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Horsemanship and the horse's view



Whatever we ask the horse to do, it has significance from the horse's point of view. Understanding how the horse sees the exercise will help us train sympathetically, and with feel for how and why the horse responds as it does.



When Karina from Interdressage asked me to come up with some new Practical Horsemanship tests, I thought it would be good to include a test with a scale of difficulty, so that competitors can choose the level most suitable for themselves and their horses on any particular task. So, I've formulated the elements such that, if a horse has a problem with one particular type of exercise, there will be an easier version to get the ball rolling and help with the training.


However, there are very often misunderstandings about what these elements mean so here I’ve put together a full explanation of each, including why this exercise is significant from the horse’s point of view.


Whether you compete on Interdressage or not, I hope you’ll find some ideas here on ways to build difficulty in incremental steps, which you can then apply in your own exercises.


If there are any elements you'd like me to include - let me know. I'll be happy to add to the list!





This comes up over and over again, and frequently causes problems.


Task: Lower the horse’s head for 4 seconds



“Lowering” means with the nose at around cannon bone level – so lower then it would normally be, but not ground level. You can’t put a carrot on the ground and call it “head lowering”! From the horse’s point of view, this is a vulnerable position because their vision is blocked. They will only willingly drop the head and leave it there when they are relaxed and confident, and on the other side of the coin, when they drop the head and leave it there, they relax.


It should be a soft, willing lowering, with the nose a little in front of the vertical. When the horse tips the nose back, it's a sign that it's looking, and not properly relaxed. Tipping the nose back is typical of looking for treats - so if you want to use food for training this, I'd recommend using it as a reward, not as a lure.





Quite a few people approach backing up as though they are moving furniture – but in fact, it’s one of the easiest things to teach your horse to do, as long as you focus on your timing, and you release as soon as the horse starts to go. There’s a separate article on backing up here.


Why does it sometimes present a problem? Well, the horse has a blind spot behind its tail – so it needs a degree of confidence in the handler that it isn’t going to step back into something dangerous. Because of this, a lot of horses “cheat” and tip their head to the side so they can see behind them – and when they do this, the back up will be crooked.



Backing straight between poles


Task: Place two parallel poles on the ground, approximately 90 cm (3 feet) apart, and back the horse straight between them.


This is the easiest level, but it’s not that easy. To do it well, the horse has to stay straight between the poles. 3 feet is quite wide, so there is a bit of leeway, but the aim is to keep the horse straight in the middle.


Here are some tips on how you might set up a smooth back-up:




Backing around a corner


Task: Set up a right angle of poles (4 poles making a 90° corridor) and back the horse through this. Handler may choose the direction of the turn and the side from which they cue the horse.


The next level is to send the horse backwards and around a corner. Now it can’t “cheat” because its body blocks its line of view. If the horse is going backwards and turning to its right, its head must go to the left, so it can’t see what’s happening around its right hip.


If the horse has confidence in the handler, and the handler has good timing and a good connection to the horse’s feet, the back up will be smooth and rhythmic, without halts of hesitations. It sometimes happens that the horse hesitates, then goes back straight, gets manoeuvred around the corner, then back straight again. The task has been completed, but the horse has shown there is a gap in its confidence in the handler, and the handler has shown that his/her timing and feel need more work.



Backing through 5 cones (serpentine)


Task: Handler should back the horse through a line of 5 cones, set an appropriate distance apart for the size and stride of the horse. The backing should be smooth and willing, with correct diagonals and equal reach with fore- and hind legs in each diagonal pair. Buckets or other markers may be used if you do not have cones.


This is now a much harder task. The horse has to accept being “blind” on each side alternately, be willing to step confidently back into the unknown. This one really shows whether the handler is connecting to the horse’s feet, because it is very easy to lose the rhythm, and the timing is tricky too. It’s easy to become over focused on the horse’s feet and lose your own orientation of where you are in relation to the markers.


Although it is a tough task – it’s well worth having a go at. It is excellent for the horse’s balance, coordination, and confidence in the handler. It’s also a very good gymnastic exercise, and puts the horse on its hindquarters, if it is doing it correctly.






A great many horses have concerns about things dragging on the ground – and they have good reason. Firstly, there is the “snake” aspect – something wiggling along on the ground can look very snake like. Secondly, predators get down close the ground when stalking their prey. Thirdly, anything on the ground that a horse could get its legs caught up and injured in, represents a potential death sentence. So – when we start dragging things around, it’s understandable that a horse might get upset about it.



Handler pulling a tyre


Task: Put a rope around an old tyre, and pull it behind you while leading the horse.


The tyre is quiet, and soft – so if the horse does freak out, it’s unlikely to hurt itself. That’s why a tyre is a good starting point for preparing the horse for something on the ground following it. If you’re thinking of driving your horse at any point, this is a good preparation.


Most horses will have one side that they find easier for this. Usually it’s the left, but occasionally it’s the right. When you’re starting off, work on the side the horse prefers until it is happy with the situation, then introduce the other side gradually.



Handler pulling a wheelie bin


Task: Handler should lead the horse while pulling an empty wheelie bin for a distance of at least 15 metres/yards. Handler may choose from which side to do this.


This isn’t so close to the ground, but it is big and noisy. Usually, you will have yourself between the bin and the horse – but once it accepts this, you can put the bin between you, which raises the level of difficulty.

I didn't have a wheelie bin to hand, so I used a "barrel". It doesn't rattle - it's more of a "thlump, thlump" noise - but the effect is the same!



Pulling a plastic bag full of cans (left and right)


Task: Handler to lead horse from the left and right while dragging a plastic bag full of cans, or plastic bottles and pebbles. The bag should trail on the ground, the idea being to demonstrate that the horse is not bothered by noise or movement in its peripheral field of vision.


This is much harder and puts the previous two levels together. Now we have something low on the ground and noisy, and it needs to be accepted on both sides. Again, if you want to “up the ante” drag the noisy bag between you and the horse.





The area above the horse’s eyes is of huge significance to the horse. Think about fighting stallions – they rear up and try to bite their opponent just below the ear – above the eye. Think about what a horse does when it’s worried – it gets its head up as high as it can to get the largest possible range of vision. A lot of horses react strongly to something moving above their eye level, especially if it moves, and moves with them. This is why it’s important to not just have the horse stand there, but to move both the horse and the object over the eye.




Task: Handler to lead the horse while holding an open umbrella, to show that the horse is not concerned about large objects above its eyeline. The umbrella should be opened within the horse’s field of vision on each side, but can be opened close to the ground.


The easier version is just on one side, the more difficult version is both sides. Make sure the umbrella is up above the eye-line, and you lead the horse in this position to make sure that movement is not an issues.


This is the hardest variant, with the umbrella right over the horse's head, being held between me and the horse. The loop in the rope is important to show he is walking along with me willingly.





Picking up feet with a rope


Task: handler to loop a rope around the fetlock and ask the horse to lift the foot on each leg in turn.


There’s a description of how to do this as a part of the “picking up the feet” tip on the Thinking Horse website

The idea is to show that the horse is not upset by something around its legs, and will give to pressure.



The practical element is that if the horse gives to the pressure of the rope, it is less likely to panic if its feet get caught up in anything (reins, bits of fence etc) by accident, thus reducing the chances of injury. If you take this another stage further to pick up and place the foot on a spot you choose, it becomes extremely useful for placing the feet exactly for x-rays, or for teaching the horse to put its foot on a strange surface.




Picking up foot from opposite side


Task: Pick up the left hoof from the right hand side of the horse, and vice versa. For maximum points this would be shown for all 4 feet.


This requires the horse not just to give to pressure, but to coordinate its response. It also shows whether the horse is leaning on the handler – when you take the foot on the opposite side, there is nothing for the horse to lean on.



Rub all over with plastic bag


Task: Using a standard, supermarket plastic bag, rub the horse all over on both sides, including the legs and belly.


It’s important here to show that you can rub the horse in the blind spots – with something most horses consider “scary”.





These tasks require the horse to distinguish between “follow” and “stand” instructions and will highlight whether the horse and handler are really communicating and working together, or whether the horse is just following, or being led around.



Stand while handler leaves


Task: Horse to stand and wait while the handler walks 5 paces away from the horse, and then returns. (The lead rope may be used to “ground tie” or looped over the horse’s neck while the handler leaves and returns.)

This is the easiest level, and you can make it easier or harder by how you choose to leave. Going backwards, keeping eye contact with the horse is the easiest, walking forwards from the horse’s shoulder past its head is usually the hardest.

The horse should wait quietly, with its attention on the handler, until the handler returns, or signals the horse to come forwards.



Stand while handler circles the horse


Task: Horse to stand and wait while the handler walks a complete circle around the horse, at a distance of at least 5 paces. (The lead rope may be used to “ground tie” or looped over the horse’s neck while the handler walks around.)


The key word here is “circle” – that means all the way round, 360°, coming back to the point you started from. Going past the horse’s face is a crucial element – that’s where a lot of horses will pick up the handler’s direction and energy and start moving. If it stands, it has really understood the concept of “stand”, even when its natural instincts may tell it to do otherwise.



Stand then follow


Task: Horse to stand and wait while the handler walks away from the horse to a distance of at least 5 paces away from the horse, and then come to the handler on command. (The lead rope may detached from the halter, looped over the horse’s neck or otherwise safely arranged so that the horse does not step on it.)


This shows the horse is distinguishing the “stand” and “come” signals. A horse that is just switched off or lazy might stay put while you walk all the way round it, but at this level, you have to be able to switch the energy on again, and bring the horse to you.






This section is all about the horse trusting us enough to allow us to position and place its feet very accurately. When the horse allows us to do this, is is turning over control of its most important survival tool, its feet, to us.



Leading through a simple maze in each direction, once led from the left, once from the right







Task: The maze should be made of poles set about 1 meter (just over 3 feet) apart, to include 2 left hand turns, and two right hand turns. Both horse and handler should stay within the maze, but if the handler steps out, it is a minor fault, while the horse stepping out is more serious.


Whether you choose the simple (one direction) version or the harder (both directions) one, the key here is showing your control over the direction and placement of the feel. It’s about timing, feel and rhythm. Ideally the handler is positioned just in front of the horse’s shoulder and uses body language to negotiate the turns, rather than pulling the head or having the horse just follow.





Here we need to bear in mind that anything that endangers the horse's feet is potentially life-threatening, from the horse's point of view. Therefore, stepping onto a strange surface is something many horses have concerns about.


Walking over a tarpaulin


Task: Use a thick, sturdy tarpaulin or plastic sheet, especially if your horse wears shoes. The point is that the horse should step confidently onto an unfamiliar surface. All 4 feet should step onto the tarpaulin.

Typically, it is easier to get them to step on with the front feet, and it is

quite common for one (usually the right) or both hind feet to try to avoid it. Make sure your tarpaulin, carpet or whatever you use is large enough to show all 4 feet stepping rhythmically and confidently onto it.


Walking over a bridge


Task: Lead the horse over a raised surface of a different texture and resonance to the surrounding ground. All 4 feet should step confidently onto the “bridge”. It need not be high, but must be sturdy to be safe. A think plank of wood would do, as long as it is substantial enough to safely take the horse’s weight.


The key point here is that the horse steps up onto the new surface, and walks some distance on it. With the tarpaulin, each foot need only touch once, while in the bridge test, some distance needs to be covered.


Trailer loading and unloading (unassisted)


Task: Load the horse into a trailer/transporter, fasten bars, tie up, and leave for about 10 seconds. Return and unload the horse, reversing down the ramp on a trailer, or unloading as appropriate from a transporter.



The horse should walk into, and back out of, the trailer quietly and  confidently


It is extremely useful to have your horse trained to go into a trailer or transporter and stand quietly while you fix the bars and prepare for a journey. In an emergency, if you’re on your own, this could be a life-saver.


From the horse’s point of view, the trailer/transporter is an enclosed space, and that commonly sets off the horse’s natural claustrophobia. Trailers are often small in relation to the size of the horse, which is why many horses load better into a large transporter than they do into a trailer. To make matters worse, loading is often done in a stressful situation, for example for going to a show, or the vet’s clinic, or moving stables – so it is very common for horses to have negative associations with the trailer.


When you have successfully overcome these issues, the horse should enter the trailer willingly, calmly and confidently either led by the handler or being sent in ahead of the handler. The horse should then stand quietly while the handler fixes the back bar, or the side bars if you have a large, side loading trailer.


To unload, the handler should open the back bar and ask the horse to back out, either by going to the head and guiding the horse out, or from outside the trailer using the tail and/or lead rope. The handler should be able to do this all unassisted by a second person. (Lifting the horse’s tail as it backs out encourages it to lift its feet and reduces the chances of slipping or stumbling on the ramp.)








I hope you've found this helpful! If you'd like to discuss this or other questions, get in touch at or start a discussion at the Thinking Horse Facebook page!




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