From the Outside, In.

“We like horses because they are smart, but we train them like they’re stupid.”

Mark Rashid


During a dressage lesson many years ago, my instructor had me put my horse Caleb in a double bridle (which has both a curb bit and a small snaffle called a bridoon), fasten the cavesson around his jaw as tight as it would go, and tighten the curb chain. She was frustrated that my horse wouldn’t “collect.” So we were going to make him collect.

After I got back on him, gathered up all four reins as he arched his neck stiffly, my instructor smiled for the first time that hour, said “Now we are getting somewhere! Make him walk.”

He didn’t.

To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t do anything. He was an excellent bucker when he got out of sorts, but for reasons only known to him, he stood, tense and unmoving.

That’s the point where the instructor’s wisdom–“Kick him harder! Hit him with the crop!” –faded into background noise and I agreed with my horse: no more.

I dismounted, unbuckled both the curb strap and cavesson and took off the bridle. I paid for my lesson and hauled Caleb home, crying the whole time.


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Caleb and Crissi 1994



Over the following months, all the gear I’d collected gathered a thick layer of dust in the tack room. The various bits for various purposes showed signs of rust. The leather of the German martingales, draw reins and figure eight nosebands, which I once kept polished and supple, now went into a trunk. The lessons stopped.

I had heard of an equine massage therapist (in those days, a rare breed), and an acupuncturist for horses (even rarer) and had them out to work on Caleb. In the evenings I’d ride him at a leisurely walk, bareback with a halter and lead rope. His head was down, his back relaxed and swinging and I knew in those moments that what I was looking for was something much different than what I had grown up with.


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Caleb and Crissi 1996


That search took awhile, but in the end, I was both upset and elated when I heard Mark say the words above. Because if I had been (very unintentionally) training my horse like he was stupid, that meant I could change and treat him like he was smart.

What I know now is that horses have survived millions of years being tuned into their environment and their herd. They are masters of subtlety. Their timing and control of their bodies is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is all coupled with a tolerant nature. Their intelligence expresses itself differently than ours, but that makes it no less potent. 

It doesn’t take a million mindless repetitions for a horse to “get it.” Most horses understand what we are looking for within minutes. It is our clarity, patience, and self-control that are effective teachers. What we do on the outside merely supports how we are on the inside.

I’m not saying that training tools are bad; years later, I took lessons on a fourth level dressage horse with a teacher who taught me how to use the double bridle with subtlety. The work we did together still shines in my memory. As with anything else, it’s how the horse feels about what you are doing that determines whether or not the tools are helpful.


Rusty and Crissi 2017                       Photo: Gail Fazio


Those two years with a dressage instructor were primarily focused on how to balance my body (which was valuable), even when on the inside I was frustrated, seething, and feeling defeated. What I am learning now, is how to remain in a balanced state of mind, and use external cues secondary to my intent.

Horses are able to learn some pretty fancy stuff in spite of us. Think how much further we could go if we are willing to put the time into learning how to ask for it in a way that both involves the inside of us (intent and focus), and at the same time, honors their intelligence. It often occurs to me that the art of horsemanship is a lot about staying out of a horse’s way. And staying out of the way shows faith in who horses are.

Every horse we touch is the recipient of the knowledge we have at the time. I made my fair share of mistakes with Caleb; he still went on to have a great life as my trail riding buddy and when he was older, a kind and quiet lesson horse. He taught me many valuable lessons, but none so valuable as the importance of listening to the horse.








33 responses to “From the Outside, In.”

  1. Wonderful! Thank you thank you thank you! I love it that your horse stopped and wouldn’t move. I love it even more that you honored his request! I believe the majesty, strength, beauty, and grace of a horse is a reflection of who we are within. To honor such majesty honors within.

    1. Yes! Well said, Von. Thank you for writing that.

  2. Love this! So beautifully stated.

    1. Thank you Rebecca!

  3. In fall 1994 I fell in love with a horse at a CA feedlot – it wouldn’t have matter if he had bucked me off the first time I got on – I was in love. Over the next 11 years as he taught me to relax, as we developed a trust and understanding of each other – he taught me if I expected him to listen to me then he deserved the same. He was at first very very hot to ride he simply had one gear – head tossing jig. He was exhausting to ride. The best thing I ever did was take the bit out of his mouth. Once I did that I never put it back in as it was as if the chomping on the bit was the start up of all the hot horse behavior. I had never been a confident trail rider, but Merlin and I became amazing trailblazers.
    One day we were out and got to a small running stream – he refused to cross it. It was crisp and clear, and I asked a second time. Nope, not going. Third time I asked I got the same answer – “nope, not going to cross this.” Finally I just realized ‘wait a minute, he never says no…’ So I turned around and went another way. When I told the story later that evening….quick sand. He refused to cross quick sand.
    Once you learn to listen to them – and it becomes a partnership – – – the adventure begins!

    1. Hooray and yes and that’s what I enjoy hearing. Good for you and lucky Merlin.

  4. This is a wonderful article! There are a ton of people out there who should read it and really take it in. After what I witnessed at a small show this weekend, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not the training that’s stupid, it’s the trainers! That was harsh….lots of good trainers out there…only I saw terrible ones at the show and I need to vent to some sympathetic ears!

    1. I was in that world long enough to know what you’re talking about.

      These days I have to believe that those folks think they are doing it right, because that is how it’s “been done” for centuries. While I disagree, I also hope that something in their life causes them to rethink their position. I was lucky to have Caleb teach me. Thank you for your compliment!

  5. Very well stated. Everyone agrees that horses are sentient, but no one wants to actually treat them that way. Good for you. I hope that we all continue to learn all we can from horses.

    I have spent more than half my life in dressage and never met a trainer like your first. She would have been a monster in any tack, I fear. I’m glad you found better trainer the second try.

    1. Thank you Anna – that means a lot to me. I, too, am hopeful that as we continue to evolve that horses will be on the receiving end of that growth.

      Yeah, that trainer. I haven’t run into another one because after that I became very choosy about whose hands I put myself in. These days I feel fortunate to not only survived those years, but come out with a horse (sweet Caleb) who didn’t completely turn on me for it. These creatures are so. Dang. Amazing!

  6. I am crying with so much love right now. My body was tense as I was reading this and then woosh! It all released and now I am tingling all over and the tears are comforting. Thank you Crissi-this is what I have been working on. You and Mark have been a tremendous influence on me being more relaxed and watching my horses blossom through softness – no restraints, no getting angry, no pushing/driving, just mind and intent❤️❤️

    1. Wow, thank you Mary Ellen! I’m happy to hear that softness is something you’re still practicing. It just gets cooler the longer you go. 😃

  7. Wise words Crissi! Thank you for the reminder 🙂

    1. Thank you for writing Jaye!

  8. Thanks so much for this reminder, Crissi. I love reading your posts and always find them helpful, a reminder to stay on the path of understanding and patience rather than “results”. The journey with my horse has been long and challenging and I am so thankful for people like you and Mark, who help me to remember why I love horses and what it’s really all about.

    1. You’re welcome – thank you for taking the time to write and let me know what this means to you. I think horses get easier to love, the less agenda we have for them. 😊

  9. What a timley topic for me to read today. Just came in from riding (counting all the while obviously). I have a new addition to my herd, a 13.2 Welsh Cob. He has no manners on the ground presently. Today with his ground work I found myself using much stronger corrections than I usually do. I caught myself and then took the time to look in his eyes. I saw that he wasn’t being belligerent, he just had no idea of what I was upset about. We, I, took a breath and started over with very quiet corrections to give him the chance to react correctly to a lesser guideline. He came up to the bar that I offered him, and we ending up in harmony.

    I share this because I obviously was deeming him “stupid” for not understanding, and all the while it was me who was not explaining clearly enough.

    I so appreciate your knowledge and your sharing.

    Horses are such a gift. They allow us to grow in oh so many ways!

    All the best, Shelley

    1. Shelley – now that is great. Just beautifully said and I’m sure your new guy was appreciative too. Way to go and thank you for sharing this!

  10. This is well stated. And so true. Thank you

  11. Beautiful Crissi, love this. I’m returning to horses after many years and this is the way I want to be with them. Look forward to hearing more from you:)

    1. Thank you, Kim. This is how I want to continue being with them too. 🙂

  12. Love this Christina! “…use external cues secondary to my intent.” You could write a whole post just about this. Reminds me of those magical moments with Ben using intention and breath. One of the highlights and deepest connections of my life. Thank you, dear SSL.

    1. Dear SSL – thank YOU! I think I could write a whole book about it, it’s such a rich world. It was a great highlight to be with you and Ben. xoxo

  13. I love your posts!

    I’ve come to realize that when horses balk, they are telling us “I don’t think you know what you’re doing”. Most times they’re right. When I’m sure I do know what I’m doing, I try explaining it a different way until I either make myself clear or realize that I didn’t really know what I was doing.

    1. Thank you, Curtis! Yes, horses have many ways of communicating with us, and although sometimes we don’t like what they have to say, they are often times correct.

  14. Hi Chrissy, love your blog and Mark’s teachings/philosophy.

    Was curious, do you know of any helmets that look like a hat and less like a helmet? I noticed your hat in the photo and wondered if it was a helmet as well?

  15. I just love this one Crissi. Thank you for speaking so eloquently about a subject dear to my heart!

    1. That means SO much to me, Andrea; thank you! The more we listen, the more amazing horses get, right?

  16. “honor their intelligence”
    love this!
    thank you

    ~ katie 💫

  17. First, I have to admit I am not a very good rider, but I really love and appreciate my horse and wanted to improve my skills for him. So several years ago, I sought out an instructor who was highly recommended. The first 5 or 6 lessons were okay. Not great, but we made slow progress. Well it wasn’t fast enough for her and in an attempt to get the “proper headset”, she took out her draw reins. It was awful. My horse was trembling and sweating. Now normally when he gets really frustrated or upset, he shuts down. I had never seen this behavior. I ended the lesson and left the indoor. He was still quivering 20 minutes later and I could not get him to load in the trailer without help.

    That was my last lesson with that instructor, even though I had prepaid for several more. What was disturbing is the instructor did not notice or care about his discomfort.

    The lesson I learned that night was not about riding. Thankfully, horses are forgiving creatures and we have a strong relationship. I may not be the best rider but we both trust and take care of each other.

    1. I think the trusting and taking care of one another far outweigh the “stuff” we do with horses. Good for you for listening to your horse! I hold out hope for trainers like this, that someday they will see something different and soften toward the horse.

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