Happy New Year

I want to wish everyone a great year ahead and a heartfelt thank you to those who have attended my clinics, supported my sharing of thoughts and bought copies of my books.


The past year has been very successful and enjoyable for Michèle and I.


The sales of  “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship” have exceeded all predictions and I am very thankful for that. It has received overwhelming praise from both professional and amateur horse people and the positive reception is more than I expected.


The demand for more clinics both overseas and in Australia continues to grow steadily each year and if it continues I will reach capacity within a year or two.


I have met some great new horse people this year and I am thrilled at the progress I see in my long-term students.


In addition, Michèle has just recently received an unexpected mega promotion in her job and her journalistic career is going gangbusters.


But most important of all, Michèle and I are both healthy and happy.


We wish you all the same.


Meanwhile I’m looking to the year ahead with wonder and expectations.

I Have A Beef

I have a beef. It’s a serious one too.


I was teaching at a clinic a few weeks ago and a woman wanted help with lunging her horse. She said the horse had a tendency to pull away sometimes and fall into the circle other times. She wanted to know how to fix it.


The woman had been to another trainer several weeks earlier and they sold her a serrata to fix the problem.


For those that don’t know, a serrata is a noseband used on lunging cavessons and sometimes bridles. It is made of metal often encased in leather. There are usually 3 rings fitted to the noseband and sometimes studs are fixed to the inside to act as pressure points on the nose (however, the one I saw had only 1 ring and no studs – see the photo at the bottom). They are traditionally used in the Iberian Peninsula and Hungary.


The person who sold my student the serrata is well known and respected. However, they did not explain how to use it or to fit it. A serrata is a serious piece of equipment that should not be used on green or resistant horses. Novice people should not use it. It’s for experts with educated horses. In addition, the serrata sold to my student did not fit her horse. Because the noseband is made from metal, it is rigid and does not shape to the contour of the bridge of the horse’s nose. If it is not an exact fit for a horse, the noseband exerts pressure at two tiny and discreet points on the bridge of the nose. This turns the serrata into a fearsome torture device for any horse that exhibits even a small amount of resistance.


When I saw the serrata being used at the clinic, I have to admit I was concerned. But when I heard the story how the woman was virtually talked into buying it from a trainer she respected, my blood pressure peaked dangerously. As hard as I have tried I still have not been able to invent a good reason for selling the device to an inexperienced person with a green horse that the gadget does not fit.


A few months ago I attended a clinic in a nearby town as a fence sitter. A rider was struggling to help his horse canter. The clinician told the rider to get off his horse, go to his truck and get his spurs before riding again. It was a horsemanship clinic! Where was the horsemanship in using spurs to make a horse canter? What special skill was being taught to the rider about helping his horse to respond with clarity to the leg aids?


A little while back a bloke came to a clinic wanting to teach his horse to slow up. He had previously been to a couple of roping clinics and had been advised by the clinician to ride his horse with a long curb bit to teach it to respect the reins. The horse was very fearful of the reins after that, so I had him swap his shank bit for a soft side pull I lent him. After that, we could get something done and help the horse to slow his motor.


All these devices – serrata, spurs, mechanical hackamore, curb bits, spade bits etc – are not for training a horse’s minds. Before even attempting to use these gadgets, a horse must already be trained to be soft in his mind and follow a feel. They are not intended to teach a response. Their use is only in refining a response to what a horse already knows.


It’s only when a horse already understands how to be forward off the rider’s leg, that spurs should be used. It’s only when a horse knows how to lunge on a circle correctly, that a serrata should be used. And it is only when a horse is already clear about the reins that a curb bit should be used.


What is going on that respected and even revered horse professionals are teaching (and even selling devices) gear that is not designed for the job? How does this happen and these professionals remain so respected by the general horse community? To me, it is hardly any different to teaching people how to start a campfire using petrol and a flame thrower.


Our students look to us because they respect and believe in what we have to teach. It is an onerous responsibility to have the power to affect people’s thinking and actions that impact on them and their horse. If we are going to recommend gadgets or methods for doing a particular job we have to ensure that it is the right tool for the job and our students are instructed thoroughly on when and how to use it and not use it.


