Horse as Partner, Horse as Coach: Your Evolution of Horsemanship


 Part 1
of Anna Twinney’s 6-part webinar series

By Kari Hagstrom

Where is your evolution in your horsemanship going?  It is an important question to consider.  Horsemanship has been changing radically over the last few decades.  The role of the horse has moved from utilitarian (farming, transportation, war) to performance to therapeutic.  How has oanna twinney with black horseur human role changed in relationship to the horse’s changing role? How does that create a shift in our perspective, not just in relation to the horse, but to all of life, the whole of our lives? Once your perspective on horses changes, your perspective on everything else changes, too.  Your perspective shifts to one of asking how you can best support your horse in his or her role as a partner.

This is the crux of Anna Twinney’s webinar series, “Your Evolution of Horsemanship,” a six-part series which will be covered over the next few months in “The Valley Equestrian News.”  Twinney is an internationally recognized holistic and natural horsemanship clinician, equine behaviorist, animal communicator, Karuna Reiki master, and founder of Reach Out to Horses® (ROTH).  More information and numerous free resources are available at

In part one of the webinar series, “Horse as Partner, Horse as Coach,” Twinney discusses how the roles of horses have changed.  The horse has been used by humanity in a utilitarian role as transport (as either a riding horse or pulling a cart or wagon), a war horse bearing soldiers into battle, and a farm horse plowing the land before the tractor came along.  The horse has been used as a herding animal, a breeding animal, and a performance animal as roles shifted from purely utilitarian to sport-oriented uses.  In moving into a more therapeutic role, the horse becomes more interactive with humans.  And the question becomes, how do we effectively partner with our horses?  The shift occurs when you stop telling your horse what do and start asking.  How do we allow for our horses to partner with us?  How do we allow our horses to coach us?  And as good partners, how do we humans, as care providers and guardians, provide good support to the horses who choose to work with us as partners and coaches?  How can we best support the horse mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally in his or her role?

“’Your Evolution of Horsemanship’ was born out of recognizing how important it is to look at ourselves and to see where we were once, and where we’re heading,” says Twinney.  Horsemanship skills are about what the horses need. “Not everybody knows how to get out there in the world to look at what the horse needs.  They may realize what the humans need, but they may not know exactly how to partner with the horse.  Partnering can look very different.  It can look like you’re partnering for the therapy, and you’ve got the side-walkers and the person leading at the front, but partnering can also be walking amongst the herd and feeling out what the herd has to say, what the life lessons are from them.

“Partnering has many different forms; and for me, I felt that not everybody knows what to do with the partnering.  So are we partnering or are we looking at business partners?  Are we using the horse, or are we working with the horse?  Are we partnering and honoring with the horse?” asks Twinney.

There is a mutuality that comes out of true partnership with a horse.  The horse lives in the now, and helps us bring ourselves into the present.  The horses help us to be authentic.  Sometimes that involves pushing our buttons to get us to examine ourselves and our own behaviors.  In becoming authentic and present, we become who we most truly are, who we are supposed to be in this life.  That is the gift horses bring us.  In supporting them, mentally, spiritually, physically, mentally, helping them to become who they most truly are, honoring them, they also teach us about true leadership.  They teach us about leading from the passive rather than the dominant position.  They are our master teachers.

A good teacher pushes your buttons to see where your strengths and weaknesses are, where your shadow or “unaddressed” areas are, the areas that need to be healed and balanced.  The horse as master teacher shows you who you are. They show a true reflection of who you are in the moment, and how your reactions display who you are.  Twinney says that the horse asks:  “Who are you when you’re being asked to move? Who are you when you are being threatened?  Would you run? Freeze? Step up?  …The horse brings out the best and the worst in us, the pretty and the ugly.  …They teach us true leadership, how a herd dynamic works, how it can be interchangeable.”

Today, horses come into therapeutic work from many different areas.  They are retired horses, seasoned performance horses, riding school horses, minis, rescues, off-the-track thoroughbreds, mustangs. And they come to the many, many forms of therapy programs through being donated, rescued from slaughter, brought in from a rescue program or sanctuary, bought specifically for the program, sought out for recognized strengths and skills specific to the program, or even born on the property.  And in their work, it is important to recognize their needs, as often they can be treated as a worker, used in their role without their needs being supported.

In a therapy program, a horse may be employed in allowing people to mingle with the herd, in daily grooming and maintenance activities (feeding, stall cleaning, etc.), in-hand exercises, being led or ridden, play, liberty work, and in healing.  Often, horses offer healing back to the people interacting with them, healing hearts and souls, bodies and minds.  But in all they give, what can we give back to them? And this includes therapy horses, as well as horses in all other roles.

We can make sure they are the right horse for the job, for starters.  By assessing the horse for his role, we need to look at his history and use horsemanship tools to help in this assessment.  Reach Out to Horses® offers many horsemanship tools to interact with a horse to determine his experience, reactivity, temperament, aptitude for the job at hand, and personality.  These include T.L.C. (Trust-based Leadership and Compassionate Communication), the obstacle course at liberty, long-lining, Spookbusting, being ridden and Twinney’s Reaching Out process.  (For details and more resources, go to  Interestingly, it is not always the gentle horse that is best-fitted for the job, as we often think, but the horses that have experienced trauma, such as the off-track thoroughbreds and the mustangs, or perhaps a horse that has overcome his aggressive tendencies to be able to work with people.  These horses have had the experience, overcome it, and can now meet a person therapeutically on common ground, and so provide assistance and healing.

Animal communication can be a useful tool in finding out directly from the horse what his wants and needs may be.  It’s a good way to learn his history, determine a tailor-made training program, and examine pain-related issues, such as saddle fit, living arrangements and friendships, nutrition and diet, and how much time-off is needed.  Through animal communication, you can learn from your horse’s perspective of his hopes and expectations, and likes and dislikes.

We can offer physical, mental, spiritual, emotional support and consideration to the horse.  How is the horse’s physical fitness being addressed? Does he get enough turn-out time, enough pasture time?  Is he being ridden by an able-bodied rider for exercise?  How is his physical well-being cared for?  Is he provided access to massage, Reiki, cranio-sacral work, chiropractic, acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, Ttouch®?  What is his nutritional plan and requirements?  Does he get enough turn-out time for rest, relaxation, play and socialization with other horses? Does he get groundwork and riding for a balanced mindset and behavior? Are his needs being met with farrier work, dental work, saddle fit, veterinary support, energy cleansing (as with smudging, tapping, Reiki, etc.)?  Does he get enough time off for rest and relaxation, as horses are so emotionally sensitive to their surroundings and emotional nuances?  Horses feel our emotions as well as their own, and need a break and a cleansing.  Are the horse’s future needs considered?  What will happen with him as he ages?  There is much to consider when providing partnering and support to our horses so they can be at their best.

Twinney suggests that the ways to support your horse are to:  “Listen to your horse.  Understand the nature of your horse.  Acknowledge your horse.  Connect with your horse.  Communicate with your horse.”

So how can we move into true partnership with the horse, rather than placing them in largely utilitarian roles?  How can we support them in their work with us?  How can we let them step into the role of coach?  They offer us wonderful gifts. How can we best support them?  The essence off it, according to Twinney, is to listen, to acknowledge, to trust, and to ask yourself what you are doing for them.  When is the last time you asked your horse, “What can I do for you?”

Acknowledging the Try:  Your Evolution of Horsemanship, Part 2 of
Anna Twinney’s 6-Part Webinar Series

By Kari Hagstrom

Imagine this:  You are a worker or a student, and you never get the recognition for your effort that you feel you deserve.  You don’t get recognized for trying.  Maybe you have ADHD, or some other sensory challenge, and it’s hard to focus, so even an apparently small try is huge for you.  But no one notices.  You just get labeled as difficult, or a problem, or obstinate, or not smart.  No one recognizes or acknowledges that you are trying, that you are doing your best to respond and “meet expectations.”  So you get disheartened and give up.  Then what?  You’re on to an endless round of not being acknowledged, not recognized, not seen for you who really are.  You live in endless frustration.

But wait.  What if your tries were acknowledged?  What if someone did see you trying your best?  What if someone saw you and recognized you for who you are and helped you to become your best?  How would that feel?  Uplifting? Heartening?  Would you feel valued and want to engage even more?  Would life become fun, exciting even? Would you feel more satisfied in your life if you were seen and recognized for who you are?

Recognizing and acknowledging the try in horsemanship is important for your horse and your relationship with your horse.  Anna Twinney, internationally recognized holistic and natural horsemanship clinician, equine behaviorist, animal communicator, Karuna Reiki master, and founder of Reach Out to Horses ® (ROTH),, emphasizes this on her webinar series, “Your Evolution of Horsemanship, Part 2:  Acknowledging the Try.”

Acknowledging the try is “so important, it can be the difference between trust or dominance, partnership or hierarchy, and success or failure,” says Twinney on the webinar.  “Knowing how and when to acknowledge your horse’s effort, and exactly what that means, is crucial to successful horsemanship.”

The first place to start is with your horse’s personality and learning styles.  Each horse is an individual and has a different learning style.  “Recognizing each horse as an individual is HUGE for the horse.  They all have different personalities,” says Twinney.  “We need to understand our horse’s personalities.”  For example, there can be the personality types of the Business Woman (or Man), the Nurturer, the Jester, the Gypsy, etc.

“The more we understand the personality, the more it will help us to acknowledge the try,” says Twinney.  In a horse with ADHD, for example, the horse is “constantly looking elsewhere. When that horse gives you a try, it could be really challenging to him.  It could mean the world to him, and you’ve got to be able to see that try for a horse that cannot pay attention.  You’ve got to look for the try, and see it, and realize the challenges he’s facing.”

“There’s no copy cat program that fits the horses.  If we thought that one single program for individuals would work, we could throw children into cubicles and expect it to work.  But we already do that.”  Horses, like people, like to be treated like an individual; they, and we, perform better that way.

Twinney notes that it is important to ask:  “Who is your horse?  How do I adapt to their needs in order to support them most effectively?”

How does your horse learn?  Is it through touching? With a muzzle or a hoof?  Does she move around an object or situation to get a full view, or does she go around the edge of the paddock where she feels it’s safe?  Does she put her head down and trust?  “It’s all about the learning.  Feeling, touching, following, showing it to them (where you get off your horse and show them),” says Twinney.

Environment, age, breed, fitness level, mentality all affect learning styles.  “There are many factors to create a successful session and to recognizing the try.  What is a try with one horse will look completely different with another horse,” says Twinney.

Pressure is also an important factor to consider in how your horse learns and tries; and the release of pressure is one of the main tools utilized and advocated by Twinney as a teaching tool.  “Horses learn from the release of pressure, not from the pressure applied.”

There is almost always pressure when we are around horses; even just our presence creates pressure.  “When we enter a paddock—there’s pressure.  When we advance toward a horse—pressure. When we’re driving at liberty in a round pen—pressure. When the horse is asked to stand still and feels uncomfortable, or he’s tied to the trailer—pressure.  When we put the leg on the side of the horse—pressure.  Asking for a left or right turn—there’s pressure on the mouth.  Asking for a slow—pressure on the mouth.  Asking to lead—pressure on the halter.  When we ask to stop—pressure.  Pressure can be direct or indirect,” says Twinney.  An example of a release from pressure is when you put pressure on the side of a horse and the horse moves forward, and then you remove your leg from the pressure—that’s a release.  The release is the “yes, this is right” of the equation; not the continuous application of pressure, which only serves to frighten, confuse, frustrate or flood the horse’s senses, in which the adrenaline rises and then falls, as the horse is pushed into flight or fight, or freeze, and he goes into overwhelm—this isn’t learning, nor is it teaching or training. With flooding, there is no release, no acknowledgement, no praise.  “If all you ever do is flooding, you’ll get compliance, because you’ll take the spirit out of the horse.”

Put yourself in your horse’s shoes.  Remember those times when you had to do something uncomfortable or unpleasant, like stand up in front of a group of co-workers or in front of a class to give a presentation.  You felt pressure, stressed, and because of that stress and pressure, you blanked out on part of your presentation, you felt embarrassed and frustrated, only to remember it clearly later, when there was no stress or pressure.

The release of pressure in Twinney’s lexicon of the language of Equus is as subtle as dropping our eyes at the sign of a try—this releases pressure applied by our eyes.  Dropping our hand or arm that is outstretched to the horse—this is a release of pressure.  Backing away or even leaving the horse’s presence/pen to supply an ample release—this all helps the horse learn in a comfortable and understanding environment.  Ask yourself:  Do I learn better in a pressure-filled environment, or a safe, comfortable, respectful environment?  Then think about your horse’s situation, and how you can best support and acknowledge them.

According to Twinney, the three main areas to focus on are recognizing each horse as an individual, recognizing the different learning styles, and understanding how horses learn.

It is also important to realize the role that physiology plays in the way a horse learns. “The more you understand about how the horse’s mind works, their memory, their emotions; when you look at their eyes, how they work; sound, the hearing, all of the horse’s senses; you come to understand the way they operate in the world. And truly to realize what a try is, because if you’re not aware of a blind spot with a horse, you’re not aware of how hard they’re trying,” says Twinney.

Generally speaking, most horses have a blind spot up to about six feet in front of them, due to their eyes being located more on the sides of their heads.  This means that if we enter that blind area on a horse, even putting a hand on their forehead, requires a lot of trust on the horse’s part.  And it’s good for humans to be mindful of this area when working with a horse.  Twinney feels that rather than seeing one movie such as humans see in their heads, horses see two movies—one for the right side, one for the left, so it is important to show and teach the horse on both sides because of the different perceptions the horse has on each side.

Reading the eye is where we “capture the whisper.  We can capture the thought in the eye, just as much as they can capture our thoughts.  It’s how subtle we can get.  It’s in the eye that we can see how hard they’re trying, what it means to them,” says Twinney.  Reading the eye is a skill and an art to develop, where we can see the mood of the horse, what they’re paying attention to, what they are feeling.

“When we acknowledge the try, they know that they’re being heard.  We’re giving a voice to the voiceless.  When you’re voiceless, you’re somebody who doesn’t speak our verbal language.  It’s no different from any other species—humans who are too young, too old or hearing impaired.

“If somebody feels that they are being heard, if they’re being acknowledged, it changes their world.  They try so much harder.  They interact.  They find friends.  They have a life.  That’s what being heard means.

“They’re also being seen.  What is being seen?  Being seen for who you are as an individual, being respected for the way you learn, being respected [by] how you’re being treated.  Instead of just putting them in the category of a horse, they’re being seen for who they are as an individual.

There are many doorways that open up and many beneficial results that come from recognizing and acknowledging the try.  Less resistance and more fluidity develop.  “If you constantly apply pressure, they will not do it [the requested action] after a while.  They tend to give up; they tend to not try.  They back up, throw their head in the air, feel like lead, go into the halter, bite you, body slam you.  This is what it means when you don’t acknowledge the try—you get less fluidity.

“When you acknowledge the try, those feet will move.  The same goes for any other action.  When you acknowledge the try, you get less frustration, less force, and more communication.”

By moving into asking versus telling, there is less learned-helplessness and more motivation. “An ask is softer, meeting them where they are at, versus telling or shouting at them,” says Twinney.  “Learned-helplessness is the glazed eye, standing at the back of the stall, having their butt to you, not looking at somebody, not acknowledging an individual, not engaging (such as turning the head, licking).  Learned-helplessness is where the horse becomes more robotic, compliant, and you become a passenger instead of a rider.  They’re a commodity instead of a companion.  Acknowledging the try takes out the learned-helplessness and replaces it with motivation.

It’s important to not use the nature of the horse against him.  That means, in the language of ROTH, using positive reinforcement in training:  no pressure, food rewards, a stroke or verbal praise, being exceedingly patient, even doing nothing at all.   It’s important to support not using their nature against them, for example:  Horses are flight animals, so we as predators know they will move forward when we drive them.  You know a horse will go into flight (leave or move away from a situation), fight (protection of the self or others, frustration), or freeze, so don’t hold or use that against them.  “Bring the nature of the horse into play and support them with it,” says Twinney.

“A freeze is usually done by a not very spunky individual.  They are waiting for release.  You’ll see the glazed eye, disassociating, leaving their bodies, laying down, shaking or buckling.  Using a horse’s nature against them is snubbing them to a post, knowing they will freeze or fight, and doing it anyway.

“Review it.  Look at it:  Am I working with and for my horse or am I using his nature against him?” states Twinney.

“This bleeds into dominance versus passive leadership.  Dominance is using force, fear, ‘my way or the highway.’ Passive leadership is leading by example, leading by trust and respect.

“I don’t want my trust and respect gained through fear.  I don’t want that.  I want to gain it because it’s truthful, it’s authentic, it’s my body, it’s my mind, it’s my spirit, it’s 100 percent for the good of the horse.  [I want to say to the horse]:  I don’t want to snub you, put a tarp on you til you lie down and your spirit goes away, and then say, ‘It’s for the good of the horse.’  I needed to spookbust you—‘It’s for the good of the horse.’  That’s pure justification; there’s nothing right in that.

“You should be able to spookbust a horse at liberty, with the freedom of choice and allow them to come and go.  That’s where you want to end up—when you put that saddle pad on them, you want them to want to stand there, that they have that choice,” says Twinney in her webinar.

“Be mindful of what your horse perceives as an ask versus a tell. Some horses are thick-skinned; some are highly-sensitive.  The gauge is on the horse as to what they perceive is an ask versus a tell.

“If you encourage them in what they volunteer, you will have a partner who will make decisions with you, and that’s what we are seeking when we look for horsemanship, for true partnership; where we look for the relationship; where we look to succeed in any way.  That’s what we’re looking for,” says Twinney.

Entering a training session or relationship with your horse with an attitude of gratitude is important.    It implies having a no-goal agenda, being present.  “With an attitude of gratitude, you’re open-minded, open-hearted, and you can see their tries,” says Twinney.

Acknowledging the try.  Simple and so often overlooked.  It can transform your relationship with your horse.  And with others—we all can benefit from a little acknowledgement, being seen, being heard.  What have you got to lose?

For more information on Anna Twinney’s work at Reach Out to Horses ®, please go to  There is an abundance of free information available:  podcasts, articles, blog posts, and webinars that are available for purchase.