Training The Results: How You Might Be Sabotaging Your Horsemanship Goals

Training the Results: How You Might Be Sabotaging Your Horsemanship Goals

A Lovely Story

I’ve seen it a few times in my life. A well-meaning horse lover becomes inspired or enamored by an example of excellence in horsemanship. Maybe it’s a tackless exhibition ride. Or maybe it’s a liberty work display that showcases what is possible with an amazing relationship between horse and human.

It isn’t at all wrong to find these demonstrations inspiring, or to aspire to that level of horsemanship ourselves.

Where the problem arises is when a trainer tries to train the results that were so inspiring without laying the necessary foundation. This does a fundamental disservice, and can be outright physically dangerous, to horse and rider.

I’ve called this “Hallmark Syndrome” or “Disney-itis” before — the novice equestrian falls prey to the storyline of the average horse movie. You know the plot. A (usually troubled) child/teenager becomes obsessed with a troubled horse who no one can connect with and is in danger of being put down/auctioned, etc. because of its dangerously erratic behavior. The child/teenager, usually in violation of a wiser persons mandate to leave the horse alone, begins secretly working with the animal, and is eventually discovered to have formed a miraculous bond with the animal. The story usually ends with the duo handily winning a prestigious competition.

Sabotaging Your Goals

I actually like this story, to a degree. I’ve read The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague my share of times. I waited for weeks to see the old Disney Channel original movie “Ready to Run” on the TV Guide so I could punch a blank tape into the VCR and capture it.  “Flash” was another favorite. There are shades of these themes in “National Velvet,” and I broke the binding on two copies of that book. “Second Chances” and “My Friend Flicka,” I could go on for days. This is the stuff that the fantasies of horsemen are made of.

But it is important to recognize the fantastic element of the story. Instances of this plot playing out with a happy ending in real life are ridiculously rare. Far more often, it turns out in a case of green-on-green equals black-and-blue.

Rider on Grey Horse Hunt Seat

A human-world analog would be tossing an elementary school student who has barely managed addition into an undergraduate calculus class and expecting him to earn a passing grade. Or to throw a YMCA rec league baseball team into the World Series.

What is the antidote?

Solid Basics

If a horse isn’t solid in his understanding of the basics, no amount of pushing for him to understand more advanced concepts is going to make it “click.” If something as simple as walking in-hand across the barn yard without wigging out is beyond your horse’s capacity, I can guarantee that a bareback and bridleless ride is going to end in disappointment at best.

It isn’t glamorous or sexy. It isn’t always easy. And it is deceptively simple. So is a brick. But, one at a time, bricks come together to build a mansion. And it can happen faster than you think it will.

Here is a short, short list of the basics that will sabotage your horsemanship if they are not ingrained to the level of habit.

Non-Negotiable Basics To Build On

  • Accepting Touch (Whole Body) This means that you can groom and handle your horse’s entire body normally without him flinching, dancing away, giving dirty looks, or threatening to defend himself.
  • Accepting Equipment This means that your horse allows you to fit him with the equipment that you need to use on a regular basis, whatever that means to you and your situation.
  • Yielding to Pressure Respectfully This means that your horse moves his body forward, backward, left, and right when you ask him to. He should do this willingly, no side-eye or dragging feet, and also without overreacting with flinching, dancing, or bolting.

These three raw basics are the minimum for living with your horse safely. To a degree, mastery of them never ends. But if you don’t basically expect these behaviors from your horse, if you aren’t “surprised” by your horse’s resistance to any of these basics (because we all sometimes have “off” days where we need to go back and revisit doing simple things), you are sabotaging your team by moving on to more complex challenges.

Taking the Lesson Beyond The Barn

As a final thought, I want to encourage you to consider the universality of this idea. When something is not going the way that you want it to, when your goals, in any sphere of life, are not materializing, no matter how hard you are pushing and focusing, what do your basics in that area look like? Are you throwing maraschino cherries onto a bowl of melted room-temperature former ice cream?

You want to get in shape… you are going to go farther by making a basically healthy diet and exercise into routine habit than by agonizing over whether you need foam rolling in your life.

You want that raise or promotion at work. Are you nailing your current job responsibilities? Is doing the simple stuff to your 100% ability your habit?

You want to expand your business, but you’re plateauing at a place where you just can’t crack that next level. Are your staff 100% on their basics? All of the teambuilding workshops and company events in the world can’t make up for shaky basics in operation.

Your problem may be more basic than you think. It may be more basic than you want to hear. 


Show and tell time… have you ever come down with a case of Hallmark Syndrome? How did your experience turn out? Share your experience in the comments!

In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss practical steps you can take to un-sabotage your riding and horsemanship goals. Until then, you should be riding, too!


Beyond the Barn: Six Real World Lessons Learned from My Horses

Beyond the Barn: Six Real World Lessons Learned from My Horses

One of the most remarkable things about horsemanship is the way that it teaches humans life lessons that extend far away from the barn and the saddle. The real world lessons learned from my horses have been invaluable to me, and I don’t know a single rider who can’t say the same. They improve our relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. They allow us to empathize with the people around us, and demonstrate the power of hard work and humility. The lessons that our horses teach us can fill a resume, even if the context is far from the barn.

Lets dig in and explore six real world lessons I learned from my horses. I’m sure that they are lessons that you’ve learned, or are learning, too, even if you don’t realize it.

real world lessons learned from my horses

Work Ethic

The first of the real world lessons learned from my horses is work ethic. The capacity of horses to teach positive work ethic is rather obvious, but still, it cannot be overstated. Even youngsters learn quickly that, as large and powerful as the horse is, he depends on his humans completely for his care and needs. And these needs are not trivial, physically, mentally, or emotionally.

real life lessons learned from my horses work ethic
Photo by Tim Bottchen on Unsplash

Physically, the work of Horsekeeping is nothing to sneeze at. 5 gallons of fresh water weighs 41.7 pounds. Even a small horse will drink 2-3 of these daily. The average 1,000 lb. horse produces around 50 lbs. of manure a day. Bags of feed weigh in at 50 lbs. and up. Square hay bales can run anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds. Keeping just the basic staples available to your equine partner is a workout. And it must be done, no matter the weather, no matter what else is on the calendar.

Mentally and emotionally, the work required of the equestrian is equally demanding. Horses demand that we learn constantly, and the pool of knowledge is bottomless. We need to learn the basics of equine anatomy, parts of tack, types of feed, grass, and hay, all of the things that allow us to take proper care of these magnificent animals. We need to learn veterinary skills, at least on a basic level. In the saddle, we need to learn how to move with the horse, and more subtly how to influence the horse through our riding. We need to learn how to think like a horse, how to empathize with him, to understand how he “ticks.” Eventually, we need to learn how to say good-bye.


There is nothing like a horse to teach humility to a human. They have a way of knocking you down a peg or two exactly when you need it most. Sometimes the knockdown happens literally. Sometimes it is more figurative. But the lessons in humility will come, not as a matter of “if,” but “when.”

When the knockdown happens literally, it is pretty obvious. Maybe you thought you and your equine partner were ready to tackle a task or a movement, and you weren’t. If you were a little bit not-ready, you get resistance from the horse, and hopefully you don’t push the issue and go back to building your foundation. If you were a lot not-ready, well… hopefully the ground is soft, my friend.

Photo by Sarah Bedu on Unsplash

The ultimate simplicity of the barn is another teacher of humility. Even in the twenty-first century, even with all of the busyness and goings-on, as thick as all of the instructional books and tack store catalogs are, the barn is still a fundamentally simple place. We’re all there for one reason: the horses. The tasks and activities of caring for them are the same no matter what chaos reigns in the wider world. Even if the economic fate of nations hangs in the balance of your decisions in the office, when you get to the barn, Lightning still needs his oats, his fresh water, his exercise.

This is a subtler kind of humility to take with you back to the real world. It reminds you that, whether you are a minnow in a pond or a kraken in the ocean, small and simple doings are still what make the world go ’round.

The Power of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes our actions have consequences that we don’t necessarily intend, good or bad. This is one of the more subtle real world lessons learned from my horses. Dealing with, and especially the act of formally training, horses shows the power of unintended consequences beautifully sometimes.

horses fighting unintended consequences
Photo by Hans Veth on Unsplash

On the negative side, sometimes something that we teach a horse gets generalized into a behavior that we don’t want to encourage. I’ve seen several horses taught how to “count” by stamping a front hoof who also developed lovely pawing habits. One ride years ago, when the flies were particularly annoying, I allowed one of my horses to pause throughout the ride to drop his head and rub the pests away against his legs. By the end of that ride, he had trained me to let him get within a muzzle-snatch of a bite of grass. Shadows of that “trick” still crop up from time to time.

