Size Versus Size

I want to discuss a topic that gets very little intelligent discussion. Talk on this topic is mostly made behind people’s backs and is often no more than biased criticism. Let me state now that if anybody makes a comment that is childish or disparaging to other people their comment will be deleted, they’ll be sent to the headmasters’s office and may incur a suspension.


I want to talk about size versus size. I mean the size of a rider versus the size of a horse. Although, this is not a topic that is often openly discussed intelligently it is an issue for very many people. The subject lacks good information and is most often only discussed in disparaging terms that make some riders feel bad about themselves. I believe this is not helpful.


I’ll state from the outset that I do not agree that big riders cannot be great riders. Proof for this view comes in the form of a very talented horsewoman, Lee Smith. Lee is a first class trainer and rider, and is a large person. Anybody who watches Lee working horses will have to agree with my view that a person’s size does not have to limit their ability to ride and train horses well.


Most people see large people on short horses and are concerned for the horse. However, a horse’s height is not necessarily a factor in its weight carry capacity. Many draft ponies such as Highland, Fjord, Halfinger etc can carry as much or more than their taller cousins. A more relevant factor is the weight of the horse because this takes into account the density of bone, muscle mass and size of the girth or barrel of a horse – which are more important factors in determining the carrying capacity of a horse.


It’s hard to find too many facts on the subject of size versus size. There has been a long held view that a rider’s weight should not exceed 20% (or one fifth) of a horse’s weight. You’ll find some old cavalry manuals state this. That means if a horse weighs 500kg, the rider should weigh 100kg or less.


A study in 2008 showed that the ideal rider’s weight was between 10% and 15% of a horse’s weight. If the rider weighed 25% of the horse’s weight, some muscle soreness and damage was observed along the horse’s back. Riders that weighed 30% of their horse’s weight caused significant soreness in horses.


However, there are several factors that were not considered and which can mitigate a horse’s tolerance for carrying weight.


Horses with short backs are less likely to develop soreness than those with longer backs. A horse’s tolerance for carrying weight is related to the conformation of their backs. Short coupling and well-set hindquarters provide a horse with a greater ability to carry a large rider with comfort. Most people who ride performance horses already know this.


Secondly, a horse with good muscle development and topline will more readily be able to resist back soreness caused by a large rider than an unfit horse with undeveloped topline. Horses with a sway in their back need more care than horses with flatter toplines and wide barrels.


Another factor is saddle fit. Making sure the horse is carrying a well-fitted and balanced saddle is even more important than normal when the rider is a large person. Damage from any little pressure points will be magnified with increasing weight of a rider.


A big factor in a horse’s weight carrying ability is relaxation. A horse with tension in its topline will inevitable become sore quickly, irrespective of a rider’s weight. But the larger the rider, the quicker and more severe the soreness will develop. This factor is a no brainer. It is important that we all work our horses towards being as soft and relaxed as possible in order to maintain comfort and soundness. It is no less important for horses with large riders. A horse with a tight topline will very quickly develop a sore back.


The way a larger person rides is arguably one of the most important factors in keeping a horse sound.


When a rider’s weight borders on what a horse can comfortably tolerate for long term soundness, they need to maintain a good position that puts them as closely aligned to the centre of gravity of a horse as can be. A horse’s balance point and a rider’s balance point need to be as close as possible, if not overlapping. It means not riding like a sack of coal, keeping quiet in the saddle and following the horse’s movements with our seat.


Lastly, I have noticed that many of us (including myself) lose their flexibility and athletic prowess as we get older and gain more weight. As much as I resent my body letting me down as I age, I have to accept that I will never again be the Adonis I once was. Nevertheless, I try to maintain my flexibility and strength because my work demands it. Simple exercise is slowing down my delapidation. I can mount most horses without the need for a fence or mounting block. I am able to move and adjust my position in the saddle easily. I can still move my feet pretty quickly when a horse pulls hard on the lead rope. And I can still put my socks on each morning while standing.


