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Principles
 

PRINCIPLES OF HORSEMANSHIP


1. Your horse should want to be with you more than they want to be anywhere else:

You can make a horse physically be with you, but you won't have the most important part of the horse, his mind. If you have the mind, you have the whole horse available to you. 

A horse wanting to be near a person vs. feeling forced to be near a person becomes a way of life for them and how they feel about people. It's important to see the difference between a horse feeling forced and just presenting their physical body vs. a horse that is thinking, mentally present and wanting to be near us. The following information all comes back around to this one principle.

2. Make the right thing easy and obvious:

The horse needs to clearly understand what it is we want, and then be allowed the time they need to figure out how to do it. They shouldn't be made to feel wrong for trying what may seem like the opposite of what we want. The mental search the horse needs to goes through to figure things out is the very heart of the learning process of the principle of "making the right thing easy". If we don't understand this, then more than likely we'll be making the "wrong thing" too difficult; and/or putting some sort of pressure on the horse to get them to physically do what we want them to do without any understanding of what the horse is going through mentally. 

Understanding how to direct a horse in a way that helps them to use their mind and figure things out rather than just physically reacting is the foundation to gaining the horse’s trust and willingness. If we'd like them to put mental effort into everything we ask them to do, then our goal should be to help them come through each experience feeling as good or better about us than before the experience.

3. Cause what you don't want to be just difficult enough (encouraging a horse to search):

Sometimes a horse will have a really strong idea that has nothing to do with what we want them to do. So instead of trying to stop the horse from doing it, allow the horse to explore his idea, and do just enough so that it doesn’t work out or become a place of comfort to them. There should be no punitive feel coming from the person, and it only needs to be difficult enough for the horse to let go of his idea for that moment...not for the rest of his life or even the next moment. The next thought the horse has may not take them any closer to where we want them or to what we want them to do, but it will take them to the next place they need to explore. Don't criticize where their search takes them…just encourage them to search again. Cause the wrong thing to be just difficult enough so that the horse can still work at it without it working out, and eventually the horse will let go of all those other ideas and end up choosing what we want them to do. If we do this in a way that allows the horse to think through the situation and make choices, they will believe it was their idea to do what we wanted them to do, and will feel good about us and more confident about the thing we wanted them to do.

4. Know when to use what the horse offers and when to block a thought from taking place:

If a horse has a set habit or pattern, it may be necessary to block that thought from taking place before they will search for another answer.  However, there may also be times when blocking a horse from carrying out a thought may not be the safest or best thing for us or the horse in that moment. When a horse has a strong pattern or habit that keeps reoccurring, it may be best to get creative in how you set things up to help the horse search for another answer. It may even be a good idea to get help from someone who understands these principles and knows how to help you and your horse safely work through this together.
 
When a horse goes through the experience of finding a better answer for themselves, it leaves them with a more positive impression of what life can be like. As we come to understand how to use these principles appropriately for what's taking place in the moment, it will positively affect our horse's mental well-being and how they view us. They'll start to see our direction as a support to their need for self-preservation, and we'll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
 
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"Feel", a little bit about a big subject...

Feel encompasses more than what the eye can see or what we can physically touch. Have you ever known something when working with a horse but couldn't explain why you knew it?

When we talk about "feel" as it applies to horsemanship, it can have many different meanings and applications. In most cases, several different applications of "feel" are being used at the same time in any given situation when we're communicating with our horse.

Feel affects everything, it can cause something to work out really well, or not work out at all.

You "go with" your horse so they can have the opportunity to experience the feel of  "going together". If you do this with enough "feel of and for the horse", the horse may allow you the experience of leading the dance.

Feel comes natural to the horse...it's how they operate in life.

The idea of "feel" can be very illusive to someone that is not used to being aware of that part of themselves or that part of the horse. It's not something strange or mystical, it's how God made us. But in a world that is very mechanical and computer oriented, where you push buttons and click on things to make them happen, it can be easy to forget that this part of life exists.

Every un-needed thought carries a feel and has the possibility to create some sort of un-needed energy that may convolute a person's physical feel and decrease the chances for true togetherness between a person and their horse. That's why you can watch someone walk up to a horse and the horse seems at ease and willing to respond to them, and then someone else can walk up to that same horse seemingly in the same manner, but the horse seems hesitant or unwilling.

Our energy, intent and attitude has a "feel" that the horse can feel, which affects how the horse feels about responding to us. As a great horseman has said, "It has to come right out of the inside of you, to the inside of the horse".

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Some things to ponder....

Consistency creates "sureness", and if a horse is sure they can trust, softness can follow.

Inconsistency also creates "sureness", but not the kind of sureness that creates softness.

Consistency is 100 times out of 100, anything less is, at some level, inconsistency from the horse's point of view.

Think about people that are attracted to gambling games...how many times out of 100 do they need to get a pay off for them to keep playing? The rewards may be few and far between, but those intermittent pay offs are meant to keep people believing it's possible for them to win. It encourages them to keep trying. The same intermittent reward principle applies to horsemanship. It may take only 1 or 2 times for some horses to learn something you never wanted them to learn. If we pick up on a rein or lead rope and release for something we don't want, or we are ineffective when we decide to block the horse from carrying out a thought, then we've just allowed that very thing we don't want them to do to become a very real option for the future.

Each and every time you pick up on a rein or lead rope, you should have something in mind that needs to take place in the horse...how the horse initially responds, and what they already understand will dictate what you actually release for.

A soft feel between horse and rider is when you have understanding coupled with willingness that starts in the horse's mind and goes down through the body to the feet.

Softness is first mental, then the physical follows the mental.

Softness needs to be there in all movement...any tension in the first steps can build into more tension.

If a horse starts to build tension as they move, don't ignore it...we need to recognize the first signs of tension and help the horse in whatever way is appropriate for that horse at that time.

Sometimes, just slowing things down will get rid of the tension that is keeping them from being able to do what we're asking. As they build understanding and confidence, then speed can slowly come back into the picture without creating tension.

A horse can learn to operate in softness when an understanding feel is offered that communicates to the horse where they need to be or what they need to do; and then is given the time to think, prepare and move their own feet.

When people talk about a "soft feel" there is usually a lot said about how the horse is supposed to respond to the reins. But a soft feel is more than just how the horse responds to the reins. In fact, the beginnings of a horse offering a soft feel should start on the ground before we ever touch them. There is a presentation given by the person to the horse that allows the horse to understand and respond willingly with their entire being that goes beyond the physical connection through lead ropes or reins.

Tension and softness cannot live in the same place. A relaxed mind is a prerequisite to softness.

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More things to think about...

Do you know what's important to your horse? Does he see you as a place of comfort and security? Can your horse trust you to pay attention to how he's feeling about what's being asked of him? Do you value his relaxation over the task at hand, and are you aware of the very smallest signs of concern or tension when they first come up? The horse makes all these things clear to us and if we don't notice or don't acknowledge them, it effects the relationship at the deepest level.

Many times there's a clash between the person's desires and the horse's desires because the person doesn't understand what would motivate that particular horse. People can get so focused on what they want from the horse that they don't realize what the horse is needing and even sometimes searching for from the person. If the person unknowingly overlooks these things, then it's only a matter of time before the horse will begin searching elsewhere. But because the person may still have a hold of a rope or rein, the person believes the horse should be there with them and blames the horse for the disconnect.

It's not about the trailer, it's not about the bit, it's not about the tarp, or the jump, or the creek or the ______ , you fill in the blank". It may seem like it is about these things, but it's really about the relationship; does your horse trust you to be effective in helping him. It's so important to the horse that we go about these things in a way that the horse can do what we ask with confidence in us and in themselves. If we can help them have confidence in whatever we ask them to do, then they will feel good about being with us.

Most of the time, getting the change we want in our horse comes from making adjustments in ourselves.

The horse is never wrong...he's doing what he's doing because that's what he believes he needs to do.

The only reason a person would put the blame on the horse or take anything the horse does personally, would be because they lack an understanding of why the horse is doing whatever it's doing.

If your horse is afraid of sparrows, get him used to eagles.

It's important to expose a horse to various things and situations, and yet try not to overexpose them.

Just because you don't feel like you're forcing your horse, doesn't mean your horse isn't feeling forced.

Many times the person is the one that needs a purpose in order to bring about the feel they need to offer the horse a clear picture of what the person wants. It's usually the purpose in the human that the horse feels that helps them more than the actual purpose itself.

If a person is too focused on the purpose or task without being able to listen to the horse at the same time it's easy to miss something of value that the horse may be trying to offer.

It always goes back to the basics of feel, timing and balance.

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Mental aspirations....

When our horse's attention is strongly drawn to something, can we get it back and have them come back to us in a good frame of mind?....many people can get and keep their horse's attention, but not with the horse feeling good inside about it.

Ask your horse to let go of a thought...release and see if they can carry it or if they have to take their thought away again...do just enough and see how little it takes to have them let go of it again...this has to become a way of life for them.
When it's the horse's idea to be with us, then we'll have the whole horse, mind, body and spirit.

Have a plan, but be ready to adjust to fit the situation.

Up your pressure in order to block an unwanted thought from being carried out, but not to make a thought happen.

A block may need to get down to the feet in order to cause a mental change...it may take very little to block a thought, or it may take all we have.

It's our responsibility to know where the horse's feet are so we can direct them, it's the horse's responsibility to move them.

