California Riding Magazine • August, 2014

Who You Are Is How You Are
Alignment is a complex concept as it translates to the horse.

by Chris Irwin

In this classic Chris Irwin photo we see him using his right hand to nuzzle his Hanoverian mare, Tsunami, while his hips/core draw back to invite her head into him. Note how kind and soft her eyes are. This is the alignment of mutual respect, trust and appreciation between horse and human. Photo: Jerome Scullino

Alignment, very simply, means to "position yourself strategically." It's an easy, three-word slogan, but it's worth closer examination. "Position," as I use it here, means literally just that—where you stand in relation to the horse, how you stand in relation to the horse, and where and how both of you line up in relation to everything and everybody else in your immediate environment.

Alignment starts with the realization that every move we make and every position we take must further our leadership aims.  The other characteristic of a strategy of control is intention.

During a clinic in Zoersel, Belgium, Chis nuzzles the girth of this young Warmblood gelding with his left hand while Chris keeps his right hip and leg open in a "draw" to receive the head of the gelding. Again, note that Chris is not pulling the horse to him with the rope, he is bending the horse at the girth and drawing the head from his hip. The alignment of friends.

Think about the awareness of prey animals. Their survival depends on not missing a thing in their environment and that first and foremost means you. They will be constantly sizing you up and reading your every gesture, so every gesture must mean what you want it to mean. Every move we make must be part of our overall plan, and every move must be consistent with it.

Remember: this is a deadly serious game to a horse. She believes she's putting her life in your hands, so in order for her to trust you, she has to get the same responses and the same messages all the time. The problem is that people are inconsistent. Sometimes we send signals one way, then we send the same signal, but differently. So many of the times our movements are not clearly intentional to the horse and they are, therefore, undecipherable noise. Signals or noise? Every moment, to moment, to moment, that is the reality of what a horse copes with when around us. 

During production of his TV show at Creek Hollow Ranch in Ramona, Chris works with a performance Quarter Horse. She is not a "soft mare" and not inclined to giving herself easily as Chris first begins to massage her girth area. Photo: Nancy Nolan

After a few minutes of massaging and nudging, the mare begins to show an interest in bringing her head to Chris. Photo: Nancy Nolan

Within just a few minutes, the mare has given her head to Chris willingly. The alignment of trust. Photo: Nancy Nolan

Would you fly with a pilot who landed his or her plane safely 65 percent of the time? How about 75 percent? Would you be happy with 95 percent?

Horses don't have an off switch, or an auto pilot. When you're with a horse, consistency is how they measure integrity, so the horse must be your prime focus all the time. She needs your constant body language reassurance that everything's in control and everything from your position to your bearing, breathing, and even the subtlest gestures must reflect this.

You'll often hear people talking about body language with horses. But talk, as we all know all too well, is cheap. The behavior of your horse, whether angry, frightened, confused, dull, suspicious or calm, confident and focused, all depends upon the strategic shape and relative position of the leader producing the forward movement.

For instance, when you do need to get to the horse's face, take a tip from nature. You don't see too many straight lines in the wild. Natural lines curve, so instead of striding directly to the head, walk in an arc toward the shoulder. Once you're there, press or nudge against a "button" that every horse has down on its girth, low on the ribs, just behind what we might call the "armpit" of the horse. Pressing this button tells the horse to flex its barrel away from you. Once she does bend her ribs away from you her head will swing right around, most likely ending up right next to your shoulder or down in your lap. As her head starts swinging around to look at you, draw you core back, moving farther back and away from her to emphasize you're welcoming her head to come to you.   

If you want the head to come to you, give a nudging massage, to bend the girth away from you and then draw your core to receive what you have asked for. It's a nice little object lesson in how taking the indirect route to get what you want often yields better results than the so-called direct approach. Simply going for the head is a capturing move that will instantly cause most horses to brace.

Asking for the head from nuzzling at the girth is what a foal does to get its mother's attention. If you were a horse, which hands would you rather be in?

It's a bittersweet pill of accountability that so many people find hard to swallow, but the fact is that the behavior and performance potential of a horse is a direct reflection of how they feel about what they see in you, the handler. To a horse, who you are is based on how you are.

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 into 18 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