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What Am I Looking At?

written by Alexandra Kurland

As you have probably gathered from these podcasts, good balance is something I value.  When I talk about balance, I am not referring to what a judge might be looking for in a show horse.  The look that will score high for a Western pleasure horse is very different from that of a dressage horse.  That’s not the kind of balance that I’m referring to - though it is relevant to both.

When I talk about balance, I mean that which is good for the health of the spine.  Good balance should contribute to long term soundness.  

So suppose you are brand new to horses.  If you’re like me, you think all horses are beautiful.  The sway backed old-timer is just as beautiful as the flashy four year old.  That’s as it should be.  The old-timer may look much safer to ride, but the question is which horse looks as though he could carry weight with greater ease?  Which horse would give you a comfortable ride?  Which horse would be better able to protect his body so riding him does not create any lasting damage to his joints?  

Even if you never want to ride, these questions are worth considering because the answers can help tune your eye and help your horse stay much sounder in his body.

So let’s look at the before and after of this horse.  I’m sure many of you will be seeing much more than I am going to point out here.  I’m just going to spotlight a few of the balance issues that stand out for me.

At the start of the session on Day 1 this horse is standing all higgledy-piggledy.  That’s clearly not a technical term, but it is very descriptive.  He’s not really standing over his bony column.  He’s stopped in an out-of-balance, unsupported stance.  And when you look at his rib cage and his neck, everything is “falling down”.  Nothing is lifting up.  He looks like a tired old horse.  He’s “slouching”, in the way that we slouch when we aren’t using our core muscles to support our torso and “sit up straight”.  He looks like a collapsing rectangle.  If someone were to invite me out for a ride on this horse, I’d be coming up with lots of reasons why I needed to be doing something else.  He just doesn’t look like a horse who should be ridden.


But now look at the same horse at the end of his third session of ground work.  He’s standing much more square.   His front legs form a vertical column of support, and his hind legs look as though they could step forward with power. He’s lifting up from the base of his neck which creates a very smooth and attractive line to his neck.  Everything about him now is lifting up not slouching down.  This is a horse you might consider riding.

The neat thing about this is the change was created through a foundation-level lesson.  We were working with mats and the “runway” lesson.  When horses are brand new to clicker training, we use this lesson to teach them the skills they will need to step with precision onto a mat.  He was also handled by a clinic participant.  She did all the work.

What these photos point out is the difference between basic and advanced training is just the attention to details.  You can use this same lesson, but if you ask for too much too fast, if you feed in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, not paying attention to the effect your food delivery has on your horse, you will end up with a higgledy-piggledy result.  But if you pay attention to the little details that our horses keep telling us really matter, you may well see some pretty astounding changes in your own horses.

Have fun!

Alexandra Kurland
May 2018

If you would like to learn more about the runway lesson mentioned here, and clicker training in general, please visit:, and

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