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The Spiral of Learning

If horsemanship is a spiral of learning, the outermost ring would be figuring out how to safely handle horses, learning the physical aids of riding, and how to efficiently balance ourselves on a horse’s back.  


Another turn of the spiral, and we learn how to make cues more subtle. We apply them with better balance, timing and feel.

After several revolutions of this spiral, though, is where many riders often get stuck, or plateau. One day, our horse becomes less responsive, and we give bigger cues. We feel stagnant. Or, we have a horse who defies every technique we know.

What ever the reason, the result is the same: at some point in our time with horses, we realize that what we know and what we are doing  aren’t evolving the way we spend time with our horse.

However, there is a doorway within every horse. If we are quiet and still, that doorway become a portal through which we can reach the next turn of the spiral.

What is this doorway?

It is the opportunity to connect at a level that underpins the essence of who horses are, and who we are too.  It is a tether to communicating at a level that is far older than language. Horses are masters at this language – as is most of nature. We are too, and it only takes a little practice to discover it.  

This language, for me, more closely resembles how we feel when we listen to our favorite music, as opposed to when we need to figure out a problem at work.

One way to begin to practice strengthening this sense, is by the use of the thought (and/or intention) of “we.”

When a rider gives a physical cue, and the horse responds, that is a fairly surface way of communicating. It is what is sometimes referred to as “conditioned response.” We give a physical cue, and through systematic training, the horse executes the desired action.

The good stuff, the grit and substance of working with horses, however, spirals much further down.

We are talking about exploring the movement beginning on the inside of us.  We are walking, we are trotting; coupled with feeling the rhythm of the gait. Our intention is the bridge  to the inside of the horse.

Now the sequence would be: visualizing and feeling “we are trotting,” before we offer the physical cue of a leg. 

This change of intention is essentially like using a turn signal to let other drivers know where you are going. Since riding (like driving) can be a non-verbal activity, we have developed signals to let the horse (other drivers) around us know what we intend to do.

Our change of intention does two things.

One, it lets the horse know, before we apply a physical aid, what we would like to do.

Two (and, I feel, more importantly), it creates a sense of togetherness. It’s no longer us doing something to the horse (squeeze of leg, lift of rein, etc), but rather we are now doing the same thing, at the same time. 

If we ride using only physical cues (and by the way, this is not a bad thing), horses will operate that way. If we ride seeking to use more subtle aids (such as the change of intention/thought, the use of breath), they will go that way too. The art of horsemanship lies not only in subtlety, but also within the heart and minds of both participants.

The art of horsemanship is a combination of the person’s and the horse’s spiral of learning. There is the potential for the horse’s spiral, and ours, to combine.  Oddly enough (or perhaps not), this appears elsewhere in nature, as a DNA helix. I thought it a useful image for what happens when we combine our talents with those of our horse.


Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the power of combined talents, along with the power of potential, from our horse Rusty.

Soon after he was dropped off at our place, we could tell that there was more going on than standard fatigue. Over the next several months, he was aloof, couldn’t be caught, and when he was, submitted to our care or being ridden with an air of defensive resignation that was painful to witness.


Photo: Crissi McDonald

After we had traveled with him for a year (during which we had helped him feel better physically by balancing his feet, body and teeth), we turned him out on a 35 acre pasture for the winter. We were hopeful that a human-free, six month rest would recharge him.

It turned out that he had eight months off, before Mark and I loaded him up and hauled him to a series of clinics in California. He was less worried, and catching him was easier, but he still didn’t interact with us much. 

Because he was having trouble keeping weight on, I started hanging a hay net in front of him while he was standing tied throughout the day. I found a feed he really liked, and started mixing herbs and supplements that would help his stomach. I noticed he was pretty thin skinned and sensitive to grooming, so I only used rubber currys and soft brushes on him. At first, his work day was about half an hour of riding, with a whole lot of eating. As the weeks went by, our saddle time and his eating time balanced out. 

At our last clinic in California, his eyes were bright, and his ears forward. His muzzle, once jammed up and wrinkled, had softened and relaxed.

We were getting to know one another. A horse who I, at first, sought to help because it seemed like he needed it, was quickly becoming a good friend. 


Photo: Chris Wolf

Up to this point, we had been working on him being able to carry himself with his head down, and doing a relaxed walk and trot. I had also been asking him to respond to the internal cues I was offering, instead of having to use a lot of leg or rein cues. He was opening up, and our time together was not only easy, but peaceful. I had a sense that Rusty was almost ready to show me who he was. Almost.

On the last day of the clinic, Rusty was feeling settled at the halt, walk and trot. Once we were in the trot, I thought about cantering with him, and offered a change of rhythm in myself first (going from the two beat of a trot, to the three beat of the canter). He tensed a little bit at this, and rushed through his trot. I  breathed more deeply and switched from a sitting trot to a relaxed posting trot. We did this for another lap, and I asked for the three beat again, this time using a bigger exhale, and a tiny bit of leg against his side. He rolled into an easy canter, with the kind of energy that makes a lap around an arena a short trip. He never got faster, but the canter got more powerful. It was as though he had rediscovered how to use his body. It even felt like he was enjoying it. 

We cantered for another couple of laps before we changed to the four beat of a walk. When we stopped, although he was breathing hard, he was quiet and there wasn’t much pressure on the reins.

I dismounted, patted him on the neck, then sat down so we could both digest what just happened. When I was seated, Rusty walked slowly over to me, and stood napping with his head over my lap. 

As I sat with the sun warming my back, it hadn’t escaped me that I needed the help too. And like good friends do, Rusty had offered his help. He had shown me what it is like to break through an internal barrier – and what life felt like when once unburdened by the drag of past hardships. 

We walk, we trot we canter. We can focus on the doing-ness (walk, trot canter, etc), or we can focus on the we-ness.

Either way, our horses will do just about anything we ask – their nature allows for this. But a horse doing something with just their bodies is a far cry from a horse doing something from their heart.

The same could be said of us.


Photo: Chris Wolf