By Shelley Appleton
Legendary horseman Ray Hunt famously used to sign his autograph with the word “Think”. This is because when you work a horse you need to be operating from your intellect and not your emotions. Why? Because you need your intellect to retrieve the information that you understand about the horse in order to observe, analyse and evaluate the horse during training. You need your intellect to problem solve, judge your own performance and make decisions during the training process.
Horses are emotional creatures and their behaviour is a reflection of how they feel. However, human thoughts and actions are shaped by both our emotions AND our ability to think and reason. Aristotle labelled us the “rational animal” as our brain has the unique ability to perform complex reasoning. We are able to do this because our brain has both an emotional and intellectual system to assist our survival. Our emotional and intellectual systems are connected and every thought and action is a product of varying input from both systems. When we work with horses, we are more successful when our thoughts and actions are principally influenced by our intellect and not our emotions. This is easier said than done because our emotional system is a primeval system, involuntary and fast. Our intellectual system is evolutionarily newer, relatively voluntary and slower. It takes more mental effort to utilise our intellect than our emotional system. When we are under pressure we also tend to default to our emotional system.
(Click on Read More to continue)
The emotional system responds to our current state based on our personal values, beliefs and goals. When you are working with a horse and feel fear, anger or frustration it means your emotional system has perceived a threat to your safety, an unexpected outcome or failure to achieve a goal. Working a horse with your emotional system dominating your thoughts and driving your actions leads to poor results. It clouds your training judgements and impedes your ability to apply consistent and predictable pressure. It also worries a horse as its keen ability to read body language means that it can identify your emotional state and respond to it.
Marcus Aurelius has a quote: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength”.
Not that long ago I was not aware that the origin of my thoughts had any importance at all when I was working a horse. I remember feeling very frustrated with my horse and I had little insight into the impact I was having on the situation. These days when I work with a horse I am conscious to keep my emotions in check. I focus on the task at hand and keep my brain focused on observing, analysing and evaluating the horse. I am conscious of the neutral presentation of my cues and application of pressure. If I start to feel emotions such as frustration I am careful to stop and re-evaluate my approach and then start again. A thing I find useful is to check myself every time I rub on a horse. If I am emotionally driven I tend to rub fast, so I use rubbing on a horse to slow myself down and re-focus my thoughts on thinking rather than feeling. Another important aspect that has helped me to stay in thinking mode has been to re-adjust my internal values, beliefs and goals by learning about horses' natural behaviours, the way they learn and strategies for working with them. My expectations have become far more realistic as a result.
Plato says: “Human behaviour flows from three main sources – desire, emotion and knowledge”.
Shelley Appleton is a horse trainer and dressage competitor from Perth, Western Australia. Shelley is a researcher in human learning and combines this knowledge and expertise to understand and explore the horse-human interaction that takes places during horse training. In doing this she unites the worlds of horsemanship and behavioural science, two worlds that people tend to divide, yet to the horse they both hold great significance. Shelley believes that horse training is more about human learning; skill development, ability to problem solve and make good decisions.
To read more of Shelley's excellent articles, follow her on her Facebook Page; Shelley Appleton Appleway Performance Horses
Your email address will be kept private.
Email me directly at
The Mindful Horsewoman is on