Ignorance is bliss.
There are many different “methods” available all over the world which claim to have the answer to all of your problems with horses. If you have learnt to be an open-minded individual, or are trying very hard to be (it is tricky!), then you have likely come across a variety of these “methods” or “movements”. For the moment, we will not discuss any method in particular, but rather shift our focus completely to how the horse possibly feels about our “methods”. We have established that a horse is a herd animal. We realize that they are prey and that they have blind spots etc. We should also be aware of how they communicate by now, what brings them comfort and what makes them feel insecure, distressed or unsafe. What we often miss in our daily interactions with horses is just how acutely aware they are…of everything.
Often when learning something new (especially lateral work), I see riders stiffen, squeeze hard with their legs to invoke a reaction, leaning inevitably to the side they are kicking on as their muscles desperately compress in search of this “lightness” the instructor keeps referring to. Throughout all of this, you will hear most instructors calling: “more outside rein. Sit up! Leg on. Don’t look down. Flexion, flexion!” This happens to me too! We want to do everything. Now. What does this feel like to the horse? What is going through their mind? “Okay, leg means off, but hands are stiff, so maybe I should slow down. Wait, there’s more leg, but if that butt cheek is here, perhaps it means…oh dear, not that either. Uhm. I feel like we’re going to fall over. I should probably help my rider by…nope, guess not. Ah! Leg! So much leg! Why all the shouting? I’m trying my best, but I don’t get what you’re saying!” Sometimes, after all of those many questions, the horse just says: “I give up.” The question the rider is asking should be simple for the horse (who can feel a fly on their side…let that sink in) to understand, but instead we end up making everything very complicated and they must just figure it out.
The same seems to happen in ground work. Humans are by nature loud and unconscious of our bodily movements and gestures. If we actually watched ourselves through the eyes of a horse, we would be pretty damn ridiculous. Horses are clever enough to not only allow us to teach them our language, but they also have the grace and patience to ignore the gestures that, in Equine language, would be considered quite blunt or rude. In short, they understand despite us. My goal as a trainer is to always seek the form of communication that is easiest for the horse to understand. The first tool that always needs tweaking is the handler (ie. me). Secondly, I want to seek to better myself to the extent that my conversation with the horse becomes imperceivable to the onlooker. In order to do this, I had to realize that I was LOUD. My gestures, voice, movements, everything was shouting at the horse despite my best efforts. It took the guidance of Sandy Biggs at my first Xenophon Equestrian Centre Connection Clinic with my sensitive mare, Fine Pearl, to realize just how loud I was being. I will never forget the moment – I had brought Pearl to the clinic because although my mare was very compliant, I felt like the conversation was very one-sided and I needed to find a way to allow my mare to have a voice. Well, the first session I did with Pearl in the beautiful indoor arena, she told me just how she felt about my loud “voice” by kicking right at my face. If it weren’t for my numerous viewings of The Matrix, I might have had a horseshoe-shaped art piece on my face for the duration of the clinic. Sandy, in all her wisdom, giggled and said: “well, you wanted a voice!” …and just like that I re-discovered the importance of self-awareness in training.
What this has meant for me, though, is that I am acutely aware of the horse’s opinion in every conversation they have with their human. I have always been interested in this topic, annoying my yard manager to no end I’m sure, as a bright-eyed 12 year-old girl learning to ride. I used to insist on riding every horse I rode at the riding school in a snaffle, because I had read that they were gentler than the pelhams and gags some of the school horses were ridden in. This after only having done lessons for about six months. My instructor and the yard owner must have really trusted me, or held tightly to my parents’ signed indemnity forms, because they allowed me to do all these changes. I did so, without fail, by arriving early for every lesson (“as long as you don’t hold up any of the other riders” Claire would sternly say, although I could hear the softness in her voice as she couldn’t resist my budding passion for horses) and making sure that bits, bridles and martingales (sometimes saddles as well if I wanted a bareback lesson) were properly back in place before the horses’ break was over. This is also how I learnt to be meticulous with the fit of tack, its repair and upkeep, and it is possibly why I have become such a hard-ass (I said it. My riders can all breathe easy now.) about the comfort of the horse when tacking up. So while I was starting out, the only way I could think of making the school ponies’ lives easier (although the ponies were incredibly well cared for and I still respect and admire this yard owner very much to this day), was by riding with less equipment. By some miracle, I managed to ride each and every horse like this without exception and they were all much more willing and relaxed. Of course the equipment was not practical for a variety of riders, as we are all different, but this is a debate for another time.
As my riding career continued, I learnt about various “methods” of working with horses and of course applied them, always with the best of intentions. If I look back at some of the methods I followed then, I must admit that I cringe inwardly. After I cringe, I laugh nervously and thank those horses who put up with my brazen efforts at “understanding horses”. Identifying unhappy or shut-down horses is easy. Giving people the confidence to notice, but also step in to change this, is very, very tricky. If something feels like it’s working, we often prefer to stick to it – until we are shown that there can be more to the partnership than what we’re experiencing. By “more” of course, I mean the ability to do less and yet still receive “more” in terms of reciprocation from the horse. I will use Charlie Brown as an example. Charlie and I have known each other for almost 10 years now. Charlie was dull, bored with life and “hated jumping”. I spent my first 4 years with Charlie trying to get him to just move into a contact and stretch his frame. I also enjoyed jumping, so damnit, he would have to enjoy jumping! 😉
Fast forward to the present. I had learnt a bit more and my goals had changed. Charlie arrived with me and I had no expectations of him – there was no pressure. I appreciate who he is, the mistakes I’ve made in terms of training him and the relationship we’ve built despite me. I understand where his fears are rooted, but he also knows that I am his comfort. He is not the most herd-bound horse, so is independent and opinionated. He does not fight with others, but doesn’t need them either. He has become proud. He knows who he is. What I am finding now, is that the older he gets, the more he wants to please me (with exceptions of course). We have found a certain joy and contentment in each others’ company which is sometimes thrilling and sometimes just like home. He does whatever I want to the best of his ability and I try to the best of my ability to listen when he has something to say – to check if he is testing me or if there truly was a better way for me to ask the question. It has become a mind journey, so much more than a play of physical force. The quieter I am, the more he can speak into the silence…and that is like walking towards the light at the end of a very gray-scale tunnel.