Thinking Of the Big Picture

There are endless ways to get things done with horses. Every horseman has their own method, progression of education and ways to problem solve. It can get confusing to navigate for the average horse owner. When you reach out for help or do a little research, nobody seems to agree on the best methodologies to get things done.

I find it’s helpful to think about the big picture in times like these. What exactly are my goals with this horse? For me personally, my goal with each horse is to help them be happier, more balanced, softer and in better physical shape than when I found them. So when I run into a problem and experiment with a solution, I ask myself these things.

-did it work?

-did it leave him happier?

-did it make him more balanced?

-did it make him softer?

Sometimes short term solutions can lead to bigger problems later. The more I understand the big picture, the less I kick problems down the road and address them now, in more positive ways, and before they become a bigger problem.

Mindful of the Details

Brushing and Tacking Up

Sometimes when we’re getting our horses to ride, it’s easy to get task oriented and forget about the horse. But these are important moments to take note of and participate in fully

How does the horse feel about how you brush? Do they flinch? Do they move around? Do they push? Experiment with different brushes, techniques and ways of moving. See if you can get the horse to soften mentally and physically.

When you saddle and bridle, how does the horse feel? Do you throw the saddle on carelessly, causing their back to dip, or with care? Do their eyes widen or soften? When you bridle, do you grab, pull, and push, or do you wait, soften your fingers and lift the bit into their mouth without hitting their teeth?

Every little piece matters. It all adds up to building trust or taking it away. If you acknowledge how they feel about each piece and work to make it better for them, and stay present in your daily tasks, you may find a world of change in your horses attitude.

One Piece at a Time

Often in clinics, someone watching will approach me afterwards and ask why I hadn’t addressed a certain issue a rider was having. Auditors may notice a rider with certain habits that may not be the best deal for their horse, or making mistakes, and wonder why I spent my time working on another topic. When teaching, it’s pretty quickly obvious how a person habitually relates to their horse, what they struggle with, and what they need to work on. But there are many reasons not to address them all at once.

Especially with a new student or one struggling, I try to pick the one thing I know will immediately benefit them, make them feel successful, or give them the most immediate, gratifying change first. This means that, while I notice other details, I choose not to address them at that point in time.

Giving people too much information at once tends to discourage or frustrate them. Nobody wants to go to a lesson and feel like they are doing everything wrong. I try to give people tools to bring them confidence, understanding and success, and build on those. When we’ve mastered one problem, we can move on to others.

People learning can feel self conscious about their public struggle, especially in a clinic setting. It’s extremely humbling, difficult and vulnerable to learn in front of others, especially when you know they are watching your every mistake and commenting on them. I want people to feel safe to try and experiment, and not critiqued to death.

A student may not be ready to hear or understand certain things. When the time is right, we will work on it.

They may not understand yet how all the details connect. My favorite way to teach is to present a broad picture and let people find the connections for themselves. For example, instead of saying to a person dedicated to riding with tight reins “when you pull the reins like that you are ruining any softness” but instead to present concepts and let people find themselves that they and their horse are happier with some give.

My hope in teaching is to create thinking students working toward developing creativity, feel and happy partnerships with their horses, not drone-like students who just obey orders. For some riders, the best way for this to happen is one piece at a time.

Some More Thoughts on Petting

I called my brother this morning to wish him happy birthday, and we got to talking about a trip he took to Uganda.  He told me about a park he and his wife had visited where they were able to observe a few families of Gorillas, and about how the park employees spent time acclimating them to humans so that tourists would be able to watch them without the gorillas being afraid.  The conversation progressed to horse herds and eventually horse behavior. We discussed different behavior studies through time and how with horses, they tended to focus on making them less fearful, and more interested in being around humans. We brought up training methods which went to great length to make horses less afraid and more friendly, such as imprinting.  Imprinting, in my opinion, is one of the most immoral ways to train a horse – this is where when a foal is born, before the mother is able to clean them off and bond with them, handles the foal and maybe introduces things that could potentially scare them in life, such as clippers, plastic bags, etc.

