A Horse's Perspective

For many years I would spend several weeks a year in Arizona visiting and working with my friend, Harry Whitney. One time Harry and I went to the general store to get some groceries in the small country town where he lived.  As I was browsing the aisles I noticed a big burly rough looking bloke at the other end of the store. But what caught my eye more than his general appearance was that he had a gun holstered to the side of his hip. My eyes instantly widened and my blood pumped faster. Everything inside me went on alert mode. In my head, I heard sirens blaring and saw strobbed warning lights everywhere.


I sidled up to Harry as casually and inconspicuously as I could and said in a quiet voice something like, “Harry I think we should get out of here. There’s a guy over there with a gun.”


Harry looked at the man and calmly replied, “It’s okay. He’s allowed to carry a gun into the store. Don’t worry.” I couldn’t have been more shocked by Harry’s nonchalant attitude than if he had told me he was taking me to a Satanic prayer meeting. I never took my eyes off the man while I waited for Harry to finish his shopping. It was a huge relief when we finally drove out of the parking lot leaving the man and his gun behind us.


I was convinced we had just had a lucky escape from a life and death situation and I was troubled why Harry didn’t see it that way. If the same scenario had occurred at home, I know there was a high probability it was not going to end well. The event made such an impact on me that I still think about it 15 or more years later, yet I suspect if Harry were asked about it he wouldn’t be able to recall it because it probably made very little impression with him.


So what is the point of this tale?


I have recounted a couple of times in previous posts that one of the most important lessons I learned when I was a PhD student came from my supervisor who said, “Assume everything you are told is wrong until you are satisfied it is not.” This is a lesson I had to learn and it has been both life changing and invaluable. But while it took more than two decades for me to learn this lesson, horses are born with this insight.


From day one a horse knows that their best chance of staying alive is to assume everything they don’t understand is dangerous until they are convinced it is not. Their reaction to new things or things that are not on their “okay” list is to assume it is dangerous.


This was my response to the man in the store with the gun. I didn’t understand that an ordinary man in the street with a gun did not necessarily pose a threat, so my reaction was to invoke the flight response. I was confused why would a person carry a gun into a shop if it were not to do harm?


Now consider a horse that feels the tightening of a lead rope for the first time. The pressure the horse feels from the halter when a person pulls on the lead rope must have a horse asking the same question I did about the man with the gun. A horse must wonder why would anyone apply pressure on its head if it were not to do harm? So why wouldn’t a horse try to pull away? Why wouldn’t it try to resist? Doing nothing or yielding to the pull might get it killed. Of course, it has to resist or defend itself in some way.


A horse is made to see the world in terms of life and death. Their sense of survival is always close to the surface and strongly linked to every decision they make. When you begin to appreciate this truth about horses you begin to respect that the bad choices they make are never personal and never intended to make our life harder. That’s why there is no place for punishment in good horsemanship. A horse’s mistakes and their bad choices are not about us, but about the lack of clarity and the poor job we have done in satisfying their need to feel safe and comfortable.


Photo: Both Jana and her horse Arnie exhibited resistance to the leg yield because from their perspective it threatened their safety. But I am trying to convince them it is not with a very stylish demonstration.

Happy Holidays

Thank you to everybody who has supported my work either through attending clinics, following my FB page, blog and videos, buying my books, writing to me messages of support, questions about your horses and updates of how your horses are progressing.

Next year is set to be the busiest year yet with even more clinics in Australia and North America, publication of The Essence Of Good Horsemanship in ebook format and beginning work on a new book.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and holiday time and make sure you enjoy and appreciate your loved ones - both human and animal.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy one of my favourite holiday video clips.


Liberty Training

Today I want to talk briefly about liberty training.
People love the idea of being able to work their horse without gear either when being ridden or on the ground. I am not clear what the fascination is with liberty work, but I suspect there is an element of giving people a power trip knowing that their horse could actually run away or at the very least ignore them without the assistance of equipment to impose a response. I think people like the idea that the liberty horse demonstrates a high degree of obedience.
However, it is a mistake to assume that because a horse exhibits sufficient obedience to be performed accurately at liberty that therefore this is a strong and healthy relationship between horse and trainer. It could be the case that there is a good bond between the two, but people often believe that because a horse will work at liberty it automatically indicates a great partnership. There is a difference between obedience and willingness and people naturally assume a horse is offering willingness when they see a performance at liberty.
Like all problems in training, the mistakes we make start in the early training. Liberty work does not start out with a horse at liberty. It always begins with a restriction of liberty. The restriction could be a fenced arena (like a round yard) or a halter and rope or a bridle and saddle or a lariat or a pair of whips in each hand. But whatever it is that we use its purpose is to narrow a horse’s choices. For example, when we begin to teach liberty work on the ground it is customary to work either on line or use a small yard in order that the horse cannot get far enough away from us to escape or avoid any pressure we apply. By doing this we restrict the horse’s choices. 
I’m not criticizing this approach, but people need to be reminded that the work they see at a horse expo of horses performing amazing feats at liberty did not start out that way. There was a long process of using very orthodox training to get to the liberty stage.
Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with using equipment in the beginning of liberty training to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy. But just as people who never intend to train at liberty make mistakes teaching these early lessons, so do people who have a goal to train horses at liberty also screw up and mistake obedience for willingness.
I will take it one step further and suggest that a lot of liberty training that I have observed is even more focused on obedience training simply because it is the nature of having a horse work at liberty that if there are holes in the obedience, the absence of gear makes correction much more difficult. So many liberty trainers take a sterner approach to limiting a horse’s choice in the training process because when they get to the stage of working their horse at liberty they have fewer options to correct mistakes. This is when obedience supersedes willingness.
Willingness can only be obtained from a horse when it has searched through the largest possible number of options and finally picks the option we had hoped it would choose. When we restrict the number of available options, we move along the scale away from willingness and towards slavish obedience. The more we limit the options the closer the horse draws to slavishness. It’s hard enough to get a good outcome when we have the equipment to help us give a horse clarity but still search through a wide range of choices. But when we include the added requirement of working with no gear, while still demanding the desired result, it’s difficult to keep the potential to have a willing horse open. It’s not impossible, but the task is made so much harder. 
Followers of my work will already know that I believe it is the horse’s mind that determines the quality of the work and the type of relationship we have with our horse. If, in the process of training for liberty work, we impose enough limitations on a horse’s ability to choose a range of options (even ones we don’t like) a horse can feel just as imprisoned by the training as if we had used the harshest and most severe halters, ropes, bits, spurs, hobbles or whatever. Working at liberty is not a test of a horse’s willingness or the quality of our relationship. So when watching a horse work at liberty try to observe the horse’s body language as well as the correctness of the movement. These are much more telling than the pizzazz of the cool tricks without gear.
The final point I want to make is that in my view there is no merit in a horse working at liberty if the movement is incorrect. I feel it is an indication of poor training and there is no benefit to the horse. I would prefer to see a horse offering a nice relaxed and balanced walk or trot on a lunge line than a crooked horse circling at liberty in a large open space. I see no point in working a horse at liberty if the outcome is poor quality movement and poor quality emotions. However, if done well liberty training is a lot of fun and can interest to the work that makes the process more enjoyable for horse and rider.

Breaking a Pattern of Ill Feeling

When a horse feels poorly it is always accompanied by a degree of resistance. This resistance can appear as a multitude of different symptoms that range from almost imperceptible (eg a slight leaning on the reins or minor crookedness) to quite severe (eg bolting or uncatchable). Sometimes the resistance has many faces and is not represented by a single symptom.


It is common that the emotions that are the source of the trouble are so established that it is as if the request from the rider and the ill feelings and the poor response (resistance) are super glued together. Every time a horse is asked for a response the emotional trouble and accompanying resistance are triggered simultaneously. They are inseparable. This is often because a pattern of ill feelings and resistance are tightly linked to a rider’s request.


