Work In Hand And Rein Position

I want to briefly discuss a technical aspect of groundwork that I believe is worth mentioning. It’s to do with working horses in hand and in a bridle and the way people use the reins. It’s a small blemish in the scheme of things, but when it comes to working with green-ish horses that have yet to truly understand how to yield and soften to the reins, I think my concern is worth a post.


I want to emphasize that I am mainly talking about horses that are not clear how to yield and soften to the reins. They may know how to steer, stop and be obedient, but not give over with their thought and feel okay to the pressure of the reins. These are the horses I am mainly referring to in this article.


We had a short discussion last weekend when Shelly worked her mare (Blue) in hand with the bridle. I noticed that when Shelly was walking beside Blue and asking for turns, stops and lateral movements she held both reins on the same side of her horse – the side she was standing.


I almost never do that because I rarely handle horses that are ready. My preference is to use the left rein on the left side and the right rein on the right side. It means that one rein is held on the side closest to me and the other rein is held by reaching across the horse’s neck to the opposite side. This enables both reins to be applied with a direct feel. It makes flexion to either side clearer during turns and lateral movement.


If both reins are held and applied on the same side, one rein is being used with a direct pressure and the other rein applies an indirect pressure. For example, if I am standing on the left side of a horse with the reins held in each hand on the left side, in order to perform a right turn requires the right rein (inside rein) to pull back and against the neck of the horse. On a novice or poorly educated horse, this can have the effect of blocking the right shoulder from stepping to the right and instead cause the shoulders to drift to the left. A similar issue develops when teaching certain lateral movements.


It could be argued that overall it is a small problem and could be overcome if people were more mindful of the effect of the reins. But it could equally be argued that it is not such a small problem considering the epidemic of horses that don’t yield and soften correctly to the reins. If we start on the ground teaching a horse to be incorrect, we make it so much more difficult for a horse to be correct when we ride.


There are many top-level trainers who perform work in hand by walking next to their horse with both reins on the same side. They get the job done because they have the experience to do that despite the limitations of having one rein acting as an indirect rein. But most people are not top-level trainers. Most people struggle to build in correctness to a horse even when doing everything the easier way. These are the people I am writing this for.


When I have brought up this topic in past clinics the first objection comes from the small women with giant horses. “I’m only 1.5m and my horse is 2m. How can I possibly reach across its neck?”


Firstly, to paraphrase my friend, “nobody needs a horse they can’t look over.” But secondly, teach your horse to lower its neck and position yourself at the base of the neck to reach across. I know it works for most people because I have taught many petite women with tall horses.


I don’t believe that handling the reins on the same side during work in hand is going to be the difference between brilliant training and crappy training. Nevertheless, I do believe starting out with the reins on opposite sides of the horse so they both act in a direct manner and not an indirect manner is a better option for the horse in providing clarity of the reins.


Photo: Today we have our lovely models, Shelly and Blue showing the different rein positions for work in hand.

Look Up Or Look Down?

Somebody recently asked, “Why do so many of the great masters ride looking down?”


This topic also came up for discussion at the clinic in Canberra last weekend.


I don’t know if it is still widely taught, but when I was a kid there was a lot of shouting at students to “look up where you are going” and, “keep your heels down.” They were the two most repeated mantras that instructors pounded into their students. I was clearly a poor listener as a student because I strayed far.


So here is my take on looking up or looking down.


I think there are two reasons in favour of looking up – one is a good reason and the other is not.


The action of looking up tends to help straighten the rider’s back and align the spine more vertically rather than round the shoulders and pitch the upper body forward.  So it can help to maintain a steady and more correct centre of gravity for a rider. However, this is not automatically true. A rider can tilt their head down and maintain a good position of the spine and centre of gravity. The classical dressage master, Nuno Oliveira was an excellent example of somebody who appeared to do all the wrong things, yet was able to maintain excellent balance with the horse. So while looking up can help a student rider avoid getting into bad habits of misaligning their spine and balance, it is not a rule that the first automatically causes the second.


The second reason that I was told you must always look up was incorporated into the phrase, “ you must look where you are going.” The inference was that if you looked down at your horse you would not be able to see where you were going and you ran the risk of running into things or worse creating crookedness in your horse. In my view, this is a weak reason for requiring riders to look up. Most riders who tend to look down know exactly where they are and where they are going. Both the horse and rider know what’s ahead, behind and to the side and rarely run the risk of collision.


When it comes to looking down there are two ways of doing it. The first is for the rider to tilt their head downward, and the second it is to look down while keeping their head level. For example, Nuno Oliveira often tilted his head forward to look at his horse, whilst the modern darling of competition dressage, Charlotte Dujardin is an expert at looking down while maintaining a level head position.


As I said above, it is possible for a rider to look down and still maintain a good position and know where they are going by maintaining spatial awareness. Nonetheless, some people find that looking up and forward is easier for them to achieve these things. If a rider can ride effectively when looking up or looking down, the choice to do so should be personal and between them and their horse.


But in my opinion, the decision to look up or look down when riding a horse should be determined by the rider’s ability to focus. A rider can learn to stay balanced and be aware of where they are going no matter where they are looking, however, the ability to stay focused and attentive to the horse under them is often influenced by where they are looking.


I find by looking down at my horse I can feel a lot more than when I am looking up and ahead with all the distractions that come into my field of vision. Looking at something like the neck of my horse allows me to be much more aware of everything else about the horse. My ability to feel and be aware is magnified because the horse’s neck becomes a point where I can shut out distractions. If I look up and ahead there is so much visual information being taken in that I struggle to filter it all out and focus on my feel. Nevertheless, there are a lot of riders who are able to be very focused and aware when they look up. For them, looking up is a much better option.


In summary, I no longer believe it is important for a rider to “look where they are going.” I think as long as our horse approves of what we do, who cares?


Photo: This must be one of the “great masters” that the person who posed the original question was referring to. 

An Oldie, But A Goodie

I don’t have time right now to write a new article at the moment, so I am posting what I think is one of my better chapters from The Essence Of Good Horsemanship, rather than leave you hanging for a few days with nothing brilliant to read J



Before discussing about our relationship with horses, I want to briefly talk about the ethics of working with horses, and the responsibilities that arise from them.


From time to time I am asked, that given my views on horses and training, why do I ride horses at all? Apparently, if I really cared about a horse’s welfare and their comfort, I should just let them roam freely and never ride or train them.


The first time I was asked this, my immediate reaction was that it was a silly question. But years later, I can see that it is a question all horse people should ask themselves, so they are clear in their own mind regarding the type of relationship they are working towards with a horse.


Surprisingly, there is still some argument in the horse world whether horses have emotions at all. I think this dates back to the 13 th century, when philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas proclaimed animals were not worthy of consideration because it was assumed they could not reason as humans. This makes sense for those times because most philosophers were also theologians and their belief system put humans as God’s children and animals were a gift from God for the benefit of humans.


Thankfully, only a handful of people still hold those views.


However, there is still considerable stigma in assigning human-like qualities (like emotions) to animals. These days, many people believe that to anthropomorphize (describe animal traits as being similar to human traits) animals is wrong.


Personally, I believe anthropomorphism is a positive thing on the whole and is completely justified. The problem comes from people taking anthropomorphism too far. For example, clearly horses have the neural network capable of experiencing emotions, so it is perfectly reasonable to suggest they can experience suffering. Even so, horses don’t have the brain mechanisms to plot and scheme, so it is not reasonable to assume that horses can try to trick us or plot against us. Yet, people want to make the issue of anthropomorphism black and white, i.e. either horses share human-like qualities or they don’t. The reality is that they share some, but not all.


Anybody who has spent time with horses will know that they can exhibit fear, joy, nervousness, relaxation, curiosity and many other emotions. They can make decisions between two or more choices, which I consider a form of reasoning or problem solving. So it is not unreasonable to assign human-like qualities to a horse, if it helps people have a better understanding of how they operate.


Scientists are only catching up to what horse people have known for centuries with regard to the emotional nature of horses and all species with a complex central nervous system. It’s been shown that there are common centres of the brain across all vertebrates that relate to the emotional capacity of an animal. In particular the amygdala is similar in humans, horses, birds, fish, and amphibians. Studies have shown that if the thinking part of the brain is destroyed, but the amygdala is left intact, rats still show emotionally driven behaviour. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to consider that horses would exhibit similar responses.


To me, this makes perfect sense when you consider that evolution works by small modifications to create a new species. Most species of vertebrates have more DNA in common, than different. So it is a much more rational argument to consider that humans differ from horses as a matter of degree, rather than as two species radically and completely different.


The bottom line is that all species with a complex brain (including horses) have an emotional nature that is hardwired into them. As we know, horses are not automatons, but animals with strong emotional needs that largely determine how they behave in the world. If we deny the emotional nature of a horse as the primary motivator for behaviour and response to training, then we deny the true nature of the animal. Emotions drive everything.


When I have talked about the link between a horse’s emotions and thoughts in the past, I have been asked, “How can you know what a horse is thinking and feeling?”


The inference is that I can’t possibly know what a horse is thinking and feeling because horses don’t sit down with us over a cup of tea and tell us their problems. However, they do tell us. They are always telling us. In fact, they hardly ever shut up! People make the mistake of confusing their inability to listen to a horse, as the horse’s inability to talk to us. It is the arrogance of human nature for us to believe that because we don’t understand something, it does not exist.


The 18 th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that suffering should determine the ethics of all our decisions in life, and in this regard, we should empathize with the suffering of animals.


If you agree with Schopenhauer, then the ethics of horse training is an easy choice. The emotional wellbeing of the horse should be the most important determinant in the methods of training we choose. Other factors, such as obedience and competitive success, should play minor roles in the choice of training approaches we adopt.


Having given you all the pre-amble about ethics, how do I justify training horsesinstead of letting them roam untouched in my paddocks?


In my mind, the justification lies in the choices I make. I choose not to do things with horses that I believe are not to their benefit. For example, I keep my horses in as natural environment as possible. I choose methods and equipment that I have a thorough understanding of how and why to use. I work towards a better relationship in everything I do with a horse, and strive to never stop being the student.


It’s not for me to preach to others about the ethics of training horses. Each person has his or her own ethics and values. Nevertheless, I urge everybody to have at the forefront of their minds when working with a horse that everything they do should be judged foremost in terms of the emotional wellbeing of each and every horse.


“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” – Mahatma Ghandi.


Photo: Tommaso d'Aquino (a.k.a Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274) was an Italian Dominican fria and Roman Catholic priest. He is considered by some to be responsible for shaping modern day philosophy and theology.


No Pressure, No Clarity, No Comfort

I attended the first day of a two-day clinic as a spectator over the weekend. It was an introduction to training horses to work at liberty. It as not what I was expecting at all. Most liberty training I have seen began with working horses on a lead rope to give guidance and teach the fundamentals first before graduating to working offline. However, at this clinic, the teacher started each session with the horses at liberty in a dressage-sized arena and a pile of hay in the middle. All the horses were worked individually. I don’t want to go into detail about what I saw, but the general goal was to work horses within their comfort zone and to keep them as comfortable as possible by avoiding pressure. There was a lot of emphasis on energy and directing energy through very specific human body movements. There was a lot of do’s and don’t type rules.


I could write several pages about what I observed. However, today I want to discuss only one aspect of the clinic.


The clinician talked about interacting with horses in a way that did not presume leadership. There was almost no directing of the horses, only going along with whatever they presented. The only time pressure was acceptable was if the person was in danger of being run over. So if a horse wanted to stand and eat hay for the entire session while the owner sat in a chair 10 metres away, that was okay. If a horse wanted to stare off into the distance at the far end of the arena, that was okay too. And if a horse decided to approach the owner or mirrors or horses outside of the arena, that was also met with approval. In some sessions horses took no interest in the human and in particular session the horse was highly stressed and lost from start to finish. I can’t help but feel that the horses were as confused as I was about what was the point. If I want to be ignored by my horse I would just leave it in the paddock or talk to it about the effects of hypoxia on fetal growth!


To be fair to the clinician, it was made clear that sometimes it took days, weeks or months before a horse finally chose to take an interest in the handler. But all the clinic horses had had a lot of handling and riding in their life. None of them were wild horses gathered from the bush a few days ago. They were all well-behaved and polite and clearly were not terrified of people, even though it was obvious most of them tolerated people more than wanted to be around them.


What bothered me above all else, is the lack of direction the horses were offered. They were brought into the arena, shown a pile of hay and then left alone to eat (or in one case, not eat). Occasionally a person would approach, put out a hand and then leave while the horses kept eating. But you were not to look at a horse unless it engaged with you. My observation is that the horses didn’t know why they were there, what was expected and what they should do. Every horse appeared lost and every horse exhibited some degree of stress by the process.


