There is a quote attributed to Ray Hunt that says horse training is “all about the feet”. As a result of Ray Hunt’s influence on horse training, controlling the feet has become the mantra of many horse trainers – especially those promoting “Natural Horsemanship”. With the focus on moving the horse’s feet, physical pressure is applied until the horse gives and then the pressure is released. This technique is known by some as “pressure & release” – a phrase commonly used by followers of natural horsemanship. But, the statement attributed to Ray Hunt is a misinterpretation of what he actually said , “… get the life in your body, through his mind and down to his feet”. Horse training does not start with the feet. It is starts with the mind. As internationally renowned horseman, Chris Irwin says, “frame of body equals frame of mind”. Horses’ physical and mental states are totally connected. When the body is in a calm frame (poll level with or below the withers, eyes blinking, licking and chewing) and without resistance, then the mind is also calm and open to direction. When the body is tense and full of adrenaline (poll higher than withers, feet split, back inverted, muscles braced, eyes staring, mouth tight) then the mind is also tense, fearful and stressed.
As many methods of horse training prove, is easier to put enough physical pressure on a resistant horse to force him to physically submit to our demands than it is to figure out what is causing the behavior and then address that issue. We can make a nose band tight enough so that he cannot possibly open his mouth or get his tongue over the bit and keep his mouth “quiet”. But this will not teach a horse to be comfortable with contact. We can put a stronger bit in the mouth of a horse that “rushes” to jumps. But this will not change the stress that is causing it. We can use draw reins or tie downs to get a horse to keep his head down. But, this will not teach him to engage his hind quarters and lift his back. We can tie the horse up short to a wall to teach him “patience”, tie his head around to his saddle to make him more “supple”, and use bigger spurs when he is “dull to the leg”. We can use hobbles and gum lines to get a horse to give up the fight. But this will not teach him to trust and respect us. These methods are about getting an instant result by gaining control through submission. However, none of these methods will create true willingness, suppleness or responsiveness and an equine partner that enjoys his work.
This video shows the pressure & release method at its worst!
So why do so many people train horses using these types of methods? It is because in our faced paced and financially driven world, people want instant change and immediate success. It is much easier to use pressure and equipment to control a horse’s body than it is to develop awareness for the subtle signs of how the horse is feeling, and then give the horse what he needs to change his physical and mental state. Understanding how your horse is feeling requires that you develop constant awareness for reading these subtle cues.
When was the last time you noticed:
* the width of your horse’ nostrils?
* minor changes in the depth and rate of your horse’s breathing?
* the direction your horse is looking when you are riding a circle?
* when your horse has stopped blinking?
* that your horse looks away from you when you pat him?
For most people, unless the horse is exhibiting obvious behaviors such as chomping the bit, swishing his tail violently or pinning his ears flat, they assume that the horse is okay with what is happening. They miss the subtle cues that signal how the horse is really feeling until the horse has a big reaction such as spooking, bolting, bucking, kicking, biting, rearing or refusing to go forward.
As riders, we aspire to achieve harmony between ourselves and our horses. Two beings moving as one – balanced, supple and graceful. This relationship between horse and rider is similar to the partnership between dancers. One partner leads the dance giving subtle cues through their body which the other partner fluidly responds to and follows. The two move as one as they send and receive information through their bodies to each other. If there is resistance, stiffness or lack of focus in either partner, the dance falls apart. Generally with dance partners, there has been mutual agreement to take part. With our horses, however, this is not the case. We choose our horses and impose our desires on them. We decide not only where, how and with whom they live, but also when, where and what they will do. We choose the riding discipline and whether we are riding for (our) pleasure or competing. If we want our horses to become our willing partners rather than slaves for our amusement, then it is our responsibility to ensure both their physical and mental welfare.
None of the things we ask of horses are natural to them nor do they have a choice in the matter. As I see it, it is our responsibility to ensure that our work with horses makes sense to them while taking into account the horses’ mental state, feelings and physical well being. Horses are not built to carry riders on their backs. They are innately designed to move into rather than away from pressure. They are prey animals who will choose flight over fight whenever possible, but will fight to protect themselves if necessary.
We do not need to focus on “natural” horsemanship. In fact, this term is an oxymoron. What we do need to focus on is empathetic horsemanship which requires us to consider and understand the mental and physical needs of our horses and develop a relaxed, focused and aware way of being with our horses.