Category Archives: Training Horses

The Third Times a Charm

“You gonna get on’im today?”

The question hung in the air like a challenge. It was as if a huge bell rang just over the trainer’s head. He took a deep breath and answered the best way he knew how.

“If he says ‘yes’.”

“Whaddaya mean, he can’t talk!”

“He’s telling me yes by staying near me instead of running right now. At first when I tried to get near him he said ‘no’ by running. Then as time went on I got more ‘yes’ as he discovered it was easier to stay with me and get rubbed, than to leave me and have to work.”

The trainer flapped the coiled lariat on the colt’s back. The colt snorted, raised his head and moved away.

“That’s a no. Now if I continue doing that, until he drops his head and relaxes, like that, I stop instantly. That’s when he learns. It’s not the pressure that he learns from, it’s the release of pressure.”

The trainer kept irritating the colt with the rope until the colt relaxed, then he immediately stopped. He did the same thing by lifting all four legs, and playing with the tail. He wrapped the lariat around the colt’s middle and sawed it back and forth until the colt licked and relaxed.

“Now he’s ready for the saddle. We’ll just rub this old Navajo blanket all over him. There, he’s lickin, head’s down, and he’s relaxed again. So I’ll just ease this ol’ ropin’ saddle on him, and cinch it up. But I want to warn you, this may get ‘western’!”

As he said this he pulled the cinch tight. The colt took three steps then broke in two with a magnificent high flying sun-fishing buck! He bucked and bawled like a rodeo bronc, then settled into a high lope around the pen. The trainer kept him going, turning him back both ways until he slowed to a trot.

“Now he’s saying ‘yes’ again. So I’ll ride him.” The colt sidled up to him, lowering his head for a rub.

“Holy crap, he just put on a triple herniated, wall-eyed fit! And you think you can get on him? You’re crazy!”

The trainer continued to work the colt, then quit as the colt came back and stood next to him. The trainer then began even more irritation by holding the saddle and hopping up and down beside the colt. Finally with his hand on the saddle horn he put a foot in a stirrup on each side.

“I’ll ask him if he can let me stand in the stirrup.” As he stepped in each stirrup over and over, the colt lowered his neck again and started to lick and chew.

“That’s another yes. So I’ll stand in this stirrup until he licks again. There, he’s okay with that.”

The trainer stood in the stirrup again, this time leaning across the saddle so that the colt saw him over his head with his right eye. The colt stayed calm, so the trainer got down. Then, to his friend’s surprise, he mounted the colt, putting his right foot in the stirrup! There was still no halter or bridle on the colt’s head. The colt stood for half a minute. Then he began to chew. The man dismounted.

“Well, not a bad first ride. He did everything I asked him to do, and stayed relaxed. All I have to do now is keep not asking for much, so I don’t overload his confidence and he’ll be alright.”

“I guess I can breathe, now.” Exhaled his friend. “I just saw your life flash before my eyes!”


Getting his attention part 2

“So, here you see our Mr.Colt galloping around the pen.”

“Yeah, you wanna git’im good an’ tired!”

“Well, that’s where a lot of folks go wrong. They misunderstand. We don’t want to get him tired, but we do want to get his attention. And since he is basically lazy, and work averse, he won’t want to run very long before he wants to stop and take a breather.” As he said this, the colt stopped, head high, nostrils flared, whites of eyes showing, both eyes and both ears tensely aimed at the horse tamer.

“ Now, see, I’ve got his attention. I want to reward that. The release of pressure is the reward, so I’ll turn and walk away.”

“Well, then how do you catch him to put the saddle on him?”

“I don’t, I’ll let him catch me.”

“How’s that work?”

“I’ll keep going toward him and walking away, advancing toward him,and retreating when he stays put, until I can touch him and walk away.”

“Why don’t ya just rope’im?”

“We want to build his confidence, and trust, in us. Roping him right now wouldn’t help that.”

“So you can sneak up and slip a halter on him , now, right?”

“Like GOTCHA?”


“No.” And the tamer started slowly softly caressing the colt’s withers. “I’ll rub him here a little , then walk away, once again releasing the pressure of me being too close, before he leaves me. One of my mentors said the if he will stay put for four seconds, I need to leave in three.”

“Why’s that? Why don’t you just catch him so’s you can saddle him?”

“You have seen two horses in a pasture facing in opposite directions, rubbing each other’s withers haven’t you?”

“ Yep.”

“They are being buddies, bonding.” The man continued rubbing and caressing,but never patting, as that might scare the colt. He gradually rubbed more areas making sure not to startle the colt. “I’m trying to become his pard.” The man stepped away from the colt a little and the colt turned and took a step toward him. If he gets to rest when he’s with me, and has to work by running around the pen when he leaves me, he will eventually choose to stay with me. It’s called making the right decision easy, and the wrong thing difficult.”

