Q&A: Staying Progressive with Introverted Horses

Q&A: Staying Progressive with Introverted Horses 1

We’ve got a great question and answer about staying progressive with introverted horses with 3-Star Parelli Professional and Horse Development Specialist Mattie Cowherd.  Read more from Mattie on her blog!


Question: How do I slow down for my introvert while still staying progressive?

Answer: Great question!  Before I discuss strategies for being progressive, let’s first re-frame our question with some structure and understanding about introverts.

Firstly, introverts are usually very smart and sensitive – sometimes more than their extroverted companions! – but when pressure is applied or they perceive that there is pressure being applied, their natural tendency is to slow down and analyze what is going on. In other words, their brains start to move (or in some cases freeze) and so their feet stop moving. This can cause frustration for you if you think that your horse should be snappy and respond immediately. Since they “go inside themselves” to think, you may be missing the signs that show they are trying to process the information.

Introverts usually “go internal” for one of two reasons: fear or lack of motivation/resentment. The more afraid of pressure the horse is, the more their brain shuts down. This is classic right brain introvert behavior. The fear can be of what is being asked, afraid of being wrong, or even the fear of WHO is asking! Fear can look very similar to dominance if you don’t know the signs. Fear based responses are usually accompanied by a horse’s head coming up so the eye is above the withers (adrenaline is coming on). The horse stares without blinking, starts to hold its breath, and becomes tense in its body. Its ears may be half back in uncertainty. It is preparing to fight, fright, or run in its mind. The more confident and unmotivated horse will often “balk” at demands to move. This horse should remind you of how you feel if someone badgers you for an answer that you are reluctant to give them. Just as you would, the horse is bristling inside and gets a very unhappy dialog going in its head. This horse is often sulky looking, with ears back in a more “angry” or annoyed look. Their eyes are still blinking, though unimpressed, and their whole body exudes an aura of “you can’t make me do anything you want” – that is if they aren’t ignoring you entirely, like a teenager texting on their phone while you are trying to talk to them!

So how do we stay progressive with either of the above horses?

Let’s start with the fearful introvert. This kind of horse often wants to please if it knows what the correct answer is, but if it doesn’t know what the answer is, it will freeze inside and its mind goes blank with fear. The same also happens if it is truly afraid for its life. For this horse, the less pressure you use to get a response, the better! The horse can often hear you at very soft, low phases but simply doesn’t have the ability or the confidence to follow through. Keep your requests very simple, clear and concise so you can reward quickly and smoothly. Feeling pleased regardless of the answer also helps the horse start to trust you. Once you have built some trust, you can start to ask the horse for things that it finds challenging. Always remember to reward often – very often! – so the horse knows he/she is on the right track. If this horse gets scared or confused, simply reward and release. If the horse starts to get stuck, go back to something the horse finds simple and easy. Also, don’t trap yourself in being too passive. Be very clear and direct. These horses need predictable communication always!

For the unmotivated, bored, and dominant introvert, you need to slow down but be very precise. For example, you may have trouble backing this horse. Be very particular with him that he needs to back up for just ONE STEP. Release immediately and smile. Almost always, these kinds of horses will immediately try to take too many steps backwards or start to walk back towards you. Repeat the question until you have clearly won one step of back up and then stand. If the horse is moving, it is actually running away at the walk! This is also a huge game for them because it means you are working a lot and they are working a little. The less you do for a clear result, the more their brain turns on and they start to wonder how to “win” the game. Don’t stick with one step for too long, though! If you have “won” the step once, immediately work for two steps. Win two steps and get three. Again, focus a lot more on the “halt” of the task rather than the actual amount of movement. As this horse starts to engage in the task, you can ask for more movement. To make it more interesting for them, see how little you can move your feet and arms during an exercise. Don’t pick up your stick unless you have clearly used your leading hand for a cue for longer than three seconds. When you do use the stick, be very deliberate and purposely “touch” your horse in the exact part of their body you wanted them to move. Release very quickly. And keep your feet still! These horses count!

As you start to be more conscious of how engaged you have your horse’s mind, the more the introvert will move. For the fearful introvert, the calmer and more trusting they are, the more they will confidently give you. For the unmotivated, dominant introvert, the more you engage their mind on the puzzle, the more they will work with you rather than against you.

