Turns out you were doing Natural Horsemanship already

No matter what you do with your horses, what tradition you belong to and what techniques you use, there is a factor in your riding, training and handling that you share with all the rest of us, something more consistent than the teaching of any style or discipline: We are all working with horses.

Every horse is a unique individual, just like each of us is, but in general they have a lot in common with regard to how they think and behave. A consequence of that is that some techniques just work better than others and those techniques are things that some people will have learned totally independently of their discipline. Partly this will be things that different people found effective at different times, often it will be a technique or idea that has been passed on into different areas of horsemanship because it works well and a smart horseman tends to be aware of what others outside their own discipline are doing.

When I am talking about riding or training, often the person I am talking to will have exactly the same view as me about a lot of topics. For example if I am talking about schooling exercises, you won’t find a lot of things that I recommend that a dressage rider would disagree with. In fact I don’t think that many riders of any discipline would find a lot to disagree with in Podhajsky’s The Complete Training Of Horse And Rider.

The most important things from a horse’s point of view- clarity, consistency and being understandable are not the preserve of any particular style or discipline. Most successful equestrians understand their importance and have those at the foundation of how they work their horses. Consistency is particularly important because as long as your cues are applied absolutely consistently then it doesn’t matter what the cue is. If I asked for a transition by blowing my nose, as long as I did it every time and rewarded whenever the horse got it right, they would figure out that this was the cue I was using and start to follow it consistently. There is nothing natural in a horse that says squeezing them with your legs means go forward- everything about being a riding horse is learned and consistency is an essential part of learning for all of us.

Walking up a field with a half Cleveland Bay mare.

By working with the details of this mare's behaviour I was able to make quick progress in changing her mind about being lead away from her friends.

In spite of this, what I do when I work a horse is different from most other equestrians here in the UK. It’s not that I am using unique and special techniques, but because of the things I choose from the huge selection of methods available to me and because of what I am looking for in the work that I do.  There is an old quote that may come from Ronnie Willis ( if you know the actual attribution please tell me ) which says “there may be a hundred ways to get something done with a horse but only five of them are offering the horse the best deal.” Learning to recognise when you are offering the horse a good deal, how they feel about what you are presenting to them and when they are getting ready to respond is part of the ongoing process of learning to be a horseman. In fact a lot of what I do is very traditional, but it belongs more to the buckaroo tradition of the western US, as filtered through the work of trainers like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, rather than to the European traditions that are more familiar to most riders here in Britain.

There are philosophical differences too – for example, I know people who are excellent riders – far better than me – and yet whose horses are hard to be around on the ground because the rider doesn’t consider that to be particularly important. They’re happy with how that works out, it’s just that to them riding and handling the horse on the ground are completely separate things. Yet it seems to me that they are absolutely connected – when I do groundwork I am usually trying to ride the horse from the ground, to work in a way that is exactly equivalent to what I will do in the saddle. I’m sure that my horse makes that connection as well.

Whenever I’m riding or doing groundwork I am paying close attention to the details of what the horse is doing as those tend to indicate to me where their mind is at, what they find easy and what they need more help with.  I’m looking for the subtle ways that they test whether I am really in control of the situation or whether they need to take over and if I can answer all those questions to their satisfaction it will make everything we do together so much easier both for me and for the horses I ride. Those details are available to everyone – anybody who watches a horse walk by will see exactly the same things that I am seeing – and the people who pay attention to them and use them as a guide for working their horse do not come from any particular style, discipline or tradition, they’re just people who understand horses.

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