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A Story To Learn From:

Below is a story to serve as an educational model for examining differing philosophy, the use of gadgetry on horses, and wrong beliefs.

Numerous trainers say, "Make that horse respect you."  My philosophy is to show the horse respect and honor.  I show people how to earn a horse's respect through respecting the horse.

In the following hypothetical story, I want to take you an a journey many of you may easily identify with.  The journey of a well-intended woman seeking professional help for a small training problem with her new horse.  The trainer she goes to was well-recommended, having a reputation of successful problem-solving skills.  But you will see success is a relative term, and this trainer's philosophy and tactics, coupled with the owner's ignorance, ruin the relationship between herself and her horse, and ruin her horse.

I will discuss the use of painful stimuli as a communication aid vs. my approach to never use anything forceful or painful as a cue or aid.

An explanation of the bio-mechanical function of the horse's back will be included.  Many people unknowingly use draw reins, and leverage type 'training equipment' without understanding the harmful effects their actions cause on the body of their horse.  As a problem-solver, and equine therapist, many issues I treat are created by forceful equipment.  Most all of the people I educate are shocked to learn the destruction to the horse's body was caused by the application of 'training tools' and equipment.

Anything forceful, such as draw reins, German martingales, jabbing spurs, correction bits, and other such 'training tools,' create tension, pain, fear, anxiety, claustrophobia, panic, aggression, resistance, defiance....  Essentially, these tactics harm horses, and harm the relationship between the horse and the human. 

Here is A Story To Learn From:

     A lady buys a new "bombproof, great riding horse."  As she rides, she squeezes the horse with her legs, and finds it doesn't move faster.  She believes squeezing your legs around a horse is supposed to make a horse move faster.  She calls the prior owner and hears the horse is VERY light off of the legs.  She is instructed to just give a light tap to the horse's sides when she wants forward motion. The new owner has success for a while, but eventually resorts back to squeezing, as that is what she was first taught to do, and it is her habitual way of riding.  Again, the horse  ignores her squeezing legs.  She resorts to squeezing it harder. With her legs gripped tightly around the horse's sides, he becomes agitated.  He swishes his tail and stomps a hind foot.  The new owner feels this is meant to intimidate her.  She decides to get help from a professional to preserve her investment.  

The trainer believes she sees the problem instantly:  "That horse doesn't respect you!" she exclaims.  "You must make that horse respect you, I'll go get a pair of spurs."  So, the rider puts on the spurs and lightly jabs the horse.  Her horse moves off quickly.  They laugh in agreement at the laziness of the horse, and the new owner adoringly says, "Well, I can deal with lazy much better than I can deal with a hot horse!"  

Spurs become part of the rider's regular equipment, and are used in conjunction with her squeezing legs.  The trainer has told her that if she spurs the horse after squeezing it, it will learn to move!  A quicker reaction from the horse is evident, by way of the use of the spurs.  Since squeezing never really seemed to get a result, and was difficult to do, the new owner decides to just use the spurs in the first place.  After all, the trainer said the horse was lazy, and lazy horses are ridden with spurs. 

The belief that a lazy horse should be spurred, is the incorrect useage of the spurs before a more gentle request, begins the downward spiral for the horse's quality of life.  He is now on the path of being turned into a neurotic mess. Now, the horse is subjected to a painful communication system, based upon no reward other than the removal of painful stimuli.

All living creatures have an eagerness to avoid pain, and oftentimes, when a persons realizes the effect pain has on a horse, it is like a light-bulb going off for them:  you mean all I have to do to get my horse to do something is apply a little bit of pain?!   Catalogs are filled with euphemisms for pain:  "Need more control?"  "Strategically placed knots for getting a handle on your horse." 

The aforementioned is an example of negative reinforcement training method using something excessively painful: a sharp metal object; a spur.  Negative reinforcement is colloquially defined as: removing something your horse finds unpleasant when your horse performs the desired behavior.  

