Horsemanship – An Event or a Journey?

I had a good conversation the other day with a colleague who was voicing her frustration with clients who don’t seem to want to put in the time and effort to really learn about their horses, to do more than sit on top and steer and do the fun stuff like jump high and go to shows.

We talked about all the hours we have spent in our lives just watching how horses move and studying how good riders ride. About what fun it is to see how horses interact with each other and what their bodies can do and how they react in all kinds of situations. And about how we watched and pondered and figured out stuff and then went and tried it out with actual horses over and over and over until we started to learn how to accomplish goals and master skills and solve problems.

She referenced an article she’d read in which hunter/jumper guru George Morris wondered where the next generation of good horsemen and horsewomen were going to come from. A little hunting on the web brought up this Morris quote on the subject in a number of places: “We have a problem today and that’s called horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show. That’s competition. That’s competitive education. That isn’t basic education. That isn’t necessarily horsemanship or horsemaster education.”

It’s hard when people are so busy, trying to cram so many responsibilities and activities into each day. Horse time for many riders – adults and children alike – is confined to the lesson period and the tacking/untacking routine surrounding it. They don’t spend hours at the barn just hanging out and soaking up information. They don’t read and study and think about better riding and good horse care when they’re not at the barn. I’m not sure how these people, even if they want to, can become horsemen and horsewomen in the traditional sense. I do believe, though, that at least some of them would like to, would value that depth of knowledge and understanding. And I’m lucky that some of them are my students and friends and fellow explorers.

I have to say that I don’t think all the blame rests with the students, either. Several times recently people have lamented to me the things their trainer “wouldn’t let me do” or “never taught me.” And these were skills I consider pretty basic – grooming and tacking a horse, longing on a line or at liberty, giving a bath. Any true horsewoman or horseman should certainly be able to do these things with competence and confidence. But every riding student might not.

I get it. I really do. It takes a lot longer to teach a new student of any age how to groom and tack up than it would for me to do the same task. But, if I spend the time up front, later on the client can do that work on his or her own, leaving me free to do something else. And, much more important, the student gains all that lovely time to get to know the horse – how sensitive he is, where the good scritchy spots are, what mood he’s in that day, what kinds of things do and don’t bother him. All that insight helps a rider be more effective and compassionate. If the professionals don’t allow, and encourage, their students to make the most of the time they do spend with horses, how can we expect people to learn the subtleties of horse communication and the requirements of good horse care? Taking the time to teach riders the broadest possible range of basic horse management skills is akin to taking the time for horses to learn and master their basics. (And both of these seem to be getting more and more rare in the horse world.)

Even though I get frustrated with my fellow professionals, I do understand the reasons behind the choices they make. It’s not easy to keep clients happy in this instant-gratification world. Yes, there are still people who really love horses and want to learn all they can about them. But then there are the rest, and it seems to me they are becoming the majority. These are our local “weekend warrior” riders whose idea of fun is to go tearing down the sand washes for hours on unfit horses and are surprised when they turn up lame. And the teenage girls who get pissed when their instructor won’t let them take the weekly jump lesson unless they’ve shown up to do their flatwork the rest of the week. It’s the “can’t you just bute him because I already paid my entry fees and I want to go to the show” crowd. And the “school horses are always stiff/cranky/bored/marginally sound” people. And the “I just need a different bit/bigger spurs/more aggressive trainer” folks.

For many people, riding, riding, riding is the be-all, end-all activity. They don’t understand the satisfaction – or the important insights – they can gain by working with horses on the ground, by exploring all the nuances of movement and balance and communication from every perspective they can. They just want to ride, or so they think. So the instructor can go along with that (and keep the client happy, but ultimately dumb) or she can insist or cajole or entice the student into taking a broader view of the whole horse experience (and risk possibly losing a paying customer.) It’s a philosophical and moral choice and it’s a practical and financial choice. One takes more time and maybe is more fiscally risky; the other serves the present but doesn’t do much for the future of the industry, the person or the horses.

I got out of the horse business once and only got back in because I felt I could help make the world better for horses by educating people, even if I had to do it one at a time. I have stayed because I have found people who do take the broad view, who want to be good horsemen and horsewomen and who will put in the time and effort that takes. They inspire me to put in the time and effort, too. To do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to help them learn and explore and grow. It’s not an event, it’s a journey – a lifelong one for me.

3 thoughts on “Horsemanship – An Event or a Journey?

  1. I am grateful for you,Lisa and Stephanie for teaching me the way to be a good horsewoman and understand my horse in all aspects. I am continuing to strive to even better and be more knowlegeable about horses in general.

  2. I agree, it is hard when people don’t put in the time and effort. I know for a fact that half of my income goes towards my horse, for lessons, vet bills, feed, new and used tack, books and magazines. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am constantly reading up and learning new things and taking lessons whenever I can afford them. Last year I went to the Scottsdale Arabian Show and of course we went through the Schneider’s Saddlery tent. While asking an employee there for help choosing a western style bit for my sister’s horse, he remarked that a man and his daughter had come in earlier. They were looking for something and somehow during the conversation the man mentioned that he thought he and his daughter were “past the lesson phase.” Implying that he and his daughter needed no further training. I was just as appalled as the Schneider’s employee, who himself is a western trainer and still calls upon colleagues for help when he gets stuck. When are we really past the lesson phase? My answer is never, there is always something to learn!! That’s why I love horses :)

    • Great story, Julie. I suspect a horse will come into that family’s life and show them just how NOT past the lesson phase they are!

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