Laying A Horse Down

I was asked by Leah to write a short piece on my views of laying a horse down, so here goes.


From the start I want to be clear that there is a difference between teaching a horse to lay down on cue using standard pressure and release techniques and forcibly laying a horse where there is no room for a horse to search for an answer. For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about laying a horse down by immobilizing it against its will.


Laying a horse down is still widely used by trainers. Many of you probably saw Robert Redford do it in the film, The Horse Whisperer.


A few trainers make it a routine practice that every horse must endure. For others, it is used only on those horses that have problems. And yet other trainers reserve it for the rare and special cases where other approaches have failed and laying a horse down is a last resort.


Whatever the thinking behind laying a horse down, it is used almost exclusively to eradicate an unwanted flight or fight behaviour. It is not used to teach horses to pick up their feet or perform flying lead changes for example. Its function is purely to instil submission in a horse – nothing else. This is not the same as teaching a horse to lay on the ground on cue, which has an entirely different purpose.


There is a long history of laying horses down that goes back to ancient times. Many more modern-day trainers, such as John Rarey (1827-1866) and Professor (Jess) Berry (1861-1945), used laying down techniques to tame horses that other could not in order to make a reputation for themselves.


There are several issues about laying a horse down that are argued by people on both sides of the fence and remain unresolved. I’m not able to cover them all in such a brief article, so I’m going to focus only on my views based on my experience and research. If you are interested in a wider perspective, there are plenty of articles on the internet discussing the pros and cons.


It is probably only fair that I declare that I have taught most of my horses to lay down. Just like I have taught them to lead well and halt softly. It’s fun and it gets them working with me. But as well, I have also forced a few horses to the ground in my life – maybe two or three special cases (it was a long time ago, so I can’t be sure how many). I have also seen it done many times in my earlier life.


When a horse is laid down, it almost always becomes immobile. There is sometimes (about 50% of the time) an initial struggle for a horse to immediately get to its feet again, but if the trainer blocks this; the horse will lay still and quiet. It’s this stillness that a trainer is looking for because it signals that the horse has stopped the fight and will accept whatever the trainer has in mind. At this moment, a trainer tries to make the horse accept the human’s dominance and submit to its fate, without the horse thinking that fight or flight is an option.


Why does a horse to accept its fate and not continue to fight?


There is not a lot of research done with horses, but work with other species has given rise to the theory that forcibly immobilizing some animals leads to a catatonic state called tonic immobility (a natural state of paralysis). When an animal is in a state of tonic immobility and then subjected or exposed to stressful stimuli it leads to a state of learned helplessness, which is when an animal stops fighting a situation because it feels the futility of flight or flight. In other words, when an animal of forcibly laid down, it can feel so helpless that it just gives up.


Many species exhibit this behaviour. You’ve probably all seen the nature shows where a lion attacks a zebra. The zebra fights and kicks until it is forced to the ground, when it then just lays still while the lion eats it alive.


An example of this is seen with horses. Often when they are laid down it is very difficult to get them to their feet again. The tonic immobility makes them emotionally paralysed and sometimes a trainer has to get quite violent in order to wake the animal up and get it to its feet again.


One trainer, who uses laying down methods on most horses, argues that it is a kind and gentle way of starting the breaking in process or helping troubled horses. He even used a heart rate monitor to show that horses that he laid down had lower heart rates and argues that this was proof that laying a horse to the ground was a less stressful approach for the horse. However, if he had studied physiology at university he would have learned in second year that tonic immobility-induced stress is associated with bradycardia (lower heart rate). Not all stress causes an increase in heart rate. So his heart rate monitor test actually showed that the horse’s he laid down were more stressed because their heart rate decreased.


I believe that forcing a horse down is something that should only be preserved for extreme cases. For the average horse I feel it does psychological damage because it takes away a horse’ right to say ‘No’ and express its feelings. That means that the true feelings of a horse are hidden away from an owner and puts the chance of having any sort of relationship better than a master/slave beyond reach.


Having said all that, I do think there are rare times when laying a horse down has a place in training. But they are rare. It happens when a horse is beyond emotional reach. It’s when a horse is not thinking and just reacting. It’s when a pattern of aggression has been formed and a horse is not able to search for an alternative behaviour because its emotions block its ability to process and think through a situation. Laying a horse down in this situation can reset the emotions to zero, which creates a window of opportunity to break the pattern.


I also believe that the success of creating change in a horse after it has been laid down is dependent on the quality of the work after it gets to its feet again. Dropping a horse to the ground has no long-term benefit in itself. There is no learning by just laying a horse down. Nothing changes unless what comes after it gets to its feet again changes. Laying a horse down only creates a window of opportunity to have a conversation with a horse. In itself, putting a horse on the ground does nothing to change things in the long term.


Lastly, I want to also point out that laying a horse down is not the only method for inducing tonic immobility and learned helplessness. Anytime a horse is put in a situation that it feels is helpless and resistance is futile, you can induce the same stress of tonic immobility.  For example, many forms of desensitization where a horse is tied up and flooded with stressors, imprint training of foals, hobbling or tying up one leg, tying a horse up until it stops pulling back, collar roping hind legs, and wheat box training (used for starting horses) can work on the same principle of removing a horse’s ability to escape a stressful situation and inducing a sense of helplessness and submission.


Laying a horse down is a skill that some professional trainers may use a few times in their life, but it is not a skill most owners will ever use. Nor is it a skill they should have because it relies on psychologically traumatizing a horse in a way that has the potential to do long-term damage to a relationship.


The photo is a shot of Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson laying down the horse in the film, The Horse Whisperer. 

Thanks For A Great Year

Clinics are over until next year. It has been a busy and successful year for me and I hope everybody is looking forward to coming to a clinic next year.


This video a small tribute to the people who came to my clinics to learn throughout the year. I was only able to fit a two three pictures from each clinic. Some clinics are missing because I don’t have photos from every clinic throughout the year.


I want to thank everybody who attended and particularly I want to thank the various hosts in Australia around the world. It’s a challenge to organise a clinic and it is really appreciated by me and the people who attend.


I also want to thank the people who regularly read my posts here and on my web site. The interest in my work has grown much faster than I would ever have imagined and I truly appreciate it. Thank you for your kind words and your questions. I hope this page has helped some of you.


Have a great festive time and don’t forget your pets.


Hindquarter And Forehand Yields

Caitriona has been reading my books, “Old Men and Horses” and “Changing The Tide”. She wrote to ask that I post about hindquarter disengagement and forehand yields, since they are mentioned in the books several times without an explanation as to what they are or how to do them.


First, it is probably a good idea to talk about why I believe we should practice them and what purpose they serve. Others may have their own views and explanations, but since I teach them to at least one person at every clinic, it’s only right that I explain my ideas about these valuable exercises.


To begin at the beginning, the most basic function of the reins is to be able to direct a horse’s thought and connect those thoughts to the horse’s feet. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about stopping, going, turning or riding a line. The reins direct the thought. The thought directs the feet. It’s that simple or hard – depending on your point of view.


One of the ways to teach this simple idea is to start on the lead rope and in time graduate into the saddle. Some people just work on the response to the reins when they ride and not begin on the ground with a lead rope. It’s easy to forget that the lead rope is nothing more than a rein, except the rider is on the ground. So it often helps a young horse to begin to follow the feel of the rein by starting with following the feel of the lead rope from the ground. It’s one of those obvious instances where the groundwork directly relates to the ridden work.


It’s really important that we remember that the purpose behind these exercises is to connect the reins to the horse’s thought. If you keep that in mind, two things become obvious.


The first is that there is no place for any driving aid to make a horse step their feet sideways. Very many people are taught to drive the hindquarters across by either swing the tail end of the lead rope (during groundwork) or to use inside or outside leg (when under saddle) to make the feet move. But this distracts from the function of the reins because it then becomes about the feet escaping from the driving aid, rather than yielding to the feel of the inside rein with their thought.


The second thing to remember is that the only point of the rein is to direct the horse’s thought. It’s not about moving the feet in the way you wanted. It’s the mind of the horse that directs the feet; we only talk to the mind so the horse can connect to the feet. This is important because people tend to release the reins when the feet have yielded and not check if the thought had yielded. It is very common that a horse will be thinking in one direction, while we use the reins strong enough to force the feet to yield in the opposite direction. The result is a horse that is crooked and has a habit of falling in or out of the turns because there is a disconnection between what the reins are making the horse’s feet do and what the horse’s mind are trying to make its feet do. This disconnection between the hors’s thought and its feet is what causes resistance.


So in short, the purpose of teaching hindquarter and forehand yields is to connect the horse’s mind to direct its’ feet as our reins intend.


I’ll describe these exercises for those that don’t know what they are.


The hindquarter yield is nothing more than a very tight turn, where the horse almost pivots on its front feet. Imagine standing next to your horse by its flank and holding a carrot. In most cases, the horse will turn its head to look at the carrot. If it wants to eat the carrot, it will pivot on its forehand and step its hindquarters away so that it’s body is lined up towards the carrot. That’s a hindquarter yield. At the risk of repeating myself, it is nothing more than a very tight turn


No driving or poking at the horse’s flank is necessary because the carrot provides enough incentive for the horse’s thought to direct its feet to disengage its hindquarters. Now substitute the carrot for a lead rope (during groundwork) or an inside rein (during riding). How do you make the lead rope or inside rein as meaningful as a carrot?


It’s done by offering a feel to a horse with the lead rope or inside rein and wait until its thought shifts to where the feel of rein is directing. If the thought is strong enough, the connection will flow all the way to the feet, with minimum resistance. There will be a light feel on the lead rope or rein, the neck will bend softly around and the horse’s head will be almost perpendicular to the ground as it looks to the inside. Finally, the inside hind foot will step quietly across and in front of the outside hind foot.


For my money, the most important part of a hindquarter yield is the quiet softness when the horse’s thought follows the feel of the lead rope or inside rein. The disengagement of the hind feet is the last and least important thing to happen because it can only happen if the thought softly follows the flow of energy from the lead rope or inside rein. In fact, in the beginning I often focus on a horse just looking in the direction of the feel of the lead rope or rein and release for that without waiting for the hindquarters to disengage. When that becomes reliably soft, then I’ll wait longer until the hind feet yield before releasing the feel of the lead rope or inside rein.


A forehand yield is similar to the hindquarter yield in principle in that it is about getting a horse to follow the feel of lead rope or inside rein with its thought. But in the case of a forehand yield it is the front feet that the horse directs to step across, while the hindquarters are relatively quiet. This requires that the horse shift some weight off the forehand so that it is easier to pick up the front feet to place them to the side.


In mechanical terms, the difference becomes that when asking for a hindquarter yield the lead rope or inside rein are used in a indirect manner, while they are used with a direct feel when asking for a forehand yield. So in brief, if you want to direct the hindquarters use an indirect rein. If you want to direct the forehand, use a direct rein.


A direct rein is when the feel of the rein (or lead rope) leads the horse through a turn. This requires there to be more of a sideways feel to the rein (ie, the rein is offered further away towards the rider’s knee). Conversely, with an indirect rein there is more of a backward feel to the rein (ie, the rein is directed backwards to the rider’s hip or belly button). This means that the direct rein crowds the horse’s inside shoulder to discourage stepping the inside shoulder to the inside. But in either case, no driving aid (inside leg, whip, swinging rope etc) is used to cause the feet to move sideways.


I have added a few photos taken at my clinics that should help illustrate the various points I have tried to make. I hope they will clarify the concepts that are hard to put into words.


The important thing to remember when teaching hindquarter and forehand yields is that you are connecting the rein or lead rope to the back end and the front end of a horse both independently of each other and in unison, via the horse’s thoughts. I’ll say it again….. “via the horse’s thoughts.” It is not the feet moving that is important – it’s the thought directing the feet that should be our focus. When we have this sorted out with a horse, softly following the feel of the inside rein and balanced turns become a way of life.