So here is my concern.


By not offering the horses some guidance, they were required to suffer this stress with no hope of salvation. There was no clear way out, so all but one of the horses did the only thing they could do by finding solace in the hay. When somebody approach, they expressed annoyance and the people turned and left again.


To me, this is animal abuse. I say that because the horse’s had no chance of finding clarity. If a horse is not emotionally comfortable and we don’t offer guidance how to find comfort, we are guilty of abuse by negligence. To leave a horse in a state of confusion is just as concerning as beating it with a whip when it misbehaves or running it in mindless circles in a round yard.


I believe the reason the horses were not offered direction is because the clinician believed that would be imposing the handler’s will on the horse’s behaviour. The impression I had was that pressure was considered a negative approach and would interfere with developing a good relationship with a horse. I found this curious because it seemed okay to stress a horse by letting it flounder in confusion, yet not okay to use pressure to help a horse find a comfort.


I know that sometimes pressure is the source of confusion and abuse, but I would argue that pressure could also be the cause of comfort and confidence for a horse when applied well. There are few things more clearly cruel to me than to allow a horse to be unclear as to what its role is in a relationship. Pressure itself is not the problem. Horses live with pressure all day and understand how it works. The problem is when pressure is used in a way that either discourages a horse to search for an answer (eg overuse of flooding methods) or is used in a way that the answer is not made clear (eg, bad timing or inconsistent release of pressure). Clarity gives comfort to a horse and if pressure can be applied with clarity, then pressure can be a comfort.


I suspect that the negative press that pressure receives partly comes from people’s impression that it almost always appears as a massive amount of energy that scares the horse into the afterlife. People forget that pressure comes in an almost infinite variety of forms. For example, yes using a flag can be pressure, but so is the heat of the sun that inspires a horse to find shade.  Both can be pressure and both convey clarity.


In my opinion, pressure is anything that pushes on a horse to change its thought – it’s a push on a horse’s thought, not its feet. Pressure can be as quiet as the tilt of a person’s head or as bothersome as a bot fly. If we do just the minimum to evoke a change of thought (however small or big that may be), it is the kindest we can be. If not, we are being abusive by leaving our horse unclear.


When a child doesn’t want to clean his room and we don’t clarify that it is his job because we don’t like to upset him and damage our relationship, are we being kind or cruel? Maybe you can better answer that question when he is 43 years old and still living a home because nobody else will have him.


Photo: I am asking a horse to prepare to move to its left by using less pressure than a fly and causing less concern. This is because I am using pressure to direct the horse’s thought to the left and bring clarity to the purpose of the pressure as if to say, "think over there, that's where I want you to go." Whereas a fly would use pressure to drive a horse to the left that a horse would interpret as "I need to get away from that pesky fly", which creates more emotional trouble.

One Percent

In the past few months, I have encountered three different trainers (one video and two blogs) talking about if you train to improve your horse 1% a day, that in 100 days you’ll have a 100% improvement.


I have a few problems with this idea and I want to talk about that today.


The first issue may be quite trivial, but it peeves me enough that I feel the need to vent.


The sentiment behind the statement that a 1% improvement each day will result in a 100% improvement in 100 days is clear. I understand they are trying to say that every small change will eventually get you to where you want your horse to be. But the maths is wrong. A 1% improvement each day will not result in a 100% improvement in 100 days. Think about it. Let’s say for argument sake that you are already at level 100 and trying to reach level 200 (which is a 100% improvement). This is how it will go:


Day 1: 100 x 0.01 + 100 = 101

Day 2: 101 x 0.01 + 101= 102.01

Day 3: 102.01 x 0.01 + 102.01 = 103.0301

and so on …..


By 100 days you will have far exceeded 100% improvement (assuming nothing goes wrong). The assumption that you will achieve 100% improvement is wrong.


I know the maths may not seem important to you, but it goes to a bigger problem. The trainers that felt the example of progressively improving a horse one day at a time was important enough to pass on to their followers are not stupid people. They are smart and skilled horsemen, and it is well within their ability to see the flaws in the logic. So why did they make such an obvious and fundamental error?


I believe it is because they are lazy thinkers. If something seems superficially correct or can pass the “it’s okay if you don’t stop to think about it” test, then that’s good enough. However, in being lazy thinkers they are treating their students as dumb and lazy thinkers. This is not good enough. As teachers, we should be helping our students to think more deeply and question more critically.


