Category Archives: Horsemanship

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

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!


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

A Horse is a Mirror

An essential component of leadership is that our followers emulate us. That applies in many facets of life: your children copy what you do. They are little mirrors of you. Sometimes they key in on certain words you say and repeat them in inappropriate places! On a personal note, I can be a practical joker…oddly enough I’ve been told that Chip – my 6 year old gelding that I’ve raised and trained is just like me. Words like ‘brat’ or ‘mischievous’ or ‘playful’ are commonly heard.  He is undoubtedly a mirror of my own personality.  Here’s a little clip of us playing yesterday.

But the concept of mirrors extends way beyond that. And we can capitalize on it.


Mirror – I look up and ‘feel’ to the right and Ponkey does the same.

Horses don’t have an extensive verbal vocabulary to communicate with each other about how they are feeling. But that doesn’t mean they are not able to the opposite is in fact, true. As a prey animal, the horse species has had to hone many senses in order to survive. One essential sense that is very keen on a horse is that of empathy. The dictionary definition of that word is, The psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of others.

Consider it. One horse senses danger and the entire herd reacts simultaneously. Or think about riding in an arena where the mood of the horses has been very calm…or the opposite. A horse can feel -and mirror – what other horses are feeling. It’s simply an intrinsic part of their communication.

That said, they can most certainly feel what you are feeling. If you are tense, angry, nervous, happy, proud, excited or distracted, you can bet your horse knows that. And if you are established as a leader, then your horse is able to follow your emotional state.


Leading Ponkey on the bridge. Our focus is up and forward. His position with respect to me and his focus does not change throughout the exercise – he’s a mirror of me.

Consider the ramifications of that: you can take a nervous horse to a peaceful state largely by just changing how you feel; by presenting yourself as a calm leader. You can also make a mental mess of a horse by being a mental mess yourself, for example, getting frustrated because your horse is having difficulty getting in the trailer.

A real-life indication of the leadership status you have with your horse can be found when the chips are down.  Lets say that something scary happens on a trail ride.  Does your horse follow you in your confidence, or other horses in their fear?


Incorrect! How NOT to turn a horse. This is exaggerated, but look at all the problems I create here: I lean right thus weighting her right shoulder. I’m twisting my torso causing her discomfort and unclear signals through my seat. My focus is down, not forward, so she has nothing to follow.

Not only do horses follow us emotionally, they follow us physically. A rider that slouches in the saddle or leans in a turn will likely be riding a horse that hangs his head low or falls into a turn. To think about how that feels to a horse, think about piggy-backing a four year old kid that suddenly leans WAY over to the front or side. You’ll be doing a balancing act to prevent yourself from falling. It’s no different with the horse: if you shift all over the place in the saddle, the horse has to continually work to keep you balanced up there. Simply sitting tall and straight, looking up and focusing on your path will produce a horse that is able to elevate and focus on a direction. He will be able to follow you much easier, mirroring your proper posture.


Riding Belle over a platform. My focus is beyond the platform and energetically I’m asking her forward. This gives her something to follow.

Lets consider someone that has this issue: “Why is my horse so fussy ?”  By ‘fussy’ they are referring to the horse flipping his head about.  On observation we see this is happening when the rider has pressure on the reins or lead rope.  The horse is frustrated because nothing – in the language of the horse – is being communicated to them to let them know what the rider is asking.   The horse then has to guess – but any wrong guess is met with a rein.  How do we stop the fussiness?  Well, we start by putting some slack in the reins.  The horse won’t fuss if he has nothing to fuss against!

Calm your hands to produce a calm horse. Horses will get fussy when the reins are used to constantly tell the horse no.

The main point here is that the rein or lead rope is NOT a tool to tell your horse no.  If the horse is not following you, there are positive and encouraging actions you can take to build that leadership relationship with him.

I spent today teaching a group of kids – some of them new to riding – how to steer their horses on obstacles simply with proper posture and focus. An observer noted, “I’ve spent 20 years trying to figure out how to do that!”  It’s not hard. It does however require the rider to let go of the concept of the reins as dirtbike handlebars and communicate properly with the horse.

