Why Horse Training Doesn’t Work

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.

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.

(By the way, this entire article is Chapter 1 of my new book, “Tales Of Horsemanship”. If you’re enjoying the article, then you’ll LOVE the book. You can get it here: https://www.talesofhorsemanship.com)

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, go here: https://www.talesofhorsemanship.com

About The Author

Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship. For the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. He was often in situations where he either had to figure out how to help the horse understand, or it could easily turn into a life or death situation. Carson now travels the country putting on training clinics teaching people the fundamentals of Horsemanship. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.


  • jane

    Reply Reply March 11, 2018

    Wow, a lot of wisdom there. And he’s right on so many levels. Took me years to figure this out. There is no one right way, only what works for the horse and there are only a few underlying principles that should always prevail, timing, pressure, release and having it be the horse’s idea. Still on this journey, but glad there are people out there willing to help continue pave the way to understanding with effective strategies for our horses. These training principles paved the way for me riding my horse solo in rugged Oregon country and having the tools in my pocket for the unknowns AND be safe. And raise a filly from the ground up later on in life. Keep up the great work CJ and his crew!

  • Hella Shriver

    Reply Reply March 11, 2018

    So awesome! With Carson’s help I have transformed my pushy, buddy sour and green broke mare into a compliant and respectful equine. Does she still have a tantrum
    now and then? Oh sure (drama queen), but the difference is that now I have developed into a more confident and nearly fearless leader, able to stay calm and persistent.

    I recommend Carson’s course to anybody who wants to improve their horsemanship.
    This is down to earth, easy to understand and follow, and the result is outstanding.

    Thank you so much, Carson

  • Gail Harmon

    Reply Reply March 11, 2018

    Thank you, Carson for teaching us how to break down a task and teach one small part of a task at a time. My horse and I have a much better relationship since I have been changing how I do things. My confidence is greater and I am more aware of what we are both doing instead of just riding on auto pilot. Learning that it is all interconnected has made a big difference, and that by changing one small thing, it will positively affect other areas.

  • Dori

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    I was a school teacher. I wish I had trained a horse before teaching children… You do not get the feel for teaching in college classes. Kids respond to a teacher with confidence more than a bunch of tests and rules. I’m so much more aware of the different personalities that are in a class. Our schools are in a crisis due to many things other than race and money.
    You would be an amazing teacher of hoomans too!

  • Jamie Hendry

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    I had been riding horses for 45 years before I met Carson James, who was just 28 at the time. I can hardly believe how much I learned from him in a two-day clinic … to say nothing of all I’ve learned through watching his videos (earning the badges) and being part of his members’ facebook page. I had started over a dozen horses under saddle, but my confidence has grown so much in the last two years that I am actually starting four horses this year and taking in horses from other people to tune up and re-train. And now this — Carson’s book! I bought it the first day it was available, and even with everything else you get as a CJ Member, it was well worth the price. I enjoy reading, and Carson has done a great job of writing this book so it’s just as accessible and useful as his videos. My friend Chris is going to ride in Carson’s clinic with me in May, but he doesn’t have access to the internet to watch Carson’s videos. So he’s reading Carson’s book to prepare for the clinic. It just doesn’t get better this. It just doesn’t get better than Carson James!

  • Joy

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    I have Carson’s book and I love it. It’s easy to understand and has delightful pictures. I also enjoy the cow camp stories.

  • Debbie Tiefenbacher

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    I have Carson’s book and I enjoy the way he teaches. Very easy to understand and follow and very entertaining at the same time!

  • Cheri Lanzisera

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    Thank you Mr. Carson,
    I began to feel so pedantic after a while. I never worried about people watching me work, because it didn’t take me long to figure out that most people don’t care to take the time to learn the nuances of teaching a horse, or clearly communicating with a horse, much less learning the timing, adjustments, equipment, body language, idiosyncrasies, temperaments, types of errors previous handlers make, where and why certain pressure points work, and so on. They want it quick and easy, and the same way as when they rode one horse, 35 years ago. They don’t understand what they are doing, or why, and many, don’t want to. Men and women, alike. I think you get a bashing about picking on women, because there are more women in the industry, in general. Men that choose to ride, are less sentimental about horsemanship, and with their egos, either excel, or walk away early on. I have said it for years, “No one can ruin a horse faster than little white women.” It’s true. And, everyone can just shut up, because I am a little white woman. I was the “why” kid, always needed to know “why.” Tried to strike a balance between too soft ladies approach, and too forceful men’s approach, laying out my own wall of rules, as I found necessary. Zero tolerance for kicking or biting. Listening to the horse to see what he knows, only reprimanding (work harder until answer improves, “pressure”), after i’ve had a chance to teach that lesson. When I instruct I would always give my reasoning behind everything i do. And, because i’ve had the privilege of working with over 200 horses, in my lifetime, and hosted over 12,000 clients on trail rides, in the mountains, over 11 years, on my beloved horses, I know he’s talking truth. Some get offended, when I keep explaining “why” I do things a certain way. They say i’m lecturing them. I am at heart, a riding instructor, and a “horse listener.” Because “why” can help to bridge you to the next step in communicating better with your horse. I share, because i care. I think, they just don’t want to learn.
    Another other thing i’ve often said, is, “If you think at any time, you know everything you need to know about horses, you’re already in trouble.”
    So, Mr Carson, keep up the good work. One out of every 500 will hear your words, but, every horse you help, is worth that time.
    Don’t ever forget folks, “Release of Pressure.” Pressure can be applied with a rope, a tap tap stick, a leg, a rein or verbally, even body position can create pressure, but, as soon as the horse responds correctly, quit doing whatever it was you were using to apply pressure, praise…and watch for licking. Licking denotes compliance, and a willingness to understand.
    Also, working with horses is generally, “counterintuitive”… whatever your first response to do instinctually, while working with your horse, is probably the wrong thing. Until, you learn enough, that you train the human out of you, and begin to think like a horse. Listen to this man, he knows his “sh*t,” and he’s trying to share it with you. Listen, and ask and understand, “why.” Thank you, Carson James, you won me with your Tom Thumb bashing, I hate them, too. Da*n nutcrackers!
    I’ll step off my soapbox, now.

    Happy Trails,
    Cheri at the Rose
    AnzaRose Stables, CA

  • Candace C

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    Ha ha ha. I read that story in Carson James’ excellent book, Tales of Horsemanship, but the video really brings it home in an amusing and dramatic way. Even though I am a breeder and consider myself a bit of an expert I learned some new things and the logic behind some things that I already do. I am very glad that a friend recommended Carson James.

  • Susan Tunis

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Carson James Book. It was easy to read and understand. I’ve used the techniques outlined in this book and they worked. I am still working on my timing and am getting better with it each day. I’ve shared this knowledge with a few friends and they enjoy it too.

  • Peggy Long

    Reply Reply March 12, 2018

    Thanks Carson James for your easy to understand training tips!! Your ideas and now this book depict exactly what it takes to communicate effectively with your horse!! By breaking it down into small pieces, I’ve learned how to load my horse into the trailer without me going in in no time!! I’ve also learned how to be a confident leader. Now my husband is reading the book and beginning to absorb what I’ve been trying to teach him from your techniques. He’s now understand the fundamentals of Horsemanship . Soooo glad I found you CJ!!!

  • Vicky Pfennig

    Reply Reply March 16, 2018

    You are totally correct I understand completely I have trained several of my own horses with pressure and release and you are right you can’t give up and you have to have a response so you can get out of their way. Thank you for explaining this so well.

  • Lynda

    Reply Reply March 18, 2018

    Excellent information that felt was spot on. And that’s an excellent video. Make more like that, lol. Totally cracked me up.

  • Chance

    Reply Reply March 20, 2018

    Brother, you’re one of the best contemporary Horsemen out there. Much admiration and I’m looking forward to the day I can shake your hand.

  • Sarah hall

    Reply Reply March 22, 2018

    My horse is a pasofino mare.. she is a good horse.. the problem I have with her is that she doesn’t want to ride by herself, an always wanted to turn around an back up an not go in the direction I want her to go.. if iam riding around the yard she doesn’t want to go at all some times. When I get her to move she just wants to go back to the barn or to the horse trailer.. how do I get her to want to ride by herself. Thank you.

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