Why Is Knowledge So Specialized?

Most of my clinics are attended by people with a wide range of experience and interests. As well as many amateur and occasional riders I often meet very experienced horse people at my clinics. Many have been riding most of their life. Some have even competed successfully at a high level in various disciplines. I get a smattering of trainers from various horse sports. A few have been judges in various disciplines such as dressage or jumping, reining, halter breed classes etc. These are people will a lot of experience and many skills in their chosen field.


When I first started doing clinics, things that the experienced folk needed helping with often surprised me. I remember one dressage rider who was competing at Prix St George level wanting help teaching her horse to politely load into a trailer. Another person who educated reining horses for a living needed tips on catching a horse. Then there was the person that was a top-level dressage judge in Australia whose horses would always nip and then walk away when they mounted. Even with the amateur riders who have regular instruction, I am sometimes dismayed at why their instructor has not been able to help with the most simple issues like ear shyness.


These are just a few examples of experiences that mystify me.


It seems that in this era, horsemanship has become a specialized discipline in itself. When I was a kid, the basic skills of being good around horses were part of everything we did. If a horse would throw its head during bridling it was fixed before we worried about going out to the jumping paddock. Yet, I see horses at clinics that have been ridden for years and fuss about bridling with no recognition from the rider that this might be a problem. How has this lack of recognition crept into our work with horses?


I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (thanks Charity for recommending it). Harari describes that Neanderthal humans had bigger brains than us Sapiens. One theory for this suggests that Neanderthals were poor communicators and did not work well collectively with other Neanderthals. This meant that each Neanderthal needed to know how to track and kill an animal and what plants were edible and how to read the stars and weather and how to cook etc. But Sapiens learned to communicate and share knowledge, so we evolved to use a collective knowledge where each person could specialize and share their expertise with the group. This meant that each individual Sapien needed to know less about the world than an individual Neanderthal.


Reading this book began me wondering is this why so many riders understand so little about the basics of horsemanship? Have we become a group of riders where each individual becomes an expert specialist and uses the collective knowledge of other specialists to care for, train and ride horses?


I do appreciate the power of collective knowledge, but there is a problem that stems from such a dependency on others. It means that we get lazy and don’t inform ourselves enough to know which specialist to believe.


For example, my specialty is training people to train horses to follow a direction with their thought to produce a performance and build a foundational relationship. That’s what I do for a living (or try to do). But at the same time, I have learned a working knowledge of saddle fitting, hoof care and trimming, dental care, gear and gear fitting, basic nutrition, good riding, stable and trailer design, arena and yard design, correct movement and gait analysis, soundness, veterinary care etc.


My knowledge in these areas is not specialized, but general and broad. I would not trust myself to diagnose and treat an injured back or to perform a corrective trim on a horse. But I do know enough to know when a horse is sore and when the feet are unbalanced and if a saddle fits well or not and why. I do know enough to assess equipment or why a trailer is unsuitable for a particular horse.


I also know enough to know when I don’t know enough and require input from more expert opinions. But in saying that I feel I am informed enough to know which expert opinion to use and which not to use for most things.


I often find horse people do not have a broad knowledge of the basic information that most people did going back say 100 years or so ago. In the past, there was not the specialization that we see today. The onus of knowing how to treat a horse’s teeth or train a horse to load into a trailer or know what bit to use was on the owner, not specialist consultants that we have available today.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe it is fantastic that we have such expert knowledge available to us. But what concerns me is that we rely on other people to tell us what we should at least have a working knowledge about. Every time somebody asks me to check the fit of their saddle on their horse, there is always a group of people who gather around to watch and ask questions. Something as important but mundane as knowing if your saddle fits should not be in the realm of a specialist. In my opinion, saddle fitting is basic enough that every horse person should have a working knowledge of it. I include in that category things such as knowing when your horse’s hooves are balanced, teaching to lead, tie up and loading on and off a trailer, catching, body condition, basic medical treatment, assessment of conformation and movement, teaching to be quiet for bridling and saddling – the list could go on.


