How to be an active horseback riderWhat do you do when your ride isn't going as planned? How do you respond when your horse scoots out from under you, spooks at the horse-killing object, or flat out ignores you?

Do you tense into rigidity as panic slides through your body? Do you get mad/get even after regaining balance from the spook? Or maybe you just give up after the hundredth try?

You need to know that horses are virtually mind-readers, likely thanks to the close proximity of the horse/rider combination. Let's face it - the horse can probably feel every fiber of your being while you are on his back. Your tension, fear, or withdrawal comes through loud and clear and transmits messages that you are probably not even aware that you're sending.

What is the real root of the problem?

Listen carefully to your self-talk during these sorts of scenarios. Before you ever go into physical action, your mind is working a mile a minute. When the horse runs off, your mind is screaming for the stop. When he spooks, you are first thinking about the source of the spook, and then you think about all the reasons the horse should not be spooking. For the horse that tunes you out - the thoughts of your frustration come through to the forefront. You react to the horse's actions, and forget all about what you wanted to do in the first place. Without realizing it, you become a reactive rider.

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Does any of this sound familiar? Of course, we've all been there.

How to be an "active" rider

It's all about riding with intention.

And intention starts with the mind.

You have to learn to re-program your thoughts during those sticky situations. When the horse scoots forward, think: "Go with the horse, then half-halt, half-halt, half-halt." When the horse spooks, think: "There is nothing out there to hurt you. Just move your inside front leg more to the inside." When the horse does not respond, think: "Take that first step."

Talk to yourself especially through sticky situations.

The power of self-talk: think in words, not sentences.

Break down the thoughts that go through your mind - don't think in long, detailed sentences. Reduce your thoughts to just two or three things you want the horse to do, and stick to those. Be as specific as you can possibly be. Rather than thinking "Slow down! I can't stand it when you run off!", think, "Bend", or "Step to the inside", or "Circle".

Keep it simple and clear. Use positive action statements. Think what TO do rather than what NOT to do. Avoid waiting for the horse to take the lead; instead, be the leader by giving clear, quick instructions.

Then act on your thoughts.

Your horse will be relieved to discover that you can communicate clearly and with purpose.

*Note: There is one more phase to being a truly active rider. Once you have trained your mind to think through the ride moment to moment, you will discover that at some point, you can stop thinking. Your body can continue to "act" on its own without you having to be consciously aware of each movement. When you can let your body "take over" in a productive way, you know you are well on your way to becoming one with the horse!

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Read more from Horse Listening:

What You Ought To Know About Instant Gratification in Horse Riding: Really? Are you serious?

6 Ways To Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: Riding from the seat (not hands and legs) is where it's at!

2011 "Best of" Horse Listening: So you don't have to go looking for the best articles randomly through the site.

Too Good to Be True? Finding Your Horse's "Happy Place": How to be a factor in developing your horse's confidence.


  1. This one is so true. Riding with clear intention is the key to success and at the very least safety. We all have experienced this moment when the chatter had to stop to give way to clear instruction or direction. Horses are indeed great listeners and would rather have the rider…or handler be the leader. Learning to be a leader requires a lot of practice and some of this happens out of the saddle.

  2. I am a beginner rider and appreciate your blog for its detailed advice on how to ride. It is definitely helpful to me. However, I’m having a problem. When I try to print your blog entry for study, the Haynet advertisement covers the upper left corner of the page so I cannot read what you wrote. Unfortunately, it covers very important information because that is the part of the blog with focused information. Is there any way to move the advertisement or give it a ‘close’ toggle so I can print your information? Thank you.

    1. Hi again Zoe,
      I’ve looked into the printing of the badge problem and I don’t think it has anything to do with the WordPress set-up. I’ve asked several people to try to print and it seems to work fine for everyone. Is there a chance that there is something in your printer set-up that is causing the overlap in printing? If there is no other way, I can delete the badge, but I’d prefer not to.
      Thanks and take care. Kathy

  3. I wouldn’t say think words, but think images. That helps me. I imagine the result I want to achieve. Or if he spooks, I image riding past the spook area and focus on a point beyond. This also helps me when I loose my temper and get angry with him. As that will get me nowhere, thinking in images helps to regain my composure and achieve my goals.

  4. Very nice post.
    I find intention is key in most things I do. Particularly with body work on the horses and with people – if my intentions aren’t clear things don’t flow very well. Once I clear up what I intend, everything just comes together.