The Qualities Of Herd Leadership

“The trust between human and horse is based on the same behavioral rules that regulate social life within the herd: Those who have obtained a higher rank in the herd assume at the same time the responsibility for the weaker members.” Kurt Albrecht von Ziegner

This was not written by one of the popular American ‘Natural Horsemanship’ clinicians, or one of their Australian counterparts. It was not even written by one of their forerunners – those very wise cowboys whose gentle methods were such a great departure from the harsher methods of many of their contemporaries. It was written by a German Dressage Master.

This concept of making sure you ‘outrank’ your horse is nothing new. It has been a fundamental of horsemanship for as long as men have domesticated the horse. What has changed over time is the understanding of what it means to be of “higher rank in the herd”. For most people who give it any thought at all, this means dominating the horse by moving it, controlling space, forcing it to accept contact and following where led. It is all about the horse being subservient and behaving as a subordinate. While this may not take the form of beating the horse or other very harsh means of training, it does use varying degrees of aggression, just as horses sometimes use as part of herd dynamics.

What is missing from the methods of so many horsemen is the other side herd leadership. Herd leadership is more than pushing the lower ranking horses around. The real herd leader is not the toughest horse, but rather the horse that inspires the greatest sense of well being in the herd. It is not enough that the leader be strong, they must also be calm, assured, confidence inspiring and most of all, aware of the needs of the rest of the herd. Leaders inspire their herd to follow, they do not simply demand it, nor do they take it for granted. Earning the position of leader is a never ending challenge that requires the constant awareness of the needs of the subordinate members of the herd.

As leaders, it is incumbent on us to adjust our behavior to the needs of every member of our herd individually. While all horses share certain traits of their evolution and to a lesser degree, their breeding, every one of them is unique. As such, each needs something slightly different from their leader in order to feel safe, secure and emotionally stable. Using the exact same training and handling methods with every horse you encounter will simply not suffice.

The other aspect of the search for leadership that so many riders fail to recognize is that it is constant and never ending. You do not just establish leadership and once you have it, you move on to the training of the horse. Everything you do when you interact with horses and everything you don’t do has an effect on the herd dynamic. Each time you go to the pasture to fetch your horse for the day’s training, or when you go to feed, or when you are simply walking up to touch them on the nose, you must be completely in the moment and aware of your interaction. You must be aware of the mood of the horse and in control of your own. If you have had a bad day and are feeling a little short tempered, that will be the day the horse resists. If you have a time constraint and are a little impatient, that is the day the horse will not let you catch it. Focus on talking to someone on your cell phone on your way to the tie rack and the horse will take that opportunity to put its head down to eat as you are leading it. Yes, these are generalizations; I am not saying these things will happen every time you let your focus lessen. I am saying these lapses on your part add up. When a horse feels your impatience it becomes tense. When a horse feels you are not paying attention, how can they look to you to lead and protect them?

One last factor to consider and I will end this lecture. It harkens back to the individual natures of horses. Just as your daily experiences can affect your mood and sense of wellbeing, horses have daily experiences as well. The hoses that willing and happily working in the arena the day before, today is scared and nervous, because some time in the night, some predator crossed the property and used your arena for a short cut. The generally friendly mare is suddenly less friendly to other mares. The gelding who loves children starts backing away from them because someone’s unsupervised kid was teasing them last night after you went home from the stables. Each day, every person and every horse has their own experiences. If you expect your horses to always be the same horse on Saturday they were on Friday, and don’t notice a change of mood or attitude and go about your routine as usual, you may find your position of leader put to an unexpected test.

So back to the quote; it is not enough that we demand the role of herd leader and expect it, we must constantly earn it by making sure we deserve it.

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.

The Academic Path: Recognizing and Embracing the Good

Some years ago I came to the realization that my journey in pursuit of ‘classical horsemanship’ had taken an interesting turn as a result of a conflict between what I thought I already ‘knew to be true’ and what I was starting to see when I watched more skilled riders. At this time I had been struggling with bouts of insomnia and passing many sleepless nights watching video of several different riders, all of whom professed to follow a ‘classical horsemanship’ method, but were slightly different from one another. These differences did not surprise me particularly as every rider puts a degree of themselves into their riding, even if they are trained by the same person. Additionally, each rider comes to a different understanding even when they hear or read the exact same words. especially if you are dealing with English translations of works originally written in some other language. As the line from a Tom Stoppard play states, “You understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.”  So knowing all this, what was the conflict? To explain this I have to put things into context a bit.

Years ago I began my first dressage training with an instructor whose background was mostly competitive dressage.  In my attempt to be a good student and having little dressage knowledge of my own, I simply tried to do as she told me. While under her instruction I did become a better rider, but there were aspects of what I was being taught that just ‘felt wrong’. As I progressed in my training, I began to notice that most of the time when something I was be told did not quite ring true, it was when I was being told what I would need to do to score well.  “The judges will be looking for this.” or “That will get you marked down.” Every time I heard something like this it invariably accompanied something that felt forced, arbitrary and just frankly wrong. My instructor kept assuring me it was what I needed to do if I wanted to score well and after all, “That was what dressage was all about right?”