Anytime you pick up on a rein and there is any resistance before yielding, it will be bigger when there is worry in the horse. It should be a way of life for the horse to let go mentally and yield to the rein. If you've been consistent with this when situations are good, when things go bad then you'll have that built in there already.
 
Anytime you go to pick up on a rein and the horse doesn't prepare to yield to it, or pushes into it, it's either because their attention is on something else, and they are not mentally with you, or they don't understand what you are asking; neither one of those are the horse's fault. 

Any tension that's in a horse at a stand still or walk will get bigger when they speed up.

It's important to be able to see and feel the difference between effort and worry. Most horses are worried into a movement rather than being encouraged to offer a relaxed effort.
 
Hurry should not equal worry....if they start to speed up and get tense, don't let that go on...stop and start over and quit when they are soft, level headed and yielding.

The best thing we can do for our relationship with our horse is to create a habit in them of willingly letting go of their own ideas or thoughts.

It's important to understand that working through mental struggles is a part of learning and growth, not only for us but for our horse as well.

The undesirable physical things a horse does are just symptoms of his mental state and understanding.

When a horse is inattentive or has a habit of leaving the person when turned loose in the round pen, many times people tend to want to add to the horse's movement and drive the horse around in the pen. The people that do this seem to believe this is how to "make the wrong thing difficult". The horse may end up next to the person, but feels forced to be there because he was made to choose between a rock and a hard place. If a person could think a little differently and make the wrong thing a little less difficult by not driving the horse around the pen and be more calculating about applying pressure and what to release for, they could get the horse to willingly choose to be near them. 

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Reiterations & parting thoughts...

Don't just cause the horse to do what you want them to do, cause it to be the horse's idea to do what you want them to do.

When you're horse is willing, don't wear it out.

To help a horse find the sweet spot between our reins where they are mentally with us, think about following a distinct line on the ground up ahead of your horse, think about where you want to go and how you're going to get there and you follow that imaginary line with your intention and feel in your body so that your horse can feel and look where he needs to prepare to go.
 
To help a horse find the line, we can think about creating a hallway between our hands and legs that will be a boundary for them to feel of. Depending on the horses understanding and mental state, sometimes the hallway can be as narrow as the line we're riding on, or sometimes it may need to be as wide as a four lane highway. If you make the hallway walls too solid or too narrow before the horse understands how to mentally yield down to his feet, or if the horse has a strong mental resistance to where you're directing him, then even if the horse's feet have yielded to stay on the line, you'll forfeit straightness and create a feeling to the horse of being micro managed or forced; they won't have a chance to find that sweet spot where they can operate in unity with you.

We should want our horse to feel like a winner every time we ask them to do something. Set things up so the horse can search and find what we want them to do. We do the directing, but in a way that they find the answer themselves...this is how a horse learns to be confident and mentally present with us.

Be aware of what your horse is offering you, and use it if you can.

It's important not to put ourselves in a situation where time is a factor when it comes to teaching something new or working through a problem...remember to reward the slightest try and build on that.

There may be times when you need to go with your horse before your horse can go with you.

Most of the time people give their horse something to "get away from" rather than giving them something to "go with".

When you are teaching a horse something new, you have to be aware of where the horse's thoughts are, his state of mind, his intent and what he is actually learning.

It's our responsibility to know where the feet are so we can direct them, it's the horse's responsibility to move them. This is where a persons feel of and for the horse is so important.

If we allow a horse to do what we don't want them to do too many times without making it difficult enough when they do it, they can learn to try harder and harder to do that unwanted thing and will learn what we don't want them to learn.

If we cannot be ahead of the horse carrying out a thought we don't want, it may be best to go with their idea and then make use of what the horse has offered in a way that causes them to search for and find comfort when they are mentally back with us, but without feeling punished for trying their own idea.

Allow failure to be your teacher, not your undertaker.

If the horse is not responding to your request as you would like, you need to understand why. There is a difference in how you would go about working with a horse that doesn't understand what you want compared to one that is confirmed in giving an undesired response out of habit or pattern.

If the reason the horse is not responding is because he doesn't understand what's being asked or is fearful, then you may need to adjust your presentation. Break things down so he can understand or be more confident to do what's being asked.

Take the time and allow the horse to learn that he can do what you're asking. Give him the time he needs to search and just keep him searching while seeing how little it takes to discourage him from thinking about doing what you don't want. How much you do to discourage will vary from horse to horse and from moment to moment. Most importantly, you want to make the right thing very clear and easy as possible.

