What are you practicing?

“What you practice,” I remember Tom Widdicombe telling me, “is what you get good at.”

This is undeniable, in fact it is fundamentally obvious. What else would one get good at? After all, practice is how we get better at things. If you want to improve any skill, just keep practicing it.

But Tom wasn’t talking about me at that point, he was talking about my horse. Being creatures of pattern and habit, horses learn by practice as well. If something has worked for them one day, they will probably try it again the next. Before you know it, they have developed a pattern that will take some effort – and probably cause them some concern for them – to change it. So if you give your horse time to practice something, expect them to do that more in the future.

One day you might be working your horse on the ground and they are in a slightly flighty mood, pinging around on the line and overreacting to everything around them. You ask them to move off and they go flying round at top speed, maybe throwing some bucks or other silliness in while they go. When that happens, what has your horse been practicing?

A palomino pony, in the snow, holding a glove.

If your horse isn’t practicing bringing you gloves in the cold, maybe you need to re-evaluate your training strategy.

“Wait,” I hear you say, “that wasn’t me asking my horse to do that, they put all the nonsense in, I just wanted them to do a nice calm circle.” That is all true but all the time they are doing their own thing, how much do you figure in their thinking? Are they practicing working with you?

If I ask a horse to work and they decide to put way more forward in than I wanted, there are a few different things I might do depending on the horse and the situation, but they all have one goal: Get the horse’s attention, so that they stop practicing doing their own thing and practice being with me instead.

If you have a bit of space around you and your horse wants to go gallivanting off ahead then you can just walk out behind them. Unless they have the art of dropping their shoulder on the rope and running off, which thankfully very few horses do, they will have to come around and catch you up, allowing you to reset your relative positions and helping them to understand that charging off is harder work than listening to you.

You can also just turn them to a stop – where you ask with a gentle pressure on the lead rope for them to turn to face you and stop running forwards – and then walk towards them and slightly to the other side ( so if you were on the left rein you will walk to their left) asking them to move their shoulders out of the way and turn to move along with you, staying on your right the whole time. This is a good way of changing the rein and a really good way of bringing a horse’s attention back to you if they are inclined to keep thinking about everything else.

The other thing I might do is to use a clear up-and-down bump on the rope, which sends a wave down to the horse. This tends to cause them to throw their nose in the air and stop, sometimes bending to a stop, other times just stopping. Please note that it is an up-and-down movement, I’m not pulling on the rope, and that I don’t use heavy bull-clips on my ropes and wouldn’t use this technique if I did. This is a really effective technique for a horse that is determined to get ahead of what you are asking for.

With any of these techniques you can interrupt the horse’s thought and start them thinking about what you want instead of just running about doing their own thing. You’ll probably need to do the same thing a few times, but as long as you are getting an effect, stick with it and they will start to change and pay more attention to you. You’ll probably need to keep things low energy for a little while so they don’t get emotional again, but often it doesn’t take long at all to start getting a lot more interaction going on. The more they practice being with you and staying with you and the more they find that there is calm and quiet and comfort in doing that, the more they will seek you out and the easier all your work will become. Relaxation and calm are things that can be practiced too and the more of those that your horse gets to enjoy, the more likely they are to be in that mindset from the start of your sessions together.

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Gaps in the foundation

Almost every time I have seen problems – of whatever magnitude – arising with a horse it has been traceable back to something very basic indeed. A the foundation of everything is the question of physical wellbeing – if a horse is in pain then you need to resolve that before thinking about training unless the situation is such that you need to work on training to be able to help them physically. Beyond that, the absolute essentials of being a riding horse might be thought of as being able to be mounted, to go, to steer and to stop. It is surprising how many horses have a problem with at least one of those components. It may not seem like it at first- it could seem as though the horse is leaving too fast, running through the rider’s hands, leaving too slow or behaving in any number of other scary ways, but very often you can boil it down to a problem with one of those things.

This is actually very good news- if you have a problem in the canter that can be traced back to something that happens in walk ( or even at halt ) it is much easier to fix it while you’re moving slower if simply because you have much more time to sort things out. Very often something will show up in walk, be more noticeable in trot but only become a problem for the rider in canter. If you can resolve it in walk, then it will be better in trot and canter. Smooth it out in trot as well and the problem in canter will very probably be sufficiently reduced as to be much easier to eliminate altogether.

All of these areas are extensive and worthy of in depth consideration, which i plan to give them, but there is room for an overview here.

Me leaning across my pony's back.

Helping Cash to accept me mounting without a saddle.

Problems with mounting are often related to the horse just not feeling well balanced as the rider gets on, or being afraid of the saddle moving. If they are unbalanced it can help to make sure they are standing properly squarely before you try to get on. My little palomino pony has a massive fear of the saddle shifting ( even greater than his fear of different halters, gloves, twigs, people he doesn’t know, people he does know and imaginary ghosts only he can see ) that has proved very hard to surmount. Currently I’m working on rebacking him without a saddle, once we get past that I’ll start looking at reintroducing the saddle, slowly and clumsily, and then finding one that stays really still so we can work around that anxiety.

Some horses aren’t confident in moving off, which can either manifest as them being behind the rider’s leg or rushing off faster than needed. Impulsion is very much a balance that needs to be developed- very few horses start off with the amount that we might hope for as riders, so we are often working to balance out how much “go” our horse offers us one way or another.

When steering is tricky it’s often a question of the horse not understanding the bit. In fact I would say that a horse not understanding the bit is one of the most common problems that I see both in horses and riders. It’s actually quite unusual to see a horse and rider working together where they clearly both understand how the bit works but it makes for a really great picture when they do. If you’re having any kind of problem with how your horse bends or balances under saddle, you would do well start by looking at their relationship with the bit and your relationship with the rein.

Trouble stopping is often a mixture of not understanding the bit and the horse having too much emotion to stop moving. There is no point in trying to make a horse keep their feet still- if they need to move then you need to let them and if you don’t you’re going to make things worse, so you can keep directing them and take control of where they go which will start to give them the idea that they can attend to you. As they move and you keep offering direction without doing anything to put more energy into their movement, they will find themselves able to stop. Be aware that a horse can be leaving mentally even when they are staying in one position. So much of what we need to do as riders is as simple ( but not easy ) as keeping their mind and body in the same place and keeping both of them with us.

Often a horse that is reluctant to stop is indicating a resistance to the bit or the rider’s cue is confusing them- usually they do stop, but it tends to drag out a bit and not be as clear as either would really want. When I talk about “stop” and “go” here I’m really talking about all downward transitions – when we talk at this basic level they are more or less the same thing in different quantities.

When I meet a horse that I am going to work with, these are the first things I look at and it is almost always the case that by getting them better, we can make a big difference to how the horse works and how they feel. In fact if I do see a problem at this level and resolving it doesn’t make a difference to the horse, I am likely to go back to where we started and look for a possible physical component.

The starting point for making an improvement in this is to have a really clear picture of what we want and to make sure we keep our cues absolutely black and white, leaving no space for confusion in the horse’s mind. As long as we are asking for something the horse is capable of giving and rewarding each step along the way, they will start to gain confidence in their work and be able to relax, which is the starting point for all the good stuff we can achieve with them.

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Understanding life and energy in horsemanship

Like any activity in which one can gain expertise, horse training has its own terminology and among the people I’ve learned with a critically important concept is “life” or “energy. A lot of people hear these words and think that they sound almost mystical, a key to the magical touch of the horse whisperer accessible only through years of dedicated training at the Jedi Academy on Coruscant.

Now I would hate to disappoint anybody, so you might not want to read on at this point lest I ruin your illusions, but ( from my limited but growing experience ) life and energy aren’t really like that.

The two terms can generally be used quite interchangeably and the way I understand them is really a matter of how you move and carry yourself and how you feel about doing that. Imagine you are sitting in a chair in your living room and you want to read the newspaper but it is just out of reach, so you get out of the chair step over to it in a leisurely way and return to your comfortable seat. That is a very low energy movement. Now imagine that you are walking to the station and you are running a little late- you’re still walking but now you’re walking briskly and with a lot of intent, you know exactly where you’re going and you’re determined to get there before the train leaves. The difference between the two is the amount of life or energy in your movement. You might think of energy in this sense as being simply the amount of energy you are putting into moving.

Horses, being living creatures, also have life and energy but as they are herd animals that largely communicate through body language they are very sensitive to it and  naturally tend to reflect the energy that other creatures around them carry, particularly horses but they can learn to do it with humans too.  There’s a good reason for this in terms of survival – if a predator appears and one horse starts running, the last horse in the herd to pick up that change is the one most likely to be caught by the predator. Of course, being able to read the energy of fellow herd-members is also valuable for getting along in a herd in general, in fact it’s the major way that horses communicate among themselves, so when we are able to tap into it that can really help them to understand us.

