Blog 23 – The ‘Art’ of Motivational Horsemanship – “Thinking Outside and Beyond the Box”

Blog 23   Dec 3 2018

“Weaving The Story of Horse and Human”

The ‘Art’ of Motivational Horsemanship – “Thinking Outside and Beyond the Box”


WARNING: This chapter of the story is long, but fascinating, and contains many ‘proud’ photos and short videos of ‘TaDa’  breakthroughs with our training!  🙂  I have enjoyed revisiting these moments, hope you do too!


“Think outside and beyond the box and embrace our mistakes. This will open up a new way of our ‘doing’ and understanding each other.” Rhett said. 




To ‘think outside the box’ is to think imaginatively using new ideas instead of traditional or expected ideas.


“Don’t be mainstream, think freely and creatively. Don’t just see the obvious, pay more attention to the content. Don’t discount anything as unrelated or unconnected. Make an effort to push your thinking up to and beyond its limit. All the gifts, talents and skills that you’ve developed should exercise your mind and figure out the solution to a problem.”



“Unless you try to do something beyond what you already mastered, you will never grow. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson



I knew from the moment I met Rhett in August 2013  – to the 2.5+ days it took to convince him to get in the trailer in TN to come to GA in Oct 2013, it was going to take ‘thinking outside the box’ to a whole new level when learning from him.  Thinking outside and beyond the box and embracing the mistakes.  This did open up a new way of doing and understanding everything I knew as ‘horse training’ and  the way of being a ‘horse owner’.

When I took Rhett to “The Cowboy” in December 2013 to see what he knew and if he could be ridden.  What I saw just with the saddling and unsaddling process was enough for me to realize that the possibility of riding was slim to none or at the very least,  was going to be a long process. Add this to what I had already seen and experienced with Rhett with ropes and pressure, and I again wondered if I was in over my head.




“In my moments of doubt, I’ve told myself firmly, if not me, who, if not now, when.”  ~Emma Watson



Little is known about Rhett’s birth and his beginnings until about 2 years old, when he and 2 other horses were found living in a small stall. They had been there with no turnout for almost 2 years.  Rhett was almost 4 years old, covered in lice and mange, and a stallion living with 2 mares, one his mother. 



With humans, we know that there is an age when the brain and cognition develops through experimenting and learning through association.  Horses appear to be no different so we will never know for sure if Rhett has experienced any developmental delays.




Over the 5 years Rhett and I have been friends and partners, there have been many people who stepped forward and began to help me fill in the blanks and unlock the puzzle about his past trauma and baggage.

There was the ‘waterboarding’ incident with the tarp while laying down.  He was snubbed to a stall wall to be saddled and made to stand snubbed for 5-6 hrs with no food or water as ‘punishment’ for kicking.  This went on for almost 7 months until he was moved to another foster.   Here, he was thought to be so dangerous and vicious, that he was shunned to a back pasture with a small run-in shed, fending for himself in the snow and icy elements with hay once a day, and not seeing other horses for almost 4 months.



Little did I know I would put ‘tasks’ aside and become a researcher and experimenter.  Thinking outside and beyond the box requires breakthrough thinking.  I was great at ‘skills’ and ‘skillsets’ …I was great at techniques and tasks.  But breakthrough thinking, lateral thinking???

What I began to notice was that I needed to change something more about my approach,  my ‘thinking beyond the box’.  I decided to really ‘think outside of the box’ in how I presented my ‘questions’, at all times we were together, not just during training sessions.

These fulltime ‘questions’ were not designed to teach Rhett to respond to different approaches, but rather to engage his mind to search for the correct response. This ultimately altered his strategy for dealing with all the pressures in his life, and gave him a sense of ownership in his decisions. After these changes, he became more relaxed and attentive during our next times together. At times, past ‘triggers’ would cause him to react, but now his mind could be engaged at a quicker pace, finding responses instead of reactions.


“Professional trainers are often expected to complete tasks, instead of getting a horse feeling good about their work. It becomes routine for horse people to fixate on how a horse is behaving and moving, while disregarding worry and tension.”


This unawareness, and speed during the process of horse training, is ultimately what creates unwanted behaviors, preventing us from our goals on the ground and in the saddle.

This causes us to project our own desires and outcomes on the training session, instead of allowing the horse to make their own decisions. When a horse is able to choose the outcome, it creates a new dynamic within the relationship, which allows us to ask more of the horse, without ill feelings attached to the result.

Recognizing where a horse is, in relation to which and what sort of approach will inspire  and motivate them, is something that requires a lot practice and creativity. Horses often feel stuck during the training process, due to physical limitations, and a considerable amount of mental and emotional pressure to complete certain movements.  All while behaving a certain way.

Depending on the circumstances, this can cause tension in the horse’s life which causes a lack of connection and imposes on the relationship between the human and the horse. This causes both horse and human to never have an understanding of staying present, as they will always be thinking somewhere else, or stuck in a shut down state.”


I really didn’t know what autonomy was, what it meant to us or how much it would impact our journey and story.  But I knew I had to continue doing things at liberty.  I knew that riding Rhett is what [I thought] I wanted to do.  I had pictured him my  working equitation partner.



But was riding what Rhett wanted to do??    As with nearly everything I had peeled away like layers of an onion, Rhett had some specific negative thoughts around saddle pads, saddles, saddling and most specifically…..the mounting block.


