Evasion Versus Yielding in Horse Training

Like most children I learned to tell lies quite early in life, because I learned lying was one way of avoiding trouble. When I was an annoying and disobedient kid I learned how to behave well enough to avoid getting into too much trouble with mum and dad. When I was a teenager I learned how to just apply enough effort to my schoolwork to avoid getting into trouble with the teachers. When I was in my first year at university and away from home I learned how to plan my driving route from a night of drinking at the pub back to avoid getting into trouble with the police.


I learned all those strategies as a way of avoiding trouble. But I only learned them because people allowed me to get away with it. In effect they taught me how to avoid trouble by just doing enough right things to keep them happy. I didn’t necessarily learn to do the right thing as much as I learned to avoid doing or being caught doing the wrong thing.


We do this with our horses too.


People train horses evasion behaviours rather than yielding behaviours.


What do I mean by evading and yielding? You may have your own definition, but for the sake of clarity this is how I think of those two concepts in terms of my horse training.


Evasion is an escape from trouble. Evasion incorporates enough anxiety in a horse to motivate it to flee from something. The flee might be very small or very big, but it is nonetheless an escape strategy. Evasion involves a horse mentally creating distance between it, the pressure and the source of the pressure (human).


Yielding is not escaping from trouble, but moving towards comfort. Yielding involves a horse moving towards a thought the human is suggesting, not fleeing from pressure.


I see so many horses that are very obedient, but carry inner turmoil because so much of what they do carries the burden of anxiety. Their obedience only exists as a means of escaping trouble.


Recently, a woman at a clinic brought along a very nice pony that was very obedient. She had followed the teachings of some well-known trainers and taught her horse a lot of fancy exercises. I believe many people would be pretty impressed by the work the pony displayed. Yet, in almost everything it did the pony carried a level of anxiety that made the movements rushed and tight. There was very little flow or quietness about the work. It was good example of a horse that lived to escape the trouble that pressure brought to its life. The pony saw its choices as life and death decisions.


In another example, a few days ago I saw a horse that kept offering responses to questions that had not yet been asked. It was so troubled by what might happen that it tried to throw out the answer even before the handler had time to ask for something.


In both these cases, the horse had learned to evade pressure, rather than yield to it.


How does this happen? I believe there are a few factors that create the mindset in a horse that it should try to escape pressure.


First, there is the adage that people quote over and over again, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” For many people the emphasis is on making the wrong thing difficult and the “right thing easy” is merely a matter of removing the pressure. This attitude is too simplistic and guaranteed to cause problems along the line.


If removing the pressure was the best way to “make the right thing easy”, then a horse would always choose the “right thing.” But of course that doesn’t happen. We need to appreciate that in a horse’s mind the right thing is not easy, otherwise it would always choose it by itself and without us having to ask. But because we don’t make the effort to make the right thing a sweet spot that the horse would choose on its own, we focus on making the wrong thing difficult. In doing that we teach our horse to flee or escape the wrong thing.


This leads me to the second cause of horses learning obedience through evasion of pressure, rather than yielding to pressure; “controlling horses is about controlling the feet.”


This is one of my biggest peeves. If we think of training just in terms of training the feet to go where we want and the body posture to shape in the way we want, we are merely training obedience. As the lady with the pony I mentioned had done, training the feet alone can only teach a horse to flee from pressure. There can be no yielding or possibility of the horse and human going together.


A natural follow on from this concept is directing versus driving a horse. People who teach horses evasion behaviours almost always rely on using driving methods to instill obedience.


For those who have not read “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship”, driving a horse is sending a horse away from something, eg swinging the tail end of a lead rope at a horse to send it somewhere is driving a horse’s feet away. In contrast, directing a horse is directing its mind to think of going somewhere and the feet will follow the thought. Driving is sending a horse away from something and directing is sending a horse towards something.


When you direct a horse, you are asking it to yield to an idea because the feet follow the horse’s thought. However, when you drive a horse you separate the feet from the thought in that its mind is focused on the source of the pressure and its feet try to escape that pressure. So driving teaches evasion behaviours.


And finally the other factor that contributes towards training that teaches evasions rather than yielding is our sense of superiority. I feel that we so often think of training as something we do to a horse. We own them. We are smarter than them. We feed and care for them. We are their boss and our job as trainers is to teach them to live by the rules.


But in my view, training and working with a horse should not be something we impose on them. It is something we do together. In everything we do with a horse we need to offer them a feel to follow and go with, that presents as the right thing being easy. When we perform groundwork, we offer them a feel to follow that makes the right thing easy for them. When we ride, we offer them a feel to go with that makes the right thing feel easy. When they are struggling, we need to see it as our failing and not theirs. Working with horses should be a team pursuit and not an activity where we issue a command and watch the horse perform its magic.


