Getting Along with Horses


I wrote this for a friend who was interested in the "different" way I do things with my horses.


How Horses Get Your Meaning

If I could only tell you one thing about getting along with horses, it would be this:


    Horses figure out what you want by noticing when you RELEASE the pressure that you use to ask them to do something.

In horse society, horses don't very often use their voice to communicate. Instead, they communicate by "feel." They use body language to "push on another horse's personal space." The pushed-on horse tries to do something to make the pressure stop. When he does what the other horse wanted, that horse stops pushing on him, thus communicating, "Yes, that's what I wanted. Thank you."

By the same token, a horse can use body language in a way that invites another horse to come closer for friendship or play.

When we ask a horse to do something, it helps to be very clear about what we want, especially when asking the horse for something that's new to him or something horses don't normally do. For example, "Please go in that washroom" is a large and vague request. "Please move your left front foot forward" is small and specific. We can answer the moved foot by releasing our pull on the lead rope; and building on that "Yes" we can ask for additional footsteps, each answered with a release, that will soon get the horse into the washroom.

The timing of the release is what tells the horse exactly what we asked for. If we release just as a certain foot steps forward, the horse can figure out that our request was about that foot. If we're late, and release two or three seconds after that foot moved, we are actually telling the horse that "the right thing" was something else (let's say he turned his head toward the window) that he was doing just as we released. The next time we ask, he will try looking toward the window again, thinking he's got the right thing, and get scolded. You can see how a horse could get pretty confused. Then he gets called "stupid."

The timing of the release is so important that you will have to develop your own ability to focus on what you are doing with your horse. The better your own focus gets, the better your horse will understand you and the better you two will get along.

If you didn't know that it's the RELEASE that says "Yes" to the horse, you'd just continue your pressure while he is doing what you asked. This will generally result in one of two things happening:


  • When he doesn't receive the information that he has understood what we wanted, the horse continues to try doing different things in search of a release. Some of what he'd try might be much bigger moves than what we're prepared for.

  • When he doesn't receive any release from our pressure, the horse eventually gives up and tunes us out. He decides the pressure is uncomfortable but meaningless. Before long we'd end up with a non-responsive horse. The dullness carries over to other areas. For example, if we keep a constant pressure on the lead rope while leading a horse, then when we ride him we will find him unresponsive in that situation too, which we call "hard-mouthed."

When you ask your horse to do something new, or you ask someone else's horse to do something, the horse has not-a-clue what you want. Give him time to try some different things to figure out what you want.

Suppose I stuck my finger in your ribs and said, "Do it!" You'd say, "Do what?" If I just kept on saying, "Do it," you'd have to try some different things till you figured out what "it" was. Now, suppose "it" was something less than obvious, like reaching down and tapping your heel --- Well, this is the situation we put our horses in all the time. We have to be always thinking how we can set up the situation to help them figure out what we want, and we have to give them the instant release-of-pressure that says, "You got it!"

Part of setting up the situation to help a horse understand would include making a clear mental picture of the horse doing the asked-for motion. The best riders and horse-handlers run a continuous mental video for their horses to pick up on. It takes a lot of focus and discipline to do this, but it makes a big difference in the level of communication and understanding.


The Leader

The second thing I'd tell you about getting along with horses, would be:


    A horse always wants to know who the leader is. He is always looking for a good one.

The horse is a prey animal. Horses always have to keep in mind that in the next instant they could be eaten for breakfast. Safety comes from living in a group that is led by a smart, capable horse who has good judgment in many situations.

Therefore, whenever two or more horses meet in the contrived situation of domestic living, the first thing they want to figure out is, "Who is going to be the leader?" It seems that a horse is extremely uncomfortable when he doesn't know who's the leader. They are all capable of leadership; some enjoy it more than others. Most of them don't much care whether it's "me, or somebody else," they just want to know who it is.

When a horse meets a human in the contrived situation of domestic living, as soon as he makes sure he's not going to be the human's breakfast (because he can tell by the way we walk up to him that we're a meat-eating sort), next he wants to know whether he or the human is the leader. In the horse's mind, one or the other has to take the job. If the human doesn't act like a capable, trustworthy leader, the horse will step into those shoes, and he will do what he thinks is best, which may be different from what we wanted.

