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“There’s just something missing...”

I seem to hear this more often by the day - "something is missing" in the connection with our equine partners.

You’re just not really touching your horse in the way you know is possible. How do you know this? Perhaps because there was that one horse that showed you it was possible. Perhaps you’ve seen someone else find that spot with a horse. Or perhaps you just know - because you can feel it in your horse… there’s more.

Ironically what's missing may be exactly why you're into horses in the first place, which is why you keep reaching for “it”. Was it ever just about an obedient partner? Or is it more about fully experiencing Equus - their grace of spirit, expression, beauty - that thing we admire in horses that words always fall short in describing?

So why does that part often seem just out of reach??

You may be reaching for more in your horsemanship than conventional strategies seem to quite offer. 

“What?! That’s a bit bold Karen!

- conventional strategies have been successful for years!”

Yes, they do serve in important ways. It’s also interesting to look at key characteristics more closely to spot what's missing for those of us seeking that extra piece.

Below is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which has been around for over 50 years. It’s a bit simplistic perhaps, but I like simple! It serves to model quite accurately an evolution occurring in horsemanship (or in us actually), as well as illustrating exactly why it feels like "something’s missing".


Pressure and release (negative reinforcement) is modeled on "Alpha" herd behavior. The dominant horse uses pressure to move other horses for such purposes as claiming a particular hay pile, drinking first or to gain rank. The underlying motive is to meet essential physiological needs.The use of food rewards (positive reinforcement) makes use of the horse's innate desire to eat, with frequency. Horses are foraging animals - they must forage to survive in the wild. 

When you think of it this way, the behaviors we model in our training strategies have a natural anchoring in the survival level of Maslow’s model (lower level above). 

Well, not completely of course. Nothing is that cut and dried. WE are in the partnership afterall! It’s not just the horse. And while a dominant horse does not move other horses for the purposes of developing a cozy partnership, we do bring in that intention and focus to our work together. 

So we thereby elevate our strategy into the next level in the model (middle level above), where relationships are sought.

So what? Does this really matter?

If you are happy with your equine partnership it probably does not matter at all!

On the other hand, if you get that dull sort of ache in your heart that something is missing, it may be important.

Is there a gap between the connection you have and the one you want?

When we dare to really think about it, a horse's experience of pressure is focused on how to cause that pressure to go away. When we use food rewards, his experience is focused on either enjoying the actual reward or on how to qualify for the next one. Technically, his relationship is with the pressure (and his interest in getting rid of it) or the food reward (and his interest in food) - not really...You!

In other words - broadly speaking - we are using methods that manage our horse's motivation away from the pressure we present and/or towards the food we promise. We're on the other end of the pressure and on the other end of the food - but his focus is not truly on a direct connection with us. That's why it can feel to some of us like there is something of a gap - there is!

But you see it's not personal at all because You don't really present You - or not the most creative, unique You that hangs out in the upper layer of Maslow's model (above) - only the part of you that is tied into the lower levels.

Of course we do this because we are taught that we must use positive or negative motivators to teach our horse what we mean - unfortunately these motivators leave us a bit "out of the picture". It's a language horses understand well and extraordinary and fun things can be achieved. It's just that the Feel of a direct connection is sort of "by-passed". So if that is what you happen to be seeking, you can't quite get there.

That's why everything is hunky dory until we consciously (or unconsciously) start reaching into those upper layers, when things can begin to lose traction.

The missing link is understanding where we are in these layers and how to move to where we want to be.

Whether something happened that has us hanging out in fear in the lower level and we want to move back up to the middle layer, or we are in the middle layer and deeply inspired to reach for the upper layer, it's useful to have a clue where we are so we can get clarity on where we are going and how best to move along the pathway.

Do I mean conventional methods are wrong?

Nope! I’m saying I find it fascinating that when I look at this it becomes very clear why I have gained much value along the way from different approaches. Every experience (good and bad)  was “on the pathway” to where I am so far and added to a rich base that continues to serve.

The point is, there is no good or bad layer to be in, just the one we’re in on our pathway at any time. And it’s helpful to have a clue where you are in this “big picture”, so you can follow an approach that will be a good FIT and FUN for you and your horse.

I don’t regret practicing any approach I've used in the least. I just didn’t know how much more there is when we shift mindset, refine our feel to bring in that direct connection and as a result move into the upper layer (as Maslow presents above)...until I did! 

And there are no words for how grateful I am that Chase drew that line in the sand 10! years ago. I might never have known about this other part he led me to discover -- nor would I have had the almost daily inspiration of being blown away by many horses who have crossed my path, in terms of what this different type of connection can yield, especially its scope for resolving long-standing or in the moment challenges.

“So how can I bring my horsemanship into this upper layer of Maslow’s model?”

Do I have to switch from what I know? (Spoiler - No!)

Tap into your higher senses, or not - the choice is yours! Coming in next Blog…


Mark Rashid


"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond


"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months,... he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his 'better feel', Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did [...] It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance


"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech


“ le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle


"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle