March 2010

Connected Horsemanship teaches ground work skills to students At Connected Horsemanship we recently went to help an owner whose horse was biting. He bit constantly. Twice he had bitten her so badly that she had been scared, once on the chest and then on the leg.

People were advising the owner to get rid of the horse, saying that he was bad. The owner knew this was not the case as she had bred and reared this horse. As a youngster he had never shown any signs of aggression. He had never been a particularly pushy foal and he had been taught basic manners early on in his life.

The owner had three other horses who were well mannered, she was a competent rider and had lots of experience handing horses.

The problems with this horse began when he came back from being started. She said “It’s like he’s had a personality change”. The horse that had stood with his head over he gate, ears pricked, waiting to greet her had become sullen, ears back and unfriendly.

The owner couldn’t really understand what had happened to the horse but over time things started to get worse. At first the problems were isolated to the ground but gradually they crept in to their ridden work and the owner was at a loss as to how to fix things.

The owner was upset that her horse had returned like this. As a result she was super nice to him to make up for his experience. This is very understandable but this was not what he needed either. What he needed was fair and equitable leadership to redress the balance and make him feel secure once again.

I introduced myself to him and immediately the horse proceeded to bring his body into my personal space. I immediately disallowed this. I explained to the owner that horses give each other a clear idea of where they can and cannot go, largely set by boundaries of space. To ignore these boundaries is to risk a penalty, to enforce these boundaries confirms the horses superior ability to dictate boundaries and movement to another horse and convinces the other horse of that horses ability to assert himself over the other. She as the handler had to begin to be a lot more aware of own her “personal space” This in terms of the horse and his language defined his idea of her in terms of the leadership she was able to offer him. i wanted her to be able to control where he was able to go but also to be able to invite him into her space when appropriate.

I worked with the horse in the stable and in the arena. I set consistant boundaries especially for his head which was the most invasive part of him, he continually messed with the reins tryed to bite them and me.

I ask him to move around the stable in a specific manner. Initially he messed, then he tried being downright aggressive but when he saw that I could not be dissuaded from my objective of moving him quietly around he changed quite quickly (it is often quick with this type) becoming calmer, the biting lessened and eventually he was able to stand still, calm, head low. I don’t think I have ever seen a horse yawn as much. I gave him two breaks in the session and each time I went to him he was better than before.

I then worked with the owner so that she would be able to maintain the relationship and hopefully go on improving it so that they once again could become a partnership.

I am pleased to report that she phoned me three days later to tell me things were going well. She really felt there was hope once again.

Guidance Notes for the owner


You need to think of your horse as a winner and both of you as the perfect partnership.

Adopt a mental image of you both running around with rosettes pinned on him.

Hold this image close to your heart.

You need the power of positive thinking to take you through.

Simply remove yourself from people who give you negative vibes!!

Hold on to those feelings when the going gets tough.


You have a sensitive horse with which it is crucial to be polite. By polite I do not mean wishy washy.. I mean firm but always asking for things in a polite manner, with softness in your heart. Doing things with this thought uppermost in your mind will help you give him the right kind of leadership.

Other things to remember to help you offer him good leadership:


His opinion of you as leader starts from the minute he sets eyes on you. When you approach and he turns and looks at you, acknowledge this, pause for a second before continuing. If he turns away it generally means you have come in to his space too quickly and he is letting you know. Go to him as if you were entering a friend’s bedroom…you would ask permission or knock.

When you get to his box, put out a hand and wait for him to sniff it. When he was away training he probably had all manner of people barging into his space as if he was an inanimate object.


When you open the door, do not go immediately into his space but be aware of defending YOUR space and YOUR boundaries. If he crowds you, move him back out of your space politely and if he moves back let him be there for a moment so he knows he made the right move. This way you are respectful of his space but you also gain respect from being aware of your own space.

He may turn his head away from you at his point, just wait till he turns his attention to you again, then approach his SHOULDER, remember to alternate sides. You are less of a target for his mouth there and you are not crowding his head area which he finds invasive.

Halter him as we did together by asking him to bring his head around to you. Never pull his head, ask with your hand at the girth and wait.

If he tries to invade your space with his mouth BLOCK, don’t go into his head area, just defend yours.

The best way to keep his teeth at bay is to keep him busy doing things.


Make sure everyone who comes into contact with him is knowledgeable and adheres to the way you would like him to be treated. Always be consistent yourself in dealing with him. Set a standard for behaviour and adhere to it. Right now this is particularly important when it comes to boundary issues. Never get annoyed by his attempts to mess. See it as a game.


Always get his attention before you ask something. Do this by touching him gently in the girth area. If he is looking away to the right, bring his head and attention back to you by touching him on the left flank and vice versa.


Work with your hand or a small crop if you are at a greater distance to do this, just a tap is all that it takes. You may have to do this many times as his attention wanders to something that he THINKS he should be paying attention too…for his safety. You have to become his “safety lookout” as if saying: “no need to look over there, I am here and I will attend to the things in the distance and tell you if there is cause to worry”. In effect you are saying,,,let me do the worrying, I am the leader.

Try to avoid pulling him by the head to get his attention, go in to his body to get his head. This is the way another horse would do it.


Always start with the lightest of pressure whether this is when you put your hand on him directly of whether you are at the end of a rope. The only way he will ever respond to lightness is if he is asked in lightness.

When you ask him to do something you can use steady pressure or rhythmic pressure or even a combination of both but it must always be brought on gradually.

Rhythmic pressure should be just his, in a rhythm, always start small. If you have to get bigger in terms of pressure that’s ok too but at your next request start small again.

Don’t poke your horse to get his attention simply use increasing and steady pressure. Using the thumb in the girth area works well.


He needs to know when he gets it right. Do not be too critical and look for perfection. At this stage you especially want to be rewarding his slightest try. Spend time doing nothing when he gets it right (if he is head down, calm, not fidgeting.) You want him to fall in love with the endorphin state. It is in the doing nothing that the horse learns. You know what this calmness looks like now. Remember there are many ways to offer your horse the release he needs.

Stop doing what you are doing, walk away, take your core off, turn away, bend down, breathe out and many others.

This release is crucial for your horse.


If he’s blinking, chewing, eyes and lips twitching and especially if he’s yawning, let him have this and wait. The amount of yawning he did in our session was massive. It is a sign that he is coming off adrenalin and chilling out.


The constant nibbling, even if he grabs the lead rope or your scarf in his mouth ignore it and just get on with your plan.

He will soon capitulate, drop the rope and go with your idea, IF he feels it is better than his.

Don’t get after him about it, that’s what everyone else did, just give him something to do.

Have A Plan

Have plan before you start but be ready to change it up if he has difficulty.

He will feel whether you have purpose of not.

Set Him Up for Success

Try to use his ideas and shape them. Give him enough to do that stops him having ideas of his own but don’t make it something either of you are having too much difficulty with.

He needs, quickly, to feel he is right.

This will give him the motivation to “connect” with you mentally and emotionally.


Give your ideas purpose; don’t merely do things for the sake of it. Remember we played “put a certain foot on something.” Your focus on this exacting task requires his focus on you and on the task. You are then engaging his brain.


Getting things done is not as important as how they are done. Never repeat things unnecessarily, this will bore him and he won’t see the point. A horse like yours will quickly develop his own ideas. Collect lots of objects that you can do things with, be creative.

Work On Your Focus

Two factors:

a) Your ability to focus on WHERE you are going.

b) Your ability to focus mentally on the task in hand.

The second is especially important and means you have to block out all extraneous happenings that you may formerly have thought might distract your horse. They have to no longer exist. There is only you and him doing what you are doing.

The “Life” In Your Body

You should work on this on the ground so that when you get in the saddle your horse will already be attuned to it.

When you have an expectation, i.e. please trot, the life in your body should reflect this request.

When you want your horse to stop, your “life” should reflect this.

Life down is not just a physical state but a state of Zero expectation for the horse

It is one of the ways we offer the horse “release”.


Connected Horsemanship's Laura Domenica training a horse“When we do things right, We get a response. When we do the right thing We make the connection” [Laura Domenica, Connected Horsemanship 2007]. I was playing with a horse belonging to a very plucky girl who had been doing natural horsemanship for some time without the help of a tutor. The horse was not easy and she had done an admirable job. Early on in the lesson while playing with her horse she commented to me, “he’s not really paying attention”. Later in the lesson when I was playing with the horse she said “You’re phase one is very short” That’s because it’s what your horse needs I replied. But that’s not what it says to do she said. It’s supposed to be long phase 1 then 2, 3, 4 she replied. Being familiar with this concept, I understood exactly what she meant. I was still using this principle but I had adapted its timing to suit the needs of the horse. The horse clearly understood the request but he did not understand the necessity to carry it out when asked to do so.This was a result of many confirmations that his less than best effort was acceptable. In order to establish an understanding I had to make it clear to the horse exactly what was required. That required a genuine phase one “ask” followed quickly by “please respond”. Technique is necessary, but we need to know whether it is appropriate, we need to know when to apply it, in what measure and in which way, for the particular horse in the particular situation. This knowledge comes with time and patience, with practice and dedication and with the help and tolerance of the wonderful creature we call the Horse. This is the development of feel. It is a never ending process.

True Release = True Neutral
For most of us in horsemanship a very big challenge is being able to offer a true release to the horse.

