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April 02, 2019 14 Comments
This common misconception comes from a very basic and old idea that horses are prey animals and because of that fact, they cannot tolerate the peering eyes of a predator. Many novice trainers and some more advanced trainers stick to this principle. But they are misguided. You're only a predator if you intend to eat what you're looking at. Horses can easily tell the difference between a predator looking to eat and predator looking in curiosity and wonder. Horses do, however, struggle to understand the intention of a human who hides his eyes. When you hide your gaze, you often look sneaky or suspicious. Perhaps with an aggressive dog, this could be a good strategy, but with a horse, it can have a negative effect. It doesn't always have a negative effect, but it can, and that's something to be aware of.
There is one exception to the "don't look your horse in the eye" theory: That exception is when you encounter an extremely fearful and reserved horse for the very first time. It's useful to drop your gaze and drop your energy in those first few moments, to show absolutely no body language that could be misinterpreted as predatorial. But after just a few short moments, you can lift your gaze and begin to build a true bond with curiosity and wonder emanating from your heart, mind, and eyes. I've never met a horse I couldn't look in the eye and share my heart within a few short moments and I've met tens of thousands of horses now. It's your intention that matters, not your eyes, ears, mouth, arms or feet.
With every rule, there is an exception, so there may very well be times where squeezing your heels against your horse isn't enough and you will need to kick your horse to get a response. That exception usually exists in the presence of an emergency, like when a horse gets stuck in the middle of the road when a car is approaching. But in almost every other instance you shouldn't kick to go. Simply because it's not elegant! Mastery horsemanship uses techniques that are elegant.
Training a horse to go from a simple, soft, smooth squeeze off your heels, or even calf muscle is much more elegant. Horses learn to do anything you repeat and reward, so you get to decide what signals you want to use to ask to go. Kicking to go, is a signal, yes, but it's not desirable for the horse, or anyone watching you ride. To prove this point I want you to watch any old Western movie, where the actor kicks the horse into motion, then compare that to the movie Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck. Watch how he asks his horse to go. Tom hired and was trained by a master for that movie. I happen to know because that master (Pat Parelli) was my own teacher for nearly fifteen years. I had the good fortune to work and live with Pat and Linda for many years and they will agree. Master trainer don't train their horse to go by kicking them.
The same principle applies here. We've been taught a lie that in order to stop your horse you should pull on the reins. In reality, you do have to pull on the reins in the beginning, especially if you're training young horses, but if you have mastery in mind, you'll discover there are other, more elegant ways to stop your horse. My horse, for instance, will stop when I slow my breathing and sink slightly in the saddle. Watch a reining performance trainer slide to a stop from a full gallop without ever lifting the reins. It's beautiful. It's elegant. It's mastery. You can teach your horse to stop without pulling on the reins too. In fact, you get to decide which signal to use, because any signal will work. Believe it or not, kicking your horse can be a signal to get your horse to stop. I wouldn't recommend it, because it's counter-intuitive and not very elegant, but any signal supported and rewarded and repeated will become part of your intimate language between you and your horse.
Remember earlier, when I said there is always an exception to the rule... that principle still holds true. There may be times where you have to show your horse who's in charge, especially in safety situations. But this concept of bossiness, in isolation, is a big fat lie because you also must bond with your horse and show him that you care more about his experience than anybody else on the planet.
I don't even like the boss analogy when it comes to leadership. In my book, "Leadership and Horses" I talk a lot about the models we use to describe our interactions with horses. My favorite model is the teacher-student/model or the parent/child model. These describe a loving, supportive, growth-oriented mode of learning and leadership rather than a consequence and pressure model dictated by most boss/employee models.
