The Horse’s Vision and Its Effects on Horsemanship

Our 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 Visioncolor_vision

A 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.

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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.

My Path to Perfection

Yes, perfection is an impossible goal, we all know this, but that is irrelevant to the search for it. In this article I hope to layout the guidelines I follow in my own quest for perfection.

My personal view of the best approach to the study of classical riding–or more simply–the study of horsemanship in general, can be summed up in an overly simplistic manner: Read, Observe, Listen, Practice, Feel, and Recognize.

“The student ecuyer has to ensure as extensive as possible a cultivation of equestrian culture by fully studying works left by the Masters of the Art.” General Albert Decarpentry (1878-1956) 

First on this list is Read, something I think is very important and often neglected by many. As a student of ‘Classical Riding’ I have done a great deal of reading of treatises on horsemanship penned by masters of the art dating back to the Ancient Greeks, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on into the Napoleonic Period, right up to works of the riding masters alive today. From this study I believe I have gained a great deal of insight into the varying and evolving methods employed by horseman for more than 2000 years. I recommend such reading to everyone. This being said, all this reading of differing views, abstract theory and varying philosophies, while fascinating, has very real limits when it actually comes to learning to ride. The greatest of these limits is language.

The study of classical riding can be seen as a journey to discover the true meaning of words like Light, Flexible, Feel, Contact, Connection, Firm, Relaxed, Wiling, etc. We all use these sorts of words as we discuss riding, but very seldom are they used exactly the same way by everyone involved in the discussion. When addressing the written works of historical masters of horsemanship we can also add to this difficulty, the fact that most of them did not speak or write in English. Unless we are fortunate enough to speak multiple languages, most notably French and German, we are relying on someone else to translate the words before we tackle the task of deciphering what was meant by them. Add to this the evolution of language over time, and making sense of these works of antiquity becomes even more difficult.

There is certain factual information that can be acquired from reading alone. For instance, the bio-mechanics of the horse and how the added burden of the rider affects them, is a vital area of study for anyone seriously interested in seeking to master the art of horsemanship. As this is almost a purely scientific aspect of riding and training, it is somewhat less dependent on interpretation, but even here the mutability of words can get in the way of understanding.

“The study of the laws of movement is, without a doubt, what has to occupy first and foremost everyone who plans to further horsemanship and who does not want to wander aimlessly by himself in a sterile landscape.” Dupaty de Clam (1744-1782)

While the broader concepts of the art may be expressed adequately in spoken or written word, and careful observation can yield valuable insight, the obscurity of language is the greatest challenge to the teaching or learning the subtle nuances of classical riding and is wholly inadequate unless paired with a practical application. Even as he watches them being done, without the ability to perform what are essentially tactile dependent actions, the student is still guessing to a point. As techniques are explained and demonstrated by an instructor, the riding student is left searching about in a fog for the meaning of things he is told he should be feeling. No matter how masterfully expressed, one can not advance steadily in the art of riding from watching, reading or listening, without also applying what one sees, reads, or hears; all this under guidance and in front of the critical eye of someone who already knows.

                “In equitation what the eyes see only the hand knows…” Master João Branco Núncio

Thus, the wise rider seeks out the help of an instructor whose goals and methods appear to match the needs of the student. Taking advantage of learning from someone who is further along on the endless journey that is horsemanship, the student gets to avoid mistakes that lead down dead end paths, but more importantly, they get an outside perspective on their riding. There is nothing more important to successfully learning to ride than a critical observer with the knowledge and experience to spot the errors impossible for the rider himself to be aware of. For certainly we are unlikely tofeel when we have it right, without first applying–consistently and correctly–the techniques we are attempting to learn.

However, it is vital that we never abdicate the final judgment of what is right and true to others. The teacher may guide us, but to learn the truth of a thing the student must also feel it. Never allow strong statement of certitude to convince you of something your instincts warn you are simply wrong. Obviously, no instructor thinks their understanding is wrong, but some have to be, what with so many diametrically opposing training methods being taught. Even an instructor who IS well down the same path as you, may have reached faulty conclusions as some point. The wise students listens carefully, asks many questions, and once certain of the lesson being taught, weighs it against his own instinct.

“Nature is the foremost teacher. Its book is the most correct and wisest of all books, the most useful when you need advice. From the effects that are recorded on its pages it leads us to their causes. It explains to us in our activities better than the most convincing theories and most brilliant treatises.” General Alexis L´Hotte (1825-1904)

So my advice is:

  • Read the written works of the Masters which have stood the test of time.
  • Watch the riders whose skills you would most like to emulate.
  • Listen to those more experienced and knowledgeable than yourself.
  • Practice diligently under the critical eye of a good instructor.
  • Try to feel when the connection and partnership is improving.
  • Recognize the Truth in what you are doing and discard anything that is not.

And no matter how skillful you become, continue doing all these things for the rest of your riding career.

What Is Most Important…

What should our goals be when training a horse?  What is most important and what are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?

To some, it is the immediacy of the horse’s response that is most important, for others it is the level of power and athleticism the horse displays that is of primary import. While both of these ARE important to me as well, they are secondary and tertiary goals. In my interpretation of Classical Horsemanship, it is the ease and grace of the response to the aids that is paramount; the least resistance with the most freedom. I will not intentionally sacrifice this primary goal, in order to gain others.

There is a quote attributed to de la Brue, a student of Giambattista Pignatelli, an early sixteenth-century Italian riding master who had influence on the early development of dressage.

“One cannot better define a well trained horse that is one which is elastic and flexible (supple), obedient and precise (correct); because if a horse does not have his body totally free and elastic he cannot obey with ease and grace… ”

Now it can be argued that he was talking about the need for gymnastic working of the horse in order to develop its suppleness, elasticity and flexibility. I certainly agree that this is vital to the task of training a horse classically. But I maintain that is quote could also be interpreted to include the requirement that the horse must be moving and responding willingly and in full cooperation with the rider. I believe that true ease and grace can only be achieved this way and cannot be obtained through force.

