Sometimes it’s not Easy Being a Horsemanship Practitioner.
Mostly my work is very rewarding and enjoyable. I get to meet amazing horses and lovely people. Sometimes I am a last resort call. A few people and or horses are struggling; sometimes they are in terrible places. Some are actively looking for a better way. I am blessed to help them on their journey. I get to see people and their horse’s blossom into great partnerships that have a strong bond enjoying rewarding and fun activities. I see how horsemanship helps people to develop in themselves, often their horse is the only one who can provide them with the life lessons they are learning. It is a privilege to be part of this very personal journey.
However sometimes doing my job is heart breaking. I see and hear stuff that isn’t great for either the horse or the human. I know that my thinking and my reality are miles away from what a lot of other people see and think in regard to horses. And that is why sometimes I get reminders of how far my thinking and reality are. It does shock and sadden me at some of the statements I hear and things I see. Once you have seen something you can’t un-see it. Once you have seen suffering and know you cannot influence the outcome it haunts you.
My one voice will not change the bigger picture. Face to face I can only help one horse and one person at a time. For the wider equine world I dedicate a lot of time to make horsemanship resources available for FREE. However there are more of us who collectively can help raise the bar for equines and help those we connect with to see things from a different perspective. I personally try to promote positive messages and not bash what I hate. I shy away from sharing the tragic stories that are in the news every day. The negativity enters into our homes and over time the drip, drip feed of it can damage you. I am not ignoring the challenges we face, but actively deciding that the way forward is to promote good practice. This article is about challenging things I often hear and see. The world for horses is still full of horrors and there is much to do to raising the bar.
“My horse is physically ok, so he must be emotionally unbalanced.” I get asked to resolve the emotional issues. You can’t convince me that horses are not emotional beings. They are emotional, sentient, spiritual creatures. And yes there are plenty of horses that are emotionally damaged, and my work is often about helping these troubled souls. Often this is alongside vets, physiotherapists and other complimentary therapists. However here is a fact, you can’t train pain. I always fact find, check out history and ask who had done the physical checks, what did they find, etc. Sadly some horses are not insured so the checks are limited to what the owner could afford. Even the very best vets without access to diagnostic tests are limited by what they can see and feel. The diagnostic tests, such as: nerve blocks, x-rays, ultra sound scans, scintigraphy, MRI, etc…that would help diagnosis are often not been done due to the costs. Let alone the horse get referred to an equine specialist for a full work up. So a diagnosis and conclusion as to what is wrong is not known. Yes, finding out exactly what is wrong can be very expensive, not only in terms of money, but the emotional roller-coaster ride that goes hand in hand with this. As once you know what is wrong you are faced with ethical decisions about the horse’s future. So some people are not keen to go down this path. Several horses that I have seen in this category had pain and a well-established compensatory way of moving, with no diagnosis of what was wrong. However the owner is convinced it is behavioural issues. The peer pressure around them usually labels the horse as naughty and the person feels under pressure to address behavioural issues. It’s cheaper to call out a horsemanship practitioner or a behavioural consultant than a vet….However you can’t train pain. No amount of horsemanship will ever remove an underlying condition. Sadly once it dawns on the person it is not behavioural, and the costs involved in getting a diagnosis, some of these horses get sold on. One will haunt me until I die. I was called out to a horse the owner couldn’t saddle up. She had been told by those around her that her horse was being naughty about having a saddle on. When I first visited this horse he was underweight, wormy, riddled with lice and depleted. Either side of his withers were full skin thickness scars with proud flesh about the size of your palm. No wonder he didn’t want a saddle. It took several visits before I could get the owner to get the vet. The vet confirmed this horse could never be ridden, the damage was extensive. This horse was sold on. It’s out in the system. Poor soul; if it’s labelled as naughty; god help anyone who would try to ride it.
Oh if I had a pound for every time I heard “I’ve been told to show him who is boss.” I would be very rich. What type of relationship with a horse is that? Not one that sits right with me. If a horse is acting up, it’s about asking why. Once you know why it’s acting up it’s about helping your horse using ethical methods that tap into their language and herd etiquette. Not to bully the horse into submission. Sadly people have been conditioned that the horse is often trying to get one over on them. “I was told to hit him with a stick when he does that as he’s trying it on.” Force and abuse are never the way with horses in my opinion. How about flipping this on its’ head and reward the behaviour you want? When you start using positive reinforcement in your horsemanship more of what you want starts to turn up, as you ignite intrinsic motivation from within the horse. Sadly many people even struggle to know the difference between a positive and a negative reinforcement let alone the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in horsemanship. You can read for FREE all about this in part one of the series of articles I wrote on Motivation for Horsemanship Magazine on the resources section on my website.
