Equine Guided Horsemanship Narrative & Video Series
A Journey in Pursuit of Equine Unity
A Willing Communication Between Horse and Rider
Presented By Dave Rossiter, Horse Sensible Horsemanship
Horses are very special animals that enrich the lives of many of us that are lucky enough to have the opportunity to interact with them. On the other hand, they can also be the cause of frustration, injury, and loss of confidence for many others. Horses are probably one of the most misunderstood domestic animals on the planet, primarily because humans don’t understand and interact with them for what they really are: A Prey Animal.
Depending on your level of interest, passion and motivation, the horse can teach you to become an accomplished horseman or horsewoman under the framework of our training program. If you are willing to enter a life long journey, learning successful horsemanship, and all the self- improvement benefits that come along with it, we offer you that opportunity.
The following passage from the book, The Revolution in Horsemanship written by Robert Miller D.V.M., and Rick Lamb gives an excellent description of what our Journey Program is all about.
“No one becomes involved with horses to make himself a better human being or to find greater meaning in life or to make the world a better place, but sometimes that’s exactly what happens. In the beginning you play with horses because it’s fun, a pleasant diversion. Then you find that it feels good in a deeper and more lasting way than many other recreational pastimes. You may love riding motorcycles, but your Harley doesn’t nicker at you in the morning. There is something very special about horses that makes you want to do better with and for them.
But wanting to do better isn’t enough, because this is something very different and very unnatural for us humans. It takes time and effort to learn to communicate effectively with a horse. You must be willing to go back to school to learn and change the way you behave. You have to set your ego on the shelf and leave it there while you reinvent yourself as a horseman and as a human being.
The new person observes, remembers and compares. He listens more and talks less. He takes responsibility rather than assigning blame. He controls his emotions. He becomes aware of his body language. He tries to improve himself. He commits himself to acting justly. He cultivates patience. He forgives. He lives in the moment rather than stewing over the past or waiting for the future. And of course, he places the wants and needs of another creature ahead of his own.
He does it all, at least in the beginning, because it will make him a better horseman.
It isn’t easy. We cannot wave a magic wand or drink a magic potion and change the nature of our species any more than a leopard can change it’s spots. It takes work, and a lot of it. It takes willpower and persistence, focus and thought. In an age of mindless entertainment and instant gratification of our every physical and emotional craving, those don’t always come easy. But if we persist, the payoff makes it all worthwhile”.
I wish you a fun and safe Journey!
I recommend that you take the time to read my book entitled Foundations (click here). It will provide you with helpful background information relating to our program. It will also give you the history of Natural Horsemanship, beginning with it’s early founders: The Dorrance Brothers, and Ray Hunt.
Natural Horsemanship (NH) is a pretty broad term in the horse industry and can mean a lot of different things depending on who you talk to. I will go through what NH means to me and discuss the tenets that we follow in our program. But before we dive into NH, let’s talk about the horse as a Prey animal. Once you reprogram you mind to view a horse for what he really is, the whole NH approach will hopefully make more sense to you.
One of the biggest mistakes I see with humans interacting with horses is their assumption that they can treat their horse like their companion animal-a dog. In some cases, depending on the horse, things may work out. However, this approach, more often than not, leads to the frustrations, injuries, and lack of confidence encountered by many weekend warrior horse folks. You will learn more on these differences that lead to problems as we go along. But for now, let’s talk about the difference between humans and horses.
To begin with, man is a predator (we are hunters, and meat eaters). The horse senses us as a predator. He views us as behaving psychologically as a predator. Our eyes sit together in front of our heads giving us better binocular vision which helps us with depth perception and helps us gauge distances. This set up is for our survival as a predator. We can gauge how far our enemy or prey is from us. The horse, a prey animal, senses all this and they treat us accordingly as predators. The horse on the other hand is a prey animal. Other animals eat prey animals-horses. Horses don’t hunt down and kill other animals. They are herbivores, eating primarily grass and other vegetation. Their eyes are set on the side of their heads so they can see around them, watching for a potential attack from a predator. It also gives them greater monocular vision which means they can look at and process two different scenes at a time.
