second thought that the problem might persist and be still lurking deep inside our horse.

When I was a high school student I never did well in the subjects I loved like physics, maths and chemistry. This was largely because I have all my life had a dodgy memory. In any test where I was required to memorize large volumes of information, I struggled. My teachers thought I was a bright kid, but was just not academically inclined. But what they failed to understand was that I struggled in exams because I couldn’t remember formula in physics and chemistry. When other kids were writing down the answers they got when they plugged the numbers into Boyle’s Law (PV=k), I was actually deriving Boyle’s Law from first principles before I plugged in the numbers. By the time everyone else had finished the test I was still working on question 3. Even though this meant I did poorly on the test results, it also meant I had a better understanding of the subject than the kids that just memorized the work. The other students had a better memory and did well in those subjects. They behaved as the teachers wanted. Their good test results told the teachers those kids had no problems with the subject. But the problem was that many of those kids did not understand the subjects very well, they just behaved as required.

The thing a lot of horse owners, trainers, instructors and gadget makers don’t understand is that a problem is never fixed. The behaviour we want to eliminate is never eliminated. It is always inside our horse. A horse that bites can always have the potential to bite. But when working through a problem like biting the job is to prevent the ill feelings that caused the biting to be triggered. Take away the feelings in a horse that make him think biting is necessary and the biting does not surface. But the instant somebody comes along and triggers those feelings again the horse will begin to bite once more.

There are a lot of techniques and devices designed to stop specific behaviour or enforce other behaviours. People try to make an undesirable behaviour such a bad deal for a horse that they instill a fear in a horse of expressing himself. The buck-stopper is one such gadget that comes to mind. Using a buck-stopper causes a horse so much pain when he tries to express his concern that he becomes afraid to buck.

Some methods are designed to create a submission in a horse such as driving a horse around a round pen to get him to come into a person and follow them around. But all this does is teach a horse to accept the futility of expressing his worries.

These devices and these methods do nothing to try to eliminate the cause of the problem. They simple try to suppress behaviour and make a horse obedient and submissive.

I have to say that I feel frustrated and sad that we are still at the stage of our understanding of horsemanship where the test of whether or not things are going well is how a horse passes the test of obedience and submission. I don’t know if it will ever change or if it will how we will get there. I know we are all doing the best we can, but I almost think that popular success as a trainer is becoming a measure of how far we have to go rather than how far we have come.


Factors That Go Into Trainability

How many times do you need to repeat an exercise before a horse has got it? This is a tough question to answer and maybe there is no answer. I know a trainer in Australia that has stated it takes 7 repetitions for a horse to know the answer. I have heard another trainer say it is more like 21 repetitions (why do these guys choose multiples of 7). But if there is an answer it will involve so many different factors that “it depends” is probably as close to a correct answer as any of us will get.

If you know anything about me as a horseman you can possibly imagine that first on my list of variables that will factor into the equation are focus, clarity and softness. The more focus a horse has on what is being asked, the more clarity a horse has as to what is being asked and the softer he feels inside, the quicker and easier it will be for a horse to learn. To me this seems self-evident.

Another really important factor is the eagerness with which a horse will search for an answer. The more important it is to a horse to find a way out of pressure, the harder he will search. In general I find sensitive types are more motivated to search for answers than the more stoic horses. People often think of sensitive horses as being intelligent because when we are clear, they find the answers quickly. But I sometimes think that sensitivity and intelligence get muddled in people’s mind. It’s not that more emotionally stable horses are less intelligent; it’s just that they have a lower level of motivation to find a way out of pressure. They are not nearly as troubled by a request from people, so they might take their time in searching for an answer. A horse that is eager to search for an answer normally requires less repetition to cement an idea in his head than one that is less interested in searching.

One of the biggest factors in a horse’s readiness to explore a different behaviour (and that sort of goes hand-in-hand with the incentive to search) is how important a horse feels his survival is dependent on doing what he has always done. The stronger a horse senses doing what he has always done is the thing that keeps him safe and alive, the less ready he is to search for alternative answers. This goes along with my observation that it can take a lot more repetition of an exercise to establish a new pattern in horses like this.

Past experience can be a huge factor in the trainability of a horse. It is very easy to kill a horse’s incentive to search for new behaviours by always criticizing every answer he offers that is not the exact correct answer. People talk about rewarding the smallest try, but I have found many people don’t really have a clear idea in their minds what a try from a horse really feels like. Either they reward a behaviour that was more of an evasion than a try OR they reward something that was a try weeks earlier, but is no longer a try OR they wait until the horse offers a huge try and miss rewarding all the hundreds of little tries that happened while they were waiting. The confusion that can develop in a horse can eventually lead to shutting down and even a feeling of futility that absolutely destroys a horse’s interest in searching. A horse that has learned to be like that can be very hard work and frustrating.

Harry Whitney has used the phrase “As they are started, so they go,” many times. I take that to mean that the way a horse gets started on a project (any project from first time being caught to first experience at the Olympics) has a huge influence on the way he handle things the rest of his life. It is a horse’s first experience with something that sets him up for either having a strong sense to search for answers or to damage the motivation to search. This is why I believe prior training is important in determining trainability in horses. It’s not that a horse cannot be re-programmed if he has learned to stop searching. But a lot more repetitions and a lot more time are required for the new patterns to become established.

Horses like predictability and are very good at creating patterns of behaviour. I’ve come across some horses that will repeat a pattern to the point where the soles of their hooves are bleeding from wear and they had to be forcibly made to stop their pattern. For whatever reason they felt repeating the same behaviour over and over despite the pain and trauma it caused them was still their best option. To me that is a reflection of both how little their minds searched for alternative responses and how strongly they viewed their pattern as being the only choice they had to surviving.

When we have a horse that we feel just doesn’t “get it” and each day we feel we have to begin as if we had not done any previous work with him, the frustration can cause us to believe we are dealing with the stupidest horse on the planet. I’ve had horses in training that I felt in a village full of idiots, they were the village idiot. But I’ve come to appreciate that it doesn’t work so simply with horses. It’s not necessarily true that just because we have horse that is really slow to change that we have a dumb horse. Too many variables influence how quickly a horse picks up new responses and intelligence is not usually the major deciding variable.

Many years ago I had a client that owned a WB cross. At one point in a session I was working on the ground trying to get the horse to offer a soft hindquarter yield, without leaning on my hand, no rushing, a correct bend etc. But the horse really struggled and constantly was stiff through his body and trying to the reef the lead rope from my hand. It took about 15mins to get one good try from the horse. The owner was watching and appeared to be frustrated by the slow change. He asked me, “Why is he not yielding? Is he just stupid or what?” I explained that the horse was not stupid at all, but he had a strong pattern and habit and it worried him a lot to give up his pattern of response. He kept resisting me because that’s what he knows to do. The owner seemed unconvinced by my answer and made a comment that he thought he had bought a stupid horse.

A little while later in the session I had the owner ride the horse. I reminded the owner to keep their hands down closer to the pommel of the saddle instead up near their chest. The owner would lower their hands, but within seconds the hands would creep higher again. Every few minutes I had to remind the owner to lower their hands again. This went on throughout the ride until after I had told them about the 15th time I said calmly, “Lower your hands again. Are you just stupid or what?” Instead of being offended I saw instantly on their face that they had a light bulb moment.

lone ranger


Changing Their Thought

At a recent clinic I got into a discussion with a spectator during a lunch break about the importance of moving a horse’s feet in order to get to their mind. It’s not a concept I really push or totally endorse, but it seemed important to the spectator. I have thought a lot about why so many trainers place so much emphasis on controlling a horse’s feet as a means of controlling their minds. I’ve talked about this in the past, but it might be worthwhile re-visiting the topic of why people think training is about moving the feet of a horse.

If you look at the way many people use a round yard to get a horse to hook on or do join up, its by driving a horse around the yard. It seems most schools of training that try to get a horse to join up use the technique of moving a horse until he gives up. Its as if by moving a horses feet they will want to be with the person.

Consider the message that many people took home from Ray Hunt’s clinics. Lets look at a couple of Ray’s most often quoted sayings

“Get the life in your body, through his mind and down to his feet.”


“Get the feet soft and they’ll be soft in the head.”

Many people took these sayings to mean that if you could control the horse’s feet you can control his mind. What I want to mention here is why I think people believe the secret to controlling a horse’s mind is by controlling his feet. I feel kind of stupid about this because the answer if sort of obvious and one of those things we all know in the back of our minds, but are always not fully formed in our conscious.

I watched Michele’s horse, Guy pacing the fence a few days ago. He is a super horse, but he loves routine and he loves food because of his insecurities. He gets fed about the same time each day. About an hour before his usual feeding time he stands around the fence closest to where he is normally fed. The other five horses might be at opposite ends of the 30-acre paddock, but he leaves them and comes up the fence. He then paces about half way along the fence - back and forth - until the food arrives.

I believe the pacing is an expression of his anxiety. Being fed is so important to him that the idea of food arriving builds an anxiety inside of Guy. When either Michele or I appear with the bucket, his pacing quickens and he might even trot until we are actually at the gate. He knows to go and stand by his bucket and wait until the food is in his bucket and we have stepped away before eating. He is very polite about this, but his tension is obvious.

Guy’s behaviour exemplifies to me that a horse’s emotions are expressed through his feet. When a horse is anxious, he moves his feet. Few horses will choose to stand still when worried unless they are so worried they freeze. The amount of anxiety is often reflected by the energy in their feet. When a horse is relaxed and feeling okay, they generally don’t choose to move a lot. Horses are by nature fairly lazy animals - most need a reason to move.

When you see or ride a horse with more energy in his feet than necessary to get a job done, you can be pretty sure there is anxiety driving the feet.

This revelation explains in my mind why people get so fixated about using the feet to tap into a horses mind and emotions. It’s hard to separate a horse’s emotions from what he is doing. And it is hard to influence a horse’s emotions. But in comparison it is fairly easy to influence what a horse is doing. We can direct him to move much easier than we can change the way he feels without him moving (without using pharmaceuticals). This being the case, it is easy to see why driving or directing the feet of a horse is a commonly recommended way of getting a change in the way a horse feels. And it is does work if done properly and at the right time.

I’m not criticizing moving the feet as a way of tapping into a horse’s emotions. I do it myself all the time. But where I think the message has gone wrong is that moving the feet has been sold as the answer to people’s problems. But in my view the answer lies in changing how he feels with or without moving the feet. You don’t have to move a horse’s feet to change his feelings – you can, but it is not always necessary. There are plenty of times when I ask a horse to do nothing except change his feelings. To an onlooker it can appear like nothing is happening, when in fact plenty is happening on the inside of the horse – just not on the outside of the horse. Moving the feet in itself serves no useful purpose other than to exercise a horse. You can direct the feet without getting a change in how he feels - most people do. However, if you move the feet and get a change inside your horse then you have made progress. But it is not necessary to always move a horse in order to change how he feels either.

I guess what I am saying is that the important thing is to evoke a change in how your horse feels. Most people try to do this by moving the horse in some way (eg join up) because the way a horse moves is very often linked to how he feels. Therefore, people think if they change how he moves they will automatically change how he feels. But this is not necessarily true - it might be true, but not necessarily. But what is always true is if you change how he feels you will change how he moves. And you don’t always have to move a horse’s feet to change how he feels.

A Good Mind

When I was an undergraduate I attended a country university in northern NSW. I lived in a farmhouse on 22 acres about 15km from the university. I had one horse called Luke who was a Percheron/Arab gelding. Each month I attended the local show jumping club in town with Luke for some friendly competition and training days.

Some people were breeding Percheron horses in a town about 40km away. They were very interested in the competition success I was having with my Percheron cross. But times were hard because we were in the 6th year of what was going to be an 8-year drought. The Percheron breeder contacted me and asked if I could temporarily home one of their mares that was pregnant and had a foal at foot. I had expressed an interest in the mare the year before. My new friends offered me the choice of the foal at foot or the foal in utero in return for looking after the mare and foal. I accepted and said I really liked the foal at foot. It was an 8-month old pure Percheron colt.

Eventually, the drought broke and the owners could take the mare home with the younger foal. I kept the 2 year old who I had gelding by this stage. I named him China because he was my best mate and, as everybody knows in Australia describing somebody as “China plate” is rhyming slang for mate. So China was my best mate.

Each month I would ride the 15 km into town on Luke for the show jumping day and China would come along with me. He would just follow behind and stay in the yards at the grounds until I was ready to ride home again. China grew big and cumbersome. He had legs like tree trunks and shoulders like a body builder. But the biggest of all was his head. It was enormous like a moose. China was no centrefold.

Some of the people at the club would joke about China and how ugly he was. It was a running joke that he would never be able to heave his huge bulk off the ground to jump a cavaletti let alone an oxer.

Percheron jumping
Eventually I broke him in and started riding him around the property and in the bush. He was rising 4 when I woke up one day and made the decision to get serious about training China for dressage and jumping. I knew he would be very limited in his capacity to compete in dressage, but I was not so sure about jumping because I had seen how athletic he could be. The first day I tried to catch him as a yearling he had jumped out of the round yard without touching the 6-foot fence. I worked on his flat work training nearly every day. He was smart and quick to learn. I was having a ball training him.

Finally at around 5 years of age I decided to make a jumping lane in the paddock and see what he could do. I had a friend visiting on the day I was putting the jumps together. I didn’t have enough material to make a wall at the end of the jumping lane to block China from going out the other end, so I volunteered my friend to stand there and wave her arms as China approached. I had already lunged China over some small jumps, so I knew he was not afraid. I just wanted to see what sort of scope he had. I started the jumps at only about 2 feet high. After a couple of repetitions I gradually made them higher. He was doing so well with no sign of worry or tension or stopping that for the last round I raised the last jumps to around 5 foot. He cleared them easily.

But unfortunately he kept going after the last jump. My friend saw China coming towards her and waved her arms frantically to slow him down. She gaped her mouth open and dropped to the ground as he sailed over her. I was so thrilled about China and his capacity to jump that I forgot about my friend. I caught him and hugged him with my heart racing excitedly until I remembered about my friend. She was okay if not a little in shock.

Within a year China was showing people at the jumping club how it should be done. We even did a demonstration at the local show, which was a big deal but a whole other story.

The interesting thing to me is that suddenly people stopped calling him ugly. They stopped making jokes about The Titanic and about ploughing through jumps rather than going over them. I heard comments about what a beautiful horse China had grown. I was told how China had the perfect conformation for a show jumper. People asked me about his stud lines and whether the breeder would agree to them putting their mare to China’s sire.

To me, China was the same ugly duck he had always been. I knew he was no oil painting and his conformation was very far from perfect. I also knew that if he fell over the jumps instead of clearing them easily people would have continued their jokes. But from the day I first saw him as a yearling, I knew something nobody else at the jumping club knew. I knew what an amazing mind he had. I knew he was smart, brave and curious. I knew he had the right amount of sensitivity and boldness to make him highly trainable.

I can’t do much about the way a horse is built. His conformation is his business. But I can do a lot with a horse with a good mind. A good mind allows a horse the potential to make the best of his conformation. And a difficult mind almost makes brilliant conformation irrelevant. A horse’s mind has far more influence on the final result than a horse’s body.

China didn’t live long. He died at 14 of illness. But when people ask me about the best horse I have had in my life I cant help but let my mind drift back to that little 17hh Percheron who was my best mate.

The Curiosity Of Foals

When starting to handle a new horse or a foal, we can exploit their curiosity to our advantage. Most babies have a curiosity about the world that they are born with. They want to explore new places, objects and even people. It’s instinctual in them. Yet, at the same time they are wary and untrusting of these new things and people and rarely able to just accept things at face value. Initially a young horse has to balance their natural curiosity against their natural wariness. But it is the curiosity of a foal that can open the window to being able to breakdown their lack of trust. If we handle it correctly, we can exploit a foal’s natural curiosity and boldness to explore his world to our advantage. I’m particularly thinking how of such important milestones in a horse’s life as the early few touches from a human and the first haltering. These events can have a lifelong impact on how a horse views people and how the initial training phases progress. If they are done without a horse’s co-operation and in a way that makes him feel he was made to tolerate being handled and caught, then it becomes a much more difficult slog to convince him that people are his friend and we can destroy the ‘try’ in him.

curious foal
During the phase where a horse is really curious and shows a strong interest, we need to ensure we don’t squash that instinct to explore. A part of this relates to proving our horse can trust us. We don’t want him to regret exploring and being curious. This does not mean we let him take over and do what he likes by nipping at us or running us over. Setting boundaries still become important. But it does mean that any action we take to establish those boundaries are not punitive and the horse is absolutely clear where he overstepped the mark and why he experienced pressure. There is no place for punishment and if that is forgotten, it is easy to build frustration and a strong resentment into a foal.

It is a good practice to exploit the curiosity of a foal in order to begin the early training because there will come a time when they no longer have very much curiosity in new people and new things. The window of opportunity will be lost. This happens because either they have grown to the stage where new things and people no longer have the same level of wonderment as they once did or because people have destroyed the curiosity by proving they are not to be trusted. If we haven’t taken advantage of a baby’s eagerness to explore his world early when the curiosity is still strong, we may find it more difficult to talk them around to our way of thinking later on when they are already jaded and damaged by poor handling.


Balance In Training

People often talk about the qualities of a good horse person incorporating feel, timing and balance. I believe I have always had a reasonable handle on what it means to have feel and timing. These elements of training seem almost self evident to me. But when thinking about balance I am less clear in my mind what people mean.

Are people referring to balance in terms of physical balance where the body is working equally both forward/backwards and side to side? That is, does a person have a centre of gravity that causes them to neither lean forward or back or left or right? Is that what people are thinking?

balancing act
In my own thinking, I very often interpret the concept of balance as part of feel. I find these two variables very similar and interconnected. To me balance refers to the ability to find the middle ground with a horse. By middle ground I mean the space between too much and too little. For example, if asking a horse to have forward motion I need to balance the pressure I use between asking too much with my seat and legs where the horse wants to run away from me, and asking too little where my seat and legs are ineffective in changing his thought. It’s the balance between making a horse feel troubled and him not being aware I ask anything of him. It’s the balance between having his thoughts between your reins and legs and his thoughts in the other pasture. It’s the balance between having his thought on you and directing his thought to be somewhere. It’s the balance between a horse looking at something and a horse mentally leaving. It’s the balance between a horse being forward and horse running away. There is a balance in everything we ask of a horse and in everything we offer horse.

It doesn’t matter what aspect of riding or training or horsemanship we have in mind, to me balance refers to the Goldilocks syndrome of feeling what is too much and what is too little and what is just right.

I think this middle ground is very important in training and riding and not often discussed or as widely appreciated as it deserves. I say that because when we do too little to get a change in our horse, we become an annoyance and a stress in his life. Very often he learns to shut us out of his thinking and it’s hard to get his attention.

When we do too much we also become a source of worry to our horse. In order to motivate a change of thought in our horse we need to help him discover that his present response to our suggestion is harder than the response we want him to offer. This requires adding an eye drop of anxiety into the old behaviour that we want to change. But if it only requires a drop of worry to motivate our horse to search for a new behaviour, yet we load him up with a gallon of worry we create just as big a problem as if we did too little. Anytime you use more pressure than is required to motivate a change in a horse you are punishing him. There is no teaching in punishment and there is no learning in being punished. There is only the fear of being punished. So balance becomes the middle ground between being irrelevant to your horse and punishing your horse.

I don’t know what the balance part of feel, timing and balance means to other people. I don’t know how they use it in their interactions with their horses. I can’t ever recall anybody actually explaining it at a clinic or in a book. Most people talk about balance in the same breath that they discuss straightness in a rider or a horse. But balance in terms of a trainer having balance in his training is something quite different and it seems to me a little more elusive. Maybe I’m missing something really obvious that can be explained to me and I’d be interested in other people’s views.

Preparing A Horse For The Farrier

I think this is worthwhile watching


The Power Of Persuasion

I was assessing a video for lady recently and she commented in her response that she does not have the strength to be as firm with a horse as a male rider. She commented that she had seen me able to hold a horse that was coming out of a float without being asked and said she’d never be able to do that.

female muscle power
I hear this from time to time from women that they don’t have the strength for some aspects of training their horse. It seems perfectly logical that a woman does not that the same muscular strength as a man kg for kg. It’s not really an argument. But it is incredibly rare that one needs a lot of raw power to evoke a change in a horse. I can only recall one client with muscular dystrophy that I felt had problems being able to be physically strong enough to make the changes needed for her horse. Most women have more than enough strength needed. But what they sometimes lack is the willingness to do as much as it may need. Many are happy to do as little as it takes. We all prefer to be as gentle as possible with our horses. But sometimes the situation requires doing a hell of a lot more than that to provide clarity to our horses. A lot of people (particularly women) are reluctant to exert the amount of pressure sometimes needed. I believe this is the case with the lady in the video lesson. She just couldn’t bring herself to be that firm. So for somebody like that they need to find an alternative approach to impart clarity to their horse.

There was an example at a clinic sometime ago where a lady wanted to teach her horse to backup using a wiggle of the lead rope. She struggled to do enough on the end of the lead rope to get the message through to her horse, so I gave her a flag to tap on the ground. She wiggled the lead rope just a little bit; if the horse ignored it she tapped the flag on the ground under the horses nose. She didn’t have to tap very hard before the horse took a step backwards. She repeated it several times and by about the seventh time the horse was backing when she asked politely just with the lead rope. This is an example of how a little thinking can find a solution.

The other aspect that sometimes escapes people’s attention is the fact that being firm is not about making the horse obey, but rather to get his attention to the fact that you asked anything. It’s a focus issue and firming up gets his focus.

With that in mind it seems logical that you can replace strength or force with anything else that will get his attention. The first thing that I think of when I say that is ‘abruptness’. Being abrupt about something will tend to focus a horses attention as effectively as being strong about something.

Lets look at another example.

Sometimes a horse will try to walk past a person when they are being led. It’s a pretty common practice to bump the lead rope stronger and stronger when that happens and only releasing the pressure when the horse is positioned back where the person wanted. But instead of bumping with the lead rope, a person could suddenly turn 90 deg the moment they detect the horse going past. The horse will be left behind, but will soon catch up and try to go past again when the person abruptly turns another 90 deg. It won’t require too many repetitions before the horse figures out where he is meant to be to keep life easy. There are many different ways abruptness can be incorporated into both groundwork and riding to get a horses attention. Once you have their attention he will start to listen to a quiet, polite signal from the person and being abrupt will rarely be necessary.

But for the people who have problems being firm with a horse because they feel uncomfortable upsetting their horse, they should be aware that the level of anxiety that a horse experiences to cause him to make a change is the same whether you get firm, are abrupt or introduce an aid (like a whip, flag, spurs etc). We feel it is kinder to tap the ground with the flag rather than a sharp snap with the lead rope to teach him to backup. But if the horse is going to make a change he experiences the same level of anguish that causes him to search for an answer irrespective of the method used. To induce a change in a horse he needs a motive. The motive is anxiety. To cause him to change we introduce an anxiety whenever he does not make a change. If you cause him to search for a different response, you have caused him the same level of mental and emotional level of stress no matter what method you use. So it is impossible to argue that one approach is kinder than another. Humans might put different values of kindness or cruelty on these things, but to the horse that is irrelevant.

Lastly, there are extremely few times when the average woman (if there is such a thing) does not have the physical strength to get a horse to pay attention and think about searching for a different response. A woman may not have the muscle power of a man, but most have the muscle power to cause most horses to change most times. There is nothing wrong with a person wanting to approach things from a different angle and I’m not criticising anybody for doing that as long as they don’t leave their horse in a world of confusion. But when the lady in the video lesson tells me she can’t, I really believe she means she won’t.


What Is The Difference Between Forward and Fast?

An issue that arose at today's clinic was the question of the difference between a horse being faster versus being more forward.

I used the term 'forward' several times over the last few days and people wanted to know if that was the same as 'faster'.

The answer is NO.

Forward horse
To me 'faster' refers to the speed at which a horse covers the ground. How fast a horse is going is measured in the time it takes to travel from point A to point B or the energy with which he is moving. A horse can be moving fast for many reasons including excitement, fear or he is forward.

But when I ask a rider to have a horse more forward, I am asking him to get a horse to carry his thought further forward. The horse may or may not be speeding up when he is more forward - either is possible. But what distinguishes a horse that is more forward from a horse that is faster is the freedom in his body to go. A forward thinking horse is not holding back and trying to find a place he can stop. He is also not a horse that is fleeing or trying to escape a rider's leg or whip. He is just moving with a freedom of thought and emotion that allows his feet to move freely too. It does not come from excitement or worry inside the horse. Instead 'forward' in a horse comes from an understanding that he has a purpose in going somewhere without stress or anxiety.

Many dressage riders talk about a horse being in front of the leg or having impulsion. Both of these terms can relate to a horse being forward. Yet both of these terms can equally be associated with negative emotions. I feel 'forward' is a much more apt term when talking about training because in my view it is so clear that it refers to the ability to direct a horse's mind in front and the encouragement for his feet to catch up to his thought.

