Stillwater Farm

Training Tip #5 with Felicia Britt

Felicia Britt's avatar

It is my hope that you are making progress with your training program, diligently keeping a journal, and adding tools to your toolbox. It is important to know that any measure of success hinges on one thing: BOUNDARIES. These are the lines and limits of expectation you set as herd leader. It is difficult to be viewed as believable, respected, and strong if everything you ask your horse to do is up for discussion; because as herd leader, you NEVER NEGOTIATE.

First, let me be clear. There is 'Consistency in Teaching' and then, there is 'Never Negotiating'. Although they often overlap, they are not the same thing. Never Negotiating is ALWAYS Consistent Teaching, but the reciprocal is not true. For example, let's say I am teaching my horse to halter and unhalter quietly. She wiggles, moves and bobs her head, so I repeat the process umteen times over a period of days until she learns what is expected. This is Consistency of Teaching. She is learning boundaries. Once these boundaries have been cemented in her training, my expectation rises and she should halter and unhalter willingly. So then, one day I begin to unbuckle her halter and she slings her head and turns away. The truth is, she knows better. So, is this up for discussion or non-negotiable? Non-negotiable. If I roll my eyes, mumble under my breath, and go hang up the halter, I have chosen the easier path but, in doing so, I have blurred the lines of accountability and made much more work for myself in the long run.

 Setting boundaries takes time and a heck of a lot of patience. Make it a priority while the issue is still minor. In this case, I would halter her again, back her up 15 or 20 steps, make her stand,then begin to remove her halter. If she moves one centimeter, I would calmly repeat the backing but, add more steps or a side pass. We are passed the point of discussing halter manners in her training. I would increase her workload, while being only as serious as I need to be to help her with her decision. The moment she relents, I soften, remove her halter and spend 2 or 3 minutes scratching her head and ears as she wonders why in the world she wanted to get away from this so quickly. She was testing the boundaries and I was building her confidence in me by letting her know they were right where I left them. This is Never Negotiating.

 In my experience, most 'negotiations' have to do with manners. Handlers that are just not sure about their own boundaries often struggle with enforcing any on their horse. Consequently, respect goes right out the window. Letting a horse lean or push on you crosses a physical boundary. Allowing him to turn his rear to you is crossing a psychological one. Communicating what IS and IS NOT acceptable, as well as, clearly enforcing it, will make you believable.

 It takes an incredible amount of fortitude to never negotiate. It is sort of like telling your teenage daughter for two years that 11pm is her curfew. Then, one night, she calls at 10:30pm. Everyone is at Suzy's house watching a movie and they just ordered pizza. “Can I please stay until 11:30?” You love her, you want her to be happy, and so what can it hurt? Saying 'yes' is so easy. Then, in a moment of weakness, you relent. And then you pay for it for the NEXT TWO YEARS as every Friday night she reminds you of that 'one time' you let her stay out passed curfew! Was it worth it? The same is true of horses. You let him graze on the trail 'just this once' and you spend the next 50 trail rides playing snatch and grab with every blade of grass in sight! LESSON: either change the boundary permanently or don't, but NEVER NEGOTIATE.

Not all negotiating has to do with manners. As horses become more seasoned, some seem to take pleasure in seeing just how many times you will ask him to do something. These guys are usually very intelligent and fun to watch. Let's say I am riding in the arena and ask for a trot. My expectations of this mare are high but, she hesitates then speeds up in the walk. No room for a discussion here. We back 20 steps, then side pass 20 steps, then walk 3 steps and ask for the trot. I usually get it. I bring her back down to a walk. Then, very subtly, I ask for the trot, providing her with the opportunity to give me her best effort. After all of that backward and sideways work, going forward seemed like a great option.