It's okay to ride with a bit. But to think you must have a bit to ride isn't accurate thinking... it's old, militant thinking. In fact, the reason bits were even invented in the first place, was to ensure any novice could get on a horse and march into war with more control. Imagine being a general of war in centuries gone, and imagine putting a dozen greenhorn riders on top of poorly trained horses that didn't wear bridles, and you'll be able to follow the reasoning of horses needing bits. But like all things related to horsemanship, there are basic rules and more advanced rules. The more advanced, masterful trainers know that you don't need a bit to communicate with a horse. We don't need to go to war on horseback anymore, so you've got more time to bond and connect and lead your horse to understand more elegant, subtle signals. Look on youtube, type in the phrase, "bridleless riding" and discover hundreds of videos (some good, some not as good) of people riding their horse without a bit. When you watch other people... pay attention to elegance and harmony. Those are the signals of mastery.
This too is a lie. You don't have to use a bit, it's true, but to say that bits are bad is also an imbalanced perspective, typical of natural trainers. Humans are strange creatures. Once we learn one thing we tend to see only that one thing and everything else is bad or stupid. Then one day, we learn the other thing wasn't so bad and we switch sides completely. I see this every day. I see traditional riders enter the natural horsemanship industry and decide to throw away all their previous experiences as unhealthy or bad. There is much to learn from tradition and it would be silly to throw the "baby out with the bathwater," so to speak.
Bits have value. I don't like them, I usually don't use them, but that doesn't mean they don't have value. High-performance trainers can use the bit as a tool to help balance a horse in a complicated maneuver, then over time wean the horse off that tool. Low-performance riders can also benefit from a bit. It can make them feel safer in the beginning, then over time, they can learn more advanced training modes. The idea behind this paragraph is that adopting a concept as a pure truth can be detrimental to progress and communication. The key is to stay open to experience and ask yourself why someone would use a certain tool without being judgmental about that someone or about that tool.
In a recent post (one thing you should never do with horses) I describe how horses have the brain (cognitive awareness and emotional fortitude) of a four-year-old human child. It's an agile brain that adapts quickly to the environment. It's a brain created to perceive threats and avoid them, but the concentration level of the horse's brain is very similar to a young child. Puzzles, detailed memory challenges, and processes often get lost in the framework of "preservation first" thinking. Therefore, if you've ever heard anyone say, "My horse knows this already." What they really mean to say is, "My horse has done this already." But that doesn't mean the horse actually remembers the details of the exercise, of the process in which something should happen next according to certain signals.
Whenever I hear someone say, "My horse knows this," I often respond by asking them to instantly answer this question: what does 15 X 8 equal? If they don't answer immediately I jokingly chastise them for not remembering something they most certainly encountered at some point in their lifetime, and then I ask for forgiveness because nobody likes to be put on the spot like that. Not even horses!
Remember to give your horse some time to process details, even if they've been there before. Remember their distraction levels can be high and even though it's not new to you, there may be some new smell or small sound that is triggering thoughts that prevent positive responses. Don't add to the problem by assuming your horse knows what to do, which only leads to frustration and poor leadership.
That's like saying parenting requires a professional. Trust me, once you start, you get professional pretty quick. I've now helped thousands of students realize their dreams without sending their horse to a trainer. This is an important piece to my business and also my life vision. Important to my business because much of my business is teaching people to train their own horses rather than send the horse off to a trainer for sixty days.
I've successfully helped people of all ages and physical ability, even folks in their seventies, to train their own horses with my home study and mastery coaching courses.
This work is also important to my life vision because I believe that an amazing leadership lesson can be learned from taking on the challenge of horse training. My vision is to help horses experience a great life in the presence of humans but it's also to help people become the best version of themselves no matter what they choose to do in life.
Horses are a great vehicle for learning and testing your own courage, control, discipline, kindness, communication and more. I believe everyone who owns a horse should do all the training long term themselves, even if that means postponing riding down the trail for a while. In the short term, I think it's smart to learn from a pro, take lessons, make sure you're safe, learn new skills, and become more able to handle your horse, but the long term training should always be you!
This may be the biggest one of all the lies. Horses do in fact feel and experience every human emotion. They feel sad, they fear loss, they feel pain, they feel hungry, they feel tension when they need to pee but there isn't time, they feel excited and happy, and playful. They feel anger and resentment. They feel everything! True master trainers know this. Science has proven that horses have the emotional and cognitive awareness of a four-year-old human child. That child may not know how to qualify or name an emotion, but you can bet your boots he or she feels each and every emotion in the spectrum. Some emotions come and go quickly, like a flash of anger, but others linger based on circumstantial pressures.
Knowing that horses feel all our emotions can sometimes discourage people from riding horses, but it doesn't have to. Horses can still benefit from the exercise and stimulus we offer them because one emotion they also feel is boredom. Imagine being stuck in a small cage as a four-year-old child. You would feel bored pretty quickly. Master trainers work with the horse's emotion to neutralize negative emotions and guide the horse to calmer, happier emotions. It makes the journey exciting and enriching for both horses and humans when the trainer realizes how horses do in fact feel everything.
This is only partly a lie. For lots of horses, they absolutely dislike being ridden and only comply because there is no other option. This can be backed up with sound observational science. But for the special few horses who are lucky enough to have a great friend, leader, and trainer, like you...they can actually learn to love being ridden. This requires a level of mastery only a few people know about but you now have an opportunity to learn about it, starting now! Take a chance with me and look at the Horse Mastery Group. It's free to look and it will change your horse's life!
September 16, 2022
I’m 75. Am I too old to get a horse. I’ve wanted one all my life.
September 11, 2022
Thank you so much for your comments on bits. I read that bits contribute to the formation of ulcers since something in a horse’s mouth causes the stomach to produce acid in preparation for the food that it expects due to the stimulation in the mouth. There was also a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour that found that the heart rate and heart rate variability of horses were higher for those in a bitted bridle compared with those wearing a bitless bridle. It’s great to see more horsemen saying that bits aren’t necessary.
August 08, 2022
What about looking gift horses in the mouth?
August 07, 2022
I have been riding since i was 8 and your article was so insightful especially looking back on all the wonderful horses I’ve ridden and interacted with.
July 11, 2022
I have been riding for year 1 1/2 now, and the horse I ride (her name is Flash) I can tell loves to be with me and ride with me. She does have asthma, so sometimes in the summer I can’t ride her, but riding her is awesome, I can tell she loves me because when I head into her pasture sometimes I don’t even need to call her name to come to me, she is am amazing horse, and this artical or very intresting. But I think another thing that people believe is that you need to slap the reins to the horse horse moving, and seen in cartoons, which probably is a way, but not how really anybody does it.
April 30, 2022
Great article! I have been doing horseback riding for quite a while now and it is awesome to read these articles about facts that are true or false. I really appreciate this article! Thanks for writing it! Loved reading it!
November 24, 2019
Wonderful wisdom on horses’ psyche and how they can relate to us and our human nature. They are truly majestic creatures . My wife had a horse many years ago and he was loved and she had a bond with him that was invisible. I wrote poems about her and her horse “Little King”.
April 10, 2019
You find new ways to say things we kind of already know and make them even more clear.
April 04, 2019
Thanks for the succinct, insightful recap of the true and false overview of horses and horse training! You are doing such a great service to horses and horse lovers all over the globe! xo
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May 30, 2023 1 Comment
May 23, 2023
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February 17, 2023
This was my first opportunity to read your writings. Amazing! I haven’t had the pleasure of a horse’s attention in many years & I constantly thinking about what I’m missing. I was very very young when introduced to the most amazing world of horses. I fell in love immediately. All I wanted to do was pet them, groom them, nap with them, feed them & eat with them & ride if they were so inclined. My thoughts at the age of 5 were “be at one with the horse”. They get you. They know your intentions & pure worship of them. Just treat them like you would want to be treated & there will never be any issues. I am 61 now & my daughter just moved to a place where the pasture attached to her property is owned by someone else who has 2 horses. I have never been so excited to once again get to touch & love on a horse. Being able in life to be around a horse should happen for everyone. They are so much like dogs ( just bigger) in their devotion & love & playfulness. Of course I had not been around dogs much until I was an adult. Horses were my “man’s best friend”. And they are. Thank you for who you are & what you do for so many!