Episode 138: 3 reasons people don’t develop emotional maturity in horses

Do you think horses can be taught to be emotionally mature? What would that look like? Can you teach a horse to ‘help you out’? Or do you expect things will always feel ‘manual’ with your horse?
In this episode I share my thoughts on emotional maturity and the three reasons people don’t teach it.
(Spoiler alert: here are the three answers)
The main reasons people don’t do it are:
1) they aren’t aware its an option
2) it is repetitive
3) repetitive is a bit boring

But it is all worth it when you get to say, “Yes!” to your horse and you’re really excited they volunteered!


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this episode, I’m going to explain how I teach my horses emotional maturity, how you can teach your horse to help you out, and why more people don’t do it. Emotional maturity is another way of looking at something I’ve talked about a lot on the podcast, which is elementary school, high school, and college-level training with horses, and built right into there you can kind of hear emotional maturity developing. If you think about the difference between elementary school, high school, and college, it is very cool when you start looking at increasing your horse’s emotional maturity, because what will happen is that the horse will begin offering you things that you’ve been practicing. And this is drastically different than you making it happen, so can you hear how in elementary school, if you’ve been around young kids that are in elementary school, you can kind of play games, but you kind of almost are like kind of getting it to happen and you’re kind of the responsible party there. It’s rare in early elementary school for the children to be spontaneously doing things. That’s something that they learn as they get older. And then we hope to see more and more of that, you know, maturity coming in high school and then college and it’s a lot the same with horses. It’s the idea that as these little humans learn, they begin offering what you’ve been practicing and rewarding them for. And horses are capable of this. But very first, you must believe that a horse is capable of this type of thinking. If you do not believe that your horse is capable of becoming emotionally mature to the point where it can help you out in a positive way, then you actually won’t be able to teach the horse the lessons in a way that allows the horse to be a part of the conversation. Don’t worry. I’m going to give you some examples of this. So what I mean by this would be that if you don’t believe something is possible, you are not very likely to set up the situation where it will happen. So an example would be a rider that allows a horse to do certain tasks, but with resistance. So the rider accepts a certain level of resistance. Let’s call it an elementary level of resistance. And so you can kind of get it done, but it feels manual. I remember driving a stick shift vehicle and so, manual vehicle. And so when you have manual mode on your–your camera, when you have these manual modes it’s different than automatic. Automatic–when you’re riding a horse and it feels really automatic that usually a horse that’s in upper high school or college. Feels super smooth, feels automatic. The early stages, elementary school with horse and typically little humans too, feels a little bit more manual.

