Category Archives: Horsemanship

Thought provoking articles on building a better relationship with your horse.

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.

 

scott and zeus

Peace in your Leadership

Your horse might sometimes be calm and relaxed with you…and at other times he seems distracted or frightened.

How about this for an example: When he’s at home in his pasture with his buddies he’s content when you’re with him. But you haul him off to a clinic and now he’s a nervous wreck.

Why is this? The answer is that your horse is sometimes finding peace in your presence but not finding peace in your leadership.

Let’s examine this in detail. Three categories of pressure can affect your horse. These are herd pressure, physical pressure and predator pressure. When he is free of those pressures he stands calm with a relaxed head and soft eyes. He might lie down in the grass and go to sleep. He might also enjoy your company. The peace your horse is experiencing might be happening when he’s with you, but not necessarily because of you. Your horse does not have to consider you a herd leader to hang out and enjoy your company.

amazing horse country goofing around

Goofing around can be great training!

Sometimes your leadership agreement with your horse can be lacking or unclear. “What? Not me!” you say. In truth, the vast majority of folks can use a little polishing of that leadership agreement. I even need to revisit that from time to time with some of my horses as they grow up or herd dynamics change. The major factor is – and let’s face it – they’re generally with a different herd (their pasture buddies) for more than 90% of their lives. So we have to ensure our leadership agreement is functioning – and strong – when we take them from their pasture herd.

An Important Thought

I need to clear up a couple of misnomers. First, making or forcing your horse to do something does NOT grant us leadership status. Second, if we punish him for being ‘bad’, a ‘behavior issue’ or ‘not obeying’, this also does nothing in his eyes to establish leadership. We are simply teaching him that we are an unpredictable predator capable of causing him distress. We don’t want that. As a leader, we desire that our followers believe we can guide and support them, particularly when they’re struggling.

 

What then, is the leader of the herd (aka YOU) supposed to do? Well, it’s the job of the leader in the herd to decide what is safe and what is not, when to run from and when to ignore pressure, when to eat and when to sleep. If your horse does not believe this of you, there are typically some obvious signs. He walks ahead or behind you when being led. He’s fussy. He’ll turn left when you’re thinking turn right. When riding he might ‘do his own thing’ or ‘not want to do something’. He might even take off on you – whether you’re on his back or not.  In more extreme cases a horse might bite or kick at you.

amazing horse country platform obstacle courseJust to reemphasize: if any of the things I noted above are happening – your horse does NOT have a behavior issue. Humans use a variety of terms – ‘behavior issue’ is one of them – when personifying horses. We personify horses when we don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing and need to explain it somehow. We resort to explaining their actions as if they were humans – simply because it’s something we can relate to.  Our horse’s behavior is completely correct, however. He is behaving exactly the way any horse would that is frightened, knows they are the leader of the herd or confused about/challenging leadership. If we’re not stepping into the leadership role in a very clear, understandable way for him, it’s natural for him to assume that position and take care of matters on his own. Again – he doesn’t have a behavior problem – we have a leadership issue. If you are a proven leader he will follow you and trust in your decisions of what is safe or what to be scared of.

Luckily this is an easy fix. We start each one of our clinics at Amazing Horse Country by ensuring all of our participants are the herd leader in their horse’s eyes. We do this by communicating clearly in their language – not through pain or punishment. In a few minutes, we see fear, fussy, pushy – all those unwanted things – disappear. Your horse will be super calm with a low head. He might even close his eyes and yawn. Why? Because by assuming the leadership role, you take the stresses off his plate.  It’s now your job as the herd leader to manage those stresses.

It’s a great start.  But it’s only just the beginning.  Now you have to prove you deserve the position.

Trust on the Front Line

Trust is an easy word to throw around. Sure you can trust someone. But can you trust them always? Or only when things are going good? What is it that builds a trust that goes one step beyond? The answer is:  experiences. It’s being in a sticky spot, a dangerous place, when someone who has committed to you has pulled you free of that. It’s when your relationship is put to the test and that person comes through for you over and over again.

Granted, these types of front line trust don’t happen every day. They’re special, deep and meaningful.  We remember them.  We tell stories about them.  The most fantastic part of this: in our style of horse training, we create them.

This Front Line Trust is built by repetitive successful experiences – and it’s critical. It’s why we use the obstacle course extensively at Amazing Horse Country. First, you earn the herd leader position. Now you have to prove to your horse you qualify for that position.  Through comprehensive and thorough work on the obstacles or trail course, your horse learns to trust you time and time again. This builds a deep and meaningful trust based on experience.

