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What happened to our dreams and ideals of riding?

This is first in a series about reclaiming ethical horsemanship

By Catherine Hunter

When I was a kid we did it all and riding was exciting and fun. Our horses were happy, willing and had as much fun as we did. Yet today the horses are not happy. In fact they are screaming at us that they are scared, confused and in pain, or stoically retreating into numbness and desensitivity.

As children we galloped cross-country and swam horses in the lake. I was fox hunting at 8 years old and jumped 4' 9” with no saddle or bridle. Horse shows were in big open fields and the jumps were 3'6” and 4-feet.

Today riders pay thousands to learn what was a simple, everyday part of my training and childhood, and yet are never quiet able to achieve the desired results. Do we really dream of chasing our horses in circles, making them walk over tarps or forcing them into unnatural, even painful, frames and movements?

If you look, really look, you can see it in the show ring. Even at the highest levels, the horses are bucking and rushing through the jump courses. Their tails are swishing and some even stop, refusing to continue.

Study the hardware in the horses' mouths. We have gradually moved from soft eggbutt snaffles, to thin double twisted wire snaffles—a fairly severe bit, to long-shanked pelhams and double bridles. These are consistently fitted with nosebands so tight they are causing injuries, and nearly every entry is wearing some type of martingale fitted too tightly.

Dressage rings are no better. Rollkur and blue tongue are a common sight. The horses are over flexed with hollowed out backs, while riders pull with their hands and drive with their seats. Rather than condemning exaggerated extensions, toe flicking and broken strides, crowds are cheering flashy, artificial movements without realizing the physical and emotional damage it is inflicting on the horses.

Western riding has fallen to the same plague. Riders are constantly giving small jerks on reins attached to thin, long shank bits, to pull the horse's noses in. The horses are forced into an unnatural frame in which they cannot help but fall on their forehands, and then asked to perform high level moves that require engagement of their hindquarters.

These highly commercialized, but damaging ways of riding have given rise to dozens of new equine therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, and other types of bodywork especially designed for horses. When I was young, the horse only saw the vet once or twice a year for shots and worming. We rarely had stifle or back problems, rarely heard about ulcers, and there was little to no market for hock injections.

Gerd Heuschmann, DVM sates in his book, Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage, that today, veterinarians “. . . have become firmly established as a 'necessary' part of the training team.” Really?

Encyclopedia Britanica states that “Horsemanship evolved, of necessity, as the art of riding with maximum discernment and a minimum of interference with the horse.” Is this not the ideal we all hold deep in our hearts when we first dream of riding? What happened? How did we lose that beautiful picture of a happy, willing horse?


Next week let's talk about what happened and what we can do to reclaim ethical, compassionate horsemanship.

Why Sacred Connections Horsemanship works for all styles of riding

 Why Sacred Connections Horsemanship works for all styles of riding

Saddle styles were developed to make certain mounted jobs easier. Beyond the weight and balance, horses do not recognize much difference in types of saddles or styles of riding. For them the only difference between English and Western, Hunt Seat or Dressage is the balance of the rider and a few subtleties in the types of signals used. 

Riding and saddle style can be divided into 2 main categories:

1. Central balanced riding includes: Dressage, Western, Saddle Seat (gaited) and Balanced Seat styles of riding. warlord rotated

Central balanced riding was originally developed in 500 BC for military use in Europe and was the accepted style of riding throughout the Western world until the late 1800s. It is the foundation style for Dressage, Western riding, Saddle Seat and Balanced Seat styles of riding. Each of these styles of riding ask the horse to balance more toward the hindquarters. To stay in balance with the horse, the rider sits near the center of the saddle. (see more below)

2. Forward balanced riding includes: Forward Riding, forward seat, racing, hunt seat, most hunter/jumper riding, and the riding techniques used by the Steppe Horsemen, the Middle Eastern Horsemen (such as Arabia) and the US and Italian cavalries.gallop

Forward balanced riding was the style used by the first horsemen on the Steppes of Asia 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. It was adopted by the Italian Cavalry in the late 1800s, and from there, spread throughout the Western world including the United States. Because it accommodates the horse's dynamic balanceallowing the horse to shift its weight from the forehand through to the hindquarters and back to the forehand, depending on the speed and terrainforward balanced riding is ideal for foxhunting, jumping, cross-country riding and racing. To stay in balance with the horse, the rider sits slightly more forward in the saddle, inclines his/her torso slightly more forward than in the balanced seat, and uses shorter stirrups. (see more below)

Understanding saddle styles: Dressage, Western riding and Saddle Seat (Park saddles) type saddles are designed from the saddles the knights used during the middle ages. Their saddles had a flat seat and a high pommel and high cantle to help prevent the knight from being knocked off the horse when jousting. The rider rode with long stirrups, leaning slightly back and bracing his feet against the stirrups.

With the high pommel and cantle, today's Western saddles echo this style. Because a Western cutting horse makes such quick movements, the high pommel and cantle help the rider brace in the saddle.

When ridden correctly, high level Dressage develops a great deal of power flowing from the horse’s hindquarters through the back. The high pommel and cantle and the deep seat of Dressage saddles, help the rider to maintain his/her balance without the need to stand up away from the power and movement. The deep seat allows the rider to connect more effectively with the horse through the seat bones.

Because gaited horses have such smooth gaits and were typically ridden on flat ground, the rider does not have to compensate for the disturbing movement of the horse. Gaited saddles were developed in the 1800s, several hundred years after the custom of jousting was popular. Therefore Saddle Seat riders had no need for a saddle that helped them stay on the horse. They simply needed something between them and the horse's back and allowed the stirrups to be attached.

The forward seat saddle is a mixture of the old English saddles and the Mongolian saddles. It has a lower pommel and cantle and a more forward knee flap than the old style English saddles. Forward seat saddles are designed to support the rider as he/she balances with the horse's movement over uneven terrain and at speed. The short stirrups, and padded knee rolls allow the rider to stand up off the horse's back for speed, hills and jumping, or to sit down for riding on the flat. Racing, jumping and modern military saddles are versions of the forward seat saddle.

Understanding the horse's balance and how different saddles support the rider in balancing with the horse, allows the rider to choose the right saddle or style of riding that suits him or her best.

Understanding the basic differences in forward balanced riding and central balanced riding:

It is fairly easy for the average observer to see basic differences in forward seat, Dressage, Western and Saddle Seat. Dressage Western and Saddle Seat are typically in a flat ring and forward seat is usually used for jumping, cross-country and racing. (Western saddles have been adopted for trail riding because, 1.The high pommel and cantle give insecure riders a sense of security and 2.The influence of cowboy movies in the early 1900s.)

However the differences in forward saeat and central balanced styles goes far beyond first glance observations. Understanding the development, history and purpose behind the different styles can help riders determine the value of, and the correct application of, each discipline.

Forward Riding

History: Forward balanced riding (now called Forward Riding) was developed on the Steppes of Asia, 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, by the first horsemen. Because of their phenomenal abilities in the saddle, these early riders later known as the Mongol's and the Cossack's, became recognized as some of the greatest horsemen in history.

mongol picThe Mongols, who rode small horses approximately 14 to 15 hands, could ride 300 miles across the alps and go straight into battle against armored European knights on 17 and 18 hand destriers. The Mongols were such phenomenal horsemen they over powered the knights, nearly taking over Europe. The only thing that stopped them was the development and use of gunpowder.

In fact the Ottoman Empire conquered southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar to the Steppe Horsemen, the Ottomans were phenomenal horsemen, also riding balanced forward with short stirrups, snaffle bits and voice commands.

In the late 1800s Captain Federico Caprilli introduced Forward Riding to the Italian Cavalry. The Italian Cavalry adopted Forward Riding for their training system, and in the early 1900s it was adopted by the US Cavalry and also made popular in the United States by Russian Cavalry officer, Captain Vladimir Littauer and US General Harry D. Chamberlin.

The Purpose of Forward Riding: While the collected gaits of Dressage, developed on flat ground, are ideal for creating a high level of performance and agility, Forward Riding is designed to preserve the horse's strength, endurance and speed over long distances and uneven terrain. Because the horse is structurally designed to carry more weight on the forehand rather than the hindquarters, he can more easily carry a rider balanced forward for long periods of time at speed and over jumps. This way of riding creates more efficient movement in the horse, resulting in long, low strides that preserve the horse's endurance. 

Forward riding uses forward control, forward balance and forward schooling to create a horse that is ideal for fox hunting, cross-country, eventing and jumping. Because it develops a calm, relaxed horse horse, Forward Riding allows most riders to successfully:

Ride more sensitive horses such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians 

Ride without the use of harsh bits and tie downs

Feel safe riding outside the ring, up and down hills

Safely handle a horse when it bolts, shies, bucks, etc.

Properly follow the horse's head over big jumps

Preserve the horse's speed, endurance and balance over uneven ground

Quickly and easily create a loving cooperative horse 



History: Dressage is a French word meaning “training.” historians say it has its roots in the fourth century B.C. when Xenophon, of the ancient Greek cavalry, wrote his treatise, On Horsemanship. This became the standard method of riding and training for Western Europe until the late nineteenth century.

LIPPIZANERWhen thinking of Dressage today, many envision the beautiful Lipizzaner Stallion from Vienna, Austria, performing the “airs above the ground.” While very few riders find it necessary, or aspire, to perform at such high levels of Dressage, learning basic Dressage exercises is an excellent training tool.

The Purpose of Dressage: Dressage was originally developed as a training tool for the military to increase the communication between horse and rider, and to strengthen the horse and make him more athletic. While Forward Riding movement is relaxed and extended, with the horse using a dynamic balance, Dressage shifts the horse's weight toward the hindquarters and lightens the forehand—also known as collection. This creates high movements that use a lot of energy, but do not cover much ground as opposed to the long, low efficient strides used by a horse when ridden with a more forward balance.

Though Forward Riding is ideal for utilizing the horse's speed and preserving his endurance, Dressage is an excellent tool to make the horse more responsive, stronger and more athletic. It is an extremely useful training tool to increase these qualities in horses used for all styles of riding. Today dressage is still used to:

Increase communication

Strengthen the horse

Increase Agility

Increase the quality of performance


Ride for Function – and Style Becomes Easy

If riders ride with function rather than style as the goal, they will have the ability to ride any saddle regardless of type or style. Functional riding is about balance and movement. If riders learn a truly functional seat that allows them to easily shift their balance, they will have all the tools necessary to ride any type of saddle, style or balance. Therefore all truly functional riding, regardless of saddle or style, includes the following Four Key Essentials:

1. Unity of horse and rider in motion

2. Security of the rider in the saddle 

3. Non-abuse of the horse by the rider's seat, hands or legs

4. Effective communication the horse can understand

  Since all styles of modern riding are developed from either Forward Riding or Dressage, Sacred Connections Horsemanship instructors use a combination of Forward Riding and Dressage to develop the Four Key Essentials for all riders of all styles, including Hunter/Jumper, Western, Saddle Seat, Hunt Seat, Dressage, trail, etc. 

Call Us At 828-505-9221

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