“ I’ve heard people say that before, but I guess I never understood what they meant.”

“Okay, good, you’re starting to see how horses think. Now look, I can walk up to him, rub him and walk away, and he follows me.”

“ Like there’s magic in your hands!”

“ Well, he’s starting to trust me, like he would trust another horse because he sees that I’m not here to hurt him.”

“So now you put the rope on him.”

“ Pretty soon, but I’m going to rub all over a little bit more to make sure he will stay with me.”

After a few more minutes of rubbing and stroking the colt all over, he lowered his head, let out a deep breath and started licking, chewing and swallowing.”

“Now we can put the halter on him and take him back to his stall to eat. That’s going to be a big reward, and big release of pressure.We’ll probably saddle him tomorrow”


Getting his attention

“You break colts?”


“You a bronc stomper?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“What do you do, saddl’em up and buck’em out?”

“No…actually, we gentle’em. Then we teach’em to be rode”

“I don’t understand. How do you get’em to stop bucking?”

“You don’t let’em start! Let me ask you something.”


“Did ya ever try teaching something to a kid?”

“Tried, but I gave it up. They won’t listen.”

“That’s because you never got their attention!”

“How in heck do you do that?”

“Well, did you ever see the science show on TV ‘mister wizard’?”

“Yeah, so?”

“He got kids’ attention by building a volcano, then blowing it up! Kids love to blow stuff up! They like unexpected things, like jumping off a cliff in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, or the downhill run in “Man from Snowy River”!”

“So, how’s that relate to being a bronc stomper?”

“It doesn’t, i’se jest messin’ with ya!”

“Aw, man!”

“No, really, it does relate. Ya cain’t reason with a horse, just like ya cain’t preach to a kid. You gotta use “horse language”.

“What the tarnation is that?”

“The ABC’s are position, movement, pressure and release.”

“What’the’ ?”

“Okay, I’ll give you a fer instance.” He explained. “You got a colt in a small corral, and you walk in. What’s the first thing he’s gonna do?”


“That’s right! Then what do you do?”

“Rope him”

“See, that’s the difference. If you want to speak horse, you let him run. You might even keep looking at his rear end and move toward it, to encourage him to run until he slows down a little. Then you sort of step in front of him some. Most times he’ll suddenly stop, and turn toward you, and look straight at you with both eyes, and his ears forward at you. That’s when you have his attention!”

“Then what do you do?”

“Turn and walk away. That’s the reward for giving you his attention. You release the pressure of being scarey to him by turning your back, and walking away. You aren’t something scarey anymore. Releasing that fear pressure IS the reward for focusing his attention on you.”

“Then what?”

“You repeat that in the other direction. You do it over and over until he stops, looks at you (gives you bother eyes) and begins to lick, chew, and swallow. Now you have his attention and you are beginning to gentle him. He’s watching you like a hawk, waiting to see your next move, you’ve got his attention!”


“I guess I got your attention!”

“Yeah, now what?”

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll show you how we use that to keep him from bucking.”

Extinction Versus Enhancement

“This isn’t Endotapping!“ he said. Our instructor went on to explain that touching an animal with a whip has two purposes.

The Endotapping that he referred to is the process of repeatedly tapping a horse somewhat more than softly in one place until the horse shows signs of giving up his resistance, usually by chewing and licking his lips.

At that point the trainer immediately stops. The result is that the horse learns the “relax reflex“.

The purpose is to extinguish the instinctive flight/fight response to a noxious stimulus. Sometimes we refer to it as “de- spooking“. It is one of the ways that tapping is used in horse training.

The other type of touch is designed to enhance a learned response to a specific touch. If, for example, we want a horse to learn to move away from leg pressure as a cue, we begin from the ground, with a whip or stick long enough to touch the horse, yet be out of kicking range.

First we touch the “guider“ or stick, on the rib cage where our leg will be. If there is no reaction, and likely there won’t be at this first touch, we repeat the stimulus with a bit more emphasis (read: hit him a little more sharply, but just a little). If there still is no movement away from the signal, you come the third time with a pretty good “thwack“, which is usually enough to get most horses to step over with their hind feet away from the cue stick.

This is repeated on both sides. Any time the horse moves over, you quit.

That is the reward.

A horse usually remembers what he did to make you quit messing with him.

As the exercise progresses you watch for him to respond to less stimulus, say moving off with only the second tap.


Finally, he will move with only the slightest touch. This process is called the “moderation of the aids”. It is the way to build, or enhance, the cue for a horse so that riding ceases to be about force, and becomes an education.

Most horses will go through three resistant phases before giving up resistance completely and learning a response.

Mules? Well it could take days!