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.

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.

The Challenges of Women Working with Horses

Let me start by acknowledging that I’m not a scientist and this is in no way a scientific treatise on the differences (real or imagined) between men and women.

Rather, this is more a look at some anecdotal observations I personally have made over many years of helping horse owners work with their horses. Over years and hundreds of interactions, some patterns have formed and have caused me to think about some things.

So whether my observations correspond with your own or not, good horsemanship is always about personal awareness and presentation, and male or female, these observations apply to all of us. So, as has already been said, “If the shoe fits, wear it. If not, it wasn’t meant for you anyway.”

I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to talk about the challenges of being a woman who works with horses because I, of course, am one. The primary difference between me and my average female student is simply that I spend (and have spent, over the span of my life) more time working horses than they have. Even so, we are more similar than we are different. We all have many demands on our time, we’re not getting any younger, we have partners who want to see us enjoy our horses and not get hurt and we have made a lot of sacrifices to have horses in our lives. We all have a lot in common.

But let me tell you how this all started, because it started a LONG time ago for me. When I was in my early teens, I entertained Olympic dreams – I wanted to ride on the Olympic show jumping team. So I started following the team and studying up. And way back then, at 13 years old, I noticed something very interesting that still appears to be fairly true today: that at the local, grass roots level, the horse community was/is mostly female. But when I got to looking at the professionals and the top people in most horse sports and disciplines, it was/is mostly men. Now, that’s a generalization and there are exceptions, but if you think about it, it’s mostly true. So where does that switch happen and why? I’ve been wondering that for almost 40 years. I still don’t have the answer.

So anyone who works in the horse business will tell you that women drive the equestrian economy by their sheer quantity. Most of the riding students out there are women. Most of the owners of horses in training are women. Most of the competitors at horse shows are women. But most of our instructors and trainers are men. When we picture who we want to emulate, who we want to look like and ride like and “copy”, most of us picture men.

So ladies (or anyone else for whom “the shoe fits”), let’s chat about a couple things I’ve noticed over the years. Firstly, I’ve noticed that women (generally speaking) have a hard time separating pressure from emotion. Women tend to use very little pressure until their use of pressure is driven by some emotion like fear, frustration or anger. In our horse work, this is a cardinal sin, and it seems like we’re just set up for it. It’s a battle to change it. Think of the mother in a parking lot whose kid runs out in front of a car – her passionate scolding (and perhaps punishment) of that child is driven by fear, not by logic or rational planning and thought. Same with our horses. A lot of women will go along with a horse, using very little pressure, letting things slide and become inconsistent, right until some emotion is triggered. Then watch out!!!!!! Lots of pressure and lots of emotion. The pressure tends to come AFTER and BECAUSE OF the emotion.

Horses don’t operate well that way. Horses need to know that things are going to be fair. I think they’re way more concerned about fairness than they are about gentleness. Their value system is a bit different from ours. So when a woman goes from a bit of pressure to crazed-out emotional banshee, it doesn’t make any sense to him and he’s going to lose confidence and understanding.

Women can also relate increased levels of pressure to “fighting”. “I don’t want to use more pressure because I don’t want to fight with him”. Pressure is just pressure. It can be measured in ounces or pounds per square inch. Pressure does not have to equal fighting. I don’t think the horse sees increased levels of pressure in an emotional context. One horse can get kicked very hard by another horse and the horse that got kicked just goes and finds somewhere else to be, away from the pressure.

So here’s something easy to work on. At all times, we could put our pressure on a scale of 0 to 10. We could know at EVERY moment what number our pressure is at and why. We could know what the horse needs to do to get a release. This is just good horsemanship, but emotion will cause us to lose track of these. If we start to feel emotional while working with a horse, in extreme cases we may need to stop (though now the horse gets a release and that may or may not be a good thing) but if we can keep going, a helpful thing to do might be to ask the question, “What would I do right now if I weren’t (insert emotion here)?” and do that. Focus on being effective, clear and fair, rather than the emotional values of being “loving”, “gentle” and “likeable”.

