Balance In Our Training Methods

Perhaps one of the most often taught concepts in the horse training world is how important feel, timing, and balance are to achieving great success. However, it’s hard to find a detailed breakdown of what each of these elements actually means. Sometimes a guru will preach on feel and timing, but I can’t recall ever coming across a discussion of balance. It’s like it is the poor the cousin nobody wants to talk about.
So what is meant by the term “balance” in the context of feel, timing, and balance?
I can only give you my view and you could probably ask 20 trainers and get 20 different answers, but I’ll risk it and take the plunge.
In the context of feel, timing, and balance we are not talking about balance in the physical sense where the centre of gravity of a horse is at its most stable. That’s a different sort of balance. When talking about balance I am referring to the “how much” phenomena. It’s the Goldilocks syndrome. Did I use too much pressure or too little pressure or was it just right? Am I too early with my release or too late or was it just right? How much bend do I require or how much inside rein versus outside rein should I apply? The correct balance is when the scale is not tipped one way or the other for the job being asked.
It could be argued that if we do too much or too little we can correct in a microsecond, so how important is the correct balance? It’s important because when we have the balance just right, we are being as clear as we possibly can with our communication. The clarity that balance brings is a big part of a horse finding comfort and calmness in the work.
Most of you have probably heard the aphorism, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy.” It has formed the basis of a lot of preaching that goes on in the clinics of many gurus. When done with the correct mindset I think this concept offers a very clear road to success. However, I have to say that as an observer of a lot of clinics I have witnessed many people miss the point of this saying. Too many times I have noticed some horse people approach their work by making the wrong thing hard (or even impossible) and the right thing less hard. No horse wants to work in such an environment. In good horsemanship, we should focus on making the right thing as easy as possible and not focus on making the wrong thing as hard as possible.
I think the problem stems from a lack of understanding about balance. I mean, how “less easy” do we need to make something to encourage a horse to search for a different response? And how “easy” do we need the correct response to feel like that would encourage a horse to want to repeat that response? That’s the art of good balance. 
A skilled horse person offers a good balance in everything they do with a horse. The power of good balance is to have the horse believe its response was not imposed on him, but that it was his choice because it clearly was a great choice to make. When we impose decisions on a horse they begin to dread the work. But when they feel that there is nothing but rewarding choices in front of them, work is not quite so burdensome. Good balance allows us to offer a horse choice, but sneakily make sure the option we want the horse to choose is slightly weighted in our favour. 
In a nutshell, good balance is the halfway mark between too much and too little. It will vary from horse to horse and task to task. Plus, what is good balance right now can change in the time it takes a politician to sell their soul for a campaign donation. Good balance helps bring clarity to what is being asked of the horse. And good balance takes some of the horse’s feelings of being worked out of the work.
There is one final last point I want to make. Perhaps some of you have glimmered that balance is intricately linked to the other components of training – feel and timing. We need to have balance in the way we apply our feel and timing and at the same time, there must be feel and timing in the way we apply balance. In essence, the three parts of feel, timing, and balance only work as a whole and cannot be applied separately with expectations of success.
Photo: We should aspire to work horses by balancing the scales between too much and too little.

