The power of indirect training

We’ve all been there: at the crossroads of the behavior we want and the behavior our horses provide. They’re cooperative, even generous, most of the time. But sometimes horses say no. And when a half-ton animal says no, we aren’t always sure what to do. We insist, they resist; we demand, they deny. A bit like raising teenagers, right? These conflicts arise because of a significant difference between human and equine brains.

Just above our eyes rests a mass of brain cells called the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for “executive function” like planning, organizing and evaluating. It allows us to identify complex goals and plan step-by-step actions to meet them. Without executive function, we would have little capacity for forethought, time management, decision-making or goal-oriented behavior. Our attention spans would be short, and we’d have trouble changing our behavior to accommodate new demands.

The prefrontal cortex is immature in a teenager; horses have none at all. A kid’s brain will mature by age 25. A horse’s brain will never be equipped to govern executive function. Instead, an equine brain allocates space to perception, fear, rapid movement and associative learning.

Good training techniques take these structural differences into account. We can’t expect horses to learn in ways that require executive function because their brains simply do not have that capacity. When a horse acts up, we tend to insist and demand. Why? Because human brains are built for goal achievement. Trainers have success with direct commands because their cues are clear, their balance is sharp, their riding muscles are toned and their schooling strategies are precise. But most amateurs don’t have years of experience managing bad actors. They’re much more likely to build trust with their horses through the use of indirect techniques that match the machinery of the equine brain.

Direct Training

Buddy is calm in the arena but nervous leaving the farm to go out on the trails. The usual route traverses a 20-foot-wide passage, narrow relative to the open spaces nearby. A three-story hay shed looms on Buddy’s right, throwing shade on the whole enterprise. To the left is a parking lot for heavy equipment: snowplows, field plows, 14-foot wheel rakes, oversized snowblowers and a sickle bar hay mower with edges that glint like knives in the sun. Two steel drags the color of dirt lie camouflaged on the ground, gaping with holes ideal for catching a hoof.

Then there’s that impaler guarding the entrance to this gauntlet. OK, it’s actually a rotary tedder. Seven feet tall in its upright position, when stretched out the tedder turns cut hay that’s drying in the field. About 50 steel tines, each the diameter of a pencil, protrude like spikes from its body.

Many horses balk when the gauntlet comes into view. They tense their muscles, crane their necks upward and big-eye the towering hay shed.

Buddy’s trainer prefers the direct method: She pushes him forward without letting him pause. When he resists, she clucks and pushes harder, eventually adding spurs and then a crop. When he attempts to turn his head, she redirects with a sharp bump on the reins. Often, this direct technique becomes a spectacle as the horse struggles to get away and the trainer redoubles her efforts to prevent him from succeeding.

After a month of these episodes, Buddy walks the gauntlet, not because he trusts his trainer but because he is afraid of her. He tightens his back, locks his jaw, inverts his neck, and maneuvers his shaky feet at a mincing walk … but he goes through.

Buddy has learned to fear his rider in addition to his environment. The added fear will cause him to become doubly nervous next time he’s in a scary location. With practice, Buddy has also become more agile at whirling, bolting, bucking and rearing. He has learned that bad experiences happen in narrow places, something that will require a lot of retraining to make him forget. But he walks the gauntlet, so his trainer believes she has won.

Indirect Training

On day one, Star’s trainer feels her begin to stiffen up as she approaches the gauntlet. He angles her away without fanfare and finishes the session with other tasks. He wants time to develop a strategy tailored for the equine brain.

On their next outing, Star’s trainer takes her an eighth-mile away, where he has discovered a route offering access to the gauntlet from its opposite end. Other horses graze nearby. There are no ominous structures or heavy equipment. Long views open in every direction. Entering the gauntlet from this end, Star will be facing her barn, moving toward friends and familiar places. The trainer knows, but Star does not, that this side route is only temporary—a teaching tool to be discarded once the lessons are learned.

When Star is comfortable near this easy end of the gauntlet, her trainer dismounts and leads her into it. The mare can focus more effectively on her task when she’s not carrying a rider. He strokes her neck and praises her after 10 or 20 steps, wherever she is still calm and he has met his goal for the day. They turn back before she misbehaves and at his request, not hers. He adds a few steps each day, turning back before she tenses. If he misjudges and Star suddenly stops, he encourages her to take two or three steps forward and praises her when she does, then turns back. In this way, moving forward yields a natural reward.

Occasionally, something frightens Star. A bird flies by or a distant engine backfires. Her trainer spends a day or two hand-grazing near the scene of her fear. It’s amazing what a frightened horse will ignore when fresh grass is available. When Star regains her readiness to learn, her trainer resumes the step-by-step process until he can lead her all the way through this path of least resistance. Now he can mount up and begin riding Star through the gauntlet. Soon she will negotiate the narrow passage calmly from either direction.