The photo shows a horse wearing a serrata.

Schooling and Un-schooling

“Every second, you’re either schooling or un-schooling your horse. There’s no in-between.” – George Morris 2013


This is a quote that was posted on a FB forum. For those that don’t know Mr Morris, he is a famous American show jumping trainer and clinician, often thought of as the father of modern American show jumping. In any case, he is an icon of the sport.


It is not a quote that I can agree with. I presume the intent of the quote was to convey the notion that horses learn from everything we do and, therefore, we should be aware that in everything we do we are either schooling them in the things we want them to know or don’t want them to know. It’s one or the other.


My problem with the quote is the term ‘un-schooling.’ It infers that a horse can unlearn something. From the comments of people on FB, I know that many of them think a horse can un-learn, as well as learn. This is not true.


Has any of you learned something that you later un-learned? I have been using calculators for decades, but I have not un-learned how to use logarithmic tables. I haven’t played soccer since I was a teenager, but despite being a little rusty, the basic skills have stayed with me. It’s rare that I ever write anything by hand anymore, yet I can still write when I have to. The skill to write by hand remains stored inside me somewhere even though typing is about the only writing I do these days.


We also don’t forget things; we just don’t always recall them. That’s not a contradiction. Memories are rarely eliminated from the brain. They remain part of our central database. Our trouble with memory is that sometimes we fail to be able to access those memories. They exist, we just don’t know where or how to find them.


It’s like going to a huge library to look up Boyle’s Law for the behaviour of a perfect gas (PV=k; P is pressure, V is volume and k is a constant) and not knowing how to search the library database. Often you’ll give up your search before finding the equation to Boyle’s Law. But the information is still there; you just don’t know how to find it.


How many times have you been reminded of something, that you thought was long forgotten, by hearing a tune or somebody retelling a story or looking at an old photo? How many people have walked in on their parents having sex and then were never able to eliminate that picture from their minds anytime the words ‘sex’ and ‘older people’ were used in the same sentence?


When we teach a horse something and they learn it, it is never forgotten or un-learned. It is always there to be accessed when needed. We just need to know how to access it.


This works for us and against us. It means that a behaviour is never eliminated. If we train a horse to stop bucking or pulling on the reins, we don’t fix it by eliminating the behaviour. Rather, we shape a new behaviour over the top, where those things don’t occur. Nevertheless, we have not eradicated the bucking or the pulling on the reins. They still exist. The only thing we have achieved is to teach a new way to respond by changing the thoughts of the horse. The moment the feelings re-appear that caused the old thoughts to surface, the horse will begin to buck or pull on the reins once again.


However, there is another side to this phenomenon. It means that if we instill some good responses in our horse (like being soft to the reins or not bucking) and then somebody comes along and screws it up for us, we are never too far from having our ideal horse back again if we work it right.


I think this underlines the importance of ensuring we do our best with our horses from the start. If the first thing we teach a horse is the way we always want things to be, then no matter how much rubbish is taught to the horse later, it is not impossible to re-tap into the brilliance we once had. It’s still always there waiting to emerge once again with the right help.


In my experience, the opposite is not so easy. When a horse has been taught negative behaviours early in its experiences with people, those lessons learned remain inside the horse no matter how much skill and time has been devoted to altering them. The new schooling covers over the old schooling but does not eliminate it. It requires vigilance to guard against the early negative behaviours surfacing again. It’s always an ongoing responsibility.


I believe what Morris was trying to say is that every interaction we have with a horse is a learning experience for them (and us) and we need to be aware of this to make sure the lessons learned are ones we want them to learn. However, people need to understand that by teaching a horse one thing does not mean we have un-taught the thing that came before.


Photo: this woman just saw her parents having sex.

Vertical or Lateral Thinking?