Horses seem to use two different styles of leadership among themselves. Since humans easily get side-tracked into notions of domination, the leadership style that we tend to notice and use with horses is called the "alpha" or "boss" style. This is the "show him who's boss" or "always let him know you're the bigger horse" way of dealing.

In established herd situations, close observation shows that while most horses quickly get out of the way of a bossy horse, their body language speaks loudly of resentment and resignation. Further, a band of horses led by an "alpha" horse tends to frequent bickering among themselves.

A less-noticed leadership style that is probably more prevalent among the small bands in established herds, is the "passive" or "chosen" leader. This horse doesn't try to gain followers, but goes quietly about its business, avoids fights, conserves energy by observing a social situation before taking appropriate action, and is consistent in its behavior. These horses end up being followed by a peaceful band that interacts respectfully, going out of their way to be polite and fair with each other.

These observations, described more fully in Mark Rashid's book, Horses Never Lie, give us a clear choice of ways to deal effectively with our horses. Both are valid leadership styles in horse society; the difference is in the attitude of the followers.

The alpha leader's followers are there because they have to be, and their attitude toward the leader is one of dislike and resentment.

The chosen leader's followers are there because they want to be, and their attitude shows in willingness and cooperation.

While there must be some horses out there that do better with an "alpha" leader, it sure seems more fun to become a "chosen" leader for your horse. A horse that wants to be with you will be relaxed, learn easily, and give you everything he's got and his heart besides.

So here are the kind of things to do to become a chosen leader:


  • Be polite, precise, and consistent in asking the horse to do things.


  • When his attention wanders off elsewhere, gently and consistently invite it back to you.


  • Some horses are so scared of people that they seem quiet but actually have a glassy-eyed, out-of-body look. These ones need lots of stroking, scratching, and massage. The TTEAM bodywork and groundwork taught by Linda Tellington can be very helpful here.


  • Use groundwork to develop your communication skills. Using as light a touch as possible (but as much as needed), ask the horse to move the head, the front end, the rear end, come forward, back up, etc. Thank the horse for each move with stroking (not patting -- the closest thing to patting that horses do with each other is kicking and that's not what you mean!).


  • Stay awake and present. If your attention wanders off elsewhere, the horse knows it and will take leadership the moment you "leave." Also, the moment you get scared.

There is additional good thinking about leadership and about treating your horse well physically and mentally, on, in the Forum section fielded by Dr. Deb Bennett.


Respect and Riding


You will get along with the horse better if you respect him for who he is -- just as you want him to respect you. My definition of respect would be:


    "You have a right to exist, to be who you are, and to see things your own way; therefore I will neither harm you, ignore you, nor belittle you."

Part of respecting the horse is learning to be the best rider you can be; while, from his side, the horse is learning to carry you the best he can.

The horse already knows how to move gracefully. When we sit on him, our clumsiness, unclear communication, and lack-of-balance make him have to do extra things to keep from falling over. Thus he appears to be ungraceful.

Learning to ride well is learning to BE in cooperative, moving balance with the horse's movement, and learning to DO less and less until you are just sitting there thinking about where the two of you are going and in what style of movement.

It is well worth your learning some Centered Riding, Feldenkreis Movement, or Alexander Technique; or getting Rolfed (a type of bodywork that realigns the body for greater range-of-motion and better balance). If you do any of these, it will help your horse a lot.

When you can get yourself completely out of the horse's way, he will give you all that he has to give, and you will know grace.


Lightness. It Exists.

The horse is a creature of lightness. He responds like lightning to what goes on around him. If he were not, he would never have survived millions of years of being hunted by the large cats.

For the safety of both the human and the horse, most often beginning riders are started out on horses who are patient or dull enough to put up with a beginner's un-balance and crude communication skills. So we arrive at a notion of the horse as slow, stupid, clumsy, and hard-of-steering, and we adjust our learning-to-ride to this notion. Unfortunately, this is profoundly discouraging to both horse and human.

