Dealing With A Horse That Pulls Away

On the last day of my clinic in Perth just 2 weeks ago I had a lapse in judgement with a horse. The horse was there for only a one-hour lesson and there was much to do.  My mistake was a momentary misjudgement in both the amount of pressure I put the horse under and the expected response. He pulled away to the side, the lead rope whizzed through my fingers and the horse took off to the nearby yard where his buddies were watching (the arena was unfenced). No harm was done and I was able to begin again with helping the horse make a change. It turned out fine in the end, but my brain fart did not help.


It’s happened before that a horse has pulled away or tried to pull away from me. I think the last time was a clinic in South Australia earlier in the year. In this case, leaping to the side and pull the rope through the handler’s hand had become a habit every time the horse was asked to load into a trailer – it was an automatic response.


When I was training horses for people I’ve had a few cases sent to me exactly because pulling away had become the default response of a horse even when there was only a small amount of pressure.


It’s a horrible habit for a horse to learn and the best solution is to never let it get started. Like any unwanted habits, pulling away gets started by accidentally learning that when they put a real effort into leaving, the horse gets relief by escaping to a better and safer place. If this happens again, it is more likely the horse will try it repeatedly. The more success the horse has in finding comfort in pulling away, the quicker this behaviour becomes ingrained.


So what to do when pulling away does become habitual?


There are several options. You can always dial-a-prayer to your deity of choice. But if the line is busy or your call goes to voice mail, what else can you do?


In the end the solution for a habitual escape artist relies on the horse learning that pulling away does not offer an option of comfort and safety. Pulling away needs to become futile.


Many people who own a good saddle horse would choose to handle the problem from horseback. When the puller tries to leap away and brace against the rope, the rider needs to dally the lead rope to his saddle horse with quite a little length in it to allow the horse to escape a short distance. When the horse hits the end of the rope, it will be jerked short with a look of amazement on its face as if to say, “well, that didn’t workout how I thought it would.” With repetition and good timing on the part of the rider, the propensity to pull away will become more and more distant.

However, with this method comes a warning. You need to look after your saddle horse first. If your saddle horse continues to get pulled and pulled by the problem horse, it can become sour and sore and eventually reach the point where it stop working or begin to attack the other horse. A friend told me of an extreme case where he was working a big Clydesdale that had the habit of pulling away. He said it took more than 30 times before the Clydesdale started to prepare to stop before hitting the end of the rope. But in the process his saddle horse became very sore in the wither and continued to have soundness issue after that. So give priority to looking after your saddle horse first.


If you don’t have a good saddle horse, another approach is to use a smaller yard instead. Put the horse in any type of yard that limits the escape perimeter enough that the handler doesn’t have to let go of the lead rope when the horse pulls away. This is the method I used on the horse in South Australia with the trailer-loading problem.


It means that when the horse tries to escape the pressure of the lead rope doesn’t give up. It’s still there even when the horse reaches the fence of the yard and stops its feet. When that happens the handler should ask the horse to yield to the feel on the rope and face them. For it to work effectively the handler should move in order to try to keep themselves at ninety degrees to the horse. This makes it easier to reduce the pull of the runaway horse and keep it off-balance.


When it stops, go up and love on the horse gently and start again. With practice the horse stops trying to flee and you can then move to a bigger yard with a long rope. Keep working until the problem has all but disappeared. If it resurfaces, check that you are not asking the horse for more than it has to give and go back to working in a smaller yard again.


The third approach uses a second person with a second rope. Michèle and I have both used this method successfully with each other’s help. Both people need to be skilled with good timing and an ability to read each other without shouting and cursing (well, maybe a little cursing when it goes wrong and it is the other person’s fault).


Here is an important tip. In my experience, I have observed that horses almost always leap in the same direction – mostly to the opposite direction the handler is standing – it is a very consistent pattern. So if you are working on the left side of the horse, most of them will leap to the right and take off running to the right. It is important you know which direction the horse is likely to leap towards before you begin. For this example, let’s say the handler is on the left and the horse leaps to the right.


The second person needs to be on the right side of the horse, but back and out of the way – so maybe several metres away from the handler and the horse. There is a second rope attached to the halter or around the horse’s neck that reaches back to the second person on the right side.


The horse is worked in the normal way and the job of the second person is to move their feet in such a way that they don’t interfere with the work. They also need to stay on the right side of the horse and keep their rope from interfering or getting tangled with the horse or handler. So for example, if the handler is asking for a hindquarter disengagement by bending the horse to the left, the second person needs to move their feet quickly, keeping their rope from blocking the horse or getting tangled around the back feet. This is why good communication between both people is vital and why the cursing is sometimes displayed.


