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Bud­dy, the over-​the-​hill horse, has had chron­ic lame­ness for over a year (more infor­ma­tion in an upcom­ing post), and I’ve rid­den him on trail very lit­tle, and in com­pet­i­tive trail rides not at all, which has been deeply disappointing.

But I was able to ride in the NATRC com­pe­ti­tion in Peñas­qui­tos Canyon (north of San Diego) last Octo­ber on a bor­rowed horse named Mila­gro. He is a Span­ish mus­tang belong­ing to the author Audrey Pavia; she has rid­den him in a num­ber of com­pet­i­tive trail rides. Audrey has a younger Span­ish mus­tang, Rio, that she is bring­ing along as a trail horse, and she want­ed to start him out in the com­pa­ny of his pad­dock pal. I was pleased and hon­ored that she asked me to ride Milagro.

Mila­gro and Bud­dy have sim­i­lar builds, in that they are both short and stocky, with short mas­sive necks set high. Bud­dy clear­ly has some mus­tang her­itage, but his draft her­itage makes him more mas­sive than Mila­gro. Bud­dy’s feet are larg­er, but Mila­gro’s are nar­row and tougher. When Bud­dy gets con­cerned on the trail, he usu­al­ly goes faster. When Mila­gro gets con­cerned, he often stops.

Mila­gro is an expe­ri­enced trail horse, and I am an expe­ri­enced trail rid­er, and on the rocky up-​and-​down single-​track trails of our con­di­tion­ing rides he was a champ—less impul­sion than Bud­dy, but more sure-​footed. But on street trails, he slowed to a crawl, even when he was head­ed back to the barn (at one point I almost jumped off to lead him, think­ing my walk would be faster than his). I agree with Audrey that he finds lit­tle of inter­est on the street trails except plants to munch on, and those require slow­ing down any­way. I was con­cerned by his speed, because NATRC rides have a set time that requires a pace of 3–4 miles per hour (for the Novice and Com­pet­i­tive Plea­sure class­es), and nei­ther he nor Rio were even com­ing close at the walk.

Horse standing by horse trailer and defecating
Mila­gro per­forms diag­nos­tics on his hindgut before the ride. I ditched the mechan­i­cal hack­amore at lunch (I was­n’t using it) and went with the rein attached to the halter.

But it turns out Mila­gro is also an expe­ri­enced dres­sage horse. I took him to a pub­lic are­na and remind­ed him that he knows the work­ing walk and the work­ing trot, and then took him back on a street trail and remind­ed him that they are the same there as on the sand.

Ride day dawned chilly, but it heat­ed up fast, with highs in the upper 90s. Audrey and I were both rid­ing Novice, I because I’m a novice rid­er, and she because Rio is a novice horse. For­tu­nate­ly she was in the light­weight divi­sion and I was in the heavy­weight, so we weren’t com­pet­ing against each oth­er. The Novice course was just over 18 miles. Before lunch, it went upstream in the canyon (east), to a hill which was the first judged obsta­cle, and at the top of which would be a check of the hors­es’ pulse, res­pi­ra­tion, hydra­tion, and sound­ness (P&R). There were a cou­ple of water cross­ings, some wood­land, some chap­ar­ral and dry grass, and a fair num­ber of bicy­clists and dogs. Toward the end, the trail passed below a hous­ing tract—Peñasquitos Canyon is an oasis of old Cal­i­for­nia cut­ting through plateaus cov­ered by suburbia.

Less than a mile from the turn-​around hill, a cou­ple of rid­ers came back our way to tell us the trail was blocked by fenc­ing. It turns out a water main had burst since the last time the ride man­agers walked the trail, wash­ing it out, the gul­ly was fenced off, and there was no way to pro­ceed. We informed the ride man­agers by cell phone and they told us to meet them under a high­way bridge where the trail ran along the creek.

Shade and water are a spe­cial delight on a hot ride. Mila­gro drank, and then decid­ed to check out the edi­ble veg­e­ta­tion along the shore. He likes to take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to eat. Many horse peo­ple say you should nev­er let a horse eat along the trail, but they aren’t dis­tance rid­ers. The goal is to get the horse to eat when you allow it, and to allow it often enough that it’s not a bat­tle. It has been a train­ing chal­lenge for both Bud­dy and Mila­gro, Bud­dy because he was ini­tial­ly sure it was nev­er okay to eat, and Mila­gro because he ini­tial­ly did­n’t see the point in not eating.

