Category Archives: Scott

happy horse

Dealing with Troublesome Horses

Jack was a bit of a nightmare.  Whirlwind might have been a better name for him.  Whenever I went to catch a horse, he’d come blasting around at near light speed, right into the middle of the herd.  Horses would scatter.

I was never certain if he was protecting the herd from me or if he was just a devil in disguise; determined to stir things up to make my day less than pleasurable.  I’m aware that would be anthropomorphism but his apparent deviousness was certainly cause for skepticism

So then, what was really going on?  I certainly didn’t want to continue with the headache of trying to catch a horse with the energetic explosion that Jack brought with him.  Well, the stars aligned one day and Jack’s owner let me know he was for sale and wanted me to do some work with him.  I was happy to oblige, knowing that Jack needed some help. And I certainly wanted to rid myself of the catching issues.

Although horses generally get along and we seldom have problems putting them all together, occasionally one stands out that either causes trouble in the herd or for us.  As herd leaders, it’s our job to fix that.

Let’s start with some theory.  If you’ve read my other articles, you know that stressors horses experience can fall into one of the three following categories:

  1. Physical Stress – they’re tired, thirsty, hungry or sore in some spot.  This is the easiest stress to attend to and we’re generally good at recognizing when a horse is off.  Physical injuries can be obvious.
  2. Predator Stress – their anxiety is heightened because of an unknown threat (a movement in the trees or a scary thing in the arena corner) OR a known threat (they spot a mountain lion).  Note that predator stress in some domestic horses is synonymous with training.  We can change that, though, by becoming leaders and adopting a positive VS submissive training style.
  3. Herd Stress – the subject of this article.  Read on!

A Lot of Value in a Little Bit of Knowledge

I have learned that the struggles folks have with horses are most effectively remedied with some knowledge about:

  • how a horse thinks and perceives his environment,
  • how a horse realizes and manifests anxiety and
  • how to assist with his mental state in a positive and enduring way.

Without these essential understandings, we fall prey to:

  • frustration and discouragement
  • taking actions based on personification or the False Consensus Effect
  • resorting to methods that we have read or have been taught. For example, having someone buck your horse out, punishing him when he misbehaves, forcing him to submit, working him until he’s exhausted or lunging him for 30 minutes before they ride so he doesn’t buck.  These are also referred to as band-aid fixes, because they deal with the symptom instead of the cause.

horse conversationThe problem is that there is a lot of “what to do” out there, but very little knowledge in the “why”.  Honestly, knowledge and experience will always triumph over quick fixes and shiny marketing tactics. I’m certain that, at some level, we all know that.

Most methods deal only with the horse’s physical state without a definitive connection to addressing his mental state.  They deal with the horse’s actions as a result of unaddressed anxiety.  As leaders, though, it’s our job to help the horse deal with the cause of the anxiety. This way he’ll have a positive mechanism to deal with anxiety whenever he experiences it: whether with us or in the herd.

Let’s use a human parallel to illustrate:  We manage an office.  For whatever reason, we continually task our employees with difficult jobs that are pushing their abilities – perhaps above their training or education level.  Soon, we notice they begin to show signs of stress including irritability, angry outbursts and even resigning.  If our solution to this is to give them harder work so they’re too exhausted to think about the task at hand, we’re thinking the same as many methods used to deal with horses.  As responsible leaders, instead we look at ways of eliminating the causes of stress instead of dealing with the effects of it. In our office situation, we could consider sending our employees for educational upgrades and instituting workflow management programs.

Pause for Thought

Have you ever seen a horse with a red flag on his/her tail on a trail ride?  You’re seeing a horse that hasn’t been shown a way to deal with herd stress yet.

When a horse pins it’s ears or moves to kick another horse, the answer isn’t to punish them for that.  Contrary to popular belief, a horse cannot know right or wrong.  Those are based on moral judgments, which horses are incapable of.  We might be fooled into thinking we can teach them that, but they’re only learning that specific actions result in punishment from humans.  They lack the ability to understand why.  After all, they’re just doing what horses do.

