Monthly Archives: February 2014


We are generally very good at looking after our horses physical needs.  Physical needs are very easy for us to relate to, because we share many of them: we require food, we visit the doctor and the dentist. What we often overlook though, something underrated but so incredibly essential to success, is attending to the mental needs of a horse.

Spud is a sharp looking paint horse I have had for several years now. He came to me as an untouched five year old. Many would have given up working with him.? What was required, though, was a different approach to training. This horse is exceptionally sensitive, both physically and mentally. Spud is a thinker, and becomes worried quickly if he doesn’t immediately understand what is being asked of him.

This can be frustrating for a trainer because many conventional techniques are ineffective. Spud has caused me to re-think the overused and often misunderstood adage.  Make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy.  If I make something difficult for Spud, I will lose his mind. When his mind is gone, it is not possible for him to learn. Instead, I set up scenarios where he has the opportunity to choose the right thing, and then make the right thing awesome.

Spud now has an air of confidence about him that he carries with him in the herd, or when he leaves the herd on his own, an action previously out of character for him. The changes in his comfort level are a direct result working with his mind with a focus on positive reinforcement. A horses body will follow his mind.

By allowing your horse the opportunity, with your guidance, to make decisions, to try, and to take pride in accomplishment, you can make a positive and lasting change in his life.

Your horse is an athlete.

No matter what discipline you ride, or equine activity you pursue, your horse is an athlete. Athletes work on building muscle groups, muscle memory, stamina, and precision movements.  They train so that motion and patterns become easier and natural.

Try (noun): An effort to accomplish something; an attempt.

In order to succeed an athlete requires try. We have all heard about a horse having try, too. This is a given;  the animal would have departed from evolutionary progression millennia ago if it did not have an instinctive desire to succeed.

Try is a product of motivation, which for a horse can take one of two instinctual forms:

  1. The herd instinct; the need to feel safe and content; the human as a herd leader.
  2. The flight instinct; the horse will be punished if he is wrong – the human as a predator.

How do we capitalize on that?
Spud and Scott Phillips riding Ty near Elbow Falls. Phillips rode Ty up and Spud down, which was a new experience for Spud and a mental training exercise to set up a situation for success. Needless to say, mountain riding can build an athlete.  Spud had been glued to Ty all the time, so the ride down, with Ty beside made it mentally easier and changed the dynamics for a positive relationship. Ty is also a success story, coming back after an accident in which he broke his neck.  

Photo credit: Brenda Murdock


Freedom from Fear

In addition to a social structure, companionship and a full belly, a prey animal requires freedom from fear. Predators are masters of creating fear. A lion will create fear by its presence, which will cause the herd to scatter. A human can create fear in a horse, causing his mind to scatter.

A horse that is not comfortable, or is in a state of fear, is obvious to pick out. He’s twitchy.  His eyes are wide, his head is up. Too often you’ll hear the rider say, My horse is misbehaving  or My horse is being such a freak today!   Too often in these cases the reaction of the rider is to step up the physical: restrain the horse. Pull harder, kick more.

Consider this: The only thing a horse can do is be a horse. The actions and responses of a horse are based on his degree of contentment, external influences and his flight instinct. The term misbehaviour is a word that a human applies to a horse when the human does not, or chooses not to, understand why the horse is doing what it is. It is difficult for us to understand how a horse thinks because their mind is so different from ours. Applying human psychology concepts is an attempt for us to explain a horses actions by personifying the horse.

It doesn’t work.

It is generally accepted in today’s society that negative reinforcement should not be employed as a teaching aid.  Teachers no longer whack students with rulers when they don’t get it.

If a horse tries and does not understand, it is our responsibility to analyze what happened and try another way, which in almost every case means breaking that thing into smaller pieces, finding success in each piece, and then putting the pieces together.

We have the ability to show a horse a place where there is no fear. When the horse is aware that the rider can create that place for him, he will seek it. He will have try. To achieve this, we require time and patience. We need to understand that when something is not working, it is because we are asking too much, asking incorrectly, confusing the horse, or causing the horse to be afraid of us and react out of fear which is their natural instinct.

Freedom from fear, however, is more of a goal than a motivator. If we remove fear and create a place of contentment, we encourage a constructive learning environment. So how can we motivate a horse?

Training for Greatness

I mentioned that horses are athletes. They know what it feels like to succeed; what it feels like to be right.

It is said that a horse can tell when you’re nervous. Their ability to detect emotional state is a survival instinct.  When one horse senses danger, the other horses in the herd will pick up on it right away. If a horse can sense when you’re nervous, he can sense your other emotional states as well. Use this ability to your advantage.

Remember the old Kellogg mascot, Tony the Tiger ? He says, with a big smile and a thumbs up, “I feel GRRRRREAT!” Imagine your horse feeling great.  If you honestly feel proud of your horse, proud of what he has accomplished, I guarantee you that he will pick up on that.

We need to let him revel in that moment: remove all pressure and let him be. I’m not suggesting that you stop, get off and pet him. Instead, allow him to continue what you asked him to do without your involvement for a while. That is how he knows he got it right.  After that, praise him. Reward him for it. Make an effort to feel that success with him. Through this constructive use of positive feedback, augmented with property timed release and praise, a horse will learn to seek that sweet spot; the place where he can carry himself without your assistance.

That feeling of mutual success and pride in accomplishment is what I call greatness.

I’m not referring to winning a show here; this could be something as simple as your horse first shifting his weight backwards when you’re teaching back-up.  It’s that moment when you want to shout out to the world, YES! We did it!  This is an addictive feeling, not only for you, but for the horse.


Greatness paves the road to confidence. Confidence opens the door to further learning.

By striving for that feeling of greatness with my horse, and sharing it with him, I’m guaranteed something: the horse will want to try for me.  He will try for me because he is seeking the mental reward, he knows I can give him.

And wow, does that ever open up the door to learning and possibilities.

When you ride, train or compete with your horse, keep this in the back of your mind: I will make the positive possible; I will strive for that feeling of greatness. You have accomplished your goal when the horse understands that you are the most rewarding thing in his life.

Foundation Horse Training

Training for the High Lonesome

To really understand the value of a good mountain horse, I need to paint you a picture. Life in the backcountry is something many people will not experience and therefore aren’t able to understand. For those of you who have been there, you know.

You are miles away from the nearest city (many times hours in the saddle just to get to your vehicle only to have to drive several hours to get near to civilization, let alone help) which can be torture when you or your horse is injured; many times you don’t see another human being for days; you are faced with a great variety of terrain from flat open meadows to steep rocky cliffs, brush encrusted forest, or horse-burying bog; you encounter many different species of wildlife, from deer and elk, to moose, bear and cougars; and you are at the mercy of mother nature 24/7, who, like a woman, likes to change her mind very frequently.

So…life in the mountains can be a matter of life or death. Contrary then, to popular belief, a mountain horse is not ‘just a trail horse.’  By true definition a mountain horse is much more remarkable than this.  A good mountain horse needs to be able to think. We call it ‘creating the thinking horse.’  He must be able to go against his instinctual desire to flee in the face of danger and to put total trust in his rider/companion, as well as his own abilities, regardless of the circumstances.

pack string

Horses in packstring must learn how to work together.

Also contrary to popular belief, the ‘pack horse’ may be your most important mount when in the wilderness, even over your riding horse. You can walk or hike to get where you’re going, but having an animal to carry all your gear through a myriad of terrain without breaking a thing, is sure a luxury!  One can survive days on only water, but food is sure nice! And so is clean clothes, lodging, and a sleeping bag!  If a packhorse goes lame or is injured, you may be sitting in camp for days, immobilized. So it is just as important that a pack horse is able to ‘think’ and not do something to jeopardize injury to himself, his teammates, or you.

Training a mountain horse begins from the ground up. Forming a trusting partnership doesn’t start once you get on their back. This is the least important aspect of training for me because by the time I get on their backs to ride, it is one of the easiest things I do. Those horses already know my body language and voice cues and have established trust and respect for me. Our first ride is usually just to get on and walk away.  The most important aspects of training happen before this. Just as a child’s initial learning is so crucial between 0 and 5 years, so is a horse’s first steps of training laying the foundation for everything that is to come.

Her horse, Stella, helps Brenda hang a highline in the backcountry.

Her horse, Stella, helps Brenda hang a highline in the backcountry.

Some key aspects to laying a good foundation are:


Developing a good mountain horse takes time. It’s not just about going riding or being on its back, it’s about spending time.


Establishing body language that you and your horse can understand. Understanding how a horse thinks and behaves is important. You need to be able to communicate clearly with your horse.

kelvin in roundpen

A clinic participant develops trust, respect and communication in the round pen.

Voice Commands

Especially in the backcountry, being able to communicate verbally to your horse is very important. Being on the side of a steep cliff on a nervous horse and calming him with your voice, or having a pack string of 11 horses and being able to talk to the 9th one in line is pretty cool!   It can also be a matter of life or death!


Decide who is Alpha. YOU need to be a leader to your horse.  A confident, clear and fair leader is someone that your horse is going to want to follow.  Being in a situation or terrain that is unfamiliar or even scary to the horse, the horse needs to look to you for direction instead of going back to his natural instinct to flee.

Respect and Trust

Create an environment for mutual respect and trust. Every situation you encounter will go back to …does your horse respect and trust you. Being able to communicated clearly to your horse and showing him/her that you are a responsible leader is the start of a good relationship.


Learning to work as an individual and as a team. A mountain horse must develop his skills operating on his own as well as be very aware of what’s going on around him.  Stimulate!

Introducing your horse to new things and situations and leading them through them safely and calmly will increase your horse’s confidence in himself and you.

A horse gets used to camp life.

A horse gets used to camp life.

In the backcountry we rely on our horses for survival as much as they rely on us. It is truly a unique partnership that is not forged elsewhere. Because of the exposure to so many different elements and experiences a true mountain horse is going to be a good, reliable mount whatever discipline you go into. With the phenomenal foundation that a mountain horse receives, their mind is balanced and they easily adapt to new surroundings, situations and requirements.

Article written by Brenda Murdock and featured in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 edition of the Canadian Cowboy Magazine.

Geocaching events help support STARS

 Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

It’s no mystery for Brenda Murdoch. The New Norway area resident gets excited to be involved in fundraising for STARS.

Brenda combines her love for horses, the mystery of finding objects and raising money for charity by geo-caching in Alberta’s back country.

“It is a fun way to raise funds for STARS. We all know of someone in the community that has benefitted from the service,” said Brenda. “We ride horses in the back country where there is little or no access to hospitals, so it is double important for us to have a service like STARS come out when accidents happen.”

Geo-caching is not limited to geography because stations are set up throughout Alberta.

“It’s not limited by time. We hold a special one-day event, but people can complete the tasks from spring to fall. We hold a fundraising event in each province, but not everyone can attend that day,” continued Brenda. “It’s one big blanket fundraiser for Alberta.”

Geo-caches are hidden in back country spots and riders find them with their horses and GPS trackers. Each rider looks for sponsors, or has a web site on which people can donate. Brenda raised the sixth highest amount this summer.

New Norway resident, Brenda Murdock, equine geocaching with her horse in the mountains west of Longview, AB.

New Norway resident, Brenda Murdock, equine geocaching with her horse in the mountains west of Longview, AB.

“You can check how active each rider is and read their stories on experiences they have had,” said Brenda. “This is the first year we have had geo-caches all over Alberta. We have excellent riding spots along the Battle River, so it would be nice to have more local riders get involved. All you need is a computer, horse, GPS and a truck and trailer. You can take a camera and take pictures and then write about your adventures.”

Completing the tasks can be done by any level of riders.

“It’s fun and full of adventure. It is a new way to explore Alberta and go places you normally wouldn’t go,” said Brenda.

Every summer, Amazing Backcountry hosts The ABC Race for STARS, a horseback geo-caching event held throughout western Canada. Competing riders raise money for STARS Air Ambulance through pledges made online. In 2013, 194 donations were received amounting to $17,850. Over two years the total is $37,150.

“We credit everyone with the success of our organization not only in this province, but also as we usher in a new era of STARS in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. STARS has come a long way since our humble beginnings in 1985, but our main focus is still the same – it’s about the patient,” she added.

Amazing Backcountry riders has over 120 members throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan who participated in the STARS fundraiser. Top money earners for STARS were Mike Harink of Wetaskiwin, Alison Mannix of Rimbey, Scott Phillips of Spruceview, Kathy Wheeler of Calgary, Nicole Darling of Priddis and Brenda Murdock of New Norway.

“In conjunction with STARS, we look forward to expanding the ABC Race for STARS further across the western provinces and including even more riders,” said Brenda.

Amazing Backcountry is an equine geo-caching activity where horseback enthusiasts around the world hide and locate geocaches using their GPS and the Amazing Backcountry website. All caches are tracked online and each contains a log book and items left for trade between riders. There are currently 64 caches placed on 37 different trails throughout Western Canada.

If you would like to be involved in the 2014 Amazing Backcountry Race for STARS by sponsoring, as a rider, or need or more information visit or Brenda can also be reached at 403-651-6142.