Self- Carriage.

Many people talk about it, but the more I travel and teach, the more I realize very few people have ever experienced what self-carriage ACTUALLY feels like, never mind how to achieve it.

This is true whether we are talking about self-carriage of the horse OR the rider!

Lucky for you, I know a very simple, easy way for both horse and rider to achieve self-carriage simultaneously.

Before I share this simple concept with you, let’s talk for a sec.

Helicopter Parents, Riders and Trainers

Have you ever heard the term “Helicopter Parent”?

As a Mom with 2 young children, I am only too familiar with helicopter parents. They are the ones picking out their children’s clothes every day, dressing their fully capable child (like you would dress a toddler), talking to their child’s school every day about their very special Sally or Jesse’s unique needs, swooping out to give fully capable Johnny his water bottle during the baseball game; the parent who is managing every minute of every day of that child’s life.

Can you surmise how I am going to relate this to equestrians?

In the horse world, they would term a helicopter parent into the horse term, “learned helplessness”.

Just like with children, if you don’t give your horse any personal responsibility, in other words, if you are managing EVERY MOVE and EVERY STEP your horse takes, they can simply shut their thinking brain off. When a person or horse is given personal responsibility within the learning process, they are strengthening more neural pathways in the brain, lighting up MORE AREAS of the brain and developing more interest in the lesson at hand. In other words, they are getting smarter and connecting the learning process with accomplishment and wellbeing.

It has been widely studied that if an animal or person is allowed to problem-solve during the learning process, they will understand the concept more wholly than if they had been dictated the information alone. Imagine the experience of working through a math problem and discovering the answer versus being spoon fed the answers. Eureka moments are very powerful when it comes to learning!

As if it weren’t bad enough, not only do we have helicopter riders but we have helicopter instructors! (Imagine my palm hitting my forehead).

How can a rider learn to think on their own if the instructor is dictating every move through the rider? These riders become so dependent on their “Trainers”, they literally can’t ride on their own, they don’t know what to do! Again, NO personal responsibility leads to the thinking, learning brain shutting off.


 Riding with Loose Reins


Nancy Spear and her mare Gwen nicely demonstrating self-carriage. Photos courtesy of Lara Peterson.


Now, before you get all tied in a bunch over this concept, hear me out.


Use common sense. If your horse is dangerous for you to ride, whizzing around like an ignorant fool while your horse snorts and bucks and kicks and takes off with you is not what I am talking about. Seek professional help if you are afraid of your horse. 

I am often teaching riders to “Let Go” and give the horse personal responsibility. I will undoubtedly see the look of anxiety flash over a rider’s face as I encourage them to give their horse freedom to move underneath them.

Here are some steps to get you on the right track:

  • This is most easily established in trot (flat walk or running walk for gaited horse friends out there)
  • Your SOLE responsibility in all of this as a rider is to simply tip the nose toward the direction you need to go then immediately let go again. Think: tip-give, tip-give. This encourages straightness.
  • Your horse must be allowed to travel forward and free. Think: bigger not faster
  • listen for you horse to breath- they will cough, groan, blow out with their nose and even yawn. This is an indication they have let their ribcage loose and have switched from their sympathetic (fight or flight, stress) nervous system to their parasympathetic (restful, relaxation, healing, calm) nervous system, another process that aids in learning! When a person or horse is operating within the parasympathetic nervous system, the brain is literally turned on to learning. The term for this concept is called neuroplasticity. Here is a link to learn more about neuroplasticity.
  • watch for the horse to shake their head- it often comes immediately after the big breathing change. This is an indication of a neurological release! It is a very good sign. I don’t mean an irritated head shake, but a very relaxed ear-flopping head shake. Very soon after they will also start to softly lick and chew.
  • allow the horse to naturally stretch forward and down when they feel the desire.
  • notice if you can feel the body of the horse fill out your leg. The horse will literally pull more air into the lungs and the hind leg will step further underneath the body acting as a piston to bring more air into the lungs. It’s actually an amazing set of mechanisms that happen. Another indication of the horse moving through his whole body in self-carriage. Here is a GREAT show that covers the whole process:

  • when the horse gets very relaxed he will want to slow down or stop. This is a natural response. They get very relaxed and will want to slow down and stop to enjoy the relaxation. Encourage them to keep going so they understand they can enjoy the relaxation while in movement. This is key.
  • give breaks often. Discovering self-carriage is an incredible workout for your horse both mentally and physically. He will tire quickly! Remember, in self-carriage they are using their entire body to move in balance! Don’t believe me? Try staying perfectly balanced and twirl on the ball of your foot. Now do it with a back-pack on. I have often seen horses seem to ask the rider in bewilderment, “are you sure this is OK? You’re allowing me to use my full power?”.
  • once you have loose-rein self-carriage consistently established, softly pick up on the reins keeping a slight bend to the inside while having an even, light feel in both hands. You will find the horse will go “on the bit” all by himself 🙂 (more on this is another article).

One of the biggest challenges riders face when first attempting this is self-reflection. It is difficult to accept your horse completely falling apart in the beginning. It will often feel like the horse has no idea how fast or slow to go as well as where their feet are. They have gotten so used to the counter-lever effect of using the rider as a 5th leg and being dictated where to conform their body, they are not entirely sure where to place themselves to find balance nor are they sure they are allowed to. To deepen your understanding, imagine doing a one-legged squat using a chair in front of you to balance and then trying it again taking the chair away. Notice how the level of concentration changes for each.

The truth of the matter is the horse learns to contort himself to live within the boundaries dictated by the helicopter rider. When self-carriage is established through a loose rein, your horse must take personal responsibility to find balance through movement. The challenge for the rider is allowing it to happen. The rider must switch from the chattering analytical brain to the chatter-free, feeling brain.

Rider Self-Carriage 

As a rider, you no longer have the counter-lever of the horse to balance from. You must balance on your own. This is much easier on a horse that has learned to balance and carry themselves. The great thing is loose-rein development of self-carriage is fool proof. You simply cannot balance off the reins. It will probably come as a pleasant surprise to know this won’t be as big of a challenge as you think. The biggest challenge is usually mental not physical.

If you are really struggling you can hold on to the front of your saddle to help you. I also suggest looking into Mary Wanless and Peter Dove’s, Rider Biomechanics to help you learn different ways to find your martial arts stance on a horse and develop true balance and rider self-carriage.

Here is a video with a good suggestion to develop your own balance. 

I am so excited for you and your horse to develop true self-carriage! Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments, leave me a message on the orange ask us button, or shoot me an email. I read every single one!







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