We could also be watchful and aware that we adjust our pressure BEFORE we start to feel emotional. Just changing the timing and relationship between those two things could change our presentation to the horse a lot.

The next biggie is another one related to emotion. I was talking with my husband Glenn about this topic, and I think he summed this next one up really well so I’m just going to use his words. “Men,” he said, “Don’t tend to make horses a love object.” I had to think about this one a bit and work a little to not take offense! But once we get over our brace, think about it. To lots of men, horses are just that – HORSES. To many women, if you listen to them talk about their horses, they could be talking about a child, a friend or even a lover or boyfriend. This is a form of anthropomorphizing and while I don’t know what it means about the human involved, I think it might be a bad deal for the horse. The horse is a horse and he’s got his own values and he operates in his world in a way that’s different from humans. When we try to make him have a “human-like” position in our lives, that puts pressures on him that he isn’t designed to tolerate. So it will cost him.

If we give our horse the emotional position in our life of a child, friend, lover or boyfriend, we get into that place where we can’t make good decisions for the horse. Simple training glitches become the source of relationship crisis and drama. We start to concoct long-winded stories about our horses’ pasts and futures that are mostly fiction but that we’ll retell over and over again. We’ll saddle him with the responsibility of making our day or giving meaning to our existence. In the worst cases, we will stay with the horse when it’s obviously a bad match because “I love him and he needs me” or we’ll fall passionately in love with a horse who doesn’t even like us and wants nothing to do with us.

At the end of the day, it is BECAUSE the horse is NOT a human that makes this deal so fascinating. But humans are really pretty egocentric, and I think it’s very difficult for humans to really see the world from any other perspective than their own. It easiest for us to describe a horse’s actions like they’re human actions, and attribute a horse’s behaviors to familiar human emotions. And women, especially, seem to have a difficult time separating human emotions and motivations from a horse’s actions.

Lastly, let’s talk about the most obvious challenge for us women: size and strength. Luckily, most of us are interested in a kind of horsemanship that does not rely on brute force to get things done, but even so, horses are big powerful animals and there is some strength and size involved at times. Stamina can be an issue as well, as many times we may need to choose between using a higher pressure for a short period of time or less pressure for a longer period of time.

Many of our teachers in the horse world are men. Some of them are a foot or more taller than their students and outweigh them by sometimes 100%. Sometimes we can’t use the techniques and movements that our teachers use because we just don’t have the size and strength. That’s just the way it is. Lots of teachers will claim that it’s not a matter of size or strength, but I’m here to tell you that the horse can tell a difference between someone 5’4”, 120 lbs and someone 6’4” and 250 lbs. That person who is 6’4” can get up over the top of a horse from the ground, while the 5’4” hasn’t a hope. Hopefully, mostly we can work in an area where that doesn’t matter, but at times, it’s a real “thing”.

I have spent a lot of time modifying the techniques I’ve learned from men so they work better for a person my size and strength. I’ve become okay with the idea of outlasting a horse if I can’t muster up enough pressure to get a change quickly. I break things down into smaller parts if I have to and I don’t hesitate to use tools to increase my reach or physical presence. I try not to use an amount of pressure that I couldn’t maintain for a long time just in case we’re there for a while. I also make sure I’m physically fit enough for the kind of horses I’m working, as I don’t want to have to quit on a horse in a bad spot because I’m just too tired to carry on.

Women have a lot to offer horses and the horse world, no doubt. Many women have been fabulously successful in horses, in all disciplines, breeds and competitions. Whether you’re male or female, if any of these challenges ring true, we can all help each other work on them so the horses can benefit. If the horse is always right, and we want to leave the horse in the horse, then we have to respect where he’s coming from and do our best to be the person he needs us to be. Who that person turns out to be, at least in my experience, can be a bit of a surprise to the human.

