The Smallest Try

Today’s post is an apology. I feel the need to apologize to the tons of people who I have confused with my ideas on what it is when a horse tries. Lately, the subject of a horse’s smallest try has been the subject of discussion with a regular reader and from the way they have been talking I have obviously been as clear as a person trying to talk underwater. So I begin with an “I’m sorry” to that person and to everyone else I have confused.


But with the words “no valour, no gain” echoing in my head, I’ll attempt to explain what is the smallest try in a horse from a slightly different perspective.


A few days ago I watched a video of a trainer demonstrating how he rewards a horse for the slightest try. He began the video by asking his horse to flex its neck laterally. When the horse began to bend around with almost no pressure on the lead rope, the fellow released the feel on the rope and told the camera that he released the rope for the slightest try try. I know very many people would agree with this. However, what the fellow missed is that his horse was staring at something in the distance off camera with great intensity even while flexing its neck in response to the trainer’s request.


More times than I can possibly recall I have spewed the Ross-ism:


“The only change worth having is a change of thought. Without a change of thought, there is nothing for a horse to learn.”


I’ll say it again. Without a change of thought, there is nothing for a horse to learn. In other words, without the mind of the horse being involved in a training episode, a horse can’t learn from it. Learning only occurs when the mind takes in a new idea. Mental absorption of an idea is the key element to learning, not physical movement.


Therefore, when we ask a horse to try something, we are really asking a horse to consider an idea. Before a horse can act, it must first think. The only exception to this rule is a spinal reflex, but they are so rare that I don’t think we need to consider them when talking about a horse’s try.


When we think of what is a try in a horse, it’s impossible to think it is just one thing. There are various degrees of a try. Some horses try harder than others because some are more desperate to avoid pressure. These horses tend to have a lot of try. Other horses are less bothered by pressure and have learned that not trying very hard is a better alternative for them. But the one thing they all have in common is what constitutes the smallest try.


I’m sure most of you have heard the mantra that we should reward a horse for the smallest try. Very many trainers talk about it and several even demonstrate it, but almost all the ones I have witnessed seem to have a different view of what is the smallest try. Most trainers appear to believe it is when a horse yields its feet or body in some way to the pressure the human applies. I understand why this is. It’s because when a horse moves it is easy to spot and most people are aware of it. But in my opinion, the try began long before the movement.

As I have said, the only change worth having is a change in a horse’s thought. But for a horse to change its thought when we ask it to do something it must first give up the thought that already occupies its mind. While it is holding onto a thought, it doesn’t have room in its mind to consider an alternative idea. The idea we are trying to present to our horse will always be competing against the idea the horse is already trying to make happen. It is not until the horse says, “okay that idea is not working out too well for me, what else can I try?” that it is ready to try something else.


That moment when the horse gives up its idea is the smallest try in my opinion. That’s the moment we should be rewarding in the initial training of a horse because that’s the moment when the argument between what the horse wants and what we want is over.


In the scenario I described of the trainer demonstrating rewarding the slightest try, there was almost no try from the horse. The horse was focused elsewhere and did not change its focus even when flexing its neck in response to the feel on the lead rope. Yet the trainer released the pressure anyway and told his audience he was releasing for the slightest try. He did not recognize that his horse had not let go of his thought and was just mindlessly going through the motions it had not doubt done a thousand times before. There was nothing for the horse to learn from that event, which made the whole exercise pointless.


Of course, the perfect moment to reward the smallest try is also probably the hardest to detect for most people. Nevertheless, that’s what we should be talking about when we describe the smallest try. By the time the horse has got around to yielding with movement (as the trainer did in the video), releasing for the smallest try has long past. If we don’t talk about when a horse lets go of a thought people won’t learn to look for that moment and they will be stuck with being late every time. We may be only milliseconds late, but we are still late.


Trainers are always placing side-by-side the concept of rewarding the slightest try with the idea that good timing of a release is vitally important. If we are late with our release, our timing is poor and we lack clarity in the things we are trying to teach. So thinking about what constitutes the smallest try is not just an academic exercise. It has significant consequences with regard to our effectiveness as trainers and our relationship with our horses. I suppose it is a good thing that through being consistently late the horse can still learn the lesson.


There is much more to a try and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship, I describe how a try is never the same for long. What might be a good try today cannot be considered a good try in a week or month or year. A try should always be moving forward. From the first small try of an initial interruption of a thought can grow even bigger tries and eventually into movement as complex as a sliding stop or a canter to the rear – just like 2 cells can evolve into an entire human. You can get a much more detailed explanation of a try from my book.


I made a quick (and amateurish) flow chart to illustrate what I believe is the cascade of major events that lead to a try and softness. It is very basic and falls far short of a thorough explanation. However, I think it’s worth more than a glance because if you study the chart closely and think about what it says, you’ll realize there is a lot more to these interactions than you might imagine.


Wanting Or Needing

In a recent post, I wrote about a horse that was losing the plot while the owner was attempting to lunge it. I described it as a horse that was trying to save its life. A day later I received an email from somebody who said they didn’t believe the horse was trying to save its life. They added, 

“I think the horse is stressed and uncomfortable, and maybe
distracted, and lots of other uncomfortable things, but saving its life
nope. If it were saving its life, what it was doing would be more
extreme, lion-teeth grip extreme.”

I think it is a fair point. We tend to think of life-saving behaviour as dramatic and extreme behaviour. But this is my view on it.

I believe horses do behave in the way described in the previous post out of a sense of survival. However, I think that sense of life and death is only occasionally an all or nothing situation. Horses make decisions on the basis of how a response or behaviour will impact on their chance of living through an event. But, this does not mean that they always see events in terms of imminent death or instant safety. I believe horses can place events on a scale of danger. Not all or even most presentations of danger in a horse’s life result in outright panic, but that does not mean a horse does not weigh up events in terms of the degree of jeopardy they represent.

For instance, we all know that most horses are addicted to eating whenever they can. But the need for a horse to eat at times of hunger is much stronger than when it is not hungry but takes the opportunity to snatch a bite of grass when a rider lets their guard down. In both scenarios, the horse’s thoughts are on eating, but the degree of urgency to eat is different because they represent different scales of the threat to survival.

This brings me to the difference between needs and wants. Humans are very lucky because we understand there is a difference between needing to eat and wanting to eat. We understand that some things impact on our survival, while others are simply preferences for a better quality of life (eg we need food, but we want ice cream).

On the other hand, horses are like human babies. Everything a baby wants is viewed as a need. A baby won’t die if a parent does not pick it up for a cuddle, but it can behave like death is knocking if the cuddle is not immediately forthcoming. However, as the baby grows and matures into adulthood it discerns that not everything it wants is a matter of life and death. 

In this regard horses and babies have a lot in common.  When a horse is young, separation from its mother is a matter of life and death. But with weaning, it learns to cope and the urgency dissipates. The first time a horse sees a kangaroo it feels the need for panic to save its life, but by the tenth time it sees that same kangaroo the horse sees no reason to interrupt its grazing for a stupid macropod with a tail that doesn’t even keep the flies away.

As trainers, I believe we have two responsibilities with regard to a horse’s wants and needs. 

First, we have to recognize the genuine difference between what a horse needs and what it wants. I’m not just talking about the obvious like a horse needs nutrition, needs to breathe and needs good health. I’m also talking about the emotional needs like feeling safe, needing companionship, needs relief from stress etc. We need to recognize those needs in each of our horses. 

But add to that the things that a horse perceives are its needs, but really fall into wants. For example, a horse needs to feel safe. But in needing to feel safe it might see that as never walking through a puddle or never riding out the front gate or never going into a horse trailer or never letting somebody climb on its back. All these things (and much more) may seem life threatening to a horse. We know they are not, but that doesn’t matter to a horse. Our job as trainers to help a horse realize that some things it initially believes are life threatening are really okay.

Identifying those things as either a need or a want is vital to the step of transforming some of the needs into wants and eventually comfort. I know I don’t have to tell you that training a horse is a lot about convincing it to do the things they initially would rather not do. The conflict between what they don’t want and what we want is the basis of all horse problems. But how many times do we try to train horses to ignore their genuine needs for the sake of our wants?

When a horse is truly convinced that a specific response is a way to survival, trying to make it give up that response can only happen by killing something inside a horse that makes it a horse. The essence of the horse dies. I believe we don’t have the right to ask a horse to sacrifice itself for our desires. When it is convinced something is a genuine threat to its survival we must respect that and find a kind way to change its mind.