If these are things that you struggle with, please don’t think I am pointing the finger at you and saying “bad owner.” That’s not the purpose of this essay. Instead, I want to inspire you to gain as much knowledge as you can about the things you presently rely on other people to tell you. Take an interest in understanding things like proper hoof trim and how to develop a quiet mind in a horse and what makes a good trailer or a bad one. Information is so accessible nowadays that there is no obstacle to obtaining it if you have the will. The more we rely on other people for answers the more we are susceptible to being lead down the wrong path at the expense of our wallets and our horse’s well-being.


Photo: Neandethals (left) dominated the earth because of the individual knowledge, until Sapiens (us) came along with our collective knowledge and out-competed them into extinction.

The Difference Between A Hindquarter Yield And A Turn On The Forehand

I was asked recently about the difference between a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield (disengagement). They are different, but some people are confused by the difference. I’m going to explain the difference from my perspective, but that doesn’t mean there are not other perspectives. I teach these movements to a horse for very different reasons, but apply them each as stepping-stones towards more difficult and complex maneuvers in building correctness and softness.


Firstly, the hindquarter yield is an exercise I use to connect the inside rein to the mind of the horse, whilst the turn on the forehand is intended to connect the rider’s inside leg to the mind of the horse.  Those are the two big reasons for teaching these exercises and if they weren’t such important reasons I would not care so much if people ever worked on hindquarter yields or turns on the forehand. There are other reasons, but none so important that I want to spend time discussing them. So I will focus on these exercises from the viewpoint that I am primarily trying to teach my horse to connect with the inside rein and the inside leg.


The next thing to consider is what is a turn on the forehand and a hindquarter yield? On the surface, they can appear similar, because they both require the hindquarters to step around the forehand. In each case, the front feet of the horse are almost pivoting and the hind feet are crossing over. It’s as if the front feet are making tiny steps around the centre of a circle and the hind feet are stepping on the circumference of the same circle. But this is where the similarity ends.


Let’s look at each exercise individually.


Hindquarter Yield (disengagement):


When a hindquarter yield is executed correctly, the horse has an inside flexion in response to the feel of the inside rein and the hindquarters step to the outside.


The way I teach this exercise is quite different to the way most people do because I do not allow the rider’s inside leg to drive the hindquarters. When I apply a feel to the inside rein, the horse’s thought is directed to the inside. This alone should be enough reason for the horse’s hip to move to the outside. A horse should try to line up its body with its thought, so when a horse is thinking to the left, the hindquarters should move to the right so that the body is facing in the direction of the horse’s strongest thought – ready to go forward in that direction, if asked. No inside leg should be necessary.


If a horse flexes its neck to the inside, but it’s feet remain fixed in place I would apply some feel in my seat and BOTH legs to encourage the horse to move. But where and how the horse should move is determined by the inside rein getting to the horse’s mind to think to the inside. The rider’s seat and legs should just create movement, not influence the direction of that movement.


You may ask, “why not use inside leg to direct the hindquarters?”


It’s because the purpose of this exercise is to teach a horse that the inside rein can and should be able to influence the action of the hindquarters by directing a horse’s thought. It is one of the most basic functions of the reins to direct a horse’s mind to influence the hind feet and front feet both independently from each other and in unison. Without that ability, a horse can never learn to be accurate and soft in response to the reins.


This is perhaps the most important reason why I do not recommend lateral flexion as an exercise for young horses. Lateral flexion is where a horse is taught to flex their neck in response to the inside rein, but not move their feet. For a young horse that is still learning how to follow the feel of the reins, nothing is more important than to ensure the inside rein changes a horse’s thought in a way that goes all the way to the feet. Lateral flexion can be so damaging to building correctness and softness into the meaning of the inside rein. When applying the inside rein to ask a horse to think to the inside, always make sure that the thought is strong enough to go all the way to the feet without requiring the inside leg to drive the hindquarters away.


