A Way to Perceive What Makes Horses Tick

Deb Bennett, PhD

“Birdie” is a metaphor that helps handlers to visualize the world from the horse’s point of view, which is the only point of view from which effective control of the animal can be maintained.

Dr. Deb Bennett

Deb Bennett is a 1984 graduate of the University of Kansas, and until 1992 was on the staff of the Smithsonian Institution. Her degree is in Vertebrate Paleontology, which emphasizes the anatomy and biomechanics of animals. Dr. Bennett is known as an authority on the classification, evolution, anatomy, and biomechanics of fossil and living horses. Her research interests also include the history of domestication and world bloodlines and breeds. She teaches unique anatomy short-courses and anatomy-based horsemanship clinics designed primarily for owners, trainers, therapists, and breeders.

Internationally known for her work in horse conformation, "Dr. Deb" has made a career out of conveying a kind of "X-ray vision" for bone structure to breeders and buyers. Her background in biomechanics helps her clearly explain how horse conformation relates to performance ability. Dr. Deb's clinics often involve the use of real bones and interesting biomechanical models.

Unusual in another regard, Dr. Deb doesn't confine her work to the chalkboard, but rides and trains horses herself, having participated over the years in nearly every form of horse competition. Dr. Deb is a universalist, constantly reminding students that the cut of a person's hat or the style of their saddle matters not one whit to a horse.

Riding clubs and organizations across the continent and around the world have enjoyed and benefited from Dr. Deb's expertise and insight -- Arabians, sporthorses, endurance, Morgans, Pasos, Saddlebreds, Warmbloods, Quarter Horses -- you name it -- for she is remarkably conversant with the needs and problems of many breeds. Practical problem-solving is always a focus, whether it's stabilizing a paso llano, finding that elusive canter lead, or achieving flying changes, extended trot, or lateral work. Dr. Deb's goals for your horse are the same as for her own horses, who are athletically competent, happy, confident, long-lived and free-moving.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Deb has been a consulting editor and frequent contributor to Equus Magazine, but has also been invited to contribute to the content of almost every major horse publication in North America. Dr. Bennett backs this up with a long list of technical publications. She is a major contributor to the "Elsevier Encyclopedia of Animal Science" and the Smithsonian Institution's "Seeds of Change" volume. She has published three books: "Conquerors - A History of Horsemanship in the Western Hemisphere", "The Birdie Book: A Guide to the Internal Geography of Rider and Horse", and her three volume industry standard "Principles of Conformation Analysis".

Dr. Deb founded Equine Studies Institute in 1992. She resides in California but is frequently "on the road" across the U.S. and in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

“Birdie” is a metaphor -- a teaching tool that allows students of the horse to make visible to their minds’ eye things that would not ordinarily be visible. A good example of such a visual metaphor is the concept of “Justice”. “Justice” is something real and yet not ordinarily visible. To help children and people from foreign countries understand the concept of “Justice”, in buildings which house our highest courts we place statues or images of an over-life-sized woman, robed as a Greek goddess, blindfolded and carrying scales and a sharp sword. This iconography effectively conveys the ideas that “Justice is blind”, “facts are weighed in balance”, and “punishment is to the wrongdoer, while vindication is to the innocent.”

That’s a lot for a metaphor to convey, but “Birdie” does an even better job, for it carries multiple layers of meaning. At the most superficial level, the Birdie represents the “leading edge” or “focus” of a horse’s (or a person’s) attention. This meaning is carried within our normal language: we say we “give” someone else our attention, or that we are “paying” attention to something. When I pay attention to you, it is as if something – a real yet invisible something which we are calling the Birdie – flies out from me and lands on you. So long as I am really paying attention to you, my Birdie sits on you. If my attention “wavers”, we picture that the Birdie is restless or fluttering – about to fly off to another point. Whenever I give or withdraw my attention, most people find that they can “see” my Birdie flying either to the other person or back to me.

Very useful also is to picture how the Birdie manages to fly out and yet never get lost. Each person’s Birdie is tied back to them with a fine Thread. To find its way back home, all the Birdie has to do is fly back up its Thread.

