Saddle Fitting — some thoughts to help you succeed

By Dr. Mike Guerini (

A few months back I was asked to help a client find the right western saddle for her horse.  This client has ridden with dressage and western saddles for a good portion of her riding career but she decided a few months back to ride most of the time in a western saddle and needed one to call her own.

As we set out on this project, my client shared with me a story about her custom-made dressage saddle. She had her horse fitted for a custom saddle and spent a few thousand dollars on the saddle.  In the end, the saddle never seemed to fit her or the horse very well and of course…there was lots of time and money lost. With some trepidation, this lady was now looking at finding a western saddle that fit her and her horse.

There are individuals certified/trained in saddle fitting.  One organization is the Certified Saddle Fitters, and there are many other organizations, training courses, and certification programs.  Even if you hire a professional, there are some things you need to look for and consider in this saddle fitting process.

1) Every good fitting saddle will leave (after the horse is worked), a uniform sweat pattern wherever the saddle touches the horse.  There should be no sweat on the backbone of the horse.  If the sweat pattern is uneven, a different saddle or pad needs to be used for that horse.

2) A good fitting saddle will not bounce up and down when the horse is lunged without a rider.  There will be some movement (generally in rhythm with the movement of the horse) but if the saddle is bouncing up and down, it is not fit correctly to the horse.  Sometimes you can change the rigging of the saddle to keep it from bouncing up and down on the horse.

3) A good fitting saddle sets over the withers and upper shoulders and does not pinch downward and forward.  Any pinching at the withers can cause pain for your horse.  You should be able to wedge a bit of your hand between the saddle and the horse…if not, you need to look into another saddle.

4) The saddle seat needs to be the right size for the rider.  If the saddle pushes you forward or makes you feel pinched or squeezed, it is not the right fit.  So many people purchase a smaller seat when they need a seat that is 1/2 to 11/2 inches larger.  For Western Saddles we most often fit a Youth in a 12″-13″ seat, Adults range from 14″ to 16″, and extra large adults fit 17″ seats.  You measure a western saddle seat from the base of the horn to the cantle.  Numerous online calculators are available that take your height and weight into account and help you find the right size seat for you.

5) When you can, borrow saddles and try them on your horse.  Find a type of saddle that fits your horse and you.  For this client of mine, we tried on 8 different saddles and found one that fit the horse very well…but needed a larger seat for the rider.  We took that saddle into the local saddle shop (100’s of saddles to choose from) and the owner of the shop was able to find the same shape and style of saddle that fit the horse…and with the right size seat for fitting the rider.

In summary — follow the above five guides and take your time when seeking a saddle.  This is an investment that will impact your safety, comfort and most importantly, the comfort of your horse.

As always I look forward to your comments and additions.  Saddle fitting is a very important part of your riding.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Setting the Pivot Foot — What is all this fuss about?

            Recently I was asked to study up on scientific research relating to the “damaging effects” of setting a pivot foot in some of the western riding disciplines.  The goal of this article is to share information so that horseman and horsewoman can engage in further conversation and thought about this topic.

            Often times when questions arise, it is because someone does not fully comprehend the terms in use or what actually happens.  First, we should refresh everyone’s memory as to what we mean by “setting a pivot foot” in the western disciplines.  Setting a pivot foot has become synonymous (incorrectly so) with a turn on the haunches (TOH) of up to 360 degrees where the horse has to keep a rear pivot foot “stationary.”  In truth, keeping the foot stationary is anatomically impossible for a complete 360-degree turn.  Truthfully, what happens in good western horsemanship is that the hind pivot foot remains in “essentially the same location” throughout the turn, and the horse will pick it up and put it down in almost the same location as it turns on the haunches.  Western riders know that the pick up and put back down is to reposition the foot and leg/joints to eliminate potential strain/stress.

