Investigate Everything & Keep what’s Good

When I first started learning about horsemanship I got myself quite set in thinking that there was only one way to work with horses, and that was the right way. My way. The only way. All other methods / approaches were WRONG. I felt superior in my knowing that my way was the only and best way ever in the world. Ever.15872002_10154055336446160_4867680500934623754_n

Thankfully I started seeing things differently at some point. It started with me allowing myself to consider the possibility that maybe there were other ways to go about this, and that maybe some of those ways might be more effective, or even more pleasant. I don’t recall that there was a specific trigger or event that precipitated my change of perception, but what I do recall is that the change started with my willingness to consider things outside of my rigid box of opinions.

I find it interesting looking back now, it’s like I had locked myself into this one way of seeing horsemanship, and I believed so strongly that it was the best way – but I hadn’t even looked into different ways, so my belief was totally unsupported. That’s the funny thing about some of the things we believe, it’s like we become lost in the righteousness of our belief that we will not even look at anything else. In some areas of life this kind of behaviour may not have a big effect on anyone’s life, but when it comes to horsemanship, beliefs like these can and do affect the lives of our horses.

Let me take an extreme example of what some trainers believe you must do to the Tennessee Walking Horse – “soring” or putting huge blocks on their hooves to force them to pick their legs up higher and “step up” nicely. To most of us, that is a completely unacceptable practice – but to the people who are doing it, they will (likely) believe that it is the best method to achieve their desired outcome. This of course can be seen in all areas of life – and it’s up to us to recognise that our action can and do effect the lives and happiness of others.

I may not have done things like in the example above, but I did try to force my ways onto my horse, even when he clearly was not understanding or enjoying what we were doing. I told myself that he would learn in time, I just had to keep trying. Am I ashamed of some of the things I did? Yes. Will I hold my mistakes against myself? No. I am learning from my mistakes and making sure that I am listening to my horse. Thankfully our horses are very forgiving, probably more than we deserve. We always have the opportunity to change, and our horses will change with us if we help them.

I have a principle I live by now, not only with my horsemanship but in all areas of my life: Investigate all things and keep what’s good. Even in those methods or practices that I generally don’t agree with I may find just one kernel of something good that I can test in my own life. And yes, I won’t simply see something that looks cool and then make it my motto in life – I will take the time to test it and see for myself how well it works, where it works, for which horse it works. Which brings me to an important point: not every exercise will work for every horse, and it’s up to us to hear when our horses tell us that something isn’t working, and our responsibility to change it.

Changing my Inner Mouse to a Leader

When I first started learning about horsemanship with my first horse, I did not ever want to do anything that may have potentially led to him (the horse) not liking me. I wanted to love him and I wanted him to love me. What this manifested in my behaviour with him, however, created a relationship dynamic that I did not want.

I started with learning the basics of how to move a horse’s feet from the ground. I learned how to move the hindquarters, the forequarters, move the whole horse forwards and backwards and in a circle around me. Within who I was when I was practicing these things, however, was timid, careful, shy, wanting to avoid confrontation, wanting to be kind and gentle. What this create most of the time, was a horse that did not respond to my aides. I’d ask him to move his feet, and sometimes he did, but sometimes he didn’t. This in turn led to me feeling even less capable, and more fearful of trying to build a relationship with a horse that didn’t like or respect me.

I had the romanticised idea that I could build a good relationship and communication with my horse just by spending time with him, scratching his back under a tree. I would then be able to ride off into the distance and never ever fall off. Also be in a perfect classical dressage carriage. Yeah right.

It took time, quite a lot of time if I look back now, for me to change who I was with my horse. I understood on an intellectual level that his behaviour was reflecting who I was, but I couldn’t yet translate that into understanding what it was I needed to change. I went through periods of just wanting to give up, moments of trying to overcompensate and then behaving in a way that I regretted later, and moments of trying to find the answer everywhere but the most obvious place: me.

There was no one big “Aha!” moment that led to me finally realising that I had to take a serious look at what I was living inside myself that my horse was so kindly showing me. I started making small changes at first, noticing small moments where I had shifted inside myself to be more directive. One example was when my horse, Fatty, bullied one of our little ponies, I immediately backed him up without a halter or any other equipment (and without touching him) – I held him simply with my focus and he backed right up in a straight line – and didn’t immediately try to run off. In that moment I glimpsed what I was capable of – not that that moment was representative of the relationship as a whole that I wanted to develop – it was simply a moment of stepping out of my scared little inner mouse and into my strong independent woman self.

Moral of the story: Our behaviour and body language is so obvious to our equine friends – they read us so easily. If we are insecure, that is what our horses see: our uncertainty, our hazy intentions. How can we expect a horse, that is a prey animal and has evolved over time to stay alive in a dangerous world, to respect us when we are frightened little mice who don’t want to step on anyone’s toes? Horsemanship is about being a leader and friend to our horses – we cannot be leaders if we are so caught up in trying to be their friends that we are terrified of actually leading. There is a balance in how we can develop our relationships with our horses, and the ingredients include both friendship and leadership.