I believe 'forward' is not an easy concept to grasp until you have felt it. But when you feel it the distinction between a horse going forward and a horse going faster is black and white.

First Saddling

This video really closes the case about whether or not people who don’t know a lot should be starting horses.


Green Horses And The Use Of Legs To Direct Them

I am going to repeat something that I’ve talked about before because the subject has come up again and again during my recent clinics in the US. So please forgive me if this is ‘old hat’ to you and somewhat boring. But in my view it is an important concept worth repeating many times.

One concept that I tried to introduce into the thinking of riders over several clinics is the idea of ensuring a horse is brilliant about how to be directed in response to the reins before he learns to be directed from the legs. This idea has been met with some doubt by a few of the attendees.

At the clinics I talked about a rider not using their legs when asking a horse to disengage his hindquarters. I showed how to not use a riders legs to direct a horse when teaching lateral movements to a horse. I tried to emphasize the importance of first teaching these things with seat and reins alone. This notion was not met with immediate approval. But I hope by the end of the clinics most people could see the sense of it.

The issue I have with a rider using their legs to tell a green-ish horse (whatever a green-ish horse is?) where to move is that it voids the K.I.S.S. principle of keeping things very simple during the learning phase.

When I start a horse or work a horse that is just not very soft on the reins, I feel my job becomes to teach softness to the reins. Softness does not just mean that he is responsive and light to rein pressure. It also means that the horse understands how to be accurate to the reins and feel okay about rein pressure. Many horses do not know how to be accurate to the reins and many do not feel okay about them. This part of learning about reins comes from the reins offering a clear signal to the horse’s brain where his thought needs to be directed. Directing a horse’s thought will provide accuracy and comfort to the way the horse responds to rein pressure.

Kerryn asking Wicket for a hindquarter yield by only using the inside rein
When I use my legs on a green-ish horse, it is only to indicate to him that he needs to have energy or movement. My legs do not tell him where to move, only that he needs to think about moving or doing something. It is my reins that tell him where to move. The way I use the reins can be very specific in giving him the idea of where to move. They can tell him to go forward, backward, left or right. They can tell him to step his forehand sideways or his hindquarters sideways or both sideways. Teaching these things becomes part of developing excellence in the way the horse responds to the reins.

The photo is of Kerryn riding Wicket. Kerryn has no inside leg and Wicket is softly disengaging her hindquarters in response ONLY to Kerryn asking for a bend on the inside rein.

At some point, when my horse is really good on the reins, I will use my legs to direct his movement specifically. The legs will add subtlety and refinement to my ability to influence my horse. But if I try to do this before he is really good on the reins alone I will be adding confusion to him. This is because he will only know that a rider’s legs mean to go. So when you apply an inside leg to ask his hindquarters to disengage for example, his first response will be to push forward. If you do this and he is not already soft and responsive to disengaging his hindquarters to the reins, you’ll have a fairly big argument on your hands as he tries to go forward. But by teaching him to respond accurately and softly to the reins beforehand, you can give meaning to the use of the riders inside leg by asking with the leg and backing it up with the reins. With repetition he will quickly understand the meaning of apply inside leg to disengage the hindquarters. In the photo I am starting to teach a horse to disengage his hindquarters and you can see I am not touching him with my legs.

I have written before about the problem I see with people using lateral flexion of the neck and insisting the horse’s hindquarters don’t move. In a green-ish horse it encourages a disconnection between the rein and the hindquarter. In my view it creates poor communication and leads to horses not being able to make turns or circles accurately - something that is more common than pimples on a teenager.

Later in a horses education when he has learned to yield to the reins very well, you can teach a horse to laterally flex without moving his feet if that’s what you want. But to do it before he is good at yielding his thought/feet to the reins is setting a horse up for problems with straightness. The adjustment of the reins allows a rider to make adjustment to the way a horse bends. If you need to ask for more bend or less bend, using the riders legs or seat will not help. You only have to look at how inaccurate most horses are that are ridden at liberty to realize that the reins are very important at influencing the way a horse carries himself.

In my view there is no reason forever letting a horse be resistant or inaccurate to the reins. There is no reason to not teach him that the reins can direct his front end, back end or both. Even if he is brilliant at listening and responding to the rider’s seat and legs, you have a problem if he is not equally brilliant at doing the same from the reins.

Katelynn Working A Bad Pony

I wish this kid would come to a clinic. She is so unaware of the needs of her horse, it makes me sad for her horse and for her. The girl really needs a lot of guidance and a change in her understanding of what motivates horses. It’s worth watching this clip even if just to remind us how much further we have to go in educating the great population of horse owners and riders.


A Horse's Trust OR A Horse's Obedience?

I think today’s post is a real brainteaser. It has the potential to send a person screaming out of the room in much the same way that quantum physics can do when talking about an infinite number of infinities. So don’t say you haven’t been warned and if you read further it’s at your own peril.

Many people talk about the importance of gaining a horse’s trust. I’ve talked about it in the past too. But more recently I’ve come to realize I don’t really know what it means. I know what trust means from a human perspective, but I’m not sure I know what it means from a horse training viewpoint.

Do horses really understand the concept of trust in the same way we understand it?

I think trust comes from a horse’s confidence that going along with our idea is going to keep them safe and comfortable. This is a process that begins with their first experience of humans and ends with their last. It is an evolving process that can go forward and backward. We can prove to a horse that we can be trusted to keep him safe and comfortable and in the next second prove that we can’t.

People say their horse trusts them, but how do they know this? How can we differentiate the difference between trust and obedience? I think obedience plays a big part in what we perceive to be trust. Tom Dorrance use to say that he’d like to feel like he could ride his horse up a telephone pole or down into a badger hole. But that willingness that Tom liked to feel in a horse, did it come from the horse having enormous trust in Tom or unquestioning obedience to him? How can one know? Are they even separable? Which comes first – obedience or trust? Is it a chicken and egg question?

Before I give you an example of what I mean, let me offer my personal definition of obedience and trust just so we can be clear we are talking about the same thing. You don’t have to agree with my definition (because they are not definitions I am entirely happy with), but it will give you an idea of what is going around in my head (you poor devils!).

Trust – doing something out of trust is doing it out of a belief that it will do you no harm.

Obedience – doing something out of obedience is doing it out of a belief that NOT doing it will be to your disadvantage.

In other words, you do something trusting it’s a good idea. Or you do something out of obedience because you fear not doing it will be a bad idea.

Creek Crossing
So let’s look at an example of the complexity of obedience versus trust. This is a real life example and not a hypothetical.

If we have had some rain and there are puddles dotted around the ground, when my horse is wandering around he walks around each puddle to avoid stepping in them. But when I ride my horse, he walks through each puddle that is in the path of where we are riding without hesitation or any attempt to evade them. I do not need to guide or direct him to keep him straight or prevent him from evading the puddles. He walks through the puddle simply because they are in the path of where he is walking. Is this because he trusts me or because he is obedient and knows not to veer off course to avoid the puddles?

At first glance I think it appears that my horse has learned his job is to go straight where I am directing him no matter what obstacles are in his path. He has learned to be obedient to where I direct his thought. This would seem a natural assumption since he avoids the puddles when I am not directing him, which suggests it would not be his choice to voluntarily go through a puddle. But maybe it is more complex than that.

What if he walks around each puddle when I am not directing him because his confidence in himself to traverse the puddle is weak? What if he doesn’t trust his own judgment to walk through water that appears to be bottomless and with unknown footing? He doesn’t know if he will sink deeply into the puddle or if it’s slippery or rocky. And what if he chooses to walk through the puddles when I direct him because he trusts me enough to believe I won’t put him in harms way? He may not have confidence in his own ability to make those judgment calls, but he may have confidence in my ability.

In my book, Old Men and Horses Walt uses an example of this when discussing trust and confidence. He asks a young Ross,

"Does it botha ya to fly in one of them big planes?"

"No, I kinda like it Walt," I replied.

"Ok. Would it botha ya if I told ya the pilot couldn't make it today and just gave ya the keys and told ya to fly the plane?"

"You know it would," I said.

"Well then matey, flyin don't botha you at all and it's even a bit of fun as long as ya git the proper support that a qualified pilot can give ya. But if I tried to force ya to fly a plane with no proper pilot we'd have one big fight on our hands. Horses ain’t no different. Ya give them the support and directin they need and work can be fun for them too. But ya try forcin them into somethin they ain’t sure about and there could be trouble."

I hear a lot about how people believe their horse “trusts” them. But of course, trust is not an all or nothing emotion. A horse may trust you enough to ride circles in an arena, but not trust you to the point of letting you ride them through a raging bushfire or across a creek.

I think the amount of trust a horse feels for a rider is one factor in limiting the degree of obedience he offers. A horse may be very obedient right up to the point where he loses trust in his rider to keep him safe. Then it’s every horse and rider for himself.

So my question is: did my horse go through the puddles because he trusted me or because he was obedient and knew it was his job? And how can I be sure? When we talk about building a partnership and trust with our horses this is an important question to ask ourselves.

Cadre Noir Jumping

This is an example of precision jumping for all you people who can’t get their horse in the middle of a jump.


Feel: A Two-Way Communication

I like to watch people working horses. I particularly like to watch people working young horses. I am interested in watching what they offer a horse rather than what they can make a horse do. Some people have better feel than others. Other people are very effective at getting a horse to do stuff, but don’t offer too much feel to the horse.

The people with good feel are good at reading what a horse is thinking and feeling and figuring out the reasons a horse does what he is doing. They know the limits and boundaries. But what makes them particularly good horse people is they know how knowing this information can help them present an idea to a horse that best fits the horse.

Its not enough that you know your horse is feeling something. You need to learn how to offer a horse a feel, so that he can offer a feel back to you. It’s a communication thing that goes two ways. If you are not feeling what your horse is presenting, you have nothing to offer him back that he can follow or take an interest in.

I think part of the reason so many people have problems with their horse’s focus is that they don’t offer a feel to a horse that has meaning to him. When you don’t present an idea to a horse in a way that does not take into account what he is thinking and feeling, a horse has no reason to take an interest and be attentive. Over time this can become a habit that you have to live with for a very long time. When a horse has developed the habit of not being attentive you can say goodbye to your dreams of being a “horse whisperer” because the only thing that will get his attention now is a lot of shouting and dramatic movements and now you are a “horse screamer.”

A feel that has meaning can be something large or small or in between. It’s not defined by the magnitude of what is being felt. A feel that has meaning to a horse is a feel that causes him to want to listen and try to figure out what is being said. Again we are talking about communication that runs both ways.

Offering A Feel
When you offer a feel that captures his attention and clears up any confusion in his mind he will offer a feel back. If your feel does not do this, a horse can shut us out and refuse to communicate. But when he is offering a feel back to us we are in a conversation with our horse. You may have heard the expression getting with your horse. But when you get with your horse, you are also trying to get your horse to be with you. It’s the same as offering your horse a feel and receiving a feel back from your horse. It becomes a two-way communication that is heading in the direction of a partnership. You can see from the photo that there is two-way communication between the horse and I when I offer a feel on the lead rope.

When a person if learning to offer a horse I feel I think it is often best to start with small things. Things like picking up a horse’s feet or lining along side a fence or moving one foot at a time are good exercises for people to work on offering a horse a feel. You can do these things without feel too and just try to make them happen. But if you take your time and focus on the little things, it won’t be long before you and your horse are having a secret conversation that only the both of you know is happening because it is too subtle for outsiders to see despite the importance or significance it has for you and your horse. This becomes the foundation for building a true partnership based on offering each other a feel.


The Horse You Really Have?

When Michele and I were training horses for the public owners would often recite a list of habits and problems that had observed in their horses. One lady even came with an A4 sheet of paper where she had listed all the things that she couldn’t do with her horse. Everything from touching the ears to being able to clip the legs straps of the horse rug was on the list. It was a long list.

But a lot of the time owners would come to watch their horse being worked and say something like, “he’s never done that before.” The most common scenario was to see horses that were easily caught at home, being hard to catch when they first arrived at our place. Almost inevitably owners would tell us their horse was always easy to catch and they can’t understand why we had difficulty catching him.

This is me working Rain in Minnesota September 2013
But it showed up in other situations too. Sometimes their quiet, easygoing horse at home would be fractious for the first few days with us. Sometimes he wouldn’t stand quietly to have his feet trimmed or was highly distracted every time they saw another horse or heard one calling out.

A lot of the time these were just normal settling in problems while a horse became use to the new environment. But also a lot of the time people misread the horse they had at home and became fooled into thinking that is the real horse.

The real horse is very often not the horse you have at home. Most times people are dealing with a horse that relies on the familiarity of home and the routine that goes on at home to feel okay. We can all get along pretty well with our horses when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But it is an illusion to think this is the real horse inside your horse. The real horse is the one that appears when you take away his buddies, remove him from the familiarity of home, change the routine of where and how you ask him to operate. Then you get to see the horse that is truly lurking inside. You only really know what’s inside your horse when he is in pressure situations.

When people use to tell us that, “my horse never did that at home,” I always knew that they were relying on the familiarity of home to keep them safe and their horse manageable. Many owners are reluctant to expose their horse to pressure situations for fear of bringing out the beast that is inside. They rely on the environment to get along okay with their horse. They often don’t realize they are doing that or that is the situation, which is why they are often genuinely surprised that their quiet little Flossy is not really safe enough for granny to ride. But there are constant hints about it too, like the how he handles windy days or spring grass or other horses galloping nearby. These things will often give an indication of what is bubbling away inside a horse.

If we want to know what lurks deep inside our horse there are few alternatives but to put them in uncomfortable situations. It is foolhardy to keep depending on avoiding pressure moments in order to ensure nothing goes wrong. Eventually something will happen that is out of our control and then we will have nothing to work with to help get the horse mentally and emotionally back with us. By stretching the comfort limits of our horses we can incrementally tap into the trouble dwelling inside and help him feel less troubled. The trouble won’t go away by ignoring it and hoping nothing triggers it that will bring it to the surface.

As trainers, Michele and I worked hard at helping client’s horses become more comfortable and less troubled in confronting situations. I know that if a horse can be settled at home, if he can be easy to catch at home, if he can tolerate a variety of situations at home with calmness, he can also learn to do it in strange places, with strange people and strange situations.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you have a horse that’s easy to handle and enjoys working with you if you never test his tolerance of new and challenging situations. We think how he behaves on cold, windy days or when there is fresh spring grass are just an aberration and not something to concern ourselves with because he’ll get over it. But those scenarios reveal the true nature of the relationship we have with our horse – not the adorable, quiet and accommodating relationship we have when there is peace throughout the land and birds in the trees are singing their sweet melodies of joy. Don’t dismiss the bad rides or the trouble we have in new situations because they are moments when we can really help our horses and make a big difference to our relationship.

The photo shows a very nice horse that came to today’s clinic in Eagle Lake, Minnesota. She made a big change today.

Canter To The Rear

Somebody was asking me on the weekend about canter to the rear, so here is a video demonstrating the movement. It requires the highest degree of collection of a horse other than some of the airs above the ground.


Teaching People To Search

Something that has become apparent to me over the years is how much more ready horses are than humans to search through a problem to find an answer. When I put pressure on a horse, inevitably most of them try all sorts of options if they don’t know the answer. Some of those options may not be what I want or even beneficial to my health or their best interest, but there is no denying that the horse is thinking and searching for answers. It’s fairly uncommon that a horse will completely shutdown and stop trying UNLESS we teach him the futility of trying.

But people are different. People tend to do what they have always done. Experience has taught us that a previous approach has worked before, so we keep repeating it over and over. We might change minor things like the speed or firmness with which we apply a technique, but essentially the method remains unaltered despite a horse’s clear lack of understanding. Even in the face of a horse’s confusion we are sometimes reluctant to change things until we reach the end of everything we know and there is nowhere left to go.

In my own search to try to find ways of being a better teacher I have been thinking about this quite a bit over a long time. It started because I realized that as a clinician my value to people and the reason why they pay me is not because of how good a horseman I am, but because of how good a teacher I am. So nowadays I am working just as hard at my teaching as I have always done at my horsemanship. But I am drifting off topic.

One of the reasons why I suspect horses are more serious about searching through a problem than people is that to a horse the feelings that pressure cause is much more a matter of life and death. When a horse experiences discomfort that we use to motivate him to change what he is doing, he weighs up the pressure in terms of whether or not he will survive. His self- preservation instinct is much closer to the surface than ours in these situations. And it doesn’t take a lot to tap into it. So a horse is often highly motivated to search for an answer.

But people don’t often feel the same sense of urgency to find another way to work with our horses. It mainly happens when our safety is in jeopardy or we realize we have bitten off more than we can chew. Then we go searching for an answer to how better work with a horse that is different to what we would normally do. But if every time we rode our horse there was a good chance we would get hurt unless he felt good inside, we would be much more ready to find the best way to help him and not be satisfied with only having an obedient horse who would do as he was told not matter how he felt. But that’s generally not the case so we satisfy ourselves that he does as we direct and are less concerned about searching for a better way to work with him.

The other factor that discourages people from searching occurs when a person becomes indoctrinated into a particular method of working with horses and can’t graduate beyond that. Many schools of horsemanship try to convince people that their system is not only the best, but also the most complete system. Looking outside the system is not only futile, but will also confuse your horse. To a newbie looking for help there is certain logic to this argument. In my experience, any school of horsemanship that is based on a formula best suits the novice horseman. It provides them with a good starting point where they can learn the essential basics. But it is also very limiting to the person who wants to move beyond that. People are often left with the belief that everything they need to know is lying somewhere within the system. The system encourages that view (whether openly or surreptitiously) either through their teaching or through the social network and group mentality that forms around it. Some people even suffer a guilt complex about searching for answers outside of the system. It’s human nature.

I try to do what I know to help people search for different answers. I do this by first asking them questions about what they are feeling and observing about their horse. I try to encourage them to ask these questions of themselves. After they have given an answer I’ll often ask them what they think they could do to change the horse’s response – and even let them explore that option to see for themselves if it was a good idea or not. I try to really push the idea that experimentation is a good thing and not something to be afraid about. People are sometimes afraid of making mistakes because they say they don’t want to screw up their horse. But in my usual very encouraging way I will tell them, “Well, you’ve been screwing up for the last 5 years, why is it suddenly so important that you don’t make a mistake today?” ☺ (Maybe I have more work to do on my teaching technique!)

The other thing that I try to do in clinics is try to show folks that there is more than one way to skin a cat. If there are a few horses in a clinic that have similar issues I will often try to work them with different approaches if I think it is appropriate. It’s an attempt to let people know that there are no golden rules and they can experiment and search for different ways and still come out the other side with a good result. Sometimes this confuses people, but the more thinking ones seem to appreciate the freedom of choice they have to search and invent their own approaches. It is just part of the evolution a person must make if they are to go as far as they can as a horse person.

Searching for something
It seems to be in the nature of people to cling onto methods that worked for them in the past and letting go of the “life raft” is hard. It seems to be much harder for people than it is for horses. It takes gumption and commitment to try new things and experiment with new ideas. But when you’ve tried something that you thought up yourself and it works out great the rewards are hugely satisfying.

One thing I have told people for a very long time is that while the principles I use when working a horse almost never change, the methods I use constantly change.

It appears the riders in the photo are searching for something.

Playing In Playgrounds

During last weekend’s clinic in Montana the subject came up about working horses over, around and through obstacles. It began with talking about people having playgrounds on their property where they build a variety of obstacles including see-saws (teeter-totters), bridges, pedestals, jumps, curtains of streamers etc in which to work their horses.

It’s fun to ride in a playground. It gets one out of the arena or round yard and away from the monotony of endless circles. It seems to me that both riders and horses can benefit from a break in the routine of everyday training.

I have a friend who has invested a lot of time and effort into building an extensive and varied playground. They no doubt feel the obstacles offer a significant benefit to the training - otherwise why build one? And I believe in my friend’s case the way they use the playground does have serious merit. The obstacles become a point of focus for both the rider and the horse and some horses really take to seeing there is a job to do in negotiating the obstacles.

But I question the real value of playgrounds or working with obstacles as a training tool for most people.

In theory working with obstacles should be no more than another form of exercise in which we ask for more focus, more clarity and more softness. It has the same purpose that comes from performing circles, hindquarters yields, lateral movements, halts and back ups, transition of gaits etc. From a training perspective playgrounds are circles and forehand yields made from wood, nails, plastic and metal. The quality you might look for in how a horse performs a circle or a forehand yield or a shoulder-in is the same quality you would look for when training a horse to stand on a pedestal or walk over a tarpaulin. But in practice this is not always so. And if it is not so, I question the value in working with obstacles.

In my experience most people lose track of the point of working with obstacles. It seems to be human nature that when presented with a see-saw (as an example) as an exercise, the focus becomes all about getting the horse to walk along the see-saw. The quality of how a horse does the exercise gets largely forgotten. People get a sense of achievement from the horse just walking along the see-saw and forget about the degree of straightness, attentiveness to the person, the calmness etc of the horse. They forget that the value of walking along the see-saw as a training tool is in the straightness, calmness and focus with which a horse does it. The see-saw has no inherent importance as an exercise. The merit and value of the exercise is in how a horse performs the task.

I see the same issue in other aspects of horsemanship including the way people teach a horse to load into a trailer or the way they approach competition or open a gate from horseback or trim a hoof. People get fixated on completing the task and abandon the idea that the quality with which the task is performed is more important than completion of the task.

There is nothing inherently wrong with working your horse in a playground with lots of varied obstacles. It can have real value as a training tool. But it requires people to constantly remember to keep the basic tenants of good horsemanship of focus, clarity and softness in the forefront of their minds when working with obstacles. Otherwise, the only thing you are achieving is to have fun. And heaven forbid anyone should have fun when riding horses! ☺

Joe Wolter On The Subject Of Dumb Questions

I saw this video on Ray Hunt’s Facebook page and thought it was worth sharing here.

Joe Wolter - There are no dumb questions from Wild Dog Studios on Vimeo.


Labelling A Horse's Personality

Frequently I hear terms such as left brain, right brain, introvert and extrovert and I think this is way too complicated when it can be as simple as the horse's thoughts and emotions.

horse with multiple personalities
The whole idea of horses being characterized as left or right brain sided animals, which is associated with being extroverted or introverted is an invention of the Parelli organization. I remember seeing a video clip some time back of Linda Parelli describing how the idea came to her one night and was quickly incorporated into the Parelli teaching program.

The idea that there is a specialized lateral function of the brain comes mainly from studies of human brain. In general terms popular psychology considers the left-brain to posses more logical processing centres, while the right side of the brain is dominated by language and creative functions. But this is a very general overview and it is not strictly true as proved by the very many contradictions in brain function and lateralization. Furthermore, there are no studies that I am aware that this concept of brain lateralization has been extended to horses. So even if the generalization that humans are left or right brain dominant in their personality, there is no reason to suppose this is true in horses. But clearly the idea of truth in science does not hinder the Parelli organization from telling a good story.

Nevertheless, the concept of horses being right or left brain dominant has entered the popular discussion of horse behaviour almost exclusively thanks to Linda Parelli having a brainstorm of an idea one night on how to better market the Parelli teaching program.

They did a similar thing several years back when Parelli started talking about lowering a horses head was associated with calmness due to the release of a family of hormones called endorphins. There was no evidence at the time that endorphins were involved in the calming effect of lowering a horse’s head and there still isn’t t my knowledge. But the theory quickly gained popular belief among horse people and it is still quoted today.

To add to the concept of lateralization of the brain in horses, the Parelli camp introduced the idea that horses could be extroverted or introverted.

They describe extroverted horses as: high energy, quick, tendency to run. And introverted horses as: low energy, slow, tendency to stop.

I think before Linda Parelli invented the idea of extroverted and introverted horses we use to call them sensitive and dull (lazy, shut down).

Normally, I would not bother much about this stuff because it does not interest me. But I have noticed how widespread the whole Horsanality explanation for horse behaviour has become and how it has skewed people’s thinking and approach to working with a horse.

For me, I find the categorizing of horses into discreet psychological groups of left or right brain; introvert or extrovert to be futile and impractical. Even if such categories can be applied to horses (which I doubt), what is the point? How does it help you?

In order to diagnose a horse as being in a particular category you have to first observe his behaviour and responses. The things that make him fit into any of the categories are things you already know by being around your horse, working with him, observing him in the paddock by himself and with other horses. Analyzing which category he fits into gives you no new useful information about your horse. You know if your horse is a lazy-bones who takes work to motivate without filling out an $83 questionnaire.

Secondly, the needs of a horse change from moment to moment. I have previously discussed the limitations of using a training system. A methodology does not teach you to think outside of the system and adjust every second for what your horse might need. Systems are exercises nothing more. They can’t meet the demands of getting the best from a horse because the horse is changing every minute, yet the system isn’t.