Eventually I went to my first dressage schooling show, which also turned out to be my last; I hated it. On my score sheet the judge’s comments included “Fine horse. Would have scored much higher if the rider had cared at all.” Now the comments of the judges on a dressage test are intended to help you by pointing out things they felt you need to improve, issues you may not even know you have and this one was right on the money. I didn’t care how I scored. I only cared how I felt when I rode and much of what I was being told to do to score well, didn’t feel right.

I did not know it at the time, but I had just begun my search for the “academic” path. I began looking at everything I saw through the lens of my current understanding of what would be best for both horse and rider. At that time this took the form of a rejection of ‘Dressage’ as done in competition and a similar rejection of ‘Western’ riding, also as done if competition; which led to a trip down the ‘Natural Horsemanship’ rabbit hole.

In the years that followed I tried my hand at a number of different riding methods in my search for something that felt right. In those early years I, like many inexperienced riders, fell into a pattern I have come to call “Nexpert Syndrome”; the habit of moving from one ‘expert’ to the next, because something they did caught my eye or captured my imagination or simply fooled me into thinking they had a better way of doing things. During this time I ‘knew’ I was closer to the right path with each subsequent change in direction, even when these changes were often radically different from the last time I ‘knew’ something was right.  Looking back, I don’t feel I was being foolish or particularly gullible, there was just so much I did not know and so many people trying to sell me, often literally, on the fact that they had the answers I was seeking.  It is an easy trap to fall into, particularly if the person is charismatic and seems to be truly convinced they are right.

When one is early (or even not so early) in their journey in the art of horsemanship one doesn’t even know enough to know how much they don’t know. How are we expected to recognize when this same situation exists in the person who is teaching us? It is only after we have made a certain level of progress and gained a degree of experience that we can start to effectively use our intuition as a tool in determining whether or not the clinician we are watching even understands what they are trying to sell us. It was a long time before I was able to recognize that oft times the person I was watching was just paraphrasing the words of a better horseman that they had heard or read, which in itself is not necessarily a problem. What was a problem was that while what they were saying might be completely correct, what they were actually doing with the horse bore little resemblance to this spoken truth.

Now I do believe that most people out there teaching, holding clinics, making videos, and writing books, do so with the honest intent of passing on the wisdom they have acquired. However there are also a few I believe are being intentionally disingenuous as they sell overly simplified techniques that they know full well fall far short of the reality of what they are actually doing themselves. The intentionally deceptive I can typically spot, it is the true believer that proved to be a problem for me.

So for a time I attended clinics and watched videos by a number NH practitioners and for a while I thought I had found ‘my way’. Working in concert with the horse’s nature and forming a partnership to achieve a harmonious relationship with the horse, what could be missing from that? Well for me, what was missing was any real performance improvement. I was not becoming a better rider really, not from a performance standpoint and my horses were not becoming stronger, more capable or more balanced. I came to believe what was absent from this ‘working with the nature of the horse’ was any real understanding of the physical nature of the horse and how best to maximize that. Sure in ‘Natural Horsemanship’ there as a lot of emphasis on the evolved emotional and even psychological nature of the horse and taking them into consideration in the training, but often very little accurate understanding of the biomechanical nature of the horse. It was a way to train happy trail horse but not particularly effective at training a happy but still accomplished performance horse. What I wanted was a form of ‘Natural Horsemanship’ that took in to account and addressed what was best for the performance horse, in a mental, emotional and physical sense. Do you know what the ‘Classical Masters’ would call that kind of ‘Natural Horsemanship’? Horsemanship.  

So it was at this point that I really started reading the works of the old masters of the horse, Xenophon, Cavendish, Guérinière, Pluvinel, Monteton, L’Hotte, Baucher, Steinbrecht and as many others I could find translated into English. In these books I found a universe of wisdom I didn’t know existed. My understanding of what I was reading barely scratched the surface and the depths beneath seemed beyond anything I could ever fully grasp. I began to perceive that the study of this form of Academic Horsemanship would be lifeline journey. On this journey there are many way points and many directions, but no final destination.

I began to believe that modern riders have nearly universally abandoned this wisdom and that it was truly a lost art. The more I saw of ‘English Riding’ competitions the more I rejected what I was told about ‘head set’ and putting the horse ‘on the bit’ and the rest. To me this was mostly ‘grab and jab’ riding and I wanted nothing to do with it. Don’t even get me started on what I thought of competitive ‘Western’ riding. What was the result? I was left believing that there were very few modern riders who followed the ‘true’ teaching of the historical masters; that most were just caricatures of what the Masters envisioned in their treatises. 

However, in my push back against what I saw as completely wrong about modern competitive riding, I missed out on a simple understanding that was vital; by rejecting completely what I was seeing being done badly by so many, I was trying to recreate what I thought was the intent of the masters, while being in no way like what I was seeing in competition. This is quite simply not possible. It was not possible because the techniques I had rejected out of hand in modern dressage were actually just methods based on very different interpretations of the teachings of the same masters. This ‘everything they are doing is wrong’ viewpoint caused me to stagnate again in my training. 

Fortunately I eventually realized that there are still people following the methods of the original masters in ways that I could intuitively see were right, though few of them were competitive rider. I had to find those riders who put the well-being of the horse ahead of the quest for trophies and prize money, modern master like Nuno Oliveira and Philippe Karl and yes, even riders who did compete but still follow what I view as an unadulterated classical path like Pedro Torres.