When we’re working with our horses on the ground, it is quite easy to use this reflective quality of horses to change their way of going by changing our own energy. If I want my horse to change from walk to trot on the line ( or at liberty ) I can just change my way of moving – increase the amount of life in my body – and they will make that transition. At first a horse might not know that doing that has any significance, especially if they are accustomed to humans and our tendency to fluctuate our energy arbitrarily, but once we start to consistently use this, they pick it up easily.

Zorro flinging himself into the air

Too much energy!

In the saddle, the same applies – by changing our energy level before we apply a direct cue, we can teach the horse to follow our energy without needing us to use our legs and hands or only needing them to add finesse or information about how exactly we want to go. This is an area where the principles are simple and yet they can be applied with limitless depth and subtlety if you are willing to keep working with them. I know I have only scratched the surface of this in my own horsemanship but then Ray Hunt, who took this further than anyone else I’m aware of, claimed that he was still only scratching the surface; this is one of the places that horsemanship can truly be considered an art.

Communication through energy goes in two directions – if something makes our horse emotional then that puts life in their body which can be a little nervewracking for us. My cob, for example, will typically pass pigs in passage. Sideways. They really bother him and that emotion puts life into him to a much greater degree than me putting my leg on ever does. When your horse has more energy than you can comfortably deal with the important thing is to avoid putting even more into the system. I have heard it described as being like a cup containing two liquids, one for the horse’s energy the other for the rider’s. Ideally we would like that to be half and half but if the horse is running at 9/10ths energy and the rider tries to put in their half, the cup is going to overflow, so if your horse is putting more energy in, you probably want to put a lot less in. At the same time, if a horse has a lot of energy then there is no point in trying to repress that- horses have a fundamental need to move their feet when they are emotional and if we try and stop them we create problems for the horse and for us. In that situation I prefer to just direct the life the horse is making available to me so they are moving, but they are moving in the way that I’m asking them to. The combination of movement and listening to my decisions rather than making their own can really help the horse to relax. Rather than trying to stop them I might pick a place where I will offer them a stop and then take them round in different figures and keep offering the stop at that place. When the horse is ready, they will choose to stop there and that will be more meaningful to them than if I try to close them down and make them stop.

At the other end of the scale, sometimes you need to put more life in – traditionally this is what we do with our legs and maybe with a crop or other secondary reinforcement. This is a bit like putting one’s foot on the accelerator – it gives us the movement that we can use to direct. If you are sat on a horse who isn’t moving, trying to steer them, then all you are really doing is pulling on your horse- you can’t direct life you don’t have.

My goal, ultimately, is to be in a place where the life in my body is connected to the life in my horse’s. That sounds a bit like I might be getting back to that mystical place that I was claiming to debunk and there are things that I see other people do with horses that look a lot like magic to me. But then the things I do now would have looked like magic to me a few years ago and I’m only scratching the surface- there is always room to go deeper.

I will certainly return to this topic as my understanding grows – it has many facets and lies at the heart of the communication that we can share with our horses.

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Turns out you were doing Natural Horsemanship already

No matter what you do with your horses, what tradition you belong to and what techniques you use, there is a factor in your riding, training and handling that you share with all the rest of us, something more consistent than the teaching of any style or discipline: We are all working with horses.

Every horse is a unique individual, just like each of us is, but in general they have a lot in common with regard to how they think and behave. A consequence of that is that some techniques just work better than others and those techniques are things that some people will have learned totally independently of their discipline. Partly this will be things that different people found effective at different times, often it will be a technique or idea that has been passed on into different areas of horsemanship because it works well and a smart horseman tends to be aware of what others outside their own discipline are doing.

When I am talking about riding or training, often the person I am talking to will have exactly the same view as me about a lot of topics. For example if I am talking about schooling exercises, you won’t find a lot of things that I recommend that a dressage rider would disagree with. In fact I don’t think that many riders of any discipline would find a lot to disagree with in Podhajsky’s The Complete Training Of Horse And Rider.

The most important things from a horse’s point of view- clarity, consistency and being understandable are not the preserve of any particular style or discipline. Most successful equestrians understand their importance and have those at the foundation of how they work their horses. Consistency is particularly important because as long as your cues are applied absolutely consistently then it doesn’t matter what the cue is. If I asked for a transition by blowing my nose, as long as I did it every time and rewarded whenever the horse got it right, they would figure out that this was the cue I was using and start to follow it consistently. There is nothing natural in a horse that says squeezing them with your legs means go forward- everything about being a riding horse is learned and consistency is an essential part of learning for all of us.

