by Scott Phillips

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Spud and Scott Phillips riding Ty in the Powderface Ridge, out of Little Elbow (Kananaskis). Phillips rode Ty up and Spud down, which was a new experience for Spud and a mental training exercise to set up a situation for success. Needless to say, mountain riding can build an athlete. Spud had been glued to Ty all the time, so the ride down, with Ty beside made it mentally easier and changed the dynamics for a positive relationship. Ty is also a success story, coming back after an accident in which he broke his neck. Photo credit: Brenda Murdock

We're generally very good at looking after our horses' physical needs. Physical needs are very easy for us to relate to, because we share many of them: we require food, we visit the doctor and the dentist. Mat we often overlook though, something underrated but so incredibly essential to success, is attending to the mental needs of a horse.

Spud is a sharp looking paint horse I've had for several years now. He came to me as an untouched five year old. Many would have given up working with him. Mat was required, though, was a different approach to training. This horse is exceptionally sensitive, both physically and mentally. Spud is a thinker, and becomes worried quickly if he doesn't immediately understand what is being asked of him.

This can be frustrating for a trainer because many conventional techniques are ineffective. Spud has caused me to re-think the overused and often misunderstood adage, "Make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy." If I make something difficult for Spud, I will lose his mind. Men his mind is gone, it is not possible for him to learn. Instead, I set up scenarios where he has the opportunity to choose the right thing, and then make the right thing awesome.

Spud now has an air of confidence about him that he carries with him in the herd, or when he leaves the herd on his own-an action previously out of character for him. The changes in his comfort level are a direct result working with his mind with a focus on positive reinforcement. A horse's body will follow his mind.

By allowing your horse the opportunity, with your guidance, to make decisions, to try, and to take pride in accomplishment, you can make a positive and lasting change in his life.


No matter what discipline you ride, or equine activity you pursue, your horse is an athlete. Athletes work on building muscle groups, muscle memory, stamina, and precision movements. They train so that motion and patterns become easier and natural.

try (noun): An effort to accomplish something; an attempt.

In order to succeed an athlete requires try. We've all heard about a horse having try too. This is a given; the animal would have departed from progression millennia ago if it did not have an instinctive desire to succeed.

Try is a product of motivation, which for a horse can take one of two instinctual forms:

1. The herd instinct; the need to feel safe and content-the human as a herd leader.

2. The flight instinct; the horse wall be punished if he is wrong-the human as a predator.

How do we capitalize on that?


In addition to a social structure, companionship and a full belly, a prey animal requires freedom from fear. Predators are masters of creating fear. A lion will create fear by its presence, which will cause the herd to scatter. A human can create fear in a horse, causing his mind to scatter.

A horse that is not comfortable, or is in a state of fear, is obvious to pick out. He's twitchy. His eyes are wide, his head is up. Too often you'll hear the rider say, "My horse is misbehaving," or "My horse is being such a freak today!" Too often in these cases the reaction of the rider is to step up the physical: restrain the horse. Pull harder; kick more.  


Consider this: 

The only thing a horse can do is be a horse. The actions and responses of a horse are based on his degree of contentment, external influences and his flight instinct. The term misbehaviour is a word that a human applies to a horse when the human does not, or chooses not to, understand why the horse is doing what it is. It is difficult for us to understand how a horse thinks because their mind is so different from ours. Applying human psychology concepts is an attempt for us to explain a horse's actions by personifying the horse. It doesn't work.

It is generally accepted in today's society that negative reinforcement should not be employed as a teaching aid. Teachers no longer whack students with rulers when they don't get it.

If a horse tries and does not understand, it is our responsibility to analyze what happened and try another way, which in almost every case means breaking that thing into smaller pieces, finding success in each piece, and then putting the pieces together.

We have the ability to show a horse a place where there is no fear. When the horse is aware that the rider can create that place for him, he will seek it. He will have try. To achieve this, we require time and patience. We need to understand that when something is not working, it is because we're asking too much, asking incorrectly, confusing the' horse, or causing the horse to be afraid of us and react out of fear, which is their natural instinct.

Freedom from fear, however, is more of a goal than a motivator. If we remove fear and create a place of contentment, we encourage a constructive learning environment. So how can we motivate a horse?


I mentioned that horses are athletes. They know what it feels like to succeed; what it feels like to be right.

It is said that a horse can tell when you're nervous. Their ability to detect emotional state is a survival instinct. When one horse senses danger, the other horses in the herd will pick up on it right away. If a horse can sense when you're nervous, he can sense your other emotional states as well. Use this ability to your advantage.

Remember the old Kellogg's mascot, Tony the Tiger? He says, with a big smile and a thumbs up, "I feel GRRRRREAT!" Imagine your horse feeling great. If you honestly feel proud of your horse, proud of what he's accomplished, I guarantee you that he will pick up on that.

We need to let him revel in that moment: remove all pressure and let him be. I'm not suggesting that you stop, get off and pet him. Instead, allow him to continue what you asked him to do without your involvement for a while. That is how he knows he got it right. After that, praise him. Reward him for it. Make an effort to feel that success with him. Through this constructive use of positive feedback, augmented with properly timed release and praise, a horse will learn to seek that sweet spot - the place where he can carry himself without your assistance.

That feeling of mutual success and pride in accomplishment is what I call greatness.

I'm not referring to winning a show here; this could be something as simple as your horse first shifting his weight backwards when you're teaching back-up. It's that moment when you want to shout out to the world, "YES! We did it!" This is an addictive feeling, not only for you, but also for the horse.


Greatness paves the road to confidence. Confidence opens the door to further learning.

By striving for that feeling of greatness with my horse, and sharing it with him, I'm guaranteed something: the horse will want to try for me. He will try for me because he is seeking the mental reward he knows I can give him. And wow, does that ever open up the door to learning and possibilities.

When you ride, train or compete with your horse, keep this in the back of your mind: I will make the positive possible; I will strive for that feeling of greatness. You have accomplished your goal when the horse understands that you are the most rewarding thing in his life.


Scott Phillips is a co-founder of Amazing Backcountry, and an executive director of the Canadian Cowboy Challenge. When not riding his horses in the mountains he manages Spudhorse, his equine software and marketing business. Contact Phillips at spudhorse@gmail. com.