Methodical Training Concepts
Understanding Horse's Nature
Influences on Horse's Behaviors
Finding Balance "The Swing"
Realistic Goals "Dreaming Big but Smart"
Set it up for Success "Winning Strategies"
Training Formula "The Elevator".
UNDERSTANDING HORSES’ NATURE
Genetics, learned behavior, flight and fight instinct, family oriented, hierarchy – ranks and the four main motivators.
Understanding who horses are provides one of the primary keys to success. What influences our horse’s behavior? What causes it? Once we know these answers, we may become more empathetic, more considerate in our approach to our horse and better able to help our horse achieve the goals we have set. We should also adapt a realistic approach to horses to prevent ourselves from getting into dangerous situations with them.
Genetically, horses are born with a certain disposition, characteristics. Their genetic codes do not change much over time, even though they can be influenced (positively or negatively) through interactions with humans, other horses (a foal’s dam, pasture mates), and their environment. Their behavior can also be influenced by their physical state (pain, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, heat cycles in mares, hormonal changes in stallions, etc).
Genetic behaviors remain stubbornly resistant to change. Horses normally maintain these behaviors throughout their lives, but they can be modified through training if so desired. The negative effects of genetics usually occur when the horse uses the instinctive side of her brain while living in our human environment; from our point of view, such a horse is not being “reasonable.” Using her instincts will keep a horse safe in the wild but can damage both horse and rider in our world. Teaching a horse to think her way through a problem will secure the safety of both horse and rider.
Horses are prey animals whose strong survival instincts
depend on flight or fight. They possess an abnormal ability to detect sensory stimuli that humans cannot apprehend. They have the fastest response time of any domestic animal. Horses in nature must quickly learn to ignore basically frightening but harmless things (thunder, quail, deer,
etc); once they learn these lessons, they never forget them. Horses categorize learned experience by either “no fear” – ignore—or “fear” – flight or fight.
A herd of horses has a hierarchy order established within the herd. This helps keep harmony within the herd and is important for the herd’s survival. When there is a predator attack, the horses respect each other’s space as much as possible and can flee from the threat more efficiently, without running each other over and slowing each other down.
When a new horse enters an already established herd, it is typical to see few days, sometimes even a week’s worth of jockeying for a position within the hierarchy. Typically, submissive type horses tend to blend in easier, while the more dominant types tend to persist until they reach the rank of their wish. It is not unusual to see a young horse picking at other horses for attention and instigating dominant type games on daily basis, as they learn how to increase their rank within the herd as they age. Domesticated horses in general do not usually get too rough with each other, because the males are gelded and their hormonal levels aren’t the same of a stallion. Stallions for that reason are usually kept in isolation, unless one’s behavior is mild and he gets turned out with geldings. Aged stallions in the wild typically don’t play. They mean business and when the time comes to fight for a mare or even the whole herd, they may be entering a life or death type fight situation.
Horse are social animals. They are family and herd oriented. Being alone in the wild can result in death, and horses innately know this. They also avoid “no way out” situations, which makes them feel claustrophobic and panic-stricken in tights spaces; they usually prefer open spaces where they can more easily avoid harm.
Look at a horse from their point of view to better understand their motivators. Learn to see and think like a horse. What is important to them? In order it is:
That’s why it can be difficult, or sometimes even impossible, to lure a scared horse into a horse trailer by bribing them with food. Safety, on the other hand, rarely concerns a thinking horse, who finds food or play of greater importance.
For a reactive type horse to feel safe, she must first trust her human partner and then learn to be self-confident. One of the visible signs of a horse who trusts its owner is her clinging to her. When horses get scared, they either flee, fight or they tend to hide within the herd, clinging closely to the other members. This behavior can be clearly seen in a scared young foal clinging to the side of its dam.
I find it interesting to observe some mares when they allow their foals to get pushy with them. This is a mother’s way of teaching self-confidence. Yet because people are so much more fragile than horses, I do not recommend that you allow such behavior in your relationship with your horse: a pushy horse in our personal space puts us in danger. Coach your horse in such a manner that your horse becomes a confident learner. Your horse should feel safe in different environments and around different stimuli; she should feel confident when hauling to shows, participating in trail rides, getting used to as many of the man-made objects and activities she will encounter in our human world. Each horse should also learn to be confident around other people and rider/horse combinations, such as riding in a group or meeting strangers.
Visits to the farm by our family or friends can provide such opportunities with some guidance. You shouldn’t assume that just because your horse trusts you, she will trust everyone else too.
Horses may react to each person differently. They take care of some, yet challenge others. They respond to our intentions, our vibrations, our different energies.
Comfort being the second most important motivator, can be greatly used in the training process. The horse’s innate tendency to seek release of pressure can be a great tool when used properly, with the right timing.
Each rider should always make sure the horse has a properly fitting tack and each rider ought to put much effort into becoming a balanced fluid rider, to provide its horse with great comfort during the ride.
Genetically horses are designed to have a strong instinct to reproduce. Most stallions end up being gelded, to take that strong desire away from them, so the testosterone hormones won’t affect their behavior. Stallions should only be handled by experienced equine professionals, because their behavior can even turn aggressive during a hormonal spike. There are drugs available to use in mares, if one desires to suppress their ovulation cycles, to help calm their behavior. A mare who comes in heat may become distracted and unable to focus on the task at hand. Some mare’s cycles aren’t as strong and they can continue their work even during their cycle. For this reason, many people avoid owning a mare, unless they have breeding plans for her. A mare can also develop a cyst on the ovary, causing her to be in much pain. Her behavior may change from a well-mannered mare, to one that pins its ears back, swooshes her tail a lot, kicks out or even starts bucking under saddle.
Whose domesticated horse does not wait for, come up or even gallop up for feeding time? Perhaps one that is sick, but all healthy ones look forward to their daily feedings. One of my favorite times of the day is to whistle to the herd across the hill and watch them run up for feeding. Horses put much effort into making sure that they get their breakfast and dinner. Makes one think of why there are only such few trainers using treats as a motivator in their programs, even though I must say the numbers are way higher these days (2020) than just 10 years ago.