So here we run into an interesting sticking point when one starts to discuss the pros and cons of one method of training over another. When one is willing to ‘force’, ‘pressure’, ‘drive’, pick your euphemism, the horse in order to accelerate the development of response or athleticism, for the sake of wowing an audience or impressing a judge, it is typically done at the cost of ease and grace. The choice to use such methods as employing mechanical devices to ‘aid’ in speeding up the training or overcoming resistance quickly, are often the result of the perceived need to achieve results on a schedule. For instance, a rider trying to move up one level each year or a trainer whose livelihood is dependant of attracting clients who are in a hurry to start winning titles.

It certainly does not help matters that so many equestrian activities depend on paying audiences more and more to survive. To draw the crowds, the horses must perform larger than life, with more exaggerated level of ‘performance’ in order to keep the uninformed audience cheering.  Let’s face it, horse shows and equestrian sports are big money activities and who can afford to take the time to train the ‘old fashion’ way, when faster means to an end are so prevalent. This is especially true when you consider that the folk buying the tickets would rather see huge movement from horses in exaggerated and arbitrary frames, regardless of how this is achieved. Compared to that, what is the appeal of subtle elegance and graceful movement at the gentle touch of nearly imperceptible aids? The result of the training for mass consumption is magnificently capable horses, riding in dramatic but unnaturally exaggerated position they hold only because they have been forced to adopt and adapt to them, while performing impressive feats of physical prowess, but devoid of the natural grace they were born with that is lost with their freedom.

So again I ask, what is most important?

For me the answer is fairly simple. What is most import in my training of horses is that they come to the gate of their pasture when I approach with lead in hand. That they look forward to our training sessions. That they enjoy the work. That they are willing partners in every aspect of the ride. That they try with all their heart to give me what I ask of them because it is their wish to do so. That they never have cause to fear or resist me. That they return to their pasture with the same desire to be with me as when we started the day.

Yes this is all about the ‘How’ of the training. The ‘What’ doesn’t matter you see, not if the how is right. If I have all the things listed above, then I can train a horse to do anything it is physically capable of doing, assuming I understand what I am asking them to do myself.

Do I succeed in all these facets of my training philosophy ever time? Of course not, but I try and if I fail it is not that I give up because it is too hard or taking too long.

Horse trained this way must be given the time they require to come to understand what is expected of them and then willingly give it. Gradually raising the bar, the trainer employs the aids to lead the horse to the next challenge and supports it as it seeks this understanding, as it simultaneously develops the strength and flexibility required to achieve it.

It cannot be accomplished by using the aids to make the horse perform. Harsh or even just Strong hand aids used in an attempt to force the horse into a frame or arbitrary head set; spurring or driving with a whip or crop to drive the horse forward; sawing or jerking on the reins to get the horse to put its head down; lunging with sides reins pulled tight… All of this and many more methods, are antithetical to my view of training. They really on the horse changing its behavior due to habituation rather than willingly participating.

I must add also, this applies to the whole training process not just the goal of a finished horse. I do not coerce or attempt to force a horse to do something for a period of time within the training scale to achieve an ‘automatic’ response later; a response that has been so ingrained into the horse that eventually takes on the appearance of willingness and self-carriage.

One reason I can approach training this way is that I seldom take part in horse activities that are judged by some external observer. The only judges of my training that matter to me, are the horse and myself, and that is also the order of importance. The quest for perfection in horsemanship is a journey shared by the horse and rider only.

What about the owner of the horse that sends them to me for training? Yes, that is another issue. It is vital that owner and trainer have a clear understanding as to what their goals and training philosophies are, in order to make sure they are compatible. For instance, someone whose primary goal is to win ribbon is not going to bring their horse to me in the first place.

This need to accommodate the customer is why I try never to judge another trainer too harshly when I see them work. With the exception of the few who are truly talentless and shouldn’t be training anything, most of them are doing what they must to pay the bills. Most have found a niche they target and train to a specific activity or handful of activities and do want what is best for the horse within the scope of said activities.

But no matter whether you are an ‘Upper Level’ professional trainer with a international following, or a trainer/rider working only with your own horse, though your goals and driving factors are very different, you still have to ask yourself the same essential question. What is most important and what will you sacrifice to get it?

The Basics Of Stepping Into The Saddle

Here I go again, offering instruction in something everyone already knows how to do.

Well, I have been noticing of late students, many of whom that have been riding for years, not having the proper mounting technique as I have come to understand it. Like many things involving horses, it seems the most obvious thing in the world when you believe you know how and never occurs to you that there is a wrong way when you don’t.

The mistake I see most often, I think, stems from the misconception that one climbs up the side of the horse using the stirrup. This is certainly the case, to some extent, when stepping up from the ground, but I see it even when the rider is using a mounting block. A lot of riders put their left foot into the stirrup and left hand on the pommel or horn and right on the cantle, they then proceed to pull themselves up with their arms while lifting the majority of their body weight with their left leg until they are standing in the stirrup, then they swing their other leg over and drop down. When watching this from the outside you can see them with all their weight in the stirrup as they are going up, then still there as they swing over and finally the drop the weight down on the horse’s back. The animal has its spine twisted and balanced greatly compromised and then “bang” the rider drops down on their back, stressing the already twisting spine. This should look wrong to anyone who stops to think about it for a moment.

What follows is what I teach my students to do instead. Your mileage may vary.

mounting_blockFirst, while we must be able to mount from the ground if the situation calls for it, we work on that only AFTER we learn to mount with a block or other aid. Even after we have mastered mounting from the ground we still use said aid every chance we get.

Second, we can only mount correctly with the horse standing calmly. Even if that requires another person to stand at the horse’s head until it has been conditioned to stand quietly for mounting.

Third, we must not think of it as climbing. From the top step of the mounting block the left hand takes up reins and a handful of mane, just in front of the pommel, while the right hand is placed on the right side of the pommel and not the cantle as most people default to. The right hand is so placed to support and to keep you from falling over the horse’s right shoulder as you shift your weight well forward and ABOVE the horse’s back as you mount.