My brother mentioned that this reminded him of when he was a kid, how relatives would hug and touch him and pinch his cheeks, and how much he hated it.  My brother is fairly introverted, quiet, and enjoys the company of a few people. He’s extremely intelligent.  This forcing of affection was an affront to him.  It got me to thinking.

Shelter cats and dogs that aren’t friendly don’t stand much of a chance of adoption.  They can’t just lack aggression or negative behaviors, but must show extreme levels of excitement, drive for affection, and desire to be around people. Not being this friendly or interested in endless affection is an actual threat to an animal’s life.  People feel sad for working dogs who spend their time satisfying their genetic desire being active and fulfilling a purpose outdoors, but are comfortable and even happier with the image of an overweight family dog milling around in the house, sleeping on a couch.  When a timid, scared, abused, neglected, or just green horse comes into people’s lives, they work hard at making them more friendly. They want this horse to enjoy petting, being fed, and interacting with humans.  It’s the reason why many riders prefer goofy, in your pocket puppy dog personality type geldings, and have disdain for mares, who are often labeled as “witchy” and “nasty,” when really they probably just lack this goofy nature and worry about their own needs first.

The first thing people do when they meet a dog is reach down to pet it – often with no regard to that dog’s expression, behavior, or needs.  My pitbull is a happy-go-lucky guy who loves a good cuddle, but my heeler is a nervous natured and devoted one person dog. I’m always a little shocked when, after someone who’s never met her tries to pet her, and she hides behind my legs, they STILL pursue petting her – after she has clearly said no. Luckily, she’d rather hide than bite, but if she did bite, people would comment on her poor behavior, instead of their poor ability to respect her needs.

Similarly with human interactions, introverted people often face their friends and family’s disregard for their introverted nature.  They are offended if you don’t want to hug, offended if you prefer silence to chatting, and offended if you don’t accept invitations to parties.  In the professional arena, it’s nearly impossible to be successful without being extroverted. I’ve often noticed the most successful horse people aren’t always the most talented with horses, but the best talkers.  People love to be acknowledged – sometimes clinics can be more of a social event for many than a resource to get help with their horse.

With the developments in understanding of autism and how different minds work, people are gaining more acceptance toward different social behavior.  But it makes me think, what makes it so important to us to be needed? We often neglect or ignore the needs and nature of the animals in our lives and tend to focus on the need they should be filling for us instead, however anthropomorphized that relationship may be.  A horse, dog, or cat, no matter how much we love them, will always be an animal first.  I’m not offended in the least that my horse loves to be outside, eating grass with her friends, over being with me. It would be completely out of her self interest to leave them and do what I ask.  Do I love her and want her to enjoy time with me? Of course! I do my best to make our interactions beneficial to her, enjoyable, and give her something to feel good about.  But when she leaves me, I don’t expect her to be sitting at the fence pining away for me while i’m inside eating my dinner. That would be absurd – she is a horse first.

I wonder sometimes what’s missing from our human relationships that makes us feel the need to fill that void elsewhere.  I think its an unfair burden to lay on an animal.  To respect the horse, in my opinion, is to leave their nature in tact.  My horse will always be a horse – she can buck, rear, kick, spook, bolt if the situation calls for it – that’s what she was given to protect herself.  But I try to make sure when we’re together she feels safe and there is no need for those actions.  I don’t seek out to systematically eradicate her nature and dull her down til she’s a puppy dog that needs my affection. She is intelligent, with a high sense of self preservation and a very giving nature when she trusts a situation to not cause her harm.

I want my horses gentle, unafraid, and happy to be with me, but I don’t want to make them anything they are not.




When you reach out to pet your horse, stop and think each time: is this for me or for them? Am I petting in a way that I enjoy, or the horse enjoys? How does he respond? Does he flinch, push, avoid, or does he soften, relax, and yield?

Touch is incredibly important to a sensory being like a horse, and to connect well with them, we need to always be thinking not how do I like to pet and when, but how does a horse like to be petted and when?