In my experience using treats during my training sessions is very beneficial. Typically, it helps the horse stay calmer, stay in a thinking frame of mind and she retains learned information better, allowing for more progress to be made each time. I will talk in more detail about the use of treats in my program in the practical part of this book.
Playfulness it generally displayed in young horses but can also be one of the more pronounced innate characteristics of certain horses. High play drive can also be encouraged by a playful human partner. Advanced liberty training offers perfect opportunities to experience playful sessions. Encouraging playfulness in a horse can also be dangerous if one isn’t careful. A horse may not realize how fragile we are and may injure us during a playful session with a strike of a hoof, without any bad intentions. It is common that the way a horse acts during a ground session, they may also act that way under saddle. This is another reason to be wise about the amount of playfulness one encourages.
2. INFLUENCES on HORSES’ BEHAVIORS
Genetics - innate characteristics and disposition, learned behaviors, daily routines, life experiences and physical changes, avoid using labeling as an excuse.
Learn to recognize your horse’s typical tendencies of their behavior. This process proceeds through four stages:
Observe your horse’s behavior and learn how to recognize her tendencies, characteristics.
Come to an understanding of what influences have shaped those tendencies, her behavior.
Mark the positive and negative attributes associated with each tendency.
Discover what motivates your horse based on her characteristics.
Find an ideal balance for you and your horse, for the goals that you have in mind.
Once you understand the above, you should be able to find the right strategies to modify any extreme behaviors, and to encourage your horse to adopt a learning frame of mind. This will accelerate her learning during your training sessions and help your partnership grow.
There are many variations in equine behaviors. Observing a horse’s interactions with other horses is usually a great indicator of their innate characteristics. But the way they behave around humans, as well as in different places (round pen, arena, at the vets, at the wash rack,…) or in different situations (during horse shows, away from their herd, out on a trail,…) often reflects their trained behaviors, their learned characteristics/behaviors and their level of education. Comparing the two may tell you a great deal about your horse.
Observe your horse’s behavior in his herd. Write down on a piece of paper your horse’s tendencies, characteristics and behaviors that you notice, for example: playful, independent, dominant, energetic, curious, brave, spooky, pushy, nervous, relaxed, introverted…. Depending on the horse’s age, some of those may be learned behavior. Then compare that with the way your horse behaves in your session, or in a session with your horse’s trainer. Write those down on a piece of paper as well. We will talk about them in more detail later. This comparison may reveal some of the influences the horse has had, which shaped his behavior.
Each horse is born with a certain innate characteristic that can be influenced socially, environmentally, and physically. These characteristics depend on a number of factors, which include the following:
Socialization: This represents the influence exerted by other horses and people. Be careful in choosing the people and horses that will influence your horse. Be picky about the people allowed to handle your horse; be selective about the other horses in the herd. Horses can learn bad habits both from other horses and inexperienced horse people.
Training: Is one of the most important gifts, you can give a horse, but it should be ideally done by a compassionate and experienced trainer, with the horse’s best interest in mind.
Daily Routine: A horse that knows what to expect, is typically more relaxed, while a horse who hardly ever experiences much change to its routine, may be too set in its ways and even a small change may upset him. Usually, many of the cowboys, who work on cattle ranches and use their horses for ranch work, provide their horses with a consistent routine each day. These horses are relaxed, they know what is expected out of them and they do their jobs well. It is because they do it every day and yet there is typically just enough variety within each day to build their emotional fitness!
Environment: For the emotional health of your horse, I would limit stall confinement as much as possible. At the same time, your horse should be comfortable confined to a stall for a few days at a time, since many activities—participating in horse shows, visits to the vet, and evacuations—require it. I also recommend that every horse have at least one pasture friend, or at least the opportunity to see another horse.
Life changes: A horse can be affected powerfully by important transitions like weaning, separation from their herd, hauling, sudden changes (pasture to stalling) and exposure to new environments.
Physical changes: A horse may act differently as she ages. Changes in hormones, body condition, physical fitness or the lack of it, and diet can influence a horse’s behavior.
But as you come to understand your horse’s typical tendencies, her behaviors and motivators, don’t use this knowledge as an excuse or a label; such as “My horse is reactive (herd bound, barn sour, etc.), so she can’t do this.”, to justify failures in or lack of training. Rather use it as an awareness to approach these behaviors as challenges to overcome, over time. Learn more about such behaviors and about strategies that will help you make them less problematic or seek help from a good professional trainer if needed.
Do not put your horse into a box and assume that she will always behave in the same way either. Horses’ behaviors can be influenced by our expectations. Avoid saying, for example, “She is a “rescue” horse and therefore she can’t do this.”
In My Experience (1): Hide and Seek
One day while trail riding with my friend, my first mentor, Honza, he suggested that we play hide and seek with our horses, using the game to reduce their tendency toward being herd-bound. Both of us rode bareback, using halters rather than bridles. My horse, Tom, a dun-colored overweight cob, was a challenging horse for most riders. A thinking introvert, pushy and dull to pressure—he actually leaned against pressure—he had run off with several riders before I started working with him. At this point I had actually put a good foundation on him, even though at seventeen I remained a young and inexperienced horsewoman; Honza’s guidance had helped me a great deal.
At first the game went well. One rider would stand still with their horse and count slowly to twenty, while the other rider hid with their horse behind some bushes and waited to be found. At one point, Honza rode his horse Gaston down a dirt road back towards town, but then left the road and hid behind some bushes. My horse heard Gaston’s hoof beats going down the dirt road and, by the time I reached eighteen, he was ready to take off after him. As we cantered downhill on the dirt road, Tom started getting anxious when we didn’t find Gaston. Tom actually became more and more herd-bound with each passing second. We past Gaston hiding in the bushes off to the left, but, by the time I saw them, Tom was in a full gallop, not responding to my cues to stop or slow down. Surrounded by woods on both sides, and no good place to turn around, I couldn’t slow him down. A pretty good bareback rider at that point, I had few worries about falling off; I was simply looking for an opportunity to slow him down. Soon a field opened both to our right and left when I heard a loud train whistle: ahead was a rail road track with a train fast approaching. Just a few hundred feet from the train, I grabbed the right rein, gripped with my knees for balance, and turned Tom’s nose, followed by his feet, into the field on the right side, while the train passed to our left. Soon we spiraled into a tight circle and then came to a halt, while I held his nose towards my knee in an emergency stop position (lateral flexion) waiting for him to relax. By that time Honza, who had seen us gallop past, had caught up to us.
