All posts by Ali Kermeen

Testing our training with gates, Brio part 4

In addition to spending heaps of time with our favorite metaphor, the tarp, I’ve also spent lots of time working on gates with Brio.
I’m a firm believer that a good horse should let his feet become his riders feet. When I ride a horse through a gate, I want to open the gate, and keep my hand on the gate when I go through it, and close the gate without removing my hand.
Brio has an opinion that differs from mine on every single aspect of how I want to operate a gate. If he had his druthers, the most cooperative he would be about a gate is to do a Hollywood stop by the latch, let the rider fling the gate open on the move, pass through the gate, and never look back.

Brio doesn’t like to stand close to the gate, be near the gate when it is moving, stand in the gap of an open gate, back through a gap, step towards the gate as I close it, and stand by the gate while I latch it. Rather than continually work with a gate to achieve my goal, I addressed each aspect of his distaste individually.

To help with his lateral movement, I worked on his joystick control, and his rein yields.

I worked on his patience training to help his stand quietly as I operate the latch.

I worked on backing between cones, then through gaps in the gate and other narrow places.

I used this set up to have control over the narrowness of the space I wanted Brio to get comfortable in
I worked on having him stand by the gate as it swings away from him and towards him. This is fun to do with a partner, playing “catch” with the gate with riders mounted on either side. This was a particularly difficult task for him. ( There was a point where he got fed up with the game, jumped onto a plastic lawn chair and got loose…twice in one day)

I worked on him standing while I shifted in the saddle or did something else with my hands.
Again, the gate wasn’t so much of an issue as the aspects of his training that were lacking in his response to a gate. We worked on all of these training aspects on the ground prior to doing them mounted. The gate was a test of his skills and training and he failed. Rather than take the test again with no additional preparation, we went back to study the curriculum that he wasn’t understanding.

The process took quite some time, and isn’t perfect yet. As a result, Brio is much better at opening a gate and we can do it the way I like now. While it has taken me months of training to get to this point with the gate, the journey has given me a better riding horse with more malleability. These days we are getting about a B- on our gate test. Breaking down the skill into parts makes it much easier for horse and rider to understand.

Building confidence, not desensitizing.  Brio part 3

Brio is working on his low grade anxiety and confidence. To help with his anxiety, I’m giving him consistency. He is getting a routine in how he gets caught, tacked, and worked. Along with it, he is getting love and praise. He is now content to stand in the cross ties, comes to be caught instead of hiding in his paddock, and showing more of his personality. Everyone who handles him has a quiet and confident energy. As a result, he is starting to let go of his tension and relax.
To help with his confidence we are spending lots of time working on things that upset him. Things like traffic noise, tarps, crossing water, anything going over his back. This aspect of horse training is often referred to as sacking out, or desensitizing. Both terms elude to over exposure of a stimulus until the subject is no longer reactive to it. That isn’t quite the goal I’m looking to achieve with Brio.


For example, we’ve spent quite a bit of time getting him to cross a tarp. This isn’t something that really comes up that often when riding, so why spend so much time on it? The motivation is not to desensitize him to crossing a tarp, but to give him confidence to try something new. To get him to have enough trust in his handler to try something that he hasn’t done before.

The first time I tried to get Brio to cross a tarp, he spent much of his time on his hind legs, flinging me about the arena. With time and patience he will cross a tarp when he’s free in the round pen, and I can ride him over a tarp with no hesitation. This has led to him having confidence to cross bridges and water. Going past a blowing tarp on a rail has given him more confidence to trust his handler when traffic blows by him, ropes come at him, and carrying items.


So really the tarp isn’t there just for desensitization, the tarp is a metaphor for new things that he’s unsure of. It’s not just about getting used to the tarp, it’s about trusting his handler when he’s asked to do something that scares him a little.

Anthropomorphism in Horse Training, Brio part 2

Brioso del Amor , or Brio, is Liz’s unicorn-in-training. I don’t know too much about his history, except that he’s been passed around a lot in the past year. His breeder had him at a sale barn that sold him to a dressage home with an amateur. It didn’t work out there for Brio, he reportedly started rearing, so he was back at the sale barn within 3 months. Then Liz and Brio seemed to be a good match for each other. He did well at his pre-purchase exam, and arrived home in time for Liz’s birthday/Christmas.
Liz immediately picked up where she and Sawyer left off. While Brio was a good boy, he didn’t quite have the life experience that leads to the kind of confidence that Sawyer had. A loud motorcycle speeding by him led to Liz’s first fall in three decades. Between that and the discovery that Brio had a habit of breaking loose on the longe line and trying to mount the other horses in the arena led to Brio and Liz going in training with me.

