There is only one ‘must’ in riding

I’ve heard it all of my riding life, but social media seems to have brought it out in full force.  I’m talking about any riding advice that begins with, “You must …”  I don’t think it matters the discipline, there are always those people who are convinced that what they have learned, and what has worked for them, is the one way to approach horse training and/or riding.  Anything else, by default, must be wrong.

Just a few of the recent “must” statements I’ve come across include:

  • “You must raise the head [of the horse] in order to get engagement of the haunches.”
  • “You must keep a straight line from your elbow to the horse’s mouth.”
  • “You must prove your role as leader to the horse.”

All of these statements reflect an approach to training and riding – but not one of these is an absolute.  In fact, I would argue that any one of those is just as likely to cause a problem as it is to solve one.  Before the slings and arrows come out, let me explain.

Coffee has developed a more upright carriage with no direct ask that he raise his head. He continues to move toward collection through the work itself.

Raising the head to get engagement – it is true that, for some horses, keeping the poll up will increase the chance that you can develop engagement from the haunches.  However, if you are working with a horse who can naturally and easily raise the head with no effect on the back and body, especially if their breeding and conformation create a long flat back and croup (think Friesian or American Saddlebred) then you can actually create more issues with this approach.  It is also highly problematic on a horse who travels inverted, as some former racehorses may do.

Then there is the question of how much you lift the head and neck.  I have seen those who advocate this method differ in requirement, from keeping the poll above the withers to lifting the neck almost upright from the withers.  Obviously this difference in degree will greatly affect the outcome.  There is also the simple fact that raising the head, all by itself, actually does nothing biomechanically to increase engagement – it is all of the other aspects of the training (bending, transitions, lateral work, etc.) that develop the engagement.  So, if all else is equal, how often would you actually have to lift the head to improve engagement?

The top rider maintains a straight line, while the bottom rider does not. Yet both are in beautiful balance with the horse, and both horses have the freedom they need.

Straight arm from elbow to bit – this is a classic equitation concept.  It sounds very good, keeping a nice straight line in the reins and arms.  The trouble is that both horse and rider conformation can make this challenging.  For some riders, with long torsos and short upper arms, this can force them to open their elbows to the point where they lose elasticity.  The first aim has to be the rider’s position, balance, and function – if you are out of balance, or rigid, you are a problem for the horse.  The most sympathetic angle for the elbow is ninety degrees – which will place many rider’s hands higher than that straight line.  Some riders are blessed to be able to have a good elbow angle, and maintain that vaunted straight line – but many of us are not.

This theory also carries over to jumping, where many advocate a release over the fence in which the arms maintain a straight line to the bit.  The argument is that this position allows the horse the maximum ability to use their neck – yet you will find that some of the best riders do not use that release, and still are able to accommodate their horse’s need for freedom over a fence.

Proving your leadership – this is the brainchild of the “Natural Horsemanship” movement, and its many gurus.  You will also find it in certain branches of dog training.  The idea of the hierarchy at the heart of this fable has long been debunked for both species.  ‘Respect’ is often used in this context – yet, respect is something earned, not something forced.  Having recently worked for a boss who demanded respect, and who took pains to prove his leadership role, I can tell you in great detail of the detrimental effects on mental and physical health that this approach to ‘leadership’ can have.

There is nothing ‘natural’, friendly, or honorable about this sort of ‘training’.

There is great irony in the “Natural Horsemanship” movement latching on to leadership as a role you have to prove to your horse.  The early message, of many who actively marketed themselves, was that prior to their methods horses were bullied and forced in their early training.  There were no ‘humane’ horse starting methods before they came, the story goes.  This may have been true in the Cowboy tradition out which they all originated (though I do not buy even that).  Yet, there are libraries filled with books by past horsemen that not only cover very methodical and humane training methods – but that also refer to making a friend of the horse.

“Also note: your horse will make progress only if you and it are friends. … your dealings with the horse must always be enveloped in an aura of benevolent friendliness.”

Gustav Steinbrecht

Some of the most famous NH gurus have called our efforts to befriend horses as being bad, and even dangerous. It is difficult to reconcile that view with the fact that hundreds of years of famous horsemen were able to both humanely train and befriend the horse.

