Horse Training Attitude

What alway attracted me to riding, even when I was a young girl, was the communication that happened with the horse. Some people are into the galloping, the thrill of jumping, the grace of a dressage horse with cadence. Those are all good things, but to me they are nothing without the relationship. Sadly, in the horse world, training is too often done with force and fear. Horses are finely tuned to the smallest nuances of body language, and yet riders resort to yelling – with whips, with spurs, and with severe equipment. In May I audited a clinic given by a well-known British instructor. She trains Grand Prix dressage riders. I watched a student ride a circle around her. They were working on passage – which is a lofty trot with moments of suspension between strides. It looks like the horse is floating, but it requires athleticism and effort. The instructor wanted more lift and energy. She said to the rider, You have to get angry at your horse.


If anger is required to get a good passage, then I will settle for a slow trot.

Horses are large and potentially dangerous animals. A horse will tell a person on the ground what’s what by getting into her body space. Horses have teeth and hooves. They get afraid, they have snits, and they let you know it. When on a horse’s back, the animal will let you know what he thinks by refusing to go forward, or by backing up, or rearing, or bucking, or any number of other moves that a thousand pound animal with four legs and a long neck is capable of doing. It’s the horse’s equivalent of yelling back at the rider.

But what if neither yells? What if the rider pays attention to tension in the neck, to ears that flick, to a softening in the mouth? What if the horse learns what a slight movement in the rider’s heel on his flank means? What if the horse finds the work as rewarding as the rider? This is not to say that the rider should let the horse do what he wants. Under saddle, the horse needs to go where asked, and perform whatever sport is being asked of her. On the ground, the horse must have manners. But, respect doesn’t ever come from anger or abuse. It never occurs because one is “alpha” over another. This is true with people and it’s true with animals. Training can be done without anger; the resulting partnership between horse and rider will be that much more beautiful.

The question is how to get to that place where what you want is also what your horse finds worthwhile so that he willingly goes there. (If you’re not into horses, insert spouse, child, dog, or cat into this sentence.) There are plenty of training systems to choose from, whether it is “natural horsemanship” or “centered riding” or whatever else is coming from the currently popular clinician on YouTube. I believe strongly in positive reinforcement that uses a marker signal for clarity. I use this with my dogs, and they joyfully engage in tasks asked of them. My goats, and even my chickens, cheerfully do behaviors when asked to with this method. So I’ve taken, what is popularly called clicker training, to the stable to use with Tonka. I haven’t been satisfied with the results. I got the behaviors, but I didn’t like my horse’s expression. His ears went back. He was telling me something. I listened. I am figuring it out. We’re communicating, and we’re doing it without yelling.

Terry and Tonka


Note: I can learn a lot from Tonka, but each horse and situation is different. I’m looking for other horses to work with. if you are in my area (eastern Massachusetts) and have a horse, and want me to come out to do some training with the two of you, please email me.


  1. Maybe Tonka is a “word” responder. Maybe a click with a word would work. We didn’t know about clicker training so we just used one word at a time. Of course when grooming we chatted with our horses but that was not a time when we were expecting anything from them. I wouldn’t say we were learned in training or even good at it. It was just how it had been done in our family for years. The horses were family not just animals so they were treated with respect and love and that’s what they responded too.

    • Hi Bea, I often use a word instead of a click. The click is more effective (there are studies that show this, and there’s a reason with brain chemistry that I won’t get into) but sometimes a “softer” marker is the right thing for the animal and the situation. Of course, if a animal is deaf, a touch or scent can be the marker. That’s one reason why “clicker” training isn’t the most accurate word – I prefer “marker.”

      • It’s been a while so I was trying to think about this. I might have also used my hands with the word…body language…Not a science just something that worked and I also think the tone of my voice had something to do with getting what I wanted done. I don’t ever remember raising my voice or being aggressive in any way..after all, size does count!

  2. Wow, that British instructor is not someone I would waste any money on! The dressage instructors I respect – and get the most help from – are very attuned to the horse and rider relationship; that’s what I love about dressage!

  3. I first came across clicker training in the late 70’s early 80’s via horses and dressage. Just as there are some sharp noises that bother our ears, there are some horses that just don’t like the sound of the clickers and some will actually flinch at the sound. But horses do like their treats. So you’ll get your response along with pinned ears, sulky looks, and maybe some head tossing and tail whipping. Of course, you could also be getting this because he doesn’t really want to do the behavior but really wants that treat. Gotta love them. You know when to use your clicker, so it should be nothing at all for you to substitute a word (Yes!) or a sound (hup!) for the clicker. It might help you figure out what’s going on.

    • Hi Robin, thats amazing that you were applying clicker methods to dressage back in the 70s and 80s, which was well before this training method became widely known in anything other than labs and with marine mammals. Did you work with someone in particular?
      As I mentioned to Bea, I believe that there are a number of other things going on which make training horses different than, let’s say, dogs. It’s not just finding the right marker (although that’s always an important component.) I’ll be getting into those thoughts in future posts :)

      • I guess from a historical perspective it wasn’t widely known. But there were some horse trainers trying this out and some dog trainers as well back then. Some were excited about its potential, others were looking for shortcuts. However, as you know, it generally was not well accepted. Old habits die hard, so it certainly wasn’t mainstream.

        And at my age (back then), I definitely was -not- one of the ones doing the actual training! :D I would have been laughed out of the barn just for asking to try it. It was more of a watch and learn experience.