We work towards having our horses follow our direction and intention aided by minute physical cues. This is built in the groundwork and translates directly to the saddle. Here are a couple of pointers you can practice right away:

  1. Look where you’re going, not at the ground, the back of your horse’s head or your hands. Simply by concentrating on your path you are giving your horse something to follow.
  2. Use your reins with the lightest of touch. You’ll be able to ask the horse for small releases and determine through the feel of the reins if he’s still thinking of you OR thinking of something else.

The horse should be able to follow your lead and initiate or perform a maneuver without you picking up a rein at all – a mirror of your intent. If that isn’t the case, a combination of things is probably happening:

  1. Your horse is above you in the herd order or does not view you as a leader and thus does not have an inclination to follow you (or is testing this); and/or
  2. Your presentation lacks focus or clarity. Either you are not asking or your horse doesn’t know what you’re asking and thus will follow his thought instead of yours; and/or
  3. Your horse is unable to follow you or move properly because he’s in a state of brace induced by fear, improper rein use or negative expectations based on his previous experience (like his face being yanked on).

It’s fairly common to work through these things with the students in our clinics. We work through exercises that build, clarify and maintain your status as the herd leader while at the same time showing your horse how to release and relax so that he can use his body like any athlete should. We build your horse’s trust in you and show you how to communicate your thought and energy to him so he has something concise to follow like the lead horse does in the herd.

Generally we clean up some things in short order, taking your riding and connection to a whole new level and producing a horse that is a willing, accepting and calm partner that will try for you. We had a student in our last clinic say, “I’ve been riding my whole life and I just learned how to lead a horse!” Another comment was, “This is all common sense, but we just never think of it.” That’s very true. There is no mystery, there is no secret method or fancy tool required. Horsemanship is in part a product of leadership and communication.

Consider your horse as a mirror of you, both physically and emotionally. Be the horse you want your horse to be. Being a leader is not simply a groundwork exercise, you lead a horse in the saddle as well by giving them something to follow: your energy, intent, focus and emotional state. You’d be surprised at how simple it is, and how profound the results are – particularly when your horse realizes you’re finally speaking a language he understands.

Scott Phillips

June 2016

Horses and At-Risk Youth

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

at risk youth

Brielle Poteet works her horse.

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

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

at risk youth

Learning the basics of space and energy.

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

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

at risk youth

Scott demonstrates with one of the school horses.

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

Why ?

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

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


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

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

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

mirrors our style of horsemanship.

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

at risk youth

Pass the ball!

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

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

at risk youth

Shaelynn Poteet navigates her horse through an obstacle.

at risk youth

Coralee Poteet and her horse.

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

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

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

Scott Phillips, May 2016

The Obstacle Course – Focus and Follow

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

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

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

Common sense so far, right?

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

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

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

horse leading

Ty leading the herd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I work with many great folks and their horses. I’ve observed a commonality we are all prone to: frustration. This might be frustration with the horse, frustration with yourself or frustration with a particular exercise or event. Here’s a helpful thought, one that may just help you with more than just your horse:

Frustration is simply a product of your expectations.

Frustration isn’t something imposed upon you, it’s something you create for yourself. Put another way, frustration is a result of a path you chose to go down.

Unless you enjoy being frustrated, and who does? – then a way to eliminate frustration in horse training is to change your expectations. Don’t confuse this with lowering your expectations, because our goal is still to produce a clear, concise attempt that leads to a successful result. Instead, ensure that your expectation is realistic within the context, the moment and the situation.

tyroneAnother way of thinking of this is:

Always set up a situation for success.

It can be risky and even pointless to attempt an action without some confidence at succeeding. If there is a huge question mark over whether or not something will work, then step back and evaluate. Every exercise you do and every movement your horse makes has several prerequisite movements that must be executed at some degree of consistency before you can introduce something more complex. Eventually, when you do introduce the next maneuver, be aware that the proficiency with which it can be executed depends entirely on the proficiency you or your horse have attained at those prerequisite steps. Consider that next step as only a test of how well you built the foundation. This way, you don’t end up setting yourself up for failure…and frustration.

I recently helped a student that was having difficulty with a side-pass on a horse she’d recently purchased. We quickly determined that the horse was unable to move his hind because he was bracing from the feel of the rein and the learned expectation that he would get kicked or spurred.

