“We like horses because they are smart, but we train them like they’re stupid.”
During a dressage lesson many years ago, my instructor had me put my horse Caleb in a double bridle (which has both a curb bit and a small snaffle called a bridoon), fasten the cavesson around his jaw as tight as it would go, and tighten the curb chain. She was frustrated that my horse wouldn’t “collect.” So we were going to make him collect.
After I got back on him, gathered up all four reins as he arched his neck stiffly, my instructor smiled for the first time that hour, said “Now we are getting somewhere! Make him walk.”
To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t do anything. He was an excellent bucker when he got out of sorts, but for reasons only known to him, he stood, tense and unmoving.
That’s the point where the instructor’s wisdom–“Kick him harder! Hit him with the crop!” –faded into background noise and I agreed with my horse: no more.
I dismounted, unbuckled both the curb strap and cavesson and took off the bridle. I paid for my lesson and hauled Caleb home, crying the whole time.
Over the following months, all the gear I’d collected gathered a thick layer of dust in the tack room. The various bits for various purposes showed signs of rust. The leather of the German martingales, draw reins and figure eight nosebands, which I once kept polished and supple, now went into a trunk. The lessons stopped.
I had heard of an equine massage therapist (in those days, a rare breed), and an acupuncturist for horses (even rarer) and had them out to work on Caleb. In the evenings I’d ride him at a leisurely walk, bareback with a halter and lead rope. His head was down, his back relaxed and swinging and I knew in those moments that what I was looking for was something much different than what I had grown up with.
That search took awhile, but in the end, I was both upset and elated when I heard Mark say the words above. Because if I had been (very unintentionally) training my horse like he was stupid, that meant I could change and treat him like he was smart.
What I know now is that horses have survived millions of years being tuned into their environment and their herd. They are masters of subtlety. Their timing and control of their bodies is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is all coupled with a tolerant nature. Their intelligence expresses itself differently than ours, but that makes it no less potent.
It doesn’t take a million mindless repetitions for a horse to “get it.” Most horses understand what we are looking for within minutes. It is our clarity, patience, and self-control that are effective teachers. What we do on the outside merely supports how we are on the inside.
I’m not saying that training tools are bad; years later, I took lessons on a fourth level dressage horse with a teacher who taught me how to use the double bridle with subtlety. The work we did together still shines in my memory. As with anything else, it’s how the horse feels about what you are doing that determines whether or not the tools are helpful.
Those two years with a dressage instructor were primarily focused on how to balance my body (which was valuable), even when on the inside I was frustrated, seething, and feeling defeated. What I am learning now, is how to remain in a balanced state of mind, and use external cues secondary to my intent.
Horses are able to learn some pretty fancy stuff in spite of us. Think how much further we could go if we are willing to put the time into learning how to ask for it in a way that both involves the inside of us (intent and focus), and at the same time, honors their intelligence. It often occurs to me that the art of horsemanship is a lot about staying out of a horse’s way. And staying out of the way shows faith in who horses are.
Every horse we touch is the recipient of the knowledge we have at the time. I made my fair share of mistakes with Caleb; he still went on to have a great life as my trail riding buddy and when he was older, a kind and quiet lesson horse. He taught me many valuable lessons, but none so valuable as the importance of listening to the horse.