Episode 146-Why patterns can help & why riders resist riding patterns

Today I’m talking about patterns…why I recommend riding patterns and why riders often have resistance to riding patterns. I’ll discuss anticipation in multiple forms, increasing your awareness by getting feedback from your horse and how your focus, or lack of focus, is impacting your ride.

I posted two of my favorite training patterns over on my website under the show notes for this episode. They are great examples of patterns that can be useful in improving your communication with your horse.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In this season of the podcast, I’m talking about some of the common challenges I see when teaching riders. Today, I’m going to be talking about patterns, why I recommend riding patterns, and why riders often have resistance to riding patterns. We’re going to talk about subjects such as anticipation, awareness, and focus. Before I begin, I wanted to let you know that I posted two of my favorite training patterns over on my website under the show notes for this episode. I posted a picture of my four-leaf clover pattern as a photo with dimensions for how to set it up in your own arena and a video of the circle inside circles video exercise. These are two great examples of patterns that I use regularly. If you have these patterns in mind while you’re listening to this podcast, it will help because the first thing to know is that all patterns are not created equal. These two are great examples of patterns that you could ride hundreds of times in a year, and I have without causing problems. And that’s because of the flow of the pattern. If you contrast that with something like a reining pattern, that would not go well if you ran a reining pattern hundreds of times in a year. So the results are not the same.

Stacy Westfall: All patterns are not created equally, which brings me to my first point. If patterns are not all equal, how can we judge them? My answer would be that we judge them on the type of anticipation that they create. Back in Episode 25 and more recently in Episode 143, and I’m quite sure sprinkled throughout all these podcast episodes, I have talked about anticipation. I believe that when people think about anticipation, they mostly default to a negative thinking. But I am going to propose that there is a positive anticipation and a negative anticipation. So patterns create the opportunity to be able to see anticipation. And if you accept my idea that anticipation can be positive or negative then we can start to see how we can use patterns as training tools. Now, just as a quick primer to me, positive anticipation feels like the horse is saying in their body with their muscles, I’m ready. And shaky anticipation that kind of feels a little bit more like, now? How about now? And so it’s not quite as steady as that, “I’m ready” feeling. And then negative anticipation is often defensive or excessive. And these are forms of anticipation typically coming from the horse feeling like it’s living in a surprise, surprise, surprise situation. And so if it’s constantly feeling surprise, then they tend to get defensive or they overreact. And so it becomes excessive. Now I’m going to read some excerpts of an email that I received. And I felt like it fit into this topic and will help illustrate some of the upcoming points I’m about to make. Here’s what was written in: I was wondering if you knew of a downloadable audio file that consists solely of gait transition instructions. Essentially, I’d love to be able to ride around by myself playing a recording of someone saying maybe every 20 seconds, a series of, for example, free walk your horse, working walk, jog your horse, trot your horse, change direction, extend your trot, lope, hold back five steps, continue with a jog, et cetera, something like you’d hear from an announcer at a Western pleasure event. While I can totally just do those things myself, what I’m looking for is a pattern of unexpected transitions. If I’m coming up at the gait change, my body might unintentionally shift in preparation or I might inadvertently time the transition to a spot in the arena that works well for something like that. I would also like the audio file to be long enough that I could listen to it repeatedly without memorizing it. Maybe I ride to 5 or 10-minute sessions a day. While I’m not actually competing in an event, I just want to work on transitions to improve both my technique and help my hot horse’s mentality. So I was hoping that you might know of such a resource.

