The Thinking Horseman

“We have the aspiration of creators and the propensity of quadrupeds” – W. Winwood Read.


That quote was on the first page of my PhD thesis looking into the causes and characteristics of growth retardation in full term fetuses. It summed up how I felt at the time. I began my postgraduate studies thinking that singlehandedly I was going to solve the problem of why babies are born small and unhealthy and how we could prevent it. I finished my degree feeling a lifetime was not long enough to answer all the questions. The aspirations of a creator and the propensity of a quadruped – that was me.


A small number of people that knew me back in those days as a young scientist have said what a pity all that knowledge has gone to waste. They felt the potential that began with the many years of study and work focused on our understanding of birth and its many problems, was lost when I left research and became a professional horseman.


However, I believe the most important skill I learned from my years in science was an appreciation of an enquiring mind and how to use it. It has shaped my life in almost every way. It has underpinned almost all of the important decision of my life. And it forms the framework of my horsemanship. It’s skill that I value and give credit to my scientific mentors for developing.


Some years ago I attended a demonstration of starting a horse by a trainer who had apprenticed with one of the leading American lights of horsemanship at the time. He was certified by the American guru to be his representative down under. At the demonstration I watched the trainer drive a young 3 year old around a round yard. He was looking for the horse to change direction by turning both to the inside of the yard and the outside of the yard when requested. Despite having been imprint trained as a foal and been shown in hand for the past 2 years, the horse was clearly overwhelmed with stress at being chased around the yard. It’s ability to think unravelled before my eyes as the trainer chased the horse around the yard. The horse didn’t know what was going on. It only knew to run.


The exercise had been going for some 20 minutes. Things were not going according to plan because the horse kept making outside turns when asked to perform an inside turn and visa versa. After a lot of sweating by both horse and human the trainer was finally satisfied that the turns were good enough. He stopped driving the horse and told us that he was now going to walk up and pat the horse. He raised his hand and walked quietly to the horse’s face. When the fellow got about 3 metres away, it spun around and took off again. The trainer immediately began driving the horse around the yard. After a few minutes the driving stopped and he once again tried to approach the horse. But again it took off as he got close to its head. This was repeated several times. Both horse and trainer were close to exhaustion. But still, he could not pat the horse.


Out of sheer frustration I got out of my chair and said, “Excuse me, but can I ask a question?”


‘Sure, what is it?” he said.


“Well, the horse is clearly worried about you approaching its head. So I was wondering if it might not be better to try to touch him somewhere else like the shoulder and work your way up to his head as he relaxed more?”


The trainer replied, “That would just teach him that he gets to choose where I can touch him. He would then learn he runs the show and not me.”


The fellow never was able to rub the horse on the face.


But the reason I bring this story up is that the trainer did not think through the problem. He had a program that he learned through an established training scheme, but the program did not teach him to think. It only taught him how to do exercises. He was stuck in a system that did not allow him to try ideas that were outside of the system.


This is a massive problem in the horse world. It’s everywhere from local instructors at pony club to Olympic coaches. Every book or video on how to train a horse is guilty of perpetuating single-track thinking. Every instructor who tells a student how to do something rather than tell them to play around with an idea and experiment is guilty. Every rider who does what they are told without thought or question is guilty. Every instructor who instructs, but does not explain is guilty. Every trainer who uses their qualifications or fame and popularity as proof of their brilliance is guilty.


I’m not suggesting that enrolling in a certified program or subscribing to an online video course or receiving ‘how-to’ instruction from your favourite guru or coach is wrong or lacks merit. This is not the case at all. We all need help with the exercises. We all need guidance in how to do things. For most of us, a little handholding is essential from time to time. But alongside the exercises, we also need encouragement to question our instruction and think about why we do things and why we don’t do other things. To me, this seems to be the part that is missing from most of the help that is available to people. So often the attitude from our mentors is “its my way or the highway.”


I’ve had a few mentors in my life that have both influenced my actions and my thinking when it comes to horses. But despite the esteem I hold for them in, I cannot mimic them. I can’t be a clone of them.  I have had to find my own horsemanship.


If you examine the work of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt you would be hard pressed to find two horsemen that approached things more differently. Tom was Ray’s mentor, but Ray was not a clone. Both men were brilliantly talented, but very different. I believe this was because Ray developed ideas and experimented with concepts independently of what Tom taught. I have no doubt that was in large part because Tom encouraged Ray in this process, rather than just instruct him how to do things.


