Foundation Training - Start in the Morning?
By C. H. Mintzlaff

So often these days I'm hearing, "Chuck! Foundation Training sounds great! I'm going to start in the morning!" This always brings a smile (and an occasional chuckle or two) as well as a very heartwarming feeling of comradeship. The awareness of and concern for how the horse perceives both his world and ours has dramatically increased in recent years. More and more of us are striving to understand what the horse regards as natural, and to accept our responsibility to work within his understanding. But in relation to the horse world as a whole, we are still 'few and far between'. So when I meet someone who shares these same desires, I feel like I've found a long-lost relative.

Regrettably, some of the prerequisites for using Foundation Training (FT) exclude it from being a 'start-in-the-morning' type of training format. The very philosophy of FT is completely opposite to most presently accepted, traditional training perceptions of equine manipulation. FT offers no magic wands, sticks, gadgets or catch phrases for 'instant' cures. What it does is focalize the very essence of the human/equine relationship. It brings both the horse and his owner to 'ground zero', a special setting that cannot be found at the end of a lunge line or in a round pen. It allows both horse and human to stand on equal ground that the horse (not the human) considers natural. In so doing, mutual respect, trust, understanding and reciprocal communication combine to form a truly exceptional partnership.

Foundation Training does have preparatory requirements that the human must meet before attempting any interaction with his or her soon-to-be equine partner. This, then, is the Achilles' heel of FT. While FT and its corresponding hands-on FT exercises (FTX) format are easily understood and accepted by any horse, the FT preparatory requirements are viewed by some humans as an inconvenience. They feel it is much easier and quicker to simply grab whatever traditional training methodology is in vogue at the time and proceed with whip or lariat to the round pen or lunge line. Ironically, FT instantly establishes (amongst many other things) his human teacher as 'alpha' with no need for these nearly obsolete 'aids' that are potentially abusive and contradictory to the horse's thinking and way of going. Restriction is not only avoided under all circumstances in his life in the wild but is, in actuality, a death sentence when it does occur. Initial restriction by a human predator cannot help but be counterproductive to his regarding us as a trusted friend and teacher.

As such, the first prerequisite to using FT is not any specific interaction with the horse. FT requires that we change both our perception of the horse and the role we assume when interacting with him. FT also requires… no… actually demands that we regard him as a distinct individual, and that his emotions, origin, genetics and life experiences are unique to him and him alone, that he is truly a one-of-a-kind entity. This is very difficult if we do not first adapt ourselves to 'thinking outside the box'. This reversal of perceptions and roles can only be successfully effected by first eliminating the preconditioning, indoctrination and preconceptions of traditional training methodology. One small example of thinking outside the box is allowing the horse to 'catch himself' for us instead of devising various attack plans that may or may not allow us to catch him.

The semantics of trainer versus teacher can be debated ad nauseum, but the difference in mindset between the two is undeniable. One is the image of a subservient animal bowing to the demands of his self-imposed superior. The other denotes the compassion and understanding of a mentor shaping and molding the mind of his student into a trusting, eager, happy partner. For some, playing the role of teacher rather than trainer will be an easy transition. For others, it may prove a little more difficult to let go of traditional thinking. But beyond any doubt, anyone attempting to use FT without first altering his or her mindset to 'teacher' is comparable to trying to drive cross-country with an empty gas tank. You just won't get very far.

Foundation Training uses a very specific sequence of interactions (FTXs). Optimum results can be obtained only by rigidly adhering to this sequence of interactions/exercises. While the sequence itself must be strictly followed, the progression through this sequence is individualized to the specific needs of both the horse and his human teacher.

The ability to micro-modify the rate of progression is extremely advantageous to the human teacher, more than just adapting the FTXs to his or her horse's intelligence and personality. There is no expectation or apprehension of reaching a particular goal within a specified period of time. Those who lack assertiveness can progress through each level as slowly or as quickly as they feel confident to do so. The sense of accomplishment and achievement builds not only confidence in their own ability but also in the relationship they have with their equine student.

Conversely, someone who may be overly aggressive or who lacks patience can only progress as fast as his horse allows. 'Pushing' the horse past his comfort level and capabilities will only result in an obvious, immediate setback. Knowing that as a teacher the responsibility of a setback is his alone, the teacher's aggressiveness and impatience are tempered. This also brings about an awareness and appreciation of the horse's limitations.

There are several very basic differences between traditional training concepts and FT. One distinction is that FT requires additional effort (initially), as there is no goal, activity or objective that is more important than the relationship between the horse and his owner. Every interaction and activity, as well as the reactions of the human teacher, are carefully balanced against how the horse will perceive them and how they will affect the relationship between the two of them. It is the horse's confidence in his relationship of trust and communication with his teacher that will affect any discipline, event or activity they attempt together later on. This is why the name Foundation Training is given to a philosophy and the corresponding hands-on interactions. It gives both the horse and his human caretaker a common ground for understanding and working in harmony together, a base or foundation that is very similar to the foundation of a house. Without a strong foundation, a house will soon develop problems that may be extremely difficult, costly or impossible to repair. The very same can be said for the horse/human relationship.

Another distinction of Foundation Training is the 'classroom' where the teacher/pupil relationship is created. Traditional training formats use the restriction of a round pen and/or a lunge line to 'train' a horse. In many cases, the restraint/restriction itself can be quite counterproductive. When forming an initial relationship with a horse, any type of restriction or restraint will instinctively raise his apprehension level. Suddenly, he is either trapped in a small enclosure with a predator or, what may be worse yet, attached to a predator by a lunge line or lariat losing any ability to flee in the event of mortal danger. While the degree of apprehension will vary from horse to horse, none can escape their basic instinct of survival and their inherent fear/flight reaction. Apprehension and fear on any level tend to proportionately diminish retention rates.

Example: If while running out of a burning building, a stranger asks you to call a certain but very important number when you get home, your anxiety would make it difficult to remember that number later. But if the same stranger asked you the same thing while you were having a relaxing walk in the park, you would have a much better chance of remembering the number later. Thus the horse's learning capacity is diminished by his fear/flight syndrome and the restrictive environment when it could have been enhanced in what the horse considers a natural setting.

A stall, pen or small run is simply out of the question. Using the FTXs, the horse instantly and unmistakably recognizes the teacher as alpha (principal/headmaster) and displays the signs of submission that this alpha requires. Allowing the horse what he considers ample room to initially escape from an immediate threat in a fear/flight situation eliminates the inevitable apprehension of being restrained. For this reason, FT requires an open area when using the FTXs.

There are no limitations as to how large a classroom area can be. Should the need arise to protect the teacher from physical harm, it would be impossible to utilize 'banishment' in a small area. Confrontation and physical punishment (real or intimidated) in a restricted environment only compound the fear and frustration that often lead to a defensive/aggressive posture. (A frightened, cornered horse can be dangerous.) Each horse is different and carries with him his own sensitivity to and awareness of restriction. *While Foundation Training never condones striking a horse as a matter of 'training', it also recognizes the fact that the human teacher must prevent bodily harm in the event of a charge or strike by an overly aggressive horse. Physical punishment is employed ONLY as a defensive act by the teacher in the face of equine aggression and imminent peril.

The horse also must be fed in the same manger, at the same time by the same person (his teacher) for a specific period of time before the FTXs can be initiated. The reasoning here is not only that his mind consciously looks forward to the taste of the feed (beta endorphins) but more importantly that his body becomes aware of the nutrients it receives at a specific time and place (biofeedback). The intercession of the FTXs can then be instilled on an 'instinctual level' and with it, the absolute recognition of the teacher as alpha.

In addition, the teacher has to develop his own verbal cue words that coincide with the hand and body cue for each request he will teach his student. The hand cues can be compared to a customized sign language. Perfecting them before any interaction is attempted is crucial. Part of the trust and confidence he will develop in you is your reliability and consistency. Practice and Preparation make Perfect. Having a friend and a camcorder is ideal to tape your practice sessions before "First Intercession" but a full length mirror will do nearly as well. Remember, he can detect anger, fear and apprehension as well as confidence through your scent. Any and all preparation on your part will be paid back a hundredfold.

So you see, Foundation Training and the corresponding FTXs could not possibly be a 'Start-in-the-Morning' or 'Let's-Try-It-Tomorrow' type of format. Not only are there preparatory requirements made of the human, but an acknowledgment and commitment must be made that trust is not an event, but a process, and being so, will require time to grow and mature. While Foundation Training may require forethought, preparation and patience, the extraordinary rewards of true partnership between horse and human can be attained no other way.


About the author:
For over a decade, Chuck Mintzlaff, using the only five horses in Texas that are certified by Delta Society for Animal Assisted Therapy, has operated a psychotherapeutic riding program designed to help severely abused children regain a foothold on life. All the horses are, naturally, Foundation Trained. Further information may be obtained at or (972) 225-5800.