“The path isn’t a straight line; its a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.” – Barry H. Gillespie.
In today’s world, there are so many trainers and systems and so much information out there, that it can be really hard to know where to turn.
Where do you start?
We are all individuals with different goals, values, and experiences. Many people I help wouldn’t even call it a ‘start’ because they’ve been doing horses for years already. Often what leads them to look up people like me, is a problem. A blip. A symptom.
Regardles of your starting point, how do you know what is right for you and your horse?
There is a bewildering range of choices.
What exactly are all these things?
Is good horsemanship any exclusively, or all, or something else entirely?
Which is right for you?
How can you tell?
There are so many methods, and mostly, people tend to stick with the first one that they find that seems to work for them.
I think it is a great idea, especially if starting out, to have a set plan to follow.
However, there are a couple of caveats.
Some systems presume prerequisite knowledge. If you are completely new to horses then you are going to need something that covers the basics thoroughly- good horsemanship is merely a series of good habits, and for people who are always around horses these never get discussed as they are presumed to be common knowledge. You might not want to make assumptions, or have them made, about your prior knowledge. It is very easy to do the wrong thing very well (I practiced many wrong things for the first 30 years of my life) but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best, safest, most ethical or most efficient way to do things.
Secondly, some systems, methods or clinicians are very focused on a particular aspect of horsemanship. If you are starting out brand new, you won’t need a dressage trainer just yet, even if that’s your goal. Make sure you learn to walk before you run.
Many schools of learning, despite having incredible content to offer and specialised knowledge that you don’t find anywhere else, are not necessarily the best first choice if you are missing any foundation.
Most specialist programmes will not help you learn the safest and best way to catch and halter a tricky horse, or how to pick up his feet, or what to do if he won’t go, or stop, or dealing with spookiness, herd bound horses, or trailer loading. They may show you techniques for flying lead changes, but will they show you where to stand to be safe around your horse, how to mount and dismount safely, or how to make sure your horse is relaxed and trusts and understands you enough to be able to respond to you with enthusiasm?
All of which and more are matters which can stop you dead in your tracks way before you get to the clinic or the show.
So what is the key?
The ability to solve those problems easily is directly proportional to how good your feel and timing is, and that is something that is integral to good horsemanship and takes time to develop.
Common obstacles to success.
Firstly, I advise thorough research and first hand assessment when deciding on your teacher. Don’t just do what everyone around you does if it doesn’t sit right, or work for you. Sometimes animosity is aroused between factions or methods, and differences are highlighted, and others’ mistakes are pointed out as inherent flaws in their body of work. You see this in people that identify strongly with one school of thought or other.
This is a huge pitfall to avoid, if you are interested in becoming good at horsemanship. This is because it is a behaviour rooted in belief, not fact, and false beliefs stand in the way of true clarity.
Worse, because by definition the dissidents are not actually studying that other method which they are criticising, they often are talking about examples that they know very little about, based upon the very worst of the failed students, and are either fictional, ancient history, or severely misrepresented. And so they spread the word, and sour new people to the thought of it, and perhaps miss out on some vital ingredients.
The biggest and most convincing set back can be made by the ex student who has himself failed early in a previously sampled method. Like an ex smoker (or perhaps a better metaphor is the newly minted atheist who has converted from a community of extreme religionists) they are disappointed in their results with something they once were inspired by, and thus become the most critical, because they know how frustrated and disillusioned they felt when it didn’t fall into place for them.
However in the case of horsemanship, and this is the critical, they are often not admitting that perhaps their failure was not due to the teachings, but to their own level of understanding, and the standard of feel and timing that they themselves were capable of producing at that stage of their learning.
Sometimes, even witnessing something first hand can be misleading, because we haven’t yet developed the eyes to see what happened before what happens, happens. Then it’s easy to misread and misinterpret the more overt and obvious, and entirely miss the subtle. You just don’t know what you don’t know
Just look at them first hand with your most unbiased eyes, look at their horses, their best students, and decide if this is for you.
Focus, Feel, Timing and Balance are the common thread for great horsemanship in any field, and while some people are born talented, mot of us need to learn and practice it to achieve Balance with a horse. It is achievable to any who decide to apply themselves.
Physical, mental and emotional Balance is the result of great Feel and Timing, which is directly relateable to the Focus you bring specifically to the table.
This applies to good horsemanship, no matter your chosen path to the horse. It feels like you’ve found the Holy Grail, but it doesn’t mean that all that went before or that other paths are wrong, or don’t also lead there.
For the record, not all traditional riders use punishment; natural horsemanship done well is a much broader subject field than negative reinforcement; negative reinforcement itself is not inherently evil, and clicker training does not create cookie monsters.
I’ll give an example from my own life experience. This could apply to many different methods.