A horse shouldn't get worried when we ask him to put effort into the walk, but a lot of horses get worried and rush off because they don't understand how to put effort into walking without getting worried....just keep asking him to put effort into the walk and if he trots just keep a walking rhythm in yourself and help him back to the walk with your reins...let the reins go and ask again for him to put effort into the walk until he can do it without getting worried and hurrying off into the trot. You're looking for a relaxed extended walk. A horse can walk really fast but not be relaxed, it looks like a sewing machine, real up and down...but they have to be relaxed in order to really extend and walk out.

Many times the process looks nothing like the intended end result.

With young horses or even seasoned horses that worry about transitions from one gate to another, it's usually because they have been forced into the transition. Set them up better so they can make the transition themselves, cause the transition to become their idea and allow it to happen.

There's a huge difference between a habit and a belief system. A horse that has a set pattern of doing something does so because they have experienced some sort of relief from what they did. The horse then believes what they did was the best choice; it in essence then becomes a part of their belief system for self preservation. You cannot extinguish a set pattern of behavior without giving them something that replaces that behavior. There was a reason the horse was doing what they were doing and you can't leave a void there. The void must be filled with something else that the horse understands he can do, and believes is a better choice in order for there to be a lasting change.

Bucking, rearing, kicking, running away, biting, etc. are all just symptoms of the problem. If we recognize and consistently help the horse with the root of the problem, then the symptoms will fade out of the picture.

It's the little things that make a big difference.

We should never stop wanting to better our horsemanship, but if our attitude doesn't cause us to pause and celebrate every piece of enlightenment and progress along the way, then we've really not learned the most important lesson of the journey.

If we make the wrong thing too difficult by using more pressure than needed, we may cause the horse to do what we wanted, but they did it out of a flight reaction rather than thinking through what they were doing. They may have done what we wanted but they were just escaping pressure. When this happens they still feel pressure in the spot that we wanted them to find because they were in self preservation when they found it, and so they really didn't choose to be in that spot. If this happens we need to be more aware of how "little" pressure is needed to effectively deter the horse's thought from the wrong thing, and then repeat it until we see them relax and start thoughtfully seeking the place we want them to be without physically or mentally escaping or fleeing into it. Otherwise they can learn to escape pressure by fleeing rather than learning to search out what we want in a thoughtful way when pressure is applied.

We want to release for the horse's slightest try which starts with his thought. We need to be able to see what his mind is preparing his body and feet to do. He needs to have time to think, prepare and move his own feet, and he needs to know we recognize when he's thinking of doing it.

If a horse is not able to think his way through what is being asked and move his own feet, the place where he ends up will more than likely not be a comfort spot to him because he just escaped into that spot to get away from pressure. Many people cause this to happen without realizing it when they load their horse into a trailer and then wonder why their horses don't travel well or are not consistent in loading.

If you're working with a horse in a round pen at liberty and his feet get stuck. Don't just try to make the horse move his feet, try and get his thought unstuck and directed first. If a horse has a pattern of not moving or if the horse has no experience being asked to move in the round pen, then there may be times when we have to do so much to be effective that the horse may lose confidence and feel the need to flee. It's important that we don't leave him feeling that way. Start over and keep asking until his thought can go before his feet go and you start to see signs of relaxation. Then his feet can move off softly without any worry or tension.

Whether on the ground or in the saddle, driving or pushing a horse to go forward does not create true forward. In fact it can create just the opposite, sometimes with a lot of resentment, tension and fear added in. Then people wonder why their horse is traveling crooked, and they start trying to straighten them with their reins and legs. To create relaxed forward in a horse that is reluctant to go forward, the mind needs to take that horse forward, so don't chase the body....work on the mental change. Ask for a change in speed at the walk, faster then slower. When they offer a bigger walk don't push or drive them forward, release and just go with them and allow them to come back down to a slower walk and you come down to a slower walk with them. As the horse's mind starts taking the horse forward they'll be able to carry the extended walk a little while longer before coming back down to a slower walk again. When you have that going, then pretty soon you can ask for a transition from a nice relaxed extended walk to the trot and so on. None of this takes very much time at all, but people spend years chasing or pushing their horse's body forward and never get true forward where the horse's mind is willingly taking his feet forward. 

You're never trying to make anything happen. You are encouraging the horse to mentally search for what you want them to do.

Set it up so the horse can search. Let the horse search and give him the time it takes for him to find the answer. Our responsibility is to be there with the horse, encouraging them to keep searching until they make it.

The most honest and valuable feedback we'll ever receive will be from the horse.

"It's amazing what you can learn, once you've already learned all there is to learn"

*For some entertaining stories that include the use of these horsemanship principles, I suggest Tom Moate's recent series of books, "A Horse's Thought", "Between the Reins", "Further Along the Trail", and "Going Somewhere". I also recommend the two classic horsemanship books "True Unity" by Tom Dorrance, and "Think Harmony with Horses" by Ray Hunt.

Happy Trails!