Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart – Part 2, Our Human Skills

Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart – Part 2, Our Human Skills

This article is the second in a series called ‘Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart’. You can access part one of the series here.


“I regularly resolve that I will only move the rein hands to the side or up, or close the fingers to stop, but never take my hands back. I had a trainer that placed a lot of value on this and was always watching my hands. Just the desire and the visual in mind of riding this way can be extremely helpful and greatly encourages an effective seat.” Anja Beran, 2017.

In part one of this series I started to look at the intrinsic relationship between equipment choice and training. Alongside ensuring welfare friendly equipment choice, as equestrians we can learn what makes great contact from the horse’s perspective as well as our own, and those principles can change our world. We can learn to set up a positive mental attitude, when it is appropriate to separate or combine our hand, arm and body use, how to use reins, nosebands and bits gently and with care, and how and why we might choose to use rein and bit contact in different ways to influence the horse.

Here’s a story that brings it home: A few years ago my son was having weekly lessons at a local BHS (British Horse Society) riding school. During the first few lessons the instructor had the little class of beginners doing lots of useful things to develop their self-awareness and co-ordination, all on a loose rein in three gaits with polework and a little bit of jumping. One day my son came home from his lesson and complained that his arms were aching. The cause of the ache was that during that morning’s lesson, the children had been told that they were going to learn to get the horse on the bit. They were instructed to hold the reins really short and wedge their hands behind their knees for the whole lesson. ‘Strangely enough’ one pony started bucking during the lesson. I asked my son if I he ever saw me do that when riding, and did his pony feel ok? As he answered no to both of my questions, we decided not to go for any more lessons there.

As thinking equestrians we can call out this kind of teaching, examine why this kind of aversive and unsafe practice has become the norm, and teach our kids compassionate and well informed alternatives. I would love to recommend that my clients sent their kids to regular riding schools and got them exposed to more mainstream equestrian activities, but if this goes on, and it does, ethically I cannot.

I like to introduce the biomechanics of contact to my coaching clients off horse, and do lots of activation exercises and simulations. The first thing I say is that they have the ability pick up a single hair with their fingers, or they can punch that hand through a wall. The same person’s hands can do microsurgery and tug-of-war. We are neurologically prepared to be very precise with our tool use, but we are also prepared to react to fear or stress by gripping, holding and pulling with extreme strength. Our species tries to shape the world around us with our hands, and this is reflected in our brain organisation. We are also clever enough to organise our brains differently when we want to, and we can understand the emotional difference between embodying control, and embodying expansive compassion. We want to say to the horse “I’ll look after you, and let me help you learn to balance and move with me”.

If we introduce the act of pulling through the reins to our horse’s mouth or nose, we know now that we can expect negative consequences. Researchers have implicated bit use in tooth erosion, bone and dental damage, bone spurs, commissure ulceration and tongue laceration (Cook, 2011; Mata, Johnson & Bishop 2015).

It’s surprising how subtle ‘pulling’ can be, but even mild pressure can aversively influence the horse. You often see horses who are mildly BTV (behind the vertical), but their rider looks to all intents and purposes as if they are not overtly pulling. They might not look like it but they are activating the internal neurology of their ‘pulling system’, by feeling disorganised or out of physical or emotional balance. They might be trying to control speed or balancing themselves on their hands and their horses head. Either way, they are offering a brace to the horse rather than a forward following contact from their own independent seat and self-carriage.

To use rein contact as a rider, we need to commit ourselves to learning ways to counter-condition our pulling system, and use our entire body to communicate with and influence the horse mindfully and skilfully. Following this path in depth is fascinating and for some of us, as compelling as doing competitions and things. Learning the biomechanics of riding (for instance from Mary Wanless and the Ride With Your Mind system), gives riders a great human toolkit and fosters deep practice. We can shape the majority of our riding skills off the horse, and we need to be fit to ride, rather than ride to get fit.

Here is Dorothy Marks exploring how the right kind of contact can help her horse find his balance. Image courtesy of Horse & Rider Magazine.

What makes contact ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is subject to much discussion within equestrian groups. There is a rich written history in Classical riding which describes terms used to describe hand positions and actions – for instance in the 18th century François Robichon de La Guérinière in his written treatise L’École de Cavalerie, “The School of Horsemanship” – described three degrees of contact – ‘light’, ‘moderate’ and ‘firm’. How we know what these really meant to him, and how they might differ from your ‘light, ‘moderate’ and ‘firm’ contact is unknown, because unfortunately we can’t ask him. He might have had a hand shake that took your arm off at the elbow, or a grip like a dead fish. Probably not, but we will never know, but there are lots of people thinking and practising these skills today who are gaining useful insight and we can ask them what they have found to be helpful from the old masters, and what needs more thought.

“Many riders are concerned with the rein contact being too heavy. But there is also such a thing as not enough rein contact. When the rider can no longer feel the horse’s hind legs in his hands, because the horse is no longer seeking the communication through the rein, then the rein contact is too light. The conversation, the energy circuit, and the circle of aids have ceased.

A rein contact that is a little too heavy is still better than a non-existent rein contact, because in the first case, you can still have a conversation with the horse, whereas in the second case the horse has discontinued the talks.” (Thomas Ritter, 2016)

I am genuinely interested in how we communicate about our actions, and how this relates to the do-ing of the same actions, because clarity can really help reduce mis-communication. When I am trying to learn something I often deliberately try to explain it to someone else. When I mess things up it shows up holes in my knowledge and communication, and I have the opportunity to then find better information and associate them with the right actions, which I can then use in practise.

In equestrianism we use a lot of non-specific and traditional terms, and often refer to written accounts from people from other generations, who we can’t actually ask for clarification from (without the help of a psychic). We then find it difficult to accept others accounts of different lived experiences doing the same or similar activities, because we are not ‘speaking the same language’.

Let’s look at one of these contact themes – the ‘fixed hand – with mobile fingers’. Imagine your hand holding the rein with it coming up through your hand between third and fourth fingers, and lightly compressed between your thumb and first finger. With your hand held still, your fingers are isolated rein tension controls. They provide a lever to press on the rein and increase tension by acting backwards, upwards, sideways, or downwards, or they can open and release it – often described as a ‘giving’ hand. You can’t release a rein that you, or the horse, are not tension-ing, as it were.  It is hard to have mobile fingers that do not at least sometimes act to increase tension even briefly and a little amount. Is a little bit of rein tension a problem for the horse? On balance probably not, if adjustments are being made in order to maintain a forward following feel as the horse moves their head and neck position, but we need to have criteria for what ‘a little bit’ is.

It is not surprising that contact is described in a multiplicity of terms and concepts, because ultimately It is Difficult to Do Well, or well enough to help the horse rather than hinder them, or do nothing. And, it is integral to how you use your body and the parts of it that we consider to be the Seat (which is not quite all of it, but the majority). It really is something that you have to practise a lot and maybe become obsessed by. It’s hard to learn without the physical feedback provided by the horse, and without a trained pair of eyes guiding you from the ground, and a road map for wherever the heck it is you’re going.

“The most difficult aid is to teach the horse to respond correctly to the giving hand. In theory, the aid should come from your inside seat and leg, which ask the inside hip and hind leg to move forward. With this reaction, the spine will rotate all the way into the head of the horse, stretching the outside top line. The horse will then search forward and down in stellning and will bend towards your giving hand” Bent Branderup 2014)

Wow, think of all the things that we need to be able to do to achieve this! Isolated control of the inside seat (and all its parts) and leg. Isolated arm and hand control to ‘receive’ the bend and maintain connection. Torso maintaining a neutral spinal posture and enough tone to influence the horse to lift their back. What’s the other arm and hand doing? And the other leg? And someone has to maintain breathing, conscious thought, steering etc. This is why it is the work of a lifetime. Equestrianism is much more of a martial art than virtually anything else.

Some of the problem may be that riding is best learned by doing and being guided, rather than by reading or watching. A process for developing a contact skill set is not described in specific detail which makes it elusive. We are given hints, and concepts, and warnings. Many books on contact and the seat are written by amazing expert riders, who have self-carriage in mind and a detailed mental road map to get to it, and importantly, have trained and ridden horses right through the training levels for many years. They ‘just ride with their seat’, ‘breathe’, ‘sit in the direction of the movement’ etc. Of course they are unconsciously practising all sorts of miniscule internal balancing movements and tonal shifts that enable ‘it’, whatever it is they are aiming for, to happen. But to them it ‘just feels like…’. I have learned to smile politely at anyone who says “you JUST have to do X…!!

Rider coach Mary Wanless and some psychologists refer to this as expertise amnesia, and it has become rather a distracting filter for aspirational riders.

“This phenomenon [of expertise amnesia] is based on the assumption that reducing or diverting the amount of attention paid to material being encoded and stored will reduce the quality and quantity of the later retrieval of that material in a form that is explicit and reportable. So, if a well learned skill is stored as a procedural memory, and its retrieval and subsequent performance is mostly unconscious and automatic, there is evidence showing that the explicit recollection of what happened during the performance will be reduced.”

What is clear from the research I cited at the beginning and others, is that we need to work to change the status quo regarding contact to improve the welfare of the ridden horse. We have to take this on and be grown up about it. It might be reassuring to reflect that we are not the only discipline where people are unpicking information from the past in the light of new findings. We might be able to cross-pollinate.

“Jue-shou or “Sensing-hands” is a practice method for exploring the preliminary stages of taijiquan partner study. Through simple, non-competitive exploration, sensing hands develops tactile and kinaesthetic ‘listening’ skills which enable practitioners to discern and express different qualities of touch, force and intention.

The goal of jue-shou is the development of ‘sticking and adhering’ skills…” Sam Masich (2009).

Sounds very much like how we can initially develop our contact skills, maybe without the force part.  Taijiquan practitioners are very interested in the discipline of study and practice, and the geneaology of these techniques. Sounds familiar? They can also argue like a bunch of eight year olds about it like us too, but we are all human. Taiji historians recognise that historical skill concepts and development integrated inner self-cultivation with social transformation at the civil level. Also like the principles communicated in classical equestrianism.

In sensing-hands practice practitioners recognise five sensing-hands energies, supported by five connection-operations. A contact skill map. One of the most appropriate pairings from sensing-hands practice for the rider or equestrian on the ground which directly relates to hand and seat contact is sticking and adhering.

