Becoming a "Natural"
It just isn't fair, is it: the way some people are "naturals" with horses? Horses love them and will work their hearts out for them. Flowing transitions; relaxed cooperation; invisible, almost extrasensory, communication. They make it look too easy.
To every discouraged rider who's ever wished they were a "natural" I say very emphatically: don't assume you're not. From all thumbs except for their two left feet, and end up among the brightest stars in their field: the "naturals". This mysterious gift actually boils down to some pretty un-mysterious principles.
To get at these un-mysterious principles we must first strip away years of "conventional wisdom". The modern American horse industry (that is to say, horsemanship as a sport rather than transportation) is only about 50 years old. Most of the major breed registries, events, publications, and literature fall within that period. In that 50 years we've seen a myriad of different breeds ridden in wildly different styles under extremely different conditions by trainers who mostly kept their secrets to themselves. This has left our technology of horse training a patchwork of desperate fix it schemes which have only one thing in common: coercion. Horses are taught to cooperate to avoid punishment.
But the situation is improving. Increasingly rigorous competition and growing concern for animal welfare are driving the really ingenious trainers to the same conclusion: that performance is better when the horse is a full and willing partner, a co-creator, rather than just an underling taking orders. This is the "natural" approach, and a large segment of the horse industry is trying to achieve it.
But we're not there yet, not by a long shot. The underlying pattern of coercive training is that a horse learns by losing a long series of fights. Many of today's newer, more humane systems still follow that pattern: coercion is applied, usually a little more methodically, but applied nonetheless, and the horse succumbs. The only difference is that the horse is then rewarded with praise and petting, and every manner of mammalian warmth to show him that we really still love him after all. In this way, coercion, or the threat of punishment, is still the source of the pressure. Such hot/cold treatments, though born out of the best intentions, can actually be less effective training tools, and less humane owing to the frustration a horse feels trying to keep our moods straight. We must go the rest of the way, toward an approach that makes kindness the actual source of the pressure, not just an apology for it. This is the real secret of the "naturals".
Kindness as the source of pressure is perfectly natural owing to the horse's instinctive need to cooperate. The horse's chief evolutionary survival trick has been to find safety in numbers. It's a force as strong and constant as gravity: horses need company: herds. Being part of a herd is literally a matter of life or death to them. "Naturals" know that if they gain admission to this select fraternity, they will have the leverage of an insider. They also know that it only takes two to have a herd, and both parties needn't be horses in the strict sense of the word.
Pressure not Pain
Becoming a "natural" means not only being part of the herd, but also being the leader of that two-member herd. Here we encounter a substantial departure from conventional wisdom. As a means of dominating this small herd, pain is counterproductive. Rather than making us the leader of the herd, inflicting pain makes us the threat: the thing to be escaped from. Even when applied sparingly, pain adds anxiety to a situation and reduces understanding. It's true that a real life herd leader occasionally uses pain to exert his authority. But he uses tiny amounts, compared to what many horse trainers use. More importantly, he never uses pain to teach refined concepts to his charges. Pain is a blunt instrument, suited only for the simplest of messages like "Hey you, stay away from the mares!" But we will be enlarging our horse's minds with human concepts: the concept of a straight line; the concept of a circle; we'll teach him leg-tangling gaits that we've invented; we'll demand that his attention span, naturally geared toward five or ten second bursts, be stretched till he can concentrate for hours at a time; and we will demand physical conditioning to the point that he can actually be a danger to himself. Trying to cut a diamond with a mattock. The solution is pressure. The nearly infinite ways pressure can be applied makes it the ideal medium for building a language between horse and rider.
But pressure doesn't mean the same old pain, just less of it. Pressure means a methodically applied energy that guides him in a specific direction without threat. The meaning of this energy must be easily grasped, and his motive for complying must be cooperating with the herd leader, not avoiding punishment. The engine that drives this approach is that marvelous and natural relationship with an animal that drew us all to this business in the first place. Petting or brushing in the stall, hosing him down in the paddock, feeding him carrots by hand, these things all used to feel like indulgences that had to be left behind when it was time to work. It's taken me a lot of years to understand how to make the work session an extension of the quiet times.
Before this begins to sound a little sugar coated let me say that it is true that we often have to overpower our horse, just like a herd leader in the wild does. But whereas our wild counterpart must do it physically, we must always overpower our herd mentally. Consider that physically you and your horse are about evenly matched, that's if you use a fair number of human devices. Saddles, bridles, bits, whips, spurs, the arena: all are human tools needed to keep us on equal physical footing with our horses. But if we always keep the game mental, our advantage over him is so woefully lopsided that it's not even funny. We're not bragging, that's just our evolutionary luck. I'm only pointing out that by keeping the game mental we can be at least four times as effective as the biggest, baddest, buckingest, bitingest, kickingest herd leader that ever roamed the prairie, and that's without ever abusing him.
Keeping the game mental is, in my opinion, the most notable trait of the "naturals" that have gone the highest in this industry. That's why "naturals" know that all physical fights with horses are dead end streets. On the obvious side, this means that we must never pick one. On the less obvious side, this means that we must never accept his challenge to one. That's hard to do, especially those times when he's really trying to pick a bad one. But think of the time you've seen horses pick fights in the middle of some particularly difficult work. He bucks a little, kicks a little. Finally the rider takes up the gauntlet, and there ensues a mighty Armageddon: kicking and whinnying and whipping, and running up and down from one end of the ring to the other. And what's the horse doing? Mentally, he's relaxing. That's right, relaxing. A fight may be tough, but it gets him out of doing the brainwork, which is even tougher. Allowing a horse to change the subject from the work at hand to an argument over who's in charge is letting him off easy. So don't!
What do we do, if not fight? Just ride it out. For instance, say we are asking for a canter depart and he tries to pick a fight by bucking. We stay on board, calmly asking for that canter depart as much as possible. Don't get angry and don't punish. The incident will fizzle quicker, and as it does we will be there, still calmly asking for that canter depart.
The temptation to punish such tantrums is hard to resist because we find them so insulting. We are really just punishing him for having the gall to question our authority. "I'll show him who's boss here!" But the best way to show him who's boss is to get what we want out of him, not to fight a battle every time he calls one. To that end, nothing is more disarming to a horse than for you to not react the way he wanted you to. He wanted to fight. He was prepared to fight, happy to fight, he was sure you'd fight. When you suddenly don't, it will take the wind right out of his sails. You see, his disadvantage, being a horse, is that he doesn't usually have a plan B. So if plan A fizzles he'll often be visibly confused and open to suggestion. We then suggest that canter depart again. And we will get it.
Fighting back when a horse starts an argument also adds fuel to that argument, and can make it the dominant feature of the session. Of all the things you worked on that day, the fight may be what he remembers most. And because fights are what he remembers, fights are what he'll expect. You can see the endless cycle this is setting up. Not fighting back, hard as that is sometimes, will break this cycle. He'll stop picking fights because he knows they won't get him out of the work.
Avoiding fights is more than just a way to be nice to horses, it's a better way to train them. We all know how long these battles can last, and how exhausting to horse and rider they can be. And we also know that nagging feeling after such episodes that somehow the real core of the matter just wasn't touched upon, that all we accomplished was an uneasy truce. But the core of the matter can be touched on if we don't take the obvious route.
Athens Greece in the 4th century BC was the birth of Western Civilization, giving us the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Among these greats was a lesser known thinker named Xenophon who gave us the only treatise on horsemanship extant from that period. It's still a refreshing read, this book of Xenophon's. You won't find any pointers on sliding stops, or flying changes; and a lot of his advice is quite elementary by today's standards (for instance, he recommends keeping your horse in a stall.) But you will find there an unhurried philosophy of horse training as espoused by someone who had time to devote to the project, time to think problems through, and time to let his horses think them through. Avoiding short cuts or bullying, Xenophon allows his horses to come to fruition at their own speed. Twenty-four centuries later we don't have a lot of time. Modern life is rushing us along faster every day. We need faster transportation, quicker communication, tighter schedules, earlier deadlines, just to keep up. But unlike humans, horses cannot be rushed! They just can't. When it comes to realizing a horse's full potential there is no substitute for time.
This doesn't mean waste time or lolligag. It means breaking down our concepts into smaller, more comprehensible building blocks, then practicing them with him till they are over-learned. Solidified. Habit. It means being willing to back up with him, if need be, and patiently review previous lessons: the stronger the foundations, the higher we can build. Just remember that as long as understanding is being enhanced there is no such thing as a step backward.
Taking time also means not spreading ourselves too thin. It's better to train one horse well than to train two or three horses poorly. If we don't have time to do it right, how will we ever find time to do it over?
Such "natural" changes are more fundamental than most riders realize, and more challenge than many riders want. I certainly don't claim to have done any more than broach the subject here, a full discussion of the matter would go far beyond the scope of this article. But if I can leave the reader with one point it is don't think simply: the obvious route is not always the effective route; and many standard methods, accepted and sworn for decades, were but predecessors to the advanced strategies we now see taking shape.
Communication between two living breathing beings cannot be boiled down to recipes; and yet there are so many clever recipes out there. Distinguishing between true innovation and trendy recipes can be achieved by the least mysterious secret the "naturals" share: Practice. The champions all spend massive amounts of time on horseback. Popular myth tends to downplay this aspect of the "naturals". "It's a gift," we are told, "you either have it or you don't." To this I can't help repeating Thomas Edison's often quoted advice, that Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Bear this in mind the next time you envy some "natural". Through diligence, patience, and keeping an open mind, you can be as good as anyone out there.
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Updated: October 2005.