The resolution comes when our horse understands that we’re the leader and it’s our job to take care of other horses in our herd space, not his.  But that’s a whole other article!

horses in pasture herd

It’s about Anxiety

Do a quick search on “anxiety disorder”.  You’ll see symptoms including: always in a bad mood, terrified of being judged, panic attacks, constant worrying and inability to concentrate.  Those symptoms are for people, but they apply to any sentient creature, including your horse.

horses in pasture herdHorses are very social and are exceptionally relational animals. What that means is that their perceptions, understandings, actions and responses are based on interactions with others, and their herd.  Herd stress is anxiety and is not unlike the stress people experience in social situations. How would you feel moving to a new city where you don’t know anyone? Starting a new job where you have little experience?  Being a teen and switching schools halfway through the term?  Feeling claustrophobic in large crowds?  Having to work with someone you disliked?  Have you ever had a room-mate that you couldn’t get along with?

Except for the small percentage of their life that we’re working or riding them, horses spend the majority of their time in the company of other horses.  That forms the biggest part of their life.  Sometimes I don’t think we realize just how important their daily life affects their mental health; it can be easy to put our horse back in the pasture or barn after riding without considering what environment they’re going back to.

If you haven’t spent a full day with horses in a pasture as an observational or intergral part of the herd, I highly recommend it.  You’ll learn an incredible amount about these animals. 

Some Real Life Examples

Sometimes the problems are obvious. I had a horse in for training once that I put out with my herd. I get the feeling that, in a previous home, he was denied the opportunity to associate with other horses. The first thing he did – which he repeated more than once – was go trotting smack into the middle of the herd, as if to say, “Here I am! We’re all buddies, right? Right!?!?” This is about as socially acceptable as a person walking into a pub, barging into a group of strangers clearly engaged in their own stories, and taking over the conversation. Some would be amused, others offended. It just doesn’t work! It didn’t for this poor guy, either. My gelding, Spud, is the herd protector and he quickly put a run on this guy with a bite in the butt. Over time this boy found his place in the herd and developed some social skills.

horses at restOther situations are not so obvious. I trained a horse once that was purchased by a young couple that didn’t know a heck of a lot about horses, but they were super people and really wanted the best for this mare. Well, they found a place to board her and she was put in a paddock with several other horses. Not long after that, I received a call. “This mare we bought can’t focus at all and we don’t even want to get on her!” They had trained with me a bit and I asked what they were doing with her in groundwork. They said that she couldn’t keep her attention off the paddock she’d been placed in. Right away I asked about how she was getting along with the horses in that paddock. They told me that she and another horse were not friendly. Things became clear at that point. The mare was experiencing some elevated herd stress as a result of a negative social situation. She couldn’t take her mind off of that; a situation exacerbated with the outdoor arena in plain sight of her stressful paddock. I suggested that they try her in a different paddock. The problems ceased.

This isn’t to say that we always have to move a horse if they’re not getting along. As much as that might be a solution, it isn’t practical for most people, including myself.  All my horses are together; their ability to get along is, in part, due to what I’ve taught them. There are functional, proactive solutions we can take to help them.

What to do?

We’ve touched on this in previous articles, but you’ll recall that when a horse experiences anxiety beyond what he can handle, he will respond instinctively by fleeing, freezing or fighting. These are normal actions for a prey animal to take.

Knowing this, our job is two-fold:

  1. To teach our horse an effective way of dealing with anxiety;
  2. To teach our horse to deal with a level of pressure above what he is experiencing in the herd.

We will then realize two significant benefits:

  • The horse will realize that, with us as a leader, it’s our job to deal with anxiety, not his, and that in our presence he doesn’t have to worry;
  • His confidence with handling a higher level of pressure will alter his herd behavior: those stresses that pushed him over the edge previously will no longer do so.

A Personal Story

My wild ex-stallion, Zeus, is a perfect example of positive change. When I first brought him home, he had NO desire to have anything to do with the other horses in the herd. He did not walk up to them to investigate. He was terrified and defensive. When he inadvertently wandered too close, he’d be chased out. The stress he was experiencing in the herd had much to do with his feeling alienated. The horses did not see him as another horse; his energy was too primal…too foreign.

scott and zeus

Scott and his wildie, Zeus

When he first arrived, I had to feed him separately. He lacked the courage to eat in line with the others. Recently I saw him eating between the herd’s top two. For Zeus to be between them shows not only that he’s accepted, but that he now possesses the confident energy required to be accepted. This change came with his confidence in engaging with the others.

That confidence was developed primarily through our work together. He now seeks me in the pasture and engages in play with me.  He takes great delight in looking me in the eye; something he refused to do for a long time.  I’m really tickled and enjoy my time with him.

What he learned from me: how to release tension when facing of unknown or threatening things. Including people and other horses.  It’s changed his life.  Literally.


