WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #178
APPROACH AND RETREAT TRAINING
HORSE AND RIDER - DECEMBER 2011
CLINTON ANDERSON'S PHILOSOPHY
enables you to introduce your horse to spooky objects without
terrifying him. Here, I'm placing the clippers close to my horse
and keeping them there as long as he continues to resist them.
The Magic of Approach-and-Retreat
This amazing method can help change how your horse reacts to
BY CLINTON ANDERSON
DO YOU SNEAK AROUND your horse and make excuses for his bad
behavior? This is a common mistake that just makes a horse
spookier. What you should do instead is use desensitizing to help
your horse learn that the quickest way to get rid of a scary
object is to ignore it.
That's where the approach-and-retreat method comes in. With
approachand-retreat, you train your horse to do the opposite of
what Mother Nature prompts him to do. When something scares a
horse, Mother Nature says, "Run! Get outta here-now!"
By running, the horse gets away from the scary thing and can then
stop being afraid of it-until he encounters it the next time.
With approach-and-retreat, you teach your horse the opposite -
that standing calmly and accepting the scary thing is the best
way to deal with it.
The "approach" part of the method is simply bringing the scary
object near your horse, and keeping it near as long as he's
trying to run or resist. The instant he begins to relax and
accept the fearful object, you take it away for a moment; this is
the "retreat," which rewards him. (How can you tell when he's
beginning to relax? See "The 5 Signs of Relaxation,")
By doing this repeatedly, you teach your horse that staying calm
and standing still is a quicker, better way to "escape" scary
things than running away or fighting.
ENLARGING THE 'COMFORT ZONE'
Approach-and-retreat provides a safety valve of sorts, so that
your horse doesn't begin to feel seriously threatened. You don't
ever want to make your horse think his life is actually in
danger, because then his flight or fight instinct takes over
completely, and he'll kick, bite, strike, or do whatever he
thinks he must to survive the situation.
To avoid this, use approach-and-retreat to gradually enlarge what
I call your horse's Comfort Zone. Imagine a bull'seye on a
target. In the middle of this bull'seye is your horse. The area
right around the bull's-eye is his Comfort Zone. He's familiar
with everything that goes on in that area, and comfortable with
The area just beyond his Comfort Zone is his Not-Sure Zone. This
is full of anything your horse doesn't normally do or see. He
becomes unsure and uncomfortable when confronted with these
things and situations.
(Here, my horse is showing me a clear sign of relaxation by
lowering his head while the clippers are still near. This is the
exact moment when you'll want to pull the scary object away-
"retreat"- and reward your horse for a moment. Then "approach"
On the outer edge of the target, beyond his Not-Sure Zone, is his
Life-Threatening Zone. Here, your horse thinks he's in serious
danger. This is where his most urgent flight or fight instinct
will take over.
When you first start working with your horse, his Comfort Zone
will be quite small. Your goal as his trainer is to expand this
zone outward so that it comes to encompass a wide variety of
objects and situations. In order to do that, you must carefully
take your horse into his Not-Sure Zone, using approachand and
retreat. Whenever your horse is in his Not-Sure Zone, your job is
to be patient and to continue doing whatever you did to bump him
into that zone until he gives at least one indication that he's
Every time your horse ventures into his Not-Sure Zone and gets to
come back only when he's learned something, he gains confidence.
In that way, over time, his Comfort Zone expands outward,
encompassing more things and situations.
HANG IN THERE!
The main mistake people make when using approach-and-retreat to
desensitize their horse and expand his Comfort Zone is to quit
too soon. Remember, resistance is normal when your horse is
introduced to something new, especially if it frightens him. So
take your time and work through the situation.
If it's clippers that your horse is resisting, for example, keep
the clippers near him until he begins to relax and accept them.
This may take some time, but don't give up or lose your temper.
Most horses will continue to resist for a good two to three
minutes or so because they know that if they do, their owners
will give up first.
You may be thinking, Two or three minutes? Sure, no problem.
Because it doesn't really sound like a long time, does it?
But when you're in the middle of a training session and your
horse is dragging you around, two or three minutes can seem like
So hang in there, watching closely for the moment your horse
starts to relax and "try," even a little. The instant that
happens, release the pressure (for example, move the clippers
away from him) and reward him with a pat and a "Good boy!" Then
With repetition and consistency, you'll encounter less and less
resistance. Your horse will start to learn that the more he
resists you, the longer you're going to keep applying the
pressure. And the quicker he relaxes and tries to do what you
want, the quicker you'll reward him and make him feel
This series is adapted with permission from Clinton Anderson:
Philosophy, the book that accompanies his "Fundamentals" training
package. For more information on educational materials, or to
learn about Clinton's clinics, appearances, training gear, and
horses for sale, go to DownunderHorsemanship.com. Catch his
"Downunder Horsemanship" program (filmed at the ranch in
Stephenville, Texas) on Fox Sports Net and RFD-TV.
THE 5 SIGNS OF RELAXATION
* Licking the lips. Your horse is digesting the information
you've given him. He's telling you he's comfortable enough to
relax and begin to use the thinking side of his brain. Think of a
nervous or frightened horse-what does his mouth look like? It's
rigid and tight-the opposite of a horse that's licking his lips.
* Lowering the head and neck. He's no longer worried that danger
is nearby. A horse raises his head and pricks his ears when he's
on the lookout for danger.
* Cocking a hind leg. He's turned off his flight reaction-he no
longer sees a need to run. A horse that's frightened braces all
four of his feet so he's ready to take off in an instant.
* Blinking the eyes. He's no longer concerned about searching for
possible danger. A scared, worried horse has his eyes wide open
to take in all his surroundings. That's why you can usually see
the eye whites of a frightened horse.
* Taking a big breath. Your horse is saying, "OK, nothing to be
scared of-I trust you." Horses often hold their breath or breathe
shallowly when they're frightened.
NOTE: Sometimes a horse won't show you any of these signs, but as
long as he stands still for 15 seconds, you can usually take the
pressure away and still make progress. A horse that stands still
for that long is generally not too interested in running. He may
still be a little frightened of the object in question, but he's
starting to use the thinking side of his brain and is therefore
standing still. If it does seem to you that he's still thinking
about running, then keep the pressure on a bit longer. But
usually if he stands still for 15 seconds, there's a good chance
he's stopped considering that option.
THIS IS HOW THE POLICE TRAIN THEIR HORSES SO THEY ARE BOMB, FIRE,
CROWD, NOISE, ETC. PROOF - THEY HAVE A TRAINING GROUND WHERE ALL
THESE THINGS CAN BE USED, WITH APPROACH AND RETREAT TEACHING.