Sticking and adhering energy is a sensitivity attribute employed by people skilfull in maintaining a comfortable, even-pressured touch connection with other individuals during changing conditions. These could include varying physical locations of the point-of-connection; differing tempos in movement; [and] shifting intensities and intentions of participants… The ability to ‘stick’ diminishes the effects of unbalanced strength relationships…” (Sam Masich 2009)

What’s not to like about that? Does your horse settle when you achieve a ‘comfortable, even-pressured touch connection’? Mine does. I was riding my youngster last night In the Big Field. Twenty acres of space was about equivalent in my mind from here to the moon, and I was working very hard on just focusing on the area we were in. Due to the circumstances – his second ride only in the Big Field, him feeling a little spring like and assertive, and me having a slightly graunchy lower back which enhanced my sense of vulnerability, I had internal pull going on and I wasn’t as plugged in as I would have preferred. After fifteen minutes of shaping my seat to be ‘stickier’, and my hands to overcome their tendency to hold ‘just in case’, we found a soft, swinging walk and he agreed to go with me. We were both more comfortable and the seat and hand touch connection was more even and agreeable. We parted as friends.

The important thing to note is that in riding and taijiquan, and probably other partner activities, we can explore how we connect and communicate between two bodies. And if we are all thinking along the same lines of compassionate connection we can learn from each other.

One of the most effective things we can do to help ourselves have the right attitude is to understand the influence of priming. Priming refers to what happens in our bodies as a result of our internal dialogue, our self-talk. Priming has been well investigated by psychologists, and is used commonly in marketing to get you to buy stuff.

“Priming refers to the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context.” (Bargh et al 1996).

In the study I cited above, the researchers found that if they primed their subjects with concepts of rudeness (I can’t help thinking of them sitting people down in front of a computer and flashing rude words at them….), or politeness, their subsequent behaviour changed to become more rude or polite. This also worked when young people were primed with words about old age. They tended to move more slowly following exposure to this word set.

For our purposes contact is often associated with confrontational or combative words and phrases – ‘control’, ‘submission’, ‘closing your hand’ and ‘taking a hold’. This immediately influences our bodies to prepare to resist. In contrast, words like ‘giving’, ‘receiving’, ‘following’, ‘sensing’ and ‘guiding’ suggest a two-way conversation, and we are likely to remain more pliant and responsive. We don’t just expect to resist a force, we can physically act to maintain a low level of positive tension within a system by making a myriad of tiny adjustments in our bodies. Just like sticking and adhering energy. In my ride last night I deliberately used my self-talk to keep myself safe and my horse below threshold – ‘how can I get to… soft; swinging; step together; and wait’.

I will finish this writing with another quote from Sam Masich. Sam is a taijijuan instructor, with very deep knowledge of his subject and an expansive, confident but calm energy. I am not as dedicated a taiji student as I am an equestrian, but I like to borrow useful concepts. He has the feel of someone you could always trust to have your back, or to guide you in your learning – and this is what I aim to embody to my horses. You can get this feel from equestrians too, but its less easy for them to teach it in practise because our discipline doesn’t explain it well. I will borrow his words again – but these are my own, contact practise is about developing the skills to be a better human.

“Touching passes knowledge and goodwill electronically through the high-tension wire of human interaction. To ‘tactualize’ reality, to bring oneself into the deep sensual sphere of physical connection, may be a critical factor in our reaching out into the world in attuned and non-destructive ways.” (Sam Masich 2009).



Bargh, J.A., Chen, M. & Burrows. L. (1996). Automacity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on ACtion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 71:2. American Psychological Association.

Blanchfield, AW., Hardy, J., De Morree, HM., Staiano, W., & Marcora, SM. (2014) Talking yourself out of exhaustion: The effects of self-talk in endurance performance. Medicine

Branderup, B. (2014) Academic Art of Riding – A riding method for the ambitious leisure rider. Cadmos Publishing: Richmond-Upon-Thames, UK.

Cook, W. R. (2011), Damage by the bit to the equine interdental space and second lower premolar. Equine Veterinary Education, 23: 355-360. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3292.2010.00167.x

Masich, S (2009). Wudan Taiji Jue-Shou – 5 Section Taiji Sensing Hands. Tai CHi CHuan & Oriental Arts Magazine, Summer 2009. The Journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain. Glasgow.

Mata, M., Johnson, C. & Bishop, C. (2015). A Cross-Sectional Epidemiological Study of Prevalence and Severity of Bit-Induced Oral Trauma in Polo Ponies and Race Horses, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18:3, 259-268, DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2015.1004407

Ritter, T. (2016) Facebook post.


Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart – Part One

Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart – Part One

“No bit, or any other single item of equipment, can be properly understood out of its cultural and historical context. Traditionally in Spain and Portugal, a young horse is never bitted, but instead is worked in the ancient jáquima (hakma, hackamore)… Traditionally, the expert horseman of this tradition works his horse for several years in the bosal before bitting is even considered… There are several reasons for this tradition. First and foremost, it stems from a fundamentally correct understanding of the horse’s biology. No horse, at any time, anywhere, has been physically mature before the age of five and a half… The main purpose of the long work in the jáquima was to create a completely supple and decontracted horse – one that could be stopped or rolled back over its hocks in the bosal by the mere pressure of the riders little finger.” (Dr Deb Bennett, 1998).

