Find the Inner Donkey: how to make sure your horse is safe to ride

Find the Inner Donkey: how to make sure your horse is safe to ride

Finding the Inner Donkey:  how to know your horse is safe to ride

Now one thing you all know is that my emphasis is very much on confidence.  And what gives ME confidence is knowing I am as safe as I can possibly be.

So when I see my horse leaping around playfully and energetically on the end of the lead rope, having a total blast and full of the joys of the summer finally arriving – well, it’s only honest to say that I do not always feel 100% happy about riding THAT horse!

Of course, eventually I have visions of riding an energetic, enthusiastic horse – channelling that energy into wonderful jumps and elevated dressage moves – but first, I want to know I am SAFE.

In fact, if we look at the mantra of classical dressage – the order of things for the horse is CALM, Forwards, Straight.

CALM has to come first….


Calm means relaxation.  It means the horse is relaxed physically, emotionally and mentally.  Without this, then they are not able to do what we are asking and, even worse, as outlined in the earlier blog  article about Armouring, then are not able to even HEAR us asking – and to me, that is NOT safe.

When a horse is calm, they are able to hear the slightest whisper, they are able to think through what we are asking – and they are much more able to offer a positive response to our questions.

However, many people I meet, don’t seem to WANT their horses to be calm:  they talk about how their horses need energy, enthusiasm – and forwards.

All of that is true – but the forwards I see in their horses is tense, tight – stiff – and not the forwards I want in my horses.

Ok, so a calm horse might look a bit like a donkey – eyes half closed, ears at half mast – nodding off – a calm horse might be more inclined to whoa than go – but you know what?  I will fix that LATER

FIRST I want the calm – THEN I will work on the forwards – and the forwards I get will be a relaxed, positive, supple movement that can be channelled into whatever I want to do.

Ok, so having established that I am looking for that “Inner donkey” before I ride – how on earth do I get that?

There are many ways – and most of them work!

One phrase is “warm up strong to ride soft”:  in this school of thought you play online with energy and enthusiasm, asking your horse to go faster and further than you intend to ride – taking your horse through his energetic bounciness to the calm on the other side.

Taking an extrovert horse and playing enthusiastically with them over obstacles and at speed can mean that when you stop, your horse is feeling good after the play and is now ready to pay attention to you.

Another phrase is “prepare the horse you want to ride”:  in this school of thought, you only do what you plan to do when you ride: if you want a slow, steady ride, then you don’t play hard and fast energetic games – you play slow, thoughtful games which result in a horse that is ready to pay attention to you.

And there is everything in between.

However, they ALL have one thing in common:  they all aim to have your horse READY TO PAY ATTENTION TO YOU.

They all aim for the MENTAL CONNECTION between horse and human before getting on.

Some of you may remember the post about non confrontational leadership where I talked of how the advice was to play hard and fast with an extrovert horse so get him ready to listen – and how that didn’t work – instead I had a horse who seemed to be escalating into arguments in order to defend his dignity.

So instead of playing hard and fast, I simply asked him to stand.  Still.  And look at me.

When he moved his head to look at something, I gently tipped it back to me with a hand on the rope – saying “that’s none of your business, look at me”.

At first I had to do this a lot – but after about fifteen minutes, he relaxed.  And let ME worry about everything else going on around us.

Whenever he took a step forwards, or moved off the place I had chosen for him – I gently asked him just to step back to where he had been.  As gently as possible – but insisting until he moved his foot back to where it had been to start with.

Again,  he eventually decided that it was ok to let me control his feet – and sighed, licked and chewed – and relaxed.

Now he was relaxed with me about standing still – I could ask him to do the same when moving.

To do this I started by asking him to step his hind end around away from me, with one leg stepping under his body, crossing in front of the other hind leg – and end up facing me, but not walking forwards at all.

This exercise (called the disengage in western horsemanship) is a test of how relaxed a horse is: a horse has to think to be able to do this move, and so cannot do it properly when tense or worried.

It’s also a move that TRIGGERS calmness – because the horse has to think to do the move, they focus their brain on the move which means, by the end of the move, they are in a different, more calm and thoughtful mental state than they were at the start.

They are CALMER

One thing to remember is that horses are motivated by safety, comfort – and then play.  So if we become the person where they repeatedly and consistently feel calm and safe – how much will they look forward to us arriving?  To us haltering them?  If they see us and think “oh wow, here is that human who always makes me feel SO safe and good about myself….” how good will our relationship be?