Stacy Westfall: So as I mentioned before, I now have a mini named Mocha and Mini Mocha leads, technically, but with resistance because resistance has been allowed and has been the norm. Technically, you could get from point A to point B, although when I lead him, in my opinion, there’s some times I’m not sure who’s leading who. Like I head in a direction and then he confirms and takes the lead and starts kind of gently dragging me. And I think it’s interesting because with miniature horses, I think it’s got an even higher tendency to happen because of the fact that it can be manual where you can quickly get the proportion is way out of proportion. So if the bigger horse starts to drag you and lead, you feel a little bit more like, oh, gee, that’s a problem. Now in my world, it’s a problem no matter the size of the equine. But this is that belief that a horse is capable of this type of thinking. I think it’s super cool how much you can actually teach really young foals this way of thinking. And that just blows people’s minds because they think of maybe the elementary school time frame that’s required for human elementary school versus horses can learn fast. They get up in the wild and they’re off and they’re running with everybody very quickly. So there are some differences there. So when we think about it in a riding-type situation, I live behind a state park and so I go out and ride on the trails and I see lots of people out there riding and they are accepting a certain level of resistance. So an example would be they asked the horse to stop and they can get stopped. Generally, the ones that I’ve seen, I’ve heard stories about people that didn’t get stopped and they got run away with. But what happens is they’re basically leaving the horse in manual mode in elementary school. And so the horse is stopping, but with resistant head tossing, pulling on the reins, it takes longer to stop than you wish it had. So these are some of the signs that things aren’t going real well or that they at least have resistance in them and room for improvement. And this is where that dance of the rider’s mind is very real, because there is a relationship between what the rider thinks is possible and what the rider accepts. And so, in theory, a rider might be able to say, yes, absolutely, horses can be very responsive to stopping. But if you see that their horse isn’t stopping, well, it would be interesting to ask them what’s going on. And it’s either going to be, you know, this horse only has a few rides on it and we’re, you know, this is the stage we’re at at the moment. And, you know, in another month, check back with me because it’s changing quickly. But much more often, I will find riders who are like, oh, yes, absolutely, I’ve seen videos on YouTube where horses can stop without bridles. It’s definitely possible for horses to be responsive to stopping. But my horse. But this horse. And so basically, they have a different story for that particular horse or that particular situation, and if the story is anything other than the amount of time, you know, because horses do need time to go through elementary school and move up through, but a lot of times it will be a story that’s holding the rider back or basically revealing the rider’s belief in that particular relationship. And so the first thing I really want you to consider is the dance that you have going on in your mind between the expectations you have, what you expect your horse to be able to do, and that emotional maturity level. Because I’ll tell you this, like, I don’t I don’t personally want to ride horses that are in the elementary school level any longer than I have to. Like I want to ride them through that level as quickly as possible so I can get into high school. And if you’ve ever seen one of my little drawn charts, and I’ve got some that I can share, I think elementary school is shorter and high school is this very long phase for the horses, for all the different things I put into high school. And then when you get into the upper stuff, the college level stuff and higher, then–then that–that it’s–it’s so fascinating to me that elementary school feels like this steeper level of curve and it’s got more danger that is inherent with it because, you know, the horse is closer to the, I understand steering. I don’t understand steering. I understand stopping. I don’t understand stopping. And yes, you can untrain a horse back down into elementary level. You can do different things like that depending on the level of training the horse went up to. But when you’re up in high school, you’ve moved further away from that safety line. The horse is understanding a lot more. They’re becoming more and more emotionally mature. And it’s just really fascinating to think that there are a lot of horses out there that are functioning in the elementary school level a lot longer than they need to. The most fascinating thing about this is that when I’m training a horse from beginning all the way to the end, it always feels to me like when I’m partway through high school, it feels like it’s an uphill thing from the time that I first start all the way up through and we get partway through high school. Then it feels downhill in a good way, meaning we’re gaining speed. The lessons come faster and faster because the horse’s understanding is on board. And so mentally that horse is mature and thinking and the more engaged their brain is, the faster we get results in their body. That’s why so many times when people do shortcuts and they try to get the body real fast by training in a reactive style of training. When they get the body response real fast, but the horse is reactively thinking those people don’t get to experience the other side of this rainbow arc that I experience where all of a sudden on the second half, the training gets easier and faster and the horses are more and more onboard. That’s how you end up with a horse like Roxy or Vaquero or Haley or any of the other bridleless horses that you’ve seen me ride out there. And so they all start in elementary school. And elementary school is definitely a stage, but they don’t have to stay there. But the first thing you have to grasp is that they don’t have to stay there because sometimes people are accidentally keeping the horses immature. For a few reasons that I’m going to outline in a few minutes.

