Words of Wisdom
by Scott Thomson
It was a welcome change to be able to spend some days inside this summer, listening to the rain and watching grass, weeds and strange, long-dormant plants grow. Gave me a chance to do some reading about the horse world, past and present. I always uncover a few gems that I use to guide and improve my own horsemanship, or to help students improve their skills or increase their understanding of the psychology and behavior of horses.
Here are some thoughts that jumped out at me. Whether you ride Western or English, only on the trail or only in an arena, there are valuable perspectives in all of these comments:
"Regardless of breed, the skeletal system of the horse, the foundation of soundness, athletic ability and longevity, does not mature until the age of six, and the last component of the system to mature is the spine." — Deb Bennet, PhD. In this article she was talking about all the components of the skeleton — bones, ligaments, cartilage, joints. When I look at the training and behavior issues I see in horses, I believe that many problems start when horses are put under saddle and worked too hard before they are mature enough physically and mentally. The sore backs, lameness, the one-sidedness, even some physical deformities can probably be traced back to physical components being put under stress way too early. I'm guessing there would be far fewer unwanted and broken-down horses in rescue facilities if more people would heed this physiological fact.
"If once the lesson or ride is finished, you bring your horse back to the stable without any more empathy than if you were parking your car in the garage, then all of what I say will not be of interest to you." — Master Nuno Oliveira. What an elegant way of saying so many things. Is this the old saying, "You ride every stride with your horse, even on the ground"? Or, maybe, with horses every minute is both a teaching and learning experience? Or perhaps, if you have horses in your life, then you must always be a student of good horsemanship? An absolutely beautiful statement with so many meanings from one of the greatest horsemen of the last century.
"The art of good horsemanship is knowing the difference between a horse that does not want to do something, the horse that is confused about or doesn't understand what is being asked of him, and the horse that is not capable, physically or mentally, to do what is being asked." — Director of Training at the Spanish Riding School. The training techniques at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, home of the famous Lipizzaner horses, are not written down, but are passed down orally to each new class of riders and trainers. Clearly, these great horsemen believe developing a horse is not about rigid techniques, training schedules and breaking the will of the animal, but about feel, observation and working to the level of the abilities and temperament of the animal. That's a good lesson for all of us. As a trainer, I see most training problems in the last two parts of this statement — the horse that is confused or is simply not capable — and the responsibility to see this rests entirely with us.
"The rider should have the feeling that he is connected to the horse's mouth by an elastic ribbon. As the reins are made of leather and have no spring, this elastic connection can be brought about only by the supple flexion of the horse's jaw combined with the sensitive and light touch of the rider's hands." — Colonel Alois Podhajsky. I wonder how many of our horses would say that we ride them, and communicate through hands, with this degree of awareness and sensitivity!
"I believe working with horses is a matter of language and I care about words. I won't allow any coach I'm training to say 'Make him' unless it's an emergency situation. 'Ask him' is my first choice. And only ask for something the horse can do." — Jennifer Howard. With a philosophy like this, I know this is a woman I'd love to ride with and learn from. Unfortunately, she lives in New Zealand!
"Whatever the horse was doing at the moment you released pressure is what the horse learned." — Julie Goodnight. A nice spin on the usual way this is phrased, that the horse learns only on the release of pressure. What I like about this comment is that it really says how easy it is to teach the horse the wrong thing, something I see as often as teaching the right thing. For example, if I go into my horse's space to do something and don't put a halter on him — say, to put on some fly spray — and he tolerates it for a moment and then walks away, I've just taught him he is free to walk away from me whenever he wants. Coming into his space was pressure. Walking away from me was the release, and the teaching moment — of the wrong thing.
"Regardless of how great a rider's affection is for his horse, or how connected he feels with it, a person should resist the temptation to anthropomorphize, and attribute human motivations and traits to the horse. Horses don't stand in their stalls contemplating ways their vices and bad behaviors could annoy their riders. A horse just reacts, directly or indirectly, to correctly or incorrectly given aids, and to the experiences it has had with riders and handlers." — Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. From only my own experience of working with many horses and riders, I think this attitude of a horse having human motivations has hampered more riders and their horsemanship than just about any other issue.
"Reins should not be used as an instrument of navigation, nor should they ever be used as a brake. They are a tool for communication, literally an aid and nothing more, to help the horse understand the rider's demands. Once the horse has understood and responded, the rider can set them aside." — Heuschmann again. This belief has been behind my goal to bring every rider to the point of some level of comfort with bridle-less riding. I have found it is a skill to master that allows the rider to circle back to the bit and bridle with greater sensitivity and respect for the use of the reins to communicate and not punish or discipline.
"Learning something and knowing how to do it are two different things. You can learn how something can work, but being able to use it is another story. No single tip I can give you will fix a problem with a horse. The remedy has to come from the recognition that what a horse does on the outside is powered by emotions, drives and needs that exist on the inside. The most important place to look for a solution to any problem with a horse is inside yourself. It is my responsibility to fix my mind and my body to where I want them to be; then my horse will be able to understand me." — Ray Hunt. In a similar vein, I try to encourage my students, especially the ones who are junkies for every bit of horse-training material they can find, to take the important step of translating the knowledge to actual skills, both physical and mental. If you don't practice, correctly and slowly so things become instinctive (fixing your body), and don't work on your powers of observation (fixing your mind), it will be hard for you to really help and develop your horse.
"Be as gentle as possible and as firm as necessary." — Tom Dorrance. To me, this is the most misunderstood principle of natural horsemanship. Most people see only the gentle part of natural horsemanship. How many times have you heard people say natural horsemanship is just too soft, too touchy-feely? When I hear that I know such people don't really understand horses. Your goal with a horse, to be just and fair, is to get things done with lightness and as little pressure as possible. But, if you ignore the fact that you will have to be strong and assertive when it is justified and necessary, to teach and not to punish, then you are being naïve. If you don't understand the balance in what appears to be these conflicting messages, then you will never be a competent leader for your horse.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at email@example.com or (575) 388-1830.