Trainer and clinician Josh Nichol answers some common reader questions. His style of horsemanship is based on relationship, he says, which is very much a two-way street. “Mastery in horsemanship begins with a commitment to bettering ourselves. This starts with taking ownership and responsibility for our part of the story, which allows us to interpret the horse’s actions and performance more productively. When we are aware of – and work on developing – our side of the relationship, we truly facilitate not only growth in our horses, but growth in ourselves.”
During my clinics, and through my interactive online program, I find that horse owners ask certain questions repeatedly. Many such questions are about problems that trace back to holes in the horse’s training, holes that can create fear, confusion and frustration for both horse and rider. Fortunately, most of these issues are not difficult to fix if you know how to have a positive conversation with your horse through the three pillars of mind, space and pressure, which can be explained as follows:
MIND: We focus so much on the horse’s body and trying to control it that we often lose sight of the sensitive, thinking mind inside the body. In reality, that mind is the entity in control of the horse’s body, so the more we can understand and work with the mind of the horse, the less we will find ourselves fighting with the body.
SPACE: Horses communicate with each other in part by modulating their spatial relationships through claiming, holding or yielding space. This dance of spatial give and take forms a rich language that helps to minimize conflict and increase connection within the group. We are quite capable of conversing with our horses through space, and, in fact, we do it all the time, whether we realize it or not. The key to making that work for you, rather than against you, is understanding what your use of space is saying to your horse. While it is often explained that making the horse yield is “dominant,” and yielding space is “submissive,” that kind of thinking can create a viper’s nest of problems. Instead, I like to think about the connection part of the equation, which keeps us in a positive, relational state of mind, rather than a negative, emotional one.
PRESSURE: To communicate the written word, we need a page upon which to write and something written upon it. When we communicate with horses, space becomes the page, and energy directed through pressure is the ink that forms our words. We use pressure to express how we want to modulate (claim, hold or yield) the space between us. As such, pressure is not merely something used to “push” the horse, but can also be used to “draw” the horse. The ability to draw and converse with the horse’s mind in a way that promotes calm and comprehension is an extremely important aspect of horse training that is often overlooked. This is really how the three pillars come together: we use pressure to talk to the horse’s mind through the medium of space in order to create understanding. Sometimes all that is required to effect a change through pressure is a subtle glance or a change in your stance. Sometimes it might involve tapping or waving a flag, and in other instances, it may make use of physical contact such as shifting your weight when riding or taking some feel in your lead or rein. In every situation, you always want to use as little pressure as possible, but as much as necessary, to help the horse find the answer you are guiding him toward. Many of us have a tendency to either overuse or underuse pressure. Either way, finding the balance is one of the most important horsemanship skills you can develop.
When you are having a problem with your horse, the solution will usually be found in playing with the balance of mind, space and pressure to help the horse find clarity and release itself into what you want it to do. With that in mind, let’s look at some of those commonly asked questions:
My horse nips at me. How can I stop that?
Many people interpret nipping or biting as dominance on the horse’s part, and the proposed solution usually centres around getting more forceful with the horse or chasing him out of your space to “show him who’s boss.” I interpret this a bit differently. The way I see it, the horse is seeking interaction and relationship, but the human is not communicating in a clear and consistent manner through the language of space. The horse ends up confused by your mixed signals and struggles to understand how he is supposed to relate to you. Actions like biting or kicking are common results of this struggle. Most of the time, the horse truly has no desire to be dominant – he is simply asking for clarity or has become frustrated because you are not providing that for him. A frustrated horse can become an aggressive one, so we definitely have to address this, but understanding the cause can help you find the best way to work through the issue.
We can give the horse what he is seeking and build a better relationship by redefining the spatial dynamic to eliminate confusion. I like to start this by having the horse loose in a round pen, as creating some distance between you and the horse can reduce the spatial tension created by close proximity. Working from a distance with calmness and patience, I ask the horse to move, turn and stop with specificity and purpose. I achieve this by owning my own space and directing the horse with a judicious use of pressure. This means always using as little pressure as possible to effect the change you are asking for, and seeking to release that pressure at the earliest possible moment. Some horses will need very little pressure and some may need more at first, but either way, if it is being done well, clarifying the spatial dynamic bears no relation to punishment, force or discipline, and it carries none of the emotions entangled with those concepts.
As for what you should use to apply pressure, your most important “aid” is always your own energy. But bringing up your energy and projecting that energy into the space does not mean you have to be running around or waving your arms. You can stand perfectly still while projecting your energy in a way the horse will feel and respect. This is what I mean by “owning your space.”
Sometimes, though, we will need an external aid to help emphasize what we are projecting to the horse, especially at first. In these instances, I like to use a flag, which I make out of a fiberglass stick with a plastic bag tied to the end. A flag like this is very light and easy to use, allows for great variability, and provides both visual and audible cues for the horse. Whatever aid you use, it is very important that you only use it to back up what you are projecting with your energy, not instead of using your energy, or you will always need that aid and will likely dull the horse to it very quickly.
Once the spatial dynamic is well defined from a distance, meaning that you can easily and calmly direct your horse without him pushing into your space, you can slowly close the distance and focus on maintaining the same clarity. Later, you can put the horse on a line and do the same things. Try not to create a defensive environment by focusing on the nipping; focus instead on a clean spatial expression, and the nipping is likely to just disappear. Remember that the nipping itself is not the problem; it is merely a symptom of unclear or inconsistent spatial communication.
My horse pulls when I lead him. How do I get him to walk nicely?
While this may seem like a different issue than the horse that nips, it stems from the same source – a lack of clarity in the way you have defined your spatial relationship. You can solve this problem the same way, by starting out loose in the round pen, gradually working closer, then eventually working on the line to create a soft responsiveness in how your horse yields to your space and draws to you. Since you will already be able to use your energy to direct the horse, you can be proactive and keep the horse from ever bumping into the end of the line. Ultimately, when you have a solid spatial understanding with your horse, he will simply go when you go, stop when you stop, back when you back, and you will rarely have to apply pressure on the lead.
It is often amazing to watch the relief and peace that comes into horses’ minds when we start having meaningful conversations with them through space. It allows them to feel safe and connected, instead of feeling like they have to deal with the big wide world all on their own. However, there are other types of problems where the solution is almost the opposite. Instead of you defining the space through the use of pressure, these issues require you to work on giving the horse confidence by allowing him to feel that he is in charge of his space and can control a pressure coming at him by remaining soft and calm. Let’s take a look at one of these in the next question.
How do I get my horse not to freak out when I put fly spray on him?
Horses can become worried by anything strange or unfamiliar, and from a horse’s perspective, fly spray is a triple whammy of weird. The horse has to contend with the sound the bottle makes, the feel of the spray,and the smell of the ingredients. The way I help horses acclimatize to this assault on their senses is to first teach them to soften their heads slightly downwards in response to a feel on the lead. You can do this by applying a bit of downward pressure on the lead rope, then releasing the moment the horse lowers his head. Sometimes it helps to use more of a “pulsing” pressure than a steady pull, as this doesn’t give the horse anything to brace against. If he starts out by trying to lift his head, go backward, or makes some other attempt to figure out how to make the pressure go away, that is fine and perfectly normal. Just try to stay with him, with the same amount and feel of pressure until he makes even a slight move toward lowering his head. If he has raised his head, this may mean that you release when his head is actually higher than when you started, but it is lower than the raised height the horse went to, so reward that as a “try,” then try again after some calm, quiet breaths. Most horses catch onto this very quickly, and they will soon lower their head with a very light request. Once they can do that, we work on softening to that feel when a mild pressure (like a flag slightly shaking) is added at a distance, being sure to release that pressure the moment they soften. When you do this correctly, they quickly come to understand that they can “control” the pressure by staying calm and relaxed. This can help them think through new pressures in the same way.
The next step is to introduce a spray bottle as your “pressure.” Start off with just water in the bottle, as it has no unfamiliar smell and you won’t be wasting expensive fly spray. Start off spraying well away from the horse, ask him to soften his head, then stop the spray when he does. Give him a break and some praise. Gradually, work the spray closer to the horse, and work on things like rubbing the bottle on him with the same technique. Eventually, you get to where a bit of spray is touching one leg, you ask the horse to soften, then release and stop the spray when he does. If you time this well, your horse will believe that he stopped the spray by softening his head, and he will gain great confidence from this. Being able to “control” the spray makes it a lot less scary to the horse, and soon, you will be able to spray more and more of his body without him getting worried about it. The same principles would apply when teaching a horse to accept getting hosed for a bath, which can also be hard for some horses to cope with.
This “advance and retreat” method, where you remove a scary pressure/object in response to the horse softening, can be used for many things, including a horse that raises its head to avoid the bridle, or a horse that is afraid of clippers or being blanketed. Understanding this technique, along with how to work through issues related to spatial clarity, can take you a good way down the road to better horsemanship.
Born in Ontario, Josh Nichol moved to Alberta in his teens and grew up on a small farm without a TV. He teaches clinics throughout Canada in the summer and works out of his home ranch in the winter. For more information visit joshnichol.com