The most important thing we may ever do with our horses is to take a fresh, unbiased look at them. Then, because our horses become our mirrors, we need to take another truly honest look at ourselves.
We're told that horses are stupid or stubborn. We're told that they're hard to train. Sometimes we're even told that they're mean or "difficult" and we get sucked into thinking we have to physically or mentally dominate our horses.
But none of that makes sense. Horses don't want to be afraid, toss their heads about, kick us, invade our space, or throw us around. They are not stubborn or teasing. As herd animals, horses are extremely social creatures. Their survival as a species has depended on their being able to adapt and work with other horses and even other species. They do it very, very well.
Developing a working relationship with your horse is about much more than just using the current fashion in saddles or bits, knowing where to put your hands, or deciding when to give a leg cue. Having the best tools and knowing effective techniques are obviously important, but if you're going to create a change in your horse's behavior, the first and most important change must be in your own thinking. When you do that, you and your horse develop a partnership that really works, enjoying a beautiful dance that is satisfying to you both.
Developing that partnership, however, can be a real challenge.
Sometimes working through exercises with your horse is like being in a dark room looking for another place. You grope through the room until you find a door with a light under it. A glance through the keyhole shows a new and very different room. This room is full of light that lets us see and do many more things.
That keyhole is a piece of the exercise you're doing with your horse when you finally see differently. You don't change the exercise or even a piece of the exercise, but you see it from a different viewpoint.
It's like a Bible verse. You read it once and it means one thing. Then six months later, it may mean something different because you have had a new experience and now see things in a new light.
Close this magazine and go look at your horse right now. If you have to get in the car and drive, do that.
See. There he stands. He's eating or dozing in the sun or hanging out with his buddy horse. His attention may be caught by something new outside the fence, but once he's satisfied that it's nothing that will hurt him he goes back to what he was doing. If the wind is blowing and he's feeling good, he may bounce around a bit, but essentially a horse at ease is a pretty restful thing to watch.
That thoroughly pleasant fact is the keyhole we're looking for. All horses want the same thing we do-peace.
We want to be at peace with our families, to be healthy, to minimize stress. Your horse is the same way. He wants to get along with you and his buddies, to relax, to have some variety in his life, and to feel good.
That is a breathtakingly radical concept for many people.
Sadly, a great deal of "traditional" training is geared toward "controlling" your horse to make him do things he doesn't want to do. You don't need to make your horse relax; you just need to show him a place where he can relax. You don't have to make him not be spooky or not jig or not pull back. He doesn't want that in his life any more than you do.
Your horse wants to chill out and just walk down the trail. He wants to be soft and easy when he changes gaits. He wants to go over a jump cleanly and he wants to be able to control that cow because these things can be fun for him and for you.
So why aren't more horses relaxed and happy? Horses are pretty exact mirrors of ourselves. The hardest part of changing behavior in our horses is realizing that we have to change our own thoughts and attitudes.
In this and future issues, we'll look at our horses differently. When we do, they'll respond differently, making your job, and theirs, a lot easier.