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.

Terminology

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.

Warning!

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.

Leading

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.

Commonalities 

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.

Summary

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

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Goodbye Ronin

We lost Ronin today. Sudden and complete neurological collapse most like caused by a stroke. Nancy is devastated. I am doing no better. The whole thing is just so surreal. Last time we saw him before it, he had just been put in the pasture with Jupiter and they were instant best friends. He leaves behind a hole in our lives, deep, black and vast.

The Right Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is Classical Horsemanship Path Right For You?

What style of riding is the right ‘path’ for you?

Before we attempt to answer this odd question, it is good to remember that the style of riding you choose to employ is mostly dictated by what you wish to do with your horse; tack, clothing and training methods all follow.

Most experienced riders tend to try to steer other riders to follow their path. After all, if they didn’t think it was the best way to ride they wouldn’t do it would they? The problem with this is there are many very different activities done on horseback and while there are clearly some ‘truths’ about horses and their training, the broader methods of riding and training can vary greatly.

Dressage for instance, dictates a specific seat, one that I prefer because it follows the principles I personally find important. But the same could be said of Jumping, working cattle, racing, etc. I have to constantly remind myself that “my way”, while correct for my goals, is not for everyone.
I am as guilty as anyone of saying things like, “That is the wrong way to ride because it makes it harder to do ………” The answer is of course “I don’t do ………” Lately, I try to phrase it as “Unless you are going to be doing ………, it might be better for you to ride this way.” or “I understand you learned to ride a different way, but this is the way the horse is trained.”

Oddly, I have concluded that most riders don’t give much thought to what they want to accomplish beyond “I want to ride as well as he does.” Never stopping to think that what “he” does is not really what they do in a practical sense, they are just impressed with the horsemanship they see.

Same goes for horse choices often. “Oh honey, I want a Friesian. Just look at it, that is the perfect horse” Perfect for what they never ask themselves. It is an abstract thing for them.

So how to choose?

European cavalry instructors of the 1700s often broke riding into three levels; utilitarian, campaign, and high school. By this they meant the skills of general riding, military riding and upper level ‘dressage’. They noted that not all horses nor all riders were suited to all levels of riding. The same can be said today, though we would likely replace ‘military riding’ with ‘performance riding’.

Historically speaking, people have learned to ride in the form that is popular where we live and at the time they are living. Horse breeding, riding style, tack and even fashion was dictated so. As an example, before the 18th century, riders in England rode in saddles with high cantles and pommels and ‘hunting’ was a matter of riding well across open areas or through fields and wielding weapons. Collection and agility were key and the horse breeding and training reflected that. After the land reforms in England that allowed land owners to fence off their lands with walls or hedges, hunting changed to a sport where you needed to be able to cover large distances and jump so everything changed, saddle, tack, horse conformation and training, to accommodate the new style of riding.

Tracing the paths of development you can clearly see how riding has evolved to the needs of the times. It is only recently that we as riders have had a choice as to how we want to ride; what activities we find interesting; what skills we need to teach our horses. Because today we have a situation that is relatively new to the horse world. We have the ability to pick the riding form we want to pursue from a vast array of disciplines from throughout time and from any place on earth. Today riding is a leisure activity and not a requirement of daily life, so we can try out hands and any number of differing activities. It is these choices that should dictate our selection of riding style, tack, horse and the instruction we seek.

For instance, I feel those truly interested in the ‘Western Style’ of riding and with a preference for stock horses would likely as not be better served with the true Vaquero methods of riding and training, than by the Classical Dressage form I personally prefer to ride on more baroque horses. The Vaquero form of riding would seem more familiar to those who began riding western and since this style of riding has strong roots in Classical riding, it can achieve good results as they relate to what is commonly done by these riders; stock work or western games.

I say this because I still feel that the ‘classical’ way is still the best way to achieve the height of harmony and connection with the horse. Many are put off by the ‘style’ of dressage, saddles, tack, etc. but that does not mean that they must eschew everything it has to offer.

With horses I feel there are still more wrong ways to do things than right, but ‘right’ for one activity is sometimes not as right for another. So there are some forms of riding that I believe are better than other and some I think are just wrong, period, full stop.

