6 Roadblocks to Lightness

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others. Skinner sits on the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee.

This is Part I of a two-part piece on identifying roadblocks to lightness.

By Amy Skinner

Years ago, I was struggling to get a school horse lighter.  He did his job carrying young riders well. But, in the process of training to be lighter, he became confused about how to respond to aids, as his day job involved ignoring many confusing or accidental messages.

My timing wasn’t great and his habit of hanging on the lead rope, for example, was well-established.  I had a teacher help me and I watched in awe as within a few minutes, this dull pony brightened up, became more aware and bright in his eye, and responded to her with total lightness.

She handed me the lead rope back and said, “he just wasn’t clear on a few things.”  I felt this sense of magic in my hands now, as if all our problems together were fixed and all I had to do was maintain that perfection she created.  Unfortunately, within minutes, he was back to hanging on the lead and I was back to being frustrated.

So what happens between those moments: when the skilled horseman or woman with good timing handles the horse and then hands it off to the student? I’ve put together a list of elements that can dull or confuse horses and added tips for how to encourage lightness in all areas of horse work.


How you pet your horse, believe it or not, makes a huge difference in how he understands interactions with you on the ground or in the saddle.

  • Is he pushing on you to get more scratches?  If your horse pushes on you, or worse, moves you while getting pets, then he may also push through your leg, your bridle, your lead rope.
  • Does your horse avoid your touch and leave?  You want to teach your horse to seek out your aids. Those aids can be anything from your touch with a hand to your leg or rein.  If the horse avoids these aids, he gets released without responding correctly. He learns to do the wrong thing.

Amy Skinner

Petting, to me, should be done in a way that encourages softness, relaxation, and respect.  I don’t take my hand away when a horse pushes or avoids, but I release my hand for the horse softening to my touch. When you pet and when you stop petting is important.

Feeding time: 

Again, if your horse is pushing on you to receive food, this will create problems in the saddle.  My horses don’t get grain until their ears are up and their faces are soft. I don’t reward grumpy faces or threatening ears.  They also don’t get to push me out of the way as I set their hay down.  I want calm, relaxed, and respectful horses at feeding time.  I will add that it isn’t fair to expect horses to be calm about feeding time if they’re waiting hours between feedings, especially if it’s cold.


We tend to absent-mindedly grab our horses and lead them to the barn without paying attention to the quality of our leading.  The way your horse leads is the way he will ride. Leading is a crucial part of my horses’ training.

  • Does the horse drag on the lead rope?
  • Does he rush ahead?

A horse that leads well will likely ride well.  Leading well doesn’t just mean he follows you, it means he responds to the lead rope, where and how it asks him to be.  He should be light on the rope, not rushing ahead or dragging behind. He should lead equally well from both sides.  He should respond to you asking him to step forward, stop, back up, or move to the side without interfering with the path you walk.  He should be focused on you.

Leslie Desmond once told me a halter broke horse is one who’s lead rope you can stick in your belt and go about your chores without him getting in your way.  This horse is a joy to handle.


This element relates to leading.

  • Does your horse pull slack out of his lead rope while he stands tied?
  • Does he peddle backward and hang on the rope?

These are symptoms of a poorly halter-broke horse, or one who is not clear on the meaning of the lead rope.  It’s also likely that this horse will not respond correctly to rein aids.  I don’t tie horses until they respond properly to the lead rope, and when I do tie them, I make sure they can’t take slack from the rope or worse, get away.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Women in today’s world and the horse world

One of the silver linings of these contentious times is the intense, widespread examination of fairness in our culture and workplace – specifically, fairness as it relates to gender equality.

Perhaps like many of you, I entered the workplace as a teenager in the late 70’s and early 80’s and gravitated to jobs mostly done by men.

  • Construction work
  • Sports-related work
  • Outdoor work
  • Sport journalism
  • Investigative Reporting

Perhaps like many of you, I was often the only woman on the job. I tolerated sexual harassment and bias in a way that now seems unacceptable, even spineless. Back then, however, I felt I could dismiss bad behavior for the greater gain: a position in a “man’s world.” With progress, men’s attitudes and women’s tolerance of those attitudes, would surely co-evolve to better places.

Annie Custer, a US Congresswoman from New Hampshire and co-sponsor of the new “MeToo” bill, thought so, too.

“I thought that we were there to create change,” she said in a recent interview. “It never occurred to me that 40 years later my nieces, my son’s girlfriends would have to be worrying about this in the workplace.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard impactful stories from colleagues and friends of their personal experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination (and worse). I’ve also read research that illustrates how women often perpetuate gender bias against women.

Dr. Sheryl King

Dr. Sheryl King, Best Horse Practices Summit board member, shared this anecdote:

“I worked with a longtime manager of a major horse event here in the Midwest. She was a woman.  Every year we’d have a series of conversations about headliner clinicians to invite.  When I repeatedly suggested a number of female clinicians, her response was that she did not feel that men in the audience would be receptive to a woman clinician. My response was twofold: we’ll never know unless we try and someone needs to take the initiative to change the paradigm – let it be us. 

I never won the debate. I feel that we need to educate the women as well as the men.”

How to move forward?

Interestingly, remarks I made at the debut of the Best Horse Practices Summit might apply to our current cultural state of affairs:

“Progress happens when we give ourselves time to listen, to observe, to absorb new information, and to experiment…”

I’d like to think there are parallels between improving our horsemanship and improving our standing as women. There are things we can do daily, on individual levels to change unsafe, unhealthy situations. There are small ways in which we can challenge ourselves and the status quo.

Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino recently wrote:

“For years – for centuries – the economic, physical, and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like white noise. Lately, it appears we’re starting to hear the tune.…The increasing narrative clarity about male power does not always translate to progress. For women, it feels, all at once, shockingly possible, suddenly mandatory, and unusually frustrating to speak up.

“Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another…Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle.”

At BestHorsePractices, a site made better by scores of women guest columnists, we’d like to wave that flag.

Maddy Butcher and Amy Skinner

What are your stories?

How are you riding out the current tsunami of gender-bias news?

We’d love to hear from you if you have stories, reflections, observations you’d like to share. Contact us here.

Links for Junior Scientists & Curiosity Hogs

We’d like to think that BestHorsePractices can point you to better sources than, say, your average Facebook newsfeed.

Here are several interesting, science-related articles for your consideration. They are not necessarily horse-y, but if you’re a lifelong learner, constantly curious and gravitating to new insights, I think you’ll enjoy them.

Amy Skinner

Amy Skinner, an incoming member of the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee, said recently:

“I’m currently taking all my beliefs out of their dusty boxes and shaking them out, seeing what’s valuable and examining why I kept them in the first place. I’m willing to toss out anything that is no longer true or doesn’t serve me. Or I may hold onto it while I decide if I know why I believed it in the first place.

I encourage all you to do the same. Don’t believe anything ‘just because.’ Figure out why. If it no longer belongs, toss it out. Don’t rush to fill it back up, but maybe leave it open for a while and watch the world. Imagine the difference in our interactions with others after we clean out.”

Happy reading!

Maddy Butcher, Director, Best Horse Practices Summit

Read this abstract in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science on dominance and leadership.

Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise is based on his research of how horses live in the wild. Check out the concept here. 

Durango vet explores spiritual bonds of animals. A KSJD radio interview. 

Photo by Dr. Karlene Strange

Listen to Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellman on “Defending Science in a Post-Truth Era”

Sheep can recognize human faces. Research at the University of Cambridge.

New brain imaging technology could provide insight for everything from Alzheimer’s detection to mental health concerns. Check out the developments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Exploring the fascinating inner lives of animals, starting with dogs. In an MRI machine. Really. Read the book review of “What It’s Like to be a Dog”

A quick, compelling bit on Yellowstone research on wolves, trees, and antelope. They’re all connected! From our friends at On Pasture, read more. 

Researcher in Yellowstone

Summit Welcome Video is Here!

The team at Soulfolle Creative has released the Welcome video for the Best Horse Practices Summit, with opening remarks by Director Maddy Butcher. Click on image below.


Horses Nurture Body and Soul

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Sheryl King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, a Fellow of the Equine Science Society, a Best Horse Practices Summit board member, and lifelong horsewoman. In this guest column, she writes about the range of benefits from working and owning horses.

By Dr. Sheryl King:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”  Winston Churchill

It seems Churchill had it right in more ways than he imagined. Horses are indeed good for people. Not only do they labor on our behalf, horses stimulate our body and souls.

How does owning a horse make us healthier? Many of us are overweight and don’t get enough exercise. National guidelines call for thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, five days a week. Riding a horse carries the equivalent calorie expenditure as a moderately brisk walk; trotting and galloping can increase that exercise level to the equivalent of jogging or swimming. Add to those pleasant activities, the effort of catching your horse at pasture, grooming, tacking, and hotwalking and you have yourself a workout.

Activity guidelines also include muscle-strengthening exercise on two or more days a week that works all major muscle groups. Horse barns are the equivalent of weight-training gyms! If you care for your horse yourself, you are likely indulging in weight training as well as aerobic exercise. Horses produce about fifty pounds of manure a day, add sodden bedding to the equation and you have a regular mini weightlifting session in the form of stall cleaning.

Lifting, hauling, dumping, raking, and rebedding are good for the horse and good for the heart. A typical five-gallon water bucket weighs about forty pounds – many horse owners schlep a few of those around each day. Add hauling hay bales, grain sacks, hammering, digging, and fixing up after your horse’s mischief, and you have likely met your weekly exercise quota without even counting the muscular rigors of riding.

I once had an argument with my daughter’s grade-school gym teacher: Weekly exercise outside of school time was required as part of the class grade. This teacher refused to consider riding a form of exercise. “The horse does all the work,” she said. “Spoken like someone who has never ridden a horse,” was my reply.

Anyone who has ridden a horse for the first time, or after a long hiatus from the activity can testify to the unique muscles that are (ouch) stimulated by this activity.

Indeed, horseback riding is a well-documented and widely accepted mode of delivering physical therapy. Former US press secretary, James Brady, famously complained about his hippotherapy rehabilitation (he called his physical therapy “physical terrorism”). Horses helped him regain some of his function following the head wound he sustained during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) is a global organization that has revolutionized the delivery of physical therapy for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Horses are officially rehabbing our military veterans.

Freedom Stables/Harmony Horsemanship in Deerfield, WI . Michael Sears, Journal Sentinel

Horsemen know the profound effect these animals can have on our psyche. We can testify to horses’ stress-reducing effect on us. But horses have also proven their value in reaching humans as no other therapy can. Horse-assisted psychotherapy has succeeded in helping people with profound mental problems, such as autism, eating disorders, PTSD, and anger management. Horses connect with us at a most primal level, and although psychic healing is more difficult to document than physical rehabilitation assisted through horses, it is nonetheless increasingly recognized.

EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – is an international program devoted to the notion of horses assisting with social, emotional and mental healing. At the equine science program I directed, we hosted a similar program where I had the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of the horse on children with autism, ADHD, victims of unspeakable abuse and those faced with other mental, behavioral and social challenges.

So, the next time you are breaking a sweat at the barn or enjoying a companionable moment with your mount, thank your horse for keeping you healthy – body and soul.

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