Knowing how to perform the learned behavior of the emergency stop, and having the room to do it, saved our lives. We had practiced this maneuver hundreds of times prior to this incident, and even though Tom was acting upon his instincts and not using his brain, he still responded to my suggestion because it had become a muscle memory to him. Although this was not the last time we played hide and seek, after this we kept the distances shorter.
Look at the paper where you wrote down your notes about your horse’s tendencies. Now write down if there are any changes in those tendencies in different environments. For example, when your horse arrives at the vet, at a horse show, at a clinic, when you haul him in for a lesson or if you just take him to an unfamiliar area of your place.
If your horse is typically confident, curious, maybe even dominant or a little pushy, uses her brain to solve puzzles, is clever and learns fast, it is a sign that she is a THINKING type of a horse. She relies on her mental process to get her through the day, through situations. I believe that this is the type of a horse is the one who in the wild finds water and good food sources with its great seeking (mentally searching for) ability.
Those type of horses learn quickly but can also that quickly start making assumptions, figure out how to open gates, latches and untie ropes. They may use their front end to dominate (strike, push) or to play (rear). Using much variety in a session with a thinking type horse is very beneficial to keep her from getting bored and to prevent assumptions. Keep a playful progressive approach to your sessions and praise your horse often. Use imagination to entertain her during training. Any concentrated work should be brief; otherwise she may become naughty by applying her own ideas.
If your horse relies on her instincts and feel more than her brain, she will often act nervous, brace-y, spooky, unpredictable, claustrophobic and reactive. This indicates a REACTIVE type of a horse, or a learned reactive behavior. A horse who innately relies on its instincts may be the one who alerts the whole herd in the wild about a possible predator attack and may be the first one to outrun such predator. Unfortunately, in our human environment, the odds of such danger are typically low, but the danger of this type of horse running into something and hurting herself or running a person over, is usually high. Your horse may act this way because of her genetics, being in pain or it may be a learned behavior from negative past experiences, or it may be caused by lack of education and/or exposure to new things and environments – being inexperienced and unsure.
It is best to start training sessions with a reactive horse with consistency and then slowly introduce variety to build her emotional fitness. Keep in mind that her main motivator is safety, her instinctive needs must be met first, so building trust should be the priority. I approach and retreat when she looks worried. Rhythm can help with relaxation because it is predictable and teaching micro-isolations will help her learn quicker and prevent anxiety. My go-to strategies are also using just one rein to help soften the neck (two reins can make her feel trapped) and lateral maneuvers to flex the body. Teaching her to drop her head bellow her poll (causing the adrenaline pump to shut off) to help her relax. I find moments when I can release pressure as the horse is getting closer to the right answer, as much as possible, to assure her that she is headed in the right direction. This again will help prevent her from feeling trapped.
A great test to distinguish a thinking versus a reactive type horse, unless she is highly trained, is picking all 4 of her feet up or asking her in hand to either back up or do a front-end yield (turn on haunches) and a hind quarter yield (turn on the forehand);
Most thinking type horses (unless well trained) may be less willing or resistant to have their front feet picked up – they may even snatch the foot away or rear up, because they generally use their front end to establish their dominance and hierarchy. A front-end yield and back up may be sticky as well.
Most reactive types of horses will move away or refuse having their hind legs picked up and a hind quarter yield may be difficult to accomplish. The flank area which is close to the hind leg is a common area of attack by predators and so are the back feet. Instinctual horse will be protective of it. She may also be flighty, which includes moving the hind quarters into the direction of pressure (the handler) and then leaving the scene, which is the opposite move of a hind quarter yield. Such horse prefers to have its hind feet firmly planted on the ground, to be able to push off them in case she needs to flee from danger.
If your horse has usually more whoa than go, has a difficulty maintaining gait and her energy is usually low, she is most likely an INTROVERT. Introverts may seem uninterested, unresponsive, and dull, requiring motivation to offer energy and to get their feet unstuck, such as food, comfort or rest. Lack of release can cause irritation, frustration, or dullness. Introverts are fully capable of more effort, they only act incapable. I make sure not to fall into the trap of nagging, rather allowing my introverted horse to make a mistake, then correcting it. I expect her to learn to respond to very slight suggestions (my seat, light pressure, my breathing, etc.) Riding straight lines with a purpose and adding a treat at the end of it (can be placed on top of a barrel), are great motivators. With a thinking introverted type horse, I use variety and short, sweet sessions to help prevent boredom. If your introverted horse is reactive though, she will require much consistency at first and a gentle approach to help her build trust and emotional fitness. Getting her feet unstuck, in a gentle way, ought to help her relax.
If your horse has usually more go than whoa, can’t stand still and is high energy, she is most likely an EXTROVERT. Frequent transitions, circles, often changes of direction (figure eights, clover leaves, bow ties) provide strategies to equalize the go with some whoa. If she is a confident, thinking type of horse as well, play and social interaction are great motivators. A playful human partner with great imagination, who can keep her busy mind occupied and prevent boredom, is a great match for a confident extroverted horse. If your extroverted horse is reactive, brace-y, has a tendency to bolt and has a hollow back posture, her motivator is safety first. Follow the guidelines for a reactive type horse as well.
Keep in mind that your horse’s characteristics might be simple, or complex – falling into more categories of the types described above. The more complex your horse is, the more often you will probably need to adjust your training strategies.
3. BALANCED PARTNERSHIP
The partnership between you and your horse(s), can only be as strong as its weakest link.
Have you ever seen an advanced rider get on a green horse and the rider makes that green horse look good? On the other hand, have you seen a green rider get on an advanced horse, causing her to appear as if she was a green horse? The more advanced the rider and the more advanced the horse, the more balanced partnership and success.
