Riding is not supposed to be a ‘fighting’ activity between horse and rider, but many times it is or becomes one. Riding is supposed to be an activity of cooperation and tact, but, in most cases, it is not. It is well to remember that the horse is an independent, living, emotional, decision-making, caring being with species-specific behaviors and needs. Every horse is an individual with his own character and different strengths and weaknesses. Some are easygoing and have a desire to please, others are aggressive but not dominating or dominating but not aggressive. Others are timid or brave, lazy or athletic. A few are obstinate or aloft. The horse deserves that you value him and respect his personality. You must work on the inside of the horse as well as the outside. If the horse is comfortable inside himself with your mutual relationship then he will be all right on the outside and vise versa. If you only work on the outside of the horse then the horse will be not right on the inside. Horse personalities are complex – the more you understand the individual horse, the more you can predict his behavior and, in training, modify the outcome. Learn to listen to the horse (they speak to you with their eyes, their ears, their nostrils, their lips, their tail, their body position and movement, their skin, etc.) – what’s bothering him, what’s not bothering him, what’s he understanding, what’s he not understanding, feel what the horse is feeling and operate from there. This is not to say that at all times it will be a lovey-dovey, sweetness and light, please-pretty please, if I love you all will be right relationship, because it certainly will not. But it should also not be a do as I say right now or else I will beat your head in type of relationship either. Neither one of those relationships will suit the horse nor will anything productive come of them in the long term. But here are some things that perhaps will help you in developing a solid foundation and relationship with your horse. 

Certain Aspects of the Horse’s Nature

  1. The horse is very sensitive to our thought energy waves which are transmitted subconsciously through our body movements
  2. The horse can immediately sense our emotional state which includes confidence, anxiety, trepidation, agitation, anger, and fear
  3. The horse tunes in to our body language and detects any tension held in our body
  4. The horse is totally attuned to how we breathe – whether it is shallow and tense or  rhythmic and relaxed. For example, when we inhale, our heart rate goes up and when we exhale our heart rate goes down. So when we inhale and then hold our breath our heart rate will say elevated and the horse knows/feels this and becomes apprehensive
  5. The horse accurately reads our power of intention
  6. The horse is looking for a leader who is understanding, fair, calm, self-aware, confident and consistent
  7. The horse does not know ‘ownership’, but he does understand ‘respect, trust and partnership’
  8. The horse is aware of the tiniest details and only makes a direct connection to them
  9. The horse does not think abstractly
  10. The horse learns by trying something and either succeeds or fails; experience becomes knowledge. In other words, he lives what he learns and learns what he lives

11.The horse reacts out of instinct, experience, and observation

What Does All This Mean For the Rider?

  1. Set and uphold boundaries (assuming that you know what you want and have the requisite skill sets to accomplish your goals). Boundaries are not limiting. They make things fair. Correctly set boundaries will define your role as a leader. When you have to use firmness (and, at times, a strong firmness), be prompt and use the least amount of firmness necessary to change the unwanted behavior – but change the behavior. Leave the horse with a choice and some dignity. Do not corner him with no way out. Master “posturing”, but be prepared to back it up immediately with action and clarity. 
  2. Set standards of performance, establish benchmarks to measure your progression along the way and expect certain results, but have a clear idea of what the results are that you want. For example, if what you have presented to the horse wasn’t effective, meaning that whatever you did caused the horse to “make a mistake” (according to you), never considering that it was his best interpretation of what he thought you wanted him to do based on your signals and movements, then he will get confused and once he is confused, then he will get scared  – in most cases, because of what will be done to him because of his making a “mistake”. So, if you don’t have the knowledge or skill sets to get the job done, you will ruin the horse and he doesn’t deserve it. Therefore, seek competent professional help – someone who is thoroughly grounded in classical theory and practice AND is still learning (do your research because some ‘professional’ or so-called ‘classical’ trainers out there are very limited in their knowledge base as well as some who have been repeating the same mistakes for so long over the years that they have become “codified” as being correct, which they are not). Alternatively, you can embark on an apprenticeship with someone who can teach you what you need to know. Additionally, be particularly leery of amateurs who profess to ‘know it all’, with most of their “knowledge” having been garnered from watching DVD’s and/or attending clinics put on by various “self-styled horseman” whose job it is to patronize their customers so that they will have return business rather than teaching them correct riding habits and classically proven horsemanship skills, i.e., developing the rider’s position to be in balance with the horse so as to effectively transmit the signals necessary to affect the horse’s movements, which could eliminate their horse’s ineffective performance, resistance issues or nervousness. Let me give you a prime example of what I am talking about. There is a very close relationship between the physiology (back tension) of the horse and the psychology of the horse (becoming nervous and ‘running away’) because body tension in the horse develops in a fraction of a second after he senses danger. Therefore, when poor riding causes the horse’s body to tighten, he will always respond with psychological tension so he needs only the smallest reason for flight readiness to turn into actual flight. The nervous tension in the horse grows in proportion to the increased physical tension of the rider due to poor riding position and habits. Now the reason for this lack of teaching correct riding habits and skills is that many riders are not open to suggestions that encourage self-critical evaluation of their own riding tendencies and habits because they (the suggestions) may deflate their self-image of how well they think they ride. They are, in essence, merely ‘hobby’ riders. These riders do not realize that the ability to look at one’s performance objectively and (self) critically is more valuable and effective in the long run then assessing the horse’s abilities (or to their way of thinking, his lack of abilities) as the source of deficiency.
  3. Limit the dialogue and get to the point – don’t equivocate!
  4. Be ready to back it up immediately.
  5. Teach the horse ‘how to learn’ and ‘how to work’, especially in the beginning. Obviously, to have this concept work you must, yourself, have established a work ethic. If, however, you subscribe to the “I’ll just love him to bits or I won’t do anything to hurt my horse” theory of educating and training the horse; set low or no standards for him to accomplish and do not develop a work ethic in him, then more often than not you will end up with a spoilt horse which then will be very difficult to reprogram. This approach generally is taken by a whole lot of folks who don’t want much out of life; of course, they don’t put much effort into it either.
  6. Horses live within a herd in a hierarchy, not a democracy. They, generally, don’t care where they are in the hierarchy but they must be in it if they are to survive. The hierarchy is usually decided by a lot of ‘posturing and theater’ rather than outright fighting and violence; otherwise they would all kill one another.
  7. Horses are perceptive because of their physical attributes. They are aware of their surroundings and everything within it all the time. So if you are going to train horses they must accept your leadership by, among other things, maintaining their attention on you. You must earn their respect by making good decisions that they feel and see, just as in the herd .
  8. OF CRITICAL IMPORTANCE: whoever controls the space within which the horse and human interact, establishes the atmosphere and environment within it by harnessing and using the energy generated within the space. Space is central to behavior because we live in it, move through it, explore it and defend it. When working with horses, don’t underestimate any spatial encounter, because, with particular horses, the initial encounters are very important and are charged with emotion, energy and power. Every action and reaction when you are within a certain distance from a horse means something to the horse and also to you. The way you present things to the horse has a significant influence on the outcome. Every day, in the handling of horses, there may be dozens of incidents that present themselves in deciding who is in control. So until you really know what a horse means by his actions, you have to create an atmosphere where, as the leader, you can control the space through your projection of energy. You must decide what behaviors and space relationship you desire from the horse and then you must teach him those things. There is no time limit on accomplishing this. The better you become at this, the less time it will take .
  9. When you look for a partner, look for a horse with a good mind, disposition and work ethic. Look for a horse that you can work with, not one to rescue.
  10. If you are consistent and logical (to the horse’s way of thinking), and give correct signals (aids), horses will learn faster and will be much happier. The classical riding system, classical meaning enduring in that it has been a historically proven training method used over the centuries with the horse’s welfare always in mind (as opposed to a training philosophy that diametrically opposes one of the two partners which can never lead to harmony), is a system that encompasses this because it takes into account the psychology, anatomy and biomechanics of the horse.
  11. If you don’t find yourself admiring the horse you must lead, or if you think there is a difference between service and leadership, then you will be discounted by the horse and your training will effectively be over.

To be part of the life of horses is a reward in itself – to be around them and take care of them. To learn their language so you can listen to them is wonderful and for a lot of folks this is enough. But you can go beyond this and become one with the horse. This is the ultimate goal.


A long time ago a friend of mine (a master at ‘reading’ the horse), when asked what the relationship between man and horse really was all about, responded by saying that MAN LOOKS DOWN ON THE HORSE. So the challenge is instead to MAKE YOURSELF WORTHY OF THE HORSE. Why? – because perhaps it will make you realize that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, it was the horses who made us more than we would have been without them.