The Next Most Important Question to Ask

The worst thing to do is force your horse into an exercise he (1) is unprepared to understand (2) is uncomfortable doing. “Sink or swim” is a bad teaching tactic for people and for horses.

Once you have answered The Most Important Question to ask at the beginning of the training ride:

What Does My Horse Need?

 You now need to ask The Next Most Important Question to ask at the beginning of the training session:

What Exercises Will Supply What My Horse Needs?

The constellations of exercises for use in training sessions are as numerous as stars in the galaxy. Let’s narrow down our focus with a couple of observations and goals.

1. Does your horse need confidence?

  • Open the file in your mind labeled “Exercises that we know how to do well”. Perform the exercise and praise the horse for the effort, then make a small alteration in the exercise that draws the exercise out past your comfort zone and perform that version and then praise the horse for the effort even if it is a little shaky. If the horse is frazzled then follow up with the simpler version and praise.

 Example 1: Your horse finds a walk “head to the wall” leg yield fun. Ask for a more difficult version: “down quarter line push to the rail” leg yield. Then try out a more demanding version: leg yield from rail to quarter line and add on another quarter line leg yield to the rail to finish up a fun sequence.

Use variations to make leg yield fun
Fun Leg Yield Sequence
  • You build the exercise by laying a foundation of simple and moving up in increments. Go back to simple if the horse begins to get fearful or worry.

The worst thing to do is force your horse into an exercise he (1) is unprepared to understand (2) is uncomfortable doing. “Sink or swim” is a bad teaching tactic for people and for horses. When the horse fears an exercise then you prepare the horse with a deconstructed version of the exercise and work on the simplified parts of the exercise.

Example 2: You are introducing a “down the quarter line and push to the rail” leg yield. In response to your aids your horse throws his head up and rushes forward instead of going sideways. Keep calm and offer Deconstructed Leg Yield Exercises:

1) go to the rail and practice a turn on the forehand with a pause between each step “around the clock”.

2) Then ask for one or two steps of turn on the forehand on the wall until you are at a 35 degree angle to the rail Pause, then put the haunches back on the rail instead of going all the way around.

Deconstructed Leg Yield
Deconstructed Leg Yield

3) Walk a couple strides forward on the rail, and then two steps of turn on forehand, then put the haunches back on track, and resume walking on rail. Praise him or her. 4) Then without stopping the walk, push the haunches one or two strides in turn on forehand. Remember to ask for only a couple steps in the baby leg yield and use lots of praise.

5) When your horse can comfortably do a leg yield on the rail, return to ”down the quarter line push to the rail” leg yield and see if he balanced better on your aids.

 2. Does your horse need “Waking Up”?

When your horse is sluggish and not interested in the riding session it is up to you as the teacher to make the session fun and engaging.

  • What attitude did you have while preparing for and performing the exercise? Where you happy, confident and encourage, maybe a little playful? Feel the way you want your horse to feel.
  • Go for a hack and drop in some small lessons during the hack
  • Change the work arena for a pasture or another venue
  • Play Red Light, Green Light. Make several quick changes in gait and speed. Challenge and do not punish. Reward at the slightest effort to “play”
Red Light/Green Light Exercise
Red Light/Green Light Exercise

Integrate cavaletti, ground poles or small jumps during the exercises

Give your horse a reason to view you as interesting, not alarming, and not boring

3. Does your horse need a quicker response to the aids?

  • Again be “playful” with your aids and your geometry. Light and quick aids incite activity. Squeezing, monotonous aids elicit boredom and irritation.
  • Drilling is boring. Limit your tries at an exercise to 3 times (whether it worked or did not work) and move on to another exercise. Go on to another exercise that is fun and active. The next exercise can be related but simpler than the failed one.
  • The worst thing to do is “Spank and Crank”. When you use the “go forward “ aids never give a simultaneous “don’t go anywhere” aid!
  • Use light aids and follow up with a quick, light tap with the whip to emphasize that you want a quicker response.

Example 3:Play a version of Red Light/Green Light. Begin trotting on a twenty-meter circle, upon crossing the centerline walk three (or four) steps then trot briskly on. Upon crossing the centerline on the other side of the circle walk three (or four) steps and trot briskly on again. Repeat the walk steps every time you cross the centerline.

