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.

Judging The Warm-Up

Most equine competitions that are judged on the subjective view of judging experts involve a critical analysis of the performance of a horse and/or rider either through the execution of specific movements or the negotiation of a pre-determined course. 
Every governing body of any horse sport promotes ethical training as well as the best practices that benefit both the horse and ensures peak performance. It is included in every mission statement and nearly all the promotional material. I believe most of it is sincere but some are purely for to make the sport look ethical.
Yet, despite these good intentions so many horse sports are riddled with widespread poor practices. Heavy-handed and sometimes abusive training methods are so often used with the intent to produce soft and energetic performances in the competition ring that it has become an epidemic. We all know this. We’ve seen the headlines and the debates and witnessed it with our own eyes.
So when Laura Dickerson and I were talking around the breakfast table a few days ago and she made such a common-sense proposal, my insides shouted a loud YES.
To paraphrase Laura she asked me, “Why don’t they include marks for the warm-up into the final marks?”
I had heard this suggestion many years ago on a horse forum but didn’t give it much thought at the time. However, the more I think about it the more I think it is an excellent idea.
If we as a horse-loving community truly want to improve both the plight of horses and the value of our sports, then we have to take more seriously the training process that goes into our favourite discipline. We judge the end result and satisfy ourselves that the road taken to get there is less important. But that mindset has given us things like hyperflexion, crank nosebands, draw reins, jump poles wrapped in barb wire, chemical blistering of legs, drugs and so on.
It’s obvious that official judging of a horses warm-up is not going to eradicate all the misdeeds that horses suffer during training, but if you have been a frequenter of watching horses being warmed-up before any event you have likely seen over tightened nosebands which are later loosened prior to an event or see-sawing of the reins or hyperflexion or over spurring or overuse of whips and other anti-good horsemanship practices; all this for the sake of warming up and tuning up a horse to make a good impression when the judges are actually judging.
I would even suggest judging during the warm-up session for objective events like jumping or barrel racing or campdrafting or eventing etc where penalties could be added or deducted from a horse’s score or times.
I see no downside to judging the warm-up session. I know many competitors will complain, but if we consider the practice of good horsemanship and horse welfare to be our main priority in all horse sports, it’s hard to argue against the idea of having the warm-up session count towards the final result.
Photo: This was taken during the warm-up of a Grand Prix dressage test. I believe this is the type of practice that would pay a high penalty if the warm-up sessions were scrutinized and counted towards a horse’s final score.

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.


On My Way - Fall 2017 American Clinics