Corro Stories

Communicating With Your Horse: Riding Is a Two-Way Conversation with Anne Kursinski

By Amber Heintzberger with Anne Kursinski

Welcome to Communicating With Your Horse—a new series we’ve created to help you strengthen your connection and communication skills with your horse! Throughout this series, we’ll spotlight top professionals across various disciplines and professions to help us better communicate with horses and ultimately build a unique bond with these special animals. To kick things off, we recently spoke with Anne Kursinski, an American showjumper and two-time Olympic silver medalist in team jumping, at Seoul 1988 and Atlanta 1996. Representing the United States, she was a member of five Olympic teams, 47 Nations Cup teams, and three World Equestrian Games teams. In addition to Anne's success in the show ring, she is also a top clinician and author. 

Communication is everything when you are dealing with horses. Over time, communication can develop into “feel.” In addressing communication, Anne says that she would encourage riders to listen to their horses. Keep reading below for Anne's expert advice on how to deepen your ability to listen to your horse and develop a healthy "feel."

 

Anne riding her Grand Prix showjumper, UK. Image courtesy of Amber Heintzberger from the new edition of Anne Kursinski’s Riding & Jumping Clinic, published by Trafalgar Square Books.

When we communicate, it’s not a one-way conversation. It’s speaking to the horse as well as listening to the horse. Riders need to listen and understand what the horse is telling them or reflecting back to the rider, and from this conversation comes “feeling.”

The fun of riding is the communication with the horse – that’s what makes it so different from any sport. Those that communicate best are the ones you want to emulate; in any discipline, it’s as if the horse and rider are reading each other’s mind, whether it’s riding cross country or reining or jumping – that’s the magic and art of riding.

When we communicate, it’s not a one-way conversation. It’s speaking to the horse as well as listening to the horse. Riders need to listen and understand what the horse is telling them or reflecting back to the rider, and from this conversation comes “feeling.”

To me, the basic way we all talk to horses is by increasing and decreasing the pressure of the aids, whether it’s the reins, the leg, the seat. When I’m asking the horse, the way they know I like something is I give a softer aid. To let them know I don’t like something, I increase the pressure of my aids.

In my mind I’m always saying, “That’s great,” and then my aid is a little lighter, or “Oh come on, be a little more active,” as I increase the leg or the touch of the spur. When I get the response I’m looking for, I lighten the aid. That feels good to the horse, and that’s what the horse is looking for: less pressure. I was riding a student’s horse and saying it out loud: “Come on, move off my leg,” or “That’s good, I can use even lighter aids.” That kind of narrative is unconscious while I’m riding, but while I was teaching, I was saying it out loud so the owner of the horse understood what I was doing.

Image courtesy of Avery Brighton from the Beacon Hill Horse Show & Clinic

This give and take has to be consistent. It’s not that you let the horse do something you don’t like or thump away with your leg, and they don’t respond so you crack them with the whip. It’s the consistency, just like talking with a person, so there’s clear communication and a mutual respect. You might for example have to do a strong halt a couple of times if the horse is bullying you; by allowing the horse to drag you for a few strides you’re actually doing them a disservice and telling the horse it’s okay to go ten strides before they halt. With that clear communication, the aids can get lighter after a couple times.

After the horse has clarity about what you want, all of a sudden this lightbulb goes off for the horse and rider, and all of a sudden the horse respects the rider. When you get a reaction and then there’s a lightness, you apply the aid again. You don’t just keep the spur stuck in his side – you have to give.

So much is robotic these days, but you don’t want to be like a robot riding. Say you want the horse to go more forward: with every stride you close your leg, and then release. If you need to increase the pressure to get a response, that’s fine, but the moment the horse steps away from that pressure, you lighten. Eventually it becomes like breathing, or a heartbeat. It’s so subtle and automatic, but that takes practice. The top riders really become one with the horse, and that’s what you’re looking for.

Put Yourself in Your Horse’s Shoes

Image courtesy of Anne Kursinski

In my teaching, I also ask students to put themselves in the horse’s shoes. A lot of amateurs who are still learning give the horse a lot of mixed messages, but when something isn’t going well – for example you’re trying to lengthen, shorten, and turn, you should first ask, "Why is the horse doing what he’s doing?" And ask yourself, "What is your part in it and what can you do differently to change it? What is your horse thinking and feeling?" Maybe with the horse that takes ten strides to halt with its usual rider, I get on and the horse halts right away because I’m being clear. The horse knows what I want.

As a rider you need to coordinate your aids properly; that will also get a better result. Then the horse "gets it" better. Celebrate those moments, when you get the message across clearly. In the end, you want the horse to be doing it for you, with you – you’re on the same team, not against each other.

With the horse I rode today, she was like butter – she was saying, "What can I do for you?" That’s from me not being a dictator, not being strong, just rewarding the horse when she got it right. For sure you have to be strong sometimes, so they understand what you’re talking about, but from that it should get better – it should get lighter.

You’re not going to get it overnight, it does take some time. You learn by trial and error: some days you might be too strong, some days you might not be strong enough, but through repetition and trial and error, you’ll learn so you both get it. And once you get the reaction you want, reward the horse and walk on a long rein so everyone is happy about it. That’s part of the fun of training – the more you practice, the more you can give the horse a break. When I was young I could drill horses for hours, until the horse was ready to kill me. I’ve learned to give them breaks, and I’ve learned that the magic is when the horse seems to be reading your mind.

Visualization

If you constantly think the horse is going to spook and you have that in your head, you are guaranteed to have a problem. A horse is really a mirror of your mental state – good or bad, positive or negative.

Visualization is important in riding and in life, in your business, to meet your goals; if you’re trying to get to the Olympic Games, or whatever you are trying to achieve. It helps you break things down and be clear about your goals.

If you constantly think the horse is going to spook and you have that in your head, you are guaranteed to have a problem. A horse is really a mirror of your mental state – good or bad, positive or negative.

When I’m going over a course with a student, it’s with a lot of detail about how it’s going to be. Repeat it over and over, and you will imprint it in your subconscious. Then, even if something goes wrong while you’re on course, you can get back on track quickly. As we’re walking the course, I want my student to say it out loud whether it’s a short four-stride or a long five-stride or a tight turn. I promise the better focused you are, the better focused your horse will be.

Image courtesy of Avery Brighton from the Beacon Hill Horse Show & Clinic

If a horse spooks or goes sideways, I know the end game is to go forward and straight up the spooky line. If your mind is wandering or the words in your head are, “He’s going to spook here,” or “I’ll never get him past that gate,” it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your body is wilting as you approach the spooky roll top, he’s going to stop at the roll top! But if you have a positive talk about what you want to happen, then that will be your focus.

So many people worry about the problems instead of the solutions. That’s where Beezie [Madden] and McLain [Ward] can go around a 1.60m course like an equitation class. Of course they’re older and experienced, but young riders should aspire to that focus. Your horse gets that – when you’re confident and riding like a winner, it’s not that you might not have a rail down, but you’re more likely go to out there and nail it. If you’re wishy-washy you’ll have problems; if you have a plan, the horses get it. I guess my point is they get it when you do it badly or when you visualize it perfectly. That’s the fun and the beauty of it.

Exercises to Improve Communication

Image of Anne using her pinching exercise, as seen in the new edition of Anne Kursinski’s Riding & Jumping Clinic, published by Trafalgar Square Books. Image courtesy of Amber Heintzberger.

One simple exercise, which I explained in my book “Anne Kursinski’s Riding and Jumping Clinic” (the reprint is available soon from Trafalgar Publishing), involves briefly pinching the skin on the horse’s shoulder until he turned to nip at me, like they’re biting at a fly. This demonstrates how the horse can bend naturally, without the rider pulling on the rein. When the rider is mounted, she/he can get the horse to bend this way by tickling them with the spur at the girth.

Another key to communication and listening to your horse is really watching the horse’s ears, head, and neck while riding. If the rider is watching the horse’s ear as they go through the turn and when the rider uses the inside leg, that inside ear should twitch or come back, listening to the rider’s leg. Often times as a teacher introducing this, I see a lightbulb go on with the riders. The horse also feels that the rider is paying attention to them.

It’s a conversation, it’s dancing with your horse, and with the great, great riders, in the end they’re working as one, it’s almost zen like. When you really get it, the horse is really reading your mind, because of that communication. That’s the art of riding.

Sometimes in a lesson the student is just following directions, but without feeling or purpose. As the ear twitches, stop spurring! When the horse gives you a reaction, whether it’s off the leg or with the ear, release! They’re not just a motorcycle or a bike or something.

This is what I would like to share about communication: it’s a conversation, it’s dancing with your horse, and with the great, great riders, in the end they’re working as one, it’s almost zen like. When you really get it, the horse is really reading your mind, because of that communication. That’s the art of riding.