Develop *Feel* to Ride Your Horse Better

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | August 20, 2015

Courtesy of Robin Gollehon
Credit: Courtesy of Robin Gollehon
A rider with "feel" uses a subtle lift of the hand to ask her horse to soften at the poll. If instead you ask by bumping your horse’s mouth, a bump becomes the only cue that will work. Always start with the lightest cue that’s effective.
How soft is soft? In horsemanship, it’s a tough question. World champion trainer Robin Gollehon says in all her years of giving lessons, “feel” is the hardest thing to teach a rider. The Versailles, Kentucky, horsewoman--a 35-year industry veteran--says many riders over-cue and are much too heavy with their hands and legs.

         But how can you know just how soft “soft” really is?

         To demonstrate, Robin likes to press gently on a rider’s arm.

         “I’ll ask, ‘Can you feel that?’ Of course the rider says yes. ‘Well,’ I respond, ‘so can your horse!’ He can feel a tiny fly on his side, so he can certainly feel the reins lying softly against his neck, or your calf pressing gently on his barrel.”

         You’ve probably heard this wisdom before—about using the lightest possible cues--but do you really practice it when you ride? It takes a conscious effort. And if you don’t make that effort, you’re dulling your horse’s senses.

         “Using your reins too hard and abruptly, and bumping aggressively with your legs is like ‘yelling’ at your horse,” Robin explains. “Eventually he becomes oblivious to the yelling and you have to yell even louder.”

         In other words, it becomes a vicious circle.

         The solution?

         Robin says to think in terms of installing a “button” on your horse for the cue in question. For example, do you want the button for softening at the poll to be a bump on the bit, or a subtle lifting of your hand? If the latter—and who doesn’t want that!--then that’s how you must always ask the first time you ask. If your horse doesn’t respond, you can up the cue’s intensity until he does, then go back and ask again softly until he understands that that “soft button” is what you want him to respond to. Only then should you move on.

         “Ask softly in a way that makes sense to your horse,” says Robin. “Then give him a chance to respond correctly. If he does, reward him by stopping the cue and perhaps offering positive reinforcement--like a rub on the neck.

         “But if he doesn’t respond, follow through with a stronger cue that makes sense to him--so he knows a consequence is coming if he doesn’t listen to the lighter cue in the first place.”

         Robin adds that “soft” is a relative index that can change depending on the horse in question.

         “Learn to ‘read’ your horse,” she stresses. “Most riders ride the same no matter what horse they’re on, or how he responds.”

         This, she notes, is the exact opposite of riding with feel.

         “As a trainer, I’ve ridden hundreds of horses. I can adapt my approach to each one in a matter of seconds by ‘listening’ to what he’s ‘telling’ me.”

         To accomplish the same with your horse, “strive to feel what he needs in terms of the lightest possible cue, then ride him accordingly. By doing so and following the light-cue-first approach, you can actually make a dull horse more responsive over time.”

         (MORE: Learn about Robin’s online “Trainer on Retainer” program, and if you’re headed for the show ring, check out her tips for showing on a shoestring.)


The Reward Your Horse *Really* Loves

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | July 27, 2015
Alana Harrison
Credit: Alana Harrison
When you stroke your horse *and* give him a moment of rest, you reward him for good performance in a way he can easily understand. In addition, he can process the learning—note how the horse is chewing, plus his thoughtful expression.
Do you know how to give your horse a double-whammy reward? Both positive and negative reinforcement at the same time?

         It’s easy—do as the trainer in the photo is doing. After your horse has responded well to what you’ve asked of him, give him a nice rub--that’s the positive reinforcement…offering him something he enjoy.

At the same time, allow him to stand and relax for a moment; that gives him more positive reinforcement (the relaxing) plus adds negative reinforcement (you’ve taken away something he doesn’t want, by ceasing all cueing).

         This makes it perfectly clear to your horse that you’re pleased with him. It also gives him a moment to process the learning. In other words, he’s thinking, So THAT’s what she wanted, and this is what happens when I do it. Nice!  

         This mulling-over is why horses often lick and chew during this interval of rest…those are indications of thinking.

         You can take this kind of double-whammy reward even further, too.

         “If [your horse] has done particularly well,” writes world champion trainer Al Dunning in Ultimate Level of Horsemanship: Training Through Inspiration, “the reward may be that you get off, uncinch the saddle, and lead him back to the barn—right from that spot where he did so well. This may reap better results than following through with a prearranged plan.”

         So, what’s the opposite of a great reward? Asking your horse to repeat the good thing he did over and over. Ten lope departs in a row. Seven slide stops. Six sidepasses--whatever.

         If you do that, you muddle the issue.      

         “It can confuse a horse when he does something right, yet you make him keep doing it repeatedly,” writes Dunning. “He’s not being rewarded for good behavior.”

         And, in a way, he’s being inadvertently punished for it.

         So--know when to take a break, and when to call it quits. Your horse will thank you for it, plus learn faster and better.

         Read more about how and why rewards work; the importance of timing in giving rewards; the pros and cons of feeding treats; plus other examples of letting learning sink in.


The ‘Clues’ on Your Horse’s Head

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | June 19, 2015
 Alana Harrison Credit: Alana Harrison
With one whorl centered between his eyes and another above at the base of his star, this gelding is kind but "definitely reactive and a bit of a worry-wort," says his owner. Whorl patterns develop in a fetus at the same time as the nervous system.



Whorls, the hair swirls or cowlicks on your horse’s face, are fascinating for what they may tell you about his temperament.

         Reined cow horse superstars Lyn Anderson and Sandy Collier talk about whorls in their new DVD set, Personality Project: Understanding Horses. They note that although beliefs about these cowlicks vary, certain theories about them persist. For example, a single whorl centered directly between a horse’s eyes seems to be linked to what we think of as an uncomplicated, tractable temperament.

         And, if a horse has two whorls close together, it may indicate a horse that’s slightly more fractious, though still perfectly trainable. If the two whorls are farther apart and/or higher on the forehead, however, and especially if there are several other cowlicks on the horse’s face and body, this may indicate a more reactive, unpredictable temperament.

         Lyn’s and Sandy’s thoughts are consistent with those of experts I researched when I wrote a cover story on this topic for the June 2008 issue of H&R. All quite fascinating.

         Why a link between whorls and temperament? Scientists like Temple Grandin speculate it's because the nervous system (which affects temperament) and the skin (which contains the whorl patterns) are formed at the same time and in the same embryonic layer during a foal's development in the womb.

         Like other experts, Lyn and Sandy stress that you shouldn’t make buying decisions based on whorls alone. Rather, if a particular whorl pattern backs up a suspicion you already have about a prospect, then you may want to evaluate that horse even more closely before proceeding.

         And, as I noted in a previous blog post, Temple Grandin and clinician Linda Tellington-Jones stress that whorls are best used not as a way to rank horses but as a guide in training. In particular, high-whorl, more-reactive horses need extra care and patience if you want to avoid traumatizing them.

Courtesy of Lyn Anderson/Sandy Collier
Credit: Courtesy of Lyn Anderson/Sandy Collier
Cow horse champions Lyn Anderson (left) and Sandy Collier say evaluating whorls can be enlightening.
         In their DVD, Lyn and Sandy stress there’s no “cookie-cutter training” when it comes to horses, and that a horse’s personality does have an impact. They say you must evaluate a horse’s temperament and attitude, then bring him along in the manner that best suits him--in the discipline where he’s happiest.

         And if whorls can help you to achieve these goals and understand your horse better, that’s a good thing.


Surprising Tip to Polish Your Horsemanship

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | May 20, 2015

Horse&Rider file photo


Merely watching a highly skilled rider can help you absorb some of that expertise yourself, according to what many scientists claim about so-called “mirror neurons” in the brain.

That means the time you spend watching the best goes between your classes at a horse show is more than just fun; it’s also beneficial—especially if you do it right.

Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that fire not only when we execute an action, but also when we simply watch someone else executing the action. The effect was first documented over 20 years ago. Italian researchers monitoring monkeys’ brains discovered that certain neurons fired not only when the monkeys reached for a peanut, but also when they just watched someone else—another monkey or a human—reach for a peanut.

When I first learned about mirror neurons in 2005, it sparked an “aha!” moment. So that’s how he did it, I thought, remembering something the late Greg Ward, four-time winner of the National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, once told me.

“Every time I come home from a horse show, I ride better for awhile,” he’d said, referring to his penchant for studying riders whose technique he admired. “You have to watch everything--their feet, their hands, their facial expressions—and experience their performance from their perspective.” 

Turns out Ward was taking full advantage of his brain’s ability to engage in this form of “stealth learning.” And, because he already knew a thing or two about riding cow horses, he was getting the most benefit possible out of his mirror neurons when he watched someone ride a pattern or go down the fence. That’s because, say scientists, we need to know something about the activity we’re viewing in order for our brains to experience it in the most meaningful way.

So, how can you use stealth learning to your own advantage? Some tips:

         • Watch what you know. If you’re a pretty good barrel racer but brand new to reining, you’ll benefit more by watching great barrel racers than great reiners. That’s because you need a basic “motor map” in your brain for the learning to lock onto. Research has found, for example, that ballet dancers showed a lot of activity in the part of their brains that control dancing when they watched ballet dancers perform, but not so much when they watched Brazilian capoeira dancers perform, and vice versa.

         • Experience what you watch. Remember Ward’s words. He got the most benefit from watching by imagining himself in the saddle, experiencing the performance from the rider’s perspective. Engage as many senses as possible—feel your hands and legs giving the cues, hear the horse’s footfalls under you, smell his sweat. Make the experience come alive.

         • Watch the real thing, if possible. Live performances are best at triggering all your senses. Spectating at events, watching clinic presentations by top trainers, observing advanced riders in their practice or lessons—all these provide maximum stealth-learning power. Studying DVDs, though not as impactful as live performances, still provides benefit if you strive to fully experience the ride as much as possible.

         • Don’t quit your lessons. Watching can’t substitute for actual instruction. The ideal, if you want to advance most rapidly, is great coaching augmented with frequent mental “ride alongs” as you watch—and your brain “mirrors”--the best horsemen in your sport or activity.


3 Tips to Glue You in That Saddle

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | April 15, 2015


Sitting pretty is all about feeling secure in the saddle. Here are 3 stick-like-glue tips to boost your base of support.
Would you like to feel more secure when you’re riding? To sit deeply in the saddle as if stuck there by glue?

         We all would. Security not only helps to keep you from falling off (no matter what your horse does), it also frees you to use your seat and legs with greatest ease for best communication with your horse.

         Net result: You become a safer, more effective rider.

         So what is the key to that security in the saddle? Your “base of support,” or lower-body position. All the riding coaches I’ve ever worked with hit same key points on this matter. They stress that you must sit deep in the saddle. Your legs must be under your center of balance and in light contact with your horse’s sides. Your weight must sink down into your heels.

         Simple to say, not so easy to do. It takes a lot of “wet saddle blankets,” as they say (time spent in the saddle), to develop a stick-like-glue lower-body position, but these three exercises will speed your progress.

         1. Nerf alert. Imagine there’s a nerf ball in the middle of your back, between your shoulder blades, and you must hold it there by keeping your shoulders back and down. This requires an erect upper body, which in turn sits you down deeply in the saddle “on your pockets.” Though the nerf-ball position may be more extreme than you’d want to maintain all the time, it helps to exaggerate a new position when you’re creating a new muscle memory. Practice nerf-ball posture on and off as you ride, teaching yourself over time to sit more erect in your torso and deeper in the saddle with your seat.

         2. Stand and deliver. What you’ll “deliver” is balance. Stand up in your stirrups, letting your weight sink down into your heels. (Make sure the stirrups are on the balls of your feet.) Maintain this standing position using your balance only—you’ll find that in order to do so, you must keep your legs directly under your center of balance…exactly where you want them. To make sure you don’t snatch your horse’s mouth with the reins when you lose your balance and plop back down (it happens), grab a bit of mane as a safeguard. Practice at a standstill and then at a walk over many days; when you feel secure, move up to a jog, then a brisk trot, then a lope. You’ll find your legs stay under you where they belong more and more easily—no more “chair seat” with your legs too far out in front.

         3. Power post. This one, a fiendish darling of English riding instructors, will super-charge the security of any rider. At a brisk trot, drop your stirrups and post to the rhythm—that is, bring your pelvis up and forward every other stride. Start with short periods of time and build, as this exercise can be exhausting (don’t make yourself saddle sore). Your legs will naturally lengthen and wrap around your horse’s barrel. At first you’ll find yourself gripping more than is ideal in ordinary riding, but as your leg position improves and specific leg muscles tone and strengthen, you’ll find the posting easier to do with less gripping. When you pick up your stirrups again, especially after many days of no-stirrup posting practice, note how much more “competent” your legs feel.

         And, after a month or more practicing all these exercises, you’ll be more secure in the saddle, more effective with your cues, and more elegant looking on your horse—a nice bonus.

         (For more on engaging your core, seat, and legs in the saddle, check out this how-to with trainer Bill Melendez.) 


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