Your New Mantra: Pause, Pet, Breathe, and Praise

I recently got this heartfelt email from a couple that found themselves with a very troubled mare suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome:

dressageDear Allan:

…. Last April we purchased a six-year-old mare…We had her evaluated by a respected professional horse clinician. He discovered that, when asked to canter (she was trained for dressage), the horse begins to accelerate rapidly,  until she eventually lost all control, Secondly, she seemed to go into an unusual form of panic that the trainer described as “her body as taking over with the mind gone…piaffing, passaging automatically, but the rider has no control, and [her]…mind is not there. His conclusion is her brain was “fried” and, perhaps, beyond all hope. We don’t really wish to give up on her but this is new territory for us and we really need help.

Yours sincerely,


Dear P:

Thank you for bringing your question forward. It is clear you have given the mare a great deal of thought, respect, and consideration. With love, patience and a steady schedule of earnest training, your mare will learn to leave her past where it belongs—just as a bad memory. Your mare is suffering with the equine equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have seen it many times. Horses are, in that sense, no different than humans. Sometimes the experiences they have endured are so difficult that the brain relives the episode rather than merely recalling it.

Your assessment and that of your trainer sound spot on to the extent that your horse is reacting to her prior training. I suspect your horse was trained ‘hard’ in dressage and probably brought through her training way too quickly and rigidly. You’re seeing your mare doing what I call “squirting” — namely, the horse has been taught to react very quickly and demonstrate her training before she gets reprimanded. In essence, the horse wants to squirt into action before she might be disciplined. It sounds as though your horse goes into a reactive state where she either starts winding herself up in the canter, going faster and faster, or goes into what appears to be a kind of dressage meltdown. However, I would not say the situation is hopeless at all.

So the first thing I would do is stay away from dressage for now. Let’s not do something that reminds her of the old days and her old training. The dressage will be for much later down the road.

roundpenSecondly, for the cantering problem (called loping in Western), get her into a round pen (RP) to so some ground work. See if she picks up speed at the canter when you ask her to go around the RP. When she holds her speed to a nice, steady lope (what we refer to on my ranch as the slope for slow lope) just let her go around a few times and bring her down to the walk quietly and softly.

PAUSE, PET, BREATHE, AND PRAISE (this is your new mantra!). Stop. Pet your horse with a soothing touch. Breathe deeply and relax yourself and your horse by releasing tension. And then praise her abundantly. Let her hear with the tone in your voice how pleased you are with her achievement. You want your mare to see that loping can be a soothing, comfortable experience. It does not need to be a gut-wrenching, sweat-drenched experience. pauseThe key is to find a way to make the slow lope give her a feeling of success and praise. If, on the other hand, she becomes reactive and cranks it up–steps on the gas, and really starts running like she’s possessed–then you need to get in front of her and make her turn in the other direction right away. Every time she picks up speed, she has to turn. Again, this turning will tire her out and she will actually start to relax with each turn. The faster she wants to go, the more you are simply going to turn her. Don’t worry; just keep her turning and moving her feet. Be patient. She will figure out that she only gets asked to turn for speeding up and she will figure out to slow things down. I would not try to lope her under saddle until she has figured out how to lope slow and easy in the RP and has developed it into a good, solid habit. There’s no point in getting on her back if she can’t control her gait. She needs to associate getting reactive and squirting into a crazed run with just creating turn after turn for herself. It will be much easier for her to learn at liberty rather than associating it with a rider correcting her. When she will lope casually and slowly (with that beautiful slow, rocking horse lope), then you can consider saddling her up and take her to the arena. Let me very clear about this: there is absolutely no point in trying to go to the arena to lope under saddle if your mare has not learned to control her gait at liberty in the RP first. It’s fruitless and dangerous for you and harmful for your horse.

trotting    Once she gets the feel of that slow canter, you can take her into the arena. At first, ride her a lot at the walk and trot. Leave the lope out of it. Let her get a little tired. She will start thinking about stopping and that’s when I would very quietly ask for the lope-with the slightest squeeze of my calves. In other words, you want to ask her to lope only when she’s ready to stop. If she’s willing to give you a slow canter, go for maybe ten paces and then stop. Pause, pet, breathe, and praise.  Reward her abundantly. Start all over again. Go for a dozen paces and then stop again. Pause, pet, breathe, and praise. If you feel her starting to pick up excessive speed, there are two techniques you can use.

