Train Your Horse to Respond, Not React


Unintended consequences.

Anyone who has been riding and training horses for any significant amount of time has, at least once, created an unwanted behavior. Trained in something that must later, and with much more time and effort, be trained back out.

Why? Sometimes we get in a hurry or lose our temper or just plain make a mistake that ends up sticking around to haunt us and our horses. Most of these unwanted behaviors can be replaced over time, but wouldn't it be nice to program in only the good stuff in the first place?

That means in order to train productively and humanely, we have to understand how horses react and learn. In a Horse&Rider article, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin provides insight into the way horses experience fear, which she asserts is more influential than pain. She explains how we can understand that emotional response to aid us in training more compassionately and effectively.


Fast Fear, Slow Fear
Another way horses and other animals differ from us is that they tend to experience fear “faster” than we do. There are two ways fear is experienced in the brain, depending on whether it takes what Grandin calls the “high road” or the “low road.” The high road gives you “slow fear” because its physical path through the brain is longer than the low road.

“On the high road,” explains the scientist, “a scary stimulus, such as the sight of a snake in your path, comes in through the senses and goes to the thalamus, located deep inside the brain. The thalamus directs it up to the cortex, at the top of the brain, for analysis. When it gets there the cortex decides that what you’re looking at is a snake, then sends this information – it’s a snake! – back down to the amygdala, and you feel afraid. The whole process takes 24 milliseconds.”

By contrast, the low road, or fast-fear system, takes half the time. You see a snake in your path, and the sensory data goes straight from your thalamus over to your amygdala, avoiding the cortex. The whole process takes 12 milliseconds. Nature gave us both systems because you can’t get hyper speed and accuracy in the same system.

“The fast road is quick and dirty,” says Grandin. “You see something long, thin, and dark in your path, and your amygdala screams, ‘It’s a snake!’ Twelve milliseconds later your cortex has the second opinion: either, ‘It’s definitely a snake!’ or, ‘It’s just a stick.’ The reason fast fear can be so fast is that accuracy is sacrificed for speed.”

High road fear is also conscious (you know what you’re afraid of); low road fear is not—“you’re running away before you know what you’re running away from,” says Grandin.

Your horse, as you might have guessed, depends primarily on low-road, fast fear, so he’s going to respond to something scary much more quickly than you would. That’s often what catches you off guard.

Grandin says the inborn temperament of animals also plays a role, as some species and breeds are even more sensitive to fear than others. She calls these more fear-prone animals, which tend to be finer boned than less sensitive types, “fear monsters.” Arabian horses in general fall into this category; as a result, they tend to have a low tolerance for rough handling.

“Some trainers swear rough handling is effective. But what’s interesting about these trainers is that if you check out their horses, they’re all big-boned, low-fear horses who habituate fast to treatment that would crush a high-strung animal” – such as an Arabian. (For you Arabian lovers, note that Grandin also observes that high fear and high sensitivity tend to correlate with intelligence; the greater “awareness” of such horses makes them highly trainable – by the right methods.)


In my experience, every horse has the potential for both types of reactions. I think of that "fast fear" mechanism as the horse's "reactive brain," while the slower pathway is the "reasoning brain." As a trainer, I want to work with the latter, helping horses learn to make better choices by taking that tiny bit of extra time to consider before responding to stimuli.

I find that if they are given the space and time to do so, most horses can learn to self-modulate effectively, to feel safe and secure enough to work with humans from that reasoning grain. But that requires very specific training and ongoing practice to keep the necessary skills active.

This Arabian mare seems to have been trained that a roundpen is a place to run like mad, not a place for thoughtful work. She's perfectly respectful and well-schooled on a longe line; turn her loose and she flips her tail up over her back, sticks her head in the air and races around on the forehand. Even if I try asking for a series of rebalancing transitions or changes of direction, continuing to work the mare at liberty in this upside-down posture just winds her up mentally into a whirling dervish.


I don't find it particularly productive to enable this mare's heavy-on-the-forehand posture and checked-out brain, so I put her back on the line in the roundpen and work on transitions. The simple balance challenge in walk, trot and halt transitions require her to move her center of balance back toward her hindquarters by lifting her back. Notice this induces her neck to drop and elongate for balance. Once her posture shows me her brain is back in her body, then I release her and walk alongside practicing halt/walk/halt/walk transitions.


Only after she's been able to maintain a good working posture in self-carriage do I trust this spirited mare to continue complying appropriately with my voice and body at liberty. Then I have a horse who can respond to my requests instead of react to every distraction. Now I'm accomplishing something useful, replacing an old habit of imbalance and reactiveness with a new habit of balance and focus.

Where do I start to reshape the horse's response system? With his body, of course. Think about the last time you saw your horse spook. What was the postural expression of that behavior? Head up. Ears pricked. Eyes intent. Back dropped and rigid. The sense that he's on his tiptoes. An overall appearance of his body bracing for danger.