The same is true of pigeonholing your horse into a specific category. The purpose of doing this is to let you know what exercises you should avoid and which ones you should practice with your horse. All based on a broad assessment of his personality. By doing this, the system does not allow you to adjust for the horse as he makes changes from moment to moment. The system discourages a person to dynamically alter and adjust for the horse. And it discourages people from thinking for themselves what is best for their horse. Yet we all know that ‘thinking’ is a key component in any good horse person.

I see no point in labelling a horse as a personality type that predetermines how he should be worked. These things change all the time and by categorizing a horse in such a way it places limitations on what is possible.

In the video Linda Parelli talks to Rick Lamb about ‘Horsanality’ and between 2:30 and 6:00 min she describes how she came up with the concept.


Releasing With Feel

During the past few days the subject of releasing pressure came up once again several times and Marg Littler recently reminded me that I didn’t quite cover all aspects of the subject in my recent post on “what is a release.” So I’m going to talk briefly about an important aspect of this topic that doesn’t seem to be discussed enough in my view.

I notice time and again many people have the habit of releasing pressure from a horse by abandoning the horse. It’s most obvious when we look at the use of the reins, so I am going to refer mainly to how this relates to releasing pressure of the reins. Nevertheless, it also occurs with regard to releasing pressure from the rider’s legs too, but I’ll leave you to think that through for yourself.

So what do I mean by “abandoning the horse”?

When we are training and apply a feel to the reins (either one or both reins) we wait for the horse to yield or give to that pressure. In our attempt and enthusiasm to reward the “try” we often just open our hands and suddenly drop the rein(s) as if we were holding something really hot. We try to mark that moment when we feel them make a “try” by instantly dropping the feel in the reins. I guess it is part of our effort to have good timing to help a horse recognize what change he made that we were wanting that we so abruptly take away the pressure. But we often create a different set of problems when we do that.

Look at the video Notice at around the 1-minute mark the person suddenly drops the rein from her hand to mark the moment when she felt the horse yield to the rein. But in doing that she left the horse directionless. She was not there to offer her horse anything to feel back to her again and allow his mind to quickly wander away from her. If you watch the clip closely you’ll see how quickly the horse’s thoughts drift away from the moment the lady drops the rein. It’s like the horse’s only choice is all or nothing when it comes to following the feel of the rein and what the handler is presenting. He is either yielding to the rein or he is mentally somewhere else – there is not much room for anything else.

I’d like to think that my horse would not mentally drift away from me just because I released the pressure. In my book, I’d like my horse to appreciate that the release of the reins indicated that he ‘got it’, but then be still connected to me and waiting to see what I might present next, rather than have his thought drift off to see what else is happening in the world. I don’t want the next thing I ask from him to be an interruption to his thought to drift away. Instead, he should be waiting and ready to see what might be coming next from me. But in the video the horse mentally leaves the moment the lady drops the rein. Therefore, the horse is not ready for the next thing she might ask. This is such a common problem that trainers build into their horses, that it verges on being an epidemic in my view. And it is so unnecessary if they just gave a little more thought to how they offer a release.

An easy way that goes a long way to assist in avoiding this problem is to not drop the rein at the moment of release, but to remove the pressure more gradually so there is a constant feel connecting the rein and the horse’s mind. At anytime the handler or rider could hold firm or take a stronger feel and the horse would respond without trouble or having his thought interrupted because his mind never drifted away. I would like my horse to be always checking in with me to see what might be asked of him at any moment and by keeping the connection between my rein and my horse’s mind I can help him try to stay with me. But if I just drop that connection by a quick and complete loss of feel of the rein I am encouraging a breakdown in communication.

It is something worth thinking about and playing with because as I have said many many times, training is all about directing a horse’s mind and not about the body or feet. It’s people who think of riding and training as being all about the feet that are the most guilty of abandoning the connection with their horse at the moment of release of pressure.


Releasing The Pressure

I have written before about the importance of a removal from pressure during training. But the subject came up again at the clinic in Ben Lomond over the weekend and I sense it is a subject that needs repeating from time to time because it is rarely discussed.

We all know by now that horses learn by the release of pressure. It’s not the pressure itself, which teaches a horse what we want. Pressure only motivates a horse to search for something to do, which will find him a way out of the pressure. It’s when the pressure goes away that the horse has a learning experience because he has found the trigger that causes the pressure to cease. Previously I have discussed how much pressure a person should offer a horse. Sometimes it is a lot and sometimes it is a little.

But just like pressure itself, release from pressure is not always all or nothing. There can be degrees of release, as there can be degrees of pressure. Sometimes, the release should be small and incremental and others times it should be 100% no pressure and then there are many times when it is somewhere in between.

How do you know which to use and when?

Well, there are no golden rules about these things and much of it comes down to your best judgment. But as a general thought I consider the amount of release should be proportionate to the amount of try and/or struggle a horse is experiencing. If a horse is really working hard to figure something out, it would seem the right thing to do to offer him a big release when he makes a good try. Other times a horse may be fussing around the edges of trying to search for an answer, in which case perhaps small releases are appropriate for small tries.

Then there are times the pressure we offered a horse has caused a large emotional turmoil in our horse. It maybe best in cases like this to offer a complete release (or close to) of pressure even when the try from the horse is very small. This is because his ability to search for answers is overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety he feels by the situation. He can’t wear his thinking cap when his brain is so flooded with fear and worry. Giving the horse a complete break from the pressure can help him find calm to the extent of being able to search through the problem once again.

But there is an aspect of releasing pressure that I never hear discussed. That is the question of how long should the release last? I mean how much time should elapse between offering pressure again once you have released the pressure?

I once asked Harry Whitney for his thoughts about this and he admonished me for not giving him enough time to make something up! So if Harry wasn’t sure, you know there is no straightforward answer.

It is indeed a tough question to answer and again I think it comes down to using your best judgment because it is going to vary from horse to horse and moment to moment.

I think the amount of time between asking something of a horse can be very important in the training process. I also think the appropriate amount of time will vary depending on the emotional state of the horse. A horse that is emotionally settled probably needs less time for the understanding to sink in than a tightly wound horse. I know some folks will say that edgy horses often do better if they are kept busy and this can be true. But I’m not talking about controlling a horse’s feet in order to keep a lid on his emotions, but rather about helping a horse learn a concept. I think many edgy horses learn best when there is a clear and distinct let down time between jobs. In fact, I have experienced many times that if I am struggling to get a change in a anxious horse, that leaving it for another time can make a huge difference to how the horse responds the next time I repeat the job. I think breaking the pattern of the roller coaster of emotions that some horses experience when struggling with a job makes more of a difference to the success than spending hours battling with trying to get a change.

Finally, the last thing I want to mention about release from pressure is the concept that a release does not necessarily mean an absence of pressure. I’m not talking about partial release and partial pressure. I mean that sometimes going from one form of pressure to another form of pressure can be a release for a horse. Again I am generalizing and reminding you that it varies for each horse and each situation. But for example, when backing a horse using the reins, you might back until you get a softer moment and as you release the reins you use your legs to direct the horse immediately forward. In essence you did release the reins, but in a practical sense you merely substituted one form of pressure for another with no time for zero pressure. There was no let down time. The horse went from one job to another with different pressures. Yet, this can also be a release for some horses from which they can learn to soften to the reins. This is a pretty grey area and I caution you about using it. Many trainers who use flooding techniques adopt this approach as a way of life with horses. Buck Brannaman is a master at this, but others like Clinton Anderson, Craig Cameron, Guy McLean, the double Dan blokes etc also use this approach as a staple in their training.

I hope I have given you something to think about with regard to releasing pressure. Its not a subject that gets thought about much and much less talked about. We all think we know what a release is and how to do it, but I hope I have given you some thoughts to indicate it is more complicated than most of us appreciate and it deserves our consideration.

In the pictures I apply pressure by walking around the horse and then release the pressure by standing still when she shifts her thought strongly enough to bring her hindquarters around and face me.

Applying pressure by walking around towards the back end of the horseReleasing the pressure when the horse faced up


Trimming The Feet Of A Young Horse

I like the attitude and approach this fellow takes to trimming a young horse.


Being Interesting

Last year I got into an argument with my wife. Michele and I were driving home when we had a disagreement about something totally unimportant. She said something about me driving her crazy, so I asker her “So why did you marry me if I drive you so crazy?” Which is always a dangerous question to ask.

Her response was “Because I loved you.”

“Why did you love me,” I asked? I knew she could have her choice of a huge range of superlatives to describe my many excellent qualities. But what she said surprised me.

“Because you were interesting. And you are still interesting.”

At first I thought her answer was rather bland. What about fun or thoughtful or generous or amazing lover or good teeth? But “interesting”! What the hell sort of answer was “interesting”? But when I thought about it I realized it was an excellent reason.

To be interesting to somebody even after several years together is a huge achievement. We never find each other boring – even when we use to work together and were hardly ever apart. Each of us makes the other’s life interesting. What better reason could you have for being with somebody?

White Horses Playing In The Snow
Then I thought about being interesting to my horses. Do my horses find me interesting? Do I help make their lives more interesting? Do they walk up to me in the paddock because I am interesting or because they are bored with the conversation of the other horses?

It must get monotonous listening to the ponies carrying on about having not eaten in the last two minutes and if they don’t get something in their mouths soon they will die. And the thoroughbreds yelling at the others “Don’t look. Don’t look. There’s a monster behind that tree.” And then there’s the mare always hanging out with the geldings saying things like “Hey handsome you’re looking gooooood. Have you been working out?” while she casually flicks her forelock.

We often talk about horses gaining comfort from our leadership and the clarity we offer them. But I wonder if part of having a good relationship with a horse is in both parties finding the other interesting? I don’t mean interest in the same way as having a curiosity. I know horses do take an interest in other horses and have their preferred friends in a herd. I don’t know what it is that makes them decide which horse will be their friends and which won’t. But I wonder if there is an element of “interesting” in this companionship. Why are horses choosy in the friends and alliances they make? Is it just a matter of feeling secure or do they get something more? Do they find their friends interesting?

I do believe horse social order and behaviour is far more complex than we understand, so it may be possible that horses are capable of having an ‘interest’ in horses and people that reaches beyond simple pecking order or leadership issues.

I don’t know if horses have can appreciate concepts such as “interesting’ or ‘love’ or ‘hate’ or ‘humour’. Most scientists would suggest that the equine brain is not complex enough to experience these sorts of emotions; and they are probably right. BUT if it is possible then the question arises how do we make ourselves more interesting to our horses? I seem to have inadvertently mastered the art of being interesting to Michele, but can that be translated to being interesting to horses. It’s an ‘interesting’ question to ponder.

The horses in the photo are playing the mirror game in the snow to make life more interesting.

The Time It Takes

Chad Brady at Equitana in Melbourne

When I was breaking in horses for people full time one of the most often asked questions was how long it was going to take. There is never a straightforward answer to this question. It depends so much on issues such as the horse’s temperament, what he already knows (good and bad), the experience of the owner and the expectations of the owner.

When I was young it would take me about 10 days to break in a horse that had minimal handling. I use to believe that if I did it in less time it was proof that I was getting better at it.

Nowadays, even though I am a better horse person than when I was a kid, it takes me roughly between 35 and 45 sessions to get 80% of horses far enough along for 80% of owners to do well with their horse. So why, if I am a better horseman, does it take me longer now?

I think the reason is that I am better now than I was as a kid. I falsely presumed that doing a quicker job meant I was becoming a better horseman. But this is rubbish. It just meant that I was developing better mechanical skills. I know so much more now about what is needed to get a horse feeling right inside than I did all those years ago. As a young bloke I didn’t know about such things and therefore it never occurred to me that I was missing stuff. I thought breaking a horse to saddle meant no bucking and teaching him to stop, go and turn. Getting a horse to do that does only take a few days. Just go to any colt-starting clinic and see that stuff being taught all the time in 3 or 4 days. I didn’t know there was a lot more to having a horse feel okay when being started. I think there are lots of people who still don’t know there is more. I see them all the time and I see the results in the horses.

I believe that when a horse is broken in it is his second biggest life changing experience he will ever face. Being weaned is the first one. But being broken in turns a horse’s life upside down. It is almost as dramatic and has just as many consequences for the rest of his life as being weaned. In most cases he has to learn that humans tell him what to think and when to think it. He can longer decide his actions for himself without consideration of what the idiot on his back has to say about it. Some horses adjust to this new phase of their life more easily than others. However, a small percentage of horses never make the adjustment.