To get started on the path to helping our horse manage stress issues, here’s an itemized list of what you’ll need:

  1. Yourself.
  2. A horse.
  3. A halter.

This horse is quite advanced in handling pressure. When I move the tarps, he releases and balances as a response.

Pretty short list, isn’t it?  Note our list doesn’t have supplements, chemicals or tools.  This might be a bit uncomfortable for some because it means assuming responsibility instead of assigning it to a purchased product.  We all know how hard that is, and I get it.  We don’t want to fail.

However, the best part about our style is that there is no way to fail.  We’ll focus on a proactive enduring solution based on an understanding of horses together with some relationship building with your own horse.  When he or she learns that you have their best interest in mind, their try will increase and stress will decrease.

Here’s what you need to do.  In your schedule, slot in some regular time to work with your horse.  Once or twice a week is plenty.  Sessions don’t have to be long.  You’ll work initially on two things:

  1. Identifying what pressure level your horse can handle, and
  2. Teaching him something he’s never been taught: how to release tension and focus under pressure.

This is the quickest way to build his confidence.  Most folks are surprised at how effective this is – but it make sense doesn’t it?  We’re tackling the problem at it’s root.

Over time, which will vary depending on the horse, we work at introducing pressures in many different ways: rhythmic, random, different items to create pressure, pressure from different places, pressures on and off his body.  The sky’s the limit here.  There will be 4 constants throughout his/her  training:

  1. You.  The horse will follow your energy.  If you apply pressure with anger or force, you’re teaching your horse to be angry or forceful under pressure (they’re born followers, remember?).  You’ll learn to project calm to give your horse something to mimic.
  2. Your horse’s response.  You’ll always be asking him to release tension and follow your focus.
  3. You’ll take care to work just underneath the limit of what your horse can handle while retaining focus.
  4. We’ll never leave our horse to figure it out on his own – it’s so much faster, enduring and trust based if we are the teachers.

Eventually what you’ll see is that your horse – on his own – will release tension when under pressure.

You’ll find I have many articles on leadership, focus and teaching horses to handle pressure.  You can read them here.  There are many videos on my website that will help as well.

We don’t throw first time skydivers out of airplanes – over and over and over – hoping they’ll figure it out, so we’re not going to do this with our horse.

horses at playThat said, it’s not wise to go out and start flapping tarps around a horse, or tying things to the saddle and sending him off – with the expectation he’ll figure it out on his own.  It’s tempting to think that might be working, but it isn’t addressing the root issue.  Our horse will only figure out that he’s not going to die from that specific item (at least some will) but he’ll have learned nothing.

What he needs to learn is a connection between pressure/stress and releasing tension and focusing.  In short, he needs to learn that pressure means releasing tension.  He’ll only learn that with our assistance because it’s an association a horse is incapable of making on his own.  He also needs to learn that our leadership is the key to removal of his stress – after all, we want to be confident on his back, right?

There is an art to asking a horse to release and focus.  There is knowledge and feel behind what release is.  It’s an easy art to learn and with some practice you’ll be an expert.  These are things that I teach in every single clinic.  They’re really hard to convey in words  because they involve developing your energy, feel and empathy in the moment.  Plan to attend one of my clinics – I love nothing more than sharing your excitement and progress as you develop a confident, athletic horse.  One that will excel in whatever your discipline or riding interest may be.

To sum it up.

As leaders, we can teach our horses to deal with anxiety caused by other horses or their environment.   What they learn is to release tension under pressure and focus or follow our direction and energy.  Throughout this, they build confidence and an ability to deal with high levels of pressure.  Thus, their herd problems decrease or disappear entirely, while at the same time their trust in you increases exponentially.

We’ve got an offer available now until February 15, 2019 – for any Progressive Horsemanship clinic you reserve a spot in, you’ll get a Progressive ONLINE session absolutely free.  Check it out at


Scott Phillips

January 2019

horse obstacle challenge

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 5

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

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

In this article, we’re going to focus on #5.  You’ll need to read Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 first.

horses obstacle challengeOur fifth and final point is a great learning opportunity not only for your horse, but for you.  You’ll see a the process a horse must go through when he’s investigating whether something is safe or not.

Fear and Curiosity – What are they?

I believe that fear and curiosity are almost identical.  There are many articles you’ll find which discuss them as opposites.  But they’re really not that different.  The reason is that both fear and curiosity have an overwhelming factor in common – focus.

Here’s an example:

Bill is a gelding that has some trail time, but has always been scared of big rocks.  Whenever he walks by one on the trail, all of his focus goes to the rock and he’s scared to let it out of his sight.  His  rider is nervous about going out on the trail because she knows he’ll spook at rocks.  This is fear.  All of Bill’s attention is on the rock.

Jill is a mare that is new to the trail.  She’s young and bright.  When she sees her first big rock, she stops and looks at it.  Her owner notices her interest and allows her to walk over and check it out.  She spends a few minutes sniffing and looking at it.  This is curiosity.  All of Jill’s attention is on the rock.

The difference in thinking from the perspective of the horse would be:

Fear: “That might kill me so I’m outta here!”

Curiosity: “That might kill me…but…it’s not killing me right now...hmmm…”

horse obstacle challenge

Consider that fear, from a prey animal’s point of view, is an instinctual response to anything

they consider life-threatening, and anything unknown IS life threatening until proven otherwise.  Curiosity is an interest in something unknown.  However, both share the commonality of focus or attention.

Turning fear to curiosity isn’t that hard.  It requires two ingredients: time, and you.

Time.  Given time, a horse will realize that something they’re nervous about is not going to kill them.  This is closely tied to the distance to the object.  If you’re working at leading or riding your horse up to something he’s scared of, when you recognize his fear, let him stop.  Now wait.  The horse will, in short order, realize that at that distance, they’re not going to die.  When that happens, they’ll release tension and their focus may go elsewhere.  That’s the moment you can ask for forward again.  We covered this strategy in part 4.

You.  When the horse is confident in your leadership, he’ll be looking to you for an answer to whether or not this scary thing is safe.  Horses communicate in several ways, the important one here is empathic communication.  That is, they are aware of how other horses feel.  This could be fear, calm, energetically forward, or just about anything else.  It’s a survival mechanism – they can communicate “safe” or “run now!” throughout the herd almost instantaneously.  The important part here is this: how you feel about the scary thing is what your horse should be looking for, or picking up on.  To make this successful, you must project confidence and release any tension you have in your body.

Because this type of communication is so intrinsic to the horse, I like to capitalize on it by taking it one further step:  thinking that the object is the best place for our herd to be; the closer we get, the better it feels.  Now I have to reiterate – you can use this only if your horse is confident in your leadership. If your horse does not trust in you OR he thinks you are below him in the herd order, he’ll not believe what you’re “saying”.  Remember that trust is earned or built.  Your horse (or people, for that matter) will trust you somewhere between 0% and 100% depending on past experience.  Your job as a leader is to get that percentage higher.  We’ll explore this concept in a future article.

Note – people communicate this way too, we just don’t think about it.  Have you ever heard a news anchor ask a reporter, “How is the mood there?” in reference to a group of people?  Consider a mob or a group of people panicking.  Panic spreads through a group.  In contrast, consider the ability for a motivational speaker to instill positive energy into an entire group of people.  With prey animals we can clearly understand that their empathic ability is based on herd survival in a threatening environment.  As predators, science’s best guess at our ability to communicate this way stems from ancestral survival as a group or tribe, including hunting and gathering as a group.

Inspiring Curiosity – Eliminating Fear

That fear and curiosity are so closely related is a distinct advantage to us as leaders and a valuable tool in our horsemanship toolkit.  It’s really not that hard to flip the switch from fear to curiosity.  And when you do…mission accomplished.

When your horse moves forward, he’s demonstrating that he’s overcoming fear.  When curiosity takes over – and it will – you’ll see your horse go through a sequential list of steps:

  1. Sniff it
  2. Muzzle it
  3. Bite it and/or paw it
  4. Look away because it’s boring

When a horse does this in my obstacle course clinics, I encourage it.  It’s a clear demonstration that they’re engaging with something unknown, versus avoiding it.  This is the horse’s way of making sure that an item is safe.  It’s not bad, nor is it rude, for a horse to bite or paw something they’re unsure of.  In fact, it is critically essential that you let them go through this process.

Let him take all the time he needs to do this.  It might be 10 seconds, it might be 10 minutes. It’s time well spent.  We need to make sure that the horse does not have any lingering thoughts of fear.  If he does, and we add more pressure – for example asking a trot instead of a walk – you’ll see those lingering fears reappear, because we didn’t take the time to clean them up in the first place.

