True Horsemanship

A few days ago I received an invitation for a weekend course in natural horsemanship. Title: “Be a leader for your horse”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Don’t we all want to be leaders for our horses? It has an air of success about it, seems to be the solution for all the problems we’re having around our horses. The course leaflet showed photographs of a Polish horseman, cowboy hat and all, in different situations with a black horse: loading it, covering it with a blue plastic canvas, leading it around a paddock. The horse closing its eyes while he pats it. Sigh.

This leaflet made me think a lot. I really don’t want to be a leader for my horse, not in the sense that is promoted in most of these horsemanship courses. Usually, they teach you that you need to be the ‘alpha’, the horse in the herd that is highest in rank, the boss, if you wish. It is assumed that the entire herd follows this alpha and respects every decision without questioning. The conclusion is that we need to be this alpha horse in order to be a good horseman (and -woman).

If you believe horse ethologists such as Marlitt Wendt from Germany, however, this assumption does not relate to reality. First, there is no such thing as the typical herd; second, there is no linear pecking order, and yet another thing, and maybe the most important, is, that horses don’t see us as horses. But that’s a really big topic and I might write about it in a later post.

To come back to our horsemanship course: this ‘becoming a leader’ usually involves chasing your horse around in a round pen until it is tired and comes to you when you stop chasing it. What else should it do, it can’t get away. Then you start wrapping it in all kinds of things, lead it around, send it backwards if it comes to close to you. It needs to learn to respect you. But: I really don’t think that problems between horses and human come from a lack of respect. I agree very much with Mark Rashid: “It might be helpful for us to understand that horse behavior that some people might refer to as “disrespectful” can always be traced back to one of two sources. Either the horse doesn’t understand what is expected of them, or they are simply replicating behavior that was taught to them in the past by a human. In either case, “respect”, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with it.” (quote from his facebook page)

So if it is not about showing your horse, during a weekend course, that it needs to respect you, then what is it about? I would like to try an answer that is based on the observation of our Ukrainian grooms, Iwan and Lubomir.

Since I moved Nazir to his current stable, Olender, I was impressed by how calmly these two man handle the horses. I never heard them scream and never saw them acting violent in any way. No backing up, no hitting, no swinging ropes, no pulling head-collars. They lead the horses to the paddocks, only the very end of the rope in hand, with the same calmness day in, day out. If a horse makes a fuss, they say a few kind words, which is usually works. If a horse escapes, they just go catch it again and bring it back where it should be. Some of the new horses that we got this winter where a bit nervous at first and were not so easy to turn out. All of them quieted down after a few days with our guys.

summer time  to the paddock

Iwan and Lubomir are around the horses the entire day. They feed them in the morning, turn them out, bring them back in, feed them, turn them out, back in, feed them. All in all, they feed them six times a day, three times hay and three times oats. They put blankets on them, nurse wounds, apply ointments. They clean their boxes of manure, help the vet and the blacksmith. They constantly repair the fences, as biting wood has top priority on the horse’s to-do list.

at work3  at workat work2  at work4

The guys don’t expect anything from the horses. They are patient and never act in an unexpected way. Besides, I think they just really like the horses. Quite often, I see them stop a horse’s box and pat a neck or scratch a nose.

to the paddock4  to the paddock5

Now let’s look at me. I come to the stable because I want to ride my horse, that is to say, I have a lot of expectations. I want him to learn this, to stop doing that. I can’t come every day, of course, and sometimes I’m away and can’t see him for a week or two. I’m trying to find a good ‘method’ of how to teach him, which means that I’m changing the way I handle him from time to time. Sometimes I’m in a hurry and I’m not particularly tolerant of his ideas of what could be fun to do (like knocking over my grooming kit). I have a few carrots for him and a treat once in a while. Looks like I don’t have so much to offer in comparison.

About three weeks ago I thought it was a good idea to lunge Nazir in the big outdoor arena. The snow was finally gone, Nazir was quite antsy and I wanted to give him some exercise. It started out quite nicely, and then there was a dog in the bushes. Since Nazir can sometimes be afraid of dogs, he took to his heels (hm, hooves) and galloped himself into a frenzy (with me still on the other end of the lunge line, trying to hold on). As soon as I could calm him down, I took the lunge line off, and there he went again, racing around the arena. I thought he would jump the fence. The dog was still there all this time, barking, and it didn’t seem like he wanted to go home. It was getting dark. I had no idea of how to get my panicky horse back to the stable. Luckily I had my phone with me and I called Lubomir. When he appeared at the fence, Nazir went straight up to him, let him put the head-collar on, and walked to the stable with him, all wet and breathing heavily. He tried to break loose a few times, the adrenalin still in his blood. Lubomir talked quietly to him and just walked on. After a few minutes, Nazir followed Lubomir to the stable, head down. It was obvious that he really trusts him.

I was quite sad at first, that ‘my’ horse went with him so easily, without looking back at me. And yet, it was a big teaching. I cannot earn the trust of my horse with any fancy horsemanship fuss. I need to prove to him, again and again, that I’m trustworthy. That I make smart decisions, that I listen to him, that he can rely on me. Although me and Nazir usually get along very well, this extreme situation showed me that there is room for improvement, to put it nicely.

What Iwan and Lubomir are doing is true horsemanship to me and I think I can learn a lot from them. Something tells me that this will take longer than a weekend.

Nazir  sunset


7 Comments on “True Horsemanship

  1. Thank you for sharing your adventure, I enjoyed reading about you and Nazir. Mark Rashid is a good teacher and talks about the second herd leader, the compassionate herd leader which works for me since I ride extreme trails bitless and in an English saddle as One with my horse. What I have discovered is horses are genetically wired to require a herd leader at all times, even in your herd of two, you and your horse, and it is simple as “he who moves the other’s feet first is in control”, but I agree with you no need to exhaust in a round pen scaring the horse, that’s ridiculous. I want my horse to trust me as a competent compassionate leader since that’s their DNA. I invoke the horse’s natural instinct to recognize me as their herd leader by a simple wholistic joining that does not run the horse in circles, but instead moves their feet from time to time (I have a video on Wholistic Joining on YouTube and my website). Working with their genetic make-up, their DNA brings a horse into calm loving trust. As you say horses are our mirror and what a lovely journey they provide the reflection that brings us deeper into our knowing of ourselves and who we truly are on this planet. They are a gift.

    • Thanks very much, I’ll go check out your videos. I think the type of leadership that Mark Rashid talks about takes a while to develop, first within yourself, and then with every horse that you’re around. Sometimes I think that’s it’s also more about company than leadership, about ‘let’s do things together”. Or ‘together is always better’. Today me and my friend went for a warm-up ride around the stable, something we couldn’t do during the winter due to the mountains of snow. Neither horse was very brave. But together they felt a lot more secure. Sometimes one of the stable’s dogs comes with me and leads the way, then the horse is also thankful for this company, and I don’t think you can say this dog and my horse have a relationship based on one leading the other. Anyhow, thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to read, I’ll be sure to watch your videos, it’s always good to learn some more 🙂

  2. hello! I found your blog thanks to a tag search, and I found this post really interesting – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been riding for over 20 years (eek!) and yet still haven’t managed to get my own horse (one day!). I’ve recently become more focused on natural horsemanship techniques, and am learning a huge amount (every day is a learning day with horses, but in terms of riding I learn little things these days, whereas with horsemanship, I’m learning big things).

    One of the key things I’ve learned is that I need to ask more questions of myself and be more imaginative, rather than relying on one way of doing things. The way we’re classically taught to ride is based on a very limited set of options – we aren’t taught to think. What I’ve found about NH is that it’s partly about encouraging the horse to be confident and independent, but also encouraging the horseperson to be more independent too. Your tried and tested method has failed today? Okay, try something else. What’s the worst that will happen? True, if you do something silly or dangerous, you might get hurt. So start small. It’s about scales and pressure with horses, you shouldn’t leap from zero to swinging a rope wildly (the equivalent of beating them with a stick or spurs) – they’ll get confused and scared, because the reason they didn’t do what you wanted in the first place was that they didn’t understand you (as the Parelli quote goes, “you either asked the question wrong, or asked the wrong question”).

    Leading the horses as you described these guys doing is key – the horse and you have your own space, and now that I’ve thought more and more about it, that element in particular makes so much sense. I think you’re right that these guys have a natural affinity and way – they may not have certificates or be able to scientifically explain what they do and why, but intuition, trust and feel are all just as important. Good luck 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment Becky! Working with horses is a big adventure for me, and I’m glad that you seem to think the same. The “traditional” way of leaning how to ride, the way I learned it in my childhood, is not meant to teach you independent thinking, I think you’re right on that one. You do what the instructor says, no matter how you feel about it. As I got older, I started to refuse to do what I was told, I changed stables, looked for a good trainer that also had a heart for the horses as living beings and didn’t see them as sports equipment. I guess it’s easier to find a good trainer if you have lots of money to spend. Trial and error is a lot slower, but at least you can be confident about what you have learned. Good luck with getting your own horse one day 🙂 Bee

  3. I found your blog today, and feel a strong kinship with the way you view your relationship with your horses.

    I have been riding someone else’s horses for nearly a decade now. I was fortunate to have had a few years of good classical dressage instruction, and 2 incredible schoolmasters with polar opposite personalities. I’m just an amateur rider with a deep love for animals, and this incurable fascination with animal minds.

    When people are frustrated, they often just want the magic pill, the cure. Because by the time they reach out for help, the problem has become long standing and stubborn. So surely there must be one method that works on everyone, right? That maybe equipment is needed, or some sort of new way of handling them. Surely there is a quick fix, and the horse will understand, right?

    But horses, like people, are such individuals. I currently ride 3 horses regularly, and they all need simple balancing and strengthening exercises, plus reinforcing good manners. I mostly walk/trot in straight lines and circles, over and over, with a little bit of canter thrown in. On paper, my rides sounds the same; each horse’s planned workout is the mostly the same.

    But from the moment I approach each horse, how we interact on the ground, how I ride in the saddle–these are 3 different little universes that I occupy. They all react differently to everything. The only time period that feels more the same is after each ride, after the horse has released some energy and is relaxed, I rub their faces and their backs and we are all happy. We are usually happy, because I make sure we end happy. If they are supposed to go back to the stall, I’ll hand walk them out to grab a few mouthfuls of grass. Or we saunter over to the pasture and I release them, and relish those moments while they linger in front of me before they suddenly recall that their friends are in the far corner.

    All three of these horses have physical and/or behavioral issues. The owners are very busy are do not work them regularly, and I was unable to ride for half a year (broken leg), and before then I was only riding one of these horses. They have called in trainers, they tried this and that. They mean well, they are very good people, but all these horses really need is consistent work. That once they trust and accept you, they try to partner up with you. And working with a partner is completely different; it feels like communication is going in both directions.

    The whole “alpha leadership” seems to me like trying to control your horse without really listening to him. Which is a shame, because they talk a lot. And sometimes they’re even funny.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, I completely agree with everything you’ve said 😉 That’s how I see it, too. More and more, the most important thing in horse training for me is to find “your” method, an authentic approach, something that comes from within. You know what I mean? I think this is when we become convincing to the horses. Otherwise is would not be possible that so many different methods seem to work. Looks like you’ve found your very own way, nice to hear that 🙂 Thanks so much for reading my stuff and taking the time to comment!

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