Out With The Old - In With The New

I was working with a student a few months ago who I knew from past years, but whom I had not seen in a long time. She had been concentrating on educating her horse in dressage and had been competing for some time with good success thanks to some help from her dressage instructor.


I was surprised by how resistant to the feel of the reins the horse had become since I last saw it. When I rode the horse it felt like a plow horse bearing down on the shoulders and through the reins. The woman had done some good work with her horse since I last saw them together, but she had paid the price of losing softness through the reins. This was no surprise to the owner. In fact, it was the main reason she had come to the clinic. She didn’t know how to get her horse off her hands and free up the shoulders. She knew that until this was addressed she had reached the limit of how far her horse would go in competition.


I began by working on the horse to disengaging it’s hindquarters in response to the inside rein. When I rode the horse I felt how hard it pushed from behind like it was pulling a wagon loaded with rocks. I wanted to loosen up the hindquarters and get them to step under the horse more so that when I asked it to rebalance and lift off the forehand it had a set of hindquarters in place to carry the extra load as it shifted from the front to the back. I needed the hind end under the horse, not parked out and pushing forward. Until that happened the horse would not be able to free up the forehand.


After I got a nice change in the mare, I had the owner ride her horse as I talked her through the process. Immediately I noticed the rider was applying inside leg to direct the hindquarters. I pointed this out and the poor woman dropped the reins, stopped using her legs, turned and looked at me with an expression of exasperation.


“But I’ve been taught the rider’s legs control the hindquarters and the reins control the shoulders. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!”


I felt sorry for the woman because she was obviously aggravated at what appeared to be a contradiction between her dressage training and what I was asking her to do. It not unusual that we are confronted with a training approach that clashes with what we already know. I feel sorry for everybody who believes they’ve finally understood something and then find out somebody else tells them it is wrong. How frustrating.


At another clinic last year, a lady brought a horse that would chronically rush when asked to trot or canter. The horse leaned on the reins and slowly built up more energy like a kettle building up steam. It took a lot of effort for the owner to slow it down or get it to stop.


When I suggested that she give the horse more rein and use only inside rein to ask for a turn small enough to encourage the horse to slow down, she was miffed. She was not happy that I was asking her to do the opposite of everything she thought was the right thing to do such as ride the horse with the brakes always applied. I was accused of telling her that everything she had learned in 30 years was wrong. She was no happy.


The thing that these two episodes have in common is that both owners felt challenged and distressed with ideas that seemed to oppose what they thought they already knew.


But why would they feel that way?


I believe it’s because they think of riding and horsemanship as something you learn from somebody else. When a person with years more experience, a good reputation and a record of success, tells us how to do something, we tend to believe them. – especially if it makes sense. Maybe they know what they are talking about. Maybe they have had fantastic results with lots of different horses using the same approach. Maybe they can even get those ideas to work with our horse.


However, when we have been trying to apply our teacher’s teaching for weeks, months and years without making much headway we need to ask why. If an instructor tells us that we should ride or train a certain way, but our horse tells us something different, which are we going to believe?


In the case of the women with the “plow horse”, it made perfect sense to her that the reins control a horse’s shoulders and the rider’s legs control the hindquarters. She had no reason to question her instructor because it seemed so obvious that two different parts of the horse must require two different methods of control. It didn’t even occur to her that using her reins to direct the forehand and the hindquarters was something worth trying. In fact, it was such a total contradiction to what she already knew that the idea was hard to accept. It created a conflict between what she thought she knew and what she was trying to achieve. If I hadn’t ridden the horse and got a good change, I doubt she would have given my suggestion a second thought.


As riders and trainers, we constantly face these conflicts. Every horse, every instructor, and every clinician tell us something that appears to contradict something we thought we already knew. We are always in conflict with what we presently know and what we are about to learn. It is the essence of learning that we are always in an adversarial debate between what we learned yesterday and will learn tomorrow. But if we are not making progress with our horse using what we already know, there is no risk in trying a different idea.


Photo: Belinda doesn’t seem conflicted at all about my approach to working her horse – unequivocal rejection! 

There Is A Place And Time To Be Consistent

“I believe being highly consistent is extremely important in bringing clarity to a horse. Even with mediocre timing, if a person is very consistent in their presentation and their reward, a horse will eventually find clarity in the work. However, I don’t think the opposite is true. A person can’t be effective if their timing is brilliant, but their consistency is poor…”


This is a quote from my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship. It expresses the importance that I believe consistency plays in good training. It’s not just me. You’ll hear the same views from trainers and teachers all over the horse world about the need to be incredibly consistent in order to be an effective horse person.