While continuing on this path of trying to find answers about injuries related to setting a pivot foot, some conversations led me to ask — why do people believe this is detrimental (in fact some people have uttered the words — do that once and you have ruined the horse).  How does the Western Turn on Haunches differ from the Classical Dressage TOH?  It depends on who you might ask…some will say, not much difference while others will say it is a huge difference. So we continue on with the question of whether or not the Western TOH with a pivot foot, that lifts and repositions in nearly the same location, causes everlasting damage.

Where to begin.  After a search of numerous online databases including PubMed, Agricola, and Google Scholar with a variety of search terms I was unable to find scientific papers discussing injury in relation to setting a pivot foot.  From the literature search I went on to ask numerous veterinarians, University Professors, and conduct a broader online search.

Dennis Sigler from Texas A&M University responded to my request for further information “Michael:  Dr. Gibbs has forwarded your request for information concerning rate of injury due to setting a pivot foot during a turn around.  I am not aware, nor is any of the other faculty in the Horse Section in Animal Science aware of any scientific studies in regard to this subject.  My general observation is that turns on the inside pivot foot as in many of our classes such as western horsemanship are mild in comparison to the stops and turns that  cutting and reining horses are exposed to.  There is no doubt that these types of repetitive activities are extremely hard on the joints, especially the hock joint.  However, many other factors also contribute to the rate of injury including conformation of the horse and the type of ground or footing they are working on.  The reason there are few controlled studies on this subject is that this would be very tedious long-term (several years) study and funding for this type of horse research is seldom available.”

If we take a moment to think about the conformation of the horse, we might be able to better understand the concern about “proper execution of a TOH”.  Horses with long cannon bones (when I say long, I am referring to long with repect to the rest of the leg, in other words not proportioned optimally) are not as suited for rollbacks and getting low in the rear.  These horses can succeed, but there is an added degree of strain on the joints of this type of horse.  These horses with long cannon bones will have some difficulty staying balanced when asked to do a pivot/rollback at higher speeds.  Many (but not all) of today’s modern/successful western performance horses do have correctly proportioned cannon bones for the work/competition they are being asked to perform.  So conformation is something we seriously need to consider BEFORE we ask a horse to perform.  There is no shame in not doing something if you and the horse are not emotionally, physically, and mentally prepared.

Dr. Sigler shared some good information about why these studies have not been conducted and what factors contribute to injuries associated with setting a pivot foot.  Dr. Rob Keene, veterinary consultant for the Equine Hydro-T gave a similar response.  Dr. Mandi Holland of Performance Equine Specialists could not immediately find any scientific studies on the effects of setting a pivot foot.

In answer to the question I was asked — at this time there does not appear to be any publicly available scientific evidence that proves setting a pivot foot has long lasting and damaging effects.


These experts I have mentioned, and a few others who asked not to be named, suggested that many of the activities we do with our horses these days can cause injury.  While conducting this research, I came across many articles and ideas that I think are very important to share with everyone concerned about performance horse activities.  Torzewski and Mihaly (2009) discussed the fact that “Distal tarsal joints (hocks and knees) are joints with a small range of movement” and these researchers went on to claim that with some western performance horses exposed to high torsion forces on joints it is not a question of “if it will happen” but rather “when injury/inflammation” will occur.  Veterinarians from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) have presented numerous papers on Lameness seen in a variety of western performance horses (cutting, reining, barrel racing, etc), Hunter/Jumper events, and Dressage … yes Dressage activities can cause equine leg injuries at the same rates as other disciplines.  Dr. Jackman presented a paper in 2001 on Common Lameness in the Cutting and Reining Horse.  Dr. Sue Dyson presented on Lameness and Performance in the Sport Horse: Dressage.

