Some Thoughts About the Mind of a Horse:
Attention and Confidence

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You could say that training a horse is basically teaching it to get along with humans, with humans in control. Process and content of a careful training program expands the knowledge of both partners, building confidence rooted in competence. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said "...mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimension."

This means that the foundation of training is ATTENTION AND CONFIDENCE. This is the initial condition as well a the reference touchstone for each stage of training. The iterated process training scheme permits increasingly sophisticated content that places horse and rider on a true path that can be adjusted to individual needs.

If a horse is not attentive, you are unlikely to be effective in transmitting what you wish him to know. Horses can be VERY ATTENTIVE and learn things they are not supposed to discover, as Max demonstrates in the movie BELOW. He can open a door with his nose faster than a human can with two hands...

Raynyday Maximillian: The Equine Engineer
Learning beyond the scope of a training program...the yellow arrow points to the lever on the stall door. He learned to open this sort of door by watching people. There is no way to undo what he figures out: his mind, once stretched, remains expanded. He worked out door opening in two "pieces": first flipping the lever up, then pushing the door open. He recognizes latches of this type and will try to open a door by its handle.

If the horse is not confident, the emotional baggage of fear will accompany a lesson and be dredged up each time an exercise is requested. This is not to say that all training has no stressful moments, but it is up to the trainer to devise safe, effective and positive routes to an attentive, confident and disciplined horse.

Rather than present a linear "training tree" or a linear one with feedback loops, I would like to invite the reader to consider that training is interconncected in a pattern called ITERATION. This means that each cycle of training has a structure and content that becomes output for the next cycle. There are many ways these cycles can be connected for the purpose of review of a lesson or for advancing a skill.

Confidence and attentiveness link the horse to a gymnastic curriculum, as content builds skills of balance with flexible strength throughout the process. Further, training in the iterative process mode involves feedforward (anticipation, clear goals in mind) as well as feedback (rewards, development of a "trainer's space" that the horse respects). The iterated, cyclic process is not only a general plan of training but may be adjusted to the needs of a particular horse and rider pair.

In the discussion below I have tried to use color coding to suggest a mix of physical, mental and aesthetic features that can be evaluated in trained horses. Green indicates emotional or psychological features, blue indicates primarily physical qualities while aesthetic qualities or evidence of degree of training are coded in red. This classification is approximate and is intended only to offer a way of thinking about a training program.

Some prominent goals (feedforward) of training beyond its foundation of confident attention are qualities such as

Collection - ability to gather, shift balance toward hindquarters and maneuver the body with improved agility --- often observed in terms of relative elevation of forehand and hindquarters during basic gaits and during transitions within and between gaits --- collection as consistent maintainance of balance is a fundamental property of extensions and is heavily dependent on tempo (strides per minute) of a gait
Extension - ability to maintain balance and rhythm while uncoiling the spine during moderate to maximum covering of ground in each stride --- strongly related to coordination and strength acquired in developing collection --- horses may differ markedly in terms of the place in their training that extensions in level, then uphill balance will appear
Correct dressage gaits - defined walks, trots (including passage and piaffe) and canters --- in the large spectrum of gaits that elite athletes like horses can perform, these gaits have cyclic rhythmic characteristics that place them at the slower end of gait velocities (tempo again): gaits are expected to progress in ways that show expression and "swing"
Regularity - consistent repetition of a regular gait pattern (a pattern is a repeated motif, a template)
Transitions - these are strides between the cyclic patterns that define each gait or are changes in the amount of ground covered per stride while maintaining a consistent, unhurried rhythm --- they should be level, fluent and prompt adjustments of limb phases --- depend strongly on balance and rhythm (repetition of a regular pattern) --- transitions involve both pattern shifts (leg positions at a given instant in the stepping that identifies a gait stride) and velocity differences between gaits
Impulsion - willingness to move forward --- a particular type of prompt, fluent, obedient reaction to aids --- a horse with impulsion feels "ahead of the leg"
Cadence - increased duration of a stride because of marked rhythm requiring flexible strength and an actively swinging back --- examination of movies shows this is the result of long ground contact times of limbs and not suspension (all four legs off ground) as is sometimes supposed --- dressage horses usually do not lift themselves off the ground more than a few inches (centimeters): once in the air, objects or animals quickly return to earth at the acceleration of gravity, so falling several inches does not contribute substantially to the duration of a stride
Lightness - impression of self-carriage based on grace as an expression of poise, fluent movement and flexible strength --- a light horse is "up at the withers" in positive relative elevation
Throughness - a premier quality encompassing the whole training --- a horse that is "through" is relaxed, alert, willing, on the aids, has learned the physical requirements for body alignment that replaces resistances [straightness] --- in short, a "through" horse appears at ease with required exercises, is poised and graceful --- the exercise that is sometimes cited as proof of throughness is the "shaukel"
Straightness - alignment of the whole body from nose to tail while retaining the capacity to produce lateral and longitudinal flexibility
Self-carriage - a combination of throughness and straightness that often appears as "swing" or cadenced gaits and fluent transitions on a light contact

Consider the quality of throughness as an example of relations among the items on a trainer's agenda. For my purposes, I would like to suggest that throughness is the replacement of defensive leaning on sections of the stay apparatus (the "sleep locks") with balance and poise. By requesting incremental adjustments of the axial skeleton (head, neck, spine, pelvis, tail) a trainer helps a horse achieve, then maintain, a particular degree of skill. If a degree of improvement in balance (alignment or straightness in the whole axial skeleton --- whiskers to tail tip) is sought in each cycle of the iterative training process, then both confidence and attentiveness are reinforced, creating a horse that understands what is being asked of him.

In a very real sense, you are the horse's gymnastics coach, faced with the interrelatedness of mental, physical and aesthetic goals. For a bulky animal on slender legs, the gymnastic skill of competent balance in the face of gravity is a real boost to confidence!

Here is a training cycle in the iterative pattern and a set of sayings. Clicking on thumbnails below
will bring up printable images.


I suggest you compare it to other "training trees" or training pyramids you will find on the Internet or in print. Most training schemes will conflate process (the means by which a horse learns) and content (the details, the skills of a lesson) with the purpose of a lesson (for example the improvement of the quality of throughness). For instance, "introducing the horse to the stable, tacking up, lungeing and backing (riding) are often folded into one "foundation" box of a "training pyramid." While all these items are true needs for accustoming a horse to getting along with humans, it mixes process (introduction...) and content (tacking, lungeing, backing) Such a summary bypasses EMPHASIS on each opportunity to gain a horse's attention and confidence --- which can be done with every single episode of its MENTAL and PHYSICAL connection/contact with humans.

Thinking carefully about how you understand process, content and purpose (means and ends is another way of thinking about these issues). That way you can advance your own understanding of the relationships among items on the list of qualities that commonly appear on "training trees" for dressage. This list includes (but is not limited to) attention, balance, collection, confidence, contact/on the aids, impulsion, relaxation, rhythm, self-carriage, suppleness, straightness. I have added transitions to the list because of their centrality in gymnastic training of horses. Throughness, a physical quality related to many physical and mental facets of training, acts as a crucial intersection in the training cycle. "Swing" as a property of correct, expressive gaits and an actively engaged back/hindquarters, is included with relaxation and suppleness.

There are some observations that might be useful concerning this iterated training cycle. While there appear to be some linear progressions, note that in each of the major cycles many subcycles are possible. These serve as ways to adjust, improve or polish a given feature of the training program, as thought appropriate to a particular horse by each trainer. For instance, a horse beginning to be "through" will give the impression of lightness but might need some additional exercises on straightness in order to correct the tendency to lean on some misaligned part of its body (usually called a "resistance"). Or transitions could be used to improve balance and flexible strength in order to create a more deliberate rhythm prior to returning to adjustments to straightness.

Central to the whole training, whatever "tree," "pyramid" or "cycle" adopted, is the calm, patient, humble human who tries at all times to maintain an elastic supporting contact. Consistent elastic support transmits the information of relaxation and confidence to the horse via kinesthetic learning. A trainer's contact is of incredible importance in passing along to the horse the SENSATION OF INCREASING LIGHTNESS, until the horse can work in self-carriage. This conTACT (emphasis on TACT) starts with first lessons and is the matrix for all other lessons. Self-carriage on the longe, free longe or under saddle in correct posture is proof that the horse has understood its lessons.

For those who wonder why lightness does not appear earlier in this diagram, I offer the following explanation, based on my experiences with CONTACT in terms of the connection to a trainer's aids and also in terms of limb contact time with the ground. These different kinds of contact interact to produce the integrated connection mutually felt by a horse and its human handler. Others may have had different experiences with their horses.

Green horses appreciate the security of an elastic connection to a trainer: it is the trainer's acumen that determines whether or not a horse is leaning unnecessarily on the aids. Deliberate rhythm essential to good dressage performance requires long contact times with grounded limbs --- this means substantial exertion on the part of the horse. Evasions at this point in the training can mimic true lightness or self-carriage. Horses that get behind the aids (particularly those that drop the rein going behind the vertical) can feel light in the contact but will not be able to go forward promptly and fluently in transitions within or between gaits: they are sluggish in reaction to aids. The outline of a horse traveling with the poll too low (not the same as "showing the way to the ground/chewing the rein from the hand") may appear round, but the horse will not cover ground with impulsion. Further, horses can, from this low poll body posture, start to bore heavilty into the rein, a difficult evasion to correct. Horses may also develop oversuspended gaits that feel light, but that are not properly connected to a consistent rhythm in transitions within and between gaits.

Another evasion horses can develop early in training is to lock sections of the back and rib cage against the leg aids of a rider. These horses may develop the dangerous behavior of refusing to go forward from aids, eventually leading to rearing or falling backwards.

As training progresses, a horse becomes increasingly competent at self-carriage, and the trainer may allow more and more lightness in the contact. Ultimately, the aids can become "indications" and La Guérinière's rein "guided by gravity."

Comparison of two horses at different stages of training (straightness and balance): free longe and under saddle (bottom frames).
Both are shown at the same moments of left canter. Left canter on the circle shows three legs grounded with the left foreleg in swing phase. The left canter pirouette on free longe shows the moment of right hind down mid stance (canter step one). Both these horses go with the poll up in these exercises.
Raynyday Maximillian
Self-carriage and straightness in left collected canter (left hind - LH - down) on a circle left during a free longe exercise. His nose is centered in his chest, his hind legs track in alignment, his hind feet are placed in line with his hips, his body is vertical with no leaning in (falling over the inside shoulder).
Raynyday Smoke 'n Mirrors
Young horse at two years in left ordinary canter (left hind down) on a circle left during a free longe exercise. His right hind leg has a white sock. His nose is not centered in his chest, his hind legs do not track in alignment, his hind leg crosses under his inside hip, his body is falling over the inside shoulder. He is alert, attentive and confident.
Raynyday Maximillian
Self-carriage and straightness in left canter pirouette (right hind - RH - down) during a free longe exercise. His nose is centered in his chest, his hind legs track in alignment, his hind feet are placed in line with his hips, his body is vertical with no leaning in (falling over the inside shoulder). With this degree of strength, flexibility and balance, he demonstrates how a horse rotates a pirouette KEEPING THE PURITY OF CANTER in the instant three legs are free to move (LH, LF, RF). His RH holds position while the diagonal pair repositions in swing and the RF crosses to move the forehand left on the arc of the pirouette. An important quality of canter pirouettes is the ability to take weight on the hindquarters, as he does with the right hind.
Max can maintain level balance (right to left) while he crosses the outside foreleg (RF) over the inside foreleg (LF). Compare position of RF with Smoke's RF that is extended to gain ground forward.
Raynyday Smoke 'n Mirrors
Young horse at four years in left ordinary canter (right hind down) on a circle left during a free longe exercise. He has never been ridden, but has been worked in hand in the manner of Nuño Oliveira with all the lateral work accomplished with cavesson and snaffle. His nose is better centered in his chest than at age two. While he shows improved management of his shoulders, he still needs to work on alignment of his rib cage and hindquarters. He is alert, attentive and confident and very focused on his lesson. He is a product of the iterated training process.
Compare leg positions at this moment in canter with Max in pirouette. While Smoke's right hind is vertical, it does not support his body as does Max's RH. In addition, his straightness (alignment from poll to tail) is not as advanced, so he leans in on the circle while Max does not.
Raynyday Maximillian - piaffe ...and passage

The movie BELOW shows what appear to be some stupid pet tricks. But there is more to be learned about how horses pay attention to their environment after you finish being amused by these two horses. Their brains can work in ways with which our brains are unfamiliar.

The chestnut horse (Vulkan) has divided his attention between the treat being tossed to his companion (Max, who can catch things tossed to him) and the person tossing the snack. He indicates his willingness to have a treat by flehmening ("smiling" to expose the vomeronasal organ - a chemosensory organ located in the nasal septum or roof of the mouth in vertebrates). He does this because of rewards/feedback for the flehmen behavior, rather than for the original equine reason to evaluate new smells or pheromones.

Notice that one eye of Vulkan and one ear on the same side stay focused on his companion and one on the human throughout the whole sequence. He coordinates blocking the second toss of the treat to the other horse without breaking attention on BOTH tasks.

The Divided Attention of Horses
LEFT: Max catches a snack...from the movie.
Max catches snack

Can you divide your mental and physical tasks this way? Do you think that this talent is useful to an animal that, in the wild, is hunted by pack animals, that runs in a herd? This behavior is possibly an interesting capacity for multitasking and should be taken into account when training.

As it applies to dressage riding, consider that your horse may be able to watch his environment with one eye/ear and perform your requests with the remainder of his mind/body. In any case, this capacity to divide attention and coordinate data coming in from several sources bears on the dressage dictum "attention-and-confidence."

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