March 29, 2022
I thought deeply about how to describe the heart of Hope Horsemanship. After much consideration I settled on “Relationship Based Horsemanship.” As I continue the journey deeper into my own herd and helping others in theirs, I see that if the relationship is working, then all things are possible. If the relationship is not working nothing will come around right. It can come around… we can force and insist and many horses will comply, but it doesn’t make it right.
I realize that horses are animals (not humans) and they do belong to us. We have the responsibility to care for them and they serve a purpose; which is why we invest in their care. The purpose can fall on a wide spectrum from companion or the joy one gets from seeing them as a herd living mostly “feral” with only necessary care, to a regular working horse that has a daily job of ranch work, trail mount, racing or dressage.
Even though not human, horses are living creatures and have sensitivity physically and emotionally. And though I don’t agree with complete anthropomorphism, there are ways we can relate to horses that are helpful when we see them in light of how we treat “others” in our lives. Specifically regarding how we treat relationships, and in this I believe horses can also help us consider more intentionally our human relationships as well.
I’ve investigated my relationship with my horses on various levels from life partner and friend to child to poorly adjusted adopted child with a wounded background depending on the horse and situation. It is possible relationships with horses are somewhat fluid since the horse isn’t actually an equal human partner one might consider getting married to, and is not actually an adopted child with a wounded history, or even if you bred the horse and it was born on your farm- no matter the feelings it isn’t really a human son or daughter. You will never do well relating to your spouse as a child and you’ll create lots of issues if you try to relate to your 5 year old daughter as best friend. Yet with a horse sometimes seasons and circumstances call for flexibility in how you relate to them.
As I look at my relationship with Khaleesi who I started from a four-year old, mostly untouched filly, who had been living with a healthy herd on a large mountain property. She did not come with much baggage and almost zero human related baggage. As she turns twelve this year, our relationship is basically mature and we know each other well. With this horse I want to relate to her as much as possible as a partner where I’m always the shareholder with a slightly higher stake. In the end there must be a head to the body, the brains, and when it comes down to it the decisions need to flow through me. There can be times however when I have to switch to relating to her as needing support in a new challenge or herd transition. In her case those are going to be short term or temporary.
It is beautiful is to see how she increasingly offers me things I can seamlessly approve and allow her more freedom. This trust in her results in an increased trust she has in me to try things and ask questions.
There was a time in our relationship looking back I realized I was the “no” person… Everything she suggested was “no”. It didn’t have to be that way- she wasn’t offering me dangerous terrible ideas. I had bought into the idea of being the “boss” with your horse so they don’t walk all over you earlier on in my horse mentorship and though I decided to shed the more controlling and sometimes violent ways of this path, deeper down it still affected my thinking.
If I didn’t have a set route for our trail ride and there were choices of which trail, if she began to suggest the left branch I’d decide on the right. If she wanted to speed up the pace I would say “no!” and make her walk until she had given up the thought she’d like to trot… and then I’d say “let’s trot.” These things now seem unreasonable and contrarian, but at the time I had learned that good horsemanship meant being in control and not letting horses get away with things. Sadly there is just enough truth in that concept to make it pretty widely accepted. Of course I want to be the brains, and I don’t want my horse making all the decisions, in fact I don’t want my horse making any decision that doesn’t run through me unless I specifically ask them to (that’s another whole subject, like trotting in an arena on the buckle etc), however simply saying no to prove who is in charge creates a negative environment for everyone. I think some people parent this way too… This communicates: I do not trust you to make any decisions, the answer is always ‘no’ so don’t ask. Just wait until I tell you to do something and then please do it exactly as I asked. Now I look for how often can I say yes? What things can be negotiated? When can I say: That’s a great idea let’s try it!
One can imagine if I am only the “no” person, I am not encouraging a relationship where my horse might grow into taking on responsibility or self-carriage that I want to see both physically and mentally. Just like if I parent that way, it doesn’t help children make increasingly better choices as they mature.
In this way the horse is less like a partner and more like a child. This is not wrong especially in phases or a season. When you bring a new horse home that you do not know, the expectation that the horse will immediately become a true partner is unreasonable because they don’t know the “house rules” and they don’t know how your style and expectations are different from where they came from.
Children need support and guidance. So does your horse. Reasonable boundaries that expand in time are helpful for everyone to find their way. I find it helpful to begin with the approach that if my horse does something I would like to see less of, I need to figure out how to support them toward the desired behavior. This can be tricky because you have to sort out if it’s a physical or mental issue. Impatient, predatorial, straight line thinking humans often result quickly to force** so we can move on to the next thing. The more we do this the worse the end result is- either in a few weeks or sometimes in years to come. Sometimes correction is needed, but patience and curiosity (Why is this still happening? How can I help? What am I missing? Can I help my horse understand this process?) goes a long way in helping that correction continue the relationship in a positive trajectory.
** What is force? Think about this a bit before moving on. Some people only see physical abuse as force. Have you ever been in a relationship where you did something and weren’t beaten into it, but still it was forced on you? Something you knew it wasn’t right but you were boxed into a corner- at work or with a spouse or parent? Be aware of when you force something to happen with the thought: “they will see it’s ok once I make them do it…” There may be a place for this, but how often have you been forced into something you weren’t comfortable with and it only made you more uncomfortable with it? Often force is when we want to skip teaching or understanding and use a tool instead so we can get on with things we want to do.