This makes perfect sense to everyone I know. It just seems so obvious that nobody questions this concept. So let me surprise you by turning this idea on its head. Well, I don’t think it will really surprise you, but you may not have heard this said from anybody else before – I certainly haven’t.


It’s not always true that consistency is important. In fact, it is highly desirable that it is not.


Let me explain.


When a horse is initially trying to figure out something, there is a distinct lack of clarity in its mind about what are its best choices when confronted with pressure. It tries various options in the search for comfort and safety. In order to bring clarity to the horse, we must be faultlessly consistent with how we apply the pressure. This means we ask for the same thing, in the same way, every time.


For instance, let’s look at teaching a horse to move forward from a rider’s leg pressure. To start, the rider needs to ask in the same way every time. However, if the rider bumps with the heel of their boot one time, then squeezes with a soft feel through the upper leg the next time, then alternative left/right nudges the next time and then by a cluck of the tongue the next time, there is no consistency in the rider’s ‘ask’. There will be no clear understanding what any of that means to a horse. In fact, eventually the horse might think any gesture by the rider is a cue to move forward.


However, if we can be highly consistent that when we ask a horse to do something by presenting pressure in a specific way, eventually that will lead to clarity. A horse will become confident how to respond, which will lead to calmness and relaxation when faced with such pressure.


But this is where a rider should leave the well-worn track. When a horse is confident with how to respond to a cue, the importance of consistency loses its clout. After a horse no longer needs to be trained in how to respond (because he’s got it and it feels okay), then we can afford to be less rigorous in our consistency. We can slack off. In fact, we should try to slack off.


In case this is confusing, let me site an example. When I first start teaching a horse to lead well, I am very consistent about several factors. I know where I will stand and how long the lead rope will be. I know where I want my horse to be positioned. I know how I want the feel in the lead rope to be. I know how much energy I want to put into my body language and how much energy I want my horse to put out. I know all these things and I am very consistent with both how I present myself and my expectations of the horse.


However, when the horse is clear and comfortable with leading well, I stop being so careful about consistency. With my own horses, I no longer worry about where I stand and the length of the lead rope or their position. I can lead my horses from the front or the tail. I can lead them with or without a halter or rope. I can stand on the right or the left. I can lead them on foot, from a horse or from a tractor. I can lead one at time or four at a time. I can do all that. I can be highly inconsistent in how I ask them to lead and still get what I want. Yet I have not taught the horses any those things. I just started their training by being highly consistent and for them to feel comfortable and confident about being led.


The more a horse feels confident in how to work with us, the less consistent we can be when we ask them something. In fact, we should want to be able to be slack around our horse and still be understood. It’s like a close friend or partner who can finish our sentences before we do or when we point to something and a colleague knows immediately what we mean. They pick up on the intent almost immediately, place it in context and prepare to respond.


If your horse requires you to be very consistent in the way you ask for something, then the meaning or clarity of what you have asked is not yet well enough understood. That’s perfectly okay; it just means there is more work to do. Instead of understanding your intent, they rely on the physical pressure and give only to that rather than having an association to what that pressure is telling them.


It is important to remember that while consistency is important in the process of training, it is not a goal in itself. Consistency is just a technique that we can avail to instill a clearer understanding in a horse. Once that understanding is well established, the need for consistency should lose some of its importance. We should work towards a horse maintaining its clarity even if we chop and change the way we ask.


The photo has no significance other than I like it.

The Successful Professional Woman

Some of you might remember my mate, Bruce. I’ve talked before about how Bruce invented riding horses long before anyone else did. We all thought he was crazy, but he was a Homo erectus ahead of his time. Who would have thought that this idea of sitting on a horse and going somewhere would ever catch on? I mean we found horses to be so delicious that it seemed a waste of good food to ride it until the meat was tough. Anyway, Bruce’s idea proved to be pure genius.


So when he started telling me about his thoughts on women trainers I figured he deserved to be heard.


Bruce made the observation that female professional trainers are not nearly as common as males. Any Google search for horse trainers or horsemanship clinicians will reveal that the number of women in the business is a small fraction of the number of men. But in Bruce’s view, women have just as much to offer the horse world as men and probably more.


He had some idea how to even the odds.


“Mate, it seems that part of the problem is that men are just more popular as professionals. People reckon a bloke has enough physical strength and the right mix of bravado to make the best trainers. It ain’t true, but that’s the way people think.


I got some ideas how to fix it. In fact, I was thinking of doing some clinics to help women learn to present more like a male trainer, but still work with the horses like a woman.”


I asked, “What did you have in mind.”


“Well, the first thing is they have to look more like a bloke. No curves. That means they have to strap them puppies flat and wear baggy jeans so they look like they have no bum, like every male trainer out there.


