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.

The Teacher Learns

For years, horsewomen I like and respect have been telling me my teaching approach is very “classical.” I like that notion, because I have always been more attracted to the baroque than any other equestrian tradition. But after spending a weekend watching and listening to clinician Florian Zimmermann, a bereiter at the Spanish Riding School, I guess they must be right.

Those three days were a breath of fresh air for me as a teacher and a rider. The methods used and theories presented just made sense to me, right down to my core. Much of it fit into what I already do with my horses and my clients, but with some variations that I will enjoy exploring. Still more showed me that I have gotten a bit lazy in my own riding and in what I ask of my own horses, so it was inspiration to work harder. But in general it was very restful and familiar and clear. I never experienced a single moment when I didn’t understand what the clinician was trying to accomplish or why he was asking what he was of horse and rider.

Watching Florian ride was like listening in to a very respectful and entirely focused conversation between two intelligent beings working together to solve a problem. He exuded calm and, of course, his seat and hands were impeccable, but he also was clearly in charge, the undisputed leader in the dance by mutual consent, which was sometimes challenged but was never enforced with, well, force. The horses interjected their own “opinions,” and suggested courses of action that were quietly shaped and guided, never rejected or punished. The message stayed consistent, the energy stayed consistent and I could see the horses visibly relax, breathe and gain confidence.

The same was true for the riders, who also visibly benefited from his calm but uncompromising approach. The horse would fall out of the gait. “It doesn’t matter. Do it again.” The rider would lean forward and drop the horse in a transition. “It doesn’t matter. Do it again.” The extremely rude reining guy (more on him later) or his students would blunder right into the rider’s path and break her concentration. “It doesn’t matter. Do it again.” All the while he was quietly pushing each rider to pay attention to every transition, to ride every step, not even to slump in the saddle when we were walking on a long rein or resting and listening to critique and instructions. An interesting combination of aiming to make every movement as good as it could be, but not getting hung up on any individual failure. Stay in the present. Get on with it and do it better the next time.

Florian talked a lot about “showing the horse” what to do, never about “making” the horse do anything. He emphasized the basics – straightness and throughness and straightness again. Transitions, transitions, transitions. Help the horse do what you want, and when he does something else, no big deal. Show him again. Pet him and tell him when he does well. The single most uttered word of the weekend was “connection,” which was presented as the absolute and necessary basis for everything else. Those of you who know me and have worked with me or heard me teach know that is a word I use again and again; it is the overarching goal of everything I do with horses.

I generally glean some useful bit of information from every clinician I see, but the sorting out process always seems to include some squinched-up-forehead-incomprehension time and some outright winces when horses and their riders are asked to do things in ways I know are either biomechanically impossible or that seem unnecessarily harsh to me. I inevitably come home with a body sore from “feeling” tightness and bracing and pain from the horses. This time I came home relaxed and certain that my theory is sound even if my execution is less consistent than I would like. No aches and pains, only the inspiration to keep exploring and working. Whew.

Old Humans, New Tricks?

Horse people can be so impatient. They want their skills and their horses’ training to progress on a predetermined schedule, often based on a competition calendar or a chronological list of some kind.

This is a mindset I used to endorse, but which now just makes me smile. (Sometimes grimace, sometimes chuckle.) Why? Because I know that developing a physical, mental and emotional partnership with a horse is a process, not an event. You can’t just complete a set number of lessons or schooling sessions or shows and then declare that you are “there,” that you are now an accomplished horseman or horsewoman.

You can try, of course, but I’m betting your horse will have something to say about your personal milestone. And it might just not be what you want to hear.

When I ran a traditional lesson and training barn years ago, prospective clients almost invariably asked during our first conversation, “How long will it take before I can jump?” That usually came after they had told me at length how many lessons they had taken with which trainer or how many times they’d been on a dude-string trail ride or some such. At first I made the mistake of trying to give them an estimate based on what they had told me about their past experience. (This was before I learned that almost everyone inflates his or her experience at first!)

After I wised up, my standard answer was, “Anything from six lessons to six years.” That tended to be followed by a moment of mutual silence, which I generally followed with a laugh and the statement that although I was joking, I was also serious. This led to an explanation that every rider and every horse progresses at a different rate, and that my focus was on teaching good basic skills to keep both members of the partnership safe, sound and happy. The people who just wanted to run fast and jump high never called back. A good number of the sensible folk who actually wanted to learn to ride as well as they could showed up and generally did stay safe, sound and happy. Seemed like a fine business model to me, and it still does.

This approach does, however, present more of a challenge than you might think. Over the years a number of older riders, those lovely folks who take up riding in their 40s or 50s or even 60s, have lectured me about my firm insistence that they practice and master all the basic skills. One particularly prickly older gentleman got quite heated during a session in which I was focusing on improving his abysmal sitting trot despite his wish to lope circles at varying speeds. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at his age he didn’t have time to trot around and around until he was no longer bouncing on his poor horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. (Okay, my words, not his!) He was only interested in practicing the skills he needed to go work cattle. I was being unfair to him, wasting his precious riding time on things he didn’t like to do.

My response was that while I understood his sense of urgency, it wasn’t really relevant. The one who was putting up with his rotten seat was his horse, and she didn’t care how old he was. In order to work with her, instead of hindering and annoying her, there were certain things he needed to learn. And he couldn’t learn the advanced skills without mastering the basics any more than he would have been able to read classic literature without first learning the alphabet.  “See Spot Run” before “War and Peace.”

Your horse doesn’t care that a month from now there’s a show, a cattle drive, a group trail ride or your 50th birthday. All he knows is that today, in this moment, you and he need to come together – body, mind and energy – to build on what you learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. Learning is a progression – one thing leads to another leads to another. That’s true for horses and for humans.

And it’s not a straight line, either, no matter what some calendar or checklist might indicate. During the good times, it’s one step forward at a time. In challenging times, it’s one step forward, three steps back. It takes as long as it takes. And if you skip a step along the way? You might get away with it for a while, but I guarantee holes left in the basic skillset will come back to haunt both rider and horse one day.

The Benefits of “Beginner’s Mind”

I just love teaching adult beginners to work with horses. Their sense of awe and wonder at things that are part of my everyday life and work really keeps me seeing with fresh eyes. Everyday interactions with my horses can’t become mundane when students are finding so much to captivate them.

Novice horse enthusiasts have a whole new language to learn when they come to work with the four-legged teachers. For anyone who has spent years at a desk hunched over a computer, getting back in touch with your own body is quite an adventure. Add the horse, the master of body language, into the mix and the lessons are endlessly varied and quite fascinating. And even people whose lives and work keep them in touch with the physical can find insights and new depths in the incredible subtlety of horse speak.

The path from being afraid of horses to riding competently can be enlightening and empowering.

The path from being afraid of horses to riding competently can be enlightening and empowering.

What, you mean the horse will respond to my tone of voice or energy level? And respectful requests are generally met with more patience and compliance than are demands? And when I figure out how to align my intention with my posture and movement, the horse seems almost to read my mind? Cool!

When grown-ups can come to a new activity with open minds and open hearts, allowing themselves to explore and enjoy new ideas and experiences, they gain so much. Let’s face it, by the time we’re adults, most of us have mastered the skills we need in our everyday lives – or at least learned to fake it well enough to get by just fine. We do our jobs, we manage our households, we participate in our relationships, and we run the risk of becoming stale and stuck.

Taking a break from all that familiar competency to spend time in the “beginner’s mind” can be very freeing. Really, how long has it been since you tried something you were bad at, just because you had never done it before? What did you gain by taking the time to study and practice and get better? Even if you didn’t ever really master the skill, or you decided it wasn’t quite the thing for you, wasn’t just doing it was good for you on many levels?

I do think that lifelong learning keeps us young and interesting and keeps those synapses from going all stale and mushy. Brain cells are like muscles, once you get to a certain age. Use them or lose them! So bravo to all the adult beginners out there, being brave and adventurous enough to explore the wonderous world of horses.