The Right Horse = A Good Match

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | January 20, 2017

Photo illustration by Carol Ybarra from an Alana Harrison image
Credit: Photo illustration by Carol Ybarra from an Alana Harrison image
It’s what we all want, but a great working relationship with a horse depends on a solid match between certain key qualities of his and yours.
How important is a good match between you and your horse? Extremely. In fact, it’s THE essential starting point of a mutually rewarding relationship between the two of you.

In a feature I wrote last summer with “trainer of trainers” Don Murphy (on how to ride better right now), the veteran coach cautioned against trying to make do with an unsuitable mount.

“If it turns out the ‘horse you have’ doesn’t fit your program or personality, let him go someplace where he will fit,” he advises. “Sometimes it’s a good horse and a decent rider, but they just don’t match, and neither is to blame.”

If you disregard this principle, things can go bad in a hurry. For example, you might wind up trying to get something from your horse that he just doesn’t have to give. And this predictably backfires, says Don, especially in the show pen.

“If God made your horse a 68 and you try to make him a 74, you’ll wind up with a 62,” he cautions. “You’ve got to work the horse you have.” Which is why having the right horse for your goals is so important.

Obviously, a key part of assuring a good match involves your riding ability and level of experience versus your horse’s level of training. But clinician Clinton Anderson believes another match is equally crucial: the one between the horse’s energy needs and your typical riding schedule.

“This one is often overlooked,” he says in a feature on choosing the right horse. “You buy a horse that’s in a six-day-a-week program, and he’s just as nice and quiet and well-mannered as can be. You bring him home and put him on your schedule—that is, three days a week when you can manage it, and often just weekends. In a month’s time, the nice, quiet horse has turned into a nervous, high-powered wreck.”

And no one wants that.

In his article on horse-buying mistakes, world champion trainer Bob Avila warns you can carry the match-seeking too far—if you apply it to areas where it doesn’t matter, like color.

“I can’t tell you how many people call me looking for a horse, and their first criterion is color. ‘I’m looking for a palomino…’ they’ll start, when they should start with what the horse can do and how his abilities match up with their skills and goals.

“It’s the same for other superficial characteristics,” he adds. “I’ve seen people look past a horse because they didn’t like his mane. Just as you can put custom wheels on a car, you can grow a mane.”

The bottom line? Mind the right parts of the match, make sure the horse meets your needs, and enjoy a great relationship with him.


Assessing a horse’s temperament.

What to do when it’s not a good match.

Adjusting your energy level to your horse’s.

Using cowlicks as clues to temperament.

Obstacles? Bring ’Em On--Your Horse Will Love It

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | November 16, 2016

Courtesy of Jamie Thompson
Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Thompson
Jamie Thompson and Cowboy tackle a tire pyramid.
Obstacles make life interesting; overcoming them leads to success. It’s true in the world at large and in your horse world, too. Let’s talk about how work over obstacles can benefit both you and your horse.

Obviously, if you compete in trail events or love to ride out on the trail, practicing with obstacles can improve the skills you need to succeed in tough competition or enjoy a challenging trail. Sometimes, as with the pair in the photo, overcoming a particularly daunting obstacle (like tires!) brings a boost of confidence that leads to a breakthrough in training.

But obstacle work can do so much more than just prepare you for competition. Specifically, it can also improve:

Your ‘feel.’ Guiding your horse through gates, across bridges, and over logs develops your skills as a rider. You learn to feel where your horse’s various body parts are at any given moment, so you can influence them with your cues. Highly developed feel is what makes a truly polished rider. (For more on the much-sought-after quality of rider feel, check the Confident Rider page with Laurel Walker Denton in the January 2017 issue of Horse&Rider.)

Your balance. When you’re concentrating on navigating an obstacle, you’re not obsessing over your riding. You’re becoming a more balanced, fluent, natural rider of necessity. Because otherwise you will not get your horse through that hay-bale zig-zag maze, or down and then out of that ditch.

