Communication Magic

Authenticity, alignment and intention are the magic keys to heightened communication with your horse, writes Missy Wyrn I think we can all agree that communication is complicated at the best of times. When you add interspecies, human to horse communication we soon discover our good intentions are often not enough.



The range of communication we receive from a horse varies from a white eyed look of panic to a ‘talk to the butt’ stance. I hear all the time things like, ‘I love my horse but she just walks away,’ or ‘my horse won’t let me touch him on the face / catch him’ etc. So how do we communicate with our horses in an effective way? How do we maintain our compassion and patience when our horse doesn’t seem to care less that we love them, or responds in a dangerous way when we only want the best for them?

There is a myriad of training techniques that can provide you some answers to these basic issues, but there is also a form of invisible communication you can add to your toolbox that will deepen and strengthen your rapport.

Did you know that your brain is like a radio receiver and transmitter? Research has found that your brain has an energy field range of about 10 feet from your body, receiving and sending a vibratory energy frequency (VEF). You may have experienced this form of communication with a loved one. You may automatically finish their sentence or say something they were just thinking – in both these cases you are on the same vibratory energy frequency, sharing a neurotransmitter energy field.

What is really fascinating is the neurotransmitters that are in our brains sending and receiving the VEF are not all in our heads! Every organ in our body has neurotransmitters including the skin, which is the largest of our organs. By communicating with our entire body’s VEF we can really get a message across. Horse’s have neurotransmitters in their organs too so the question begs, what is your body saying to your horse on a VEF level and how can we use this transmission to improve our communications with them?

If you are out of alignment with your intention your VEF is going to reflect that.

Horses need to trust us in order to be safe and calm around us. Say you are trying to work with your horse, perhaps demonstrating your leadership, but your body is sending a message of worry, anxiety, fear or any number of negative messages. How does your body line up with your intention of teaching your horse that you are their herd leader? Authenticity is the key! Being authentic, while aligning your intention, is the magic key to a deeper understanding and trust between you. This goes for humans too – you know that feeling when you meet someone who you feel you can’t trust but can’t put your finger on why? Well that’s because your body is receiving the message that the person’s intention is not aligned with who they really are (authenticity) – perhaps they are hiding something or telling an outright lie?! They are incongruent.



Imagine how that must be for horses. We may be feeling ‘off,’ worried about our job or paying the bills etc, but go work with our horses and expect them to respond to our loving gestures and commands. Is it surprising then that the horse does not respond as we wish? You must think about what your body is saying versus your gestures and commands. If you are out of alignment with your intention your VEF is going to reflect that. Your horse will feel your lack of authenticity and see you as incongruent and untrustworthy. And what does a horse do when they can’t trust a human? All sorts of unexpected and dangerous behaviours. Horses require authenticity in their leaders and, by the way, so do humans.

So how do we align our intention with what is really going on inside of us? The answer lies in honesty and awareness, plain and simple. Be honest with yourself and check in with your body to see what you are really feeling and what your VEF is transmitting. For example, when I’m struggling with an issue that is non-horse related I recognise that this is going to reflect when I go to ride my horse. I also recognise my horse is genetically wired to require a herd leader at all times, but I want to be the compassionate herd leader nonetheless so that requires me being honest about how I feel. Don’t be scared to verbalise what is going on with you. Tell them – you’ll be amazed what a relief it is to get your troubles off your chest and you may well invoke an audible sigh from your horse.

Our words have a VEF too (that’s a whole other article) which is why I encourage talking when with your horse. Tell the truth about how you feel and what is going on, give it a try and see for yourself. Authenticity, alignment and intention all go into the magic of great communication.

For more information about Missy and free training videos visit

Good Grooming

Good Grooming

Some horses hate grooming. They can’t stand still, try to nip, bite, kick, flinch, swish their tails and toss their heads. Others tolerate it, just tuning out and resigning themselves to the process. Then there are the horses that absolutely love it. Having your horse look forward to grooming time is often a true testament to the quality of your relationship, and it’s a great place to build it.

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Elementary School



Julie Goodnight talks about the three ‘wings’ in her barn and explains the regime for her youngest horsesIn the small town where I live, we have a large school complex with three different buildings - the elementary, the middle school and the high school, each with a specific program designed to meet the particular needs of each age group. In my barn, we have the same type of divisions to help us better meet the needs of the horses we have in three different stages of life.

The elementary wing of our barn is for the youngest horses. These are our up-and-coming horses that we think have great potential but have not yet earned the same status as their upper classmates. We want the best for these horses but they also need to learn to toughen up and play by the rules. So just like in elementary school, structure, discipline, work ethic and manners are most important.

The most prominent section in my barn is for my prime-time horses - the mature, fully trained working horses. They get the highest level of care and the most luxurious accommodations because they work for a living. These are my working horses - partners in my business - and they get the very best we have to offer.

In a quiet corner of the facility is our geriatric wing, currently occupied with two stately old mares who will soon be starting their fourth decades of life. We do what we can for these elders, to make their final stage of life as comfortable as possible. They’ve given so much, to so many riders over the years and I am happy to give them a noble and comfortable, albeit expensive, retirement.

In this three-part series, I'd like to share with you the horses that occupy each section of my barn, the behaviours we expect from that age group, how we focus our training, how we keep them fit and the specific health and nutritional needs of each age group. We'll start at the beginning with the youngsters.



The YoungstersWe don't breed any horses, so the youngest horses in my barn tend to be three to six years old. Currently I have two adolescents - Eddie, who is four, and Doc, who is six. I bought Eddie as a three year old; he is a well-bred Quarter Horse by a World Champion versatility ranch horse stallion and I have big plans for him in the years to come. Doc is a great little ranch horse and he's fun to have around for our friends to ride and for when we need a spare horse.

I tend to buy more horses in this age group than I keep. I like having nice horses coming along but often I find a good match for them and then take great delight in selling them and buying another. But every now and then a young horse comes along that is really special and has the potential to grow into a prime-time horse for me. My youngsters are still in the primary training stages and my hope is that one day Eddie will be a replacement for my number one horse, Dually.

Behave Your Age Horses in this age group are a lot like adolescent humans - they can be cocky, challenge authority and test their boundaries. At one moment they seem all grown up but the next they are acting like a baby. Younger horses often have more bravery and curiosity than they should, which is a good thing, and I like to encourage these behaviours so that they learn to be confident in new situations.

The youngsters are much more playful and energetic than their older barn mates, so they need lots of turnout time with horses that like to play and rough-house. To me, it's important that the youngsters also hang out some with the more mature horses when they are working, so they learn how to act appropriately in different situations.

Training Focus At this stage, we spend a lot of time working on the basics: good ground manners, tying patiently, trailering and basic manoeuvres under saddle. We do a lot of ground work with these horses to refine their manners, teach them to be focused on their handler and wait patiently for directives. I call this kindergarten for horses. You don't go to kindergarten to learn algebra; you go to kindergarten to learn how to sit at your desk, raise your hand when you want to talk and walk in a single-file line. We want our young horses to learn to stand still when asked, focus on the task at hand, ground tie, respect boundaries and not act impulsively.

Our youngsters will spend a lot of time standing tied at the hitching rail or trailer, alone or in company - learning patience. We like to ride them out in the open and expose them to novel stimuli as much as possible. We feed them in the trailer often so they learn to like it. We spend a lot of time getting them used to ropes, opening gates from horseback, dragging logs, walking over tarps, etc.

It's really important that young horses develop a strong work ethic. At this stage of training our young horses will get some long hard rides and have many wet saddle blankets. They'll learn to work by themselves, well away from any other horses; and they'll learn to work in a crowd of strange horses, maintaining good manners.

While we are working steadily to increase the horse's skill level under saddle at this stage, it is also very important to give them as many different experiences as we can and to make sure those early experiences are very positive. I'll take them to clinics and expos when I can, just to get them on the road, let them learn to sleep in a strange barn and work in strange environments. The more travelling and unique experiences they have at this age the more settled they will be later in life.

Fitness Although horses grow the fastest in their first two years of life, they continue to mature, both physically and mentally until they are seven or eight years old. In their adolescence, we want to make sure our horses grow strong and get fit, but without excessive damage to their joints. After the age of four, you can do just about anything with a horse, but younger than that we avoid lots of circling and hard manoeuvres like jumping. We never take a horse younger than four to the mountains.

These horses need lots of work, not only to grow strong and fit but also to develop a work ethic. They may get worked four to six times a week depending on the length and exertion of the ride. Part of the goals of their workouts will be to advance their skills by learning new cues and more difficult manoeuvres. Part of their workout will be repetition of the basics to develop muscle memory and coordination.



Health and NutritionOur young horses get a high quality diet of alfalfa/grass mixed hay, as well as whole oats. While they are still growing and filling out, we pump a fair amount of food in to them to keep them in good flesh. In addition to growing, they are also worked pretty hard so their calorie demand is high. The young horses pretty much get all the hay they can eat, plus oats and supplements twice a day.

I start our young horses on joint supplements as soon as they are working under saddle. Although we think of these for helping older horses that already have cartilage breakdown, the ingredients are scientifically formulated to support and maintain the health of your horse’s joints. In my mind, the sooner they are started on a joint supplement the healthier their joints will be in mid-life. Our young horses also get a vitamin and mineral supplement that supports healthy hoof growth. This is really important with the additional stress of carrying a rider and working hard.

The youngsters in my barn are most important for the potential they represent. We want to nurture and develop them in order to turn them into the best horses they can be so that one day they might fill the shoes of our prime-time horses.

Distracted and Dangerous



Jason Webb gives advice on a horse whose attention is everywhere but with their owner.Question

I have trouble getting my horse to pay attention to me sometimes in hand and under saddle. He often seems nervous and tense, always looking at things going on around him. I feel like he might just explode and it means I hate taking him out on hacks or to shows. What can I do?


Horses don’t pay attention if you are not ‘leading’ them. If you don’t have a purpose or a plan in which to engage your horse, they are likely going to be focused on any potential dangers around them. They will feel like a lone horse and we all know that a horse on its own is vulnerable and will be particularly nervous and tense.

First you need to have a plan for worst case scenarios - indications of bucking, bolting or rearing. Obviously safety should be your first priority so make sure you are wearing a suitable riding hat and that your tack is in good, safe condition.



Keep control if you feel any bad behaviour coming on by disengaging your horse’s hindend to take away his ‘power.’ Do this by bending your horse’s head to the left or right until his hindend steps over. You can give at this point and repeat as many times as necessary until you feel your horse settle.

If he is also tricky when led from the ground, practise yielding his hind quarters away from you to achieve the same effect (see my previous articles). Make sure to practise both these exercises at home so you have them in your toolbox should a difficult situation arise when out and about.

Once you are confident with these exercises it is time to give your horse some challenges, starting with something simple. It could be something as easy as going around a couple of cones or markers until you feel good rhythm and an ease in their steering. What this does is give you and your horse a focus. Keep setting new challenges to avoid boredom for both you and your horse. Boredom will result in your horse testing you for something to do. Make sure he accepts that you are the leader and is happy to wait on your command.



If you are at a show or on a hack you may have to think up some patterns without the help of any markers. Design some with plenty of turns in them to keep your horse busy and thinking, and his attention on you. Moving your horse’s feet is a sure way to get their respect and lots of changes in direction with good forward motion helps channel any nervous energy into a job. Moving feet is what a dominant horse does to get its counterparts to submit to their leadership. They use gestures backed up with a kick, a chase or a bite to get the other horse to move their feet and do their bidding (eg. ‘leave the food / mare / foal / me alone’). You have to adopt this attitude.

Don’t try to be ‘pretty’ about it and don’t feel that just because you are at show that this ‘settling down’ time with your horse needs to be in a perfect outline with you on the perfect diagonal etc. It is about getting your horse listening to you.

Once you have achieved this you can go ahead and work in an outline and show what you are both made of, but getting your horse to recognise you as the leader in this strange environment should be the first priority.

Paddock Paradise



Creating turnout that encourages horses to move facilitates physical and mental wellbeing, writes Jill Willis.'Paddock Paradise' is both a term and a concept used to describe a natural and humane way to keep healthy, happy horses based upon the lives of the wild, free roaming horses in the US Great Basin. Introduced by veteran hoof care professional and natural horse care advocate Jamie Jackson in his 2006 book ‘Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding,’ the premise of a natural boarding model is to provide safe, humane, living conditions which use the horse's natural instincts to stimulate and facilitate movement and other behaviours that are essential to a mentally and physically sound horse.

Paddock Paradise

Paddock Paradise

Based upon a four year study of the natural behaviour of wild horses, the theory originally proposed that horses - like any other species - will thrive physically, mentally and emotionally if kept in an environment that takes into consideration the most basic elements of a horse’s natural habitat. According to Jackson, who founded the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices (AANHCP) in 2002, the health of the horse shows up in their hooves. The creation of an environment that simulates a horse’s natural habitat can restore natural integrity and soundness. This includes lots of movement and a reasonably natural diet with free access to a variety of low sugar / low carb grass hays.

Natural horse boarding is unlike a traditional horse keeping situation with stables, small paddocks and/or lush green pastures. It is designed to meet the basic needs of the species...

In the wild, horses are observed moving along familiar tracks as they travel great distances to different places in their various territories. Because horses are animals of prey, they instinctively move in a close, single file formation across these home ranges as they seek out forage, water, rolling spots and other activities essential to their biology and survival. In a natural horse boarding model, tracks are created to stimulate natural movement. Horses quickly reveal their desire to use these tracks by creating narrow, worn down paths just like in wild horse country where travel (or forward movement) is the sole purpose or activity.

Natural horse boarding is unlike a traditional horse keeping situation with stables, small paddocks and / or lush green pastures. It is designed to meet the basic needs of the species as social, nomadic animals of prey whose basic biology require that they have access to the right sorts of forage 24 hours per day. A Paddock Paradise also facilitates other natural behaviours such as herd hierarchy (pecking order), mutual grooming, playing, resting and sleeping behaviours.



Facilitating Health The principal goal of a Paddock Paradise is to facilitate health and soundness - both physical and mental - in the horse. In fact, it is an ideal preventative to many of the illnesses and disorders plaguing domestic equines who are forced to live in stalls or other forms of close confinement or, equally hazardous, in lush, sugar-laden grass pastures. In fact, Jackson believes that a genuine Paddock Paradise can virtually eliminate the risk of laminitis, colic, Navicular Syndrome, Cushings Disease and other debilitating conditions caused by an unnatural lifestyle of confinement, isolation and/or being provide the wrong diet.

A Paddock Paradise will also encourage movement even on small acreages. It allows horses to live more closely to the manner nature intended, moving freely 24/7 and eating in a more natural way by having constant access to the right kinds of food placed strategically throughout their track. When horses are allowed to live in a manner that more closely resembles their natural habitat, not only are they healthier but happier.

Creating a Paddock Paradise Creating a Paddock Paradise can be fairly simple and inexpensive. An electric fence ‘loop’ can be installed inside a perimeter fence and surround a pasture or field to create a series of tracks. Along these tracks you need to place a various stimuli such as strategically placed feeding spots and watering holes to activate curiosity and movement. Many people will begin with plastic electric fence posts. This will allow you to find out what formation or configuration will work best before the time and energy is put into creating a more permanent interior fence.

Electric fencing manufacturers offer a variety of solar chargers that can be used if electricity is not readily available, although this may not be suitable in those areas where the sun disappears for months at a time. You can use the centre field or pasture to grow hay now that the horses are no longer accessing the area. Ideally, horses living on track will not be shod so that the nails do not become a hazard when the shoes are lost. The increased movement, preferably on dry tracks that have added gravel and rock, will help condition and callus the hooves so that shoes are no longer needed.



Hay should be scattered in numerous areas on the track that are specifically enlarged and suited for feeding areas. The hay can be fed from the ground or from a variety of feeding containment systems – from small hole hay nets to plastic tubs with proper drainage – placed strategically in a number of different areas so that the horses are not encouraged to stand in one place for long periods of time to eat. It may take some horses six months or longer before their bodies will become accustomed to ad lib hay, especially if they have been on restricted diets in the past.

Horses secrete hydrochloric acid continuously and if there is nothing in their digestive system for the acid to break down ulcers can occur. Horses living in a genuine Paddock Paradise no longer have these issues but it can sometimes take a bit of time before they seem to trust that they will not be returned to this former way of life.

Shelter from harsh weather should always be provided along the track so that horses have a way to escape severe wet and cold conditions and the sun.

The Official Guide ‘Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Horse Boarding’ was written by Jamie Jackson and first published in 2006. For more visit or search Paddock Paradise on Facebook. The book is available at most online book retailers. The photos featured here are from the headquarters of the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices in Lompoc, CA (

UK based Paddock Paradise consultant Nick Hill is based in the Highlands of Scotland but travels extensively throughout the UK. Visit for more details or call 01808 52175101808 521751.


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Senior Citizens

Julie and Pepsea

Julie and Pepsea

Providing the best quality of life for older horses with Julie Goodnight.

In a quiet corner of my facility is the geriatric wing. We do what we can for these wise old horses to make their final stage of life as comfortable as possible. They’ve given so much to so many riders over the years and I am happy to give them a noble and comfortable, albeit expensive, retirement.

Two elegant old mares currently occupy this part of my barn: Pepsea, a stately Morgan who was my number one horse for many, many years; and Jewell, a frail little Anglo-Trakehner who carried many young riders to the winner's circle and later taught hundreds of adult riders proper equitation. Both mares, by coincidence, are 28 years old and both have been in my barn for over 20 years. It will be strange when they are gone.

Pepsea and Jewell were definitely keepers for me and by the time I no longer needed their services they were too old to risk losing track of. I didn't dare think of selling them. Once they were ready to kick back and semi-retire, I had them out on free leases to nearby, hand selected riders who would pamper them and work them lightly and where it was easy for me to monitor their care. Now both mares are permanently retired from riding and are living out their twilight years with the two things horses want most in life: security and comfort.

