Why Is It So Hard?


Have you ever gotten unsolicited advice from a fellow horse person? Have you ever sat in the audience at a clinic or at a horse show and all you could hear was “arm chair quarter-backing” from your fellow spectators? Ever been on one of those horsey discussion groups and read pages and pages of “expert” advice? Ever heard an instructor lose their patience with a student?

We horse people (and other people, of course) have a problem that causes a lot of that stuff I just mentioned. This is the thing. We have a really hard time watching people learn. For some of us, it’s near to impossible for us to watch someone learn. For others of us, we are fascinated by the processes we see when we watch someone learn.

Years ago, when I was traveling with horseman Mark Rashid, we were in England, and a spectator raised her hand to ask a question while Mark was teaching a lesson. “Yes?” he said. “You know, of course,” the woman said, a bit impatiently, “That the rider is posting on the wrong diagonal.” I thought I could see Mark count to 10 or so in his head, and then he nicely said, “Yes, we can see that. But that’s not what we’re working on right now.”

That probably happened every weekend, every clinic, where someone had to point out something a rider was doing wrong and ask Mark about it to make sure he was aware of it. Or they’d ask why he wasn’t working on something yet. There are many versions of this question. The reason people ask these questions are the same reason why we all get so much unsolicited advice: it’s difficult for people to watch other people learn.

Now, of course, I have to say here that there are times when unsolicited advice is offered in the spirit of preserving life and limb, or from selfless, kind humility. There are times when unsolicited advice changes someone’s life for the better, and thank goodness for those times. But most unsolicited advice is offered for reasons more about the advice-giver rather than the advice-receiver. We offer advice often because we are impatiently watching someone make mistakes or otherwise flail around.

I think it’s interesting to study how watching someone struggle makes me feel. Do I feel empathy or sympathy? Does it make me remember the times when I struggled with similar things? Am I embarrassed, for them or for me? Does it make me feel stressed or impatient? Does it make me feed frustrated? Does it make me want to take some sort of action? Does it make me want to step in and take over? As a teacher, I have an additional question for myself. If I do start to feel impatient or frustrated with a student, can I master those emotions so they never make it past my own awareness of them? Can I keep them out of my voice and my body? Is my frustration not with the student but with myself?

The truth of the matter is, anyone who is TRYING is going to struggle and fall short. Anyone who is trying is going to make mistakes. This is a natural and essential part of the learning process. True learning is not painless to the student, and it’s not necessarily painless to the observer either. Another thing we need to understand is that a student can only keep track of a couple new ideas or movements at a time. This is a scientific fact. A lot of times, we will see a student working hard on some things, while other things are wrong or utterly neglected. I like to say, “There are no more brain cells available” at that point. It can be frustrating to watch, but every teacher knows that they must pick carefully how many things to offer a student at one time, and WHAT things to offer at any given time. An instructor may have to pick some things to neglect for a while, until the student has gained more competency with new information or skills. To use a string of clichés, we must “decide which mountain to die on” or we might have “bigger fish to fry.” I think it’s very informative to ask WHY an instructor is teaching things in the order they are (rather than why they’re not teaching something RIGHT NOW), because that will often reveal very important core principles at the heart of their philosophy. Some folks simply need to make mistakes (sometimes even create disasters) to own what they are learning.

We can be mindful observers. We could choose to study why, for us personally, it’s hard for us to watch people learn. We could figure out ways to support the learning process in others rather than offering criticism and unsolicited advice.

Yes, it can be difficult to watch people learn. But here’s the kicker. Is it hard to watch a horse learn? What’s the difference? Now, go back to the beginning of this blog, and insert “horse” every time the “student” is referenced. If it’s hard for us to watch people struggle and learn, it’s probably difficult for us to watch horses struggle and learn. That’s why we push and mash, look for shortcuts, use gadgets, bigger bits and bigger sticks and generally get frustrated. We just can’t be troubled to watch a horse learn. It’s a funny thing. I bet that the better we are at watching people learn, the better we’ll get at watching a horse learn. Heck, we could all use the practice, anyway.

Where Are You Starting?


I’m not entirely sure why this can be a touchy subject, but I’m going to give this a go, because I think this is an important subject — to the horses. You know me, by now, probably, and you know that I’m not one of those folks who believes that horses should never be ridden or subjected to our human whims. I kind of like figuring out how to do things with them, and that includes a lot of things that probably would never be their idea. But I sure don’t want to be a part of why their life sucks, if I can at all help it. That’s why this matters to me.

Whether we have a horse that no one has touched before (and those are fairly rare), we have a well-broke horse someone else has made, or we have a troubled or remedial horse someone else has messed up, all those horses are, in the core of their being, the same horse. They all started out the same. They are all herd and prey animals, H.O.R.S.E.S.

I’ve lived my whole life with horses. Many kinds of horses, from 4-H horses of all types to show horses, to off-the-track-thoroughbreds, to horses of all breeds, shapes and sizes at clinics across America and Europe, to give-aways and rescue horses, to the Quarter Horses we develop now. As different as all those horses have been, they’re all still horses. They are herd and prey animals who once were little babies, bending their knees in that super-cute way to get down to learn how to graze. I feel like what all those different horses were trying to teach me was not what makes them all different but rather what they all have in common.

In their core, at the basis of who they are as a species, all horses have the same needs. Now, there are going to be people who disagree with me, and who will claim that their horse is “special”. I don’t think horses are designed at the factory to be “special”, as that would, in the wild, trigger a pretty unfortunate example of “survival of the fittest”. Horses are designed to graze 18 hours a day. They are designed to eat a lot of poor-quality forage and to live in a semi-arid climate. They are designed to travel long distances to procure food and water. They are designed to be part of a community, and in that community, the community is more important than the individual. Every member of the community is designed to fit in and not draw the attention of predators to the group. They find safety in numbers and crave the company of other horses.

No matter what breed our horse is, or how old he is, or where he came from, or what he does as a job, that’s who he is, at his core.

So that kind of gives us what I call our “starting point”. What I mean by “starting point” is what the horse is , what he’s dealing with, what’s already weighing him down, what pain he’s already living with, or what’s already distracting him or twisting his mind when we show up on the scene. The starting point is the place from which we build. A lot of horse training traditions assume we have a normal, natural starting point. Like anything, if we start with a different raw material, the end product could be very different. My own preference, in my horsemanship, is to start from as neutral a place with a horse as possible. Things just seem to work better for me that way.

But a lot of times, we are not working from a “natural” or “neutral” starting point. A lot of times, we’re working with a horse that has other people’s fingerprints all over it. Or a horse who didn’t really grow up at its mother’s side and in a herd, learning to act like a H.O.R.S.E. Or a horse who has had some horrible experiences or been rewarded for the wrong behaviors. Or maybe it’s a horse who has just been totally stressed out by multiple factors. Maybe he’s already lame, or half-blind, or has a bad back or bad feet. For me, before I even get started with a horse, I want to identify where my starting point is. If I have a horse who has never lived in a herd, it may be difficult for him to understand how to give to pressure, and that may end up being a lesson best taught by a horse, to a horse. Or perhaps he’s used to being fed only two or three times a day, and his food is restricted. Well, I bet that horse would become pretty distracted if I was trying to train him while there was any food source around, because he’d be craving that food. Or maybe he paces, or has chronic diarrhea, or he has to “blow off steam” before he can go to work. That’s his starting point, and it’s not necessarily a good one.

Equine behaviorists talk about “The Three F’s”, the three essential elements of physical and mental survival for the horse: unlimited access to Forage, Freedom and Friends.

Now, before you freak out, I realize that not all of us can live on a 10,000-acre ranch somewhere with dozens of horses. I get that. But that doesn’t change the horse’s need for the “Three F’s”, and our responsibility as horse owners to provide those to the best of our ability.

My point here is not to debate horse management practices. Rather, it is to simply propose that as horsemen, we need to be aware of what our “starting point” is in our horse. We could be starting with a horse who may already have abnormal psychology due to the lack of the “Three F’s”. In those cases, we are not starting from a place of normal psychology, and many of today’s training traditions assume we’re starting with a horse with normal psychology. If we’re not starting with normal psychology, then we’re probably going to need to start further back than we think, and we may even be put in a position where we have to try to teach a horse things they learn best from other horses.

It’s worth mentioning here that a “herd” really needs to be five or six or more horses. In order for a “herd” to have normal psychology and “natural” interactions, we really need about that many horses. Two horses is a pair, and horses don’t naturally live in pairs (they live in small herds or “bands”), that’s a dysfunctional grouping for horses. Three horses is a pair and a spare, four horses is two pair, and five horses may either be a small band or two pair and a spare. Some company is better than no company, but socially functional herds or bands, I believe, give the horses a richer and more natural social experience.

I’ve kept all kinds of horses all kinds of different ways in my life, from keeping them like little princes and princesses in show barns, to fending for themselves in frozen pastures in the Rockies. But I hadn’t really thought about the horse’s “starting point” until I began working with give-aways, rescues and OTTBs. These were horses who came with known issues and struggles. What I learned from them was that they really kind of needed a “reset button” of some sort. They needed to be “unplugged and plugged back in”, so to speak. The way to do that, I figured out, was through the “Three F’s”. I got them out on grass, in herds of five or six or more, in fields where they could run around together. Then I’d go to work on the training part of things. I figured that if I had a better starting point, I’d get a better result in the end.

Now, I know that not every horse owner can provide the “Three Fs” in a fairly unlimited way, but I think it’s only respectful to the horse/every horse for us to be aware of the fact that as far as he’s concerned, that’s just how he is. If we cannot or will not provide the “Three F’s”, then we simply need to be aware that there is going to be some sort of cost to the horse for that. For horses who have other challenges as well, the lack of the “Three F’s” can be devastating.

A lot of our horse management is designed for human convenience, not to create a good, natural “starting point” for the horse for training purposes. I understand. I don’t like trudging across a 20-acre pasture to go catch my horse. I don’t like the stress of watching new horses get to know each other. I don’t like the inherent risks of turning horses out together (I’ve seen two broken legs in my career), I don’t like maintaining miles of fencing. I don’t like the cost of taking care of grass. I don’t like scrubbing water tanks. But we do it, so the horses can have a good “starting point” for us to build the rest of our work on.

It’s been hard for me to learn to let go of a few things, like pristine show-ready coats, the easy accessibility of a horse waiting in a stall, and perhaps most of all, the warm/fuzzy feeling that I’m pampering my favorite horse and giving him “the best” of everything with deep shavings in a fancy stall with super expensive feed and blankets. Now, my “love” is expressed through taking off his halter and returning him to his herd for a day of grazing and carousing with his buddies. Yes, he’s always got a nick or a cut somewhere, and he’s shaggy in the winter and bleached out in the summer. I certainly get my “steps” in every day catching horses, and some days that sucks. But I have seen miracles worked in horses when they’re given the gift of a normal/natural “starting point” via the “Three F’s”. I’ve seen incredible changes in soundness, mental stability, body condition and general health. I’d have been hard pressed to accomplish those changes some other way.

It’s worth noting that having a poor starting point is another reason why some trainers might rely on learned helplessness as a training method. If our plan is to get the horse “checked out”, then it doesn’t really matter what we start with. We also can look at the starting point in the context of the “Worry Cup”, in that, if our horse’s worry cup is half full (because he’s in isolation, or doesn’t get enough forage, etc), there’s not much room left in there for anything else.

Every horse is different, we say, and while that’s true, every horse is the same, as well. This stuff about the “starting point” is not super sexy, and it’s not something that makes an interesting video or DVD. But for those of us who enjoy the study of horsemanship, we know that Ray constantly pointed to “what happened before what happened happened.” Well, what happened before I even showed up was how my horse’s management and lifestyle has influenced my raw material.

This Explains a Lot

There’s this thing about working with horses… it’s one of those things that is responsible for making working with horses difficult, soul-shattering hard work. And I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here, but it’s one of those kind of hard-to-swallow universal truths about horses that we sometimes really wish wasn’t so.

But it is so. And really, I wish this was the first thing we were taught about horses.

Horses seek the level of the person/people working with them.

Yes, I too wish that wasn’t true, because I’d rather it wasn’t that easy to get a report card on my work. But it is true. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, for better or for worse, eventually our horses will end up at our level.

This phenomenon explains a lot of what goes on in the horse world. This explains why a horse could be a complete “angel” for the trainer and then not work very well for the owner. It could also explain why the horse could do really well in training, and do well for a while after coming home, and then gradually unravel later and require a “tune up”. It could explain why a horse could get sold, and once the new owner got it home and lived with it for a bit, it didn’t at all seem to be the horse they went to try, and that buyer might think the seller lied about the horse. It explains why two different people might have two totally different experiences with the same horse, even on the same day. For one rider, perhaps the horse is forward, soft and willing, and for another rider, the horse is dull, unmotivated and bracey. It explains why instructors and trainers want horse owners to take lessons.

You knew that’s where I was going with this, didn’t you? A horse can’t do better than what we can do. He can’t surpass our ability. We are his limiting factor. I know that’s tough to swallow. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.

Think of it this way. If I partnered with a world-class ballroom dancer, how much dancing would they get done with ME, a middle-aged stroke survivor with very limited experience with dancing? How much dancing would they get done with another world-class, educated, experienced ballroom dancer?

Now, that’s not to say that the world-class dancer couldn’t dance with me and teach me. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. But if they were teaching me, until I got to their level (if ever), they would not be doing much high-level dancing. They’d be teaching me the box step. They’d have to come to my level. That’s kind of what we’re talking about here.

It’s up to us to choose what to do with this. Some folks will carry on blaming the horse for their own shortcomings. Other folks will wail about “not being good enough to deserve to own _____________________ (insert name of magical unicorn here)” just so someone will disagree with them and validate them. Some people just seem to be able to dodge this bullet, so to speak. But most of us are going to be subject to this universal truth.

Part of what makes horses so interesting and wondrous is this “plasticity” or “malleability” that they have. They aren’t stone, or diamond, or carbon steel, they’re A HORSE, and they are moldable and adaptable. And yes, horses are a mirror, but keep in mind that any horse that’s been touched or trained by others is not a “pure” mirror because he will likely have the fingerprints of the others on him. That makes a difference. Sometimes they’re helpful fingerprints, sometimes not. But the point is, this plasticity is part of what makes a horse a HORSE, if you see what I mean.

If we take this plasticity away through Learned Helplessness, or other techniques, what’s left is a horse, minus some of his most “horsey” attributes, his awareness of and responsiveness to what is happening in THIS MOMENT and his instincts as a herd and a prey animal. There is so much about a prey animal that is about sensing things in the moment and responding in the moment. Humans like things a bit more cut-and-dried than that, and I get that. That’s how HUMANS are.

All the great masters of horsemanship, across space and time and discipline say something like, “The horse never lies”. We love how mystical that sounds, but we hate it when it means that the horse is now our critic. We say he’s our best teacher, but then we tie his mouth shut. We make excuses, we create crazy fictions to protect our egos, we finagle it around so that only the horse’s positive feedback is valid.

I understand how frustrating this is as a student. It is supremely frustrating to see someone take YOUR horse, and have no trouble at all with the thing you are struggling with. I agree. That sucks. But that’s exactly what we need to be studying. HOW is what they did different from what we do? What were they thinking about? How were they breathing? What past experiences were they drawing on? How did they deal with any doubts or thoughts of failure? What did they do with their hands, their fingers, their legs, their feet, their tongue? Remember what I said at the beginning, that we were going to wish this wasn’t true? Now you know why. This is a tough truth.

A lot of instructors spend a lot of time wondering why more people aren’t knocking on their door or driving in their driveway. A lot of trainers have done a lot of mental gymnastics to justify getting paid to train a horse when they know darn well they’re going to send it home to a person who hasn’t changed at all since the horse left.

I don’t want you to take lessons or learn more somehow so you can look good on a horse, or compete in some discipline, or enjoy yourself on a trail ride, or whatever. I want you to take lessons or learn more so your horse does not have to bear the brunt of your frustration. He is doing the best he can with the information you’re providing. I want you to provide good information.

And I’m here to tell you that everyone, read that, EVERYONE can improve themselves for their horse. People with limited time, limited resources, limited physical ability, limited experience, limited whatever… everyone can improve for their horse. It might take the right teacher, or the right timing, or the right format or the right something else, but the only way we’ll fail is if we just don’t do it.

“You’re not working on the horse, you’re working on yourself.” ~Ray Hunt




It’s Not About Desensitization


I don’t need my horse to be desensitized. I need him to have understanding. I need him to be able to discern when he IS supposed to respond to a thing, and when he is not.
Yes, you read that right. It’s NOT about desensitization, or at least, it is rarely about classic desensitization. This is one of those things, very important things, that we horsepeople, over time, have kind of oversimplified. When we take a concept like this (and another example is “collection”) and we oversimplify it, we can actually cross over into mis-information, where we’ve simplified something kind of complicated to where we lose the truth of the original concept. That’s what’s happened with desensitization, we’ve kind of oversimplified a fairly complex topic and now it’s a bit of a mess in our culture.

The truth is, if we teach our horse, “Ignore everything that happens”, then he’s going to be wrong 50% of the time. If we teach him, “Respond to everything that happens,” he also is going to be wrong 50% of the time. Because the truth of the matter is, ideally, a horse would be able to discern the difference between things meant for him, and things that are just happening and have nothing to do with him. And ideally, we, the human, would have a role in helping him to make that discernment.

Here are two definitions of “desensitization” from the online Mirriam-Webster dictionary:

1: to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent

2 : to make emotionally insensitive or callous specifically : to extinguish an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it

If a horse is truly frightened of something and it induces a true fear response in him (flight), we may need to “desensitize” him to it – by presenting it to him, and releasing or removing it when he is calmer, more accepting or “braver.”

