Homeschooling Your Horsemanship


In one online class this week, a woman in Maine said it was 90 degrees that day and her black mare wasn’t coming out of the shelter. New York was no better. Two women in the class said the heat in Texas was just as high. Last month the mud ate their homework. Before that, the power was out. Texas hasn’t had a riding season all year but we’re having weird weather everywhere. In Colorado, we had more snow in May here than we had all winter and now there’s fire danger for many of us. What’s a horse-crazy girl of a certain age to do?

The class watched a member’s video and talked about recognizing lameness. We did the math (the heat index is the temperature (Fahrenheit) plus the percentage humidity. If the total is over 120, it’s too hot to ride.) Then we compared YouTube videos of gaited horses and dressage horses. We talked biomechanics and balanced movement, training our eyes. We compared conformation, not that one was better or worse, but to see the ingredients of the ride more clearly. We watched to see how the rider impacted the horse. Why is it so easy to see on video?* One participant later commented, “I watched a friend micromanage her horse and thought if I were the horse, I might bite her arm off in aggravation.” The challenge in micromanaging a horse is that we’re too busy to notice we’re doing it in the first place. Now there’s an app for that.

We can’t learn everything in the saddle, but still, I probably had a better time in class than they did because it was nostalgic. Back in the day, when I spent as much on riding lessons as others spent on college, I also watched all the lessons I could at the barn. Isn’t that the thing about clinics? We learn from everyone else as much as the clinician. Then on the way home, I rented VHS tapes at the tack store: “CSI, The Search for the Outside Rein.” I made that title up but it’s a good idea.

Perhaps you think you know all you need to. Fine, and my condolences to your horse. Maybe you think watching jumping videos or dressage videos won’t be relevant because you “only trail ride.” Do you need a dressage queen to explain the challenges of trail riding? Besides, between bloody thrillers and syrupy romances, what else would we watch?

Tips for Homeschooling Horsemanship:

  • Head over to YouTube and enter something interesting into the search bar. There are some great trainers there and an equal number of monsters and charlatans. There are videos from world-class competitions. For our purposes today, don’t watch those. There is much to learn from them, but today you’re looking for the baby steps that make sense on your horse right now. Try to find someone like you. 
  • Remember it’s never about tearing down a rider or being critical of a horse. Any railbird idiot can complain, this is about learning to see details without judgment or correction.
  • Hit start and just watch. Start to finish, let the ride unfold. Just let your eyes follow, look for what you like. Smile.
  • Hit replay. Only watch the horse. Is he moving forward in a balanced, ground covering gait? Are his strides even or is he bobbing a bit? Is his poll soft and does his tail move in a soft “S” shape because his back is relaxed? Do you get the sense that he’s breathing regularly?
  • Hit replay. This time, just watch the rider’s position. Is she tall but seated cleanly in the center of the saddle? Does her body move in unison with the rhythm of the horse? You know rhythm is your horse’s first concern. 
  • Hit replay and this time, only watch the rider’s legs. Are the heels under the rider’s shoulder? Are her legs soft or do they bang on the horse’s flank? Are her heels up or do her feet rest just above the girth? Are her calves quietly working? Just notice. 
  • Replay again, and this time only watch the rider’s hands. Are they generous or do they impede the natural movement of the horse’s neck, working a bit like a hand brake? Are the hands in balance with each other or is one stronger? Does the rider overuse the inside rein and ignore the outside? Is there hand-weight on the rein or does the rider carry her hands?
  • This last step is the important one. Watch one more time and dismiss your thoughts. Listen to the horse’s calming signals. Does the horse partially or fully close his eyes or turn his head away. Does his poll go up in anxiety? Is the horse unwilling to go forward and engaged in the conversation? Is the horse telling the rider something that the rider isn’t hearing? The horse’s opinion of the rider is the only one that matters. Turn the sound down and rather than intellectualizing about the ride, listen to the one who knows. Now trust that the horse is right.

Consider giving yourself an extra-credit assignment. Make friends with technology. Of course, it’s easier to complain about it or throw your hands up in frustration but wade through your apprehensions. Use a cheap twisty tripod to video or blow a hundred bucks on a Pivo, but get into the habit of videoing you with your horse. Yes, you look older and you might have gained a few, but this is about something more important than superficial appearance. Then follow the same steps as above.

Does the camera make you nervous? Let go of self-judgment. Horses like us neutral. Instead, just notice. Maybe the camera helps you focus better on the task or be more aware of your body movements. Your eye might get more involved. Good, it’s working already. Most people are pleasantly surprised, looking less awkward than they felt. With that affirmative nudge, it’s easy to notice habits that your horse might like you to work on. On the ground or in the saddle, seeing yourself with the impersonal eye of a camera is something to embrace. 

As you begin, you’ll probably drudge up old issues, self-blame, and issues that never had to become issues. You’ll judge yourself more harshly than I would. Breathe your way thru. Use a neck ring to learn about your hands. Drop your stirrups and see what happens. Collect these videos because a year from now it’ll all be different. Because years will pass and looking back on these videos will leave a rosy glow on the distance the two of you have traveled. Make friends with your challenges, embrace those shortcomings because it will give you compassion, perhaps the most necessary skill of all.

Partnering with a horse is a noble goal; a solitary journey that the two of you take. Let it rain; let it bake. We are not deterred.


*Drop by The Barn School and check out the courses.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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28 thoughts on “Homeschooling Your Horsemanship”

  1. There is an amazing amount of benefit that you bring to horsepeople. Thanks for the detail and compassion that you add. It’s always fun to read even if you don’t have horses. Cheers.

  2. Oh lady if only I had “known” you – Chico & I could have learned so very much – to both our benefits. (as I have said before).

  3. Every thing you have ever suggested to me has worked. That is why I am still here as are so many in the barn. Technology is worth the effort. Watching myself work with my horses , after the initial shock of seeing my self on film, I started to notice that I really quite liked the woman I saw in the film, and yes she had some things that her horses told her she might do some thinking about.

  4. This is such good advice. When I started riding again 20 years ago, I got myself videoed (and it was a lot more complicated then!) every chance I got. I was amazed at the difference between what I thought was happening and what I saw on the video. Not always easy to watch, but that’s how you learn. Thanks (again) Anna.

  5. You have such a gift for breaking it all down – I no longer have that feeling that I’m drowning, either in information or self-loathing for failing my horse. You have made it possible for me to believe that while I will never be perfect, I can have a relationship of trust & respect with my horse that goes both ways. Most importantly, I believe we can communicate, learn from and enjoy each other.
    Not enough thanks in the world for what you do!

  6. I always feel better (more confident) about everything after one of these posts. And I really try to make sure to pass that on to my horse. These are sensible, open minded and encouraging thoughts —and so clearly expressed. Thank you.

  7. Yes!

    As per usual, how I thought I’d feel about videoing Val and I, (because being in the moment is really hard… there are so many moments lol), and especially seeing the video – was the opposite of how it turned out.

    Setting everything up is just another part of the ritual (don’t forget to hit record!) and watching the results makes me feel better about our rides, elementary as they are. The tendency to nitpick and not reward the try are apparently issues that need to be addressed by the rider about the rider as well?! ?

    Uploading is not insurmountable, even with an abysmal wifi signal. Another chance to practice patience. There is always room for improvement, but reviewing video encourages acknowledging the good stuff too. Interfacing with technology has helped me take responsibility for my riding in a way that real life lessons has not always achieved.

    Thanks again Anna!

  8. No surprise that I resonate with this essay, right?. Such excellent advice and so well articulated .. as a friend of mine often says, we have to be “nimble and flexible.” I’m applying that aspiration to finding ways to work with my horses even when it’s too hot or too wet or too whatever. As the impact of climate change is felt, we know we will need to be creative in taking care of our horses, who are far more immersed in the the outdoors than we are.

    Just found a new place for anchoring my tripod when there’s no fence or gate : on a dolly !!! So, yes, making friends with technology has been a big part of learning with you, and that is a good thing !

    Thank you Anna for working so hard to write in ways that make your points and teach us how to be better humans for our horses.

  9. I’d never even HEARD of a Pivo before this post, but thanks to you, I’m now many shekels poorer. 🙂 I ride alone at home 99% of the time, so for the cost of a couple lessons, this will give me invaluable feedback! Plus, I can upload videos to YouTube and share them with my favorite trainer and pay her for her opinions; our schedules haven’t meshed for years and now she’s laid up battling cancer. Thank you for all your words of wisdom, and now this product heads-up!

    • I never thought I’d love technology, but this is exactly why… I love that it brings us together. Thanks Michelle.

  10. You have great ideas. I find it very hard to watch myself on camera because I am so self critical. So I have to learn to not be judgemental for myself and for my horses. It is so hard.

    • Virginia, I think women are raised that way. Keep breathing, it gets easier. And remember, the rest of us watch the horse. It’s why we don’t recognize each other in the grocery store. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

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  12. This past weekend I was strapper for a new friend at an endurance event, and had the opportunity to put into practice some of which I learned from you on ground handling. A youngish chestnut Arab gelding, who I now adore?. Thank you as always. My writing hasn’t progressed but I have invested in a new super dooper laptop, so there’s hope yet!

    • That sounds like fun! As for the writing, a bright shiny new computer is the right tool for the job. Good to hear from you, Annie.


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