An opinion I occasionally hear in otherwise extremely enlightened circles is to assume that Parelli is all about negative reinforcement. To a beginner, you might not even know what that means, hear the word ‘negative’; assume it’s bad and rule it out.
I did a version of this assumption. I was learning from two trainers way back in the ‘80’s, both of whom knew and disliked Parelli. I trusted them and didn’t look for myself. That cost me fifteen years before I tried the system that actually did suit my learning style, and started my real transformation into someone who was living her dreams with horses, instead of struggling every day with problems like pulling, bolting and simply not having my horses calm enough to perform safely.
The truth is that while much of PNH is based upon negative reinforcement (R-), it also includes R+, and strict mandates to establish trust and confidence in your horse first. It teaches you how to read a horse, explicitly instructs you to honour the confidence of the horse in all five different areas of concern (something I’ve only ever heard mentioned in one other system, which was itself developed by an ex Parelli instructor), gives horses’ opinions a say, teaches good everyday habits to keep you safe, delves into horse psychology, categorises behaviours and tendencies and specifies why two horses may need entirely different strategies to achieve the same task. It outlines structured plans, teaches tiered knowledge based upon the prior lessons in a logical way. They explain the importance of confidence, of things like setting up the environment, to set your horse up for success. It requires that you self-examine your own innate tendencies and emphasises your effect upon your horse. It teaches you to flex your style to suit your horse. It is progressive and every step has the next one in mind and is designed to ensure you understand the prior concepts necessary to tackle your next lesson. It’s a vast mine of information that is well structured to facilitate your development as a horsewoman or horseman, and your relationship with your horse.
It’s messy to start with, because it ain’t pretty learning new tools and techniques, but it refines as you learn and understand.
I can say this about Parelli with absolute confidence, because I studied for 10 years in their programme, been mentored by their accredited professionals, and seen significant results.
It was, for me, at that point an ‘equestrian’ for 30 years, an absolute game changer. I am forever grateful for that foundation. No it’s not everything, or all that I value, but it is significant.
Whatever the chosen path, most of any perceived ‘faults’ that you will hear about many systems are usually the results of missed steps, misunderstanding, misperceptions, different emotional responses to the language we use, learning errors, and simply poor feel and timing in the undeveloped student, and not always necessarily the actual systems themselves.
Of course, no single viewpoint is perfect. All systems will have stronger and weaker aspects.
However to avoid making these mistakes, it means that you need to check out your options personally, without prior opinion.
Successful training systems all have much much more common ground than not.
For example, I love Straightness Training, Dressage Naturally, and Intrinzen, because they all teach about great equine biomechanics and posture with great feel and timing. They are all compassionate trainers with the horses’ best interests at heart. They also all approach it from quite different viewpoints, and that’s not only ok, it’s critical. If everyone did everything the same we would never learn anything new.
However the dilemma is where DO you start? How do you find the best way to proceed from where you are right now? If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s all confusing. Who can you trust and how can you find them?
Where do you get on the carousel, to find the centre, to get the balance to be able to be free with your horse?
My best advice; first of all assume you know nothing. Can you imagine how hard it was for me, after 30 years of riding and working with horses including aspects of breeding, handling, breaking in, and being considered competent to do that? The truth was however, that for all my experience and any talent there was, I was missing some vital foundational understanding that meant I was forever missing the point. I had to chuck my ego at the tollbooth.
It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Work out how many years that is, and go easy on yourself.
It’s simple, but it’s not easy, and recognising that your own development is directly tied to actual hours spent in perfect practice is a hard pill to swallow for many unconfident learners. There are no shortcuts. It’s much easier to blame the teacher. But we all are going to have to apply those hours.
You yourself are responsible for your own learning. Being a good student is a massive skill in itself; and becoming comfortable with learning is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. That is a whole subject in itself, but you start by knowing your own tendencies and being prepared to look at your own level of competence with open eyes. No one knows it all, and the best teachers are perennial students. Be open and honest with yourself and your horse.
What to do?
My approach is threefold.
1. Decide on your best plan, and follow it.
If you are returned to riding after a hiatus, or or just starting out, or even already an established rider who is struggling with one problem, I firmly believe in having a broad horsemanship plan to follow. This requires thorough research to find the best that fits you, and making a choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t branch out, but it does mean that you will have a foundational structure to initially work with that suits your style and will thoroughly support all your learning later.
To choose, do not blindly follow someone else’s opinion, but go and look with open eyes for yourself at the horses of the teachers of the method you are appraising, then at the very best of their students, and their horses too. They must align with your own principles.
Do not judge by the drop outs- they are missing most of the picture.