But even then, if we do this incorrectly, if our releases are not well-timed, we can end up with a horse who is “standing scared”, who has been taught basically, “When you’re terrified, don’t move.” That is actually the opposite of what a prey animal would naturally do. When a prey animal is terrified, it is supposed to run away. If we teach a horse to “stand scared” and get stuck when they’re frightened, we’ve actually created another dangerous problem, because if that horse comes unstuck, it can be quite spectacular. Teaching a horse to “stand scared” only addresses the physical part of the horse, because the horse is still scared. Mentally, he’s no better off. The horse still feels bad.

Another way to think of desensitization is that it is a way to make a horse dull. A dull horse is not necessarily a quiet horse, a horse with lots of understanding, or a horse who is gentle. One of the other kind of complicated things about this deal with horses is that what they learn is not always the same as what we intended to teach them. We may have intended to make a quiet, gentle horse, when actually we accidentally tipped over the line and made him dull. Now he just ignores everything. And while that may make him a good “packer” for your in-laws when they come in to town once a year, it doesn’t make him soft, light, balanced or responsive. Basically, making a horse really dull makes it pretty hard for him to do anything with refinement or promptness, because the horse is no longer interactive enough to respond in a timely manner with energy and interest.

This is why it’s just not that simple. Practically speaking, what a horse really needs to know is that we are going to need him to respond to some things that happen around him and to him, and not to others. I don’t know how to make that any simpler. It is complicated.

I choose to think of it this way: “things” that happen, objects, whatever, around our horse are forms of energy. Horses feel energy. They wonder what to do with it, how to respond to it. So I want to teach my horse what to do with that energy. I want him to ask me what to do with that energy. There will be some things, like a dog running up behind us on the trail, where my horse will hopefully “ask”, “Hey, Kathleen, what about that dog back there?” That gives me the chance to say, “Horse, just let that energy go by. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

I practice this in many ways. I’m working on getting my horse “with me” all the time, I’m exposing him to challenges to that regularly, and most importantly, I’m actually TEACHING him the difference between energy that should mean something to him and energy that shouldn’t. I do this by sitting down with him, in many different contexts, and practicing this: energy that comes WITH a directive from me means something. Energy that has no directive from me along with it means nothing. Let it pass on by.

For instance, my flag. If I present the flag to my horse with neutral body language, neutral mental energy from me, and a neutral lead rope or rein, then it is just a flag. Let it go on by. But if I present the flag with active and directed body language, a plan and picture in my active mind, and a directing lead rope or rein, then that flag should mean a whole lot.

Here’s another practical example. Kids have a lot of energy. Say I’ve got a child visiting me and my horses, and they are SO STOKED to be seeing horses. They’re squealing and so excited! My horse checks in with me, I give no directive behind the energy of the child, and they let it wash over them. Maybe the next day, on the trail, I pass a man, with way lower energy than the kid from yesterday, but he moves toward us and tries to grab my horse’s rein. I take that energy from that man and I put LOTS of directive behind it and tell my horse, “Get us out of here, run!!!!!”

Horses who are not clear on this, who are responding when they’re not supposed to, or not responding when the ARE supposed to, are very confused horses. Confused horses are often stressed or anxious horses. This confusion is one of the most common reasons why horses are sent out to trainers for training. In my experience, sometimes it’s the ONLY reason the horse has been sent to the trainer, and it’s really the only thing that the horse is struggling with in his world. But it’s a basic concept that is going to come up all the time, in everything he does. So it’s a big misunderstanding when it’s misunderstood.

Horses are miraculous creatures. The same horse who can’t bear to let a fly land on him can stand next to a cannon in a Civil War re-enactment, or wade into a crowd of violent soccer hooligans or carefully carry around a client with mental/emotional short-circuits and muscle spasticity. Those horses aren’t unfeeling. They feel it, all of it. They have been trained, in a (hopefully) progressive manner, to understand what they are feeling and discern the difference between things meant for them and things not meant for them.

If we have a “sensitive” (I hate that word because they are ALL BORN SENSITIVE) or “over-reactive” horse, we need to understand that they may be responding too much to the things around them. When they don’t know what to do, they err on the side of caution and respond first and ask questions later. It is our job to moderate that in the horse, so he has a more practical and safe level of responsiveness.

By the same token, if we have a dull horse, we need to realize that he feels everything the over-reactive horse feels. He just errs on the side of caution by NOT responding. He doesn’t need a harsher bit or a sharper spur, or pepping-up supplements. He needs to understand, so he can respond more accurately to what he is feeling. He feels it, he’s just been “taught” not to respond.

I think of the sensitivity level in a horse like a light with a dimmer switch. It’s not on/off, it’s dark to bright and everything in between. In my daily interactions with my horse, I am either dulling him off or encouraging him to be more sensitive. That dimmer switch is always moveable, and I’m moving it even if I don’t know it. Every time I interact with my horse, I must manage the energy in me and my environment, and then I need to make sure that any energy I want the horse to respond to has a clear directive behind it. He needs to be absolutely SURE when something is meant for him. That’s when his response will be smooth, weightless and mentally calm and confident. And at last, that response won’t be despite us, it will be because of us and the understanding we built inside that horse.

Watch Your Mouth!


“Your words matter” is something we have all heard. And words do matter, they do now and they always have. Google it. They’ve done lots of studies on it, actually. I feel like words are kind of “everyman’s super power”. It’s kind of wild how powerful words are.

I studied English at University. I did not finish my degree due to a health issue that caused me to drop out of school, but I chose to study English because when I looked at the list of majors that the university offered, English was the only thing I thought I could do for four years and physically and mentally survive. I love words and language. I struggle with it, like anyone else, but I really enjoy it. My mother used to read “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power” to me every month when our Reader’s Digest would come in the mail. Kids called me “the human dictionary” at school. I didn’t mind that.

The first level of meaning in a word is, in my mind, its dictionary definition. But that’s only the place to start. Words mean much, much more than just what their dictionary definitions dictate. They can reveal our attitudes, our prejudices, our loves, our experience level, our level of education, where we grew up, how we grew up, how much we’ve traveled, etc, etc. It is truly mind-boggling.

But let’s bring this whole thing in a bit smaller. Let’s talk about horse people. Horse people share a language. We learn a language from other horse people, people who teach us, people we hang out with and people we’re just exposed to. So we learn a language, and maybe as we learn it, we don’t really think that much about it. We just use the language like the others around us do.

What I want to talk about here is some of the language that horse people (and I’m using that term very broadly, of course) use. We, as horse people, have adopted, without much thought, some HORRIBLE words, phrases and “sayings” that we continue to mindlessly repeat. I’ve been keeping track of them. You can go out and hear them today. This needs to stop, and I’ll show you why. Here are some “rules” that will help explain the “why”.

First rule: I think we can all agree that horses are a herd and a prey animal. That’s just what they are. They have less cerebral cortex in their brain (the part the human has a lot more of, that’s responsible for complex thoughts and emotions) and most of their brain is dedicated to motor skills and sensory perception, compared to humans. Sounds like a prey animal, right? Those things right there, they’re facts, not opinions. That’s provable science, so not much to argue with there.

Rule number 2: most of these words, phrases and sayings are going to fall into one of three categories of horribleness:

  1. Excuses/horrible explanations for behavior
  2. Anthrophorphism (attributing human traits to the horse)
  3. Gross ignorance

Rule the Third: a horse, any horse, at any time, can only do one of two things:

1.He can do what instinct dictates

2. He can do what he’s been taught (“learned behavior”)

That’s it. That’s all he’s got. There really isn’t anything else for him. Everything the horse does falls into one of those two motivations.

So here goes. I am not going to cover them ALL here, there are just too many, but this is the list I collected in my cell phone notes over the past year or so that really stick in my craw.

“He’s lazy,” and/or he’s stubborn.” We use this to describe everything from gate-sourness to lameness, to tripping, to being behind the leg, to being dull as dirt and overly desensitized, or old and crippled, you get the picture. Of course the horse is “lazy”. He’s lazy by nature! Prey animals are basically wired to conserve energy, so if a predator does come out, they have plenty of energy to flee. A routinely tired horse would soon be a dead horse in a natural setting. So yes, horses are “lazy” in that they are programmed to conserve energy as a species. What is it that the horse is doing that causes us to accuse him of being “lazy” or “stubborn”? From a training perspective, this is what I’m most interested in. “Lazy” doesn’t tell me anything useful. Is he just a quiet horse? Is he in a state of Learned Helplessness? Is he behind the leg because he’s been released for not responding to the leg? Is he “stubborn” because every time he’s disagreed with the human, he got a release for it? Remember, it’s either instinct, or it’s learned behavior. I’d put this one in category B, Anthropmorphism. It’s HUMANS who don’t like to go to school, it’s humans who don’t like to work. It’s humans who are always trying to get out of things. It’s humans who are lazy.

“He’s doing that out of spite(US)!” or “Oh, he’s taking the micky/piss!(UK)” Okay, let’s get this out of the way right away. We all need to read the small but important book “Evidence-Based Horsemanship” by Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black. In this book, the authors detail very carefully how a horse’s brain differs structurally from the human brain, and what that means for us as horsemen. See First Rule above. So no, your horse is not doing that out of “spite” because he does not have the grey matter that would enable him to understand the human concept of “spite”. Your horse did something. You looked at what he did as if a HUMAN had done it. As a trainer, I say again, what did he DO (or not do) that made you say this? Now we can get somewhere.

“My horse is claustrophobic.” Yes, dear, horses are prey animals, and prey animals are claustrophobic by nature. Being claustrophobic does not make your horse special, it makes him normal. I would chalk this one up in Category C: Just Plain Ignorance. Horses can be trained to tolerate and be more comfortable in small spaces. They can also be inadvertently taught to be more claustrophobic than is natural. But by saying, “My horse is claustrophobic,” like it’s a permanent character trait, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to try to help him with it.

“Quirks,” as in, “My horse has quirks.” As a horse trainer, that word is a red flag for me. “Quirks” can be anything from a harmless mannerism, to a vice, to a downright dangerous behavior. When you say “quirk”, I don’t know what that is. The use of the word “quirk”, though, does tell me that the speaker doesn’t think they can change it and they’ve accepted it.

“Don’t let him get away with that!” Okay, I know that when we say that, it really FEELS like the horse is “getting away” with something. But again, review the cerebral cortex deal in the First Rule, and think about it. A horse will do what benefits him, or what’s benefitted him in the past. Horses seek peace, and it’s amazing where some horses have found peace before. He’s not “getting away” with anything, not in his mind. What he’s doing is either learned behavior or instinct (Rule the Third). If he’s doing this because of instinct, he needs more training to moderate and direct his instincts. If he’s doing it because it’s a learned behavior, he needs Retraining. So you may feel like he’s “getting away” with something, but he’s just doing something he thinks is right.

“My horse is so excited about doing _______________________ that I can hardly control him!” I just don’t know about this, because really, if we opened all the gates, all our horses would leave. And likely never come back. They’d just go be horses. My question about this, from a training perspective is, is there any chance what we’re interpreting as “enthusiasm” is actually “anxiety”? I think it’s always most helpful, with horses, to pick the simplest description of an emotion that goes with what we’re seeing (see First Rule). Humans tend to complicate things needlessly (see First Rule, see Ockham’s Razor), so it can be helpful, when dealing with behaviors, if we just pick the simplest word that describes what we’re seeing. If that horse is anxious, then maybe we need to do something about it. Maybe he can still do that job, but without the anxiety, and maybe he’d actually be better at it (and we’d be safer!). If you’re one of those people who thinks that high physical performance and being out of control have to go hand-in-hand in a horse, watch cutting horses work. What you’ll see them do is be calm, go in the herd, pick a few cows, move them out slowly. Then as soon as they’ve got their one cow isolated and the rider puts their hand down, that horse explodes. He carries on until the rider picks their hand up, and he’s in a flat-footed walk again so he can go back in the herd. It really is amazing. So it’s possible.

“He’s bored.” Yes, because if you weren’t here, trying to do something with him, he’d be standing in a stall, staring at a blank wall. So clearly, he’s bored. This is another thing we do – pay attention, and usually people will say their horse is “bored” when he’s acting up (really?), misbehaving, or checking out. So what do they do? They stop doing that, leaving the horse in a bad place, and go do something else. Describe what he’s doing with different words. DESCRIBE it, don’t just blame it on bad character. “Bored” is one of those horse world words we bandy about carelessly. What does it MEAN? What did he DO? Then did you reinforce it by giving him some sort of release or relief? And if he IS truly bored, then you have a whole other set of issues and you need to figure out how to branch out and build your horse up instead of doing the same few things the same ways over and over again. But mostly, when people say their horse is “bored”, they’re describing something totally different.

“Needs to be in a program.” I love this one, because I grew up with it. In other words, if we don’t work this horse every day, he comes untrained. So either we need to keep this horse tired, in a state of Learned Helplessness, or otherwise cowed. The other possibility is that our training isn’t sticking because it’s not making any sense to the horse. I’ve seen this when I’ve tried to bring a horse along that has no foundation. Until I go back and shore up that foundation, it’s like nothing will stick if he has a couple days off. What I do now is go back and do all the foundation, make sure that he knows the first things, then the second things, then the third things, etc. When it’s done this way, built from the bottom up, it seems to stick really well. I can (and so can my friends who train this way) routinely take even young horses and work them irregularly and they pick up right where they left off. I’ll say it again, this jargon-y phrase tells me that we’re blaming the horse for the fact that he doesn’t have a foundation, or that he’s over-fed and under-worked, or that he just isn’t understanding what he’s being shown. I think all that needs to be on us.

“He’ll test you.” This one actually kind of gets my blood boiling, because it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of horses, period (Category C). Horses are gregarious, curious, very smart, and have a long history of helping mankind advance our civilization through their willingness to work for us. They are “plastic”, in that they are always observing their surroundings and figuring things out (like, the best way to get to a water hole, or how to get through a slot canyon to really good grass). So yes, they WILL “test you” because that’s what they do. They are figuring you out. I have a friend whose horse would use the whiskers on his nose to feel if the electric fence was on. He was “testing” that fence. Does that make him a “bad” horse? No, that makes him a HORSE. But we also need to know that the only reason that horse is “testing” that fence is because he has found it off in the past. If that fence was on every time that horse “tested” it, he’d stop testing it and just take it for granted it was on. So if a horse is “testing” the humans in his life a lot, I assume that “testing” has paid off in the past, and that’s on the humans again, not the horse.

It’s also possible that this “testing” horse has been taught to fight with humans and be contradictory. Say he was handled and ridden by someone with marginal knowledge and skills, and every time that horse contradicted the human or followed his own idea forcefully, the person gave him a release, because they didn’t know what else to do. That could create a horse who would do those things with more and more confidence and expectation of a release. It could look to someone else that he was “testing” the rider. But he’d been taught that. See Rule the Third.

“He’s got a mind of his own.” Yes, dear, a horse is a sentient being. He has his own thoughts and feelings, absolutely. But usually horse people say this when the horse is disagreeing with them, doing something they don’t want or otherwise displeasing the human. Again, from a training perspective, what is he DOING or not doing that makes us say this? This doesn’t really tell me anything.

I could keep going here, and maybe I’ll collect a bunch more and carry on with it. But this is my point: please, please, horse people!!!!!!! THINK about what you’re saying when you use these familiar words and phrases. Are they accurate? Are they educated? Is that REALLY what you mean? Is it degrading to the horse? Is it unhelpful to the training? Is there blame in it? Is it a veiled insult? Does it make us sound like we don’t know anything about horses?

Seriously, the way some horse people talk, you’d think horses were lying, lazy, dead-beat, freeloading, deceptive, suspicious, LAZY, worthless, conniving SOBs. And if that really is how we feel about horses, if that’s really what we believe they are, then we need to find a new vocation.

And here’s another part of this, folks, that I truly believe. I have seen it, and I will see it again. People who believe that horses by nature have terrible character, well, they tend to make horses who become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up proving their point. I’ve bought quite a few. I don’t buy from those people any more. It’s important to know how a horse was made, because that horse will reflect the beliefs of the people who made it. Might sound a bit woo-woo, but I’ve seen it. Too many times.

So yes, our words matter. Let’s try to sound like we know a thing or two about horses by rephrasing, reframing and expanding our vocabulary. We can do better.

And remember, as my husband Glenn would say, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Language WILL rub off on you, as will attitudes. Be careful who you hang out with. And for heaven’s sake, if you are trying to get help from your instructor or trainer with your horse, throw out all these phrases (and more!) and figure out how to draw a word picture for your trainer or instructor of exactly what you’re seeing or feeling. They will be very grateful, and will do a much better job for you!

Are You Blind?

This is another one of those things that needs to be as important to us as it is to the horses (VERY, in other words!). Blind spots. Blind spots are very important to horses and they have a lot of them, actually. Blind spots are places where the horse literally cannot see what’s around him. In a prey animal, one can imagine, this could cause some pretty serious issues.
If a horse is troubled in one or more of his blind spots, it can cause things like bucking, bolting, spooking, striking and rearing (probably over 50% of these behaviors are caused by blind spot issues), all the way down to things like trouble picking up feet, problems mounting, trouble standing still, generalized anxiety, kicking horses who come up behind in group situations and high-headed “upside down” postures. Blind spot troubles can be subtle, and they can be huge. But it’s our job to recognize them and help the horse become okay with all the things that might happen with his blind spots. This is a large part of putting a foundation on a horse, dealing with all these blind spots. If this foundation piece is missing, shoddy or incomplete, the horse might exhibit some of the things mentioned above and more.

A horse has blind spots because, simply put, his eyes are placed on the sides of his head. A friend of mine and good horseman once suggested that we take our hand and make a fist and then put that fist between our eyes, touching our foreheads, to get a feel for how a horse’s eyes are separated. It’s weird! I found lots of diagrams of equine blind spots in a Google search, and they show the blind spots pretty clearly. I’ve shared one of those below. But what they don’t show is that the blind spots on a horse are three-dimensional. So I’ve added a drawing I doctored to help show another plane of the blind spots. The first diagram shows a map of blind spots on the horizontal plane, and the second shows a map on the vertical plane (I made that one myself, so be kind! I don’t know if it’s scientifically accurate, but I could not find a drawing of the vertical plane). You’ll kind of have to make a three-dimensional picture of your horse’s blind spots for yourself. Basically, if, from where you are positioned, you cannot see one or both of the horse’s eyes, he cannot see you. Also keep in mind that a horse has to move his head to change his field of vision, so anytime we fix his head in a position, we are also fixing his visual field and defining his blind spots for him.

blindspot2                 Blind spots 1

So what about this? Well, we need to TEACH a horse to handle things in his blind spots. They don’t come “from the factory” with the blind spots taken care of. We have to remember that things can “pop” into a horse’s vision out of a blind spot and startle him. We need to remember that our toes are in his blind spots much of the time. We must keep in mind that the area behind his head (where we sit, for instance) is actually a blind spot until he turns his head. I’ve seen lots of riding horses that were actually NOT okay with things in the blind spot behind their head. Under his chin and in front of his chest are blind spots. If we reach in and slap, tap, push or otherwise “cue” a horse on his chest, that’s in a blind spot. Under his belly is a blind spot. Behind him is a blind spot. If a horse is in cross ties, he may not be able to turn his head enough to mitigate that blind spot that’s behind him, and he might become worried that something might happen back there that he can’t see. Some trail horses would rather have a horse behind them in their blind spot than be the last horse in line (first to be picked off by the predator?) and have that blind spot wide open to the world.

Then there’s the thing we call, “switching eyes”. Because the horse’s eyes are on the sides of his head, when something crosses from one field of vision, through a blind spot, to the other field of vision, the horse has to “switch eyes”. Say I’m grooming him and I walk around behind him. I just required him to “switch eyes”. I went, say, from his left eye, through his blind spot, to his right eye. Many, many horses have trouble switching eyes and this can cause profound training and behavioral problems. Some horses will work hard to keep things on one side or the other (their more comfortable side, of course). We need to know when we’re asking a horse to switch eyes (because HE knows we’re asking him to switch eyes) and be able to observe how he feels about it. If he is not confident and okay with it, then we need to help him with that. That is our responsibility.

There are lots of ways to help a horse with blind spot skills and issues. Different styles of training do it different ways, so the information is out there, in many forms. If you feel like your horse may have issues with his blind spots, and you don’t feel qualified to deal with those, then you can find a trainer who can help you both. If you have a horse in training, you may want to ask the trainer what has been done about the horse’s blind spots, so you’re an educated consumer.

The take-aways here are two-fold. Firstly, if we have a horse, ride horses or handle horses, we need to know what the blind spots are and where they are. Then it would be great if we were able to self-diagnose if our horse has an issue/behavioral/training problem that might be coming from a blind spot issue. A horse with a blind spot issue is not being a “butt-head” or “spooky” or “high energy”, he’s genuinely worried.

Secondly, I’d like us to understand how blind spots raise the level of difficulty of any skill or task for a horse. For instance, if we’re getting a horse used to a stick, flag or rope, we need to keep it out of the blind spots at first. We need to work in the areas where the horse CAN see, then GRADUATE to the blind spots. It’s easy to blow a horse up if we go after those blind spots first, and that horse may never get over that. Recognize that things happening in blind spots raise the level of difficulty of any common task. For instance, leading a baby horse in from the pasture is one thing, but leading him in while things (dogs, horses, traffic, whatever) are moving around behind him, in and out of his blind spot raises the level of difficulty exponentially. When we’re riding a colt, for instance, giving cues on both sides of his body raises the level of difficulty exponentially, while giving cues that are all on one side is simpler. That kind of keeps things “in one eye”, so to speak. We also need to know if our horse takes over deciding which eye to work on. We need to know which eye he offers easiest and then we need to be able to focus on getting both eyes “equal” (symmetrical). A lot of the “asymmetry” or one-sidedness horse people talk about is actually about switching eyes and the eyes being symmetrical, or not. We need to understand how this concept influences the progressive nature of increasing the level of difficulty for our horses.

A few years ago, we had a horse in here at our place for training that was having trouble cantering under saddle. He just didn’t want to do it, despite all the encouraging techniques the owner had tried over time. So we went back to the beginning with this horse and found some interesting things. The horse had a lot of things that were working fine, and overall, the horse was very functional. But the horse had trouble backing off a trailer. He had trouble with his back feet with the farrier. He would pull back if tied and something moved behind him. If you were in the round pen and you turned him to the outside, so you passed through his blind spot, he’d scoot through as fast as he could. So we spent a lot of time getting that horse feeling really good about switching eyes behind him, and getting him comfortable with things happening in his rear blind spot.

Once we did all that work, we got on the horse in the round pen, and about the first thing he offered to do was to canter. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it for myself. That horse went on to be willing to canter as we moved him around different areas of the farm. It was one of the coolest changes I’d ever seen in a horse.

It’s not always easy to see HOW things are connected in a horse. It’s not always linear, and it’s not always very logical from a human perspective. Blind spot issues, in particular, seem to manifest sometimes in pretty bizarre ways, so it’s one of those things that needs to go on the “applies to ALL horses” list, regardless of the horse’s age, breed, the discipline he works in, the style of his saddle or even his color. In this way, “a horse is a horse is a horse”.

An Alternative to Learned Helpessness

IMG_2126 (2)

As we continue this discussion about the possibility of Learned Helplessness (LH) in horses (please see the first article here), it seems like some folks kind of feel like LH should be eradicated in the horse world, and others feel like it’s inevitable in the horse world. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle there, because while I would love for LH to be eradicated in the horse world, I also know that there are MANY, MANY much crueler practices going on in the horse world that I’d like to see eradicated first. I know that the only horses that I have full control of, MY horses, are going to see as little LH as I can manage, and that’s a personal, ethical choice I have the privilege to make, since I am their trainer and their guardian.

So let’s say you’re in that boat too, and are now wondering, “What are some alternatives to LH?” There are many alternatives to LH, and I am not going to try to be an expert in all those alternatives here in a short blog. Another disclaimer is that I’m not some high-powered academic or “ethologist”. I’m a fairly smart person who loves horses and has been working horses professionally for well over 30 years. I could call myself a semi-academic. I like observing what happens in the real world and I like trying things. So what I will do here is to speak from my own practical experience with horses since I first learned about LH.

It’s also worth mentioning that my goal when it comes to developing a horse is to bring a horse along so that he becomes a safe, confident and useful horse in a variety of jobs, and he can do those jobs in a healthy, fairly correct classical form. I am looking for a dance and a work partner. My interest in alternatives to LH is pretty practical.

Let’s go back to the article from Martin Black’s website called “Learning to Learn” and look at this excerpt:

“A horse’s ability to learn is largely dictated by his past experiences. Has your horse been able to explore, with or without a rider, circumstances to find a right answer, or has it been micromanaged and forced into a specific answer?

     Horses that have had the opportunity to explore solutions and make mistakes are the better learners, the pair [Dr. Stephen Peters and Martin Black] says. These horses have “learned to learn.”

     Dr. Peters explains that a horse that’s exposed to a myriad of experiences has extensive dendritic fields (neuron-to-neuron connections in the brain), therefore increasing decision-making and learning capabilities.” ~excerpt from the article “Learning to Learn” by Martin Black (http://martinblack.net/evidence-based-horsemanship/learning-to-learn.html)

Any alternative to LH must be choice-based. Remember the description of the initial experiment done by Seligman, where he put the dogs in the study into the box and shocked them. The dogs who had been able to turn off the shock with a foot pedal jumped right out of the box. A percentage (not all, mind you) of the dogs who were not able to help themselves just laid down and took the shocks. That’s learned helplessness, in a nutshell. What I also choose to take away from this is that putting pressure (in the form of the shocks, in the case of the experiment) on the dogs didn’t damage them, as long as they could do something to make it stop. What’s damaging is when we put pressure on and there’s nothing the human or animal can do to make it stop, or if the cessation of the pressure is random.

So what are some things that an average horse person can do to reduce the chances that they’re employing a LH-based learning system with their horse? First and foremost, we could look at using a pressure-and-release based learning system. Simply put, we would put “pressure” on a horse, and keep that pressure on until we got a “try” or an attempt at the desired behavior/skill/movement/whatever, and then we would “release” or stop/take away that pressure.

What is “pressure”? Well, it really can be anything. Your very presence in the proximity of a horse could be considered “pressure”. A look or a glance can be pressure. Energy can be pressure. Various physical taps, contact, bumps or swats could be considered pressure.

