We spend a lot of our time saying yes to people. Agreeing with them and seeking common direction. We are social by nature and we want to be able to get along and accommodate one another. So wherever possible we seek agreement, we offer to do things with and for one another and we co-operate. As a species this is one of our best qualities.
It has an outcome that affects our relationship with our horses, though – being inclined to agree and get along with one another means that most of us find it quite hard to disagree, it feels like a confrontational thing to do. Who wants to feel like a negative person?
But our horses really need us to be able to say no. They need our relationship to be absolutely black and white, with total clarity about every line and boundary. Most of the way they learn from us will be when they ask us “can I do this?” In many cases we will answer “no.” They need us to be able to do that consistently, clearly and calmly.
That does not mean that we don’t ask them in the way that helps as much as possible, but if a horse has much desire to find the right answer, they will start trying things and until they hit on the right thing, we have to keep saying “no.” As soon as they hit on the right thing, or on something that we can shape towards the right thing, then we can give them a really clear “yes” and reward them with a break and scratches or whatever other rewards we want to give our horses. But without “no” that “yes” doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning – as Martin Blackis fond of saying, “it takes pressure for relief to be effective, it takes relief for pressure to be effective.” Horses want a clear, black and white, communication. Grey areas mean uncertainty and uncertainty is frightening to them. “No” is the way we can guide our horse to “yes.”
Horses also need that consistency from us – every time we interact with them, they will always keep asking “has this rule changed” and all they really want is for us to give them a reassuring “no.”
The clinics I have taken part in this summer have really given me an appreciation for how far I have come on this path and also for how far I still have to go before I get anywhere close to where I want to be. Thinking about the things I have learned, it occurred to me that I could probably put together a simple list of things that I had to change to become the horseman I am now and write a little bit about each one in the hope they might help other people on a similar path. Unfortunately I am physically incapable of writing a little bit of anything, so each point ended up as a post in its own right, but I’ll put the list here and link each point as I add them.
The ten essential lessons I have learned so far, are these:
Don’t change the question because you haven’t got the right answer yet.
Don’t be afraid to experiment – find what works.
You can always do less, you can always get more
As you have doubtless noticed, not all of these posts have been published – that is partly because I was too busy to update for a while, but more recently they moved to Horsemanship Magazine where you can find updated versions of the whole series between issues 101 and 111. The magazine represents extraordinary value and I strongly recommend subscribing!
There are tools I always use – rope halters with a spliced 12′ line – and tools I sometimes use such as flags, training sticks, dressage whips, crops or lariats. These aren’t things I use every day, but I find it very useful to keep them in the toolbox.
At various stages in my development as a horseman I have needed these things. I simply couldn’t get whatever I was working on at the time to work without them. That still happens – sometimes with a new horse I will use a flag to amplify the energy I am producing so the horse I am working with can figure out it would be useful for them to tune into me. I suspect that part of the reason that Mark doesn’t need tools like that is that he has so much more control over his energy and intent that he can get by on those alone, and it is my intention to be the same one day. I remember watching Steve Halfpenny demonstrate something and then drop the training stick and say “I need you to see that this is coming from me and not the tools” – it is really easy for us, as we learn, to see someone using a tool and assume that the tool is how they are achieving their goal. Whenever I am using a training tool of some kind, I am trying to see ways to avoid needing it next time around, learning to let go of them is part of the process of refinement.
In the opposite direction, I will often suggest my students try using a particular tool because they haven’t yet got the level of refinement that I have and I’m not a good enough teacher to pass on my expertise immediately. I want people I am helping to be able to feel what it is like when something is working correctly. Once they have that feeling we can begin working on using the tools less, until we are working from feel alone, but a lot of the time if we don’t start with something to make up for that lack of refinement, it makes their job harder. I always try to make the point that the training tool is Plan B and that once we get everything working according to Plan A we should be able to dispense with it altogether. Training tools are typically a physical solution to a communication problem and those are somewhat different domains, so they are seldom the best fit if you are interested in getting to how your horse feels.
As for me, although I do still go back to that toolbox, it feels as though the more I do, the less necessary it becomes. These days I don’t mind going back to things that I have used in the past because it happens increasingly infrequently. I think of it as something like the progress to recovery after a broken leg- you might start out needing a wheelchair, then crutches, then maybe a stick and later you only need the stick occasionally, but you need all those things until you get to where you can walk unassisted and if you need to use one of them again for some reason, there is no shame in that. You just can’t let yourself become dependent on it.
At the start of the summer I bought a new horse- Iris is a beautiful grey mare with a bit of dressage in her parentage and a genuinely wonderful nature. She didn’t have much experience, which was good news from my perspective because it is often easier to build training from the ground up, so for most of the summer we have been working on our schooling and learning to understand one another. By the end of the summer I felt she was ready to start going out on the trail and we also made our way to our first horsemanship clinic.
One thing that both of these activities have in common is that they took Iris a long way out of her comfort zone – on the trail she is away from her usual home and her known space, at the clinic we had to pass terrifying donkeys of doom ( no, I’m not really sure what they had said to upset her ) then work in a large indoor arena with ten other horses cantering around.
What I noticed as we worked in these environments was that when I felt Iris’ anxiety pick up, I was taking control more, shortening my reins a little and directing her feet to make it clear where I wanted her to be going. As my horse got more anxious, I would be working harder to direct her and sooner or later we’d get into a dispute about where we should be going and whether or not we were in imminent danger.
During the clinic, Martin talked about how he uses the rein; always keeping in mind his goal of having a light, soft, riding horse he will ride on a long rein, ask with a subtle cue and then back that up with a firm bump and release if the horse chooses to ignore the initial ask. That is essentially the whole process he uses, he never tries to hold the horse in position and he doesn’t pull on the rein, he just teaches them to carry themselves the way he wants them to be going on a soft rein, so he can keep a hand free for roping or working other horses.
As I worked on developing this type of feel I found that all our work got much easier and that Iris was less emotional in situations that had bothered her before. I realised that when I was picking up the rein as she got more concerned I was actually trying to pre-empt something which wasn’t actually happening, but my expectations were making her think that there was something up, resulting in me creating exactly the kind of problems I wanted to prevent. The whole thing was like the plot of a complicated time travel story.
The outcome has been that since the clinic I have concentrated really hard on not picking up the rein until something has actually happened. If I see something that I think my horse might worry about, I get ready to respond if I need to, but I don’t actually do anything – except maybe to rub on her – and I keep the reins long.
This is difficult for me- I like to feel I am in control – but it turns out that when I stop trying to take over every time I imagine something that might bother my horse, I very rarely need to take over at all. Iris is very green as a trail horse, but she has a great heart and a steady nature so although we do have the odd spook and sometimes she does decide that it might be time to go for an unrequested trot, she comes back to me beautifully when I do pick up the rein.
It is almost as though the more I trust her to do the right thing, the easier it is for her to trust me.
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.
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.
This is a very tricky question for anybody starting out with horses- how to find a good professional to learn from. In fact finding a good professional in any equestrian field is exceeding challenging – evaluating a farrier, dentist or chiropractor is likewise a very tricky problem – but I’m going to focus on teaching for now and perhaps try to touch on some general rules that can be applied in other cases.
When you are first looking to learn to ride or to learn how to improve the connection between you and your horse the real problem you will run into is that of what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “Unknown unknowns” – the things that you don’t know that you don’t know. Until you have learned enough to evaluate how a trainer keeps, rides and handles their horses, it is very hard to be sure that they are a good person to ride with.
So how can you judge? I don’t have a definitive answer, but the starting point is to decide what you want. Do you want to learn the basics of how to ride, how to handle and understand horses or to improve in a particular discipline? A lot of people who teach will tend to specialise in one or another of these areas rather than covering all of them. Dressage is more or less universal- the basics of Dressage are the foundation for all types of riding – but a competetive Dressage instructor may not necessarily be the best person to begin learning with.
I am of the opinion that you can’t learn very much that is useful in terms of riding or horsemanship technique from a book until you are already working at a fairly advanced level, but what you can learn from watching and reading is what a horse looks like when they are working correctly and happily. If you want to identify a horse working correctly you could take a look at the work of people like Gerd Heuschmann and Dr Deb Bennett. There are some fairly clear biomechanical principles involved in a horse carrying a rider and they are something you can learn about and learn to see in people’s riding. In terms of identifying if a horse is happy in their work, there can be a lot of differences in opinion regarding that, but I look for an appearance of softness and physical relaxation combined with attentiveness to the rider’s cues. Ross Jacobs writes a lot about this on his blog, often posting video clips of what he considers to be particularly good or bad examples. Spending some time to learn about both of these things will be very useful when you want to evaluate potential teachers.
When it comes to actually finding someone, recommendation is a good starting point, especially from people you know whose riding you admire. Not everyone has lessons, of course, but people with experience will often know which instructors they rate even if they aren’t currently learning. If you don’t feel anyone around you exemplifies the way you want to ride then you might choose to look for people who come from a particular approach that is interesting to you- there are various organisations dedicated to teaching riding and horsemanship around and most of them have some very good instructors, although very few have only good instructors. If there isn’t anyone in your area, you could always ask the nearest person you can find anyway- sometimes people are willing to travel or are travelling anyway, other times they may be able to recommend someone closer to you.
When you have identified a potential instructor, the next thing to do is to make sure they are a good teacher for you and will be able to teach you what you want to learn. That might seem a little obvious, but not every teacher suits every student. You may be able to judge that just from a phone call, but most teachers should be happy for you to watch a lesson if you want to so you can decide for yourself what you think of their way of working. If you are happy with how the horses they are teaching with respond to them and that they are teaching what you want to learn then you’ve found yourself a great opportunity. If not, you haven’t wasted their time or yours on lessons that don’t suit you.
A few more points that don’t quite fit into a structure but I think are worth being aware of:
If you are starting to learn to ride, nothing will be better for you than lunge lessons. Find an instructor that can offer them.
A good teacher can always explain what they are doing and why. Never be afraid to ask if there is something you don’t understand and to keep asking until you do understand- that is what you are paying them for.
If you are riding your own horse and an instructor suggests that you do something that you are not happy with don’t be afraid to say no. It is your horse, and your lesson. A good instructor should be able to explain why they they are suggesting what they suggest and if you are not happy with it just ask whether there is another way that you could get that result.
In the UK there are two main riding instructor qualification organisations, the BHS and the ABRS. The structure of their examinations and the approach they take to teaching means that in my opinion an ABRS qualified instructor will have a more solid grounding, although there are fewer of them.
If you are in doubt about anything, just ask. You are there to learn and anyone interested in teaching is always much happier to be bombarded with questions than to be left wondering whether their student is understanding what they are trying to teach.
Every lesson should show some kind of clear improvement. If you are continuing to have lessons but you don’t feel that you are improving then at the very least you need to talk with your instructor about that. Sometimes this is a mark of you having outgrown what someone can teach you or needing to take a break and just let it soak in a little. Other times you might just need your instructor to change their strategy a little.
Of course ( ahem ) if you’re interested in learning about horsemanship and developing softness, lightness and communication, and you’re based here in the South East, it would be remiss of me not to point out that I have a contact page. I may not be a professional but I have spent a lot of time working on this and I have learned enough that I can usefully share.