Introducing the Dopamine Counter

No one’s doing a better job of connecting brain science with horsemanship in an innovative, easy-to-grasp, fashion than West Taylor.

West Taylor works with challenging horse

Recently, Taylor released this video of his work with a challenging horse from Colorado. Even by horsemanship video standards, “Flagging on the Fence: Downregulating a Nervous Horse” is long and protracted. But if you’re interested in seeing how a horse can change over the course of 90 minutes and in learning through the narration of Taylor’s science-supported commentary, it’s time well spent.

The video introduces a fun, new learning tool: the Dopamine Counter.

Read more about the neurochemical dopamine here. 

At the beginning of the video, Taylor has the horse tied to a sturdy corral post with several feet of slack in the rope. The goal is to teach the mare to respond to his cue of tapping one side of her haunches or another, to move her hind end left or right.

West Taylor at the Best Horse Practices Summit

At first, it’s a struggle. Taylor taps her hind end repeatedly while clucking. Eventually and without much relaxation, she moves away from his pressure. Taylor responds by leaving her be and waiting. After several seconds, she lowers her head and licks and chews. Ding, ding, ding goes the Dopamine Counter.

If we were super nit-picky about the science, we could say the Dopamine Counter is a stretch. Of course, we don’t know that dopamine is being released in the brain at any precise moment. To do that, we’d have to have some pretty sophisticated equipment and serious expertise in that corral. But licking, chewing, and head lowering are generally associated with dopamine releases, says Dr. Steve Peters, a neuropsychologist at Intermountain Health and co-author of the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Taylor, owner of Wild West Mustang Ranch, has consulted extensively with Peters. Together, they have conducted Horse Brain Science Seminars. Typically, these offerings feature Peters’ academic presentations paired with Taylor’s work with horses in an arena.

We talked with Taylor about the mare’s progress through the video:

“At first, you can see that she’s barely finding the cue,” said Taylor. “She could barely complete my request, let alone calmly. I like to work toward a point where she is almost cueing herself. In the video, she’s headed there, for sure.”

Micah Fink, founder of Heroes and Horses

Taylor continues:

“Ultimately, what I want horses to do is relax within the cue (not just when the pressure is released). I like to work towards precision, without fear or too much energy. I want them to do something softly and confidently and to have calmness within the cue.”

Beginning next month, Taylor will start several mustangs for the Heroes and Horses. The Montana-based non-profit helps veterans reintegrate after their service by providing a free program in the Montana wilderness, teaching horsemanship, and optimizing the benefits of the horse-human connection.

The horses, all geldings, will come from the Bureau of Land Management facility in Axtel, Utah.

6 Roadblocks to Lightness, Part II

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. Skinner sits on the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee.

This is Part II of a two-part piece on identifying roadblocks to lightness.

Read Part I

By Amy Skinner

Here are additional areas that I’ve found can inhibit lightness with our horses:

Tacking up, mounting, and warming up:

As you go through your habitual grooming, tacking up, and warming up routine, take notice:

Do you do the same things in the same order each time?

Many of my students haven’t even noticed that they have a routine they follow until I bring it to their attention.

They always:

  • Start on the same side
  • Get on in the same place
  • Warm up to the left first, and so on.

If we are mindlessly going through the motions, it’s easy to be unaware of little slips here and there on our horse’s part.

Maybe they inched around while we saddled, or walked a few steps while we mounted.

Because we aren’t organized or in the moment, we cannot correct or head off these mistakes. Therefore, the horse gets into bad habits because of our bad habit of mindlessness.

I want my horse to be aware and responding to me as I go through getting him ready to ride.  I watch him carefully and ask him to watch me carefully.  I mount on both sides regularly, warm up in different ways and different places. I work toward the goal of having a responsive horse.  A responsive horse is only possible when we ourselves are aware and attentive enough to notice when our horses are checked out.

