Do you ride with your horse? Or against it?

It’s been quite a while I thought yesterday morning when the alarm rang a few hours too early on a bank holiday…

Too many cups of coffee later and in the car on my way to my student’s barn I realised, it had been 10 years!
10 years since I last sat foot on tournament grounds (not counting attendance as a mere spectator).

I must admit, accompanying my student to her first tournament made me quite a bit giddy, despite the early hour.
Her mare, Butterfly, had had her mane plated and tucked up and she was being groomed to a shine, her blows visible in the crisp morning air as she felt her owner’s anticipation.

The polished-up contenders warming up together.

There’s something festive about tournaments: the uniformed riders in white breeches and dark jackets, shiny boots and slightly nervous smiles as they’re making their first rounds on the grounds, horses whinnying from their trailers and coaches and mums running about making sure their competitors have all their equipment and are on time for their tests.

I had spent a big part of my life in this setting, during the season we’d compete every weekend at some venue or another, so I was in quite a nostalgic mood.

The memory train came to an abrupt halt the minute I walked into the warm-up arena, and my dreamy smile was wiped away. There it was, the thing I missed least about my time as a competition rider:
Humans putting their desires to win, to look good, to be admired above their horses welfare. What I saw in this warm-up pen was young girls and grown women shouting insults at their horses, whipping noisily, spurring every step, and brutalising their mouths.
I pictured the scene in my mind with horses that could scream, it was very loud indeed!

See, this was one of these tournaments where competitive rider careers begin, an entry-level test only event. In this pen there where probably quite a few first-timers, not unlike my own student. The very first time they ride “for something” – and it’s already there, the ambition that often kills all cooperation and harmony between horse and human.

This is not riding!

One lady stuck out to me immediately, she was riding a young, seemingly hot Haflinger gelding.

Let me rephrase – she wasn’t riding, she was straight-forward brutalising that poor horse.

Her hands would move 20 centimetres easily, pulling at an already completely rolled-up neck, while – as “good” Rollkur requires – leaning back heavily, pushing on his loins while spiking him with her spurs. For good measure he would get to feel her long whip every other stride or so.
And boy, did he still try to defend himself! Tail swishing, half-bucks, kicking. Whenever he did get his neck free, he’d toss it from side to side with wide, terrified eyes.
Surely in a few years, he’ll shut down and just give up and let her wreck his body.

Looking around in horror, trying to find a face with the same disgusted expression as mine at this sight, I realised just why it’s so hard to end this particular animal cruelty. There wasn’t any!
No, the worst part of this was that people would look on in admiration, commenting on how well he’s going and if she wouldn’t take part outside the competition today, she’d surely win. I don’t know the particular judge that day, but sadly, they might have been right. From entry level to FEI tests, this kind of “riding” gets rewarded repeatedly.

If those people obviously couldn’t see this horse screaming, couldn’t they at least see that he wasn’t “going well” at all? He was tight, his leg movements forced and jagged, his back didn’t swing at all, he carried all of his weight on his forehand, the list goes on and on… hadn’t they at least heard about the sacred rule of dressage never to ride a horse with its nose behind the vertical? Did they need a ruler to see?

wp-1475596972573.jpgSure, we’re still working on stepping under and gaining contact, but the left horse is happy and trusts her owner. What would the right one say about his?

Looking around the arena again, seeing very few pairs in harmony or at least attempting to achieve harmony together – again, an entry-level test niveau, I’m not expecting to see perfect transitions, flying changes and beautiful travers – I saw mostly young girls using their voices and whips harshly, kicking their disconnected, tied-down horses forward and pulling at reins, I realised that this lady and her poor Haflinger are local stars because she has developed enough seat, routine and biceps power to force a horse into frame.

Her riding had gone completely off track somewhere close to where these girls where with theirs today.  And once the side-reigns come off their horses, I can only pray that they accept their fate and go the hard way of actually learning how to ride. Accept the fact, that they won’t look great yet, that dressage is a long way to go and that they decide to go on this journey together with their horses, not against them.
What I wish these girls (and maybe also that lady) the most, is role models that show them what beautiful dressage looks like and what a relaxed, strong and happy horse feels like.
I hope on their way, they find real partnership with their horses and have lots of fun improving their seats, trying to get the contact right or learning more demanding movements together.

That’s what they’re worth when you stop competing… a picture my mum send me a while ago, we used to compete together.

Because after having been there, shouting at my disobedient pony back in the day, and ten years as a competition rider – with the luck of having had fantastic role models and incredible partners under saddle, I have only fully realised what it means to ride “together” with your horse in the years after, when my riding life got quieter, muddier and more focused, far away from white breeches.

Now my partner is 25, still quite fit but not immortal – I sometimes wish I would have gotten there earlier.

This is why it makes me all the happier to see how my protegee student and her mare mastered the three tests at their first tournament together. Despite of nerves, they showed a very harmonious, if not perfect, dressage test in the morning.
They would have won the following style jumping competition with the highest mark, if it hadn’t been for one little misunderstanding, and ended up winning the last time jumping test together.

No whipping, no spurring, no side reigns – just trying. Together.

I walked off the tournament grounds a bit taller than I had walked in, very proud of the two for showing what all riding, be it competing or not, is about: riding together to the best of your abilities!

On “Natural Forcemanship”

Once upon a time, there was this horse-crazy little girl who had read The Man Who Listens to Horses and since that day practised talking with horses.

To this present day, she works hard on studying them and improving her communication skills with these beautiful minds.

getting out of the saddle
Wesley loves to hear what a good boy he is!

The little girl in me is heartbroken today when she thinks of how pink and innocent this concept, put down by a cowboy named Monty Roberts, seemed to her back then.

Today, also with the use of the internet, my view of this man’s work has altered, his practices leave a bitter aftertaste, the glory of his brave new concepts is tarnished… by something critics call “Natural Forcemanship”.
The little girl would have preferred to continue idolising the horse whisperer, in blissful ignorance…

See, horses are wondrously gentle half-ton animals.
Force works on most of them in a matter of one lesson, but only with repeated abuse does it work long-term… thus the success of “Natural Forcemanship” trainers who practice abuse on varying levels of intensity to delight their two-legged clientele with “horse whispering” miracle results.
And when the mount becomes “pushy”, “disrespectful”, “aggressive” or “dominant” (my absolute favourite) once again, they call on the miracle worker again to fix it.

I want to make clear, that it is not my intention to put the following individuals on the same negative level here. These are just different examples of problematic topics among natural horsemanship (NH) training methods:

  • e.g. Clin*ton Ande*rson’s (yes, I don’t even want to add to his search hits) steel-handed Rollkur reining style and violent attitude. (This individual deserves a special place far, far away from any horses – or, in fact, any living creatures.)
  • e.g. Pat Hook’s (discipline: cutting) instructions on how to teach your horse to lay down and do other tricks – a lot of ropes around legs and straightforward forcing the horses to do tricks…
  • e.g. Monty Roberts (discipline: original horse whispering) chasing young wild-eyed horses around a round-pen, using fear to make them cooperate.
  • e.g. Pat Parelli’s (discipline: remastered horse whispering) pathetic and forceful displays of “liberty work” – rather the opposite of what working at liberty is about. Or what he did to the horse “Catwalk” in a 2010 demo in England: tying down his leg and pulling a rope over his gums in order to bridle him… gentle method? I don’t think so!


Even though it’s nothing new, the whole concept of natural horsemanship is wonderful.
In his book On Horsemanship, Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BCE) emphasises, amongst other topics such as how to train a horse, reassurance over punishment. One might argue, he was the first Natural Horsemanship trainer.
Those same principles of gentle techniques come up over and over again through the centuries by anyone who is anyone in Classical Dressage, such as the Old Masters  Antoine de Pluvinel (1555–1620 CE) and François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751), and in more recent times with Nuno Oliveira (1925–1989) and Alois Podhajsky (1898–1973) of the Vienna Riding School.

Here’s how the term “Natural Horsemanship” is described on Wikipedia, and it does sound lovely indeed, especially that last bit:

Natural horsemanship, colloquially known as horse whispering, is a collective term for a variety of horse training techniques which have seen rapid growth in popularity since the 1980s. The techniques vary in their precise tenets but generally share principles of developing a rapport with horses, using methods said to be derived from observation of the natural behavior of free-roaming horses and rejecting abusive training methods.

However, there’s several major problems with:


Many NH trainers are salesmen, with big, effective marketing machineries selling equipment and, what’s really problematic: methods – a one size fits all approach each of them has come up with that promises leisure riders and many, many inexperienced horse owners to overcome any obstacle, if only they use their equipment and method.
Well, horses come as different in interior, habits, former traumas, exterior and training level as humans do – what works on one horse might very well not work on another, it might even make your problem worse. There’s no way around a decent, gentle and experienced trainer who comes to see you and your horse in person at least once a week. No online-course, book or 2day clinic can replace the years of training that bring you and your horse together, and most of us need assistance that can adapt to our individual needs.

Showing = Money

Of course, the problem with public showing/competing and money are very much a problem of more tradition equine sports. Rollkur seems to get a 9year old to win big Grand Prix’ in Dressage (Anky van Grunsven on Blue Hors Matine), cutting corners efficiently – while taking off years of horse health at the end of their careers… but money matters, now! The same can be seen with show jumping and reining. The abuse of race horses or saddlebreds (see “Big Lick” and “soring” – warning: ugly!), the danger riders put eventing horses into… the list goes on and on… all in the name of money and fame.

Even if once a gentle method, also Natural Horsemanship showing requires these clinicians to produce miracles with horses they have never seen before in a very short period of time, the pressure of which leading to force.
The problem is with endorsements, sponsorships, phone cameras and audiences – all expecting the “method” to work on any horse these trainers get to handle – often in 30 minute periods. Everyone expects them to tame a wild horse, forgetting that it takes weeks, months and sometimes years to win a horse’s trust and motivate it to answer to your requests.


A lot of trainers seem to make their money by creating fear.
Growing up being trained several times a week by different trainers, I never once had a trainer mention over and over again how dangerous the animals we are handling are and therefore we must apply this and that method – to “keep them in check”…
Don’t get me wrong: an ill-handled horse can be dangerous, they are big and heavy, their hooves are hard and they happen to be flight animals. All I’m saying is, it is conspicuous how the whole community seems scared of the horses they work with.


The idiocy of “dominance” training/issues/practices – yes, dominance-thinking in general. Horses are not tigers where this might come in handy, they are PREY animals – and guess what we are? Right: PREDATORS
So please, next time you think in terms of “dominance” regarding your horse, remind yourself of the prey/predator situation and then forget about this word once and for all.

The big excuse

Veiling psychological force (e.g. pressuring a horse in a round pen), sometimes physical force (e.g. spores, sharp bits or just the stupid rope-whipping into their faces) or even downright abuse (e.g. as with Rollkur – no matter if it’s in Dressage or Reining) behind the mantle of “natural ways”.
Pat Parelli and others speak of “love and respect” while tying down a horse’s leg or simply forcing it into cooperation with intimidating body language, all while being cheered on.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard one of these NH trainers justify their means by citing the example of horses in a herd biting and kicking each other and that this is the “natural” way of correcting your horse. C’mon! Your horse knows very well that you are NOT another horse, how dim do you think they are? Secondly, be glad it doesn’t – because then all your gloomy talk might come true and your horse will, in fact, become dangerous, should they choose to reply in kind.

The “guru” status

Fans blindly following along like lemmings, accepting each word as ultimate truth, ceasing to question and an inability to adapt to a horse’s individual personality and training needs as a result.
An extreme example: the aforementioned Australian reining and horse-abuse media star who is hugely popular and successful, especially among women leisure Western riders/trail riders, can afford to publicly insult just this exact target group, repeatedly. Without losing “followers” or sponsorship contracts…

Trust your gut

Take a stance and be firm with bullying cowboy “trainers”. Think of your horse.

Just LOOK at the methods! Go on youtube and watch videos of the gurus I’ve mentioned performing “miracles”. Or if you chose to work with a natural horsemanship trainer, watch them work with your horse very critically. Do you like what you see? Does it look harmonious? Is the horse happy and content?

If yes, congratulations! You seemed to have found a trainer that deserves to call themselves a “natural horseman/woman”. Of course, there is plenty of good ones too: kind, intelligent and gentle people that choose not to work with force and fear and are able to help you overcome difficulties with some creative training techniques.

If not, if you see the whites in your horse’s eye, if it is tense and constantly on its toes, if you watch them “wiggle” the rope around its head, with the metal hook slapping against its jaw, head held high in fear and confusion… if it gets chased around small confined spaces for no apparent reason, if your trainer talks a lot about dominance, punishment and danger, then your “natural horsemanship” trainer is nothing more than a common bully.
Then go with your guts and fire them. If it’s not a harmonious picture, it’s probably not what you wanted for your horse in the first place.



An ode to the the mature horse

… or the folly of buying youngsters.