The opposite issue is not beginning with clear direction and boundaries and expecting a perfect equine partner without developing the relationship gradually. This is where humans keep the horse in infantile state their entire life. This is not an age issue as much as a development issue. A new to you horse at age fifteen still needs a time of boundaries and clear direction but may move through that phase more quickly than a six year old. Sorting this out takes patient observation and considering the horse as a unique individual and some trial and error. Too much freedom too soon might result in confusion which would encourage dialing back and trying again. If you do these steps in increments they aren’t particularly dangerous. (Patience….)
We have all seen examples of humans treating horses like babies or children at some point. Baby talking to them (as a regular occurrence) is one obvious warning flag, but not allowing them any room to function on their own and learn is somewhat common. This might look like cross ties, holding the lead rope always in tension, holding close to the knot of the halter (or the metal clip under the chin), tightly guiding them in or out of the trailer, never riding with loose rein… I am not saying cross ties are never ok, or helping your horse know where the edge of the trailer ramp is makes one a bad horseman, and very rarely I will use the knot on the halter for clear communication – but when these things are a way of life because the horse is not trusted to think and act and choose to stand quietly for you without being held down in cross ties or you can’t ever let the reins loose for fear of what the horse might do, this is keeping the horse in an infantile state. When we do this we are not allowing the horse to grow and learn and make choices that we can shape. When we never allow the horse to make a mistake, we don’t allow them the dignity of learning and we treat them as if they are not capable of such. We keep them in an infantile state and then get frustrated when they don’t grow up and perform at their best for us.
Learning and growth can be messy. It also requires … patience. However I’ve read that horses can learn to learn. Meaning that if we go through some slow messy learning early on their learning “muscle” improves and the process does speed up.
I have three horses in my herd currently. Khaleesi is the most developed and we have a relationship where she is able to carry a lot of responsibility. She is a local bred Saddlebred-Racking Horse X Arab-Walker. She is incredibly capable both mentally and physically. She is also emotionally balanced. In my relationship with her I continue to practice how subtle I can be in communicating with her and still have clarity, and being sensitive to when she needs support and finding ways to give it without seeming harsh. I encourage self-carriage mentally and give her a lot of responsibility she handles well, this parallels the physical self-carriage I am also asking for in increasing duration.
Wyoming has been the most tricky for me and our relationship is somewhere on the spectrum. She is a wild horse (American Mustang) from Wyoming. I sense that it is more volatile than stable Khaleesi, which requires more flexibility and dexterity both physically and mentally. She is also a very different horse from Khaleesi (or Hope) and her process will not look the same. She is quicker to disengage with me but also quicker to return. She needs a fair amount of boundaries but also just enough freedom. If she feels either confused or too boxed in, she will revolt and disconnect. If this is recognized and I keep pressing and not supporting it can go violent. Force always backfires with her. And yet she wants to interact, she is willing, friendly and curious. She doesn’t want to stay a “child” forever in her relationship and yet isn’t ready to be fully trusted or carry as much responsibility as Khaleesi. She is a horse I have to trust just a bit more than I’m comfortable with and most times she responds with great brilliance… and sometimes we end up in a pinch. She is not a horse for an inexperienced horse person and it’s imperative that I not panic no matter what happens. She needs to know she can trust me and I am “safe” in order for us to move forward at all. I once heard a speaker suggest as a parent one of the most important things he learned is NEVER show shock or surprise no matter what the kids come to you with. This is the horse that advice is incredibly true for!
Hope is the newest horse in the herd and she came from a rough past. She is a Quarter Horse. Though I don’t know everything, I do know she was given up to rescue (this happens when for some reason you cannot sell the horse which is always preferred to giving it away), and then she was adopted out and returned the rescue twice before she ended up in the lesson program where I found her sent out to pasture until they could figure out what to do with her. There she had failed out as a lesson horse for two different instructors. So at the least she has a history of abandonment and not meeting expectations. At least four times in recent years someone has seen potential in her and then sent her back disappointed. She is quiet and kind, and while Wyoming tends toward violent outbursts, Hope will shut down, withdraw, and not move. If pressed past that she will hop and rear (which is still stuck whereas generally a bucking horse is at least still moving!). There are definitely physical reasons for her inability to comply and we are doing all we can to help remedy those. This horse needs to be coaxed out of herself and shown she can trust that no matter what she does she will be supported and not punished or pushed. In order to build relationship with her and allow her to mature she needs to know we are committed to her. She has to be able to communicate her issues and see that instead of throwing her back we will address them and help her through. This has taken a great deal of… patience.
When I say Hope Horsemanship is relationship based horsemanship, this is what I mean. The more horses I work with the more I am convinced that there isn’t a “way” to work with horses that will translate to every horse. There are basic principles that help guide the exploration, and I believe there are useful temperament patterns that some horses share, but each horse has a temperament that must be acknowledged. If we begin there and see the creature as the unique being God created, we can go so much farther to support, encourage, find the gold and help refine it into brilliance.
Thankfully horses are not humans, this is why we love them so much. Unless they are very damaged they are honest. If we interact honestly with them, don’t lie, don’t trick them into things, and don’t force them in places they cannot function, they will give us all they can.
Horses are created for relationship, herds are complex and relationships are necessary for survival. They can teach us so much… if we can walk in humility, and patience…