Friday, March 18, 2011


"A behavior that's caught when it's in the form of a thought takes much less energy to redirect in the first place." Mark Rashid, Whole Heart, Whole Horse.

This quote boils it all down for me--the reason why some seasoned horse people make horsemanship look so easy and effortless, basically, why some of the greats out there can accomplish so much with what looks like so little effort.

There's a question that I've had in my mind for a while now--and it was brought up again by Laura Crum at Equestrian Ink: Do you believe it's difficult to be a good horseperson using non-coercive methods if you haven't had first-hand experience with more traditional methods (alpha-human-leader theory)?

I answered the question yes, but I was curious what other people thought, so I brought it up at our Cowgirl Coffee yesterday. The group of friends gathered there were all women who have grown up with horses and have horses now. Some took small breaks from horses, some didn't. When I asked the question, we were finishing up so there were only about six ladies left. All but one answered it, yes.

First, they wanted to know what type of person we were talking about and what type of horse. I answered, A complete newbie to horses, and the horse such a newbie might buy--cheap or free and ill-trained--maybe even with issues or trauma.

They all said they thought since they wouldn't really understand the differences between horses and dogs/cats (pets), or the language of the horse, they'd probably need the more coercive methods to establish boundaries and safety. Or, at least, to start with that perspective, rather than misunderstand the other, and put themselves in harm's way.

The one friend who answered no qualified that it could only be done well if this person (newbie) with green horse--immersed him/herself in daily lessons with that horse or clinics--just reading a book wouldn't do it. But, if this person had a mentor/trainer who was there with them day in, day out, it could be done.

I agree with both answers. I think the biggest issue facing a newbie (besides the first horse they might buy--pretty, spirited, fancy, or free) is not being able to read horses--as Rashid said, to catch the behavior when it's only a thought, and then redirect it.

Much of this work starts at the very beginning--leading, since leading is the heart of boundaries.

In my opinion, horses love boundaries. They love to enforce them and respect them. Also, they are quite capable of understanding that different circumstances may change those boundaries.

Rashid asks the woman in his clinic what her boundaries are, but she hasn't ever really defined them. Not only that, but she has mistaken pushiness for affection and her horse is shoving her around. Rashid says:

"A horse that pushes on us to see if he can move us isn't showing affection. He isn't necessarily trying to establish dominance over us either, although I believe it can ultimately turn into that if we aren't careful."

Anyone who has been around horses knows, horses love to push and chase. It's their natural inclination. (And the reason why we ladies at coffee yesterday all agreed you could teach a horse to cut cows with non-coercive methods by using their natural tendencies). But a person who hasn't been around horses could easily mistake it for, pet me, I love you.

I want to say, I do love to love on my horses, but I don't ever think they need that loveyness. They get all that from the herd. There is a working partnership between them and me, and a comraderie of sorts--even an enjoyment of one another, but their main needs for affection are met with each other. That's why I never feel guilty when I let them be in the winter. I know they're happiest when they're out there eating together and doing what's natural.

I've said before, my friend who trains for a living once told me she preferred to train horses that had never been touched by people. She said the training always went much faster. Unfortunately, many bad habits had been taught when the horses were young and what they were doing seemed "cute" since it was relatively harmless. However, when the horse was full grown, what seemed cute before became dangerous and even deadly. Rashid pointed out that sometimes we teach things we don't want to teach, simply by not understanding what our horses are saying or doing. Rashid says, "Most of the time this all boils down to awareness." And, by awareness, I think it means understanding what a horse is all about.

A statement in this second chapter that I found very surprising was this:

"Before I started doing clinics for the public, I never gave any thought to boundaries between horses and humans, I guess because I don't recall it ever being an issue. Even when I worked for the old man back when I was a kid, we never had any problems with horses pushing on us or mindlessly walking into us when on a lead rope. Not during all those years working ranches, even when we had strings upwards of one hundred twenty or thirty head, do I recall ever having problems with it". (Mark Rashid, Whole Heart, Whole Horse)

What happened to change it? Is it because there are less working horses and more "pets"? My friends at coffee yesterday also brought up the question we've all talked about before and one that I'm sure I've blogged about--would you rather have a horse with a cute personality (peoply--in your pocket type) or a horse that knows it's a horse and does its job for you--goes up every hill, through every stream, across every river? None of us really answered that--so I guess we want both.

Today's shaping up to be a beautiful day, so I'll be out on the trails--and, hopefully, I'll have some pictures to bring back.

