You can look online right now and find about 10,000 programs for training horses, and all 10,000 of those programs would probably work if you knew how to apply them in a way where the horse could understand.
The problem with a lot of the training out there in the interwebs is that they give you a definitive response system.
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For example, if your horse is buddy sour, then here’s step 1, 2, and 3 on how to fix him.
But my question is, “What if my horse doesn’t do that?
What if my horse does this, that, or something completely unexpected? Then what?”
See, that’s the problem with following a program that teaches you step 1, 2, and 3.
You’re only learning what to do, but not how or why you’re doing it.
That’s why someone, for example, could watch a program on TV, go outside and copy the exact steps on their horse, and it might not work.
If your timing was off, and you had the wrong approach, it wouldn’t matter what you did; it would eventually fall apart.
A big part of horsemanship is learning the how and the why.
It would be nice if we could just look up a solution in the horse dictionary and instantly know exactly what to do.
Unfortunately horses don’t work that way.
They’re not like computers that have a definitive and consistent response each and every time.
And look, I get it.
You’re not trying to win the horse trainer of the year award (if that’s even real).
You’re just trying to enjoy time spent with your horse, build your relationship stronger, and have confidence in knowing the work you’re putting in isn’t a waste of time.
But wouldn’t it be nice if you could assess the horse, know exactly what needed to be done to help him understand, and then he began to do (or not do) what you were asking?
What if you started working with your horse using one program or “method”, and if that didn’t work, you immediately knew what to do to fill in the gaps?
The second your horse stopped understanding, you had another approach to get him back on track.
How? Because you acquired something much, much deeper than following a 10 step training program.
You learned horsemanship.
If you have good horsemanship, you can mix and match all kinds of different training programs, techniques, and methods that make the most sense to the horse.
I like to compare horsemanship to Granny’s cooking.
I know that may sound a little weird, but just stick with me here.
Granny always makes the most amazing apple pie.
My mom would ask Granny for the recipe so she could make it too.
Granny would always say, “Well you put a pinch of this, a dab of that, stir it a little, slice up some apples, etc.”
There was no specific recipe that Granny followed.
She just knew what to do because she knew how to cook.
She was so good that she could dip her spoon into a pot of stew, taste it, and know exactly what it needed and how much of it.
Mom would try to make the apple pie like Granny’s, but it never tasted as good as Granny’s (sorry Mom).
Once you learn horsemanship, you’re like Granny.
You begin filling in where it’s needed and you just know what to do because you understand horses.
You’re not tied down to following the recipe because you don’t need a recipe.
You’re an amazing cook! And even if you did follow a recipe, and it didn’t turn out well, you’d know what was needed to fix it.
And here’s the good news about horsemanship. Anyone can learn it.
It’s not something that you’re born with.
It’s an acquired skill (just like cooking).
When I was a kid, I used to be into airplanes, and I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up.
I didn’t know much of anything about horses.
But since horsemanship is an acquired skill, I was able to learn it and put it to work.
But let’s define horsemanship really quick.
I define it as the ability to read the horse, come to his level, and reply with the appropriate timing and approach to help him understand.
What Is Timing?
Timing is how horses are trained.
It’s the key to everything.
Timing goes hand-in-hand with pressure and release.
You have to be particular and make sure you get the timing right when you add or release pressure.
A second too soon or too late can mean the difference in your horse “getting it” or being confused.
I define pressure as making something uncomfortable to the horse.
Note that I said uncomfortable, not painful.
To make something uncomfortable, you get in the horse’s way. You make it difficult for them when they don’t do what you are asking them to do.
Release is the exact opposite.
When the horse does want you want, you get out of their way, and make it really easy for them.
Whenever you add pressure to the horse (by getting in his way), hold that pressure until the horse finds his way out of it by making a positive change, and don’t give up.
Once he makes a positive change, your job is to provide an instant, immediate release of pressure and get out of their way.
In some cases, if the horse isn’t making the change, you may need to add more pressure, use less pressure, or maintain the pressure you have and wait longer until you see the change.
It just depends.
Other times you may need to hold steady pressure and wait.
For example, a colt that has never been ridden is not going to lope a perfect circle no matter how hard you pull.
Over time, as the horse begins to understand, less and less pressure will be necessary to get him to respond quicker and more accurately to what you’re asking him to do.
This is what creates a horse that is “light”.
However, with that said, you usually must be “heavy” with your horse before he can learn to become light.
In some circles of the horse world, there is a prevailing thought that if you ever use more than featherlight pressure, you’re not a good horser (my word).
People have adopted the “natural” philosophy and assumed that to create a light horse, you must handle them lightly all the time, and if you ever use more than two ounces of pressure, you’re going to make your horse heavy.
So, well-intentioned riders treat their horse with kid gloves all the time, and the horse ends up getting the bad end of the deal because communication is hindered, and the horse is never enabled to reach his full potential.
The critical key is the timing of when you’re light and when you’re heavy.
The goal is to be light as possible, but as firm as necessary.
Always offer the horse “the good deal” first.
To do this, you’ll always start out with very light pressure, and then if nothing happens, turn up the heat and start adding more pressure until you see a small change.
This gives the horse a reason to respond to the lighter pressure and teaches him that, if he’ll respond to that lighter pressure first, the heavier, more uncomfortable pressure won’t come.
But if the horse doesn’t respond to that lighter pressure, and you don’t follow up with heavier pressure, you’re going to have an unresponsive horse.
You just have to apply it in a way that is fair to the horse and within his level of understanding.
I see so many people who almost got their horse to make that positive change, but they gave up too early.
Don’t give up.
Hang in there until you get a change.
You also have to make it the horse’s idea.
When you get good at timing, you’ll be able to apply the pressure so the horse thinks the pressure is self-inflicted.
If the horse thinks he’s the one causing the pressure, it will help prevent him from getting sour, having a bad attitude, or being resistant.
Plus, it will be much more effective.
Imagine you had a horse that would try to bite you when you tightened the cinch on the saddle.
One way to work on this would be to let the horse run into pressure every time he started to reach his head back towards you.
You could hold an object in your hand and as soon as you noticed the horse starting to reach his head around, raise that object up between you and the horse’s head.
When the horse reaches around, he’s going to smack right into it.
Did you hit the horse or did the horse run into the object? The horse ran into the object.
Eventually the horse is going to stop reaching around because every time he does it, he runs into pressure.
And he also believes that this pressure is self inflicted. In his brain he’ll start to figure out that every time he reaches around, it’s uncomfortable.
Now again, this is why timing is so critical.
If you were late putting the object up, you’d be hitting him.
He’d already have nipped at you or bitten you and anything you did past that point would be too late.
The pressure wouldn’t be self inflicted.
Usually when I explain this concept to the horse owner, they’ll respond by saying, “I already do that.”
But then when I do what they thought they were doing, there is a different outcome.
It’s not what you do. It’s how you do it.
If they were actually doing what they thought they were doing, they wouldn’t be having the problem.
You also need to understand that horses don’t do wrong or right.
I want to say that again so you really get it.
Horses don’t do anything right or wrong.
Horses do what you make feel good to them.
So if you make one action feel better than the other, they will always follow the path of least resistance.
How do you make one action feel better than the other?
You pave that path by showing them which is easier than the other by using pressure and release.
Make one path easy and make everything else more difficult.
Think about deer.
They have game trails that they walk on through the woods. Why?
Because walking on the trail is easier than walking off the trail.
Animals (and humans, too) will always look for the path of least resistance, and once they find it, they will take it.
Just look at all the products that have been invented to make our lives easier.
To be a master horseman is to become a master of paving the path of least resistance.
Once we get this down, the horse will almost train himself.
Imagine a horse that rears up when asked to back up.
Is it not easier to back up than to rear and flip over backwards?
Well, of course it is. But you have to be able to see that, in this horse’s mind, he is convinced that the best thing to do is rear.
And this is always because the human has been unknowingly training him to rear.
And then, finally, the horse did exactly what he was trained to do.
If he knew of something better to do, he would do that instead.
So many times we see a horse that is trying his hardest to figure the human out, but with the approach the human has, he simply cannot do it.
And then the horse gets blamed for being disrespectful, lazy, inattentive, etc.
However, the horse has no other choice but to do these things.
He’s doing the best thing he knows to do for the situation.
Our job is to pave a different, easier path.
It’s never the horse that makes the adjustment.
It’s always the human.
Any sane person wouldn’t get in an airplane and just try to take off and fly without the basic knowledge of how to operate it.
But for some reason, many people are willing to do this with a horse and then wonder why they have trouble.
They read an article online, listen to a friend, or watch a video and then go outside and attempt to train their horse to do something.
Imagine if you did this with an airplane. Would you watch a video about how to operate a plane and then jump in one and try to take off?
Of course you wouldn’t (hopefully).
And we shouldn’t do this with our horses either.
I have a pilot’s license, and trust me when I tell you, horses are much more complicated than airplanes.
People often try to blame the horse for the issues they’re having, but it’s not the horse’s fault.
If you’re not operating the horse correctly, it’s your fault.
