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.
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.
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.
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.