The Essence of Good Horsemanship

Recently Arnold Chamove posted a review of my book “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship” on Amazon. Arnold is a world-renowned clinical psychologist with 5 degrees (including PhD and DSc) and over 130 peer reviewed publications. He ran a primate research centre in Scotland and worked in the UK and Africa and is now a consultant in New Zealand. The list of his achievements and credentials is very long.


So I was particularly honoured that Arnold wrote such an enthusiastic review of my book. He has kindly allowed me to copy it here.


“This book will surprise you. It looks at horse training from a new perspective, or one that appears quite different—focussing the reader to the “thoughts” of the animal.


Essence is a book for a person who wants a fundamental set of guidelines to help develop a responsive but effective relationship with a horse (a horse that changes daily).  It is for a person who wants a horse that wants to please, wants a horse that is less like a quad bike and more like a willing partner, wants a horse that listens to the subtle cues of the rider.    


Here is what Essence is not. Essence is not a like a recipe book which guides you step by step; it is not a feel-good book which is filled with stories of big powerful beautiful horses or unity with one’s horse that one can only hope for; not a jargon book which trots out the same sayings one has heard from and seen in riders who ride machine-like horses; not an intuitive book crammed with advice that sounds good, sounds as though it should be true, but advice which is counter to research and to critical analysis.


Ross Jacobs combines four attributes: he is a person with many years of relevant experience; has an analytical academic mind; writes in a clear organized style; and does not have a commercial nature.  Even the style of the book is well set-out with short chapters focused on one idea, usually with a good (and often startling) example. 


The most interesting, surprising, and effective idea in the book is that Ross Jacobs has taken the training focus of “influencing a horse’s behaviour” back one step, back to “reading and influencing a horse’s thoughts”.  He might say, “Don’t focus on the feet but on the thoughts that move the feet”. When asked about a horses ears being flattened back, he says, “You don’t ride the ears”. While this idea of “attending to the horse’s thoughts” seems a bit ephemeral, the author shows how to do it, and, when I tried it, it works.   Not only does it work, but it works more effectively than other methods I have tested; and the horse seems happier and less annoyed than when using other techniques.


Within the framework of the Horse’s Thoughts, he stresses (a) Focus of the Horse’s Thoughts, (b) Clarity of the Rider, and (c) Softness of the Horse.  


As a teacher of Animal Behaviour at university and graduate level, the Essence of Good Horsemanship surprised me with ideas that I had not encountered before; it was a good surprise.


Essence is a new way of thinking about working with a horse, albeit within traditional ways of training. It takes training to a new level--a deeper, more fundamental level, and a level which allows one to be able to read and change your horse. “


Arnold Shirek Chamove BA, MA, MSc, MPhil, PhD, FIBiol, DSc

Palmerston North, NZ


Even people (and horses) who came to a recent clinic were too absorbed in “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship” to put it down long enough to watch the lessons. 

Horsemanship and Teaching

I remember attending a clinic by Ray Hunt. He was talking to a group of people who had gathered to catch every whisper of the master. Among the many pearls he shared he said that as he got older he felt he had become a better horseman because he could no longer rely on his physical strength to get things done with a horse. He had to come up with ways that were smarter rather than stronger.


I thought about this a few weeks ago when Michèle asked me if I felt I had changed my horsemanship much since I have been teaching full time for the last 3 years and no longer train horses as my main source of income. After a little thinking time I told her that I thought I had become a better horseman in the last few years.


But why?


It’s not that things were not working well for me before, it’s just that nowadays there seems to be less dirt flying, less sweating and more quiet patience than even just 3 or 4 years ago.


We have all heard that horsemanship is a journey that never ends. I think part of the notion is that even the things a person already knows can be refined with more experience. A good horse person evolves constantly throughout their life.


This is when I thought about what Ray had said. My first thought was to ask the question has my physical robustness deteriorated so much now that I am in my late 50’s, that I need to work smarter rather than stronger? I know I feel a little stiffer and l have less stamina than I did when I was 30. But my strength appears to be the same.


I decided to dismiss what Ray had said about the effects of aging – at least for a few more years.


Then it occurred to me that the real reason why my horsemanship has evolved so much in a very short time is teaching.


Since becoming a full time educator I have made a commitment to become a better teacher. I have spent less time working on my horsemanship and more time on my teaching skills than ever before. As trainer, I was always trying to be a better horseman and didn’t take a lot of interest in teaching even though I had been doing a handful of clinics every year for a very long time. But that’s all changed.