Equine Medical Service (EMS) of Northern Colorado was willing to direct me to their website and share information on what they find as the greatest causes of musculoskeletal stressers in the equine athlete.  EMS shared the following — The ten most common lameness conditions in the dressage horse (and by extension through the rest of the article, western performance horses as well) are as follows:

  • Proximal suspensory inflammation of the both fore and hind legs
  • Suspensory branch lesions
  • Joint problems of the two lowest joints in the fore legs
  • Inflammation of the accessory ligament of the deep flexor tendons on fore legs
  • Osteoarthritis of the two lower joints of the hock joints
  • Inflammation of the middle carpal (knee) joints
  • Joint problems in both fore and hind fetlocks
  • Inflammation of the ligaments surrounding the fetlocks and the tendons that are in that area
  • Stress fractures of the front cannon bones
  • Lower back pain.

During my studies, I had the privilege of speaking with Lester Sellnow who has written a few articles and books on Equine Lameness. While speaking with Lester he suggested that if we take some time to watch horse activities in the wild, we will not see very many horses try to jump a five-foot high obstacle, some will, but most will look for the easier way around unless forced over the object by a predator.  He reminded me that we often ask horses to accomplish tasks in the arena that are rather unnatural.  In 2001, Lester wrote an article for The and as of our conversation in 2013, he felt the article was still accurate and relevant.  The article by Lester included information from a conversation he had with Jerry Black, DVM.  For those who do not know, Dr. Black has long been held in high regard by horsemen/women and veterinarians for his knowledge relating to equine legs/lameness and injury.

In the article, this discussion is very relevant to the topic at hand — “Causes of Joint Problems — ‘Horses have joint problems because we often ask them to do things they weren’t designed to do’, says Jerry Black, DVM, (former senior partner and past president of the Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., and former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners).  After domesticating the horse, man designed competitions for him that put a great deal of additional stress on his joints.  Think, for example, of the concussive force on joints of the front legs when a 1,200-pound horse sails over a six-foot jump and lands on his front feet.  … Dressage seems like a fairly benign competition as far as placing stress on joints is concerned, but that isn’t true.  The advanced dressage horse is required to move his center of gravity more to the rear, putting more stress on the hind limbs. Some of the lateral movements, such as the shoulder-in and half-pass, cause high joint stress particularly on the hock. The types of disease and injury that can afflict dressage horses include degenerative joint disease of the hocks, inflammation and degenerative joint disease of the front pasterns, inflammation of the middle knee joint, and degenerative joint disease and inflammation of the fetlock. … Western horses also are stressed with competition. There is a lot of torque on the rear joints when a cutting horse drops its hindquarters toward the ground and spins a split second before accelerating to stop the movement of the calf it is seeking to hold away from the herd. Some cutting horses are susceptible to injuries and disease involving the hock and stifle joints. … The reining horse is asked to run down an arena at speed, slide to a stop, and spin in a circle, with the rear end anchored in place. This produces a great deal of torque on the hind limbs, especially the hocks. … Western pleasure horses which travel sedately and slowly around the ring might also be prone to joint disease because of their conformation, Black explains. To accentuate a chosen way of going, he says, many Western pleasure horses have been bred and selected to have straighter shoulders and more upright pasterns than horses which perform at speed. This type of conformation can set the stage for poor shock absorption and thus joint disease.”

Much more was presented in the article by Lester Sellnow and I encourage you to follow the link and read the work in its entirety.  The take home message from this and many other sources I read for this article can simply be summed as follows — anything in excess, without balance of the horse and rider and done without preparation and attention to detail can lead to injury.

A colleague of mine, Nettie Barr of Canadian Natural Horsemanship, reminded me that there are so many things that influence the athletic capabilities of the horse.  These influences come from the horse, rider, and the environment.  Training, conformation, warm-up exercises, number of repetitive actions, rider balance, arena footing, hoof care, health care, and nutrition are all-important.  But maybe the most important is as Nettie says “When we are able to ride in harmony and balance with a horse and know the footfalls of the horse, we are able to ask at the correct time to set the horse up for success to plant the desired hind foot and to properly shift his/her weight to perform the maneuver in balance.  We must understand that in order to perform such maneuvers, a solid foundation of the basics need to be in place to build to refinement.”

Let us review the information presented in this article.  1) No scientific study available that proves “setting a pivot foot is detrimental/harmful”, 2) balance, balance, balance is the key to any discipline because a balanced horse and rider can perform some pretty amazing maneuvers, and finally the most important of all, 3) KNOWING, FEELING, AND CONTROLLING THE FOOTFALLS is the key to success and longevity of the horse and rider.

As classical/traditional dressage and western performance riders continue to dialog and the discipline of Western Dressage grows, let us hope we all take the opportunity to ask questions of one another, search for and provide proof of things we say, be open and receptive to new/different ideas, and always remember that the horse is what is important in this relationship.

Dr. Michael Guerini, author of this article holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Molecular Biology, taught numerous biotechnology students who have gone on to be successful equine veterinarians, published >30 scientific research papers on various topics, works with veterinarians on successful equine product designs, and coaches horsemanship (

The Rich Traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship

By Michael Guerini ( and Kimberly Bench (

Both Classical Dressage and Western Riding (Horsemanship with a Western Saddle) have rich traditions and long histories.  In this series of essays, Kimberly Bench and Michael Guerini have come together once again to share perspectives from the Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship worlds.  As we all embark on this journey of Western Dressage (WD), it is important to  know that each of these two disciplines that are coming together in WD arose from the need of people to perform activities on horseback and that these  needs have traditions and ideas that are 100’s of years old.  It is important that when considering WD and Classical Dressage we take the time to look at the original intentions, trainings, and look/feel of Classical Dressage since the principles and philosophy of the discipline arose from the teachings of the Classical Masters.  Likewise, the reason behind Western Horsemanship is rooted in lessons learned in the past on the backs of the Cowboy/Vaquero working horses.

Although it can be argued that classical riding has been the foundation for all other riding, our modern competitive dressage may look quite different from its original roots.  Through this journey, we must also look at both Classical Dressage and Modern Competitive Dressage and see that differences exist in these two forms of Dressage.  Likewise, some of the Western event competitions seen today have more flash than the traditional American Cowboy would display during his working day.

In both cases, the foundation and principles of the training method are first and foremost of importance to both Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship.  Secondly, the traditions of mannerisms, tack, and language (words/meanings) handed down through these two riding disciplines are celebrated parts that complete the philosophy of the teachings.

The goal of any Dressage program, whether Traditional or Western, should be that the principles shared by the Classical Dressage Masters be learned, shared/taught, and celebrated.  The goal of any program that includes Western Traditions is to develop a horse that is capable of performing work efficiently, athletically, and with minimal effort. Through Western Dressage, these two traditions can work together in harmony to develop horses and riders that our ancestors would admire.

Our journey will cover the following topics and we realize that for the most part, we will be providing a very cursory overview of the available information.  There are large books written on many of these subjects and our intent is to not re-write what is already written but rather to consolidate and provide a summary of ideas, histories, and thoughts to help develop a deeper awareness for the knowledge and traditions of both Traditional Dressage and Western Riders.

Article I – The rich traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Riding 

Article II – Modern day Dressage and Western Riding

Article III – The tools of the trade

Article IV – What we both seek in a horse

Article V – The silent crossover that has occurred the last 25 to 50 years

Article VI – The birth of CD and WD

Article VII – Onwards and to the future

For thousands of years the horse was the pinnacle of transport.  As well as being a mode of transportation, the horse’s most demanding role was in warfare.  In essence, the horse was a tool used to help the rider accomplish a great many tasks.  Although used as a tool, horses were highly valued partners and the health and soundness of the horse was of utmost importance.

Classical Dressage Traditions

Classical Dressage can be traced back to four Classical Dressage schools, which include –the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, the Cadre Noir of the French National Riding School in Saumur, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain, and Lisbon’s Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.

