What is Horse Training?


I thought I would share some of the comments that were sent in from the clinic on horse training techniques. Each comment gave more food for thought and expanded on the primary question –  What is Horse Training?

This quote, sent by my mom, matches some of my personal views of what horse training is:

Education must always be constructive, leading to self-expression in harmony with one’s environment and in co-operation with others… Love and understanding are necessary to accomplish this, by co-operating with the individual, by making him feel that he is accepted, by inviting his reciprocal co-operation and goodwill.

Father Edward J. Flanagan, Founder of Boys Town

To me, training equals education. Since we ask horses to live in un-natural environments and interact un-naturally with a predator (human) and bear un-natural weight (the rider), then really, shouldn’t we expect that some education is involved for the horse to do this well? Is education something that you put in or something that you draw out?  To me, education is a process of drawing out and refining the intelligence and talent that are already there. Education is a process of developing skills that allows innate intelligence to flow in a positive, constructive, life-enhancing direction.  One definition of education reads, “An informative experience.” So when training, I have to ask myself, is the horse receiving the information needed to refine the skills of a ridden horse? If I simply left the horse in a truly natural state, then I probably could not even catch him much less ride him.

So mom writes:

No matter what method(s) work for you, nothing works for the good of the horse or yourself if you are out of balance, and/or if your horse is out of balance. Just as with cars, you may have very expensive, top-rate tires, but if your wheels are not balanced, the tires will wear wrong. Though you may be successful in many aspects of your horsemanship, if balance is an issue, your horse will “wear wrong” over the years.

Apparently mom, not a horse person, has been paying attention. Part of education is refining the use of our bodies or the horse’s bodies towards optimal use. Most people think that balance means the horse can do the job and not stumble or fall over but that is only a very small part of it. Training towards Optimal Balance means that the body is guided towards more efficient, correct mechanical function. Just like humans, horses are not born knowing how to best use their bodies. They must develop skills to utilize their talents, in other words, they must train to carry a rider. Or… the expensive tires just wear out from a bad alignment of the car.

Richard, always very insightful, writes:

Many thanks for your insightful clinic. However, I find a curious logic in the recent debate on horse attention. To my mind, one does not “teach” horses to “focus attention”. Horses are masters at paying attention to the leader and his/her signals. They don’t have to be “taught”.  There is a fabulous recent study by Jonah Leher called How we Decide. The thesis is pattern recognition. I believe it is applicable to your recent discussion.

Thank you Richard, I would agree. Back to the idea that education is a drawing out of intelligence, not a putting in. Of course a horse can pay attention, just watch a foal find the mare or a buddy sour horse find the herd. Attention is a natural talent the horse possesses. The question is how does the human gain it and keep it while riding? It is easy to tell where the human rates in the mind of a horse. When we build trust and provide a sense of safety for a horse, then gaining their attention is easy.

  • If you can’t catch your horse easily or without treats, then the horse still considers you a predator and itself prey.
  • If the horse is easy to catch but hard to manage, then the horse may have accepted you as a herd member, but you are not a very important herd member.
  • If the horse is easy to catch, cooperative and happy in training, then the horse sees you as a friend, a provider of safety and someone worth paying attention to.

Understanding why horses chooses to behave in certain ways is an education for the human. Understanding how a horse’s body needs to function to remain safe and comfortable in its own skin is an education for the human. Once a person understands the horse’s perspective and needs, then that person is qualified to train a horse. How we go about training can be different, but our intentions behind training should be the same – entirely for the education and benefit of the horse. Techniques are always a two-edged sword. Any technique you can think of can be used for or against a horse. Techniques can be used to demand obedience or draw out cooperation. It all depends on intention.

Which leads to an interesting perspective from Laura, obviously an attorney:

You raise an important point about the significance of intent. This has long been recognized in criminal law. Crimes are defined to have both an act and a mental state component. Mens rea is the legal (Latin) term for the mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act in a certain mental state. The mens rea of robbery, for example, is the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property.

In order to convict someone of robbery, a prosecutor must not only prove the defendant took the swag, but that they did it with the specified intent.  By contrast, taking something under the mistaken belief that it was your own or with the intent to return it to its owner is not robbery, although in certain circumstances it may be some other criminal offense.

Applied to the discussion in your clinic, you could argue that insisting a horse focus on you is not abusive when done with the intent of teaching that horse a skill to help him feel safer. On the other hand it could be abusive if done for the purpose of establishing dominance over the horse. Like almost everything about horse training, so much comes down to “feel.”

