Useful Information to have when schooling horses

Useful Information to Have when Schooling a Horse (2019)

Part I – Understanding the Horse


This article has been divided into four parts for easier reading. However; the following caveat applies: if all you want to do with a horse is learn how not to fall off, look good while doing it, and have some laughs with a few of your friends, read no further. If, however, you want to learn how to improve your horsemanship (a life-long endeavor), read on. As a well-respected western clinician used to say, “The first thing you need to know is the last thing you will end up learning.”

The Horse’s Mind

The first thing that you should concern yourself with is the horse’s mind and what affects it. The horse’s brain is much more a motor and sensory organ   than it is a thinking one (although he does that also, but to a lesser degree). Horses learn by habit. They learn a motor skill in order to acquire a procedure for operating in this world.

The Horse’s Thoughts

A thought weighs nothing – but there is nothing heavier than a thought that    the horse doesn’t want to let go of. So, when the horse is with us it must be taught that it has to keep its thoughts with us at all times. In other words, you want to keep the horse’s brain between the reins so you can put a thought where you want it. It is well to remember that a horse that can’t flee physically will try to flee mentally. If you can’t get the horse’s attention back between the reins so you can direct it where you want it, you will end up having nothing but a dangerous situation that you will have to somehow overcome.

Dopamine Release

Central to the learning process is the horse’s ability to predict positive   feedback, which will give it a dopamine release. This is an important neurotransmitter associated with reinforcement/reward and motor movement. We would like to think that dopamine is only released when the horse learns something positive, but this is not necessarily so. Horses do not discriminate between good and bad learning. They will search for the dopamine release regardless of how people interpret their actions. So, if we release pressure on a horse at the wrong time, the horse will receive a dopamine release and this will reinforce his behavior as being correct. For example, if someone is trying to put a bridle on a horse and the horse keeps raising its head or turning it away and the individual stops the effort of trying to bridle the horse, the horse will get his release. In other words, we will have taught the horse the opposite of what we wanted to teach him; namely to accept having the bridle put on him. So be clear about what you want to have the horse learn or else you will have a lot of ‘cleaning up’ to do to fix the problem that you created.


The horse is born ‘ready to go’ with the ability to stand up quickly and move. It is the process of myelination that helps this happen. Myelin is a fatty substance that works as an insulator covering nerve fibers which transmit information and are laid down in extensive pathways throughout the   brain.

These pathways are like millions of small wires carrying electrochemical messages and the myelin insulation on these nerve fibers allows information to travel at an extremely high rate of speed compared to non-insulated fibers. The development of myelin starts with motor roots because movement is critical to the horse’s survival followed by covering the nerve fibers for sensations. Also, myelin is permanent; it cannot be erased.

What Does All This Mean to Someone Working with the   Horse?

It means that all information transmitted to the horse (good or bad) is in his brain forever.  So, if you don’t know what you are doing with a horse, don’t try to improvise – it will confuse the horse and teach him something you did not want him to learn. Additionally, if what you are doing with the horse is not effective, discontinue it until you have acquired the required knowledge.  And the more you do something incorrectly, the faster the horse will learn it.  Is it possible for the bad information to be overcome? Yes, providing good information to the horse will cause myelin to also wrap around the nerve fibers over the myelin already covering the bad information and over time and extensive effort the bad information that the horse already has (and will not disappear) will be suppressed by the new myelin which will be wrapped around the good information. But, if bad information is, once again, given to the horse in a like situation as before, he will revert to what he did previously to survive.

Makeup of the Horse

Horses are composed of three elements: physical, mental, and emotional (and a fourth part; a spirit or soul if that is within your belief system). Most people spend the majority of their riding time at the walk and the trot and very little time at the canter. When you work at the walk and the trot, the horse is engaged physically and mentally. But when you canter the horse, the third part of the horse is activated – namely, his emotions. Horses usually canter when they are running away from something or when they are at play. The adrenaline flows and the heartbeat quickens. The rider must teach the horse to control his emotions at the canter (bring it ‘up’ and bring it ‘down’). To do otherwise is not safe or practical.

PART II – Things to Consider when Educating the Horse

A Natural Outline for the Horse for Efficient Schooling

It is a major error in the primary stages of schooling young horses (and also older horses that are in a ‘reprogramming’ stage) to ask for anything other than a natural outline. This natural outline gives the horse full freedom of movement of all his body parts.


The most efficient outline for the horse’s forehand in teaching all gymnastic movements is one where the angle of the horse’s head and the angle of its shoulders are the same. The mouth should be level with the point of the shoulders and the middle of the neck should be level with your wrists. The poll should be above the withers and the nose positioned in front of the vertical. The poll should be ‘open’ and not be flexed.