This lesson ties back to the lesson of humility. Sometimes, especially dealing with a “problem horse,” the unintended consequences of an attempt to correct a behavior can make the situation worse! Horsemanship is a game that is incredibly difficult to bumble your way through and come out unscathed and without doing some form of damage to the horse. It demands that you know what you are doing, or have the close support of someone who does know while you are learning. It also demands that you think a process all the way through before getting your hands dirty. Otherwise, you risk doing more harm than good.


The lesson of good sportsmanship is one that comes more readily to riders involved in competition, for obvious reasons. Competing successfully forces the rider to set her ego aside, get in the ring and show the horse. The rules of the class, no matter what the class or discipline is, are based on safety for horse and rider, and on training and riding that promotes the longevity and improvement of the horse. That is not to say that there are not corrupt judges out there, or a dark side to every discipline, or riders who are in it for the winnings alone. But the bones are largely good, and at the end of the day a good horse in partnership with a good horseman who is applying the other lessons of this article will be fairly successful in the show ring.

show jumping rider sportsmanship
Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash

Equestrian sport demands that the rider apply these kinds of lessons to be a good sportsman. Poor sportsmanship in the show ring implies a rider who is forcing the horse, forcing herself, disrespects the other competitors in the ring, or the judgement of the show officials, or the time and effort of the (often volunteer) folks who are helping run the event. Because most equine events are judged on an individual basis, versus team sports, poor sportsmanship finds a spotlight as what it is pretty quickly.


There’s nothing like working with a 1,000 lb. nonverbal herbivorous prey animal to challenge your teambuilding!!

My favorite aspect of this lessons is the complete depth with which it is taught. This isn’t your corporate retreat’s teambuilding exercise. Good luck getting your nervous horse to step up and do a trust fall. Horses teach real teamwork. It isn’t chatting about how you trust each other and how responsibility will be delegated. The rider needs to earn the horse’s trust and respect minute to minute. She needs to prove herself as a teammate, as a member of the horse’s herd. The makeup of the team depends on what is acted out. The team is being constantly negotiated from the bottom up.

teamwork dressage lusitano horse and rider
Creative Commons Stock Photo courtesy of

This is far more akin to how teamwork works in real life. Corporate retreat style teambuilding exercises have their uses and can be helpful in their way, but when they are only used as a surface-level game, the team stays shaky. Horses teach us that a team depends on each member coming to the game every day, participating willingly and authentically. Buzzwords, catchphrases, and fluff don’t build a stable horse-human team. Being competent, willing, fair, and humble does.


Leadership goes hand in hand with teamwork. You don’t get very far working with horses without either. Like the lesson of teamwork, horses teach the lesson of leadership on a deeper, more functional and pragmatic level than any self-help book. The horseman has to walk the walk of leadership, not just talk the talk, otherwise the horse will assume the leadership role in their herd of two. This arrangement can become downright dangerous in short order.

Stock photo courtesy of

Motivational speaking doesn’t mean much to a horse. Staying calm and steady in moments of uncertainty means volumes. Consistency, communicating, and connecting in the horse’s terms are vital, or your equine follower cannot understand you to follow your lead. The same applies to being a leader in the workplace, or in your other endeavors. Without these skills, all of the buzz words, pep talks and teambuilding exercises in the world cannot make people, or horses, follow you.


What lessons has your horse taught you? Are there things you’ve learned from your horses that I haven’t listed? Have you had an experience, horse or human, that really drove one of these lessons home for you? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments, and thanks for reading!

Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

Yoga And Equitation: A Lightbulb Moment

I recently posted an article about mindful horsemanship, and also an article exploring horsemanship considered as a martial art. Since I’m one of those annoying people who can’t encounter new data without relating it back to the context of horses, this week, I’ve got a yoga video to share with you. Yoga and equitation isn’t a new or revelatory combination, but this particular video struck a real chord with me.

Yoga and Equitation Graphic


Part of my morning routine includes practicing along with a short yoga instructional video on YouTube. I have a couple of favorite channels that I typically gravitate toward, usually looking for a 10-15 minute flow. The goal of this part of my routine is to get the blood flowing, muscles activated, and my mind and body coordinated to start the day.

Without further ado, here is the video that prompted a “click” in my rider’s brain. It’s a short one, so if you’re reading this in a context in which it would be classy to do so, go ahead and yoga along. I’ll wait.

All video credit goes to Yoga with Adriene — massive shout-out to her for her fine work and excellent instructional videos!!! Seriously, check her out on YouTube.

Finding Your Seat Out Of The Saddle

Did you catch the references to finding the sit-bones? To plugging into the earth? How about the ears-shoulders-hips alignment moment?

Easy Pose is exactly how we need to think about sitting in the saddle! The amazing thing is… finding your horseman’s seat is not at all the point of yoga. But, at the same time, the end result of practicing Easy Pose as Adriene instructs is to achieve the same alignment, connection, and grounding that so many of us seek in the saddle. Practicing this pose is going to jump-start your feel and muscle memory for that grounded-but-stretched-upward alignment.

Namaste in the Saddle

In the saddle, finding the Easy Pose as shown in the video is effectively finding the basic neutral dressage seat. Cue lightbulb. More broadly speaking, yoga helps equitation in several ways.

Alignment and Balance

mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

Adopting any yoga pose is a physical challenge to your body to move and stretch while maintaining correct posture and alignment. Just as in the Yoga with Adrienne video above, correct posture and alignment doesn’t change when you throw a horse into the mix. Practicing correct alignment, posture, and balance out of the saddle directly translates to better equitation. Similarly, poor posture while just standing around, or sitting at the computer, will carry over into your riding.

“Holding” Strength

Another side effect of yoga practice is strength training. I am no physical therapist or personal trainer, but I observe a similarity between the kind of strength that the rider needs and the kind of strength that the yogi needs. It is a “holding” kind of strength, a subtle sort of strength that holds stability in movement. In contrast, visualize a power lifter, or maybe a football or rugby player where the strength manifests as brute force.

The Breath

The most important part of any yoga practice is, hands down, the breath. Movements and transitions between poses are guided by the breath, which is the constant touchstone throughout the practice.

Feel tension? Breathe into that part of your body.

Mind wandering? Focus on your breath.

Challenging pose? Breathe through your discomfort. Now, DON’T try to breath through pain. That would be counterproductive. But, for the mild discomfort of adopting a pose that is on the edge of your physical ability? A stretch or position that challenges the boundary of your comfort zone? Bringing your focus to your breath instead allows you to keep on  with the practice and be challenged by the stretch or pose, rather than giving it up totally.

Tethering focus and movement to the breath helps us as riders in the same way.

WEG 2010 - Dressage Qualifying
By Jean [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Breathing, especially deep and slow breathing, like that used in yoga, essentially forces the rider to relax mentally and physically. Consider moments in your riding, or life in general, when you are tense or worried. What is your breathing like? The answer is probably something like short and shallow, probably with brief spans of holding your breath. Have you ever gotten a “stitch” in your side? Especially in gaits like sitting trot or canter? That is a side-effect of unconsciously holding your breath in tension. Bringing your attention back to your breathing will wash the tension out of your body. It’s the first step of the Training Scale, for rider as well as horse. Since the horse mirrors the rider, a tense rider is going to create tension in the horse.

I don’t think I need to explain how a tense mind hurts your horsemanship. Fear and anxiety cripple many riders, keeping them from progressing as horsemen, or even keeping them from riding altogether. Returning focus to the breath relieves tension from the mind as well as from the body. In moments of fear and anxiety, when the “what ifs” take over and keep us from really riding, a few deep breaths relax the mind and bring it back to center.


Horses, in their phenomenal sensitivity and sympathy, mirror our mental and physical state, even before we step in the stirrup. Practicing, even dabbling, in yoga and bringing those techniques to the saddle brings a number of benefits to the rider. It improves our body awareness, and helps us find correct alignment in our equitation. It improves our strength and flexibility. Finally, it gives us the tools and habits to tie mind and body together through the breath, allowing us to relax and center our focus in ourselves, and by extension in our horses.

I’ve taken some of these yoga lessons to the saddle before, but adapting a more formal pose to horseback is an experiment. Easy Pose was a profound success, and a lightbulb moment for me connecting yoga and equitation.

I recommend starting every ride with a moment of quiet, and find your horseback Easy Pose first thing after mounting. There are two major benefits here. First, and most obviously, you’re finding your correct seat and position before you move off. Second, and less obviously, you’re starting your mount’s experience of the ride with a moment of calm and peace that he craves… and also setting his expectation that we stand still for a moment after mounting. 😉 When you have a moment of tension, of fear, of frustration, come back to your rider’s Easy Pose and feel the alignment come back, the rooting upward reach of your position, and the regulation and deepening of your breath.

Many many thanks to Yoga with Adriene for the excellent video and in-depth explanation of Easy Pose. You’ve jump started many of my mornings, and with this particular video forced me to deconstruct my equitation, an effect that I’m sure you never considered. If you haven’t, you really should try riding. Namaste.

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

mindful horse human eyes

The moment that mindfulness as a concept is having seems to be extending into a full blown movement. It’s difficult to cross the threshold of the internet without running across the idea applied to some context or other. But what does mindfulness mean for riders? What is the place of mindfulness in the barn? Can approaching our horses with a mindful attitude improve our horsemanship?

For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the act of bringing full attention and to the task or process at hand. It is acknowledging distractions, but not allowing them to distract. It is total engagement with one’s present occupation. Being mindful is being totally present in the moment. It is experiencing and responding to your thoughts and environment without dwelling on the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness is about embracing what you are doing in its totality, without diluting that totality with things that don’t matter or apply.


mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

Anything can be done mindfully. Meditation may be the ultimate form of mindfulness… being mindfully mindful, if you will. Meta-mindfulness. But the concept is applicable to any task. You can eat mindfully, work mindfully, play mindfully, etc.

What Mindfulness is Not

Sometimes mindfulness is better understood in contrast to what it is not. Mindfulness is not multitasking. It is not simply going through the motions while your mind wanders off to other topics.

What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?

Mindful riding is something that we owe to our horses. We expect our horses to give us their full attention and effort. This is only really possible for the horse when we return the favor.

horse rider galloping
Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

Riding mindfully means that we engage fully with the horse and our ride. We take steps to reduce the baggage and distraction that we bring to the barn. We leave the phone in the tack room… or at least silence the ringer and notifications. The rider is wholly engaged with the horse, returning always to breath and feel and rhythm in the same way a meditator constantly redirects attention to the breath or to a mantra.

Again, to contrast, the opposite of mindful riding is sitting astride the horse in the center of the arena, clicking away on the phone. It isn’t plodding down the trail on a group ride chattering about politics with the other riders. Plodding lazily around the ring, letting your mind wander while your horse sets the velocity doesn’t count as mindful riding, either. That isn’t to say that either of those examples is terrible or abusive, or that they don’t sometimes have their place. Only that they tend not to foster the emotional, mental, or athletic growth of horse or horseman.

How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?

Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn

Practicing mindfulness away from the barn makes it easier to adopt a mindful mindset in the barn. Seems simple, right? Intuitive, even.

There are a number of free or cheap apps available for short guided meditations tailored for the newbie. YouTube has a wealth of channels dedicated to yoga videos, many as short as 5-10 minutes. Tai chi is another excellent low-impact and mindfulness-fostering practice to dip your toes into. Dedicating just a few minutes a day to practicing can provide benefits.

Photo by Rima Kruciene on Unsplash

Less formally, you can practice mindfulness by trying to live its definition. Choose an activity that you normally do, say, eating, and commit to doing it mindfully. Silence your phone, eat at the table, off of a real plate, and only eat. But even though you’re only eating, really embrace the experience. Let yourself fully chew and taste before swallowing, rather than bolting the food to get to the next thing. Don’t try to multitask, don’t rush to get on with it.

So, how do you know when you’re being mindful? I find that when I “click” into a mindful frame, I lose track of time. That 10 minute yoga session is over in 3. I get barn chores that would take half an hour done in 15 minutes. I look up from the blog post I’m writing and find that it’s suddenly dark outside my window. Call it “flow,” call it “the groove,” call it what you want, working mindfully seems to help trigger the effect.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Leave the phone in the tack room. Unless you ride solo and it is your “safety buddy” for an emergency, in which case put the thing on silent. You don’t need to be checking it for phantom chirps every 10 minutes. And you don’t need it actually chirping, either.

Make the most of riding lessons. Much like a guided meditation, your instructor can keep you on-task and focused on your riding. If you don’t take lessons regularly, consider scheduling a few with a good instructor as a general refresher and an intensive immersion in your horsemanship. Riding or auditing in clinics is also a great option.

This is my favorite tip… set an alarm. With my day job, I have limited time to spend in the barn, especially in the mornings. Assuming that I don’t want to arrive at the office smelling like a horse, that is. I set myself an alarm for 5-10 minutes before I need to be back in the house cleaning up. That way, I can completely engross myself in mucking, grooming, groundwork, riding, etc., without worrying about losing track of time or breaking my flow to check my watch.

Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.

I’m a big fan of Warwick Schiller. One of his trademark quotes is “stick to the damn plan” (STTDP).

Going to the barn with a gameplan gives you focus, something to guide your mind to task. Think of it like your mantra for the day’s meditation.

Dressage stallion 3
By Lbpetersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons
That is not at all to say that, when you get to the barn, if the situation is such that you need to adjust your plan, you shouldn’t. If you intended to polish your half-pass, and your horse tells you that today the focus needs to be on walking past the new red folding chairs lined up along the rail, by all means, adjust your plan. But stick to the plan that you’re working.

Embrace the Entire Process

Mindful riding is more than just riding. If you distractedly multitask when you tack up and warm up, it will be hard to ride the workout in a mindful way. Similarly, you don’t want to scramble and slap your untacking and post-ride routine together either. Really commit to bringing mindfulness to every facet of your horsemanship.

Part of embracing the entire process is accepting that you will struggle to be mindful, especially in the beginning. Like so many other things, it is called “practice” for a reason. Think of every time you catch yourself distracted and unmindful, and bring yourself back to mindful task, as a “rep.” Mindfulness is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to develop.

Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship

Mindfulness in the barn brings a number of benefits to your horsemanship. Most particularly, though, is the benefit of meeting the horse on a more even footing. A mindful mindset is much more similar to the horse’s natural state. Sure, horses get distracted, but their distractions are a result of being mindful of their surroundings. Contrast that to some very typical human distractions… that driver who cut you off and flipped you the bird in traffic this morning…. that donut you didn’t need to eat between breakfast and lunch… the growing to-do list for tomorrow… All that the horse is distracted by is the present.

Photo by Daniel Cano on Unsplash

Meeting the horse on this playing field allows the horseman to become more effective at communicating. This effectiveness allows us to improve our feel and timing, to understand the horse and his wants and needs and distractions, and to meet the horse, understood as a horse, as himself. This is an invaluable tool.

Furthermore, riding mindfully allows us to connect our purpose in riding to our present. This may seem super woo-woo and meta, but consider how powerful of a tool that this can be to overcome fear in the saddle, or to get over a training plateau.

What’s In Your Mind?

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Do you practice mindfulness in the saddle or in the barn? How do you do it? How has it changed the way that you ride, or approach horsemanship? Or are these ideas that you might take with you to the barn for the first time? Share your comments and stories below, drop us a line, and remember, you, like me, should be riding!!

Dangerous Horses? When Good Horses Go Bad

Dangerous Horses? When Good Horses Go Bad

Have you ever come across a horse whose behavior posed a serious challenge to your horsemanship skills? Maybe a horse that could be described as dangerous? How do horses become this way? Are some horses just born with “attitude?” What is a dangerous horse? How do people, for better or worse, influence the behavior of the horse? And, the million dollar question… can “bad” or “dangerous” horses be made better? Safer to be around?

good horses go bad dangerous horses

What is a Dangerous Horse?

Interacting with horses is inherently dangerous. Even the sweetest, kindest, best trained horse in the world could kill a human in a moment of fear or confusion.

The solution to that problem is to take steps to mitigate obvious risks. Things like wearing a helmet, being aware of the horse’s blind spots, and cultivating situational awareness go a long way to preventing accidents.

