The One Rein Stopped.

A glorious dawn ride down the beach this morning with my good horse McCoy, and my friend with her beautiful young warmblood, who I call The Unicorn because he is simply too pretty to be allowed. McCoy is innately a ‘react first think later’ type, and the young horse was green as grass, but very well prepared for his ride by his savvy owner.

The tide was in and the beach was stony, so we decided to come back through the tracks behind the dunes, a hilly, brush covered area with narrow paths, good firm sandy footing and lots of bushes and plants. The track is fun and McCoy felt full of himself as he surged up hills and gave some beautifully walk/canter transitions. We have hooned that track before, so he has exciting associations with it, but today we had the baby Unicorn with us, and I myself was very aware that McCoy was fresh too, and hadn’t been out for a while, so we were keeping it generally to a walk apart from the occasional hill.

As we were walking along in single file, McCoy and I in front and The Unicorn behind, suddenly Something Happened. We don’t know what ‘it’ was, and being in NZ with no crocs, bears, or wolves to worry about, I expect it doesn’t really matter; though later in the inevitable raking over, we surmised it may have been one of our own dogs.

What does matter though, is what happened to our horses, as they both went from a walk to a flat out gallop in a single horse moment; which is equivalent to the one quarter of a second that it takes a horse’s reflexes to kick in.

Both horses panicked and both riders, within four strides, had already applied our one rein emergency stop, so both horses, in synchrony, stopped, bent to the left, disengaged and ended up looking back the way we came.

All of us had bounding heart rates and a massive adrenaline hit from the near miss, as we assessed the danger and reset our nervous systems.

This could have gone wrong in so many ways. I think that had I been travelling with a less experienced rider on the Unicorn, or had she been riding with a less experienced combination, that the story would have been quite different. If either one of our horses hadn’t had a good one rein stop installed, or if either rider wasn’t so conditioned that we instantly reached for it instead of pulling back with two reins, it would have been a flat out bolt for home, taken longer to stop, been much more dangerous as the speed increased, and other combination would have been in much more trouble as well as the bolting horse departed. Most likely it would have been two horses running for their lives.

So the lesson is this. Preparation has been drilled into my by my mentor Russell Higgins.

Or as the good man Warwick Schiller also succinctly puts it- ‘you need to create a tool to use a tool’.

Lateral flexion is a part of the picture. Your horse needs to instinctively respond to one rein with a soft yield, even if his fear is up. Hindquarter control is another part.

There’s a train of thought that tells us that hindquarter disengagement is not a good thing biomechanically for our horses, and this is true. It requires that the weight go to the forehand in order to move those hind feet. However it’s pretty critical in moments when you need to take the power away from the engine that is that powerful, pushing hind. For this reason I have a little routine when I mount up, that I run through every time. Lateral flexion to left? Check. Hindquarter disengage to the right? Check. Weight change, lift forehand, step forefeet around hind, move forward out of that, Check. Backup, weight back on quarters? Check.

Repeat both ways.

This little routine solidifies my muscle memory for each move, and checks out how responsive my horse is at it too. It reminds me to use different rein, leg and seat cues to affect different parts of my horse’s body. It’s a great game as you can test how little it takes, every time, and it’s a little prerequisite test to every ride to ensure my horse and I are in tune.

I think it saved my butt today, and helped my friend save hers too, just as her own prior preparation meant that she too could bring her horse swiftly back under control, in what could have been the perfect storm.

We did good, I think!

Bridging the divides.

In a discussion forum recently, an article written by a professional positive reinforcement (R+) horse trainer on the meaning of the lick and chew came up for discussion.

It was bursting with science about learning, and the nervous system, and it was discussing the connection between stress and the lick and chew. So far so good.

However, references were also made in comparison to natural horsemanship (NH) and traditional horsemanship (TH) training, specifically comparing ‘reward based training vs ‘dominance based training’ and how in the author’s opinion, using dominance causes a rise in stress (hence the lick and chew) and that this was bad for the horse.

That point became a central one for discussion in the ensuing thread, and a few horror stories and the resultant bashing of NH and TH at its worse ensued.

This bothered me, a lot, because it is very common, no matter which camp you are in, to see articles and blogs that point out and criticise the very worst seen in any other method than that of the given author. It bothered me because of the generalisation too. ‘Traditional’ and ‘Natural’ horsemanship both stand alone as terms that encompass a vast variety and level of techniques, knowledge, skills, tools, and attitudes within their scope, let alone lumping them both together.

This tendency for ‘us vs them’ seems to pop up in A few (not all!) R+ articles right now, I believe, because clicker trainers are the new kids on the block and they have had to struggle to prove that clicker training is relevant to horses (and oh boy, it is!) in a world that is steeped in the tradition of centuries without a click.

I can actually recall seeing Natural Horsemanship articles making similar comparisons to Traditional Horsemanship twenty odd years ago, and it didn’t help much then, either. One of the worst things Pat Parelli, as the man who coined the phrase ‘Natural Horsemanship’, ever said, despite it being more true than not in many places, was ‘watch what everyone else is doing and do the opposite’. The immediate effect that had on the ‘everyone else’ was not to embrace his ideas!

I personally love clicker training, but I myself have recently experienced the raised eyebrows and dismissive comments from the yet uninitiated on hearing me click, which was entirely reminiscent of similar incidences with TH friends in the past when I first crossed into the ‘darklands’ of NH.

I am forever the filling in the sandwich!

But, regardless where your thoughts lay, putting each other down stands directly between any student who feels judged by this sort of opinion, and new knowledge that could help them become a better horseperson.

It encourages division between us, and the ones that suffer most from this are the horses.

So, why do we do it?

I think that the reason why this type of sweeping judgment occurs is twofold.

Firstly; it’s self defence. In the case I’m speaking of, clicker training and R+ is relatively uncommon and rather different from the traditional horsemanship methods, and some practitioners are naturally defensive because they have been scoffed at. (Anyone who started NH 15 years plus ago will also know the feeling well! I lost friends over it.)

It hurts and irritates, especially when you know your thing is a really good thing (and CT is!). If you have been wrongfully belittled, it’s even understandable to want to demonise the belittlers in return. Even if you don’t, just the inherent subtext that ‘this is a better way’ implies to others that the very thing that they are doing instead is being judged by you, even if it genuinely isn’t intended.

Remember, we are talking about people’s life passion in many cases. And so the conversation devolves as everyone gets defensive and puts the shields up.

Science is one way to validate what we do, and it backs it up very well. Most clicker trainers I know are extremely knowledgeable people. Their shield is made of science, but that shield also can imply that the other sucks, when it is skewed by assumptions about what exactly ‘everyone else’ is doing. Which leads to the second reason.

Secondly: ignorance and assumption. Many of the disaffected really do believe NH/TH is fear based training, and usually for very good reasons. They have seen it happening. Or they themselves were taught it by someone who didn’t understand the principles (and there are principles!) and therefore found it didn’t help them or their horses. We’ve all seen the mistreatment of horses at shows. Emotions rise with expectations, practises such as Rollkur for dressage, rapping for showjumping, and soring for the Big Lick all effect. It’s a sad truth that because horses are associated with horse sports, that people judge winners to be the epitome of good horsemanship, and obviously this is not the case when horses are suffering for their ribbons.

We all make easy assumptions that fit with our own bias; and this is not just with horses; it’s an issue in every polemic argument that exists. I am suggesting that perhaps the method is not necessarily the problem, but rather it’s the polemics thinking itself.

Any ethical trainer, wanting to differentiate from unethical practice, knows what she doesn’t want to do, and that is training that uses force, fear, and intimidation. Yes, abusive training does exist, but that does not mean that everyone with a rope in one hand without a clicker in the other is abusive.

Force, fear and intimidation are a subset that fall under the term ‘dominance’; and even the perpetrators themselves who do abuse, justify this abuse by saying ‘dominance is natural’. The word ‘dominance’ is reduced and misunderstood by both the people using it badly, and any people looking for them to use as an example of what not to do.

