Monthly Archives: May 2016

Horses and At-Risk Youth

For the past several months I’ve had a great opportunity: working with a group of teenagers; showing them how to train, work with and ride their horses at a ranch operated by the Poteet family in west-central Alberta.

at risk youth

Brielle Poteet works her horse.

This is a great group of kids who enjoy having fun and learning with horses. The work that I’m doing is no different than I teach in my clinics or individual lessons. We focus on clear and concise leadership, learning the language of the horse and then having fun with our equine partners though the connection that we build.

Coralee Poteet explains their operation and discusses why they chose to integrate horses into their program. “We are a specialized foster home working with at-risk youth. We run a live-in program that works with teenage girls to give them the foundation for a healthy life. We teach life skills, self-care, healthy social patterns and help each person work through family of origin behaviour patterns and belief systems so that they can form their own healthy style of living.

at risk youth

Learning the basics of space and energy.

Originally we chose horses because we were working with a number of kids with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Kids with RAD have trouble forming attachments and maintaining even superficial relationships; however, there have been many studies done showing that if a child with RAD can form a connection with a horse they can then use that connection as a bridge to form attachments with people.”

Well these girls are certainly forming connections with horses. What I’ve witnessed in the past few months is that they’re also growing in other ways: developing leadership and experiencing pride in their accomplishments with the horses. A few students tended to hide within themselves when in the group with horses. But I don’t see that anymore. Those that were staring at the ground and shy about coming out of their shell have found internal strengths and leadership skills that really work for their horses…and undoubtedly other facets of their lives.

at risk youth

Scott demonstrates with one of the school horses.

When horses experience concise, positive and consistent leadership, they love it. They’ll relax. They’ll lick, chew and yawn.

Why ?

Because we’ve addressed and answered their questions and concerns about the herd and where they belong in it. Muddy and grey interactions with humans drive them nuts, because the herd dynamic isn’t clear.

The great benefit is that the students can SEE and FEEL these amazing results in their horses and KNOW that they are the ones that caused it.


As a trainer and instructor, nothing makes me more happy than to witness students realizing that what they have done has taken their horse to a new level of peace and athletic ability.

Coralee adds some other understandings regarding the relationship with horses. “We have taken many different training courses that highlight the benefit of regular interactions with horses. at risk youthThey are a somatic reconditioning agent- their breathing, heartbeat, and electromagnetic field are so strong that they can influence and regulate people and animals standing within a 15 foot radius. Horses are a mirror for what’s going on internally- they reflect whatever mental and emotional process is going on inside the person that is working with them, and their responses to their worker’s requests directly correlate with what the trainer believes.”

at risk youthThis is really the essence of leadership isn’t it?We desire that our followers emulate us. In order to have the occur with a horse, we have to present ourselves – both physically and emotionally – in the way we want our horses to follow. We want our horses to be a mirror of us. My most recent article on leadership speaks to this as well. I find it not only intriguing, but refreshing, that the training that the Poteets have received so closely

mirrors our style of horsemanship.

at risk youthCoralee explains, “Since working with Scott it’s become easier to see the relationship between the inner process of the human and the outer response of the horse. Everyone involved is learning how to be a supportive, compassionate, and firm leader; and understanding that it’s not about getting the horse to be perfect, but to do everything well- even fear, frustration, and anxiety- is reflected in the way that our girls treat each other and themselves.

at risk youth

Pass the ball!

Our horses are also more relaxed. They have more try and more to give. They are better and more clearly understood by the people working with them, and I think that promotes an atmosphere of calmness and forgiveness on the part of the horse.”

at risk youthOne of my fundamental principles of horsemanship is that our job as trainers and riders is to focus on the success of the horse, not the success of ourselves. In developing our skills and producing successful horses, we realize incredible benefits: we hone our leadership skills. Our timing becomes more precise. We truly learn how to communicate with a horse and we progress to higher levels as a result of a real connection that we’ve produced through our own efforts.

at risk youth

Shaelynn Poteet navigates her horse through an obstacle.

at risk youth

Coralee Poteet and her horse.

This is a fun dynamic group to work with.  The girls are progressing in leaps and bounds. We’ve recently started introducing obstacles and games to our training.  Just like our clinics, it’s great to develop these essential horsemanship skills, but putting them to practice in a way that produces fun and success for all is truly the icing on the cake.

Here’s a big “WAY TO GO” to the Poteet family, their girls and their horses!

Thank you for the opportunity to work with you and share in your success!

Scott Phillips, May 2016

The Obstacle Course – Focus and Follow

It’s interesting how themes sometimes develop when coaching riders and their horses. In the last several clinics I’ve taught, one of the major themes has been focus and follow.

When I explain this, you’ll probably be thinking, This is common sense !

In any leadership position, be it a supervisor in an office, the Prime Minister or a horse rider, it’s desirable that those you are leading follow you. After all, that’s what leadership is, isn’t it? We also desire that our followers emulate us. To do as we do. To think as we think. To have people or horses commit to us as leaders we need to cause them to think that following us is the best and most rewarding option. An option that produces success and relieves them of their questions and worries.

Common sense so far, right?

Let’s consider the horse as a singular thinker; he can only process one thought at a time. To make this really simple, when working with you he can only one of think of two things:

  1. You and your intention or request;
  2. Something else.

The something else could be another horse, something scary or a desire to be back with the herd. It’s not reasonable to expect a clean and concise response from a horse when he is thinking of something else. Your horse might not respond at all. Our temptation then, is to get bigger. To ask the same thing, but with more force. This temptation can lead to a variety of actions such as pulling and jerking on a rein or kicking. This is a progression down a slippery slope of negative experiences for your horse: making him dull to the aids, causing him to fight you but most importantly: showing him that you’re not a leader he should be inclined to follow.

horse leading

Ty leading the herd.

