The Failed Art of Riding a Horse Through a Problem


I find that typically when someone has an issue with a horse and I ask how they deal with it, the answer is usually they “ride them through it” or “work through it”, etc.  This is one of the biggest horsemanship mistakes I work with these days. “Working through” problems will usually come to a head when the horse will finally out maneuver you with his speed, strength or intelligence.

The real source is usually a lack of education, discomfort or confusion on the horses’ side. The human has a clear understanding of what they want the horse to do but often it is not clearly understood by the horse. My way of helping people understand the horses’ perspective is an example when teaching someone a skill. Let’s say a child is learning addition. You ask the child “what is 2+2?” The child hesitates and then says the answer is 3. Most people will tell the child, “No, that’s not right, the answer is 4.” What usually happens next is they ask another question like “what is 2+3?” Again you don’t get a right answer, you tell the child the correct answer and then you ask another question. This type of work, doesn’t teach the child how to do math, in fact, it teaches a child that he’s wrong a lot of the time. When they feel like they are wrong a lot, they lose confidence in their ability to do math. A better approach is to go back and teach the child how to add, using props so he can use his basic skill of counting for example. Teach them how to solve their own problems by giving them the tools they need.

Working with horses is very similar. We have goals for our horses, we want them to usually do a specific discipline and we don’t have a lot of extra time to spend. So we get on our horse and work on our event that we want to do. When we first start riding the horse we work on some basics, when they do the basic thing, most people do the next basic thing. But the question is does your horse know how to do the thing you want him to do, or are you just giving him the answer so you can go to the next thing? Let’s break down steering at the stands still. Does your horse know that when you lightly pick up on the left rein that he should bend to the left without hesitation or resistance? Can he repeat the behavior at any time without hesitation? If not, chances are, you are giving him the answer when he is wrong rather than working on the question until he can’t get it wrong.

My favorite saying is “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” When you practice with your horse and have to give him answers, he will not be confident, comfortable or understanding of your requests. Furthermore, if you then ask him a harder question, he will feel more insecure, uncomfortable and confused than he did on the “easier” question. But if you “take the time it takes, it takes less time” approach, the horse will know exactly what you want, when you want it, and will feel confident and understanding of what is expected of him. A confident horse is more likely to put out extra effort because he knows he gets rewarded for trying.

So what does giving a horse answers look like? When a horse is acting out in fear, frustration, anxiety, aggression, worry, etc they tend to have habits of bucking, rearing, bolting, spooking, balking, jigging, etc when you work with them. Most horses that have problematic behaviors are really just showing symptoms of not being educated well enough. When we take the time it takes, the horse will know what you want and be willing to do what you ask. Comes down to making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult without being passive or abusive towards the horse.

Next time you work with your horse, take note of any undesirable behavior. If your horse is distracted or spooky when you first get on him, he’s telling you he needs to have further education. If every day, you have to lunge your horse to get the fresh off him, he’s telling you he’s missing something. If your horse is lazy or rushes under saddle, he’s telling you he needs some work to fix that. Ultimately, a well-trained horse is a balanced horse. A horse that is responsive to your aids but relaxed about the job you are doing. You can ask him to work in lots of environments without needing to do remedial work. By skipping the little signs your horse gives you, you are giving up so many opportunities to educate them better. Good horsemanship is a journey not a race, there is not finish line because you can always improve on yourself and your horse(s).

Respect Is Non-Transferable

Respect is a word that is thrown out there when it comes to relationships. We don’t interact the exact same way with everybody we encounter. Some people we develop a high level of trust and respect and others we may be polite but have little to no trust or respect for them. We develop our respect for someone by seeing, hearing, and interacting with them in a fair, consistent and generally positive fashion. We lack respect for those who are dishonest, flaky, unpredictable, etc.

Working with horses works exactly the same way. I find there are two parts to working with horses. First is the Respect and trust aspect, second is the educational aspect. For me, training a horse is about mentally and physically educating the horse. Mentally, the horse needs to be trained how to learn. The horse needs to have that respect and the trust with the person in order to feel safe and comfortable with the education process. Skipping the mental training can create some major behavioral challenges down the road where a horse is so overwhelmed, frustrated, shut down, etc. that they will do whatever it takes to escape.

The respect and trust of a horse is built through lots of little interactions. Every time you interact with a horse you are either training him to have good habits or you are teaching him to have bad habits. If we are consistent in our behaviors, whether good or bad, our horses will reflect out habits. There is a saying that horses are a mirror to our soul. Calm cowboys have calm horses and nervous cowboys have nervous horses. The more we learn to recognize our behavior in our horses behavior, the better the relationship becomes.