In the arena under saddle, the first method is to just shut your mare down by bringing her to an emergency stop (one rein pull, head flexed laterally to the side, disengaging the hindquarters, and coming to a full and complete stop). Make sure she understands how to come to a one-rein full stop (a different task and skill I’ll cover another time). Then start again: walk, and then trot for a while, then up to the lope. If she lopes slowly, great. Is she picks up speed, bring her to a stop again. She needs to learn that going fast brings her right away to a full stop. She will eventually get tired of being pulled down to a stop and figure out that a slow lope is acceptable but the fast lope is not. It is important to shut her down as soon as she picks up speed and not let her wind herself up.

The second approach is my preferred method in this situation: what I call ‘harness the rail.’ Start to lope the horse along the rail in the arena and, as soon as the horse is starting to speed up, turn her directly towards the fence. She will have to slow. If she slows just continue loping. The other thing she can do is move towards the fence and spin around. If she does that she will essentially come to a stop or, at least slow to a walk, Then just ask for a depart and lope off in the other direction. Slowing down and turning takes a lot of exertion on the horse’s part. The horse eventually figures out: “Hey, every time I pick up speed, I have to turn and pivot hard on my feet. This is getting tiring. Maybe I just should go slow.” Very much equivalent to what you were doing earlier with in the RP. In her mind, she begins to associate going fast with turning and learns to quit doing it. It is important that you be soft and kind when you turn her. There is nothing punitive about the maneuver. In her mind, it needs to occur to her as a natural consequence of going too fast: “Hey, I pick up speed, we have to turn into the fence. Bummer.” You (or your trainer) should be acting as if you were saying: “Wow, that’s weird how we have to turn into the fence every time you go too fast!”

petpraiseYou should avoid harsh punishment at all cost. You need to teach her that it’s not about performing, it’s about learning. You are trying to teach her and she needs to learn that a mistake will simply be corrected quickly, without rancor, and with the least amount of energy possible.

Let me close by saying I am not a fan of the “let her tear around at full throttle until she can’t run anymore and she will slow down” school of thought. It’s true. Eventually, the horse has to slow down. But it is very hard on both horse and rider. It simply reinforces the idea of running out of control and the idea of defaulting to reactive behavior. It just makes her think cantering is a panic attack. Instead, we want to encourage her to start thinking: “Hey, I have to slow it down.” Also, if the horse runs more and more each day at full speed, she will just get fitter and fitter. Soon you will have to run her from 6 AM to noon just to wait until she runs out of steam and wants to slow down. Stick with either turning or stopping to shut down the fast lope.

The lessons in Zen Mind, Zen Horse may help you–especially in light of what I am about to say: you need to approach this problem as if you have years to get it resolved. It will improve your timing and your patience. The slower you are willing to take the training, the faster your mare will learn. Good luck.

Best, Allan

Posted in Uncategorized

Using the Right Amount of Energy for Every Horse

Today we look at a question from a reader:

Hi! I just want to say how incredible it has been reading this book. I have had only trail riding experiences with horses and didn’t understand much about horses until I read this book. I have always had a love for horses but never knew the amazing qualities and minds they possess. Incredible. I also had never been able to have a horse to call mine until my mom rescued 4 this past year. My parents have a 600 acre farm in WI and after the incredible adoption stories and experiences they have had with the 4 they rescued, they are meeting with someone to turn the farm into a horse and farm animal rescue.

Major Yoda 2

Major Yoda at his loving new home.

One of the horses has its own special place in my heart. His name is Major Yoda and is a spotted palomino quarter horse. He is 8. He came to the horse rescue we adopted him at completely scared to death of people. It took a month for them to have him get near a person and they suspected he was either abused or rough handled. He had been at the rescue for 3 months and when my mom and I went to see him, he was hesitant but I just felt some connection to him. Since then he has still been very wary around people but we have made sure to see him in the pasture and give him the life he needs. Just recently we have had him go to a natural horsemanship training facility and I am beginning to question whether it was too soon. His trainer has had to change her program for his needs because he us just so afraid. She completely quit her round pen part with him and is taking time in the pasture with him to get used to her because it has taken 45 min plus to catch him. I go every single day to watch his training, video him, I can catch him very easily when the trainer isn’t around and the feeding guy also can, but when the trainer goes anywhere near him he runs. I hate seeing him so stressed and I am wondering if this is a normal reaction to the training process? From what I have watched with him in the round pen and her training him, I don’t know what to think. Her wand she has done what she calls “spanks” if he doesn’t listen after the 3rd time. She does ask, request, demand and then the promise is the spank by the wand/whip. Is this normal? He is just so afraid of it, is it still the best approach, for an abused horse, to do that? I just want to learn anything that could help. Thank you so much.

