Horse-Man-Ship: What’s Your Taken On This Thing?

HORSE*MAN*SHIP: The more you move about the country - whether by truck and trailer, or via ink or screen – every region, and every horse discipline, in this country seems to have their own spin on what horsemanship means.

Searching “horsemanship” on Google will bring up this definition: “the skill of riding a horse, equitation…or the art, ability, skill or manner of a horseman.” Which leads us to the horseman: “a person skilled in riding a horse.” But is that what a horseman really is? Or, I should ask, “is that all a horseman really is?” In a quick answer TFB². (Timing, Feeling & Balance)².

If you Google “horsemanship” you will get this definition: “the skill of riding a horse, equitation…or the art, ability, skill or manner of a horseman.” Which leads us to the horseman: “a person skilled in riding a horse.” But is that really what a horseman is? Or, I should ask, is that really all that a horseman is?

My ears still sear with a statement once made by my mentor Mr. Ray Hunt: “if you can’t do it with your horse on the ground, how can you ever expect to get it done on his back?” I slowed and looked back at him as he got a twinkle in his eye and smirking grin on his face, and added, “can’t do it, can ya?” So, horsemanship is NOT how I ride. Get out of your saddle. You should be looking for horsemanship long before you get in the saddle, even though we take years of riding lessons before we ever hear a whisper of horsemanship, much less TFB.

Sometime later, with Buck Brannaman, I found deeper meaning to this view of “on the ground” horsemanship. Buck said to me at dinner one night, “yes, you have a good horse, but a horse’s greatness is measured by their willingness & softness…how soft can you get your horse to want to be?” That conversation is still opening doors (and windows, crawl spaces, cracks) in my equine education. Softness…willingness…GET my horse to WANT to be…

I guess the thing I’m trying to get across is, in my opinion, horsemanship is measured by the lack of visible effort used to achieve what you want your horse to try with you. It is a dance, as Ray Hunt would say. Look at the best teachers you’ve had in your life and how they interacted with and taught you. They let you FIND what they were offering versus just throwing the information at you. A good teacher gets you to learn, a great teacher gets you to understand. Something to think about when you review your last session with your horse: what did you do TOGETHER? (And by the way, you should be reviewing what you and your horse did later in the day, every time you put your hands on your horse).

So, if HORSEMANSHIP is how you interact, teach, and lead your horse, let’s review what you and your horse should see when you teach: leadership, attention, empathy, willingness versus loathing interaction, discontent, adversarial communication, disrespect. Start by asking yourself this: how are you going out to get your horse? By this I mean what are you doing when you enter your horse’s pasture to retrieve him? When you approach him, how does your horse react? Does he stop his grazing and square up to you, or does he ignore you, wishing that he was invisible? Watching how someone catches their horse tells me right off what kind of relationship is evolving between horse and rider. When you have your horse haltered, do you jerk and bump the entire way back to the barn, like a tug-of-war in elementary school, or is it a smooth follow-the-leader kind of walk?

The way your horse reacts to being haltered and led is how he will answer to the bridle and rein when you are riding him. And believe me, achieving ease of haltering and leading doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly didn’t happen overnight with any of my horses. You must have consistency of purpose and direction to achieve this. NUTS AND BOLTS MESSAGE: every time you get the opportunity to put your hands on your horse (feeding, grooming, turning out or bringing in) BE CONSISTENT WITH YOUR ACTION, as often as you can with as little fight or resistance as possible. This is where you and your horse develop the feel of TFB. And remember, it’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect.

Shortcuts you make today lead to short cuts wanted and expected by your horse tomorrow. What do I mean by this? Say you were late getting home because of traffic; and dinner was supposed to be started 45 minutes ago; a storm is blowing in with wind and rain by later this evening and your kid needs to be at volley ball practice in an hour. So! You can microwave your meal, carpool with a neighbor to get the kids to practice, but do not make the mistake of trying to make up time, while creating a new bad habit, by opening your barn gate and letting your horses run, unhaltered, into their stalls for dinner. Even if your horses know where to go and what is supposed to happen at dinner time, and even though this would have saved a few minutes, by letting them do this you have let your horse have direct control of his destiny. You just missed a perfect opportunity to let your horse practice getting soft, to practice haltering, and to get your horse to PAY ATTENTION to you, not to mention showing a little patience by not rushing in to gobble their meal. Think of bringing your horses into their stalls for dinner as a mini trailer self-load lesson: bring your horse into the stall and ask him to disengage his rear end as he supples his neck and rolls all four feet around to face you. This allows you to NOT have to go into the stall with him, but to bring him back around TO YOU for un-haltering. But you can save 7 ½ minutes the other way, right? The next time you try to bring in the horses and they bum rush the gate to get in to eat (because they do know and remember) and knock down a neighbor, friend, or you…well, as Dr. Phil would say, “how’s that workin’ out for you?” Good horsemanship is consistent, specific, thought-out actions and practices that are never ever compromised.

I know this sounds like a lot, but if you really look at every time you put your hands on your horse, YOU are the leader, teacher, and custodian, and everything you do means something - whether it be good, bad, or indifferent (remember: indifference = acceptance). What you are really teaching your horse (or sometimes NOT teaching your horse) is what he experiences and remembers. Give him expectation of purpose. Your horse has no forethought about consequences; when he does something and it seems to work well for him, he expects what he wants. Actions now should bring actions later. If it happened once, it can happen again - especially if he gets a payoff he likes (such as run in the barn and eat)! Take the time to halter your horse correctly and lead him into his stall at your pace. Being a horseman is being his leader, not a substitute teacher (I am sorry for the way I treated all my substitute teachers in high school!). Not hard to do, but yes, a bit time-consuming now; a lot less time-consuming later, though, if you are consistent.

Horsemanship is knowing that everything we do now is a beginning, a foundation, a cornerstone, a hint at the answer to the next question we will pose to our horses. And everything sets the table for the next chapter in our journey with our horse, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Horsemanship is also setting your horse up to succeed, NOT fail. Make the right thing easy and wrong thing hard, and make it so obvious the first few times he really shouldn’t get it wrong. Remember: the wrong answer is not a failure as long as he learns and tries another answer.

If you can get this done with a soft lead on your horse, you are setting the table for a soft rein when you bridle him for your next ride. He will show you a soft rein if you expect a soft lead. Softness…what a concept…Mr. Ray Hunt would continually remind me: firm softness…slow directness…

The last time I rode with Buck, as he was sitting on a horse he has in a snaffle bit, he said to me: “the softer you get with your horse, the softer he should come to you, and make working together almost effortless, Ken. Barely noticeable if someone didn’t know what they were looking for as you go through the motions of the exercise. Ray would call this ‘the dance.’” I really chewed on this statement. Fast forward to a lesson in my arena with a client’s horse. She was asking if her horse knew a specific move and I told her that I was sure he did as he was a really nice horse. As I worked her horse and he completed the move I asked him for almost effortlessly, she protested that she “didn’t see what we were doing,” so we did it again. She exclaimed: “I can’t see you doing anything to get him to do that!” I believe that that is the greatest compliment I have ever been paid. I think Mr. Hunt, and even Buck, would be pleased with how far I have come.