Process and Purpose

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In working with a horse, it is important that one focuses on and understands the connection between the physical process of training the animal and the ultimate goal or purpose for which the horse is being trained. The physical process of training a horse is made up of countless small interactions between horse and rider, and it is important that all of these interactions are carefully considered by the rider. If one interacts carelessly with a horse or does not ensure that each interaction supports the ultimate training goal, the horse is likely to become dull or resistant in his response.

Often times, there are multiple interconnected purposes behind any given process of training. For example, if the training process consists of encouraging a horse to engage physically and mentally, the immediate purpose might be to facilitate a compassionate and clear understanding between the horse and the rider. This purpose may, however, lead to a secondary purpose, such as allowing a horse to think independently, seeking and finding answers for himself.

This example is reflected in the process of starting colts and the purpose behind it. First, in the round pen you indirectly connect the horse’s feet and mind to yourself by correctly positioning yourself in relation to the horse. This process builds the connection necessary for a smooth transition to a direct form of connection, such as halter work. The same concept can then be applied to the transition from halter work to saddle work, in that direct connection between horse and rider via the halter will pave the way for a successful connection between horse and rider under saddle. Ultimately, this direct connection will mean that the human is able to communicate clearly with the horse and support the desired training outcome of fluid, controlled movement of the feet.

Just as correct halter work and saddle work build on the movements of indirect communication established in the round pen, each interaction builds on and refines the foundations of the horse’s training. Complete refinement can only be achieved if there is an even trajectory from indirect connection to direct connection in the horse’s training and each element is in harmony with all the others. Each process must reflect the ultimate purpose and build upon previous processes, never deserting any piece of the training along the way.

With consistent quality work, this process of building connection creates a horse that is the same in all areas of horsemanship, no matter what the given circumstances may be. With a cultivated awareness of purpose behind each element of the horsemanship process, you can reap unimaginable benefits for both yourself and your horse. Beware, though – it takes great desire, effort, and self-reflection to reap the benefits, and all of this has very little to do with the horse. It’s all to do with you!

Habit Awareness

img_0246With horses, you’re creating either good habits or bad, both in the way they think and in the way they act. Promoting good habits should lead to the point where you are able to catch the horse, saddle up, and go right to work in total suppleness, balance, and connection no matter the weather or surroundings.  Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t even aware of the habits they are creating in their horses, both physically and mentally.

I see a lot of folks unknowingly teaching bad habits by giving the horse the freedom to do as it pleases at inappropriate moments in the presence of a human. One that drives me completely bonkers is when someone lunges a horse for the purpose of “airing them out”. The horse’s first response is to go completely crazy bucking, kicking, and screaming. From the horse’s perspective, the daily routine is:  human catches me, then I go completely crazy on the lunge, and then we get to work.  Talk about creating a terrible habit that can get both the horse and human hurt!

This “airing out” may be harmless at first, but it can lead to a horse’s bad behavior snowballing.  The horse may grow to exploit that moment of complete craziness on the lunge that has been sanctioned by the human and extend their bad behavior into other moments leading directly up to the lunge or directly after the lunge.  Little by little, the horse becomes a pig in the halter, possibly running people over, bullying other horses and people, and perhaps even becoming an aggressive monster that people become scared of.

You may have heard people say that particular horses are bad, but that’s not fair because their bad behavior is most likely the result of bad habits that their humans have allowed them to develop over time, although admittedly sometimes one extreme negative event might be responsible for a horse’s poor behavior. These bad habits were created by a human either being forceful or disinterested in the horse’s development, and the horse has learned to be resistant to the training.

In order to create a good habit, all you need to do is know what it is you’re looking to create and then make the horse’s progress toward that goal as easy and rewarding as possible. One must simultaneously discourage the horse’s incorrect actions by making steps in the wrong direction more difficult.  Thus, good habits will mean less work for the horse, while bad habits will lead to more work.  No matter what takes place, the horse will always find the route of least resistance given the circumstances presented to them.

Use every opportunity to encourage your horse’s development towards being responsive, calm, and respectful from the very beginning of your interaction with them. Keep thinking of the whole horse, becoming more aware of the habits being created along the way, and build a companionship in which is enjoyable for both parties.  The most important thing to preserve and reinforce in a horse is their ability to discover and embrace good habits on their own initiative.

Change, Growth, and Mistakes.

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Change, growth, and mistakes shouldn’t be viewed negatively as inconsistencies in a person’s character, but quite the opposite.  They should be viewed as admirable traits found in those who continually reinvent themselves along their journey, as all life learners do!

I am always reinventing myself, causing everything I do to change with time.  A technique I was teaching one year may change, be dropped altogether, or maybe just be refined a bit.  A philosophy that I tried to explain one year may sound completely different when I explain it the following year.  I will have new examples and new stories that hopefully help transfer the information to people in a more digestible way, continually trying to convey my core message in a simplified manner.  My growth is based on knowledge gained through a variety of new experiences that are both positive and negative, and these experiences compel me to change.

I am far from perfect, and this means I am going to continue to be flawed, make mistakes, and change the way I view the world. As a teacher, I hope I can help others use these moments of potential vulnerability to their advantage and encourage them to continue on their journeys of growth. We must all continue to change due to the accumulation of wisdom, and we should help others to accept change willingly and to learn from mistakes in order to grow to their fullest potential.

Life Learner

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A life learner is someone who focuses not on the end game, but rather on the process of continually refining their idea of the bigger picture. This continual refinement of the bigger picture is intimately connected with the continual refinement of one’s own skills.

In order for wisdom to be accumulated, it is vital that a person improve a little bit every day so that, over time, there is a steady pattern of growth. Over the course of this process of incremental growth, the bigger picture also has to change incrementally and be refined in keeping with the insights one has gained along the way. Personal growth leads to personal change, and consequently the lens through which one views reality must be refined to suit this change. As a result, the life learner is always refining his focus area and changing their views on the world as they understand it.  Life learners therefore gain a deeper understanding of reality than those who are shortsighted, and this gives them considerable insight into many fields.   

Preparation Through Groundwork

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Preparation is the key to success with horses, and it all starts with groundwork.  If you’re not properly prepared to handle the spontaneity of unexpected events, the answer can almost always be found on the ground.  Instead of working with your horse from a place of fear, try a little confidence and trust.  Start by preparing your horse for the real world, not the finite world of perfectly controlled atmospheres.  This means that yes, there will have to be a little hard work and consistent practice until you start to resolve the issues at hand.  The key is working from a perspective that horses can understand, not from a mindset of perfection or complete unawareness.

If a proper foundation of groundwork has been established, in moments of need your horse will not only take care of itself, but you as well.  They’ll start to look to you for support and guidance, instead of seeing you as a mechanism of torture and meaningless work.  If you are able to connect with the horse from its feet to its mind and vice versa, soon what might have been terror or boredom turns into a curious confidence.  If you give meaning to what you are doing, it gives the horse a sense of relaxation through purpose. The horse starts to look to you for the next objective instead of always trying to find something else to occupy its mind or interrupt the training.

What people don’t realize is how connected groundwork and saddlework actually are.  Groundwork provides the tools necessary to support a confused, scared, or threatened horse in a safe environment.  If the groundwork is properly done, it gives you everything you will need in the saddle to refine basic movements, bypassing any emotional and physical discomfort on the part of the horse.

Always remember that your horse would rather be out in a huge pasture with many other horses, so give the horse a reason to want to go to work with you.  If the horse is in a stall and only occasionally turned out in a small pasture, you may be the only thing that gives it purpose and peace. Alternatively, you could be the other side of the spectrum to the horse too. You could be the worst part of its day.  Which person do you want to be to your horse?  One who gives it purpose, meaning, and peace, or one whom the horse looks at as a hostile interrogator about to demand another session of “give me what I want or else”.

Prepare your horse instead of controlling it.  Give it a chance to search, explore, and even make mistakes without punishment, only support and guidance.  Allow it to find the correct answers through searching and thinking on its own terms.

The Benefits of Teaching!

dsc_0197The best part of teaching is continually having to find ways to present material so that the students discover the correct answer on their own.  The toughest part of teaching is having the patience to allow students time to search for the answer.  This process can be quite funny in that it reveals who the “student” really is…  the teacher!

With the horse, I’m always trying to set up situations that encourage the horse to discover the answer for itself.  All I have to do is keep searching for the best ways to set up those situations and hope that the horse achieves even a little piece of the desired outcome.  The bigger picture is creating a horse who is a willing partner and who can think for itself.

By discouraging the horse from making wrong actions, I leave a huge open door for the correct choices to be explored.  When the horse begins to search and think about what I may be asking of it, everything becomes really soft and quiet.  The horse becomes more balanced and connected, and this relaxes both its physical and mental states.  The horse builds more confidence, and it learns to trust me during the tougher, unforeseen challenges ahead.  This creates a very intuitively engaged horse who becomes excited for new challenges and really enjoys the mutually beneficial relationship.    