I want you to know that another way, the way of being light with the horse, does exist, and that it is awesome. There is such a thing as two beings thinking and moving as one -- think of two Olympic skaters gliding and spinning together across the ice. The horse can and will give you instant response, fluid motion, and athletic beauty that will move you to tears. It is his nature to do this, not something we have to teach him. The first time you experience the all-giving of a horse, it will change your life. Forever after, you will want that again!

Luckily for both horse and human, learning to ride does not have to be a gradual uphill road with lightness only occurring after years of work. A moment of total lightness may occur rather soon; the first time, maybe when you find a good position by accident, but then with increasing frequency and in longer moments, until after years of work you can get many lightnesses, some lasting several minutes, nearly every time you ride.


Lightness: Two Styles of Communication

When an "alpha" horse asks another horse to do something, there is a progression of increasing signals or pressures. For example, if April tells Music to "get away from my dinner," the pressures might be:


    1) April pins her ears back at Bo. If there is no response,
    2) April snakes her head at Bo. If there is no response,
    3) April swings around so her rear end faces Bo. If there is still no response,
    4) April kicks Bo.

In practice, Steps 2, 3, and 4 rarely need to happen, because Bo is familiar with the progression and will move as soon as Step 1 occurs. That is one way to lightness. We can use progressively bigger signals till we get a response; the next time, the horse will respond earlier in the progression, until finally he will respond to the light signal, which we can then fade until it is no more than a fly landing.

However, if we use the "chosen leader" style, we can avoid the "bullying" aspect of increasing pressure, and end up with a willing rather than a resentful horse.

Use light pressure with your hand, or a rein, etc. to ask for a move. Stay at the same pressure, and feel for the horse's "try." You might even close your eyes so you can feel very subtle movements in the horse. When you feel any change, release the pressure. Ask again, lightly; again feel for the horse's "try," and release. The horse is tentatively saying, "Is this kind-of what you want?"

Your light requests and quick releases give him confidence to make a bigger try, such as shifting his weight slightly in the direction you're asking, or beginning to lift a foot off the ground. Soon, with your respectful feedback, he will figure it out.

Notice that when a horse "gets it," he will "chew it over" with his mouth. While he is chewing on it, let him be; this is an important step in his understanding something for future use.

You can add to the horse's reward by stroking after every "try." (In the equine vocabulary, patting most closely resembles kicking.) When the horse finally understands your request and responds fully, just stand there peacefully with him for a few minutes. Horses love it when they can be with you and not have to be always doing something. It's a major, rewarding release of pressure for them.

Once a horse has understood something, there is no need to drill him on it. Repetition after understanding just makes him bored and resentful. Most of the moves you're asking for are things you use every time you ride, anyhow. Try to have a real reason for a request. My mare will move over for me in the stall with a finger-touch on her hair, but falls asleep when I "practice" with her in the arena.


More on Leadership

Becoming a good leader for a horse means you have to work on two things in yourself: improve your timing and improve your integrity.

A fun way to improve your timing is to use clicker training with your horse. Clicker training was invented for teaching dolphins how to do tricks. It is now widely used with dogs and horses -- and with human athletes, where it's called "tag teaching."

The clicker (with horses we use a "tock" sound at the tip of the tongue, to leave both hands free) is used to MARK the asked-for behavior, such a moving a foot in the desired direction, followed by a reward that the horse has learned to associate with the click. Some animals don't care about food, you have to find some other reward that your horse likes enough to work for. For example, there are dogs that work better for a thrown frisbee than for food.

My horses' attitude toward learning improved 100% when I discovered clicker training. They love to know exactly what I want. They love to figure out "how to get Marjorie to click me." They enjoy having a "playday" in bad weather or when I don't want to ride.

I've used the clicker to get them doing all types of leading and groundwork without a halter, to freelunge with better position and movement than they ever got when lungeing in sidereins, and to do tricks such as climbing up on a big rock in their pasture with just room enough for all four feet, which improves their balance and trust.

Clicker resources are: the book that started it all, Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, which explains the principles of operant conditioning, and Clicker Training for Your Horse by Alexandra Kurland, both available with a clicker from or 1-800-472-5425. This store, Sunshine Books, also has videos on clicker training for dogs which can help you with your horse. Another source of clicker training books and videos is or 1-800-776-2665.

