Shortcut to a smarter horse

by Don Jessop

Okay… let’s keep this short and sweet because honestly, it wouldn’t be a shortcut if it took longer :)

These are 5 things I do regularly to help horses become smarter, sooner!

1. Knock over the kingpin

Imagine bowling pins standing at the of that long wood plank. The big, heavy ball rolls toward those pins, aimed at the “kingpin.” The first pin has the ability to knock all the others over too. All you have to do is hit that first pin just right and the rest will come easy.

Horses have “kingpins.” There are things that, when you fix them, almost everything else starts to work better. Finding those things takes some creativity but it’s worth the work because it’s a major shortcut to a smarter horse when you find it and address it. Here’s a short story to illustrate…

I once met a horse that wouldn’t stand still for much of anything. The woman who owns the horse said she didn’t know what to do so I encouraged her to tell me about the spot on the horse that is the hardest to touch. She said the mouth area around the lips and tongue. So, I encouraged her to work daily on the mouth area, touching every chance she got, even making whole sessions out of just helping the horse be okay with that touch. One month later she emailed me and said her horse could not only stand for touching the mouth but could stand for literally everything else too. In other words, she found her kingpin. What’s yours? In case you’re not sure, call me. I can help. First call is free for new students! Click here.

2. Tight spot training, logs, tarps, ropes, barrels

Generally, horses aren’t very good at things that make them feel claustrophobic. So… in the spirit of looking for kingpins, I often begin this training early. Instead of avoiding claustrophobic things. I engage in them. A rope wrapped around the belly, flank, or lower legs, can really scare a horse, so… Make it happen. I mean, try to be slow, kind, and natural in your approach, but don’t avoid it. It’s a major shortcut to a smarter horse. Walk your horse between two upright barrels standing too close together. Help her walk through that space. The barrels will fall and she’ll realize she can walk through scary places. Then do it again and again until all the electric energy is gone. Play in and near the horse trailer often instead of only using it for traveling. It’s a nice tight spot for training the horse and shortcutting to a smarter, more mature partner.

3. Head down training

Horses that carry their head high do so for a variety of reasons. But science has shown us enough about how horses use their body and brain in conjunction that a lower headset allows for better blood flow to all the muscles, including the brain muscle. I don’t like my horses head dragging on the ground, I just like a nice, soft, lower neck. If that neck is tight, holding the head up high, it’s a simple solution. Spend time teaching (not forcing) the head to come to a more neutral posture related to the rest of the body. Think about a quiet horse at rest. That’s a wonderful headset posture that can be maintained for all but the most athletic endeavors. If you spend more time on head down training and less on canter departures. You’ll have a smarter horse is less time. Trust me, it’s worth it. There are lots of different ways to ask the head down. Just be nice, natural, and kind about it.

4. Stand in the box

Horses that don’t stand, don’t do most other things well too. Oh, they might jump the moon for you, or win the race, but they are quite literally going bananas on the inside. They are stressed! Or… overly excited and distracted. Either way, do you really want to reward that by just letting it go. NO! Take the time to teach standing. Think of it like a gait. Walk, trot, canter, stand. I like a well rounded, smarter horse. Not a robot or wild thing. Standing in the box simply means standing where you put them last. If they drift around to some other area it’s okay, just not as effective. For instance, if you start saddling on the north side of the ring and finally get the saddle on when you reach the south side of the ring, you might want to think more local. The box is a space, just big enough to hold a horse, that can be drawn in the sand with the heel of your boot. Try it out, do it regularly and notice how your horse becomes so much smarter.

5. Turtle slow walk

Horses are bigger than humans. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. Therefore, their pace when walking is their own. But what if you could cause them to adapt to a slower pace. Imagine walking as slow as a turtle while leading your horse. Imagine that horse trying to crowd you, or walk around you. But you keep correcting the horse to encourage him to stay at your pace, slow as a turtle. If you did this for a week and nothing else, you’d be amazed at how much smarter, more aware, more alert, and calmer your horse is. Then imagine doing that riding. I like to practice fast and slow paces in every gait. Starting with slow makes a bigger dent on the safety communication however so it’s better to start slow. You can have so much fun teaching your horse the turtle slow walk. I’ll even send a video if you’d like to learn more. Comment below if you’d like a video of the turtle slow walk.

Thanks for reading. I can’t wait to see you all soon!

Don Jessop



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Don JessopBreakthroughGuy

Don JessopBreakthroughGuy

Don Jessop created Mastery Horsemanship for you! provides you with safe, fun, and useful next steps in your own journey with horses.