Thoughts on Natural Horsemanship and Horse Whispering

The Horse Whisperer. Both history and the pop culture notion of natural horsemanship paint an image of the silent, mystical horseman whose mere presence calms the wildest equine outlaw. By using skills invisible to the average human, the horse whisperer inspires the most savage horse to willingly submit and perform any feat.

People attributed this ability to “whispering” after the sensational 19th century “horse tamer,” John Rarey. Among other things (primarily immobilizing the horse with a leg strap), Rarey would gently blow into a horses nostrils or ears. With this, a myth was born that grew along with the development of natural horsemanship as we know it.

But ask the successful modern day “horse whisperer” her or his secret. The key to success with horses (just as with people) begins with LISTENING.

The effective horse trainer “listens” with every sense available. The more acute the trainer’s awareness, the more accurate the understanding of the horse which emerges. Natural horsemanship is based on using the horse’s nature to make the right thing easy. To understand the horse’s nature, we need to listen.

I once read an insightful forum post by a backyard horseman. In convincing a novice to send a young horse to a professional horse trainer, she pointed out that the pros can see a wreck coming well in advance. They perceive the signs of the impending explosion and can prevent it from happening.

The horse trainer in this scenario is listening to the horse more sensitively and more completely than the novice. The pro can see the look of concern growing in the horses eyes, can hear the speed of the hoofbeats slightly increase, can feel the horse’s tension mounting. The pro can immediately redirect the horse to defuse the situation before it gets worse.

The novice, whose “listening” is still rudimentary, doesn’t notice these details. She continues on. As the horse’s tension and confusion increases, so does the “volume” of his nonverbal communication. If the novice still doesn’t “hear” the horse’s concern, the horse starts “yelling:” bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking. The horse’s training backtracks and someone could get hurt, simply because the human wouldn’t, or couldn’t, listen.

Natural horsemanship and classical dressage training share the tenet of starting in lightness. When you apply an aid, begin with the lightest suggestion, increasing in strength until the horse responds. The horse learns to listen for the whisper of communication, knowing that it will increase to a “shout” if ignored. No one likes to get yelled at.

The effective horse trainer “listens” the same way she “speaks.” Listen for the horse’s lightest whisper.

Horses are generally happy to listen back.

Gift From A Horse

Like any young horse in training, Wally the Warmblood has his good days. He has his not-so-good days and he has those frustrating, tear-out-your-hair days when he seems to forget how to put one foot in front of the other, much less do so with suppleness, impulsion and cheerful submission.

Today was like no other. It had been a knock-down drag-out day full of time-consuming roadblocks and way too many balls in the air. And that was just in the office! Wally was the last horse of the evening after working through a particularly tough trailer loading session with a two year-old.

Wally was matter-of-fact from the get-go. Quiet brilliance. Stood like a rock while I mounted. Warm-up. Focus. Turn on the forehand– rhythmic and accurate. Turn on the haunches–ditto. Up into a round, light trot, every step a lesson in newly-developed power controlled not by the rider’s seat or legs or bit but by the horse’s own understanding and desire. Canter balanced, regular, even on that troublesome lead. All the movements and principles we’ve been developing coming together in a moment almost outside time.

Nothing left but to ride out to join the sunset in the spring blooming woods with deep gratitude for the gifts our horses give us.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Some semblance of peace has replaced the hubbub of the holidays: Denise and I actually took a trail ride the other day. And with New Year’s Eve looming, my thoughts naturally turn to resolutions.

I pulled out my goal sheets from last year. I mentally checked off the “completes” as I read down the list. I was surprised and excited by how many I had achieved, even when I wasn’t thinking about it. That’s part of the power of written goals. Continue reading “Happy New Year!”

New beginnings, New Goals: The Exercise

First of all, what goals did you achieve this horse show season that you set last spring? Krista and Laura, you both rode well and improved through the year. You won year-end championships while showing good sportsmanship. Kathy, you’re riding Tommy with confidence and control you couldn’t have imagined a few months ago! His behavior has improved light-years since last spring. You even took him to a show just for the experience!

What did you achieve that you hadn’t even set out to? Continue reading “New beginnings, New Goals: The Exercise”

New Beginnings, New Goals

The Knocks completed their final horse show on Sunday. In some ways, it has been a test of endurance as well as skill. Despite their great success this season, I think everyone is ready for a break.

I’m ready too. Its my responsibility as their trainer and instructor to determine what will work best between shows to help them peak on show day as well as continue improve throughout the horse show season. Continue reading “New Beginnings, New Goals”