Training With Feel: Driving versus Directing

Pressure is part of almost every decision a horse makes in life. In training, we can either use pressure to drive a horse or direct a horse. Which one we apply and when we apply it has a large impact on the final result. 

In this video I explain the difference between using pressure to drive or direct a horse.


The Biggest Training Challenge - Herd Instinct

I believe that separation anxiety is by far the most common and troublesome problem people face with their horses. It may show up in different ways with different horses such as bucking in some or failure to trailer load in others or even a lack of straightness or fidgetiness at the mounting block. There is no limit to how separation anxiety may be expressed by different horses.


We often think of horses as being highly food motivated, and this is true. But in general gluttony does not even get a look in when it comes to what is most important to a horse, that is safety. Horses get their sense of safety from living with other horses – the so-called “safety in numbers” theory prevails here. For most horses, the herd effect is so important that they will leave food to go with the herd. Most people who study horse behaviour use food as a reward and incentive to perform, but I think it would be a fascinating study to substitute food with companionship and test which one was the more effective drive. I am pretty confident that with few exceptions, companionship would be the decisive winner.


I have known a horse that when its paddock mate was taken away it run up and down a fence line for hours and hours until it bled from the soles of its hooves and still kept running, not stopping to eat or drink. I’ve seen horses run through several barbwire fences, shredding its legs and chest, to pal up to another horse.  I have heard of a horse that jumped out of a moving stock trailer when it saw horses in a paddock by the side of a road. It is unlikely that any horse would have done these things just for a few mouthfuls of grass or a bucket full of grain. That’s because food is not as important as companionship to most horses. Horses don’t feel the absence of food is a risk to their survival. They like food, maybe even love food, but they don’t view a lack of food as a near-death experience. However, the herd instinct is so strong and so important in horses that the absence of a herd evokes very strong survival instincts. Horses are wired in such a way that a lack of companionship is a life-threatening experience.


Of course, training and experience can shape a horse’s outlook on the need to be part of a herd. If done well, we can teach a horse that its safety is not at risk just because it is alone in the paddock or we take it on a trail by itself. But because the herd instinct is an innate need in a horse that is genetically programmed I don’t believe we can ever eradicate it from a horse, no matter how well we approach the training. We may be able to ameliorate the symptoms but never extinguish the desire.


One reason I say this comes from my own experience with horses that don’t get along very well in a herd. On several occasions, I have had good success of transforming the relationship of two horses that did not get along at all into something close to being friends or at the very least tolerant of each other. This has come about by putting both horses in a trailer, taking them somewhere unfamiliar, letting them out to rest for 10 or 20 minutes, then loading them back into the trailer and taking them home. At first, one worries they will kill each other in the trailer, but after going to a new place and coming home again the relationship has turned from foes to friends. My explanation for this is that the horses have shared a traumatic event and their only security came from being together. This would only be possible because it is their nature to feel safe in the company of another horse. I view it as being akin to two strangers being stuck in an elevator for an hour. By the time they are rescued they are good friends who exchange telephone numbers and promise to stay in touch.


I am guessing that most of you reading this are in agreement that companionship is a hugely important instinct in a horse’s life. I am also guessing that many recognize the importance that it plays in your relationship and the work you do with your horse. But I suspect a lot of you are wondering when I will get to the part that tells you how to fix separation anxiety when it gets in the way of doing stuff with your horse. Well, the short answer is for you to fill in the gap that the absence of other horses has created. The long answer is in almost every post I have written and every video I have made. It’s a big picture approach to getting a grasp of a horse’s thoughts that should be in everything we do with a horse.


But this post is not about how to fix separation anxiety. It’s intended to help you appreciate the role of the herd instinct in a horse’s life. It should be a large part of all that you think about when it comes to housing your horse, training your horse, doctoring your horse, catching your horse, presenting yourself to your horse and so and so on.


We usually only consider our horse’s need to be part of a herd when it gets in the way of our training and when it doesn’t we don’t give it much thought. But it would be a failure on our part to be good horse people because the herd instinct is present in almost every decision and choice a horse makes. It doesn’t get turned on and off at moment of most inconvenience. It’s always there whether lurking under the surface or as conspicuous as a burlesque drag queen.

It's The Relationship That Makes It Work

It is the lot of clinicians and trainers that the number of male clients is a tiny fraction of female clients. It seems that women are more likely to be drawn to whatever it is that horses offer than men are. In my experience, while the wives are obsessed with riding, brushing, feeding, tack, talking about and loving their horse, their male halves are often equally devoted to their cars, motorbikes, fishing, and sports.  I have never been one of those men. The fascination with sports and cars has eluded me most of my life. I don’t know what that says about me, but whatever you think it means, you’re wrong!


