I love the term "games with horses." It illustrates the humans' desire to make the relationship more about learning and fun. Which is so much better than dictatorial leadership that looks a bit like slavery from the horse's perspective.
Inevitably, however, people overuse some games and underuse others. I thought I'd take a quick look at a dozen or so games that most people learn about and play with regularly and comment about which ones should take priority but don't, all in an effort to help you, the loving horse owner, be more effective than your neighbor who's stuck in normalsville.
hand yield games
to, into and through games
figure eight games
2 line driving games
connection games or liberty games
Of the list above, could you guess which is the most popular and overused game?
If you guessed circle games, you got it right. Most horse owners love to see their horse go around in a circle. Why? You might ask... Because it's cools to watch a horse in motion of course. Who doesn't love watching a horse move? But the sad truth is, the game is overused and abused.
I see people pushing a horse or holding a horse on a circle that isn't balanced, ultimately causing lameness or injury with repetitive stress on the joints. I see people beating the horse for breaking gait when the horse needs to slow down or shift the balance a bit. I see people circling without any reason to circle. In other words, when I ask if they know why they are doing circles, their answer is something like, "Because I was told to."
There is real value to circles, but let's be clear on the value. Value number one is... preparation for riding. I can tell if the horse is ready to ride or ready to buck just by saddling and asking for a walk, trot, canter on the circle. Another value is performing arts. There are professionals who make beautiful circles and demonstrate in front of crowds how kind, soft, and sensitive their horses are too simple commands.
I know some people think that maintaining gait is another value of the circle game. It isn't. In fact, it's the worst reason to do circles. If you want to teach maintaining gait, do it while riding or working on a really long line to avoid repetitive stress. It's okay if a horse chooses to maintain a trot or canter while circling, but it's a whole other problem when the owner forces the horse to maintain gait on a circle. I do in fact teach people how to help their horses increase the length of time they can canter on a circle but only up to about 2-4 circles maximum. There is no value past this point in ground work. If you really want maintaining gait to be one of your big plans, then do it in the saddle. On top of that... I know people who think I'm wrong here and practice maintaining gait on the ground, only to find out the horse still stinks at holding the gait while riding. "Hmm.. how interesting, right?"
So let's get away from overusing circles and talk about which game is the least used and least valued game by most horse owners and trainers and therefore gain insight into what the masters do.
Can you guess? I've been watching for these patterns for over two decades now across the entire industry and internationally. The pattern is the same in all novice and mediocre trainers. But master trainers know the answer and work on this game more than any other game.
The game is... Hand yields. Also, known as steady pressure yields. Also known as the porcupine game. Also known as halter or bit yields. I call them hand yields because they require the feel of steady hand to ask.
That's right. Most trainers say they play this game but when tested via video or live lesson, prove to play it very little. I see them play driving yields often enough to get the horse to respond to moving around without touching them but rarely do I see people practice hands on yielding games like backing ten steps on a light halter touch or sideways ten steps on the lightest touch on the shoulder, neck, and hips.
When I ask people to show me those games they often show that they understand the concept of hand yields but not the value. They can do it with what looks like forced, unpracticed responses, but not with precision, lightness and the ere of refinement, only possible with daily rehearsal.
The value is imperative to learn about. Hand yields, or steady pressure yields, or porcupine games lead to precision work in the upper levels. You can't do half passes or flying changes without sensitivity to steady pressure. You can't slow a horse just before a jump or speed up to shave that last second on off the clock. It's also essential for basic horsemanship. In other words, you can't stop a horse without steady pressure on the reins in the beginning. It's also imperative for simple ground tasks like leading and grazing. Nobody wants a horse to pull the rope out of your hand just to steal another bite of grass. Yet people allow this all the time because they don't know the value of hand yields.
To make it simple. Hand yields apply directly to riding activities in ways no other games do. Hand yields make you safer. Hand yields make so anyone can work around your horse including vets, farriers, old people, and children. Hand yields help with upper level maneuvers, just like we talked about. Hand yields even make horses braver too. That's right. Horses that listen to hand yields in the middle of crises are the ones that keep you alive. Imagine a horse that runs away and you can't stop him to tell him it's okay. If you practiced hand yields daily you could stop him and teach him to listen to you instead of the scary thing. With that trust in you, his confidence will bloom.
So, in short, hand yields are underused, undervalued games that master trainers don't skip over. They may be the single biggest difference between novice trainers and master trainers and their ability to make progress. Whereas circles are used sparingly with master trainers in an effort to prepare for riding, developing smooth transitions, and/or performing arts liberty work.
All other games have their own values too. We talk in depth about these games and many more games in the Horse Mastery Group on a weekly basis. Hopefully you can see where the best place to put your focus is. Would you commit to more hand yield games while on the ground and riding? Will you commit to fifty backup steps with the halter each day? How about fifty sideways steps? You don't have to do it all at once. You can still be rewarding and smart about it, but can you imagine how much better your horse will be because you do what the master trainers do each day.
Stay safe, make it fun for you and the horse, and practice the things that 80% of all horse owners and trainers fail to do.
I would love to hear from you about this topic. Comment below and tell me you're committed to more hand yield games.