The Essence of Good Horsemanship NOW an eBOOK

After a lot of harassment from various people who like ebooks rather than paperback, I have finally pulled my finger out and my book The Essence of Good Horsemanship is now available in kindle format from​

Liberty Training

Today I want to talk briefly about liberty training.
People love the idea of being able to work their horse without gear either when being ridden or on the ground. I am not clear what the fascination is with liberty work, but I suspect there is an element of giving people a power trip knowing that their horse could actually run away or at the very least ignore them without the assistance of equipment to impose a response. I think people like the idea that the liberty horse demonstrates a high degree of obedience.
However, it is a mistake to assume that because a horse exhibits sufficient obedience to be performed accurately at liberty that therefore this is a strong and healthy relationship between horse and trainer. It could be the case that there is a good bond between the two, but people often believe that because a horse will work at liberty it automatically indicates a great partnership. There is a difference between obedience and willingness and people naturally assume a horse is offering willingness when they see a performance at liberty.
Like all problems in training, the mistakes we make start in the early training. Liberty work does not start out with a horse at liberty. It always begins with a restriction of liberty. The restriction could be a fenced arena (like a round yard) or a halter and rope or a bridle and saddle or a lariat or a pair of whips in each hand. But whatever it is that we use its purpose is to narrow a horse’s choices. For example, when we begin to teach liberty work on the ground it is customary to work either on line or use a small yard in order that the horse cannot get far enough away from us to escape or avoid any pressure we apply. By doing this we restrict the horse’s choices. 
I’m not criticizing this approach, but people need to be reminded that the work they see at a horse expo of horses performing amazing feats at liberty did not start out that way. There was a long process of using very orthodox training to get to the liberty stage.
Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with using equipment in the beginning of liberty training to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy. But just as people who never intend to train at liberty make mistakes teaching these early lessons, so do people who have a goal to train horses at liberty also screw up and mistake obedience for willingness.
I will take it one step further and suggest that a lot of liberty training that I have observed is even more focused on obedience training simply because it is the nature of having a horse work at liberty that if there are holes in the obedience, the absence of gear makes correction much more difficult. So many liberty trainers take a sterner approach to limiting a horse’s choice in the training process because when they get to the stage of working their horse at liberty they have fewer options to correct mistakes. This is when obedience supersedes willingness.
Willingness can only be obtained from a horse when it has searched through the largest possible number of options and finally picks the option we had hoped it would choose. When we restrict the number of available options, we move along the scale away from willingness and towards slavish obedience. The more we limit the options the closer the horse draws to slavishness. It’s hard enough to get a good outcome when we have the equipment to help us give a horse clarity but still search through a wide range of choices. But when we include the added requirement of working with no gear, while still demanding the desired result, it’s difficult to keep the potential to have a willing horse open. It’s not impossible, but the task is made so much harder. 
Followers of my work will already know that I believe it is the horse’s mind that determines the quality of the work and the type of relationship we have with our horse. If, in the process of training for liberty work, we impose enough limitations on a horse’s ability to choose a range of options (even ones we don’t like) a horse can feel just as imprisoned by the training as if we had used the harshest and most severe halters, ropes, bits, spurs, hobbles or whatever. Working at liberty is not a test of a horse’s willingness or the quality of our relationship. So when watching a horse work at liberty try to observe the horse’s body language as well as the correctness of the movement. These are much more telling than the pizzazz of the cool tricks without gear.
The final point I want to make is that in my view there is no merit in a horse working at liberty if the movement is incorrect. I feel it is an indication of poor training and there is no benefit to the horse. I would prefer to see a horse offering a nice relaxed and balanced walk or trot on a lunge line than a crooked horse circling at liberty in a large open space. I see no point in working a horse at liberty if the outcome is poor quality movement and poor quality emotions. However, if done well liberty training is a lot of fun and can interest to the work that makes the process more enjoyable for horse and rider.

Fun With Flags

This is post should probably not be written – at least at the moment. This is because I am cranky and good sense dictates you should not write something for public consumption when you are mad. But bugger it. I’m tired of some of the nonsense I have to be polite about sometimes and there are times when stupidity and ignorance need to be called out for what they are.


Some articles written by different people about how horrible and anti-training it is to use a flag when working with horses has prompted this post. It seems there is a vendetta against flags among certain horse people who have trouble connecting two or more synapses together.


In brief, their argument goes that flags are used to create terror in a horse and therefore flags are bad. The fact that these same people use and promote the use of riding whips, lunging whips, spurs, bits, ropes etc leaves them scrambling for a dictionary to learn the meaning of the words “irony” and “hypocrisy”.


The element that is missing from the argument that flags are a problem is an understanding of the role the human plays in its use. A flag is an inanimate object that has no power to do evil or good on its own. Its function is completely controlled by the human holding it. It’s within the capacity of each person to apply the flag in a beneficial way or a harmful way. The flag itself has no say over that. This is equally true of whips and spurs and bits (provided they are a comfortable fit). Just because a trainer uses a flag to terrorize a horse into submission, does not make the flag the evil-doer.


One trainer that I read recently who espouses how evil flags are, even argued round yards are detrimental to training, but square yards are an excellent training tool. Their rationalization was that round yards encouraged horses to run more and square yards do not. It seems for this trainer blame for misuse of a round yard falls at the feet of the yard and not at the human chasing the horse in the yard.


I find it bizarre that an inanimate piece of equipment that has no innate power is criticized as the problem when it is clearly a problem with people not knowing how to use the equipment.


I see the flag not as a flag, but as a clarity stick. Like all equipment, its purpose is to bring clarity to our intent. A person should keep in mind that rather than scare a horse into doing something, it is intended to clear up any confusion for a horse. It is hard to see what is wrong with that.


The same can be said of whips, spurs, bits, ropes and whatever other gear that is under the control of a rider or handler.


There is some equipment that I believe is anti-training, such as side reins, tie downs, Pessoa etc. The reason why I feel this way is that they fall into the category of not being adjustable or controlled by a human. Once they are fitted the rider or handler can’t adjust them in a moment-to-moment manner as the horse’s thoughts and emotions alter. If a person cannot instantly influence the effect of an item of equipment to cater to the horse’s needs every moment, then I believe the value of such gear for creating softness and okay-ness rather than simple obedience, needs to be questioned.


I want to end by saying this article is about much more than whether a flag is a good or poor training tool. There is a much broader principle at stake that affects how we are as horse people.


It’s difficult for all of us to change our views regarding concepts that are strongly held. I truly believe that we should examine closely the things we believe and the things others believe. It’s only then are we justified in holding onto ideas with passion. If our efforts to understand and explore different ideas are weak, then the strength to which we hold onto our own ideas should also be weak.


Photo: This was taken at a clinic where Amanda was in the process of starting Cowboy. She is using the flag to support the feel of the lead rope to help Cowboy to not drop his shoulder toward her. Is the flag being used here to train the horse not to crowd the handler (obedience) or to provide clarity to the feel of the lead rope?

Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.


Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..


Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.


Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.


I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.


Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.


I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.


With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.


*  How to break something down into small chunks.


*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.


* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.


* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.


* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.


 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.


The final point is particularly important.


From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.


We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.


But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.


Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.


A Technique For Saddling A Horse

This video demonstrates the proper saddling technique to make it easier for a small rider to throw a heavy saddle onto a horse.