Fourth, The left foot in placed in the stirrup with ALL the weight still carried on the right leg. Flex the right knee as if crouching slightly on it, still no weight in the stirrup and use it to ‘spring” lightly up and forward toward your right hand, catching yourself with your left leg as it comes into contact with the side of the horse, with your weight WELL OVER the center of the horses back, leaning forward slightly, carrying your right leg over and as gently as possible lowering yourself into the saddle. This should be done smoothly and, as much as possible, in a single motion.

Important: Keep your stirrup and/or the toe of your left boot, out of the horse’s side by making sure you turn your foot to point forward, as the whole motion of mounting is to step up and forward. Also, be sure your right leg clears the back and haunches completely as you swing over. Clipping with horse with the boot on the way up, over or down on the other side may cause ‘unfortunate’ reactions from the horse.

From the ground the process is the same except you will mostly likely hop up and down a couple times on your right leg before the ‘spring’ up and forward. In this case your right hand may be placed on the cantle to steady your first movement upward, but should then move to the right side of the pommel, again, to help keep you from going over the horse’s right shoulder. The key is to get your weight over the middle of the saddle well forward toward the pommel, with your body facing forward as much as possible, as you catch yourself with the left leg.

Mounting incorrectly can cause back problems for the horse in short order. Some riders try to make up for it by alternating which side they mount on, if their horse is trained for both sides. “Good for you, Human, now both sides of my back are out!”.  This is not to say one should not mount from both sides of the horse. I certainly believe the horse and rider should practice the proper mounting procedure from both sides to accustom both to it in case a situation presents itself where mounting from the customary side is not an option.

In my view, mounting from the ground, like mounting from the ‘off side’ of the horse, is something we needs to know how to do and the horse should accept it without complaint. However, I feel it should be avoided whenever possible. When a mounting block is not available, rocks, stumps and such natural elements can be used instead. There is also the option of getting a leg-up from someone when a spare pair of hands is available. If you are not comfortable with the leg-up process, having someone brace the saddle against twisting, by setting their weight in the far stirrup with their hand just as you step up, can make the mounting process far easier for the horse.

leg_upFor those who don’t know what a ‘leg-up’ is, it is where a helper stands next to the rider and assists them in mounting by giving them a boost up into the saddle. It requires precise coordination between the two parties or it can be quickly become a comedy of errors. Here is how it is done.  From the left side of the horse, the ‘giver’ stands to the left of the ‘receiver’. The ‘receiver’ places their hands as if to mount by stepping into the stirrup but instead lifts their left leg by bending at the knee. The ‘giver’ then places their left hand just behind the ‘receiver’s’ knee as their right hand supports the foot, while bending their own knees to allow them to keep their torso as upright as possible. The ‘receiver’ then gives three small hops and on the third one the ‘giver’ stands up straight, lifting with the legs as the ‘receiver’ swings the right leg over and gently settles into the saddle. The ‘giver’ must be very careful to offer only support and not try to throw the rider into the saddle, as this can result in actually throwing them completely over and off the other side.

Whichever method you choose to mount your horse, it is vital that you put the horse’s welfare ahead of your own ego. Using a mounting block or getting a leg-up, may not be macho or fit with the aesthetic of some people, but taking advantage of such aid will greatly benefit the horse, and in the long run prolong back health, which after all, is more important.


The Right Horse

In my previous article I wrote about choosing the right training ‘path’ for your interests. That subject had many inherent potential pitfalls as far as upsetting folks by coming out as against someone’s heartfelt or long held belief; but it was nothing compared to the one I am tackling here.

Let me begin by saying that if I ever come across as sounding like I prefer one type of horse, or even breed, over another it is because I do, but this is only a personal preference based on my experience with horses over the years. I have come to understand that particular types of horses have different strengths and weaknesses and so, like everyone, I prefer those breed that have shown specific suitability to the equestrian activities I prefer.

Throughout history Man has altered the form of animals, through Controlled Breed, from what Natural Selection alone had produced. This process has allowed us to create specific breeds, for specific purposes. The more specialized the purpose, the more pronounced the difference between breeds. Early on, horses were identified by the region where they were breed. For example, the “Spanish Horse” was well known as a prized and highly sought after warhorse. During the Middle Ages, horses in Europe began to be identified by the job they did best; The Destrier was a powerful, charger exceptionally trained for heavy armored combat; The Courser was an agile, fast warhorse more suitable for broken field battles; the Palfrey was a beautiful and highly trained horse for ceremonial and other special occasions; a Jennet was a standard, reliable riding horse and so on. Each of these terms were applied to a horse once it was decided what classification its conformation and training best it suited for, though obviously the people raising the horses probably had a direction in mind when they bred them.

Now clearly there were horses which today we recognize as unique breeds dating back a couple millennia. The Arabian is one commonly known, but there are other less well known breeds that can be traced back as long or perhaps longer. However, it has only been in the last several hundred years that the specialized breeding of horse has led to most of the breeds we see today. This specialized breeding was aimed at producing an animal with superior natural abilities in specific activities. The longer a breeding program has been around the greater the likelihood that it will be noticeably different from other breeds in conformation, especially when compared to other older breeds intended for quite different activities. Some of the more highly specialized or unique breeds define their own classification, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Conversely, recognized breeds participating in similar activities will tend to fewer differences between them. These similarities are what is used to categorize breeds into ‘types’. Some of these types would be “Draft”, “Baroque”, “Warmblood”, “Stock Horse”, etc.  It is my hope to talk more about types here than breed, though as I have mentioned, some breeds literally define a type.

Deciding on a horse for yourself is decision with many factors beyond physical suitability. Cost, color preference, and availability tend to weigh more in the decision making process than physical suitability for most people. “I want a big black horse.” “Oh isn’t that colored horse flashy?” “Why would I pay 5 grand for a horse when there are a dozen on Craig’s List for $500?”.  The first piece of advice I give people is make color the LAST factor in your decision making process. The second has to do with purchase price; while obviously important initial cost should be less of a factor that many others. After all, the real cost of horse ownership begins after you have purchased the horse. If a few hundred dollars are so important to your budget as to keep you from chosen a better suited horse over a lesser one, then you probably can’t afford to own horses in all reality. See, I told you I was likely to upset someone. So now that I have alienated folks who love a specific color of horse and those who work two jobs so they can have the horse they love in their back yard, let us move on to what I think are the really important factors in choosing a horse.

The important factors when deciding on the suitability of a horse for purchase are:

Mind – What sort of mind do you want your horse to have? Calm? Subordinate? Dominate? Fiery? Steady? Smart? Brave? Every horse is a combination of these factors and many more. Smart horses are not always preferred by people new to horse ownership. Dominate horses can be a challenge for those lacking presence and experience. Calm can mean lazy. Brave can be very situational. I personally like smart, engaged and brave horses because that suits my training best, but this might be the very worst combination for someone with different needs.

Conformation – It is important to choose a horse with the conformation best suited to your intended use. For instance, generally speaking stock horse don’t make great dressage horses because of their neck and head set; Warmbloods are not great endurance horses because they are too thick; Forde horses are not great jumpers; Shires are not great gaming horses, etc.  But remember that each horse is an individual. There are often greater differences in conformation between individual horses of the same breed than there are between two horses of different breeds. Not sure what conformation is best for your needs? Ask a professional.

Training – Purchasing a trained horse is of course a huge plus, but a well trained trail horse is not the same as a well trained dressage horse, which in turn is not remotely like a well trained cutting horse. I personally believe a good solid ‘foundation’ training, including bending, conditioning and balancing work is a must for any discipline, but beyond that, things can get pretty specialized pretty fast. Not sure what sort of training the horse might need to get it to the level you want? Ask a professional

Health – Now we are going to assume the we don’t need to talk about health issues here. None of us are going to purchase a horse with an injury or developmental flaw right? I mean this would never happen, right? Yes, it happens all the time. Someone falls in love with the look of a horse or its personality or some other factor important to them and then they start overlooking the bad hoof or clear sign of pain or whatever. “Oh that is not bad, we can fix that.” Well sometimes this is true and sometimes people buy a lovely, friendly animal that it turns out they cannot ride. Not sure about the health issues of a specific horse? Ask a professional

Age – Baby horses are very cute and a lot fun, but it can be four or five years before you will be able to ride it. Older horses have experience, but sometimes that experience has been bad. The younger the horse, the longer you will have it, but a mature horse, depending on what it has done in its life, might get you to your goals faster. As a rule of thumb, the more difficult the equestrian activity the longer it will take to prepare the horse for it, therefore the more training needed and the younger you need the horse to be. Not sure what the pros and cons are about a horse’s age in relation to your needs? Ask a professional.

Detecting a theme here? Yes, it is impossible to cover all the factors involved with picking a horse, in any detail, in a written article. All I can do is help you to know what knowledge you should have available to you before approaching the horse buying process. So how do we factor all this in?

Picking a horse that has other factors that recommend it, but with a wrong mental makeup, will make your life far more difficult than getting one with the right mind, even if it will require work to condition or train it.  Wrong conformation may have you end up with a horse that is just fine to ride, but simply cannot ‘win’ at the activity most important to you. Limited or no training will cost you after the purchase; either in actually money if you pay an expert to do it for you, or in time if you do it yourself. A badly or incorrectly trained horse will cost you more. Some health issues are worse than others and sometimes you CAN fix a problem yourself. If you are not sure, error on the side of caution. Too young and you have to wait to train; too old and the sooner you will be looking for a replacement.

So you are seeking a horse with a good, undamaged mind, with correct conformation for your activity, a level of training you can work with, in good health and of a age suitable to your timeline. Those who know what they are doing when it comes to horses can weigh all these factors and balance them against the budget they have to work with, to pick the right horse for them. Those who ‘think’ they know will often make really bad decisions. My advice is before you go look at a horse to purchase, rope the most horse knowledgeable person you know to go with you. Preferably this should be someone who knows a lot about the equestrian activity you are interested in taking part in.

In the end I will add this… Trust your instincts but be wary of your heart and never go look a horse by yourself. Weigh all the factors before investing in a horse because they can be will you for many years, so you want to pick the right one for you.


The ‘Magic’ of Horse Training

I was having a discussion about horse training with a buddy of mine the other day about how people should pick the trainer that is right for them. At one point I started drawing parallels between how some people almost religiously follow the dogma of one style of training or riding without really putting much critical thinking into it. They will proselytize to others, extolling the virtues of ‘The Way’, oft times parroting back the very sales pitches that made them believers. As the discussion progressed I found myself categorizing the types of ‘magic’ I had run across which I believe draw people into becoming followers of one instructor or another. While most horse experts possess aspects of more than one ‘archetype’, I think they fall into a several basic categories.

The Healer

The healer is a charismatic and compelling individual who tells the owner of a ‘problem horse’ that if they simply allow the healer to work her magic, for a matter of only a few moments, the horse will be cured. In fact what the healer does is recognize that the problem with most four legged creatures is two legged creatures. She knows that if she avoids doing the same things wrong that the owner is doing, the problems will disappear to a great extent.  “See how I have improved this horse in just a matter of minutes? Imaging what I could do if you sent him to me for a month. Why after 30 days you won’t recognize your horse.”

The horse owner sends the animal off and 30 days later, sure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the horse is cured. They get up, ride around and are amazed at the improvement. They happily pay the healer, load up their newly minted ‘good horse’ and off home they go. The next ride is pretty good and boy are they happy. The ride after that, well not as good, but still, nothing like before. And so on and so on, until not too far down the road, the problems are back and they are calling the healer to come do a ‘tune up’. The problem of course is that the horse’s issues are with the owner’s lack on training and knowledge. They healer can keep returning to ‘tune up’ the horse until one of the three of them dies of old age, without ever addressing the real problem.

I do not believe very many of these nice folk set out to con anyone. They are usually very knowledgeable, experienced and good at what they do. They have just gotten tired of people coming to them with the expectation that they can work miracles in 30 days, or 60 or 90; that they will return a perfect horse to the rider, even if said rider hasn’t a clue and complains to everyone in earshot about how they were conned because the horse came back no better than it left. They are people trying to make a living in an industry full of ignorance without costing them their reputations or sanity. Truth is, no one can train a horse for a person who refuses to learn to ride.

