Episode 6: The horse’s path of learning is NOT the same as the rider

“Recognize when you're in a certain stage of learning. You wouldn't judge the horse so don't judge yourself.” Stacy Westfall Click To Tweet

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“Find more experienced people to mentor you, because knowing when to push through or knowing when enough is enough comes from experience.” Stacy Westfall Click To Tweet

Show Notes

It’s important to understand that riders and horses don’t follow the same path of learning. I talk about the straight line progression of a horse’s learning process. I also talk about the best stage of the horse’s progression for a new rider to begin learning on.

I talk about how everything can’t be learned at once, but how an experienced mentor can help speed up the process. I also talk about how it’s important to understand and accept what stage of learning that you are at instead of getting frustrated.


[01:02] Paths that a horse follows while training is pretty straightforward. It’s like the path from kindergarten to college.

[01:23] When I start training a horse they are starting kindergarten and the progression of their learning goes up in a straight line.

[01:40] Riders do not follow the same path of learning that the horse does.

[02:05] As I said in my book Smart Start, the safety line where it’s safe to get on a horse and ride is somewhere around third grade for horses.

[02:20] All of the basic groundwork is before that.

[03:04] A rider should start learning on a horse that has moved up to the high school level. The odds of something going bad with a horse that is really green are higher.

[03:15] If a horse has made it to the high school level, it means that they steer pretty good and they are generally easy to move around.

[03:56] The side effect of a person learning to ride on a horse that is at the high school level is that they feel like they are lacking on both ends. They have a horse that they can start, stop, and steer, but they don’t truly understand the base work that went into that.

[04:42] It’s the same theory as learning to drive a car. You don’t begin in a Ferrari. You begin driving in a nice functional safe car.

[06:12] Frustrations can be not knowing what to do next, not knowing when enough is enough, when to back off or when to push through and ask for more, and  not knowing when to push an exercise to the next level.

[07:05] When you are in the middle, it makes sense not to know what to do next.

[07:59] There’s a difference between feeling frustrated and understanding that you’re in a certain stage.

[09:11] Knowing when to push through or knowing when enough is enough comes from experience. You need to ask for help when you’re not sure.

[09:18] Finding someone who’s already been through it is a wonderful way to to learn and gain experience.

[09:39] Recognize when you’re in a certain stage and don’t judge yourself.

[11:25] Have fun and there is no shame when you are learning.

[11:44] Hopefully understanding the difference between the rider’s path and the horse’s path is helpful.

[12:36] Start with a horse that is in high school don’t do the green green thing.

[14:05] A lot of professionals actually specialize in different disciplines. Then they focus on different stages within that discipline.

[14:58] Understanding the whole spectrum is a big big job.

“The rider does not follow the same path of learning that the horse does.” Stacy Westfall Click To Tweet

Links and Resources:

Smart Start: Building a Strong Foundation for Your Horse


  1. Nancy F on January 5, 2024 at 11:13 am

    Your pod casts are wonderful! I am learning so much. I am at the opposite of the spectrum. I started with a geriatric horse, that has seen and done everything and now ready to branch out to perfecting my riding skills with a high school horse. I really appreciate how you have broken down your topics. You are putting into words how, most of us feel.

  2. Christa Payne on October 10, 2023 at 6:19 am

    Stacy! Oh my goodness. I’ve been riding horses for 20 years. Let’s just say I’ve been content. Thinking I’m making tiny steps of progress but when the pressure is on for performance- things just don’t come together. I have been feeling stuck. That heavy ‘now what’, or ‘is this it’ thought constantly on my mind with my horse.
    You have PERFECTLY articulated my horse life – I’ve been in the middle! For like… ever!!! Gaining tiny tips and pearls here and there, but nothing that really shifts me significantly out of the “middle”.

    Thanks so much for adding clarity and helping me understand my stage of horsemanship. It certainly helps relieve that “now what” feeling. Though I have always sought further knowledge on horsemanship and training- in hindsight it was always in a sporadic way. Some basic tips, high level tips, sprinkled around. I’m planning to continue listening to your podcast and seeking help from some local trainers I trust. I’m making a more systematic way of learning: starting from Kindergarten now! 🙂

    It’s pretty awesome- just found your podcast and this was the first episode I chose to listen to… I think it was meant to be.

  3. Kris E on May 16, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    This episode and many others, have really hit the nail on the head for me. I can see all the stages I’ve gone through as an adult rider and can see the stages in my kids as well. I just never realized someone actually put these stages into categories. We have always kept our kids mounted on finished, college educated horses. They all could ride them well and compete. While they learned how to ride, they didn’t know how to handle when they as the rider or the horse had issues pop up. We are lucky to have always have many resources to help us with this. Our daughter who is our youngest, at 12yo recently moved up to a 7yo horse. He’s super broke and well patterned but he needs her to ride him and guide him, he’s not the automatic older barrel/pole horse she’s used to. Her riding skills have sky rocketed. He’s forced her to think about how she rides and how he responds. I see her go between her dreamy phase of riding to a learning phase, depending on which horse she rides. And that is another point I really realized from this episode. I can ride an old broke horse and be unconsciously competent, and then get on my very hot horse and float right back to realizing I’m consciously incompetent, which at times have left me feeling very frustrated and doubting myself. When this happens I go back to the older horses we have to rebuild my confidence and then tackle my hot mess of horse once again. Thank you for all these episodes. They are tremendously helpful to me.

    • Stacy Westfall on May 17, 2019 at 10:43 am

      I’m glad you are enjoying the podcasts! I love pondering how all of these things I observe and experience fit together. I see all the learning I do with horses and life as building blocks. I like explaining all the pieces and how they can be put together!

  4. Helen Talley on January 12, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    Too many times I’ve seen parents give their children young horses so “they can learn together”. I cringe every time I hear this because it is so dangerous. Just like you said, “green on green makes black and blue”. What they don’t seem to understand is that both the young rider and the young horse need someone to learn from and preferable they need to do that learning separately. Your podcast really laid things out in an easy to understand manner. The rider doesn’t follow the same path of learning as the horse.

  5. John Stackhouse on January 8, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    I have a 16 year old mare that suddenly refuses to walk along a part of my pasture. As far as I can discover, there aren’t any rabbit holes or gopher like holes. No obstacles that I can see, either. It’s just Kentucky Bluegrass and the perimeter fence. There’s pine cones on the ground from tall pines, but they’re in many places in the pasture. She hasn’t been afraid of them ever. She’s walked there countless times. The pasture has a gentle grade to it as well. Any suggestions?

    • Stacy Westfall on January 9, 2019 at 9:08 am

      My first thought is that if she had an ‘experience’ there, for example, something jumping out at her like a dog, she may associate it with that area for a while. If there is nothing going on that you can see did hurt her or could hurt her it might be interesting to observe for a while.
      The other option is to use it as a training opportunity and see if you can lunge her/work her/etc in the area. Even if you do this though, be clear it will be an opportunity to work on your communication with her and may NOT change her free will use of the pasture. She may very well still avoid it.

  6. John Stackhouse on January 8, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    Hi Stacy! I guess this comment is a tad off subject, but I couldn’t help but notice that your ways of training a horse, understanding that the horse learns in a natural straight line progression, and that it is different for the rider, made me think how similar thinking stategies would mesh pretty darn well in building reationships with other human beings. I wondered then, if you have sometimes noticed similarities, say, in training up your kids and training up your horses?

    • Stacy Westfall on January 9, 2019 at 9:03 am

      John, I do notice lots of similarities. I like to say it is because many things I observe, I believe, are life principles and therefore apply across many places in life.
      That’s the way I see it anyway!

  7. Alison Hamm on January 5, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you again, Stacy, for producing another great podcast for all of us! I love the way you put things together with your analogies and examples from your personal experiences. You are a wonderful teacher! I love your Jak sessions and learned so much from all of those.

    Now, I have been so inconsistent with spending time with my horse over the past year that I find myself always starting at the beginning again and again. My horse is at high school level and we don’t stay at the beginning long, but, I do think it has been good for me to be WILLING to start at the beginning after time off with my horse. After all, it’s not a sprint but a marathon and a lifetime of learning if you’re open to that. I know, from my own experience, what regular riding 5 days a week can accomplish. Getting back to that schedule has been the challenge. I just have a never give up attitude and that has been so helpful for me. Thanks again for all that you do.

    • Stacy Westfall on January 6, 2019 at 12:08 pm

      I would agree that the willingness to return to the beginning is key. I believe that one of the reasons my horses have excelled and had long careers is because I’m always returning to the basics. As you mention, I don’t stay there but I do check to make sure everything is working. Surprisingly there are often little things that are not working. A few little adjustments fix that and I prevent a bigger problem in my more advanced work.
      The willingness to go back and forth is important for building a solid horse and rider.
      Thanks for listening and commenting (and the complements:)

  8. Rebekah Rehm on January 3, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    Stacy, another excellent episode! Your podcast has been a Godsend for me. I started colts for 2 years with my business partner and we were successful with our business. She ended up moving to Texas though and our colt starting business came to an end. In the in between I have struggled with feeling lost without horses in my life to the large extent they were before when I did it as a business. This episode encouraged me not to stop dreaming or learning. To not just be okay with okay. To take where I’m at and reach out to grow in knowledge and skill from here. Your podcast has got me thinking that way a lot more. I love listening to it because it provokes my thought process in regards to training horses and brings that mindset back to the surface for me. I’m looking forward to learning and growing in 2019. Thank you for always encouraging us to not be critical of ourselves either. Your podcast holds great content and I always look forward to listening to the new episodes!

  9. Samantha on January 2, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Hi Stacy, again a very interesting podcast. I love how you break it down in to parts. This makes is much easier to understand. I have a 4 year old stallion in training, who was really disrespectfull when I first started. Very pushy, using his shoulders to run right trough me, not respecting my space at all. The owner had to use a whip when walking with him and they corrected him by using that whip. I have been working with him for a couple of months and he is doing very good. He is not in kindergarden anymore, not in college yet but like a high schooler. He is backing out of my space nicely, moving his shoulders and hips when I ask him to and he comes of pressure quite nicely. I´m pretty happy with the progress he has made in this time. But… he keeps on biting. Biting me, biting the rope, biting the fence. When he is backing up he tries to bite me, when I put on the halter he bites. Basicallly whenever he can reach me, he bites. I tried your chicking wings, but he doens´t care. It hurts me more then it hurts him. I tried a chain when I walk with him and tie him up, but again he doesn’t care. He keeps on biting the chain. I did make his feet move whenever he bites, but now he bites and starts lunging himself right away. Kind of like a kid grounding himself. The owner would hit hem whenever he would bite her. Now it is a game to him. Is he fast enough to bite us before we hit him? ( I don’t hit him. Let that be clear) The biting isn’t aggresive but it is a ‘playfull stallion behaviour’. But he is weighing around 600KG ( he is nog a quarter horse) And I don’t like to play and be bitten by a stallion who weighs that much. All the other groundwork he is doing fine, but I feel that the biting issues is one of the things keeping us from graduating to college. Any suggestions how to fix this? PS: His teeth were checked as well and all fine.

    • Stacy Westfall on January 16, 2019 at 9:22 am

      Habits and hormones. Stallions with a very high drive to bite are a challenge with no easy answer. If they are corrected early on during all human interactions it can be slightly easier but the ones that choose to be mouthy, choose that as an expression of their desires. I have had amazing stallions that were very well behaved, decent stallions that were behaved most of the time and stallions that were always pushing the boundaries.
      When I trained for the public I dealt with all of them but as my business grew and my knowledge grew I started making different choices. In college (I went to an equine college) the vet had a saying, “A good stallion makes a great gelding”. He was noting that there was an improvement in some way when gelded.
      In our industry, the stallions must be both athletic and trainable. Reining horses are required to reach a higher level of training than say a racehorse. Because of this, the horses are being bred to be both athletic and trainable. There are more and more stallions in our industry that are very trainable and easy to be around because of this.
      In my world, my answer would be to geld him. I know this because when Newt was just turning two he started getting mouthy. He had always played with other horses using his mouth but he started doing it more and more to people. The distraction in his mind that was driving this behavior would have also cause distractions in other areas of training. I gelded him. I chose it early because I didn’t want his hormones to create other bad habits and I knew the distraction level was going to change the training and require me to be harder on him. Gelding him took away the desire to bite and made his life around humans and other horses easier.
      There are other industries that may overlook the behavior for other qualities but I’m only going to speak from what I have seen. Twenty plus years later I agree even more with the wise old vet from my college years. A good stallion makes a GREAT gelding.

  10. Kathy Stoker on December 30, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    Another inspiring & confidence building podcast. I am one of those stuck at knowing when to push forward on groundwork. Knowing it’s okay to be in the middle takes away the fear & frustration that I punish myself with….. and allows me to go forward even if it’s only one step at a time. At this point in time I am stuck getting my horse to back out of the trailer. I feel I should be assertive yet I do not want to turn it into a bad experience that would make her reluctant to load easily. …………… so I give it much more time than I should … and still haven’t gotten her trained to back out. Never give up!!! Thanks for doing your podcasts and sharing your knowledge

  11. Monaca Utopia on December 30, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks Stacy! Finding a good mentor is a great idea. Sometimes I feel like someone can mentor me but refuses to show up.

  12. Bob Gornichec on December 28, 2018 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Stacy, I love the High School analogy. I thought my horse was pretty good at the high school level. But after a fairly long lull in being able to ride due to work, weather and life in general, he clearly went back to performing at a Junior High level. Suddenly, he balked a little at trailer loading, neck reined poorly, and speed control, stops and starts were not near as good as they were in October. Its very frustrating feeling like we both took a step backwards. I guess there is no substitute for hard work and consistent training. Another great podcast! Thank you!