It takes effort from both, the horse, as well as the human, to achieve great partnership. Commonly people either blame the horse for everything or blame themselves for everything and same goes to giving credit. Instead of putting emphasis on I or her/him, lets focus on WE instead. WE together. WE both should carry responsibilities and US both can work towards improving ourselves.
I am there to help the horse learn and the horse is here to help me learn. If there is an experienced like-minded human mentor to help us both, even better.
Focus, responsiveness, maintain gait, maintain direction, maintain energy and maintain posture.
Are our responsibility to teach them to our horse!
To establish a great partnership with your horse, it helps to distinguish between the human and the equine responsibilities which will set some very important guidelines.
Absent her human partner, a horse has a purpose for everything she does, whether she’s seeking water, rest, food, a drier or warmer place to graze, a comfortable muddy spot to roll. Horses usually cooperate better when they have a purpose.
Have you ever tried holding a thought for more than thirty seconds? Try it, for holding one thought for that long represents a significant mental challenge. When you give your horse a responsibility, she becomes more engaged mentally and more focused on you and the task. This can prevent your horse from having distracting thoughts that may lead to naughty behavior.
This also helps clear our expectations of our horse and creates guidelines for the horse that over time become easy to follow. Once the horse knows what is expected out of him, he can relax, knowing that he knows where to be and what to do. This can prevent unnecessary anxiety.
Teaching her the following responsibilities can help improve your partnership.
The first step towards creating a connection with a horse.
Unless your horse’s attention is focused on you, you will have nothing with which to work. For this reason, I usually teach my horse to respond to my tools and then visual cues on the ground, and tools and then feel cues under saddle. I wait before introducing vocal cues because if you begin with sounds your horse usually learns to pay attention with her ears rather than her eyes (more on this subject in the Methodical Training Process chapter). On the ground it is important that the horse pays attention to me with her eyes, so that she can read the cues, the signals, I am giving her.
Your horse’s primary responsibility is to look where she is going; both the horse’s and the rider’s safety depend on this. Having a rider on her back challenges a horse’s balance, as do obstacles and uneven terrain. A focused horse, paying attention to her surroundings, will be more likely to negotiate difficulties on her own, without the rider interfering or getting in the way. While this works well for general riding, at the high performance level an experienced rider can help a horse negotiate an obstacle course (in the disciplines of eventing, extreme cowboy races, or cavalry stampede, for example) by asking her to shorten or lengthen her stride, to change her energy level, or to lower or raise her neck . Of course your horse must pay attention to the obstacles as well. If your horse is distracted and not paying attention (Reactive Extroverts often find themselves distracted at first), it may help to place a variety of obstacles on the ground, such as ground poles and cones, to shift her attention and focus in front of her, instead of outside the arena.
If you can motivate your horse to respond to you with softness, and yet without fear, she will YIELD WITH CONFIDENCE.
When I ask my horse to do something, I usually ask myself whether she is RESPONDING like a partner, REACTING to my suggestions, or NOT YIELDING at all;
RESPONSE: this signals relaxation, motivation, willingness, and obedience on the part of your horse. Understanding – the correctness of the response and refinement may come with time and practice.
REACTION suggests a lack of connection with (horse may be unfocused, distracted), rapport with, or trust in her human partner. Commonly this is an instinctual response based on the flight instinct. Her failure to respond like a partner may stem from your lack of approach and retreat, lack of skill to build confidence within your horse, or from inappropriate guidance on your part (perhaps an unfair application of pressure – too firm or applied too quickly, lacking a gradual increase, or lacking a timely release). Or your horse might have unpleasant associations with past experiences, or no experience with humans at all (wild mustangs, for example) and her confidence growth will take more time. All of these can result in a horse showing signs of fear.
LACK OF RESPONSE – UNYIELDING or even FIGHTING suggests a lack of tolerance for or lack of motivation in your horse resulting in frustration, aggression, or dominance.
A great test for this is picking the horse’s feet up or asking the horse in hand to either back up, do a front-end yield (turn on haunches) or a hind quarter yield (turn on the forehand);
Most thinking type horses (unless well trained) may be less willing to have their front feet picked up – they may even snatch the foot away or rear up, because they generally use their front end to establish their dominance and hierarchy. A front-end yield and back up may be sticky as well.
Most reactive types of horses will move away or refuse having their hind legs picked up and a hind quarter yield may be difficult to accomplish. The flank area which is close to the hind leg is a common area of attack by predators and so are the back feet. Instinctual horse will be protective of it. She may also be flighty, which includes moving the hind quarters into the direction of pressure (the handler) and then leaving the scene, which is the opposite move of a hind quarter yield.
3. Maintaining Gait
When the horse maintains her gait, her rider can stay loose and ride with fluidity, while at the same time the horse’s impulsion becomes better. Nagging a horse to keep her moving forward usually desensitizes your horse, causing her to become dull, resistant, unresponsive and/or tight in her body, while continuously holding her back, bracing against her to prevent her from speeding up, tightens the rider’s muscles and frustrates your horse.
4. Maintaining Direction
Teach your horse to place her feet onto the line of travel that you wish to go on. Do not hold your horse in the direction of travel, but rather guide her into the suggested direction. I usually imagine a boat docking, guided by two buoys as the boat finds a release of pressure in the sweet spot between the buoys. Compare this to a boat being towed into the dock by another boat. Constant directional pressure usually causes the rider and her horse to become tight, preventing a supple connection between them and the horse may quickly become dull or even lean into the pressure. The same concept applies on the ground and under saddle.
5. Maintaining Energy
Every horse should learn to mirror her human partner’s level of energy, not simply to harmonize with her, but also to achieve proper impulsion.
Do you know the difference between IMPULSION and IMPULSIVENESS?
A horse with IMPULSION can move in any direction at any time in any chosen speed. She possesses simultaneously both energy and relaxation.
