Assumptions and Knowledge


Photo: Crissi McDonald

I was in my mid-twenties when I started training horses (and assumed I knew more than I actually did).  I brought Jack, a young gelding, home. I’d given him a couple of weeks to settle in with my older gelding Caleb before riding him in the arena next to our house.

I caught him, groomed and tacked him up, and saddled him, making sure that the saddle fit. He was on his toes a little bit and moving around, but since I was a newly-hatched trainer, I thought I could “train” that out of him. Once I was riding, I decided it was time to see what his canter was about. I sat up straight, made sure the reins were relaxed and kicked his sides-gently, I thought-with both heels while making a kissing noise as loudly as I could.

He left the ground in a fine imitation of a rocket and then raced around the arena as though he’d eaten high octane fuel for breakfast. It became very clear very quickly that my arena was too small to contain a frightened galloping horse. I was so surprised I forgot to do anything for a few strides before I gathered up the reins and put some pressure on them to slow him down.

No response.

I started talking to him and relaxed the reins while trying to move with him at his frantic gallop. I noticed that despite all the flurry of his legs, he wasn’t actually going that fast.

Once we came down to a wide-eyed and hard breathing walk, I thought about what I’d just done. I had cued him for a canter with the same strength of cues that I had been using with my much more relaxed and experienced gelding.

This was my first lesson in how to NOT ride one horse like I’d ridden all horses.

I didn’t want to end our time together on that experience, so after a few rounds of a walk, I took a deep breath, relaxed and brought my calves closer to his sides by millimeters. I was smart enough at that point to not make any sounds as I did this. He leaped into a canter again, but this time he was less frantic and I could ask him to slow down with the reins. We did this a couple more times before stopping for the day.

This memory always conjures up two things for me; laughter because of my bravado and cluelessness, and the potent lesson that stays with me: an assumption is not the same as knowledge.

I made an assumption about Jack that I’d fostered while riding Caleb: horses need very big cues to know what we want. In the textbook definition of the word, I didn’t know I was operating on this assumption, so instead of paying attention to the horse I had under me I let my assumptions take control of the ride.

This is oh so rarely a good idea.


“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Tom Bodett


Looking back, if I had taken the time to be quieter – by dropping my agenda for a horse I didn’t know, by slowing down while grooming and saddling- I would have seen how nervous he was. I would have seen that perhaps we could work on riding skills another day. I would have felt that he wasn’t breathing. I could have helped him start to settle into his new home, instead of scaring the spots off him.

Learning to take things slowly is often the result of lessons learned the hard way. And learning these lessons may involve repeating them until we figure out exactly what is going on. The hard way sometimes has to get harder before we find out what it is we need to learn.

The other thing about assumptions is that it’s easy to keep them alive if we don’t examine what they are. It’s also easy to mistake assumptions for knowledge because assumptions are hidden and secret things. Horses are great at unmasking our assumptions and causing us to broaden our knowledge. This lesson that Jack taught me was the revelation of an assumption (all horses need big cues) and the beginning of setting me on the long road to gain knowledge-both about Jack as an individual and horses as a species.


Photo: Crissi McDonald

These days, whenever we get a new horse, we focus on finding out where the horse is comfortable and start there. Sometimes we can saddle up and ride and work. Sometimes it’s haltering and grooming and leading for a day or two. Wherever we start, where ever we are in the country and whatever horse we are working with, our goal doesn’t change; get to know the horse and help him feel confident about us and the job at hand.

Jack taught me not only to drop my assumptions about what I thought I knew, but he was also the horse who first taught me, over the course of our many years together, that a relationship built by knowledge, trust, and understanding will always go farther than assumptions and training.













20 responses to “Assumptions and Knowledge”

  1. Thanks for another wise and thoughtful essay, Crissi. I often think that the only reason I’m still walking relatively sound in my 50s is that horses as a species have been far more patient and tolerant with me than I ever deserved. Sometimes I feel like I’m spending my late-onset adult years trying to repay that debt by showing my present horses that kind of patience and understanding. It’s great that even in your 20s, you had the wisdom to learn from your horse, even if you would implement that learning a bit differently now — as I would too!

    1. Thank you, Tracey! I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about repaying a debt. Yes. And isn’t a good design of Nature’s that we are more physically resilient when we are younger and learning these kind of lessons? 😉

  2. I made the same mistake with my Arabian mare right after I brought her home. I assumed because I had known her for a few years, before actually owning her, that she would be just fine with me getting on to ride. I was wrong. Once I stepped back and realized how unfair I was to think that, I slowed WAY down and went back to square one. Much better idea!

    1. One of the many wonderful things about horses is that they teach us so much, just by being themselves.

  3. Tom Dorrance’s book, True Unity, has been in my bookshelf for many years, and I finally started to read it yesterday. Maybe I’m finally ready to read it. His book really supports your focus on listening to horses and the lesson of your first experience with Jack.

    Tom says:
    “In watching horses I try to let them tell me what is going on within themselves. There are so many things to try to bring out, it’s hard to get it separated and get it to order, so that people understand. … I am trying to bring out that the horse is really, really something special in his own uniqueness.”

    Thanks for sharing your experience with Jack and the lessons it has for all of us and our horses.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I’ve been a big fan of Tom Dorrance for a long time too. I haven’t re-read his book in awhile, but your post and quote has inspired me to pick it up again.

  4. I always enjoy your posts, Crissi. Knowledge, trust, and understanding over assumptions and training – yes, trying to live that we my guy.

    1. It’s a good way to be.

  5. Love this post. As always, I so relate to the wisdom you share. Having had my Morgan for 8 years now one would think I’d have “us “ down. Just today while riding I was reminded to just breathe and tell Sammy with my intention, seat, then cue (if needed) to canter. I’d been making the assumption that I needed to shout, when all that was needed was a whisper.
    Only being under your guidance once left such an imprint. I often return there. Thank you.
    Sammy thanks you.

    1. Shelley – thank you. You’ve given me a great big smile!

  6. Your essay leaves me thinking and realizing how often that is true with not just horses but people too. I had the disadvantage and advantage of welcoming my first horse late in life. It left me very humble so that was maybe good, but looking back the assumptions were maybe more about how I would be instead of him. So when I didn’t measure up to my assumptions of how I would be, it became very disillusioning. I then used too much pressure on myself and The horse taught me also to “be” present and listen and learn. Thank you for invoking some thoughtfulness on this.

    1. Thank you Jackie! I just realized from your comment that I am doing the same thing to myself with fiddle playing. Thank you for sharing your realization because it let me have one of my own!

  7. Wise words. I’ve been guilty of this assumption-making with both horses and people in the past. It once meant I ended up in a drainage ditch and then a wheelchair for six weeks. I now try to start every relationship, be it equine, human or canine, with a clean slate.

    1. Oh, those are difficult lessons to learn! I’m glad you came through that ok. I, too, am a fan of a clean slate. 😊

  8. I love this so much. I have been taught so much by the horses in my life. My mare has taught me the most- not just about her and the relationship but about myself as well.

    1. Teresa – Horses are generous like that. 😊

  9. Love this Crissi thanks for sharing !

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Thank you for letting me know, Pam!

  10. Omgosh! I so relate to this Crisis. My rescue mare was the same. I think because someone attempted to make her a reining horse and luckly for her she “failed,” but that left her a high sensitve to ANY pressure. My story did not end as well as yours, as I ended up in the dirt on my head with a concussion. Hard lesson learned and grateful it wasn’t worse. It’s taken us a long time (I am not a trainer) to come to a place of trust in this way. We are now working with a coach and it’s getting better every day. I’d love to have you here in Carbondale this summer! xoxo

    1. Thank you Sheri! I’m glad you came through such a traumatic experience ok.

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