Tuesday, 31 January 2012


When we started doing natural horsemanship we were told very emphatically that we should not talk to our horses.  This is totally unnatural for humans and,  in my opinion, is not a helpful instruction for people.  The proper instruction is that you must use your voice carefully and  thoughtfully.

Horses communicate primarily by body language, but, they also use their voice.  Like most animals they do learn to communicate with people using voice.  They also communicate to other horses.  The most common situation is when one horse is separated from the herd.  The lone horse will whinny loudly and the herd will respond so the lost horse can return. 

There are two kinds of voice communication with horses.  There is the ASKING VOICE and the CALMING VOICE.  The asking voice is the one that concerns clinicians.  The risk is that people rely too much on voice to ask the horse when they don`t understand the body language.  The calming voice is used more for ourselves than for the horse.  Through the tone of voice it does convey an emotional component to the horse.

The asking voice is used to supplement a physical request for a horse to respond.  For example there a number of physical techniques for asking the horse to back up.  This can be combined with a simple voice command “BACK”.  When using this command you should always use exactly the same word in the same tone of voice.  A cluck can be used to ask the horse for a trot, a kiss to ask for a lope.  These voice asks must be taught in combination with physical training cues.  Clinicians can explain the use of voice in detail when you ask them.  Used properly the asking voice can be a very useful method for communicating with your horse.

In building leadership and partnership with horses I have found that horses begin to vocalize to me.  With our first horse his vocalizing started after 6 months.  The next two horses did not start until the second year. 

The first sound is a fairly loud knicker when the horse sees me coming toward the paddock.  It is like a signal or an invitation to come into the paddock.  The second voice is a very low knicker when I am with the horse in the paddock.  It feels like the calming voice that I use when I am around the horse which he is replicating in his own way.  The third voice is an extremely low knicker that is barely audible.  The horse does this when I am rubbing him or grooming him and he is very relaxed it is very much like purring in cats.

For humans the use of voice is so much of what we are that we should understand how we can employ our voice to communicate with other species.  We also need to learn to listen to the voices of other species to help us understand them.  Communicating doesn`t require language it does require understanding.

The foal gives my mother an earful below.(circa 1940)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Licking and Chewing

I hear clinicians and commentators say,  “The horse is thinking, he is licking and chewing.”

Unless the horse is dead, he is always thinking.  The horse may not be thinking what we want them to think but they are thinking.  The licking and chewing means something else.  It is a sign of submission.  The horse is accepting leadership.

The horse is at its most vulnerable when it is eating.  It has its head down, its vision is limited, its sense of smell is limited,  and its hearing is limited.  When a horse is submissive it replicates this behaviour.  It lowers its head and it licks and chews signifying that it feels submissive and vulnerable.

It is not a big issue but I think it is important to understand correctly what the horse is communicating to you.  It may help you when you are playing with your horse.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Dominance, Leadership and Partnership

The three words that generate a lot of discussion  in the field of natural horsemanship.  What do they mean?  What are the differences?  Can you have one without the others?

In the herd the leader is most often an old and weathered mare.  It is not, as some think, the most aggressive stud.  There are very good  reasons for this and it has to do with gender and nature.  I have experienced this first hand  in a field with 25 horses.  When I was approached  by one of the geldings a very small mare came between  me and the gelding and quite forcefully shouldered me away.  She had  identified  herself  as the herd leader.

There is an order in the herd and each horse has its place in that order.  The dominance in a herd is established by the ability of one horse to control  the movement of another.  The horse that can cause another horse to move or not to move is the dominant horse.  If you go in your paddock and your horse crowds in on you and makes you  move or  if the horse cuts you off and stops you from moving then  the horse has established his dominance over you ,  in his mind.

Dominance can also be established by force.  And  this is sometimes called  “traditional” training.  In this method the horse is forced to submit to the will of the human.  In effect the spirit of the horse is broken.  Hence,  the term “breaking” a horse.  In the not  too distant past the force used was so extreme that 1 in 3 horses died in the process of  “breaking”.

In “natural” horse training the methods are based on the natural behaviour of the horse and are used to establish dominance and leadership with the horse.  The methods rely on the ability to control the movement of the horse.  These methods do not  rely on force.  They rely on an understanding of the behaviour of the horse,  its perceptivity,  its ability to learn  very rapidly, and its  natural need for leadership.

Leadership is based on  trust, respect and confidence.  The use of  force destroys trust,  respect, and confidence. 

In a partnership with horses there must be senior and junior  partners.  You must be the senior partner.  From time to time the junior partner will test your leadership.  Do not be offended or angry.  This is a natural part of  horse behaviour.  Just re-establish your control of movement and the order is restored without force or fight.

Remember partners help each other out.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Dr. Robert M. Miller

Part of the purpose of this blog is to bring sources of information  about horses to you.  This segment is about one of the leading authorities on horse behaviour and the resources he has produced to help people communicate with and understand horses.

Doctor Miller is an internationally recognized expert on  horse behaviour.  He practiced veterinary medicine in California until 1987.  Since then he has devoted his time to teaching about horse behaviour and the revolution in horsemanship.  He has published books and DVD`s on  horse behaviour and horsemanship.  He is  known for his system of training newborn foals, imprint training, which, if done correctly, is the fastest method of shaping a horse's responses.

The book, The Revolution in Horsemanship, which he co-authoured with Rick Lamb is an excellent source of  information about the history of  horsemanship.  It will give you a lot of information  about  the background of what is known  as “natural horsemanship”.  It also provides the readers with lots of ideas and avenues to pursue in the study of   horses and horsemanship.

His book,  Natural Horsemanship Explained,  gives the detailed scientific reasons why the principles of natural horsemanship work as they do.  It goes into detail about the way horses  behave and how they see humans and  their environment.

I would also recommend the following DVD`s:

·         Understanding Horses

·         Safer Horsemanship

·         Influencing the Horses Mind

·         Control of the Horse

If there was only one DVD I could have it would be “Understanding Horses”.  I wish I had viewed this information the day we started working with our horse.  It provides you with essential fundamental knowledge about why horses do what they do and fundamental methods for handling horses.

I would urge you  to visit Dr. Miller`s website www.robertmiller.com  to see all of the resources available. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Mind Reading and Communicating

Horses are extremely sensitive animals.  They communicate primarily through body language.  The following is one of my favourite quotes slightly modified  to refer to horsemanship.

Horses are always reading your body language.

Your body language is your actions, your expression and your attitude.

Your thoughts become your attitude, your expression and your actions.

So in a way your horse can read your mind.  

Of course horses don`t read  minds.  It just seems that way sometimes. Horses sense everything about you.  They see the expression on your face, your posture, your attitude, the way you move, where you move.  They sense immediately if you are tense or relaxed; if you are confident or insecure, if you are happy, worried or  angry.  They are aware of your focus and when you are in the saddle they can tell where your eyes are focused.  They respond or  react based on what they sense from you.

When you have the opportunity, watch someone else with their horse.  Observe every detail of the human and the horse.  If the human is relaxed and moves with rythmn and confidence the horse will respond in kind.  Compare how a novice interacts with a horse to the interaction between an experienced horseman/clinician.  When you are watching professionals in training  videos do a few runs where you just watch the clinician and the horse and look at the behaviour and forget the purpose of the lesson .  The lessons are important but you will get more if you are aware of  all components of  the horse human  interaction.

If you have the opportunity video yourself  interacting with the horse  and  do a very careful review of your behaviour. This can be a very humbling experience. What you think you are doing may look very different on screen.  You have to swallow your pride and learn.  Observe how the horse is behaving at every step.  When you have trained your eye to look at details you will really begin to see the connections between horse and human.  Do several sessions over time.  Watch and  rewatch ,  observe and compare, adjust and readjust, keeping working towards UNITY.

Any time you are with your horse look  in your mental mirror.  Do a check on how you are feeling,  are you smiling or frowning, are you moving smoothly, is your body tense or relaxed,  are your hands open or clenched, is your breathing regular, are you holding your breath, be aware of everything about yourself.  Your horse uses all of these things in making up their minds about how they feel about you.   (picture from pixdaus.com)

When working with horses attention to detail is essential. You must prepare your mind to recognize the slightest change in the mental, physical and emotional state of both the horse and yourself. You must prepare your body to respond to the horse, to have the feel, that is needed to make the correct adjustments to achieve the desired  result. It is disciplined relaxation  and finely tuned  awareness of yourself and the horse.  You will find that  developing these senses of  observation will translate from horsemanship to all aspects of  life.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Why Colt Starting?

Most clinicians offer a program on COLT STARTING.  Because we had horses that were between 6 and 10 years old, who had  been  ridden,  we didn`t feel any need for these programs.  Because these programs were offered in package deals we acquired a few and started  to look at them.  We found a lot of  information  that  was very useful  when  introducing  natural techniques to experienced  horses  who had been  traditionally trained.

If you are just starting to use natural methods or even if you  are already using  these methods but haven`t looked at colt starting techniques,  I would strongly suggest that you take a look at them.  These  programs give you a window into the world of natural horsemanship that has no dirt on it.  The characteristics of the horse are unaltered and the clinician  is dealing with a clean slate.  You will see an exagerated  version  of the steps you will need to take with your horse.   Believe me,  you will see things that you have never thought about before.  It is thinking outside the box of all boxes.