The Empath

The empath is the healer for the rider. Taking lessons from the empath, is an exercise in confidence building and feeling good about the ride. They focus on keeping things low pressure and keeping horse and rider calm. They are very popular with children, those with disabilities and those who have had a scary experience on a horse. They are often the first riding instructor the student has ever had so everything they learn seems amazingly insightful. For the student of the empath, just feeling safe on horseback is the most important factor, followed by maintaining a good self-image; believing they are becoming better riders what counts.

The drawback is often the empath spares the rider’s feelings so much that they are hesitant to push them or make the demands on them that are required to really improve as a rider. They focus on what the student does right and give short shrift to the skills needing improvement. A rider can take lesson every week for a year and show very little actual improvement.

This sort of instructor is often supporting a small facility of their own or is the ‘in house’ trainer at a larger facility. They often have a string of very calm lesson horses to feed along with their families. Their continued livelihood relies on keeping students happy and in turn, getting new student through positive word of mouth. They cannot afford to take on only ‘serious’ students, neither can they afford to scare away anyone. The take the safer road to maintain a steady income through calm and happy, if unchallenged, students. Working with any instructor it is incumbent on the student himself to ask to be pushed; to insist that they be told what they are doing wrong and how to improve, if they want to advance. The empath very often wears a different hat when working with students who have proven they are serious about riding.

The Druid

The druid, who usually has little to no formal education in equine health, says the problem with your horse is an imbalance in vitamins or selenium or this or that, needs this thing to treat ulcers this other to treat equine herpes. They might tell you need to remove the horse’s shoes and go barefoot or take the bit out of its mouth or saddle off its back, etc. All you need to do if find ‘nature’s way’, use this supplement or trim the feet like this or try this bitless bridle or that bareback pad and your entire problem will go away.

Now it may be true that your horse could use supplements or a different saddle or a better farrier, but unless ALL your problems come from a single cause of discomfort, infirmity or illness, there is no one solution for everything. While behavior issues can be caused by some of these sorts of things, usually it is deeper than that. It can take a long time to find out how efficacious one or another of these remedies is; in the end you can find yourself out of pocket for a lot of money, with a horse is no better because there was actually nothing physically wrong with him in the first place.

I think most druids are well meaning and believe what they are saying and trying to emulate the horse’s natural state, to one degree or another, is part of good training. Keeping the horse healthy, physically, and emotionally is absolutely essential. That being said, we must remember that the horse did not evolve to carry riders. We need to protect their feet when necessary, help them to balance and become flexible to felicitate carrying our weight and protect them from harm through the proper use of the aids.   My advice would be to get yourself a good Farrier, Large Animal Veterinarian and Equine Chiropractor, and consult them regularly. Buy a saddle that fits the horse and rider. Learn to use the proper bit for the current riding need. Be wary of any ‘cure’ someone offers you that promises miracles.

The Wizard

The wizard will stand before a class of students with his magic wand in hand. He will demonstrate to each one how to hold and wave the wand and repeat the incantation needed to improve this situation or that and ‘abracadabra’… the magic happens. “What, you say you say you saw the magic happened when I did it with my horse, but you did not get the same result when you did it yours?” the wizard asks. “Well it is just because you haven’t got the swish and flick just right. Keep at it and you will get it. Here, just buy this wand I am selling at my booth over here and while you are at it, get my videos so you can watch me at home, repeatedly, until you get it.” The problem of course is the wizard is using his experience and air of quiet mystery to make seem like magic what is simply applied experience, gained in years of working with horses. It is not the wand that magically changes the horse; it is the person holding it that is influencing the outcome. The horse would respond to the wizard no matter what he had in his hand.

Students buy a wand and the videos and while they are at it, the pointy hat and long robes, figuring what the hell, it can’t hurt. They take them home and work with them for a while; sometime later, either they are whipping their wands out for all their friends because they are convinced that what they are seeing in their horse is a new glow that can only be magic. That or, a pointy hat, robes and DVD set appear on Craig’s List at a reduced price. The wand they keep because it is nice and who doesn’t want a wand?

I feel most of these people are well meaning horse lovers, tired of seeing horses abused and harmed by clumsy upright monkeys with no clue what they are doing. Over time, they develop a method of instruction aimed less at the horse and more at the horse owner, that attempts to condition them to a way of working with horses that is less harsh. These methods can work very well for some and be a godsend to those who are truly clueless and have no one to turn to for help. They can also be dangerous in cases where someone attempts to apply them to the wrong horse or in the wrong situation.

The Battle Mage

The battle mage is a hardened warrior of one discipline, at which the excell. They have sweated and bleed in the arena and have the scars, belt buckles, ribbons and bank accounts to prove it. The followers of the battle mage point to his many victories and booty as proof of his skill and knowledge, proclaiming proudly they wish to be just like him. These followers might never have met their idol, nor taken any instruction from him, but by golly they can watch him in action and absorb his magic. They emulate their idol in every way they can, down to his brand of jeans or pricey dressage saddle. The will defend his honor with violence if his methods are questioned, or worse, if he is accused of putting winning before the welfare of the horse. “How dare you say that? Of course he loves his horses, look at the money they make him. Would he risk the welfare of the animal?” or “Certainly his methods are sound, look at the all money he has won?”

The problem with this type of person is that wining is equated with good horsemanship and the two are not necessarily connected. The search of ‘perfection’ is all too often replaced with the search for the perfect score. Then there is the small problem that dressing like someone or using the same tack they do, does not make you ride like them. Actual instruction is usually required.

It is not completely the mage’s fault if his methods are harsh by the standards of some others. The demands of competition and great, as are the rewards of winning. If the judges and audiences were to hold them to a higher standard and reward more thoughtful and gentler training methods with first place finishes and adoration, then more thoughtful and gentler methods would become all the rage. Unfortunately, these activities are money making events. Drawing in big crowds these days requires that  a large number people be entertained and they are often uninformed as to what good horsemanship is. A rider rides, the crowds cheers and the judge marks down a 10.