Behaviour My senior horses have worked hard all their lives. From a young age they were trained to carry riders, helping them accomplish their equestrian goals. They've been ridden for thousands of hours and carried riders over all sorts of terrain and helped them pursue their interests. They’ve been trained in many disciplines and adjusted to the quirks and demands of many riders.

At this stage of life, the hard work is over and they deserve to rest on their laurels. They are ready to kick back, relax and enjoy the simple things in life (eating and sleeping). Their bodies are failing them: there's sagging where there didn't used to be, their joints are plum wore out and their minds aren't quite as sharp as they used to be. They've earned their status and both the humans and horses around them recognise that they deserve respect and peace.

The senior horses love bathing in the sun and waiting for the next meal. Exercising is not a high priority since they are dealing with the many aches and pains that come at the end of an active life.

Although the senior horses are ready to kick back and take life easy, they do not want to be disregarded and ‘put out to pasture.’ They remember the 'good ole days' when they were athletes in their prime - important and catered to - and they aren't quite ready to give that up. They like to feel needed and wanted.

Retirement The senior horses certainly are not in any need of training. They know more than most of us could ever hope to know about humans and the sport of riding. They can analyse humans more efficiently than Dr. Phil or Judge Judy!

Becoming a senior citizen sort of sneaks up on you. One day you are the cat's meow, at the pinnacle of your career - working hard, getting all sorts of perks and accolades, and the next thing you know you’re being passed by. Hmm, that’s a lot to think about.

The transition from prime time to senior is subtle. When exactly it happens varies greatly with the horse's breeding, history, conformation, temperament, training and soundness. Generally in the late teens or early twenties horses are slowing down and ready to shift towards retirement, although some horses go much longer.

My mares were 20 and 22 when they were ready for a break. I transitioned them from a full time working career to a semi-retired, easy riding life. I made sure they were with riders who would appreciate their wisdom and not make big demands on them. But at some point I had to make the decision to fully retire them. Since no human knew them better, it was up to me to know when it was time.

Fitness At no stage of life is fitness more important or more difficult to manage. Understandably, later in life, body parts change. Joints are flat worn out and the mind tends to wander. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Keeping a geriatric horse fit and sound of mind and body is quite a challenge.

A low back and weak abdominal muscles are the hallmark of a geriatric horse and, depending on the horse's conformation and use, this may happen sooner or later. That's why we try to keep a horse under saddle as long as they can take it, in order to keep them fit, their back strong and give them a sense of purpose.

Once riding is no longer an option we try to keep our older horses strong with exercise in the form of turnout and hand walking. Forcing exercise on an older horse is not always advisable and traditional methods like longeing are too hard on their bodies. Instead, leisurely walks, munching grass and looking at different surroundings, keep them fit both physically and mentally.

I prefer to keep my older horses together and separated from the younger, friskier horses whose idea of a good time might be chasing subordinate horses around. My senior horses deserve a break and protection from the sometimes stressful life in the herd. They don't necessarily want to be alone, but they don't want to be looking over their shoulders for bullies either.

Health and Nutrition Senior horses have very special needs regarding health and diet. My main goal is to keep them safe, comfortable and happy. A horse's teeth grow constantly all of their life until the age of 27-28. This allows them to grind tough forage but at some point their teeth wear away and they can no longer grind their food as well as they used to. In nature, this would signal the slow end to a horse’s life but with the modern advancements in livestock feeds and medicine we are able to keep horses healthy and alive much longer.

I try to keep horses on a high quality grass hay as long as possible (alfalfa is too hard on them metabolically), with a modest amount of oats to carry the supplements they need to stay healthy and comfortable. Once their teeth give out, we start feeding them soaked grass pellets - a delightful mash that keeps their bellies full without all the hard work of chewing. As horses age, they get skinnier and lose muscle mass and in our climate, with long, cold winters, we always blanket them in the winter to give them extra protection.

The most important extra my geriatric horses get is a joint supplement. Arthritis is a normal part of ageing and the harder a horse has been used, the more their joints wear out. The more we protect joints early in life the longer they will last. We monitor our seniors closely to make sure they can lay down and get back up and that they have a comfortable and soft place to sleep. Many geriatric horses prefer to get off their feet and rest more often than younger horses, so it is important that they can get back up easily.

My older horses are also on a yeast based probiotic plus prebiotic product, which aids digestion, and an Omega 3 fatty acid fish oil supplement to promote cardiovascular health. As horses age, their circulation is sometimes compromised - legs stocking up and fluid builds up on their under-line. The fish oil supplement helps with circulation and the added fat helps keep them in good flesh with a healthy coat. It also supports the respiratory system, joint health, and immune function of all horses. This is especially important in geriatric horses who need extra support of their overall wellness.

Horses give so much to us throughout their long lives. When I think back over the more than 20 years I've spent with these two mares - the adventures we've lived through, the memories we've shared and the blood, sweat and tears; I know how fortunate I've been to have them in my life (and many others that have come through my barn). I want nothing more than to keep them safe, comfortable and happy, and honour their lives. I am fortunate to have the resources to care for them at the level they deserve and it is an obligation I take seriously. One day it will be time to let them go and I'll know when that time comes I'll do my best to reduce their suffering and make the end of their lives honourable and painless.

Caring for horses has its own challenges in each stage of life. We all start out as precocious youngsters and hopefully we live a long, productive and comfortable life. It is important to me to offer the best that I can to my horses, in whatever stage of life they are in. After all, it is the least I can do considering all that they have given me.

Since writing this article we lost Jewell at the ripe old age of 28. She was truly a golden girl and a wise old lady. She will be greatly missed.

Getting Started

Starting a young horse is not for the inexperienced or unprepared warns Clinton Anderson. In this article he shares his top tips for a successful first few rides. Safety in preparation The biggest thing my mentor Gordon McKinlay instilled in me when starting colts is that preparation is 99.9 percent of your success. The better prepared your horse is to be ridden, the better your first ride will be. Gordon was meticulous about not getting on a horse until he was ready. I could be working with a young horse and Gordon would come down and say, ‘Is he ready to ride?’ I’d say, ‘No, he needs another day or two’ and he was fine with that because if you get on a horse before he’s ready, you’re going to get bucked off and plant a bad habit in the horse’s mind.

Starting a colt

Starting a colt

Don’t be a hero I left Gordon’s to apprentice with Ian Francis and he had the same philosophy. He always told me, ‘There are a lot of heroes in the graveyard.’ He was referring to all of the people who get on their horses too soon, get bucked off and break their neck. Both men, but especially Gordon, taught me that preparation is everything in starting colts.

Get him moving In my first colt starting lesson, Gordon taught me the importance of not only walking and trotting a colt during the first ride, but also cantering. Cantering picks up the colt’s energy level and frees up his mind. Most people think that you should only walk the horse during the first ride, but I quickly learned that unless you get a colt cantering and moving, he’ll develop ‘sticky’ feet and start to get resentful or lazy about having to move. That’s when he starts to develop bad habits like bucking or rearing.

Equal doses I usually spend five to seven days working with a colt on the ground before I ride him for the first time, even if he’s really quiet. I learned early on that colt starting isn’t just about desensitising your horse, but sensitising him as well – getting him to move his feet, yield and soften to pressure. The better your horse understands how to move his feet and yield to pressure on the ground, the easier it’ll be for him to do the same thing under saddle.

Colt Starting

Colt Starting

A tired colt is a good colt If you over feed and under work your colt, you’re just asking for trouble. I’ve never seen a tired colt, one that’s relaxed and had a lot of miles put under his feet, give anyone any trouble. I have however seen fresh and overfed colts rear, buck and do all kinds of dangerous things because they’re feeling so good that they want to explode out of their skin.

Be realistic about your ability The best success tip I can give anyone thinking about starting a colt is to be realistic about your ability. If you’re a green rider and you’re frightened to trot and canter, the last thing you need to do is start a colt. You should have an independent seat, which means that you can walk, trot and canter on a loose rein and you don’t need to squeeze with your legs to stay in the saddle. If you’re not confident in your ability to stay with a horse, then you’re not ready to start colts.

Don’t fold to peer pressure Don’t ever get on a horse because somebody is pressuring you. I don’t care if it takes two days or two months before you get on a horse; take the time you need to prepare him now so you don’t get in trouble later. If you’re not 90 percent sure it’s going to be a textbook ride, don’t get on. I say 90 percent sure because with colts you can never be a hundred percent sure that everything is going to go according to plan.

A lot of people will raise a foal in their backyard and get tricked into thinking when they go to start him as a 2-year-old he’s going to be the same, quiet, easy going horse

The first six weeks The first six weeks of a horse’s life under saddle is the most crucial time of his career. Whatever a horse learns first will be the thing that sticks with him for the rest of his life. So if you teach him that it’s OK to buck, run away or be stiff and heavy, it’ll take a long time to undo the damage. However, if you teach the horse in the first six weeks that he needs to be soft, supple and relaxed, it’ll the lay the foundation for everything else you do with him.

Clinton Groundwork

Clinton Groundwork

Colts are unpredictable Most people don’t realise just how unpredictable and dangerous horses can be. Horses aren’t man killers or aggressive by nature, but they’re big powerful animals with an extremely fast reaction time. Think of a colt like a small child. Just like kids, your colt is going to do unexpected things. He’s going to be unpredictable. He might spook and jump sideways 10 feet, and if you’re not good enough to sit on him, you’ll be on the ground before you blink your eyes. I’ve seen every wreck you could ever have with a colt.

Don’t be fooled A lot of people will raise a foal in their backyard and get tricked into thinking when they go to start him as a 2-year-old he’s going to be the same, quiet, easy going horse. Some colts will stay quiet, but a lot of them react when you introduce the saddle and a rider’s weight. I think sometimes people forget that everything you’re doing with a colt from the first ride on is a brand new experience for him. Take nothing for granted, and never assume a horse is safe, always make him prove it to you.

Don’t let a bad habit form One of the most important things you can do with your colt is to not let him form any bad habits, especially bucking. You’re better off not letting him learn that he can buck someone off rather than having to spend the time and effort to fix his behaviour. If you need to spend an extra two or three days on the ground preparing the horse to be ridden, do it. What is a week or two out of a horse’s life to prepare him for a successful first ride? Prevention is always better than cure.

Principled Training

Horse misunderstanding

Horse misunderstanding

The best horsemen follow eight fundamental principles based on learning theory, says the International Society for Equitation Science.

Learning theory is the term given to the processes by which animals and humans learn. There are a variety of different theories but the one that is best applied to training animals is behavioural theory, a conceptual framework that lays out how behaviours are acquired, or learned, through conditioning.

Conditioning falls into two categories, classical and operant. In classical conditioning the horse learns a simple association between two events (think Pavlov’s dogs or a horse getting excited by the sound of the feed room door opening) and the behaviour becomes a reflex response to a certain stimulus. In operant conditioning the horse chooses behaviours that are reinforced either positively or negatively. The horse learns to make associations with repeated words or actions through negative reinforcement, in which something undesired or uncomfortable is removed such as leg or bit pressure, or positive reinforcement where something good is anticipated such as a treat which can be used in methods such as clicker training.

The process of ‘shaping’ is used to build on these responses and refine them in order to make a horse respond to the subtlest cue.

Despite over a hundred years of the study of animal behaviour (ethology) and the psychology surrounding the science of learning, the equine industry still has a way to go in promoting best practice in horse training. Unlike the canine industry, where knowledge is generally passed down with success from professionals to the general population, there are countless horses who are suffering from confused training methods and many riders frustrated as a result of misunderstanding.

Although there are probably many examples of poor dog training, the rudiments of how learning theory is applied to dogs is familiar to most owners who will understand the thinking behind teaching a dog to sit or stay. It would be a much better world for the domesticated horse if the same situation were true in the equine industry. If every rider understood the principles of teaching a horse to respond to their cues without confusion, fear or conflict, both parties would be so much better off.

In 2007, a group of equine professionals came together with the goal of facilitating research into the training of horses to enhance welfare and improve the horse / rider relationship. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) was founded in 2007 and now unites a multi disciplinary membership of academics, students and interested practitioners worldwide. It promotes eight fundamental principles of learning theory in equitation, with the ambition that every rider and horse owner base their training interactions around them.

Training Principles of Learning Theory The following eight principles were originally defined in the peer reviewed paper by McGreevy and McLean in 2007 (The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation,’ published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 2, 108-118). The application of the following eight principles is not restricted to any single method of horse training. There are many possible systems of optimal horse training that adhere to all of these principles.

1 Understand and use learning theory appropriately Learning theory explains positive and negative reinforcement and how they work in establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. The terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements (as in ‘good’ or ‘bad’) but arithmetical descriptions of whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away, such as pressure. For example, when the horse responds to a turn signal and the rein pressure is immediately released, negative reinforcement has been applied.

It is critical in the training context that the horse’s responses are correctly reinforced and that the animal is not subjected to continuous or relentless pressure. Prompt and correct reinforcement makes it more likely that the horse will respond in the same way in future. Learning theory explains how classical conditioning and habituation can be correctly used in horse training.

2 To avoid confusion, train signals that are easy to discriminate There are many responses required in horse training systems but only a limited number of areas on the horse’s body to which unique signals can be delivered. From the horse’s viewpoint overlapping signal sites can be very confusing, so it is essential that signals are applied consistently in areas that are as isolated and separate from one another as possible.

3 Train and shape responses one at a time It is a prerequisite for effective learning that responses are trained one at a time. To do this each response must be broken down into its smallest possible components and then put together in a process called ‘shaping.’

4 Train only one response per signal To avoid confusing the horse, it is essential that each signal elicits just one response. However, there is no problem with a particular response being elicited by more than one signal. Sometimes a response may be complex and consist of several trained elements. These should be shaped (or built up) progressively. For example, the ‘go forward’ response is expected to include an immediate reaction to a light signal, a consistent rhythm as the animal moves in a straight line and with a particular head carriage. Each of these components should be added progressively within the whole learned response to a ‘go forward’ signal.

5 For a habit to form effectively, a learned response must be an exact copy of the ones before For clarity, a complete sequence of responses must be offered by the horse within a consistent structure (e.g. transitions should be made within a defined number of footfalls). Habit formation applies to transitions in which the number of footfalls must be the same for each transition and this must be learned.

6 Train persistence of responses (self-carriage) It is a fundamental characteristic of ethical training systems that once each response is elicited, the animal should maintain the behaviour. The horse should not be subjected to continuing signals from leg or rein pressure.

7 Avoid and dissociate flight responses When animals experience fear, all characteristics of the environment at the time (including any humans present) may become associated with the fear. It is well known that fear responses do not fade as other responses do and that fearful animals tend not to trial new learned responses. It is essential to avoid causing fear during training.

8 Benchmark relaxation to ensure the absence of conflict Relaxation during training must be a top priority. When conflict behaviours are observed in the horse, the training method must be carefully examined and modified so that these behaviours are minimised and ultimately avoided. To recognise the importance of calmness in enabling effective learning and ethical training, any restraining equipment (such as nosebands) should be loose enough to allow conflict behaviours to be recognised and dealt with as they emerge.


1. Immediate release - soften the pressure of the signal the instant the horse responds appropriately. 2. Differentiation - signals must be clearly distinguishable from each other. 3. One step at a time (shaping) - train each response component of complex movements separately. 4. Repeat with consistency - the horse will automatically respond in the desired way if the behaviour is precisely targeted. 5. One response per signal - reinforce only one response for each separate signal. 6. Avoid fear - during all interactions, make sure that characteristics of the environment, including the humans, do not become associated with fear. 7. Train persistence - reward the horse for maintaining a behaviour by not applying pressure until the next signal is given. 8. Check for relaxation - strive for relaxation when training each response. Techniques and equipment must not be used to mask distress or undesirable behaviour.

Find out more about the International Society for Equitation Science visit


Horses are instinctively herd bound. It’s one of seven categories of instinctive behaviour in horses and is known as ‘gregarious behaviour.’ Quite simply, it is the desire to be with others. Even though gregarious behaviour is instinctive in horses, somehow we speak of it as an affliction - barn sour, gate sour, buddy sour, herd bound, spoiled and even ‘ruined.’ Horses are instinctively drawn to the herd and it’s up to us to provide the training and leadership the horse needs to transfer this draw to us instead. Two simple things motivate the horse to be with the herd and these are safety and comfort. That’s what horses seek out the most. Teaching the horse that he will get those two things from you, even more than he does from the herd, is the secret to success. Until your horse gets the same feeling from you that he does from the herd, he will not want to go anywhere with you.

For your horse, a sense of safety comes from being in the presence of a truly alpha leader, an individual that is confident, aware of the environment, in charge and in control of all those around. An individual that dictates and enforces rules and is fair and consistent in punishment and reward, thus providing structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic world.

Comfort comes in the feeling of acceptance, reassurance, rest, praise and stroking. Discomfort comes from having to work hard, being admonished and aversive pressure such as the bump of the lead rope. Make your horse comfortable when he does the right thing and uncomfortable when he does the wrong thing. He will always choose to seek out comfort.

Herd of Horses

Herd of Horses

Keep in mind that all behaviour in all animals is either instinctive or learned. Horses are extremely fast learning animals and highly sensitive to their environment. Sometimes instinctive behaviour can turn to learned behaviour over time or on the very first instance.

For example, if a horse is being led away from the barn and the safety of the herd, he might become emotional and distraught (instinct) and his antics may cause him to break free from the handler and run all the way back to the safety and comfort of the barn. From this experience he may learn that all he has to do is break away from his handler to get what he wants and thus it becomes a learned behaviour.

A riding horse is considered to be well trained and obedient when it goes in the exact path dictated by the rider and at the speed dictated by the rider. A horse is disobedient when it voluntarily varies from the path or speeds up or slows down, unauthorised by the rider. Almost always, when a horse varies its path or speed, it is intentional and in a direction he wants to go, such as toward the barn / gate / other horse.

It has become increasingly obvious to me, through the decades I’ve spent teaching people to handle their horses, that most people are totally unaware of the small infractions horses make all the time, particularly as it applies to barn sour behaviour. When small disobediences are ignored, it leads to bigger ones. If they are corrected, the barn sour behaviour goes away.

Condoning Disobedience Does your horse pull toward the gate? Is he looking around all the time, never focusing on you and the path you have dictated? Does he slow down when you pass the gate and speed up as you round the corner toward the gate? Does he turn easily toward the gate and sluggishly when you turn away? These are all small and subtle disobediences - even if he only varies the path by six inches, he knows he’s doing it and he knows when you ignore it (or don’t notice it) and therefore you condone the disobedience.

All a rider needs to do to stop this disobedient behaviour is, first and foremost notice it, be aware of what your horse is doing with his whole body at all times and be aware of what motivates him. Then call him on it and admonish him appropriately, finding the amount of pressure that motivates him to change.

When you ride in the arena, put your horse on the rail then lower your hands to his neck and expect him to stay there. You shouldn’t have to constantly tell him to stay on the path. If you do, your horse is disobedient and you have a co-dependent relationship with him. If he comes off the rail or cuts corners (moving on a path that you did not dictate), pick up the reins and correct his direction right away, scolding him as you do. Get him back on the path and drop your hands again, expecting him to stay on course.

Insisting on your horse’s obedience and focus on the task at hand is a minimal requirement for your horse to think of you as his leader. Be aware of his behaviour and motivations and correct him consistently, with enough pressure that he feels like he’s gotten in trouble and thus looks for ways to avoid getting in trouble again. Reward his good behaviour with a release of pressure, a few kind words, stroking and letting him rest. With this kind of strong leadership your horse will accept you as a capable and authoritative leader and will gladly go with you anywhere.


From the most ancient times, man has studied the world around him for signs and clues. Horses have been a huge fascination since 30,000 BC when they were first drawn on the walls of caves. Ancient students of the horse may have studied things and made conclusions that we find foolish today but, as with everything that is old and becomes new again, the study of whorls always has had its believers. Here we will uncover some of the thinking behind the importance of these swirls of fur. A whorl is a patch of hair growing in the opposite direction to the rest of the hair. Whorls occur on animals with hairy coats and are often found on horses and cows. Locations where whorls are found in equines include the stomach, face, poll, neck, chest, flanks and sometimes in random, odd places on the body. Hair whorls in horses are also known as crowns, swirls, trichoglyphs or cowlicks and can be either clockwise or counter clockwise in the direction of growth. One study has found that horses can be shown to have left or right footed lateral motion depending on the direction of growth of their whorls.

Neck whorl

Neck whorl

Thinking horsemen are always striving to understand and maximise their horses. In many horsemen’s opinion, studying whorls can offer important clues to both horse personality and performance. Although considered a pseudo science, the study of whorls can aid in the understanding of the nature of a horse and may help owners choose the horse partner that is best suited to their goals and reject an unsuitable horse before time, money and emotion are invested. In short, whorls can lead us to a deeper understanding and acceptance of our horses.

The validity of whorl analysis took a huge step forward early in this decade with the work of animal scientist Temple Grandin PhD, of Colorado State University. She became interested in whorls when her assistant Mark Deesing, who trains and shoes horses, shared his casual observation that horses with whorls high on the forehead or two whorls tended in general to be more reactive and ‘highly strung.’

Grandin and Deesing decided to see if these correlations held up under scrutiny. They opted to work with cattle that have whorl patterns similar to horses as they needed a large number of animals without extensive handling so the results wouldn’t be influenced by training. Working at a Colorado feedlot, they observed 1,500 cattle as they were restrained one at a time in a hydraulic squeeze chute for vaccinations. One person noted the animal’s whorl patterns while the other, positioned so the facial whorls weren’t visible (to avoid bias), ranked the animal’s temperament using a standardised scale.

‘We found there was definitely a relationship between the position of whorls and the temperament of the cattle,’ reports Grandin. ‘Those with whorls high on the forehead were more likely to fight and move around in the chute. And we’ve definitely observed enough of the same sort of correlation in horses to know it’s a factor for them as well.

‘With horses, I think sometimes people read too much into it in terms of personality,’ she adds. ‘How easily the animal gets scared - that’s how I prefer to put it.’ However you put it, it begs the question: Why should hair whorls and temperament be connected in any way? As it turns out, hair whorl patterns form in the developing fetus at the same time the brain is forming.

‘The nervous system and the skin, which contains the whorl patterns, come from the same embryonic layer,’ explains Grandin. ‘This may explain the apparent relationships between body traits and temperament. It is interesting to note that humans with developmental disabilities have a high incidence of abnormal hair whorl patterns.’

My first exposure to the existence of whorls was at childhood. I grew up in Virginia with lots of Thoroughbred horses. As with many breed societies, the registering process of the babies asked for all whorls to be marked with an 'x’ to identify the horse as whorls are evident at birth and never change. I never gave them another thought. I never used them as a way to choose or not choose a horse. I noticed an odd one here and there but mostly because the hair grew strangely or the mane was difficult to braid or band. It wasn't until a fateful day in the summer of 2002 when NSBA Hall of Fame Horseman Jerry Stanford took a look at a challenging three year old filly of mine that I truly understood the potential power of understanding whorls.

Jerry Stanford is a true pioneer, educator, leader and legend in the western pleasure industry. A bit of an outlaw himself, he took in numerous rowdy teenage boys like Cleve Wells and Shane Dowdy, and made them the horsemen to lead the next generation. Jerry was from the school of trial and error, and his theories were formed from intense study of successful western pleasure horses. He studied conformation, herd behaviour, grazing and movement posture, whorls and more before choosing the horses in which to invest his time. Jerry painted me the picture of him sitting under a tree in a pasture full of yearlings. He watched, studied and compared everything before making his choice. By careful evaluation he could choose the colt or filly most likely to train up into the winning two year old (and beyond) western pleasure horse.

He felt certain babies were destined for greatness and if one was particular enough, he could find that baby and develop him. Through his excellent eye and mind, Jerry made the AQHA stallion The Invester famous. In fact one year Jerry and his wife Marty were first and third in the AQHA Congress Two Year Old Western Pleasure, and seven of the top ten winners were by The Invester.

At the time (2002) Jerry was travelling the country helping horse trainers improve their skills and programs. I met him in Jackson, Mississippi, at the Dixie Nationals and was blown away by his innovative mind and unique training style. He gave me his card and I called him to see if he would come to South Carolina from Arkansas to help me. He literally changed my life by deepening my understanding of the performance horse, changing forever the way I looked at and evaluated them.

That first sunny morning I took out my best horse Skip (Skip N Ol Paint, multi World and Reserve World APHA Champion now, but not then) for Jerry to evaluate. He loved him. He showed me how his body shape, type, muscling and posture was perfect for a western pleasure horse. He showed me how the balance and symmetry in every part of his body was perfect for his job. He explained, ‘A monkey could be World Champion with this horse, so many things are lined up right.’ Although I was taken back by my comparison to a monkey, I was thrilled he liked my favourite boy so much; or was he just really kind and nice about every horse?

I quickly found out this was not the case when I brought out my three year old filly. She had been quite a challenge and the reason remained a mystery. I had bought the pretty sorrel overo filly when she was a foal still on her mother. I had brought her home and raised her myself. She had the square frame, matching feet, low set knees and hocks Jerry spoke so highly of, and she had the ‘look’ and movement of a fancy western pleasure horse. Her ‘hole’ seemed to be in her ability to appropriately respond to pressure (physical and mental) and follow cues. Whenever she felt stressed or pressured, instead of thinking and responding, she would explode, flip over and slam herself to the ground. She could do this numerous times in a session or not for a few months. But when she blew it was fast with no readable warning signs. I had (with help) gotten her where I could walk, jog and lope with her head naturally in a pretty good spot. Most days I could subtly 'body' her onto the correct lead, but I could never force or insist on anything. Through sheer natural ability she looked almost ready to show (at home), but I knew there was no speed control, no body control and no true steering or brake if she needed to be directed or shut down.

The filly was neat enough that my dear friend D John Deas offered to keep her and work on her for me. After several months he told me, he didn't get it. ‘Crazy Charlotte,’ as he called her, just wouldn't develop. He had been kind to her, he had tried to ‘kill’ her, but nothing worked. He said, ‘Honey this is the fanciest horse either of us will every own, but she won't take the training. I don't know what else to do.’ I brought her home and rode her a couple of days a week, just sneaking around any issues and doing my best to make my ideas become her ideas. I thought the great Jerry Stanford would have my key! He would have the answer to this frustrating puzzle. He did...

Jerry was sitting in a white plastic chair right across from my cross ties when I led her in and hooked her up. I was all smiles, excited to show off my fancy filly and to hear how smart I was for choosing such a pretty thing. Jerry's eyes were six feet from her nose when he reared back in that plastic chair and asked, ‘Have you ever really looked at this horse?’ I mumbled something incoherent as he emphatically said, ‘This horse is the Devil!’

My face fell and I was stunned. I started in on how fancy she moved but he cut me off, ‘Look at that whorl on her nose. It is down so low your noseband would cover it. The only thing with a whorl like that is a mule. You will never train this horse and she will hurt you very badly one day. Get rid of her immediately for whatever you can get. I will not touch her with my hands.’

I had gone from immense pride one minute in Skip, to despair the next being told to send this filly to the killers because she was dangerous. I was reeling so hard I could not speak. He continued, ‘I bet the whorls are messed up all over her body. Whorls are formed at the same time the learning centres of the brain are formed. About 80% of horses have a nearly identical whorl pattern and learn normally. Anything that deviates from that normal whorl pattern will be more challenging at best, to deadly at worst.’

As we looked over her body, she was like a train wreck of whorls. The left side of her neck had the whorl which belongs up on the crest by the mane, down low nearly at the jugular groove with the hair whorling out in every direction over her neck from her throatlatch to her shoulder. The other side of her neck had no whorl (whorls should be balanced from right to left, so a big whorl on one side and none on the other was disastrous by itself). Her flank whorls did not line up with her flanks, they were leaning and one broke twice and restarted, the other broke three times and restarted. The rest he spared telling me. I could see she was undeniably a huge mess. I decided to disclose her behaviour, which had been a secret up to that point. Of course he was not even fazed, her whorls could have predicted she was nothing but heartache the day she was born. He just told me to never get on her again. I actually listened, and sold her at a very cheap price to a horse trader friend who was determined to prove Jerry wrong. He never did.

I became fascinated in the clues hidden in whorls and I talked to everyone I could find to learn more. I studied countless horses and their whorl patterns, comparing the patterns to their performance. Jerry's theories were right on the money every time! I even started to seek out world champions from all different areas, jumping, cutting, reining, eventing, etc. I observed those 'perfect' whorl patterns time and time again. I also studied the unpredictable, bad actors that never fulfilled their 'potential' and found commonalities with them as well. I braid and band hundreds of horses each year and have gotten to observe tremendous numbers of horses and their whorl patterns. Successful horses are as shockingly consistent as the poor performers are predictable.

‘I have personally attempted to disprove the Theory of the Whorls for over 20 years, so far I am unsuccessful.’

Craig Johnson

Not everyone is eager to learn and embrace this idea. I have experienced many violent outbursts from the owner of a horse with a challenging whorl pattern. Although this horse has already hurt them they are certain it will become their perfect dream partner with the right trainer or programme.

One evening after a Craig Johnson reining clinic, I joined Craig and several other clinic participants and spouses for dinner at a local restaurant. The conversation was dull and everyone was putting on fake and 'perfect' facades for Craig who appeared to see right through them. I decided to shake the party up a bit by bringing up whorls. I asked Craig if he believed in the 'Whorl Theory?' It made one woman explode with anger; she in fact had a horse with telling whorls. I knew at least one other person at the table did too. The table erupted in heated discussion attacking me and 'my' ideas. I didn't mind, it was certainly more interesting than the previous conversation.

Craig Johnson is one of the finest horsemen of our time and one of the smoothest speakers I know, I couldn't wait to hear what he had to say. I knew Craig came from horsemen, but I also knew he does his own thinking and follows his own path to success paved with strong foundation horsemanship, unwavering ethics and incredible talent and timing. Craig's answer was classic.

‘My daddy believed in whorls and put value in what they mean. I, however, do not. I believe with quality horse training, every horse should reach his or her potential regardless of their whorl pattern. I would never turn down a training horse because it has ‘bad’ whorls. I do however pay attention to whorls when I purchase a horse I plan to sell later. Although I do not believe in whorls, enough other people do that a horse with 'bad whorls' may not make it out of the stall when a client comes to look at him. I do not believe in buying any horse that has an issue real or imagined, that would stop a client from even taking him out of the stall to ride.

‘I have personally attempted to disprove the Theory of the Whorls for over 20 years, so far I am unsuccessful.’

The table that was humming as he spoke went silent for a moment, disbelief all over the faces of those poo-pooing 'my' idea. I said nothing else, Craig said nothing else and the subject immediately changed.

You would be in shock at the number of successful people who do believe. Most people won't talk about it or admit it, but in a group of successful horsemen, I bet at least half have knowledge of at least the basics. If you have never even considered this type of idea get Linda Tellington-Jones book, Understand and Influence Your Horse's Personality. It is a fascinating and different way to look at and consider horses. I was surprised how uncannily accurate her observations were when I took them to my own horses. It has a nice beginner's section on whorls too.

Whorls in horses

Whorls in horses


To fully understand whorls and their affect on your horse, think about how energy moves through a horse's body. Created in the hindquarter of the horse (the engine), energy is sent forward toward the nose travelling through the hindquarters, loin and back to the top of the neck, through the poll and down the front of the face to the nose.

The theory goes that whorls can have the effect of allowing, stopping or altering this energy by focussing it or muddling it depending upon the type of whorl at the given spot. Types of possible whorls are Simple, Tufted, Linear, Crested and Feathered. Energy flows exactly as the whorl appears.

If we picture energy like water it is easier to comprehend. Focussed energy can be very powerful, like water cutting through rock. Muddled or dissipated energy can become stagnant and rot everything around it. Smooth flowing energy is clean, pure, easy to predict and control; but just like a beaver dam can stop up the flow of your creek and cause the water to start cutting new routes through the surrounding land, so can a whorl affect the flow of the energy you expect to flow smoothly through your horse.

As we know some horses have a lot of energy (water) flowing through them (Arabs, TBs etc), while others have but a trickle (drafts, some older style stock breeds, etc). A high energy horse with challenging whorls can be like the white rapids that cut through rock out west. They can get 'stuck' and dig deep holes that end in huge explosions. But that low energy horse with challenging whorls can spook or explode when enough energy bogs down too. Understanding the balance of energy in the body will really help you understand why whorls (other than on the forehead) are best in pairs.

Each whorl on one side should have a matching whorl on the opposite side of the body. Because whorls stop or slow down energy, it is very important that they be balanced and equal on both sides of the body for the horse to feel (energetically) balanced or straight. If they are uneven, energy will ‘hang up’ on one side and not the other. I have seen beautiful horses with an odd whorl (usually on the neck) on one side and not the other. Low energy horses may just stay bent toward the whorl and resist turning the other way and picking up both leads. A high energy horse can be super explosive and buck or bolt because they feel one side quite energised and the other side quite dead. This lack of harmony in one’s own body can be intensely frustrating and cause the horse to act out in grumpy or violent behaviours. Many times the horse will become lame in the foot closest to the odd whorl because energy, weight and pounding pool there.

A more subtle ‘out of balance’ issue occurs in most horses as few have perfectly balanced whorls. The horse will usually bend or turn more easily in the direction of the furthest back or longer whorl since energy flows from the back of the horse forward, and the first or bigger whorl will stop the energy first. A good rider can help these horses stretch and seem perfectly even. Obviously the closer to even the better, but awareness can help you help your horse become balanced energetically.

‘Reading’ whorls will give you a blueprint to the way energy is most likely to flow through the horse. Talented riders and trainers can feel this energy when they interface (ride or do groundwork) with a horse. A rider who has developed this sense of feeling energy and directing it can overcome tremendous issues! I have seen trainers so tuned into this feeling that a ‘normal’ whorl horse is just plain boring. Giving this rider knowledge and understanding of whorls could open the door to many more horses becoming better understood, better developed and better balanced so they can reach higher goals than ever before.

Face Whorls

Face Whorls



  • The forehead whorl hair is the most influential because it is the first hair to develop and grow on the body in the embryonic foetus.

  • A whorl directly between the eyes is normal. High whorls usually goes with a more active mind; lower whorls with a less active mind.

  • The more focussed the whorl, the more possible focus in the mind. The less focused the whorl, the less focused in the mind.

  • Single whorls usually have a pretty consistent single personality, might be calm, might be crazy, but usually one predictable personality.

  • Double or triple whorls indicate multiple personalities. Horses with multiple face whorls can be more complicated and can be more difficult to initially read and address appropriately. Multiple whorls will usually come out somewhere. The horse might be difficult to clip or trailer; might be petrified of 'unreasonable' specific things; might be fine several days in a row, then explode out of the blue; might be accident prone. They may require more patience, time, skill and understanding to train/develop. They may surprise/let you down at an important moment by switching personalities, especially by going from confident to unconfident in the blink of an eye.

  • Double whorls usually come in three varieties: side by side, on top of each other and 'Z' shaped.

