The Bolender Training Philosophy

The more you understand the horse the more you love it. And the more you love the horse, the more you understand it. It’s not about who’s boss, who has authority or respect, or how you can make a horse do this or that – but it’s all about “who is worthy of leadership” as seen by the horse’s instinct. – Mark Bolender

My training goal is to create a partnership with the horse where mutual trust and respect is established and the horse volunteers to learn and perform in a safe manner.
We accomplish this goal by understanding the horse’s world and the four Principles they operate under. Those principles form the core of my training philosophy.

But before I describe them, allow me to list three extremely important points to remember – because they drive the four Principles.

Points to Remember

  • Horses are a prey animal and humans are predators. This means that horses will feel claustrophobic, will react first and stop to think later. This is common sense if you think it through because it has kept them alive for eons. Their instinct allows them to bolt at the first perceived sign of danger. It’s not dumb but a brilliant design that has helped the horse survive and flourish.

  • The horse can feel your heart beat, follow your focus, feel your energy, and try to please you until they die.

  • A horse does not care how much you know until it knows how much you care.

The 4 Principles Guiding a Horse’s World

I train horses using their own language, which is based on a fundamental understanding of their world. Their world is based on four simple Principles around which everything revolves. It’s an orderly world that makes sense to the horse, and these four Principles are deeply ingrained and unchangeable. They have served to guide a horse’s behavior in a herd and they have allowed them to survive as a species for eons. Thes four Principles are described below.

Principle 1: In a horse’s world there is a definite pecking order; no two animals are on equal footing.

This means there is NO equality; a horse is either superior or inferior to another horse. This system is harsh, clear, and orderly, yet it works for the horse and the herd. It’s part of an often brutal world in which they bite and kick to establish a pecking order. You will have disorder before you have order, but once order is established, the herd is quiet – until another horse is introduced into the herd and finds its place in the established order.

Principle 2: The horse is a natural born follower but only to a clear and consistent leader.

The herd relies on the strongest, most focused, horse with the highest intelligence and the one most able to lead the rest. The horse goes through a mental checklist that defines whether the leader is up to the task of leading. They check this list as the leader gives them clear signs. Some of the most important things a horse sees as signs of leadership are:

  • The leader doesn’t move out of another horse’s way.

  • The leader makes the first gestures toward something or someone.

  • The leader is clear and consistent in what it does.

If the horse mentally (and instinctively) checks off these criteria, it will perceive that horse (or person) under inspection as a leader, and it will show acceptance by following that leader. But if the horse’s checklist is not fulfilled, it will not regard the other animal or person as a leader and the horse will simply ignore it.

Obviously, if a person recognizes and fulfills this checklist, then that person will be perceived by the horse as a leader. And that’s the most crucial element in training.

Principle 3: The horse tries to please those horses they deem superior to them.

In contrast, they have little regard for those they deem inferior to them. In fact, they will do almost anything to please the leader, and the leader can just as easily be a person. This is why they can attempt scary obstacles and perform incredible tasks – but only if the leader asks.

Principle 4: Instinct drives Principles 1-3.

Horse instinct represents a different kind of intelligence that is difficult – if not impossible – for humans to comprehend. Their instincts, which may seem illogical or inappropriate, can frustrate and intimidate us. And often, their instincts even beat us when it comes to training them. That usually causes us to do even more to get the horse to perform a task while getting even less in return. When both horse and trainer are not mutual listeners then instinct will win out every time and you’ll achieve nothing.Later we will talk about how instinct and trust are woven together with a tight yet fragile thread.

Stepping into Their World

Just because a horse doesn’t understand our spoken language doesn’t for a moment mean it is incapable of communicating. Actually, nothing can be further from the truth. I’ve learned certain key “phrases” in their language and fully appreciate that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in a much grander form of communication. As when humans visit a foreign land, a few choice foreign words, phrases or even a pocket translation book can go far. That will allow you to communicate basic information with relative ease. Likewise, knowing some choice “horse phrases” also goes far.

Most people don’t realize that a horse is superbly sensitive to sound, movement, vibration and tiny changes in its visual field. These are all survival adaptations. And their sensitivity to these physical phenomena is astounding. For example, while being ridden, the horse can feel the rider’s heartbeat. It knows when the rider is calm or stressed simply by changes in heart rhythm. They can see and follow your slightest facial expression or body movements. If you watch them interact with each other in a herd it’s remarkable how effectively they can communicate while doing so little with their bodies. For example, an ear twitch can cause other horses to move aside. Just watch an alpha mare; she doesn’t move aside for any other horse. If she’s forced to move then something major is upsetting the herd and you can expect her to kick or bite. Thus, they can process volumes of information just by glancing at the body language of another horse or person.

When training, we must be consistent with our cues. And remember that the less we do (like minimizing our movements) to ask the horse to perform a task, then the more authority we have in the horse’s mind.

