These thoughts and observations are presented so that readers can reflect upon them and form their own thoughts on the subject matter.
I personally believe, based on many years of study and practical experience with horses, that for a person to achieve any lasting relationship with the horse he or she must have a firm grasp and clear understanding of what is contained herein. Then he or she must internalize them and have them readily available for use when working in the moment with the horse.
I might also add that while desire, passion, and commitment are contributing and important elements in learning how to work with horses, unless you have an affection for hard work and a zest for achievement your success will be limited.
KNOWING AND NOT KNOWING
You can’t teach the horse until you yourself have been taught and after you have been taught then you must remain a student the rest of your life in order to become a better teacher.
But you only know what you know and if what you know you learned from someone who did not know all that much then that is all that you know. Sadly, there are some who think that they know but really do not know that they do not know and insist on passing on to everyone that they meet what they do not know but think that they know which lends itself to more people not knowing what they think they know.
Choose wisely if you want to develop or enhance your riding skills. Generally speaking, an instructor, competent though he or she may be, takes a what to do approach with people who want to learn to ride.
A teacher, on the other hand, takes the approach of creating an atmosphere of understanding of what one does, how, when, why, and for what purpose, which produces riders deserving of that title, even if they are only of modest abilities. Find a teacher, not an instructor, to guide you in your journey.
CHANGE IS DIFFICULT
I have come to realize that it is impossible to save all the horses that I have come in contact with or observed being treated with no respect or understanding by the human. The reason for this is that in order to help the horse find a better life, I would first have to help the handler/owner/rider find a better way of working with the horse. And although it’s relatively easy to change the horse, it is not so for the human.
When most people get a horse, they don’t mean to do wrong by the horse; they just don’t know any better – but the sad thing is that they also don’t want to acknowledge that they don’t know what they are doing, and they really get upset if help is offered to them to make things better.
So, they end up either passing the horse along to someone else (who probably doesn’t know any more about horses than they do) or they keep the horse but never learn how to get along with him – so in the end it is the horse that pays the price for the human’s closed mind.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
The first thing that you must do is to make yourself worthy of the horse and honor him for what he is – a living, breathing, creature with a personality, feelings, emotions, sensitivity, and decision-making capabilities who can truly give you the sense of freedom if you allow it. Do it and you will be rewarded tenfold. The freedom to do this is just over the walls that you sometimes build around yourself over time to ‘protect’ yourself but then are too afraid to climb over.
AGGRESSION CAUSES AGGRESSION
Aggression by the human toward the horse begets aggression by the horse toward the human. When starting the education of the horse, young or not, it is important to remember that the horse is in a critical phase in its education in which clumsiness, brutality, and, perhaps, uncertainty on the part of the ‘educator’ can and will leave indelible marks on the horse regarding his future interactions with the human.
What happens when you let anger get the better of you (based mostly on frustration because you ran out of knowledge and don’t have the ability to analyze the situation and come to conclusions that would benefit the horse) and direct your actions is that the horse senses this emotion emanating from you which causes him to get scared, close his mind, and then go into a self-preservation mode. Then the horse is lost to you for the day and maybe even longer. Remember that it is very easy to get a horse troubled.
Never punish the horse, but you can discipline him. Discipline means correcting something before or during an unwanted behavior. Punishment means doing something after an unwanted behavior has already happened. Just try to remember what happened before what happened happened and fix it or redirect it before it happens the next time.
Give the horse the opportunity to be good, otherwise he will have no alternative but to defend himself against you. If you do more things with and for the horse instead of to the horse, you will end up with a better relationship.
Learn to work with one pound of brain rather than a thousand pounds of ‘wadded up’ horseflesh and life will get better for the both of you.
THE VALUE OF LISTENING AND EXPLAINING
Horses do not reason, they do what they think is right at the time instinctively, but they are masters at recognizing intention. Therefore, it is important to be clear in your mind about what you are doing and why you are doing it. This clarity of intent is critical if you expect the horse to become a willing partner.
So, for example, if the horse does not do what you ask him to do, then it wasn’t effective. If it wasn’t effective, then it wasn’t understood. If it wasn’t understood, then the horse gets confused and stressed. If the horse gets confused and stressed, then he gets scared. Once he is scared then he stops thinking and reverts to what nature tells him to do in those situations, which is to take flight, or if that is not possible then to defend itself. So, if what you ask the horse isn’t effective, then it scares him. You need to find a way to present the situation to the horse in a way that the horse understands, and this may take time as nothing learned quickly is ever really learned.
It is critical to the level of success that you will have in working with horses for you to understand what horses are trying to communicate to you so you can redirect the horse’s energy from unwanted behavior to something that will make more sense to him. Horses don’t want to cause trouble. It is a matter of you not listening to and understanding them and the horse not understanding the ofttimes muddled signals and requests that you send to the horse that causes the problems. But if you would take the time and try to explain what you want the horse to do in terms that the horse would understand, then, generally speaking, the problems will go away, in time.
For example, submission (to the hand) and impulsion (response to the legs) are two qualities that must be intimately connected in the education of the horse. But they must be presented in a way that the horse understands, and it must be done gradually.
If you begin the process of communication with the horse where you would like to end up, i.e., a hint or a suggestion rather than a sharp jerk with the reins or a hard kick with your spurs, then you may better serve the horse by giving it a better chance to not only understand what you’re asking, but also follow through in the work in a soft way that increases a comfortable mindset. The calm mind is more responsive and quicker to hear what you have to say than the tight, troubled mind.
One solution to this problem might be to not think so much about making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Instead, try to find ways to bring the horse’s overall anxiety down so that you can guide and/or direct him to the desired response. Try to find ways of helping him understand what you are asking him to do rather than making the whole thing a miserable event for him.
Enduring trouble for the horse is not about him feeling better about something or being convinced that things are really alright. It is about the horse simply stuffing the bad feelings deeper inside himself – to possibly explode sometime later down the road.
As a case in point, horses that don’t want to be caught are usually scared horses because of what will happen to them after they are caught, which is usually getting smacked or jerked around by the handler because the handler is upset about having to spend the extra time to catch the horse. So, try another approach that puts more emphasis on patience and time.
If you have never taught the horse how to prepare to be caught, then you may have a hard time catching him when you want to halter or bridle him. You have to allow the horse to feel comfortable enough to want to be caught.
What you want to do is first figure out why they don’t want to be caught in the first place and then develop a plan of action to change their minds by offering them a better deal with less expenditure of energy, in other words. In other words, think before acting!
Horses in the wild get rid of stress by running or sometimes standing and shaking. But in the human’s attempt to control the horse we oftentimes create the same kind of problems because we seldom allow the horse to expend his pent-up energy. Chasing them only adds to the feeling of being traumatized. When he gets tired enough, he may eventually stop and allow himself to be caught but he will not feel any better emotionally – so the unwanted behavior just gets recycled again and again.
By the same token, it is ludicrous to believe that chasing the horse around a round pen with a lead rope or lunging whip or chasing him around an arena by shaking a can filled with noise-making things is the way to help a troubled horse get comfortable enough to be caught.
Besides, why would you chase away from you a creature that you want to have come to you? – it doesn’t make sense, at least to the horse, as well as to other thinking humans.
You would be better served to just simply let the horse run without being chased until he decides to change his mind because the stress has been released. Of course, this may take some time which maybe you usually don’t have enough of (or think you don’t anyway) and as a result you just perpetuate the problem. So take the time to take the time and it will, in the end, take less time.
Consistent clarity over time builds constant confidence in the horse. Wishy-washy handling is confusing to the horse because he can’t figure out what it is that you want him to do, so he just does the best he can which may not be what you intended for him to do and as a result, in most cases, he gets in trouble because of what you failed to communicate clearly to him. But once you get the horse to understand you and what you are asking from him, then he will respect you more.