The knowledge of how to train the horse for its role in warfare was refined by specialist trainers, often referred to as the classical masters, over hundreds of years.  Some of these wrote down their techniques and these were passed on for others to develop further but all were interested in three things:

  • Training the horse to carry a rider.
  • Training the horse to be obedient to the rider’s commands.
  • Improving the horse’s athletic ability through balance and fitness so that it could more effectively perform its role.

Classical dressage is the art of riding in harmony with, rather than against, the horse and this evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield.  Cavalry mounts had to be fit, supple, obedient, and instantly responsive to the lightest of commands from the rider.  The horse understands rider aids and the rider understands the horse’s mind and ability.  In Classical Dressage, horse and rider would perform a variety of movements with a progression of these movements that fit both the skill and rider abilities, never exceeding the level of horse and rider until both were ready.  The measurements of the individual movements developed into the Dressage tests that are used to evaluate the skill and training progression of both horse and rider.

Classical dressage is the development of a mutually respectful and harmonious relationship between horse and rider.  In classical dressage, rather than disciplining the horse because his conformation did not allow perfection, the rider accepted his horse’s best on that given day.  Continuous work and proper conditioning was put into the horse to improve carriage and ability.

As with the horse, not all riders were capable of performing perfectly at the highest levels.  The training brought each horse to his own maximum potential.  Classical dressage is all about taking the appropriate amount of time to allow for a proper progression of both training and fitness.  Both the horse and rider must be conditioned over time.

Kimberly Bench stresses that “conditioning is as necessary as the training itself.  The horse is conditioned through correct, consistent, and progressive training.  Dressage is a discipline, not merely a sport and to achieve true success both the rider and the horse must train as any athlete.  A horse and rider must train progressively and regularly, increasing as the work becomes more demanding.  Many years ago, I had a horse that had been ridden and shown at third level.  When I purchased him, he had been turned out to pasture for several years.  Even though he knew the “language,” his body was not capable of performing at his previous level.  With regular work, he was able to achieve a certain level of athleticism but a soundness issue prevented him from progressing further.  So in addition to the training, fitness, and soundness are equally as important.”

The rider must understand his/her abilities and limitations.  A rider must achieve self-carriage (independent balance) in order to help the horse develop self-carriage.  Harmony only occurs when the rider has an effective, balanced seat and body position, independent hands, moves with the horse’s motion, and delivers the aids timely and correctly.

All horses and riders following the classical training scale will make some degree of improvement in condition and athleticism.  Please note, this does not mean all horses are able to achieve the most advanced movements or the level of expression we see in modern competitive dressage.

Western Riding Traditions

Western Riding, just like classical dressage, can be traced back to Xenophon around 400 years B.C. Xenophon spoke to the basics of riding a well-schooled horse that would move based on rider weight transference, away from leg pressure, and be supple through its head, neck, shoulder, and rib cage and hip.  This has been interpreted by some to describe a horse that would be so light and responsive that it could be ridden one handed, and yet perform correctly enough that a man’s life could depend on that horse working with his rider as a harmonious team.  Western riding is a style that evolved from the ranching and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Introduced to the America’s between the early 1500’s and the 1700’s from the Spanish, this style of riding has changed over time but the foundation training is still the goal of the western horse.  Most importantly — this style of riding lends itself to use in numerous practical disciplines.  By the late 1700’s, the equipment and riding style of western riding was heavily influenced by the Spanish vaqueros.  Both the equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West.

American cowboys needed to work long hours in the saddle over rough terrain and still be comfortable and able to use the limited equipment available on horseback for many uses.  It is important to understand that much of today’s western styles of riding were born of necessity to survive, earn a living, and feed a family/town/region.

Michael Guerini emphasizes that in the traditions of the American cowboy, the horse was an equal partner for without his mount, the American Cowboy would never have been able to survive at work.  Western riding of the past goes beyond being a discipline and certainly was never promoted as a sport in the early days; rather Western riding and the ways of the American Cowboy and Vaqueros were a lifestyle for these men and women.  Success was graded on survival of the horse and rider, getting livestock to market, getting home to see family or visiting friends, and getting to new places for work.