The Bolender Bubble

There is a palpable field of energy that surrounds every living being. We’ve all felt its effects when we hear the phrase, “I just want you out of my space”. That space is like a sphere or bubble around a person – or animal. When it comes to horses, I call this sphere the Bolender Bubble.

Horses are incredibly sensitive at reading and feeling this energy from others. They are keenly aware of the bubble’s boundaries for every individual. If you watch a strong alpha mare in the herd, her bubble – her space – is very clearly defined. Yet it changes constantly. At times other horses are invited into the bubble of another. Also, the size of this bubble depends on each horse’s comfort level. I’ve seen bubbles extend sixty feet or more in diameter. The bubble’s size depends on the horse and the current physical situation in which the horse finds itself.

The dynamics of the Bolender Bubble are pretty much the same for people. I love my horse and I enjoy when he’s near. But I keep him outside of a safe boundary. Any horse I handle will quickly learn what my expectations are on the ground. It’s not a matter of love, respect or authority but personal safety.

If a horse is completely at ease with your leadership then creating a Bolender Bubble for safety is easy to do. You can learn by watching how the alpha mare establishes its own Bolender Bubble. She will first ask, then suggest, and then demand (with a kick or bite) that the other horse listens. You will need to do the same, but don’t kick or bite.

Instead, sharp and clear signals like a hand flinch or line flick, will do just fine to send the message. Remember, the less you do the more it means to the horse. It’s the equivalent of putting your ears back or a sharp snort. Soon you’ll only need to ask the horse with dignity and respect in your voice and (slight) actions. The horse will then honor your request in a willing manner, no matter what situation you find yourself in.

Establishing Leadership

If a horse refuses to attempt an obstacle then it’s evident that it doesn’t see you as being superior to it. The horse’s instinct tells it that the obstacle is too dangerous because there is no leader to encourage it further. If there is no leader to communicate to the horse, “I can do this, therefore you can,” then there is no reason for the horse to attempt to navigate the obstacle. In short, if you’re attempting to train the horse without being its leader, the horse will never do what you ask it to do.

This is a crucial problem but one that’s easily managed. So, first and foremost, you must establish yourself as your horse’s leader – superior to it in the pecking order – even if it’s just you and your horse in the “herd”.

To establish yourself as the leader, you will be asking your horse to perform tasks, such as navigating obstacles. You will be communicating with signals that are clear to the horse. Your leadership will be affirmed in the horse’s mind because you will be using slight movements and consistent signals when asking it to perform a task.

Begin by creating a Bolender Bubble for your horse. Remember that establishing a Bolender Bubble requires you to appreciate that tiny movements speak volumes to a horse. A good first step in establishing the Bolender Bubble– and clear communication with the horse – is to ask your horse to complete a task without moving your feet. Remember, slight movements are crucial, and whether or not you see it, your horse is carefully watching your feet for any movement. A superior horse – a leader – will not move or step aside to allow an inferior horse some space. Thus, your horse will see your non-movement as an enormous declaration of your superiority.

Consistency is also crucial. Whether you’re asking your horse to step over a log, onto a suspension bridge, into water or over a balance beam, your cues should be the same for each task. For instance, ask for a forward response with just a hand flinch, while moving your feet as little as possible. When your horse makes the slightest effort to do what you are asking it to do, quit asking immediately. Reward the animal for listening by releasing the pressure and allowing it time to process what it has done. A soft pat and soothing words, combined with treating it with dignity and respect are also good rewards for listening.

Once your leadership is established, ask your horse to try again. But respect it by watching and listening when it needs more time to think. Timing, along with the ability to read your horse, is critical when either asking for more effort or allowing it time to process your requests.

Some clues that the horse is processing your request is nosing the obstacle, ears pointing forward, snorting, pawing and shaking. Give it the time it needs to work things out in its mind. You can see determination in its own slight movements as it considers what it needs to do next. A good listener will respect the horse’s need for time while it processes the scenario. If you, the leader, are clear and consistent in your request, the horse will work to please you.

From this leadership, trust begins to evolve because the horse’s instinct says that leaders are to be trusted. However, know that this hierarchy is not permanent. It’s a horse’s nature to constantly test whether you’re worthy of trust and leadership. Your horse may try to make you flinch or move your feet to see if you’re still worthy of such trust and leadership. So don’t ever let your guard down. Always keep in mind that less is more when asking your horse to complete tasks. Slight movements or “requests” are perceived by the horse as deliberate commands by the leader.

Once leadership and trust are established, it’s amazing how just tiny amounts of physical effort on your part are required for the horse to accomplish the most challenging task you request. Small flicks of your hand, an audible click or even a slight shift in your body will speak volumes to it.

When you listen to what the horse is asking, you can answer clearly, and at the same time acknowledge your superiority to the horse. It will return the favor by giving you every ounce of its effort.