Part of learning about horses and horsemanship is reading what the Old Masters and current master horsemen have had to say about the challenges inherent in understanding the nature, psychological makeup, and physical attributes of two entirely different species in their quest to meld the horse and human into a complementary harmonious relationship.
Like similar areas of study such as philosophy and theology, we can bury ourselves in the subject to where we are involved in it night and day in an attempt to definitively discover the one answer that will solve all of the problems that we face in building this relationship. In reality, we find out in the end that there is no such thing as a final answer, but only paths to explore and temporary solutions found to enduring issues. For example, I once was having a conversation with an acquaintance of mine who had two post graduate degrees in philosophy. I asked him what he had learned from all the study. He replied that it could all be summed up as realizing that this field of study is all about the “cognitive tentative”, i.e. we learn all we can about it and think we know it all until a new way of examining the issue comes along and then we start all over again on the path of discovery.
This is not to say that we should not read all we can about the subject to know the theory behind the many things we do with horses before we endeavor to practice whatever discipline suits our fancy. Practice without having knowledge of theory is fruitless, but we must have the practice to verify and understand the theory. The two go hand-in-glove.
The purpose of this article is to share with you some of the important ideas, techniques, and theories from master horsemen which I have found to be useful in working with horses. This presentation offers a selected sampling of the experiences of a few of the many master horseman throughout the centuries so that you can see that the fundamental elements of good horsemanship have not changed very much over time. Additionally, with this in mind, my hope is that this presentation will stimulate you to embark on a journey of discovery of your own and explore further these and other master horsemen in depth in order to expand your knowledge base and become better horsemen and horsewomen because the thoughts of these master horsemen are still relevant today and should not be forgotten.
“ Practice without true principles is nothing other than routine, the fruit is a strained and unsure execution, a false diamond which dazzle semi-connoisseurs often more impressed by the accomplishments of the horse than the merit of the horseman. From this comes the reason for the small number of well-trained horses, and the paucity of ability one sees at present in the majority of those who call themselves horsemen. This death of principles renders pupils unable to distinguish shortcomings from perfection. They have no other recourse but imitation and unfortunately it is easier by far to fall into bad practices than it is to acquire good ones”. (This was written in 1733). Robichon de la Gueriniere
“In the past there were persons given charge of working with colts upon their being brought in from pasture, when they were still completely without training. These men were called ‘Cavalcadours de Bardelle’; they were chosen from among those with the greatest amount of patience, industry, spirit and diligence, the perfection of these qualities being not so necessary in work with horses which have already been ridden. They accustomed young horses at being approached in the stable, to having their feet lifted up, to being touched with the hand, fitted with the bridle, the saddle and the girth, etc… They reassured them and made them easy to mount. They never used either sternness or force before they had tried the most gentle means at their disposal; and by this great patience they rendered a young horse (to be) familiar with these things, and rendered it well-behaved and obedient to the first lesson. If the conduct of these past lovers of the horse were imitated today, there would be fewer horses crippled, ruined, intractable, stiff and vicious”. Robichon de la Gueriniere
“ The aid of the spurs is produced by bringing them gently to touch the ‘hair of the belly’, without pushing or resting them with sufficient force to touch the underlying skin…The prick of the spurs should be given at the belly, about a hands breath behind the girth”. Robochon de la Gueriniere
(This comment about where the rider should sit in the saddle was written in 1869). “ It is to be remembered that the position nearest to the horse’s withers is also the very place where the effect of his action is least noticeable; the very place therefore where it is easiest, or rather the only place where it is really possible to be quite undisturbed by the horse’s action, to become one with that action, and so to avoid disturbing him through the effect of our own disturbance. Accordingly, it is that lowest part of the horse’s back, just behind the withers, and as close up to them as we can get, near to the pommel of the saddle and away from the cantle, that we should sit. On this point leading authorities are all agreed”. Francis Dwyer
“No stride should be allowed in which the hindquarters are not acting energetically”. Gustav Steinbrecht
“…(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.” Gustav Steinbrecht
“ The horse will try to keep its main pillar, the inside hind leg, free to be able, with its support, to stiffen those parts of its body that are by nature most difficult for it to bend. The rider should therefore pay primary attention to the inside hind leg and ask it, through lively action of his inside leg and spur, not only to step forward but simultaneously also to step toward the outside hind leg. Only in this way can it be pushed correctly underneath the weight and become flexible. This rule, as simple as it seems, is the basic rule for all dressage training up to its highest perfection”. Gustav Steinbracht
“ It is ironic that so many people who have never studied the literature of riding…simply can’t spare the time to do so. That they should cherish time is reasonable enough, for after all, time is life; but the only way in which we can truly save time lies in borrowing from the experience (which is to say, the time) of others. Nothing is more wasteful than the tedious search for a solution to a problem which others have long since solved”. William Steinkraus
“The word ‘awesome’ – which I used to think rather a splendid word, but which has now descended to the depths since being associated with the most mundane subjects, e.g., an awesome candy bar, or an awesome pair of bandages – is a word I use for the gift brought to us by horses. The gift of their allowing us to ride them … and their ability to give; their generosity which is so amazing. Not only do they lend their bodies to more or less what we want, they generally try to please. I find this awesome – especially when too often, we take these favours for granted. The other quality which unites these same species is their super-sensitivity and intelligence. If we could teach all riders to have more AWE in their riding, there might be far less abuse and hopefully a greater desire to learn more”. Lady Sylvia Lock
(The following four observations address reasons not to over-bend a horse’s neck). “If the horse over-bends his neck when the head is drawn back towards the body, the flexibility of the loin diminishes in the opposite direction, and it remains somewhat hollow … The hindquarters will then lose some of their suppleness”. General Decarpentry
“Do not forget that the horse, and the young horse in particular, needs great freedom of the neck each time he has to modify his equilibrium… Have a soft contact with the hand without pulling… accustom him to come honestly to the hand which must remain low. In this way, the neck will become muscled and the trainer will avoid making it ‘rubbery’ which is very harmful to future dressage training”. Andre Jousseaume
“We know that the head and neck play the role of a balancing pole…It is thus very clear that any constriction affecting the natural play of the neck muscles… necessarily leads to a corresponding constriction in the play of the horse’s equilibrium and of its locomotive mechanism”. Jean Saint-Fort Paillard
“ We must be careful when making the horse straight not to bend it in front of the withers. We must not loosen the muscles in front of the withers for we need to build up either side of the neck so it is steady in front of the withers. We need a steady feel in our reins so if we take the right rein the horse flexes and goes right and does not simply bend in front of the withers which lets the shoulder fall out”. Reiner Klimke
“ The goal of dressage (and any other riding discipline) is to make the horse agreeable and easy to ride. In order to progress, look for perfection in the simple and elementary movements. This principle is very important, for perfection of any given movement consists in obtaining execution of this movement with no contraction by the horse whatsoever. However, if there is contraction, there is resistance and if the latter is not destroyed in the simple movements it will return amplified in the difficult movements, which will inevitably lead to a refractory horse. Then it will be necessary to go back and begin again and thus waste time, for the horse will have acquired bad habits which must be erased.” Andre Jousseaume
“ For the rider, feel is the most elusive of the traits needed to eventually ride with unstressed elegance. It is akin to a musician and his instrument. He can understand how it is built and how it works; know how to play it with great technique and perhaps even perform with it on a professional basis. But unless his ear has been developed to ‘hear’ the instrument and bring out its beauty and ‘brilliance’ when playing, he will always just be a performer but never an artist. And so, the rider who performs with great technical competence but without feel will never be able to bring out the beauty and ‘brilliance’ of the horse or become an equestrian artist”. Jean Saint-Fort Paillard
“You are only the director. The horse is the performer. Make yourself understood before demanding obedience”. Jean Saint-Fort Paillard
“Horses will immediately take advantage of any inattention on the part of the rider, which is why riding, probably more than any other sport, entirely absorbs ones mental and physical abilities”. Alois Podhajsky
“ Besides a knowledge of the physiology and psychology of the horse, the rider must have a clear notion of the theory of movement and balance. The former means an exact knowledge of the sequence of the steps; the latter, a knowledge of how the steps should be executed and what form a horse should adopt to be able to move in balance”. Alois Podhajsky
“ Riding faults and shortcomings will infiltrate all rider/horse communications and diminish their validity, clarity, and value. Inadequate equitation will always produce, promote, and instill faulty exercises in the horse. Accidentally delivered communication through instability and lack of balance (of the rider) will misinform the horse and confuse him”. Charles de Knuffy
“ No matter how well you ride, unless you constantly check yourself and occasionally return to the fundamentals of basic horsemanship, you will develop faults that adversely affect your riding. This is particularly true of instructors who think of other things while they are riding”. U.S. Cavalry Horsemanship School
“The position a rider assumes on a horse for the sake of position alone without flexibility, is no position at all. In other words, sitting on a horse looking good is not the same as sitting a horse well”. Ray Hunt
“To help your horse the most you have got to know how to prepare the horse to position for the transition and then let him do it without forcing him to do it”. Ray Hunt
“ If it wasn’t effective, it wasn’t understood. If it wasn’t understood, the horse was confused. It scares the horse to be confused, so if what you did wasn’t effective, it scared the horse. You need to find a way to present the situation to the horse in a way that the horse can understand”. Ray Hunt
“ You want your body and the horse’s body to become one. This is our goal. It takes some physical pressure naturally to start with, but you keep doing less and less physical and more and more mental. Pretty soon, it’s just a feel following a feel, whether it comes today, tomorrow or next year. So one little thing falls into line, into place. I wish it would all fall into place right now for you, but it doesn’t because it has to become a way of life. It’s a way that you think. It’s a way that you live. You can’t make any of this happen, but you can let it happen by working at it”. Ray Hunt
Many of the concepts that Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt gave us are very similar to what somatic education teaches us about the use of our own body. Over and over they gave us the following phrases to work with with our horses. “Prepare to position”. “Direct, then support”. “Instead of a hard tightness, find a soft firmness”. “Feel, timing and balance”. “Find the rhythm”. “Let the life come through your body”. “Let them learn, don’t make them learn”. “ Fix it up and let the horse find it. It can happen so easy you might miss it”. “Do less, not more”. “Be particular, not critical”. “The slower you do it the quicker you’ll find it”. “In you mind you have to have a picture of what you want”. “It’s a feel following a feel. Let the horse come through”. “You don’t just wrench a horse around, you have him set up so that he can move easily”. Tom Dorrance & Ray Hunt
“ Don’t expect to get information from sources other than your horse. The horse will never lie to you. He has no capacity to misinform you You must learn to speak horse, learn to read horse, learn what the horse’s tasks are. It is impossible to make sense of the answers if you don’t know the questions. Each test of a horse is a question, and you must understand the questions before you can understand the answers”. Matthew Mackay-Smith
“ Horses remind us of valuable truths that are beginning to fade in our culture. These include collaboration instead of dominance. Honesty and authenticity versus manipulation and falseness, presence versus distraction. Trust and leadership. Harmony, community, and the plain truth that we are all connected”. Tony Stromberg
“ The horse, long a symbol of power and freedom, is more specifically a teacher of non-predatory power and freedom through relationship. Those adventurous souls who follow the ways of horses almost can’t help becoming more balanced, confident, and peaceful, more open to beauty and the sacredness of life”. Linda Kohanov
“ Premature or incompetent efforts towards collection reinforce inborn one-sidedness. The horse will evade the constraint by refusing to move the weaker hind leg in the direction of the center of gravity. Horses can be made even more crooked than normal as a result of incompetent riding, especially by premature demands for collection. Restricting hands, ineffective legs, a seat that impairs impulsion, wrongly timed ‘Parades’ (half-halts) which only affect the mouth or the neck, and disregard of a horse’s fitness for the stress of collected work will always induce the horse to avoid the painful effort by turning its quarters to one side…”. Ulrik Schramm
“ The focus during a horse’s entire career always rests on the fine tuning of the fundamentals. Gymnastic movements are used as tools to accomplish this goal. They are not goals in and of themselves. Each movement has a certain gymnastic effect on the horse’s gait, and we choose the movements we ride based on the horse’s current needs and abilities. Teaching and riding movements without their gymnastic effect in mind would be mechanical trick riding, the antithesis of classical dressage. Every rider has to be perfectly clear in their own mind at what stage of training the horse is working in at any given moment, and as to the goal he wants to pursue and eventually achieve from movement to movement. Asked about its purpose, the rider must be able to answer clearly and with few words anytime”. John Winnett
“ A thought weighs absolutely nothing – but there is nothing heavier than a thought that the horse doesn’t want to let go of. You want the horse to keep his thoughts with you – if he doesn’t, do something to have him realize that you are more important than whatever drew his attention away from you. When you capture the horse’s thought and keep it to match yours, then lightness will occur”. Harry Whitney
“ We must replace what the horse knows or has been taught (if we don’t like it) with what we want him to learn and know”. Harry Whitney
“Crookedness means that the horse is planning with some part of his body to go somewhere other than where you want him to go – his thoughts are somewhere else. When you work all the crookedness out of the horse and succeed in this, then you will end up with straightness”. Harry Whitney
“ If a horse is tense, he can’t walk ‘big’, i.e.,forward, swinging with all four legs moving independently and with activity – so he is more likely to trot, which he can do when he is tense”. Harry Whitney
“ When a horse’s head comes up and his chest goes out, it means that he doesn’t want to give up his thought and comply with your thought, i.e., his body is caught between his thought and your thought. So, in this case, you may want to disengage his hindquarters in order to break his train of thought and ‘unstick’ his brain. Disengagement of the hindquarters is more about causing a horse to give up his present thought and get with you than it is about ‘stopping’ or ‘neutralizing’ his hindquarters”. Harry Whitney
“ Don’t get ‘on the muscle’ with your hands. Don’t fight the horse – keep your hands soft and mostly use your fingers. Don’t hang on to the horse with your legs – it makes them dull to the leg and it irritates them. Instead, make use of your back, seat, and thighs to get results”. Paul Belasik
“ You can not allow the horse to ignore the leg. You can not accept any insubordination to your requests. If necessary, use the whip with authority – but get a response. If you allow the horse to ignore the leg then all is lost. Most horses today are ridden ‘behind the leg’ which defeats the whole purpose of dressage (and any other kind of riding discipline), which is going forward with energy. However, when you go to the whip, avoid riding the horse with the handbrakes on, or else you will defeat the purpose of using the whip”. Paul Belasik
“The cardinal rule for all exercises including lateral work is to teach and allow but never force. If you ask too soon (without proper muscular development) the horse will become fatigued, thus creating soreness, tension, and avoidance (resistance). Responses to your aids are a learned process; have patience while his comprehension and abilities develop. Focus on the horse’s response to your aids, not the reach or scope of his delivery”. Mark Russell
“ First establish relaxation of the horse’s jaw and obtain flexion through lateral and then longitudinal release. This give you access to the horse’s front end to direct his shoulders, and access to his hind end to direct his haunches. Once you can move his shoulders and haunches both independently and together under saddle, it can be said you direct each of the four corners of the horse, and therefore, can direct the whole horse. With access to his legs, head, neck, and barrel, you can adjust the horse with precision”. Mark Russell
“ There are no shortcuts in horse training, however there are ways to make your progression go faster”. Harold Farren
“ The education of the student reflects the education of the teacher. For all the old horsemen that have gone before us, we stand on their shoulders. The old masters made a lot of mistakes also. But they wrote them down so we don’t have to repeat them. Don’t get caught making a mistake someone made a hundred years ago if you don’t have to. Read the old masters”. Frank Barnett
“ For a horse to step through a door, it has to be open. Put the horse in a vulnerable position, but don’t take advantage of him – just the opportunity. When progression dissipates, reestablish it with a logical regression. If there is no logical progression, then progression stalls”. Frank Barnett
“ My world is full of horses that have gotten less than useful information. So the first piece of good information that comes their way may not initially sound so good to the horse”. Frank Barnett
“ The riders who criticize other riders for being too technical are usually the ones with the least amount of technique. In other words, they never learned any”. Frank Barnett
“ To admit ignorance is to reveal it once. To conceal ignorance is to reveal it over and over again. The essence of ignorance is unawareness”. Frank Barnett
“ By pleasing the rider, a horse should find peace. But, if by pleasing the rider all he finds is more struggle, then eventually he’ll go to looking for peace wherever he can find it which may not be advantageous for the rider”. Frank Barnett
“ Anytime you let a horse make you mad, then he’s smarter than you are”. Noyes Evans
I do not presume to place myself amongst this august group of horsemen and horsewomen whose wisdom comes from a life-time of educating and riding horses. Nevertheless, I also have made observations over the last thirty years working with horses and I would like to share some of them with you in closing.
“Where knowledge ends frustration begins followed shortly thereafter by force”.
“ The power to command (as some riders think they have with a horse), which sometimes is executed without any accompanying leadership abilities, frequently causes a failure to think which results in failure to accomplish your goals”.
“ Horses adopt new habits very quickly. If a rider/trainer ask for, or allows, the same movement two or three times in the same way, a new habit has already begun to form with the horse. He does not know if it is correct or not, he just does it. Also, any tension, stiffness, mental hesitation, or confusion on the part of the trainer will be mirrored in the horse. So, if you miscue or force the horse to perform a movement you will teach him to perform it with resistance and it causes an inefficient expenditure of energy. Then it will take more time and energy to reprogram the horse and correct it”.
“ Truly accomplished riders are those who use their excellent judgement to avoid those situations where they might have to quickly make use of all their acquired skills”.
“ When educating a horse, don’t pester or nag him. Ask for what you want once. If he does not ‘pick up the phone on the first ring’, turn up the volume and ‘get to the point’ quickly so that you can continue your progress and not dally on only one aspect of his training”.
“ If the horse isn’t working with you then you are consequently working against the horse.”
“ It is well to remember that between the horse and the human only one of the two has no capacity to lie.”
“ It takes a whole different set of skills to build a piano than to play one. Lots of people can play the piano, but not so many can tune a piano, let alone build one”.
“ I used to think that maybe just good riding would not be enough to fix a lot of the more difficult problems that horses present to us. But with deeper thinking I now think that certainly good riding will fix any problem provided you combine it with an appropriate level of stress necessary to make the psychological changes and, more importantly, if you are willing to go there and are technically sound enough to get there”.
“ If the horse doesn’t understand something, then take a look at your explanation. The theory may be valid, but the explanation may be sketchy. Make sure that you understand that getting a horse to do something and getting a horse to learn something are two different things. Getting a horse to do something at a weekend clinic has gotten a lot of people whacked when they neglected to revisit it the next week”.
“You can wander around with the horse at the low levels of riding indefinitely in a very stress-free environment and fool yourself. But you’re not going to fool the horse. If you stay there too long, the horse will get real comfortable and then should you try to advance he may not be willing to leave his comfort zone. If you do not push a bit, you’ll stay at the same place forever. By not asking for progression prevents the horse from maturing mentally”.
“ The education of the horse is dependent on the rider’s abilities to teach the horse through the use of correctly applied aids in a timely and logical (to the horse) manner. It is analogous to assembling a thousand-piece puzzle. The cover of the box containing the pieces usually shows a completed picture of the puzzle. This translates into the rider needing to have a total picture of what they wish to accomplish with the horse before beginning the education process. If, in the course of assembling the puzzle, you force a piece of the puzzle into what you think is the correct place (but it really isn’t), in the very end, when you place the last piece into position, the resulting force of placing that piece will push all the other pieces into disarray and the puzzle will come apart. So you will have to start all over again, and this time do it with more thought and not force. So it is when educating the horse. Each piece of the process must, without force, neatly and smoothly fit into all the other pieces surrounding it in order for the puzzle to be completed correctly. The end result will then be a beautifully constructed picture just like the box cover picture.”