Growing up in equestrian sports stables, I took it as a given – almost an unwritten rule – that less experienced riders, leisure riders and especially beginners start out on a mature horse, a so-called “school master”, and only very good riders who were naturally calm leadership personalities would start and train a young horse.
It was unthinkable even for a passable rider to buy a young horse…

Nowadays I’ve noticed a lot of okay leisure riders and even beginners are buying young, sometimes even green horses. Sure, sometimes a horse just comes along, they are rescued or inherited or somehow fall into their owner’s lap – that’s not the ones I’m talking about, I’m talking about the conscious decision to buy a green 3-year old.

In my new world of open-paddock herd stables and trail riding I meet many riders who would probably be a lot happier in their hobby with a mature horse, rather than the youngster they are often struggling with.

Training a young horse requires not only skill, but also infinite patience, true and natural calmness and quite a bit of fearlessness at times.

Should you be thinking of buying a young horse, ask yourself:

  • Am I really skilled enough for the job? Can I gymnasticise a horse enough in hand, on the lunge and later under saddle so it will be strong enough to carry me for many years to come?
  • Am I a patient and calm person? Can I explain the same point over and over again without getting angry? Will I lose my temper at inexplicable jumpiness or lack of concentration?
  • Am I brave enough? Can I handle the occasional bucking, dashing and jumping?

I know I talk about Wesley a lot, my apologies should I bore you with it, but even my human partner knows that this horse is the love of my life, as it had been for my mother before me. People around me know I can’t help and (to be perfectly honest) love to brag about him.
He is such a good boy, so motivated and he’s managed to rekindle the little flame I was hardly aware of over the 6 years I hadn’t sat on horseback, in fact he turned it into a raging fire.
The fire of passion, a fiercely burning love for these graceful, proud and sensitive animals.

After breaking Wesley out of retirement and having him like my own horse (I can hear my mum protesting here: “but he’s MY precious!”) for the past two years, it now burns inside again with an almost child-like intensity.

I have this old boy to thank for that.

rain protection.jpg

He makes me laugh when he starts completely overacting because I seemingly don’t get the hint that he would much prefer to munch on that patch of grass before we start doing anything, as if I were not only dumb but also deaf and blind.

He actually figured out to get the entire stable to work for him.
There’s Gundi, our stable’s good soul, he directs her to whatever location he’d like to take this morning’s hay, preferably away from the others so he can eat in peace and quiet.
Then there’s Gaby, his best buddy’s human, who he swindles whenever she looks his way, complaining he hasn’t had any oats at all for ages – so long until she gives in and feeds him, too.

This one works with almost anyone. Why?

Because he’s such a good communicator! In his long life with humans he’s figured us out and knows how to get his point across, even to us insensitive and obviously slightly challenged beings on two legs. He simply shouts a bit louder at us.

And that’s my point exactly. An older horse can bridge the communication gap human and horse inevitably encounter and will do so, because it has worked in his favour in the past.

A young horse still isn’t sure what to think of us and all these things we ask of him, he has no idea, why we don’t seem to understand if he’s trying to say, “I can’t concentrate any more.”, “I miss my herd.”, “I am tired.” or “My teeth are growing and my mouth hurts.” – and of course, there is the famous “Oh look, a butterfly!”.


That same butterfly will be serenely ignored by an older horse who is currently on the job with his human.

Now, let me define what I mean by “young” and “older” for you:
When I say “young” horse I am talking about anything up to 6 or 7 years old, a mature horse would be between 8 and 14years old – that’s when horses are usually the most expensive because they are fully trained and have usually quieted down enough to make for easy companions.

In the sports world, a 10 – 12year old horse would probably be at the peak of its performance years and therefore the most valuable.

An older horse, and this depends heavily on size, breed and work load, will be around 17 – 20+. Many horses can be ridden well into their twenties, we share our stable with a 34year old Icelandic pony who is still happy to go on trail rides.

Our oldest senior Bangsi at 34 (Happy Birthday!) still enjoys going on rides.

A well cared-for horse will live up to 25 – 35 years, usually the smaller – the longer they live.

Sure, old horses get some common health issues such as arthritis in the legs rather often, but that’s not a “no riding” diagnosis at all (unless your horse shows arthritis in the back). In fact, an arthritic horse needs regular exercise to keep him from pain. They do need a little longer for their warm-up phase, however, 20 – 30 minutes of walking will loosen them up and then they’ll be as fresh as they used to be.

Another common issue in an older horse – usually north of 20 – is that their hearts aren’t as strong any more and that they dehydrate easily. Both issues show themselves on hot days, which means to let them rest that day and not ride or taking them on a round in the cool of the early morning hours instead. For the weakened heart there’s herbs that can help, for example hawthorn or rose hip and your vet has ways to supplement your older buddy.

