What is horsemanship? Does it require a cowboy hat? Chaps? Manically waving about a carrot stick or a flag? …and why do people stop and just stare their horses all the time?
Well, first things first. You do not need a cowboy hat, or chaps (admittedly I own both but that’s not the point here!) You can wear a cap, a hard hat, a sombrero…whatever floats your boat. Jods, leggings, breeches, joggers…whatever you like! You can use a carrot stick if you must, but they’re really not my jam…I find them abit cumbersome if I’m honest. Flags are pretty handy though, although I don’t tend to use them every day. As for stopping and staring at your horse…well, I’ll explain that later.
Recently, with a few rather hairy and well publicised incidents in the Pentathlon in the Olympics this year, the need for a knowledge in better horsemanship across the board in the equestrian industry, has become very clear. While there is a currently a movement of ‘change makers’ gathering speed and audience at the moment (I like to include myself in this, but really, we’re looking at the big guns, like Warwick Schiller and Tristan Tucker), there is no doubt more can be done, particularly in the equestrian education sector in the UK, such as including proven techniques that help train and educate horses in a manner which works WITH the horse, focusing on connection and relationship, rather than just trying to ‘make them do the thing’.
So, lets rewind back to ‘what is horsemanship?’
The dictionary definition of ‘Horsemanship’ is the art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman. (Ahem!…or woman!) This is fairly accurate, although I’d like to throw a big fat wadge of ‘knowledge and understanding’ into that definition too. Skill and ability can only take you so far, if you want a happy and engaged horse.
What if you could understand why your horse does what they do, and what if you could help them learn in a way in which they actually stay relaxed? What if you could help them to feel more confident in all they do, truly helping them to be their best selves in all situations? This includes going to shows without being ‘sharp’ and losing their minds, being able to deal with plastic bags floating about, loading with no stress, lunging without being dragged around by a bucking looney, and hacking out with zero drama. What if they could truly enjoy their work and their time with you?! It’s all possible, it just requires time, patience, good preparation, and opening your mind to the possibility of trying something different.
You may be reading this, and thinking ‘pffft, what a load of rubbish’…and you know what? That’s OK. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, and sometimes, you’re just not ready to open your mind and try something different, until… you’re ready.
The truth is, we all question our methods at some point. I didn’t start out with a knowledge of horsemanship, I started out as a teenager in a traditional riding school, and I learnt to kick and smack my way over jumps, I learnt that if a horse dragged you about when you were leading them that ‘it was just them’, I learnt to poke a horse up the bum with a broom if they didn’t want to go into a stable or into a trailer, to a use a stronger bit if you couldn’t stop, and saw lots of much worse things in practice way back in the day.
The frustrating thing with these methods, is that they do work in some cases. I’d like to point out however, that this is nearly always temporarily, and only to a certain degree; because essentially, you’re making the horse internalise a behavior that they’re demonstrating either through pain, fear, or lack of understanding, so we are not addressing the problem and helping them work through it, we’re just making them do x despite of it, which can cause further pain, trauma, and more adverse behaviors later on. We’re conditioned by old ways and old establishments to ‘just get on with it’, which can be damaging not only to the horse, but often to us physically, and in some cases harmful to our mindset too.
So, what does it mean to practice horsemanship?!
Really, it can be as simple or as high level as you want it to be, and anything is a good start! At a basic level it can mean taking your time, and noticing your horse. It could mean learning their body language, learning about their coping mechanisms, and teaching them that they are safe in their environment, and safe with you (this is where some of the standing and staring part comes in!) It can involve a good groundwork program, where you can carry out body control movements that will help you with all you do with your horse, and one in which you can enrich your horse’s working routine with. It could include giving your horse variety in their routine, exposing them to different scenarios, and helping them ‘prepare’ for situations rather than just ‘getting on with it’. The possibilities are endless and the rewards really are many.
To conclude, horsemanship can come in many forms (and in many outfits!) but ultimately, it all stems from a need and a want to better understand our equine friends, and to help them to be their best and happiest possible selves, in whatever situation or environment they find themselves in.
We owe our four legged pals that much, surely…?
(Photo Credit to Lunar Photography)