The Bard

The bard wearing her microphone headset, sits astride a horse she ‘has only worked with a short time’, sometimes in the middle of 25 clients who have all paid $200 for a chance to ride with her; sometimes she is playing to an audience of 300 fans, all waiting to be amazed and entertained; sometimes it is both at the same time.  She then proceeds to ride around as she speaks authoritatively about this facet of riding or that, tossing out pearls of wisdom that magically appear out of thin air, which in fact she may just have heard someone else say once and thought it sounded good.

“We always blah, blah, blah.” She says while the audience goes “Oooh” and “Aaah” nodding in agreement, except for a couple people who say, “Wait, don’t you know that doesn’t mean anything?”.

“And we never blah, blah, blah” she continues, as she pauses to single out someone riding with her, to draw attention to the mistake they are making with a good natured ribbing to embarrass them for the entertainment of the audience.

The problem is, as correct and amusing everything she says sounds, what she is saying often bears little resemblance to what she is doing on the horse. The words are right but her riding is sometimes the exact opposite. Even if what she does on the horse is right, it is almost never as simple as she makes it sound and there is in fact way more going on than can be explained with folksy anecdotes. This is all okay because the audience is entertained. Whether the folks riding with her get something out of it or not, they have already paid; so as long as enough come away believing they have some story of their own to tell or are at least have some fun, they will still recommend everyone they know jump at the next show in their area.

These clinicians have spent many years of their lives studying and practicing to become as good as they can be at what they do. Some of them are truly gifted riders and teachers. For years they recorded grainy videos of their techniques and carried copies around in their glove compartments as they drove down dusty roads to reach little facilities that hosted clinics for a handful of riders, barely making enough money to keep their horses in feed. As time went on, they developed a core following of fans. Perhaps a news crew catches them on a good day working with the right horse and their “when I was young, ‘so-and-so’ taught me something that changed my life” story makes it on the air. They go from barely being able to get 6 riders to attend a two day clinic, to having a hundred or more, all waving fists full of cash and begging to be allowed into a two hour session; the stands are filled with people laughing at their jokes and adoring them. Can we really blame them when they allow too many into a clinic to allow any real time to be spent with any of them? Can we fault them for wanted to cash in, just a little, on the years of hard work and sacrifice they have lived with? There is no telling how long their fame will last, so they rush to make the most of it. Their clinics become a show with clever sayings and wise insights, even if sometimes not their own; not as much useful information, but as long as the people are amused. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will take something home with them that actually helps with their horse. Personally, I would much rather have worked with them before they were famous; back when the clinic was just 6 riders.

The Arcane Master

The arcane master surrounds himself with old books and diagrams of the anatomy of the horse. He takes on a few apprentices at a time, dazzling them with his miraculous feats of horsemanship and promises they too can become a master some day. All the apprentices have to do is put in the years to read, study, reason, experiment, observe and practice; in short dedicate their lives to the art. The students usually hear the part about becoming a master themselves and sort of tunes out the rest. After a few months of work, they discover, “Hey, this is hard. All I wanted to do was learn a little magic.” They read some and listen a lot and try to make sense of old tomes of ancient knowledge with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they end up having to hack the manure fork to bits with an axe when they try to animate it to clean the stall for them. Sweeping the broken shards of their studies under trailer the slip quietly away. “Oh look the bard I like so much is in town next weekend.”

Here’s the catch… How do you tell the arcane master from just some grumpy old guy who thinks he knows it all? Studying something for a long time does not mean you have mastered it.  Being able to quote the ‘old masters’ does not mean you understand them. Sometimes a formidable countenance and absolute certainty of one’s own knowledge is completely undeserved. Having your own facility and an international following does not automatically make you a good teacher; it makes you a good self-promoter.

Good or bad these people have little patience for those lacking the dedication they themselves have put into their given study. They tend to have only admires or enemies as they leave little room for any to find a place in between. They are convinced their way is the right way and pity those who cannot see that; sometimes loudly.  If you can find a good one and have the drive and dedication to take on the goal of mastery, they are the only ones who can really help you along that path, but it is a long hard road.

The Sage

The sage knows that every rider’s talent is a unique combination of knowledge and experience that is constantly evolving, and cannot be duplicated exactly by any means whatsoever. The rider themselves must quest after the ability they seek, and what they choose to emulate, even in their ignorance, will determine much of what they accomplish. The sage seeks, and often shares the enlightenment discovered by others, but knows that everyone’s path must be their own. Therefore, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.

The sage casts about, looking at several ‘arts’ and attempts to gather from the wisdom of each something he can distill down and try to make sense of it. Sort of the a la carte method of learning.  The problem with this method is it is constantly evolving and that makes it hard to teach to someone else sometimes. In other words, the sage is ever a student and will never call himself anything else, so matter what he achieves. He will teach something with absolute certainty, than a month later say, “So I was ready this old book by Brigadier Louis Deadguy from 200 years ago and I have completely rethought this part.” If you like the challenge of adapting to this ever evolving training method, this is the teacher for you.

You can recognize the sage as they are the person who is a near endless source of wise quotes, most of which come from people who have been dead several centuries?

This person has likely tried all the other forms of magic at one time or another and decided none is the correct answer. They have favorite methods of workign with horses, but likely said methods are a mixture of a lot of differents arts. Dedicated to seeking ‘elightenment’ and ‘perfection’ they are never satisfied.

The Student

The study of the art of horsemanship is a long and difficult one. It takes years of dedication if you ever want to be able to say you have ‘mastered’ it. Not all riders will bother. Most will learn as only as much as they need to, to be able to take part in whatever activity they enjoy. It is human nature to seek easy solutions for the problems we experience and it is no different with horses. We are drawn to anyone who appears to know the answer, but getting that knowledge from them is not always as easy as asking.

While all these trainers have something to offer, there is no magic healing nor good feeling nor potion nor wand nor battle tactic nor epic tale nor words of wisdom that will magically turn you into an accomplished rider. There is only theory, application, observation and practice.