After a month, Star will walk past the impaler, through the shade of the hay shed and away from her stall. She does so without concern. Her low head bobs in natural rhythm, her body is fluid, her feet steady, ears soft and forward. She trusts her trainer, knowing that he will not ask her to overcome all her fears in one gulp. In the future, she will be more likely to go where her riders wish, even if she’s worried about the neighborhood.

Why Indirect Training Works

The frontal physiology of our brains makes direct thought so easy for us that it is hard to supplant. Frontal lobe comprises 41 percent of the human brain, more than any other area. Unless we con-sciously hold it back, prefrontal cor-tex takes over—setting goals, creating strategies, planning steps to goal achievement. It demands direct results from direct techniques.

Humans use two additional brain regions along with the prefrontal cortex to evaluate new information and decide how to respond. First, the thalamus (T) collects incoming information—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, verbal and nonverbal cues. Second, the basal ganglia (B) prepare the body for movement in reaction to that information. At that point, adult prefrontal cortex (P) intervenes to consider the new data and determine whether and how to act.

In a horse, T collects information, and B prepares the body for instant movement. But there is no P to hold reactions back. So the horse perceives something and reacts instantly. This ability has allowed the species to survive for the last five million years. Training is partly a process of teaching horses to depend on us for prefrontal decisions.

In teenagers, whose prefrontal cortex is not finished growing, a similar process occurs. Teens have some capacity for executive function, but it’s slow and inconsistent. So, T collects information, B prepares the teen to react, and P might or might not evaluate and decide. Hence the spontaneous house parties and drinking experiments.

Adults whose frontal lobes are not working well have the same problems our horses do when it comes to executive function. Such damage can occur through brain injury or natural deterioration. Frontotemporal dementia is a good example. A disease of the elderly that is distinct from Alzheimer’s, this form of dementia is caused by the shrinking of the human brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. Memory, language and intelligence remain normal until the end stage. But executive function is severely impaired from the start.

Individuals with frontotemporal dementia cannot set goals, manage their time, plan actions in advance, adapt flexibly to new demands, make reasoned decisions or organize their own behavior. Sound familiar? Often, brain damage precludes awareness of these problems. Patients become frustrated easily and act out with inappropriate, aggressive or even violent behavior. No one likes to be treated as if their memories, language skills or intelligence are impaired when they are not.

Victims of executive dysfunction also have trouble ordering the steps of a task and telling stories in sequential narrative. Think about describing to a non-horsey friend how to put on a horse blanket: “Hold the blanket at the neck center and place or swing it over the horse’s withers. Straighten the blanket over the horse’s hips. Fasten the front buckles, then the belly straps, and finally the hind leg straps.” One, two, three. Our brains automatically think of the procedure sequentially. If your prefrontal cortex is functioning properly, you don’t say “Fasten the belly straps” before telling your friend to place the blanket on the horse’s back.

Equine brains focus on one thing at a time, like a bite of grass or a shoulder-in, not on an ordered sequence of actions that lead to a long-term goal. In addition, just as our brains are built for executive function, equine brains are engineered to pay special attention to fear. Indirect techniques work also because they identify one task at a time, helping horses to overcome their fears.

The same methods work for frontotemporal dementia victims—set a realistic goal for them, create a strategy, identify the steps, don’t ask too much all at once, respect their intelligence and communicate clearly. Try similar techniques with difficult teenagers whose pride and intellect preclude direct confrontation. They might be the smartest kids in the world, but their frontal lobes—and executive function —are not fully developed.

Indirect training in practice

To understand and appreciate how the indirect technique can help you and your horse, consider a few examples. In each of the following cases, be sure a veterinary check has determined that the resistance described is not linked to pain or illness.

Daisy won’t pick up the correct lead? Urge her into a canter and change direction to accommodate whichever lead she chooses. I know—that’s heresy! But remember, the indirect method is only a temporary tool. When Daisy learns that you want her to canter on the proper lead for each direction, then you can begin training her to depart into that lead from your outside leg.

Pokey drags around the arena? Let him “draft” a few horse lengths behind a faster buddy … or a mare. He’ll want to pick up his pace. Once he’s moving out, circle him away from his friend and praise his speed. Follow the buddy again as needed. It’s much easier to maintain pace than to create it in a sluggish horse. After a few weeks, you won’t need to follow.

Smarty swings her hips away from the block, or walks off, when you try to mount? Practice mounting at the end of the session when she wants to stand still, rather than at the beginning when she’s rarin’ to go. Stand her next to a fence so she can’t move her hindquarters away from you. Face her into a corner so she can’t walk away with you in midair. Later, you can transfer her success to the beginning of your rides and to open areas.

Despite your best efforts, Stormy defaults to a hyper-jig throughout your rides? Get off and lead her for a while, encourage her to relax on a longe line, or put her to easy work like a steady trot and ignore the fussing. In other words, back off —added stress doesn’t relieve nervousness. If the arena’s a mad-house, wait till tomorrow or ride at a quieter time. Encourage Stormy to move calmly rather than trying to “work her down” to a state of rideable exhaustion. Give Stormy tasks she does well, so she has a chance to succeed every day. Resume her education when she is quiet and ready to learn.

The indirect technique works well on the ground, too. No horse likes to be approached head-on with a brisk Type A advance. Instead, walk confidently but easily toward the horse’s shoulder to halter him. When administering medications, try approaching from the side rather than the front. It’s less confrontational, safer for you, and your horse can see you better over there, too. Instead of yelling “whoa” 10 times while longeing or round-penning, slow your horse’s movement by breaking eye contact or squatting down; speed it by engaging eye contact and standing tall.

With all training—direct or indirect —praise often for good behavior, so that your horse can discover what you want. You can use direct and indirect training in a thousand creative ways once you know the basic rules of each game.

Rules of Direct Training

….The direct method is so common and so human that we know its tenets by instinct. We ask a horse to perform a new task. If he does, we’re golden! The direct method has worked. Praise the horse, practice the task on upcoming days and pat yourself on the back.

But what happens when the horse resists? With the direct technique, we do not allow the horse to evade a major goal. We demand relentlessly until the horse performs as desired. Unfortunately, this direct behavior comes most naturally when we are tired, annoyed, or worried—exactly when our horses need it the least. We do not acknowledge the horse’s fears. Such sessions are usually long and sweaty—often dangerous—because each party refuses to settle for less.

Settling would be “letting him get away with it.” Some readers have been thinking that throughout this article, so let’s pause to unpack the idiom. What exactly are we letting the horse get away with? Taking time to observe? Mastering natural fear? Learning how to perform a task? De-veloping trust? Yes! These qualities are exactly what the best trainers are trying to teach.

Direct training often biases human commands over a horse’s fear. The horse must do as we ask. Why? Because we asked. I don’t know about you, but every time I demand behavior “because I said so,” the results stink. It doesn’t work on anybody—children, teenagers, adults or horses. On the rare occasion that this attitude appears to solve a problem, it creates many new ones.

I am not suggesting that the direct method be discarded. There are times when a horse must learn to obey. Period. Horses need to be brought up short when they mow you down at the stall door, head for the barn at a dead run or bite to get attention or treats. The same is true for dirty stops at jumps, bucking that’s intended to unseat or refusals to move forward. Such horses need professional training, and often it will have to be direct.

Rules of Indirect Training

If your horse’s behavior is not dangerous, and if you have the necessary equestrian skills to correct it, then train your mind to consider indirect techniques.

Start by honing your sensitivity toward the horse until you can feel upcoming problems before they begin. Observe the horse’s muscles, head position, eyes and ears, tail. Listen for changes in breathing. Allow your legs to detect the earliest stage of lateral evasion, a slight bending away rather than forward movement toward the area of concern.

Move the horse gently onto a different trajectory before the early indication of concern morphs into a problem. The indirect method is not effective after the horse has blown up. You would be rewarding bad behavior if you were to turn away at that point. Move to a task your horse performs well, then praise her and put her away.

Now, here’s the hard part: Sit down and think. Why is my horse evading this task? Is he sound and pain-free? What exactly is he afraid of? How does he perceive the situation? How can I break the task down into small steps that will be easier for him? Put yourself in your horse’s position and imagine how you would feel if you were forced to approach something that scares you.

When you have analyzed the situation from an equine perspective, set a goal and plan the sequence needed to achieve it. Small goals are best for horses—we’re not trying to cure cancer here. Fear is every teacher’s enemy, so your plan must reduce the horse’s fear one small step at a time. The most common error with indirect training is making the steps too large.

Develop your plan on an equine time frame. Step 3 begins only when the horse has mastered step 2, and we have no way of knowing how long that will take. If you ask the horse for too much one day, go back to the previous step. Give him a chance to succeed at something he has already learned. Remind yourself to slow down.

Revise your plan freely, but not during a moment of equine resistance. Remember the often-repeated defini-tion of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Note your horse’s responses to your efforts, and change your steps as needed after you’ve had a chance to reconsider them. If you listen well, your horse will tell you what you need to know.


ffective horse training is a long haul, day by day, little by little. When you’re at the crossroads between good and bad behavior, adopt the mindset that your horse is trying her best—usually she is. Praise lavishly for good behavior, ask for only a little more at each step, offer her the time she needs, and she’ll give you what she can. Maybe next month she will be able to give you what you want.

Our brains push us to use direct training at exactly the moments our horses’ brains require indirect training. To train well, honor the equine brain. There’s no use demanding that our horses think like we do. They can’t. Try an indirect technique and see how it works. As the poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Success in circuit lies.”

This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #378)




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