Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Great Horsemanship: Beyond Winning Ribbons and Trophies


Going Beyond Winning Ribbons and Trophies

Great HorsemanshipThe vast majority of humans I encounter who I ask about their experience with horses, tell me about how much they have ridden, how many competitions they have participated in and, or won. Many think they are great horsemen and women. Sometimes they tell me about the show horses or race horses they have owned and whether or not those horses did well in competition, with or without that person's actual participation. Often those people will say to me how much they love their horses. Then there are the folks to tell me they choose not to ride, but rather go out in the field and give their horses treats all the time. Then wonder why the horse ignores them if they do not have some food to give to the animal. Many times I speak to competitive riders who tell me the problems they have with one horse or another or the difficulties and challenges of competition riding. The main difficulty I hear about is lack of opportunity to take as much time as required to patiently, thoroughly and properly bring a young horse or a difficult horse along to a successful outcome. Then there are the trail riders (called 'free riders' in Greece). Some of these young riders I have seen ride in rubber sandals and shorts. They get on their horse, often an untrained stallion, gallop all around, make the horse rear up (stand on its hind legs) and do all they can mindlessly, seeming to want to show what great macho horsemen they are.

While a room full of ribbons and trophies might indicate some good technical abilities as an equestrian (rider), does this really indicate that person is a great horseman? Personally, I don't think so. I have unfortunately seen and known many competition riders who actually and unbelievably know little of the true nature and psychology of the horse they are riding. When such a rider encounters a problem with their horse, such as the horse balking at jumps, running off, spooking at shadows, bucking, kicking, etc. their normal response is to attempt to take a firmer hand with the horse and push, force or somehow coerce the horse to submit and behave the way the rider wants. If the poor horse does not give in to the force, punishment is then provided to this horse for its misdeeds. After all, isn't it justified to punish bad individuals? Isn't it appropriate to force submission from this animal to its master, the human?

To me, this is a very sad commentary on how we humans frequently relate to the horse. We often seem to feel the horse was put on this earth to submit to the will of man, being the superior specie (at least our egos would have us think that way) After all we have either eaten and/or subjugated the equine throughout recorded and even unrecorded history. Many think it is our right to dominate animals, nature and the earth. Does this subjugation make us great horsemen?

Truthfully, the best, greatest and most wonderful horsemen I have ever known perhaps were competitive riders early on in the lives with horses. Over time, success with their horses became not about winning ribbons and trophies. They came to realize that while having a room full of awards with great for their egos; it did nothing for their horses or even great horsemanship. When we focus so much on winning, we can overlook the well-being of our horses as well as what is really important to our horses. Horses do not care about wining awards. What they do care about, is trusting they are safe. This means feeling safe from harm, pain, hunger and death. When a human becomes the source of those trusting feelings for a horse, I think that human is really on their way to becoming a great horseman.

Many of us have seen spectacular equine exhibitions that did not involve competition. Very large horse expositions take place around the world. We see horses do wondrous and magnificent performances without bridle, saddle, ropes or any physical restraint applied by the human. These horses readily, willingly and happily dance, play, and execute intricate maneuvers either totally on their own 'at liberty' when given a cue by their human, or in consort and partnership with the human. They are in a state of natural collection and balance. These performances always inspire awe, uplift those fortunate enough to view them and mesmerize entire audiences of thousands of people. Here, the horse is the star and not the human. Accolades and admiration come to the humans who have trained these horses and done so without force, coercion or subjugation. How do they do it?

I would like to offer some possibilities and principles of how we humans can become like these great horsemen and women. I think first and foremost is the realization and acceptance that we must have an equal relationship/partnership with our horses that is based on mutual trust and respect. To achieve this we must understand how to learn from each other. Horses can easily teach a human the best way to approach and train them, if that human really has leaned and understands the nature and psychology of the horse and is willing to take the time to listen to what the animal is trying to communicate. Nothing will really be accomplished with a horse until there is mutual trust, respect and mutually successful communication. Dominance may make some short term gains in competition and may mean perhaps another ribbon or trophy. But in the long run and ultimately, dominance has nothing to do with great horsemanship. I must say here that I do know some competitive riders who are also great horse people. But there is a difference between great riding ability and superior/great horsemanship. Often it can be the non-rider, the trainer, or even the groom, who displays great horsemanship.

Next, humans need to learn flexibility and creativity when training horses. No one standard method will always work with every horse. Each horse will develop as an individual and will react differently to the same stimulus. Just like humans when one is more sensitive than another or one has a more rapid way of moving and others a slower way. It is our responsibility to the horse to become its trusted sanctuary of safety, its safe haven. As we humans would like to reduce stress in our lives, it should be part of our mission with our horses to assist the animal in reducing the stress in its life as well. We do this by fostering and supporting feelings of safety within the horse. Additionally, by remembering that safety equals trust, which also equals peace in the animal's life, we can help our own sense of inner peace, by offering peaceful feelings to our horses.

Developing a patient and calm demeanor with our horses really helps to develop trust and assists in effective training. We should never push a horse faster than its feelings of safety will allow. On the other hand, being too soft, ambiguous, nonchalant or without a solid intention will promote boredom in the horse or prompt the horse to ignore us. There is a balance to be struck in how we are and how we communicate when with our horses. Horses communicate with each other in a very natural way. Their way of communication is primarily though body language and exchange of emotions (empathy). This is why it is so imperative that we always be self-aware of how we are moving and feeling when we are with our horses. The old saying to 'leave our problems at the stable door' and not bring them to our horses is a good one. Just like not bringing our problems to our children is part of good parenting. Good parenting is always a part of good horsemanship.

Lastly, I would like to mention great leadership is always part of great horsemanship. I do not mean dictatorial leadership or leading through fear. Unfortunately, many bosses in the corporate world and others in places of power over others lead though development of fear. What I am talking about is being able to embody the great leader. Embodying the non-violent, but brilliant leadership of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King is the sort of leadership we humans need to do for our horses. The leader of the horse herd in the wild embodies the great leader. She knows when to move the herd, where the food and water are to be found, when it is safe to eat, drink or rest. She does not force nor coerce in any way the others to move. They know their survival depends on following her lead. She is their safe haven. She is not a bully, nor the biggest or strongest. She is, however, the smartest and with the most highly developed sense of intuition. Additionally, she is extremely empathetic with the other members of the herd and they are with her. If she were a human, she would probably be called a great horseman. It is our choice whether to be great horsemen, or merely a boss.