Turn On The Forehand


Once a horse understands to yield its hindquarters in response to the inside rein, there comes a time when we want to teach it to yield to the inside leg. This is why I teach turn on the forehand to a young horse.


When executing a turn of the forehand, there should be no inside flexion. Instead, the alignment of the spine should be straight and the hindquarters step around a pivoting forehand. The object of the reins is simply to block what we don’t want (movement of the forehand) and allow the inside leg to direct the mind to move hindquarters.


I recommend that people sit neutral in the saddle and gently apply inside leg against the horse (often just behind the girth, but it will depend on the horse) with enough feel to motivate the horse to want to move. When it goes to move, the reins block the forehand from moving. Initially, the horse will fidget and maybe even dance a little as it tries to go forward or move the forehand to the side, but eventually, the hind feet will take a small step to the side – which the rider will release for. In time, the horse associates the feel of the inside leg with an idea to yield its hindquarters away from the feel. Soon this turns into the hind end stepping around the forehand in response to the inside leg (with no flexion).


I meet a lot of people at clinics who apply inside leg to influence a horse’s hindquarters in everything they do. It’s an epidemic in the horse world that inside leg is applied whenever a horse is asked to do a turn or circle. Yet the vast majority of horses I see don’t know how to yield to a rider’s inside leg. When a rider lays their inside leg against their horse it only means, “go forward” – not yield the hindquarters. This is because no time has been devoted to teaching this to a horse. Most riders seem to think a horse just knows this information from birth or has absorbed it through reading a rider’s mind. This is just plain wrong. If you believe your horse yields to the inside leg, ask your horse to standstill then drop the reins on the neck and apply ONLY your inside leg and see what happens.


Using these two exercises (hindquarter yields and turn on the forehand), we can teach a horse to yield just to the inside rein or just to the inside leg or to yield when both are used simultaneously. The power of these two skills opens up a world of correctness in both straight and lateral movement that otherwise can require years of struggle.


I have not talked about forehand yields and turn on the haunches, which are intended to give meaning to the inside rein and inside leg but via directing the mind of the horse to yield the forehand. However, with a little thought and experimentation, I believe most people can figure out how to take the information I just gave and apply it to the forehand exercises.


Photo: a diagram of a turn on the forehand.


I friend wrote to me a few weeks ago and expressed her feelings of being alone and isolated in a world where she feels surrounded and pressured by horse people who approach their training very differently. She is trying to get her head around the concept of directing a horse’s thoughts and grappling with how to make that work for her. And even though she has a growing client base and her clients are loyal and impressed with her work, she feels the disapproval of other people in her area.


I know this feeling well. For a lot of years, I was training horses for people and would regularly hear on the grapevine that my approach was considered eccentric or even bizarre. Every other trainer in the district was working at making a horse do something and not worry too much about a horse’s mind. They figured if it was a good horse, the mind would step into line and if it wasn’t a good horse, well who cared if it’s mind was fried because it wasn’t worth spending time on it anyway.


I was struggling to cover my rent and pay bills, yet all these other trainers had thriving businesses. They were in high demand with a 6month waiting list while I prayed each night for the phone to ring. I was constantly hearing how this trainer and that trainer was brilliant and had saved their horse from a trip to the fertilizer farm. Or how Mr. Amazing Trainer had fixed a dozen horses that everyone else had given up on.


But I saw the results from some of these other trainers. I saw the troubled animals that were only a shadow of the horse they could be. I knew in my heart that I was on the right track, but I still felt terribly alone.


I am forever grateful to the clients I had. They stuck by me month after month and year after year (many are still sticking by me through my clinics). I was a struggling ex-academic and medical researcher who was trying something different to all the other trainers they could have chosen. I love them for that. You guys know who you are.


But what my clients didn’t know (well, I hope they didn’t know) was how much I doubted myself. When everyone around you is having to turn away business and the rumour mill has tales of their amazing skills, and you hear that you are looked down upon by those same people, it is easy to question if you are on the right track. Was I the crazy one?