When the horse gets ready to invoke its old habit of trying to escape, it will brace against the handler’s rope on the left and leap to the right. The handler knows this is about to happen and if the second person is not aware, the handler needs to tell them (without cursing).


Now the second person’s timing is vital. As the horse leaps to the right, the second person uses their long rope (attached to the halter or around the neck) to keep the horse turning right until the horse is facing the second person. They usually don’t have to pull hard on the long rope because all the horse’s resistance is to the left and they are moving to the right with hardly any brace. So often the horse can be turned all the way to right by letting it feel the end of the long rope or with a semi-firm pull. Again, the horse will have a look of shock or WTF (Where’s The Farrier) on its face as it stands looking at the second person. Go up and gently pet the horse and start again.


It will take some practice, but it has never taken very long before I’ve seen solid changes in horses.


However, there is an important consideration that needs thinking about. The problem of pulling away arose because of a mistake the handler made. But it wasn’t just a one-time mistake. It was repeated enough times to make it a habit. If a person is to solve the issue, they need to understand what they did to cause it and how they can change to ensure the feelings that created the habit don’t come back.


Using a slick trick to make a horse learn the futility of pulling away is not enough. If a person wants to develop a long term harmonious working relationship with a horse, then the causes of a behaviour need to be addressed, not just the symptoms.


In the photo Michèle is using her mare, Birch to teach a young Clydie not to drag on the lead rope.

Training and Exercises

Almost all riding and training that we practice today in first world countries stands on the shoulders of a heritage of European horsemanship long past. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in western riding, dressage, eventing, hunting, polo, pleasure or whatever, the basic principles and practices can be traced back to centuries old European traditions.


We don’t really know how those old ways were practiced because we only have the old guys written word and our interpretation of their meaning. But most people respect the old ways with due admiration to famous schools of horsemanship and some even more famous masters. However, times have moved on. We know much more about how horses operate these days than they did at the times the old traditions were being formulated. Our knowledge of anatomy and the biomechanics of horses has surpassed anything the old dead guys knew. We have a greater understanding of equipment, nutrition, health and behaviour. But more importantly, we have evolved a greater moral sense of our responsibility to our equine cousins.


In centuries gone by, when Christian ethics shaped human values in Europe, the purpose of horses (and most other animals) was considered to serve humans in the service of God. As a result, little consideration was given to horses as anything but slaves. Training was about teaching obedience and the care of horses went only as far as achieving the purpose assigned to a horse. You have to remember that these were the days when people from other races and other religions were barely considered human, so it is not surprising that animals were not given a value other than to serve.


So why do I bring this up?


As I said earlier, times have moved on. We care much more about the welfare of horses. We practice more modern methods and use more modern equipment. Health and nutritional care of horses has never been more available. Knowledge for the average horse owner is only a few keystrokes away. However, one tradition that the old dead guys left us that persists across the globe and in all horse sports is the idea that there is an exercise to fix every training problem.


Over the years I have tried to attend a lot of clinics – mostly to watch. I have been to horsemanship clinics, dressage clinics, jumping clinics, reining clinics, ranch roping and cow working clinics – there seems to be have been a lot of them. I have been fortunate to watch many of the very best in their field teach and train horses and people – some of them have achieved guru status and stand on pedestals to their admirers. The one thing they have overwhelmingly in common is the idea that to fix any problem requires a lot of repetition of some chosen exercise.


I have a particular interest in dressage, so let me give you a couple of examples from my own experience.


I attended a master class by one of the world’s most successful dressage competitors. The horse that was being ridden was extremely uptight and fractious. In order to calm the horse the rider was told to perform exercises to enforce more obedience to the aids. The reasoning seemed to be that if the horse were more obedient, it would become calmer. At a different demonstration I watched one of the world’s foremost trainers of classical dressage also trying to calm a nervous horse by performing simple exercises over and over to instill obedience. There was no attempt by either the competition trainer or the classical trainer to address the worry and anxiety except to repeat the exercises in the hope both horses would calm down and engage their minds to the work. There was no mention how to use the exercises to tap into the emotions of the horse. Instead it was about moving the feet in the hope that might change how the horses felt.


