Horseback Riding-Getting Started
Credit: Josh Palmatier

Why Ride?

Horseback riding is a blast. In fact, I would say that there is nothing else like it in the world. It's completely exhilarating to be connected to such an amazing animal... to be thundering through a meadow or down a mountain trail, the wind in your feel the sheer power underneath you, and feel the energy coursing through you as the hoof-beats fall in perfect cadence.

Horseback riding gets you outside and brings you closer to nature. It gives you the chance to learn about and interact with these incredible creatures. Riding is also very good exercise. Hop on a horse and ride for an hour. You can bet that you will feel it the next day. Riders use leg muscles that most people don't even know they have.

Horseback riding also teaches responsibility and awareness. You will gradually learn to be more aware of your surroundings because your horse is always aware of his. You will also learn to be acutely aware of your body and what you are doing with it. A horse can and will notice everything you do down to the minutest detail. They feel when you move, when you breathe, and even which of your muscles are tense and which are relaxed. They are truly amazing animals.

Yes, horseback riding is fantastic, but it is also dangerous. The dangers of horseback riding have been compared to motorcycle riding, extreme sports, and even illicit drug use. It is my opinion however that most of the hazards of riding come from improper horsemanship. There is a way to safely interact with and ride these animals.


Think Like A Horse

In order to work safely with a horse and to have a good relationship with him, you first have to understand how horses think, and why they do the things they do.

There are two main types of animals in the world. Prey animals, and predators. Predators are those animals that hunt and eat other animals for food. Prey animals are the animals that predators eat. In the wild, prey animals have to rely on their instincts and their fight or flight response on a daily basis in order to survive. This isn't something that you can breed out of them, and our horses are still living as if they were about to be eaten at any moment. 

Prey animals generally rely first upon running when faced with a threat. They have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them a nearly 360-degree field of view, but no depth perception. Their ears swivel so that they can listen for threats behind and around them. They live in large groups or herds for safety. They are very responsive to movement and to even the slightest changes in their environment, and they smell like what they eat...grass.

Predators may flee when faced with a threat, but they often fight. Their eyes are on the front of their head allowing them to have a laser-like focus, and excellent depth perception. They generally approach their prey in a direct line, and they are often solitary. They smell like what they eat...meat.

Humans are predators and horses know it. This is why there are so many difficulties in the average horse/human relationship, and why it can be dangerous to ride horses. It is in our nature to act like predators, and we don't even know that we are doing it.

If you have ever watched horses in the field you will see them playing dominance games with each other. They will bite and kick and do things to each other that would seriously injure or kill a human and yet they remain unhurt. However, when a human becomes angry and hits a horse, they become frantic and terrified. This is because in that moment, the human is acting like a predator and the horse is literally afraid for its life.

The key to having a safe relationship with your horse is to gain his trust and respect, by not acting like a predator.

 Any time horses are in a group they will quickly establish a pecking order or chain of command. The horse that ends up on top is the alpha horse. The alpha can be either male or female, and this position comes with special privileges. The alpha drinks first, eats first, and generally does whatever he or she pleases. The alpha also has the responsibility of looking out for the group. 

The alpha decides where the herd will go, when they will stop to rest, where they will eat, and all other group decisions. When he/she feels safe, the herd feels safe, when he/she spooks and runs, the herd runs. You need to become your horse's alpha.


It All Starts On The Ground

How Horses Talk

Training Moana
Credit: Josh Palmatier

If you ever get the chance to observe a herd of horses in the wild, I would highly recommend that you do so. If there are no wild horses near you, then try to find a relatively large herd on a farm somewhere. Take a few hours and go sit and watch them communicate with each other. Some of the best times to do this are first thing in the morning, or around feeding time because they will be interacting with each other more and re-establishing their pecking order.

See if you can identify the alpha in the herd, and see if you can find the low horse in the pecking order. As you watch, you will notice that horses communication is largely non-vocal. They use body language in order to get their message across, and they always do it in increasing levels of severity, or phases. For instance, if the alpha is eating her hay and another horse approaches, she will turn her head to look at the intruder or maybe just focus an eye on her. This is Phase 1. If that doesn't work, she will pin her ears back and focus all her energy on the other horse, Phase 2. Phase 3 would be to step towards the other horse aggressively, and Phase 4 would be to actually apply physical pressure to the other animal, generally in the form of biting or kicking.

It may take you a while to see the variations in phases because they happen so fast, but over time you will begin to "hear" their language, and you will understand what is going on. This will give you a good idea of how you need to communicate with your horse and all of the groundwork will make sense to you.

Before you begin working with your horse on the ground, you should understand what motivates horses. If you know how to properly motivate a horse, you can teach him to do anything. Horses have four main motivators and they are in a specific and unchanging order.

  1. Safety
  2. Comfort
  3. Food
  4. Play

As a prey animal, a horse's number one concern is always safety (think not being eaten). If they feel safe, they will then try to make themselves comfortable. If a horse is safe and comfortable it will engage in its favorite leisure activity...eating. Once he is safe, comfortable, and full, he will play. The order of these motivations is built into the DNA of the horse. It will never change and there is nothing you can do to make it any different. Knowing this information, however, will enable you to work with your horse very effectively.


Laying A Foundation

Armed with the knowledge of how horses communicate and what motivates them, it is time to lay a foundation of trust and respect with your horse. There are many different games that horses play with each other, and many games that you should play with your horse. For the purpose of this article, I will only get into a couple of them, but I will describe each one in detail in a future article.

First off, you should know that in the horse world, the horse that moves its feet loses the game. For instance, if your horse pushes you with his head and you step back, you have just lost. This is a subtle game that your horse is playing with you and in his mind, he has just demonstrated his dominance over you. He is now the alpha. However, if you can get him to move his feet, you can establish dominance over him and take back the alpha position. This is a game the horse knows and understands. He has been playing it his whole life. 

One thing to note. If you ever feel yourself becoming angry while working with your horse, you should stop immediately and put him away until you have calmed down. Remember that horses can sense even the most subtle changes in humans such as muscle tension, breathing rate, and chemical changes in our bodies. When humans become angry we automatically act, smell, and look like predators, and any further attempt to communicate with your prey animal horse will be useless.


The Friendly Game

Just like a business client, your horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care. The purpose of the friendly game is to build a foundation of trust and positivity with your horse. This game deals with your horse's primary motivation which is safety. The goal is to make him feel safe around you. 

For the Friendly Game, we will be using a tool I call the "carrot stick". The carrot stick is a three-foot fiberglass rod with a three-foot cord attached to the end of it. This stick will act as an extension of your arm and allows you to maintain your distance from the horse until you know how he will react to being touched all over his body. 





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To start the friendly game, hold your horse's lead rope about 3 feet away from his head with an open hand. Begin to gently stroke your horse with the stick. While you are desensitizing him to the stick you should not be focusing on him intently. This is what a predator would do and will make him uncomfortable. Instead, pretend you are focusing on something else and just keep an eye on him in your peripheral vision. If he tries to walk away, that is ok. Follow him and continually stroke him until he stops moving his feet. The instant he stops moving his feet, stop stroking him and move away.

At this point, you should see him licking his lips, which means he is processing what just happened. This is good, it means he is learning. By stroking him with the stick, you were making him uncomfortable. He was trying to move away from the discomfort. If you stop rubbing him when he walks away, you are teaching him to leave any time he doesn't like what you are doing. By continually rubbing him and then stopping the instant his feet stop moving, you teach him that he can reduce his discomfort by simply standing still. It may take him a couple more times to catch on, but just be patient. Horses are fast learners.

You want to get him to the point that you are able to touch him anywhere on his body with the stick without him reacting to it. For some horses, this will happen immediately. For others, it might take more time and patience. All horses are different, and depending on their background experiences they may be more or less afraid of things than other horses.

After you can easily touch him everywhere with the stick, you can begin to gently throw the string part of the stick over his back and pull it off. Go through the same process to desensitize him to the string as you did with the stick. You can also start touching him everywhere with your hands, now that you know he isn't going to react badly to being touched. Using this method you can desensitize a horse to pretty much anything. 

Playing the Friendly Game briefly every time you see your horse is a great way to re-establish trust and continually build a connection with him. It will allow him to feel safe around you so that you can do the other things necessary to prepare to ride him.


The Porcupine Game

Remeber, a horse's second most important motivator is comfort. Also, remember that horses always communicate with each other in phases. This is why we use levels of comfort and discomfort to work with horses and teach them new things. 

In the Porcupine Game, you will be using pressure to get your horse to move his feet. Begin by standing about 3 feet away from your house and have him face you. Hold his lead rope in one hand and your carrot stick in the other. Look directly at the center of his chest and pretend that you are shooting a focused beam of energy there with your eyes. Now lift up your stick and place it on the center of his chest. You want to use four distinct phases when applying pressure to your horse. 

  1. Hair
  2. Skin
  3. Muscle
  4. Bone

At first just touch his hair lightly with the tip of the stick. Count to three and if he hasn't moved at all, then push the stick into his skin. Count to three again then push into the muscle, and if he hasn't moved after another 3 seconds push will all of your strength until he moves (don't worry, humans are not capable of hurting a horse by pushing too hard). Remember, don't get angry!

The object is to get him to take a step back. The instant he steps back you want to release the pressure and rub his chest. The timing here is critical. The faster your release, the faster your horse will learn and the more sensitive he will become. After you release, you will notice him licking his lips again. Horses always do this when they are learning and processing new information. This is a great sign because it means that they are calm enough to think instead of just react. When horses fear for their lives they simply react based on instinct, and thinking goes out the window.

After teaching your horse to back up using direct pressure, you want to teach him to move his front and back end. This will come in handy later when you are trying to direct him from the saddle.

To move his hindquarters, move to the side of your horse and stand facing his flank. Just like before, you are going to start by focussing intently on the area you want to move. Your horse can feel this concentrated energy. Next, lift your stick. You are going to use the same four phases as before, hair, skin, muscle, and bone. Horses will often tend to walk forward at this point, which is not what you are looking for. If he steps forward just use the lead rope to pull his head toward you and keep applying pressure. The instant his back end moves in a sideways direction, you want to release the pressure and rub him. Remember, it's all about timing. The faster your release is, the more sensitive your horse will become. 

Repeat these steps to move his front end sideways. You want to focus your energy and apply pressure to his neck, just behind the jawline. It is sideways movement we are looking for here, not forward or backward, so do your best to only release pressure when he steps sideways.

If you are consistent with your phases and quick with your release, your horse will begin to move with only your focus, or when you gently touch his hair. It's a magical feeling to be able to control such a large animal with such little pressure. 

It's good to remember that horses have different personalities just like people do. Some horses are naturally lazy and will require more pressure in order to move, and other horses are extremely sensitive and will move with the lightest touch. No matter what your horse's personality is, he will learn to become respectful and responsive as you begin to become his alpha.

Saddle Up

Your groundwork has now prepared you to get in the saddle. All of the things you did with your horse on the ground, will translate to skills you need in the saddle as you ride. The friendly game teaches your horse to be desensitized to things that are going on around him. You don't want your horse to take off running because you wave to a friend, or start bucking because you pull a plastic bag out of your pocket. These kind of things can and do happen, I have seen it myself. A calm, desensitized horse is always a safer horse than a scared jittery one.

The porcupine game teaches your horse to yield to pressure, which is extremely important when riding. You will be using pressure on his head to turn and stop him and pressure on his sides for forward and lateral movement. You need your horse to be sensitive to pressure from you in case you run into a stressful situation. No human in the world is strong enough to control a dull horse that is afraid for its life.

So... am I saying that all you have to do is play these games one time with your horse and he will be perfectly safe to ride? Well no. These games are part of a system that will help you develop a bond with your horse and teach him to trust you and be sensitive to your commands. I will be going into this system in much greater depth in a future article.

Ideally, I would spend several days or weeks with a new horse on the ground before I would ever get on his back. I realize that this isn't always practical, so these games are just a minimum of what I would want to do before I would get on a horse. They give me a good indication of where his mind is at. If he can't handle these games on the ground, then I shouldn't be getting on his back.

The most important things for you to remember as you prepare to ride are.

  1. Your horse is a prey animal. Don't act like a predator. Keep your cool in every situation. Angry humans and scared humans both act like predators.
  2. Your horse is motivated by safety, comfort, food, and play; in that order. You cannot bribe a terrified horse using comfort/discomfort, and you cannot bribe an uncomfortable horse with food.

As you grow your relationship with your horse and begin to earn his respect and take that alpha position in his life, you will begin to see a lot of his bad and annoying behaviors disappear. Horses are a lot more pleasant to interact with when you are in tune with them. They are also much, much safer to ride.

Go enjoy your horse today!

Credit: Josh Palmatier