We here at Connected Horsemanship have came across this situation again recently with a lady whose horse was responsive but slightly “reactive”. She was a little worried by this.
Use the Life
“There has to be life, you can’t orchestrate anything if there is no life.”

I asked her to try to view her horse differently when its life came up. Try to view it as something you need, that is useful to both of you. Try to just give her life somewhere to go and something to do.
This gave her a better focus and she stopped seeing the horse as “right brained.”

This had an immediate effect on the horse because the owners worry was diminished.
Her horse became calmer over the next few sessions but the owner was still having problems having the horse stop when she did. The lady was finding this frustrating.
We tried the following:
When she decided to stop and the horse could not I asked her not to pull on him but just stay on the spot and allow the horse slack to move and come to a stop. The first few times the horse kept moving. It did not improve much with this tactic, so after a few times I tried another tactic. As soon as she stopped I asked her questions, how long had she had her horse, how long had she lived in Ireland? She answered me but looked at me like I was a bit mad. We did this three times. Each time she stopped I asked her questions. The third time the horse stopped exactly when she did.

I asked her if she realized why her horse had done so, “maybe because I’m not paying so much attention to him” she said. In a sense she was spot on.

I explained to her that when she stopped, before the questions, although she was physically stopped, mentally and emotionally she was not stopped. Her horse could not “feel a release” from her, only continued pressure which was why he felt obliged to keep moving his feet.

A true release from her meant a release from all expectation. This would only be picked up by her horse if he could sense it not just in her physical make up but in her emotions too.

Later we went back to this again and she was able to do it every time as long as I asked her a question.

Her challenge over the coming weeks, maybe even months would be to get herself in to this true neutral zone where the horse felt no pressure.

“But how will I get there?” she said.

Well you have a feel’ now for what it feels like to be in true neutral. You just have to play with it until you can summon it up at your request.

Although she did not seem completely satisfied with my answer she said that she could feel when she was still running inside herself

I thought this was a marvelous description of what it feels like for all of us when we can’t put our lives down.

So many times, as an instructor, my job is merely to identify the area of ourselves that we need to work on…the rest is up to ourselves.

The development of “feel” can be at times a lonely and very personal journey.

Take it from one who is still trying, still developing and always will be.

Connected Horsemanship lessons help students to understand "feel"

Bosses say “Do it”

Leaders say “Let’s do it”

When someone is asking something of their horse, it is common for us at Connected Horsemanship to often advise them to simply lay their hand on him and “feel” of him there. I will then ask them to breathe out and centre themselves.

Instead of thinking of moving him, I ask them to think of ‘feeling’ what direction he is coming from, is he pushing into them, pulling away from them, or even doing nothing at all. This time spent receiving, feeling of the horse, rather than doing, can have a profound effect.

If they experience a brace I ask them to go with it, to absorb it somewhat, rather than fight against it. This acts like a “de-fuser” letting the horse know it can trust the human to ‘lead it’ rather than ‘make it.’

It is so instinctive for us humans to fight and push against a brace and even if we manage to avoid the physical nature of this action we can still hold it in our intention.

Our intention can often be biased towards “do it” rather than “let’s do it.

The later is much preferred by the horse. It is polite. Horses love politeness.

It suggests to him that you and he are partners and that you are in it together.

Next time you are with your horse, try prefacing all your requests with the words (it need not be aloud) “Let’s go… do this, that”.

This will soften your intent, it removes the “make”.

You will be amazed at how your horse will warm to your requests.

Laura Domenica from Connected Horsemanship coaches student and her horse to negociate obstacleHorses have a reason for moving. They are purposeful.

A few thousand years of man’s domestication has not changed this.

They move because someone higher in the hierarchy says so

They move because they are seeking water or better grazing.

They move because they feel safe and want to play.

They also know when not to move.

For several million years the horse survived in the wild as a prey animal.

He learnt to conserve his energy for when it was most needed…when he had to flee for his life.

This gave him purpose.

We often hear ourselves say our horses are lazy or unmotivated.

The laziness we think we identify in our horses is often a result of them seeing no “purpose” in what we are asking them to do:

  • When we repeat exercises that they already know, just because we can.
  • When we make repetitions without attention to variety, accuracy or effort.
  • When we drill without reprise or reward.

When there is no meaning to our request, and no reason behind our actions, he simply sees no “purpose.”

When you are with your horse, try to remember that he likes to have a purpose:

  • When you ask him to move his feet let it be to a certain spot
  • When you ask him to back let it be through a gate.
  • When you ask him to side pass, let it be to avoid a puddle or to reach a gate latch.
  • When you circle let it be to influence his shape for his balance and comfort.
  • When to go for a ride let there be a destination.