On the left is my friend Russell Higgins from New Zealand. I don’t know the exact circumstances regarding this photo, but to me, it looks like horses and humans are relaxed and the relationships between all of them appear calm.
I taught a clinic last summer and one of the things I asked participants to do was to line up stirrup to stirrup in a horseshoe so that I could address them. I’m always amazed at the fear this can generate. Why is that? I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Another common example I see frequently is that, if I’m with a group of clients and we are trying out a new skill (say, simple lead changes), the biggest stumbling block is often the fear of looking stupid or silly, and so I credit the first person to give it a go a lot of credit.
What both of these situations have in common is that they include the universal issues of fear pressure and peer pressure. When I first started riding my Thoroughbred mare Skigh, I was worried enough that it dawned on me that I couldn’t “hear” anything she was trying to tell me. I was putting up my own force field of fear which blocked all incoming messages. The rides would go okay, and from the outside, they probably looked good enough, but Skigh knew the truth. She wasn’t getting her message through to me. We ask our horses to be mentally, emotionally, and physically fit, and we need to ask ourselves to strive for the same things. What helps me is to consciously relax my butt cheeks and to sing. Of course, this brings up the other issue–peer pressure. Won’t people think I’m stupid if I’m up there singing to myself and my horse?? In the end, I’ve decided that I care more about what Skigh thinks than I care about how other people view me. It took time for Skigh and me to get to know one another, and those techniques helped me get there safely. She is still very challenging, and I still get scared, but I am confident and competent on her and I can control her. I made it a priority to put an excellent set of brakes on her and those have been tested! It came with time, small steps, and SELF-HONESTY.
If you impress your horse, you’ve won something better than any ribbon or recognition. That’s my view. If the goal is getting a blue ribbon, or winning money, that’s fine, too. But those things are meaningless without the relationship being right.
Back to the clinic episode:
- The fear part: What if my horse interacts with other horses and I can’t handle it? What if my horse bites, bucks, or kicks?
- The peer part: What if I look stupid or incompetent in front of all these people?
These two issues are often intertwined. Many people would say, “I didn’t come to this clinic to learn this, I cam here to learn (fill in the blank)”.
My answer would be that (fill in the blank) is all part of horsemanship. If you can’t safely handle your horse in a variety of situations, let’s fix that before we try to move on to something else. In this particular situation, my answer would be that horses are gregarious and it’s natural for them to interact. And, the most important aspect of horsemanship is respect; it’s mutual, but the human must ultimately be the one calling the shots, and the horse needs to know this at all times. Even in an unfamiliar situation, the horse must respect the leadership that the human needs to be providing. Finally, one of the biggest keys in all of horsemanship is preparation. Ray Hunt used to say “confidence is being prepared for the unthinkable”. So, if there’s a problem anywhere along the line on a daily basis, from trouble catching, or haltering, or leading, or tying your horse, you’ve gotta address those before doing the next thing.
That’s how I see horsemanship.
Here’s how things worked out at the clinic I mentioned: