Is Your Horse Working on You? The Importance of Empathy in Leadership.


There has been no greater thing in life that has done more to fundamentally transform me as a person as working with horses.  This happens because we need to change so much about who we are to be able to get along with a horse and effectively communicate with them and in return it changes us.  Because of this one of my favorite quotes has become:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”    Winston Churchill    

In my search to try and find how to communicate with a horse in a manner that’s good for a horses mind, you realize how much you need to work on yourself. I can say I am a far better person then I was just a few years ago. Every day I work with a horse I see more things I need to work on as a person. This is why I will be a horseman for the rest of my life. It has become a necessity to my well being and personal growth. When we work with a horse and are having problems the place to look is at ourself. To work with a horse well you need the tools of effective leadership that we should all possess for the benefit of more then our horses but also for our families, communities, coworkers, and whoever we may cross paths with in life. 

The place we must start is to develop a sense of empathy because it’s how you can help teach yourself the other attribute needed in leadership. The big thing about empathy is it is based off of thoughtful understanding of where the animal or person is at physically, mentally and emotionally. It also causes you to want to better understand the animal and it is this reason I have spent several years and still am studying horse behavior.  Empathy guide us to understanding. Why is the horse doing what it’s doing? Why is the horse reacting this way when I do this?  We start asking why instead of how. Why is empathetic. Most people want to know how. How is selfish! It translates to how can we get what we want, and all of a sudden we have thrown out disregard for the horse or person and are thinking of what we can get.  

This thinking has changed how I work with people. Once synical and judgmental about how people didn’t know what they were doing has changed to an understanding of people are trying their best with what they know. Just like a horse if you pressure them to much your ability to teach them vanishes. People also have physical limitations that might prevent them from doing some of the things I do so I think of how to teach them in a different way. Some people have emotional issues that get in the way of how they think and react to stressful situations. Some people learn differently then others or even have learning disabilities. I can not expect the same out of every horse or every person because they are all vastly different physically, mentally and emotionally. I have to understand them where they are at. That’s Empathy, and it has just taught us to think about the horse or others more then ourself, and It is selflessness that is the engine that drives a leader. 

In the Blink of an Eye


One of the greatest tools we have in training our horse is knowing how to read our horse. One thing often forgot about is the eye blinking tell us so much about a mental state of the horse and where the horses mind is.  A sign of a truly relaxed horse is one that blinks and uses his ears and does not lock them in one position.  Just like most things in horse training it’s not the one big thing that makes the difference but the lots of little things. Reading a horse is the same. It’s not the head down and cocked hip that are the true tell. 


This picture was taken after asking Frankie to flex. He kept his head there and just hung out and checked me out and that is exactly what I want.

This picture was taken after asking Frankie to flex. He kept his head there and just hung out and checked me out and that is exactly what I want.

We want our horse mentally present with us and their eye is the best way to tell where they are mentality. Next time you flex your horse look and see where he is looking. If he is looking out and away chances are when you let go his head will immediately shoot back to the front. If the horses ear is is on you and he looks back at you his head will tend to stay there a second after it’s released and will go back to straight in a relaxed manner. This shows the difference between a soft and a light horse. A light horse can work off a light feel but is still not mentally present with you and is just obedient but the soft horse is there in the moment with you paying attention waiting for your direction. The soft horse is willing. 


softness is needed for a horse to accept and be preseptive of small cues. Subtle cues such as laying a rein gently across the horses neck will not even be noticed if the horse attention is not on you. So much of what we are teaching a horse is dependent on its attention. We must keep our horse soft by them looking for answers not being afraid of reprimand when not paying attention.  


After every repetition in desensitizing I make sure the horse relaxes and blinks. This teaches the horse to be mentally present with the situation rather then block out what’s going on. This is important throughout the training process. Remember keeping a horses focus on you is the key to softness in any part of training. It is very possible to make a robot very good at its job and obedient and this makes you a trainer but not a horseman. As a horseman it means trying our best to do what’s right for the horse and a sound horse physically and mentally should be our first goal. Not what can we get them to do.  As you work with your horse watch its eye it will tell you so much about the mind.  Is he blinking when you ask him questions or just answering with a ridged mind. We should always strive for soft because softness tells out horse he is at peace with what we ask. 




Learned Helplessness and the Shut Down Horse.


Do you need to change bits because your horse is ignoring the one it’s In? Well, There is a reason your horse ignores you or even gets to the point it blocks you out. It’s a condition called learned helplessness. 


Ok, hang with me for a little bit here, this may be boring but pay attention for a brief psychology lesson.   So, what is learned helplessness?  


 Learned helplessness, in psychology, a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation


A study was first done with dogs receiving a small electric shock rendomley with no cause or no correct answer. What they found is when they provided the shock in a situation they were looking for a response they did not have a response. Later the same study was done with people and loud noises. The random loud noise was unavoidable and the people in the study began to block that out. This is why every interaction with your horse is important. They are paying attention and learn very fast what to block out because there is no control for them in the situation.  Sometimes they do that with us in general because they never feel in control of the interaction with the human. This creates a horse that ignores the human and would rather pay attention to its outside surroundings. 

We need to make our interactions mean something. This is why I tend not to handle horses over a fence. The minute I am on their side of the fence they need to interact with me and react to what I am doing. I want them to know that what I do has a direct response required. They pay attention to each other in the same way.   

What we are looking for in horse training is the horses attention and to feel in control of the situation. Control gives confidence!  If we do not feel in control of a situation we lose our confidence. However we grow in confidence if we have control in a situation and can feel successful. We feel a lot more comfortable galloping a horse across a pasture that we can steer and stop when we ask, but not so much if one runs off and ignores all our cues or aids. The horse is the same. 

A great example of this and is very common is in the practice of leading a horse. If you lead next to your horse and pull forward on the snap and pull back and to the side and towards you and your horses feet never respond your horse begins to think that there is no response that is correct so it will begin to ignore that interaction. Then as you lead your horse it looks at other things rather then you for direction. Most of these horse exhibiting this also have spooking issues under saddle.  This brings us back to the first blog post and how important a horses focus is while we are riding and handling. Everything we do needs to mean something if it’s not we are losing relivence in the horses life.  Like building any relationship communicating is super important so don’t have your horse block you out. Every interaction means something until the horse learns it does not. Make sure you mean something to your horse. 

Desensitizing the Good and the Bad


Desensitizing a horse has always and will probably always be an important part of my training program.  I do feel it is very misunderstood though. The idea of desensitizing is way more then getting a horse over being worried about a specific thing but instead is an exercise designed to teach a horse to deal with anxiety we cannot control. Things such as deer and turkeys in the woods are the things we can’t control.  So, yes you can throw a bunch of plastic bags in a stall with a horse terrified of them and in a few days it will not care at all about the bags, but that’s all you have accomplished.  Instead through getting a horse slightly anxious and teaching it that it can come down to a relaxed state we begin to train the horses brain to deal with an outside stimulation that may cause worry.  This is our goal in desensitizing. So let’s dig into common problems in desensitizing. 


The worst problem is the off switch.  Many very intelligent and sensitive horses may quickly learn to make the stimulus go away doing the signs of relaxation simply to turn of the stimulus.  You wave a flag the horses head lowers you take it away and he learns to make it go away but not actually to relax. These horses desensitizing does not work for and they will spook at many other things since they stay anxious inside. The bad part about this is we are also training the horse to hide it’s emotions from us. The best tool we have in training is reading the horse. They will always tell us when they are scared, mad, tired, or full of energy but we can teach them to hide this from us. This also puts the horse at a disadvantage as far as learning new things because it will cause the horse to begin to disassociate from us rather then engage us and use the problem solving part of the brain.  My next post will be on learned helplessness and we will get deeper into this depressive state of the horses brain. 


How do we keep this from happening? It’s simple but takes time.  First let’s talk about the process of desensitizing. We add a stimulus and wait till we have no response or relaxation and then take it away. This teaches the horse relaxing makes something scary go away. We get into problems though when we keep the time intreval between the time of our stimuli  application too short or our stimulus is to much.  We need to wait for a full let down in between our applications of stimuli. The idea of desensitizing is to get the horse to relax and we need to let that happen not try to force it. This may even take applying it once then completely stepping back and away or waiting long periods of time or both before going back to desensitizing.  We find out so often in horse training that less is more. 


Another thing to keep a horse from learning to shut down is to make sure it is relaxed before we begin desensitizing exercises. We always need to do this no matter what new thing we are teaching with our horse. The idea is to start a horse relaxed and end relaxed. We want the horse thinking and connected with us while desensitizing. I also may add little bumps to the halter just enough to get a horses ear to flick back or eye to engage me knowing he is mentally with me if I see his mind wander away. 


Desensitizing horses that are mentally blocking you out is almost completely ineffective and possibly damaging. Before we start just like we need a horse to be relaxed we need his focus and attention. The horses attention on you is so closely related to his relaxation that most often if you have the horses focus it will be relaxed. After all our goal is to get our horse to pay attention to us and not the scary banner on the show pen or the deer in the woods. A good start to ground work exercises is key to this. In teaching horses to respond to subtle cues they begin to look for us for the cue. In other words, don’t worry about starting desensitizing to early but have your horses attention and his brain used to problem solving first before you start.