I learn so much from teaching horsemanship to people; maybe as much as people learn from my teaching of horsemanship. Some of what I learn is a deeper understanding of how horses operate and digest information. But perhaps even more importantly, I am learning so much about how people operate and learn. Before I became a teacher of horsemanship I had no idea about the complexity and diversity of the ways people learn. I thought everybody learned the same way I did. I always knew horses had different learning paradigms, but humans were smarter and I thought they could figure it out and adapt to learning in a way that made information accessible and meaningful. It turns out I was wrong. I know, hard to believe, isn’t it?


The revelation that hit me hardest in recent weeks of clinic teaching is that people tend to think linearly. They see a problem with a horse and proceed to tackle it head on. They keep tackling the problem until an eventual winner emerges from the dust and sweat.


During a clinic I watched a student ride her horse on a circle at a trot. At two points on the circle the horse kept drifting off the line to the outside. I sat quietly watching in order to give her time to figure out how to keep her horse following the line of the circle. She tried using the outside rein to stop the shoulder leaking. She tried using a stronger inside rein to block the outward drift. She tried disengaging the hindquarters to interrupt the horse’s thought to leave to the outside of the circle. Yet, despite all these approaches the horse kept attempting to drift to the outside each time it came to those two spots in the circle. It never gave up the idea to leak outwards on those two spots of the circle.


I was glad to see her trying different approaches that might better suit her horse. Her search for the right approach told me she was listening to her horse and not sticking rigidly to a method that had worked before or she had picked up somewhere. It was great to see her thinking and experimenting.


However, she was still stuck with the notion that she had to fix the crookedness in the circle. She could not see past the circle as the problem.


Finally, I suggested that she forget about riding the circle. I’m sure at the time she thought I had given up on her and riding a balanced circle. But she was wrong. I had her work on a series of small tasks like asking for one foot forward, one foot back; halt to trot for 4 strides and then into a rein back with no stop; quarter turn on the hindquarters and back up three steps; leg yield one step left, then one step right followed by a quarter turn on the forehand etc. This went on for several minutes with a the requirement that she asked her horse for different things and never one thing for very long.


About 10 minutes later I asked her to trot a circle. There was no drifting and the horse followed the feel on the line without fault.


When you need to empty a bucket full of water, you can scoop the water out from the top or you can put a hole in the bottom. Either way will work.


The student at the clinic kept trying to scoop water out from the top of the bucket to correct her horse’s crooked circle, but the bucket never emptied. The problem persisted.


We look at a horse doing something we want to change and we instantly see the thing they are doing as the problem we need to attack. It’s linear thinking and it’s narrow thinking. The world runs on this type of thinking, so it should not be such a surprise to me that we do it when it comes to our horses.


But it has become a recent awakening to me that many students of horsemanship are trapped in a vortex of linear thinking, unable to think laterally because they don’t see the whole picture no matter how much I sermonize about everything is about a horse’s thoughts underpinning and connecting every issue to every other issue.


When the horse’s thoughts are right, everything else tends to fall into place. It doesn’t matter how you get the thoughts right. If you want a horse to follow the feel of the rein with its thought, it doesn’t matter if you do it by asking for a hindquarter disengagement or by backing over a pole or scratching its tail. The process doesn’t matter. Only impregnating the horse’s mind with the idea to follow the feel of the rein matters. How you get it done is doesn’t matter. This is why a little bit of lateral thinking from time to time can go a long way to improving the relationship with a horse.


I feel stupid for coming to this revelation so late, but I am thankful to my students for their patience and perseverance in opening my eyes. I hope it will make me a better teacher.


I wonder what new things they have to teach me next year.

Does Trust in Horses Exist

In a comment to my post of December 10, Arnold wrote, “People talk a lot about "trust". I never saw 'trust' in my horses, but then I never did tests for it, never looked for it, and I am not sure I could see it if I looked for it. I'd be interested in comments about the reality of this thing called "trust" -- what it looks like, how I can evaluate it, and, I suppose, how you develop it.”


I will begin by saying what I said in response to Arnold’s comment, “like beauty, trust is in the eye of the beholder.” It means different things to different people. This was borne out last weekend when I asked a group from the clinic in Canberra sitting around the table what they thought trust meant when it comes to our horses. There was no consensus and even some divergent opinions. Views ranged from the idea that horses do not experience trust; to trust requires no fear or doubt and all the way to fear being an essential requirement of trust.


