"Be Your Best" is hosted by professional horse trainer and clinician, Phil Haugen. Inspired by his “1% better everyday" training philosophy, Phil explains the methods, mindset, and performance tips that drive continuous learning and growth in horsemanship, as well as in life. Join us each week as Phil shares his experiences over the past 30 years in the horse training industry, discussing the methods that have helped him bridge the language barrier between horse and rider to enhance understanding and performance from foundation to finish.
If you spend long enough in the horse training business, you will likely encounter some situations throughout your career that put you at risk. Any time a horse develops a severe reactive response—such as flipping over backwards or bucking excessively—your safety, as well as your horse’s safety, is compromised.
An overreactive horse is not untrainable—training it properly will just take more time and patience. Overreactive horses need some confidence and consistency-building activities to focus on. Those horses need to learn trust and respect.
A horse’s overreactive nature wasn’t made overnight, and the problem won’t be fixed overnight either. The first step is to attempt to understand why the overreactive horse behaves the way it does. What mannerisms does it exhibit? What situation did the horse come from? Why is it behaving this way?
As crazy as it sounds, your horse has been conditioned to rear up. When a horse is put in a high-pressure situation, anxiety builds, resulting in an extreme reactive response. Horses learn by release, and in an overreactive horse, the release the horse is looking for happens when you, the rider, comes off of its back. Instead of finding a release on its own, you want to retrain your horse’s brain to look for the release when you provide it.
As a rider who has been on a horse’s back during one of these extreme reactions, it is incredibly difficult to feel confident and secure about what is going to happen when you get on that horse. That, in turn, creates a lot of anxiety in us. When you have a frustrated horse, and then you add a frustrated rider into the equation, there is no good that will result from that scenario. If we aren’t relaxed, our horses won’t relax. One of the two bodies must constantly be using the thinking side of their brain.
What you are training on any horse—especially overreactive ones—is their minds. You are training the horse to think and look for responses. This is achieved through a simple “ask, release, reward” routine.
When a horse seems like it has “fallen apart” — meaning, with speed, it is not working very good anymore — what has happened is that they have gotten weak in one of their fundamentals. If you can identify the fundamental element that need work, you can almost always remedy the problem by solidifying that horse’s broken foundation.
Often times, we can make more progress as a rider from the ground. The “boring stuff” you see people doing — such as making your horse soft, yielding the hindquarters, etc. — is the stuff that builds trust and respect. Building a foundation takes time.
When you go to a clinic or training, it’s not all about what happens in those two days. It’s about how you use those two days to change your thinking process. When I host a clinic, I am much more concerned with your results 4 weeks, 4 months, 4 years from now as opposed to 4 hours from now. Knowledge is power. But, knowledge is only powerful if you apply it consistently.
As human beings, we all have our insecurities. In the horsemanship world, insecurities happen when we get in a streak of bad runs, when we have a bad practice before the rodeo, or when we haven’t developed the confidence we need with a certain horse.
Insecurity not only affects us in every day life, but it adversely affects our horsemanship as well.
When we aren’t able to devote time to our personal horses and sharpening our competitive skills, it affects our mindset and performance. Whether it be our careers or family obligations that get in the way of our normal practice routine, we tend to develop insecurities that let us fall back into bad habits.
Anticipating and micro-managing your horse’s every move is an example of a bad habit caused by insecurity. Your horse is like a chamelion. It will transform based on what you ask it to do. Horses don’t learn from pressure. They learn from release. So, you have to let them have the release. Even if you know the next step may be followed by a mistake, you have to let it happen. Then, you can correct it.
The fastest way to confuse your horse is to correct a problem before it happens. If you anticipate a problem and cue your horse accordingly, your horse won’t know what they are supposed to be doing. Don’t be afraid to trust your horse. It is okay to allow them to make a mistake. Over time, your horse will learn your style of communication and will understand how to avoid making mistakes.
Most of the time, mistakes with our horses are caused by our own mistakes as trainers. If you want to sharpen your own skills (and, in turn, your horse’s performance), you have to be willing to get uncomfortable.
Making these small changes in your performance is not going to be part of your normal routine. It is not going to feel “safe” or comfortable. But, until you let yourself get uncomfortable, the correct actions are never going to feel comfortable.
Maybe, getting out of your comfort zone means dropping your hands a little bit. Maybe, it means relaxing your legs. Or, maybe, it means being more aggressive. Whatever it is, you must be willing to analyze your own performance and recognize what uncomfortable steps you might have to take to get to that next level. In doing this, you might be opening yourself up to frustration and embarrassment—but, that is okay. Anytime you feel like you have failed, embrace that, because it means you’re growing.
In our previous episodes, we have talked about activating the thinking side of your horse’s brain. But, today, we are going to talk about activating the thinking side of your brain.
There was a time in my career when someone would make a suggestion, and I would take offense to it. This is when I was a young trainer, and to be honest, I was a little insecure about my abilities. I titled myself as a “horse trainer,” and I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know everything. But, when I finally accepted the fact that I have more to learn, I set myself up to make some essential changes to myself as a horseman. From that point forward, the results I achieved with my horses were always a direct result of the changes I made in myself.
To change your results, you have to change your standards.
Everything you do is a result of your standards. How you treat people, how you behave, how you look, how you shape your body, how you shape your mind, how you take care of your horses… your standards are what yields the results you are getting. Your daily rituals are a product of your standards.
I have a favorite quote from Tony Robbins that reads: “Willpower won’t last. Rituals will.”
Human beings are too emotional to rely on willpower. It’s just our nature. But, when we form a new mindset, new commitments, and new habits, our progress will unfold by leaps and bounds.
If you’re listening to today’s episode, you are already taking a step toward bettering yourself as a horseman. And there’s a chance that if you’re listening, you might feel like you have hit a plateau in your performance or your training career. I am going to challenge to you to take a very realistic audit of your own program.
I hear so many people fall back on the excuse “well, I’m no trainer, but…” Every time you step up on a horse, you are either creating or reinforcing a habit.
I get the question of “which horse should I bring” a lot before my clinics.
When I went to one of my very first clinics, I wanted to bring a green horse and start him at that clinic. I was surprised when the clinician told me to bring my most advanced horse to the clinic instead of my most inexperienced horse. This surprised me because, at the time, I was under the impression that it was my horse that needed the fixing, not myself.
You’ve heard me say it before, and I’ll say it again—my horses have taught me so much more than I will ever teach them. Always remember that the horse you bring to a clinic is just a vehicle for you to learn how to communicate. The more advanced horse you bring, the more you will get out of it.
You’re not done yet. You’ve got a lot of things to learn and things to get better at. Make the commitment today to set a new standard for yourself.
“My horse is good enough.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this phrase over the years as a competitor, clinician, and trainer. When we adopt this mindset of being “good enough,” we are limiting our potential to become great.
We need to eliminate the term “good enough” from our horsemanship vocabulary. Instead, ask yourself, “is my horse good, or is my horse great?”
When you strive to get your horse to that “great” level, you automatically elevate yourself as a trainer. We have passed the time when your own athletic ability can make up for a lack of horse power. Everyone’s skill level has increased so dramatically over the years that horse power is now the differentiating factor between good and great competitors.
The people who understand how important it is to simultaneously develop their own abilities as well as their horse’s are the ones who achieve truly great things in their careers.
When I was younger, I came from a “horse” family, but not necessarily a “rodeo” family. So, when I began practicing roping events, I was always trying to make up for lost time. In the practice pen, there was never really much discussion of horsemanship, but we were always focusing on getting more repetitions with my roping. Over the years, I began to realize that when I was in position, my catch percentage was much higher. That’s when I started to shift my mindset from roping for myself to roping for my horse.
Being a better horsemen starts with understanding where you’re at right now—with your skill level and your horse’s understanding. Then, you must identify where you want to get to and come up with a plan for how to get there.
For example, if you want to have a horse that is great at scoring in the roping events, you have to have a program that helps to develop that. In roping events, we tend to put our horses in a situation that naturally creates some anxiety when we back into the corner. We apply pressure in the mouth, expecting them to stand still, yet going from zero to thirty in a matter of seconds. This pressure is not necessarily what causes a lot of horses to “blow up” in the corner over time. Rather, it is our inconsistency with reinforcing correct fundamentals that causes the blow up.
If you don’t correct your horse’s mistake at the time the mistake occurs, you are reinforcing a bad habit. A mistake essentially transforms into a repetition that continues to create an undesirable outcome. When you’re establishing and creating habits, the foundation and fundamentals of slow work—or putting your hand down and letting your horse get into position—is what makes all the difference.
Many people fall to the assumption that once their horse is “good,” the training stops there. But, this simply isn’t true. The better you get, the more steps it takes to get even better. You can’t do too many correct repetitions. You can’t have your horse “too good.”
The number one thing that separates a good roper from a great roper is a great horse. Ask yourself—are you doing something every day to help your horse get better? If you’re not getting better, you’re going backwards. Sometimes, this requires going back to some of the most basic fundamentals and reinforcing correct habits.
Every time you repeat something, you are at the beginning stage of establishing a habit. This is true whether you are an advanced rider or just starting out. Each time you get on your horse, you are presented with the opportunity to identify your good habits and bad habits. Your bad habits are your weaknesses. A weakness is something that has been developed over time, whether we taught it that way or whether we have allowed the same mistake to happen repeatedly.
Although many of us understand the importance of repetitions, I think we tend to underestimate the power that lies behind correct repetitions. Correct repetitions are an essential part of building a foundation for long-term success.
Once we have achieved an end goal with our horses, we have a tendency to quit doing the things that got us there. At the end of the day, your horse is not a programmed computer. Even horses that perform at a very high level a high percentage of the time require repetition of fundamentals to continually improve their performance.
When faced with a goal, we often think of time as our enemy. But when it comes to repetition, time is our ally. One of our biggest downfalls in the performance horse industry is our obsession with short term goals. We’re all focused on short-term satisfaction. But, when we break long-term goals in to short-term repetitions, that is when we achieve power over our performance.
I have a personal goal to do 50 sit-ups and 50 push-ups five days each week. Honestly, I hate taking the time to work out. But, this routine takes me less than five minutes to complete, so I have made a habit of it. While my 50 reps may not seem like much, this adds up to 13,000 sit-ups and 13,000 push-ups each year.
Just think if you apply the same concept to your training—if you can make a habit of dedicating a small amount of time toward performing correct repetitions with your horse, your results a year from now will be astounding.
The power of repetition makes something that appears overwhelming look very achievable.
The moment when it finally starts to click and you begin to see those small repetitions pay off is incredibly rewarding. When you reach that point of success, figure out the thing(s) that got you to that point. Then, make a commitment to keep doing those things, or you won’t stay there for long.
One of my favorite quotes is “win the day.” This is a simple reminder to do the small steps that will propel me toward my end goal. When we break big goals down into manageable repetitions, the road to success becomes a little shorter each day.
The way your horse acts is a direct reflection of you. Even if you are working with just one horse, you are a trainer. Every time you work with your horse, you are establishing habits—good and bad.
Bad habits are reactive responses. Things like pawing, kicking up, or bucking occur when your horse engages the “reactive” side of its brain rather than “thinking” side. If your horse is doing these things when you get on its back, your horse is not ready to learn.
Too often, trainers who are struggling with their riding adopt the mindset of “I’ll fix it tomorrow.” But, this mindset only reinforces your horse’s reactive responses. You must be mindful of the signals you are sending your horse.
For example, in barrel racing—if you have a horse that has been going by the first barrel, you begin to anticipate this exact response. When you anticipate, you are starting to correct a problem before it even happens. Horses are smart animals, and they can feel the tension in your body when you begin to anticipate a problem. Often times, this tension is enough to flip the switch from the horse’s “thinking” side of its brain to the “reacting” side.
Your horse’s reactive state of mind is the number one thing that holds you back from progressing. When your horse adopts this mindset, it is controllable, but not trainable.
But, there is some good news—you, as a trainer, are capable of flipping the switch back and helping your horse engage the thinking side of its brain. When you control your temperament, you soften your mind, as well as your horse’s.
When you have a weak link in your foundation, there will come a time where progress becomes incredibly difficult. There will be a point in time when getting to that next level seems nearly impossible.
When I was a young trainer, I used to believe that I was only training the horse if I was on its back. This mindset severely limited me from establishing a strong foundation with the horses I worked with. This was because I failed to understand the difference between how a horse thinks and how a horse reacts.
Horses have excellent memories for both good and bad situations. When they feel pressure in a situation, they have the choice to either think or react. Every horse has a “fight or flight” mechanism, and each horse is different in how they respond to this instinct. Horses that engage “fight” mode tend to push back and dominate the training session or display other negative reactions, such as pawing, rearing, kicking, or bucking.
These reactions are caused by the horse’s failure to activate the thinking side of its brain. As a trainer, you can help stimulate your horse to engage the thinking side of its brain long before you ever step up into the saddle. You use a combination of pressure and release to stimulate thinking and understanding. The key to this combination is that once your horse gives the response you are asking for, you have to immediately release. If you keep asking for more without a release, your horse gets confused.
You can apply pressure without ever touching the horse. Our presence in a horse’s stall can be enough to add pressure to some horses, especially young ones. Think about this — if you apply pressure on the ground and your horse doesn’t respond, how is that going to carry over when you are on its back? If your horse pushes back against pressure on the ground, what makes you think that they are going to move away from the pressure of your leg once you get on its back?
Your horse has to respect the space you are trying to create. When your horse develops respect, it starts to develop trust and understanding. When your horse feels pressure, it stimulates the horse’s thinking response. You use pressure to help the horse find release. The release is what you teach.
The ultimate goal is when you step in that stall, your horse immediately associates you with the thinking side of its brain.
If you are working your horse on the ground and you are the one moving your feet, they are training you. The objective is to have your horse move around you. This takes time and patience, but it is essential to developing a horse’s foundation.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the “Activating the Thinking Side of the Horse’s Brain” series, releasing in Episode 10 of the Be Your Best Horsemanship podcast.
All of us are on a horsemanship journey where we learn a lot about horses and a lot about life. I remember very vividly the day that my journey changed. It was the day when I stopped letting my frustrations dictate my communication with my horse.
If you are experiencing a challenging time in your horsemanship journey, do an evaluation—look at yourself, look at your horse, look at what you’re trying to accomplish, and think about what transitions you are going to need to make to get there. What is the difference in where you are and where you want to be?Sometimes, all it takes is reinforcing a fundamental. But, it’s a process. You have to fix things one at a time.
Read full show notes at: beyourbesthorsemanship.com
If you attend one of my clinics, you’ll hear me talk a lot about keeping your horse soft in the face. While keeping your horse soft in the face is necessary in most disciplines, sometimes we forget about the other body parts that are connected to the horse’s face.
Your horse has five main body parts, and all five of those body parts have to be cohesive. Think about it like a piece of machinery. If one part is stuck, it usually impacts other parts of the equipment as well. The same is true with the anatomy of a horse. If your horse is not responsive to the pressure of your leg, it will get stiff in its head, neck, face, and ribcage.
If your horse tends to hang on your rein and drift down the arena when you’re loping a circle, this is a good indicator that its ribcage is stiff.
Stiffness causes a wide range of issues with a horse’s performance. In barrel racing, for example, a common issue I see at many of my clinics is when horses go by or dive into a barrel. When this happens, the horses’ hind quarters get strung out behind them and their backs become hollowed out. As a result, the only thing they can do to balance back out is to lunge forward.
One particular exercise that I do daily with any horse that I get on, whether it is starting a colt or riding a seasoned horse, is to soften them laterally and vertically before they ever take a step forward. When I step into the saddle, I immediately reach down on my rein and tip my horse’s nose to one side or the other. While its nose is tipped, I keep pressure against its ribcage and squeeze my horse forward so its front feet follow its nose. If I’m going to the right, I will still have some pressure with my right leg, but I will have more pressure with my left leg because that leg is what is keeping my forward motion. I’m going to keep my right leg against that horse because I want my horse to ride around my leg and to flex its ribcage around my leg. I want my horse to learn to balance on its hind inside leg, and my leg is going to become the pivot point. No matter the discipline, achieving that balance is one of the most fundamental motions a horse needs to be able to perform.
Early on in my training career, I realized that the success of my day is heavily dependent upon my attitude. So, before I ever went outside to catch a horse, I had to stop myself and consider what I was allowing myself to think about. And, I had to decide if my thoughts were setting me up for a successful day of training.
In life, challenging times are inevitable. This is especially true if you are in the horse training business. You are going to experiences challenges each and every day. These are the little road bumps that can either derail us or empower us.
It is basic human nature be frustrated by a challenge. But, when you start to realize that challenges are what truly teach you the most, you start to view these struggles differently. Over the past 30 years as a horse trainer, I have come to realize that for this to be a rewarding career and for me to have the right mindset, I need to start enjoying the journey.
The journey takes up the majority of your time. The destination is a brief point in time where you reach the pinnacle of success. This point in time does not last very long before you have to reset and start again. In order to continue to grow and improve, it is essential to embrace a few features of the journey.
If you are listening or reading along with today’s episode, you’re already making an investment toward improving your knowledge and understanding. You’ve probably heard the saying, “knowledge is power,” but this is true only if you apply that knowledge. When you begin sharing your knowledge and experiences with others, that is when you begin to make an impact. That is the point when you begin to use your knowledge to not only help yourself, but to help others, too. Investing in yourself doesn’t always mean going out and spending money to improve some aspect of your life. Investing in yourself is more about the process of gathering knowledge that you can pass along to others.
Horses have taught me as much, if not more, than I have taught them over the years. When you are working with horses, you start to learn a lot about yourself, and you start to learn a lot about life. Many of the philosophies used to train a horse are applicable to every area of my life. Growth happens when you have an understanding that you are going to have failures and tough days. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep trying. If you never quit, you’ll never fail.
"Be Your Best" is hosted by professional horse trainer and clinician, Phil Haugen. Inspired by his “1% better everyday" training philosophy, Phil explains the methods, mindset, and performance tips that drive continuous learning and growth in horsemanship, as well as in life. Join us each week as Phil shares his experiences over the past 30 years in the horse training industry, discussing the methods that have helped him bridge the language barrier between horse and rider to enhance understanding and performance from foundation to finish .