Where ever you are right now, reading this, if you have ever felt or been surprised by a horse raise your hand.
My guess is that 80-90% of you did, and if you didn’t, maybe you didn’t have the chance to let a horse surprise you yet.
In fact it was a surprise that lead me towards natural horsemanship.
I had been riding at various places in Spain and Warsaw and though I loved it, being around horses, there was something that was still missing for me.
I remember I was at a lesson in Warsaw, with a lovely girl and her Polish mare named Sister. This mare was clearly well trained, in the traditional sense of the word. Meaning: if I put my heel like this… you do that etc, trained-in signals, like installed software. A mechanical action that was then tied specifically to an intent. First the intent had to be there but usually the horse unlearns to listen to the intent behind the mechanical aid, and will just listen to the aid.
In this way a horse can be trained, that no matter where it might be in the world or who might be riding it, they can be ridden and used. For example, if they feel heel pressure it usually means forwards. Logically, it’s also possible to teach a horse to go forwards if we do a number of other mechanical movements, like, if I touch your withers, go forwards, slap my thigh, go forwards. But yes, in this sense of the word, Sister was trained. She knew that if her rider positioned in a certain way, to go ahead and do a specific thing in response. But this meant she did not always listen to her riders intent. Because maybe her rider/trainer never had any? I don’t know.
It was the third lesson. Everything has been going fine. I felt good with Sister and we were progressing. Then, for seemingly no reason, Sister started actively side passing at a walk. What? I didn’t want to side pass. I wanted to just chill and go forwards. I sat deeper, looked forwards, squeezed my heels and urged her onwards, to stop dribbling to the side. I repositioned her head to look in the direction of where I wanted to go, but Sister wasn’t looking where she was going, Sister barely knew where she was. She was now exactly what she had been trained to be, a machine. And now she was throwing out a mindless gesture, maybe it was a new task with her and her rider, and in previous trainings which had nothing to do with my lesson, she was taught to side pass and then training was stopped. So Sister might be thinking, if I side pass, I can finish. This is all what I think of now, retrospectively, but at the time I was confused.
‘Why is she going sideways? I don’t want to go that way, she is not listening’ I asked the young Polish owner, who was apparently also training her, and training me too.
Her trainers reply, I’ll never forget.
‘Just put your left hand down and back, shorter rein, make your right rein a little higher and tighter, your inside leg to the front and press her into your left, pull her body around your inside leg and sit with right hip a bit forwards…’
That was not what I was asking. I asked, WHY she was going sideway? Not, ‘What series of positions may I take to manipulate her into going forwards’.
Look at a horses in nature. Imagine a whole herd was headed towards a goal, like a water source, or new patch of grass, and all horses were relaxed yet intent on where they were going, ears pricked or relaxed to the side, and travelling forwards -straight- in a natural and effortless way. If watching this scene one horse suddenly ducked its head behind the vertical, rolled its eyes to look sort of behind it, and started aimlessly drifting sideway, bumping into other horses, or running itself into ditches or unseen poor footing, you would think there was something missing in this horse… mentally. It is a pretty basic need of a horse, to go forwards without effort. Why then must we manipulate horses when riding to go forwards properly? I understand the argument that when they carry our weight they must develop special and different muscles in order to be strong enough to carry us, but I condition my horse to be strong enough to carry me, before he carries me, out of respect for him! All he has is himself, and when I ride him I am with ALL he has!
I know when it comes to high school dressage a whole range of technical details are involved, and then we must ride with more details, yet there are horses who can naturally perform such movements without being manipulated into them. What I am talking about is basics. Can a horse walk, trot, canter, gallop, back, left, right and stop on a loose rein, with simple aids? I believe, if they cannot, the rider then has no business talking about ‘Collection’, because there is a difference between collection and containment because you are just afraid. Afraid of your horses potential, your own potential and losing control.
If I have to over-position and manipulate my body in order to have a horse travel not only forwards but in a healthy biomechanical position and movement chain, then something is wrong somewhere. I call that an un-healthy and mechanical manipulation of a natural alive creature. Go buy computer software to program, or a motorbike to tinker with, if you love machines and unnatural systems. Respect the horse as a living breathing creature with a mind and opinions.
That was the day i realised there was something I wanted and needed in a horse experience this trainer couldn’t provide me. I never went back to her or Sister.
I then later discovered natural horsemanship, and I continue to research and explore it in its many forms. I wouldn’t even say I had scratched yet 1% of the surface of what is there on offer… but I am certainly on a path that feels good to me.
Sister was surprising me with negativity in the moment, but in time became a positive. Such a simple, everyday riding lesson moment became really the cornerstone of all the choices I made after that point.
