I searched for a name for this page for a while, considering things like “training” and “movement” I really wanted to cover all of that but also felt there was a missing component in both of these which is little appreciated and so I eventually choose “Horsemanship”.
Perhaps your first impression of that word is the connection with “natural horsemanship” which has become the buzz term of recent years. I’m not against “natural horsemanship” in fact for the last 5 years I’ve followed and trained with an incredible “natural” horseman but like all things with horses not all instructors or theories are developed equally & just because something is packaged up and sold as “natural” doesn’t mean its wonderful. Likewise there’s some pretty awful “traditional” training thats out there. So again its about educating yourself, thinking outside the box and listening to both yourself and your horses as to what really “feels” right and good.
How our horses are trained and even why we are training them has become lost and for a long time been overlooked and little understood by the modern scientific approach to diagnosing and treating lameness and disease in horses. Do we really know how much it affects our horses? When was the last time your vet asked to see you train or work your horse?
In recent years I’ve been following the work of several incredible horseman one of whom is Klaus Schoneich. In his book on straightness training Klaus claims that 95% of the horses he sees are negatively affected in their performance to lesser or greater degrees by their inherent natural crookedness. A problem that is little understood and rarely addressed by most trainers but that has a far reaching impact on your horses behaviour, performance and actually both his metabolism and health.
I think to take a truly holistic approach we need to realise that training is a huge and vital piece of the overall puzzle that is so very often completely and utterly overlooked. We need to equip ourselves with an understanding of what we need to look for and then find the tools and trainers to help us assist our horses for their own wellbeing.
So what does Horsemanship mean…
It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years, for me its about working with my horses and not against them, its about finding their individual strengths and working to help them be happier and healthier. Listening to them and helping them to become more confident and move with pride and dignity in a way that is breathtakingly beautiful.
How to achieve that is probably the million dollar question. I finally realised the answer was in the word itself… “Horse-Man-Ship”
You will often start, as indeed I did, by looking to improve the horse or even just train him. I feel that this will probably only ever get you so far, depending on your horse.
If however you are ever to be a good horseman at some point you will hopefully take a step back and realise that if you’re going to build a partnership and expect your horse to “improve” you better be prepared to take a long hard look in the mirror and do a bit of work on yourself too. This may well be the piece you’re missing. When I say look at yourself I don’t just mean in a physical sense of put your heels down, hold your hands steady, etc, I mean you need to look at yourself with a critical eye in an emotional, mental and physical sense taking that holistic thinking and applying it to yourself.
Horses are brilliant healers, teachers and companions and I believe they have infinitely more to teach us about ourselves then we have to teach them. There’s a huge amount to say on this subject and I will try and cover more in another article and blogs but I just wanted to bring it to your attention here as I think it is hugely important to remember there are two beings in this equation – Your Horse and You.
The end goal of all of that “work” I’d hope is a true partnership with your horse, one built on mutual respect, trust and time, where you help each other to have new experiences, reach new levels and grow into better “people” after that really the skies the limit.
I can’t talk about training without first bringing it back to basics and talking just purely about movement, which relates more to how the horses are kept and their lifestyle rather then necessarily how they are trained in their “work”.
Simple movement is a basic requirement for a healthy horse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the nutrition pages, horse’s evolved in a lifestyle and environment that required almost constant movement, moving and grazing for up to 20 hours a day. They simply weren’t designed for long periods of relative inactivity confined to a stable. The way their body functions requires movement to do so effectively. The Lymph system in particular is completely dependent on muscular movement and contraction to circulate and operate, it is not pumped round the body in the same way that the heart pumps blood regardless of whether you are moving or not, if they don’t move it doesn’t work properly. The Lymph system is basically the bodies waste disposal system and as one of my teacher’s put it when this isn’t operating well you are literally swimming in a cesspool of your own waste. By waste I mean the by-products produced by cellular metabolism, which occurs continually in the bodies cells. These waste products need to be excreted by the body as they are essentially little toxins that the body doesn’t need or want. The lymph transports these toxins from the cells to the organs of elimination like the liver and kidneys.So starting to think about how you can increase your horses movement on a daily basis is vitally important to ensure his health over the long term.
I think the most important part of any “training” should be to strive to leave the horse in a better place. Not just physically but emotionally and mentally too. The 3 can’t and shouldn’t really be separarted. At all times you are training the mind, body and spirit of yourself and your horse. An unhealthy horse will find it much harder to be a happy and generous horse for you (there are exceptions those horses are saints thats just their nature but thats no excuse to ignore what’s really going on!!). Think about yourself, if you’re sore or tired are you a bit grumpier then normal, are you more sensitive and possibly a bit protective of your body and those bits that are painful, well animals are no different to that.
When we ask our horses to carry us, so we can ride them, we need to realise this is not “natural”, they weren’t designed for that so it is our duty to help them and prepare their bodies to carry this additional load without it being detrimental in the long term. In its most basic form this means a shifting of the weight balance from the forehand towards the hind-end and a lightening of the forehand and engagement of the hind end, with an upwards swinging motion of the back (this is the key to knowing it is all working).
I’ve trained and been trained by literally 100’s of horses over the years and in that time worked with numerous trainers and ideologies, when it all shakes down the main thing it always comes back to is that all elusive term “feel”.
So how do you learn “feel” and help your horse to work correctly in self-carriage?
In-Hand Training will help achieve both. I consider it the most important aspect of training, sadly however it is also probably the most overlooked and least understood or utilised. How many of us have ever been taught this, its not easy to find someone to teach you? Yes you may have been taught to lunge or long-rein, I did my BHS stage 1 and we covered these, but how they were taught doesn’t really get to the true essence and value of correct in-hand training. Most people use lunging to “exercise” their horse rather then train it and even worse now there is a fashion for all the gadgets that are marketed to get your horse moving in an outline while you lunge!!
If you do not work with your horse and train it in hand I think you are neglecting a huge part of your responsibility as an owner/trainer/rider. All horses can and should be worked in hand from your companion pony, helping with condition and weight management to the highest level dressage horse being taught and trained new skills.
I first really began to see the importance of this when I started training with Ken Faulkner and over the years I’ve started to look more to the influences of truly classical dressage (inspired by Ken’s own constant references to the “old masters”) and most recently I had the pleasure to see Manolo Mendez to understand more and educate myself. Often in “natural horsemanship” the ground exercises are a way to “fix” problems, as lets be honest, generally its people who’ve exhausted most other options who turn to natural horsemanship as a last ditch chance when everything else has failed. It shouldn’t really be reserved for these cases though.
As you develop more with your horse, in-hand training will give you huge opportunities to work with and learn from your horse. You must be working on yourself, conscious of your own movements and intentions, the energy of your influence as well as the reactions and movements of your horse. Done well In-hand training is beautiful to watch, it should be like watching a dance between the horse and handler.
Working in hand also gives you ample opportunity to combine bodywork into your training, incorporating stretches and massage to help release tension and improve movement as and when seen and needed.
I highly recommend reading and watching more of what Klaus Schoneich, Manolo Mendez and Ken Faulkner have to say and the tools they have to offer you to develop this aspect of your training with your horse.
Of course your responsibility doesn’t stop when you step in the saddle, the 3 horseman I have actively followed all help you transition the skills you have learnt and taught on the ground into the saddle to help you maintain the foundation you have built even when adding the riders weight.
In-hand work coupled with an holistic approach has been the key for me in the rehabilitation of a horse that had un-diagnosable lameness that had vets stumped as well as being classified as “unrideable”. Yes he had a few problems, sadly most of them human created!! Its been a long road, but to take a horse that was washed up and on the scrap heap and see him getting stronger, happier and more confident in his body has convinced me even more of the importance “correct” work plays in our horses remaining healthy and reaching their full potential or indeed understanding and aiding recovery from lameness and illness.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is its about taking the time it takes, each horse is different as are each of us. There is no rush other then that of our own making, it is simply a choice we make. I’ve thrown the calendar out the window on numerous occasions when I’d thought I’d set myself a target of by this date I will be doing this…It simply doesn’t work like that. Yes set goals based on what you want to achieve, we all need that to keep moving forwards, but throw the timescale out the window, somethings will take longer some will be quicker but they will all happen in their own time whether we like it or not so generally its a lot easier to just take the time it takes and then enjoy the moment when you get there. There are no quick fixes, gadgets or short-cuts, you will pay the price for cutting corners at some point, thats not to say it has to take forever but it has to take the time it takes….
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