Peeling back the onion layers

Although this was a while ago (gosh time flies!) I remember it as clear as day.  Of all the students applying for a lesson with me, Fran and her horse Crest were successful.  I had already discussed issues she’d had with him over the last couple of years, he was a very troubled horse that she ‘rescued’ with a view to rehabilitating him and in the process learning a lot.  Fran has made phenomenal progress with him, especially on the ground but when riding she was still having trust issues (both her and the horse) and he would buck quite violently at the canter.  As you can well imagine, she had lost her confidence about that.

The good news is that Crest’s relationship with Fran is so strong on the ground that he really had very few problems about being in front of an audience which meant that we would be able to progress to the riding part, but first I spotted some things on the ground that informed me about the problem she was having riding.

First of all, Crest can fly all over the horsenality chart as a learner.  His innate LBE (Left Brain-Extrovert) character would visit LBI (Left-Brain Introvert), RBE (Right-Brain Extrovert) and RBI (Right-Brain Introvert), the latter being the most serious issue, that was the one that would lead to explosions.  For students of horse behavior and horsenality, this turned out to be a wonderful study.  We got to see and deal with a lot and it is usually the horses with a bleak past that jump all over the chart, especially when in a learning situation.

As I watched Fran play with him on the ground, it was pretty impressive, but I noticed that she never asked him to act as a partner. He was calm, obedient, responsive and connected, but she was having to communicate with him constantly, there was no “neutral”.  So, I asked her to do the Figure 8 Pattern and sure enough, she micro-managed him through the whole thing – send, coax, coax, draw, draw, push, push. It was nicely done, but the point was she didn’t give him responsibility to do the Pattern by himself.  This is a huge thing when it comes to applying Parelli Principles to tasks and also the relationship.  Partnership means you have mutual responsibilities, that you can ask him to do something then leave him alone to do it.  This is how horses get mentally and emotionally involved and they become more confident and willing as a result.

So, the first issue was that he did it like an LBI, went with the send but then didn’t keep going.  He would stop instead of coming around the cone.  In reading him I could see that it was left brain, he wasn’t tense and worried he just wasn’t motivated to get involved, didn’t know he could.  So, I told Fran to use the ‘tag’ technique, the one I showed on a recent Savvy Club DVD with Remmer in the Circling Game.  I showed her (and everyone watching) that the idea is to tag the ground in the center of the figure 8, right after he crosses through it.  You don’t try to touch the horse, but you have to show intention for tagging the ground.  LBI’s start to see the game and they get really motivated.

After a couple of tags however, Crest went RBE. So now we had to handle it differently. Some horses get emotional when they move faster and then we have to teach them how to not feel scared about that. In this case it involved staying on the pattern until he realized he was not in danger, BUT he was not thinking and as he came around the cone he would try to charge on behind her.  So, we used a ‘pattern-interrupt’ and wiggled the rope to stop him when he came around the cone.  The principle is that he’ll come around the cone and think instead of blindly charging off.  All of a sudden, he started to get it.  He stopped being so right brain, began checking in (asking questions), his confidence grew and when he made the first turn of his own volition as he came around the cone, we quit.

Being hot, the facility was not airconditioned, Crest was a bit sweaty and puffing (more from emotions than effort), I told Fran to walk him until he was cool.  During that time, I fielded questions from the audience.  Once they were ready, I wanted to see the cantering problem but without it becoming dangerous.  As soon as Fran asked him into the canter I could see what was going wrong.  She got tight, she pressed with her legs and stayed flat in her body.  So, as a result, he did the same.  Instead of cantering he got tight and rushed violently forward into a fast, flat trot and the relaxation was gone (from both of them!).  I don’t blame Fran for getting tight, she’s had some bad incidents at the canter, and I knew that partial disengagement in walk-trot transitions would be the answer to helping both become relaxed and confident but then I would have to work on Fran’s fluidity.

Now it started to get interesting, the onion layers began peeling back and we got to see the RBI.  As soon as we helped Crest get more relaxed, he began stopping at the gate. Instead of pushing him on when he stopped, I asked Fran to change her strategy and to turn him at a 45 degree angle and release as his feet moved and to do this until it was his choice to take a step forwards.   What this does is turn obedience into desire, and that’s when it feels like a willing partnership.

This went on for quite some time and finally he left the gate but then stuck to me. It took still more time before it was his choice to walk forwards and the whole time I tried to tell people what was going on, what I was seeing and feeling and there were some great ahhaaa’s and good questions at the end.  Once he did, he released a lot more than adrenaline – he released years of tension, mistrust and confusion, many of them stemming from being pushed to go when he was unwilling to do so for whatever reason, RB or LB.  His walk started to flow, he dropped his head and blew and blew, and then he wanted to roll. That is something I often see when horses make a big emotional breakthrough.  Fran stepped off as he lowered to the ground.  When he got up, we left him to himself while I worked on Fran’s fluidity.

I knew that his was not easy for Fran.  She’s an avid student, very accomplished, but what she was discovering was the buried trust issues and that can be hard not to take personally when you’ve been doing your best to develop the relationship – but this was old baggage and it needed to be resolved before they could move forward. It was time to have a little fun and release that pressure, we all laughed our heads off as I got her to ride me and I rode her to show her how it felt to be the horse!

After the cantering fluidity lesson, we went back to get Crest, but he didn’t want to come to us.  So instead of walking up and getting him, we needed to solve this little block.  It needed to be his idea to come to her but without coaxing.  He went introverted again, didn’t want to move so we just worked in arcs playing approach and retreat until he finally chose to come to us. It was huge, another big change for Crest and I had felt Fran getting a little fragile through it.  I kept looking into her eyes to make sure I wasn’t going to push her over the edge, but it was both of them that needed to make the breakthrough.

Here’s the email she wrote to me as a result. In our debrief after the show was over, I asked her to think about it and write three big things she got out of it.  I asked for three for two reasons – one being that Fran is a good writer and she’d probably send me 10 pages!  The second being that she needed to sort through it all and get down to three, otherwise there’s too much to try and remember to work on and you end up feeling lost. This way you know what to focus on when you’re by yourself.  Here’s what she had to say:


Hey there,

Finally getting back to reality today after this weekend’s intensity.  I’ve spent a lot of time alone, allowing myself to reflect and feel since Sunday afternoon. I’m sure you are aware of the magnitude of the growth and stretch to my comfort zone that the lesson experience caused me, and I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity.  

Below is my best attempt and a short, sweet summary of what I learned. The “big three”, so to speak.   As the information processes more over the next couple of weeks, I suspect it’ll be altered some, but for now, here goes–this is edited from almost 3 pages originally, by the way.


#1)I learned the great importance of causing my horse to fall in love with “neutral” (both online, and in my riding through proper fluidity)


#2)I learned that I need to prove to Crest, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I WILL NOT force.


#3)I learned that Crest and I are extremely similar individuals, and that I absolutely COULD NOT live without him in my life. He’s got so much to teach me about myself (tears welling as I type this)


Thanks again for this special opportunity to grow.  I look forward to what our futures hold, now, and I can see changes in our relationship happening already.



And then I got this little beauty:

You should have seen Crest on the Figure 8 pattern last night –it was “magic session #4”, where it all starts falling into place.  I had to interrupt him once coming around the cone, and after that, he trotted the pattern with me 100% in neutral.  His brilliance never ceases to amaze me! 


So, you might be wondering, why is neutral important? Principle #4 of the Eight Principles states: “There are mutual responsibilities of a partnership, four for the human and four for the horse.”  I’m going to isolate the ones that really applied in this situation and of course they are for the human J:

The Human

#1. Act like a partner.

A partner does not micromanage or nag.  They set the objective and get out of the way, allowing the other to follow through.  If the horse does not follow through, you discover something because you have to ask why he didn’t: was it fear (lack of confidence, mistrust, confusion) or dominance (willfully doing the opposite, mistrust, a challenge)? And once you figure out what it is you have to then take a more appropriate approach vsjust pushing the horse through it.  When you allow the horse to express himself and show you what he does or does not want to do for you, it’s a real eye-opener and it’s the beginning of taking the relationship to a whole new level. This is because it opens up communication, which should be a two-way street.  I think most of us don’t realize how we’re just telling our horses to do things and it’s not a conversation.  How do you know you’re having a conversation?  It’s when the horse is tuned in and asks you questions (looks at you, ears forward) and you only get this when you assign responsibility, by asking him to do something and then waiting to see what he does before you ask again.

It’s important to note here that unless you act like a partner, your horse will find it impossible to do so also.  Becoming more self -aware is a big key because often we are not conscious that we are constantly driving the horse – you can force a horse with phase 1!  The idea is to set it up to become the horse’s idea and not because he is afraid or more “comfortable” by doing the what you want instead of what he wants or needs to do.  You have to learn how to get horses to wantto do what you want to do, that’s leadership. Gaining trust and understanding is what it’s about and sometimes that can take a lot of savvy.  Be patient though, it comes and once it does it affects everything, not just the task at hand.  I was Level 4 when I really started to understand that, but it was still a little longer before I was able to convince the horse that I did!

#4. Use the natural power of focus

Focus on what you want to achieve, hold that picture in your mind.  That way you’ll know when your horse makes the slightest try in the right direction. Pressure motivates, and release teaches, so becoming more accurate with your timing of when you release is key. When you first start learning this, you tend to release once your horse actually does what you want, and usually some seconds after he does which is realistically too late, but it’s a good start because most people don’t understand the concept of release, let alone the effective time to release.  As you advance you become able to release the moment he starts to do it, then when you see him thinking about doing it – you can read his intention.  That’s why learning to read horses is such an important skill.  But it’s a learning process and most people aren’t interested in becoming that savvy.  It takes a lot of study, time and effort – that thing called never ending self-improvement J

We have to learn how to get a horse to wantto follow our leadership, how to make it his idea… how to go from obedience to desire and cultivate a truly willing partnership.

Yours naturally,




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