Friday, January 10, 2014

"Why Are Your Horses So Calm?"

Another rider in the arena asked me that one day.  That day, I rode Dawn after she'd had 5 days off, and Red and Pie after 4 days off.  And it was pretty darn cold in the arena - 20s - after several days of much colder weather and some extra time off for the holidays.  This person's horse was propping, and threatening to buck and rear, and head-shaking, and just a little bit crazy - after being run around loose in the arena.  While this was going on, Red and I, and then Pie and I, were motoring around doing our regular work, without any lungeing, groundwork or running around before hand.

And yesterday and this morning I rode my horses after they'd had a lot of days off over the past two weeks. All three horses were just about perfect from the moment I got on - no running them around or lungeing first, just get on and ride.  When I was riding Red and Pie yesterday afternoon, another rider commented again on how calm they were.

This got me thinking about my horses, and how completely wonderful they now are to ride, almost every time.  What makes this possible?  It isn't just temperament - both Dawn and Red could be described as high-strung and even somewhat reactive - they're very sensitive and alert, and Red came to me as a horse who was very anxious and insecure.  Pie is still young - he's 7 and is capable of some big spooks.  But under almost all circumstances, I just get on and ride and they deliver.  How come we're able to do this?  There's no real magic to it, it's all very straightforward.  I'm no expert, but here's what I've found that works, for me and my horses.

Firs, what does "calm" mean?  I think when most people say my horses are calm, they mean that they work well, without signs of nervousness, and without rushing, pulling or acting up.  I mean those things, too, but I mean something else, too - that leads the horse to look calm while allowing them to really perform for me.  There's that magical combination of relaxation with true forward - from the hindquarters - responsiveness and consistent softness.  Think fire plus ice and you've got what I want from my horses.

Here are some things that I don't think qualify as calm.  Calm isn't a horse that's exhausted from being lunged to death or ridden into the ground.  Calm isn't a horse that's dull, shut down, checked out or that's given up due to coercion.   Calm isn't a horse that's been desensitized or sacked out - that can be a horse that's shut down or that has given up or can be a horse that's comfortable with specific objects - that's not calm, that's just desensitized to those objects.  Calm isn't a horse that's "broken" or coerced into submission.  Calm isn't a young horse that has been imprinted - there may be an appearance of calm but the horse may not have the ability to deal with challenging situations.

Calm requires a horse that is secure and self-confident, together with you.  This doesn't just happen - horses are prey animals and for them to feel secure and confident in partnership with a human isn't something that comes naturally to them.  (That's why the term "natural horsemanship" is such a misnomer - there's nothing natural about humans working with horses.)  Calm has to be learned, and the horse, in order to learn it, has to feel secure with you as a leader - which has, as far as I'm concerned, nothing whatsoever to do with being your horse's "alpha" - interacting with horses in that way is just another form of dominance/submission in disguise, and that's not calm, that's just dominance/submission.

A calm horse isn't necessarily a horse that won't ever spook, although spooking is likely to be less common - but it's what happens right after the spook that will tell if the horse is calm or not.

To my mind, a calm horse arises from a combination of things, all of which need to be present for the horse to be able to be secure and confident.  They are:

  • Management (handling and stabling) practices
  • Training and experience
  • What the human brings to the party

I'll be doing some other posts on those aspects of calmness.

A side note on the nervous or insecure rider, or beginner rider.  Riding a well-trained horse that has a basically quiet temperament can really allow a nervous or beginning rider to develop skills and confidence.  A nervous, anxious, high-strung or mistrained/undertrained horse is a very bad combination with a nervous or inexperienced rider or handler.

More to come . . .


  1. I agree Kate! I also often get asked why i never do groundwork before I get on and my horses are always calm. I have found its often just what I expect of them I expect them to be ready to work when i get on I expect no sillyness when i am handling them. And so I work for everything to get to the point where I can just do stuff with my horse without worrying how they will react to certain situations.

    1. Crystal - I think if people expect that their horses need groundwork before riding . . . then their horses will need groundwork . . . funny how that goes . . .

  2. Love this post! Can't wait to read more.

  3. I agree. I don't do any groundwork or lunging before riding either. I used to watch riders lunge their horses so much at a show before they got on to tire them out or " get the spooks out" as they would say. When I always thought wouldn't it be better to have a good relationship with your horse instead. Staying calm in any situation also helps in my opinion.

  4. I do not "have" to ground work my horse to ride him, but sometimes I still do. Depends on the day.

    I will say though that so far, at public events, ground work is vital for his peace of mind, not mine. We have a pretty good communication system and if he is saying to me, "Hey, I'm not sure about this." I will ask him what he needs to be ok. He generally will tell me the minute I ask him to walk in a circle.

    His life as a rodeo/ roping horse did not end well so when we get to those types of places he relapses into that horse who had to fight to get out of the bad situation he was in. Giving him that time to move his feet, find his happy place and then asking him to transition downward helps him come back to the horse he is today. I never make him run on a lunge line, I simply ask for a walk, but I will let him lope if he feels like he needs it. When I can let my air out and ask for a walk and get it from him, then I know he is ready. From that point forward we are pretty connected and I love that feeling.

    1. I think that, particularly with an anxious horse in a new situation or a situation that is stressful, that groundwork can be very helpful to get the horse's mind back in his body and the connection to you established again. This can also be safer than just getting on and trying to ride through it.

  5. Spot on!.....Could not have said it better myself.

  6. I'm curious - is it common among riders to lunge or put horses in a pen to "run them around" before riding? I've not been in situations where that is done, for that specific purpose, as far back as I can remember, so it surprises me to hear it. I have always viewed lunging as a separate training skill (for both horse AND rider) and to assess movement and soundness. At the shows and events we've been to I see people warming up, but in the saddle, not on a lunge line. I agree with you that developing a relationship and providing the care and keeping that suits the horse is a better plan than relying on lunging to settle them down before being able to ride.

    1. billie - it is very common in certain circles. I've seen it most often in hunter/jumper barns and at hunter/jumper shows - the derogatory term for it is "lunge until dead". And there's no training involved - just horses galloping around in circles until they're tired out, or being chased in an enclosed arena. But many of these horses get limited or no turnout, are often overfed with grain, and are ridden by amateurs who are over-horsed by their trainers.

  7. You explain things so well, Kate.


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