Willingness is a term that is bandied around quite a lot in the horse world. It’s really common for people to describe their horse as “being willing” or that they want a relationship that brings out the willingness in their horse.


We all understand what willingness is in human terms. We know the feelings we feel when we are willing and we are not willing to do something. The resistance and resentment we feel when have to do something against our will can’t be hidden and can’t be ignored by us. Contrast those feelings with the absence of trouble and resentment we experience when asked to do something that we are perfectly willing to do. When we think of it in those terms there is probably not a horse person on the planet that does not desire to have a willing horse. Clearly, a willingness in a horse is the only pathway to achieving peak potential in both the relationship and performance we work so hard to accomplish.


But how is it possible to know if a horse is willing or simply obedient?  If we are striving for willingness in our horses, it is important to know what it looks and feels like. For a lot of horse people, obedience is the ultimate achievement and is sometimes considered synonymous with willingness. But I believe this is worshipping false idols because many times obedience is simply compliance derived from a sense of futility to argue. Obedience is often drilled into a horse when their choices are removed. On the other hand, willingness comes from a place of comfort inside a horse that stems from clarity and softness. For an in-depth explanation of the concepts of clarity and softness, I suggest reading my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.


So down to business, how can we distinguish between when a horse is simply being obedient and when it is being willing?


From everything I have said up to date, it must seem obvious that relaxed emotions and minimum resistance will always accompany willingness. Alternatively, hard thoughts, resistance, and tension are associated when we have obedience without willingness.


You might think that it is possible to be obedient and not exhibit resistance and troubled emotions, but you have to remember that a horse’s thought and his actions are intimately linked. Horses are not like people. They can’t feel one way and act another way. They can’t have troubled insides and pretend everything is wonderful on the outside. It’s not who they are.


However, many horses do have the capacity to resign themselves to their lot in life and even with stress levels that would put a human in hospital some horses can do pretty much everything they have been trained to do and still feel horrible about it. That’s what makes them so trainable. So the way to tell if a horse is willing or not is not by their ability to do what we ask of them. Instead, check for troubled feelings, resistance, lateness, hard thoughts, distracted mind etc when we ask them to change what they are doing. A troubled, but an obedient horse will show signs of upset when we ask them for a change of thought, but a willing horse will not be unduly concerned about being asked to let go of one thought and adopt another. It doesn’t matter what we ask of our horse, but it is the switch from a horse having one idea and being asked to let go of that idea and take on board a different idea when we ask, that reveals a horse’s true inner feelings.


I often demonstrate this principle at clinics by a very simple exercise that rarely fails to illustrate the difference between obedience and willingness. Try it yourself. Have your horse with a halter and lead rope. Hold the lead rope in your hand close to the horse’s chin (just 2 or 3 cm). Then politely and quietly ask your horse to walk forward while you stand just in front facing him and walking backward – like you were leading by bringing him towards you as you walk backward. When your horse is coming forward freely, politely ask him to back up by quietly applying a feel to the hand holding the lead rope under the chin. Don’t be abrupt; just be smooth so he has time to prepare for the change of thought.


If the change from your horse walking forward to backward weighs nothing in your hand, has little or no resistance, no postural change in your horse, no lateness or drag in his response, no flinging of his head or swishing of his tail etc. then you can be sure your horse is exhibiting willingness and feelings of okay-ness to be with you and to work with you.


However, if there are outward signs of resistance and bad feelings then you have more work to do to make your horse feel more comfortable and extinguish the trouble inside.


We can only make things better for our horses and us by seeing where the trouble lies and acknowledging we need to do more to bring out the willingness. Without a willing horse, we will never see what they are capable of offering and achieving and we will have to be comfortable with the knowledge that half an effort and a mediocre relationship is good enough.


Photo: This shows the position I use of asking a horse to walk forward toward me before I ask him to walk back away from me.

My Mate Bruce

I had a visit the other night from my old mate Bruce. Some of you might recall Bruce from a story I wrote a long time ago where I described the first person to ever ride a horse and being responsible for domesticating horses and starting this whole gig of riding them. Well, that was Bruce. He was the bloke that we all have to thank for having the hair-brain idea that a person could catch a foal, raise it and try sitting on it. It was crazy at the time, but now everybody does it.