But what about when the horse is not necessarily the sweetest, the kindest, or the best trained?

Three Kinds of Dangerous Horses

Dangerous Horse #1

Photo by Carlos Fernando Bendfeldt on Unsplash

Dangerous Horse #1 is only dangerous because he is a horse. He weighs 1,000 pounds plus, he is a prey animal, and he has a mind of his own. By his nature, he will always be a potential danger to the smaller and weaker creatures in his world. Dangerous #1 is the lesson pony, the husband horse, the bombproof packer. This is the horse that, except in the most extenuating circumstances, can be relied upon to be reliable. He is worth his weight in gold.

Dangerous Horse #2

Dangerous Horse #2 is dangerous because the people in his world do not necessarily have the tools to coexist with him safely. His level of dangerous-ness depends heavily on the situation.

Photo by roberto gerco on Unsplash

This danger runs along a spectrum; a horse that is a #2 to a new rider might be a #1 to a seasoned rider. Even a seasoned rider may encounter a horse that is a #2, because there is always more to learn. Most often, though, Dangerous #2 is the horse that is good natured and well handled, but green, or the horse that has a known and manageable quirk or two. On the average, most horses in the world fall into this category.

Working with a #2 is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you put yourself and your #2 within the learning curve. It’s ok to be challenged by a horse. If we only work with bombproof horses, we won’t become bombproof riders. The trick is in approaching the #2 horse with the appropriate attitude, knowledgeable assistance or backup, and precautions.

Dangerous Horse #3

Dangerous Horse #3 is the horse who must be handled with extreme care and caution by all. This is the “problem horse,” the habitual bucker, rearer, bolter. This horse might even show outright aggressive behavior, like charging or striking at humans.

By Daniel Johnson (originally posted to Flickr as IMG_1328) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
With the exception of the untouched wild horse (which I would also initially place in this category), this type is fairly rare. This is the horse who, through nature or training, behaves in a way that puts its humans at risk, no matter their skill level. There are a further two subsets of this type of dangerous horse.


Some #3’s are created by humans. Perhaps the horse began as a #2, and was purchased or adopted by someone who could not cope with his needs or quirks, or establish themselves as an effective herd leader. Possibly, ineffective training has taught the horse that bucking or bolting gets a release of pressure. Or maybe the horse is simply in unrecognized pain or distress… a #1 or #2 who just cannot cope quietly any longer. This horse has either assumed a position of dominance in the horse-human hierarchy, or is behaving out of defense – fight or flight.

This sort of dangerous horse might still be rehabbed or corrected. A skilled and subtle enough horseman might establish a healthier and safer relationship with the animal. A source of pain or discomfort might be located and treated. This is the ideal outcome; maybe not a Disney story ending where a preteen rides the untrainable horse to victory, but at least the horse might be helped to become a more reliable citizen for the right person.

Dealing with a rearing jumper
By dregsplod from Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA (Dealing with a rearing jumper) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Perfect Storm

Dangerous Horse #3 could also be a product of fate, so to speak. A perfect storm of physiology and environment that creates an unfixable (or nearly so) pattern of behavior. The example that comes to my mind is from the documentary “Buck” (which I very highly recommend watching if you have not already done so). For horses in this position, there really are no good outcomes. The undesirable behavior is so ingrained that the horse may never really be relied upon to do otherwise than he does. In these cases, sometimes difficult decisions must be made “for the safety of the public.”

Am I Dealing With A Dangerous Horse? How Do I Know?

There are a few ways to recognize whether you are in a dangerous situation with a horse. First, do you find yourself surprised or caught off-guard by your horse’s behaviors? Do you find yourself managing behaviors instead of fixing them? These are subtle signs that you may be over your skill level with a particular horse.

Have you been hurt or injured repeatedly by the horse? All riders fall, but if every trip to the arena with a particular horse includes an 8 second ride… Are you routinely crowded on the ground? Stepped on? These might also be symptoms of an unsafe situation.

The role of fear shouldn’t be discounted in evaluating your situation. All riders struggle with fear to some degree, but if there is a particular horse that you “don’t turn your back on,” or a horse that you wouldn’t climb aboard for all the tea in China, that is your brain telling you something valuable. It’s worth listening.

Helping Dangerous Horses

Photo by Thomas Peham on Unsplash

Do No Harm

Like trying to help people in difficult situations, helping troubled horses should always be undertaken with care. First rule: Do No Harm. To yourself or to the horse. Check your ego and your expectations at the gate, and don’t dive in unless you know that your intervention won’t make the situation worse. Not only do you want to ensure that you are treating the animal humanely, you also don’t want to mistakenly reinforce the behaviors you’re trying to correct. The horse’s quality of life in the future often depends a great deal on his lack of dangerous behavior.

Common Sense

Basic common sense safety rules and considerations are sufficient for dealing with most horses. Things that we learn on our first day at the barn, like wearing a helmet in the saddle, not crossing directly behind a horse, being aware of pinned ears. These basics are basic for a reason; they neutralize the most obvious and common hazards.


The best way to help a dangerous horse is through education. If you are lacking it, seek it out. Read. Take riding lessons. Most “dangerous” behaviors can be mitigated with enough knowledge and skill, or by approaching the horse or the task a different way.  Experience and exposure to good learning opportunities make better horsemen. Knowledge is power.

Seek Help

Even professional riders have coaches. There is no shame at all in taking regular lessons and working with a coach even if you have a steady-eddy type #1. Indeed, there is wisdom in the practice. The best way to learn how to interact more safely with your type #2 dangerous horse is to regularly check in with a more experienced horseman. This becomes especially important if the horse’s behavior catches you off-guard or you are unsure of how to manage it. Sharing your experiences and asking others for feedback and advice can be remarkably helpful.

If you are dealing with a type #3 with serious or ingrained behavioral problems, the first order of business is to get a knowledgeable and experienced horseman on-site. Brainstorming and online advice are probably not going to substitute for in-person evaluation and assistance in those cases.


Despite our love for the animals and the sport, it is imperative that safety of human come first and horse come a close second. Even the tamest and sweetest equine should be handled with care. When a horse is greener or has confirmed problem behaviors, the need for safety-consciousness increases.

Have you ever dealt with a horse that you felt was dangerous? What kind of behaviors strike you as particularly dangerous in a horse? Do you have a “dealbreaker” behavior? Is there such a thing as an “incurable” problem horse, or do you think that there is a way to “get through” to any dangerous problem horse?

Share your thoughts in the comments, drop us a line, and remember, you should be riding!!

Are You and Your Horse Ready? 3 Crucial Stages To Preparing for Winter

Are You and Your Horse Ready? 3 Crucial Stages to Preparing for Winter

I know, I know… it’s still August. There is still summer left to enjoy. Thank goodness for that. Preparing for winter is the last thing that I want to think about. You probably agree.

Preparing for winter girl feeding horse

But, before you know it, fall (and winter… grr…) will be upon us again. And now is the time to start preparing for winter. You don’t want to be caught with your pants down, especially if you live in more northerly latitudes! Read on for tips and tricks to make the most of the time you have left to prepare for the changing seasons!

Pre-Season Inventory

Stock and Source Consumables

The most important thing is to ensure that you have adequate fodder stocked or reliably sourced for the winter. If you, like me, live in a latitude where your horse’s primary roughage source will be hay for several months, you need to have enough now to get you as far as next year’s first opportunity to cut more. After September or so, what has been harvested is all that there will be for the year. Hay and similar locally harvested forage will only become more expensive and more scarce from now until early summer next year. Also consider your bedding type and sources. Depending on your material of choice, bedding may also become scarce or higher in price later in the winter months.

Finnhorse stallions lunch time
By Sini Merikallio (Flickr: Finnhorse stallions lunch time) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Equipment Check

Now is the time to get your winter gear out of storage and check everything over.  You want to be sure that you have what you need in good fit and state of repair before you need to use it. Hopefully when you put these things away last spring, you didn’t store anything that needed repaired or replaced, and you used a storage method and location that kept your gear away from pests, molds, and other hazards. However, best laid plans and all of that… There is still plenty of time to arrange for repairs or order replacements before you’ll really need these things if they did not survive off-season storage unscathed. Be sure to inspect your horse’s winter weight blankets and rugs, and also your own winter weather clothing and footwear.

