What does horsemanshıp mean to you?

Updated: Jun 18, 2018

Horsemanship is a study but it is important to describe what does it mean to you because sometimes it means different things to different riders, trainers, grooms... I saw some people singing to the horses and calls it horsemanship, I saw some riders sleep with their horses, I saw some trainers teaching some tricks to the horses and calls it horsemanship. I have been working on equine behavior at a university and horsemanship study of FEI. Therefore today I want to share the study of FEI with you a little bit to give you the idea of the term "horsemanship."


The relationship is often labeled as horsemanship, defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as the art of riding, handling and training horses (Casolani, 2015) with the suffix –ship being used to denote ‘skill, act or power.’ The various techniques for management and training have been developed and passed down from generation to generation primarily by word of mouth and literature. In fact, the first recognized study of the horse-human relationship was by Athenian soldier and historian Xenophon in 350 BC through his treatise known as Peri Hippikēs, translated in English to ‘On Horsemanship,’ whereby the process of selection, care and training of horses was shared and explored. This is often referred to as the foundational classical philosophical framework of horse training (Gilbert, 2014).  Socialization into equestrian sport is primarily accomplished through entry into a riding school or local riding club. In Great Britain, for example, the Pony Club was established in 1929 to encourage youth, defined as those between the ages of eight to twenty five, to both ride and provide instruction on proper horsemanship. These organizations provide a systematic method to instill a base level of horsemanship knowledge and skills by encouraging members to progressively learn about horse care and riding by completing and successfully passing levels both theoretical and practical in increasing difficulty. However, this framework provides no guarantee that horse owners or riders will seek it. As a result, there is a large discrepancy in the level of knowledge riders have regarding different topics.

Equine Ethology

Defined as the study of animal behavior in a natural environment whereby natural selection has acted to shape behavior, equine ethology not only describes equine communication but also their needs, preferences and motivations (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). For domestic animals the effect of natural selection have largely been replaced by artificial selection by humans who control access to resources such as food, shelter and mates (Goodwin, 1999). Nevertheless, ethological considerations include training and managing equines in a manner that corresponds to these innate and evolutionary principals, four of which will be discussed in this module.

1. Herd Instinct 

Equines are social animals that prefer to associate with others of their own kind. Group living is a survival strategy that reduces an individual’s immediate chance of being consumed as well as increasing the chances that an approaching predator can be detected. Often the formation of pair bonds, whereby two horses associate closely by grazing, resting and grooming each other, will take place as an important feature of social support (Goodwin, 1999).

    Membership within this group is important for not only survival but also for development and reproduction. In the wild the social behavior of a horse, therefore, functions to minimize conflict within this group. However, unlike wild horses that know and understand their position in the herd from birth, aggressive agonistic behavior is significantly higher in domestic groups due to the unnatural composition of the herd, frequent changes within the herd as well as spatial and resource constraints (Ward, 2016). Regardless, both wild and domestic horses have a large desire for physical social contact with others of their species. 

2. Body Language Communication


Body language plays a crucial role in the communication and co-ordination of herd activities. Horses are primarily visual communicators and are extremely sensitive to subtle changes in the body language of their companions including that of a human (Waring, 1983). However, while there is an appealing notion that equine social strategies can be applied to human-horse interactions, the practice is often misinterpreted through the use of dominance or ‘alpha’ techniques which overemphasize agonistic behavior in the maintenance of herd stability. In reality, equine social behavior is exceedingly complex. Horses are generally a passive and co-operative species with agonistic behavior only representing a small proportion of interactions. Furthermore, Proops and McComb (2012) suggest it is unlikely horses would not be able to differentiate between cues from a human and those from other equines as a result of the significant morphological differences between the two. Therefore, understanding the importance of body language and using it appropriately in the horse-human relationship is essential. 

3. Flight and Prey Behavior 

As a prey animal, the horse relies on early predator detection and flight as a primary defense mechanism. Consequently, the physiology and behavior of horses has evolved to improve their survival instinct and abilities. This is most notable in the equine sensory system. For example, with laterally placed eyes, horses have vision of nearly 360° with 285° being monocular (vision using only one eye) and 65 being binocular (vision using both eyes at the same time). This eye placement provides a horse with the widest possible field of view but with limited depth perception and a blind spot of 10°. Therefore, to utilize binocular vision and to see objects currently in a blind spot, a horse will turn and raise its head for objects in the distance or lower its head for objects closer to the ground (Griffith, 2014).

    This prey behavior has also programmed horses to remain inconspicuous when in physical discomfort or pain as this could make them targets for predators. This pain-related behavior; however, can often be misunderstood as misbehavior or ‘naughtiness’ (Lesté-Lasserre, 2016). 

4. Forage and Locomotion 

Feral horses spend approximately 60-80% of a day on feeding, during which they travel between 5 and 10 kilometers (van Dierendonck and Goodwin, 2005). The equine digestive system, as a result, is designed to process small amounts of food frequently. In fact horses’ stomachs, unlike our own, produce acid continually and, if they are unable to graze, the excess acid can cause digestive issues such as ulcers and colic. This is supplemented by the fact that the health of a horse both physically and mentally is reliant on constant movement to improve blood circulation, reduce injury and decrease boredom (Gustafson, n.d.). 

Consequently, understanding these fundamental ethological principles of equine behavior is crucial when establishing horse management and training practices. However, human cultural transmission of ideas regarding this interpretation has been historically associated with rights of passage, social status and domination of man over animals. This has resulted in misunderstandings about the motivation of equine behavior and ethology. Equestrian traditions, which have a basis in establishing a cooperative relationship rather than asserting dominance, would appear then to more closely approximate the social relationships such as pair bonds seen in free-ranging equine society and interspecies play (Goodwin, 1999). 

Comprehensive Knowledge


While there was a lack of consensus on the fundamental skills needed when first interacting and beginning to work with horses, the most frequently referenced were that of safety, horse handling, grooming and blanketing, horse health and riding. However, most participants would go on to emphasize the fact that horsemanship was acomprehensive concept and not purely defined by one skill or ability such as riding itself. In fact, being a good horseman was seen as someone who had base level knowledge in many different facets of the horse and was able to identify when another member of their support team was required to address a certain aspect that they themselves did not have expertise in such as shoeing or veterinary care.

Practical Experience


During discussions with participants it was made clear that horsemanship was not simply just a theoretical principle. While it was important to have a base level of theoretical knowledge, the aspect of practical experiencewas essential as well. In actuality, the development of skills as well as the eye, feel and balance on and off the horse requires a considerable amount of hands-on practice. Consequently, knowledge as well as the ability to effectively apply this knowledge in a practical context is crucial for good horsemanship. 

Growth Mindset


Being a good horseman is a lifelong learning process with a few participants stating that even one lifetime isn’t enough. Consequently, the search for knowledge and the openness to learn from each individual horse, person, discipline and science was identified as key in acquiring an effective toolbox for equine interactions. One must not become complacent but be willing to question, reflect and develop their practices on a continuous basis. 

Respect for the Horse



The foremost belief among the majority of participants was that horsemanship began with respect for the horse. In this sense, one cannot treat the horse as a thing or an object on a lower level than humans but as the living, breathing, sentient creature that it is. This includes avoiding the tendency to anthropomorphize.

Ethological Empathy


An exceedingly consistent theme that emerged during the research process was the idea that a good horseman must be able to understand and see the world from the horse’s point of view. When individuals were probed to explain this thought further, it was revealed that they were essentially describing equine ethology such as the horse’s natural flight response, desire for equine interaction and their natural digestion process. However, in most cases, participants were not using the technical term but were instead utilizing the expression ‘understanding’ or ‘empathy’ of the horse’s natural behavior, instincts, conditions and social organisations. 

Effective Application of the Learning Theory


Similar to that of equine ethology, few participants referenced the technical term learning theory but instead utilized expressions such as ‘correct timing’, ‘consistency’, ‘structured training’, ‘clear communication’ or ‘how horses think and learn.' In fact, participants that were conscious of the concept believe many great horsemen apply the principles of learning theory instinctively or develop a feel for them over time but are unaware they are doing so. Consequently, when these individuals teach they employ other terms and expressions to communicate their innate or developed understanding and feel, which can mystify the process. Nevertheless, being able to apply the principles of learning theory with an emphasis on positive reinforcement was found to be central to effectively communicating and training horses both in the saddle and on the ground. 

Aware and Attentive to Body Language



Horses communicate extensively and subtlety through body language. As a result, good horsemen were those seen to be able to notice and respond appropriately to the signals and information provided by the horse. Often this was described as being ‘attuned’ ‘reading’ or ‘listening’ to the horse. This element of body language also applied to being consciously aware of what one’s own body exhibited and expressed during equine interactions

Commitment to the Priority of Equine Welfare



The paramount principle of horsemanship for all participants was the horse’s welfare. Whereby the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of the horse were placed before that of any human. These actions could range from retiring on course, knowing a horse's limits and capabilities, avoiding harsh training methods or ensuring the horse had access to the five freedoms. 

Emotional Intelligence



Whether expressed consciously or unconsciously, human emotions affect the quality of equine interactions. As discussed previously in the element of body language, horses react to subtle changes. Therefore, being aware of one’s current emotional state, how this affects the communication to the animal and being able to remain calm and composed in the situation was believed to be vital to good horsemanship. On the other hand, bad horsemanship was seen as when emotions were taken out on the horse such as frustration or anger instead of being addressed in a constructive manner. 

Humility and Integrity



The ability to be ego-free by admitting and taking responsibility for mistakes was an essential aspect of good horsemanship. Not to blame the horse or believe it is working against you but to instead look in the mirror to question one’s approach and possible faults. This aspect also ties in with the previous element of having a growth mindset, whereby no matter how many years of equine experience one has, there is always room for improvement. A fundamental belief also held by the majority of the participants was that the love of the horse must come before the love of competition or any other aspect. Therefore, one must constantly be grateful for the horse and act with integrity in all matters.




Knowing what might work for one horse may not work for another, a good horseman was identified as being flexible in approach and not treating the training and care in a cookie cutter manner. Instead, it was believed one should be creative and open to a wide variety of methods to adapt to each individual horse. This was complimented by the capability to modify actions based on the reaction of the horse instead of being fixed on a particular predetermined path of development. 




In a world with an increasing desire for instant gratification, having the endurance and capacity to accept delays, set backs and training challenges without the need to rush or push the development of the horse was recognised as an essential feature for good horsemanship. In fact, horses do not have the same sense or concept of time compared to that of humans. Therefore, it was acknowledged that a good horseman would not place his or her own schedule, future desires or past histories onto the horse but remain present in the moment

Selection and Treatment of Support Team



Selecting a support team with the same values and beliefs whether it is a groom, veterinarian, farrier or other was recognized as a responsibility of good horsemanship. Equestrian sport is not an individual endeavour and requires the support and assistance of many experts and professionals. Consequently, ensuring that all members have the same philosophy in regards to training and care of the horse is important. Good horsemen were also seen as individuals that were regarded as ethical and sustainable businesspeople who treated their support members with respect and dignity.

Development of a Mutual Symbiotic Relationship



In biology, a mutual symbiotic relationship- also known as mutualism- is where individuals of different species both benefit from the association of living together. During interviews many participants describe this type of mutual relationship as ‘connection’ or ‘partnership’ whereby the horse benefits from care and correct training to live a long and healthy life while the human benefits from the positive interaction. However, this type of relationship takes time to cultivate and is not simply acquired through riding. Similar to that of natural equine pair bonds, grooming and time spent on the ground was seen as essential to developing trust, harmony and understanding. 

On my next blog I will write about behavior and positive/negative enforcements but I hope this will give some idea about horsemanship study. Subscribe to my blog or send me a message about your point of view. What is your definition for horsemanship?