Friday, February 9, 2007

Building Blocks

It’s important to understand that the natural horsemanship approach is a total philosophy towards horses. It can’t be applied to just one part of the horse’s interaction with humans. The first lessons on the ground -- yielding the front or hindquarters, suppling the head and neck, following the feel of the lead rope to lead up and back freely, working at liberty in the roundpen -- are the building blocks for all of the later lessons and more sophisticated tasks we might require of him. So fixing “problems,” providing there is no physical discomfort causing them, almost always goes back to one of these very basic lessons that wasn’t laid in there quite right, or maybe not at all.

It’s equally important to understand the necessity of bringing up the life in the horse and getting him reliable to be around when things are a little more exciting. Because that’s when you’re really going to need control of his feet, and when you’ll need him to keep thinking.

Life in the horse is a GOOD thing. Keep telling yourself that. That very life is what you’ll need to get some of those more advanced things done. Repeat after me: “I will not stuff the life back down in my horse! I will not stuff the life back down in my horse! I will not stuff the life back down in my horse! I will not stuff the life back down in my horse!…” Keep repeating it.

The critical piece is that you have to understand feel to handle a horse that has been brought along this way. In fact, that’s probably the most important part of the package…because when applied with finesse, it comes pretty natural to the horse. “Feel” seems such a simple concept; but it requires incredible focus, and excellent timing. And that requires dedication, and lots and lots and LOTS of practice. For us humans, it’s very much that of learning a new non-verbal language; for the horse, it’s much easier, because it is based on his native tongue.

But believe me, it is so worth the effort.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Feel 101

What we want is a willing partnership with the horse. In order to achieve that, we have to be consistent, we have to make sense to his way of thinking, and we have to present the things we want him to do for us in such a way that he is able to do them. To my way of thinking, you don’t just ride your horse…you have a relationship with him. So we’re not just going to talk about how you sit him, keeping your heels down, your elbows in…we’re going to talk about anything else that comes up while we’re with him that pertains to that relationship. Because it’s all going to impact how he goes down the trail or the rail for you.

You’re going to hear me use the word “feel” a lot…and that means a number of things in relation to horses…not just using the least amount of pressure you need, although that’s part of it. It also means thinking about where your horse is coming from…and I don’t mean that in a metaphysical, getting-your-chakras-aligned kinda way. I mean in order to ask the question and have the horse know and be able to respond with the answer we’re looking for. In order for him to perform the task you request, where do his feet need to be? How should his weight be balanced? Do we need his front feet freed up? Or his hindquarters?

Once you've decided where you need the horse to move, and how the horse will need to adjust his body to make it happen, make your request. Do so with the lightest touch, a clear picture in your mind of what space you want him to yield and the space you will give him to fill, and expect that he will understand. Nothing muddles your presentation like the thought that you won't get it right...you won't even get the question posed before you're thinking about how to do it differently. Give it a chance; give him a second to process and situate himself. I see people daily asking for a horse's foot, getting impatient and upping the pressure rapidly even as that horse is arranging himself to offer the foot.

Words to live by: “Ride his feet, not his mouth.” We never want to stifle his energy…we just want to direct it. We want that life available to us, we want those feet freed up, and so we have to learn to get down to each of those feet and put them where we need them. And your horse will be MUCH happier and more relaxed (turned loose on the inside, as folks like to say) if he never has someone try to just stuff that life back down in him. A horse who's been schooled that it's BAD to offer life is a horse that will do lots of uncomfortable things, be real spooky, or maybe offer to buck when he's allowed to move out -- or when he's held back. So we’re going to try really hard to always take the life the horse offers and put it to good use. If you’re out on trail and your horse wants to go faster than you do, it’s best not to just haul on his face and try to hold him back. Ask him first to come back to you by asking him for a soft feel, keeping your body very relaxed and your breathing deep and calm. Keep your eyes focused where you want to go, but don’t glare ahead – even your gaze should be relaxed. If he won’t drop back to a walk and stay there, then let him circle at the gait he chooses, until he relaxes and drops back to the gait YOU choose. When he settles, let him walk on down the trail. If he’s just a little speedy, ask him to serpentine down the trail...or ask him to move laterally, putting a little bend in his neck and asking him to move over with your leg, first one way, then the other. Give him a job to do, something to keep his mind and his feet engaged. But use the life that he offers. It will ultimately make that life available to you whenever you need it. And you WILL need it.

That's all I have for tonight...ride the life!!