We figured out a solution to the longing issue, and Liz learned some good things in her lessons. Then she got diagnosed with an issue with her spine, which required surgery and recuperation. I became Brio’s sole rider and had the opportunity to work on his confidence three days a week.

I began to really get to know Brio. My impressions of him was that he was upset with changing homes and owners so much. He seemed stressed out that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him next and what kind of rules his next handler would have. He would try to hide in his paddock when we tried to catch him, and he would flinch really hard when putting on his blanket or saddle. He just seemed to have a low grade worried expression all the time.

The longing issues and general disrespect of the halter seemed to stem from an issue of trying to posture himself at the top of his new herd. His herd consists of his stable mates, his handlers, and whatever random horse happened to be walking by or working in the arena with him. He was always looking for a way to express himself as being a cool and confident guy, while really harboring some self esteem issues.

I’ve often heard that it is not good, and even dangerous, to anthropomorphize horses when attempting to understand their behavior. I fully agree that horses are different than people in the way they interact with each other, humans, and their view of the world. However, my job isn’t just to train horses, it is also to help other people learn to understand horses. It is in that role that I find anthropomorphizing to be a very useful tool. Not because the horses are doing human-like things, but because it is easier to teach a human about something if you can relate it to something they already have experience with.
Most people have far more experience with humans than they do with people. If I can relate a horse’s actions, to a known trope of human interactions, I can be much more effective in helping a person understand a horse’s behavior.
To this end, I can relate Brio’s behavior to that of a kid who is a bully because his home life sucks. Or maybe the guy who has road rage on his way home from a day of getting pushed around at work. These are things that are easy for people to understand. Bridging the gap between anthropomorphism and equine behavior is the crucial step between evaluation/understanding and execution/correction.


When I interact with Brio, I’m going to treat him like a horse, and not a person. To address his low level anxiety, I am going to give him consistency. To address his issues with his confidence, I’m going to work on things that make horses more confident.

A new project: Making a Match (Brio part 1)

I’m starting a new blog series about my latest project, which is already well underway.Photo by Kathy Colman Photography

Meet Sawyer. He is a 28 year old Morgan gelding. Sawyer is a unicorn. He’s one of the rare horses that has a platinum character and pizazz to go along with it. He can teach the smallest child to ride safely. He can pack your husband through traffic and hard trails. He can willingly prance and gallop along the trail, jumping creeks and looking damn fine doing it. He’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a horse. So why does he need training? He doesn’t. He’s 28 with a soft tissue injury, he needs retirement.

Liz is Sawyer’s human. They are both lucky to have each other as they made each other very happy and had lots of fun. She is giving him the retirement he has earned at a great place in Pescadero. Liz isn’t ready to hang up her riding boots with Sawyer, she wants another horse just like him. Liz is also nostalgic for the beautiful Spanish horses that she was around as a teenager residing in Spain. She wanted to buy Sawyer, but a little bit bigger, a little bit younger, and Spanish. She turned to me to help her find her second unicorn.

Liz and Sawyer, photo by Kathy Colman Photography 

So I went to the unicorn emporium and found him, right between the leprechauns with pots of gold, and the flying carpets.
Actually, we had a typical horse buying experience. We tried a bunch of horses, vetted one that failed, amended our criteria, and had many learning opportunities. Finally we found a horse who fit the bill perfectly.

These are my notes from my first meeting with Liz to talk about horse shopping.  She wanted a horse with Brio.  I think I delivered on that one for sure!


Brioso del Amor, aka Brio, is a 12 year old Andalusian (Pura Raza Espanola) gelding. He has low miles, which consequently means he is quite green for his age. If you look hard enough, you can just see his Unicorn horn starting to come in.

Never Stop Learning

by Nel Sanchez

My grand-father was a stockman and farmer who grew up in country NSW, Australia. What we Aussies call the bush. The stories he used to tell about the things he and his mates did on horses always had me in awe.

He had two phrases I remember hearing a lot. The first was “the best rider is always the one sitting on the fence”. Now as a 10 year old that didn’t really mean too much to me, but as a wiser woman in her early 30s I’ve come to understand it many times over.