The new owner rides her horse with the spurs.  The spur is sharp and sudden, and from the horse's perspective; applied with no warning.  From the rider's perspective, she is just using it whenever she wants to go faster, but from the horse's perspective, he has no way of knowing when it will jab him.  This causes apprehension, tension and stress in the horse.  The horse becomes increasingly more anxious. 

The horse becomes jumpy, and like all anxious horses, now tavels with his head held high; he is on high alert for the possibility of this sharp pain coming out of nowhere.  The horse's tension is making him bumpy and harder to ride, as tense choppy gaits are not comfortable.  The loss of the headset is upsetting to the new owner.  She questions the representation of his training, as certainly any horse with the training she was told he had, would know to keep his head lower!  With the horse holding his head higher, he is less able to depart into the canter efficiently. 

This is because of how horses' bodies function.  They need their poll lowered, and their back lifted to push strongly with the hindquarters.  (Unless extensively trained in a Dressage type program in which they have been strengthened over the years and have the capacity to elevate the forehand and poll.) The haunches of all horses 'dis-engage' if they hold their head too high.


Not aware of this bio-mechanical truth about how a horse's body functions, the new owner jabs her spurs more roughly, in order to get the faster gait.  The horse manages to lurch into the canter.  The disengaged lurching motion disrupts her balance.  She grips with her legs for dear life to stay on!  Now the spurs are dug into the horse so he gallops faster and faster.  It is a do-or-die situation from the horse's perspective.  He is scared and the sharp pain is not going away! He runs very fast. The rider is scared. The horse is scared. 

Fortunately, they live through this.  Recognizing this must her her fault, the rider seeks assistance again.  She goes back to the trainer who she believed was so helpful before.

Witnessing the lurching into the canter, the obvious edginess of the horse, and the loss of the head-set in the horse, the trainer advises her to use a harsher leverage bit (or draw reins, or a German martingale) in order to "bring the head down 'for more control'.  She agrees.  A longer shanked, correction port curb bit goes in the horse's mouth.  

It is again reiterated by the trainer, that the horse must be made to respect the person.  Perhaps a session or two in the round pen to establish dominance, and get the horse back on track, is called for. 

So, the horse is chased around a round pen until he frantically charges inward and stares at them in defiance. "Now, that horse is respecting us, he is looking at us.  See how he addresses us and has come in?  See him licking and chewing?  That means he is digesting what we are doing.  As they speak the horse, gasping for breath, with his nostrils flared out and standing on trembling legs, drops his head.  "Now he's putting his head down in submission and saying he's sorry."  The trainer goes on, "You have to stay ahead of a horse."  she reassures the horse's owenr.  "Now that he's tired, he won't be so eager to run off with you." 

Well, all this is quite inaccurate.  The licking and chewing only means the horse recognizes the pressure is off of him, and that he is no longer being chased.  Read scientific equine behavorial article: and you will learn the licking and chewing response is comparable to a humans reation after police lights and sirens go whizzing by without pulling that person over.  Licking and chewing means the horse has been frightened and now feels relief from that frightening pressure.  The pressure is now off because they have stopped chasing him.  Stopping and turning in to stare at the people is a survival reaction provoked by the strenous and confusing chasing.  The head down is submission may be accurate, as the horse's spirit is being challenged, and he is very tired and afraid for his life.

In this learning story the horse is exhausted, frightened, and in a posture of submission because he has been tremendously frightened by having a rope relentlessly thrown at him.  Pain in his lungs, pain in his limbs, pain in his heart from being chased.  The dis-spirited, exhausted horse appears tractable again.  But, the new owner is realizing she is a bit frightened of the power of her horse.   She is reassured by the trainer, that with this correction bit, she could stop a runaway elephant. "No need to worry..." she says. 

As soon as the horse is startled by the spurs, the owner is instructed to jerk the reins, and "let the horse know that bit is in its mouth."  "Let him feel it," she says.

