Have you ever wondered how to teach your horse to come when you call? To trailer load at Liberty? Or to do fancy movements like bridleless riding, lead changes, or piaffe?
The Grades of Horsemanship is an intuitive, sequential pathway designed to help you advance your horsemanship and assess your skills regardless of the discipline you pursue. Think of it as a roadmap with checkpoints along the way. Whether you simply want to go as far as being safe and having fun with your horses, or if your goals extend to artistic horsemanship or competition, the GOH will mark a path for you to follow.
The GOH is a collaborative, living document. It is a work in progress. We are open to suggestions and recommendations from members so that we can make it the best tool possible to help anyone interested in Relationship-Based Horsemanship achieve their goals.
The Six Skill Sets
- Share a means of communicating to facilitate trust and understanding
- Strengthen the horse/human bond and develop a horse eager to respond to the human’s suggestions
- Train the same skills on the ground that will create more positive and safer responses in the saddle
- Teach the horse physical and mental skills in a biomechanically correct manner while maintaining the dignity and playfulness of the horse.
- Any of these: a halter, cavesson or neck rope
- Stick with or without an attached string
- Rope of a length and weight appropriate to your level of skill.
A Word About Ropes
In the beginning when you are first learning to handle the tools properly, we recommend you begin with a thicker, 10 to 15-foot long rope. When you play with a horse using a rope, it’s like carrying a portable corral with you. So, however long your rope is that’s the size of your corral. A heavier weight rope will help you ‘push’ the horse away if needed. As you refine your communication with the horse, you can test your skills with a lighter weight or a longer rope, up to 50 feet, or even longer. These lighter and longer ropes require more skill and precision from the handler and build up to other Skill Sets such as Liberty and Long Lining.
What Ground Skills Teach The Human
First you will learn how to interact safely with horses on the ground and teach them to be calm, willing and to listen to your requests. This will help with leading, feeding, saddling, hoof care, grooming, vet visits, trailer loading, and the like. Through the physical connection of the rope, you will develop a feel for how willing or unwilling your horse is about any given request and how to keep yourself safe if your horse has objections while staying in control.
Ground Skills teach you how to reward your horse for positive responses by releasing pressure. They can also help you discern where your horse’s weight is positioned and how that is affecting his ability to perform. If you think of the rope as a rein, practicing with ropes on the ground can much more quickly improve your knowledge and ability to communicate with reins in the saddle. As your skill progresses, you can learn how the horse must be positioned for lateral maneuvers through to artistic endeavors like tempi lead changes and levade.
What Ground Skills Teach The Horse
The horse learns to trust you and your ideas. The first most important lesson the horse learns when ground work is done correctly is to give to the pressure of the rope rather than panicking when the rope touches him or holds him in some way. This gives you the ability to use positive reinforcement, by releasing pressure, to reward an appropriate response to your request. The horse also learns that you can influence him from a distance. Groundwork teaches the horse to yield his body parts to move forward, backward, left and right. Horses can gain an understanding of how to move on a circle, navigate around, under, over and through obstacles, and develop the ability to travel with smooth gaits and transitions. As the horse’s understanding progresses, he can learn to shift his weight, strike off at a gait from different feet, learn lateral maneuvers through to artistic elements, and more.
- To willingly guide the horse through patterns, by the use of the riders natural aides such as voice, legs and hands.
- To teach the isolation of different body parts of the horse and human
- To build and test the confidence of the horse using obstacles.
- May include a snaffle or curb bridle, a double bridle, hackamore, halter, bosal, bit-less bridle, or halter (the less bit shows the more advanced skill)
- Saddle, bareback pad or neither
- Stick, flag or dressage whip
A Word About Bits and Bridles
The IHA believes that ultimate horsemanship is attained with the least amount of equipment possible. There is value in the ability or training of an individual who can ride in a double bridle or in a curb and perform spectacular maneuvers with their horse who is happy, confident, and relaxed. We want to give those who have spent countless hours training their horses for a specific discipline in which this equipment is used the opportunity to have their relationship validated, as they deserve. However, if these same spectacular maneuvers were performed with the same quality in a bit-less bridle or even a halter, it is clear that the horseman had to be even more particular with their body language to achieve this level, and should be acknowledged for it.
