Sunday, December 23, 2012


Throughout this blog, I have posted my thoughts about our relationship with horses many times. I'm a big believer in the Predator/Prey dynamic and its uses in training.

This is an excerpt from an April, 2008 post, explaining my basic outlook on how horses view us.

-- I have two eyes placed in the front of my head like a wolf. I can stare at them and create discomfort. I can raise my arms and make myself as big as a bear. I can create movement with these things alone. I can add a swinging rope, a cracking whip aimed at their shoulder or hip.

When I am riding on their backs, my cinches are pulled tight, and their bodies are collected between leg and bit. I know as well as they do that this is as close to the feeling of the wolf pack on their back and nose as they are ever going to get.--

Laying Them Down -- An Issue of Trust

I talked about it again, not too long ago, when I explained why I don't believe in laying horses down.

--I am also the first to admit I use my status as potential predator to train my horses. I like them to look at me as a benevolent dictator. I could eat them, but they're pretty sure I'm not going to. I have never been able to buy into the theory that  horses accept us as a best friend and cohort when we crawl on their backs and wrap our legs around them to ride, like a mountain lion jumping on them to eat them. Or when we put a bit, hackamore or Dr. Goodhorsie's Painless, Bitless, works-with-fairy-dust bridle on their heads to control where they go, like  a wolf latched onto their noses, in order to eat them.

They learn to do what we want, the release of pressure teaches them we probably won't eat them and as time passes friendship happens, only because horses are awesome.--

Flexing regularly will also relax him and boost his submissiveness. 

Lately, I have been thinking about dogs. I'm studying dog training videos, talking to the trainers of dogs that I find likable and easy to be around, and reading like crazy. My primary focus right now is understanding canine body language and behavior and working hard on my dog/human communication.

All of this ties into the way I train my horses and the understanding I have of my communication with them. So I go back to my interactions with horses and how we read each other and compare it to what I'm reading, hearing and watching happen with dogs.

I won't go into the dog part-- I'll save that for a dog post --but my observations and thoughts hit me over the head with a giant baseball bat named EUREKA! regarding horses.

The  primary goal while training (for me anyway) is crystal clear communication. I don't want to muddy the waters in any way, because I hate backing up and clearing up a mess I've created by confusing conversation between the horse and I. Believe me, I've learned my approach by mucking up many a good conversation or explanation and having to go back in to try to clear things up.

When I start a colt, it goes something like this.

1. I can control your direction, speed and movement with my body language -- while you're loose in a pasture, corral, or round pen.
    a. I will give you my signals on foot or horseback.
    b. I will back up my signals with yells and yips, growls and grunts.
    c. I will back those signals up with the slap of a rope or the sting of a whip.
2. I will approach you and touch you anywhere I want.
    a. I will repeat steps a., b., and c. of step 1. as needed.
3. I will halter you.
      a. I will repeat steps a., b., and c. of step 1. as needed.
4. I will saddle you.
    a. I will repeat steps a., b., and c. of step 1. as needed.
5. I will get on your back.
6. I will ride you while controlling your direction, speed and movement.

Yep, ladies and gentlemen, that's what I was paid the big bucks for. Seems pretty simple now that I'm thinking about it.

Anyway, during steps one through five, I still feel strongly that the predator prey relationship is holding strong. From the initial control of free movement to the time I crawl on their back, in a horse's mind, I am making them accept me as a predator who is going to eat them.

"Serious, this will make sense in a little while."

Which explains quite nicely why starting a young horse is filled with all kinds of jumps, spooks, bug eyes and so forth. Nothing I've done so far has said anything besides, "Relax, I'm just going to kill you and eat you."

--They learn to do what we want, the release of pressure teaches them we probably won't eat them and as time passes friendship happens, only because horses are awesome.--

Quick! Come with me!
It's this sentence, right here, where I got the mind jolt. If we're training them correctly, the young horse soon changes their perspective, because we go from predator mode to herd behavior.

I had forgotten we humans are not strictly predators, we are omnivores, beings who survive by adapting to the opportunity at hand. We hunt in packs or alone, we graze and huddle together in herds to stay safe. As humans we change with our environment. Our survival depends on it. 

If we expect our horses to understand our Schizoid behavior, we have to make darn sure each communication makes sense to the horse, not just to us.

The mental transition the colt has to make isn't as big as I thought. It's the acceptance of contact from my weight, my hands and legs as the actions of another horse driving, turning and stopping them.