The most challenging part for me when training horses for other people, isn’t the horse problems and it isn’t the people problems, its the issue of getting the owner and the horse to be on the same page. Most problem behaviors in horses stem from poor owner handling. The owner may allow a horse whether consciously or unconsciously, to behave poorly thus resulting in a build up over time.

When working with a horse, my first goal is to work on teaching the horse how to learn, how to cope with little bits of stress and basically how to think rationally rather than irrationally. Its a process of keeping little things from sliding by. For example, a horse that wants to stand really close to you or push on you while leading, that is a behavior that when left unchecked can result in an insecure, spooky, distracted, unwilling and generally unsafe horse.

Another very important thing I want to stress is learning how to communicate with a horse. The primary means of training is through the use of negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is not a negative thing, it simply means that you apply pressure to ask a horse to do something and release the pressure when he has done what you like. For example, when you want to horse to turn right, you pick up on the right rein, when the horse turns you release the rein. A lot of bad habits are formed from doing the opposite. For example, when a horse doesn’t want to lead, he stands and locks up, a lot of people want to get in a tug of war match with a horse. This results in the person getting tired and quitting the tug of war before the horse moved forward. This little interaction taught the horse that if he just stands there, the pressure will eventually go away. Instead, keep tension on the rope and walk off to the side pulling the horse off balance a little and he walks forward, and you can then release the pressure.

In summary, its very important that we learn how to effectively work with our horses. Trainers can educate the horse, rehabilitate problem behaviors, but its your job to earn and maintain the respect of your horse when work with it. It about being aware of every interaction and making sure you aren’t giving your horse mixed signals of expectations. Horses know when you know, and they know when you don’t know based on how well you can communicate with them. If your communication skills are poor, your horse won’t be able to understand you and he will run the show.

My Thoughts On Treats and Hand Feeding

Every time you interact with your horse, you are teaching him how to behave. The saying, “what you allow, will continue” is so very, very true. It doesn’t matter what you do with your horse, if you allow a behavior either consciously or unconsciously, it will continue. If you allow a horse to be distracted, they will continue to be distracted. If you allow a horse to push you around, they will continue to push you around. If you allow a horse to ignore your requests under saddle, that will continue.

I see a lot of people who love to give their horses treats. I’m not against treats, I have bags full of treats in my tackroom and trailer, what I am against is how people give treats. I look at treats like money. If everytime I see someone I hand them $5, they will get to liking me really quickly. They will look forward to seeing me because they get money! But what will start to happen, is they will expect that they get money from you every time. Pretty soon, the novelty of the $5 is no longer good enough, so they will want $10. Long story short, they become greedy for money and if they don’t get it, they become rude and resentful really quickly.

But, money is not the evil. The evil is the way you give the money. If you changed how you gave money, you will soon get a different result. If instead you gave someone money for their efforts, say a hard days work, a good deed, or in appreciation of their efforts toward you, now you have rewarded good behavior. Now, you have people motivated to do something good to get a reward.

Horses operate just the same. So many people give their horses treats without regard to what they are rewarding. Initially the horse may be polite about the cookie you gave, but over time develops behavior that is unbecoming. A horse might nudge you and you give him a treat because he’s “cute”. A horse might paw the ground, and you give him a treat because he “really wants a cookie”.

Food rewards are the best reward with positive reinforcement training, the most common form is clicker training. Every time you give a piece of food, you are rewarding the behavior prior to giving the food. Now instead of giving food when your horse is being “cute”, give him some food when he’s being polite and not begging. Give your horse a treat when he’s done a great job doing a particular task. Or, if you really want to give a treat, put it in his bucket in his stall.

In summary, the food, just like money is not the problem. The problem is using the food to reward undesirable behavior. Remember, what you allow and reward will continue.

Foundation vs. Specialization

What is the difference between foundation and specialization? In our world, the foundation would be the education you receive from kindergarten to High school and specialization would be your college education up to the career you pursue. In the horse world, the foundation would be a horses’ basic education on the ground as well as ridden. The specialization would be the event the horse is trained to do, for example, cutting, reining, jumping, dressage, trail, pleasure, etc. The most common issue in the horse world is putting the specialization before the foundation.

A good foundation, in my opinion, would be a horse that is mentally and emotionally balanced first, then educated with the basics second. I use groundwork to achieve the mental and emotional balance. A horse that is scared, nervous, pushy, disrespectful, defensive, etc. will not be balanced and continuing the education without fixing the balance issue will result in a roadblock down the road also known as a “problem horse”. The groundwork serves to get a basic handle on a horse. When you have control of speed, direction and redirection you gain the horses respect as well as their trust. To balance a horse, you must balance 2 things, your sensitizing and desensitizing. You want a horse that is responsive and relaxed. Initially, when you get them responsive you see anxiety. Then you desensitize to relive the anxiety, but then the horse will lose the responsiveness. Therefore, lots of transitions are required to achieve a balance of responsive and relaxed.

The ability to get a horse responsive and relaxed will then translate to the ridden work. The basics can then be started under saddle. The same principles are applied when starting the ridden work, the horse must be responsive and relaxed. To me, the basics under saddle would be a horse that can bend laterally off slight pressure from the reins. They should move forward at all 3 gaits, walk, trot and canter. The horse should have the relaxation of being on a loose rein while the responsiveness to maintain the desired gait. The horse should be able to softly and responsively yield his hindquarters and forequarters. The horse should be able to back up softly with some energy in his feet. With these tools, now you can go on to teach a horse the job he needs to do. All things we need horses to do revolve around those basics. These are the tools that ultimately build your house.

Most problem horses are problematic because they are missing pieces to their foundation. When I get a “problem horse” to work with, I don’t address the problem, I go back and figure out what the horse needs to complete the foundation. Most of the time, its the majority of the foundation that needs to be laid down, and along the way you have to replace a bad habit with a new “good habit”. Rehabilitating a problem horse, typically takes more time and effort but it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Its our job to teach the horse in the way the horse understands rather than teaching the horse the way we understand. Once you have the tools and the understanding in how horses tick, you can achieve great things!

Teaching Vs. Training

The majority of my work is focused on teaching people skills to be better horseman.  Part of the horse training process is teaching the owner to interact with their horse that will encourage the good skills and behavior to continue. I help people improve their horsemanship skills as well as their life skills.  I had a parent make a comment the other day that had me really thinking about how I approach training horses vs. teaching people. To my surprise, it really didn’t differ too much.

At the start of every training session with the horses, I have an exercise I do where essentially I ask “where do you want to go today?” In the beginning, the horses are drawn to the barn, the other horses, the gate, basically anywhere “work” usually isn’t involved. That is where we start our work for the day. Doing this over and over, the horses learn to be content wherever we go to do our work for the day. I started using this same psychology working with kids. Some children are quiet, timid, lazy or don’t like a lot of attention initially. Those kids tend to “rather go” on a trail ride. So for those kids, I adapt the lesson I want to teach while on a trail ride. For other kids that want to do the cool stuff, they usually would rather be in the arena because that where you get to go fast!

I found that asking kids where they want to go, especially the quiet, shy kids, they start to get confident about interacting with me and then begin to become confident with receiving instruction. They build their skills and abilities without feeling pressured to learn. So, one of the parents stayed a little longer than usual for her child’s lesson. Every time, after the initial “hi, how are you? How’s school, etc.?” I ask them what they want to do today. The parent said “its your job to tell them what you are doing today, not the child’s.” And yes, on the surface, it is my job to provide the structure and deliver information, but this concept goes deeper than that.

Working with problem horses, I have found that the more you make the horse do what you want to do, the more the horse will tend to protest and “behave badly”. Ray Hunt said “First you go with them, then they go with you, then you go together.” First I go with the person/horse, then I provide the instruction, then we can work together without resentment or fear and actually enjoy the learning process. Until the horse or person can be happy working in anyplace, I ask the question every time “where do you want to go”.


Having A Plan

One of my mentors (Warwick Schiller) has a saying “Stick To The Damn Plan” which he abbreviates STTDP. He emphasizes the importance of perfecting basics and taking as long as it takes. He tells a story about an intern who was a dancer. She shared with him that in the dancing world, beginners want to take intermediate lessons, intermediate dancers want to take advanced lessons, and advanced dancers want to take beginning lessons. We were talking one day while he was helping me with one of my horses and he told me I’d reached the equivalent of a black belt. “Huh?” I’m not a black belt I thought, I’m a long ways away from being good at this stuff. That was when he said, “just because you are a black belt, doesn’t mean you are done learning or practicing, it means that you are ready to accept that you need to work on perfecting your basics.” Those words made a huge impact on how I saw myself and what I’m doing with my horses. I realized that I am the advanced seeking the basic lessons. All this time, I wanted to reach the top and do the fun stuff that everyone else was doing. But when you do the advanced stuff without the basics being perfect, eventually you and your horse start to unravel and fall apart. The mare I was seeking help on, could do a lot of things poorly. He had me start from the beginning and fix each piece, one at a time. Initially I thought it was going to take forever to fix the problems I created, but to my surprise it took a fraction of the time. I spent a few months doing nothing but simple, basic exercises. He (Warwick) hadn’t seen my horse in a few months and when I returned for the next piece of the puzzle, it took him a few minutes to recognize the horse. Her attitude, body and athleticism changed so dramatically that he didn’t recognize her! With the basics being pretty good, we were now working on more advanced maneuvers with very little struggle. I had my doubts that going slow would be faster, I no longer doubt going slow!