Bit fit: 

Is your bit hiked up to two or three wrinkles in your horses lip?

If your horse is smiling like the joker while your reins are completely loose, imagine the amount of pressure he feels in his mouth when there is no message being relayed to him.  It’s constant pressure with no meaning.

Later, when you need your rein to mean something, imagine how much more pressure you will need to apply in order to get his attention.  If the bit is kept lower, to where the horse has no wrinkles (but not so low that it bangs his teeth), he can hold it up himself without pressure.  When your rein needs to have meaning, he can feel a much quieter message in the corner of his lip.

Think of people you know who talk loudly and incessantly – for them to really make a point, they have to shout. Prospective listeners are so desensitized to the volume and frequency of their speaking, that these shouters’ words don’t carry much meaning. On the other hand, people tend to lean in and listen when someone speaks softly, meaningfully, and infrequently. This is how we want our hands to be to our horse.

Photo by Julie Kenney

Position mistakes: 

Are your legs constantly flapping against the horse’s sides

Are your hands coming back as you post?

Are your hips and legs tight, preventing your horse from getting loose?

Rider mistakes can create dullness as the horse sorts through which messages have meaning and which ones don’t.  Often students with “lazy” horses who won’t go forward really just have horses who have learned to ignore leg aids because they never end and rarely have meaning.

This might be more challenging than some of the other roadblocks to lightness. I suggest trying to find a reliable instructor who focuses on discovering and developing softness in your horse and who will help you develop a better seat for a lighter, softer horse.

Final thoughts:

Training might take up an hour a day.  Most of us don’t even ride that much.  Therefore, what makes up the rest of the horses’ day really matters.

How we handle them matters.

How they interact with their world at large matters.

How they perceive their role in our world matters.

Imagine the confusion horses feel as they live one way for 23 hours, and for the 24th hour they’re expected to suddenly adjust.  A horse who understands what’s expected of him can be a relaxed and happy horse, if his human is willing to be disciplined and attentive in his day-to-day interactions with him.

6 Roadblocks to Lightness

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. Skinner sits on the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee.

This is Part I of a two-part piece on identifying roadblocks to lightness.

Read Part II

By Amy Skinner

Years ago, I was struggling to get a school horse lighter.  He did his job carrying young riders well. But, in the process of training to be lighter, he became confused about how to respond to aids, as his day job involved ignoring many confusing or accidental messages.

My timing wasn’t great and his habit of hanging on the lead rope, for example, was well-established.  I had a teacher help me and I watched in awe as within a few minutes, this dull pony brightened up, became more aware and bright in his eye, and responded to her with total lightness.

She handed me the lead rope back and said, “he just wasn’t clear on a few things.”  I felt this sense of magic in my hands now, as if all our problems together were fixed and all I had to do was maintain that perfection she created.  Unfortunately, within minutes, he was back to hanging on the lead and I was back to being frustrated.

So what happens between those moments: when the skilled horseman or woman with good timing handles the horse and then hands it off to the student? I’ve put together a list of elements that can dull or confuse horses and added tips for how to encourage lightness in all areas of horse work.

Petting: 

How you pet your horse, believe it or not, makes a huge difference in how he understands interactions with you on the ground or in the saddle.

  • Is he pushing on you to get more scratches?  If your horse pushes on you, or worse, moves you while getting pets, then he may also push through your leg, your bridle, your lead rope.
  • Does your horse avoid your touch and leave?  You want to teach your horse to seek out your aids. Those aids can be anything from your touch with a hand to your leg or rein.  If the horse avoids these aids, he gets released without responding correctly. He learns to do the wrong thing.

Amy Skinner

Petting, to me, should be done in a way that encourages softness, relaxation, and respect.  I don’t take my hand away when a horse pushes or avoids, but I release my hand for the horse softening to my touch. When you pet and when you stop petting is important.

