Posts by Category : Jim’s Wisdom


To calm your horse, quiet your mind

Anyone who has ever taken up meditation, yoga, or any kind of mindfulness practice knows that intentionally quieting your own thoughts is not easy. It’s something you have to work at. But when you’re working with horses, it’s one of the most valuable skills you can possibly develop.

Being able to focus and simplify your thinking accomplishes a number of important horsemanship goals:

  • It keeps you safe, because you are more focused on the situation in front of you, and you also reduce the chances that your horse will react with fear.
  • It helps you to project calm assertiveness, which is the key to helping a horse feel relaxed and receptive to your requests – making every interaction more enjoyable and productive.

While applying mindfulness to horsemanship may sound a little new age, it is (like all my horse-related advice) firmly based in science. Prey animals like horses are extremely sensitive to the subtlest signs of anxiety, agitation, or stress that in the herd are the first signals of danger. Quiet your thoughts, and you quiet those signals.

For example, approaching your horse while you’re distracted and thinking about the obnoxious driver you encountered on the way to the barn is a sure way to transmit minute signals of anxiety to your horse.  Or maybe you are anticipating something your horse might do – whether it’s trotting away from you (annoying) or giving you a nip when you’re not looking (painful).

Those kinds of vexing thoughts come across in your behavior in very subtle ways, as any good poker player will tell you. They put your horse on alert, prevent him from understanding what you want him to do, and keep him from complying in a calm manner.

The solution is simple, but not always easy. There are techniques you can use to approach all horses that will maximize the probability that you get calm, relaxed compliance from your horse every time.  It starts by establishing inside your mind a feeling of calm assertiveness that will come across to your horse.

Turn off the timer

People often remark about how calm and confident I seem when I work with horses, and they want to know how I can be so patient.  To be sure, my decades of experience contribute to my calmness, because I have learned that if I gently keep asking my horse for what I want, eventually I will be successful – so I don’t put a time limit on achieving success.

But I have also learned to quiet my mind around horses in a very deliberate way – putting myself in a mental state that is happy, relaxed, and unhurried. It took a lot of practice – but it is a skill I now use every single day that I am working with horses (and sometimes with grandchildren.)

Finding your calm place

My personal mind-calming exercise involves imagining myself in a moment of time that was pure contentment. For me, it’s a specific beach in North Carolina – and I conjure up the sounds, the sunlight, and the feelings of that moment when I want to replace fretful thinking with a quiet mind.  

Think about a place and time when you felt completely relaxed and happy.  Maybe it was holding your children when they were tiny or experiencing the warmth of a cozy fireplace.  Then practice recreating that emotional state until it becomes a reflex to go there when you are around your horse.

So, that’s the “calm” part of the equation. But what about assertiveness? Here is where you really need to simplify your thoughts.  That means having a clarity of intent so that you know exactly what you want the horse to do – not what he might do or what he did last time you tightened his girth, but precisely what you want to happen in the here and now. Like an olympic skier, you need to visualize success.

Precision is also important in assertive thinking. If you want a horse to back up, visualize precisely which foot will move first and how many steps you want him to take. When you have that very specific action in mind, it will influence the cues you give your horse, and your request will be clearer to him.  Finally, don’t confuse assertiveness with force. Start with the minimal pressure you can possibly imagine and go even softer, then release the moment your horse completes the job to reward him for calm compliance. In other words, the gentle pressure you apply to your horse to get that foot to move should be released the precise moment the foot begins the last step you have pictured in your mind. This specificity will help your horse be more confident the next time you ask.

You can do this!

Practice quieting your mind the next time you are interacting with your horse, and see what happens. Chances are some sneaky stressful thoughts or fears will intrude here and there, but keep working at it. It will come easier over time, and the results can be dramatic. You can also practice throughout your day, making that state of mind more accessible when you are with your horse.

To recap:

  1. Go to that place of total relaxation and peace before you approach any horse, and practice throughout the day  
  2. Know precisely what you want your horse to do before you ask him to do it  
  3. In as calm and soft a way as possible, ask your horse to do what you want
  4. Keep asking until you get it, without a time limit
  5. When your horse complies, stop asking immediately, and be proud of yourself and your horse – you have both done something amazing!

Learn more about equine behavior and building better horse/human relationships at one of Jim’s nationwide clinics, horsemanship courses, or individualized training opportunities. Get details here.


Q&A with Jim McDonald – How to address a horse pawing on the trailer

“My horse paws on the trailer once I load him on there. He loads and unloads calmly, but once standing on the trailer seems anxious and won’t stop pawing. How can I address this behavior?”

First lets recognize that it is natural for a horse to be anxious while confined in a small space. They are naturally claustrophobic because their sense of self preservation is completely taken from them. So we must help them learn that they are not at risk in the trailer. Another thing to keep in mind is when driving take it slow especially on those turns!

The first thing to do is to have your horse go into the trailer and take him off before he paws. Gradually extend the time in the trailer before you take him off before he paws. I know what you are thinking “what if he paws before I take him off” don’t worry he will! If he paws watch carefully and when he stops pawing then ask him to come off of the trailer. Do not take him off while he is pawing. It is also good to feed him in the trailer and make it a place where he wants to go. What is important is that you make this part of a daily routine and then when it is time to go somewhere life will be better for your horse and you too by the way!

Learn more about equine behavior and building better horse/human relationships at one of Jim’s nationwide clinics, horsemanship courses, or individualized training opportunities. Get details here.


Q&A With Jim McDonald: My horse runs away from me

“How can I get my horse to stop running away from me in the field? Treats helps me catch her sometimes, but she starts trotting away when she sees me coming.”

This is one of the most common questions I get.  I know how frustrating this can be.  The first thing we must do as always, is to look at this from the horse’s point of view.  If we go out to “catch our horse” our energy is something that the horse reads as not good.  Every fiber of the horse’s DNA says don’t ever get caught.  Remember they are animals of prey. I tell my students to just go out to be with their horse.  It’s as if you are just going out for a visit. That creates a much less threatening body language. It’s also important to actually do this some times when you are not going to ride and in fact, actually go out just for a brief visit.

If your horse walks away from you when you approach, the moment that he turns away from you, stop immediately and you turn away from him. When he stops walk directly toward his shoulder.  Every time he walks away from you stop and turn away from him.  Pretty soon he will stop and look at you and at that point you want to step back a couple of steps.  You will be able to get closer and closer and when you are close enough to pet him just rub him and put a neck rope on him.  It is only after this that you should give him the treat.  Pet him again and walk away or just leave him until the next day.  As you repeat this process he will learn that being with you is a good thing and he will seek out your company and not want to run away.  Take whatever time this takes because when it is done you will never have this problem again and your relationship with your horse will be much better.

Learn more about equine behavior and building better horse/human relationships at one of Jim’s nationwide clinics, horsemanship courses, or individualized training opportunities. Get details here.


Q&A with Jim McDonald

Q.   Jim my horse won’t stand still when I tack him up .  He dances around and no matter how much I correct him he doesn’t stand still.  How do I get him to stand still?


This is a common issue and one that is fairly easy to resolve.  The first thing Id want you to know (which you have already figured out) is that correcting the horse doesn’t work.  This is because when you “correct” your horse it is likely to make him want to move more not less because he doesn’t understand that he is supposed to stand still.

This is a relationship problem.  The problem is not with the tack, it is the fact that your horse is not convinced that when he is in your presence he can relax and feel safe.  So how do we resolve this predicament?

It starts with doing effective ground work. There are many such exercises but it pretty much boils down to asking the horse to move his feet and after he gives you what you want you relax and pet him, letting him know he did the right thing.

Then he needs to be desensitized to the tack. The process for desensitization is to approach the horse with say the saddle blanket or pad and before he moves his feet take the object away.  Each time you approach the horse with the pad take it away before he moves his feet. Now! When he moves his feet as you approach do not take the pad away from him until he stops moving his feet then immediately take the pad away.  Pretty soon he will realize that the pad (saddle or any other object) is not a threat and he can stand still and relaxed as these objects are placed on him.

Learn more about equine behavior and building better horse/human relationships at one of Jim’s nationwide clinics, horsemanship courses, or individualized training opportunities. Get details here.