Common Myths That We Have All Heard From Somebody

Myth No1- A Horse Must Show You Respect

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I will begin with the issues of respect and disrespect.

We have all heard folks describe a horse as being disrespectful or needing to learn respect. Most often it is talked about when a horse is pushy to handle or when he rears or kicks at a person etc. But is it really fair or even helpful to think in terms of respect or disrespect in good horsemanship?

Firstly, what is respect and disrespect from a horse's point of view? To respect a person a horse would have to put a value on a person and what that person is doing with them. Clearly horses can't do that. A horse does not wake up in the morning and decide whether or not a person is worthy of their respect. The concepts of respect and disrespect have no meaning to a horse and really do not relate in any way to how a horse operates in his decision making.

A horse responds to us purely in the way they perceive their safety and comfort. If (in their eyes) we compromise their safety and comfort and as a result they barge into us or bite us or buck us off in order to restore their sense of safety and comfort, is it really disrespectful or is simply a survival strategy? If somebody tries to force a claustrophobic person into a closet, is it disrespect if the claustrophobic punches, screams and fights to avoid being shoved into the closet?

Horses only have one agenda and that is to survive the best they can. They don't plot and scheme on how to get the better of a human. They don't try to prove they are stronger or smarter than people. They have no interest in proving that we are weaker and incompetent. It is not in their make up to even consider these things. The way a horse operates in response to the world in general and people in particular is to try to maintain their idea of what is safe and what is comfortable. Nothing else matters to a horse.

It is not being disrespectful for a horse to do what he thinks will be in the best interest of his survival and comfort. In fact, it is totally disrespectful of us humans to try to make a horse do things that he feels threatens his survival and comfort. By putting him in that situation we are basically indicating to him that his survival and comfort don't matter to us.

In my experience, what most people really mean when they talk about respect in a horse is whether the horse sees the human as being higher than them in the pecking order or not. But since a horse will never see a human as anything akin to another horse, this concept is quite bizarre. In terms of herd hierarchy, it makes sense that a horse can only see another horse as having a place in the pecking horse - not a human - since humans have no place in a herd.

It seems to me that for many people, respect is really equated to submission and obedience and this is achieved by dominance over the horse. We often teach obedience by asserting dominance. When we fail to dominate a horse we also fail to achieve obedience and submission. So when a horse barges into us or threatens to kicks us or refuses to pick up a foot and our friends tell us that he is being disrespectful what most of them mean is that we have failed to be dominant. Dominance is not a virtue and certainly not something that a person imposes if they truly respect a horse.

In the end, I believe that thinking about horses in terms of respect and disrespect is really counter productive to good horsemanship. It puts blame on the horse for things that go wrong and validates the idea that forcibly dominating a horse with fear and strength to achieve respect is okay.

Myth No.2 - You Can't Let the Horse Win

Ever since I was a boy I have heard this. I still hear it these days, in fact I read it on a web site from a trainer who was responding to an e-mail question.

Winning or losing doesn't even enter a horse's mind. No horse is out to beat us or prove us wrong. Training is not meant to be an adversarial sport. It is not about having a winner and a loser. When interacting with a horse, the horse should always be a winner. Anytime you leave a horse feeling like he was the loser, you have taken something away from him. The only road that I know for getting a horse to want to go along with me is if by trial and error he has learned that I offer him a good deal. My job should be to do whatever I can to make it as easy as possible and with minimum trouble. So when he does give it a try it feels okay and he hasn't lost anything in the process.

That might all sound "airy-fairy" and some might be wondering how do you get a horse to do what you want if you don't show him that you are in charge?

Those that have hung around me will have heard me say many times "never ask a horse to do anything unless you get a change - if you don't get a change you should never have asked in the first place and you are teaching him to ignore you."

At first read that might sound similar to "you can't let a horse win." But it all depends on what you call a change. When you ask a horse to do something you need to get a change, but a change only has to be something different from what the horse was doing. A change does not have to be exactly what you wanted him to do. If it is, that is wonderful. But in reality a change is just something that's different. Getting a change means your horse is searching. He knows doing what he is doing is not working for him because you keep persisting with some pressure (using just enough pressure to motivate him to search), so he starts searching to find something that will get rid of the pressure. When he does, rejoice. If he is doing something even slightly in the direction of what you had in mind, release the pressure and rejoice some more. That's called a "try". If he tries something counter to what you had in mind, just persist with enough pressure to keep him searching and release when he stumbles on something better. Soon he will have discovered for himself what he should do to stop the idiot from annoying him.

This approach is not about making him do what we want or letting him get away with anything. That's human thinking - not horse. A horse just wants to find the safest and most comfortable option he thinks is available. So allow him to discover for himself what works and what doesn't by letting him be a winner every time he gets close to what we had in mind.

Often we make a bad situation worse because we refuse to let our horse win. Float loading is a good example. A situation that came up recently was in regard to loading a horse into a float. A lady was taking her horse to a show. The horse would go about half way in and stop. The lady got more insistent and then the horse would run backwards. The whole episode went on for about 2 hrs before she gave up in frustration. She rang me to ask for advice because she was very concerned that she had let the horse win and now she would never get her horse in a float. Long before the lady had given up things got worse. The horse got to the stage where she couldn't even get it within 10 metres of the float and he was rearing and striking. It would have been much wiser to have realized earlier that things were deteriorating to a bad situation and to have given up. There would have been no harm done. The problem of getting the horse in the float is very fixable. The horse had it's reasons for not going in the float. When she fixes the reasons the horse will load fine.

There is a theory among some people (even professional trainers) that if you let a horse win you have ruined it. Firstly, as I have said a horse doesn't have any concept of winning. But secondly, every situation is salvageable. If it wasn't then every mistake we make with our horses would be ruining them for life. A substantial proportion of our business is re-educating horses that people make mistake with. All a horse needs is to find a way to behave that feels better to them than the way they have been responding, then they will choose the better option every time for themselves. You will soon reverse the damage done by your mistakes.

So keep in mind that training is never an "us vs the horse" pastime. The object is to help the horse find a better way to respond and sometimes that might mean backing off rather than allowing the horse's feeling to become more troubled. You are always training for tomorrow and not everything has to be perfect today.

Myth No. 3 - The Muscle Under the Neck Cause a Horse to Be High Headed

I first heard this theory when I was a kid. The theory is that a horse that is ewe-necked or carries his head high has too much strength in the muscle of the neck that are below the spinal column. It is the lower (or under) muscles that get the blame for this type of posture.

Fortunately, I went to university and studied physiology and biochemistry and was awarded a PhD in Physiology and followed that with 15 years in medical research. This has given me enough understanding of how muscles work to know that the concept of the under muscles of the neck causing an upside down neck posture is rubbish.

I will keep the explanation as simple as possible (maybe even over simplify) and only talk in broad terms so that those with little understanding of muscle function will still be able to follow.

Muscles work in pairs. For every muscle that does something there is another muscle that does the opposite. For example, our biceps contract to cause our forearm to move closer to our shoulder (ie, our arm closes). But to open our arm again we use a different set of muscles called the triceps. When the biceps contract, the triceps relax to allow our forearm to close. When our forearm opens again it is the triceps that contract and the biceps relax. The biceps Do Not push our forearm open - they simply relax so that when the triceps contract the forearm can open.

Now lets look at the what happens with the neck of the horse when he lifts or lowers his head. Again, we have groups of muscles working in opposite pairs. One group causes the neck to be raised and another group causes it to be lowered. The spinal column of the horse runs roughly through the middle of the neck in an "S" shape. The muscles above the spinal column we can refer to as top muscles and the muscles below the spinal column we can call the bottom or under muscles.

Contrary to what the majority of people believe (even top level coaches and riders) it is the top muscles that contract to cause the neck to be raised, while at the same time the under muscles must relax. In order to lower the neck the top muscles must relax while the under muscles contract.

Myth No. 4 - In a Circle The Hind Feet Track the Same Line As The Front Feet

This may cause a few people to get a little warm under the collar because it challenges ancient wisdom.

The myth is that when a horse is balanced in a circle or a turn that the inside front foot and the inside hind foot of the horse are on the same track. It was a theory that I was taught when learning. I heard Anky Van Grunsven say it at a masterclass at Equitana. I have read it in many books. So this theory is very strongly and widely held by riders and trainers at all levels. But I am prepared to stand up and tell you it is not true.

I want to make it clear I am talking about a balanced and correct turn or circle - not a crooked turn or circle.

When a horse bends through a turn there is very little lateral flexion through the spine between the wither and the croup. There is a very small amount, but for all intent and purposes it can be considered that there is none. The bend largely comes from the neck. It is important that the neck flexes laterally, but it is equally important that we realize that the horse is fairly rigid when it comes to lateral flexion from the wither back.

It is because of this rigidity that when a horse makes a balanced turn the inside front foot follows the curvature of the turn and the inside hind foot steps slightly to the outside of the curvature of the turn. Let's say a horse is circling to the left. The left fore follows the arc or circumference of the circle, but the left hind follows a track that is a little to the outside of the circumference of the circle. If the left hind tracks the same as the circumference, the hindquarters push the shoulders to the outside. That is what happens when a horse falls out of the circle.

It might help to think about a car. A car is also rigid through it's body - like a horse. When you corner a car the forces are set up to push the car to the outside of the turn. You turn the wheel to the left to direct the front end of the car to the left, but the rear wheels are on the same track as the front wheels (due to the rigidity of the body of the car) so there is a loss of balance and you need to hold the steering wheel to the left in order to stop the forces from making the car be pushed to the outside of the corner. Now think about 4 wheel steering. A few years ago some manufacturers such as Volvo came out with 4 wheel steering. When you turned the car the left the front wheels pointed left to carry the front of the car to the left, but the rear wheels pointed the right (the outside of the turn) to bring the rear end of the car to the outside of the turn. So while the front of the car was traveling to the left, then rear of the car was being directed slightly to the right to the outside of the turn. This enabled the car to corner much more balanced and a person could travel with more speed without losing control by the car to the outside of the turn.

This is just like a horse. By having the HQs pushing a little to the outside of the turn and the shoulders to the inside of the turn a horse is much more balanced and can follow the circumference of the circle with accuracy and be balanced. This is not possible if the fore feet and the hind feet are on the same tracks. Just watch a video of a horse executing a balanced turn or circle and you will see it as I have described it. Interestingly, at the masterclass that I mentioned, Anky Van Grunsven talked about how a horse's fore and hind feet fall onto the same track during a circle, but then went on to demonstrate a balanced circle with the horse doing exactly as I have described. It is like she was repeating some old wisdom that had been passed from generation to generation to finally reach her, but then never questioned how wise the wisdom actually was. If the horse laterally flexed through the spine from the wither to the HQs, then it would be possible for the horse to be balanced in a circle and still have the front and hind feet on the same track. But without that lateral flexion it is not possible.

In any case, experiment for yourself and watch other horses performing turns and circles and think about the consequences that the placement of the feet for the accuracy and balance of a turn.

The debunking of this myth has implications for my next discussion on Myths regarding the importance of the outside rein for executing a balanced turn - another very controversial topic.

Myth No. 5 - Turning with Inside Leg and Outside Rein

For me this is quite a controversial topic.

At some point most dressage riders are taught that a correct turn or circle is established by (i) feeling with the inside rein to get an inside bend, (ii) pressure from the inside leg to stop the horse collapsing to the inside of the turn and finally (iii) contact with the outside rein to control the degree of bend and to prevent the shoulder from falling out.

I was certainly taught this when I was younger and I have done enough clinics to know that people are still being taught this almost as a gospel truth. In fact, many people who come to our clinics are shocked that anybody would question this golden rule.

So why do I know longer use inside leg and outside rein when asking a horse to turn?

Well, lets begin by looking at what is the function of the reins. I believe the reins have two functions. Firstly, they are meant to direct a horse's feet and secondly to shape the horse's posture (for self carriage and later collection). The primary purpose of the reins is to tell the horse where to go - forwards, backwards, left, right or stand still. This is what a breaker tries to instil in a young horse. But no matter how educated the horse becomes in life, he should never lose this basic understanding of the reins. With training the ability of the reins to direct the horse's feet should become more refined and softer and never be lost.

As some of you who have hung around me already know I strongly believe that a horse is always trying to do what he is thinking. If he is thinking to the right her will turn to the right. If we want him to go to the left and he is thinking to the right, there will be resistance to the reins which will cause him to be crooked and heavy in the hand. So if we want a horse to be soft to the reins, then the reins should be able to not only direct his feet, but also direct his thought. If we can direct his thought to the left by contact of the left rein, then he will turn to the left with no resistance - because it was his idea.

Most people miss this fundamental concept of the reins directing the horse's thought. The result they get is having to do much more to get him to turn to overcome the resistance of his thought wanting him to do something else.

Now read again what I have written regarding Myth No. 4. Go to any show and you will see horses circling that are crooked and mostly it is because their inside fore is not on the track of the circle. Instead it is stepping to the outside of the circle. Now look at where those same horses are looking. Most often you will see their noses turned to the inside of the circle, but their eyes are looking to the outside of the circle. Their eyes are telling you that their thought is to the outside of the circle. They are not looking to come around the circle, but rather to fall out of the circle. If the rider let go of the reins those horses would go straight ahead instead of staying the curve of the circle.

This is where the concept of the outside rein comes into play. If your horse is falling out of the circle with his shoulder, more contact with the outside rein will prevent it from happening because the outside rein acts like a barrier. The outside rein is like a wall stopping the shoulder from leaking to the outside. Try it yourself. Ride a circle with only inside rein and no outside rein. See if your horse is looking to the inside or the outside of the circle. Does his shoulder follow the circle or fall out of the circle? If it falls out pick up your outside rein with a firm contact. Did he suddenly stop falling out of the circle? If you did enough with the outside rein he should have made a change. Now let go of the outside rein again. Did he keep following the circle or did his shoulders fall out of the circle again? So there is no doubt that using the outside rein will stop your horse from falling out of the circle. But does it get a change in where the hose is thinking? Does he still have his thoughts leaking to the outside of the circle or did the inside rein change his thought and get him to think about following the curve of the circle?

