Tuesday, January 30, 2007

And so it begins...with Groundwork.

What is the goal of ground work? To teach the horse to feel of you…and by doing so, teach him to flow with your feel, instead of resisting it. To make him safe (or at least safer) to handle from the ground. And to lay in the foundation for being ridden.

It is so hard to define feel. Feel is not a movement that the horse does on cue. It is NOT a cue. Feel is much more complex. It is very subtle, but very understandable to the horse. Feel builds into the horse a sort of responsibility….much like his responsibility within the herd to be accountable for his actions. It gives the horse permission to think…in fact it encourages him to think. And when he is taught this way, when he is expected to think, and then act accordingly, he is indeed given responsibility. He is essentially given a code of conduct, and the free choice to abide by it or not. The beautiful thing about horses is that they are such honest, kind, giving creatures by nature – and with a very rare exception (and that exception would very likely be rooted in some former mishandling) the horse will HONOR the code of conduct.

Learning feel is pretty tough, too…but all it takes is lots of practice. Coordination. And lots of experimentation. For example, if I want the horse to yield his hindquarters and step across – away from me – behind, how do I need to line up my body, and what posture conveys more life?? Practice, practice, practice. Once you figure out how to present more life in yourself, see how LITTLE you can do to move the horse. Try it with different horses, because it will vary greatly from horse to horse. Figure out where you need to stand, and where in the horse’s field of vision you need to “take” his space to move any part of him in any direction. Work on your coordination – believe me, it takes a lot of hours to get to a point where your hands, feet, and body figure out how to do all the things they need to do in concert.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Yes, it’s frustrating, and a set back for the horse. But you will learn from it. And it can all be fixed again. I always feel horrible when I get something wrong….but it just makes me work harder to figure out the RIGHT way, and ultimately my feel and timing and understanding make a big leap forward. (There have been occasions when that “big leap forward” is quite literal!) If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.

Think outside the box, with the goal always being to use the LEAST pressure possible. In fact, NO pressure is optimum, and very feasible. Most horses presented with a decent understanding of feel and good timing will quickly learn to leave the float in the rope and position themselves according to the space you “take” from them and the space that you “give” to them visually. But sometimes a horse will get stuck, or maybe just experiment a little to see what works or doesn’t work. And when that happens…THINK. A horse that stops in his tracks and refuses to lead forward…you could offer to take the slack out of the lead rope. What if that doesn’t work? You could offer a tug, or a steady pull. If the tug doesn’t work, you’ve applied pressure and a release for NO try. If the steady pull doesn’t work, you could be playing tug-o-war with an opponent ten times your weight for the next hour…or two. And then you’ve essentially taught the horse that you CAN’T move him. Instead, maybe ask him to step to one side or the other, and then try to lead straight again. Or change the plan…ask him to back away from you, quick, quick, quick! And then lead forward again. Use your imagination.

And that is really the underlying theme in all of this…use your imagination…use your brain. THINK, THINK, THINK!

Welcome to The Thoughtful Horseman Blog

A lot of phrases have been coined in an attempt to describe a type of horsemanship that eschews traditional training methods of force and instead embraces what has become widely known as "feel". I gave a lot of thought to what I would call my website and blog dedicated to that very sort of horsemanship; "thoughtful horseman" is truly what finally summed it up. The dictionary definition of "thoughtful" reads:

Engrossed in thought; contemplative.

Exhibiting or characterized by careful thought.

Having or showing heed for the well-being or happiness of others and a propensity for anticipating their needs or wishes.

That is, I believe, the hallmark of horsemanship that seeks to develop true feel.

There are plenty of books and DVDs and systems and merchandise out there aiming to teach people this sort of horsemanship. And in those resources there is for sure a goldmine of information; and some also contain some ideas that just don't seem to fit by my definition. But no matter how much information you find on the subject, "feel" is elusive. Clinics are few and far between; and individual instruction is darn hard to come by.

I don't have all the answers; I'm pretty sure no one does. But I'd like to share what I've learned, and help put you on the path to being a thoughtful horseman. I'll help you learn how:

  • To listen with your full attention, with your mind and your heart

  • To THINK, to experiment, to be creative in your interactions

  • To be reliable and consistent, in order for your horse to be reliable and consistent

  • To trust your horse, and go with him, so that he might see fit to go with you

  • To ride the horse as he moves naturally

  • To ride FAST, and be comfortable riding fast

  • To ride with your seat, and not your hands

My website is currently under construction; I hope to have it up and running this week. And I'll be posting to my blog regularly; horsemanship is almost the only thing I think about. If I open my mouth, you can pretty much bank on that it's to say something related to horses. So I've got plenty to say!

I am available for individual instruction in the San Diego area; please contact me via email for more information.

Stay tuned!