Sunday, May 24, 2009

Natural Horsemanship

I heard recently, in a video we watched in my Equine Science Survey course, that the rise of natural horsemanship coincides with a few things that have happened since the turn of the century: more women becoming involved with horses and horsemanship, principals of psychology being more widespread, and a higher level of education in today's average horse owner.

All of that makes a lot of sense, and helps explain the phenomenon of the Parellis, Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson, and any other number of trainers and clinicians that are out there today.

But the really interesting thing for me is how much of a difference listening to my own instincts--now with some affirmation, I admit--has made with Bar.

Owning a horse has been a life-altering experience for me, but one of the things no one warned me about was how much advice would come crashing down on me from all sides. "Use a stud chain on him!" "Use a tie-down." "Use a xxxx bit, that will slow him down." And every time I tried something harsher with him, all it did was make him fight it more, make him more upset, and more likely to take off. But I tried them all, despite the nagging sense that it wasn't the right thing for him, or for us. Now it's possible he knew I wasn't right with the tools I was using and took advantage, but it's also perfectly plausible that using the harshest method first is not the right tactic--certainly not with horses like him or Lena.

There is a balance, of course. When we first got Bar, he was a bad biter and there was no nice way to explain to him as we got to know each other that biting is not acceptable. Another horse would bite back, so a smack on the nose was the best response until we could work on the psychology of why he was biting in the first place. One of the pieces of advice I got was to never give him treats by hand and never let him be at all mouthy, but I could tell he knew the difference. So I reward him when he isn't shoving his nose in my pockets, when he doesn't snatch a the carrot, when he uses his lips instead of his teeth. Now when he really wants a carrot, he turns his head away from me or does a stretch between his front legs. Well, sometimes he gives me a smooch because I also taught him that, but giving him the opportunity to do the right thing--once we established that biting was the absolutely wrong thing--allowed him to be a better horse.

He and Lena both respond so much better to positive reinforcement and redirection of their energy. I've written before about setting him up to do the right thing and I have watched it build his confidence in himself and his trust in me to the point where he checks in with me nearly every time something starts to get a little out of control.

My challenge? Trusting myself and my own riding abilities and staying with him, allowing him to be exuberant and playful while on his back, as much as I do when I'm on the ground.

If I could transfer the trust and confidence I feel between us on the trail into the arena, that would be a magical thing.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Thank you for describing part of your journey - sometimes we have to try out different things to understand what works and what doesn't. It took me a long time to learn that using force to get a horse to do what you wanted might get results in the short term, but that taking the time needed to do things in a positive way, respecting the horse, resulted in a much more effective partnership that enables all sorts of amazing things to happen.