Feeding time: 

Again, if your horse is pushing on you to receive food, this will create problems in the saddle.  My horses don’t get grain until their ears are up and their faces are soft. I don’t reward grumpy faces or threatening ears.  They also don’t get to push me out of the way as I set their hay down.  I want calm, relaxed, and respectful horses at feeding time.  I will add that it isn’t fair to expect horses to be calm about feeding time if they’re waiting hours between feedings, especially if it’s cold.

Leading: 

We tend to absent-mindedly grab our horses and lead them to the barn without paying attention to the quality of our leading.  The way your horse leads is the way he will ride. Leading is a crucial part of my horses’ training.

  • Does the horse drag on the lead rope?
  • Does he rush ahead?

A horse that leads well will likely ride well.  Leading well doesn’t just mean he follows you, it means he responds to the lead rope, where and how it asks him to be.  He should be light on the rope, not rushing ahead or dragging behind. He should lead equally well from both sides.  He should respond to you asking him to step forward, stop, back up, or move to the side without interfering with the path you walk.  He should be focused on you.

Leslie Desmond once told me a halter broke horse is one who’s lead rope you can stick in your belt and go about your chores without him getting in your way.  This horse is a joy to handle.

Tying: 

This element relates to leading.

  • Does your horse pull slack out of his lead rope while he stands tied?
  • Does he peddle backward and hang on the rope?

These are symptoms of a poorly halter-broke horse, or one who is not clear on the meaning of the lead rope.  It’s also likely that this horse will not respond correctly to rein aids.  I don’t tie horses until they respond properly to the lead rope, and when I do tie them, I make sure they can’t take slack from the rope or worse, get away.

Read Part II.

Women in today’s world and the horse world

One of the silver linings of these contentious times is the intense, widespread examination of fairness in our culture and workplace – specifically, fairness as it relates to gender equality.

Perhaps like many of you, I entered the workplace as a teenager in the late 70’s and early 80’s and gravitated to jobs mostly done by men.

  • Construction work
  • Sports-related work
  • Outdoor work
  • Sport journalism
  • Investigative Reporting

Perhaps like many of you, I was often the only woman on the job. I tolerated sexual harassment and bias in a way that now seems unacceptable, even spineless. Back then, however, I felt I could dismiss bad behavior for the greater gain: a position in a “man’s world.” With progress, men’s attitudes and women’s tolerance of those attitudes, would surely co-evolve to better places.

Annie Custer, a US Congresswoman from New Hampshire and co-sponsor of the new “MeToo” bill, thought so, too.

“I thought that we were there to create change,” she said in a recent interview. “It never occurred to me that 40 years later my nieces, my son’s girlfriends would have to be worrying about this in the workplace.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard impactful stories from colleagues and friends of their personal experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination (and worse). I’ve also read research that illustrates how women often perpetuate gender bias against women.

Dr. Sheryl King

Dr. Sheryl King, Best Horse Practices Summit board member, shared this anecdote:

“I worked with a longtime manager of a major horse event here in the Midwest. She was a woman.  Every year we’d have a series of conversations about headliner clinicians to invite.  When I repeatedly suggested a number of female clinicians, her response was that she did not feel that men in the audience would be receptive to a woman clinician. My response was twofold: we’ll never know unless we try and someone needs to take the initiative to change the paradigm – let it be us. 

I never won the debate. I feel that we need to educate the women as well as the men.”

How to move forward?

Interestingly, remarks I made at the debut of the Best Horse Practices Summit might apply to our current cultural state of affairs:

“Progress happens when we give ourselves time to listen, to observe, to absorb new information, and to experiment…”

I’d like to think there are parallels between improving our horsemanship and improving our standing as women. There are things we can do daily, on individual levels to change unsafe, unhealthy situations. There are small ways in which we can challenge ourselves and the status quo.

Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino recently wrote:

“For years – for centuries – the economic, physical, and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like white noise. Lately, it appears we’re starting to hear the tune.…The increasing narrative clarity about male power does not always translate to progress. For women, it feels, all at once, shockingly possible, suddenly mandatory, and unusually frustrating to speak up.

“Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another…Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle.”

At BestHorsePractices, a site made better by scores of women guest columnists, we’d like to wave that flag.

Maddy Butcher and Amy Skinner

What are your stories?

How are you riding out the current tsunami of gender-bias news?

We’d love to hear from you if you have stories, reflections, observations you’d like to share. Contact us here.

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

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, a Best Horse Practices Summit presenter who sees the phrase more as a clever marketing device than an apt description. “It’s like ‘natural’ potato chips,” said the Dorrance protege.

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.

Check out additional articles on:

The Wobble Board of Positive Training

Testing Horse Smarts

Brain & Agility Training 

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 may be 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, another Best Horse Practices Summit presenter, 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 additional articles on:

The Wobble Board of Positive Training

Testing Horse Smarts

Brain & Agility Training 

Check out this feature on Animal Intelligence.

Amy Skinner returns to Maine

Amy Skinner of Essence Horsemanship and Bar T Ranch will visit Maine for a weekend of private and semi-private lessons October 21-22.

The accomplished horsewoman teaches English and Western. Her schedule for the October weekend is booked solid, but you can still audit.

The event takes place at Goldenwinds Farm in Norridgewock, Maine.

  • Lessons start at approximately 8 am and go until 6 pm.
  • Auditors are welcome at $25 per day.

The weekend event will take place in Goldenwinds’ indoor arena, a 60’ x 120’ space as well as in nearby outdoor spaces. For more information and directions, contact Debbie Hight at (207) 431-0644 or dhight at tds dot net.

Skinner has studied at the Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. Additionally, she is an accomplished guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. Read her articles here.

For more information,

Juliana Zunde to offer tutelage in Durango

Juliana Zunde, an accomplished rider, frequent guest columnist, and Best Horse Practices Summit special guest, will offer clinic lessons in Durango, October 5-7, just before the BHP Summit. Riders registered for the Summit will get HALF OFF her rates.

Register for the Summit

Zunde writes:

I was born in Germany and started riding when I was 8 years old. At 14, I passed the German riding test in order to compete at the equivalent of our A shows. This test consisted of a 1.10m jumping course, a second level dressage test, a written and oral test. I showed in Germany up to the 1.30 jumper classes. I came to the USA in 1981 and worked for several people as a groom and rider before starting my own business. I have worked every aspect of the US Hunter and Jumper business ever since.

I have taught riders from learning to put the foot in the stirrup iron, to top levels of Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation classes. I have also competed in the 1.50 Division in the jumper ring on a thoroughbred that I had rescued from the killers. I am a USHJA approved Trainer, and also have a small “r” judging license for Hunters and Hunt Seat Equitation.

My training philosophy is summed up in the 10 Points of Track-Momentum-Balance. Read more about that here.  I combine years of experience in classical dressage along with my knowledge of natural horsemanship to help you have a cohesive relationship with your horse and better communication regardless of your discipline.

Rates: $100 per person for one hour private or semi-private lesson.

$120 per person for 4-6 people in a two-hour session.

Half price for those registered for the Summit.

For more information and to book time with Zunde, please call Catherine Milton at 314-323-8305.

Amy Skinner on Freeloading, II

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.
Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on horses and riders. Read Part I of Freeloading

Skinner writes:

When people bring me a horse and go right to name calling right away, my heart sinks. I regularly hear people regularly call their horses:

  • lazy
  • stubborn
  • uncoordinated/clumsy
  • unathletic
  • moody

When I hear these things, though, what I really hear is that rider’s own personality flaws.  They may be telling me that:

  • they are ignorant to the horse’s real nature
  • they tend to humanize their horse
  • or, that their ego gets in the way of finding the best ways to work with their horse.

