Research enlightens your horse work

Knowing and controlling how your movements, behavior, and thoughts impact your equine partner is the absolute key to your good horsemanship.

While BestHorsePractices is dedicated to reviewing equine science, some new human research is immensely relevant to our horsemanship. Let’s consider confidence, fear, power, and cross-modal research.

This article was spurred by conversations with talented horsemen Amy Skinner and West Taylor. They said, in different ways and during separate interviews: in order to get right with horses, I first had to get right with myself.


Without me learning about me, there’s no way I could be as comfortable with the horses. The horses need the truth. Before, I would have been in the position of blame or excuses. But it’s never their fault. That’s been one of the biggest things for me to learn. I’m creating everything, even the sucky stuff. So, I’ve learned to be accountable to that. And, wow, that’s empowering.


Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.40.15 AMThis horsemanship stuff is so much more than just good reflexes, knowledge of the horse, and smooth rope and rein handling. I have to be centered to help the horse. Just having skill isn’t enough. You have to be quiet inside, to be still enough to listen and observe, and you have to be able to offer real peace to the horse. In order to do that, you have to have peace with yourself.

Know thyself.

It’s simple, but it ain’t easy.

Here are highlights from four recent research projects to help shed light on how your movements, behavior, and thoughts impact your equine partner. The science also gives insight to our human-to-human relationships.


Fear is mostly an instinctual, emotional response triggered by the brain’s amygdala. Read more about fight and flight here. However, it can be moderated by the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex). Experimenters profiled on the radio program Invisibilia highlighted some these findings:

Knowing more about what you fear can help lessen your anxiety. Confronting your demons works.

Deliberately staying outside your comfort zone can be effective, too:

One interviewee, whose girlfriend had recently left him, got cold sweats every time he faced the prospect of being rejected. He improvised his own ‘rejection therapy.’ Each day, he would propose offers or pose questions with the deliberate intention of being rejected. Over time, he got more and more comfortable with what was once a paralyzing trepidation. Read more about the Cons of Comfort.

Fear stinks

Researchers at Stony Brook University collected sweat from admittedly terrified skydivers ready to jump out of a plane for the first time. They then had subjects smell those swabs of ‘fearful sweat.’ Using functional MRI technology (monitoring brain activity in real time), researchers were able to see the amygdala light up. When those subjects smelled swabs from non-fearful, 670px-Speak-Well-and-Confidently-Step-1-Version-2exercise-induced sweat, the amygdala was not engaged. Read more here.


Your voice reflects your leadership and authority.

Researchers at San Diego State University have been studying the impact of voice. They noted that confident, assertive subjects tend to have steadier, less sing-songy voices. They are also more dynamic and flow in and out of loudness.

It goes both ways: listeners buy in to your confidence or lack thereof:

Subjects listening to different voices identified ‘powerful’ voices as those that were steadier and less sing-songy. Researchers can reliably predict if speaking subjects were in positions of power simply by listening to their voices.

Read more here.


Experts are good talkers, lousy listeners. Researchers at Loyola University in Chicago found experts to be more close-minded and dogmatic than Regular Joes.

27673961-Happy-businessman-wearing-suit-standing-at-a-podium-with-microphone-giving-speech-or-lecture--Stock-VectorTheoretically, experts already have given a lot of thought to issues within their area of expertise. They have “earned” the privilege of harboring more dogmatic opinions, said the researchers.

They gave subjects different exams that left one group confident about their abilities and another group unsure. The first group “became more rigid in their thinking and less willing to consider new points of view.”

“The role of being an expert changes the way you think and behave. You should be vigilant to those risks,” said the researchers.

Be vigilant about your own “earned dogmatism” and be wary of experts who’ve lost their ability to listen. (Zen Buddhists, by the way, believe it’s best to always think like a beginner.)

Adding icing to the cake of arrogance, a study by Dr. Paul Piff in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that wealthier individuals of higher social class are more narcissistic, feel more entitled, look in the mirror more, and are less charitable, less helpful, less trusting than those of lower class and with less money.

Check out this TED talk about how your posture impacts your life (including your cortisol levels).

Crossmodal Research

Be aware of the impact of all your senses. Your ears, not your tongue, will tell you if that chip is stale.

Researchers at the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University study how the brain integrates information from the five human senses to produce a coherent impression of reality. These modes of perception influence one another on the way to logobecoming conscious thought.

Did you know?

  • Coffee tastes less sweet in a white mug.
  • A chip tastes fresher when its crunch is louder.
  • Soup tastes saltier when served in a blue bowl.
  • The shape of a chocolate bar and the sound of its name influence how sweet it tastes.

Charles Spence, whose work falls into the area of cognitive psychology, says about half of our experience of food and drink is determined by the forgotten flavor senses of vision, sound, and touch.

Take Away: When you make choices for your horse, be aware of how companies are increasingly using neuroscience in their packaging and presentation to come up with the ultimate sensory package of appeal. And, of course, don’t buy a horse just because it’s pretty.




The Death of “Natural Horsemanship”

Natural horsemanship is dead. Long live natural horsemanship.

Natural horsemanship is a trending phrase that got attached to a style of work and a way of connecting with horses that Bill and Tom Dorrance offered up a few generations ago. It involved working with the horse on its behavioral level. Natural horsemanship is defined by the instinctual patterns and social understandings we see in a herd, or even between two horses.

Randy Rieman

Randy Rieman

Most specifically, it embraces the concept of pressure and release.

Pressure and release is defined by the micro-movements and movements between two horses. For example, the head turn or ear pinning of one horse will dictate the movement of a second horse. If the second horse doesn’t understand, the pressure or energy will increase. e.g., the first horse may charge or kick. When the second horse acquiesces, the first horse lets off the pressure or releases.

Furthermore, the work of natural horsemanship can extend to myriad physiological, neurological and anatomical details like:

  • bend (lateral flexion)
  • the hind quarters as engine
  • the flight or fight response of the autonomic nervous system
  • the positive reward cycle involving the neurochemical, dopamine
Pat Parelli

Pat Parelli

Natural horsemanship is dead; the term has lost its meaning. But the work is alive and well.

“People now realize that good practitioners don’t label it. It just is,” said Randy Rieman, who sees the phrase more as a clever marketing device than an apt description. “It’s like ‘natural’ potato chips,” said the Dorrance protege.

Pat Parelli is the foremost advocate of natural horsemanship. His program, established in 1981 and now with millions of followers, is based on “keen observations of horse behavior, psychology and communication,” according to the company web site.

Back in the 1980’s, Parelli methods were hailed as fresh and inspiring. With clever lingo and accessible exercises put forth in DVDs, Parelli and his wife, Linda, gave horse owners new insight and access to their equine partners. They made pressure and release fun!61a-ojPQ5OL._SY492_BO1,204,203,200_

But just as the public is becoming savvier to food ingredients (Eaters long ago dismissed ‘natural’ as a word with no real meaning.), riders are becoming more knowledgeable about the wider knowledge base of effective, humane horse handling. More and more of us recognize that force and dominance are ineffective training methods. We know punishing equipment and management techniques do not yield gains and can, in fact, foster some seriously negative consequences.

But more specifically, we are realizing that natural horsemanship is not something to “follow.” As Rieman said, it just is. We are learning to get great results by simply thinking more like a horse.

Natural horsemanship is dead as marketing jargon, but it’s alive as a foundation for whatever style of horsemanship we practice, be it dressage, Vaquero horsemanship, trail riding, or cow work.

Consider the phrase: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” It’s not only biblical; it’s a universal maxim found in multiple moral-based texts. So, too, with the overarching message of natural horsemanship.

jim thomasThere’s still plenty of progress to make. Getting owners to swap their age-old presumptions of horse handling for a totally contrary, ‘whisper-y’ alternative is a challenge.

Horseman Jim Thomas has a clever technique for introducing the concept to riders:

“At a clinic, I find someone who speaks a foreign language. I ask that person to tell everyone to back up (in French, Spanish, whatever). If they don’t understand, I ask them to say it louder and maybe use their hands. Eventually, people just give up. ‘This is how your horse feels!’ I say. It’s amazing, how few people have a concept of thinking like a horse.”

Rieman would agree. “It’s simple, “ he said. “But it’s not easy.”

Check out this feature on Animal Intelligence.


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