Who doesn’t want that? A completely supple and decontracted horse…wonderful! How the heck do I get one? In this and the next two articles I will discuss something really interesting and complex – contact. Here are a few questions to ponder today that relate directly to this. I have used the term ‘head gear’ to refer to bitted or bitless bridle, hackamore, or halter:

  • What made you decide on the choice of your horse’s head gear?
  • Was it something you felt confident to choose without guidance?
  • How much thought have you put into what your choice of head gear for your horse is designed to do?
  • Are you planning to keep to this choice for good, or change at some point? What are the criteria you will use to make that change?
  • What do you believe your horse’s head gear will do?
  • What do you believe is the most ethical head gear to use?
  • How was your horse trained to the use of their head gear?
  • What have you done to educate yourself about hands, reins and contact?
  • What are your goals in rein contact?
  • Are there some of these questions you haven’t considered?!

Conversations with trainer colleagues, and recently becoming an Associate Trainer with the World Bitless Association, have prompted me to Marie Kon my mind basement and lean up my contact files.

“The WBA represents ordinary riders, non-riders, competition riders, trainers, behaviourists and all equestrians bitless or bitted, who want to see evidence based ethical training and riding increase in acceptance and popularity for the sustainable well being of the horse both mentally and physically.” World Bitless Association

Why are we so worried about discussing contact in the context of compassionate riding and training? After all, unless we are a human butterfly, we cannot ride the horse without connecting with their body through our seat and in most cases, our hands. Contact skills (and seat skills – see my post A kick ass day – Putting the amen into your fundamental seat connection) are A Learnable and Wonderful Thing. I have thought about and practised them in depth on and off horse over the years, and there are many people doing the same.

My own learning has been and continues for ever as far as I can see. I have gathered strands and embroidered my understanding from as many people as I can find, equestrians and non-equestrians, about what we can learn about the how of connecting hands and bodies for the purpose of compassionate communication.

Personally I went through about ten years of groundwork and riding entirely bitless, because I couldn’t find a trainer who could teach me the knowledge and complex skills required to develop good contact skills that felt authentically good to the horse. I was frustrated and felt like a failure because it Could Obviously Be Done by other humans, and They Learned It somewhere.

I burned all my bridles and rode with no or hardly any contact at all. This had a few advantages to my horses but it didn’t give them anything much either, because I still didn’t have the right skills or the attitude that I needed. Then I happened upon trainers who could open up this skill set for me, and who embody the attitude that We Have to Practise and Get Better at this. I have learned mainly through the French classical tradition with input from Western horsemanship, and from tai chi and baguazhang, how we can learn a compassionate kind of contact that can offer something to horses.

contact 2
Bitted or bitless, it isn’t about the equipment

The World Bitless Association aims to help all equestrians make evidence based decisions about the headgear they choose for their horse, and have published general guidance on categories of bitless bridles and their application within Least Invasive Miminally Aversive principles. Unfortunately, as they found, bridle makers mostly believe the gear they make is totally fine and horses love it.  As a saddler, trainer and coach, as well as a scientist (master of all trades, Jack of none – obviously…), I recognise four integrated areas we all need to consider and learn about so we can make informed choices about the design, fit and use of equine headgear. In the next three blogs I will explore the following topics:

  • The culture of bridles and headgear
  • Skill development and learning – human
  • Skill development and biomechanics – horse
  • Compassionate communication and welfare friendly equipment

The culture of bridles and headgear – history and design in brief

Many of the more complex elements of head gear and bits are the retained badges from past eras when human society used horses much more extensively for martial or working purposes, than we do today. They were originally designed (and used) to exert extreme control over the horse’s head position and range of movement in combat situations either on the battlefield, raiding, or in the bull ring, or used to allow herders and cowboys to be efficient during long, hard days in the saddle and manipulate lots of other equipment as they needed when they needed it.

From then on equipment has been adapted for practical reasons, but also fashion. The way people use it has changed for the greater part. The questions as I see them now are, do we as an equestrian society in the 21st century want to find a way to resign this kind of equipment to the past as relics of a different society, if we can find more welfare friendly equipment, given that most horses are not ridden in the contexts where they were intended to be used today? And what exactly makes equipment welfare friendly?

It is worth investigating some of the history first though, so that even if you decide to use complex head gear, you understand that the use of it was first and foremost intended to be part of a training process. People did not go into their local tack shop and grab whatever took their fancy because they ‘were expected to ride in a double in the show ring’, or ‘thought their horse might have better brakes in X bit…’. When used in the manner that they are intended by well thinking people, properly trained horses are gradually habituated to powerful bits, and they are not intended, in modern usage, to be used with any force.

For instance, well fitted spade (leverage inducing) bits are designed to apply pressure firstly to the palate, then chin and poll, and finally the bars of the mouth of the horse causing them to move their poll away from their chest and arch their neck. The intention is not to escalate pressure, but to stimulate the palate so that the horse lifts the base of the neck and the poll, taking pressure off the bit.  It is intended that extensive prior training over years in a bosal, then with a snaffle bit, prepares the horse for the action of the leverage bit and creates the groundwork for self-carriage.

Try pressing your tongue towards the back roof of your mouth. Do you feel a little lift in your own neck below the back of your skull, and a small chin tuck? They are designed to influence the same system in the horse. Training the horse in compassionate collection can be protective to their musculo-skeletal system, but these days it is very possible to train this with more simple bits or bitless, without the use of potentially very aversive equipment.