Woman riding horse across water
Audrey Pavia cross­ing Peñas­qui­tos Creek on Rio. Mila­gro’s ear tips just enter the bot­tom of the frame.

Lunch was back at camp, and the rid­ers and hors­es could both eat and drink freely. After lunch, the course went down­stream, to the west. It was laid out as much as pos­si­ble to stick to sin­gle tracks, to avoid bicy­cle traf­fic. About a third of it was through ripar­i­an wood­land, with sev­er­al water cross­ings (one was a judged obsta­cle). The rest was through scrub and grassland.

As we pro­gressed, Rio showed signs of lame­ness, espe­cial­ly at the trot, so that we weren’t able to make up time from the slow walk. Because of the lost hill climb plus P&R in the morn­ing, we were asked to trot the last quar­ter mile before the after­noon P&R. The vet checked Rio, and he and Audrey decid­ed to pull him from the com­pe­ti­tion (he was trail­ered back to camp). I con­tin­ued with Milagro.

This was a chal­lenge for both hors­es. Either is fine with rid­ing out alone, but they were not hap­py about being sep­a­rat­ed, because that was­n’t part of the plan. As we rode away, Rio would whin­ny, and Mila­gro would stop and whin­ny back, so loud that his sides would shake and I could feel the bass notes up my spine. I would reas­sure him, and we’d ride on until the next whin­ny. The inter­changes stopped after Rio was trail­ered away.

Mila­gro decid­ed he need­ed to be back at camp. I had told him that Rio would be there when we got back—I don’t know whether he was lis­ten­ing to me or fig­ured it out on his own, but he was ready to go. I did­n’t want him to trot through the wood­land, because there were low-​hanging branch­es and areas of uneven foot­ing, so I rat­ed him back and a lit­tle bit of mag­ic happened.

Rider's view of horse's neck and head, dirt trail, scrubby vegetation
Rid­ing through the scrub north of Peñas­qui­tos creek

Many mus­tangs have an ambling gait between the walk and trot, tech­ni­cal­ly a step­ping pace, that is some­times called the “Indi­an shuf­fle” because it was observed in the ponies of First Nations rid­ers. It’s a genet­ic lega­cy of the ambling hors­es of Iberia that were the main­stay of the con­quis­ta­dores. Bud­dy has it, and once I fig­ured out what it was and learned to ask for it, I used it a lot on trail—it’s about three and a half to four miles an hour, per­fect for the Novice NATRC rides. Audrey had told me that both Mila­gro and Rio had orig­i­nal­ly shown this faster gait, but that it had evi­dent­ly been trained out of them. But when I rat­ed Mila­gro back from a trot, he dropped into an amble, and I broke into a big smile. Mila­gro ambles at about three miles an hour, but it’s still faster than his walk. He was sat­is­fied with his progress, and we ambled back into camp.

Once we had our time, I rode him straight over to where Rio was tied to the trail­er. They snuffed noses, and if I was under­stand­ing them cor­rect­ly, Rio said “Where have you been?” and Mila­gro said “I’m glad to be back. You got any hay?”

As best Audrey and I can fig­ure, Rio had a small peb­ble in his hoof boot press­ing against a heel bulb, because when she removed the boots in camp, he was basi­cal­ly sound. Ride and learn.

Each horse you ride teach­es you some­thing new, and that makes you a bet­ter rid­er for every horse you ride

Old man and horse facing camera
A self­ie with Mila­gro at ride’s end

Even before I real­ly under­stood why, I knew it was impor­tant to ride mul­ti­ple hors­es. Hors­es are as dif­fer­ent as peo­ple, but until you’ve worked with a lot of hors­es, that state­ment is just words. There’s noth­ing to com­pare to the deep bond that can form over years between a rid­er and a horse, but each horse you ride teach­es you some­thing new, and that makes you a bet­ter rid­er for every horse you ride. When you approach each new horse with the atti­tude “What can this horse teach me,” you can only improve as a rid­er, and the hors­es whose lives you touch will be bet­ter for it as well.

I’m a bet­ter rid­er for hav­ing rid­den Mila­gro, and he says he was okay with it, too.

One of the things that my dog agili­ty instruc­tor often says is “Reward your dog,” most often when the dog has done what the han­dler asked for, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly what the han­dler wanted.

There are many ways in which dog agili­ty and rid­ing are dif­fer­ent. Dogs are not hors­es, in agili­ty you’re expect­ed to not be in con­stant con­tact with your dog, and seri­ous injury is less com­mon in agility.

But there are some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. In both sports, novices overuse voice and hands to direct the ani­mal, while experts use tor­so and legs. Both are often faster-​paced than novices appre­ci­ate. Both require mus­cle mem­o­ry. And in both sports, an activ­i­ty that should ulti­mate­ly be reward­ing for the dog or horse can ini­tial­ly be scary.

Horse in a pastoral setting with a spaniel and a setter
Paint­ing by George Stubbs

Any time the dog or horse is doing what you ask, that’s praise­wor­thy, even if it was­n’t what you intend­ed. The reward is earned, and you should give it. Most dogs like food treats, or tug toys, or items they can chase, or that com­bine two or three of these attrib­ut­es. None of these work well for a rid­den horse—even food treats can only be giv­en at the halt, and the horse reach­ing for them dis­tracts from bal­ance and straight­ness and turns the halt into a stop. But the one thing almost every dog and horse (and human stu­dent) wants is reassurance—“You’re doing good!”

One way that hors­es bond with each oth­er is mutu­al groom­ing, and a com­mon groom­ing des­ti­na­tion is right in front of the rid­er’s hand: the area along side and in front of the with­ers. Because you’re the leader, when you scratch your horse there, you’re  telling him “I’ve got your back,” and when you’re rid­ing, you lit­er­al­ly do.

Relax­ing a rein to scratch is some­times coun­ter­pro­duc­tive when you’re being pre­cise with the aids, and that’s where the voice comes in. Hors­es reas­sure each oth­er by voice all the time, and while we can’t dupli­cate the details of what they’re say­ing to each oth­er, we can reas­sure by voice in a way they under­stand. Reas­sur­ing vocal­iza­tions gen­er­al­ly drop in pitch and vol­ume: “GOOD boy” (this is dif­fer­ent from dogs, where ris­ing pitch can elic­it excitement).

You might be think­ing that reward is impor­tant for train­ing, but is super­flu­ous for les­son hors­es and espe­cial­ly school­mas­ters, because they already know what to do. But they need rewards more than ever, not because you’re teach­ing them what to do, rather because they’re teach­ing you, and that’s how you let them know you appre­ci­ate the les­son. I’m not very good at that, because I often feel inept. But when your teacher is a horse, that’s real­ly the only way you can show gratitude.

So now you have the tools. Reward your horse. Good boy!

Not all the time; that would be silly.

There’s a dog­ma among rid­ers and train­ers that a horse should move at the gait and speed that you choose, all the time, every time, and that any devi­a­tion is dis­obe­di­ence or “dis­re­spect”. Allow­ing the horse to rou­tine­ly choose gait, speed, or path is def­i­nite­ly dan­ger­ous, and a skilled rid­er should be able to clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate expec­ta­tions to the horse. But by being absolute and unyield­ing in your expec­ta­tions of the horse, you are cut­ting off one of the most use­ful ways your horse has of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to you.

At lib­er­ty, hors­es almost always choose their own gait and speed. Even a horse  run­ning with a herd is choos­ing the safe­ty of that herd. About the only excep­tions are a horse being chased by a real or imag­ined preda­tor, and a horse stuck in quick­sand. Stud­ies have shown that hors­es often choose gaits and speeds that are most effi­cient; this is hard­ly surprising.

Adding a rid­er to the mix changes every­thing. When a horse deals with the weight and bal­ance of the rid­er, dif­fer­ent gait/​speed com­bi­na­tions become more effi­cient. Com­bi­na­tions that are not effi­cient have to be trained. Clas­si­cal west­ern hors­es have to be trained to the jog, which is slow­er than the trot they might choose them­selves, and to the lope, which is slow­er than their pre­ferred can­ter. Upper-​level com­pet­i­tive dres­sage hors­es are trained not only to slow­er speeds, such as the can­ter pirou­ette, pas­sage, and piaffe, but also extend­ed trots. It’s true that some hors­es and even breeds have con­for­ma­tion that makes these com­bi­na­tions eas­i­er, but that does­n’t mean that they are in any way effortless.

So what might a horse be com­mu­ni­cat­ing by choos­ing a gait and speed that you did­n’t ask for? The stock answer is “I’m the boss of you!” Some rid­ers and even train­ers are so inse­cure in their con­nec­tion with hors­es that they always seize that expla­na­tion. Some­times it’s even cor­rect. But what if the horse had no incli­na­tion to be the boss of you yes­ter­day, and is per­fect­ly coop­er­a­tive tomorrow?

Some oth­er things your horse might be telling you:

  • I hurt. I’m devel­op­ing an abscess, or my arthri­tis is act­ing up.
  • I’m not strong enough to do this for an extend­ed period.
  • I’m scared. If you weren’t on my back, I’d run away, but I’m doing this dis­place­ment activ­i­ty instead.
  • I’m grumpy, my ovaries hurt, and I’m doing every­thing I can not to buck you off, which I’d nev­er do anyway.
  • I feel great! I want to run in the sun, pow­er through the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • I feel great! I want to nap in the sun, munch on the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • You’re crazy! You’re ask­ing me to risk los­ing my foot­ing and killing us both.
  • You’re throw­ing me off-​balance! I hear there are these things called “lessons”.
  • I’m sick. If you took my tem­per­a­ture, or even looked at my eyes, you’d real­ize that.

If my horse were try­ing to tell me any of these things, I’d want to know about it. Var­i­ous hors­es at var­i­ous times have told me most of these things. If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.” That’s not a good basis for a trust relationship.

If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t matter.”

One of the trails Bud­dy and I take away from the sta­ble has a gen­tle incline right as we leave the prop­er­ty. He always wants to trot it. If I ask him to walk, he will, but I don’t, because I can learn enough from the speed of that trot, the way his body moves, and the way his head moves to know whether there are any issues that I should address, or that might mean we should­n’t go out at all. And the time he vol­un­teered a walk, I could tell he was­n’t well, and we turned around and went back.

And then there’s the stop.

It’s true that hors­es can stop because they are lazy. Or exhaust­ed. Or wor­ried. Or con­fused. It’s hard to imag­ine a response that use­ful­ly address­es all those things (and more) with­out know­ing (or even car­ing about) the reason.

When I first rode Bud­dy in what I like to call “con­trived obsta­cle cours­es”, he would some­times stop dead before an obsta­cle. I was green, and there was peer pres­sure, and I even thought about get­ting spurs. But I learned that if I kept him fac­ing the obsta­cle with­out push­ing him to go for­ward, he would even­tu­al­ly fig­ure it out and go for­ward on his own, because he knew that’s what I expect­ed. And once he real­ized that he would­n’t be kicked at every obsta­cle, he calmed down and took them more easily.

So if your horse insists on a dif­fer­ent gait or speed from the one you request­ed, think about let­ting him take it for a few strides until you fig­ure out why. Remem­ber that hors­es live in the present. Your horse does­n’t plot dis­obe­di­ence based on your past weak­ness­es. Give him the chance to tell you what’s on his mind, now.

A num­ber of years ago, I worked for a time with a graph­ic design­er, Gun­nar Swan­son. He also taught graph­ic design stu­dents, and he told me that when a stu­dent was con­cerned that a design ele­ment was too big, he told the stu­dent to make it big­ger. The idea was that some ele­ments just “want” to be big, and they need to be released from “big, but not quite big enough”, and that in oth­er cas­es, mak­ing the ele­ment big­ger would cause the design­er to see the design in a whole new light, and come up with dif­fer­ent solutions.

Maybe a decade ago, I applied this idea to bits: If a bit isn’t giv­ing you enough con­trol, switch to a milder bit. For my part, it led to rid­ing in a rope hal­ter (more about that in a lat­er post). The basic idea is that, although bits are for con­trol, they are nev­er for more  con­trol, and that if a bit seems inad­e­quate in that regard, the rid­er should return to the basics of horse­man­ship and for­get about met­al gadgets.

A sec­ond exam­ple of “make it big­ger” occurred to me recent­ly. If your horse is going too fast, ask him to go faster. “Too fast” gaits are often the result of ner­vous­ness or pain. If you ask the horse to slow down, it may very well increase the ner­vous­ness, even if it relieves the pain, because restraint nev­er made a horse less ner­vous. If you ask the horse to go faster, that can some­times relieve the ner­vous­ness, and then the horse will be able to slow down more calm­ly to the speed you want­ed in the first place.

Restraint nev­er makes a horse less nervous

Of course, you should only do this if you’re ordi­nar­i­ly com­fort­able rid­ing the faster speed. Many rid­ers get ner­vous when a horse speeds up, and this feeds the horse’s ner­vous­ness, but when you ask the horse to go faster, you’re not react­ing, you’re doing some­thing, and that should calm you down, as well.


In 1963, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Mil­gram pub­lished the results of a study he did to mea­sure the will­ing­ness of par­tic­i­pants to obey an author­i­ty fig­ure and per­form actions that con­flict­ed with their con­science. Par­tic­i­pants were led to believe that they were tak­ing the role of Teacher in a learn­ing exper­i­ment. Actors took the roles of Exper­i­menter and Learn­er. The Exper­i­menter instruct­ed the Teacher to ask the Learn­er ques­tions, and if the answers were incor­rect, press a but­ton to admin­is­ter an elec­tric shock to the Learn­er. The Learn­er, an actor, inten­tion­al­ly answered ques­tions incor­rect­ly, and respond­ed as if to a real shock. As the exper­i­ment pro­gressed, the Exper­i­menter asked the Teacher to increase the lev­el of shocks, even though the reac­tions of the Learn­er sug­gest­ed that he was in great dis­tress. In the first set of exper­i­ments, 65% of the par­tic­i­pants admin­is­tered the high­est lev­el of shock, which they were told was 450 volts.

Mil­gram devised his psy­cho­log­i­cal study to answer the pop­u­lar ques­tion at that par­tic­u­lar time: “Could it be that Eich­mann and his mil­lion accom­plices in the Holo­caust were just fol­low­ing orders? Could we call them all accom­plices?”   —Wikipedia

Oth­ers have repeat­ed the exper­i­ment in the years since; I was remind­ed of it by read­ing about a recent rep­e­ti­tion in Poland. And I thought of the ear­ly edu­ca­tion of many riders.

Kick, kick, kick!” The stac­ca­to music of a les­son barn.

There are rea­sons to kick a horse. There are many more rea­sons not to. Most kicks admin­is­tered by rid­ers to hors­es are giv­en out of frus­tra­tion, and almost always before oth­er meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have been exhaust­ed. For­tu­nate­ly the kicks of an eight-​year-​old don’t do much dam­age to a horse, and most les­son hors­es have expe­ri­enced worse. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the stu­dent is nev­er taught how to rec­og­nize when a kick is nec­es­sary, but rather that it’s always nec­es­sary when a horse isn’t “obey­ing”.

And the expec­ta­tion has been cre­at­ed. Force is always an option. Pain com­pli­ance is nev­er­the­less com­pli­ance. And by the time that eight-​year-​old becomes an adult, with spurs, or a crop, or a twisted-​wire snaf­fle, or draw reins, “Kick, kick, kick!” has been inter­nal­ized. When oth­er “author­i­ty fig­ures” chime in with “Show him who’s boss,” “Hors­es don’t feel pain the way we do,” “Make him yield at the poll,” the mes­sage is rein­forced. We’re teach­ing the hors­es, so it must be okay.

Where do we go to find the evil here? We all came through the same sys­tem. We learned the same lessons. Some of us real­ized what we were doing and said, “No! I won’t do this any more.” Oth­ers con­tin­ue to go along, because of igno­rance, social pres­sure, or expe­di­ence. Kick him. Push the but­ton. You have no oth­er choice, you must go on.