Who should you go to for help? Look for insight and wisdom everywhere, from everyone. Trust your instinct and analyze everything you see, read or hear with a critical mind. Try many paths and then hold to the one that leads you where you wish to go.

The Myth of the Quiet Horse

The Myth of the Quiet Horse
or why ‘relaxed and calm’ is not always preferable

Yes, here I go again, with the cryptic titles. “What on earth is he on about this time? He is now going to find fault with my calm, relaxed horse?”

I sometimes wish I had been brought up speaking some language other than English, because what our language lacks in precision it more than makes up for in situational variability. Relaxed and Calm, like so many other terms we cast about freely when we talk about riding, i.e. Light and Gentle and Firm, are two words that mean different things to different people and should be examined in order to come to a common understanding, if we are to discuss which mental states of the horse are to be sought and which to be avoided.

To many, Relaxed and Calm are synonymous and mean at ease and not nervous, but sometimes what they take to be Relaxed and Calm, is in fact disconnected and unresponsive. Many riders seek to put their horse into such a relaxed state that they avoid really working or any pressure, as to not upset the horse or make it nervous. Seeking a stress free experience, they want the horse to be as quite under saddle as it is standing in the pasture. ‘And what is wrong with that?’ you might ask. There is nothing wrong with the goal per say, the problem occurs when the horse either becomes sluggish and disconnected from the rider or worst of all, learns that if it misbehaves the rider will back off and no progress is made.

Additionally, some riders equate quiet with fearless. They sit up on the horses back as it walks along the trail, reins draped across the pommel, legs hanging lifelessly, sitting slouched in the saddle, trusting to the quiet horse to haul them around. The horse, walking along with other calm horses, seems perfectly relaxed and completely safe. Suddenly something moves out nearby or some sudden crash is heard off in the trees and one horse starts, then the horse next it jumps and suddenly the usually quiet and calm horse has wheeled and begun moving, very fast, away from the perceived threat. By the time the rider has realized something is wrong, they are scrambling to pick up their reins, find their seat, and get their legs back in play, all while trying to keep from losing their balance. The sudden return of the aids and probable over-application that accompanies a fear of falling off, just adds to the horse’s belief that something dangerous is going on and matters can quickly get out of hand.

A consistent connection with the horse is a cornerstone of classical riding and important factor in any riding. The classical rider is never ‘not riding’ when they are on the back of a horse. Even while standing still, talking to someone, adjusting their tack, or just enjoying the view from a hilltop, the classical rider should never be disconnected from their horse. The reins are kept at or close to the same contact they use while actively riding. The rider should be upright and balanced in the seat and the legs resting lightly against the horse’s sides just as they do when the horse is being actively ridden. Yes, we will all take our legs off the horse, or stand in the stirrups or let the reins go slack for a moment to stretch and get the blood flowing into tired limbs, but then we should be reconnecting with our horse afterward. As classical riders we are always synced with our horse so this state of connection should be as natural and automatic for us as keeping our balance when we walk. In this way the confidence that we impart to our horses as riders is never more than a fraction of a second away. A correctly closed hand or supporting leg can stop a startled horse from becoming a fleeing horse and the stability the classical seat gives us can mean the difference between being present to give those countering cues and looking up painfully from the ground as our horse runs off down the trail or to the far end of the arena. In fact, this is exactly the term I use with my students, “Being Present”. Any time we are in the saddle, we should be Present.

It is not just a matter of safety however, a horse ridden in such a way as to have no demands placed on it what-so-ever will inevitably become ‘quiet’ to the point of almost sleepwalking its way through the ride. Too ‘relaxed’ and the horse loses impulsion in the gaits and shuffles along under the rider, numb to the cues and always trying to stop. A horse in this state is not being trained in any useful way. Yes a collected trot or stretching walk can relax a nervous horse but done too often or too long or even worse, with no call for good forward movement, engagement and driving impulsion, can create a ‘quiet horse’ that creeps around the arena, feet barely moving, with no tempo to work with and a mind not on the training.

At the other extreme, too often the method of dealing with ‘nervous’ or ‘excited’ horses is to run them around a round pen or on a lunge line to tire them out, until they ‘calm down’; this is simply counter-productive. Tiring out a nervous horse does not get you a calm horse, it only gets you tired, nervous horse. An exhausted horse may be ‘quieter’, but it cannot move properly or respond correctly to the aids. It can also make the horse dread being worked and in the long run only makes matters worse. Horses do not willfully defy us. Regardless of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, horses only respond as they have evolved to respond and a nervous or excited horse has a reason for being that way. We cannot punish them out of it or run it out of them.

Only through consistent, flexible cues can a horse become aware of the rider’s aim. Only a properly conditioned and balanced horse can meet the physical demand placed on it and remain calm and engaged. Demanding more than a horse can give at any moment in its training will create resistance; forcing the horse through this resistance can create defiance; trying to break defiance destroys trust; without trust there can never been calm.

So I have talked a lot about what ‘relaxed’ and ‘calm’ are not, so what do I think they are?

In German there is this great term I have difficulty pronouncing properly, “Losgelassenheit”. It means a state where the horse is calm, willing, connected and engaged.  Lieutenant colonel Gustav von Dreyhausen defined the term thusly;  “We can therefore perhaps characterize correct equestrian Losgelassenheit as a type of behavior in which the horse yields completely to the rider’s aids and applies all of his strength and all of his muscles towards the energetic and impulsive execution of the present demands without feeling constricted.” While this definition doesn’t even use the word ‘calm’, it is implied because the free giving of the horse to the aids requires a calm and mentally engaged horse.

Too often a horse is described and not being calm because it has a lot of energy or is very quick to react to the aids, when in fact is it is perfectly relaxed, focused and totally in sync with its rider. Such a horse may display an outward appearance that people have come to associate with an excited or scared horse, like upright carriage and lofty, energetic movement, while in reality it is neither scared or unduly excited. Highly athletic horses and horse that truly enjoy what they are doing, often display this behavior. In fact, at is pinnacle, classical dressage seeks to achieve just this carriage and response from the horse. As long as the horse is willing responding to light aids and the wishes of the rider and is not being forced or held in check, such a horse can be said to still be displaying Losgelassenheit, even if most would not use the word ‘calm’ to describe it.

