The Saratoga Sun -

Getting some horse sense

Chris Irwin returns to Blackhall Mountain Ranch to teach communication between horse and rider


August 28, 2019

Joshua Wood

Wood Chris Irwin works with Jean Burger's horse, Hal, during the second day of a horsemanship clinic at Blackhall Mountain Ranch.

Even though Chris Irwin has been coming to the Valley for five years now, the number of people attending his clinics does not appear to dissipate. This year, the Canadian-born horse trainer held another three-day clinic at Blackhall Mountain Ranch, where he was hosted by Jean Burger. While the majority of the attendees were women, a few men are in the audience as well. Some of them have taken the clinic before, but return to learn more from the trainer.

On the morning of Aug. 17, the attendance was in the lower double-digits and included a combination of locals and visitors.

For the first few hours, Irwin didn't even bring out a horse as he began to discuss the issues in communication between horse and rider. He explained to the attendees the importance of body language and the disconnect between a "vertical, two-legged animal" and a "horizontal, four-legged animal." Much of that comes down to remembering that a horse is a herd animal. The goal of the rider is for the horse to feel more comfortable with them then on their own or with other horses.

Irwin focuses on the three signals that a rider can send to a horse-push, block and draw-without realizing it. It all comes down to the center of gravity and thinking like a horse. Placing a whip horizontal with the ground and against his stomach, the trainer explains how the position of the center of gravity can be interpreted. He stated that, often, riders will try to lead their horses while keeping their center of gravity towards the animal. This sends a mixed message.

The trainer added that, when leading a horse, it is best not to pull on the reigns. Any motion should not begin with the head, but with the back of the horse and a rider should draw the horse to them. To do this, they must keep their center of gravity pointed away from the horse. The reigns are not supposed to be used to "steer" the horse in the direction the rider wants it to go, but to keep it from going where it shouldn't.

Eventually, Burger brought out her horse, Hal. Irwin to put into action what he has been telling his students. The body language of the horse, and how it changes depending on Irwin's stances, was clearly evident. When Irwin reached across the horse's face to tap its right shoulder with the whip, Hal's eyes opened wide. The opposite effect, occured when Irwin taped the horse on its left shoulder as he gots the equine to move.

Despite his constant examples of what some riders are doing wrong, Irwin was able to get Hal into a calm position in which his eyelids begin to droop as he begins to trust the trainer. This wasa perfect example of what he had been discussing earlier about the horse feeling comfortable. 

Irwin explained that when people say they have a "bad" horse, what they really mean is that they have a horse that is unsure of what the rider is trying to do. He added that a "bad" horse is really a good horse and a good horse is a mediocre horse.

With Irwin's explanation on body language with horses complete, Hal returned to his stall and the rest of the day began.


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