Why Foundation Matters

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It is commonly acknowledged that the foundation is the most important part of a building or structure. A faulty or weak foundation can cause a litany of problems throughout a whole building from cracks in the plaster to doors that stick and don’t swing freely. If the foundation of a building fails, no matter how nice the structure is that has been built on top of it, it all falls in. One of the things about a foundation is that it’s not the “fun” part of a building. The foundation of a building is usually mostly hidden, rarely aesthetically pleasing and often the source of much resentment when a homeowner has to spend money on it.

A horse’s foundation is really no different. From the first time that a horse has contact with a human, we are building his foundation (or not, as the case may be). Hopefully his foundation is strong enough and correct enough to hold up everything everyone is going to want to build on top of it throughout his life and career. Faults in the foundation can cause small problems, or can cause the whole thing to “fall in”. Like a building’s foundation, a horse’s foundation is often taken for granted or hidden from view. It’s not a “fun” thing for a horse owner to spend time and money on.

A foundation isn’t just about giving a colt a good and thorough start, although that’s very important. That’s perhaps where it’s easiest to see the progression of foundational skills and ideas. It’s easy to see why a person would want to teach a young horse or a baby horse foundational skills, because clearly they don’t know anything because this stuff doesn’t come “installed from the factory”, so to speak. So it’s easy to accept that young and baby horses need foundation work.

But what is not so easy to see is the fact that many, many issues that grown-up horses encounter later in their lives can actually be traced to weak, faulty or non-existent foundation skills or ideas. Just like a building with a faulty foundation, a horse with a faulty foundation gets along alright until they don’t.

Years ago, when I learned about foundation skills and ideas, I went to work applying them to young and baby horses. But then I got to thinking about the grown-up horses I was seeing with “quirks” or “issues” like not being able to tie, or being bad for the farrier, or running people over. What I thought about was how easy it was to teach a young horse (blank slate) to do all those things nicely and confidently, and how HARD it could be to teach a grown-up horse to do those things nicely and confidently once they’d had trouble with those things for a few years. I started to apply what I’d learned about the foundation in a young horse to the grown-up horses I was seeing, and kind of reviewing all the foundation skills and ideas with every grown-up horse I could, and I was pretty shocked with what I found.

What I found was that a lot of the grown-up horses that I reviewed actually “flunked” the foundation work that the young horses passed with flying colors. So the young horses actually checked out better than many of the grown-up horses that I got my hands on. What I started to understand was that a horse could be fairly functional in some ways and have a foundation piece that was pretty out-of-whack. He’d somehow learned to work around that missing piece, or maybe people had taught him how to work around it, but he still knew that piece was missing. So as I did all my own information gathering and tested grown-up horses’ foundations, I discovered that it was difficult to get the owners and riders of those grown-up horses to understand that the horse actually had a problem that reached all the way back to his foundation.

Horses don’t “connect the dots” the same way humans do. One of the things I’ve noticed through years of studying this is that “x” doesn’t always cause “y” in a horse. In one horse “x” might cause “y” and in another, “x” might cause “m” or “b”. Things in a horse aren’t always linear and they aren’t always consistent and systematic. Humans love horses, but generally they hate this particular thing about horses, the “it depends” aspect of horses.

So let’s look at an example of what I’m talking about here. We got a 5-year-old mare in for training a few years ago. Her owner had had her under saddle for a while, and said she was reluctant to canter, and actually, it was nearly impossible to get her to canter under saddle. So I did what I’d learned to do, and I took the mare back to “the beginning”, which means into the round pen and then through her ground work. I noticed some things. The mare was not good switching eyes behind her, and she was not good with things in her blind spot behind her. For instance, if a dog went through her hind blind spot while she was on the hitch rail, she would pull back. She didn’t want you in her blind spot in the round pen.

When I talked with the owner about this, she added a couple more troubles to the list: this mare had also had trouble backing out of a trailer, and had trouble getting her hind feet trimmed. So we spent extra time getting her confident about things in and passing through her various blind spots, but especially the ones behind her hindquarters and behind her head. We got her good switching eyes behind her through round pen work, rope work and ground work. Then we polished up the rest of her ground work and then we rode her. And you know what was almost the first thing she did? She offered to canter.

Now, the way we chose to help her was not the only way to help her. I’m sure there were several things that folks could have done to help this horse. This way suited us and it suited her, that’s all. But there are other ways that would have worked as well.

We got another horse in a while ago who was just very anxious. He was described as “hot” and “high-energy” by his owner. He could not stand still on the end of a lead rope, he was fussy and distracted. You’d ask him to do one thing and he’d do three or four things very quickly and it was difficult to release for the “right” thing because he was throwing so many things out for you. A lot of people would have said, “That looks like a good barrel horse,” or, “Make him an endurance horse.” But this horse, though he’d been ridden some, he didn’t really even understand how to lead properly. He didn’t know how to yield to pressure, he didn’t know how to go AROUND a human being instead of THROUGH a human being. He didn’t know how to calm himself down or how to ask a question of the human. So of course he appeared “ADHD”. What I saw was a very anxious horse who was “employed beyond his paygrade” or being asked to operate at a level for which he was not prepared.

When we went back and reviewed this horse’s foundation (went back and restarted him like he was a colt), very few things checked out. Basically, this sweet, kind horse had been getting by on his good nature and kindness, not at all on his education. Once we started giving him the building blocks of a foundation, his mind calmed down and his personality completely changed to a mellow, quiet, thoughtful horse. He began to look more like what people would think a trail horse would look like and much less like a “hot” and “high-energy” adrenaline junkie.

There are a lot of reasons why a horse might not have a good foundation. Some folks just don’t believe in it, that’s true. Some people think a horse can get all the information he needs with “on-the-job-training”. Sometimes a horse just falls through the cracks, gets to a certain age, or gets passed from one owner to another and no one ever really checks in with him to see what he does and doesn’t know. Sometimes a horse is so good-natured and nice-minded that it’s just easy to skip things because the horse just doesn’t seem to need it. Sometimes it’s a money thing and a person can’t afford to pay to have a good foundation put on their horse. And sometimes, people just don’t know about it and think that maybe horses come with the foundation already installed “from the factory.” But there are lots of reasons why horses don’t end up with good foundations.

I’ve been thinking about this a long time, and I’m afraid I’ve kind of settled on a couple ideas that I’m not sure I like the truth of. But I do think I’ve found them to be true. One is that many, many troubled horses are troubled because their foundations are lacking in some way. I think a lot of rescues and horse sales are full of horses with poor foundations. A lame horse with a great foundation can make a good therapy horse or kids horse. But a horse with a poor foundation and all the issues, problems and anxiety that goes with that, he’s now a “project”, or “special needs”. Some horses have physical problems, or have genetic issues, and that’s the source of their troubles. But many, many have poor foundations and the structure has failed. This is totally preventable.

Another truth I reluctantly accept is that “a foundation lasts a lifetime, good, bad or indifferent.” For some reason, what horses learn FIRST seems to stick harder than things learned later, so it seems like a foundation is a foundation and that’s what’s at the bottom of the horse, whether we like it or not. We can work hard and put a bunch of stuff on top of a poor foundation, but there may be some permanent ramifications to a poor foundation that we just can’t overcome. There may be some scientific basis to this finding, based on current studies in neurology. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more evidence of this because I have found it to be anecdotally true. I hate the idea that certain things might actually cause enough of a neurological change to limit a horse’s potential, but neurology is a mysterious and extensive subject on which scientists continue to shed more light.