All these factors play their part in whether a horse yields to a good idea or escapes from a bad one. But probably the biggest factor that determines which it is that we teach our horse is our attitude as to what training and working with horses means to us. If we view horses as our dear friends who need our help to understand the world, we take a very different attitude to the arena than a person who sees horses as their chattel that needs to be taught the rules.


From my childhood Popeye cartoons were one of my favourites, but Bluto was always the bad guy. Not only did he try to steal Popeye’s girlfriend, but he treated horses as chattel too.

Teaching and Allowing Are the Same Thing

Horses are often busy little bees. This is especially true when they carry some anxiety. In fact, often times their busy-ness is proportional to the anxiety they carry. This is not always true of course. Some horses are very stoic and internalize their worry and it does not come out in the form of being busy. However, lots of horses have a hard time having still minds and still bodies when they are worried.


There is a huge range of behaviours that a worried horse will offer. Many of them are quite benign and don’t cause us any trouble. We often ignore these behaviours because we can easily work around them without any danger or inconvenience to us. An example that quickly comes my mind as I write this is perhaps when a horse looks away as we reach out our hand to stroke it. The anxiety a horse feels causes it to find interest in something other than us just as we come within touching distance. Yet, it doesn’t stop us from making contact with our horse and stroking it gently, so we often ignore this little infringement.


Then there are the behaviours that a horse does that are a little annoying, but really not very much trouble to us. I’m thinking of things like chewing the bit or walking the instant we settle into the saddle or trying to eat grass when we handle or ride it.  For the most part we are not in trouble when our horse does this, but we just wish he/she wouldn’t do it.


Then there are the behaviours that become very important to us to address. In this category we first have behaviours that are dangerous like walking away when we try to mount or kicking when a person walks behind or bucking in the canter transition. The second type are behaviours that get in the way of our agenda are things such as tacking up a horse that hates to be bridled or pulling back when tied up or not picking up the feet for the farrier. The behaviours require our attention because they create problems for us and make life difficult.


Whether we try to change these behaviours or even acknowledge them is often up to how we view them. A habit that is dangerous or causes us a lot of trouble is almost always addressed either by us or by a trainer we employ to help out. However, owners often ignore less risky or annoying responses.


With this in mind, I think it is worth remembering that by allowing a behaviour we don’t like to go unchecked, we are actually training that response in a horse. What began as a small annoying behaviour that we let slide once or twice soon becomes a small annoying learned habit that continues to exasperate us forever.


If a horse asks us a question and we don’t answer it with a response that inspires the idea we want a horse to have, we are telling the horse that its idea is also our idea or at least an idea that is okay with us.


Most trainers believe in the philosophy of presenting a horse with an idea and when they absorb that idea into their thinking we should get out of the way and allow them to put it into action. It comes down to the concept of letting our idea be their idea and ‘bingo!’ the horse does what we want.


Therefore, when a horse has an idea, it then asks us a question. It might be “may I run out through the outside shoulder on this turn” or  “may I eat grass when we walk down the laneway” or “should I look away when you reach to touch me” or whatever question it may pose. By the way we respond to the horses idea, we are training it to either repeat the question and its associated behaviour next time or to try a different question with a different behaviour.


One of the concepts I try to give people who come to clinics (and I’m sure many other clinicians do likewise) is “allow what you do want and block what you don’t want.” So if a horse starts to walk as a rider is swinging their leg across the saddle and the rider lets that idea stew in the horse’s mind, they are allowing what they don’t want, which is as good as teaching the horse to walk away when being mounted.


It is pointing the finger in the wrong direction when we blame a horse for behaviours we don’t want when we have allowed them. We may not have consciously taught a horse unwanted responses, but we have subconsciously trained them into a horse by either our lack of awareness or our apathy. So whether a horse has established patterns because we worked to train them to perform those behaviours or because we did nothing to change them, the result is still the same.


Photo: allowing children to give treats to horses is a classic way of building in unwanted behaviours without even trying.

Teaching a Horse to Lean Against the Reins

There is something I come across at every clinic that 99.9999% of horses do very well. In fact, it seems people are brilliant at teaching their horses to perform this exercise. It really is quite an achievement and very impressive that almost the entire horse world thinks as one across the globe to teach every horse the same thing. I doubt it is matched by any other training endeavour in any other field. It would be something to celebrate as a unique achievement if only it were a desirable one.


The exercise I’m referring to is how well we train horses to pull against the reins. At every clinic, when a rider asks a horse to give to the right rein, the horse leans to the left. When they apply a feel to the left rein, it leans to the right. When both reins are applied, the horse leans forward into them. I come across maybe one or two horses a year that don’t do that, but for the other 300-400 horses you can bet your house on them leaning in the opposite direction to the feel of the reins.


From the very beginning of a horse’s education as a baby we are suppose to teach them to yield to the feel of a lead rope. Later we are meant to teach them to give to the reins from the very first ride. So how does it happen that we train them to do the exact opposite to what we are supposed to teach them?


If you don’t know what I mean, lets use a left turn just as an example. Ride your horse at a walk in a straight line. Pick up the left rein only (leave the right rein floppy) and politely ask your horse to turn 90 degrees to the left (a right angle) by taking your left rein to the side towards your knee (direct rein). Notice how the left rein feels a little heavy and the right shoulder bulges to the right. From the ground it will appear that the horse is trying to look to the right rather than the left where it is meant to be travelling. And it takes 2 or 3 or 4 steps before your horse is actually facing 90 degree from the original line you were walking. That’s resistance to the left rein. That’s what happens when a horse does not accurately and softly follow the feel of the left rein.


So what should it feel or look like when a horse does follow the feel of the left rein?


When you politely ask a horse to turn 90 degrees using only the left rein, there should be almost no extra heaviness in the rider’s left hand, the horse should look left, turn it’s neck to the left so that the head is perpendicular to the ground, the eyes are looking to the left in the direction the left rein is indicating, there should be a concomitant shift of weight toward the hindquarters and the left foreleg steps immediately to the left. The horse will be facing 90 degrees to where the turn began. That’s how it is suppose to be.


The disparagement between what we intend to teach our horses and the reality of what we actually teach them needs to be explained. Why is it that when we apply left rein a horse pushes to the right, when we apply right rein a horse pushes to the left and when we apply both reins a horse pushes forward? How does this happen?


The answer is so very simple.


It happens because we release the pressure of the reins for the wrong thing.


We all know that pressure is only for motivating a horse to search for a better response – it does nothing towards teaching the correct response. It is the release of pressure that gives the horse the answer to how to respond to pressure – to give us the response we want. So horses learn by the release of pressure. Any behaviour they offer that gives them a relief from pressure is the behaviour they learn. If we release the rein pressure for the wrong response they learn the wrong response and we release for the correct response they learn the correct response.


So when we release the feel of the left rein for when a pushes to the right, we teach it to lean against the left rein and bulge its shoulder to the right. But why would we do that when we don’t want our horse to lean on the left rein and bulge its shoulder to the right?


We do it because the horse eventually turns and faces to the left where we intended it to go and we release for that. We ignore that instead of the turn being feeling soft and accurate, it was heavy and unbalanced and the horse turned in a big arc. We gave priority that the horse eventually got us to the left and forget to worry that its thoughts were pushing its body to the right.


In other words, we released the left rein for a change in the feet and not for a change in the thought of the horse.


It doesn’t matter if we are talking about turns or halts. Almost everyone releases the pressure of the reins because of the obedience of the feet and not for a change in the horse’s thoughts. It is the horse’s thought going to the left in response to a feel in the left rein that gives the beautiful soft feel and lovely bend and flowing accuracy of the feet. When you don’t have that change in thought you get heavy, inaccurate, crooked and ugly turns. It’s the same if you use two reins to slow or stop a horse. It’s only beautiful when the horse has the thought to slow or stop and rebalance.


This concept seems so obvious and so simple, yet it is almost universally ignored. I don’t know why this is. It has me flummoxed. However, I do know that if everybody took this one concept seriously the lives of horses and riders would be galaxies easier.


This photo is from a clinic earlier in the year. Maggie is trotting when I present a feel using a direct rein aid. Maggie changed from thinking straight ahead to thinking to the left, ready to step her shoulder to the left in the next stride.

Evangelism in the Horse World

Humans are a funny species and horse-loving humans are perhaps the funniest of all.


People like labels. No, it’s more than like; it’s a love of labels. Since the advent of DNA testing, science has established unequivocally that humans (and all species) evolved from earlier ancestral species and did not just appear. But for argument sake, if there was a creator that designed the human race, they made a huge omission by forgetting to make us with inbuilt Dyno Label Makers. Then we could label everything to our hearts content and we would be happy.


Take for example the labels we use in the horsemanship world. We have traditional horsemanship, natural horsemanship, clicker training, learning theory and so on. But that’s not good enough. Then we feel a compulsion to break it down further so we have sub categories like Pat Parelli horsemanship, Tom Dorrance horsemanship, Clinton Anderson horsemanship etc – all with their distinct band of followers.


In the dressage world we have modern dressage and classical dressage that are umbrella labels for Portuguese dressage, French dressage, Italian dressage, German dressage, competition dressage, pro hyperflexion supporters, anti hyperflexion supports and so on – all backed by people willing to argue with their dying breath which is the best.


Then there is the breed world where horses are bred and crossed so many times that people have forgotten what the foundation breeding ever was or looked like. And let’s not forget the various categories of gear like the many different types of bits or bitless bridles or saddles or the innumerable choices we have of how to trim our horse’s hooves.


It’s more than enough to do a person’s head in. Imagine trying to explain all this to aliens visiting from another world. It would be like trying to explain the rules of cricket to an American.


And of course, each of these categories and sub categories and sub sub categories has their own band of experts and gurus that we cling to as though they hold the secret to a long and happy life and we would be lost without them. We put them on pedestals and our hearts fill with joy with every decree and utterance they share with us. In our minds they are bigger than rock stars. In fact they are what rock stars aspire to be.


The thing that all these categories, sub categories and gurus have in common is simple. We follow them religiously because they all confirm what we already believe. They make us feel good about ourselves because we are like-minded with their ideas. If we agree with what our favourite expert says or what classical dressage theory teaches, it gives us good reason to think we are on solid ground with our own ideas. Why wouldn’t we be happy about that and want to cling to it?


And of course, we hate the theories and the people who preach them that contradict or that diverge from our own beliefs. They are evil and a scourge on the horse world.


But here is the problem. Nothing and nobody is infallible.


Even the most sound and reasonable principle of training and horsemanship can be wrong in any particular case. There is always one horse that goes against every sensible idea we have ever known about horses. There is always one horse that proves the point that there are no golden rules that we can rely upon. We are all just getting by on our best guesses.


And when it comes to worshipping our favourite horse person, it becomes still dicier. Even the best horse person who ever lived didn’t get it right all the time and the worst horse person who ever lived didn’t get it wrong every time.


There is a big danger in worshipping an idea or a teacher. It leaves us with tunnel vision and an inability to be better than our betters. The result is that it leaves us with no options when the idea or the method is no longer working for our horse. We become stuck and our horse pays the price for our narrow mindedness.


There is a strong motivation in the horse world for people to cling to a dogma or a teacher of dogma. They can be like a life raft when we are lost at sea with our horsemanship. They give us confidence that we are doing things right, so why wouldn’t we want to cling to that?


Nevertheless, the responsibility for the training and the choices we make are ours. They are not the responsibility of our favourite horse trainer or our favourite philosophy of horsemanship. We are the ones that are accountable and where the buck stops. The role of principles and teachers is just to give us ideas to be used as guideposts. Principles are not rules and gurus are not gods – don’t treat them like they are.

Handling Aggression in Horses

Anybody who has worked with a lot of horses will eventually come across a horse that exhibits fear-based aggression. It might be only one every few thousand horses, but they do exist and they are a healthy reminder how dangerous training can be.


I’m not talking about horses that have been taught through bad handling that attacking a person is a good way to be given relief. And I’m not talking about those horses that have learned to occasionally nip or bite a handler to achieve their goal. I’m talking about the rare horse that is at a loss of what to do to save its life and is forced to blindly attack anyone it sees is part of the problem.


All horses will show fear at some time and manage it in different ways. Most will flee from trouble to put a safe distance between it and the trouble. A few will instantly turn towards aggression without even trying to flee. In general, such horses have been taught that escape is futile and their only recourse is to go to war. This type of aggression is almost always the result of bad training teaching them that their best option is to behave aggressively. Then there is the third category where a horse will first try to flee from danger and when that fails will direct their aggression towards the danger. This is the situation I want to talk about today.


When a horse goes into flight mode, because the pressure is too great to bear, it is looking to get distance between it and the trouble. This is how most horses react. You’ll see it in a horse that is being taught to be caught or being saddled for the first time or pulling back when they are tied up or endlessly circling at high speed when lunging or being startled by a giant horse-eating sparrow in a tree. Anybody who is familiar with horses has experienced the flight response in action.


One very commonly used approach to teach horses to overcome their natural reaction to run from trouble is to flood them with pressure. We do this when we first saddle train horses. The saddle stays strapped to the back of the youngster until it stops running and bucking. Virtually every attempt to desensitize a horse to pressure or stress involves flooding a horse until it gives up trying to escape. Some trainers are extremely good at this and it becomes their only way of approaching training. Others use it only occasionally when it is necessary and it is only one of many other methods they apply judicially.


One of the big dangers of applying pressure to a horse until it gets use to it (flooding) is that a very small percentage of horses won’t get use to the constant pressure. They carry so much fear for their life that giving in to the futility of fleeing is not an option for them. Their reaction to the constant bombardment of pressure shifts from running away to turning and fighting. Often this coincides with the emotions changing from planned flight response to blind panic. The panic based aggression is the result of a horse’s realization that their attempt to flee makes them no safer and offers no relief from their near-death experience. This is when a horse can turn very dangerous.


At a recent clinic, a horse arrived that I had seen a year ago. Last year she was a very reactive mare to anything around her hindquarters and rear legs. Things like being touched by ropes or whips would set her off - she would run, kick, squeal and spray urine. This year she seemed much better. The owner had done a good job of getting her much better and tolerant of things that last year would have caused a panic attack.  Since the mare was in a better state at the clinic, we decided to try letting her carry her western saddle. I put it on her back and walked her around without applying the girth. It wasn’t perfect, but much better than expected. Then I removed the saddle and approach her with it from the right side. Instantly the mare squealed, kicked and sprayed urine when the saddle touched her. She was okay from the left, but terrified on the right. The next day I chose to do the same thing, but instead of using a saddle I would just lay a rope across her back and around her hindquarters. At first, she showed only a little worry with the rope hanging down her hindquarters. But when she felt the pressure of the rope touch just above the hocks, the mare once again ran, squealed, kicked and sprayed urine.


In the mare’s attempt to kick the rope away from her hind end, it ended up caught under her tail. This one incident caused the mare to turn from flight mode to attack mode. She lunged at me with head and teeth and front legs; and it wasn’t until the rope fell from under her tail did she stop. Getting the rope caught under her tail created an eruption of blind aggression through sheer panic that she might die in an instant.


But here is the interesting thing that I want to be the take home message. Before the rope became stuck under the mare’s tail, there was a chance that with a little help from me she could have recovered from the need to flee from the rope. However, the moment the rope was trapped under her tail and the mare changed gears from flight to fight the only recovery that was possible was to back off to zero pressure. There was going to be no recovery by continuing to flood the mare with the feel of the rope.


This has been my observation with the 3 or 4 few similar situations I have experienced in all my years. Once a horse crosses the line from flight to fight, you had better start again from no pressure. I have never seen a horse recover and end in a better place by continuing to flood a horse with pressure when they are in aggression mode. This is in contrast to a horse that tries to flee a bad situation and through constant flooding of pressure learns to finally accept the situation (eg, the first time a girth is snugged up).


The mare at the clinic did manage to find focus and softness once I removed the rope and worked on some really small things. I asked her to move one foot back and then bring it forward. I asked for her to look left and step one foot left. I asked her to lower her head and move one hind foot. All things I knew she could do. She became so quiet and so soft within about 1-2 minutes of having the rope removed from under her tail and I quietly asked for her to yield her thought to jobs she could do. I believe she felt much better at the end than she did at the beginning.


Before finishing this article, I would like to say something about being open minded when training horses. People who have been following this page for a long time or who have read my last book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship will know that I am not an advocate of positive reinforcement training techniques and in particular I discourage the use of clicker training in general training. The reasons for this have been clearly laid out in past posts and in my book. However, in the case of the mare at the clinic I feel I would give some time to working through some of the initial anxiety using clicker training. It seems to me that clicker training may be a way of breaking through the barrier of distrust and anxiety the mare has about anything new that a person presents to it. It may help get the mare in a good enough state of mind that it would be prepared to ‘try’ a little more when it becomes worried rather than go to war in a blind panic. I am no saying clicker training would work and I’m not saying I would use it for long. But I am saying that given how strongly the mare refuses to mentally engage with people, it might be worth trying clicker training for a short time to create some opportunities to change the way the horse views working with people.


Having said that, I don’t want to get into a big discussion about the pros and cons of clicker training here because I have dealt with that in past articles and my book. If you are interested in that topic, please check out those articles.


I hope none of you ever have to deal with a horse’s aggression. But if you do, it is worth keeping in mind that trying to blast your way past it is probably not going to work in helping a horse overcome its fear or its response to that fear. In those cases, experience has taught me that flooding methods are not the answer.


The photo shows a young horse and a young trainer who went to full out war with each and finally mutually agreed that a nap time was the best way forward.