Happy No-stirrup November!

No-Stirrup November is an opportunity to work on your balance separate from your stirrups, and maybe even pinpoint some muscle memory patterns you have that no longer serve you.

Here are some of the most common ones, and certainly ones that have afflicted me:
– Bracing the knee (ouch!) and heavily weighting the stirrup; some instructors place an egg under the student’s foot to teach them proper stirrup contact!
– Pushing the foot forward in a water-ski position, which inevitably leaves you grabbing for reins as a makeshift ski rope.
– Using the stirrup to post or rise the trot by standing, instead of using natural momentum and the knee.
– Pressing down and forward into the stirrup towards the horse’s elbow to get the heel down; pulling you, again, into a water-ski position and the dreaded chair seat.
– Depending on the stirrup for side-to-side stability, instead of using the entire length of your leg and your core.
– Depending on the stirrup to counter the forces created by upward and downward transitions instead of using your core.
– Depending on your outside stirrup to counter centrifugal force on curved lines so you don’t fall off the outside of your horse, instead of learning to properly weight the inside seat bone and thigh.

No-Stirrup November doesn’t have to be about pushing yourself; be gentle and work on your feel, your proprioception of your body. You don’t have to ride bareback or go faster than a walk to bring some awareness to your movement patterns; dropping your stirrups at a walk in the saddle can tell you a lot. Here are some things to try:
– Notice how your leg relaxes and drapes and lengthens without stirrups.
– Notice what happens when you drop your heel; take turns feeling the difference between heels down, and toes up. Try keeping your heel down with your lower leg hanging straight down, and then with your lower leg angled back underneath you. Which is harder? When do you feel more stretching in your calf and your Achilles tendon?
– Without stirrups in the way, when you let your legs fall close to the horse, can you feel more swing from the horse’s barrel?

A special note for trot:
Remember to prioritize comfort for you both; if you’re bouncing, or having to hold on, just stay at the walk. This is about getting rid of bad habits, not creating new ones! Especially, we want to prioritize the horse’s back. He needs to feel like he can raise his back into us; if we hurt his back by bouncing, he’s naturally going to hollow it away from us.
Below, I can tell that Dusty is raising her back, because it feels like a new, springy trampoline to sit on, and it was very comfortable for both of us. We don’t want the back to feel like an old, worn-out trampoline that’s bottoming out. Ouch for both of us!
If you find yourself bouncing, stick with rising trot until your balance is better, and the horse’s back is strong enough to stay up. You can even try this without stirrups if you’re up for a challenge! That’s a sure way to learn how to post using momentum and your knee, instead of standing in the stirrup.

Remember to have fun!

Contradicting Ourselves: Shaming and Judgement in the Positive Reinforcement Community

We talk a lot about poisoned cues, but what happens when those of us who could be ambassadors of positive reinforcement are poisoning the movement by being aversive?

What happened to the idea of successive approximation?
Allowing behavior extinction as something is no longer found reinforcing?
If we know that Pavlov is always on our shoulder, how can we ignore the classical conditioning fallout of using aversives to try to motivate our fellow trainers?

The reality is, in the horse community, the number of trainers who will attempt to use only +R is marginal. So where does that leave the rest of us?
The majority of people who work with horses and choose to utilize clicker training/positive reinforcement (+R) are going to mix that with our traditional training/pressure and release/negative reinforcement (-R).
Call it what you will, we are going to mix.
What’s important for us, is to create a space that feels safe for us to discuss how to best approach that.

In Equine Facilitated Therapy, we call that ‘Holding Space’ for someone, Observation Without Judgement; humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called it ‘Unconditional Positive Regard.’
This doesn’t mean we’re not being objective, honest about the pitfalls of mixing, and the potential fallout of aversives, but that we feel like we’re being met where we’re at, without judgement, so we can all brainstorm and evolve as trainers together, finding more and more ways to be +R.

This means prioritizing people, and the animals we work with, over our idealism.
We give a lot of lip service to how much we care about the animals’ experience, but if we’re pushing people away who are looking for a better way to do things, we’re not helping the animals at all, but instead, merely virtue signaling, engaging in moral posturing, maybe stemming from a need to make up for our own past transgressions.

Food for thought. Pun intended.

Parallels Between Equine Facilitated Therapy and Horse Training

Sometimes my approach can come off a bit mystic, but science is always at the heart of what I’m doing…

For a few years, I facilitated an equine program for a detention center. In addition to the wonderful sessions I shared with the incarcerated individuals I met, I was emersed in learning about human attachment theory, PTSD, and affective neuroscience; the entire experience changed me as a person, and when I returned to training professionally, made me a much better horse trainer.

Facilitated work, whether therapy with a trained professional, or Experiential Learning with a facilitator, seeks to re-establish emotional self-regulation with participants via experiencing co-regulation, via the connection we feel with the horse; a very different approach when compared to talk therapy, where we try to reason out our problems on that proverbial therapist’s couch.

Many individuals who have failed to find peace on the therapist’s couch have found that connecting with a horse allows them to let go of body-based, somatic trauma or emotional dysregulation, and feel safe or peaceful in their own body once again. They have to FEEL better, in the moment, to heal; they can’t think their way to healing. They can then take that muscle memory, if you will, and tap into it when they need to self-regulate in the human world.
I’ll note that, as a facilitator, it was important to avoid participants re-visiting their trauma verbally, as that can actually re-traumatize.

Horses are much more complex than we give them credit for. The reason equine therapy works so well for people, is because we have so much in common emotionally with the horse, and can co-regulate one another; we share the structure of the same mammalian emotional brain, the limbic brain, where the emotions are processed after what we are experiencing comes through the brainstem, and BEFORE it gets to the cortical brain, the thinking, rational brain. This mean both horses and people make decisions in our rational brain based on our emotional experience, and sometimes, if triggers are strong enough, we can’t get past the automatic Fight or Flight response; sometimes emotions are so overwhelming that we can’t get past the limbic brain to make a rational decision, we can’t switch off hyper-vigilance, or impulsivity, or anxiety, and it takes very little to push us over threshold or trigger us.
What this means, is that for both horses and humans, no amount of reasoning can fix an emotional issue or something that triggers the Fight or Flight response. In horses, no amount of training can fix an emotional issue. In fact, traditional training approaches often re-traumatize.

Troubled horses and humans are often caught in a vicious cycle, as shown in the ‘Survival Loop,’ from the article https://beaconhouse.org.uk/developmental-trauma/the-repair-of-early-trauma-a-bottom-up-approach which states, “Children with brain-stem hypervigilance, impulsivity, and anxiety need patterned, repetitive activities to re-organize and regulate the brain-stem. Brainstem-activities need to be consistent, predictable, patterned and very frequent, over a sustained period of time.”
How can we take that advice and apply it to the troubled horse?

Understanding attachment theory, and the affective neurostates Panksepp has shown us are shared in the mammalian experience, things like FEAR, RAGE, SEEKING, and especially the PANIC/GRIEF neurocircuit of separation distress, allows us to approach the horse as the complex, emotional animal he is.
Sometimes, training is not enough. Working on a horses power steering and brakes, approaching him like we’re doing work on a vehicle, when the issue is seated in the amygdala, the seat of Fight or Flight, or in the limbic brain, only leaves us spinning our wheels.

Round Pens

I used to do a lot of liberty training in one; Join-up, Follow Me, you name it… I do my liberty in the open now.

They aren’t inherently bad, but I have 3 main issues with them:

1. They can allow us to put a lot of pressure on a horse to force a false connection. Take away the pen and we’re going to find that out pretty quick. This includes liberty work or when we’re riding a colt in one. Eventually, it’s going to bite us in the butt and we’ll be eating some humble pie (ask me how I know).

2. The more science teaches us about biomechanics, the more we realize how harmful repetitive movement on curved lines is, especially for young horses. Once again, classical Dressage and old time working cowboys are in consilience on longevity and soundness here: Calm, Forward, STRAIGHT. Anything under the standard dressage circle, 20 meters, or 66 feet, is especially going to torque on young joints.

3. Riding or working in an enclosure of any kind cheats our horsemanship. This is one of the issues with us modern riders: we don’t know how to properly use our outside aids, the outside rein and leg, because the fence does all the work for us. So the finesse of ‘Inside Leg to Outside Rein’ and the ability to collect the horse and get a horse that can stay under our hand and between our legs is pretty limited. It’s why you see experienced horses being ridden and moving like colts for their entire career, and it’s why horses often work fine inside but ‘lose their minds’ when you try to ride them out.

That being said, a safe enclosure is obviously invaluable for first saddling and the first few rides, although it’s not strictly necessary.

The only way to keep evolving in our horsemanship is to open up our minds- and maybe our pens, too…

Keep riding the spiral path,



Without any riding biomechanics instructors in the area, I video myself regularly and have riding buddies act as spotters.

I have a pronounced anterior pelvic tilt, and it’s important for my horsemanship and long-term back health that I address how it affects me as a rider.Here you can see me checking with the back of my hand to make sure I’m in neutral pelvis and neutral spine.

No matter how experienced we are, it’s important to understand we never stop perfecting our position and biomechanics.

I have a riding buddy who has been riding longer than I’ve been alive, and he still works on his biomechanics; as a result, he’s one of the best riders I know… in his 70’s.

Keep riding the spiral path,


Mills & Sons…

Meet Kyler Mills, the eldest of three sons in the Mills family…

Kyler has an interest in Vaquero horsemanship (his favorite thing to ride in is the traditional Hackamore), and loves to use clicker training to complement his riding.
Kyler is a budding horseman, and has begun taking on project ponies under the watchful eye of myself and other horsemanship mentors.
Kyler recently achieved his ‘Earn Your Spurs’ (you can see that checklist HERE).

Kyler’s gentle but self-discipline approach makes for a partnership that is a joy to watch…


Keep riding the spiral path,


Today I sold my round pen…


Today I sold my round pen…
19399916_1715638778730805_6037046237436210752_n.jpgI had a response to this, an emotional attachment to it, and I’ve decided to explore that…

1913661_1285770620766_4098114_nAs a trainer, it was a goal to have a nice big round pen I could start colts in, work problem horses in, and do liberty training in. So when I finally saved enough money to buy a nice one, it was useful, but also symbolic. It symbolized my ability to work hard, it symbolized how my love and respect for my clients and theirs for me had in turn created the ability for me to thrive financially; it also symbolized what I thought my identity was. And maybe a bit of a Horcrux for my ego…

Screenshot_2015-05-11-19-57-22But then I met a group of rescues in 2 years ago that set me on a completely different path, and my perspective shifted completely.
Here was a group of untouched horses that were too emaciated and lethargic to train even with the gentle methods I was used to using, but who needed to be tamed and halter-broken in order to have their severe external and internal parasite infestations addressed. What to do?20150508_143807



I had just bought a friend a DVD that had an unexpected segment with clicker training, so I thought: what the heck, can’t hurt to try…

So this group was trained out in the pasture, from first touch, to haltering and leading; no enclosure required.
Yes, it worked great to tame them and get them doctored, but I was also experiencing something extraordinary… I was getting liberty behaviors and rapport that had taken me years to get with even my best mare.

19260618_1715638798730803_184419342780470962_n (1)
I could walk out in the pasture to a formerly wild horse, have them come up to be haltered, and they would walk beside me with the rope over their back, away from their herd, so that we could walk up to the barn to doctor or trim or work; no pressure and release, no bribery, no training stick.

They would continue to hang out with me even after I took the halter off and the gate was open; in fact, that’s how we spent much of our sessions: gate open, halter off, the herd grazing in another pasture while we worked on the life skills they would need to be rehomed.

10400354_1194235692450_4036202_n (2)I was experiencing great joy with training; not just the happiness that comes with recognition, or even private successes and goal achievements, but the unburdened joy of really connecting with the horses I was working with. Every time their faces would light up when they saw me, it was my heart that would light up.

One day, I looked over at my round pen, and I saw how tall the weeds had grown, and I felt at peace.

I have found my new path, and it is time for someone else to use my round pen to help them on theirs, wherever and whatever that may be.

Today, I sold my round pen, and it was symbolic: the end of an era.

It symbolizes my transition into work that resonates with my authentic self, as I leave what I thought I needed to be behind, as I leave false power, false freedom, and external validation behind and return to my authentic way of being with horses.

My heart feels like that empty pasture, now: open and unrestrained, but ready for the next adventure in connection.

Hazrat Inayat Khan says the soul is covered by a thousand veils; each layer I shed that is not my true path, I get closer.

Tune in next week for my next Ego Horcrux…


Keep riding the spiral path,


Potential, Persistence, and Patience: Taking on Projects

Great things happen when we recognize our littlest achievements and use them as inspiration to keep improving day by day…

barnI will soon be training out of Hill School Barn, 7 stalls with an indoor that will allow me to work year-round. She needs a little TLC, but I’ve never been one to turn away a project…




barn2This small facility is nestled in the North Platte River Valley of Western Nebraska, between the Sandhills and the Wildcat Hills. It features a small indoor, 7 stalls with runs, and 2 interior stalls. You can see its namesake, old Hill School Number 44, right across the road, against the backdrop of a beautiful panorama of the valley. The owners say that the motto of their old business, Hill School Paints, was “Horses with an education.”




Like many project horses, I see the potential; now all we need is a lot of persistence and a little patience. Great things happen when we recognize our littlest achievements and use them as inspiration to keep improving day by day…


Keep riding the spiral path,


Hackamore Fit

Fit is what makes or breaks the function of the hackamore; if you don’t get it right, you lose what makes the hackamore unique: its pre-signal.

I’ve posted a few things about hackamore fit recently. Helped tweak the fit on this guy today and thought this was a good visual BEFORE and AFTER.

IMG_3080Fit is what makes or breaks the function of the hackamore; if you don’t get it right, you lose what makes the hackamore unique: its pre-signal.
The swing of the heel knot off the chin as a pre-signal is what gives hackamore horses their soft feel and that certain ‘look’ in the way they carry themselves.
In addition, placing the bosal at an angle instead of perpendicular like a cavesson is what gives it a pivot point in order to act as a lever; this doesn’t mean you’re using leverage to inflict more force, this means you’re using the leverage to allow you to apply the same pressure with a more subtle hand movement.
If you aren’t utilizing the pre-signal and leverage/subtlizing effect of the hackamore by fitting it correctly, it’s basically just a glorified sidepull…

John Wayne Elbows

Ok, we all love John Wayne. But we don’t necessarily want to be described as having ‘John Wayne elbows’…

downloadA rider with high or slumped shoulders, or flapping ‘chicken elbows’ has something in common with horses that pull you out of the saddle with the reins or jump short, or who lack impulsion in the walk and are on the forehand in the canter.

What they have in common might surprise you. Rotation of the rider’s shoulder.

Rotation of the entire arm allows us to effectively use our shoulders, elbows, and hands; and that, in turn, affects our horse’s movement.

Stop trying to pull your shoulders back, or down (ouch!), or trying to pin your elbows to your sides. The key is in the soft, supple rotation of the entire arm, from shoulder to wrist.

Here’s a great visual I saw recently from (non-riding) biomechanist Katy Bowman:

Click HERE to read Katy’s blog post or watch her video below

Using the rotation helps place your shoulders and elbows naturally, no more slumping or elbow-flapping. Your elbows will feel more anchored (softly!) to your core if your horse tries to pull you forward, but will also be able to follow him when needed.

elb2When changing the rotation in our forearms, our bones (radius and ulna) cross and place different tension on the soft tissue.




elb3Pronation and supination are related to elbow pain during typing, golfing, playing tennis, etc, and I actually get elbow pain if I ride with my palm down, as well as when using a hoof knife. I use a special hoof knife that decreases pronation.


elbowThis relates to why we are often told not to ride with ‘piano hands,’ palms down, but with ‘thumbs on top.’

download (1)






Riding with ‘thumbs up’ also allows us to have a more elastic elbow and follow the motion of the head and neck in walk and canter, as well as open up during rising trot to keep the hand stable, or during a release over a jump…

1781540_589713794484399_8644151833423474146_oFor a particularly engrained habit, I might have a student ride with the Equicube…





hr-170600-tack-01_gnFor those of us who are riding one-handed, we can adjust to the romal hold to work on  these issues.61f18cad338d7a15cbac5035ec7f3713







Try it next time you ride!


Keep riding the spiral path,