“They also need to wear a bloody big ugly belt buckle that screams, “I’m the biggest wanker in the world.” And they have to use a bloody big saddle that looks like it weighs 700kg. I could be made out of cardboard and weigh about the same as helium balloon, but it has to look like it weighs enough that a horse could never get enough air to buck.


“It wouldn’t hurt if they also let their hair grow. I mean not on their head. That needs to be short. But let it grow everywhere else – legs, face, pits, back and chest. You know what I mean; you’re a bloke.


“Then we get to mannerisms and behaviour. Men always have a pattern of behaviour that oozes “I know what I’m doing” to every client. Women have to learn some of that.”


“Like what,” I asked?


“Let’s start with no more, “Ah, what a pretty pony?” No! It’s not a pretty pony. From now on it’s “What’s the trouble with Man-eater?”. And every horse gets slapped on the bum for affection. No more stroking and rubbing and cooing.


And women have to learn to adjust themselves by grabbing their crotch. It’s a behaviour that distinguishes the men from the boys. It could help to have a small timer in their pocket that vibrates every 30 minutes to remind them its time for another crotch adjustment. Clients expect this from the best horseman.


Next comes the walk. It’s very important that there is no hip swiveling. A man walks with purpose and with the knees wider apart than the hips – like they were forced to sit astride a whiskey barrel every day in those formative growing years.


Lastly is the double take. When an attractive person passes most male trainers have perfected the double take. They turn their head to the side, and then back to the front, then to the side again. It’s a fast action and takes all of 1 second to complete. They need to be careful not to turn the shoulders. You can always a fake or amateur because they either turn their shoulders or whip around so fast that they suffer mild whiplash during the double take maneuver.


“So what’s next after that, Bruce?” I asked.


“Well mate, next is the most important lesson of all – the attitude. Male trainers exude an attitude that women just struggle to impart.


“For instance, when a woman talks about her level of experience, she tells the truth. But when a bloke talks about what he has done, he lies and lies and lies. These lies are a great selling point and if women are going to compete against men in the business they have to learn to exaggerate and lie until lightning strikes them down.


“I’m going to teach these women that when they are asked about their horse experience, they’ll say something like, “I’ve work with about 100,000 horses and 90,000 of those killed their previous trainer. The other 10,000 came to me because they ate little children. But I saved them all. And I’ve trained a lot of people too. I’ve helped everybody from Xenophon to Ray Hunt. And I’ve ridden everything from zebras to Unicorns and over every kind of country from deserts to oceans etc. You get the drift.


“See Ross it’s about perception. An owner wants a no-nonsense person who at least looks like they know what they are doing. That means they have to appear to be cranky, scowl a lot and accept no BS from anybody, even if they are wrong. That gives an owner the confidence that they are learning from the best, even if they are actually learning from the worse.


“The professionals with the most success are hardly ever the best in the business. Women have to stop trying to be best horse people because that will only get you known by a handful of people who know the difference between good and bad horsemanship. Instead they need to be concentrating on being the best promoters with the best patter and the best stories and the best media presence. These days, the horse business is overcrowded with trainers and clinicians all encouraging their followers to proclaim them to be the greatest. There’s no room in a market like that for the best horse people. If women are going to succeed in such a competitive business they are going to need to be among the best on the BS meter.”


Bruce continued to rant, but I started to stop listening. This time I think Bruce had really lost a screw.


I think there are many great female professionals in the horse business, some are recognized for their ability and some are not. It’s no different for the blokes either. There are just more men than women. In order to have a successful business there is no doubt in my mind that promotion is important. But I don’t think it will ever work when somebody tries to be like somebody else, no matter what gender.


Not everyone wants legions of fans and an empire to run. Some enjoy working with the horses and the people.


Photo: This is probably Bruce’s idea of the perfect professional.

Is Riding Horses Cruel?

I think the video below is interesting and asks many questions that we should all should consider.


I believe people who read this page are horse-loving individuals who care very much about the welfare of horses. If they are not, I don’t see why they would come here a second time – there is nothing here for those that do not care about the horse as a horse. So I know it is easy for us horse-lovers who ride horses to dismiss out of hand the suggestion that riding horses is cruel because if we believed it were cruel we wouldn’t ride them. However, I do think we should ask ourselves about the welfare aspect of riding and what we do in general with our horses. We all know of instances of cruelty to horses from people who profess to also love their horse. So I urge you not to instantly dismiss the assertions on the video clip, but to consider them one by one in the context of your own experience with your horse(s).


