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!


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!!

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: The Ultimate Packing List

Going to the Fair: The Ultimate Packing List

Last week I posted on what to expect as an exhibitor taking your horse to a fair. This week, I’m sharing the ultimate packing list, so you don’t forget a crucial item for your fair week!

going to fair ultimate packing list stables
Photo By Lidingo [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

For the Barn

  1. Wheelbarrow
  2. Muck Pick
  3. Flat-edged Shovel
  4. Water Bucket and Hook – Check your venue if you don’t know whether there are rules in place about hanging buckets. Some larger and more horse-centric venues have stalls set up with all the hardware you’ll need. At others you’ll need to provide your own. Of those others, there may be rules in place as far as whether the hook can be hard-mounted to the wall, or must be the type that hook over a rail.
  5. Feed pan/bucket
  6. Hay bag/net
  7. Fan – Check your venue to find out what is allowed, if any. Fans can help keep warm summer air moving, but some venues have strict requirements on the types of fans permitted due to insurance requirements and fire hazard risks.

For Your Horse: General

  1. Hay
  2. Feed Rations — I love prepacking these for the week in individual gallon storage bags for each meal. Easier to store, less mess in cramped and possibly shared space than a bin or a bag, and you’ll have exactly what you need rather than toting in more than necessary and toting out what you didn’t need in the first place.
  3. Basic First Aid Kit
    1. Include contact info for your vet, farrier, and other equine health professionals you work with. Most fairs, like horse shows, contract a vet and farrier on call, and if you are far from home these pros will be your best bet for immediate assistance. However, you will have your own team’s contact info at hand if you need it for advice or a second opinion.
  4. Basic Grooming Kit
  5. Fly Spray
  6. Wash Kit — Shampoo and conditioner of choice, plus water scraper
  7. Clippers
  8. Halter and Lead Rope (at least one; I recommend also bringing a spare of each)
  9. Sheets/Coolers/Hoods
    1. Light sheet and lycra hood for keeping clean ahead of show morning
    2. Fly sheet if your horse is sensitive even in the barn
    3. Cooler for between classes
  10. Standing wraps/bandages (if you are familiar with their correct application) — these can assist with the stocking up symptoms that we went over in last week’s post.
  11. Stall “toys,” if they are something your horse finds diverting.
  12. Fun accessories, if there is a parade, costume class, or exhibition “fun show” event during the fair. Glitter hoof polish, non-toxic body paint, colorful ribbons or hair extension clips, etc. are all fun options.

For Your Horse: Schooling Equipment

  1. Saddle
  2. Saddle pad
  3. Girth/cinch
  4. Protective boots/wraps
  5. Lungeline
  6. Lunge Whip/Cue Stick
  7. Dressage Whip/Crop/Jumping Bat (your preference/typical needs)
  8. Any “skilled user” equipment that you may utilize at home: martingale, training fork, draw reins, side reins, etc.
  9. Helmet and gloves (if you use different for schooling than for in the show ring)

For the Show Ring

For Your Horse

  1. Any show-specific grooming tools/products
    1. Coat Shine/Detangler
    2. Color/marking touch-up product
    3. Hoof Polish
    4. Baby oil
    5. Braiding/banding kit
  2. TackCheck your premium book for specific guidelines and legalites, especially regarding bits and “extras” like boots and martingales.
    1. Leather Halter and Lead Shank with Chain (for any in-hand classes)
    2. Bridle
    3. Bit(s)
    4. Reins
    5. Saddle pad
    6. Saddle blanket (if western)
    7. Girth/cinch
    8. Breastplate/breastcollar (if worn)
    9. Flank cinch and connector strap (if fitted for your Western saddle)
    10. Harness and cart (if you drive)

For Yourself

The specifics on what you will need for yourself will obviously depend on your discipline. I’ve broken down lists for the “Big 2” below.