We all have integrity problems toward our horses, because in this culture we are surrounded with the notion that humans are superior beings, and that therefore being insensitive and disrespectful toward animals doesn't matter in the greater scheme of things.

At a clinic with Tom Dorrance, the great horseman and teacher, someone asked for a few words that we could all take home to chew on, that might improve their horsemanship. Tom thought for a while and said, in his slow, quiet voice, "Mankind. . . looks down on. . . the horse." What would change if we became able to look across at the horse as "equal though different"? Since I heard Tom say that, by keeping it in front of me daily, there has been a sea change in how I relate with horses.

Tom Dorrance recommended Kinship With All Life by J. Allen Boone, a little book that will give you a different way to think about equality of being.


Prey and Predator: A Matter of Awareness

Horses are much more aware of us than we are of them. A human can spend a lifetime around horses, totally oblivious to a profound difference in point-of-view -- a difference horses notice the first time they meet us and always have to take into account in their daily dealings with us. The horses' awareness of this difference sometimes causes them to act in ways that the human misinterprets into human terms.

The horse is a prey animal. His place in the food chain is always the-one-eaten. His food is grass, he has no fangs or claws, he has nothing to protect him but his split-second perception and fleet-footedness. His eyes and ears are placed to see and hear all around. He's hard-wired to scoot first and think later. When he approaches the water hole, he circles around and stops often to check for lions.

The human, though sometimes prey, has many predator characteristics. We have binocular vision, in common with the cat family, the dog family, and the hunting birds. Binocular vision allows us to judge distance -- exactly how far we are from our quarry. We tend to walk directly to the water hole; we look one another straight in the eye; we look prey animals straight in the eye; and we walk directly to them.

While it may never occur to us that we act this way, the horse notices the difference and is rightfully scared by it. So, if we want to get along well with horses, we need to learn to stop acting like a predator. The less we act like a predator, the more the horse can let down his guard and feel safe in our presence.

We know that fear prevents learning. Therefore, the less we act like a scary predator, the better our horses can learn what we want them to do.

Some things we can do to act less in the predator role:


  • Until the horse knows you, don't look him straight in the eye. Look at his nose or his feet, and use your soft-eyes (peripheral vision) when you look at his eyes.


  • When you walk up to a horse, a curve may make him more comfortable than a straight line. Stop at the edge of his "personal space" (the place where he gathers himself to move away) and wait for his permission to enter (he relaxes and stays where he is).


  • The human emotions of anger and holding-a-grudge seem not to exist in horse society and are scary to horses. When you get angry (and it happens to the best of us) get yourself away from the horse till you cool down. YOU ARE SCARY TO HIM.



So often we think of the horse as a sort of motorcycle. That's what riding lessons are about: you brush the horse, put on the saddle and bridle, hop on, and VROOM off we go.

On the other hand, the thing that's so attractive about horses, and what's different about them from motorcycles, is that they are alive. Why do some of us get hooked on horses instead of motorcycles? Isn't it that we get that glimpse of the horse as a fellow being, a "someone" we might be able to relate to? Haven't most of us heard and read tantalizing stories of horse-human bondings and partnerships?

Groundwork is about the horse-human relationship. The horse IS a fellow being. He IS a "personality." He DOES enjoy getting to know us. He CARES about figuring out what we want, and he LIKES building the partnership of intent and motion.

How are we to build a partnership between creatures so different as horse and human?

Human language is a very complex thing -- so complex that only humans are able to use and understand it. Horses can't.

Therefore, we use groundwork as a way to show humans how to get along in horse language, which is mostly body language.

The horse's mind is able to deal with very high levels of logic. Any time a horse is not operating in fear mode, he is using his reason to figure out and deal with the goings-on around him. Some of his priorities are different from ours, because he is a different creature who developed in a different ecological niche, but he is using logic. Our side of building a partnership is to learn what the horse's priorities and assumptions are, and become fluent in horse-logic so that we can "speak the horse's language" at all times in our daily life together.

I have seen my horses be so pleased when I manage to be horse-logical. They LIKE to understand what I'm saying to them. They LIKE to "get it." They LIKE the security of really knowing what I want and not having to guess.

Groundwork allows you to simplify what's going on, so that you have time to figure out horse priorities, horse assumptions, and horse logic. Groundwork gives you time to develop your patience (calmly continuing your request until the horse really responds) and your timing (when to release to best be understood).

Doing groundwork "at liberty" gives you the space to practice your dance with the horse. If I walk over here, where does the horse go, and when? Can I move so that he will turn at the third post and go the other way? How politely do I need to move, not to provoke resentful kicking and tail-swishing?

I watched a skilled groundworker playing with a very fearful mare. The woman flowed like water, alternately urging and melting with her body language, matching every nuance of the mare's movement. The mare calmed down from a tight, head-in-the-air gallop, to a relaxed trot, and before long walked over to make probably the first human friend in her life.

When we observe the horse moving well without our weight bothering him, then when we ride we can give him a clearer mind-picture of himself moving well.

The first time you try groundwork, it may take a while just to figure out one piece together. Remember YOU are learning the HORSE'S communication system. He will know what to do when you get it right.

Some good places to learn about groundwork, with pictures to help:

A Step by Step Guide in Pictures by Alexandra Kurland

Problem Solving by Marty Marten, and Natural Horse-Man-Ship by Pat Parelli, both in the Western Horseman series.

Groundwork by Buck Brannaman.

True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance.

The Ultimate Horse Training and Behavior Book by Linda Tellington-Jones.

John Lyons's books.


Teach "Give to Pressure"

One of the most useful tools we have, when asking a horse to "go here, back up, move over please, etc.," is to put a finger on the part of the horse's body we would like to move, or apply pressure with the halter or bridle to change the direction of his head. A horse that has learned to move away from our touch with any required part of his body has learned to "give to pressure."

Horses are not born knowing this. They learn it from their mother in their first day of life, in regard to horses they respect. In regard to horses they don't respect, and to predators (they know by our two-eyed face and the way we walk up to them that we are a meat-eating animal), their tendency is to push against the pressure.

It's frustrating and dangerous to deal with a horse that doesn't politely move over when you politely ask him to. Therefore it's well worth a few minutes every day, ongoing, to remind your horse to move at your fingertip request.

Doing a lot of this work will also help a horse that "pulls back when tied" (breaks halters). He most likely learned how to break the halter before he understood "give to presssure."


About Cussedness

Horses are kind of like a deer or a rabbit: Fear is never far below the surface. The horse is easily made afraid for his life.

As a social creature, he's also afraid of doing the wrong thing and displeasing us -- more so, the more we matter to him.

We humans often ask for what we want in a way that's foreign to the horse's way of understanding. Horses get scared, confused, or frustrated by the lack of horse-clarity, and then they do things we'd rather they didn't do.

We humans live in a society where, unfortunately, there are people who manipulate and take advantage of us. Through our human-colored glasses, we manage to see horses' confusion and their actions of self-preservation as one more instance of human "cussedness," and we relate to them as though they were "out to ruin our day."

This mis-perception on our part causes us a lot of trouble with our horses. Horses are creatures of amazing goodwill. They are truthful and direct in their dealings. If asked clearly and politely, they are more than willing to do what we ask, and interested in getting along with us.

When a horse comes up with something different than what I wanted, rather than scolding or punishing, it works better to stop, take a look at the whole situation, and think about what the horse didn't understand (or what other factors, including pain, might be getting in his way). Then I can try different ways of presenting what I want, till I find one the horse can understand. Sometimes it takes going home and sleeping on it.


About "Being a Pill" or "Being an Airhead"

After some early experiences that brought it to my attention, I worked persistently over the years on learning to listen to my horses. I have come to the conclusion that 99 % of horses being "a pill" is about trying to get our attention when something isn't right and is making it hard for them to do something with us. More often than not, the horse is in pain somewhere in his body. I would say, when your horse is being a pill, your FIRST THOUGHT should be to stop what you're doing and find out what's hurting or otherwise not-right.

It's a lot more work for us to listen and think, but eventually we get a horse that's comfortable, and peaceful, and is ready to give us all he's got, and OH MY is that ever wonderful and worth the mental effort.