Dear “A”,

Thank for your heartfelt question. You have asked some fundamental, important, and perceptive questions.
So let’s start with the first thing: thank you. Thank you and your family for opening up your hearts, homes, and farm to rescue horses. The world is a better place for the room and space you have made for these wondrous creatures.

One of the points I made in Zen Mind, Zen Horse is that we relate to horses energetically, intuitively, and emotionally and you have done just that for Major Yoda (he may be in line for a battlefield promotion to the rank of Lt. Colonel).

Major Yoda 1

Take it slow and use the appropriate amount of energy for each horse.

I think it is very telling that he will come up to you and the gentleman who does the daily feeding but not the trainer. Every horse has a very different starting place. Major Yoda needs to start at a very low, peaceful energy. This does not sound like a horse who needs a whack or a slap. He needs to learn that he can trust human beings to teach him, not hurt him. People fail to understand that we need to make it as easy and effortless as possible for the horse so he can figure out what we are trying to teach him. So I would stop “training” your horse for now.

He needs to get used to you and the tools you will use; namely, your body position, your lead rope, and–later–your training wand. He has to learn that these are things that will not hurt him. That they are your tools. Nothing more. Extensions of your hand.

Start very slowly. Let him learn you can move all around him, pick the lead rope up and down, let the rope touch him, let it slide along him. Turn it in a long, slow dance. Savor it. Then do the same with the wand. It may be that you stand away from him fifteen feet away and just hold the wand. You need to find out where his comfort zone is located. From what you are telling me this is not a horse that needs “one, two, whack.” First, it’s never one, two, three. It’s always one thousand one, one thousand two, then increase the energy. One thousand one, one thousand two, increase the energy. A hot-blooded horse may never need so much as a touch with the wand. They are just hyper-sensitive. A cold-blooded horse may need a lot more energy.

The biggest rule to follow is the: no rule works all the time. What does work is this: every horse is different and each a different starting point. Some horses start off so sensitive that one needs to apply the energy more than twenty or thirty feet away from them. Some wild mustangs can be started off from more than fifty of a hundred feet away. We would never hit them. It would only make it harder from them to ever learn from us.

Your instincts are right on. Back off. Start very patiently and slowly. It’s much more important for Major Yoda to learn that you are not the sort of human being that will dole out physical punishment. You’re his partner and you can go as slowly, peacefully, and gently as you need. The problem with energy is people need to learn to dial it for each individual horse.

Posted in Horsemanship

The Greatest Equine Hero Ever!

Yes, I believe the story of the Korean-born mare, named Sargent Reckless, is one of the greatest recorded stories of how truly heroic and brave horses can be. Reckless served during the Korean War with dignity and valor alongside her fellow Marines of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company of the 5th Marine Regiment. It is an iconic and inspiring tale of true courage which reminds us how much these magnificent creatures are willing to sacrifice to live and serve alongside their human partners. I should wait till Veterans’ Day to post this, but it cannot wait that long! Reckless’ story is one that risks becoming lost just as the living memories of our Korean veterans are being lost as these heroes pass on. But all of their stories need to be honored. And this is one that needs to be sung through the ages.

Reckless was a little sorrel mare with stockings and a blaze purchased off the Korean racetrack for the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars. She was put into service in the Marine Corps by Lieutenant Eric Pedersen, the commander of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon.

The recoilless rifle was a monster of an artillery piece. Meant to be mobile, it was light enough for four men to carry it.  Its recoilless design allowed for a 75 mm round to be accurately fired at an enemy target as far away as seven thousand yards. The recoilless rifle serves as a kind of rocket launcher. As a round is detonated, there is a massive (and loud!) gaseous explosion out the back of the main chamber. This makes for a huge blast, but it imposes much less recoil to knock the piece out of position or alignment.

Lt. Pedersen purchased Reckless to help resupply the units manning the recoilless rifle teams with shells and supplies. The soldiers trained her, fed her, and housed her.  Later, she was given the freedom to roam the Marines’ encampments at will, and was known to stick her head inside the tents at night for some companionship and a treat. On cold nights, she would even lie down on the ground to get closer to the Marines’ stove. She was taught to carry as many as eight of the large shells on a modified packsaddle. She learned to crouch down and take cover if her handlers yelled, “Incoming!” Somehow, Reckless eventually learned to calm herself, even as she had to stand and have artillery rounds off-loaded, alongside the enormous guns as they let out bursts of four or five howling shells at a time.

Reckless alongside one of the 75 mm recoilless rifles she helped to re-supply during the Korean War (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

Reckless alongside one of the 75 mm recoilless rifles she helped to re-supply during the Korean War (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

In one single day of fighting to retake a Marine outpost called Vegas, Reckless resupplied gun positions no less than fifty-one times! The artillery units were along a ridge at the top of a hill with nearly forty-five degree slopes. Some of the gun positions were hundreds of yards apart from each other, up treacherous and exposed terrain. The mare made two trips for every one the Marines could make, and often made the treks by herself to resupply the guns. It is estimated that in that single day of fighting, Reckless carried an incredible 386 rounds. That is more than nine thousand pounds of explosives! During the day, Reckless was wounded by shrapnel, first, over the left eye and later, on the left side of her flank. Twice the Marines cleaned her wounds, and twice Reckless launched herself back into the fray. It is estimated that Reckless traveled more than thirty-five miles to re-supply her beloved fellow Marines on that one day.

Reckless learned to live like her fellow Marines out in the field. She was notorious for eating just about anything. Scrambled eggs were a favorite of hers. She also grew fond of Coke and liked an occasional beer, and even a sip of whisky now and then. The Marines made a mash of barley, rice, bread, oatmeal, hard tack, and cabbage. Reckless ate it all, including a couple of packs of cigarettes.  She even interrupted a good game of poker once by eating the chips. On fireless nights, Reckless would lie down on the ground alongside the Marines and they would cover her with their blankets.

There would be many more battles, including amphibious assaults, before a truce was finally declared in 1953, and the troops began getting orders to head home. The Marines provided their beloved chestnut with a beautiful crimson and gold blanket (the Marine Corps colors), to which Gen. Randolph Pate personally pinned her sergeant stripes. Many of Sgt. Reckless’ fellow Marines begged to have the mare brought back to the United States with her unit, but word came from on high that the U.S. Marine Corps was not authorized to ship private property (which was what Reckless was, technically, since Pedersen had purchased her). It looked like the heroic horse might be left behind.

Thankfully, by that time, Reckless was so famous in the American Press that the Pacific Transport Lines gladly paid for her triumphant return to San Francisco, where she was greeted by a mob by cheering admirers, fellow soldiers, and hordes of reporters. Probably bored during her long Pacific crossing, Reckless had eaten her beautiful blanket.  A new one was rushed to the dock, so the returning war hero would be suitably bedecked in her military regalia as she descended onto to the wharf to the popping of photographer’s bulbs. None of the hoopla fazed her in the slightest.

The mare, Reckless, is promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. One of the bravest horses of all times, awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

The mare, Reckless, is promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. One of the bravest horses of all times, Reckless was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received in combat.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

Sgt. Reckless was transported to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, where she was cared for by some old veterans and some new recruits, all members of the 5th Marines. She was later promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant by now Marine Corps Commandant General Pate, and was officially retired one day before Veterans’ Day 1960 with full military honors. Hundreds of her fellow Marines marched in formation to honor her and mark the occasion. Orders were issued to ensure that “SSgt Reckless be provide with quarters and messing at Camp Pendleton Stables in lieu of retired pay.” Her military decorations included two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, a National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, and a Korean Presidential Unit Citation. In 1997, Life Magazine listed her among America’s one hundred greatest heroes.

SSgt Reckless passed away in 1968. A plaque to her memory stands to honor her at the entrance to the Pendleton stables.

There are so many unsung equine heroes. Horses have saved so many of us, our loved ones, and our friends. Share their stories with us, and with the world. Please be sure to share the true story of Sgt. Reckless with everyone.

Watch this video: I promise you will be inspired!


