What is an Ethical Ride?


We are great horse owners. We love our horses. Some of us compete and some stroll around the pasture, but we’ll own these horses all their days and we want only the best for them.

Sadly, we aren’t all great riders. Most of us could improve our hands and do better with our legs. Lucky for us that horses are stoic, but eventually even good horses begin to unravel, or we get lost in doubt. Then one day it occurs to you that your horse just saved your life and maybe more than you really deserve. It’s humbling. The best reason to improve riding skills is that a horse showed us grace and we know what the alternative could have been. We owe a debt and take responsibility to be better riders for our horses.

Training gets complicated fast. Where horses are concerned less is more. Drilling a movement will sour a horse’s try. Working in short sessions is better and when he does just what you want, it might be good to jump down and be done. You understand equine brain science enough to know that like you, he can’t learn if he’s afraid. Breathe. Sometimes you’re confused and then you both lose your confidence. Breathe. Nothing will set things right faster. It isn’t about riding for hours, it’s about quality and responsiveness. Affirming what he does well and then letting him think it over himself. By now, it’s probably also occurred to you that you don’t seem to learn as fast as a horse.

Groundwork is wonderful, but things change quickly on top of a thousand-pound flight animal. You find you have the same panic mode that horses do. That your hands communicate in semaphore without you knowing it. And that the ache in your legs, when you finally notice it, is because you’ve had a death grip on his ribcage. Lessons are a great idea. A good trainer is worth the money, but money can’t buy skill. A heightened focus of our own bodies will give us more awareness, but we need more time in the saddle to learn. Great, one more contradiction: We need more of the thing that our horses need less of.

Negotiate a truce. The agreement should be that we won’t dawdle. We’ll focus and apply ourselves to active learning. In exchange, our horses will be as patient as they can be, probably longer than they should. Because that’s who horses are. This negotiation begins fresh in every ride.

Start with a breath. Take the first walk he gives you and say thank you. If your horse tosses his head, goes hollow, or gets cranky, dismount. He is in pain. The only way he can tell you is with his body, don’t mistake it for a training issue. If you are certain (assuming that’s even possible) that he isn’t in pain, then what is he saying? If he says you have lousy hands, that isn’t open to negotiation. Use a neck ring every ride. Control of hands takes a long time to learn, but you may not drill it. He needs twenty minutes to warm up before you think about the reins or any corrections. Respect the fact that his mouth is fragile. Contact must be earned a stride at a time, not taken hostage and then fought over. Punishment, or anything that feels like it to a horse, will cause damage that could take forever to erase. Just don’t start.

Instead, negotiate a relaxed and forward stride with your seat. Let the movement of your horse release your hips, and glide along. Sometimes ask for a change in stride, longer or shorter, with just your sit bones. Be ready to feel it immediately and reward him. Now you’re dancing. Your horse is listening to your light cues. You are the leader, that means it’s your job to let your partner shine. You can ride with the bottom half of your body longer if you keep your hands out of the conversation. You can dance your way through walk-trot transitions and do some cantering. Later, when you have more fluid forward movement than you know what to do with, you may pick up contact for a few strides but if his rhythm is impacted by your hands, drop the reins. Go forward for a few moments and try again but really, then back to the neck ring because hands may never be louder than seat and legs.

Besides, if you can’t trust him on the neck ring, why should he trust you with a bit? You must offer a tidbit of trust first. Try to distract your brain by feeling your sit bones, counting your breath. There you are, connection comes through the seat. Love your seat because now you’re back dancing.

Relationship is crucial. The horse’s feelings impact everything he does, so listen to the horse’s calming signals instead of silly training gadgets and techniques. Have a conversation of negotiated feelings, with you always being the positive cheerful one because the horse must be on guard always, true to his nature. It takes energy to stay alert and positive, doesn’t it? Hold a keen awareness of your body. Only when you have control of your own body can you consider asking more of a horse.

In Dressage we understand that we are students of the art of riding forever, says this woman who could have paid for a college degree with what she spent on riding lessons and clinics. Don’t expect to be perfect. If you are an affirmative trainer, that starts with you. Be kind to yourself because you deserve it and your horse can feel it. It takes time to learn, but more importantly, it takes patience to build trust.

Still want more time in the saddle? Ride every horse you can, not just yours. Be in awe of their fragility. Ask them for their help and thank them by paying close attention.

How to get your horse to want to be ridden longer? Spend soft time at the mounting block. Softness comes from breathing. Mount consciously. Balance yourself evenly, sit down lightly. Exhale and inhale. Then stretch your legs, soften your knees. Don’t just think about it. Feel it happen. Make yourself comfortable for him to carry. And the split second that you know it’s time, dismount immediately. Don’t use him like a sofa. Jump down and step back. Give him the last word. If he yawns, licks and chews, or gives other calming signals, take note. Your horse will have more patience for you as you become less of a threat to him.

How long you can ride depends on how long you can maintain focus on your own physical awareness. How long you can quiet your mind and let your seat melt to lightness, leading a dance toward relaxation with warmth and energy. Isn’t that what oneness would feel like? Time in the saddle will go slower and feel longer, not because you have spent untold hours pounding along, but because you have become more horse-like by using each of your senses to be more aware of your body, more aware of every ounce of weight in your hands and legs. Transcend boundaries with such sensitivity that you feel his breath in your lungs.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

31 thoughts on “What is an Ethical Ride?”

  1. Thank you for this 🙂 I hope every student rider and every riding instructor reads it. Quality trumps quantity and we can’t sacrifice the horse for our own sake, no taking advantage of his generosity!

    Thinking back I recall my riding instructor as a kid included everything from catching, bringing in, grooming, tacking up, all the way through the post ride rub down and turn out in our hour lesson. Of course all of that is part of horsemanship, right? And it cut back on the time her horses had to suffer our lack of skill. Clever woman.

    • Thanks for the idea… I wasn’t sure where it was going to go… Considering how long a kid can focus, this sounds like bliss to get to do all the things!

  2. Thanks for this. Just what I needed. Good trainers are non existent in my area so this was very important to me. Very much appreciated.

  3. “Transcend boundaries with such sensitivity that you feel his breath in your lungs.”

    Oh. My.

    Thank you Anna. I will remember this line forever.

  4. These words deeply resonated with me. Quite a few tears. Oh how I wish I could change the hearts and minds of my “trainer,” and many others at my barn. I board at a dressage show barn, and I increasingly find myself distressed by what I see.

    NO, I find myself whispering. I’m going in a different direction.
    Sometimes, though, I can hardly cope with changing my own heart and mind.

    • Not all dressage barns are that way. Mine isn’t. The one I boarded at for years wasn’t. But yes, that is the challenge isn’t it? Thanks Karen.

  5. I loved your article on an Ethical Ride. I have had, over the years, several students who have over ridden their horses so they can practice. I had a wonderful teacher, Raul de Leon, who taught Tad Coffin up to his training with the USET and winning the gold metal at the Montreal Olympics. I had been riding and showing for a number of years, when I began lessons with Raul. One of the first things he told me was that I would be riding school horses and he would let me know when I was ready to show and when he thought I could take lessons on my own mare. Riding tolerant patient school horses I learned to be quiet and listen to my horse. Riding with a forward giving hand and when meeting resistance in the horse, I was urged to offer more softness, relaxation and release in my reins to my partner rather than increase the weight of my aides.
    I have seen students, who when I have said we have finished on a good note, are upset because we have not gotten to all the things they wanted to work. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and riding your horse into the ground is not going to help either of you improve. I have suggested that if you want to practice your riding, ride your other horses, pay for practice rides and take additional lessons on school horses.
    I have often told students that when riding, if your horse helps you achieve your goal for the day in 15 min, get off and pamper him to say thank you. On days where you are hitting resistance, it is never a sign of defeat to ask for something basic and easy for the horse then dismount and realize there is always another day. I also ask students to think of what they would like to do as they groom and tack up their partner. The horse feels your energy and you his. Think, feel and visualize what you are asking of your horse as you ride and what and how they respond.

  6. Thank you Anna. I think I figured out what the problem was. Had some senior moments about what to click and what not to click!

  7. Thank you Anna for the succinct words “…hands may never be louder than seat and legs”. I came to horses in my mid forties; needless to say I’m not a skilled rider. Early on, instructors were always emphasizing “contact with the reins” ; but I just didn’t have the balance or confidence to do it subtly. I have been spending my entire horse life trying to manage connection without correction. I wish someone would have focused more on my seat and legs so I could have mastered relaxing my hands sooner. Your wisdom propels me onward even though I’m getting a bit long in the tooth.


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