Other prey animal psychology that is important to note is:
- A horses system is designed for constant movement, even as they also conserve energy. Movement in the horse is something the horse needs for optimal health. It affects the entire physiological system from circulation, to hoof health, to mental stability. In the wild a horse may travel up to 20 miles per day. That not only helps to keep the horse healthy, but It also ensures food and water, as well as a wider variety of forage for optimum health. So with that said, it is much healthier to pasture a horse, as opposed to stand him in a stall. Horses were not designed to be kept in small enclosures, but for freedom of movement in pastures to keep them mentally and physically most sound. Unfortunately, it’s not economically feasible for many horse owners to pasture their horses. All the more reason to get them out of their stall as often as possible to give them movement and exercise.
- Whether it’s two horses, or a pasture of ten horses, they quickly establish a herd hierarchy or pecking order. That hierarchy can change as horse’s test each other moving up or down in the hierarchy especially when a new horse is thrown into the mix.
- Horses in the wild have well established role players including the alpha mare, leader, etc. We will discuss this later in more detail, but suffice it to say that other than young stallions banned from the herd until they learn to settle down, a herd of wild horses are usually gregarious, playful, easy going, and take the lead from one or a combination of role players. Again, more on this later.
- Just like humans, each horse is a unique individual with its own personality, or as I term it in my book, nagality. Some are shy, some are extraverts, some prefer to lead, and some prefer to follow. I go into great detail in my book on the importance of determining the nagality of a horse and how that affects our interaction with that horse.
- Horses communicate via body language almost entirely. They are also one of the most sensitive animals in the animal kingdom. From sensing a small fly on their hide to sensing the intentions of a predator, they are the ultimate awareness machine.
- The horses natural instinct is to take flight and ask questions later when they perceive danger. In the wild they normally look to a herd role player for direction. If the role player reacts and flees, the herd follows their lead. If the role player perceives that there is no real danger, stays relaxed, and keeps grazing, the rest of the herd follows that lead and does the same. It’s interesting that this instinct has never been bred out of horses with all the different breeds and centuries of domestication.
- Horses have survived for thousands of years with the above traits. Their prey animal instincts have served them pretty well, I must say.
Ok, so if we stand back and look at the stark differences between horse and human, it sure doesn’t look like a match made in heaven. It’ the human predator trying to do something with the horse, and the ultimate prey animal who thinks that he is going to be killed and eaten by the human. A rationale human being would likely describe this potential interaction as a recipe for disaster.
So with this unlikely match up, how is it that humans have interacted with horses for so many centuries. Notice I did not say successfully interacted with horses for so many centuries. Before the NH approach, most horse interactions involved getting the horse to do something by intimidation and force. The exception, as history would tell us, were the so called horse whisperers through the ages that interacted with horses using techniques similar to NH. As an example, knighthood was only granted to those displaying wisdom and superior horsemanship skills that were characterized by a leadership approach, rather than intimidation and force. It’s also interesting to note that through history, some of the great leaders were also excellent horseman. Ronald Reagan and George Washington are good examples. So with that said, I would define successful interaction with horses as those who have the skills to convince the horse that they are a leader, thus gaining their trust and cooperation without force or cohertion.
Over the past 40 plus years the NH approach to interacting with horses has really gone mainstream, especially in the United States. Big name clinicians teach their own method of NH, but for the most part they adhere to a philosophy of softness and not using force to influence the horse. Our program takes a similar approach. Let me describe NH as we teach it in our program
- We view body language as the key to communicating with the horse. Horses are born knowing their unique body language to communicate with each other. A mother horse reinforces this language with the foal from the moment it is born, and so does the rest of the herd. By learning their language we can effectively communicate by learning:
- How to use our eyes
- How to place our body and parts of our body
- Tone of our voice or not using a voice at all
- How to use pressure and release of pressure to get the response we are looking for
- What equipment we can use to enhance our communication
- How to listen to what the horse is telling us via his body language
- Adhere to the philosophy that interacting with a horse is an art and not a science. The art of working, training and riding with horses in a manner which works with the horse’s behavior, instincts, and personality, not against it, and in an easy and kind manner.
- Using gentle guidance rather than force or mechanical devices.
- Using pressure and release to guide the horse to learn, and to understand that the horse learns from the release of that pressure, not the pressure itself.
- Developing a refined sense of timing of the release of pressure along with a sense of “feel”.
- Understanding that this training approach requires us as the human:
- Time-“taking off your watch” mindset. Horses have no real concept of time like we do. It’s important to resist our human tendency to get things done now, all at once, and instead follow the horse’s natural individual learning curve.
- Patience-each horse is an individual, and as such they learn at a different rate of speed. And each horse has its own unique issues to get past, so patience always, in order to flow with a horse’s natural learning curve and rhythm.
- Compassion-help the horse through any fears they may have or get it flushed out as you go along
- Playfulness-keep the horse interested by making a game out of whatever you are doing, and giving him a job so he feels a sense of purpose.
- Sense of Humor-Don’t feel judged by other people, or make it a contest between you and your horse. While your practicing 1-4 mentioned above, make it fun no matter how it may be going. You won’t get discouraged if you keep a good sense of humor and a positive attitude.
- Continue to develop a deep understanding of Prey Animal Psychology
- Cultivate the inner of the horse first and understand that the outer will later follow. Said differently, if you get the horse’s mind soft, his body will soften, then his feet will soften. Our ultimate goal is to soften the mind, which softens the body, which flows to the legs, then to the feet. When this happens we are able to shape the body and move the feet wherever we desire.
- Helping the horse to trust us, and do what we want out of friendliness, not fear, and having them trust us without reservation, is also our ultimate goal.
- Being dependable to the horse, not dominating. Becoming a passive leader which I will discuss later.
- Giving the horse time to think about what you are asking them to do, which allows them to try and figure it out, helping them, instead of forcing, to get there, which helps them to learn to think rationally as opposed to reacting irrationally.
- Being quiet and consistent with the horse while working with rhythm and relaxation. I often tell myself to slow down and work with rhythm and relaxation for a more harmonious outcome.
- Giving the horse your full attention which will get his full attention to achieve true connection.
By definition, the word Tenet is a noun for any opinion, principle, doctrine, etc., especially one held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement. I am not aware of any official Natural Horsemanship Organization that would adhere to the Tenets I am about to discuss, but I am quite sure that they are shared by most clinicians who teach Natural Horsemanship. In addition, Equine Trail Sports, and Cowboy Dressage are two organizations that we actively promote due to their philosophies which align nicely with Natural Horsemanship, the following Tenets, and our training program.
- The long way is the short way, or the quickest way is to go slow, or good horse training should be boring to watch. To me, this means taking the time to fix the inside of the horse, addressing emotional issues, before expecting the outside of the horse to act accordingly. From the surface, it might seem like this method takes longer, but in the end, it does not, because what is learned, as you build a more trusting horse from the foundation up, and what needs fixing remains fixed.
- Know where you are going before you go. If you don’t know then the horse will feel the pressure to decide for himself and it’s probably something different.
- Visualize approaching the horse with an attitude of total acceptance, no matter what that action or response from the horse is, and meet those actions with understanding.
- Listen to the horse and learn to perceive when the horse needs support.
- Learn to do less to get more. Baby steps. Allow the horse the opportunity to find what you want with the smallest amount of pressure. Don’t try to get it all the first time. Trust that the horse will find what you want with less pressure, not more.
- Bond or connect with the horse before asking anything of him. Developing a nurturing relationship, bonding on the horse physically and emotionally before each training or riding session places the horse in a more willing to please and trusting spot.
- The horse learns from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. The horse will naturally steer into doing what is easiest for them since they are energy conserving animals. The release of pressure feels more comfortable to them than the pressure, so they naturally steer in the direction of yielding to pressure if they know that they will get the instant release of pressure.
- Timing of the release of pressure is everything. Horses only learn the behavior you want via the release of pressure. So I can’t over emphasize how critical it is to get split second timing of the release of pressure when the horse gives you the correct give. And it’ equally important to take the try, releasing that pressure there, as well, so that the horse better discovers that “window” you are opening up for him to find the release.
- Do not release pressure when the horse is “hard”, but only when he is “soft”. If you release the pressure when the horse is fighting against it (hard), he will only learn to remain hard. If you release when he is soft, then that’s when he learns to be soft.
- However resistance should be met with resistance. This does not mean punishment, but does mean that when a horse resists, he will be met with resistance so that he can find the “easier window” to steer into. You do not increase the pressure at such times, but the horse simply is pressuring himself when not yielding. Then when he yields, it becomes his idea and not yours.
- Take the Try and you will get there faster. Allow the horse to find the route to learning a new behavior in broken down baby steps, rewarding each try as the horse discovers the right way with your guidance. Rewarding even the baby-step efforts the horse makes along the way is taking the try (releasing the pressure with even the smallest try).
- Reward for the Smallest Try, the slightest Change and the horse will achieve what you want far faster, far softer and build confidence far quicker.
- You must lay down a foundation in training on the ground first before a horse will understand what is being asked of him later in the saddle. Nearly all training of horses is best done on the ground first so that later pressures will make sense in the saddle. Most horse problems in the saddle can be traced back to a weak on the ground first foundation. Just like building a house the foundation of a horse’s training needs to be strong, thorough, and secure before expecting further training to stand up very well.
- Don’t push horses over fear thresholds, but instead read the horse well and compassionately, and perceive the tolerance threshold ahead of time, backing up and returning to where the horse was comfortable. Then and only then, slowly work your way back up to the threshold area, retreating before the horse reacts, and you will get past the fear threshold more quickly and easily. Our job is not to frighten horses, but to empathetically guide them in the directions of building confidence to overcome fears.
- Return to bonding whenever the horse is afraid to nurture him through his fears, and he will glide through fears, regaining confidence, far more quickly.
- Horses as a rule will try to do things right, so don’t constantly be reprimanding them for things done wrong. Reward successes, don’t punish failures and you will get there faster.
- Let the horse use his own mind. Present the task at hand, and then let him figure out how to get there, and he will learn far faster, he will also develop into a more rationale, less fearful horse because he is learning to use his mind. As Ray Hunt would say, “I fix it up for the horse to do the right thing”
- Make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing hard. Since horses naturally, instinctively, steer into the direction of what is easiest, then set it up so that what you want them to do is easiest, and what he wants to do that is wrong, harder.
- When teaching a horse a new behavior, stop while it is working. What this means is, stop while the horse is cooperating, getting it and the next time you come back to it, even days later the horse will be farther along on that learning curve.
- Rub, don’t pat. To reward a horse, stroke it, don’t pat it. Unlike a dog, horses don’t understand patting, or appreciate it much, although they learn to tolerate it. Stroking simulates a mother horse licking the foal and is rewarding behavior they not only understand, but also greatly appreciate and enjoy. Plus, they have very sensitive skin so rubbing simply feels better to them than patting.
- Generally there are no truly bad horses, only confused horses. Try to remember that one when working with them to learn a new behavior. They are not intentionally bad, they usually simply don’t understand what is being requested of them. Progress and reward in baby steps, smaller digestible lessons, and they will get there quicker and happier.
- The horse is the best teacher there is. Pay attention and learn from every horse you work with, and you will be surprised what each one teaches you.
- Always end a session leaving the horse in a good spot. Horses have a tendency to remember most what happened at the very last in a previous session, so always leave on a positive note, even if this means manufacturing a positive at the end of a particularly difficult session, in order to make sure the horse is left on a positive. That way, he will be more willing to try again later.
- The greatest gift you can give your horse is the gift of your time and attention. Do that and he will make it worth your while.
- And finally, there are really no horse problems, only people problems. This one is sometimes the hardest for people to hear or to understand and maybe accept. The truth is, without man, horses do just fine. Most horse problems are man-made problems. Horses have survived thousands of years on their own. When man steps into the picture not fully understanding prey animal psychology and how to work with it, not against it, and instead institutes predator psychology, problems arise. Learn and institute prey animal psychology and speak the language the horse already understands ( as opposed to expecting the horse to learn the language of man) and you will create a quiet and willing partner. Natural Horsemanship is a lifelong learning skill. The day you think you’ve learned it all is the day you simply stopped learning.
Framework of Our Program!
Safety a Priority
Learning to Read Your Horse
Learning and Practicing the Language of the Horse
Establishing and Maintaining Leadership
Developing Soft Feel and Timing with Rhythm and Relaxation
Building Good Riding Skills with Emphasis on an Independent Seat
Gaining Control of and Harmonizing the Five Body Parts
Strive to Soften the Horses’ Mind, Body and Place His Feet where Desired
Gait and Frame Transitions
We hear statistics on about everything these days, and horses are no exception. The studies vary, but most of them agree that horseback riding rates right up there with being one of the most dangerous recreational activities out there. Another revealing statistic is that one in five new horse owners still own a horse after the first year. The reasons for not lasting are varied, but most center around injuries, loss of confidence, fear, and economic reasons. Then, if you take five of those people that still had a horse after one year, only one of those folks still own their horse after five years. Our mission here at HSH is to make sure when our clients buy a horse from us, it’s not an experience similar to that of a boat owner who described the best two days of his life as the day he bought the boat and the day he sold it. Matching a horse with experience and knowledge that fits with the experience and knowledge of the potential horse owner goes a long way in ensuring success. Anyway, more on that later.
There are many reasons that humans don’t get along with horses which we will be discussing at length in our program. But, the primary reason that stands out is the simple fact that horses are misunderstood by humans, and most people lack the understanding and knowledge to be safe and successful with horses. Horses could definitely bear the name “Chaos Machines” because they certainly bring a high degree of endangerment, frustration, and chaos.
First of all I want to congratulate and thank you for taking the initiative to begin a journey towards gaining the understanding and knowledge to be safer with horses. Our program does not guaranty you will stay safe, but it will lessen your chances for injury to you and or your horse if you follow it. Dedication and commitment can lead to safety, freedom, happiness and harmony with horses for those willing to make the journey.
(Click Here For Safety Tips)
All the Tenets we discussed are very important, but learning to read your horse is one of the most important ones. The reason being, that almost everything we do with our horse involves us reading our horse. Since horses communicate via body language, if we learn to pay close attention to our horse when we are with him, he will tell us what he is feeling, what he is about to do or not do, and everything in between. Your goal should be to develop this skill to the point that you can predict what a horse is going to do before he does it. When seeking a favorable response you can set him up to do the right thing before he does it. In fact one of Ray Hunt’s quotes on teaching a horse- “I set the horse up to do the right thing. I am more concerned what he did before he did what he did”. In regards to an unfavorable response, you can learn to read what your horse is doing before he is going to do something, (like getting bucked off, or your horse bolting off). This is a skill that you will never totally master, but it should be one that you strive to master every minute you are with your horse. (Click Here for Tips on Reading Your Horse).
We will be discussing body language throughout our program, but the best way to get started is to begin paying attention to your horse!
Unless you learn the horse’s language you will struggle to get anything done with your horse. It’s kind of interesting that a horse can come in contact with a human, and read that person’s body language in a nanosecond. Basically, the horse’s reaction to a person is a reflection of that person’s body language. If the person is nervous and scared, the horse will normally respond by acting nervous, untrusting, and scared. If the person is aggressive and pushy, the horse responds by trying to evade the perceived predator. And if the person is relaxed, moving in a confident fashion with rhythm, the horse will respond the same way. (Click Here For Tips On Body Language).
While giving your horse your full attention, you must be totally aware of every movement you are making from breathing to every part of your body because you are constantly telling your horse something, good, or bad, without even making a sound!
Your ability to establish and maintain leadership with your horse is one of the most important things you can do to ensure safety, and effectively teach your horse whatever it is you want him to do. Ok, let’s go on with some more Prey Animal Psychology.
Probably the most important thing that we can acknowledge about the horse is that he is a “flight animal”. His natural reaction to anything that is not understood or appears to be a threat is to take off. Some animals use their strength to attack, to bite or strike. A Stallion may use those methods when competing for dominance with another stallion, and a horse can strike out or bite a human, but for the most part the horse uses his enormous strength to get away from the scene of perceived danger as fast as he can. Anyone who has been around horses knows that a horse can be just as startled and want to gallop off because a paper bag flies off in the wind as we imagine they might if a tiger jumped out from the bushes.
So remember that almost without exception, horses use speed to escape danger. In our modern society, horses for the most part are almost always contained. We keep them in stalls, paddocks, or at most, a fenced field. But even within a restrictive space, they do not easily lose their instinct for flight when frightened.
Given that the horse has adapted to our demands in so many ways it is kind of interesting that the instinct to run away from danger is still central to his nature. Paramount to our program, and your future success and safety with horses, is to become that safe haven to which the horse instinctively turns, or returns to, when nature has guided him to flight. There are methods we will introduce that expose the horse to all sorts of new objects and experiences until at some point it is a rare event when the horse will be surprised and take off. But remember, this instinct never disappears completely. You can never desensitize a horse to everything, although there are rare exceptions.
As we discuss in our book, horses are herd animals. There are still some areas in the world where wild horses still live in their natural state. (They are few and far between, and seem to be diminishing with every year that passes in our modern society). Anyway, wild horses in their natural state do not live alone or with a mate, but in a herd with a well-defined hierarchy and a leader. The leader can be a stallion or a mare, but more often than not, the leader is an older mare that I like to refer to as the Wise One.
In the wild, a horses’ life consists of foraging, raising young, following the leader, or being followed in the role of the leader and fleeing danger whenever it appears. So the natural habitat of the horse is the wide-open prairie which we have taken away except for the lucky few.
When I think about it, horses’ really have adapted extremely well to our way of life and our demands. Anyway, the way I see it, nothing can replace what the horse has lost, but if we learn to treat horses with due respect, we would at least make a step in the right direction. In my mind, showing respect means removing the use of coercion from our dealings with the horse, which in my opinion is the principal cause of stress. To do this, we have to understand them better, and take away timelines and performance requirements that are inherent with all the human made competitions we have invented. I view true horsemanship as a journey and not the destination. Hence, our program focuses on safety, communication, and helping a horse learn through mutual respect without timelines.
In a herd of wild horses, one horse becomes the acknowledged leader, often without having to fight their way up the hierarchy. So how does that happen? It is really the same process by which a group of humans in a threatening situation chooses one person to lead them. Among humans it is not necessarily the physically strongest or the tallest who is chosen. Neither Napoleon, nor Hitler, nor Admiral Nelson, nor Mother Theresa were imposing physical specimens, but they undoubtedly had extraordinary abilities as well as charisma, and they used it for good, or for bad.
In the world of horses, the leader will not necessarily be the best physical specimen, nor the largest or fastest, which you would think would be reasonable considering that the horse is a flight animal. No, it is usually the one who in some way radiates inner strength, an intangible collection of qualities that includes confidence, experience, courage, magnetism will power, curiosity and kind of a take it or leave it attitude. These are terms that we have developed to describe human behavior, but in my mind they apply to a leader that a horse follows, be it a horse or human.
One big difference in a horse leader vs. a human leader we must be very careful of is what happens to many human leaders. In the world of humans, people selected as leaders often become arrogant and abuse the trust that has been placed in them. As the leader of the horse, we must never let that happen because I suspect that this sort of arrogance does not have a parallel in the world of horses who are concentrated simply on maintaining their position until another horse develops into a stronger character, challenges them, and takes over the herd.
Some of the greatest horseman in history are described as having feel, timing and the ability to read horses. In addition, they also have the quality of communicating with the horse in a way that they are perceived as the leader. Even if we were able to discover all of the signals by which a horse exerts his will on other horses, we are not horses and therefore can’t expect to be able to copy them exactly. However, just like the great horseman, if you are to be perceived as the human leader, you must develop signals or body language that is clearly understood by the horse.
In our world, which is an artificial one for the horse, the horse needs to be given boundaries. When he is brought up in a herd, a horse learns social behavior and rules from other horses. In our program, we are merely continuing the process when we take over with the horse. He has to integrate what we teach him, so the rules must be very simple, precise, and coherent. A horse living a secure life is less stressed than the horse in the wild who is responsible for himself. Instead of substituting a new form of stress as the enforcer, we should take on the role of decider. Not the one who imposes his will and dominates the horse. We must also keep in mind that the rules vary according to each horse and his nagality.
When a horse in the wild takes on the role of leader, he or she assumes the responsibility of protecting those who have accepted his or her leadership. When we take on the role of human leader and decider, we take on a greater area of responsibility than that of the horse in the wild. “To whom much is given as the saying goes, much is expected”. The responsibility should not be taken lightly. If we are privileged enough to be accepted as the human leader, without using force or any other form of cruelty, I personally look at it as an honor that should be cherished. And when things go wrong as a result of assuming this role, you should not use the excuse: I didn’t know.
When humans think they are totally safe from threat or danger they tend to go their own way which often times leads to selfish actions because they stop being aware that every one of their actions affects other people and, ultimately the whole world. When danger lurks and people lose faith in the security of their money or whatever, they either turn to someone to get them out of the situation or they become that person themselves.
Horses are never misled like humans into believing that they are completely safe from all danger. They always seek someone to whom they can turn to in a strange or threatening situation. And herein lies a reason, possibly the most important reason, why we can persuade a horse to give us his trust and possibly his devotion: a horse seeks freedom from fear and stress above all else; even treats, sugar lumps and carrots-ladies! If we provide this feeling of security the horse will freely give himself to us.
In human relationships there is no exact parallel to that of man and horse, but the one between a parent and their child seems to me to be pretty close. Let’s assume a good parent. As a good parent we should always be prepared to learn from the child, so we must always be ready to learn from the horse. A good parent will be to the child a safe haven but does not want him to stay at home for the rest of his life watching television or playing video games. A good parent will respect the child, and in turn, hope to earn the respect of the child. It is the same with the horse, except for a big difference. We don’t have the ability to communicate by word of mouth. Sure, we can use words and tones of voice, but the horse can’t. That is why most people have so easily resorted to enforcement in dealing with horses rather than meeting the challenge of learning their language.
I mention in my book the importance of giving a horse your full attention, and in turn he will give you his attention. Expanding on that thought, remember that when we are working with a horse, we can achieve much greater results by concentrating our minds on a certain action. And, if we do not concentrate, the intended action either does not take place or does not go as planned. A horse seems to know whether our minds are concentrated on what we are asking him to do. In my mind, this is one of the gifts that the horse makes to us: he drives home the importance of concentration and awareness.
So we don’t want the horse to perceive us as a predator like a big bad wolf. And, we don’t want him to think we are an alpha horse who would in the wild, rule by fear and create stress. I feel that my parent-child description is possibly the best mind set to have. But how do we integrate the horse into our world in the most balanced way. Gone are the wide open spaces, and our only choice is to keep our horse in our constricted world. In order for the horse to survive, he has to live with us and we are therefore forcing on him a life that is essentially alien to him.
So then you have to ask yourself. What then are the most important requirements for the horse to be contented? Like us, horses appreciate freedom and also like us, they like their own space. Both of these can be satisfied by letting them out in a field from time to time, and a nice stall or enclosure that is an appropriate size for the horse. Remember, our gift to the horse is to relieve him of stress: his gift to us, if we allow it, is a lesson in communication, not only between man and horse but between man and man. The longer I am in the company of horses, the more I feel my ability to communicate with other humans improves, and the more I appreciate the need for respect, not to judge too easily, to be tolerant, to have compassion and acceptance. That is the horse’s gift to me, and hopefully to you as well.
So in the horse human relationship we must constantly do the things necessary for the horse to view us as his leader who is above him in the horse human hierarchy. It is in this stress- free state of mind that our horse will be a happy and willing partner!
(Click here for Tips on Establishing and Maintaining Leadership)
Developing Soft Feel with Rhythm and Relaxation: I said earlier that we get the horse to take the shapes we desire and place his feet by first softening his mind which flows through his body, down through his legs, then to his feet. Developing soft feel is an art that you will always be improving on. Probably the best analogy I can offer is a description of two great dance partners. They move as one because they are relaxed and move with rhythm. One directs the other in such a subtle fashion it’s almost with a mental direction with no physical direction apparent to the observer. Pulling on your horse or a dance partner only causes brace or a natural reaction to resist. Once our partner understands what we want, our ultimate goal is to think what we want first, then, if necessary, follow it with the lightest pressure necessary to get the response, then releasing that physical and mental pressure as quickly as possible.
(Click her for Tips on Soft Feel and Rhythm and Relaxation)
Our program places a lot of emphasis on becoming a good rider. Most people think riding a horse is simply cruising along as a passenger and not falling off. Unless you are willing to commit to becoming a true rider, you will not progress very far. When I use the term true rider, I am describing someone who is balanced in the saddle and has an independent seat. Again, Dr. Miller, and Rick Lamb give an excellent description of an independent seat:
“What is an Independent Seat? The seat in this discussion, is not only your buttocks but also your upper legs, the part of your body that presses continually against the saddle (or if riding bareback, the horse’s back). This is your greatest natural riding aid for the simple reason that it has the most contact with the horse. Your calf, your heel, your hands on the reins, these allow you to influence but a tiny fraction of the equine real estate that your seat can influence. And always bear in mind that the horse is capable of detecting the slightest sensation on his skin. If you look to the left or to the right, the horse feels the subtle change on your seat. If you shift your weight slightly forward or back, he feels it. If you sit taller in the saddle, or relax into a slouch, he feels it. He thus senses your intentions, your wishes for him, through your seat. These become part of the language of riding, and they can become so subtle that only the two of you know what is happening.
Now, what about the independent part of the independent seat? It means the rider’s seat becomes one with the horse and moves independent of the rest of the rider’s body. This is possible because of the design of the human skeletal system, and especially the pelvis.”
In our Journey Level One, following the groundwork exercises, we introduce developing an independent seat, with continued emphasis in Level Two. Riding well and developing an independent seat is another component of good horsemanship that you will strive to improve on every time you ride.
We describe the five body parts as the head, neck, shoulders, rib cage, and hindquarters. We start out doing exercises that soften the horses mind, then one body part at a time to take simple shapes. As we progress, we start getting more complex shapes by shaping more than one body part at a time. Then eventually, we can get more advanced shapes where we are able to control all five of these body parts independently. Thus, harmonizing the body parts. As we take our horse through the process of controlling these body parts we are also working on placing his feet. But until we can get him soft in his mind, through his body, and down to his legs, we will have difficulty controlling and placing his feet. Level One of our program starts with beginning shapes of the five body parts, advancing to more intermediate shapes in Level Two, and ending with advanced shapes in Level Three.
(Click here for Tips on Harmonizing the Five Body Parts)
Once we are beginning to get our horse to soften and to start shaping his five body parts, we get more particular on being able to place his feet. A horse that is stiff, resistant and bracey is one that is not soft in his mind or body, resulting in sticky feet. Good horsemanship means that you must first, know the footfalls of the horse’s gaits. Second, you must know where your horses feet are at all times. And third, you must be able to place the horses feet where you want them, timing it, so it is most efficient for the horse. In Level Two of our program we introduce and emphasize learning footfalls at the various gaits, then apply that knowledge to feel where our horses feet are at, and timing the movement of the feet. Eventually, even in simple maneuvers such as turning your horse, it will entail knowing where the feet are before asking for the turn.
(Click here for Tips on Softening the Horse’s Mind and Placing his Feet)
Any time our horse changes his gait or frame, he is performing a transition. Going from the walk to the jog for example is a transition. A more complex transition would be a lead depart from a standstill. An example of a frame transition would be asking the horse to change from a working jog to a free jog.
The goal for any transition is to make a smooth change of frame or gait without breaking rhythm. That may mean staying straight or remaining on a bend of a circle. Or it might mean doing a smooth lead depart from the jog.
Teaching transitions starts with our Groundwork lessons in Level One, and becomes more refined and smooth as we progress through the three Levels.
(Click here for Tips on Gait and Frame Transitions)
Just like the cruise control on your car where you set the speed and it maintains that speed until you hit the brake, touch the gas or turn off the cruise control, you need to develop the same feature in your horse. We start rating the speed on our horse on the ground using body language. Then in the saddle we start teaching him to rate his speed with our seat rather than pulling on his mouth. Eventually we want the horse listening to our seat, and staying at the same speed or tempo that we put him in until we tell him to do something different. It takes a lot of patience and consistency, but a horse that will rate off of your seat is well worth the effort you put into it.
(Click her for Tips on Cruise Control)
Walk into about any tack store and the number of different bits on the rack outnumbers about anything else in the store. Everybody seems to have opinions on bits and I guess I am no different. Unfortunately, most novice horse folks go through a bunch of different bits trying to control and stop their horse. Without success, they rationalize that their horse won’t stop and keeps throwing his head because he just doesn’t like a bit in his mouth. At that point they usually switch to a mechanical hackamore.
Many people think a spade bit is cruel and harsh, however in the right hands and with the right training on the horse, it is one of the least severe bits since the light hands of the rider send a signal to the horse, and there is no leverage created.
So it’s not really the bit that you choose, but more so, having an understanding of how to condition a horse to pack a certain bit, and the rider having the knowledge to handle the horse with soft hands. As a general rule we start horses with an O-Ring Snaffle, which is not a leverage bit, and use that bit for schooling our horses. We then go through a series of leverage bits that condition the horse to become softer, and facilitate one handed riding.
We will teach you our program on bits and how we condition the horse to accept and pack a high port leverage bit, and eventually be straight up in the bridle if that is your goal. We can also direct you to resources that can teach you Vaquero methods of getting a horse straight up in the bridle using a signal bit.
(Click here for Tips on Bit Transitions)