Hello Horse Lovers

Welcome to the Hands-On Horse Training Blog of Troy Griffith

With this blog I hope to document and track the training of horses in my care. Below you will see updates posted each day after training is completed. By clicking on the Categories to the right, all the entries I have posted for that horse will appear. This way you can follow the progress of each horse.

With any luck, some of you might also find some of  my “observations” useful.

Thanks for taking the time to have a look.

Bits, Bit Use and Bitless – A Classical Perspective

Over the years, I have had many conversations pertaining to bit use and misuse and the choice several horse owners have made to go with one bit option or another, or to forego the use of a bit entirely. These discussions have ranged from horror at how one trainer abuses the mouths of the horses in his charge with the bit he chooses to use, to the other end of the spectrum wherein the person wants to have nothing in the horse’s mouth at all because, “It is obviously better for the horse to not have to deal with metal in their mouth, right?” But what are the facts in this contentious discussion?

What I want to discuss are the very basic notions and misconceptions of bits and bit use that are held by many people.

I had a chat once with a very nice lady I know from Facebook who participates in mounted archery as her chosen sport. When we got on the subject of how she is riding ‘bitless’ these days and she made the following statement: “We like the idea of no metal in our horses’ mouths, and since mounted archery is primarily riding by the seat of your pants, our horses have to be responsive to leg and body cues.” Now, she is not the first person I have spoken with who held a similar opinion, which appears to be that bits as a whole are not desirable because if you ride with your legs and your seat, you don’t ‘need’ them. I have heard this sentiment repeated many times by many people and even echoed something like it myself years ago when I was riding one of my horses in a hackamore. I have come to realize this view is often, though not always, a push-back against heavy-handed riding and/or use of harsh bits by many riders.

Now before I go on, let me preface the remainder of this discussion by saying that in ‘Classical’ horse training, the ‘aids’ are broken down into three sets; the hands, the seat, and the legs. The legs include leg pressure with the thigh, calf, and heel, and the use of the spur. The seat is balance shifts and encouragement or retarding of the horses movement. The hands refer to the use of the reins and bit. Each of these three sets of aids is equally important to the whole that is ‘Classical’ horsemanship, and they are not fully interchangeable; meaning not every proper function of the bit can be replaced with the use of the seat or legs. I will touch on this more later.

So let’s talk about a bit about bits.

While there are a vast array of bit designs out there promising a wide range of effects, in my experience, they can be broken down into two very basic effects; snaffle effect and curb effect, or lateral and elevation vs. vertical flexing.

A snaffle are a bit design in which the reins are attached to the bit in direct line with the mouth piece of the bit and give the best communication to allow the rider to encourage flexion to the left and right, as well as to elevate the neck. In ‘classical’ riding this is done while riding ‘in contact’, while other styles of riding use them with a ‘guiding’ motion that avoids contact.

With a curb bit, the reins are attached to an arm or shank of some sort, offset from the bars which provide a degree of leverage on the bit that varies with the ratio of the length of the shank in relationship to the purchase. Movement of the shank toward the rider causes a rotation of the bar, and port if there is one, in the mouth to one extent or another. Drawn in far enough this rotation will bring the curb chain into contact to apply pressure on the horse’s chin, a light brush if the rider is skilled, or a greater pressure if used with more energy and depending on the design of the bit and headstall, the nose, and/or poll. This allows the rider to influence the horse’s bend more along this vertical axis and is normally used with a more ‘slack rein’ when used classically. High ported, or ‘spade’ bits are another form of curb bit and are used in some western disciplines.

It is interesting to note that many horse people, possibly even a majority of them, think that a bit is a snaffle if it is ‘broken’ or ‘jointed’, in other words if the bar is in more than one solid piece. You will sometimes see a bit called a ‘western snaffle’ when actually it is a jointed curb bit. A snaffle bit can in fact have a solid or jointed bar (though the latter is more common), as can a curb bit, but it is the relationship of the reins to the mouth piece, or bar that determines the snaffle or curb effect.

There are bits designed to offer greater or lesser degrees of one effect or the other with a single set of reins, like the Kimberwick (originally called a Kimblewick), which varies the effects depending on where the reins are attached and how they are used. There are also bits designed, like Pelham bits, to allow both effects from a single bit, using two set of reins, one set providing the direct snaffle effect and one set using leverage to enhance the curb effect. In higher levels of modern dressage it is even common to use two separate bits with two sets of reins in a ‘double bridle’, allowing for even greater separation of the curb from the snaffle effect.

With all these options it is very easy to get confused as to the purpose and efficacy of one bit over another. I can see how someone seeing the double bridle being used with those two sets of reins might think that it must be harsh and hard on the horse’s mouth, just as the spade bit used in western riding can appear excessively harsh. What one has to keep in mind is that while yes there are some bits that simply ARE painful and harsh, for the majority of them, it is the knowledge of the proper use of the bit and the ability of the hands of the rider, in relation to the training level of the horse, that dictate comfort level for the horse.

As the French Riding Master Phillipe Karl says, “It is the way you do a thing and not the thing you do, that is ‘classical’ or not.” In ‘classical’ riding, all the aids, including the use of the bit, are simply means of communication with the horse, not a method of controlling the horse. The difference may seem subtle, but in practice it makes a huge difference when it is taken to heart by the rider. Yes, there are times when controlling the horse is required, certainly when we begin the training. Even more often when we take over the training of a horse already taught that the relationship between horse and rider is a contest and not cooperation, but subtle communication should always be our first aim, and partnership our goal.

Modern dressage riders use the same snaffle and curb bit types used for centuries by classical masters and students, however many used them harshly and with little or no real understanding of the difference between ‘connection’ and ‘control’; between greater ‘sensitivity’ and greater ‘power’. Similarly, the modern western rider often uses spade bits, much the same as those used by Vaqueros historically, with their roots in old world military riding, but they lack the same understandings.  Used callously or with ignorance all these bits can be harsh and abusive. Used correctly, they can provide wonderfully light communications with the horse.

François Baucher described there being three levels of rein pressure acceptable in riding: light, gentle, and firm. Unfortunately, everyone has a different idea of what light, gentle, and firm mean. Unless someone teaches you through demonstration what Baucher meant, it is easy to take these terms down a path that leads from ‘classical’ to the worst forms of modern riding; from asking the horse to making the horse do something, from cooperation to conflict, from partners to adversaries. In the latter situations, the bit becomes a weapon used to force the horse to react in a certain way, and herein lies the reason the bit becomes harsh or painful. To some riders, light means only a few pounds of pressure, gentle means only hurting the horse slightly, and firm means punishment for getting things wrong. I cannot begin to adequately emphasize how wrong this is.

My goal is for Light to be an elastic contact on the horse’s mouth that is kept as close to the zero point between contact and no contact as possible; this being accomplished through the active adjustment of fingers, hand, and elbow position in relation to the movement of the horse or the rider. Gentle should be the slight manipulation of the contact to achieve a desired response from the horse. Firm is then the reduction of the elasticity of contact to retard movement. In ‘classical’ riding the ‘leverage’ in the curb bit is used to allow this communication on a slack rein, where the weight of the rein itself maintains the contact; the lifting of the hand or movement of a finger is enough for the horse to recognize a cue and as such requires a very high degree of training for both horse and rider.

Here is a little visualization to help you understand what I mean. Think of the old ‘two cans with a string between them communications device kids played with before the time they were all given smart phones at age 6. For the sake of this visualization, let us assume the cans are being held by kids in two adjoining tree houses. The wind is blowing slightly so the trees are swaying. Kept lightly taut, communication is possible; too loose, contact and therefore communication is lost; too tight and the string will break, so the two kids are required to maintain an elastic contact between them, giving and taking as each moves. But how does the kid in one tree know when to put the can to his ear to listen for the message from the other kid? The kid wishing to be heard gives the string an ever so gentle tug to alert the kid on the other end that he needs to pay attention. Tug too hard or too suddenly and the kid will drop the can he lightly holds. Now let’s assume one of the kids moves around in his tree house, the other kid has to move also to keep the connection lightly taught, but then the moving kid goes too far and suddenly the second kid finds himself at the edge of his tree house about to lose his balance and fall, rather than jerking back on the string and breaking it, he just holds firm and allows the other kid to realize he has stopped moving with him and so both kids come to a stop.

Obviously in the above visualization, both parties had to understand the goal and develop a sense of give and take. When you begin working with your horse, it will be up to you, as the presumed smarter of the two, to help your equine partner understand this. Once you have it, you will be able to ride in Light contact that is maintained by elastic movement on your part. You will able to ask for bend and flexion from the horse with Gentle manipulation of that contact and you will be able to transition down from one gait to the next all the way to the halt, by simply by shifting that elastic movement to a Firm hold for a moment (along with proper seat and leg aids, of course).

You may notice that at no point do I talk about pulling on the reins or any form of backward motion with them. This was quite intentional. The only backward effect on the reins comes from closing your hands, turning your shoulder, or shifting your weight back in the saddle, or in most cases, some combination of these. When properly schooled, the horse will go forward, stop, turn left, turn right, back up, from the seat through balance shifts, and the legs by supporting the haunches. However to move sideways, shift its quarters, or shift its forehand, the reins are needed to support or hinder hinder motion by being Lightly flexible or held Firm. The purpose of the reins is not to stop or steer the horse per se, but rather to control the direction and degree of bend and to affect the balance of the horse. In essence, our hands do help in directing the horse left or right, but only inasmuch as they affect the bend of the animal and/or shift its weight to one side or another. A horse moving forward bent is turning, as is horse stepping laterally with the the forehand or hind end exclusively.

This effect on the flex, bend, elevation and balance of the horse and how in tune with you the horse is through your contact on the bit, dictate the type of bit you want. The reason most trainers begin with the snaffle bit is precisely because it allows for very effective encouragement for bend, elevation and lateral movement which are keys to teaching the horse to balance. Only after the horse is supple and flexible, with good lateral movement, “rounding” due to a relaxed poll, and balance, all achieved with the lightest of contact, should you consider moving to a curb bit. The curb bit can then be used to encourage vertical flex and relaxing the poll and to move forward to even lighter contact while riding with one hand. In neither case should the bit be used to force a head or neck position. Force causes tension, which ends relaxed bending, which puts a stop to supple balance.

The curb bit is used on a slightly ‘slack’ rein, meaning the arms of the bit are allowed to hang down with a small drooping of the reins between the hands and the bit. Lifting or closing the hands takes back some of the slack and the arms of the bit are lifted up and back, rotating the bar, which in turn is felt in the mouth, at the horse’s poll and/or through the curb chain under the horse’s chin.

I think it is important to mention that I do in fact start the horse’s first rein lessons bitless; I begin said work from the ground in a longeing cavesson. This work begins with longeing, then moves to long line and/or in-hand work, and eventually to the horses first steps with a rider. Typically I introduce the snaffle to the horse along with the cavesson, before removing the cavesson from the equation as the horse comes to accept the bit as a normal thing. I then continue with snaffle until the horse is schooled enough for the proper use of the curb.

In classical training, only after the horse understands, accepts and is comfortable with the light, flexible, but constant connection riding on the snaffle in contact provides, are they ready to move to the curb. The subtle effect of the curb can be missed by the lesser trained horse and too often the rider resorts to stronger and therefore harsher use of the curb simply because the horse has not been properly prepared for it.

It is another common misconception that you use a stronger bit to correct problems; for instance, moving from a snaffle to a curb because the horse keeps raising its head. The fact is, in my understanding of the ‘classical’ view, you should only move on to leverage bits to refine the communication with your horse not to gain more power over it. The point of the leverage is to allow your touch to become lighter not stronger.

The last misconception I want to address is the belief that a bitless bridle or hackamore is more comfortable for the horse than a bit. A correctly fitted bit in light, flexible hands is more comfortable than a bitless or hackamore in heavy, rigid hands. In fact, some of these bitless options, while having no mouth piece, still use leverage and curb effects on the chin, nose, and/or poll. In the wrong hands, these options can cause serious damage, both physical and emotional, to the horse. It is how you use the hands, not whether or not you use a bit, that determines the relative comfort the horse experiences.

There are of course horses that simple will not completely accept a bit, either because of an issue in the structure of the mouth or because of past trauma at the hands of poor trainer or rider. These horses can often be rehabilitated with careful schooling, but depending on the purpose the horse is being set to, a bitless alternative is sometimes just the easier path.

For me, with a healthy horse, bitless alternatives are fine for trail riding or general hacking about, but for schooling, competition, or anything requiring the horse’s full athleticism, I want to be able to help the horse to flex, bend, and balance, and a classically-used bit is the best way for me to achieve these goals. In my opinion the ability to mobilize the tongue, which release the jaw and in turn relaxed the poll, is the main advantage of the bit over bitless alternatives.

Now before you begin to think that I am trying to say you cannot ride without a bit and therefore cannot ride without your hands, which there are many videos on YouTube to prove the contrary, let me reiterate that I am saying the bit is a fundamental part of the ‘classical’ method of training, but once the horse and rider are trained to a certain level things can change. Once the horse instinctively bends around the inside leg, shifts its haunches from the presence of the leg drifting back, extends the stride or shortens it by the use of the seat and changes its balance to follow the change of balance of the rider, then a skilled rider can maneuver the horse quite effectively without the use of the reins at all.

Making correct use of the bit requires the rider to understand all the aids equally. Since the use of the other aids are just as important to good riding and I am already influencing the horses direction, gait and speed with my legs and seat, I have no difficulty dropping the reins for mounted archery or combat and do so without lanes or barriers to control the horse.

I am not telling you which bit to use. Nor am I saying don’t go bitless, I am just suggesting you think it though and decide which option is right for your needs for the right reasons. Whichever way you go, Light, Gentle, and Firm should be your guide.

The Vital Role of the Warm-up

When we work horses, especially young ones, we ask them to give us not only their total focus but also for a very high degree of physical exertion. As with human athletes, our equine partners require some time to develop the physical and mental strength needed for something as gentle as a simple hack through the countryside, let alone upper level competition. Most trainers realize that a regular routine intended to relax and warm-up the green horse is vital to successful training. As time goes by however, the horse advances, becomes stronger and steadier and these warm-up routines are often cut back or even abandoned. I firmly believe this to be a mistake.

Regardless of how advanced their training, every time we ride our horses we are putting stress on them both physically and mentally. When we lead our horses from the grooming rack, climb up and head straight off into strenuous riding, we increase those stresses. Even when we are just riding the horse down the trail at a walk, the very fact that we are on their backs at all places demands on their muscles, joints and tendons that otherwise would not be present when the horse moves at liberty.

The justification for not making the warm-up a priority often sounds something like this:

“Of course I had to start slow when he was young, but now his is full grown and much stronger. Now I just save the time I used to spend warming up for advancing the training.”

At first blush this appears to a logical view, and while our horses do in fact get stronger as we train them, it’s also a fact that we tend to increase the demands we put on them at a similar rate.

It’s easy to recognize the necessity of preparing the young horse before each training session, but the benefits of a regular warm-up routine are just as vital to the finished horse.  Just like the highest level of human athlete, the upper level equine athlete actually requires more time warming up—the more advanced they are the more vital it is to warm-up in order to avoid injury. Fact is, every ridden horse, regardless of level, benefits physically from being properly prepared for each ride. Most benefit mentally as well.

Here is my typical warm-up routine:

Longeing. This is where I start with young horses. By longeing I do not mean running the horse round in circles with line attached to the bit, in an attempt to “Let the horse run off some energy.” I mean longeing in the classical sense, where the line is attached to a cavesson as a way to facilitate long and low work. This work is done on the circle and on straight lines, both directions, to create relaxation and free movement while warming up the back.

In-Hand Work. This is where I start with intermediate horses and it replaces the longe. It takes the form of walking at the horse’s shoulder with the finger of my outside hand at the bit and the other hand holding the rein from the far side, draped over the horse’s neck. Walking along with the horse, I duplicate the hand aids from this position, asking for long and low first, to lift the back and relax the jaw and poll.  For horses not yet acclimated to the bit, this work can be done with a cavesson or ever in just a halter. I begin by working in straight lines and then move on to lateral movement—shoulder in on the circle or straight, haunches in and haunches out using a dressage whip to touch the horses where the legs of the rider would rest—to engage the inside hind leg.

Under Saddle. This replaces the in-hand and longeing after the horse has reached a certain level of training. This warm-up begins at the walk, again long and low first, stretching the top line and lifting the back. Just as with the in-hand work, this is followed by lateral work to engage, supple and prepare the haunches for carrying and moving the weight off the forehand. The rising trot is the next step and I ask the horse to be well forward, neck and head reaching forward and down. This is done to warm up and lift the back before gathering the horse back into a seated trot, continuing to the lateral work again at the trot. If the horse is advanced enough to canter, I will then ride a quiet canter in a half-seat, again to relieve the back until the canter can be collected back and a properly seated canter is possible.

I hope by now that a pattern has begun to emerge. First, we relax and mobilize the mouth, relax the jaw and poll, then we lengthen the top line, protecting the back until it lifts and rounds, before moving to lateral movement to supple and engage the hind. After this we elevate the neck and think about collection. We must start with the mind first, followed by the mouth, the back and finally the haunches.

If you follow a similar routine you may still have issues to deal with in your ride, but you greatly lessen the chances that said issues are related to the horse’s discomfort due to cold muscles and tight tendons. A warm-up routine may even prove helpful with those problems associated with an agitated mind.

There is another way you can use your warm-up routine. On those days when nothing you are trying to accomplish is successful, when every attempt to move your training forward runs into a wall and your frustration level is exceeded only by that of your horse, you can fall back to something the horse knows and accepts completely. There are just some days where ending the day with a warm-up is the best you can hope for.

Almost as important as the warm-up is a cool-down after a hard ride. Returning to the walking sections of your routine can serves as a very effective cool down as well.

I cannot reiterate enough how advantageous it is to establish your own warm-up routine and use it every time you work your horse. And yes, that goes for us riders, too.

I was not going to ride today.

It is cold and damp today, as it is all to often in Oregon in the winter. My hip and lower back have not been happy with cold and damp since my fall from Hector at the first of the month and the recovery seems to be taking forever. On such days as this my motivation to call in a horse from the pasture, groom him, tack him up and then climb up is at a low ebb. No, I was not going to ride today.

Instead, with the rain forecast for the next several days calling for 4 to 6 inches of rainfall, I decided I had best take care of as many chores ahead of time as I could.

First, I pick up the yard, three dogs don’t ya know. As I did, Jupiter stood at the arena fence and watched me, so when I was done, I picked some of the apples that remain the now completely denuded apple trees along the property line and took a few out to him. “Here ya go buddy, but I am not going to ride today, okay?”

After that, I brought in enough hay from the storage bay, into the barn, so I wouldn’t have to do it in the rain, even if the rain lasted more that the few days the forecast calls for. While I did, Jupiter stood at the entrance barn from the pasture, and watched me with his soft, curious eyes.

Next, I cleaned and bedded the five stalls currently in use. Still Jupiter stood at the entrance and watched, nickering to me each time I moved from stall to stall. I rubbed him on his velvety nose and scratched behind his ears, before heading back in the house. “Sorry buddy, but I am not going to ride today.”

In the house I cleaned up the kitchen and put dishes in the dishwasher and considered what I was going to make for dinner tonight. Jupiter stood again at the fence, looking across the arena and into the kitchen widow. I glanced at the weather station display that sits in the kitchen window, 40 degrees and showers forecast. “No, I am not going to ride today.”

I gathered some laundry, figuring to get one load done. Looking out the back-door window, there was Jupiter again, he had moved down the fence when he saw the light in the mud room come on and he was watching me still.

Last on my list was quick trip to the post office and back, which took about 15 minutes. When I got back Jupiter was out in the back pasture, but when he saw the truck pull in he trotted back to the front and up to the arena fence again. “It is not time to eat yet buddy.” I said to him as I took the mail and packages inside, but once there, I knew when I looked out the window, he would still be standing there.

He was waiting for me at the entrance to barn when I opened the gate and put his head straight into the halter. 10 minutes of grooming in the cross ties and he was clean enough for tack. Saddle, bridle, dressage whip and we were heading to the arena, me walking ahead and him following at liberty. I stepped up on the mounting block and he walked over and parked himself, the way he always does.

15 minutes of warm-up later and we are cantering in such collection as to allow me to ride in circles so small that I could place my right hand on the had of someone standing in the middle of them; flying lead changes from just a small shift of weight and turn of my body; halt, rein-back to passade. Through all of it, Jupiter is calm but animated, enthusiastic but not wound up, and oh so attentive.

My hip hurt when I got in the saddle and for much of the warm-up period, but it either stopped hurting, or I just stopped being aware of it, before the warm-up was over. By the time the ride was over, and we were walking back to the barn, at liberty just as when we walked out, I had forgotten that I had ever hurt.

I untacked him, did his post ride stretches and a couple extra treats, then I turned him back out into the pasture, where he walked slowly back out to the far pasture as I came back in the house, until it is time to bring all 5 of the boys in for the night.

My hip is starting to hurt a little again now, but I don’t mind; after all, I was not going to ride today.

Modern Lessons From the Classical Masters

This article was inspired by a comment recently made by a reader of a past article, in which I referenced the “Masters” of classical horsemanship from a few centuries ago.

“What I want to question is why the halo over the classical masters? Why do we hold them as the benchmark? We have representations of their work (writings and paintings) but no moving video. I’m not saying they aren’t who we think they are, or that I disagree with their principles, just questioning where we get our baselines from in such an arbitrary activity as sitting on the back of animal for human pleasure. Are we just romanticizing a historical era we see as particularly artistic? Every time someone says ‘well the classical masters said…’, we should be just as critical as if they had said ‘well the natural horsemanship people say…’ or ‘Olympics medalists say…’”

I thought this was a great question and observation and I feel a complete answer is called for, so…

Why do some of us modern trainers so revere the classical masters?

Let me begin by saying that I believe the dogmatic following of the teachings of any trainer, historic or modern, is misguided. We must certainly view every training method with a critical eye and I don’t think I have met a single practitioner of “classical” horsemanship that ever suggested otherwise.

I am fairly certain that in their time the followers of one “master” or another may have been as religiously devoted to just them as so many followers of today’s famous clinicians, that is by no means what I am suggesting when I quote one master or other.

The passage of time has allowed the works of the masters of the “old world” to be tested and retested for many generations by equestrian scholars dedicated to perfecting the art of horsemanship. These men were typically not following the dogma of any one personality, but were instead putting these methods to practical testing through the training of warhorses; there simply is no better crucible by which to burn away flawed or faulty practices.

Let me quickly add that there was not, and is not, a monolithic truth in “Classical Horsemanship”. While there are accepted goals that transcend the centuries and regional differences, the actual methods of the Masters of horsemanship varied wildly between individuals and time periods. One can read the works of a French trainer and those of his German contemporary and find them diametrically opposed in their views of “correct” horse training methods, even to the point of calling out one another by name as inferior horsemen.

One can also read the works of a single master at different points in his life and find him specifically contradicting his earlier works in later writings. More often however, you will find one master referring back to the teachings of the particular horsemen whose work inspired their own training methods.

The results of all this diversity and evolution of horsemanship was the formation of differing “schools” classical riding, each labeled as Classical Horsemanship, and rightly so. That German Classical School is just as “Classical” as the French Classical Method, even though they differ in how the each go about trying to achieve similar goals. The reason there is such debate today as to what constitutes “correct” or “real” classical horsemanship is that throughout the classical period (and just how long the classical period was is also a point of debate), the acknowledged masters did not always agree as to what was correct.

But all is not chaos. There are lines of practice from Master to Student, with each subsequent generation striving to improve on the works of their instructors. Each new Master would spend his career training horses for battle while teaching Kings, Princes and Nobles the art of horsemanship. All of this at a time when the skill of the rider, along with the training and ability of the horse, literally meant the difference between life and death on the battlefield. These scholars studied horsemanship in a way that’s just not practical today. We must recall that horsemanship was not a hobby or sport for these men, but a way of life.

It’s important to remember that before the time of French revolutions horsemanship was taught in University along side mathematics and literature. After that, further instruction by way of standard military service. For these men the art of horsemanship was the quest for perfection, not for a perfect score. They sought to impress their comrades in arms, commanders, sovereigns as well as their foes—not the arbitrary whims of judges. After all, the riders they pitted their skills against were very often attempting to kill them.

The horses these men worked with were carefully bred for specific conformation and temperament. It took years to raise and train, representing a huge investment in time and money. Their continued well-being and soundness was of paramount importance. Everything about classical horsemanship was aimed at maximizing the abilities and usefulness of the horse while at the same time, giving it the longest possible useful life span. Compare that to today, when even great horses seem disposable and the push to get them into competition as soon as possible is so intense.