Seeing these past training videos with Rhett brings all kinds of critics out, in myself and in others.  Please understand this is how we learn, by observing and studying both ourselves and the horse.  I am the first one to criticize videos with myself in them.  In hindsight, I see so many ‘calming signals’ (stress indicators) in Rhett that I wasn’t aware enough about at that time.



Rhett was on a mission to show me this language, this communication, this connection.  It went just as he needed it to go to teach me.  It was allowing me to find my authentic self.  And knowing where I needed to go with my teaching.


Months and months after starting with things on his back and progressing to the bareback pad at the barn, it was time to bring in the mounting block.






It was 1-2 months of my sitting on the block at the barn, while Rhett was eating and on his ‘stationing mat’ (safety) before I could stand on the first step  while he was eating.  If rushed, he would leave his food and walk away. This is why liberty was so important for developing trust, his voice and choice was imperative.






It took another month of introducing the bareback pad with NO mounting block conversations before I could chain these two together.


About 1-2 months of this consistent pattern and Rhett was moving closer and closer to the mounting block.  Safety and comfort was satisfied and now play was being discovered.  Rhett would ease slowly towards me, starting and stopping his feet with his ears piqued forward.  I swear I think he was playing his own version of “Rhett Says”, a comedy scene of me sitting down, standing up, then walking or jogging to give him a treat.   He was training me perfectly to his whims.  I will gladly be ‘trained’ to observe and study his fears turning into confidence with each encounter with the mounting block.

Here is a 7:46 video of Rhett, at liberty, at the barn with the bareback pad and mounting block.  This was about 6 months in the making.

Here is a trimmed version of the above video….1:22 minutes. 


It was another 2-3 months of moving the ‘task’ of sitting on the mounting block into the arena before Rhett could keep his feet still.  In that large space, he didn’t have total freedom but he had the voice and choice to move away when he needed to.  And in the beginning, he needed to. That became less and less the more time we spent in the arena.




Slowly I added standing on the first step while he moved around and the moment his mind quieted, which allowed his feet to stop, I clicked and went to him and gave him a treat.  Adding the bareback pad again was no different, it was like starting over, just not taking quite as long!

Here is a 4 minute video of our 1st mounting block play in arena.


“Your connection with me increases dramatically when you take the time to truly listen to me” Rhett said softly. 


And once we mutually agreed that we had reached a milestone, it was time to move out of our comfort zone just a bit more.

How do YOU feel about a saddle?


Months and months  of time spent at the barn breaking this down from the saddle being on a rack while he was eating, to the saddle being on the ground while he was eating, to my holding the saddle while he was eating.  No girth initially, I had seen what he did with the Cowboy’s girth when it hung down and with the bareback pad girth.



I practiced and practiced all the motions for throwing on a saddle and pulling a girth tight with nothing in my hands while Rhett was eating and while he was just standing still.  Always on his mat, his comfort zone, that place of safety.

This 15:50 minute video is a culmination of about 6 months worth of shaping the saddling with positive reinforcement and treats.

I am so fortunate to have captured on video much of the work on our journey.


As Rhett said “Embrace our mistakes and learn from them.”


Here is a 4:46 minute trimmed version of the above saddling video.






Of course, between these barn and arena bareback pad and saddling sessions, we were strengthening other areas of our relationship and skills.  We played with online exercises and lots of liberty. We played on the hills and terraces of the pasture.  We played with the trailer.  We interspersed the saddling sessions and confidence building play several days a week.

Here is a 1:41 minute video of Rhett and I playing with a single line yield.  This was very challenging for Rhett since the long rope was coming towards his hindquarters.   




Here is a 2:50 minute video of Rhett learning about his perceived pressure about my holding a whip and learning how to relax his body a bit at trot and canter on a circle in a cavesson. 


We are conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.  But great moments often catch us unaware – beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.  My horsemanship journey with Rhett is no different!!


Here is a 1:14 minute video of Rhett playing with a single line yield in a cavesson .




All that cross training, along with continuing play with mounting block, is building trust and confidence in both Rhett and I.  It is starting to pay off and look like this.   2:51 minute video in arena. 

After he has a particularly good session, he loves to roll, especially if he is sweaty.  31 second video of  my first time starting to put it on cue.  


On July 3 2016, I leaned all my weight over him at the mounting block and bellied up .  On purpose, I was exaggerating my movements and being very clumsy and floppy all over him with my belly, legs and feet.

Here is a 1:41 minute video of that spontaneous, momentous occasion!! 

I know, I know…I should have had on a helmet.  It was so spontaneous that day.  The very next session, I had on a helmet . I wanted to be prepared to answer Rhett’s request for me to get on when he offered it.

TA DA!!!!    July 5 2016.  1st Sitting On Rhett.  This video is 7:46 minute video showing me mounting and dismounting several times and sitting still.  


Rhett offered for me to sit upon his back.  We didn’t move, we just sat.  We just connected, just being with.   I’ve never experienced anything like with a horse I don’t believe.  The trust and bond was complete.  At least for this part of the journey.


“Every time a horse lets you up onto its back, it’s giving you it’s life”  ~Matthew Woodring Stover


This was a truly noteworthy event!!

Do you see your personal(s) lessons in this chapter of the story?

Next:  The ‘Art’ of Motivational Horsemanship – The Ride into Magical Moments

Motivational Horsemanship

Discover ~ Guide ~ Transform

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