Principles Are Only Words Without Understanding

One of the biggest problems that people battle in their quest for a better working relationship with their horse is their own preconceptions. Preconceptions have implications for not only how we do things, but also how we feel about doing things. It has both mechanical and emotional components.


To clarify what I mean, consider the following. When we are told or read or shown how to do something with a horse, the way we interpret the instruction is influenced by both our experience and emotional bias. For example, the statement “do as little as possible and as much as necessary,” is absolutely true and wise. But it is also so vague that for people with insufficient experience it is unhelpful and unclear, and for people with enough experience, it is obvious.


For most people who learn this concept, their understanding of how little is little and how much is necessary are open to their individual interpretation and preconceptions of what is a little and what is necessary.


Recently, the aphorism of “set it up and wait” came into a discussion. The student had picked up this piece of sage advice from different trainers and figured it made sense. But what was missing was the clarity of what it meant to “set it up” and how long is the “wait.”  And of course, “wait” for what? Do you wait for the result you want or the horse’s thought to change or the horse to stop doing what it has been doing even if the new response is not what you want? There is a distinct lack of explanation of what the “set up” and the “wait” stands for when people spout this type of wisdom.


The student was left to guess what these things meant and how to apply them to help her particular horse. As it turned out, the student was not having much success with the concept of “set it up and wait” because her prior experience and particular emotional bias meant she tried to present as little pressure as she thought would make a difference so that she did not unduly worry her horse. But in the process, there was not enough incentive for her horse to change it’s thinking. In this case, waiting was going to be forever since the lack of incentive for the horse to change it’s thought translated into a lack of clarity of what was being asked of it. The outcome was the horse became dull.


There is nothing wrong with the advice to “set it up and wait”. There is nothing wrong with the advice to “do as little as you can and as much as necessary.” There is nothing wrong with the advice “accept the smallest try” or “the only change worth having is a change of thought”. I’m sure you can list a heap of these wise sayings you’ve heard from the mouths of horse people over the years. They almost all have merit and worth considering. The trouble is that if you don’t really understand them then you are left to interpret them in the void of your own lack of experience or emotional bias. The way a person applies these principles is subjective and prejudiced. This inevitably leads to some bad decisions and sometimes bad outcomes, despite applying good concepts with good intentions.


Like many things in life, the value of something is not in what you do but how you do it. This is certainly true when working with horses. Two people can apply an identical principle in an almost identical way with very different results purely because of differences in the tiny detail and subtle understanding.


The fault lies in the fact that we let our individual biases make the decision of when and how to apply a principle for us. We make the decision making about us. Our priorities are to work within our own comfort limits and beliefs about the nature of horse training whether or not that is what our horse really needs. It’s like raising a child with a certain philosophy of child rearing because it feels good to us despite leaving the kid floundering in life. In order to avoid the pitfall of allowing our own prejudices to rule our training paradigm, we need to make it more about the horse and less about us.


I’ve had several experiences where I have helped a horse make a really good change, yet the owner rejected everything I said and did because it clashed with their own beliefs and emotional prejudices. They were not able to make it about them and see the benefits to the horse.


It’s hard to put aside personal bias. People whose nature causes them to want to only work with kind and gentle ways will always lean towards not doing enough to bring clarity to a horse. And those who lean more towards seeing a horse as a utility (like a car) and have a strong agenda will often push a horse too far towards slavish obedience. Yet, both can do this by applying identical principles.  This is because their view of how little is little enough or how long a wait is necessary or how much of a try they will accept is very different and shaped by their own biases and experiences.


I think teachers like myself have a serious responsibility to do much more than spout wise words and then let the student figure it out. I believe we fail in our duty to both the student and the horse to drop them into a world of clichés and leave them to stumble upon some practical meaning from it that leads to enlightenment.


Like each horse, each student requires enough handholding to ensure they have a good chance of finding the right answers that suit them. This means that each and every principle and instruction needs to be clarified sufficiently so that no student is left scratching their head by what the teacher meant. It’s hard enough for a student make a new concept work when there is clarity, let alone having any hope of it working out when there is significant confusion.


So I want to make a deal for those that are interested in taking my advice. For my part, I will try to be clearer for each student. And in return I want each student to try to make their training choices less about their personal prejudices and more about what works for their horse.


Photo: I guess at this clinic in Canberra I was so absolutely clear in explaining the principles of training that people got it very quickly and did not feel the need to stay after the morning break. Gee, I must have been good that day because they were so excited to rush home and try out what they had learned they forgot to take their chairs with them!

Video Lessons

For those that are unable to get to my clinics or those who do but want followup help, I am now offering a video assessment service.

Send me a link to a short video clip and I will return a detailed report of the good and bad and offer suggestions for you to follow to improve both the performance and the relationship with your horse.

It is best to focus on one (or maybe two) things and keep the video to no more than 5 mins or so. It takes me about 60 to 90 mins to assess a 5 min video adequately. Long clips are not necessary and will they be met with a sigh of exasperation.

There is a cost and you'll need access to direct deposit facilities or PayPal if you are outside of Australia.

This is a trial. I live in a rural area with limited internet service, so this may not work if the demand pushes the boundaries of our bandwidth.

For all details contact me via

A Horse's Nature

Horses are two things. They are the way they are and they are the way we think they are or want them to be. Many of the struggles we have with horses stem from those two things being very different. Only occasionally are those two things the same thing.


I believe that most people want more from a horse than just a working relationship. It certainly seems to be true of almost everyone who reads this page and comes to my clinics. Most people want to have a good relationship with the horse(s) that extends more into being a member of the family than just a utility to be used when needed. People take their responsibility to the emotional and psychological welfare of their horse very seriously. And I am happy to help anybody who cares about this aspect of owning a horse.


But I am sometimes bothered when I hear of people who anoint a horse with altruistic motives.  It’s not unheard of for owners and teachers to prescribe virtues to horses that I truly don’t believe they have, but which people want to believe they have. I think of it as the Black Beauty syndrome. It works great as a piece of romantic fiction, but it is still fiction.


There is no question that horses are amazing. Their nature allows us to do all sorts of unpleasant things to them from being thrown to the ground to being charged (and sometimes gorged) by bulls, yet they don’t plot their revenge. They allow us to use tortuous devices, work them when they are sore, separate them from the safe haven of a herd, transport them in tin cans on wheels etc and all because we can. Their nature lets us, and we exploit that.


However, let’s be honest here. Horses are not altruistic. They don’t live to please us or to get along with us. If they knew what was ahead, no horse would volunteer to go into a training program. But when the choice is taken away from them they mostly submit to the role we choose for them. This is the true nature of a horse and it is why we train, ride and drive them.


In horsemanship, we are always talking about ways to make our idea the horse’s idea. When a horse has an idea to do something it takes almost nothing for it to happen. So the easiest way to get a horse to do something is to implant the idea to do it in its mind. Simple!


However, a horse does not set out to please people. Its mind is constantly occupied with ideas on how to make its own life better and often that those ideas conflict with our ideas.


A horse is not sitting around waiting for us to issue a command. Their minds are always busy thinking about something. All the real estate in the thinking part of a horse’s brain is constantly occupied. For a horse to have a new thought requires the elimination of a thought that is already occupying space in the brain. Therefore, for us to implant a new idea means we are in competition with the thought that has already set up house in the horse’s mind. This is always true. Anytime we want to change a horse’s thought, we are in competition with the rest of world that is bombarding our horse with new things to focus on.


In time and with good training, a horse can learn that people offer a good deal and life is okay when they let the primates run the show. But it takes a lot of good work before that becomes a way of life in a horse’s thinking. And even when we get to that stage of our relationship, it only takes a time or two of letting the horse down that things return to a conflict of ideas between human and horse.


There is a lot more I could say on this subject, but it would almost certainly land me in a serious conflict of ideas with some of you and I’m not feeling particularly feisty today.


Our role as horse trainers is to find a way that a horse is comfortable with placing the human at the top of ideas list. People and the tasks we present should ideally occupy the most important place in a horse’s thoughts. We should not have to topple every other thought to be important to a horse. Instead the world should have to topple us out of first place for the horse to give it much concern.


To end on a very minor feisty note let me say that this does not happen because we shy away from creating a little trouble in our horses in times when it is needed to unseat one idea and replace it with another. The non-altruistic and submissive nature of a horse that allows us to do what we do is also the nature that requires a ruffling of horse feathers from time to time.


Photo: My wife, Michèle riding Callum. We are always competing with outside influences for a horse to be able to hear us.

What's Your Problem?

I am rarely content with the way things are between a horse and myself. I know there are always things to improve and I am constantly looking for them.


One thing that I have been working on for years is to keep remembering to not round my shoulders. I even do it when I walk, so it is a bit of way of life for me and I guess I will be working on it forever.


But my latest project comes from a recent awareness that when I ask my horse to change down in transition I put a little more weight in my left seat bone and push down into my left stirrup. So I have been consciously working at lifting my left leg upwards ever so slightly to break the habit. And it’s working just fine. I am now pretty much at the place where I can forget about my left seat and remain neutral in the saddle in the downward transitions.


I am curious what you are working on or feel you need to work on in your journey to self-improvement.

Interview With An Australia Legend

A little while back I interviewed well-known horseman, Ted Clueless. Here is a transcipt of that interview.



I’m here today with legendary Australian horseman, Ted Clueless. Welcome Ted and thank you for your time.



No worries mate. Always glad to have a chin wag.



Now Ted you come from a long line of expert horseman. Is that right?



Yeah, sure mate. There have been generations of Clueless horsemen. My father, his father and his father before him were all great Clueless horsemen. We’ve even had several Clueless women as professional horse trainers. A lot of people in the horse world claim to be Clueless, but our family are the real McCoy. No question.



Well, as a little background why don’t you tell our readers what sort of horses you prefer.



Sure mate. Well, I like horses that don’t buck. I also like horses that don’t bite. And I’m really fond of the ones that don’t bolt. I sure wish I owned one.



No, no. I mean what breed to horses do you prefer.



Oh. Sorry mate. Well, I prefer the breeds that don’t buck and the ones that don’t bite. I’ve also got a soft spot for the one that don’t bolt.



So you’re okay with horses that rear.



Oh no mate. I forget about the breeds that rear. Yeah, I don’t like them much either.



Right. I see. Well, I guess that’s enough about you. Maybe we should go onto something else.

A lot of my readers would like to know what you consider to be the fundamental principle behind your work.



Well mate, I sort of agree with Ray Hunt when he said, “it’s all about the feet.”

See Ray understood that ridin was about gettin a horse to go somewhere. It’s that simple. The more they go somewhere the better they are.

The trouble is that so many of them blokes that followed him missed what Ray really meant by “it’s all about the feet.” A lot them aren’t ya genius types and Ray not being great on givin detail left them hangin confused by what he meant.



How so?



Well, I reckon what Ray really meant when he said “it’s all about the feet” is that it’s all about how far you get a horse to go. If Ray had been born in say Europe, he’d have said “it’s all about the metres”. But he didn’t. He didn’t tell people that he was not talkin about the horse’s feet, he was talkin about the feet between point A and point B.

So that left all those poor buggers that hung on his every word thinkin Ray was goin on about useless stuff like hindquarter disengagements and lateral flexion and two-beat backups and connectin the reins to the feet. But Ray’s gone now and those drongos are still confused.

I’m tellin ya it’s all about the metres.



Well, that is certainly an interesting take on what Ray was saying.



I know mate. I am a deep thinker like that.



Well, what are your thoughts about the idea that of getting a change in a horse’s thoughts should come before getting a change in their feet, erm I mean metres.



Look, I know where ya comin from. You’re a good bloke and ya heart’s in the right place. But gettin a horse to change his thought? Really????

Have you seen my mare over there? If she had one thought she’d need a week’s rest and 12 month’s therapy. She’s as thick as two short planks. If I waited until she had a change of thought nobody would be ridin her until my grand kids had grand kids. I’m as old as a dairy cow’s fart and I don’t have that much time to wait.

Nah mate. Ya mean well, but ya ideas are so off the beaten track that I sometimes think ya have a roo loose in the top paddock. Maybe ya should get checked out by a professional shrink.



Are there any other important principles you think people should consider when it comes to working with horses?



Well, another thing that Ray said that I reckon people should take on board is “make the right thing easy and the left thing hard.”



Um don’t you mean “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard?”



No, no. I’m sure it’s “make the right thing easy and the left thing hard” because I distinctly remember my mate Harry had a horse called Easy and he was always tryin to make ‘im go right.



No I think you’ll find that Ray said “make the right thing easy” as in simple, “and the wrong thing hard”, as in difficult.



Are ya sure? That don’t sound right to me.



I’m sure. You can look it up if you like,



Blimey! Well, I guess that could make more sense. It would explain a few things about the way my horse goes around her turns. But it is sure going to bugger up how Harry’s horse goes.



Well, thanks. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Thanks for your novel and um colourful explanations on some those important principles.

I’m sure our readers found them to be really something.



No worries mate. Always ready to help. Don’t forget, it’s all about the metres!

Remember Ted’s the name, Clueless is the game.

Now I had betta take care of a deadly Tiger snake.



Really! Where?



He’s right behind you lookin to set up house in ya right trouser leg.





Photo: This was taken immediately after my interview with Ted. One picture tells how many words?