Stacy Westfall: So what if I told you that you could teach a horse to help you out? What if I told you that you could teach a horse to fill in the blanks and those answer–answers would be correct? It’s so cool because it’s the difference between making something happen, which to me feels a lot more like elementary school. It’s the difference between that and your horse offering to do it. So imagine if your horse asked if they could do something like, hey, what about this? And you were like, yes, that is exactly what I wanted. And it’s happening just before you ask for it or the horse asks, how about this? And you say, not exactly right now, but thank you for offering. And that can be one stride of canter that you’re in the middle of and the horse says, how about a transition down? And you gently squeeze with your legs and you say, no, not yet. And so you start having these conversations that are so subtle, but they feel like a back and forth where the horse is offering things and they’re actually things you want. I’m sure most of you who are listening have had horses offer things that you don’t want. It’s the opposite of that. It’s so much better. Let’s do a human example. So a human example of this would be that you’re finishing up dinner. And one of the kids gets up and says, can I clear off the table and do the dishes? Yes, it’s possible and sure, maybe they want to borrow the car keys tomorrow, but you know what happened? They did ask if they could do that. And so there’s lots of other human examples. I just thought that one would be kind of funny, but we’re–when you are doing this with a horse or a human, they’re developing emotional maturity. But what’s fascinating about this is that you’re also developing confidence. So it’s interesting when you think about it when you start seeing the patterns of things that–rewards in life, then it does feed the idea that you want to do more of it. And so getting along with others does become something that you can see a pattern of–of positive feedback from. And so the horse can start to see in the relationship that there is this room for them to have this conversation with you, to ask these questions and to have this–this level of communication. And that creates a confidence. Because here’s where it separates horses and riders: confidence in the relationship means that the horse is confident because they can ask questions. And they realize that there are questions that make you really excited so they can always ask questions. I get tons of videos in my different classes and horses are like, hey, how about we leave? Hey, how about we go back to the barn? Hey, how about this happens? What about this? So they’re asking questions. They’re just not asking questions that you would prefer them to be asking. So the question asking is going to happen whether you like it or not because that’s how horses are hardwired. They want to know how this stacks up in the whole relationship scheme of things in the herd in life, the way that they view things, they want to know where things stack up. They want to know where the boundaries are. They want to know who’s in charge and what’s doing what. They want to know how stuff works. So they’re asking questions. When they get really confident is when they feel like they’re part of the conversation. But when they get really excited about being part of the conversation is when they start to realize that some of these answers are yes, yes, yes. They–you–they ask a question and you answer, yes. And here’s a few examples that have been happening so that you can anchor this in your mind. So I’ve been writing Willow and I’ve been working on reining and reining involves a lot of speed control on a very loose rein. And so this means that I might be going, I might be cantering, and I might go large, fast circle and then come down to small, slow circle. I might be cantering and I am going to do a run down to a sliding stop. But sometimes I want to run faster. Sometimes I only want to go to like 50 percent speed. Sometimes I want to go to 80% speed. Sometimes I want to go 20% speed. So there’s a lot of communication that’s happening as far as like how fast I want to be going in the circles or in the straight lines. And so there’s a lot of forward and back movement, a lot of downward and upward transitions even inside the gait. And so it’s been really fun to watch Willow as I’ve been riding on a really loose rein because in reining, that’s one of the things I do, is I ride on a much looser rein than I do when I’m doing the dressage. And what that has done is that’s made Willow focus more on my body, my seat, my leg cues. And so what’s going on there is that she’s more tuned in and becoming more aware of the whole scheme of different aides. Instead of her just relying on the reins, she’s now seeing all of it. And it’s so cool because she’s asking more questions. And what that means is that sometimes when I’ll lope off, I’ll be going like maybe 40% speed and she’ll say, how about we lope 30% speed? And because she has a tendency to be a hotter horse, I’ll say, sure, that’s a good idea and I’ll let her go 30% speed. And because this communication is happening like this and because she tends to be a hotter type horse and I want her thinking colder type thoughts like slowing down thoughts, I reward her more and more frequently every time she–pretty much every time she volunteers that like downward speed. Now, that’s not just a full-on halt, stop because that’s too abrupt in that I don’t want her asking these big questions that throw her body around and are hard to ride, but going from 40% speed down to 30% speed, very smooth, very easy, very detailed question, I say sure. And it’s so fun because today it was really hot and I was riding her. It’s like 90 degrees and I got on. As soon as I loped off she’s like, and 20% speed? And I turned and I thought if you didn’t know any better you would think I had been working on canter pirouettes because I did a better quarter pirouette than I did when I was back doing quarter pirouettes for the dressage stuff just because she was so dialed back on her own and still responsive to the training because she’s collecting herself because she understands this game. And she was basically like, it’s really hot. How many of these “yes” things can I give to you that will make you really happy? So she was just like, hey, totally on board, team player, here we go. These are the things I most frequently get rewarded for. That is so fun. Just in case that one doesn’t resonate with you, here’s a more basic example. So Mini Mocha has been learning some lessons like leading and tying and changing directions on the lunge line and doing some of these different things. And one thing I’ve been doing with little mini mocha is I’ve been sending Mocha back and forth, so I send Mocha past a kiddy swimming pool, turn around, send him back past the kiddy swimming pool. And every time he’s passing the swimming pool, I’m lowering my energy. He walks past it, I turn him, which is naturally raising my energy. He goes to walk back past it. I’m lowering my energy over and over and over again. This pattern repeats. And then he starts to notice it’s kind of interesting, but the place in this pattern where there’s the least pressure is over there really close to the swimming pool. And so this makes him begin–he goes past the swimming pool and turns on his own to come back. Now I am starting the turn cue so basically, his turn cue is getting lighter and lighter and he’s having this idea that he’s part of the conversation. And then the other day he was like, what if I look at the swimming pool? And I totally dropped all the energy and let him stand there and just look at it. And it didn’t take very long, I think it was day two that he stepped into the swimming pool. And now a little Mini Mocha gets into the little kiddy swimming pool very easily. He doesn’t stop yet. He walks straight through and that’s OK. It’s still the cutest thing ever. Normally, my horses only fit like two feet. There are two front hooves that are in it and then some foot’s getting out before the other one gets in because they’re just big. Not Mini Mocha. Mini Mocha can fit his whole little self in the kiddy swimming pool. Super cute. But what’s going on there is he’s learning that he is a piece of this conversation. He’s learning that there are places that he can see a pattern and he could find a reward and that he can ask a question like, is this? What about right here? I detect that you’re releasing right here. And this is so similar to what they do out in the field. If the lead horse wants to move them, they apply pressure. They reduce the pressure when they move somewhere else. So we’re literally using this idea that’s hardwired into these horses where the horses understand this–this reduced pressure idea over here and this, you know, displacement of this energy. And so the horses start to read my energy. It is so fun. And when you want to teach your horse to fill in the blanks or help you out, the–the main reason people don’t do it is because, number one, they’re not even aware it’s an option. Like they just don’t know–they just don’t know that you can teach a horse to fill in the blanks appropriately, that you can teach a horse to offer up things that you really want, which makes them super easy to ride, because when they’re offering you, they’re like, I have all these different options I could do for you right now, Mom. What do you think? When they’re offering you all these different things and all these choices are right there on the table that’s kind of what a really well-trained horse is. It doesn’t feel like it’s really well trained when there’s all kinds of manual, super manual, I can make it do this, I can make it do that. It’s way more fun when they’re kind of offering their oh, yes, absolutely. That would be great. It’s super fun. But number one, people aren’t aware it’s an option. Number two, this type of training is kind of repetitive. Mini Mocha isn’t just going to walk into the barn, not know me and read my mind and figure out that the swimming pool is the answer. So there’s a repetition to sending him past and letting him notice that I’m turning him and letting him notice that my energy is down and letting him notice that my energy is up. And this is all just happening at a walk. But it’s very repetitive. And repetitive, number three, repetitive is a bit boring. And a lot of times people don’t like to do boring things, and sometimes this is because personally they don’t like to do boring things and a lot of times, especially if they personally don’t like to do boring things then they a lot of times will–will transfer that over to the horses and they don’t want to have the horses do boring things. But I would propose to you, when have you ever learned a skill that was highly beneficial, that didn’t involve repetition? Most things in life get better with repetition. I’ve been editing video for my courses, I’m really good at video editing and I used to be really bad at video editing. And it took a lot of repetition to get me to the point where I’m really good at editing video or editing podcasts or training horses. So it’s repetitive, but it’s so fun because I feel like I have mastery over the different things that I’ve been willing to do repetitively. And it’s super cool when the horses have an opportunity to learn some things where they see the pattern and they can see the the repetition. And inside of the repetition is where they can start to see their place where they could ask questions. Think about it. If it’s just random all over the place all the time because you’re trying to keep things creative it’s also really sporadic. And that’s a really hard place for them to figure out how they fit in and where the–where the questions are because they’re not even sure what right or wrong is because you’re being so creative that it’s all over the place. And so sometimes when people are trying to be really creative and avoid repetition, they actually set it up for being chaotic and hard to follow. So. Main reasons people don’t do this: number one, they’re not aware it’s an option. Number two, it’s repetitive. Number three, they view repetitive as a bit boring. I’m telling you what makes it all worth it. It is so fun when you get to say yes to your horse. And the more often you get to say yes, and it’s leading you in a very positive direction that is so fun. The training is so much fun like that. When they’re volunteering things, not frantically, not throwing themselves around, they’re just saying, how about this? And you say yes or no. And they willingly accept it because they totally understand the communication between the two of you.