Now, it’s worth noting here that depending on a person’s skill level, their level of awareness and their plain-old experience level, their application of this idea might be pretty crude, or it might be so sophisticated and subtle as to be invisible to any onlooker. We all have to start somewhere, so don’t throw out this idea if you’ve only seen crude examples of it, if you see what I mean. There are a few important details in relation to this, that come from masters in the application of this idea, and I’ll mention a few of them here.

  • “As little as possible, but as much as necessary.” We often mis-apply this idea in that generally speaking, the average horse person does not start with LITTLE enough pressure, and they usually don’t end up “big” enough to be effective and clear to the horse. The end result of this misapplication would be a dull horse who sees humans as confusing and ineffective.
  • “Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.” We often mis-apply this idea too, in that we accidentally (or on purpose) make the wrong thing IMPOSSIBLE, or we don’t make the right thing easy ENOUGH for clarity. There has to be enough contrast that the horse is motivated to make a choice, but not so much contrast that the horse actually has no choice, practically speaking. Applying this concept well is an impressive feat for a horseman, so again, don’t throw out the idea because you’ve only seen it crudely interpreted. To see a horseman tactfully apply the subtle shades of this idea is a nearly magical experience.
  • “Release, release, release!!!!!!!!” Yes, we must release, but just because we released doesn’t mean the horse is feeling RELIEF. We need to be able to arrange things so that doing what we suggest FEELS GOOD TO THE HORSE, and in order to do that, we need to know what feels good to a horse as opposed to what feels good to a human, because they’re not necessarily the same thing. That feeling of relief needs to be tangible enough to the horse that he will “pay” for it with mental and physical effort (try).


Another thing I think is important, along with a non-LH based learning system is a healthy, horsey lifestyle. Now, I know many horse people must keep their horses in less than horse-friendly situations, and to those folks, I’d simply encourage them to get creative and find ways to mitigate the negative effects of less-than-horse-friendly lifestyles. A horse-friendly lifestyle is one that has plenty of the “three Fs”: Forage, Freedom and Friends. Horses are designed to graze 18 hours a day, they’re designed to roam miles and miles finding that grazing, and they’re designed to live in bands or herds of usually 6 or more horses. I wonder (and I haven’t run across any documentation about this) if being in a stall 23 hours a day in itself can cause some LH in horses.

A horse who is foraging, who is in a larger area, and who is living with other horses has questions to navigate daily. Where to graze? Sun or shade? How deep is that puddle? Will this horse groom with me? How many of us can drink out of that tank at the same time? How fast can I turn that corner? Who will run with me?

Please don’t get me wrong. I know that keeping horses in bigger spaces, with forage and friends has inherent risks. I hate that part of it. If you look at my horse expenses at the end of the year, at the top are feed and vet bills. If you look at the feed, it starts with quality forage, weed control, etc, and if you look at the vet bills, most of them have to do with horses being horses out in the fields. Me personally, I’m willing to pay those expenses so my horses can have those “three Fs” and thereby give us all a good starting point for keeping the LH at bay. And again, I know many people can’t provide their horses with those “three Fs”. Just remember that there will be a cost to that, and that some horses will absorb the lack of those “three Fs” better than others.

Now, the last point I want to make here is more big-picture. I think we can agree that IF learned helplessness occurs in horses, and IF common training techniques do indeed cause LH in horses, then how do we get a horse so he can do things while he’s “checked in”?

By using progressive preparation, by building skills pieces at a time and by increasing difficulty and sophistication incrementally. We need to repeat familiar skills in different places and in different circumstances so those skills can become “solid” and generalized.

And the problem with this solution is that in order to build a horse’s skills progressively and incrementally, you need to know not just how to ride an already-trained horse, but you kind of need to know how to train a horse “from scratch”. If we don’t know how to train a horse from scratch, then we need to work with someone who knows how to teach a horse incrementally and can help us. And if that’s the case, we need to be willing to slow down, put long-range goals aside, and settle into the work it takes to teach a horse progressively. Doing things in smaller pieces takes time.

Here is an example of teaching something progressively. Let’s say I want to be able to rope a cow off my horse. If I’m going to teach this progressively, when he’s a youngster, we could pony him out in the cows with an older, experienced horse. We can let him explore the cows and let them touch him and sniff him. We can trot and canter in among the cows. Then, I would get him good with ropes all around him. On the ground, in the air, on his body, around his feet. Then I’d get so I could ride him, and then ride him carrying and then swinging a rope. I’d rope a dummy, I’d drag a log and a tire. I’d throw a rope at a colt or a friend’s horse, and they’d throw a rope at me. The rope would just become part of what we do. Then I’d ride him in the cows, maybe some quiet cows I keep for roping practice. I’d start with my breakaway honda and I’d rope a cow and let him track it and then break away. I’d do that until he understood it and was relaxed about it. THEN I’d rope a cow.

Or, as was suggested to me once, I could, “Just git yer horse there, and git one of them yearlin calves, put them in your arena. You rope that there cow, tie him off to yer horn and go have lunch. By the time you get back, that colt’ll damn near have that figgered out!”

There is a big difference between what I would call “progressive preparation” and what I call “on the job training.” Progressive preparation takes a lot more time, obviously. But I like riding and working with horses, and I like studying that process, so it doesn’t bother me. I also think that progressive preparation yields a better quality product (horse) in the end, so the time is worth it to me.

LH is out there in the horse world because it works, and because people demand it. How else are you going to get an unhandled colt riding in 30 days or less? Either you’re going to use LH or you’re going to skip a lot of stuff (and I want a list of what you skipped before I try to ride that thing!). How else are you going to get a show horse to perform absolutely consistently in different venues in a short period of time? How else are you going to make horses safe for people who don’t want to spend the time and energy learning how to ride and getting a good seat? How else are you going to guarantee that a horse will “never” spook? What keeps LH alive in the horse world is the consumer’s demand for it, unfortunately.

And that, my friends, is why I have taken the time to write this stuff down. You are the consumer and your money and your time is very powerful. As long as we pay for LH techniques, and we hold horses created by LH up as the epitome of a discipline or a breed, we perpetuate the practice. WE cause it. But when we become more educated, we gain the ability to make more discerning choices and ask more revealing questions.

I don’t want my dance and work partner to be looking for ways to say, “No,” or to disagree with me. But I do want him to have a voice of some sort, because what I do know for sure is that together, we can do way more fabulous things than either of us can do apart. And that’s the art, not the science of this thing. How do we get a horse to say “yes” with as much of his free will as possible?

Learned Helplessness


Quite a few years ago, I was idling away some time reading the then-current issue of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine (a weekly sport-horse publication). While skimming a pretty dry article about the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) annual convention, I ran across a mention of a guy named Andrew McLean who had been invited to speak to the attendees about the possibility that a thing called “learned helplessness” might be causing “dullness in dressage horses.” I didn’t think another thing of it, skimmed the rest of the magazine and threw it out.

A year later, I found myself in much the same position, at the same time of year, skimming articles in The Chronicle. There was another article about that year’s USDF convention, and another mention of Andrew McLean. But this time, reading between the lines, it sounded like they’d invited him back to take back what he’d said the year before about learned helplessness in dressage horses. NOW they had my attention!

I spent that weekend madly Googling learned helplessness (LH) and Andrew McLean (he’s from Australia). Once I’d gotten a handle on that, I continued to read about LH and think about how it might or might not relate to hundreds of horses I’d seen over the years. I did more research, and more reading.

Now, according to an equine behaviorist I consulted, it is not necessarily scientifically sound to assume that LH occurs in horses. This has not been scientifically proven by scientists, in studies. The seminal studies on LH were done with dogs, and scientists agree it occurs in humans, so scientists would agree that it can occur in dogs and humans. But studies on horses have NOT been done. So strictly speaking, we are going out on a bit of a limb assuming that horses can experience LH. Even so, I think it’s a useful exercise.

So before we can go any further, it’s best if you go read the Wikipedia entry on Learned Helplessness, which is still about the most efficient and succinct definition that I have found so far. If you skip this step, none of the rest of this article will make any sense, so please now read this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

Okay, you’re back! So basically, when a being is in a state of LH, they feel like there is nothing they can do to improve their situation in the moment or “make it stop”. So they give up. Like the dogs in the study, they figuratively and literally lay down and take it. They don’t fight, they don’t try to escape, they surrender, which can look like “agreement” or “submission” or “obedience” to some folks.

Whether the science is there or not, I think good horsemen I’ve worked with have seen horses with LH. They’ve called them “checked out”, “tuned out”, “shut down”, “gone internal”, “withdrawn”, “mechanical”, “robotic”, and dare I say it, the classic “bombproof”. I’ve heard horsemen talk about horses who are “dead inside”, have “dead eyes” or sucked-in “shark eyes.” Nowadays I think that these are all different ways of describing learned helplessness.

What sucks about using LH to train a horse is IT WORKS. A horse in a state of learned helplessness is really consistent. He never expresses an opinion, he never objects. He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t try new things for the heck of it. He’s “bombproof” and “a campaigner”. He goes through his life in a fog, not really looking at anything, asking no questions, just mindlessly putting one foot in front of the other. They make awesome, consistent show horses. They can go from venue to venue and don’t really see their surroundings. So they don’t spook, they don’t bobble, they don’t struggle with the differences in the venues. It wouldn’t matter if they did, so they don’t.