So I’m going to give you my thoughts on trust and accept that maybe 10 percent of people will agree. But I also think that no matter whatever I say about the concept of trust, only about 10 percent of people will ever agree.


First, I will make a leap of faith and say that horses are capable of trust. If this is so, trust is doing something because you believe it will work out okay. On the other hand, obedience is doing something because you believe not doing it will work out badly for you.


In other words, a horse does something out of trust because it believes it is a good idea. Whereas, a horse is obedient because it believes disobedience is a bad idea.


It’s difficult to know where the demarcation between obedience and trust exists because they can appear to be the same and usually result in a similar outcome. The difference is the emotions that each evokes in a horse because obedience comes about by removing a horse’s choices, whereas trust offers a horse choices.


I have no reason to suspect that with regard to gaining trust, horses and people are different. Trust is not given but earned. It is earned by the absence of betrayal. When we ask a horse to do something we must ensure that it works out well for a horse every time and it knows it worked out well. It is irrelevant that it may have been a good or bad result for us, it only matters that the horse felt it profited from our request.


For trust to develop a horse must benefit from our direction 100 percent of the time, not 95 percent. However, once trust is established the percentage of success for a horse can drop and still not damage the level of trust. Horses are gamblers by nature and once they believe they know how something works, they will continue a behaviour even if the likelihood of success of that behaviour is increasingly unreliable. Think of the number of times a confirmed grass eater gets pulled in the mouth and kicked in the sides when it puts its head down to eat during a ride, yet still the behaviour persists for weeks, months and years.


In addition, I also believe that in order for a horse to trust there has to be some doubt or fear associated with the choice to trust. There can’t be 100 percent certainty with a decision to trust. If there is no doubt about the wisdom of a choice, a horse is experiencing confidence, not trust. I think trust involves some degree of doubt or lack of certainty, but where the odds are weighted in the horse’s favour. But it always must result in a horse’s favour.


For example, when I ride my horse past a clump of dirt that worries him, he stops to look hard at it, maybe veer a little to the side and then proceeds. If I were not on his back, he would probably turn and go the other way. I can feel the worry in him, but I think he trusts me to not get him killed by the scary mound of dirt. Yet, he is not 100 percent certain. I choose to believe he is demonstrating trust in me to keep him safe, but perhaps what I feel is only obedience. However, if it were just obedience then he would probably not stop or drift from going straight – he would simply ignore the mound. Maybe it is combination of trust and obedience? He trusts me to keep him safe, but not so much that he doesn’t stop or take a sideways step.


There are definitely limits to trust. It’s never all or nothing. For instance, my horse might trust me enough to ride in an arena, but the minute I ask him to ride across a rickety bridge his trust might rapidly disappear and couldn’t be found with an electron microscope.


Everything I have said up to now assumes that horses are capable of trust. It’s a big assumption and requires a distinct leap of faith. I’m not so certain that horses trust. The problem comes that I don’t know for sure that you can prove trust exists in the horse world. Everything that a horse does that can be attributed to the concept of trust can also be given alternative explanations. Partly this is a problem of definition and partly to a lack of scientific tools to delve into and understand the motives behind a horse’s behaviour. Our ability to research the equine mind is extremely primitive.


One thing I do believe is that many people insist trust is the motive for their horse’s behaviour when it is probably not true. An example of this is when working horses at liberty. People assume that because a horse is not confined by equipment or yards, that they have the freedom to escape if they didn’t like the work and have trust in the human. Another example is when a horse has a bad trailering experience and then loads into the next trailer without a problem. They assume these things happen because of a horse’s trust. But they confuse learned behaviour and obedience with trust. People like to believe in trust because is has the aura of a special relationship with a horse. Something we all want to achieve. Yet, most of what our horses do can be explained by obedience. If trust exists at all, I believe it is much more complex than these simple examples reveal.


Police horses managing protestors – obedience or trust?