English/Hunt Seat

  1. Jodhpurs/Breeches
  2. Show boots
    1. Tall field or dress boots
    2. Paddock boots and garters for younger kids/pony riders
  3. Ratcatcher shirt
  4. Stock tie and pin, or choker-style collar
  5. Jacket/coat
  6. Boot socks
  7. Hairnet (or bows for young girls on ponies)
  8. Gloves
  9. Helmet
  10. Hard Hat (or other non-protective headgear, if that is your preference or for in-hand classes. Check your premium book for rules on protective headgear for individual classes)
  11. Safety pins or tacks for your number (or a string, if you’re an old-school purist)
  12. Spurs (if you wear them; check your premium book for any rules applied to spur design and usage)

Western/Stock Seat

  1. Jeans/Show Pants
  2. Chaps
  3. Boots
  4. Show Shirt(s)
  5. Jacket(s)/Blazer(s)
  6. Scarf/neckcloth/kerchief
  7. Hairnet
  8. Gloves
  9. Helmet (or western hat if that is your preference or for in-hand classes. Check your premium book for rules on protective headgear for individual classes)
  10. Safety pins or number tacks
  11. Spurs (if you wear them; check your premium book for any rules applied to spur design and usage)


  1. Record Book*
    1. *4-H and Pony Club alumni will be familiar with this concept — this book includes things like identification information, baseline vitals, feeding, conditioning, veterinary and maintenance history, as well as copies of all relevant certificates. This book is effectively your horse on paper, and could be invaluable to you in a crisis.
    2. Make duplicate copies of any veterinary and registry paperwork that you will be submitting to the fair office when you check in.
  2. Power Drill — to mount/repair any hardware. Your need for this may vary depending on your venue. Some fairgrounds are better about maintenance and will see to any repairs you may discover a need for. Others, especially smaller local venues, run on a more volunteer and “if you see it, fix it” basis.
  3. Garden hose — for the community wash rack. I like the collapsible “pocket hose” type for fairs; they travel and store a lot better in close quarters
  4. Extension cord(s)
  5. Folding saddle rack and collapsible bridle hook
  6. Basic Leather Care kit. You probably don’t need an extensive array of cleaning gear, but leather wipes and metal/silver polish for touch up and periodic wipedowns are helpful.
  7. Baby wipes. These are great for everything.
  8. Hand sanitizer
  9. Fair Premium Book, and any division-specific rulebooks necessary
  10. Horse treats. 😉

Did we miss anything? What can you not survive a week with your horse at a fair without? Share your favorite must-have’s in the comments!

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!

Relaxation and Rhythm: The Foundation of the Training Scale

No matter what kind of saddle you ride, whether you compete or not, even if you don’t ride at all, relaxation and rhythm is the starting point for everything we do with horses. Without relaxation and rhythm, we can’t move forward with much of anything else.

Relaxation and rhythm go hand-in-hand. The uptight and fretty horse is not going to move rhythmically. Faulty rhythm is a symptom of tightness and tension. A relaxed horse is, by definition, moving with rhythm.

Relaxation and Rhythm
Creative Commons Stock Photo courtesy of

The Training Scale: A Crash Course

All of our work with horses should be based on the Training Scale. The Training Scale is the basis of classical horsemanship. If you come from a dressage background, you are probably well-steeped in this concept. However, a horse is a horse (of course, of course), and the basics of their psychology and biomechanics aren’t dependent on their tack or their job. Therefore, the Training Scale is as applicable to building a better reiner, or even trail horse, as it is to building a competitive dressage horse.

So, what is the Training Scale?

Simply put, the Training Scale is the progression of physical states of the horse as he moves correctly through his training. Although there are subtle differences between schools of thought, the general consensus on the steps of the Classical Training Scale is illustrated by the figure below.