Walking up a field with a half Cleveland Bay mare.

By working with the details of this mare's behaviour I was able to make quick progress in changing her mind about being lead away from her friends.

In spite of this, what I do when I work a horse is different from most other equestrians here in the UK. It’s not that I am using unique and special techniques, but because of the things I choose from the huge selection of methods available to me and because of what I am looking for in the work that I do.  There is an old quote that may come from Ronnie Willis ( if you know the actual attribution please tell me ) which says “there may be a hundred ways to get something done with a horse but only five of them are offering the horse the best deal.” Learning to recognise when you are offering the horse a good deal, how they feel about what you are presenting to them and when they are getting ready to respond is part of the ongoing process of learning to be a horseman. In fact a lot of what I do is very traditional, but it belongs more to the buckaroo tradition of the western US, as filtered through the work of trainers like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, rather than to the European traditions that are more familiar to most riders here in Britain.

There are philosophical differences too – for example, I know people who are excellent riders – far better than me – and yet whose horses are hard to be around on the ground because the rider doesn’t consider that to be particularly important. They’re happy with how that works out, it’s just that to them riding and handling the horse on the ground are completely separate things. Yet it seems to me that they are absolutely connected – when I do groundwork I am usually trying to ride the horse from the ground, to work in a way that is exactly equivalent to what I will do in the saddle. I’m sure that my horse makes that connection as well.

Whenever I’m riding or doing groundwork I am paying close attention to the details of what the horse is doing as those tend to indicate to me where their mind is at, what they find easy and what they need more help with.  I’m looking for the subtle ways that they test whether I am really in control of the situation or whether they need to take over and if I can answer all those questions to their satisfaction it will make everything we do together so much easier both for me and for the horses I ride. Those details are available to everyone – anybody who watches a horse walk by will see exactly the same things that I am seeing – and the people who pay attention to them and use them as a guide for working their horse do not come from any particular style, discipline or tradition, they’re just people who understand horses.

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The leader on the leadrope

Having established what our horses don’t want from us, what can we bring to the table that our horses might need? I’m ignoring, for the time being the basics of feed and care, and thinking in the slightly narrower terms of the relationship with have with our horses and how we behave around them.

For me the single biggest thing we have to offer is leadership and that is a slightly tricky term. The problem is that our notion of “leadership” has been poisoned by people who name themselves as our leaders. The politicians and captains of industry to whom the term “leader” is most liberally applied are not the people who we might choose to be lead by. If more of the people who manage us in our working lives were genuine leaders then Dilbert would not be one of the most popular cartoon strips in the world. Consequently whenpeople start talking about leadership, most of us think of cold, distant, self-serving individuals who are quick to drop a colleague into trouble to protect themselves. That is what our current political and media culture has taught us they are.

Riding down a hill.

When I'm riding Zorro on terrain like this steep hill ( it is steep, honest, the camera angle flattens it ) I am trusting him to balance himself and take care of getting us down the hill, he is trusting me that this is the hill we are supposed to be going down.

But that isn’t what a leader is. A real leader is a person that you follow because you want to, because you feel that when they are in charge then things are going to work out fine. I suspect many of us will know a person like this, whether it is the friend who leads you off on wild adventures or the manager who makes work a pleasure and always brings out the best in you, that is how it feels to have a good leader.

So what does it take to be a good leader? I’m still working on this, but I have some ideas that I definitely believe are important parts of the picture.

A leader is consistent- they respond in the same way to the same things. If you are well lead, you don’t have to worry that something that was alright yesterday is going to get you shouted at today. It is very hard to to trust a person who is unpredictable.

A leader is reliable, this comes from consistency but takes it a little further- you know that if a problem comes up you can count on a genuine leader to help and support you in solving it. A really good leader is unlikely to solve problems for you, instead they will enable you to solve them for yourself.

A leader is conscious of who they lead – a good leader will not push you beyond the limit of your ability. They may however push you beyond what you believe to be the limit of your ability, so that you can learn more of what you are capable of. To be able to do that requires genuine understanding of the people who are being lead.

A leader takes responsibility. This is particularly important in horsemanship- ultimately a successful leader makes the decisions. This is the part that people who want power see, the right to make decisions and take control of others, but without any of the other elements I have mentioned here. They do not distinguish between leadership and control. But responsibility is more than simply making a decision at your whim, it is having the vision and awareness to make the right decision for everyone you are leading.

The thread that runs through all of this is trust. A good leader is trustworthy and – this is the part that often gets left out – they also trust the people under their leadership. A leader may have overall responsibility for direction, but they also rely on those they are leading to fulfil their own responsibilities. I expect that I will have a lot more to say about trust in future because I think it is very important in horsemanship and in life, but for now I will say that a leader who is not trusted by those they claim to lead is no leader at all.

If you have ever been well lead or part of a really solid team, then you will probably have been aware that by knowing your own role and by trusting that everyone else was fulfilling their roles you were able to excel in your own area. It is also empowering not to have to worry about every single thing, to know that the person in charge can be relied on to make good decisions and you don’t have to spend all your time doubting or second-guessing them. Many things become someone else’s problem and you only have to concern yourself with the problems that you have to deal with directly.

This is where I think that leadership is so important to horses. For a horse, feeling that you have to make decisions about things the whole time is a stressful situation to be in. If we can show them that we are a good enough leader that they don’t need to worry about every little thing that happens then they are able to relax and think about what we are asking them to do. This is natural to them – in a herd they will choose to follow the lead of a horse they trust rather than constantly exploring for themselves. The horse’s mind is full of survival strategies that have served them brilliantly over millions of years as a prey animal living out in open grassland. It does not necessarily help them as much in a world of noisy humans, wind-blown litter and fast moving traffic. By building up our relationship so that we are able to say to the horse “that really isn’t your problem, let me worry about that and I’ll let you know what to do” we are offering them a degree of safety and comfort that they would not otherwise have in that situation. That means a lot to horses and to humans.

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How to be your horse’s best friend

In a way a lot of people interested in horses, particularly people who have got interested in natural horsemanship, got here because, at heart, we want to be friends with our horses. We want to them to feel they can trust us, rely on us and to like us – we are social animals, just as they are, and wanting to be liked is a big part of that.

Befriending a pony

Like many people, there is a corner of me that just wants to be friends with ponies everywhere. And when I say "corner", it's pretty much all of me.

This keys into one of the trickiest intellectual problems we run into when we are thinking about our time with horses. The idea that a horse might think enough like us that they see social relationships and friendships in the way that we do is, at heart, anthropomorphism. So many difficulties that we create for our horses derive from anthropomorphic thinking – maybe most of us these days don’t think that our horse is trying to get one over us or behaving in a particular way because they know it will annoy us ( horses are never doing those things, they are only ever being horses ) but is it really any less anthropomorphic to think that our horse wants to be our friend or wants to play with us? If we are going to get rid of the negative anthropomorphism, we really need to get rid of the positive as well for our position to make sense.

The simple truth is that we cannot know how our horses feel about us, what they find interesting or boring or even whether they have any concepts equivalent to interest or boredom – what would it mean for an animal that would choose to be grazing most of the time to be bored? The way they physically perceive the world is unimaginable to our minds adapted for our own sensory system.

In fact when you consider that, it’s a miracle that we manage to have  as much fellow feeling with our horses as we do. It is quite possible to have very subtle and reliable lines of communication between a horse and a person that both absolutely understand. This is interspecies communication at what I consider to be a uniquely sophisticated level – I can’t think of any equivalent to the constant contact and feedback that is available between a horse and rider.

To me, a big part of how we make that work is about finding a line between anthropomorphism and empathy. I don’t want to be attributing human needs or motives on my horse, but I definitely want to make the best guess I can about what they are feeling and where their attention is, to recognise their tries and to give them the benefit of the doubt if I am unsure. I also know that horses need to feel safe and want to feel comfortable and if I can judge how relaxed and how comfortable they are at any given time then I can ensure that when they are with me and we are working together, they are as relaxed and comfortable as possible.

What helps with that is that as social animals, horses are highly communicative- you only have to watch interactions within a herd to see how much they can say with a flick of an ear or a lift of the head. They are always offering us honest feedback in their terms about what is going on and although I don’t believe that a horse would ever believe us to be another horse – that would be weird, wouldn’t it? – we can learn to read horse-to-horse communication and maybe tap into parts of it enough that we can make ourselves understood.

This is a tricky area and one where I think we all have to make our own judgement on where we stand- this post is simply my own take on it. I don’t believe my horses perceive me as a friend or as a herdmate or anything of that type but when we are in the field together they do choose to come over and spend time with me, ask for scratchies and generally distract me from whatever tasks I’m trying to achieve. If I go out of sight when they are in a stable they will often whicker to me on my return and seem keen to interact with me. That is the way I want things to be- I definitely want my horse to feel comfortable in my company and it opens the door to a lot of the training I seek to do.

For my part, I love my horses – I think of them as my friends and enjoy their company more than that of many humans. I also constantly anthropomorphise them, having one-sided conversations with what I imagine them to be saying, attributing human characteristics to them and generally being totally irrational about the whole affair. Horses will do that to you. But underneath the jokes and nonsense, I am very conscious that for all the ideas I have of what they might be thinking if they were people, the fairest thing I can do if I want to offer them human friendship is to treat them as horses.

 

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Catching a reluctant horse

I had done a few sessions with Cash before I bought him – that was how I knew I wanted to buy him – and I knew he could be a little unwilling to be caught. He was very ear shy and he was also worried about going through gates and being ridden, so there were a lot of reasons that he wasn’t keen to be caught. Consequently he wore a halter while he was out and he was usually caught using a scoop of mix and clipping on a rope when he went to eat it.

When he came to stay the first thing I did when I put him out was to take his halter off and let him loose to explore his new field for a while. Later in the day I came back with a halter and he allowed himself to be caught almost straight away. I was impressed, so I gave him a pony treat and let him go again. After a minute I went to catch him again. This time it took an hour and a half and I had to go through the whole process of teaching him to be caught. As you can imagine, I was very pleased I had decided to test that.

Setting Cash up to be caught.

At least he was facing me at this point- a good start.

What I do with a horse who doesn’t want to be caught is to spend a while following them around. I don’t chase them, but as long as they want to walk away I follow them. If they want to stop I stop, if they give me an ear or look at me I step away. The moment their attention leaves me ( if they start grazing or looking at other horses or whatever ) I start approaching again. As I mentioned previously holding the horse’s attention is the starting point for any work you do with their mind.

After a while they figure out that they can approach me and I move off, which gives them some control over the situation- as far as the horse is concerned there is something going on that they have a part in, rather than me just trying to do something to them. Fairly soon the horse will start coming up to you to sniff you and investigate you at this point and be ready to accept you in their space.

How I progress depends a lot on why I think the horse is choosing not to be caught- as with many situation where a horse chooses not to do something, their decision making is on a continuum between “I have better things to do” and “I am afraid.” My aim is for them to be in the middle, where they are unafraid and want to spend time with me.

With a horse who doesn’t want to be caught because they don’t feel like it, I will tend to push them a little when they decide to move away from me- if they want to face me or approach me, I will back off and take off the pressure, but if they want to walk off then I will perhaps change things so they have to trot or canter instead. At the very least I want there to be no benefit in moving away, so I certainly need to make sure that they don’t get to eat or rest when they aren’t paying me attention. A consequence of this is that if you have a large field and you don’t want to spend a long time and get worn out, you might want to do this in a restricted area at first. You could also do it from the back of another horse, but if you’re placed to do that you probably don’t need my advice in the first place. Likewise it is easier to work on it if they aren’t out with a herd of other horses – you don’t need to do anything different if horses are around, but they are likely to get in the way, try to push the horse you are aiming to catch around and generally make the process take longer.

Cash was afraid, so I worked at the other extreme, trying to set things up so he didn’t feel that he needed to run away from me. I spent a lot of time on my approaches watching his balance and looking for him preparing to leave,  then just waiting on that point so he didn’t have to. By this point I had his attention and he quite wanted to approach me so if he started to lean away or prepare to turn and I backed off a little he would often relax a little and maybe turn back towards me.

When he would stay still when I approached, I didn’t go straight for haltering him. I spent a while walking most of the way past him and just petting him on the rump then moving slowly forwards, rubbing on him. That gave him plenty of space to move if he needed me to and made my approach less threatening to him while also making my company pleasant. The first couple of times I did this, I walked away after I reached his shoulder to give him time to think over what had just happened.

Once I could stand at his shoulder I would rub on his neck and mane, still facing backwards and reaching under with my left hand to pass the halter up to my right hand without stopping rubbing on him. I was very careful and gentle with this and careful to avoid his ears as any contact with those bothered him. Whenever we made what seemed to me like a significant positive change I would give him a pony treat and walk away. I don’t hold a strong opinion on the use of treats with horses- sometimes with some horses it’s a good idea, other times with other horses it’s a bad one. If the horse is afraid and they’ll take the food then it is probably helpful as long as they are still able to give you their attention rather than obsessing on treats.

