Least Resistance Training Concepts

Volunteers Training for Emergencies

  LRTC Emergency Response Team
Mounted Searching:

Updated June 18, 2017

Please note: This information sheet is not intended to be an all encompassing instruction guide, but rather to illustrate approaches that we have found successful in reducing reactivity in our mounts when encountering stressful stimuli. More specific training details appear in links provided at the end of this multi-part information sheet.


You may call it despooking, bomb proofing or use some other term, but what we prefer are mounts that can process unexpected and/or unsettling stimuli calmly and without overreacting. Any horse can startle, but what happens next is often the product of trust and conditioned behavior.

Here in Nevada we have the usual potentially disturbing conditions customarily associated with searches, but in addition we have to work around territorial range stallions, cattle, rattlesnakes, hungry hawks that swoop toward us when we disturb rodents and other "surprises" on the open range. We also have rocks - tens of millions of rocks - and we definitely don't want to be unseated and hit the ground in most places.

Since out here a ride on Care Flight is very expensive and is usually accompanied by some significant amount of pain, we have good reasons to pattern our horses to thoughtfully process potentially disturbing stimuli and look to us for direction as to how to handle those situations.

Equine Wiring Diagram.

Recent advanced clinical and field research by Peters and Black, facilitated by technology such as functional MRIs for scanning brain activity, have provided a pretty clear "wiring diagram" as to how a horse's brain operates. These findings have validated some theories regarding horse behavior and learning, and have also debunked a few myths. Understanding how a horse processes its world is key to understanding how to shape a horse's response to potentially disturbing stimuli and in turn improve responses to the rider's reassurance and cues.

The main circuitry that processes input and generates response behavior involves special nerve structures called dendrites. In short, dendrites are extensions of nerve cells that receive and transmit information to adjacent nerve cells. Some dendrites are DNA designed, but most are developed, along with the behaviors that they trigger, as a result of the horse's experiences.

Horses are prey animals. To survive in the wild they don't have the luxury of stopping to mull over a threat and choose the best option. In an environment containing predators and other threats, they have to execute an immediate "if - then" response.

We as handlers and riders have the ability to modify horses' behavior to a significant degree, and there are hundreds of theories out there as to how to do this. However it all boils down to how we alter those dendrites, that adaptable "hard wiring" inside our horse's brain.

You wouldn't attempt to rewire an airplane without first understanding the circuitry, so why would you want to do so with a horse? Perhaps only because the horse travels closer to the ground.

Types of Dendrites (Simplified.)

Back in the day we used to teach that a horse tended to follow one of two paths. Path one, driven by a survival response, was the "Onramp to the Flight or Fight Freeway." Path 2 was a "Winding Country Lane" where the horse's rate of reaction didn't exceed its ability to perceive its environment and it's rider's or handler's cues. Our theory did reflect how horses could be conditioned to respond, but missed the boat on why. More advanced medical science gives us a clearer picture.

Survival dendrites are very much like our freeway onramp analogy. They are designed to produce an immediate response. Other dendrites are known as "arbored" in that they have multiple branches that create multiple choices for the horse based on additional information that the horse is processing. In this case, familiar rider's or handler's cues can provide that additional information that in turn produces a desired behavior or response.

Back when we conducted the national Wild Horse Workshops we discovered that wild horses gentled many times faster and trained much more easily when worked with a group of people rather than one-on-one. Many were haltered and being led about the facility within a couple of hours and a handful were being quietly ridden for the first time shortly after.

There are probably a number of factors that influenced this success rate, including creating more of a herd dynamic versus stepping in with a predator-prey relationship, but a great deal involved the horses processing fresh stimuli from all sides and activating synapses that better served our goals. Now there is also scientific evidence that more effective learning takes place when horses receive sensory input from "all sides."

Myth Busting.

In order to maximize our effectiveness we need to separate myths from facts.

One prevalent myth is that horses' left and right brain hemispheres aren't fully interconnected. Certainly the behavior of many horses suggests that what they learn on "one side" doesn't effectively carry over to their "other side." However meticulous dissection of horse brains has shown that they have connecting neurons similar to other mammals. So why do they behave the way that they do? Also, what are we doing that encourages what we often consider to be undesirable behavior?

Having worked with a lot of mustangs, a working theory that we embrace is that horses are predisposed to independently process stimulus from either side. A horse on the edge of a herd would likely be processing the herd's tranquil activity on one side while scanning for danger on the other. So the tendency of horses to not take full advantage of these interconnections may likely be driven by learned survival behaviors. Horses raised in domestic environments are often simply handled from one side or another, also reinforcing the tendency to independently process "input" from a single side.

Less than 2 hours earlier this was a wild BLM mustang, reacting to everything.

The connections are there. We just have to understand how to make them active.

The following images are of a former wild horse on his third day being saddled and packing a rider. We avoided traditional one-on-one training, preferring the horse to process and accept a more dynamic training environment. We don't recommend that anyone to rush out and try these activities without fully understanding dynamic training approaches and accurately reading the horse's responses to those approaches. The images are presented solely as illustrative of the kinds of confidence and stability we strive to develop in even our newest mounts by avoiding certain types of "traditional" training approaches and focusing instead on the horse's natural learning architecture.

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