If you wrecked an airplane, without the knowledge of how to operate it, it wouldn’t be the airplane’s fault.
The approach is critical too.
First you need to recognize that when you approach a horse and attempt to teach him something new, it’s going to be a big deal to the horse.
Don’t go into training a horse thinking that the horse is just supposed to understand what you’re wanting.
Many people assume that a horse should know certain things, but this isn’t true at all.
Always start with the mindset that the horse is completely clueless as to what’s happening.
This way of thinking will help keep you in check and aid in preventing you from getting too frustrated.
However, if you’ve been working with your horse, and he’s shown you that he does understand, then you can start expecting more out of him.
People mess up because they try to work with the horse at the level they think he’s at, or the level they think he SHOULD be at, instead of working with the horse at the level he’s actually at.
Learn to identify and accept where your horse is at, and then work with him to bring him up to the level you want him at.
You can do this by breaking things down into steps.
Horses can’t see the big picture like we can, and they can only focus on doing one thing at a time.
They also don’t know the end goal.
But once you figure out a way to break the training exercise apart into multiple pieces, and just work on one piece at a time, you’ll have more success.
Now you may be thinking, ‘what about personalities’?
Well, yes, each horse has a different personality, but that personality doesn’t override their overall horse nature.
Once you learn good horsemanship, you’ll be able to adjust and help the horse to understand, no matter what his personality is.
When asked about a horse’s personality, I often refer to Johnny.
He was always a really goofy kid.
He loved to entertain and loved to make people laugh.
Then he decided to go into the military.
The drill sergeant didn’t put up with Johnny’s goofiness while on the clock.
When working, Johnny had to do everything like he was told.
And he did because he understood that the drill sergeant was in charge.
Does this mean Johnny lost his personality?
When Johnny left boot camp and came back home, he was still the fun loving guy that everyone loved, but he learned to have respect for his drill sergeant and do what was asked of him.
It’s the same with your horse.
You should expect your horse to pay attention and treat you as the leader when you’re working with them.
Then when they’re “off the clock” and out in the pasture, they can go back to whatever personality they want.
With that said, I am a firm believer that every interaction you have with your horse is an opportunity to work on something, no matter how insignificant you think it may be.
Horses also thrive on having a confident leader to follow.
And if they don’t see you as a confident leader, they won’t follow or trust you.
Always act like nothing is a big deal, even though it may be a big deal in the horse’s mind. Don’t get in a hurry and rush things.
Remain cool and confident at all times. Your body language should represent someone who has done this a million times, even if it’s your first time.
Horses can sense fear and doubt, and if they pick up on it, you’re done.
Imagine a horse that’s standing at the edge of a creek and afraid to cross it.
Why is it that (usually) when another horse walks up beside it and then crosses the creek first, the scared horse will then follow the other horse?
Because he trusts that horse as a leader. He trusts that the leading horse won’t let any harm come to him.
Your horse should see you like that second horse.
Your horse should have full confidence that you are a worthy leader to follow and you have their best interest at heart.
And even though they may be scared or unsure about something, they will allow their self preservation instinct to step aside in order to do what you are asking.
Horses can sense if you know what you’re doing or if you don’t.
They just know.
How do you know if you’re doing something correct? You learn.
Reading this blog, for example, will provide you with a vast amount of knowledge, which will give your confidence a huge boost.
With that said, you’ll never be perfect and neither will I. But we can always get better.
Before I stop talking about confidence, I’d like to share a very quick video example of a near death experience to demonstrate what it means to be a confident leader:
In conclusion, if you go into horsing thinking you’re going to follow a formula, but you don’t know the WHY, and you don’t have the right approach and timing, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
But if you understand horsemanship, you could use any method and get it to work.
Heck, you could even just make up your own “method”.
People ask me all the time, “What’s the Carson James method?”
And I wind up telling everyone that there’s actually not a Carson James method.
My method is what works for the horse, and what helps the horse understand. I am a lifelong student of the horse, and I will always be willing to learn anything the horse wants to teach me.
There is knowledge everywhere that can help you with your horsemanship.
It’s all over the internet, in videos, books, audio, etc.
The key is to take that knowledge, look at it under a microscope and examine WHY it worked.
Once you get that, along with proper timing, you’ve got everything.
My goal for the people I help is to break this knowledge down into very small pieces that are really easy and simple to understand.
It’s the same way I train my horses.
I tear off the layers of difficulty into smaller steps which enables the horse to better understand and progress.
Everything you’ve just read was Chapter 1 of my book, “Tales Of Horsemanship”. If you’d like to get the full book, click here.