Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Ten Secrets To Becoming Highly Successful With Horses

Ten Secrets To Becoming Highly Successful With Horses

1. Attitude is everything. 

The quality of our lives is dictated by our thoughts and beliefs. We see our world not as it is but as our judgments and paradigms (beliefs) dictate. If we judge our horse is bad, then we may think it deserves punishment. Perhaps we think the horse made us look like poor riders or simply made us look foolish. Actually, a horse is never doing anything to us personally. All unwanted behavior from a horse is a fear based reaction to something. Either pain (or the anticipation of pain), misunderstanding of a request, too much input at once, never being rewarded for efforts at compliance, frustration and more, can cause a fearful reaction from a horse. Notice I said reaction rather than response. They are two different things. A reaction is instinctual and without thought. A response tends to be somewhat thought out and more appropriate given the actual circumstances of the situation. As horses are prey animals their fearful reactions can be well understood as a survival mechanism and should not be punished. What needs to be established within the horse are feelings of safety and trust that it will be safe (survive). Safety does not live in the outside world. Safety is a feeling only. We either feel safe enough to take that plane ride or we do not. It is the same for a horse. It either feels safe and trusting enough to try to comply with requests made by a human (load into a float for example) or it does not. Therefore, it is easily understood that the development of trust between horse and human is  essential, paramount and basic to any successful endeavor, or relationship, with a horse. The development of trust between horse and human is actually quite easy. It revolves around the human's abilities to consistently lead and guide simple movement by the horse, support the horse is being calm, as well as to always show compassion, kindness and skill when interacting with a horse. Having as the bottom line and overall agenda of maintaining the animal's feelings of safety, rather than other short term goals (i.e getting him into a float or over a jump) will assure the development of trust and a willingness by the horse to try to comply with the requests made by a human. This approach will definitely provide greater opportunities for success with a horse in all endeavors. Every instant we are with a horse is an opportunity to develop a deeper level of trust. Every step we ask a horse to take is a chance to earn that animal's trust even more. Success with horses help humans to develop these essential life skills and wonderful attributes: compassion and kindness to others, skillful and accurate communication techniques, self-awareness and enhanced awareness of our surroundings, connectedness to nature and the world around us, consistency in thought and action, becoming less judgmental and, therefore, less stressed, improved and more positive attitudes towards ourselves and others. These are only a few of the positive benefits of conscious and appropriate interaction with horses.

2. 'Trust' is the key to unlock the treasure trove of great endeavors with horses.

Without mutual trust we have nothing going with our horses. A slave may be obedient to their master. But, given the opportunity, that slave might kill that master, run away or somehow sabotage the master and his undertakings. Many humans think a horse should be their obedient slave. They immediately want to punish what they see as the animal being disobedient. Whipping a horse to get it to jump a fence is punishment. Beating a horse to get it into a float is the same thing. Scaring a horse to make it do anything is fostering fear and not trust. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence around the world. Even many well meaning horse owners will go to using force on their horses quickly if a problem arises. This is due to mistaken thinking, erroneous judgments, inaccurate information and incredibly inappropriate beliefs about their horses. It is the nature of a horse to want to follow and cooperate with a good leader. In the wild horse herd there are bullies and their are leaders. A bully can look like a leader, but it is not and observation will bear that out. An alpha horse is not necessarily the leader either. It may just be a more aggressive member of the herd. Leadership contains wisdom. The herd leader develops trust within the herd by knowing when it is safe for the herd to move, where it is safe to go, where to find food and water (as well as when to stop and eat and drink), when it is safe to rest and when escape is called for. The other members of the herd learn to trust that head/lead mare for their survival. It is the same for a human leader of a horse. That human has to have the knowledge and skills to assist the horse in feeling it will survive by: controlling the food resources (feeding on time), providing adequate shelter and some protective environment (controlling environmental aspects), setting and keeping boundaries (developing mutual spatial respect with the horse), appropriately and precisely requesting movement and immediately rewarding the horse for attempts at compliance. The reward is a simple rest (break from all pressure of a request) and maybe a Good Boy. That is it. In the wild horse herd, the lead mare will reward another horse for compliance by simply ignoring it and/or allowing that horse to come a bit closer (not too close) and do homage to that leader through a particular posturing. Leering to reward good effort is a wonderful habit for all humans to get into with their children, employees, friends and their horses.

