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Horses are a mirror of ourselves

April 12, 2011

I recently got back from teaching a horsemanship clinic for women together with my friend and fellow trainer Kathryn Kincannon-Irwin.
The two-day clinic took place at Riversong Ranch Equestrian Centre in Peers/Whitecourt, Alberta, the home of world-renowned horse trainer, coach, and clinician Chris Irwin. Our round pen and outdoor riding arena here at Falling Star Ranch are unfortunately still covered in a foot of snow, so it was nice to be able to work in a beautiful indoor riding arena.

We had an interesting variety of horses in the clinic, draft crosses, a Morgan gelding, a paint/quarter horse cross mare, a mustang gelding, and even a Belgian mule.

Belgian Mule Flame

Participants and spectators from all over Alberta braved the spring breakup conditions to attend the workshop. After everybody introduced themselves, we started out the weekend with a group exercise (including the spectators) without horses: long-lining. We split everybody into two groups of six people and had them line up. The person at the very front was the horse’s head, the next person was the horse’s shoulders, the next one was the barrel, then the flank, then the hip. The person at the very back was the driver. The purpose of this great little exercise is to allow everybody to experience how it feels when a rider uses the reins properly, never pulling, only blocking unwanted movement, but also to experience the feeling a horse has when a rider pulls on the reins to turn and stop. Whenever the driver (rider) demonstrated bad use of rein aids, the human horse would become very unbalanced, was jerked around, with the different parts of the human horse bumping into each other, and generally felt very uncomfortable. Not enough outside rein? The human horse felt very lost and was drifting all over the place.

The long-lining exercise was followed by a round pen demo by Kathryn with one of the participant’s horses.

Kathryn Kincannon-Irwin giving a round pen demo

Kathryn and I explained how horses communicate through equine body language and how horses read our own body language. We also talked about the three different energies (push, block, and draw) which are always present, whether we are riding a horse, lungeing a horse or just grooming a horse, and how to set clear boundaries by being assertive, but not aggressive.

After a great catered lunch, every participant received a round pen session with Kathryn and a groundwork session with me. The groundwork session involved mostly in-hand leading, and re-enforcing the lessons learned in the round pen.

In-hand leading

The second day started out in the cozy viewing room by the warming fireplace, with Kathryn, Riversong’s working student Brenna, and myself explaining the use and mechanics of various bits and also bitless bridles and riding halters. Then everybody left the warmth of the fire and bundled up to head back out into the arena, where more individual sessions followed. Some horses were round penned again, others lunged or long-lined, and each participant also had a session in the saddle.

The changes in the horses over the course of the two days were remarkable. A horse that came into the round pen with a lot of bravado and loud body language on the first day, followed his owner around in the round pen calmly, politely, and with a low-head during the second round pen session. Bridling issues and not standing for mounting issues were resolved. Pushy horses became more polite and respectful of boundaries and unfocused horses became relaxed and focused on their handlers as the humans learned to stay in the moment, be proactive and pay attention to their horse’s shape and body language as well as their own shape and alignment to the horse. Horses who didn’t want to bend ended up willingly changing bends when the handler asked with proper body language and alignment. High-headed, inverted, and braced horses became softer, with a level to low frame and a calm, curled tail, as their riders started riding their mounts from back to front, steering from their seat and legs instead of from their hands.

Resolving bridling issues

Horses need us to be the best we can be, benevolent leaders who are aware, in the moment, consistent in our behaviour, relaxed, calm, clear, confident, assertive, and fair. Horses are a mirror of ourselves, and once they start seeing such positive changes in us, they can and DO change for the better. And that is such a huge sigh of relief for all of us.

The weekend was filled with lots of information, hard work, fun and laughter, and went by way too quickly. It was a very rewarding clinic for everybody, and Kathryn and I are already looking forward to teaching the next one starting on May 31.

As per request by some of the participants and spectators, the next clinic will be a six-day comprehensive clinic covering all aspects of horsemanship. Participants will learn a unique approach to handling and riding, all in a way that de-stresses both owners and their horse, building confidence, mutual understanding, and a solid foundation for long-lasting results. This is a once-a-year, one-of-a-kind clinic you won’t want to miss!

Participants are welcome to bring their own horse or spend the week getting to know one of the Riversong Ranch horses. For more information call tollfree (877) 394 6773 or email;;

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 1:27 pm

    Sounds like an amazing clinic, Birgit. Looking forward to hearing about the week long clinic!

    • June 24, 2011 1:56 pm

      Thanks Anne. Yes, it was a great clinic, and so was the week-long one. The blog about the latter is on my to do list :-).

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