Natural Horsemanship (NH) — Onward and Forward – Moving beyond NH to continue to improve horse and rider.

Natural Horsemanship (NH) — Onward and Forward – Moving beyond NH to continue to improve horse and rider.

By: Michael Guerini, B.S., M.S., Ph.D.

Since the early 1980’s, Natural Horsemanship (NH) has seen rapid growth in popularity – particularly among western riders. The techniques vary but are known for focusing on ground work, getting respect, developing a better relationship with the horse, and of course the rope halter has become famously associated with this way of working with horses.

Having apprenticed with a natural horsemanship trainer and having used many of the ideas in my training/coaching, I am very familiar and happy with what I have learned and still continue to use in many situations. For me, Natural Horsemanship methods are a good base for many riders/owners and enthusiasts.

In this blog, I share some thoughts on the good aspects of NH, some of the not so good aspects, and then I offer suggestions on areas needing more focus that currently are not always considered from the NH offerings.

What it has done – the good
1) Ground manners for horses have improved.
2) Many people spend more time working with their horses because they have acquired information that has helped boost confidence or skill of the handler/rider.
3) There has been an increase in rider ability to do homework directed by a trainer and this has opened up more competition and riding options for horse/rider.
4) In most situations, the welfare of the horse has improved … but there are a few “natural methods” that are not welfare-based.
5) There are a number of other good things including getting more people to talk about horse training and building more horse friendly communities — to name just a few.

What it has done – the not so good
1) Developed a quasi-scientific narrative of the ethology of horse behavior. We think we know what a horse behavior means because somebody said something about that behavior – but we really do not have concrete proof gathered by scientific observational methods for all the ideas we espouse.
2) Allowed some folks to think that if they have the “right” halter or pad or saddle or flag (on a stick – sometimes it has a string and not a flag) or “right” type of reins/bit/spurs – folks can branch out and train horses for friends and family or start colts.
3) Celebrated two and three day colt starting ideology. Yes – the colt can be started in this period of time but the key is that it is just a start. These events are a little too commercial and a little too unrealistic and a little too romanticized. I say this because I have met people along my journey who decided that after going to a few of these colt starting events, watching some DVD’s, watching YouTube videos, and attending a few clinics – they can train the excitable or flighty or troubled or green horse. Seeing the after effects of the rider with broken bones or broken confidence or the horse that has been injured is not a good thing.

We should (and MUST for the welfare and protection and development) of the horse (and rider) realize that Natural Horsemanship is one step on our journey to becoming horsewomen/men – we must continue to learn and improve and include other ideas and philosophies into our horsemanship toolkit.

Here are just a few areas I suggest need more attention because we do not often encounter these topics in the Natural Horsemanship circles and discussions.
1) Asymmetry/Laterality/Straightness – There has been a great expansion into understanding the sidedness of a horse (left or right), where horses may have asymmetrical features, and a reminder (from classical horsemanship) that straightness is a key to longevity and proper movement. Understanding these issues can improve the performance and longevity of the horse. This is most especially important for further refining the use of the round pen that has strong ties to NH….we need to make certain that our work in the round pen (and riding) is done right for the progressive development of the horse and with a focus on improving its Asymmetry/Laterality/Straightness.
2) BALANCE — Learn more about balance of the horse and balance of the rider. How the rider sits (straight or leaning) … how the rider uses her/his seat bones … all affect the balance of the horse. An imbalanced rider can put the horse out of balance and create situations that may lead to physical issues of the horse. Without balance … we have lameness, injury, and loss of longevity. There are also the ideas of mental and emotional balance that come into play especially for the rider and in some cases most certainly for the horse. We need to focus on seat and leg and understanding how the horse shifts its weight for balance and we need to discuss how the rider weight shifts can affect hose balance. We need to understand the physics of the head and neck in relation to balance of the balance parts for the horse. Additionally, the Classical Training scale speaks to relaxation as a key level of the training pyramid and most assuredly, in relaxation…the mind, body, and emotions can come into balance.
3) POSTURE — Increase our understanding and abilities to help horses (and riders) develop correct postures. First, we have to understand anatomy… bones and muscles and fascia … and then we need to understand a little more about form and function (how things look and how they work). Again back to the round pen use – we need to make sure that we are promoting good posture by the horse working in the round pen (simply running a horse continually in a counterbent form with the head up and the back hollowed out is not correct for posture). Further on about posture … we need to understand what pulling the head around by the reins while we are standing still (and then also while we are moving) may be doing to injure the neck of the horse.
4) Saddle/Tack Fit. Saddle Fit, bit shape, bit size, bit type, pad type, pad/saddle length, leg wraps … we need to stop and ask for evidenced based answers for how to select what is right for the horse. Just because a well-known NH person sells a saddle or bit or pad … does not mean it is right or the right fit for your horse. There are some really good NH people out there that do saddle fit correctly (I have seen them measure the saddle/tree to fit the horse) … and many know a great deal about bits … and in almost 95% of these situations where I have seen good happen in the area of saddle/tack fit – the horse is fitted directly for these pieces of tack (meaning that the saddle or bit is not bought at an expo or online – it is purchased with good guidance by the maker/seller).

