The Privilege of Riding

Horse beginners learn the basics of horse training and horseback riding with Emily Johnson's training series

If you have not yet experienced the feeling of wanting to throw your hands in the air with disbelief about the conflicting information you get surrounding horse care, horse health and horse training, just wait – your time is coming.

The world of horses can be an exceptionally confusing place because there are about as many opinions out there as there are hairs on your horse (and if you’ve lived through shedding season, you know that’s an awful lot of hairs!)

The aggravating part is that everyone seems to believe that their way is the right way.

A stark example of this from my own experience with horses came when one of my horses suffered an injury to a ligament in her front leg. I was in California at the time and had a farrier recommend a particular set of front shoes for my mare, telling me this was the absolute best thing for this type of injury. When my mare and I arrived back home in Colorado and saw our regular farrier, he gasped and exclaimed, “Those shoes will cripple a horse!” and pulled them off immediately. You can imagine my confusion.

Of course, the case of conflicting information does not just plague the horse community, but rather is encountered in just about every facet of life.

With that said, I believe that the best one can do is be a responsible learner, gathering enough of the right kind of information to make the best decision possible – in this case for you and your horse.

When making decisions in an area that is unfamiliar to you it is important to look to reputable sources and rely on people with more expertise in that area, so that you do not come to decisive conclusions with too little information.

A woman and her filly demonstrated this point to me in a very interesting way years ago. She told me one day with great conviction that her horse hated the roundpen. I asked her how she knew her horse so fervently hated the roundpen and she stated that the one time the horse was in the roundpen, she frantically ran around looking to the outside of the pen, whinnying. Upon seeing this behavior, the woman concluded her mare hated the roundpen and vowed to never take her near one again.

I remember thinking to myself how odd that she had made such an absolute determination without having considered other possibilities for the mare’s behavior.

For instance, had this woman tried to understand the behavior of her mare– not in her own language and realm of understanding but rather, from the horse’s point of view– she may have realized that her mare was not expressing hatred of the roundpen, but rather fear and confusion.

Likely, her mare was feeling frightened, and therefore was mentally and physically in flight (that’s what prey animals do) because she perceived that she was confined and had been separated from her herd. In a horse’s mind that means certain death. No wonder the mare seemed bothered.

Clearly, this horse did not regard her owner as her herd leader from whom she could derive security and direction, or she would not have lost herself to feelings of abandonment.

What this woman did well was being willing to listen to her horse. But this particular story had a sad ending, because the woman was never open to getting more information about the feedback she had received from her horse, and instead made a final decision with too little information.

In reality, the relationship between this woman and her horse could have been greatly strengthened had they learned to interact in the roundpen in a mutually beneficial way, rather than avoiding it all together (I’m sure you can apply this to life as well).

We need to understand our horse from their perspective–not from our own. It is from this belief that I strive to help students of horsemanship understand the how and the why behind what they do. It is the knowledge and understanding behind the skills, not just the skills themselves, that facilitates sound decision-making.

With that, I want to share with you some thoughts about riding before we jump into actual riding exercises in the upcoming weeks. I want to ensure that the experience is enjoyable and beneficial for both you and your horse.

The Generosity of the Horse
You may have gathered by now that I am not the, “Grab the horse, get on and go” type. There is evidence of this in my having taken many months to share with you insight into the ways of the horse and how to pursue partnership through groundwork. It is key that we know the horse, so we may do best by the horse – this, I believe is the ultimate mark of a true horseman or horsewoman.

This strong desire to know and understand my horse before getting on her back is rooted in a tremendous reverence for the species.

Regardless of the regularity in which I am in the saddle, I feel a deep awe and admiration for these majestic beings each time they so graciously allow me to rise upon their backs.

Keep in mind that the entirety of the horses’ genetic makeup predisposes them to a wariness of our kind. Their instinct confirms for them the millions of years of negative (and by that, I mean deadly) experiences they’ve had when a predator is on their back.

Yet, despite this firmly rooted self-preservation, the horse may learn to willingly carry those they trust and respect.

It is because of this that I see riding my horse as an earned privilege and regard the experience with such high esteem.

Groundwork and Riding: Close Relatives or Distant Cousins?
While riding is certainly one way to experience the horse, I feel that the horse gets the short end of the deal when it is seen as merely the means through which to accomplish that end.

Many horses will tolerate being caught up, tacked up and asked to do things with no prior preparation, but sadly this scenario does not address the horse as the emotionally vibrant and offering animals that they are.

Is good horsemanship really just about having our horses tolerate what we do to them? Or is it about setting it up so that our horse becomes an invested partner as we do things with them?

Do not mistake my message. In no way, shape, or form am I suggesting that horses cannot or should not be ridden. I ride my horses nearly every day of the week and absolutely love the thrill of being on their back.

Rather, I am proposing the idea of what it could be like if people’s desire to be with horses was motivated less by the need to ride and more by the relationship. Mutually pleasant riding experiences are a natural outcropping from a strong and connective relationship.

Remember, it is an instinctually unnatural act for a horse to allow a predator upon their backs. The horse offers a very generous gift when they allow us to ride them. I see it as a unique gift that it should not be taken lightly – and certainly not a situation over which we should take advantage

With all that said, the question remains, how then does riding fit into the horsemanship you have learned thus far?

Simple. It does not have to be groundwork or riding, it is groundwork and riding.

Although in the early stages of learning you will find that practicing your groundwork skills will take up a significant amount of time, I can assure you that as your horsemanship progresses, you will find that you are able to obtain partnership with your horse in far less time, leaving ample time for riding.

Groundwork to Green Light: Asking for Permission to Ride
I always take some time on the ground to check in with how my horse is feeling today. Most of the time, through groundwork, they are able to get physically, mentally, and emotionally collected at which point I am able to ride.

Some days, for whatever reason, my horse has difficultly getting their ducks in a row, so to speak. If that is the case, I need to offer my horse the time on the ground to help get them through their sticky spot. Sometimes that may mean I have to disregard my intent to ride for that day, for the sake of my relationship with my horse.

Although it feels disappointing to not ride as planned (particularly if you have a limited amount of time in the week), it is a far better option than jeopardizing your safety or damaging your horse’s dignity.

While there are some groundwork exercises that you may find more fun than others, be sure to not neglect or avoid the ones you do not enjoy doing as much, as this creates an incomplete foundation. I specifically recommend finding ways to work in the “Basics of movement” exercises into every session: Desensitization Stage 1 and 2; Back up; Yield the Hindquarters; and Yield the Forehand. These exercises serve as the base upon which everything rests.

The beauty of groundwork done well is that it most always leads to a green light for riding.

What, then, does the green light to ride look like?

Your only homework this week is to practice the following points:

Before riding, it is important that your horse responds to you in the following ways on the ground:

  • Your horse acknowledges you as herd leader by allowing you to influence and control their movement. This means they readily (responding to a phase 1 or 2 request) move off (sensitization) when asked to move, and stand still (desensitization) when asked.
  • Your horse gives you their full attention and offers a pleasant attitude. You ought to have two ears pointing at you and a nice “What can I do for you today?” look from your horse when you are communicating with them.
  • You can turn your horse ‘on’ – asking them to walk and trot (at the minimum) on line and ‘off’ – disengaging the hindquarters and bringing them back for some desensitization – equally well.

Having these things in place is a good indication that your horse is responding to you as a partner and that you are ready to progress the relationship through riding.

After all, what the horse really wants is simply to get along. When we set it up for success, asking their permission and bringing them alongside us in the partnership, the riding experience becomes limitless.

About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.

Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.

Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at [email protected].