The most efficient outline for the hindquarters is one where the hind legs step up under the mass of the horse’s body; that is, the joints of the haunches flex and bend longitudinally and laterally so that the pelvis tips under providing weight relief for the shoulders.

Thoughts about Educating the Horse

Horses are prey animals. Their ‘ON’ button is always on. They are always trying to interpret your every move and behave accordingly – so be careful about what you are doing when you are in their presence.

If you do not have specific exercises and/ or specific equipment designated to address specific problems, then you may be forced to ride your horse harder than necessary to overcome whatever you are struggling with.

Time and form are important; teach the horse the form, give him time to think, and then the speed will come by itself.

When ignorance is in the saddle, the horse is being trained to be awkward and resistant.

Never make a big deal out of anything with the horse because he remembers the big deals.

For all movements such as: circles, obliques, isolations, reverse arcs, etc. try and place the horse’s head over its inside (or outside) knee as a point of reference.

Regardless of what you are doing horseback, know this: that for the horse to move a foot, the first thing he must do is redistribute his weight so he is not standing on the part that he is asked to move.

When you see someone climb on a horse and the first thing they do is start to see-saw his mouth and wag his head back and forth then generally that’s about all they have to offer the horse along with the usual pulling and kicking.

When you become aware of the horse’s movements of the forehand, the hindquarters, and the back, then you will recognize the most suitable moment to apply the aids.

If a horse is doing something you didn’t ask him to do or want him to do or he doesn’t do something that you ask him to do, don’t make a big deal out of it. Glory in the opportunity that he has provided to you for a ‘teaching moment’ so that you can clarify and enhance his education

In order to resolve a problem in your training then you have to go back to the point where it started.

When things aren’t working out, always come back to the walk, think about what part of your explanation the horse does not understand and ask again.  The walk is the better gait to do this in rather than trying to do it at the trot or canter which may bring too much fatigue into the mix too quickly before you get the problem resolved.

Fatigue can cause a horse to struggle mentally. The walk can help remove that factor from the equation.

NUNO OLIVEIRA is quoted as saying that the walk is the “mother of all gaits” and that: ” In a long life spent working with horses, I have never yet seen any enjoyable work carried out that has not been prepared by the walk.”

Touching and caressing a spot in front of the horse’s withers helps instill a sense of calm. There are nerve bundles that come together in that little dip between the withers and the beginning of the neck.

One of the biggest voids in modern horsemanship, either through ignorance or neglect, is the failure to mobilize the horse’s shoulders.

Every day the horse wants to know who is in charge and he may not want to know that you are in charge. But he is definitely going to ask. Maybe he will ask in a subtle way at first and then in a not so subtle way later on. A lot depends on your answers to his questions. But once they are OK with knowing that you are in charge then things seem to progress.

Horses should follow directions, take instructions, and wait. They should learn to be ‘good little soldiers’. However, we are not looking for a slave, but for an· associate.

To make a mental change in the horse will generally first require a physical change.

What you teach a horse today may not show up till tomorrow.

Without gymnastic exercises to loosen a horse’s mind you lose time in your daily schooling.

Once you can find your way into a horse’s mind and can influence it then the rest is mainly a fitness program.

Modification of the horse’s balance has a lot to do with the forehand handling what the hindquarters send its way.

Make sure that you understand that getting a horse to do something and getting a horse to learn something are different. Just because you get horses to do something doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them to do it. But it can be the beginning of the learning process.

And also understand that getting a horse to do something at a weekend clinic has gotten a lot of people whacked when they neglected to revisit it again when they got home.

Because of ‘sketchy’ work on the ground, some horses are already in a bad mood when you start them under saddle.

The readiness of the horse to cooperate with the rider can be fleeting. Try not to be on the cell phone when it comes around. A missed opportunity would be like trying to fix a leaky pipe after the basement is flooded.

A horse, in resisting a rider, cannot contract a single muscle without simultaneously contracting its jaw.

PART III – The Education of the Rider

Things to Think About to Enhance Your Knowledge Base

“You must own the ride and ride every stride or else the horse will take you for a ride” – Jim Reilly

“When you are astride a horse it makes you feel greater than when you are afoot – don’t squander it” – Jim Reilly

If you want to improve your horsemanship abilities, read and study dressage before it became a sport.

You need to give a lot of thought to the order in which you teach things to a horse. GUSTAV STEINBRECHT says”… (The training exercises should) all follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever interfere with the relationship between horse and rider.”