Thank you Laura, what a great point to make. Everything with a horse does come down to intent and feel. Working with a horse or for a horse is the intention that makes all the difference in training. Putting the horse’s well-being first and our own amusement or goals as second is simply required for solving behavioral issues and drawing out the beauty or talent in a horse.

And from Jack:

It’s not the technique that matters, it’s how & why you use the technique. Your motives & intent.

I could not agree more!  Thanks Jack.

Then Leslie brings up another important point about training. She writes:

Today I found myself musing … what do horses do if they are not being asked by a human to focus? Taken further, what were horses designed to do?  Detect danger and run from it. But we have taken the danger away.  There are no mountain lions, no predators for our domestic horses.  So they are fully loaded, so to speak, cocked and ready, all that evasion energy with no place to go.

It seems compassionate, in that context, to give them something to do. I’m sure you have, as most of us have, observed how most horses like having a job that makes them feel useful.  I know Junior does.  One instructor actually reported a glowing look on his face after a student had a really good lesson on him.

I guess my point is that we all have life force, chi, whatever.  And maybe what we are all working on, 2-leggeds and 4-leggeds, is how to channel or direct our life force.  So asking a horse to focus and learn and grow is a huge gift if it is offered and asked in a way that aids the flow of life force more easily (vs.–you guessed it–resistance).

Thank you Leslie for that insight!  Not only have we eliminated real predators from our horse’s lives, we feed horses and provide water all the time. This small fact of providing food and water to a horse has enormous repercussions. Of course we provide food and water, it would be criminal if we did not. But because we do feed them, horses no longer have a real reason to move all day like they would in the wild.

Horses in nature will travel an average of 25 miles per day in search of food and water. While some time is spent playing, fighting or fleeing from predators, the bulk of each day is spent just moving in a calm, efficient way. Even if you give your horse a 200 acre pasture and a herd of 30, a domestic horses knows exactly where the food and water are at all times. They become couch potatoes and rarely will they learn to use their bodies efficiently. The pent up energy also results in misdirected flight or fight behavior that can become behavioral issues. This is why training is such an important component of horse-keeping or for the life of a domestic horse.

Horses require movement. They evolved in motion. Cultivating relaxed, efficient motion with a domestic horse that has too much pent up energy and no outlet is one of the main purposes of training. To assume a domestic horse is like a wild horse is trying to make an apple into an orange. Mother Nature does provide what a horse needs and culls the weaknesses when humans stay out of the picture. But as soon as humans enter the life of a horse, we take on the role of provider. If we do not understand the needs of a horse and its natural tendencies then it will be a challenge to guide the horse into new skills that are required to be successful in a completely un-natural environment.

One final email from another trainer, Jim, who writes:

What good words and thoughts.  I don’t disagree with any of your points.  I have witnessed some pretty nasty cat fights over techniques.  Another problem is the trainers develop their disciples and then anyone who is not among their group is then by definition wrong.

At trainer A’s clinic you will frequently hear that trainer B is terrible “all he does is chase a horse around the round pen”  The reverse is true at trainer B’s clinic or they may be bashing another trainer all together.  I not infrequently hear a student tell me that they don’t won’t to do what I am going to ask them to do before I even have a chance to evaluate the student and the horse (so I can decide what my recommendation is going to be)  because of what they have heard that “I do”. Well, like you, I try to do the best thing for that individual team. Bashing, I am pretty sure comes from the ego.  It usually comes from someone with a lack of knowledge.

I appreciate your frustration and have had the same frustration myself.  I think that we need to help the student learn to ask the right questions and help them see how what may seem to be a contradiction may actually be the same message said another way.  I also think that teachers need to be respectful of others and stop the bashing and focus on what they recommend and why they recommend it.  One observation, if I may, is that your filters which I think are absolutely right, take time for the student to develop. So it seems to me that these three filters should be at the beginning. So for the person that is closer to the beginning of their path:

So how do I filter information? It is very simple:

  1. How do I know if I am I achieving a Learning Frame of Mind? (calm, willing, attentive, adaptable)
  2. How do I know if the horse and I are communicating clearly with each other?
  3. How do I decide if what I am choosing to do is healthy for the horse’s body?

Thanks Jim!  It is all about asking the right questions. Just like training a horse, training a person is about drawing out intelligence and talent in order to refine the skills of horsemanship. Asking simple questions of ourselves in the middle of a training session can jerk us out of instinctual reactions and learned behaviors. Maybe we don’t find those answers right away – I don’t think that matters – I think the questions themselves alter our intentions in a moment. We all make mistakes in the process of training but our intention is what matters most to the horse.

So this brings me to the question that I consider to be the most important regarding any technique or horse training method – “Does what I am doing serve the horse both in mind and body?” If it does, then that is what I would call horse training.

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