The secret to making it as easy a transition as possible is to allow a horse to choose the choices we want him to choose. Anybody can impose obedience on a horse to make them do what we want. Saddle shops are full of equipment designed to do that job. There are books and dvds teaching you how to use hobbles, tie down, neck collars, leg straps etc – all designed to impose our will on a horses. There isn’t a lot of skill required to use these to bully a horse into submission. Just about anybody can learn it with a little time and experience. The advantage to this type of training is that it doesn’t take a lot of talent and it’s relatively quick.

The hard part of training a horse is getting them to feel okay inside about being directed by the rider. This takes time and consideration of the horse and why it now takes me longer than 10 days to be satisfied with the horse I am sending home to it’s owner. I want to offer a horse a real choice and help him to make the choice I want from him without him feeling he has been made to do it. You can’t do that in just a few days. It’s a process that happens over a much longer period of time because it requires convincing a horse to let go of his natural instinct to fear, resist and mistrust things that are foreign to him. He must learn to channel his innate instinct to flee from pressure to thinking his way out of pressure. No horse goes home ready for that after just a handful of days no matter how talented the trainer.

The photo is from a horse starting competition held a few years ago at Equitana in Melbourne.


Being A Disciplined Rider

As I do more teaching something has become more and more clear to me about some people’s attitude towards riding and horsemanship. It seems that many people don’t have very high expectations of either themselves or their horses.

When I was a teenager I held a working position for a while with a very famous show jumping trainer from Europe. He was the Australian Olympic coach and knew more about jumping than the Pope knew about the bible. But he was a horrible man and ran his training establishment like a concentration camp. It was not beyond him to humiliate students in front of their peers, competitors or parents. I remember one occasion when I was asked to ride a 16.1hh WB mare that was imported from Holland by one of his clients. The mare was fairly green and I was having trouble keeping her straight in front of the jump. You could always tell when the boss was upset because he would slap his riding crop against his long boot when he spoke. Eventually he couldn’t take my incompetence anymore and yelled at me at the top of his lungs and in front of about 20 people, “What makes you think you have the right to call yourself a rider?” I was then ordered off the horse and told to clean stables. For a teenager it was a horrible experience.

But one of the most significant lessons I learned from him was the importance of being disciplined in my riding. When I ask something of a horse, it’s not ‘good enough’ until it is ‘good enough’. That does not mean the result has to be perfect. But the outcome should be close to what the horse is capable of giving at that particular time. On a horse learning something new, good enough might be quite a small improvement. But on a horse where something is more established, good enough has to be better that it would on a green horse UNLESS there is a good reason to accept less (which can happen for all sorts of reasons).

I remember a lesson with a good friend riding her mare. When she rode the mare around the arena, she often cut the corners. It seemed to me the mare wanted to cut the corners and the rider was saying, “That’s good enough.” But when I instructed her to ride the mare deep into the corners, she discovered that ‘good enough’ was not perhaps so good. She allowed the mare to find reward and in half-hearted efforts and then learned that the horse was not available for anything better.

In another lesson a rider was asking for a walk or a trot and accepting the rhythm of the walk and trot that the horse gave her. The horse was not a particularly forward moving animal, so just any trot seemed a win to the rider. I tried to urge her not to allow the horse to determine the rhythm. It’s not ‘good enough’ to just accept any old walk or trot the horse offers you. She found it a lot harder to get a change in the rhythm of the gaits because the horse was not use to the rider demanding anything more than it gave. This explained why the horse became sour when asked for more effort.

It’s the same with everything we do with a horse. A rider should be quite disciplined with everything that is asked. It is important to know what to expect from your horse and work at getting as close to that as possible. If you don’t become disciplined in your riding, your horse will learn that you’ll accept any half-hearted attempt as ‘good enough’. In the end when you need more from your horse, it won’t be available because your horse will have lost his ‘try’.

horseback shooter
I don’t think enough people realize that letting themselves off lightly is also having a negative effect on their relationship with their horse. It’s hard to have discipline – especially if you are riding just for pleasure or you are learning something new and you don’t have confidence in your judgment at knowing how far to push your horse. But success cannot come from taking short cuts or making half-hearted efforts. It takes work and most times that means working on yourself.

To paraphrase other people, “I can teach you something, but I can’t make you learn it.”

So if you ever see me at a clinic wearing long boots and tapping a whip against the side, you had better be afraid – very afraid.

This photo depicts one example how I encourage riders at my clinics to be more disciplined.

The Moral Compass

I want to talk about something that came up in conversation and for which I have strong views. I don’t normally talk about politics, but since this has a relation to horses and how we treat them I am going to do it anyway.

In the last couple of years there has been an ongoing debate in Australia about the live export of cattle. On one side there is the argument that some countries that we export live cattle to do not treat and slaughter our cattle humanely. There has been some horrific video captured of the cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs that cattle suffer. On the other side is the view of Australian cattle producers that they need the live export industry in order to make a living and it brings a lot of money to the Australian economy. I don’t really intend to discuss the cattle industry, except to say that this issue highlights to me something that is terribly relevant and important to the horse industry too.

You might wonder what live export of cattle has to do with horses?

Michele and I were talking about the export of cattle and she made an excellent observation. She said, if a bull chases a person out of a paddock or a steer kicks a handler during branding, there is nothing wrong with that. We accept that cattle will do those things. An animal has no choice but to do what it is genetically wired to do. It can’t decide right from wrong. It can’t choose not to kick a person because it thinks it is the wrong thing to do. If the moment takes hold of the animal, it must kick. It can’t choose to do otherwise based on a moral or ethical judgement.

But humans are different. We have the ability to make choices. We can decide right from wrong and can make moral judgements. And if we choose not to make those choices, then we are no better than the animals. In fact we are worse because we have the choice.

What is the point of having a moral compass and not use it? Everybody I know or whom I have heard on talk back radio or TV (including people in the export cattle industry) is agreed that the way the Indonesians are treating cattle is horrendous. Nobody seems to be okay with it. Yet some people would prefer nothing be done because of the economic effect a ban might have on the income of cattle producers. In my opinion, these are people who have a moral compass and choose not the use it.

It is no different in the horse industry. People know rolkur (hyperflexion) is not in the interest of horses. People know that soring is not in the interest of horses. They know that jabbing a reining horse in the mouth with a curb bit or whipping a show jumper over the head is morally unethical. They know throwing a horse to the ground to make it submit is abusive. We all know these things are wrong. Yet some people still choose to do them. The people that do, find lots of ways to justify their actions. There is no shortage of excuses for the things we do to horses – or any animal.

What is the point of the gift of being so highly evolved that we choose to ignore that gift when it comes to the animals that we exploit? Perhaps the problem is that we are not evolved enough. Maybe the problem is that we have not yet evolved to the point where we MUST act on our moral compass. A horse or a cow has to act according to their nature – they have no choice. But the nature of humans is to sometimes ignore our moral compass in favour of self-interest. Maybe one day we will evolve to the point that we no longer have a choice between morality and self-interest. When we know something is wrong, we will have to act accordingly to correct the wrong. Then we will be on an equal footing to the cow or the horse.

This is worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.


One Sidedness In Horses

Today’s post is bit of a training tip.

We all have experienced that horses find some things easier on one side than the other. More often than not the right side is the harder side, but this is not always true. And on many horses you’ll find they have preferences that some things are done on one side and other things done on the other side. For example, often horses prefer to be led from the left side (either by natural preference or through training), but can be more balanced going to the right. I once knew a horse that preferred to be haltered from the left side, but bridled from the right side! Who would have thought such a thing could happen?

I know there are a lot of theories floating around as to why horses have unequal sides, but I don’t have a solid answer and I think the theories will remain theories for a long time yet. But I have some thoughts about working with horses that takes into account their one-sidedness.

I figure that when you are going to start something that is a little bit of a challenge to a horse it is best to begin on the easier side. You don’t have to. It’s not a golden rule. But if a horse finds it less worrying than the other side, I think it is good practice to start on the side he is more comfortable. Hopefully a change for the better on the easier side will to some degree transfer the idea that the challenge is not quite so bad on the other side as it might have been. It is not always true that getting something okay on the easy side makes the harder side easier, but it can in enough cases to make it a worthwhile practice for me.

I was once preparing a horse for a first ride and the owner was watching. The horse became terribly worried when I raised my left leg to slide my foot into the stirrup. I chose working on the left side first because I knew it was the horse’s easiest side. After I got a small change with raising my leg to the stirrup, the owner saw that I was quitting the session. She asked why I was not going to repeat the process on the right side. I told her that I would, but not today. I think this confused her because like most of us, she had been taught that you must always repeat the exercise on both sides.

I told her that the change the horse had made was only small and I felt it was not good enough for the horse to carry over and benefit to repeating the process on the other side today. It would be just as a big a mess as it would if we had not done any work on the good side. He needed to gain confidence with my foot going into the stirrup on the left side (the easier side) first so that it would be less troubling for him when I did the exercise on the right (the harder side). I’m all for making these things as easy as possible both for my horse and myself.

There was no advantage to repeating the exercise on the difficult side right then. And there was no harm in NOT repeating the exercise on the hard side that day. When the horse made a more significant improvement on his easy side, it would then be time to do it all over again on the harder side.

I am all for getting both sides of the horse as good as possible. I believe the more even the horse is on each side, the better the horse will be. But there is no urgency about working both sides in the same session or same day. If it’s easier for a horse to have it put off until something else is cleared up for him first and he has more confidence, then postpone it if you can. No harm will be done.

BUT when the horse is ready to be able to handle the challenge on his harder side, don’t postpone it any longer. There is no advantage in delaying the experience if he is ready.

This is either the world’s smallest trainer or the world’s largest horse! The photo is not relevant to the post - I just like the picture.

Small Boy Mounting A Horse

Desensitization Training

I was asked me to write something about desensitization of horses. So here goes.

When I was a kid most of the time when people talked about desensitizing a horse they were talking about sacking out. This involved constantly exposing a horse to something that scared him into an early grave until he got use to it. Often horses were tied up or hobbled to restrict their flight response and then flooded with whatever scared them. The flooding would only stop when the horse stopped trying to flee or avoid the stressor.

All horses experience some form of desensitization at some point in their life. For example, saddling a horse for the first time involves tying down a hunk of leather onto his back, which stays there until he is calm enough for the trainer to be able to get it off again. This is a form of sacking out or desensitization. There are lots of other examples such as fitting a rug (blanket) for the first time or being locked into a racing barrier or being caught in a fence. I know a few people who tie horses to a tree for hours at a time and let them struggle until they give up. It’s sometimes called the “tree of knowledge”.

For many trainers, desensitization or sacking out involves making a horse stand still while cracking a stock whip around them or throwing tarps over them or even lunging them with bags of plastic bottles tied to the saddle or surcingle. These are all flooding techniques designed to kill the flight response inside a horse.

But I want to be clear that the flight response cannot be killed. It can be severely dampened, but because it is an integral part of a horse’s survival instinct it can never be eradicated. The flight response is probably the strongest instinct a horse has – possibly stronger than the need to herd or eat or reproduce.

So any attempt to kill the flight response in a horse is futile because there will always be something that brings it to the surface. It’s not possible to expose a horse to everything that might evoke a flight response. It’s a life-long job to get a horse to not worry about everything.

As trainers we have two choices about how we approach desensitizing horses. The first is to keep presenting scary things to them until they learn to ignore them. This is what the lady in the video below is trying to do. The second approach is to teach a horse NOT to ignore the object, but to learn that it is okay and won’t jeopardize his safety. On the surface they seem like almost the same objectives, but they are not.

Teaching a horse to ignore something that worries him is fraught with trouble. It relies on the horse shutting down to some extent and tuning out the existence of the scary object. He doesn’t feel any better about it, it’s just that we have taught him that reacting to the object is futile and only means we will keep exposing him to it. So he learns to shut his feeling inside and try to pretend he could live through the experience if he doesn’t over react. If you watch the video clip below, this is exactly the method that is being used. There are plenty of signs that the horse feels badly, but he is getting ready to give up and become resigned to his lot in life. In my opinion, if we continue to expose a horse to something that he feels might get him killed we are basically telling him that we don’t care if he lives or dies. He is learning that his safety has no importance to use. That’s why helping him to feel better about the object rather just giving up the fight as futile is so important in our relationship with him.

The alternative approach is to teach a horse that what scares him is not so scary afterall. This can only be done if we ensure he does not try to tune out the scary object. We require him to deal with it and explore it rather than pretend it does not exist. Let me give you an example from my own experience.

