Turning Behavior Issues Into Opportunities: Helping Your Horse To Learn How To Follow Your Feel

DSC02701DSC02707Here in Central Oregon, Charley, his seven-year old horse, Belle, and Eileen are back at it again. Like many horses, this somewhat easily distracted mare exhibits certain behavior quirks including the fear of being tied, resistance to going into a trailer and an unwillingness to cross running water.

To help Belle learn to follow and trust his feel, Charley sets up three exercises.



Part One


Being Tied

So, Charley, what’s going on with Belle?


Ever since I got Belle about six months ago, I have been trying to find ways to get her to let go of some thoughts and turn loose mentally. Although Belle is mostly good to get along with, there are just some potentially treacherous things going on inside her.

What I am after with Belle, like all my horses, is to get them to the place where they trust my feel and yield to it, no matter what the circumstances. How you do this is to fix it up for the horse so that they can find what you are asking through your feel and then, be patient, not driving them, waiting for them to find it.

So often when a horse is searching out what a rider is asking, people tend to get all in a hurry, usually bustin’ the horse with their spurs or driving them with something. Well, when you do that, the horse will associate their curiosity with trouble.


What do you mean?


Because you have forced the issue.

Just watch folks working cattle down an alley. Cows are a kind-of spooky and, so every time a cow goes by, someone whips it along. Then guess what happens the next time you try to bring those cattle down an alley?

It gets worse because their reward for trying to find their way down that alley was someone snapping them with a whip, hurrying them along, rather then letting them find their way.

So the same thing happens with a horse. If you smack a horse, hurrying them along, then the next time you try to fix it up again, the horse will approach it with tension over what is going to happen. You’ll see a big difference if you let them have the freedom to find it.


So the exercises you are doing today are examples of how to do this?


DSC02712DSC02717Correct. Well, I would hope so. You never know, I may get to talking and forget that I am standing on these stairs. I didn’t ask if you had any nursin’ skills.


When did you notice that Belle did not like being tied  up? How did it manifest itself?


When I first went to get her, it took me two hours to load her into the trailer.


Holy cow.


She is definitely a bear to load into a trailer, probably one of the toughest I have ever fooled with. Now, this could be just her. Some horses are just this way. A little thing in there. Or it could be something that has gone on for a while but has never been addressed.

Then, the first time I tied her up, I noticed that she was pretty stuck in her feet. I wondered, “Where is this going to go?” I had her tied up pretty high. So if a horse sits back, the poll is kept pretty high and there is less chance that they will injure their necks. When they pull back.

Sure enough. I just walked away from her to get a saddle, oh boy, she flew back on that thing and I thought she was going to break the post. She hit it awful hard. Then I tried tying her to a juniper tree limb, which is a very good way to tie horses, and even there she just lost it. And I don’t mean kind of a little. After only a few minutes, I had to go untie her because I was pretty certain she was going to break that 8-inch limb.

Soon, I learned that I couldn’t trust her to be tied anywhere. And a horse that will not stand tied quietly is dangerous, doubly so if tied in cross ties.

Here in the arena, every time I tied her to the post, Belle pulled back really hard and, if anything is bouncing around above her in the observation area, she will pull back so hard that she would flip herself over.

Horses are incredibly strong. When they go to sitting down, they are so strong that they could take your SUV and pull back on it, giving you quite a ride.

With Belle, that’s when I started putting the two and two together. Belle has never found peace with anything above her. Or being tied.


Should we be trying to figure out why it is troubling her?


Regardless of how a horse gets this way, I don’t believe we need to know the why in order for a horse to learn how to be completely at peace and fine operating in our world, they need to be shown a way to trust your feel and, in that, overcome what makes them afraid.

I believe that every horse needs to learn to stand quietly with the human, being tied or not, because that is simply the way life is.

A lot of people don’t. They use cross-ties instead. Which is a perfect way for you to get hurt or both of you killed. When you use cross ties, you are taking away all of the horse’s sense of self-preservation.

However, the reasons that people use cross-ties, to be blunt, because they don’t know what they are doing. They have yet to learn how to get a horse to stand patiently with them in peace. In the absence of solving the problem, the human uses ties to brush the horse, pick his feet, and all that stuff.