  1. Does your horse need clarity of aids?

  • You should take a lesson on a horse with quicker, more confident responses to get the timing of aids, and then go back to your horse with that improved feeling and see if you can get the same response on your horse.
  • Communicate that feeling to your horse and encourage. Do not punish!
  • Avoid using conflicting aids.
  • Secure aids (especially outside aids) feel more like you are “catching of cradling” and strong aids are more punishing and suppressive.
  • Allow a small window of time for your horse to respond. Praise any effort.
  • Be consistent with the lighter aid that precedes the stronger aid; ask, then tell.

 5. Does your horse need a better rider?

Please be honest. We admire your resolve to work through to the next level that you have never ridden or trained before.  But every bumble you make delays the innocent horse’s progress.

  • Do the exercises in your comfort zone that work in today’s session
  • Put your horse in training with someone you admire and whose riding style complements your body type. (Find a way to afford it. It will cost you more by delaying your horse’s education.)
  • Take lessons on a horse that can help you develop the skills to ride at that next level so you are ready to pick up where the trainer leaves off.
  • A competent trainer can progress your horse faster than you can imagine. Set certain goals then match you education to that shared goal.
  • Congratulations! You did a very horseman like thing for the happiness of the horse.

Seven Tactics to Recover the Spoiled Horse

Let’s face it. The reason that the horse is spoiled or a bad actor is because some arrogant biped caused the horse physical or emotional injury. 99% of the time it was not a congenital bad attitude.

Let’s face it. The reason that the horse is spoiled or a bad actor is because some arrogant biped caused the horse physical or emotional injury. 99% of the time it was not a congenital bad attitude.

Riders assign the label “bad attitude” to any action of the horse that the rider did not intend on eliciting or that the rider did not like. In most cases the horse is mirroring his own emotional conflict. The horse is telling you “Hey! I am “see the list below

Unpleasant Emotions


Any emotion exhibited by the horse, unpleasant or pleasant can cause the rider to punish the horse. Picture a young horse on a cold windy day that becomes happily excited and begins leaping nimbly about. The frightened rider then punishes the horse. The young horse thinks, “The rider does not like it when I am happy”. The rider probably wanted to discourage the leaping about but did not intend on the horse thinking he was being punished for feeling happy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is when a frightened horse spooks and runs off. The rider punishes the horse for “being disobedient” without addressing the horse’s reason for the spook—Fear.

The trainer charged with recovering a spoiled horse must be observant, disciplined and have a plan. If the horse is considered “spoiled” then the horse has ingrained habits to certain situations or disciplines. The trainer must have a plan for interrupting and replacing this unwanted behavior.

It is important to ask “What does the horse need?” because by addressing the horse’s problem you take away the trigger for the unwanted behavior and in the process develop trust between you and the horse.

Whole libraries of books and online articles are available for case-by-case examples and solutions. I cannot cover everything in this blog post but here is a thumbnail guide to finding a solution to your horse’s problem.

1. Rule out a physical complaint.

Come on, if it were you hurting then you would want someone to fix that first, right? Would you happily run a marathon in too tight shoes, would you?

2. Exactly what is the emotional problem?

Take a look the emotions listed above

Build a plan that addresses the base complaint.

For the love of god, don’t just grab the lead shank and make it up as you go along! That is probably how the horse got into the situation to begin with.

The hard part about this is accurately seeing what the horse’s problem is and not casting your own feelings into the horse that the horse does not own.

3. Change the venue

You may not have control over the horse’s meltdown but you have control over where it happens

When the horse’s behavior is triggered in the arena start by addressing things in the pasture or by riding out of the arena. The important thing is that you have a plan to lay a foundation of trust in the non-trigger area. You build the trust with some increasingly more stressful projects

4. Use the Buddy System

Herd animals use the example of their fellow herd members to decide to be frightened or to be brave. Let an older horse show the young horse correct behavior and confident attitudes

5. Change the Cue

When a certain use of the aids causes an angry reaction in the horse then simply teach another cue for the same movement. Be smart. Figure out a compromise.