It’s quite a common occurrence that simply adjusting the pressure or changing the timing to add more clarity to the rider’s cues cannot break this pattern. It’s like when asked by a person at the supermarket checkout “how are you?” a person always gives the same response even without thinking about it. It’s a tried and true pattern that isn’t broken by simply changing the speed of the question or the volume or pitch the question is asked. In order to break the pattern it might require asking the question in a different way such as “If I were to ask you are you suffering any health issues today, what would your response be?” This change in the way we were asked might break our traditional response or at least give us pause to think about the question for a moment.


Let me give you an example. A while back I posted a series of stories about my horse Satts. He had developed the pattern of feeling defensive in an aggressive way when I applied leg pressure. He would feel my leg being applied to his sides and instantly swing around to grab my leg. It was almost like a reflex. The behaviour came from ill feelings caused by lack of understanding about how to yield to a rider’s leg pressure. Just applying more leg pressure or alternating my left leg and right leg pressure or using a tap from a whip to support the notion of moving forward to my leg pressure was not enough to eradicate those bad feelings. The aggression and the attempt to bite my leg persisted.


I knew I had to break the pattern and I chose to break it by doing something totally different that Satts would not expect and would not automatically trigger his aggression. So I rode with a dog toy that would squeak when squeezed. It instantly broke the pattern of aggression because Satts did not know how to respond – he did not have a pattern of response to squeaky dog toys. He quickly figured out that when he heard the sound, relief was found in moving forward with energy. At first, it was fear driven, but then it became a response from understanding. Once this was established, introducing my leg to accompany the squeaking was a minor issue. In a short time, I could dispense with using the dog toy and Satts was very comfortable going forward from leg and seat pressure alone.


In a second scenario with a horse that was stuck about going forward from my leg pressure, I used a very different approach to break his pattern. He was a very stuck gelding that would plant his feet harder the more leg pressure I applied. Whenever I wanted a bigger walk or a trot or a canter, the horse would wring his tail violently, fling his head and make only a token attempt to put out more energy.


This went on for a couple of weeks or so and I wasn’t making a lot of headway. Finally, I was riding in a large arena with a friend. I ask the friend to ride around the outside of the arena at a trot and as she came up behind me I wanted her to ask her horse to canter. At the same time, I would ask my horse to canter (something I never been able to achieve up to then). So my friend trotted ahead and went around the perimeter of the arena, while I kept encouraging my horse with more forward. I heard her approaching from behind and when she was within about 4 or 5 strides behind me she asked her horse to canter alongside my horse. At the same time, I asked my horse to canter.


As my friend’s horse started to go past us, my horse took off like a NASA rocket. We went past my friend and her horse like they were a blur. There was no holding my horse back – he was gone and bolting as fast as he could. Everybody else in the arena scattered and we were heading for the fence out of control. My horse was either going to slide to a stop or try to jump and I prepared for either event. But in 2 strides before the fence, my horse skidded to a stop and hit the wall with a bang against his chest. From that time on he showed amazing improvement and I was able to ride him with a lot more forward and far less ill feeling. The pattern was broken. I’m not suggesting you try to make your horse bolt to break a pattern, but there is a lesson to learn here.


When we allow a pattern to become ingrained, sometimes we need to think outside of the box of our own patterns. The link between a trigger (pressure), a response (horse’s behaviour) and poor emotions needs to be broken if we are to help horses that carry deep ill feelings change for the better.


We are the smarter species and it seems a shame that we sometimes fail to use our smartness and default to our own pattern with no change in our clarity.


Photo: I don’t know what is going on in this photo, but there is something about the thinking of a fellow who works a horse in his pyjamas and dressing gown.


