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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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.

14 thoughts on “Introducing Horses to Obstacles – Part 1

  1. Brenda Gardipee

    So happy to read this and hear it again how to get your horses eye and to give at the pole .. I have done this with Micky when I first got her as soon as I would ask her to move off my leg her would get frightened and flee away from the pressure .. so we went to the ground work and go her to release at the pool and work with that pressure on the ground then took it back into the saddle …

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Great stuff. I’m pleased to hear you went to the groundwork to help her. That’s a really wise decision and one that I really like to put out there: there is no shame in getting off to help your horse. I’ve done it many times with a new horse on the trail. They need to learn to follow and trust without adding stress. Again, great!

  2. Ashley

    I can not emphasize the importance of this article enough !!!!! The explanation of pressure adding up event by event. It’s is a great example for us to understand how the pressures affect the horse. In this matter I can certainly say it is very important to pay attention to these cues. It’s not the end of the world to say today is not the day.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      …and every day is going to be different. We realize that although the horse can learn from repetition, he lacks the brain to make assumptions like we can. And anything can be a pressure to a prey animal. You’re correct – observation is so important!

  3. Jeanne DesRochers

    I find that once he gets used to an obstacle he is fine going over it, but move it 6 inches and it is a whole new ballgame and have to start over with pressure and release and treat it like a brand new obstacle which I find frustrating and sometimes lose patience. Riding is truly starting over as again everything is new and different. Patience is the key!

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      That’s a common scenario. Horses are unable to make assumptions. They can make basic associations, but not something that requires a large prefrontal cortex (like primates have). A horse is unable to, for example, relate water in a river to water in an obstacle box. Horses also have a memory based on still images (ours are like videos). It’s a prey animal survival mechanism – allowing them to make super rapid assessments of their environment by comparing what they see to what they saw there before. Unfortunately most obstacle training focuses on getting the horse over an obstacle. This does not help the horse at all. If the horse instead, learns how to overcome pressure (via your leadership) you will be able to tackle EVERY OBSTACLE. Pretty sure I’ve mentioned that in that article series LOL!

  4. Allyssa Yarrow

    Ahh this is something I need to read weekly.
    I’m conflicted between “I’ve spent so much time on groundwork he just needs miles now” and “stay slow, it’ll pay off in the long run”.
    Jonathon field has a great explaination of this. He refers to a horses “worry cup” (warwick Schiller lol) as a breaker. And that breaker can only hold so many amps before it blows.
    Edge shows his worry in his face, so I’m not always the best at seeing his worrycup fill the bottom. But because of our partnership through the slow work (see as I’m typing this I know he needs to go slow not just get experience) he remains safe to be on even when he’s blowing his breaker, his worry cup overfills, or he’s at 10/10

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Great thoughts there, Allyssa! My thoughts are that groundwork is valuable as long as it supports the riding. For example, lunging a horse in endless circles detracts from riding because it teaches the horse to ignore you (or worse, run from you under pressure) – which is not what we desire in the saddle! Groundwork that supports riding would be working on balance, balanced gait changes, etc – with the caveat that those must involve the horse following your energy and focus. We then layer pressure on top of that to produce a horse that can follow you, in motion, through every gait and every task/obstacle when under pressure. You can take that directly to the saddle. The purpose of groundwork in my style is to train the horse to be ridden under all scenarios. I have found that some method-based groundwork misses that essential piece…in which case we wonder if we’re helping or if we just need miles.

      Miles are important as long as ‘miles’ means ‘experience’. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘stay slow’ – you could mean ‘progress slow’ or ‘work beneath the horse’s pressure limit’. The short answer is: we need to work at a pace the horse is clearly progressing, and, when working the pressure piece – just under the horses limit. If we’re beyond his ability or pressure level, we’ll lose him. If we’re far beneath, we’re not training anymore. My best advice is to work with your horse to find where his limits are and then push on those limits once in a while. If you are familiar with human sports coaching its the same thing. Think about high diving. If you’re comfortable on the 3m board, but need to be on the 10m board to compete, you’ll never get there if you stay in your comfort zone. But if you go too far beyond it, you’ll freeze up there. So we need to push a bit to get to 4m, then again to 5m, etc. Hope that makes sense. For some horses this can take an hour. For some, it can take weeks. Every horse is different.

      Everyone has different thoughts for sure. I like to teach what it factually is: the horse’s ability to handle pressure. Analogies like the cup or breaker are great for visualization, but the science of it actually provides the best explanation. The psychological explanation is valuable because as horsepeople we are required to understand a bit about horse psychology – after all when working with a horse we’re akin to human sports coaches. Any horse (or person) has a limit to the amount of pressure they can handle before instinctive actions (flee/freeze/fight) take over. That’s where many folks stop and just accept that is the most their horse can handle. Again, factually, a horse (or person) can be trained to handle greater degrees of pressure – and not by inflicting more pressure on them – but by giving them a tool or action to deal with it, first. Fairly common in the human world – “stress management”. Basically that’s how my style works with horses as well – giving them another option besides flee/freeze/fight.

      When a horse is experiencing mental tension, that is visible in his body as muscular tension. Same as us. You have a crappy long day at the office and your neck is sore. It’s not because you were lifting things with your head, it’s because when we are stressed, we tighten our neck and shoulder muscles. Go figure – so do horses. When their neck muscles get tight, it pulls their head up, for one. Although there are many physical manifestations of tension (tight muscles in different places), it’s good to develop that empathic communication with your horse so you can feel when he’s worried, and he can feel your confidence.


  5. Charlotte Moller

    The discussion on cumulative stress particularly resonates with me because I have some personal experience with the effects of cumulative stress in my own life. I have learned to recognize that sometimes I have a disproportionate reaction to a stressor because my stress cup is full initially due to other things going on my life and then one thing causes it to overflow. Makes perfect sense to me that horses can react the same way.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Good connection! I think we can all think of times in our lives when we’ve been at our “limit”. The other important take-away is that we can train to high degrees of stress too; such as an airline pilot training for an engine failure on take-off.

      1. Christa martindale

        Loved this article . I have always been told not to look them in the eye but this makes so much sense. This has helped me so much with my blue roan gelding Yeti he has changed so so much with being able to look to me for reassurance.

        1. Scott Phillips Post author

          I won’t go much into this – it’s a whole other article – but empathy is pretty much a guarantee when we are looking in each other’s eyes. When we do that, we can communicate feel – in both directions. It’s amazing how fast you can work through someone’s (or a horse’s) struggles that way.

  6. Tiffany Morin

    I can definitely relate to this article in how a horse will follow your lead or the lead of another horse, but when you take the leader away then the pressure is present. Just last weekend I went out to visit Storm at the trainers place and we decided to go for a ride, he really didn’t seem too stressed about anything that we faced in our travels, until it was time for us to lead on the trail and branch off to travel on our own. I could definitely feel his uneasiness under me, and he was starting to panic a little that we were all alone so I picked up the left rein enough to visibly see his eye and give him a pat and show him that I was still there and encourage him to follow my lead. His attention and focus came back to me and he physically let out a sigh and we carried on having a little fun on our own and working on those pressures together!

  7. Laura Grant (See)

    This article is so informative .It explains the concepts thoroughly, and in an way that is so easy to comprehend.
    I wish that I had access to this caliber of information when I began my horsemanship journey.
    This foundation is so important in the relationship between horse and rider. It has made all the difference in each single successful interaction I have had with my horses. It has also been a source of enlightenment on where I have made mistakes, or skipped important steps in the past.
    You are an amazing equine/ human educator Scott!

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