And the final truth I’ve come to accept is that some humans have a hard time with the idea that a horse would need a foundation, and particularly that a grown-up horse’s problems might be caused by something that far back. A minority of people who work with and have horses know about foundation skills and ideas. A person could ride horses their whole life and it could never come up. It could just be one of those things that we didn’t come across in all our lessons and our clinics, and maybe the horses we had had good foundations… right until the one that didn’t. Knowledge of a horse’s foundation is not just for people who start colts, and not just for trainers or people who have troubled horses. All of us are doing one of several things if we have horses: we are either keeping a broke horse broke, untraining a broke horse, or training an unbroke horse. All of these endeavors (except the middle one) require that we either install or preserve a foundation.

So what constitutes “a foundation”? Well, it involves preparing a horse for what WILL and what MAY happen, in a progressive manner. So for me, this part includes round pen work, ground work in a halter, then saddling and bridling and preparation for riding. Each piece of work done relates to something practical the horse will need to know to be a useful riding horse. Then once riding, the foundation involves preparing the horse for what will and what might happen there, progressively. A lot of this is about sensory things, and mechanical movements. The foundation I’m talking about is “generic”, in that it is not breed or discipline-specific. This foundation is about helping prepare a horse, any horse, to live in a world not of his making, a world humans make for him. Humans, therefore, have the responsibility to prepare the horse to live, work and thrive in that world.

I’d go quite a bit further and propose that a horse’s foundation should also include conceptual things like:

The horse understanding how to “be with” and pay attention to the humans around him in a calm, confident and attentive manner.

The horse being able to change his thought from what he’s thinking about to what we’re thinking about or asking of him.

The horse being able to “self soothe”, to calm himself down after becoming anxious, excited or scared.

The horse being able to pause in a situation and check in with the human before reacting instinctively (like fleeing, for instance).

The horse being able to distinguish when a stimulus is directed at him and requires action (a “cue”), and when it’s just something that’s happening in his environment.

The horse being able to accept direction cheerfully, calmly and unemotionally, with no change in his expression.

The horse being able to accept restraint and to accept being inconvenienced.

The horse being accepting of “unexpected touches” on his body.

And there can be a lot more to it than all that, of course. And lots of folks get by with a lot less than that. That’s just some ideas I’ve run across that the horses have kind of pointed out to me.

A foundation lasts a lifetime. Let’s make it a good one.


I Wish You Peace

From the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary online:


  1. :  a state of tranquility or quiet: such asa :  freedom from civil disturbance <Peace and order were finally restored in the town.>b :  a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom <a breach of the peace>

  2. 2 :  freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions <I have been in perfect peace and contentment — J. H. Newman>

  3. 3 :  harmony in personal relations <The sisters are at peace with each other.>

  4. 4a :  a state or period of mutual concord between governments <There was a peace of 50 years before war broke out again.>b :  a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity <offered the possibility of a negotiated peace — New York Times>

  5. 5 —used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell

at peace

  1. :  in a state of concord or tranquility <The problem was settled and his mind was at peace.>


The horse, whatever he does, is seeking peace. Think about that. WHATEVER he does, he is seeking peace. Peace like the definition of “at peace: in a state of concord and tranquility,” that kind of peace.

Now, that sounds nice, it sounds kind of soft and fluffy and touchy-feely and we like that. So we are attracted to this idea. We say, “Yes, the horse is seeking peace, and I’m good at providing him with it, or I’m working on getting good at it.” But there’s actually a lot more to it than simply “not bothering” your horse.

What brings a horse peace is different than what brings a human peace, and humans are about the most self-centered creatures out there. As much as we try, it’s hard to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, and the greater the species divide, the harder it gets. It’s easier to anthropomorphize, to simply attribute human actions, thoughts and emotions to the horse. But that is a grave error, as it actually deprives the horse of the peace he seeks while, ironically, delivering peace to the human.

So what brings a horse peace? Well, there are two sources of peace for the horse, as I see it. We’ve got what naturally or instinctively brings him peace, and then we’ve got what learned behavior has taught him will bring him peace.