So how is it that in working so hard at becoming a better teacher that I have also become a better horseman? I think there are different answers to this question.


Initially, I figured that being a good teacher meant having a very thorough understanding of what one is teaching. I try to critically analyze and have a logical explanation of everything I do and most things I don’t do. I study other people’s training and have a huge thirst for more knowledge. I try to know my subject so that I can better explain it to people who come to clinic. Nowadays I have to sometimes explain difficult concepts to students in terms that they can comprehend. It means my explanations have to be thorough, yet clear. I can’t take anything I do for granted anymore. I have to have a logical and real explanation for everything so that I can pass it along to my students.


The other thing that has changed as I work on my teaching skills is a greater appreciation of the struggles that students have. In the good ‘ol days I would demonstrate something to a student and then expect they would be able to simply copy what I did. However, I was surprised when they struggled to do what I had just shown them. What was the problem? Why were they doing it that way when I just showed them how I did it? Why are they using their arm that way and moving in that direction, when I didn’t do those things. Are these people just crazy or not watching? How many times do I have to show them again?


When these thoughts would cross my mind it made me more confused. And then I discovered that I was looking at it all wrong. I was seeing the problem from the point of view of somebody who didn’t have difficulty with getting a horse to change it’s thought. I was not seeing it from the point of view of a newbie. I couldn’t relate to how difficult new things were to new people when working a horse. People didn’t seem to have a problem with an intellectual understanding, but feel, timing and balance appeared to elude them.


Nowadays I have to find ways of helping people get changes inside a horse with the skills they presently have. I discovered that I could not show them how to do something if they do not yet have the skills to make it work. I can’t give them my skills, so I have to work with their set of skills. I have to see it from where they are in their horsemanship. This means setting aside how I might go about working with a horse if I was at home training it. Instead I have to figure out a way of making the training work given the set of skills the student has. It has been a life-changing experience for me. I believe I am a better horse person for it too.


The things I am learning as a clinician excite me. The people that come to clinics teach me a lot about teaching. But more than that I am learning so much about being a better horseman. I was surprised by this revelation. I wasn’t expecting it. I figured being a better horseman would come from working at my horsemanship. But being a better horseman is coming about by being a better teacher. Who knew this would happen?


This is a photo taken from one of my most popular clinics.

The Role of Tension in Training

Moira wrote to ask me, “Do you feel, know, believe if horses can be trained without tension creeping in at some stage?”

