Two Concepts Of Clarity

I had an idea for a topic for today’s post, but about a third of the way into writing about it I heard the ‘ding’ of a light bulb turning on above my head (well, maybe it was the sound of the swooping pluvers nesting near the house).


Why not open the question to the group and see what other people think?


Having said that, there are two concepts that I want you to consider and find a way that they can work together.


The first is about clarity. I guess we all accept that it is terribly important that we are as clear as we can be when asking a horse to do something or when rewarding a horse for a correct response. Clarity is vitally important for a horse to feel safe and confident and confusion is the enemy of good training and causes mental abuse.


Ray Hunt use to say, “set it up and wait for it to happen.” In other words, arm a horse with as many tools as possible to find the right answer, but let him find it – don’t impose the answer. Give a horse the time to search and discover the answer for itself.


So my question is how can these two concepts be correct? How can we be as clear as possible and at the same time leave a horse confused and searching for the correct response? Alternatively, if we impose the right answer on a horse, does the horse understand how it got the right answer?


At first glance, these two theories seem to contradict each other. What do you think?


Photo: At a clinic in NZ earlier in the year Hoss felt the need to express his objection to Tim asking for a canter. What factors did I need to consider before I advised Tim how to help Hoss understand the correct response?

Who Is To Blame?

When a horse does something we don’t want, who is to blame?
Most people would say it’s our fault. We are to blame. It’s become the standard catch cry.
When we ride with a group and our horse wants to pull on the reins to be in the lead, who is to blame? When a horse is being chased by a swarm of bees and doesn’t stop when we apply the reins, who is to blame? When a horse with a sore back tries to buck, who is to blame? When a horse lays in the sand then rolls over and gets its feet trapped under a fence, who is to blame? 
We could ask dozens of more questions like these and clearly the answer will be that sometimes people are to blame, sometimes the horse is to blame and sometimes nobody is to blame.
I bring this topic up because I am really tired of the political correctness that humans are to blame for everything that goes wrong when working a horse. Trainer after trainer is telling people that horses are perfect and it is never the horse’s fault. What world do these people live in? They must be working with a special breed of horse that I have never met. It’s time people stopped being so gullible for anything an expert tells them and look at horses and how they operate with the hard reality of how things truly are. 
Yes, a lot of the time people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are inadvertent errors of judgment, sometimes they are caused by ignorance, sometimes by arrogance and sometimes by stupidity. People are to blame for a lot that goes wrong with horses. 
But horses are not infallible either. Just like people are not perfect, neither are horses. As amazing and brilliant as horses are, they suffer from lapses of judgment and bad decisions. Sometimes a well-educated horse will lose focus through no fault of the rider. Sometimes a very experienced horse will misjudge the height of a fence and crash. Sometimes a highly schooled horse will misinterpret a rider’s cue and make the wrong choice. Sometimes a horse just has a bad day - after all, they are only human ☺
Making mistakes and screwing up is part of the learning process of any complex brain. It’s called learning by trial and error. But for this to work, the animal has to make errors, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to make a better choice.
At clinics, I often talk about the need for people to try something they never thought to try before and if it is a mistake, learn from it and try again. I don’t believe it is possible for a person to become a good horse person without making a hell of a lot of mistakes that then form the basis of an encyclopedic knowledge about horses and training. The more mistakes a person learns from, the bigger their database of knowledge.
This is no less true of other species, including horses. Horses have to screw up, in order to learn and understand how the world works. Like us, it’s how their brains operate in the process of learning. It’s called experience.
I’m not saying these things to give people excuses or a free pass for poor outcomes in their horse training. I’m saying these things because I’m tired of the trite mindlessness that gets passed for wisdom in the horse world. It’s all very well to quote some horsemanship guru as saying “horses are never wrong….” (or something similar) to make us feel wise, loving and sympathetic towards our horses. But the reality is that a statement like that is pure bovine (or should I say equine?) manure. It is detached from reality. Horses do make mistakes and horses do screw up – just like people, dogs, cats, chickens, axolotls, dolphins and just about any animal with a sophisticated central nervous system that has the capacity to make choices. 
I know humans are smarter than horses and better at problem solving than any horse I have meet. That’s why I am the senior partner in the relationship with my horses. Yet every day I work with them I still make mistakes. So why would I ever suppose that horses don’t make mistakes? If I can make mistakes, so can they. They are not machines.
The important part to keep in mind is to own and correct the mistakes we make and not to blame the horse for something we did wrong. And even if it is the horse’s mistake, our job is to guide them to a better response and not take it out on the horse. We need to accept that the blunder is part of the learning process and embrace it while at the same time offering a correction. Instead of criticizing a horse for making a mistake, guide them to doing better.
It is important people question everything they get told, even when it comes from their favourite horse person. Does anyone really believe horses always make perfect choices and the reason something goes wrong is never because the horse made an error?
Many riding students already carry feelings of inadequacy and in my opinion, it is not okay for teachers to add further to a student’s burden of guilt by telling them that every mistake is always their fault.
Horses don’t need us to assign them special abilities they don’t possess (like being infallible) to make them any more special. We do them no favours by not seeing horses for what they are – wonderful, beautiful, honest and imperfect. 
Photos: Who is to blame for this mistake – the horse, the human or the tree?

The Use Of Feel In Applying and Removing Pressure

I’ve been talking a lot lately about presenting pressure with a feel – sort of like asking politely rather than shouting an order. I hope the reasons for offering pressure with feel has become clear from my previous discussions regarding directing versus driving pressure.


Nevertheless, at every clinic I find the need to help people understand what it is to offer a horse a feel. Most people seem to appreciate the intellectual importance of presenting pressure with feel, but few seems to truly understand how to do it.


There are two aspects of presenting pressure with a feel. The first is the way we apply pressure and the second is the way we remove pressure.


Let’s talk about the presentation of pressure first.


I think this is really evident in the way many people take a hold of the reins or apply their legs. They present the pressure as if there was urgency about it. Pressure is sometimes applied with an abruptness that can surprise a horse and at the very least does not give a horse a chance to get ready to respond. If we get in the habit of using pressure with very little feel, the horse learns to expect our suddenness and will often brace against the pressure. We don’t know it, but very many times we inadvertently create the brace and resistance that we are trying so hard to eliminate, by the way we apply pressure.


Let me give you a couple of examples that I see all the time. A rider intends to ask their horse to flex to the inside. They reach down the inside rein and then pull the rein back to ask the horse to bend. They use a pull, like it was an order. Instead they should apply a polite feel as if they were asking for their horse to think to the inside.


Another really common example is when many riders want their horse to go forward from their leg. The rider applies a sharp, swift kick with their heels to the sides of the horse, without any pre-warning or giving a horse a chance to respond to a polite request. In my experience, this is a really effective way of teaching a horse to be frightened of the leg or even brace against it.


I believe that the propensity of riders to not think about to apply pressure with feel is because they are too busy thinking about how to make something happen. They are trying to make a horse do something instead of trying to make a horse feel something. It becomes about the result, rather than the process. I’m not sure why this has become such a big part of the thinking of many riders, but I suspect that the push by many professional teachers to insist training is about “ getting to the feet”, is partly to blame. Many students are taught and believe that good training is all about controlling the feet first and foremost that they forget about the mental steps that precede a change in the feet. They are thinking about the end result and not about the cascade of mental changes required to have a good outcome. The focus is on obedience of the feet and as I have said many times, “obedience will give you the movement, but emotions will determine the quality of movement.”


So in an effort of “get to the feet” people forget to ask with feel and focus of making the feet move.


This brings me to the second aspect of pressure and feel, that is, using feel in the removal of pressure.


More often than not, when people decide to reward a horse for a change, they remove the pressure abruptly. Even people who apply pressure smoothly with feel will suddenly abandon the pressure, as if they just touched a hot stove, in an effort to reward a horse. In fact it probably occurs more often than the problem of applying pressure with too quickly. People seem more aware of trying to ask a horse for something with great care and feel than they do with the way they stop asking. This is incredibly common and happens no matter the source of pressure – reins, rider’s legs, seat, whips, spurs etc.


I think the problem again stems from a misunderstanding about something that is drilled into students over and over. We are all told of the importance of having good timing to our releases. We are brain washed into believing that because it is the release of pressure that tells a horse it has the right answer, therefore we must release any pressure at the exact instant there is a slight change in the right direction. In an effort to be accurate and precise with the timing of our releases we resort to being abrupt with them. But abruptness leads to problems.


When a horse is learning an exercise it does not know that a release is coming. When it arrives it is unexpected. The more sudden the release of pressure the more surprising it is to a horse. This can create a worry because the pressure we present is all or nothing. There is no feel for a horse to follow, only pressure to react to and then nothing.


The second problem relates to the desire to always keep the lines of communication open between the rider and horse. If we remove all pressure without warning, we give the horse nothing to follow and shut off the lines of communication. By sharply removing the feel of the reins or the contact with our legs, a horse has nothing to feel of us – we have cut off the means of communication, like hanging up the telephone. This is neither desirable nor fair or necessary.


It is possible to have brilliant timing without abruptly releasing all the pressure. By removing the pressure with a feel we are still providing a release for the horse from which it can learn. Release of pressure does not have to be all or nothing for a horse to understand it gave a good response. Comfort can be given to a horse by a smooth release of pressure and even a partial release. A horse has the ability to interpret a smooth reduction of pressure or a partial release, while still maintaining the conversation with a rider.


The message I want to pass along is that the feel we use in our conversation with a horse determines the feel in our relationship. As humans we talk a lot, but the relationship we have with other humans is formed as much by how we express our words as the words themselves. With horses, our words are in our use of pressure and body language and it is the feel we apply to these that sets the framework for our relationship.


Photo: I am demonstrating to Ann how to apply a feel to a rope that can soften a horse’s response.

The Forehand Yield

I was recently teaching a student how to help their horse perform a forehand yield. A point came up about the importance of correctness, which I think is worth repeating here for the sake of people’s clarity.


First, let me describe what a forehand yield is when done correctly.


Just as it sounds, it is a maneuver where the forehand of the horse yields to the inside rein. This is what should happen. The rider applies a feel to the inside rein to encourage the horse to think and flex to the inside. In the process of teaching, this usually entails a direct rein aid where the rein is applied away from the horse’s body. No outside rein is used. In turn, the horse shifts some weight to the hindquarters, lifts the shoulders and steps the inside fore to the side. In short, the forehand turns around the hindquarters. If you are unsure, check out the photos below.


Just to clarify the essential points:

1. A direct inside rein asks the horse to think and flex to the inside.

2. The outside rein and the rider’s legs play no role and are simply passive (see 2nd photo).

3. The horse shifts weight to the hindquarters.

4. The horse takes the weight off the inside fore and lifts it and steps it to the inside.

5. The hindquarters act as a pivot point.


Now I want to talk about the reasons for doing this exercise because they explain why I would do this movement the way I do rather than a classical turn on the haunches or walk pirouette, as many others teach.


I have previously discussed the difference between a hindquarter yield and a turn on the forehand (see August 18, 2016) and almost the same rules and reasons apply to the distinction between a forehand yield and a turn on the haunches.


For me, there is no greater or more fundamental function of the reins than to connect a horse’s thought to be able to direct the feet in any way I might desire. This underpins everything that comes later. It is much more important that a rider can influence the horse’s idea of where to put its feet using the reins, than that it can be done with a rider’s legs and/or seat. Many people fixate on teaching a horse to move directionally in response to the rider’s seat and legs before the horse has a clear and soft understanding of yielding to the reins. To my mind, this is backward because the reins offer a much more subtle and refined way of communicating with a horse than a rider’s legs, which are a crude form of communication in my view.


Therefore, the primary purpose of teaching a forehand yield in the early training stage is to embed in a horse’s mind that the inside rein connects a horse’s thought to direct the inside foreleg. There are some others reasons for teaching a forehand yield early on, but none are more important that this.


Why is it so important that the inside rein directs the inside fore?


It’s because it is one of the fundamental principles of teaching balance and correctness of movement in a turn. When a horse turns to the left, the left fore should step to the left and left hind should move diagonally to the right in order for the turn to be balanced. This should happen because the horse’s thought is focused to the left. That shift of focus should come from a feel offered by the left rein.


The part of the discussion at the clinics that prompted this post is that my student had her horse stepping the outside fore foot across the inside fore foot as the first foot movement of the forehand yield. This is wrong. This is a walk pirouette, which is a different movement and taught much later when a horse is already showing balanced turns and a moderate level of collection. It is a common mistake and my student was quite confused at first. But I had to explain that she was trying to build a house before the foundations are laid.


For a horse that is still learning to follow the feel of the inside rein, you want to avoid the outside leg crossing over the inside leg as the first step in the movement. This is because firstly it will cause uneducated horses to crash inwards on their shoulder during a turn, putting more strain on the inside leg and shoulder. And secondly, it can encourage horses to rush the turns because their lack of balance causes physical stiffness and mental hurry in order to recover their balance.


The inside leg should be leading the outside leg and not the other way around. Again, look at the photos below.


In essence, by teaching a horse to perform forehand yields and hindquarters yields we are setting a horse up to be balanced and straight in the turns and circles so it is working its body correctly and not straining one side more that the other. It is also laying the groundwork for much more advanced movements later on. Teaching forehand yields and hindquarter yields (August 18, 2016) not only makes the performance better but also ensures a longer life of soundness.


The photos were taken in Bondurant, Iowa at a clinic last September. Thanks to Betsy for letting me ride her sweet pony, Honey. And thanks too to Neal for taking the pictures.


A: The start of a forehand yield from a standstill. Notice the inside rein applies a feel to the side to encourage a horse to look to the inside.


B: Same as the previous photo, but from the front showing that my legs are not being used.


C: A forehand yield at a walk. Notice the inside fore getting ready to step to the inside.

Patterns Of Responses

I thought this was a good discussion about the importance of a horse and rider having an open communication. I have said many times that working with a horse is a constant stream of conversation where questions and answers are forever passing back and forth between then two. It’s important that patterns of responses are not set up because it kills the conversation and diminishes the need for a horse to search and ‘try’.
I don’t know the people in the video, but I thought it worthwhile for you to hear these things from another’s perspective.
One thing that really struck me when watching the clip is how asymmetric the horse’s head is!