I believe the same is true of my experience of Harry Whitney. In my view, Harry is the best horseman around these days and the closest we now have to Tom Dorrance’s thinking. Yet, the most value I receive from Harry is not from trying to copy him, but from discussing and swapping ideas with him. We agree and we disagree. Yet, either way it always adds another dimension to my understanding. Harry has encouraged me to be different from him and I believe he would disappointed if just tried to be a carbon copy.


As a teacher, I try to encourage others to figure out their own path. It’s important that people establish their own set of principles that they use to judge the methods they (and others) use. That’s the only reason the books I have written are about ideas and not exercises. It’s the reason why my posts on Facebook or my blog are predominantly discussions about principles, not procedures. 


In the photo Harry and I are discussing some fundamentally important points of horsemanship While I accept that it is Harry’s right to be wrong, I am using my usual brilliant deductive logic (a slap across the chops) to help him see the light. That’s what friends are for!


Using Seat and Legs

This post is prompted from watching the Robert Dover video I posted a few days ago.


In the video clip Mr Dover discusses the way a rider should apply their legs when asking a horse to negotiate a turn with a lateral bend.


One of the things I come across on a regular basis is the idea that a horse should be ridden more from a rider’s seat and legs than from use of the reins. As many of you who have attended my clinics will already know I am a big believer in teaching a horse to be brilliant off the reins before worrying about teaching them to be brilliant from the seat and legs. But from time to time I come across people who are uncomfortable with this idea because it contradicts years of education in a more European style of training. I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t want my horse to work from my seat and legs alone as the training becomes more refined and it is ready. However, this is not important to me until my horse can be soft and responsive to my reins. And there is a reason for this.


In the early stages of training we teach a horse that contact with our legs means get some life in your feet. Usually this translate into going forward because (i) the flight instinct of a horse often creates a ‘go forward’ reaction, and (ii) we normally start a horse’s education with teaching that the correct response to application of a rider’s leg is to go forward.


But then comes the day when we get all excited about teaching our horse to turn when we rotate our body and apply inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth. To many this moment signifies the transition from a green horse to an educated horse. It is the leaving behind of the basics and the beginning of a new era of partnership, harmony and togetherness.


However, if the ‘go forward’ lesson is well established (which it should be) in the beginning virtually every horse will see the application of inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth as a cue to speed up – not a signal to turn. There is nothing built into a horse to know the magic power of inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth.


This is where the importance of a brilliant response to the reins comes into the equation. If we have already taught our horse to follow the turn with the inside rein, it is a relatively simple transition to convert the feel of our seat and legs from the ‘go forward’ cue to the ‘turn’ cue. Start by offering a feel of your legs to indicate a turn and follow a half a second with the inside rein. Repeat it over and over with seat/legs first and back it up with inside rein to give meaning to the seat and leg cues. It won’t take very long before the horse will being to turn the moment it feels the seat and legs come into play.


Overwhelmingly what I see as the biggest sin in this process occurs at the beginning of the training when a horse tries to go forward instead of turning. A lot of people try to get bigger with their legs in an attempt to make the horse obedient to turning. Don’t do this. It will build a fight in your horse. He believes that the rider is asking him to go more forward the more pressure the rider applies with their legs. When a horse tries to go forward when the legs are applied, just hinder an increase in the forward response with the outside rein and use the inside rein to indicate a turn. The seat and legs should ONLY be used with enough energy that a horse can feel them being applied. They should not be used firmer to make the horse turn.


Now that I have said all that, I’m going to tell you that I don’t do it that way. I’ve mentioned those tips for those that are taught to ride their horse through turns in a very orthodox European style. But it’s not what I do with my horses.


As it was discussed in the comments about the Robert Dover video clip, riding like that is an attempt to trap a horse between the rider’s legs. It’s a mechanical approach to riding and has little to do with being in harmony with a horse.


When I begin riding a horse I spend a lot of time teaching its thoughts to follow the feel of the inside rein. The rein indicates to the horse it should think in that direction. When a horse’s thought is directed to where the rein is indicating, its feet will follow because everything a horse tries to do is preceded by what it is thinking about trying to do.


We don’t control the horse’s body; we only converse with its mind to try to influence its thoughts in order for the horse to tell its body to go along with our ideas. So when the reins ask a horse to think about going in a certain direction, and the horse says “okay”, it will be the nicest turn you could get because there will be no resistance and no competing thoughts to draw the horse somewhere else. I don’t have to use my inside leg to try to get the horse to bend around it and outside leg to try to block the hindquarters from drifting. The horse’s thoughts will take care of all those issues for me.


What I haven’t yet mentioned is using my seat and legs. I’ve been using them from day 1, but not working at using them. From the first ride when I want to ask my horse to turn, I rotate my shoulders and hips to the inside and put a feel in the inside rein. When I rotate my body to the line of the turn, it has the cascading effect of adding a slightly differnt feel to my outside and inside thighs. My outside thigh squeezes closer to the horse’s shoulder just a fraction more, while my inside thigh relaxes a fraction less. At the same time my outside seat bone moves marginally forward and my inside seat bone moves marginally backwards.


I don’t try to make the changes in my seat bones or my legs happen. They just occur because I rotate my body slight in the direction of the turn. The action of my seat and legs is passive, not active. With repetition, soon a horse picks up on the changes in my body as precursors to making a turn. As the horse gets better at following the feel of the inside rein with its mind, it starts to follow the feel of my seat and legs too. In time the inside rein takes a less active role until the day comes when it seems like you don’t need to use it anymore.


Notice that the way my legs come into play is very different to the traditional inside leg on the girth and outside leg behind the girth. This is because I’m not trying to use my legs to control the horse’s bend. I try to influence the thought of the horse and when that is right I let the horse balance itself around the turn.


To me this is what riding in partnership means. I play my role of talking to my horse’s mind and it plays it’s role of carrying itself. I do my part and let my horse to its part without interference.


The photo shows a rider that is using a lot of outside leg and rein. There is nothing passive about those aids.

Check This Out

This is a short video of a talk given by Robert Dover.


After watching the video I found myself disagreeing with almost everything Mr Dover had to say about bending.


It is the teaching of concepts like these that I am constantly battling against in my clinics because I believe they contribute to the state of dressage (and riding in general) in the world.


As you watch this clip keep in mind the following points, which I find contradict my own ideas.


1. Definition of straightness.

2. That there are three bending aids

3. The use of the inside leg and why it is used.

4. The placement of the horse’s centre of gravity.

5. The placement of the outside leg, why it is used and its effect on the horse.

6.  What a correct lateral bend looks like.


Robert Dover is a horseman with an enormously impressive resumé. He is a multiple Olympian and bronze medal winner in dressage. He has been technical advisor for both the Canadian and USA national dressage teams. He has been inducted in the US Dressage Federation Hall of Fame.


On the other hand, my mum thinks I ride pretty well.


So what gives me the credibility to disagree with such an esteemed horseman? The answer is found in my reasons for disagreeing.


If you want to understand why I disagree with most of the points in the video, I recommend you read my book The Essence Of Good Horsemanship or come to a clinic to ask your question or do both if you can.



It was twenty years ago. Jeri’s brand new Range Rover pulled into the driveway dragging a horse float behind that looked more like a 5 star hotel room. Inside was a 3-year-old grey mare, Bonnie. My job was to start Bonnie under saddle for Jeri. Bonnie had come from a long line of winners and it was Jeri’s most cherished dream the mare would continue the family tradition. She had bred Bonnie from her favourite mare and had a lot of hope and emotion invested in the horse.


My first look at Bonnie was a bit of a shock. Jeri had already told me on the phone how special Bonnie was and of her amazing bloodlines. So I was really surprised to see that the horse standing in front of me was a conformational disaster. She looked like a cartoon character from the Encylopeadia of Bad Conformation. Most notably her back was very long and her back legs showed no sign of having hocks – they were almost straight. I guessed that if Bonnie had been born in the wild she would not live past the age of 10.


But I liked Bonnie. I liked her a lot. She was smart and playful. She had more character than a dozen horses with just a little bit of mischief in her. I remember watching her play with my gelding by grabbing his tail and pulling him to follow her. Then there was a time when she grabbed a lead rope that hung from the fence and twirled it around and around in a perfect circle just for the fun of it. We got along great and she was so much fun to work with.


As it came time for Jeri to take Bonnie home I did my best to convey to her that I felt Bonnie was a brilliant horse, but that her body was probably going to stop her from being able to cope with hard work. Jeri’s dream was for Bonnie to be her next endurance star and one day win the Tom Quilty Gold Cup (an important 160km race in Australia). When I told Jeri that this was never going to happen and pointed out all the reasons why her horse’s mis-shapened body would let her down, Jeri seemed crestfallen – but only for a short while.


I next saw Bonnie about three years later. I got a phone call from a woman who had bought Bonnie for her teenage daughter to ride at pony club. It seems Jeri was not happy with my advice to ride Bonnie as a pleasure horse and some low level dressage to strengthen her back and hindquarters. She got better advice from a person who encouraged her with her dream for Bonnie to one day be in the hall of fame of endurance horses. For two years Bonnie was in the champion’s program that all horses destined for greatness must endure. She had early success in a few 40km events, which was enough for her to dismiss my earlier advice. However, at the end of the second year Jeri finally succumbed to the inevitable truth than Bonnie’s body was falling apart with the work. She was showing early signs of sacro-iliac damage and on-again/off-again lameness in the right fore. Jeri’s dream was abandoned for now and the horse was left fallow in a paddock. A year later Sue bought Bonnie for her 14-year-old daughter, Nicole.


Bonnie was Nicole’s second horse and her jumping instructor told Sue that she needed to upgrade from a pony to a real horse with more potential. Bonnie was the right size, right age and right price. Although untested in competition, Bonnie also had the right bloodlines.


Sue sent Bonnie to me because she found the horse a bit too strong for her daughter. Her training as an endurance horse had undone the nice, fun, soft horse I sent home with Jeri. I was sad to see Bonnie in this state, but I hoped the real Bonnie was still inside somewhere.


With some slow, easy work to begin, I started to see the old Bonnie. I felt like I had tapped into a gold seam of fun again. She was no longer a beaten down 6 year old. She was the 3 year old I remembered and loved. After about a month, it was time to get Nicole riding Bonnie before the horse went home.


I guided Nicole in how I wanted her to communicate with Bonnie. We rode together for the next couple of weeks in the arena and out on trails. Nicole was so thrilled to ride a horse that felt so free. Free to go, free to stop, free to turn, free to wait and see what Nicole was going to ask next. The grin on the girl’s face was worth a week’s wages and the okay-ness inside Bonnie was worth a month’s.


I tried to emphasize to Sue and Nicole that Bonnie might be the best horse they will ever own, but she is not destined to be a competitive show jumper. I was sure they got the message and felt good about things when they pulled out of my gateway with Bonnie in tow.


I can’t recall how long it was before the next time I saw Bonnie – it might have been another 4 years. I got a phone call asking me to go to Helen’s place to assess a horse that was bucking. Helen had bought Bonnie from a woman who had bought her from Sue and Nicole, but was afraid of the horse. Helen had re-educated horses with bucking problems before and bought Bonnie thinking she could do it again. But Bonnie was an unpredictable bucker and this unpredictability had bested Helen’s skills.


I tried hard to fight back the tears when I saw it was Bonnie. She was a shell of a horse – her eyes, her expression were totally dead. Her knees were thickened, her back was saggy and hollow and her sacro-iliac protruded like the point of an arrow. I found out that Nicole had been jumping her and had reached C grade before Bonnie started to develop lameness in her knees and the pedal bone on her right front foot had sunk to a degree that she needed special shoeing. I suspected she had also begun bucking intermittently, but forgot to tell the new owner, who had to discover it for herself. Then she passed to Helen who was looking for an adult riding club horse to do some low-level dressage competitions and trail riding with friends.


Helen asked if I could fix Bonnie’s bucking problem. I told her considering her many physical problems I wanted to begin with the vet. It took a couple of weeks of investigation before x-rays revealed quite a severe kissing spine syndrome. This is where two or more of the vertical processes of the spine touch and cause considerable pain. It’s common in horses with swaybacks, such a broodmares or very old horses. There is no cure and the best you can do is manage the symptoms.


The vet’s advice was to retire Bonnie and I agreed. Helen was not satisfied and more than a little unhappy that she had bought a horse she wasn’t suppose to ride. She sought out two other vets for opinions and only finally accepted the verdict after she had spent another $3000 for their advice.


My last phone conversation was about Bonnie’s future. I told her that I felt very said for Bonnie, but the body she was born with always meant she was not going to have a healthy life. I said that I thought Bonnie was a fabulous horse and would make a great companion for her next horse.  As Helen and I talked I really felt we were on the same page and Bonnie was finally going to have a peaceful, low stress existence living out her days as a happy paddock companion. Then Helen shattered by delusion with her final words, “Well, I guess next season I’ll put her in foal.”


Bonnie is not the only horse that I remember with equally sad tales. But when people criticize me for my negative feelings about competition, I believe if they had known Bonnie they would understand.

A Cowboy With Attitude

I think this is a good laugh!