I am not suggesting to anyone that we throw Natural Horsemanship methods away or that they are wrong….I AM suggesting that we need to take the next steps and focus on how we can further the conversation and do more (do better) for the horse.

There are a number of individuals and organizations that can help horse and rider gain more knowledge for the betterment of the horse. I know that my list here will not be complete … but I offer a number of people and organizations that I go to for further information to continue to advance my learning. Organizations – International Society for Equitation Science,, Equinology, 4DimensionDressage International – to name just a few. People – Manolo Mendez, Thomas Ritter, Deb Bennett, Marijke de Jong, teachings of Sally Swift and Mark Russell — again this is a short list and there are so many more who are willing to educate for the benefit of the horse.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and you are most welcome to share this blog if you wish.
Dr. Mike Guerini is a scientist, author, and horsemanship Coach in Gilroy California. Mike is focused on balanced horsemanship that takes into account the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the horse. Mike is also the co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T. You can learn more about Dr. Mike at

Balance, Self-Carriage, and Collection – some suggestions and thoughts

Balance, Self-Carriage, and Collection – it is a journey

by Dr. Mike Guerini (

When I show up to give a lesson or teach a clinic, riders often ask me what my secret is too getting collection. Many times people call me and ask if I can come and help them get their horse collected better. After about 2 minutes on the phone – much of the time the person tells me they just want better collection and do not think they need to work on balance and self-carriage. There are times when I hear – well what bit do you use to get collection?

I know that I often frustrate folks when I tell them that to achieve collection…it is long hours of proper development of horse and rider … in terms of muscle and timing (and a great many other things) … to develop collection. I go on to tell them that collection comes after we learn and achieve balance and progress into self-carriage.  I also tell folks that no bit and no amount of pull by the riders hands is ever the answer to collection.

Balance is the ability to move or to remain in a position without losing control or falling and it is a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance.

Self-Carriage is defined as a time when the horse is balanced (has independent balance as stated by Manolo Mendez) and self-maintains his own rhythm, tempo, stride length, straightness, outline and rein and leg contact and engagement.  The horse still needs guidance from hands and legs and core and seat of the rider — but the horse is taking care of balance to them be able to work in a dynamic way.

Just a quick side note — see how self-carriage relies on balance?

Collection Collection occurs when a horse carries more weight on the hind legs than the front legs. The horse draws its body together so that it becomes like a giant spring whose stored energy can be reclaimed for fighting or running from a predator. The largest organic spring in the horse’s body, and therefore the easiest one to observe in action, is the back, including the spine and the associated musculature that draws it together in much the same way that a bow is drawn by an archer. (Collection can only come from a horse allowed and able to move freely – having learned to carry himself through training which lets him develop his own balance and rhythm. – March 24, 2014 by Caroline Larrouilh in an article written and published on the Manolo Mendez website).

So let us get to the point.  I have stated that no amount of pull of the hands, size or type of bit, or even one or two lessons will ever get you perfect collection.  It takes development of balance, which in turn leads to self-carriage that finally allows you to work on the finesse of aids and timing that will help you and your horse achieve collection.

Here are five exercises that I highly recommend you master on your journey to collection. There will be days in which you are excellent in your mastery of these activities…and other days will not be as great…but it is the dedication to the work and development of the horse that will ultimately lead you to success.

Exercise #1:  Learn the footfalls of your horse.  Quite simply, from the ground or when you are in the saddle.  Be able to call out what each foot is doing at any time in the rhythm of the movement of the horse.

Exercise #2:  Learn to direct the footfalls of the horse. Once you know where the footfall is, then you can begin to direct it to change time in flight and landing placement. This ability will help you with developing the rear engagement of your horse that you will need to achieve before we get to collection.

As you do these two above exercises, in the first you are developing yourself as a rider. In the second, you are developing yourself and your horse to work in harmony and partnership.

Exercise #3:  Learn to do the first two exercises without the use of stirrups. You need to make certain that as a rider you can feel the horse and work with the horse and not have your balance compromised by using your stirrups as a crutch.  You need to be able to  balance with your whole body on the back of the horse. You also need to be able to post without your stirrups and achieve the goals of exercise 1 and 2 above (and yes for all the western riders – posting is encouraged at times). You cannot be heavy on your seat bones…you cannot be heavy on your legs…you cannot be heavy with your thighs.  You must be balanced.  (Just the other day Mark Russell said the rider needed to be like a champagne bubble riding on the back of the horse – yes that would be a nice picture of a balanced champagne bubble that did not have the rider leaning on seat or legs or feet or thighs…but rather, the rider would be in a perfect state of harmony and balance on the back of the horse).

Exercise #4: Do the above three exercises with the lightest amount of contact…and occasionally, release any of your contact and determine if your horse maintains the rhythm and tempo.  This exercise begins to tie in a measure of how much self-carriage you are achieving…and remember that self-carriage comes when you have balance.

Exercise #5:  Learn to do the first four exercises while working over ground poles and cavaletti’s. This simply adds a degree of difficulty that requires the rider to focus on balance, movement of the horse and changes in terrain (poles or cavaletti’s) that put the horse and rider into thinking mode.

Most importantly in all of the above – you must remember to breathe through all that work.

Once you have mastered those five activities … then you and your horse are ready to begin work on the exercises that will ultimately lead to collection.

Please feel free to share this blog.


Dr. Mike Guerini is a national clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in DR 4 Balance – to help horse and rider acheive goals.  Dr. Mike works with riders to enhance their performance based riding, Western Dressage and understanding and welfare and rehabilitation of the horse and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (, an online Horsemanship Coaching program for competitors.

10 Common Mistakes in Western Dressage Tests

10 Common Mistakes in Western Dressage Tests

by Dr. Mike Guerini, Ph.D. (

As a Coach and Judge for our growing discipline of Western Dressage, and as we get deeper into the show season for 2015, I thought I would share with you the 10 most common mistakes I see in Western Dressage tests.

1) Incorrect Geometry.  Circles that are not the correct size or shape.

2) Lack of Impulsion.

3) Lack of a free walk.

4) Lack of straightness on entry or final approach down centerline.

5) Lack of consistent cadence/speed.

6) Halt not square or falling to the left or right.

7) Rider late or early in transitions.

8) Horses that are behind the vertical or carrying pole too low.

9) Rider seat position in chair seat or leaning to far forward rather than in correct position.

10) Not knowing where you are in the dressage court and not understanding the difference/spacing for a 20 x 40 vs a 20 x 60 court.

If any of these are causing you issue, make sure to seek out a Western Dressage Professional (CLICK HERE) to assist you and your horse on the road to success.


Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician and Lifetime Founding Pioneer of the Western Dressage Association of America, Professional member and Licensed Judge from North America Western Dressage, 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  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (, an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Western Dressage and the One Trick Pony

Western Dressage and the One Trick Pony

by Dr.Mike Guerini, Ph.D


Last year about this time I published a blog sharing my thoughts on the future of Western Dressage (WD). You can read that blog posting HERE. Well another year has passed and there are some pretty exciting things still happening.


  1. Train the Trainer programs are being taught around the United States and in Canada by Western Dressage Association of America.
  2. Cowboy Dressage (CD) has huge shows, particularly in California with over 400 entries on a weekend.
  3. North American Western Dressage is a leader in Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage Virtual Shows.
  4. Judges training seminars are being held for both Western Dressage and Cowboy Dressage.


We have a great deal to be excited about and the future continues to look promising for Western and Cowboy Dressage Competition….and that is what has me a bit worried.  The future looks really good for discipline specific competition — Now I am a bit worried about us all developing a One Trick Pony.  That is to say we are focused only on showing our Western Horse in CD or WD and reporting those results.


Now I will stand up and say that neither WD nor CD is a trick.  Both teach so many skills.  You may think I am using the term “One Trick Pony” a bit harshly but I sure want to get everyone’s attention and make sure we advance this conversation.


When I first heard about the Western Dressage Organization being formed in 2011 I was pretty darn excited.  The chance to have very open discussions and educational opportunities in discussing Dressage and how it applies to developing a high quality horse ridden in a Western Saddle — EXCITING. Sure, Western Dressage specific tests are a good thing but at this time there is very limited conversation on how Riders and Trainers and Coaches are using Western (and Cowboy) Dressage to build a better Western Horse that has longevity (long term soundness of body and mind).


Many of the CD and WD clinics are specific for how to prepare to ride a test.  I would say that if we work on the foundation basics necessary for developing a good working horse, apply the Training Scale and Dressage Principles from Classical Horsemanship – we can ride a CD or WD dressage test without any significant problems. Sure the memorization of the test or following the direction of the reader might be tough — but we certainly do not need to school on the test – we should be building our horses to succeed in a test by focusing on our foundation work.  What we learn in these clinics is how to navigate the dressage court (and trust me I have made my share of mistakes there both as a rider and reader so I benefit from a few of these lessons).


We want to push ourselves to be more than riding drones in a test…we want to be adaptive.  Think about issues within our educational system here in the US where many students are taught just what they need to know to pass a standardized test. Since I spent many years in school to gain my Doctorate, I can speak with some authority that the real world needs us to be able to analyze, adapt, and figure our way out of situations with our foundation skill and knowledge sets – there was never a class I took or research experiment I conducted that gave me the answers for everything.  We need to remember that learning the foundation principles are our goal and that we need to celebrate and ride with those abilities each day.


How do we continue on this pathway of success with CD and WD and make sure we are not developing just a One Trick Pony?

1. We need to discuss, share, educate, and celebrate how development of a proper bend, circle size control, collection, extension — can benefit other western disciplines.

Here is an example of how to apply this suggestion. Reining and Cowhorse competitions have a pattern that requires a circle, most often a large fast and small slow. This is a great opportunity to develop a Reiner or Cowhorse that lasts longer in the show world by guiding our training and coaching using Dressage, and more specifically how WD and CD can help make this a success.

For this I am planning on sharing each month (maybe more often) how a particular aspect of a CD or WD test is also used in other western performance disciplines or can be useful in helping us develop a better performance horse. Likely I will start sharing this on my FB page and website but if you are interested in getting notified or helping me build this resource – let me know by dropping me an email to

2. Further develop the systems to celebrate the rider/horse combinations that are excelling in WD/CD AND other Western Performance activities.

I am quite pleased to see one of my mentors leading this charge. Charles Wilhelm has developed the Ultimate Super Horse Challenge (Click HERE for more info) and it includes Cowboy Dressage in the competitions…along with some other pretty darn nifty things necessary to develop the best horse and rider team.  I encourage people to participate int he Ultimate Super Horse Challenge either as a rider or spectator.  For the leaders of WD and CD – this is your chance to step up and reach beyond what you are already doing and develop reward systems and competitions that showcase how fabulous CD and WD are for building the ALL AROUND HORSE. Working Equitation does this to some extent…but I bet the leaders of WD and CD can do more.

3. We need people to speak up and share how the horse they took a CD/WD test on last Saturday is in competition for reining on Sunday, or on a trail ride on Tuesday, or teaching the grandkids a lesson or two about riding, or taking on a new challenge with the human partner. Share how your horse is not just a One Trick Pony.

4. We need to promote freestyle work even more. Each horse and rider is unique and Freestyle riding tests can sure demonstrate how riders and horses can be creative and showcase their teamwork.

5. We need to make a challenge test that is set up day of show. Be creative and set it up to challenge horse and rider to be a team that has skills they can draw upon to adapt and succeed. There are many smart people in CD and WD who can take parts of different tests and bring them together into a challenge that you do not get time to practice before the actual test. In my opinion this is the goal of developing an All Around horse and rider.  This is where success in CD and WD, the competition part, will show the success of horse and rider as a team.


Like I said a year ago — Western Dressage, like Classical Dressage, IS about GOOD HORSEMANSHIP. This year I will add that with Good Horsemanship we develop and nurture horses that can do many different things.


In full disclosure I am a Lifetime Founding Pioneer of the WDAA, Professional member of NAWD, and friend to Cowboy Dressage.  I like what these organizations are doing and look forward to them doing even more.  Each organization has said they have a role in education of the western rider – more education is needed for all of us to become the All Around Rider and develop our All Around Horse.

Push yourself as a rider and lead/ride/train your horse safely compassionately while you develop a great Horse partner.


Thank you for Reading this blog.  Share this Blog and Share your Thoughts!


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  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (, an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Questions you MUST ask yourself about your warm-up routine before competing.

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (

Over the past year as I have coached people at horse shows and watched many riders as they warm up their horses I have wondered — what are they doing. In some cases people lope for an hour to get the horse “warmed up AND worn down” as they say. Others do only discipline specific activities like practicing a sliding stop or a roll back or a lead change. Some wander around and do some walk, trot and lope (canter) work and then sit watching everyone else. Have you ever watched professional athletes prepare for a game. They have a plan, a routine, a focus…I consider that horse riders competing are athletes and so I offer these 8 questions (there may be more) that you should be asking yourself and answering to improve your success.

1) Do you have a plan for your warm-up? (Answer — YES)

2) Does your warm-up plan have contingencies based on the surface or weather?  (Answer — YES)

3) Are you warming up the horse and rider or only the horse?  (Answer — Both Horse and Rider, separately and together)

4) Similarly, are you practicing good sports psychology to prepare yourself for the warm-up and competition? (Answer — YES)

5) Is the social aspect of the show getting in the way of your warm-up routine? (Answer — NO — NEVER 🙂 )

6) What do you do between the warm-up and actual class or your personal run? (Answer — keep the horse limber and supple and ready to go, never letting the horse stand and wait)

7) Does your warm up get you and your horse relaxed, in a rhythm ,and working on the connection needed to win? (Answer — YES)

8) Does your trainer warm up your horse and allow you to skip that part of the day? (Answer — I always ride my horse as part of the warm up)

If you have answered differently than the suggested answer for each question then it is important that you sit down with your trainer/coach/mentor and make sure you improve your warm up plant to better prepare for competition.

As always I look forward to your comments and please share this post.


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  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (, an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Western Dressage — On to the Future — but keep an eye on the past

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (

On July 23, 2013, United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) announced that the USEF had voted to accept the WDAA as the USEF Recognized Affiliate for Western Dressage.  This will all go into effect on December 1, 2013.

First of all — Congratulations to the USEF and the WDAA.

I also personally feel that HUGE THANKS need to go to Jack Brainard and Eitan Beth-Halachmy, two excellent gentleman that I have had the privilege to meet, learn from, and speak to regarding Dressage for the Western Horse and Rider. Both Jack and Eitan were instrumental in helping get Western Dressage moving forward and on everyone’s minds.  Thank you Jack and Eitan!

Now we all move forward into the future of Western Dressage.  Tests and Rules, USEF recognized shows, end of year awards, bloodlines that will be “THE” Western Dressage lines to breed to, trainers becoming famous overnight for wins in this new sport.  Yes — we have some exciting times ahead.

Before we all get overly excited … I would ask that as we eye the future — we all make sure we revisit our past.  Thanks to coaches I have had along my career, including Felice Rose, Charles Wilhelm, and Richard Shrake … dressage for the western rider (me specifically) is not new.  No — I have been learning this as a western rider for over 10 years — but my coaches called it something else — they called it good horsemanship.


When one thinks of Classical Dressage it is easy to immediately think of riders and horses from the Four Classical Dressage schools of Europe — 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.

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.  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 the 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 so that it could more easily perform its role.

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, 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 very little even to this present day. Most importantly — this style of riding lends itself to use in numerous practical disciplines.  It is important to understand that much of today’s western styles of riding were born of necessity.


Look to the guides and concepts shared with us from our Dressage and Western Riding Mentors of the past for how we should move forward with Western Dressage — or any horse riding for that matter.

The Dressage and Western Riding Mentors of the past gave us a guide — they gave us the Training Scale (Relaxation, Rhythm, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, and Collection) and they gave us these principles 1) Train the horse to carry a rider; 2) Train the horse to be obedient to the rider’s commands; and 3) Improve the horse’s athletic ability so that it could more easily perform its role.

So my friends — I ask you to remember that it is not all about showing, not all about the prizes, not all about the ribbons, not even about the fame or the money that can be made —

Western Dressage, like Classical Dressage, IS about GOOD HORSEMANSHIP. 


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 (

Ouch – It hurts when I ride my horse!

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (

Every so often when I give lessons or I teach a horsemanship clinic I meet up with someone who tells me that when he/she rides a horse, it hurts.  Of course I take a few minutes to find out if the person normally has pain in the area(s) that hurts while riding.  In most cases, the person tells me it only hurts when he/she rides.  One of my clients who loves to ride in cowhorse and reining classes also told me that for >10 years it has always been painful in the boxing work, roll-backs, and fence work with the cow.

Given how frequently this seems to come up with horse riders…I decided to share my top 10 list of things I immediately ask about or watch to see if I can figure out the origin of the pain.

1) Saddle fit for the rider.  Those who complain about thighs hurting, pelvis hurting, or feeling squeezed generally draw my attention to the saddle.  For this issue, I normally switch them into a variety of saddles so we can find out what or how the saddle is causing pain.  Check the size of the saddle seat and make sure it is not to big or to small.  When in doubt, borrow some saddles from friends and see if the pain goes away when you change saddles.

2) Stirrup leather length.  Lower leg pain, knee pain or even back pain can sometimes be associated with stirrups that are either to short or two long.  Adjust and see if it helps the pain go away.  Another common issue is that one stirrup is longer than another so the pain is only on one side. — Check your stirrup lengths.

3) Stirrup/Stirrup iron causing the ankle to be sore.  This is most often associated with western saddles.  All of my saddle have a twist in the bottom of the stirrup leather so that the leather is formed (turned) correctly so that I am not having to twist my leg to put my toes and heels in the proper orientation.  This is an easy fix by changing to a lighter weight and thinner stirrup (if yours is really thick) and having a quality saddle maker put a twist in your stirrup leathers.  There are a few homemade remedies to get this twist….broomstick through the stirrups when you store the saddle, dunk in a water trough/wet the stirrup leathers then put in a broomstick….but I always recommend that a quality saddle maker should put in a twist—it helps keep your saddle in good shape for many years to come.

4) Thigh pain/Seat pain.  This can often come from the saddle seat.  Maybe the seat has some lumps and bumps.  Feel your seat and make sure it is smooth and fits you.  If not, consider having the seat fixed.  Saddle seats that are worn out or two small can cause pinching that leads to thigh and seat pain.

5) Shoulder and arm pain.  This often comes with tensing of your arms while riding.  Always pulling or bracing on the reins (often done by riders to help him/her balance).  Relax and have that contact with the reins and mouth/bit/bosal, so that it is as light as possible while maintaining a connection with the horse.

6) Torso/lower back pain. This often comes when the rider gets out of synch/out of rhythm with the footfalls and motion of the horse.  Go back to a slower speed when you where in synch with the horse and

7) All over body pain. This comes when the rider does not relax.  Complete body pain or tension happens quite often.  Riding a new horse, riding in a new situation, riding through a spooky situation…all these can lead to a lack of relaxation by the rider.  When we study the Dressage Training Scale…one of the first elements we want to achieve with the horse is relaxation — same goes with the rider…relax and feel the horse and the pain from tension will go away.

8) Exhaustion/being out of breath.  This comes from holding your breath while riding and is easily fixed…breathe.  If you find yourself holding your breath…sing or talk to the horse.  When you speak or sing, you must breathe.

9) Jarring and jolting pain when loping or doing rollbacks.  Rollbacks and fence work on the wrong leads or with bad footwork control of the horse by the rider often leads to this type of pain.  The cowhorse client came for a lesson about a year ago, one of our first lessons and I asked her to do some fence work (rollbacks and pretend to be working a cow).  She rode for about thirty seconds working an imaginary cow along the fence and doing rollbacks…now mind you, this lady had earned about $10K in the NRCHA and wins quite often.  I asked her if that hurt — she said “it always hurts when I do rollbacks and work a cow.”  I asked her to switch leads as she worked the fence (right lead when the fence was on her right, left lead when the fence was on her left) and like magic — the pain went away.  For her it was not really so much pain…but a high level of discomfort at keeping the horse on the same lead in a high-speed maneuver with stops and turns and jolts…over the years she began to tense up and hold her breath and this led to the pain she was feeling.

10) It hurts to move your legs or your seat and your legs might be going numb.  Well this one seems like it matches up with some of the other pain…but there is a cause that is all to do with looks. As odd as it may sound…those skin tight jeans that you look so good in might not be cut out for riding your horse.  Long periods of time in the saddle in tight jeans can lead to less circulation and your legs feeling numb.  Maybe it is not jeans…maybe it is the britches being to tight.  Ditch the vanity and good looks for now — make sure you wear clothes that fit.

Comfort of the rider is so important when riding.  When you are comfortable you can feel the horse, relax, get into rhythm and enjoy the ride.  If you hurt, the horse can most certainly sense this and your hurt might bring out some emotions that will harm your riding.

As always…I look forward to your comments and additions.

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 (