Your horse’s movement. Trotting or loping your horse over poles improves his balance, evenness, and cadence. Pivoting him in a turnaround box or keyhole strengthens his core, which contributes to his “lift” (shoulders up, back rounded). Obstacle work is like cross-training at the gym. Different muscles get toned, improving overall athleticism.

Your horse’s attitude. L back-throughs, sidepass poles, rope drags and the like provide a pleasing change of activity for your horse (and you). Having a few obstacles available makes it possible for you to break up your other schooling routines with something different. This helps to keep your horse’s outlook positive, which in turn makes him happier and more willing.

Add in the plain-ol’-fun quotient, and what other motivation do you need to start enlivening your riding with work over obstacles?

WANT MORE? CONSIDER THIS: Groundwork using obstacles. 

Hey--Horses Aren’t Binary!

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | September 27, 2016

Alana Harrison
Credit: Alana Harrison
Your horse isn’t a “binary” creature. A good relationship and “staying present” with him will boost your training success.
Are you efficient at your job? Do you wish dealing with your horse could be as structured and controlled as the work you do to earn a living, or the way you organize your home life?

Van Hargis urges you not to think this way. A respected lifelong horseman and trainer, Van presents basics-founded horsemanship principles at clinics and horse expos, and from his home base in Victoria, Texas. He’s also the host of an entertaining podcast, Ride Every Stride.

I interviewed Van recently for a “Confident Rider” segment for a 2017 issue of Horse&Rider. Something he said in an aside caught my ear, and I wanted to share that with you now.

“If there was a single message I could get across to riders, it would be this: Be present,” he said. “Take things one step at a time. If a ride doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped it would, know that it may well still have been the perfect ride for that moment.”

By that he means you should go with the flow a little. Celebrate the progress you do achieve, and stay away from self-destructive thoughts when your journey inevitably hits bumps in the road. It’s good advice, but Van notes it can be a tough prescription for many of the stay-on-task types he sees at his clinics.

“We deal with a lot of incredibly successful professionals,” he says. “It’s amazing what great leaders they are, in that structured environment where they work. But try to take that same structured mentality to the arena or the trail, and it just doesn’t work the same way.”

And why not?

“Horses are living, breathing animals. Working with them is much more about the relationship than it is about a checklist. Horses are not binary! With them, it’s not you do this and they’ll do that. You may be accustomed to an if/then system from your work, but with horses it’s much more about the relationship. A lot of the women in my clinics definitely understand and love the relationship part of the equation, but they also hang on to that checklist mentality from the rest of their lives, and it’s not helpful.”

So what’s the solution? Van suggests you take a page from your horse’s book.

“A horse isn’t worried about yesterday or anxious about tomorrow. He survives in the moment. He’s not comparing himself and his performance to any other animal, and he’s sure not worried about whether or not he wins a ribbon.

“Let that presence from your horse humble you--and keep you in the here and now.”

Sounds like excellent advice to me!

Find details about Van and his podcasts, videos, clinics, and more at his Web site.


Your horse as your partner.

Collaboration vs. domination.

Science in horse training.

What makes your horse miserable

When Square Is Hip (And Improves Your Horsemanship)

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | August 19, 2016

Jennifer Paulson
Credit: Jennifer Paulson
Cone work challenges you to be clear and consistent in your cueing. ‘Working the square’ will make you a better rider.
Looking for an all-purpose ride-better exercise? Don’t miss “Work the Square,” the Private Lesson segment in the September 2016 issue of Horse&Rider, out now. Riding your horse around four cones set in a square sounds pretty basic, but it’s more challenging than you’d expect. And when you strive to do it with precision, you fine-tune both your horsemanship and your horse’s responsiveness to your cues.

The article explains how to set four cones 15 to 30 paces apart to create a square. It then describes how to ride around the cones, keeping your horse straight in the approach to and depart from each cone.

I’ve talked before about the value of guiding your horse in specific figures. It’s a great way to organize the time you spend riding in your arena. You can find a variation of the square exercise plus a range of other excellent figure-riding exercises here.

From my own experience, one of the best things about the square exercise is the potential variety in how you ride those four cones. You can hug the square, for example, creating crisp corners by bending your horse around each cone.

Or you can use the square as a guide to help you ride a perfect circle. In this version, you strive to maintain the exact same distance from each cone as you pass it, plus create the same arc on each side of the square to guarantee that your circle is perfectly round.

Or you can split the difference, riding straight lines between cones and moderate curves around each one.

However you ride it, the key is to decide in advance what you’ll do, then follow through to the best of your ability, without letting your horse change the plan or drift off course. This challenges you to provide cueing that’s clear and consistent. So in addition to being just plain fun, square work really will help you become a better rider.

Think you’d like a little extra help to get it right? We’ve got you covered with the links below.


Ride a square corner.

Master the straight line.

Gain sideways control.

Packers Are Priceless--Here’s Why

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | August 02, 2016

Debbie Haskin
Credit: Debbie Haskin
The best way to learn to ride, whether you’re a kid or a novice adult, is on a well-broke, experienced horse--like one of these two.
I’m not what you’d call a math whiz. But there’s one equation I do know well, and that’s green+green=black-’n-blue. In other words, pairing a novice rider with a green horse is just plain asking for trouble.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. You probably know of one, or perhaps you and your horse are one. And though people sometimes do get away with it, I like to think of it the way I think of buckling up in a car. Yes, you can spurn seat belts and live to tell about it--until the crash, that is.

So if you want to put the odds of staying safe in your favor, you buckle up. And if you want to put the odds of staying safe around horses in your favor, you stick with experienced mounts while you’re learning and save the greenies until you’re ready for them.

Or, as clinician Clinton Anderson puts it, “Horses teach people, then people teach horses.” Learn from a packer. Once your horsemanship is solid and you have some years of experience under your belt, then you’ll be in a position to bring along a colt.

A perfect example of the ideal equine veteran is Jacks Vaquero Cowboy, the gelding on the left in the photo above. Now 35, he’s been introducing newbies to riding and barrel-racing competition for years. I wrote about Cowboy in an April 2006 feature, telling how at age 25 he carried then 6-year-old Scout Yochum on a winning run at the Washington State Junior Rodeo Finals. He’s still a great teacher, as is Roanie, the 25-year-old gelding on the right, a retired rope horse.

These types of horses are perfect for young riders and for novice adults, too. Think you can’t find or afford a broke veteran? Look harder. Ask around. Someone may have a semi-retired veteran you can buy, lease, or borrow if the owner trusts you and your intentions. Many well-broke horses are also available at equine rescues—if you do your due diligence to make sure the match is right. (Here are some good examples of rescues that worked.)

If you’ve already made your decision and find yourself, as a rookie rider, working with an inexperienced horse, be sure to read “Surviving Green + Green” in the August 2016 Horse&Rider, out now. The article explains why we’re often drawn to green horses when we shouldn’t be. More important, it sets forth the critical factors that can make a green-on-green pairing work, in spite of the odds. The article’s six-point plan includes—as you’d expect—the need to seek the guidance of an experienced horseman to oversee your progress and keep you on the right (and safest possible) track.

And, as it turns out, that’s exactly how Cowboy’s story began, back in the early 1980s. Bred and raised on a ranch owned by experienced horse people, he became the show mount of Jami, Scout Yochum’s mother, when he was 4 and Jami was 8. Jami began riding the well-started but still green gelding under her parents' expert supervision—while also continuing to show the Shetland she’d been learning on for years.

Fast-forward to today, and Cowboy is the experienced veteran teaching rookies how to ride.

Which is exactly as it should be.

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