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!


The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

The Mindful Horseman: How Mindfulness Can Transform Your Horsemanship

mindful horse human eyes

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

For the Uninitiated… What is Mindfulness?

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


mindful meditation
Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

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

What Mindfulness is Not

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

What Does Mindful Riding Look Like?

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

horse rider galloping
Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

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

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

How Can You Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Horsemanship?

Practice Mindfulness Away From The Barn

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

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

Photo by Rima Kruciene on Unsplash

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

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

Set Yourself Up for Success

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

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

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

Make a Plan… And Stick To It. Flexibly.

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

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

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

Embrace the Entire Process

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

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

Benefits of Mindful Horsemanship

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

Photo by Daniel Cano on Unsplash

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

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

What’s In Your Mind?

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

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

Dangerous Horses? When Good Horses Go Bad

Dangerous Horses? When Good Horses Go Bad

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

good horses go bad dangerous horses

What is a Dangerous Horse?

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

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

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

Three Kinds of Dangerous Horses

Dangerous Horse #1

Photo by Carlos Fernando Bendfeldt on Unsplash

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

Dangerous Horse #2

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

Photo by roberto gerco on Unsplash

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

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

Dangerous Horse #3

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

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


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

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

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

The Perfect Storm

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Dangerous Horses

Photo by Thomas Peham on Unsplash

Do No Harm

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

Common Sense

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


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

Seek Help

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

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


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

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

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

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!


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!