'Cavalli della Madonna' im Marstall des Klosters Einsiedeln 2013-01-26 14-11-05 (P7700)
‘Cavalli della Madonna’ im Marstall des Klosters Einsiedeln 2013-01-26 14-11-05 (P7700) © Roland Fischer, Zürich (Switzerland) – Mail notification to: roland_zh(at)hispeed(dot)ch / Wikimedia Commons

The major seasonal change is also a great time to audit your equine first aid kit to ensure that all supplies are stocked and within date.

Since summer isn’t quite over, autumn can be a great time to stock up on items for next year as long as they are nonperishable. Consider taking advantage of end-of-season sales on fly masks, summer sheets, some fly sprays and traps (check shelf life), etc. If it will keep through the winter, grab it while the prices are good instead of when they are re-released in the spring.

“Winterize” Your Horse

This is a great time to touch base with your vet. You can schedule any fall-specific vaccinations that are recommended for your area, and also a general once-over for your horse. A fecal egg count can be worth the investment to help your vet help you coordinate an appropriate deworming program for the season and your horse’s needs.

Horse in snow
Photo by Erin Dolson on Unsplash

Early fall is the best time to start adjusting your plan for your “special needs” horse for the winter months. Harder keepers get harder to keep without fresh pasture. Easier keepers get rounder by the day with lessened exercise. Hard frozen footing makes your arthritic senior a bit stiffer. Increased confinement can bring on or exacerbate a number of health conditions. Taking steps to support your horse before the seasons change is a vital part of preparing for winter.

Give yourself time to make any needed dietary changes gradually. Consider scheduling a dental exam/float this fall so your horse starts the season getting the most out of his teeth. Consult with your farrier about the best program for your horses feet given your winter needs; will you carry shoes through the winter months? Will you switch to borium, or to studs, to increase traction? Pads to better absorb shock on frozen ground? Or is barefoot a better bet for you?

Bring your Barn into Winter Mode

The Tack Room

Like you did last spring, deep clean and safely store seasonal gear that you won’t need through the colder months. Your storage should protect your equipment from dust and dirt, as well as pests and rodents. If you take a winter showing/riding hiatus, this is the perfect time to break down tack for the most thorough possible cleaning and inspection. Winter can be a good time to send tack out for specialty repairs, like stitch work or reflocking.

Form a gameplan for cleaning bulky fabrics like sheets and blankets. Most household machines won’t handle loads that size, and many laundromats have policies against horse blankets. Now is the time to find a service that will accept your barn laundry, or do a last deep-scrub with the garden hose while it still gets warm enough to dry blankets outside.

If you’re in a climate that freezes, collect your liquids and store them in a warmer location before the temperature in your barn drops too low. Not only does this prevent messy burst containers, but some products lose their effectiveness or consistency after a freeze-thaw cycle. For liquid products that you use regularly throughout the winter, like waterless shampoos or liquid supplements, invest in a tote to carry them conveniently from house to barn and back until they can live safely in the barn again.

Pasture and Buildings

This is the perfect time to give your infrastructure a general once-over and make any basic repairs and improvements to carry you through the winter. Replace or reset wobbly fence posts before the ground freezes. Check your barn for gaps or drafts, and for adequate ventilation. Cobweb removal can be a war of attrition, but take the opportunity of total turnout for one last dust-raising deep clean while you can. This will not only look tidier, but reduce the risk of fire.

Winter horse
Photo by David Preston on Unsplash

Also check your wiring before you plug in electric buckets or trough heaters. While you should enlist a professional electrician to make repairs, your own sharp eye can spot potential hazards ahead of time. If you haven’t already got them, ground-fault-interruption (GFI) outlets are a small price to pay for peace of mind. These are the same outlets installed in bathrooms for safety around water.

Brace Yourself: Winter is Coming

While preparing for winter is a lot less exciting than preparing for spring, a little extra time now is well worth the effort. By following these steps you’ll set yourself and your horses up for a more comfortable winter season. You’ll have less stress, and more time to enjoy what the colder months have to offer: check out this post on Beating the Winter Blues for lots of ideas to not only survive, but thrive in your horsemanship goals this winter!

In the meantime… it is still August… and there’s a lot of summer and fall to go. Like me, you really should be riding.

Horsemanship as a Martial Art

Horsemanship as a Martial Art


Horsemanship as a martial art

If you walk into your nearest stereotypical sports bar and poll the clientele… odds are good that horseback riding isn’t considered a sport. You might even be laughed out the front door.

If you walk into a horse barn, however, the general consensus will probably be that riding is indeed a sport. That consensus will probably include a detailed explanation of how physically demanding and inherently risky the endeavor can be. It may also include vehement assertions that only the toughest of the tough ride horses. I won’t dispute that assertion here.

Tony McCoy fall
Tony McCoy Fall By Paolo Camera [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As we’ll see in a minute, the beginnings of horsemanship come from military needs. The way that riding is taught and learned is much more like an art than a game. Competition between riders and students of the various martial arts is strikingly similar as well. Could “martial art” be a better way to categorize horseback riding as a sport? Is it appropriate to understand horsemanship as a martial art?

Riding… Sport? Or Art?

Despite the differences of opinion, horse-folk and the general public tend to agree that equestrian sports don’t quite fit within the stereotypical understanding of “sport.” Horseback riding isn’t like football or baseball. It isn’t even quite like golf or tennis, or even track and field.

Riding demands athleticism and physical skill from both horse and rider. However, the “riding isn’t a sport” crowd are quick (and probably right) to point out that the horse tends to burn more calories than the rider. Competition tends to be subjectively judged, rather than objectively point-based, although there are exceptions. Equestrian events feature alongside more “traditional” sports in the Olympic Games, and form part of composite events like pentathlon, which would seem to cement riding in general as a sport. However, the debate continues. Alongside these differences between riding and other sports, there is an acknowledged “marketing problem” in getting widespread traditional media exposure to high profile equestrian events, as discussed in this interview via Horse Network.

So, how exactly does horsemanship fit into the wide world of sports?

Horsemanship’s Military Roots

Kozaemon Hisamitsu mounted and armored, but bareheaded, on his galloping steed
By Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, riding and horsemanship come to us through a strong military history. The first desire of man to swing leg over horse was inspired by the need to cover ground in the name of conquest. Xenophon’s legendary writings on horsemanship were born of the need to train cavalry for imperial expansion and military defense.

Cavalcade west frieze Parthenon BM
British Museum [Public domain or CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
While the odds of any of us riding into battle are slim, traces of that military heritage remain. Have you ever wondered why we mount and handle horses from the left side? Imagine mounting from the right with a sword strapped to your left hip. Modern eventing demonstrates the skills of the ideal cavalry mount. Dressage shows us willingness, obedience, and technical skill. The jumping phases demonstrate boldness, speed, and power. The phases demand fitness and endurance from both horse and rider.

Henri Saint Cyr
Henri Saint Cyr By Linda Sandgren (Swedish Olympic Committee) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, but what about today’s civilian riders?

English Disciplines

Formal dressage comes from military riders on dress parade. The haute ecole and the Airs Above the Ground are movements that would have been highly effective to cavalry in close-quarters combat against other cavalry or ground troops. The levade raises a rider above the reach of a foot-soldier’s sword, spear, or bayonet. A well-timed capriole eliminates threats from behind with deadly efficiency. These movements are the formally perfected exercise of crucial battleground skills and tactics.

Chief Rider Georg Wahl
Chief Rider Georg Wahl By Conversano Isabella [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Into the 20th century, competitive dressage riders often came from military careers. The observer might see Olympic riders competing in military or police uniform well into the 90’s. Klaus Balkenhol is an excellent example, representing Germany and earning team gold in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games.

Western Disciplines

On the surface, Western disciplines appear to be based on the needs and skills of the working American cowboy and rancher, not the soldier. But, when you dig into the history, the true roots run deeper. The Western saddle and seat are derived from those of the Spanish Conquistadores, who brought horses with them to help conquer the New World. Over time, the needs of the Spanish evolved from conquest to colonization, but their horsemanship remained largely unchanged. Without military conquest, there is no NRCHA.

Dragon de cuera
Dragon de Cuera By Raymundus à Murillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Where the military origins are less obvious or direct, echoes still remain. Today’s endurance rider might have been a long-distance courier centuries ago. Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli pioneered the modern forward-seat jumping style. With the rise of modernity, in which the horse became a luxury, the first civilian sport riders turned to cavalry manuals like this one for practical guidance. The explicit goals of these cavalry manuals was to train capable riders and willing, supple, and strong horses for the battlefield. These are ideals that still apply to today’s civilian rider and sport horse. These military resources trained horsemanship’s modern masters.

