A Horsey Valentine’s Song

Dear Readers,

My human-mom has this unbreakable habit of singing songs (out loud!) while she rides. I think it's because of the incredible acoustics of the indoor arena - she must think she's on stage or something. But it got me thinking about creating a song of my very own, extra special for you on Valentine's Day.

Once you know the words, maybe you might want to sing along with me. It's sung to the tune of If You're Happy And You Know It.

With Love, Cyrus


A Horsey Valentine's Song 


I hear your car before you even park,

Out beside the barn down on the slope.

I know you're coming by the pitter-patter of your steps

And the clanging of the snap on the lead rope.


I lift my head and perk my pointy ears

I twist my neck just so and strain to see.

I hear it's Valentine's Day and so I lick my lips and chew,

Anticipating the treats you've brought for me.


You lead me down the lane back to the barn.

You pick my feet and brush my glossy coat.

You fluff my mane and tail, sprinkle me with smelly spray

All the while, I dream of munching on my oats.




The saddle's on and next you wrap my legs.

The bridle's set and we're going for a ride.

I thought I made it clear, you were going to be a dear

And spoil me with all the treats that you supplied.


So we're off and trudging through the knee deep snow,

The air is crisp, the sky a clear bright blue,

As we walk along the path, I consider the aftermath,

Of what will happen if I run back home with you.

The sun is low, it's time we turn around.

The barn is warm, the stall calls out my name.

There's a delicious smell inside, my excitement I cannot hide!

It's a happy Valentine's Day all the same!


Horse Listening

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Here are some more poems, just for fun!

Moment of Beauty: Caught in the moment and recognizing it.

Because of Horses: What has changed in your life because of horses?

A Recipe for Living: If life were a recipe, what would it look like?

Living in Flying Changes: I wrote this short poem after a wonderfully exhilarating night ride.

Eight Legs Plus Two: A poem.

How Many Aids Are You Using?!

Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

"Which aids are you using?" I routinely ask my students this as they develop a particular skill, especially once they have gained enough experience that they can analyze a problem while they ride.

But here, we can do it off the horse. Let's use this example:

You are in left lead canter, and getting ready to leave the rail to make a left circle. As you head into the circle, your horse drifts out, loses balance and breaks into trot. (If this does really happen to you, don't worry! It happens all the time to all levels of rider and horse!)

It's like he is losing just enough balance that he is unable to maintain the canter. What aids would you use to correct the problem?

(If you like, stop here and quickly think about or jot down the aids you would use. Then read on. I've added links in blue to other articles that explain some of the specific concepts better.)

1) Outside Neck Rein

One of the most common errors is to use the inside rein to pull the horse into a turn. When you pull on the inside rein, though, the horse's neck has to follow your hand. So before you know it, the neck is pulled to the inside, which requires the outside shoulder to bulge outward. The horse then HAS to step out in order to manage to stay upright. While you're trying to turn the horse left, he's got his neck left but is actually stepping right. 

Use the outside neck rein to catch the outside shoulder that wants to bulge toward the rail. That helps keep the horse's front end from drifting around the turn. The neck rein is also the initiator of the turn.

2) Outside Leg

Use the outside leg to prevent the horse's hip from swinging out.

Another tendency is for the horse to swing the hind end outward. When you are on a turn, you want the horse to turn "straight" (well, not literally, but physically). If you use your outside leg back slightly, you can influence the hind end so that it follows the front end on a single track. 

There's got to be more than just those two aids. So let's fill in the details. It takes some concentration and "feel" to break things down even more.

3) Inside Seat Bone

Put your weight on your inside seat bone, swinging it forward on the turn line so that you encourage your horse to come under your inside seat more - to basically keep him on the turn and not drift out from under your seat.

Using your weight aids is something that needs a lot of fine-tuning at first. But with practice, you will be able to first know which seat bone you have more weight on, and then be able to actually direct the weight to where you want it to be. Your weight can have a lot of influence on the horse. 

4) Inside Leg

Use a strong downward-stepping motion on your inside stirrup - like you are standing on the ground through the stirrup, in rhythm with the stride.

The stepping down helps the horse have a solid balancing aid on the inside rib cage, which encourages better bend and balance through the turn.

5) Inside Rein

Give a tiny bit with your inside rein as you cross the middle of the arena, to allow the inside hind leg more space to step into. Keep the outside rein fairly steady.