Words easily become misused when we are looking for extremes to fuel our polemic points of view.

The word ‘dominant’ is a perfect example. If you look in the dictionary, it actually means ‘to use power and influence over others’, not specifically to abuse power and intimidate. Yes, that is still definitely a subset, but it’s not what the word is meant to express in its entirety.

eg as a salesperson I dominate my market, but not by bullying.

Then, on checking the animal behaviour science definition of the word, it tells us that to be dominant means no more than ‘to have preferred access to resources’.

So by those two official definitions, literally any and all ‘training’ is ‘dominant’. Including positive reinforcement.

It’s a subtle point, but an important one. And it’s the reason I put ‘dominance based training’ in inverted commas.

We don’t usually call any training outright ‘punishment based’, but that is the implication of differentiating between ‘dominant based’ vs ‘reward based’ and as we know, labels do filter our view of things. It’s a mental trick that takes the ‘reinforcement’ out of the vernacular- it’s now reduced to either positive or negative in all the lay associations- and then puts the spotlight on the positive ‘punishment’ that is the alternative to the negative ‘reinforcement’.

Of course we can do the same thing to R+ and reduce it to all be about the need/desire for food, and infer that it’s only through the withholding of food that the animal performs. ‘Resource management’ is a term used in labs to describe starving the rats before an experiment so they are more desperate to try an R+ based experiment; and that is not exactly a kindness, right?

However, it’s also a cheap shot to imply that is what all R+ trainers are up to (they most certainly are NOT) and we need to stop taking cheap shots.

Most people I know are not deliberately withholding food OR threatening to physically harm their horse. Yes, many other people do use punishment, but those are not the ones who will change because they read an article shaming them. More usually the reaction is to double down and to deny.

We know not to label our horses, and yet we do it to each other.

We see what we expect to see. And by this I do not mean that we cannot recognise real abuse when we see it.

What I mean is we can mistakenly label anything ‘dominant’ as abuse; and that that is an error.

Today we have so much information freely available at our fingertips. Behavioural science has reached the laity, and is out there for all to discover, and people from all over the spectrum eagerly read and absorb the information and reflect upon it…and all too often, through partial understanding and various forms of bias, start putting some sort of spin on it. Not understanding as much as we think we do is one part of the problem.

There is much misunderstanding and making of assumptions between the ‘us and them’ mindsetters.

One very common misperception is that NH/TH does not include any R+; or that if it does, it’s ‘pressure with a click’. This can be true, but it’s a mistake that knowledge can easily rectify. You can do both, provided you and your horse are very clear on which you are using and when.

I personally know that it is very possible to be a mixed methodologist without poisoning cues or charming aversives.

However that is true today, before the science hit the mainstream, we didn’t think in terms of R+ vs R-. We just trained horses. Sometimes we used pressure, sometimes we used rewards. Most people who were interested in partnership and connection did a bit of both, completely unaware that there were scientific labels that differentiated the practice. Yes, without a doubt our methodology was flawed. We didn’t know about bridging/marking, we didn’t understand any of the scientific terms either. But those who did well with horses learned to have good focus, feel, timing and balance in all aspects of interaction.

I know that for many traditionalists, using food rewards was a no no; because they did not understand R+ as a method, or even how to give a treat without causing issues with biting. That is a symptom of ignorance and incomplete horsemanship, and even protectiveness as in not wanting to model behaviour to others that might get someone else bitten, or not wanting to risk teaching it to a horse who may get in trouble for it later in less experienced hands. Mostly I think it came down to habit, belief and preference.

What it is not, is a prerequisite to being a traditionalist.

Nevertheless, most traditional people I grew up with still hand fed their horses, and rewarded them for trying.

With the advent of NH, for me, came actual overt permission- we were encouraged to use food rewards, specifically as an alternative to pressure, especially with horses that needed to find their motivation. We did trail rides with carrots hidden at certain destinations. We would ask for go once, take what was offered, and on arrival at the cache, let the horses find the food. Or we would take a long focus on a clump of grass, ride to it, and wait, and now allow him to graze. Doing that alone has made a vast difference to how all my horses view heading out for a ride; as it addresses go and whoa, and teaches the horse that it pays to follow my focus, and a cue for when it’s ok to eat. Win win.

What I was actually told not to do by NH was to kick my horses to go (I was told that if I kick, I deserved to be bucked off), pull the reins to stop, or to nag nag nag with pressure. By the time we were riding, our horses understood the cue for ‘go’; because we had thinly sliced the lessons beforehand in groundwork to make it clear. Yes, successive approximations, even if we didn’t know the term. If we needed to start two steps in front of a barrel loaded with carrots, that’s what we did.

I’m not saying that is the only way, but it was a part of the menu, to be chosen depending upon the horse and the circumstances. And circumstances and how the horse is feeling in the moment is very relevant to this conversation, because anyone who spends any time with practically any horse knows that when they get scared, then food becomes much less motivating. Sometimes, in a scary situation, that horse can’t even see me, let alone my treat pouch, and while I’m waiting for a behaviour that I can reward, I could get killed by my horse panicking in the process. So that brings up another aspect.


So let’s talk about another badly misunderstood word; stress.

This is another thing to consider. Not all, but some R+ purists (such as in the article I was reading) are perpetuating a myth that in training, any stress experienced at all is ‘bad’.

The reasoning is that it is unethical to use fear and intimidation to force an animal to comply.

I totally agree with that.

However, it is very seldom that I read any opinion that makes this point without it also implying that not only is ‘dominance based’ training unethical, but that the creation of fear is actually the central point of natural or traditional horsemanship.

The words ‘dominance based’ and ‘pressure based’ training are used to describe NH/TH; but the translation implied for both terms is ‘fear/pain/intimidation/force/punishment based’; in a manner that suggests that is the intended lever. ‘Do it or else’ in other words. A threat in every interaction. While this certainly is true of some people, I posit, that for many others, that this is more an accident born of lack of skill and knowledge, rather than by design.

I think it’s incorrect to imply any differently, and it needs to stop if we are truly wanting to change the world for the better for horses.

There is often a deep misunderstanding of the necessity of stress to provoke any action in life. The word ‘stress’ usually signifies to us one single subset; that of extreme/acute distress.

Google it- ‘workplace stress’ is the first that comes up. We know that prolonged stress is not good for any creature, and because we tend to live like that, and suffer for it, we are wary of it and think it’s all bad.

Think of it this way: survival is stressful.

Stress lives on a continuum stretching from mild discomfort and desire/urge for change (eustress) to full out panic (extreme distress). But no one ever disturbs the status quo of comfort, without some sort of stress, even if the stress concerned is a mere boredom or lack of stimuli. Stress is literally a mechanism for change and for survival. Because of it we seek comfort and love, and avoid discomfort and fear. If being hungry wasn’t a form of stress, we would never bother seeking food. It’s how we survive, learn and grow. It’s natural and normal and necessary, and coping with life is equivalent to being able to deal with stress.

For horses, even more than many creatures because they are prey animals, safety is a very large concern, and therefore stress is a large part of their lives. They know they taste good! From the moment they are born they are ready to run- that’s how evolution has provided for them. They are a precocial species. In order to survive, they need to know how to respond to danger in a manner that serves them. In the wild, the best strategy is to run, or if that fails, fight. Push through the pressure of predation and maybe you’ll be scarred, but you may live.

In the human world, in direct conflict to this instinct, survival usually boils down to knowing how to yield to pressure when their very nature is screaming ‘Fly! Fight! Or Freeze!’

We must be very clear that yielding when stressed is NOT natural to a horse. They need to learn to yield instead of flee, play instead of fight, and to think instead of freeze; and because we create the constraints that they may otherwise harm themselves with (stable doors, fences, bridles, boundaries, roads with traffic, busy competitions full of obstacles and people…absolutely anything that we are responsible for that can create pain and mayhem if crashed into in fear) it’s up to us to teach them.