To really take advantage of this new avenue into the world of natural horsemanship take a look at the colt starting competitions.  They are held all over North America.  The best of them all, in my opinion, is ROAD TO THE HORSE.  This will be their ninth year of competition.  This event specializes in the area of NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP.  It features the best clinicians in the world, starting some of the finest, well bred colts most of us will ever have the opportunity of seeing.  The event is published on  dvd sets that are the best  educational tools you can ever own.  Tootie Bland and her husband Stephen started this event,   Rick Lamb the official host,  and  the judges are all outstanding experts in the field of  natural horsemanship.  If  you  spend the time watching these event dvds you will learn more so much about the nature of the horse human connection it will change the life you have with your horse beyond anything you can  imagine.

Colt starting is something every horse lover should know about even if you  never own a colt.  ROAD TO THE HORSE  is an event that every person interested  in the natural methods of horse training should take advantage of.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Trust, Belief, Confidence and Respect

In any partnership there are fundamental components that  must be present and  solid.  This is true with human/human  partnerships and  in interspecies relationships.

In a relation ship with horses the four  listed components are critical.  In my mind they follow in order TRUST, followed by BELIEF, then comes CONFIDENCE and finally RESPECT.  

When you first approach a horse you need  to get him/her to trust you  just to approach  him/her.  There are a number of  methods you can  use to do this.  The clinician  programs go into detail about the methods they advocate.  Take a look at them, try them and you and your horse will decide what is best for you.  Once established  trust must be maintained and sustained to grow and reinforce it.

The next step is to build belief in both yourself and  in the horse that your trust is solid.  The horses needs to believe that you are not going to hurt them  and you are not going to trap them.  The horses dignity is important and  if you are going to be accepted as a partner you  must maintain his/her dignity while at the same time demonstrating that you  have dignity and  respect for yourself.  In this relationship you need the horse to see you as a leader who he can believe in.  A leader isn`t necessarily an autocratic boss.  Horses are herd animals, and,  in a herd there is a pecking order.  You need to be one step up from  your horse  for safety reasons as a minimum.

As your  partnership strengthens on the pillars of trust and belief  the confidence the horse has in you will also build.  As the horse gets more confident, so do you.  It is a symbiotic relationship, man with horse, building a strong connection, reinforcing each others energy.  This confidence will keep building throughout your partnership as  long as trust and belief are maintained.

The final component  is respect.  This must be a mutual respect.  The horse needs to accept  that you are above  him in the herd  order and you  need to respect that he will continue to act like a horse.  Horses almost never bite, strike, kick or charge as a defence or offence.  It is almost always an act of play.  It can  never the less be dangerous.  If  your horse feels trapped  and/or  threatened  he will defend himself.  His  first defence  is flight.  If  he feels trapped  however,  he will use the other methods to defend  himself.  He is just being a horse.  Always remember that and respect it.  You are the one higher in the herd.  It is your responsibility to see his fear and  emotions.  It is you who must  act before he reacts.  It is you  who must respond  to remove the  fear and shape  his response.

 There is no place for anger and punishment, ever.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Therapy of Partnership

Over the years we have experienced relationships with a variety of  animals; cats, dogs, mice, rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits, squirrels, chickens, and even a racoon.  They have all brought a different experience to us.  The common denominator was that respect and care given was returned many times over.  The experiences we have had with horses have been the most profound.  We are not alone as the following quotation  from Linda Matthews  illustrates.

“TO ANYONE THAT OWNS A HORSE! When your day seems out of balance and so many things go wrong ... When people fight around you and the clock drags on so long ... When some folks act like children and fill you with remorse ... Go out into your pasture and wrap your arms around your horse. His gentle breath enfolds you as... he watches with those eyes ... He may not have a PhD but he is, oh so wise! His head rests on your shoulder... you hug him good and tight ... He puts your world in balance and makes it seem all right. Your tears will soon stop flowing, the tension will be eased ... The nonsense has been lifted. You are quiet and at peace. So when you need some balance from the stresses in your day ... The therapy you really need Is out there eating hay!”

Linda Matthews

Animals and especially horses are a healing force in our lives.  Their sensitivity to our physical, mental and emotional state is amazing.  We can  tap into that force,  but we have to respect and honour them for the gifts that they have.

Thank you Linda for putting this into context for us.

Monday, 9 January 2012

A Measure of Partnership

Give, Offer, Accept, Receive

Four simple words that mean so much with horses and people.  We don`t think about them  much.  We should.  Understanding what they mean will give a measure of the strength of the partnership you have with your horse.

In the natural horsemanship world we teach horses to give to pressure in an appropriate manner.  The pressure can be applied in different ways.  When the horse responds to pressure in the appropriate way we accept the result by releasing the pressure.  As the strength of the partnership increases the amount of the required pressure decreases, the response is quicker and more precise and so our acceptance must be clear and  timely.  This is the core of the development of  timing and feel.

As the partnership continues to strengthen the horse will begin to offer  responses to you.  For example when you approach the paddock the horse may knicker and come to the gate to meet you.  This is an offer to be with you.  You receive the offering when you enter the paddock and allow the horse to touch you.  When  you  are with your horse  he  may  go and  touch  something that you have been  playing with.  You  receive that gift and reward the horse.  The reward can be anything  you  and  your  horse  agree on.

The next step in partnership growth is when the horse comes to you  and  gives you  a cue that he wants something.  I am  referring  to non  food  items.  The most frequent request is for a scratch  or a rub.  You should accept the cue and honour the request. They may even  go and get  a halter and bring it to you.  The message is pretty clear.  You have a partner.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Foundations - Part 3 - Dedication

This is the part where you invest the sweat equity.  To be successful it is important to put the principles and your knowledge of the training methods into practice with  your horse.  So, you need to dedicate the time necessary to build your skills and feel.

The work you have to do on your sense of self is a big part of this.   Horses live close to nature; in general we humans do not.  Horses are sensitive to themselves, the herd and everything in nature that surrounds them.  We need to retrain our senses to be more attuned to all the elements of nature . 

First thing you need to reflect on your mental and emotional state and learn to control  them.  If you walk into a horse paddock feeling nervous and insecure horses will sense it instantly.  They will feed off it and react to it.  Often people are not even aware of their emotional state.   They suppress feelings because they get in the way of their plan, their goals and most of all their schedule .   They just have to get x and y done by z time.  We are conditioned to this from the time we are children.  Our sense of self is  suppressed in deference to material reality and THE SCHEDULE.  The phrase  “Stop and smell the roses.” Is a rule you should follow. 

A common course of action is to read a book on horse training or watch a DVD.  Then we grab our equipment march smartly out to the paddock and give ourselves a time line of half an hour to catch and halter our horse and complete the first two tasks of the course.  The horse sees you coming and heads for the other end of the paddock .   It takes 20 minutes to catch the horse and you can`t get him/her to do anything.  First you get frustrated and then you get mad.  Bad becomes worse and you feel like a failure.  I know.  I have been there and done that.  The only thing you did right was to read and watch to gain some knowledge. What you didn`t do is prepare yourself mentally and emotionally.

Think of the little child with the big white horse.  The child has no fear ; is no threat to the horse; has no anger or frustration and invites the horse to come along.  The child has no big expectations except to ask horsey to come with me.  Imagine yourself  as that small child with that innocence and love for the animal.  Feel that inner quietness and acceptance of the nature of the horse you are with.  Small things mean a lot to horses.  If at all possible let the horse touch you first.  Sense the horses feelings if you sense he is about to leave you,  you leave first.  This relieves pressure on the horse and initiates curiosity.  Developing this sense of feel for the horses emotions can be achieved only with experience and time spent with the horse.  Each horse is an individual just as we are.  There is no magic formula.

For the purpose of this discussion i assume that you are not afraid of horses.  The most common fear is the fear of being on the horse.  The principles of “natural horsemanship” indicate that confidence and trust need to be established on the ground.  Both the horse and the human need to be prepared for the experience of riding.  To prepare yourself to deal with fear, I recommend the work of Dr. Stephanie Burns, “Move closer, stay longer”.

Working on ground exercises is important.  However, I have found that it is easy to get trapped in an endless cycle of new exercises and perfecting technique and performance for these exercises.  For me, the most important part of ground work is the development of “feel” for yourself and the horse.  As you develop your physical execution skills you also develop your mental and emotional skills of perception and observation.  You will begin to see the horse as a reflection of yourself.

It was Tom Dorrance who talked about “true unity”, he wrote a book about it.  My interpretation of his concept, is acquiring the ability  to see our reflection in our horse.  We become a  unified image.  This is an ultimate goal to strive for.  Do not expect to fully achieve it.  If you do, you have become a horse.

Your horse will begin to see you as part of the herd.  Most important you will be seen as a leader of the herd.  This will mean the horse has given you trust, confidence and belief in your leadership.  You have given the horse your trust, confidence and belief.  You have become a unit.

The term “horsemanship” is used very loosely.  Who says you  are or are not a horseman.  It is not some clinician, a committee, an association or organization.  The only valid judgement is made by your horse.  You may not have ribbons, buckles, plaques, saddles, special strings or certificates but you will know you have respect of and partnership with the horse. You are a team of two, a herd,  a unit.

To achieve this level of connection with your horse, your need to dedicate yourself to the study of and development of the skills of understanding  of,  and communication with horses.  The results are rewarding for both horse and human.

When your horse has become your partner, if you want to see your soul, look in the eye of your horse.