A few times during the process, especially as I got closer to having the halter on, Cash got concerned and had to leave but each time it was quicker to get back to where we had been and once he was caught and got treats and came in for his evening feed it was meaningful to him and it only took a few more sessions until I could walk up to him in the field and catch him. He’s still wary if you change anything, though – if I have his leather travelling halter rather than our regular rope halter he’s decidedly sceptical- but in general he’s now very happy to be caught.

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How tight should you fit that noseband?

Anybody who has bought a bridle in this country in the last few years will be aware of the baffling selection of nosebands available to you. In fact one would probably need to go to a western tack store to find one without and there aren’t a whole lot of those in the home counties.

The main purpose of most noseband designs is to hold the horse’s mouth closed. In some cases there is a safety reason for this- if your horse somersaults at speed and their mouth is open then there is a risk of a broken jaw, so for hunting or riding cross-country there is a clear and sensible reason for having a tightly fitted noseband. Most of the time, however, that isn’t how I see them used – mostly they are utilised to stop the horse opening their mouth in response to the bit.

To my mind, this is using a physical mechanism to prevent the horse expressing their feelings about the bit, using physical resistance to counteract the horse’s physical resistance. I have no disagreement with the use of bits – they are a great tool that allows us amazingly subtle communication with our horses  – but I place a lot of emphasis on teaching a horse to carry the bit and to be comfortable and willing following the rein. If a horse is gaping their mouth open when the bit is applied or getting their  tongue over it they are showing a lack of understanding.

Zorro's head, from horseback.

You can see that the bit is not hanging from the bridle, Zorro is carrying it on his tongue.

If you are riding with a bit then it is so much easier to develop relaxation in the mouth and on through the rest of the body if the horse understands the bit and follows it willingly.  This is part of the foundation that every riding horse should have and unfortunately it is one of the parts that is missing most frequently. When a horse is really carrying the bit correctly they will lift it and hold it in place with their tongue, putting it in the most comfortable place in their mouth and it is then easy for them to respond to the most subtle signals. It seems to me that a horse who is doing that is really taking responsibility for their end of the rein so as long as I take equal responsibility for my end we have a lot of communication available to us.

I don’t use a noseband at all – this is something that I take from the western side of my riding background – but I know a lot of people like the look of them on their horse. That is as good a reason as any to use a piece of equipment; by all means have it there but leave it loose and treat it as decoration.

 

 

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How do you find a good teacher?

This is a very tricky question for anybody starting out with horses- how to find a good professional to learn from. In fact finding a good professional in any equestrian field is exceeding challenging – evaluating a farrier, dentist or chiropractor is likewise a very tricky problem – but I’m going to focus on teaching for now and perhaps try to touch on some general rules that can be applied in other cases.

When you are first looking to learn to ride or to learn how to improve the connection between you and your horse the real problem you will run into is that of what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “Unknown unknowns” – the things that you don’t know that you don’t know.  Until you have learned enough to evaluate how a trainer keeps, rides and handles their horses, it is very hard to be sure that they are a good person to ride with.

So how can you judge? I don’t have a definitive answer, but the starting point is to decide what you want. Do you want to learn the basics of how to ride, how to handle and understand horses or to improve in a particular discipline? A lot of people who teach will tend to specialise in one or another of these areas rather than covering all of them. Dressage is more or less universal- the basics of Dressage are the foundation for all types of riding – but a competetive Dressage instructor may not necessarily be the best person to begin learning with.

I am of the opinion that you can’t learn very much that is useful in terms of riding or horsemanship technique from a book until you are already working at a fairly advanced level, but what you can learn from watching and reading is what a horse looks like when they are working correctly and happily. If you want to identify a horse working correctly you could take a look at the work of people like Gerd Heuschmann and Dr Deb Bennett. There are some fairly clear biomechanical principles involved in a horse carrying a rider and they are something you can learn about and learn to see in people’s riding. In terms of identifying if a horse is happy in their work, there can be a lot of differences in opinion regarding that, but I look for an appearance of softness and physical relaxation combined with attentiveness to the rider’s cues. Ross Jacobs writes a lot about this on his blog, often posting video clips of what he considers to be particularly good or bad examples. Spending some time to learn about both of these things will be very useful when you want to evaluate potential teachers.

When it comes to actually finding someone, recommendation is a good starting point, especially from people you know whose riding you admire. Not everyone has lessons, of course, but people with experience will often know which instructors they rate even if they aren’t currently learning. If you don’t feel anyone around you exemplifies the way you want to ride then you might choose to look for people who come from a particular approach that is interesting to you- there are various organisations dedicated to teaching riding and horsemanship around and most of them have some very good instructors, although very few have only good instructors. If there isn’t anyone in your area, you could always ask the nearest person you can find anyway- sometimes people are willing to travel or are travelling anyway, other times they may be able to recommend someone closer to you.

Riding in a lunge lesson

I'm lucky enough to have one of the best riding instructors around not too far from where I live.

When you have identified a potential instructor, the next thing to do is to make sure they are a good teacher for you and will be able to teach you what you want to learn. That might seem a little obvious, but not every teacher suits every student. You may be able to judge that just from a phone call, but most teachers should be happy for you to watch a lesson if you want to so you can decide for yourself what you think of their way of working. If you are happy with how the horses they are teaching with respond to them and that they are teaching what you want to learn then you’ve found yourself a great opportunity. If not, you haven’t wasted their time or yours on lessons that don’t suit you.

A few more points that don’t quite fit into a structure but I think are worth being aware of:

  • If you are starting to learn to ride, nothing will be better for you than lunge lessons. Find an instructor that can offer them.
  • A good teacher can always explain what they are doing and why. Never be afraid to ask if there is something you don’t understand and to keep asking until you do understand- that is what you are paying them for.
  • If you are riding your own horse and an instructor suggests that you do something that you are not happy with don’t be afraid to say no. It is your horse, and your lesson. A good instructor should be able to explain why they they are suggesting what they suggest and if you are not happy with it just ask whether there is another way that you could get that result.
  • In the UK there are two main riding instructor qualification organisations, the BHS and the ABRS. The structure of their examinations and the approach they take to teaching means that in my opinion an ABRS qualified instructor will have a more solid grounding, although there are fewer of them.
  • If you are in doubt about anything, just ask. You are there to learn and anyone interested in teaching is always much happier to be bombarded with questions than to be left wondering whether their student is understanding what they are trying to teach.
  • Every lesson should show some kind of clear improvement. If you are continuing to have lessons but you don’t feel that you are improving then at the very least you need to talk with your instructor about that. Sometimes this is a mark of you having outgrown what someone can teach you or needing to take a break and just let it soak in a little. Other times you might just need your instructor to change their strategy a little.

Of course ( ahem ) if you’re interested in learning about horsemanship and developing softness, lightness and communication, and you’re based here in the South East, it would be remiss of me not to point out that I have a contact page. I may not be a professional but I have spent a lot of time working on this and I have learned enough that I can usefully share.

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Keep your distance

Without wanting to get all Mark Rashid on you ( and without claiming to be a hundredth of the horseman that he is ) I used to be a martial artist at one time. Not a particularly good one, but I did train diligently for a long time, which is an excellent substitute for talent. One thing that is ever so important to a martial artist is the distance between you and your opponent- if you get too close they can easily attack you before you see it coming. The starting point in the art I learned that you wanted to be far enough away that you could see the whole of your opponent without having to move your eyes.

I have no interest in taking such an adversarial pose with my horse- of course not- but that doesn’t mean that I want them any closer than that. This is something I have really had to work on over the years because horses tend to want to be quite close in to you. This isn’t just a consequence of excessive friendliness, although if a horse has had a few pony treats or a lot of scratchies they might want to be near you for those reasons ( and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they will move away when you ask them to.)  The more relevant  reason is that once they are confident that you aren’t going to harm them then they will start to explore whether or not they can push on you. Most of the time horses figure out the world and their relation to it through two questions:

  • Do I need to run away from it?
  • Can I push on it?

Very often one will start a groundwork exercise perfectly positioned and end up a lot closer to the horse than one planned to, they are masters of controlling their position relative to yours- that is what millions of years of evolution as herd animals have taught them.

Zorro disengaging

Here I'm far enough away from Zorro that I can see what is going on with his whole body.

It is important to maintain that distance, however, because that is what gives us the bigger picture. Details are all-important in horsemanship and we need to be able to see how the horse is carrying their head, what shape their body is in, where their feet are landing and how they are carrying their tail. It is very often once we get caught up too closely in what one part of the horse is doing that we lose track of the whole picture and whatever exercise we are working on goes straight out the window. The need to work at a useful distance from the horse is one of the reasons I favour a 12′ line rather than the shorter lead rope that many people in the UK appear to favour.

There is a secondary benefit as well, one that is particularly valuable with a more unruly horse- nobody ever got bitten, kicked, struck or trodden on by a horse that was a long way away from them. If you are in any doubt about how a horse is likely to behave, then you would be wise to keep them at a safe distance until you are sure that they don’t regard you as an opponent.

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