 

When your horse views you as the leader – you are now shouldered with the responsibility of deciding what is safe, when to run and when to relax. When you have shown time and again that your decisions result in his safety and success, you will earn Front Line Trust.  

Here is the big difference. Your horse will seek you for answers on potentially ‘scary’ situations. And if your answer is “we don’t have to worry about this” – then he likely won’t. We regularly see fear change to curiosity on the obstacle course when this happens.

Conversely, if the horse does not have a solid belief that you are a trustworthy leader, then there is no reason to expect he’ll believe you when you are calm but he thinks he’s going to die.  This is where your horse takes off on you or ‘refuses’ to do something. And he’s absolutely right to do that. He’s a prey animal that, unless he trusts in a higher authority, will do what he has to do to save himself.  For a horse, any unknown is potentially fatal.  It’s really common sense when we consider prey animal thinking and herd mentality.

Peace in your leadership is demonstrated when the horse learns to trust your decisions in pressure situations. Not only is this vitally important, it’s easy to train for. In our clinics the first step is establishing leadership, the second is to develop that under pressure – every obstacle on the course is a pressure of some sort for the horse, so we use these to build his confidence.  Not only confidence in himself but in you. You can take this new leadership agreement to whatever discipline you ride in or off to the mountains on a pack trip. For many folks this is a make-or-break deal for trail riding – they want a horse they can trust. When your horse truly defers to your leadership out of an established trust, what happens in a ‘scary’ situation is now your choice.

Just think about how big that is.

Scott Phillips – November 2017

Feel and Connection

I received a great question from one of my students the other day.

It’s a deep one.

Initially I responded by saying, “It will be in my book…when I get to finishing and publishing it!” However the question is a great one and well worth sharing and discussing. Before we get to it, though, we need a bit of a prelude.

Our conversation started off with a reference to Bill Dorrance discussing feel in his book, True Horsemanship Through Feel. The context of our conversation was about feel as an association to connection versus a physical feel for example, through the rein.

As more folks start to migrate to our style of horsemanship and realize what they can achieve, I find myself fielding more questions: “What is feel?” “What is energy?” “What is connection?” These are great questions that, for a large part, require us to discover the answers for ourselves. I can’t tell you how to feel or connect, but I sure can set it up so that you do. That said, I view my job more as a facilitator between folks and their horses: guiding them to discovery. I incorporate realistic exercises and training – my obstacle and trail courses for example – to assist folks in their personal success with their horse and ultimately, the advancement of their horsemanship.

leona and spudWithout the restrictions of methods and levels, we’re free to explore at our own pace as our abilities grow. That results in our style of training being applicable to all horses and all riders, regardless of breed, discipline or experience.

Honestly, once you know a bit about how the horse functions both physically and mentally – and particularly how those two fit together, you’ll be saying, “This is common sense!” As you progress, your horse will start to trust and connect with you on a level many riders are unaware of. But it’s at this level where the world really opens up.

Both horses and humans are relational creatures. Both horses and humans are inhibited by fears. In the protective prey-thinking mind of the horse, anything can be a potential threat to their very existence. It’s critical that we recognize when a horse is unsure or afraid. And when we develop the leadership and communication skills to alleviate that fear and replace it with confidence and trust, the horse will really make themselves available to us.

alexa on belleEvery one of us has the ability to produce freedom in the mind of a horse and develop them to any athletic status – dressage to barrel racing.

Lets pick an example. Your horse is having trouble with side-passing to the right and picking up a right lead. This is likely due to a combination of tension and imbalance. We can help him with both. Lets start with some things we know.

We know certain muscles are activated as a response to unease or fear. We call this brace. When our horse is braced, he can’t move athletically. For example, a tight back can result in an inverted posture and an obvious restriction in hind in motion. If you want to feel what brace is like try this exercise:

  1. Stand up.
  2. Now, engage (contract) as many muscles as you can.
  3. Keep those muscles engaged and try to move.

You’ll find movement is impossible unless you release some muscles. That release is what we are asking of the horse.

We know that when the horse releases mental tension, he can release those muscles that prevent him from moving athletically. With his body now available, we can show him how to be balanced – and then those side-passes and right lead departures are there for us.

Humans are not much different. We are great at internalizing. Holding emotions in check. Hiding our fears. We do this for many reasons: we don’t want to try something and fail in front of others. We don’t want to say the wrong thing and upset someone. Even fear of injury – particularly if we’ve been in a wreck with a horse before. Maybe you’re getting back into riding after a long abstinence. There are countless reasons and, just like horses, they’re particular to the individual.