An older horse needs to get its teeth checked (and with some also filed) each year and with some oldies digestion gets less efficient and they might need to eat more hay simply because they also eat slower. You might need to start feeding fatteners, such as corn.

And what can definitely be said is that there’s a lot of brushing with an oldie in winter! Their coats get thick and shaggy and they take longer to shed it in spring.

After the warning, here come the benefits of an older horse:

What’s probably the biggest advantage is that older horses are more gentle and sensitive towards others, especially us humans and they know how to figure us out.
A horse with some grey showing around their eyes will be calmer and much more reliable out in the country. This makes them predestined for beginners, fearful riders or junior riders.
All oldies I know are great with children, they watch out for them when the little ones groom them, they are patient under saddle with their light-weight riders and they don’t mind the noise and general hubbub that comes with kids.

With some, like Wesley, I suspect they really love all the attention they get from children.

Out of their prime ex-athletes come cheap and superbly trained. It is a privilege to sit on a well-ridden horse, even if you mostly go out on trail rides. You will notice how much easier it is to manoeuvre them, change gaits and speed or stop them when necessary. And for the rider who is looking to improve his/her riding skills, those old schoolmasters will make you better at giving your aids at the right time and with the right dosage.

An older horse will give its all just to show he still wants to be picked up for a ride, I notice this often, not only with my oldie, but with all of them. The ones that don’t get picked any more would still try to smuggle themselves out with us or volunteer to do stretching exercises when I do them with Wesley in the paddock. They actually queue up!

A horse is made to move and even when they’re older and stiffer, they still want to stretch their legs, get some exercise and most importantly some intellectual stimuli. The joy of movement, pride in work and a sense of being important doesn’t go away.
It is a shame that so many ex-competition horses just get put away on some meadow when they could have a fun second career as a leisure horse with someone who gives them the attention they deserve.

A horse that has passed their 20th birthday isn’t necessarily “old” yet, in fact, a horse that has been kept and exercised well all its life will still be strong and athletic.


At Vienna riding school they start their horses at 4 or 5 years old, then slowly but systematically train them to become the top-performers we see showing the famous “airs above the ground”.
Their Lippizaner stallions are only fully trained at 10 years old – the starting point of their pro career and do not reach retirement age before they are 25 – 28.
After they move back to their birthplace in the Austrian Alps, many still get ridden then.

I can only recommend an older horse, spending time with an animal that has been trained superbly, can communicate effortlessly with you and is absolutely bullet-proof is an absolute joy and a privilege every single day.

There’s so much older horses can teach us, they become so-called schoolmasters and subtely train us to be better riders and better horse-people in general. They have the grace and understanding to forgive mistakes their riders make, something a young horse simply can’t – it doesn’t even know you just made a mistake.

An older horse is not only wise, but also confident and patient with their human – and in the end, isn’t that what we all want from our equestrian companions?

To recap: For most beginners and many pleasure riders (the ones I’ve met anyway) the best buying age of their companion would be 15 years of age. Don’t listen to people that tell you a horse is only worth anything under the age of 15, in fact that’s when they get really good!


The importance of praise

The other day I was doing some, as I call it “senior dressage” training with Wesley in the arena and another horse trainer who’s professional opinion I hold in high regard was watching and commented on how hard the old boy is still trying, positively “marching” for me. Of course, this made me grow a few centimetres in my saddle – but most notably, Wesley really started showing off then, throwing his legs in an extended trot and swinging his back like a youngster.

This little exchange of nicety between two horse trainers made me think about why an arthritic 25-year old would still give his all to please me.

I’ve come to the conclusion, that he must think he still is a super star. Simply because I treat him like one.
I make a point of being respectful and polite with him, treat him with pride, love and trust and probably most importantly praise him profusely whenever I can.

With an oldie (just as with a youngster) it is also very important not to fatigue them, doing long warm-ups, keeping sessions at about 30 – 50 minutes max. – depending on how he’s feeling on that particular day – and doing lots of interval work with very short burst of demanding manoeuvres and lots of stretching times in between.

I have never given a lesson and rarely watched anyone work with their horses where I wasn’t constantly saying (in the latter case usually thinking) “Praise your horse more!”. For some reason humans seem to have a filter in the head that sorts out everything positive and almost solely concentrates on the negative. It almost seems like they don’t see their horse trying for them: reaching a bit further, balancing themselves better, being a bit braver around spooky stuff, being more attentive, etc.
The main problem with this is that it’s not only unfair to ourselves, criticising our every move/word/thought, but it is hugely unfair to the horses we work with.

Try and put yourselves into your horse’s shoes:

“My human comes from time to time, pulls me out, grooms and saddles me and then he/she asks me for tricks.”
(Dressage, jumping, flying changes, smooth transitions, being brave as a lion on the trail, whatever it is – to your horse it’s probably all just tricks.)

Now pause for a moment and think of your horse and what it would say about you and doing “tricks” for you.

Is your horse going to say, “She’s alright, but she asks me things I don’t understand and then I’m confused and she’s unhappy – even though I try my best.”?
I think a lot of horses out there would say that. Because they are trained inconsistently and simply not praised enough for trying or even executing the right thing.

Or is your horse going to say, “She’s great, we do tricks together and she gets super-excited when I get it right. I think tricks are fun!”

Now that’s what everyone would want their horse to say about them. How do we get there? By simply being consistent with our aids, routines and especially with our praise.

I usually say to my student: Correct very little, praise a lot – praise so much and even the little things until you feel like an idiot.

It is our job to motivate our horses to give their all for us, if we fail to motivate and positively excite them, why should they even leave the barn with us?

Another reason for praising frequently and silly Wesleyenthusiastically is it makes for confident, bullet-proof horses. I’m sure Wesley would say about himself: “I am a really good boy, I get all tricks right most of the time and my human has fun with me.”
He knows for a fact he’s a good boy, since he get’s praised constantly – he receives that feedback, resulting in confidence. Does your horse get enough positive feedback?

Even though Wesley is very gentle and low in herd hierarchy, he is a very confident horse, always the first to pass a scary new object on the trail, no trouble with new things, he even wanted to see inside the beer tent they recently put up near his stable, other horses wouldn’t even go near and wanted nothing to do with it.

It’s easy for him to be brave, nothing bad ever happened to him, going out with humans is a fun diversion from paddock life and they always bring him back home save.

Horses are incredible animals – they will try and please their riders at all cost, even if they are in pain or haven’t always been treated kindly by humans.

Here’s an example of a young mare I’ve been helping to train for a while. Her owner bought her at the young age of five, it was evident that she hadn’t done much before. She would accept saddle and rider without a problem and could go straight lines in all three gaits fairly well – so I assumed she had been standing on a paddock most of her life, been taken out for a hack every now and then, but had never received proper training.

This particular horse is very delicately build, we assume half quarter-horse / half Arabian, rather small, slender and when she first arrived with next to no muscles in her back, hind quarters and neck.

Her new owner doesn’t have much experience with training horses, so she gave her to a Western trainer in our area. Now, this trainer (for whatever reason) deemed her fit to be ridden fully five times a week. So this young girl, after having been moved out of her quiet paddock life, was immediately started out to be ridden, she spent two months under an ill-fitting and heavy Western saddle and a harsh rider that asked way to much of her.

Until the little mare had had enough and just couldn’t be a good girl anymore. She started bucking or just laying down with a rider on top, rearing in hand and generally not behaving very well. It had gone so far that her new owner was starting to get afraid of her.
This is when her owner turned to me for advice and we changed her saddle to a much better fitting and lighter English jumping saddle. We trained her in hand and on the lunge for two months before starting to ride her again.

And she responded beautifully to a positive training approach, she quickly learned to lead well, tried her hardest to understand and execute new moves such as leg yields and generally turned into a gentle and motivated little horsey.

Turned out, we still underestimated how bad her muscle sores had become from the abrupt and overwhelming training she had received, in addition there was often not enough time to keep the intervals between groundwork sessions short enough to build muscle mass. She started to refuse galloping on the left, even though she still seemed to be very motivated and trying hard to please her handler with whatever else we asked from her.
So we stopped riding her again to wait until she can be checked out by a vet and treated by an osteopath. Last week the vet had suspected the worst: “kissing spines”! Her owner and I were devastated!
But thankfully the x-rays showed nothing, so we could breathe easy and continue the investigation. The osteopath assessed and treated the little mare and explained how she is just extremely sore and tight in her back muscles and needs more ground training to loosen her up again and build strong muscles for riding. Happy to have an agenda now, her training goes on!

This little mare impressed me hugely, by being such a good girl and trying hard to please us humans even though she was just not capable yet of carrying a rider. And this is why it’s so important to listen to your horse and have it checked out as soon as their behaviour changes. She just tried to tell us about her back pains!

Another example is a former client’s Shetland pony mare. This client had bought the pony at 5 years old for her 6-year old daughter as a riding pony.

Pony and girl.jpg

The little pony had had a rough life before on a farm where she would carry around different children all day in a riding school and would even be rented out for trail walks with inexperienced and often incompetent parents leading the little horses. Reportedly, she even had to give birth to a foal with her saddle still on!
At six years old, when I met her, it quickly became apparent that she didn’t like adults with whips in their hands. In fact, she would attack you straight on when you tried to lunge her with a whip in hand to defend herself – brave little girl!

She wasn’t what you would call an easy children’s pony. She was still very young and liked to run, she would buck on the lunge like a rodeo horse and was spooky out on the trail.

I gave riding lessons to the little girl who is her human and it would amaze me every single time how that little mare seemed to become a different horse once the adults quit chasing her in circles and it was time for her human to mount her. Even on very wild days, she would be visibly relieved when her little girl approached for her riding lesson and would proudly carry her around the arena, always on her best behaviour.

The little mare loved her child, probably simply because the child loved her – with an unconditional intensity and honesty only children can love their pets with. That little girl was remarkably patient with her little proud horse and patted and praised her all the time, so it was an easy choice for the little mare to be a good girl.

Try and be more like a child with its pet, love it and praise it as much as you can.

After all, as a child you probably though of horses as these magical, proud creatures majestically galloping over meadows, flashing their tails and showing off.
Let’s try and give our horses back the dignity they deserve! A horse wants to be proud and feel good about itself just as much as we do. Next time you work with your horse, look at it with a child’s awe, be proud of how it moves and praise it for every little thing it does right – you’ll see, it’ll work wonders on your buddy’s motivation and he’ll work even harder.

A great way the famous circus artiste Fredy Knie turns a misunderstanding or botched move into positive reinforcement is by way of what he calls “counter exercises” – basically, instead of punishing the horse, he asks it to do something else for him, something it already knows well and that gives him the opportunity to praise it. Then he continues practising the new move the next day.

Fredy Knie training one of his white stallions from the ground.

There’s nothing you can ever do wrong with praising, only watch out to be prompt with it – getting a treat out of your breeches while you are riding and reaching over to give it to him will probably take way too long. In groundwork, treats can be immensely useful.

Praise can be a a whispered “Good boy!” from the saddle while you are riding manoeuvres, not to get distracted or risk the moment from falling apart. It may be a reassuring scratch on the withers. It can also be dropping the reins and enthusiastically patting your horse on the neck, praising it loudly for a big thing: like a new move executed right for the first time.
Or it can mean, big pats, followed by getting out of the saddle (the ultimate relief) and more patting and scratching and cooing. The cool-down can also be done on foot when your horse has just shown extraordinary stuff. And your horse will feel like a star!


I always try to keep Gustav Steinbrecht’s words in mind when training horses: “Merke dir wohl, Fortschritt macht dein Pferd nur wenn du auf gutem Fuße mit ihm stehst.” – which translates roughly to: “Remember well, your horse will only make progress if you are on good terms with him.” – from his book “The Gymnasium of the horse”.

The two things to insist on with your horse

Your horse is a happy and willing partner when he/she decides you are a competent leader.
This means you are clear & concise, confident, fair and consequent.
The following points as well as exercises to improve them will help you establish this position.

Two things is all we ever really have to insist on. This is the foundation of working safely with your horse, nobody wants to be jumped into or run over.

These are especially two points a young horse needs to learn.

Number 1: Personal space20160322_084634.jpg

young horses vs. older horses

Personal space issues in humans are uncomfortable and sometimes annoying, in horses they are flat-out dangerous. A horse that does not respect your personal space might easily jump into you when spooked, run you over or step on your feet – not a great experience!

Now, young horses tend to crowd whomever they are with, they are not balanced and confident yet and they are looking for protection with a human. Don’t be flattered!
It is very important for your safety as well as your young partner’s confidence that they are comfortable walking next to you at a defined distance or that you can let them stand a few feet away from you while you are having a chat and are possibly not paying too much attention to your buddy with the hard hooves.

Most older horses are much more comfortable with a bit more distance to their humans, as well as with their horse buddies in the herd. However, it’s important they learn that early on.IMG-20151006-WA0013

Here’s some tricks to help you practising personal space etiquette:

Use a jumping or dressage whip to point at their inner front shoulder to keep it away from you when they’re next to you.

Wiggling the rope or reins (of course, without pulling on the bit if you use one) usually helps when you are standing in front of them.

And as always when working with horses: check and use your body language. Straightening your spine and turning your pelvis towards your horse (“confronting it”) will drive it away. Moving pelvis and shoulders away, invites them in with us.

What to watch out for when working or playing at liberty and lunging is always that inner front shoulder. Be attentive and quick to not let the inner front shoulder collapse inwards to you, keep it away with your body or a short whip to work savely and harmoniously together.

Exercises to practice this:

On the lead rope: Define a position you want your horse to walk in. I like walking in the partner position, alongside their neck, but in front of their shoulders. This way I’m in the driver’s seat but I can still see their ears and eyes and react fast to whatever might demand my attention.

Then make sure you can walk with your horse at a comfortable distance you have defined, practice this with stops and starts, turning left and right. Again, use your arms or a whip to keep them at a distance, also through the turns. Praise your horse when it comes into the position you asked for.

Now try and stop your horse and walk a few meters in front of it, as far as the rope let’s you. Praise them when remain in their spot. When they come after you and too close, stop and back them up. Backing up is especially useful for horses that tend to take over the lead position when they get nervous.


And don’t forget to praise your horse for everything it does you ask for! Your horse should be looking for praise.

At liberty: Play the game “your spot – my spot”. This means you let your horse walk around an enclosed arena or round pen at liberty, leaving it alone. Once it’s standing in a spot, calmly walk up to it and drive it gently away from that spot to claim it. Then stand there for a while. Herd leaders do this all the time to assert their position. Just be careful to not chase your horse away, chasing is always counter-productive with a flight animal.

“Herding”: Move that horse! Herding at liberty is great fun and an amazing way to learn about how your body language influences your horses movement. In an enclosed area you start moving your horse forward from behind (not directly behind!) at a save distance, for this you use “confronting” or driving body language, you might also use a whip with a rather calm horse.

Again, it’s important your horse doesn’t get nervous, panicky or stressed-out, do not chase it! Start out doing this exercise in the walk only.

Number 2:  Paying Attention

“Hey, I’m talking to you!”

Do you say this one often? I know I certainly do!

Why do I get on my horses case so much with this one? It’s again a safety issue as well as a curtsey I expect from a partner.

See, a horse that is completely concentrated on something else, maybe a buddy somewhere on the horizon (still amazes me how interesting another horse is!), a scary noise in the woods or just the big red bucket full of yummy muesli – I’m shut out.

And in this one case, I always recommend demanding your horse’s attention. I never demand anything in training, I ask politely and try again if something doesn’t work. But I do demand a horse’s attention. And when I finally wrestle it back, I praise him/her for it profusely.

You have you horses attention when at least one ear and one eye are with you and their head bends over to you to see what you want. Vocal cues are vital here!IMG-20151006-WA0007

I’ve made the experience with young horses that their attention span is just very short, so diverting them usually works great when they are very concentrated on some suspicious activity. Just asking them to back up, do a few turns or a few sideways steps usually does the trick.

With older horses on the other hand, I tend to lose their attention while practising some trick, for example. It’s just that a young horse wants to do stuff with you all the time, an older horse might think “it’s been 5 Minutes and my human still hasn’t gotten the message”. That’s why I decided to use treats when practising with my oldie on the ground, it keeps him on the task and he’s polite enough not to wrestle them from me.
I can’t recommend treats with pushy horses, though. That way lies trouble!

With the pushier ones I wiggle my whip in front of them (all horses I train know not to fear the whip, so they don’t panic when I do this) until they look at me, then praise them.

These solutions on how to get back your horses attention need to work effortlessly when in routine surroundings, because you’ll really need to be able to break the spell when you’re out and about on the trail or riding alongside a busy road.

Your message should be: “Yes, the tiger is scary, but please don’t forget I’m around.”

Exercises to practice this:

Stopping when asked: being safe on the ground, in the saddle and especially on the trail.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that your horse stops when you ask it to. If this doesn’t work when all is sweet, how do you think it’s going to go out in the country with a wire wrapped around your buddy’s hoof?

Ground exercises that require your horse’s brain: This is a great way to start a training session and make sure your horse is with you. For example, bends and turns, leg yields, sideways steps, stops and starts. Be very vocal when demanding attention that is elsewhere. Do not praise your horse for jumping around, do praise it for giving you back their attention immediately!