Types Of Try In A Horse

Previously I have said that the easiest horses to train are the ones with ‘try’. By the word ‘try’ I mean they possess a readiness to search for ways to escape or evade pressure. So when we ask something of a horse by applying a little pressure the horse feels it is important enough and they are motivated enough to search through all the available options of responses to eliminate the discomfort that pressure has created. That’s what I mean by the term try and that’s what makes those horses more trainable.


I think there are 3 categories of try in the horse world and within those there are sub-levels, which I will try to explain as I go along.


There are the horses with a lot of natural try.


These are often horses that are pretty sensitive and the thing they are sensitive to is pressure. It usually doesn’t take a lot of asking for them to try something. In fact, one of the issues that people have with this type of horse is often an over-reaction to pressure or anticipation ahead of the pressure. This is where the term “hot horse” comes from. Often their response to being asked something is disproportional to the amount of pressure used because of their worry about pressure. That’s the downside.


However, the upside is it usually doesn’t require a lot of pressure for them to search for a new idea and a way of responding to our requests. They try one answer and if that doesn’t result in peace and tranquility in their life, they try another. Then another and another, until they find comfort.


Horses like this are quick learners if handled correctly. Nevertheless, if our timing and feel are poor then we confuse them and stress them even more than before. They can quickly turn from sensitive to crazy and passed from person to person until either finding the right owner or going for slaughter. Unfortunately, this is too often the fate of retired racehorses and other victims of human error.


Sensitive horses have the potential to be the best horses in our life, but they are not suited for inexperienced people for the reasons I have already stated. Where it goes wrong is people’s inability to recognize a try in a horse and either miss it all together or they are inconsistent with their releases and confuse the poor beast until they have a meltdown. A lack of clarity is a huge stress in a horse’s life and sensitive horses with a lot of try suffer the most for this human failing. But given an owner with empathy, patience and good feel and timing, they can be amazing.


The second category is with horses that have very little try in them.


These horses are not inspired to search very hard for answers to questions that pressure presents to them. I believe there are two types of horses that exhibit this behaviour.


The first is the stoic horse. These are horses that came out of their mother with not a lot of “care factor.” They absorb pressure and trouble and store it up inside until their cup of worry is ready to overflow, then they erupt – and erupt big. But in the lead up to the eruption they appear to be calm and quiet and not care. A rider can add layer upon layer of pressure and they shrug their shoulders as if to ask if we were talking to them.


A lot of people who have had bad experiences with sensitive horses eventually become attracted to the stoic horse. They feel safer because these horses don’t have a hair trigger when we get our feel or timing wrong or we present too much pressure. These make the perfect kids pony or babysitter for a novice rider.


The downside is that every time we want to teach them something new or change their thoughts or established patterns, it’s a lot of work.


The second type of horse that often shows very little try is the shutdown horse.


These horses often start out as sensitive with a lot of try, but become shutdown with very little try because of poor training. Through insensitive training, they have learned the futility of having or expressing an opinion. Unlike the horse born with a small care factor, these horses have a lot of care factor, but it is drilled out of them until the mentally disengage from us and what we ask of them.


The most common way I have seen of killing a try in these horses is through drilling the work over and over and by flooding with pressure. Flooding is where a pressure is presented to a horse and not removed until the horse submits. An example might be to throw a rope over a horse’s back and keep throwing it until he stands quietly before you stop throwing the rope. A horse can learn to eliminate the pressure of the rope by not moving, yet the rope may still worry him. He is learning the futility of resistance and the futility of searching. It builds a mental and emotional wall around itself to keep people out. It is really difficult to have a good relationship with a shutdown horse because it will not fully mentally engage with humans.


There are other ways of turning a sensitive horse into a shutdown horse (such as continued poor feel and timing, impatience, use of ever increasing driving pressure etc), but the important point is that while these horses may appear just like those with a small care factor, they actually have a large care factor and are sensitive in their nature. It is the combination of their sensitivity and our poor training techniques that cause a horse to shutdown. This potentially makes them very dangerous when they erupt.


The final category of a horse’s try or ability to search through its options is the one where their established behaviour or set of responses to pressure are tightly linked to their perception of life and death. This is beyond being sensitive because instead of searching through the options to safety and comfort, as a sensitive horse is prone to doing, these horses will repeat the same responses and behaviours over and over in fear that a change will get them killed. They are so convinced that what they do is the reason they have lived so far, that all other options are off the table. Unlike the horse the stoic horse or the horse born with a low care factor, these horses choose to not try through their certainty of what it takes to survive. It is their survival instinct that suppresses their trainability.


This category of horse is hard to work with and in my experience is best handled with incredible patience and by going back to the absolute basics. Nothing is overlooked. Each micron of change is covered step-by-step and consolidated before going further. It is important that these horses feel confident and certain that each little change is the best path to safety and comfort. If you leave a step only half done and only half certain that it was the right step, the horse will revert and fall apart at some point in the future.


I have sometimes said that the thing we most like about a horse is also the thing we most dislike. A sensitive horse with a lot of try can be taught to work off a thought, which is fantastic. But equally they can have a hair trigger to a meltdown and that can be a problem. On the other hand, a stoic horse with very little try can be solid and can absorb a lot of trouble before over reacting, which makes some people feel safe. However, good luck trying to get them to be soft and responsive in the way a sensitive horse can be.


Of course, most horses are a mix of categories and don’t fall strictly into one or the other. In an ideal world, I’d be looking for a horse that had a lot of try and a little bit of stoicism. But until then I’m happy to take responsibility for the amount of try my training puts into any of my horses.


Photo: It has no relevance to the story. It’s just a nice picture.

Considering A Horse Trailer?

This is a short article I wrote a few years ago regarding things to consider when buying a horse trailer (or float as we call them in Australia). After recent discussions with different people I thought it would be a good idea to raise article from the dead once more.

Angle vs Straight

There have been very many studies done over the years to determine if horses prefer to travel in a straight load trailer or an angle load. Different studies result in different conclusions. However, a careful look at the studies from independent groups who used carefully designed protocols shows that overwhelmingly horses prefer to travel at approximately a 45 deg angle to the line of travel. Most studies that show horses liking straight load are poorly designed and performed by vested interests like float manufacturers.

About 30 years ago a Canadian study by a government research body measured stress hormones in horses during transport. They concluded that horses showed the least amount of stress when facing backwards and at an angle. The next best was facing forward at an angle and the most stressful was facing straight with the line of travel. Several other independent groups have confirmed these results over the years.

However, the problem with angle load floats in Australia is that the law limits the width of a float to a maximum of 8ft (2.44m). For most horses over about 15.2hh (1.57m) standing at 45 deg, it means that the length of the bay area is too short to give sufficient space between the wall and the horse’s nose on one end and the wall and the horse’s rear on the other end. Horses can become quite troubled about bumping their nose on the walls of the float. Many horses travel with the head very low to prevent running into the wall with their face.

The way around this is alter the angle of the bay from 45 deg to make the length of the bay much longer. This may mean that your 2-horse angle load float becomes a single horse trailer and your 3-horse float becomes a 2-horse transporter. You can also remove the dividers that separate the bays and allow the horses to choose the angle that’s most comfortable for them.


Step Up Or Ramps?


In Australia we almost exclusively use ramps to walk a horse into a trailer. Nevertheless, I personally have a trailer with a step up entry.


My view on which is better comes down to “it depends”.  Some ramps are so steep that it might as well be a step up trailer, yet the height of the trailer makes it a challenge for the horse to walk up the ramp. Other ramps can be very slippery when wet and a horse can lose confidence with these types. So the quality of the surface on the ramp becomes an important consideration. If a ramp is what you want, then I suggest a non-slip flooring and a shallow angle.


One other consideration with ramps is the need to lift the ramp. Sometimes it can appear that float manufacturers are conspiring against women by making the ramp too heavy for the springs or air struts designed to help lift the ramp shut. With a step up trailer, a swinging door closes the back and no muscle strength is required.


If you use a step up trailer, you need to make sure the edge is sealed by heavy-duty rubber to protect the horse from grazing its shins if it slips off the edge of the trailer while going in or out.



I have already sort of covered the length of the bay in the angle load float. But by far the biggest hurdle issue when it comes to dimensions of float is the interior height.

In Australia, the height of the inside of a float can very between 6’9” (1.93m) and 7’2” (2.18m). In my view any horse over 15hh (1.52m) needs a float with an interior height of at least a 7’4” (2.23m). Add an extra 4” (100mm) to the height with every 4” (100mm) in height of the horse.

