USA Clinics - 2106

In just 2 weeks I have to leave my beautiful young wife to begin my journey to the USA. I have to say goodbye to my wonderfully comfortable bed that I look forward to greeting each night. I have to explain to our dogs, cat, chickens, ducks, horses and gold fish why daddy has to leave them for a while. I have to say farewell to all that makes my home my home and travel to a foreign land with strange customs and even stranger language (what the hell is a yonder?).


If you live in the USA and feel even a pittance of pity for my sacrifice, you’ll make every effort to come to at least one my clinics over the next several weeks. It’s the least you could do!


You’ll find the contact information for each clinic on my web site where you’ll be able to get your questions answered and reserve a place.


The Importance Of Coping With Pressure

I come across people whose total priority is to have their horse relaxed. It’s an important goal and worthy of spending considerable time trying to achieve it. However, the trouble I see sometimes is that people are so fixated on having a relaxed horse that in order to achieve it they hardly ever ask anything of their horse that might be a challenge.


In my opinion, it is not an achievement to have a calm and quiet horse if it means you don’t ask much from it. The challenge is to put a horse under pressure and still have it working with a relaxed body and a quiet mind. We can all look like amazing trainers on our horse’s best day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But what about when our horse is struggling with emotional turmoil? What sort of horse person do we appear to be then? Do we fail our horses on their bad days?


As the expression goes, actions have consequences. And so it does for training horses. There are consequences for how we approach our training and not push the limits of their comfort zone. Here are three of them.


1. The horse we really have is the horse under pressure. We don’t know what sort of horse we are dealing with and what it is capable of doing unless it is stress tested.


My retirement (and I think the retirement of most trainers) would be completely funded if I had a dollar for every occasion an owner told me, “he’s never done that before.” People would send a horse to me for training and the instant I asked something a little hard of their horse, and a moment of crisis would follow, I’d hear the words, “he’s never done that before.” And they are right, he probably never has. But only because taking him out of his comfort caused all the emotional junk inside to surface. It was always there, but the horse was never asked to do enough for the owner to see it. And if you don’t see it, it can’t be fixed.


The horse we really have is not the one we ride every day in the arena or on the same trail when the weather is good and all is right with the world. The horse we really have is the one we take to its first show or when we ride with our friends and they canter off over the hill or they have to ride across their first bridge.


We need to know who the horse really is that we are sitting on so we can then know how best to help him be a better horse.


2. In my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship I wrote quite a bit about the importance of the pressure we apply to a horse being a comfort.


For many horses, being firm with pressure creates emotional turmoil. That’s because the horse has not learned with absolute certainty what that pressure means. They are not yet at a stage in their understanding that when a rider asks a question with X amount of pressure, they can be 100 percent sure the way out of that pressure is to perform response Y. Without that certainty, there can be no comfort for a horse when a rider applies pressure.


We should always be striving to do the least amount to achieve a good response from a horse. But when we need to make a correction by using more pressure or prolonging the pressure, we should like it that the pressure is a cathartic experience – an “Oh, I get it” moment, rather than “Oh hell, I’m in trouble” experience.


This is a really important concept if we are to establish a great relationship with a horse. We need pressure to be a horse’s friend because it brings clarity to their thoughts. This doesn’t happen very often and it never happens if we don’t use pressure to guide them out of trouble. Horses that are rarely under pressure rarely ever feel okay by pressure. There are few things more abusive to a horse than a lack of clarity, so we need to be vigilant that in our attempt to maintain a happy horse we fail to use enough pressure to bring them clarity.


3. Rather than avoid placing our horses in stressful situations, it is better to help them to learn how to recover from stressful situations.


We can’t protect a horse from everything in life that may upset them. There will always be something in their future that can’t be avoided. The more they see and experience of the world, the easier they will handle what the world has to throw at them. It is better that they learn that when life gets troubling, you’ve never got them killed (yet!) and won’t do it this time either. If you handle it carefully and with intelligence, a horse can learn to trust your judgment and have confidence that when you say he can do something, he can do it.


We all want our horses to be happy and not have undue stress. But it is a mistake to try to eliminate pressure from their life. We need them to learn that when we apply pressure it is not something to get upset about. And when the world applies pressure they have the coping strategies to laugh in its face.


Photo: Here are a few exercises to help your horse cope with pressure.

When A Horse Says NO!

I was reading a training blog a few days ago. The author explained what we all know about using pressure in order for a horse to learn a lesson. He went on to say that we must make what the horse wants unpleasant and we should never remove the unpleasantness until it does what we want. Most people understand that concept, but there is a potential problem with it. What this person was stating as a golden rule should not be a golden rule in my view.


I’ll try to explain with some detail and context of what I mean.