Bruce always appears in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t know how he gets into the house, but he is like Houdini and can seemingly walk through walls.


As you can imagine Bruce is several millenniums old but looks better than fellows half his age. It has to be admitted Bruce looks good for a bloke born during the last ice age. And he still has a sharp mind – clever, insightful and ornery.


I hadn’t seen Bruce for a while, so there was a lot to catch up on. He asked about these new fangled ways of transport called horseless carriages and why would anybody want to be pulled around by something without a horse in front of them. He didn’t seem to understand the purpose and certainly didn’t trust them. I guess he had a point since cars kill more people than horses. I didn’t dare tell him about planes.


After the small talk had concluded we got around to discussing horses like we always do. I told him I was teaching horsemanship nowadays to amateur and professional riders.


Bruce’s response was not exactly supportive, “Blimey mate, where are you going to find people to teach who know less than you do about horses?”


I tried to explain that since the horseless carriage arrived on the scene there were a lot of people who know less than I do. In fact, in certain circles I am considered quite knowledgeable and experienced. Bruce seemed unconvinced. I made a mental note to myself that I need a better quality of friend.


I said, trying to hide my crankiness, “You may know it all, but I do okay at helping a lot of people with their horses.”


Bruce replied, “I am far from knowing it all. As old as I am, I am a rank beginner.”


“Oh come on Bruce. You know more than anybody else I know. You’ve worked more horses than most people have had breaths in their life. There can’t be much you don’t understand.”


Bruce said, “Mate, this is what I have learned. The first 500 horses taught me how to stay on. The second 2000 horses taught me how to be effective at getting a horse to do stuff. The next 5000 horses taught me that all the troubles I had with a horse disappear if I allowed it to do what’s on his mind to do. If I don’t get in the way of their idea all the horses seem pretty happy.


The next big step is going to come with the next 100,000 horses. I’m hoping they’ll teach me how to get them to have the desire to do what’s on my mind and to get out of their way.”


The next 100,000 horses!! I didn’t know what to say. Bruce is right, I don’t know much at all. The old man had humbled me once again and left me feeling stupid.


Photo: Bruce.

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.

Smoothly Adjusting Rein Length

I have noticed over the years that a lot of riders like to maintain a fixed length of rein between their hand and the horse’s mouth. As a young aspiring dressage rider, I was lectured on the importance of this practice as a way of maintaining a consistent contact. I see the logic of this argument and I feel it has merit. But I now believe that it only has merit with some horses in some circumstances. I no longer am convinced that for most people with most horses a constant length of rein is a better way of riding.


Every horse is a work in progress, just like every rider is a work in progress. No horse or rider is ever finished, nor will they ever be. When we are training something new into our horse that is not yet established there will always be some level of confusion, anxiety, and resistance for the horse, irrespective of how well it is trained in its other work. If thus wasn’t the case, we would no longer be in training mode – everything would be as we desired and there would be no need for corrections. But this is rarely the case.


In order to maximize our effectiveness to correct a mistake or misunderstanding, we need to attain as close a level of communication as possible at the time. Part of that is presenting just the exact amount of feel of the reins required to achieve the utmost clarity for our horse. Our signal needs to be unambiguous in both the degree of pressure and the timing of its implementation and release.


The trouble is that one fixed length of rein is not going to achieve this goal every time we need the reins to motivate a change of our horse’s thoughts. The rein length will influence the effectiveness of our timing and the feel our reins offer. If our reins are longer ideal to convey our intent we may be too late to apply the perfect amount of pressure and if they are shorter than required we may be too slow to present the perfect release.


I find one of the obstacles that get in the way of being fluid in the use of rein length is their aptitude (or lack of) at being able to adjust the length of rein easily and smoothly. People are clumsy with their hands and make it harder than it really is. I find rein-handling skills are very underrated and something people neglect but learn by necessity when the time arises. However, if a rider believes that a fixed length of rein is the way to ride, the skills to make smooth and rapid changes to rein length are generally never learned. As a result, when told to constantly re-adjust their reins to the needs of the horse they resist due to a lack of skill and confidence at doing it well. They thereby let the horse down by not being as clear as possible with the reins.


I do have sympathy for people who ride with a constant fixed length of rein because they have been ingrained on its importance. And to be fair, a lot of rider/horse combinations do very well with little or no fluidity in the length of rein. But it is by far a less than ideal situation. Just because we can get away with riding with a fixed rein length, doesn’t mean it is the best approach to providing clarity to our horse – and we should always be striving to present optimum clarity.


The video below outlines a couple of different techniques I apply when adjusting the length of rein. It is important to notice the smoothness that we incorporate when changing the length of rein. Above all, smoothness is something we need to constantly be mindful of when using the reins to converse with our horse.


What's The Important Part Of Getting Along With A Horse?

“Amos, what d’ya reckon is the most important part of learning to get along with a horse?” I asked.


Amos and his twin brother, Walt had become my defacto mentors by default. They were old men when I met them, but they were sharp and wise when it came to horses.


I had been working at the riding school for a few years now and at the ripe old age of 16 I figured I knew a few things about being a good horseman. I knew there was more to learn, but my grasp of more than the basics was obvious. Afterall, people asked me to ride and compete with their horses. I had started several horses under saddle and been praised for the job I had done. I was teaching other people to ride. No doubt about it, I was on my way to being as good a horseman as the old brothers – maybe better one day.


“Mmm matey. I don’t reckon there is just one thing,” Amos replied as he continued mixing the evening feed for his horse.


“C’mon there must be something that stands above the rest when I ask that question. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”


“Well, matey I guess it’s probably different for different people, so I can’t give ya an answer that would work for everybody,” he said.


“But I reckon that ya can’t be a good horseman until ya really appreciate that there ain’t no bigger responsibility than takin care of ya horse’s emotions. Nothin is more important if ya goin to get along with a horse. It don’t matter if ya win blue ribbons or get paid a lot of money to train horses or ya write famous books about horsemanship. Bein famous and bein popular with the crowds don’t make a person a good horse person. Bein good with horses comes from inside a person to care about how their horse feels all the time.”


I could have almost predicted Amos’ answer because caring about horses feelings has been the mantra they have driven home to me every since I met them. To Walt and Amos there is no higher priority than helping a horse to feel okay in everything they do with them. So this revelation was no news flash for me. But what he said next did surprise.


“I already know that, Amos. Isn’t there something more?”


“Matey, ya may think ya know it, but ya don’t – not yet,” he said.


“What d’ya mean, Amos?”


“What ya don’t know yet is how hard it is to dig inside a horse where the emotions sit. And the reason it’s so hard is because life is a competition.”


Life is a competition! What the hell did that mean? So I asked.


“Did ya know that Walt is 17 minutes older than me, matey?” Amos asked.


“Yeah,” I replied.


“D’ya know why he is 17 minutes older? Of course ya don’t,” he asked and answered.


“It’s because Walt pushed, scratched, crawled and elbowed past me to get out of our mum ahead of me. We competed inside the womb and we are still competin and bickerin nearly 77 years later. I lived with that man almost my whole life and there ain’t nobody I love more and am closer to than me brother. But we are in constant competition. Still when he is feelin bad or he needs somethin all I care about is tryin to fix it for him. I take no pleasure that it’s his pain and not mine. But when it’s done, we are still arguin, bickerin and tryin to out do each other.


“It’s like that with horses too. People are always competin against our horses. Their need to feel safe competes with our need for them to load into a horse float. Their need to rest a sore back competes with our need to put a saddle on ‘em. Their need to see what moved in the next paddock competes with our need to have their attention. A horse’s needs and our needs are always in competition and it causes conflict.


“If ya gonna give priority to a horse’s emotions when workin with them, then ya have to care a lot about their needs – even when they clash with your needs. This is when ya discover that talking about caring about the emotions of horses is not the same as really doin it. People are always talkin about it, but Walt is maybe the only one I know who does it.


“So when you tell me ya understand the importance of lookin after a horse’s emotional welfare, give it a few more years and tell me again.”


I walked away from Amos feeling despondent, which I know was not Amos’ intention. He and Walt are long gone and there is nobody to confess to that I am still not sure I get it. I wish those cranky old blokes were still around to remind me where the path is.