Issue 11 · 2013
Almost everyone involved with horses has had to deal with a horse
pulling back at one time or another. Not only is it frightening, it
often ends up with damage... to the horse, the equipment, the han-
dler or the thing to which the horse is tied.
First of all, let's look at the
natural horse and try to see
things from his perspective.
Horses are prey animals,
which means they are hunt-
ed as food by predators who
sneak up on them, trap and
Consequently, horses are al-
ways on the lookout for dan-
gerous situations and signs of
trouble. By instinct they will
avoid narrow places or areas
that don't have an easy escape route because something deep inside
programs them to behave that way.
From our point of view, horses are skeptics, cowards, claustrophobic
and panic-aholics. This is why we run into so many problems with
them. To survive in the wild, a horse depends on just how quickly he
can escape from danger. It doesn't matter how quiet, well behaved,
loving or friendly the horse appears to be. Inside every gentle horse is
a wild horse with deeply rooted survival instincts.
When a horse feels trapped, he doesn't think - he reacts. For example,
if a horse gets startled, pulls back and finds he's restricted by a halter
and lead, he instantly feels like he has to fight to save his life. At that
moment he doesn't realize that he is not being attacked or otherwise
in danger. He just knows he needs to run for his life and he has to get
away from whatever is stopping him.
When teaching a horse to tie safely, it's not just a matter of teaching
him he can't win (the bigger tree, stronger halter and rope method).
We have to teach him how to yield to pressure and to think his way
through situations, instead of getting worked up into a blind panic.
We need him to become calmer, smarter and braver so he can deal
sensibly with all the different situations that living in a human world
The Earlier, the Better
What most people don't know is that horses need programs. Their
instincts are essentially a program that works in the wild. For horses
to become our partners and to be safe in the human world, we need
to reprogram their instincts.
There are thousands of horses that just don't make it in the domestic
environment because they are not adequately prepared for it. This
shows up in many ways... from not wanting to befriend the human
(a biological predator), to not being able to handle sudden moves or
noises, deal well with constrictions (fences, trailers or being tied up)
or tolerate the cinch and the bit.
It's important to understand that horses dominate their world by push-
ing. They push each other (physically and mentally), they push on
people, they push on fences, they push on leg and rein aids and they
push on the bit. It is natural for them to push against pressure and
they'll do it violently when scared.
Pulling back is actually pushing against the pressure they feel on
the back of their heads when haltered. This is called "Opposition Re-
flex". It's a survival strategy as much as anything else. Unless we can
teach our horses that they don't need to oppose us, they will become
frustrated, hurt and potentially dangerous. We have to reprogram our
horses to yield to pressure and the earlier we can do this, the better.
Even though you may be looking for an answer with your mature
horse, I'd like you to look at the following concept in case you are
ever in the position to influence a young horse.
The ideal time to teach horses to give and yield is when they are born.
Dr. R.M. Miller D.V.M., the noted equine veterinarian and behaviorist
from California, developed a system called `Imprint Training.' Soon
after a foal is born, Dr. Miller imprints the foal with rhythmic rubbing,
tapping, noises (clippers, plastic bags, etc.) and patiently holds his
legs until the foal stops struggling or reacting. He has proven that
this has lasting effects right through adulthood because it literally
reprograms the horse to not have such strong Opposition Reflexes.
I have been imprinting my foals with great results.
I also have developed some techniques of my own that continue to
prepare these foals for riding and performance. I teach them to move
forward, backward, right, left, up and down from pressure to the point
where I can lead them at a run and elicit lead changes. These foals
grow up without the usual resistance to human demands and will stay
compliant provided they continue to be handled with natural savvy.
However, if you don't pay attention, they will start to take over again.
It takes very little for horses to rediscover that people are easy to
Would You Leave a Claustrophobic Person in an Elevator?
When teaching a horse to tie safely, I don't start the lesson by tying
him up! The overall objective is to help him become calmer, smarter
and braver. I start by giving him a number of tasks designed to teach
him a few basics.
A) I am a friend, not a threat despite looking and
smelling like a predator.
B) I am "number one" in his natural pecking
C) I will help him get through any confusion or fear by being
passively persistent in the proper position.
The last thing I want to do is put a horse in a "sink or swim" situa-
tion. Think of it this way... If you were dealing with a claustrophobic
person, would you stuff him into an elevator and leave him there to
work it out?
PART ONE, by Pat Parelli
WHY Do HoRSeS
Pat Parelli & Performance Horse Digest
Owner/Publisher, Rahn Greimann