Here is something to think about – Until you see it, you can’t see it, and then when you do see it, you can’t believe that you didn’t see it before you finally saw it.
So, keep your eye out for indications that your horse is or is starting to become stressed and reboot yourself so that you can be a positive influence and reduce or eliminate what is troubling him.
WHAT HORSES MUST BE TAUGHT
If you don’t teach horses when they are young how to behave when they are around you by clearly explaining the rules of behavior and where the boundaries are, then as they become older, they will just accentuate their younger behavior and it will become their modus operandi for life. If you try to change that behavior after it has become a way of life for them, they’ll probably tell you, in no uncertain terms, that it is not in their contract, and you will have a tough time convincing them otherwise.
It can be done, but you’d better have enough ammunition (read knowledge) to finish the re-education process once you start it. It is far better to not allow it to blossom in the first place, so begin their education by teaching them to give to pressure unhesitatingly.
It is well to remember that you can sweet talk a horse into doing anything you want him to do, but you can’t force him into anything.
Human behavior is all about domination, not cooperation. Humans are good about waging war and winning battles but fall far short of the mark when it comes to achieving peace, which is why most of you are so often in continuous conflict with your horses.
To get the horse’s willing cooperation you must have the horse’s trust. If you don’t have the horse’s complete trust, then you don’t have anything. Trust means not being afraid. It is a hard thing to achieve, it is an easy thing to lose, and it is a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to regain. If the human breaks that trust, even once, then the relationship will be changed forever.
Protect that trust. Once it is lost, and if it is ever again regained, it will never be the same as when the horse first began to completely trust you; he will always hold back a little from the completeness of that first time, because he will never again be sure that you will not destroy it again. But to have the horse trust you, you must trust the horse – not kind of, sometimes, or mostly – but all the time, or else it won’t work.
Another thing to consider is that if the horse doesn’t trust you on the ground; he sure won’t trust you on his back. In order to gain that trust, you have to have a solid foundation to work from. A horse that has learned good ground manners is a good start on building that foundation.
ATTRIBUTES OF A HORSE
The horse does not have a need to be around human beings. Unlike a dog that follows people to be close to them, a horse does not compete for your love. He finds the sort of protection and companionship he needs among his own kind. His affection doesn’t come easily, and it can’t be bought. If you seek friendship with the horse, you have to wait until he invites you to be his friend. Look upon that friendship as a gift.
Horses don’t just all of a sudden do something or do something for no reason. Horses communicate with you primarily through their behavior. A horse’s body becomes a mirror of its emotions – so the body tells us what is truly going on internally. In other words, horses act the way they feel. So bad behavior is not really bad behavior at all. It’s just the horse expressing how he feels at that particular moment in time. He is just giving you information.
How you perceive that information and then put a value on it will create your response to the behavior – good-bad-indifferent. The choice is up to you. You can either look at the behavior with a quiet mind uncluttered by emotions and see it for what it is without judgment, or you can see it as something else. Either way you will end up responding accordingly and either way, it will dictate the level of success you will have with the horse.
Developing a quiet mind, in other words, not letting your emotions get the better of you, will allow you to take in and process information in a true and correct manner and then respond appropriately, in a way suited to the situation – provided the situation even requires a response. Conversely, it is also important to not intellectualize the feeling out of working with the horse by taking an approach that is too analytical.
There are occasions when the horse, for whatever reason, will do something that you don’t want him to do. If every time that happens you say no or don’t, pretty soon he will not want to do anything. If you constantly correct your horse, he will probably not make many mistakes or relatively few, but he will also not learn.
Micro-managing your horse also leads to over-correcting or constantly correcting your horse which leads to the horse becoming tense because he isn’t permitted to change his posture from time to time to allow the blood to flow through his muscles and relax them.
Instead of trying to too tightly control the horse’s movements just let the horse go somewhere and go with him at first – then direct that energy so he does what you would like him to do. Help your horse learn how to learn. If you do not have the horse’s mind, then you do not have the horse.
The horse needs to be with you at all times, under any circumstances, so that when you ask him to bend his ribs around your leg, or move his shoulders, hips, head and neck, or stop, go, turn and back-up he flows into the request without any brace or resistance of any kind.
Thought plus purpose gives the horse direction. If horses were given a real job to do, they probably would not have time to get themselves in trouble in the first place.
PRESERVATION OF THE HORSE’S MOUTH
The horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of his body and when he was born, he did not have a piece of iron in it. Yet it is the one part of his body that the human abuses the most often, and when whatever kind of bit is put in his mouth doesn’t work anymore the human changes it for something more severe.
It is easier to change the bit than the hand, but without changing the hand the horse will always be hard to the hand – not hard mouthed – because he fears what will happen to his mouth.
It is evidenced with tension in the jaw, teeth tightly clenched, grinding of the teeth, twisting at the poll, over-flexing (behind the bit), stargazing, pulling against the hand, tongue held out to the side or put over the bit.
Only an intelligent and educated hand can educate the horse’s mouth. Using mechanical aids cannot permanently remove the problems mentioned above and may very well make them worse.
Here is generally how the cycle goes: strong rein tension = pressure of the mouthpiece on the tongue or bars of the mouth = pain = tension and blocking of the lower jaw = bracing of the muscles of the neck, back, loins = bulging at the base of the neck, withers dropping through the shoulders, hollow or dropped back, and hind legs restricted from freely stepping under the body mass to create forward thrusting or carrying power.
If you want to improve your horse, you can try changing the bit you use. But if you want to improve your horsemanship, try changing the use of your hands.
It is only an educated hand that can give the horse the mobility of the jaw and the correct posture of the poll. If you can feel the bit and hence the mouth, then the horse can feel your hand – don’t make him afraid of it.
LIGHTNESS VS. SOFTNESS
Lightness is not softness. Lightness is primarily on the outside of the horse and is mostly a result of the technical training given to him.
Lightness could be a horse that does everything right but without feeling. That lightness may go away if the horse (and/or the rider/handler) gets troubled i.e., when he gets worried, confused, distracted, and resentful or has tension or discomfort in his body.
Softness comes from within the horse and is a combination of correct technical training, trust, level of communication and feel that is exchanged between the rider/handler and the horse and back again.
Softness is a conversation and a way to be rather than a thing to do. Softness is when the whole horse is willingly available to do whatever you request him to do no matter what the circumstances, time of day, place, discipline, or breed of horse – it is effortless with almost mere thoughts turning into actions.
Softness must come first from within the rider/handler before it can come from within the horse. A horse can be light but not soft, but a horse that is soft has an easier time becoming light.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIDER HAVING A CORRECT POSITION
If your position is not correct for the particular discipline in which you are engaged, then you riding the horse at a distinct disadvantage . And if your position is not right, if you can’t sit securely in the saddle without gripping with your hands and legs and not on the saddle (because of your gripping), if you can’t apply the aids properly, then no matter what you do with the horse it will have limited value. Without attaining a good, secure seat, nothing else good will happen.
As an example, if a horse constantly sticks his nose out and keeps pulling you out of the saddle or you continually give with your hands and have a sloppy non-contact rein, then the horse is essentially taking you for a ride and will go wherever he pleases.
On the other hand, if your hands are steady with a non-pulling but solid connection with the bit and you sit securely in the saddle with resiliency in your lower back and abdomen and with a long steady leg with your heels down, then the horse cannot pull the reins from your hands or pull you out of the saddle. He will just bump into himself and soon realize that that tactic won’t work anymore and then you will own the ride. The lesson is, above all else, do not have rude hands!
Also, when you have a secure position on the horse, then you can apply your aids quickly and quietly so that you don’t ambush the horse, i.e., surprise him with them.
The more balanced the rider is the more the horse will be able to efficiently and effectively move. Blend into the horse’s body with your body so you can operate together as one.
If you want to ride a whole lot better than you ride now, find someone who rides a whole lot better than you do and ask them tons of questions about how they got done what you just saw them do.
INTEGRATION OF THE HORSE-HUMAN RELATIONSHIP
Equitation has been defined as the science and art of riding a horse, for work, pleasure, sport, entertainment, and, in the past, for war. It also includes the education of the rider and the horse for these purposes.
One part of equitation is dressage, which focuses on the training of the horse. This kind of training is the most logical and efficient way to educate the horse and is accomplished by using various exercises in an ascending order of complexity over a long period of time in order to gradually develop its muscles, tendons, and ligaments so that its skeletal structure can be accessed, and the horse can have a long service life.
One of the old riding masters stated, “that the object of dressage is, by systematic work, to make the horse calm, light and obedient, so that he may be pleasant in his movements and comfortable for the rider”.
And, although not every horse can be a dressage horse, dressage is good for every horse because, if done correctly, it captures the horse’s thoughts and gets it to start to think.
It also should be kept in mind that there is a period of time prior to the dressage phase of training the horse where the horse must be prepared for this more advanced type of development by completing elementary training which is directed at making the horse merely usable.
This is called, by the French, de’bourrage. During this time, the horse is made calm and quiet to ride, is taught to go forward from the impulsive action of the rider’s legs and in a shape that he can best carry the rider, is taught the elementary aids, and is started on developing his physical condition. Erroneously in the United States this period of schooling the horse is also called dressage.
Just because a rider is cruising around an arena on an English (flat) saddle with, generally, a snaffle bit in the horse’s mouth does not constitute riding dressage nor does riding prescribed figures or trying to perfect the twenty-meter circle.
This period of training is also not about drilling or forcing a horse to perform movements without the requisite gymnastic development, which generally results in a robotic performance by the horse so the rider can attain a certain score on a test. All of that falls under the term competitive dressage which is a horse of a different color (no pun intended) and will not be discussed here.
Also, a word of caution is necessary here. The word dressage, when used by certain segments of the riding public, can have both a mesmerizing and a paralyzing effect on people. To the uninitiated, it can engender an overwhelming feeling of reverence or admiration while to others it can reduce them to a state of feeling powerless in the presence of such individuals.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, there is no need to be in awe of these types of folks. They are just ordinary people putting on airs and acting in a way that indicates that they are in some way better than other folks.
It should also be noted that although the principles of dressage and other special training are relatively simple; the difficulty lies in their application. For, in order for the horse to correctly perform the exercises used in its schooling, he must be guided by the rider who must have the education needed to properly ask the horse for these movements.
Regardless of the riding discipline you are involved with, remember that the horse learns slowly – not as fast as you might like it to learn. When you start the schooling process you must break down any movement you want the horse to learn into small, step by step segments and ensure that the horse knows them well before progressing onto the next part. Everything must be done in sequence or later it will fall apart. Only then can you assemble the parts of the movement into the whole.
You should make sure that the horse completely understands each part. You should focus on form, correctness, and lightness before speed. In time, speed will come. Things of quality take time to develop.
An additional benefit in teaching the movement in segments is that if something is not working, you can go back down the line and fix that part without having to start all over again.
This exciting journey of developing a lasting relationship is about working together with the horse to achieve a harmonious and athletic connection to the highest degree possible. It is about feeling the horse under you and understanding what the horse is trying to say to you. It is all about developing the concept of subtle communication.
True dressage is the symbiotic relationship which exists between the rider and the horse and is characterized by knowing what approach to training is the most appropriate for the development of each individual horse since they all differ in their personalities, sensitivities, and responsiveness.