I have thought a lot on the reasons why I like horses so much. I realize it is not just because I like riding or I like training. I like everything about them. I don’t even mind trimming their feet or making up their feeds.  I just like them. I like the smell. I like hanging out. I like watching them play. When I try to distill my reasons for my love of horses that explains why cars and bikes don’t have the same fascination I’m left to conclude it is because I can have a relationship with a horse, but I can’t with a car or a fishing rod. The payback for the hard work that horses sometimes are is the joy I receive from the relationship. It’s the same for with most aspects of my life. The greatest joy comes from my relationship with the people I love and care about, the dogs, the cats and even our chickens and ducks.


Sometimes people lose sight of the importance of their relationship with their horse. We all know the quality of our relationship is fundamental to getting along with a horse, but this often gets foggy during the training process. We have an intellectual appreciation that things go best when our horse is emotionally comfortable and happy to work with us, listen to us and offer a try when things are not totally clear. We absolutely know this. But when our horse is not doing as we would like and appears to be plotting against us we focus on fixing the disobedience and lose track of the direction our attempt to deal with the problem is taking our relationship. We look at what we need to do to address the behaviour but don’t take enough time to consider if that is good or bad for our relationship.


This is a big problem in the training world - really big problem.


When things are not going according to plan we have a propensity to fixate on fixing those things and this is often at the expense of the good relationship we could have with our horse. We think we are helping our horse by fixing stuff, as if the disobedience or confusion is the thing that is getting in the way of our relationship. But most often it is not. In fact, most times it is the opposite. It is the desire to train on our horse and get the obedience established that becomes the obstacle to the kind of relationship we would like to have. Almost always we don’t know we do it and if we did we probably wouldn’t do it. But we become so tunnel-vision about correcting the stop or the go buttons or the lack of straightness or the rushing or the trailer loading, that we bury in the back of our mind how our solution to these problems impact on our relationship with our horse. We see the behaviour as the problem, not what we do about it.


This is often exacerbated by our inability to become emotionally detached when our horse doesn’t get onboard with our idea. Our frustration and sometimes even anger interferes with our judgment, feel and timing and often leads to bad decisions made in an instant that we would otherwise not make if we took the time to consider our options.


It’s easily forgotten that our frustration is no more troubling to us than our horse’s frustration is to them. The difference is that we are doing it to the horse. The horse is not doing it to us. We forced our horse into our world and into the position that caused the trouble, not the other way around. So we don’t have the right to let our horse feel the brunt of our emotions. Keep them buried and out of the way of the relationship.


I am not suggesting that training obedience is not an important part of getting along with a horse. But too often I notice that it takes priority and the quality of our relationship with our horse takes a back seat. We are happy if we get along well, but if not at least our horse is doing what we want – and that’s the important part for most of us. This is a problem because if we don’t get along well with our horse, everything we do will result in either some degree of argument or a heartbreaking sense of futility for the horse.


So I urge people to really consider that when things are chronically not going well with a horse day after week after month that they go back to basics and build the relationship. That should be the priority. I don’t mean to pamper and baby them, because that does nothing to aid a relationship. But be clear and go back to basics where things are less combative. Get things where your horse no longer dreads seeing you arrive with a halter over your arm. Start from there and go slowly fixing each step where your horse’s emotions begin to sour.


There is no higher achievement than to have a good relationship with your horse. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have much no matter how many ribbons and medals you have. Fix the relationship and then build on that to get where you want to go.

Problems With Lateral Flexion

In this video I discuss the problems that teaching lateral flexion to young horses creates. Primarily it causes a disconnection between the inside rein and the hindquarters which leads to crookedness and unbalanced circles and turns. This can be overcome by asking for flexion but allowing the hindquarters to yield in response to the inside rein alone (not using leg pressure), instead of insisting the feet stand still.

Different Types Of Try In Horses

I received a request to re-post this article. So here it is.


Previously I have said that the easiest horses to train are the ones with ‘try’. By the word ‘try’ I mean they possess a readiness to search for ways to escape or evade pressure. So when we ask something of a horse by applying a little pressure the horse feels it is important enough and they are motivated enough to search through all the available options of responses to eliminate the discomfort that pressure has created. That’s what I mean by the term try and that’s what makes those horses more trainable.


I think there are 3 categories of try in the horse world and within those, there are sub-levels, which I will try to explain as I go along.


There are the horses with a lot of natural try.


These are often horses that are pretty sensitive and the thing they are sensitive to is pressure. It usually doesn’t take a lot of asking for them to try something. In fact, one of the issues that people have with this type of horse is often an over-reaction to pressure or anticipation ahead of the pressure. This is where the term “hot horse” comes from. Often their response to being asked something is disproportional to the amount of pressure used because of their worry about pressure. That’s the downside.


