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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
“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.
“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.
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 – PART 1
WHAT IS FOCUS?
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.
A HORSE’S THOUGHTS
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ☺
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! ☺
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.
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 http://youtu.be/CDEXMWZZ_dI. 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I don't know what she charges, but tell her I suggested you contact her.
I hope that helps. Good luck.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.