6) Impulsion

Use two legs for forward just before you leave the rail. This helps him engage a little more before he starts to drift, sending him forward rather than sideways.

7) Keep Your Balance

Try to let your seat come through more after you ask for impulsion (don't resist), so you keep your center of gravity over the horse as he moves off. Don't get left behind!

8) Use Half-Halts

Even while you ask for more energy, use half-halts to help the horse stay in balance and not just run faster and onto the forehand. You can try a half-halt before you leave the rail, through the middle of the circle, and then again as you finish and go to the next movement. But it might depend on your horse - you might need more or less.

Pinpointing your aids like this is actually a very interesting exercise, because while we often recognize the most significant aids, we rarely feel everything that the body is doing to produce one result. I bet you can think of a few more to list here as well.

Seriously?? So many aids for one simple movement?

Well, yes. And, not really.

The thing is, once you get the hang of it, it won't be nearly as complicated as it sounds here. If you think about it, we can probably break down every movement into multiple aids and skills like this. The more aids we can control through our ride, the more sophisticated we can be in communicating kindly and gently to the horse. 

From Wikipedia:

Automaticity /ˌɔːtəməˈtɪsɪti/ is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.

I like this word! And I like how it feels when I'm doing this while riding. The less you have to think about things, the easier it gets. But at the beginning, you do have to learn the skills first (practice, practice, practice!), before they become blueprinted into your body.


After a few rounds, and a few transitions down to trot and then back up into canter, things should get better. Your outside aids might keep your horse straighter. Your "ask" for impulsion might help him reach further underneath with his hind legs. He might drift less and then not at all. And slowly, his canter might become more fluid, stronger, more balanced.

And even while you know which aids you are using, you won't actually have to think about them. Well, maybe you'll be thinking about only one or two!

Horse Listening

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If you enjoyed this article, read more here:

What Do Leg Aids Mean? Instead of relying on them only to get the horse to move his legs faster or transition to a new gait, we might discover more involved messages that can be given with a sophisticated leg aid.

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: There is no better way to develop your seat.

The #1 Riding Problem: The Outside Rein! The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here’s why.

Move to Stay Still on Horseback: How do we begin to look like we’re sitting still, doing nothing on the horse’s back?

Impulsion: How Two Easy Strides Of Energy Might Solve Your Horse Riding Problem:  It can help to straighten the horse. It can resolve “behavior” issues. It can even help to reduce tension in the horse’s body.

Everything You Need To Know About Horses (OK, More Like 11 Things)

Everything you need to know about horses

This is a great article for the non-horsey people in your life!

While everyone knows about horses, you'd be surprised at how relatively uninformed most people are. Myths abound and everybody has an opinion. To help clarify any misunderstandings, here are a few essential tidbits you need to know about horses, especially if you are considering taking riding lessons or purchasing a horse for the first time.

1. They are big.

People usually notice the relatively large size of the horse first thing. Rightly so, because even a small horse can weight 800 pounds and it only gets bigger and heavier from there! Even small ponies give us a run for our money when it comes to strength and power.

In comparison, we are small.

Which leads us to the most important understanding when it comes to the intermingling of horses and humans: we can get hurt. It might not even be on purpose. Whenever we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we will be the ones who incur the most damage.

So one of the first things we need to do is to learn how to be safe working with, around and on horses. We must stay safe AND the horses must stay safe.

2. They eat. ALL. THE. TIME.

This is an interesting concept.

One of the key predictors to overall horse health is to provide them access to forage (meaning hay or grass) as much as possible. Many of us now have high quality hay that actually over delivers-in terms of nutrition and energy. Some horses self-regulate and eat small portions, many times throughout the day.

For horses have a tendency to over-eat (which then can cause unhealthy weight gain), we now have "slow hay feeders" that regulate the amount of hay a horse can eat at a time. In this manner, even "easy keepers" can have access to hay for long periods of time.

3. They have their own personalities.

This is where horses and humans are similar.

Every horse has a unique personality. Some are overachievers. Some are lazy and would rather not. Some are playful and cheeky. It takes a while to identify these traits, but if you listen carefully enough, you will get to know each and every one.

4. They can learn things as easily as you can.

Just because horses are generally quiet, and would prefer to be out grazing doesn't mean that they don't learn. They are so quick to pick up on everything!

Their amazing ability to learn allows us to ride them, develop intricate communication, teach them tricks, and perform marvelous shows that leave you in awe.

5. They recognize people.

Some horses are extremely clear about who qualifies as their "peeps."

I have known several horses over the years that act completely standoffish until they know who you are. It's like they're warning all their friends of "stranger danger!"

If you don't believe me, check out what happens when their favorite treat lady just walks into the barn. They sure know who they can hit up for treats! Or who feeds them. And who turns them out or in. Or who does their feet. Or the veterinarian they should avoid!

6. They have a very long memory.

They remember the good experiences. They remember their horsey friends of long ago, even if it has been years since they last saw each other. They also remember the bad experiences. It is true that they remember rough handling and any serious riding mistakes.

But here's the good news: horses don't hold grudges. Literally, the second you can improve or change, or their environment changes, they move on and adapt. They will remember it all, but you can be sure that they are ready and waiting for better days ahead.

7. They are very athletic.

ALL horses are athletic. Not all of them choose to show it, though!

Of course, some are more suited to certain disciplines than others, and some need more practice and conditioning as others. However, they can all move quickly when needed (like when there's something to be afraid of)!

8. They are herd animals.

Horses are naturally social. They live in a herd situation and they are the embodiment of the concept of "safety in numbers." How this relates to us as humans is that when we choose to interact with horses, we should understand that they see us as herd mates too. So we'd better brush up on our communication skills - equine style!

9. They have a strong social structure.

Which brings us to herd dynamics.

Every herd has a social hierarchy. There is the leader (or what has been termed as the "alpha" horse). Then there's the second-in-command (the beta) and the third, fourth and so on, right to the last horse on the social ladder. Each horse gives way to the horses above him in the herd. So if he's eating at the round bale and a higher-level herd mate wants to eat right from the spot he's in, he has to give way. He must walk away and give up his feeding spot.

This is a super important concept for us humans to understand because every time we're with our horse, we are effectively interacting as a two-horse herd. Except that we're people, and we're relatively little. If the horse feels that he is the herd leader between the two of us, we'd better be ready to give way to his every whim and desire.

You can see how that could cause problems over time. It becomes our responsibility to learn to communicate our herd position (alpha) clearly in a way that keeps us safe. The alternative is that they may literally walk over you (if they aren't taught to recognize your space).

10. They don't see the same way we do.

If you look carefully into the eye of a horse, you'll see that the pupil is a horizontal slit It can open wide in darker light and takes on a larger oval shape. There have been many studies done about how horses see, and how they interpret what they see.

What is remarkable about the horse's sight is that he can see from his nose to his tail on the one side. And he can instantly switch eyes and see that much on the other side. He can also see directly in front of him with binocular vision. However, he has a blind spot in front of his nose and behind his tail. Our sight is exactly the opposite. We can see straight ahead with binocular vision (so we have no blind spot) but our peripheral vision isn't nearly as sharp.

You can imagine that having better peripheral vision is very helpful to a prey animal. Horses can see all around them at will - which means they can instantly run away if feeling threatened in any way.

If we have a good understanding of spooking, we can be safer when on horseback or even on the ground.

11. They are experts at reading body language (apparently even human facial expressions).

So aside from picking up on all your behavioral clues, the horse can tell your mood right from the moment you are visible to him. One of the most valuable skills we learn as equestrians is to keep a steady demeanor, especially in scary situations. The quieter and calmer we can be, whether on the ground or in saddle, the more confident the horse will be in general.

I'm sure there could be a thousand things we could add to this list. If you have something to add, please share it in the comments below.

Horse Listening

Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

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HL Five Years
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Read more about horses here:

Living (Horse) Life In The BasicsCan you distinguish the difference between good and bad movement?

Top Ten Reasons To Ride A HorseThere must be as many reasons to ride horses are there are people who ride.

Do You Want to Own A Horse? Answer 'yes' to these questions and you are on your way!

Riding is Simple, But Not Easy! Let’s face it – all we want is for the horse to do what we want, when we want, where we want, with suppleness and strength!

On Enjoying the PathI can hear you now – you’re groaning… the path?? How can “the path” be fulfilling?

Not Seeing Our Facebook Posts?

Dear Reader,

Over the years, it has been my mission to use our Horse Listening Facebook page as a method of delivering articles on a daily basis.

I usually like to post two articles a day so that you can have some consistent "food for thought" when you check into Facebook.

As of this month, Facebook is changing its algorithm to prioritize posts from real people - your Facebook friends. So if you happen to notice that you're seeing less and less of the Horse Listening posts, that is because of this algorithm change.

This will be true of all the pages you have liked. They will be purposely limited in exposure going forward. However, there is a way that you can change that if you want to.

If you'd like to continue seeing my posts as they are published on Facebook, here's what you need to do:

  1. Go to the Horse Listening Facebook Page
  2. Find and hover over the "Following" button.
  3. Click "see first."

That's it. Then the page posts will keep showing. You can do this for all the pages you really want to hear from.

Thanks for reading! 

3 Steps To A Quieter Leg Position

how to quiet the rider's legs
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

Do any of these things happen to you?

  • You lose your stirrups during a transition.
  • You feel your feet bouncing in the stirrups, especially during sitting trot.
  • Your lower legs sway in canter.
  • You can't feel your feet in the stirrups.
  • You have trouble placing your legs on your horse's sides.
  • You can have nice long legs riding without stirrups, but still lose the stirrups as soon as you start using them again.


These things happen to most riders at some point, especially during the first few years of riding. Sometimes, you develop a habit that lasts even longer, mostly because your body blueprinted itself long ago and now it's even more difficult to break that habit.

But it can be done.

We are always striving to maintain quieter legs, a more secure seat, and stable feet (preferably with the heels lower than the toes). The thing is, the harder we try to keep the legs from moving, the more they swing, tighten, and finally slide out of the stirrups!

What to do?

Here are three steps (pun intended!) to a quieter leg position.

1. Soften through the seat.

Whenever you find tension in the lower legs or feet, you can direct your attention higher up. In this case, consider your seat. Are you tight through the lower back? Are you gripping with the gluteal muscles? Maybe your hip angle is closed or you're leaning forward in the upper body.

In all these cases, start with softening through your seat. Don't become a blob of jelly - just feel for tension or gripping, and release that as much as you can. Allow the hip angle to open. Allow your upper thighs to really sit into the saddle.

Try to be quiet in your seat aids. If you feel you are moving bigger than your horse, or if you are pumping through your seat and body to get him moving, work toward whispering your aids, reducing body movement, and becoming lighter over the horse's back. We often get "too loud" in attempt to be clear. The quieter you can be in your body, the more opportunity you can have to feel your legs and the horse's sides.

So start with a softer seat that allows a more open hip angle and a straighter leg from the highest point of the thighs.

2. Straighten the leg from the hip through the knee down to the ankle.

Do two things with your leg.

First, rotate your leg inward toward the saddle, so your knee is facing straight ahead. You might need to grab the back of your riding breech and actually pull your leg slightly backward from the hip, placing the thigh flat on the saddle.

Second, straighten your knee slightly. Don't push it too straight, but see how much you can open the knee angle as you lengthen your leg downward.

It's like a stretch of the leg, constrained within the length of your stirrup  leathers. You might discover that your leg will naturally feel longer.

3. Push into the stirrup with your foot, allowing the heel to go down if it can.

Now let's focus on the foot itself.

The ball of your foot should be flat on the widest part of the stirrup. If placed correctly, you will feel like the stirrup is as solid as the ground. We call this "grounding" your feet in the stirrup.

After you have lengthened your leg in step 2, you might feel that your heel just wants to go down on its own. This is a great sign that you are on the right track. However, don't force your heels down - that would cause more tension in your leg and be counterproductive. Let the heel hang if it will.

Start at the halt.

Take time and soften through the seat and hip, position the leg and then ground the foot on each side. Do all of this at the halt first, so you can feel the effects on your seat and leg before you add movement.

Then try to maintain the leg position through each gait. Walk is easiest. It might take some effort at first but will feel more natural over time, until you aren't even aware that you are doing it.

The longer leg and softer muscles will also allow your seat to position deeper into the saddle. 

One last thought. You might not be able to do all three steps right away. In fact, you might be able to do one, then another, then maybe two at a time... you know what I mean. Add transitions, the sitting trot or canter to the mix, and you might have to be even more patient.

So be aware of what your seat and legs feel like, work on loosening the seat and lengthening the leg, and one day, you might be surprised that somehow, without forcing anything, you legs stopped swaying, your stirrups stayed on your feet, and you can actually feel the stability of the stirrups even as you canter merrily along!

Horse Listening

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Lots more to read about the leg aids below!

What Do Leg Aids Mean?


12 Riding Quick Tips – #3: Work On Those Long “Wrapping” Legs


Stop Kicking the Horse!

Why Would You Bother to “Scoop” Your Seat Bones?


Move to Stay Still on Horseback

#1 Rider Problem of 2017: Riding “Disconnected”

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

As in, we should be riding with better "connection."

This is not just about contact. It's quite a lot more than just what you feel through the reins (although that is a part of it).

Since I started the blog in 2011, I've ended each year with an article about something that I feel is a common problem for most riders. In the past, I've discussed the leg aids, pulling on the reins, the outside rein and more. I've zeroed in on bits and pieces that make up riding, but this year, I've been thinking a lot about the "whole" of it.

I often feel it's necessary to break riding skills down into small, concrete chunks. Because without the pieces, we can't possibly put it all together. On the other hand, if we never consider "the whole," then we won't be successful in the application of the skills. Plus, we effectively cheat our horses out of what we should really be doing, which is to make everything seamless, smooth, balanced, and not interfering.

So we need to begin somewhere. Because really, if we always ride our horses in bits and pieces, we will always ride the horse into lack of connection.

What is connection?

This is a difficult concept to clearly describe, because like contact, it is based on feel. Let's look at it from this perspective:

What happens if you apply pressure with both legs?

Will your horse move straight forward, round through the body, reach farther underneath with the hind legs, lighten the forehand and stay in balance, swing through the back, swing through the shoulders and reach for the bit?

Will you have this wonderful lightness of contact that feels at once super powerful and yet incredibly sensitive, as if your hands are out of the discussion and the slightest shift through your body (lower back, seat, legs) will be all that is needed to communicate with the horse?

Will you feel at one with the horse, literally dancing with imperceptible whispering aids, together "as one?"

That is connection.

And unfortunately, most of us ride outside of connection most of the time.

How do you know you are missing connection?

There are many hints to tell you when the horse isn't "connected." You might experience one or more of the following:

  • you can't stop your horse from spooking
  • the horse speeds up faster and faster in a gait when you ask for a transition
  • the head swings upward while the back hollows when you use your leg aigs
  • your rein contact is on/off/on/off, long-short-long reins no matter what you try
  • you feel you're often out of balance - either on the forehand or the horse drifts through the shoulders
  • your horse's neck is bent inward going one direction and outward going the other way
  • the horse's footfalls are very heavy (more than you think they should be)
  • your upper body reacts forward or backward with either sharp stops (or downward transitions) or lurching take-offs (or upward transitions)
  • your transitions don't happen where you want them to
  • you have difficulty maintaining straight lines
  • your circle size changes, or you tend to have large circles going one way, and really small ones the other
  • you feel that your horse is very heavy on the bit
  • you have trouble walking from canter
  • you have trouble cantering from walk
  • you feel like there is absolutely no pressure on the bit

There have to be many more. In general, the symptoms of lack of connection show up in the horse as imbalance, inability to respond accurately or quickly, and/or stiffness through the body. The horse might also have little confidence in the rider.

How can you improve connection?

There really is no one magic pill to developing connection. Unfortunately, it takes time and practice for you to be able to influence your horse well enough to make a difference in your horse's way of going. You will likely need an instructor's input to first identify the many skills you will need, teach them to you, give you feedback as you try and make mistakes, and finally confirm when you make progress.


There is something you can try on your own, and get enough feedback from your horse to help direct you on your path toward connection. 

Try this:

1. Squeeze both legs.

2. Go with the horse.

3. Give with the reins (a little).

4. Maintain the same tempo throughout.

So this sounds very simple and it can be, if you know what you're looking for. First, you have to create energy, then ride that energy.

1. Start with a soft but steady contact. Then apply leg pressure to ask the horse to move ahead. Keep steady rein contact throughout.

2. When the horse does go, you go with him! Don't get left behind.

3. Give the horse a little space to step into - even while you maintain a light contact. You can do this by extending your elbows just a little, or letting the reins out - not more than an inch. Make sure you don't suddenly let go of everything and "drop" the horse on his forehand. It's just a little give, but it's enough to let the horse move more freely forward.

