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Support your Horsemanship and Riding with Martial Arts


By Karen Musson

Tae Kwon Do

Supports Skills


Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel


What does working with horses have to do with martial arts?

“Feel” is the natural flow between two beings. Working with horses through ‘feel’ is about tuning into and influencing that flow. Horses are masterful readers of body language and intention. They “read” us in the moment, and respond to how we present ourselves: it’s all in the energy we project. Offering true ‘feel’ means to bring your full presence, sureness and clarity to the moment: clear thinking, sure intent, inner still and a focus on the positive. It is a state of mind. The horse knows when you have it and knows when you don’t.

I teach students to find this state of mind through their Attitude, Communication style and Expression:

  • Attitude: emotional fitness, inner sureness, tenacity, imagination
  • Communication: understanding, body language, projection of “life” and intent, mindful handling of equipment and space
  • Expression: focus, feel, timing and clarity

Martial arts teach us a great deal about this state of mind in a multi-threaded approach. Forms demand a clear mind, focus, timing, inner still, projected intent and discipline. Sparring adds mental agility and awareness in the moment, and demands a heightened need for timing based on the flow of body language and intent. Sureness and inner still release our ability to bring these skills to our martial art. Martial arts exercises develop precisely the state of mind needed to reach excellence in horse handling and riding through feel, and vice versa.

Exercising The Mind

A balance between sureness without ego, and well-developed knowledge while retaining an open mind, are essential elements for working with horses through ‘feel’. Uncertainty, frustration, ego or a closed mind kill ‘feel’: there can be no reciprocal ‘feel’ because the person has tuned out of the moment and lost focus, which compromises a clear mind and inner still.

A significant part of practicing martial arts is remaining acquainted with a perpetual learning curve: we may attain a degree of mastery, yet we are still a beginner as we are introduced to the new maneuvers in the next form. The mind must remain open, and this training keeps you humble, while forever raising awareness of the connection between mind and body.

By the time you are preparing for first degree black belt, you have become proficient in performing numerous forms - each with 20 to 50 specific steps or combination maneuvers - with timing, accuracy and correctness. These must all be retained and performed when called upon, which develops the mind to retain quantity and quality of information. It also teaches that once the time has been invested in the study, practice and application of the skills, one must trust oneself to deliver the right move at the right time. This sureness is key for practicing martial arts with quality: a clear mind yield movements that flow from one’s center. The interrupted uneasiness that comes when time has not been invested and the mind struggles to connect through the body for controlled flow, is a stark contrast. This demonstrates lack of sureness: the state of mind taught in martial arts has not yet been developed. “It should be pleasing to the eye” is a commonly heard phrase in Tae Kwon Do, which demands consistency in both mental and physical skill.

Exercising the Body

In order to ride with excellence, it is necessary to move with flow according to how the horse moves under you. This requires equal and independent mobility in the hip joints and shoulders in particular, as well as fluidity and flexibility in the joints of the lower back, knees and ankles. A toned core, and toned arms and legs are also key. This toning is used for poise, not tension, and is accompanied by good breathing technique. Communication with the horse from the saddle is achieved by a combination of intentional thinking, precise and judicious use of the reins and legs. In classical riding (taught by the early masters) there are five rein effects and three leg positions. Each combination offers a different feel and meaning. The arms and legs must be coordinated, independently and with accuracy.

It is easy to see that the skills required to achieve this are well exercised in Tae Kwon Do. Classes start out with a series of stretches to promote flexibility. The kicks in Tae Kwon Do mobilize the hips to the max. Certain kicks, such as wheel kicks, also develop flexible rotation in the torso and especially the lower back. Drills are always repeated equally with left and right legs, or left and right arms. This is important for body awareness, coordination and balance in our range of motion. Drills also serve to tone all muscles.

Forms serve to develop further muscle control and awareness. Each move within a form requires precise, accurate and independent placement of arms, legs, shoulders and hips for a purpose. There are base moves, such as stances, which are the foundation for more complex moves. In the later belts, maneuvers, such as jumps, performed in a specific manner, are introduced. These further develop balance, awareness of our center of gravity and more muscle control – for example, landing in a crouched position on one leg (Rohai, or the serpent and the crane).

Combining Mental and Physical Skills in the Moment

When handling a horse or riding through feel with quality, many skills come together in the moment. It is crucial to spend the time to develop unconscious competence in offering the right communication at the right moment, or delivering the appropriate response at the exact moment it is needed for a given purpose. Timing is everything: any given request is timed to when a particular foot of the horse is about to leave the ground, based on cadence (order of footfall), or as a thought shapes up in the horse.

In Tae Kwon Do, sparring brings together mental and physical skills in a similar manner. The martial artist must remain highly focused in the moment, read the body language of the opponent and tune into the mind. Sparring might involve responding in the moment with one of a particular set of effective moves. As one advances, more mindful moves are introduced, in which the martial artist plans ahead and offers a move which causes the opponent to respond in a predictable way: this is orchestrated such that the initiator can finish the planned sequence, having set it up so that the opponent is best positioned for the plan to be effective. Responding appropriately in the moment with accurate timing is everything.


The same attributes that are associated with excellence in martial arts are mirrored in achieving excellence in horse handling and riding through feel. The practice of martial arts develops the very state of mind and physical aptitude required: a clear, open mind, focus and timing, with excellent coordination, flexibility and balance.

Martial Arts Quotes

"In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble."
- Yun-men

"Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious."
- Daisetsu Suzuki

"Knowledge does not grow like a tree where you dig a hole, plant your feet, cover them with dirt, and pour water on them daily. Knowledge grows with time, work, and dedicated effort. It cannot come by any other means."
- Ed Parker

"It's not just self defense, it's about...self control, body discipline, and mind discipline...and breath techniques. It involves yoga. It involves meditation. It's an art, not a sport."
- Elvis Presley

"A black belt is nothing more than a belt that goes around your waist. Being a black belt is a state of mind and attitude."
- Rick English

"Minds are like parachutes. They work best when they are open."
- Unknown

"All knowledge, is ultimately, self knowledge."
- Bruce Lee

By Karen Musson

Mark Rashid


"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond


"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months,... he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his 'better feel', Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did [...] It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance


"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech


“ le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle


"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle