Horsemanship as a Discipline

Humans appear to have an unquenchable thirst for turning training into a sport. We turn the training that goes into preparing a horse for war into 3-day eventing, jousting, mounted archery, mounted shooting, dressage, tent pegging etc. We turn training horses to work stock into campdrafting, reining, western pleasure, rope ranching, garrocha, team penning etc. We even turn trail riding into endurance events, navigation rides, mountain trails etc. And there are many other activities that we turn into a specialized discipline or competition (eg colt starting, skijoring) for the purpose of having fun.


This need to specialize and divide into discreet horse sports is not a bad thing in itself. People own horses for their individual reasons and if a particular sport interests them then I see nothing wrong with that.


When I was a teenager and eager to become the greatest showjumping rider the world has ever seen, I was told that if I wanted my young horse to be a showjumper I would need to train him with a showjumping coach. I have heard similar advice given to people about their young dressage horse or sport horse or carriage horse etc. Many people have asked me for referrals to different trainers who are expert in their particular discipline in order to get their horse started out on the right path. I’m sure you have all heard similar stories yourself or perhaps you hold the same views.


I never much thought too hard about the idea that we should divide up different training into specialized disciplines until a few years ago when a friend asked if she should take her young horse to a well-respected dressage trainer for dressage training. I knew the dressage guru she was talking about well and I also knew the horsemanship trainer she was presently studying with very well. My answer was a simple categorical NO, and here is why.


Both the dressage trainer and the horsemanship trainer are excellent at what they do. But my friend did not appreciate that her pursuit of training her horse to perform at a high level was setting her sights on the wrong goal. In her excitement to teach her horse a lot of cool advanced movements, she missed the point of getting her horse ready for the cool advanced movements.


The dressage trainer is talented at teaching all the little nuances that go into making the cool movements high quality. He understands the intricacies that turned a passable half pass into an amazing half pass. But the horsemanship trainer was brilliant at getting a horse ready for the brilliance of the dressage trainer. The horsemanship guy was going to get my friend’s horse relaxed and soft; mentally and emotionally ready and physically correct for the requirements that the dressage guy was going to demand. I say this with absolute confidence because I know for a fact that the dressage guy is not even close to being as talented at working with the inside of horses as the horsemanship guy. If the dressage guy knew as much as the horsemanship guy about getting a horse ready, I would not hesitate to recommend him to my friend. But that is not the case. Yet, I ponder what it would be like if we could combine the talents of both trainers and if it would produce the best horse person possible.


I have used my friend’s ambition to learn dressage from a dressage trainer as just one example of the issue. But there are a lot of people in the same predicament. I have people come to clinics that I help with their reining spins, barrel racers wanting help with their turns, there have been jumping riders wanting their horse to be calm in front of a jump, harness dilemmas, racehorses with barrier issues, endurance horses that can’t offer a relaxed walk, dressage horses with flying change difficulties. I am not a highly trained specialist in these disciplines, but I do know how to affect the inside of a horse and I do know how to prepare a horse for the thing we might ask of it. I know how to soften a horse to produce a good half pass. I know how to connect to the hindquarters to ready a horse for a brilliant flying change. I do know how to balance a horse for the best spin or turn around a barrel it can do. The trainers that specialize in these sports know much more than me about the detail required to reach the top level in these disciplines, but they don’t always know how to prepare the inside of a horse to be ready for that level of performance.


I am not saying there are not specialty trainers out there that can’t do what I do. But I am saying there are not enough of them. I’ve had professional dressage trainers send me horses to train to trailer load, fix head tossing and chomping on the bit problems, address tying up difficulties and treat a serious bolting issue. I’ve had reiners come to clinics for help with straightness and western pleasure horses show up for help overcoming the “peanut-roll” head carriage. I could write a very long list of other examples, but you get my point.


I have never thought of good horsemanship as a discipline in itself. In my mind, it has always been a foundational element of everything we do with a horse. But increasingly I see that it is becoming a specialized pursuit separate from other pursuits. I find this more than a little sad.


One contributing factor for this might be that good horsemanship is hard – really hard. We are very skilled at making a horse do stuff. But it is bloody hard to help a horse feel stuff, and that’s what good horsemanship is about. I believe the reason why most people who pursue good horsemanship don’t compete is twofold (i) good horsemanship is so consuming and challenging in itself that a person loses interest in competing, and (ii) competition is about the human’s success and ego, which is the antithesis of what good horsemanship teaches a rider.


