Horsemanship Articles

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Horsemanship 101: Understanding the horse/human relationship

By: Christopher J. Bohenek

Horses are natural born followers; they look for competent leaders within the herd, one that will protect, provide and produce a peaceful co-existence within the herd.

When the human is involved, the horse will in turn look to us for that leadership, reassurance,

guidance, protection and/or approval.But what happens if the human cannot provide those qualities?



When a horse feels that the human is not capable of providing that leadership, reassurance, guidance and protection, the horses’ natural tendency is toward self- preservation and its survival mechanism takes over.  This is where problems begin to develop.

This can be seen in the most common behavioral problems, for example: Bucking, rearing, running off, kicking, biting, being hard to catch — you know the symptoms and signs.This goes all the way down to the subtlest of problems such as difficulties with bridling, grooming, trailer loading, shoeing, crossing water and many more. While the actual behavior may vary, the usual cause does not.

Horses can go from having the least noticeable problems such as lack of forward motion, erratic transitions, lack of a soft feel to the much more severe types of problems such as those mentioned above.If you are reading this, then of course the key is to understanding the problem, the cause and the remedy.

If the human, being the superior species,can find some way to relate or convey to their horse what is being asked of them in a manner that is clear, direct and consistent without fear of punishment or failure, then the horse really is capable of understanding and absorbing the information given to it. By making the situation more comfortable for the horse to learn and retain information that is being presented, the more successful the outcome will be. Sounds simple in words but again, the key is to understanding and making it work in action.

Horses in fact love to learn. Just like people, they need a job and a purpose in life.So if we simply learn how to set up the right situation for them, get out of their way both mentally and physically, the horse will have a much easier time finding it on their own. This will make the learning process for the horse far more receptive and in the long run will save time and energy. In this way, the horse will come to learn that when something is being asked of it, they will always be given all the time needed to find the correct answer without fear of punishment of any kind.In a horses’ world, physical punishment will immediately cause them to want to fight or flight. I prefer the alternative which is the join up.


For the horse, successful learning without excessive human interference or pressure will mean far more than repetitive, relentless pressure. Each new lesson with your horse will be that much more positive and constructive if it is done without constant reprimand and punishment. Remember, the horse is not trying to disobey you, you are simply not communicating clearly to your horse what you are asking for. Getting angry is your problem, not that of your horse!

This concept is probably best seen in the style of training called “Condition Response” Training,where no time is allowed for the horse to absorb new information.As simple as it may be and with the slightest error in the lesson, this approach brings spurring and jerking upon the horse out of human fear. In fact, the only thing that is happening is that both horse and rider are scared due to a lack of knowledge.Our goal is to be knowledgeable about what we want from the horse before we actually ask anything of the horse.

We want the horse to have as much time as needed to sort out this new information coming at it. By using the basic methods of what I call “Hunting and Gathering”, the horse will be allowed to search around until it hunts up the release and by doing so, it will gather all of the information we are presenting in each new lesson.

What happens when we don’t give the horse enough time to sort out new information on its own?This is when we will see a horse that becomes filled with anxiety, fear, anger and eventually, resentment.In the horse, you can see it in his expression — ears pinned, tail switching, feet stomping, rearing, kicking, biting and so on.

These problems, once developed, are very difficult to reverse over a short period of time. The horse must first and foremost (and we must remember this in order to be successful with horses) rely on its self-preservation and natural instinct to survive. Second, when the human is brought into the picture, the horse will be molded to whatever that person teaches them.


So this is a very important job that the human must take very seriously, for whatever is done to the horse good or bad, it will not be hidden. Remember, the horse does not lie.Eventually, everything you have taught or not taught to that horse, will show up at one point or another, exposing our strengths as well as our weaknesses, our understanding or lack thereof.

This means that whatever we teach a horse will become what that horse knows as its second nature. When their second nature is to brace to an offered feel or to escape through the feel, this can present a dangerous situation in a very short amount of time.Even the simplest action you teach your horse, will either come back to reward you or bite you and with a 1000 pound animal, you want as many rewards as you can achieve.

For an individual to fix or overcome what the horse has now learned, what we call its second nature of problem behavior, remember that the horse still thinks this is correct behavior because he learned it from a human. What this means for us, is that we must restart the horse offering only the best deal possible, setting up our lesson so that the horse never fails, only succeeds. Once this new process is established and be forewarned that it can take a very long time, depending upon your horse, the second nature will start to change and become one of softness, understanding, gratitude and learn ability.

When we offer feel to a horse in a way that they can understand easily, they will find comfort, stability and safety, making each new transition to more advanced learning attainable, pleasurable and rewarding to both horse and human. Remember The truest reflection of oneself is not found in a mirror, but rather in the eyes of a horse.

God Bless and may you and your horse enjoy the circle ahead!



Addressing your horses’ bit problems

By: Christopher J. Bohenek

If there is one issue that comes up time and again with most of my clients, it is the subject of bits. For many of my clients, bit issues are the most frequently mentioned problem.Does it sound familiar? When asked about the issue, clients will often give the same response on bits the most common one being that they’ve tried a variety of bits — rubber snaffles, twisted wire snaffles, tom thumbs, curb bits, grazers and of course mechanical hackamores (which should not be confused with the traditional rawhide hackamore of the Vaquero or Californio heritage) This often brings along the same response from their horse, sadly, not the one they were seeking.

Chris explaining the spade bit, during a cow clinic at The Paws Up Ranch and Resort.

Usually, there is the same misunderstanding that if one bit does not work, another one certainly must be the answer.The thinking often is, and quite mistakenly, to keep on increasing the severity of the bit applying more and more pressure and fear to get the horse to do what they want or get away from the bit altogether as in the mechanical hackamore. There is the unique situation when a horse has been treated harshly with the bit, let’s say the snaffle, where they might be very bothered and preoccupied with the bit in their mouth, keep in mind the way a horse might be reacting to the bit in a situation like this, ends up being 90% mental.

A horse if they have been handled incorrectly with the bit will start to have anxiety and fear over what happens when the bit is placed in their mouth, they will associate the bit with whatever happened to them the last time the bit was in their mouth (horses remember what happened, before what happened, happened.) This is very common of horses that have not been a given a release quickly when they have gotten soft, or one that has been abused by severe pulling on the bit or has had their head tied to the saddle left, right or vertical. This type of horse will mentally lock up and seem to block out what it is you are trying to teach them, simply because of the issue they are having with the bit.

This situation, is the one time that I would try to help the horse by getting away from the bit for a while and riding them in a traditional rawhide hackamore, by doing so I can eliminate the mental problem the horse might be having with the bit. This will allow me to get to the horses feet and help them understand how to position themselves properly, freeing up their mind and in turn their feet. As the horse progresses and gets comfortable with me guiding him, I can, if I so choose to,introduce the snaffle to the horse, with the hopes that by getting the feet stuck the mental end of things with the bit will slowly come to pass.


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Let’s look at this some more. As mentioned above, the problem does not lie with the type of bit but more importantly, the way the person is using the bit on the horse. Horses need to always have a release whenever anything is asked of them.This is absolutely crucial to developing a soft, supple horse with a good learning frame of mind, that responds out of a willingness to please, and trusts what you are asking is for their best interest.

If the rider spends time learning how to be consistent and proficient in this, getting their feel, timing and balance in tune with the horse and allowing the horse to do something I refer to as hunting and gathering, the horse will soon come to understand what is being asked of them.It will then be the horse that will start “hunting” up the release and “gathering” the information giving the horse their own reservoir of knowledge to dip into when it is needed.If the horse learns to brace at liberty or on the halter or in the bridle, it will eventually brace against everything that is offered to it.This is why correct timing of the release is so important, and gimmicks like tying your horses’ head latterly or vertically to the saddle will only work for so long before the horse eventually braces up when life is created.

Therefore, if the horse braces against you, the solution is not to go to a correction bit with more leverage or pressure points, nor is it in most cases, (except in the situation mentioned above), should the bit be taken away altogether as in the case of a mechanical hackamore, which creates a tremendous amount of pressure on the nose and works nothing like a traditional rawhide hackamore, this would be like putting a band-aid on a broken arm. If the horses’ teeth have been taken care of and there are no problems present, then the problem lies with the human and their inability to communicate correctly with the horse.

The answer is never to increase the severity of the bit for correction purposes!It is the rider who must always strive to release the horse, be it with the bit or with the legs. When we talk about release of the horse, this could be anything from a shift in the horses’ weight, to a relaxation of their muscles or just a change in their expression, whatever it is that the rider is asking when the horse makes the slightest try.

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With this being done (release), the horse will come to understand that as long as they try; no matter how slight the response there will always be a release and reward for their effort.So in turn, they all start “hunting”up the release and “gathering” the information within it.

Therefore (and this cannot be repeated enough), if a horse braces in the snaffle and you move to a new bit or piece of equipment such as the mechanical hackamore, you might see some difference at how they respond at first, but in a short amount of time, if the rider continues to go on without any feel, never giving release and lacking the knowledge to rehabilitate the horse to better horsemanship, the horse will very quickly learn to brace against that piece of equipment as well.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the human causing the problem, not the horse.Horses are not born with these braces, they are man-made and we are the only ones that create them. I find it funny that we are so quick to take credit for the good things that the horse does for us, and so quick to blame the horse for the wrong things we think they do.The good news is that we can also be the ones to undo them, with knowledge, information and understanding.


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So even when you think that the horse is doing something wrong, you have to remember that the horse is always doing what they think is correct, no matter what, because outside of their natural environment, we either teach them correctly or incorrectly. It is ultimately up to us what kind of horse we create.

In my own opinion, the only pieces of equipment that should be used on a horse once they are soft in their natural state is the rope halter, snaffle bit, a true rawhide bosal with a rawhide core, then the two rein and finally the traditional Spanish bridle bit (San Joaquin, Half-breed and Spade). That’s not to say that a horse cannot be taught feel and softness with something else, but only if the rider is capable and understands feel, timing and the balance of the release. Horses never lie and they are always right. In the end, the release is always the most important thing to the horse.

God Bless and may you and your horse enjoy the circle ahead!



Chris Bohenek

P.O. Box 895

Corvallis, MT. 59828

(406) 370-9677(406) 370-9677

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