Click here to go back


The Art of Self-Carriage (Part 1)

“To create Self-Carriage I drive the horse from behind, rounding his back and lifting him up into my hands. When the horse is in self-carriage the reins will soften like butter and melt into my hands.”

I ride a horse “up” into Self-Carriage not “down” and flat. Everything about Self-Carriage is about “up.”  ~EBH

Self-Carriage is the heart and soul of Cowboy Dressage. To me self-carriage is what canvas or clay is to an artist. It is where the “Magic” begins. With self-carriage you can begin to mold or shape the horse into form followed by function. By developing self-carriage you can take a horse that is on the scale of a 6 and make an 8 or 9 out of him by simply developing his carriage. Let me give you a visual- close your eyes and imagine walking into a room filled with people. You can “enter” a room or you can make an “entrance” into a room. When you merely “enter” a room you are going from one space to another. When you make an “entrance”, you own that room; you fill it with your presence, carriage and style. Self–carriage is not just a necessity for advanced movement, it is an “aura” of self-confidence, strength and power. Every “winner” has it, every competitor wants it.

A Cowboy Dressage Horse is created with self-carriage on light contact. The carriage is encouraged by the rider's seat and rounding of the horse’s back, not by heavy contact with the horse’s mouth through the rider’s hands as it all too often appears on traditional dressage horses. The reining horse that is also recognized for its spins, slides, lead changes and circles is held up by a combination of speed and self-carriage. Try doing these maneuvers without speed and you will quickly learn if you are in carriage or not. Remember that you always ride the rear end of the horse - the hindquarters are the motor. You don’t want your horse moving in “two pieces” - he should move as an integrated whole, and the quarters work purposely forward, well beneath the horse, such that he is “tracking up well” from behind. If he is moving forward well and correctly, you will be able to feel this through your seat and hands, a kind of rounded energy beneath you.

Self-carriage is what allows a western horse to go on a light or lose rein. It is what the old California Vaquero ultimately strived for.  They say you could recognize the carriage of a finished bridle horse a mile away.  A finished bridle horse is one that carries himself proudly and in frame, can be maneuvered with one hand, easily neck reins, has a quiet mouth and is on the bit. He has a very round and Baroque style look to him. Like a good dressage horse, a good western horse must also have self-carriage. However, because a western horse is ridden on lighter contact it is quite obvious when carriage is self-maintained as opposed to a dressage horse that is all too often ridden with more contact. Because of this, it is not always easy to tell who is doing the “holding up”, the rider or the horse. I believe the principles of self-carriage between Cowboy Dressage and Dressage are the same but the application and follow through may be visually different.

Self-Carriage is not about the horse. Self-Carriage is not about the rider. Self-Carriage is about the partnership between the horse and the rider. It is this partnership that creates true self-carriage.

Now we have a visual of self-carriage but how do we create it? In this article I will explain to you how I go about creating self-carriage in my horses.

I start teaching my horses the rudiments of self- carriage early in my training program.  A simple thing like teaching direction and turns, the stop, back and circles are the beginning building blocks for self-carriage. In all these lessons I want the horse to carry himself into and out of the turn. I want him to move back the same way he moves forward, in carriage with a round back. In circles I want the shoulder up. I do not teach my horse to turn or do circles by pulling on the rein; I only give direction with it. When you pull on the rein, you pull the horse into a circle, you need to drive him forward and give direction with the rein. By pulling you drop the shoulder thereby losing the self-carriage. I will discuss and clarify this more in the next few paragraphs.


I will ride my horse forward at a walk towards a wall or fence. As I approach the fence/wall, I lightly pick up the direct rein as an indication of the direction I wish to go. As I make the turn I use my legs and seat to push the horse forward helping him to follow through with the turn. I do not turn the horse with my legs or hands. I let the fence or wall turn him. When the horse approaches the fence or wall I lightly pick up one of my reins and make a quick and light contact giving direction. At the same time I drive him forward with my seat and legs towards the wall. By riding forward to the wall and driving the horse on with my seat and legs, he will have to round his back as he approaches the wall. By doing this I pick the horse’s back up with out using my hands. For a brief time he is in self-carriage. It is the beginning! The light contact with the rein gives him direction, the wall turns him and my legs and seat drive him into and through the turn. I do not teach him to turn off of my legs. Remember the legs are to move the rib cage and haunches.  By doing this the horse does not rely on my hands to pull him into a turn or step off in a specific direction. In this manner the horse cannot lie on the reins or pull on my hands. With the encouragement from my seat and legs he must carry himself into and out of the turn with his own energy. Also, the wall causes the horse to cross over with his shoulders making the turn properly. Driving him into the turn with your seat and legs keeps his hindquarters engaged. As you come out of the turn ask the horse to step out briskly with energy and forward motion. Do not pick up the reins but allow him to move with a lot of “forward” out of the turn. During this exercise the horse does not rely on my hands to hold himself “up”, for we have set him up from the beginning to carry himself. Be sure to repeat this work in both directions but do not drill the horse. Move on to something else and then go back to it. Find success at the walk before you go to the trot and then the canter.

Work for subtlety of cues. Remember that the finesse of your own cues as a rider have great importance for the response you receive from your horse. The rider can actually preclude self-carriage in his horse by incorrect riding or coarse use of signals. For example, when teaching direction:  Do not pull a horse into a turn or direction with your hands and reins. The reins suggest direction; the seat and legs are the motor for the follow through. That is why it is beneficial to use a wall or fence in the beginning until the horse understands your cues. If you pull a horse into a turn you will cause the horse to drop his inside shoulder and throw his hindquarters out, thus disengaging his hind end. You also teach him to lie on the bit and your hands. When a horse lies on the bit there is no self-carriage. Remember the legs do not teach the turn, they move the rib cage. Unlike in western riding, where the horse is taught to move away from pressure and the rider’s legs can hence be used as an aid for giving direction, in Cowboy Dressage there is a wider world of communication and a greater range of response. We are not merely asking for a response, we are asking for a response of lightness, with fluidity, feeling and expression. We may only wish the horse to make a subtle arc with his body when we use our leg, not move away or change direction on us when he feels pressure from the rider's legs or calves. Perhaps one of the main differences between western and dressage horses in general is that the western horse traditionally is not asked for the same degree of precision as the dressage horse. In the Cowboy Dressage horse, the finesse and wider nuances of signals is restored without sacrificing lightness of contact and ease in the manner of going.  The rein moves the shoulder of the horse and the use of both legs drive him forward through the turn. That is what teaches the turn, not the use of leg or calf pressure on one side of the rib cage that the horse moves away from . . . the execution of that correct turn is the early foundation of self-carriage.

As an example: If you want to make a turn to the right and you place your calf on the left side of the horse’s rib cage and ask him to move away from the pressure of the leg and go to the right; you will, in fact, move the rib cage to the right while turning to the right. He is counterbent and leading with his outside shoulder and will not be able to turn properly. That is why I teach my Cowboy Dressage Horses to turn stepping off with the inside shoulder, aided with a cue from the rein, and only use my legs to move the rib cage and haunches. You can use your right inside leg to move the rib cage out to the left a bit during a turn to the right that will assist the horse in creating the “arc” to make the turn to the right. Some people call this bending a horse around your leg. You do this with your inside rein and inside leg, not your outside leg. You can use your outside left leg placed behind the girth area to bring the haunches to the right to create a tighter “arc” by shortening the stride of the inside hind leg, but not to move the rib cage during the turn.

Since Neck Reining is a term long associated with Western Riding, I would like to expand a bit on it. Neck Reining can be a misleading term. Often people think that if you move the neck, you move the horse. Have you ever been on a horse who when you pull on his face to the right, he can still go to the left or move strait ahead? Neck reining is actually a moving of the shoulders. When you lay a rein on the neck, the horse moves away from the pressure with his shoulders. It is the moving of the shoulders and the cross over of the front legs that makes the turn. A horse does not always follow its nose, but it does follow its shoulders. What you saw on the silver screen in Hollywood Westerns was poor horsemanship. The rein was placed up high near the horse’s poll and he was yanked around with his head up in the air and his mouth open. The American Cowboy did ride with one hand, neck reining, allowing him to carry rope, rifle, gun or whip.  A good finished reining horse that is in the bridle is an excellent example of proper neck reining. Cowboys also wanted a horse that worked well underneath himself. This allowed the cowboy more comfort, as a round backed horse is smoother than a hollow backed horse. A round backed horse stays sounder longer as a majority of his weight is placed back over his hocks and off his front end. A round back horse in self-carriage is quicker and more maneuverable. A horse in self-carriage is pretty to look at. There was, and still is, a great deal of pride in the horseman of yesterday and today.  It was an honor to be recognized and respected for their good horses. The California Vaquero and his bridle horse is a perfect example of pride and horsemanship. They may have never heard the word “dressage” but they were practicing it in its purest forms.


Along with teaching direction and turns, I also use the stop to help teach self-carriage. A stop helps teach self-carriage because a good stop has a round back. This round back is important to the stop because the horse then has his legs well beneath him, is engaged and tracking up behind, and better able to balance and carry the rider. I will once again use the fence. In the beginning I will walk my horse to the fence and allow the fence to stop him, not my hands. As I approach the fence I change my seat to a “stop position.” To do this I bring my shoulders back slightly and I drop my seat into the saddle by moving my legs forward in front of girth.  At the same time I lift my hands to take the slack out of the rein. I do not pull on the rein. I let the fence stop the horse. (To review the stop, back and forward positions in more detail, read the “stop position”, Training Your Horse For Cowboy Dressage, Teaching The Horse to Move Forward and Stop.)

The object of this exercise is to drive the horse with your seat and legs into the stop maintaining forward motion. You want the horse to stop with his back up underneath your seat, his haunches underneath himself and his head set comfortably in the bridle. You do not want a hollow backed stop with the head up in the air, pulling the reins out of your hands.

By accomplishing this kind of stop with the use of the fence, your horse will learn to read your body and seat signals and not rely on your hands to stop him. This exercise teaches your horse to carry himself into the stop… it is a beginning lesson in self-carriage.

If you get him to stop with his back up underneath your seat and his hocks deep underneath himself he is carrying himself, into the stop, not relying on your hands to hold him up. The frame of that correct stop is a self-carriage frame.


Set yourselves up to succeed
In each article I will remind you of the importance of “patience”,  “consistency” and “rewards.” You as a rider must understand the concept of your lesson before you can ask your horse to understand them. Think your exercises through thoroughly. If you are having trouble getting it right and both you and your horse feel frustration, stop the exercise and move on to something that you can accomplish. You can come back to the harder lesson later. Always set yourself and your horse up to succeed. One of the biggest mistakes I see horse trainers make is that they ask from a horse things he is not prepared to do….the horse is thus set up to fail and all too often is disciplined or drilled in the attempt to get it right. If you and your horse get a given exercise right once or twice, quit right there and reward your horse. Do not drill or over train. Drilling and over training may perfect what you are trying to train but will take the spirit and dampen the work ethic of the horse. An enthusiastic trainer is good, but one who knows when to quit “training” on a horse is wise.

If you make the partnership between you and your horse your priority the training time you both share will be rewarding and successful.

Some words of wisdom I will share with you…..the best horsemen are not always the most talented but they are always the most patient.

Please understand that these training articles are techniques used by Eitan and Wolf Creek Ranch. If you are unsure of the use of any of these techniques, you should consult your professional horse trainer.  Some students are not yet at a point where they can comfortably or safely use any given technique or aid.  Know your own limits as well as your horse's. By purchasing this article I release Debra & Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Wolf Creek Ranch LLC and Cowboy Dressage from any and all liabilities while using these training techniques. I also understand that working with horses can be dangerous and take full responsibility for my actions.

These articles first appeared in Tidningen Hastfynd, the premier equine publication of Sweden.  Articles are written by Eitan Beth-Halachmy with Jennifer Hoibraten, Norway.  All rights reserved. The articles may not be reprinted nor reproduced for publication in any manner without prior written permission by the author.

 Thank you for visiting us at Cowboy Dressage!

Copyright 1998 to 2011 Cowboy Dressage™. All Rights Reserved.

designed & maintained by