Belle is an incredible partner.

A Top-Down Approach to Horse Training

One of the things that attracts me so much to horses is that there is no upper boundary to what we can achieve. Unless of course, we believe there is. But in that case we’ve set that boundary ourselves – and in that case, are we disregarding potential and possibility? I’d like to explore that thought from the perspective of a top-down approach. We’ll start with this question:

What is the most ideal way you can imagine riding your horse?

How about this for an answer:
Your horse intimately follows the nuances of your focus, energy and balance in every situation to the point you find yourself wondering why you have reins and what the aids are for.

Riding Spud bareback without reins or a halter.

This is what I would call an ultimate aspiration. The pinnacle of synchronicity between horse and rider. A state where your thought and focus are one. Where each miniscule shift of your body and thought in your mind is mirrored by your horse.

Guess what? I believe it’s achievable. In fact, I think we need to believe it’s achievable. If it isn’t, what exactly are we striving for? Do we hit a limit and then quit? Been there, done that? Or do we keep finding things to improve, things to challenge us? I recall in my piloting days when I was stationed at our base in Rankin Inlet. At the time, a few adventurous souls were taking their snowmobiles out in the summer and riding them across open water. It likely started off as a dare but it later turned into a sport. Equipment was designed for it. About the same time I watched a video of a fellow pioneering a 360 loop on a snowmobile. I thought it was insane. But the following years saw such a maneuver become a typical part of a competitive event.

And yet in the horse world, many times I see folks feeling like they’re constrained. Either by a level based program that meters out advancement or simply by having someone say to us, “That can’t be done.” or “You’re not ready for that yet.” I can recall, in fact, a scenario where someone shouted at me, “You can’t do that on a horse!”

The human mind has much potential for discovery and plenty of drive to get it done. Where would our race be without imagination and determination? Our journey with a horse must be open ended to allow us the room to move and explore, question, discover and grow.

Revisiting my initial statement, then. How would we go about having such an incredible connected relationship with a horse – in motion? What complex set of training mechanisms could we employ? Can we hasten our journey? Wait a minute. Whoa! Put the brakes on that thought, because – where would we even begin?

Recently I taught a group session where we discussed setting a goal, then breaking that goal down in to exercises and subsequently breaking those exercises down into progressions: linearly related small chunks that take us, progressively, through an exercsise.

That philosophy is the same one I’m exploring in the content of this discussion: starting at the top and working our way down. The benefit of this approach is that we’re able to quickly identify what we need to work on in order to progress. It might involve some guess work and trials, but hey, that’s life, isn’t it? That’s what learning is.

If you’re familiar with Amazing Horse Country, you know that we employ obstacles not only for fun but to build trusted, athletic relationships with horses. Take, for example, a new obstacle we’re introducing our horse to. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a 5’x5′ platform. We have two options here. We can first work our horse through all the prerequisite steps we typically do: accountability, focus, followership, releasing, response to pressure and others. Or we can say, “Hey, let’s just give it a shot.”

So we give it a shot and lead our horse up to the platform. But each attempt results in our horse just leaning into us with a shoulder and avoiding it by ducking behind our back. It is not going perfectly. We realize right away that we can work on several things:

Working through fear and anxiety with Joey.
  • having our horse follow us with a greater degree of accountability
  • improving our own focus and putting energy behind it
  • working at our horse moving their shoulder off our space (lateral mirroring)

We attend to these things. Once we’re comfortable that we’ve made some changes we try leading our horse over the platform again. Because may have tried with the same result several times, the horse now likely believes that ducking behind you is simply how we’re doing it. So we have to be attentive to that thought. We’ll start off by leaving the obstacle and working on some focus and follow progressions. When we realize greater clarity, we’ll return to the platform.

This time, as we go forward we notice a spot where our horse slows. We ensure that this time, though, we do not get ahead. Instead, as we slow with our horse, we focus forward, really think about sending our horse around our shoulder and go. Because we’ve just attended to that spatial communication, our horse walks up and over the platform without issue.

In the previous example, we started with a top down approach. Trying the exercise, clearly identifying the required pieces, working on those pieces and then trying the exercise again. This is typically not what we do in the introductory parts of our clinics, simply because we need to develop our own skills and build a relationship with our horse first.

But what if we have a great relationship with our horse? What if they follow us to a high degree already? What if we have a great mutual trust? This is more akin to our Obstacle 2 clinics, where our horse is already confident and comfortable following us and trying new things as a function of our positive leadership. In this case, why not give it a go? See what happens and then work on the supportive progressions.

An example from an Obstacle 2 clinic would be asking your horse to sidepass over a platform, but only having their front feet go up and over it. We give it a shot and then see what we need to address. It could be we need more work in clean lateral maneuvers. It could be we need to eliminate more anxiety about the platform. We address those, then try it again. Repeating that cycle as necessary.

