Horsemanship: Getting Down in the Dirt- More than Theoretical Learning

This blog comes as a result of several recent comments I’ve heard from horse people as they are getting “amped up” for the upcoming spring riding season. I’m always amazed at how many people I encounter that have “read something” or watched a “TV show” and suddenly been inspired to start to interact with their horses. Especially in areas of the country that are affected by nasty, cold winter weather, it seems that winter brings on a lethargic feel, and so instead of the actual hands on time with their horses, people tend to try to learn via technology, books, etc. This is great, and as I always say the first step is getting the information transmitted into your brain and then taking the time to process it. The problem is there is a “glitch” in the communication system between the person’s newly educated perspective and that of the unsuspecting horse.

Just because you have spent countless hours reading and processing the latest and greatest ideas on how to work with your horse, does not mean that from the last time you worked with him on a sub 0 degree blustery day, that your horse has any clue that in the mean time you have been on an accelerated “learning” program. He had no warning the next time you headed out to handle him three months after your last visit, that you would have a new degree of expectations of him. I don’t know why, but people can easily fall into the habit with their thinking being “Since I have read this information, my horse should have also received the news via osmosis.” Then the person gets frustrated because the horse isn’t “on the same page” as he stares at his owner with a completely blank look on his face.

The next idea I want to emphasize, highlight, bold, underline, etc. is that just because you have read or received “enlightening” information does not mean that the way in which you have processed and interpreted it will be appropriate or suitable for your horse at this point in time.

I like to think of working with horses much the same as putting a puzzle together. There first has to be boundaries (spatial in the horse’s case- the edges in the puzzle’s case) and then there has to be an organization of addressing small areas of the puzzle- just as you would with your horse. Eventually as you piece these areas together, you start to see the “whole” picture. But you usually cannot just walk up and take a random puzzle piece and place it in the spot where it belongs- although you may get lucky doing this once or twice, statistically you’re not going to do well with a 500 piece puzzle if this is your approach. The same goes for horses; you cannot just randomly wake up one day and decide “today we’re going to work on this.” Your horse is not a book. He is not a machine. He is a being with is OWN mind and emotions and just because YOU woke up today with a newfound enlightenment does not mean that your horse has.

For me, I have a bit of a problem with today’s instant gratification society. This mind set has caused what I would call a de-evolution in the horse world. Kids that once grew up riding barefoot, bareback and in a halter who were constantly harassed by bad attitude ponies, learned balance, learned how to become clear with the pony, learned how to pick themselves up after a fall, etc. Now do I think there was quality horsemanship in these scenarios? No. BUT I do feel that the hours and hours spent with the animals instilled a certain “feel” in the rider’s balance, timing, thought and decision making processes? Absolutely. Nowadays I watch many new riders gets once a week lessons and parents wonder if their child is progressing fast enough. Time, miles, exposure, and experience all add up to the makings of a quality rider.

Adults on the other hand who have a job, a life, a family, etc. are finding it increasingly difficult to spend quality time with their four legged friends. This is fine, but then don’t expect your horse to have made leaps and bounds in his education if you’re only visiting him once a week.

Also because of the “hurry up and get it done” mentality I truly believe 85% of the horses on the market today are half the quality of what they were 20 years ago. The breeding quality has gone down, the putting time and a quality education into them used to be a priority, now many training systems seem to be “churning” the horses through their system, leaving in many cases, gaping holes in the horse’s confidence, sensitivity, balance, experience and exposure.

It used to be you could take your horse and ride him to the fairgrounds (who cared if you didn’t have a horse trailer?,) compete in ALL of the classes (English, Western, whatever- as long as you were riding,) ride him back home again and the next day go and chase cows with him. It used to be “fun” to do “everything” with our horses. Nowadays we bandage, stall, primp and shine these 1200 lb animals doing everything we can to “take the horse out of the horse” so that he will comply with our human demands and then wonder why he has all of these “issues.”

The number of horses I see that are physically broken down by seven, eight and nine years old is devastating. How is this all happening? My theory is back to instant gratification. Ever heard this story?

“This horse that was an “emotional” buy, turned out to not be what I wanted, so lets get another one.”

I can understand from a safety perspective how this makes sense, and I myself might suggest it. The problem is, many of these “turnover” horses with a multitude of past owners is due to the fact that many people are spending far less time getting their hands dirty with their horse! Then we wonder why our “partner” isn’t always easy to be around. Or we wonder why on our once a month ride when we head out with a group of 20 other people our horse is the one that’s jigging the whole ten mile ride? Or we wonder why that left lead after months of brainless riding is still hit and miss to achieve the few times we actually focus on it?

If money is tight and times are tough the cheapest thing you can do is go and hang out with your horse. I’m not joking. Find out who he really is. Honestly evaluate your relationship with him- I’m not talking about your long list of complaints of what he doesn’t do, but rather look at what he DOES do for you and then stop and ask yourself “Why on earth would he do this for me?” I’m serious. If our friends treated us the way most horse owners treat their horses (even if unintentional) we wouldn’t have very many friends. Before you try and find the next “magic solution” or attend the “life changing” clinic- put some hard hours in with your horse. Just the sense of movement, timing, rhythm, awareness, etc. will affect how you interact with your horse and how he views you in his life.

Don’t wait for someone to have to stand there and instruct you every step of the way. Take the initiative with a good dose of self discipline and start building that self you must have for when you’re in the saddle. As I tell my students, when you ride, there is only one leader, just like horses in a herd. If you aren’t even clear about your thoughts, your aids, your balance, your timing, your rhythm, how are you going to “be there” for your horse? It takes time. It takes discipline. It takes a clear head. It takes moments of frustration within you. But if you quietly and diligently persist you will start to see changes. And your horse will start to show his appreciation towards you for it.

We all hang on to the dream of glorious moments spent with our equines because there really is nothing else in life quite like it. But you won’t reach those moments and memories with effort and lots of dirt under your nails.
What’s stopping you really? No more excuses, no more half hearted, distracted riding sessions. On your journey of heading out to improve your horse, you’ll actually be improving a lot of qualities about you that will affect the rest of your life.

Here’s to down in the dirt!


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