When you see their attention drawn to something scary or unknown, encourage them but do not force them closer.  Sometimes its better that you just let them do what they have to do.  When they’ve satisfied themselves, they’ll look up and left or right.  We’ve discussed in previous articles that a horse has a singular focus.  What that means is that their focus will be on the highest pressure (or most engaging thing) in their environment at any given moment.

Question: So when they look away, what does that tell you?

Answer: That something else is more important than the item they just sniffed or pawed.

That is a great, because it tells you that the horse is comfortable with the object in his current position.

I put the final words of the last sentence in italics for a good reason.  Once you’ve introduce a horse to something and he has gone through the investigative steps – and then turned away, it’s now time to ask him to follow your focus forward again.  Look ahead and ask your horse to move forward with you.

horses on obstacles

Click here to watch “Introducing a Horse to Obstacles” and “Zeus on the Obstacles – Episode 1” to view points made in this article.

Now something interesting may happen.  Your horse might stop, and go through all those steps again.  Remember at the beginning of this article I mentioned that distance was an important factor.  Just because a horse can be comfortable at 4′ away from an obstacle, does not in any way mean he’ll be comfortable at 3′.


There is one time when we might deviate a little bit.  This is the case for the horse that will not look at the obstacle or scary path.  The most interesting I’ve seen was a mare at a clinic of mine in 2018.  When faced with something uncertain, she’d turn her head right around to her hip.  She had a difficult time facing anything scary.  In this case, instead of focusing beyond the obstacle, we focus on the obstacle.  By doing this, we’re asking the horse to look at the object they think is too scary to look at it.  Simultaneously, we are communicating that this thing is not really scary at all.  At that point, they’ll likely investigate it.

In most other cases, however, you’ll see I’m always on your case to focus forward because that gives a horse a focus to follow.  He has to be thinking beyond the obstacle to go over it.  Focusing at it will cause him to stop.

And thus, this is a repetitive exercise.  At this point I’ll sum up the entire article series:

  1. Start the exercise in the groundwork.
  2. Ask the horse to follow your focus forward.
  3. If he stalls or stops due to fear or uncertainty, you stop with him.  This is your ground zero point.
  4. Ask your horse to release.  When he does, go back to step 2.
  5. Now that you’re near the scary item, you’ll see your horse go through the investigative steps.
  6. When he looks up and away, go back to step 2.
  7. Remember to praise and encourage your horse every time he moves forward with you.
  8. Now you’ll be at or over the obstacle.  Success!

By using this article series, you’ll be able to calmly introduce your horse to anything new and uncertain.  By remaining focused, positive and encouraging, you’ll be building trust in your leadership with your horse.  And by doing that, your horse will be more apt to follow you in the future, because you’ve proven yourself.

December 2018

Scott Phillips


horse trying

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 4

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

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

In this article, we’re going to focus on #4.  You’ll need to read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 first.

The fourth point is an important one.  It involves shifting our focus from this:

obstacle course

“I need the horse to COMPLETE the obstacle so I can feel good about what an awesome horse-person I am!”

to this:

horse trying

“I need the horse to TRY the obstacle so he’ll believe that it’s my role as a leader to help him through his struggles and fears. That way he’ll learn to trust in my leadership and as a team, we can do anything!”

Lets start by agreeing on the following definitions:

    1. Goal.  A goal is what you aim for.  It might happen in an hour or it might take years. A goal is the end result; a culmination of individual successes that build on one another.  A goal could be anything from winning a competition in 3 years time, to having your horse stand still while you mount.   Goals help guide us on a path of successes.  If we have no idea what we’re aiming for, it’s impossible to formulate a plan on how to get there.  Having a goal causes our work to be productive.  Although it’s important not to lose sight of our goal, it’s equally important not to focus exclusively on it.  When training, our focus needs to be on the individual exercises that support our goal.
    2. Success. I define success as “anytime the horse tries for us“.  Thinking this way can be a positive game-changer.  It’s also one of the biggest struggles humans have.  We struggle because we want the goal before the horse is able to provide it. We’ve cultivated a society of instant gratification where we expect we can have anything, anytime.  You’ll find, however, that if you consider your job to be creating successes for the horse you’ll actually achieve your goals faster, with the benefit of building a committed leadership agreement with your horse.
    3. Try. A try is when the horse commits to an action that follows our focus.  In short – we focus on a direction or action and put energy into that focus.  Then, our horse essentially mimics us by sharing our focus and moving in the direction we desire.  That might, in an initial instance, be taking one step.  It might be moving only 6″.  It doesn’t matter.  The point is, you asked of the horse and he had enough commitment in your leadership to follow.