What Bridle Riding Teaches The Horse
In the beginning, the human must learn to safely control the horse. When you understand the Grades Of Horsemanship, you understand that most, if not all, unsafe situations can be predicted and even prevented from the ground. However, it is inevitable that at some point the behavior of the horse may become momentarily instinctual, and the rider will have to disengage the horse to regain control. Bridle Riding teaches the horse that is it possible to control his actions while a human is sitting on him. Also, by directing the horse’s nose, you are at minimum suggesting where the horse will go or think about.
Once the rider has advanced past the control stage, the horse begins to understand that the reins are linked to the front half of his body and the rider’s legs are linked to the back half. The rider can communicate with the movement of each foot, how and when to stretch, flex and collect, and suggest the placement of the horse’s weight. When the rider can do in his body as he wishes the horse to do, and the horse willingly complies not just because he has understanding and obedience, but because he finds joy in carrying his partner, then Bridle Riding has taught the horse the skills to prepare for Free Riding or just to be relaxed and confident while being guided by the rider.
What Bridle Riding Teaches The Human
Initially, Bridle Riding teaches the rider how to disengage or engage the horse’s body parts. The first consequence of this enhanced communication is improved safety, which evolves into the ability to follow the motion of the horse, and finally shaping that motion. Over time, the human gains the understanding and physical skills to communicate with the reins and their legs to affect the horse’s position, weight, balance, gaits, transitions, impulsion, flexion and collection. These become combined to create lateral maneuvers and straightness.
The rider also learns how to motivate the horse by the use of routines, rewards, and relaxation. When the rider has truly learned to access the mental and physical aspects of motivating the horse, the horse can overcome its instincts and become a willing and involved partner. The more advanced maneuvers of Bridle Riding will give the human a clear feeling of connection, collaboration and collection.
- Test the connection between horse and human
- Develop a deeper understanding and use of body language
- Test a horse’s understanding, willingness and ability to perform with a limited use of guidance and aids by the human
- Improve the human and horse’s abilities to perform as partners
- Give the horse and human greater freedom to create and improvise.
- Stick with or without a string attached
- Neck rope
- Progressively larger areas within which to play
A Few Words About Playing With Horses At Liberty
Depending on the abilities of the human, Liberty is more safely learned first by playing with a horse on a rope. Over time, as the horse demonstrates an understanding of yielding to pressure with willingness and obedience, a longer and longer rope can be used, with decreasing tension along that rope. The horse can also be taught to follow a target, like the closed hand of the human, which will facilitate taking the first steps of Liberty together. At first, mental connection between horse and human can be as tenuous as a piece of silly string. Over time, that connection can become magical, boundless, and unbreakable.
What Liberty Teaches The Human
Liberty helps to hone your ability to communicate effectively with a horse through the use of body language. While playing at Liberty, you might learn that you may be applying more pressure than intended, or not enough to be understood and effective. As you play in larger spaces, you learn how to be more interesting, provocative, and motivating to hold the connection as you experiment with accomplishing tasks at greater distances.
Over time, you will use Liberty as a great diagnostic tool to determine your horse’s willingness, obedience, physical limitations and strengths, and his understanding of task and movements. Liberty will help you interpret and understand what your horse is saying to you. If you are creative and improvisational by nature, Liberty will enhance these traits. If you want to develop these attributes, Liberty is a great way to foster them.
What Liberty Teaches The Horse
Horses learn that you trust them. In turn, horses become more trusting. They learn that you expect them to follow you and your suggestions. They learn to see you as a leader when your bond is so powerful that even without a rope, they respond as though there was one. They learn to experiment with how to move, free from constraints.
Horses discover that at Liberty, they have a voice; that they can express an opinion and make choices for themselves. They find that humans can be the source of comfort and fun at a deeper level. With that deeper relationship, they become more and more subtle, yet clear, in how they express themselves. At the deepest level, Liberty becomes a complex communication of intention, desire, respect, play and love.
- Test the limits of the horse-human bond while riding
- Communicate with the horse with as little equipment as possible
- Allow the horse to have an opinion, and channel it to match your own ideas
- Develop true self carriage.
The less equipment used shows a higher level of skill.
- Neck rope or cordeo
- Stick, dressage whip, or flag
- Saddle or bareback pad
Why In The World Would You Want To Ride Bridle-less?