Which brings us back to the sleepless nights when I sat and really watched those videos of the men I just mentioned, and other men and women; riders in a variety of activities, who are on the path I wish to follow. I was able to see in their riding what the ideals of the historical masters looks like when being done right and I able to perceive the tiny differences that have tremendous impact on the art.  Since then I have been trying to put away my preconceptions and not allow my early negative experiences prevent me from recognizing the good when I see it, regardless of riding discipline and to strive to master that good, rather than simply reject the bad.

The Specifics

There are many aspects of dressage that people hold differing views about; I know, massive understatement. From what bit to use and how to hold the reins, to where the leg is placed in reinback and countless other things. I could write several books detailing them and never address them all, but the one that I have been thinking about the most in the past year has to do with the ‘cycle of energy’ that flows between the horse and rider in ideal riding.

This cycle starts when the riders calves are used to engage the horse’s hind legs to step under and drive forward, the energy then circles up from the hind feet, through the abdominal muscles, lifting the back, through the withers and over the crest of the neck to the poll, where it continues to circle down through the horses head to the bit, then up through the reins to the rider’s hands, lifting the shoulders, raising the withers and elevating the neck.  This is the way I believe one should seek collection.

The more engaged the hind legs are under the horse, the greater the percentage of the total horse and rider weight carried on these stronger limbs and less on the weaker front legs. The more the abdominal muscles are used and the back raised, the better the horse is able to support the rider. The more directly the flow can follow the spine of the horse from withers to poll in a consistent, natural arc, the ‘rounder’ and flexible the entire frame of the horse becomes. A relaxed poll and jaw and mouth allow the flow of energy to continue around to the bit, where a flexible, gentle contact through the reins allows the rider to elevate the horses withers and neck. The more elevated the neck without losing its natural ‘roundness’ the more the balance of the horse and rider is shifted back. Then when the energy is cycled through the relaxed muscles of the rider’s, arm, shoulder, back, seat, then legs, where the calves again ask the horse to engage and now step even further under itself because the general rounding of the horse has lengthened the topline while shortening the bottomline, and the elevation of the shoulder neck has shifted the center of gravity further back. This cycle of energy leads the horse to collection. Simple right?

Here is the problem. If any part of the cycle is not working correctly, the flow of energy is blocked. So, if hind legs and trailing out behind the horse only pushing forward instead of also engaging and lifting, the energy does not start. If the horse is not freely moving through its rib cage, using its abdominal muscles or lifting its back, the energy does not flow. If the neck is inverted or over bent, the energy does not flow. If the horse is ridged or too open at the poll or the jaw is clenched, the energy does not flow. If the rider has too little, too much or inflexible contact through the reins, the energy does not flow. If the rider is poorly placed I the saddle, or tense in one or more sets of muscles… well I think you get the point.

Ideally, for this cycle of energy to be exist the rider must be in the correct seat position and have a suppleness, balance, relaxation and poise. The horse must be able to work in a swinging tempo and free of mental or physical tension which allows the energy of the hind legs to be guided forward, through the back and neck, to the bit. The rider must be able have a receiving as well as directing contact that the horse OFFERS, not what is forced on it, as well as be able to communicate with the horse through his seat, legs and reins. The horse must have little to no asymmetry, good spinal alignment and equal loading and swinging forward of the legs. Finally, the horse has to have been developed to allow the needed carrying, lifting and thrusting power of the haunches.  

As you can probably guess, all this takes a great deal of time to develop and each horse will be stronger in some areas than others.  Achieving the whole package in perfection may never be possible for most horses, but any horse can be made better by seeking it. What we must do is make a conscious effort to address each of these factors to the best of our ability and to the level the horse is capable of giving.

A horse and rider working like this have certain visual aspects. There is the arched neck and head near the vertical with a supple and relaxed contact through the bit to hands resting low, the forehand is elevated while the haunches come more under and the balance is shifted rearward. However the frame you are seeing is result of the horse adopting a physical state in order to do what is being requested of it. The frame or outline you see is not making the horse perform as you see, it is the result of it and if watched with an educated eye, you can see the cycle of energy in the tensegrity creating this.

When I see a finished horse ridden this way by an accomplished rider, I am able to finally comprehend the perfection of the equestrian art, as expressed by the Master of old.  It is not dramatic. It is not exaggerated. It is not supernatural.  It is very simply the perfection of sublime subtlety. A union of horse and rider that appears so effortless, the observer must pay close attention to even see the aids employed.

Unfortunately too many riders and trainers work from a backward progression. They want to put the horse into the finished frame and then drive the horse into movement. When I watch the top levels of competitive dressage what I too often see are gifted horses, forced to produce very dramatic and exaggerated movement, displaying tremendous effort to achieve something unnatural. I see riders locking excited horses into a box by constraining their heads and holding them back, while spurring them forward and I see unbelievably athletic horses being asked to perform feats that will ruin them.  At the lower levels of competitive riding and training, I often see horse being pushed, far too early, down this same path.

While I realized that much of competitive Dressage cannot in any way claim to be true to the teachings of the Masters I admire, there are still those riding today who ride in a way that is. To the fan of the ‘extreme’ in horsemanship, their riding may appear unexciting or look to easy, but for those who strive to truly understand what classical riding should be, nothing is more thrilling.

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.


An Alternative to Bathing Horses

Leaf-BlowerWith lower temperatures it becomes generally harder to bath our horses and for some of us, it is difficult to manage any time a year.  I for one have never enjoyed the bathing process unless it was a particularly warm day. However brushing alone is often not up to the task of getting that deep down dirt off, especially when the winter coat is thick.