So while the precise methods and techniques used might differ from one to another, the goals of most of the classical masters were very similar:

  1. A willing, courageous and confident horse that put all of its energy at the rider’s disposal and that could be ridden with the lightest of aids.
  2. A horse that was balance to the hind, physically developed and conditioned as to allow for all the maximum engagement and collection that conformation allowed. In other words a horse that displayed the same athleticism under saddle as it did as a young horse at play in the pasture.
  3. A horse that would maintain all the above while staying sound for a very long life of service.

Notice that I did not mention the purpose for which the horse is being trained as part of the goals. In my understanding of classical horsemanship the use of the horse is not important. A horse trained to its physical and emotional potential will perform as well as its conformation and breeding allows, regardless of the activity,unless the very nature of the activity runs contrary to these cornerstones principles.


So to answer the original question more succinctly—we look to the wisdom of the classical masters if our goals match the cornerstone principles they held paramount. Their methods are the results of generations of academically trained horseman seeking to perfect the art of horsemanship for the its own sake (as well as for purposes we agree with), while the motivation and goals of most Olympians and Natural Horsemanship clinicians are not. For the modern master horseman and women whose goals and methods do parallel classical teachings, most of them read and revere the work of the classical masters as well.

We should study the works of the classical masters and strive to understand them. We should work to apply their teaching in our own riding, observe and assess their effectiveness, discard that which does not ring true to us and take that which does and incorporate it into our own quest for perfection.

Below is my personal reading list of classical horsemanship:

  • Xenophone, The Art of the Horse, (2006) unabridged republication of the edition published by Little, Brown and Co. 1893
  • Le Maneige Royal – Antoine de Pluvinel English Translation of the 1629 work
  • A General System of Horsemanship – William Cavendish – 1743
  • School of Horsemanship – Francios Robichon de la Gueriniere – English translation first published in 1733 as Ecole de Cavalerie
  • The Gymnasium of the Horse – Gustav Steinbrecht – English translation of the late 19th Century work
  • Méthode d’équitation basée sur de nouveaux principes, (Method of riding based on new principles), François Baucher, 1842
  • H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider, 1937 – Recently translated into English
  • The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship – Alois Podhajsky – 1967

Rethink This the Next Time You Ride

Something interesting happened recently that served to drive home a central aspect of riding repeated time and time again by the classical masters; something that I myself try to teach to my students as a matter of course.

I was giving an introduction lesson to a pair of prospective students. It is my standard practice in such situations to saddle up one of my own horses and give a short demonstration of my personal take on classical riding. Obviously, it is vital that I showcase the aspects of classical riding that most differ from what modern riders view as ‘correct’. To this end, I saddled up our Lipizzaner, Jupiter.

Watching these girls riding their ponies, I observed the standard riding style of many riders today. They kicked the horses to make them go, pulled back on the reins to stop, opening one rein to bend the horse in order to turn, etc. So in an attempt to drive home how dramatically more subtle the aids can be combined to influence and guide the horse, I had chosen to ride Jupiter because he is currently the lighter and more responsive of our horses. I asked both girls to watch my ride and describe for me how I was maneuvering him precisely through and around obstacles, in balanced and collected gaits. As I wanted to impress on them the high level of connection Jupiter and I share, I was consciously trying to conceal my aids by making them as light as I could possibly make them.  Here is the epiphany: the more I focused on concealing my aids, the more responsive he became.

I have written in the past about the “nature of lightness” and how words like “light”, “gentle” and “firm” mean very different things to different people. For years I told my students to keep their aids light, but as time has passed my own understanding just how light light can be, keeps evolving. Still, I was amazed at how much more responsive Jupiter was to what seemed to be the slightest hint of an aid.

I came to realize the small issues I still have with him are based solely on the limits of my ability to keep the aids independent of his powerful movement. This is made even harder when I divide my attention between riding and focusing on competing. However, when I focused 100% on my riding with the goal of maintaining a flexible, consistent, outwardly imperceptible connection with him, he gave me back 100% willing acquiescence.

I know this sounds a lot like things most of us have heard before, but I encourage everyone to rethink this the next time they ride. As a test, I suggest that you attempt to ride for a time as if you were trying to conceal your aids from an outside observer. Try to guide your horse through a collection of movements and gaits consciously doing as little as possible, seeking to connect with your horse to the point that while remaining totally relaxed, you are able to make him understand what you are thinking before telling him through stronger aids use.

Obviously the level of training a given horse has will determine just how connected the two of you can be, but riding like this will make every horse more responsive over time. Each ride, increase the aid to get the desired response and return to the lowest possible level the instant the horse indicates he understands. The next time you ask, start by asking at this lower level and not at the level you had to rise to before. The more precisely you can apply your aids in concert with the correct movement of the horse, while remaining independent of that movement yourself, the lighter the aids can be applied effectively.

In time, if you are consistent in your work, I am sure you will come to a new understanding that light can be lighter than you ever thought possible and with any luck, this process will continue for all of us throughout our riding careers.

Low Hands – A Classical Position

NESTIER1How many of us have been reprimanded for not ‘keeping our hands low’ when we ride? It is one of the mainstays of equitation along with ‘heels down’ and ‘eyes up’.  I don’t think I have ever met a person who was not taught this. I have also never had a rider be able to tell me why they must keep their hands low; they just know they simply have to keep their hands low at all times. But here’s the thing: you don’t. In fact I teach that for some aspects of horse training, and therefore as an important part of rider training, you don’t want to keep your hands low.

Okay, before I am burned as an apostate to the true religion of equitation, let me explain.

I maintain that all of these foundation principles (heels down, eyes up, hands low, elastic contact, independent seat, etc.) are ideals for a skilled rider riding a fully trained horse. Just as a rounded back, elevated forehand, relaxed poll and stepping under from the hind are all ideals of a classically trained and properly conditioned horse, ridden by a skilled rider.  So what is the problem? If these are the ideal aspects of good riding, why shouldn’t we drill ourselves into maintaining them at all times? The problem is that when we do this we confuse the goals with the methods of achieving them; or worse, focus on appearance over substance.

Example 1:

For a horse early in its training, it is highly unlikely it will be able to both lift its back and elevate its neck at the same time. For this to be possible, the horse must be physically conditioned to strengthen and ‘round’ its back while supporting the rider before work on elevating the neck or lifting the shoulders can be attempted. To attempt to put the horse in the ‘ideal’ elevation for collection, without such conditioning, will invariably result in a tight poll, hollowed back, and loss of hind end engagement. To strengthen its back, the horse is worked in a long and low position, first on the lunge and later under saddle. This is not the ‘ideal’ classical riding position but it is ideal for the goal of strengthening and rounding the horse’s back.

Example 2:

A fully trained and conditioned horse should be mobile in the jaw and relaxed at the poll, through acceptance of the bit. This allows the rider’s hands to be light and connected through the reins in order to affect the legs of the horse. It coincidentally allows gravity to cause the head to hang as close to the vertical as the specific conformation of the horse naturally allows.  It is the relaxation of the poll and mobility of the jaw that is the ideal, not vertical position of the head. Attempting to ‘put’ the horse’s head on the vertical by force causes the horse to brace the jaw and tighten the poll. thus preventing connection through the hand. You may get the horse’s frame to look the way you think it should look, but you lose the whole reason the vertical headset is desirable in the first place.

Example 3:

Heels down should mean allows your legs to relax to such a degree that your heels sink below the point where you foot rests in the stirrup. This allows the leg to fall naturally under the rider’s hips, with a light, ‘breathing’ contact on the side of the horse. This makes for precise, light leg aids and improves the independent  seat, while improving the rider’s balance and making her more secure in the saddle. “Put your heels down” too often results in the rider pushing her heels down by using the stirrup as a brace for the toes. This results in the stirrup being pushed forward, thus losing the vertical alignment of the body. It also creates muscle tension in the leg and lower back that robs the rider of an independent seat and subtle connection through the leg aids.

What I am trying to say is simply this; we must be cognizant of the Why while we are working on the What. If you don’t understand why you are being told to do something, you should ask your instructor to explain it in a way that actually makes sense to you. “Because that is how it is done” is not a good answer, nor is “Because the judge will count off for it.”

So back to low hands. First let us be sure we all have the same definition of what Low Hands means. By low hands most people mean hands at or slightly above the withers.  While what I ask for from my students are hands held at such a level as to form even line from elbow to bit, when riding in a snaffle, two handed. This is at or just above the withers IF the horse’s poll is relaxed and it is accepting the bit. If the horse’s head rises, the hands must rise to keep the line from elbow to bit. Force the hands to stay low and you are pulling the bit down into the tongue.

For the Classical Masters, the ultimate goal in training a horse was the most subtle, almost invisible connection with the horse; more specifically, to ride the horse in one hand on the curb, with little to no outwardly visible aids. So, bio-mechanically, why do we move our hands when the horse moves? Because to maintain the subtle connection we have through the reins we must have a consistent connection to the horse’s mouth. That means follow the movement of the head and neck. The neck moves up and down from the attachment point below the withers, so the further from that point we keep our hands the more we have to move to keep the connection. Now the head moves from side to side at the Axis and up and down at the Atlas. This movement, when riding one handed on a curb, is taken up first by the relaxed jaw and poll, then by the slightly slack reins, and finally by the fingers. So, on a finished horse, you ride with your left hand low to the withers and only have to move your fingers and wrist to guide the horse. For this to be successful, the horse must be flexible at the poll, relaxed in jaw, and accepting the bit. If all of these factors are present and/or the horse has developed into absolute self-carriage, the hand never has to rise.

But here is the catch (yes, there is always a catch): a horse that does not readily accept the bit will not relax the jaw or poll, and hands held rigidly low will never cause the horse to willingly accept the bit. Also, attempting to ‘bring the horse’s head down’ by forcing the hands low, will only put the bit on to the horse’s tongue and will cause the it to either fight to raise its head, in order to get the bit angle back to the corner of the mouth, or drop behind the vertical to get away from the bit that way.

Perhaps I need to clarify a few things. There is a huge difference between hands allowed to rest low and hands being kept/pushed/held low, just as there is a great difference heels being allowed to fall and the heels being pushed down. Hands lifted to apply an aid are very different from hands just being held up in the air or hands pulling the horses head up. Anytime force is being used, instead of an aid being applied, elasticity of connection is lost; not because a particular muscle is being used, but because several muscles are being used in opposition. For instance, the bicep is being used when the hands are low, elbows bent, and the line from the elbow to the bit is a proper even line. This is the only way for the hand to be supported in line with the rein. It does not have any affect on the movement of the shoulder or elbow, both of which are required for connection, as long as the rider is not clutching or gripping the reins in a closed fist. As long as the arms and hands are relaxed, lifting the hand does nothing to reduce elasticity. If the arms and/or hands are tense, the connection is going to be inflexible regardless of the position of the hands.

The horse does elevate the neck in response to greater engagement from the hind end and as the horse advances the aid request to ask them to elevate becomes less and less and eventually almost nil. However, to teach the horse Halt and Reinback, I will move the horse’s balance toward the hind legs by gently lifting the reins, elbows at my side. As the training progresses, the lifting aid is reduced more and more, until the closing of the low hand produces the same results with no lifting at all. Similarly I will ask the horse in training to turn his head at the Axis with a lifted hand to begin with, and a slight turn of the wrist in the end. Again, the slight aid from the relaxed hand, without lifting is the ideal; the aids applied though lifting is part of the process that gets us there.

Literally lifting the horse’s head with your force of your lifting hands will cause tension as the horse fights to resist. A request for elevation with a gentle lifted rein aid that retains the light, flexible connection to the horse’s mouth, does not have to.

Simply put, any aid that is applied with gentleness and focus and that does not lose the flexible connection, is a useful aid, even if it is done with a rising hand. Any aid that is applied with force, in opposition to the natural movement of the horse or which results in resistance from the horse, is wrong, even if the hand is kept low. It is not the hand position which decided if an aid is applied well or not, it is the flexibility or connection and lack of force.

What other situation are there where we do not want low hands? One of the methods I use to help the horse relax the poll is to ask for a little flexion of the neck and a turning of the head at the axis, as this prevents the horse from blocking the poll because to block the horse must use the muscles on both sides of his neck equally. To do this, I lift one rein and hold a gentle contact steadily until the horse offers to give to that side. As this is an upward action and not backward, I must lift my hand.  Lifting both hands gently and maintaining contact until the horse offers to lower its head called ‘Action – Reaction’ and is used to ask for the horse to accept the bit and reach forward and lower the head into the ‘long and low’ position. To ask a horse to elevate its neck, and upward lifting of the hand, with the elbows at your side, timed to correspond the natural upward movement of the neck as it walks or canters, is used. There are other times during the training of the horse when the hand should be lifted in order to achieve a specific goal, but these should give you the idea.

What I would like riders to do is to actively consider the why when you do what you do while riding and not just follow dogmatically what you are told are the rules of equitation.  I strongly believe that the only way a person can internalize and fully absorb the instruction they are getting is when they are well informed as to the reason behind the actions and the cause and effect of the work they are doing.

So yes, by all means, strive for low hands, but don’t confuse the destination for the journey.

The Nature of Lightness

lightnessOh sure, this will be an easy article to write…

Lately I have been thinking about what is meant by being ‘light’ when we ride our horses. I have come to the conclusion that this is a one of the most difficult topics to have a discussion about because the word ‘light’ seldom means the same thing to everyone taking part in the discussion.

To some, it means barely touching the horse through the aids. To others, it means only 10lbs of contact through the aids instead of 15lbs. For one person light means never putting bit in the horse’s mouth, to another it could mean to apply the spurs on every stride, with the reins held ‘securely’ at all times. So often when I talk to someone about their riding and remind them they should strive to ride lightly, they nods and say “Of course, I always do.” and the conversation ends there without a common understanding ever being established and not improvement forthcoming.

What I hope to do in the article is try to break down the various kinds of ‘light’ we might be talking about and see if I can help us come to some common understanding.

Lightness of the Hand

This is the most commonly discussed subject I have encountered when it comes to the use of the word “light” and frequently the most likely to lead to misunderstanding. Lightness of the hand is not so much a matter of how hard we hold the horse in the bit as much as how flexibly. A horse will more readily accept 5lbs of contact on the bit if this contact is fully flexible and following the natural movement of the horse’s head, than they are to accept contact that shifts from 0 to 5 ounces in a inflexible hand that allows the reins to keep alternating between slack and contact on every step.

As an example, I have a student who’s concern about being too rough on the horse’s mouth borders on a phobia. She has seen so many riders hauling on their horses to stop or steer them, or watched riders cranking down on their horse’s head to achieve some desired frame, and is so dead set against ever being one of those people that she resists the idea of having any contact through the reins at all. When she rides a finished horse, which is well prepared for riding on a slack rein, she is very comfortable, relaxed and light, because she doesn’t feel any contact through the slack rein. For most riders this would be fine, but she has an interested in classical riding and while riding in a curb with one hand was the goal of most classical masters, it is goal that is achieved through first riding in contact on a snaffle bit. For her, ‘light’ and ‘contact’ are hard to reconcile. Consequently, she is finding it difficult to adjust to maintaining a flexible contact through the reins and as a result the horse is unwilling to accept the bit and this leads to tension between them, frustration and eventually a breakdown in communication. When I try to explain that she should have so flexible and light a connection through the reins that she can feel when the horse work the bit in its mouth, her brow furrows and she tells me she can’t feel that. Here my attempt to explain what I mean by ‘light’ has failed completely. This is my fault because I am using terms and giving examples that she cannot relate to yet.

Lightness of the Seat or Balance

Part of the reason we fail to adequately communicate when we discuss lightness of the hand is that it is not just about the hand. Yes, this form of lightness stems partly from the flexible connection through the reins, but it is also greatly dependant on having the horse well balanced forehand to haunches, left side to right. You cannot achieve a halt with a gentle squeeze on the reins and adjustment to your seat if the horse is heavy on the forehand. You cannot cause the horse to turn with a slight movement of the hand, turn of the shoulder and/or shift of balance, if the horse is not first flexible and in balance equally from side to side.

There are schools of training and styles of riding that pride themselves on how light the horse becomes. They ride on a slacks rein, sometimes with just halter and ‘guide’ the horse left or right with a sweeping motion of the hand and stop the horse by pulling back on the reins lightly. For the practitioners of this way of riding, this is the very essence of lightness. This method uses repetition and conditioning to create and automatic response to the touch of the rein on the neck. For a great many that prefer this way of training, there is no contact through the rein at all and the balance of the horse is less important because they are not affecting balance to direct the horse, as much as giving a cue and the horse is reacting. The flexible contact of the classical methods of training seem far from light to these riders, while the classical rider will often see this ‘non-contact’ form of riding to lack connection and therefore precision.

Both of these forms of riding, when done well, are ‘light’. They simply seek their ideal of lightness in very different ways; to achieve very different goals from their training. Neither is intrinsically superior to the other. They are however suited to different ways of riding and not interchangeable to a great degree.

Lightness of the Leg

The light use of the leg, just like the hands, can be approached from more than one direction. For some it means keeping the leg completely off the horse unless being used to specifically cue the horse. For others it means keeping the leg lightly resting against the horse, in flexible contact at all times and it is by gently increasing and then relaxing the leg that the aid is applied. It both cases the aim is to have the horse respond quickly to leg aid, but like the hands, one method aims for a more automatic response to a cue and the other seeks to influence the movement of the horse legs by timing the aids to the movement of a specific step of a particular leg. The balance of the horse is still more important to getting the desired response from the classical leg aids, but both can be very light with the proper training. Again, different goals lead to different methods and again, both can be done harshly, with unkind results. I.e. one rider might have the skills to employ spurs with the lightest of touches, while another kicks the horse forcefully and stresses out the horse with no spur in sight.

When it comes to the leg aids, I tell my students that there are four levels of pressure you can apply. I break them down as Hair, Skin, Muscle and Bone, referring how deeply the contact is felt. I tell them that the ideal is to brush the cuff of the boot across the hair of the horse and they respond instantly. Of course to get to the ideal, we will have to touch skin and sometimes muscle, until through consistent application of the leg aids, timed to the precise movement of the horse, our aids can become lighter and lighter. What about the Bone level of contact? I say if you find yourself there, you are off the path and have lost sight of you goal; you must go back to the first level of contact and start again.

We all get frustrated from time to time and this can lead to a loss of perspective. While slightly over-doing the leg aids is not usually damaging to the horse, physically or emotionally, it must still be avoid whenever possible.

Lightness of Intent

There is one more kind of lightness I want to discuss and that is Lightness of Intent. This form of lightness underpins all the others. Not just the lightness of the aids, but all that we do with our horses. Fetching the horse from the pasture, leading, grooming, shoeing, vetting and all the many aspects of training and riding, find their foundation in the lightness of our intent. This aspect of lightness is the central concept that dictates that we try to never demand but always ask, request rather than force and understand before we punish.

Here are some examples.

You go out to the pasture to fetch our horse where she walks away from you and doesn’t want to be caught. You can become forceful and run the horse around the pasture until she is exhausted and gives up, allowing you to catch her, or you can walk precisely as to show her that no matter where she tries to go, you are going to be there in path and that you are willing to take a long as it takes, so she might as well just stop and let you approach.

You have caught the horse and put the halter on her and are ready to lead her to the grooming area. You can take hold of the lead right near the clip and hold if firmly, keeping a secure contact to lead the horse, jerking on the lead if she tries to walk too slow or too fast or stop to try to eat grass. Alternatively, you can give the horse a few feet of slack, holding the lead loosely in your open right and with the rest coiled in your left, only closing your right hand momentarily if she stops, or tries to lower her head to eat, then opening it again the instant she if again following you. If she tries to walk ahead of you, you simply make a small circle to your left and she falls behind you again.

During the grooming process when you want your horse to step over, you can push on her hard or smack her with our brush when she leans into the push instead of moving, or you can use light, pulsation touches against her side, saying quietly “Step over.” and praising her when she makes any movement in the desired direction.

I could go on and on with these sorts of examples, but I think I have made my point. I am only going to discuss one more way that Lightness of Intent is important in the training of horses.

Make No Demands

“Make No Demands” is something that I remind my students often and sometimes need to remind myself as well. By this I mean that lightness in our training and riding requires that we try to never force our horse to do something. We must only ask them and strive to make our request as clear and consistent as we possibly can. Resistance from the horse is almost always a matter of misunderstanding, distraction or physical inability to do what we are asking of them. None of these situations is improved by force. While there are times when a horse can become willful, when they are tired, frustrated or afraid, but it is not an intentional attempt to thwart us in our goals. The simple fact is the horse is almost certainly unaware of what your goals actually are. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I don’t make him do this, he will learn he can get away with not obeying.”? Usually when trying to get the horse to step into a trailer or across an obstacle or to canter or back up, etc. This to me is just about the most ridiculous concept I have ever heard. So the horse won’t step into the trailer; it is not refusing to spite you. It has a reason, even if you can’t perceive what the reason is, and making your life difficult is not it. Perhaps on this day, getting him to put both front feet in is all you are going to be able to ‘ask’ of him. If he doesn’t step all the way in, he is not going to learn he never has to step in. He has no idea what your goal is, so today make your goal getting him to put both front feet in, praise him and call it a success. Tomorrow is another day.

“I have time.” has to be your motto. If your horse has trailering issues, then work on it on days when you don’t need go anywhere. If you horse does not lead well, then work on it when you have nowhere you must lead him. If he doesn’t stand for the farrier, then start asking him to lift and allow you to hold his feet when there is no farrier around. For resistance while riding, take the time to make sure your horse is strong enough and flexible enough to actually do what you are asking him to do, then “Ask often, accept little, and reward lavishly”.

In conclusion let me leave you with this story.

A short time ago I allowed a friend to ride on of my horses. This horse is very light to the aids and sensitive and the person is an experienced and skilled rider. There should have been no issues between them, except for the small issue that they are not training with precisely the same concept of aid use. He is very light in the hand and responsive to the leg, but she is accustomed to riding primarily with seat cues. Consequently, she steps up on him and rides as she is trained to ride, by asking him to move in a specific way with a specific seat cue, which he does not understand. This shouldn’t be a problem, she has excellent hands and is not too strong with her legs, given time he would begin to understand her intent and eventually come to respond to the new aid use. The problem is, he was loaned to her to use at a competition and there was little time for them to come learn to communicate. So, she rode as she was accustomed and he reacted as he was trained, but the time constraint gave insufficient opportunity for them to come to an understanding. The result was he got confused and excited and the normally light and responsive horse became touchy and over sensitive and the lines of communication broke down. She kept trying to make him understand, he kept trying to give her what he thought she wanted, but the result was neither. Now this was not her fault and not his fault, it was my fault for failing to see the true source of the difficulty and realizing it was not going to be a great day for either of them. No one got hurt and no damage was done to his training. Once he had a familiar rider on is back, giving him the input he expected, he as the wonderful, giving animal he had been.

The moral of the story is that lightness of the aids, starts with lightness of intent and when that is lost, for whatever reason, all hope for lightness, in any form, will elude you.

The Horse’s Vision and Its Effects on Horsemanship

The Horse's EyeOur horses see the world very differently from us in many ways. These differences, due to structure and placement of their eyes, have profound influences on how they react to visual stimuli and should be thoughtfully considered during their training and indeed in all aspects of horsemanship. These differences include field of view, color perception, light adjustment, motion detection, acuity and much more. In this article I hope to detail some of the differences and how they relate to training, riding and caring for horses.

Field of view

The horse’s eye is the largest of all land mammals and their location gives the animal a nearly 360° field of view; that is ‘nearly’ 360°. The horse cannot see directly in front of themselves for a short distance, nor directly behind themselves, unless they move their head. This is why we are all taught never to approach a new horse from either of these directions and to always make them aware of our location as we pass behind them. It is important to note that even though the horse can see in nearly a complete circle, only about 20% of that vision is binocular, the remaining 80% is monocular vision. This means that most of the field of view is seen by only one eye. This explains why your horse will try to swing his head to the side or ever turn his body, to look at something that has ‘caught an eye’. This is why it is so important that we earn the trust and respect of our horses in order to have them able to concentrate on the work we ask of them and not go casting about with their gaze in order to bring things into full view and enable depth perception.

Field of ViewOne of the interesting things about the monocular peripheral vision of the horse, is that he is capable of seeing out of both eye simultaneously and separately. This is in part due to the limited corpus calossum development in the horse’s brain. The corpus calossum serves to transfer information from one side of the brain to the other and without good transfer, the two sides are left to operate essentially independently of each other. The advantage this gives the horse is that they can effectively look in two directions at once. The disadvantage is that something seen out of one eye, may not be recognized when seen again out of the other. This is why your horse may treat something as new and scary when passing it on the right side when it has already passed it on the left side several times without fear.

Another vital aspect of the horse’s field of view is that though it has binocular vision for about a 65° degree arc, this arc is actually rather narrow vertically.  Consequently, the horse needs to lift its head to focus its vision on objects at a distance and lower its head to see something on the ground in front of them. This is why the horse will lift its nose as its speed of travel increases, looking further ahead in order to have the time to adjust to changing conditions and obstacles in its path. You may notice that jumpers and cross country riders always allow the horse to ‘have its head’ on the approach to enable it to look at the approaching jump and even with this, the last stride of the jump is being done blind by the horse.

AcuityA horse ridden ‘on the bit’ or ‘on the vertical’ can only see limited distance in front of them and should not be expected to maintain this headset for faster work; which also means a horse ridden behind the vertical or with its head very low, is effectively blind to anything beyond a very short distance ahead. Is it surprising that we sometimes witness highly trained dressage mounts suddenly blowing up and having a panic attacks during tests.

This may also explain why horses are generally more willing to relax their poll, thus allowing the head to fall onto the vertical, while working on a circle. While moving in a circle they are looking only a short distance ahead as compared to when they are working along the wall. There are obviously other factors at work when schooling the horse on the circle, but the horse’s field of view should be considered along with them.

I feel it is important that we not ask a horse to maintain a vertical head position for extended periods of time, but rather to break them up with frequent periods of freedom to lift their heads and have a look around.

Color Vision

Color RangeA lot of people believe horses to be unable to see color, but research indicated this is not the case. It is true they are not able to see color as distinctly as we do, however they do see the world in color.  Painting jumps standards strongly contrasting colors has been done for many years for the very reason they it helps the horse distinguish them from the background of the arena.  There is evidence to indicate that horse have a degree of color blindness, but this does not mean they cannot see any color, it only means they might perceive the color red, much the same way as a human with red/green color blindness. So if you wish the paint your arena elements  to help your horse see them better, white and blue would be more useful than red and green.

Light Adjustment

Horses are far better adapted to see in low light situation then we are. They can perceive objects in light levels so low as to be essentially pitch black to us. What they cannot do as well as us is adjust to rapidly changing light levels. This is why they will stand for several moments blinking blindly when a light is turned on in a dark barn. It also explains why a horse might balk at entering the shadowed end of an area or refuse to step into a dark trailer on a sunny day. This is something we must be cognizant of in all our dealings with horse, just because you are able to look into a dark place and see that it is perfectly safe, does not mean your horse can.

Motion Detection

Horses are highly sensitive when it comes to spotting motion. When unexpected motion is detected in the peripheral vision, which has poor acuity, the horse’s first instinct is not to turn and look at it with both eyes, bring it into focus and determine what it is and how far away; its first instinct is to run to a absolutely safe distance, then turn and look. Have you ever notices how nervous your horse gets when riding outdoors on windy days? It is because EVERYTHING is moving and he cannot determine what is threat from what is not.

Here again I must reiterate how important it is that you have your horse’s trust and respect and by this I do NOT mean your horse should be more afraid of disobeying your command than it is of that thing moving over in the bushes. I am saying your horse should have come to respect your judgment and worthiness as a leader and trust you to protect him so if you do not think it is worth getting scared about, he won’t concern himself with it.

Obviously this could be a topic for another article or even a whole book, but suffice to say that one of the main factors that you will want to keep in mind is the ‘connection’ to the horse. By connection I mean riding in presence, being aware of your horse and making him aware of you, through the aids at all times. I am not talking about micromanaging every motion of the horse. What I am suggesting is that by keeping the seat independent, moving with the horse, the hands light and rein aids flexible and keeping your legs lightly touching the horse’s side at all times, you can maintain mutual communication with your horse. By doing so, you will become aware right away when he is startled by some movement or sound and is instinctively reacting with flight. This way you can react more quickly to counter this reaction with a calm firming of the aids for just a moment; in other words catching the spook before it becomes a run and assuring the horse that you are right there with him, protecting him and that he has nothing to fear.

Visual Acuity

I mentioned the acuity of the peripheral vision in a previous section, now let’s addresses it more completely.

In general the horse has slightly less visual acuity than we do, though still better than a lot of other animals we are familiar with; cats or dogs for instance see with less acuity than do horse. Horses may have an advantage on us when it comes to seeing at great distance, but in the middle distance and up close, they are weaker. It is very important however that that we remember factors specific to the horse’s acuity.

First, due to a linear area of the eye where the concentration of ganglion cells very high, there is formed a “visual streak” where acuity is radically higher then outside this area. This ‘streak’, along with the placement of the eyes on skull is what creates the narrow field of focus for the horse, I discussed earlier.

The other aspect we must keep in mind about the horse’s visual acuity is that the horse changes focus MUCH slower than we do. Our eyes have evolved to be able to almost instantly change focus when we shift our gaze from near to far or vice versa, however the horse’s eyes take much longer by comparison. When we spot something moving out of the corner of our eye ‘over there’ and glance over to see what it is, we can very quickly determine what it is, if it is moving at us and whether or not it is a threat, then go on about our ride. because the horse is simply not able to do this, so we must be cognizant of fact and consider it as we train or ride.


I will wrap up this article by suggesting that as responsible horse owners it is incumbent on us to be aware of, and take into consideration, how differently our horse perceives his world from how we see it.

When we find ourselves thinking “What has gotten into this horse, what does he see, there is nothing over there?” it would serve our best interests, as well as those of the horse, to remember that what he is seeing my be  very different from what we are seeing.

It is also vital to keep in mind how the frame we are asking the horse to adopt affects how and what he can see. Consider for a moment, how calm you would be if someone blindfolded you and asked you to run an obstacle course?

We ask a great deal from out equine partners by way of trust and obedience. It is up to us to be sure we are deserving of this trust by not asking that it be blind.

Want A Better Ride? Remember To Smile

Just before his 6th birthday

So here is an unusual little tip I was never told by any riding instructor, ever. If you are having a difficult ride, smile about it. Yup, that’s it. That’s the whole tip. Find something about the situation that brings a great big smile to your face.

For you Harry Potter fans out there, think of a bad ride as your very own personal Dementor, sucking the life energy out of you and stealing every happy feeling. To combat it, find a happy thought and hold on to it. Allow some part of the experience to amuse you enough to make you smile and you may well find your Patronus is the horse you are sitting on.

Harry Potter analogies too much? Okay, how about some facts.

  • Smiling slows the heart rate and relaxes the body.
  • Smiling releases endorphins that actually lifts our mood.
  • Smiling helps to counteract and diminish stress hormones.
  • Smiling lessens pain, as the same endorphins that give us a sense of wellbeing, also serve to reduce pain.
  • Smiling widens our focus and opens us up to insights that come from the fringes of our perception, by reducing the ‘tunnel vision’ which limits our perception and narrows our view, that is symptomatic of stress.
  • Smiling is contagious. When others see you smile, many will smile with you and the positive effects of smiling are reflected between people, increasing the benefits for all involved.
  • Smiling opens you empathically to other living creatures, allowing you to ‘feel’ your horse’s emotional state more accurately and influencing it for the better.

Okay, that last one is a more of a personal observation than a provable fact, but I believe it to be true.

There are other observations I have made while working with riders over the years. I cannot prove any of this either, but this is what I believe I have experienced. If you give it some thought, you can probably connect these observations to the list of effects above.

  • Riders who smile are more likely to remember to praise their horse for correct behavior and less likely to punish for perceived mistakes.
  • Riders who smile move more freely with their horse.
  • Riders who smile are trusted more by their horse.
  • Riders who smile retain more of their instruction.
  • Riders who smile can ride longer before becoming fatigued.
  • Riders who smile appear to others to be having a better ride and receive positive reactions from observers. (Except of course for judges in sports were smiling is frowned upon. Something I have never understood.)

Even my students who are so focused on trying to follow some instruction or master some technique that their faces become a mask on concentration but who are not actually unhappy, perform better when they sacrifice a little of that concentration and allow themselves to find and express joy in what they are doing.

The smile need not be some toothy grin either. There are those who ride with an inner calm and serenity, and don’t express it with a broad smile on their face. Such riders are often so engaged with the joyful experience of riding that they are appear to be almost in their own reality, but I am willing to bet if you could step into that reality with them for a time, you find they are smiling radiantly.