What is missing here, like so many other instances, is working with the horse so that the horse agrees with what you want. When you have a horse that has learned to give to pressure, you can tie them about anywhere. Ideally, try not to tie a horse on something lower than about 4 feet high and short enough that they cannot get themselves in trouble.


So that first trailer loading clued you into these behaviors right off the bat?


Yes. That’s true. I knew that there were going to be some unusual things about her to deal with. That was very evident. A lot could be her history or could be a part of her nature. For example, some horses are more willing to be around us. Other horses can take it or leave it.

There, again, in my opinion, we need to discern the difference and do what suits the horse. My horse, Legolas, could care less about people. So fussing over him, brushing him too long, just makes him cranky.

But when he starts shedding hair or flies are biting on him, he becomes a dog-gone mooch. He will have a place he wants you to scratch and, oh, it feels so good. He will come clear across the paddock. Yet, when we get into cold weather, then he wants nothing to do with you.

Again, the important thing is what works better for your horse. Many times horses are a lot less touchy-feely than we think especially around their head. Pretty soon they learn to keep their head from you because being continually petted and fussed over around the head is not something they crave naturally.

Just look at how horses relate to each other.

I am not seeking to be critical of people. It is just what I see happening a fair amount.


So, here we are in the arena. You have Belle on a catch rope. Legolas is wandering around free. What are you seeking to do?


I am pleased you said “catch rope”. You are learning.

Now, every time you confine the movement of a horse’s head, you are creating trouble for them to a certain degree. As the human, our job is to fix it up so that they learn to follow our feel and think their way through it.

DSC02718As the horse’s education progressDSC02709es, the more we expose them to these situations with some understanding, the horse will eventually make a mental change not to pull back but, rather, to stay.

Usually you can tie a horse to a high line or even a corral post for, say, an hour or so for several days in a row and they will get patient about being tied. Actually there is more to it than just tying them up and turning’ them loose after awhile. You need to be aware of positive changes while being tied. Sometimes I will tie a horse to a tree for hours to teach it to stand still. Again, it is part of their education to know that they can stand still and that it is all right. It is like teaching little kids that it is good for them to sit still.

So many people can go on letting their horse have these little things going on for years. They are stressors. Some horses, just like people, handle it better than others. But there is a better way both for the horse and the human.


Belle is clearly not crazy about this lesson already. What are you going to do?


DSC02879What we are going to do, first, is to bring up some life. Meaning get her feet moving. See how she is so rigid with her feet stuck to the ground. So many people use their flag or the tail of their rope to make the horse do something rather than getting the horse to start thinking, “What are we going to do here?”

Once we get the life up, again, without driving her, I will direct that life with an intention that goes all the way down to her feet.

Without driving her, I am going to ask her to follow my feel, move her feet and search it out until, eventually, my intention becomes her intention


What exactly is your intention?


What I would like is for Belle to go up to that post and make friends with it.

That’s something she would not do willingly on her own, especially with something going on above her, beyond her line of sight.

With Belle here, she’s a bit of an extreme case but, when you get above any horse, they can feel very threatened and vulnerable. However, if we can fix things up so that they find out some things and get confidence off of our confidence, then it will give the horse a sense of security.


We will just see where this goes.


When I did this a week or so ago, she damn near flipped over backwards. It was a touchy situation to keep her from going over. Her hind feet were entrenched. Hindquarters locked up. No thinking. Just running backwards. She thought that was the only way to cope. Now we are going to fix it up so that she learns to think differently. That is okay being up to this post.


We’re about four feet above her. What’s her response?


As we got up here, she started moving like she was about to go places.

DSC02730With the catch rope, I am offerDSC02731ing her direction. I would like her to go over there to the right, follow that over there, yield the hindquarters, and then come over here to our left.

Bringing up the life, helping her see that she can move her feet. Through directing that life with a feel, I am letting Belle search this whole thing out. I am not going to just let her go off some place. She is going to kind of be here. But she is also thinking it through.

There are the hindquarters to her right. Now off to our right. There’s the hindquarters to her left. There’s a big change. She came up and smelled the gate. That is a big change. Right there, she decided to go to the left when I was asking 

DSC02744her DSC02740to follow the feel to the right. That’s ok she is doing what is right to her at this moment.        

Again, I am sending her to one side, then to the other. Again, I am not trying to make her do anything. I am trying to bring up the life and then direct it so that she goes where I’d like her to go.

I am offering her a feel down that line. “Move your feet. Front quarters now the hind.” My feel down the catch rope to her mind is saying, “If you move your feet, you are all right.” Then I let her think about it. She is trying to find it.

Although she can’t see me at ground level I am offering her a feel.


Now, she’s thinking, “Oh I can’t stay. I am not sure.”


Looks like she got locked up there.


When she leaned back, about to get stuck, I offered her a little bit of firmness. If I had held on to her really hard, she would have started to flip. But I am saying with a feel that has some pressure, “Move your feet.”

You can have feel with pressure or a feel with slack on the rope. When I put a feel on the rope with pressure, I don’t release it until her feet move.


Hey, she made it to the gate…


Yes. She is saying, “Oh maybe that gate isn’t so bad,”

But I have made that post my goal. I have gotten specific with that one. Sometimes we don’t want to be specific. We just settle for “whatever.” Which

DSC02760doesn’t help the horse.DSC02809

Now she is saying “I don’t know if I can get up there to that post or not.” I am saying, “You just keep working at that.”

The more I can get her to operate her front quarters and hindquarters as we go from one side to the other the more relaxed she will become. Pretty soon, as she starts thinking she will attempt to line up directly with that post.

I am not restricting her movement but I am also not letting her run off willy-nilly. I am directing the traffic.

This is kind of a major deal for her with me up here making all of this racket but she is starting to say, “I can move my feet. So, I can live with this thing.”

Hindquarters. There’s a try. She went pretty soft.

You have to let the horse move. This is a situation where a lot of people might stand here and do nothing. When you are fixing it up to let a horse find it, it doesn’t mean that you are doing nothing.

She has to know that she has the freedom to go and place her feet, sorta wherever, and the area of movement might be quite large. Say as big as this arena but the area of freedom eventually becomes maybe the size for your hat–hopefully you are not under it–and the placement of her feet more precise.

This is something that is not done in one day. I don’t know how many times I will visit this same deal throughout her lifetime.


Oops! Not quite.



She is saying, “This is an irritant to me.” Which it is. Everything about us being up here is.

No, darling. Legolas isn’t going to help you.


Why do you have Legolas walking around free inside the arena?


Well, I was kind of coDSC02862ncernDSC02864ed that she would be the belle of the ball today. So I brought him because sometimes with a troubled horse just having one of their kind around that is pretty ok with things can help them. They can draw off of the other horse as they are learning to draw off of me. Now if she was not quite so troubled by all of this the draw from the other horse would be just one more opportunity to get her to learn to let go of a thought.

You notice how we were making some pretty good progress until he walked through here. What it did take 6 times maybe of her trying to go with him before she let go of that thought and started to look up what I was asking.

See. She is licking her lips, looking at the post.


But now she’s not so sure.


In this, timing becomes real important. If I don’t release my feel down the rope at the right moment, she won’t gain an understanding of what to look for.

Not quite there. I had to let her have some rope without a release because if I had set down on her pretty hard she would probably flip.

However, I like to teach my horses to take pressure.


What do you mean?



Some people handle horses as if they are china dolls. When you handle a horse like that, when it gets into a situation that surprises them and the rider reacts with something hard or with real abruptness, the horse doesn’t know how to handle that kind of response from the human.

So I add degrees of pressure to help the horse learn. Like right there, Belle had to run into that pretty hard a little while ago. I don’t treat her that way all the time but through the firmness, I am interrupting her thoughts. Eventually, she will find out that when that pressure comes, it doesn’t feel good to go there.


It’s like what some horseman say, “Offer a good deal. Then not such a good deal.” Those degrees of a good deal thing.


Well, I have never heard it put quite that way. But that is a fair way to say it. Making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

See, she is soft again and doing a pretty good job of lining  up with the post. She might not put her nose on it but she is standing as good as if being tied to it, which was my intention.


In this exercise, you can see that when a horse is allowed to go one way and get the hindquarters, then go the other way and get the hindquarters, pretty quick, they will find a way to line up with something. Then, when we are on their backs, they will line up straight on. They won’t be side-ways.

Okay. Time to go outside.



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Part Two

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