Disempowerment in the horse does not only stem from the tools that equestrians regularly use. We also rob their freedom of movement and power through the way that we train and handle them. Let’s say a horse is fortunate enough to live with a highly skilled and enlightened rider who never makes any mistakes, never loses her temper, has a perfectly fitting saddle, has soft hands, and an impeccable independent seat. That is a lucky horse, but is he truly free?
The basis of all training, whether on the ground, driving, or riding in any discipline, is that the horse should always yield to pressure – pressure from our body language, legs, hands, equipment, aids, and desire. The horse is given relatively little choice in the matter. The sign of a well-trained horse is great discipline and no questioning of authority and power. Essentially, the human should have complete control over the animal. The horse is to give and surrender to the wants of the human. We control their every move.
The horse’s expression, safety, and identity are formed through their freedom of movement, so we are essentially stripping them of their power and individuality by dictating the way in which they are to move and behave. Of course, to work with horses and have them perform to our liking we must exert power and control.
However, the techniques that we use are also carried forward through tradition from a time when we needed horses to be completely reliable. If you are depending on a horse to get your goods to market, you cannot afford to have a spooky or disobedient horse – that kind of behavior could cost you your livelihood. If you are riding into battle, you need to know that you have precise control over your horses every step or it could cost you your life. Humans no longer need horses to function as machines – we have cars and tanks to carry us safely to work or war.
Perhaps it would be alright to let go of some of the beliefs and patterns that are tied to the past way of training horses which relied heavily on controlling the horse, restricting their movement, dictating their every step, and getting the horse to completely submit to the will of the human. We now have the liberty to work with the horse so that both parties can have a pleasurable experience.
Let’s turn our objective eye toward typical training practices and assumptions so that we can shed light on a new way of doing things. The first thing we do when we go to work with a horse is grab a halter and lead rope and head out to catch the horse or retrieve him from his stall. The moment we approach and halter the horse, he is supposed to willing follow our lead and direction. We determine where he goes and at what speed. The horse is supposed to walk with us, without invading our space or acting willful in any manner. We then tie the horse up, completely restricting his movement and preventing him from the choice to work with us. The horse is expected to stand still and allow us to handle him in any manner we deem necessary.
This is very practical. We need the horse to walk with us and act in a manner that will not cause us harm and allows us to efficiently work around the animal. Makes sense to the human, but look at it through the eyes of the horse. According to the horse, what is the purpose of this exercise? One of the horse’s primary goals at all times is to know that he has the ability to flee. We take that safety away from the horse, and make them rely on us. Is there a way to shift the way we approach such a simple task?
We then go through the process of grooming and preparing the horse for work. Unfortunately, this is often rushed, without our full attention, as a means to getting through the necessary steps so that we can get to the good stuff. Just through the act of grooming we are asking the horse to trust us without giving our full respect to what we are doing. For example, picking up the feet is a very strong symbol that the horse is surrendering his power to us. To trust another animal with the feet that he relies on for safety is a huge act of faith on the part of the horse. What do we give in return? Do we see that as a sacred act or do we simply demand that they comply?
Most equestrians at some point do some kind of ground work with their horse in the form of lunging, ground driving, working in a round pen, free lunging, or practicing natural horsemanship techniques of some sort. Ground work is an integral component to building relationship, communication, and skills. Unfortunately, the intention behind the ground work is often over shadowed by our goals, agendas, and time constraints. So many equestrians get caught up in the end result or practicing a specific exercise that they miss the mark on the underlying purpose for the ground work. This important concept can easily shift from a playful, creative, intuitive game to a rigid, demanding, overwhelming drill.
Ground work often revolves around the human – literally. The horse is asked to move in circles around the person. This is a very unnatural way of moving for the horse. The horse is designed to travel in straight lines in open space. It is not uncommon to see a horse that has not been properly prepared or taught to move in circles careening around a person like a motorcycle doing donuts. You almost expect the horse to spin out at any moment. This type of movement is not beneficial to the horse and can actually cause unnecessary wear and tear on his body. Horses must be taught to work in circles efficiently and safely. Of course, we could never keep up with a horse on the ground moving in a straight line so it is a convenient way to work with the horse but, as with all things, deserves some thought and respect.
Work on the lunge line can be perceived by the horse as a very aggressive act. We connect the lunge line to their head to control the forward and outward movements and point a lunge whip at their hindquarters to control forward and inward movement. We create a triangle that gives us control and power over the horse. When lunging, the pressure is rarely released. Even when the human drops the whip the stance is to stand with shoulders squared toward the horse. In addition, the person typically stares at the horse with direct focus. Both of those acts are perceived as threats from the horse. While lunging can be very beneficial, it is often used as a way to run the edge off or get the bucks out which leads to sloppy work rather than meaningful work. The restrictive nature of this work is only worsened when side reins and other devises are added to the picture.
Work in the round pen can be a bit less aggressive because the horse is free which allows the human to clearly step back, turn the shoulders and take the pressure off. Such focused attention is not required in the round pen. However, work in this space is often ill performed with the person driving the horse round and round in a frenzy waiting for the horse to lick, chew, and submit. The goal then becomes asserting your power and authority over the horse in the name of establishing leadership. Who wants a tyrant for a leader? Yes, it is more gentle than traditional methods but there is still an element of disempowering the horse if the work is not fully understood and executed in a calm, respectful manner. The horse cannot choose to leave or disengage.
The round pen can be an intimidating place for a horse with a human who is not sensitive and aware. They are trapped in a space with no way to get out and end up trying to appease the predator when they can’t escape. That is exactly what I would do if you locked me in a confined space with a tiger or a man holding a gun who didn’t speak my language, I would try to run and when that failed I would try to appease the other person so no harm would come to me. This would not be a pleasant or effective learning environment.
The idea behind a lot of ground work is to move the horse’s feet, like the “boss” mare, to establish your position as leader. Let’s face it, no human will ever be a boss mare – we aren’t wired for it. Instead, we try to replicate this concept and, without meaning to, end up restricting the horse and dictating their movement. Without an understanding of your both your and your horse’s body language and energy you can end up senselessly running the horse around with little or no meaning. It can quickly turn into a game of dominance and submission. When you control their feet, you control their power. When performing ground work, the human must maintain integrity, respect, and conscientiousness rather than simply driving the horse around expecting him to submit or tire out.
The proliferation of natural horsemanship techniques has been a huge step forward for the horse and much of that is conducted on the ground. The concept of reading body language, horse psychology, and building relationship are phenomenal steps forward from some of the harsh traditional methods used to work with horses. I see a lot of people who follow the teachings of a preferred clinician who miss the underlying current of the work. There are many people out there with different methods, exercises, tools and techniques that are teaching a new way of communication with the horse. This is great, but if the deeper meaning is missed, then people are simply armed with a new set of ways to dominate their horse.
Often, I see people who become focused like a laser on the type of halter or rope or whip and the specific technique prescribed for an outcome and miss the state of being that is required to properly execute such training. They get sucked into striving for the result, and the horse is the one who suffers. For example, an exercise like vibrating the lead rope to ask a horse to back up can shift from useful tool to meaningless bullying. I see people all the time utilizing this technique. The ones who understand that the rope carries the energy and intention to the horse learn an effective way to ask the horse to back. The ones who miss that underlying principle mindlessly shake the rope at the horse popping him in the face with the halter and it becomes punitive to the horse rather than positive communication. The horse has no understanding of what is being asked or why. The only message coming through loud and clear is that it is rather unpleasant to be repeatedly smacked in the face with the halter and the snap of the lead rope.
There are many effective ways to teach the horse to back up but the methodology is an afterthought if the purpose and communication are sound. The horse rarely moves backward of his own volition. Moving straight back is moving into a blind spot and requires trust on the part of the horse. If the individual gets caught up on the technique to back the horse rather than viewing it as a way to build trust and help the horse learn body awareness, the horse loses. He is simply being coerced into an uncomfortable action. Just because a horse has submitted to you and performs the task it does not automatically mean that he is happy and confident when doing it. It takes time to develop the feel of applying and releasing pressure in a timely manner so as to build trust. If the person simply demands actions, the activity can quickly become punitive.
It is important that we take a moment to think about what we have been taught and whether it makes sense to use those methods. Is it true that horses naturally move away from pressure? Is it true that the techniques we use are in the best interest of the horse? Are our training methods and approach actually natural?