How A Horse Allows People To Direct Their Thoughts

I was riding a horse I was starting in a paddock. It was her first ride out of the round yard. The horse was a bit concerned about riding between the jumps, but did okay. The owner pointed out that normally the jumps would not have bothered her at all if she were grazing in the paddock with the jumps.

It was a good observation and she was correct. The horse would not have worried about moving around the jumps if I had just unsaddled her and let her wander. So why was she worried about them when I was riding?

I think the answer really highlights the problem we all have in our relationship with our horses.


I believe the worry the horse felt when I rode her around the jumps was not so much about the jumps, but about giving control over to me. If she were on her own and trotting between two jumps, it would be her idea. If she decided to go between the jumps or around them or avoid them all together, she would have the freedom to do those things. She would be in control of her actions. But when I was riding her, she lost some of that control because I had taught her to respond to MY reins and MY legs. She now had to go with an idea that did not come immediately from inside her brain.

On a horse that was much further along in their education, this may not be a problem. But for a horse that was just beginning to understand the concept of having somebody on their back and directing them, it can be quite daunting.

In young horses and horses that have had poor training, giving over control to a human is a very scary thing to do. For most, there is a natural instinct to resist whatever pressure is placed on them. If we say go right, they initially feel the urge to go left. If we ask them to stop, most will try to keep going. It takes work and education to help a horse feel okay that going with our idea is a good idea and not something they either have to feel concerned about or put up a fight.


I remember riding a 10-year-old pony that was quite worried when I asked him to turn. For that little fellow a human picking up the reins to ask for a turn meant trouble, it meant resistance and it meant run through the shoulder in the opposite direction. The worry did not stem from the ponies fear of turning, he had made plenty of turns in his life. His fear came from the idea of succumbing to the feel of the reins. He couldn’t let himself be directed by me. My job was not to make him turn, but to make him feel okay about me presenting him with an idea – like turning. It comes back to the concept that I keep harping on about of good training being about directing a horse’s thoughts.

A common example of this seems to be some horses that don’t want to go forward. A lot of horses get more and more stuck the harder you try to urge them forward. Sometimes, when they do eventually go forward they buck or pig-root and the moment you stop driving them forward they come to screeching halt. Often these horses can go forward with freedom when they are on their own and it is their idea. But when a rider asks them for forward they feel like they are swimming in tar. This is because of their worry of the pressure to be asked forward. The forward does not worry as much as the pressure the rider applies to get the forward.


With this in mind, it is important that we be vigilant about how the way we ask a horse to do something impacts on the way they feel about giving over their ideas to us.


When a horse is struggling to yield to our pressure, a lot of people have the tendency to ask stronger and become more insistent. And there is certainly a proper time and circumstance for that in order to provide clarity to a horse.


However, it is important to be aware that sometimes being bigger with a horse has the opposite effect. Instead of providing clarity, it creates so much anxiety that the horse is too overwhelmed to think their way out of the pressure.


After all, the purpose of pressure is purely to inspire a horse to search for a way out – not to impose a response. There is no learning for a horse when we make it happen. So we must fight the urge to always use more pressure, just to get a job done. Sometimes, using less pressure calms a horse’s emotions to the extent they can open their minds to the lesson we need them to learn.

Furthermore, by doing just enough to coax a horse to search and consequently find the best answer for themselves, they gain confidence that when we speak it is worth their time to consider our idea. This confidence is important because it helps a horse feel that going along with our idea is not something they need to defend themselves against or get in a fight about. The horse I rode in the jump paddock would not have been so concerned about the jumps, if it had more confidence in me as the conveyor of good ideas.


It’s a huge change in a horse’s view of the world to allow a human to direct their thoughts and trust it will come out ok. To do it well takes a lot of time and consistency to ensure a horse never feels the human has betrayed them and can’t be trusted.


However, we have also have the capacity to force a horse into feelings of futility and helplessness, where they give up their right to express their feelings and have their own ideas. But to do that, something in the nature of a horse has to die first.


I’m thinking the horse in the photo isn’t ready to have the fellow’s idea become his idea.

Rider Doing The Right Thing

I applaud this rider for trusting her senses that her horse was having an off day and handling the situation with empathy for her horse. Well done.


How We See Ourselves

One of my favourite things to do in the world is to dance with Michèle in the kitchen. In fact, we had a short dance this morning before she had to rush off to work. I hummed the tune “If I Didn’t Care” by the Inkspots; we held each other close and floated around the kitchen floor.


I’m a really good dancer in the kitchen. I’d even go so far to say that I am an amazing kitchen dancer. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (you young people might need to check them out on YouTube) were lucky they were before our time; otherwise the names Ross and Michèle would be the household names in the dance world.


Late year Michele and I decided it might be fun to show our dancing prowess to the world and we enrolled in a local dance class. We live a in a country region of NSW and had to drive 45 minutes to the one and only dance studio run by an eccentric French woman.


