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Before worrying about the details of dressage… May 17, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, training.
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Quick reminder – before worrying about the details of dressage, make your horse into a safe, easy and fun ride.  Then the rest will come along easily.


Ride like you walk February 18, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, dressage, Natural Horsemanship, online lessons.
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Many students are writing in, anxious to see the snow melt so they can get back to their regular riding. Since we have more enthusiasm than riding opportunity, I’m suggesting they do one of my favorite riding exercises – walking on the ground.

Yes, that’s right. One of the best ways to improve riding technique is to observe your walking technique. This is true because when walking with reasonably good posture, we manage to go, stop and turn with our hips. When riding, the correct use of our seat for asking the horse to go, stop and turn is virtually identical.

I know many will protest they’ve been taught to use their seats in a different, and generally more complicated or counter intuitive way. It is also true that if we are to compare many of the methods taught, we will find that they are often in conflict. Yet when done with a modicum of skill they all work. I discovered this for myself decades ago. My conclusion was and is, as long as we use our seat consistently, in an encouraging way that doesn’t interfere with him, the horse is open to learning our aid and doesn’t really care much about the details.

From a standing position, I begin to walk forward by pushing my hips slightly forward. How slight? Until I paid attention to this, I never noticed it – but just doing this starts me walking. Notice I don’t need to be kicked in the ribs or ever squeezed about my mid-section.

When stopping from walking I bring my shoulders up and slightly back which again brings my hips slightly forward, and again allows my feet to come under me in a perfectly fine halt. It goes without saying I don’t need to pull backwards on my face or any other part. I just “sit up” a bit and allow myself to stop.

When changing direction while walking I don’t pull my nose in the direction I hope to go to, or point my feet that way, I simply turn my hips a teensy bit in the direction I want to go in. Not to be repetitive, but I didn’t know I how I changed direction until I made a conscious effort to figure it out. It’s really a small change.

This is relevant because if you teach your horse that he should go, stop and turn in response to only you using your seat this way, the rest of training is a matter of polishing it up. Said better by an Irish eventer I rode with long ago, “Once you have go, stop, turn, everything else is window dressing.”

Bailing out! May 16, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, training.

If you have time to think, “Maybe I should bail” you have time to grab mane, reins, saddle, anything you can and stay on. I suggest this because most horses are not suicidal so staying on their back until you can safely dismount is the best place to be. The chances of getting hurt while bailing are significantly greater than when unceremoniously dumped on your bottom and much higher than sticking like glue and riding it out.

If you hold on for dear life (literally) you’re keeping your upper body UP and therefore keeping your head on top. If you let go before you have both feet on one side of the horse (as in the case of the emergency dismount) your upper body will rotate downwards in the direction of the fall as your leg on the other side comes over the top. So by bailing you end up doing a head first dive into the ground and a helmet is NOT going to prevent brain injury in that situation. If you hold on and still get dumped, the horse has to have gotten both of your feet on one side or the other so you land feet first or on your bottom, but either is far better than landing on your head. This is why I say over and over again, DO NOT LET GO.

As to the oft quoted nonsense about doing a “tuck and roll” landing – hah! This is the stuff of gymnasts and martial artists standing on rubber mats. They have learned to do it correctly and practiced it over and over and over again for hours and hours. So if you’re in top physical condition and have practiced it for so long it’s a reflex not a thought, OK. If not, and you are headed for the ground head first – stick your hands out there and break a wrist or arm if necessary, but always, always, always protect your head.

Dressage Today Review of Riding in the Moment April 23, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, corrections, dressage, half-halts, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

Dressage Today – May 2013

Book Review
Riding in the Moment,
Discover the Hidden Language
of Dressage
By Michael Schaffer
Softcover, 170 pages, available at

Reviewed by Mary Daniels

This book is a bit of a sleeper. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the author had written something so useful and so innovative that it could be called brilliant. Though the problem of how wooden and obscure the traditional language of dressage is has been cropping up here and there in the work of other authors, this is the first book I have come across that offers a system of viable solutions that won’t offend the rule-bound.

Schaffer, an FEI-level trainer, instructor, clinician and author of Right From the Start, Create a Sane, Soft, Well-Balanced Horse, says the conventional language of dressage is “top down and mechanical.” It begins at its end goal, with definitions and descriptions of trained horses ridden with refined aids. But the actual process of training a dressage horse is “bottom up and cognitive (getting the horse to understand what it is you want and allowing him to do it from light aids).”

Schaffer’s ideas bring to mind that some of the best trainers of performance horses don’t talk much. Perhaps language is inadequate to explain what it is they do. Schaffer’s reduction of dressage-speak into common and easily understood ideas gives you a simple but effective plan to introduce a green horse that hasn’t a clue to a mutual language by which a rider is able to communicate with him. I have never had anyone teach me this, though I have been able to observe trainers very experienced in starting young horses patiently go about it, and I am pretty sure what they are doing is not too different from Schaffer’s bottom-up method of training.

Schaffer begins with what he calls the five first-tier basics: go, stop, turn in, move out and soften. These concepts are at the core of all dressage, he says. Master them, and then by combining them, you can easily create all of the movements we seek in a made dressage horse.

One important idea the author emphasizes is that it is always more important to use aids in a relaxed way than in a precise way. Ask often, accept what you can get, imperfect though it may be, but keep trying to do better, and reward lavishly when you get the closest semblance.

There are excellent photos breaking down how to go from having to develop and use light, cognitive aids. And isn’t that the way we all want to ride, but never knew how to start?

Most likely, any thinking rider will find this book useful in switching on new neuron paths in the brain. But I believe someone who is trying to either personally introduce or supervise the very early basic training of a young, green horse is going to find it useful and a way to prevent frustrations from escalating.

My helmet is off to this guy for thinking in an innovative way and putting it down on paper for the rest of us.

Operant Conditioning vs Cognitive Training June 14, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, corrections, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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“Operant Conditioning” is to “Cognitive Training” as “horseback riding” is to “Gal on Totillos.”  Actually, that comparison is far too narrow – the concept of conditioning subjects to respond to stimuli with behaviors, is so generic that it applies to every interaction, between every being, every time.   Furthermore, it has no moral value – there is no “good” or “bad.”  The oaf that “conditions” his horse to run off in panic at the sight of a longe whip is every bit as successful as the master that teaches his horse to relax, sit, round, and rise in lofty piaffe at the sight of the very same whip.

In cognitive training, the trainee must be an active and willing participant – not so for operant conditioning.  The victims don’t even need to know they’re part of the plan.   I could “condition” my co-workers to “behave” by leaving the room at the “stimulus” of my entering it, merely by not showering for a week or so.  This is not science – it’s the road kill remnants of common sense run down by pseudoscientific silly speak.

Those of us looking for rules to build a relationship with our horses need look no further than the golden one.  Have a little empathy, imagine how he feels, and treat him with the same common sense and kindness you would want in his place.  Remember to ask often, expect little, reward generously – the rest is really pretty straight forward.  Chances are that on some level, you already know this, do this and feel this – now I’ve said this.


First Session with a Hot Horse January 19, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, contact, dressage, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, The Training Pyramid, training.
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My first session working with a very nice horse that had some fear issues.

HBT “Herd Behaviorism Techniques” November 20, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, dressage, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid.
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When I start working with frightened or aggressive horses, I use HBT “Herd Behaviorism Techniques.” (like that name?)  It consists of three phases or messages:

1. He’s stuck with me because he’s either on the longe line  or in a round pen.

2. I’m  able to herd him – make him go, stop, and turn – so I’m  dominant.

3. I’m not going to eat him.

Once I’m at that point horses lose their aggression and fear as they calm down and relax.  It’s fun to watch as it happens.

I take any horse that’s trying to run from me and just start changing his direction. At first they tend to whip around and go running the other way. But then, slowly, it begins to dawn on them that they’re not getting away, so they start to slow down. The horse will go from whipping around and running the other way, to whipping around and cantering, to turning and trotting, to turning and walking. The slower they go, the more frequently I change their direction.

At some point no matter what they’ve just done, I ask them to go the other way. Then comes a moment when they just stop in mid turn, lick their lips, look at me as if to say, “Just what the Hell do you want from me Mister?”

Well, what I want is for him to be standing there asking me what I want.  When he does, he has just elected me leader of the herd of two. Now because I’m the leader I make the decisions including what/who is safe to be around. Now, training can begin.


Letter from a Reader.. October 29, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, competition, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, training.
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I recently received this from a reader of Riding in the Moment – The Hidden Language of Dressage.


Mr. Schaffer,

I have bought over 100 books on riding in my lifetime and your book is by far the most useful of them all!  In fact that statement doesn’t really convey exactly how useful it has been to me.  I bought the book yesterday and read the whole thing in one sitting.  I made a few notes and went out to ride my horse that day.  I have been riding my whole life and most seriously with tons of professional assistance for 15 years and I cannot believe the difference these simple exercises have made in my riding.  I too have an affinity for Thoroughbreds off the track.  My current horse which I purchased only 2 weeks ago has, I believe, spent his life(16years) leaning on the bit and racing around as if he were still on the track.  I was really struggling with how to get this horse retrained and we were having all kinds of battles resulting in him bucking and running away.  After reading your book, I figured this is EXACTLY what I need to do.  Take this horse back to some very simple singular movements.  I thought 5 concepts, pretty simple but I have all the time in the world.  Who knew I would make it all the way to soften in 2 rides!!  With each exercise, he picked them up quicker and quicker and by the time I got to “turn in” he had it on the second try.  2 days ago it took me the whole length of the arena to stop him and by the end of my ride today all I had to do was think about stopping and there he was!

With sincerest thanks,

Jennifer F……..

Clever Hans and Classical Dressage June 30, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

In 1900, a German named Wilhelm von Osten claimed his horse, Clever Hans (Kluge Hans), could perform mathematical calculations and count out the answer by tapping his hoof on the ground. Initially, everyone assumed the owner had to be using some trick, but no one could understand how he was doing it. Furthermore, the horse would answer correctly even if someone else asked the question.

Eventually it was shown that Clever Hans only “knew” the answer when he could see the questioner and the questioner knew the correct answer. In tests in which the questioner did not know the answer, Hans didn’t either. Ultimately it was concluded that Clever Hans was sensitive to unconscious, involuntary movements and changes in posture of the questioner. It was discovered that as Clever Hans was getting closer to the correct response the questioner’s tension level would go up. At the moment the horse gave the correct answer, the questioners tension would release and he would make a tiny, involuntary movement — a very slight change in the position of the head or body, or very slight changes in facial expression. This movement was all Clever Hans needed to know he should stop tapping.

There are some important lessons to be taken from this. The first is that no matter how quiet our seat or subtle our aids, we should probably be working to make things quieter and more subtle! It turns out that our clever horses don’t need very much in the way of physical guidance.

The next idea is that no matter how well we think we understand the training process, we are probably missing an entire subtext of subconscious aids, cues, and rewards. We have to assume the great riding masters and authors of the past were missing it as well. I suspect this is why they left us with such a mechanical description of how dressage works.

The words and phrases of dressage like “bend the horse around your inside leg” and “push him up to the bit” are mechanical because they literally tell us to “bend” our horses and “push” them to the bit by physically pushing, pulling, and bending. Without interpretation these statements are terribly confusing since we are not capable of physically bending a horse or pushing him anyplace he doesn’t want to go. This is why we have to go through a process of teaching the horse to bend, to step up to the bit, and to move from our leg. It is only after the horse understands these ideas and the aids for them, that it will feel to the rider as though he bent the horse and pushed him to the bit.

It’s easy to see how the great riding masters managed to teach their horses the concepts and aids so deftly they thought they were actually bending, pushing, and elevating their horses. This is much the same as Wilhelm von Osten thinking Hans was actually performing mathematics. What is not as easy to see is, how do we consciously do what the masters just did?

If you were to try to teach a horse to perform arithmetic without understanding what was really happening with von Osten and Hans, the task would seem impossible. However, if enough trainers did try it, some small percentage would get the same result as von Osten for the same reason. In all likelihood, those trainers would be as blissfully unaware as von Osten and believe their horses were actually performing math. However, once you understand the hidden language of von Osten was simply, “tap your foot until I tell you to stop,” teaching a horse to apparently “know” 3+2=5 is not a problem at all.

There is a direct parallel between teaching a horse to tap his foot and riding circles, serpentines, and transitions. Although the conventional mechanical language doesn’t provide a very good explanation of how we make those circles round, loops even and transitions accurate, once you learn there is hidden language, life gets simpler. The hidden language of dressage consists of what I call the “five first tier basics.” They are: go, stop, turn in, move out, and soften. We build from these to create all of the figures, movements, and qualities we want in our horses. Being aware of and understanding these first tier basics makes it easy to see that we don’t ride circles – we ride individual strides emphasizing the first tier basic or basics necessary to create a circle. The same is true for every other movement and figure in dressage.

circle To visualize how riding with the five basics works, think of keeping a horse on a circle by alternately asking him to move out to the circumference and then preventing him from moving out too much and falling off the circle with turn-in. (Figure 1 -A-) His speed, stride and frame are adjusted with go, stop, and soften. If the horse should run through the aids and off the circle, he is not responding to stop and turn in basics (Figure 1 -B-).

In the conventional explanation of the aids, we keep a horse on the circle by “pushing him from our inside leg to our outside hand and leg”, or “keeping him between our leg and hand.” These mechanical descriptions are as false as the illusion of Hans doing math. The irony is, Han’s illusion was based on the idea that he did understand what he was doing — the mechanical aids illusion is based on the idea that the horse doesn’t.

Find out more about The Hidden Language of Dressage” at my website: www.mikeschaffer.com

Riding in the Moment April 8, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, corrections, dressage, equipment, half-halts, hyperflexion, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, performance standards, Riding, roll kur, rules, training.
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