The Effect of Timing of a Rider's Aids

I recently came across a video discussion regarding the importance of a rider’s aids in order to obtain correctness. Specifically, the video discussed a real-life problem of training a horse to perform a flying change. During the flying change, the horse changed leads in the front end, but not in the back end resulting in a disunited or crossfire canter. The trainer concluded it was a problem with the timing of the request for a lead change being after the moment of suspension, which they said was too late and causing the screw-up. 
What I am about to say will raise the hackles of a lot of instructors and coaches, but stick with me for a little bit and I will explain. I know I am going to struggle to get the words right because I am not 100% certain what I am trying to say. My thoughts on this subject are not yet totally clear, but I think the topic is worth examining whether I am right or wrong.
I believe the timing of the aids has its place in achieving our goals and we should all be trying to improve our timing, but I also believe it is a generally misunderstood concept. Let’s talk about three examples that I hope will better clarify what I mean.
If you ask a horse to yield its forehand to the left and move the left foot first, then timing the signal to coincide with the moment the horse is prepared to take his weight off the left fore will be important. But if the rider is late with their signal (and applies it when the right fore is about to become un-weighted) there is a good chance the horse will lead with its right fore rather than its left fore. So this is a case where the timing of a rider’s aids affects the “when” of the response, which leads to affecting the “how” of the response.
However, if the goal is to yield the shoulder to the left and it doesn’t matter which foot moves first, the timing of the rider’s aids is irrelevant. The difference between the rider being early or late will be a difference of one step. Therefore, the difference in timing does not lead to a difference in whether the horse will yield its shoulder or not, but rather a difference in when it will yield its shoulder.
Now let's look at the flying change issue talked about in the video I watched. The trainer was arguing that the reason the horse disunited (cross fired) in the flying change was because the rider was not asking for the lead change during the moment of suspension in the canter stride. I have heard several big and small name trainers talk about this and I have to say I don’t believe it. The loss of a correct and balanced change of leads is not related to the poor timing of a rider’s aids, but due to crookedness and tension in a horse. If a rider misses the moment of suspension to give the signal to the horse to change leads (and assuming every element to do that is in place) the horse will simply change leads a stride later. No biggie. But it won’t screw up the ability of a horse to change leads if it has already been taught how to do that.
Let’s look at another example that I saw at a clinic by a visiting American trainer about a year ago. He was trying to help a rider lengthen the stride of her horse’s walk. He had her apply more left leg pressure when the left hind foot of the horse was furthest back and then right leg pressure when the horse’s right hind leg was the furthest back. The idea behind this approach was the rider’s left leg would help the horse put more effort into bringing the left hind foot forward and visa versa when the rider applied right leg. In theory, this was meant to elongate the horse’s stride at the walk. What was interesting is that more than half the time the rider got their timing wrong and applied their left leg when the horse’s right leg was maximally back and right leg when the horse’s right hind was maximally back. Yet, the horse still made a good change and was able to reach under itself with much more effort despite the poor timing of the rider’s aids.
Before I say anything more, I want to be clear that I am assuming that a horse already knows and understands how to respond to the aids without stress and without confusion. If this is not true, then this article is not talking about that horse.
In my view, the timing of a rider’s aids influence when a change of movement will occur, but it does not directly influence how it will occur. I think this is a general rule and not a golden rule, but I believe overall it stacks up pretty well. For example, when asking a horse to yield its shoulder in a particular direction, when it happens will depend on a rider’s timing and result in whether the left foreleg first or right foreleg first. But the timing won’t determine if the horse yields its shoulder or doesn’t yield its shoulder, just when. The movement can be influenced by the “when”, so it could be argued that the timing of the aids indirectly effects the outcome via when the aids are applied. But that is different to the timing of a rider’s signals directly altering the way a horse performs a movement. 
I’m unsure how far you can take this argument because I think it is probably 100 percent true. As I said in the beginning, this hypothesis might create some disturbance in the cosmos and cause a few people to experience seizures, but whether you agree or disagree thinking about it can only be a good thing. 
Photo: This perfectly timed photograph makes it look like the handler is lifting the horse. Now that’s great timing!

The Essence of Good Horsemanship NOW an eBOOK

After a lot of harassment from various people who like ebooks rather than paperback, I have finally pulled my finger out and my book The Essence of Good Horsemanship is now available in kindle format from​

Stop Driving Your Horse Crazy

It's difficult for people to not pick on everything a horse does. We all seem to want to touch our horse and ask him not to look away or not to eat etc even when we are not wanting anything from them. We drive them crazy with our nagging. 
In this video I illustrate the typical situation many horse people deal with that is about constantly criticising a horse without bringing clarity to what a horse can do to avoid being nagged and corrected by the owner.


A Rider's Vigilance and Discipline

At every clinic, I meet people that have a lot of talent to be good horse people. I see in them an ability to not only have the physical aptitude to apply their knowledge, but they also have a good sense of awareness and feel when working with a horse. They are very capable of seeing what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what needs to change to help their horse. But for some reason, despite the diligent work they have put into their horsemanship, the improvements I expect to see from one clinic to another don’t always meet my expectations or theirs. I know they are putting in the time and I know they have a desire to see improvement, but the dream and the reality don’t always come together.


It was maybe 3 or 4 years ago when I was home, taking a break from clinics, that I had the crazy idea to ride one of my own horses. It was both a shock to me and a shock to my gelding, Riley. I was riding in the paddock when I noticed my wife had come out to see what I was doing. I guess she was as surprised as Riley that I decided to saddle up and ride and maybe she was checking to see if I had a brain embolism.


After a few minutes of watching, Michèle said, “If that was a client’s horse you wouldn’t let him do that.”


I can’t recall what it was that I was letting Riley do, but I do remember turning to her and replying in a whiny little boy’s voice, “Yeah maybe, but it’s Riley.” As if Riley was the cutest and smartest horse in the whole wide world and made of chocolate.


I knew at the time and I know now that Michèle was right. I was letting something slip by with Riley that I would have definitely addressed with somebody else’s horse. Why? Because I knew I could with Riley and because I was being a lazy arse.


I have thought a lot about that day. When it comes to working hard I have always been a minimalist. Some have called me lazy, but I prefer to view myself as a more highly evolved member of the species. It is my ambition to not die from overwork. The problem with that philosophy comes when others depend on me to not be lazy. By not being vigilant and mindful in my session with Riley I was failing my horse. I made Riley the victim of my lack of self-discipline. I had the skill and the awareness, but I was just being lazy.


Since that day, I have tried very hard to not repeat my sins when working any horse - whether a student’s or one of mine.


However, I see the same vice in many people who attend clinics. Usually while at a clinic, their work ethic and self-discipline are very high. Yet, it falls apart for so many when they are alone at home and the teacher’s eyes are not on them. For some reason, when we are not paying money to be picked on and terrorized by our teachers our vigilance and discipline become secondary to our need to have a pleasant ride. I am convinced of this because so many people I see are much more capable than their horse’s performance would indicate.


I realize there are many factors that contribute to the problem. I think many people are like me and they own a nice horse (like Riley) that generously forgives their lack of discipline. Other people struggle to find the confidence to push the boundaries when the guiding hand of some expert is absent. And of course, the biggest problem for most people is to find the time to be consistent in the work.


But having said all that, the point I want to make today is in regard to a person’s discipline. Awareness and feel are no help to us if we don’t have the self- discipline and vigilance to use them all the time in every session. They are like money – it’s nice to have but bloody useless if we don’t use it.


As a teacher, I struggle to know how to motivate people to have a high degree of vigilance and discipline if it is not naturally present in every sweat gland. Sometimes serendipity takes care of it by giving a person a horse that requires these skills in order to minimize visits to the hospital emergency room. That tends to motivate people to dig deep. But when a person has a “Riley” horse in their life, what is a teacher to do?


To be honest, I have found only two approaches that have successfully driven people to greater discipline and consistency.


The first is for the people who have the skill but are unmotivated. Basically, they are being lazy. My strategy has been to call them out for their laziness. I have told people they are just bloody lazy and if they don’t use the talent they have I can’t help them and they have achieved as much as they ever will. I hate doing that. A couple of times it has led to tears (but I tried not show my tears too much). I always feel like an ogre and worry I have ruined their confidence. But each time it has always worked out well. People seem to take it as a challenge and when I see them again 6 months later the changes have always been amazing. This is always a last resort for me and I still feel worried about putting people in the naughty corner and coming down on them so hard, but so far it has never been a mistake.


The second approach that I have used successfully is to work the student’s work to demonstrate what their horse is capable of doing and then guiding them step-by-step through the process. For some people, this approach seems to excite them to try to achieve what I was able to achieve. They doubted their horse's ability to make a change, but when shown what it could be like they step up. They challenge themselves to make a difference and both the owner and the horse turn out winners.


I have even on occasion made bets with people that if they achieve a certain goal by the next clinic I will buy them a bottle of wine and if they don’t succeed they owe me a bottle of Scotch. So far I am several bottles of wine down and am still waiting for my first bottle of Laphroag. But I am more than okay with that.


What I have learned from these experiences is what I learned from Michèle critiquing my ride on Riley. Despite being a more highly evolved individual than most humans, I am trying to get in touch with my more primitive instincts and work harder at being vigilant and disciplined in both my horsemanship and my teaching. So my message to all of you other highly evolved people is try to be more like the less advanced of our species by not being lazy in your horsemanship. We owe it to the horses.


Photo: Thanks to Ben Moxon and Sari Maydew who kindly gifted us the rainbow halter and lead, Riley and I were able to ride in support of equal marriage rights for all.