When we arrived there were about seven other couples that had been attending classes for several months. The instructor informed everybody that it was rock and roll night. Gulp! Michèle and I didn’t dance rock and roll.


We were briefly shown the basic steps and then the music began. It was fast and confusing. Suddenly my confidence at being one of the best kitchen dancers in the world shriveled. It was hard and I’m sure to everybody there, we looked ridiculously clumsy. The confusion and the pressure to keep up was very stressful.


For all sorts of reasons, we were not able to commit to regular dancing lessons, but we continue to live our dreams regularly in our kitchen.


A person could take all sorts of message home from that little homily that might relate to their work with horses. However, the one that prompted me to think about my dancing with Michèle in the kitchen is about self-perception.


If you watch the first video clip below, this is how I perceive Michèle and I look when we are dancing together at home. I am young, lean and gracefully athletic and Michèle is beautifully unattainable and moves like a gazelle (which is exactly like she is in real life).


Yet, I suspect to an outside observer, my dancing probably looks more like Elaine in the second clip that I posted in the comment section – a totally uncoordinated schmuck.



In my experience, this is not so far from how we sometimes view our horsemanship.


A woman came to watch a demonstration I did on loading a troublesome horse into a trailer. A month later the woman approached me and said when she tried to load her horse she did everything she saw me do with the demo horse, but her horse ran her over, stepped on her foot and never went in the trailer. She was cranky at me; as if it was my fault she was hurt.


My response to her was that she didn’t do what I did; she only did what she thought she saw me do. And there was every chance that I wouldn’t have done with her horse, what I did with the demo horse.


Yet, in her mind she was certain she was doing everything right. I sometimes see the same phenomena among people who come back to clinics. They have practiced religiously what was worked on at the last clinic and are convinced that have a strong handle on the work. Yet, when they return I point out the errors that have crept into the training and their confidence at doing a good job is totally deflated. What they thought they were doing and what they were doing were not the same things.


Another aspect of this perception stuff, is the ability to stand outside of the arena or round yard and watch somebody working a horse, being absolutely aware of the things that are going well and the things that are going poorly. So many people have good insight and awareness when watching somebody else. However, the moment that same person steps inside the arena with their horse, all that awareness and knowledge abandons them.


It appears that being on the outside allows a person to see the whole picture and the reality before their eyes. Yet, when in the middle of it with a horse in front of them, the whole picture narrows to a micro-prism and the reality is replaced by blindness. I find it a very interesting phenomenon.


I think the thing that helps maintain a healthy perception is to receive regular criticism. I don’t mean to have somebody verbally abuse you. I mean to have somebody you respect critique your horsemanship. This might mean having lessons with the best instructor you can find. It might mean attending clinics regularly. It might mean videoing your sessions and watching them as a dispassionate observer and picking up your own mistakes, or emailing your video to an instructor or friend for comment.


This is a dilemma I find myself in. Not only do I live far away from where most good horse people work, but often when the best teachers are working on weekends, I am also working on weekends. I use to attend a lot of clinics of other trainers and study their work. I use to travel each year for many years to spend weeks and weeks with Harry Whitney. I believe this led to a period of one of my most rapid growth spurts as a horse person. However, none of those things are so easy these days.


The bottom line is that most of us need outside input in order to learn and improve on what we already think we know. We are not our own best critics. I know some people say let the horse be your best critic. But unless we are growing in our awareness, sometimes we are deaf to our horse’s criticisms.


Meanwhile, I’ll keep dipping, twirling and sliding with my beloved in the kitchen imagining nobody has ever done it better.

Passing It Along - Book Review

I have recently finished reading the latest published work from Tom Moates, and thought I would offer some brief impressions.

“Passing It Along” is the most recent in the series of books about Tom’s exploration and experiences with the style of horsemanship of Harry Whitney. With each additional book, Tom transforms from a naïve newbie into a keen practitioner with his own clients and twist on concepts. It’s a transformation that every capable horse person makes in his or her life.

For those who are not familiar with Harry Whitney he is a horseman from Arizona who spends most of the year teaching to beginners and professionals alike. In my opinion, Harry is the best horseman and teacher around. Nobody I have seen who is on the clinician circuit today, comes close to matching Harry’s ability or kinship with horses. So Tom chose wisely when he picked Harry as a mentor.

In “Passing It Along”, Tom mixes his growing confidence and ability with horses with his blunt awareness of how much more there is to learn. Each concept and message is clearly dissected and given context by the stories. I think this is most highlighted in the chapter “The Delay In Me”, where Tom describes his struggle to accomplish something simple that Harry is trying to coach him about.

Tom’s writing style is very easy and often conversational. If you know his voice, you’ll hear his accent resonate in the words. I think it would make a great audio book with Tom as the narrator.

I think Passing It Along is an excellent read on its own, but made only better if you have read his earlier books.

It can be purchased from Amazon or directly from Tom’s web site


3 Star Eventing Course From a Rider's View

This is interesting if you haven't ridden a 3 star course.