I said, make a right! Chomp!
Lead change! Spur cue behind the cinch.

Because he can't see me,  because my contact becomes one that urges movement, allows flight, but controls direction, I become a herd member driving him where I need him to go. How does he make this translation? 

Move it!
First lope off.

Because I am clearly communicating forward motion and direction, not death, destruction and mayhem.
There was no other way for him to reach this conclusion until he had me on his back, encouraging forward and guiding him to the left and right. He can now view me, and eventually accept me as a part of his herd. Because of my control, I will become the bell mare and we will become a herd of two.

This is brand new thinking for me. I would love your input on this thought process. Where it's taking me is to think through every step of my colt starting process. Where have I been right? Where I have been creating confusion? 

I'm telling you, the idea of riding my horses like they are being driven and controlled by the herd is really making me think things through. The first being, "Get off his face!"

I hate to admit it, but I can hear the Big K laughing right now.


EvenSong said...

I understand totally what you're saying, and I love your first few illustrative photos.
I think the herding behavior begins a lot earlier than step #6, though. Controlling "direction, speed and movement with ... body language" is exactly the way I become my horses' "alpha mare." (You don't want to mess with the alpha mare!)
But I like your observation about the confusion horses must fell, while they're trying to figure out if you are the predator/carnivore or the herd member/omnivore.

Heila said...

Oh dear Mugs, you're starting to sound like "natural horsemanship"! :P

mugwump said...

Heila - No. I'm not. I think most NH methods cause massive confusion for both horse and rider.

I'm sounding like myself and the way I've always worked.

This applies more to my every move taught only once method I've been working on.

EvenSong - I don't think groundwork, especially on a new colt translates to herd work. You are a single being, two eyes in the front of your face, stopping, turning, sending out the horse.

My point is, the horse can't translate this any other way until we're riding. The cues we give while riding emulate herd behavior.

I think becoming the belle mare on the ground involves personal space and ownership of food,another subject entirely.

Heather said...

For what it's worth, what I've been telling my students for a long time (after I had a similar breakthrough) is this: As much as we humans (especially us females) want to think of our horses as friends and true companions, the reality of the situation is this: My horse doesn't "love" me in the sense that humans love each other. My horse sees me as the bitchy herd mare (bell mare). The reason my gelding comes to me in the field and the reason he looks to me for guidance when he's confused is the same reason he looks to the herd mare - respect and trust. For horses, that is the "love" that they know. My horse knows that, as his herd mare, I will do my best to keep him safe from predators and tell him where to go. He also knows that, if he gets out of line, I'll "bite" and demand his respect like any herd mare would do. Whether I'm on his back or on the ground, I try to remind myself that I'm the herd mare and it's my job to keep it that way, by fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of the job of bell mare.

José María Souza Costa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Becky said...


I think I get.

I think I do, at least.

And I *LIKE* it.

A lot.

So, I have a question:

Say you take a young horse through all these steps over 90 days.

When you pass him back to me, Ms. Idiot Horse Owner:

Do I approach him (if I'm able) from Step 1, and work my way up to herd member?

Or is the predator/prey relationship only necessary for early training?

I'm talking a perfect scenario, where you have a nice little horse (let's make him a friendly late 3 year old) who was started as perfectly as you could want, and is now being returned in a nice, supple, frame of mind.

Becky said...


Not "work my way up" to herd member.

I think it's better if I say "work my way down".

KD said...


mugwump said...

Becky - I think once we're in the saddle everything changes.

BUT I like my horses to think I could go "prey" on them any time.
It resolves a lot of conflict without having to actually do anything.

I personally don't do ground work once I'm in the saddle. I'm not talking manners,that's forever and ever, but I only use round pen work to get them started, then I'm done with it.

I teach them to longe because many people require it, but I don't use it myself.

Clancy said...

Interesting thoughts. I agree there is much more to us than being a predator, and I think we can be more than a lead mare, although that is a very important role.

I have been using Friendship Training with my gelding this year, which aims to develop the deep trusting relationship seen between a pair of horse buddies. I think it basically slows the human down and teaches us how to be trustworthy. I have seen the most amazing changes in my gelding since I started the program, he has gone from being stubborn and untrusting and threatening to bite, to being willing to come with me and his biting has melted away. He has been protecting me from the other horses when I take the hay up since he accidentally bumped me over earlier this year - before he was more interested in getting the hay himself and sometimes nearly pushed a horse over me, now he calmly puts himself between me and the others and tells them to move on and give me room.

