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Your Horse is Your Chess Partner

Written by Lisa Bockholt (John Lyons Certified Clinician/Trainer).

Any chess fans out there? Okay, so even if you are not fond or familiar with the game and how it’s played, let’s consider the methodology and how it applies to getting the correct response from our horse.

SIMILARITIES: The game of chess involves two players. Each player brings to the game their own personal knowledge, understanding, and skill level.

OBJECTIVE: Each player will attempt to outmaneuver the other so that in the end the opposing player has been rendered inescapable and indefensible, resulting in utter defeat. Check ----- checkmate: an abrupt halt or stop; a delay. A restraint or control over the opponent.

PLAY CHESS WITH YOUR HORSE: To some extent, when your horse wants to do one thing, while you want him to do another, you have become like opposing players on a chess board. For instance, let’s say that you want your horse to stand still. Instead, your horse fidgets and fusses, jigs, tries to circle around you, and/or pulls away on the end of the lead rope. LET’S PLAY CHESS! Chess is a game of move, followed by the opponents’ counter-move. The goal here is not to take control of a piece on a chessboard, but rather, to take control of our horse’s movements, redirecting them to do what we want. You want the horse to stand still.

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to circle around you to the left.

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Circle horse to the right..

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to go forward..

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Move horse backward..

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to backup..

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Move horse forward..


Now that you get the picture, here’s how to TEACH your horse how to play the game:

Outfit your horse with a halter, and six foot cotton lead rope. You will also need a stiff, 36” dressage whip. Depending on the situation, you may also need a bridle, equipped with a full cheek snaffle bit.

We will assume that your horse does not pull hard against pressure when it is applied to the halter from a lead rope. (If your horse is known to pull hard, you will want to work these exercises in a bridle with the full cheek snaffle bit, under some modifications)

DIRECTIONAL CONTROL: First we will teach the horse a cue to move forward in either direction. We will utilize the dressage whip to establish a physical cue that tells the horse what we want. By directing the horse’s nose either left or right, and tapping on the horse’s hip with the dressage whip, we will communicate to the horse that when he moves forward in the appropriate direction, we will stop tapping on his hip. Repetition of this exercise will provide us with a conditioned response. We tap on the horse’s hip, horse moves forward. As horse begins to move, or even THINK about moving, we quit tapping. Horse will associate the hip as a “cue spot”; a place where we have established a specific signal that tells the

CHANGING DIRECTIONS: Once you have taught the go forward cue from the left and the right sides, simply send the horse forward around you to the left for a few steps, put pressure on the lead rope and ask the horse to stop going to the left. Keep pressure on the lead rope until the horse stops moving his feet. Switch hands on the lead rope, now directing the horse’s nose toward the right, give the go forward cue, and repeat this exercise. Apply pressure to the lead rope, have horse stop. Switch hands. Point the horse’s nose to the left, and begin again. Your goal at this stage is to make sure the horse comes to a stop when pressure is applied to the lead rope. If you apply pressure and the horse continues moving about, that is no different than when you are riding along, pickup the reins and ask for a stop, and the horse continues to run away with you. Work towards perfecting the sequence, and having the horse stop off of less and less pressure from the lead rope. Our horse should be just as responsive on the ground as he is in the saddle. Pretty soon, the horse will no longer have to make a complete stop. The movement will become fluid, the horse’s feet will begin to pivot, allowing him to change directions without coming to a complete stop. >
So now, you have control over three directions your horse could choose to move: forward, left, and right.


BACKUP: Backing up is the reverse of going forward. Which means, we must first have forward movement if we are going to TEACH the horse to back up! Using your go forward cue, ask the horse to walk forward. Once the horse is moving forward consistently, pick up the lead rope, and apply pressure, bringing the lead rope back towards the horse’s chest area. Your horse may stop at this point, or might even continue to move forward in a smaller, tighter circle. (Yes, your horse is a little confused right now.) Add a little more pressure to the lead rope until you either see any sign of backward movement, or you feel the horse THINKING about backward movement. (Hint: look at the shoulder, it should give you the first clue). Release the pressure if you notice any sign of backward thinking.


CONSISTENCY: If you are practicing these exercises correctly, your horse should be getting the message that whenever you release pressure he has done something right. He may not yet know exactly what that right thing is, but through repetition he will understand eventually.


BACK TO THE CHESSBOARD: You want your horse to stand still.

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to circle around you to the left.

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Switch hands on the lead rope, redirecting the nose toward the right, give the go forward cue to the hip cue spot, and have horse circle you to the right. Apply pressure to the lead rope. Ask the horse to come to a stop / stand still. Release the pressure.

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to go forward.

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Apply pressure to the lead, bringing lead rope back toward chest area; watch shoulder for any signs of backward motion. Release pressure the moment you see any backward thoughts and/or action on the part of the horse.

HORSE’S MOVE: Horse tries to backup.

YOUR COUNTER-MOVE: Using go forward cue directed toward hip cue spot, ask horse to move forward to either the left, or right. Apply pressure to the lead rope, ask the horse to come to a stop, release the pressure.


Playing a game of chess with your horse is as simple as countering his every move. The more you counter the movements, the more eager your horse will be to stop and stand still quietly when offered the opportunity. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to your horse, you are also working on improving his leading manners, attention span, and response to pressure from the halter/lead rope! Aha! You have found a way to train your horse without him knowing it! Better yet, you have found a way to outsmart, outmaneuver, and defeat your opponent --- who by the way, outweighs you by several hundred pounds --- safely and effectively, with long lasting positive benefits as a result! Good game!


*Lisa Bockholt’s Synchronicity Horsemanship teaches horses and their owners to operate in unison. Bockholt’s programs and services include: private training, clinics, demonstrations, lectures, fund raising for non-profit organizations, foal handling and training courses, internships and certification classes, courses for new horse owners, and her “Stall & Strudel” Bed & Breakfast Personal Training Packages. A John Lyons “Select” Certified Trainer, Bockholt specializes in working with new and / or inexperienced horse owners, or, those seeking to improve performance based on trust, respect, and communication. For more information on Bockholt’s programs, contact (210) 491-6522.




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