An IMPULSIVE horse lacks relaxation. She possesses a tight body and displays inconsistent levels of energy that react, rather than respond, to her human partner or the environment. Impulsiveness can be caused by poor health, discomfort arising from poorly fitting tack, or the rider’s inability to ride fluidly; a stiff, unbalanced, or bouncing rider can create an impulsive horse.
IMPULSION provides ENGAGEMENT of the hind legs, which step deeper under the horse’s body, under the horse’s center of gravity, and can help shift the horse’s weight over her hind legs. This shift in weight leads to a better POSTURE, and eventually COLLECTION.
6. Maintaining Posture
You can compromise the health of a horse with poor posture, particularly if you ride often. A proper stretched posture followed by a collected posture should be encouraged as soon as possible in your training program, first on the ground and then under saddle. Achieving a collected posture depends on many factors, including your ability to help your horse achieve a healthy posture without depending too heavily on the lead line or reins; your ability to ride in a refined fashion; and your horse’s level of attention and ability to maintain gait, direction, relaxation, engagement, and impulsion. Ideally, the horse is trained towards improved lateral and vertical balance in every session, so that she learns to maintain her body in an upright position, not leaning inside or out.
Care for and educate your horse, dedicate yourself to never-ending self-improvement and continuously advance your leadership and partnership qualities.
Care for my horse.
Being the human that your horse needs you to be, includes providing all the necessities (food, water, shelter, and turn out, as well as all vet, dental, and farrier services) to preserve a good quality of life for your horse. Their well-being is our responsibility.
What horses offer to us in return is absolutely priceless. It is a God given gift and should be cherished as such.
If you want to sweep the benefits of having a horse in your life, provide her with the best care that you can afford. In return you will have a higher chance of a healthy horse to last you her lifetime.
2. Educate my horse.
Judge your horse’s actions with compassion and empathy. Your horse is doing the best that she knows, relying on her genetic codes and learned responses.
Too often we blame our horses for their “inappropriate” actions, denigrating them as stupid, lazy, or stubborn. But remember that horses find themselves in our lives and our environment through no fault of their own. Their genetic codes help them survive in the wild, not in our human environment.
It remains our responsibility to teach our horses how best to live and act in our environment.
Sadly, many people do not have, or do not take the time (to learn, to spend with their horse), or the money (sending a horse to a good trainer) to do so. Most people also do not realize how little they know about horses when they get one. Often, they do not see the small signs that lead to bigger problems. “Suddenly” their horse over-reacts, they get hurt, and then they blame their horse for her actions.
Another common unfortunate scenario is the lack of understanding of many horse owners, of what defines a solid foundation in a horse. Way too many riders attempt to specialize in a certain discipline, before a solid foundation is set in place or choose a level within such discipline way higher than what the horse is ready for. On average, it takes about 360 sessions, by a good trainer, to achieve a solid foundation in a horse, which typically takes a little over a year, if worked regularly.
We are with our horse who we are in general. Our tendencies will reveal themselves.
When my training session with a horse goes south, I take a hard look at myself and my approach first. I ask myself: “How can I adjust my sessions to help my horse figure this out?” “Maybe our sessions are too short?” “Perhaps I haven’t broken down the training process into small enough pieces?” “Perhaps I’m using the wrong tool or technique?” “Maybe the session contains too much variety, or the pressure comes on too quickly, too strongly or I don’t provide enough release?” If I cannot find the answer within myself, I seek advice from one of my mentors and I urge that you do so as well. After many years of learning, my mentors reside inside of my head, so to speak. I hear them talking to me at times like these.
I also frequently remind myself one of my favorite quotes, making sure that I am doing right by the horse:
“There is no need for temples, and there’s no need for complicated philosophy. Our brain and our heart is our temple, the philosophy is kindness.” The Dalai Lama
3. Improve Communication between You and Your Horse
Nonverbal communication, idea-intension-signal-technique-fair phases-release, lake versus ocean, threatening versus non-threatening stimuli, from a sign to a meaning, negative and positive reinforcement and reading horses.
Genuine communication depends on two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. People normally communicate verbally, but this cannot define human and equine communication, which instead depends mainly on the body: body language is universal.
We often overlook body language when communicating with others, and yet it can be extremely powerful and carry much meaning. As we enter the horse’s world we must learn their language, the non-verbal one. This process develops through four distinct phases:
Our communication stems from our intentions, our ideas, our vision, our emotions, or our thoughts. We should first have a clear picture in our mind of what we want our horse to do. It is important to be calm and not allow anger and frustrations create foggy thinking, which prevents us from sending clear signals to our horse.
Then we should signal our intensions to the horse through the focus of our eyes and how we position our body, or parts of our body, to ask our horse to do something for us.
Finally, we need to know what technique to use in order to guide our horse, and how to apply phases of pressure fairly.
The moment the horse starts responding to our suggestion correctly, we should let her know that she is on the right track, by releasing any pressure applied, or softening to the lightest possible pressure, softening our muscles which applied the pressure.
Horses are very perceptive animals. By nature, if paying attention to us, they will notice any slight changes within our body; tension, sneaky movements, hesitation, relaxation or movement of our hand for example. The front of our body tends to apply a lot more pressure at a horse, then our side, or our back. This can be positively used when more pressure needs to be applied, or when we need to approach an unsure horse in a softer way.
By nature, for safety reasons mainly, horses pay attention to patterns - to a sequence of events, of what happened before something else happened. A simple example; a noise in the bushes, then a mountain lion jumps out of it to attack the horse. If the horse survives the encounter, the next time the horse hears a noise in any bushes, she will most likely run and for sure she will also avoid the territory where he encountered the mountain lion, if that is at all possible. This allows the horse to learn from past experiences, change its behavior – a response to a stimulus and avoid dangerous situations. On the other hand, horses have an instinct of rapid desensitization as well. Meaning, that if a non-threatening event takes place, such as a noise in the bushes caused by the wind and then nothing happens, the horse registers it as non-threatening and will soon learn not react to it. Wasting much energy for no reason, could be deadly in the wild, because the horse might not have enough energy left at a time of a real attack by a predator.
Gestures have a meaning. Always be aware of what you are doing in and with your body.
Learn to be still. “Be a lake, not an ocean before a storm.”
“Be a lake.” If I throw a stone into a still lake, I can observe the effects of the rock’s landing. On the other hand, if I throw a stone into the ocean during a storm, I see nothing: start from a quiet posture, from neutral and as much as possible return to this neutral position. If your body acts like the ocean during a storm and then you add a gesture to it, the horse may have gotten desensitized to it by then - just like the horse desensitized to the wind blowing the leaves in the bushes and she won’t even notice it. If you start of as a still lake and then add a gesture, the horse will be more likely to notice it. Remember this, before you signal your horse with each signal.
Within a sign language, each sign has a meaning assigned to it. While teaching a horse we come up with a sign, which may also be referred to as a cue, we assign it a meaning to the horse and then through consistency, repetition and motivation, the horse will learn to respond to it. Each horse is very capable of learning what a certain stimulus or a sign means.
There are three ways of going about motivating a horse in a training session, either by using negative reinforcement (applying uncomfortable pressure to cause a change of behavior where then the release of pressure which follows becomes the motivator– causing the horse to respond to the sign in a way we wanted him to), by adding something positive after the desired behavior is shaped – using positive reinforcement, commonly used in target training, or we can combine the negative with the positive reinforcement.
There are many studies available these days on the internet on the two types of reinforcements used in training horses and the pros and cons of each of them. I will talk more about each of those from my perspective in detail later in the book, but for now an example of positive reinforcement: you can ring a bell by the barn, then feed the horse. Do that few times and soon the horse will know what will follow the ring of the bell and she may come up even quicker. You point at a cone with your finger (sign), wait for the horse to seek for it, the horse touches the cone with her nose (desired behavior) and you give her a treat (positive reinforcement), is another example. You just communicated to your horse in a way she understood, and you motivated her to want to be a part of the conversation, the training session. If the horse did not seek the cone with her nose, as a trainer, you could break the session down to smaller steps and help her understand what you were asking of her.
Commonly, people with lack of experience of being around horses tend to mis-interpret the horses’ non-verbal body language and their behavior. It takes much time and experience, to be able to read a horse’s body language correctly. The best way to learn about it, is to observe horses in a good size herd (at least 2-3 minimum) during their normal daily activities out in the pasture. Paying close attention to the ear positions, the focus of their eyes and ears, position of their neck, tension within the neck and/or the body, the gestures they use to communicate with each other, the threatening signals they send before they approach another horse in a dominant way, the high headed stair-y look far into the distance right before the horse bolts and runs off in fear, the loud snore before a horse up on adrenaline jumps around the field with its tail up, submissive signals of a foal, protective behavior of a dam with a foal, the swooshing of a tail in discomfort, or before a kick is applied and many, many more.
4. Dedicate Yourself to Never-Ending Self-Improvement
Horses hold the key to the gate to our better-selves.
It is all too easy to blame our horse when something goes wrong in our partnership with her. The real challenge involves looking at ourselves, digging deep within, and changing ourselves so that we can become better leaders, educators and partners to our horses.
How can I make myself worthy enough to be entrusted by my horse in her presence and on her back? How can I make myself worthy enough that my horse will want to connect with me?
Improving your horse means improving your own emotional, physical, mental and spiritual fitness. I start with emotional fitness, because in my experience this quality usually needs the most improvement. No person will ever succeed with a horse without a high level of emotional fitness. When emotions dominate our brain, we become distracted, focused on emotion rather than constructive thinking. Once you resolve this emotional state you can free your mind and access your true capabilities.
Be aware not just of the external world, but of what goes on inside of you.
It is not uncommon, that emotions such as anger, impatience, doubt or discouragement, will at some point surface up during your journey with your horse. All those represent emotional reactions to your own fears of failure and rejection, and lack of self-belief and self-confidence.
Remember that your frustrations should not be directed at your horse.
Frustrations usually reveal the need for more knowledge, or for a more realistic timeline.
Think about this statement: everything can be taken from you but the attitude to choose one’s own way. Attitude is a choice. Always maintain or quickly regain a positive attitude: avoid saying “I can’t do that”; rather think “I can’t do that yet.” Or even better, “I can do this.”, “I will be able to do this one day.”
When negative emotions arise, are you capable of recognizing what has happened to you and then working through it? If a training session has gone badly,
1. Stop. Step away and calm yourself; breathe and center yourself. Ask yourself, “What has happened and why?”
2. Make sure that you interpret your situation fairly and accurately. Strip your evaluation of the situation down to the facts. What has really happened?
3. Look at the situation from your horse’s point of view.
4. Change your approach; seek guidance from a mentor who can help you achieve your goal.
5. Remember that training horses does not recognize time limits. People created time, not horses.
“The trick lies in what one emphasizes; we either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong--the amount of work is the same.” Don Juan, a fictional character.
Your thoughts will become your words,
your words will become your actions,
your actions will become your attitude,
your attitude will become your character.
Be aware of the words you use; avoid using words that handicap you. This will help you start attending to your own thoughts and intentions. Notice, for example, how the word finally, even though it brings a feeling of relief, also suggests a lack of patience, an unrealistic timeline, and an absence of faith. Don’t diminish your progress and success by creating your own handicaps; rather, encourage yourself by becoming your own cheerleader. Use positive words to pump yourself up. Most of the time you will be alone with your horse; then only you can guide yourself through emotionally challenging situations.
Don’t strive for perfection; strive for improvement.
We cannot attain perfection and searching for it only places additional burdens on a rider and her horse.
Turn your weaknesses into your strengths.
If you think to yourself that “I can’t,” change this to “I must” to give yourself some courage, or to “I can’t yet” to give yourself and your horse more time. Every time you say, “I can’t,” put $10 in a jar. At the end of the year, mail me the money. I’m just kidding, but you get the point.
As a teenager I was both impatient and goal oriented. I set unrealistic deadlines, placing great pressure on both myself and my horses. I achieved many goals, but at what cost? Nowadays I avoid setting deadlines for myself and yet find that I achieve results much more quickly. My students now tell me that I am one of the most patient people they’ve ever met, a transformation that has taken much effort and many years of self-discipline to achieve.
If I can do it, so can you!
In My Experience (2): Tom and the lay down
As a teenager I taught a horse named Tom, a short, draft breed type of horse, to lay down. He was the first horse I ever taught to do anything new. I worked on the laydown for weeks and it just wasn’t happening. One Saturday, when I had all day to hang out, I decided to work on it again. Shortly into our session it started pouring, but I was determined to lay him down; it had to happen on this day. Why? because I had the time to do it—all day—and because I had become impatient to achieve my goal. After two hours in the round pen I finally succeeded in laying him down. My technique was gentle (I didn’t use ropes, but simply held one of his legs up while asking him with my hand on his chest for a backup), but harsh in terms of consequences when he didn’t give me any effort – I made him run. After two hours he was exhausted, both of us drenched from the rain and covered in the mud that splashed as I chased him around the ring. He finally gave up and went down. But instead of celebrating our triumph, I undermined our success by forcing him to lay down two more times after that, which took another hour, because I had been told that horses don’t really learn until they’ve repeated a lesson three times. The third time he laid down I could not get him back up, his exhaustion as great as mine! He laid there, in the mud and rain, for another forty-five minutes.
Nonetheless I ran back to the barn to share the news, and my pride and excitement, with Honza, busy working on some project at the barn that morning. When I told him that I had laid Tom down three times, I expected that his excitement would match mine, but instead he shrugged and asked me why I had insisted on three laydowns. After I explained my reasoning he dryly replied that I should have quit after the first time, shook his head, and walked away. Honza taught me an important lesson that day. I had achieved my goal but exhausted my horse. Tom, a very tough and gritty horse, recovered from our session and even forgave me: the laydown became one of his favorite tricks—a thinking introvert, he found food an important motivator—and our partnership grew over time as I learned more.
Riding is a physical activity.
People who have never ridden often think, that riders simply sit on their horses. Those who actually ride know this isn’t true. Riding is not about staying on top of your horse, but establishing a positive connection with her, which takes feel, timing, balance, and tremendous focus. The simple act of guiding your horse in the direction you want her to go, at the speed you want her to take, demands great energy and finesse, while complicated performance maneuvers can ask for elite skill and talent.
Most horse lovers dream of becoming one with their horse, of finding harmony. Physical fitness plays a big role in this dream and can be vital for one’s safety. Horses are sensitive animals who instantly recognize any tension, stiffness, or lack of balance in their rider. A good horse for a beginner will be tolerant and forgiving.
To develop your fitness as a rider, you will need to work on the following:
First, every rider should learn good balance: avoid falling off of your horse.
Develop a fluid independent seat to prevent yourself from balancing on your horse’s mouth by pulling on the reins.
Allow the impact of the horse’s stride to run through your pelvis and harmonizing with the horse’s back’s movement, your lower back (slight front to back motion), and the joints of your legs (up and down motion), yet keep the upper back strong, in an upright posture.
Be flexible enough to follow your horse in unanticipated changes of direction or speed; these can occur suddenly and without warning. When you can adapt to the unexpected, you can remain in harmony with your horse. During a training session, the rider may follow the horse, while at other times the horse may follow the rider; ideally you can preserve harmony through both. Yet times of disharmony may be necessary when you need to interrupt or change a pattern in your horse.
With work and practice your timing and feel will improve. Artistic people tend to have more feel than analytical thinkers, but good horsemanship requires, and reinforces, both feel and thought. Feel also improves with greater focus. By looking ahead, a rider not only guides her horse in the correct direction, but also increases her feel for what the horse does underneath her. People often compensate for their blindness by improving their “feel,” and this can happen in horseback riding as well. When a rider focuses on looking ahead into the distance, she can barely see her horse, but starts feeling her much more.
Horsemanship requires a new physical skill set, both in the handling of new tools, aids, and techniques, and in the coordination of body parts that usually work in isolation. Trying to learn these new skills may at first make us feel incompetent, but with practice they become more natural. Eventually, we can master a particular skill and eventually employ it without thought. Some people learn new skills easily, while others have to work harder and repeat their lessons over time. Some dyslectic students I have taught may require mirrored coaching sessions so as not to confuse right with left.
I also highly recommend cross training by pursuing other physical activities, especially if you ride only infrequently.
In My Experience (3): Legacy and Lesson Learned
In 2013 I trained a big stocky chestnut mare, a mustang from the wild named Legacy. After 127 days of training, we competed together at the Mustang Million competition in Fort Worth, TX, for a chance to win part of $200,000 in prize money. The competition was tough and included many World Champions, winners of hundreds of thousands of dollars in their lifetimes; many competitors were older and more experienced than I. Two hundred and fifty trainers registered to compete, and, if I remember correctly, 191 actually participated.
I had never been this nervous showing a horse before, because success in this competition could provide the resources to finally purchase my own farm. The first preliminary class was a pattern class. It included leading the horse in, bridling the horse, mounting, and demonstrating transitions, lead departures, roll backs, stops, and a backup; after a dismount, the pattern concluded when the rider picked her horse’s feet up. As the gate started to open for my entrance, I tried to calm my wild pounding heart and shallow breathing, but, before I could even enter, the gate closed in front of me: the judges had requested a last-minute bathroom break!
This unexpected pause increased my anxiety, my adrenaline rising, my hands shaking. I remember joking with a bystander, remarking that I’d rather the judges go now rather than have the urge to pee while watching my run; I unsuccessfully tried to calm myself by insisting that this break actually favored me. When the judges returned to their seats I finally began my routine, but remained nervous throughout, until the very last stop when Legacy tucked her powerful hind end under herself and performed a beautiful sliding stop, bringing a cheer from majority of the audience. At that moment I lost my concentration, my mind losing its focus on my horse and routine and instead shifting to the audience. A feeling of accomplishment and relief literally overwhelmed me and I suddenly anticipated completing my pattern and leaving the arena. At that moment I thought to myself, “That’s it: all I have to do is hop off, pick-up her feet, and be done.” A quick thought ran through my brain: “what a great run and now I’m almost finished.” I briskly dismounted, picked-up all four feet, nodded to the judges, and walked off.
