Foundation Training - The Heart of Natural Horsemanship
By Chuck Mintzlaff

With Foundation Training, the horse-human relationship is built using a specific, sequential set of requests at feeding time. It sets up a condition for the horse identical to his approaching the 'Alpha' horse eating a lone portion of food.

There is an ever-growing undercurrent of indefinable awareness rippling slowly through the horse world -- a vague annoyance of something missing, something off-key, something that does not quite fit our traditional perception of equine manipulation. Enter, Foundation Training.

What is it?

Foundation Training has been referred to by an ever growing number as the 'New Wave of Horsemanship'. While it may well be the enlightenment many have been searching for, it is undoubtedly the most nonviolent yet extremely assertive 'hands on' format known for naturally creating that ultimate relationship of trust and communication between horse and human.

Natural means relating to or conforming to the laws of nature; not made, altered or affected by man, for if the horse is a prey animal, if his strongest instinct is survival and his primary defense to survive is flight, he would never knowingly, in a natural setting, put himself in a situation that he could not escape from instantly. Any type of restriction, whether round pen, lariat or lead line, would be completely alien and against his nature. Those who practice Foundation Training do not feel there is anything natural about cornering a frightened horse in a round pen and attempting to create focus with a lariat or whip. They feel that a truly natural form of establishing the initial relationship with the horse would be creating an environment that would allow him to submit of his own accord and focus completely on his human teacher in an open, unrestricted environment.

After all is said and done, the paraphrases of natural horsemanship - patience/gentleness and author-customized labeling of simple interactions - it all boils down to two and only two completely opposite paths of interaction to follow between horse and man. One uses restraint, absolute control, negative force and comfort/discomfort; imprinting fear deep enough in the horse is the only means of control and training. The other feels creating a positive image of mutual trust first is of the utmost importance, as in the philosophy and format referred to as Foundation Training. Life is a matter of choices; choose wisely, lest your heart wither in the despair of regret.

Foundation Training is a philosophy that has not changed in thousands of years. Compared to traditionally accepted training methods it is like an inquisitive small child that never ceases to ask why or why not with the simple desire to understand and always work within the horse's nature. Though there are certain commonalities that are shared amongst all horses, Foundation Training regards each horse as an individual unlike any other horse in the world. It recognizes that the horse is a prey animal that feels threatened by any type of constriction or restraint, as self-preservation is its strongest instinct (the only exception being mares, who will die defending their foal) and flight its primary weapon of defense.

Accordingly, Foundation Training recognizes that fear is the motivational emotion for the horse as a prey species. The fear circuits in his brain have been scientifically mapped, and it is an accepted fact that the fear memories are permanently stored in the amygdala, the lower primitive part of the brain, and can NEVER be removed. Only the upper, decision-making part of his brain can suppress and 'override' these fear memories. In taking this into account, Foundation Training ALWAYS seeks to avoid the imprinting of additional fear memories wherever possible unless a horse's aggressive action necessitates negative physical interaction on the part of the owner for personal safety.

Why use it?

Foundation Training will enhance any riding preference, discipline or relationship. The term 'Foundation Training' is not another gimmick, gadget, or 'new' method of training. It is the underlying basis of every form of 'natural horsemanship', and there are many ways that different authors and trainers have expressed some of these principles in their work. They understand, as all true natural horsemen do, the nature of the horse. Sometimes their methods can work for you and your horse, but sometimes they don't. Foundation Training works quite effectively with all horses; the problem is that it does not work well with ALL PEOPLE. Are you someone who can utilize Foundation Training? That's a question only you can answer.

The goal of Foundation Training is to create (and maintain) an incredible relationship of trust, understanding and partnership that the average rider or owner finds almost inconceivable. It will allow the horse to choose of his own volition to comply with the owner's requests WITHOUT the implementation of any type or form of comfort/discomfort format. It will acclimate the horse to accepting a 'continual learning' of new responses and actions from the owner while simultaneously focalizing complete attention on the owner's slightest physical or verbal request.

Most importantly, it will create TRUST in a prey species whose very survival depends on NOT trusting any predator or anything outside of its herd. The level of trust and communication attained makes accomplishing any act when mounted later on much more successful and rewarding, as well as increasing the safety margin for both horse and rider a thousand-fold. Foundation Training is one of the most nonviolent methods of assertiveness and training known that utilizes no constraints. The relationship is built using a specific, sequential set of requests at feeding time. It is not 'whispering', nor is it an 'instant cure'. Trust is a process; it is not an event. It takes time, but the results are apparent almost immediately and will give you a very special gift that some of those in the horse world will never attain.

How is it applied?

Foundation Training Exercises - some folks call them Feeding Time Exercises, others First Time Exercises and still others simply refer to them as FTX - ask the horse to submit to us in an open area where he can choose to participate or NOT participate as he desires. The exercises avoid any type of restriction (halter, lariat, round pen, etc) and can only be executed properly in an open area so the horse feels he can escape, if he feels the need to do so. It sets up a condition identical to his approaching the 'Alpha' horse eating a lone portion of hay.

Like the 'Alpha' horse, we are going to ask him for certain very definite signs of submission before deciding to share our hay or feed with him. The difference is, we are going to ask certain things that are very different than the 'Alpha' horse would ask him. We are not asking for any responses from him that are beyond his comprehension or physically ability, just different from what the 'Alpha' horse would ask him. Each response has a very definite purpose that is extremely beneficial when interacting or riding him later on.

The reason we are asking these acts of submission of him at feeding time is that doing so will directly imprint/interfere with his third strongest instinct or need, which is the need for nourishment (survival is his strongest instinct and propagation of species is next strongest). It is a logical starting place to develop our voice, hand and body language cues/responses, which in turn develops the relationship we are hoping to attain based on those two magic words, TRUST and COMMUNICATION. It is there we have his attention, one hundred percent. It is there where he will eagerly learn No, Come, Stand, Back, Slow, Calm Down, Sidepass, lunging without a lunge line in an open area on hand signals, being touched all over and picking up feet, and anything else you want to teach him.

Several things must be clearly established BEFORE initiating the FT exercises:
1. That the horse be fed at the exact time(s) (+- 5 minutes) daily for approximately a month (or longer depending on the nature of the horse, e.g. abused, wild, etc) in the same bucket or manger in the same place by the same person that will be his teacher.
2. That the initial exercises are only parts of a multiple request format for specific responses that are gradually expanded and extended to encompass as many things as the trainer desires.
3. That no other horses can interfere visually or physically at any time thru the course of the lesson (although the prudent use of intimidation by peer pressure can also be utilized when necessitated under certain circumstances).
4. That you understand and are proficient at the 'NO' series and all the hand/voice/body cues you intend on using (practice in front of a full-length mirror or have a friend videotape you if you do not feel not confident).
5. That the interactions will be done in what the horse feels is an 'open area', NOT a stall or a round pen. A small pasture is ideal.

The goals of FTX are:
1. Create a direct confrontation on an instinctual level in a safe, controlled environment for both horse and human.
2. Focalize the horse's recognition of communication from his normal 95% use of body language to verbal requests from his human teacher.
3. Create different levels of our disapproval for any action, reaction or inaction he may make (the "No" series).
4. Teach the horse a common language that is not only easy for him to comprehend and respond to, but also will prove to be highly advantageous to his rider when later mounting up and riding out.

The Foundation Training Exercises can only function when the horse is at liberty to choose. The Foundation Training Exercises are NOT utilized as a goal or standard in themselves. They are regarded as an OPPORTUNITY for you to develop a relationship of unbelievable proportions based on trust and communication with your horse. They are not used exclusively for YOUR benefit, but your HORSE'S as well. Our golden rule is to always use the horses nature to our advantage. Those that follow Foundation Training will always strive to let the horse train himself whenever possible.

Why haven't I heard of it before?

You may not have heard of it before but you have certainly seen its results before. You know, the horse that goes running to his owner from the other end of the pasture when the halter is held up while his name is being called. Or the horse that gets the daylights scared out of him by someone's carelessness and immediately recovers in response to the rider's request. Or watched while an owner cleans and trims his horse's hooves without using any tie downs in an open pasture. Or the rider that dismounts and lets the reins up but ground ties his horse by simply pointing to the ground in front of the horse and walks away. Or maybe watched someone work in the round pen with his horse using only voice or hand cues without any lunge whip or lariat. Foundation Training has been around since the first human interacted with the horse for something besides food. Or, rather, the second or third human, because there has always been that small percentage of horsemen who seemed to have some magical power or insight into the horse and his behavior. Well, it is doubtful that it's magic. It is insight, of that you can be assured.

Through the ages, we seem to have lost our ability to communicate with both each other as much as the horse on any real level of understanding, compassion or consideration, generally resorting to some type of power/control mentality. This then, is our purpose, to do both - to offer a much easier, safer way to understand and work with your horse and offer an explanation as to WHY this training format works with ANY horse. In return, we ask only for you to sincerely reexamine your thinking and attitude toward him and make a conscious effort to 'start out with a clean slate.' The horse has not changed in all these centuries. He remains as steadfast as the Creator made him and simply waits for you to see and understand him as he really is, not as you expect or desire him to be.

About the author:
Chuck Mintzlaff has operated a psychotherapeutic riding program for over a decade designed to help severely abused children regain a foothold on life using the only five horses in Texas that are certified by Delta Society for Animal Assisted Therapy and are, naturally, Foundation Trained. For more information, Email: Chuck Mintzlaff.