When you are the only one around you that is trying to do what you are trying to do, you need support. Without support, it is too easy to doubt yourself. By support I mean somebody you respect whom you can bounce ideas off, somebody who can watch you work and throw ideas your way, somebody whom you can learn from, somebody who thinks the same way about training but understands more than you.


In Australia, I had no such support for a very long time. But I got lucky. I met Harry Whitney (thanks to Gail Ivey) and he became my de facto support team through those early years of starting my own training business. It was initially problematic because we lived on different continents, but Harry was so generous and supportive that he invited me each year to spend several weeks with him in Arizona. I did this for about 10 years or more and it was my salvation whenever I doubted myself. If I was the crazy one, then Harry was the craziest of us all. Since then, Harry has offered the same support for a number of people who have gone on to become good horse people in their own right.


My friend needs support too. I hope to give what support I can because I don’t want her to start thinking she is the crazy one.


The point of this post is to express the idea that we all need support. It’s very difficult to become the best horse person you can be without help. By help, I don’t just mean instruction. Instruction is useful and can be important. We all need to learn the skills that go into being a better rider and handler. But to be a better horse person requires the kind of support that forces us to question, analyze and experiment. Being a mimic of our teacher will only make us a poor copy. But having somebody to guide and challenge us gives us the chance to find how to be the better us. I wouldn’t be the horse person I am today without Harry and half a handful of others guiding and challenge me along the way.


I hope I can do likewise for others who need support and are at risk of drowning in an ocean of self-doubt. I think mentoring should be an important part of the job of the older and experienced trainers. We owe to the next generation of trainers and horses.


In my book, Old Men and Horses, I tell the tale of Walt and Amos as young men watching an experienced horse-breaker at work in the outback and pestering with him questions. Walt suddenly realizes how annoying it must be for the breaker to have to answer all his questions and apologizes for bothering the man. The breaker tells Walt that it is never a bother because someday a couple of young blokes will be leaning over the fence of Walt’s round yard asking him a lot of questions and Walt will patiently answer them. He tells Walt that can only be a good thing for the horses.


Photo: Harry: “Ross do you see what I see?”

           Ross: “Naw Harry. I can’t see a bloody thing through these glasses.”

I Want First Prize

Many people place a lot of emphasis on getting horses use to scary things. A lot of time is devoted to exposing horses to a tarpaulin or umbrella or plastic bags or water or a bicycle etc. I think people who do this feel it is an important technique on the road to making a horse spook-proof.


The one big flaw in that plan is that there isn’t enough time in a horse’s life to make them spook-proof to everything that might spook them. I’m reminded of the adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But in this case, “teach a horse not to spook at an object and he won’t spook at that object on that day in that place, but develop a good relationship with a horse and he will always try not to spook.”


Getting a horse use to a challenge is never the better option because there are always limits to its effectiveness. Most desensitization involves using flooding pressure to shut down a horse by teaching the futility of resistance. It’s not a reliable or desirable pathway to having a good relationship with a horse. It’s often just another obedience trick that costs the horse something of themselves.


I am telling you these thoughts because they are an example of something more important I want to touch on.


In the preface of my book, The Essence of Good Horsemanship, I relate an event that happened while I was driving through Melbourne on my way to a clinic. On the radio, a fellow known as Father Bob was being interviewed about a charity fundraising competition he was organizing. Most of you won’t know who Father Bob is, but he is a legend in Australia as a most decent and caring man who has devoted his life to working for the homeless and troubled youth. Although he is a Catholic priest, he is constantly in trouble with the church for his irreverent attitude to the hierarchy.


In any case, in the radio interview, Father Bob was describing the prizes to be won in the competition. Third prize was a large flat screen television, second prize was a weekend for two at a luxury hotel and first prize was serving for 2 days in a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. When the interviewer expressed their dismay at first prize, Father Bob set him straight. He said second and third prizes were just stuff, but first prize was happiness.


