Magic wands….and other training methods.

Is it ethical, is it evidence based and can it be taught?                    by Mardi Jennings December 2014 


Discussion about ethical learning for horse and rider is a subject attracting world-wide attention in recent times.

It is becoming more common for ethical coaches and trainers to talk about the ‘how’ of training, and present and reference evidence based frameworks for learners of all levels.


Feel and talent are considered to be a natural endowment or superior quality. Sound biomechanical training of the horse and rider, and the employment of ethical evidence based practice through Equine Learning Theory provide a framework for both horse and rider to advance. Deep and evidence based practice enables learners to learn in a harmonious structured way. Indeed, Mary Wanless, Ride With Your Mind would argue that talent can be taught!


It was when a dear friend gave me her equine book collection some six years ago that I found Ride With Your Mind (For the Good of the Horse / For the good of the Rider, Mary Wanless) and later Equine Learning Theory (Academic Horse Training, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean). I certainly acknowledge the coaches that have informed my work as a rider and coach. However the light well and truly switched on, when I began to understand the potency of these two tools when used together, to create harmonious horse and rider partnerships.


Widely acknowledged as the founder of the world wide rider biomechanics movement, Mary Wanless’ work simplifies the language of riding into skills that can be chained, much like a tennis player might practice his strokes through deep practice and considered training.


Ride With Your Mind enables learners of all ages to become biomechanically sound in the saddle and develop an ‘independent seat’. Her work challenges the notions of expertise induced amnesia and short circuits the search for the nonsensical ‘magic wand’. The ‘magic wand’ principle is a set of unwritten rules about horse training, like some secret society of idea and training tips that cannot be quantified, defined, taught or widely understood. It is the material that makes for both confused horses and riders.


I ceased searching for the fabled ‘magic wand’ of training horse and rider when I found Mary’s Ride With Your Mind and Dr Andrew McLean’s Academic Horse Training / Equine Learning Theory. Mary’s Ride With Your Mind work, when used in conjunction with Equine Learning Theory provides a powerful ethical set of tools for working with horse and rider.


Skills can be taught. What’s more they can be taught to horses and riders of all ages and abilities. Chaining skills for both horse and rider through Equine Learning Theory and sound rider biomechanics training makes all human / equine interactions more accessible, ethical, rewarding and satisfying.


Together Ride With Your Mind and Equine Learning Theory are potent tools for training and provide a structure and learning framework for both horse and rider.

Through studies in human movement and sports science Mary’s unique understandings and chaining of skills enables riders to learn and coaches to teach.


For example when a ‘traditional’ trainer may tell the student to ‘get the horse on the bit’, what does that mean? And, what are the steps one must go through to make this happen!’ It really seems quite simple, but is not. Mary highlights the disjoint between what many coaches do and what they say. Indeed many coaches simply shout the words louder. And, even more sadly for most learners this type of instruction is not only destructive it is ineffective. As a pragmatist I know that the ‘Olympics’ are not on my agenda, however being the best I can be, as a rider, trainer and coach most certainly is. For many riders this is true. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect all that ride to be able to ride at an elite level. But what is possible is structured learning that is ethical and ‘doable’.


Acknowledging the art in equestrian pursuits is important, but working within ethical realistic and evidence based frameworks for horse and rider development is equally so. The combination of Mary Wanless’ Ride with Your Mind and Andrew and Manuela McLean’s’ Academic Horse Training or Equine Learning Theory are powerful tools for horse and rider training. It is a way of working that provides a guiding framework for horse and rider.


One of the outcomes of Andrew McLean's PhD thesis was the proposition of eight training principles. 


  • The Pressure Principle:  The removal of physical pressure or discomfort reinforces (rewards) whatever behavior precedes the moment of removal (i.e. leg(s) rein(s), spurs, whip-tap, and head collar).

  • Pavlov's Principle:  Relaxation and attentiveness can only occur if the horse responds to predictable signals that do not invade the pain threshold. Thus, training the horse to respond unconditionally to light aids in hand and under saddle is essential.

  • The Exclusivity Principle:  Each response should be trained and elicited separately (do not pull on the reins (stop) and kick with the legs (go) at the same time).


  • The Shaping Principle:  Responses should be progressively improved, step-by-step, learned response by learned response, toward the final outcome.


  • The Proportional Principle:  Increasing pressures of aids should correspond with increasing levels of response i.e. a small leg aid should result in a smaller go reaction, while a bigger aid should produce a stronger go response.


  • The Self Carriage Principle:  The horse must travel in-hand and under saddle free of any constant rein or leg pressure, otherwise he will switch off to them


  • The Fear Principle:  Fear is quickly learned, not easily forgotten and is strongly associated with the movement of the horse's legs. It is important to learn to identify the range of fear responses in horses and to diminish them to avoid the horse experiencing them.  


  • The Mentality Principle:  Appreciating the similarities and differences in mental ability between horses and humans is crucial to effective and humane training.      

Mary Wanless’ work is widely accessible through her website the However the principles to sum up:


The ‘Ride With Your Mind’ approach is a tremendous advance in teaching and learning. It shows any rider how to organize her mind and body in the same way as the riders we call ‘talented’. This enables each person to learn the same feels and to achieve the same results.


By increasing each rider’s body awareness and using innovative imaging techniques, Mary helps riders understand both what to do and how to do it. The bottom line is that improvements in concentration, body awareness, and core muscle strength create incredible improvements both in the rider's seat, and in her horse's response to her body.


It is highly interactive, with rider and coach acting as equals as they combine their perceptions to unravel the puzzle of how the rider affects the horse and the horse affects the rider. Learning always takes place in a calm, safe, supportive, and appropriately challenging environment, with no raised voices, no 'shouting louder at the natives', and no impossible demands. It is the job of the coach and trainer to find a way to bridge the skill gap and show pupils the specific steps necessary for success, and to elucidate a training pathway.


Science is now proving what both McLean and Wanless have known for some years. Their ground breaking writing, lectures and teaching are enabling horses and riders to enjoy years of ethical achievable training.


In Mary’s words these ways of working enable clear communication, enabling ‘talent to be taught’.




McLean, Andrew and Manuela (2008) Academic Horse Training Finsbury, Australia


Wanless, Mary (1987) For the Good of the Rider Kenilworth Press, UK


Mardi Jennings is the only qualified coach in Ride With Your Mind Coach in the East coast of Australia, and has recently returned from her third visit to the UK specifically for training with Mary Wanless, where she spent a month as a working pupil, training as a rider and coach. Mardi utilises RWYM principles in training riders and the principles of Equine Learning Theory in the training of horses, is a student of Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, and is currently undertaking the Equitation Science Diploma with the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre. With a unique training tool box, Mardi has a lifelong involvement in the arts / sport and has worked as a creative and manager in dance and visual art, competed to an elite level as a figure skater, has training in Ashtanga Yoga and contemporary dance and she spends the balance of her time presently  researching, riding / competing and coaching, specialising in rider biomechanics. Mardi has coached riders and skaters for over two decades and has developed a unique way of working with riders that blends the ‘body’ knowledge from these sports / arts. Enhanced by the learning with Mary Wanless Mardi finds innovative ways to get riders ‘into their bodies’ and works in a sound evidence based, ethical way.


Mardi Jennings Rider Training Solutions