Here’s a scene many horse owners are familiar with: you go out into the field, a friendly member of your herd approaches you. You begin petting him. Soon his lips are on you, lipping your pockets. Maybe you have treats in your pockets, maybe you don’t. He pushes a little, you joke about how much he loves his scratches. He pushes your feet back a little, maybe turns his butt to you for a scratch. The rest of the herd approaches and soon you have a few extra horses pushing for scratches, competing for placement. Now it becomes dangerous or irritating, and you say, ok that’s enough, I’m leaving.

What might be perceived as a cute and fun social interaction is actually an educational one for the horse. Every interaction with us results in learning, whether we meant it or not. In this case, these horses learned to push – with their necks, with their shoulders. Not only is this undesirable for their general ground handling, it makes riding with softness difficult when your horse is pushing with their necks and shoulders. You may think it doesn’t make a difference under saddle, but it does. Horses that push people on the ground ride markedly heavier in the bridle and are stiffer in the shoulders. Horses that push people also push on fences, other horses, lead ropes, you name it.

Here’s another scenario that I see frequently also, which is a more extreme, but common example, and the progression of the first scenario. Your horse approaches, maybe gets a scratch or a treat, as is his habit. You give him what he came for, but he won’t leave. He keeps pushing, nipping at you. You push his head, he comes back. This cycle continues for some time, as he is sure this behavior produces the desired effect (it usually does, at least for a time). Maybe you move away from him, maybe you don’t, but at this point this habit is so ingrained he keeps trying. Your frustration rises, his rises. Now you’re fighting, and worse, he’s getting mixed signals – come in for a treat, push on me as long as I’m enjoying it, but then his head gets swatted, maybe even smacked. Now we have a pushy and head shy horse at the same time., One very confused and frustrated horse, who is continually invited into peoples space and then punished for it.

If you’re seeking peaceful interactions on the ground and in the saddle, consider what every touch means. Sometimes a good scratching is appropriate. Sometimes just peaceful presence is enough. Treats don’t always produce poor behavior if you’re smart about how you give them, though I choose not to interact this way with my horses. Keep in mind the cause and effect of all your daily interactions with your horse, and if it’s a peaceful relationship you seek, then make sure each interaction with them results in peace. This is what training is – repetition that creates positive behaviors. So remember that every interaction is, in fact, training, for good or for bad.

Flexibility is the Best Educational Tool

People get themselves into trouble with young or green horses when they expect the horse to be able to do whatever they had in mind at that moment. A young horse may often struggle to stand still for long periods of time, especially at the beginning of a session. Bringing the horse in fresh from the field with the idea it should stand still while you groom sets the horse up to fail and teaches it to fight or struggle instead of calmly stand. It’s important to be flexible with them.

With a green horse, if they come in with lots of energy, I often go right to lunging work or groundwork. When they’re calm and still, that’s when I work on grooming, teaching to tie, fly spray, etc. Who cares if your horse is a little dirty in your session. It’s not about getting it done today, but setting them up for a lifetime of success. Once they are comfortable with the individual pieces, you can ask more of them. You’re not losing anything by letting your horse win, because when they aren’t afraid and learn what to do in each situation at a rate they can absorb, you both win.

How to Improve Your Riding if You Don’t Have Time to Ride

What’s the best thing you can do for your riding?

Take a meditation course.

Learn to stay in the moment- to become observant your mind must stop chattering away.

Take an exercise course

Learn to get familiar with your body. Not just because fitness is extremely beneficial to riding, but because it helps develop better proprioception, balance, and awareness, which will help you ride better too.

Take a look at your whole life

Learn to deal with issues as they come up in a healthy and constructive way. When life gets stressful, we tend to pass that on to our interactions with horses. Learn to take a deep breath and deal with life’s inevitable foibles, in and out of the saddle. If you’re frustrated about life, it isn’t gonna take much with the horse to frustrate you too- so learning to deal with frustration constructively is incredibly important.

Before you can control a horse, you must first control yourself.