A: A hindquarter yield from the ground. Notice the use of the indirect feel of the lead rope and the softness through the horse as it think to the left.


B: This is a forehand yield. Compare the way the lead rope is used here in the direct feel compared an indirect feel when asking for a hindquarter yield.


C: Here the rider is asking for a hindquarter yield from the saddle. Notice how the horse sets up its body as if it is preparing to step to the right. The hors’s head is almost perpendicular to the ground.


D: This horse is also being asked for a hindquarter yield, but notice the level of resistance. The head is titled at an angle, there is a heaviness in the reins and the feet are set up as if prepared to turn to the right.

Goat Uses Donkey To Hop Over Fence

I think if a goat can jump high enough onto a donkey, it can jump over a fence witout the donkey


Parelli and Marketing

In past weeks I have noticed a lot of negativity whenever Parelli Natural Horsemanship is mentioned on blogs and forums. For all the apparent success of PNH as a business, it is somewhat surprising to me that so many people have difficulty saying anything good about it. You’d think that with a program as popular as PNH, the negative comments would be a small minority. But perhaps the disparagers are small in number and just have loud voices.


I don’t really want to talk about the quality of horsemanship of other businesses. I have my views, just like everybody. However, I am more curious about the venom people have for horsemanship businesses because of marketing strategies and success .


Parelli is arguably the most widely known and used system of horse training in the world. There are others that have a large following too (like John Lyons, Monty Roberts and Clinton Anderson). The thing they have in common is the power of their marketing machine. Irrespective of what you feel about the horsemanship they teach and promote, a lot of effort, time, hard work, skill and expertise has gone into making them household names (at least in the houses of horse people).


This is important to consider. These guys and their marketing power should not be dismissed frivolously. They are an important and valuable force in the horse world.


It’s easy to see why they are important when you consider their popularity and influence on people and horses throughout the world. But why are they valuable when there are many other training approaches available that are as good or perhaps better?


They are valuable because of their popularity. Very many people have been inducted to the idea of looking for better ways to train and interact with their horses because of Parelli and others. For a lot of folks, these trainers were the first introduction to considering the horse to be little more than a machine. Up until Parelli splurged onto the scene, ordinary weekend riders could never dream of becoming trainers and skilled horse people. Before Parelli most average riders had few choices about where to get help with their horse problems and where to learn better horsemanship skills. Most training was focused on competition and horsemanship was just something you absorbed along the way if you were lucky.


Even people who came through the systemized approaches to training (eg PNH and Lyons) and left in search of a better understanding of horses and how they operate, were only able to succeed because the program system encouraged them to think differently. An awful lot of horse people who came to study the teachings of Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and others, have done so because Parelli etc got them searching for a better way. I know that many people who come to my clinics were once enrolled as PNH students or informally followed the Parelli, Monty Roberts, John Lyons or Clinton Anderson systems.


For years, one of the first questions people asked before sending their horse to me was “do you use natural methods?” In the minds of the average horse owner, so-called ‘natural’ methods are the preferred choice for starting and re-educating horses. Whenever people strike a problem with a horse they inevitably go searching for a trainer that fits the ‘natural horsemanship’ profile. The concept of natural horsemanship is so widely held as a better approach, even though nobody can adequately define what it is. I believe this is largely due to the marketing success of Pat Parelli and others.


In fact, I think it is probable that programs like Parelli and other mega-marketers have done more to benefit horses and horse people than Dorrance, Hunt and the rest of us clinicians combined. They simply have influenced far more people to keep searching to be better with horses. For my money, this is a good thing, no matter my views about the horsemanship they teach.


So when people argue they don’t like the training programs that are very good at self-promotion and marketing themselves, I wonder if they are considering how many people have gained from those programs that would otherwise still be using brutal equipment and brutal methods. You may not think very highly of the methods they use compared to what else is available, but it’s hard to argue that many horses are not better off since the words ‘natural horsemanship’ became a normal part of the average horse person’s lexicon.