Speaking of power, a truth of leverage principles is leverage creates greater power.  And it doesn't even take leverage to overpower tissue in the horse's body.  Their bodies are not stronger, no more resistant to pain, than a human body.

The horse is in a lot of pain from the leverage action on its poll, chin, and roof of his mouth.  He is a well-bred, well-trained animal and is not prone to panic, but he is on the verge of claustrophobia and overwhelming pain.  He finally submits to the forceful pull of the shanks, and stops, with his nose to his chest.  He stands, spraddle legged; hurting. 

Tissue in the horse's body is being torn by the extreme force of the applied leverage principles. He tears the ligament in his neck in order to put his nose into his chest. The pain around his poll, and under his chin was too much to bear.

This trainer is not educated on the biomechanics or anatomy of the horse. She is focused on the short-term goal of stopping a horse. Because these two people see everyone else using this type of equipment, they assume it is OK to use. After all, this is the predominant equipment seen in the show ring warm up arenas and on the trail whenever a horse doesn't have enough 'whoa'.

 With his chin tucked in so tightly he can't breathe well, or swallow comfortably.  His anxiety increases.  This time when the spurs touch him, he creeps forward cautiously, unsure of what pain is to come next.  The trainer and owner celebrate!  Success.  A mannerly horse again, in their perspective, they have been successful at stopping an unruly, resistant horse. 

In actuality, they have destroyed his quality of life, his spirit, his body.   This apparent  success won't last long.  Perhaps six or seven months, and the horse will start to revolt against the mistreatment.  The willing naturee, the gentle heart of all horses can only handle so much. 

The tissue torn is the horse's nuchal ligament which connects the poll to the withers.  This ligament also forms a hood-like structure which branches down to each individual neck vertebrae.  Once the nuchal ligament has been torn, it no longer has the length and strength to pull the supraspinous ligament up. The supraspinous ligament attaches at the withers and at the sacrum (the end of the pelvis). Therefore a horse with a damaged neck cannot support the weight of the rider, nor can it support the weight of its abdominal contents and the beginning of the sway back has occurred. Horses are meant to spend the majority of their life grazing. The head down posture of grazing pulls taught these ligaments. Please read my page titled Carry the Rider for an anatamical drawing and more thorough description of how these two ligaments inter-relate, and the importance of not forcing the neck in through tension or power.  The tension, or taughtness of these ligaments is the means for a  horse to support its own heavy abdominal contents, and this upper contraction system is a system we can incorporate for our horse's benefitA horse can be trained to utilize this system to effectively support the weight of a rider.  Please see the page titled Carry the Rider.  

A great educational book is Tug Of War, by Dr. Gerd Hueschmann.  Every horse owner NEEDS to know how a horse functions, because not all trainers do!

The story continues....

So, although the horse will now tuck his nose in toward its chest, his back is now hollow and disengaged.  Overwhelmed by the cruel and painful tactics undersaddle, the horse tries to not let itself be caught, or bridled, or saddled.  His head is so sore; his nerves are on fire.  His back is on fire with pain. He hates being ridden: it hurts!  He starts moving around in the cross ties when being saddled.  He gets reprimanded sharply, and learns it is better to stand and endure being saddled, because otherwise a chain gets pulled harshly over his nose.  This is another suggestion from the trainer to teach him to stand.  The new owner is now just sick to her stomach when she thinks about all the pain she has to put her horse through just to be able to ride it.  Little does she know how much pain the horse is really enduring!

The horse's focus on how to avoid pain is compounding and the new owner is sad that her new horse won't let himself be caught anymore. He used to trot right up when he saw her walking to his pasture gate.  He has become spooky, restless, wild-eyed and will paw and pull when in the tie area.  He also won't stand mounting!  

The professional suggestions may range from cutting the horse's grain back, to putting on a tie-down device along with this correction bit, working the horse until he is tired, or perhaps keeping it at the trainer's place for a tune up, etc. 

All the joy is gone from both horse and rider and the owner realizes she got suckered into buying a bad horse.  "Maybe he was tranquilized when I bought him?" she muses.  "I better see if I can give him away, or sell him as a project horse."

For the sake of continued education lets keep going with this sad scenario:

Let's say I get the horse because it is a problem horse:  a nervous wreck that won't stand for mounting.  He will run off if you so much as move your legs. 

Let's dissect some of the history...

The possible reasons the horse originally didn't move when the rider squeezed with her legs are numerous. 

Could be the squeezing provoked the horse's desire to resist.  Squeezing is not pleasant for the horse and nature has the horse resist any hard pressures. Because of the nature of the equine species, squeezing is not a good way to communicate to ask a horse to move.  Instead, light touch, or tap will work much better!  I'll tell you why in a second....

Could be the horse has its attention on something besides its rider and the root cause could be more accurately labeled inattentiveness, not disobedience, or being lazy.

Could be the rider was unbalanced and was also leaning forward as she squeezed, thus giving the horse two conflicting cues.  The squeezing that he didn't understand and that made him tense up and resist, and the leaning forward. The rider may have not even known she was leaning forward.  This needs no training at all to influence a horse.  Horses are subject to the balance, or lack of balance, in their rider. Leaning forward burdens a horse's forehand and will cause most horses to stop, or not go.

Could be the horse was trained from different cues such as from the seat, a cluck or word, a tap with the legs, etc. 

Since the prior owner stated the horse was VERY light to the legs cues, it was the new rider SQUEEZING the horse, while leaning forward which was the problem.  A squeeze provokes the instinct to resist, which is in all horses.  Horses are "into-pressure" animals.  This means they move into pressure.  This is why you have to teach horses to give to pressure, it is not their instinct to move away from pressure.  Utilizing a lighter touch is very helpful.  To explain why "into-pressure," serves the horse, imagine if a dog-like predator attacked a horse.  The nature of the horse causes the horse move INTO that pressure (the pressure of the attacking predator) so as to not further rip open the wound.  This is the design of the horse, and has allowed them to thrive as a species.  Another example of this law which governs horses is if a horse walks through a crowded area, its instinct is to push things out of its way.   Any experienced trail rider knows to get their legs out of the way when a relatively young or green horse gets close to a tree.  The horse's instinct is to push that tree out of the way.  This instinct is why we are to take care to walk a horse straight through doorways and not let the horse's body make contact with the sides of the opening, he may hurt himself.  So, after exploring the "into-pressure" instinct of the horse, it may be more understandable as to why a squeeze is not the best choice of cues or aids for the horse; squeezing provokes this instinct into pressure, also called 'resistance' when it appears in a situation such as this, and displeases a rider.

Since the horse in the story was ridden with a light touch by the original owner, the horse did not understand the new owner's legs squeezing it.  Squeezing is a very different sensation from the tapping that was used all its life as the cues for forward movement.

To teach a horse to be light off of your leg you first ask lightly, then become consequential if no movement occurs, such as repeated sharp taps until the horse moves.  Never does anyone seeking lightness squeeze the horse because squeezing is an ineffective aid/cue.

The mistaken believe that squeezing a horse should produce movement is one of the problems in the aforementioned story, along with the mistaken belief that you can make a horse respect you. Using force destroys both the mental health, and physical health, of a horse.

Some people do squeeze, but then they usually resort to kicking if the horse doesn't move.  They have learned that you can't just squeeze harder, so they start kicking.  Maybe they haven't put the two together.  I ask these riders, "Why start with something that doesn't work well; something you have to abandon and use something different later?"  I suggest instead, use what does work: light touch or tap, that can lead into sharp immediately consequential taps that train the horse for lightness. 

Another drawback to squeezing a horse, is the very action of squeezing your legs tightly around a horse will tighten the pelvis of the rider and pinch a person right up and out of the saddle; essentially making the rider very ineffective, and oftentimes causing the rider to lean forward.  This renders a rider useless to influence the horse naturally with their seat, weight, and leg aids.

