Engaging the horse's head

What do we do if our horse breaks gait? Most of us will probably be annoyed, whack the horse and tell him to speed up again. Still, there is something in the mere act of breaking gait that‘s worthwile to think about.

Maybe you know the quote „Let your idea become the horse‘s idea“, which is pretty well known in horsemanship circles. We not only want our horse to follow the feel and understand the aids. We want him to understand what our focus and our intention is

Say, we are heading straight in the direction of a cone. The horse understands that he should not swerve left or right but stay straight - he accepts the limits we set with the reins and the legs. At the cone we let him rest some time. If we repeat that several times, in the end our horse will aim straight for the cone with no need for us to restrict or guide him. He understood our idea and our focus. 
Imagine what a subtle communication can be possible if we direct our horse only with our thoughts and focus and wouldn‘t have to use physical aids anymore. 

engaging the horse's head, beingwithorses blog
It's all about the horse's head. Photo: Marlies
And there we are with the breaking gait problem. My project horse drew my attention to it some weeks ago. I wanted him to come down to a trot from the canter (working at liberty), smoothly and softly. I let go of my breath, let my energy sink to the ground, the horse slowed down falling on his forehand and jolted in the trot. Not exactly what I imagined the transition to be. I asked him to canter again. This time he broke gait on his own - but he did it elegantly and without using his front end to slow down.

So there is quite a difference between the two transitions. The reason for the different quality lies in the horse's head. The first time I surprised him with my asking to slow down. He obeyed but he wasn't prepared well and also not very attentive. My idea wasn't his idea. The second time though, slowing down was his idea and he performed it accordingly.

This is another example why I am sort of fanatic about not only training the horse's body but also his mind. If the horse engages his mind and tries to find out what we want, the way he exerts his body will become healthier for him. Also, together we can achieve more - instead of me telling him and him complying. 

This is how I fixed the canter-trot-transition: I always asked him to slow down at the same spot. This helped him to recognize a pattern and to tune into it mentally. Additionally, I did not insist on him making the transition within a second or two but I let him find his way down to the trot. That helped a lot to soothe the transition.

In general, the gelding needs to be with me mentally if I want a trot or canter that consists of more then three dragging steps. If his mind is absent, I would have to ask for every single step (which I don't). That is no basis for work - and has nothing to do with good horsemanship. 

So it's my job to help him stay attentive and concentrated. Therefore I will not ask for 20 laps at once and nag him with the stick in order to prevent him from breaking gait.

He needs to know that there is something in it for him too. If he does a good job, I'll allow him to come in to me and rest. This way I make sure that he likes coming to me because with me in the middle of the circle there is peace and relaxation.


  1. very good post! I guess that is also true for dressage riding? I should pay more attention to that next time I ride!

    1. Thank you! I find it true for dressage, yes. Often I find the horses don't see the sense in certain maneuvers, therefore lose motivation or as they simply don't understand what it's all about misunderstandings come up. Working with horses is quite a task :)