If a horse is started well, he or she is given the best chance at a long, fair, healthy life. Horses that are fun to be around get attention. Horses that are fun to ride get ridden. Horses that enjoy their job are fun. Horses that are easy to care for are more likely to have their needs met.
For example, a horse that stands quietly to have its feet trimmed will be more likely to receive regular hoof care. Horses that are difficult to be around are more likely to be neglected. The vicious cycle of neglect, discomfort, reactivity, and finally, often, abuse can often start with a lack of what we call training. Typically, this begins with a failure to communicate.
Like so much in life, horsemanship boils down to clear communication. Starting a horse correctly provides him or her with the advantage of clear understanding of what is expected. The well started horse is responsive to and respectful of their rider, and is safe and ready for further refinement. It allows the rider to use correct and subtle aids.
With a good, solid foundation, all future training will be easier, faster, and gentler. Without a good start, a horse goes through life with baggage that keeps him or her from being as happy, comfortable, and useful as possible.
We communicate with our horses with combinations of cues from our seat, hands, legs, and voice. It is our responsibility to ensure that each cue is clear and that our horses understand what they are being asked to do. Many people assume that their horse “knows he’s been bad” or is “just being stubborn”, when, in fact, the horse is confused, or frightened, and doing what seems necessary to feel safe. One of my mentors once told me: “If they can do it, they will do it.”
It is the responsibility of the rider or handler to earn the horse’s trust, to clearly explain to the horse what he needs to do, and to consider why he or she might be unable to do it. The human may need to re-examine their presentation and adjust to fit the horse to be successful. This can mean using a new approach, changing equipment, or addressing physical issues in order to fix the problem. If a horse fails to perform as a result of confusion or a physical inability, punishment will not cause him to correct himself, and it can compromise his trust in people, and his desire to try for us.
Horses amaze me not only with their athletic capabilities, but in their sensitivity and willingness to do our bidding. When I start a young horse, or meet a horse that has “issues”, the first step that must be taken is to gain the animal’s trust. I want the horse to have confidence in me, to feel confident and safe when he or she is with me. This is what I mean when I say 'trust', this sense of security. I want the horses to 'look me up' when they are needing support. I certainly don't want them thinking that they need to look for safety somewhere else.
"You just gotta show him who's boss." These infamous words from so many so-called trainers and others in the horse business have doomed many a horse to a life of kicking and pulling. No wonder so many horses can seem so unwilling. Until there is comprehension of a request, the horse cannot perform as expected.
Some individuals require more of my time and effort than others before learning can progress, but it is imperative that a horse be allowed the time he needs to trust his handler before asking more of him. I want a horse to choose to try to do what I am asking of him. Since their natural instincts cause them to panic and flee when they are frightened, we don't want to challenge them to the point that they are stressed, if we can help it. We want to develop their natural curiosity and keep them engaged and encouraged so that they can learn easily.
To earn a horse’s trust, I will practice good relationship skills, being clear and predictable, so that a horse can understand me. I intend to earn the respectful relationship I have with the horse by clearly demonstrating that I am fair, I am kind, I am confident, and I will not put the horse in a compromising situation. I use clear, repetitive, consistent cues to ask the horse for simple movements; stop, go, turn, and yield. If my horse has confidence in my ability to keep him safe, than he or she will be willing do anything I ask, provided that I am understood. It is my responsibility to be sure that I am understood, and ultimately, to help you be understood by your horse.
Horses are very emotional animals, and they rely very heavily on their family. It's true that in a natural herd setting, there is a lead stallion, the one that drives the others away from danger or an imposing rival stallion. But the herd is a complex social organization, and there are other important relationships between the individual horses. There is also a lead mare, which the others trust to keep them safe and lead them from potential dangers, and into safe places.
Because of the social make up of their herd, horses crave quality relationships. It is our responsibility, as their caretakers, to learn how to express confidence and reliability in a way that makes sense to the horse. Learning how to be kind, firm, fair, and trustworthy require an understanding of the body language that horses use, 'feel', and a sense of timing.
All of the horses are aware of their surroundings, and alert their herd to anything unusual. But they need a member of their family to assume leadership for them to feel safe, or their natural instincts will cause them to be 'on guard', and more alert and reactive to their surroundings. A horse that does not feel secure abdicating these responsibilities to their handler is not going to be safe for the average person to work with, because their naturally reactive behavior will be difficult to control. We need for our horses to feel safe with us so that they can relax their instinctive 'fight or flight' behaviors, and be receptive to listening and learning. As they relax, their posture will also change, allowing them to perform as we need them to.
Often, when a horse seems belligerent, it is unable to do what is asked because of miscommunication or because of pain or another physical limitation. Since they aren't really verbal, horses have limited means of communication, so it's up to us to find other methods, like body language, and to listen to what the horse is trying to 'say' without words. People can exert the most influence on horses by learning about the intricacies of horse language and behavior and using this knowledge to our benefit.
It is much easier for a human to learn to speak horse than for a horse to learn English. We have to use what we know about horses and how they communicate to help explain ourselves, so we can begin to ask him to respond to our invented language. It is up to us to translate our requests in such a way that our horses can understand them. It’s also our responsibility to get qualified help from veterinarians and other experts in assessing our horses’ physical limitations.
This is not to say that in order to ride a horse we must be perfect riders. Most horses are amazingly generous and forgiving of our mistakes, and the only way to learn to ride is to do it. It is important to remember that some individuals are more effective teachers, be they horse or human, and to find encouraging relationships that foster success.
I have found that the many skilled practitioners of equine massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, and other bodywork can, along with addressing physical problems, help establish trust in a horse. There is nothing to promote trust like making someone feel good! Attending to a horse’s physical needs is a wonderful way to improve your relationship. As another well-known trainer has said, “Horses enjoy us because we have fingers.” Many of the clinicians I have learned from have shown me myriad ways to touch my horses. Taking time to develop a relationship with your horse through touch will always be beneficial, and the relationships you establish will be superior to those based on bribery with food.
Different riders have different goals, so it is important that the motivation for the horse and rider be understood. It is a rider’s responsibility to ensure that we are matched with a suitable horse, and to seek out an education that works for us. Asking a horse to do something that he is physically, mentally, or emotionally unprepared to do is unfair.
It often seems that riders are unaware of their horses potential and requirements. A quality horseman can help assess whether a horse and rider are an appropriate match, and to suggest realistic goals for both to achieve. Part of my job is to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as my clients’ ambitions, and to be able to refer them on as necessary. Some young horses exhibit competitive potential after their first few months of training. I can help place young horses with accomplished trainers that will showcase their talents, as well as recommend bodyworkers who can heal a horse so that he will benefit from further training. There are so many variables in horsemanship, and horses are such wonderfully capable athletes, that I would not want to impose limits on anyone. With all that I have to offer, there is much to learn from so many others as well.
I can confidently say that the horses I turn out are consistently appreciated by novice and professional horsemen for being level-headed, responsive, balanced, compliant, and happy to go to work. I can also help you learn to keep them that way.
Thanks for reading all these words. If I’m awake, I’m out on a horse, and I‘d love to share my enthusiasm and experience with you!