Since the horse's reactions are many times faster than man's, it is only through conditioning with consistent work, and through our ability to prepare both ourselves and the horse with timely aiding, that an element of predictability - the nucleus of a smooth performance - is established.

- Erik Herbermann, Dressage Formula (1980), p.7


Riding is a whole-body endeavour that involves every part of the rider. From controlling the tips of the fingers to the ends of the toes to everything in between, the body must be engaged in large and small movements over space in time. Aids must be precise, gentle and timed in relation to the horse's movement. At any given moment, the rider must be engaged in some expression of movement in order to follow and guide the horse's next steps.

Blueprinting, in the riding sense, refers to the muscle memory that is developed in both the horse are rider. The whole concept of riding could seem to be a very daunting task if it weren't for the fact that muscles develop a movement 'blueprint' - once the neural pathways are engaged and connected, similar movements in similar circumstances become easier and easier until that particular movement occurs with little conscious thought. In effect, with sufficient practice, the rider can stop having to think about what the body is doing - you can essentially send the body on auto-pilot and think very little other than to get down to the business of 'feeling'.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

The Good

Long ago, my instructor explained it to me this way: blueprinting is an advantage in the sense that once you achieve 'autopilot' you can rely on your central nervous system (CNS) to do most of the 'thinking' in response to the many tiny movements required to respond to the horse's movements.

The time it takes to send messages to brain and then instructions back to the body is too long to be able to keep up fluidly with the horse's movements. Letting the CNS take over allows you to release your muscles and joints so they can easily flow with the horse. When you reach this state of non-thinking, you can begin to ride more in the right brain, and start riding with "feel".

Then the magic happens - you no longer feel earthbound - your horse floats along with ease and the rules of gravity seem to no longer apply. Similarly, your horse resonates with bliss - with snorts, soft floppy ears, and effortless flow of the back. For all intents and purposes, it appears as if you and your horse are moving 'as one', thinking the same thought, dancing the dance.

The Bad

The bad news about blueprinting is that the same learning process occurs with all body movements - even the ones you'd rather NOT duplicate! We usually consider these movements to be bad habits, things we know we are doing but we shouldn't be doing!

The trouble with blueprinting in the negative sense is that the undesired movement becomes the 'autopilot' movement and so a vicious cycle begins to reproduce itself. And the biggest obstacle comes when you try to undo the physical movement and try to replace it with something more suitable. Now, you have to THINK about each aspect of the new movement - and tell each part of your body to make that movement one step at a time... which in general, ends up being too slow to correspond to the horse's movement. The reeducation process takes much time and effort - in fact, much more effort to undo than if it was correctly learned in the first place.

The Ugly

Worse still, is when you are so permanently blueprinted that you don't even recognize that you are producing a movement. It becomes unconscious, and your body effectively begins to lie to you - you think you're doing one thing when in fact, you're doing something else. In this case, it becomes difficult to even identify what is causing the situation, never mind try to find a solution.

What to do?

It seems that the situation is pretty daunting. What is a rider to do, especially because everything we do in the saddle influences the horse, either positively or negatively? The obvious answer is to get the right blueprinting in the first place.  Your first riding experiences can set the stage either way - for the good or the bad.

The key, as always, is to find a good riding instructor. Also, find a good "school master" - a horse that is well trained, good minded and reliable, so he can teach you. Progress on to younger/less educated/more sensitive horses only after you have developed sufficient skills and then, keep getting guidance from a good instructor.

For those of us who are already not-perfectly-blueprinted: be ready to buckle up the seat belt and stay for the long haul. It will take time, patience and perseverance. Be forgiving of both yourself and your horse. Ride with a kind sense of humour.

Be satisfied with small steps in the right direction.  Know when to quit, and when to try again. Stay determined, but stay gentle and calm. Enjoy the path, and don't be too quickly discouraged.  And above all else, listen to your horse, for if you can hear, you will get all the answers you need to succeed.

Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!

Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions. 

This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

horse logos 1

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

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

3D book 2

Read more here:

 The Pinnacle of Horseback Riding: Riding toward the ultimate release – this is the stuff riders dream of.

Finding Your Comfortable Un-Comfort in Riding: Being uncomfortable is often a good place to be in riding.

23 Ways to Solve the Riding Problem: Of course, we rarely speak of the one “true” way…

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: The secret to developing an effective seat.

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.



  1. I’m too familiar with this one! For awhile I could not stop doing the hunter perch at the canter. The muscle memory was so strong you could stick me on a smooth horse in a slippery saddle, take away my stirrups and ask me to concentrate on sitting, and I’d still spend the majority of my time in a half seat!

    I finally had some health issues that kept me from riding for several months and when I started again I was able to break away from it. But wow, is muscle memory ever powerful!

    1. My particular issue has always been the “fetal position” for any unusual movement. In the worst moments, I get into the tuck and roll, and although I usually manage to stay on somehow, I certainly don’t help the balance of my horse and always get left unseated. Getting better, though…! ;-p

      I could give you a long list of other favourite muscle memory responses, but the good news is that with a ton of focused, aware work, I’ve managed to improve most of them, and at the very least, quickly recognize when the muscle has gone into autopilot and fix it sooner rather than later.

  2. For me it was sitting hunched forward but my instructor has almost “beaten” it out of me! Now we’re working on getting my toes in (among 100 other things)!
    Thanks for the great writing.

  3. Amazing how so much of this advice can apply to life in general, especially “Know when to quit, and when to try again. Stay determined, but stay gentle and calm. Enjoy the path, and don’t be too quickly discouraged”!

  4. Great insight. My Chiropractor identified a work posture (sitting) that causes all kinds of seat issues. If you sit for long periods of time you can end up with what he calls “truckers butt”. He suggested I identify people who sit all day and watch how stiff they move. I was included in this group :).
    I did not see it or feel it in my riding because, it snuck in there while I was making a living. I am in the slow process of retraining my muscles off the horse. I found Chi walking and stretching are helping me win my battle. The first two weeks were exhausting, I rested often. The third week I over did it and hurt myself. I am now ready to be mindful all day of my posture, it comes easy now yet vigilance is essential.

  5. Patricia a simple off the horse practice for dropped shoulders is a self check. When you stand do your arms rest in front of your body?
    They should not, they should be at your sides. An easy fix is to face your palms up(thumbs facing rearward) and move your arms back to behind your seat. Now let your arms hang and see if they fall at your sides. Do this all day, no one will notice, it keeps them in place.

    Another issue for rounding is core strength. an exercise that is also unnoticed throughout the day is to open your diaphragm space. If you lift the lower rib cage to allow your diaphragm room to expand you can not slump, another bonus is your head can not look down without effort.
    This one will cause exhaustion so practice whenever you walk and sit.
    I am now all about fixing myself off the horse because that is where I have done the most damage to myself.
    I do not carry a purse on any shoulder, it drags the shoulder down.
    In no way am I fully repaired, I am a recovering Slumper.
    I hope this helps your shoulder

  6. One extra bonus to keeping your diaphragm space open and lifted:) People ask if I have lost weight, Yipee!!! I weigh the same.

    I also notice that I can not do much repair work with my arms as I ride.
    I confess; I try to carry the horse.
    I look like Mr Wizard from OZ, do not look behind the curtain my arms flailing all over to correct.
    I maintain it is a work posture, hay lifting, manure picking, computer working. Yes slumping.
    My new frame with Diaphragm open, only allows for me to move my arms in a limited manner. Now I have to use my seat and legs……
    I better get some more lessons.