September 2010

photos to follow 

A few days ago i received a phone call from a lovely lady who had an international clinician booked to do a full day demo in aid of the Louth ISPCA. Sadly the gentleman in question appeared to  be having problems with his visa and at the nth hour could not come.  Susan o Gorman the organiser initially  didn’t know what she was going to do; the beautiful Ravensdale Equestrian Centre in Dundalk was booked, expectant owners of the problem horses were booked in, spectators tickets had been bought in advance, a round pen hired, seating arranged… what was she to do at this late hour??

Well I guess she did what most of us would do, she got on the internet and looked for a replacement! 

I’m delighted to say that Susan found me and i agreed at short notice to rearrange a lessons and do the demo.

I arrived at 9am in driving rain to find a great round pen erected outside and all the seating too. Fortunately Ravansdale is big and the smaller of the two indoor arenas was not being used, so the owners allowed us to set up camp in there, although we did so without the round pen. I like using a round pen, it is a very useful piece of equipment,     but in Ireland if you cannot do the same job at the end of a rope you will be hard pushed to find enough work. So while I enjoy  teaching round pen techniques, it is good to be able to  teach people how to work with their horses in the bridle and on the lunge, to achieve the same result.

 There were five horses lined up, the first horse in was a beautiful thoroughbred who the rider had no problem riding inside and who was show jumped but who was nervy and inconsistent  when taken to new places. This horse was pretty cooperative or at least gave that impression but his less than best effort at “making an effort” meant that he perhaps did not truly believe in his handlers ability to be his leader. As a result when the going got slighty tougher the horses lack of trust would manifest itself. The key for this rider was to become much more aware of his horses  “in-attention” and react by constantly calling the horse’ s attention back to him by whatever means were suitable in the circumstance,  be it by moving him , touching him , using his name, using his leg .In addition he needed to know when the horse was giving less than his best effort and ask for more. At the end of the day the rider had his horse going forward, through his back, and on the aids. They looked beautiful together.  

 The second horse was a trotter who had five gaits. Horse like this are challenging to retrain as riding horses but this little horse was capable of trotting and cantering. This horse presented a great opportunity for me to show the audience how so-called  behaviour problems can be caused by the horse being very out of balance under the rider. When he was ridden he would go way above the contact or  take the bit in his mouth and tank off, he was so straight in his body that he was like a spinning top that would fall over if it didn’t keep moving, and move he did, turning corners like a bus out of control. I explained to the audience that horses have to be aligned in their bodies to be in balance and lack of balance can affect horses in two ways, some horses wont go and some horse can’t stop. both are symptoms of the same lack of balance.

I demonstrated how teaching the little horse to yield his hind end and move his shoulders and to back up gave him the feeling of my being in control of his movement. This allowed him to relax and trust me and as a direct consequence his inverted spine and stiff shape began to change as his body began to bend laterally and relax. I rode him showing the audience how the rider has to align the shoulders with the hindquarters, while  keeping my core aligned with the horses spine. I explained that fighting the bend of the horse is not something you can do without causing distress while  aligning the shoulders with the hind end will always cause less problems than the other way around.The owner was shown how to do “in hand “work with this little horse to facilitate bend and balance and his head became low and he relaxed and he yawned a lot. Given time this little horse with the astonishing blue eyes will learn to move like this under saddle too. 

The third horse was a very sweet older horse who was somewhat introverted, he did a lot of licking and chewing during our session and i spent a lot of time drawing his head end and pushing his flanks and hindquarters. This horse gave me the opportunity to show the audience how much horses hate having energy sent to their head area, they find it invasive and threatening. This was a lovely sensitive horse who was looking for leadership but who had become a bit distressed with all the confusing signals he’d been trying to decipher over the years. I helped his rider with her ability to offer him the correct rhythm by controlling the speed of her rising trot, she needed to spend more time in the sit phase of the rising trot and achieving this helped the horse to slow down and come in balance. They did some lovely work  under saddle at the end and this showed what a nice mover the horse was.

The fourth horse was a very large two and a half-year old irish draft cross called Nelson. He was gorgeous. The youngster unlike some of the older horses was totally unphased by his new environment and being very inquisitive decided to roll when he saw the sand, investigate the jump stands and then the audience taking his poor owner along for the ride. This youngster gave me the opportunity to show the audience how to use my  body language like another horse and herd the youngster from behind  aiming my energy into his flanks and at this hindquarters to turn him and stop him running off. He very quickly came to heel and it was interesting for the audience to see how quickly and easily the untouched horse can change when he  has no  learned behaviour or habitual brace from interacting with man. His owner was very pleased when Nelson walked calmly out of the arena by his side.

The last horse was another beautiful TB ex nat hunt horse who was very spooky outside. When i produced a plastic bag, I can honestly say i have only seen one horse more extreme than this horse. His ability to go from completely calm and level-headed to extreme prey animal instinctive behaviour in a heartbeat was awesome. He really could lose the plot and i could see why he was called dangerous at times. This  beautiful horse  gave me the opportunity to show the audience how important it is to keep your emotions  under control to help the horse in times of need. i explained how perfect harmony between you and your horse in terms of energy could be described thus

Imagine total harmony between  you and your horse, in terms of energy, is depicted as  the number “twenty”, 10 energy coming from the horse and 10 from you the handler. 

What happens when, as in this case when the horse spikes right up to an “eighteen?” where does your energy as the handler have to go to maintain harmony?

The audience of course gave me the correct answer, your energy of course must go down to a” two.”

This is of course the challenge facing all of us in dealing with this type of situation for so often our energy goes up with the horse’s energy. It is our ability to stay calm in the face of the storm that centres the horse again. I was glad that my years of training enabled me to offer this to this horse.

All these horses and this demo were special moments for me that made all the training, the tears, the frustration, the feeling of “will i ever be good enough”, the ache to be good enough, the desire to keep training, yes today it was all worth it.

It took me a long time to get to the stage where i really enjoy the journey, a journey with no end, that what keeps my work  fascinating

Thankyou everyone who came to participate and to watch, you taught me a lot and i  couldn’t do it without you.

Why use a round pen?

Let us look at the dynamics of round pen and why it is a useful tool in helping us shape the behaviour of the horse.

The horse’s needs

We’ll start by looking first at the needs of the horse. The horse has survived as a species for 55 million years, that’s seven times longer than us. During this time it survived by living in herds and running away from predators. In the wild, and in the domesticated horse, herd dynamics control the behaviour of horses. The existence of a hierarchy within the herd is an important part of this dynamic and allows decisions to be made regarding safety, feeding and breeding.    


Horses by nature are herd animals                                                                                                                                        Horses will spar to determine status.




The hierarchy

How is status in the hierarchy decided? Horses spar with each other and herd each other into boundaries, telling each other where “not to go”. A horse, able to control another horse’s movement, will hold a higher place in the hierarchy and will earn that horses trust and respect. Horses derive security from knowing where they stand in the hierarchy. Being herded around might not be considered fun to us humans but this is the language of the horse and they do it without emotional involvement. 

Horses herd each other by moving into the flanks. 











Intent and energy

To illustrate how horses move each other, imagine you are walking up a busy high street. There are many people coming towards you, one person is directly in your path. You know instantly that this person has no intention of conceding space and if you don’t move he is going to shoulder you as he passes and pushes you out of the way.

How could you tell that this person was not going to alter his line of travel? You read his body language, his intention and his energy. Horses similarly use intention and energy to move each other and will resort to force if the hint is not taken. Not only can they read intention and energy in each other but in other species too. They are constantly testing our boundaries and trying to move us. I am sure all of us have been shouldered or stood on, this is simply  the horses way of testing OUR boundaries…are yours secure?

