Compulsory viewing for all horse people. Please watch this documentary.
I watched this for the first time many years ago and it had a profound effect on me. I saw other horse people who felt the way I did! I felt that traditional training and horsemanship had seriously lost its way. Why had so many forgotten why they came to the horse, usually as children, in the first place? What happened to joy, togetherness and just being together? What happened to creativity and play? Why are horses no longer dancing with us? This documentary showed me that it is possible to forge a new way forwards.
I have since found and read the published works of each of the trainers depicted in this documentary. Each of them so different! But each of them contributing a unique and authentic perspective on horses.
Klaus F. Hempfling has several books and lots of Youtube videos. Training with him in Denmark would require me to remortgage my home, it is SO expensive. A specially designed One on One three day workshop with him costs over 8000 Euro. That is not a typo, that was one eight and then three zeros. But, each to their own I guess. Watching his work online I can understand his price. His published works are also excellent. He has a background in theatre and dance just like me, and spent a lot of his life working in Spain with Spanish horses too. At 46.10 m on the documentary ‘The Path of the Horse’ he says:
” So the first thing, coming home, understanding something from horses, from the world from authenticity, is to lay down to relax and stop DOING something! Because we are doing too much, we are doing too much, we are doing too much. This is the first entrance (into contact with a horse) “
When I read this it was hard to describe the profound effect it had on me. At the time I was deep into my work with dance and it felt like no matter what I did, it was never enough. That I was never good enough, could never do enough, was not enough! That I felt worthless, despite how hard I was working to please people and to feel just a small amount of peace in my work.
Hearing these words out of the mouth of someone with a comparable background to me caused a tidal wave of relief to wash over me. It was like confirmation of something I had just felt intuitively, but had not had the courage to express openly yet. It gave me PERMISSION to stop. Stop trying so hard – Start being myself! I humoured the possibility that who and what I was, was good enough without additions. It offered some hope that one day, I might be found in a place where I wouldn’t have to constantly explain myself to people, or work like a dog for scraps off the table, be ignored, put aside, unsupported, used and pushed around. I began to hope that one day I could just be myself and be ok. Maybe more than ok- it would be the key to my success at least with horses, and maybe with more too.
I see it all the time. People come to their horse and start doing something. They do a lot. They expect their horse to perform and to give and give and give. But what is the human giving back? These horses sometimes have some understanding of their activities and sometimes not. But there is always a state of action. Do, do, do! Don’t stop. Don’t refuse. Cruel horse people will abuse the horse to get it to perform. More informed horse people may simply resort to begging. The sensitive souls will just get scared and over think the whole situation, making them less effective.
Recently I was helping my friend Amy with her horse Onyx. Onyx is a recently gelded PRE Andalucian horse. He is jet black and adored by Amy who started him under saddle and rode him for a few years without major incident. Not long ago she moved him to a trekking centre to get some work on him, where he would receive different riders on different days and take them out onto the surrounding mountains. He struggled with this adjustment and shortly after beginning his new job he got into a habit of rearing up. Not in the cute trick-training sense when the horse is asked to do this. He would rear up during the ride, before the ride, unasked by the rider. He even scared a client to the point where she had to finish her trek prematurely.
Onyx was just an unhappy horse looking for some relief.
Amy saw that his new job wasn’t the right spot for him and moved him back home with her other Hispano Arab gelding. But the rearing habit remained. She told me over beer and tapas one night that he continued to rear each time she mounted for riding, but would then be an absolute gem as she rode him out. He had also become hard to catch. Her friends and family called Onyx crazy, but Amy knew her sweet horse was still inside somewhere but wasn’t sure how to proceed, how to help him through. She admitted to being a bit stuck. I offered to help and give her a different perspective. To solve a problem that you are stuck on, sometimes all you need is a fresh pair of eyes.
Some horses rear out of a ‘play’ state of mind. I call it Stallion Play, for want of a better term because mares do it too.
