SOME THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ABOUT HORSES, HUMANS, AND THE HORSE-HUMAN RELATIONSHIP

Introduction These thoughts and observations are presented in no particular order and are offered 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 provided below. Then he or she must internalize them and have them readily available for use when working ‘in the moment’ with the horse.

I. Knowing

You can’t teach the horse until you yourself have been taught and 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 who 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

II. Horses Pay the Price

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 and it is because, 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 you try to offer some help 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 to get along with him – so in the end it is the horse that pays the price for the human’s closed mind

III. Honor the Horse

Make yourself worthy of the horse and honor him for what he is – a living, breathing, creature with 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.  Freedom is just over the wall we build around ourselves over time to ‘protect’ ourselves and then are too afraid to climb over

IV. Risks of Aggression

Aggression (by the human toward the horse) begets aggression (by the horse toward 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.  Learn to work with three pounds of brain rather than a thousand pounds of ‘wadded up’ horseflesh and life will get better for the both of you

V. Discipline vs. Punishment

 Never punish the horse-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

VI. Opportunity

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 the horse instead of to the horse, you will end up with a better relationship

 VII. Communication

It is critical to the level of success that you will have in working with horses that you 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 the human not listening to and understanding them and the horse not understanding the muddled signals and requests that the human sends to the horse that causes the problems.  But if the human would take the time to try and explain what he or she wants to the horse in terms that the horse would understand, then, generally speaking, the problems will go away, in time

VIII. Submission

Submission (to the hand) and impulsion (response to the legs) are two qualities that must be intimately connected in the education of the horse 

IX. Goal of Communication

If we begin the process of communication with the horse where we would like to end up (not just in individual cases, but in our overall approach to horses), then we may better serve those horses by insisting they not only get what we’re asking, but follow through in their work in a soft way that increases a comfortable mindset.  The calm mind is more responsive and quick to hear what we have to say than the tight, troubled mind.

X. Approach to the Horse

 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 pissed off about having to spend the extra time to catch the horse

XI. Understanding

Don’t 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

 XII. Feelings of the Horse

Enduring trouble for the horse is not about him feeling better about something or being convinced that things are really alright; it is simply stuffing the bad feelings deeper inside himself – to possibly explode sometime later down the road

 

XIII. Seeing

Until you see it, you can’t see it, and then when you see it, you can’t believe that you didn’t see it before you finally saw it

XIV. ‘Doing’

The better one ‘does’, the less one has to ‘do’ 

XV.  Clarity

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.  God forbid that you should take responsibility for the consequences of your actions or inactions. But once you get the horse to understand you and what you are asking from him, then he will “respect” you more

XVI. Position of the Rider

If your position is not correct for the particular discipline in which you are engaged then you can’t be helped.  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 how much I tell you, or anyone else tells you, it will be just useless.  Without attaining a good, secure seat, nothing else good will happen.  So never abandon your position regardless of what the horse may do.  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

XVII. Use of Your Energy

Use your energy and time wisely and concentrate on fixing your own problems instead of wasting time talking so much about other peoples’ problems and what they should do

XVIII. Setting Boundaries

 If you don’t teach horses when they are young how to behave when they are around  humans 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’ll 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 

XIX. ’ Sweet Talk’

You can ‘sweet talk’ a horse into doing anything you want him to do, but you can’t force him into anything 

XX. 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 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

XXI. Trust on the Ground

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

XXI. Balance

The more balanced the horse (and rider) is, the more efficiently and effectively he will be able to move.  Blend into the horse’s body with your body so you are one together

XXII. The Horse’s Mind

 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 backup he ‘flows’ into the request without any brace or resistance of any kind

XXIII. Riding Better

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 after according them the common courtesies, ask tons of questions about how they got done what they just did

XXIV. Friendship of the Horse

The horse does not have a need to be around the human.  Unlike a dog that follows people to be close to them, a horse does not compete for our 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

XXV. Learning

      Nothing learned quickly is ever learned (understood) well.  When a horse doesn’t understand what we are asking him to do, he resists and becomes stressed which triggers his instinctive flight, fight or freeze reactions.  Horses don’t reason, they do what they think is right at the time instinctively.  Help the horse respond through understanding, not react through instinct –whatever you do must have a meaning to the horse

XXVI. Direction

 Thought plus purpose gives the horse direction.  If horses had a real job to do, they probably would not have time to get themselves in ‘trouble’

XXVII. Human Behavior

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 we are so often in continuous conflict with our horses

XXVIII. Horse Behavior

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 us information.  How we perceive that information will dictate how we respond to it

Horses communicate with us primarily through their behavior.  A horse’s body becomes a mirror of their emotions – so the body tells us what is truly going on internally

How the horse behaves is merely supplying us with information.  How we perceive that information and then put a value on it will create our response to the behavior (good-bad-indifferent).  The choice is up to us.  We can either look at the behavior with a quiet mind uncluttered by emotions and see it for what it is without judgment or we can see it as something else.  Either way we will end up responding accordingly and either way, it will dictate the level of success we will have with the horse

XXIX. Quiet Mind

Developing a quiet mind, in other words, not letting our emotions get the better of us, will allow us 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

XXX. Feeling

Don’t intellectualize the feeling out of working with the horse

 XXXI. Ambushing

Don’t ambush the horse, i.e., surprise him, with your aids – apply them quickly and smoothly and also use them as sparingly as possible so as not to dilute their effect

 XXXII. The Horse’s Mouth and Crude Hands  

Don’t have crude hands! 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 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 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 power.  It is only an educated hand that can give him 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

XXXIII. Hard Work

While desire, passion, and commitment are contributing and important elements in learning how to ride horses, unless you have an affection for hard work and a zest for achievement you won’t be very successful

XXXIV. Taught to be Caught

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.  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 other thinking humans. 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, THINK BEFORE ACTING!

 XXXV. 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.  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.  Lightness, on the other hand, 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 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 

XXXVI. Chasing the Horse

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.  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 the human usually doesn’t have enough of (or thinks he doesn’t anyway) and as a result he just perpetuates the problem.  So take the time to take the time and it will, in the end, take less time 

 XXXVII. Instructor vs. Teacher

An instructor, competent though he or she may be, takes a ‘what to do’ approach with people who want to learn to ride, which mostly produces trained monkeys on machines.  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.  Choose wisely if you want to learn about the art of riding and about the horse.  Find a teacher, not an instructor, to guide you in your journey

XXXVIII. Starting a Horse

The ‘starting’ of a horse is a critical phase in his education in which clumsiness, brutality, and uncertainty (on the part of the ‘educator’) can and will leave indelible marks on the horse regarding his future interactions with the human

 XXXIX. Clarity of Intent

Horses are masters of recognizing intention. But they aren’t too crazy about guessing what it is that you want them to do and if they have to guess then it may not work out in your favor. 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, because if you are not particular then the horse will learn  not to be particular and you will end up with a training problem.  Additionally, 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.  If the horse gets confused, 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 fight.  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

XL. Micro-managing the Horse

 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 be afraid 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.  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 to learn how to learn

XLI. Impulsion

Impulsion describes a high degree of responsiveness on the part of the horse to the signals from the rider’s legs.  You can’t ‘push’ a horse forward by the actions of your legs, but you can ‘ask’ him to start moving himself forward and this depends on the quality of education which you provide him in responding to your leg aids.  Impulsion must be connected to the horse’s ability to flex its joints

XLII. Technology Release

You should grant yourself a pardon and release yourself from being a prisoner of technology which creates a certain state of mind and a way of doing things that could prove to be detrimental when working with horses because horses live in the natural world where everything has a time and there is a time for everything to get done. So, take off your watch, hide your I-phone and whatever other electronic devices that you carry around with you and concentrate only on you and the horse that you are working with. You will get more accomplished and the horse will be less stressed.

 XLIII. Dressage

Dressage is a noun which is derived from the French verb dresser, meaning literally ‘to train (an animal) and is properly pronounced with the accent on the first syllable as DRES-sage – but in the American language it is commonly pronounced as dres-SAGE.  The term is now commonly used to describe what one does with a horse when cruising around in an arena on an English (flat) saddle with, generally, a snaffle bit in the horse’s mouth – as in “I’m riding dressage!”  However; dressage is neither some sort of exhibition nor is it about riding around in a rectangular arena performing various prescribed figures or trying (sometimes for years) to perfect the twenty meter circle.  It 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 just so the rider can attain a certain score on a test. All of that falls, in my opinion, under the term ‘competitive dressage’ which is a horse of a different color (no pun intended) and will not be discussed here.  True dressage is about the training of the horse (and rider) so as to achieve the harmonious development of its physical and athletic ability to the highest degree possible resulting in a calm, straight (whether on a straight or bent line of travel), supple, balanced, alert, and forward moving horse that has unity and understanding with the rider.  It is about attaining suppleness and flexibility of the horse (as well as the rider) to the maximum extent possible by the correct use of systematic, methodic, progressive, well thought-out gymnastic exercises practiced with diligence and patience regularly over time.

 

XLIV. Gymnastic Training of the Horse

By ‘gymnastic’ training I mean repeating movements and extending their range rather than holding certain postures for a long time – regardless of how ‘correct’ they may be.  A rational gymnastic program should consist of choosing and carefully adapting exercises for a particular horse that will cause the exact opposite of the asymmetries in the horse so that, in time, they will be gradually reduced.  It is about the rider having the knowledge that will permit him or her to create all kinds of combinations of figures that serve to make the horse more symmetrical and develop more mobility in all directions plus knowing when and how to introduce them to the horse in the course of his training. 

XLV. An Example of a Gymnastic Program

As a specific example of what I am talking about let’s take the case of a horse that is described as being ‘crooked’ or ‘bent’ or ‘hollow ‘ to the left.  Analysis of this general statement really means that the horse: 1) carries his head to the left, 2) falls through his right shoulder, 3) his hindquarters are displaced to the left with his left hind leg engaging more than it pushes and the right hind leg pushing more than it engages, and 4) his right diagonal leg pair advances when moving more than the left pair.  So this might call for a gymnastic program that includes: 1) more frequent and pronounced bending to the right than to the left, 2) more frequent transfers of weight onto the left shoulder while reducing time spent on the right shoulder, 3) spent time developing the push of the left hind leg and the engagement of the right hind leg, 4) develop the range of motion of the left diagonal leg pair by rising with the left diagonal at the trot.  This can be all accomplished through combinations of exercises such as: leg-yielding, shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, travers, renvers, and frequent transitions both between as well as within gaits while keeping in mind that excessive lateral work on two tracks could be detrimental to the horse’s forward thrust because of the risk of developing suppleness at the expense of impulsion.  So remember that the work must always be interspersed with energetic forward movement on straight lines and that all the work must be done without any decrease in the horse’s rhythm or tempo It is about the great importance of studying the skeletal and muscular systems of the horse in order to know and be able to feel which muscles have to be strengthened and which joints of the horse have to be made more flexible.  True dressage is all about knowing what approach to training is the most appropriate for the development of each individual horse since they all differ in their feelings, sensitivity, and responsiveness.  Finally, it is about knowing and having the ability to use whatever exercises are necessary, and in what order and at what stage of training, to develop the horse to the highest capacity of performance that he can be trained to.

XLVI. Closing Remarks

      It has become apparent to me that in today’s equestrian world large parts of the riding community, from amateur riders to top-level professional riders, do not spend enough time or, in some cases, any time studying the books written by the masters of the past on the subjects of the horse, the rider, and the various methods of riding and training the horse.  They established the foundation for truly gaining an understanding of the theory as well as the methodology behind the art of riding.   Why don’t people nowadays read, study, and learn from these great masters and their writings? Mostly because their books are ‘heavy reading’ (read must study them) or they don’t or can’t make the time to do so.  Why they would not want to eagerly glean all that they can from the vast storehouse of knowledge and wisdom gained by and written down by these masters over the centuries but instead turn away from it has always been a complete mystery to me. Yet without attaining an in-depth background and knowledge of the theories and methods presented by these different masters (and they all had different ways of writing about their subject matter, which also allows the reader to compare and contrast them to gain insight into the similarities and dissimilarities between each writer) one is left to wander aimlessly about going in wrong directions through the forest of mistakes.  In the end, it will be the horse that will suffer most of all because of the human’s refusal to learn – or stated another way: the capacity of the human mind to resist the infusion of new knowledge is infinite!

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