Judge by the proven results and ask if that’s what you want for your relationship with your own horse. Look deep, read their own words and make sure their values resonate with your own. Don’t stop at the first one that seems ok, look at all you can.
Once a good plan is chosen, follow it. By all means question it too if you get confused or find aspects that you don’t like, but if you’ve already checked out the principles before committing, you should be able to work with the instructor to tweak any details in process. As you progress you will start to see other ways to accomplish things, and sometimes you’ll try them.
I find that the best trainers do not waste time running down others, but concentrate on what they themselves do well and lead by example.
2. Learn from the best, regardless of whether they are a part of your plan.
Never stop researching. I recommend auditing as many clinics as you can. Yes, sticking to a plan with your horse is one thing, but don’t limit your knowledge to the foundational path you are following. Knowledge is something you can never have enough of. If they are reputable but outside your chosen path, or you aren’t sure, they are still worth listening to, so audit. Don’t limit yourself, but know what is appropriate for you and your horse right now. Some clinics are levelled according to the system, which is very helpful. Others are a free for all.
One of the best horsemen out there is Buck Brannaman. While I love his work, I do not love the idea of a completely green beginner taking their 18hh 3 year old trakehner to a clinic with 30 other horses in the arena at the same time and an atmosphere of a rock concert. There is learning to be had, but if that student sounds like you, leave the horse at home, audit well, enjoy the atmosphere, make your notes, observe and take home some things to try later. If however, your horse and yourself can handle the atmosphere, then go along and fill your boots with some of the most succinct wisdom out there today from a true master.
3. Get regular one on one coaching.
Finally, I recommend you get a personal coach. Notice I use the word coach, not ‘trainer’. You cannot pay someone else to train your horse, and expect it to be a well oiled machine for your chosen hobby forevermore, unless that trainer is really good, and is also the only person that rides your horse!
Now I know that is actually a thing in other countries, but here in NZ it’s not common practice to have someone riding your horse for you as an ongoing arrangement. What does happen though is we send a horse away for educating and expect that to solve our problems.
Usually, it takes about two weeks from return for the horse to start reflecting your own level of savvy.
The truth is, whether you know it or not, you are the trainer. Every time you interact with that horse he will be learning from you; what his boundaries are, whether you are reliable and consistent, if you’re a good leader, if you are trustworthy. He is a living being and he is a member of one of the most adaptable species on the planet. He will learn from your unconscious, everyday behaviour and he will read you like a book.
By this, I don’t mean that you should not get experienced hands to train your horse . Please do! Get the best you can, even if you’re pretty good yourself it’s the best gift you can give your horse. Especially for starting- I recommend Russell Higgins.
What I do mean though is that you can just as quickly ‘untrain’ him if you don’t upskill yourself. Hence, get a coach for yourself to help you be the best trainer you can be, because if you spend any time at all with your horse you will be training him, make no mistake about that. And if you’re reading this, I assume you are actually interested in becoming a good horsewoman or horseman yourself, right?
Support is vital, a pair of eyes to assess and guide your work between clinics so you stay on track, and help you on the ground at home with your horse to hone your Focus, Ferl, Timing and Balance.
And coaching is what I do.
Ponies, Naturally is about promoting great ongoing relationships with horses by doing the absolutely vital basics really, really well. This is how you develop good feel and timing.
I am a mapmaker. The path of the horse is not unlike the carousel, spiralling and labyrinthine by nature, it meanders and crisscrosses through territories with essential landmarks to explore as you curve in. It has the potential to trap you in rigid styles, launch you right off the idea, or lead you to true freedom with your horse.
You start in the sphere of Focus, then you roll into the next sphere of Feel, then Timing. Where they all overlap, is the centre of the maze. That is the realm of Balance, which is physical, mental and emotional, and that is where you find the balance to facilitate your freedom to open a world of possibilities with your horse.
There are many and more methods that can and do fit into these turning and wheeling paths through the carousel.
You are guided by your own principals, which you need to know well and which need to be inviolate.
You need to have a good idea of your goal. It can change, but you should always know what you are doing this for.
Maybe I can help you shape your perfect partnership. I am not perfect myself, but I do have a very broad outlook which is based on my own talents for recognising patterns, honouring logic and intuition, and the years of experience which give me some altitude to see the big pictures.
I am a connector of dots, a polymath, a mixed methodologist, and philosophically I am inherently inclusive.
I look at all aspects of horsemanship from the viewpoints of science, art, and morals. I am very serious about this- it is an art form, it occurs in a we-space between you and your horse so you are morally culpable, and it has hard scientific truths which are critical to understand in order to succeed. All of these inform our progress and are vital for a complete map.
My byline is Journey before Destination; but this journey is so fulfilling that it becomes its own destination. Every step is worth savouring, and I am here as a guide to help you find your own path to the horse.