Stacy Westfall: I want to tell you a couple other places where I’ve seen this come in because I love giving out examples. So a couple of the different students in my online classes, one student came to me and she was restarting a horse that had a rearing issue when it would go into a lead departure. So she sent me videos where the horse was, you know, she’d go to ask it to lop off and it would throw its head up and it would pop its front, end up off the ground, lose forward motion. And so this is kind of a frightening thing for many riders. And so it was like, where do we start? It was so fun to coach her through this. And one of the main tools that I gave her for doing this–there were a lot–but one that was really critical for the–for what I’m about to highlight, was ground driving. And I had her ground drive and I didn’t just have her do basic ground driving. I had her ground driving and loping the four-leaf clover pattern ground driving. And then it was so cool because she had answered all this horse’s questions over and over and over again, ground driving, where she was using the reins and she was using a whip that represented her legs and she was using her voice cues and she was doing this and the horse would ask questions and she could answer them in a safe environment. And over and over and over again, she kept answering these questions. And then what was super cool is when she got on the horse and went to ride off and went into that lope, and when she felt hesitation, the horse picked up the slack and continued on. The horse wasn’t 100% in manual mode. The horse was like, I know the answer here. I know the answer here. You’ve been telling me the answer here time after time after time. Here’s the answer here. So when that rider felt that wobble of doubt, the horse didn’t react to it because the horse wasn’t hard wired in manual mode. The horse was like, I totally know what we’re doing, because you’ve been telling me this over and over again. This is no different than Mini Mocha turning and going like, swimming pool? You’ve been rewarding me for swimming pool. So, swimming pool? It’s the horse knows the answer because you’ve given it the answer. And it was so funny because the rider was like, how did you do that? Like, I didn’t do that. You did that. You trained your horse to be able to offer you the correct answer where you could just say yes and let it happen. And it was so cool to see that she was able to do that with her own horse. And it was even more fun is to explain to her that she’s the one that trained. I never touch the horse. She’s the one that trained it to do that. But she was basically just trusting the system. And then when when–when she went into that lope and she felt the hesitation in her body instead of the horse just reflecting that back to her, there were enough of her cues that were like, go forward. The horse like, OK. So even though she had doubt, the horse was had already said, OK, it was already going, it was already good. So cool. And then I have another student who’s been practicing the horse had a head tossing and kind of not great steering and a head-tossing kind of an issue. And she’s been practicing lengthening and lowering the neck and steering and she’s finally seeing the benefits of it when she goes out into exciting places and the horse gets a little bit of that energy picked up from other horses and things going on around it. And then she’s feeling those moments where the horse is spontaneously offering what it’s been rewarded for in the sessions at home. And when they start spontaneously offering that you always have the choice because it’s an offer. It’s not like they’re threatening you with it. They’re like, what about this? And you say, yes. And I really just wanted to share those examples with you, because I think it’s really important that, you know, that this is possible for you to do where you can actually do the training and you can start to see your horse offering you things that you get to say yes to.

Stacy Westfall: I know I’ve mentioned on the podcast that I’ve been editing my new course on on collection and introducing lead changes. And what’s really cool about that course is that I actually invited people into it to be the examples. I am not the primary example inside that course. There’s actually a young lady named Colleen who inside this video course she teaches her horse how to do flying lead changes. Now, mind you, her horse was one that she started and it did not know how to do flying Lead changes. And she had never trained a horse to do flying lead changes. And inside my course, you see her working through all the establishing collection exercises. And then you can actually watch her do her very first flying lead change and then you can actually watch her build from there. So she’s doing lead changes on circles and straight lead changes and all the work for establishing collection before that and I think is super inspiring when you know that it’s not just like, well, yes, I could watch a course with Stacy showing how she can do lead changes. No, that’s not what this is. This course is me showing you other students. I’ve actually got six other students outside of Colleen that are volunteering their videos so that you can watch them. If this is brand new content to you, there will be wobbles while you’re learning it. And it’s so cool that I can show you examples of training patterns and techniques where when you use them consistently, the horses will start to ask you the questions, how about this? And they’ll start volunteering things like collection and they’ll start volunteering things like lead changes and you’ll get to decide yes or no, thank you. Such a cool thing, if that’s something that you’re interested in right before this podcast went up. I went ahead and hit publish on that. So if you’re interested in accelerating your learning and learning about establishing collection and introducing flying changes, then check it out over at my website. And thanks again for listening. I hope it kind of inspired you and I’ll talk to you in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.


  1. Catherine on August 11, 2021 at 2:48 am

    In this podcast you talked about using patterns. This saved my horse from a serious accident today. He caught himself on the trailer by the side of his rope halter. He nearly pulled the float over on himself and was seconds from a repeat. I gave him my halt signal and voice command in my steady low tone. It was enough to pause him then look intently for my direction which was to free him and save the day! I cuddled him and rubbed his head. Both of us soo relieved!

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