Most training consists of applying a pressure and waiting until the horse finds a way of getting us to remove the pressure. In that way, we teach them to stop when we pull on the reins or go when we apply our legs or turn left when we put a feel on the left rein. The assumption behind this negative reinforcement model is that the pressure we apply is more uncomfortable and more stressful than the reason a horse might have for not complying with our idea. It’s all very simple and easy to understand and forms the basis of behaviour modification across the animal kingdom.


Horses are really easy to train because their nature causes them to give in. Generally, horses are lovers or flee-ers rather than fighters. Think of those diving horses that were around in the 1920s in seaside resorts across America. They were taught to fall from a high platform into a tank of water day after day. It’s hard to imagine what it took to train those horses to suspend their instinct to survive each day. But every horse (including diving horses) has their limits of what they will and won’t do.


I bring this up because in the blog, the trainer discussed the idea of using enough pressure to inspire a horse to search for a response that gives them relief from the pressure. I have talked about this myself in previous posts and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship. But what I haven’t discussed before is what to do when a horse just says NO with such determination that it is not possible to mount that much pressure.


Even if you are an advocate of positive reinforcement and choose to use treats to bribe a horse to search for a response, what do you do when a horse tells you that NO is the only answer it is prepared to consider? Nothing is going to change its mind. The trainer who wrote the blog did not allow for this possibility and neither do most training scripts that are written or demonstrated. People do not allow for the possibility that a horse may say NO as their final word on the matter.


So what can be done?


When we want something from somebody, we first must know the goal we are setting out to achieve. We have to know what it is we are wanting before we can form a plan on how to get it. Then we have to choose a method to achieve our goal. That’s the two-pronged strategy that we all use in everyday life.


If our strategy is not getting us anywhere, there are only two things we can change. Either we change our methodology or we change our goal.


Let’s look at an example in the horse world.


Some horses worry about being asked to go forward when they are first started under saddle. Usually, this problem is not so much about going forward but about the worry created by pressure from the rider’s leg or whip or whatever. In many cases, a rider will apply more and more pressure to convince a horse that standing there is not a good option. This was the message of the blog I read recently – keep applying more pressure until the horse responds to the leg. However, with some horses, this creates so much tension that instead of yielding to the rider’s request, they ball-up and either refuse to move or they eventually move with an explosion. In either case, the lesson of going forward in response to a rider’s leg pressure is not learned. Nothing is learned except that the horse now believes it was right to be worried.


So if we eventually conclude our approach is not working we have to change either our mission teach the horse to go forward in response to our leg or we have to change how we approaching the lesson. Using more and more leg will not work – the horse has told us that.


If we decide that the problem stems from our horse’s worry about carrying us on its back and therefore it refuses to move, we should stop trying to make it move and get it feeling okay to carry our weight. A thought that comes to my mind as I write this is perhaps I would put some hay in the round yard at 3 or 4 locations (just a handful, not much). I could sit in the saddle and do nothing except stroke my horse. I might wait for the horse to decide to wander over to one of the small piles of hay. This might take a minute or it might take 2hr. But I would keep waiting. When it moved I would do nothing, wait until it finished that pile and moved to the next and the next. When the hay was all gone, I’d get off and put the horse away. I may have to repeat this several times until I felt the horse ready to move when I mounted, rather than ready to plant its feet to the ground. Once the horse feels okay about a rider in the saddle, it is now time to teach it to move in response to a rider’s cue.


On the other hand, if I felt the horse was stuck because it was confused and worried about leg pressure, I might try a different strategy to bumping with my legs or whip etc. I might start by having somebody lead the horse around while I sat on it and just rubbed it gently. This could graduate to being lunged while I sat on the horse. [Note: this is also an approach you might consider to help a horse that was worried about carrying weight]. When the horse was feeling okay, I would cluck and rub my legs against the sides and then have the ground handler ask the horse to walk forward a second later. With repetition, the horse would soon work out that a cluck and leg pressure meant to go forward. Once this was clear to the horse, the worry about a feel of the rider’s leg would be gone.


There are lots of examples and scenarios where it is better to be smarter than be firmer (see my stories about training Satts that appeared back in April and May this year for examples). I’m sure the trainer who wrote the blog knows this too, but not enough of us talk about what it is to be a thinking horse person. Every trainer I know says that to be good with horses you need to be thinking, but so few explain what that really means. In my view, it is better to be a smarter horse person than it is to be a braver one.

Mark Langley

This is short clip of a young Aussie trainer, Mark Langley. I think Mark and I are thinking along the same lines about directing a horse's thoughts.


Soft Feel

Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’


When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.


For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).


Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.


So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.


I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.


Lightness is a physical response to pressure.

Softness is an emotional response to pressure

A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.


In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.


So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.


In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?


Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.


I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.


I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke.  None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.


Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.