I think horses can teach us an enormous amount, totally agree they are awesome.

Breathe said...

How does the herd train a colt? Not like prey, right?

I'm curious, which NH methods cause confusion in your mind? Just one example? I've found many of them a little silly, but it's a "one size fits all" kind of thing that is about setting a baseline, but little else. But I didn't think of them as confusing.

It's funny, when we train dogs we always act like a pack, we never really switch.

Heila said...

Sorry Mugs, the NH comment was with tongue firmly in cheek.

mugwump said...

Breathe - Have you ever handled a horse trained by a person who has no background in horses, beyond their NH du jour?

The base line is just that, typical, traditional western (mainly) training normally covered by a competent horseman in the first 30 days.

By creating lots of smoke and mirrors, it somehow has become a way of life -- an invitation to the mystical - and a way for a few to make lots of $$ from many.

I have found as much if not more conflicting advice in the dog world as in the horse and I've just dipped a toe.


There's a very strong argument out there stating dogs do not naturally work in a pack.

God help you if you say no or nudge with a foot.

Arguments about leashes, to use them or not, collars? Oh my goodness.

Helen said...

Mugwump, here's wishing you and your husband, Snocone, Madonna, and all the other critters, a wonderful Christmas season (or holiday or solstice, whichever you prefer)and an awesome year in 2013. Health challenges have driven me away from riding this year and probably for the next, so I'll keep coming here for my vicarious horsaii riding fix.

Anonymous said...

Another BRAVO post.
I never got laying them down either. Hard to ride a good horse if he's prone. And standing on them, rather than riding them? Psychotic.

wildwind said...

Have been a longtime reader of this post and have never commented before because I didn't feel as though I had anything of content to say that wasn't already being said. I must however share one of the best articles that I have ever read. It seems to be appropriate for this post.

What‘s Respect Got to Do With It?
Written by Leslie Hammel-Turk
Printed in July 2010 Issue of Arabian Horse World

I am not very computer saavy and don't know how to publish an actual link to this article. Could somebody out there help? Thanks!! I tried to copy and paste it, but it was too long.

LittleBlackMule said...

I'm a long time follower of this blog - right from when it started! - but this is my first post, because a light bulb just went off....

It's easy for a horse to distinguish between a trainer, or a good one at least, and a predator, because there are just two principles at work here; a predator wants to keep it's prey still, you don't want your dinner walking off on ya after all.. horses want to move each other around, it's how they establish their place in the herd.

Hang on to your horse, tie it down, stop it moving, and you're acting like a predator and the horse will treat you like one.
Push it forward, allow it to move, and you are a trainer.. or another horse..

Bif said...

I'm not sure I *want* to think about all this.

I think it is interesting to look at it scientifically, look at the prey predator relationship, but I think this also does a disservice to the horses.

The current scientific thought is that horses have the reasoning ability of a three year old child. I know some terrifyingly smart (and devious) three year olds.

They ARE still just three year olds, far away from the age of reason.

I never was one to suffer from Black Stallion Syndrome, although my most experiences with these Nokota horses will give me symptoms.

A horse that has seen other horses ridden (months previously), when it comes his time to start under saddle... what possible rationale can you come up with when he stands quietly by the mounting block as you lean over him, and refuses to leave the mounting block when you don't actually get on? He looks at HIS BACK, where you'd be, not the saddle, then back at you, and siddles closer to the block?

Is that a prey animal asking you to end it all?

Of course, it is cool weather... he may have just liked you draped up there because it kept him warmer, and he liked being pet.

He never seemed the least bit nervous under saddle, nothing more than green horse trying to keep his balance.

Maybe it's time for another Mouthy Monday submission :)

mugwump said...

Bif - I just love it when you tell me how to run my blog.

Anonymous said...

If it works here is the link to the article referenced above

Lydia said...