But not Onyx. Some explained the rearing as Onyx, recently gelded, responding to surrounding hormones of the many mares on the farm, after living many years without many mares around him. But to me, that did not explain why the problem remained when he was moved back home, living with only another gelding, and only touched by his beloved owner who first trained him. This was not an accidental response to his environment. Other than stumbling in the paddock or similar, there are no accidents with horses- everything has a reason, a cause and an effect. I saw this an Onyx having developed a dangerous emotional pathology. I did not believe that he wanted to rear. He was rearing because he felt like he had to.
I saw an anxious horse.
I saw worry.
I saw confusion.
I saw hurt.
I saw a possibility for true healing.
Onyx was a sensible and sensitive horse, who wanted to understand the world around him before he offered a response to his environment. My guess was that he found himself in a situation where he felt trapped, and he couldn’t go anywhere except UP to escape it. Up had become his tool to cope with worry. Worry about confusion. Worry about losing his balance. Worry about feeling trapped by his rider or his work.
There are many tools, techniques and methods used to ‘cure’ a rearing horse. I did not use any of them. I just asked to see Amy in normal activities with him, what she would normally do. The moment I saw her ‘normal’ take him off track- I stepped in to communicate to Amy on Onyx’s behalf. To be clear, Amy is an incredible horse woman I admire greatly. But I have an unusual knack for seeing tiny things some horse people do not see, or they see them and don’t attribute meaning to them. I am coming into horses from a totally unusual direction so I can see parts of a horse and their behaviour that normally go unchecked.
She was able to catch Onyx quickly and with a gentle soft approach, no worries there. She was able to tack him, as he closed his eyes and snoozed- so I knew this was not a fear about being ridden. He actually seemed to relax and soften MORE when the saddle and bridle went on, like a horse does when they look forward to going on a ride.
But the moment she look him to warm up and longe I saw his expression change. He did not so much as trot, as he ran into a faster movement to stop himself falling over. So I ticked ‘Balance’ as a box he needed ticking.
In this case I solve balance by asking the horse to move with a simple impulse on my behalf and then leaving them alone when they do move. When I say leave them alone I do not mean I fall sleep and disconnect, I mean that I just stay there with them as a presence of support, but I will not nag, push or micro-manage the horse. I do not ask much from the horse except that they show me what their movement is on that day. Just like us, they have good days and bad days, I want to give them a chance to work through things on their own. If the horse was totally green, it may need more intervention or a stronger leadership from me directly, but if the horse is more or less settled and matured, I believe they should be able to self organise and self motivate.
I do not escalate the pressure on the horse once they do move, until they are clearly moving balanced on all four legs. If I escalated forwards pressure upon the horse when they are not balanced I am effectively pushing them over the edge of a cliff, and this can frighten them, or even irritate and annoy them. Each horse will have their own unique way to tell you that they are at their ‘forward movement limit’ for that day. It is imperative that we are aware and listen to the horse. Once the horse shows signs of self-organisation (Good rhythm, stretching, movement without anxiety) then I can increase pressure, to change the movement, go faster, or go slower. Balance has nothing to do with speed. And speed has nothing to do with balance.
I asked Amy to refrain from a ‘chasing’ mentality when lunging. Just stay there in the centre and watch Onyx move. Onyx needed to see that you were present but not pushing him, so that he had space and time to get himself together.
Imagine someone waking you up, and rushing you out the door before you had a chance to put your clothes on- and then asking you to stand at work naked and work perfectly. Could you do it? If you could, you might be someone I would avoid!
I asked Amy to move Onyx simply for a couple of revolutions and then bring him in to stand with her and DO NOTHING. If any activity is chosen, rub on him, love on him, tell him he is the best. He needed reassurance- not discipline.
“Do nothing?’ She said.
Not a nothing-take-out-your-phone-do-your-taxes-have-a-coffee-break-nothing. An active, concentrated, meaningful NOTHING. Stand with your horse, ground yourself in this earth and just breathe. Be aware of your life, your environment and this present moment. It should be like a meditation.