The saying is “There are many roads to Rome.” Many seek paved ones with clearly painted signs that lead quickly to their destination as they see it. Today there are many ‘branded’ methods one can pick from, which promote themselves as ‘simple’ methods to train the horse and rider, the promise just that.

As a friend recently said to me ” I think it is a product of our modern age. We want to “get it now” and our time is so limited. Time and money are limited. I think that most horse folks would rather be working with their horses than dealing with their “day job” but the bills have to be paid!” It is true that few of us are lucky enough to have the time to follow the training of the old Masters as it takes a lot of time and dedication.

For many, riding and training horses are matters of essentially learning a new language before they can even start to learn what is being said to them. For many of these folk, one or another modern clinician might be a good place to start. After all you have to know the alphabet before you can even spell your name. Why make it harder on yourself then you need to? I looked at this approach myself many years ago and gained some very useful information, well before I chose the classical path.

A good clinician/trainer will tell you to seek our knowledge outside their instruction because the art is far more complex and has much greater depth than they can teach in simplest terms.

There is no doubt at all that the classical path is difficult to follow. It is not paved and sometimes it is even hard to see that there is a path, but it contains so much old knowledge that has been forgotten or is overlooked by those speeding by on the highway of modern training I find it the most rewarding thing I have ever attempted.

I encourage you to give serious thought to what you want to accomplish in your equestrian life and then seek the best path for you.

As Philippe Karl says “It is not what you do, but how you do a thing that is classical or not.”

Ronin – First Impressions

10 year old Friesian/Arabian Gelding. 16 hands, about 1350lbs

Pros:
Solid mind, very steady and reliable. Doesn’t fluster or spook.
Large frame, solid bone. Will have a good carrying capacity.
Light to the rein aids. Sensitive to, though not sure as to the meaning of, the leg and seat aids.
Good people connection. Appears to genuinely want to please.

Cons:
Presently does not carry himself from the hind end.
Free lunges with pronounced counter-bend.
When lunged on the line, falls inward or loses his hind end.
Hollow back with rider.
Carries head naturally too high and in the ‘above the bit’ form.
Resists giving at the pole.
No bend while turning, though tries to respond to the leg as best he can.
Ground manners issues, especially after riding.

Ronin is a very impressive looking black Friesian Cross gelding. He is solid boned, broad at the shoulder and deep in the chest. He has a gentle, intelligent look, calm eye and relaxed expression. His mane and tale are long and thick. He is straight of limb and has well formed feet, though they are a bit too dry and have cracked a bit. He has proven easy to handle for the most part, though becomes pushy after being worked. He is a ‘low man’ in the pasture when it comes to herd position.

After a few sessions in the round pen and one under saddle, I am convinced he can be made into a excellent lesson horse and/or medieval gaming horse. While he will need a great deal of physical conditioning, strengthening and suppling to allow him to carry a rider with balance and bend as well as to address his asymmetry. His is strongly ‘right-handed’, balanced on the forehand and as a bad tendency to ‘hollow’ his back while carrying his head much too high. Until I can get him ’rounding’ and ‘flexing’ well, collection is simply out of the question, so I predict some months will be needed to correct these issues.

Fortunately, I will not have to worry about having to do any work on his acceptance of saddle, bit and rider. He is very experienced as a general riding and mounted archery horse. He stands for grooming, saddling and mounting, walks out willingly and is very obedient to the rider’s will. He seems un-phased by the gaming elements and pays little attention to things going on outside the ride.

Summation:

I predict 6 months to condition and train him to classical riding, at which time he should be a strong, balanced and steady mount, with very good potential to excel as a warhorse.

Below is a video of our session today. I wanted to document how he is moving now to compare to where he ends up.

The ‘Magic’ of Horse Training

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

The Healer

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

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

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

The Empath

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

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

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

The Druid

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

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

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

The Wizard

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

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

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

The Battle Mage

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

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

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

The Bard

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

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

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

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

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

The Arcane Master

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

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

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

The Sage

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

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

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

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

The Student

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

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

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

The Myth of the Quiet Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Overdue News About Jupiter

So I realized this morning I had not updated my blog entries with anything about Jupiter in many months. As if it was not bad enough that I have not been properly tracking his progress, but worse yet, I neglected to mention the single most important bit of news concerning Jupiter, but before I get to that, a little background so we get more caught up.

Jupiter was sent to us later in 2010 for one year of training. Marti, the owner, wanted him started gently and time to be taken to make sure as to not damage his trusting, loving nature. You can read the regular updates posted on the blog up to July of last year, where the updates abruptly stopped. They stopped because something changed in the situation that made regular updates to the blog less important.

Included with many of the updates posted to this blog during his year in training, were pictures and videos showing Nancy’s interaction with Jupiter. We also sent Marti other pictures and video directly. The goal was to show her just how well he was doing, how much we loved having him in for training and what a great guy we thought the big lug was. There were many gushing comments from Nancy and lots of photos of her with him, love clearly viable.

In September we took Jupiter to his first medieval equestrian competition. Now keep in mind this was to be the trip where we were to return Jupiter to Marti, but a week or two before the event, while we were working out the logistics of returning him, Marti informed us that it was not necessary as she had decided to give Jupiter to Nancy. Unbelievable? Yes, well it was for us. We protested that there was no way we were going to allow her to pay for a year’s training on a horse then turn around and give us the horse. I mean, the value of a Lipizzaner alone would have been to great a gift, training not withstanding. Our protestations aside, Marti stood her ground and insisted that Jupiter had clearly “Found his person” in Nancy and should be with her. Add to this the fact that Marti’s time and financial situation meant that if Jupiter was to go home, he would go back out into pasture and be unused for who knows how long, so obviously it was in everyone’s best interest if he just stayed with us.

Nancy & Jupiter

So after much soul searching we agreed, but only if Marti rode Jupiter first, just to be sure she wanted to part with. At the event, where I rode Jupiter in his first competition to a respectable fourth place finish, Marti did step up on Jupiter for a ride, but when it was over, as pleased as she appeared to be at his training level, she stuck with her decision and gave him to Nancy. We agreed only after offering to take Jupiter’s full brother, Galahad, in for training some time in the future, at only the cost of boarding, thus returning at least some of the training she paid for on Jupiter.

So finally, after searching since I got Orion, Nancy has HER horse. She is in love with him and he with her and they are well matched.  We posted this news with great enthusiasm to our Facebook pages and though many emails, but only today did I realize that I had not mentioned here on the training blog.

Since then, Jupiter’s training has progressed well and Nancy has become a better rider as a result of her time on him. She has become lighter and more elastic with her hands and supple with her legs, with a more independent seat; generally riding lighter and more connected than I have ever seen her on any other horse. She plans to ride him in competition this year herself. I expect great things out of both of them.

Bits, Bit Use and Bitless – A Classical Perspective

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

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

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

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

So let’s talk about a bit about bits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a little visualization to help you understand what I mean. Think of the old ‘two cans with a string between them communications device kids played with before the time they were all given cell phones at age 6. For the sake of this visualization, let us assume the cans are being held by kids in two adjoining tree houses. The wind is blowing slightly so the trees are swaying. Kept lightly taut, communication is possible; too loose, contact and therefore communication is lost; too tight and the string won’t vibrate when one can is spoken into, so the two kids are required to maintain an elastic contact between them, giving and taking as each moves. But how does the kid in one tree know when to put the can to his ear to listen for the message from the other kid? The kid wishing to be heard gives the string an ever so Gentle tug to alert the kid on the other end that he needs to pay attention. Tug too hard or too suddenly and the kid will drop the can he lightly holds. Now let’s assume one of the kids moves around in his tree house, the other kid has to move also to keep the connection lightly taught, but then the moving kid goes too far and suddenly the second kid finds himself at the edge of his tree house about to lose his balance and fall, rather than jerking back on the string and breaking it, he just holds Firm and allows the other kid to realize he has stopped moving with him and so both kids come to a stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, with a healthy horse, bitless alternatives are fine for trail riding or general hacking about, but for schooling, competition, or anything requiring the horse’s full athleticism, I want to be able to help the horse to flex, bend, and balance, and a classically-used bit is the best way for me to achieve these goals. That being said, a horse with mouth or dental problems, is obviously a different situation altogether.

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

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

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

Horse Training is like Chess

At first blush, the title of this entry is a tad obtuse. How is horse training like chess? Sort of sounds like the riddle from Alice in Wonderland, “How is a raven like a writing desk?” In the Lewis Carol classic the riddle is nonsense spoken by a madman. In our case, it is my hope that neither is the case.

When dealing with horses that have an ‘issue’ I often explain to the horse owner that the horse is only behaving the way it must behave; it has no choice. It behaves the way it does because of how the horse has evolved in general, combined with this horse’s specific breeding, conformation, life experience, the training received to date; in short, it is the combination of all these, and many other, factors that wire it to respond the way it does. The horse does not wake up one morning and “decide” it is going to have a problem with something it has done very well before just to make this hard on you. It does not suddenly find it funny to turn left when you think you are cueing it to go right.  Yes, horses have moods, hormonal fluctuations and some even have what can only be described as a sense of humor, but they do not reason things out, or plan to make your life miserable. They respond to the stimuli around them and the way they respond is dictated by things quite beyond their control.

Okay, what does this have to do with chess?

In a chess game, each player moves one piece at a time trying to gain the advantage over the other. The movement of each piece is controlled by rules; the rook moved forward and back, side to side, while the bishop moves only diagonally, etc. For each move you make there are a finite number of responses and as the game progresses the number of possible responses is reduced until finally there are no moves left for one side or the other and the game is over. Well before that point, one player begins to find that their moves are being completely dictated; in short, they have to respond in a certain way to what is presented as to do otherwise would not really be possible. Much the same way a horse will respond in a given way when to a particular stimuli.

When a chess game begins there are many moves possible and each individual move has only a small impact on the end of the game. As the game progresses, each move becomes more and more important.  When training a horse, the rider tries one method or another to achieve a particular goal with the horse. The horse in turn responds the way it must to each move based on the factors listed above. Each response will in turn prompt the next move of the rider and so on.

In training, as in chess, thinking several moves ahead is the key to winning. Making ‘this’ move so you draw ‘that’ response, which in turn allows you to make the ‘next’ move in your strategy, which if properly chosen, draws the ‘desired’ response, allowing to you make it to the ‘end game’ in a position that insures a victorious outcome.

Also in training and chess, if you do not have a plan and are just moving around randomly and hoping it will work, OR if you are only reacting to the last move made by the other player, your chances for success are reduced greatly. Luckily for us, horses are not trying to beat us. In this way horse training is easier than chess. The bad news is even good players are sometimes defeated by novices who do not respond as expected to standard moves. In these cases we are forced to rethink our strategy and adjust our game.

The good news is each day is a new game. Each time we begin working with our horses we have the chance to adjust our play style to suit the nature of the particular horse. Also, we have the advantage of taking moves back in the middle of the game. Think of it like playing chess with a computer. You play along, thinking all is going well, when suddenly you see you have gotten yourself into trouble. You can keep playing along knowing you are fighting a losing battle or you can step back through several moves until you find yourself in a comfortable position and then chose a new direction to take your game.

Oft times I am challenged in my belief that the horse is an innocent victim in the training process and it is the trainer who is at fault when things go amiss. A rider will have a problem with something they are attempting and will turn to me and say, “See, I am doing this right, the damn horse is just being willful.” In short, they have run out of moves. It is in this situation I think “Checkmate, you have lost this game.” The rider did not see where things went wrong with this horse; sometimes because they picked up the game in the middle from another player and did not see the moves the previously person had made that set this match down a losing path. Here is where you start taken moves back, and back and back, until you find the position of advantage. This may mean just going back to the previous preparation work you were doing for this one thing the horse is having difficulty, but it may mean stepping down out of the saddle and returning all the way back to basic ground work, conditioning or flexibility training. If the opening was wrong, the game was lost before you even see it. I harp on ground work with my clients for this very reason, as it is through ground work we set the responses in the horse we count on later in the game.

If you don’t play chess, well don’t worry, I don’t think everyone has to play chess to be a good horse trainer, though I recommend chess to everyone, training horses or not. There is much the game can teach us about life. What I do fervently encourage you to do is think about training as a move by move process, or step by step if you prefer. If you don’t understand the rules of the game when it comes to training, then you will need to learn them. Instruction from someone who already plays well is a good place to start. Understand that sometimes the proper move is to take back several moves. Think ahead and try to understand what early moves will make the later ones more effective and remember that in horse training, as in chess, you have to be smarter than the other player to win. ;>