Lets say that we’re doing some groundwork and lead our horse, Jack, up to a box full of bits of pool noodles.  Jack is wary.  The closer we lead him, the more anxious he becomes.  At some point, his focus goes off to the right.  This is followed shortly by Jack looking to the right, then leaving to the right.  Here’s what happened: when Jack’s ability to handle the pressure of the box hit a limit, his focus changed from following you to escaping the deathly scenario.

To help progress, we’re going to change up two things.  1. We’re going to be alert to Jack’s tension.  When we see, sense or feel him get anxious, we ask him to release tension.  We may need to stop at a distance from the obstacle where he is able to stand quiet.  2. We’re going to  focus on where we want to go (see Where Do We Focus, below) and ask Jack to release tension.  When he does, we ask him to move forward.  From here on we repeat.

Where do we focus?

Where we focus depends on what need the horse has.  Some horses will completely avoid looking at something they consider a mortal threat, as if to say, “If I don’t look at it, it doesn’t exist.” When a horse avoids looking at something, then a successful tactic is for us to focus on it and ask him to look at it.  In our example, that might be asking Jack to release and follow our focus to the middle of the box.  This will generally spark his curiosity.
If the horse is able to acknowledge the obstacle i.e. he’s looking at it, but scared to step in it, then our focus must be beyond the box (where we want to end up).  Here’s a simple rule of thumb: the horse will go where you look.  If you look at the edge of the box, don’t expect the horse’s nose will get any further than that, because he’s already at where you’re asking him to be.


When Jack is able to move closer to the obstacle, while retaining a forward focus, he has succeeded.  In fact, we have succeeded as leaders.  In our case, we were able to have Jack take one stride toward the box.  Now, he might be anxious again.  A horse gains confidence by realizing that the obstacle is not going kill them – but only at a specific distance.  If they get closer, they’ll have to go through that process again.  Every step forward, with it’s associated release, is a success.

Now we have to decide how far we’re going to take this in a single session.  My rule of thumb is that when the horse has tried and succeeded three times for you, give him a break OR move on to something else for a while.  The whole point here is to cause the horse to trust that when he follows your direction in a stressful situation, he’ll live…so the exercise must have an end.

Each try and success takes us a step closer to our goal.  If we try to force Jack through something, we may end up eroding trust quickly.  When that happens, we can certainly recover by using the steps above.  The easiest and most positive route is not to force him in the first place.

A note of caution…

Be careful about putting energy into moving the horse when the horse is not focusing on our intended path.  If we do, he’ll follow his focus with that energy, swing around the box, jump it, or back up.  Basically, nothing that we desire.  This would be no different than turning the wheel of our truck to the right, stepping on the gas and expecting it’s going to go straight.  We haven’t set it up to go straight, so when we add power, it doesn’t.  No big surprise there!

Oh, one other important note – we cannot force the horse to focus on a direction with the rein.  We can move his head but this doesn’t change his thought.  If we think we have to pull on a rein, the horse isn’t following our focus and pulling isn’t the answer.


And that wraps up Part 4. In the next article, we’ll chat about inspiring the curiosity of the horse and becoming familiar with the steps a horse must go through in order to determine that what we’re asking them to walk over or through is safe.

Stand by – once I get all this snow plowed, I’ll get some video to illustrate the point!

Scott Phillips
December 2018

obstacle course

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 3

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

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

In this article, we’re going to focus on #3.  You’ll need to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

When a horse is fearful of something, there will be a certain distance he will be comfortable standing away from it.  It likely won’t matter what direction you approach it from, that distance will be the same.

In the groundwork or riding, you’ll notice that the closer you get to the fearful object – we’ll call it an obstacle – the slower your horse will go until he stops.  This is entirely natural.  Consider that, in the prey animal’s mind, anything unknown is potentially lethal.

There will always be an invisible line beyond which the horse may attempt to leave.  He might back up or move sideways.  If you’re on the safe side of the line, or on the line itself, your horse will be able to stop.  At this point you’ll be able to ask him to release.  When he does, you can ask for another step forward.  You’ll work through this until you’re up to the obstacle.  This might take several sessions over several days.  That’s the best way to do it – don’t force it or you’ll compromise trust.  We touched on that in Part 2.

