Building Your Dream Horse

By Charles Wilhelm

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7645-7915-0

Chapter One

Understanding the Horse


The emotional, mental, and physical aspects of each horse you come into contact with will be the most important information you have to successfully train that horse. You must evaluate each of these aspects carefully and apply each training exercise based on the horse's unique combination of these characteristics. The more time you take to understand how your horse reacts, thinks, and moves, the more successful you will be with his training and your relationship.

Let's look at each aspect and how it relates to training your horse.

The Emotional Aspect

I want to first talk about a horse's emotional makeup. Emotional control is my favorite topic for two reasons. First, it is one of the most important facets of horsemanship that every rider or handler must understand thoroughly. Second, I believe it is also one of the least understood areas within horsemanship, with very few trainers and clinicians focusing much (if at all) on it.

My career as a horseman grew out of struggles with emotional control issues I was having with my own horse, Tennyson. Tennyson is a very emotionally "high" horse, meaning he is extremely fearful, and only through countless training exercises did I begin to understand the importance of emotional control and the emotional aspect of the horse. My interest in this topic remains strong to this day. The challenges in this area led to my becoming a specialist in reschooling problem horses-something that less than 10 percent of working horse trainers do. Working with problem horses is all about mastering emotional control.

So, what is emotional control? Emotional control is working with and crafting cues around the horse's own flight mechanism-her natural survival instinct. Horses are prey animals. Evolution has bred them to flee when they get scared. When I talk about horses' emotional level, I am referring to how intensely they react to fear and how fearful they are. Every horse has an emotional level-no exceptions. However, a combination of personality, breeding, maturity, and (maybe) trauma will determine an individual horse's particular emotional level.

I use a scale of one to ten to assess a horse's emotional level. A score of one would be for the most laid-back, nonfearful horse you can imagine; a ten might be for a horse who bolts when a good stiff wind blows. If you have a horse who's goodnatured and of good breeding, he can be a two naturally. However, there are plenty of high-strung horses with extremely strong flight mechanisms who seem to score a twelve. I've had more than a few of them come through my training facility.

A low emotional level does not equal a "good" horse nor does a high number equal a "bad" horse. The measurements tell us what we need to do to have a safe and responsive partner. Differing emotional levels usually mean a different application of the training principles.

It's critical to address the emotional level of the horse and to achieve emotional control for safety's sake. Understanding and controlling your horse's emotional level will help you achieve maximum performance.

The safety issue should be obvious. You must have every ounce of control available to give you an edge if your horse reacts to fear by bolting, bucking, rearing, crow hopping, etc. Working your horse regularly with emotional control exercises, commonly known as despooking or sacking out, can save your life by having your horse listen and respond when you need her to.

Concerning competitive performance, the issue is very simple. Any horse experiencing fear and anxiety is not supple and not performing at her best. Fear makes horses stiff and tense throughout the entire body, which interferes with performance no matter what discipline you ride.

So, as mentioned previously, the main ingredients that determine the emotional level of the horse are breeding, maturity, possibly trauma, and personality.

Breeding is a tough issue. Plenty of breeders bring horses into this world who may be physically sound but are emotional wrecks. You cannot, of course, change their breeding (other than being a skilled and cautious breeder in advance); you can only work with what the horse has already.

Maturity is typically a matter of age and all the experiences that come with having lived life longer. Just like humans, as horses get older they are more likely to develop a "been there, done that" attitude and to become more complacent and less fearful.

Trauma is another tough situation. Often, people have a horse who experienced a traumatic event that they know nothing about. We can clearly observe that the horse is extremely fearful of specific objects or situations, but we may not know that the horse was abused in the past or was in a bad accident.

But the most interesting factor of a horse's emotional level is her personality type, as you'll see later in this chapter. The emotional level is tied to the horse's responsiveness to training. This is another good reason to understand the horse's emotional aspect. You have probably heard horses referred to as coldblooded or hot-blooded. "Cold-blooded" is often used to describe breeds such as draft horses, mules, and Icelandic horses (to name just a few). These are animals who usually have lower fear levels. If we look at how evolution has contributed to the emotional development, we can see that draft horses are very large and predators are less likely to attack them. Mules, however, inherit the fight (rather than flight) instinct from their donkey side. The donkey's ability to see all its feet at the same time has made kicking a very effective defense. Standard and mammoth donkeys are frequently used for livestock predator control for very good reason. They can be quite aggressive with predators and have incredible aim and power. Icelandic horses have been living largely without natural predators other than man, being isolated by the harsh geography. Icelandic horses have lower emotional levels because they have not been prey animals.

This is not to say there are not exceptions. Just like we can have a very spooky Clydesdale, we can also have a very complacent Arab. But in general, many breeds have tendencies toward low, medium, or high emotional levels. The higher emotional levels of the Arab and the Thoroughbred also make them frequently sought after for high-energy events. Likewise, the quarter horse is considered a great all-around horse due to a mid-range emotional level that provides a nice balance as a working animal.

So how does the emotional level work in conjunction with how responsive the horse may be to training? Emotionally high horses are usually more responsive and ultimately it can be much easier to get them to be very light. The Icelandic horse shown on the previous page has very low fear levels but has required more training time on giving to pressure than most horses. He has been especially resistant about learning to give to the bit, meaning to be very soft and responsive when anyone picks up the rein to make contact with the bit in his mouth. His lower emotional level makes him more resistant to pressure, which means more work on getting him to be more responsive. We will be talking about why the emotional level determines how you should apply foundation training throughout this book. For now, keep in mind that the emotional level is a characteristic we use to assess the best application of the training exercises and principles.

The Mental Aspect

While I believe that the emotional level is the least emphasized characteristic in many training programs, the mental aspect is very important also. The mental aspect is the horse's capacity for focus, that is, her ability to learn the lessons we teach, and her willingness to pay attention. No matter how calm a horse might be, if she is not focused or interested, then the training lesson will not be a success.

We do foundation training exercises to keep the horse focused on us. One of the cardinal rules at my training facility is that you never just hop on your horse to ride. People are often amazed that we all spend anywhere from two minutes to thirty minutes doing foundation "groundwork" exercises before every ride. "But why?" they ask. "These seem to be the best-trained horses around!"

Groundwork is not about refreshing the horse on training cues or physically warming the horse up, though those are accomplished as side benefits. Instead, it is a mental check-in with the horse before you climb into the saddle and is the most important thing you can do to have a safe and successful ride. Many horses need only a few minutes. These exercises get the horse mentally focused on us and on what we are asking. They allow us to gauge where the horse's emotional level may be for the day (which can be different day to day), and give us the chance to assess if the horse is mentally ready to ride. If not, we can do more groundwork, which gives us 70 to 80 percent carryover into the saddle. This means the physical, mental, and emotional aspects we have been tuning from the ground use very similar cues to what we want to be doing under saddle. The groundwork exercises remind the horse that we are controlling her feet, which controls her space and direction, which means we are the horse's leader. That translates into respect, and we are unlikely to have problems with a horse who respects us.

As with people, there are some horses who are just plain smarter than others. Because one horse learns faster, you may have to do more repetitions with one horse than another, even if both are paying attention to you. It can be frustrating if your horse isn't as bright as you would like and you therefore need to take more time training her. Likewise, having a very smart horse if you're a novice can be disastrous. I know plenty of people who prefer the extra repetitions required for the "dunce-cap" horse over being outsmarted. It can be a humbling experience when you discover that your horse has trained you instead of the other way around, which can happen easily to beginning riders who may not recognize when a horse is working them. A common example of this is at the mounting block. A smart horse learns quickly that she can avoid being ridden by walking away from the mounting block when a rider does not know how to respond appropriately.

But no matter how many repetitions and exercises your horse needs, it all comes down to controlling her direction, movement, and emotional level. Once you successfully capture her mind and control her feet, you have become her herd boss. From that point, you are achieving respect, trust, and even love. Don't kid yourself. Horses will not love you because you brush them and bring them carrots. In the horse world, respect equals love. If you are really seeking a close, loving relationship with your horse, become her leader. That's a partnership the horse understands and thrives on.

