Odin never ceases to amaze me. I have never met a horse so expressive, interactive and communicative. I’m sure that has more to do with the years we’ve spent together than anything else, with those years spent growing and learning and growing some more.
To point at anything specific that has shaped our relationship is riddled with many of the terms that rile horse people on either side of the spectrum from traditional to the so-called natural horsemanship fad of the day. All the way up and down that spectrum are things of value, things to learn and things to incorporate into a relationship with a horse. So, my first bit of advice is to be an extremist in a different way – take it all in.
Yes, demand the whole pie, not just a slice. Every person and every horse is different, unique, and the relationship evolves on its own. Sure, it’s a human and a horse, and some things are generalize-able, but not any more than what builds between two people or two horses. Generally, each is born - born naked, a fresh slate - and with an infinite amount of potential and possibility. Isolate two people, two horses or a horse and a person, and you have an individual, unique relationship that is impossible to duplicate with another person or another horse. When you realize this, you realize that no one horse training method, no technique or ideology will garner the relationship that only you can build with your horse.
The relationship you build is not based on what clothes you wear, what saddle or bridle you use, what halter, what longe line or what bit you put in your horse’s mouth. Those are things that actually get in the way of building a relationship with your horse. So, strip it all down and put it aside. Go out and sit in the pasture with your horse and throw away your plans, watch and cell phone. Observe. Interact. Talk. If a fly lands in an unreachable spot on your horse, swat it off. Watch his eyes and ears. Listen for the sighs. Walk a few steps away to what just might be a great spot of grass, then look over your shoulder at your horse. When he joins you, lay a hand on his shoulder.
Ask your horse to move a foot. How? That’s up to you to find the slightest, lightest possible cue to give to get a foot to move. I use finger tips. When he moves away from the pressure of those finger tips, he rewards himself instantly and the cue is learned. In what ways does your horse put pressure on you to move your feet? I pay attention to this a great deal and make it a point not to give to his pressure. The pecking order is established, and respect is born.
No matter how well trained your horse is when you bought him, that training is worthless unless you know the same things that the horse knows. If a horse is trained in dressage and you set out to bend poles, chances are good that you won’t accomplish much the first few tries. As time goes on, the horse learns your cues and you learn what cues to give and then things come together. The horse isn’t stupid, he isn’t arguing with you and he’s not acting defiant. Neither are you. Get quiet and go slow.
The very smallest, the most basic of interaction between you and a horse begins with pressure and release, to use a popular phrase. A horse will learn a lot quicker than you expect if you don’t watch for his response to your cue and immediately stop the pressure. He’ll figure that pressure means for him to accept that pressure, put up with it, tolerate it instead of trying to find ways to get that pressure to stop. In the end, you’ll have a fight on your hands, and it’s not a fight that you can win. Again, get quiet and go slow. You both need to learn each other, and that begins with communication. Communication only exists if it is two-way.
A horse is forgiving, but he never forgets. He will never forget that you will release the pressure when he does what you want him to do, no matter what it is you are trying to ask of him. He will forgive you for your mistakes and react to what he learns is your usual way of doing things. He will accept your clothes, your tack, your equipment when he knows that you will release the pressure. Dedicate yourself to communicating with your horse and he will do the same in kind.
No, I am never alone. I have my horse.