I have come to believe that once a horse is in a state of learned helplessness, that state must be maintained. Using my own experience as an example, in the hunter-jumper business we did this by putting horses in bitting rigs (side reins) in their stalls and then riding them in draw reins. We routinely put the horses in a position where there was nothing they could do to get relief from some sort of pressure. In order to maintain a state of LH, it seems like the helplessness must be reinforced regularly for the state to be maintained. Tying a horse’s head into a fixed position for long periods of time seems to be a common technique that can create and maintain LH. And the horses who object to being put in a state of LH? We called them “rogues.”

I have come to believe that many if not most mainstream training programs rely on LH to some extent. Loping horses to exhaustion, tying heads down and/or around, lunging horses to exhaustion, drilling and mindless repetition, the repetition of patterns, all these things could cause learned helplessness if performed the “right” way with the “right” horse.

All this said, I don’t know that LH isn’t the best way to produce a show horse or any other kind of horse who has to perform something repetitive consistently. Like I said, it works. Once we start to allow the horse to be “present” and rely on him to think through organic situations, he might not be as consistent as a LH horse. I don’t know.So, let’s look at the alternative to learned helplessness. Take a moment and go read this article:


Ah, so this is “The Ray Hunt Affect”, as I call it in my mind. This is about training the horse in a way where he is allowed to make choices, and neurologists tell us that this actually GROWS his neurology. Training him in a way where he’s NOT allowed to make choices actually kills brain cells. So this is the purpose of the release – to enable us to set up training in a way that the horse is making choices (often cycling through the “wrong” choices) and we can use pressure and release to guide him to the “right” choice.

A horse developed this way may not perform as consistently as a horse developed with LH. A horse developed with releases may notice more of the changes in his surroundings, and he may respond to inconsistencies in his rider or handler. If he’s “checked in” rather than “checked out”, there are a lot more factors and variables at play in his responses.

Over the years, I believe that Glenn and I have bought many horses with LH. As a rule, when we looked at the horses, they were calm, easy to ride and easy to get along with. But once we got them home, things would slowly start to change. See, we work with horses using releases, not LH. So these horses would slowly come out of the “haze” of LH. They might start to spook, they might develop certain worries or anxieties. They might appear to deteriorate in their training. They might start to refuse to do things.

One of our very typical LH horses was a ranch horse when we bought him. He was working on a big outfit out west every day and the only reason he was for sale was because his owner wanted to bring another young horse along. We got him home and he was truly “bombproof” and absolutely perfect in every way. Then one day he started spooking at things that he’d been by many times in the past. And he started getting worried about COWS. Really? Worried about COWS??? He’d see a cow and get diarrhea.

One of our other LH horses was sound when I bought him. He rode great, he had been working full time as a ranch horse, and he seemed willing to work for us. But six months in, I began to increase what I was asking of him where his balance and posture was concerned. This is when he started refusing. He seemed to be willing to do what I asked, but only if he could figure out how to arrange himself. Then one day he came out of the pasture lame on the left front. A week later, it was the left hind. Then the right hind. Week by week, he began to physically struggle more and more.

I decided to go ahead and x-ray his front feet, hocks and hind fetlocks. The x-rays showed that he had arthritis and bone spurs in his hocks, arthritis and bone chips in his hind fetlocks, and navicular changes in his front feet. Basically, he was lame on all four legs.

So why did he ride sound at first? Obviously, all those bony changes didn’t just HAPPEN, they were there when we bought him. I believe that as this horse “woke up” from his state of LH, he began to feel his pain. I believe that when he “checked out” in learned helplessness, he stopped responding to his own pain, maybe blocking it out. Heartbreakingly, we put this horse down at 10 years old because we could no longer keep him comfortable as a pasture ornament.

Though I regret to say it, I’m sure I’ll have more opportunities to study this further. But here are some things I’ve noticed that might be useful to other folks sailing in the same boat.

  1. LH is established by making a horse “give up”. Then that state must be maintained. If all you do is turn a horse out in the pasture, he may start to “come out” of the state of LH. If you work with him and give releases, he may start to “come out” of it. Once he’s “woken up”, we can fill in the blanks and carry on with the horse.
  2. If we buy a horse with LH, we really don’t know what we’ve got. We don’t know who or what he’ll be when he “wakes up”. He might be something we can use, he might not. It’s kind of a crap shoot, as they say.
  3. In my experience, it’s taken horses six months to a year (approximately) to “wake up”.
  4. “Standing scared” is a good example of LH. This is when a horse stands still and “takes” a stimulus, even though he’s scared inside and really, he should be fleeing. I believe a lot of LH starts with standing scared and expands from there. And here’s a mindbender – standing scared is useful in some situations, like with vet visits.
  5. There is an ethical dilemma here. We might think that every horse with LH needs to be “woken up” and needs to “come out of it.” But if it’s the LH that makes him safe and useful and purposeful in the world he lives in, might it be more fair to leave him that way? I don’t know. There are lots of ethical questions here.

Horses are herd and prey animals by nature. Unfortunately, it’s their nature as a herd and a prey animal that gets in our way as we try to do things with them. But all those things we want to do with them, trail rides, parades, barrel races, flat races, steeplechases, reining patterns, jumping, roping, performing tricks, rail classes, pulling carriages, whatever, are not ever the horse’s idea. Those are our ideas. What makes those things hard to do or troublesome to do is the horse’s nature as a herd and prey animal. Everything in him is taking him away from us and what we want to do with him. That’s the trick. Learned helplessness is one way to deal with that problem. An alternative to learned helplessness is “getting our idea to be the horse’s idea” to some extent, and that, my friends, takes way more time, expertise, feel, timing, experience, patience, money, blood, sweat and tears than tying a horse’s head around or throwing him on the ground and covering him with a tarp while we tap dance on him.

There will probably always be a place for learned helplessness in the horse world. As long as we need horses to do things “no matter what” and we cannot accept any variations in their performances, there will be learned helplessness. But what’s more interesting to me is getting a horse “with me”, developing his skill set progressively and seeing how well prepared I can have him while still able to think through organic situations. This horse’s performances may not be as consistent as the horses trained with learned helplessness, but I personally enjoy reaching for a horse and feeling him reach back to me, and figuring out what that feel means between us.


The Worry Cup

Horses, and people, have a “Worry Cup”. The Worry Cup is a useful image when we’re trying to quantify worry, in a horse or in a human. Imagine a cup, maybe even a measuring cup, being filled up, bit by bit, with worry after worry. One big worry might fill the cup all the way up quickly, while many, many small worries might fill it up more slowly. But full is full, and what happens when the Worry Cup is full? It overflows, and that usually results in a crisis of some sort.

There are SO many variables in this thing, working with horses. The Worry Cup is a principle that allows us to perhaps understand worry in a less emotional and more rational way. If the Worry Cup is not full to overflowing, we’re probably okay. We would like there to be as little worry in the Worry Cup as possible, but there’s always room in the very bottom of the Worry Cup for a little something. The less that’s in there on a chronic basis, the more we can fit in unexpected worries as we go about doing things with our horse.

Here is a for instance. Picture a one-cup Pyrex measuring cup. Picture my horse, any horse. You can picture you or any other person too, but for this example, I’m going to use a horse. Let’s say the horse is concerned about things in his blind spot back behind his tail. That’s a quarter cup of worry right there. And, because my horse is worried about things in his blind spot behind him, he’s also worried about maybe needing to SWITCH eyes with things behind him. That’s another quarter-cup of worry, so now we’re up to a half-cup of worry. Now, I take him away from his buddy, and his separation anxiety adds another quarter of a cup of worry. We are now at three quarters of a cup of worry. Say I am not a very experienced rider, and say my cues are not very accurate, and not timed up with my horse’s feet and I often unbalance him with my cues. Add another quarter-cup of worry. We are now at a full one cup of worry. No matter what the next worry is, it is going to be the worry that pushes us over the top.

It’s the same for humans. As our worries begin to add up, we can get so we have no more room in our Worry Cup and a crisis occurs. When we apply ourselves to the study of horses and horsemanship, one of the things we are looking to achieve is a way to keep the Worry Cup empty enough to accommodate the things we maybe can’t help.

Furthermore and most importantly, I think that “foundation” worries (for the definition of “foundation”, please read my blog “Why Foundation Matters”) go on the bottom of the Worry Cup. Daily, superficial worries (wind, air temperature, footing, etc) go more towards the top. Foundation worries include the worry mentioned above, about the horse’s blind spot. There are many, many more foundation worries. Foundation worries are the really basic things that a good starting job and then life experience should take care of. But a shocking number of horses have “holes” in their foundations that add foundation worries to their Worry Cups. I expect that these horses live in a state of mild (or severe) stress, dreading the moment that one of these foundational worries will come up.

Here is another example of a foundational worry. In Georgia, we have lots of scrubby forested areas, and there is a profusion of vegetation in there, including these thick, strong, thorned vines. When we go in those areas to get cows out, we can easily have our horses get their feet and legs caught in these vines. Or the vines can get twisted up in their tails. The vines don’t break when they catch around a horse’s foot, so you can be in there, with your horse’s foot “tied” to a vine that comes from who knows where. The only solution is to get off and either extricate the horse’s feet or cut the vine with a knife. To help our horses with this part of our environment (and for many, many other benefits), we pick up our horse’s feet with ropes as part of their foundation. We know we can put a rope around our horse’s foot and stop him. We know he won’t panic. So when that vine stops his foot, he’s done that before and he knows what to do. Stop and let me help him. By giving him that foundation piece, we keep that worry out of the bottom of the Worry Cup. Our horses don’t worry about going in those areas, and they don’t worry when they get hung up. They’re prepared. Preparation equals less worry.

As humans, what I’ve seen, is our tendency to try to fix the things on the TOP of the Worry Cup, rather than doing the work of fixing the foundational issues more near the bottom of the Worry Cup. Frankly, not all horse owners would know HOW to fix a foundational worry. So we don’t ride our horse on windy days, or cold days, or during feeding time. We maybe give that stuff up rather than address the foundational worry that our horse doesn’t understand how to focus on us above some other things. I know the wind is blowing, but if I ask my horse to go a certain speed and go a certain direction, that SHOULD be possible, despite the wind. Wind is only on the TOP of my Worry Cup. If I have the bottom of my Worry Cup empty, it’s amazing how much room is in there for other stuff!

Avoiding a worry in the Worry Cup doesn’t remove it. Dealing with it removes it. If I have a horse who is worried about things in his blind spot behind him and I do everything I can to avoid having things appear out of his blind spot, that doesn’t remove the worry from the Worry Cup. The horse knows it’s in there, and it still “counts” as taking up room in the Worry Cup.

Another thing we have to consider is that the human themselves could be a worry in the Worry Cup. Obviously, if a horse is afraid of humans, then the human is a worry in the Worry Cup. But there are other cases where the human’s presentation, their feel, or their timing may not suit the horse and cause him worry. I’ve seen cases where a person’s personality was a worry to a horse. That horse and person may just not be a “good match”. Sometimes a person’s skill level is perhaps not quite enough to supply a horse with the clarity, accuracy or support he needs at the time, so that might add into The Worry Cup.

Whenever I hear someone say something like, “My horse is bothered by dogs on trail rides,” or “My horse doesn’t like bits,” or “My horse doesn’t like the feel of this fabric or that fabric,” I wonder if there are maybe a bit too many things in The Worry Cup. There are times when a horse just can’t take ONE MORE IRRITATION OR BOTHER because his Worry Cup is so close to full already. The less things are in his Cup is, the more tolerant he may be of small variations and irritations in his world.


For me, what I’ve chosen to do about The Worry Cup is to keep as much of the foundation stuff out of there as possible. I look for the stuff at the bottom of The Worry Cup, and when I’ve found all that stuff and taken care of it, then I see if there is anything else left that needs to be addressed. Many horses don’t need an EMPTY Worry Cup, they just don’t like a FULL Worry Cup. I’ve found that we get a deeper, more meaningful positive change for the horse if we can remove the foundational worries, rather than removing the superficial or situational worries. And I keep track of The Worry Cup (the horse’s and mine) all the time, just so I know where we stand and how much room I have left in there at any given time.


Then there’s the human’s Worry Cup – but really, everything we’ve said about the horse’s Worry Cup also applies to the human’s Worry Cup too.

You can find me at my new website: www.ethosequine.com

What is Your Horse Working On?

So what do I mean when I ask, “What is your horse working on?” What I mean by that is mostly “What is your horse thinking about?” while you’re working with him. What the horse is thinking about while we do our work with him is crucial. It has everything to do with the quality of the work he does, how good our relationship will grow to be and whether the lessons we are teaching will stick at all. Sometimes we barely know what WE’RE thinking about while we’re with our horse, much less keeping track of what HE’S thinking about. The horse knows exactly what he’s thinking about while we’re with him, and he knows whether we know or not.

For example, let’s use a herd-bound horse. Say we take our horse out of the field and tie him up to groom him. He’s dancing around, looking back over his shoulder and calling incessantly to his buddies. Obviously, in this example, it’s easy to tell that this horse is thinking about his friends and not about us and our attempt to groom him. In this example, our horse is working on keeping track of his friends and trying to get back to them, while we are working on grooming him. We are working on two different things.

Another example is the horse who is trying to eat, both on the ground or under saddle. The horse who is constantly trying to eat is thinking about the food and how to get to it. He is not thinking about us and the job at hand.

There are more subtle layers to this as well. Our horse can be thinking a LITTLE bit about something, or several things. For instance, he can be keeping track of where the gate is in the arena, the fact that his saddle hurts a little bit, and the fact that someone over across the way is feeding a horse grain. So maybe this horse is just a tiny bit distracted by each of these little things, and maybe it doesn’t really affect his performance in a mechanical or obvious way, but each of those thoughts bleeds just a little bit of his attention away from the task at hand (and us).

Our horse can be mentally and physically working on one thing and we can be working on another thing completely. A session spent like this will end one of three ways: either it will end with both of us still working on two different things, or it will end with both of us working on the horse’s idea, or it’ll end with both of us working on our idea. We have three choices, and how this session ends dictates how the next one will begin.

This is one of the biggest things that holds people back with their horses. People can spend a lot of time working with a horse who is working on something else. Then they wonder why the horse is not moving forward. Well, he is, he’s just moving forward on different things than the human would like. For every session that we finish with the horse working on something different than us, we guarantee that that’s where he’ll start the next one.

It can be easy to tell what a horse is working on, and it can be hard to tell what a horse is working on. The easiest thing to see is his eyes and his ears. Wherever his eyes and ears are pointed, that’s most likely what he’s thinking about. An interesting example of this is when we’re riding a horse and say, bending to the right, but his eyes are rolled around to the left. This horse won’t feel truly “soft” because his mind/thoughts/eyes are not in agreement with his bend. A horse bent to the right should be thinking to the right, so they should be looking to the right.

It can be hard to tell what a horse is working on when it’s very small and subtle, or fleeting, where he does it so quickly, you can’t hardly tell. It might be how the horse is standing, or a change in the feel he’s offering, or a tiny, tiny brace, or maybe a little lateness in his timing. There’s a lifetime in developing one’s awareness for this stuff.

Then you’ll see horses who have learned (from the humans) how to kind of multi-task. They will be working on our thing and working on their thing at the same time. I think this can happen when a person rewards the horse for doing just that, kind of thinking JUST enough about what we’re thinking about to get the job done, but no more. He’s kind of getting by, if you see what I mean.

I think a lot of what people call “disrespectful” behavior or “horsey ADD” is actually the horse working on something different than the human is working on. And he learned that from humans. He wasn’t born wanting to do that. He was born with a desire for peace and harmony and energy conservation. But if, when people started working with him, they allowed him or even rewarded him for working on something different than the human was working on, he’d become that way pretty quickly. If a horse hasn’t learned this, it’s pretty easy for him to offer to work on the same things we are.

So for me, this is something that I’m assessing the whole time I’m with my horse. “What is he working on?” “What is he thinking about?” Who is following who? Who do I want following who? There are going to be times when my horse is working on something else than I am, and I might do something about it. There are other times when my horse might be working on something else than I am, and I might just note it, but not do anything about it. But I’m always assessing that, and even if I choose not to change what my horse was working on, I still note it and recognize it. My horse can feel all those things. He can feel me recognize his thought, and then he can feel me choose to change it or not. He will know. He will know if I don’t know.

To say that this is about “getting a horse’s attention” is not quite it. That’s a small part of what I’m talking about here, but only a small part. What I’m talking about, is in small moments, and over our lifetime with our horse, what is he working on, and how much does it match up with what we’re working on?

And I guess that there’s a lot to this. Because we don’t want the horse to be “vapid” or kind of “empty”. We don’t want his thoughts to be missing, and we don’t want the only thoughts in there to be ones we put in there. He has his own thoughts and he has his own things to work on. But I guess for me, I’d like to feel a desire for him to “be with me” and an ability to yield his thoughts when I ask. Now, of course, a lot of that is on me, because this whole thing was my idea in the first place. But I do need my horse to do his part of our work together, or it’s just me pushing and pulling an unwilling beast around out there. It’s a lot better, in my opinion, if we’re partners who are working together on a project or a movement, or a feel or a moment.

Ray Hunt said a lot of things about this kind of stuff, about us feeling out to the horse and then being aware of what the horse was sending back. He used the word “reach” too, and I’ve always loved that word and the feel of it to me. So I practice, whenever I’m around the horses, I’ll reach for them mentally, then I’ll reach for them physically and see if I can get that working with them. I’ll see how connected we can get and have the horse be okay with that. I don’t think there’s anything that feels better than reaching for a horse and having him reach for me at the same time.