Truthfully, it’s not useful for doing a job. In the past, horses had to be efficient for work and war. Luckily for us, our relationship with horses is no longer limited to these tasks. We have a unique opportunity to author a new chapter in history and evolve beyond current customs, creating something more artistic than ever seen before: horsemanship that is a living work of art.
The Neck Rope or Cordeo
A cordeo can be a valuable tool when teaching your horse to be ridden bridle-less. In many ways, the cordeo can make more sense to your horse than the reins because it is directly influencing the horse’s feet by touching the shoulders, rather than indirectly through the horse’s head. It is recommended that you begin riding with the cordeo in conjunction with a hackamore or other headgear that you feel comfortable riding in. You can hold the reins and the cordeo at the same time, otherwise called the Horseman’s Double Bridle. As the horse becomes more responsive, you can lengthen the reins until you have contact only with the cordeo. Additionally, doing exercises on the ground with the cordeo will help you teach and assess your horse’s readiness for Free Riding.
What Free Riding Teaches the Human
Free Riding teaches the human not to balance on the reins and to develop an independent seat. The human must use his entire body precisely because he cannot position the horse’s head with the reins to compensate. Free Riding causes the human to feel when the horse’s weight begins to shift forward, and to use exercises instead of their hands to shift the horse’s weight back. Also, the human becomes much more perceptive to when the horse has reached his limit, physically and mentally, because the horse will only hold the posture as long as he is able. Free Riding teaches the human to better motivate the horse to want to participate with the plan. It is our opportunity to truly become centaurs: one with our horses.
What Free Riding Teaches The Horse
It is beautiful to see a horse focusing his mind and body towards a movement that demonstrates his strength and athleticism. Free Riding gives the horse the choice to express his opinion. His mental and physical needs must be met in order to partner with his rider. Free Riding teaches the horse to have self-carriage and not to balance on the reins. The horse must listen attentively to each movement and weight shift of the rider in order to understand what is being asked of him. Collection must truly come from the hindquarters, instead of from the head; the horse learns to shorten his body on his own, without the rider having to use the reins.
- Prepare a horse for what will be asked of them in the saddle with close contact for better understanding and communication
- Gain strength and stamina for higher level maneuvers without the weight of the rider to complicate learning
- Prepare the horse to hold a light contact with the reins
- Teach the horse to better understand and accomplish flexion, collection and proper placement of weight in higher level maneuvers
- Halter, hackamore, bit-less bridle, cavesson, bosal, or a snaffle/curb bridle
- Reins or short line
- Stick with or without string attached or flag
A Few Words About In-Hand Training
In-Hand prepares the horse for riding and higher level maneuvers, and is only recommended for horses that are well into ground skills and have reached Grade 6 in the Grades of Horsemanship pathway. It is not safe for the human to play with the horse at such close range before they have shown general partnership. It is also not fair to ask a horse to be so precise until they have the appropriate attention span and strength.
Unlike playing with a horse at a distance, the handler can be very specific with the positioning of the horse’s body. As when riding, the body parts of the horse can be positioned very precisely. This will shorten the time and effort needed to attain virtually every riding goal.
What In-Hand Teaches the Human
In-Hand is excellent preparation for riding with self carriage. The human learns to keep their hands steady without having to worry about balancing on the horse in motion. The human also learns to affect the horses’ shape through pressure on the different positions on the side of the horse. From observation on the ground, the human can see the position of the horse’s body, footfalls, and weight distribution. As a consequence, they can accurately visualize the movements of the horse while riding. Also, the human can feel correct lightness of the rein contact so as to be a better communicator in the saddle. Tempo, rhythm, and cadence can be observed first hand and experimented with to generate more collection and suppleness. Through progressive exercises, the human will attain the skills for shaping the horse’s body to perform higher level maneuvers with grace, subtlety and expertise.
What In-Hand Teaches the Horse
Initially, the horse learns to be in close proximity with the human and to enjoy their touch. A young horse will feel the reins and the stick or hand of the handler the same way they will feel the reins and the legs of the human riding for the first time. The horse will learn to relax and patiently wait to respond to yielding different body parts as requested.
From the ground, the horse will learn the footfalls, body position, weight distribution and lightness of the rein contact needed to attain self carriage and become a partner with a rider. In preparation for carrying a rider during higher level maneuvers, the horse will learn the many cues the human will utilize to respond smoothly and correctly. Progressive exercises will develop the horse’s flexion, impulsion, strength and agility to perform with more collection.
- To direct the horse with confidence and ease from behind
- To teach the horse flexion and higher level maneuvers without having to negotiate the weight of a rider
- Preparing to drive horses in skis, carts, carriages, etc.
- Any of these: a halter, hackamore, bitless bridle, bosal, snaffle or curb bridle (using the least equipment shows a higher level of skill)
- Two long reins/ropes, about 20 feet in length
- Stick with or without an attached string (optional)
Bit Or No Bit?
If you are just learning Long Lining, we recommend a simple rope halter which is more forgiving headgear. A halter doesn’t put pressure on the sensitive parts of the horse's mouth, and if you happen to drop the rein and the horse steps on it, he will not be injured. After you and the horse feel confident in handling the reins, long lining can be done in a bridle, with or without a bit.
Although they are heavier, beginning with thicker lines/ropes as the rein is safer for the horse and human. If by chance you or the horse becomes tangled, you both are less likely to be injured. As you gain skill you can move to lighter reins that more easily fit into your hand and offer a more subtle feel to the horse.
Surcingles are very useful tools; however, we recommend that you begin without one. Learning without the surcingle will quickly teach the student about appropriate contact with the reins. It also keeps human and the horse safer: If the horse becomes confused, you can release one rein and hold the other, which will turn the horse to you to prevent the horse from turning in circles and becominge entangled, leaning on the pressure, or backing into you if he is confused. Once you and the horse have an understanding of long lining you can add the surcingle if you prefer, but it is not required by the IHA.
What Long Lining Teaches The Human
Using the long reins without a surcingle proves that the human knows how to offer a polite contact to the horse. The human must learn how to put enough contact on the reins to hold them above the horse’s hocks, but not so much that the horse feels blocked from going forward. This contact is equivalent to the contact that a rider will offer the horse while teaching the horse flexion.
As with In-Hand training, playing with the long reins teaches the human to gauge the collection of the horse. When first teaching the horse, the human might have to jog behind, but as the horse becomes more collected, the human should be able to walk or stand still while the horse continues to trot or even canter.
What Long Lining Teaches The Horse
Long Lining prepares the horse for riding, pulling a cart, or for higher level maneuvers. For the young or inexperienced horse, Long Lining can build confidence in the human as a leader by directing the horse from beside or from behind. In nature, horses direct each other from all different angles and positions. Since they cannot see directly behind themselves, horses are often startled by energy from this area. When the human is in the horse’s blind spot, the horse must have complete trust and listen very closely to cues. Also, the horse must learn to accept the reins touching his rump and flanks — areas that can be quite sensitive.
Driving with long reins can simulate the feeling of being directed by the reins while riding and eventually in the pulling of humans on skis, in cart and carriages. If the horse learns to willingly go in the direction that his nose is pointed, he may be more willing to leave the barn or to go on a trail ride away from his herd.
Finally, long lining can teach flexion. In the traditional world of horse training, side reins are often used to force the horse to shorten his body and round his topline. While these methods and the people implementing them are not necessarily cruel, the problem stems from the fact that the horse is not free to move his head when necessary. Horses are unable to carry their weight on the hindquarters for a long period of time, especially when first learning flexion. They can hold the posture intermittently, followed by periods of stretching. In this sense, long reins offer an alternative to a fixed side rein; horses are encouraged to shorten their body, but they are not held in an exact position. Over time, the horse will collect himself as higher level maneuvers are requested.
Your New Favorite Tool
The Grades of Horsemanship pathway has many applications. Whether you're a horsemanship student or Recommended Professional, you may use this educational resource in a few different ways.
As a Student
- Improve your personal horsemanship skills.
- Obtain official recognition for your achievements by submitting assessment videos.
- Keep track of your horse's skills.
Additionally, as a Professional
- Create teaching curricula and lesson plans for your students.
- Map out the progress of your client horses.
- Evaluate the horsemanship skills of your employees.
- Apply your new skills to your interactions with client horses.