Learn to be technically sound. Some riders experience lack of progress even after years of dedicated practice. NUNO OLIVEIRA, From an Old Master Trainer to Young Trainers, said, “In all Arts the artist learns the technique, all the details of that technique, and now he makes his masterpiece, which is a result of all that technique with love.”

All the natural talent in the world is of limited value if you don’t understand technique and the use of your equipment.

Believe everything a person tells you about their horse. But, more importantly, also believe everything the horse tells you. Of the two, only one has no capability to lie.

Try riding with 1/ 3 of your weight in each stirrup and 1/ 3 of your weight in your seat for equal balance. This way any added weight in these areas will be felt by the horse and can be used as an aid.

If you put more weight on your big toe, it will close your leg on the horse’s flank and, conversely, if you put more weight on your little toe, your leg will be more ‘soft’ or ’rounded’ against the horse’s flank. This is accomplished through ankle movement

If someone is riding a horse that is radically bent at the base of the neck, with   its nostril behind the eyeball or its head pulled around to the rider’s knee, then either that person is a really clever rider who is going to make something good out of that or a really clueless rider who thinks that they already have.

Position and power don’t equate to the same thing. You may look like a ‘Kodak Moment’ while horseback (impressive though it may be) but be without influence. Power, on the other hand, comes through inner awareness and is the ability to use your aids subtly, quietly, clearly, precisely, and effectively (but without force) to activate the necessary response from the horse.

If you’re stepping on the ‘gas pedal’ for acceleration, don’t pull on the ‘brake’ at the same time. Conversely, when applying the ‘brake’ let off on the ‘gas pedal.’

Make sure that you make your intentions clear. Horses aren’t crazy about guessing and when they have to it is usually going to be in their favor, not yours.

Try to teach more than you try to prevent.

Ask politely ONCE. If the horse does not ‘pick up the phone’ then you may have to turn up the volume.

Aids do not maintain, they create. Then you leave the horse alone and when whatever you created goes away, then you recreate it.

Leg pressure directed onto a horse’s hind leg when it is on the ground (the hip will be in an ‘up’ position but starting to move downward and backward) means more push/ thrust from that leg.

Leg pressure directed onto a horse’s hind leg when it is in the air (the hip will be in a ‘down’ position but starting to move up and forward) means more stepping under/ engagement with that leg.

Touch with the leg, then release and touch again as many times as is necessary.

Try to substitute your inside leg for your inside hand to bend the horse. But this won’t work too well if you are not setting the horse’s outside shoulder back.

You should be able to push your horse, whether it is to the base of a fence or the head of a cow. In either case, if you continually clamp the horse with your legs, you will either wind up with more horse in your hand than you can regulate when you get there or one that is ducking behind the bridle and shutting down.

The rider’s legs send the horse to the hand; the whip sends the horse to the leg; and the spur lets you be specific.

When turning the horse, try softening the outside rein while holding the inside rein steady instead of using the inside rein as the signal to turn.

A rider who is not technically sound limits his/her ability to be specific.

If the rider will fix the back end of the horse, then that, in turn, will fix the front end, but fixing the back end has nothing to do with pushing more horse into your hands than you can regulate.

A riding instructor may be able to critique your position, tell you an appropriate way to ride a dressage test or negotiate a course of fences, but they may have no idea about how to train a horse. Make sure that you know the difference when selecting someone to provide assistance to you.

If a riding instructor (teacher, clinician, or whatever other title they have self-­ ordained themselves with) does not occasionally take the opportunity to ride your horse to determine if the instruction to you is being carried out correctly by the horse through what he/ she is feeling, it could be because that person is not technically proficient enough to feel what is going on and therefore cannot correct any faults encountered or instruct you as what to do either.

If you continually try to provide a stress-free environment for a horse, it will make things go much smoother – until it quits working.

If someone tells you that they have already ’round-penned’ a horse, you should get an uneasy feeling. ‘Round-penning’ versus ground work are mutually exclusive endeavors. Make sure you know the difference, but don’t make ground work your life’s work. Get it in place and move on.

Some types of ground work on horses are invaluable and expedite all that you do and some types of ground work can take all the ‘forward’ out of the horse before you ever throw a leg over them.

If you are lunging a horse and he is dragging you around, then you either need to rethink your program or put on some more weight.

The outline that you lunge the horse in should be in accordance with its stage of training.

When lunging a young horse, it can be good to draw him in close to where he is struggling and then let him immediately enlarge

With horses that have insufficient strength and balance, ride more with a half­ seat and quit sitting so deep (a full seat) and driving with the legs.

There are lots of reasons that a horse ‘checks out’ mentally; try not to be one of them.

