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Why is “Slow Learning” the Best Approach for Training Horses? It's in the Science! (And it's part of Holistic Horsemanship)

How Holistic Horsemanship Leads the Way in Revolutionary horse training!

I learned the hard way, the importance of the following three areas when it came to training, re-training, and rehabilitating horses:

  • slow

  • real connection (vs mechanical connection)

  • lots of dwell time


When I made my life-long passion for horses my professional career over twenty years ago, I was taught one very important lesson from the get-go; do not rush a horse... especially a stressed horse.


Science has proven that, like people, horses cannot learn when they are stressed.
Slow learning means looking for signs of stress in Holistic Horsemanship


I had no idea how messed up my beloved Smokey was when I purchased him back in 2004. He was so young, just four years old and I was his 5th owner. While that was a big red flag, as the saying goes, “you only know what you know, and you don’t know what you don’t know.” Sometimes, ignorance is truly bliss.


I had no experience with traumatized horses let alone catatonic horses. And I was going to learn quickly what both were - what a journey that was going to be!


When my dad and I drove to meet Smokey, we had already been told he wasn’t ready to be ridden. He had just thrown the rider before us, someone who was interested in purchasing him. As we pulled up to the paddock, we could see this stunning black QH pacing and hollering alongside the electric fence. It was forty degrees, windy and cold and he was trembling, sweaty and anxious.


When I entered his paddock, I waited. I stood in the middle and grounded myself. I just kept breathing while he paced and hollered for his herd. It took about 40 minutes for him to finally connect with me and become interested enough to come towards me. Eventually, he came all the way and allowed me to clip the lead line on him, which he responded promptly with a bolt backwards.


He was a mess and I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. They were so bright and full of try. He wanted to be a good boy and not get into trouble. Not that he was going to get into trouble with me of course, but you could tell he was confused and not sure what to do. He sure was scared too. That was the first time I saw what fear looked like in a horse.


To make a long story short, I bought Smokey. He was dropped off to my parents’ farm the following weekend, trembling and dripping in sweat. They said it took hours to get him loaded in their stock trailer. The issues soon started to stack as I learned what Smokey was not capable of doing.


While I was fully committed to figuring out how to help Smokey, I had no idea that he would need a complete rehabilitation before training. This became my journey into learning what I know and teach today about rehabilitation and foundation training.


To this day, and after working with thousands of horses, Smokey has been the most challenging horse for me. He has also been one of my greatest teachers.


When I bought him, I was re-entering the horse world as a full-time student of the horse. I was traveling, studying various disciplines and with high level trainers, taking it all in and experiencing as much as I could.


My first study was in natural horsemanship (NH). I practiced with Smokey and while I took things slow naturally, I had no idea that I would be stirring a hornet’s nest the more I was told to push him.


As a student of NH, I was immersed. I was following a specific method and while I didn’t want to get certified in that method, I had enrolled in a 3-month school with Smokey. Unfortunately, he got liver disease and became deathly ill, too ill to travel to Florida, so I had to bring my little Arab, Legend along, so we could pass and take his place.


When I look back on how this all worked out, Smokey being the horse I chose but couldn’t take, it was meant to be. Knowing what I know today, Smokey was nowhere ready to deal with the level of pressure Legend and I were about to experience.


Learning NH with Legend began my journey and became a beacon of what not to do with horses.


Legend was easy compared to Smokey, but like I said earlier, I had no idea that when I came back from the NH school with Legend, that I would be opening up a hornet’s nest within Smokey.


I’ve been practicing Taoism most of my life, since I was a teenager. When Smokey got liver disease, six months after I bought him, I knew it was because of anger. Chinese medicine explains: the liver is associated with anger, depression, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, and "flying off the handle" emotions.


Boy, did Smokey fly off the handle when he was pushed too hard. But before he flew, he went deep inside, way down and that’s how I learned about catatonic.


There was no rushing Smokey. The more you pushed, the faster he shut down and then went into flight. He tried so hard to please and do what you asked, and if you weren't paying attention, he became trigger stacked which sent him into a bolting, bucking rage.


Imagine being told to get after your horse, who is like Smokey, and you have no experience with horses like him. And, like Smoke, your horse explodes, or maybe it takes a while before they do and because you have no idea about what’s happening before it happens, you either get hurt or your horse is traumatized more. This is what so many of my students have experienced. Their horse imploding because of too much pressure and trigger stacking.


Like too much talk therapy, trigger stacking episodes (reactions) will recreate the trauma, thus perpetuate the trauma experience – it never goes away. In time, the horse develops coping mechanisms to deal with stress – mechanisms like learned helplessness, trauma that is created by repetitive and submissive tactics, ulcers, chronic tension, anxiety.


When Smokey busted me up the first (and last) time, I was following a method that wanted me to “keep after him”. There was no going slow. Instead, I was told to stop babying him (or coddling him), get on and MAKE him move... “show him who’s boss!” Of course this didn’t sit well with me - but I was frustrated with my horse constantly getting stuck and never progressing. So, I compromised my horse for the sake of the goal. Like I said before, it only took me one time and I never pushed him like that again.


What Smokey, and all horses like him, needed was for me to listen and understand what he needed so he could first recover from his chronic fear and then learn how to become a confident learner.


The sad truth is very few professional trainers teach you this. They want you to feel immediate gratification and success with your horse, at all costs.


Forced connection through mechanics does not work and is not used in Holistic Horsemanship

I wasn’t taught to take a break, go slow, feel of the horse - where he is emotionally, mentally, and what he needs. It was constant desensitization, so much so that after 1.5 hours of hopping around on one leg, with the other foot in the stirrup and Smokey’s nose bent towards me, I was told to get on. I sure wish I had been taught to pay attention to my horse, check in with him. If I had, I would have seen Smokey freezing and going deep within, the first signs of learned helplessness, catatonic and trigger stacking.


I had no idea what was going on or was going to happen. All I knew was he finally stopped and was standing quiet enough for me to mount up. That was the first big mistake and lessoned learned.


As my leg came over the saddle and my butt landed softly, he came out of his stupor (catatonic state) and started a bucking rampage. Mind you, I’m a really good rider, and a strong one, but I never had a chance of hanging on or pulling him around. He threw me into the round pen and I bounced off, fracturing the right side of my ribs and bruising my left side.

That was my introduction to the power of a catatonic state, trigger stacking and the useless tactics of desensitization.


I’m happy to say I learned well from that experience, well enough to never make that happen again. I stopped listening to my NH and horsemanship (cowboy) instructors, and went back to listening to my horses and my intuition. This meant going slow, creating interest through connecting to the relationship (not mechanics) and lots of love, reassurance, and reward time (dwell time).


I love this quote from Martin Black. It was written recently as he collaborated with another equine professional I respect, Dr. Steve Peters:


"Developing a feel of where the horse is at mentally, how intense the training is, and how aroused their learning is, the timing of when and how long of a break to give them, and the intuition of keeping a balance of how much training time versus break time is all something that takes time for a person to learn. Nobody can write a prescription for it, the horses will tell you, if you can learn to listen to them.”


Here is a recent quote from Dr. Steve Peters about the power, and positivity, of going slow when teaching and learning new things:


"How do we increase brain speed of processing? By slowing down. By using the space and time necessary to enhance dendritic growth, neuroplasticity and rewiring of the brain's circuitry. Modern Neuroscience is beginning to understand the underlying cellular and molecular changes necessary for LTP (Long Term Potentiation) in other words, the ability to learn things at a deeper, more permanent level."


Dr. Stephen Peters is a board certified Diplomate in Neuropsychology and past Director of Intermountain Healthcare's Clinic for Brain Health and The American Fork Hospital Memory Clinic. For over a decade, Dr. Peters served in the role of Chief, Neuropsychological Services for a large Neurology practice.

His background in neuroscience, and passion for horses, accounts for his depth of knowledge of the neurological underpinnings of horse behavior. His studies are evidence-based and scientifically proven. Through research and testing he has been able to monitor the horse's brain and nervous system reactions, as well as their emotional states, when learning. He is author of Evidence-based Horsemanship, a guide to the best practices for optimizing a horse's learning.

Horses that are stressed can NOT learn. Holistic Horsemanship, Slow Learning

Dr. Peters has done extensive research and testing with Long-term Potentiation (LTP) in humans and horses and how it relates to learning.

LTP is important to learning and horse training because it is responsible for memory storage in the hippocampus and neocortex. Like many parts of the brain's limbic system, the hippocampus is involved in memory, learning, and emotion. Its largest job is to hold short-term memories and transfer them to long-term storage in our brains. It also plays a role in emotional processing, including anxiety and avoidance behaviors.

Through these findings, he proves that horses cannot learn when they are stressed. Optimal learning for the horse can only happen when they are:

  • in their parasympathetic nervous system

  • learning progressively and slowly

  • connected, interested in the learning

  • able to have lengthy rest periods, dwell time

Next time you’re working with your horse, whether it’s a lesson, training, or a schooling show, pay attention to the signs of stress. Horses are stoic and passive by nature, and hardwired not to show signs of weakness.

Stressed horses can NOT learn. Holistic Horsemanship

Know that the signs are always there, signs of stress, uncertainty, anxiety. Next time your horse refuses, feels tight, pushes through, gets excited or becomes disconnected, I hope you stop to reassess the situation and most of all check in with your horse. Often all they need is time and care to feel safe again, willing to partner and trust you.


I can teach you how to assess your horse, learn your timing and achieve it all with your horse – in a way that feels great for you both. Join my free miniseries below to begin, or see the full program here.


You are personally invited to join my LAST free 7-Day Holistic Horsemanship Mastery Miniseries where you can experience my groundbreaking and transformational training method for yourself!

Free Holistic Horsemanship Mastery Mini-Series

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Join our FREE 7-Day Holistic Horsemanship Mastery Miniseries to learn why people are saying, "Tao is the way to all things possible with horses,” and the most holistic, empathetic, and effective path to training, re-training, and rehabilitating horses.

If you’ve been searching for a deeper way to be with horses, a better way to train horses and in a connected and safe riding partnership, the Tao of Horsemanship Academy is for you!

With a comprehensive website of holistic horsemanship information, as well as free resources, support and a complete online learning program, you can immerse yourself in the world of consensual partnership with your horse and love the journey as you learn together.

May you always be one with your horse,

Caroline Beste

Founder, Tao of Horsemanship


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