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
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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
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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
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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!

Managing vs. Fixing in Horse Training

How often do riders get in the habit of managing a problem with their horse rather than fixing it? Managing is the horse training equivalent of sweeping dirt under a rug. Fixing addresses the root cause of the problematic behavior. A problem that is fixed no longer needs to be managed.

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What does a managed problem look like in practice?

Managing a problem behavior can take many forms. I am thinking of the horse who ground ties so beautifully… because he has broken everything solid he’s ever been tied to. Or the horse who won’t get on the trailer, but it is never addressed because he has no need to travel. How about the horse who needs to be baited into being caught in the pasture? Or twitched into behaving for the vet or farrier?

Why might a training problem be managed instead of fixed?

Riders manage instead of fix their horse problems for a number of reasons, but most commonly they simply do not have the tools to fix at hand.

Sometimes this means a lack of physical tools, gear, or infrastructure. For example, if my horse refuses to cross a creek, that can be tricky to practice if I don’t have a creek on my farm. Or my horse refuses to load onto the trailer, but I don’t own a trailer to practice with. That being said, a little imagination can solve many of these lacks.

Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of mental or experiential tools. The rider simply doesn’t know how else to ask the horse to do what needs done. If my horse refuses to cross that creek and I don’t know any other way to ask him to, I am out of tools. In this case, the rider needs a horseman with more experience to help. That help can be advice or physical assistance. In this case, the problem is (tough love time, here) with the rider, not with the horse. The horse and rider both need training.

Sometimes a lack of tools is a lack of emotional tools. In this case, the rider is apprehensive, maybe even fearful of addressing the problem. These cases are usually a bit more extreme or generalized in terms of the behaviors involved. Perhaps the horse bolts in canter… so the rider only walks and trots. The fix here overlaps somewhat with the fix for the lack of experiential tools, in that the rider needs help from a more experienced horseman. These are sometimes the hardest problems to fix, since these riders often know exactly what to do, but freeze instead of acting out of that fear. Here, the horse needs training, and the rider needs confidence, perhaps in addition to training.

When is it okay to manage a training problem instead of fixing it?

Sometimes it is okay to manage instead of fix. There are cases where working around a less desirable behavior is a more valid option than addressing it, especially as a short-term solution. These are usually cases where a gap in training is discovered in a situation that makes a fix difficult or dangerous. The managing is only happening to keep all involved safe until the training can be addressed.

Ideally, this situation is quite rare. We as horsemen don’t want to put ourselves or our horses in a situation where we don’t have the foundation in place to solve a foreseeable problem. We want to set ourselves and our horses up for success. But these are horses: anything can and will happen. Sometimes despite our preparation the situation dictates that we manage now and fix properly later.


Your horse loads nicely onto the trailer at home. You go to a show or event, you have a good day, but when you go to load up and go home the horse flatly refuses. You are unable to take the time it takes to work him through the task like you would at home. Maybe you need to clear your rig out of the barn area for the next guy to load up. So, you break out a carrot and bribe the horse onto the trailer.

We’ve all been there. A nonideal situation and a nonideal solution that works because the moment dictates. The difference here is that the savvy horseman realizes that he has discovered a gap, a point that deserves training review, and addresses it properly later. He doesn’t continue to substitute the bribe or the crutch for the training.


In an ideal world, horsemen never manage a training issue. They are fixed instead. Managing a training problem is typically indicative of a deeper problem, a lack in skill or tools to dive deeper and correct behavior at the source. Sometimes a particular situation dictates that a training gap be managed in the moment, but it is important to recognize a managed problem and take steps to fix it if at all possible. Horses with managed training issues are not set up for lifetime success, and the horse’s lifetime success is the responsibility of horsemen.

What about you? Do you have training gaps or problems that you manage day-to-day rather than fix? What kind of problems? Do you recognize that you are managing? If so, why do you manage rather than fix? What are situations where you have had to manage?

And those are the musings of the day. Remember, you should be riding!

The Problem With Natural Horsemanship (and Strategies to Overcome It!)

The Problem: Natural Horsemanship Isn’t “Natural.” No Horsemanship Is.

The problem with Natural Horsemanship is really very simple… horsemanship just isn’t natural, in any sense of the word.

Horses don’t naturally socialize with predator type creatures.

This category certainly includes humans, yet horsemanship takes the unnatural aspect even further. We ask the horse to calmly and willingly carry a predator on it’s back and perform without fear! The basic fact of predator and prey animal working in partnership flies in the face of all that is “natural.”

Humans don’t naturally understand equine psychology and communication.

If we did, can you imagine how much simpler of an endeavor horsemanship would be? It is unnatural for a human to set aside linear thinking patterns, and to not register the horse’s behavior and responses to us on an emotional level. It is our human instinct to anthropomorphize, to fit our understanding of the horse into human terms. This problem can be overcome, and there are clearly many, many people who excel at understanding the horse on his own terms, but it is far from a natural ability for most humans. The study of horsemanship itself is the attempt to overcome this barrier.

Horses aren’t built to carry weight where the rider sits.

They aren’t naturally suited for a domesticated lifestyle of confinement, punctuated by bouts of structured exercise. Humans impose these unnatural conditions on the horse, and then make other unnatural modifications to compensate — metal shoes to protect the hooves, blankets to help keep warm and dry, support boots and gel saddle pads for protecting the legs and back.

An entire industry has sprung up to compensate for the unnaturalness of the horse’s modern domestic lifestyle and the unnatural endeavor of horsemanship. From the gear to the books to the lessons and training and clinics and DVDs… none of it would exist if horsemanship were natural.

Stock photo courtesy of

The Miracle of Horsemanship

The miracle of horsemanship is that, despite its unnatural nature, somehow, it can all work. Humans can and do form partnerships with their horses. Horses are, astonishingly, willing to do some very unnatural things if asked in the correct way.

The trick of the miracle, and the tough-love lesson for the would-be horseman, is that it is all up to the human to recognize how unnatural it is. It is up to the human to learn to “speak horse,” and to train their own body and mind to work in harmony with the body and the mind of the horse. The horse is not able to learn to “speak human.”

Strategies to Make Horsemanship Less Unnatural


Communication is everything in horsemanship, and it is the onus of the horseman to be in the constant practice of improving communication. We do this by observing equine behavior and applying those lessons to our behavior with the horses. All of our movements, cues, and aids should be clear, consistent, and meaningful, reducing “static” in our body language. We can be more mindful in the barn and the arena, more focused and less distracted.


We can strive to keep and manage our horses in a way that mimics the horse’s natural lifestyle as closely as possible. Turnout and freedom to move and graze in fresh air are ideal. Uninterrupted stable life can be harmful to body and mind. There can be an increased risk of colic, ulcers, and heaves among other maladies with stall-kept horses. Stables of any size typically house at least one cribber, weaver, or pacer. Stalls may be convenient for us, but tend to be less desirable as a default housing strategy.


We should always be striving to become better educated as horsemen. I’ve written before about how the learning curve never ends in horsemanship. We can learn more about the horse’s physiology to make better stable management decisions. Studying biomechanics helps us ride with more understanding and finesse. Brushing up on equine psychology helps us communicate better. Good riding lessons never did a soul a bit of harm. Even lifetime riders and seasoned horsemen fall into bad habits or don’t recognize an opportunity to grow and improve in their art.


As much as I advocate for self sufficiency and self reliance, it is important to remember that you and your horse are not an island. Even Olympians have coaches. While you should be able to recognize illnesses and perform basic first aid, you should also have a good relationship with your vet. Be able to ask questions and get advice beyond your (hopefully rare) emergencies. While you should be able to recognize lameness or pull a shoe, the same goes for your relationship with a good farrier. Even if you don’t take regular lessons, get to know a better horseman than you personally. Keep an eye and ear open, and soak up what they have to teach, even through conversation. Horses are herd animals. Humans can learn a little something from that mentality. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources and equestrian community around you.

