Fixating on the "Thing"
by Scott Thomson
As I approach almost 20 years since my first exposure to natural horsemanship, I still struggle with how to describe it to horse owners. On one hand, there is nothing "natural" in what we ask of horses. On the other hand, there is clearly a way to work with horses that makes sense to them and gives us the results we want without intimidation and abuse.
Recently I was engaged in a philosophical discussion with an owner who had a horse that had some significant issues with an everyday task. The owner was fixated on the task, feeling the horse simply didn't like it, was afraid of it or must have had a bad experience with it in the past. The owner did everything possible to avoid this "thing," as it always resulted in some drama for horse and human.
Given my background and approach to working with horses, I felt the real issue in this case was the owner, who in my mind didn't seem capable of gaining the necessary respect that lets the horse trust a human in difficult situations. I don't think it is right or fair to the horse to avoid things that a horse is likely to see in real life. Our responsibility is to help our horses live comfortably in the world we created for them, certainly not the world they would choose.
I thought there might be an interesting experiment in this particular situation, one that could prove a point — and perhaps could get at this cloudy concept of horsemanship.
I asked the owner, whom I considered to be pretty much a novice even though she had been around horses for many years, to bring the horse to my facility. I also enlisted the help of another horse owner who was more skilled and confident, but certainly no more than intermediate level at best in her skills. My second person had never met the horse or the owner.
Given the nature of this horse's particular issue, I constructed two obstacles that I knew would cause some reactions. First, I built a "car wash" frame (a "car wash" is a sensory training device that usually has streamers of plastic hanging down from above, creating a curtain that moves and makes noise) of PVC piping, but left off all the plastic. Then I built a second car wash with all the streamers. The frame-only set-up is not much of a challenge, just like going through a gate with an overhead bar. The complete set-up can be an exciting challenge for many horses.
The basic ground rules for my experiment were that I would not handle the horse at all, nor would I advise on technique or strategy while either person was working with the horse. I would set up the approach I wanted each person to use, and it would be the same for each person.
This was all going to be done from the ground with a training stick and a lead rope. Each person would start from the same spot, and each would use what I call a "moving squeeze game" to present the obstacle to the horse (this approach is very similar to how a horse evaluates an obstacle on its own). It would be up to each person to decide when they thought the horse was ready to go towards the obstacle and hopefully through it. The horse had to be sent through, not led. The goal was for the horse to go through the obstacle calmly, not some fear-driven blast just to get through it. Since each person was working with the same horse, the same equipment, the same obstacles and the same basic technique, the only real variable was the person handling the horse.
I had the owner go first, and not surprisingly the horse handled the frame-only obstacle without much of a problem, although the horse went through at a trot rather than a calm walk. After a couple of trips back and forth, the horse was walking nicely.
At the fully equipped car wash, however, the horse made it clear there was no way he was going through it. He tried every avoidance technique possible: He planted, he backed up, he dropped a shoulder and almost ran the owner over, he spun and even reared. As things got more exciting, the owner got more frustrated and fumbled with her equipment. My goal was not to force the horse to go through, so I shut things down before someone, or the horse, got hurt. As I expected, the owner said her horse didn't like moving plastic, noise or tight places. So, in her mind, the problem was either the horse or the obstacle.
After a short break, I had the second person take the horse and present each obstacle. Again, she was required to use the same techniques, and to the casual observer it looked like each person pretty much did exactly the same things, although you could see this handler was smoother in her movements and in the way she used the equipment. The horse walked calmly through the frame-only obstacle, and did not break out of a walk. No real surprise.
At the second obstacle, the horse showed the high level of nervousness he had with his owner. At a certain point, the handler paused and praised the horse, then gave a clear "ask" for the horse to go through — and he did. It was certainly a quick step as he went through, but he didn't blow-up and was "licking and chewing" on the other side, the way a horse shows he's thinking and processing what just happened. He went back through the other way and after one more trip he was walking calmly as if he'd done this all his life.
This was certainly not an experiment that would pass for scientific method. Some would say the horse did better the second time because he had just seen the car wash a few minutes before. But, with as much control of the variables as possible, it did show the horse — classified as a right-brained introvert, meaning he was less confident and had a higher than average flight response — being more comfortable and trusting with one person over the other. The horse was able to overcome an obvious fear pretty quickly with the more experienced handler that had never seen the horse. A little video I shot showed each handler there was very little difference in technique between the two, but the result was dramatically different.
I know the owner was pretty depressed after this exercise, but what I tried to explain was that good horsemanship, and the deeper bond of respect and trust that can help a horse overcome significant fears or reach its full potential, fall somewhere beyond her technique. If you want to follow an approach as taught by a well-known horseman — The Method, Future Horsemanship, Universal Horsemanship or any of the other catchy little brand names — and think that will make you a good horseman, then you'll probably never get there. If you look and listen closely, you'll see we all teach the same thing and use techniques that are almost identical, so maybe success is not about the technique you're using. It isn't about pointing to the left, waving your stick and having the horse go off in that direction. It is about feel, your eyes, your body and how you convey intent with focus rather than words. It is also about accepting the each horse is an individual, despite all their universal traits.
Likewise, if you fixate on "things" and feel your horse simply can't deal with them, then you'll fall well short of developing the kind of horse you want. You'll also probably see your list of issues grow as your horse questions your leadership.
In the end, this magical creature we call the horse has some innate ability to look past what we're actually doing and see good horsemanship that he can respect and trust inside the human. I've never felt this was some special gift only a few people have, but a skill that can be learned. But it can be learned only if you're willing to accept where it resides — and that finding it is more about you than it is about your horse or "the thing."
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him
at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.