(This blog was originally posted on May 18, 2011)
|Photo courtesy of Sara Fogan|
I believe that people who train and work with horses should aim to achieve a partnership with their horse. I love the way Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks talk about their “equine partners” when they teach horsemanship and training techniques. My trainers teach every student at the barn to consider and interact with their mount as an equine partner. But, what does this term really mean? What does it mean to be a human partner to your horse?
Enid Bagnold’s classic novel, National Velvet, depicts a teenage Velvet Brown’s bond with a piebald gelding, which she rides to victory in the Grand National horse race. In Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, Alec Ramsay earns the trust of an Arabian stallion when they are shipwrecked on a deserted island. “The Black” demonstrates his devotion to Alec when he kills a cobra poised to bite the boy; after they are rescued, Alec enlists the help of a former jockey to train them for an important race. Finally, in one of the most exciting scenes in my favorite movie, The Man From Snowy River, Jim Craig’s trusted mount gallops at breakneck speed, headlong down a cliff and over rugged terrain in their quest to round up a herd of wild horses.
Now, consider the horses that you have known in your life: The horse that carried you safely home when you were sure that you were “lost” on the trail. The horse who, even after “dumping” you at that oxer, stood patiently beside you and waited for you to catch your breath (and gathered your pride) before climbing on his back. The horse that braced his body perpendicular to a steep incline, allowing you to pull yourself up the hill by using the reins and his weight as leverage. Finally: The horse that carried you to a first-place win after crossing 100 miles of grueling terrain in an endurance race, or bested the other equine athletes at a three-day, combined-training event. How—or, why—do they do these things for us?
While considering this question, I am reminded of the famous challenge in President Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” I believe that this theme forms the basis of the partnership that is forged between a horse and his rider. Rather than focus on the prize or reward that is being offered at the end of the ride, consider what it takes to achieve that goal.
Spend time watching your horse in pasture and take the time to learn how to communicate and interpret the horse’s body language. Groom him and establish a mutual bond of trust and respect before you even think about climbing onto his back. Rather than jabbing a spur into his side and demanding your horse to go forward, first “ask” him to walk/trot/canter out with gentle aid, such as a cluck or squeeze. Reward the horse with praise and gentle pats when he does what you have asked. When you must correct the horse’s behavior, be firm—but fair: refusing to go forward because he is belligerent is not the same thing as not understanding what you have asked him to do. If your horse spooks at something on a trail or in the arena, help him to build his confidence by remaining patient and calm through the incident. Be an example of bravery as you desensitize him to what has previously startled him. Demonstrate and reinforce your role as herd leader by providing him with food, water, shelter, and time to just be a horse.
If, as Kelly Marks writes, you can “be the owner your horse would choose for himself,” he can be a reliable equine partner for you.