But some surprises are positive from the start. Another story, Sanson this time, showing what happens with a horse who understand only a riders intent, instead of understanding mechanical aids. A Surprise with sister will be something you don’t want. A Surprise with Sanson might be exactly what you need.
It was 3 years ago, one of Sanson’s best summers so far. We had been spending time together every evening in the dusty round pen after the stable work was over for the day. We had been going out on the mountain quite a lot by ourself and with clients.
That summer we had a number of excellent horse people on Working Holidays or Volunteer programs and I think Sarah, owner/manager, felt a small reward was due.
She put all of us on a really fun ride, the Waterfalls day ride. It went down the mountain, traversed west across the upper Cortijo’s and terraces of Lanjaron, before taking steep switchbacks up through Olive tree’s and lower reaches of the Sierra Nevada National Park. After a lunch stop at a spot over looking a waterfall in a valley below the ride then had fast canters back up the mountain again to a long scenic Mirador, and then back down to the Ranch again… I do love that ride! With my friend Amy in the lead on a very young and bombastic Spanish gelding Jaleo, me on Sanson at the time just turned 6 and all of us riding horses under 8 years of age. It was a very ‘Green’ ride. I think Sarah was grateful to have a yard full of decent riders and took the opportunity to develop the young horses with us.
We were on the mountain road headed into Lanjaron. Just before the bitumen road into town began in earnest, there came a blind corner, overhead was an ancient stone acequia and under it a sharp 180 degree turn. Just before the corner was a straight precipitous section with sharp rocky cliff climbing up to our right, to our left, bushy, rocky cliff drop. We were chilling out headed for the blind corner when suddenly, like a whale surfacing from the deep, a huge truck lurched out from around the blind corner, not 5 meters from us.
‘Aha,’ I thought. ‘This could get interesting’.
Panic. Scared by the sudden appearance of a large vehicle, Jaleo as lead horse started napping backwards in panic, quickly bumping into the noses of the horses behind him. Sanson and I were fourth in line and it took not 3 seconds to have three panicking horse bums pressed into Sanson’s face and my legs.
I sat deep. I froze and became very concentrated. Everything in my head and heart said to Sanson Just, do nothing. Sit tight. Stand still. Stay calm. I had him on a contact, but neither did I want to hold him back. There was nowhere to go anyway, between the narrow road, the sharp rocks and the steep cliff, and the idling lorry in front of us, I didn’t want Sanson to panic under pressure so more rein contact was the last thing he needed, all the horses were already going backwards anyway. I didn’t want him to turn and bolt either.
I know what happens in a group of green horses in a crisis, if all the horses pulled back, turned and ran, then their herd instincts take over and we would have had a bolting group of green horses on a mountain road, potential life threatening for all of us. I knew instinctively, that at least one horse and rider had to hold the ground, and act as an ‘anchor’ for all the other horses, to prevent a group bolting incident. I thought Sanson could be up to the task… hold your ground mate…I thought.
Here was a real life situation, where all the mechanical training aids in the world will fail and fall faster than the panties on a hooker. What would Sister’s trainer say now? Some instructions to tighten inside leg? Take him on a left rein? Yield sideways? No. Training like that doesn’t prepare for real situations. Intent and connection with your horse DOES.
BELOW: The mountain Sanson came from. This is a rather tame example of the kind of corner we were confronted with that day with the truck
He was a young horse. And though I had developed a pretty strong bond with him by now, I had not yet tested him in a ‘crisis’. He had yet to even go out front as lead horse. He was technically still learning to trek and only ever popped on the line of horses to learn his duties.
To my amazement, he honoured me. Be became very concentrated and stood stock still, ears on me, head erect. I sat with him, taking a breath. Not 6 seconds had passed. The front horses back peddling got worse but as a result, a small gap appeared, about 40 cm to our right, close by the rocky wall but far from the truck and the drop off.
Without prompting from me, Sanson boldly took a step forwards, and with his nose he pushed the horse’s bum nearest to us, out of the way, creating a space for us to pass. He did that without me. Then with a little bit of leg from me that just said to him yes you may he strode forwards and stood on the clear shoulder of the rode, sighed and licked his lips. He listened to my intent to not panic, and thought his way through, keeping both of us safe. I just patted him. Amazed that Sanson, the ‘nervous one’, was the only horse that kept his cool in a crisis.
Jaleo was so shaken he refused to then take the lead, even after the truck had cleared the road. So I just kissed to Sanson and there he went, he lead the others out of ‘danger’. That was his FIRST time in front as a lead horse. He held the lead for a couple of km before I eased him on back and let him just chill out in the line.
Sister and Sanson. Two different approaches, two different worlds. The choice is ours to make.