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Are You Worthy of Your Horse?

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

“Our riding will always radiate beauty and joyfulness when we are motivated by respect and love for the horse.” Erik Herbermann

Throughout history, it was considered part of a person’s character development to learn to ride. It wasn’t just about learning how to travel from here to there. It was the art of horsemanship that was considered integral to a well-rounded education. Control of one’s emotions, empathy, discipline, self-awareness, and self-improvement were valuable characteristics.

I believe riding well today still requires these traits. A horse already knows how to be a horse. We must learn how to become worthy of riding him.

I’m going to rant here. And I’m not going to apologize for it. Fighting with a horse is an exercise in futility
and stupidity on the part of a human. Are you teaching that 1,200-pound animal he must obey you and do that half-pass you are demanding? Or are you teaching him he cannot trust humans because they do not care why the horse is resisting? Perhaps the horse is not ready or able to do that particular move at that moment. Does he understand what you are asking? Or perhaps the horse has pain and cannot tell you. I can’t count how many times I have heard riders say, “He’s being a jerk” when the rider is the only jerk around. Resistance may be the only way your horse can tell you something, and you are missing an opportunity to teach your horse.

I’m not saying we let a horse decide what we are going to do on any given ride. We definitely must establish leadership with our equine partner. We continue on and ask again if a horse spooks in a corner. We decide when we want a stretch, not the horse. We ask for a leg yield when we decide, and sometimes we must insist. However, if there is resistance we also use our brains and ask ourselves why the horse is resisting. Can this horse bend in the middle of its back? If not, there is no way he can do a shoulder-in. Are we confusing the horse with conflicting or incorrect aids? Have we overworked the horse already? If the horse has already done something well, why are we asking for it a tenth time? Are we being impatient? Are we willing to back off and ask again later? Or are we so insecure or immature that we simply must win at the expense of the horse’s trust?

No one has any business working with or riding a horse unless they’ve taken the time to understand a horse’s point of view, a horse’s anatomy, a horse’s language. Horsemanship is not about forcing a horse into a frame, forcing a horse to obey. It’s about a respectful partnership, a relationship, even some give and take.

Are you committed to your horse’s well-being? If not, don’t ride him. Are you enjoying a harmonious partnership? If not, stop being selfish and put your horse’s needs first. Can you lead with clarity of purpose and praise your horse generously for the slightest effort? If not, you are in the wrong frame of mind for riding or training a horse. A true horseman or horsewoman loves and respects the animal he is working with. He does not treat him brutally and will never fight him into loyalty. A true horseman is patient and kind and will take however long it takes for a horse to develop an understanding of what is being asked. A true horseman does not force a horse into obedience. He leads him to obedience. He asks for the next progressive move only when the horse is able and praises profusely when the horse tries. He has patience.

If a horse is nervous, struggling to breathe, frightened, stressed, swishing its tail, or hollow the rider is at fault. A horse should be relaxed, its ribcage expanding with deep breaths and blows. His eyes should be calm and happy. His ears should be floppy not pinned. No one can learn under tension. You can’t, so why would you think your horse can?

If you had been treated with similar teaching techniques in school, it would have been child abuse. Yet horses are trained this way every day. Tied down, beaten, fought with, confused by unskilled, conflicting aids and then punished for not responding and overworked to the point of exhaustion by countless repetitions. Painful tack that doesn’t fit is a burden no horse should have to bear. No wonder they either give up and die inside, losing the spirit that makes a horse beautiful, or they fight and resist constantly.

I think Erik Herbermann is right when he says: “If we are to raise ourselves up to higher levels of equestrian expression, we need to become constructively self-critical and develop a refined degree of self-control. … Only when our desire to learn is constantly tempered by modesty and a genuine interest in the horse’s well-being, will we be on the path which leads to the blossoming of true horsemanship.”

Erik Herbermann