If I can do those things with a little regular exercise and stretching, then so can anybody else - carrying extra weight or not. It is important to both the horse’s well being and the ability to ride well that a big rider maintain core strength and flexibility to go with their horse, while still being relaxed in the body. It just takes a little effort.


The bottom line is that a large person can be a good rider without harming their horse. It’s a good idea to think about the 20% rule when choosing a horse. But if you are riding a horse that is small for your size, making sure your horse is fit and relaxed, use a well-fitting saddle and maintain a good riding position and flexibility in order to ensure long-term soundness. It’s nothing more than every rider should keep in mind.


This photo was taken of Lee Smith at clinic she did in Scottsdale, Arizona about 8 years ago


I’ve had a request to write about horses that bite people from a friend of a woman who owns such a horse. I am told the horse is not too bad when ridden, but can be quite cranky when being handled on the ground and has already bitten its owner several times – one time resulting in a large haematoma. The owner believes the horse is “quirky” and following her instructors suggestion she whacks the horse’s legs with a riding crop every time the horse looks like it might bite.


Before I begin, I want to make the point that although I will be discussing the problem of biting specifically, the principles I’ll be raising may equally apply to many other behaviours such as ear pinning, kicking, pawing, wood chewing etc. There is a commonality to many behaviours we see in our horses and few things exist in isolation.


It is true that most biting occurs during ground handling, but I have had come across horses that will attempt to bite a rider. So biting is not exclusively a groundwork problem.


I don’t know the horse at all, so I can’t say if the horse is quirky or not. However, biting at people is almost never a personality disorder. It is triggered by bad feelings erupting into action. I have never seen a “happy biter”.


Most biting develops because a horse feels frustrated with how to deal with the stress of pressure or what is being asked. Usually a horse bites when it is conflicted with what it feels it needs to do and what the handler wants it to do. The answer to resolving the pressure a handler puts on them is elusive and in their search to eliminate the pressure they might try biting at the source of their problem. They would do the same thing to another horse if it were the cause of their dilemma.


When a horse first bites a person, it is a normal reaction for the person to jump back, release the pressure, rub their injury etc. When we do this we give the horse a momentary release from the pressure – enough of a reprieve that within a very short number of repetitions the horse learns the benefits of biting. Soon it becomes a habit that pops up whenever there is enough frustration to trigger the behaviour. Biting is no more than a horse’s way of trying to get a better deal for itself when a handler isn’t listening to them.


The least imaginative, but most common way, of fixing the problem is to punish a horse for biting. I have encountered people who will instantly smack a horse in the mouth or make them back up a million miles an hour or whack them with a whip (as in the case of the woman I mention). Punishment never resolves the problem. Hitting a horse may eventually teach it to stop biting, but the ill feelings have not been resolved and still lay inside the horse. Those feelings will need to be expressed somehow in the form of some other unwanted behaviour. Suppressing the biting is not the answer.


In addition, a horse will learn to be wary of a person who inflicts punishment. It destroys trust and confidence in a person and ruins any chance of a good relationship between horse and human.


I’m not suggesting that people accept being bitten as being okay. People should protect themselves from the severity that a horse’s bite can inflict. Some of you might remember reading the Story Of Satan, where the horse had the habit of reaching around to grab my leg and fling me from the saddle. In that instance, I protected myself by wearing cricket pads while riding.


At clinics I usually tell people to be alert and prepared for when they see their horse moving to bite them. As the horse reaches for the person, block the bite from happening with an arm or hand. Do something to prevent the horse’s mouth from making contact. However, if a person is late and they get bitten, then rub the wound, say ‘ouch’ and forget about it. Be more vigilant next time. Don’t seek revenge on the horse. Once it’s happened, it’s over, forget it.


The real solution to overcoming a horse’s biting habit happens on two fronts. The first is to clear up the confusion and frustration that evoke the bad feelings inside a horse. If those feelings don’t occur, neither does the biting. This is a big picture issue. It’s not a matter of doing a series of exercises to counter the problem. Eliminating the feelings that cause a horse to want to bite means always making sure you work with a horse’s focus, offer it absolute clarity of what you are asking and always end with a horse feeling better and softer at the end of each task. For those that are unsure what I mean, I can recommend an excellent book on the topic of focus, clarity and softness called The Essence Of Good Horsemanship by Ross Jacobs – I’ve heard whispers that it is pretty good.


The second course of action that is applied hand-in-hand with the first is to deal with the habit of biting. Once biting has become a habit, the habit needs to be re-shaped. Good timing and good feel are very important here. It involves seeing the idea of biting forming in a horse’s thoughts and interrupting those thoughts before they evolve into action. It means being aware that a horse is thinking about biting and substituting that thought with another thought.


For example, if I am leading my horse and I notice a sideways glance in my direction, a tightness around the eyes and mouth and a little change in his responsiveness, I might ask my horse to turn right or back up or yield the hindquarters or trot forward or pick up a foot or look to the left or lower his head. It doesn’t matter what I ask him to do. It only matters that it gives him something else to think about other than leaving a bite-sized impression in my forearm.


Because my horse was thinking about biting me, when I ask him to do something else inevitably there will be some resistance and maybe even crankiness. I will continue to ask my horse for the new thing until the resistance is replaced with a softer response. It’s only when the horse offers a softer response can I be sure that he has let go of the idea to bite me and taken on the thought to follow the feel I present with the new task. I have substituted the thought to bite with a new thought. If I stop asking before my horse is softer, I know there has been no change of thought or emotions, and my horse has learned nothing from the exercise. There is no learning without a change of thought. In order to be effective, this process requires vigilance and consistency on the part of the handler.


Some horses express their inner feelings through biting. If this becomes a habit, we have to look at our approach to training that is causing this behaviour. Happy horses don’t bite people.

Rock Climbing Mule



True Horsemen

You will often read these days a description of a particular horse person as a “true horseman”. I realize it is suppose to be a compliment, but sometimes in my view the subject of the compliment is a mediocre or even horrible horse person. It seems the term “true horseman” is very subjective and means different things to different people. What does “true horseman” really mean?


A friend advertised a clinic she was hosting for me on a forum. Somebody (who had never seen me work horses) asked on her post why would she waste her time organizing a clinic for Ross Jacobs because I was not the “real deal”. My friend asked what did he mean? The fellow replied that I was not the real deal because I have never worked with his favourite mentors who were true horsemen.


Anyway, it started me thinking about how we judge people and what characteristics are common among the true horsemen and women. However, it might be easier to begin with features that have become mythical in the labeling of a true horse person and which I don’t think hold true when you look at different true horse people.


1. Humility – I hear a lot about how a true horse person is humble, quiet and not self-promoting. I don’t agree with this at all. I see some talented horse people that are like this and some are the opposite. Some great horse people have huge egos. Having an ego is a feature of being human and we all have one. Some talented (and not-so talented) horse people have some of the biggest egos.


2. The Horse Comes First – this is almost never true despite the legend. For most of us, we come first and the horse is second. However, sometimes we come first, the business comes second and the horse comes third.


3. True Horsemen Learn From The Horse – this is such a common epithet. I’ve come across so many people giving all credit for their abilities to listening to horses. While I agree it is essential to listen and learn from horses, very few people have developed their skills without learning from other horse people. I think this is part of the ego thing again.


4. True Horsemen Are Born With Feel – few things raise my blood pressure quicker than this nonsense. We are all born with feel. That’s how we know to be gentle with babies or how to steer a shopping trolley. I know some really good horse people who have worked hard to develop excellent feel and continue to do so. A person does need brilliant feel to be a brilliant horse person, but one does not have to be born with it. With time and commitment we can all learn to have great feel.


Those are the round pen myths that pop into my head when people talk about a true horseman. But what are the things I believe are true when I think about a true horseman? This is my off the cuff list (in no particular order) of the characteristics I find in the true horse people I admire.


1. Love Of Horses – a true horse person must love horses. The time and commitment needed to be good with horses is bloody hard work and the financial rewards a small. Very few horse people make a lot of money. For a true horse person I think the reward is helping troubled horses be less troubled – there is no great kick than that in my opinion.


2. Smart And Imaginative – a true horse person needs to be a thinker. They need to find solutions to horse problems they have never encountered before.


3. Curious And Ambitious – a true horse person needs to be curious about why things work or don’t work or how they could work better. It’s an ambition to be a better horse person and not be satisfied with what you know.


4. Be Emotionless – a true horse person can suppress their emotions when working with horses. This means they approach the work with patience and without anger, joy, frustration, excitement or whatever. It also means that issues that belong outside of the arena remain outside of the arena.


5. Feel, Timing, Balance – it goes without saying that a true horse person has learned to have feel, timing and balance in bucket loads.


6. Confidence – confidence is vital to be a true horse person. A person must have confidence in their abilities in order to see it through when things are not working according to plan. You must have confidence in yourself in order to experiment, try something new and abandoned tried and true approaches. Confidence is needed in order to ignore the critics. Sometimes a true horse person can even be cocky, but not so cocky that they believe there isn’t anymore to learn.


7. Awareness – every good horse person I know has a keen sense of being aware of multiple things simultaneously. Even without know that they see things, they see things and interpret almost unconsciously their meaning.


That’s about all I can think of right now. I am sure you can come up with your own list of traits for either the first or second list. I’m equally sure I missed some out, but it doesn’t matter.


The thing I want people to appreciate is that being a true horse person just means being good with horses. True horse people still embody the desirable and undesirable traits that we all have. They are just people that are good with horses.


This photo is of a couple of my favourite “true horse people” – Michèle Jedlicka and Harry Whitney.

Getting Professional Help

A few days ago I received an email from a lady asking me for advice on how she should go about starting her gelding under saddle. She has decided to do the job herself because she previously has had a bad experience with a professional horse breaker. The total sum of experience the woman has had is as a show rider for the past 15 years. She has no experience with unbroken horses or even young green horses.


I asked her if she would let her accountant re-wire her house? I asked her if she would allow a postman, who owned a medical textbook, treat her illnesses? There is a reason why the law requires a house to be wired by somebody with a qualified electrician or a qualified doctor to prescribe drugs.


Starting horses is something most people with reasonable skills can learn to do. But they need to LEARN to do it. It is not something that you know how to do because you ride horses. Training young horses is a specialized skill. Being a rider does not give a person that qualification.


I am all for people learning to start young horses. It is a great skill to have and can be a great benefit to rounding out a person’s overall understanding of horses. However, people need to remember that even though training is an interest or passion for us, it is life and death for a horse. Our mistakes remain a burden for a horse to carry the rest of its life. It is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly or whimsically.


If a person wants to start horses they should find the best person they can to mentor them. Hang around them like a bot fly in summer. Pay them for their time. When a person is ready to start their own horse they should take it to a trainer and have them supervise the process.


When starting horses, so many situations arise that just being a good rider can’t prepare you for. If you’ve never had a horse that believed strapping a saddle on was a near-death experience, what are you going to do? If you’ve never sat on a horse that the touch of a rider’s leg caused such fear, the horse froze on the spot and refused to move, what are you going to do? If you’ve never sat on a horse where the feel of the reins caused it to bolt, what are you going to do?


Horses are reservoirs of knowledge. Their minds are filled with the lessons they learn from every experience – including from their experience with us. Young horses are sponges with a ferocious appetite for this knowledge. Nothing is forgotten. Therefore, it is important that the things we teach them are the things we want them to learn. If the wrong information creeps into their knowledge base, it can never be eradicated. It’s there for life. You might be able to change a behaviour by ensuring the root causes don’t pop up. But if something happens to rekindle the feelings that created the bad behaviour, it will re-appear in an instant. Stuff a horse learns is never forgotten; it just sits below the surface ready to bubble up again when the old ill feelings return.


This makes it so important that we do everything we can to ensure we teach a young horse only the desirable behaviours. It’s a huge responsibility. Stumbling around trying to mimic the training you read in a book or watched on a video or at a clinic, makes the probability of doing a good job of training a young horse about as likely as doing a good job of removing a patients brain tumour after reading a surgical text. Horses deserve better.