In my work as a professional clinician I get to see a lot of people with a passion for various horse pursuits whose mind is focused on the end goal and not the journey. I see it as my job as a teacher to turn that around for them.


Photo: If you want to learn how to produce a dressage horse or campdrafter or polo horse or whatever sport you wish to pursue, then read True Unity and UNDERSTAND what Tom Dorrance had to teach. His wisdom held the knowledge that makes it possible for any horse to be the best he can be.

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?

Single or Multiple Causes of Problems?

Today’s topic is a tricky one to talk about for me. It’s not easy to explain in a clear way. It’s not a black and white concept and it doesn’t take too much mental strain to find contradictions or examples where the principle falls apart. Nevertheless, it’s worth talking about and considering because I have yet to find a single person espouse this idea. And even difficult ideas can be worth talking about.


I was prompted to write about this concept by a question at a clinic. A rider was trying to help her horse understand how to follow the inside rein and yield the hindquarters to disengagement. The horse was very distracted because his companion was screaming and running the fence line a hundred or so metres away. The attempt at a hindquarter yield was dismal because the horse was mentally tuned out and singly focused on the antics of his friend.


When asked to disengage its hindquarters the horse leaned on the rein, twisted his neck, spun his front feet as much as his hind feet, and struggled to think in the direction of the inside rein. After a few attempts, the owners stopped. I knew she was trying to formulate a question.


“What am I suppose to reward for? When he throws all these things at me, do I release the rein when he steps his hind feet across or when there is a moment when his neck is bent but not twisted or when he looks to the inside or when his feet slow down? Which one of those tells me he is trying and I should reward for that try?”


It was an excellent question, but I think my response surprised and confused her.


“None of them,” was my answer. “Don’t release for any one of those things to change, but for all of them to be a bit better.”


The previous day I coached on the owner to help her horse improve being lunged on a circle. I emphasized that she should concern herself more with getting a better forward response and be less worried by the horse’s lack of straightness. I told her that as the horse became more consistent in his forward we could then spend some energy worrying about straightness. But if we tried to get him straighter now, we would likely make getting a better forward from him even harder.


So yesterday I told her we would focus on fixing each problem one at a time, yet today I told her we want everything to be better at once. We were not going to break it down into individual problems that needed to be addressed one at a time. No wonder she felt confused.


This is how I explained it to her.


The reason the horse was twisting his neck, leaning on the reins, not bending and not yielding his hindquarters was because his mind was fixated on the other horse that was screaming up and down the fence line. There were multiple behaviours, but there was one root cause. If the origin of the behaviour was being addressed (the lack of focus) then you’d expect all the symptoms to show improvement simultaneously. If only one or two of the symptoms exhibit positive changes then either it’s a trick, and the changes are superficial rather than addressing the source of the problem.


If you think of training as working to reshape the thoughts and emotions that get in the way of a horse getting along with us, then it is clear that the only good training is the training that changes the mental and emotional root cause of behaviours. To change unwanted behaviours to wanted ones requires discovering the cause that triggered the unwanted responses and replacing them with incentives for wanted responses. It is a natural extension of this idea that when we alter the source of an unwanted response that we automatically alter all the behaviours created by that root cause.


So when the owner asked me if she should reward for any improvement in just one or two of the responses, my answer was “no” because she would not be then addressing the root cause, only a symptom or two.


The exception to this principle is when a horse is does not understand what is being asked. When the root cause of multiple unwanted behaviours is confusion, then it is appropriate to break down the training into simple, single steps rather than giant leaps. For example, if a horse does not know how to halt softly and correctly, then it is the right thing to do to break down the training and reward for changes in each individual component of the halt. In this case the problem is a single root cause for the poor quality of the halt (a lack of understanding), yet I am recommending a rider reward for improvement in each individual step. That’s the exception to the earlier principle.


But if a horse has learned to halt correctly, but doesn’t because it is distracted and not listening then rewarding for a change in individual components of the halt will not lead to an overall change. A rider should address and fix the problem of the horse’s distraction and everything about the halt will improve simultaneously.


The general principle that I making is that in all cases we should ensure we are addressing the true origin of unwanted responses. Sometimes multiple triggers cause these responses and in this case, we break down the training into small increments to address each cause. On other occasions, several behaviours stem from one single cause, in which case we need to see improvements in all the responses simultaneously if we are to be confident of getting to the true source of the problem.


Photo: This horse exhibited several unwanted responses to being asked to lead correctly, but were they the result of a single issue or several root causes? That’s a question we should ask ourselves when working with unwanted behaviours.

Championing Working a Horse Long and Low

In this essay, I want to champion the cause for working a horse long and low.


At the clinic, I just finished the subject came up regarding the relationship between working a horse long and low and true collection. Kim Howard said to me she had a recent revelation about working a horse in a long and low posture and its importance in the development of collection. So this has prompted me to write here to clarify what I believe is the relationship between the two postures.


A lot has been written about what is true collection and I don’t want to dedicate any space rehashing what is already easily found on the internet and explained by people more expert than me. But what I do want to discuss is the relationship between long and low and collection because it seems pretty common that people come to my clinics with horses exhibiting false collection or a training frame simply because they have not been taught to prepare their horse by working long and low for a year or two.


Training a horse to elongate its frame, stretch its muscles along its top line and lower its neck while working freely forward (long and low) has been a cornerstone of classical dressage for eons. In more recent decades, some modern dressage trainers have branched off in their philosophy to embrace the principle of working horses is an artificially shortened frame in order to impose “roundness” on horses. Traditionally this type of training rarely worked because horses did not have the conformational robustness to withstand the excessive strain this put on their bodies. But modern breeding of Warmbloods has created super athletes whose body’s laugh at the physical restrictions that hyperflexion imposes. There are horses out there winning at the highest levels of dressage that do not exhibit true collection because their genetics allow them to perform the most difficult movements without correct training.


So here is my take on why working a horse long and low for months or years is so important in the development of collection. Please excuse the very simplified treatment of this topic.


Collection is a curling of a horse’s body into a coil. The frame contracts and the hindquarters coil under a horse and the weight shifts backward with the hindquarters doing most of the carrying and pushing forward. The degree that this happens will vary depending on the degree of collection. (I should say at this point for people unfamiliar with collection in dressage that collection is not one thing. There is a sliding scale of collection that moves towards every increasing engagement of the hindquarters as the execution of certain movements require.)


In order for the frame to coil, the muscles along the horse’s top line need to NOT contract. Notice I said “NOT contract” rather than relax because there is a subtle difference in regard to muscle tone in a relaxed muscle and an un-contracted muscle. On the path to collection, there is conflict between the muscles of a horse’s top line and it’s undercarriage (to put it simply). When one set contracts or tightens the other doesn’t and visa versa. In normal posture during riding, the top line of most horses is more contracted than the undercarriage. This creates a hollow back, raised neck, tight poll, and hindquarters that don’t really step under and engage well. But as we move towards collection the muscles of the top line contract less and the antagonistic muscles underneath the frame dominate the posture. This means the horse has a rounder back and the hindquarters can engage more.


This is where working in a long and low frame becomes important. It teaches horses to not contract the top line and to relax the hindquarters and neck. The extension of the frame encourages a horse to turn off those muscles in the top line that inhibit true collection later on.


The other important thing long and low allows is the strengthening of those muscles it is going to need later for collection. Collection requires a considerable degree of muscle exertion and an unfit horse cannot be expected to carry a collection posture for very long. It’s like asking a couch potato to do 20 pushups. It takes correct riding and correct use of muscles over a long period of time to develop the kind of muscle strength and fitness required without undue strain on a horse. If a rider tries to collect a horse without proper preparation it will inevitably evade being correct resulting in false collection. On the other hand, a strong and fit horse is more likely to offer true collection because the exertion will be minimal for short periods.


So long and low becomes the precursor to collection. Once a horse is moving freely forward and developed a correct long and low posture the only thing needed to turn it into collection is softness to the reins and an elevation of the base of the neck. These are the elements that produce the shifting of weight towards the back half of the horse and a rounding of the neck. In essence, they cause the frame of the horse to contract like a coil ready to spring forward. In theory, it is that simple. In practice, it takes a bloody long time of slow and progressive work.


So if you come to one of my clinics seeking help working your horse in a correct frame, there is every likelihood my attention will be focused on how to help your horse first work in a relaxed long and low posture for the next year or two.

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.