Everything I have mentioned above holds true for me just as it does anyone else. Just like everyone else I have rough days and bad moods. We have all experienced that downward spiral, or ‘snowball effect’, where one minute things are going well, the next some small issue appears that annoys or frustrates us; that turns into tension, which makes the issue worse, making us more stressed, making the problem worse, and so on, and so on. Eventually the rides ends unsatisfactorily for us. We put our horse away gruffly and take our dark mood home with us. This situation is damaging to our riding and training as it is to our emotional state. It is also terribly unfair to our horses who cannot help but feel our emotional state, being fantastically more aware of such things than we are.

To avoid this, we have to first realize the spiral has begun and strive to reverse it before it reaches a point of no return. Letting go of frustration and stress is as easy as finding something in the situation to genuinely smile about.

How do we find that something to smile about when the ride has taken a turn for the worse, with all the accompanying darkening of mood that comes with it? I wish I could tell you a simple trick. Hell, I wish someone could tell me a simple trick. All I can tell you is try to keep things lighthearted. We all have to strive to see the humor in every problem, the light that is casting the shadow, and remember why we ride horses in the first place.

Developing The Independent Seat: Learning To Feel The Horse At The Walk

I maintain that one of the most important abilities any rider can learn is to be consciously aware of how the horse moves under them. Ideally, we should be able to determine which foot is moving and how in a given gait. As we gain more experience and our riding skills improve, we should eventually be able to precisely influence this movement by increasing or decreasing the amount of movement, as well as its direction. By extension, the rider also gains the ability to remain neutral to this motion as they ride, and is able to apply the aids independent of it.

To do this well, the rider must be able to isolate the movements of their own body selectively, in relation to the motion of the horse. For instance, being able to synchronize the swing of the horse’s rib cage, movement of its shoulders and rising and falling of the hips with their own, without causing a change in the rider’s leg positions and contact or affecting the rider’s shoulders and through them, the hands. Inversely, the rider must be able to apply the leg, hand and seat aids, subtly and precisely, without having any unintended effect on the movement of the horse. This ability is often called “The Independent Seat.”

To have an independent seat, the rider must have the ability to move their hips freely while their legs and shoulders remain still; to turn their shoulders without it affecting the movement of the hips; to lean forward and back; to move their leg position and increase or decrease contact through them; all this while causing no loss of freedom of movement of the hips. This sort of isolation of the regions of the body is not something very many people are naturally able to do. For most of us this ability only comes after a great deal of practice.

I was fortunate in that I grew up studying a number of martial arts, which required me to develop a fairly high level of body awareness before I ever began riding. Students of dance, gymnastics or other comparable activities, often bring similar skill to riding. For everyone else, it becomes one of the many things that must be learned in order to become an accomplished rider.

To help my students develop these abilities I put them on a horse that moves well on the lunge line, with only a bareback pad between them and the horse’s back. I can then direct the actions of the horse from the ground, leaving the rider free to focus exclusively on what they are feeling under them. The goal being to give them a variety of exercises aimed at increasing their awareness of how the different movements of the horse feel, and at the same time help them develop the ability to selectively isolate their own movements from those of horse and from this comes balance. I know this sort of training is often associated with teaching children, but I find it benefits riders of any age.

While such training can be done at the trot–and even the canter–for the purpose of this article, I am only going to talk about work done at the walk.

Proper “Classcial” Seat

Once the rider is settled in on the horse, after climbing up from a mounting block or getting a leg up, I address their posture and position on the horse. I ask them to sit up as straight as possible on all three points of their seat evenly, off the horse’s shoulders, but not too far back, legs falling directly under them, with a slightly bent knee, calves in light contact with the side of the horse and their foot level with the ground. The alignment should be: ears, shoulders, hips, heels, with their arms resting as if holding reins, elbows matching the line of the heels and forearms in line toward the horse’s mouth. The position should be such that if the horse somehow magically disappeared from under the rider, they would find themselves standing on the ground, balanced, with knees bent, in what is commonly called in martial arts the ‘Horse Stance’. Only after the proper, ‘classical’ seat has been achieved do I move on the exercises.

Eyes Closed And Breath

While walking in a wide circle or straight line, I have the rider close their eyes and just take long, relaxing breaths. I do this first because most riders get nervous to one degree or another riding bareback and this nervousness tends to cause tension. Until they have fully relaxed, there is little the rider can feel of the horse and what they do feel is already be affected by their own tension.

Feel The Count

I next have them count the steps of the walk and take note of how each of the four beats of the walk affect their movement. The hips move forward and to the left, then back, then forward to the right, then back. The forward/left motion corresponding to the swinging forward of the left foreleg. The back motion that follows is the right hind stepping up under toward the right fore. The forward/right motion is the right foreleg stepping up, just before the right hind touches down. The back motion that follows that is the left hind stepping toward the left fore, just before it all repeats. Through concentration and focus, the rider begins to be able to feel which foot is moving and when.

Hand On Head

I then have the rider lift one arm and put their hand on top of their helmet, keeping it there for a few moments as the horse continues to walk. This has the effect of freeing the riders hips to move readily with the movement of the horse. The reason for this has to do with how the hips and shoulders are connected through the rider’s core, but the details are not important right now. What is important is that is causes the rider to steady and isolate their shoulders from their hips, while at the same time allowing the hips more mobility. I return to this exercise from time to time when I see the action of hips start to tighten or when I feel the rider needs to renew the separation of hips and shoulders.

Arms Out

By having the rider hold their arms out from their sides and shoulder height, they begin to become more aware of how much their shoulders are moving in relation to their hips. Keeping the arms level and not turning the shoulders as the hips move with the horse is the goal. It may be necessary to move from Hand On Head to Arms Out and back again several times to reach a point where the rider can both maintain their shoulders steady and their hips mobile.

Cup Of Water

From Arms Out, I have the rider bring their hands together in front of them, still at should height, hands forming a circle as if they held a cup of water. The goal of this exercise is to hold the ‘cup’ motionless in front of them as the horse walks, while maintaining full movement of the hips. Again, returning to the Hand on head exercise may be in order periodically to keep the free movement we require of the hips. You can even employ a real cup of water if you are feeling particularly cruel.

Arms Parallel

Returning to the Arms Out position, I have the rider attempt to twist at the waist until the extending arms are in line with the horse’s body, without turning the hips or losing their free movement. I have them return to facing forward right away, then have them twist the other way. Most riders will find this very difficult at first, so do not expect or ask them to be perfectly parallel, nor ask them to hold the position for an extended period of time until they are worked their way up to it over several sessions. Depending on the flexibility of individual riders, they may eventually be able to twist beyond parallel without it affecting the hips and this should actually be the ultimate goal.

Lean Forward And Back

This one sounds simple but can be very tricky, even dangerous if done incorrectly. The goal is to have the rider bend forward at the waist, over the withers of the horse without affecting the seat or the alignment of the legs, then repeat a similar motion backwards. In the beginning the rider should hold on to the front of the saddle pad to support their upper body and only bend a little in both directions. Over time, and after many sessions they will be able to bend further and further to a maximum point depending of the build and condition of the rider. Usually they are finally able to lay fully across the neck of the horse and some, especially the young ones, even manage to lay completely back without support. Whatever the eventual degree of bend, it can only be as much as can be comfortably accomplishedwithout changing the position of the legs.

Touch Points

In this exercise the rider is asked to reach out with a given hand and touch a specific point. Think of it as a mounted game of Twister. Right Hand to the Poll; left hand to right shoulder; right hand to right boot; left hand to croup and so on. Again, all these movements must not compromise the free movement of the rider’s seat or position of the legs and must be worked up to gradually over time.

All of these exercises are geared toward allowing the rider to better isolate their own movement in respect to that of the horse. With time and practice the rider becomes more comfortable and steady on the horse, more aware of this specifics of the horse’s movements and begins to learn how to influence specific movements as desired.

You will discover that each rider will have their own, unique strengths and weaknesses. Be aware of this at all times and never push someone to accomplish something based on some predetermined or arbitrary goal.

Once these exercise are mastered, it is possible to move on to doing similar exercises at the trot and eventually the canter, but don’t be in a hurry. Take your time. There is no need to rush. This sort of training should be enjoyable for horse and rider. If someone is not having fun or is uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong.