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.

The Automaton Horse

“However, the art of riding must not raise a slave. The means of dressage must not become a chain that the horse tries to break, wasting all of his energy. On the other hand, dressage should not put the horse to sleep and make it into a machine. What can the rider expect from such a monkey-grinder, other than that it plays the tunes that are on the cylinder? He must not be surprised if the monkey-grinder falls silent as soon as he stops turning the cylinder, and if the whole harmony changes into discord, if one cog is missing. Again, the rider must always try to form a companion through the dressage training, and must not degrade the noblest animal of creation either to a slave or to a machine!”

F.v.Krane, 1856

Note: In the quote above Krane uses the word Dressage in the classical sense to simply mean Training.


“But we must keep control of our horses and repeatedly expose them to anything we want them to not be distracted or scared by, right?”

It has been my experience, that a horse trained from the outset to a light, flexible, consistent connection with a rider who stays ‘present’ throughout the ride, WILL be more confident, willing, and in tune with its rider.

If we train ourselves and our horses to a relationship in which the communication through the aids, in both directions, never falters and is never abandoned, the horse gains confidence and is able to express itself without resorting to resistance or in extreme occasions, defiance.  Additionally, this confidence extends to new situations and changing surroundings as the horse derives its sense of well being from the rider’s calm and constant presence.

I should be clear, what I am talking about here is the ‘classical’ riding concept of using the Hand, Seat and Leg aids to influence the natural movement of the horse, instead only using what I call action/reaction training. The leg applied gently in time with the step of the horse to move a particular leg over as it is in motion, instead of a constant press with the leg meant to mean ‘move over’ or the closing of the hands gradually to slightly impede the motion of the horse’s head and thus cause the horse to stop, versus pulling back on the reins until the horse figures out that pull back means stop. The difference is difficult for some to grasp. The former achieves the classical intent of allowing the horse to move as naturally as possible, the later does not. Both are valid ways of training, but one fosters the connection to the horse I am talking about and the other created a more robotic reaction.

If we train the horse ‘mechanically’, relying on it ‘learning’ the routine of the activity for which they are intended, instead of properly forming this connection/bond, they may indeed perform that one activity very well, as long as the environment stays the same, but then this learning by rote very often falls apart when new factors are introduced.

We have all heard “She is just fine in the arena, but is is too spooking to trail ride.” or “He is a awesome kids horse, but adults make him nervous.” or “I only trail ride him because the confines of the arena scare him.” or how about “She knows the barrel pattern so well I just kick when they open the gate and she tears off like a champ. Now if I could just get her to load in the trailer quietly.” Some of this can be attributed to lack of experience in different environments, but I maintain it actually has more to do with a lack of confidence/trust in the rider. Yes, a horse that has never been on a trail before will react to the new challenge, but a horse facing a new situation when it hasbeen ridden its whole career with the ‘connection’ I refer to above, will react less and adapt faster.

So what I believe we come down to here is this… The ‘robotically’ trained horse, drilled to react to rein or spur mindlessly, out of repetition alone, is more likely to respond incorrectly when the ride goes somewhere they are unfamiliar with, or it will respond dully, without life, showing little personal investment in the activity. The horse ridden with a ‘true connection’ between it and the rider are more adaptable and versatile and will rely on that trust in the rider more and their own instincts of self-preservation less and will respond with more expression and life.

One disadvantage to riding “in presence” is that once trained that way, a horse will expect it from every ride and every rider. This means such a horse is not for every rider, in ever activity. Put a novice rider on a horse like this and they will likely either hold the horse stiffly in hand or abandon it to its own devices; in neither case is the result a good one. A horse trained to respond to every clear and fair cue from the rider will usually balk badly at a rider who is not clear or not fair.  Depending on the nature of the horse, you might find a horse that seems completely obedient with its owner/trainer seems willful or scared with a rider who is not as ‘tuned in’. Other times you find a horse that moves out willingly and precisely for an advanced rider, suddenly plods dully along under the heavier hands or dead seat of the novice.

Another issue that must be considered is that a horse shared with riders of less skill CANNOT be trained to its highest level. I know this is a bold statement and might seem a bit extreme, but I believe it to be true. The horse can only reach a level that the rider’s skill allows. A horse trained to a high level and then turned over to a rider who is not as good as the trainer will draw the horse down from that level in short order; maybe not in the first ride, but in subsequent rides over time. Every time I allow someone up on my horse who is not trained to ride the way I ride, I must expect to have to ‘tune’ him up when I climb back up on him. If I send a horse to a trainer who is much better than I am, they might well achieve things with it that have eluded me, but unless I am also taught how to maintain that improvement, it will fade soon after the horse returns.

A horse trained to mechanically react when put in a familiar setting makes for a good baby sitter, but can hardly be called a classically trained horse. Yes, with the Masters of old used, and in fact places like the Spanish Riding School still use today, retired haute école horses to train new riders, but only under the close supervision and hands-on direction of master riders.

So we see there may be situations where too well trained a horse, expecting too much skill from its rider are not more desirable than a less trained horse that just repeats what it has been done over and over again, regardless of the rider.

There are even drawbacks that must be considered when the rider is as well trained as the horse. What happens when the two are put into a situation where the rider is distracted from the state of ‘true connection’ with the horse? For instance, taking a horse out into a competition where the activity is familiar enough, but the pressures of the clock or the judge, or the audience start to eat up the focus normally allotted to riding properly. I have had to take myself out of the competitive arena when I found the pressures were causing me to neglect the essence of the ride and in turn, the horse.

Riding a horse in complete partnership is every riders dream and something I will keep striving for the rest of my life, but it does not come easily, for anyone. I believe I have achieved a realistic view of what is required to attain this goal and have accepted the challenges. I suggest anyone with a desire to follow the classical horsemanship path do the same.

Heavy Horse, Light Hand

A reader of my articles asked if I would address a problem with which she has had a lot of firsthand experience. She owns a Frisian/Draft cross and this mare, despite being a gentle, sweet giant, is often faced with fear by those who interact with her simply because of her size.

It is her belief that people default to a heavier hand when dealing with extremely large horses. I take it one step further and suggest that people use a heavy hand with any size horse if they feel they are inadequate to the task of controlling any horse; it is just worse with extremely large or imposing horses.

The fact is we are not capable of physically pushing or pulling even small horses effectively. We can, however, make use of their evolved nature as a prey animal along with the selective breeding humans have employed over a few millennia to domesticate the horse, to emotionally dominate horses through physical force. Taken to extremes this is no longer training and is in fact abuse. I personally find it more than just a bit cowardly of humans to terrify and hurt an animal that we have breed to not fight back, believing ourselves safe from retaliation. Indeed it is very lucky for us the vast majority of horses will not defend themselves from human aggression, even when it becomes extreme; if they did, humans would be killed by horses regularly and we would probably treat them much the same we do ‘pit bull looking’ dogs. However, I digress.

small_largeBut why do we feel we need to use force at all? Not just in handling horses but in all aspects of horse training. Why do we default to that option so often? To answer this, I must give a bit of information about the joint history of Man and Horse.

Historically there have always been those who felt a need to dominate and control horses with force. For some it was expediency, for others tradition, for still others horses were just viewed as deserving no better treatment than food livestock, but I believe the real cause to be ignorance. Simply put, force is substituted where knowledge is lacking.

For a large part of recorded history horse ownership was the prerogative of an elite class. For the Greeks, horses were a gift from the gods and only the best families, i.e., richest, could own them. In Roman times this class was called Equis, which evolved into the Knights of the middle ages. In Japan the ruling Samurai class begin as mounted archers, etc. But it was not simply the fact that they had money enough to afford horse, it was that they had the free time in their lives to make a proper study of them.

Up until the 17th century horsemanship was a standard part of the education of the aristocracy and it was taught by masters in every school of higher learning. With the end of the classical period, the rise of the Middle Class and decline of the Upper Classes, due to little things like the American and French revolutions, these schools and the formal education they provided all but vanished. Add to this the departure from the battlefield of the mounted soldiery and therefore disappearance of the military training academies that maintained the traditions that allowed for the training of warhorse and their riders.

Horses however, did not vanish, so while the ancient knowledge of horsemanship, passed down for centuries, was not available, horses were still in desperate need around the world. This was especially true in the ‘younger’ nations of the ‘New World’ in North America and Australia. In these days conditions for horses and their riders were harsh and not conducive to the measured training of the ‘Old World’. The process needed to be abbreviated and horse training became a vocation and less ‘artful’.

“I didn’t sign on for a history lesson, what does this have to do with the subject at hand?” You might well ask, but hey, I am a follower of the concepts of ‘classical’ horsemanship, you should have expected a fair bit of history would be part of it.

The point is, without access to the knowledge of the old masters, the ‘New World’ had to invent its own ways of training horses, making them usable for the needs of the times, as quickly as possible and often employing a fair degree of force. These methods were handed down from generation to generation and eventually became a tradition of their own. A tradition still cherished and defended by some riders today. So cherished in fact, that they made their way into popular entertainment and for many are seen as not only traditional but are in fact considered best practices.

Fast forward to only a few years ago when something called ‘Natural Horsemanship’ finds a foothold among the modern horse owner who does not think of their horse as a tool of a trade or even transportation, but as a companion and beloved pet. For this recreational horse owner the precepts put forward by the best practitioners of this revolutionary concept of training are irresistible; namely gentle, gradual, measured training that eschews the harsher methods of the past in favor of apparently new, more humane methods, becomes a huge draw. But here is what I find most amusing, do you know what the Masters of ‘Classical’ horsemanship, dating back to Xenophon in 400 BC, would have called this gentler take on ‘Natural’ horsemanship? They would have simply called it ‘Horsemanship’. The concepts of working within the nature of the horse, with as little force as possible, and taking the time required to form a trusting partnership are not new ideas in the horse training world and throughout history those who were lucky enough to have access to the works of the classical masters always knew this. Now obviously not all practitioners of ‘Natural Horsemanship’ are create equal, and some are no less harsh than the methods used before the phrase “Natural Horsemanship” was ever coined, so don’t think I am saying that someone who refers to themselves as ‘Natural Horsemanship Expert’ is really just a modern version of a Classical Master. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

So this brings us, in a massively circuitous route, back to the original problem of people handling horses, especially very large horses, unnecessarily roughly.  Some do this because all they know about horses is what they have seen in TV westerns; some because what instruction they have been giving came from someone who holds to a traditional way of handling horses that employs more force as a matter of course. In both cases, when faced by a horse of far greater size than they are experienced with, they are intimidated and over compensate with even more force. Ironically, this is exactly the way one turns the encounter into a fight, a fight the human is simply outmatched in and it is completely unnecessary.