Some floats are sufficiently high for a horse, but the manufacturers often place a lip that hangs down from the edge of the roof at the entrance to the float (eg Crisfloats). I saw a float recently that was 7’4” interior height, but there was a 3” lip that hang down as the horse went to duck his head to enter the float – making the effective height at the entrance 7’1”.

I know this is sometimes done to strengthen the structure, but there are many horses that are bothered about the risk of bumping their heads at the entrance of the float. I would not buy a float where this was a problem.


There are many different suspension designs available for floats. In Australia, most floats use either coils or a leaf spring system. But in my opinion torsion suspension is preferred for offering the best ride at a reasonable price. The ride for the horses is far superior. You can also get air suspension customized to your float, which is great but expensive.

Another consideration is the suspension of the towing vehicle. In theory, gooseneck floats make the car and trailer combination better balanced, but similar results can be achieved with tow-along trailers with the addition of modified suspension and struts. However, gooseneck designs also generally offer a better turning radius in tight circles.

Hydraulic vs Electric Brakes

If you have a choice, always choose electric brakes on all four wheels and ensure that in addition to being triggered by the car’s brakes they have a separate manual control so you can use the trailer’s braking to help in sticky situations. Install a quality brake controller in your car that can be adjusted for the weight of the trailer and changing road conditions


Good ventilation is essential. I have done some average calculations on the build up of carbon dioxide, ammonia and heat in a float and come up with some conclusions. The average 2-horse float (with 2 horses inside) requires a complete change of air approximately every 7 minutes to keep gases, humidity and temperature within comfort limits for horses.

For this reason I don’t like fully closed floats with storm doors. I prefer the back of the float to be open. I also prefer open sided floats that have slats rather than windows. A vent in the very front of the roof of the float minimizes dust being sucked into the float from the rear (through vortices) while travelling.

Access Doors

I believe it is essential to have access doors into the float. Each horse should be accessible without having to enter the horse bay. If a horse has lost its balance or is scrambling or fallen, it's important that you don't expose yourself to risk by being in the bay with the horse as you try to help him.

Steel vs Aluminium vs Fibreglass/Plastics

Many people like the non-steel constructed floats because they feel they are lighter to tow. But this is not always the case. It’s wise to check and compare the weights before buying.

I prefer steel construction from the point of view that it is easy to repair. I know it can rust, but rust proofing can reduce the problem and even when it does rust repairs are usually simple.

Aluminium repairs require a specialized welding and fibreglass or plastic construction also needs expert repair people.

However, some floats have aluminium flooring and I like this over wood flooring because it is long lasting and resists damage caused by urine and moisture.


A horse float should be light and airy. No horse likes going into a dark hole. Other considerations are safety, which I haven’t really discussed in depth. Look for overall quality of construction and make sure there are not things that stick out from the float that could injure a horse. Check there are no sharp edges on mudguards or areas that a horse could stick a foot into around the hitch. Tie-up rings should be strong and safe. They should sit flush with the float when not being used. Door handles on access doors and latches to lock the back of the trailer should be recessed and not stick out.

There are a few other aspects of floats that I haven’t mentioned, but I hope this gives you some thoughts on the essentials if you are looking to buy a float. Not everybody is going to agree with my preferences, but if you do your research carefully you’ll make the right decision for what works best for you.


Photo: this trailer gets full points for ventilation if nothing else.

What To Look For In A Trainer Or Clinician

I try to watch as many horse people working with horses as my busy life permits. In particular, I am always interested in observing other professionals to see what they do that maybe I could adopt or do better. I’m always on the look out for good ideas that could make me a better horseman.


Add to that I am regularly asked for my opinion on the horsemanship of other horse people. “What do you think of so and so?” and “Who do you think I should get help from?” or “Isn’t so and so brilliant, what do you think?” are very common questions I get.


Most times I know at least a bit about the people being referred to, sometimes I know a lot but sometimes I am not familiar with the name at all.


Before I talk about the topic I want to discuss, I want to say something about the political correctness of giving an opinion on someone’s horsemanship skills.


Despite being criticized from time to time for giving my honest opinion, I will continue to give my honest opinion. I believe the importance of this is beyond the niceties of the old adage “if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” I feel that is a nonsense view that does nothing to help horses or the horse owners that ask for my opinion. I am more interested in the welfare of horses than I am in the courtesy of being supportive of people whom I think work in a way that does not benefit horses. Nevertheless, I always try to be polite and respectful and fully explain the reasons behind any appraisal I make.


I have said before on this page that I believe it is a responsibility of professional horse people to openly and politely discuss the methods and philosophy of each other so that the students who are looking for guidance can examine the pros and cons of each trainer or clinician. I don’t believe a polite “no comment” helps anybody – particularly the novice horse owner.


This is why I don’t censor different views and criticisms of my work on this page – as long as the comments are polite and respectful. Yet, I keep coming across other professionals who have a strict policy of deleting dissenting comments and banning those who make them.


So having made that clear, what I really want to talk about is what I look for when I am weighing up the quality of a person’s horse work.


It is my experience that many people get caught up in the hoopla of trainer’s presentation that they don’t see the real quality of the horsemanship behind the smoke and mirrors. Things like clever catch phrases, humorous presentations, a gift of the gab, wow-factor horse tricks, polished videos, long list of competition ribbons and awards etc, contribute a great deal to how we perceive a person’s horsemanship. The glitz, the tricks, and the smooth talk are so up front and attractive, that we often fail to see the emotional state of the horse behind it. It takes a lot of self-discipline to put that stuff aside and focus on how the horse is doing.


The person who can stand on the back of his horse and start a chainsaw attracts a lot more attention than the person who can inspire a nice soft trot from their horse. The person who can be riding an unbroken horse in 2 hrs gets a lot more cheers than the person who has a horse happy to see him when he walks into the paddock. And the person who can train a horse to perform high-level movements after 4 months of training attracts a lot more students than the person whose horse will softly lower its head to accept the halter.


It is the nature of people that we are impressed by the glaringly obvious and miss the brilliance of the subtle things.


Now back to what I look for when I am watching another horse person working.


The first thing I look for is how the trainer approaches a horse for the first time. I want to know if they adjust their approach and touch for what the horse is feeling in an effort to help the horse feel more comfortable. That tells me how much they care about the horse in front of them.


The second thing is perhaps the most important and I feel speaks volumes about the kind of horse person I am watching. When a trainer asks a horse to do something I look to see if they start by trying to direct the horse’s thought or do they immediately begin by driving the horse? If they start by driving the horse, I am almost immediately turned off. I don’t mind if they try to initially direct the horse and then find they have to drive them. But if they begin by driving the horse; it is an immediate loss of 100 points of credit. They would have to be pretty bloody amazing in everything else they do to make up for the crime of going directly to driving horses.


(As an aside for those that don’t know the difference between directing and driving a horse, directing is sending a horse towards where it is thinking and driving is sending a horse away from where it is thinking. More information is in my book “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.)


This thing about first directing a horse’s thought is fundamental as to whether a person is the kind of trainer who is only concerned with a horse being mindlessly obedient or whether they are interested in a horse willingly following an idea the trainer presents.


The classic example of this can be seen at clinics and on groundwork videos when a trainer asks a horse to lunge around them on a circle. Trainers who begin by approaching a horse while at the same time spinning the tail end of the lead rope or slapping their leg or waving the coils of a lariat etc are missing the part about working co-operatively with the thoughts of a horse.


However, let me be clear, I am not saying that it is wrong to drive a horse if a horse does not understand how to respond when you try to direct its thought. But starting by driving a horse speaks volumes about whether a person sees a horse as a slave or a friend.


The third important thing that I look for when watching another professional horse person is how much they understand about why they do what they do. I believe a person needs a clear and rational understanding of the things they want a horse to understand. If the explanation does not stand up to critical scrutiny then I can’t see the point and I question the credentials of the person doing the teaching.


Take for example the exercise of lateral flexion, where a horse is expected to stand still while a rider uses the reins to flex the neck left and right. I have seen this hundreds (maybe thousands) of times and have asked the question “why” nearly as often. I have never received a logical explanation from anybody that made sense to the horses or me. Yet it is an almost universal exercise.


To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “If a person cannot correctly explain a concept in simple language then they do not understand their subject well enough.”


There are other aspects of a person’s horse work that can influence my view of them, but I consider the three elements I have mentioned form the basis by which I judge the horsemanship of everybody I come across. You may have your own set of criteria that differs from mine, but whatever they are, I urge you to utilize them with everybody you see working a horse.


This photo was taken at my clinic in Maine, USA last year. Maggie is directing Breezy’s thought to prepare for being lunged to the left.

Giving A Horse A Job

It is widely accepted that horses do well if they have a job. This seems to be especially true with young horses that are still learning their role as a riding or working horse.


But what does it mean for a horse to have a job and how does it benefit a horse? I think these questions are very important to ask and I want to share my thoughts about them.


I believe the purpose of giving a horse a job is to bring clarity and confidence to working with a rider. We all want our horse to take an interest in what is being asked. When we have ridden nineteen circles in a row, it can be hard for a horse to see the reason behind why we need to ride the twentieth circle. If it just seems to be a sheer repetition of what came before, a horse will tend to mentally turn off. But by giving a horse a job, it is easier for a horse to stay tuned into the work.


As I said, having a job is particularly useful for younger horses that are learning to become riding horses. They learn to carry a rider and take instruction that results in a satisfying outcome and confidence that being ridden is not so bad after all. With practice, a young horse learns the purpose behind the job and takes an interest in doing it.


Take for example, moving a cow. A young horse is asked to follow a cow. He doesn’t know why or how, but under the instruction of the rider, the horse learns that when it approaches the cow the cow moves away. Furthermore, the horse picks up that as it puts more pressure on the cow, the cow moves even further and faster.  With less pressure from the horse, the cow slows up. It usually doesn’t take too long for a horse to understand that it can control the cow. Suddenly there is a purpose and interest to tracking a cow. This might be followed by learning to open gates so that it can get to the cows or learning to push a cow through a gate or learning to separate a cow from other cows or learning to side-pass/back-up/roll-back etc to be in a better position to moving the cow. All these new ways of being guided by a rider have a purpose – ie to control a cow. It places the use of the reins, rider’s legs and seat into context for a horse that is figuring this stuff out. It creates clarity.


The other benefit to working a horse in a way that maintains its interest is about the relationship between rider and horse. If a horse has to be asked to go to work, it would rather be for an interesting job rather than a mindless job. If a horse finds the work interesting there is considerably more harmony between horse and rider and less dread about being asked to put out an effort.


The bottom line is that when a young horse has a job there is more joy, confidence, and great understanding to the relationship between horse and rider.


So what counts as a job?


Most people think of a horse job as things such as working cows or working other horses or dragging logs etc. But in my opinion, a job is anything a horse knows how to do in response to changing circumstances. For instance, polo is a fast moving game where circumstances are constantly changing. A horse can learn the job of how to best position itself to allow the rider a good swing at the ball. Another case would be a pack horse that has learned the job of ensuring it goes around trees with enough room to avoid rubbing and damaging the packs against the trunks and bushes. Or the horse in a quadrille team that learns to maintain its place in formation during complex maneuvers.


But can riding in an arena be a job? Can jumping a course be a job? Can riding on a trail be a job?


Remember I said that a job is a horse knowing how to respond to changing circumstances. Therefore, in theory, anything can be a job if it teaches a horse to know how to respond to changing circumstances.


Now this is the big, important part of giving a horse a job. This is where people get it wrong. We teach a horse a job, which it learns by repetition. That job then becomes a pattern. Horses love patterns because they are predictable. However, when the job becomes a pattern it closes the lines of communication between horse and rider. We often rely on horses learning the job as a habit to get the job done. But when that happens the job loses most of its benefit.


I witnessed a really good example of this problem several years ago when a rider was competing in a jumping event. The rider fell off his horse on about the fifth fence and the horse continued to go around the course jumping every jump in front of it. It had learned its job was to jump fences and it did so with or without a rider. That horse had been taught to be a robot.


The ultimate goal of everything we do with a horse should be to have a mental connection. A horse can see the purpose behind working in an arena if it is mentally tuned in enough to keep the lines of communication always open. The same is true for trail riding or jumping or barrel racing or mounted archery or vaulting etc.


Working horses with a job is a great way to help horses develop confidence to working with people, maintain an interest and bring an understanding to what the rider is asking. But the benefit is only maintained as long as the conversation between the horse and the rider is open and active. There is little to be gained by teaching a horse to perform a job on autopilot.


Video: I think this is a good example of horses having the job of working as a team in a quadrille.


Touched By A Human

I keep coming across articles and videos that promote the idea that touching (patting, rubbing, stroking or whatever you want to call it) a horse is an important element in the training process. I’ve seen it several times lately. The premise seems to be that horses like to be touched by people and find it comforting. Therefore, touching a horse is said to be a powerful way of rewarding a horse for doing well or comforting a horse that is worried.


I have some trouble with this theory. It is not that touching a horse is not a good thing. My concern is that those who talk about this idea don’t offer any more information other than patting, petting or stroking is a rewarding experience for a horse and we should do it often. I have yet to come across anybody who teaches about when, how and why we should touch a horse. And even fewer who discuss when not to, how not to and why not to. The theory is that all touching is all good thing all the time.


Firstly, I think the notion that horses feel rewarded by a person’s touch is an assumption that is not always justified. We take for granted that because we intend our touch to be comforting that the horse feels comforted. But if you watch enough horses, that’s a hard assumption to substantiate. Have you ever felt comforted by a touch or embrace from a person you were not fond of? How many times have you gone to touch a horse and they have looked away or their focus has escaped you? Some people assume that if a horse is within reach it is ready and wanting to be touched. But in my experience, this is not true. Horses often do well at tolerating being touched, but tolerating is all it is. A common example of this is the horse that drops its head and closes its eyes when stroked on the forehead. Most of those horses mentally escape into a distant land deep in their mind where humans leave them alone while their owner is rubbing up and down their horse’s face thinking how much their horse loves being rubbed. It becomes a practiced and mindless habit for both horse and owner.


When a horse knows a person well and they want to be touched, they present themselves to be touched. This is particularly true if they have an itch that they like to have scratched. When my horses greet me in the paddock, they present their preferred scratching spots to me first. For most of them it is under the neck or chest, but my mare Six loves to have her face rubbed. I’ll hold up the palm of my hand and she moves her head up and down against it at exactly the right pressure that she enjoys. I do this because it’s a way of touching her that suits her. I don’t just touch Six in a way that I think she should appreciate. I want to touch my horses to benefit them and our relationship, not to satisfy some inner urge to make physical contact with a horse.


When we work with a horse and want to touch them as a reward, most of us don’t give enough thought to how we touch them. I recently watched a rider trotting her horse in a circle. When the horse gave nicely to the inside rein, she reached to scratch the horse’s wither as a ‘thank you’ for a nice try. But I saw nothing change in the horse that told me it liked it or even cared (like further softening or relaxation). If that was the case, then we need to ask what was the point of scratching the horse on the wither?


Meanwhile, the rider kept the horse trotting in the circle and asking for even more effort to yield to the inside rein. I suspect the horse would have appreciated it much more and learned much more if the rider had removed the pressure to keep working rather than a scratch on the wither.


I read an article recently where the trainer was recommending people to calm a scared horse by touching it. They advised that the best way to comfort a worried horse is to get a hand on them and rub them soothingly. In my experience, this is rarely helpful to a scared horse, although it might sooth the handler or rider. The reason I believe this is because horses that are worried are overwhelmed with emotions and centre their focus on the thing that most worries them. Their focus is often so strong that the rest of the world is shut out. They generally do not even register that somebody is touching them because they are so fixated on surviving the experience. They only have room in their mind for deciding whether to run, faint, shut down or fight. Even with a horse that likes to be touched by people, stroking them will have no effect until the fear dissipates enough that the horse can register the person’s presence again.


I hope I’m not coming across as being against touching your horse, because I’m not. I do it all the time with my own horses and every horse I handle. I think it can be a positive experience in both our lives. But I think it is a mistake to assume that just by patting or stroking our horses we are automatically doing something worthwhile. I believe we need to give much more thought into why, when and how we touch our horses for it to be a useful and productive.


We rub, pat and stroke our horses every time they are within an arms length. It’s the first thing we do when we meet them and the last thing we do when we leave them. But we tend to put so little thought into when, how, and why we touch our horses that many of us miss the opportunity to use it to full advantage.


Photo: You can see how my horse Riley is presenting himself to be rubbed on the face.