What Does It Mean To Train A Horse? - Ben Hart

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I had a thought and as it rambled though my mind I wrote it down. Now I would like to share that thought with you.

How do I know that I am the person to work with a particular horse?

Working with equines is not about the individual trainer or owner, no matter how great their equine training skills, marketing or publicity may be. It is about the sheer brilliance and ability of the horse, donkey or mule to figure out what on earth we humans want, what they have to do to survive, to receive rewards and to avoid discomfort. An incredible amount of equine intelligence and behaviour goes into just dealing with humans.

When people are derogatory towards other trainer, horse owner or methods of training, their comments often reflect their own egos and personalities. It is so often about them, not about the horse. The only true way to find the horseman inside each of us is to let go of our egos and say "it does not matter what other people say about me, I am truly in the deepest part of my soul and conscience working for the horse. I am the lightest I can be and I have continued to improve and learn more as I expand my own comfort zones, it is not about me it is about the horse", only then are we truly moving in the right direction. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge others until we have evolved to be the best horseman we can be.

[We can learn a lot about ourselves and our behaviour from studying the behaviour of horses - but we need to emulate the quiet times rather than fixate on the so-called dominance.]

There are many good trainers who advocate thousands of different methods. Their words are incredibly convincing and motivating to others trying to emulate the trainer's skill with horses. However, what we should be doing is trying to emulate the greatness of horses, with their ability to learn and their ability to develop an understanding of different methods of communication and ways of thinking. They are the most amazing creatures, and if we give them a chance, they would teach us about ourselves, but we seldom give them that opportunity.

When we are insulted or verbally attacked by another person for what we are or what we do, the immediate reaction is to fight back and justify ourselves. We argue, "no you are wrong, I am right, I did it because..." but this aggressive defence does not often work as the person who has initially attacked us has two options of recourse. They can fight back and attempt to justify what they have said or what they have done because of their beliefs or situation. As people push against our beliefs, we fight back to justify our feelings and thoughts and this tends to encourage more of a fight response in our challenger and a vicious circle is created. Unfortunately, we see the same thing with horses when they do not understand something or if they behave in a way that says "I don't like the way I'm being handled." The tendency is to push back, by making more work for them, applying more pressure, using a harsher bit, a firmer spur or a bigger smack.

The second option available to our verbal challenger is to concede, they could say "You are absolutely correct, I was wrong, I criticized you for the wrong reasons. I attacked you because I was personally upset by you, because I was angry and felt threatened." It is very difficult for us to admit that we are wrong or that perhaps our egos have been motivating our actions. When we work with horses we must learn to take truthful responsibility for our behaviour and then learn to think, "Ah! I can see you do not understand. I need to explain what I want a different way. I need to change the way I am communicating, I need to be patient and work with you," then we could all become better horsemen. When we are verbally attacked we should listen to what is being said and look for the motivations behind the words, just as we should look for the motivations behind our horse's behaviour.

If the true nature of equines was not to be amenable and compliant with a willingness to adapt to the confines of captivity we would never have domesticated horses as a species. Ability to learn is one of their greatest attributes, yet we humans have not learnt the lessons that they are teaching us. We take our own ego, aggression and discomfort and put it onto the horse and make the horse pay the price of our lack of balance, lack of control and lack of understanding and then the horse mirrors back what it is forced to work with in us. We overfeed them, under-exercise them, limit their mental stimulation and we wonder if they suffer. We too become bored, we become angry, we become overweight and we suffer. Our horses mirror the things we do to ourselves, how we humans deal with domestication determines how our horses behave.

In domestication there is no true 'natural' environment, trainers created the term Natural Horsemanship to make clients feel better for the restrictions domestication and training places on our equine partners and to set it apart from traditional methods. I am not knocking our attempts to be more understanding trainers and to create better environments for our horses to live in, this is essential to our horse's physical and mental health. However, I would like to stop us hiding behind the word natural as an illusion of perfection in horsemanship. Horsemanship is in the process of evolution and Natural Horsemanship is just a step on the evolutionary path that one day will hopefully be replaced with an even better form of horsemanship, perhaps behavioural science. Nothing we do to the horse is natural compared to the life of the free roaming horses.

The horse in the feral situation has a capacity for compassion, aggression, fight, flight, softness, rest and play. All the aspects of their personality are balanced and whilst individuals may have different characteristics, they can display them all, from the stallion that will play with his foals to the mare that will discipline a youngster. We humans often advocate and lecture with the intent to promote our own greatness, our own ability and our method. However, in horsemanship it is not our way that we should seek, it is the horse's way and we must begin to reach into the very essence and soul of the horse to understand who we are and who we need to become as human beings, to truly release our potential as horsemen, as parents, friends and partners.

People ask constantly "What do I do when?", "What do I do if...?"; "How do I deal with this situation?"; "What does this mean?", as if there should be a dictionary of horse terms that we can use to identify their every single motivation, action and belief. As yet we humans are incapable of indexing our own behaviour, so what chance do we have with the horse? The answer to these questions is always, "it depends".

