Thursday, February 17, 2011


“We must neurologically reprogram the horse without pain or fear”

That quote has been bouncing around in my brain since Peggy Cummings said it on Sunday. She didn’t say “train” she said reprogram – neurologically.
Training almost always involves pressure and reward. You don’t let go, give in or stop adding pressure until the horse has given you the chosen response. Even the “quietest” training methods involve a level of fear or pain. If the horse does not respond to the initial amount of pressure added, we add more pressure, we ramp the level of our request until we are heard. When the horse answers with the right response, we reward them by turning off the pressure like a light switch, almost leaving the horse suspended in the ethos for a moment, until we decide to ask another question and the pressure is added again. Why they don’t swat at us like the annoying little gnats that we are I will never know!

Reprogram – Neurologically. There was a moment in my lesson with Peggy where she had me take a step back from Grace after I had asked her to lower her head. Grace hadn’t given me the answer I wanted yet, her head was still in the air. Seconds after I took my hands off her head and took a step back, Grace started to close her eyes and lower her head. It was as if there was a slight delay between my application of energy and Grace’s ability to respond to it.

I’ve been thinking of that moment and Peggy’s quote all week. I as a rider have been trained for the past 30 years to ask a horse to do something by applying pressure. When a horse doesn’t give me my required response I have equipment that I will tell you is just an “extension” of myself. Bits can be stepped up in severity, spurs come in various lengths and rowel options. Then there is always that moment of letting go as soon as the horse gets it “right” all pressure that was previously applied is removed, thrown away, no connection is left. The horse inevitably stops doing what I asked and the process starts all over again.

“Neurologically reprogram” those words remind me of an physical therapist I once went to see. I was seeing her for a shoulder injury. She took one look at me and told me I was “crooked” and that I had a wicked twist in my body. I had to laugh, because I had heard the exact same words from Sarah every time she saw me ride a horse. The physical therapist went on to explain that she could fix it, by using proprioceptor work; it would retrain my brain neurologically to control my body. It immediately made sense to me because it was the same description that Sarah used when explaining her rehab program with horses. One of Sarah’s exercises is to take a horse that is new to her program and walk them over a raised set of poles. In order to navigate the poles the horses have to reconnect with their limbs. The 10 steps through the poles may be the first straight steps a horse has taken in years. The magic happens in the 3 steps they take after the poles, where they hold those correct steps before falling back into their old patterns.

The physical therapist had me do a series of exercises that seemed elementary when she introduced them to me, but when I first attempted them I felt completely lost. Then after about 3 or 4 repetitions something started to change, I could actually feel my brain shift over as it connected to my muscles. I will always remember feeling the floor under my feet for the first time after one of the exercises. I looked down at the floor thinking something was wrong with it, it felt funny. The floor hadn’t changed, but the way my feet were landing on it did. I was utilizing my entire body in my step and not just my foot. My hip was now a part of my step, my knees were elastic and engaged, both ankles were soft, my foot landed on the floor heel first, followed by my arch and the ball of my foot. It was one fluid motion and for a fraction of a second I was connected to the floor beneath me. It only lasted for 3 steps before my body locked down and I went back into my old holding pattern. I will never forget those 3 steps; they felt so foreign, yet so familiar at the same time.
To be continued…….


  1. I'm very interested in where this is going. I know exactly what you're talking about with this:

    "Then there is always that moment of letting go as soon as the horse gets it “right” all pressure that was previously applied is removed, thrown away, no connection is left. The horse inevitably stops doing what I asked and the process starts all over again."

    I start wondering, with this philosophy, what compels the horse to continue doing what you asked, the way you asked, after you remove all pressure? Is it the "threat" that you'll apply pressure again? That certainly makes it sound not so nice!

    Very thought provoking post already!

  2. I ponder that same question - why horses continue to listen to us. And over the last few months, I have come to really question how to communicate without the aids of fear or pain. I really hope to find the answer, and Im looking forward to where this story is going.I know its in there Melissa, I will be interested to see how you bring it out. After working with Sarah now, I have much more awareness of where my body is and how much it directly effects our horse. Its amazing.

  3. Hi there just come across this blog which is really interesting having watched Peggy Cummings on horse hero. P