The problem is that when we hold things in, we also hold things back. We’re acting instead of letting our true selves show. I remember taking my first archery lesson years ago with a friend. Of course we wanted to appear masculine and suck that belly in a bit. But the instructor was all over that right away! Why? Because engaging those muscles produces tension. That tension prevents accuracy which is obvious when you look at the target. The answer – release! Relax. Breathe deep. Turn off those muscles that cause tension so that your athletic ability (using the correct muscles in a correct amount at the correct time) is enhanced.

It’s exactly the same for the horse. Still with me? Awesome, because that completes the prelude. So…are you ready to jump into this rabbit hole? Like I said, it’s a deep one!

Here is the great question that spawned this article:

How does one release the tension and defenses if you are not really aware of it? Explain defences. Tension I think I get, for me it’s anticipatory sometimes of what might occur or it’s subconscious. I am usually always in awareness…or self awareness. Maybe even hyper-aware sometimes. How does this translate to the horse and feel?”

 

This is a deep question! It touches on many points – each of which could be a book in itself. Lets dissect this question.

People have a plethora of defensive mechanisms that manifest themselves when we work with horses. Do a search on “common defence mechanisms” to read all about it. You’ll relate to some. We all do – we’re only human, after all!

One of the keys to a successful relationship – with horses or people – is to be aware when we engage those defensive mechanisms. Then, choose not to. It’s not easy. The best advice is to practice this in every relational activity – talking and listening to your friends. Reading a Facebook post or text that could tempt you to respond negatively.

Pause. Evaluate. Choose a positive action. By taking that moment to pause and consider your best course of action, you’ll increase your ability to be self aware.

Consistently making positive changes in horses requires you to cause positive changes in yourself.

The advantage of being human is we can choose what we want to feel AND choose our reactions AND choose our resulting actions. Horses can’t – they operate out of instinct. We can change aspects of that instinct, causing them to respond differently to stimulus. However horses are not going to ponder for five minutes on how to react to something – they’ll simply react.

So how does this translate to the horse as far as feel is concerned?

Consider having a conversation with a friend after you’ve had some traumatic experience and need to talk about it. Let’s consider two responses:

  1. Your friend takes your hand, looks you in the eyes and says, “Tell me about it.” This is said from their heart – with no concern for themselves. To do this requires that they be open to hearing what you have to say – regardless of what it is. It is impossible for you not to feel this honesty and to respond in kind. You’ll likely be moved that someone really cares about you.
  2. Your friend is thinking, “Oh…here he/she goes again! I DON’T want to hear this!” OR your friend starts reciting some story to top yours OR recounts how he or she handled the same thing. They may even interrupt you to share something about themselves. Again, you’ll be aware when this is happening. And most likely disappointed – this is about YOU after all.

More often than not, people just want to be heard. They don’t need your assessment or comparative analysis– just your acceptance and reassurance. Guess what? It’s the same with horses.

Now I’m going to turn this around and make it real for you. Your horse has something to say to you. They are nervous, unsure or simply don’t understand what is being asked. Which friend are you? #1 or #2? Guess what? You have the power to make that choice.

Here is the difference:

#2 is “It’s all about me!” What the horse requires – freedom from tension and brace, the ability to balance and carry you – isn’t on your radar. Your focus is on your personal immediate goal with your horse versus what the horse needs in order to try for you.

#1 is all about the horse. It’s about lowering your defences and being totally open to listening…to feeling. Without any judgment. Without any preconception. Without any expectation. Because when we go there, we block out ability to feel with our own emotional junk.

scott and zeus

Scott and his wildie, Zeus

If you watch me work with a horse that really needs a reassuring positive connection you’ll likely see me doing a few things to get myself centered: taking a deep breath and letting it out. Relaxing muscles – I unlock my knees as well just to feel loose. I rid myself of any tension I’m carrying. If I go really deep, I’ll close my eyes – our vision can occupy a huge percentage of our brain’s processing power so shutting it off opens your other senses. Now I’m in a place I can feel. With practice this becomes more natural. It’s fairly rare I have to go to that degree of internal peace – starting my wild horse was one of those times.

What is the basis for this? We need to give our horses something to follow. A direction. This is not a physical thing either: it’s no secret that horses can feel what we feel. It’s built into their protective mechanisms. One horse is scared so they’re all scared. You’re nervous so your horse is nervous. They need to have that herd-connected-feel mechanism in order for their species to survive. It’s a finely tuned ability.

We can also develop this ability. And in doing so we develop an incredibly powerful tool: If I feel positive, energetic and ready to take on the world – my horse can mirror that feel too!  Wow.

Connection and Feel are simply energy moving between you and the horse. When I teach clinics we chat about the methods that horses use to communicate. We learn and demonstrate that horses primarily communicate through their space and energy. Those that work their horses at true liberty – where the horse is moving in response to the directed energy of the handler – will understand this. We’ve all seen it and many of us have done it. It’s enlightening…addictive! I love to show folks how liberty exercises directly enhance their riding.

Connection and Feel are analogous to a fire hose. The hose connects you and the horse. When nothing is going on, it’s flat. When it’s in use, water can move through it in one of two directions. The pressure of the water can be increased or decreased. But if we clamp that hose in the middle, it won’t work at all no matter how much pressure we put out there. This is common: many of us have a huge reservation about showing our true selves. Letting go of our defenses and allowing ourselves to be unguarded, exposed.  Being open to trying…and screwing it up. To laugh at ourselves.

When we give power to those reservations, we put a clamp on that hose. I’ve had people tell me, “I’m trying to be energetic and my horse is not responding!” Remember potential and kinetic energy from grade school? We can build up a ton of energy within us (potential) but if we don’t let it out (kinetic) then nothing is going to happen. We’re literally putting the pedal to the floor of our truck – while it’s in park. That energy isn’t getting out there. If you’ve closed the door to letting anything in (i.e. being exposed and unguarded) you’ve closed the door to letting your energy out as well.

This is amusing. In the last two weeks I’ve worked with one student who was exhausted from jet-lag. Another that had the flu. Guess what? They both had the best sessions with their horses…ever. The reason is that their demeanour was calm and fluid as opposed to forced and sporatic. The horses really responded positively to that. It’s proof in the pudding that what is going on inside us is a large factor in our success with our horse.

 

To wrap this up, we can choose to be open…unguarded. We can also choose to be self-serving and defensive. The latter doesn’t work so well with horses; we’ve shut off the lines of communication. Those that ride or train in this defensive regime are the ones that resort to control, submission and obedience to make their horse do what they want. This is never successful in the long run.

On the other hand, those that are open to and willing to learn how to to communicate with the horse in their native language of space, energy, empathy, motivation and focus will feel like the light has just been turned on. Their horses will move with fluidity; free from mental and physical tension.

These are the horses that are willing to try anything for you.

These are the horses that have a look of pride, contentment and achievement on their face at the end of a training session, whether they’re sweating or not.

These are the horses that will look you in the eye like they’re staring into your soul and thinking, “I trust you. I like to be with you.”

These are the horses that stay glued to your side when you take the halter off and walk away.

These are the horses that you’re going to tell stories about for the rest of your life because the experiences were so fantastic and in many cases, positively life-changing.

Scott Phillips

April 2017

Christmas 2016 – Horses and Relationships

Merry Christmas to you, your family and your Horses!

Christmas is only days away. It’s that time of year I pause and reflect on the previous twelve months. 2016 was the first year of full operations at our Amazing Horse Country location. It’s been some time in the making, starting with purchasing a property that was a 1920’s homestead complete with…well…a lot of things that were left behind over the years that had to be rebuilt. There is a lot of work to be done.  But I love the place. It’s convenient to get to and easy to find. Our camping/guest horse area is large and surrounded by trees. There is history here including an old barn that likely dates to the 30’s. It makes me think about all the Christmases that were celebrated here with families gathering together for good times. And really, we’re continuing that tradition at every clinic we host with evening campfires where folks can unwind, meet new friends and share stories. And it’s home for me and my herd.

I wanted to share a little about a video that I posted on Facebook a while ago. You can watch it here. This is a short clip that I shot on my phone while training at Josh Nichol’s a couple of weeks ago. I believe that an integral part of horsemanship is our ability to be honest and open. So here goes: I have been riding this mare for over 10 years. I trust her like no other and she’s saved my bacon a couple of times out in the mountains (read: mountain lions!) She’s my go-to horse when I want to ride and not worry about training.

Zeus over Belle

Zeus stands watch over Belle

But sometimes when we’re close or intimate with someone, we don’t spend the time to nurture that relationship. We take it as a given and are content with that. And because I believe we were both content, I’ve never really dug into working with Belle to the same depth that I would work with a client’s horse. Until recently. And with Belle the results are amazing me. Our feel has always been fantastic, however my error was my focus on the technical with her when we trained. We always hit a plateau because in 100% technical there is 0% feel. Without that connection to her heart – unlike many other horses – she’ll simply quit trying. Good on her, because darn it, that horse still has lessons to teach me.  I thank her so much for that opportunity!

This little video clip doesn’t look like much, but for me, it speaks volumes. Belle was started before I bought her and her initial training was robotic (push-button) in nature. She tended to that type of thinking whenever we rode in the arena. I wanted her to release, move and follow my direction, not wait for a button to be pushed. What you see in the video isn’t a trick or anything I taught her. It’s basic energetic communication between a horse and a rider. Just look at her eyes and you can see it. It’s a blend of feel and technical. Without the feel, she’d just leave. Without the technical I’d be unable to direct her energetically to position herself. What’s great is that we enjoy that in the riding now, maintaining the connection, but blended with technical elements. What’s even better – she loves it.

Chip in the Mountains

Chip’s first real mountain ride.

That is a big part of horse training. It’s a big part of riding. It’s in all of us to produce a relationship like this. And when we go down that path, we find that what’s required of our hands and feet is very subtle. You’re part of the horse and the horse is part of you. Riding takes on a new dimension because the horse follows you energetically – they want to be with you and they want to try for you. The converse is not communicating with the horse at all, in which case riding is reduced to pulling a rein to turn and kicking to go…you get the picture, and that’s obviously a frustrating place to be for both horse and rider. So we don’t go there!

And there are so many parallels to the human world. In fact I don’t they’re inseparable. For example: how we respond, think and behave in a frustrating situation with a horse won’t be any different than how we deal with a frustrating person or a frustrating computer! The reason is because we’re the same person. And isn’t this a great opportunity for us?  In our school, we learn how to communicate with horses and create an environment of support, we can give wings to that and work up to very complex maneuvers with a horse using his body and mind free of brace. At Amazing Horse Country we use the obstacle course extensively for building relationships with horses and people. You will never see a horse being kicked or pulled over an obstacle – because it’s completely unnecessary. Once some basic leadership and communication has been learned, obstacles are not a big deal!

Bailey

Beautiful Bailey.

Not only is it therapeutic for a horse to be ridden this way, but the pride you feel in your horse and yourself is a reward in itself. And it’s no different with people. The relationship I had with Belle was like a couple content in their jobs and kids and home life–they know each other so well, they simply accept in their contentedness. But there’s always a way to enhance, after all Belle is young and we’ve got YEARS to explore! And like human couples, things don’t always go perfect. Our response in those situations is our choice. We can get upset, or we can take a step back, evaluate and figure out the best course of action. Same with horses; it’s totally up to you – no one but you can dictate how you feel.

I had the opportunity to put this all to the test this year. Chip – who is out of Belle, and a…um…character to say the least – rode with me in the mountains this year.  Although he was out there as a baby, this was his first real mountain ride.  And he stunned me with how awesome it went.  It was proof in the pudding of our horsemanship style. The bratty little tyke pulled it off ! Yahoo !  It’s very rewarding to see him finding purpose and pride in the work that we do.

Christmas is a time of relationships. We visit with folks and family that we don’t get to see often. We communicate via cards, email, social media and phone with more people than we do at any other time of year. Why? We’re nurturing relationships, and it feels good. We’re building and maintaining positive. We’re opening the door for continuing relationships and communication. Sometimes we heal old wounds; we forgive and forget and move forward together in a better place.

Chip - the class clown.

Chip – the class clown.

My horses and I share very unique relationships. And I’m as guilty as anyone at being content in what we have, that’s not a bad thing, right ?  But we have the potential for so much more. I’m beginning to really focus on where each horse is at and what steps I can take to get us to the next level, whether that’s the first time saddled, working a cow, a beautiful piaffe or cantering over a suspension bridge (yes we have one!) The progress that my own horses are making now is very satisfying. And it’s funny because I can’t do it without comparing that to the relationships I have with people…with family. What can I do to make those better, too?

Horsemanship is a unique exploration for every person. It’s life enriching. Our work with horses is intertwined with our lives in positive ways that extend way beyond the horse world and branch through all of our experiences and relationships. There is such great potential here – let’s explore it in 2017!

To all of our friends and clients – THANK YOU for all of your support and camaraderie – we hope to see you in the coming season! Have an AMAZING Christmas!

Scott, Ty, Belle, Spud, Chip, Ponkey, Bailey, Zeus, Ditch and Cody