The American cowboy often had a string of horses that he used in his work.  Some of the horses were considered advanced and others were young stock in the early stages of development.  Those Cowboys that were fortunate enough to have a string of horses continually worked to cultivate the horse to be the best, capable of helping the Cowboy perform his duties.  The American Cowboy would ensure the young horses worked with balance, and had cadence, timing, and tempo.  A horse with smooth transitions that was responsive to light touch was the goal of the cowboy training.

Because of the necessity to control the horse with one hand and use a lariat with the other, western horses were trained to neck rein, that is, to change direction with light pressure of a rein against the horse’s neck.  A cowboy trying to rope a cow so that it could be doctored or branded, needed to be able to guide his horse with one hand.  This would free the other hand to rope with.  One of the most important points to understand is that a good cowhorse quickly picked up the idea of moving away from rein pressure on its neck.  Horses were also trained to exercise a certain degree of independence  in using their natural instincts to follow the movements of a cow, thus a  riding style developed that emphasized a deep, secure seat, and training  methods encouraged a horse to be responsive on very light rein contact.


Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat to avoid jerking the horse in the mouth and interfering with its performance.  To the classical dressage rider of ancient times and to the Western Cowboy, the horse was a cherished belonging, a source of pride or status, often more important than money.  For with the horse, these people could work, wage war, and move across distances with relative ease.

Horses for warfare needed to be stout, capable of carrying significant weight of battle armor yet they also needed to be agile, balanced, reliable and obedient.  Horses for Western riding need to be quick, agile, have some natural instincts for the work being done, and have a certain amount of independence.  In both cases, self-carriage and balance by the horse and rider were two important elements of the relationship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage.  She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI.  She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them.  Find more information at

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

A few months ago I posted one of my ground pole pattern configurations on the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Facebook page soliciting comments and thoughts.  Here is the resulting article and information we put together and I wrote up for sharing. 

Recently, this diagram of ground poles (shown below) was posted for discussion on the NAWD open group and NAWD Professional group.  The question asked “How many different exercises, movements, or patterns can you think of with this configuration of ground poles.  Looking forward to hearing from TD, WD, WP, HUS and everyone else here.  Look forward to hearing your ideas.

In both the open and Professional groups, great ideas where shared among the horsemen/women.  Jen Collman, Cynthia Stotler Koscinch, Patrick King, Bethe Mounce, and Michael Guerini took part in this discussion.  These Professionals come from a variety of backgrounds with experience in Traditional Dressage, Vaquero horsemanship, young horse starting, Dressage/Hunter Jumper, Western Horsemanship, Western Pleasure, cowhorse/cutting/reining, and Natural Horsemanship Together we covered four important discussion points including: 1) how many ways we can work the horse with these ground poles, 2) the importance of pre-planning the ride, 3) the importance of walk work, and 4) footfalls. 

How many exercises can you do with these ground poles?


This list includes the following: Walk through it, Sidepass to turn on forehand, Sidepass to turn on haunches, Walk through and sidepass out, Sidepass in and back out, Trot over the poles, Back through it, Get your horse to roll one of the poles with his nose, Use outside of the L for pirouettes, inside of the L for turn on the forehand, come at them from a 45 degree angle (like this — >>) to help the young horse go over without feeling overwhelmed.

Some list we developed, and rather quickly.  We are certain there are even more things that people can do with these ground poles in this configuration.  The key point we would all like to share is that the rider is only limited by his/her imagination.  Work with your horse and turn this into a learning opportunity and a way to make sure your backing, walking, turn on forehand, turn on haunches and side passing works everywhere and at any time.

The Importance of Pre-Planning the Ride.

One of the things we all discussed was that something like this can help the rider start thinking and pre-planning the ride.  Many times people “warm-up” their horses with walk, trot, canter (until the horse is sweating) and then figure the warm up is complete.

By going beyond the traditional walk, trot and canter warm-ups, you begin to ride your horse and engage his/her mind.  You also begin to pre-plan what you are doing, how you are giving your aides, when to give your aides and how to help your horse.  As the rider — you are active and guiding and this leads to success.

Take for example a drive on the highway.  If you’re driving on the highway, you do not wait until the last min to whip over four lanes of traffic to take the right exit because if you do so you are setting yourself up for a possible accident.  Same thing with a horse…think ahead, be pro-active instead of reactive.  😉

The Importance of Walk Work.

Simply walking your horse through the different exercises we just mentioned above can help you in getting your horse to use the correct muscles.  We all agreed that 30 to 45 minutes of walk work and using as many of the horse’s muscles as possible can lead to a rather warmed up (even sweaty) horse because we are achieving suppleness.  Walk work reveals so much about riders’ knowledge and the preparation of the horse.  😉 When youngsters are struggling, a “session” of walk work brings success because the horse answers a simple question of whether he/she understands what you are asking at the slowest of speeds.  If you do not have success at the walk, it will not come at the trot or canter.

Once you have used the correct muscles at the walk, the horse is then warmed up and ready for trot work that helps develop the push needed for canter and the canter helps warm the back up because both sides of the back are being used at the same time.


Regulation of size and placement of the step/foot is so critical in training your horse and learning to ride and is integral to the classical methods of horsemanship.  There are three key points in the stride of a leg that we must acknowledge.  Foot in mid air, foot forward and touching the ground, and foot backward just at the point in which it lifts off the ground.  All three are important in understanding where your horse is and what aides are appropriate to use at that moment in time.

It has been said by many that the moment in time where the horse is just starting to lift the foot to bring it forward is when the aide must be applied, any later or any earlier and the response is not clean.

So just as a reminder — think of your horse at the walk, then at the trot and the canter.  How fast are the feet rotating through the footfalls?  Each progressive speed increase makes your timing even more critical — hence why we had a good discussion on walk work.  Get your aides and footfalls together at the walk and you will be doing a favor for your horse.  You need to develop your feel of the horse’s hooves WITHOUT looking down.  With lateral work (sidepass, turn on haunches etc) and the poles, horses tend to move more slowly and rider can almost count the footfalls at the walk. 

On the horse training aspect, a young horse who is finding his balance with rider on board during those first few rides can help both rider and horse know where the feet are by using these poles.  This is a simplest of exercise but needs the rider to be active and it keeps the horse from rubbernecking because the horse begins to look to the rider for guidance to navigate these poles.

All agrees that is you have control of the feet, you have control of the horse…not his mind necessarily, but placement of those feet are crucial to rider being an effective rider and not a passenger.  This can become as detailed as the rider chooses or as detailed as the rider knowledge.

This exercise and Training Scale

So let us take a few moments and see how what we have discussed so far fits within the Training Scale. 

In a layout such as this one proposed, the horse and rider need to develop a Rhythm that comes with energy and tempo resulting from an active rider pre-planning and guiding the horse.  As the rider guides the horse and uses many muscle groups to work over these ground poles, Relaxation with elasticity and suppleness can be achieved.  It is often said that the hands connect to the bit with the weight of a fly and the bit in turn connects to the spine which in turn connects to the feet and this Connection results in accepting the guidance through the bit and guidance of the aides — all of which rely on controlling the footfalls.  As you advance the horse and rider skill and continue these maneuvers at the walk and trot, Impulsion is essential to get that increased energy and trust of the horse to the rider because the rider has established the placement and proper timing of aides through feel of the footfalls.  Straightness is on demand and display with the simple walk through or haunch turn or side pass because without straightness there is a lack of balance of horse and rider.  To work over ground poles and not stumble or fall over them requires a lightness of the front end that comes from engagement of the rear as presented in Collection.  Although we just went through the Training Scale list one at a time, the use of ground poles for exercises, with focus on walk work, pre-planning and footfalls can better help you as the team of horse and rider work within the principles of the Training Scale.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (