You can only know what you know….

Where it all starts…

You have all heard it, “modern vs classical” or even something along the lines of “one formula fits all vs doing whats best for the individual horse”. No matter whether you do dressage, eventing, or ranch work, i feel there is always some kind of one versus another. Sometimes it a matter of opinion, or a matter of what work for each rider.

The other day I was watching a popular instructional youtube series for riding horses, personally I liked them a lot because they started out with really great exercises for jumping and flat work. Though the other day, I realized they were getting more into “training” videos – such as how to load your horse, what to do if your horse doesn’t stand at the mounting block, even for riders subjects of improving your seat at the sit trot ect…. Honestly I was not impressed! I felt a lot of their techniques opposite of what I teach, and what I found works for me and my students! I thought, this is where a lot of people are going to get frustrated, because these tools won’t work for everyone’s personal situation. They are not right, but they are certainly not wrong either. Everyone only knows what they know, what works for them, and whats been proven to work repeatedly. How is it though that we know what we are doing is going to work for anyone besides just us?

If it works, it works

So if something isn’t right or wrong, and it works that means just keep doing it right? Wrong, but not many people take a step back to evaluate what they are doing. Students get a little more leeway in my mind since they are “still learning”, BUT a self proclaimed trainer is putting out their that the tools and techniques work on any horse or rider, which is not always the case. If that was the case we wouldn’t have any horses that are deemed “dangerous” and they wouldn’t be taking the blame for poor training and un-educated riders wouldn’t be putting their horses through hell trying to force them along.

I heard recently on a facebook post, that someone knew of a western pleasure person who tied their horses heads high in a stall for hours, only so that when they take them down to ride they drop their heads in that nice low frame. Now in my opinion, that is absolutely cruel and extremely unreasonable, yet there are people out there who do it. Yet the same could be said for a lot of disciplines with “behind closed doors” shortcuts to attaining their goals (rolkur or hyper-flexion per say, can easily be reached with using draw reins inappropriately, not that its the best option for the animal but some are not thinking that way!). Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, what they do works for them, so they keep doing it. I say if they were invested in the quality of life for their animals, they would find a different way to get the desired results….why don’t they? Maybe fear of something else not getting the desired result, being scorned for doing something different, god forbid they don’t win that show or get that ribbon!!!. There are many different options out there, my goal is to find the ones that get me the results I want, with no expense to my horses mental or physical well being.

Stepping outside the box

If I told you to speak to me in latin, you might give me a hairy eyeball look followed by silence….if you don’t know it that’s ok, but why have all these languages out there and only know how to speak one?? Doesn’t make you wrong or right, but you continue speaking it because it’s what you know, and your very comfortable when you know something for certain. What if I told you though that latin was the universal language? Would you try to learn it? Or would you stick to your comfort zone? If you only knew a couple words would you stop and say, “yeah im good with that, I know the basics to get me by”. Truth is that theory is a lot like our modern day horsemanship. We have all these different styles, and yet no matter who you go up to, it changes slightly for everyone. There is no “universal language” for horsemanship, people do what works for them, or what they have seen works for others. There is little to no understanding, yet they saw that it seemed to work, so they copied it. To me that’s kind of like carrying on a long sentence in a different language and having no idea what your actually saying…sounds ridiculous right? Yet I see so many out there who are sort of doing that, they tug and kick and command there horses here, there and everywhere, but really have no understanding of the conversation they are carrying on with the horse….If there is even a conversation at all. I think a lot of horse people don’t even really know what the horses are saying, or they interpret things in a “non-horse” sense by making the animal too human or putting too much emotion onto the horse. If you don’t speak the language of the horse, learn that first, small steps at a time, don’t try to force a conversation in a language you don’t speak. Just because you can imitate it, doesn’t mean you should.

Just becuase you can doesn’t mean you should

The phrase is not only simple, but self explanatory. If you can do it, does not mean you should. Example: I just bought a 3 year old horse who has superb grand prix jumping bloodlines, he can jump 5ft – Does not mean get on the horse and aim him at the highest jump. People forget horses are very capable animals, they are amazing in the fact that given the right tools and guidance, they can accomplish just about anything. You have to understand that unlocking that potential is a specific combination for each horse, if you don’t have the correct combination, your physically and mentally putting your horse at risk. Just like us, horses need to understand as well, we typically call this the “foundation work”. Problem is we skim this work to progress quicker. To give a better idea of that would be “my horse can walk trot canter and he jumped a 18 inch crossrail, he jumped it pretty big so I think I will give that 3 foot fence a go, he SHOULD be able to jump it no problem”. So he crashes through it, and now his confidence is busted, or maybe he stops and throws you, now he is left without guidance and confused and your in the dirt. I once saw the quote “practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect”, its not just about I can canter, it’s HOW do you canter? It’s not I can jump 5ft, it’s HOW you jump 5ft. Don’t just do something for the heck of it, because even if you get really good at making it work without a good solid foundation, you will spend your life forcing tasks onto horses, and having to do a heck of a lot more than you should have to to compensate for both you and the horse.

Never stop growing

So if your thinking, how do I know if I am communicating clearly with my horse? How do I know if I am doing things that work, but are not the best option for my horse? How do I know if I a doing things just because I can? Well a good start is you have to begin viewing the world with an open mind. Take off the lenses of opinion and see things for what they are! Or in some sense put yourself into the animals position, it’s one thing to scold for inappropriate behavior, it’s another to be left standing uncomfortably for hours just for a certain frame. How would your take be on what you are currently doing with your horse? How does it compare to everyone else?? Not just the people you look up to but when I say everyone I mean everyone. So what your an eventer, if Guy McLean (if you don’t know him look him up) can run through a successful dressage test bareback with a neck rope, and your thinking of advancing to a bigger bit because your horse id too heavy….you might want to rethink your conversation with your horse. Don’t just advance to the next biggest bit becuase “thats what the pro’s do”, or some lame excuse like that. Take a step back and go, wow if that guy can do it with next to nothing on and still have a light soft horse, what do I need to learn to progress in that direction. Who cares if you’ll never compete in a neck rope, the principles are whats important, not the tack.

My personal take

How I came to be the horsewoman I am today, is by taking in all sorts of opinions and methods and techniques, and really soaking them in, in some instances even applying them. Some, it takes a little longer than others but eventually I sort out what works from what doesn’t, and what is fair to the animal versus what isn’t. In my opinion, it’s the least we can do for our horses in a world where they already have little to no say over their lives, to not force more and more at them. At the same time, my goals are very specific and yet very broad : To keep learning and growing, to keep transforming into a more educated horsewoman than I was yesterday : To keep advancing my techniques and tools, so I can be efficient and effective in communicating to the horse : To always do whats right for the animal and to give them the chance to become a partner not a slave to my personal goals. If these sound like goals that interest you, then take my advice and make absolutely 110% sure that every time your working with your horse, you have their best interest at the top of the list and your methods are backing that up!Knowledge is power, what we know can change everything, so make sure what you know is accurate and fair, before you start trying to apply it.


What you can achieve from understanding the whole horse as opposed to not just bits and pieces, can mean literally a world of a difference. I love how these horses i’m riding are looking relaxed and content, and also soft and correct mechanically in their bodies. Language of the body and mind, is the universal language of the horse.  Learn the language people! You will be glad you did 🙂

PicMonkey Collage


Conversations with our horses

When I’m talking with horses.

Every species has a unique way of communication through vocal or physical actions. I find my conversations with horses to be usually a matter of pressure and release, or friction and content. No matter what I am doing, or what task I am asking them to do, it seems consistently come back to those subjects. It’s because conversation with horses is really that simple, it’s us as humans that end up complicating things. We are emotional and really good at over thinking simple things, but that’s OK because all you have to do is be aware of it. Slow things down, really think of what your saying before you say it. Mean what you say each and every time. You can’t have your 2 legs mean forward one day and then your stick on another…consistency is key. Don’t expect your horse to get on the first day, or in a month, or whenever, they get it when they get it. Until they do, don’t force the subject, educate them on it.

To talk with a horse, one must be like the horse

Be proactive in your conversations, if it wasn’t for people horses would keep to themselves, you always have to go first! Horses have a strict progression scale, for example there is a pile of hay one horse is already eating from, but another decides he wants that pile, so he directs his intentions towards that horse – pins his ears to say “here is your cue to move” – and then maybe a lunge or bite or kick, some kind of fuss. The idea is he was quietly telling him to move way before he even got to the hay pile. For us people, I call it the volume scale. It goes from 1 -10, and varies depending on each persons intensity. Depending on where you naturally fall on the “universal scale” whether you tend to be more timid or assertive, some need to learn to speak up and others to quiet down. These conversations change from horse to horse, because horses have their own scales too.

Work on the basics before diving into the deep end

How I see it our goal with horses always comes back to the fact that we want our horses to respond off the softest cue, and perform effortlessly. With both of these goals one thing is mutual : understanding. In order to respond the horse needs to understand the question being asked and knows the right answer. In order to be effortless, the horse needs to not only mentally understand the job but physically be able to perform it. If your horse isn’t physically fit enough to perform the tasks, the conversation is going to be a struggle no matter what. Our biggest way of complicating things is we do too much too soon! Not because we need to advance, but because we want to. I can’t tell you how many times in french class I would hear someone say, how do you say this?! What about that?! Even though that was way beyond our basic entry level, and wasn’t even going to come up until much much later. We get so caught up in advancing little things, that we sacrifice the basic’s and then can’t figure out why we are having problems later on! The better you get at building that basic conversation with your horse now, the less trouble you will have later on.

Taking the lead

I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for some of these horses. If I was forced to do a bunch of tasks with a Russian yelling at me, my brain would be pretty fried but I think over time I would piece things together….hopefully. A lot of riders and trainers struggle because they are the same with their horses, if a horse doesn’t truly know, they can only assume and if they are assuming they are never going to feel comfortable in the conversation, I know I wouldn’t. The most simple way to see if your horse understands is in consistency. When ever you feel something changes from day to day, there is probably a “communication breakdown” somewhere. Take a step back and look at what your doing, if your stumped then get some help!

Putting it all together

You can’t have one without the other, to me someone who has poor communication on the ground with the horse, is going to have a harder time in the saddle. Now this is coming the cold hard truth, not some made up theory. I have seen people come up with 101 reasons why horses are doing this or that, but they don’t truly know, because they were never educated on the horses language. The others who know bits and pieces typically end up assuming in other area’s, which is not a solid bridge to be walking on. So here is my suggestion, go out and learn from every single type of trainer out there, listen to their techniques and theories and think on it. These are all people that “know the language”, but do they really and what do the horses have to say about it? Are they soft, relaxed, content? Or do they have the outline of a horse that’s assuming things? Can’t tell the difference, think you have the “real deal” trainer?  How do they work with other horses? How do they clients or students ride? Dig a little, immerse yourself and do it with an open mind. Not everything you see you will like, but it will give you an idea of where your at. Work to be really fluid in your basic conversation, the day to day stuff that too often gets overlooked. The advanced stuff will come when you and your horse are ready.


Remember it’s a conversation, there are two of you, your role is to lead it, not to force it. Help your understand, without micromanaging or doing it all for them – they won’t really understand if your always filling in the blanks for them. Most importantly, keep it simple and keep it fair. No conversation needs any emotion, if your frustrated because your horse is  not “getting it”, whose responsible for helping them understand??? If you can’t be helpful, find someone who can, rather than grabbing some piece of equipment to make them understand. Never stop educating yourself, and make sure when your sorting out what works from what doesn’t, try your best to retain quality information/techniques. Also have patience with your horses, after all they are basically a reflection of the conversations.

Til next time,

– D


Right – Chinook stands quietly ground tied, while pete and jess ride around. Everything about this picture is soft and relaxed. The horses understand and are content with the tasks.

“the aware ones”

I believe the term “ignorance is bliss”, needs a little reworking. More along the lines of “ignorance is bliss, if your bliss is an aggravating, dangerous, absolute catastrophe”.  If only us horse people had an abundant knowledge source to save us from this tragedy! So that we may learn how to be aware handlers and use proactive horsemanship! Problem is there is an overwhelming abundance of opinions out there in the world and a “not so obvious” approach to sort out all the right from the wrong.

Since I have started my horse journey I have had people tell me a hundred and one (exaggerating of course) ways to lead a horse, seen my fair share of horse trailer loading tricks and stunts, and have experienced a whole lot of speeches, videos, books, lessons, clinics on how to “ride a horse”. Its absolute chaos when you think of it! So why hasn’t the horse community simply come up the all in one how to do everything involving a horse? I believe its because there is no one right way to care, work, train, ride a horse. Especially with all the different disciplines out there today! I believe though that there ARE really wrong ways of interacting with horses. Here is my breakdown.

With anything we do in life, there seems to be a wrong and right choice, but a lot of times it’s not so black and white. We have this thing called “being human”, and even when we know something is wrong, we can choose to do it anyway! Morals and common sense are our only saving grace at the end of the day, or as I like to say AWARENESS! We have to learn to be aware before we can indulge ourselves in true horsemanship and honest with ourselves before we can learn how to apply it.

When I get out and about, I usually end up observing someone who is going about their equine routine. Whether on the ground or under saddle, everyone can use some adjusting, some more than others. When i’m looking for “the aware ones” there are two things I look at, 1. the horse’s overall content, relaxation in their entire body, willingness and correct muscle development (certain muscling shows a horse that’s been pushed to far to fast or forced into a position if you know what to look for!). 2nd I look at the rider or handler – their seat, hands, use and effectiveness of aids, and overall fluidity. A handler has a relaxed horse, patient and attentive, they are subtle when working with the horse and direct when they need to educate the horse.

So how do the people go from ignorance to aware? It’s not through some step by step planned out program, so cross that right off the list! Though some of these “programs” do have bits and pieces correct, but they’re not for every horse. Learn from someone else who is aware in any way – lesson, clinics, videos, books. Have an open mind, and be extremely observant.  Don’t be afraid of trial and error, you can keep yourself in check by having a “conversation” with your horse (they are the best teachers).  If they relax, snort, lick&chew, consistently blink, lower their head or my personal favorite have floppy ears, your on the right track! In most cases any kind of rushing, rigid, kicking, biting, bucking, pushy, tense, wide eyed, high headed, horse is telling you something is not working. THIS WORKS BOTH WAYS under saddle and on the ground – think of a horse like a huge puzzle, you can’t have “most” of the pieces filled in and go “yea that’s good enough”, without the rest you will never have a “nice whole finished picture”. Some get by until they want to advance or until their horse tries to tell them that what they have been doing all along doesn’t really work.

Lesson for this time is, constantly be trying to improve, even if it’s on little things – riding can always be lighter, your aids can always be more subtle, your horse can only keep learning positively if you are too. Rethink your tools and methods – just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. DO NOT WING IT – trial and error is A PLAN – you have to be specific in knowing what your trying to achieve. Stay focused, you get to learn from your mistakes, the ones who do the best are the ones who never stop trying to learn!

Til next time!




Danielle Gabree is a rider and trainer currently training and competeing in Eventing. Danielle has over 15 years experience riding and training horses. She works with all stages of horses, no matter what age or situation. She enjoys bringing horses along in a positive and productive manner. Danielle is available for horse training or as a rider. Please see the contact page for information regarding rates and services.