The following unfortunate scenario seems to be common.
 Here’s how it goes:
  1. The trainer asks something of the horse.
  2. The trainer elevates the pressure of their request because the horse didn’t get it.
  3. The only possible response the horse has is to brace (not move) or flee (move but not yield). Elevating pressure is a negative reinforcement that will teach your horse to brace against you and dull your aids.
  4. The trainer realizes the horse isn’t responding and, out of frustration, elevates the pressure even more or resorts to pain as a motivator.

It’s much more rewarding and beneficial to your leadership to produce a fluid, connected yield. A more realistic method is simple:

  1. Recognize the mental state of the horse. What’s really going on in his mind? Is he braced because he is scared ? Is he trying, but confused because he doesn’t know if his tries are correct? Is he frustrated because the current request is beyond his (or your) current ability?
  2. Ensure both you and your horse are starting from a clear, calm state of mind. Achieve release.??
  3. Consider steps that will support your horse in the exercise; steps that will allow him to progress – with obvious success.
  4. Assist the horse in that progression.

Supporting the horse and showing him how to succeed is such a better way.



So what did we do? We started with the very basics of release, yield, space and energy – every step intended to show the horse a better way to succeed…and we eventually connected the rein to the hind.

Now here’s the kicker: my student was no longer frustrated. Why? Because we changed our expectations to those we had a great chance at succeeding at. When we started working with her horse, there was a tremendous amount of licking, chewing and even yawning as he let go of all his tension. Success! Now we were in a good spot to progress to the next step. We continued to work through progressions, praising the horse and really feeling we achieved something with each small step. Frustration eliminated for my student AND her horse.

It’s a different way to look at things. If you set up every situation for a reasonable chance of success you’re starting off on the right foot. Now, rather than focus on the ultimate success, focus on the try; on the attempt. This is how your horse is going to learn he’s on the right track. His tries might be small, but it’s important you recognize and reward them.

Trailer loading. Anyone experience frustration here?

Trailer loading. Anyone experience frustration here?

It has been my experience that when you start looking at things like that, you basically eliminate failure and frustration because they simply don’t exist in that context. It’s a powerful, motivational way of thinking. It doesn’t just apply to horses; it can apply to how you handle everything in your life.

Again, frustration is a product of expectations in a situation that you created. It’s not going so well? Then evaluate and create another situation that will. In a team comprised of you and your horse, you are the leader. Leadership comes with responsibility and accountability.

You are responsible for providing an environment where you and your horse succeed. You are ultimately accountable for his success. You can never blame or punish the horse for his response in a situation you created – to do so is forsaking your role as a leader.

Our clinics at Amazing Horse Country revolve around several key principles. One of them is consistently setting up successful situations for our horses.  In addition to having a great time with friends and horses, we view our 60+ obstacle course simply as a way to evaluate:

  1. Where our horses are at; and
  2. What we need to work on.

We focus on the positive. We focus on your success. We focus on FUN. Thus our horses learn the value in trying and we eliminate frustration.

Scott Phillips, March 2016



In the context of horse training, we often hear the word release when it’s associated with pressure. For example: you pressure the horse and when he responds, you release so he knows he got it right. That is a simplistic example which would require a much more detailed qualitative description in order to determine it’s acceptability within a horsemanship perspective: said pressure could be anything from a feather weight (a signal) on a rein to a whip in the butt (pain). Regardless, the pressure or signal you present to a horse is designed to elicit an expected response. When he responds the pressure stops; you then release the pressure.

There is another definition of release though, that when recognized has much more profound implications in your horse training regime.

This release is not one you provide the horse. Rather it is one that the horse experiences. One that is caused by you.

Pretend for a minute that you work in a small cubicle in a busy city office building. Your phone rings nonstop because you work in a complaints department. You want nothing more than a different job. At the end of the day, simply due to the stress, your neck and shoulders hurt. You have a headache. You are tense. Taking the bus home you’re frustrated at having to stop at every red light. Someone on the bus asks you a question but you’re so stressed you can’t even consider an answer.

This isn’t a far fetched scenario. I was recently listening to a radio program while driving to train some horses, and the topic was how commuting office-types have the highest incidences of stress-related illness.

horse panic

A stressful day at the office.

