Answering Horse Questions For Beginners By Equine Expert!

Equine Expert!

Mary Jo Zanolli is an instructor at Connecticut Equestrian Center in Coventry. She has over 12 years of experience teaching beginner and intermediate riders, and over 20 years of experience riding horses. Send all of your horse-related questions to Mary Jo!

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

I have been taking riding lessons for almost 4 years, and leasing a horse for about a year. My parents have finally agreed to consider buying me a horse! What is the best breed to consider?


A: Hi Ashley,

First of all, congratulations on the decision to start the search for your first horse! All breeds of horses have quiet, trustworthy horses and anxious and unsafe ones! Rather than a particular breed, the most important factor to consider when buying a horse is temperament. Temperament is a horse’s personality, disposition, and rideability. A first horse, in particular, should be well-schooled, quiet, and dependable. A horse’s soundness is also extremely important, as a horse must be able to perform his job comfortably and without pain.

I suggest taking your riding instructor or another knowledgeable horse person with you when evaluating prospective horses. Even though it can be easy to fall in love with the first horse you try, don’t be impulsive! You want to find a horse that you will enjoy working with on a daily basis for years to come. Take your time, and ride many horses so you have all different levels of comparison. Try to prioritize your preferences – things like training and rideability are more important than color or breed. Make sure you also continue to increase your own horsemanship skills. Taking care of a horse requires knowledge of stable management, equine nutrition, disease prevention, tack care/fit, and more.  Riding lessons will continue to be a vital aspect of your education as your skills increase, so never stop learning!

Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

Do you have any advice to help me learn to ride the sitting trot? My horse has a huge trot stride and I am finding it difficult to sit to his trot!

Thank you, Suzanne

A: Dear Suzanne,

Sitting the trot can be difficult to master, especially if you are on a horse with very big gaits. Learning how to ride the sitting trot is worth the effort though. Once you are able to sit to your horse’s trot, you can start to use your seat more to influence how your horse moves and carries himself.

It helps to start learning the sitting trot on the lunge line, with the rider focusing on balance and position and leaving the steering of the horse to the handler at the other end of the lunge line. The rider should try to sit as deeply as possible, stretching down through the thighs with the heel of the foot low. Try not to force the heel down in the sitting trot; instead, make the ankle joint loose and relaxed. Keep enough weight in the stirrup to allow the ankle joint to absorb some of the horse’s movement in the sitting trot. The rider’s abdominal muscles and lower back also absorb some of the movement, while at the same time following the motion of the horse’s trot. It is important that the riders’ leg and thigh stay long and fairly relaxed- if the rider’s leg grips too much then that will push the rider’s seat up out of the saddle and make it impossible for the rider to sit deep enough.

When first experimenting with the sitting trot it is a good idea to alternate between the rising trot and the sitting trot. Sit the trot for a few strides, and then return to the rising trot to reposition yourself, then back to sitting a few strides, then back to rising, and so on. Gradually add more sitting strides, but when the sitting trot becomes a bouncy returns to rising. This will make it much easier on the horse’s back- horses tend to stiffen and hollow their back in self-defense when the rider starts to bounce. The more stiff and hollow a horse’s back, the more difficult it is for a rider to sit the trot! So it is easiest and most comfortable for both the horse and the rider to start the sitting trot in this way!

Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

What is the difference between the Western and the English riding styles?


A: Dear Krista,
At first glance, English and Western riding styles seem quite different. Both styles, however, require an independent and solid seat with the upper body balanced securely over the lower body, and weight in the lower leg and heel. An independent seat means that a rider can move each body part independently, balancing over the horses’ center of gravity at any gait or riding position. A rider who has an independent seat does not need to use the reins and hands for security or balance.

The Western saddle was developed with the needs of a cowboy in mind. Western saddles typically have a deep seat with a saddle horn on the saddle front. The horn was originally used to carry a lariat for roping cattle. Cowboys used to have to travel over rough terrain for hours at a time, and this saddle was designed to be comfortable for long periods of riding.

English saddles are typically flattered saddles, designed to give a rider close leg contact with the horse’s side. The English saddle varies slightly depending upon if it is meant for dressage, jumping, racing, or saddle seat riding. The English saddle gives horses freedom of movement to perform specific tasks such as jumping or extending and collecting the stride.

The horses’ gaits also differ in English and Western riding. A Western jog is slower and smoother than the English trot, which requires the rider to post. Posting means to rise out of the saddle as the horse’s outside shoulder comes forward, making the English trot a lot smoother to ride. A Western lope is a slower, more relaxed version of the English canter. The canter is a 3 beat gait, where the pattern of the horses’ hoof beats follows a specific 3 beat sequence. The walk is similar in both disciplines.
Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

The local stable where my daughter takes riding lessons insists on having the students help groom and tack the horse before each lesson.  Why is it so important to thoroughly groom the horse before each ride, and is there a correct grooming method?

A: Hi,

Grooming is not only a great chance to look over your horse closely for injuries or skin irritation, but it can also be quite an enjoyable activity for both the horse and the rider. Brushing away excess dirt under the saddle and girth area helps prevent saddle sores and irritation in the saddle area.  Most horses also enjoy the massage-like action of a currycomb, as it feels good to their muscles and is a great way to get those itchy spots the horse can’t quite reach!

Most grooming sessions start with good currying. A currycomb should be used in a circular motion, adjusting pressure, depending on the horse’s level of enjoyment. The currycomb loosens dirt and mud that can be built up in the horse’s coat.  When currying, be certain to avoid bony areas such as the horse’s legs and head. The hard brush, or body brush, follows the currycomb. The body brush whisks away loose hair and dirt that was brought to the coated surface by the currycomb.  A hard brush can be used on a horse’s leg to remove mud.  Follow the hard brush with the soft brush to give the horse’s coat a more finished appearance. The soft brush is the best brush to use on the horse’s head area.

Every grooming session should always include picking the horse’s hooves. Dirt, manure, and even stones can get lodged inside the sole of the horse’s foot.  Daily hoof care is essential to the soundness of your horse. When picking a horse’s feet, you should also be sure to look for any cracks or injuries to the horse’s hoof.

Brushing the horse’s tail and mane should be done slowly and carefully, taking care not to break any hairs. There are many tail and mane detangling products that can be used to make this job easier.

The best part of grooming your horse is the quality time you get to spend with your horse. This is especially important to beginner riders, as time spent working around the horse and handling the horse can greatly increase confidence in the saddle! Have fun, and don’t forget the carrots and apples too!

Mary Jo

Q: Mary Jo,

I have a question for you. I know a horse that I really adore that has a biting habit. He used to live at a very bad stable and people would treat him bad. He was poked in the nose and whipped and beaten. Now though, he is at the stable I go to which is very nice and we treat him very well. But, he still has a bad biting habit and we don’t know how to stop it. We leave him alone when he is eating and wants to be alone, but when he looks happy near his window in his stall, when you reach out to pet him, he lays his ears back and snaps at you bad. How can we fix it?


A: Dear Cynthia,

First of all, congratulations on taking a horse out of a negative environment and providing him with a barn where he can live and feel safe and cared for.

You didn’t say how long this horse has been in his new home. Horses can take a long time (years even) before really bonding with their people. This is especially true if the horse has had negative experiences with people in the past.

It is probably very important for this horse to have his own area where he feels “safe”. For the time being. This means no one should enter his “space”, such as a stall (unless of course you are wanting to halter him and lead him out of his stall). I think you should respect that this horse, at least for the time being, doesn’t want people going into his stall or window area and petting him.

What you CAN do is halter the horse and put him on crossties outside his stall. Spend a long time fussing over the horse- find his “itchy” spots where he seems to appreciate being brushed. Spend time hand-grazing him. Greet him when you first see him at the barn in a happy tone.  Try to figure out how to make this horse look forward to your visits, and just maybe months from now you’ll notice his ears prick forward when he hears you call his name upon entering the barn.  The horse will tell you when he trusts you enough to let you visit with him in his stall area.

Good luck, and be patient. Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

I am looking for a lesson stable for my 10-year-old daughter. She has no riding experience.  I am wondering what type of lesson program is appropriate for a complete beginner.


A: Dear Robin,

The best way to start a new rider is by putting them on the lunge line. The lunge line is a long rope attached to the horse’s bridle- the instructor holds the end of the lunge line, and is able to steer/stop the horse while the rider can focus on maintaining balance and correct position.  Ideally, the saddle will have a grab strap attached to the front of it, which the rider can initially hold until she feels secure.

The first few minutes of the lesson should be spent explaining the correct basic riding position- eyes up, straight back, shoulder-hip-heel alignment, with the weight coming into the rider’s lower leg and heels down. This position can be done first with the rider holding the grab strap, then gradually the rider should be asked to maintain correct position with hands on the hips, then arms stretched forward towards the ears, then arms stretched up towards the sky, and then arms out.  The same balancing exercises can be taught in a 2-point position as well as posting.

Starting the beginner rider out on the lunge line gives the rider the ability to focus 100% on their own body and balance without worrying about steering the horse. The trot work should be introduced the same way. This allows the new rider the chance to learn to ride with an independent seat, not relying on the hands and reins for balance.  Gradually the rider can hold the reins and steering can be introduced, but this absolutely shouldn’t be rushed. Depending on the age and physical coordination of the rider, it can take several months of weekly lessons before the rider is able to steer off the lunge line for an entire lesson. 

Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

Can you recommend anything for a Mare that does not like other horses in the ring coming up behind her? She gets very cranky and often will try to buck and kick out. Thank you,


A: Dear Sue,

In the wild, a herd of horses has a dominant mare known as the “alpha mare”. The alpha mare is responsible for maintaining the social order of the herd, as well as being alert for any predators. The alpha mare protects her position in the herd by pining the ears, swishing the tail, baring teeth, and even delivering a swift kick to another mare who is challenging her. These behaviors can be present when riding or training an alpha-type mare as well. These mares are often viewed as moody when such characteristics are displayed.

There is also such a thing as a horse that is just anti-social! A mare that kicks, bucks, or pins the ears constantly at other horses when being ridden may simply be saying “stay away, I need my space”!

Hormone suppression treatments do exist, and under the advice of a veterinarian may help. Often, however, just riding the mare and reminding her that the rider is the alpha leader can make a difference. Alpha-type mares (and even mares that just have a larger sense of personal space) need to be ridden in a kind but firm, consistent training program. The rider needs to be able to maintain the horse’s attention in a wide variety of situations, with the horse focusing more on the rider than on other activities in the arena.

Through patience, the rider will eventually be able to attain this goal by first gaining the mare’s trust. After gaining the mare’s trust as a “herd” leader, the rider will have the respect of the horse and it will be much easier to keep the mare’s attention solely on the rider. Developing trust and respect for the rider takes years to develop fully, but a lot can be done on a month-by-month basis too!

Work with a trainer or even a trusted horse friend to put you and your horse in situations together that you can control, where you know you will have your horse’s attention. Gradually ask more from your horse and make the situations more distracting to your mare, always setting yourself and your horse up to succeed.

Your mare may always pin her ears and swish her tail a bit at other horses riding past, but gradually you should be able to ride to prevent the kicks and bucks, by establishing your position as leader of the two of you.

Mary Jo

Q: Mary Jo,

My 4-year-old daughter is just crazy about horses! Is she too young to start riding lessons?


A: Grant,

Deciding what age to begin lessons for a young child can be tough. The most important factor is the level of enthusiasm the child has for horses and riding. A close second is the child’s ability to follow directions and the young rider’s level of balance and coordination.

Sometimes a parent will sign their child up for riding lessons when really it is the parent who has the interest in riding! Horses, and even ponies, are large animals and can be quite intimidating to a small child. The young rider should be comfortable working around the horse, brushing and helping to saddle (always under the guidance of the parent and the instructor), and not feel overwhelmed when upon the horse’s back. It is of great importance that the rider is having fun! If the child is scared, it can become a very negative and even dangerous situation quite quickly.

Following directions is another important part of a riding lesson. Everything from how to hold and use a currycomb, how to mount, and how to sit in the saddle as the horse moves are covered in the introductory stages of young riders’ lessons. Sometimes even the vocabulary used in a lesson is difficult for a very young child to understand. The instructor should be capable of explaining things in a way that a 3 or 4-year-old can comprehend and understand. The child needs to have a long enough attention span at this point where he/she can follow directions for the duration of a lesson.

Balance and coordination are essential components of riding. These two things are something even accomplished riders struggle with from time to time! A 3 or 4-year-old rider should have the ability to sit straight, with weight in the stirrups and heels down, both at the halt and at the walk. If the young student cannot manage that it is probably in the child’s best interest to wait a year before continuing riding lessons. A basic correct riding position is required for the rider to stay balanced and safe on the horse. The timing of the posting trot is another important skill that often a very young rider finds difficult to master. Teaching the sitting trot instead, with the rider still straight in the saddle and heels down, is often easier for the child to learn.

In summary, I would definitely encourage any parent who has an enthusiastic young horse-lover to consider riding lessons. Starting a child as young as 4 or even 3 years old is fine, as long as safety and fun are the priorities! Often these young riders will become avid equestrians and life-long horse lovers.

Mary Jo

Q: Dear Mary Jo,

 My daughter wants to start riding lessons. I am wondering if there is any riding equipment I will need to purchase initially for her to begin the lessons.


A: Dear Becky,

The two most important things to have for beginning riding lessons are hard-soled shoes with a heel and a riding helmet. Shoes with a heel are necessary so the rider’s foot does not slide through the stirrup.

A helmet should be one made specifically for horseback riding, which meets ASTM/SEI standards. The most basic difference between a riding helmet and a bicycle helmet is that a riding helmet is made to protect the head from a fall involving height.  A helmet made for bicycling, rock climbing, or skiing, is made to withstand a fall onto a hard surface and may not provide adequate protection from a fall off of a horse.

If your daughter enjoys riding and wants to continue with lessons after several months, it is a good idea to invest in a pair of riding pants. The leather seat and knee patches on the riding pants offer a bit more grip than regular pants or jeans.

Mary Jo

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