A Technique For Saddling A Horse

This video demonstrates the proper saddling technique to make it easier for a small rider to throw a heavy saddle onto a horse.




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.