Now change the picture into one of contentment, when your horse is relaxed and enjoying himself. His head is lower and his back is more level and soft. His ears are moving back and forth and his focus is wide. His weight is distributed over his feet for a more grounded appearance.

So, what I want to teach the horse to do when he's working with a person is, with a little help from his handler or rider, to chose the second posture. Why? First, for safety so he can modulate his reflexive flight response when he gets spooked by something that isn't really going to eat him - a bicyclist, a trash can, a flapping plastic bag. But more important, to set up a productive learning environment so that in every training session I have a willing partner who can concentrate on his work free from fear of punishment and allowed to make (and learn from) his mistakes.

The first step is to override that head-high/hollow-back posture that turns him into the reactive horse, replacing it with a more relaxed stance that signals the reasoning or thinking horse is present and ready to learn.

I do not accomplish this by making the horse put his head down, pulling down on the leadrope to put pressure on the poll. Yes, a horse can learn to yield to that pressure, but the reflexive first response to that pull on the leadrope is to brace the neck. Remember, to overcome the flight posture, I don't want to create any contraction in the muscles of the topline.

I believe that coerced head drop actually confuses the nervous system, especially in highly sensitive, very intelligent horses. Have you ever seen a horse that drops his head due to pressure on the poll, but keeps his body rigid and tense, ready to flee at the slightest provocation? Is he relaxed and submissive or is he a ticking bomb ready to go off? Posture suggests the latter, regardless of the lowered head.

Instead of making the horse put his head down, I introduce a side-to-side movement that unlocks a rigid spine right from the poll to the tail. That creates a situation in which he wants to drop his head. It's entirely his choice, with a little helpful guidance from me.

Remember above when I said I want to help horses learn to make good choices? Well, if I make him opt to do something only because I'll punish him if he doesn't comply, that's not really offering a choice. In that case, the action I think of as a signal or cue likely reinforces the reactive mechanism, especially if I'm actively causing discomfort.

To encourage the horse to remain firmly rooted in his reasoning brain, my interactions with him need to cause comfort when he complies, not discomfort when he fails to comply. There's a very important difference in these two approaches.

For example, let's say that every time I touch the horse's halter, I create downward pressure as a "cue" for him to drop his head. This reflexively triggers first a tightening in the muscles that lift the neck and head and drop the back as the horse shifts his center of balance forward in response to my pressure. Then, if I have conditioned him to do so by increasing pressure or punishing him, he may lower his head. But his back likely retains some of that tightness, leaving him to some extent braced on the forehand.

If, instead, I gently waggle his head and neck left and right of center without that downward pressure, I activate the muscles of self-carriage, inducing the horse to shift his center of balance back and to lift both the base of his neck and his back. The result of this version of rebalancing the body is that the horse's neck releases out and down and his head drops. He'll be more likely to stand with his weight fairly evenly distributed over his four legs, making it easy for him to initiate any movement I ask of him. And he'll definitely be in a good mental place for thinking and learning.


Perfect example of a horse being forced into a reactive posture and mindset instead of being quietly and systematically taught to do a simple task.

To intentionally teach a horse to chose a specific behavior, what I need to do is offer him a clear, consistent and comfortable alternative to the behavior I want to replace. Basically, I give him the option to stay in his reactive posture (which isn't terribly comfortable to hold for long) or to work with me and adopt a more comfortable posture.

The key is that the trigger I program to cue the posture change biomechanically supports that change. I don't require the horse to overcome his reflexive physical response; instead, my cue induces the physical response I want the horse to choose.

Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. Use any horse that is safe to work with on the ground and outfit him in a halter that fits. Hook your lead rope to the ring under the chin and pull down, noting the tiny whiplash as the horse first reflexively resists and then, if he's trained to lead and yield to the rope, drops his head.

If you can't feel the whiplash at first, try it with your eyes closed. (Only for a moment and only if you're working with a horse you know and trust.) Or enlist a helper to handle the horse while you stand back perpendicular to the horse where you can see his whole topline, poll to tail, while the handler pulls down.

Then, you or your assistant hook the lead onto the side ring of the halter, snug your hand up onto the snap and, moving from your core, waggle the horse's head very gently and smoothly left and right of his spine. This will be a new interaction for many horses, so be patient until your horse has time to think a bit. For a horse that is very stiff and/or stuck on the forehand, this might take a while.

But if you persist, remembering to work from your core and to breathe, most horses will respond by rocking back and releasing the neck and head. You may also get a sigh or a lick-and-chew along with the feeling that you are rocking the entire spine all the way back to the tail. You should be able to both feel and see this change.

And, voila! You have there in your hand a horse who is posturally and mentally ready to work and learn just what you want him to the first time. No more fear, no more reactivity, no more unintended consequences. Stacey Kollman

© 2014 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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