Mind Games – Create a Horse Who Thinks and Looks for Direction

In this article, we discuss how you can influence your horse to choose the thinking part of the brain rather than the reactive part when faced with everyday decisions. The mind of the horse is very powerful and is a key component in creating an all-round partner. In our previous two articles (see the November and December issues), we talked about aspects of creating “try” in your horse. We also used mostly physical examples of how to create some of these situations. In this article, we’ll talk more specifically about how we try to mold a horse’s mind in order to create a willing partner who is connected with their rider.

Opposite Reactions

Our predator instinct is to hold onto and control situations, while the horse tends to be a “drifter” who prefers to search around and go with the flow. For example, when things get tough or confusing, most people want to physically stop and deal with the issue. A horse, on the other hand, will want to continue or even increase his motion (by moving his feet) to avoid the issue. These two instincts are opposite reactions to the same stimuli. The keyword here is reaction. When either we or our horse reacts, we tend to do the opposite from each other. This becomes difficult to manage for both horse and rider, and these reactions are often the result of a lack of focus and knowledge.

When we are with our horses, we constantly face decisions about how to react to situations and respond to our horse’s reactions. If we are not thinking and planning ahead, we will want to react, which in our case means stopping whatever we are doing. This will create an unplanned reward for the horse’s reaction, since stopping and releasing pressure are very similar. The key to getting in sync with your horse’s mind is to resist the human instinct to stop when faced with something unexpected. Instead, try to allow the horse to search for an answer by moving their feet and working through the reaction, until they start to use the thinking part of their brain. Eventually, the horse will skip the reaction part, and opt to think through the situation.

Remember, this is a process, and it can take time — particularly if you’ve had issues with your horse. It’s always easier to work through a tough situation with a partner who is thinking and looking for direction rather than one who reacts without warning (and then having to manage that behavior). The horse is a creature of comfort and once they find comfort in this process you will have a better partnership.

Develop a Connection

One of my favorite exercises to help get a horse focused on you and make positive decisions as well is called “Find the Circle, Own the Circle”. It helps the horse to become more focused on the rider. It also helps the rider to stop micromanaging, allowing the horse to search for answers instead.

For years, I’ve watched riders work on circles with their horses. Some riders have great success and many others struggle. I too have struggled, and it has been my experience that the more I focused on only the circle, the more disconnected I felt from my horse. It was not until I relaxed and allowed my horse to drift off the circle and search for options, that I felt he understood what I was asking of him and “owned” the circle.

To help you picture the difference between ownership of a circle versus no ownership of a circle, think back to the other article where I gave you the trailer loading example as a concept. At first, the horse did not load well, and I had to convince her that stepping into the trailer was a good option. At first, she did not “own” the decision. With practice, and by allowing the horse to make mistakes, she soon loaded at liberty and took ownership of her own decision to load.

If you took 100 horses from a variety of disciplines that are circled regularly, and then asked the riders to put the horses onto a designated circle on a completely loose rein, steering only with focus, seat, and legs (the primary aids), you may find that most of the horses would immediately leave the circle. You would see even more inconsistencies if they did this with distractions, such as an open arena gate or another horse cantering in the arena, etc. Our goal in training is to develop a connection. We want the horse to be focused and connected with us, no matter the distraction. This exercise will help develop that focus and connection, with the rider guiding the horse toward a desired outcome, giving him a chance to find the right answer.

Watch for our next article in the March/April issue where I will go into detail on how to set up this exercise.


See this article in the January 2022 online edition:

January 2022

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