The applause of the crowd that I expected to fill the building never came. Looking up into the audience I saw a frozen-jawed look of surprise on the face of one of my friends, and after just a few steps I suddenly realized why: I had forgotten to back up my horse after the stop, as the pattern demanded. A simple mistake had ruined my chances for success at this competition. Little mistakes like that can cost a competitor a place in the finals, and the crowd knew this as it sat in silence.
Worth ten points per judge, the backup, which Legacy normally performed so well, would cost me twenty points, leaving me in fifty-second place after the first preliminary class. I did not give up, however, and battled through the second and third rounds with amazing runs. At the end of the preliminaries we sat in twenty-fifth place, only eight points from the Top 20, who would compete for the $200,000. Sitting in the audience, watching them perform, I was sick to my stomach. I knew that the freestyle we had prepared would have placed us in the top five, which would have meant at least $30,000.
Some lessons are hard learned. My mental disconnection from my horse and the pattern basically cost me a chance at owning a farm. After many months I realized that it just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I learned a lesson about the power of mental connection and focus that I will never in my life forget. That lesson cannot be bought—it is either gifted to one and comes naturally, or one must earn it. I have certainly earned mine.
Being truly present in each moment and staying mentally connected to your horse is not an easy task, particularly under the added pressure of competition. Emotional and physical fitness go hand in hand with mental fitness. Negative emotions especially can fog our brain and cause it to lose focus, but on rare occasions positive emotions can do so as well. Physical pain can also distract a rider, disrupting her relationship with her horse.
Discover higher levels of awareness.
Paying attention to your horse means noticing the slight changes in her body, understanding her thoughts, feelings, and attitude, recognizing how she responds to you, whether relaxed or tense.
How many times has something outside of the pen distracted your horse, and then you? Can you stay focused on the session, no matter what? When by-standers come by the round pen to watch you work with your horse, does that interrupt your session, making you nervous, disturbing your mental connection to your horse? A good rider must of course be aware of her surroundings: are horses being fed nearby? is a plastic bag being blown towards the round pen during a windy day? is a scary tractor about to drive by, or a large trailer introduce new horses to the scene? Because such distractions can affect your horse’s behavior, you will need to adjust your own behavior and strategy to help your horse, but you must readjust your focus on your horse without losing your mental connection.
Say yes to the meaningful power within you.
Connect with who you are meant to be, with your purpose in life, and you will benefit everyone around you. You will start to see positive effects in other aspects of your life as well. Step through the gate that the horse will help you open and you will learn to connect to the source of living.
In my belief, you are part of God’s masterplan and He created you, just the way you authentically are, for a reason, for a purpose. That is why, I believe, it is so very important to tap into your true self. Trusting your instincts, your intuition, is so very important.
5. Continue to Develop the Qualities that Advance Leadership and Partnership
Leadership represents a process of social influence that maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal.
A good leader motivates and inspires confidence in her horse, fulfilling her implicit promise to be fair, empathetic, compassionate, and observant. A leader listens to her senses, follows her gut feelings, and recognizes her innate ability to know what is right. Sensitive and aware, she uses her instincts to work for her horse, not against her. She knows her subject, understands it, and recognizes how to help her horse understand it. She doesn’t take anything personally, looks at things from her horse’s perspective, and treats each horse with dignity.
She realizes that her presence affects her horse, either positively or negatively.
When the latter occurs, she can ask herself, “What can I change?” She doesn’t worry about making a mistake, knowing that other opportunities for success will arise. She understands that there is no profit or benefit in fighting with her horse.
She prioritizes what should be done, rather than what she wants to do.
When with your horse always think in terms of “us/we” rather than “I,” “let’s do this” rather than “do this.” The “I attitude” is a selfish one that makes us too critical and places excessive pressure on a rider. In comparison, the “us/we attitude” creates room for teamwork and partnership, refocusing a rider on the needs and desires of her horse.
We ought to do everything FOR our horse, for her well-being, not TO our horse.
Becoming the person your horse wants you to be represents a process in which you learn to guide her through the complex and disturbing human environment in which she finds herself.
Dominant, aggressive, or, on the other hand, passive riders do not make good leaders. A dominant person focuses primarily on the outcome, harbors “against me” thoughts, and spoils for a fight. She uses high phases of pressure very quickly, too firmly, and creates fear in her horse. A passive rider, on the other hand, lacks will power, feels responsible for everything, and blames herself. Uncertain, indecisive, and lacking clarity, she fears to follow through and get firmer when necessary.
Can you let go of your feelings of superiority and open yourself to the possibility of a balanced mutual partnership with your horse?
A good leader uses simple, kind, and effective tools with great feel. They represent her channel of communication with her horse, and help the horse understand what is being asked of her. Reins exist primarily to receive information. A tool only becomes bad in the wrong hands (when used negatively, aggressively, or ignorantly), but there is also such a thing as a wrong tool, one that doesn’t help appropriately.
4. FINDING BALANCE
Being AWARE that something is out of balance is the first step to finding balance. Being in a constant SEARCH FOR BALANCE, is the action that will help us find balance. I call it THE SWING. In my program, I focus on several of those swings in isolation, while being aware about all of them, ideally, at the same time. It is important to be able to recognize when one of them starts getting out of balance, to be able to swing the swing the opposite way, before the unbalanced side starts causing problems. Having such awareness usually improves with experience. The goal is to find the ideal balance for you and your horse.
Each horse owner has different goals with their own horse(s) and so the definition of their horse’s ideal balance may differ from someone else’s ideal. For example, a cutting horse must be super quick on its feet and very responsive, using much energy for its performance, while a horse used during a beginner type lesson may need to learn to ignore certain stimuli - the mistakes made by the inexperienced child. It is usually best, if this lesson horse uses less energy rather than too much of it, to help keep the child safe. Each to its own applies here.
To be continued (updated on 4-21-2020) ...Please check back soon!
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