So here is the tool that I use that provides an effective method of getting the dirt free from deep in the coat, An Electric Leaf Blower.

Now every time I say to someone who is having issues grooming their horse “You know, you could just use a leaf blower.” I tend to get a cheerful smile and friendly laugh. “Good luck with that, let me know how it works out.”  But when I say, “No, I am serious. I do it all the time,” they often stare mutely at me, with a look of profound disbelief on their face. It is if I just suggested they ride their horse through the local car wash.

My wife and I saw the leaf blower grooming method demonstrated by some acquaintances of ours, a while back. At the time, we were not only quite impressed by how well it worked, but by the fact that the horse it was used on was completely unfazed by the experience. Consequently we decided to give it a try ourselves and we have been using this method as a standard part of our grooming regiment ever since.

Grooming the horse this way allows for the removal of dirt without removing the natural oils in the skin, as washing can. It is fast and effective and promotes a shiny, healthy appearance. As part of the process you obviously must first break up any caked on mud with a curry or shedding blade, then use a body brush to free any dirt that may be adhering to the coat or skin. After the prep work is done, you can use the blower, directed against the natural lay of the coat, to lift the hair and remove the dirt below. Broad sweeping motions of the blower work best. The first time you actually manage to direct the forced air at the horse like this, you will be surprised how much dirt is sent up in a cloud. But before you can witness this, first you must get the leaf blower close to the horse.

This method of grooming my not be for every horse, but we use in with all the horses at our facility, including those that come in for training. A certain level of trust and rapport must be established between human and horse for the horse to accept this, but then the same can be said for clippers or even a water hose.

My suggestion would be to not attempt this with a horse that is tied. Instead, the person operation the blower should also hold the lead in their fee hand. If the horse feels the need to move, allow them to do so, in a circle around you, with only enough pressure on the lead to keep the horse bending and circling. Be very careful not to allow the horse to get tangled in the power cord as it circles. Always lower the blower to allow the cord to lay flat on the ground before the horse passes over it. It is also vitally important that you give the horse complete freedom the instant it stops moving and only take up the contact again if it begins moving. The horse starts to dance away, you take up the lead and keep it circling, when it stops, lower the lead hand and give the horse complete freedom. This reward of trust when they give is vital.

Introduce the blower slowly, first by simply switching it on for a few second and then switching it off again. Keep the blower facing away from the horse for this first part. Keep repeating this, allowing the blower to run longer each time, until the horse calmly accepts it running, then start pointing it a little bit at a time at the horses chest and shoulders, for a short duration, then directing it away again before the horse has a chance to react strongly.

Once it becomes clear that the horse is not going to flip out, you can lengthen the duration and allow the horse to circle you on the lead as it needs to. As the horse circles, any time it tries to stop, direct the blower away as a reward and allow the horse to stand still, with a slack lead. Pause a few moments, praise the horse and then continue the introduction process, you can repeat the process as many times as necessary, until the horse no longer tries to move away from the blower. After this, you can start moving from front to back and expanding the process until the horse stands completely still. (Note: Do not try to start at the back of the horse and work forward and do not point the blower at the horse’s feet and try to work upward.)

While I have always managed to get the horse to stand for the full grooming relatively quickly, particularly sensitive horses, or one that may not be the most trusting, it may take several sessions over a few days to acclimate to the process. Once they have accepted it, as long as you do not rush the process and surprise them, or give them some other reason to develop a problem, then you should be home free. In fact, some horses really enjoy this grooming method.

This method can not replace soap and water in all situations, as I all too well know as an owner of gray horses, but if you have access to an electric leaf blower, you might consider giving it a try. ;>

The Training Structure – When To Stop

Observation and personal experience have taught me that one of the more common mistakes trainers make is pushing the horse too hard or for too long. I have come to believe that one of the most important things one must learn is recognizing the fact that sometimes the best thing you can do is to stop teaching, stop insisting, stop even asking anything of the horse.

This is especially true when we are working with a young horse or when introducing something very new to any horse.  The greater the departure from what the horse has already learned, the shorter in duration the lesson should be. When introducing the horse to something fundamentally new, accept any correct reaction, even a small one, praise the horse like it just won the Triple Crown, then put the horse away.

I have heard some old cowboys call similar techniques “Letting the horse soak”.

I know, it is about now that I usually start quoting one ‘Classical Master’ or another in my writing, and some of you start to glaze over about then and some even move on. So this time I will save such quotes until the end, and instead I will tell you a story of something that I experienced myself.

One day, a few years back, Orion and I were working on flying lead changes on the heads run. The medieval mounted game called ‘heads’ is sort of like pole bending, except these are 5′ tall wooden stands, spaced about 20′ apart, with heavy rubber manikin heads on top that you are supposed knock off with a weapon as you pass. In other words, I was working on having him changes leads as we wove, riding one handed, while swinging a sword. Sounds easy? Give it a try sometime.

He was struggling to understand because previously he had always been allowed to counter canter and at this time I was not helping him to understand well enough.

After a fair duration of time, not making any progress, culminating with me getting frustrated and him annoyed, I stopped and put him away.