This is a much more supportive style, since we’re always working specifically on what our horse – or what our relationship – needs. An example of a much less productive way to go about it would be to follow this line of thought:

  • I know we can sidepass
  • I know we can walk over a platform
  • Therefore we can sidepass over the platform
  • When it doesn’t go as expected, we do it over and over, progressively becoming more frustrated as the horse becomes more anxious.

All right. Now that we’ve discussed top-down and bottom-up approaches, let’s revisit our ultimate aspiration. We hop on our horse’s back, toss the reins to the wind and ride! And what happens?

Honestly, an infinite number of things can happen. Our horse can think, “No reins! I’m on my own and free!” and do what they please. They might think, “Wow, this is freeing, what would you like me to do?” We might focus left and they might turn right. We might get energetic but they stop instead. Or, they might be so dialed into us, that they reflect every nuance of our focus, energy and balance.

Belle is my heart horse and a great follower.

What factors determine the outcome? If we stand at the top and look down, we can see the pillars that support our ultimate desire. And those pillars are these:

Leadership. The onus is on us to provide it. What does a horse require in a leader? Confidence, a singular clear focus. Energy behind that focus. Trust in our decisions of where we’re leading the herd. The ability to communicate in a way the horse natively understands it.

Herd status. If we’re not above our horse in the herd, they’ll only follow if what they desire happens to coincide with what we’re asking. Being above our horse in the herd is something we need to demonstrate; never something we should attempt to force upon them.

Accountability. This applies to both us and our horse. The horse needs to be accountable for only one thing: to follow us. Not behave or respect or any of those derogatory terms, because if our horse truly believes in our leadership, those issues won’t ever arise. We need to be accountable to lead and to accept all responsibility for any outcome. Whatever happens – we set it up. After all, our horse didn’t wander into our house and catch us to go for a ride!

An Understanding. It’s imperative that we understand that in order to ride a horse, there is actually very little that we need to show or teach them. The were born with the ability to do every maneuver in the book. The onus is on us to lead and communicate so that they can follow our direction through all of those maneuvers with unrestricted athleticism.

Knowledge. I find that many folks have a wealth of knowledge of horse training and riding methods. But there seems to be much less when it comes to the horse itself. Trainers may be very proficient in their methods and we might have a great seat. But do we all really know what’s truly going on under the saddle? Two exceptionally important branches of knowledge are these:

  • The bio-mechanics of how a horse moves and balances.
  • How the horse thinks; perceives their environment and relates with others.

Those are two things that – although we put a high degree of focus on them at AHC – are often left out of standardized curriculums.

The Aids. Our focus, energy, balance, reins, seat and legs. With some knowledge of how the horse’s body works and how they think, we can use the aids for just that: aids. They’re called aids because they’re supportive, not controlling. Just as importantly as knowing how to use them is a knowledge of when to use them.

Our Horse’s Needs. What does our horse need and have we addressed those needs? There are many of them, but some important ones in this context are:

  • Freedom to move without restriction.
  • Freedom to express their thoughts and know that you’re attentive to them.
  • An absence of fear and anxiety.

In our Liberty to Riding clinics, we dive right into these pillars. The goal in those clinics is to ride our horse without dependence on the reins or aids for control. Our journey is to achieve a functional understanding of those important pillars. We don’t have to find perfection in each one. We only need to know they exist and what they mean.

playing with pool noodles

Let’s use an example to demonstrate.

We hop on our horse in the round pen. In that smaller enclosed area, we’ll have a higher degree of comfort and be less tempted to take the reins. Next, we’ll focus clearly where we want to go and put some energy into that focus. Imagine yourself walking down a street. You put on a smile, focus up at where you want to go and feel confidence and pride. We’ll do the same on our horse.

What are we looking for in this initial exercise? That our horse follows our focus in a direction and also follow our energy. When we up our energy, our horse should do the same and walk out with purpose or gait up. When we lower our energy our horse should gait down or stop. When we adjust our balance our horse should mirror us. For example, we’ll feel that the whole left side of our body is elevating as we focus left. Our horse should pick up the left shoulder and look left, just like we did. Congratulations. You achieved a balanced turn without your reins.

If all goes well, great! If not, that’s great too! It only means that we need to attend to one of those pillars. Which is it? Perhaps our horse was distracted by another horse outside the pen. So we bring their focus back before asking anything else. Perhaps they’re not motivated to move as a function of your energy. We can certainly attend to that in some groundwork following exercises. Perhaps they’re anxious having someone on their back. We can build confidence in the groundwork and also work with a second person – having someone repeat the groundwork exercises with you mounted. Whatever it is, there’s a plethora of great exercises in which we can explore our progressions.

Training and exploring a relationship with a horse is a mixture of bottom-up and top-down approaches. We need to have certain pieces in place in order to progress and facilitate our own understanding. To compliment that, we must also be very open-ended in our top-down approach: having the freedom to explore possibilities with a comfort that the knowledge and experience we have – and can gain – will allow us to achieve amazing things.

Scott Phillips
April 2021

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About admin

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

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