Final Thoughts

I may be opening a can of worms, but I am interested in opinions. Where do you stand on the idea of “natural horsemanship?” Am I off base? Can horsemanship be a truly natural endeavor? Perhaps I put too much meaning and thought into a ubiquitous buzz phrase is, at root, a marketing tool. I believe that it is well worth bringing more naturalness to horsemanship; the horseman ought to on the burden of the unnaturalness as much as possible. This would make the horse’s life easier physically, mentally, and emotionally. Are there parts of horsemanship that cannot be optimized for naturalness? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.

You really should be riding!


Simple But Not Easy: Tweaking My Lunging Technique

Spring has finally sprung, which means I am in the arena with some regularity again! I’ve been stocking up ideas and inspiration all winter, and I’m excited to finally get to put them into practice. Both of my horses are on the older side, and it has been a long winter layup for them, so we are starting out slow and easy with groundwork and lunging to ease their bodies and minds back into work.

Lunging Horse photo courtesy of, purveyors of fine free stock photos.

Problems That We Don’t Know We Have

Here is a video that really caught my attention. I have been excited to try tweaking my lunging technique based on it for some time. Before you watch… the reaction of the horse when the handler changes to incorrect technique is one of my horses to a “t.”


(All video credit goes to the original presenter, demonstrator, poster, uploader, etc. I remain a humble surfer of the Tubes of You.)

After watching this video, and seeing this lovely young horse who moves and lunges so nicely devolve into the exact behaviors of my grumpy old man when the handler simply steps off on the wrong leg, I had to dust off the lungeline and give this a shot.

My boy’s story since his earliest training has been “he hates lunging and groundwork,” That label has stuck with him, wisdom passed along to me years ago from his previous owner. He’ll lunge, but not with a smile on his face, especially not at the beginning of the exercise. Expect some low-grade bucking in canter, pinned ears and grumpiness in trot, and a draggy reticence to move forward in all gaits. Historically, I have left groundwork alone with him beyond basic decent citizenship. He has always just been happier to work under saddle.

I am stunned by the results of applying the lessons in this video. Absolutely stunned. Like, I waited to call “confirmed” until I tried it again and duplicated my results. Three for three. I call that confirmed.

Keeping Perspective in Perspective

I do not have a horse that hates lunging, or even dislikes the practice. I have a communication issue. And like any problem in life, recognition of the problem is the first step to solving it.

This was not an easy thing. Like so much of horsemanship, it is simple, but not easy, especially working against fifteen years’ worth of muscle memory. I am slow. I am clumsy. I have to be present and deliberate in this new technique. I bobble as I catch myself stepping off on the wrong leg and “dumping my manure.”

But, as I apply what I have learned, my horse has amazingly become forgiving, if slightly distracted by the grass underfoot, and has not even offered to buck. He can tell that I am trying. I’m lunging him in the same simple rope halter and line that I use on my pony who “loves” groundwork (and on whom I am also excited to try this tweak), instead of the thick web halter and chain shank that is the default gear on the rare occasion that this horse must be lunged before a ride. I’m telling you, this is a total 360 degree change for this horse.

The constant learning curve is part of what has always captivated me about horses and horsemanship. There is never a point at which one has “made it,” when there is mastery with no more to learn. Horsemanship truly is an art; there is always more to learn, more to practice, more finesse to achieve. Our communication, our relationships with the horses in our lives, can always be improved.

What do you think, dear reader? Have you ever had a lightbulb moment like this? Solved a problem that you didn’t know you had with a simple change that wasn’t necessarily easy? Please share in the comments — I love to hear your stories!


I dug for more info from Chris Irwin. As far as free content goes, I vaguely remember that State Line Tack’s website used to have an incredibly helpful video library that featured him as the host, but apparently those are no more. YouTube has a few gems, snippets of his clinics like the one above, but I haven’t found any longer form lessons or clinic videos. I am very interested to see, hear, and learn more. I’m adding his books and DVDs to my wish list. I’m especially interested to hear more about how he transitions these concepts from groundwork to the saddle. If you’re interest is as piqued as mine, you can check out his website here. I get zero kickback for sharing — I am simply interested and spreading something I stumbled across that seems to work.


The Leadership Mindset

The Leadership Mindset

As horsemen, we should all strive to be the leaders of our “herds.” At the barest minimum, establishing leadership increases our safety in handling these large and sometimes unpredictable animals. Beyond basic safety issues, becoming a horse’s leader is the foundation of building a solid partnership with the horse. Leadership is a mindset, and needs to be mindfully cultivated in our interactions with our horses until it becomes second nature.

What Leadership Means to a Horse

In the human world, leadership has some particular connotations. Consider what you think of when you hear or see the word as a human, probably related to the workplace, or to politics. In the equine world, the leader fills a very specific role; ensuring the safety of the herd.

As a prey animal, the horse’s constant first priority is safety. For the sake of his ability to relax at all, he is going to attempt to socially outsource this priority to a herdmate. However, if no other herdmate proves himself able to support the horse’s own safety, the horse will take that focus himself.

Within the herd hierarchy, the leader is constantly “tested” by subordinate horses to determine continued fitness for the leadership role. This is the subordinate horse’s way of making sure that he is still outsourcing his safety to the right individual. If the leader can’t maintain dominance over the lower-ranked herd members, how can he maintain dominance over, say, a hungry mountain lion?

Why Being the Leader is Important as Your Horse’s Human

Horses in a domestic situation have things a bit differently; the odds of needing to defend against a hungry mountain lion are significantly less in the average lesson barn than in the wilds of Montana. But, all of the internal wiring that nature has given the horse is still there. The horse is still going to prioritize his individual safety, seek to outsource that to a leader who can establish and maintain dominance within the social group, or fulfill that leadership role himself if he cannot identify those equine leadership qualities in another.

As a human in a horse’s herd, it is crucial to understand these facts about equine psychology. We have the ability to mentally step out of our internal wiring, more or less, and into the horse’s. The horse cannot mentally shed his wiring and try to understand the human social perspective.

How to Establish Yourself as Your Horse’s Leader

Becoming your horse’s leader is a simple task in concept, if not necessarily  in practice. Remember, your horse is hard wired to seek and follow a leader. However, if you are starting from a relationship that is more strained, it may take more time and persistence on your part to prove to the horse that you are leadership material.

The most basic way of establishing leadership credibility with a horse is to move his feet. A horseman in a leadership position can move ask a horse to move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right. The response to this “ask” is relaxed and willing movement, rather than pinned ears, grumpiness, and resistance.

A good exercise is to start in the stall or barn aisle. Will your horse calmly and willingly yield his space to you, keeping out of your way on his own as you pass with buckets or wheelbarrow? Excellent! Will he step over, but only if you make the point of asking him with a touch or a press? Pretty good, but can be improved. Does he grimace, lean, push back, or threaten by putting his rump to you? Definitely needs better leadership.

Consistent, Quality Time

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my years of studying horses and horsemanship is that horses are being trained every second we interact with them, not just in the arena or when we go to the barn with a teaching agenda. Every little interaction we have with these animals teaches them something, good or ill, about how to be with us. It is unfair to demand a perfect training session in the arena, when our expectations in the shedrow are sloppy or inconsistent. It is far more realistic to expect a horse that is respectful of your leadership in the barn and on the ground to continue to recognize that leadership in the arena. Every moment is a training opportunity.