For my part, I am going to go through the clip and jot down some points that I think are relevant as they come up during the clip. Maybe you will do the same and come up with your own points, and they may be very different from mine.


0.44 – 0.52 

Claim: Horses do not need to be ridden.


I agree with this. We exploit a horse’s nature that allows us to ride them for our own purposes and not for the benefit of the horse.


0.55 – 1.06

Claim: Horses need exercise, but don’t need to be ridden for exercise.


Firstly, I don’t know that horses NEED exercise and if they do, how much exercise they require for a healthy life. Does a horse require more exercise than it would get living in a small herd on a few hectares?


Secondly, if horses require exercising by humans, the assumption is that riding is inherently cruel and leading a horse is not. I don’t believe this is a claim that is supportable. Not all riding is cruel and not all leading is kind.


1.18 – 1.31

Claim: My horse loves to be ridden…”


I agree that too many people hold the false illusion that their horse enjoys being ridden and worked. I believe in most cases it is not true – it is sometimes true, but not always.


1.55 – 2.47

Claim: The growth plates of bones of the spine do not close until about 6 years old and therefore riding puts undue pressure on a developing back that can cause long-term back pain.


I do not question that the maturation of the horse’s skeleton is not complete until approximately 6 years old. However, there is no information that riding inherently damages the horse’s back throughout those years of growth. Many horses that are started at 4 years of age and ridden to develop fitness and strength maintain soundness well into old age. It is known in children that physical exercise that stresses the skeleton in the right way enhances development of bone. The video makes a huge leap in assuming that because bone is still developing that riding will damage its development.


2.55 – 3.27

Claim: Alexander Nevzorov says….


The quote from Nevzorov has many false claims about the physiology of the horse that is too long to go into. But I believe it is safe to say that anybody who uses Nevzorov as a source to support an argument has already lost the argument. Nevzorov has been discredited so many times by many people and I have written about him as a scammer in the past.


3.27 – 3.43

Claim: Riding causes spinal damage to horses


I looked at the abstract for this study (I couldn’t find a translation for the entire paper). There are so many flaws in this study that I question the findings. The study did not compare spinal changes of ridden horses with non-ridden horses over time. Therefore, it is not possible to conclude that any changes to the spine of the horses they examined were not related to age. They was no control of variables such the amount of riding or type of riding or reports of injury etc. Furthermore, almost none of the horses that exhibited spinal changes showed clinical symptoms of damage or discomfort, so where is the cruelty if the horses showed no suffering due to the spinal changes?


I agree that riding could cause physical damage to horses, but the study quoted does not allow that to be concluded. Perhaps there are better designed studies that support the conclusions, but this is not one of them.


3.44 – 4.25

Claim: Saddles, bits, whips, spurs are cruel and damage a horse.


The claims are very general. That means it can be true in some instances and not true in others. But the author generalizes the incorrect use of such gear to make it appear that they are universally always bad. I feel this is hard to substantiate in the real world where there are excellent horse people using the equipment as intended and without stress to the horse, as well as bad horse people who do not.


4.40 – 4.47


I don’t know Fair Horsemanship, so I make no judgment on their work. However, I think the parting claim that positive reinforcement is a good approach to training horses is equally general as the claim that riding is inherently cruel. As long time readers will know, I believe that positive reinforcement can cause a lot of emotional anguish in horses that is as bad as the worst negative reinforcement methods can create.


Overall, I feel the video does not do a good job of convincing people who know a lot about horses that riding is cruel. It appears to be a video more for the average person who doesn’t know much. But those people are not riding horses regularly anyway, so who is it suppose to sway?


Each of us has our own values and a belief about what is and was is not acceptable when it comes to working with horses. Most people can agree that the worst forms of cruelty such as physical violence and starvation are not acceptable. However, there may be considerable differences of opinion about training methods, equipment and uses for horses. It’s for each of us to come to terms with our own ways of handling horses and be able to sleep with a clear conscious.


The question of whether what we do is consistent with a horse’s welfare is something we should always carry at the forefront of the decisions we make about our horses.



I Have A Question

I have a question.


When a rider asks something of a horse, in what way is a horse that bucks or bolts or rears or softens the same?


The answer is they are all caused by an emotional response to pressure. A horse behaves as its emotions direct.


Of course, you can only understand why this happens if you examine each scenario on a case-by-case basis. However, in every case you have to look no further than at the ability for a horse to focus and for a rider to direct that focus; the clarity with which a horse understands the intent of the pressure; and lastly the emotional okay-ness that pressure puts in a horse.


Every problem we have with a horse is derived from those very simple ideas – focus, clarity and softness. It can’t be broken down into anything more fundamental or important than that.


There is a more detailed explanation in the yellow book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.