The Physical Aspect

What initially draws most people to a particular horse are her physical qualities. These include the horse's natural conformation, coloring, and beauty, as well her physical conditioning. While there are excellent reasons to buy a horse for her physical conformation and overall soundness, many people buy a horse because they like how she looks. I love the old-time cowboy saying "My favorite color horse is gentle."

Countless clients have come to me with horses who were not appropriate for their skill or discipline. They purchased the horse on an emotional decision, making a personal connection with the horse that was largely based on how the horse looked. For example, I have clients who want only paints or black horses; others want only a specific breed. Many people want horses that are a certain height or exact age. The list goes on and on. The biases people have based on physical attributes alone are astounding.

While the horse's physical aspect is critical to a good buying decision, we should decide based on actual need rather than what we imagine our ideal horse is.

Any horse can be taught any discipline. However, the conformation-how the horse is put together-makes an enormous difference in her ability to perform. Those differences may distinguish between a great 4H horse and an Olympic champion. For example, the conformation of a cutting horse versus a dressage horse is very different. These disciplines require very different physical attributes. A gymnast's body is different from that of a basketball player, and, likewise, horses with different body types are suited to different activities.

Prior to purchasing a horse, it is important to consider what your goals are and then buy a horse that is physically suited for those goals. Or better yet, physically, mentally, and emotionally suited for what you want to do.

As part of discussing a horse's physical qualities, we should also talk about conditioning. The horse must be at the right level of athletic conditioning to maximize performance. The horse must strengthen all the muscles and tendons and be aerobically fit through a comprehensive exercise program. The great thing about foundation training is that many of the exercises, when done correctly, can make significant changes in conformation and help a horse reach her maximum physical potential. I am able to consistently improve a horse's performance as much as 25 to 30 percent through my foundation training exercises, despite limitations in the horse's natural conformation.

For example, a mare whom I have worked with quite a bit, Sierra, is very long-backed. From extensive foundation training, Sierra is now extremely supple and conditioned and can make quick, catty reining and cutting moves just like many short-backed horses.


As humans, we love to connect with animals. We find and strengthen these connections through linking our personalities to theirs. And I can assure you that horses do have personalities. These personality types determine the natural pecking order within a herd and they should affect how you interact with your horse in becoming her leader. Horses cannot change their personality types. What you see is what you get. Humans, however, do have the ability to adjust how we interact with others. So once you understand the personality your horse has, you are in a good position to adjust (as needed) your personal style with the horse to achieve the relationship you want.

I believe that there are seven primary horse personalities: compliant, indifferent, bully, timid, nervous Nellie, lethargic, and way too smart.

Compliant. This is the horse that most of us want (or should have) and probably makes up less than 5 percent of all horses. This is the horse with the mind and attitude that says, "I don't care, whatever you want to do, just let me know and I'm happy to oblige." The compliant horse gives easily to pressure and has a natural emotional level usually around a two or three. The handler or rider for a compliant horse could be a youngster or a senior citizen. This is a very forgiving animal, easy to train with very low fear levels.

Bully. The bully is extremely pushy. She will have no problem walking into others' space and doesn't care about anything. She has no respect for humans and often little for other horses. This horse requires a very confident handler or rider. Communication must be in black and white when working with the bully horse. And, it is very important to note, if we offer too much pressure on the bully during training, we can actually get a reverse effect: the bully becomes timid and fearful.

Indifferent. This horse is aloof and not social. Once you capture her mind you may well become her best friend, but this usually takes a considerable amount of time and she will never be a true "people horse." With an indifferent horse, the handler or rider must be confident, insightful, and very consistent. It is hard to get the attention and the focus of an indifferent horse. However, once the connection is made, this horse can actually become very nice.

Timid. The timid horse usually seems quiet on the outside, but he will fall apart under pressure. When working with the timid horse, the demeanor of the rider or handler must be very relaxed and quiet. We will need to put pressure on such horses to raise their emotional level, but not so much that they "blow up." Our objective is to instill confidence in them and to make them feel secure in the arena and on the trail.


Excerpted from Building Your Dream Horse by Charles Wilhelm Excerpted by permission.
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