Busy Mind, Busy Feet

We have all ridden horses that get nervous and fidgety. Even our super quiet, bombproof reliable Neddy can have moments of mental meltdown. Their minds get busy and their feet get even busier. When this happens it can feel very unsettling to be sitting in the saddle and we may even be thinking that crocodile wrestling might be a better choice of hobbies.


The strategies that people turn to in order to quiet a horse’s jittery insides vary from person to person, but perhaps the most common approach is to keep moving the feet. We are taught to circle the horse or keep changing directions or go up and down the transitions or moving them over and around obstacles and any number of tactics. I think the idea behind this plan is to keep the horse so busy that their mind forgets about the thing that is causing the anxiety. It’s a way of distracting the horse from its worries.


In theory, the concept is fine and should work. But often times the practice is less than good enough and can occasionally make things worse and the horse more anxious. This is because people confuse moving a horse’s feet with getting a change of thought.


I have talked about this in various scenarios in the past but I continue to see a lack of clarity in people’s minds about the difference between directing the horse’s feet and directing its mind. They are not synonymous. They can appear to be the same thing, but they are not. This is because a horse is always TRYING to do what it is thinking, but it is not always doing what it is thinking.  It follows that if we can influence a horse’s mind to think about doing something, it will be easy for the horse to do it. But it is not true that just because we can get a horse to do something that it is thinking about doing it. This is a really important principle for understanding if we are going to help the jittery horse.


What happens many times when a rider resorts to moving the horse around in order to regain the animal’s composure, is that just moving the feet does not always translate into changing the horse’s thoughts and focus and thereby calming the inside nerves of the horse. Without inspiring a horse to alter its focus and what it is thinking, we are just hassling a horse. We get in the way of the horse trying to do what it wants, and in many cases, this can exacerbate the anxiety. It results in the opposite of what we are trying to do. Furthermore, the horse learns nothing from the experience, except that people are more of a nuisance in their life rather than a help.


I know this is in contradiction to the many times you have heard “it’s all about the feet”, but it’s never about the feet because the movement of a horse’s feet is under the influence of the horse’s mind, not the other way around.


So when a horse is jittery inside or feels the need to move, it becomes important when in our attempt to direct the feet we are aiming to release the pressure ONLY when our horse has a change in focus from the cause of the worry (separation anxiety or grizzly bear or band of Morris dancers drunk on Guinness) to the feel we present on top of their back. Too many times a rider releases when a horse’s feet follow the feel we present irrespective if the horse’s mind has made any change. Without a change of thought/focus, a horse has made no change and learned nothing.


If you struggle to recognize when a horse has a change of thought/focus it may help to know that the change occurs concurrently with a change a horse’s emotions. This may appear in varied ways, but look for a diminished resistance to either the reins or the rider’s leg. Be aware that the horse can turn its focus away from the point of interest it has zeroed into. Notice that the body softens. The horse may move more quietly and softer without the same degree of urgency. You’ll often see horses feet hit the ground a little lighter as their muscles soften. As the horse’s emotions relax so does the ability of his mind to listen improve. Bit by bit the rider’s influence over the horse’s mind increases from 10 percent to say 80 or more percent and then you are ready to work as a team again.


The problem with a rider just focusing on moving a horse around without serious consideration to getting a change in his thoughts is that you are always chasing a reaction. The horse takes a quick movement forward, so the rider grabs the reins to back him up. Then the horse shies to the left, so the rider pulls him to the right. The rider is always behind what the horse is thinking.


But even if a rider gets proactive and tries to keep the horse busy with movement before the horse reacts, without feeling the horse change its thoughts/focus it runs the risk that the busyness becomes harassment instead of help. Things can get worse rather than better.


It’s easy for us to go into survival mode without thinking when our horse also goes into survival mode without thinking. It’s normal to either want the horse to do nothing or to move the feet, move the feet, keep moving the feet. But we have to tap into our brain so we can tap into our horse’s brain if we are to ensure a good outcome. Brain over brawn.


Video: This is one approach to help calm a nervous, fidgety horse. I bet it works too.