In My Boots: The horse-canoe connection

Leave it to Kristen Kovatch to have a revelation about horses while padding through the middle of nowhere during a three-day canoeing trip.

From Kristen:

I spent the weekend in a canoe on a series of Adirondack ponds, paddling among pine forest wilderness to the calls of loons. This really will work its way around to horses—bear with me.

From my avid amateur understanding of how a canoe works, the foremost paddler is responsible for spotting hazards in the water to the paddler in the rear of the boat, who has the most control over direction. I sit in the front; my boyfriend sits in the back. After canoeing for three days and camping for two nights, one might imagine a certain strain on a relationship, especially when precise verbal communication is required—fortunately, we were on flat water for most of the trip and we got along just fine, colliding just once with a beaver dam that managed to leap out in front of us early Saturday morning.

On the last leg of our trip, seeking to avoid a second three-quarter mile portage (read: packing all of our gear onto our backs and then carrying the aluminum near-antique canoe over our heads through the muggy woods) our party, including two friends in kayaks, decided to try a stream marked on the map but not described in our guide book. On the map, at least, the stream connected our final pond to the pond closest to where we had parked our cars, and looked as though it would save us from another long haul of our boats. We found the mouth of the stream, noted the sound of moving water ahead, and paddled away.

Naturally, we found ourselves in a nicely-moving set of rapids—nothing too intense, but containing enough large boulders that we were forced to make some fast steering decisions that were certainly not necessary on still water. After passing the initial set of rapids—in which we did manage to dent the front of our canoe a few times—the stream settled down in a sort of lazy river with added obstacles, keeping us on our toes to steer our craft to avoid hitting deadfall trees and rocks. Our friends in their shorter-bodied kayaks had little problems, but it took us about an hour to really figure it out. Halfway to our take-out point, I finally realized what was happening.

The canoe, being an inflexible object, pivots off the middle—when I paddled the front end left to dodge an obstacle, the back end swung right, often careening my ever-patient boyfriend into logs and trees and who knows what else. The craft acts as a pole—if you want the back end to move left, push the front end right.

I thought back to a few days prior, sitting in the aisle of my boyfriend’s family barn as a friend worked on shoeing half of their Percheron driving team. Rose stood in the crossties, bearing the quintessential draft horse expression and generally cooperating for about three-quarters of the process until she finally decided she had had enough and planted her front right foot on our friend’s steeltoed boot, refusing to budge. After watching my boyfriend try to push the entire horse to the left via her hindquarters, I suggested he push her hind end the other way—and as her hindquarters shifted to the right, her forehand shifted left and she stepped off of our friend’s foot.

This theory provides the foundation for handling horses for the vet or farrier. If the farrier is working on the front left, the handler needs to stand front right—if there’s a problem, the handler pulls the horse off of the farrier. If the farrier is working on the hind left, the handler moves to the front left, pulling the front end left to move the back end right.

One step further, this guideline trickles down into showmanship at halter’s quartering system: to a casual observer, the judge’s inspection looks like some sort of awkward dance as the handler steps from side to side of the horse’s head, his or her eyes never leaving those of the judge. However, the concept is exactly the same: as the judge moves into a hind quarter of the horse, the handler moves to the same side, able to move the horse away from the judge should events warrant. In this way, the handler is never between the judge and the horse but the horse is never between the judge and the handler, keeping everyone safe while staying out of each other’s way.

Keep this idea in mind when working in the barn, especially for the inevitable moments in which you’ll get stepped on by a horse. Keep it in mind too when you next find yourself in an open canoe in whitewater. Horsemanship really does apply to more than just the barn.


About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.


Kristen & her horse Playgirl

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