Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Knowing "why" is almost as essential as knowing "how."

During lessons, we work so hard on the skills that we need to learn. We work on aids, timing, carrying ourselves, staying balanced, listening to the horse. The best instructors can coach us in terms of what to do and when. They can explain what we're supposed to feel,  and what we should do between gaits, and where we need to position the circles.

They can show us how to physically position ourselves for particular gymnastic exercises. They can teach us how to find a rhythm and how we can increase energy without letting the legs speed up.

Many riders learn do amazing things with their horses - while they are under the supervision of their instructor.

But there is so much more to riding.

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Although the "hows" of riding are critical to success and, let's face it, allow us to stay on the horse in the first place - there is something to be said about the understanding and knowledge that completes the overall picture. Without knowing why we do things, we are left to achieving sporadic success when we ride on our own.

The major drawback to not knowing why is that there is always a gap left in the overall picture. We become reactive to stimuli. Rather than setting up a situation, we are always left second guessing and not knowing what to do next.

Why do we rise in the trot when the horse's outside front leg moves forward?

Why do we time our aids to specific moments of the horse's movement?

Why do we open our reins at that moment, but close them at another moment?

Why would we use a travers (haunches in)?

Why do we start lateral work with a leg yield?

I think we could formulate "why" questions for almost everything we learn in riding. In fact, there are probably why questions for everything we do with horses, including ground work, feeding, providing shelter, and even deciding on blanketing.

In my opinion, knowing why we do something is almost as important as knowing how to do it. Of course we need skill acquisition to be able to do something in the first place, but without knowing why, we will often be left unable to trouble shoot and resolve problems, or even prevent them in the first place.

The problem is that learning why can be tedious and time consuming. Most people want the sort of instant gratification that comes with doing. It can be confusing and difficult to sit still for a moment to try to understand why the how works. But it needs to be done.

How do you learn the why?

First, we need the type of instructor that will and can explain why. Then we can practice and make enough mistakes to experience why.

Second, we can read to fill in any knowledge gaps.

Third we can watch other riders and lessons.

Finally, we can stay open minded enough to learn from a multitude of sources - and the horses themselves.

Slowly, through repetition and experience, we accumulate enough knowledge to intrinsically know why we do what we do, at a moment's notice, especially while we are on the horse's back.

It is through these experiences that we can become independent riders, able to take what we learn and apply it to different situations. 

How have you learned the "why" in riding? Comment below.

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Five Years Of Horse Listening

We commemorated the event by compiling the top 20 most popular articles from the blog, covering topics such as:
- rider position (hands, seat, legs, elbows, upper body)
- improvement of the rider's aids (kicking, inside rein, outside rein)
- and more!

Learn More.

Read more here:

When Good Riding Instruction Becomes Great:  How much can an instructor really do to help a rider improve?

Do You Make This Timing Mistake When Riding Your Horse? Have you ever given your horse an aid and got nothing in return? There could be one other variable that you might not have considered…

To Lesson or Not To Lesson? That shouldn’t even be a question!

On Being The Perpetual Student, Mastery and the Time Warp: As horseback riders, it helps a whole lot if we are content to be forever students.



  1. Very well said,….Thank-you!!! The importance of understanding the ‘whys’ in horsemanship is generally undervalued (today), and in some contexts (with some instructors) actively discouraged. I, for one, have been told outright (by a former instructor), that understanding ‘why’ is not important,… and to just ‘get on’ with the task/mechanics at hand. I hope that those instructors who discourage understanding of the “whys” are reading your blog!! Thank-you!!!

  2. Again you hit the nail on the head !! All you wrote needs to be applied to every day !!i know I was lucky & blessed to have had mentors & coaches who adhered to this religiously !, so this I also learned from them !! Trying as best I could to do the same !, Always leaving my students with the why & how to practice !! It paid off several times over !,

  3. I started riding when I was 9 and never stopped! I am now 70 and still going strong!
    I have always been a very avid reader and right fron the start I would read everything I could about horses.
    I got to a point where I had all this knowledge in my head and realized I didn’t really know how to ride! I then discovered the first book that Mary Wanless wrote and it changed my life. I eventually brought her to Canada and did clinics here for many years. I now teach a combination of biomechanics and classical training . I encourage my students to read and watch videos and attend clinics but it doesn’t always sink in that there is so much to learn.
    I still go to lots of clinics both to ride and audit. Nicole Weinauger a certified Phillipe Karl trainer comes to Canada 3 times a year and I attend as many of her clinics as I can.
    I will not stop as long as I can go on!

  4. Another perfect blog! I have always been a very firm believer in the “why” of horsemanship……I want to teach thinking riders & have them able to go on without me! For many years, I worked in the show office at most shows & was unable to coach my students into the ring……now I’m finding it increasingly difficult to even be at the shows, so it is VERY important to me that my students are able to think their way through warm-up & showing & are able to trouble-shoot from the saddle & in the show ring! If they didn’t know “WHY” the aids work, or “WHY” the judge wants to see certain maneuvers…..they’d have a hard time “gettin’ ‘er done” in the pen!