Keep pretending with me here. You get home. Upon opening the door your spouse is right there. He or she recognizes the state you’re in, takes you by the hand and sits you down on the couch. They then stand behind you and give you the best neck / shoulder massage you’ve ever had. Within seconds, you start to relax. The tension you’ve been holding in your muscles evaporates. The apprehension and negativity that’s been clouding your thoughts like a thunderstorm gives way to a bright sunny day. You could easily imagine yourself on a tropical beach with no cares in the world. When you get up, you’re able to think clearly; to focus. When you walk to the kitchen, your neck and shoulders don’t hurt; you move with freedom. To quote the phrase: it feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.

You are experiencing a mental and physical release.

Some time ago I was working with a student. I was introducing the concept of release as it pertains to a horse; the initial steps of asking for and recognizing tiny releases in her mare. At one point she blurted, “But he’s not doing it!”

This comment spurred this article. Of course, when we ask a horse for something, we expect to see or feel something happen. For beginners, sometimes the thing we need to see or feel has to be somewhat exaggerated. And that’s OK. Our horsemanship senses become honed with experience, and that comes with time and practice. However, many times what the horse does is very minute. So honing this skill is going to require a bit of guesswork. Consider using this adage: If you think the horse did it, they probably did. If you got it wrong, no big deal. But what if their response was very minute and you missed it? Your horse would think their try was incorrect. Better to err in the other direction.

Go back to our scenario again. Say you’re the one giving the massage. How do you know if you’re being effective? Most likely you will sense the person becoming calm. There will be obvious physical signs: relaxing of muscles, closing of eyes perhaps… What if this scenario repeats itself a couple of times per week with your spouse? Soon, you’re going to know by feel – both physical and empathic – how he or she is responding to your touch. And it might take less, each time.

This is the same with horses. To hone our senses, we try to observe and feel the minuscule. To produce this not only requires a light touch, but it also requires that we are relaxed as well. It’s impossible to feel small things if you’re tense, for example, pulling on the lead rope.

horsemanship release

Belle – Ready to Ride

So back to our hypothetical situation. You know when your spouse has relaxed. An observer might not, simply because they’re looking for overt physical moves. In the horse world, this could be a lowering of the head; a common response when a horse relaxes. Consider two things:

  1. A lowering of the head does not necessarily mean the horse has relaxed. They can put their head down and be tense, angry or scared. It’s simply a movement.
  2. A horse relaxing may lower his head. He may not. Depending on what the situation is, his head might already be in a perfect vertical position.

Before we go any further I’ll clear one thing up – I’m not advocating sitting your horse down on the couch and giving him a massage. Although he’d love it, I’m certain your couch would not. Taking a horse to a state of release is a skill we can learn over time. As the trainer and horse gain experience and build their relationship, that time is lessened. Ultimately the horse releases on the feel of the rein or simply your energy and the space you create around him.

horse peaceful spaceTy is the herd leader. Years ago, I keyed into something he does and began teaching myself to emulate it. This was before I’d taken any ‘formal’ training on release.

Generally, the herd follows Ty and does what he does. Go for a drink. Eat, Sleep. Play. I’ve been given the gears for pictures of me stretched out in the grass, under the sun, with a sleeping horse.

But I find complete peace in that space: I can take 5 minutes and not think about work, training a horse, paying bills or the other items on my to-do list. I believe it’s truly health for us to spend some time like that each day. I can step into the pasture with a lot on my mind, and leave with a smile on my face.

A long time ago I realized what draws me is the energetic space that horses create around themselves when they relax. I observe this from a scientific point of view as well: when Ty relaxes, the other members of the herd migrate closer to him and relax. I have witnessed, countless times, Ty standing…with every other horse sleeping in the grass around him.

The question I had was, “Can people create this for a horse?”

Part of this I view as common sense. If my goal is to be a leader for a horse, then my goal is to have them follow me not only in motion, but in thought and energy. This isn’t any different than a good boss in an office of cubicles. We have work to do, but when the boss comes in with a smile and radiates positive energy, it changes the whole feel in the office.

I’ve seen a couple tests of my theory. I’ve taken Ty out of the herd several times for therapeutic massage. Obviously this feels good to him and he releases. What happens next? Slowly other horses drift closer to him. They’ll stand a few feet away, with their heads lowered, eyes half closed…just taking it in.

