Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : How Did You Make Them Feel?

How Did You Make Them Feel?

by Franklin Levinson

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

This is a quote from a man named Carl W. Buechner who is, or was, a minister born in 1926 (no death date known) and wrote quite a few well-known quips and quotes. This quote is perhaps his most famous one. It was sent to me by a good friend, author and motivational speaker named Alan Cohen (author of The Dragon Doesn't Live Here Anymore and many other inspirational books, ( www.alancohen.com ). I was immediately struck by the relevance of this quote to successful training and handling of horses. Because, truly, it is all about how you make the horse feel when it is with you. How a horse 'feels' when it is with us is the main, primary and most important responsibility we have with our horses. Does he feel fearful or does he feel safe? This is the big question.

Those of you reading my essays on equine related philosophies in the various media that publish them know very well how much I am always emphasizing how important it is how a horse feels when it is with you, no matter what the activity. Whether you are training in hand and being active on the ground with the horse, schooling under saddle or just hanging out with the horse, how it feels when it is with you is the last thing it will remember when you end that time together and leave it. If the session had particularly good feelings created between you and the horse, it may have even learned specific things you wanted to teach it more effectively. Additionally, it will be glad to see you when you join with the horse for the next session. You must understand that it will remember how it felt when you ended the session. It is the same way with humans too.

Let's say you are having a meeting with your boss and professional colleagues. You may make notes on the meeting to refer to at a later date so you do not forget the specifics presented during the meeting. But what really stays with you during the meeting and from the moment you leave the meeting is how it all felt. The emotional content of the experience is what you will feel and remember most strongly and immediately. If it felt good, safe and perhaps even uplifting, chances are you will remember specific details much better. You might even remember word-for-word some of what was said without having taken notes. I can guarantee you that if this meeting prompted negative, fearful, angry and frustrating, or any such 'bad' feelings (emotions), your mind may want to dismiss the experience entirely and you will not remember much. Or, your mind may hook into the negativity you felt and these negative feelings will begin to take over your thoughts and responses. As the good feelings produced will permeate throughout what happens after the meeting, so will the negative feelings result in a negative or bad attitude towards experiences that come directly after or even fairly close to after that ill feeling meeting. It is absolutely no different when you are working with horses.

When the experiences we have in life produce good feelings (resulting from our good attitude and thoughts), these emotions support us in being happier, healthier and even feeling more alive. When the emotional content of our experiences is negative, depressing, fearful and the like, we can become so depressed and feel so negative, as to even become dysfunctional and withdraw from the experience of life altogether. Again, this is how it is for our horses.

My goal here is to endeavor to motivate all who read this article to give up training techniques that produce fear within the horse. I hope for you to be willing to let go of judging the animal as 'bad' and blaming the horse for resisting a request because it has been made afraid by our inability to communicate properly what it is we want. Or, we have overlooked something that is scaring the animal. I am hoping to motivate humans to stop training horses by making the animal afraid of receiving pain and punishment. A young friend of mine recently arriving here in Greece from America as an apprentice, described to me how a trainer at the equine college he had attended, punished an unruly (I call fearful) horse. This supposed professional snubbed (tied so short) the horse so it could not lie down nor move its head to even scratch itself. The animal was left like that over night. This was to punish the animal to make it behave. Here in Greece I saw a pony tied the same way in a manure filled shed, without water or food in order to punish the animal for some misdeed or unwanted behavior. It could not even turn its head as the head was tied very short and up against a wall. To me, these people should never own horses, never be allowed to work with horses and should be prosecuted by the law for cruelty to animals and jailed for extended periods of time. But the sad truth is, this sort of treatment of horses, and other animals too, is not uncommon throughout the world. Riding instructors need to teach not only equestrian skills and how to win trophies and awards, but teach about the mind and psychology of the horse so as to have this sort of treatment of horses end. Riding instructors and teachers are role models for young riders and horse people and should teach by providing a very, very good example of humane, compassionate and proper treatment of horses. If you are an equine professional, I implore and beg you to give up abusive methods of training horses only in the name of winning awards and competitions. The excuse of there is not enough time to use other methods and, therefore, applying hefty pressure and using force is essential to getting the job done, is simply an excuse and nothing more. It shows a lack of knowledge of horses along with a lack of compassion. It is not sufficient reason to abuse a horse and produce fear to get obedience. There is never a good reason to make any animal your slave.
It is my belief that some teachers teaching so called 'classical riding' need to evolve to a higher standard of horsemanship. Allowing youngsters to jump before they can even do a reasonable sitting trot without stirrups, or a straight, controlled canter is done simply to provide an exciting experience and 'bragging rights' for that novice rider and their parents. It is true that learning the basics of anything can be tedious and perhaps boring (like practicing scales on an instrument as we are learning to play it or seemingly endless figure eights and circles when learning the basics of riding). The instructor's motivation in this case may be to 'lock' in the student to their particular lesson program. This is not teaching good horsemanship and sends a wrong message to students about putting the well-being of the horse first and the importance of developing a solid foundation for equestrian pursuits. This is in opposition to the instructor who chooses to focus more on the basics first and lateral work or jumping later. Good lesson horses are quickly ruined by instructors allowing novice and young riders to jump them before the rider's abilities have attained a solid level of proficiency. There will be plenty of time for exciting experiences, competitions and opportunities for these riders to show off during their life with horses without bypassing the basics.

Putting students on a lunge line is basic to teaching how to develop a good seat on a horse. Many of the highest level classical riding schools in the world will not allow a rider to touch the reins until they have developed at least the beginnings of good abilities to ride without using their hands and from their seat. In some schools these riders stay on the lunge for months. Sometimes Grand Prix and Olympic coaches put their riders on the lunge before competitions to assist their riders and horses in performing better. How so-called classical riding instructors can not put a student on the lunge and expect to teach how to develop a good 'seat' on a horse is a mystery to me? But not all instructors use this efficient and effective technique and bypass it entirely. The horse and rider both suffer from this deficiency in a riding program and, this is not teaching classical riding which must include how to develop a proper seat as a basic component.

Every moment we are with a horse, everything we do with a horse, every move we make with a horse, every word we say to a horse, every time we touch a horse, everything produces specific feelings within the horse. Just like when we are with our children, our partners our colleagues and even with a station attendant when we get petrol, we are left with the feelings from the experience. We may not even realize we have been affected by the experience, but, in truth, we have. If the experience left us feeling good, we might tend to return to that petrol station, make more time for our children and partners and have better relationships with our colleagues. Likewise, when our experiences with our horses leave the horse with good feelings, we will have good feelings too and be happy to go to be with our horses the next time. They will look forward to our return as well. They will remember how you made them feel. It is not enough to simply be able to throw ropes around a horse, to get a horse used to plastic tarpaulins and plastic bags, umbrellas or other such potentially scary items. It is not enough to be able to ask a horse to move in a circle, stop, change direction or speed and get some effort from the animal. I think we need to actually live and embody the qualities that produce these good feelings, these good vibrations. This is beyond asking for compliance from the horse. It is actually living the good principles we wish to teach.

Great partnership does not happen merely with one or two decent feeling experiences. Or, even a multitude of experiences where some are good and some not so good. Certainly life will offer us situations that will be either very positive or very negative and how we respond or react to these occurrences is up to us. However, when the feelings of the experiences of our lives go up and down like yo-yos due to our inconsistency in thought, behaviors and actions, this indicates a problem. Perhaps the problem is our integrity is not actually right on target. We may be saying one thing but thinking and/or doing another. Inconsistency produces uncertainty and fear. It does not develop trust, or feelings of safety and peace. This is why someone who can mostly function well in day-to-day life, but after work abuses drugs or alcohol, will never totally be able to provide consistent, positive experiences. They are not living honestly or with integrity. They may have glimpses of very good feelings and offer those feelings occasionally through their interactions with others. But ultimately, it most often falls apart somewhere down the line. Learning to have integrity can be a life-long process and requires personal discipline. Horses have this naturally, but unfortunately humans don't. We humans need to work at it.

My intention here is to motivate all those who love; work with or just admire horses, to become an advocate for consistently providing good feelings with horses and a higher level of instruction concerning training, riding and all activities with them. If we support and promote humans providing good feelings (feelings of safety) during training or other activity with a horse, we offer great benefits to the horse and ourselves at the same time. Good feelings and good energies are contagious, just as negative feelings are too. One of the great benefits of good feelings for the horse is a much better and happier life in the world of humans. After all, horses are our captives, our prisoners actually. Isn't to leave them feeling as good as possible from their experiences with us the very least we can do for them? They will remember how we made them feel.

Thank you, Franklin