For example, one day my saddlebred kept reaching around and gently holding the toe of my boot in his teeth. Finally I dismounted and took the saddle off, and lo and behold, there was a sharp-cornered piece of pine bark digging into his back muscle under the saddle pad!

My little Morgan mare didn't especially like going for a trail ride in the woods. But one day she refused; her head was up in the sky and she was on total alert -- and I don't like falling off of runaway horses onto boulders. So we calmly turned back and did something else. The next day I found out there had been a bear in that part of the woods. To me, it is much more important that a horse knows I am a reasonable being who trusts his judgment, than to demand total obedience no matter what.

Most recently, my Haflinger mare, who was IR (insulin resistant) and also turned out to have very thin toe soles from previous incorrect farrier work, tried over several years to let me know how much pain she had. Considering that I teach hoof trimming and had been telling others about IR, I was very slow to take her pain seriously. Eventually I did notice that most days she hurt a lot, and I would stop riding as soon as I noticed she was not offering to trot. As I made changes in her diet, and helped her grow more sole thickness, there were occasional days when her feet felt much better -- she wanted to trot all the time and was more lively than I had ever seen her. With that to compare, then I knew immediately when her feet hurt and made different decisions about what we did on painful days. (She liked learning tricks, anything to have a mind connection with me.)

On a different note, here's another story about my Morgan mare when she lived in the woods. Sometimes when I was hanging out with her, she would gaze longingly at a spot a little way outside the hotwire. So one time I opened a nearby gate in the hotwire, climbed on bareback, and let her go. She went right to that spot and stood there in perfect peace, the two of us meditating together. It was a lovely gift.


Avoid Wrecks

Wrecks are scary for horses. Some horses never get over a bad wreck. It can take months or years of painstaking work to undo the mental damage. If you care about your horse and his training, think ahead and avoid dangerous situations.

An important reason for doing some pre-ride groundwork is to avoid wrecks. Do a little groundwork every time before you ride, until you're sure the horse is with you mentally and not wandering off in the wild blue yonder -- and is not in pain, either.

Keep your horse away from situations that might call for better communication than what you, yourself, have with this particular horse.

For example, until the two of you can do a reliable halt from the walk and the trot, don't expose the horse to a situation where you might need to ask him to halt from the gallop. Until you have a reliable back-up on level ground, don't expect the horse to safely back out of a trailer. Until the horse thoroughly understands "give to pressure," don't tie him up or crosstie him.

Use a safe place such as an arena to check out what your horse knows, to fill in the holes in his training, or to improve your own riding and communication skills. Then you can go "outside" knowing you have reliable communication to use in emergencies.


Domestication and Safety

Horses are a creature of the open plains. There is nothing in their hard-wiring that gives them the slightest clue about how to deal with most of what they run into daily in their dealings with human settlements: fences, long tunnels leading into small, dark caves (what lives in caves? bears and lions...), wheelbarrow handles sticking out to puncture them as they go by, being tied up by the head, tangled green water snakes, following a rope, etc.

We humans have to spend a good bit of time explaining all these things to every horse that gets born into our domestic world so that, understanding, they can keep themselves out of trouble. Even so, any horse that gets frightened can suddenly revert to the open-plains mentality: "Scoot first, think later. Struggle for your life". Then you have a wreck on your hands -- you or your horse costing big bucks to get patched up.

So: wear a helmet, wear boots with a heel to catch the stirrup, move the wheelbarrow before you lead the horse down the aisle, and don't wrap the lead rope around your hand. Keep a calm awareness of your escape route, should you need to leap out of the way in the next instant.

Don't hurry the horse. Be clear and consistent in your communication. Make sure he understands the foundation of each idea before you go to build on it.


Imagination and Responsibility

Human beings are the animal that has imagination. What I mean by imagination is that we are able to picture something that doesn't exist in the present situation, and take steps to make our picture become reality. Horses seem not to have this ability.

Therefore, whenever there is a difficulty between horse and human, it is the human's responsibility to imagine how good things could be, and to show the horse how to get there in a way that he can understand. I think horses appreciate what we do to make their lives and their work better, and that is part of why they enjoy us and like to do things with us.

Love is more than just a feeling. It's thinking well about your horse.