Once I have this move going softly, with the horse looking to me for what to do next and asking – how far would you like me to step under? – then I will ask him to disengage one way – stop, and then bring his front end around without moving his back end.  This is called “bringing the front end through” – and to do this, a horse has to sort his hind feet out, shift his weight back onto his hind end, and then bring his front end around without coming forwards into my bubble.

You can see how this is a great test of how good my bubble is, and how closely my horse is listening to me…

Doing this exercise slowly, softly – gently – creates a slow, soft, gentle horse who is mentally connected with me….

Now I am not saying this is the only way to do things – -and with some horses who have a strong need to move their feet I might head off round the field playing a travelling circling game for a while before doing these other exercises – however, I won’t even think of riding a horse if I can’t do these exercises with them.

Now I know I haven’t given you a “todo” list of how to make your horse rideable – I hope I HAVE given you the key:  the only safe horse to ride is one who is mentally connected with you on the ground and in the saddle…..

And in response to some questions I have been asked, here is a list of some of the things I call my “must haves” before I will ride a horse:

Can I touch my horse all over with positive responses – why would I ride a horse that I can’t  touch?

Can I give my horse a massage or body balance all over with positive responses – again, if my horse won’t “allow” me to massage or balance a part of her body, why would I want to ride her?  How safe is that?

Is my horse looking to ME for answers to her questions – if she is looking inside herself, or to other horses/people – why would I get on her?  When *I* am the source of her answers, then I know if she has any problems, concerns or questions, the FIRST thing she will do is turn to ME for an answer – she won’t bolt, spook, run, buck – she will ASK ME what to do…..

This last one is why I do so much groundwork before riding – I use the groundwork to develop this “Ask me and it will be alright” mindset…. and this is the horse I want to ride.

I had a horse I did all this with – she previously had a history of bucking people off and running home, so I did a lot of natural horsemanship with her.  One day, after we had been together about a year, I played on the ground and all was going well.  I got on her – and she tensed and very clearly asked me to “get off!”  – she held herself tense and quivering while I dismounted – then she ran off, pulling the rein out of my hand and went across the field bucking and rearing and totally nuts.

When she finally came to a stop, we went over to her – to find that the saddle had broken and was causing her pain when I mounted her…..

Now THAT is a horse that is safe to ride…..

I want to ride a horse that is calm, relaxed – connected to its inner donkey; and who believes that I have the answers to any concerns or questions….

I could write a lot more about specific exercises I use with different horses to get to this inner donkey state – but perhaps it would be better to stop writing for now and put those in responses to any comments or questions you might have about YOUR specific situations?

So what do YOU do to help your horse find their inner donkey – and have yourself a SAFE ride?

Yours in confidence



16 thoughts on “Find the Inner Donkey: how to make sure your horse is safe to ride

  1. That’s easy! I work on his other half…the horse half ! LoL(for those who don’t know,my mounts a mule) Malaga’s ears tell me a lot about his confidence.

    • LOL Jenny — turn the horse half into his donkey half and you have the whole donkey LOL — the key with Malaga was to believe what he was telling you, vs the stories others had made up for him — once you listened to him you were on a forward track!

  2. OMG this post was so awsome for me to read, so many good tip now when I´m on my way to start my 5 yo. I loved the tip about asking the horse to look at me and stand still where I asked. Because I have noticed that my arabian has a BIG tendency to never stop when I ask her to go faster, so it ends up with her being up in the trees and more disconnected with me. And that has stoped me from advancing with her because I rather have her like to be with me then being more off from me. I will try this THANKS 😉

      • I actually tried to stand with my pony yd and asked him to just pay attention to me OMG it was an eye opener. He was like he had dump disorder. His mouth where over active and everywhere I gave him the rope to chew on, when that got boring he started to move to me I asked him back it took a whole hour to get him calm And still we are not truly there. This feels so right to just ask them to be with you, not only Do things with you. It truly feels like a better way to connect and build it from there. Thanks 😉

        • Really glad you tried this and found out so much about your pony — it is fascinating when you start to truly observe your horse and see what they really think when you ask them to just do nothing — well done and I look forward to hearing more!


          • Hi
            Now I have had an awsome chance to try this on my 5 yo, the feeder truck came to deliver feed to our farm and it has almost the sound of a horse when it´s warn and blow hard. So I saw my chance of a training session. Out we went and walk back and forth, she was clearly stressed but followed and listened to me and kept the control. But still in inner stress. So after a while I just asked her to look at me and hold her position. It took a few minutes perhaps 5-10 But then all of a sudden I felt in the rope thatshe became ever so light and I started to ask toherttohemmmove

            • her to move one step to the right and one step to the left then back up a step and it was like I didn´t have a horse on the other end. That´s when I quit and wehad the connection I wanted.. She didn´t even care about the truck it was just her and me. LOVE THIS thanks

              • Jeanette — thanks SO much for writing this update — it is GREAT to hear how well this worked for you – and how you realised you had to stick with it for a while to get to the level you both needed

                well done for doing this — and let us know how things go for you from now on


  3. I love reading your blogs because they make so much sense and the majority of them seem to apply to me 🙂
    I was so pleased that you chose this particular blog because I’d like to ask a question.
    Only this morning I took my horse into the round pen and did the usual warm up (from the ground) asking him to walk behind me, giving me my space, stopping when I stopped, back-ups, change of directions etc. Then I long-lined him, he was brilliant, so calm, making perfect transitions, responding to everything I asked of him. I would say that we were definately “connected”. I decided to take him out for a short walk along the country lanes, again from the ground. He was a totally different horse. His energy levels were sky high that there would be no way I would have got on him.
    If my horse is totally calm when he is worked in the round pen and I think we are connected, how can I tell if he is safe to ride when I take him out?
    Debbie xx

    • Great question Debbie — and in fact you bring up an excellent point: just because a horse is safe to ride in one environment doesn’t mean he is safe to ride in a different environment!

      Some horses take a learning and bring it with them wherever they go — these are usually horses with over 500 hours of quality work on them…….

      Most horses however, will learn to relax and trust you in one environment, eg a round pen – but if you go OUT of the round pen — you will have to start all over again in the different surroundings where there are so many more things for a horse to worry about

      With one of my horses I had to do this in the round pen, then a small arena, then a small paddock, then a larger field – then I introduced other horses into the equation too — then I started going out online for walks and did it all while out and about anywhere — after some investment of time I was able to ride safely in many places and rarely had to get off…

      hope this helps


  4. My horse usually finds her “inner donkey” fairly easily with me. Although she gets distracted occasionally and sometimes gets too focused on the horses around us, I can usually get her refocused on me. The problem I have is with the transition to canter. I’ve lost confidence because some days she just goes into this fast running trot, refusing to transition at all, and other days she shakes her head and bucks – not hard enough to unseat me, yet – then, she will canter around the ring. When we are hacking out with other horses, she gets really excited if they canter in front of her and bucks, so I avoided cantering on trail rides altogether for awhile.Now, I will only canter her if I am in front and she is calm and focused – we do about 10-15 strides then go back to trotting. I realize she is somewhat green, having been a broodmare for a few years before I purchased her, but I know she is capable because once in while, she will give me a nice calm transition. Any advice you have would be appreciated! (note: She does canter on the lungeline, but about, 50% of the time, bucks there, too.)

    • Hi Jennifer

      The key is your statement that she is only going in to canter in a balanced way 50% of the time WITHOUT a rider – so why do we expect her to be an different WITH a rider?
      I would be looking at a couple of things — first some exercises to develop her body so she is physically capable of cantering without bucking more often (the bucking is often a horse sorting out a balance issue) — Karen Rohlf has some ideas on this
      second, I would add a verbal cue to your canter request — and WAIT – -give her half a lap to sort herself out BEFORE you increase any pressure in your request – she has to know she ahs time to work things our and get her balance right
      of course if you can time your request for when that inside hind is just coming off the ground or just before it hist down so she can push off against it that would be even better, but that is asking a lot of you!

      Putting the canter transition on a verbal cue (a smooch or a double click) and allowing her to take as long as she needs without pressure increasing — and doing this ONLINE until it is working 99% of the time will make a HUGE difference when you then ask her to canter under saddle…..


  5. Hi Cathy! My horse, Rhylan, is very ADD and defiant. We tried your method for standing still for 15 minutes a day. He did really well for the first two days but today he’s pushing me with his nose and walking all over me. I’m trying to form a connection with him but he makes it very hard. He’s my first horse and I’ve been trying to train him myself. Do you have any tips?

    • Hi there – well done for doing the exercise – he is obviously
      Now feeling confident enough to ask questions about whether he really needs to stand still.
      This is about him
      Relaxing, so when he is pushing on you etc he is not relaxing but “doing” stuff
      First have him far enough away from you (like the end of a 12ft rope) so if he moves you have plenty of time to ask him to go
      Back to where he was before he gets near you…
      That should help xxx


  6. I just bought my first horse. He seems good natured and calm but I’d still like to try these exercises before taking him for a ride. This may seem like a silly question because I just don’t know any better, but how do you ask a horse to go back to where he was before he gets near you?

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