Ask, suggest, encourage. This recipe, applied with steady and unwavering consistency, is the best way to establish respect without creating fear. Start out assuming that your horse has ESP, understands what you want, and wants to do it for you. You’ll be amazed how simple focused intention on what you want from your horse will be understood and responded to. If the horse doesn’t respond to ESP, raise your energy, perhaps apply a light physical aid, to clarify what you want. If no response there, raise the energy further. Consistent and clear escalation of aid is an art form itself, and perhaps its own post topic.

The Power of Mindset and Intention

I promise that this is less “woo-woo” than the heading makes it sound. Because horses communicate predominately through body language and movement, they have the amazing ability to read their humans. For many people, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Our mindset and intentions prime our very posture and bearing to send a message to the world, a message that the horse can read, interpret, and respond to.

If you go to the barn carrying a rushed, hurrying mindset, you will be sharp in your movements and attitude, and make your horse edgy. If you approach the horse with a blunt, pushy attitude, your horse is going to react to that, too.

The proper mindset, what I call the Leadership Mindset, is one of relaxed alertness, calm consistency, and empathetic understanding. A mindset with these features will automatically prime your body language to communicate all of these things to the horse. When a horse meets someone working within the Leadership Mindset, he already knows what to expect. Consistency, no nonsense, clarity, and fair dealing.

Backing Forward: How A Green Pony Taught Me To Rein-Back Properly and Ride Better

Backing Forward: How a Green Pony Taught Me How to Rein-Back

Most beginning riders are taught a quick and simple formula for the rein-back: legs off, steady hold on reins, and pull harder with the hands if the horse doesn’t back up off the lighter cue. Most seasoned lesson horses are familiar enough with this system that it works, and, voila, the student has learned the rein-back.

I learned this way, more or less, and the horses I owned and rode responded to these cues. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why even think to?

Then I acquired my Scout. At the time he was one of the greenest horses I had ever dealt with. A sweet disposition, but little “life experience,” and figuring out what he did know was a trial-and-error experience of finding and filling holes in his training. One of the holes I thought I discovered was in his rein-back. When I applied the aids, the only response I got from Scout was giraffe-necked bit evasion and frustration.

Luckily for both of us, the mantra of soft hands forbade my pushing the issue or forcing him backward by hand alone. So with the help of a little research and a green pony, I re-learned how to ride the rein-back. Without forward motion, you’ve got nothing. Not even backwards

Step One: Back is Forward

The first error I made was taking my leg aids away. The first part of riding the rein back is to sit deep in the tack and allow the legs to “hug” the horse. It should feel more like you are kneeling on the saddle than sitting on it. The kind of pressure applied by the legs should be the “toothpaste squeezing” variety. This was plenty to motivate Scout’s energy, no kicking or bumping or other dramatics necessary.

The upper body should sit tall, like a string is being pulled up from the crown of your head. Another visual aid that helped me was to think of my chest and torso like the sail of a ship, filling with energy that carries forward.

This should sound familiar… like asking your horse to walk on. And it should. Because that is what we are asking for. Just backwards. With just the seat and leg action, your horse will probably start walking forwards. If he doesn’t, this point is where you need to stay. The horse should understand move actively forward off of your seat and leg before the rein-back is introduced.

Step Two: The Proper Role of the Hands

So we have forward. How do we direct the forward energy in a backwards direction? By closing the front door with our hands. It isn’t a pull, but a soft hold. More akin to not following the natural motion of a walking horse’s mouth, than to any form of a pull. More advanced riders on horses heavy on the front end might (among other exercises to lighten the front end) employ a slight lifting of the rein to encourage lift and lightness in the shoulders.

Make sure to not ask for miles of rein-back, especially to start. Reward a single step at first, and reward it by following with the hands and allowing your horse to stride ahead, and rub your horse’s neck. This is among the most unnatural movements that we ask of our horses, and especially in the early stages we want to reward the smallest change and slightest try that our horses give us.

The Results and Key Takeaways

No more rein-back angst! It was like flipping a switch — my green bean pony almost instantly had a better rein-back than any lesson pony or seasoned horse I had ever ridden. We had energy, straightness, cadence, and a soft mouth. We even had the beginnings of self-carriage, moments of “that’s right.”

The first big lesson of deconstructing the rein-back is the concept of “forward.” Odds are good that if you are not riding your rein-back with “forward,” you aren’t riding ahead with “forward,” either. And without “forward,” there won’t be enough energy to ask for much else from your horse.

The second big lesson that day was that horses often already are able to do most of the things we ask of them. Our job as riders is, more often, to make it easier for the horse to do what he already knows, while carrying us.

How about you? Anyone else ever get “schooled” by a greenie?

Beat the Late Winter Blues


Beat the winter blues

Beat the Late Winter Blues

Here in the scenic Great Lakes region, in March we still freeze. Horses are showing the first symptoms of Spring Fever, and the footing stays too rough to do much but tiptoe them out to their paddocks and pray that they exercise good judgment. So, the majority of training and tuning up for better weather is happening in the confines of the barn. Here are five great ways to keep your horse and yourself in a learning frame of mind during a weather-induced winter break.

Insist on Excellence in Ground Manners

I am a stickler for good ground manners anyway, but nasty weather tends to breed fractious horses that are more likely to “test” the humans in their herd. Being consistent in defining your personal space is critical to instilling respect for that personal space. This reinforces the leadership hierarchy with the human in charge, which is critical for basic safety as well as a healthy horse-human relationship.  All of your interactions with your horse are teaching him something. A winter’s worth of not “slacking” on simple basic manners will pay dividends on the first ride of the spring.

Polish Old Skills and Teach New Ones

This idea is very related to the first one, but is more specifically targeting a skill beyond basic good manners. How subtle and smooth you can train everyday tasks to make everyone’s life easier in the barn. How good can your horse be at picking up his feet nicely? At keeping his head low enough to halter and bridle without drama? From there, you can introduce more advanced and formalized groundwork like Grooming and Showmanship training. With a little practice in the winter, you’ll have a new skill ready to compete in a new show class next season. Another great option if you have a great foundation of basic manners is to try some trick-training. All of these exercises keep the horse’s mind occupied and promote a willing, curious, and partnering mindset when we get back into the saddle.

“Spa Days”

Another great option is planning a routine spa day for your stable-dwelling partners. If the weather is too cold for a real water bath, a bit of dry shampoo can do wonders on stubborn stable stains. Beyond the cosmetic value, this is a perfect opportunity to bond with your equine partner, to engage in some non-demanding time together.

Keep Learning

I’ve recently taken up a habit of listening to podcasts while I am doing other things, including cleaning stalls, cleaning tack, and grooming horses! Take a look around the interwebz for a podcast on your particular discipline, or for particular episodes that delve into topics that interest you or will help you when the weather does break. I hate fumbling with earbud or headphone cables, so my lifesaver has been my Bluetooth “boom box.” Beyond the barn, dark winter evenings are a great opportunity to catch a training DVD or other educational media. Besides the educational value, these media can be a great source of inspiration to keep you running until spring arrives. You might also want to enroll in a spring clinic that will motivate you through the last of winter.

Keep Fit

Maintaining a basic level of physical fitness over the winter will make the transition to regular work in the spring much easier. For the rider, options for indoor exercises are basic bodyweight exercise, yoga, and Pilates for maintaining strength and balance. For the horse, at bare minimum maximize safe turnout. A horse that keeps moving through the winter months will be healthier and happier, and that much fitter to get back to ridden work when the weather clears.


I hope these ideas help get you through these last weeks of white stuff. The worst thing there is for a horse, physically and mentally, is to stand. These ideas are a starting point to transition to winter training-maintenance mode, and to make the shift into increasing springtime work a little easier.