However, some people choose to challenge a horse’s needs head on. They do this on a daily basis. Instead of changing a horse’s opinion of whether something is life threatening they choose to not care and only train for obedience. Horses are incredibly compliant and easy to make do something. However, you can’t make a horse feel something. That comes from caring about altering the way a horse views a life-threatening event into something that it perceives is okay. In other words, we should take a horse’s need for survival seriously and respect how it responds. If we are going to transition a horse’s need into a want and finally into something that feels comfortable, then we can’t clash head-on with our horse. We must take baby steps to help it feel its life is not under threat at every stage.

Video: Did this horse want or need to rear?


Finding The Time

Almost everybody is dissatisfied at some time at how slow their training appears to progress. We all want to our horse’s training to flow steadily forward and we want to be excited at what each new day brings in our relationship and performance of our horse.


Of course, it is rarely ever like this. Most training runs in fits and starts. Sometimes it goes backward, then forward and backward again. Other times it appears to stagnate for weeks and months as if nothing is improving. And of course, for some, there is a steady descent into more difficulties with each passing week.


There are a variety of reasons why training is rarely a smooth progression. Every horse and every rider have different excuses. However, one reason that seems to be almost universally common wherever I teach is the amount of time people put into consistently working with their horse.


I am always asking people at the start of a clinic session, “how much work is your horse getting?” At a guess, I’d say that only about 20 percent of riders tell me that their horse is being worked 4 or more times a week. Perhaps half say they work their horse less than once a week.


This is not a finger-pointing exercise. I am not trying to make people feel guilty who don’t get much time with their horses. It would be completely hypocritical of me to do that because I bet I devote less time to working my horses than almost any of you reading this. But it must be completely obvious to everyone that the less time we are able to commit to our horses, the fewer changes they will make.


I recently talked to a friend during a clinic. Her horse was struggling to make some of the really nice changes he had been making in past clinics, so I rode her horse for her. After my ride, she was able to feel a big difference in her horse. I sensed a little despondency in her and I later asked what was the problem. She said that she felt that she was wasting her time coming to clinics because she wasn’t able to find the time to ride very much horse in between the clinics. The steady improvement her horse was making when she was able to ride regularly had dissipated and she wondered if she should stop attending clinics until she had more time to ride.


I think her concerns are completely legitimate, so I’m going to offer my take on the subject.


People come to clinics for lots of different reasons. But the two strongest reasons are (1) to learn more, and (2) to have a horse problem fixed.


In my view, the second reason is not a good reason to attend a clinic. Nothing gets fixed at clinics. All the magic happens at home when you take the ideas you learned at a clinic and put them to work. If you participate in a clinic hoping that your horse will go home fixed, you’ll be disappointed and waste your money.


But if you enroll in a clinic intending to expand your knowledge and get ideas to play with at home, I believe there is no better reason for attending.


If you think of a clinic as a resource for information to better your understanding and knowledge, then it doesn’t matter if your horse is getting regular work or not. A clinic is about training the rider, not the horse. The wisdom you’ll learn will add to your database of knowledge that you will be able to tap into when you do have the time to work with your horse. You’ll be way ahead of the person who has waited until time permits before participating in a clinic. Go to clinics or have lessons and accumulate as much enlightenment as you can. Education is never a waste of time. You’ll use it at some point – even if it is to help a friend with a horse problem.


Furthermore, if people enroll in a clinic or book a lesson with an instructor, it forces them to make time to ride their horse. I understand that life sometimes puts obstacles in our way and our commitment to riding is often a low priority. But by obligating ourselves to a clinic or lesson we are forced to make the time. It doesn’t matter so much if between clinics or lessons our commitment wanes, as long as we don’t expect miracles to happen. At least for that time we are with our horse, we are devoting time to something we love.


Lastly, it is surprising how often a good experience at a clinic can fire the desire to ride more often. So many people come away from a clinic and feel excited to ride more often. They feel the thrill again and it is no longer a dim memory.


I use to despair when people would come to a clinic and tell me they hadn’t done much with their horse since I saw them. I would wonder how they expected me to help them and what was the point if they didn’t put in the time. But I now realize that this is wrong. People who come to clinics to gain knowledge for themselves, and not for their horses, should never feel apologetic about working their horse minimally at home. They are gaining an education and their horses will benefit. That’s why I teach and that’s why they come.


I don’t know if I convinced my friend that she was not wasting her time by coming to clinics and she should not hold off until she had time to work with her horse more regularly, but I hope I will see her again at a clinic before long.


Photo: These are a few of our horses getting a hard workout from me on a typical day.

Too Stupid To Back Up

There is a very old joke about a beautiful blonde woman walking down the street while listening to something on her headphones. A friend stopped her and asked if they could listen to what the woman was listening to. Expecting to hear the latest hit music, the friend was surprised to hear a voice saying “breathe in, now breathe out.” If you don’t get the joke, the premise was that beautiful blonde women were too stupid to remember to breathe.


Yesterday, I watched a video of a famous clinician teaching somebody how to back his horse and I was reminded of the blonde joke. The clinician told the student to apply pressure with the left rein and then right rein in time to the movement of the horse’s left fore and right fore.


I know some people teach the idea of timing the reins with the feet in order to build a stronger connection with the horse’s movement. The idea appears to be another example where the focus is on the rider controlling a horse’s feet.


To me, the clinician’s teaching had two problems.


The first was that he told his student that the left rein is connected to the left front foot and the right rein to the right front foot. However, with each step back the horse began with the opposite hind foot. When the rider applied the left rein, the right hind moved first followed by the left fore. And when the right rein was applied, the right fore moved only after the left hind moved back. The right rein was not connected to the right fore, nor was the left rein connected to the left fore, as the clinician was telling the student. If using one rein then the other was doing anything with regard to connecting to the horse’s feet, they were connecting to the opposite hind foot, not the adjacent fore foot. So this is an example of a teacher that is teaching what he thinks should happen rather than what is actually happening.


But my biggest concern I had was that using one rein and then the other was treating horses like dumb blondes. I don’t like it when people treat blondes like dumb blondes and I like it even less when they do it to horses. This what made me bristle and probably why this essay may sound a little cranky.


Horses know which foot to use and in what sequence when they decide to step backwards. They don’t need to be told how to move the feet. What they need is help to make the decision to move backwards freely and that does not come from micromanaging each foot movement. It comes from inspiring them to have the thought to back up.


I know I seem to harp on this every few posts, but I believe it can’t be said enough times. I feel the tide of teaching out there is waging war against the principle that training is about the horse’s thought first and foremost and not moving the feet. Many clinicians acknowledge the importance the horse’s thoughts and instantly forget it. The go on to merrily teach things like the left rein instructs the left front foot to step back.  Arrggghhh!


Control of a horse’s feet is the result of a horse having a thought to move them, not the other way around. The reins are not attached to the feet. Even the bit and mouth are not attached to the feet. Every action of the reins, rider’s seat and legs has to go through the horse’s mind first before it can have an affect on anything else. It really is that simple. The reins apply tonic pressure to the mouth (if a bit is used) or nose (if no bit is used), which transmits a signal conducted along nerve fibres to specific brain centres of the horse. The brain then interprets these signals and transmits neural messages of its own to very specific muscles to begin movement. It needs to happen in this sequence of events because only the brain is smart enough to control the many muscles required for locomotion in such a way that movement can be slow, fast, weak, strong, directionally specific, balanced and micro adjustable.


Most people know this obvious fact, yet they continue to teach and believe that riding and training are about controlling the feet.


It could be argued that when people say that it’s all about the feet, they really mean it’s about getting to the feet via the mind. But if this is true, they are not teaching it because their students are not getting that message.


I try to watch as many other clinicians as possible and I’ve seen a lot – some famous and some not so famous. The clinic world is awash with gurus who were once students or devotees of Tom Dorrance and/or Ray Hunt. Hunt talked about getting to the horse’s feet through the mind and Dorrance talked about the inside of the horse. Yet, why did so few of their disciples get the message? I have yet to see a Dorrance or Hunt student who actually walks the walk when it comes to working through a horse’s thoughts. I can only think of two clinicians who do prioritize the importance the horse’s thought in training and don’t harp on and on about getting control of the feet – and neither of them spent nearly as much time around Dorrance or Hunt as the more famous and revered clinicians. I think it is time students started expecting more from their teachers. If clinicians and instructors are going to use the name Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt in their business, then students should expect they teach the more important essence of their philosophies. They should be working through the inside of a horse instead of teaching people to move a horse in the hope that it might change the inside, as the clinician in the video was doing. The concept that training is about a horse’s emotions and thoughts is probably the most important legacy of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, in my opinion. Yet it is almost ignored by those who claim to carry on their legacy.


Horses are not dumb blondes. They know how to do everything we might want of them. They just need to be inspired to have the thought. Once they have the thought they don’t need to be told which foot to move, when to move it and where to move it.