Gee I hear this one so often…. “My last instructor told me he’s won if I get off.” Who the heck sees a relationship with their horse as one winning or losing? In my opinion this is a terrible path to go down. When the relationship with your horse comes first, getting off it’s back when either of you need to is absolutely the right thing. It is so simple; you can always get back on. Here it is about educating people about a different approach to a human equine relationship.
“I don’t think giving rewards is a good idea as it teaches horses to be disrespectful, bite and misbehave.” Right let’s get this nailed once and for all. The herd has etiquette and rituals regarding food. If you train your horse to mind his manners using the language of the herd, asking him to observe herd etiquette you should have no problem using food as a reward. When using food as a reward your horse has to learn he has to earn the rewards, you are not a treat dispenser. You have to be consistent and only give rewards for the right behaviour. You can also make life easier for you my keeping food rewards in a treat bag that clips to your belt for groundwork or to the saddle for ridden. It only appears when you are training. The horse then does not associate pockets as where treats live. Food is not the only reward you can use. So if food is not a reward you want to use there are plenty of other positive reinforcements you can use.
“My last instructor said ride him through the protest, he’s being naughty.” Why do people not ask questions to find the root cause? Why does your horse not want to comply? Why is the horse resisting? Is the horse confused? Is my horse struggling physically or mentally with what I am asking? Is how I am asking the best way? Does my horse enjoy what I am asking it to do? Do I have permission from my horse to be doing x or y with my horse? Wow….permissive riding….how many folk stop to even consider this one? Or know what permissive riding is? Who would like to know more about permissive riding? No one ever asks me.
“The only way I can get my horse to move is to use spurs and a whip.” Their skin is super sensitive; they can feel a fly land on their skin. So how harsh is this riding? Many of these horses have learnt to defend themselves against being ridden with this force. Others have shut down and have a learnt helplessness. Others have protested and developed behavioural issues. Oh boy the amount of horses and people I have transformed their riding, to being one of the softest suggestion, with happy motivated horses. Horses are very intelligent and able to process, learn and connect with their rider. Horses are sentient, emotional and spiritual beings, so making a connection on this level opens up horsemanship to a very refined level. The process of getting the human to ditch the equipment and force is a wonderful journey for both horse and human. It’s liberating and ultimately their relationship becomes the magical connection they have dreamed of.
“The dealer we bought him off advised us to give the horse dope so we could ride.” The biggest red flag if ever you needed one. The horse in question, I witnessed via videos exhibiting very dangerous behaviour. The horse was clearly in pain. Sadly the owner was trawling social media for answers. I very rarely comment on such posts. However this person saw I was recommended by a one of my clients in the comments and she personal messaged me. As I cannot touch, or see first-hand I can only give general FREE advice. The problem is everyone can be an expert on social media. For sure there will be good advice out there, but mixed with the good, there will be bad and ugly. You are best to get professionals out to see your horse and what is going on.
“The expert on the yard (a non-professional) told me my horse was being naughty and I needed a harsher bit, drop noseband and to yank on the reins when he tried to run off or buck.” Yard-perts as I call them; have a powerful influence on people and even when someone’s gut feeling is telling them the information doesn’t feel right for them, they feel social pressure to conform. These people can appear to be the all-knowing oracle with a yard following. There are many stories that I can recall in this category. I am called in when the person has lost all confidence, had a nasty accident etc… This particular horse, when I visited was uncomfortable in his back, I recommended the vet visit. The vet concluded this horse needed treatment in his back and many visits from a physiotherapist. No wonder he was running off and bucking.
“I use draw reins because my horse is difficult to get into an outline. And everyone else on the yard uses them, so I don’t see a problem.” “I was told by my previous trainer to tighten the noseband to shut my horse’s mouth as it is evading the bit.” When asking people about why the choice of equipment to ride their horse in. People don’t understand how different bits, nosebands, bitless bridles, training gadgets etc…work. Sadly we live in a quick fix culture. There are no quick fixes or short cuts when we want to develop permissive riding.
I am sometimes a last resort call. Here are a few examples of the things people have asked for help with: “He’s fine with being saddled up. But once you are on, you are not on for long before he bolts, bucks or scrapes you off on the arena walls.” “My previous trainer was hospitalised by my horse after she rode him while using a buck stop.” “I can’t get out hacking. My horse is being naughty; he won’t go out of the yard, so my previous trainer used the whip. Now it doesn’t matter how much or how hard you whip or kick him he won’t leave the yard. He now rears.” “My last trainer said my horse is dangerous and to sell him, he bolts.” For these cases it is never a quick fix. I invest a lot of time in helping these people and their horses. Often this is alongside a range of other professionals. You can read about just one example for FREE – Riding the Storm in the resources section.
We have a very long way to go before everyone has signed up to permissive riding. I hope you can help in spreading good practice in some way. This way the collective has the power of influence. My dream is one day all horses are treated as sentient souls.