3. Successful completion of a horse's and rider's basic training will foster more winning in competition and more success in all activities with horses.

What I experience most often with horses and their humans that have trouble in the show ring is incomplete training in the most basic of fundamental equestrian skills. One step at a time mastered before moving on to the next step is what is essential. It may sound too simple to be believed, but it is true. Appropriate use of aids is a skill that is lacking quite a bit. Light and gently responsive hands are essential to success as is a developed balanced and centered seat. There are teaching techniques that assist all this and more. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to success in the show ring is rider error and not something done or not done by the horse. Unfortunately, many riders who compete in shows, are unwilling to take responsibility for the outcome of the competition. They prefer to pass on responsibility to their 'unruly, uncooperative, spiteful, willful, stubborn and 'out to make them look bad' horse. How unfortunate and unfair this. The truth is that most problems occurring in the show ring can be resolved through one-step-at-a-time training, going back to the basics and not moving forward until a previous step is mastered, patience, consistency and a more developed sense of timing between horse and human. Again, developed trust will come into play as an essential part of any and all training.

4. Developing a confident horse will help ensure probable success in all equine matters.

As with children and adults as well, confidence is tied into self-esteem, courage, developing new skills, trying new things, taking calculated risks, approaching scary things, accepting differences and living a more expanded life. Confidence is developed over time through appropriately being exposed to new and different circumstances in a thoughtful and safe way. Often this is accomplished with the assistance of a good leader or guide. In the case of a horse developing confidence, it is exactly the same thing. Over time, the horse needs to be exposed to potentially scary things and new circumstances. It should not be expected that a horse will completely accept something it is afraid of when first being introduced to it. This is where a human's ability to 'read' (understand) a horse's reactions becomes very important. Not taking the animal too close to its fear limit is important to developing confidence and trust in its leader and itself. Knowing when to stop and reward a horse for even taking one step towards a scary object is extremely important. For my training methods I will reward even a small step a horse takes towards something it is afraid of. Being able to recognize a horse 'trying' to comply is an important skill and not to be taken lightly. It is paramount to highly successful training.
Knowing when and how to end a session with a horse on a positive note goes a long way to that horse looking forward to the next session with that human. It also supports the horse learning and retaining the lesson from that session. The hallmarks of good training are: consistency, clarity, calm, skill and, of course, compassion and kindness.

5. Develop good habits and ways of being when around horses.

Bad (old and outmoded) habits are difficult to modify even for humans. "Old ways die hard" is a very common expression. It is the same with horses. Equines habituate very quickly to behavior stemming from environmental stimulus such as: humans correctly handling or mishandling them, poor behavior from herd mates, barn and housing inadequacies in routine and more. The younger a horse is the easier it is to modify its behavior, even stable vices. Unwanted and potentially dangerous behaviors like biting, rearing, striking, bucking and more, if caught early on when the horse is merely showing a tendency to begin the behavior, are relatively easy to change. I prefer to provide a consequence for unwanted equine behavior rather than a punishment. We tend to want to punish what we think is 'bad' behavior. Punishment is often provided with the energy of anger behind it. Wanting retribution (revenge) for a perceived wrong is common amongst humans. This is inappropriate and unfair when applied to horses. Horses are never doing anything to us personally, despite what we may think. They are simply horses, reacting as horses do to the stimulus presented to them. All equine reaction is based either on fear of demise or trust in survival. Thus a horse is always innocent, but should be shown respect as to its size and power. Keeping ourselves safe should be as important to us as it is to the horse. Modifying behavior in horses begins with providing the opportunity for the horse to comply with a simple request; the horse immediate receives a reward for its attempts at compliance and then receives another request. This sets up a winning cycle of request, tries at compliance and immediate reward. The horse will habituate rather quickly to this pattern of behavior. The result will, over time, be the dropping away of unwanted habitual behavior and the initiating of desirable behavior in its place.

6. Providing an appropriate consequence for unwanted behavior can go a long way to modifying it.

A good consequence for unwanted equine behavior is movement (work). All motion or movement is work to a horse. Therefore, if a human is able to request simple, repetitive movement from a horse the instant it does something unwanted, the horse will quickly begin to associate the added work as a consequence of its behavior. This allows a learning situation to be instituted as opposed to the animal being punished. Punishment creates resentment, fear, frustration and a host of other negative reactions. Providing a consequence sets up a learning situation where the wrong doer receives an opportunity to take responsibility for its actions and learn what to do to avoid the consequence. Some good consequences for unwanted behavior from horses are small circles, hind-quarter yields and backing a substantial distance.