Stacy Westfall: When I read this email, I knew immediately that I wanted to work it into a podcast at some point because it is such a common thought that people have. And I think it really illustrates the–the good intentions that people have by wanting to ride in a more random pattern. But I’m going to address some of the challenges I see with random patterns. And it’s going to begin with a story about painting the living room. That’s right. So years ago, I decided that I wanted to paint my living room a different color. And when I was at Lowe’s, I found a paint called Suede. So it was one of those texture paints. And the deal was that you painted a base coat and then you painted this light tan color, but you had to do it in a pattern, a random pattern of Xs all over the wall to create this brushed suede look. Now, thankfully, my mom was in town. We both read the instructions. We were both really clear. We both enjoy painting, and we began painting. And we did our very best to be random. And halfway through one wall, we stepped back and you could totally see the pattern. And we stepped back up and we tried as hard as we could to be really random about where the Xs were. And when we step back again, the pattern was visible at this point. It was slightly humorous and also frustrating because as much as I like painting, it was getting a little old. So the best we could do was to decide that we would each randomly make some Xs the best that we could, and then we would trade places in the living room so that we would then make random Xs over somebody else’s pattern. That obviously wasn’t random, because no matter how much we tried, random was not something that our brains wanted to do. I think that when we try to avoid patterns, we accidentally end up avoiding an amazing learning opportunity. When I was getting ready to do this podcast, I did a quick Google search and listen to some of these facts that came out of an article I read. “Humans try to detect patterns in their environment all the time because it makes learning easier. For example, if you’re given driving directions in an unfamiliar city, you can try to memorize each turn. But if you see a pattern, for example, turn left, then right, then left, then right, it will be easier to remember. We realized that not much was known about how humans figure out these rules. So we did a study that involved 26 adults. Each photo they were shown began as scrambled images that was revealed over a period of three seconds. They hit the button as soon as they thought they knew which one of these three images was being presented. The object was to select which image was being shown as quickly as possible. Participants earned money for their correct answers. And the faster they responded, the more they earned. If they don’t know what image is coming next, they have to wait a while and that is costing them money. But once they figured out a pattern, they responded more quickly and we could see how that was reflected in their brains.”

Stacy Westfall: I think it’s amazing that they’ve done studies on humans and patterns. But I absolutely know even if the studies aren’t as solid, that horses are amazing as seeing patterns. I think that if we proactively pick a pattern to ride, it helps our horses learn because they can see the pattern and it helps us to be more consistent because we admit that we have a pattern. Unlike my mom and I when we were painting, it also helps us to see some of our habits. Now, here’s what I think about training a horse. When you’re training a horse you are training your muscle memory and their muscle memory. You are teaching habits. And the analogy I like to use a lot is, like a dancer, because dancers practice teaching themselves muscle memory for different patterns of the dance and for different movements, if you want to call it, in the dance. When you look at something like maybe a tennis player, when you look at a tennis player, while it might look like they’re reactive, they’re not just swinging wildly out of nowhere. They’re reading their opponent. They aren’t totally surprised by what’s coming. And they practiced things slowly and built muscle memory and habits before the game got faster. This reminds me a lot of when my son came over recently and he brought a video of himself playing with one of the virtual reality video games. And it was amazing how fast he was doing these movements in the game. And the reason he was able to do it so fast was because of the predictability of the game. So when he first started out, he was playing at these lower levels and they had rhythm, they are set to music, and there is a pattern. And then as you move up, the patterns come faster, they come in different combinations. But all along the way, it’s actually that positive anticipation. It is knowing that there’s a pattern there. It is seeing the pattern, it’s getting feedback from the game. Yes, you did it. No, you missed it. And it is working that until your muscle memory and your habit align with the speed of the game. So when you think about riding and surprising your horse with quick changes that you don’t know are coming. That, to me is like a very big test. And there are classes called command classes where somebody will call out those different things. What’s interesting is that in order to prepare really well for a command class, you need to know how to ride all those transitions very smoothly so that when the command is called out, that you prepare your horse for what you’re about to ask you to do, even if that preparation is only a one or a two-second signal that you give to the horse because you’re never truly surprising the horse, if you want this to be a smooth response from the horse. Because just like you, if I’m calling things out, it’s not going to be easy for you to jump and react quickly and smoothly if you don’t see the pattern.

Stacy Westfall: Again, this kind of reminds me of driving a car. I’ve used that example on the podcast quite a bit when I was first riding in the car while my–my boys were learning how to drive. You wanted the predictability and you wanted the slow speeds. And then what you’re doing inside of that is you are preparing yourself for faster speeds and hopefully still very predictable and inside of all of that predictability you are preparing for those unintentional moments where a deer jumps out in front of you or a distracted driver does something. And those are the moments that you’re not necessarily going to drive your best, but it might be enough to keep you safe and that’s going to be enough in that moment. I want to caution you against riding your horse from that type of a situation where you’re basically like swerving to avoid a deer as a training technique because here’s how I really see the beauty of patterns unfolding. You have the option of dealing with a lot of little small questions or big questions. So the deer jumping out and the reaction you’ll have as the driver that is important in that moment to save your life but it’s not going to be the best thing for your car’s brakes or steering or whatever else is involved. It’s kind of similar when you’re riding the horse. So when I’m training the horse, I actually want my horse to read my unintentional shifts because I have the opportunity to either deal with small questions or big questions. Big questions from the horse are going to end up being like them, throwing their head, them, you know, darting left or right, them starting or stopping in really fast motions. Small questions tend to feel like wobbles and you don’t notice wobbles unless you’re being very specific. So just as an example in your mind, if I’m trail riding my horse, I don’t notice the wobbles as much as if I’m riding my four-leaf clover pattern. Because on the trail, I allow for the wobble because we’re on a trail and maybe the horse is adjusting for the footing. So I don’t notice that the alignment in the car is a little bit off. Now, I do notice that on a smooth road. I do notice that when I’m on the four-leaf clover pattern. And so when I go and do these patterns, I then have the ability to listen for those small questions that the horse is asking. And I do admit that I have unintentional and intentional shifts of my body when I’m preparing for certain things. So what happens is this when I’m riding my horse on, say, the four-leaf clover pattern, and I know that I’m going to come through the middle and I’m going to turn to the right around that cone and I’m going to look up head towards the middle and turn to the right around the next cone. I’m going to be aware of the pattern I’m trying to ride. But there’s probably going to be several other things I’m not aware of. So let’s say that when I turn to look, that I accidentally shift a lot of weight to my inside stirrup. And what’s going to happen is this unintentional shift of my body that came accidentally along for the ride is something I’m unaware of. But if it’s a very big shift, then my horse is probably going to have some kind of reaction to it. And so I’m going to think, geez, why is my horse running this cone over? Because I am a little unaware of my role in this.

Stacy Westfall: And so through riding the pattern and trying to diagnose why my horse is running certain cones over, my awareness will start to go up because I will learn about my habits from my horse. And if you want to fast forward this record these sessions on your phone, on some kind of camera and watch it, because it will fast forward your learning. So when I’m riding around two of the places where I really benefit from riding patterns are that awareness and then focus. Just recently, I was riding in a dressage test and my final halt down centerline was from the canter. And once again, I made the same mistake and my final halt was a little baby slide, because this is my old muscle memory habit. So I was unaware in that moment because technically I was unfocused. My true focus was on relief, that I was finished and done. But that relief was not a focus on how to ride that final halt. And so, in a way, it was a loop of the–these unintentional things were happening because I was unaware and unfocused. And so these unintentional shifts in my body were happening when I came down the centerline to do my final halt. So what I love about riding horses is that they complete the feedback loop. I was unfocused and unaware and Willow did a little baby slide. So she gave me feedback. If you’re riding the four-leaf clover pattern and you’re running over the cones, your horse is giving you some kind of feedback. And so in that way, I’m not looking to figure out how to not have my horse read my unintentional shifts. I’m actually looking to my horse to report to me on how well they see the pattern of my intentional shifting of my body and unintentional shifting of my body, because the unintentional one the horse will bring my awareness to and the intentional ones is where I can teach that anticipation. I can teach them to be like, OK, I know that when you sit like this, you are about to cue me to do this, and I’m ready. But I’m waiting, but I’m ready. But I’m waiting, but I’m ready. That is an amazing feeling.

Stacy Westfall: When I read the email, I realized that the essence of the question was on transitions and improving the technique. What I would suggest is that you actually pick one of these patterns that I’ve posted or another great resource is actually the intro and basic level Western dressage tests that you can find at the Western Dressage Association website, because these are examples of patterns that you can ride over and over again. And this will give you the ability to increase your awareness of your intentional habits and your unintentional habits while you’re riding in a very focused manner on a test or the patterns that I have posted. And then you’ll start to be able to deal with the anticipation that your horse may or may not have. And again, if the horse has anticipation, that can be a positive thing, because it can be like, OK, I’m ready. I’m about to go from a walk to a canter. And it needs to feel a little bit like they’ve got some energy there so that they can step up into that. That’s a positive anticipation. But a negative anticipation would be tension. And then you can start to say, OK, I see where that’s coming from. I can see where you need more preparation, and then maybe you need me to come through here and show you that. Yes, I was accidentally too quick with that aid last time, but I’m going to be intentional about making sure I’m slow with that, I’m steady with that, I’m predictable with it, because a lot of those little wobbles, those little questions that the horses have are things that through repetition, they will then gain the confidence to instead of being like, oh, no, I see we’re getting ready to do a lead departure. I want to get away from that aid. The horse can become confident and say, I see that a lead departure is coming and I am confident that when it is asked for, I am going to give the correct answer. And that kind of confidence comes from the repetition of the horse consistently seeing the aids and even the corrections, if those are necessary because that’s a whole nother podcast. Your corrections should not cause more problems than the problem itself. So I highly recommend that you ride these patterns, that you record yourself when you ride patterns, and if you do this, then you can become more aware of your habits. Like, do you lean before you go into a corner? Are you leaning in? Are you leaning out? Are you forgetting to plan ahead? Because sometimes I like to say people forget they’re driving a semi, which is my expression for people not planning ahead when they’re riding their horse because the horses have a very big body and you have to plan ahead for those turns. And riding patterns is a great way to remember that you’re driving a semi. So ride the patterns, record one now, if you’re not used to riding patterns, it’s a great opportunity to record one now. And even if you don’t want to watch it now, consistently ride that pattern for 30 rides and then record it again and see the change that’s happened. Because consistently inside of my paid courses, I watch horses and riders improve by riding patterns. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Video Training Exercise: Circles inside of circles


  1. Catherine Collins on September 6, 2021 at 7:14 pm

    Hi Stacy – I love your podcast. Super helpful, especially the recent one about patterns. I can’t seem to find the two patterns you suggest riding frequently. I understand they’re supposed to be in the show notes, but so sorry. I can’t find them…thanks if you can help.

    • Stacy Westfall on September 7, 2021 at 6:46 am

      Here is a link to the Circles video: https://youtu.be/qQmrsLUWA7k

      My diagram on the cloverleaf is confusing people…let me go look for a video!

      Ok, I can make another video sometime of the 4 Leaf pattern but I did just realize there is a clip of it being ridden that can be seen on this sample video: https://courses.stacywestfall.com/p/establishing-collection-and-introducing-lead-change

      At 44 seconds into the video Colleen is demonstrating counterbend and she enters the 4 leaf clover pattern. I think after you see her make a loop or two…My diagram will then make sense.

  2. lynee leonard on September 6, 2021 at 1:45 am

    Thank you Stacey I understand this clover leaf so I can cone it out on my field arena and I guess you walk trot and canter going to the right first and then left and stop in the middle. Do you continue going to the right or left until the horse gets it at the walk ….trot….canter

    • Stacy Westfall on September 7, 2021 at 6:52 am

      I use this pattern soooooo much!
      Most riders begin by riding it at a walk or a trot while learning it. How much depends on the fitness level of horse and rider.
      Lets say you walk it twice (all the way through-back to the same cone you started with) then you trot it five times. Then reverse and go the other way.

      In my Establishing Collection and Introducing Lead Changes course, I recommend being able to canter it 10x each way if you are working on lead changes. For some horses and riders this is possible fairly quickly. Others who have limited experience loping might work all summer to get to the point where they can lope 3x through it.

  3. Alexandra Mcstay on September 5, 2021 at 12:55 pm

    I just listened to this podcast and so many aha moments happened! Thank you! I watched your circles within a circle video and looked at this cloverleaf pattern you have posted. I am very visual, so the circles video was helpful but I must admit that the cloverleaf pattern has me scratching my head and turning my computer screen various directions! Do you have a video of this cloverleaf pattern being ridden? You mentioned that riding both of these patterns cause positive anticipation because they flow, I can understand that. Does it matter where you put your gait transitions?

    • Stacy Westfall on September 7, 2021 at 6:57 am

      LOL! I love your description.
      I looked around and can’t find a video of it…wait.

      Ok, I can make another video sometime but I did just realize there is a clip of it being ridden that can be seen on this sample video: https://courses.stacywestfall.com/p/establishing-collection-and-introducing-lead-change

      At 44 seconds into the video Colleen is demonstrating counterbend and she enters the 4 leaf clover pattern. I think after you see her make a loop or two…My diagram will then make sense.

      Hope that helps!

      • Ruth McDermott on September 10, 2021 at 2:00 pm

        Yes. It did help. I know this drill. 🙂 Thank you.

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