Students of ancient history, comparative mythology, and comparative religion will recognize that neither the Birdie nor the Thread are new ideas; indeed, they go back to before the dawn of written history, and the same metaphors for attention and the inner spirit crop up in cultures all over the world. A basic bibliography of references is provided at the end of this paper for students who would like to go into the Birdie metaphor further.

The main purpose of this presentation is, however, to bring horse owners a simple, practical way to understand and control their horses better. To this end, still working at the most superficial level of the Birdie metaphor – that it represents the leading edge or focus of the horse’s attention –in this talk I present examples of core situations that every horse owner has been in, and challenge you to solve them by using the “Birdie” concepts.

Hooking On
There are quite a few people out there today who pretend to be “horse whisperers”, although very few actually have the depth necessary to fit this essential horsemanship skill into a complete repertory and use it in a way that will not hurt the animal.

“Hooking a horse on” is a matter of inducing it to give the handler its Birdie. Initially, this may require overt practice; later, it will become habitual and innate, and will then be practiced without effort or conscious thought at all times.

In the beginning, with a relatively tame horse, you can put a halter on the horse. In that case, using short sessions of about five minutes each, you observe when the horse is giving you its Birdie. Initially, the animal may not be able to hold you in its regard for very long; the practice therefore consists of you noticing when the horse has taken its Birdie off of you, and you responding by requesting that it give its Birdie to you once again. With a horse that is not tame, a halter cannot initially be used, so the lessons occur in a pen with walls or rails high enough to keep the animal in reasonably close proximity.

a. How is the handler to know when the horse has its Birdie on the handler?
b. In the case of a haltered horse, how does the handler “request” that the horse give its Birdie to the handler again?
c. In the case of the lesson given with the horse being loose in a pen, what is the handler’s first objective? How may this be achieved?
d. What is the handler’s second objective? How may this be achieved?
e. What is the handler’s overall objective in all cases? (Answers to this question can get into more depth).

Once the horse “hooks on” or gives the handler its Birdie, there is the potential that the handler can then walk and the horse will follow. If the horse has initially been haltered, the halter should be removed (with handler and horse inside of an enclosure), and the option offered for the animal to follow without the use of a rope or other tack.

a. When the horse hooks on and follows, what connects the handler to the horse?
b. Would you like to speculate about the true identity or nature of the connection between the handler and horse – i.e., its non-metaphorical identity (again, this gets into some depth).

It frequently occurs that, although the horse has initially hooked on and followed, after a certain number of steps the animal will stop following, and will either stop in place or turn and run away.

a. Why does this occur?
b. How can the connection between handler and horse be re-established?

After some practice, it will frequently be noticed that the horse becomes more able and willing to hook on, and will stay hooked on to the handler much more strongly. When this begins to happen, the potential is there to begin teaching the animal more complex lessons or skills.

a. Does the potential to teach a horse more complex skills exist when the animal is not paying attention to the handler?
b. What are some signs that the horse is paying attention to the handler?
c. If the animal “comes unhooked” in the middle of a higher-level lesson, what should be the handler’s immediate response?

Principle: Your horse must be hooked on before it can learn anything from you.

Principle: Your horse must be hooked on before it can obey you.

Principle: Your horse must be hooked on before it can be calm.

In other words: When your horse gives you his Birdie, you will automatically obtain obedience and calmness as side effects!

Old and wise proverb from the Spanish rejoneadores (mounted bullfighters):
“Tranquiliza a tu caballo antes de pedirle nada” (“Get your horse calm before asking anything else of him”).

And HOW do you get your horse calm – let’s hear it in a chorus!

Understanding and Obeying The Law of the Horse
The “law of the horse” is the law of Nature. Whereas various religions give “ten commandments” or other laws for living a good human life, animals have but one imperative, and that is to survive. If you get between your horse and what he perceives to be necessary for his survival, you become a frustration and an obstacle and he may then hurt you. This cannot be emphasized enough: no animal loves its owner in the same way that the owner probably loves the animal. No one has ever convinced your horse that it must “act nicely” just because you yourself are nice. Horses have no morals and cannot be taught moral behavior. It is therefore incumbent upon the owner to guide, support, and direct the horse, as if it were a little child, making it clear to the horse at all times what is expected of it. This involves no roughness; it may involve firmness; it always involves the handler presenting himself to the horse in a way that the horse can understand. If the human is willing and able to take command in this sense, most horses respond willingly and with pleasure.

In the terms of Birdie Theory, here is the Fundamental Law of the Horse:
To the extent that the horse’s body and its Birdie are separated, the horse will exhibit distress and undesirable or dangerous behavior.

Let’s unpack this important Law one phrase at a time:
“To the extent” means to ANY extent. The Thread connects the horse’s Birdie back to its body. The Thread is of limited strength and is only a little bit stretchy. It is possible, therefore, and very common to find people dragging their horse’s body away from where its Birdie is sitting. They are stretching, fraying, and actually threatening to break the horse’s Thread. From the horse’s point of view, if the Thread should break, he believes that he will die. The handler is threatening the horse’s very life! The animal will thus continually feel a need to protect or defend itself from the threat posed by the “senseless” demands of the handler!

a. In the case of a horse that shies, in terms of Birdie Theory – what is causing the shying? The object at which a horse shies is not the cause of the shying.
b. Describe how you think a horse whose rider is stretching or threatening to break its thread feels inside. No horse can either listen or learn when it is experiencing inner turmoil.
c. What is the cause, in terms of Birdie Theory, of horses exhibiting “stereotypical” or non-adaptive repetitive behaviors, such as weaving, cribbing, running the fence, etc.? WHERE are these horses’ Birdies?

Principle: A horse can only feel calm or “100% OK” or “tranquil” within itself when its Birdie is with it, and its Thread is not being stretched.

So we unpack another part of the Law of the Horse: “….the body and the Birdie being separated” means that if you tear the body away from where the Birdie is, you are stretching the horse’s thread.

Here are a couple of examples: In the case of a “barn sour” or “herd bound” horse, in terms of Birdie Theory there are two options for overcoming the animal’s objections to leaving the barn or the herd. What are the two options?

a. Option one is:

b. Option two is:

There is another option too – the one advocated by the rough-and-ready type of horseperson who can be found around most barns: that is, to give the animal a couple of good smacks with a whip to “show it who is boss”. Sometimes this actually works.

a. In terms of Birdie Theory, why does this work?
b. Is this the best option in terms of the ongoing relationship between you and your horse? In other words, if you had an option that involved developing your ability to re-direct the animal’s mind rather than punishing its body, would you go for that instead?

When at a show or other group horse event, people may often be observed unsuccessfully attempting to load their horses into a trailer. The animals do not seem willing to get in. To encourage them to load, you will often see the animals being whipped from behind, or sticks, brooms, or ropes used to either push the animal into the trailer from behind or to drag it in from the front. Rarely does this result in the horse becoming willing and happy to load, but instead generally results in it becoming more and more difficult to load over time. Some horses, on the other hand, do load willingly and easily.

a. In terms of Birdie Theory, what is the difference between an easy vs. a difficult loader?
b. When you attempt to load any horse into a trailer (or go through a gate, or lead it into or out of a stall, or step up onto a tree stump, or jump over a fence) – what is the FIRST thing to load?
c. After this thing is loaded, according to Birdie Theory what will happen next – inevitably?

The last phrase in the Law of the Horse is “….the horse will exhibit distress and undesirable or dangerous behaviors.”

We call horses “honest” and say that they are good to be around because they cannot and do not lie. Instead, a horse transparently signals its internal feelings by postures and actions that it makes externally, with its body. It is therefore incumbent upon all horse owners to learn to “read” horses well. Body posturing is the language of the horse, and goes far beyond merely observing the attitude of the ears or tail. The “Birdie Book” offers 500 images, with detailed annotations, showing horse facial and body expressions – a subject worth anyone’s attention.

A Word of Advice: You Must Give in Order to Get

The basis for successful horse handling and training is to obtain and direct the horse’s Birdie. This requires observational skills, a knowledge of correct technique, and daily practice.

Through Birdie Theory we learn that we must induce the horse to give us its Birdie. Just as we require this of the horse, we must also commit to giving our Birdie to the horse. The handler who does not pay attention cannot expect her horse to pay attention, any more than the classroom teacher whose mind drifts off can expect her students to focus.

The owner is responsible for everything their horse does and everything that it is. If it is calm, obedient, mannered, educated, and skillful, the owner is responsible for that. If it is distracted, upset, tense, pushy, ignorant, and clumsy, the owner is responsible for that.

It does no good to fantasize about “how much better your horse is now than when you first got him”, because the only thing that matters at all is how he is at this moment -- and the response you are making to that. Horses are not trained in big chunks or “gradually”, over a long span of time. Instead they are trained in the “now” – this moment, followed by this moment, followed by this moment. It is an ongoing conversation of the greatest fascination!

There is no such thing as a “stubborn” or “resistant” horse. These are mere labels cast upon horses by people who are trying to mask the fact that they do not know what makes a horse “tick”, and thus they do not know how to control or train horses.

To succeed with horses, it is necessary to “see into” the horse – to perceive what matters to him. To love a horse means to find out what he needs, and then give THAT to him. Those who fulfill the horse’s deepest needs – which are for cogent direction and constant protection – will succeed with every horse they come across. Other people will succeed only with the relatively few horses who can manage to adapt to them. Birdie Theory provides all horse owners with a framework that can be adapted to help any horse in any situation.


Bibliography – Essential Background Reading and Viewing

Bennett, Deb. 2002. The Birdie Book (Adobe Acrobat document on CD disk, 700 virtual pages). Equine Studies Institute publishing, P.O. Box 411, Livingston, CA 95334. or on the Web at www.equinestudies.org.

Bennett, Deb. 1995. “Lessons from Woody” (best place to read: “Woody” is currently posted at www.equinestudies.org, click on “Knowledge Base” and then “Woody”. This paper explains how to straighten a horse by physical means, but also has a section on “straightening by the Birdie”, which is a matter that goes to some depth).

Boone, J. Allen. 1954. Kinship With All Life. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 157 pp. Essential reading to obtain the “attitude adjustment” necessary before the person can succeed in hooking horses on.

Blake, Henry. 1976. Talking With Horses. E.P. Dutton, New York, 172 pp. For long regarded as an out-and-out kook, Blake turns out instead to have been on the leading edge of perceptivity. Especially interesting are his experiments in wordless horse communication.

Campbell, Joseph. 1990. Transformations of Myth Through Time. Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 263 pp. Valuable and enlightening – ancient and modern beliefs from cultures around the world concerning the “flow” of energy (“the life in the body”), and peoples’ ability to use or direct that energy.

Dorrance, Tom. 1987. True Unity and Willing Communication Between Horse and Human. Give-It-A-Go Publishing, available on the Web at www.tomdorrance.com or www.rayhunt.com. Please do not read this book! Instead – study it deeply. Read it one or a few paragraphs at a time; then set the book aside and ask yourself what the author might have meant. This is a book to be chewed over and cherished – not “read” as if it were a story.

Herrigel, Eugen. 1953. Zen in the Art of Archery. Vintage Books (Random House), New York, 90 pp. The title may sound “off” at first but in reality bow-and-arrow is no less a metaphor than Birdie! When reading, just substitute “horse” every time the author says “bow”. Those of you who have struggled to get some of these “esoteric” concepts to work for you will especially appreciate this tale, written by a student and fellow-traveller who has “been through all that”.

Knie, Family. 1995. “The Art of the Thread” (Videotape, order from www.circusknie.com).

Rarey, John S. 2000. “The Collected Wisdom of John S. Rarey” in The Inner Horseman, Vols. 1-3, Equine Studies Institute publishing, www.equinestudies.org (click on “Membership” or “Bookstore”). Rarey, who lived in the middle 19th Century, offers acute insight into Birdie and was widely copied after his lifetime by such lesser lights as Beerey and Magner, whose books are also available through used dealers. The Institute makes Rarey’s works available on the Members Only Archives disk, an Adobe Acrobat document which we give away free to all new Associate Members of the Institute.

Sayers, Dorothy. 1941. The Mind of the Maker. Harper Publishing, San Francisco, 229 pp. An excellent, reasoned, and fabulously well-written series of essays on what we know of the nature of diety.

Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Namaste/New World Publishing, Novato, California, 233 pp. Tolle’s purposes in this book are of the highest nature. He is ecumenical and nondenominational. My reasons for recommending the book are more pragmatic: a careful reading will unearth many practical techniques for increasing a person’s “feel” for other creatures, an essential element in gaining the ability to hook horses on.