Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In the Beginning:Natural Matters

Having ridden for the majority of my life and fortunate enough to have parents who provided me with many, many years of good quality riding lessons, I have a lot of stored files in the noggin about horses, riding, equitation, correct aids, you name it. I rode for years with a local Pony Club and then onto a variety of trainers, participated in numerous hunter /jumper shows , 3- day events and also went onto enroll in the riding program in college. I was even fortunate enough to get the opportunity to ride a school master a couple of times.

Even with all of that, I realized after being out on my own, riding and training , that something was missing. For a long time I didn’t know what that missing piece was but being naturally curious I started hunting for an answer. By this time in my equestrian career, I was eastern girl now living in the wild west of Montana. I kept hearing about “natural horsemanship” and “ round pen work” through various avenues. I was familiar enough with working horses in from my days as a groom/assistant trainer for a large scale Arabian farm but it seemed like the buzz about it was different. At first I was leery hearing the catch phrase, “horse whispering” and ‘joining up”. Quite frankly, I thought that the horse “whispering” stuff was a lot of hogwash right from the beginning, before I knew much of anything. Another one that used to be and still is would be the concept of “joining up”. This has been known to send me into a sudden bout of nausea when I hear people talk about it due to the other issues it causes ; like assuming that once a horse has joined up, the horse has now accepted everything and can be ridden. This has manifested itself as dangerous situation in my opinion. Before I get too off track, I do want to say a couple other point that I think are important to point out relative to Natural Horsemanship.
Natural Horsemanship has always been around, going back to the time of Xenophon (430-ca 335 B.C.) He was the father of classical Equitation and wrote the first manual on the riding horse, entitled “The Art of Horsemanship”. He was a horseman of horsemen. He encouraged his pupils to study the the horses “Psyche”. Natural horsemanship is not a new concept.
Less than 15 years ,some very smart American trainers with marketing skills took this concept to new levels and as result, a lot of people made a lot of money in the process. I think that is just fine if people are making money doing something they love but I do believe that horses may have suffered the consequences in the process. With all the buzz out there in the market place about natural horsemanship today, it is difficult to sift through the hype, buzz words, and touchy, feely speak to get to the real core of what it has to offer. In some cases, the marketing hype has reached almost a Pentecostal delivery.I also think that while many Trainers have become household names as a result of this consept, it has also set about a different concept that if your not self labeled as a “natural horsemanship” trainer , you are no good. Let me tell you, many of these natural horsemanship trainers are no better than any other trainer out there.
With that said, in the beginning, my research efforts steered me toward more tangible methods taught by Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, and even to some extent, Pat Parelli. It was all very different than everything I was used to, having grown up riding the English discipline. While these new methods didn’t make sense to me right way, I was captivated at what these individuals were accomplishing with their horses and there most certainly wasn’t “whispering” going on (thank god). Any of you who have had the opportunity to attend a Buck clinic knows… there isn’t much “whispering” going on in that mans clinics!! Anyways, I knew two things at this early stage of my odyssey; these horsemen were doing things differently and I wanted to know more about it.
It was a few years later but I finally bit the bullet and attended my first horsemanship clinic with a man named Harry Whitney. It was a 4 day clinic that Tom, whom I was now engaged to, was sponsoring. In fact, Tom knew this clinician well and assured me I would not be sorry. So I wrote a big check and prepared to be educated. I figured he couldn’t be too bad because everything Tom had learned had come from Harry. Besides, from what I had seen of Tom’s skills, he seemed to be getting some nice things done with his horses. When the day of the clinic arrived, I was nervous and feeling totally out of my element. It wasn’t long and I was in the middle of it and having a blast. Finally, this was making a lot of sense. With all the information I was trying to absorb, I didn’t have time to be nervous. Harry is a kind patient teacher willing to slow things down if you don’t understand something. Over the next 3 days, I learned about communicating with horses in a totally different way and it wasn’t whispering or even touchy feely. It was real. I was witnessing real changes in my horse when I paid attention to how I asked, when I asked and understanding the careful balance between timing, feel and rewards. (feel not being the same as “touchy feely” mind you)

Late in the day on the final day of the clinic, most of the clinic participants were loaded up , notebooks firmly clutched with all the new ideas they had gathered at the clinic. Since Tom was actually the clinic sponsor, as he had been for the last several years, he and I stayed behind to clean things up and see Harry off to a proper meal. Things were quieting down and sadly coming to an end.

Enter stage right- Harry and Sandy into the arena. I watched and at first it didn’t seem like too much was happening, just trotting around but then things changed. At that moment, still new to all of this but able to recognize something special, Harry asked Sandy into a canter and began what appeared to be a dance between the two. In simple terms it could have been considered a freestyle reining pattern at a collected canter but this was no regular reining pattern you would see at your typical reined cow horse competition. This was something altogether different, something special happening between horse and rider. My writing could never do justice to what I was witnessing but it was obvious that Harry’s thoughts and intents were clear and Sandy was responding in perfect time. There wasn’t so much as a noticeable tug on a rein, a bump of the leg, a noticeable shift in Harry’s seat, but something was happening between the two. Tom and I watched in awe as Harry performed movements that would make most dressage connoisseurs wet their pants. The amazing part for me was the draped rein. This was a perfect display of beautiful communication, trust and true partnership between horse and rider. Looking back, with hours of clinics and time spent in the round pen now under my belt, I know that there was conversation going on there between Harry and Sandy but it was not heard, it was thought and felt between the two. It was amazing and a moment that has been branded in my mind forever. I knew I wanted what he had and have since focused my energy in acquiring better horsemanship skills by approaching horse training from a different angle. I don’t like to use the buzz words like natural horsemanship because , like so many other things, it gets lost in translation; instead I see it more as a common sense approach refer to it as coming to an clearer understanding of making what I am asking, mean something to a horse.

Harry’s focus is to look at things from the horse’s perspective. Get inside the horses mind and let the horse think through the things you ask, help him to figure it out because he can, and offer him an opportunity to work with you as partners. They are living, breathing thinking creatures with unique personalities. Harry taught me about the horses mind and that one little piece has made the biggest difference for me in my quest to build a better understanding between myself and my horses. By the end of that first clinic, I was completely energized and my mind was reeling. It was a totally different approach but finally it felt like it was the missing link I had been looking for.

Since that first clinic, I have attended many clinics by various clinicians. I have studied practiced and studied some more. I have watched hours of videos by various teachers, attended numerous seminars, demonstrations and take any other opportunity to broaden my knowledge base. Some of what is out there I like, some of what is out there doesn’t work for me, or I have modified it to work for me and /or my horse. There is always something new to learn with horses. More importantly, I am always amazed at what the horses have been able to teach me over the years.

Unfortunately, what I have learned over the years and continue to learn is not the kind of thing that I could even begin to try to capture in a blog. When it comes to training horses, I don’t believe the cook book methods that are out there work well because every person and every horse is different. You simply have to get out there and start working on this stuff. Sometimes, you have to fail and start over, learning from your mistakes.

I certainly didn’t have it figured out by the end of that first clinic and I certainly don’t have it all figured out now, but maybe through my experiences that I plan to post on this blog, I can pass along something for someone else to learn. It’s been my experience that we are all trying to improve our horse skills in some fashion or another. My hope is that I can share with you some of my own training efforts as I continue to strive to build better relationships with my horses. I don’t prefer to call myself a horse trainer and I don’t even like to use the term of natural horsemanship because of the negative connotations that have associated with it. The way I see it, anyone can go pay their dues, sign up onto a training program with some of the “natural horsemanship” trainers out there, and 10 weeks later, they have a signed certificate that says they are a horse trainer. To me that piece of paper doesn’t mean much. You have to put the time in, a lot of time, I have spent a lifetime of working with horses on many different levels and disciplines. I have put a lot of time into studying and working with horses, working on training methods, etc. but there is always something else to learn.

Now, off to go work Brego and use that homemade flag sponsored by Target stores plastic shopping bags! Sure beats spending $30 bucks for the endorsed option!

No comments: