Understanding Horsemanship


A Q&A with Robyn Miller with Conceptual Horsemanship, and Trainer and Manager at Point Pleasant Farm

Horseback riding is a unique sport, and learning to ride is a lifelong adventure. However, it requires more than just hopping on a horse, kicking, and galloping away. Horsemanship is the foundation for every good horse-and-rider partnership. It equips riders with skills and knowledge that enables them to develop a deep understanding of their horses’ behaviors and reactions. But what is horsemanship, its foundations, and how does one learn and apply it? 

To help answer that question, Robyn Miller with Conceptual Horsemanship, and Point Pleasant Farm Trainer and Manager, located in Mt. Pleasant, Miss., helps identify what horsemanship is in her daily practice with a wide variety of horses in multiple different disciplines.

What does Horsemanship mean to you?
Horsemanship is one of those terms that can mean so many different things. To me, Horsemanship is more of a way to be around horses than anything specific that I do. It is being together with the horse by understanding and communicating with him on his level. Understanding his body language and expressing myself to him in ways that are familiar to him so he can easily recognize the intention I have toward him. This helps me to create a positive relationship with him. 

Horsemanship doesn’t stop and start with tasks or exercises. It is how I am all the time when I’m in the horse’s presence. I use my body language, energy and intentions purposefully in ways that the horse uses to communicate with his herd mates. That way instead of coming across to him as a predator, he can view me as a herd member.

How does Horsemanship play a role in a horse and rider’s success?
Horsemanship plays a role in a horse and rider’s success by creating a positive relationship between the two. When I present myself to the horse in ways he understands, it enables him to bond with me and become a willing partner. That partnership allows me to take up a herd leader role with him. Once he sees me as his herd leader and builds trust, the bond between us is strong. 

With a strong bond, the horse will perform tasks asked of him which become fluid. As if me and the horse operate as one. Of course, this type of connection takes time to create and needs to be maintained, but if done consistently, it is beautiful. Nothing happens instantly or overnight. With time and patience, working on horsemanship with your horse will provide years of enjoyment between you and your horse helping to achieve your goals.

How does Horsemanship help a horse and rider move up to the next level and/or advance in their training?
Horsemanship helps the horse and rider to move up to the next level in several ways. First, the more you communicate with your horse in ways he understands, the more trust you build. Now, that being said, the communication needs to be encouraging, fair and consistent. The exercises I use in my groundwork and under saddle that work on the bond between me and my horse also work his body in ways that encourage engagement of his core, balance and propelling himself from his hindquarters. All these exercises help the horse to travel in a manner that helps him support the rider on his back. With his core engaged, driving him forward from behind, the horse can more easily collect and extend his gaits. He can also stay more balanced which encourages softness and connection. With the horse continuing to develop these skills, he continues to advance in his discipline which helps horse and rider to advance.

What are the benefits of good Horsemanship?
 In general, Horsemanship benefits the entire experience with horses. Becoming proficient in reading and expressing body language to the horse enables me to have a deeper connection and understanding of my horses. I can more easily recognize when he is not quite himself. Issues such as colic or pain are more obvious to me. I watch my horses and interact with them the same way every day. Therefore, when something is wrong, I can sense it quickly. For example, if he normally runs up to the gate to greet me and one day, he is standing in the back of the paddock not wanting to acknowledge me, I know to check him out more closely to figure out what is wrong. That example is probably pretty obvious to most, I realize, but if I didn’t pay attention to the horse’s normal daily routine, I could easily miss this. 

This is why horsemanship isn’t something I turn on and off. It is a constant awareness of each horse as an individual, what is his normal. The deeper the understanding of your horse and his ‘normal’ the easier you can determine when he is not normal. Being not normal doesn’t necessarily mean being injured or sick. It can also be that he is overly excited one day, more nervous than usual or dull. All of these subtle differences are easy to spot when you practice good horsemanship.

Another benefit of using good horsemanship is the leadership role that develops between my horses and myself. They understand that I ask them to do a task and they are to follow my lead. When this is done well, the horse isn’t offended by being asked to do things. He becomes very willing to do what is asked. It also creates a trust that helps when situations are difficult. It is easier to get a horse to accept unusual situations when the bond of trust is strong. For example, if you need to take your horse to the vet, it can be scary. If the bond of trust is strong the horse will be more at ease than if he didn’t have a relationship with you as a leader.  

When I present myself to my horses as the leader, it results in horses that are seen as ‘having good manners’. They follow my lead. When I walk, they walk with me, when I stop, they stop with me. When I stand relaxed not offering for them to do anything, they stand relaxed with me, etc. Of course, this isn’t creating a machine, the horse is still a living, breathing animal with a mind of his own. He can choose to do whatever he wants at any moment. And at times, the outside stimulus will cause him to do so. 

With a great partnership, I can offer for him to follow my suggestions, redirect his mind and to be back with me, and help him settle down. This is helpful in many different scenarios, trailer loading, standing for the farrier, going to an event off property and accepting a new environment, being introduced to new obstacles, etc. The situation itself isn’t what determines how the horse responds. He will be better with all things presented to him if the horsemanship bond and techniques have been used with kindness, fairness, patience and consistency. Using it as a way of life with horses, not just a training method for specific exercises.


Lauren Abbott

Lauren is a lifelong equestrian. She was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn. Lauren has worked in Journalism for over 20 years and has served as a staff writer, designer, photographer, audience and business development consultant, & advertising senior executive. She is the Owner & Publisher of MSHR, and CEO of Ford Abbott Media, LLC, the parent company of the Horse Review and Hunt & Field Magazine.

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