One inbuilt assumption in the specific article/discussion about the lick and chew that started this ball rolling in my mind, was that the training method itself was the cause of the stress in the first place.

It was not considered that the NH trainers are looking for a way to lower an existing stress (which is usually the immediate goal of looking for the ‘lick and chew’) in order to start training, or that they are methodically building resistance to any future stress (the long game) in tiny increments, whilst honouring thresholds, and knowing full well that before any learning can take place, we need a baseline of calm.

It was not considered in that article that the ‘dominance based trainers’ are working towards creating a resilient learner who knows he can turn to his trainer when the world is on fire. Or perhaps that they are creating a tool so that when they need it, the horse will understand it.

Let’s not wait for the truck to be about to hit us before finding out if our horse can respond to us under stress, in other words.

It was obviously not known to the author that these ideas have been specifically taught to NH students for at least a decade (that was when I first heard the term ‘threshold’ in the context of training horses- despite it being a relatively new discussion for many people today).

Look, far too many purists of any method go the route of badmouthing everything ‘horsemanship’ that went before ‘their’ thing.

The most obvious and common form of this is strawmanning. Basically, they take a caricature ‘worst’ version of a ‘natural horsemanshit’ practitioner (who round pens to death, who recognised no stress thresholds, who frightens, who takes R- to ‘do it or else’ P+ and who never stops escalating -basically an ignorant person who has zero of the NH principles that were the original template- to see the world from the horse’s POV -and instead produces shut down robotic horses) and puts that picture up to harpoon, as if it is actually what all NH’ers aspire to.

It isn’t.

Those folk obviously do exist, but they do not represent the ideal. But NH is now a melting pot of all sorts, and pointing out that guy’s flaws and calling it NH or TH is a slap to everyone else who is not out there torturing their horse.

This particular problem is less so in R+ horsemanship so far because it’s so new, but it could easily happen that some variants will not follow the vital tenets that make R+ so great, and it would be equally unfair to judge the whole by that variant.

It’s basically like taking the worst student of any school, and holding their meanest version up as the gold standard for an entire field of learning.

It’s exactly as unfair and uncalled for as saying ‘all clicker trainers create spoilt horses’.

This is a problem. Not only is it deeply insulting to many people, it causes a divide amongst ethical trainers that is in no way a service to the horses. If people are too defensive to speak to each other, how can we share knowledge? It creates a divide to any learning of NH, or traditional methodology, that is tried and true best practice, and it also cuts off the desire to learn more about R+ in alienated practitioners because the impression is that the critics therein are perceived as so ‘holier than thou’.

And this stuff cuts deep- we are all passionate about what we do and we all have skin in the game.

It also does our own studentship no good. I personally once lost a 10 year life changing head start on my own journey, because I believed a mentor who despised the school that was finally the one to accelerate my learning beyond anything I had ever experienced before. That was a massive lesson in checking my sources and being open minded, and it cost me dearly. Ten years, at my physical peak, wasted.

So if we really want what is best for all horses, we need to stop it. Stop the straw manning, stop denigrating others, stop deliberately inferring that ‘they’ are wrong, no matter which method you support. Every method has its flaws and it’s strengths. Anyone can totally screw it up, and that doesn’t mean they represent the ideal form.

Training is preparation for life, and life is stressful. If you have a layer of bubble wrap between the real world and training, (I’ve heard it being distinguished as ‘management’ vs ‘training’) then what happens when you finally take it off? Likewise in my opinion, anyone who resists R+ in their own training is missing some of the absolute best moments you can possibly have with your horse, including incredible opportunity of bonding, problem solving, and not to mention classically conditioning the horse to just love the sight of you.

What we need to do is concentrate on what we do well, and celebrate it, share it, grow it. If and when we come up against an obstacle that our own preferred method cannot fix today, maybe then we can ask our friends on another path and maybe they will have a solution that helps us.

The bottom line is that good horsemanship across the board has much, much more in common than not. A good horseman or horsewoman has great focus, feel, timing and balance; emotionally, mentally, and physically. He wants what is best for the horse. She is intent on building a reliable, consistent relationship. She understands the relationship between trust, communication, and consensual leadership/followship/fellowship, and strives for the easy flow that occurs when we understand and have confidence in our partnership. He never forsakes ethics or practicality for ideology. His horse knows he can trust him, the horse is calm, because his trainer understands thresholds and he is accessing his seeker sense, he is curious and inspired to try.

We can all aspire to that, right?

Apache saved a life today…

At least, I hope she did.

Saturday morning began gloriously, the birds were singing, it was soft and warm. An invitation to take a ride. All three of my beauties in the home paddock were keen so we decided we would all go. Saddling was a joyful activity as Apache parked for her tack, Magic offered kisses, and inspired by a click, McCoy was handing me the pad, the saddle, a dog toy, some hay and a helpful ice cream container (which he found distressingly empty in the tack shed). It was a very interactive activity.

Apache was soon tacked up, relaxed, connected and engaged, and McCoy and Magic haltered up and ready. I put my helmet on, turned around… and everything had changed.

Apache was standing in the same space, but totally tense. Her head was twisting, ears airplaned, and actual tremors running through her body. I reached out in concern as she flinched sideways- what on earth was the matter? It seemed her focus was on her Self, and I thought maybe the saddle? I released the girth, checked for obvious discomfort, no change. At this point McCoy came over and put his chin on her withers. I have seen him do this with his herd before when they are in distress; he becomes the calm reassurance they need, the leader expressed as a Nurturer. His focus, like mine, was on Herd- specifically Apache. She flinched sideways again, away from the garden and into McCoy. He pressed her wither with his chin, breathing. I looked around.

I checked Magic, our most likely Sentinal, and she was staring into the garden, intense. That was when I realised all the bird song had stopped. But something was moving. A scurry, a pause. In the dark underbrush our magnificent black cat Jasper suddenly resolved out of the shadows and into sight, a tiny sparrow laying terrified before him, spasming. He pounced, and released. Apache flinched again.

Was it too late? I stepped between the outraged cat and his victim, and scooped up the poor tiny one, who trembled in my hand. I examined her- wings ok, no blood. Apache was now watching me. I showed her the bird, and was struck by the similarity of symptoms. She breathed, I breathed, and the bird panted. I swiftly took the little one away from the attention and lay her gently in the dog run (the wire netting is big enough for a bird to get out but not so big that a cat can get in) and closed the door. Would she make it? Shock can kill birds.

Apache was still trembling, McCoy still had his head over her wither.

We all waited and breathed, until Apache could think and respond again. A change of plan. No beach today. She started coming back to us mentally, and so I asked her to move. She could. She wanted to.

We still went for our ride, but now the motive was to just walk off the stress. We walked and walked, kept it calm. She was still hyper reactive, she wanted to trot but would frighten herself, then head flick if I picked up the rein. I think possibly she needs some toxin binder too; Apache is prone to reacting to fungi and weird grass conditions. We walked until that stopped. Eventually we found the best layside grass patch, and everyone reset to calm grazing. The birds were singing again.

When we got home the dog run was empty. Perhaps the bird lived.

At least, I hope she did.

Sticks and STOP signs.

‘My horse is scared of the stick.’

I’ve heard this many times, sadly, and it appears to be true for many horses and ponies. It would be hard to deny that it’s a fact.

However, as always, there is more to this story.

I have news. Your horse is probably not scared of ‘the stick’.

How to tell for sure?

Put the stick down, and back away. Observe.

Does the horse still seem scared of the stick?

Or is he only scared if it when someone is holding it?

Do you think that your horse is, rather, scared of what he thinks you might do with it?

There is a lot of controversy about sticks. We have a variety to choose from- whips, crops, bats, training sticks, carrot sticks, ‘arm extensions’, flags, stock whips, lunge whips. There are likewise a myriad of ways to utilise them. Some people don’t use them at all but instead transfer the controversy to a roll of rope, a lariat, or the end of a swinging leadrope instead.

One aspect of the controversy says this. Call it what you will, that is a weapon in your hand, and it only has one purpose.

It’s the belief in this ‘one purpose’ that causes the fear in the horse.

It’s also a myth. A stick can have many purposes.

Here’s what I would like you to consider.

A stick is just a stick. It’s the hands that can be the weapons, and it’s a rare horse that is scared of a stick that has no hands attached to it.

I sometimes use a stick. Sometimes I don’t, too. Sometimes, I use two! However, my sticks are not intended for the purpose of intimidation.

What I would love students to discover, is that a stick could conceivably represent only clear communication to a horse, if the hands that wield it are not violent.

That depends upon our ability to communicate effectively, and the horse remaining calm while we do so.

Of all the various names we give them, I like ‘arm extension’; because it describes how I personally use it very literally. At liberty in an open field, playing with three horses, my sticks are a great way to clarify meaning to a specific horse from a distance; to signal turns, to point, to reassure, to indicate when to wait and when to go. I can reach over one to stroke another, or below a belly to tickle a leg into considering stepping closer. I can flip the string around the girth, catch it at the elbow, and ‘leg yeild’ a horse towards me from the feel of that string on the far side. I can use it as a target to chase, or to position a hip through either body targeting or yielding. I can ride one horse while using the stick to talk to another, and all of us know exactly who is being addressed.

My stick is a tool for communication.

If the horse is not scared of me or my tools, I can use my stick to touch a fetlock that has never been touched before, and play advance and retreat at the very edge of comfort for that horse, with much less risk of having my face kicked in than if I used my hand, where the aforementioned face would be much closer to the stamping end.

I can also raise a stick in defence if a more dominant horse pushes a more submissive individual over me, or if an outside threat causes a panic run my way, or to protect my body from bold horse who just decided that I was standing in his right of way.

My creed today (it changes) is that sticks are not evil.

If you don’t want to use a stick, then that’s your choice. Personally I find them useful, but I know they are not for everyone, and in some cases they certainly shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, for the man who uses his hands as a weapon, the stick is still an ‘arm extension’…but a much more ominous one.

Regardless, I do not want my horse to be scared of me, of me carrying a stick, or of a random stranger on a beach carrying one, or of any of our tools, for that matter.

Horses are not born scared of sticks. The sad fact that many horses are, tells us how they have been treated.

So what do we do when our horse is scared of us or one of our tools?

Read & respond to STOP SIGNS

This is McCoy’s STOP Sign-and I don’t mean the yellow label! Read the tension in his mouth, jaw, tight facial muscles, fixed eye and tight neck. Note his ears are pricked. Some might say he looks interested, and actually he is. The Scary Thing (in this case it was first sight of a terrifyingly fluffy girth!) is extremely, desperately interesting. Interesting is not familiar, or comfortable. Interesting can be good or bad.

The process is always the same. I’ll outline it here in ‘stick context’. If your issue is a trailer or a bridle or some other, you’re smart enough to see how you can adjust the context and stick to the principles.

First up, set up the environment for successful training. My preference is to have the horse loose in an area where he can avoid me at choice. This keeps me honest and helps find his true threshold.

The threshold is where that horse very first feels the fear rising.

So step one: Systematic desensitisation.

This is a term that means different things to different people. Here is how I interpret it.

Here is where noticing my horse’s ‘Stop Sign’ is critical.

You can relate this to going to the dentist- if you’re scared he will say ‘just raise your hand if you want me to stop’. Knowing you can halt proceedings at any time gives you confidence. And that gives you courage to try. We want this exact understanding with our horses.

Trust turns fear into courage.

Of course, for this to work, the horse needs to understand that you see his signals and trust that you will respond.

So the first task is to prove it, by accurately reading your horse and responding in a timely fashion.

Feel and Timing, in other words.

Every horse had his own version of a Stop Sign, and you will have to use your observational powers to identify that which your horse prefers, but there are some common themes.

You are looking for any behaviour variation that has a root it flight, fight or freeze.


Spice freezes with her eyes wide open. Others will hood their eyes against you, which can look like dozing.

A freeze response is the one of the most common, but is the most misunderstood, overlooked or ignored, mistaken as being ‘quiet’.

Still is not quiet, it’s still; and thinking it’s peaceful is like looking at the eye of the hurricane and not noticing all the speed and pressure that created it. He may look half asleep, or even completely zoned out, a droopy eye can be a calming signal, and you may need to wait on him. Or he may look frozen in alert fear, poised to flee- as per McCoy’s and Spice’s pictures above.

His eyes could stare, or glaze over, or droop. They tend not to blink much, if at all. The nostrils may twist; or just one of them so they look uneven. He may even hold his breath.


Flight is the most obvious; but it can be subtle too. Snatching grass really fast can be an example of the flight response, if the horse is contained and can not run away.

He might start reversing- that’s flight. If he does that, know that you probably have missed some pre-signals before this, and you were already way too close.

He may turn his head away; or even just his eyes (I can’t look!- also a subtle use of flight) his head may raise, his back and neck stiffen, his mouth tighten as he prepares to flee- a mini freeze before launch.


A ‘fight’ signal might be as subtle as a slight thrust of the nose in your direction.

He could scratch at his own chest or bite an invisible fly on his leg. This is a form of fight stress response that is much more common than you’d think, and is often completely missed with horses. I say ‘fight’ because it’s an action that represents irritation, that requires an angry bite to attempt to relieve himself.

You can relate it a little like a cat having to wash after a close call- it looks similar although it is coming from a different perspective as the ‘wash’ is more of a reset to calm, or to demonstrate calmness in the body to initiate calmness in the brain. It’s a fairly universal calming signal.

(Sometimes it is just a fly too.)

If it’s more violent and if you feel unsafe; know that the horse does too, and do both of you a favour and start from behind a fence- protected contact.


Start with horse at liberty, and when you first set eyes upon each other, by approaching holding the stick ‘in neutral’ (end down, held crossways not pointing at the horse, casual, not hiding it nor brandishing it) breathe evenly, and be observant. The game is, at the very first sign of any discomfort, you will stop, avert your eyes, stay relaxed, and breathe. If the horse still looks tense, back up a step. Repeat until the horse can look at you without showing signs of feeling pressured.

Once he can look, you must breathe, don’t stare, and wait.

It sounds silly telling you to breathe, but we a great at holding our breath and that is not reassuring – the horse notices. It also helps a lot to avert our gaze. You can turn your face away. Horses use signals like this to calm others as well as to show discomfort. Think ‘behave this way; I mean no harm.’ Be fluid and natural. Try things, so long as you stay under that fear threshold, but mostly, breathe.

If he indicates at any point that you are too close, then back away until he can breathe again too.

Breathe. One of two things will happen. It will get better, or it will get worse. I’ve discussed already what ‘getting worse’ looks like.

Getting better will usually start with a lot of tiny quivers and twitches around the muzzle that can be as tiny as a whisker wobble, or become as big as that head jerk thing we all do when we almost fall asleep during meetings. Then there will be a mouth movement- the famous lick and chew, and hopefully a deep breath or sigh. The ultimate is a soft blow out of air from the nostrils – that delightfully satisfying sound the Dutch so perfectly describe as ‘briesen’. This is not to be mistaken for an alarm snort. However that sound is usually an expression of satisfaction or enjoyment, and is not likely to be initiated from a starting point of fear.

The trick is to move away as soon as it gets better, or before it gets worse!


If it isn’t getting better, then we don’t want to practice feeling bad, as that is the opposite of what we are trying to teach, which is that he can TRUST US to read and respond to his signals (the stop signal).

We also want to exit when he’s feeling better, because staying too long, or worse, advancing at first sign of tolerance, will immediately creep him out again. This is not about the task, remember, it’s about how he feels. You want him to feel better; then you give him even more space to relax into.

The answer is always the same, you will smoothly step back, turn away, go for a little walk and reapproach, with immense mindfulness and tact.


Doing this, the threshold of tolerance will move closer to the horse, because each time he notices that he can get you to remove it if he’s uncomfortable by using his Stop Sign, he feels safer allowing you to come closer, and stay a little longer. As your feel and timing grows, you will master ‘stretching the moment’ to get the best possible feeling from the horse before you move away again.

At some point, the horse will show curiosity. This will be a breakthrough moment; well done, celebrate later. When he gets to the point that he volunteers to reach out and sniff the scary stick, or the hand holding it, then you know that you have a thinking horse now instead of a reacting horse, and you can progress to the next stage.

So for the budding geeks in the audience (and fully fledged geeks, please forgive, as a relative newbie to the lab, any fumbles on my part- you know who you are!) what is happening in terms of animal behaviour science, is this.

The horse had a fear to start with. This means he has unpleasant associations with the idea of ‘human holding stick’. You have got him brave enough to maybe reconsider these associations. This is classical conditioning- the world of instinct and association, where the horse gets scared seeing a human with a stick, he cannot think, he can only know what has always happened before, and react. Between those two realms is a graduated ‘learning zone’.

Learning itself is not comfortable, and some have fears around the very process itself, usually because they have been pushed to quickly over threshold before, and they may now associate the mild discomfort of not knowing an answer and fear of being wrong etc with full on punishment. Also some individuals are by nature more timid than others. Whatever, it doesn’t matter, the answer remains the same. It’s not about the stick, task, float, obstacle…it’s about his confidence.

When he feels brave enough to become curious, this is where the training is in process of switching from classical conditioning (association, stimulus and response- not operant but respondant) to operant conditioning (training/learning through voluntary behaviour).

Once the horse is operant, you can use ‘counter conditioning’ to build new associations.

So, now your horse has reached out and sniffed the hand holding the neutral stick, or maybe the stick itself.

Allow the horse to investigate the stick. Let him do what he likes with it, and don’t interrupt until he’s done. Again, remember this isn’t about the stick but how he feels about it (so if you’re precious about your fave stick being chewed on, use an old one instead.)

Now your horse is ready to learn, and now, you have a choice.

Your horse is thinking, or ‘operant’ as in ready to train.

Everything up to this point has only been about preparing that mindset, and we must preserve it. It hasn’t become training yet- it is still all about bringing the horse to a place of enough confidence so that he can learn.

Be prepared to take a step or two back if you need to. Confidence takes a long time to grow but can be shattered in an instant.

If you use primarily negative reinforcement, then this is the time to reward every try with a pause, or a retreat if that seems a better option for this horse if he slips back into his previous skepticism. Using approach and retreat, you will encourage the touch from the horse, and then progress to touching him, and immediate retreat- pretty much a continuation of what you have done so far. This will progress to rubbing, touching everywhere with it, and a general relaxation as the horse stops focusing upon the stick and starts noticing you, your intentions expressed through your body language. If you are good at this if works well.

Personally I prefer to use positive reinforcement, and to play with the enthusiasm that brings to learning. I realised that not only is it superb for interest and engagement; it also is extremely helpful to those horses (and people) who are scared to try- those that for whatever reason, are scared of the process of learning itself. It speeds up everything and ends on a pleasant note that has your horse keen to try again next session. In itself it helps to counter condition the process of learning. Neat, huh?

So for me, at this stage I will usually use clicker training, and reward with a treat. (I would have prepared the horse for this beforehand by creating an association between the click and the treat. That is another subject and is easily found, so I won’t explain it here)

Back to our now curious horse.

This is the counter conditioning; where the horse learns to associate the stick with treats and positive learning. It becomes the JoyStick. Then same deal, click for touching, progress to rubbing on him with it (click treat) touching him all over, all done strictly under threshold, with an eye for any Stop Sign that needs you to retreat, and see for yourself how trust turns fear into courage.

The horse moves through a scale of emotions that starts at intolerance (over threshold-retreat!), then becomes tolerance (still room for retreat) then acceptance, then enjoyment. I believe that enjoyment is much quicker, and more easy to achieve with positive reinforcement (though I know from personal experience that it is attainable through negative reinforcement as well if you have good feel and timing).

Whatever your preferred method, Feel and Timing are crucial to good horsemanship. A part of Feel is observation- read your horse, respond to his stop signal, prove to him that you understand his rising tension and will respond in a way that makes him feel better. When he trusts you, he won’t be scared of your tools.

It’s the hand holding the stick that matters.

Changing Focus- a bid for attention.

I’m so over rain! All day yesterday, now thunderstorms this morning. Everyone is stir crazy, even the cats are inventing games and woke me up at 5.30 divebombing the bed from the very top of the curtains.

A funny thing happened on the weekend. I have told you a bit about Magic, my quirky 11 yo bundle of contradictions…she is the one who is most focused on learning and environment. A brave adventurer, who believes in herself.

She is the one that rages and storms at any attempted leader, equine or human, pulls faces and rears and has tantrums before just doing it anyway (this mental picture is exactly her response just this weekend to being pushed out of the arena by Joe, our doughty old timer and Most Immovable Shoulder Ever). She knows better, but others are more dominant.

She and I have had a colourful relationship. I’ve owned her since 8 months old, and started her age 4 using Parelli methods. She’s always been an interesting character- the day I went to choose her and her mum (Apache) 11 years ago, she kicked my butt the moment I turned my back on her- a foretelling! So Magic! Her horsenality chart for anyone who reads those tendency lists, is a LBE Axis point. She is a playful, reactive, momentarily frozen, food obsessed self performative contradiction in any moment. She literally can own every quadrant at any time, but her saving grace, and plenty of it, is that the behaviours, while varied, are relatively mild.

Magic has a keen mind and is very curious. She’s gregarious and friendly and wants all the attention, but gets offended if there’s a crowd and she can’t squeeze in. Her biggest worry is environment. She is deeply claustrophobic, hyper alert for ‘squeezy places’ and loves wide open spaces which she watches as much as she can. She seldom relaxes. I think this is why she challenges the leaders before complying. Maybe she thinks they are irresponsible for not scanning the horizon enough.

Out riding, she would look about and look about more. If she found something to worry her, the first instinct would be to stare, then either rush up to it or flee. None of these options suited me as her rider, and I would make a too big bid for her attention, too late; interrupt her pattern, argue, and eventually she would comply and not run off with me, but muttering under her breath all the time about it. In the early days I almost had to frighten her to get her attention at all. I found her frustrating to ride, because I like harmony, not conflict. She found me frustrating to be with, because she felt environment was way more important than I did, and she doesn’t like being told what to do by someone who plainly couldn’t pay proper attention.

After years of arguments which I always won, but which re-enacted every time she got tense and did nothing for our relationship, I heard Elsa Sinclair’s take on the five areas of Focus, and a big penny dropped for me. I have known these 5 areas for years (thanks to Russell Higgins) as ‘areas of confidence’ as in diagnosing where a horse is most bothered.

They are:






I had never thought of them as ‘focus’ areas before. That bit had escaped my notice. Places where horses and humans can habitually put their attention. We can be sublimely balanced (lots of switches of focus- good leaders are good at this) obsessive (one huge area of committed focus or concern) and a full range in between. The focus can be good or bad, as in addicted, learned behaviour, an innate tendency. A couple examples: very high prey drive can lead to obsession with environment; concerns for comfort can lead to obsession with herd, fearfulness can lead to a desperate search for a confident capable leader etc. obsessive learners are the ones who are into everything all the time, making up games and swinging their lead ropes.

The confidence in each area is also a subset. You can see how identifying this is a useful tool in helping horses to learn to trust our judgment.

Just that one tweak of the brain, from ‘confidence’ to ‘focus’ helped me figure Magic out. You see, she’s not an unconfident horse. She rides out great alone, not herd bound, curious and brave. But when she does get scared, because she spends such little focus on leaders, she just doesn’t turn to a leader for help. Instead she panics, because despite her tendencies, she’s still a horse.