The other phrase was “you never stop learning with horses”. And this one resonated with me very early on.

If you have been following The Happy Canterer you would have heard Ali herself mention the famous ‘barn rat’. The kids in the barn that watch everything and ask a million questions. When Ali was growing up, learning everything she could from everyone she could, I was on the other side of the world doing the exact same thing. I talked to anyone who would listen usually, asking about their horses and watching the different things they did with their equines. Every horse magazine I could get my hands on I read. I started pony club at 12yo where I completed all my D level certifications in the first few months of starting.

Me at 17, trying SJ on loaned horse Tonto. 
 I didn’t have horsey parents to learn from, not one of my school friends had horses or knew how to ride. I delved into Pony Club like it had been created just for me. My horse, Mustang Sally, was young, a 3yo quarter horse/stock horse cross, who was a sensible and quiet trail horse, but who shied at every new scary thing Pony club threw at her. And yes I fell off. And there were many times she walked right over the top of me. She was strong and green, and so was I. But I kept going, and I kept learning and I kept trying. It wasn’t always easy. But we bonded. She was the one that taught me the most. We learnt things together and became a partnership. All the learning that I had engrossed myself with as an excited kid had become not only one of my best investments, but a foundation for my time with this mare and all the future horses I worked with.

My heart horse Mustang Sally at Mounted Games
Having maintained an open mind toward learning has helped me become the horsewoman I am now. And will help me become a better horsewoman in the future. I encourage my daughter, who is 8, in the same way I encourage my friends and fellow equestrians, to never be afraid to ask questions! Ask the vet to show you how to give an injection, ask the dentist to show you the sharp edges on your horses teeth, get the farrier to show you what thrush/bruises/white line disease looks like. A friend’s horse has ulcers? Get her to show you the warning signs that prompted the diagnosis. Attend every clinic you can, whether you participate or spectate, there is always something to be taken away from clinics. Cross train, don’t focus on one specific thing all the time. The race horses I used to ride, used to be broken in and do cattle work before they ever saw a race track. The famous ‘Valegro’ went on regular trail rides. Watch your friends when they have riding lessons. Ride other people’s horses. Try something new. Read articles and books and magazines, go to shows and events to watch. Video your friend’s dressage tests and re-watch them with a copy of the judge’s comments. There are so many different avenues to learning that we can take advantage of. Even if you don’t have a horse yourself. With learning comes confidence and with confidence we learn more.

Ruby and Tahlia learning about hoof care. 

Flash forward to today and my grand-fathers wise words still ring true. Over the years I have learnt to take the “fence sitters’ with a grain of salt. But no matter how old I get, how much experience I gain, I never stop learning.

About the author:  Nel Sanchez is an Australian horse lover living in the Bay Area of California. Her first job out of school as a 17yo was on a Thoroughbred property in the Wollondilly Shire of NSW. It was here that Nel learnt the fundamentals of really ‘knowing the horses’ from a tough, but fair manager, that she continues to build on to this day. 

A groom’s responsibility

The Happy Canterer is branching out.  Groom extrodinaire Nel Sanchez is joining our team of bloggers! This is her first submission:
What do I do?In everyday life, when meeting new people or talking to friends and family, the question is often raised – What do you do? And I usually find myself giving one of two answers, either “I work with horses” or “I am a horse groom”. But unless you have spent some degree of time around horses yourself, that doesn’t really give you too much insight into what it is I actually do.  

In a busy program, horse trainers and instructors are pressed for time, working to deadlines coordinating horse exercise, riding, education, feeding, veterinary and farrier appointments, riding lessons, maintenance, competitions, trailering to events etc that to try to do it all would likely result in fatigue, burn out and in-turn compromise safety. As I groom I help to bridge the gap between horse and trainer, ensuring that the trainer is able to get their job done safely, efficiently and to the best interest of the horse itself.


When I first go to collect the horses, I look at their eyes, look them all over and read their body language. Each horse is an individual and they are all different in there relaxed state. If present, mood changes, illness or injury can often be detected at this first greeting. I put halters on the horses and as I walk them out of their stalls I listen to their footfalls. If I haven’t noticed a missing shoe or lameness, nine times out of ten you will hear it as soon as they start walking. Of course this is harder when the footing is soft, but generally I have a good record by following these methods. It’s the same when brushing and saddling the horses. You are not only removing dirt and debris from the horse’s feet and body, you are removing anything foreign from where saddlery will fit, checking saddlery itself for fit and maintenance issues, and checking the horse’s body by feel for any non-obvious bumps, injuries or soreness. You want everything to be comfortable, non-constricting and of course safe for both horse and rider. By learning each and every horse like this I am able to communicate with trainer/rider how the horse is that day. To me, it is just as important to mention if a horse is particularly tense or jumpy that day as it is to mention swellings or lameness. When you have a 140 pound rider getting on an 1100 pound equine communication becomes a very powerful tool. 


