Being someone who approaches horses from a Natural/psychological perspective, I commonly run into people who struggle with discipline. Often these people came from a standard or uninspiring riding school experience in their past, where both horses and students were yelled at a lot and treated as pretty inconsequential parts of a big money making stable business. If you learned to ride well, great, if not, that’s your problem. Just so long as your lesson bill was paid. Often these horses were those poor broken creatures commonly seen at riding schools. Box, saddle, arena, box. Repeat. Dead behind the eyes and mild constant signs of protest when used. Used, being the operative word. That is the extreme consequence of uncompromising discipline. You squash and break and damage something when you’re unable to compromise and create a dialogue. Sometimes you have to shake someone in order to get them to participate, to be expressive and energised. Or sometimes they are over involved and need calming down. But if you create a disciplined environment where horse and or human must just perform and no discussion about it, you will lose something.
Eventually these horse people might start to realise something is wrong. Their childlike sense of wonder and love and gentleness had been replaced with the grim machinery of a riding school business. Often, they then make a choice, to get out of horses altogether, or change their approach.
Sometimes they turn to Natural Horsemanship. It appears in many forms and we can discuss endlessly the topic in another blog. But, generally by natural approaches we try to care for the horse first and put everything else second. Attempt to understand them from a natural perspective mentally in order to work with them and hopefully improve their quality of life and the quality of our results. It is a lot more complex than that of course, but it is the crux of the issue.
I was working with a client the other week and she told me of the intense guilt she felt for her activities with her horse. She suspected her mare did not like their work together and felt guilty for it and felt she had to pay her mare for her work with carrot treats or similar.
I said to her that perhaps her mare would enjoy their work together more if she learned to work with joy instead of tension, confusion, or approaching riding like a fitness training. What about joy? What about love? The pure happiness of having a horse, who is alive and healthy, and riding them in a nice and relaxed way? Wanting to be as best you can but also not too attached to any ideals of perfection? Maybe that was your pathway to a kind of perfection? Take this joy you have of your forest rides for example and apply it to arena work and watch your mares expression improve?
I had another client under training who struggled to get her gelding to do what she was asking and get past his protests. I had laid out a big blue tarpaulin, which he has seen and walked over before, and a wooden platform, akin to a trailer loading ramp, which we were asking him to walk over calmly, and he kept avoiding.
I stopped her and said
‘We can be natural and kind and loving to our horses and still say to them ‘I NEED you to do this for me!’.” Because what if one day our life and safety depended on it? In an emergency during the trail ride you need a very responsive and willing horse who listens to you when you get them out of danger. Her gelding kept having an anger response when she asked him to move through discomfort or something difficult for him. I said that to me he wasn’t angry, he was just a very male equine energy, challenging his rider to be more present and bold in her requests of him.
I asked her to sit up, look past the obstacle and not tolerate his evasion. Keep him pointed at the obstacles and just no-nonsense walk through it. Like it was no big deal because it WAS no big deal. And he did. Softly, calmly, perfectly walked over them like grandma’s horse. Not because he had changed anything but because his rider had changed everything.
Natural horsemanship is not the absence of conviction or firmness! You can be convinced of your confidence in what you ask of your horse and still be kind to them! Conviction of your request is not being bossy or abusive because you are asking something with intelligence and a purpose. Rather than saying ‘DO this because I said so and don’t ask questions’ you say ‘We’re going to do this because X-Y-Z and because I know what I am doing. Your opinions will be heard but I will have the last word most of the time my friend!’.
Sometimes in desire to be delicate and kind with our horses we actually become scared to get anything done with them.
Be courageous, be bold, be sure of yourself and watch your horses respond in kind to you.