What can go wrong playing with horses as a way to train them?

I think play is a good thing in the training of horses, when you can keep your horse willing to follow your lead. When "play training", a horse’s learning is accelerated and it helps the performance of the horse from the well being it brings to both the horse and the human. What can go wrong playing with horses as a way to train them?

Because of the fun we are having playing with horses; we can easily drop our responsibility to direct our horse’s behavior and attitude towards us. When we feel a deep love for horses we can forget to maintain our leadership role.

All Animals Perceive Play as Lessons in Survival


The reason you want to maintain leadership while play training is that horses see "play" as lessons in survival and in the play activites you offer them they may exibit pecking order behaviors or try to gain a higher position to the one they are playing with. "Play" brings out the strong side of a horse.

When a horse takes charge of our play games social order is lost and at the same time they loose respect for our leadership. Horses look up to and admire the horse that has a higher rank, but when the higher ranking horse does not keep the lower ranking horse in line, the lower ranking horse will try for that position.  We, being at the top of the food chain, see play without consequence, unlike how animals see play.

Animals Amaze Me

In just a few moments of watching sparrows play I see amazing wisdom at work. They are joyous as they stay on the lookout for danger. Spiders put glue on their webs to trap insects, but they step over the glue to avoid being trapped themselves. There is so much intention found in nature.  The play of life is extraordinary. Animals must have so much integrity to stay alive.

An extraordinary unity is developed out of horses’ pecking order games. They find a sense of peace and yet, horses are always aware of the pecking order. In watching nature, I see the geometry of relationships, the joy of being alive and an understanding of the laws of nature.

The Purpose of Play


The purpose of "play" is misunderstood, in the training of horses, when a person has lost the understanding of the social nature of horses. Playing with a horse can create a heartfelt connection between a horse and a human, which is a good thing.  However, this can cause a person to forget all together how to train a horse from the act of play.  I once heard this phrase, I didn’t resonate with it at that time, however it does have value in what I’m sharing with you today:  “give a horse an inch and he will think he is a ruler”. The result of losing the training process in the act of play is that the horse becomes the leader and bit by bit becomes intolerable and even possibly dangerous.

I looked up the definition for the word “play” and it said, “play is to engage in activities for enjoyment rather than a serious or practical purpose”. So there it is, animals see play having purpose and we see play as having no purpose.  Viewing "play" as having no practical purpose can cause a cavalier attitude while training a horse in playful interactions.  We need to take "play" more seriously or at least use it in the right way to achieve the advancement of the horse’s training. When training where "play" is introduced, one must not loose the integrity of what it is that you hope to accomplish in your training practices.

A Teacher's Comment

TeacherWhen I was in grammar school and participating in the classroom, absorbing my studies in a joyful manner, my teacher said to me, “we are here to learn, not to play”.  However, infusing play into learning quickens the learning process and grows the bond at the same time.  I thought to myself, as my teacher corrected my attitude, that she did not understand that learning is best when centered around play so that the student can really absorb what they learned. In this way, a student will be more likely to use what they learned during their lifetime.

I had a few learning disability’s, which I have come to discover was a great boon for me. I can not connect or learn anything unless I enjoy the process and I think that this is probably true for horses as well.  I must increase my energy and enjoyment in order to learn. This inability keeps me always reaching for unity, harmony and joy.  I have stayed a student of life and find learning and the work I engage in a pure pleasure. This need for joy has kept me on the “red road” in how to connect with a horse in the most natural way.  Joy has made my life more productive.  It keeps me fascinated with life, fascinated in the training of horses and humans and joyous when writing my blogs.

In the classroom, with this teacher I spoke of earlier, I understood that a certain behavior needed to be maintained by the teacher and that I needed to follow the rules to keep the learning going forward in a joyful manner. Not everyone gets this part of “play training”, so I want to write a bit more on the subject.

"Play" vs. "Work"

Today the word “play” is starting to replace the word “work” in regards to the training of horses.  This is a good thing; play gives a horse more consideration and brings about more awareness to the bond between the human and the horse.  It causes the person not to be so driven to make their horse perform. You also have less negative judgment for where you are in the training process.  Horses are getting a better deal now. In many schools across the world they are understanding this idea of learning through the activities of play. Below is a YouTube in new methods of teaching children.  It might be off the subject just a little, but never the less, it is interesting and I have wanted to share it with you for a long time.

Some Information for Beginning Horse Trainers: In every interaction you have with a horse there is an opportunity to further develop the training.  In every look, pat, touch, intention, thought, feeling and movement, we have an opportunity to influence a horse in a positive way.  It is a good idea to practice using one simple gesture as a communication aide that a horse would accept.  When you get your horse to respond to a simple interaction in the way you would like him to, take a pause and let him know that you are pleased.  At this point, don’t ask for more so he can process what his response bought him. Then continue.

Photo by Teddie ZieglerA beginning horse trainer needs to develop an eye and an awareness to the changes in attitude of their horse that could lead to an out of control horse. Playing can suggest that safety will always be there, as long as you are just playing with a horse.  But, play must be controlled and monitored at all times because of the pecking order nature of horses.  From this sobering fact you can approach "play training" with more understanding of your goals and responsibilities.  One needs to learn how to “chop wood and carry water”, so to speak, while "play training" with your horse.  I want to warn everyone that while engaging in "play" you can forget to be realistic and listen to your common sense. This is a reminder to keep focused on your training.

Words of Warning for those of you who have Experience:

"Play" has the same effect on experienced trainers, who can also let down their guard.  A person who is a good friend of mine, who has years of experience handling wild horses, put a small child of about three years old on an untrained wild horse in a field without a helmet.  She thought that the bond would keep the child safe because all she was doing that day was just hanging out with the horses. She had no goals, just a feeling of connection.  Then right in front of my eyes, I saw the child bucked off to the ground. Everything happened so fast that I had no time to interject and correct the choice my friend had made as she was putting the child on the horse.  The child did not get hurt, but could have from a misjudgment in the moment where common sense was set aside because there was a deep sense of love for these horses in the field.

The Formula  for "Play Training" with your Horse, which you already have!

The approach you need to use with horses, while "play training", is the same approach you would use playing with a three year old at a crowded beach at the waters edge or playing ball on a sidewalk next to a busy road.  You are alert and prudent to keep the child safe and connected with you and at the same time you are in a state of complete joy.

Looking at how Play effects the Personality of Children


The wrong play can turn a child aggressive or cause a child to become timid.  It all depends in how you interact with them.  The examples above will help you see where you need to put your energy and focus while playing with horses as a training method.

Horses are not toys and they are not going to be good and faithful companions just because your heart is loving. They are very much like children.

A horse is not like a book that the story stays the same once written. Horses are living breathing animals that are easily changeable by how we go about our "play" with them.

One of my students, Jannie, wrote on my blog last week about her experience diving under the water and getting lost in the beautiful world of exotic magical scenes of sea life.  You can get lost where time no longer exists for you in its beauty and in this state of consciousness you need to be very clear of "how much air you have left in your tanks".  This consciousness of "play" and awareness is all you need when using "play" as a training method.

When you lose track of time in your "play training", remembering to stay the leader, this will bring out your magnetism where training does not interrupt the joyful experience.

Years ago in the culture of man only Shaman were allowed to ride horses. Today anyone is allowed to ride and the horse is your keeper. If you are enjoying riding your horse, pat yourself on the back because you have made choices where integrity leads the way in your relationship with your horse.

I would love to hear about your play training, good or bad.

Have a great weekend!  Be on the lookout for new horse and human sightings and may the horse be with you.

Warmly, Carolyn

P.S. If you have not taken any of my programs before, then I suggest you start with The Chair Challenge and then move on to the Waterhole Rituals Online Program later.

Discover the Chair Challenge