California Riding Magazine • February, 2014

The Power of Why
Frame of Body = Frame of Mind

by Chris Irwin

We call her Katja, but her registered name is Katherine the Great. When I bought Katja, I thought her breeder had given her a rather pretentious name. Now, looking back over two decades of experience with her, I must admit that she has lived up to the lofty title.

Katja is a great leader for her herd. To this day she demonstrates consistently that she is an extreme force to be reckoned with while also nothing to be afraid of.

I have introduced Katja to many different horses over the years and she has been an Empress for them all. She has always been able to rule over a large herd with just a mere mare look on her face that clearly communicates her intense commitment to her authority. And yet she is never a bully.

All behavior in any creature is the result of both nature and nurture. And yet I've read recently that a new study shows that after centuries upon centuries of breeding horses, our attempts to enhance and improve their behavior and performance has, at best, improved their athletic ability by no more than 10 percent.

In other words, after all these centuries of breeding, horses are only 10 percent physically "better" as equine athletes. So the real dynamic breakthroughs in horsemanship are not to be found in breeding, not in the "nature" of the horse, but in the "nurture," or the handling, training and relationships with the horse.

Katja's DNA is not the result of focused breeding to run faster or jump higher or be stronger in the harness. Katja, as a Warmblood war horse, comes from a long line of what I call "yes" horses when asked for sensibility and courage. And when horses bred for sensibility / trainability and innate courage end up in the hands of competent and balanced trainers, then their potential can be significantly enhanced and a wonderful horse can result. 

I have had Katja live with as many as 30 horses in her herd and she rarely needs to bite or kick at any of them. And she does not allow them to bully each other either. Whenever Katja sees one horse start to unjustly push another horse too much she intervenes by simply putting herself between the bully and the horse she is protecting. She doesn't bully the bully in return – she just gets in the way of the bully and sends them her "look." And when Katja gets in their way – they all eventually bow to their Queen.

As for the influence of nurture, let's look at two photographs of Katja in relationship with two different people. In the first photo we see Katja in the round pen with my wife, Kathryn. Kathryn is asking Katja to approach her by opening her right hip and Katja recognizes this body language signal as an invitation to come be with Kathryn. Katja is approaching Kathryn with a lovely "level headed" frame of body that expresses a calm self-assuredness with a passive and willing attitude. Katja's focus is obviously on coming directly into Kathryn's open invitation and her tail is curled indicating she is relaxed.   

Katja, kind, level-headed, and willing to come to Kathryn's open-hip invitation.

In this photo we see a very dominant horse, that all other horses bow to, coming respectfully to someone who knows how to clearly speak her language.

In the second photo we see Vivian, one of my working students visiting from the Netherlands, riding Katja as the two stand quietly by the river enjoying the view. Katja is standing square, straight, perfectly balanced, and very well rounded with incredible "self-carriage" in her collection revealed by the light contact Vivian has on the reins. A heartwarming image of a human and a horse together in body, mind and spirit.

Katja, knowing she is in good hands with Vivian, is an Alpha mare totally at peace with being ridden away from herd and out alone on the trail here.

In closing, it is often said that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and these two simple photographs with Katja speak volumes about the potential for grace and beauty when good breeding for temperament is balanced with good training and knowledgeable handling.

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at