Doing Things Well: Part 2

When thinking about the value of horses it is impossible to not think about what we ask of them, how we train them and what the goals of our horsemanship are.

In Doing Things Well: Part 1 (, and in so many other posts, I have mentioned how I do not believe that horses have value only relative to humans.  I don’t believe that their lives are meant for serving people and that their rich and complicated histories and entanglements with us are the only way they relate to the world.  Even if I am wrong about this and horses were in fact put on this earth only to serve as work animals for humans, I’m not sure anyone told the horse.  They seem to feel strongly that they are individuals with feelings, experiences and lives even once all of the humans go home for the day.

Over the last decade my horsemanship has moved through a number of stages and I’ve come to believe that there are three easily defined approaches to horsemanship (or horse training).  I’ll do my best to flesh them out here because I believe that to do something well you have to first decide what you care to do well. 

 1. Horsemanship as Product.

    Horse training that is based on producing particular abilities and maneuvers that the horse can and will perform quickly upon request.  I would also call this obedience training, which is a phrase more commonly found in the dog training world but I find very appropriate here.  Successful obedience training means that without question a horse will respond in a standardized way (the same way) to the same cue each time.  There is not a lot of feel involved and I see it more as a cause and effect sort of relationship.

    The success of this sort of training is judged by the results and you will hear terms such as a “finished” horse thrown around when a horse knows what is seen as an acceptable amount of cues and the appropriate responses and is very reliable in their presentation of them.  Horses used for work and for show are most successful when they are very obedient.  Obedient horses tend to have a high value in our society and this is one of the most typical and widely spread approaches to horsemanship in my experience.

2.  Horsemanship as Relationship

    In the last couple of decades horsemanship has been revolutionized in popular culture with the introduction of language and programs where the concept is shifted from one of obedience to one of relationship.  It is often discussed in this sort of horsemanship that the horse should feel better with the human than anywhere else.  That the person should be a great support for that horse and if the horse feels good enough with the person, the obedience mentioned above will just fall into place because of the horse’s willingness and the person’s meaning to that horse.

    This is a huge shift from more traditional obedience training because it began to consider the horse’s feelings rather than just their physical responses.  This concept spread in many directions depending on the horse person presenting it and just like in obedience training, some trainers are better than others at getting a horse to truly feel good when they are around.  Horses that feel safest with their humans tend to be quiet and easy to spend time around and though they may not bring the monetary amounts that a very obedient show or work horse will, their value in society to individual owners has really increased as this sort of horsemanship has become more mainstream.

3.  Horsemanship as Supporting

    If “horsemanship as relationship” is about making a horse feel better with a human than anywhere else, “horsemanship as supporting” is about making a horse feel better.  Period.  With no qualifications for who is around or what the situation is.  The bottom line is horses are prisoners who have to deal with our fences and our feeding schedules, but they still have an experience of the world that is only their own.  To approach horsemanship only as a support system is to prioritize making sure that that horse can get along in life confidently and happily, whether in dealing with their relationship with a person or with another horse or with their hay.

    To approach horsemanship as only a time to see how comfortable you can help a horse be in their own skin, is to forget about external goals such as riding and relationship with a person.  A lot of those things get better or act as a side effect to a horse that feels good in life (if you so choose to work on something like riding or handling) but it is not a prerequisite.  I would liken this horsemanship more to some sort of intense psychotherapy, that works to completely shift the horse from the inside out, without worrying too much if they can do a “job.”  Just assuming that any job they have to do will be easier if they find a more content state of being.

My life as a horse person has gone through each of these phases.  I really suck at the first one, Horsemanship as Product.  I spent years trying to work on it and got pretty good at it, good enough that people would pay me, but never good enough that I would have been able to make a sustainable career at it.  I always figured out a way to screw up any obedience I had instilled.  I spent a lot of years feeling bad about the fact that I will never be great at training a futurity horse or riding in a show, until one day I realized I didn’t want to be good at it, which really made it hard for me to practice and steadily improve at it without sabotaging myself

I don’t want to be good at all things, because there are things that I find inherently problematic to do at all.  

So why would I want to be good at it?

This was a hard conclusion to come to because most horsemanship is rated on #1 in this list and who doesn’t want to be good at everything? Especially the thing everyone thinks is the best to be good at when it comes to horses!

The second phase, which I called Horsemanship as Relationship, really captivated my interest.  There are a lot of ways people are going about building this and to be fair most people slip back into prioritizing product under the guise of relationship, using different words and tools to make the same old obedience training happen.  But there are people who are really excellent at making a horse feel better with them than anywhere else.  People who have so amazingly mastered this that it doesn’t take them long at all to get a horse with little ambition and lots of trouble working for them in a quiet way that many of us long for.

I spent a lot of years working at this.  I don’t mean playing around with it, I mean working at it all day, every day.  Going to sleep thinking about it and waking up thinking about it.  Those of you who know me personally know that when I decide I want to figure something out, get out of the way.  Sorry husband, I’ll see you in five years!  To be quite honest, it consumed my life and as a result I got really really good at it.  Maybe not as good as some other people out there, but really darn good at it.  I’ve taught a lot of people how to be pretty good at it, too, and I still teach it every day because it is something that I can charge for, which still results in a safe and rideable horse that has a degree of happiness with the human that is higher than the (better paying) obedience training techniques.

But I kept running into a problem.  The better I got at this, the harder it became to get that to transfer to my clients, or to the horse when no one was around.  I’ve witnessed this same phenomenon with the people that I know who are much better than I will ever be at this and their horses, too.  I discovered that if I showed a truly troubled horse how great it was to be with me, then their anxiety when life was not that great (they were on their own, tied somewhere, in the pasture or with their well intentioned owner) their anxiety was worse.  That troubles me.  It has troubled me from the moment I started pursuing this.  If I know I am going to spend limited time with a horse and that even if that horse is mine it will spend more time without me than with me, is it really right to teach them that my presence is so critical to their well being? Is it better to have love and lost, or never to have loved at all? 

So I’ve started thinking about this third sort of horsemanship, which I don’t hear about very often….well…ever.  How can we help a horse feel better.  Period.  With no expectations that they will serve humans, but only for the sake of supporting their lives.  If that means not riding them, so be it.  What if we completely centered the horse?  What if we looked at concepts dog trainers are looking at, such as socialization and resource management, to help the horse work out how it is feeling without the presence of a person (of course, the person is behind the scenes, but we are able to make it so that the horse is working through all of this on their own).  What if we changed the goal from “a quiet riding horse,” to “a horse that is happy?”  What if regardless of how great a horse feels with me around, we cared more about how they felt when no one was around?

I don’t know about you, but it’s easy to make myself feel good when I don’t have to spend too much time in my head being mindful of my thoughts and feelings.  To really dig below the surface and be present is much harder.  The same goes with horsemanship.  To truly make a horse feel better, period, is much harder than building a positive relationship or an obedient one. We have to completely center the horse and go so deep into who they are that all of our agendas and notions of what horses are here for have to go out the window.  I have a lot less practice at this third sort of horsemanship, because all my clients hire me with a goal in mind.  No one brings me a horse just because they want it to feel better and says “I don’t care if I ever ride him and he can stay in training as long as you like.”  I only get horses in training that are destined to be riding horses.  The only horses I have truly been able to practice these concepts with are my own since no one is paying me and no one cares if I ever ride these horses.  Thus, I don’t teach these concepts as much because I have to eat and they aren’t as exciting to people as quickly getting a great (riding) relationship going, and I’m not as good at them as I am the concepts in #2.

But it is what I want to be good at.