Guest Author - Susan Hopf
Chastisement for errant behavior in horses is a must if humans are to remain as safe as possible when working around these enormous beasts. However harsh corrections as well as harsh schooling methods are not only unnecessary but such reactions may instead turn around to bite you on the behind – quite literally.
Throughout the ages “control” of horses has gone through many incarnations. Xenophon was the “natural horseman” of 400 BC – kind and gentle for his time patience was apparently not a virtue during this turbulent era of human history. Horses were brutally trained for warfare for many thousands of years – torturous bits and cruel methods allowed those tasked with preparing a horse for war to obtain quick results – the goal of which was a mount that responded to the shifting of body weight in order to free both hands of the rider to wield a weapon – many believe that dressage sprung forth from this bloody beginning however this is currently under debate.
Fast forward to modern horse times and we have many of the same evolutions of equine schooling methods. Regardless of riding discipline, trainers are hired to ready horses for their clients. The needs and desires of these clients often times dictate how the trainer proceeds with the work at hand but this is the beginning of the end for the health of the horse. Horses should be the only creatures dictating the methodology of their schooling, care and acceptance in a human world – a decidedly foreign place when you weigh half a ton, have four legs and a body structure that allows you to fly – if only briefly.
“Natural Horsemanship” would seem to be the answer but this only covers instinct driven behavior issues and more often than not mutates into a series of tricks and performances – perhaps fun to watch but there is nothing natural about a horse lying down in the presence of a bear – please run away my four-legged friends and take me with you. Yes it is a good thing to know how a horse may respond in any given situation but why take that knowledge and transform the horse from horse into the realm of human reactivity – this diminishes the animals’ unique nobility and has only to do with human ego and safety.
Instead we need to understand both instinct and the proper biomechanic function of the horse – mind and body if you will. Solid and humane training for the horse must begin and end in the body. Body language is the only form of communication that comes naturally to horses but it is misunderstood when it is used to reform the horse into something else – this communication must stand alone and allow humans the best approach to enhancing the horse’s condition both in body and mind – it has nothing to do with control, as the only thing humans can really control, with regard to working with horses is their own body and yes it is as simple as that – at least to get started.
Try this exercise – lead your horse as you normally would. Check your body position – you should be walking with precision – lined up as you would be when mounted – head in alignment with the spine, shoulders, elbows, hips and ankles all in line with each other and all perpendicular to the ground. Your breathing should be steady and deep. When you walk you must do so leading with the hips and each step should be thoughtful. If you proceed as described above your horse is most likely walking quietly beside you and in the correct position – shoulder to shoulder with you, head and neck in front with a very slight feel that the horse’s inside shoulder moves away from you with each step (shoulder-in). If your horse is rushing away, leaning into you, dragging behind, or even worse, walking directly behind you then you must re-evaluate your position. Stop, position yourself as above and then walk on. If your horse does not step up into the proper position then try again – if again the horse does not step into the correct position you may need to encourage her forward with a whip or lead tapping behind you on the belly of the horse. Proceed until you are walking forward with the horse at your shoulder. Again re-evaluate your position but this time do so in motion, while continuing to walk – give your horse a few strides to feel your new position and then adjust his body. If you are walking as described above you are walking in balance and in so doing allowing the horse the time to re-organize his body and effectively change the way he moves – yes this small exercise will help your horse better utilize every inch of his body and you are creating the correct body language in which to proceed – naturally – from the horse’s perspective. The chastisement if things do not proceed as above must be directed to yourself. You must work at your own body control before expecting the horse to read correctly the body cues you are delivering. Allow the horse ample space and time to re-work her own body and this will keep all conflict to a minimum – no conflict – no chastisement needed – a win/win.