Bad Behavior Doesn’t Just Happen

Having been to numerous shows and clinics I am often struck by how willing people are to put up with problems (like tension, resistance, taking off, bucking) with their horse as if there is nothing that can be done about them. I really do think that the reason this happens is because people simply aren’t even aware that things could or should be better. I mean if a person knew it was reasonable to expect the horse to be calm and focused wouldn’t they be doing something about it? Sometimes the horse is young and the ‘drama’ is put down to youthful exuberance. Other times the horse is older and has ‘always’ been this way. In both cases, there is no reason why it has to go on like that.

This is where, for me, Horsemanship is crucial and where modern dressage misses the boat. I specifically say ‘modern’ dressage because I don’t think that it supposed to be this way. But it seems to me that in the hustle to achieve competitive goals the matter of how the horse feels seems to be lost. Too frequently riders just start taking dressage riding lessons without lessons in horsemanship. Why is that? Frankly, no dressage trainer that I worked with over the years ever said the problem you’re having is more fundamental and that is where we need to begin. Now certainly there must be some dressage trainers who do address these issues but it just isn’t part of most people’s regular experience. How do we learn how to help the horse to be ready for dressage (or any other performance) training?

For me, it was necessary to go in search of horsemanship skills and I found what I was looking for in the work of such great horsemen as Bill Dorrance. Bill wrote, IMO, the greatest book on horsemanship–ever! It is called “True Horsemanship Through Feel” and it is a Must Read for all serious horsemen/women. Also worthy of note is his co-author’s (Leslie Desmond) website. Leslie has carried the torch of Bill’s work since his passing not long after his book was published.

I also found the exploration into clicker training to be essential to my journey as well. It really brought home to me what the old masters meant when they said, “Ask often. Expect little. Reward generously.” All of this together — the dressage, the horsemanship, and the clicker training is what really opened my eyes. Perhaps it can for you, too.


  1. I think in large part the problem is short memories. I have folks offering condolences on the death of hope regarding my TB. Show season is almost over and he’s still going a little crooked and we don’t even attempt a canter. I never planned on showing this year. That would have been an unrealistic expectation. Just two months ago, I couldn’t walk in the stall with this horse without fear of being bitten. He would grind his teeth loudly as soon as he was haltered and tied. He was a timebomb. Now our grooming sessions are relatively stress free and I can ride him in a complete circle without a fight. All in all, I feel very hopeful about the future. The fact that we’re making improvements at all suggests success is imminent!

  2. The teeth grinding really tells you that he had a BIG worry in him. Poor guy. He’s lucky to have you. It will take the time to rebuild his trust that all will be OK when you ride him. Sounds like you are making progress! Keep taking a positive approach and listening to him and you will succeed. 🙂