“Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block.”
A guest blog article by Horse Behavior Specialist Anita Kush
In my practice as a coach to horse owners and trainers, who seek a more mindful connection with their horse, I come across many, who have become caught up in a vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations, shattered hopes and dreams, disillusionment, and more – albeit adjusted – expectations. The way out of this cycle is to start by asking ourselves the right – and perhaps uncomfortable – questions.
[Now, please take some quiet time, read each question, pause after the question, answer it for yourself, honestly. Then move on to the next …]
When we arrive at the barn, what do we really see? Is it what is before us? Or is it our vision of what we want to be or achieve? And is our horse – our colleague in this endeavor – a partner or a slave to our ambitions and desires?
Is our goal predicated on a picture in a magazine, a moment frozen in time, a video, an idea, a concept, a wish, a book telling us that – yes – we too can look like and be THIS…if only we will follow a certain method or buy a certain product or gadget…
What is meaningful horse work? It is work that is considerate, fair, helpful, firm (when necessary) and facilitates long term understanding in relationship of the two parties involved.
What is the difference between “disobedience” and learning? Is it possible that what we interpret as disrespect or unwillingness to perform certain tasks, may be in reality lack of understanding? The horse showing us what he knows and that he is unable – not unwilling – to fulfill the request? Or that perhaps our question isn’t clear. What is accomplished by demanding that certain things happen – even though it may be physically or emotionally impossible for the horse to comply?
What is the process of learning that we need to understand? Making mistakes and struggling means: Your horse is trying to figure out a way to accomplish what you are asking. He is not avoiding the question!
“Remember, it is not about the task, it is about how we come to it. Is it with willing cooperation or grudging resentment? The choice is ours.” (Anita Kush)
Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block. Getting on is the culmination of the totality of the relationship between you and your horse. No gadget or video can give you the answer. There is no one size fits all method or equipment. See beyond mechanics and arm yourself with deeper knowledge.
The horse has all the answers! Look at the horse in front of you: He’ll always tell you the truth and live up to your expectations. Learn to expect what you want to see – a non-confrontational, cooperative and mindful interaction with your horse!
[If you are interested in a consultation with Anita Kush, please see her bio here or call +18477910494 or email caprioles at hotmail dot com.]
There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.
Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:
The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”. At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today. The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.
While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.
But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?
The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning
Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.
Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness
1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace
Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:
Incorrect use of spurs
Tightly adjusted bridles
Hard rider hands
Rider seat lacking suppleness
The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.
Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.
2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)
Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:
Bodywork & massage
The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.
3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.
The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:
Hollowed back or braced back
Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
Shallow, fast breath
Overall tension and short-striding
An many more….
The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.
The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.
Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!
While generalizing is always a bad idea – I’ll start with a little generalizing in order to keep this blog post at a manageable size. The topic – as you well know – fills many a book!
After, what seems, several decades of lots of pushing, prodding, pulling, and bracing in main stream equestrian sports – namely dressage – the general consensus seems to be getting back to a more classical approach, i. e. Lightness! Luckily for our horses, there has been increased buzz around classical riding websites and Facebook pages (such as Silvia Loch’s Classical Riding Club or the HDV12 German Cavalry Training Manual. as demonstrated so wonderfully here by Fritz Stecken on Noble). Along with that goes more awareness around so-called ‘modern’ riding techniques that cause bracing, tension and hyperflexion with the respective public criticism (e. g. “Rollkur” type of techniques or tense “circus-like” dressage performances).
But what’s the hype about?
Why Lightness is Necessary
Lightness is to touch what whispering is to voice. Just as pushing, pulling, prodding is to touch what shouting is to voice. As we become more enlightened about the nature of the horse, we learn that our silent, sensitive partners respond better to whispering than to shouting. As ‘loud’ interaction (whether via touch or voice) creates bracing in our horses, ‘soft’ interaction is the key to suppleness. Suppleness is the highest goal and basis for any schooling of the horse, no matter the school (French, Spanish or German).
So we (those of us, who put the horse’s wellbeing first) are looking for ways to become lighter. Lighter in our aids, lighter in our influences, lighter in our interactions with our sensitive equine partners.
Where Does Lightness Start?
Most riders spontaneously think of the reins. Indeed, sensitive, light rein contact is an expression of lightness. However, lightness starts at a deeper level: The mental and physical relaxation and suppleness of the rider, which can then find its expression in riding in lightness, developed through careful and systematic training (and ‘un’training!).
Getting Started With Lightness – Before Climbing in the Saddle
You don’t have to wait until you sit on the horse to work on your lightness. As a matter of fact, once you climb aboard, it’s hard to work on yourself. Mental & physical suppleness, which finds its expression in lightness, is best started in our every day activities.
Use Mental Imagery – day-dreaming with a purpose! Research shows that what we mentally train, we have an easier time realizing in ‘real life’. So day-dream away, but with a plan! Imagine yourself riding, then imagine yourself riding in lightness. Isolate various areas of your body, then put the picture together. Tackle anxiety, confidence issues, and limiting beliefs, we well. Do this while waiting at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, for example. (Resources: More about mental imagery for athletes here OR The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence (Collector’s Edition))
Last not Least– ditch unnecessary stress! Mental stressors cause tension in the body. Take a conscious look at what stresses you in your life and see what you can eliminate (e. g. the dog walker, who is always late; the hairdresser, who just can’t get it quite right; possible overcommittments, etc.)
Hope you will feel inspired to create Lightness in your life. It’s bound to make Riding with Lightness so much easier!
How to give wormer, medication, or electrolytes without battling the horse
Battling the horse for any reason is never a good idea. Even if we manage to muscle our way to goal achievement, both horse and human are left with a bad taste in their mouth, wormer or not. Any interaction between horse and human should be one of mutual understanding and cooperation, whenever possible.
Even the most well-meaning horse people, however, cave under the task of giving their horse an oral dose of wormer. Even for those, who practice fecal testing, it does become necessary to administer the foul-tasting chemical to the animal from time to time. No, I don’t buy the ‘apple flavor’! My horse’s face tells me that the stuff is not equine Godiva…
Over time, I have observed the following futile attempts to get the horse to accept the syringe and swallow the wormer:
Ear twitching (very, very dangerous to the horse’s ear cartilage!!!)
Tongue twitching (danger of fracturing small bones inside and connected to tongue!!!)
Use of nose twitch (while not downright dangerous, should be reserved for real emergencies)
Desperately hanging on to the halter (will help you spread wormer all over your new shirt)
Spreading the wormer over food (will entice the horse to spread the food all over the ground, this used to be my method of choice…)
and other similarly ineffective or drama-soaked techniques.
But what to do? The endurance riders among you probably already do it: You need to give your horse electrolytes during rides and probably practiced that with well-tasting syringe contents first. The trick is: Get your horse to happily accept syringes before approaching with the ill-tasting stuff!
This is the solution that will solve the problem in the long run and make worming ‘a piece of cake’:
What you need:
Empty syringes (farm supply store)
Unsweetened apple sauce (individual serving cups work well)
Any type of halter
A little patience
Every time you see your horse, find an opportunity to fill a syringe with apple sauce and gently move your hand with the syringe around the horse’s mouth. In the beginning, your horse may react unfavorably, thinking you are approaching with the wormer.
Don’t insist that your horse look at the syringe, simply make it available around the horse’s head. Curiosity will eventually lead the horse to take a sniff and let you touch his lips with the syringe. While your goal is to eventually be able to squirt the contents into your horse’s mouth, take your time and plan for several sessions.
Don’t ‘push’ the syringe on the horse. Hold it near the horse’s mouth and let it be the horse’s idea to approach it.
Be satisfied with small progress. A soft eye, not moving away from the syringe, may be a good goal for the first day.
Don’t have an agenda. Your horse will tell you when he is ready to give this a try.
Let the horse think that it is his idea to take the syringe into his mouth.
From then on, it’s smooth sailing!
There will be some disappointment after the first time the syringe does not contain apple sauce, but you can remedy this by squirting apple sauce into the horse’s mouth right after the wormer. He’ll take his chances with you again.
Let me know how this worked for you and leave a comment!
We humans are amazing animals. With our consciousness, drive, intelligence and stamina, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan, we accomplish great things and have thus made our mark on the planet (for better or worse…).
Yet, we still feel puzzled by our horses.
Why can we not achieve our training goal?
What is the reason for the ‘mystery lameness’ or
simple unwillingness of the horse to perform to the best of his abilities?
Being the true humans that we are, goal-oriented can-do attitude and all, we usually turn up the ‘chatter’, involve different or more specialists, various techniques or gadgets and DO, DO, DO, DO…
What is my point? I believe the answer to the above questions can—many times—lie in a different mode of operation. As retired Professor for Physics at the University of Oregon, Dr. Amit Goswami, puts it: “Don’t just DO, remember to BE! Change your mode from DO-DO-DO to DO-BE-DO!”
What does this have to do with our horses? The “BE” is time we simply spend with our horses. Togetherness in stress-free situations, meaning away from training/conditioning scenarios, vet visits and other activities with an agenda, can yield incredible results.
What kind of “BE”-activities are we talking about?
Going for walks (you walking with, not riding on the horse…)
Conscious grooming (without agenda, moving slowly, paying attention to the horse’s responses, letting him guide you through the process)
Taking your horse along when you want to chat with your barn buddy, simply stand there with him, relax and have your chat. He/she can ‘participate’. Same goes for watching someone else’s training (if environment is safe and appropriate).
Very slow and soft body exercises, such as lowering the head as described in “True Horsemanship through Feel” (Bill Dorrance 1998) or “Beyond Horse Massage” (Jim Masterson with Stefanie Reinhold 2011), followed by just sitting or standing together.
In short: Involve your horse in as many low-stress activities as possible. If you do it in a relaxed way, you can even get the mail together!
Caution: DO NOT INVOLVE FOOD OR SNACKS in any of those activities.
What are the benefits of such “BE”-time together?
By shutting out the chatter and the agenda that is usually attached to our every day activities, even with our horses, we become attuned to the horse. This can answer the question: “What does the horse think?” (In a very down-to-earth way, reading his responses.) This way we notice very subtle changes in his expression and learn to interpret our silent friend’s body language better. In turn, we can practice our own body language and level of relaxation and see how the horse responds to that.
We may become aware of physical areas of concern that the horse may have. Why so? As trust grows between you through simply doing what horses do together—hanging out—your horse may feel free to express unwellness or discomfort. One example would be a horse that suddenly stands on three legs, lifting the right front, for example, instead of putting weight on it.
Trust, as mentioned, is a big factor here. As you go for walks and engage in other simple ‘togetherness’ exercises, you get to know each other better and trust grows both ways. Trust is the basis for relaxation, which is the basis for wellness. In that alone, this type of “BE”-time can contribute to make the horse feel safe and relaxed around you, which may eliminate stress-related health problems like ulcers and muscular tension due to emotional stress.
Do you want you and your horse to be ‘attached at the hip’?
Do you want to learn how to read your horse’s slightest responses, body language and signs of unwellness?
Do you want to enjoy the benefits of ‘accidental meditation’ by quieting your mind in soft and stress-free activities with your horse?
>>>Then you are ready for “BE”-time!
To learn more about what kind of activities that can easily be incorporated in your every day interaction with your horse, drop me a line or visit my seminars page at. I’d love to meet you and share experiences in one of my 1-day seminars for horse owners.
Enjoy your horse and remember to DO-BE-DO-BE-DO!!!
If you are like me, you’ve come to appreciate practical things that make your interaction with your horse easier. One of those little gadgets is the ‘snap hook’ or ‘carabiner’. Friends at the barn introduced to me to the handy little hook, that allows you to attach the reins to the bit and detach them quickly if needed. This seemed to be a sensible solution and soon you could see clinicians in advertisements sporting the practical snap-hook, like the one on the image below, taken from a recent advertisement in a national equine magazine.
Practical for the rider—discomfort for the horse?
In his book “Sporthorse Conformation” (Kosmos Publishing, will be available in the US soon), veterinarian and certified FN trainer Christian Schacht describes the popular snap-hook as an often overlooked contributor to behavior and performance problems in horses that stem from discomfort caused by the metal on metal effect when snap-hook attaches to the metal bit.
Let’s take a look at what actually goes on in the horse’s mouth and head: The metal bit rests on the tongue and has contact with the bars (bones of the lower jaw). We then attach the metal snap-hook to the rings of the metal bit. Since the horse moves, metal now rubs on metal with every step and head movement, even on a loose rein. This can result in considerable irritation or discomfort for the horse. Let’s see how this works:
The physics of the tuning fork—pre-programmed tension headache!
The metal bit in combination with the metal hook and the head of the horse produce the ‘tuning fork’ effect, meaning the metal on metal produces vibration that is then transmitted to a body. A tuning fork works by oscillating metal (hook and bit) and connecting it with a resonance box (horse’s head). While I don’t claim that you can tune your piano by aid of your poor horse’s head, the principle of the tuning fork clearly applies (here a Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuning_fork).
You can therefore imagine, that Dr. Schacht has a point when he claims that metal snap-hooks on reins, attached to metal bits produce oscillation that can potentially be extremely annoying or even painful to your horse. Head tossing, teeth grinding, tension in the poll, going against the bit, general flightiness/spookiness, unpredictable behaviors, etc. can all have their origin in or be aggravated by this tuning fork effect.
But, but…it was sooo practical. Where to go from here?
If the snap-hooks have become an indispensable item for your equine activity of choice, do your horse a favor and use a rubber or leather bit. This will prevent the oscillation from transferring to your horse’s head.
If you like your metal bit, do your horse the favor of removing the snap-hooks and switch to a leather or rope connection (the old fashioned way…).
You may see some immediate improvement in the way your horse responds or a change in behavior/temperament.
We all know the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher shows up” (or something like that…). Since I am past the youthful state of ignorance where I saw life as a sheer endless road ahead and teachers wore 1960’s glasses, suspenders or pencil skirts, I came to the realization that teachers can show up at any time and in any given shape. If you’re lucky, you recognize them and actually learn something.
One of those teachers turned out to be my horse Paladin. I obtained Paladin, then Yankee, in February 2007 from a rescue organization specializing in off-the-track Standardbreds. Gorgeous, lanky, spirited and not really warm and fuzzy with people, Yankee had been through several adoptive homes and was now back in the program. Upon first meeting, he gave my brought-along apple a disgusted look (later I learned that carrots are more to his liking) and showed me his hiney, walking away from me with, what seemed, a clear attitude of disdain. “I’ll take him!” I exclaimed. Not really knowing why … – and that as one ‘ass’ recognizes another, I had spotted a fellow adrenalin addict and he was mine!
Fast forward through a journey of trial and error (What do you mean this horse doesn’t tie?), confusion and self-doubt (What the heck was I, as a rusty horse person, thinking to get this horse?) and ultimate reward after some hard earned successes (This horse is the best, we are attached at the hip!) and to a point in time, where I was stuck in a rut and didn’t know it.
[Side-note: Carrie Cameron, who travelled the country for a long time with Doris Halstead (mother of myofascial release for horses, in my view) and worked on horses with her, later co-authored a book with Doris (Release the Potential), when asked about the possible reasons for my history of recurring head-injury said something like: “The universe is going to knock you in the head until you get it!” “Get what?” “Whatever it is you are supposed to get.”]
On November 4th, 2010 Yankee – in a clear act of defiance – let his adrenalin take over and – instead of simply making a defiant gesture – kicked me in the face and knocked me out while we were working in the round pen, doing things we had done hundreds of times before. So I thought, until I saw the video (yes, it was on video…).
What I saw was a woman on an adrenalin high, who had an impatient hissy-fit because her horse did not ‘perform’ the way he usually does or was expected to do. His wrong-doing: He went for a tasty nibble of gras. He answered me with the same energy and attitude I approached him with at that moment:Impatience and unproportionate assertiveness.
What can you learn from a kick in the face?
Lesson 1: Know the horse in front of you.
Horses aren’t pets. They are sensitive, powerful and very reactive creatures with memories like elephants. The difference in their personalities astounds me every day. I knew my horse well. He is – according to the very worthwhile Horse Harmony Temperament Test by Madalyn Ward, DVM – a “Wood Horse”: athletic, competitive and plenty of resistance and attitude. Or like one trainer put it, after having spent two afternoons with my horse: “This horse will ask you every time you show up: Who’s the boss today?” So if I could rewrite this moment, I’d take a deep breath, take a step back and start over. Lesson learned:Take a good look at your horse and consider his nature in everything you do with him. Always work ‘with the horse that shows up’, not the horse your horse was yesterday or last week. He may feel off, too, and may have his reasons.
Lesson 2: Consider the horse first.
This is a principle I have held dear, especially in my bodywork with horses. At that moment in time, however, I was overwhelmed with my own agenda, with someone else’s (perceived) expectations (the person with the video camera) and a ticking clock (THROW THAT AWAY, when with horses!!). Lesson learned: Always, always put yourself in the horse’s shoes first. If your horse is ok, you will be ok.
Lesson 3: There is always tomorrow. (God willing)
OK, so there is the “Agenda”, which is always the human’s agenda, and then there is the “Horse”. Horses don’t have agendas. If you cannot let go of your agenda, go and play backgammon, don’t spend an afternoon with horses. Rather come back tomorrow with a clear mind, without a clock and without an agenda. You may be surprised what you will accomplish, effortlessly and in harmony. Lesson learned: Whatever can be accomplished at any given day, needs to be accomplished within the parameters determined by the horse’s ability. If you can’t let go of expectations, come back another day. It’s safer.
Lesson 4: Change happens.
After this accident, which left me injured but feeling fortunate in view of what could have happened, I went through phases of sadness, fear, anger and despondence. What hurt me most was that my horse was more traumatized than I was by this incident. When all I was left with was a lingering feeling of shame, my horse still did not let me near him 2 months later. Came February, he would not let the vet near him for spring shots. I was convinced that I had to let him go. Only when I gave him and myself a chance to make a change (starting with myself), I could regain his trust and we are now – once again – “attached at the hip”. Lesson learned: Look at yourself and at your horse and know that your and your horses “Best Self” is somewhere in there. Give yourself the chance to bring it out and start with YOU! Change happens!
Lesson 5: And last not least: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do!
At the time right before the accident, I had just come back from Germany, where we had taken photographs for Jim Masterson’s book “Beyond Horse Massage“, which I co-authored, was writing, working on horses, doing translations, setting up a web-store, etc. etc. etc., all feeding into my 16-hour/day adrenalin-driven lifestyle. As someone rightly put it: We are human be-ings, not human do-ings! Abandon that 20th century mode (we are in the 21st now…) of Do-Do-Do-Do-Do and let your motto be: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do! Lesson learned: Take Five (or even ten!)!
And about my Paladin: I gave him a new name to better reflect his personality: Paladin. He is always ready for battle and quickly puts on his armor and pulls his sword. This is a horse you don’t battle with, but rather enthuse him for your ideas. But when the day is done and he got nothing but respect, fairness and clear messages, he’s the sweet sensitive guy, who is in a state of bliss when you brush him nicely.
Well, you may say: “Oh, I knew all that. Where has she been? Surely don’t need to get kicked to figure this out.” And I say: “Daahhlink, had you asked me on November 3, 2010, whether I knew all this, I would have said ‘sure I do!’. The point is to internalize and remember it when it counts…”.
It doesn’t always take a ‘kick’ to learn your lesson. With a little bit more openness and a humble, relaxed attitude, you can spot the lessons and the teachers without the big wake-up call. Hope you are getting a little something out of me sharing my experience.