        • As a teenager in 1975 I was at a riding school in England. The owner was a Grand Prix rider, and also was one of the authors of the Pony Club manual. Quite the introduction to stable management and dressage, when no one that I knew in the States was doing either seriously. This was in the days before “modern” dressage horses and rolkur, thank goodness! Grand Prix dressage on British thoroughbreds… you had to have a light touch!
          As far as short-cuts – as you know, they never are :)

  4. Terry, do you know if today’s ranchers still “break” their horses like we saw them do in the old westerns? Or did they really “train” them that way. It seemed so cruel.

    • Sadly, there is still “breaking.” More worrisome to me is the “natural” horsemanship that bases the training on incorrect assumptions about how horses see the world. They claim to be natural and kind, but it’s actually punishment.

  5. Could be the clicker may bring his natural instincts to an edge. Most horses do not like the sound of a twig snapping. I have no scientific info to back it up, but I would bet good money it has something to do with a danger or threat such as a wolf. Or a rattlesnake. Much like the old tales about mice and elephants, horses don’t like small critters.
    I have been thrown due to the presence of the lonely little armadillo, and they crack through underbrush like they are thousands of pounds themselves. Stealth was never nature’s intent with all the armor he was provided!!
    I by far and away am no expert, been YEARS since I’ve been on a horse, but it was always a bonding with words and body language as mentioned earlier.
    The rider does need to assert himself as the controller, not for power struggle, but because deep down a horse has a sense of humor, and he will remove you from his back and laugh about it. And the smarter the horse the more games he can think to play with you.

    • Hi Erney, as I’ve said in other comments, the sound is not the issue. Tonka has no fear of the clicker, and in fact associates it with rewards. In any event, the marker doesn’t have to be a clicker, so if he was nervous because of it, I could use a word or a gesture. Also, I’m not saying that classic clicker training doesn’t work – I can get all of the behaviors that I want to train, but I am saying that I don’t like the relationship that it causes – which is frustrating for me as a trainer, because not only is the relationship foremost for me, but with other species the “clicker” training gets that engaged attitude that I’m looking for. As far as humor? I love it in a horse. I want to work with it and channel it in a direction that’s rewarding for both of us.

      • PS Feel very lucky not to have armadillos in our underbrush to scare Tonka! :) It’s enough that we have wild turkeys, pheasants, and bounding deer.

  6. hi teri – on the clicker, a thought from a person who only watches – not really knows anything – but still a thought. . . .
    why not ask tonka?
    you’ve already used words along with whatever body language comes naturally at the time
    he understands you there
    just say “why?” when he does that – and illustrate your ‘confusion’ with your body language.
    then watch him.
    maybe do it several times.
    and watch – oh, so carefully.
    let us know. i’ll guess he will show you.

    • Training is all about the asking, and good training is all about reading those nuances. So your comment shows that you DO know something :) I’m asking all the time. And he’s telling me. It never stops. Every interaction we do with any other living animal is training, whether you intend to or not. Either the behavior increases, or stays the same, or ceases. Whether it’s a smile you get from a cashier, or a stride of passage from a horse. Actually, I have a whole theory about what Tonk been telling me… but it’s not ready yet to put out here on the blog.

  7. Terry, Amen to your recap of many current training methods. Be it with horses, dogs…or kids.

    Recently, a very well intentioned neighbor of mine adopted a rescue dog. The neighbor is an inexperienced dog owner and the dog she adopted is a young, goofy, very friendly pit mix. My neighbor is smart enough to know that a bully breed can be a dominant dog, and really wants to have a great relationship with her pet, as well as a responsive, well trained dog. So she reached out to an expensive dog trainer to come and discuss private training with her. The guy showed up with 2 of his own dogs to use as demo dogs. So far, so good. Both were just beautiful, a malinois and a dobie. As I watched quietly from my front porch, I saw him walk his dogs through an impressive (if slightly ridiculous) series of exercises designed to show his complete dominance over these two animals, including demanding they hold uncomfortable poses that clearly stressed the dogs, just because they were afraid of the consequences of disobeying. This shutzhund trainer’s tactics were so awful (including him ‘helicoptering’ my neighbor’s 7 month old dog when she bounded ahead of him, making her gag and choke for 5 minutes) that I found myself gripping the arms of my porch chair. I was delighted to see my neighbor stop this guy, mid-demo and politely refuse his services. She also crouched down and stroked and hugged his two dogs. Later she told me she had nightmares about it for days. Her pit mix today is a sweet, well behaved, if still quite goofy meatball, with a strong prey drive, which my neighbor manages just fine. Good grief.

    • Thank you for this story! I was dreading the end that the owner wouldn’t know that those methods can cause aggression, not stop it. There are good trainers out there. I’m sure your neighbor will find one.

  8. I love hearing about your clicker training of, well, everybody. It gives me a reminder of what I need to keep doing. And I wish I was close to you-I have a mentally damaged pony that I got so far with then pushed too hard and she had a meltdown. So now we’re working on rebuilding. Really slowly. Sigh.
    My favorite blog post on looking at different training approaches is this . And I like the rest of her blog too.
    As f or dressage-I’ve recently discovered Manolo Mendez, and I really love his approach. He really stresses the fitness and ability(mental and physical) of the horse to do what’s asked. He’s very kind.