The Spiral of Learning

If horsemanship is a spiral of learning, the outermost ring would be figuring out how to safely handle horses, learning the physical aids of riding, and how to efficiently balance ourselves on a horse’s back.   


Another turn of the spiral, and we learn how to make cues more subtle. We apply them with better balance, timing and feel.

After several revolutions of this spiral, though, is where many riders often get stuck, or plateau. One day, our horse becomes less responsive, and we give bigger cues. We feel stagnant. Or, we have a horse who defies every technique we know.

What ever the reason, the result is the same: at some point in our time with horses, we realize that what we know and what we are doing  aren’t evolving the way we spend time with our horse.

However, there is a doorway within every horse. If we are quiet and still, that doorway become a portal through which we can reach the next turn of the spiral.

What is this doorway?

It is the opportunity to connect at a level that underpins the essence of who horses are, and who we are too.  It is a tether to communicating at a level that is far older than language. Horses are masters at this language – as is most of nature. We are too, and it only takes a little practice to discover it.  

This language, for me, more closely resembles how we feel when we listen to our favorite music, as opposed to when we need to figure out a problem at work.

One way to begin to practice strengthening this sense, is by the use of the thought (and/or intention) of “we.” 

When a rider gives a physical cue, and the horse responds, that is a fairly surface way of communicating. It is what is sometimes referred to as “conditioned response.” We give a physical cue, and through systematic training, the horse executes the desired action.

The good stuff, the grit and substance of working with horses, however, spirals much further down.

We are talking about exploring the movement beginning on the inside of us.  We are walking, we are trotting; coupled with feeling the rhythm of the gait. Our intention is the bridge  to the inside of the horse.

Now the sequence would be: visualizing and feeling  “we are trotting,” before we offer the physical cue of a leg. 

This change of intention is essentially like using a turn signal to let other drivers know where you are going. Since riding (like driving) can be a non-verbal activity, we have developed signals to let the horse (other drivers) around us know what we intend to do.

Our change of intention does two things.

One, it lets the horse know, before we apply a physical aid, what we would like to do.

Two (and, I feel, more importantly), it creates a sense of togetherness. It’s no longer us doing something to the horse (squeeze of leg, lift of rein, etc), but rather we are now doing the same thing, at the same time. 

If we ride using only physical cues (and by the way, this is not a bad thing), horses will operate that way. If we ride seeking to use more subtle aids (such as the change of intention/thought, the use of breath), they will go that way too. The art of horsemanship lies not only in subtlety, but also within the heart and minds of both participants.

The art of horsemanship is a combination of the person’s and the horse’s spiral of learning. There is the potential for the horse’s spiral, and ours, to combine.  Oddly enough (or perhaps not), this appears elsewhere in nature, as a DNA helix. I thought it a useful image for what happens when we combine our talents with those of our horse.



Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the power of combined talents, along with the power of potential, from our horse Rusty.

Soon after he was dropped off at our place, we could tell that there was more going on than standard fatigue. Over the next several months, he was aloof, couldn’t be caught, and when he was, submitted to our care or being ridden with an air of defensive resignation that was painful to witness.


Photo: Crissi McDonald


After we had traveled with him for a year (during which we had helped him feel better physically by balancing his feet, body and teeth), we turned him out on a 35 acre pasture for the winter. We were hopeful that a human-free, six month rest would recharge him.

It turned out that he had eight months off, before Mark and I loaded him up and hauled him to a series of clinics in California. He was less worried, and catching him was easier, but he still didn’t interact with us much. 

Because he was having trouble keeping weight on, I started hanging a hay net in front of him while he was standing tied throughout the day. I found a feed he really liked, and started mixing herbs and supplements that would help his stomach. I noticed he was pretty thin skinned and sensitive to grooming, so I only used rubber currys and soft brushes on him. At first, his work day was about half an hour of riding, with a whole lot of eating. As the weeks went by, our saddle time and his eating time balanced out. 

At our last clinic in California, his eyes were bright, and his ears forward. His muzzle, once jammed up and wrinkled, had softened and relaxed.

We were getting to know one another. A horse who I, at first, sought to help because it seemed like he needed it, was quickly becoming a good friend. 


Photo: Chris Wolf


Up to this point, we had been working on him being able to carry himself with his head down, and doing a relaxed walk and trot. I had also been asking him to respond to the internal cues I was offering, instead of having to use a lot of leg or rein cues. He was opening up, and our time together was not only easy, but peaceful. I had a sense that Rusty was almost ready to show me who he was. Almost.