One of the toughest aspects of any teaching experience is finding the sweet spot of engagement.  If you ask too much or never engage a horse in a meaningful way, they begin to shut down, glaze over, and tune out.  If you do not ask enough of other horses, they respond by finding other things to stimulate their minds or by using everything a rider does against them.  

As a teacher, I struggle to teach my students about my own personal breakthroughs. That is the fun of teaching, though. When you see your students’ faces look as though you were from another planet, you know that more thought needs to put into the next attempt at teaching them.  It is like running a little experiment over and over, refining it each time till more and more people start to grasp the idea sooner with actual positive results. That’s where the horse and the students are actually my greatest asset in refining myself continuously.  As a teacher, I am humbled by and grateful to everyone who allows me to continue to teach them. Without you, my own refinement is not possible! 

All The Same!


 In general, horsemanship should be consistent regardless of the location or situation you find yourself in, though it is of course acceptable to alter your strategy slightly if circumstances demand it. The basic movements you use to help your horse work through a situation should remain the same, and you should attempt to keep your signals consistent. This does not mean that you shouldn’t be dynamic and respond to your horse’s variable needs, however. You must also be aware of your horse and work through the issues that surface as the ride progresses, whether that be from the ground or in the saddle. If you’re not working through the issues that arise and supporting your horse through difficult situations, your problems will only get worse. The key is to support your horse with consistency.

 Creating effective training strategies has become one of my favorite parts of working with horses and riders. There are many similarities between cases, but the strategies I employ to help each horse and rider partnership progress are always a bit different. This principle is the same for my own riding as well. How I work with a horse in an arena by myself may be different then how I ride in an arena with twenty riders or how I ride in a wide open hay meadow. Under the surface, I will be working on all the same things and using consistent horsemanship, but the exact method I use will vary based on current circumstances.

 There are several areas involving consistency that tend to cause problems for horses and riders. I have outlined a few below:

 Routine – When horses are ridden in an excessively routine-based regimen with a controlled outside environment, they tend to become too limited in their capabilities. Once the routine is mixed up, the horse falls apart. These horses are mechanical in the sense that they may go through the motions that make them seem advanced when all the conditions are perfect, but they have no ability to adapt or overcome an imperfect environment.

 Fear – Aside from causing problems for the horse, an excessively routinized training regimen can have a bad effect on the rider as well by promoting a fear of all uncontrollable factors. This causes the rider to limit his riding to very specific environments and conditions. In worrying so much about his surroundings, the rider loses focus on connecting with and properly training the horse.

 Situational – Sometimes riders who are accustomed to working with their horse in diverse environments end up riding their horses very differently in each type of situation. This creates separate training regimens for indoor arenas, job orientated tasks, and outdoor trail riding. This can lead to a different horse and rider relationship from one minute to the next, with no consistency and support for the horse to build off of.

 Unaware – Some riders don’t realize with any consistency when their horse runs through a leg or against the rein aids, and this makes the rider inconsistent in their signals. In this situation, the rider has become a passenger at the mercy of the horse’s reactions rather than a supportive trainer ready to respond predictably but effectively to the horse.

 The best way to be a consistent yet responsive rider is to get in harmony with your horse through proper use of the basics. Whether you’re in an arena, out on a trail, roping a cow, or on a naval carrier, the basics are always the same. When you work through areas where your horse needs support, the basics can help you simplify and then refine all movements. This is the true sign of partnership between horse and rider: harmony in all circumstances. Where the basics are in place, the rider can feel the horse, and the horse willingly responds to the rider no matter if it is in an arena or outside of one. The outside factors become negligible because the horse and rider are in harmony and share a solid foundation of basics that never change. Ultimately, you should be able to videotape yourself riding your horse in many different locations and have it look as if you have simply photoshopped different backgrounds into the frame. Your horse should remain the same even in different locations.

 In my opinion, the greatest deficiency in the horse industry right now is the lack of education in the art of classical horsemanship. This is the horsemanship that promotes the consistency, harmony, and basics discussed above. If the riding you’re doing or lessons you’re taking are not based on classical riding of some sort, then I must say that you’re doing yourself and your horse a huge disservice. These are the tried and true methods, and when riding conditions are unpredictable or you are faced with an uncertain situation in the saddle, classical horsemanship and the strong foundation it provides you with will prove indispensable.