When teaching a horse, a new lesson, do a little bit often and a lot seldom until the lesson is learned.

When doing turnarounds, ‘load’ the inside stirrup (put more weight into your inside stirrup when the horse’s inside hip is in the ‘up’ position because the inside leg will be on the ground under the mass of the body to support the horse).

PART IV – Other Important Considerations


Gaining accessibility to the horse’s hindquarters and shoulders in order to maximize their mobility is one of the keys to riding. It is one of the forgotten aspects of equitation. To gain it you want to practice the maneuver of riding the back end of the horse around the front end and the front end of the horse around the back end.

You want the horses inside hind foot to step inward toward the mass of his body (perhaps a half a hoof or so) and the horses outside hind foot not to step wide.

The horse’s response to all the rider’s leg and hand signals is dependent on the rider’s positioning of his/her weight and the correctness of his/her seat.

Executing Turns

When turning, ride the outside of the horse around the inside of the horse. Do not ‘pull’ the horse over with the inside rein? Use the 2nd rein effect (the neck rein) with the outside rein (do not cross the horse’s mane with your hand) by touching the horse’s neck, and, if necessary, slightly moving it toward the horse’s ear and drive with your outside leg

When the horse’s inside ear starts to move laterally then it should ‘pull’ the top of his outside shoulder with it. Another way to look at it is that the horses outside ear should move no farther than his withers (or your belly button) before his outside shoulder moves.

The Value of Transitions

It is better to do lots of transitions within a gait than from gait to gait. It is better to do it this way so that you don’t prematurely drive more horse into your hand than you can adequately controls and thereby cause resistances.  SO, you want to practice lots of ‘big’ walk to ‘little’ walk to ‘big’ walk and ‘big’ trot to ‘little’ trot to ‘big’ trot until you can do it smoothly and consistently – then go to transitions from gait to gait.

Resistances in Horses

The physical power of resistance in a horse is always the effect. The mental side is always the cause. You will have better luck getting the physical change before you get the mental change. Once you get that then you can concentrate on getting a mental commitment from the horse. In other words, making changes in a horse (physical) is not as hard as sustaining them (mental)

To get to the point with spoiled, resistant, or poorly trained horses you will probably have to elevate their heart rate and respiration and keep it elevated until they start to look for something that is more accommodating, because it may be difficult to carry on a conversation with a horse if its ‘oxygen/fuel’ level is too rich. And, it is usually more effective to do this at a walk rather than endlessly chasing them around a round pen

Horses that Rear

The effects of a horse that rears lie in front of the saddle; the physical cause lies behind the saddle; and the inclination to resist is in its mind. This is all because its ‘GO button’ is disconnected. When you ask the horse to move forward and there is a delay in his response, you are setting up yourself for trouble if you don’t fix it immediately, because if you miss the delay, an outright refusal won’t be too long in showing up. The first time a horse rears, its feet don’t leave the ground. It’s the idea that he doesn’t have to move his feet that should be more troubling to the rider. So, you must educate the horse to unquestionably move forward when you touch him with the legs and reestablish his ‘GO button’. This is not to say that some other persuasive measures may not be needed at first in order to get him to understand that    a delay in acting ‘right now’ is not in his best interest. But, if you are going to use more leg or spur on humor use the whip, do it once ‘with determination and feeling’ and don’t badger him to death with ineffective taps or touches. Give him a clear choice of responding to ‘A’ or ‘B’. Very soon the ‘B’ part will not be needed

Fueling for the Work Ahead

Anytime you are going to school your horse, regardless of the discipline that you are involved in; be it dressage, Eventing, show jumping, cow-horse work, etc., and you are going to ask him for a lot of prolonged or concentrated effort, make sure that he has a ‘full tank of gas’ and, if the work is going to entail a maximum effort, ‘top it off with a little extra. You want to make sure that his energy level stays high. If you don’t do this, the horse will still do what you ask of him, but he will be ‘running out of gas’, so to speak. He will perform the   task with a ‘brace’ in his body. It is akin to an individual who is tired, hungry, and thirsty, but must, out of necessary, continue the physical and mental effort to complete the job. That person will call on the body reserves to get the task done. But that person will finish the job with muscle tightness, back strain, a stiff neck, tight jaw, etc., and probably will not look forward to doing it again. And so, it is with the horse. So, a word to the wise, feed your horse for   the job ahead in plenty of time for him to have a ‘full tank of gas’ for when he needs it. And another thing to remember is that, if you don’t do this, you will be inadvertently teaching him to perform whatever maneuver you are asking   him to do with that ‘brace’ in his body.