The short answer to this problem is this; treat all horses gently but firmly, but with only as much force as is absolutely required at any given moment and when more force is called for, return to the level you started with as soon as possible. Make it a part of your regular interaction with horses to ask them to do your bidding and reward their acquiescence with praise, instead of trying to force them. Do not allow the situation to escalate, with you raising and maintaining the higher level of force, thus forcing the horse to defend itself as it has evolved to do. e.g. Horse pulls, you yank on the rope and keep yanking, horse pulls back harder to get away from the threat. So you start light, increase only as much as is called for by the moment, then return to light and never assume just because the horse is bigger than other horses that you must raise the level on the force from the outset.  Remember that those who train with force must always use force and therefore have a limited number of tools with which to work. Those who forgo the use of force as much as possible have a much wider array of options at their disposal.

In conclusion, I am going to repeat the section on leading the horse from my previous article on ground work to give more details about what I am advocating here. You will note I do not at any point say anything about changing the method for a horse of unusual size. From mini to draft horse, if what we are doing is based on working within the evolved nature of the Equine, then the size of the particular horse is irrelevant.


Once haltered, hold the lead loosely in your open right hand, arm hanging low, thumb forward and coil the excess lead in your left hand as you walk steadily without looking back, expecting the horse will follow. The horse should follow quietly on your right side. Keep your left hand closed on the coil of lead line, but leave the right open with your fingers curled around the rope, ready to close. Leave enough slack in the lead that the horse can walk with you without any contact on the halter as long as it keeps its distance. Should the horse attempt to turn away instead of following, close your right hand on the lead firmly, but only long enough to impede the movement away, then open and relax it again the instant the horse gives back and starts following. Try not to look back. The same routine is used if the horse stops, or drops its head to try to eat. A quick closing of the right hand and the horse is blocked as it moves way, followed by the release the moment that movement is arrested. If the horse keeps stopping, then leading may be problematic and you may have to give small tugs to get it moving again, until you begin your work on the short line, which I will address next, but do not try to pull the horse along behind you, that nearly always ends badly. Again, take your time; you have all the time in the world, believe it.

 If the horse reverses the problem and attempts to walk ahead of you, rather than trying to hold back 1200lbs of muscle, try this; with the lead still held loosely in the right hand, turn left, then left again, then left again, allowing the lead to brace against your open right hand if the horse hesitates to follow right away, and viola, you are back on course with the horse behind you. Each time the horse attempts to walk ahead of you, and by ahead I mean anything close to bringing its shoulder even with yours, you simply repeat the turns to the left. It may take repeating a few times, but after several of these the horse should get tired of the circles and fall into step with you. Just like catching the horse, leading cannot have a time constraint. It will take as much time as it takes and trying to rush things will be absolutely counterproductive.

 So take your horse for walks to all sorts of interesting places, keeping the right hand open except to correct ‘missteps’, but remember to release the closed hand the very instant the horse gives you what you want. Closing and holding the rein or taking up the slack on it puts you in constant contact with the horse’s head and gives it the power to apply its size to fight you and this is a fight you don’t want. In time, it should seem to the horse that you have magical powers and can block it from straying from the path you have set with a sudden application of a power that vanishes before the horse’s superior strength can be brought to bear.

Getting Out Of The Brambles

bramblesI found myself hung up in the tall weeds yesterday. The path, so clear when I started, turned into a tangle of twisted, thorny, vines. Struggle as I might, I could not make any headway. I would just shake off the ones holding my legs and others would grab may arms; free my arms and something snagged my waist. The harder I pushed the more frustrated I became. Then, when things seemed to have gotten about as bad as they were going to get, it started raining. For long time I pushed on, making very little headway, trying to find a path to the left or to the right that offered a way forward. In the end, I simply had to go back to the point from which I started down this death march and admit I had failed.

What I just described was not some nature hike or adventure trail gone wrong. It was in fact just a training session on our Lipizzaner, Jupiter, and we were working in a perfectly manicured arena. The tangles I refer to so colorfully in the previous paragraph existed only in my mind, but their effect was no less than if they had been real. However, in one way my allegory above is seriously lacking; it fails to include the fact that all the while I was struggling, Jupiter was struggling as much or more, and all of it was my fault.

I had set up some Working Equitation elements I knew I need to work on with several of our horses, if I ever wanted to compete in this activity at a level I would be satisfied with. While the training I have given the ‘Warhorses’ has proven quite adequate for the Medieval Gaming competitions we take part in, Working Equitation requires a different and in several ways, more advanced level of training. To wit, I decided to work Jupiter on collected cantering on small circles and lead changes. What happened instead was, I found I couldn’t even get him to take his left lead reliably from a simple canter depart, nor could I get him to relax and bend while cantering. Needless to say, our ‘small’ circles were not and collection was impossible.

What went wrong? Jupiter has become one of my favorite horses to ride and in the last several months has made great strides forward as a warhorse, so obviously he should be able to handle a simple figure eight at the canter, in 15′ circles, right? Had I prepared him for this with months of collected cantering on larger circles? Well no, not as such. Had I helped him learn to elevate his shoulders and bring his hind under to lift himself? Sure, on a straight or gradual curves. Was he remotely ready to accomplish my goals? Did I set him up to succeed? Perhaps not, but he has been doing so well lately I just assumed… What an idiot. What I did manage to do was make him so tense that he couldn’t even accomplish things he does well.

Now I was not abusive; I was not rough on him; I did not hurt him. His discomfort was all in my frustration with him, which he is well aware of and being a sensitive creature, he is upset by this. But that, in and of itself, was inexcusable; I know better than that. How can I call myself a classical trainer if I allow myself to fall victim to the main obstacles to good horsemanship; Excess Ambition, Expectation, Frustration, Embarrassment and Tunnel Vision. There are a couple rays of sunshine about this experience; Jupiter handled it, for the greatest part, with aplomb, and I can see now what I did wrong. In the earlier days of my riding I would have blamed it all on the horse and accused him of simply misbehaving, usually phrased as “HE had a bad day.” In fact I did say that on Facebook when I got home yesterday but a few minutes later revised to “WE had a bad day.” Upon reflection at 3:00am this morning I am now revising it again, “I had a bad day.” Not a terrible day, but bad.

So how should I have handled yesterday? How does one get out of the brambles once one has found themselves there? Stop trying to move forward; stop even trying to turn left or right; just stop. Trace your steps all the way back out of the mess you have gotten yourself into. Then, look honestly at where you’re trying to go and decide how much further back you still have to go to have any chance of finding the right path. Will this delay your journey? Probably not when you think how far you were able to go on this path before you were stopped cold. A quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings sums it up well, “Shortcuts make for long delays.”  When you find yourself in the long weeds, stop, go back, and look for a better path.

For Jupiter and me, this means returning to flexibility and suppleness work and collection conditioning. It will take as long as it takes and if he is not ready to perform at the level I would like by the time we find ourselves on the Working Equitation course, then I will just have to accept that.

Yes, our training time with our horses is finite, but pushing thing too fast robs us of the experience of the partnership. So which is more important: the destination, or the journey?

The Importance Of Connection On The Ground

It is regularly noted by clients, students and others just observing me work with horses, that the animals I handle seem to ‘obey’ , or ‘listen to’ , or ‘respect’ me within a few short moments of our introduction. Another common statement is something to the affect of “horses seem to love Troy more then they love their owners.” Now I am not mentioning this just to brag, well not ‘just’, but to illustrate something I feel is of vital importance to owning and working with horses; a trait called by many modern clinicians ‘Leadership’. I personally prefer ‘Connection’, but for many, any difference in these two terms is too subtle to get right away, so let’s use ‘Leadership’ for the moment.

Most of us have seen one or more horsemanship clinicians demonstrate their ability to work with a green horse they have not met until a few moments before the clinic begins. They stand calmly in the middle of the arena or round pen as the horse is sent in and promptly starts moving nervously around them, sometimes even running in a near panic, head up, nostrils flared, huffing and snorting; the very image of wild, untamed equine. The clinician then starts talking to the audience as he or she begins moving in relation to the horse, sometimes explaining what they are doing, sometimes speaking about things actually quite unrelated to what is happening between them and the horse. After a little while, the horse seems to flip a switch and suddenly it is calmer, quieter and less afraid. A short time later, the horse either approaches the clinician or vice versa, but either way, a connection appears to be forming and not long after that, the horse is allowing itself to be handled or is following the human around quietly. I have done this very thing with ‘problem’ horses I have just met and had their owners exclaim “That was magic!”

What appears to be almost magical in nature is really just the evolved response of the horse to a calm, stable, confident leadership presence.  These clinicians have learned the ability to influence the horses they work with through subtle use of body language, which is the first and more important level of communication for horses. They have, in short, learned to be a good leader. They then combined this innate connection to the horse with years of technical training experience to turn out light, obedient, brave riding horses, the very thing the people paying for clinics are seeking. These people go to clinics hoping to learn the tricks used by the clinician so they too can turn around their resistant, rebellious, scared, untrustworthy horse. Whether they are aware of it at the time or not, they want to learn ‘leadership’.

This quality of leadership is what great riders have and all riders seek. It is very hard to learn and even harder to teach because it is so difficult to quantify. So many factors combine to create it and often those who have it don’t actually understand why they have it. It starts with the most basic interactions with the horse, like how you catch and lead it from the pasture, continues with your ground work, your grooming regiment, schooling under saddle, etc. It is formed by everything you do and everything you don’t do with your horse. Some tend toward it naturally, others struggle with it their entire equestrian career.

No amount of technical knowledge of riding will avail you if you lack the ability to create a willing partnership with your horse. Yes, a rider can control a horse through physical force, using the bit, crop and spur as weapons. While this is technically riding a horse and for some quite satisfactory, it is not the Equestrian Art as I understand it. Nor is it artful to drill a horse into reacting robotically to a cue, responding to a demand out of habit. It is not artful to pull on the right rein and expect the horse to turn right. The Art is combining all the aids, as subtly as possible, asking the horse to bend throughout its body, carry itself in balance and drive forward and by doing so, the right turn is created. The Art of riding is a partnership where the senior partner quietly and gently influences the posture, balance, and drive of the junior partner to achieve movement in a given direction, at a given speed, in balance. While the connection required to achieve this certainly requires a great deal of technical knowledge and riding ability, it starts and ends with the mental and emotional connection or what we have been calling Leadership.

So how do we start learning to be good leaders? It begins by realizing that every second we are in the presence of horses we are affecting them. Even when we are not touching them or leading them or even looking at them, we are influencing the state of the herd. I am sure we can all think of someone who by their very presence sets us on edge. The way they speak or the gestures they use, the way they sit or eat or just carry themselves, just gets on our nerves. Now imagine the horse, more sensitive hearing and sight, vastly greater sensitivity to the unspoken cues of body language and six times your reflexes. If you are ‘that’ person for them when you are in their sphere of awareness, you are making them uncomfortable just being there. Horses seek comfort, security and safety. I believe they view the three of these things as one. If you make them uncomfortable then you they are going to feel unsafe and insecure. In this state they are never going to willingly accept your leadership, though obviously they can still be made to follow, but this is far from the same thing.

What is it we do that might upset the herd equilibrium that exists between us and our horses? Much of it is common sense if one simply stops to think about it. What is likely to put a herd creature on edge? Sudden or unexpected movement and sounds are right at the top of the list. If you have watched any horsemanship instructional videos late at night, you might have noticed how hard it is to stay awake through them, even if the topics being covered are of particular interest to you. This is because skilled horseman, almost to the man/women, speak softly and regularly, as well as gesture and move in very deliberate ways. If you have not noticed this before, go watch one again. This way of being is either natural for them or the way they have trained themselves to be for so long as to have become there natural state of being. When we are near our horses we must cultivate a predictability in our movements and a steady tone in our voices. Sudden, jerky movement or increased volume or pitch of our voices damage the calm of our horses, even if we don’t detect it at the time. This means not putting ourselves into situations where we might need to jump aside. This means regulating our emotional state to keep our movements and voices even and not unexpected. It does not mean whispering or moving in slow motion. In fact, most horse like someone creeping up on them about as much as they like someone running at them, that is to say, not at all.

Controlling our emotions can be a tricky ‘chicken and egg’ situation. For a horse to relax and become a calm, safe thing to be around, we have to suppress completely our own fear and nervousness which is not all that easy to do around horses that are not already calm and relaxed. This is why the situation of ‘green on green‘ is so often disastrous. The inexperienced horse owner trying to handle the inexperienced horse often results in a spiral out of control; scared horse make owner nervous, nervous owner scares horse… It is obviously better if the young horse is started by an experienced trainer while the novice rider works with a already trained horse.

The three emotions that are most likely to get you into trouble are Fear, Frustration which manifests most often as anger, and Embarrassment. Learn to master these and a huge percentage of the problems you will have with horses will disappear.

Okay, so we have learned to modulate our movement and voices and control our emotions. Wasn’t that simple? Well of course not, but knowing we need to work on these issues allows us to turn to more technical, quantifiable facts about controlling the horse’s movement through body language.

The Herd Dynamic

In a herd of horses, the leader decides when and where the herd will eat, which direction and how fast the herd will move and which herd members get to approach and which will be forced to stand off. They enforce order and settle serious disputes but the remainder of the herd hierarchy is determined by interaction between the other herd members. Horses have evolved in such a way as to create an interesting dichotomy in each horse’s nature. They are ‘hard wired’ to both instantly obey an order given by the herd leader, while at the same time to test the leadership suitability of the horses above them in the herd.  This is not to say the every horse seeks to be the leader. In my experience I have found quite the contrary to be true, as most horses are quite comfortable letting another make the life and death decisions and leave them alone to eat and play. But here’s the rub, they are only comfortable with this situation IF the leader has been proven suitable, capable and worthy of following.

A commonly expressed view is as follows: “You must be the leader of ‘your herd’.” In other words, you must always be perceived as higher in rank than the horse; true enough, but the problem then becomes how to achieve this.  We are often told, “Just watch how horses interact in the pasture and you will understand how leadership is attained.” I have come to believe that this view, as it is understood by a large majority of people who express it, is flawed. It would be more correct to say “Watch how horse interact in the WILD to begin to understand how leadership is determined.” Often, with horses living together in the pasture, the most aggressive horse will enforce its will on the other horses, demanding to be fed first, choosing who gets to stand with whom, etc. It will do this simply by threatening the other horses with violent aggression time and time again. This horse is the boss of the pasture to be sure, but is often NOT a leader in any way, in other words it chases, but is not trusted or willingly followed. What changes the herd dynamic in the pasture from what it is in the wild is very simple, fences.  In the wild, a horse who is constantly aggressive, pushing its will on other horses to get what his wants through threat, will either be ostracized by the other herd members or driven off. Fences prevent the other horses from just leaving the bully horse by itself. Yes, aggression is sometimes a part of determining the hierarchy of the herd in the wild, but generally it is much more subtle than this and the leader inspires the rest of the herd to follow more than it forces it. Herd leadership is more about calm, inherent confidence than it is about brute strength or aggression. This is why while stallions will fight for breeding privileges, it is most often a mare who decided where the herd will go, when they will stop, when they will eat, etc. In this way, a horse owner can use aggression to chase a horse away, and in some cases this is needed, however aggression will not cause a horse to willing follow you.

The enforcement of authority of one horse over another is manifested by the higher horse making the lower horse move. To do this they either PushDrive or Draw the other horse into following and they will generally do it in that order. The Push is literally moving the other horse by a nudge with the head or nose, or a bump with body; the horse that allows itself to be Pushed shows itself likely to be subordinate and invites the Drive. The Drive is at the same time more forceful and more implied. It is done with posture and threat and might be as subtle as a look with the ears laid back, or a lowering of the head toward the vertical and arching the neck, or as overt as a threat to bite or kick. Once the subordinate horse starts moving away, often the higher horse will give chase for a while to make it clear who is in charge. If the two horses involved are similar in their perceived ranking this can sometimes involve an actual altercation where both horses will not just threaten, but actually bite or kick to establish who is in charge. Rarely, this can cause serious injury. Now no horse wants to be driven from the safety of the herd, therefore repeated Drives away, i.e. not allowing the horse to rejoin the herd, will start to make a horse concerned and instill a strong desire to placate the one driving so as to be allowed to return to the herd. Lowering of the head, working the mouth and tongue can be signs of a horse displaying its subservience and asking to be accepted back. When satisfied things have been settled, the lead horse will often move parallel to subordinate horse then turn away slightly dropping all threat, this Draws the other horse toward it and allows it to fall behind and follow. Barring a future challenge of authority, the subordinate horses will automatically follow the lead from that time on.

All very interesting, but what does it mean for us? What it means is we must be aware of all this when we are interacting with our horse to avoid inadvertently giving our horses the impression that we are not worthy to lead, or worse, inviting a challenge for authority. How many of us have been carrying on a conversation at the barn and had our horse start nudging us or rubbing on us and our response is to smile and comment on how much our horse loves us? Well, hate to break the news but that kind of contact is not love, but a subtle test of herd position. The horse being led from the pasture that keeps stopping and dropping its head to eat – test. The horse that walks away when you approach with the halter – test. These are just a few indicators that our horse is far from certain we deserve to be in charge, but is not an overt challenge yet. If we are lucky they will just decide we are even in rank, which is far from ideal, but still better than being directly challenged for authority. In truth, a direct challenge seldom happens; what tends to happen more is the horse loses respect for us and therefore confidence in us as leader. So instead of automatically acquiescing to our authority, they decide on a case by case basis whether or not they want to follow our lead in any given situation. This is the horse that is fine on one end of the arena but won’t go to the corner over there; the horse that walks up to trailer, but then decides it is not in its best interest to step in; the horse that happily goes where you tell it to on the ride, but when spooked turns and runs back for the barn. There are many more examples, some overt and some very subtle, where having the horse doubt our leadership is a problem. Those clinicians I was discussing in the beginning cannot afford the slightest hint of doubt, so everything they do, no matter how subtle, is calculated to reinforce their absolute leadership and in turn gain the horse’s trust and respect.

What about play or simple affection? Play is a certainly a part of horse interaction. In young horses is the first step in deciding where they stand in the herd. I do not mean to suggest horses are duplicitous creatures that always have ulterior motives when they interact; it is not a thought process as we might think of it in humans. I am saying that even in play or when showing affection to their owners, how we react to them still effects how they view our position in relationship to them. I am not suggesting you must always be focused on ‘working’ the horse. What i am saying is everything we do is affecting and teaching the horse and we must keep this in the back of our mind at all times, if we want to maintain the unquestioned leadership position that makes for a calm, brave, obedient and willing mount.

To achieve the kind of automatic acquiescence to our will, as the herd leader in the wild engenders, we must be aware of our actions or lack of action and how they tap into the instinctive response to leadership all horses are born with. In the video below you can seem a session where I am working with a nervous and excitable young mare. She had not previously been handled by anyone who ever inspired trust, so you can see how this state comes to her instinctively as the session progresses.

Working From The Ground

So what can we do to reinforce our authority over our horses? The short answer to this question is “affect your horse’s movement.” Decide when and where it will eat. Decide how it follows you, how close to you it can get, when it is okay to touch you and when it is not. Basically, always knowing what you want the horse to do and asking for it. Some call it ‘respecting space’ and that is part of it to be sure, but it is more; it is also providing calm, confident direction. Showing that you are moving mindfully and are paying attention; this adds a sense of security and safety to the emotional state of the horse when it no longer feels it has to be on the look out for potential dangers because its herd leader is doing that.


Before we can talk in any detail about how we go about gaining influence over the horses, there are some terms we need to have a common understanding of. I will be using these terms further along and it will save confusion if you understand them before that time.

Drive Line: The line from the whither down through the shoulder to the front legs. Approaching a horse from the side, directly on the drive line is your best chance for having it remain in place. Pressure directed behind the drive line will send the horse forward. Pressure directed forward of the drive line will send the horse away and back causing it to turn away from you.

Swapping Eyes: When the horse changes its position in such a way as to switch from looking at you with the right eye to looking at it with the left, or vise versa.

Pressure: Applying force or more often ‘implying’ force to cause the horse to move. When I talk about applying pressure I always mean starting and the lowest amount of force and gradually increasing it until responded to and then it should be instantly reduced. Always begin at a lower level than was needed to achieve the same response the time before.

Body Life: Effecting the horse’s reaction to your presence by either standing tall, eyes up and talking long, definite strides, i.e. increasing Body Life, or by rounding your shoulders, directing your eyes down and shortening your steps, i.e. decreasing Body Life.

Hip Disengagement: Drawing the head of the horse toward you while it is in motion and at the same time ‘sending’ the hind end out and away from you and in doing so bringing the horse to face you. The front feet stop and the hind feet travel out and away, inside foot crossing over outside.


Now let me add this little disclaimer as well. Any interaction with horses involves risk and ground work for authority has its own inherent risks as it involves to one degree or another; threatening an animal twenty times your strength and with six times your reflexes can have unwanted results. Describing the techniques for doing this in a written document is imperfect at best. Horses in real fear for their safety or horses that have already decided they are above humans in the herd, can strike out or bite or in some other way harm the unwary or unprepared. Please use common sense and don’t let things get out of hand or to a point that you risk injury.  While I will give some details in what follows, I cannot teach all the nuances of these concepts without demonstrating them in person, so if you have any doubt about any part of it, do not attempt it.

Catching Your Horse

I find it a very positive indicator of my training methods that all the horses in my care stand quietly to be approached and haltered, if they don’t in fact come right up to the gate to meet me when I come for them. However, when I get new horses in I sometimes have to deal with past experiences and concerns that make it so a horse is hesitant to be caught. By remembering how the drive line works, it is possible to move a horse in a given direction by picking what orientation you choose when you approach the horse. Approaching from directly perpendicular to the drive line, with your body life low, you have the best chance of successfully catching a horse right away, assuming there is not some fear issue. Approaching a few steps at a time, slowly, with small steps, shoulder round and eyes directed down or at least away from the horse, you are as none threatening as you can be. Taking only a few steps you must truly believe that you have all the time in the world, as any time constraint in your mind will cause you to push things and/or become frustrated. If the horse stands long enough for you to approach and touch its shoulder, you should gently slip the lead you have been allowing to hang loosely in your hand around its neck before you attempt to put the halter on.

If, as commonly happens, the horse starts to walk forward at your approach, change your path and walk parallel to it, staying as close to the drive line as you can and try to approximate its speed. If the horse brakes away and runs off, go back to the quiet walk and arc out away from the horse to reach the point adjacent to the drive line again. If the horse starts turning away and putting its tail to you, alter your path until the horse is pointed in the direction you want it to go, like say back toward the gate or in the direction of a corner. As you follow, try to move off to a parallel path, but if the horse tries to turn away, move from one side to the other causing the horse to swap eyes on you, timing the change of eye to coincide with the horse’s change of direction so no matter what way it turns it finds you standing on the side the eye is swapping to. It is very important that you do this movement from one eye to the other and casually as you can. If the horse slows, as it is likely to when it keeps finding you standing on the side it is trying to turn to, stop following and begin again to move parallel to the horses line of travel, at the drive line, and then start to close the distance a little at a time. Should the horse turn way, again cross to the other eye and repeat the process. Keep the pressure low and be willing to stop from time to time and let the horse come to terms with the fact that you are not going to stop driving it, eventually it will turn and face you. Now lower your eyes and step cross in front of the horse as you simultaneously move gradually closer. Should the horse turn to face you, slow and turn back across to other side and continue to approach slowly, pausing often. By closing while trying to come up on its shoulder, eventually the horse should allow you to approach. This may take quite a while, but remain calm and quiet and in time it should work with most horses. Carrying treats with you and giving the horse one AFTER it has allowed itself to be haltered is a good way to reward proper behavior; eventually it becomes unnecessary and can be discontinued once the horse is in the habit of letting you catch it. In fact, it might even start coming to you instead.


Once haltered, hold the lead loosely in your open right hand, arm hanging low, thumb forward and coil the excess lead in your left hand as you walk steadily without looking back, expecting the horse will follow. The horse should follow quietly on your right side. Keep your left hand closed on the coil of lead line, but leave the right open with your fingers curled around the rope, ready to close. Leave enough slack in the lead that the horse can walk with you without any contact on the halter as long as it keeps its distance. Should the horse attempt to turn away instead of following, close your right hand on the lead firmly, but only long enough to impede the movement away, then open and relax it again the instant the horse gives back and starts following. Try not to look back. The same routine is used if the horse stops, or drops its head to try to eat. A quick closing of the right hand and the horse is blocked as it moves way, followed by the release the moment that movement is arrested. If the horse keeps stopping, then leading may be problematic and you may have to give small tugs to get it moving again, until you begin your work on the short line, which I will address next, but do not try to pull the horse along behind you, that nearly always ends badly. Again, take you time; you have all the time in the world, believe it.

If the horse reverses the problem and attempts to walk ahead of you, rather than trying to hold back 1000lbs of muscle, try this; with the lead still held loosely in the right hand, turn left, then left again, then left again, allowing the lead to brace against your open right hand if the horse hesitates to follow right away, and viola, you are back on course with the horse behind you. Each time the horse attempts to walk ahead of you, and by ahead I mean anything close to bringing its shoulder even with yours, you simply repeat the turns to the left. It may take repeating a few times, but after several of these the horse should get tired of the circles and fall into step with you. Just like catching the horse, leading cannot have a time constraint. It will take as much time as it takes and trying to rush things will be absolutely counterproductive.

So take your horse for walks to all sorts of interesting places, keeping the right hand open except to correct ‘missteps’, but remember to release the closed hand the very instant the horse gives you what you want. Closing and holding the rein or taking up the slack on it puts you in constant contact with the horse’s head and gives it the power to apply its size to fight you and this is a fight you don’t want. In time, it should seem to the horse that you have magical powers and can block it from straying from the path you have set with a sudden application of a power that vanishes before the horse’s superior strength can be brought to bear.


By now you may have started to detect some standard concepts that reappear throughout everything we do with horses. Maintain a gentle, flexible contact with the horse that becomes firm only as needed and is immediately returned to the light, flexible connection the instant the correction has taken. We constantly guide, but never hold. We ask repeatedly for simple things and reward the moment we are given what we are asking for. By never allowing it to become a fight, the horse never learns it is stronger than we are. We use our intellect to make up for our weaker stature by applying what strength we have at just the right time and releasing it before the horse can set itself to brace against our request.

Working On The Short Line

In short line work the goal is to send the horse out in smallish circles around you. This is best done in round pen or arena or similar good footing. I like to do this with a lunging cavesson, but it can be done with a just a rope halter and lead line.

Stand facing the horse, take the lead in your left hand short enough to keep it off the ground and a crop, lunging stick, or whip in your right. With the horse facing you, step forward past the its head to your right, close down the shoulder to the drive line, then as you step back away from the horse, raise your left hand toward and forward of the horse’s inside eye. At the same time, you apply pressure with the movement of crop, behind the drive line, in the area your left leg would go if you were sitting on the horse. What you are attempting to do is drive the horse forward with the crop and not pull the horse forward with the lead. The left hand blocks the horse from turning toward you while the right sends the horse forward. Feed out the lead line as much as needed to allow the horse to circle out and away from you, but keep a light contact on the horse’s head in your relaxed and lowered left hand. You can either stand your ground and circle the horse around you, or even walk along with it, allowing the horse to move relatively straight. But whether on a circle or in straight movement, gently ask the horse to flex its head slightly toward you and bend its body away from you to match the arc of the circle you have it on. You should hold your position at or slightly behind the drive line and employ the movement of the crop to pressure the horse to maintain steady forward movement, but again, ONLY apply pressure when needed and cease the instant you have what you ask for. What gait should the horse be moving? Always start with the walk and do not think of asking for the trot until you and the horse have mastered the walk. After a few minutes of circling to the left, reach forward with your crop hand and smoothly swap the lead and crop from one hand to the other without stopping the horse. Then, closing your hand on the lead, step backward as you gently draw it across in front of you, disengaging the horse’s hip as you bring your lead hand up toward the horse’s inside eye, step back to the drive line and send the horse forward again, now in the opposite direction. Before you move back behind the drive line again and pressure at that same position where you leg would be if riding, you may need to also pressure the horses inside shoulder, forward of the drive line, to cause it to move out and away rather than closing and running over you.

Short line work is literally like a dance with you leading and the horse following your lead. It takes some practice and is much easier to learn by observing it being done. Be that as it may, the rules of light, flexible contact with the lead and an open lead hand, closing only as needed and then relaxing again still apply. Add to this the restrained use of the driving tool, again, only used as absolutely necessary to keep the horse’s movement steadily forward and to direct the shoulder away, after which the pressure is removed at once.


All of the above activities enhance your connection and leadership role with your horse, assuming you are calm and confident, achieving the desired responses from the horse in a very matter-of-fact way. Your attitude must be one of ‘fait accompli’, only taking actions that are required and absolutely only as long as required, to make a correction. If you are consistent in your actions and constant in your goals, never unfair and never betraying the trust the horse puts in you as leader, you will gain clear and unquestioned deference from your horse. This honestly earned trust and respect can then by applied to your riding with the same core rules and everything you have accomplished on the ground can be carried forward into the saddle.

Having this relationship with your horse not only makes it more obedient, but calmer and more secure as well, and therefore happier. As I mentioned before, horses seek comfort, security and safety. Achieving this is vital to proper training. Without it, complete connection will always elude us.  A certainty of where it stands in the herd and complete confidence in the one responsible for its well being is a key factor to a healthy and happy horse; only a healthy and happy horse will respond fully to its training and its rider.

“Request often, be content with little, reward lavishly.” ~ François Bauche