On the last day of the clinic, Rusty was feeling settled at the halt, walk and trot. Once we were in the trot, I thought about cantering with him, and offered a change of rhythm in myself first (going from the two beat of a trot, to the three beat of the canter). He tensed a little bit at this, and rushed through his trot. I  breathed more deeply and switched from a sitting trot to a relaxed posting trot. We did this for another lap, and I asked for the three beat again, this time using a bigger exhale, and a tiny bit of leg against his side. He rolled into an easy canter, with the kind of energy that makes a lap around an arena a short trip. He never got faster, but the canter got more powerful. It was as though he had rediscovered how to use his body. It even felt like he was enjoying it. 

We cantered for another couple of laps before we changed to the four beat of a walk. When we stopped, although he was breathing hard, he was quiet and there wasn’t much pressure on the reins.

I dismounted, patted him on the neck, then sat down so we could both digest what just happened. When I was seated, Rusty walked slowly over to me, and stood napping with his head over my lap. 

As I sat with the sun warming my back, it hadn’t escaped me that I needed the help too. And like good friends do, Rusty had offered his help. He had shown me what it is like to break through an internal barrier – and what life felt like when once unburdened by the drag of past hardships. 

We walk, we trot we canter. We can focus on the doing-ness (walk, trot canter, etc), or we can focus on the we-ness.

Either way, our horses will do just about anything we ask – their nature allows for this. But a horse doing something with just their bodies is a far cry from a horse doing something from their heart.

The same could be said of us.


Photo: Chris Wolf

36 responses to “The Spiral of Learning”

  1. Wonderful message, as usual ( : Especially fun to read since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Rusty.

    1. Awww – thank you Kim! He’s out on pasture again, having a much needed rest before we start going again in January.

  2. Really beautiful Crissi. Well put and something I’ve been struggling to find words for as I work with others. Thank you! I’ll be sharing this 🙂

    1. That means SO much to me, Andrea. I appreciate and am grateful for your support in this – I am finding my way through some new territories and hearing that what I have to say is coherent and helpful – well, that is a good thing.

  3. So beautifully written. I completely agree. I have a “new horse”, he came just over a year ago. He worries a lot. I have spent the year respecting his nature, positively reinforcing his tries and ignoring things I don’t really want. In other words, trying to be his friend and talk his language. I feel us getting closer and him trusting me more. After reading this, I’ll work on more consciously thinking “we” when we’re together.
    I truly love how you think about horses.

    1. Terri – what kind words! Thank you! It sounds like you are on a path with your horse that is going to show you many wonderful things. Best wishes to you both, and thank you again for writing.

  4. Crissi thank you so much for putting this feeling into words. I have struggled with being able to explain this spiritual experience to my friends with horses. You really pinpointed the experience.

    1. Oh good! Thanks Kathy! It’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. I am glad it makes sense in the journey from my head to the keyboard. 😉

  5. Just beautiful, Crissi. I so enjoyed reading this. So nice to see Rusty recognising some humans taking the time to be together and do things together, as softly as possible. You’ve done a lot for him (how lucky was he to meet you?!) but I love how you honour him by expressing how much he’s also for done for you. For me, that is a crucial aspect of the ‘we’ attitude 🙂

    1. Thank you, thank you. I am endlessly grateful that we (as horse people, and, hopefully as a species) are evolving this way.

      Rusty had a pretty rough go of things. I don’t think he’d felt a soft touch or physical comfort in a very long time. We’ve had him a year and a half, and he has come a very long way from the horse he was.

      But, as always with this beautiful creatures (and I am sure you know this too), they give us so much more than we give them. Rusty is fortunate, but I am doubly so!

      1. That’s a wonderful attitude, beautifully expressed. I know my few horses well, Crissi but I haven’t met the number or variety that you have, let alone dealt with those like Rusty who’ve had such a hard time.

        We treat our horses the best we know how and it’s gratifying to see the love and curiosity that is returned. But for me your piece was testament to the ‘forgiveness’ of the horse when a fresh and gentle approach is offered consistently and over a sufficiently long time. I doubt they have a concept like forgiveness. More likely they are prepared to start afresh when new people present a new attitude. Just think what the world could be like if humans could learn that lesson!

        1. Well said. I think you’re exactly right. They are prepared to start fresh, because their present moment tells them it is safe to do so.

          I, too, have often admired horses emotional flexibility. It is something that I will spend the rest of my life practicing!

  6. Feels so different when the horse wants to do it rather than just going through the motions for fear of what might happen if they don’t. There’s just no fun in it unless the horse is a willing participant.

    1. Agree, agree, agree! That idea (of horsemanship not being beautiful unless the horse is a willing participant)goes all the way back to Xenophon. It is heartening to see that we (as humans) may finally be getting that! 😉

  7. I had a pretty good ride after reading this. For training my gaited horse to do the desired gait, having the feel and rhythm of it going in my whole being is going to be the ticket to keep him ticking. We even kept the beat on some turns to downhills. I’m afraid I need to be lots more disciplined. See you again in January BTW! I’m bringing this horse. Maybe I should bring two.

    1. Hi Carolyn – that is so cool! I had a gaited horse for many years, and as forward as he was, he gaited with more relaxation once I learned to go with him. This is definitely like any other habit, riding or not. The more consistent we are, the easier it will be.

      I’ll look forward to seeing you in January! (whether you have one or two horses) 😉

  8. Thank you for this . I’ve only had the honor of riding with you once. In that one time though, you shared the “we” intention idea with me. It was mind blowing, and I might say, a bit embarrassing to me that it had never occurred to me before! How selfish I felt! What a wonderful feeling to be united with your pony instead of being apart. One thought, one unit, intention is so powerful.
    So hope to ride with you again.
    All the best, Shelley and Sammy

    1. Shelley! Thank you! I appreciate your kind words, and am SO glad to hear that you and Sammy are having fun with “we.” I also hope that I can make it down there again soon. All the best to you too!

  9. Thank you, Crissy. This is wonderful. I am appreciative that you’ve given of yourself (and Rusty) to us all.


    1. Thank you Virginia – that’s touching to hear. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share all this wonderfulness!

  10. Thank you for sharing. That was amazing. Its brought a tears to my eyes.
    I will share it with my Horsey friends, that I know will enjoy it. I only started riding 8 years ago, have 3 mares and know in my 60’s. I do appreciated hearing other peoples horsemanship journey’s.

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it, Helen. My horse Rusty brings tears to my eyes quite frequently. His willingness to trust again is amazing to me. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know you liked this! All the best on your horsemanship journey!

  11. That is so beautiful. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

    1. Just like your smile. 🙂 xoxo

  12. Thank you SO much Crissi. This actually brought tears to my eyes. It was a mirror of my experience with Dreamweaver…we just haven’t gotten over that hill yet. I hold it in my heart that someday she and I can work with you. Thanks for sharing this beautiful journey with us.

    1. Thank you Sheri! You and Dreamweaver will find your way over that hill. I too hope someday to work with you both. Gratitude to you for taking the time to let me know what this meant to you! xo

  13. Loved, loved, loved this. Spoke volumes to me and validated a lot of my journey with Twilight. Spot on – once again – 🙂

    1. Thank you Andrea! I so appreciate hearing that you liked this! xo

  14. This is truly a lovely post. Very true and important to be aware of the intention… Such a beautiful and heartwarming story!

    1. Thank you, Sophie – I appreciate your letting me know!

  15. Beautifully put Crissi, It reminds me what I am striving to be for my horses, having those words ‘we-ness’ to get me back on track when I get too busy ‘doing’ 🙂 I love hearing and reading your stories – can’t wait to spend more time with you XXX

    1. Thank you for your encouragement and kinds words, Linda. I can’t wait to sped more time with you too! xo

  16. The first time I was able to feel the horse doing everything out of his heart instead of only his body was after I read “horses never lie”. That book was the first book that showed me what was wrong with the alpha way of thinking. And after changing my way of thinkink and starting to work with the horse instead of against the horse, the horse started to do what I asked willingly. That still is an amazing feeling.
    The books from Mark Rashid are the only books considering horses that really gave me the feel that is needed to train horses in a friendly way. It also showed how I could give my heart, so I could get the horse’s heart too.
    Being a true partner of the horse is one of the best things ever to experience.

    1. Thank you, so much, for writing. That book is one of my favorites too, and they have all influenced me in my quest to be a better person for my horse. I agree: being a true partner is one of the best things to experience.

  17. Really well put concepts. I can feel the ride with Rusty. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your journey. I so appreciate the emphasis on the ‘we’ and the bridge of intention. You inspire me to connect with a horse, and to give myself equal opportunity to grow inside as I develop the practice portion. Thank you for writing!

    1. Thank you thank you Erica! You inspire me all the time, to be a more conscious and grounded human being. Thank you for continuing to show up with your beautiful friendship!

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