The answer to the question, then, is “yes.” From the perspective of a horse, it’s simply a basic leadership quality. And just like Ty, in order to cause a horse to be at peace, you first have to create it in yourself.

What I was starting in on with my student was asking the horse to release at the poll. Lets quickly differentiate between the horse moving and the horse releasing. A movement is simply that; a release is both:

  1. The ‘turning off’ of certain muscles: those that are used to brace against or in expectation of something negative;
  2. The release of mental tension.

Just the same as your response to the massage would be both physical and mental.

My answer to the student was, “You’re not looking for him to make a big movement. Think of his release as a place he’s going to versus a thing he does.” I believe a release is the absence of tension, both mental and physical. It’s not a thing they do, it’s a state they’re in. So how do you know it’s happening?

Like I mentioned, this is a skill that you hone. There are some very minute signs that are obvious to me: relaxation of facial muscles, particularly those around the eye and jaw. Movement and positioning of they eye and ear. Sometimes a lowering of the head but certainly a relaxation of certain??muscles. More than all of that, though, it’s something I feel, empathically and energetically, from the horse. Often when I feel them release, particularly when working with a horse new to experiencing this with people, it’s simultaneous with a sigh or licking and chewing.

And what’s left? From a mental perspective: Clarity. Peace. From the physical: the ability to move freely without inhibition from tense muscles. The entire objective is to set the stage for them to learn and move with freedom.

horsemanship release wildie

Judy and her wildie mare, Shakti. Notice how relaxed the horse is and how fluid she is moving.

Why is this important? I believe it’s more than important, it’s absolutely fundamental. A horse is not an animal that can multi-task high level thought processes. Humans can, with training. For example, a soldier is trained to think while in battle instead of panic and run. That requires a clarity of thought. It requires the ability to sort through multiple inputs and make sound decisions. In my previous career as an airline pilot, our training involved the worst scenarios; training to think under pressure. That thinking must originate from a place of mental clarity. ‘Freaking out’ does not result in proper actions or decisions.

In most cases and assuredly in training – taking a horse to a place of release is the prerequisite to asking them to try anything. It’s in that place that what you ask actually means something to them because they’re mentally prepared to accept and learn, and physically able to move freely.

I often use the following analogy: consider standing on the deck of a ship in a raging ocean. You toss a pebble into that rough sea. What difference will it make? None. Now consider a totally calm lake. So calm you can see the reflection of the clouds above you with perfect clarity. Toss a pebble into the lake. You’ll see the ripples for a long distance and for a long time.

Your horse’s mind is the water. Is it a raging ocean or a calm lake? If it’s storming between his ears: he’s scared, tense, apprehensive, offensive, focused on some important herd thing or what not, then he’s not in a mental state to learn or perform. Your responsibility is to recognize this, particularly if you’re the one that created it. Your next action is to get him to release…to relax and let go.

Your ability to consistently achieve this will prove to him that you are a capable herd leader. He’ll learn that when with you, you’ll take care of his issues. The products of this are enormous: trust, try and connection on the deepest level.

amazing horse country - horsemanship

Helping Jet to release.

You might be thinking, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me because I participate in [insert high-energy equine sport here].” On the contrary it’s fairly important. Consider an Olympic sprinter. High energy? You bet! But are they panicking and flailing around in the starting block? Are they so tense they can hardly move? Not likely. They’ll be focusing with a clear mental picture. Their muscles will be ready to move, but not locked up. They are physically and mentally prepared to achieve the utmost of their athletic ability. The great thing is, it can be the same with your horse. He’s the athlete, you’re the coach. Set him up to win.

What happened with my client and her horse? Her gelding, tension no longer a factor, was much more attentive and in tune with her owner’s space and energy. He moved with fluidity. At the end of the session my student said, “Look at how proud he is!” I had to agree.

And like most things horse, it’s both a matter of common sense and choice. Common sense tells us that if we ignore our horse’s concerns, the horse might end up physically doing what we want, but we’ve missed the deepest and most enduring part of our training. Common sense also says that if we take the time to consider our horse’s mental state and work with that to produce athletic ability, we’re going to end up with a fine horse. And the choice is up to you.

If you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship, learning about equine bio-mechanics or having fun on our huge obstacle course, check out our calendar of events.