So just what does a horse follow? Consider a horse following another in a pasture. The lead horse decides it’s time to go for water. He has motivation (thirst), intent (go for water), direction (the path to the water), energy (his energetic presentation that the rest of the herd will see and feel), and focus (he’ll be focusing on where he’s going). For a horse to follow us then we need to present the same things, namely, a clear intention and an energetic focus on our desired direction or path.

So what should we do? We simply emulate a lead horse. We provide a clear and concise focus for the horse to follow and then cue him to change his thought to that of following our direction and energy. How to cue our horse to follow our thought is something we can establish in the groundwork and then take to the saddle. This is part of our style of horsemanship.

Simply put: if we want a horse to follow us then we must give him something to follow.

A common error both in groundwork and riding is that we stare at our hands or the ground in front of us. By staring at these places, we are focusing our intent on that spot. By focusing on that spot we are directing our energy at that spot. The horse picks up on this; after all, it’s how they communicate with each other. Here’s the kicker: if you are focusing on a place the horse is already at (like right in front of him), he can’t go there! He already IS there! Your request doesn’t make any sense to him. He might swing his hind end around as a guess at how to satisfy your request, or he might brace and not move at all.

Here is a common scenario we see on the obstacle course: the rider fixates on the obstacle coming up and of course, the horse stops when he gets there. He does that because  by focusing on the obstacle, the rider is very clearly directing him to stop there. The horse is following perfectly. The problem is that what the rider wants (to cross the obstacle) and where the rider is focusing (the beginning of the obstacle) are two entirely different things. What can happen next is that the rider pressures the horse into going forward, but without providing a direction to go. If the horse braces, continued pressure generally results in him rearing or jumping because he has no idea how the heck to do what he’s being asked to go to a place he’s already at.

What’s even worse is if the rider is nervous about the object they want the horse to step on or in. Now they are clearly communicating to the horse, this object is scary and we should not have anything to do with it.  But at the same time they’re urging the horse to go forward onto or into it. Doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense from the horse’s perspective, does it?

POINTER–How and where to focus. When I ride a horse in an arena, for example, my energetic focus is generally above my head height up the wall in front of us and I never allow my head to turn further than the point where my outside eye is in line with the horse’s inside eye. This achieves several important things:

  1. It allows me to keep my eyes and my chest UP and my focus on our path – thus showing the horse the path I want us to follow.
  2. I’m able to take in the entire arena environment – particularly important when riding with others or negotiating an obstacle course.
  3. My posture allows the horse to get under himself and I don’t get in his way by leaning in a turn.
  4. I don’t separate myself from the horse by turning my torso in the saddle.


If we do not provide clear leadership but expect the horse to respond, we have a mess. What generally ensues? You got it! Kick the horse to ask him to move and steer him like a dirtbike as he tries to avoid the very thing we told him, by our focus and energy, was dangerous. There is no communication going on at this point. This is dictatorial enforcement and not the mark of a good leader. This generally results in an upset and confused horse. Similar continued attempts teach the horse that this is how you will handle things he is unsure of. Do we really want our horses to believe that of us? Of course not!

Sharon leading her gelding, Jet. Her focus and direction is obvious and Jet is following perfectly.

Sharon leading her gelding, Jet. Her focus and direction is obvious and Jet is following perfectly.

To put this in perspective: let’s say that you and I are standing in the same aisle of a grocery store. You’re standing right in front of the product I want to toss in my cart. I don’t give you any indication that I’m interested in the product – instead I just grab your arm and yank you out of my way without any warning at all. How would you respond? You will be shocked, upset and might say, “Hey, what was that for”? And my response to your reaction is to kick you.


So lets think of how we can do this better. We need to focus on a path we’d like our horse to follow and energetically direct him on it. When you have an obstacle in front of you, focus beyond it. When you really concentrate on sending or leading your horse properly like this, you’ll find you will be tempted to use your hands much less and your horse is much calmer because you’re communicating to him in a clear an concise way that is instinctive to him. In effect, you’re speaking horse.

Not only will the horse follow your focus, but when you have established yourself as a good herd leader, he will be looking for your direction on how to feel about things. Again, this is common sense when you think about prey animal herd behaviour. If one horse senses something scary, that is communicated to the entire herd almost instantly and they react as one. If the horse is unsure about a thing, how you react to that thing is going to dictate his response.

You can watch me go through this process several times in my video Zeus Episode 6 ??? The Trailer.

When asking Zeus to step up into the trailer, you’ll see my focus is precisely where I want the both of us to go. When he is nervous or unsure, I completely relax and cue him to do the same. When you watch the video, listen to the commentary,  there are many points in it that apply to introducing your horse to anything new.

This is your opportunity to step in and provide some positive leadership. If you feel your horse getting tense, then relax at least an equal amount. Why? Because you want him to follow you in that feeling. Horses follow each other mentally and emotionally, not just physically.

In our clinics, we use a variety of exercises and games to hone your ability to communicate with your horse in his native language. It works. It’s not a trick or a method or a tool. It’s simply clear communication and good leadership. As an instructor, it is such a great feeling to watch a fussy or nervous horse become calm and confident as his rider develops these skills. Sometimes this happens in minutes.

Not providing something clear and concise for the horse to follow is equivalent to putting him in the pasture and turning your back on him. He’ll feel left to his own devices and will take action to save himself if he feels threatened, often without your involvement. This might not be fun if you’re in the saddle on a trail ride!

When mounted or in groundwork, be very clear with your request; horses emulate their leaders in their actions and emotions. Offer your horse something to follow and show him the reward in choosing to follow you. With clarity and consistency, your horse will go forward with you and you’ll really feel what connection is all about.