Horse Sense from “Heads Up”

I’m a notoriously slow reader, which is unusual for my profession. Regardless, I’m only about a third of the way through Heads Up – Heels Down, by C. W. Anderson. Thus far, I’m impressed by how much the theme of cooperation dominates the text. A modern guide to riding puts on stark view how far equestrian practice has come: the rider must work with the horse and the horse’s physiology, psychology, attitudes, and other traits. A clear contrast from the harsh or cruel practices found in our rare books from the 17th and 18th Centuries!

I don’t exactly know what I expected, but Anderson has a very wise way of putting his lessons. He has a straightforward tone to some very sensible practices, and he raises points that are new concepts to the neophyte. I selected some quotes from the book that I found to be particularly wise, and some of Anderson’s own beautiful illustrations to match.

“A horse that is willing and eager will always be an enjoyable ride, and his spirit alone can offset a sickle hock. … If your horse does all that is asked of him and is anxious to do more, he is a good horse regardless of his conformation.”

“If you have a good, understanding man for a groom, your horse belongs much more to him than to you.”

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Good and bad riding form. Anderson makes several references to forward riding, a (relatively) recent innovation for the United States when the book was published in 1944. A major element of the forward system is cooperation with a horse’s natural postures to assist the horse while riding or jumping.

“[A] horse that fights the bit can be quite a problem, for he usually raises his head until it is out of reach. Often such a horse will become very well-behaved about it if he is rewarded for taking the bit. The first few times you must show him the sugar or carrot and give it to him immediately after he takes the bit, even if unwillingly. As soon as he realizes that the reward always comes after the bit is in his mouth, he will hurry the matter in order to get it. Although we should never bribe a horse to keep him from misbehaving, it does no harm to reward him for doing something that is nether pleasant nor natural to him.”

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Cross-tying for grooming. A recurring point from Anderson is that if you make the horse comfortable and at ease, he will return the investment with interest by making your duties easier.

“Even from a selfish viewpoint it will pay you to notice where your horse is most sensitive and to be as gentle as possible when cleaning him there, for a fussy horse can make grooming quite a chore.”

“When working on a horse, move leisurely, speak to him often, and be sure he sees you at all times. He will start, jump, or shy when he sees something unexpectedly. This is not cowardice, as people who dislike horses have claimed, but a nervous reaction inherited from the days when all horses were wild and any moving thing might indicate an enemy. So be careful to avoid making any sudden or abrupt move.”

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The frontispiece of the book. Anderson’s pencil captures shadow so well it first looked like a photograph when I saw the page!

“A horse’s mind is much like that of a small child, and an idea must be very simple and direct for him to understand. Either punishment or reward must come immediately, at the time of the misdemeanor or good behavior, to be effective. Do not get into the habit of bribing him indiscriminately, or he will become a regular bully and demand a reward for everything.”

More reflections to come as I continue to read (quite slowly). In between chapters this week you will find me at the 2nd Annual Spotlight on Stewardship Equine Land Management Symposium followed by our free Open Late Concert featuring the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra. Hope to see you there!


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

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  1. I grew up reading and re-reading C.W. Anderson’s wonderful books, including the Blaze series. They taught me so much and the illustrations were always a treat. There was a nice simplicity to his books, as well as a devotion to the beauty and sensitive nature of the noble horse.

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