Monday, 27 February 2012

Road to the Horse 2012

I am a big fan of Road to the Horse.  In my opinion it is one of the greatest learning opportunities in the natural horsemanship world.  It gives us a chance to see world class clinicians use their methods to start 3 year old colts. 

This year the event is international with clinicians from United States, Australia and Canada competing. 

If you aren`t able to able to attend the event, March 9 – 11,  in Murfressboro, Tennessee, you can watch it on a webcast and there will be a dvd set issued of the entire event.  Check out the Road to the Horse website for all the details.

This is a competition and an entertainment event but most important it gives horse people an opportunity to observe the best horseman in the world work with young horses.  You have the opportunity to observe and compare the methods used and see first hand the interaction between horse and human on a scale that is not available to most of us.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Getting Permission

(Anytime I use the term “he” please read “her” if it fits for your horse.)

Like humans, horses have rules of engagement.  These are conventions of etiquette in approaching a horse and touching a horse.

Your communication with your horse begins as soon as there is visual contact between you.  As you approach the paddock you should be observing the horses behaviour.  Is your horse looking at you?  Do you have two eyes and two ears?  If you do, then you have permission to approach  and enter the paddock.  It is like being invited into someone`s home.

                                            This is not an invitation.

                                           This is an invitation.

When you enter the paddock keep watching the horses body language.  Does he look away?  Does he move away?  What are his ears doing?  Is his head up, down, level?  Is he licking and chewing?   Does his body look tense?   When you move toward him does he turn his head away? All of these things and more are important.  The horse will give you a first signal about what he is going to do.  Don`t ignore it.  Be polite and respect it and give  him some relief.  Together they will tell you what level of permission you have.  If the horse comes to you give him the opportunity to touch you first.  It is important to the horse.

It takes time for horses to accept humans as full partners.  My experience is that it can take years for this to happen.  The connection if well maintained keeps building as confidence, trust and respect build.

Horses are social animals and they enjoy touch.  But like us, the permission to touch must be willingly given.  When the bond has grown to a certain level the horse will begin to ask for touching and they will get very specific about where they want to be touched.  They will present the part of their body to you that they want you to rub or scratch.  It may be their ears, neck, withers etc. But they will be quite clear about what they want.

                                            Scratch me here please.

Permission is not permanent.  You need to check every time you are with your horse to see how they feel about things.  It may be fine one day to pick up their feet and the next day they may have a problem.  If they have a bruise or a strain they may not want to pick up all four feet.  They will give you the signals and you need to watch for them.  Keep an eye on their ears and tail.  If the tail starts swishing that can be a sign that something is bothering them.

Just like people horses are all different and each day they can have a different attitude.  Be attentive and respect the rules of engagement.  Also be aware that you are entitled to expect the horse to respect the rules as well. Mutual respect builds trust and confidence within the partnership.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Feel and Timing

Clinicians often use the term “feel and timing”.  The meaning of this term is a bit hard to grasp.  Chris Cox defines it on his website as follows:

“Feel: Feel is applying the pressure you use to set boundaries with your horse and knowing when to release that pressure.”

Being with horses is based on knowledge, tools and techniques.  These are all things that we can acquire fairly easily.  The other big part is the ART of horsemanship and part of that is FEEL AND TIMING.  It is very similar to having a canvas, a pallet, a brush, and an assortment of oil paints.  Most of us can learn the craft of painting. It takes an artist to use these components to create a piece of ART.  Developing and honing our skills allow us to develop as artists.  The level of the art we can attain will depend, to some extent, on natural talent. 

In a previous blog the subject of pressure was discussed.  Because FEEL and pressure are directly related it is necessary to understand pressure.  The more skilled we become in the art of horsemanship and the stronger our partnership is with our horse the finer the FEEL becomes.  The pressure we use becomes extremely subtle.

FEEL begins within us.  Be aware of everything you are doing and feeling.  Be aware of your expression and posture.  All of these things represent pressure and contribute to FEEl.

Timing is the coordination of the application and release of pressure with the response of the horse.  Bad timing reduces the level of communication.

A very skilled horseman said that he could teach the craft of riding but that it was up to the rider and the horse to raise the craft to the level of art.  Personally I will be happy to be a competent craftsman, but, I will never stop striving to improve my feel and timing to achieve the level of artist.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Dignity Factor

Horses are described in many different ways; athletic, lazy, shy, spooky, green, introvert, extrovert, etc.  The same horse can have many of these descriptors used by different people and even by the same people on different days or in different situations.  There is a quality that I see but don`t hear used often and that is dignity.

For some horses their dignity is extremely important.  These horses are often called, lazy, stubborn, uncooperative, left brained, introverted etc.  When you ask them to do something they often get a look on their face “you want me to do what!”, or, “I don`t want to and you can`t make me.”   If you try to force the issue you will get resistance, defiance and at the extreme aggression.

Our first horse, Bobby, whose picture is on this blog is a horse who cherishes his dignity.  When he understands what you want and when you ask with respect, allowing him to maintain that dignity he will do just about anything.  If he is pushed or forced in any way, he demonstrates his displeasure.  This is mostly through resisting or not responding.  On one occasion however, when we were using a method recommended by a very good clinician, he charged.  No one was seriously hurt, just bruises and a scare.  We learned some big lessons. 

Horses with this dignity factor require more patience and more attention to the horses body language.  They respond best to the most gentle and subtle cues.  They need time to respond.  If  you want a horse with snappy responses in a short period of time these are not your best bet.  Unfortunately for them they are often labelled bad horses and they are shifted from owner to owner and have a short and miserable life. 

Horses by their nature have a lot of dignity.  Some horses have the dignity factor and you need to consider this when working with them.  In my opinion it is not something that you can just push through.  You need to recognize and work with it.  Ultimately they make wonderful partners.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Fallen Partners

This short segment was prompted by the news that Stacy Wesfall`s horse Roxy died two days ago.

It has been a tough few months for clinicians and horse owners Stacy, Linda and owner Greg Gessner(Roxy`s owner).  Two wonderful partnerships ended and what we have left are memories.  What spectacular memories they are.

Anyone who has lost a special animal in their life knows how much it hurts.  Natural horsemanship gives us the means to communicate with horses.  Once you establish a conversation with a horse there is a connection established that becomes a very strong and meaningful part of our lives and the life of the horse.  When we lose them we lose a part of our lives and we need to acknowledge the loss.

Because we cared about them their loss hurts and tears are okay.  Because we loved and respected them we should grieve for them.  Because they gave us so much and were so loyal to us,  it is most important, that we HONOUR our fallen partner by paying forward what they gave to us, what we learned from and with them and that we enrich our lives with their strength.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Understanding Pressure

One of the first principles of natural horsemanship is “Pressure motivates and release teaches”.

The concept of using pressure to motivate a horse to do something bothers some people.  Some have unfortunately seen pressure used in inappropriate ways (abuse) that is very disturbing.  The thing is, pressure is used all the time in interpersonal relationships as well as in interspecies relationships. It is how the pressure is applied that is important.

When working with horses pressure can be applied directly or indirectly.  Direct pressure can be applied with or without a device.  Without a device we use our hands or some other part of our body to physically touch the horse.  A device can either be attached to the horse eg a halter or a bridle or it can be some that is held by the trainer which he uses to  touch the horse with eg a stick, a rope or a  spur.  With indirect pressure again we can use only our hands or other parts of our body or we can use some device like a stick and flag or a rope.  Indirect pressure means that we don`t touch the horse.

Because horses are so sensitive they feel direct pressure immediately no matter how light the pressure is.  The objective is to have the horse understand what they should do to respond to the pressure.  If the pressure hurts or scares the horse they will not learn to respond properly

I have heard clinicians say that we can learn from the interactions of horses playing together to determine how much pressure can be applied.  If you have  observed this, do you really want to ever apply that much pressure?  I don`t think so.

I have found that pressure applied in the right spot can be very light but still effective.  The key is to remove the pressure the instant that the horse responds, even slightly, in the way we want them to (reward the slightest try).

Try to combine cues to the horse when asking for a response.  For example when asking a horse to back up you can start by wiggling the lead rope.  At the same time as you are wiggling the rope look at the horses feet and push slightly with your nose toward the horse.  The instant the horse starts to move back stop everything and change your focus.  As the horse learns your cue you can reduce the pressure in steps until all you need to do to ask for a back up is to look at the horses feet.  The look is a form of pressure and to the untrained eye the horses response seems to be magical.  The goal with everything I do is to reduce the asking pressure to the absolute minimum.  As this happens the horse`s responses become better and their confidence in you grows.

The methods taught by clinicians utilize pressure applied in a variety of manners.  When you are considering using a program take the time to see the methods applied and decide for yourself if it is a method you are comfortable with.  Never, ever, let a trainer or a clinician use a form of pressure on your horse/partner that you are not comfortable with.  If it looks like the horse is afraid or worse is hurt, things have gone way over the line.  Don`t let this happen!

Pressure, properly used,  is nothing more than a means of communication.  The objective is that this communication is almost invisible to everyone but you and your horse.