by Ron Meredith
Mastering "Natural" Horsemanship
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Most people think you control a horse by controlling its head. You put on a lead rope or a bridle and you use that to show the horse how you want him to start and stop and turn and move his feet and disengage this or that and other stuff. So how do you control a horse when you donít have a lead rope or a bridle on him? Every day, there are a lot of people chasing horses around in pastures asking that question.
A horse-logical training system like heeding teaches people how to control the horseís mind. If youíve got his mind, youíve got the horse whether heís loaded with tack or bare naked. It takes a very specific discipline to learn to do this correctly. I donít mean discipline in the sense of obedience or punishment. When I use the word discipline, I mean calm compliance. It takes discipline or self control on the part of the trainer to make the horse into a disciple or follower, to cause the horse to willingly follow your lead.
In the animal kingdom, humans are predators and horses are prey animals. In order to work with horses, we have to figure out how to bridge that zoological gap. We do this by establishing a pattern, a feeling in the horse, that we are the safest, most comfortable place in the world to be rather than a predator out to do them harm. It is simple to describe how to do this but hard to master the program. Here are the ground rules:
Pay attention. You get the horse to pay attention to you by paying constant attention first to yourself, then to the horse. Say hello to your friends at the barn, scratch all the dogs and shoot the breeze with the barn manager before you head down the aisle to get your horse, not while youíre with him. Donít forget to turn off the radio or put the compact disk player and ear buds away.
In order to pay full attention to what you are doing and what your horse is doing, you have to put any distractions aside. You need to focus and concentrate. If thatís hard for you, start with 10 minutes and work your way up. Eventually you want to be so focused on your horse that you wouldnít notice if a bomb went off or someone came up alongside you waving a million dollar check.
Pay attention to what you are thinking, to what you are doing, and to how you are breathing. If youíre thinking about what kind of pizza you want for dinner, youíre not with your horse. If youíre thinking about how your horse is going to perform at next weekís show, youíre not with your horse right now. Keep monitoring your attention and bringing it back to your horse.
As you are paying attention to your horse, ask yourself what kind of feedback heís giving you? How is he breathing? What are his eyes and his ears signaling? Are his reactions to haltering, leading, grooming or whatever youíre doing with him the same as the last time you worked with him?
If you are paying attention to your horse, you will know when his attention wanders from you. You donít jerk on the lead rope or spank or poke him. You donít ďcorrectĒ him or punish him. You just quietly do the smallest thing you need to do to get his attention back on you. It might be as little a brushing your hand against your nylon jacket to make a little noise or as much as using some sort of pressure that makes him move his feet a little. Itís going to vary from horse to horse and it will change as the horse spends more time with you.
The most important things to pay attention to are rhythm and relaxation. You start moving rhythmically from the moment the horse can hear your voice or footsteps or sees you coming toward his stall. Everything about your approach should be rhythmic and relaxed. Pay attention to your breathing because thatís where it starts. Then pay attention to every movement you make and the tension in your muscles, even your face.
As you greet the horse in his stall, put on his halter, stand him in the aisle, start grooming, tack him up, or whatever youíre doing that day, you work with a constant sense of rhythm. From the way you buckle the halter to the way you coil the end of the lead to the way you pick up and put down your brushes or lay the saddle pad on the horseís back you donít speed up, you donít slow down, and you donít let things get jerky or jittery. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm.
Move your horse to the arena with rhythm, mount with rhythm, and ride with rhythm. Rhythm is the mother of relaxation and teaching your horse that pattern can help prevent a wreck down the road someday when something unusual and unplanned happens. And it will.
Never raise the excitement level to a predatory level. Keeping yourself rhythmic and relaxed will help you keep your wits and your patience so you never do anything that startles the horse. Never do anything that interrupts the feeling you want him to have that you are a safe place to be. If something you do elevates the excitement level, you put too much pressure on the horse. If you do something and he didnít notice it, you need to go back and repeat the lessons about paying attention until you both have that down.
Hereís an example. If you are constantly paying attention to the horse you will be constantly aware of what heís thinking and doing. You will start to catch little things before they escalate into big things. You will start to control your own reactions so that you can control the horseís reactions. For instance, letís say you have a horse in a round pen and something startles him and he leaves. You donít react to his leaving by increasing the pressure and asking him for a few extra laps of the pen. Thatís retribution and you are not trying to establish the pattern that if the horse leaves when you didnít tell him to leave, heís going to get punished for that.
Instead, if something unusual grabs his attention and raises his excitement level to the point that he needs to leave, you just let him go and act like nothing happened. Then you have to get his attention back before you can do anything else. So you do the smallest thing you need to do to get his attention back on you. Then you invite him to come back to you. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. After awhile when something startles him, heíll start checking to see what youíre doing before he leaves. If you keep acting like nothing happened, heíll start to follow your lead and act that way, too.
Repeat these steps until you figure it out. You have to work on paying attention, staying rhythmic and staying relaxed until your self control is a pattern the horse can absolutely trust. Then you can be in control of your horse.
Donít be surprised if everything doesnít just fall neatly in place the first day or week or even for several months when you start learning a non-predatory way of training horses. Some folks call it ďnaturalĒ horsemanship but it doesnít come naturally to a lot of people. Developing the mental self control that enables you to control a horse is hard work. A lot of the old horsemen teaching this stuff took a lifetime to learn it. If youíre younger than they are, donít get discouraged. Take your time and be as patient with yourself as you want to be with your horse.