Huge lightbulb moment.

Magic was fixated on environment. She overreacted to leadership from horse or human because in her mind it was always ‘too much too late’. We weren’t good leaders, because we never even noticed what was going on out there!

So I started training focus changes as subtly as I could. We started at home and I just observed how much effort she put into environment, so much more than everyone else.

Then I started matching her. She would stare out, so would I.

I started the ‘last step’ procedure. This is when a Thing of interest arises, and a horse stares at it. We stare too, and step towards to investigate, and if we are esteemed as good leaders, we can pronounce it safe (through our body language) and help the horse feel better.

I had done this before, but without commitment, and they know lip service when they see it. The often wouldn’t believe me. You have to really look, not just pretend to. I used to be so inconsistent too…not helpful.

The ‘last step’ towards a potentially scary Thing is usually taken by the bravest leader, and they get the ‘last word’ on the level of threat.

Magic is very good at having the last word! She likes learning, ‘new’ is interesting to her…and ‘interesting’ can be good interesting or scary interesting!

Her ‘famous last word’ at home is when we take turns with the ‘last step’, both unwilling to hand over the leadership, until we are both pressed up against the fence between us and ‘it’, and she wins by having the longest neck! However except for when that happens I generally held my own, and even got better at it, which meant she felt safe enough to relax with me. With me in those moments she could let down her guard. At last, someone else was taking care of business! Then I could ask for the subtlest focus change, an ear maybe, and get it without a storm of emotion. We are growing this in various situations, and now, in an emergency, she will bend as softly as when at home and as she was trained to, because she believes I might not be as useless as she thought I was about protecting the herd. This changed the feel of our time together significantly, and esp our rides.

She listens much more willingly to me now, instead of automatically saying ‘no’, arguing, then giving up with a sour note. Positive reinforcement peppered in was the cherry on top. I became her favourite leader.

Anyhow, I opened my round pen on the weekend to have some horse time on a surface that wasn’t under water, and the whole herd of four rushed in. They love the play pen. Apache wanted to roll, McCoy wanted to show off, and Joe was hoping for some clicker training.

Magic, being claustrophobic but brave, rushed in as well and just wanted everyone else to leave. She couldn’t get near me in the middle with McCoy flexing his muscles (he recently learned ‘crunches’ it’s still his fave thing) and Joe especially with his huge presence. So she pranced around the outside, crossing my line of vision again and again. Then I realised what she was doing! It was a pattern. She would circle the outside, then stop dramatically as if seeing ‘something out there!’ And stand staring at a gap between the trees. Then she looked at me. Then take a step or two towards it. Then glance at me. Each time she ended up pressed against the fence in her ‘famous last word’ position, staring out, before doing it all over again.

That glance! Reminded me of something the Goddess of Calm, Anna Blake, said at her clinic last year about ‘asking with her eye’. Well I had to go see. I left the boys with a jackpot each (for excellent crunches, and being polite respectively) walked around Apache, who was laying down still, and joined Magic in the race for the Last Step.

You should have seen how smug she was to have won my attention. I honestly think it was a ploy. There may have been ‘something out there’ to start with, but there was nothing by the time I got there except a very happy horse pointing it out to me! She won (long neck etc) but I got a free nose touch! She quickly pressed her muzzle against my face, and sighed. It was very touching to be so esteemed, and very satisfying seeing how pleased she was about getting my attention.

Our moment was short lived as the herd closed in, but it was a clear shining snapshot.

I think the gold in this for me was the bringing home of the idea of Focus, and my horse being able to ask for some attention, and get a reply that she liked. After all the work we had done together practicing this, she obviously likes it and couldn’t have been more obvious in how she went about getting it, despite the boys and Apache all doing their thing. I was impressed by her perseverance, and bravery (honestly, four strong minded horses in a 50’ round pen is three horses too many to Magic) and determination.

Most of all though her using a pattern that she and I had practised so overtly. It could have been conditioning, we had done those moves enough, but for the very obvious ‘ask with her eye’ that she kept casting at me. It was almost theatrical. She switched the game, asking for my change of focus just as I usually asked for hers!

Focus gives us Feel.

Focus and Feel give us Timing

Focus, Feel and Timing give us Balance. Flow. ‘The Zone’.

Please excuse my flowery descriptions- I don’t seriously anthropomorphise my horses, but I’m trying to get the full flavour across in my words for you. I so wish I had my camera running. I would love to watch the whole thing from an outside perspective, and see what else I missed.

Purchasing Bewilderment.

I love the word ‘bewilderment’. Mostly because it has ‘wild’ in it. It’s innocent, like wild horses. And like wild horses, it’s not considered cool to be bewildered by our industrialised, scientific, domesticated world.

Recently I was cruising the horse forums, as you do, picking up bits of wisdom and ideas and inspiration from the tribe of horse lovers out there. My attention got caught by a question. The scenario was; the lady had a herd, and when she has to move them from place A to place B they don’t always respond to her R+ preferred method. So she will drive them instead. Once moved, she then goes and gives them a treat. I’m wasn’t sure if her motivations there are along the lines of reinforcing their doing the right thing, or a ‘kiss and make up’ thing. Probably both. Whatever.

Her question was around a concern that the horses would associate the subsequent reward (Positive Reinforcement) with the original aversive of her Positive Punishment (applying an unpleasant aversive in the form of driving) and Negative Reinforcement (taking it away once the horses moved as required).

She got a lot of very good responses that ranged from the well informed to the downright geeky; which was very cool. However most of the answers were couched in scientific terms. Now that’s not a problem- I love jargon, and the clarity it can bring when you understand it.

However I do worry on a couple of counts.

Firstly, we the lay people put our own angles on everything we hear; we queer the pitch when we do not truly understand the context in which words are used scientifically- eg ‘negative means bad positive means good’; that’s a basic one and easily corrected, but there are a morass of other metaphorical tar pits to step into.

Secondly, that even when we understand the terms, we can get so steeped in the glamour of nerdy knowledge that we can get lost in the flatland of science. And believe me, alone, it is terrifyingly flat; black and white, no nuance or breadth or depth or heights anywhere. It’s just a process, right? It’s a way of looking at the world through the lens of absolute truth, the third person pronoun ‘it’, the effects of operant conditioning upon an organism and the bundles of conditioned reflexes that a scientist sees when he eyeballs his lab rats.

I honestly don’t dislike it. I know it’s necessary and it’s true. It’s also the process by which we describe truth. But everything we do, and are, is at least three dimensional. I don’t like reducing anything to one plane.

In medieval times they lived by the rule of the church, with its feet planted firmly in the singular rule of religion- which is the realm, however wisely or unwisely interpreted, of Morals. Looking back we know that was the flatland of Morals, and Truth, or Science, had no look in- you got hung, burned or locked in a tower for suggested such heresy. Wearing our smug retrospectacles, we call those days ‘the dark ages’.

We are currently living in a similarly flat paradigm now; that of scientific materialism. Truth is everything, and anything else is a mere epiphenomenem of the physical reality. And that can be just as horrible as the dark ages. No morals, all science? Hello nazi doctors, and animal vivisection.

I don’t think we’ve had an age of Art yet; that of the purely subjective, but I don’t doubt we will manage that faux pas as well if we survive this one.

But really, it’s all three, and who knows, possibly more.

I replied to the query post as per below. I padded it out a bit for the blog, because I can.

We are surrounded by operant conditioning all the time. If your horses aren’t motivated to go back in their paddock it’s because (as I’m sure you know) that not being in there is more reinforcing than your goody bag is, in that moment. You using P+/R- made it more motivating to move; job done. You going in and giving treats after the fact then made it more motivating to be with you in the paddock ‘now’; provided there is a gap of time – at the very least 10 seconds, but better 30- between the two. Unless you’re Quantum Woman, capable of being in two places at the same time, realistically you’re not likely to be confusing the two for your horses in this scenario, so don’t worry too much about it.

I honestly think we overanalyse all this stuff. There is a reason not to blur the edges, and that reason is ‘not blurring the edges’. It’s not clear or consistent, and that is not only potentially confusing for your horse, but it weakens the strength of your cues.

Here’s how I see it.

Basically when we give a horse a treat for ‘doing the right thing’ directly after giving a cue using pressure/release, you are weakening your R- cue. The horse will start to eventually link the two events and you will accidentally ‘charm’ the P+/R- (positive punishment /negative reinforcement) cue to ‘go away’ and cause an expectation of a treat. In other words, it stops being a powerful message to move away, and will become an indicator that a treat is coming instead, which means maybe he’s better to stay close in anticipation…and if you don’t have that treat that will also cause frustration (P-) which will destroy the moment completely in terms of clarity of intention and a clear release from pressure. All the quadrants come crashing in together and the intention you have gets crushed in the mayhem.

Scientists have proven this association with rats. Basically they ‘charmed’ rats into accepting an electric shock as a precedent to a reward. They started craving the shock (this is the power of conditioning) which weakened the aversive effect of the shock.

(I won’t go into what I think of the moral aspects of using animals for experimentation – that right there is a great example of what happens in a scientific flatland; the clash of the moral and scientific world views.)

On the other hand, you can also ‘poison’ the cue if you are a clicker trainer and you bring an aversive to play if the horse says ‘no’. Suddenly you are confusing matters, and the horse, and the horse will associate the cue with P+ (positive punishment). The only reason positive reinforcement works is the contrast between the negative punishment- which is withholding something he wants and can only get through you- and the anticipation that he will have his reward if he does what you want.

It is confusing to wrap the brain around, and if that makes your head hurt, don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it, just always put a gap between the two.

Knowing the science is helpful, but that’s only one facet of anything, horsemanship included. We are smart people and we love analysing things. However, science is only a process, and the descriptions of process; it’s a great way to think of that’s your thing, but trying on a different lens can help too if you really like to think about it holistically or if the jargon baffles you.

How about the Art of Horsemanship? The wonder of literally doing as little as possible, but being as consistent as a metronome in your timing and follow up? The astonishing beauty of getting the timing just right, the way a horse does, and starting so lightly that other people watching can’t even see your pinned ears, but the horses see them coming and say ‘sure, great idea, I’m going’. Lots of people do this without knowing the science behind it, through their feel and timing.

And yes, timing, that’s a science too, but you need to develop ‘Feel’ to use Timing, and to develop Feel you first need the ability to bring Focus; which is observation and interpretation of the whole picture in front of you…and that is undeniably a subjective process (an art) as well as an objective one (science) . Who is doing the observing? We can’t take ourselves out of the equation, and we will colour it with our own filters.

What about the lens of Morals? Should we be herding horses at all? Well probably, yes, if that’s what is required to move them, and if the consequences of not moving them means they stay in a place that’s not safe or healthy for them. Should we feel guilty for that?

I’m a philosopher, and I’m subsequently a mixed methodologist -after my own fair share of furious agonising, believe me. You can probably tell.

I asked my horses; and here’s the deal according to them.

There’s self motivation (intrinsic- doing what they want when they want) and there’s other stuff motivation (someone else making them move by using pressure/release or desire/reward- both in my books ‘dominant’ by definition; which is to use your power and influence over others).

Ultimately a being wants what he wants when he wants it.

Watch horses together. They move each other around a lot.

Yes there is passive leadership; usually preceded by a lot of trust building in the form of hanging out and taking turns and realising that this individual makes good choices, is charismatic to you, and is worth following. This leader watches the environment, keeps an eye on the herd, is brave and wise. Without even trying to make you do anything, you’re drawn to her like a magnet and follow her everywhere. If you want to be that leader for your horse it’s possible; but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it, and that costs a lot of time and proving yourself without imposing any direction at all. Most people don’t do that.

Then there’s that horse that no one crosses. He’s a bit of a bully, he does herd you a lot, and has no compunction about moving your feet by aiming his own, or denying you access to the trough, just because. He’s rude and violent. You gotta get out his way and hustle.

Look at it from his POV. He doesn’t have other things going for him so he uses what he’s got to get what he wants. Maybe when he calms down a bit and gets some more trusting relationships, he’ll change his tune. Maybe he’ll learn that he doesn’t have to always follow through if the herd are already hustling. That’s his learning curve.

Both examples are extremes. Extremes are not usually that common (though I do think that passive leadership is a staple in herd dynamics that most herds will tend towards when we don’t interfere with them). Herding your horses doesn’t have to be an extreme act of bullying, and I’m sure that in most cases, it isn’t.

Most often in settled herds you see assertive leadership; a good leader who knows the answer is going to be ‘yes’ before he suggests it, and it’s such a subtle suggestion that usually we humans don’t even get to see it. That’s the peace we all crave; safety in a good leader and the friendship of a trusting herd. That is probably what most people see as the type of leadership that is acceptably PC for our postmodern worldview; a compliance so natural and easy that it obscures the orders issued to obtain it.

Here’s a secret- that sort of leadership doesn’t ever magically happen by itself. It has to come from either real passive leadership, or actual dominant leadership first; otherwise there is no reason to say ‘yes’ and follow.

Even in settled herds there are occasional flashes of overt ‘aversives’, occasional challenges and minor eruptions of dissent, and realistically, most domestic herds don’t even get to be ‘settled’ because of our selfishly human need to keep changing them/selling them/disrupting them to suit our wants.

However the horses don’t hold grudges against dominant leaders (and by dominant I reiterate I mean anyone who uses their influence to motivate someone else to do their will- including P+/R-, or P-/R+) they just read the moment, respond, and move on.

If we emulate the horses, we find a lot of the old sayings from wise horsemen popping up. ‘Do as little as possible and as much as necessary’ is one that gets distorted a lot- many people can only see either the first part or the second, not the whole sentence.

What exactly are we actually worrying about? When we say ‘will he associate the aversive with the reward’ is that a scientific enquiry (which is considered deeply cool) or are we asking ‘what if he doesn’t love me any more?’ (Not considered cool at all, but at best naive, but still a genuine concern for many.)

All we need to remember is to leave a wee gap between the two. And try not to be the bully- that’s the nod in the direction of morality in all this.

Most of our perceptions are way slower than a horse’s anyway- basing that claim upon the scientifically proven fact that they have the fastest reflexes in the mammalian kingdom..and my personal experiences and subsequent bruises.

Im going to choose an Art lens today and quote a Rumi poem.

‘Sell your cleverness, and purchase Bewilderment’.

Stepping up as a leader

Recently I was with a student and her horse. This horse has had quite a journey; from being a natural introvert, not prone to much forward and also quite shut down, to a confident, almost cheeky, engaging friend with masses of try.

My student, like me, is also a mixed methodologist. She mostly uses passive leadership to set the tone, and clicker training to add enthusiasm. She also uses negative reinforcement where she needs to. They are an amazing team, working on a well rounded education together.

This particular day we were planning a lesson together. The horse was standing close and mouthing things in an attempt for bonus attention points, variously picking up a brush and other nearby objects. Her objective was to engage her human, hoping for some clicker action. Now this behaviour may not that desirable, but as a contrast to the blank eyed pony she used to be, this gentle playing is wonderful.

However we were deep in discussion and weren’t ready to change the subject, but we both knew to play with the horse that shows up. Instead of saying no, the student gave her horse another job to do, which was to back away a little and wait. The backup was treacle sweet and slow, the wait was not happening, instead turning into a creep forwards and more mouth. A few repeats and clicking for waiting ensued.

I noticed the quality of the backup. If it was going any slower it would have been going forwards. We spoke about the quality of the exercise. The human cue was soft and slight, and the response was there, but in super slo-mo, and the minimum amount of distance – literally three steps and halt, quickly followed by stepping forwards again. Clicking for the ‘wait’ didn’t help as she still came in for her treat, or if her human beat her to it and delivered would still creep right on back afterwards.

I diagnosed that the horse had slowly reverse trained her human to release for slighter and slighter ‘tries’.

Horses being pattern animals, the mare had developed a pattern that had her boomeranging back in from the world’s slowest slightest backup, every time.

In working on improving the backup and the wait, the student worked on upping the quality by setting a different criteria from ‘release for the slightest try’ to ‘release for slow and right’.

Step one was improve the backup from the ‘treacle two step’ to a steady backup (that had more than three steps), and then the wait.

The horse was quite welded to her pattern. So to interrupt it, the student upped her cue to get a snappier response. We broke the pattern. The cue escalated, became R-, but I could tell it was a reluctantly offered, and the horse certainly could tell. The horse responded eventually, after trying to continue her normal effort only, then through resisting passively, then through crookedness (shoulders getting out and stuck) until finally we got what was required; by being calm, persistent, and instantly releasing for each improvement. Eventually we got a solid five steps back and wait.

Because we had used pressure, the student then waited for the lick and chew which would signify a reset to calm.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the mare started looking not exactly shut down, but not unlike the blank dead eye that the used to be. Was she zoning out?

While what we had originally wanted was a polite wait, we knew that how the horse felt about it was a bigger training point than the exercise itself, and we didn’t want to shut her down again. So we waited.

And waited.

The mare seemed fairly disconnected compared to all the prior ‘look at me’ that had been going on, but she was still blinking…and thinking?

Then my student asked ‘do you think she’s figured out that when I use R-, I will stop and wait for the lick and chew before asking anything else, and therefore she’s holding it back?’

I had never considered this before, but I had just about opened my mouth at the same time to ask ‘is this getting better, or worse, or is something else going on?’

Now I don’t know if my student was correct, but it kind of had a ring of truth to it, I liked it, it probably isn’t common but knowing this smart pony, maybe it was a possibility. Also, one thing that tends to trigger a reset (lick and chew/sigh) is authenticity- and as the student was speaking, the mare gave the slightest secret lick and chew, inside her mouth, no tongue.

Maybe coincidence? Or not?

My own thought was also that we hadn’t actually used that much pressure. Perhaps the mare simply hadn’t actually had the sympathetic nervous system triggered, so therefore had no stress response to release? This horse trusts her human.

Everything we do is based upon confidence, communication, and mutual respect.

By mutual respect I mean leadership; though I expand that to include passive leadership which also, when appropriate, includes occasional ‘followship’.

It’s my conviction that the part of the equation that is called ‘feeling for the horse’ includes us synchronising with them, before expecting them to respond to us. This conjoins the trust, and communication, and mutual respect.

The backup had been slow, but we identified that the sticking point was actually the shoulders. The forehand yield was poor to both sides, and therefore, naturally, also in the backup.

We were reminded that a week prior this same horse had taken fright and shied sideways into me with her shoulders. No one died, or were even hurt, that time, but that is a clue to how things can go pretty bad if your horse doesn’t think your important enough not to run you over!

Trust and communication were well installed.

This meant that the third part of the equation- that of mutual respect- was where we needed to work.

We tested it out, and sure enough, the shoulders were stuck against steady pressure, and also against rhythmic pressure at close quarters.

My student was not as practised in technique, and I was also wanting to show the effect of clear intention, so I demonstrated using rhythmic pressure from a greater distance to get an appropriate response. It worked, instantly, as I fully intended owning that bit of real estate that the shoulder was set upon, no one got hurt, and we got a good yield and an instant, overt lick and chew. Not only that, but the entire expression and attitude changed. She gave great focus. She flowed forwards into a send. She was moving with power in all directions. She was with us, focused, and fully expressing herself through movement.

My student stepped up, and not only got the same result but also tried and mastered a couple of other new (to them) patterns that both include a lot of backup and shoulder yields. A lot of drive, in other words. R-.

The horse was riveted by her, had a great expression, and with a bit of persistence was licking and chewing while actually performing beautiful rhythmic backups, turns, and circling. Overall she looked like a fulfilled horse, doing what they are designed to do, which is to move!

So what was going on?

Why was this different to the prior attempts?

The difference was being effective enough to be understood, and understood enough to be effective.

This mare already knew the cue to back up and to yield her forehand. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t have been fair; and she would have needed a different criteria to actually teach the move which would have been ‘release (or reward- depending on whether using R+ or R-) for the slightest try’.

But she had moved beyond that. Now we wanted duration, and more effort put into the task rather than into how to change the game.

I’m not saying that improving the task (in this case ‘back up’) couldn’t be taught using R+; but that the principle of yielding to appropriate pressure which was behind the non compliance needed to be addressed.


If you ask ‘move please’ and the answer is ‘no, why should I’ and you’re on a road and a truck is about to hit you, then you’re not safe. The world is full of unexpected pressure. Sometimes the horse’s instinct is the best answer; but sometimes it’s only going to get them and us in deeper trouble and we need to be able to prevent that to stay safe. Unfortunately, if you never get to practice being assertive and your horse never gets to practice being responsive, then by the time the emergency happens it’s too late.

An interesting thing happens to we gentle souls when we discover the ‘no-pressure’ methods; positive reinforcement, reading calming signals, synchronising, and passive leadership.

It resonates with gentle souls, and reverting to R-when we need to can feel awkward and diffident.

I think that our horses read us like books. Our intention, our emotions, and our commitment to our actions are very clear to them. I have noticed in myself that if I am alone with my own horses or working with a student one on one, it’s easy to do things. I switch between modes and my horses switch with me, without taking offence or advantage. It’s just life. I am free to act naturally, and if I flow, they flow.

If, however, I’m in front of an instructor or a critic, then the horses might not be so responsive. They feel my hesitation and either hesitate themselves or start playing their own games, depending upon the horse that has shown up. If we are questioning ourselves, the first thing that has to happen, for a horse, is that horse questions you too- and someone needs to be in charge. It’s a biological imperative for a horse to have someone lead; and if there’s only two of you and you’re not stepping up, well there’s only one other alternative.

Horses love positive reinforcement- we all do!

It’s motivating, fun and fulfilling.

Sometimes however we need to step up and say ‘I got this’. This is imperative, because horses react by instinct.

Safety first; then comfort, then play (dominance games) then food/motivation.

Our currency needs to speak to the rung on which that horse is standing in every moment, and while it is possible to condition a horse to do the right thing despite the world going mad around him (consistent training, great timing, and power of patterns giving sense of comfort and control) one day may come where circumstances are so far out from the norm that the horse cannot associate his conditioned responses to the situation at hand.

Good leadership definitely includes ‘feeling for the horse’ and ‘feeling together’- which adds up to being considered a good leader to willingly follow. It also includes being decisive, and being worthy of regard- it’s mutual. If your horse runs me over, then I’m not worthy of her regard, right?

Also good leadership means teaching your horse the appropriate response to pressure. Life is full of pressure and if we don’t teach our horses how to yield then we are setting them up for a train wreck one day.

Good leadership is not being a bully. Is it the act of a bully to stop a child running into the road?

When safety is an issue, you need to know that your horse knows the appropriate response to pressure. Teaching this helps a horse think through a problem when it’s occurred under stressful situations as well as when all is calm.

I know of another horse/human partnership that is a beautiful friendship. She is as gentle with her horse as you can get. However she seldom gets to ride out because she can’t get her horse out the gate, he grazes and meanders and turns around and goes home repeatedly. At the halfway mark he becomes a freight train and blazes past the others on the ride at 90 miles an hour. That horse has a totally immovable shoulder. He has barged over people going through gates and riding out with them doesn’t happen any more with me because I had my knee (and my horse’s side) crushed by this horse suddenly barging past more times than I like to admit before I gave up trying.

It’s more than setting boundaries around your personal space. I have no problem giving ground myself out of good manners. Sometimes you need that horse to move NOW and if you never ever practise that, how do you think it’s going to work out for you when you really need it?

Plenty to lick and chew on there!