It reminds me of the occasion when my son, who was eight years old at the time, melted his plastic army men in the sink because they were defeated in a re-enactment of the Battle at Gettysburg held in his bedroom. We were well passed the “My Darling Angel, what did Mommy tell you about matches and safety?” speech. He was provided the opportunity to dig a 2 ft Wide x 2 ft Long x 2 ft Deep hole in the backyard while he pondered the merits of his military campaign. Now, he is a grown man in grad school, but we still laugh about it to this day. When discipline equals work it makes an impression. That goes for horses and children.

Boundaries cultivate security in your horse, making it sensible for her to trust you. Never negotiating is NEVER a harsh, headstrong, or superior presence. It is a calm, matter-of-fact, this-is-the-way-it-is kind of confidence that actually FEEDS your horse's courage and makes her want to be around you. This is the hinge on which all of your training swings. Consistency of teaching and steadfast boundaries make you a believable leader that can communicate with your equine partner in a way that she understands, so both of you will have more confidence, courage, & self-control.

Take care and HAVE FUN!!




  • I love receiving your training tips and only wish they wold come more often! It contains such great common sense advice. Sometimes I fail to enforce manner rules especially after a long ride - Thanks for the reminders

  • Robin Visceglia's avatar

    Thanks Chris - I’ll tell Felicia that we all want MORE!

  • Wow!  Where were you when my kids were growing up?!  I’d love to work on this with my horse!  It makes total sense!

  • Chris & Connie,
      Thank you so much! I am happy to hear that these tips make sense to you.  Those practical lessons are usually easier to recall and use in our time with horses. Good luck and let me know how you are progressing.

    Take care,

  • Thanks so much for everything you do for the benefit of not only the horse but also for everyone as they learn how to train and show their horses.  Thanks Robin and Felicia!

  • Thanks Carol.  Felicia is such a natural teacher.  I’ll pass along your message.  Hope you are having a great summer!

  • Dear Carol,
      Thank you so much for the encouragement! It is the enthusiam and eagerness of so many wonderful folks in the equine community that make what I do a sincere pleasure.  Thank you for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated. Take care and I hope to see you again soon.
    Have fun!

  • I really enjoy your training tips and the way in which you present the information. Thank you!

  • Thanks Bert! So much about life and raising a family has taught me about training horses; but even more so, reaching the WILL of a horse has taught me a great deal about life.

    Take care and Have fun!


  • I just happened upon the email address for Stillwater Farms and I love it!  I resumed riding after a 32 year hiatus and oh boy what a relearning experience it is.  I’m not fortunate enough to own my own horse but nevertheless riding and being around them will enable me to apply and enforce approriate boundaries. 

    I look forward to more advice/comments.  Thank you!

  • Dear Cheryl,
      Thank you so much for sharing a bit about your story. Back in the saddle after 32 years? Such a bold adventure! I am happy to know you see the importance of setting(& maintaining) clear boundaries for our equine pals. Have fun & let me know how you are progressing.

    Take care!

  • Wow! What a lesson to be learned on boundaries! I may incorporate this into our Youth Group at our church. I love what you said that “it takes an incredible amount of FORTITUDE to NEVER negotiate.” What an awesome truth! and….“when discipline equals work it makes an impression.” I’ll be meditating on this all day. Thank you….Look forward to more “nuggets!” smile angie

  • Dear Angie,
      Thank you so much for visiting with us! I homeschooled for 25 years and was a youth leader for much of that time, so I am happy to hear you talk about applications outside horse training. FORTITUDE…what a word! By definition, it is a mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, or temptation courageously. It is often difficult to stick to our guns and not let our horses(or our kids) get away with being disobedient. It takes a ton of courage; because after all, we want them to like us, so we often give in. We MUST earn our horse’s respect FIRST, then comes the affection.  Clear boundaries communicate to our equine partners in a way THEY understand, allowing them to depend on our strength as a leader. Then, you get a much braver horse in return.

    Take care!

  • I love getting & reading your training tips. I really find them so useful! Do you have any tips on how to get a horse or foal to stop turning his rear toward you? and kicking out at you as they walk away?