4. Maintain the tempo in the interest of balance. If the leg speed changes, the horse will likely lose balance and the whole disconnected thing will start all over again!

Do it on a circle and stay on that circle as you play with the aids. You can start with walk and trot at first, as you will have your best balance in those gaits. Initially, you're looking for what I described above: 

  • your horse moves straight forward,
  • rounds through the body,
  • reaches farther underneath with the hind legs,
  • lightens the forehand and stays in balance,
  • swings through the back,
  • swings through the shoulders, 
  • reaches for the bit.

Any of these responses are a step in the right direction.

Don't be too disappointed if nothing much happens when you first start this exercise. If you and/or your horse are used to riding without connection, it will take time and coordination for you both to learn how to let the energy flow and reach forward (rather than pull backward) to achieve movement. But practice, and one day, all the bits and pieces will fall together as one!

Good luck, and happy Horse Listening in 2018!

Horse Listening

Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

If you enjoyed this article, here are some related topics:

What Is Contact? This is a three-part article about the phases of development that riders go through as they learn about "contact." This is part one.

The Difference Between Rhythm And TempoConfused about which is which? Do you use it interchangeably sometimes?

What To Do When Your Horse Loses BalanceIf you can identify why your horse is stumbling, you can begin to address the cause with one or more of these five tips. They will give you a good idea of how you can influence the horse’s balance.

7 Errors To Avoid After You Ask For More Energy - And SolutionsThe quicker you can recognize these miscommunications, the sooner you can address them. In fact, it would be best if you could correct these mistakes as they happen, before the horse loses more balance and then has to completely regroup.

Not Fast. Not Slow. So What IS Impulsion?  The thing is, we often think that energy is all about a surge of forward-moving legs. Use two legs, squeeze either from the calf or from the lower leg. Follow with your seat to allow the increase in movement and energy from the horse. Then invariably, this happens: the horse runs faster.

Horse Listening Round Up: Top 10 Posts of 2017

top 10 Horse Listening 2017

A year gone by already? So hard to believe! 

It's been an active horsin' around year for me personally, and I've been happily sharing new posts on the blog regularly. Taking a look at the articles from this year, I can see that while I still have some "fun" articles and some horse "listening" types of posts, I've moved more and more into writing about the rider, the aids, how to become a more effective rider (and listen to the horse while riding), and patterns to help develop the rider and the horse's specific skills. 

The Practice Sessions are taking on more shape and I'm almost ready to present them. I've been working on developing a repertoire of patterns but as I got more and more into it, I realized that there should be much more to the Practice Sessions than just the patterns. As soon as I'm ready to proceed, I will share updates with the people on the Practice Sessions Pre-Launch list. If you want to be included, go here and sign up. You'll be the first to hear the news.

Thank you for being part of another fantastic Horse Listening year. Here are the top 10 articles by number of views, in backward order. 


One Simple Way to Quiet Your Hands While Riding Horses



Here’s How (And Why) You Should Ride With Bent Elbows



When Good Riding Instruction Becomes Great



How to Halt Without Pulling on the Reins



The #1 Rider Problem: The Outside Rein! – Sponsored by Benefabproducts.com



“Inside Leg To Outside Rein” – The Cheat Sheet



7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition 



Dear Adult-With-Many-Responsibilities Horse Person



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9 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Ride Horses

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The Mental Game Of Riding

 At Horse Listening, we are emphatic life-long learners of all things horsey. You will be reminded time and again about how there is so much to be learned from horses and other horse people, if only we listened.

This guest post is by Bora Zivkovic, who started riding in Serbia in the early 1970s, starting out in dressage, then switching to showjumping as well as riding racehorses and studying veterinary medicine. When he moved to the USA in 1991, he switched to the Hunter Seat, then did graduate work in animal physiology and behavior. He currently works as a riding instructor at Hidden Springs Stables, as well as a Biology 101 college professor, in the Triangle area of North Carolina, USA.

As one peruses books, articles or videos about riding, or observes lessons and clinics, it is easy to get swept into the notion that riding is a very technical sport. Much of the instruction is focused on the physical aspects of riding - what are the aids for a shoulder-in, and where should the horses' feet track during shoulder-in? Exactly where should our heels be, and what is the proper angle in the elbow joint?

And yet, some riders with very unorthodox techniques (remember Annete Lewis, Ann Moore, Harry deLeyer, or the Flying Australians Kevin Bacon and Jeff McVean?) were very successful in the show ring in showjumping and various other disciplines. If technical perfection is essential for success, what explains the success of riders whose technique leaves a lot to be desired?

Of course, who's to know how much more successful those unorthodox riders would have been if they also rode technically correctly, but there was obviously something else there that made them winners. And that is their psychological makeup, intense focus, great sense of rhythm, eye for a distance, and mental preparation for the riding at the top levels.

Back in their day, there was very little focus on the mental aspect of riding. Students were expected to be brave, and those who were not, quit riding. But in the 1980s, with the publication of books by Sally Swift (Centered Riding) and Mary Wanless (The Natural Rider), much changed. Today, the top riders have not only their technical coaches, but also have mental coaches or sports psychologists on their teams.

As a riding instructor (and sometimes a rider myself), I try to put a lot of focus on the psychological aspects of riding. Heels will eventually go down. But even a rider with perfect position can be completely ineffective if the mental preparation is not implemented.

angels and tigers Dorit Eliyahu
Illustration by Dorit Eliyahu. Visit her site here

Angels and Tigers

In her book, The Natural Rider, Mary Wanless says that a rider has to be a perfect cross between an angel and a tiger. What does that mean?

A rider who is being an angel is the one who is primarily concerned about the well-being and happiness of the horse, making sure that everything is OK and that everyone's having fun. A tiger, on the other hand, is the natural predator of large herbivores like a horse. A rider who is a tiger is the one who leaves no question in the horse's mind that it is the human who is making decisions and that the horse is expected to do what the rider is asking. This mental state also requires courage - it is not for the faint of heart to confront a huge animal and tell it what to do or else.

A rider who is 100% angel will be ineffective - the horse will go grazing in the corner. A rider who is 100% tiger is abusive - the horse will get scared. A good rider is an even mix of both, and also has developed an instinct as to when to turn on the angel and when to switch on the tiger part of riding, when to go for the gold in the cross-country phase of an Olympic eventing competition, and when to, perhaps the next moment, pull up as the horse is feeling "off". A rider who is a good angel-tiger mix will be trusted by the horse to provide structure and guidance and to always be fair.

At this day and age, almost all of the students I get in our riding school are 100% angels. They are girls who love ponies and who have never had to really be strong and brave before. Much of my instruction is an effort to build and wake up the inner tiger. No rush - this takes years, but it can be done. Just gently pushing the envelope, asking the student to do something just barely outside the comfort zone, praising the courage, praising the determination to get a reluctant horse to do something, then doing something similar again and again in many (but not all) lessons over a long period of time.

How Much Practice?

There are sayings, attributed to many different sources, that many have heard (not just in riding circles but everywhere), that "practice makes perfect" and "no, only perfect practice makes perfect". Also, there is the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for one to become good at a particular skill, a thoroughly debunked pop-psychology myth.

In light of our discussion above, what is it that becomes perfect with practice, the physical/technical aspects, or the mental ones? Of course, they are intertwined. Becoming technically more proficient allows one to get more daring, to try to go higher. With riders, just like with horses, confidence comes from repeatedly being able to do something successfully.

So, this means that one has to repeat things over and over again. But just doing it mindlessly is not enough. One has to be focused, and one needs continuous feedback from a coach.

When a body starts doing a novel motor pattern, the brain starts making new connections (synapses) to build new circuits. If the motor pattern isn't repeated, these connections remain weak and start disconnecting in about 5-7 days. The student who takes lessons only once a week (or even less frequently) is essentially riding the first lesson multiple times, starting to build circuits over and over again each time. But if there is a second lesson earlier than next week, then the connections get stronger and cannot disconnect so soon. Kids who ride twice a week progress ten times faster than kids who ride once a week. Adding the third, fourth, fifth ride a week helps some, but the effect is not nearly as dramatic as moving from one to two per week. This is why summer camps are a great way to start one's kid's riding career.

What practice does is keep strengthening the neural connections. This is usually called "muscle memory" although it is stored in the nervous system, not in the muscles (but the term is too ingrained to change now, so we'll go with it). Doing 10,000 hours of repetition will certainly strengthen these neural circuits, but it will not make you a master. For mastery, one needs to keep refining those circuits. When one just starts learning, one makes mistakes or does stuff imperfectly, thus forming connections that lead to imperfect future movement. What training does is prune those imperfect connections and replace them with better ones. This is where the feedback from the coach (as well as mirrors, photos, videos, etc.) are really important.

Riding is difficult. We use muscles in novel ways. We are scared, unbalanced, uncoordinated.  It is up to the instructor to ignore all the mistakes and imperfections and focus on one or two basic things first, get those puzzle pieces in, then add another piece and another and another (and the exact order of pieces will be different for different individuals - some start out with heels down in their first lesson, other take two years to get the heels down). Each time a new puzzle piece is added, an inferior connection was replaced by a better one, moving the student one more step toward mastery.

Most of our students do not own horses, and certainly do not have one at home. The only time they are on a horse is during the lesson. This is equivalent to taking violin lessons but not having a violin at home to practice on. As constant feedback from the coach is essential for mastery, riding just in lessons is not so bad. But building neural circuits requires repetition. Strengthening the relevant muscles requires repetition. Confidence requires repetition of success. Thus I often give my students five (or ten or fifty) minutes of "free practice" during the lesson, usually at the end, so they can just repeat repeat repeat.

This is most important for complete beginners who just need to post on the rail forever in order to build muscles, balance and coordination, and where coaching cannot help much. Later on, they start half-leasing or leasing (and some buying) horses so they can do a lot of practicing on their own between the lessons. For many students, due to finances or parental attitude, leasing or buying has to wait a very long time. In the meantime, lessons are all they can get, so these need to be used both for learning new stuff and for repetitive practice of the old stuff until it becomes instinctual, "muscle memory" stuff.

I'm Singing In The Reins

One aspect of being a "tiger" in riding is courage. One result of constant repetition is the ability to build muscle memory. Once muscle memory is built, it is possible NOT to pay attention to every detail and to let your body just do it. If your mind is free to not focus on details (and this can be good, as it prevents paralysis by analysis or The Centipede's Dilemma), it is free to focus on <gasp> fear!

One thing a coach can do is refocus you on the details, but then you can start over-analyzing and making yourself ride worse! So what else can you do to take your mind off of fear AND away from details? Well, you can sing!

If you sing out loud, not just that your mind will be distracted from fear and from over-analysis, but it will also have physical effects on you. Singing triggers the release of endorphins (which make you happy) and oxytocin (which make your trust your horse - or coach - more). If you sing, you have to keep breathing. And if you are breathing, it is very difficult to become tense. So you will relax, and the horse will feel your relaxation, which will make the horses happier and more confident so the horse is less likely to do something that scares you.

Also, many horses seem to respond to song. It seems to be soothing, Perhaps they can feel from the song that the rider is relaxed and in a good state of mind and that there are no crouching tigers in the bushes or hidden dragons inside of that oxer. Which then feeds back to the rider - as nothing bad happens, this adds to one's confidence and reduces future fear, allowing one to nurture the inner tiger.

What shall you sing? If the task is easy (trotting around) and fear is great (oh no, he will explode!), choose a song that requires more thinking about the lyrics. If the task is harder (jumping an entire course, which I have been known to ask students to do) and fear is not so big, more just tension, pick a song that is easy, lyrics that do not take much thought.

Many instructors of kids know this, and use simple songs in their lessons. Perfect song with a trot rhythm is the Alphabet Song, which is exactly the same tune as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (as well as a few other similar tunes, including Baa Baa Black Sheep).

Canter is harder to choose the song for, as a speedy little pony is different from a big galumphing warmblood.

Is singing embarrassing? Some students/kids think so and don't want to do it. But once they see and hear me do it when I ride, they realize it is OK, just a regular part of riding, so they belt out the tune in their next lesson.

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Horse Listening

Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

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More guest posts here:

Which Pasture Plants Are Dangerous for Horses? by Hayley and Rebecca from Anything Equine, this informative article covers many different types of plants. Pictures included.

Little Known Qualities of Great Farriers, by K. Arbuckle, professional farrier: The farrier, though required to scientifically balance and shoe a horse, is an artist working with a living canvas.

Scoring the Hunter Round, by L. Kelland-May, senior judge: Have you always wondered how the hunter class is judged? Read it here straight from the judge's perspective!