Where instinct is concerned, it’s important to understand that the horse is a herd and a prey animal, so he is going to naturally find peace in being in community with other horses, and he’s going to find peace in his ability to run away if he feels threatened or scared. If we take a moment to think about that, many to most of the things we want to do with horses go against these two instincts. We don’t want him to be attached to other horses, and we don’t want him to flee if he’s scared. So really, we’re in the business of taking his peace away from the get-go.

There are two solutions to this problem. We can just do nothing with our horses and just leave them in the field so they can experience peace. That would work, in that it would likely bring the horse peace. But frankly, that’s not why many of us have horses. Ray Hunt once said, “I’m just trying to see how much I can do with a horse without troubling him”. Some of us are more like that. We want to see what all we can do with a horse (not how LITTLE, but how MUCH) and not trouble him. That’s the discussion and the work I enjoy exploring. If I’m not going to just leave the horse in the field, how to I help him find peace in a world where all his peace cannot come from these instinctive places?

That brings us to the other place a horse can seek and experience peace, and that’s through what I’d call “learned behaviors”. These are the ways that humans teach a horse (intentionally or unintentionally) that he can achieve a state of peace and tranquility. Now, as a person who works with horses for the general public, I can safely say that one of the biggest things we do in that work is to move the peace and tranquility to more appropriate places. What I mean by that is that it is easy to teach a horse that he will get peace from rearing, pawing, being anxious, running away, pulling back, bucking, biting, pushing, dragging, bracing, etc. That’s why I can say that whatever a horse does, he’s seeking peace. A horse who is dragging someone away from a horse trailer is simply seeking peace. Experience has shown him that he’s more likely to get peace further away from the trailer than in it, so that’s where he’s trying to go. All he’s doing is seeking peace.

It is hard to imagine that a horse would spend so much what we see as “negative” energy to achieve something allegedly “peaceful”. But that’s how horses and humans are different. The horse seeks peace, and he’s willing to pay just about anything for it. He will do things that cause injury and illness to himself if he believes it will bring him peace. We can literally teach a horse anything if he thinks it will bring him peace. He does not distinguish “good” from “bad” like we do. If biting you brings him peace (he bites you and you leave him alone, or he bites you and you give him a treat), he WILL do it again, seeking that peace.

So what does this mean, at the end of the day, for those of us who want to DO SOMETHING with our horses? First of all, when it comes to the horse seeking instinctive peace in his herd and flight behaviors, I’m going to work to moderate (not eliminate, as then he wouldn’t be a horse anymore) those responses through progressive and rational preparation and training. I’m going to help him learn how to be confident in me and in himself in situations when he wants to get back to his buddies or to flee. I am going to honor the fact that those things are in him and that my job, as his guardian (and “trainer”, if you like) is to prepare him for the way things are going to be in the world we have constructed for him. None of our horses jumped into our pastures! We bear a profound responsibility to prepare them for what we want them to do. Horses are very adaptable and teachable, so this stuff just takes work, not magic.

Then there’s the weird ways that humans have allowed and enabled horses to gain peace. This stuff can be hard to change, and it can be hard to chase down in a horse just because it’s so bizarre. There are horses that when you pet them, they get excited. Not fearful but excited, as in elevated mentally. Now, that’s not peace. Excited is something humans like to see, in our dogs, our kids, our horses, our sports teams, you name it. We like to see things excited. But in the horse world, “excited” is basically equivalent to “anxious”. If we show up and our horse gets “excited”, then he’s no longer in a state of peace, and it’s our presence that took that away from him. I don’t want to be “that person” in my horse’s life. So what I’ll do is I will shape things, in our everyday life and in our work sessions so that my horse gains peace in the “right” places. I will give him peace (and peace is not petting if petting scares or excites him) when he’s doing something I think is good, or when he’s doing something I will need in the future.

I will watch carefully for places where my horse lacks peacefulness and try to help him with that. Sometimes a horse just needs to do something a few times to gain the confidence that will give him peace, and sometimes I’ll need to more assertively tell him what he needs to do to get that peace, and then make sure the peace is there for him.