However, the upside is it usually doesn’t require a lot of pressure for them to search for a new idea and a way of responding to our requests. They try one answer and if that doesn’t result in peace and tranquility in their life, they try another. Then another and another, until they find comfort.


Horses like this are quick learners if handled correctly. Nevertheless, if our timing and feel are poor then we confuse them and stress them even more than before. They can quickly turn from sensitive to crazy and passed from person to person until either finding the right owner or going for slaughter. Unfortunately, this is too often the fate of retired racehorses and other victims of human error.


Sensitive horses have the potential to be the best horses in our life, but they are not suited for inexperienced people for the reasons I have already stated. Where it goes wrong is people’s inability to recognize a try in a horse and either miss it all together or they are inconsistent with their releases and confuse the poor beast until they have a meltdown. A lack of clarity is a huge stress in a horse’s life and sensitive horses with a lot of try suffer the most for this human failing. But given an owner with empathy, patience and good feel and timing, they can be amazing.


The second category is with horses that have very little try in them.


These horses are not inspired to search very hard for answers to questions that pressure presents to them. I believe there are two types of horses that exhibit this behaviour.


The first is the stoic horse. These are horses that came out of their mother with not a lot of “care factor.” They absorb pressure and trouble and store it up inside until their cup of worry is ready to overflow, then they erupt – and erupt big. But in the lead up to the eruption, they appear to be calm and quiet and not care. A rider can add layer upon layer of pressure and they shrug their shoulders as if to ask if we were talking to them.


A lot of people who have had bad experiences with sensitive horses eventually become attracted to the stoic horse. They feel safer because these horses don’t have a hair trigger when we get our feel or timing wrong or we present too much pressure. These make the perfect kids pony or babysitter for a novice rider.


The downside is that every time we want to teach them something new or change their thoughts or established patterns, it’s a lot of work.


The second type of horse that often shows very little try is the shutdown horse.


These horses often start out as sensitive with a lot of try but become shutdown with very little try because of poor training. Through insensitive training, they have learned the futility of having or expressing an opinion. Unlike the horse born with a small care factor, these horses have a lot of care factor, but it is drilled out of them until the mentally disengage from us and what we ask of them.


The most common way I have seen of killing a try in these horses is through drilling the work over and over and by flooding with pressure. Flooding is where a pressure is presented to a horse and not removed until the horse submits. An example might be to throw a rope over a horse’s back and keep throwing it until he stands quietly before you stop throwing the rope. A horse can learn to eliminate the pressure of the rope by not moving, yet the rope may still worry him. He is learning the futility of resistance and the futility of searching. It builds a mental and emotional wall around itself to keep people out. It is really difficult to have a good relationship with a shutdown horse because it will not fully mentally engage with humans.


There are other ways of turning a sensitive horse into a shutdown horse (such as continued poor feel and timing, impatience, use of ever increasing driving pressure etc), but the important point is that while these horses may appear just like those with a small care factor, they actually have a large care factor and are sensitive in their nature. It is the combination of their sensitivity and our poor training techniques that cause a horse to shutdown. This potentially makes them very dangerous when they erupt.


The final category of a horse’s try or ability to search through its options is the one where their established behaviour or set of responses to pressure are tightly linked to their perception of life and death. This is beyond being sensitive because instead of searching through the options to safety and comfort, as a sensitive horse is prone to doing, these horses will repeat the same responses and behaviours over and over in fear that a change will get them killed. They are so convinced that what they do is the reason they have lived so far, that all other options are off the table. Unlike the horse the stoic horse or the horse born with a low care factor, these horses choose to not try through their certainty of what it takes to survive. It is their survival instinct that suppresses their trainability.


This category of horse is hard to work with and in my experience is best handled with incredible patience and by going back to the absolute basics. Nothing is overlooked. Each micron of change is covered step-by-step and consolidated before going further. It is important that these horses feel confident and certain that each little change is the best path to safety and comfort. If you leave a step only half done and only half certain that it was the right step, the horse will revert and fall apart at some point in the future.


I have sometimes said that the thing we most like about a horse is also the thing we most dislike. A sensitive horse with a lot of try can be taught to work off a thought, which is fantastic. But equally they can have a hair trigger to a meltdown and that can be a problem. On the other hand, a stoic horse with very little try can be solid and can absorb a lot of trouble before over reacting, which makes some people feel safe. However, good luck trying to get them to be soft and responsive in the way a sensitive horse can be.


Of course, most horses are a mix of categories and don’t fall strictly into one or the other. In an ideal world, I’d be looking for a horse that had a lot of try and a little bit of stoicism. But until then I’m happy to take responsibility for the amount of try my training puts into any of my horses.


Photo: A try in a horse is directly related to its propensity to search when faced with a dilemma.