Classical Training Scale
Illustration of the Classical Training Scale: Rhythm, Suppleness, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection

Each step of the Training Scale builds on the previous one, and relies on the foundation of the lower steps to support the horse’s ability to progress to higher steps.  Without Rhythm, the horse cannot be Supple, and certainly cannot be Collected. A horse that is moving with Impulsion must necessarily also be moving with Rhythm, Suppleness, and Connection.

Relaxation and Rhythm

Rhythm, as the first step of the Training Scale, is therefore the “foundation of everything.” If horsemanship has a “God Particle,” it is the state of Relaxation and Rhythm. Our first concern with a green or uneducated horse is to encourage him to a state of relaxation, which is both facilitated and evidenced by Rhythm.

Rhythm, Tempo, and “Takt?”

It is a subtle but crucial point to mention that in this case our word “rhythm” is translated from the German word “takt,” which encompasses an interconnected concept of rhythm (number of beats in sequence) and tempo (speed or rate of the rhythm). What we are searching for in horsemanship is a general correctness and regularity of pace. The number of beats per stride should be clear and correct for the gait. The rate of those beats in motion should be steady and regular, not speeding up and slowing down erratically.

Relaxation and Rhythm Begin on the Ground

We can start building this base layer of the Training Scale the moment we enter the barn by emulating the state of Relaxation and Rhythm in ourselves. If we zip around all frazzled and herky-jerky, our horses will mirror that tense and erratic nature in their own bodies. If we keep our own bodies and minds relaxed, and move in rhythm, the horse will mirror that more positive state instead.

Try This: Next time you’re grooming your horse, focus on bringing rhythm to your process. My favorite mental “movie” of this is the scene from the 1994 version of “Black Beauty,” where Beauty is laying in his stall sick after young and inexperienced Joe Green puts him away wet. He hears and focuses on every sound around him, including the groom in the yard outside. The groom is working the dandy brush and metal curry, swipe-clean, swipe-clean. Beauty’s illness-heightened focus highlights the natural and practiced rhythm of the action. Try grooming your horse with rhythm, and watch as he begins to relax into the process. Note that it is easier for you to find this rhythm if you are relaxed in your mind and body. Also note how the rhythmic action further relaxes you.

Keep that relaxed and rhythmic feel going as you tack up and move to your groundwork and lunging. As you work the horse from the ground, try mirroring his natural rhythms “in your skin.” Feel the 1-2-3-4 of his walk, the 1-2-1-2 of his trot, the 1-2-3 waltz of his canter.

Relaxation begets rhythm, and rhythmic movement promotes relaxation. It is really a lovely cycle.

Finding Relaxation and Rhythm In the Saddle

For a novice rider or a rider lacking in confidence, even this most basic foundational state can be difficult to achieve in the saddle. Have patience with yourself. Riders need time and experience to learn to accurately feel rhythm. It takes even more time to gain the seat and stability to allow relaxation and rhythm to happen in the horse.

It is interesting that relaxation and rhythm are also the basis of training of the rider. Just as we see with the horse, the tense and erratic rider will be physically stiff, lack in feel and connection, and be ineffective with the aids. In this way, the classically trained rider is educated with the same progression as the classically trained horse!

Encouraging a Relaxed and Rhythmic Horse

Factor 1: Rider Stability

Focus on improving your own stability in the saddle. Formal lessons are a tremendous help here, especially lunging lessons. An experienced ground-person will help you as you work on finding your seat and testing your balance. Try riding with “airplane arms” at all three gaits. Or ask your ground-person to call out parts of the horse or parts of the tack to touch as you work. Ride without stirrups. All of these exercises will improve your stability and balance, and your ability to not interfere with the horse’s natural rhythm.

Factor 2: Rider Feel

This aspect takes time and experience to acquire. The first step is an understanding of the basic mechanics of each gait. A walk is four beats. A trot is two. A canter is 3. Count the beats while you watch other riders. Count the beats of your own mount while you are in the saddle. Try riding with your eyes closed (ideally on the lunge!!) to isolate the sensation of the movement of each gait. Try setting a metronome, or selecting music to match your horse’s rhythm to help yourself feel the beat.

