Keen Horsemanship

Keen Horsemanship

Keen Horsemen

The wise man says: I don’t know.

By Ruthann Smith
© 2011, Ruthann Smith, All rights reserved.
Originally Published in Equine Journal

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Some consider it fashionable to think they know a lot about horses. Yet, that belief is a clear indication one is not a true horseman. Individuals may acquire knowledge and experience. However, esteemed masters insist they know nothing. By all means, the goal is to be informed and skilled with highly-developed sensibilities. Yet, the most important aspects of horsemanship are: awareness, sensitivity and humility. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. Assumptions are counterproductive. They take us out of the moment. Horses will usually tell us what we need to know, if we can hear them. This requires being very open and present. Sound horsemanship is as much about experience and technique as a way of being. Here are some basic ways of being aware that are consistent among the world’s finest horsemen.

Read Eyes

The horse’s eye instantly offers you a wealth of information. When meeting, assess the eye first. Determine if a horse tends to be fearful or indignant. That way, if he resists, you already know whether to instill confidence or be clear. Every time you encounter a horse, tune into the eye. While it portrays temperament and emotion, the eye is also a quick read on the horse’s well- being. So much of what a horse feels is in the eye. Changes are especially important. An eye that seems distant, cloudy or dull may indicate the horse is sick or in pain. I’ve been able to tell instantly if a horse has a new groom or needs extra warm-up, just by the eye. If you promptly notice and respond to changes in the eye, you can avert grave and costly problems.


Hear everything. Sounds tell stories. Ambient sound can give you clues that impact soundness, finances and lives.

Common practical circumstances include:

Walking. Notice the sound of each hoof hitting the ground. An extra clank can be a loose shoe. That’s your cue to perhaps tape the foot and get the shoe tightened. Otherwise, it may pull off, taking a chunk of hoof with it.

Coughing. A cough is something you want to remedy. Sometimes hay is dusty. Wetting it keeps down the dust. Some, especially heavy and asthmatic horses, should always have wet hay. Good circulation helps them as well. If it is a respiratory infection, you want to treat it promptly, as those can linger.

Banging. Pay mind. It can save lives. A cast horse is a very serious and immediate threat. No one wants a horse to thrash to death. A cast horse typically sounds like repeated strong banging or a pause and again distressed kicking against the wall.


For a big heart to win, a horse must be truly confident his needs will be met. A discerning eye allows keen horsemen to stay tuned in. As preventative measures, this shiny fit horse has liniment on his back and poultice on his legs. His bed is always deep, clean and fluffy. Life is good.

A horse is cast when it is down too close to a wall and can’t get up. A lot of times, they try to roll over and get wedged against the wall. Since an equine’s only means of defense is its legs, if it can’t get up, the reality translates as a matter of life or death to the horse. Rule number one to dealing with cast horses is: get help. Professional braiders have a tacit agreement. If someone steps out of the tent and calls, “Cast horse!” everyone safely secures their horse and runs to assist. Even if quiet, a cast horse is in fight or flight mode. It is not thinking clearly. Bottom line: if you get close, you’ll likely get kicked. Cast horses that suddenly thrash seriously injure many people. Speak quietly and calmly to instill confidence. If the horse is in a temporary stall, your best strategy is to unhinge and move the wall from outside the stall. If in a permanent stall, it is not advisable to step over the horse. Your best option is to use a lunge line. Gently toss it over a hoof and pull to roll the horse over. Stand clear, as he’ll jump up immediately.

If a horse is banging his buckets, he may be out of water. Dehydration compromises body temperature, all cellular functions and digestion. Colic can be lethal. So, make sure horses always have plenty of clean water. If they are kicking or scraping their teeth, figuring out the source of their stress can keep horses healthy.


Keen horsemen see everything. Often, more than we can imagine. Nothing is taken for granted. For instance, they’ll watch the angle of each hoof hitting the ground as a horse walks down the aisle, every time. How a horse stands is important. Toes pointed, lots of shifting weight and where a horse stands in the stall can be signs of discomfort. The horse’s environment can speak volumes as well. Signs of stress or illness can include: holes dug, stall walking tracks, not drinking enough water, not eating well, changes in manure, etc. Any altered patterns indicate changes, which may need attention.

Masters watch you, too. They notice your feel, how well you clue into your horse’s needs and if you strive for excellence. If you want to be a great horseman, seize every opportunity to learn. Be diligent. Keep finding ways to help, such as: cleaning, polishing, picking, sweeping and washing. Nothing to do? Clean halters, stall bars, muck buckets, etc. The more you do to help, the more time people will take to teach you. Welcome the chance to ride difficult horses, provided they are safely in line with your abilities. Use your time constructively: watch lessons, study competitions, notice details of interactions, ask questions, read voraciously, listen well and with an open heart. Do everything in your power to absorb, assimilate and apply as much as possible. Most importantly: ask. True horsemen put the horses first. So, they prefer to share knowledge and understanding.

Never Blame

It is not the horse’s fault. Your job is to stay ahead of the horse’s inclinations and needs. If something did not go as planned, you could have done something differently. Consider each experience a lesson. Wise horsemen never blame the horse.

Be Aware

Keep open. The better you “hear” your horse, the more he’ll want to please you. Don’t take anything at face value. Tune in constantly. Things can change in an instant. Strive to be a great horseman by continually acquiring and employing as much knowledge, experience and wisdom as possible. I hope you’ll join me on this lifelong journey. Just remember, the wise man says: I don’t know.

Bio Pic

Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.

As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.

The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.

Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.

It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.

*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.