Monday, May 14, 2018

Natural Horsemanship Clinic/Lesson

A little backstory: Our regional riding club has decided to provide bimonthly lessons with a local natural horsemanship clinician to club members at a very reduced price during the summer months this year. The club consists largely of recreational trail riders with a sprinkling of individuals who regularly compete in various disciplines. We put on several fundraising events, donate to local equestrian programs, support local youth, put on one endurance ride, and organize a series of single and multi-day trail ride events across the state and surrounding states.

Mike, the trainer, is a fellow club member who has been training horses professionally for years. He's got an incredibly soft hand and natural manner with horses; he reminds me very much of his big-name role models, Bill and Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. He isn't gimmicky, just a quiet, understanding advocate and teacher for the animal he's working with in that moment. 

Around half of the participants for the evening

Turnout for the first lesson was outstanding! I was really impressed - we had around 12 riders and 8 auditors. I think the club will be gaining some new members purely because of the perk of these lessons!

Mike, had us begin the evening on the ground with our horses tacked, but still in their halters. He introduced himself to those he didn't know, discussed some of his background, and then gave a small demo about how he starts any session with his horses - on the ground with some work in hand before any saddle time. He is a firm believer that if one doesn't practice perfection in groundwork, the work under saddle will be lacking.

He demonstrated how he lunges his horses, looking for bend through their ribcage and an inner eye tuned into him, not the outside environment. He noted that he always looks for any irregularities with the horse's movement that could preclude work for the day. All of this was pretty run-of-the-mill.

Mike demonstrating concepts

Mike had us practice this with our own horses, providing tips and guidance for those who had trouble as needed. He then asked us to see how light of pressure we could use on the horses halter to get them to respond, focusing on one step at a time forward and backward. His directions during this included various safe-handling tips (where and how to position your hand on the halter, how to hold the lead, where to position your body, etc.) to help prevent injury to the handler if the horse were to spook for any reason.


From there, he demonstrated a few more in-hand practices to help warm the horse's hind end up, more or less having them perform rollbacks in-hand at the walk. Throughout this exercise and those preceding it, Mike always recommended that we be firm in not letting the horse walk into our space unless explicitly asked to do so. We should have "control" of their feet at all times and if we ask them to stop a few feet from us, the horse should do so and remain there until asked to move elsewhere. While good training, this also helps guarantee safety for the human if the horse were to react and spook to an outside stimuli. (Mike has been working with a lot of mustangs of late, so safety is always first on his mind.)

This Nevada mustang was the goofiest fellow with his drafty legs, big head, and relatively small body that tied everything together

For myself, none of these concepts were anything new as I've practiced and worked on this type of groundwork with my horses for years. However, it was a great tune-up for Q and I; mostly though, it was really nice to get her off-property for an activity that was so low-key compared to what we normally do! It was also neat to see other folks who haven't practiced these concepts as often transform their communication with their horses and listen to the impressed remarks of the auditors as they observed.

After about 45 minutes of groundwork concepts, Mike gave a bridling demo for us to consider (his method facilitates keeping control of the horses head at all times, something he's modified through his work with mustangs), and then asked us to mount up.


This was the part of the evening I was most eager for. I have a huge amount of respect for Mike and what he does with horses even though my own interests with horses lie in a different realm. Mike's got a great understanding of the animals and does such a great job breaking things down into pieces for them to learn. While we do things in different ways, I know that much of what we work on to meet our end goals is the same, we just explain the concepts differently.

She was SO relaxed this whole evening

I smiled as Mike began discussing the importance of knowing where the horse's feet are at all times, in and out of the saddle. He noted that truly talented riders can tell you when each foot leaves and touches the ground again. So many folks in non-English disciplines (most local folks around here) scoff at this as English-dressagey-voodoo-nonsense, and I had to suppress my grin as a predominantly western trainer noted its importance.

Being a good girl

To help teach this concept, he invited us to watch the front left shoulder (our inside shoulder as we traveled counter clockwise). He discussed how we would know when the leg was leaving the ground based on the shoulder's movement and then had each of us tell him when that foot was leaving the ground as we walked past him in turn.

Practicing lightness asking for one step at a time backward then forward

After teaching this point, he had us feel for the movement of the horse's barrel, inward, outward, inward, outward as they walked. He discussed proper EQ for the seat and legs and had us utilize this to speed the horse up and down at the walk by encouraging them to step more through (move with their motion to encourage the barrel to swing more indicating a larger stride) or take smaller, slower, abbreviated steps (sit down "harder" and use your legs to discourage their barrel from swinging so much indicating slower steps).

The lighting got pretty freaking gorgeous toward the later half of the evening

From there, it was deja vu for me from my previous night's lesson on Griffin but with slightly different instruction. Mike discussed how to "apply leg" and had us do so in the same manner C had to encourage the horse to be more through with the hind end going around a small circle. I giggled a lot as I realized what Mike was having us do. Lauren and her mom were in the audience (her dad was riding) and I grinned at her as I passed, "Gee, wonder where we've heard this before?!" To which she smiled big in return and said, "I know, right?"

That dust wasn't fun to inhale, but boy did it improve photos!

The rest of the evening focused on us getting the horses to move off leg properly, engaging that inside hind more. All of Mike's instructions were different from C's had been, but the end concept was always the same. In fact, by the end of the evening, he noted, "Now, I know I've thrown a lot at you, but what you've all accomplished tonight is getting that hind end to come under the horse and work more thoroughly and correctly."

Mike is so good about making eye contact as much as possible as he explains things

I wish I could reiterate Mike's directions back to you because it was so interesting to see how they paralleled what I'm more accustom to hearing, but honestly, I can't. As he taught in his way, my brain was busy actively drawing parallels and translating what he said into a direction that I could better implement. So very much of it was identical to what I'd worked on with C the night before!

Q is a much different ride than Grif was though - which I expected. I also wasn't wearing my tall boots and spurs as I had been the previous evening. I definitely need to wear them for the next time I practice this stuff with Q! She currently takes a LOT more leg than Griffin and to have that tiny little spur to encourage her to listen would really go a long way in this teaching process.

Lauren's dad

The big takeaway for me this night was turning on the haunches. For some reason, this just doesn't click for my brain. I have learned various ways  to implement it and each makes logical sense, but when it comes to putting pen to paper and actually executing the movement, my body and brain do not connect.

Pausing a moment for photos. She was such a good girl all evening

Mike's instructions were to turn the horse to the inside (coming off the wall) a for a quarter turn, then halt them and rock them back on their haunches (the beginning ask for a backward step) to unweight the front end, and then open your inside rein more to invite the inside shoulder/foreleg to step over to initiate the first step of a turn on the haunches.

Mike and the sunflare

Per the usual for me, this made sense, but I could. not. execute. it. Mike finally asked if anyone was having trouble and I immediately raised my hand. He coached me through each move, and while I was incredibly skeptical it would work even with his focused help, I actually did it! Well, Q did it. I praised her immensely, Mike walked me through it twice more, I praised her, and called it a night.

Q's very uncertain ear as another horse walked into her bubble

While the vast majority of what he went over for the first lesson was review for me, it was still a fun experience to attend the lesson. I really like Mike's teaching style and loved making the parallels between his manner of explanation and that which I am more accustomed to; it was so cool to see how he incorporates what I often coin "dressage-based concepts" into his work that is most certainly not dressage as most view it.

Still in the process of shedding, but looking pretty good coming out of winter (our spring grass just came in for true last week!)

I will likely not attend many - if any - of these lessons for the remainder of the summer due to a variety of scheduling reasons (primarily because Thursdays are our locals mountain bike group ride and I hate to miss it, but also due to some other reasons I'll share in coming weeks), but I'm glad I could get to the first one! It was a great experience for Q and I to have together and it was so very cool to see the parallels from my centered riding/dressage-focused instruction the night before. It goes to show that this kind of foundational work is so important no matter your riding goals!


  1. I always like it when I hear similar concepts described by trainers across the disciplines. That to me says it speaks true to the horse and not to any specific gimmick.

    1. Yes. This! I very much agree and have said as much to people on many occasions.

  2. I love this kind of training/instruction. I worked an expo this weekend, and the booth was situated in such a location I was able to tune in to a lot of what was happening in the arena right behind me...a number of different trainers and clinicians over the weekend, and it was really interesting to listen and watch the "gimmicky" ones versus the ones I would consider to be true horsemen/women.

    1. Very cool that you were able to listen to a variety of folks teach while you were at the booth! It's interesting to me, too, to see the kinds of people the gimmicky vs. true horseperson trainers draw to them at events like that - such different groups usually.

  3. Love stuff like this! I'm in the middle of drafting a very similar post about how NH ideas and practices have shaped how I work with my own horses... I have a lot of the same takeaways that you do.

    1. Oh, I can't wait to hear your takeaways! NH stuff is definitely a big foundation for everything I do with my horses since Griffin. He's turned into such a perfect horse for me and so much of it is because of the time we spent working on NH concepts for that first year. Can't imagine bringing up another horse any other way!

  4. That sounds like a great clinic! I have definitely seen huge improvements in communication under saddle with my horses when I do more/better groundwork :)

  5. so awesome that your riding club is getting so active with scheduling these lessons! sounds like a blast! and i love how solid, foundation type concepts transcend discipline haha. also tho. omg. TOH so hard tho :( charlie in particular is reeeeeally not convinced it's worth his effort. actually, he's not really sure he should bother with backing either.... so funny how some things can be so unexpectedly challenging!

    1. Charlie I'm with you man. Why back up when you could go forward?! Present moment zen and stuff 😋

  6. I really like this! I look at western pleasure and reining and dressage and other disciplines and there are things that go across the board in riding horses that people don't seem to realize they pertain to many disciplines! Mike sounds like a really great teacher, so glad you had fun!

    1. Amen! Growing up in a climate where the western disciplines rule, I'm always keen to find those across-the-board similarities.

  7. I love these sort of lessons. You and Q were rock stars. I can remember struggling with turn on the haunches. With Carmen I taught it to her on the ground and that made it easier to get it under saddle.

    1. That makes so much sense! I've tried a few times with Grif who understands these things better...but blah lol. We can yield the hindquarters like pros, but to turn on them? Does not compute lol

  8. very cool. That looks fun and so instructional at the same time. But color me intrigued as to why you can't attend (not withstanding bike club) LOL can't wait to hear.....

    Isn't it great how you have such different horses to take different places. It is great to see how they all react in different scenarios! Very cool!

    1. Three horses sometimes seems like too many until I find too many things to do - then it's just right haha

  9. What a great new series. I hope t helps boost club attendance and gets every member in the same page. I love how you have three very different horses to play with. Q seems to be improving every day

    1. Me, too, re: club boost and education boost for all. So often I see people become stagnated with learning new things; as a life-long lover of learning, I think it is so awesome to keep up with lessons no matter how old you are.

  10. Sounds like a really great experience for Q!! This makes me miss our local NH clinics! We used to have someone come in twice a year from out of province. Knowing the work to do and practicing on your own is all great, but having a good clinician work you through to clean up technique and timing is something I love and need badly.

    1. Eyes on the ground is such a valuable thing! Hopefully you'll find an outlet with a good clinician soon. =)

  11. Mike was at the mustang makeover my friend was in! If it makes you feel any better, I strugglebus with the turn on the haunches a LOT as well. ;)

    1. Oh nice! Yeah, it's (not too surprisingly) a small world. #teamstrugglebus4lyfe