7. The common successful language humans can have with horses is the language of kindness, compassion, precision and respect.

Horses communicate in various ways such as; body language (posturing), verbal sounds, shared mental images, shared feelings (empathy) and intuitive cognizance, to name the main methods of equine communication. We humans need to tune into our intuition, feelings, visual impressions, sound recognitions and interpretations, telepathically received images and more to be really effective communicators with our horses. Most often humans 'project' false interpretations of equine behavior onto their horses. They make a personal issue of unwanted behavior, not understanding the animal is simply showing fear. A clear, calm mind goes a long way to assist the possibility of good mutual communication with horses. Releasing all judgment about the horse’s behavior can open the mind even further. This involves never taking anything personally a horse does. When I am working with a horse and the animal kicks out a bit or shows any resistance to movement (work), my job is to ignore the resistance (assuming it is a minor occurrence) and keep myself and the horse focused on simply moving forward. If the action of the horse detracts me from keeping the animal moving forward, the horse has won that round, so to speak. As rest (stopping all movement) is what the animal wants, if it can stop me from my requesting forward movement, it will learn quickly that a little resistance can bring about the ceasing of any work. Skill is absolutely required to be able to ignore minor resistance and keep communicating in such a way as to not show anger, but simply firm resolve to be the good leader of the dance with the horse.

8. How to always have a successful session (training or any experience) with a horse in theory is simple.

Let’s say a human is attempting to teach a horse a new thing such as loading into a float (trailer). The session goes on and on and never quite hits the mark with the horse fully loading. Perhaps it will go up to the ramp, but not into the trailer. Rather than getting angry and frustrated and then putting the horse away with that mind set, the human needs to be able to set aside their agenda of loading the horse that session. What should then happen is the human changing the action (the request) to something that human knows the horse can do easily and correctly. Something as simple as leading forward and stopping, the horse complies with the request and gets rewarded with a Good Boy and a brief rest (place of peace). What the human has created by going to a simple request the horse will readily comply with, is re-establishing the trusted leadership the horse is looking for to begin with. If the horse is then put away for the day, the session has ended on a positive note and the horse will look forward to seeing that human the next time. Steps can then be taken by the human to modify how the animal is being trained to load and have it be more successful. Putting a horse away when the human is angry and frustrated is like going to sleep with your partner or mate while angry at them. That anger (frustration) is generally still present in the morning and not a good start to the day.

9. ‘Reading’ a horse and developing a good (accurate) understanding of what the animal is trying to convey begins with the beliefs of the human about horses.

If we believe the horse is out to get us, we will never correctly understand what it is trying to convey. Again, never take anything a horse does personally. We must approach any interpretation of equine communication from a place of compassion. This way a human can more accurately determine what the horse is trying to ‘say.’ By letting go of any judgment about the horse, other than its innocence, we can step back and receive the entire communication without viewing it through a cloudy lens of prejudice or preconceived notions. As horses convey their feelings readily as part of their communication, humans must become more empathetic with the horse to be able to receive that emotional content of the communication. Intuition also plays an important role in successful equine communication. As the horse responds to its intuition about any situation, humans must allow their intuition to come into play during any attempts at equine communication. Human intuition is largely misunderstood and downplayed during our daily encounters in deference to an analytical approach to daily interactions. Horses do not analyze what is going on. Horses feel what is happening and humans need to do the same thing to be successful communicators with horses.

10. Developing an overall approach to horsemanship that advances and supports the highest level of equestrian activities, equine relationship, training efficiency and winning strategies is accomplished first by the human embracing the paradigm of compassion and kindness towards the horse always.

The second thing that should be in place for overall success with horses is knowledge about the psychology of horses. Unfortunately, these two things remain as the main blocks to wonderfully successful relationships with horses. I find this a tragic occurrence for horses and humans which leads to frustration, anger, and abuse of horses by humans. Learning about horses, their language and their ‘ways’ is a life long journey. The most advanced horse people I know always say they are continuously learning more and new information from and about their horses. For a human to pass on an easy opportunity to advance their knowledge of horses is unfair to their horses and limiting to themselves in ways that go beyond their relationship with their horse. Success with horses is a life enriching process that brings benefits to humans beyond their equine relationships and into many areas of their lives.