Of course, we do provide leadership in our relationship with the horse.  But it is a role we assume, without the horse choosing it for himself, much as a parent or teacher is in a leadership role over a child.  We have that role for much the same reason – to be the caretaker of the other party’s welfare and well being.  Parents and teachers may have rare moments when they have to assert their authority – but most of the interactions amount to gentle guidance, and increasing freedom for the child to make decisions.  This is exactly the sort of leadership that we should provide to the horse.

“The more methods one knows, the more you are likely to have at your disposal the method most suitable for the horse involved. The expert is the man who masters all methods within reason, not the one who has his own patent method”

Einar Schmit-Jensen

There are many paths one can take to reach your goals.  In over forty years of riding and training, I have yet to find one single method or approach that works for every situation and every horse.

If you find yourself in a moment like this, you’ve probably violated a “must not” item.

There are certainly a large number of “must not” when it comes to riding and training.  For example:

  • You must not cause pain.
  • You must not act like a predator, especially do not chase a horse.
  • You must not put prizes over the horse’s health and well being.
  • You must not place the horse in a position that is likely to cause them pain or mental distress.

Back to the parent and teacher connection – you are the caretaker of the horse’s well being and safety.  These leads me to the conclusion that there is only one true “must” in the realm of riding and training:

  • You must honor the nature of the horse.

This covers a lot of territory in one simple statement.

  • Horses are prey animals whose response to fear is flight.  Helping them feel safe and secure, in their life and in our interactions, keeps them and us much safer and puts them in a mental space conducive to learning.
  • Equine anatomy and locomotion apparatus evolved over millions of years. Human effect on the equine form has been a tiny drop in that bucket.  All of our work must honor how the horse is structured, and how it moves.  Time tested methods, that resulted in strong horses who had long productive lives, are far superior to some method that claims it is better because “modern horses are different”.
  • Horses form strong social bonds. This can be with their own kind, or with members of other species – goats, dogs, cats, and of course us.  We have to keep that in mind when moving or selling them.  If it’s unavoidable, at least account for the emotional impact it will have on the horse.
  • Horses are curious by nature. Of course this can seem odd, for a prey animal – but horses are very curious and like to investigate.  There are stages to this, and it can certainly include fleeing to a safe distance, before stopping to determine what the new object is.  Where humans fall down is in not allowing horses to exercise and satisfy their curiosity.  Too often we interpret this as a disrespectful lack of attention to us.  Is that how you feel when your two year old child points to something they find interesting in the grocery store?

There are those who would argue that riding and training the horse at all does not honor its nature.  That can certainly be debated.  From experience, I know that we can have a working partnership that is enjoyable and beneficial to both parties – if we honor them as a species, and as individuals.  That is the one thing we must always do!

Be good to your horses!


5 thoughts on “There is only one ‘must’ in riding

  1. Horse people are like dog people in many ways and on social media they’re kind of ultra 100x concentrated formula where no matter what you do – you shouldn’t do. Whatever you do – you shouldn’t.

    The more uppity, opinionated and keen to point out everyone’s flaws and wrongdoings are usually the least knowledgeable people you’re likely to find.

    You know what I do? Just answer everything with “OK” and let them unravel and go nuclear.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really wish people would get over the whole horses are prey animals mindset. Rabbits are prey animals. Horses are herd animals first and they are flight animals second. And they are quite capable of taking out a predator with one smack of a hard hard hoof if they’ve a mind too. Which is why I NEVER want my horse to see me as a predator!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At a 90% mortality rate, in the wild, before age 1 year – and a birthrate that is amazingly prolific – I call rabbits “Nature’s fast food. 😉

      I never thought of horses as prey, or even flight, animals when I was growing up. But, with so many people having romantic visions, as they get into horses late in life, I think it is something everyone should be aware of. I agree that the social aspect is the far more important one, in terms of training and personal interactions.

      Ironically, the Natural Horsemanship/roundpen gurus were the ones who latched onto the prey animal thing as a major talking point – while acting like predators and exploiting the flight instinct. Much better and safer for all to focus on trust, communication, and social interaction.


      1. Once I realized that predator/prey actually meant perpetrator/victim, I could start to verbalize why I was so uncomfortable with the natural horsemanship cultishness. Monty Roberts at least has the guts to stand in front of his audience and point out when a horse has been abused and that those who abuse horses abuse people…as he well knows from experience…

        Liked by 1 person

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