Change this squeeze into a light tap, and the instinct of the horse is to move away.  Flies, and little touches provoke movement in the horse.  Now, you have just tapped into the instinct of the horse and have the instinct of the horse working for you!  You have respected your horse.  You have made yourself easy to understand.  You have honored the instinct of the horse. 

If a trained horse does not obey, it is appropriate to be consequential and give sharper, faster kicks to discipline. But, this is not the first thing you do.  If you consistently keep your balance centered and correct, your weight centered and correct, and ask lightly with your legs, it will be very rarely that discipline ever be necessary; perhaps never.

If you have seen or heard a trainer talk about squeezing as a cue and seen apparent success with that method, I'll explain.  Here is why it APPEARED to work:  Unbeknown perhaps even to the trainer, as they squeeze they are doing something else which makes more sense to the horse; such as tilting/driving forward with the pelvis, or slightly shifting their weight rearward.  Both tilting the pelvis, and shifting the weight are easily understood by the horse and work with his instinct to stay balanced.  Worse case scenario if a trainer/rider squeezes and the horse moves, it may be that their horse is frightened of them, and it reacts (I mean react, not respond!  Respond indicates understanding, react indicates a reflex type fear reaction).  So an edgy, jumpy, anxious horse that is frightened of its rider may go forward when it is squeezed.

Another problem in the story is that spurs were used first, and as a method of initial contact.  This is unfair.  If a person chooses to use spurs as a negative consequence for disobedience, then they should never be used to first ask the horse to do something.

By squeezing, the rider in this story was working against the very nature of the species.   Combined with painful stimuli, and false beliefs of the trainer she chose to use, they created a scared and anxious horse.  Once the horse was tense, and frightened, the horrible scenario just became worse and worse, with bodily harm coming to the horse, and mental anguish for the horse and the rider.

This story was written as a hypothetical and educational story.  I want to share with you how I view horses, how I train people and horses, and what my attitude and philosophies are.  This is a story to describe how I might help you if you had an issue, or a question.

By reading this, I also hope you may have had some questions answered, and possibly gained understanding of how certain horses become labeled "hot," "bad," "neurotic," "crazy," etc.  A horse's training can quickly deteriorate through a simple misconception such as "squeezing makes a horse go," or a wrong attitude such as "make that horse respect you!" 

Horses can be man made in many way....for better or for worse.  This was a "bombproof, great riding horse" until it could not understand its rider, pain became the method of communication, and the fallacy that you can make an animal respect you, came in to play.  Respect must be earned, which means we must be educated and kind.  We must rise to a horse's level of training if we buy an advanced horse.  We must never use dominance to coerce or force an animal into action. 

A respectful approach would have been to not hurt the horse through any artificial aids or gimmicks such as the leverage correction bit and spurs.  Finding a trainer that goes to the root of the problem could have prevented this scenario from unfolding as it did.  Please do not fix symptoms with gadgets and equipment.  This ends up causing more problems and is a trend I hope to help abolish through educating equestrians.

Honor our horses, respect our horses, and work with their instincts, not against them.  Going back to kind horse handling, which is reward based communicative training, not pain based dominance, and meeting the horse's needs first, would have helped resolve the horse's confusion early on.  Perhaps involving the prior horse's owner more extensively, even offering to pay for lessons from that person in order to find out how they kept that horse behaving so well, would have been an option.  Any of these suggestions (and I'm sure there are more) could have helped this lady keep her new purchase the joyful, safe ride he was when she purchased him.

A beautiful, spiritual union is possible for all who desire it. Please contact me if you are desiring an equine relationship built upon love, mutual respect, and trust.  I specialize in resolving problems and helping you learn to be all that your horse needs you to be, so your horse can be comfortable, protected, and safe for you to be around and ride. 


"The Universal Language of Love and Respect leads to great communication and happy partnerships with our horses!" 

~   Cassandra 

Thanks for reading The Learning Story