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This is almost a one-liner- a really simple rule, but if you maintain it you will find that your horse works really well. It seems totally obvious that you don’t want your horse to pull on you, but I very rarely see a horse that doesn’t and I think this is partly because people don’t always recognise when their horse is pulling. I’ll list a few of the situations that I can think of:
- If I am leading my horse and the rope gets straight, they are pulling on me.
- If I start walking with my horse and they don’t start walking too, they are pulling on me.
- If I pick up the rein or lead rope laterally and my horse doesn’t immediately bend smoothly in the direction of the pressure I am creating, they are pulling on me.
- If I place one finger on one side of the lead rope on my horse’s halter under their chin and gently push the knot and the horse doesn’t follow that pressure, my horse is pulling on me.
- If I reach for my horse down the rein or the lead rope and my horse doesn’t reach back, my horse is pulling on me.
This can be summed up very simply: If my lead rope ( or rein ) gets fully straight, my horse is pulling on me.
How do you teach a horse not to pull on you? The trick of it is as simple as the rule itself, but us horsepeople seem to have a real problem with it, especially here in the UK. All you do is never pull on your horse. A horse that never gets pulled on never learns to pull. As Steve Halfpenny is fond of reminding us, they aren’t born with handles on them. Horses only ever get pulled around in their interactions with us, so if we don’t teach them to pull, they won’t do it.
What is the alternative to pulling? There are a few things one can do, all somewhat easier to show than to describe, but I’ll give it my best shot:
You can put a feel on the rope. This may sound the same as pulling it is how ask for a change through the rope- I expect it to come into operation before the rope comes taut. If you want to experiment with this, hold one end of a rope and have a friend hold the other. Close your eyes and ask your friend to pick up the rope slowly in one direction or another. Tell them to stop when you feel it, then open your eyes. There will almost certainly be a big loop in the rope. Your horse can feel that at least as easily as you can. When I pick up a lead rope or a rein like this, I expect my horse to follow that feel. They may not do, but I have found that if I don’t expect it, they probably won’t do it. Often people just end up over-asking and doing too much.
If I have picked up a feel on the rope or the reins and nothing is happening I might try something else to ask the horse to follow it- this goes back to Energy Is Not Direction – so I might slap my leg or swing the other end of the rope ( being very careful that it doesn’t interfere with the steady feel I am presenting down the rope ) to ask the horse to look for something instead of ignoring what I am asking for. This works well both in the saddle and on the ground.
I might also, without releasing my initial request, take my other hand across and bump on rein I am holding. This is another way of creating a consequence to ignoring my initial request as far as my horse is concerned and I certainly wouldn’t do it if I felt they were looking for an answer, but if they were happy to set down and lean on the rein it can be a way of waking them up and a bump is something a horse can’t pull back against. By using my other hand, I avoid releasing the initial request, so the horse isn’t getting a confusing release followed by a bump.
If a horse is resisting the feel I present down the rein ( and I do this more from the saddle but it would work fine from the ground ) I will sometimes just search at the quietest level I can for where the resistance begins, which will always be on one rein or the other- never both, then gently experiment with my hand position and changing the feel I present until the horse releases to it. This is quite subtle, but it seems to be helpful to a lot of horses.
Sometimes if a horse is leaning on the rein you can use the terrain to your advantage- rather than getting into an argument or a pulling match if there is a fence available you can use that to help your horse to steer off a lighter feel by closing down one of their options. Once they have the idea of it and you have the sensation in your body, you will probably find that they can do it everywhere.
One thing that goes with this being an absolute rule is that I prioritise it the whole time- if I am working on something else and my horse starts to pull, I immediately fix the pull before I go back to the work I was doing.
A horse who is pulling is leaving without me, and I just don’t want that to happen.
This is fairly simple but something I misunderstood for a long time. When I was asking a horse to move off and they weren’t paying attention, I would swing a rope behind them or do something else to send them forward. If they were getting in front of me I might swing the rope ahead of me to ask them not to run into me. This was logical and easy to understand- I swung the rope to create a bundle of energy ( in this sense energy means movement or busyness ) behind my horse and they moved away from it.
Gradually over the last few years I have come to understand that although this does work and sometimes it is what you need, especially when you’re working with a horse who hasn’t got any kind of handle on the rules yet, there is a different way of backing up your cues where you simply treat energy as energy.
Most of what I am doing with energy is asking the horse to look for something different, to indicate to them that I would like them to try something other than what they are currently doing. Usually, I don’t actually want to have to use a swinging rope or other large scale cue to bring about this change because it is not my goal to always need to do this. What I really want is for the horse to follow the direction I am giving them without needing any further encouragement. So by using energy to direct them, I am excusing them from trying to understand my original cue. Rather than try to figure out what I am asking for in the first place, they can wait for me to change to something easier.
A useful metaphor for the way I prefer to work now is driving a car- if I put my foot on the accellerator it makes the engine turn over faster, but where the car goes depends on which gear I am in and where the steering wheel is pointed. When I’m working a horse I will set up my cue and then – if the horse doesn’t seem motivated to look for a response to it – I will create some energy around myself to ask them to look harder. This has the side benefit of encouraging the horse to try and a lot of the time I don’t need to do anything beyond getting their attention and making it clear to them that I am asking for something.
I think this is easier to understand in the saddle because most of us at one time or another have used a crop or similar to ask the horse for more life while directing with the reins or our bodies, and of course the same principles apply here- unless my horse is really confused about what I am asking and needs extra direction ( maybe we are working on yielding a really stuck leg, for example, when I might use a whip to tickle that area ) I will tend to set up what I am looking for and then put a little more life into my horse if I don’t feel them searching for the answer. It doesn’t matter how I do that, as long as the result is that the horse starts searching, because then I can guide them towards the right answer.
In my experience the most effective way for a horse to learn to do something, is for them to figure it out for themselves. Most of the time, the same is true of us, which is why the best teachers are often the ones who guide us towards finding answers.
When I was young I remember playing endless games of “hunt the thimble” with my granny, where a thimble ( or other small item ) was hidden and I searched for it with granny guiding me by telling me whether I was getting warmer as I approached the hiding place and colder as I moved away from it. I loved this game, but thinking back, it was probably unbelievably boring for my granny. She was a very patient lady.
This type of approach is something I use a lot when I am working a horse- instead of saying “warmer and colder” I just find something that is mildly annoying and allow them to figure out how to make me stop. A good example might be working a horse who is strongly attracted to the arena gate. This is one of the many things that you can correct a hundred times and still have a horse who will drop to the gate every time. Instead of endlessly trying to steer away from the gate I will choose a place that I would like us to go instead and very gently ask the horse to take me there. When they drop towards the gate I will just do something irritating – I typically just rhythmically slap my thigh, something I learned from Ross Jacobs, but the exact thing doesn’t matter; some people will work the horse briskly in that area instead – so that when the horse gets where they want to go, it’s not as good as they thought it would be. Usually they will start fidgeting and looking for a way to make me quiet down and as soon as they face where I want to go, the slapping stops. When they turn away it starts again. After a couple of tries they will probably figure out where they need to face, so then I am looking for them to take a step in that direction. I just keep working patiently at this until the horse decides to go to where I asked in. This can take quite a while and to a lot of people it would look like a long cut, but if you want a lesson to stick, nothing compares with your horse figuring things out for herself.
I use the same approach when leading – I want a horse to generally lead up beside me, putting me roughly where the saddle would be. I do this because that way I can see where their attention is, because it is really useful for groundwork which I treat as very similar to riding from the ground and because it gets the horse used to being a little ahead of me. Consequently when I am teaching a horse to lead I try to set things up so that sweet spot is right beside me wherever I go. I am at the centre of an imaginary letter ‘X’ – as long as the horse is beside me on the left or right, things are really calm. If they drag behind, things get more energetic, if the try to get ahead or push into me, things get more energetic, if they just walk alongside me life is very comfortable, the work isn’t too hard ( certainly easier than having to put up with all that energy and movement around them if they drag ) and pretty soon we’ll take a break and they will get lots of scratches.
As we develop more refinement in our riding, I try to create that sweet spot around my horse as we work too- making it really comfortable for them to stay with me so that they learn to choose to be where I am mentally as well as physically.
There is a difference in philosophy here- I am not thinking in terms of asking the horse to move away from something that is uncomfortable for them as much as offering them a place that is comfortable and doing what I can to help them to find it. Once your horse figures out that you can offer them comfort, they’re going to really search for it, and that will make everything you do together smoother and easier
I was working with my horse on a Steve Halfpenny clinic and he was starting to respond nicely to what I was asking, but it was a little slow. In fact, it was very slow. If I had written my requests down and posted them second class, they would probably have arrived at about the same time. I commented on this to Steve and he simply observed “If you backed it up every time, he’d respond a lot quicker.” As often happens around horses, Steve was absolutely right – I had been asking and then I would swing my rope and once in a while I would get frustrated enough that I might escalate things a little further and maybe let the tail of the rope touch my horse’s quarters and he would move on but then I would be ineffectual again and he would figure out that he really didn’t have to.
By being ineffective I was being unfair to myself and to my horse. I was being inconsistent, sometimes asking quietly where he could ignore me, sometimes being more firm so that he couldn’t, but every time I was ineffective, I pushed the boundary of effectiveness a little further.
So what does it take to be effective? When you ask your horse to make a change, they make a change. It may not be exactly what you asked for, but something happens. Lets take a concrete example:
I am leading my horse and I ask them to move a little faster, so I pick up my pace and walk more energetically. My horse drags a little behind, so I slap the tail of my lead rope against my chaps, creating a noise which is enough to encourage her to catch me up. She doesn’t hurry her feet so I swing the tail of my rope behind me vigorously that she trots forward a couple of steps. The moment she moves faster I stop swinging that rope.
If she hadn’t started moving I would have quickly escalated the amount of energy I put in until she changed something. I would let the end of the rope tap her on the hindquarters if she hadn’t got to moving before that. Once I have asked for something I have made an absolute commitment to find a change.
If I have to escalate things further, then I need to find a bigger change too – if I have to put a lot of energy in to ask my horse to walk faster, then I would aim for them to trot or canter forwards from that.
There are two general guidelines I use for this:
First if my horse is stuck or leaning on my cues ( by which I mean that they are not promptly and willingly following those cues or trying to figure out what I am looking for if we’re working on something new ) then to be properly effective, I need my secondary cue ( the swinging rope, noise, increase in energy, bump with my leg or on the rein ) to be sufficient that my horse moves their feet. If in doubt I would much prefer to do a little too much with that cue than not enough. Ideally I want my horse to think about what just happened and to look for an easier way to get along with me. As soon as they start searching, we’re going in the right direction.
Secondly I back up my initial cue quite quickly. The time I have heard suggested is 1 – 1.5 seconds between initial and secondary cue. That is time to judge whether anything has changed, but not long enough for your horse to have a snooze while they’re waiting to find out whether or not you mean it.
When I talk about having an absolute commitment to making a change I mean that if I ask my horse for something, I really mean it- I will go to whatever lengths it takes to have them change if they ignore what I am asking for. For me, the really interesting part is this: Since I learned to make that commitment, I have consistently found my horses responded to smaller cues.
We spend a lot of our time saying yes to people. Agreeing with them and seeking common direction. We are social by nature and we want to be able to get along and accommodate one another. So wherever possible we seek agreement, we offer to do things with and for one another and we co-operate. As a species this is one of our best qualities.
It has an outcome that affects our relationship with our horses, though – being inclined to agree and get along with one another means that most of us find it quite hard to disagree, it feels like a confrontational thing to do. Who wants to feel like a negative person?
But our horses really need us to be able to say no. They need our relationship to be absolutely black and white, with total clarity about every line and boundary. Most of the way they learn from us will be when they ask us “can I do this?” In many cases we will answer “no.” They need us to be able to do that consistently, clearly and calmly.
That does not mean that we don’t ask them in the way that helps as much as possible, but if a horse has much desire to find the right answer, they will start trying things and until they hit on the right thing, we have to keep saying “no.” As soon as they hit on the right thing, or on something that we can shape towards the right thing, then we can give them a really clear “yes” and reward them with a break and scratches or whatever other rewards we want to give our horses. But without “no” that “yes” doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning – as Martin Black is fond of saying, “it takes pressure for relief to be effective, it takes relief for pressure to be effective.” Horses want a clear, black and white, communication. Grey areas mean uncertainty and uncertainty is frightening to them. “No” is the way we can guide our horse to “yes.”
Horses also need that consistency from us – every time we interact with them, they will always keep asking “has this rule changed” and all they really want is for us to give them a reassuring “no.”
The clinics I have taken part in this summer have really given me an appreciation for how far I have come on this path and also for how far I still have to go before I get anywhere close to where I want to be. Thinking about the things I have learned, it occurred to me that I could probably put together a simple list of things that I had to change to become the horseman I am now and write a little bit about each one in the hope they might help other people on a similar path. Unfortunately I am physically incapable of writing a little bit of anything, so each point ended up as a post in its own right, but I’ll put the list here and link each point as I add them.
The ten essential lessons I have learned so far, are these:
- You need to be able to say no.
- Be effective.
- Offer the horse a sweet spot.
- Energy is not direction
- Never allow your horse to pull
- Everything is details
- You can be too careful
- Don’t change the question because you haven’t got the right answer yet.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment – find what works.
- You can always do less, you can always get more
As you have doubtless noticed, not all of these posts have been published – that is partly because I was too busy to update for a while, but more recently they moved to Horsemanship Magazine where you can find updated versions of the whole series between issues 101 and 111. The magazine represents extraordinary value and I strongly recommend subscribing!
I use back-up a lot in my training. It makes life convenient both on the ground and in the saddle and it provides a useful starting point for correct carriage and for releasing the poll when a horse is carrying a lot of brace there. I have two main ways of approaching this.
The first way is to ask by squaring up in front of the horse making direct eye contact and stepping towards them. If they don’t move back ( many horses don’t the first few times ) I make enough fuss that they decide that being around me is a non-awesome thing to do and take a step back. If in doubt I make more fuss rather than less because when one is ineffectual it tends to mean that one is teaching the horse to ignore one’s own cues. I would rather the horse overreacts a little and I can tone down my cue next time than that the horse doesn’t react and I have to pick things up next time. The big thing I never do in this situation is to shake the lead rope under the horse’s chin. I try to keep that really steady. I definitely don’t want the horse to throw their head in the air and shaking a lead rope really contributes to that, also it can be ineffectual as that is below where the horse is looking if their attention is on you. I will normally slap the tail of the rope against my chaps to make some noise and energy but you could also wave your arms around, jump up and down, just do whatever it takes to get a change. As soon as the horse steps back all pressure is off and you give them some thinking time. Then you set it up with the more subtle cue again. If you have to go beyond that more than a couple of times you are not making enough fuss when you make a fuss. If you stop making a fuss before your horse moves, you’re teaching them to ignore you. I want my horse to think they are training me not to be crazy and annoying, that way they may buy into the process a little more.
I mention that way of backing a horse up first because that is the back up that I will use in day to day life- if I am going through a gate or we get stuck on a track while I’m leading, that is how I will back my horse away. It also is what keeps me safe if the horse is anxious because it is a big part of teaching them not to run over you.
When I am working towards riding, I have a second cue. This starts standing beside the horse’s head and I hold the lead rope in my hand with the thumb pointing down and ask them to lower their head. I just keep the pressure there until they offer any downward movement then release it. This is a great exercise for teaching the basics of pressure and release. If they really resist and brace in the poll I might slowly rock my hand left and right so that they have to resist both a vertical and lateral movement. That is difficult so they tend to give after a little while. I might work on this over a few sessions as part of our basic work, until the horse can lower their head on demand and keep it lowered – often they will first offer a kind of nod, so once they are starting to drop their head one needs to ask for a little more time. I am looking for a head lowered so the poll is roughly level with the wither, so it’s not super low, just at a level the horse would hold it when relaxed. Once I have that, with my hand in he same place I will ask the horse to bring their chin a little towards their chest. This process is normally a little like the original lowering, but once they figure it out you can ask them to bring their chin back a little and they will probably step to release it. If they don’t, just wait for them to come through and maybe make a little noise if their feet are properly stuck. The moment they move, you immediately release the pressure and give them some thinking time ( of course you give the horse thinking time after every significant release, which should be close enough to every release ) after a little work you will find that by asking back with a light release for each step, you can get a lovely smooth back up with the horse’s head in a good position. In my experience this is very easy to transfer to the saddle and because you have already worked around the braces that most horses carry, it can be a starting place for working on softness in the poll and neck.
I have one other good technique too, working from the saddle. If you have a horse that responds well laterally to your leg, you can start in the saddle by setting up your body in the position for backup ( opinion is divided on what is correct and it seems that as long as you are consistent, it doesn’t matter too much ) and have the rein ready to close the door to forward, but don’t pull back, just don’t allow forward. Then ask the horse to step their back end to the left, then to the right, then to the left until they get a bit irritated and step back. Immediately release all pressure and tell them what an awesome horse they are. After a minute or so, set it up again. The advantage of this is that you get a back-up that starts from behind and pulls rather than a push from the front feet. You will know when you feel it because it is unlike what you are accustomed to.
Remember if you are working on this that back-up is a two beat movement and that horses can back up fairly quickly. Watch for loss of straightness ( often caused because you get one foot stuck ) and don’t ask for too much too soon. Once you do start to get it, however, you can use step-by-step release to encourage the horse to keep backing up for as long as you want. Horses can back up way faster than most people ever ask them to, there is no harm working on varying the speed as well as the distance that you ask your horse to back up. If your horse starts bracing on you, it would be a bad idea to release until they quit, though that can mean waiting them out for a few strides. Persistence will be rewarded in this- it is an area of training where a little work gives a lot of benefits.
This article by Mark Rashid is a typically insightful look at the use of tools in training.
There are tools I always use – rope halters with a spliced 12′ line – and tools I sometimes use such as flags, training sticks, dressage whips, crops or lariats. These aren’t things I use every day, but I find it very useful to keep them in the toolbox.
At various stages in my development as a horseman I have needed these things. I simply couldn’t get whatever I was working on at the time to work without them. That still happens – sometimes with a new horse I will use a flag to amplify the energy I am producing so the horse I am working with can figure out it would be useful for them to tune into me. I suspect that part of the reason that Mark doesn’t need tools like that is that he has so much more control over his energy and intent that he can get by on those alone, and it is my intention to be the same one day. I remember watching Steve Halfpenny demonstrate something and then drop the training stick and say “I need you to see that this is coming from me and not the tools” – it is really easy for us, as we learn, to see someone using a tool and assume that the tool is how they are achieving their goal. Whenever I am using a training tool of some kind, I am trying to see ways to avoid needing it next time around, learning to let go of them is part of the process of refinement.
In the opposite direction, I will often suggest my students try using a particular tool because they haven’t yet got the level of refinement that I have and I’m not a good enough teacher to pass on my expertise immediately. I want people I am helping to be able to feel what it is like when something is working correctly. Once they have that feeling we can begin working on using the tools less, until we are working from feel alone, but a lot of the time if we don’t start with something to make up for that lack of refinement, it makes their job harder. I always try to make the point that the training tool is Plan B and that once we get everything working according to Plan A we should be able to dispense with it altogether. Training tools are typically a physical solution to a communication problem and those are somewhat different domains, so they are seldom the best fit if you are interested in getting to how your horse feels.
As for me, although I do still go back to that toolbox, it feels as though the more I do, the less necessary it becomes. These days I don’t mind going back to things that I have used in the past because it happens increasingly infrequently. I think of it as something like the progress to recovery after a broken leg- you might start out needing a wheelchair, then crutches, then maybe a stick and later you only need the stick occasionally, but you need all those things until you get to where you can walk unassisted and if you need to use one of them again for some reason, there is no shame in that. You just can’t let yourself become dependent on it.
Every horse wants to be the best horse in the world.
I have argued this case in the past with my people who believe that some horses are just mean and lots of horses just want to survive, but I think better of them than that- I think that every horse wants to be the best horse in the world.
If they could overcome their physical constraints and their emotional concerns your horse would definitely be the best horse in the world. Then you’d be happy because your horse was the best horse in the world and they would be happy because they were the best horse in the world and it would be a very good situation for everyone involved.
So why has this situation not arisen for all of us with our horses? Often I think it’s because we don’t know how to show them what being the best horse in the world involves, sometimes it is because they physically can’t do the things we are asking them for.
I think there is benefit to taking this attitude- it gives me a very positive outlook on the horses I am working with and helps me stay focussed on clarity in my work and on looking for what is important to the horse I am working with. I also always give a horse the benefit of the doubt as regards their physical capacity- if I think there may be a physical problem I will try to find a solution for it before I push the horse harder to do something they aren’t capable of. That doesn’t mean not working them at all and it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop handling them in the way I always do, but if I suspect they may be being prevented by pain then finding a way of discovering what the problem is and how to resolve it will be my first priority. I would rather have a horse who I had confirmed to be sound and have wasted a bit of money and a few weeks when we could have been working harder than to try and force the issue with a horse who was uncomfortable and risk causing both physical and emotional problems.
There is a difference between a horse trying and not being able to do something that is asked of them and not wanting to- in the latter case the horse has spent too long not understanding what is being asked of them or not understanding why it is being asked of them. After a while the cue is likely to either become something they ignore or it will them anxious or grumpy. If they don’t know what they are being asked for but they are still trying to find it, then you can usually find a new way of making it clearer – break the problem down into smaller pieces and make sure that there isn’t something else which is setting the horse up to fail before they start. For example, if I was asking a horse to load into a horsebox but they didn’t lead up really well, I would need to fix the leading before I started working on the loading. This is usually a case of patience, experimentation and lateral thinking.
It is more difficult to explain to a horse who has given up on searching for an answer why they should start to try again. There are a lot of different ways of explaining the “why” part and you will have to think through what you are happy with- some people favour a “because you will have a tasty treat” other people feel that “because I said so” is reason enough. I fall further into the second camp- partly for reasons I have explained elsewhere – for a horse I am working with the “why” they should look for an answer is that if they make a try towards what I’m asking them for ( or in the case of a shut down horse a try of any kind ) their life is going to be very comfortable, whereas if they decide to ignore what I’m asking for, they will probably find things getting quite energetic and hectic and they might had to work hard for a while. Then I will give them some time to think and set the question up again, to see whether they are inclined to try. If they aren’t, then I probably need to do more to make it hard for them to ignore the request or ignore me. I never want to make a horse anxious or bothered, but if it comes to a choice between doing something that gets their attention and makes them a little concerned about me for a moment and not getting their attention, I will always choose the former.
The question of finding the will to try is so important to realising your horse’s potential- they can’t become light, or soft or willing until they start looking for what you are asking them for and they won’t learn to try harder if you don’t reward the tries they give you. It is very easy to get a really great step and instead of stopping, taking a break and maybe quitting for the day, you ask for just one more step. Then the horse thinks they must have done the wrong thing and starts trying everything else instead. This is, so far as I can tell, something everybody does from time to time and we are fortunate that our horses let us off from these kinds of mistake and keep on working at getting along with us. But it does make sense when you think about it- after all, they are trying to be the best horse in the world.