One important difference between us and the horse can be explained by the same street scenario. How would you feel if you were moved out of the way by this person in the street? You would most likely consider it rude, you might feel intimidated or even angry; certainly it is unlikely that you are going to thank the person for the experience. This is where horses feel differently. They don’t get emotional about “being moved”. To them it is part of a daily game called “who moves who”, a game played by horse rules that helps them know their place in the herd and that makes them feel safe. Safety is the horse’s number one priority



From front to back

Horses move each other from front to back, the mare drives her foal ahead of her, a  stallion herds the mares ahead of him. Horses don’t pull each other forward by the face. Remember this is an animal with almost 360 vision so he is able to look out for danger. As prey he is attacked and killed in the jugular or behind the poll so any interference or energy sent to the head area will cause distress.

There are always three energies working when horses move each other. Pushing energy, drawing energy and blocking energy.  Knowing how and when to use these three energies is the secret of communicating in the horse’s language. 


 Our responsibility

When removed from the herd where they feel safe, the horse will start to worry and begin to look out for himself. Much of the so called bad behaviour exhibited by horses around humans, for example, being herd bound, shying, and napping are examples of this. It is our job as handlers to provide  security.












A flight animal by nature, the horse’s first response when frightened, is to run.



The round pen












The round pen offers the handler the opportunity to influence the horse’s movement and affect his behaviour. The handler will herd the horse as if he were the horse with greater herding ability. If he does this well, the horse concedes the power to be moved and along with this comes his trust and respect for the herder, in this case the human.  When trust and respect are gained, the horse wants to be with the handler because he feels safe with him. In this situation the horse can relax and will become a  willing partner.

To be successful in the round pen the handler must mimic the way horses use intent and energy. The handler will use pushing, blocking and drawing energy to exert influence over the horse.  When this is not done correctly is can cause distress to the horse.












The session is initiated in this case  when the horse turns his back on the handler.


Too much assertion

As the master predator, it is easy for man to instil fear. The handler must be mindful to use the correct amount of “ push” as he moves the horse around the pen. This will be different for every horse.  If the push used to herd the horse is too forceful, it will engender fear.  Part of this equation involves posture, an aggressive body stance is inappropriate. The handler’s body must remain balanced over his/her centre and free.

Too little assertion

With other horses, the push needed may have to more assertive. If possible the handler should use only his intent and energy to move the horse. Practised handlers will have refined this ability over time. Just as you read the persons intention in the high street, so the horse reads the handlers intention to “take the space”. If the horse is not convinced by the handler he will not move. Learning to have believable intent is one of the skills of round penning and indeed of working horses generally.












The angle of the push

Horses read energy coming from our “core”.  Our core is our centre, the part of us around our belly button. If we aim this energy at the wrong angle and take it to the wrong area of the horse’s body we can cause confusion and even fear.  Aiming our core energy at the head of the horse will send a predatorial message causing the horse to become distressed.

The pushing energy from the handler’s core is aimed at the flanks. Here the handler is using her  energy alone to move the horse, the whip is not necessary and is held facing downwards. Note, although energetic, her stance is relaxed












Depending on how the horse is reacting the handler may change the horses direction by blocking the forward motion and drawing the horse in the new direction.













The handler may send blocking energy out in front of the horse’s line of travel, well ahead of the horses head in order to stop him.














Here the horse accepts the handlers push and shows its acceptance by dropping its neck and  head, the handler softens her body.


Reading the horse

The handler must read the horse’s body language throughout the session and alter her body language accordingly. He/she will be paying close attention to the mouth, the ears, the eyes, the tail and the “frame” (shape of the horses spine) All these give the handler vital information as to the mental and emotional state of the horse.

Emotional intent

Most importantly if the handler does not have the best interests of the horse in her/his heart at all times the horse will never trust.













The horse willingly comes to the handler when she uses drawing energy, note the bend in the handlers body. The horses head is level with his withers denoting acceptance.













The horse stands held against the outside boundary of the round pen, he is soft in his body and bent  trustingly and respectfully around the handler.