There’s an expression currently making its rounds in the horse world. “It’s another tool for my toolbox.”
Having answers to our horse’s questions is a good thing. To be with horses safely and with pleasure, there are things we must know about them. They are prey animals, and running will always be their first instinct; they are faster and more sensory oriented than we’ll ever be; they have lives and priorities that have nothing to do with us.
I would also add that knowing something isn’t the same as understanding something. Knowing is what I used to do before a math test when I was in college; cram in information so I could pass the test. As soon as the test was done, the numbers evaporated out of my head.
Understanding is what happened when I was in my third year of learning German. There was a point that I wasn’t translating from English to German and back again. German had its own way of being expressed that had nothing to do with English.
Understanding is also what has been growing over the last thirty years of working with horses and people. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1990s, when I was thinking about being a horse trainer, I became fascinated with a method that was heavy on round pen work. Looking back at that time in my life, my horse education before seeing this method had been a lot of kicking, pulling, and making horses do things. There were good things I learned too, but being with horses was a contest and I was supposed to win. Although I loved horses, I also was taught the right way to use the many tools it took to train a horse.
So when this cowboy demonstrated his techniques in a round pen that caused changes in horses without using any tools, or even being connected by a longe line, I was instantly intrigued. I also realized that what I knew about horses was not much.
Over the next five years, I went to his clinics, bought all his DVD’s, learned to throw a rope, read books on the method and began working with horses who my friends were having some issue with.
Nine out of ten horses responded the way the DVD’s and books said they would; they learned to read my body and adjust their speed and direction. They would learn to turn and face in and we could calmly learn how to work together without a halter or lead rope.
But there was always that one horse. Every so often, no matter how much I followed the formula, the horse wasn’t improving. He wasn’t feeling better, and in some ways, he was getting worse. To be fair, this may have been caused by my lack of skill as much as my execution of the method. I know for sure that my focus on the method instead of the horse was a more significant issue.
Even though I had more tools in my horse training toolkit, I was missing the horse. I was wandering in a forest and missing the delight of each tree. I had so many new tools and relied on them so much that all I could see was the tools and completely missed who the horse was.
It took me several years of this pattern, and multiple times of admitting to several owners that I didn’t know what to do anymore, that I started the search again. What was I missing?
I found another cowboy clinician. There wasn’t a lot of dust being raised as I watched the first day of the clinic. He worked with one rider and one horse at a time. He was a kind teacher. I didn’t hear, “If you do A and B, you will get C.” I heard him making observations about one horse that didn’t apply to the next horse. I heard him asking each rider what they wanted to do with their horse, instead of going through a pre-planned lesson. I saw every horse leave calmer than when they stepped into the arena, yet in every case, the horse hadn’t moved out of a walk.
When it was my turn to ride, he watched as my Missouri Foxtrotter Jack and I gaited a few laps around the arena. He then mentioned that perhaps we could get my horse to soften a little bit.
Well, here is something I knew! I’d had years of Dressage training, and I could make a horse put their head down and collect with the best of them!
Before I could begin to shorten my reins, brace my shoulders, and leverage the reins with a big bicep popping effort, I heard “We are going to ask your horse to soften. Right now he’s light, but not soft.”
That stopped the chorus of “make your horse collect” voices and stunned them into silence. I thought if I pulled on the reins and released when my horse’s head went down that he was soft. Light and collected.
The rest of that session, and that clinic, I watched and asked questions about what the difference was between lightness and softness. In the world I had come from, the two were synonymous. What this cowboy was saying was that they weren’t.
During that four day clinic, I started seeing how individual Jack was and felt inspired about what I could learn from him. Working with Jack became an exploration instead of a contest. I could see how my handling of the reins caused him to defend himself, both by raising his nose and speeding up his feet. I saw the beauty of a tree that was my horse and how everything I knew was just a little, tiny forest.
We can learn something using techniques and methods, and most of the time, our horses will respond. We can also see horses for who they are. We can understand down to our guts that safety is their number one priority and do our best not to put them in a position to defend themselves.
Understanding horses, and our own horse, gives us an opportunity to experience life from a different species’ point of view. How exciting is that?! It means that we recognize how different horses are from us, and yet also how they are the same. It means not taking anyone’s word for something, but exploring it with our horse. It means-and this is where I get excited all over again-a lifetime of learning.
Tools are handy. But so is understanding. Grabbing a tool for the sake of filling your toolbox isn’t going to go quite as far as understanding (as much as any human can) what it is to be a horse.
We can forget the sticks and special halters, the crops, ropes, and martingales. With practice, mistakes, education and guidance from our horse, we have the best tools already with us: the human mind and body.