This was a light bulb moment for me. Father Bob’s succinctly expressed in one sentence my ambition for my horsemanship. Having a horse do stuff is just having a horse do stuff, but having a horse want to try to do stuff is happiness.


Desensitizing a horse to not spook is just stuff. Winning a blue ribbon is just stuff. Loading onto a trailer is just stuff. Being able to train a horse at liberty is just stuff. All these things can be achieved without caring a damn about our horse’s opinion of us or the things we ask it to do. I don’t see the satisfaction or thrill in that.


The reason why my relationship with my wife, Michele is the best and happiest relationship I have in my life is because we both care about how the other feels as much as we care about ourselves. I want that with my horses too.


I care about all our animals, including our horses. Their emotional and physical well-being is top of the list of things that are important to me in our relationship. That’s easy. I care about them and that’s not hard to do.


But it’s not enough that I just care about my horses. For my happiness to be complete I want them to care about me. I don’t believe horses can care about people in the way that people care about horses, but they can care in the way horses can care.


By that I mean a horse can be comfortable in my company. It can feel okay when I present a task to it. It can look to me for help when it feels troubled or confused. It can gain confidence by my presence. It can feel free to express its opinion (good or bad) and say ‘no’. It can offer the best try it has to give. I want all that. That would be happiness to me. The rest of the stuff like snappy flying changes or coming when called is nice, but it’s just stuff and not enough for me. I’m greedier than that. I want a good mutual relationship. I want first prize. I want happiness.

Photo: Hanging out with our 11 hand Welsh pony, May.

A Conversation With Greg Glendell - Part 3

This is the final installment of the latest correspondence between Greg and myself. I hope it won’t be the last.


I want to thank Greg for his very generous and thoughtful input and for allowing me to share this exchange with you. I hope Greg will continue to contribute his views and challenge me in the future. It is much appreciated. I further hope it will inspire some of you to participate in discussion and debate. It is important to me that you guys challenge me so I can avoid becoming complacent in my thinking about horses and horsemanship.


Thanks Greg.



Hi Ross,


You clearly have a deep empathy for horses; I wish there were more folks like you over here. 


Ok, re ‘giving interpretation’ as you mention below.  The thing I value about the use of LT is that you don’t have to guess, re the results of a stimulus and the response from the horse; yes, we might ponder what the horse is thinking, but if, say, we ask a horse to ‘walk on’ and it does so, then no interpretation is needed.  And if we can teach this with little or no stress to the animal, then so much the better.  We do know that the use of positive punishment (the BHS again!) and escalating –R induces stress (even distress to the point of flooding in round-pen and lunging work). 


Since, at this stage we cannot know (but only surmise) what a horse is thinking as a result of its interactions with us, an interpretation from that assessment could be misleading.  I’ve worked with birds for years, and although like horses they clearly lead highly emotional lives, I have to admit I don’t *know* what they think; I can only guess.  But again, we can now interpret the horse’s body language and facial expressions reasonably accurately, so we can tell if the animal is happy to continue with something, or prefers it to cease.  If the latter, then we stop for a while. 


And LT has been around for a very long time, growing out of Skinner’s (not always pleasant) methods! in the 1940s.   So I view LT as a progression from guessing to knowledge, in the same way that science replaced alchemy in the 17th C.   If science had not replaced alchemy, there would be no computers, and not much effective veterinary medicine!  I guess there are still aspects of alchemy which are of value, but a scientific approach makes predictions, including predictions of an animal’s behaviour, much easier.  It allows us to assess the pace at which we go with any training (of bird or horse).   And this is determined mainly be the animal itself, not by any fixed deadline.  I am  sure you do much the same thing; some horses will do things in a few days; while others take weeks to get to the same point. 


My own horse, Harry, was trained using mainly +r for groundwork and backing, and a mix of +R and –R for ridden work.  He is taught to change gait and direction using verbal requests, only using reins/feet/seat, if no response from voice.  He is about 75% reliable on voice requests.  I’ve attached an article which was published in the UK’s Equine Behaviour Journal, which explains how Harry was trained.  The following year, I went on my first camping trip with him around Devon and Somerset for a few weeks. 