I rode a horse that was taught to lope by touching the shoulder of the leading shoulder with the toe of the boot. The old trainer was a long legged guy and it was just easier than folding his leg back. It worked for him. But there I was, a short girl in a western saddle with stiff fenders. I was a comical sight trying to reach the shoulder with my toe. Worse, I could not even get close to “the spot”. The horse was a good egg and we eventually got a hybrid system of leads going that he was happy with and that I could physically accomplish.

6. Teach Don’t Punish

The famous teacher, Ann Sullivan, did not teach the blind-deaf child, Helen Keller, sign language by beating her.

By the time it gets this bad the horse has already had his fill with punishment. He/she probably has his dukes up ready to fight before you even ring the bell. Be smart; don’t even climb into the ring. Start by setting an example of cooperation on the ground with some exercises or even “feel good” projects on the halter. Whatever you do that builds trust will bleed over to under saddle work. Yes, the saddle may trigger the “bad attitude” but at least you will start off with a whole list of things you both agree on. You’ll have to be persistent. You will have to be clever. You will have to be disciplined.

To paraphrase Helen Keller “Be the Light in the Horse’s Darkness”

7. Catch the horse doing something “right” ten times every ride (at least every six minutes). Ignore wrong answers.

This will probably be a novel experience for the horse.

Keep praising any attempt at any behavior (no matter how “wrong”) that is NOT the trigger behavior. It’s a game of You’re Getting Warmer. Play it. You both will win.

I had a horse that would “lock up” and freeze anytime I began to cue piaffe. She loved passage and had no worries about that. I was reduced to leg yielding—then pausing but keep “prancing”—then leg yielding before she froze. I would not ask every day, just a day here and there. Immediately after a few piaffe steps I would go into something she enjoyed doing (passage, extend). It took months but we succeeded and had fun.

Some Additional Thoughts

You may never know just what happened to sour the horse to something. It is your job to figure out how to solve the horse’s problem.

If your riding skills are not equal to the challenge it is smart to hire the perfect person for the job.

What tactics do you use when recovering a spoiled horse?




The Story of Bucephalus

Statue of Alexander and Bucephalus by John Steell                                                                               photo Stefan Schäfer via Wikimedia Commons



The Story of Bucephalus (Bucephalas) and Alexander The Great became a romanticized story handed down over the centuries of historical recounting and story telling. There is some uncertainty to the exact dates of Bucephalas’ birth, meeting of Alexander and Bucephalas and Bucephalas’ death. Here is what I found among the several history sources found in books and websites when you Google Bucephalas.

 Did Bucephalas and Alexander Really Exist?

Yes. Here are the dates generally agreed upon.

  • Bucephalas born 355 BCE died 326 BCE age 29
  • Alexander  born 356 BCE died 323 BCE age 32
  • Alexander and Bucephalas met during 344 BCE
    • Alexander was 13 or 14 years old
    • Bucephalus was an 11 year old stallion

Fun Facts about Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon)

  • Father was King Phillip II of Macedon
  • Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor until he turned 16
  • Alexander succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 20 when his father was assassinated
  • During his 13 year reign with Bucephalus as his war horse, he overthrew Persian KingDarius III and conquered the Achaemenid Empire in its entirety. At that point, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River. (Wikipedia)
  • Alexander died (possibly of typhus) at the age of 32

What’s in a name?

Bucephalus: bous, “ox” and κεφαλή kephalē, “head” meaning “ox-head” (wikipedia)

However in a book by /N._G._L._Hammond The Genius of Alexander the Great

Bucephalus was named after a branding mark depicting an ox’s head on his haunch. (wikipedia)

Hammond writes a description of Bucephalus:

“A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a “wall eye” (blue eye), and his breeding was that of the “best Thessalian strain”.

Other sources conjecture that Bucephalus was a dark bay and not black.

The website

offers more information on the possible bloodline of Bucephalus.

“Few horses have captured the imagination like Alexander’s horse Bucephalus. Though not much is known about him, we do know he was a dark stallion, somewhat temperamental. Though he is described as black, it is likely he was the more common standard bay, which is usually described as “black”. And though most people imagine a tall stallion, the truth is probably somewhat less grand.

Breeding Stock

The best breeding of Greek horse stock took place in Thessaly, where prime existing stock was often crossed with Scythian, Persian (Nisean) and Ferghana horses. Philip of Makedon (who built on-going cavalry developments enough to be considered by many to be responsible for developing the cavalry as an effective fighting unit) is said to have imported 20.000 Scythian mares to Makedon. His son, Alexander, claimed a tribute of 50.000 Persian horses, which continued the infusion of Scythian, Nisean, Jaf, Ferghana and possibly Caspian and other blood into the Makedonian horses. Since the Persian Arab is thought to have been introduced into Persia around 2000 BC, it is likely that this bloodline was included.

Few of these horses were tall by modern standards, averaging 13.2 – 14.2 hands, with the possible exception of the Ferghana crosses and some of the Iberian stock. We know that the Iberian horses mentioned by Homer were famed for their movement, size and spirit; the Nisean horses were known for speed and stamina, the Ferghana was noted for stamina, endurance and the ability to withstand hard conditions in desert lands. Along with imported stock, Philip had access to the native breeds such as the Pindos, Skyros, Pineias, Messara and Andravidas, horses known to be small but tough. Looking at the stock Philip used in breeding programs, one can easily imagine a hardy horse with stamina, endurance and longevity. It was from these bloodlines that Bucephalus may have been bred, in the fertile pastures of Thessaly.”

Read more here:

Fun Fact: Horses at that time were shorter. This made “leaping lightly up” with out a saddle a little easier especially when you are in a tunic and underwear (loincloth) was not common and tunics were common.

 How did Bucephalas come to King Phillip II?

Here is one account from the website

“Bucephalus was brought to Macedonia and presented to King Phillip II (Alexander’s father) in 346 BCE by Philoneicus of Thessaly.  With a price tag almost three times the norm (13 talents), the beautiful black horse stood taller than the normal Macedonian steed but was considered too wild and unmanageable, rearing up against anyone who came near him. Phillip ordered him led away.

But Alexander bargained with his father for the horse. When Alexander successfully rode Bucephalas in front of his father and the crowd of attendants, Alexander demonstrated the true character of one of the greatest generals in all of history.”

What happened when Alexander and Bucephalus met?

Here is one account:

“Feeling the bit gently with the reins, he (Alexander) restrained him (Bucephalas), without whipping or hurting him, until he saw that the horse had given up all threatening behavior, and was only hot for the course; then he let him go, and urged him on by raising his voice and using his heel. The attendants of Philip (Alexander’s father) were anxious and silent at first; but when he turned and came back full of just pride and pleasure, they all raised a cheer, except his father. But he, they say, wept for joy; and after Alexander had dismounted, said, ‘You must go look for a kingdom to match you, my son; Macedonia is not large enough for you.’

Quote from Plutarch recounted in the book The Art of Horsemanship translated and edited by M.H. Morgan. Page 101.

Bucephalus and Alexander, ten years together. continues the tale:

“Bucephalus and Alexander were inseparable; only Alexander could ride him, and indeed he did, into every battle from the conquest of the Greek city-states and Thebes through Gaugamela and into India. After the final defeat of Darius, Bucephalus was kidnapped while Alexander was away on excursion. Upon returning and learning of the theft, Alexander promised to fell every tree, lay the countryside to waste, and slaughter every inhabitant in the region. The horse was soon returned along with a plea for mercy.

Although historians disagree on the cause of the horse’s death – some claim he died from battle wounds – most agree he died of old age after the Battle of Hydaspes River (326 BCE). While Plutarch spoke of both possible causes of death, he cites Onesicritus, a historian who accompanied Alexander on his conquests, as stating the horse died of old age. However Bucephalus died, in mourning, Alexander founded a city in his beloved horse’s memory and named it Bucephala. It is also interesting that Alexander built another city after his favorite dog Peritas.”

Another possibility of Bucephalus’ death is reported in the website

“Others debate that Bucephalus was of a younger age and died of severe battle wounds he received at the Battle of the River Hydaspes, 326 BCE. What is known, however, is that Alexander gave him a state funeral and founded a new city, Bucephala (now modern day Jhelum/Djemoul) in Bucephalus’ honor.”


One thing is certain.

…The man loved his horse.

blogBucephalus paid

“The Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, is a Roman floor mosaic originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii.[1] It depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia and measures 2.72 by 5.13 metres (8 ft 11 in × 16 ft 10 in).[2] The original is preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The mosaic is believed to be a copy of an early 3rd-century BC Hellenistic painting.[3] ”  wikipedia


Ten Books for Every Rider’s Library

A list of books I value as Riding Manuals.

This list is for books that I consider Riding Manuals. The “How To” of the book world. This is not a complete list of books that I find valuable. These are the ones that are the most dog eared and highlighted ones in my library. In the future I will talk about “Art Book” types of horse books. Maybe you have suggestions on books that you value? Tell me your recommendations in the comments below.

BlogPodhajsky 1.The Complete Training of Horse and Rider By Alois Podhajsky

This was my first serious book on riding that I owned. My parents gave it to me when I was 19 years old for Christmas (It was at the top of my Christmas list). Eva Podhajsky and Colonel V.D.S. Williams translated this English language edition from the original German. This basic riding manual has chapters that are well organized for looking up a topic of interest i.e. the principles of training, definitions of the aids, lunging the horse, lunging the rider, information on saddles and bridles plus a section on The Spanish Riding School. The text is enlivened with 38 photographs of famous horse and riders as well as examples of horses in various stages of training. The line drawings of schooling figures and rider positions make clear the discussion in text on the subject. This is a manual with advice that has stood the test of time.

BlogMuseler2. Riding Logic by Wilhelm Müseler

Dorita Konyot recommended this book as a very succinct and useful manual. First translated to English from the original German in 1937 and now in its fifth edition. Chapters are also well organized with titles such as: “How does the rider learn to sit?” and “How does the rider learn to feel?” as well as “How does the rider learn to influence?” With 90 pictures and illustrations of every topic this riding manual gives the reader a clear example of each topic of interest. Simply paging through the pages and inspecting the photographs or illustrations will spark a further study into the topic.

BlogMicklem3. Complete Horse Riding Manual by William Micklem

In 2003 I was asked to have a photo shoot at my farm. The result was a cover photo of a student cantering a horse in training on my neighbor’s Lake Nellie beach. This 400-page manual modernized the riding manual by using colorful graphic blocks, pie charts, flow charts and comparison chart grids to organize valuable information. Topics covered range from advice to beginner riders on how to grasp the basics of riding (and safety) to mastering advanced techniques in dressage, show jumping, cross-country. Advice on mental and physical preparation for the rider as well as trouble shooting grids offer easy to find and understand help for riders of all levels. William Micklem is a highly regarded international equestrian coach and trainer now famous for the invention of the popular Micklem Bridle.


BlogGermanAdvanced 4. Advanced Techniques of Riding the Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation

This slim book is another go-to riding manual favorite of mine. The line drawings and succinct text are separated into three sections; dressage, jumping and cross-country. The first section is a short History of the Art of Riding. This manual is good book for quick reference and solid advice.

BlogKlimkeYoung5. Basic Training of the Young Horse by Reiner Klimke

The year I opened my training business and took in horses to put under saddle I bought this book. Paging through the volume I see that I have highlighted parts throughout the little volume. How you start a horse will determine how the rest of his/her life will go. It’s important to do it right. Read this book. Think about what Reiner says about training the young horse. You won’t regret it.

BlogKlimkeCavalletti6. Cavaletti by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke

I still have the original Cavaletti book written by Reiner Klimke published in English in 1969, which I purchased as a paperback book in 1983. This new version published in 2011 expands on the original book with photographs on every page. There are many exercises and tips that are easy to incorporate into daily training. When I bought the first little book I spent the whole year setting up the cavaletti as shown in the book and using them with every horse in training as well as in lessons. The new version is a great guide and a joy to read.

BlogLindgren 7. Teaching Exercises by Major Anders Lindgren

I was fortunate to ride in clinics with Major Lindgren in 1990’s at Tina Drake’s Pas de Cheval farm in Sorrento, Fl. Over a ten-year period almost 1000 participating instructors learned from Major Lindgren’s systematic, structured approach to teaching dressage. He greatly impacted and improved my teaching skills. This book clearly presents and defines developmental exercises to be used specifically from Training Level through Second Level. Small but mighty, this book should be in every rider’s library.

BlogvonDietze 8. Balance in Movement by Susanne von Dietze

Do you want more in depth and technical about developing an educated and influential seat on a horse? Well, then, add this book to your library. The latest edition of this popular book features 250 full-color images.

Susanne von Dietze is a physiotherapist, riding instructor, and active dressage competitor. I needed more specific information if I was to improve my seat and overcome some “aging in the saddle” problems that were cropping up in my 60’s. There is an accompanying DVD (buy separately) for even more help.

BlogWalterZettl9. Dressage in Harmony by Walter Zettl

I had the honor of auditing several clinics by Walter Zettl and immediately purchased this book. This comprehensive training manual with its helpful line drawings covers everything from The Seven Elements of Riding (the Training Scale) to Schooling Figures to Piaffe and Passage. The tone of this book reflects the tone of the man. His Chapter 2 is The Goals of Dressage Riding whose sections are titled; Harmony, Why Dressage is Difficult, How the Horse Learns, The Nature of the Rider, and Trust and Respect. The manual offers valuable information with an emphasis on compassionate horsemanship.


.blogxenophon.jpg 10. On the Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon

This book earns a place in every rider’s library if only to remind us that the tenants of horsemanship (or as Xenophon writes, horseman’s art) are centuries old. This first extant treatise on horsemanship is short but remarkably applicable to today. There are a few translations from the original Greek to English to choose from. Xenophon instructs on varied topics such as; how to mount properly (without a saddle because saddles were not invented until 365 AD), how to select a good horse, who should break young horses (young men because old men should be looking after family and government), to the grooming, feeding and care of the horse. Xenophon’s overarching theme is “be kind to your horse and he will do as you desire”.

More to come in future posts…

How to keep your sanity riding horses

I did not own my first horse until I had been training professionally for 20 years. Training horses for other people was my passion and my profession. My entire life up to today I have owned a grand total of two and a half horses. Cobalt was my first horse; Strutt is an FEI horse I own in partnership with Mr. George Daher, and just last year I bought Victor (an aging Grand Prix horse). It felt funny to have myself as a client. Still does. The freedom to decide time frames and training goals was unsettling and then became relaxing.

When I first started training horses for a living I wanted to include the owner in the every day ups and downs of a training plan. I would buy a school notebook for each horse. I would take a picture of the horse at the beginning of training and enter on the first page the training goals for that horse. I told the owner to write in any other goals that they wanted me to address. Then each training day after I put the horse away I would sit on the tack trunk of that horse (where the training journal book lived) and write a paragraph of what happened. I tried to be specific. I included the good and the bad. I kept it short. This way the owners of mares could track the mare’s changes of moods (or lack of) during estrus. Injuries were dated, rehabilitation tracked and recovery times accountable. Many owners were unable to attend training sessions but this way they could read up on things when they had the chance to come out to the barn. I would do the same thing via email and YouTube for out of state owners. If the owner rode the horse on a weekend that I was away the owner would know what I was working on that week and be prepared.

Many clients kept this habit up after they took the horse home. One client remarked, “Every time I get the feeling that I’m getting nowhere I go back and read the previous training goal and entries. Then I am reminded of how many goals I have achieved and how far my horse and I have come in our training plan.” She could have convinced herself that training was not happening and gotten depressed or turned to a “Quick Fix” plan that would only make the training derail and go slower. People tend to compare themselves to other riders with different horses and different goals and think they are too slow or doing it wrong.

As Bill Woods “R” Dressage Judge, Clinician and Trainer says

“Hear the Chimes, Things Take Time”.

Here is a diagram as to why you need a training journal and lesson plans


Advice for Success (and how to keep your sanity riding horses)

  • Have a Lesson Plan each ride
  • Have Training Goals
  • Get Good Instruction
  • Keep a Training Journal

I’ll be writing about  Lesson Plans and Training Journals in future blogs. Keep an eye out for them.

What is your advice for keeping your sanity?