G’day Team,

I wanted to share a blog post with you all about ‘Presence’ when working with horses.  This is a topic I have been grappling with for a few years now, particularly on how to educate people about the importance of presence and body language when working with horses.  I was lucky to recently attend a Buck Brannaman clinic here in Australia, he is a horseman I really admire and he talked about ‘Presence’ when working with horses, I was so glad I was there to hear him talk about the topic as I’m sure he has seen this complex issue many times throughout his career.  You know the old saying ‘they know when you know and they know when you don’t know’, well this rings true often for me when I’m trying to help my clinic attendees communicate better with their horses.  Horses have an innate ability to read humans and other animals.  I know in my own horsemanship journey when I’ve been learning something new, if I have been even the slightest bit hesitant or unsure about the task at hand, it hasn’t gone as well as it could have.  I see this regularly at my clinics when people are learning new ways of interacting with their horses.  There is something about your presence when you pick up the lead rope or rein, somehow the horse can read you and sense through your hands whether you are 100% committed and confident with what ever it is that you are trying to achieve.

I’ve seen this many times when someone is working on an exercise at a clinic and they are getting into a flap and both the human and horse are just about at their limit of frustration, I see the handlers body language change, they drop their shoulders and show signs of defeat.  So, I start by going through the exercise again to ensure they understood the process clearly and give them another chance to complete the exercise.  If that fails, then I then pick up the lead rope and most of the time the horse almost instantly focuses in and jumps over the pole or completes the exercise, whatever it may be.  I’ve seen this many other times with experienced horse trainers in all different situations.  To be clear, I don’t claim to be able to do something magical with horses, but I do think that I have developed some experience an understanding over the past 15+ years of working with these animals of what I can and can’t achieve.   This level of experience sets up a platform of things and behaviours you will accept and not accept throughout the training process and it gives you a level of confidence and understanding of when to reward and offer release as opposed to pressure.  This level of understanding enables you to hold a presence around horses and at least in my experience allows you to communicate more clearly with them.

This is a challenge for me and my fellow horsemanship educators on how best to communicate ‘Presence’ when working with horses, unfortunately we cannot impart all the years of experience and the numerous horses and situations we have had to deal with in a brief 2 day Horsemanship Clinic, I do think all we can really do is provide you a small piece of the puzzle in a hope to help you understand your horse more and try to get you to look at them with more empathy and offer more reward and release sooner throughout the training process.  Buck explained it well in that there is no middle ground, you offer the horse a good deal then the bad deal.  The Bad deal was not in an overly forceful kind of way, Buck is a great horseman and he has huge depth of experience in the way of communicating with horses.   This good deal/bad deal could be explained as simply as follows when asking a horse to lunge or lead away from you:

  • Good Deal – Step in the direction you are looking the horse to travel and pick up your leading hand with the lead rope and point the way you want the horse to travel.
  • Bad Deal – Maintain your body position, raise the energy in your body and pick up your horsemanship stick in your free hand and show the horse your arm is really long and cue the horse’s hind end to get moving.

You can imagine this will be very clear to a horse.  The third element not mentioned in the above is the ‘Presence’ by this I mean the commitment, energy and confidence of the handler.  For me, this is the ultimate determining factor…  If the handler is timid or reserved when asking, the horse will have a choice, listen and complete the exercise or resist and do their own thing.  This is nothing to be ashamed of it takes years of experience and 100’s if not 1000’s of interactions with horses to develop a true understanding of the required presence needed to communicate and work effectively with horses.

There is some good news – you don’t need to work with 100’s or 1000’s of horses to get this presence thing figured out, what I do see regularly is when my students gain more confidence and understanding around working with their horse either on the ground or under-saddle, I see a change in them.  Then I see a change in their horse, the horse believes them, trusts them and looks to them as their confident leader.  This is incredibly rewarding for me as a horseman and educator, to watch my students improve and grow in confidence when working with their horses.

Im so fortunate to be able to do what I do and I look forward to the opportunity of hopefully meeting you down the road at an event or clinic and helping you with your own horsemanship journey!

If this resinates with you would love to hear from you, hope it helps!

All the best.


Justin Colquhoun

Hi There! I’m Justin Colquhoun. I founded Elite Horsemanship out of a dream to make real and effective horsemanship available to anyone at any level in the horse industry.