I was sent a troubled horse that was over reactive about the rider’s legs touching her sides. She would shudder inside and scoot forward or jump whenever she felt my legs against her. After playing around on the ground for a while I rode her. I pretended I was the clumsiest rider ever and would swing my legs back and forth against her. At first I eased into it, but in time I became even clumsier and more careless with my legs. I looked like a kid kicking my legs on a swing. I rode her around the arena at a walk, trot, canter, back up, leg yield – while all the time I kept rubbing her sides with my legs. If she scooted or jumped I ignored it and asked her to keep going as I stroked her neck. If she got really panicked I eased off and as she got more confident I became even stupider. Anybody watching must have thought I was having a seizure.

But while I was doing all that with my legs I was also using my seat and legs to influence her thought to go forward. If I applied my legs to her and she didn’t listen I firmed up until she got the idea that sometimes my legs mean she needs to think about going forward. I wasn’t just bumping her with my legs trying to get her to ignore me – she needed to always be aware of what my legs were doing. There were times when I bumped her with my legs and she needed to change to realize that my legs were not to be ignored. I was teaching her that sometimes my legs mean ‘go’ and sometimes I am just a clumsy rider and they mean nothing. But never was she to ignore my legs. Instead she just needed to learn to not be worried by them.

Probably a more relevant example for some of you is desensitizing horses to a tarpaulin (or something similar). I know lots of people do this. When I am using a tarp around a horse I want him to deal with it and not tune it out. So during my tarp ‘sacking out’, I might flap the tarp in the air and lay if over my horse etc and help him to not feel the need to flee from it. But I will intersperse that with using the tarp to direct him forward or sideways or backing. Sometimes the tarp will have no meaning and other times it will be used to direct my horse. He will learn to feel my intent for when the tarp is talking to him and he needs to make a change; and when it is just flapping in the breeze and he can keep doing what he is doing. But on ALL occasions I need him focused enough to be aware of what my intent is with the tarp. If I sack him out to teach him to ignore the tarp he won’t know when I want him to response to it because his focus will be elsewhere. There is a big difference between training a horse not to react and training him to feel there is no need to be worried.

I know a lot of trainers spend time using desensitizing techniques like the one shown in the video clip below, but it’s not for me. I hope when you watch that video you can see the problems that lady is causing with her sacking out method. I view methods like this counter productive and create problems that will later bite most riders in the bum at some point.


Riding The Walk

As I said in the previous post, a horse’s walk can be the most difficult gait of all to improve. This is largely because the walk does not have the natural energy that the other gaits tend to have (except perhaps the rein back). I am going to mainly talk about a horse with a slovenly walk since this is the most common problem. But if people want me to discuss a horse with a hurried walk let me know and I’ll present my thoughts on another post.

I could fill an entire chapter in a book about the walk and training a better walk. It’s not possible to do anything but give a very brief examination of a couple of key elements in this post. So please forgive me if this post is not very comprehensive.

Before I talk about the rider’s role in improving the walk, let’s look at the dynamics of a horse’s walk that can help a rider.

When a horse is walking you’ll notice that his ribs swing side to side in time with his hind legs. That is, as the left hind reaches forward the rib cage swings to the right. Likewise, as the right hind reaches forward the ribs swing to the left. If you sit on a horse and let your legs dangle loosely you’ll feel your hips and legs being swing left and right in unison with the ribcage of the horse. This is important to remember, as you’ll see soon.

In order to lengthen a horse’s walk you want to lengthen the reach of the hind legs. A lot of people jump to the conclusion that the front legs must reach farther forward, but the length that a front leg can reach is limited by how far the hind legs move reach under the horse. So in order to increase the stride length we need to think about increasing the reach of the hind legs.

We can only influence the movement of a foot before it leaves the ground. Once a foot is in the air the horse is already committed in his mind where he will lay it back on the ground. So if we want to lengthen the reach of a hind leg we need to ask for that just before the foot has left the ground. This so happens to coincide with when the rib cage has started to swing away from the leg we want to drive. So when the left foot is about to leave the ground you’ll feel the ribs swing to the right and when the right hind is about to leave the ground the ribs will begin to swing to the left. Just keeps these simple facts in mind for what I will talk about later.

There are a few of really common things that people do in an attempt to drive the hind legs further under the horse. These can be counterproductive to improving the walk in my opinion.

The first is they bump the horse with their legs at each stride. Every time a horse takes a step riders nudge them with their calves or bump them with their heels or spurs. The most common reason they do this is because if they don’t they feel the horse is going to slow up or stop. So they urge them forward constantly just to keep them from stopping. This is a sure fire way of teaching a horse to become dull to the rider’s legs. Anytime you apply pressure to a horse you must always be mindful of getting a change of thought and not just maintain what you already have got. So if you bump him with your leg, make sure you get him thinking he needs to try harder rather than he just shouldn’t stop. The energy in your seat should be enough to maintain the rhythm and energy of the walk without having to use your leg against your horse. So that’s mistake no. 1.

The second mistake is that people use what I call the ‘pelvic thrust.’ They push their pelvis forward at every stride to urge their horse forward. I was taught to do this when I was about 8 or 9 or 10. I remember reading about using the pelvic thrust in one of the earliest books I read about riding. I think there was an image of a rider sitting on a swing and it showed how pushing with your pelvis could rock the swing forward. This analogy was transferred to riding a horse. But what was forgotten was that a swing is not a horse. With a horse you want to go forward and forward and forward. But with a swing you want to go forward and back and forward again. And that’s where the pelvic thrust is counterproductive.

When you swing your pelvis forward on a horse, in order to swing it forward again it must first come back. If you don’t bring it back before thrusting forward again you are going to need major surgery. Swinging your pelvis forward can encourage a horse to take a bigger step, but then when you swing it back again you’ll be blocking the horse from going forward. So by using the pelvic thrust you are telling your horse to go forward, go back, go forward, go back...

Rather than trying to rock your pelvis forward, think about doing what you do and a lot of other animals do in order to walk - swing one side of your pelvis forward, then the other side. When you walk your left hip moves forward as your left leg goes forward. Then your right hip goes forward as your right leg swings forward. Your hips do not move in unison as if you were in a Monty Python skit, but one after the other. The same happens when your horse walks. His left hip moves, then his right hip; in time to his back legs reaching forward.

Keeping this in mind, your best chance of influencing a horse’s walk is to get your hips in time with the rhythm of your horse. If you want him to reach further with his left hind, as his rib cage is getting ready to swing to the right bring your left hip forward. The same thing when you want to influence his right hind – bring your right hip forward as the ribs begins to swing to the left. It’s like you had a walk in yourself and your feet are on the ground. If your horse is too dull to listen to your seat, you can bump him with your leg in time with your seat. But if you do that, make absolutely certain you get a change in his mind and not just apply pressure to keep him going.

The third mistake some people make is to ride their horse with more contact than a horse can manage and still go forward freely. A lot of people feel they should ride with contact. But if you pick up the reins and your horse does not soften, he will brace against the rein pressure and feel he can’t go forward – like he is walking into a wall. You are placing him between a rock and hard place. Try asking for a walk on a loose rein. If it’s better than when you had a shorter rein contact, he is not ready to be ridden with contact.

There is a lot more to the walk than I have talked about. I haven’t even touched on what a good walk actually is. But for now I just wanted to give an outline of the most common issues with the walk that I see in clinics. Maybe another time I can discuss other aspects of the walk and how to improve it.

The video link below is from Marlis Amato. It’s not really about training the walk, but about a horse that just won’t go forward. I know a lot of people will try to get a better walk out of a horse by using spurs or a whip or in some way trying to make it happen. But Marlis presents some ideas in this 18min video that could be adapted to helping a horse improve at all his gaits. I would urge that you to focus on the concepts she presents in the clip and not nitpick over the technique.


Aggressive Horse

Dear Ross

My name is Lauren I am 18 years old and have a 10 year old warm blood who I have owned since January this year. He is a very talented dressage horse and we have already had a lot of success but his behaviour on the ground has become increasingly aggressive. He walks up to me in the paddock and allows me to catch him and is easy to lead but if he is tied up in the stable he becomes increasingly aggressive towards anyone else who is near him. He lunges forward at them with his ears back and his teeth bared and this has happened quite frequently, I am just lucky he was tied up on a short lead. He does also try to bite and kick me when I take off/put on his rugs and when I try to correct him by hitting him on the shoulder with a lead rope or telling him “no”, his behaviour only becomes more aggressive and he fights back.

He is 16.2 hands and a big horse and the worse his behaviour becomes the more I am becoming concerned for my safety, he has never actually kicked or bitten me but his threats are very aggressive. In the saddle he is a lovely horse to ride, he is extremely well educated and their a no behavioural issues. With all the competing that I do I just want to be able to trust him around other people and horses.

I am located in Officer, Victoria and I am quite happy to come to you if you have any clinics or one on one session available in the near future in Victoria.

Hope to hear from you soon Lauren

Thanks for your email.

It sounds from your email that your horses is not a very happy camper. This may stem from the overall way he feels about being handled and ridden. But without seeing him for myself it is hard to be sure. Horses are incredibly tolerant until they are no longer tolerant. But your horse is definitely telling you he is not happy. This is genuine anxiety and not just your horse trying to get one over on you. If you ignore it, he will get worse. He wants you to listen to him and change the way you are doing things. If you ignore him, his frustration level will only increase.

I think there are 2 approaches you need to think about. The first is short term dealing with what to do when he is getting crabby. And the second is the longer term approach to fixing the cause of why he feels crabby.

In the short term, think about interrupting his behaviour before it happens. For example, if he lunges at people as they walk past his stall have a friend walk past and before he pins his ears or charges the door, send him to the back of the stable by shaking a rage or whip at him from outside the stable. Change his thought to lunge before he does lunge by giving him something else to do. You don't need to scare him or get aggressive towards him, but you need to do enough to change him thinking about charging the door to moving somewhere else. Then go and pet on him.

Similarly, when you take his rug off and he tries to kick at you, ask his hq to step across or for him to back a step or two BEFORE he tries to kick at you. Notice the earliest signs of his anxiety and ask him to do something that interrupts his thinking to do something. Don't punish him or hit him or yell at him - just give him a small job to do.

This principle can be applied across all sorts of situation where he exhibits threatening behaviour. One thing you don't do it punish him. Even if he does bite or kick you, don't punish him. He is only expressing his feelings and you can't punish a horse for having feelings. Plus it will only make him feel worse. If you get bit or kicked you were late to interrupt his thought - so it is your fault and not his. Just say "Oww" and forget about it and try to be earlier next time.

Now the harder thing is to change the reasons for why he feels the need to threaten you. I don't know you or your horse, so I am in no position to tell you what needs to change or how to change it. You need a good horse person to watch you and your horse who can give you advice firsthand. What I am certain about is that your horse does need to get beaten up for his behaviour. Nothing will get better by having somebody come along and lay down the law to your horse. The problem is created by people and the change has to come in the people for there to be long term improvement.

I will be doing some clinics in Wonthaggi and Yarrambat later in the year and you are welcome to bring your horse along for me to have a look at it. You can get details and contacts for the organizers from the
Schedule page of this site.

Alternatively, you can try getting a lady called Marina Morton to come and look at your horse. She lives in Drouin, so she is not very far from you. You can contact her via I don't know what she charges, but tell her I suggested you contact her.

I hope that helps. Good luck.

Quality of Gaits: Nature vs Training

It is commonly believed that the quality of a horse’s walk and canter are fixed at birth. But the quality of the trot can be improved with training. This is a concept that was drummed into me as a young dressage rider by several old dressage riders. I have read the same notion in several articles and one or two books over the years.

In my opinion I think this is a pretty archaic idea that gets passed along from generation to generation without being questioned or examined for evidence of truth. I have never seen any evidence to make me believe it is true.

All gaits can be improved or ruined by training. Genetics plays a role in limiting the full potential of the quality of gait. But whether that potential is reached is determined by training – just like so many other attributes. The potential for how far a walk, trot and canter can be improved is influenced by conformation, which is genetically determined. But anything short of a horse’s full potential is largely dictated by the training it received (except in circumstances of injury).

I have never heard an explanation why it is believed there is so much room to play with the trot, but so little room with the walk or canter. I don’t know anybody who has been able to give me a logical answer to this question.

In my experience, training can influence all gaits. It is largely dependent on the degree of relaxation and straightness of a horse. I have seen horses that appeared dead lame at all gaits and an observer would swear the owner needed to call a vet. But once the horse relaxed, the lameness magically disappeared.

I do think the hardest gait of all to achieve brilliance is the walk. The trot and canter have their own degree of innate impulsion and energy that can be used to create expression. But often the walk is quite flat because of the relatively low energy a horse brings to the walk. Often times in order to create energy to a walk and bring engagement, a rider will put a rush in a horse and ruin both the rhythm and relaxation that is so important in a good quality walk. I think if a rider can train a good walk in a horse that is not naturally inclined to it, the trot and canter are pretty easy in comparison. There is no doubt in my mind that the walk is both the hardest and most important gait to achieve brilliance. So many horses with amazing trot and canter movement have poor walks because it is such an under estimated gait. I think Anky van Grunsven’s horse Bonfire is a good example of a horse that blew the socks off other horses at the trot and canter, but his walk was worse than a three-legged cart horse trained by a one-legged Amish fellow.

My own gelding, Riley had a terrible trot and walk, but a naturally great canter. The trot was stilted and short and quite jarring to the bones. And the walk was like a retired trail horse. But both improved dramatically as he learned to get off his forehand and carry himself better. He needed more impulsion and softening through his top-line to create an improvement in his paces. Riley has never needed a lot of work on his straightness because he is naturally one of the straightest horses at all gaits that I have ever ridden. On the other hand, Six grew up with a great walk and trot, but her canter was like jumping out of an aeroplane – you just felt you were going to go SPLAT anytime. By getting her softer through her whole body she became much straighter and more balanced.

In short, I think the limitation of how brilliant a horse’s walk, trot and canter can be is largely determined by the genetics of his conformation. But how close a horse gets to achieving the full potential of his body is dependent on our ability to train them to that end. I believe all gaits are susceptible to change from our influence to train them. To buy or judge a horse on the quality of just one or two gaits seems short sighted to me.

The video is of Bonfire in his prime.


Progression of Straightness Training

I enjoyed this video. There were some aspects I would do differently, but I like how it shows a steady of progression of the training. Each step was built upon a foundation of steps that came before. It’s worth watching.


Bad Behaviour For Farrier

I received a question during the week that I suspect may be relevant to other people, so I thought I would talk about the subject here.

A lady owns a mare that is pretty difficult for the farrier to trim. She said the mare has resorted to rearing and bolting even with the help of sedation. But the owner doesn’t have much trouble handling the mare and working with her feet/legs. She wanted to know if I had some advice.

Many people automatically assume that the farrier is the problem. But sometimes this matter can be more complicated than that and a bit of detective work is never wasted time.

My first thought is to ask if the mare has problems with strangers in general or is the problem specific to the farrier? A lot of horses don’t get handled very much by strangers and struggle to adjust with the way unfamiliar people present themselves – the way they do things - their energy – their confidence level – their gesticulations – their loudness etc. I know at clinics that some horses can be wary immediately I take the lead rope just because I present myself differently to the way the owner does. If you have a horse like this it can be a real help to spend the time to have friends who are competent and confident with horses to do a bit of handling of your horse. Avoid letting schmucks play with your horse, but handy horse people is a good idea.

The other thing to consider is just how good is the horse when the owner plays with the mare’s legs and feet? A lot of people believe their horse is good with having their feet handled because they can pick them up and put them down without too much fuss. But just how ready is a horse for the farrier who will place the legs in different positions, hold onto it for several minutes, rasp the foot, bang the foot, place the foot between his/hers knees or on a stand? How many people go the whole hog of behaving just a like a farrier might to prepare their horse for the day the farrier visits?

I even know people who don’t handle their horse’s legs and leave it to the farrier to educate the horse. It’s not the farrier’s job. They are there to dress and/or shoe the horse, not train him for you. If you have not prepared the horse well and he misbehaves, don’t be shocked or angry with the farrier if he either loses his temper with the horse or packs up his tools and tells you to find another mug to trim your horse.

But having said all that, a farrier does have certain responsibilities to make his job easier and the horse’s life easier. He does not have the right to discipline your horse without consent. Whenever I have had a horse not behaving well for the farrier I never let him discipline the horse. I would either take the horse away and work with it while he went onto another horse or I’d tell him to leave it for now and get him back to trim it on the next visit.

Sometimes having a good horse person holding the horse for a farrier can make a real difference. I know some people whom I would never let hold a horse if I was under them and others I would breathe a sigh of relief knowing they were going to hold the horse. A good person with the lead rope can read when a horse is starting to struggle to hold it together long before the horse starts moving and can either intervene with a slight feel on the lead rope or rub of the forelock or can warn the farrier that things are quickly going south and to let the horse have his foot back because he needs a break.

The hardest thing to deal with is if your farrier is causing the problem. I’ve had this experience. Very often you are dealing with egos that don’t have room to hear what somebody else thinks. We had an excellent farrier who was a good craftsman, but sometimes he had a knack of upsetting horses. He was a busy fellow and wanted to get the job done. If he were not in the mood to take his time and help a horse he would upset some of the younger horses. With my mare Six, he had a knack of causing her to pull back when he was clenching the nails on her front shoes. I told him to not clench them so tightly, but he wouldn’t listen and sometime got hurt by her. Then one day his apprentice was shoeing her and she didn’t pull back. The boss asked what did he do and the apprentice said he didn’t clench the nails very tight. That changed his opinion.

On another occasion an older horse wouldn’t stand still for him. I noticed that my farrier was stretching the leg more than the arthritis on this horse could tolerate. I told him that she wasn’t able to stretch that far without being in pain. We had a frank discussion about it and he reluctantly gave it a try to change his position. He had no more trouble after that.

shoeing stock
I had that same farrier work with me for over twenty years and we came to respect each other’s skills. He’s spent a lot of time studying shoeing and trimming and was always trying new ideas and experimenting. I respected that. But he wasn’t the best horse handler in the world and over time he came to respect and listen to my ideas on how he could improve. It is the sort of relationship I wish everyone could have with their farrier. But it took years to make changes in him.

There are many reasons why horses don’t stand quietly for the farrier, the owners create some and farriers create others. You have to work out where the problem lies with your horse and address it – even at the risk of either eating humble pie or losing your farrier.

The photo shows a horse in a shoeing stock. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a fetus. But it seems some people still use them for horses that don’t stand still to be shod.

Spooking Behaviour

I was asked for some advice about a horse that spooks a lot. Apparently it is pretty good on the ground, but when ridden the horse is nervous and spooks at lots of things. I thought I’d say a few words about this on here because I know other people have similar issues with their horse.

Firstly, I am going to assume that the horse is sound and not suffering some pain issues, which can create nervousness and distraction. If you are not sure whether pain (sore joints, back, mouth/teeth, saddle fit etc) could be a factor then it might be a good idea to have those things checked.

I am also going assume that the spookiness is not genuine fear. If a horse is genuinely afraid of something then the approach should be to use approach and retreat methods to help those things become familiar and comfortable to your horse. Don’t just throw him in the deep end and tell him to get over it. Instead expose him gradually and take small steps that enable him to develop confidence in you and in himself to deal with the scary situation.

horseless carriages must have been spooky to a horse
But spookiness is often not about fear. Shying at things is mostly about ill feelings in the horse that cause him to become unfocused and nervously alert. The fact that the horse in question is pretty good on the ground, but troubled when ridden suggests strongly to me that the problem stems from a lack of focus and belief in the leadership of the rider – they often go hand in hand. If the horse were really afraid he would be almost as troubled on the end of the lead rope as he was when being ridden.

I think there are two things to consider. The first is how to reduce the incidence and level of shying. Second, what to do when he does shy at something?

In my experience, people who ride horses that spook a lot are not very aware of the early signs that the horse’s focus has departed. They only notice it when the horse either jumps at something or his stare becomes fixated on something. But they failed to notice the small change in his response to the reins or his slight change in energy or the crookedness that preceded the 10 mins before the shying.

A friend has had one of our horses on a long-term lease. About 3 years ago she came along for a lesson on our horse with the request to help her with the pony shying. She said that she takes the horse for a ride and a few hundred metres from home the pony gets nervous and shies at things. We worked in the arena at first and got the horse pretty good and listening. I opened the arena gate when I thought the pony was ready to go out on a trail. The instant the pony took it’s first step out through the gate I told my friend to stop her. She had to haul on the reins to get the horse to stop. But in the arena the horse was stopping on a soft ask. My friend was surprised when I told her that it was the first step out of the arena that the problem started. She thought the problem started a few hundred metres down the road. But the instant the horse went through the gate her mind left and the pony was no longer capable of listening to the reins. We worked for a few minutes just by the gate and got the horse softer and more focused before going further. She rode the pony down the road and every few metres I had her check in with the pony to see if it was still with her. If it wasn’t, she went no further until she got the horse’s mind back with her. The horse did not spook during the ride.

In a nutshell, I happen to believe that you should take of care of what happened before it happened so that what might happen won’t happen. Got it?

You might ask what did I have my friend do to get the horse’s focus on her? I had her to do lots of things like back up, go forward, go around a tree, side pass etc. But the important part was not what she did. The part that caused the horse to bring it’s focus back to the rider was that when she asked the horse to do something she kept asking until the horse made a change in how it felt – not what it was doing, but how it felt! That’s the part that people miss. They are always trying to control the feet when the essential change comes from changing the horse’s feelings.

So my advice to the lady that asked the question is (i) be aware of the earliest moments when you start to lose the horse’s focus - which could be the instant you put your foot in the stirrup or it could be when his friends call out or when the quarry nearby sets off dynamite. And (ii) do enough to change his focus and bring it back to you.

The other part I want to mention before finishing is what should you do if he does spook at something. In general, I would say nothing. Ignore it. Pretend it didn’t happen and make a mental note that you missed your moment to help him before he spooked and try to do better next time.

Some people believe that they should make the horse go up to the object and stand there for a while or put their nose on it etc. A lot of the time that’s not possible because the object was a kangaroo or deer and good luck trying to get close enough so your horse can put his nose on the kangaroo or deer! But even if it was an inanimate object like a stump; most times it is not the object that caused the problem. It’s the lack of focus and the poor feelings the horse carries about being ridden. So forget about the object and concentrate on the poor feelings inside the horse. If you ignore the feelings and focus on having your horse deal with the stump or puddle or tractor tyre, you are not addressing the real problem. You may get him use to the stump, but there will always be something else only a few minutes away that will bring out the expressions of how he feels. So my advice is that most times ignore the thing he shied at and get on with the job of helping your horse to feel better.


White Space

white space makes me happy
I received a phone call a couple of days ago from a friend. They said they had seen my new web site and really liked it. My friend knows a lot about design, so I felt pretty good that she would think it was a good site.

She particularly talked about how I used white space so cleverly to both emphasize different parts and make other parts easy to read and follow. She went on about the white space. I know nothing about design or the notion of white space. I just built the web site from a suggestion Michele made to make it simple and clean.

After talking to my friend I got thinking about ‘white space’ and how she said it added clarity to the site. Anytime anybody uses the word ‘clarity’ I immediately start thinking about training horses. I then started to realize that I use ‘white space’ quite a lot when I’m working with a horse.

In terms of horse training I think of ‘white space’ as a blank moment in time. It’s that piece of time where you do nothing, offer nothing and ask for nothing of your horse. It’s his time to do what is on his mind (within boundaries) and your time to allow it (within boundaries) as if you had left the room.

White space is not a release. To me a release, is a release of pressure or a change of pressure from one thing to another. A release is that thing you want that helps the horse to have a light bulb moment. It’s the thing that teaches a horse that when you do A and he does B, you stop asking for A. That’s what I think of when we talk about a release. But that’s not what I think of when I think of ‘white space’.

I think ‘white space’ is dwell time or some might call it soak time. It’s the time when a horse’s thoughts can be whatever they are. You are not requiring focus or clarity or softness from him. It’s the beer after a hard day in the hot sun or the cup of tea after writing something on Facebook or the sitting next to your wife on a long drive without the need to say anything except smile at her.

I haven’t given it much thought before, but after talking to my friend on the phone I realize I use a lot of ‘white space’ when I am working with a horse. I think I do more of it at home than at clinics, because a clinics is busy, time is short and there is the need to get something done. Nevertheless, when I am riding my horses at home I will drop the reins and they can either stand or walk around for a minute or two. I’ll be watching the family of eagles soaring above or the horses in the other paddock playing silly buggers or check out the flowers starting to bud on the gum trees or I’ll be thinking about the last 10 or 15 minutes of work I just did with my horse. Then it’s back to work for a while before another moment of dwell time.

The idea of this time of asking nothing and doing nothing is to give my horse and me time together where there is no need to think about anything or do anything. It’s time to hang out. And I think this adds a layer to our relationship that is not about working. The layer may be as thin as paint, but over time enough layers get added that it can feel like there is a solid bond that is not based on training between my horse and me. White space is only one small part of that process. But it has worked for me for a long time. If you don’t already do it, you might consider giving it a try.