Until the horse has released to the pressure of the obstacle at the point he can stop, do not ask him to go further.  Ask him forward only once he’s in release at that point.  This is tough for many folks because we get greedy.  We want our horse to do it now.  Be patient though, if you stay in a supportive role, the horse will come to depend on you as the answer to stress and pressure for all obstacles, not just this one.

Let’s dig into this a bit deeper, referencing the image.  A horse will stop at the point where his ability to handle the pressure presented to him hits a limit.  If we push him past this limit, then he’ll resort to instinctive behaviors: flee, freeze or fear

There are 2 things that will get the horse beyond this point:

  1. You asking him to release and go forward with you (you’ll see that in this video).
  2. His own curiosity.  This will eventually happen and he’ll go forward on his own.  I see this often on items like stuffed animals or hides.

In the image, the horse on the left is comfortable stopping 10m away from the scary rock.  The horse on the right has hit the limit of what he considers safe, and is taking action to save his life.

I like to call any point on the green circle our Ground Zero Point.  This is the distance from the obstacle that the horse can always stand and not try to escape.  Our job then, is to make that green circle smaller and smaller, until it’s gone…without hitting the red circle.

Our first job then, is to find where that green circle is.  Let’s use trailer loading as an example.  The obstacle: standing quietly in the trailer.  We lead our horse up to the trailer.  At some point he pulls back and turns away.  This is the indicator that we’ve crossed the red line.  So we start again.  This time, we’re more attentive and notice when our horse starts to become tense.  His head might go up, his jaw tighten, etc.  At this point, we stop.

If our horse can stand with us, we’re on the green line.  If not, back up a bit.  We find where that spot is that our horse can stand without moving or trying to leave.

Once we’ve found that, we ask the horse to release (again, this is letting go of tension and following your focus).  Then, we clearly focus forward and ask the horse to come with us.  Once he takes a step or two, stop.  You’ll likely notice that he becomes tense again.  Now, we’re in the space between the red and green circles – this is where we need to play.  This is the zone – as with all pressure – where your horse is not comfortable but still willing to trust you.

Stay in that spot for a bit and ask your horse to release.  When he does you might try another step forward OR you might leave.  We don’t want to push things beyond his ability, however we do need to make that green circle smaller.  When you use this tactic, you’ll notice that the next time you lead your horse up to the trailer, he can stand quietly, closer to it.

Thus, you’ve established a new Ground Zero Point.  To see an example of this as it pertains to the trailer, watch this video.

You will be able to get your horse up to any scary thing in a quiet supportive way by following these steps.  The great thing is that the horse will learn to depend on you for anything scary, because you’ve kept the experience entirely positive.

And, each time he tries, we praise him for it…which takes us to our next article!

Scott Phillips

November, 2018



focus forward

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 2

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

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

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

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

Frustration, fear of failure and ego cause us to act that way.  Looking at it from a leadership perspective, obviously the horse isn’t getting a good day here.  Let’s change it up and:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

focus forward

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

Scott Phillips

November, 2018

Make sure that you have your free account on our website, then click here to watch the video.  Here’s another one to illustrate the point.

eye contact

Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 1

I’d like to introduce five of our Strategies for Success that we follow when we start working with horses on obstacles or anything new and unknown.

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

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

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

Pressures are cumulative.

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

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

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

Consider these questions:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Let’s connect the dots with a practical example:

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

obstacle course

Scary Water Box

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

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

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

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

What about Leading?

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

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


Your observational vantage point.

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

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

Eye to eye contact.

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

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

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

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


eye contact

Eye to Eye with Zeus

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

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


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

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

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

Tools and Toys

obstacle course

Starting with Groundwork

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


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

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


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


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

And that’s it for part 1!

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Leading to Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the how and why behind that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Scott Phillips

August, 2018

Sir Isaac Newton and Horse Training

For every action…

…there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton

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

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

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

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

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

Still with me?

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

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

Watch the video!

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

Pause for thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Explaining Resistance.

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

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

Light on the Reins.

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

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

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

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

What is the better way?

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

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

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

When things are not going right.

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

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

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

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


Scott Phillips

July 2018

When your horse is RIGHT – Part III

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Watch the Video

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

When your Horse is RIGHT – Part 2

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

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

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

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

Here is a little selfmanship test for you:

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

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

Think about what you would do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you see where this relates to horse riding yet?

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part III


Scott Phillips

May 2018