Many riders can be intimidated by a horse displaying the traits I just mentioned and prefer to ride a horse that is more still, giving an outward appearance of being quiet, because it helps them feel more confident; I have no problem with this. The problem comes when the confidence inspiring state the rider seeks comes at the cost of impulsion and connection, or is taken advantage of by the horse in order to avoid working.

What classical riding advocated is very simple to say but difficult to achieve; a connection that creates the willingness on horse’s part to respond to the clear, gentle and just requests of the rider, without fear of punishment as the motivation, but rather from an instinctive and automatic reaction created by the practiced communication through consistent and subtle use of the aids; losgelassenheit.

True quiet and calm must come from trust and a thorough connection with the horse. This connection has to exist in both direction and not just rider to horse. We have to be tuned in to the movement of the horse and aware of its mental and emotion nature to translate what we feel into comprehension and turn that comprehension into reasoned response. We also must remember that the horse feels our emotional state through this connection as well. If we are nervous, excited or afraid, they will know it; therefore it is incumbent on us to learn to control these emotions in ourselves before asking it of them. This way the horse and rider become a partnership, with both parties feelings, needs and desires taken into account. The rider must always seeking lighter and more subtle connection as a way of making the reactions of the horse instinctive responses to the subtle cues the aids provide and NOT based on the avoidance of discomfort or pain. The horse in such a partnership, through trust and respect of the rider, gains confidence and focus which are key to remaining responsive and calm at all times.

Reaching this goal takes a long time, a lot of riding and the help of an educated pair of eyes on the ground to offer observations and instruction. The aids must become as automatic and natural as waking. It requires a focus on the goal not sidetracked by ego, fear or frustration. When it becomes about the rider and not about the connection with the horse we fall behind. When we do not require of the horse its commitment to the ride and obedience to the just demand, we fall behind. When we ask for too much at one time or exhaust the horse, mentally or physically, we fall behind.

So the next time you ride, pause to take stock of your horse’s mental state and give a thought to what quiet and calm really means.

Bits, Bit Use and Bitless – A Classical Perspective

Of late, I have had several 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. Over the years 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, as well as keeping the rider in the saddle, of course. 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 flexation 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 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 to allow both effects from a single bit but 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 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 use spade bits much the same as those used by Vaqueros historically, coming from very similar classical roots, but they lack the same understandings.  Used callously or with ignorance all these bits can be harsh and abusive. Used correctly, the 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 at the zero point between contact and no contact; 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 cell 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 won’t vibrate when one can is spoken into, 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 flexation from the horse with Gentlemanipulation 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.

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 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 provides less negative effect on the forward motion of the horse and allows for very effective encouragement for bend and lateral movement which are keys to teaching the horse to balance. Only after the horse is supple and flexible, with good lateral movement, proper ‘rounding’, 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.

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 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 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.

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. That being said, a horse with mouth or dental problems, is obviously a different situation altogether.

Now before you begin to think that I am trying to say you can not ride without a bit and therefore can not 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 it 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 classical riding and I am already controlling 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.

So you want to make your horse a warhorse?

I received the following query via Facebook yesterday:

“I am considering to become involved in SCA equestrian activities, and was wondering what I should take into consideration, especially concerning horses…what to look for, how to know if they enjoy it etc…Would you have advice for a beginner in this area…I have been riding since I was a small girl.”

Before you judge the grammar too harshly, this came from a very nice lady in Germany and I suspect English is not her first language. I can assure you my attempt at such a message in German would be for less understandable

For those who may not know, the SCA is the Society for Creative Anachronism, the world’s largest medieval reenactment group.

Below is what I sent as a reply. I am posting it here in case any of it might be helpful to others considering similar endeavors.

Medieval reenactment equestrians and their activities vary greatly from area to area. You may find yourself riding with people who have been riding for years and making a serious study of it and you may find yourself with folk who are very new to riding or just have limited experience or understanding of it. As with all new things, the horse is likely to be nervous when introduced to some of this and if you are also nervous, the horse will respond to that too. Take things at a pace that keeps the activities fun and not threatening for both of you and don’t let success lead you to push one or both of you to failure. It is a habit of some folk to keep pushing their horses when they are doing well until they “suddenly” have a problem.

If you have a solid connection with your horse, based on trust and respect AND you don’t betray that bond by forgetting about it when you start handling weapons, all should go well. The issue many have is that when they start with the weapons, suddenly they are riding “on” a horse and not riding a horse. The horse feels the loss of connection and becomes concerned that something is not right. Now the new thing it is being asked to do is a lot more intimidating than it should be.

Many who attempt these sorts of activities lose or never had the “proper” level of connection and riding ability, so when confronted by a lance and quintain or sword and head, or what have you, all their focus shifts to these and away from riding. This is why it is vital the rider be completely at home in the saddle while maintaining quiet control of the aids and this needs to be as instinctive as walking.

So to sum up, the advice I give to anyone taking up these activities is this:

First, know your and your horses’s abilities. Learn to ride well, preferably in the “classical riding” form, before you start attempting to introduce your horse to the elements of medieval martial equitation. ALWAYS make riding the horse the prime directive THEN worry about the elements and hitting them with weapons.

Second, take your time. Be aware of the physical and mental limits of both you and your horse and spend the needed time building up these abilities. Don’t push your horse or yourself too fast and thus turn it into something the horse physically can’t or mentally doesn’t want to do.

Third, Keep it fun for both of you. While most horses will take to these activities with careful exposure, some actually learn to enjoy it, even understanding the goals and wanting to be part of the success. The ones who do tend to be the ones ridden by people who keep it a partnership by remaining connected with their mount. Those who treat the horse as just a means of transportation toward a target and then away from it, seldom get anything better from their horse than a willingness to put up with it.

I hope you find some of this helpful.