Tag Archives: horses

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.

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.

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.

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.