I like to give riders the benefit of the doubt and consider that they are on a journey of learning. They are frustrated because the horse won’t cooperate in some way and they don’t understand why and don’t have the tools to work through the problem. Consequently, they resort to name calling.

Folks hear me talk about ego, conflict, and nod in agreement, as if those faults applied to other riders, not them. But we all struggle with our egos.

For example: My ego makes me crave recognition for my work, and I have to be careful that I don’t let it get in the way. I don’t want to satisfy my ego at the expense of the horse, by pushing it in a direction they’re not ready for just to look like a better trainer.

I have to be careful not to attach my self-worth to a student or feel that their riding ability is a reflection of my own.

We all have our struggles. Having an ego isn’t a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it so that it doesn’t interfere in our horsemanship.

Let’s assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re seeking real horsemanship and not wanting to achieve “success” at the horse’s expense.  If we really want to figure out why we run into problems with our horses, we need to change the labels we put on them and maybe change the habit of labeling altogether.

  • ‘Lazy’ could really mean the horse is unresponsive.
  • A ‘stubborn’ horse could just be confused.
  • A ‘clumsy’ horse is off balance.
  • A ‘moody’ horse could be frustrated.

When we consider these behaviors, we first need to look at ourselves.  If the horse is unresponsive, how have we taught him to ignore our cues and messages?  How can we help him understand that our aids have meaning? How can we nurture when and how he responds to them?

Often, the rider doesn’t realize her hands and legs create so much noise for the horse. Then, when they really want their leg to mean something, the horse has tuned it out, the same way that we do at a restaurant with background chatter.

Or, the horse could have been dulled down by other riders. Now, you need to help him understand that what you ask has meaning, and that you’d like him to respond to lighter cues.

Either way, it’s human error.  It’s our responsibility to make things clear and easy for the horse to grasp so he doesn’t get frustrated or tuned out.  It’s our responsibility to help him be balanced.

Horses want to get along.  They want nothing more than to find peace and know what their role in our lives is.  If we want to be fair, decent horsemen and women, then we need to drop the name-calling and start looking at ourselves.

Read Part I of Freeloading

Equine Affaire Art Sends the (Wrong) Message

We’re big fans of the Equine Affaire. We’ve attended the annual version in Massachusetts (there’s one in Ohio, too) for years and have even had a booth there.

So it was with a big “Oh, no!” that we saw the organization’s logo art for this year. It shows a horse grazing in a pasture with its halter on.

Say all you will about so-called “field safe” halters. The consensus here is that any halter left on a horse at liberty is a bad one.

Just ask the guys of Unbranded, who left a halter on one of their mustangs and then woke up to a severely injured horse. (It likely happened when the horse went to scratch his chin, as shown in the illustration below.

Just ask Julie Goodnight, who wrote about it on her social media page:

It’s a scene that irritates me every time I see it: 

horses turned out with halters on…I am not sure whether this is done out of ignorance, laziness or simple incompetence, but I am sure it is not a good idea.

In my opinion, there’s no good reason to turn a horse loose in a halter and leaving a halter on 24/7 is very poor horsemanship. It is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous to the animal and it will not resolve any training issues that the horse might have. Turned loose in a halter, the horse may potentially snag the halter on something and be stuck. Maybe he’ll panic and break free, maybe he’ll throw himself on the ground and struggle; either way the potential for hurting himself is huge.

Besides, how would you like to have that thing on your head all the time? Maybe some people think because we leave collars on dogs, it is ok to leave halters on horses, but a dog does not have the same capacity for panic and destruction that horses have.

Julie Goodnight

Often I hear people say they leave a halter on because their horse is difficult to catch. But guess what? That’s not fixing the problem—it’s avoiding it. Training and good handling will fix a hard-to-catch horse. Leaving a halter on 24/7 will not. I’ve worked with many wild, unhandled or traumatized horses and the temptation to leave a halter on is great. But until the horse is desensitized to your approach, your touch and the halter going on and off, your problem is not solved.

