Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Horse Sense: The horses aren't the ones who need it!

I've been meaning to write this blog for a long time!

We've all met people who have not been riding for a long time, yet seem to have a natural understanding of horses. The horse respects them. They don't seem to experience the usual beginner problems. And horses LOVE them. The shy horse who avoids people comes up to them for scratches. Unhandled horses are more likely to come to them first than anyone else, even people with far more years of experience. They frequently hear the shocked phrase "she let you do that?????" after they've done something with a horse.

We've also met people who have been doing this for twenty, thirty, forty years and still don't seem to have that basic understanding of how a horse works. They are either constantly bullied and buffaloed by their horse(s), or they get hurt a lot (often not even riding-related, but ground accidents), or they've resorted to abusive methods and gimmicks to try to obtain control.

The difference is whether or not you possess this intangible sense for what the horse is thinking and feeling, what he is going to do next, and what you should do based upon that information.

I have said before, I am not a great rider. I have a myriad of equitation faults I'd love to pay someone to help me fix one day. I can't jump anything big because I can't "see" distances worth a crap. I am not terribly courageous, particularly outside the arena. I will definitely refuse to ride a serious bucker or a rearer at this point in my life. However, I will say that I have good instincts. I can tell you which weanling is going to pull back and panic when tied, and which is just going to wiggle around some and then accept it. I can put anything in a horse trailer with a minimum of drama. I have always been the one who can get the standing wrap on the unhandled two year old with a wire cut, or get the headshy horse clipped without twitches or drugs. I've never been hurt in a ground accident, despite doing things like helping load unhandled stock into a trailer in a parking lot at 2 in the morning. (yes, knock on wood!)

As I say, I'm not horsewoman of the year otherwise, and like everybody else I have stupid moments where I do things I knew better than to do, but my point is that some people do have a set of instincts for how horses think, behave, and which direction they are likely to rocket next - and that's something I'm not sure you can teach or train into someone. I've seen eight year olds who have it naturally and 40 year olds who've been in lessons with top trainers for 20 years who don't.

This is not the same as being a natural rider - the kid who is cantering on their third lesson, hands quiet, sitting the gait, no problem. Yeah, we're all jealous of that person. I am not that person. I wish I was! Some of you probably are! But being a natural rider is an athletic thing - this is more about mental connection with horses, a certain sense of what's going on (that you don't have to consciously think about)...it's like a continuous low-grade awareness of what is going on with the horse that tends to give you the ability to accomplish things others may not and avoid injury to yourself and the horse while doing it.

Why is this important? Well, it's something that affects everything you do with horses. It tells you how far you can push a young horse that you're training without freaking him out - how much you can expect, if he's ok or if he's getting fried. It tells you whether or not to try something on horseback that could get you seriously hurt if it went all wrong. It tells you that something is physically wrong with your horse even though your trainer is saying he's just stubborn and get after him. Sometimes it tells you that it's time to get the hell out of the way really fast - and that saves you from a very bad accident.

I've tried to analyze what it is - is it just about paying really close attention to the horse's body language? Watching for the tensing of muscles, the look in the eye, the position of the ears? Or is it more than that - some "sixth sense" that really does give a special insight? I remember many years ago, watching a trainer install side reins on a pony that was pulling on her young rider...and thinking, this is a bad idea, based upon the look on the pony's face the trainer should just get on it and sort it out...and not five minutes later, the pony flipped over and crushed the kid's pelvis. Now admittedly, side reins on a pony with a rider is something I would normally think was a bad idea anyway, but in retrospect it is interesting to me that I could tell that pony was at the about-to-blow point from 30 feet away and the trainer (who was a far more accomplished person, show-ring wise, than I will probably ever be) and certainly knew the pony better completely missed it.

I honestly think this is what the whole Natural Horsemanship fad is all about. People who don't have horse sense want it SO badly and many of the NH practitioners are feeding into that. Just come to our clinic $$$$$$$ buy our videos $$$$$$$ buy the special bit $$$$$$$$ and you too will be able to communicate with horses. You know, it doesn't work. This is how people get into trouble. They are being taught methods but many of them are learning them by rote as if you add action A to action B and horsey will always, 100% of the time, give you response C. We all know that is not how it works. Training a horse is not like programming a computer, and never will be.

So let's discuss this. Trainers/instructors, do you think there IS any way to train horse sense into someone who doesn't have it naturally? Do you think you've got good horse sense and that it gets better every year you work with horses (I do believe this...)? OTOH, have you been frustrated by the fact that you seem to lack horse sense? Are you sick of trainers/clinicians promising to give you these skills, and failing? Do you think is is 100% about experience and paying attention, or do you believe there is more to it, that it's almost about having some kind of (I hate to use this word, but you know what I mean) psychic connection with the animals? I really believe that if there was some way to teach horse sense, you could reduce horse-related accidents by 90% not to mention drastically reducing the number of horses who end up going to kill. What do you think?