  • Many Grand Prix horses in both dressage and jumping have very high, very tight side-by-side double whorls. This type of double whorl seems to give the ability to hyper focus. These horses are challenging and gritty, like most double whorl horses, but the ability to hyper focus and not back down from a challenge can be an asset in professional hands.

  • Double whorls on top of each other are tougher because their two personalities are many times extreme. Some of the words given are untrustworthy, unreliable, accident prone. They may be the horses that never realise their potential because something always seems to happen at a high pressure, critical moment. We have worked with some very nice horses with this whorl pattern but I must say each did have at least one of the challenging qualities in a heavy dose.

  • I know two lovely horses with double whorls on top of each other that one would say are exceptions. But the first would manage to get hurt or tangled in something all the time, as if for attention. The other is a super fancy horse that was slated to be a multiple world champion western pleasure horse. I have watched him twice come all but 'unhooked' in the finals at the world show after being beautifully prepared. Both times he still got big prizes (once reserve world champion), but that number one spot just eludes him.

  • Double whorls in a 'Z' shape can be a dangerous cat! I have known several horses with this face whorl pattern and they were 'the horse your momma warned you about.’ Usually an extreme 'Z' whorl horse will have other 'bad' whorls elsewhere on his body. This is the most dangerous. One must be an excellent leader with this horse, but one must never be brutal or unfair. He will calculate and hurt you before you hurt him. Grouchy about food and their personal space, best to pick your battles and accept it if you have chosen one that he will not surrender. Not loving pets, these horses will tolerate a specific job and do it well if they agree it is reasonable. Check for body pain issues (as a root to grumpy mood) before dismissing them as bad minded as these horses have a very high tolerance for pain and will attack before showing weakness.

  • Double (or more) whorls will not take the pounding and criticism that many single whorl horses will endure. One must be fair and just in all requests. Single middle whorl horses are more predictable for riders who are first learning and need a more forgiving attitude. Leave the complicated whorls to more experienced riders.


  • Additional whorls around the mouth and on the cheeks can add complexity and complication to your horse. Many horses with odd mouth whorls will hold their mouths stiffly or stick their tongues out while riding.


  • In the olden days, a whorl on the cheek was a bad sign of debt and ruin.


  • A whorl (or a pair of whorls) on an ear really focuses energy to hearing. Interestingly this occurs usually in mules. Sounds will be big factors in performance.


  • A whorl (or pair of whorls) on a temple will heighten thinking on the side with the whorl. Horse will be a fast thinker and great puzzle solver for better or worse.

  • These horses may over think a problem, or may figure things out and just take the rider with them and finish the puzzle with flash and pizzaz.


  • Whorls at or close to the poll with determine where the head and neck easily and naturally break. Perfectly even whorls right behind each ear will cause the horse to evenly break right at the poll.

  • The further back the whorls are, the more of an odd hump in the neck your horse may have when trying to give vertical flexion.

  • When these whorls are uneven, the neck will have a tendency to want to turn toward the first whorl. The more out of balance, the more difficult it is to get the head to smoothly turn the other way.

  • Horses with no poll whorls often have a difficult time giving any vertical flexion.


  • Whorls under the throatlatch seem to draw the head up. They can help keep a horse from getting the head too low if they have good poll whorls.

  • Whorls under the throatlatch without poll whorls may create a high head carriage, or a lack of flexibility.

  • It is preferred that these whorls be evenly spaced under the throatlatch and not all off to one side.


  • Whorls located on the trachea or underside of the windpipe were seen as a sign of prosperity and good fortune in olden days.

  • These are entirely different from the long 'wheat' coming out of the chest extending almost to the throatlatch.

Chest Whorls

Chest Whorls


  • Normal chest whorls are a good sign in olden days and were believed to be a sign of prosperity.

  • Whorls along the windpipe are also a positive sign in the olden days and were meant to bring love and prosperity. The more focussed and tight the whorl, the better the luck.

  • A long Wheat starting between the chest muscles and extending nearly to the throatlatch is a bad sign. A long wheat combined with double face whorls is a very bad sign. These horses are very difficult to train and not recommended for high level showing! In the 1800's a horse with double whorls and a long wheat was believed to have been marked by the devil. Although that does sound extreme, do not pick this horse for high pressure goals. Keep it simple and hopefully this horse can find a place to be loved and appreciated.

  • Many roughstock rodeo horses have this combination. We have had three horses that had this pattern and all three would really buck with a snug girth. One never learned to go forward and steer. One would be going forward, slam on the brakes and threaten to flip over and the third would charge people in the pasture.


  • Most horses have whorls around the centre of the neck on both sides. Ideally these will be directly across from each other. Energy will slow down in whorls and cause the neck to 'break' or develop a high spot that corresponds with the whorls.

  • Large crest whorls may create so much slowing of energy that the neck will thicken/ or become ‘cresty.’

  • Horses with no crest whorls will have energy smoothly flowing up both sides of the neck to the poll. These necks stay thinner and have a tendency to be carried flatter than a neck with crest whorls.

Neck Whorls

  • Horses with neck whorls may not relax the neck and will choose to lean and not steer well.

  • Horses hold tension and emotions in these whorls. Necks will get sore and horse will seem fine, then explode if pushed. Although I have seen some great talents with odd neck whorls, they took serious patience, skill and grit.


  • Wither whorls cause energy to stop and flow straight down into the front leg under the whorl.

  • Usually these cause horses to be heavier on the forehand and be shorter strided than one would expect.

  • Horses with only one wither whorl on one side tend to be randomly explosive. Spooking is often worse on that side.

  • Their bodies also tend to curl around that one wither whorl, making it nearly impossible to straighten them.

  • This whorl was also known as the ‘Coffin Whorl’ because it is said these horses' riders would die in the saddle. I have had (and seen) horses with this whorl flip and appear to try to ‘kill’ their riders.

Back Whorls

  • Horses with back whorls may buck or react badly to a sore back.

  • It is nearly impossible to get energy to flow through the back.


  • Horses with girth whorls do tend to be more sensitive to someone jerking the girth tight too fast. These can become horses that pull back and won't tie when saddled if not treated kindly and girthed up slowly.

  • In the olden days, a girth whorl was a sign of good luck and fortune.


  • Horses with big belly whorls can tend to have bigger bellies. Energy pools in the belly and so can fat.

  • They may also be a little lazier in the back so it might take a bit more effort to get them to lift it.

Flank Whorls

Flank Whorls


  • Ideally each flank will have one long straight whorl extending from the point of the hip into the soft loose flank skin.

  • If the whorl tip is tipped back, the horse will tend to have their hind feet slightly behind them and must stay 'bridled' to use the hind legs effectively. If the top is tipped back, the horse will tend to have weak, rounded, bent, ineffective hocks that don't work and push effectively.

  • After studying flank whorls in more detail, I found 'S' curve flank whorls more common than perfect straight up and down flank whorls. These 'S' shape whorls belong to horses who are fast sometimes, super slow and lazy at other times. Strongly influenced by the rider's energy and nerves.

  • If the whorl ends high, the hind leg will be 'lazy' and not want to track up strongly underneath.

  • If the whorl breaks and starts again, you will have some weird bad energy stuff on that side.

Front Leg

  • Whorls on the backs or sides of the front legs will tighten them and can shorten the stride.


  • It is unusual to have an actual whorl within the fetlock, but it will effectively slow that foot and ankle down.

  • The joints below seem to get less energy so they tend to be slower to bend. This is nice in western pleasure horses but not as nice in jumping horses who need quick folding feet. These horses may trip more on uneven ground because the feet will travel a bit slower and closer to the ground.

Back of Hindquarter

  • Whorls on the backs of the hind legs will make the movement of that leg up and back easier than forward and under.

  • Stretching can really help horses with these whorls before riding.

  • If one leg has a whorl and the other doesn't, many times the leg with the whorl will tend to take a shorter, tighter step.

Tail Whorls

  • Emotions come out in the tail. Negative emotions can get 'stuck' in these whorls and horse will be horribly active with their tail.

  • The tail may end up crooked and high set.

Weird Whorls

  • Any weird out of place whorls usually correspond with a tough or explosive spot in the horse. These spots will tighten and the horse may twist or explode. Best to stay away from horses with whorls on the neck (below the crest and above the windpipe), back and wither.

WORD OF CAUTION In my years of analysing whorls I have learned to be careful about using value judgements about certain whorl placements. I see trainers who excel with a group of horses with ‘challenging’ whorl patterns, so maybe before completely rejecting a horse because of its whorls, look through your barn (and your trainer's barn) at the common whorl patterns. Make sure a new horse you plan to introduce will be warmly accepted. If there is anything (whorls, colour, size, conformation etc) that will cause your horse to be rejected, maybe consider another avenue (trainer, event, competition level etc) where the horse can be better embraced and appreciated, or choose a different horse.

There are special people who do set out to smash rules and boundaries. If you have a horse with a very 'unique' whorl or combination of whorls, you may need to seek out that same unique rider/trainer to help your horse achieve his greatest success.

This is meant to be an article to help us better understand and help our horses and ourselves reach greater heights and maximise our full potential. It is not meant to depress or define limits, it is meant to inspire and help you understand some of the 'whys' so you can work through them.

No Shoes

Keeping horses 'natural' can be challenging  but in the case of barefoot trimming, there can be advantages.  Linzi Hill explains. Although it is thought that the horse shoe could have been introduced as early as the 4th Century, barefoot working horses have been in existence for as many years in countries such as Mongolia and the South Americas. Indeed, even where shoeing is a feasible option, many owners value the improvement in horn, hoof shape and gait that the barefoot method offers their equine companion.

Barefoot Horse

Barefoot Horse

As the natural approach to equine husbandry has caught on, the UK in particular has embraced the barefoot concept and a handful of qualified equine podiatrists exist, maintaining the feet of leisure and competition horses alike.

So why is barefoot preferable to the protection of a shod hoof? In essence, careful trimming of the barefoot method allows wear of the growing hoof whereas metal shoes do not. Bad shoeing can degrade the shape of the hoof and in some cases hinder movement. There are also reports that lameness is reduced or even eradicated when barefoot.

In researching this topic I can only find good things said about gait improvements after shoes are removed. Some report soundness when previously a horse was lame. The horse, after all, will be moving as naturally as his physiology will allow. Reports of more fluid movement and improvement of problems such as dishing and overreaching make a good case for the barefoot management of hoof then removing shoes will undoubtedly be easier than if he has poor crumbly or cracking hooves. If this is the case, extra management will be required in the early months.

Most horses need a transition time of around eight months or more to get used to being without shoes, although this is a fairly long time period owners unanimously agree that it’s worth the wait. Removing shoes and continuing full work is entirely plausible. As long as a horse is managed correctly after the initial period he can go on to compete as normal.

When the shoe is first removed increased blood flow starts the process of rebuilding the structure of the hoof. The trick is to give the horse time to get used to the new way of going. If your horse is a little lame it does not necessarily mean that barefoot isn’t for him – it may just mean that he hasn’t been given enough time to adjust. Hoof boots can help here if your horse is competing or in full work. On the other hand, some horses take to it immediately without any transition time at all, especially if he already has healthy horn and a good sole. Your podiatrist or farrier will be able to advise on this.

The introduction of harder surfaces and gravel is important. The hoof needs to be strengthened and this can be done by gradual exposure to different types of surfaces. Some initial work in hand may be needed and feeding hoof supplements may also be advisable.

Podiatrists don’t just trim your horse they also provide support and information about the management of the hoof and any supplements that may prove helpful.

Hoof boot

Hoof boot


  • Cheaper than shoeing

  • No worries about cast shoes

  • Improvement in horn, gait and hoof shape


  • Some horses need a gradual introduction to work

  • Protective boots can be tricky to fit

  • Possible traction problems with fast work

Form and Function

An introduction to the science of hoof function by equine podiatrist Tom Bowyer DAEP MIAEP. Applied Equine Podiatry was founded by Dr KC La Pierre after work he started in 1997. A practising farrier for over 23 years, he found that no matter how good a farrier you were it was inevitable that the hooves of an older horse would exhibit changes in shape leading to problems with under-run heels, long toes and a lack of inner wall. This makes larger nails, quarter and toe clips a necessity - sound familiar?

Hoof Structure

Hoof Structure

KC ask the following questions: ‘What structures do I have? How do they function? How do I want them to perform?’ He based his programme around the answers. Each of the seven hoof structures treated by equine podiatry has its own function. After many years of evidence based research, and many hundreds of dissections, we now have what is believed to be an accurate model of the horse’s foot  in terms of what correct structures should look like, where they belong and what each of their functions are.

In applied equine podiatry we base foot care on KC’s High Performance Trim (HPT) method, which he pioneered in 1997, and his paper entitled ‘The Suspension Theory of Hoof Dynamics,’ which was published in 2000.  KC has since been a consultant to many influential trainers including Pat and Linda Parelli, John Lyons, Gawani Pony Boy, and Dan Summeral.

Principles of equine podiatry

  • Structure + Function = Performance

  • The horse has the innate ability to heal itself (providing that the environment is conducive to the healing)

  • Correct pressure is the stimulus for correct growth

  • Utilize time as a dimension in the positive treatment of the equine foot

  • Do no harm

More than a trim A very fine balance exists within the foot with each individual structure being dependant on the health and correct function of all of its adjoining structures. If, through domestication, we inhibit the correct function of any of these structures performance is affected and you may risk the long term health of your horse. However, the science of applied equine podiatry is much more than simply trimming off hoof. The trim must be bio mechanically accurate, putting the hoof capsule in balance with the footprint of the horse. This can be easily taught and, most importantly, is non-invasive.



A Degreed Applied Equine Podiatrist (DAEP) will rate each of the seven structures of the foot, scoring them between one and 10. These scores are then added up and divided by seven to give an average score for that foot on what we call the ‘Spectrum of Usability’. The scores of all four feet are then added up and divided to give the average. Other factors that are considered when assessing a horse’s position on the spectrum include its intended use, its height, weight, level of fitness, diet, its daily living environment and the rider.

It really is whole horse hoof care. I like to use the analogy that a person wouldn’t immediately enter a marathon if they were ridiculously unfit. You would need to train to a suitable level of fitness first, and the foot is no different. You need to take the time to get a healthy foot under your horse and the benefits will speak for themselves. For further information on Applied Equine Podiatry, and to locate a DAEP in your area, please visit

Shift Your Focus

In her fascinating series Laira Gold explains how Buddhism can teach us how to be more successful horsemen. Horses are wonderful teachers of patience. That old saying, ‘Go about something like you have 15 minutes and it will take all day. Go about something like you have all day and it will take 15 minutes,’ is so true. I think this is something we can all identify with. How many times has your horse refused to cooperate when you have really wanted that end result, to the point of becoming a little, well, desperate? When a horse feels this state of mind in his human handler, it is as though he is saying, ‘You can’t have it when you ask like that.’

As a certified Monty Roberts instructor, I have been intrigued at the many parallels between Monty’s principles and psychotherapy or counselling – my other profession. When talking about the way horses learn, Monty suggests it is our job to create the right conditions for learning, however, once the horse is ready to draw that information in, it is then our job to get out of the way. As a psychotherapist, this phenomena is exactly the same with human clients. It’s a paradox – the keener the therapist is for the client to reach their goals, often the longer the client’s process takes. This is because by attaching ourselves so rigidly to the outcome, we are actually getting in the way of the client’s process.



Interestingly, this teaching is also in line with the Buddhist concepts of attachment and self grasping. Buddhism teaches that since nothing is permanent and we are all connected, it is madness to place so much power on grasping at external things - be it people, physical objects, goals or ideas and beliefs about ourselves. One of the biggest misinterpretations about Buddhism is that by practising non-attachment, it must mean we lack passion, ambition and do not care about the outcome. This is not the case. Buddhism, like good horsemanship, teaches us the art of having a clear intention but then letting go of the end result. Another way of thinking about this phenomenon is through the idea of pressure zones.



Monty Roberts identified three zones around the horse. The one the furthest away from the horse could be considered the zone of awareness. You know you are in this zone because the horse might look up at you and acknowledge your presence but you are too far away from the horse to be able to drive him forward or draw him towards you. As you move closer, the next zone is the decision making zone. For some horses out in the wild this threshold will be miles away, however for domestic horses it’s likely to be a lot nearer. In the decision making zone, you are in a good position to influence the horse’s choice about where he places his feet. If you were to jump up and down and shake some plastic bags, you could probably cause the horse to move away from you for example. It’s in this place that most ground work takes place. When we get even closer, however, we reach the ‘into pressure’ zone.

Camping out in this zone can cause problems when we are unaware of the phenomenon and the effects it has. Horses are ‘into pressure’ animals. The most common example of this is when a horse stands on your foot and the more you lean, the more the horse leans back into you. They have evolved this way to protect themselves from predators that already have a hold on them. By leaning back into the pressure of the predator, they still stand a chance of dismantling them. If they carried on running, they are likely to cause more damage to themselves. This is how the into pressure trait has evolved.

One recent encounter I had regarding this involved an untouched three year old called Alto. I was training Alto to accept touch on his back legs. In this photo above, you can see his whole body curling around the wooden stick I am placing onto his hindquarters. For Alto this stick represents a predator and because it is already close into his body, it makes more sense to move into it than run away.

Sometimes students who are learning to move the horse around in the round pen can step into this into pressure zone without realising it. They wonder why the horse isn’t moving away from them. No matter what they do, the horse will not move its feet and will sometimes even lift a back leg to let that person know they are too close. Of course being human, the biggest temptation when something is not going right is to move in closer, getting more and more attached and rigid. The more desperate we are to achieve our goals, the less effective we seem to be though. By staying back in the zone of influence physically and mentally, not only are we respecting the horse’s personal space and our own, ironically we are probably going to be more effective too.