Rules Of Training And Riding For The Uneducated Horse

Just the other day I was teaching how to move a horse’s forehand across. The rider questioned my suggestion that she does not use outside leg against the girth to encourage the shoulders to step away from her leg. Considering the greenness of her horse and the lack of understanding to follow the inside rein or yield off a rider’s I felt using her outside leg would complicate and muddy the clarity of moving the forehand. My explanation did not quell her confusion, so I asked her why did she want to use her outside leg. Her answer was simple and echoed the thoughts of many riders I encounter. “Well, that’s how it is supposed to be done!”


Everything the rider had read and been taught by instructors told her that in order to move the shoulders across a rider should apply outside leg against the girth. So why would I tell her otherwise? Had I lost my mind? Did I not understand the basic rules of moving a horse’s forehand as laid out by all the experts?


I hadn’t lost my mind and I do understand the teaching principles of past masters.


When I was about 14 years old I read Podhajsky’s classic book “The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider.” I read that if I did ABCD a horse would canter on the lead that I wanted. Then if I did EFGH the horse would swap and canter on the opposite lead. Fan-bloody-tastic I thought! I tried it and it didn’t work.


Was Podhajsky lying? Was he an idiot? Was I a terrible rider? It turned out none of those things were the reason my horse didn’t canter on the correct lead or change leads when I asked (well, maybe the last reason was a dim possibility).


What I didn’t know and what the student at my clinic didn’t understand is that the books of esteemed masters and the instruction we both had received were not talking about the horses either of us were riding that day. Their wisdom was intended for another horse that had excellent education on how to follow the feel of a rider’s reins, seat, and legs. Neither my horse nor my student’s horse fitted that category – YET.


I sometimes read on riding forums the sage of advice of members how a horse needs a little more inside leg or the straightness problems of a horse stem from a rider’s shoulders not being perfectly aligned or a forward problem a rider is struggling with can be cured if only they looked more ahead instead of down.  The advice given could be the right advice IF the horse understands those things. But when a rider or trainer receives such instruction it presumes the horse has also received the identically same instruction.


My point is that the rules of riding and the rules of training are not rules. They are recommended guidelines for the education and riding of a horse. But they are not rules and they are almost meaningless if a horse has not been educated in those rules. Consider for example the way dressage teaches to ride a corner with inside leg and outside rein in order for a horse to carry themselves balanced and straight around the line of a corner. A horse does not know automatically know what to do when a rider applies inside leg. If they are on the green side of educated applying the inside leg will almost always indicate to a horse they should go forward with more energy. Yet riders interested in keeping to the rules of most dressage instruction will bring their horse home from the horse breaker and start riding the corners and circles with their inside leg applied. Then they have to get stronger on the reins to ensure their horse doesn’t rush the corner. What the hell is a horse to think? But that is how we are taught in dressage to ride a corner. No instructor ever told me to use inside leg on one type of horse and not on another type of horse. It was always “inside leg to outside rein” on every type of horse.


A horse does not give a damn about the man-made rules of riding and training. Stop trying to make every horse look like a round peg to fit into round holes. Some horses are shaped like square pegs or rhomboid or hexagonal or triangles. It takes work and training to make them into round pegs so that one day they will be able to be ridden in accord with the rules of the experts. So don’t ride them like they are finished and fully educated horses that fit the mould of the finished and educated horses the experts are talking about. It only results in confusion for them.


Photo: Alois Podhajsky was a former director of the Spanish Riding School and published The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider in 1967.

Why Doesn't Anyway Listen To Me???

A friend I have known for many years asked me recently how much does the earth weigh?  I thought for a moment and said it depends, but it can weigh almost zero. This seemed impossible to my friend. He expressed his disbelief with colourful language. I quickly did some calculations using Newton’s equation and told him that the earth had a mass of approximately 5,900,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg (23 zeros), but that it weighed almost nothing. I explained that mass was constant (although this is not strictly true because the earth has a net loss of nearly 50,000 tons a year in mass), but that weight varied depending on gravity. But no matter what argument of logic I offered, my friend could not get pass the idea that since everything on, in and around the earth weighed something, therefore the earth must weigh the sum total of all those things added together. So I was unable to persuade my friend over to my side.


This got me thinking about the concept of persuasion. As a teacher, my working life is targeted to persuading people to my way of thinking about horses and horsemanship. I do this either by presenting my views and demonstrating the positive results they produce or by discussing the flaws of alternative ideas. Most of the time it is a mixture of both.


This seems to work pretty well for the most part, but from time to time I come across people at clinics who seem impervious to my powers of persuasion. They understand what I am saying. They see the results in their horses. But it doesn’t appear to be enough to change their mind. Why is this? I mean I could understand their dogged refusal to change their views if they didn’t understand what I was saying or they found a hole in the logic or their horse became more screwed up when I worked with it. But this is almost never the case. So what is getting in the way of change for the human? I don’t seem to have any problem changing the horse’s thought, but it is sometimes not so easy when it comes to changing the owner’s ideas.


I think part of it is history. We are often emotionally invested in what we do because we have been doing it for so long. I think this is linked to our ego and self-esteem and reluctance to admit to ourselves (and the world) that we are not as clever or talented as we thought we were. We don’t want to be so vulnerable. This is especially true for people who are professional horse people.


A lady came to a clinic that struggled to get her horse to slow down. I coached on her for a while, then suddenly she stopped her horse and looked at me with a frustrated expression and stress in her voice. “You’re telling me that everything I have been doing for the last 30 years is wrong.” My reply was, “No. I’m not telling you that. Your horse is telling you that.” She did not return the next day. Her reluctance to let go of her ego was stronger than her desire to listen to her horse.


Another obstacle can be that we cling strongest to the views and beliefs that we acquired in our early education. Often the first guru that made sense to us is the one whose teaching we have the strongest faith in and we are reluctant to let go of it irrespective of the merit of ideas we encounter down the road. We put so much faith in their infallibility that it becomes impossible to question their teaching.  I think probably every trainer and teacher have a small number of followers like that. We are generally okay about taking on ideas that a consistent with the lessons of our teachers, but rarely do we embrace ideas that are counter to them.


About 4 years ago I agreed to a request from a young woman living in Europe to come and be a working pupil with me in Australia. I knew immediately it was a bad idea when she arrived and told me that she had been working with a certain trainer that she really liked and she would not be okay with anything I might say or have her do that was not consistent with what she had learned from him. I said to her that I didn’t know her trainer, but that she made a mistake coming all the way from Europe to Australia in the hope of learning from me but placing limitations on what she would listen to and what she wouldn’t. Needless to say, she did not have a very satisfying visit.


Another possible explanation for why occasionally I meet an owner whose ideas I can’t seem to shift is a personality conflict. As far-fetched as I am sure you think it is, some people just don’t like me. Whether it is my style of presentation or my corny jokes or my push for them to try harder or the intimidation of my over powering good looks, I don’t know. But it is a fact of life that when somebody has a personality that grates on us, we tend not to embrace their ideas very much. I can think of a handful of people who feel that way and have bad mouth me to anybody who will listen. Anything I say or do causes them to have an instant opposition reflex.


An example of this happened some years back. One person who didn’t like me for personal reasons posted on an internet forum that I was responsible for her horse breaking its hip when it tried to jump out of an arena. The only problem was that I had never met her horse and the whole event had never happened. Nevertheless, the story spread quickly.


I certainly don’t think or believe that I am the teacher or horseman for everybody. I know that every trainer and clinician has their fans and their detractors irrespective of their ability. So I want to be clear. I don’t have a problem with people who don’t like me and are not drawn to my work. That’s not the problem.


The point of this essay is to encourage people to really look at themselves and their reasons for both loving and hating the philosophy and methods of any trainer or clinician they meet. Make sure your reasons are true and honest and not based on irrational bias or personal vulnerabilities. Our horses deserve the best we can possibly offer them and that means we really should put aside our personal flaws and prejudices and consider everything we learn with an impartiality that is targeted towards what is best for our horse. Let go of the ego.

Problems With Lateral Flexion

In this video I discuss the problems that teaching lateral flexion to young horses creates. Primarily it causes a disconnection between the inside rein and the hindquarters which leads to crookedness and unbalanced circles and turns. This can be overcome by asking for flexion but allowing the hindquarters to yield in response to the inside rein alone (not using leg pressure), instead of insisting the feet stand still.

Reward - Is It What We Think It Is?

This was oroginally posted 2 years ago, but the subjec came up in a recent discussion, so I decided to repost it. I hope it is of interest to you


Mostly when I think of rewards I think of food rewards because they are easy to understand, but I think the ideas bouncing around in my head can equally pertain to other forms of reward such as removal of a pressure (negative reinforcement) or the addition of a pat or scratch (positive reinforcement) or a softly spoken kind word (such as “good boy”).


Humans think of a reward as a prize or gift for doing something right or doing it well. It is a bonus prize intended to encourage us to keeping doing well.


However, I don’t think horses view a reward in the same way that humans do. For example, if I gave a person a box of chocolates for the help they gave me, they would see the chocolates as a reward and feel good about helping me and feel better towards me. Yet if I gave a horse a slice of apple for coming up to me in the paddock, they see it no more as a reward than they do the grass in the paddock. There is no ‘thank you’ in the horse’s thinking in accepting the apple. A horse doesn’t think of me as a nicer person or better friend because I was the source of the apple. A horse thinks of the apple as his to eat because what other possible purpose could the apple have?


Food is a very powerful motivator of behaviour. I believe it comes second in importance in modifying behaviour after safety and comfort. Eating is part of a horse’s primordial nature. They find the offer of food difficult to turn down. Even when their bellies are full I’ve never seen a horse knock back an offer of a carrot. It’s there for the taking and they take it because that what horses do. A horse does not see the carrot as a reward, but as something to grab while its available. The need to eat is closely linked to the need to feel safe and comfortable. It is not a bonus treat. Similarly the removal of pressure is linked to a horse’s sense of safety and comfort and is likewise not a reward but a basic need.


In my mind I think the conversation inside a horse’s mind goes something like this.


Horse: “Hey, give me a carrot.”

Trainer: “This horse is not trying hard enough.” No carrot is forthcoming.

Horse: “Bastard. Okay, what if I stop moving. Now give me a carrot.”

Trainer: “That’s a better try.” Trainer offers a carrot.

Horse: “Finally! What took so long? Give me another carrot.”


This is what I think is the conversation inside some people’s mind.


Horse: “Hey boss, you’re looking good. Can I please have a carrot?”

Trainer: “I’d like to give you a carrot. I really would, but could you please try a little hard?”

Horse: “Okay, I’ll try to stop moving. Now can I please have a carrot?”

Trainer: “What a good boy. Here’s your reward.”

Horse: “Thank you. You are so good to me. I love you and will try even harder next time – cross my eyes and hope to die. BTW, have you been working out?”


You could just as easily substitute the offer of a carrot with the release of the reins or something similar.


So why does any of this matter? Are we just talking semantics?


To a certain extent, I think it doesn’t matter if you call the addition of a positive stimulus or removal of a negative stimulus a reward or release or relief or any ‘r’ word you choose.  The way we use these training principles is more important that the titles we give them. However, in another sense words do matter because they influence attitudes.


To give somebody a reward has the connotation of giving them something they are not normally entitled to – a gift. But horses have no concept of a gift. By using terms like reward we are thinking we are doing something nice for our horse, yet a horse is thinking no such thing. What we view as a kindness towards our horse, our horse views as “it’s about bloody time.”


I don’t know how many times over the years I have heard people tell me that with all the nice things they do for their horse, you’d think their horse could make an effort. But of course, horses don’t think like people want them to think.


There are potential side effects from thinking of removal of a negative or addition of a positive stimulus as a reward. Sometimes (without even being aware of it) an attitude creeps into our thinking that a horse should be thankful for all the rewards we have given it. When a horse is difficult or disobedient the word ‘ungrateful’ can pass through our minds. If this happens it is easy to get angry and even use punishment to change a horse’s behaviour.


I witnessed a well-known trainer in America (who used food treats to train horses) punch a horse in the face because it bit her in an attempt to get more ‘rewards’ from her pocket. To me, the horse did exactly what being a horse programmed it to do. Its behaviour was no different to a horse who pulls on the lead rope because it sees grass a few metres away. Food is not a reward; it is an essential of life to a horse – like breathing.


I think the point I’m trying to make is that even though we talk about rewarding a horse for its effort, as an essential element of the training process the concept is entirely foreign to horses. How much this affects how we apply a reward will depend on how much emotion we attach to the term.

Happiness Of A Ross Jacobs Horsemanship Clinic

I was recently asked about the music I use in the introduction of my videos and would I play the entire piece. So here it is. It's called Wedding Invitation and available on YouTube as copyright free music. I added a slideshow of photos from recent clinics.

View it in fullscreen mode and turn up the volume and enjoy the happiness.