Andrew Geer, Reckless: Pride of the Marines, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1955

Posted in Amazing Horses

New Riding Environment? Help With Your Horse’s Anxiety

I recently had an interesting question from a reader that related to some of the principles I talk about in Zen Mind, Zen Horse. I thought it would be helpful for everyone to review this real life example:

Dear Dr. Hamilton, (excerpted)

I have an eleven year-old mare, born and raised in Montana.  Although Barbie was broke, she spent the first seven years “out on pasture,” the majority of time in a herd of twenty or so horses.  She has been with me for the last four years, under similar circumstances.  Until recently, the majority of our riding has been on wonderful mountain trails with one other horse, of which she was the lead mare…..trail

Recently we moved to Wisconsin and are riding on a trail system with many more horses, and with horses who are not familiar or not very familiar to her.  This has proven to be difficult for her at times.  For example, she gets upset if horses are coming up from behind.  Also, if one or more of the horses (especially if it is the horse in the lead) gets “fired up” (because it can’t take a short cut home or takes off running up its favorite hill, for example), she gets very wound up, and has even bucked, jumped, and reared a little in response to this energy.  We got through it, and I was not upset with her as I felt she was just having an emotional reaction to the circumstances

When I read about the sensitivity difference between wild and domesticated horses in your book, I realized my horse has lived the majority of her life more “wild” than domestic, thus sharpening her survival skills.  As such, she appears to be very sensitive to the energy of other horses and doesn’t seem to understand the “domestic” dynamics of our new environment.  My question is, what can I do to help her with this?

Dear TB:
runningYes, you are correct that horses in the wild have a much keener sense of connection to other horses than those that are domesticated and well acclimatized to the world of human beings. All horses, however, have a keen sense of identity with the energy of other herd members. Just watch how quickly an entire herd of zebras can go on alert and then, as if they were all once a communal being, bolt into flight, all in unison, all in the same direction. The individual zebra that gets eaten is the one who is standing around asking: “Hey, where are you guys all going?” So our domesticated horse has evolved successfully because of (not despite of) a well-developed sensitivity and awareness to the reactions of other members of the herd.

When you were back in Montana, it sounds as if Barbie was pretty mellow and had to contend with only one or two other horses, over whom she played the role of the dominant alpha mare. When the two of you moved to Wisconsin, it sounds as if the situation became far more complex, variable, and confusing for Barbie.
So now let’s proceed in a stepwise fashion to answer your questions:

Helping your horse to address a situation in which she feels anxious and panicked will help your horse to become more “herself.” You will not change your horse’s personality but you will certainly make her feel more comfortable and confident being the horse that she is. While I am on the topic, let me harp for a few seconds on one of my pet peeves about horse owners: this notion that training or correcting your horse may somehow mar or change its disposition. If a person’s horse is cranky, stubborn, aggressive, unruly, and, most of all, impolite and disrespectful then, yes, that horse does need to have its personality changed and those traits need to be actively trained out of it.

However, that comment does not pertain to you and Barbie. What you are referring to is taking the “edge” off her and outright blunting her personality. And, yes, that is a genuine concern because I have seen people bore their horses to death with incessant, dull, unimaginative training. That can just turns horses off but, eventually, makes them outright cranky. Basically, the horse is saying: “Okay, okay, I got it. Could we please go on to something new?” So let me reinforce with you that helping Barbie with this problem will not change her personality.

Barbie gets fired up when a horse comes up from behind. That is a natural reaction of a herd prey animal. The idea is that if a horse is coming up from behind, then there might be a danger that is making that horse speed up. If that’s the case, then the horse in the lead needs to pick up the pace too in order to escape. The second part of this–the corollary–is: the faster the horse is coming up from behind, the more the lead horse wants to get out in front.

turnSo now the solution: practice having horses come up from behind you. Have a friend or two go out with you for a trail ride. The purpose of this trail ride is for each one of you to ride your horse at a slower gait while the other horses come up from behind at a faster gait. So, for example, you ride Barbie at the walk and then have your two companions trot up from behind and pass you. Then you turn Barbie around in the other direction and have your friends trot past you again. Now change directions and do it over…and over. What begins to happen is that the horse figures out with multiple repetitions that the horse coming up from behind is not a cue to escape because the direction keeps changing. Eventually all the horses will simply figure out to just wait and see when you change direction (see the section in Zen Mind, Zen Horse about the utility of applying Directional Reversal). If Barbie freaks out whenever a horse passes her, then start even slower and turn her around to face the horses and walk towards them as you hear them trotting up from behind. Now do it all over again, with you at the trot on Barbie and your companions loping their horses past. And, of course, one favor deserves another so you take turns so everyone’s horse can learn the lesson.

Barbie freaks out (bucking and rearing) when another horse takes off running. This is just a more pronounced variant of item number two above, but a far more dangerous one. The reason Barbie reacts so strongly is that her preservation instincts are on alert when a horse runs off. So exercise two listed above will help, but it will not guarantee no reaction. So, first thing is to proceed to item number three when Barbie is tired from, say, a long trail ride. The reason you want her tired is that she will be less reactive when she is already fatigued. Now when Barbie is all worn out, take her to a spot where there are intersecting trails and, preferably, a few hills. Put yourself and Barbie down at the bottom. Again, you will need some willing rider-friends that we’ll call “the bolters.” You are going to start doing some task with Barbie like asking her to trot in figure of eights or go around a tree. Then have the bolters run down the trails or up the hills at some distance from you. You want to keep Barbie on task despite the distraction of the bolting horses. Keep Barbie moving her feet and paying attention to your cues to move her feet. Gradually have the bolting horses pick up speed and start moving closer to where you and Barbie are working. If there is any sense that Barbie could be dangerous, then start this exercise in a large arena with Barbie slaloming in and out of cones while the other horses attempt to bolt past her. Once Barbie gets more comfortable, have your friends start rushing past you and Barbie, to and fro, from every direction and start really energizing their horses. Just keep Barbie on task. She’ll eventually figure out: “Hey, I’m going to just keep moving my feet and staying on task because the rest of these horses are plum crazy and just running in every direction.” As Barbie gets better and better at focusing on you and moving her feet, you can get her dialed in even more by having horses dashing in and out from everywhere, sometimes a singe horse, sometimes a couple of horses at once.

All of this takes time, but you have a lifetime with Barbie. As I describe in Zen Mind Zen Horse, give yourself a year to accomplish each task.  It’s worth the investment.  Be patient. It will pay off great dividends.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Horsemanship

A Great White Horse

A great, white horse has passed from this life. Romeo, my beloved Lipizzan stallion, who had been the star of a hundred different demonstration clinics over the years, died last night of colic. I had him since he was a yearling when he was just a gangly, dusky charcoal grey colt. I trained him for several years on the ground and then for two more years under saddle. I taught him to bow and to lie down. I taught him tricks at liberty. Almost without noticing it, along the way a beautiful, shiny white soul, filled with power, intelligence, and nobility, emerged in front of my eyes. He was so gentle that most people never even realized he was a stud. He was a quick learner and a patient teacher. I probably learned more about my own limitations as a trainer from Romeo than from any other single horse. And in the end he always showed me how he could learn anything despite my own clumsiness, at times, as a trainer. I have never met a horse that could learn a task or lesson as fast as Romeo did. He learned everything in half the time that it took my other horses. He could blow the socks off of a judge riding dressage in one moment and the next moment be chasing cattle in a pasture, doing roll backs like a cutting horse. He might have been descended from the stallions of kings but he had a cowboy’s blue-collar work ethic. He was disciplined but knew how to cut loose and play as well.

Yesterday was a great day. I had taken him out for a ride. I hosed him down and he played around like a kid in the spray. In the afternoon, I had found a particularly sweet Honeycrisp apple in the fruit bowl in our kitchen. I took one bite of it and it was so sweet and delicious, I just had to share it with him. I walked out into his pasture and cut the apple into slices. He would get one, then I would get one. Every time it was his turn, I would feign running away with his slice. Then he would come jogging over, snorting and throwing his head back and forth as if to say: “Hey, it’s my turn. Not yours.” Six hours later he was gone.

I have owned a lot of horses but Romeo was the best of them. I ran my clinics and demos with him. He was the star of the show and like a business partner to me, earning his keep by wowing the spectators. When everyone went home, and we were by ourselves, he could act like a kid again and just nuzzle and play with me. He always took great care of me whenever I was on his back. He was a great white presence in everyone’s life at the ranch.

My hands tremble and my heart breaks this morning as I get ready to open the door on the porch that looks out on his stall. He will not be there today. I will not hear his nickering to greet me. There will be no toss of his great head and mane to let the rest of the stable know I am up. A great white light has gone out of my life. My beloved friend, Romeo, I will never forget you. There will not be a single day I don’t think of you. I will see you one day when I cross over and I know you will be waiting impatiently for me in heaven. When I come to get you, I’ll sneak a Honeycrisp in my pocket, my Sweet Stallion. God bless you for all the joy and wonder you brought into all our lives.

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s Wrong With Predators Nowadays?


It’s easy—too easy, in fact—to look around ourselves these days and ask: “What’s gone wrong with the world? Is everyone on the planet crazy?” In just recent days, we witnessed the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the killing of innocent Sikhs in a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. There’s the government-led and sectarian killings in Syria. And NASA just recently reported that nearly sixty percent of Greenland’s icepack melted in less than four days and that the disappearance of the polar ice caps is proceeding at a much faster rate than anyone predicted. So what is really going on and what has gone wrong? The answer: the predatory attitudes and solutions that helped us as a species to be so successful for the last one hundred thousand years are now out of date. It’s time to start thinking more like prey and less like predators.

To understand the differences between prey and predator there is simply no better place to turn than to the partnership between horses and humans. In fact, it is a magnificent paradox that the super—über—predator of the planet is able to team up with the stereotypical prey animal, the horse.

We succeeded as nomadic hunters working in packs or tribes. All hunting—from the Kalahari tribesmen to the alliances in a global conflict, or from spear fishing to commercial seine fishing—all depends on language. The ultimate expression of our evolution is our highly complex verbal abilities to communicate. Language became our forte. But with language becoming so predominant in our development, the left hemisphere of the brain (where language function is housed) also took over.

We developed an internal voice—what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio called “the autobiographical self.” It separates us from the world around us because we must register our own internalized dialogue (i.e., “here’s what I’m thinking”) as distinct from what is going on outside of ourselves (i.e.”here’s what I’m saying or here’s what I’m hearing”).

Another by-product of our success as predators is that we are very reward-driven in our behaviors. We want something. Chocolate. A raise. A sportscar. More energy. More consumption. More power. We developed an enormous anticipatory drive that is always searching for something else to satisfy its endless yearning. It’s the same reason we can get a dog to play “fetch” a hundred consecutive times or get him to jump even higher for an extra piece of hotdog. The dog is like us, he always wants something.

Now compare that with a prey animal like the horse. Almost no verbal output. Why? Because making noises helps predators locate where you are. So horses evolved a nonverbal language, one that is based on reading the energy in each other’s body language and posture. So a horse has to learn to listen and observe. A dominant horse stands differently, positions himself differently, than a timid one or a more junior horse. And then there’s the herd. Horses are constantly yearning for a herd. Even if it is only partnering with their owners, horses have to have a sense of belonging to a herd because it is what gives them a sense of security. They have a yearning to be together. A lone horse on the savanna, without its herd, was a dead horse. Finally, prey animals have a different reward system. They’re not interested in acquiring toys, burying bones, stockpiling cash, or hoarding hay. They live in the moment. If they have what they need right now, they are content. Their idea of heaven is to be left in peace, without threats, in the company of a few close herd mates and family. In other words, their notion of a reward is closer to what we might term tranquility. One last observation: ninety-five percent of the conflicts between one horse and another horse will end non-violently. Ninety-five percent of the conflicts between horses and human end in violence being perpetrated on the horse.

Horses do not rely on verbal communication. Instead they depend on interpreting the emotional energy and intention they see in other horses as well as in their trainers and handlers. They “read” what it is we humans are after. They use their intuition to guide their responses. In that sense, horses resemble right-brain creatures. We have many of the same instincts lying dormant in our non-verbal right hemisphere but because it has no “voice”—no language—it is drowned out by the left side of the brain. So where the left hemisphere communicates, the right interprets. Where the left side thinks “me,” the right side evokes “we.” Where the left side can analyze and calculate, the right brain grasps and responds. Where the left seeks reward and distinction, the right seeks peace and collaboration.

So why turn to the horse in these troubled times? Because they make us think with our right brains rather than our lefts. Because being around horses teaches us that there are distinctly different solutions to problems than the direct, predatory reactions we have so frequently. We can learn to share assets the way a herd of horses looks upon an open pasture as a communal resource. We can learn to be less acquisitive and develop more of an attitude of stewardship. Finally, if twelve hundred pound creatures can figure out how to get along without resorting to brutal displays of physical strength and might, can’t we figure out how to do it too?

Being around animals is a glorious way to see how nature has tried to solve the problems of identity, communication, and security. Animals engage us and challenge us to see the world through their eyes if we are to successfully train and husband them. And, along the way, we learn a little about ourselves and a little bit about different ways of being. I would submit to you that one of the things that is going wrong with the world today is that there are too many predators on the planet holding to their predatory ways. So the way to ensure that your position or belief system is upheld is not to kill those who disagree with you. Nor does it mean that you keep consuming fuels, forests, and oceans in a ceaseless (and now surely suicidal) quest to acquire. Motivational speaker and psychologist Wayne Dyer wrote: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” One thing we can all agree on is that is time for things to change. So perhaps we need to look at the world more like prey and less like predators.

Photo credits:
Crime Scene – Flickr
Cave Painting – Creative Commons
More – Kristen Spinning
Prior Mountain Mustangs – © Jim Parkin |
Big Red Horse – © Dragonika |



Posted in Right Brain Function, Uncategorized

The Pathos of the Olympics: Could We Become a Global Herd?

I write a lot about how much we can learn from horses, from their pervasive capacity for forgiveness, their value of honest partnership, and their respect for empathy. So how do horses relate to the Olympics? I mean besides the equestrian events. I’ll say a word about that later in the blog. But, to the point, the Olympics are about communion, about a global herd. I’m sure horses would ask: “Why do you humans only demonstrate how well you can come together every four years? As horses, we constantly celebrate being together. We are always a herd and we rejoice in our togetherness every day we’re alive.” Horses remind us to honor the Olympic principles of spirit, truth, and heroism far more frequently than every four years.

Spirit. I look at the Olympics and say: Why can’t we have the “Olympic spirit” across the planet on a daily basis? We seem to be able to summon a global, resolute will to assemble and celebrate the best each country has to offer on a quadrennial schedule. We can unite to applaud the finest and brightest. We can rejoice in the pursuit of “games.” The Olympics bring to mind the seven “games” of Pat Parelli. Watching the intense focus of the athletes in London makes me think of Clinton Anderson who advocates engaging our horses’ “thinking side of their brains rather than the reactive side.” The Olympics’ peaceful intent harkens back to the exhortations of Monty Roberts who’s dedicated his life to bringing an end to violence in our horse training. And the athletes’ incredible dedication, discipline, and training make me think of the late Ray Hunt who emphasized that when we work on horses, we are really working on ourselves. Isn’t this what the Olympics are about? Isn’t it about the relationships that emerge when we strive to be the best we can be?

Truth. There’s honesty to the Olympic games. We know who wins and who loses. There is no amount of spin, double-speak, or corruption that can contaminate these moments of pure athletic competition. Gross domestic products, political platforms, the Euro Zone, and Wall Street shenanigans seem, at worst, irrelevant, and, at best, annoying. It’s the same honesty we see in horses. No ability to deceive. No intention of betrayal.

Heroism. Horses pour their heart into it. Whether it is running the Kentucky Derby, three-day eventing, or a reining competition, horses bring their game. We see their effort, their genuine, earnest striving, and all of this at the urging of their rider. There are few compliments that mean more than to say someone’s horse has great heart. And it is the same for an athlete. Who was not moved by South African runner Oscar Pistorius—the “Blade Runner”–the double amputee who fought so hard for the right to run on his carbon fiber blades against the able-bodied athletes of the world on the Olympic stage? Who was not inspired by the great Japanese equestrian, Hiroshi Hoketsu, at age seventy-one, competing in dressage on his horse Whisper? His appearance in the 2012 London Olympic games is even more remarkable because it came forty-eight years after he first appeared in the 1964 Tokyo games! Hoketsu left Olympic competition, earned a degree in Economics from Duke University, and went on to a full career in the business world. But he still awoke every morning at 5AM to get his riding practice in before he went to the office. It makes me ashamed of every time I tell myself I don’t have time for a ride. And after Hoketsu retired from business? He went right back to preparing himself for the Olympics. So what do you have in mind when you retire?

As the Olympic games draw to a conclusion, we are reminded how much we look forward to the torch being re-ignited four years from now in Rio de Janeiro. Horses ask us: Why wait so long? Horses can inspire us to be Olympians every day. The torch does not have be refurbished and carried to a new location. It could be an eternal flame.

Photo Credits:
Olympic Rings:
photo credit: iwillbehomesoon via photo pin cc
photo credit: Saparevo via photo pin cc
Oscar Pistorius:
photo credit: Will Clayton via photo pin cc
Olympic Torch:
photo credit: green-dinosaur via photo pin cc

Posted in Uncategorized