So, here's my thoughts.
In the summer of this year we (my sister and I) got four fillies to train. A year old and they were out in the brush sense they were born. The only handling they'd ever had was halter training and even that was minimal. So, the first problem we had was they viewed us as predators and wouldn't let us near them. So, by an ingenous thought we were able to get halters on them without too much trouble. What horse feels threatened when your feedin it? It didn't work for one horse though. The halter did get on her eventually, but she didn't come out of it unscathed. She now had a habit of bolting away from pressure that she deemed frightful. With all four fillies we worked on being able to touch them anywhere we wanted and after that it was pretty much easy sailing. The bolting filly, through regular handling and me learning to be quicker than her when she bolted has become a responsive little girl.
All four fillies no longer view us as predators. They love attention. Anything we do to them is taken with a level head. First saddling? No problem. Scary tractor? It's just a tractor. Getting on? The only movement was to switch which hind foot was cocked. Inititally we did the Jeffrey's Method with them and their first reaction was to get away, but it didn't take very long for them to realize that it wasn't scary.

So, I guess I do believe that it is necessary to have some predator/prey relationship but I also think that acting as a herd mate will help the horse to be calmer around you.

RHF said...

"I like my horses to think I could go "prey" on them any time." This comment left me wanting more.. You mention that once you are riding them, round pen work where you establish the predator/prey is not used anymore. Do you do this under saddle? Or is this an occasion where you would go back to groundwork?

Wondering because I have a horse who seems to malfunction on occasion. Best way to describe it is that he reverts into prey mode. Every touch or visible motion (adjusting reins or moving hands for any reason etc) causes a big time flight response. He will run, spin, or simply refuse to stand still. Poor guy had some pretty rough "cowboy" reining training in his past, but it's been many years and hundreds of hours of good consistent riding since. Wondering if he will always be this way, or if we are accidentally triggering his prey responses. If we could intentionally take him back and forth between the two maybe he would stop initiating the switch himself?

Heidi the Hick said...

Huh. Never correlated being moved by a herd member to moving from horseback but this is verrrrry interesting!!! And the pix and captions - ha! That spells it out !

So I'm thinking about me being the Boss Mare in my little herd. I get that. Sometimes I have to "put my ears back" at them. (One more than the other 2). I hadn't thought about using that approach as much while riding. I got as far as "move because I want/ need/ asked you to" but now I'd like to see wha happens if I specifically think Boss Mare - Herd Member while riding. Verrrry interesting!!!

Anyways I do believe they like me first and foremost because I bring them food. And that they sort of accidentally started looking forward to my presence on account of me giving them things to do and not randomly beating them senseless. Or y'know, eating them. Maybe they like me as much as a horse is capable of it. Whatever. We get along ok.

Enjoy your Christmas!!

Anonymous said...

Mugs you are fantastic. I love your explanations. I follow stuff from lots of top trainers including the ones you have used. The way you explain the basics is clearer to me than those top horse trainers.

This statement is supposed to be a compliment to say you are as good, and better at training explanations, than big names like Shulte and Trocha.

You seem to get to the reason, not just the technique.

It is always said that good training/riding is getting the basics right. You get me understanding the basics. And consistency - in the set of commands the horse gets from green to trained.

I am struggling with learing now days to work stock dogs. I have been working stock dogs daily for 5 years and I still dont think I understand them. I have fully trained ones that compensate for me. I find there are similarities with horses - but going from horses, to having to make myself the leader of the pack on a hunt I dont fully understand. I have a 150 cow calf herd and 3500 sheep that I work by myself so it is not a small operation.

Current challenge is training my own pups. Which is not working so far.

I am eagerly waiting to hear your thoughts on dogs.

Anonymous said...

I agree that on the ground and under saddle are different. I didnt have an explanation why.

An example. I purchased a 2yo who was unafraid of people and bratty to the point of being dangerous on the ground. Get on her and she is a complete pushover. A beginner safe horse under saddle from day one.

I always felt that you cant assume from ground handling what ridden would be like. ( It might be but it might not)

What you posted here might be an explanation why.

Bif said...

Now, Mugs, take pity on those of us who have no sarcasm meter on typed items (and want to only amuse the masses, not annoy the general).

Should my teasing alert have gone off?

greenie said...

I like this line of thought, merry Christmas :)

LadyFarrier said...

No, I think it is Natural Horsemanship. REAL natural horsemanship, as in, taking into account how horses treat each other and how they relate to one another. When people ask, I always say "Watch a momma and her foal, that's natural horsemanship". All of the namby-pamby goofball sh!t got added later. The real deal is people being people and relating to horses in a way that doesn't compromise either specie ('cause that's unsustainable), but allows each specie to understand the other.

Gentle methods that try to turn people into weird horses, or see horses as just being weird people or something, isn't really horsemanship as far as I'm concerned. It ignores the horse.

My two cents, anyway, like I'm some sort of rock-star horse person...

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