Eventually, I want my presence in his proximity to bring my horse peace, not because I give him sweeties, but because in his horse way, he understands how we interact and where he stands in my presence and in the relationship. Then, I want him to gain peace in his work with me until he understands that by working for me and doing things that are not his idea, he actually gains peace and tranquility.

I’m thinking that’s a lot to ask, a lot to achieve, and a lot to strive for. It’s past pressure and release, past positive and negative reinforcement and past conditioned responses. It might include all of that or none of that, but what I’m talking about is the honest attempt to be able to identify what actually gives a horse true peace and separate it from what makes us feel good. Then the greatest challenge is to turn the job we want him to do into a source of peace for both of us.

This article first appeared in Horsemanship Magazine in the UK, which can be found here: http://www.horsemanshipmagazine.co.uk/

On Being Enough


Years ago, I was attempting to take my off-the-track-Thoroughbred out on the dirt roads around the farm by ourselves, with varying amounts of success. It was a little stressful for both of us. A friend asked me how it was going, and I told him, “Well, my horse isn’t sure he’s okay being out there all by himself.” “Kathleen,” my friend replied, “he’s not by himself. He’s with YOU.”

Then a little voice said in my head, “Yes… but I’m not ENOUGH, obviously!”

And I think therein lies one of the harder things to get right in our horse work. Being enough. At any moment in time, with this horse and that horse, taking into account all the variables present at any given time, being just enough. And not too much.

What do I mean about “being enough”?

At any given moment, there are things a horse needs from us – from direction, to support, comfort, blocking, insistence, repetition, reward, release, relief, you name it. In any moment, there is something the horse needs from us so he can do his best and mentally feel his best. And getting THAT right, being on time and accurate with that thing the horse needs right then is incredibly difficult. Sometimes we are too much in the moment, and then others times, we’re not enough. It’s hard, it’s contradictory, and it’s really important to the horse.

For instance, I’m getting to know a new horse who is at our farm to further his education. He doesn’t know much, but he’s not a blank slate either, if you see what I mean. There are some unexpected things in a horse like that. He got me thinking about “being enough”. This horse, if you pet him, he mentally elevates. He gets excited and then he thinks about biting. Now, I’m petting him to soothe him (my intent) or I’m petting him to reward him for doing something correctly. My intent is NOT to excite him and make his mind busy. But whether I like it or not, that’s what petting does right now. I didn’t make him that way, he came that way. In order for me to be enough for this horse, I need to be less. I need to not pet him when he does something right, but instead just let him quietly soak and think and stay mentally quiet so he can feel the relief in doing something right and being with a person without becoming mentally elevated. For now, in this case, I need to be less in order to be enough.

Then there’s River. He’s a colt we’ve brought along for ourselves here at the home farm, so we know him pretty well. He’s laid back and easy to get along with and cheerful and willing as he progresses in his life and work. I realized the other day that if I’m riding him out and about and he looks at something, I take my legs off him. And I KNOW that this colt likes the support of the rider’s leg gently “hugging” him and directing him. I also know that for decades I rode Thoroughbreds off the track, and if they were out and looked at something, it was a pretty wise move to get your legs off them so you didn’t add fuel to the fire, so to speak. But when River looks at something and I take my legs off, I’m now not enough and he becomes less confident. In order to be enough in that moment, I need to override my reflex to take my legs off and keep that soft, supportive contact with him so he can carry on. If River gets worried, I may need to increase the support of my legs so I can be more in order to be enough. In that case, I may need to be more to be enough.

And this is the hard thing – to be just enough in every moment. It’s all too easy to be too much or be too little. Sometimes simply who we are is too much or too little – maybe in certain moments, or maybe all the time. That’s hard to swallow.

The horse is the authority here. Only he can tell us if we are enough or too much, and he is always right. In any moment, he can only do what he can do. He responds to what he feels and sees right then. That’s just how horses work. He may or may not respond to us the way we think he will, and then we have to adjust so that we are just enough. Not too little, and not too much. Enough.