If picking up the outside rein helped the horse be correct on the circle, but it fell apart when you let the outside rein relax again, then there was no change in the horse's thought. The outside rein did not change where he was thinking, it only put a band aid on the problem of the horse being crooked. If this is true then you will always and forever more have to use outside rein in the turns to cover up the flaw in the horse's training where the rein does not direct your horse's thought. The long term solution is to teach a horse to follow the feel of the reins with accuracy. This means being able to direct where he is thinking using the reins. If you do this, then contact with the outside rein to execute a circle or turn correctly is superfluous. If we don't teach a horse to follow the feel of the reins, then we are setting the horse up to be resistant to everything we do with them under saddle.

To summarize, the outside rein is used in turning a horse because it blocks the shoulder from leaking to the outside of the turn. However, the reason the shoulder is falling out is because the horse was not taught to follow the feel of the inside rein. Outside rein will not fix the cause of the problem, but it will cover it up - like putting paint over rust in a car.

There are times where outside rein is appropriate in training. In the main I believe outside rein has huge value when training lateral exercises like shoulder in, traver, renver etc. But when training a horse be correct in something as basic as a turn using outside rein is a poor substitute to teaching a horse to follow the feel of the reins with both his thought and his feet from the very beginning.

I am sure some people would debate my views on this topic and I welcome their input. Feel free to write to me because I think healthy discussion is a positive thing. Anything that encourages people to think about their training is a good thing whether or not they ever agree with me.

Myth No. 6 - Don't Look Your Horse In The Eye

Many people believe that if you look your horse in the eye he will interpret that as a threatening gesture. If you watch Monty Roberts' videos on 'Join Up' you will see he turns sideways from the horse to get it to 'Join Up' and then looks away from the horse when he tries to catch it.

We have had more than one client who has watched a Roberts video or attended a demonstration who catches their horse that way. I remember the first time I saw it I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I asked the lady what she was doing.

"Monty Roberts said that you shouldn't look at your horse straight in the eye."

"Why," I asked?

"Because you are acting like a predator and he will feel threatened."

"Is your horse hard to catch," I asked ?

"No, he is good to catch."

"Was he good to catch before you ever heard of Monty Roberts?"

"Yes," she said.

"So why change?"

I have even heard Mark Rashid (an American trainer) tell people not to wear sunglasses when working a horse because they will think you are staring at them and will feel threatened.

It leaves me to wonder how people come up with these whacky ideas.

How a horse feels about being approached is not determined by if you look at them in the eyes or if you wear sunglasses or even if you wear pink underwear. It is the overall demeanor and energy with which you approach a horse that counts. For a nervous horse you need to have low energy and a relaxed posture. But with a horse that is comfortable with people you can walk up to them a lot more casually. Our horses can be caught even if you walk up to them waving a plastic bag. I can approach a horse while making eye contact in a way that is non-threatening and a way that is threatening. Similarly, I can walk up to a horse with no eye contact and be threatening or non threatening - depending on my energy level.

Myth No. 7 - Lowering a Horse's Head Calms Them By Releasing Endorphins

This is a modern day myth. I first heard that you can release endorphins in a horse by lowering their heads from Pat Parelli in the early 1990s. He made the claim while trying to explain why horses can become calmer when you lower their heads. I don't know if Parelli was the first to spout this theory, but since then I have heard it many times from horse owners, trainers and vets. Yet, to this day I have not been able to find any scientific evidence to support the view.

Endorphins are peptides (small proteins) related to opioids (like morphine) that are stored in the anterior pituitary of many mammalian brains. When they are released from the pituitary it is thought that have a calming and euphoric effect in some species, including humans. Some horse people believe that when you get a horse to put his head down below wither height it causes the release of endorphins and the horse goes quiet. Alternatively, when a horse raises his head above wither height it is suppose to release adrenaline and cause the horse to become excited. So a horse putting his head up causes excitement and putting his head down causes relaxation - all through changes in hormones.

Despite the fact there is no hard evidence to support these explanations, they seem to have become facts in many circles.

I have a different theory. I want to emphasize that it is only a theory and has no more evidence to support it than the alternative.

It seems to me to be far more logical that when you ask a horse to lower his head and he does with no resistance, that it is the change of thought or willing submission that causes the calming effect. He changes his thought from being on alert, trying to tune the human out and resistant to what we present to being focussed on us, softer and less ready on alert mode and stops releasing stress hormones like adrenaline. Likewise, when a horse gets anxious or goes onto alert mode he raises his head, tunes us out and then releases flight hormones. I propose that rather than the posture of the neck determining the calmness or agitation of the horse, it is the thought determines the emotional state and that then determines the posture of the neck.

If it was the position of the head that determined whether or not the horse was anxious or not, then you could take a quiet, relaxed horse and raise his head to produce a horse full off beans. Alternatively, you could take a horse in full fear mode and force his head down and he would suddenly become relaxed. Neither of these cases are true. You only get a change when the horse lowers his head easily and willingly because he has let go of his anxiety - it was his idea and something he chose to do.

Perhaps one day there will be scientific evidence to support one of these theories, but until then they are only theories and nobody has the scientific authority to claim one as being the truth.

Myth No. 8 - The One Rein Stop Is An Emergency Safety Brake

For those that don't know what a one rein stop is (ORS) you use one rein to bend the horse's neck around and keep them bent and circling until they bring their feet to a stop, then release the rein. Here is a video clip of John O'Leary talking about it and demonstrating it on a horse

The ORS has been promoted widely as the only tool for stopping a bucking or bolting horse. Many trainers and clinicians teach it and there are testimonials on lots of web sites how the ORS has saved the life of horses and riders. I use to teach it myself. But what you don't see or hear about is how many times they have caused an accident and turned a minor tantrum into a serious wreck. I have witnessed several instances where somebody using the ORS to control a horse has made things far worse and caused a greater loss of control.

Why is this?

The ORS can be effective in regaining control of a horse when the horse is ready to listen. But if a horse is so panicked that he NEEDS to move his feet, a ORS can cause further panic. Horses are primarily flight animals. When they get scared their first option is to flee. If you try to stop the flee by shutting down his feet with a ORS (or any type of stop) you are trying to take away his main survival tool. Sometimes this will worsen the situation and make the horse even more desperate to flee. So you set up a situation which will cause the horse to fight any attempt to stop him. This can escalate the problem and be very dangerous. It can lead to a much bigger problem than the one the ORS tried to fix. I have seen it several times, so I know it is real.

So what is the alternative to the ORS?

Rather than try to bend the horse to stop, just use enough bend to get the hindquarters to yield then release the rein and move forward. When you use a ORS it is not the stopping that keeps you safe, it is the disengagement of the hindquarters. The HQ yield (or disengagement) takes away the ability of the horse to buck or bolt. The stopping only gives the rider a chance to get their composure back, fix their hair and check their makeup. Once you have disengaged the HQs and the horse has relaxed his back a little you can allow him to move. If he goes to buck and bolt again, just disengage the HQs, release and move again. By doing this you avoid the panic that can come with trying to get the horse to stop his feet. This approach has never failed me and never made a situation worse - unlike the ORS.

Before finishing discussing the ORS there is one other aspect about it that I don't like. Because a horse is being asked to bend and not move his feet, he is being taught to disconnect the feel of the rein from the movement of the feet. This promotes an inaccuracy in how a horse moves when directed by the reins. It can encourage a horse to "rubber neck" - where he is being turned one direction, but he keeps moving in another. I never want my horse to have a lateral bend that is not directing the feet - especially in a young horse.

I am not saying that a ORS does not work. But in a percentage of cases it can cause a greater panic and a more dangerous uncontrollable situation and it is not necessary. By disengaging the HQs then releasing the bend you allow the horse to move and minimize the risk that things running out of control.

Myth No. 9 - Collection Begins With Engagement of the Hindquarters

When a horse attempts to collect there is a complex cascade of changes in his body that has to happen for there to be true collection. The postural changes that we see when a horse collects is a shortening of his frame by rounding his neck, raising his back and engaging his hindquarters. Many people believe that true collection begins with an engagement of the HQs and not with a rounding of the neck. It is generally thought that rounding the neck without concomitant engagement of the HQs causes a false collection and a hollowing of the back. It is certainly true that if you get a horse to round his neck and not engage his HQs then you are causing him to become stiff and not truly collected.

But let's first look at what happens when a horse collects. We will begin at the back end.

I have already said that collection happens when a horse rounds his neck, raises his back and engages his HQs. But for a horse to be able to increase the engagement of his HQs and have the back legs reaching further under the body the stifles have to have freedom of movement. The ability of a horse to do this is very dependent on the individual conformation, but lets talk about the 'generic' horse. For most horses there is a block to reaching forward with the back legs. When the stifles try to push forward enough to engage for collection they run into the last rib. This rib gets in the way of further engagement.

In order to get the rib out of the way a horse must raise his back which clears the way for the stifle to achieve that little bit extra engagement. But the back can't be raised until the wither is raised. The wither must come up a little bit in order for the horse to lighten his forehand and free his front end to allow the back end to engage. To do this a horse must raise the base of his neck which comes about by rounding his neck with correct flexion from just behind the poll (where the atlas of the spine is located). If a horse does not raise the base of the neck, but rather jams the neck down between his shoulders (as happens in false collection) he can not soften his back and engage his HQs.

Therefore, collections comes about by a horse telescoping his neck and raising the base to allow the front end to be raised which in turn allows the back to lift and clear the ribs out of the way so that the HQs can increase their engagement.

So while I understand why dressage folk talk about collection coming from behind, in reality it starts with the neck and cascades it's way through the horse until it reaches the rear end.

Myth No. 10 - You Need a Bit to Control a Horse

When I was a kid it never even entered a person's thought to ride a horse without a bit. I remember the first time I rode a horse in just a halter. I rode with more hope rather than certainty that everything was going to be okay. But these days Michele and I ride most horses that are sent to us in a sidepull to begin with before we progress to a snaffle bit.

These days more people are riding in a bitless bridle, but there is still a large contingent that believes that a bit is necessary to control a horse. The racing industry is particularly backward about this. It is not allowed to even lead a horse on a race course without a bit in it's mouth. Most horse shows require a horse to be bridled with a snaffle for a led-in class. You can't compete in dressage and other riding events without at least a snaffle and in some cases a double bridle.

I am not against riding a horse in a bit - I do it all the time. But I know that a bit is not for controlling a horse. Control is something a horse gives you, not something you impose with a bit. The harshest bit in the world will not control a horse that does not want to be controlled. Control comes from a horse learning to give to the feel of the reins no matter if the reins are attached to a bit, a noseband or a cavesson. As a horse becomes softer and more focussed you don't even need reins to direct a horse. The seat and legs can be enough.

So why should you ever use a bit?

Firstly, a bit adds refinement. With a bit in a horse's mouth you can do less with the reins to achieve more. The bit allows a level of sophistication to the feel of the reins that is not achieved with just a noseband or cavesson. It means you can be quieter and more subtle with their use than you can otherwise be. Just like spurs are not meant to make a horse go forward that doesn't want to go forward. Spurs add refinement to the action of the leg - not fix a dull horse.

The second use of the bit is that is can be used to influence the posture of the horse. Some bits are designed in such a way as to alter the way a horse carries himself just by sitting in the mouth - even without an affect of the reins. A common example of this is in the way vaqueros educate their horses in the "bridle". These riders use bits that by their very design encourage a horse to flex at the poll and carry themselves more upright in front. Here is a link to a clip by Martin Black that has a brief mention of the use of the bit in making a bridle horse. He also has some shots of the different bits they use in the training.

I believe it doesn't matter if you ride with or without a bit. The bit is not the secret to control. But I also believe that even if you never intend to ride with a bit, that your horse should be trained to be comfortable with a bit. It is possible that someday, somebody is going to want to ride him with a bit and you'd like to think that it was okay with him.

Myth No. 11 - Timing Is Critical in Horse Training

I hope I can be very clear here about this notion of the importance of timing.

We hear a lot about how one of the secrets to being good with horses is to have really good timing. Choosing the moment to release pressure is very important in horse training. The earlier you release the pressure when a horse has had a change of thought, the easier it is for him to associate the response with a relief from pressure. In theory, this should mean he will learn the correct response more quickly.


I don't believe timing is critical. I don't believe that if you have poor timing and are late with your releases that a horse can not learn the correct response. I my view, consistency is more important than timing. If you are consistent in the way you present pressure and release pressure your horse can still learn to respond correctly - no matter how late you are. It will probably take him longer to learn, but that just means you need to do more repetitions.

Many trainers believe that you only have a few seconds to release the pressure once a horse has responded if he is to associate his response to the removal of pressure. John Lyons talks about a 3 second rule where you must act within 3 seconds for it to have meaning to the horse (this hold true for punishment too according to John). Andrew McLean believes that you have less than 10 seconds.

I don't believe this at all. I am not saying that a horse's memory can reflect on his response and the person's response for an unlimited time in order to connect a meaning. But I do believe that if a person is consistent and repeats the scenario enough times, the timing is not nearly as critical as many believe.

A few years ago I was working at a property that had a feed room with a very squeeky door. The squeek was so loud it could be heard almost all over the property. Every morning and evening I would go into the feed room to make up the feeds. It usually took me about 20 minutes to make the feeds before I would take them to the paddocks to give to each horse. All the horses would be waiting for their meals at their gate. They could not see the feed room or see me come and go from the feed room, but they would hear the squeek and have no idea that the noise came from the feed room door.

When a new horse arrived on the property they would hear the squeek too, but because it had no meaning to them they would not be waiting at their gate for meals when I did my rounds of giving out the feeds. But after somewhere from a week to 10 days the new horses would begin waiting at their gates just like the others. It took about 20 minutes between hearing the squeek and their feed to appear in their feed buckets, yet they learned the association between the noise of the door and being feed in just a few days of being fed. That meant that anywhere between 14 and 20 repetitions was enough for the horse's to learn this behaviour despite the timing of the reward being incredibly late (20 minutes late!) in the eyes of most trainers.

When I began to notice this behaviour I started to experiment and play around with this to try to determine the trigger that got the horse's to wait at the gate. At first I thought that because I fed at the same time each day that horse's were working off their biological clock which told them it was getting close to feeding time and so they waited at the gate. But I started varying the feeding times by several minutes and then hours and the horse's were always waiting. I then tried feeding the horse's as usual, but at different times of the day I would open and close the feed room door without actually showing up with any feed. The horse's always wandered to their gate when they heard the squeek. The next thing I tried was to fix the door so that it hardly made any noise. When I did this and went to feed the horses none of them were waiting by their gates.

My experiment with the feeding was not definitive and by no means conclusive. But in my work as a trainer I have watched and thought about the notion of the importance of timing of a reward a lot. All my work and experience leads me to conclude that while early (good) timing is important in training, consistency of timing is more important.

Myth 12 - If I buy A Young Horse It Will Have Less Problems Than An Older Horse

Through my career I have heard from many people that they are sick and tired of buying other people's problems. They have bought a horse that had been handled/trained by others and didn't like the problems it came with. They figure if they get a young horse with very little training then they are starting with a clean slate. They won't be inheriting the crap that others have put in the horse.

While there is a certain logic to this argument, it is not sound logic. The trouble arises in the level skill of the purchaser. I believe that if a person does not have the skills to fix the problems that a horse may have from the training of previous owners, then they probably don't have the skills to ensure they don't put problems in the horse themselves.

The same ability to handle and train a horse are required whether you are dealing with existing issues or in teaching a young horse things for its first time. The timing, feel, awareness and judgement that is required to make sure you don't screw up a young horse is the same for re-educating an older horse.

So don't be fooled into thinking that buying a young, untrained horse is your answer to having a trouble free future with your horse.

Myth 13 - Rugging and Comfort

As winter is getting closer I notice the saddlery catalogs are filling with pages of advertisements for horse rugs. In my experience of working horses in N. America and Europe, it seems to me that we are a nation of ruggers. No where else have I seen so many horses rugged. Here on the hottest continent on the planet we rug more than anywhere else!

When talking to people there seems to be three major reasons why fold rug their horses.
1. To keep them from being cold and losing condition
2. To keep their coats clean and reduce coat thickness
3. For health reasons, such as sun sensitivity.

Lets take the health reasons out of the discussions because no one would argue that a horse's health is not important. Besides, if people just bought rugs for horses that had sensitivity to the sun then the manufacturers would be broke.

Fitting a rug to a horse to keep the coat clean has to be a secondary consideration behind the horse's comfort and protection from the cold. If a horse is wearing a rug to be clean, but is suffering being overheated, then the owners needs to rethink their priorities even if there is a show on the weekend.

But what about using rugs to keep a horse comfortable in cold weather? Do horses suffer the cold like we do? Is it correct to believe that because we are cold that our horses must be cold too?

Firstly, horses evolved in northern Europe where summers are mild and winters are cold. So it would be reasonable to consider that perhaps horses evolved to do well in cold or cool climates. If this is true we have to examine something called the thermoneutral temperature of a horse. This is usually describe as a range of temperature and is "... a limited range in effective ambient temperature over which an animal's metabolic heat production is minimal and independent of changes in the effective ambient temperature (1)." In other words, the thermoneutral temperature is the temperature of the air that an animal neither has to increase metabolic rate to stay warm or use mechanisms (like sweating and increased breathing) to stay cool.

In horses, the thermoneutral temperature is about 5 deg C at the bottom range and about 16 deg C at the upper range (2). There are some differences that depend on body condition and length/thickness of coat etc., but overall the temperature of most comfort for a horse extends from near freezing to the mid teens. In humans, the thermoneutral temperature is around 21 deg C and this why most air conditioned buildings are set to this temperature. If the room temperature falls down to say 15 deg C most of us put on a sweater and if it gets to 25 deg we open a window and enjoy the cooling effects of a breeze.

So a horse can find comfort in temperatures between 5 and 16 deg C. If the temperature falls below freezing he will increase his metabolic rate and even begin to shiver. And when the temperature rises to 20 deg C or higher he will try to find ways to cool himself down.

Yet, I regularly see horses with one or two rugs on them on days that are well with the horse's thermoneutral temperature range. The science tells us that these horses are being over heated by the rugging which will cause physiological changes in order for them to stay cool. Rather than helping the horse stay comfortable (which seems to be why many people rug their horse), owners are heat stressing their horses.

Have you noticed that on warm days horses tend to be lazy and not have much energy, but when a cool change comes through or on cold days they have more "go" than some people wished? The heat zaps them of energy because they are trying to maintain a normal range of body temperature by keeping the metabolic rate low. But the cool days brings them alive because they feel good. It is just the nature of how horses evolved.

In this country, it would be a rare day when a healthy horse needs to be rugged in order to maintain body temperature. People that regularly rug horses in Australia are either not thinking of their horse's welfare or are placing a higher priority on having a clean horse than a comfortable horse.

(1) Veterinary Medicine: A Textbook of the Diseases of Cattle, Sheep, Pigs ... (2000) Otto M. Radostits. Elsevier Health Sciences Press.

(2) ,


Myth 14 - Natural Horsemanship is a More Gentle Training Method Than Other Methods

Firstly, what is Natural Horsemanship (NH)? When talking about NH many people equate it with Parelli Natural Horsemanship because Parelli was the man who first used the term. He used it to refer to his school of horsemanship. Since then it has developed a much broader meaning and is often thought to refer to almost any method of horsemanship that is not "old school". It seems to be synonymous more with the type of equipment used than the methods. Objects like rope halters, 12 ft lead ropes, western saddles, flags, bridles with slobber straps and mecate reins have all become associated with NH.

But for me, a better concept of NH is a school of training that attempts to work from the horse's point of view. This idea is as broad as the equipment used by NH trainers. Everybody has their own idea of what the horse's point of view is. But for some reason this concept has taken on an almost universal meaning of training with gentleness. I get a lot of phone calls from people wanting a trainer who only uses gentle methods and they start looking for an NH trainer. I don't really know what to say to them because I don't know what they are wanting. What is a gentle method? Does it mean no blood dripping from the horse's flanks or does it mean a method that does not raise the blood pressure of the horse?

I have to say from the start that every method that teaches a horse to change their behaviour causes a horse some anxiety and stress. There is not one method that does not create a worry in a horse. This is because it is the anxiety that gets a horse to search for making a change in their response to pressure. Without some anxiety there is no motivation for a horse to change.

Having said that, there are some trainers who leave the worry in the horse long after they have learned a new response and others who are able to help a horse feel better once the horse understands his new response. In this regard, I believe there is no difference between most NH practitioners and traditional trainers. People often think that because a person calls themselves a NH trainer that they must use gentle and kind methods. But this is not true in my experience. The vast majority of NH trainers are no different than the vast majority of traditional trainers in the way they work a horse and in the final outcome of how a horse responds. I say this because most NH training is simply an increasing level of pressure until the horse makes a change. This is also how traditional training works. There may be differences in the equipment and in the exercises and even in the language they use, but to the horse these differences amount to nothing. To the horse the only difference that matters is the way a person practice their craft and in that area there is very little to discern between most NH and most traditional. In reality the difference is just in the label and the marketing and gentleness does even come into it.

Myth No 15: I Want to Buy an Unbroken Horse to Avoid Getting a Horse With Problems Already?

A lot of people have asked themselves if they should get a horse with a clean slate that has not been messed up by poor training. They want to avoid the pitfalls of inheriting problems from previous owners.

I think it is a false premise to assume that training a horse you bred or buying an untrained horse will ensure you get a well behaved horse. For me the skills that a person requires to solve problems that already exist in a trained horse are the same skills needed so that problems don't arise in an untouched horse. I believe that if you do not have the skills to fix problems in a horse, then you don't have the skills to ensure you don't put problems in a horse. You need to be just as good a horse person to solve issues with horses as you do to make sure you don't screw them up. I don't think enough people recognize that it is not just other people who create problems in horses - we all do - every one of us. The better the horse person you are the smaller and fewer are the problems you create. But if you are that good a horse person then you can also help re-educate a horse that comes with inherent problems that others have created.

The one advantage of buying a horse already messed up is that you can blame somebody else for it!


Myth No 16: Mineral Appetite In Horses

I have often heard people say that when a horse chews on something or licks something that it is a sign they are lacking a mineral in their diet or are mineral deficient. Usually this refers to salt, iron or calcium. People seem to think that horses have the ability to sense their mineral requirements and to regulate them. While this has been shown to be true of some species, there is no evidence that it exist in horses. The most well known example of appetite regulating animals is the rabbit. It was discovered decades ago that rabbits have a “salt appetite” and will seek out salt-rich foods when they are deficient. They will also avoid salt-rich foods when they are not deficient in salt. But horses don’t seem to be able to do this. Humans can’t do it either.

When a horse licks your hand or a rock or a fence post, it is probably because he likes the taste. Horses are able to discern subtle flavours and can detect tastes in foods that would seem tasteless to us. Sometimes you can see horses put strange things in their mouth like manure or thistles or after birth. I’ve seen all these things and somebody has always put it down to proof that the horse was deficient in one or more minerals. But the simple fact is that they like the taste. So if you ever go to dinner with a horse, don’t let them order for you!