Looking from the perspective of the horse, what we ask them to do is abnormal.
Consider a horse who has just been turned loose in an enclosure – a paddock or an arena. What does he do? He may run and buck, pal around with another horse, or roll in the dirt. He might run down one side of the arena and reach the end only to turn around and tear off in another direction. He’ll probably play around for a while and then do one of the following: eat, hang with buddies over the fence, or hang by the gate. If he’s a nervous horse he may begin to pace one end of the arena wanting out. You might notice him looking into the distance at something you can’t see; horse whisperers refer to this as having his mind outside the pen.
I’m reasonably certain the horse will not be traveling along the fence at an even speed or rhythm, bending into his corners and turns, practicing his gaits. Rail work makes no sense to the horse; it serves him no purpose. Rail work only holds purpose to the human. In fact, if you rode the horse in the same enclosure with minimal guidance you’d feel him continuously shortening his turns and coming off his corners. This is an example of something we ask the horse to do that is not related to the things he would naturally do on his own.
One day this fall I noticed a pony had gotten into the wrong pasture. Thinking he’d crawled through the fence, I put him back in his own field and began tightening the fence. About 2 minutes passed when suddenly the pony sailed past my shoulder and over the very fence I was tightening. My jaw dropped as I watched him trot back out to his chosen pasture. It made sense to him to jump the fence that kept him from the grass he wanted. If I let this same pony out in the pasture with cross country fences would he choose to jump them? Probably not. He’d eat the grass that the mower misses at the base of the jumps and he’d walk around them to get to his favorite grazing spot. When he has the choice, he’ll go around the jumps. From the horse’s perspective jumping is perfectly natural but only when it’s necessary.
When horses are trained for jumping, we re-route their natural ‘jump only when necessary’ instinct to serve our purpose. Horses are motivated to jump courses or single fences with riders on their backs three ways; 1. through good training, 2. because they are following another horse, 3. through fear.
This is not relative to jumping only. It’s the truth in most of the things we ask horse to do. We ask him to get in a little box on wheels that we pull behind our truck. Left on his own and without enticement, would he choose to get in the trailer?
A goal in dressage is to develop a supple athlete who can increasingly shift his natural center of balance rearward striving for collection, elevation and brilliance. This is a beautiful and lofty goal, one that is barely relational to what the horse would do if left to himself. We all love those glorious moments when the loose horse is animated and lofty, even collected with his neck arched – but they are moments. They are not the sustained movements of a dressage test. Dressage movements are not particularly natural when you view them from the perspective of the horse.
A trail horse is consistently asked to face things that he would flee from if left on his own. A pleasure horse is asked to travel slowly with his head down. A Saddlebred is asked to brilliantly lift his knees high. An Arabian show horse is asked to be fiery in hand but quiet under saddle.
For the most part, training is the act of changing the horse’s mind, or the perspective of the horse, from what he would do instinctively to what we want him to do. It doesn’t matter the venue, human beings spend their time molding the horse to suit their desires.
At this point you may feel like I am against using horses for jumping, dressage, trail riding or anything else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I think life without horses to ride would be a miserable existence. I am all for finding the best job for a horse, training him well and treating him humanely from birth to death.
What’s in a label-
I wish the new breed of horsemen stemming from Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt would give us a real name for this type of horsemanship. I don’t like to use the name natural horsemanship because I don’t intend to promote a particular person or program. The label horse whisperer is worn out and the term round pen training is mentally limiting. Relationship training? Holistic training? Sigh.
Not intending to water down anything taught by Tom Dorrance or his protégés, I have three favorite take aways from the foundation he left for horsemen. The application of these principles has greatly improved the lives and treatment of horses all over the world. One of the principles is seeing things from the perspective of the horse; understanding his instincts, what he needs, and what he tries to do. Another is giving the horse a choice and helping him to make the right one. The third is the concept that the horse is looking for a leader.
But Do We Ever Want the Horse to be theLeader?
There are people who believe that starting out on a problem horse produces a better rider. They’ll tell you that the child who learned to master the nasty pony is a better rider because of it. That’s like sending a person out in a sail boat with a huge hole in the bottom believing that once they learn to fix the hole they will be a better sailor.
Learning should be a progression in which a person develops skills and then puts them to use. We all know that a green rider shouldn’t school a green horse, so why should a green rider ride a bad horse? Green riders need to ride horses that are educated for the level of riding they are trying to achieve. After they have acquired certain basics they can move on to learning to ride or improve the difficult, nasty or green horse. A person needs to have the proper tools in their tool box to do a job correctly. Riders who are left to fill their own tool box according to the dictates of an ill trained animal will fill their box with the wrong tools.
Where would students be if our beginner lesson horses were not allowed to be leaders? A well trained lesson horse who knows his job will carry a beginner around safely while the beginner learns to manage all of the tasks we give them. We give rather complex instructions to students – keep your hands here, sit like this, put your leg back here, don’t let him cut turns, ride into your corners, don’t go so fast, steer here, don’t go there. . . isn’t this when we are pleased that we have a horse who is a leader; one who doesn’t get confused about his job?
In the perfect world of horsemanship our lesson horse relinquishes leadership to the student in stages. From the perspective of the horse, leadership has to be earned. Once the student has mastered their body, then they may begin to become the leader of the horse. If you have one of these leader lesson horses in your barn, you’ve got your own little pile of gold because they will start many riders on the path to successful riding.
There are lesson horses who are perfect with riders until the rider reaches the point that they can be assertive. From the perspective of the horse, the rider is attempting to take a leadership role when he has not proven his ability. People make derogatory comments about beginner and intermediate riders on ‘push button’ horses. I’d like to see all riders have the opportunity to learn on push button horses before they test their skills on a more difficult animal. It’s kind of like learning the alphabet before you learn to read. The push button horse is one who is well trained, knows his job and is a leader in the horse/rider relationship. From the perspective of the horse, it makes sense.
Seeing things from the perspective of the horse means we have to let go of preconceived ideas and think like a horse; see things as if we were a horse. When we understand what makes sense to the horse; we can lessen the stress of training and the amazing intelligent animal will do many abnormal things for us.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor. I hope you have an abnormally good time teaching, training and riding.
Barbara Ellin Fox
Wisdom as ever Barbara.
Thank you, Roger