Think Like a Horse

Learn how to work with your horse’s natural instincts to gain confidence in the saddle, using tips from trainer and clinician Terry Myers.

This article is brought to you by ADM Forage First Patriot Feeds.

Human instincts and horse instincts can either mimic or mirror each other. We know we need to think like a horse, but when you start thinking about how a horse’s instinct work—and how sometimes they’re the opposite of what you want them to do—you can change your own thinking and encourage changes in your horse’s behavior.

However, horses and humans are different. For one thing, horses can’t reason. They’re bound to their herd instincts. When you learn that you can outthink your horse instead of trying to out-fight your horse, it gets easier.

To gain confidence in riding, your best bet is to team up with an experienced horse. Start with a horse that will take care of you and teach you; it’s going to cost you one way or the other. You’re either going to spend a little more money on a finished horse and take lessons, or you buy a green horse, and you’ve still got to take lessons, because there’s a much greater chance of running into problems.

To gain confidence in riding, it’s best to start with a finished horse that will take care of you and teach you. Photo by ananda/

Thinking Like a Horse

So how can you learn how a horse thinks? Really, you need to sit and watch them. You’ll learn how your horse reacts to different things. How horses treat each other. You’ll learn that strength has nothing to do with being able to control your horse. It’s about timing, rhythm, and feel. 

Be Effective with Your Hands 

Fear is one of the most common instincts we share with horses. When a rider is fearful, your tendency can be to curl into a fetal position, roll your weight forward, and weigh down your horse’s forehand, which throws you off balance. A horse’s fear response is also to tense up. Together that makes for an off-balance horse.

If you want your horse to slow down, as a beginner, your natural instinct is to pull back on the reins. But a horse’s instinct is to push against that pressure and go faster. Instead, you want to think about holding your reins the way you would hold somebody’s hand. You don’t want to pull on their arm, you just want to have a nice soft grip. Same thing with your reins. You should be able to effectively use your reins by just having a light touch.

[Read more from Terry Myers about upper body position]

Using Your Legs

When a horse feels leg pressure, he might try to lean into the pressure. So if you squeeze harder with your legs, it gives your horse something to push back on, which will invert his back in a way you want to avoid. This body position also makes your seat become tight and stiff. The harder you squeeze, the more it shuts your seat down and doesn’t allow your horse to pick up his back.

Instead, bounce your leg against your horse, in rhythm with his feet, and don’t shut your seat down. Eventually he’ll get to where you can touch him with your leg, and he’ll move.  

To learn how to really think like a horse, you need to watch how your horse reacts to different things. How he is around other horses and how they treat each other in different environments. Photo by volgariver/

Body Position Matters

Anything you do walking, you do riding. I see a lot of riders, when they want to turn left, pull back with their left hand. But people don’t realize, horses are bilateral. If you pull on his left side, you affect the right side of his hips, and vice versa. If you want your horse to be balanced, he has to carry his hip behind him. If you pull on that left rein, you’re already putting him out of balance, and causing him to be forehand heavy. If you’re not balanced on top, your horse can’t be balanced underneath.

If you think about how a person walks a circle, we always lead with our shoulders. If you walk a circle to the left, your left shoulder always leads the way. If you go to change directions, your right shoulder automatically goes ahead of the left. If you move your shoulders like that as you are riding, your horse will often change directions, without you having to pick up on the bridle reins. 

When working on your position, don’t put your hands behind your back to pull your shoulders back. That rolls them forward. Instead, bring your hands in front of you. 

Relax in the Saddle

If you find yourself getting tense in the saddle, try singing to yourself as you ride around. When you sing, you’re singing from your lower abdomen. When you talk, it’s from your upper chest. I’m a firm believer that your stomach is like a shock absorber in a car. When you get tight in your stomach, you start to bounce because your core locks down. Relax by singing your favorite song, this will help your confidence start to go up.

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