WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #135
FROM HORSE AND RIDER - SEPTEMBER 2011
GET YOUR HORSE TO THINK
Mother Nature designed your horse to react. Your job is to teach
and encourage him to think, instead.
BY CLINTON ANDERSON WITH J.FORSBERG MEYER
LAST MONTH I EXPLAINED how you must address each side of your
horse's brain and body separately when you're teaching him
something new - because "Lefty" and "Righty" don't share
information. This month, I want to explain two other aspects of
your horse's brain: thinking and reacting.
The reactive side of your horse's brain is what Mother Nature
tells him to use - in other words, run first and think later.
The thinking side is there, too, but until you show it to your
horse and teach him how to use it, he doesn't even know it
exists. It's shoved way back in the corner of his brain, like a
crystal ball sitting on a corner table, covered up with an old
Your job is to wheel the table out to the middle of your horse's
brain, sweep the tablecloth off, and say, "Ta-dah! Here it is!"
It may be small from lack of use, but you can help it to grow
bigger and bigger until it takes up most of the space in your
horse's brain. That, in turn, pushes the reactive part back into
the dark corner where it then will be used less and less.
HOW? BY MOVING HIS FEET
The good news here is that the way you get your horse using the
thinking side of his brain is the same as how you gain his
respect - by moving his feet forward, backward, left, and right,
and always rewarding the slightest try. The more you move his
feet, the more he has to think, and the more you direct where his
feet go, the more he comes to respect you. That makes it a
Let's take a real-world example. Let's say you're riding your
horse out on the trail and a rabbit suddenly rustles in the
brush. Mother Nature instantly tells your horse, "Run! Don't stop
to think - it could get you killed!" So, at this prompting from
the reactive side of his brain, your horse will spook and perhaps
try to bolt.
Your natural inclination is to pull back on both reins to get him
to whoa. Also, if you're like many riders, you may also tuck and
tighten your body (the fetal-position crouch) and simultaneously
grip with your legs. Now you've become part of the problem,
because to your horse you feel like a predator that's leapt on
his back for the kill.
What should you do instead? Stay as relaxed as you can, and shift
your horse from the reactive to the thinking side of his brain by
moving his feet. Take his energy surge and channel it into
something constructive. Ask him to turn first one way and then
the other, make a circle or two, move in a little side pass, trot
A horse can think of just one thing at a time. He can think about
running from whatever he's scared of, or he can pay attention to
what you're asking of him. And the more you get him to move his
feet and change directions, the more he has to pay attention to
you, and the harder it is for him to keep reacting to his fear.
EACTIVE V5. THINKING
If you don't feel confident enough to do this from the saddle,
dismount and work your horse from the ground. (There's absolutely
no shame in that, and it's why you should always carry your long
lead rope with you when you trail ride.)
Put him to work immediately from the ground, sending him first
one way, then the other, with lots of changes of direction. If
you allow him to stand and rest or put him away, you're letting
him "win" and reinforcing the wrong behavior.
So get him moving immediately.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Can you ever train the reactive side completely out of your
horse's brain? No. That's what's kept his ancestors alive for
millions of years - being able to detect danger and running from
it. But you can make it manageable by desensitizing him to as
many scary objects as you can, plus always activating the
thinking side of his brain - by moving his feet - whenever he
does become fearful.
Be patient, be consistent, and reward every try. .. and you'll be
surprised how well it will work.
WHY DOES HE DO THAT?
As a prey animal, your horse has a flight or fight response,
meaning that whenever he perceives danger, his first response is
to run away from it. If he can't run, then he'll fight (kick,
bite, strike, buck) to survive the situation. Horses are
constantly on the lookout for danger because Mother Nature tells
them if they're late spotting a predator, they're going to be his
Every day, your horse is going to react to things around him -
the weather, cars, tractors, other animals, noises. Even if you
desensitize him to as many scary objects as you can think of, you
can't teach him not to be frightened of everything in the world.
The weather plays a huge part in your horse's behavior. Changes
in weather - especially when it gets cold and/or windy - can make
your horse hypersensitive and therefore more reactive.
At those times, if you don't make the effort to work with your
horse on the ground to ensure he's using the thinking side of his
brain before you get into the saddle, you could be setting
yourself up for failure. On the days when your horse is feeling
most reactive is when a spook, a buck, or a bolt is most likely
to happen unless you work him from the ground and get him
This series is adapted with permission trom Clinton Anderson:
Philosophy, the book that accompanies his new "Fundamentals"
training package. For more information on educational materiats,
or to learn about Clinton's clinics, appearances, training gear,
and horses for sate, go to DownunderHorseman ship.com. Catch his
"Downunder Horsemanship" program (filmed at the ranch in
Stephenvilte, Texas) on Fox Sports Net.
Watch it! To see a video clip of Clinton explaining how and why a
one-rein stop works with a reactive horse, visit
HorseandRider.com this month.
Let me add here. Many today in breaking in horses want to try and
not only break them in to ride (mount up and move in directions -
teaching them to move left or right or in circles etc.) they want
to "desensitize" in all kinds of ways at the same time. So they
throw this or that at them, sticks and flags and balls and whatever
else people can think of. The people and horses I've seen doing this....
well the horse is jumping here and jumping there, they are scared at
what may be thrown at them yet to come. The horse is nervous, people
are making them nervous and "edgy" - then they wonder why the
horse reacts badly when they try mounting up or getting it to
move this way or that way. Ya they've just created a nervous horse.
LEAVE DESENSITIZING ALONE UNTIL YOU CAN MOUNT UP AND RIDE YOUR
I've broken WILD horses (no human hand upon them ever) when I was
young. You need to get your horse to know you and like you as a
friend. You need to work with it and make it so you are a friend
in its mind. The horse needs to like you, is not scared by you. You
go SLOW. I've covered this breaking of horses in-depth in earlier
section of these studies on horsemanship. You need to be able to
build relaxed confidence in your horse towards you. When you then
mount up and teach your horse to move this way or that way, the
horse has you as a friend in its mind, and can consentrate on the
teaching you now what to teach it; the teaching of the cues to
move forward, stop, turn right, turn left, and all the basics of
riding, mounting up and dismounting and etc.
When you have your horse not sacred, as your friend, someone it
can trust, then you can slowly introduce all this other stuff,
like a tarp to cross (maybe you'll lead it across first), a big
ball to move around or push, then a flag from a distance (moving
a little) and then closer and closer, finally up to its head,
talking to your horse in a calm smooth voice. Then with all that
done, and you have a calm horse, then move the flag over its
back, down its legs, over its rump, all the time talking smoothly
It's the art of SLOW and more slow. But FIRST make friends with
your horse, build a friendship relationship, have your horse so
in its mind you are a good friend, not out to hurt it, or trying
to take it to the circus ground at the same time you are breaking
it to ride and teaching the basics of riding. Too much at the
same time is just going to confuse and frighten your horse.
Having to think TOO MUCH, about too many things coming its way,
is going in the end to make YOU have to THINK why the horse is so
much trouble to train.