How you "talk" to the horse makes all the difference

"When do you start riding your horse?"

This question was being posed to me by a very respected and horse-wise mentor one day long ago, early in my riding development.

I thought about it for some time, and responded, "When I lead the horse to the riding ring." During the time I'm leading the horse to the ring, I usually start mentally running through my goals for the day. I quickly review my last ride and think of the small "next steps" I'm going to address.

She stopped me in my tracks.

"That's already too late," she said.

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These words have stayed with me to this very day. She emphasized that "riding" is not limited to just being on the horse's back. Whether you are leading a horse from or to the paddock, grooming, or just playing in the round pen, you are "riding". Riding a horse is about EVERYTHING!

The truth about horses is that they do not differentiate between riding and handling and just plain socializing. In their world, every contact you have with them is first about herd dynamics.

Whether you like it or not, or know it or not, your horse is in vigorous conversation with you from moment you start interacting with him. And the dominant question in his mind is, "Are you a leader?"

Your physical responses then point him to his answer.


How to be a leader

1. Attitude matters. Be sure in your step. Know where you are going, and kindly but firmly expect the horse to come along with you.

2. Establish your "personal space." In the herd, horses regularly test each other's boundaries by pushing into personal space. While you lead your horse, feed him or groom him, be aware of the slight tests your horse puts you through.

3. Ask questions of your horse. Will you put a foot here? Will you get out of my space? Will you let me give your head a long and squishy hug?

4. Always follow through with your requests. If you happen to get a "no" for an answer (it does happen all the time!), you have to be ready to continue that particular conversation until you get the "yes". If you accept the first "no", then the next and the next, you will be sabotaging your relationship with your horse. And he will know it before you do.


My mentor looked at me squarely. I realized then that she had KNOWN what my answer was going to be all along. She wanted to make sure that I understood clearly about the horse-human relationship.

I hesitantly asked her, "When do you start riding your horse?"

Her answer: "When I pull into the driveway."

So, when do you start riding your horse?

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If you liked this article, you may also enjoy:

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  1. Starting a greenie, I think that I never STOP riding my horse! One of the things I’ve found really helps is establishing a haltering ritual. When I go to catch her, I stand at the door of her paddock, call her and wait for her to come to me. Then I loop her halter’s neckstrap around her neck and wait for her to stick her nose in. How long this takes and how fidgety she is doing it gives me a really good idea of what I can expect in our training session. In the same way, when we finish training and I take her back to her paddock, I make sure to notice if she stays with me for a minute after I take her halter off or if she high-tails it to her grain bucket. After a few times it doesn’t take long at all and I think is a really good barometer for our relationship.

  2. Hi Kathy – I was directed to your blog through the Ecolicious blog. This is the first post I read and I really enjoyed it. I’ve subscribed and added you to my blogroll. I can’t wait to catch up on all your past posts and read more in the future!

  3. I’m a newbie rider and am eager to learn as much as I can. The blog/posts and comments help a lot, as I work with a horse who can be a real tester! Thanks for this post. Now I know to watch for Rocky’s subtle tests and be sure of my steps with him. Many thanks!

  4. I think I am with my horses a LOT! I ‘ride’ them while I am driving, doing laundry, cooking, sleeping, showering and at the ranch. I think about them constantly, analyze what has happened, and what can and or will happen. I think it totally pays off, at least in my horse life. For example, I have spent time nearly every day with my 2 1/2 year old colt since before he was born. I have ridden him all of 2 very brief but good rides. Yesterday my 21 year old daughter was leading him, and said that she could just get on, so I gave her a leg up and we walked and jogged our short loop ( me on my mare, his mama). No ground work, no saddle, just a halter. His 3 rd ride, good as gold. Whoas, backup, turns. 3 rd actual ride. Hundreds of hours of prep and training, all his life. It pays off.

  5. Mark Rashid says that you should practice being with your horse 24 hours a day. I thought this was great advice.

  6. Continuing with that particular conversation , where I encountered a “no”, could require future days’ work, right? Versus a more dominant approach that requires immediate obedience, so we must hammer the issue in the day? or not? Or maybe is an unreasonable, when I realize the stress/fear my mare is dealing with in the moment because of some situation around the barn at the moment – a transport truck delivery, some new horse screaming in his stall, in quarantine. I have been learning in the past year from Carolyn Resnick and Teddy Ziegler about engaging in conversation and developing relationship – allowing my mare to voice her opinion. I may continue to ask,looking for agreement, but also allow her to participate in the conversation. About building relationship where she wants to choose what I suggest, which sounds ideal. We are not always there, and sometimes I have to force the issue – ie. the farrier is coming and she must come in from the herd on a day when she has decided she’s really not too interested in being with me for some reason 😦 Or just because she needs regular exercise for her health. I am looking to get beyond the carrot bribe. She is just not always there. Other days she is.