Create a Better Classroom for Learning

Take time to understand what your horse if feeling


During the horsemanship clinic I gave up in Albuquerque last fall, one of the participants asked an interesting question. She wanted to know how I would summarize, in a few short phrases, my primary points of emphasis in my teaching. We live in a bullet point world now, so after thinking for a moment this is what I came up with.

  • First, above all else, is safety. Every interaction with a horse should start by looking at safety for the human, the horse and for any other people or animals that could be injured if things got out of hand.
  • Second, understanding and embracing your role as a steward for these animals. This is a big job and it requires an owner to look at the horse’s life in total – diet, vet care, living situation, proper exercise, the needs of a herd animal, timely end of life decisions.
  • Third, our responsibility to create an environment where we teach and train our horses in ways that make sense to them and that are based on the way they learn. This means acquiring the knowledge and developing the skills to become a partner and leader, not a boss or bully, that understands how a horse sees the world, what his behavior really means, and who looks to make sure the horse is in the right physical and mental place to learn.

Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around my third point. What does it really mean to see and teach through the eyes of the horse? In one way or another I’ve tried to teach these concepts over the past 20 years, but I often find if I see the same words expressed in another way by a noted trainer, it can help riders see the importance of developing this thought process when working with your horse.

I recently came across these comments from one of the top horsemen of this generation, Denny Emerson. He is a trainer, horseman and rider at the top of equine sport. These comments come from an article in the winter edition of Equus magazine and were adapted from his latest book, “Begin and Begin Again: The Bright Optimism of Reinventing Life with Horses.” In many ways, he is confirming the old adage that has been passed down through all great trainers and riders – the horse is always right:

“If you’ve ever tried to study when you had a headache, you can appreciate how hard it is for a horse to learn when he is nervous, fearful, uncomfortable or in actual pain.

“Take, for example, a horse with a leverage bit and a cranked-tight cavesson, who is asked to perform canter to walk transitions by a hard-handed rider who is wearing spurs and carrying a dressage whip. When the horse doesn’t come back readily, he gets jabbed in the mouth. If he doesn’t quickly pick up the correct lead, he feels the spurs and smack of the whip.

“Is this horse in a good learning place? Is this horse receptive to the aids? Is this horse supple and elastic? Are the lessons being forced upon him lessons that will create a more supple, willing and calmly responsive horse?

“Can a horse who is tense and fearful and in discomfort learn, or is the first job of the rider, before any training is possible, to try to get the horse to be calm and comfortable? Again, I ask, how well do you learn when you are scared and bullied?

“In nearly all training situations, most horses, most of the time, are less than perfect. How often, in real life, do we experience anything like the ideal ride? It’s partly because we don’t find that lovely harmony, that partnership, that makes training necessary in the first place.

“So, here’s the fork in the road. The not so good trainer (or rider) is apt to think, ‘this horse won’t do what I want. Therefore, this horse is bad.’ The moment this conclusion is reached, the rider-trainer gives herself permission to punish the bad behavior.

“The good trainer-rider may also feel, ‘this horse is not doing what I want.’ But the good trainer-rider now thinks, ‘why is this happening? Is my horse uncomfortable? Is my saddle fitting poorly? Is the cavesson or girth too tight? Could he have ulcers? Is my seat too unsteady? Are my hands sympathetic enough?’

“This good trainer-rider will perhaps think, ‘Does this horse understand what I’m asking him to do? Is he fit enough to do it? Is he getting tired? Has he had enough calm warm-up or is he tight because he is full of unspent energy?’

“The good trainer-rider will look for real answers…

“Using the whip, spurs or bit improperly creates a vicious circle.

“The horse gets more scared and more uncomfortable and resists harder. The rider feels the heightened resistance and uses even more force, which creates more fear, and now the training session has only one way to go: bad, worse, terrible. And the session ends with a tired horse, an exasperated rider, and guess what? The next training session will probably be just as hard or worse, because it starts with an apprehensive horse and a rider determined to fix the problem.

“Force leads to force leads to force – until the whole cycle ends, and the rider gives up or is replaced by a more educated and sympathetic person. That horse is being driven down a rat hole, and we see this every day, every place where people ride and train horses.”

I think Emerson would agree that every single time you get on your horse, even if it’s just a leisurely trail ride with your friends, you’re in a teaching situation with significant responsibility for what the horse will learn from that ride.

I admit, when I started out, I had the same attitude that the horse should know how to do these things and should do what I want. I was fortunate enough to have teachers and mentors (and an opinionated horse!) who quickly knocked a little sense into my head and taught me to look at what I was doing first, rather than blaming the horse.

Most importantly, I had to learn to accept when I had to step back, work on my own skills and ask more questions of myself. And I had to become more sympathetic towards the needs of my horse before he could learn in ways that would be positive and lasting.

When a trainer of the stature of Denny Emerson tells you to look in the mirror and quiz yourself on why things are going the way they are with your horse, then I know I’ve been practicing and teaching horsemanship in the ways that horses really appreciate. And that’s good enough for me!