Hopefully we all know what it is to feel love yet everybody's definition of love is a unique perception. True love, love for a friend, love of an object, love for gardening, all of these feelings are different. So how can a trainer say with certainty what a horse thinks or that certain behaviour should always be met with a set pattern of training? There is an uncertainty in true horsemanship, that if we let it, will create growth and strength and learning within the trainer. I believe that in every horse owners lifetime comes a horse that does not fit everything we have previously learnt. With this animal we either begin to learn and grow, we become stale and stubborn, or we sell the animal to someone else and they learn the lessons instead. This is what the horse can give us, an understanding of ourselves but we have to leave our egos at the door' because it is not about us.

We have domesticated another species and for 6,000 years we have restricted them, we have controlled the very nature of who they are, yet we search for the beauty of who they can be when they are free from our influence. When they are doing everything we ask or when they are running across the plains of Nevada, we perceive them as a most beautiful spirited animal. When their behaviour contradicts what we want or when they question us by communicating "I can't do that", when they show us "I don't know how to do what you ask", or when they act based on fear, the unenlightened tendency is to label them as troublesome, stubborn, difficult, or deceitful.

This journey of horsemanship, is not about learning to be a horse, it is about learning to be the best human being we can be. We need to find balance, to be able to set a boundary, to be able to say no, that's not I want you to do. It is not whether we say no, it's how you say no that is important to the horse. Horsemanship is about being able to open yourself to the possibility of being wrong, the possibility of change, the possibility of needing to know more, it's about being able to put your tools down and say "I understand and accept the effort involved in making the try, thank you".

[What lessons would you learn about yourself from this pony?]

When we criticize another person for their lack of ability or belittle a trait that we find unsuitable, have we first looked at ourselves to establish if we are without that trait, that we are perfect and that we can do everything? There is strength in softness and vulnerability, in being able to decide when to pick our battles, when to open our hand and let the rein go, when to step back and accept that it is OK to make a mistake. There is strength in being able to take responsibility for ourselves and we should learn not blame ourselves for the mistakes. We take responsibility for mistakes and learn from them and move forward, and there lies the subtle difference between blame and responsibility.

Our lives are governed by who we are. There is no reason to believe that horsemanship would be any different. We can be our own greatest enemy. We cause ourselves to be shy, to lack confidence, to be afraid, to be angry and to be impatient. We allow our brains to run freefall in a series of thoughts connected to the emotions, causing us to rebuild or destruct exactly who we are time and time again. We let this happen every day of our lives, yet we seldom grasp the opportunity to truly change, and to use change as a path to becoming a better person.

The first part of change is not to try and change, it is to accept the potential and possibility of change. When we change the way we think, we can truly change who we become and how we behave. It will be uncomfortable, but we can do it and we will be better for it. We can develop more understanding of ourselves, so we do not waste our potential by settling for anything less than the best we can be. However, choosing to learn will be a difficult and often painful road to follow, so we should not start the journey lightly. We all have a destiny to be the best that we can be, whether that means we become the best road sweeper, best nurse or the best horse trainer we can be does not matter, only that we strive to improve. We cannot possibly hope to obtain perfection in every single area of everything we do, but we must continually be open to the possibility of being the best that we can be, to challenge our potential, to actually begin to develop our knowledge of who we are.

Why did I have this thought? Well, so often I hear equine professionals say "The horse was fine, the owner was the problem"! It is time we all took more responsibility for who we are as horse people and worried a little less about what our neighbour believes to be true. When I talk about horse trainers I believe anyone who interacts with a horse in anyway is teaching it something and is therefore a trainer. Universally we need to accept the horses are the smart ones, after all they have to figure out what we want. Not enough credit is given to their ability to adapt and deal with the difficulties of working with humans.

The followers of "Natural Horsemanship" advocates are about to do exactly what they claim they despise in traditional training methods, namely make an exclusive club and pass judgment on other trainers and methods and develop the 'We're right so you can't be' attitude. The antidote to this is simply more walking the talk. What individuals do when training their horses is their choice. However, the common thread of Natural Horsemanship is putting the horse first and if we all do that, then in a few years we should all end up in the same place. Behavioural science is perhaps the next step in the evolution of horsemanship because it is not subjective, but horsemanship will always remain a balance of Art and Science and to ensure we use the science correctly we must first know ourselves.

I would wish for every trainer to recognize the efforts and bravery of the horse before they extol their own virtues. After all it is the horse that is doing the learning and the horse that has to overcome their fears and phobias. Horse trainers should remain humble, as it is clearly the horse that deserves the credit first. I feel it would be best if we trained ourselves before we trained our horses.

How do I know I should be working with a horse? I open myself to the possibility that I should not be working with them and then I leave my ego at the gate so that I can hear what the horse has to say on the subject.

Like I say it is just a thought that I had, and then I wanted to share. However what you think is far more important to your horse than what I think.

Reprinted with permission from Ben Hart