I choose to use a bitless bridle most of the time, or a side pull noseband alongside a simple bit for everyday riding. I introduce the bit when the horse is riding calmly, along side the side pull, to teach the young horse that the aids are equivalent. I only use the bit for very refined connection in schooling to influence balance and posture, and I pay great attention to making sure that the horse is calm and comfortable with any equipment I choose. Historically this is what was done too.

“In the classical era, horses were more often ridden in the cavesson than longed in it. Young horses who wanted to carry their head high were not forced into a leverage bit to “cure the problem”, for educated horsemen knew that the solution lies in the horse and the horseman, not in any bit” Dr Deb Bennett (1998).

In both the European Classical traditions, and in the Vaquero and the other Western traditions being practised today that stem from the same root, the headgear chosen for the horse is intended to be a reflection of their level of training. Riding a collected horse with no contact and draped reins was the result of a specific training process which was intended to enable the horse to be ridden in self-carriage. As the quote from Dr Deb at the beginning of this article indicates – it is the outcome of years of training and testing (in the way that ‘descente de mains’ or dropping the rein to the neck and expecting the horse to continue a movement on their own is a test of the horse’s balance). In this way the layered headgear of the modern day Vaquero and the double bridle were introduced very, very gradually, have a practical purpose and the horse and practitioner had to be ‘qualified’ to use them. The whole ensemble was further intended to illustrate the practice level of the practitioner to the audience.

See the source image

In the 21st century as equestrians who are predominantly aspiring amateurs, we have to consider when choosing head gear:

  • what it is intended for
  • what it actually does (rather than what we are told it does)
  • can we use it ethically and appropriately.

Evidence is starting to emerge for instance that some head gear definitely has an aversive effect on horse’s vascular perfusion (in the case of tight nosebands), and they may be undergoing a physiological stress response when wearing double bridles (McGreevy, Smith & Guisard, 2012).

We might also have to be honest with ourselves – if we are considering using head gear mainly for control of a forward moving horse, it’s a sticking plaster and likely to Make Things Worse. The horse needs us to train them more effectively and give them the confidence they need not to do this, or we need to limit the contexts in which we ride the horse. If your horse runs away out hunting and you are not prepared to put the hours in retraining them, don’t go hunting.

The majority of modern ridden horses are not ridden by people who are trained in the use of complex head gear, or expected to be ridden in a high degree of collection, and never in a combat situation. Furthermore, we now understand the extensive damage that can occur if we force the horse to assume unnatural physical postures, and in the mouth from bits and from our hand actions.

Even if we do aim to develop the horse in self-carriage, we can train horses and develop their strength without the use of potentially punishing and complex head gear. Given the high level of literacy and the internet compared to the 16th century, there are a range of other ways to communicate the level of training the horse has undergone, even if the gear itself looks pretty! I love a gorgeous bridle as much as the next person, supple leather is just so ‘mwah’! But I would rather buy one that the horse appreciates and that gives the artisan a proper income to reflect the level of thought and skill they have put in. Equine head gear designers need to include better research and development in their production process. Saddlery is predominantly a craft based profession and riding equipment isn’t really yet recognised as sports technology. Traditional products don’t go through R&D well unless the results can be used to promote something innovative about the product. Understandable from a business perspective but not very objective.

I remember being given bridle cut measures charts at college – clearly taken from a very different shape of horse than we commonly see today. I made dozens of ‘cob size’ browbands that have never fitted any cob I have ever met. Change is happening with organisations like Horse Bit Fit, who offer much more in depth biomechanical bit and bridle fitting and education. They are independent, offer detailed assessments and consultations, and can advise on headgear choice.

We understand the needs of equines in far greater depth, and we need to promote compassion in the relationships we form with them. Happily lots of people are now exploring these innovative pathways, and it is easier to find enough information to make an informed choice, and a wider range of products.

See my next post for ideas about the kind of things we can do to develop our contact skills!

Some of the ideas in this article were shared from my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. I hope you have enjoyed this post, you can find a link to the book here.

For more information about my work, visit my website at


Bennett. D (1998). Conquerors: The roots of New World Horsemanship. Equine Studies Institute; California.

McGreevy. P, Warren-Smith. A, Guisard. Y. (2012). The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Volume 7 Issue 3. Elsevier.

Three ways riding and groundwork can transform your horse’s barefoot success

Three ways riding and groundwork can transform your horse’s barefoot success

When you hear about the idea of riding your horse barefoot, what is your biggest concern? Do you worry about their feet falling apart, bits falling off, or the dreaded ‘wearing away’? Let me tell you a secret from pro-trimmers – we NEVER worry about any of those things. Or hardly ever anyway. We might worry that you will be worried about them, and about how we can reassure you. Otherwise nope, they are not a significant problem on our check list.

The reason we don’t worry is because we have the whole rest of the horse to think about! One of my last shoes off clients is a case in point. Her carer has tried her barefoot before and her feet ‘fell apart’. Well obviously not completely, but the damaged, dried out, weakened horn around the nails crumbled and made the edges of the hoof wall look a bit horrible. The horse was moving fine, but she’s a big solid mare and her feet started to flare, and her last hoof care professional didn’t really do anything about it, so more bits broke off, and cracks appeared, and then they tried grooving above the cracks (that sounds funky…), and yada, yada, yada. You know the rest of it.

So now it was my turn to team manage the second go at barefootin’. Her carer carefully listed all the things that were on her mind (see above). While she related the story to me I wasn’t looking at the feet, I was ‘grooving above the cracks’ so to speak. I was looking at the rest of the horse. Like I say she was a big strong mare, she had a straight leg at each corner and a wardrobe in the middle, in regular work with a good biomechanical trainer, a managed diet and environment. All things being equal she should manage fine with some responsive hoofcare.

When a horse is barefoot, the condition, shape and resilience of the horse’s feet are absolutely, utterly and completely the product of what’s going on in the rest of the horse’s body. If say I spot flare in an assessment, I want to see what in the horse’s musculo skeletal balance is driving the initial deviation, and what else in terms of metabolic condition, weight, fitness etc is compounding the limb balance change.

Now before I go any further I want to let you into another pro-secret – the horse’s balance and hoof shape changes all the time. If you bring your horse in from the field, then leave them tied on a concrete yard for half an hour the shape of the hoof capsule will change. The horse is standing on a much harder surface than is was half an hour ago. If you then put them out again (we’re talking a fairly soft surface here, no hard baked dust pans) within half an hour the hoof wall will have visibly changed again. This is because the hoof is a smart structure. It responds to changes in the horse’s direct environment immediately.

I was once at a hoof care clinic where a group of pros were dumbfounded because a horse that had generated a long and detailed discussion of limb balance and possibly associated low level flare, was turned out in the arena over lunchtime, brought back in, and the flare had ‘disappeared’. As a reaction some hoof care professionals believe that we should ignore the existence of flares, or that the horse ‘needs’ long toes as some kind of support, or even that feet, and ligaments and tendons and nerves and bones, are not subject to the laws of physics including leverage. Far from it, the shape of the hoof is an outcome of the interaction between what is going on higher up and the exterior world. The shape of the hoof is also changing all the time, and in many, many cases is also change-able with biomechanical postural training and responsive hoof care (which is something hoof care pros, and coaches who were hoof care pros, love to see happen and what this post is really about).

Outcome – result or effect of an actionsituation, etc.

I would like to introduce you to three important ways how riding and training can impact on your horse’s barefoot success. These are things holistic pros like me think about a lot:

  1. Functional symmetry

As humans we are drawn to the symmetry in faces and bodies. Some of us even get bothered when our environment is visibly lacking in symmetry. Findings show that if we are thinking about symmetry when we look at something, when it is visually symmetrical this spontaneously makes us feel better about it (Pecchinada et al 2014).

Functional symmetry is a mathematical concept, but it is also used in biomechanics to describe how the movement of the limbs on the right and left sides of the body compare. Let’s think about foot placement. If we were standing side on watching a horse walk or trot up in front of us, would one front foot land more or less heel first than the other? Can the horse step its left hind leg further away from its midline than the right hind under the same circumstances? What is the difference in where the horse chooses to place the foot and what might be influencing that?

As the rider or ground worker, our bodies influence the functional symmetry of how our horse moves. Working on our own functional symmetry is best done off horse, and using all the great tools we have these days, like mirrors for instance, we can become more aware of the symmetry (or assymmetry) of our posture.


Over time, we can develop the skills to change our posture which will change our horse’s way of carrying us or working with us on the ground. As a pro trainer and an old ex pro-trimmer I want to know that my clients have knowledgable eyes on their own and their horses bodies who are going to help them with functional symmetry and give them good skills. I also want to know that they have a realistic expectation of how much Time to Fix Things will be required. If they have a trainer who has zero real understanding of biomechanics you can tell in their bodies and feet, and their hoof care professional is never going to feel like they are winning.

2. Building healthy movement patterns

It is normal for healthy barefoot horses walked and trotted up in hand, or moving around in a relaxed attitude, to place the feet visibly heel first. In these circumstances the muscle tone in the rest of the horse’s body is often low, it is in an efficient neutral posture, and it is not required to carry a rider’s weight. Horses that do not land heel first when walked or trotted up in hand but still have a relaxed posture either have a pathology somewhere in the body that is causing them pain, or have weakly developed feet. As horses are commonly observed by hoof care professionals walked or trotted up in hand, and we like calm relaxed horses, heel-first landing is what we commonly expect to see, but like lots of things more is not necessarily better.


When a horse is trained to change it’s posture during collected ridden work, as in good classical dressage training, its stride length becomes more dynamic – moving between higher and shorter steps to longer, more ground covering steps. The fascial net of its body in collected work holds more spring, more potential and its landings change. In collected steps flat or even toe first landings can happen, but the effect is mitigated by the slow speed, control and trained tone of the horse’s body.

It is really important for the horse’s body and feet that they are trained to learn the best posture for the ‘carrying’ part of being ridden, otherwise we put them at risk of horrible pathologies like arthritis and kissing spines. Correct biomechanical training can substantially increase the control a horse exerts over its limb movement, and is how we build healthy movement patterns. [Thankyou Dorothy Marks and Solo for demonstrating a ‘tensegrity’ trot].


3. Making good posture feel good

Yesterday in my first schooling session after the snow with the Ladster we started the same way as usual, establishing that he was calm and happy to leave the herd and spend some time with me doing gymnastics. He had eaten a feed, had a big warm drink, had some hay while we tacked up, then we walked slowly across the big field together checking out the condition of the ground and whether there were vole and rabbit holes anywhere I was planning to ride. We did lots of copycat blowing, and the atmosphere was definitely ‘amble in the park’ before I mounted. See my blog post Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back for why setting up the right attitude helps.

My aim in training is to layer ‘good’ experiences, only adding more challenging ones if bracketed by definite ‘good’ associations and to be LIMA – Least Invasive & Minimally Aversive. The day’s progression was to find even bend in my body so he could take it up, and to explore what happens in moving frequently between higher and extended neck position in trot for him, on both reins. Lad has experienced a more balanced posture in the last few years which has given me access to a major movement reward. I don’t have to mark and stop to reward good posture with food, he chooses to carry it on sometimes after I suggest we could stop, or when I turn him out back to the herd.


Neck extension with tensegrity was so different to his prior posture, those early FDO experiences must have felt incredible. It might have been impossible to get the timing wrong because the movement, like a good stretch, was an intrinsic reward.  Now he returns to it very easily with huge enthusiasm.

So tell me – what is in the front of your mind now when you think about your newly barefoot horse, or your barefoot from birth youngster?

Some of this article was shared from my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. I hope you have enjoyed this post, you can find a link to the book here.

For more information about my work, visit my website at


Pecchinada et al., (2014). The Pleasantness of Visual Symmetry: Always, Never or Sometimes.



A kick ass day – Putting the amen into your fundamental seat connection

A kick ass day – Putting the amen into your fundamental seat connection

My glutes are getting work again. They need to be reminded that they have a job and are subject to regular work appraisals, but I get the idea that they don’t really give a rats ass. Getting them to work properly for riding when they have been stretched and de-activated by years of bending over trimming horses, is in my experience a case of literally kicking ass until they activate and then working them a lot more than you might think. Luckily for me though I have this dead critical inner PE teacher, who warns me that if I’m not careful my legs will drag me towards the sofa and I may never move again unassisted (until the fire brigade have to take down the end wall of the house to get me out in one piece).

So on days like today when the day stretches ahead like a smooth, clean page, when I can decide to spend hours doing things, and what kind of fun I can have, I still start with a workout. Why? Because I like to move and I like to move as well as I can. You can keep your duvet days. By about 3pm I’d need tenderising with a mallet. If I haven’t got all my bits flowing and talking to each other, then when I go to RIDE and I want to PRACTISE and get into something NEW, or go out on the trail and have the best FUN possible ever, some bits won’t work properly and my horse will have to compromise on my behalf. A workout makes the rest of the day the top half of the first division.

These days as my body is feeling a bit battered by years of trimming horses feet and other stuff, being supple in the morning without even a short mobility session and regular chiro treatments is rare. Still cool, but also crrrr…unchy. Restoring my mobility after sleep can take from fifteen minutes to forty five, depending on how stiff I am, how much time I have, and what I am prepared to put up with for the rest of the day. As I progress from not being able to put my socks on to intense full body stretches, I start to feel the layers of stiffening melting away from my muscles and fascia. To be able to impact on it in just fifteen minutes with the right kind of mobility activities is brilliant, but it also means I can’t not do it, if that makes sense.

My helpful friends include a spiky massage ball, a foam roller, a yoga mat, a mirror, lots of water to rehydrate, and guidance from some fantastic bodyworkers and body thinkers. My helpful labrador Katy coaches my mobility sessions, and adds a few shoves and a bit of a wrestle to test me. She has graunchy days too, and her favourite thing is to roll about on warm dry grass, or in front of the fire, and I wonder why we don’t follow our bodies and do more of this ourselves. Why do we have sofas even? I sometimes just want to lie on my back in a deep shingle bed and wriggle all of myself mobile. I get into deep practise as much as I can during mobility sessions so I can focus on making improvements and stay in the moment.

Dr Kelly Starrett in his very useful book Becoming a Supple Leopard agrees (although he does go into lots of specifics as well):

“Don’t feel like you have to overcomplicate this mobilisation by targeting specific muscles. People like to say, ‘Hit your glute med or short hip rotators’. If your last anatomy lesson involved dissecting a frog, this advice might leave you a tad clueless. What’s important is that you find your business and put in some quality work, staying on the tight area until you make change. Fundamental stuff.”

Dr Kelly Starrett (2015).

Today in my horse life it was right for Lad and I to have some ‘us’ time. Also fundamental stuff. There is a lovely depth of snow on all the trails, so we went for a perambulate round the loch in the late afternoon. Now himself has been babysitting for a few weeks, which has been necessary for young Oro, but not Lad’s favourite way to be with me. We walked across three fields together on foot first. Walking for the first part with your horse helps you tune in to each other safely, and warms your body up in movement before you ride. He paused a couple of times en route, and made one fairly determined suggestion that we turned left and Went Home Now Before we Got Too Far. If you turn left long enough however you end up pointing where you started, and as I took the executive decision not to join in with his going home ideas, and I had positive feelings about getting out on the trail, we got on reasonably coherently. On board I received a few further questions from him about my personal commitment to the trail (a subject I will write about again) for the next 100 yards. I must have answered them convincingly enough for him, he relaxed and said OK he was ready to start Enjoying Himself and maybe It Wouldn’t Be So Bad. (I know it sounds anthropomorphic, but I hope appropriately so).

“Anthropomorphism is making judgements about other species based on our own human way of experiencing and interpreting the world… [It] allows us to use, as a starting point, what we know (because of who we are) in our interpretation of what other mammals, at least, do and how they are.

But we must be very critical of making judgements assuming that equines are ‘just like us’. We must understand where the differences lie, in both what we perceive and how we analyse this information.”

Marthe Kiley-Worthington (2005). 

In Lad’s terms enjoyment means a jolly kind of ride somewhere he knows well, with a lot of blending and togetherness. Happily that is my definition of enjoyment as well. Snorting means ‘I am ok now’, trotting up and down gradients, and some decent fast canters on good going, a heathery snack here and there, confidence giving from me when necessary with scratches, cheerleading, rubs and food and lots of blethering. As it was a ride out for him today, my job was Riding Technician rather than Horse Trainer. This is a road many horses never get to explore, but it can seriously help trust and connection in training to travel both roads separately.

As Riding Tech it is my job to ride as well as I can, to establish his mindset (see this blog post for mindset ideas: Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse), to accept challenges, ideas, problems and conundrums without argument and find agreeable solutions or alternatives, to anticipate what my horse needs before they know they need it, and to generally maximise my horse’s pleasure.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth”
Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken


The difference between Riding Tech rides and Horse Trainer rides is that as Riding Tech you are working on your intrinsic toolkit, and measuring your effectiveness by their responses.  Letting them be them without asking for a lot of extrinsic changes. It doesn’t mean you don’t influence the horse, you surely do, but you are not going to ask for anything very complicated, difficult or new, and it is your job to ride as well as you can. Leave the other stuff for another day, this day is about enrichment and giving them a good ride.

Three of my biggest performance measures for Riding Tech rides are:

  1. The quality of the walk home. On good rides when I have done my job the homebound walk is balanced, blended and beautiful to ride, and can go down new trails at the drop of a hat if I look down them.
  2. Having a horse who stays with me for more ‘us’ time when I turn them out again.
  3. Looking at the horse’s back and body after the ride it looks smooth and elastic, as if he hasn’t been ridden.

In my explorations into the business of what the rider’s seat is and does, the anatomy of the human fundament and associated domains looms large (did you see what I did there?), and has a significant influence on ‘a good ride’. Studying the physical interface between the human body and the horse, or more accurately the human body, the saddle or ‘sitting on’ technology, and the horse’s body beneath is surely very critical if you want to use it as well as you can. After all unless you flutter above your horse like a butterfly the connecting place between two bodies is a fundamentally physical, rather than solely an energetic connection.

This is the place where the Riding Technician work is most immediately effective. Today my ‘big picture’ jobs were to keep my body centred, connected, quiet and aligned over the upslope of Lad’s withers and his centre of gravity, and to help him keep his back lifted going up, down and over things, through transitions and at different paces. To do this I had to find a place where I could become a receiver more than a transmitter.

To do THIS we must attach as much of our seat – thighs and underneaths, to the horse’s longitudinal back muscles, and the layers of muscle that connect the shoulder into the ribs. We also have to find the right tone for our muscles, too high and the horse may find it alarming or feel pushed down, so will shorten and hollow, too soft and they may be too saggy and lose their own tone.

Scouring my book collection it seems that many equestrian writers find it difficult to distinguish the ‘seat’ from the entire body in trying to describe the ‘how’ of seat work. I can understand their position, in practice yes bodies are integrated systems, but if we are going to work on our seat skills, we need to start to adopt a shared and specific vocabulary from the bottom up so to speak.

To find the right tone for Lad today I first blended with, then adjusted the slightly tense tone in his long back muscles by bring the tension in the muscles in my inside thighs and butt down a little to create a lovely springy movement. It took about fifteen minutes of focussed riding to start to work. This picture is a great image to look at when thinking about the seat – most of the muscles shown are important in your seat attachment and you need to know them up close and personally. Look how many connected structures there are. I can clearly feel my semitendinosus today, and my sartorius was tight on the foam roller earlier.


There was a lot going on in my torso upstream of my seat, but we will leave that for another day. If you want to start your own investigation into integrated riding, I strongly recommend Mary Wanless’ Rider Biomechanics An Illustrated Guide: How to Sit Better and Gain Influence.

Up and down steep gradients today in a seat tech bareback pad I have designed particularly to help amplify the rider’s seat, it was possible to stay blended and aligned and not slide forward or backward. In a good trot and in canter uphill and cornering, it was easier to find length along my thighs and underneath, to centre myself and maintain the right tone in my muscles and therefore in his back muscles, maintaining his vertical balance and helping him move safely and calmly on snow and icy trails. Letting him move with the aim of giving him freedom and agency within the stride, we belted up one hill straight through a snow covered broom bush that had fallen across the path. Fully in the moment he shut his eyes, reached his nose forward so it didn’t hit him full in the face and cantered straight through it without breaking stride.

I forgot something, the other sign of a ride well done is dirty fingernails.


Frost, R. (1916). The Road Not Taken. Sourced from:

Kiley-Worthington, M. (2005). Horse Watch – What it is to be equine. J. A Allen: London.

Starrett, K. & Cordoza, G. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leopard – The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Victory Belt Publishing: Las Vegas


Thankyou for taking the time out of your day to read my blog. If you are interested in further writing, here is a link to my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. (Co-authored by Jane Cumberlidge).