  13. Sarah on December 27, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    This is my favorite episode so far. I remember my first real horse lesson 3 years ago where I spent the entire hour learning how to put the rope halter on properly and tie the horse safely. I remember my hands shaking the whole time because I knew how badly I wanted to learn EVERYTHING yet I had to practice the most basic task. I felt really dumb but at the same time had to face it if I wanted to live the dream. I’m still so critical of myself and lack of knowledge and experience but after listening to this I’m realizing how much more I could enjoy this process if I just take it easy. I feel encouraged and can’t wait to get back in the saddle.

    Regarding the right horse match, the first horse I rode and learned on was safe but resistant. I learned SO much from interacting with him because he had a resistant and challenging personality. I also took lessons concurrently on a “confidence booster”. I felt like I could ride any horse and do anything after riding him. So while my physical riding skills improved, if I did not have that challenge from the other horse I would not be prepared for the time when a horse didn’t do what I asked or expected.

    Oh, and I wish I had someone taking notes like this for me in graduate school. Would’ve made studying so much easier. ?

  14. Martina Brown on December 27, 2018 at 10:37 pm

    Even though I have ridden since I was very young, I only knew the basics–did not have a clue about the training process. When I purchased Hildy I did not realize how much education she was lacking. I used to get frustrated because I could not figure out why she acted the way she did in certain circumstances. From your videos, words of wisdom from your blogs, and the two clinics I have attended, I have learned so much. There is still a lot for me to learn, but I am much better at figuring things out when I come across a problem. I also enjoy helping my friend with her horse Louie. When I went to your clinic last year you showed me how to teach Hildy to line up next to the mounting block. When I got home I showed my friend Michelle, then I taught her horse Louie how to do it. It was fun. It is pretty cool to be able to help someone with their horse. I have also been teaching Louie how to side pass on the ground and he is doing a great job. I do have a hard time deciding on how hard to push Hildy and when to progress to the next level. It seems I stay at my comfort level too long. Maybe the question should be–How do I know when to go to the next level/how do I know when I should push myself to the next level???

  15. Ashley LaRue on December 27, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    This podcast really hit home for me. I loved your learning to drive a car analogy, and where the path may lead from there.

    Growing up I had many friends who also loved horses. They were always going to big shows and what I call expensive “push-button” horses. I always felt a want to do what they did but was not able to. Sometimes I still shame myself (or feel inadequate) for not being at “that level”.

    Your analogy reminded me that trail riding and general recreational riding was just as good as what they did/still do.

    I’ve trained a handful of horses from the ground up. They may not be at that “masters” level yet, but we’re both a positive work in progress, and for me that’s more fun than being in a show pen.

    Thank you for recognizing riders/trainers of all levels and not putting yourself above, but rather beside!

  16. Elisa on December 27, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Thank you once again. You put into words a lot of what I’m feeling. It helps me to look at my horses and give them a grade. I want to get past highschool and struggling to do that. What are the next steps I need to do to learn more? Trainer?

  17. Robin Olson on December 27, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    Hi Stacy The way you present your information makes so many things fall into place. This discussion was exactly what I have been struggling with and hadn’t been able to explain it to trainers I had asked. I also have realized that through this process no one can stress enough that EXPIERENCE is a key component but the time and right choice of horse is so often over looked. I am very thankful for your podcast.

  18. Laura Weber on December 27, 2018 at 8:35 am

    Stacy, this podcast really hit home for me. I often feel inadequate and “behind” in my riding and training and I easily get frustrated with myself. I feel like I’m letting my horses down and not getting them to their full potential due to my lack of knowledge. The way you describe the stages of learning while placing no judgment on yourself as the trainer is a whole new way for me to look at myself and this horsemanship journey I am on. Thank you so much for this. It’s exactly what I needed to hear to keep me going and striving!

  19. Cha on December 27, 2018 at 3:45 am

    Great podcast! I loved the bit at the end in Trainers specialising… my Husband spécialisés in colt starting and a lot of people come to see him with a lot of other issues. He always tries to help but you can see that they find it difficult to understand that you can have specialised in one area and redire have much less experience in another!

  20. Pam Salandra on December 26, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    Stacy, I just love listening to your wisdom. I rode for many years until an accident left me afraid. Listening to your instruction is such balm for my soul. I remember wanting to know everything when I started. Going through your podcasts is helping me with the confidence I need to start riding again. I’m so very grateful to you.

    I don’t fear the riding part once up I’m fine. It’s on the ground that I’m afraid which makes it difficult to ride my own horses. I’m weird, I know LOL I can groom no problem, pick feet and hang out. But put a halter on and walk around…yikes, Fighting with my own fears has got to be my most frustrating horsey lesson yet. After doing canter pirouettes I’m stuck at the most basic ground work!

  21. Vicki Conrad on December 26, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Very interesting episode. I do see a lot of green on green and that can be a dangerous situation. I try to master so much on the ground with my horse before getting on.

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