This is not the only example of lazy thinking. There is a commonly held view that the correct training of a horse can be pre-determined by first dividing their personalities into categories and dominant brain hemisphere. This is a prime example of lazy thinking by smart people. Even a passing inquiry into the validity of this concept reveals there is no basis for it in horses, and the original source from human research has been totally discredited. Yet the concept persists.


People may be able to legitimately criticize me as a horseman and a teacher, but I don’t believe I can ever be accused of not encouraging people to think critically and question everything. For example, my last post was a discussion on the rehashed adage of  “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.” But I talked about it in terms of “free will” versus “free won’t” in an effort to inspire people to take a fresh look at the problem and think about it in different terms. How many of you have considered the notion of “free won’t” before? The essay before that was a discussion on straightness where I brought in the idea that straightness was often a mental problem. I have only ever heard one other clinician discuss the importance of mental and emotional issues in training straightness. How many people have only ever thought of straightness problems as physical problems? In the story about Satts, I described how I used a dog toy to teach the horse to go forward in response to my legs. How many of you have considered a dog toy as a training tool? 


You may not agree with the ideas, but I hope at least they give you another perspective to think about training.


It’s not good enough anymore that a guru can spew some profound insight on horses and horsemanship and expect it to be taken as gospel. Yet they still do. I know trainers who censor legitimate questions on their Facebook page purely because they won’t publicly tolerate anything but total agreement. I remember a revered clinician verbally savaging more than one person who asked a good question that would have required the guru to think outside of their usual and repetitive sayings they were famous for.


The ability to think is perhaps at the top of the list of skills needed to be an exceptional horse person. We should all be aiming to be exceptional. We owe it to our horses. If our teachers are too lazy to think, how can students be expected to think? A teacher may not be able to make a student think, but they can arm them with the tools and inspire the enthusiasm to give it a try. But that can only happen if the teacher challenges them to think and stops reciting rubbish. It seems they are trying to prove the theory that if you say something enough times with enough authority, it becomes true. I call this the Donald Trump syndrome. It’s not good enough. We should question our teachers until we run out of questions.


The final issue I want to raise that relates more specifically to the crap about 1% a day improvement leads to 100% improvement in a 100 days, is that even if the maths were correct, the concept is still not true. Training is not that simple.


It assumes that training progresses smoothly and in a straight line. In my experience, this never happens. Horses are not computers and you can’t program them to do what you want by writing code. This is just common sense. We all know this. So why tell people stuff that implies that if you do what I tell you, each day things will get better and better until you finally have the perfect horse.


I realize that people who have been around horses a while will already know that progress is almost never smooth and without deviations. But people who are novices or people who are desperately seeking the trainer of their dreams who has the magic to end the misery they have been suffering with their horse can be lulled into believing the precise wording rather than accept the statement as a generalized concept. The more desperate we are for help, the more ready we are to put all our hopes and faith into every word of the next person who sounds like they know what they are talking about.


I think implying training is as simple as each day things will get better is outright deceitful. There is no reason for writing on a blog or recording on a video something that does pass a lie detector test. It’s not like most times training progresses smoothly and only once in a while there are problems and therefore, it is fair to say that 1% improvement each day will get you to the finish line in 100 days. It is almost always a lie.


People should not be set up for failure by trainers wanting to sell their particular style of magic. Somebody who has put total trust in that trainer can only end up feeling like they failed by not having the perfect horse in 100 days or 500 days or 5,000 days. I’ve met people who have felt dispirited and depressed because they felt they couldn’t meet the expectations they put on themselves from working with a famous trainer. Telling people that in 100 days they can expect their horse will be 100% better if they work each day, is wrong and a lie.


I understand some people reading this will think I am being too hard on a handful of trainers who are just trying to encourage people to keep working on their training problems and in time things will sort out. I get that.  But what I don’t get is doing it in a way that treats people like idiots. If you are going to publicly present an idea, make sure it is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge and encourage people to think critically and question rather than put you on a pedestal and believe every word.


Photo: I came across this picture of Luke and I a few days ago. It is a photo taken by a newspaper (The Geelong Advertiser) when I was in my early 20s. I was passing through the busy streets of Geelong on my way from South Australia to eastern Victoria. As you can see, I wasn’t in a hurry.