I guess the first step is to distinguish between physical tension and emotional tension.
Physical tension is the result of a horse putting in physical effort. If a horse had no tension in its body, it would have no tone in its muscles and would be a blob of floppy tissue with some bone and cartilage mixed in. Muscle tension is required just to maintain normal posture and movement. So zero physical tension is an impossibility in a live animal. Furthermore, the more physical work required, the greater the physical tension. For example, under normal circumstances a horse exerts more physical tension at a gallop than it does at a walk just because the muscles have to work harder. A horse pulling a huge load at a walk exerts more tension than a horse carrying a rider at a walk because it requires more physical effort.
But then there is emotional tension. Emotional tension is where a horse carries internal stress or worry. It is almost always exhibited in physical tension. The more laid back or stoic temperament a horse may possess, the less the emotional tension is on display. However, just because we can’t see the tension from the outside does not mean a horse is less worried than one that carries on like a drama queen. It is possible and maybe even common that a rock of a horse that shows no outward display of tension carries as much or even more emotional tension as a prancing nervous Nellie. 
From time to time there are great debates on forums as to the difference between “good” tension and “bad” tension. The argument usually entails the idea that the tension a horse exhibits when performing a difficult movement is okay and even desirable. It is assumed that without that tension a horse will not be able to perform at its best. For example, in the dressage world many horses produce their biggest and most flamboyant trot and canter when they have an adrenaline surge caused by emotional tension. When it comes to racing, horses run their fastest when they are running for their life.
On the other hand, some people argue that emotional tension gets in the way of a horse’s best performance because its energy is divided between protecting its own safety and obedience to the rider. Personally, I think this is a valid argument. We all know how hard it can be to manage horses that are highly stressed.
But I want to come back to Moira’s question, “horses can be trained without tension creeping in at some stage?”
I believe the short answer is No.
I have never ridden a horse that I felt had no trouble inside it. Whether it was my own horses or the horses of trainers who are much better than me, they all have had some trouble in them. Watch some of the best horse people riding their own horses and you’ll never see a horse without emotional tension at some point in the work. It’s just that the horses of the better horse people carry less than the rest. So if the best of the best cannot eradicate tension completely in their horses, it is fair to ask what hope do the rest of us have?
I don’t think there is a way to avoid stress in the training paradigm. And I’m not sure we would want to avoid it.
Firstly, stress or anxiety is one of the most effective motivators of horse behaviour. Most of the decisions a horse makes in a day are chosen to avoid stress. So stress makes a great tool for helping to change a horse’s thinking and shape its behaviour.
As I have said in “The Essence of Good Horsemanship”, pressure and stress are part of a horse’s everyday experience. They live with it constantly and they understand it. Even positive reinforcement methods like clicker training use stress to train behaviours in a horse.
In training, the stress comes from a horse not understanding how to resolve pressure. We apply a pressure (eg, a feel on the reins or a withholding of a food treat) to motivate a horse to search for a response that will resolve the problem of the pressure (such as release of the reins or giving the food reward). But if the pressure did not cause a stress, the horse would have no reason to figure out a response. He’d just shrug his shoulders and go on about his day. In fact, the hardest horses to train are the ones who don’t care about pressure. They’ll run through the reins, push you over going through a gate, put their head down to graze when you ride them no matter how hard you work at changing the behaviour.
The reason we use pressure in training is because is does create tension and this makes it easy to shape horse’s behaviours. So we don’t want to not use tension in training. We need it.
But (you knew there was a But coming, didn’t you?), the right amount of emotional tension is the minimal amount required to change a horse’s thought. Any more than that is bad tension. Any less than that is bad tension. This is the Goldilocks syndrome – don’t use too much, don’t use too little, use just the right amount.
In addition to taking advantage of a bit of tension when training a horse, it is our job to ensure that over time the amount of tension dissipates to as close to zero as possible. When a horse is learning a task for the first time, worry will creep into his thoughts – just like it does with us. Yet, in the process of building clarity into teaching a new task, the worry will subside. Clarity kills tension. So in theory, the more educated a horse becomes, the less emotional tension it should carry because his job is clearer. That’s partly why it is so depressing to see horses performing at a high level exhibit so much tension and win.
All relationships experience a conflict of interest. Even the best and closest relationships encounter tension from time to time.
I believe it is not the presence of tension in our horses that should determine which path our training should take. It’s whether or not the tension is disappearing as the work moves forward. If the worry in a horse grows, as the work gets harder, then we have failed in our job to providing clarity to a horse. We are sacrificing his sense of safety and well being for the sake of teaching a task. This should never be okay. 
We may never be able to achieve zero tension in our horses, but that does not mean we shouldn’t continue to try. It’s the most important thing we can do for our horses. Otherwise, we are taking advantage of their good nature to emotionally abuse them for our own sake.
The video shows one of the world’s most successful riders warming up for a World Cup event. Do you see tension in this horse? Is it ok  or too much for a horse of this level of education and experience.



An Odd Experience With A Scared Horse

I’ve been asked to write about a horse that was sent to me for breaking in about 11 years ago. I learned something very unexpected from this horse and it was something that nobody had ever mentioned or described to me before. In fact, to this day I don’t know anybody who has had a similar experience.


The horse was a young gelding. It had only been with us a few days when Michèle noticed he seemed “off” somehow in the paddock. She had been cleaning his paddock and picked up on the fact that the horse seemed lethargic and disinterested in the activities around him. The symptoms were vague, but I knew to trust Michèle’s instincts about these kinds of things.


We had only recently moved our work to the area and didn’t have a regular vet, so we called a local equine veterinary practice and they sent the first person that was available. He was a thin, lanky fellow, as tall as a tree that had a super calm and quiet manner about him.


We arranged for the owner to be there at the time and I had the horse waiting in the round yard. We made our introductions and Matt proceeded to ask Michèle and I several questions before examining the horse. Matt handled the horse with a nice quiet manner and the horse seemed unbothered. After a pretty thorough going over he said he felt sure the horse was displaying the very early signs of a mild colic. He didn’t think he needed to do too much and the horse would recover of its own volition. However, just be sure there was no peritonitis (infection) he wanted to take a peritoneal tap, which involved inserting a needle into the abdominal cavity.


The owner told us all that her horse was not good with needles. But in my arrogance I figured he would be fine if I held him just right. Matt felt similarly confident. As Matt bent down by the horse’s flank to insert the needle, there was a flash of something and Matt was lying on the ground holding his leg. The kick came so quickly and without any noticeable warning that I was unsure at first why Matt was sprawled on the ground. To his credit he did not utter any profanity except “gosh”. I started to question what sort of vet didn’t swear when he was kicked?


The man was clearly in a lot of pain and I thought the force might have snapped his shin. Luckily he was able to put weight on it after about 10 minutes.


We all thought a different approach might be a good idea. Matt said that he figured that the horse should be given a five-day course of antibiotics to cover any risk of infection – penicillin to be given intramuscular (IM) and gentamicin to given intravenously (IV). Matt insisted that he needed to be available to inject the gentamicin for legal reasons. However, it was not obvious how we were going to needle the horse without casualties.


We tried using a twitch, but it didn’t work. We tried holding a front leg up, but that didn’t work either. I even gave Matt permission to try grabbing an ear, which is something I never do – but to no avail. The horse was just too scared and had too much fight. Then I asked Matt if the antibiotics could wait a few days. He said that if the horse gets no worse that would be ok, but if its condition deteriorated we would have to find a way to administer the antibiotics immediately. I told him to come back in 3 days.


I immediately began working on teaching the horse to lay down. I didn’t throw it to the ground like you see on some breaking in videos. Instead, I taught it to shift its weight to the hindquarters when I picked up a left foreleg. I worked at this until the horse volunteered the leg and would step its hindquarters backwards. This was the hardest thing to get the horse feeling okay about and it took a little time.


Then I progressed this movement into teaching the horse to lower its forehand with the right foreleg stretched in front. This was pretty easy to teach because the hindquarters were already yielding without a struggle.


The next step was to help the horse find that he could go from resting on his left knee to tipping his weight to the side in order to lay down. This took some time and was done in small increments because he was worried about yielding entirely to lay prone on the ground. It’s pretty common that horses get bothered when we take away control of their feet and their capacity to flee. A horse just never knows when he will have to run for his life at a moments notice. However, with patience, empathy and going slow the horse was able to lay down with confidence.


It took about 5 or 6 sessions over the 3 days to have the horse laying down with very little bother.


When Matt returned on the third day to administer the injections he was a bit dumbstruck to see the horse lay down when I lifted the foreleg. For safety sake I asked Michèle to rest her knee on the horse’s neck to prevent him from getting to his feet in case he reacted badly when he felt the needle pierce his skin. That was a good idea, because when he felt the needle he tried to rise up. But Michèle blocked him and he calmed again quickly. Matt was able to give him the injections without any further resistance.


Matt said he was very impressed and had never seen anybody lay a horse down before without a lot of fighting.


The next day Matt returned again. This time I laid the horse to the ground, but he felt so good that I decided not to use Michèle’s help to keep him down. He just laid there while Matt injected him. Each day the horse became more confident and okay about the injections. By the fifth and final day, Matt was able to given him his injections while he stood in the yard and smooched on me.


What really surprised me was that the horse learned something by being laid down. My past experience is that laying a horse down can help to reset a horse’s trouble for a few moments. Most people force a horse to the ground and I have never seen anything good come from that – it’s pure dominance and submission and a horse learns nothing good from that.


But to teach a horse to lay down and learn from it really surprised me. It had not occurred to me that would happen and nobody has ever mentioned it to me before.


It could be argued that the reason the horse seemed less bothered by the injections is because the process of lay down caused the horse to shut down. It mentally went away to that place inside its minds that allows a horse to cope with the horrors of dealing with the stuff people do to them. Over the years I have seen many horses with various levels of shutting down and they all exhibit a range of behaviours. But this horse did not show that at all. He was the same horse in all other aspects except he was more comfortable with being needled. So I believe there really was a learning process going on in association with learning to lay down.


I think the learning came from the fact that the horse felt okay about yielding to the loss of control of his feet. I believe the important part came from the change in the horse’s thoughts that it was okay to lay down. And with this came a quiet mind that it available to learn something.


To me, it doesn’t matter if the horse laid down or not – that’s not the important part. The important part happened before the horse laid down. The laying down came after the change of thought and it was the yielding to an idea that I presented that was the important part. The element that made it possible for the horse to accept being needled was not being laid down, it was yielding to the idea that it was okay to give control of his feet to me. If the horse had not done that, every time we needed to inject the horse we would have had to lay him down and have Michèle kneel on his neck for control.


I found this a profoundly important and interesting experience. For me, I think I learned something more important than the horse did.

Pressure, Focus and Worry in Horses

I want to talk about anxiety in horses that don’t exhibit focus and those that do exhibit focus.


I devoted a whole section of my book  ‘The Essence Of Good Horsemanship’ to the subject of Focus. That should give you some idea about how much importance I place on the concept of focus in the process of working with horses.


People tend to lump a horse’s anxiety into one category. They see a horse that is worried about seeing a kangaroo for the first time as the same thing as when the same horse shies at the scary corner of the arena. Then in people’s mind those expressions of worry are the same as when we separate a horse from the other horses. People often assume they are all the same and they need to be treated as if they are the same.

To me this makes no more sense than assuming that anxiety in people is always the same thing and needs the same treatment. The stress a person experiences about not being able to pay their rent is very different to the stress they feel when a loved one is ill. Those experiences may result in a person showing similar signs of stress (such as sleeplessness and irritability) but the causes and the cures are clearly different. So why do we assume that stress in a horse is always the same stress in every situation?


In my experience there are two different ways people approach the issue of a horse being worried about something. One approach is to do everything a person can to calm a horse through soothing methods. This includes trying to walk it around calmly, gently rubbing it, speak in soft tones or even giving it treats. The second common approach is more proactive by telling a horse to get over it and insist it obeys the handler. Sometimes this means trying to make a horse approach the object of the fear and even put its nose on it.


I’m not going to say that one method is right and one is wrong. There are situations when either might be the best approach and there are situations where neither would be my preference; and sometimes a little of both might be called for.


I think the marker that best tells a person how to help a horse that is feeling worried about something is its focus. Where a horse chooses to focus is an indicator is what a horse needs to help overcome the problem.


Let’s say for example you are leading a horse away from its friends to ride in the arena. As you walk down the laneway with Flossy towards the arena she begins to jog sideways, raises her head and tail, calls out to the other horses and when you stop she almost runs into you. Flossy is obviously rating the other horses as more important than you and being separated from them is causing her to feel stressed.


The solution is to change Flossy’s focus from fixating on the other horses to being interested in you. She is certain that the other horses present a more comfortable and probably safer deal than you. Therefore, somehow you need to change that belief and become more important to her than the other horses. Patting her and speaking in soft tones won’t do it because she doesn’t even register your existence let alone want a scratch and cuddle from you. You could try offering a treat, but now your importance only exists as a vending machine. You are not any more important, only the treat is. What if she snatches the treat and goes back to jogging sideways (like so many horses will)? What do you do then?


Instead you have to interrupt her focus and present her with an alternative point of focus. The easiest way is to present her with something unexpected – something that is not part of her routine and causes her to ask you, “what’s going on?” It might be a sudden change of direction or a loud whack of the lead rope on your boot - anything that would cause Flossy to take notice. The stronger Flossy is fixated on the other horses, the stronger and more insistent you’ll have to be to interrupt that thought.


Once you have Flossy’s attention, it’s possible go back to being quiet again and the importance of the other horses diminishes. You may have to repeat the process several times, but with each repetition the anxiety caused by separation from the other horses will wane.


However, lets look at a different example where you lead Flossy along the laneway and she gets worried by the sudden appearance of a kangaroo. Thinking that the kangaroo is there to kill her, she naturally gets worried. But she continues to listen to every word you express in your body language and feel of the lead rope. When you walk faster, Flossy walks faster. When you slow, she slows. When you stop, Flossy does not run into you. She remains mentally connected to you despite her focus and anxiety about the ‘roo.


To me, this is a case where I would do all I could to reassure Flossy. Despite her concern about the sudden appearance of the ‘roo, she didn’t mentally disconnect from me. If I stroked her she would register it. My job here would be to ease her worry about the ‘roo by my confidence and my compassion for her genuine fear. For example, I might let her look for a while and allow her to gauge whether she really needs to worry about the ‘roo. When her survival instinct levels lowered enough I might lead her a little towards the ‘roo and show her she has the power to move the evil beast. I might ask that she try a few small projects that I know she can do without raising her anxiety levels. I might totally ignore the ‘roo and go about our business as if it didn’t exist. Any or all or more of these things I might try to find a way to help Flossy gain the confidence that if she sticks with me life will be fine. But I would not demand she walk up to the ‘roo. I wouldn’t get her busy with moving her feet in an effort to gain her focus and establish her obedience. I would approach it very differently to the first scenario of the separation anxiety.


I have only given two examples to illustrate how you might deal with a horse’s stress should depend on a horse’s focus. The focus of a horse changes the scenario. A horse that is with you and a horse that is not with you are two vastly different horses. Even though the two situations may appear on the surface to be very similar, their differences are defined by the horse’s focus.