In another example, I was in a discussion with somebody about dressage horses that foam from the mouth. They quoted a well-respected horse person who wrote that excessive foaming was caused by tightness of the jaw muscles, which stemmed from tightness of certain back muscles. They recommended exercises designed to relax the back muscles to treat excess foaming from the mouth. Again, there was no mention of addressing the emotions that caused the muscle tension in the back or jaw. It was purely about a physical exercise to alter a physical muscle problem.


If you read the texts of past masters such as Baucher, Pluvinel or Cavendish, you will see the same type of thinking of training obedience through specific exercises as a priority. It’s even true of more modern day classical masters like Podhasjki, Littauer and Oliveira who also emphasize particular exercises to induce a horse’s obedience without focusing on how to achieve a happy and relaxed horse at the same time. Don’t misunderstand me, these masters mention the importance of a horse’s emotions in training, but then go on to ignore it when describing the exercises in training with no mention of how they are used to influence the horse’s thoughts and emotions.


At horsemanship clinics I am always witnessing students and their horses being put through the routine of exercises that you see at almost every clinic – lateral flexions, clover patterns, backing up, hindquarter disengagements, lunging in circles, soft feel etc. But almost never have I seen or heard an emphasis placed on how these are used to change a horse’s emotions and thoughts. Instead, the emphasis is on a constant driving to control the feet.


It is true that the very best horse people from all corners of the industry do know how to influence a horse’s emotions and thoughts through their work – some may not even know that they actually do that. However, I hardly ever see it taught. It may be mentioned in passing from time to time, but it is not taught because it seems it is assumed that if you can control the feet you also control the horse’s mind, which is completely false – they are not the same thing.


There is almost universal failure of teachers to teach how to address a horse’s emotions first and a lack of appreciation that the emotions determine the quality of the movement. I can think of a handful of teachers who truly mould their work to prioritize the quality of a horse’s emotional state and vastly many more who don’t.


In part I blame the old dead guys for this because they left us with this legacy. They said that we should be looking for submission and obedience in our horses and then gave us the exercises to achieve it. They largely left out the part about an obedient horse does not necessarily equate to a happy horse. However, they can’t carry the entire blame. We know better now. We can’t keep blaming our ancestors just because we choose not to use our brains and critically assess what they left us with. It’s time we all started wearing long pants, grow up and move on from looking at just the repetition of exercises as the cure all for our horse woes.


I took this photo of one of the old dead guys that I interviewed for this article.

Getting Changes in People As Well As Horses

You’ve probably all heard people say how much easier it is to get a change in a horse than it is in a human. It is my experience that this is sometimes true. I am constantly in awe how horses are so pliable and able to be manipulated. They certainly seem to be more so than some humans.


I believe this is because horses have an advantage over people. Their agenda is simple. They live for comfort and safety. They aren’t trying to achieve something, get a job done or train humans to be useful. They just seek safety and comfort. As long as a horse believes that the ideas we present are the most safe and most comfortable then you just have to get out of the way and let them do their thing. In principle it really is that easy. So getting a change in a horse is easy if you follow that simple principle.


People are almost as simple, but not quite. And it’s the “not quite” bit that causes us problems. That’s because for most people, riding horses is not always a matter of life and death as it is for horses being ridden. When we have a horse that we feel is not going to jeopardize our safety and comfort, we still have other motives or agendas for riding. In fact, most times we already have our reasons for riding worked out even before we sit in the saddle. We have a pre-planned agenda that is separate from our feelings once we are in the saddle. Whereas horses have no agenda or plans on what the riding session is about until we ask them to do something. A horse’s behaviour is determined by his need to live through the experience with as much comfort as possible. A person’s behaviour is determined by what we need to do in order to teach a horse something. So very often people and horses having opposing needs or agendas.


My experience tells me that if a student feels their safety is at risk, they learn very quickly. In fact, they learn just as fast as any sensitive horse. However, if their safety is not in question, a person’s ability to take on new information and make changes in themselves depends on other motivations – some are important and some are trivial.


For example, if a horse takes 5mins to load into a trailer, many people do not try to improve the training because 5mins doesn’t seem like a lot. But if a horse takes 2hrs to load, they then get somebody to help train their horse to trailer load. It usually doesn’t take long before the owner has learned the new ideas to turn to their horse into an excellent trailer loader. The motivation for the owner to step up and improve their horsemanship is much stronger when dealing with a horse that takes 2hr to load into a trailer than if it only takes 5mins.


Every few clinics that I do somebody brings up the subject of how to do better in competition. Recently a woman said the dressage judges marked her horse down because she needed to ride with more contact. I hear this all the time. I watched the woman ride her horse with and without contact and it was absolutely clear that her horse was not ready to be ridden with more contact. When she asked for more contact her horse just contracted its frame, hollowed its back, dragged its hindquarters and the stride became short and choppy. Yet some judge told her to ride with more contact. Why would a judge say that when it was to the detriment of the horse and only produce a worse test?


Nevertheless, the woman wanted to know how she could get her horse more forward with more contact. My advice was to forget about competitions for 6 or more months and get her horse softer and responsive to the reins, seat and legs before bothering with another event. But of course the reason why she rode was to compete, so my advice was not going to change her. She wanted success in competition, but she was only thinking of the next week, not the next year.


People interested in immediate success struggle to make change in themselves. They either battle onwards with what they do and stay miserable about it. Or they get another horse that tolerates their skills and their demands much easier. These people usually don’t make changes. These people are the people that trainers and clinicians are referring to when they say it’s harder to get changes in humans than it is in horses.


However, the people who place as much importance on the horse’s needs as much as they do on their own are working towards change in themselves. They place as much emphasize in getting along well with a horse during the trainer as they do in their own safety and comfort. When we assess the training in the same way a horse assess’ it’s own safety and comfort, things change inside us. When it is that important to us, things change.


I attended a clinic by another trainer recently. He mentioned that people are harder to get changes in than horses. In fact he said most people don’t change. In my mind I questioned that if he really believed that was he actually ripping people off by taking their money and pretending to teach them?


My own view is that humans are no harder to train than horses provided the motivation to change is as strong as a horse’s motivation to seek safety and comfort.


Last year I was teaching in Canberra and the people made such brilliant changes in the morning session that they didn't think it necessary to return in the afternoon. It made me feel all warm and gooey inside - even if a little lonely

The Power Of Knowledge

I want to offer a few thoughts on the power of knowledge.


What are the chances of somebody who knows absolutely nothing about horses training a horse that has never seen a human, to be brilliant?


At a guess doing a brilliant job of training takes knowing several thousand things about horses and how they operate. So somebody who knows nothing has very little chance of educating a horse to be the best it can be. I mean if you take all the elements required to maximize the best chance of a horse being great, put them in a huge bin and shake it all up and see what a happens, what do you think are the chances of getting a brilliant result? For the sake of argument lets be generous and say that if a person knew something like which is the front end and which is the back end of a horse there is maybe a 1 in a million chance of producing a great horse.


So what if we double a person’s knowledge about horses to say two things, the chance of training a horse to be the best it can be is doubled to 2 in a million. Let’s double our trainer’s knowledge again to 4 things they know about horses. Suddenly the chances of doing a great training job jump to 4 in a million or 1:250,000. Double it again and again and again and you can see how powerful just a little more knowledge can be. What a difference every little improvement in our understanding of horses can make.


Acquiring knowledge is never smooth. Sometimes we take wrong turns and learn things that are counterproductive to improving our horsemanship. We then have to back track and somehow open up our minds to allowing us to learn new stuff. This is never easy and for some people it is not even possible and they are stuck forever in mediocrity or worse. That makes me a little sad.


Of course, my example is a huge oversimplification and it makes a lot of assumptions, however I believe the principle still holds true. Every gain we make as horse people translate to a huge gain for horses. This is just one reason why we should not be content with what we already know, but strive to be better than ourselves.


I don’t mind admitting that I am quite proud of my latest book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship. It outlines a lot of the basic information I feel people need to think about when tackling the job of training a horse. It’s doesn’t contain everything I know or want others to know, but I believe it offers some important concepts that are not widely discussed in the horse community. But why I mention this is because (to paraphrase Ricky Gervias) The Essence Of Good Horsemanship is the book I wanted to write 20 years ago but didn’t know enough and was not smart enough to write. I couldn’t have written it 10 or 20 years ago. And I’m guessing that a lot of people who have read it also could not have written it 10 or 20 years ago. But now they can.


However what is most exciting to me is to what kind of book I could write after the next 10 or 20 years. I’m impatient to learn enough and be smart enough to write the next one. I can’t even imagine what it will discuss, but I’m sure my horses are as impatient as I am.

Small Mistakes and Big Mistakes

I want to talk about something that for most people is self-evident. But sometimes it never hurts to be reminded of things that are self-evident.


Horse training is rarely (if ever) a smooth process. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true in that it is a roller coaster of a process. There are good days and bad days. There are forward steps and backward steps. There is progress and there is regression. Sometimes we even have to count stagnation as a good day.


Horse trainers everywhere know the value of building on a solid foundation of basic work. Progress does not come in leaps, but in incremental layers built on what came before. The trust and confidence we established yesterday is used to gain a slither of better trust and confidence today. The clarity achieved yesterday is the foundation for a marginal improvement in clarity today. And so it goes. Each day forms the basis of small improvements for the next day.


It sounds simple and in principle I guess it is. But maybe it’s not so easy. The smooth progression we envisage in our minds when we start a project with a horse, gets hijacked by our incompetence and propensity to make mistakes – by our humanness. We get in the way of the training.


A lot of the time we do this with little mistakes that we all make everyday in our lives.


We put a horse in a round yard and wait patiently for it to try and take an interest in us. As a little trust and confidence builds, it faces the middle to look at us. Then we betray the good try it took for the horse to look at us by moving too quickly or too early. We got in the way of building trust and it unraveled.


When we teach a foal to pick up its feet, it begins with the horse lifting one foot momentarily. Then we get in that way of the trust and try it took the foal to lift its foot by requiring it to hold it up for one second longer than it thought it should or could. Another backward step caused by our mistake.


When our horse crowded us at feeding time we didn’t realize it was because we used treats to catch him. We got in the way of being clear about space.


These are common errors and on the scale of things they generally create only minor setbacks. But don’t underestimate their importance. But they are still setbacks, and they still cause damage to both our relationship with a horse and the training progress. They are best avoided if possible. The better horse people make fewer of them than the rest of us, but errors in judgment are part of the human condition.


On the other hand, sometimes we make big mistakes that can create problems for a very long time or even forever.


For example, over facing a horse with a task bigger than they are ready for. I immediately think of showjumpers who are asked to jump higher and wider fences too early in their education. This can cause a huge amount of anxiety that burdens them for life – and not just with regard to jumping, but also with most of what we do with them.


Another example is the damage that is caused by a saddle slipping under a horse in the early stages of starting. Very often when this happens a horse struggles for years or even forever to be comfortable with being saddled.


I recall an incident where I was guilty of putting my horse in a situation that she was not ready for. It was my first ride out of the round yard on my mare, Chops. We rode along the dirt road that passed the front gate. Things were going well until we came across a large puddle. I figured this was as good a time as any to start Chops on water hazards. She was not very sure about the puddle, but I just waited and waited without putting any pressure on her except to block her from trying another route home. Finally, after several minutes I felt her get ready to step into the puddle and I got out of her way to allow it to happen. As her front feet took a forward step I felt her sink down to her chest in mud. It was a sinkhole. She scrambled with all four legs flaying in every direction until she finally manage to reach solid ground. We were both covered in mud and had shocked looks on our faces. I felt terrible that I had betrayed her. Just when she thought she could trust giving it a try, I proved to her I couldn’t be trusted. It was only due to her amazing heart that we were able to negotiate puddles successfully later in the ride.


I think the point of this post is that I want to highlight that mistakes are part of training. They are why we sometimes go backward as well as forward. But mistakes are also part of our learning. They are important in teaching us what not to do, as well as what to do.


Most people see the big mistakes they make. They know when they tie their horse up and it flips over they made a big mistake. They know when they ride with 200 hundred of their closest friends and their horse is out of control with anxiety, they have made a big mistake.


However, so few of us are aware of the small mistakes. We miss seeing how our horse grimaced when we patted it too hard. We are unaware that when our horse comes into us on the lunge it’s because we are moving our feet in the wrong direction. When don’t realize that our horse is difficult to bridle because the brow band is too small and the bridle cuts into the back of his ears.


Paradoxically, it’s often the small mistakes that are the biggest hurdle to overcome because our lack of awareness of them means they persist for longer. They are a constant source of trouble that gets in the way of training forever or until we discover them. We are aware when we make a big mistake and do everything in our power to correct it next time. But with the small mistakes, they sometimes slip under the radar and become a thorn in the side of our relationship with our horse that persists for a very long time. Pretty soon a whole lot of little mistakes accumulate to make it seem like something really big has gone wrong in the training.


I guess the take home message is that we should learn to see the little mistakes as much as you are aware of the big ones. This means every response and every behaviour of a horse should have importance to us. Each response, each gesture, each behaviour tells us something about us as much as about our horses.


Luckily the horse in the photo appears to be a well use to people making stupid mistakes.