Here are some cute pictures of Josie and some of her best buddies. She doesn’t know much about stress yet, but she will…

All Life is an Experiment

The horse world is full of “methods” – DVD’s, books, videos selling how to’s, and these can be very helpful. However, it’s important to realize that every horse and situation are different.

When people ask “how do I get my horse to ____” it’s hard for me to have a specific answer. The reason is that what I might do is different than what you should do, depending on your situation at home, skill set, and time available. And I really don’t have a set idea of what I’m planning to do when I go in to work with a horse. Other than guiding principles, I tend to experiment, trying to stay in the moment and watch how the horse responds and what they need.

It’s been said you can’t teach feel, that you have to experience it. This is somewhat true – I can’t give anyone a method that I guarantee will work, but people can be taught to be more observant, more present, more thoughtful, and more balanced. This is the essence of feel.

So when you go to work with your horse, think of the big picture you’re looking for: are you looking for a peaceful relationship? Then chasing your horse and making being with you the lesser of two evils does not promote that. Try experimenting, see how you can catch your horse’s attention, and be something they seek out – not because they have to, but because they want to.

Horsemanship to me is like art. Learn some basic techniques and principles, and then don’t be afraid to get messy. Some of the best art breaks all the rules.

Humans and Horses

Watching my daughter grow and learn has been so much fun, but also a great insight into how humans develop. One of the very first things she learned to do was reach out and grab. First it was my hair – grabbing and pulling it was a lot of fun. Then objects like toys, and now, at almost four months, she grabs nearly everything in sight. We’re made this way – from a very young age, our reflexes of grabbing and pulling are set. It’s what helps us develop refined motor skills but also helps us stay balanced. If you’re falling, you learn to grab something and pull yourself back up.

Anyone who’s spent time around foals know they are up and running very quickly. Foals are curious, getting close to something, maybe tasting or biting it, and running away. They explore their world but always keep running as the first and most important option. They able to be the most curious when the option to get away is kept open. As they develop, their fight or flight instinct is developed more. They’re designed to run and not ask questions, and anyone working with horses knows the more you restrain them, the more afraid they become.

So how is it that these two species, one designed to grab, and one designed to run, came to be together? When we ride, we basically go against all our instinct. Grabbing doesn’t work, squeezing doesn’t work, leaning forward for balance doesn’t work – none of the things we’ve learned to do to help ourselves on our own two feet help us in the saddle. And for a horse to let us ride them goes against all their instincts, as well – to flee and not ask questions. Somehow, humans and horses get along and can have trusting relationships, too. This is nothing short of a miracle.

It’s my belief that horses can’t change their nature, but can learn to trust if the human is willing to change to fit the horse. When we do, beautiful things can happen.

Choose Peace

Why should a horse do anything I say?

Not because I’m the boss or a “leader.” Leadership is an insecure position. It requires constant worry of being challenged, ousted, out muscled, and when we play this game with a horse, we ride on a slipper slope. A 1200 lb animal can pretty quickly figure out we don’t know what’s in their best interest better than they do, and we certainly are no match for their strength.

Equine herd dynamics are far more complex than we originally thought anyway. Leader/follower relationships aren’t really concrete in the horse world. Here’s an interesting article on the subject:

A horse won’t listen to me because I say so, unless we get into dominance methods which are crippling to the mind and spirit, but I know my readers aren’t interested in this.

What lasting benefit can I offer a horse that they can’t get on their own, better without me, from their herd, their quiet life that I interrupt?

Horses are peace seekers. What I can offer is centering, balance, and peace with me. I can offer a better physical state through bio mechanically correct work. I can offer emotional regulation, freedom from fear.

Whenever I encounter a horse who resists something, I need to stop and think – what is preventing this horse from choosing this, and how can I make it peaceful?

Equine events, exhibits, demos, shows are full of displays of what people can make horses do. It gets quite exciting – walking through fire, shooting guns from the saddle, fancy movements- but I think a real achievement is a peaceful ride with a peaceful horse, choosing to work with you daily.

Photo by Nina Fuller