Break it Down

This week I learned the importance of breaking the steps of a maneuver down for a horse. I’ve been told that it makes it easier for a horse to see what is going on by taking each section of a maneuver apart and teaching it that way, then putting all of the steps together. But I never really understood what that looked like or how to do it.

Well, in this situation, it looked like letting the horse do something ‘wrong’ in order to get another part of the process ‘right.’ Then I did the part that he had done ‘wrong’ separately, after.

The only reason I looked at breaking steps down a second time was because Joker is a horse I only see once a week for about 20 minutes. Our sessions are therefore very limited, and the only thing he has a problem with is bridling, which we only work on for less than 5 minutes each week. In between, lots of other people work with him, reinforcing his bad habit. With such limited resources for this horse, I have been forced to be creative.

Joker has a severe aversion to the bridle. He has figured out that, being a tall horse, he can lift his head up and point his nose to the sky to avoid the bit, and his nose literally touches the ceiling of the barn. Through repeated negative* reinforcement—the bit leaving—this behaviour has been reinforced so strongly that when he sees the bridle coming, he begins to look away, which in itself is a form of negative reinforcement. With horses, ‘out of sight out of mind,’ actually is true.

Usually I put one hand on his poll and one hand on his nose and ask him to bend around to the left and put his head down. Usually he resists strongly and starts backing up. So this time I took the steps apart and essentially performed them backwards. While I still insisted that his head remain at a tolerable level for bridling, I moved with him around to his right, where he wanted to have his head. This way he could not swing his head violently all the way from the left to the right, gaining momentum the whole way and losing the bit each time. Also, he was unable to raise his nose as far.

The bit was in in a much shorter time than it was before.

Then I began working on politeness.

I brought his head where I wanted it, curved to the left (but I still did not ask for his head to come down). Here I did up the throatlatch and noseband, insisting on the head position that I wanted. When I was finished messing with his face, I began training the head down. Without all of the distractions of the bridle being in my hand, he understood my request with only three repetitions within about 20 seconds and dropped his head immediately to a position lower than I have ever seen him go from light pressure on his poll and nose.

I will continue to break these steps down for my obstinate friend and see how we fare. I expect that this very smart horse will make great progress from here on in.

The Horsegentler

*please note that negative reinforcement means ‘taking something away’ such as pressure or an object, not punishment or something with a negative connotation.



Have you ever seen someone tapping their horse with a crop or dressage whip that has a rubber ball on the end of it? That is an endotapper. It is a useful tool that some people use to help their horses to relax, especially in stressful situations.

Firstly, I will address the weirdness of it – whacking a horse with a rubber ball looks weird. It sounds weird. Wasn’t I just advocating that slapping a horse is for use only when he has attempted to bite or kick? The difference here is that the endotapper must be used in a very specific way in a very few specific places on the horse’s body for it to work properly.

The nice thing about endotappers is that it is a drug-free way to relax a horse, and it can also be used as a reward. As a cautionary note, however, not all horses are enthusiastic about this, and most must be trained how it works. The places where the endotapper can be used are always soft, fleshy areas, such as just behind the withers, just in front of the withers, or on the triangle on the neck where injections are given. Some horses will hate one spot and enjoy another; try them all. But start off behind the withers, because it is the easiest to reach.

To teach the horse about endotapping, stand on the left side, with the horse in a halter. Hold the lead rope in your left hand, the endotapper in your right, and face the horse’s shoulder. Tell him to ‘stand’, if you have such a command (see this page to teach him to stand). Begin tapping in the appropriate place at a regular rate of about three taps per second. Do not slow down, do not speed up, be firm, but do not use too much force. Your horse will have no clue what is going on. If he moves, politely ask him to stop and keep going. When a horse is endotapped, the idea is that he drops his head immediately, maybe licks his lips, and relaxes. Tapping in the places I described will cause an endorphin release, as will the lowering of his head. If he does not lower his head, politely ask him to do so with your left hand (see this page to teach head control).

In time, this skill can be used in busy, scary environments, as a reward, and it can also be used to train the ‘end of trail’ position (all four feet brought together under the horse), and the lay down.

Happy tapping!

The Horsegentler

Bill Dorrance and Horsemanship Through Feel

Another great book is being added to the Manes and Tales Booklist! It is True Horsemanship Through Feel, by Bill Dorrance.

 Feel is the only thing our horses have to go on. If we have bad feel, he can still try, but he won’t understand. If we have good feel, our horse can understand and he will want to be with us.

Feel is very hard to explain, but Bill does a fairly good job of it. After he goes through some very important information about how feel works, he gives seven exercises to work on with your horse. Working through even the first two of these exercises with Jamileh, a nine year old Arabian mare I am working with right now, has made a huge difference in her otherwise crabby attitude, and she is willing to do what I ask of her.

Bill’s feel is much like Centered Riding on the ground. Feel employs many of the same principles, and is a great resource to work hand in hand with that method of riding.

Look forward to the first exercise in the next post!

The Horsegentler

Relaxing your Horse

You all know, I am sure, those nervous, jumpy horses who simply cannot concentrate on you when there are other things going on. In fact, sometimes you are even scared that your horse really has no clue you are standing right beside him and might just run right over you! Vienna is one of those higher strung horses, and there is a very simple solution.

First, however, we must explore the cause of this rampant problem. Basically, by worrying about what is going on over the fence or in the next stall rather than calmly looking to you, your horse is saying, ‘I don’t trust you to take care of me, I have to take care of myself.’ To begin with, you should analyze why your horse is thinking like this. Have you ever let him be hurt by anything? Have you ever done something around, near, or to him that really shook his trust in you? Trust takes a long time to rebuild, and I suggest you start working on that. You must prove yourself again to your horse, which will be a hard task, because horses have a very, very long memory of wrongs done to them. It is far easier to always treat your horse with respect and caring and look after him well than to try to patch up broken trust.

Now, on to the ‘practical’ solution. When a horse lowers his head below his withers an endorphin is released which gives him a pleasant sensation. Putting his head down to eat, resting it on the ground when he is lying down, all these things feel very good to the horse. When he eats or lies down, he is relaxed because of the endorphin. So, to get your horse less uptight, you simply must lower his head. You will always lose at tug-of-war with your horse; he is much stronger than you are, so don’t pull down on your lead rope! So start by putting your hand over his poll, right between his ears. With your thumb and middle finger (or pinkie, if your hand is small) you should feel two indentations in the horse’s skull at the base of his ears. Apply a small amount of pressure with your fingers here with your right hand, while applying soft pressure downward with your lead rope. It there is no response, wiggle your fingers, gradually increasing pressure until the horse drops his head away from the pressure. Immediately release all pressure and praise him! Even if he moves a millimetre, release, praise, and keep practicing this until next time!