Factor 3: The Horse

Every horse’s rhythm is going to be slightly different; they are individuals! The rhythm of a Shetland is going to be dramatically different from that of a Hanoverian. Get a feel for what the individual’s natural rhythm is, and encourage that by your independent seat and sympathetic hands. It is not a simple or easy thing to stay out of the horse’s way; this is one of the reasons why starting a youngster is best left to experienced and skilled riders. It is not hard to disrupt the natural rhythm by riding out of balance or with interfering seat or hands. That disruption creates tension, and makes it impossible for the horse to move with suppleness, connection, etc. up the Training Scale.


As the foundation of the Training Scale, establishing and maintaining relaxation and rhythm are indispensable in the training of horse and rider. Without these elements, the horse is too tense and scattered to respond to the rider. A skilled rider, working with relaxation and rhythm in their own body, encourages the horse to relax and move with natural rhythm.

An important point to bear in mind that no step of the Training Scale exists in a vacuum. For example, a tense horse with a choppy rhythm will likely benefit from suppling exercises and improving connection with the aids. Rhythm and suppleness cannot be ignored when working on improving connection. Each step of the scale both supports and interweaves with each other step.

How about you? How do relaxation and rhythm relate to your riding discipline? What do you do to improve and encourage relaxation and rhythm in yourself and your horse? Let us know in the comments! And remember: you should be riding!

Becoming a Beginner Again… Sort of…

This one is for the folks returning to horses after taking some time off. Maybe “real life” took priority for a while, or a couple of decades. Or maybe you had an injury, or are perhaps coming back after pregnancy. Maybe you haven’t been completely out of the game, but riding has taken a drop on the priorities list. But no more — you’ve realized that you should be riding, and you’re making your comeback! Go you!!

For better or worse, no matter how much reading or rail-sitting you’re able to do to keep yourself involved, the fact remains that time off, especially prolonged time off, brings even the most seasoned rider back a few levels in ability when they come back. This can be frustrating, but isn’t a “bad” thing per se. It is expected, and something that is best accepted, embraced, and worked forward from. It is okay to be a beginner again.

Beginner Rider Happy Little Girl
Stock photo courtesy of

Factors that Bring You Back to “Beginner” During a Break

This situation can sometimes be harder than coming to horsemanship as an adult greenie. Adult greenies have their obstacles, for sure (fodder for another post?), but the returning rider carries many of the same obstacles along with the memories of their former abilities. You have expectations of your body and emotions that reflect your younger equestrian self, not your current place.

This mismatch between expectation and reality doesn’t just apply to folks coming back after a break of decades. Even skilled teenage riders who step back to focus on higher education and starting a career, return to the sport in their mid to late 20s can find that the intervening 4-5 years have wrought major changes to both body and mind. You’re still young, maybe still relatively fit, but you’ve seen a bit more of the world and have more responsibility, more experience overthinking. Everyone who has ever set toe into stirrup understands what I mean when I say that riding will show you muscles you didn’t know you had. Those muscles don’t really get exercised by any other activity, and are hard to keep riding-fit during a break.

Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End… Obviously, or Not So Much

I say “obviously,” because the beginning is by definition the start. It is no doubt disheartening to discover that while your mind and understanding of the sport is thinking about intermediate-plus riding theory, skills, and movements, your body will barely allow you to balance well in walk.

This is a tougher mental obstacle than a lot of folks expect. It can really knock you down a peg, make you feel like a failure, like a shadow of your former self. But that’s the thing… you are a shadow of your former self. Just like your even-more-former-than-that self was a shadow of your future self. And, to quote Gandalf… “that is an encouraging thought.”

Grant Yourself The Grace to Be Where You Need to Be

This is a sort of wonderful corollary to the idea of riding the horse you have today. Extend the same grace to yourself, and ride as the rider you are today. Think of yourself in the same way as you think of your project horse. Turn your attention to your foundation, and build back up.

Confident Body

Pick up some beginner riding books. Not necessarily kids’ riding books, but beginner riding books. I’m a big fan of the US Pony Club Manual, along with the classic Centered Riding by Sally Swift, but there are literally hundreds of resources that fall into this category. Remind yourself of the very basics of good riding. Start at the very beginning, and test yourself for holes and gaps. Make sure that what you know in your mind still translates to your body. Try to step back from yourself, treat yourself as if you were your nit-picking instructor, building a new rider into a capable and confident horseman, and putting the best tools and advice in place to guide that transformation.

Find a nit-picking instructor. A nit-picking beginner rider instructor. Explain at the outset that you are a formerly experienced rider, but that you are coming back to basics after time off. Ask them to really drill you on those basics, of correct and effective position and seat and aids. Even if your time away hasn’t truly brought you all the way back to square one, you will find gaps in need of attention. As these gaps are addressed, your skill and confidence will bounce back.

This idea is exactly the same as bringing a horse back into condition after an extended layoff. You wouldn’t expect even a Grand Prix schoolmaster to come cold from the paddock after a season off to step off into a connected, rhythmic, active piaffe first thing. You would no doubt start that ride by showing him the tack and testing his acceptance of the most basic parts of being ridden. The piaffe is still in there, but the horse needs to work back up to it, both physically and mentally. We as riders need to recognize that we need the same process to come back from time off.

Confident Mind

If your confidence hasn’t exactly weathered your time away from the saddle untarnished, grant yourself the grace to set yourself up for success as much as possible. Don’t necessarily rush out and throw the close contact saddle on the forward and scopey jumper that you rode in the past. Acknowledge your present self, your present needs. Maybe start with a Western saddle (if you formerly rode in any of the “English” disciplines), and let the tack help set yourself up for stability, physically and mentally. Start with a levelheaded, been-there-done-that mount, at least for the first few rides. Even if your confidence is intact, you will probably still need a horse that will forgive your antics re-learning balance in the body, stability in the leg, and softness in the hand. As your basics re-solidify, your strength and stability in body will support your mental and emotional confidence.

Allow Yourself to Reclaim a Beginner’s Joy

The most helpful things to revisit as you make your comeback are the reasons why you began riding in the first place. Before you became absorbed with competition, before you had to prioritize the practical in your life… try to reclaim the headspace of the person who was first drawn to these magnificent animals.

Living in that unbridled joy around horses again can dramatically ease the tension and drive the reintroduction of horses and riding into your life. Focusing on the simple joy of being around and with the horse lets you shed baggage you didn’t know you carried. Suddenly the rider you were doesn’t matter anymore. Suddenly you don’t compare yourself to other riders. You are just present with the horse, enjoying his company and the gift of time spent building partnership with him again. And isn’t that joy the reason why most of us started riding in the first place?


Have you ever been in the position of rebuilding your skill or confidence after time away from the saddle? What tools and tactics worked well for you and your horse? I look forward to your comments! For now… off to the barn. I should be riding.


Riding Inspiration: Make it Elegant

I am a quote junkie. Sometimes. I don’t exactly have a collection of quote-a-day calendars, but I have a bullet journal, and when I run across a nugget of wisdom it lands on a daily page so it doesn’t get lost forever.  For some reason, my stash of quotes doesn’t include a whole lot of equestrian quotes… it seems like most horse-y quotes out there are of the more romantic type, rather than containing solidly useful advice that I can take to the barn. So it was with this one, attributed to the great Charlotte Dujardin. I originally discovered it perusing Stacy Westfall’s blog, in her 2 post series (find Part 1 here) on attending Ms. Dujardin’s masterclass.

“Make the impossible possible. Make the possible easy. Make the easy elegant.”

