Measure Up To My Horse

Most of the time, when I write about the training of my horses, I must sound so sure of what I do. Like a pretty annoying know it all, actually. Especially when I once in a while happen to take a shot at the world of professional dressage, and show jumping with all its open and in your face animal abuse. I know. I am the kind of person that has been asked a thousand times, can you do better? Most of the time, I easily answer yes, simply because I never, knowingly abuse my horses.

Most of the time, I know where I am going, how to get there and I don’t really need help training my horses, for two reasons. One, I can find no trainer I trust with the well being of my horses, and two, I have seen almost everything before. Horses that buck, rear, bolt, spook, kick, bite, you name it, I have spent my entire life working with them, working out on my own, how to “fix” them.

Still, I have come across a horse I have not met before at all. A horse that doesn’t spook, doesn’t bite, bolt, kick, or rear up, a horse that is well behaved, well trained (to a certain extend) and happy. My very own, 6 year old Saleem. And for the first time, I am at a loss at what to do to train him.


Not for the first time, with Saleem, but he is the first horse where I have really felt that I need help. We spent the last two years gently working our way out of his stress induced headshaking. I have spent two years, riding his horse, not touching the rein, waiting for him to let me touch him without shaking his head. I do know that when Saleem was four, I gave up on riding him completely, and took another year training him from the ground. (For the mathematicians, he is turning 7 this summer, I just never let my horses get a year older before their actual birthday.) When he was five we mostly rode on the road and in the forest, on a lose rein, waiting for him to be comfortable with the whole concept of being worked with.

Saleem is extremely sensitive. We have spent weeks, just touching him with a stick, down his sides, I hate the word, desensitizing him. The same when we trained trailer loading and he freaked out once the separation bar touched his sides. We have been touching, encouraging, playing everything into this horse all of his life. And still it took me all of last year as well, the year he turned 6, to get rid of his headshaking. (Vet’s been over him, by the way, he is not sick.)


So, this year, I am starting up after our winter break with a relaxed, nice and easy going horse, who is no longer shaking his head, and who carries himself nicely, stretching his neck forward, using all the right muscles when ridden… and I suddenly remember what it felt like, two years ago, when I had no idea how to get past his headshaking.

Only our new problem is, I don’t feel that I am skilled enough. I truly feel that I am letting him down, not explaining what I want good enough… So please don’t get me wrong. This is not a post about what is wrong with Saleem, because for the first time ever I look at my horse and think, there is nothing wrong with him. I just can’t ride a horse that doesn’t have a problem?


So what is wrong with me then?

I guess the easy answer could be that I spent all of my life working with horses that would blow up in my face any second. I am used to fast forward, unstable, high risk horses, where you have to hang on for dear life when you least expect it, and see any possible problem coming a long way away if I wanted to survive. Like, in the spring when the flowers started turning the roadsides yellow instead of green, and how easily a bunch of flowers might make Poseidon jump in front of a car, stuff like that. I have spent my entire life, surviving, making the best of what couldn’t be fixed. And here I am now, with a horse that is pretty much good to go. I have no idea what buttons to push.


My real issue with Saleem, right here, right now, is that I don’t feel that he is “in front” of me. In front of my leg. And I know, the horses I used to ride, I have always wanted them to wait for me, to wait for my signals, but Saleem is a little too… behind. I don’t want to compare him to Poseidon or Amalia, because they were so fast forward in the way they were thinking and ridden, all you really did was ride “backwards.”

When I say that Saleem is not in front of me… it feels a little like riding with the hand break on. Like he is hesitating when I ask him something, instead of responding.


I know why we came to be this way. It is pretty simple. I have spent the last two years, applauding any reaction in him, that didn’t lead to him over reacting, either by spooking because of his touchyness or shaking his head. So really, I have been encouraging him to under -react and now I am stuck with a horse that is calm, easy, not shaking his head, but only has one gear.


Don’t get me wrong, he has three gaits. But his trot for instance, is one gear. There is no enhancing his steps, (we are very far from anything that could be called extended trot, just yet,) no backing him down. Just one, straight forward trot. Even when I turn him, or try and ask for a little collection or maybe even a side-movement, he just hesitates. I feel that he is forcing me now, to enhance the way I use my legs, in order for me to be allowed to touch the rein or do anything, really, and I am not playing that game. I will not be forced to do worse, to make my horse respond. I will not enhance my legs, or my hand, or my whip, to provoke a response from a horse I have spent five years, (I bought him as a one year old,) teaching to calm down and trust me. This is not who I am, this is not how I want my horse ridden or trained, and as such, we are going nowhere, while I try not to freak out over how I am coming up short next to this wonderful horse.

I will not be failing him now. I will do better. I will find a way.

It is just sometimes, I wonder what if would be like if there was a trainer out there, that wouldn’t help you ruin your horse, but that would actually help you train him. Sometimes, I would so gladly accept help. Which is the most dangerous way of thinking, because that allows you to fall prey to any trainer who can talk her way out of anything. What is paramount to me is my horse’s well being. If I can’t figure this out, I won’t ride him. But sometimes, I would love to have someone to turn to.

I tried last year, to turn to a girl who was very out spoken about rollkur, and who makes a living of training horses, calling her stable “positive riding.” I hoped for a brief instant that she might be able to hand me some of the pieces I feel that I am so missing in the puzzle that is Saleem.

I didn’t write about her on my blog then, because I must admit, I was a bit at a loss for how to describe her. Positive riding. Basically, she doesn’t want the horse to duck under vertical- with her there- but her solution is to raise the horses head by the rein, by holding your hand up and pulling on the bit, until the horse pulls back. I instantly asked her if that wouldn’t teach the horse to pull on the bit then? She said yes. Clearly, that was what she felt “accepting the bit” means. Teaching the horse to go against your hand.

She told me to not use my legs at all, only my hand, holding on the rein and the whip, forcing the horse forward into the hand, until it pulled back… in frustration, one might add. That is not positive training in my book, and to be honest, as damaging to the horse as rollkur. Long story short, I packed up my horse and went home, emailing back and forth with her for a while, because I really wanted to understand what she was up to. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how anyone could think that this was a positive way of training their horse and I was sure I was missing something. I wasn’t, so now I don’t mind “telling” on her on my blog…

So, what do I want? I want a horse that basically has no contact to the bit, most of the time. I want the bit to be there, as a secondary aid, if I need him to back down before an obstacle, and he gets too excited. I want the bit to be there, because it has to be there if I want to compete with my horses, but I would like very much to be able to not use it. And I sure as hell don’t want a horse that is pulling on the bit. That is not acceptance in my book, that is self defense. A horse that pulls back when you touch the bit, is protecting himself from what you might do to him if he lets you. I never, ever want that response from my horse.

I want a horse I can ride for my legs alone, a horse I can collect, and move about, a horse that responds to my signals easily and without objection or hesitation. I want a horse, who wants to work with me. Not one that feels like someone forgot to release the breaks. I just wish I knew who to turn to, but my encounter with “positive riding” last year did only enforce my belief that there is only one person who can figure out how to train this horse.

The one person who knows him best and who understands how we ended up exactly where we are.

So I will be driving myself crazy, figuring this out from now on. I will not let him down. I will not be failing this horse. I simply must do better.

I don’t know how yet, but I will. I just know what I won’t do. I will not force this horse, I will not compromise the kind of rider I aspire to be, and I will not give up.

Boy, I miss Apollon sometimes. And I know, he ducked under vertical for me whenever he saw the chance, avoiding collection that way, but still… it was such a great horse. Completely unable to handle mailboxes, trashcans, parked cars, roadside flowers and shows, nowhere near as rational as Saleem, and always at the look out to bite me or kick me while I was grooming him, and still…


I miss the feel of his trot. I miss the feel of this horse that could walk right into heaven, touching nothing but clouds.


Maybe, what I am really doing, is holding Saleem up to a role model he can never become. It is just that, every once in a while, I do feel this trot in Saleem somewhere. It is there. I just have to find it. And bring Saleem with me, all the way.

Still I guess that Apollon spoiled me with his talent, handed me everything on a silver platter and never really taught me to ride. I am learning now, that is for sure.

To be honest, looking at my pictures of Apollon and comparing them to these new ones of Saleem, that I am despairing over, I must say. I have learned a lot already, I am a much better rider for Saleem, than I was for Apollon.

That is the wonderful thing about horses. They are so very different all of them. Each and every one of them has something new to teach you, if only you will listen. I am looking forward to learning everything Saleem has to teach me now, and for the rest of our lives together.


This really is an amazing horse. I just hope I can measure up in time.


About Starstone

-Owned by horses. Writer, Photographer, Director, Musician.
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14 Responses to Measure Up To My Horse

  1. saraannon says:

    You might find my blog on leg aids interesting:
    I had to figure out what was behind the phrase and how leg aids actually could work with the physiology of the horse. Basically you can teach the horse that touching him with your heel means pick up and bring that hind-leg forward. You can start on the ground, and then on horse back it is clear that you are asking for more effort from each hind-leg, not more speed and the horse stays calm because he understands what you want!

    • Starstone says:

      That is a really good article and a lot of people could do with reading that one 😉
      I did start Saleem on the ground, all of my horses are started like that, being taught the signals from the ground. Saleem and I still pratice from the ground once or twice a week, just to keep up with where we are…
      It’s not a matter of him, not understanding my signals, or of me, not knowing how his anatomy works- I have studied this all of my life 😉
      It is a matter of me, being a bit of an idiot and not seeing this coming, in the way I have been training him.
      I am not a huge fan of using spurs on a young horse, at least not like that, though… See, I am horrible, there is no helping me 😉

      • saraannon says:

        I don’t ride with spurs myself, but they are ubiquitous in riding and horse training literature, so I figured if people were going to hear what I had to say I should start off in the language they were used to. The idea that the leg, never mind the spur, could be a means of communication is so very radical for most people who just want to hurt the horse to make him go. Even tho they usually try to disguise their cruelty with fancy terms like ‘aversive conditioning’ and ‘motivators’.
        I am usually thoroughly pleased when a young horse is strong enough and mentally settled enough to become a bit lazy and casual about the whole riding thing….Then I know have a good foundation to drop back to. In your and Saleem’s case, from your post it looks like you now have that base and the unilateral ‘pluck’ with your heel in time with his stride would be a way for him to understand that you want more expression in his gaits and activity behind without him getting upset and speeding up.
        All of which I say for your readers more than you! It feels so very important to publicly present alternatives to the kick/hit/pull trend in horse training!

      • Starstone says:

        Thank you for saying it, it was very nice to hear it anyway 🙂 It actually made me feel a lot better about where I am right now with Saleem 🙂

      • saraannon says:

        Good! I am glad to hear it..even tho relaxation is supposed to be one of the basics of dressage training it is so terribly lacking in modern dressage… like the woman you wrote about that pulls her horses’ heads up and hits them. She is treating her horse the way American Saddle seat riders do:
        which produces a tense miserable and unsafe horse that can’t be ridden outside the ring. Dressage people haven’t degenerated into breaking tails (yet) but otherwise there is little difference in how abusively the horses are treated. What it is in people that feeds on causing fear and suffering I will never understand!

      • Starstone says:

        Oh wow I have never heard of Saddle seat riding before… I guess that is my luck, that sure looks… quite horrible. 😦

      • saraannon says:

        Poor horses and good reason to stay away from the pull the head up and whip them school of riding! But here is a horseman I really do admire…
        He was crippled in war but still took the worst horses in the French Cavalry, rehabilitated them, and created some truly extraordinary partnerships.

      • Starstone says:

        Yeah looks like I dodged a bullet there… I still think its sad how hard it is to find a trainer you can trust 😉

  2. I agree with about everything you’ve said. The last six years I’ve been training Academic Art of Riding à concept based on comnunication, gentle aids, loose or at least soft reins. You can read more about it on Bent Branderups and the knighthood website (
    In this form of riding the horse is not asked to perform à movement unless that movement strengthen another.
    You work with small signals; à rein on the neck eg means bending, the horses inner leg is brought to the center (so that the horse can carry himself better on the hindlegs and eventually reach à higher collection), by not more than à thought in the riders innerleg etc.
    From reading your text I believe you might find what you are looking for in the AR.
    If you want more info send me an email (I could just keep on talking about this for hours:)).

    • Starstone says:

      Thank you 😉 I have been studying Bent Branderup a bit, and even though I like most of what he does, I still think that quite a few of his horses looks… tense…
      I am the kind of person who would rather look at what his horse is doing than listen to what he is saying.
      What I am really opposed to is the kapsun and the bits he use.
      Once again, I am sorry, I am pretty hopeless to help out.

      • Still I recommend you to go to a clinique:)
        The bit is never sharper than the riders hand. And you are not allowed to use the bit with a hard hand!

        What I like most is the philosophy that a training method that does not gently strengthen the quality of each individual is not an education worth of its name.

        I use AR in my work with fysiotherapy on horses (especially former dressage horses) with amazing results:)

        I think we just have to find a philospohy that talks to us and than take the best part from that method and translate it into our own way of educating horses (or ourselves for that matter).

        At least that’s what I am doing:)

      • Sorry, forgot:
        You don’t have to have a caveson and a bit at all in AR. It’s you own choice. I know people that are on a high level that are riding their horses without a bit, some that have a regular bit, some that have just a caveson and others that ride with a hackamore and so on.
        It’s your own choice:) It is simply that you need to school an train your hand so that it doesn’t disturb the horse or give it the wrong signals.

        Take a look at this (the horse is a bit on the front legs at first but it gets better a couple of minutes into the video).

        Sorry, but I believe there are a lot of misunderstandings in what AR is:)

      • Starstone says:

        Maybe you are right 😉 I’ll check it out 🙂 Like I said, I do like most of what he is doing, I just ran into a few things that didnt quite suit me and so I ran off again 😉 hehe

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