California Riding Magazine • December, 2009

Ask Charles Wilhelm
The Equipment Doesn’t Train the Horse

Reader: Do you think that natural horsemanship has really influenced the market? In other words, do you see a change in horsemanship for the better?

Charles: Twenty years ago when I was doing round pen training, few people knew what a round pen was. If you were working in a round pen, you looked like an idiot that didn’t know what you were doing other than running a horse around in circles. Ten years ago, more people were aware of natural horsemanship and it started to have an influence in the horse world. Five years ago, it really started taking hold and now you see it widely used everywhere in training programs, in some form or another. I remember at Horse Expos I attended 10 years ago, I was the only guy out there with a blue tarp and people were wondering what in the world I was doing with it. People did not understand the concept that the tarp represented a scary object and the benefit of getting a horse to accept that kind of pressure. There is always something out there that will raise the emotional level of a horse. A tarp is an object that will raise pressure and help a horse learn to accept it. To “accept it” meaning the horse will walk onto a tarp and stand there on its own, paw it and pull it around its feet. A lot of people think that “accepting” is when a horse will walk over a tarp. I remember being told five years ago that, “Oh, my horse goes over a tarp” meaning the horse would trot or run over a tarp. That is a start but that is not total acceptance. Acceptance is dropping the nose and recognizing the tarp, standing on it and being quiet and soft in the body and the eyes. I like a horse to start pawing on a tarp because when they paw it and start gathering it around themselves they are relaxed.

“The Blue Tarp Guy”

Ten years ago when I would travel to the East Coast, they would say, “Oh, you’re the blue tarp guy.” Now when I go to Horse Expos, every trainer has a blue tarp. We are starting to see that natural horsemanship has influenced training in that there is a recognition that horses do have emotions (the flight instinct), and that the way we handle that emotion is to introduce a horse to scary objects and work with the horse to accept the objects instead of bucking or bolting away from them. The result of this training is that ground manners are better and horses are more emotionally sound and safer under saddle.

Unfortunately, I am also seeing a negative side to the picture. Most of us in the business use a string or rope halter, what I call a cowboy halter. People see us get the desired results and buy a cowboy halter, take it home but do not get the continued magic. The reason is that it is not the equipment that trains the horse. We use that type of halter because it has a little bit more bite or feel than a web or leather halter that is wider. A string halter definitely catches the attention of a horse and a horse will be more willing to come off it. People buy these halters and for the first week the halter works like magic. Then suddenly, the magic is gone. The horse doesn’t have any more respect for the string halter than it had for a web halter. Also, because it is not the equipment that trains the horse, the horse is not going to care if he is worked on a 6-, 12- or 14-foot line. It isn’t the equipment but how we use it. An individual may think that he or she is following natural horsemanship, but, because the principle of pressure and release is not really understood, no change is made in how the equipment is used and the horse just becomes dull. If the exercise is done properly, it doesn’t matter if a leather or web halter is used as it is really what we do with it. In the last five years, I have had many horses brought to the ranch for issues with ground manners. Because of the improper use of a string halter, these horses are really dull and it is very hard to get them light again. When a horse has learned to lean on that type of halter, there is not much I can do to apply additional pressure that can then be released when the horse responds.

The equipment has influenced the market but what I see is that the timing and feel in the use of the equipment have not influenced the market. Timing and feel are things that can only be taught through trial and error. One thing I tell my clients at the ranch is if it feels ugly in your hand, it feels heavy and uncomfortable, then you are not using the equipment properly. If you are riding a horse and you pick up a rein, you don’t want the horse pulling on you. You want the horse to respond to a light cue, but if the horse doesn’t respond, you must increase the pressure. The horse is resisting because it is a horse’s basic nature and make up to resist. Some horses resist more than others, just like people, because each horse is an individual. The problem is that people use equipment without either the knowledge or understanding of pressure and release. For example, when a person continually uses a stud chain to control a horse, it is hard to get that horse soft again. Because the horse has learned to lean on the chain, getting the horse to be obedient and give to pressure around the face is difficult.

Any piece of equipment, including a stud chain has a place but there is a problem when we rely solely on that equipment to train a horse. If I am backing up or leading a horse that is pulling on me, I will not release the pressure until I get the desired action from the horse, even if it is only one step. That is the way a horse learns and that is a basic principle that I teach. The only exception to that rule is in a situation where I will get hurt or the horse will get hurt if I don’t release the pressure. Until that point, I will not release the pressure until I get some kind of give from the horse.


Another principle of natural horsemanship that has become accepted is the practice of de-spooking. Back when I first talked about de-spooking a horse, it was an unknown concept. Now it is a common term and simply means we are taking the spook out of the horse. All horses have the flight instinct and de-spooking is getting a horse to accept pressure. What I see now is that people are trying to make their horses safer by desensitizing or de-spooking them. They often end up with dull horses because they are not willing to increase the pressure until the horse gives. The same is true when doing ground work; a horse will become dull when he has not learned to give to pressure. A lot of us are not willing to get out of our comfort zone and add more pressure as it is needed to get the horse to move his feet, move sideways or do whatever it is we are asking the horse to do. Also, it is just as important to release immediately when the horse does give or accept for even
a moment.

Someone recently asked me about the Extreme Mustang Make Over Challenge. I think it is actually a good program but it has gotten really competitive in that the horses are pushed to do a lot in a very short time. Twenty years ago when I started working with problem horses, I found that people were moving way too fast with their training. Even a horse that shows real talent who is moved too fast will, six or eight months down the road, start showing holes in the training such as bucking, rearing or becoming dull to the training aids. What I see in these events is, no matter the breed of horse, and I don’t care if it is wild or domestic, a horse is a horse and each horse has its own personality and learning curve. Some horses get it more quickly than others. Some Mustangs do really well but the training has been really fast. They are put into bridles too soon and are asked to do a lot of things too soon. There are a lot of good trainers out there doing really good things but to get these Mustangs to do what they do in so short a time, requires that the horses be pushed. I would rather see a trainer take a little more time and establish the basics.

Years ago I patted myself on the back when I would get a horse in the round pen and work with it and by the third ride I was out on the trail. But, I had to be cautious about where my legs were, the horse was not relaxed and my safety was at risk. What I found was that I might be riding the horse in a walk, trot or canter but I couldn’t lead the horse quietly. I couldn’t pick up his feet and he was spooky and edgy. Taking the time to do each step is worth the effort.

Someone may say, “Well Charles, you participate in the colt starting contests.” Yes, I do but I start with the very basics and if the horse does not accept the very basic training, I don’t move on. If the horse won’t let me ride him, there is no way that I can manipulate him to let me get on, no matter how good a rider I am. In some contests I have had a horse that was nervous and jumpy and because of my expertise and by taking several sessions to work with him, I have been able to get a saddle on and I have won the contest. It may take me three sessions to get a horse to let me put the saddle on and be relaxed. A horse I worked with up in Canada did really well when working to the left but anything attempted on the right side was a problem. Even touching his face spooked him and he wanted to go up in the air. A horse like that is just going to take longer to work with. I rode that horse in the competition but obviously it didn’t do well. The point is, the horse is only going to let me get done what I get done. I can only move on to the next level of training when the horse has accepted and learned the current lesson.

A Good Minded Horse

Someone asked me a couple of years ago about my favorite breed. My favorite breed is a good minded horse. I’ve had Arabs in here that I have loved and had a great time working with because they have good minds, they want to learn and they have a good work ethic. I’ve had wonderful Quarter Horses and last summer we rescued a National Show Horse that just loved to work and was really good minded. I’m not picky about the breed. I had a Mustang in here that was willing and responsive and a fun horse to ride. It was one of my favorite horses to ride in training each day.

The point really is—and I have adopted a new phrase—the equipment doesn’t train the horse and neither does the exercise. It doesn’t make any difference who is working with the horse, you or any of the clinicians, including me. I do a lot of clinics here at the ranch and I teach the exercises that I find work well for me. They work because I build a foundation of training doing the exercises correctly and looking for a soft response, with the horses learning to give. When a horse is brought to the ranch for training and that horse is stiff as a board on the ground and under saddle, it ends up taking more time in training to get the horse soft again. Over 20 years ago when I started working with problem horses I might have a horse that was a little pushy but no one had dulled it by pulling, pushing or using a training stick. Now I see horses that are quiet and easy to be around but they do not listen and move off pressure. I use a dressage stick or a training stick and when I bump a horse with my leg, a spur or a stick, it has to move off my leg. If it doesn’t, I’m going to increase the pressure. This is a really tough concept for some to accept but this is how horses learn.

So, yes, natural horsemanship has really gotten a foothold. We see it more with hunters and jumpers and even in the discipline of eventing. We are starting to see it more in the dressage barns where they are expecting the horses to be more obedient on the ground. They are finding that when a horse is more emotionally relaxed the horse will give a better performance. So yes, natural horsemanship has been a positive movement but there is a down side. It comes down to two things. One, it is not the equipment that trains the horse, it is how we use that equipment. Two, it is not the exercise that trains the horse, it is doing the exercise correctly, increasing pressure when needed and immediately releasing the pressure when we get the response we are looking for.

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
Remember It’s Never, Ever the Horse’s Fault