Wednesday, 20 June 2012


This is a general definition:

1. to lessen the sensitiveness of.

2. to make indifferent, unaware of.

This is a term that is used a lot in natural horse training.  Personally I believe it is over used and gives a distorted impression of what is really happening.  Another term that is used frequently is “bomb proofing”, which refers to the same process.

I understand what the clinicians mean when they talk about desensitizing a horse. For example, they want a horse to ignore a fluttering plastic bag instead of spooking and running off.  What they are really talking about is modifying the horses’ behaviour.

Horses are naturally very sensitive and perceptive animals.  Their very life depends on it.  Despite all best efforts you can never be absolutely sure that a horse won`t spook.  Given the wrong set of circumstances even the “bomb proof” horse can and will spook.

Chris Cox uses the term “PREPARE” as an alternative to “desensitize” which I believe is more appropriate to what is really desired.  This implies that the horse has been taught to respond instead of react.

There is a picture at the end of this section that shows a horse (my horse Kai) who is truly desensitized.  In this picture he is recovering from a sedative that was administered by a veterinarian in order to remove a bunch of porcupine quills from his nose.  This is not the demeanour anyone wants in their horse.  Again I am aware that this is not what clinicians mean by desensitizing.

Horses put things in two categories, things they should run away from and things they should not run away from.   Using techniques that clinicians teach, you can teach your horse not to fear a tarp, a trailer or a bit.  You can PREPARE them to accept these things as safe.

My horse, Kai, who was 11 years old when I got him, would not trailer load.  It was a fight to get him on a trailer and when he came off he was terrified.  Using methods that I learned from Richard Winters and Chris Cox, I prepared Kai to accept the trailer.  This was accomplished by a procedure of moving closer and staying longer and building his confidence and trust in me.  He now loads exactly the way the Chris and Richard demonstrate and he travels without fear. 

Monday, 18 June 2012


For the most part clinicians who use natural horsemanship techniques employ a program of ground exercises.  There are a few who do little or no ground work preferring to go as quickly as possible training from the back of the horse.

For people, like me, who have limited experience with riding and who don`t possess a high level of natural athleticism, groundwork is the better choice to begin working with a horse.  Working on the ground is safer for you and the horse. 

The exercises employed in the clinician programs are intended to build a system of communication between the human and the horse.  The techniques are designed to take advantage of the natural behaviour of the horse.  Each clinician has different methods, exercises and tools that they use.  As I have said before, it is a real advantage to look at the work of a number of different clinicians and pick the one that suits you the best.

Establishing the communication with the horse is the primary goal of ground exercises.  In the process of building the communication you also build trust, respect and confidence between you and your horse.  My primary goal with the exercises was to build responses that would translate directly to the responses that you want when you are in the saddle.  This again is for safety for both the human and the horse, and it also continues to build the trust and confidence.  But no matter what techniques you use the principals stay the same.

Ground exercises involve imposing some form of pressure on the horse with a view to getting a desired response.  To be successful you have to learn to recognize when the horse is giving or trying to give the correct response and releasing the pressure when it occurs.  It sounds so simple.  It isn`t.  You have to train your eye, your body and your mind to respond correctly to the horse.  The better the timing of your response the quicker the horse will understand. 

Once you understand the fundamentals of horse behaviour and have started using the techniques taught by any of the N H clinicians you should try and watch accomplished horseman use these methods.  One of the best examples of this are the Road to the Horse colt starting competitions.  If you have an opportunity watch the DVD of the 2011 competition featuring  Pat Parelli, Chris  Cox and Clinton Anderson.  It is a good example of the natural horsemanship principles used in three very different ways.

Doing ground exercises well requires a lot of skill developed through practice and repetition.  It is a lot like learning a golf swing.  You have to train you body and your mind to go through a whole series of steps in a very precise manner that can be repeated exactly over and over again.  It requires the development of muscle memory and a strong feel for the horses` responses.  When it is done with this high level of skill, horses learn the correct responses very quickly.

I have often heard the complaint that clinicians are only  trying to sell you a bunch of expensive gimmicks and equipment just to make money.  Well sure, this is their living and they do need to make money.  The equipment is really a side issue.  You can do ground exercises with any halter and lead rope, and nothing else, except stuff you find in the paddock.  The knowledge you get from the clinicians is the vital part.  Used correctly and with an understanding of the horse you can establish the communication, trust, respect and confidence in yourself and your horse with equipment you already have.

For me ground exercises build the foundation of your relationship with your horse.  They make it possible to communicate effectively and safely with them, whether it is under saddle or in harness.  Every time I go in the paddock with my horse I do some ground exercises with him.  It may only be a few minutes where I ask him to back up, give lateral flexion, yield his hind quarters or lower his head.  This few minutes keeps building the foundation with the horse and he looks for me coming and meets me at the gate always with a willing question “What do you want me to do now?”

In my opinion Ground Work is Good.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Knowledge and Safety

A few days ago I was in my doctor’s office waiting for an appointment.  There was another gentleman there and we started a discussion.  The topic of horses came up.  He told me that he used draft horses in his farm operation.  He told me that he had two Percherons last year but that he had sold them after an accident.  Apparently the team had bolted and he had caught between one of the horses and a tree.  The result was a broken collar bone, three broken ribs and a broken arm.  Based on his description of the event I am surprised he survived at all.

As we talked about horses and his experience, it became apparent that he had learned about horses from passed down knowledge that relied almost entirely on the use of force and mechanics to get the horse to do what was wanted.  He had no understanding of the nature of horses, how to communicate with them and how to use that knowledge to modify behaviour.  The solution to a problem with a horse was to get rid of the horse and try the same techniques on another horse.  As the saying goes “If you always do what you`ve always done, you will always get what you always got.”

I told him about a problem with one of my horses and the methods I used to solve it.  His eyes glazed over and told me that would never work with any horse he had.  I have become used to this reaction and as a result I never offer advice unless it is clearly requested.

There is a very prevalent attitude that “We have always done it this way.”  There is almost an unwillingness to learn, even when a person`s life may hang in the balance.