Becoming More Than a Rider
by Scott Thomson
I can still remember the moment I decided to try to become a horseman and not just a rider. It was early one mid-summer evening. I was relaxing in the bunkhouse at Reis Ranch, having a beer and reading Ray Hunt's book. I was about midway through the three month Horseman's program with Dennis Reis, and I was already getting pretty tired after six weeks of intense mental and physical work. It was a quiet night as the other two students in the program were gone.
Suddenly, there was a lot of noise and commotion coming from the arena area. I figured one of the horses on the property, maybe even my own, had escaped and was having a good old time. I threw on some clothes, grabbed a halter and lead rope and headed out to investigate.
I was surprised to see Dennis in the round pen with one of his new horses, a green gelding out of one of the PMU factories. He had just picked up three new horses, aptly named Small, Medium and Large until better names could be found. It was Large in the round pen. Given the exhausting day we'd had, I was amazed Dennis had the energy to do anything with a horse.
I sat down to watch Dennis work, noticing Dennis' girlfriend (now wife) standing up by the house, dressed for an evening out that I guessed wasn't going to happen. I could tell Dennis was only trying to get a couple of the most simple, basic yields from the horse. The "conversation" with Large went on for more than two hours, and resulted in a fair amount of damage to the three-quarter-inch plywood walls on the round pen.
What really hit me that night was watching a master horseman stay in the moment for such an extended period of time. He never raised his voice; in fact he barely said anything at all. He never hit the horse, nor did he ever reach a level of pressure that might force the horse to climb out of the pen. There was no frustration at the lack of progress. His body language was calm, confident and very clear, and you knew he would stay at this until he got at least a good try at the desired result. He was teaching, not trying to dominate. The horse was giving him nothing but drama, but when that moment of understanding happened, everything was turned off. A perfectly timed release of all pressure on a good try and the end of work. No attempt at asking for more.
This is when I "got it." I offered Dennis a beer and we talked for awhile. I learned three things that night, and from that point on I understood the difference between a horseman and a rider, and why it's so hard to bridge that gap.
First, you have a responsibility to build a foundation in a horse that prepares him for learning what you need him to know. I've heard it put another way — you have to teach the horse to be teachable. You have to do this in a way that he understands, at his pace and in a way that works with his particular personality. From there you can go in any direction you want with your riding interests, but skipping this first step or cutting corners in the interest of time or your schedule will certainly lead to issues down the line.
Second, this was the day I saw that "feel" is probably the most challenging thing to learn, and it may trump all other factors when working with horses. I love the saying that "information is not knowledge," often used as a criticism of the fast-paced but shallow depth of the Internet age. In the horse world, you might say, "information is not feel." Many people with horses have lots of information and opinions. They may know many techniques. They may be confident and fearless. But if they don't have that elusive feel, they may never really be able to communicate with their horses. That evening I could see "feel" is what allowed Dennis to maintain focus with precise movements and clear communication even in a dangerous situation.
Third, I realized you can make an enormous change in the quality of your horsemanship by just changing the words you use to describe horse behavior. We're a verbal species, and words can get us to shift our perspectives. There are a lot of phrases, descriptions and clichés thrown around the barn every day, and almost every one of them paints horse behavior in human terms. It's hard enough to accept blame or responsibility in our daily lives, and we certainly don't like to do it when it comes to animals, where we feel we are the superior and dominant species. Let's face it: It's easier to rationalize our horse's behavior and our responses to it if we look at things with human values and motivations. Accepting that horse behavior or performance is more likely a reaction to something you're doing rather than some plan or thought process on the horse's part is hard for us, and can make any horse owner feel depressed or like a failure.
This last point probably causes more problems for people and their horses than just about anything else. If you've been around horses, you've heard all the comments. Some of my personal favorites: The horse needs a job; my horse only likes the trail (or the arena); my horse doesn't like me; my horse bites (kicks, moves, etc.) because of something he's mad about; my horse doesn't like (or is afraid of) something; my horse hates men. The list is endless, but with a common thread: The horse is thinking, acting and planning with rational thought like a human.
Let's look at one of these "horse truths" — the horse needs a job — one I heard almost daily about my own horse early on. Horses haven't evolved much in terms of basic needs and the way their bodies work. They would prefer to eat all day, walking 10 miles or more to do it. They would rather "rest than work" — not because they're lazy but because they're prey animals that need to conserve energy to escape a predator (also, because they're still programmed to add weight and calories during spring and summer so they can survive a winter). On their own, they spend only 1% of their time moving above a walk — that's just 15 minutes every 24 hours.
Nothing in that profile says a horse is looking for a job or work. Just the opposite. Put your horse out on hundreds of acres of pasture with a herd, then stand at the gate with your saddle and bridle and see if your horse comes running looking for a nice long ride or job with lots of trotting and cantering. No treats or coffee cans full of grain as rewards for coming to see you allowed. You'll be standing by yourself for a long time because your horse is not some unemployed adult or idle teenager on summer break who needs a job for self esteem or to keep out of trouble. Those are our values, not his.
The horse that doesn't do well in the arena isn't saying he doesn't like it. More likely, you haven't put the effort in to learn how to ride in an arena and how to make it interesting for him. The horse that gets nervous outside the arena is probably saying that he doesn't trust your leadership and that you're nervous in the saddle. The confused or resistant horse is not dumb or stubborn (a quality that simply doesn't exist in his world), but is saying your techniques for teaching are simply not working for his personality type and the way he learns. The horse that bites you is not saying he doesn't like you, but is saying there are circumstances in his life that cause him to express himself in this way.
Each of these examples has a human viewpoint and a horse's perspective. For the horse, all he ever does is react to the world we've created for him, in the only ways he knows how. The more you try to see this — a view far less complicated and emotional than yours — the closer you'll come to moving beyond just riding.
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.