Even though I decided to give him the next day off, he greeted me at both feeding times by pacing up and down the fence line, always stopping at the gate before starting again. I got the obvious message that he wanted to come out, but no, I was going to give him a full day off, so I fed and left.

The following day, I was again greeted by him striding up and down the fence line and ‘chesting’ the gate, so I decide to let him out of the pasture and into the area where the round pen is located. This way he could be near me while I did some research on something I had been thinking about.

I found a nice spot in the shade, pulled up one of the lawn chairs and started reading a treatise by one of the classical masters. I hadn’t been at it more than a few minutes when Orion walked up behind me and shoved the back of the chair with his head. I caught myself before falling and gently ran him off, thinking he was just being playful. I went back to my reading and a few moments after, he was back, but this time he shoved me and the chair all the way over forward and I ended up having to pick myself up, off my hands and knees.

So here is the good part…

By the time I had gotten up, he had trotted down to the lower gate, the one that leads to the grooming tack/area, and was standing there looking back over his shoulder at me. My annoyance abated and curiosity piqued, I opened the gate and he continued down to the tie rack and stood there. I decided “Okay, I can take this subtle hint,” so I brushed him quickly and tossed his saddle on him, followed by him nearly taking the bridle out of my hand grabbing for the bit.

A couple minutes later I stepped up on him in the arena, where he instantly started off toward the heads. I let him go, now intensely curious as to  what he was going to do next. He halted squarely at the start of the run, so I gathered up the reins and focused on the far end of the run.  I got as far as saying the “O” part of “okay'” when off he went with a one-step canter departure; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, heads, weaving, with a flying lead change in the middle of each one. We continued back round to the start and again he halted, and proceeded to give a loud ‘blow’, then dropped his head.

On the life of my dog, this is a true story. On his own, Orion apparently worked out what I had been so unsuccessfully trying to teach him two days earlier and he just needed to show me.

From that time on, I began to make it a point of saving the new challenges for later in the training session, and only spending a short time on it. Time and again horses trained this way have shown a clear improvement by the next time I work with them.

I believe it is absolutely vital that this “New Challenge” phase be kept short, and this is very important, even if they appear to get it right away.  “Nothing is as dangerous to the long term goal as quick success.” This quote is one of my own, which is intended as a warning not to get so excited about a horse that appears to be handling a brand new challenge easily that the rider keeps driving them forward until they start to get it wrong, turning success into failure. Sounds ridiculous, right? Who would do something like that? I see it all the time and am still tempted to do it myself sometimes. Why do you think I felt a need to come up with an affirmation? I repeat this one when I start to run the risk taking a good ride too far;  just as I repeat “The horse in an innocent victim in all this.” when a ride is not going well. There are quite a few more, but you get the idea.

Over time I have developed a guide for my training sessions, based on the horse’s currently level of training. This was intended to help me decide on how long I should work any given horse and how hard. This is just my concept of what constitutes a good session. It is not carved in stone somewhere. It is not even written in any book I have ever read. I am just putting it out as a illustration of what I try to do.

I have included a simplified graph to help illustrate what I am talking about.


Looking at the graph you will see there are three factors involved: Training Level, Duration, and Intensity.

Training Level:

  • Routine – Refers to an activity that the horse knows well and which presents little mental or physical challenge at all. A review level, if you will, where the horse is allowed to succeed at easy requests and reestablish the horse/rider bond of trust and respect.
  • Current Working Level – Refers to activities the horse has a good basic understanding of, but which still pose a challenge either mentally or physically. I.e. something the horse still needs work on.
  • New Challenge –  Refers to something the horse has little or no understanding of or that presents a serious physical effort to accomplish.
  • Cool Down – Differs from routine in that this should demand nothing of the horse, mentally or physically, so as to leave the New Challenge ‘unmuddled’ in the horse’s mind when he is put away

Intensity refers to how hard you push the horse physically.

Duration means what percentage of the total training session I suggest be spent doing what.

You will notice I make no attempt to detail what specific activities should be in any given session nor do I suggest how long a session should be. The horse’s current training and condition will be the gauge for these. The chart is merely intended as a guide as to what percentage of the overall training time should be dedicated to what level of challenge.

I suggest you start out at a low intensity as you begin the Routine work, rising little by little, before gradually working your way into activities more in line with the Working Level, where the intensity holds for a bit at a maximum of no more than 80%, then starts ramping back down pretty quickly, reaching approximately 20% before adding a short duration of New Challenge, then dropping off again during the Cool Down. Above 80% physical exertion should be reserved for competition or specifically conditioning sessions. A horse  should never be exhausted during a training session. A physically spent horse cannot be taught anything except to dread the training process, just as a mentally over taxed horses cannot learn anything save to distrust the trainer.

One more point of note: It has also been my experience that this very order of training applies just was well to the riding student, though since we assume the human would be more capable of mentally accepting the New Challenges, a slightly longer duration might well be spent in this part of the graph when it is applied to the rider.  That being said, I have found that applying this same order and duration of training to the riding student has been remarkably efficacious.

All of this is intended only as a guideline for the thinking horse person to customize to the needs of their specific horse. It was originally meant for myself and my students, but I am putting it out there for everyone else to take or leave, in part or in whole.

Now here are those quotes of the ‘Classical Masters’ I promised you.

“I have time” should be the guiding word especially of dressage riders during the entire course of training and remind him of the fact that the goal of the classical art of riding is to be attained only by the gradual increase of demands.” Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898 – 1974)

“It is calmness, calmness and nothing else, which converts disordered jerky gaits into smooth, flowing ones. Here is one very important phase of training in which there must be no struggle. A teacher must first get the confidence of his pupil, then evince kindness, gentleness and a will that, though calm, is inflexible. This is the immutable and sovereign law of teaching, whether the pupil be man or beast.” Etienne Beudant (1863-1949)

“In training one always wants to go too fast. To arrive quickly, do not hurry, but be firmly assured of each step. The lesson should be for the horse, as for the horseman, a rewarding exercise, an instructive game which never brings fatigue. When sweat begins to show, it is because the man has gone too far. Ask often; be content with little; reward a lot. ” Faverot de Kerbrech 1837-1905

“Young horses should never return to their stall tired, since they lose their motivation to work and the tendons and joints suffer too much that way. After having asked for a more difficult, more demanding exercise, necessitating somewhat stronger aids throughout the entire exercise, the young horses must be allowed to calm down and recover by several circles in the free walk at the long rein before dismounting, which has the best influence on the health and the good will of the horse. Short, frequently repeated exercises strengthen the memory and result in fast obedience.” Borries von Oeynhausen 1852

“Bad impressions caused by hurried training methods, oftentimes cannot be erased in months. With a few days of patience, they could have been avoided altogether.” E.F.Seidler (1798-1868)

“Request often, be content with little, reward lavishly.” François Baucher (1796 – 1873)

Make No Demands

“Request often, be content with little, reward lavishly.” François Baucher (1796 – 1873)

The day before yesterday I had one of those days as a trainer that I am not proud of. I had a very good in-hand session with Rafonna, the 12 year old Arabian mare, during which she and I communicated very clearly and calmly and she gave me everything I ask for;  partly because she is a very willing mare and quite fond of me, but mostly because I was clear and gentle and consistent, while never asking for her to do anything she was not ready for.  The session was a pleasure from beginning to end.

Afterward, I went and got Orion out, intending to have just as nice an in-hand session with him, after all, isn’t he the wunderkind? Hasn’t he picked up everything I have ever tried to teach him faster than any other horse I have worked with? Isn’t he the one who is never scared, never overly excited, never a problem? Yes, all of that is true, which just goes to show that a trainer losing his focus can create problems for even the best horse.

All went well at first, he was very compliant and willing. We managed a nice collected walk, shoulder-in on the circle and on the wall, just a nice and relaxed as you could want, neck down and extended when I ask, or elevated with a relaxed poll and mobile jaw when that was my request. Where did I go wrong? Well you may ask.

Things had been going so well that I decided this was a great time to start him on haunches-in, still in-hand. This is not something easy to communicate to the horse, but surely Orion would get it on the first try and in fact, he did take a single step, slightly to the inside with his hind foot the first time I placed him in the position for it. “Excellent!” I thought “He is so smart. Let’s keep at it and by the end of the session he will be doing travers, no problem.”

Nothing is so dangerous to proper training than quick success.” This is one of my own quotes. I say it to riders all the time. So why did I forget it this day? As one might expect, when I kept pushing Orion to achieve some arbitrary goal AND kept moving the goal further down the field, there was only one possible outcome. He was going to start getting bothered by me continuing to push him and I was going to get so fixated on getting something that I missed the point where I pushed my wonderful, brilliant, willing horse too far and he shut down.

I kept pushing and kept insisting and got more and frustrated. The little devil on my left shoulder kept saying “He almost has it, just keep after him. You can’t stop when you are so close what will he learn from that?” Where the angel, who was supposed to be on duty at my right shoulder, was at this time, I have no idea. I wasn’t until I actually heard myself say out loud “Damn it horse, what is wrong with you?” that I felt the smack upside my head that should have come long before.

I never beat him. I never intentionally scared him, but never the less, I was what was wrong with ‘him’. I formed silly, unrealistic expectations because he has always been so smart and so quick to pick things up. I had not asked Rafonna to do anything beyond what she was happy to do, so why had I pushed Orion harder?

Once I came to my senses again, we worked a few more minutes on walking long and low, and when he finally blew out and let go of the tension I had loaded him with, we stopped, I gave him is treats and I put him back in the pasture.

I gave him a full day off, where I asked nothing of him but that he be a horse and hoped he would not hold the experience against me. Of all the human traits we attribute to horses, a sense of injustice is one I believe does exist. I believe horses do have an understanding of what is unfair, even if it is more like that of a child than an adult. They do hold us accountable when we treat them unfairly.

The next day I saddle him up and rode for about an hour. From the moment I fetched him from the pasture to the instant I released him back to  it, he was a perfect horse partner. No look of distrust ever entered his eye. He didn’t hesitate to try to give me what I asked of him, every time I asked, and it was one of the most satisfying rides I have ever had. We did things he did well and we did thing he had struggled with, including travers. All I had to do to correct the issues I had with him last time, was just not demand anything from him.

You see, the other quality humans and horses share is the ability to forgive. In this area I deem them superior to us; or at least to me. Orion forgave me my previous failure and seems to have forgotten it ever happened. It always takes me longer to forgive myself, but because of this, I hope I learn from my mistakes.

The ‘Counted Walk’

The counted walk also referred to in the writings of classical masters as the school walk, is used to sharpen communication between horse and rider, improve collecting, balance and impulsion.

I am only just beginning to really scratch the surface of the benefits of the counted walk  as a training tool. I am greatly impressed with its effectiveness for conditioning in preparation for higher levels of collection. I wish I had this tool in my toolbox years ago. Here is a very nice video that demonstrates it well. Thank you David Donnelly for making it available. Now there is no dialogue in the video, so a little bit of information about the counted walk  needs to be provided before you watch it.

The counted walk  is the walk taken down to so collected that the horse moves slower and slower until a interesting thing begins to happen; the walk becomes a nearly diagonal movement. Done correctly, the seat is stilled completely, the legs lay passively and are only used in needed to keep the horse from stopping completely, the hands elevate the neck while asking for the jaw and pole to relax as much as the horse is willing to give.

You collect the walk more and more, shortening the walk steps while elevating the neck and try to maintain the willingness of the horse to move forward one, step, at, a, time. If the horse loses the forward you nudge them back into a working walk for several strides and begin again. The goal is to achieve rassembler at the most precise walk possible, then start adding the lateral leg aids as gently and subtly as you can to put the horse in shoulder-in position first, and travers after that. Changing the balance and bend often as well as moving the horse to willing forward motion by extending the stride from time to time and then reducing it and in fact going to rein back, then forward again.

Once travers in the counted walk has been well achieved, you can begin using it to move on to the pirouette at the walk and from that ask for the canter departure, followed by a few strides of collected canter and then transition back to the counted walk. Repeated from time to time this greatly improves the collection of the canter and enhances the general calmness of the horse in canter.

Brought all the way down to the near diagonal walk, but still maintain a strong willingness to move forward, you can transition to piaffe quietly. Impulsion must be maintained so should it drop,  moving the horse forward into the working trot and then back down to the diagonal walk will help restore it.

By moving on to more extended version of the various gaits and then smoothly transitioning back to the counted walk, you maintain impulsion will encouraging collection, but only as long as the hands stay light so the jaw and poll of the horse never tightens.

Comments from David about he experience with the ‘Counted Walk’:

The counted walk  is the most non invasive, low impact, and powerful, training tool I know. When we got to the 2012 Horse Expo in Harrisburg, PA I found there was no warm-up ring. The was a nearly 1000 meter corridor, in the building with mulch laid down as footing. I had been cultivating the counted walk for several weeks but it had not yet manifested into piaffe. For the first two days we were there the only warm-up work I could do was lateral work in walk, counted walk and rein back in that corridor. On the third day I felt something in Matt’s walk I liked and he went seamlessly into a full blown piaffe. This video was taken only a few weeks after he showed his first steps. I should also note that when I began training this horse he had a full blown lateral walk at all times. While there was a pacey step from time to time in this video, the type of work practiced in this video brought him to the point where he never got less than a 7 for his walk, in shows for two seasons. Now. The key to counted walk? Jaw flexions and the cultivation of the RASSEMBLER! And yes, that word describes much more than collection!

Charles Mercier Dupaty, Marquis de Clam, “La Science et l’art de l’equitation, demontres d’apres la nature”, published in Paris in 1777 – Translated by Dr. Thomas Ritter (

“The horse only executes the school walk well, if he carries himself without having to be maintained by the human’s efforts. For it has to be feared, if one works too much with the hand, that the animal does not carry himself and that he does not go forward with determination. And if one uses the thighs and calves too forcefully, one will throw the horse onto his shoulders, instead of keeping him balanced. That happens every time one wants to chase the horse vigorously forward. In fact, this forcefulness of the thighs destroys the harmony and the connection that has to exist between the rider and his horse. It gives the haunches too much activity, and since the horse does not have enough time to place the hind legs, nor to balance himself, he falls onto his shoulders

“It is therefore necessary, in order to execute the school walk well, that the horse be well balanced, and that the rider’s leg aids do not give the animal a degree of movement in which he cannot maintain himself. It is furthermore necessary that the horse, finding himself at ease, i.e. not too compressed, can try to maintain his balance on his own. Every time one closes one’s thighs forcefully, one has to be aware that one takes away the liberty of the horse’s muscles, which can only respond with a violent contraction, since they are squeezed by foreign objects. And in almost all cases the force that we put into the violent pressure of the thighs, makes the horse brace, rather than go forward with determination.

“In order to take a horse into the school walk, one begins by sitting with relaxed thighs and calves, and by placing them without force, but in a manner which allows us to close them, should the horse become indecisive in his forward motion. The horse, feeling relaxed, establishes himself the connection. Then one raises the head. One places the neck with a light hand, so that the horse is positioned without an obstacle that obstructs his forward motion, and one animates him with the voice or a pressure of the calves. If the horse does not maintain his head in the same elevated position as he moves off, if he falls onto his shoulders, one elevates him again by a half halt of the hand, which one relaxes again, in order not to hold him back in any way. Gradually, he will reach a point where he can maintain the head position for an entire reprise.

“The challenge consists of maintaining the horse’s balance without interfering with him, but also without giving him a degree of liberty he can take advantage of.

“One must avoid two mistakes which are often commited against this principle.

“The first one is to try and make the horse sit in spite of himself by holding him back too much with the hand. That way, one overloads the haunches, who cease to move, since they are no longer asked to go forward. And one feels how the animal, suffering pain in his hindquarters, falls apart, loses the unison of his gait, and holds himself back to the point of refusing to go forward at all. If one drives aggressively in an attempt to correct this, the horse coils up instead of elevating himself, and does not show any harmony in his gait.

“The other mistake is to give him too much freedom when he has obeyed, so that he falls apart completely, sticks out his neck, and loses the good rein contact. One must guide the head and neck with the highest degree of elevation, and keep a light hand throughout the entire exercise, because if one places the horse for two minutes, and then lets him go asunder, one will never accustom him to the strain that is inevitable in the first exercises. If he cannot support the rein contact, keep the hand very light, but do not allow him to lose his balance. On well conformed horses, the hand merely has to guide the forehand after having placed it.

“This gait is excellent for all horses. They enjoy it. It is good for the dressage horse as well as for the race horse. It makes especially the latter more supple and nimble, when he has to become rounder, because racing and hunting have made him stiff and fall onto the forehand.”

Making Weakness A Strength

“The disability from which I suffer is a great handicap, but there is a bright side to everything and my inability to apply the aids strongly has been a great lesson to me. I can use but very little force, and the results obtained by my weak efforts have convinced me that horses are generally over ridden; that much more strength than necessary is habitually used in applying the aids. The rider must reduce his actions to the very minimum and leave the horse the greatest possible freedom in his.”
Captain Etienne Beudant (1861 – 1949)

Captain Etienne Beudant was a French Dressage master who learned his trade training military mounts as a cavalry officer. In 1917 his horse is killed under him and fell on him, seriously and permanent injuring his hip, forcing his retirement a few years later. He continue to train horse at the highest level, even with his handicap and, as the quote above suggests, gained an important insight from the experience.

Some months ago I injured my right shoulder and for a while now I have been living with the pain of a rotator cuff issue. Now I am not comparing my temporary injury to the one that crippled Beudant; with treatment and physical therapy I should recover completely in time. In the interim however, I have been told to limit the use of my right arm. This means no more lifting of hay bales or mucking out stalls for a while, which I can live with, but is has also caused me to take special note of what I do with my right arm while training and riding horses.

Now I am not a small guy and even at the age of 51 no one would call me weak. Despite my size, I have always tried not to ever rely on physical strength when it comes to working with horses, as even the strongest person is laughably weak compared to horses and to think one can force the animal to do something though strength is the height of folly. Gentleness in handling is a fundamental aspect of what I teach my students and cornerstone of my training. So how surprised was I yesterday when while working with Orion, my 9 year old Friesian/Morgan cross, I discovered that my physical strength had been working to my disadvantage in my training of him.

You see, due to his forgiving nature and steady mind, Orion has been ridden by a wide variety of riders, with widely varying levels of experience. Because of this, he is not as responsive to the aids as some of the other horses I have trained and in recent months I have started trying to correct this. Stepping up on him after riding Jupiter, our Lipizzaner, the difference in responsiveness is night and day and it is very easy to fall into the habit of employing more force in an attempt to gain a similar level of reaction with him, without even realizing I was doing it.

Yesterday I had a Cortisone injection in my shoulder and was told in no uncertain terms by my doctor I should be VERY careful how I used my arm as I could exacerbate my injury easilyt. Consequently, I was paying close attention to any strain I might be putting on my shoulder while working Orion in-hand. I have been working on the ground with him lately in attempt to focus on his mouth; in-hand work, with bit and bridle, has always been a useful tool for me in the past. The more precise contact provided by having the fingers of one hand looped through the ring of a snaffle has aided me in teaching young horses to respond lightly to the hands. However, as I have already stated, Orion is not a young horse, per say, and the bit is nothing new for him. This time however, I did not put the bridle on him, but rather I chose to work him in his halter using only the lead tied into reins. So what I had was a very willing horse, happy to be out of the pastures for work, nothing in his mouth and no way to apply much force and at the same time, I was taken careful notr of any twinge of pain from exerting any force with my shoulder.

The next 40 minutes I worked with him on shoulder-in, travers, renvers,  rein back, on the circles of various sized and along the rail. All this with no bit and no way to ‘make’ him do anything he did not willing agree to do, without risking pain in my shoulder. So instead of trying to carefully mete out what force I could safely apply, I went in the completely opposite direction. I attempted to see just how little strength or contact I could employ and still get any response, no matter how slight. I asked him to slow his walk down to the ‘counted walk’, until each, step, was, a, count, unto, itself. Only then did I ask for bend. Only when his jaw and pole were completely relaxed did I ask him to elevate his neck. Only when all tension was gone from both of us, did I ask him to move laterally. My goal was less to get him to move as I wished him to, and more, to see just how little I could do in my part and still relay to him my wishes.

By the end of the session it seemed all I had to do was think what I wanted and he responded; without hesitation, without resistance, willingly and even eagerly. His focus matched my own. As long as I was in the moment, not distracted by extraneous activity around us, he was right there with me. He moved with steady tempo, neck elevated, in perfect rassambler and with complete willingness.

Yes, this was only on short session in a single day’s training, but the connection we shared was inspiring and everything I had been seeking to help restore to him. All because I was trying to make sure that I felt not the slightest bit of and it doing so, achieved the same for him.

Until my injury has completely healed I will have pain when I over use my strength. I have until then to make using no strength at all the standard of my training and riding. I hope you, gentle reader, can find a similar place with your horsemanship without having to have pain to remind you.