Author Archives: Scott Phillips

About Scott Phillips

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and operating Amazing Horse Country. He is the proud owner of eight horses that he affectionately refers to as his "kids". Scott has integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

focus forward

Winning Strategies for the Obstacle Course – Part 2

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we conduct training on our Obstacle Course or Trail Course:

  1. We build it in the groundwork, then ride it in the saddle.
  2. We never force a horse to go on, over or though something they’re scared of. We do go forward when the horse is in release and following our focus.
  3. Find ground zero.  This is the position, proximity to an obstacle, or a maneuver that we know the horse can achieve.  We can always start successfully from our ground zero point.
  4. We define success as, “anytime the horse tries for us,” and reward and encourage our horse when he tries.
  5. We allow the horse the time he needs to investigate the obstacle before we continue to ask him forward.

In this article, we’re going to focus on #2.  It’s a good idea to read Part 1 first.

Someone rides their horse up to an obstacle.  The horse is afraid of it and tries to turn away.  The rider responds by kicking to get the horse to move and jerking on the reins when the horse isn’t straight.  The horse still struggles, so he’s taken away from the obstacle and run in circles to make him think the obstacle is a better idea.

I can understand the reasons folks act that way, because we can all relate to it: ego and fear of failure.  People are watching us, after all!  Obviously the horse isn’t getting a good day here.  We can certainly change that around when we:

  1. Gain an understanding of how horses think and perceive fear, and
  2. Develop our leadership skills to help us work with horses.

Let’s work together to eliminate these unfortunate scenarios.  We’ll start by focusing not only on the success of the horse, but where we’re physically going (looking beyond the obstacle, not at it).

What we sometimes forget is that we’re always training the horse.  The lesson he’ll take away from this scenario is that when he’s scared, his human turns into a vicious predator.  A predator that is trying to force him into something that he believes will kill him.  Horses – like us – learn by repetition.  If our scenario plays out several times, he’ll quickly learn to expect the rider’s negative behavior and react in advance.  Clearly we want to avoid that.

You might be thinking, “Well, how am I ever going to get him over it if I don’t force him?”  As you’ve likely guessed by this point, there is a more positive and successful approach.  The secret is in the style of training.

Begin by realizing that the obstacle is simply a pressure for your horse.  The answer then, is to teach your horse – over time – to handle greater degrees of pressure.  You’ll find details on how to expose a horse to pressure in order to train him in this article.  Note that we do not want to train the horse to ignore pressure.  Any thinking creature can only ignore pressure to a certain level.  It makes sense than, that increasing that level your horse can handle is the correct option. We’ll teach our horse what to do with pressure; we’ll train that, when pressure presents itself, our horse releases to it and follows our focus.  This is a structured core component of my obstacle and trail clinics.

While we do need to expose our horses to pressure in order to teach them how to handle pressure, we do so at a rate that allows them to progress, using pressures that approach but do not exceed their capability of handling them.  The technique is very similar to exposure therapy in humans.  Dr. Katharina Hauner (Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, Chicago) explains that fear is not removed instantaneously; instead working with fear requires conditioning over time.

And thus we work so with our horses.  Over repeated sessions, we can expose them to pressures, asking for the same action each time: release to tension (created by fear) and focus on / follow us.  As trainers and leaders, we will stay completely positive and encourage our horse, thus utilizing these sessions to support trust building in the best possible way.  The horse will learn that you are a trusted herd leader that makes good decisions about things that scare the herd.  They will come to depend on you to help them through struggles (instead of expecting you’ll lose your cool, or learning to avoid you altogether).

Conditioning a non-fear response can be taught for a single obstacle.  But that won’t help you with the next obstacle that the horse is afraid of.  You’d have to start all over again.  Again, the difference here is in the training style.  What we do is built a mechanism for all situations your horse might become scared or anxious.

When you can cause your followers to release tension, trust and follow you in stressful situations, then you can have a successful team.  Not only with horses, but with people as well.  Once we’ve got that going for us, then all obstacles stand a much better chance of success the first time.

Sure, the horse might have questions or anxieties about something new or unrecognizable.  They are a prey animal with limited comprehension and unable to make abstract associations.  Their actions and instincts have kept them alive for millennia, and you can’t expect that to change in the 5 seconds you give a horse in front of  an obstacle, right?  Right.  But when the horse knows that you will answer those anxieties with a positive, you’ve got it made.

Horses instinctively follow a leader.  The herd has a leader that is responsible for making decisions on what the herd should do when a perceived threat is encountered.   That leader must be you.   The extent a horse will follow your leadership is based on successful repetitive experiences.  Over time, many experiences and many miles, the horse can learn that you can be trusted in any situation.

We can certainly opt to leave experience to chance.  Mother Nature will supply us with challenges whether we want them or not.  That being the case, we can also opt to train for it.  And that is the basis of our Obstacle and Trail clinics:  we simulate those challenges in a controlled environment to provide the horse repetitive training (and thus earn your trust) and to allow you to build the confidence to handle anything.Saskia, a client that’s trained with me for several years, sent me this message after an extended trail riding trip:

We had 9 wonderful rides at Indian Graves! The first 3 days Sam was scared of everything and very reactive. It scared me a bit but we kept on repeating what you taught us. I kept on putting his focus on something else, stayed calm and he slowly built so much confidence over those 9 days. I felt so good and so much more connected to him 🙂 

What’s great about Saskia’s story is that she took all her learning to practical purpose in a real trail environment (this is also what our Trail 2 clinics are for).


So how can we handle getting a horse over an obstacle with no muss or fuss?  It’s a multi-step process that will always leave you and your horse feeling positive:

  1. The horse believes we are the herd leader – required before we can legitimately ask anything of our horse;
  2. We teach the horse that when he’s faced with something scary, the answer is to release tension and follow our focus.  When our focus is forward, the horse has a direction to move.
  3. The amount of pressure we’ll be able to ask the horse to follow us into or through depends on the amount of pressure we’ve trained him to handle – and that takes time, but it’s time well spent because it lasts forever.
  4. We ask the horse nothing more than to try for us.  And this – we’ll get into in the next articles in this series.

focus forward

The photo here is of me asking a mare to step up onto a teeter totter.  It’s a great example of asking a horse to release tension (note the SOFT downward connection on the lead-rope) and my clear focus on where our herd is going – to the other side of the obstacle.

Scott Phillips

November, 2018

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eye contact

Winning Strategies for the Obstacle Course – Part 1

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we conduct training on our Obstacle Course or Trail Course:

  1. We build it in the groundwork, then ride it in the saddle.
  2. We never force a horse to go on, over or though something they’re scared of. We do go forward when the horse is in release and following our focus.
  3. Find ground zero.  This is the position, proximity to an obstacle, or a maneuver that we know the horse can achieve.  We can always start successfully from our ground zero point.
  4. We define success as, “anytime the horse tries for us,” and reward and encourage our horse when he tries.
  5. We allow the horse the time he needs to investigate the obstacle before we continue to ask him forward.

Strategy #1: We build it on the ground, then ride it in the saddle.

Showing your horse something new by starting with groundwork offers many advantages in training and is an essential part of our horsemanship style.  Here’s some background:

Pressures are cumulative.

cirque du solielStress in our life adds up. For an example, let’s assign a value from 0 to 10, to each stress you have on a particularly crappy day: You’re a gymnast and have an audition for Cirque du Soleil first thing Tuesday morning. Here’s the scenario:

  • You sleep in because you forgot to set your alarm. Your stress level rises when you realize you’ll be late. 2/10
  • You try to put together a quick nutritious breakfast but knock the bowl on the floor and spill it all over. No breakfast for you. 1/10
  • You get a text from your mother saying a family member is in the hospital. 3/10
  • Your impeccable timing results in you hitting every red light. 2/10

So you’re already at an 8/10 before you even start the audition.

Consider these questions:

  • What if your ability to handle pressure caps at a 7/10?
  • What will your reaction be when another pressure enters the scenario, such as someone cutting you off in traffic?
  • In your present state, how capable are you to perform an athletic manoeuvre that requires an intensity of thought and focus?

We know that short-term stress can have a major impact on our ability to think critically, make decisions and perform basic tasks. In some cases, we might even make irrational decisions. In some cases we snap or lose it. Our ability to perform decreases measurably.

This is a reason people train and rehearse prior to an event or performance. Knowing that we’re subject to stress when we’re required to perform, we intentionally train to a higher standard so that when pressure affects us, we can still pull off a successful outcome. Another thing we can do when we train something new is to eliminate pressures so that we can focus on individual pieces.

Yohandling pressureur awareness that horses are also subject to cumulative stress is the key point here.  You might say that, as a prey animal, their lives revolve around varying degrees of pressure.


In order to support our horses, we can start by doing the following:

  • Teaching them how to deal with pressure.
  • Initially exposing them to only one pressure at a time.

Let’s connect the dots with a practical example:

We’ve done some groundwork having our horse walk across a platform (a pressure). It is going okay and our horse manages to walk over it.  We decide to try it in the riding. We find the riding is not as good as the groundwork; the horse refuses to even put a foot on it. Have you ever had a horse struggle with walking through something, only to find he’ll follow you through it easily if you get off and lead?

obstacle course

Scary Water Box

One reason is that, in the riding, the horse is subject to a higher degree of stress. Continuing with our example, let’s say that the horse can handle a 5/10 in pressure. The platform is a 3/10, so he can accomplish it when we’re on the ground. However, having a rider on his back is a 3/10 also.  Now you’re at a 6/10 – more than he can handle. A horse whose pressure level has been exceeded will likely resort to their instinctual behaviors: freeze, flee or fight.  And we’ve all seen that happen. The good news is that we can train them to another option: release and focus on us.

You might be wondering, “Why is having a rider on his back a pressure?” There are a few reasons:

  • Your mass is a pressure that can cause brace and affect balance.
  • Your horse now has a predator over his head that can cause him stress via hands, legs and complex emotions.
  • The horse is now going first (see What about Leading, below).
  • The horse has had previous negative experiences with riders or trainers and now expects a bad day when someone mounts.

The strategy here is to find the place the horse can succeed by eliminating or reducing pressures.  This is our ground zero point and we’ll chat about that in article #3 of this series.

What about Leading?

Although leading first – in this case intentionally walking ahead of the horse to show the horse that if you can walk though it, he can too – can be helpful when you really need it, it can be unproductive for long term training.  Horses are born followers and can naturally follow another horse (or you) across something. It is, however, an entirely different perspective for them when they’re the one in front. And when you’re on a horse, they are in front, physically. Their head and feet will get there before yours.  So what’s the solution?  Here’s two suggestions:

  • Teaching the horse to handle a higher pressure; and
  • Increase your effectiveness in leading from behind. Can you send your horse across an obstacle?  If so, it’s more likely he can pull it off with you in the saddle.


Your observational vantage point.

When you’re on the horse’s back you are not able to observe his entire body. When working with particular exercises, such as establishing balance – it’s beneficial to see the whole horse from the ground. You can observe his shoulder, poll, back, hind end and footfall pattern easily. This teaches us how to communicate to the horse because we can instantly see how our actions affect changes in all parts of his body.

We can work with all of our aids on the ground as effectively as we can in the saddle. Showing a horse to move off your leg or releasing to the rein can be replicated very successfully on the ground. A side-pass is a great example; it generally only takes minutes to have a horse in a relaxed elemental side-pass in the groundwork.  The reason?  A horse was born being able to side-pass; it’s humans that need to learn how the horse balances and uses his body, so that we can ask it of him (VS force him to move sideways).  And once we understand the components and learn the feel in the groundwork, it’s easier for us to transition to the saddle.

Eye to eye contact.

In the groundwork, we can solve many leadership issues (for example, fear) by having the horse focus on us.

The retina is considered to form from the same tissues as the brain. You can think of it as part of the brain. It’s connected through a dedicated cable of nerve fibers: the optic nerve. The visual information we receive through the eye overwhelms our other senses.

Where do you look when you’re going for a walk?

I have observed that most people, when walking or leading their horses, look at the ground. My theory is that we do this subconsciously to eliminate as much visual information as we can so we can think about something else or concentrate on something particular. If you look up and forward, your brain is forced to process what you see and where you are going in the forefront of your consciousness. Therefore, if your horse is looking at you, then he is thinking about you. This strategy can be important when introducing a horse to a new pressure: we desire that when under pressure, the horse looks to us for guidance. If he looks away when we apply pressure, his body will soon follow and he’ll leave. We can train the opposite.


eye contact

Eye to Eye with Zeus

There is much said about getting the horse’s eye. Let me explain how this applies to our style of horsemanship. When people are scared, we’re taught to look them in the eye. By doing so, we can communicate sincerity, confidence, pride and comfort. As a communication tool, it’s huge. When someone looks you in the eye, it also indicates that they’re paying attention to you.

Tying this into horse training works like this: when you have established a leadership role, the horse will follow you empathically. This means that if you are scared the horse will follow you in that. If you are confident, the horse will follow you in that. But if they’re looking away all the time, this indicates they are not following you and are either considering which way to leave OR following another pressure which outweighs you. To assist, we can be in a position where the horse can look us in the eye. In this way the horse can follow our focus, energy and confidence.  For a horse that is very scared, we use particular focus exercises to cause him to believe that the safest and most peaceful option is simply to focus on us. It’s a guaranteed game-changer.


The saddle is not the place to discover what causes your horse to flee in panic or buck. Ending up in the hospital means there will be days or weeks where you can’t ride and that will suck. Let’s look at colt starting. I need to be confident that the colt can handle a level of pressure higher than having me on his back – before I get on his back. Doesn’t that make complete sense? And the ground is a perfect place to develop that. Let’s say we inadvertently create more pressure in the groundwork than the horse can handle and he bucks or runs away.  Don’t worry about it.  Stay calm (your horse needs that) and make a mental note of what that pressure was and start smaller next time. Then work him back up to that level, and beyond.

A horse will learn how to handle pressure in part by how we handle pressure, just like your kids will learn how to react to stress by watching what you do when situations take a turn for the worse.  We desire that, as a leader, the horse is a mirror of us. If we want the horse to release and relax to a pressure, then we have to do the same. When we get in the saddle, however, not only do we create a pressure for the horse, we create one for ourselves. If you’re not certain of what the horse will do, then you are experiencing anxiety and you will transfer that to the horse. Why not gain confidence in the task on the ground, first?

Groundwork isn’t only for the horse, it’s for you.

Tools and Toys

obstacle course

Starting with Groundwork

We can use a variety of tools and toys from sticks to pool noodles to ball guns to tarps to squeeky toys. In short, we can use whatever we can think of to stimulate the horse’s senses, his body or the space around it. In this way we can isolate specific spots that the horse needs help with. We can clearly teach the horse that the answer to pressure is always release to tension and follow me.


Because we can access the horse’s entire body from positions on the ground, it’s an ideal place to perform these exercises.

This is different than bomb-proofing or desensitizing. Those are methods that generally teach the horse to not move when pressure is applied. Just like us, horses can only ignore a certain amount of pressure – just because they’re trained not to move doesn’t mean they can handle the pressure.  Nor does it mean they can handle increased amounts of pressure. One of the horse’s instinctual behaviours is freezing under pressure, so these methods can play into the horses genetic behaviour instead of teaching him anything. Instead, our style is to show a horse how to handle pressure – anywhere and anytime. Once that understanding is in place we can increase the pressures because the horse understands how to handle them.


Do you see the connection to the obstacle course here?  An obstacle is simply a pressure.  If the horse knows the answer to pressure is to release tension and follow your focus you’ve nailed all the scary things on every obstacle course.


The benefit of groundwork in introducing obstacles and teaching horses how to handle pressure is that we can observe the horse’s response and manage the result in an environment where we can control the pressures. When first introducing the horse – and our clients – to pressure management, being on the ground is a requirement because of how we ask the horse to release tension in his neck and poll. In addition, we can learn to work with our tools in a very positive and beneficial way prior to doing it in the riding.

And that’s it for part 1!

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Leading to Leadership

Wow – an article on leading a horse.  Seems a little trivial doesn’t it?  Does it really matter where your horse is, or what he is doing when you’re leading him?  It might not be a big deal to you, but the conversations that you have (or don’t have) when you’re leading him form the foundation of his entire social structure.  It’s a big deal for your horse.  With a little know-how you can use leading to form a corner stone of a solid leadership agreement with your horse – one in which he’ll trust you and follow, both in and out of the saddle.

Let’s start with a quick review of something we know: horses communicate primarily through space, energy and empathy.

Personal space. Katt is just on the edge of Marg’s space.

Space. We all have personal space. When I ask folks what they consider to be their space, the answer is almost always the same: the length of their arm. To illustrate, consider how close a person could walk toward you until you feel uncomfortable. You’ll feel when they encroach on your space. Have you ever had someone – like a close-talker – walk toward you and you’ve backed up? That person has demonstrated ownership of their space by moving you with it. Instead, you could have pushed the other person away from you with your space. Again, this would demonstrate your ownership of the space.

We know that horses not only speak to each other through space – and the energy they put into it – they also use ownership of space to establish herd position. It’s a simple process.

Energy is something that can be put into a particular space to achieve a certain effect. For example a horse might put energy into the space to the left side of their hip to push another horse away in a certain direction. How much energy is put into that will dictate how much or how quickly the other horse moves.

Empathy is the ability to share or communicate a feeling. For example, one horse is scared so the other horses become scared; the herd leader relaxes so the herd around them does the same.

We’re going to focus on the spacial piece because it’s very important.

There are three different types of leadership relationships you can have with a horse:

  1. The horse believes he is above you in the herd order. You’ll see this when you go to lead your horse and your horse does not come with you; the lead rope gets strung out behind you as you walk away and the horse does not. This tells me that your horse is aware he owns the space and can choose whether or not to follow you. If you get ahead of your horse and he does not work to catch up, then he’s assuming ownership of space behind you. The opposite (and more obvious) example is when the horse is physically leading you (ahead of you) and you’re working to catch up to him (or trying to hold him back).
  1. Your horse does not know who the leader is. This happens when you are inconsistent in your presentation. As an example, one day you might kick your horse out of your space when he tries to come in, and the next day you let him barge into your space because he’s doing something you think is funny. From his perspective: on one day you were the leader and on the next day, he is. This drives horses crazy. When I hear someone say with respect to their horse on the ground that their horse is fussy, in my face or misbehaving, these are all clear indications that the horse is simply trying to get a clear response: where are you in the herd order? This is an easy question to answer for your horse. And in the few minutes it takes to answer that – with a clear and consistent demonstration of spacial ownership – you’ll find the fussiness is gone. In every clinic there is at least one horse/owner in this category, and within minutes the horse is calm and relaxed. We start our clinics off with a couple exercises to do this. These exercises are not done with anger or negativity – if we need to get bigger with a horse, we up our energetic presentation, not become angry or offensive.
  2. The horse is aware that you are the herd leader. A horse in this situation can follow you both mentally and physically. You can now begin to earn his trust by establishing credibility – precisely what we use our obstacle and trail courses for. Clearly this is what we desire!

Marg leads her mare, Katt. You can see that the lead rope is loose and Katt is following Marg in a perfect position – not ahead and not behind.

Once we understand how horses use space and energy, and how they establish leadership, then it’s not difficult at all to clearly establish a herd position. We can now easily assess where our horse feels we are in the herd (above / unknown / below) by how he responds when we lead him or ask him to move.

What might not be apparent is that this leadership agreement or spacial ownership agreement can nurtured and maintained by something we all do: lead our horse from point A to point B.

Here’s the how and why behind that.

We know that spacial ownership dictates herd position. We humans are weak in noticing and handling tests, requests and changes in that space. This is because we primarily communicate via voice. Remember that horse primarily communicates through space and energy – not like us at all – so you can imaging how frustrating it might be for them when they’re looking for an answer in horse and you communicate in human. This is what will produce a fussy horse.

Horses have many similarities with people but also many differences. It’s important that we know what those are and gain an awareness that his language is not the same as ours. One notable difference is that a horse simply wants to know if he’s above you or below you in the herd order. He can be 100% comfortable with either – but he’s not comfortable with not knowing (inconsistency in your presentation).

We also know that some horses will test that leadership agreement. This can happen for three main reasons:

  1. You have worked with the horse to increase his confidence. When a horse really changes his confidence for the better, then it’s only natural that they are going to take that confidence into their social relations – climb the social ladder, so to speak. So, while confidence is what we desire, we also need to have an awareness that confidence might precipitate a change in herd order, and he might attempt that with us.
  1. The horse is a natural leader. Just as some folks gravitate toward leadership positions, so do some horses. Gaining the leadership role with a horse that is a natural leader can be a struggle, since he is not seeking leadership like a frightened horse would be. Because of that confidence, he might test your spacial agreement.
  1. Your spacial leadership is unclear: you begin to allow your horse to own space or take actions on his own that indicate he’s leading.

Chip is a confident horse and a leader. He’s a great horse for people to learn leadership from, because he’ll play spacial games with you to find where you are in the herd order. A horse can do this in seconds and you might not be aware that it happened.

In any event, the horse might test your leadership agreement. These tests are generally subtle and folks typically ignore them. But by ignoring them, you might just be telling your horse that he’s above you in the herd, or that he’s gaining ground by owning more space.

Here’s an example: you’re leading your horse and he’s right beside you, where you want him. Then he sneaks three inches ahead of you. If you do nothing and he stays three inches ahead, he now owns that space. Again, to us, this little change might mean nothing. To him, it is a fundamental basis of his social structure; it’s huge in meaning. The same would be the case if the horse gets 3 inches behind.

The simple solution to this is to think that the horse has one job: to mirror you physically and mentally. It’s his only job. If you walk forward and pick your leg up, the horse should be doing the same. If you walk forward and your horse does not move then he’s no longer following/mirroring your leadership.

If following you is the horse’s job, then we can hold him accountable for that. If he starts lagging by 3 inches, then we draw or send him forward 3 inches. If he gets ahead of us 3 inches, then we use our space to push him back into his spot. When he’s in that spot we reward that by relaxing and providing him a positive feel, so that he knows it’s the right spot.

With practice we can do this (ask our horse to move forward and back, shoulder left and right, hip left and right) without changing our pace and focus. We’ll then be able to make small changes as we go – just like making tiny changes in the steering wheel when you’re driving a car.

It is imperative we do not change our presentation (focus, pace and energy) – because we want the horse to become accountable to follow. If we change, then we’re no longer presenting what we wanted him to follow in the first place. To illustrate: you’re leading your horse and he gets behind you, and in response, you turn around to face him. When you do this, he’s leading you. He’s done something that changed your focus and had you buy into his presentation. Instead, if you horse gets behind you, send him back up to you: start by energetically asking your horse to catch up. I like to feel that I’m connected to the horse’s chest with an elastic band. If that band stretches, it should pull the horse forward. Your horse will feel that. The opposite is also true – if my horse is encroaching on my space or getting ahead of me, I like to feel that there is a beach ball between my back and his chest. When I push my energy backwards, I feel that ball being squeezed if he does not move off my space.

If he chooses not to catch up when you have asked, then assist with a flick of your lead rope behind you and toward his hip OR use a stick that can reach his hind (if he’s getting ahead of you, use pressure toward his chest). You’ll do this without turning around – keep your eyes on where you’re going – because what you’re really doing here is asking your horse to follow your focus, energy and intent. You’re also answering his question about who holds the space by holding him accountable to be in a certain position.

If you watch horses moving in a herd, you’ll see the exact same type of communication. The great thing about this style of horsemanship – and this type of communication – is that your horse already understands all of it; he was born with the ability to communicate with other horses.

You might be thinking: what about directing him with the halter? Pulling forward or backward on the with the lead rope in order to put your horse in a position? Wiggling or jerking the lead ropes?

Well, we never see a horse pull another horse around with a halter as a means of directing him. They don’t need to because they are masters of space and energy. You can be one too. That said, do your best to not use the halter to direct your horse by pulling on the lead rope – that isn’t his language. Make sure to read my last article where we delve into the effects of tension in the lead rope or rein.

You’ll find a great feel in having your horse mirror you. Not only will he feel comfortable following you but he’ll strive to do so. Not only will you be confident in your leadership position, but you’ll take that relationship into the saddle. Imagine having your horse follow your focus and turn before you even pick up a rein. This type of following is normal for a horse – they do it 24/7 in the herd. All we need to do is learn a bit of their language and earn a trusted leadership position.  Join us at a clinic to learn and practice these great tools!


P.S. I’ll be filming a video to demonstrate some easy techniques you can try yourself.  To access it, you’ll need to have an account on our website.  Don’t worry – it’s entirely free!


Scott Phillips

August, 2018

Sir Isaac Newton and Horse Training

For every action…

…there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton

So states Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion.

This is tied in to how you ride your horse in some very obvious ways that you likely haven’t thought about – but when you do it might change how you ride from now on. So lets explore!

Have you ever played the tug-of-war game? It’s a contest in which two teams, or two people, pull at opposite ends of a rope until one drags the other over a central line. We did this quite a bit as kids, and usually there was a mud puddle in between us!

Lets consider a hypothetical example: Jim and Bob are pulling on opposite ends of a rope. If neither Jim nor Bob is moving, then both are pulling exactly the same amount, but in opposing directions.  If Jim is pulling with 50 pounds of force, then Bob must also pulling with 50 pounds of force. It’s a stalemate. Follow me so far?

I want you to think of what is actually going on in our bodies to produce that 50 pounds, or the pulling force itself. That’s right – muscles (in combination with bones and ground friction, but we won’t get into that)! For us to push, pull or move involves our muscles activating. When muscle fibers are on, they tighten or contract. That is the only thing a muscle can do. Therefore, pairs of muscles are required to produce an opposite motion; one muscle in the pair will activate while the other muscle relaxes.

Still with me?

Lets say the rope between Bob and Jim is slack; it has no tension. Neither Bob nor Jim have activated any muscles yet. Now, Bob starts to pull on the rope. Immediately Jim matches that pulling force. So what just happened there? Bob caused Jim to activate muscles. We know that Bob’s desire is to move Jim. But the muscles that have activated are actually causing Jim to pull in the opposing direction! Remember, every force has an equal and opposite force. To prove that theory all Bob has to do is let go of the rope. Which way is Jim going to go flying? Backwards of course, not forwards (the direction Bob desires him to move).

Consider this in the use of the lead rope. Again, this is something obvious that we generally don’t consider: if you pull forward on the lead rope and the rope becomes tight, it is tight because you have caused the horse to engage muscles to oppose that motion. You have caused the horse to pull in the opposite direction that you intended! Basic physics at work. If the horse was not engaging muscles to pull opposite your intent then the lead rope would be slack and the horse would be moving with you.

Watch the video!

Now consider one more part of the equation: the harder we pull the more difficult we make it for our horse. Again, this is makes complete sense when you think about it. Let’s say you’re pulling on that lead rope with 25lbs of force. We now know that means your horse is pulling the opposite direction with 25lbs of force. So in order for him to move, he has to release 25lbs of pull! This is quite a contrast to the tension that should be in the lead rope: about the weight of a pencil. That is easy for him to release to.

Pause for thought:

A horse can cause another horse to move in any direction without even making physical contact, in fact, by barely moving at all. And so can we when we learn to communicate with them. So why, then, do some we resort to pulling and yanking on a lead rope or rein? Here’s a two part answer.

  1. We have arms. Because of this uniqueness, we are used to being able to move things by pushing and pulling. But most of the time, those things are inanimate. They don’t think. They don’t have fears. Like a grocery cart or a sled. Pushing and pulling to move those things is a no-brainer. But with a horse, an animal that thinks, we need to cause him to want to move instead of try to pull or force him.
  2. When we don’t understand how something works or lack the skills to communicate in another language, humans typically turn to control. As in, “I don’t understand it, but I can certainly control it.” You’ve heard people say, “Control is an illusion.” This is true, but in the case of a horse, who may get scared or isn’t doing what we want, we sometimes resort to force to accomplish our goals. Its never a winning game. Lets step in with some positive leadership instead, and find ways to assist him. Consider your role that of an athletic coach.

I’ve helped more than one person who has had the complaint that “The horse is pulling on the reins.” In order for the horse to do that though, you need to be pulling with exactly the same amount of force. And I mean exactly. Because if the rein is not moving then the horse’s muscles are engaged to exactly the same amount yours are.

Alright. Quiz question! I know you’ll get this right.

What’s the solution to prevent the horse from pulling on the reins?

You got it – don’t give him anything to pull on! A tug of war can never happen if only one team pulls – because the rope will never have tension. In the context of Jim and Bob, think of it this way: Bob picks up the rope. As soon as Jim feels that rope move a tiny bit, he steps forward. When he does this, he releases any tension in the rope before it gets tight.

This is really important because, as we know, the primary function of the rein is to support the horse in using his body athletically and in balance by asking specific muscles to either release or engage. In the context of this conversation, we’re asking the horse to release muscles in the top part of his neck, which connect to the poll. What we see when the horse releases those muscles is in most texts referenced as movement of the jaw or poll.

Tightness in the rein will prevent this from happening. Continued work with a tight rein forces the horse to move through brace (mental and muscular tension) resulting in some very undesired consequences, including injuries that require therapy. Not only that, but the horse will learn that the lead rope or rein can produce pain. In that case he’ll learn to brace before you even pick the rein up. I’ve helped many a horse like this so the good news is that we can certainly fix it. These amazing animals will give us a second chance.

Our style of horsemanship ensures that the training experience for the horses (and owners) is positive, so that they learn to trust and let go of fear and tension – and in that state we can produce the highest degrees of athleticism – far beyond what you can attain through forcing a horse into submission and obedience.

It’s not a big undertaking, either. A simple understanding of how horses think and how their bodies work might take you a few hours. We go through the basics in all of our clinics. The problems we have with horses typically stem from one thing – not understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Our perception of problems is exacerbated by misinterpretation and generally personification – trying to explain what the horse is doing by comparing him to a human. That is natural for us, in fact, it’s a known psychological phenomenon. You can read more about that in this article. When we put effort into understanding the horse, things get easy. The horse is a very simple animal once we understand him.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Explaining Resistance.

Have you ever heard of resistance training? It’s a type of strength training where resistance is used to build muscle. A Bowflex is a good example – you build muscles by pulling on cables attached to flexible rods. As the rods bend, they provide resistance – pulling against you. This causes your muscles to engage, giving you a workout and building muscle.
Guess what? The rein can be a Bowflex too, because as soon as the rein is tight – the horse is turning on muscles to resist you. You are not only building your own arm muscles but building muscles in the horse – muscles that prevent him from moving athletically.

Now that you’re aware of this, here’s a tip – if anyone asks you to pull harder, yank, take excessive contact or the like – you now know better. Your best option: simply take 5 minutes to explain this basic theory to them. Refer them to this article or to any equine practitioner or trainer that understands horse physiology and can explain the why, not just the how.

Light on the Reins.

We all desire a horse that is light on the reins – that is, he is able to respond to the slightest feel of a rein. That goal can never be reached if we don’t give him the chance to do so. If the horse isn’t responding to the rein, pulling the rein harder is not a good solution. It might seem like it is, after all for us humans, if something doesn’t move, we just push it harder, right? Not in the case of a horse – remember, he’s a thinking, feeling animal.

There are several reasons a horse will not respond to a light feel: fear, leadership issues, not knowing how to respond to pressure, expectation that he’ll get his face yanked on or distraction.

Ever see a horse that jerks his head up or rears? It’s a trained behavior. Horses that have been yanked on learn to pull. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, remember? Sometimes it can be tempting to jerk on a lead rope to get the horse’s attention, but the negative consequences of that far outweigh any momentary fix we might get.

The point is, we DON’T want to teach the horse that the lead rope or rein will cause him discomfort and pain. We DO want to use the lead rope or rein to cause the horse to release muscular and mental tension.

What is the better way?

There are a few important pieces which go into the answer. We’ll look at two fundamental requirements:

  1. FOCUS. We train our horses that when there is stress or distraction, that the answer is always to focus on us. When they do, they can then follow our focus. But before that can happen, we must be presenting a focus [read more about this here]. We also learn how to use pressure as a positive cue, and teach the horse that the response to pressure is to release tension and focus on us. Many times our problems result due to a lack of focus. This could be because another pressure has drawn their attention (like a deer jumping in the trees) or because they have been trained to ignore us (very common scenario in lunging / round-penning exercises where thought is given to the horses body but not his mind).
  2. LEADERSHIP. We need to be the leader in a herd consisting of us and our horse. We often have a grey area in our leadership agreement with our horses. Even I find myself having to detail that agreement once in a while – we’re all human and we get sloppy. When we are the leader though, we can work with both a dominant horse and a fearful horse the same way. We touch on all those details in every clinic but get really into it in the Progressive Horsemanship  and Liberty to Riding clinics. The point being, that when the pressure is on, the horse will defer to following the leader – you, versus another horse, or himself.

When these pieces are in place you’ll find that you no longer have a need to get tight on the rein or lead rope.  Here’s a little example of what I’m talking about.

When things are not going right.

If you feel you’re in a position where you think you have to pull or jerk on a rope or rein, first of all, DON’T (unless your life depends on it). Take a deep breath and evaluate the reason. It’s likely one of the following:

  1. The horse is focused on something else,
  2. The horse is scared and thus fleeing or freezing,
  3. Or the horse feels he is above you in the herd and therefore you should be following his lead.

In my clinics we focus on each of those three things. We discuss use of the lead rope and rein and how exactly to use it to assist in building softness and athletic ability. We explore the bio-mechanics of the horse and exactly what goes on in his body (and mind) to produce the motions we desire – and how the rein, seat and legs assist that. This knowledge is a fundamental part of riding.

The fantastic part of this is that these principles apply to every discipline and every horse in existence. The reason is this: the horse is a horse. His mind and body work the same way regardless of the discipline he’s ridden in. Once we have this basic understanding and some practice, we can apply it to whatever we do – with lasting success.  Hats off to Sir Isaac Newton!


Scott Phillips

July 2018

When your horse is RIGHT – Part III

This is Part 3 in a 3 part series. Make sure you read Part 1 and Part 2 first!

Now back to our original dilemma. You’re riding your horse and planning on a left turn. Your horse starts to, or has turned to the right instead. What are you going to do? I received some great answers on the forum and email with thoughts from folks.

Here’s what works for me. Lets look at the solution through the possible scenarios:

  1. The horse has already turned right. Sorry, we’re too late. Even though we may not have picked up on it, his thought of turning right was there before he actually turned and we missed the cue. That’s our leadership error and not his fault so we can’t reprimand him for that. In this case we make his turn our turn: since the horse has already turned right, we take leadership of the right turn. Then, repeat the exercise noting the point where the horse was drawn to the right. Now proceed to step 2.
  1. We feel him being drawn or pulled to the right, but he hasn’t committed yet. If the horse has previously turned right (1) then we present a forward focused energy to the left with greater intensity and clarity than we did the first time. If your energetic direction outweighs the pressure drawing your horse away…done! If that isn’t enough, the proceed to step 3.
  1. In (2), we will sense or see our horse’s focus change from following our path to his desired path to the right. The moment that happens, we need to signal our horse to follow us. When a horse has a thought that turns into action, it happens in this order: mind, eye, head, body. We want to catch this at the ‘mind’ stage – if we wait until the head or body stage, we’re back in step 1. To correct this – BEFORE we pick up a rein – we need to signal him to follow our FOCUS to the left. That might be as simple as a tap with your foot, a cluck, a tap with a crop, or – if you need to create a larger pressure – wave a flag by the right side of his head.


The reason this happens is easy to understand and based on a known principle of how the horse thinks: The horse is always drawn to the highest pressure. It’s a prey animal survival instinct. Your horse is turning right or thinking of turning right because what is over that way is a higher pressure than your current focus or presentation.

If we have done our job in teaching a horse that pressure means, “release and follow me” then adding a correct pressure to signal our horse in those moments will cause him to release his other thought and change to following our focus.

I have to be very very clear here – this works great only when your horse understands that pressure is a cue to release and follow you. We teach this as a basic function of our leadership in all of our clinics and lessons. It is a fundamental, primary and immensely powerful tool in your horsemanship toolkit.

Our intention is that we produce a horse that can follow our energetic focus so we are not reduced to steering him with the reins like a mindless robot: an attempt to control the horse because we haven’t acquired the leadership skills to have him follow us. Energetic direction is a primal communication method that horses use continually. All we need to do is polish our ability to speak it.

Watch the Video

Want to learn more? Join us for a clinic or lessons and take your relationship with your horse to a new level of athleticism.

When your Horse is RIGHT – Part 2

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, click here and read it first.

I had little understanding of the horse when I first started riding. I was taught, “squeeze go to, pull to stop or turn”. In my role as an instructor, I’ve found that many folks have been taught the same. We were never required to take a course on how horses think or how their bodies work. I’ve come to realize that those are the most important parts of riding, because once we have that understanding, horses make sense. And when they make sense, we can work with them in a supportive way – all the time. I’m happy to say we can advance our riding skills exponentially by learning a few subtle things. And, like horses, we’re able to change the way we handle pressure and frustration.

The author with two of his horses, Ty and Spud.

I believe that horsemanship is a small amount of horse knowledge, a desire to learn and a whole lot of selfmanship.
– Scott Phillips

Here is a little selfmanship test for you:

If you were having a conversation with another person and they disagreed with you, what would you do?

Some of us will start getting tense right way and while the other person is speaking we’re formulating a defense of our own opinion. Some of us will cut the other person off because we’re offended. Some of us will pause, realize that the other person believes in their ideas just as strongly as we believe in ours. Some of us will really listen. Some will leave the conversation. Some of us will instantly agree with the other person for fear of offending them.

Think about what you would do.

Your answer is important. How you handle differences in opinion is your style; you’ll apply it all the time – when talking to customers, working with horses and practially everywhere else. If you choose to be offended or become defensive with a person – or if you always defer to the opinion of others, you will likely do the same with a horse. This is because over time, we program ourselves to respond the same way when similar situations present themselves.

Taking offense is actually something you can be chemically addicted to. So is assigning blame (to yourself or others) or feeling sorry for yourself. In your brain, this is similar to a “thrill-seeking rush”. When we are about to experience pleasure or thrill, dopamine is released in the brain. This tells your brain, “Hey, get ready, this is about to be good!” What actually causes the pleasure is another process, but that’s out of the scope of this discussion. All we need to understand is that it’s easy to program our brain for a chemical high when we are feeling sorry for ourselves, angry or defensive.

Have you ever knowingly told a lie? Don’t lie here! Remember that feeling you get – it is a chemical high – it’s a rush: “Am I you going to get away with it?” And it is addictive.

Lets put this into a practical perspective and find a solution. Here is the scenario: you are accompanying your friend to the dealer to look at new trucks.

Your friend says, “Wow – I LOVE the look of these new 2018s!”

You don’t love the new trucks – you have a 2015 that you think looks better – and can’t help feeling that your friend has just insulted your truck. So what do you do? You’ll feel that dopamine trigger coming on. It’s what precipitates that rush. Now here is a GREAT opportunity to practice your horsemanship. Break that pattern. Stop the rush by taking a deep breath. Smile and refocus. Now, as hard as this might be, LISTEN TO, ACKNOWLEDGE and VALIDATE what your friend said.

You’ll find when you do this, you’ll also get that chemical response. You’ll feel good about what you said and how it positively affected your friend. With practice your response will change without you thinking about it. And you will become a better leader, a more trusted friend…a better horseperson.

Here’s one solution to this scenario, and this doesn’t mean you have to agree; nor do you have to lie. Try saying, “You have a great point! They sure have made some big changes!” It’s not our job to convince other people of our opinions. Your friends already know what you think. Acknowledge their opinion, validate it, but don’t argue.

Practice this. Don’t shy away from situations that might make you angry or opinionated. Instead, seek them. Practice asking others for their opinion, acknowledging and validating. Outside of our horse lives, we are presented with daily opportunities to practice “selfmanship”. Go for it.

Do you see where this relates to horse riding yet?

Back to our original example. If you have provided an energetic directional focus for your horse (see this article for information on FOCUS) and your horse is indicating he has a different idea – but has not yet taken action – then the following is true:

  • Your horse knows what direction you are asking well before you consider the rein as an option.
  • There is a pressure drawing your horse to the right. This could be a number of things from a desire to get back to the gate ‘because that’s where we stop’ or a buddy calling, etc.
  • Your horse is in a position to choose one of two options: follow you OR follow his thought.

We know that the horse’s mind has a singular focus and that focus will be on the highest pressure at any given moment. So who is right? How are you going to get your horse to turn to the left without an argument?  I’ve given lots of hints in this article – have you figured out a solution?

Stay tuned for Part III


Scott Phillips

May 2018

When your Horse is RIGHT – Part 1

Let’s start this off with a hypothetical (or not so hypothetical) situation. You are riding your horse. You want to turn left, but your horse turns right.

Was your horse wrong to do that?

You answered that question in your head almost immediately after you read it, didn’t you?   In this three part series, we’re going to dig deep into what is really happening in your horse’s mind, and how we can work with that to achieve a consistently positive outcome – for both of you.

What your answer was depends on how you typically conduct yourself in potentially confrontational situations. There are generally three different responses here. Let’s look at them.


The Thought

The Thought Process

“The horse must obey me because I am the human.” The horse was wrong, it’s not my fault and I’d better speak to the trainer.
“Oops, ha ha! We’ll just go with it and try it again next time!” Who cares anyway? Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
“Oh crap! I messed it up again!” I blame yourself. It has to be my fault! What am I doing wrong?!?

What would you do? What should we do? We’re going to chat about a fourth option.

Lets start by looking at an indisputable fact:

A horse following the rider’s focus.

Whatever your horse does, he has a reason for doing it.

In his mind it is the right thing. A horse’s mind – and then his body, if left to follow his thought – will be drawn to the highest pressure. That might be the gate, his buddy or running in fear.  Read my last article on Teaching Horses to Handle Pressure for some great insight on this.

Here is my thought. You’re both right. You have a good reason for wanting to go left and he has a good reason for wanting to go right. If, in your mind, the horse is wrong then you’re having a conversation breakdown. No different than if you disagree with a person.

Let’s touch on conversation. What is the most important trait of a good conversationalist? That’s right! Being a good listener. In addition to that, one of the most important jobs of a good leader is causing our followers to want to follow us. The solution – our fourth option – then, is a combination of the two.

One of the biggest blunders we can make – and believe me I’ve made it a million times – is not listening to the horse. It happens. You might be on a trail ride with some buddies and focused on your conversation more than you are your horse. He might be giving you subtle signs, but you’re not picking them up because you’re fixated on your friends tale of Facebook drama.

The good thing though, is that we can remedy this easily. The horse has a simple language that doesn’t take us long to learn. If, that is, we commit to learning it.

Let’s look at our example again. We desire a left turn. For that to be successful, we need the following:

  1. Knowledge of where our our horse’s mind is. If he’s under pressure, thinking of escape routes, thinking of his buddy or just about anything else, then one fact is clear: he is NOT thinking of following our focus.
  1. We must present a focus that the horse can follow in the first place. If we don’t provide him with something to follow, it should be no surprise that he does what he wants. And in my mind, he’s justified in doing so. Watch my Horsemanship Top Ten video on Situational Awareness to learn more. 

Learning to communicate in the language of the horse should be a prerequisite to riding and should be the starting point for all lessons, coaching and training.  If we lack an understanding of horse psychology or physiology we will eventually get frustrated, resort to force (kicking, pulling, submission) or at the worst, get injured.

Stay tuned for Part Two to figure out how we take this dilemma to a great outcome!
Scott Phillips

April 2018

Teaching our Horses to Handle Pressure

At Amazing Horse Country, we start our clinics making sure that our horses follow our leadership…and can release to higher levels of pressure. Here’s the scoop.

The words pressure and stress are sometimes used interchangeably. However, in our style of horsemanship, they are distinctly different.

The definition of pressure that I tend to favor is “A compelling force or influence.” I like that because it really works in the context of horse training, as in, “The horse is compelled to follow me,” or “I can influence the horse’s decisions.” Pressure is something you can produce and use in a positive way.

horse pressure stressThat is markedly different than the definition of stress, which is, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Physiologically, stress is a condition where the subject can experience an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, increased blood pressure and muscular tension.

What you can take from this is that stress is an undesirable condition of the mind and body, whereas pressure can be a very valuable training tool. Also, know that pressure can produce stress and this is important because – in a controlled situation – we can use this to teach a horse how to handle high degrees of pressure.

I have to clarify that we’re not going to pressure the horse and hope he can handle it. While tying a plastic bag to him and waiting until he eventually stops losing his mind will tell us that  he is OK with that particular bag in that particular place at that particular time…it will not demonstrate that he has learned what to do with pressures.

Instead, we’ll mindfully introduce a pressure and show him what to do with it.

What causes stress is unique to every individual. In this sense, horses and humans are much alike. I see this in every obstacle course and trail clinic. One horse might be scared of an object where another isn’t even interested. People are no different. Some people love heights and some freeze in fear at the very thought of being on ladder.

horses pressure stress

Motion by the eye is a pressure.

It’s very easy, intentionally or unintentionally, for us to cause stress in a horse. One of the most primary things to remember here is that the horse is an intelligent, thinking animal, just like you. He has fears and values, just like you. He has the ability to try and can feel success and pride, just like you. But unlike you he doesn’t have the ability to rationalize, make logical decisions nor perform comparative analysis of dissimilar objects or scenarios.

Sometimes we run into trouble with horses because we expect them to rationalize and use moral grounding like a human. In one of my Horsemanship Top Ten videos, I talked about how the horse’s brain works. Check it out. So, although we might not like what a horse is doing, it is IMPOSSIBLE for him to have a behaviour problem or to know better because that requires a moral basis for which to compare his actions – something he cannot do because of the limitations of his brain.

Instead, let’s focus on the reality of the situation; that the horse is reacting to pressures in his environment the way HORSES react to pressures in their environment. We’ve all had experiences with nervous horses, skittish horses, horses that kick, buck or even bite. Horses that are scared to move forward; horses that won’t slow down. Horses that want to be all over you and in your space; horses that don’t want to be anywhere near you. Horses that have trouble on one side vs the other – be that a lead change or a side-pass or even saddling or leading.

All the scenarios above stem from the same thing:

Horses respond to a pressure in the only way they know how to react.

And here is the one of the most important cornerstones of our horsemanship style:

We can show the horse an entirely different way of dealing with pressure, so that it no longer creates a stress and in fact, causes him to release tension and focus on us. This opens the door for the horse to be balanced and perform like an athlete.

Here’s the proof: check out this video of a horse I worked with.  “Johnny” was abused by a trainer to the point that he bucked, reared and struck and kicked at the sight of a saddle pad.


Where stress originates.

Stress in a horse’s environment can originate from pressures in three different categories:

  1. Herd pressure – This includes separation from companions and herd integration; for example, a new horse is introduced to the herd OR your horse does not know where he fits in the herd. The latter is a very common scenario in the horse’s relationship with humans.
  2. Predator pressure – As a prey animal, the horse’s first thought of the unknown is, “Is it going to eat us?” Their reaction to this stress is typically flee, freeze or in some cases, fight. What is important about Predator pressure is quite simple. Horses were born prey, and humans were born predators. The significant factor here is this: we can CHOOSE whether or not to act like a predator. We’ll choose to model a lead horse in our actions and feel.
  3. Physical pressure – Factors that relate to your horse’s body. These include being tired, thirsty, hungry or sore. Physical pressures also includes imbalance. If your horse is not balanced in his stance and movements this also causes muscular and mental tension.

Just like people, horses handle stress in ways unique to the individual. I see this in every clinic. One horse will walk up to an unknown obstacle and want to sniff it – or even grab it and shake it…and the next horse will be frozen in fear, snorting with wide eyes. The pressure is the same: the obstacle. However the stress it causes varies from horse to horse.

What is invariably the same across horses – and species for that matter – is that stress causes mental fatique, muscular tension, and a decreased ability to think clearly.

Take note…

There are different methods that you’ve probably heard of including desensitizing and bomb-proofing. An important thing to realize is that teaching a horse to stand still is NOT teaching him to handle pressure. Conversely, restraining a horse – with the lead rope or reins – while inducing

horses pressure stress

Lots of pressure over the horse’s head and back.

stress is a great way to teach him to rear, buck or learn to ignore.

Also, a horse that is not fleeing in fear is not necessarily accepting the pressure. The most likely scenario is that his level of stress is not yet at the point where he’s going to do something about it – and if your horse hasn’t been shown a different option, then his responses will be those of instinct. Horses that flee will take off, horses that freeze will buck or rear, and horses that fight will fight.

Stress is Cumulative

I had someone in a clinic recently ask me, “Why does my horse sometimes spook at a specific thing and sometimes not?” What we humans can relate to is that stress is cumulative. When the horse’s cumulative stress is more than he can handle, he’ll react in an obvious way. If it’s less than that, then you might feel him tense or simply see his attention shift.

Let’s say that we can measure pressures on a scale of 1-10, and consider this scenario. You have an important appointment in the morning in town. You get up to find your lane-way drifted over in 2 feet of snow (perhaps a 2/10 in pressure). So you go to get the tractor to plow out the lane-way, already knowing you’re going to be late. The tractor is in the shop…but you left your truck parked in front of the door. You go to start your truck, and…nothing. (3/10 in pressure, total stress: 5/10). You walk around the other side of the truck and see that your spouse unplugged your truck to plug in the car because you told her/him that you were taking the car into town – your fault. (2/10 in pressure, total stress: 7/10). As your line of sight follows the cord to the car, you see that the left front tire is flat. (4/10 in pressure). This is where folks ‘snap’ or ‘lose it’. UNLESS they have a way to deal with it.

A horse is exactly the same. A horse that can hold it in can only do so until the cumulative stress exceeds what he can handle. You might not even be aware of all the individual pressures he is experiencing. A horse that is not moving under pressure might not be bomb-proof; he could very well be a ticking time bomb. I’ve seen this happen enough times to recognize it.

Training for Pressure

The path to success is to prevent pressure from producing undesired stress by showing the horse another way to deal with it. We do this primarily in two ways that we practice simultaneously.

  1. Stress causes muscular tension that is first manifested in the poll and neck. We can teach a horse to release those muscles when pressure is applied by connecting indirectly to those muscles through the lead rope or reins. Note: this does NOT mean pulling NOR does it mean a constant pressure – either of those will cause muscles to ENGAGE not RELEASE.
  2. The second and most important piece is mental stress. What caused that muscle to engage in the first place? You got it – his brain! Here’s the ticket: IF, and only IF the horse is following you as the leader, then he will follow your feel when he has a question about a pressure in his environment. The extent to which he will follow you depends on the amount of trust he has in you – read this article to find out about that. What we’re really doing when we apply a pressure to a horse is to say, “Feel like me.” And how should you feel? Confident. Relaxed. Positive. The horse will pick that up from you just as easily as he can sense your fear.

One of the first things we do at AHC with new clients or in clinics, after we’ve developed a leadership agreement with our horse, is to teach the horse what do do with higher levels of pressure, so that those pressures do not produce unwanted stress. In essence, we’re giving the horse a stress management tool to use instead of his instinctive flee, freeze or fight responses.

What we show horses is that pressure is a cue to release tension, focus and follow us. Can you start to think of how valuable this is in any environment? Here are just a couple examples that I’ve personally experienced:

horse pressure stressYou’re on a trail ride and a deer jumps out on the trail – the other horses spook but your horse relaxes and waits for your guidance.

I was riding Ponkey on a trail with some folks at Yaha Tinda years ago. Something spooked the horse at the front, the rider got bucked off and it was a moment of mayhem. Ponkey did nothing, because I hadn’t asked him to do anything yet. We calmly walked over to a tree where I got off, tied him up and went to help the others.

A horse that pulls back learns that the way to relieve that tension in the rope is to relax.

My mare, Belle, got caught in a wire a couple of years ago. She didn’t struggle, but instead lay down and waited for help. If she would have pulled at all, she would have sliced right to the bone – it was a very fine wire.

How about saddling for the first time? Wouldn’t it be great to know your colt can handle the pressure of a saddle BEFORE you toss it up there? You can! It’s how we start horses here. You can see some of this in action in my videos with my wildie, Zeus.

There is so much value in teaching a horse how to handle pressure – instead of hoping that he can deal with it. I’m sure you can think of many examples from mounted shooting to competition stress to parades…essentially, anytime you’re with a horse.


Scott Phillips

March, 2018

forward focus horse riding

A Quick Chat about Focus

You may have heard me talk about Situational Awareness in clinics or watched my video on it.  You’ve likely been told at some point in a riding lesson or clinic, to FOCUS or LOOK UP. Yes, it is important to look where we’re going, but FOCUS is more than that. Lets look at some of the underlying fundamental components.

1. Visualization – See it happen before it happens.

Since what we do on a horse is dynamic – that is – it’s in motion, a good idea is to play a video in your mind of what you are going to do before you do it. This starts with a vision of the actual path you are going to ride. Once you’re riding, keep thinking a few seconds ahead.

Studies have shown that visualization can enhance the performance of competitive athletes. Riding a horse is no different. When you visualize something, your concentration is engaged, your coordination is triggered and fear and anxiety are reduced.

2. Energy – Feel it happen before it happens.

Having an image or ‘video’ in your mind is certainly part of the equation. Now, infuse that image with positive forward energy – not only do you want to visualize what it LOOKS like, you need to FEEL what it’s going to FEEL like when you do it.

We know that when your horse is truly following you, he’ll also follow how you feel about something. Is it scary (are you nervous)? Is it good (are you positive)? Are we moving? (are you exhibiting forward energy)?

Consider for example a transition to a lope on the arena wall. You not only need to visualize the path (circumference of the arena) but the positive forward energy associated with the gait or transition. I’ve asked many students to think about times that they’ve experienced that sort of energy. Some say galloping freely down a trail with a big smile. One said, “Front row at Garth Brooks!”

Now, energize your path with that!

3. Connection – Do it WITH your Horse.

If you’ve watched my video on merging technical and feel, this is part of it. Whatever you’re doing with your horse you’re doing it TOGETHER. You’ll find a connection with your horse when he is following you physically and energetically. The converse is that the horse is simply trained to perform a maneuver on cue regardless of what the rider is doing.

Personally, I like to ride my horse with the feel that my hips are his hips and my shoulders are his shoulders. I also look forward and up off the ground. I find that the combination of those are important components in helping us achieve lateral and longitudinal balance, straightness and elevation…and maintaining a proper riding posture. You’ll find that when you work towards this, the horse begins to emulate you; to become a mirror of you in many ways.

Sometimes it’s easy to get tricked into having a tunnel vision focus.  You look at your hands, or the barrel, or the cone.  On a trail ride you might look at the EDGE of the bridge or a river.  When you do that – and believe me I’m writing from experience! – your horse has no focus to follow.  If you want to cross that river, look to the other side (that also keeps you from drifting)!  Last week I messed up a flying lead change because my focus went to the barrel that we were using as a turn point.  My poor mare had no idea what was going on in that moment.  I could only laugh because I knew exactly where I’d screwed up.  The next time, however, I kept my vision up and FELT us ENERGETICALLY on the path before we rode it.  No problem that time!

When you put these all together the horse will be able to follow you. Horses follow the energetic direction of other horses and the herd. Recently I was working my horse Ditch while riding my mare, Belle. He was at liberty and he was doing a large canter circle around our small canter circle. I’ll get a video of this soon! To achieve this required my focus be on the space around our whole circle – not just directly in front of me – and not just on one horse or the other. You’ll have an idea of what that feels like if you’ve done any liberty work in our clinics – it’s awesome!

Feb 2018

Scott Phillips

alien planet - the false consensus effect

The False Consensus Effect in the Horse World

It’s Psychology 101 time!  Ever heard of the False Consensus Effect? This is a fun one because we can all relate to this.

Let me pose a question: How do we make sense of the world around us? 

It’s an interesting question you might never have thought about.  Let’s have some fun putting this into context.  Suppose you’re an explorer and have landed on an alien planet.  You observe cultures and customs that are nothing like anything you’ve seen before.  You have no idea what is going on or why anyone is doing what they do.  How are you going to start making sense of that?

alien planetYour brain will want to make order of what you see.  Your understanding of something you are not familiar with starts by using information you already have.  Without consciously thinking about it, you’ll start with a base: that your opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical.  From that you will start making comparisons, assessments, seeking similarities and sometimes making judgments and assumptions.

This is a known phenomenon called the False Consensus Effect.  In essence it is the belief that everyone thinks the same way you do.  This effect is exacerbated when you’re in a group of people that do share common values or beliefs.

The reason it’s false is that people don’t all think the same way.  Everyone has different thoughts, values and understandings.  It’s what makes the world an interesting place to live in. Can you imagine what our social culture would be like if everyone agreed on everything?  If everyone liked exactly the same things?  It would sure make marketing easy, that’s for sure.  Political debates would be a thing of the past.  Facebook and Instagram wouldn’t need ‘likes’.

In our horse world, we can observe the False Consensus Effect in a few different scenarios.

  1. A belief that the horse thinks as you do and shares the same values.  Lets start off by stating the obvious – not only is the horse a different species but he has significantly less cognitive ability than you.  Primarily an instinctual animal, the horse’s lack of human cognitive ability causes him to:
    • fear the unknown,
    • seek a herd order (with you, too),
    • not be able to reason his way through a problem,
    • not be able to make associations (i.e. all muddy puddles are the same)
    • and many other things if you take the time to think about it.

    The False Consensus Effect will cause us to project our own values, opinions and beliefs on the horse.  Because he’s different and we don’t think like he does, the way we make sense of his actions is to use ourselves as the comparison.  We use phrases like, “My horse is misbehaving.”  or “My horse doesn’t respect me.” or “My horse is acting fussy.”  Because if it were us doing those things, that’s what we’d think about it.

    That’s no different than hearing someone say, “My car hates me.  Every time I drive it, it breaks down.” Sometimes we refer to this phenomenon as personification.  That means that we’re subconsciously pretending the horse (or a car) has human qualities in order to explain away his actions.   We do that when we seek an understanding of what we see but lack the knowledge to explain it.  And it’s critical as horse-people that we overcome this, because it halts our advancement.

    Let’s use our alien planet scenario again.  At some point during the day, all the aliens walk into a building.  You follow.  You watch as, in turn, each alien takes a cup of what appears to you to be acid and pours it on their head.  Obviously they love this – but your belief is that acid will eat through your scalp.  So you hesitate and don’t pick up a cup.  The lead alien is outraged and whacks you with a stick.  Were you misbehaving?  Were you disrespecting the leader?

    Instead of getting angry at the horse for not doing what you wanted, lets put on our responsible leader hat and work through the issue in a way that will end up in a positive for both you and your horse.  Here’s a few steps:

    • Before reacting, take a moment to think about what happened, and using knowledge of how a horse thinks and acts, why.
    • Assess your horse.  What does he need?  Clear leadership?  Freedom from brace?  Athletic development?  The ability to handle pressure in a positive way?
    • Work with him to provide those things.
    • Watch as what you used to think of as behavior problems and disrespect quickly disappear.
    • Experience a greater trust and positive relationship with your horse.
    • Enjoy the fruits of your labor!


  2. The group mentality.  If you ride a specific discipline, ride with the same group of friends or honor a specific clinician / trainer that promotes certain methods or styles, you’ll likely adopt their practices.  That’s what learning is all about.  Let’s face it, when we start off in the horse world we know nothing.  But we want to know something – that’s honorable.  What we do sometimes is mimic others and rationalize (or seek rationalization of) why others are doing what they do.  As we gain knowledge, we might not agree with those actions anymore and drift to a style that more closely aligns with our values and beliefs. We can all look back through our mental history at practices that we’d never engage in now; some we might not necessarily be proud of.  At the time we thought our actions were justifiable, but now we know better.  It’s a part of learning and it’s a part of being human and we all go through it.horses are not defective
  3. When confronted with evidence that a consensus does not exist, we often assume that the horse (or person) is defective in some way. You’ll be intimately familiar with this one. I can guarantee you’ve heard someone say, “My horse isn’t doing this, what’s wrong with him?”  or “My horse isn’t taking the right lead.  I’d better have him adjusted.” Our first presumption – because we’re using our own bodies and values as a reference – is that something is wrong or something is out.  That’s only a fraction of the reality of possibilities, but when we don’t have an understanding of how the horse’s mind and body work together we have nothing else to go on. We make presumptions using our understanding of humans as a basis of comparison.  But because the horse is not you, the comparison has no validity.

I once worked with a client once that had this concern: “My horse side-passes to the right fine, but when I pressure her to side-pass to the left, she crow-hops.  What’s wrong with her?”

First of all, a horse having more difficulty with pressure on one side is almost a given.  Lets look at how the mental and physical pieces tie together here.  If she’s having trouble with pressure on her right side (asking for a left side-pass) then when pressure is applied, her response will be to brace.  That means her mental tension has led to physical tension – muscles that need to be loose in order to move are now tight. With tension in her lower back and shoulders, she will be physically unable to move as intended.  Applying more pressure will cause her to brace more, making it even harder.  Eventually if more pressure is added, she will do something – and that could be buck.

So what was the solution?  We showed her how to release, soften and yield to pressure, particularly on the right side. The owner and I discussed her mare’s body and what has to happen bio-mechanically in order to perform the maneuver. We broke the exercise down into component pieces and worked on them individually: release in forward motion, adding pressure to release on the right side and then moving the front and hind independently.  Sound like a long term process? It wasn’t. The majority of that work was done in one session.

The benefit is that, armed with knowledge and it’s practical application, this horse – and her owner – will never have the problem again.  Likely she’ll never have this problem with any horse she works with in the future either, because she has an understanding she didn’t have before.

So how do we avoid the treacherous False Consensus Effect?  In a nutshell, we learn about how our horses think and how their bodies work.  With that knowledge we no longer have to guess about why a horse is doing what he’s doing, and we can shrug off the chains of personification and start advancing in our success.  

Happy 2018!

Scott Phillips – January 2018

In each one of our Amazing Horse Country clinics we learn to work with your horse in a way we know he understands.  We learn his language, a bit about how his body works, and use that to ask him to do things in a logical, progressive manner.  We learn about his fears and need for leadership and then we learn how to help him surmount those difficulties. Everyone in our clinics is ultimately working toward the same goal: enjoyment and success through riding their horse in whatever discipline or event they’re involved in.  We are a growing community that supports each other and celebrates our successes.