Thanks, Julie.

We visited with the Equine Affaire’s Executive Producer Coagi Long. She said of the watercolor, “It’s a piece of art and is not necessarily meant to be instructional by any means.” During the process for selecting the painting, the fact that the horse was wearing a halter was not addressed. But, Long said, “it’s something we could address in future.”

Thanks, Coagi, we hope you do!

Curious about other practices that we’ve given Thumbs Down?

Read about Cross Ties

Read Amy Skinner’s take on Cross Ties

Read more about Haltering

Who’s the Freeloader in Your Horse-Rider Partnership?

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit

Here, Skinner shares some notes on horses and riders.

Read Freeloading, II

Skinner writes:

Ray Hunt said, “The first time you ride a horse, he’ll cost you money. The second time he’ll hold his own. The third ride, he’s on the payroll.”

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this process. It has a different meaning to me now than it did years ago. The young horses I started always came up with some resistance to my leg or rein or body aids during the first week of riding, and I always figured they needed more time to sort things out.

This month, as I start a group of young horses at the Bar T, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany:

Amy Skinner

Before riding them, all the work I did with them on the ground was directly related to riding. I asked them to carry themselves a certain way. I looked for lightness and relaxation with my cues.

Beyond these requirements, I also asked the horse to play a part. In other words, I’d ask myself, “How can I get this horse not simply to accept what I’m doing, but to be a part of it?

  • When I caught a horse, I asked it to participate by facing up, lowering its head, softening its poll, and tipping its head toward me. I would want it to find those movements through relaxation and learn to get in these habits without my forcing it.
  • When saddling, I stopped going around the horse to get to the cinches. Instead, I moved the horse around me, moving the shoulders around the front end and putting itself in place for me to cinch it up.
  • I asked my horses to lead up to a block, fence, or wherever I was standing for mounting. I most definitely asked horses to stay still when I mounted and dismounted.
  • I asked the horses to find relaxation in whatever I was asking and to participate rather than tolerate.

What were the results to my new approach?

  • Better first rides with less trouble and fear for both of us.
  • A better connection between what I’d taught on the ground and what I was asking for under saddle.
  • A working horse in fewer rides.

My group of colts right now are on their second and third rides. They are walking through water, going out on the trail, opening fences, and loading cows up onto a trailer.

I believe the reason these colts are so handy and relaxed is because they’ve been contributing since Day 1. Everything we did under saddle was just the next thing from what they’d already been doing on the ground. It wasn’t a shock or big change from their pre-riding life to going under saddle.

I think of bosses I’ve had. In jobs where bosses told me what to do, I complied because my paycheck depended on it. I did what I was asked, nothing more.

In jobs where my bosses asked me to participate and treated me like a work partner, I felt valued and offered more. I noticed things that needed to be done and did them without being asked. I was part of the whole, not just someone being directed and waiting to get done and go home.

I believe horses feel the same. At the risk of humanizing the horse, I feel that when horses who are asked to take part and have jobs, they have pride in their work. I see this when my colts get confident after moving a cow, or ponying another horse, or opening a gate. They know they contributed to something and feel confident about their ability.

I feel sad for horses who just get ridden around in arenas, show pens, and trails where they are just told to perform, go, stop, and turn. I hear people blame their horses regularly, but to me it sounds like excuses for poor horsemanship:

“He’s too much of a baby to do that.”

“My horse hates water, he’d never go through that.”

“That’s all well and good on a gelding, but try doing that with a mare.”

“Oh but he’s an Arab/Warmblood/Showhorse/donkey/mule…”

When riders insult their horses, what they’re really saying is that they as riders are too afraid, ignorant, or unwilling to change. Horses need to be respected as intelligent beings with a lot to offer.

So who is the freeloader? You or your horse? As my teacher Alicia Byberg said, “Pet your horse and slap yourself.” I still haven’t heard better advice to this day.

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