There’s a lot of talk about heart, spirit, and emotional connection in today’s horse world - a marked contrast to the buzzwords of decades past, which sounded more like “Show him who’s in boss!” or “Just make him do it!” I want to do what is best for horses, which means I am happy about this change. Lately, though, there are also times when feel a little more uneasy, a litte skeptical. Here's why:
Of course it’s good we are moving away from dominance-based training. A long time ago, when I was young and naive, I worked for a world champion trainer who used prong bits, draw reins, rock grinder spurs, and brute force to get horses to do what she wanted. These images are etched into my brain, where they will stay until the day I die, as reminders that this is not who I want to be. Thirty years ago, I swore I would never do anything like this to a horse ever again, and I never have. It’s good that our focus today is shifting away from dominating our horses to building relationships with them.
But we can’t build these relationships with our hearts alone. Emotional connection is only a part of the harmony we all seek.
In emphasizing the emotional side of horsemanship more, some of us now tend to neglect the physical and intellectual side. Working with horses, especially when we climb on their backs, is an intensely physical thing to do. Riders and horses are athletes. Without athletic development - theirs and ours - our horses will not be physically able to become willing, responsive riding partners. If we choose to ride our horses, we have a moral obligation to develop our seat - not because we want to look pretty in the saddle, but to be a more pleasant load for them to carry, and to better communicate with them, from our back to theirs and vice versa. We also have a moral obligation to develop the horse’s body and mind in a way that makes carrying us more comfortable. This means: working with our horses almost every day, gradually building their strength, suppleness, stamina, confidence, and focus. Of course this is much easier to do with a horse who trusts us. Pausing and just breathing with our horses can help build the necessary trust, which is the basis for all further work, but no substitute for it. When we ride, we connect with our horse’s bodies, not just their spirits, which makes fitness, both equine and human, an important part of all good horsemanship. There is truth in the old saying that a good horse is made from lots and lots of wet saddle blankets.
Our rational brain plays a role, too. Without a solid education in the history and theory of good horsemanship, all the feel and connection in the world still may not translate into a solid long-term partnership with our horses. If we don’t know better, without meaning to, we may ask them for the wrong things at the wrong time, or for too much, or for not enough, of the right thing. Without guidelines rooted in tradition and backed by science, it can be difficult to know what is fair and appropriate to ask our horses at any given time, and why. All really good life-long horsemen I know are also life-long students of the horse, willing to adjust what they do based on new evidence.
Building a true partnership with a horse takes commitment, physical effort, emotional maturity, and theoretical knowledge. Yes, please ride with your heart, but take your mind and your body along, too. Your horse will thank you.