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro — Photo Credit/Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe – Zimbio

I absolutely love this sentiment. It goes well beyond the barn and riding, but given the usual route of my train of thought and the source, that is the field in which my ruminations upon it have naturally rested. Since the quote has been on my mind, I thought a written meditation on it would help solidify its meaning and application.

title image elegant riding
Stock photo courtesy of

Make the Impossible Possible

So many times in riding, progress seems impossible. For the beginner, getting into the saddle or finding balance in walk is the hardest thing in the world. For the timid rider, or the rider coming back from a shaking fall or an injury, maybe impossible means even setting foot in a stirrup. Up the scale of boldness, experience, and skill, maybe an impossible thing is nailing that shoulder-in, that flying change, that pirouette. Every rider has an impossible thing. The good news is, there is a fine line between impossible and possible… to get a little bit more quote-y on you, dear reader:

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible!”” — Audrey Hepburn

This first admonition of Ms. Dujardin’s is perfect in that it sets the bar at possibility only. There is no mandate of excellence, or of perfection at this stage, only to make a thing simply happen. It invites us to make progress in our own time, and to break an impossible thing into as many bite-size chunks as necessary. All that is needed is the grit to keep trying and the humility to recognize when you need help or to look at trying another way. But making an impossible thing possible is only the beginning of the journey.

Make the Possible Easy

The next challenge is to make the now-possible thing easy. This is where mechanical practice comes in. Possible implies repeatable; if it happens once, it can happen again. The key to making possible easy is in repetition. Once the barrier of impossibility is broken, a thing can be practiced until it can be done at will.

Again, this concept invites us to work at the pace we need to work. That impossible relaxed walk can be cultivated until getting on and walking isn’t a big deal. It becomes a simple thing with time and practice.

Make the Easy Elegant

This is the difficult part, and what separates the riders from the horsemen. And, to a degree, it happens concurrently with making the possible easy. It is easier to practice a skill mindfully and well from the beginning of building a skill than it is to build sloppy technique that is easy to perform.

Why not stop at easy? Why worry about making riding elegant? If you don’t show or compete, it might be tempting to leave technical excellence and elegance of execution as an afterthought. If it can be done and done without dramatics, who cares what it looks like or how elegant it feels?

The thing is, even if you don’t compete, horses THRIVE on subtlety. They are incredibly perceptive of their world and the creatures that inhabit it. Your horse will thank you if you whisper instead of shout. Or, at least if you whisper before you escalate to shouting. Excellent equitation translates to excellent communication and excellent balance. If we have excellent communication and excellent balance with our horses, we can coexist more harmoniously in all aspects of horsemanship.

Beyond Riding

One of the things that I like most about this concept and the way that it is phrased is that it aligns beautifully with the Four Stages of Learning concept. When you start any new skill, you begin in a state of Unconscious Incompetence (“any idiot can do that” mentality). Over time and with practice and guidance, you move up the chain to a state of Conscious Incompetence (“I suck at this”), then to Conscious Competence (“I get it now,” or the “Lightbulb Moment”). At the top of the pyramid is the state of Unconscious Competence. This is the point where a skill becomes second nature, even… Elegant.

This pattern applies to any new skill you embark on. Art class is a great illustrator. Most people look at a Jackson Pollack and think “I could have done that.” You might even think that you’ve painted the next masterpiece of modern art once you’ve tried your hand for the first time. That is Unconscious Incompetence. Think of your first day at a new job. You probably felt at least Consciously Incompetent at some things. As you learn and grow and progress in any sphere, you climb that pyramid until you are Unconsciously Competent at what you do. You don’t have to think about it anymore, your trained intuition guides you correctly.

Final Thoughts

How are you going to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant today? In or out of the saddle? Do you have any particular equestrian (or otherwise!) quotes that stick with you or have made you think? Perhaps even changed the way you ride or work with horses? I would love to hear your thoughts or stories in the comments section. And remember — you really should be riding!