Similarities Between Horsemanship and Organized Martial Arts

From the perspective of training and competition, equestrian sport shares much with martial arts.


JJS Dojo
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Although there is no formal “belt” system, training of the rider is progressive. Compare this to football, or to basketball, where youth leagues are playing the same game as Tom Brady or LeBron James. Not with the same strength or finesse, but certainly using the same rules, goals, and techniques. In martial arts and horsemanship, there are skills that the masters have attained that are vastly beyond the scope of the novice. Training is progressive, each lesson building upon the foundation of earlier lessons, and forming another layer upon which to build.

Because of the progressive nature of study, some activities and equipment are always reserved for higher level practitioners. A karate instructor won’t hand a set of nunchucks to a white belt. A rider won’t be permitted to ride with spurs if she can’t maintain a stable and effective leg. The development of a jumper’s release is another example of the difference in technique between a novice and a skilled rider. When the student does not have the skill or experience to use tools safely or effectively, the result is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst.

Riding Lesson Lineup
Riding Lesson Lineup by carterse, via flickr Creative Commons

In both cases, there is a journey to mastery. There is an underlying idea that there is always more to learn, some more subtle nuance to understand. Even the idea of mastery itself is elusive. Even Olympic-level riders have coaches and trainers. The masters of horsemanship, ancient and modern, tend to consider themselves students. This mindset will be familiar to anyone with even a passing exposure to martial arts. Similarly, many horse enthusiasts find their purpose in the journey of the eternal student.


Most competitive martial arts and riding events are judged subjectively. Style counts, and the ends don’t justify the means. Technique has weight in the final score, even beyond the degree to which correct technique makes execution more functionally successful. In kickboxing, the two contenders may land an equal number of strikes, but the bout will go to the fighter with the better form and technical ability. Many equestrian events emphasize rider technique and equitation with a dedicated portion of the overall score for a class or round.

Hanoverian-hunter By dregsplod from Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA (HunterUploaded by Countercanter) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Once again, compare this to other popular sports. In football, as long as the ball makes it to the end zone, barring very specific codified penalties, it doesn’t matter how the team gets it there as far as the score is concerned. Form and strategy follow the function of how best to score a goal within the rules.

Additionally, the structure of competition is generally independent and piecemeal in both horsemanship and martial arts. There are larger national associations and governing bodies, but also thousands of small clubs and independent events. This feature makes riding and martial arts competition highly accessible. No rule says that to compete you must be involved with USEF, or push toward national level tournaments. Those things are there if that is your aspiration, but there are also smaller, more local, and more affordable alternatives for the amateur and hobbyist.

A Matter of Philosophy

Motobu Choki2
By Motobu Choki (The Japanese book “私の唐手術” (My Karate Art)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Good horsemanship and traditional martial arts share a root philosophy in the idea that the same things that allow one to succeed at the sport also allow one to succeed in life. The skills are profoundly transferrable.

Additionally, horsemanship and martial arts often agree on what these specific skills and strategies are. Concepts like soft eyes, responding instead of reacting, and maintaining balance around the center are equally at home in the arena or the dojo. Mark Rashid explains his moment of profound connection between the “going with” an aggressor’s energy in akido, and “going with” the horse’s motion and energy in the saddle in his book “Horsemanship Through Life.

Many riders, like Mark Rashid, turn to martial arts as a way to improve their riding. Yoga, tai chi, akido, karate, muay tai kickboxing, fencing… all promote the same strength, balance, body awareness, focus, and control that we seek in the saddle.

Horsemanship IS A Martial Art

Understanding riding and horsemanship as a martial art answers the questions that make defining it as a sport difficult. According to Wikipedia, “Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.”

Horsemanship’s heritage and traditions are rooted in combat and defense. The mental and spiritual development aspects have come more to the foreground in recent decades. The entertainment and cultural value of riding and equestrian competition and exhibition are indisputable. By all of these metrics, riding is a martial art.

What do you think? Are you a rider who cross-trains in a martial art? Have you considered taking up a martial art to supplement your riding? Why or why not? Share your story in the comments, or give a shout-out by email. And remember, you should be riding!


Bareback Riding Lessons: 5 Things I’ve Learned

Bareback Riding Lessons: 5 Things I’ve Learned From Ditching the Saddle

Have you ever challenged yourself to do something that took you to the edge of your comfort zone?

Like all riders, sometimes I struggle with confidence in the saddle. After a couple of falls last year and a winter largely out of the saddle, I was pretty nerved up getting back to it this year. But within a couple of rides, I did something borderline crazy, at least as the nervous voice in the back of my mind was concerned.

I monkeyed up onto my younger pony without a saddle. And lived to share my findings with you.

Here are 5 things that I’ve learned, here at the edge of my comfort zone.

Bareback Riding Fun

I Rely On My Tack… Way More Than I Should

The first thing I realized was how much I really do rely on my tack for stability. Without a saddle I felt like a barely balanced sack of potatoes.

Many of my earliest riding lessons as a kid were bareback; this was my instructor’s wise tactic to force me to learn to sit the trot and develop my seat. Over the years, I just got out of the habit of bareback work, even when I rode daily as a teenager. A mount with an extremely bouncy trot reinforced this habit, and over time riding with a saddle became the unconscious standard.

So, once I hauled myself aboard bareback this spring, I was a tense, tight, off-balance mess. Without stirrups to brace against, I had nearly zero stability even at a slow walk. With no pommel there to grab in a moment of “crisis,” I had to deal bodily with my balance issues.

I’m Learning the Meaning of “Draped Legs” and Regaining My Seat

Fortunately, there’s nothing like bareback to force you to improve your seat, at least insofar as achieving workmanlike stability and balance. In short, without the saddle to bail you out, you either figure out how to move with the horse, or you eat dirt.

Rodeo bareback riding

After about 8 weeks of riding only bareback on the pony, I can feel an incredible difference in my stability and seat. Instead of tensing and wobbling at every non-textbook stride, I feel myself account for them by loosening even more.  Instead of grabbing a handful of mane before tentatively asking for a few strides of jog, I’m asking for bolder stretches of forward trot and riding loops and the beginnings of figures around the pasture. Where I was riding the buckle to keep myself from unconsciously using Scout’s mouth as a handle, I’m starting to shorten my reins.

I’ve heard the ideal neutral riding leg described as “draped,” hanging around the horse’s barrel like a wet towel. I’m beginning to have an epiphany as to what that actually feels like, thanks to bareback work.

Now, bareback work isn’t a panacea for all problems position-related. It’s definitely possible to still form bad habits like slumped shoulders and collapsed sides, and also to ride in a “defensive” posture. But, eliminating the tack can unmask a lot of ills. The bareback rider learns quickly that, despite its comfort, riding with a hunched and defensive posture is counterproductive.

I’m Way More Likely to Fit a Bareback Ride Into A Busy Weekday

Let’s face it… after eight hours at the office and eight more on deck for tomorrow, my lazy brain kinda wants to sit on the couch with a glass of rosé and binge-watch Lord of the Rings after taking care of the evening feeding and barn chores. Not groom, lug tack, ride, lug tack, wipe down horse, wipe down tack…

Just grabbing my helmet and the bridle and heading out to the pasture for a session of bareback riding is so much easier. Grab and go, no real prep, and we’re riding!

My Horse Seems to Enjoy This

Especially in the last few weeks, since my stability has really begun improving and I am starting to move with Scout, I feel like he is opening up and enjoying our rides. Even though I am more physically challenged by bareback riding, the lack of saddle gives me psychological permission to relax and take the ride as it comes, rather than push a plan and agenda. And I can definitely see the difference between these two mindsets reflected in my horse. He has been far less likely to shy or spook, and seems calmer and more relaxed in general. Even relaxed, his ears are up and he is alert, and we’re having moments of rounding and stretching forward. I could get used to this alert softness.

That being said, straight bareback may not be the perfect solution for you or your horse. If your horse is incredibly sensitive to moments of imbalanced riding, he is not going to appreciate this experiment. In this case, consider riding with a saddle and without stirrups for a while first. This will “baby step” you to better balance and stability, so that you are less likely to have a moment of dramatic imbalance when you’re bareback.

If your horse lacks topline, taking away a well-fitting saddle and its weight distributing properties may cause him discomfort even with a balanced rider. A good quality bareback pad (please for the love of Pete DON”T get one with stirrup attachments!!) can bridge this gap.

I Feel Like We’re Communicating More Clearly

Again, this is something that I’ve noticed in the last few rides. Without the saddle, I can feel every move Scout makes. While this was unsettling at first, and every muscle-twitch felt like a harbinger of a fall, now I’m starting to really feel his posture and his movements. Each stride is more than a “bump” of footfall and swing of ribcage. I can feel the muscles down his back stretch and contract, his loin shorten as his hind legs step under, his shoulders drop and lift.

At the same time, Scout can feel every movement that I make. Sometimes that’s less not such a good thing, like if I lose my balance or have a moment of tension. Sometimes it’s a great thing, like if I time my leg and shift of weight to match his hind leg stepping forward to get a leg yield. At the end of the day, we’re having more moments of communication than of confusion and tension.

Bonus: I’m Braver Than I Thought. And You Probably Are, Too

One of the most precious outcomes of my crazy bareback riding decision has been the dramatic boost in my confidence. I don’t hesitate anymore before I swing aboard. I still have moments of tension and imbalance, but those moments don’t spark moments of panic anymore. We have come a long way in a few weeks, from nerves at just climbing on to feeling bold enough to ask for canter bareback… although I’m not yet balanced enough to stay out of his way to keep it for more than a stride. For me, for now, the win is that I asked for it, and when I asked there was no moment of fear. I’m actually starting to prefer bareback riding with Scout. This fact almost shocks last-year-me.

Bareback rider jumping
Photo by Nimloth250 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
How long has it been since you’ve ridden bareback? Do you make bareback riding a regular part of your riding routine? Why or why not? Do you enjoy bareback riding, or do you dread it? What has bareback riding taught you? Share your story in the comments, and remember, you should be riding!

Going to the Fair: What to Know as an Exhibitor

It is the middle of July, and the high-water mark of summer in rural America is fast approaching… Fair Season. For many equestrians, this means that we’ll be packing our tack boxes and heading out into the world. Whether you are a fair-long exhibitor, or trailering in for an open show during a fair, here are some fair prep tips and tricks to make the experience a smooth one for you and your horse.

Fair Buggy Pony
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia creative commons

Before You Sign Up

As with any show, make sure that you have your class/exhibitor entries and fees sent in and paid according to the guidelines of the particular fair. Also, take time to read over the fair’s premium book in detail and become familiar with the rules that will govern the event. Often, these will differ slightly from breed or discipline association rules, especially with smaller local and county fairs.

The exceptions to these rule differences are breed-specific classes (i.e., Registered Quarter Horse Geldings, etc.), in which case the judging will typically reflect breed or association standard.

If you intend to exhibit for the duration of the fair, familiarize yourself with the general grounds rules. Most fairgrounds restrict livestock to specific areas. Many also designate times for arena or wash-rack access, and have guidelines for decorating your stall and identifying your exhibit. Also, get as familiar as you can with your horse’s accommodations, especially what kind/size stall he will have and tack and feed storage availability. This familiarity will help you pack and organize yourself for the event.

It is also worth familiarizing yourself with other activities occurring during the fair. Even if the arena is open for you to exercise your horse, you may want to note that the chainsaw carving contest is running just on the other side of the rail.

Medical Considerations

Another consideration ahead of loading the trailer is your horse’s vaccination history. Besides the standard negative Coggins test and Rabies Vaccination Certificate that the fair should require, study up on the communicable equine diseases prevalent in your area and vaccinate accordingly. Nothing is less fun than going to a fair and catching something inconvenient at best and deadly at worst. Except maybe bringing that something back to your home barn. Your fair premium book will explain vaccination and testing requirements for your division.

Fairs vs. Horse Shows: A Different Atmosphere

Even the most seasoned and battle-hardened weekend show warrior will feel a difference in the atmosphere of a fair. Shows can certainly be busy, electric affairs, but the very nature of a fair means that there will be hundreds-to-thousands more spectators and bystanders. Odds are very good that most of them are not very horse-savvy. Wagons and strollers with balloons tied to them travel in herds. There is other livestock around making sounds and smells that might be strange to your horse. Whether you are trailering in for an open show during a fair, or are an exhibitor for the duration, a fair will test your bombproofing homework to the max.

Coping as a Fair Exhibitor

If you are signed up for the week, there are a few things that you can do to set yourself up for success and comfort during your stay.

Pack Smart

If you are traveling any distance at all to the fairgrounds, zipping home for that girth you forgot isn’t going to be feasible. Definitely utilize a packing list to make sure that you haven’t forgotten any necessities. Remember that you not only have to bring your show tack, show clothes, grooming kit, water bucket, and maybe a meal’s rations… you need to bring everything you use on a daily basis. This includes stall mucking equipment, feed and hay for the week-plus. It includes schooling gear and everything you need to prep for a mid-fair show, like shampoo, braiding kit, and overnight sheets.

Alongside basically taking your barn with you, you’ll need to pack a good chunk of your house as well. Many fairgrounds offer camping onsite or nearby, or perhaps a hotel might be called for. Either way, you’ll be packing everything you need to survive, too.

Label Your Gear

If you are sharing tack stalls or storage areas with other exhibitors, do yourself a massive favor and label your gear clearly. Your name or barn name in permanent marker on buckets and cleaning tools works well. I’ve been known to also use permanent marker on the inside/underside of older gear or schooling tack. Silver/white marker on the black liner of leg boots works well and stays unobtrusive. If you cannot clearly label an item, try to make it as distinctive as possible. It is a lot harder to mistake a chartreuse and lavender striped lead rope for someone else’s than a plain blue one.

For your more valuable equipment and show gear, think discreet monograms or engraved name plates. Use your own judgment, but also consider not storing prized show gear in community tack stalls. Keep it stored inside your vehicle, camper, or hotel room instead. You may trust your fellow exhibitors, but also consider that the general public will be coming through your barn space as well.

Listen To Your Horse

For most horses, life as a fair exhibit differs dramatically from their norm. It is imperative that you put your horse’s wellbeing first and foremost. If you know that your horse tends to be sensitive to changes in environment, consider carefully before you sign up. Even horses who mentally cope well with upset in their routines can be put off their guard by the demands of fair exhibition. Here are a few common issues that can arise due to the change in environment, and suggestions to cope with them.

Water Intake

Many horses will not drink as much water as they need to under stress. Over multi-day events like fairs, the effects of even mild dehydration can compound on our horses and put them at risk for a host of medical problems. Electrolyte supplements can help, along with lacing fairgrounds water with something yummy like apple juice to make it more palatable and encourage the horse to drink. Use the “pinch test” to check for dehydration, as well as subtler signs like a duller appearance to the coat.

Exercise for Stabled Life

For the pasture-kept horse, stabled life at a fairgrounds is a dramatic transition to make. The most common physical issues tend to be “stocking up” of the legs, stiffness, and high-energy behavior.

Stocking Up

I wish I had a penny for every worried 4-H kid who would flag me down (as an older member and later as a club leader) during fair week with questions about their horse’s suddenly puffy legs!

While stocking up is definitely abnormal and merits attention, it typically is not an “emergency” as such. The puffiness of stocked up legs occurs when the horse is confined and unable to move around. Fluid effectively pools in the lower legs.  Treatment and prevention are the same — keep the horse as active as possible with a combination of workouts, relaxing rides, lunging/groundwork, and hand-walking/grazing. Folks familiar with their correct application can supplement that activity with stable bandages or standing wraps. The puffiness typically resolves on its own.


Stiffness tends to arise with older horses more often, but stabled life can cause any horse to move a little stiffer than he would living at pasture. Again, the fix is to maximize activity as much as possible during the event, and to allow extra time to warm up and supple those muscles during rides and pre-class warm ups.

High-Energy Behavior

The last major outcome to expect with your suddenly-stabled horse is for his energy level to be higher than usual. Like the stiffness and stocking up discussed above, burning off that excess energy constructively with exercise as much as possible will do a lot.

Also consider judiciously adjusting your horse’s diet in the time ahead of the fair. The last thing that most horses in a stabled environment need is to be “sugared up.” Be sure to, as always, make changes to your horse’s feed ration very gradually to prevent colic, founder, and other disorders.

Signs of General Stress

Be sure to monitor your horse closely for signs of undue stress. More extroverted and flighty horses may pace or fuss in their stalls. More introverted types may just “shut down.” You know your horse and his normal. Trust your gut.

Stress can cause a number of physiological responses in the horse, ranging from stable-vice behaviors to colic. Help minimize your horse’s stress by keeping him company, grooming, etc. You, as his herd leader, can be a profound stress reducer for him by your simple relaxed presence. Consider feeding for the occasion by minimizing hard feed, and providing plenty of good quality hay and palatable water. That exercise and activity will relax your horse in mind and body as well. Calming supplements can have their place in your plan, but if your horse is not acclimating at all to the fair environment, don’t hesitate to do what is best for him and leave early.

*Note: Most fairs have rules about early withdrawal that include forfeiture of premiums, ribbons, and winnings. In my mind, the horse’s welfare comes first, but be advised that this the typical case.*

Have a Great Time

I know it seems facetious after so much emphasis on avoiding undue stress and disaster, but, while it might not be for everyone, exhibiting at a fair really is great fun.

If you are going as a club, team, or group, this is a great opportunity to bond with your teammates and forge lifelong friendships. This is also a fantastic opportunity to learn from each other, to see different disciplines and techniques in action.

It is also a great way to bond with your horse, since it really is concentrated barn time. Unless horses are your profession, there are few other times when you literally are in the barn from sunup to sundown for a week straight. Often, horses and riders respond very well to this environment, almost like attending an extended clinic. They begin to “read” each other better, and to build up confidence and skill riding with barnmates that they don’t necessarily build riding on their own. This is especially true of youth exhibitors.

Fair is a phenomenal opportunity to interact with the public. Horse shows tend to draw folks who are already at least ankles-deep in the horse industry. In contrast, many of the people visiting the livestock barns and show rings at the fair are there to see something new and different. This is a great chance to share your passion, and maybe spread a little knowledge, too. As a fair exhibitor, you are much more of an ambassador of the equine industry than you are at a dedicated horse show.

What have your fair experiences been? Is exhibiting at a fair one of your regular summer equine events? What keeps you coming back every year? Did you take a horse to fair as a youth rider? Are you planning on taking a horse to a fair for the first time? Share your story in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and as always I (and you!) should be riding!

Riding With Purpose: What Drives Your Horsemanship Journey

Sometimes the horsemanship journey requires the horseman to go a little “meta.” Riding with purpose is one of the best ways to anchor ourselves mentally and emotionally. This purpose can solidify the foundation of our horsemanship by reminding us of the basic reasons why we do what we do. All of us started down this pathway, and choose to stay on it every day, for a reason. An awareness of that reason provides focus and purpose, and guides us forward on our horsemanship journey. Revisiting basic purpose helps overcome training plateaus, find courage, and recognize progress made.

Riding with purpose

Maybe it has been a while since you considered your purpose for horsemanship. Maybe it is something that you have never drilled down to defining at all. Every rider is unique and has their own background and story, but here are some very general categories to get you thinking.

Riding with Purpose: Partnership

One purpose you might have is the partnership aspect of riding. There is little more rewarding than working in harmonious tandem with a creature that outsizes you tenfold and speaks no human language.  Perhaps that is the nut of the equestrian bug itself.

When the partnership element forms the root of your purpose, you find yourself focusing on that element of your horsemanship. You likely derive a lot of satisfaction from improving your communication. Additionally, you probably have a “trainer streak” that draws you to teaching horses new movements or polishing their understanding and skill.

Partnership is something that all horsemen should strive for, and necessarily forms at least a part of all riders’ purpose. If it didn’t, why go into the horse industry? Are you a masochist?? I kid…

Riding with Purpose: Building Better Riders… and Horses

Some of us find our purpose in the athleticism of equestrian pursuits. We find fulfillment in honing our own physical skills and abilities, and in building better athletes of our equine partners. We revel in our ability to ride a jump with enough strength and balance to give a full following release of the reins. Or our control and subtlety of seat to influence our horse with whispered aids. We take the No Stirrups November challenge head-on. For the riders who find purpose in the athleticism of the sport, horsemanship provides a venue for improving physical fitness.

Related to this is the purpose of physically improving and conditioning the horse itself. There is great pride to be had in the transformation of a young or green animal into a strong, fit athlete. The process can be intensive, encompassing a mastery of equine biomechanics, cardiovascular fitness, nutrition, and strength training. Some horsemen embark on the process of breeding stock. Responsible breeders to remarkable time and expense to select the perfect crosses and bloodlines to produce superior offspring.

Riding with Purpose: Challenge

This purpose can also overlap with the athletics, to a degree, but not necessarily. Horsemanship is by nature a deeply challenging endeavor. Even “just a trail rider” often pursues challenge in finding new trails to explore and new obstacles to traverse.

The obvious challenges come with competitive riding. No matter what your skill level, budget, tack, or breed, there are innumerable avenues to get into showing and competition. At these events we can test our skills against discipline, breed, and association standards, against our own previous results, and against other riders. Many horse enthusiasts find formal competition highly rewarding.

Organized riding clubs often provide opportunities for friendly competition. Schooling shows, organized and judged trail rides, and mileage challenges are often more accessible to the average rider, and can be just as rewarding to participate in. For younger riders, 4-H and Pony Club offer a framework to learn and progress through “levels” of horsemanship. The materials used by these organizations are readily available, and can be an excellent personal challenge for a non-member rider looking to test their skill or create a goal.

Riding with Purpose: FUN

This purpose is something that should come along with any of the others. If being around these magnificent creatures wasn’t fun, why would we bother with the time, expense, and occasional pain (physical and emotional)? At the end of the day, it is all about the fun and joy that your pursuit of horsemanship brings to you. Something about the pursuit of horsemanship sparks joy in you.

When to Revisit Your Purpose

There are times in every rider’s career when revisiting or rediscovering their purpose can be beneficial.

Fighting the Fear Monster

Every rider has struggled with fear. That is an axiomatic truth. And no wonder, given what it is that we do. Fear can be a good and healthy thing, keeping us safe from the consequences of doing something truly stupid. Other times, fear is less rational, and prevents us from enjoying comparatively safe activities.

When dealing with fear of the enjoyment-robbing variety, revisiting our purpose is a powerful tool. By focusing on that purpose, and our reasons for riding, we can muffle the inner lizard-brain voice that stops us. Our purpose has motivating power to it that often outweighs our fears and worries. This allows us to recapture more positive emotions in the saddle.

Stuck on a Plateau

The nature of horsemanship, as a progressive discipline, means that all riders will at some point hit a plateau in their riding. We might feel like we aren’t improving, at least not as tangibly, as we used to in the beginning. Maybe a movement or a skill is eluding us. Maybe we feel stuck in a rut. Revisiting or redefining our purpose can help here, too.

The reason that purpose gets us off of training plateaus is it takes us back to something more basic, and lets us see the grand scheme again. Meditating (as formally as you like) on that larger purpose relaxes us, and allows us to see what the next step is, or a new track to take. Sometimes our purpose helps us pivot or tweak what we’re already doing. Sometimes allowing our purpose to get us off a plateau takes us into a whole new discipline or focus. There is always something more to learn in horsemanship, and revisiting our purpose in general terms does wonders for helping us see where we can go from here.

Finding Motivation and Defining Goals

Another useful feature of understanding our purpose is the way that our purpose influences and helps define our goals. Defining our purpose is a powerful motivator. Because they have a foundation, our goals tend to materialize and become clearer when we have a clear purpose behind them. Without a basic purpose, our goals tend to be fuzzy and indistinct, and therefore much harder to attain. When our purpose is clearly understood and defined, goals have a way of making themselves.


Despite the slightly woo-woo and meta feel of focusing on root purpose, the exercise of defining purpose can profoundly help our riding and horsemanship. While our purposes are as individual as we are as riders, knowing what they are is crucial to focusing and moving forward on our horsemanship journey. Without purpose, our progress stalls and stagnates, and we can lose sight of what brings us to the barn every day. Horsemanship without purpose becomes a chore… and none of us needs more chores. Horsemanship is an art, and all art, amateur or professional, is built on purpose.

How do you ride with purpose? What is your purpose in riding and horsemanship? Has understanding your purpose helped your riding?