All the best!


Greg Glendell



Thanks Greg for your explanation, but here is where we differ regarding learning theory.


LT teaches obedience - that’s all it does. It is purely a cue/response system of training and this is its biggest failing. A horse makes up its mind to do something long before it does it. Let’s look at your example of asking a horse to walk on.


LT tells us that the effectiveness of our training is measured by when we apply a cue or pressure, does the horse walk on or not? If the horse walks without conflict, the training is going well, if not the training needs more work. That’s fine if all a person wants is obedience. But obedience only gives you the movement, the quality of the movement comes from a horse’s emotions/thoughts.


Before I ask a horse to walk on I want their focus. Once I have their attention I then want to direct that attention towards where I want them to walk. It is only when I first direct their thought to be somewhere that I am okay about letting their feet move. This is because the horse’s thoughts control their feet, not the trainer. The human’s only job is to talk to the horse’s brain and the brain commands the horse’s body. 


If I can’t first direct a horse to think through a gate, making him walk through a gate will entail some trouble, some resistance or some bad feelings. LT does not take this into account and therefore misses all the vitally important internal stuff that gives the walk a decent quality. Using the LT approach a horse can still be trained to walk on and feel crappy. But by directing the thought first, you are addressing the feelings that determine the emotions and quality of the walk. When the horse’s thought goes first, the feet will follow without trouble or resistance. But when the horse’s thoughts and feet are in 2 different places, there will always be some degree of trouble and lack of togetherness.


Consider your own circumstances. Everything you do begins with a thought. Every action starts with a change of thought. You don’t just wake up in the morning and find yourself showered and dressed. Showering and dressing only occurs following thousands of little thoughts that tell your body to walk to the shower, how to apply soap, how to dry your hair, which shoes to wear and how to tie your shoe laces. Each action first involves a change of thought from one action to the next action before your body actually takes action. LT does not take this into account. It views each response a horse makes as a simple on/off switch.


This is hard to explain in writing and much easier when people come to a clinic to see it in action. But my point is that training involves teaching a horse a cascade of events that happen before the actual movement. However, LT only addresses the end stage of the task (i.e. obedience of the movement) and misses addressing all the stuff that happens first that determines the quality of the movement. LT trains horses to be machine like, not horse like. I have dealt with enough horses that have gone through the process of LT to know this is true. Even the most venerated LT advocates miss the point in their training.


Furthermore, most of the studies that LT is based on in the horse world are crap. The science is crap. Most of the studies are designed to prove a theory, not test it. I could site several studies that fit this category (eg remember the McGreevey study of the horse in a round yard being chased by a remote control car - one of the worst examples of behavioural science studies you’ll find anywhere, but hailed by many as brilliant and definitive). I think the problem is that most people doing the work come from psychology or ethology or veterinary labs and are not trained in the hard sciences to learn scientific method. Their studies are poor and most would not get published if peer reviewed by people who truly understood scientific method (edit: I know this is a generalization, but it is generally true).


It is my hope that one day the science will be good enough and offer real benefits to horses and horse people. But at the moment the science is decades behind what good horse people already know.


Lastly, just a comment about using voice commands in your training. They are fine if you just want to keep life simple with yes/no type responses. But horses are not good at understanding voice commands. They only have 9 sounds in their own vocabulary, so don’t understand any complex sounds. This means that you can say “trot” to get a horse to trot, but the trot it gives you is the trot you get. A horse can’t give you a different response when you say “collected trot” or “extended trot” or “5km/hr jog” etc. If you want any variation on the trot from what the horse gives you, you need to apply reins, leg and seat. So from my perspective I don’t see any advantage to using voice commands when I know that I will have to intervene with feel to get what I really want. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with using voice command, it’s just they are extremely limiting and not very useful. As long as a person does not expect or ask for much from a horse when they use voice commands, there is nothing wrong with them.




Photo: Greg and Harry