After being worked, horses need to cool down, be checked over for any obvious strains/injuries, have sweat removed, any treatments needed applied and then return to the comfort of their stalls or pastures. It’s my goal to have them return in as good as or better condition than when they came out. And this doesn’t necessarily mean looking pretty. A horse is a horse, and the most natural thing for a horse to do is graze and roll. Allowing horses to have a quick pick at the grass and/or a roll in the sand can do wonders for their mental health. And it helps build the good relationships I have with the horses I work with.


So what is it I do you ask? I am a part of a very important team effort. I am a groom, cleaner, nurse, confidence builder, safety advisor, strapper, teacher, communicator, helper and friend to horse and trainer. And I have the best job in the world.

About the author:  Nel Sanchez is an Australian horse lover living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her first job out of school as a 17 year old was on a Thoroughbred property in the Wollondilly Shire of NSW. It was here that Nel learnt the fundamentals of really ‘knowing the horses’ from a tough, but fair manager, that she continues to build on to this day. 

 

We aren’t going

Late in 2016, I took on a couple ex-racehorses in my program for Janlois Racing.  Full brothers Olympic Blue and Olympic Maize are eligible for the Thoroughbred  Makeover competition to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in October of 2017.  I signed up for the competition and we began to prepare the horses.  Their owner, Ann Janlois, was particularly excited for the makeover and said the makeover would be her Kentucky Derby.

Upon entering my program both horses were quite stiff and body sore.  After some of their basic training, I began to work on loosening them up and teaching them to relax in their work.  We made good progress for quite some time.  

Olympic Blue
Then Corny had his struggle with thrush, and keeping shoes on.  He also had a hard time going forward when he was going to the right.  At his next appointment with our wonderful chiropractor, Wally Palmer, he thought some of his thrush issues and way of going could be indicative of a bigger problem.

Olympic Llama (Corny) would sometimes do this when asked to go forward to the right.
Blue hadn’t been doing that well either.  He had been on an up swing for quite some time, but then began to struggle, losing his hind end, and stumbling.  After a couple weeks of that, Blue saw the Chiropracter, who advised that it was time to work up his lameness.

I’m blessed to have a good team to keep my horses going and happy.  Dr Palmer, the chiropractor, and Dr Kielty, the vet, work very well together.  Over the next several weeks we did countless blocks, and examinations. 

Blue proved to be a very complicated case, never blocking all the way to any specific location, but several blocks changed his way of going.  Our interpretation is that Blue has multiple areas of discomfort and he wasn’t telling what hurt him most!  We decided to inject his hocks and stifles, thinking that might help calm some of his issues down.  Unfortunately he showed negligible improvement and we decided to give him another year off to recuperate from the stresses of his glorious racing career.  

Blue enjoys his turnout time and exfoliating mud baths
Corny blocked to his knee, which we injected yesterday.  We can also make some improvements to his shoeing after his radiographs which should hopefully make him more comfortable.  Fingers crossed and we will see how he is in a couple weeks.

Mark Janlois has become a very hands on owner, here he holds Corny for his radiographs
In all honesty, Blue was our prime hope for being competitive at the Thoroughbred Makeover.  Now that he is sidelined, it’s unlikely that Corny will develop a strong aptitude and sufficient training for any of the 10 makeover disciplines in time for the competition.

So we aren’t going.  The universe seems to be driving this fact home.  I obsessively watch one sporting event every year.  The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event!  I get a lot out of watching the high quality of riding at Rolex, you should watch too.  It’s this weekend!  And it’s also held at the same venue as the Thoroughbred Makeover, the Kentucky Horse Park.  I spent the first part of this year dreaming of riding in the same hallowed ground as the riders I am wistfully watching in the competition. 

That’s not me, that’s my friend Elaine at the Kentucky Horse Park
The universe is also telling me it’s not meant to be by removing traces of the makeover from my life.  I had Retired Racehorse Project stickers on my car and truck.  Well, I traded in my truck last weekend, and my car is for sale, so soon I won’t have any stickers. (Anyone want to buy a 2008 Nissan Rogue?)

I’m sad to be missing out on the thoroughbred makeover competition. It was a fun journey, and I was looking forward to a heck of an adventure!  I’m very happy that Blue and Corny are staying in my program. They are so lucky to have owners that put their well being first.  And as for their trainer? I’m on the lookout for a new adventure!

The grave of legendary thoroughbred Man o War, located at the Kentucky Horse Park.  PC Elaine Hanscom
About the author: Ali Kermeen loves all kinds of horses and doing all sorts of things with them.  She’s currently looking for a new adventure, will it be working equitation?  Driving?  Cow work? Keep reading the Happy Canterer blog to find out what’s next for Ali.

What the hooves know

“One white foot, buy him; 

Two white feet, try him;

Three white feet, look well about him;

Four white feet, do without him;

Four white feet and white on his nose, take off his hide and feed him to the crows.”

-proverb

Ok, psychos.  What are you doing with these horse hides anyway?  Reupholstering your dining chairs?  Why are you feeding them to the crows, are these horses so awful that their meat isn’t good enough for your dog?  

The proverb is based on the belief that light colored feet are weaker than dark colored feet.  I haven’t found that to be true, at least not with modern nutrition and hoof care. I’ve read  some studies that indicate weaker hooves might be genetic in breeds, like paints, that tend to have white legs.  But there is no evidence that supports light colored feet being weaker than dark colored feet when they are on the same horse.  

 All that being said, the color of your horse’s feet can tell you some things.  Like if your light grey horse had white socks when he was younger.

This horse is a grey with a light colored foot, and a dark colored foot.  Since grey horses are born a solid color and lighten with age, this tells us that he had a white sock above the light colored foot, but not above the dark colored foot.

This is the same horse, 16 years prior, and while it’s not the best picture of his feet, if you look hard, you will see the right front is dark.

Sometimes the color of your horse’s feet can tell you about their heritage.  Our sorrel mare, Suki, is out of a quarter horse.  But her mom isn’t telling who the fence jumping baby daddy is.  There is suspicion that he may have been an Appaloosa.  She doesn’t have any spots like an Appaloosa.  Nor does she have traits of solid colored Appaloosas, mottled skin around the mouth and genitals, and white sclera around the eyes.  But there is one final trait of a solid colored Appaloosa! Vertically striped hooves.  I introduced Suki to hosing this week and got a better look at her feet:

Maybe there is some subtle verticle striping on Suki’s feet?  I think we still ought to go with a maybe on the potential Appaloosa sire.  Something else is peculiar about her feet though, she has three white legs and four  dark feet!  It’s like she read the old rhyme and didn’t want to take any chances with white feet!  It’s very subtle, but she has a super narrow ring of red hairs on the coronary band of each foot.  Weird!

And speaking of weird, while I was thinking about writing this piece, I was checking out the feet of all the horses that came into the arena for lessons.  One was particularly interesting to me.

This foot belongs to a roan Tennessee Walker with four white legs and a bald face. But he only has three and a half white feet, so go get your horse hide elsewhere!

So next time you see your horse, knock the dirt off his feet, and see if they tell you anything.  

About the author: Ali Kermeen runs her training business, HC Equestrian, in the hills east of the Silicon Valley. She is a USDF silver medalist and L graduate.  Ali can often be found laughing at her own jokes, or tripping over her own feet.

Horse trailering tips for feminists

When I was a pre-teen, I was a member of Danville Junior Horsemen’s Association.  DJHA was a local club similar to Pony Club, but much more casual.  We had monthly lectures from guest speakers that were given to us in the local ballet studio.  

One lecture that has stayed with me was given by our local trailer dealer, an old cowboy by the name of Jack.  To help you remember him, he had a caricature of himself printed on his business card.  

Sorry everyone, Jack has since retired from the horse trailer business

Jack stood up in front of a dozen girls in the 10-14 age range and told us some tips that I’ve remembered to this day.  One of them was to never unload your horse on the side of the road.  “I don’t care if your horse has his goddamn leg up in the goddamn manger, do not unload him on the side of the road.  The cops can shoot him if he gets loose because he can kill someone if he goes through their windshield.”

There were not any orangutans at the meeting, but this is the face all us kids were making after Jack used both profanity and talked about shooting horses.   

In hindsight, I’m not sure if the police are as trigger happy to shoot loose horses as Jack led us to believe.  In fact, just last week a horse and a mule were running loose  on the highway just up the road from Danville, and they didn’t get shot.  Read the news story here.  Maybe things were different 25 years ago.

Another thing I recall Jack saying is to make sure you trailer your horse in a leather halter and use a cotton hay net.  You can cut your horse free if he gets hung up in those materials.  To that end, you should always have a knife when you haul in case you need to do some cutting free.

Yesterday, In the dark hours of the morning, Jack’s words came back to me.  After getting in my trailer to go to a show, our beloved mustang put his foot through the corner hay bag in my trailer.  River got his foot stuck up there, in the goddamn manger, and was standing on three legs.  

Now I’ve done a lot of work with River and ropes around his feet, so he didn’t panic.  In fact, I almost didn’t notice that he had hung himself up.  I couldn’t find my knife, but was quickly able to borrow one and cut river free.

This event also got me thinking about wearing a knife myself.  I used to ask my friend, Brandon, if he had his knife.  He would always answer, “I’m wearing my pants, aren’t I?”  Brandon has since moved away, but I shouldn’t have been so reliant on him to have a knife at the ready.  I’m a strong(ish) independent woman. I should wear my own knife.  In fact, I should start wearing my knife every day that I’m with horses.  Those suckers are good at getting themselves in to trouble, and humans are good at putting horses in situations where they can find trouble.

Women of the horse world, let’s do our horses a favor and start wearing our knives!  At least when we are hauling our horses.  I like this knife.

——

About the author: Ali Kermeen started with horses at nine years old and has been a professional for the last sixteen years.  Ali is always looking for ways to teach the horsemanship and the leadership she was given through Danville Junior Horsemen.  Her training business is located in the hills east of the Silicon Valley, and she teaches clinics in dressage, cowboy dressage, and horsemanship throughout the region.  

Elbow to bit

I wanted to write an article about the importance of keeping a straight line from the rider’s elbow, through the forearm, hand, and rein, to the bit.  You know, my usual sanctimonious stuff.  I started taking photos of my students in four  different positions: hands at the correct height, hands too low, hands too high, and hands where the rider naturally puts them without direction. 

 My goal was to illustrate the need to take in to account riders’ conformation when determining the proper height of the hands.  Riders are often taught to keep their hands just above the horse’s withers.  For riders with short arms or long waists, that position might be too low to keep a proper alignment from the elbow to the bit.  Long armed or short waisted riders might have the opposite problem.

However, as I began to study the photos, I started to notice other factors at play in the relationship between the rider’s arms and the bit.  Let’s take a look.

Top left: I’ve added a red line to Diana’s photos so the line from elbow to bit is apparent.  Diana’s hand position is too low.

Top right: Diana’s hands are a little bit too high, but not among the clouds as she thinks they are

Bottom left: hands too low, which is where Diana’s hand ends up incorrectly migrating when she’s working to get Pacifico the Iberian warmblood to come round

Bottom right: I put Diana’s hands where they belong. The challenge for Diana is to keep her hands on this plane while she is using them.  

The upper arm also plays a part in the ability of the rider to follow the horse’s mouth properly.  Check out Elaine and her morgan, Fancy:Top left: this is where Elaine naturally carries her hands she does have a straight line from elbow to bit, but no bend in her elbow, which will limit her ability to follow Fancy’s motion

Top Right: Elaine’s hands too high, disrupting the straight line from elbow to bit

Bottom left: Elaine’s hands are too low,  again disrupting the line from elbow to bit

Bottom right:. This is where I put Elaine’s hands.  Just like her natural hand position, she still has a straight line from elbow to bit, however now she has a bend in her elbow, which will allow her hand to follow Fancy’s motion. This position also allows her to obtain a deeper seat and a more draped leg.

​When arms are in the correct position, and moving in the correct trajectory, the motion is similar using a hand saw.  In the trot and canter the hand moves towards the elbow, and the elbow moves towards the hand.

In addition to limiting the ability to follow, hands that are too low can be quite irksome to the horse.  Let’s see what happens when Rachael brings her hands too low on her connemara, Crispin:Top left: Rachael naturally carries her hands a little higher than the straight line from elbow to bit.

Top right: Rachael raising her hands a little too high. Crispin responds by bringing his head up.

Bottom left: Rachael’s hands are too low, they still appear to have a straight line from elbow to bit because Crispin is trying his best to follow the connection. However….

Bottom right: when riders put their hands too low, almost every horse will tuck in his head, then after a moment jerk the reins violently forward.

Horses don’t like the rider’s hands getting too low is because of their mouth anatomy. When the rider has proper alignment from elbow to bit, the bit will work on the horse’s lips and tongue. When hands are too low, the bit works on the bars of the horse’s mouth. The lips and tongue are squishy, while the bars are rigid and hard. It is uncomfortable for the horse to take pressure on the bars of his mouth, so he will usually try to duck his head to avoid the pressure, then jerk forward to try to release the pressure.

The structures of the mouth that a Mullen mouth or double jointed snaffle bit acts upon are the lips, tongue, and sometimes the bars. The bars are the lower jaw between the incisors, canines, and molars.

Alair’s andalusian, Corie, reacts similarly to Crispin:Top left: Alair’s natural hand position is spot on.  Her andalusian, Corie, shows a lovely stretch to the bit.

Top right: Alair’s hands are too high

Bottom left: hands to low, in an effort to alleviate the discomfort of the bit in the bars, Corie ducks behind the vertical…

Bottom right: and then he jerks his head forward to alleviate the discomfort of hands too low.

I got a little bit stumped looking at Alair’s pictures.  I thought Alair would be the perfect example of hands in the correct alignment that appear too high in relation to the withers.  But that is not the case here, she presents a classic  picture!  Then I realized, I’m used to seeing Alair on her other horse, Kaveat, an Arabian with different confirmation than her current mount.  Kaveat’s back was higher, and Alair was using a different pad which set her up higher still.  As a result, her hands appeared to be hovering high above the withers when she rode her arabian. But here on Corie, her hands are closer to the withers.  I figured out that the difference in appearance is due to Corie’s back being more dipped than Kaveat’s, and his andalusian neck is set higher on his shoulders than the arabian’s.

Alair still has proportionality shortish arms, where I have proportionally long arms.  Here’s what I look like on an a variety of horses, the first of which is somewhat similar in build to Alair’s Andalusian.


Top:  hands just about right.  Your can see how my hands are alongside Brio’s withers when they are in the correct position.  In Alair’s correct photo you can see her hands are a little above the withers.

Middle: Hands are about right.  They are slightly above Corny’s withers.  He is a thoroughbred with a lower set neck and flatter back than Brio.

Bottom: hands about right on Buddy, a Standardbred x Appaloosa 

We’ve checked out there same rider on differently built horses, now let’s check out the same horse with differently built riders:Above: Rae’s hands are correct at Poni’s withers and she has a nice vertical upper arm.

Below: Kristin’s arms are proportionally shorter.  They are placed well above Poni’s withers. Even though Kristin’s hands are at the right height, they’d be even better if her elbows were further back allowing for greater following potential. At 13.3h, Poni is well suited to Kristin’s proportions, but Kristin may have biomechanical challenges riding big moving horses.

Lastly, when considering hand position and its relationship to the horse’s mouths, the hands should not be closer together than the width of the bit.  If hands are too close, the horse may feel the rings of the bit against his cheeks.  If you are using a single joined bit, close together hands or hands that cross the wither will push the center joint of the bit into the roof of the horse’s mouth, or pinch his tongue. Riders’ hands should also not stay wider than their shoulders, though they may travel wide on occasion without injuring the horse’s mouth.

Having a ground person, instructor, or even a mirror is great for perfecting the position of your arms.  An even better way is to develop a feel for what different parts of the horse’s mouth feel like.  Try this while riding to develop your feel: take a contact on the reins, then move your hands slowly up high and down low.  You will feel the horse’s spongy tongue and elastic lips, especially if he is moving them.  When your hands travel too low and place the bit on the bars of the horse’s mouth, you will feel a distinct rigidity.  This is not where you want to be!  As you ride forward, make your goal to keep the bit feeling the same to the horse  in every moment of every stride.  This is the basis of a harmonious connection with your horse.  Enjoy the ride!

About the author:  Ali Kermeen has her training business, HC Equestrian, in the hills east of the Silicon Valley.  She’s a USDF silver medalist and L graduate, as well as a USEA certified instructor and CHA master instructor.  Ali loves working with all types of horses across many disciplines.  She hopes to take two thoroughbreds to Kentucky this Fall to compete in for the Thoroughbred Makeover.