As always, opinions are encouraged on this blog. I think of this as more coffee talk among friends. I throw out an idea and, hopefully, you throw out yours. There's something to be learned from every visitor who stops by.

Happy Trails! Hey, I misspelled that for a second and it was Happy Trials! Funny. Well, I hope both your trails and trials today, ultimately, bring you much happiness.


  1. I think if I were to ever have a horse, I'd want a horse that knows it's a horse. There's a certain dignity to that, in a horse, a person, a cat. Who doesn't enjoy watching a horse being a horse, there's such a sense of freedom to it embracing life as it was intended. I'd like my horse to "own" being a horse.

  2. Interesting discussions. It reminded me of the cowboy in line in front of me at the equine vet clinic. He was someone who "looked" like he had been around horses his whole life, but this huge 16.x-hand Thoroughbred kept shoving the man to the side with his head. The man just put his hand up to try to push the horse's head away before the horse could push him, but of course, the horse was much stronger. This went on for nearly an hour and I found myself wanting to intervene, but this man clearly didn't think it was a problem. Bombay does that to me occasionally, and I interpret it as him prodding me to play. He gets into trouble with the mares all the time for nipping them on the rump and shoving them around to get their attention. I don't like the head-throwing thing because he could break my nose, so I discourage it, so when he's using his brain, he resorts to less pushy methods to get my attention.

  3. Joanna--I agree. I think I'd err on the side of one who knows its boundaries real well. Beautiful, of course, is all horse. Cowboy was bottle-fed by humans and he's more in your pocket type. Yet, those are my two favorite horses in the herd. So, I guess I just contradicted myself. They both share gentle natures.

  4. NuzMuz--Goes to show, no matter how long you've been with horses, you can still be learning (the guy with the big horse). I did know a woman once who had her nose broke from head tossing and one who had her jaw broke from leaning over her horse when it was eating--the head came up and...OUCH. Those heads are more powerful than you'd think.

  5. When I got my mustang, Ranger, he was 9 or so years old by the time he was gathered, and he came to me with very good ground manners. No poking-prodding-mugging... I think he was well taught "horse manners" by the adult horses in his wild herds and they were ingrained in his behavior by the time people got hold of him. It's fun watching him teach "the youngsters" in his new herd THEIR manners.


  6. I like a horse to respect my boundaries- because I like to be safe. I don't tolerate pushy nudgey horses, it's too easy to get hurt, so I usually do what another horse would do- give a quick strike back, how and where depends on the situation. I can lead all four of my mares at the same time; two in each hand, and not get walked on; but I have to be sure not to put the crabbiest one next to the one she picks on. Each horse is different, Beamer is cuddly and Coyote Belle is aloof, Chickory is wary, and they all respect my space.
    I like your quote from Mark Rashid: "catch the behavior when it's only a thought, and then redirect it." That's the key to good horsemanship, whether you're a newbie, or an old hand- remember, familiarity breeds contempt. If you can catch the behaviour as a thought, it means YOU are paying attention, and reading your horse.

  7. Bill--I think that's the great thing with Mustangs--especially the older ones and support my friend's theory--the less handling, the better.

  8. Shirley--I agree--you've got to learn to pay attention to what your horse is saying in order to be safe. I really believe the best horsemen--the ones that look like they're doing it effortlessly--have learned to read the thoughts of their horses by very subtle body movements. It's great that all your horses respect your space and pretty amazing that you can lead that many at one time.

  9. When I first began really getting into horses I wanted the same type of relationship with them that I have with my dogs. Or, like alot of horse crazy girls, I wanted what Alec and the Black shared. I certainly misinterpreted pushiness for needing affection. The time that I have been able to spend at the ranch has really opened my eyes. It is a working ranch where the partnership between horse and cowboy is integral to getting the job done and can be life or death. The horses are not treated as pets but are cared for and treated with respect and I've never seen happier animals. Three of my horses have come from there and one of them has made it obvious that he is very disgruntled with the change in lifestyle. I'm trying not to take it personally :).

  10. I bet those are some good horses! You're right about the need to keep boundaries so that your horse isn't squirreling around when you're in a tight spot. The horses on working ranches are held to a much higher standard for good reason. It's interesting that they're so happy doing a job. I get the same impressions from mine--that they take pride in being the one used. I don't entirely understand it because it seems unnatural--but it sure seems to be the case that a working horse is a happier horse.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.