Onyx took a deep sigh and slowly blinked. Amy rubbed on him and smiled. Talking to him in his ear like she would have done when she backed him, which was obviously a good memory for Onyx- his backing. I know horse owners who would be envious of the polite way Onyx stood still to receive his saddle, how he did not bloat when she girthed him. How he closed his eyes and leaned into the bridle as she slipped the snaffle bit into his mouth. His backing was a positive memory for him. His issue was specific about certain moments when being ridden or mounted.
To take his mind away from elevation, or rearing, I asked Amy to carefully kneel down in front of him, and bring his head down to her level, and love on him some more with a lowered head. Something not to be done on certain horses with safety or boundary issues! With Onyx, who was experiencing anxiety, it was appropriate. A horse with a lowered head is physiologically incapable of producing further stress hormones and releasing them into their bloody stream. That is just science. Monty Roberts has long since proved this- more then 20 years ago, that the higher the head carriage a horse has, the higher their adrenaline and cortisol levels are. Amy did so, and Onyx half closed his eyes and took slow deep breaths, as Amy just loved on him some more. This was healing the hurt for this horse one breath and blink at a time.
Before a horse rears they have to elevate their shoulder, their withers and their neck. I wanted Onyx to move out of that mentality before the rear happened. I was not so much curing the actual rear itself. I was just providing Onyx his needs so he wouldn’t feel the need to rear in the first place.
I did none of this with my hands. Amy did. I just provided suggestions, which Amy followed if she wanted to. This was important because her and Onyx knew each other and had a connection. A connection stronger than what I could have offered Onyx that day. Me offering direction and Amy doing the action was was the best choice to be effective for that day. After all, I was leaving Spain the next day. It was Amy who had to succeed with this horse- not me. It is not about me. It is about the damn HORSE.
‘You need to do more nothing together. Active nothing in a training environment.’
“We hang out in the paddock together loads…’ Amy offered.
“Yes you need to bring him into his training environment. The place where he is normally DOING something, and bring him tacked and everything and just do more nothing with him. Build up slowly the activity but only if he can do nothing with you first. Ask less of him. To you trotting in circles is easy, but never over estimate where a horse is… let them show you where they are. Until his balance improves, ask less”
We went through a similar procedure a few more times and got ready to mount. As Amy was adjusting the stirrups she said,
“I can already tell that he just won’t rear. I bet he won’t do it today!’. And laughed, typical was life with horses. When you sort of need them to present you the problem so you can solve it, the problem dissolves! But that was my goal, I didn’t want Onyx to show me his problems- at all, ever! I am not interested in perpetuating his struggle. I am interesting in getting on with life in a positive and productive way!
This was important to me, because it told me that Amy had stopped operating from a mindset of ‘What I am supposed to do with my horse‘ and changed into the mindset of ‘What does my horse feel like and what is he likely to do today’. She was working now with her intuition and gut, rather than with her cleverness or ‘education’. Which happens to be the topic of my next blog.
We kept everything calm and quiet and just kept loving on Onyx each step of the way. Reassuring him. Amy is a phenomenal rider, I have seen her successfully ride horses I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole at the time she rode on them. Maybe I would ride those horses now that I have more experience but she is a horse person I admire and wouldn’t hesitate to employ or ride with. So my concern was not about her abilities, but about meeting her horses emotional needs.
She got on him. He wobbled around, and he looked like for a moment he might consider a rear if pushed further- again presenting a balance issue. I asked her to not make any rein contact, if he felt even a soft contact it may cue him to elevate. Asked her just to steady and square him up and stand him still. Do nothing. 10 seconds passed… his feet stopped moving. He was a bit tense, but he stood still. He blinked, ears back on Amy- listening,waiting…
‘Now get down and just love on him. ‘
Second time we mounted up. He stood like grandmas horse! I made a little happy dance. Amy smiled ear to ear and cheered her little guy on for being so good.