Photo: Here is a horse that had a thought to relieve an itch. It figured out a way to carry out that thought and didn’t need somebody to tell it how to move its feet.

Training The Inside Or The Outside Of A Horse

The woman looked at me with a stunned expression. She looked as if she had suddenly witnessed an elephant disappear in front of her eyes.


“How did you do that,” she asked?


It was a clinic and the woman brought a horse that danced around like a balloon in a windstorm. She was trying to lunge her horse on a small circle, but it had other ideas. Nothing she did convinced her horse that circling quietly around the owner was a good idea. She twirled the rope to tell him to circle, then she bumped the rope to stop him fleeing, then she pulled on the rope to prevent him from pulling backwards. Everything the woman did seem to just exacerbate the horse’s anxiety.


After a few minutes of watching and encouraging the woman to try different approaches, I asked if I could take the lead rope. She seemed very glad to pass the problem to somebody else.


The first thing I did was to try to rub the horse on the face. I wanted to introduce myself and say “hi.” It did its best to avoid my touch, but I used one hand, then the other to centre the horse’s thoughts directly at me. When I could make contact without the horse attempting to evade me I felt the hardness and stiffness in the muscles of the neck. It was like I was rubbing the end of a plank.


I placed the palm of my hand on the bridge of the nose with my thumb on one side and fingers on the other. I gently pushed my hand towards the horse and felt no give. The horse’s head did not move one iota as if it was made of granite. I pushed again and again with just enough pressure for the horse to be confused. For sometime the feel of a dead plank persisted as I kept gently pushing. Then I felt a small give at the poll. The poll flexed just a fraction and the head titled in and bounced back out. I repeated it again and felt another give. Another try and another. With each push of my hand the head of the horse started to softly bounce in and back out, as if I was compressing a soft sponge and releasing it again.


When I was certain the resistance to my hand had fallen from 100 percent to maybe 10 percent, I asked the horse to lunge in a small circle around me. Suddenly the horse was behaving like the sweet well-educated horse the owner always wanted. The circles were real circles and the horse was calm and quiet. The owner looked amazed.


Nobody at the clinic was clear how bouncing a horse’s head could teach a horse to lunge beautifully.


This story gets repeated in some form or another at least once at virtually every clinic I teach. By that I mean I address a problem by taking a very roundabout route instead of head on.  It’s hardly ever by bouncing a horse’s head, but sometimes it is. Maybe I will work on moving a foot in a very specific way or maybe I will ask for the horse not to lean on the lead rope or maybe I will work on getting a horse to hold a gaze. The list of things I might ask of a horse to change in order to address an issue in an indirect way is too many to list. And they don’t matter.


They don’t matter because the exercise itself is irrelevant. Helping that horse lunge better could just as easily have occurred by asking it to allow me to softly pick up its tail instead of bouncing its head in my hand. The problem was not the lunging in small circles or the inability to bounce the horse’s head; the problem was the horse’s emotions.


The session began with the horse in emotional turmoil. The turmoil hindered the horse’s ability to focus. It was trying to save its life. But the owner kept getting between its thought to save its life. This made things worse. It was only by asking the horse to search for something – like giving to my hand by flexing at the poll – that I was able to find a way to change the emotions.


In essence, the emotional anxiety at the beginning determined the horse’s thoughts to run, pull away, call out, try going to the other way etc. It is only by changing the emotions that the horse was able to learn.


On the surface, many people would think they needed to work on the problem of lunging the horse. They would need to move the horse’s feet. They would circle and circle the horse until it demonstrated some semblance of a reasonable circle, as the owner had done. It becomes about relying on the exercise to fix the problem. Even bouncing the head of the horse could be made into an exercise that did nothing towards helping. Moving the feet or doing exercises for the sake of doing something is just surface training. It’s not anything that is helpful in carrying forward with the learning process.


A horse can only learn by changing its thoughts when asked a question. And thoughts can only change once a horse has let go of the thoughts it presently holds. It’s the emotions of a horse that determine how ready a horse to is let go or hold on to its thoughts. Only soft emotions enable a horse to easily learn the things we want in training.


I think the story in this post is just another example that good horsemanship is always about a influencing a horse’s emotions and thoughts in order to direct the feet and not the other way around as I so often hear.


Photo: This is NOT the woman and the horse from the story. It is a nice example of a horse following the feel of the lead rope on the lunge and feeling okay about it.