I would love to hear your success stories as you start to play with the “mind game” that you need to play with introverts. Let me know how releasing more often and sooner helps. I can’t wait to hear what’s up!  Leave you stories in the comments below!



  1. Loved this. I have two Introverted horses, one LBI and the other a RBI. Your explanations are clear and concise. Thank you for putting this out there. I have used the One Step, Two Step, Three Steps game with my LBI before. It really does work. Your explanation gives me the more specific information I needed to make the game more engaging. Again, thank you!

  2. This is a great article and really reminds me that it’s all about the mind. I find with my very left brained horse that it is easy to begin “getting after the body” when you’re trying to make progress rather than getting to his mind….so our play lacks that quality that we now need :)

    I was looking through our tasks the other day and realised that the main ones I haven’t ticked off are circling game tasks, ha ha go figure! The big realisation I had was that although we’ve done circvles to death (sorry Regal) we haven’t been PLAYING the circling game, I haven’t managed to make it a mental game, I’ve been concentrating on the physical response and because of this the quality is lacking……time to think this through and help the circle to be WAY more mentally challenging 😀

    Thanks Mattie, this came at just the right time for us (as always)
    Liz, Regal and Bluebelle 😀

  3. My mare is an LBI who really dislikes the circling game. She would often take one or two steps after the send, stop, and look outside the circle. One day I finally “got it” about accepting “less”. The next time she stopped after the send, I pretended like it was my idea. Continuing on, I let her stop on her own, and then I started asking her to stop. It wasn’t long before she started trying to trip me up at my own game — by offering more. Sometimes she will try the “stopping game” when we leave for a trail ride. I use the same strategy; just pretend like it was my idea, then keep asking her to stop. It doesn’t take long for her to offer to keep going. It’s actually kind of funny.

  4. Hi Mattie,
    thanks for your great answer! The “cranky” face of my RBI bothers me at the moment pretty much… Is it a good idea when I ask slow and easy (for example Circling Game) and let him go/run until his face changes a bit? Then I bring him and and let him rest for a while… I did try that once and he licked and chewed and sighed very much. Though his face didn’t change. Maybe I was doing it not long enough? He also has troubles relaxing so I work on head down a lot…

    Going back and release when he is confused also works very well! I always thought it’s not good to release when there is a wrong answer, but it is different with RBIs 😉


  5. Wow Mattie, another super article! Relating this to Star, you really set my mind thinking about his ‘confidence to follow through’ because as your say, he does hear me at very low phases. My challenge now is to keep it ‘simple and clear and concise and reward quickly’…..I know my tendency is to go for that one bit more or faster and I need to work on timing rewards. Printing this out and sticking it up in the feed room as a constant reminder!!! Thank you 😀

  6. Thank you everyone for the lovely feedback!

    Regina, with an RBI, the cranky face can be because there is still too much pressure…. see if you can be even softer and really take the pressure off when your horse has found an answer! You might have to think of other things (such as what you had for breakfast) so even your thoughts are not too direct for your horse! When he comes back to you, stop him farther from you, for his comfort, and then take your energy away from him — maybe even turn your back or crouch down to make it really obvious for a while. Wait a little longer between and during tasks, too. Remind yourself to be clear and slow.

    Let us all know how it goes!

  7. I have found the idea of thinking of breakfast very useful! Even when I THINK I’m not looking at my RBI, I AM thinking of him. And he knows it! I discovered this one day quite by accident. I was playing circling game with Grady and my dog came in to me. I started playing with my dog – roughing around with her (not quietly I might add) and I noticed an almost immediate change in my horse. His gait got longer, more relaxed, swinging. He moved out more energetically. It was amazing.

  8. I love this….thank you! I have a RBI that is fearful but looks dominant. It’s taken me years to figure him out. I always thought he was LBI by his actions. (I ask him to circle and he shakes his head, kicks out at me and takes off pulling the rope right out of my hands). About 45 days ago, I stopped working with a trainer…(after my horse took off with her and then reared straight up in the air). I started at level 1 online. I’m building a new relationship with Mr. Big. I finally have a relationship with my horse.

Comments are closed.