Learning to Learn
About Horsemanship

by Jan Young

Published in Eclectic Horseman
Mar/Apr 2002, Issue No. 4, p. 18

You’ve finally found it—a better way to work with horses! Perhaps you just attended your first clinic, or met someone who seems to connect with horses in a way you never knew possible. There is so much to learn! But how do you go about learning an approach that has no steps, no rules? It’s not even a method, just a mental approach to the horse.

You hear about how the horse thinks and feels, about doing things with the horse instead of to him, about developing trust. But you flounder when trying things at home. Or you can’t get that elusive element, feel. Until some feel is developed, you may need someone to watch you ride and say, “There! Did you feel that?”

Armed with a little knowledge, you can work with your horse in a more fitting way. But the subtle interaction taking place between human and horse is not easy for a novice to recognize. It helps to see things demonstrated and explained by skilled and knowledgeable horsemen.

Who should you listen to? How can you evaluate teachers, when they are farther along than you? Watch them ride, and note their horse’s softness and willingness. If you aren’t helped by one, try another. Each has his own style, his own variation. Don’t become a blind follower of anyone—be open to learning. Ride in or audit clinics; read, watch videos. Ride and talk with fellow truth-seekers. The internet has message forums and chat rooms of like-minded people.

Study horse behavior and try to interpret what you see. A common mistake is to attribute human motives to the horse’s behavior. Right and wrong are not part of the horse’s nature. He functions more at the level of seeking comfort. He does whatever gives him a release of pressure. Understand the predator/prey relationship, the horse’s needs for self-preservation and to be able to move his feet, and his fear of confinement.

It is not necessary to attach yourself to a mentor to continue the learning process. The main tools for learning this way of thinking are the abilities to observe and to compare.

I spent years taking piano lessons. When lessons ceased, I thought my learning had ceased. But I found that I could progress if I acted as my own teacher! I am not around skilled pianists, so I have been on my own, armed with my ability to critique myself, to observe and compare, to think and ask questions, sometimes to think “outside the box.”

The same process applied to my experiences as a piano teacher. I had no mentor to advise me. Surprisingly, the times I learned the most about teaching were the times I failed. By asking what had gone wrong with a student, I found I had to adjust my methods. Some methods had worked with every student except one, but that one student made me think more than all the others had.

Besides you acting as your own teacher, the horse can be your teacher if you know how to learn from him. Start by observing the big picture. What is the horse doing? How many details can you observe? What is he doing with his feet, tail, eyes, ears, mouth, front quarters, hindquarters? What had you been doing right before he did that? How did he feel to you when he did that? Where was his attention, and why? Was he tight, relaxed, unsure, indifferent? How might you have caused that? Try to notice the mental change that happens right before the physical change. Refine your timing so you release/reward at that very moment.

Observe things about yourself. Where were you standing in relation to the horse? How were you sitting in the saddle? How much did you move, where and why? Where was your attention? The more you practice this skill, the more details you can observe.

Interpret those details by asking yourself questions. At first, this is time-consuming, and may cause you to miss something else. By the time you act, your timing will be late. The only way to improve your timing and awareness is to practice, even though you make mistakes. Just recognize your mistakes and take care of them. The horse is quite forgiving.

The horse reads you better than you read him or yourself. He has survived by reading body language. You may think you are saying one thing, but if you are not accurate in your body language, he hears what you really said, not what you think you said. That may not be what you wanted to say at all.

Especially in the round pen, doing the “right” things in the wrong way can be harmful and dangerous. There must be meaning to the horse! Have a reason for what you are doing; don’t do things just because someone said to, or you saw someone doing it. If you don’t know what you are asking, you cannot release for the correct response, and you unwittingly tell the horse something you wish you had never said.

Good horsemanship can be learned on your own. But take every opportunity to watch, talk to, or ride with others on this path. Those who are farther down the path than you, have not arrived—they are still traveling too. It’s a never-ending journey, on a horse that is becoming ever more willing, ever lighter and softer.

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