So, I got on her other gelding, a prince we call Pepe, and we went out for a short ride in the sun. Onyx looked like the happiest Spanish pony in the Alpujarrah’s. And when we came to the home turn off, he happily went in the other direction, with a wide eyed Amy shocked and happy to see her horse who clearly wanted to go and adventure with her, rather than go home.
‘He LOVES to go out!’
We should all do more of whatever our horse loves to do! Even if that means doing more nothing.
It was a happy morning for both of us. And the first time I had solved a rearing issue. Having said that, I solved 0nyx’s rearing issue! Not rearing as a general topic! Understand the difference. I was working with the horse in front of me, and adjusting the ‘methods’ on the horses needs, rather than asking the horse to adjust to my method. I came with no pre-designed or rehearsed training agenda or technique. I came with the desire to help, and offer a different perspective on the half of the horse. I wanted healing more than I wanted change. I wanted to help Amy. Amy is one of the only people who rode my Sanson when he lived in Spain and rode him gently and kindly. I wanted to help her feel better with her horse like she helped me with mine.
I had seen a rearing stallion in Poland two weeks prior to this at a saddle fitting consultation. This horse was not presenting an anxiety issue like Onyx, but anger and frustration! At this particular stable all the horses had being cooped up for 2 days in horse boxes after the autumn de-worming had been done, and their paddocks needed 48 hours rest to kill any parasitic eggs that remained on the earth. The same approach that worked for Onyx would not work for this stallion- whose needs were quite different. This stallion, used for dressage, also needed more ‘nothing’ done with him, but a nothing without human intervention. He was frustrated at being contained and cooped up for hours and hours and hours and should have been turned out in a large pasture for a couple of weeks and let run, let free. He would not have felt the need then to rear during a saddle fitting. Frustration functions quite differently to anxiety.
I believe that finding a place of stillness with your horse is the foundation all horses need. From that foundation you can build high energy moments like racing gallops or flashy tricks – whatever you want – but if the foundation of that big expressive moment is a place of peace and stillness, you can be sure that your horse is offering you something out of their own generous will, rather than offering you something because they are looking for the exit and are trying to barter with you for peace.
Horses want, crave and deserve peace. I am coming to the understanding that dominance theory in horse training is pure bullshit. Even in some natural horsemanship methods where dominance is used actively, I don’t understand why one should want to replicate the behaviour of an aggressive horse in training. In the wild, horses live a peaceful life. The wilderness is not like a BBC documentary. The wild is often depicted as a primitive, harsh place, a constant fight for your life, death in a lions jaw or drought. But anyone who has gone on extended trail rides out into wilderness can tell you that the wild is a peaceful place. The animals mostly mosey about their business unmolested. Go to a shopping mall at Christmas time however and you may see a brutal, primitive, fight for your life struggle. But the animals out in nature live primarily in peace. There are these short, intense moments of ending, death and struggle, but horses move very quickly out of the bad moments.
Unlike humans, horses are not programmed to accept suffering! The sad part is, so many domesticated horses are programmed to accept a human-centric world view of suffering as an accepted norm. Learned helplessness. I think that is also bullshit. Life is not about suffering. Life will not will be easy or pleasant- but we should move away from darkness and lean more into the light.
Doing an ‘active nothing’ with Sanson is key to my success with him. It is how I keep him safe and happy- and me safe and happy too. I ask nothing of him except being and togetherness, before I ask something of him.
When I do ask something of him, it is still with an attitude of ‘This will stretch you and challenge you, but can you feel my peace out there while you try it? If I ask you to do something hard, I am here to support you, I won’t abandon you in the struggle‘. Molly-coddling and over-protecting your horse by never asking anything of them is not the answer either. I ask a lot of Sanson. But I ask him to to it together with me. If I prove that I won’t abandon him in the struggle, then he won’t abandon me in his moments of crisis.
Do activity with a horse with your heart wide open and I promise they will never leave you. Provide moments of time where the horse can be at peace with you, and they will be more receptive to the requests you make of them afterwards.
Build a balance with your horse between activity and peacefulness and see the difference it makes.
Because I promise it means the world to a horse.