My purpose is to help humans understand horses so they can communicate with their horses using horse language instead of trying to communicate in human language. This involves teaching people what the equine mind is and isn't capable of, and teaching them what is important to the horse. Once they begin to learn that, it's like any relationship you're trying to develop--if you understand your partner, the relationship can go a lot further. I teach very basic, simple concepts that most people who've worked with horses for years learned about back when they started, but they didn't carry it through: simple things about horses such as, they can only think of one thing at a time.
Picture 1. This is the first time I've worked with both my customer, Ruth Skovron, and her horse, teaching her to do some of the groundwork with him. This horse was formerly a show-jumper whose career had been very stressful. Ruth told me he was very spooky and jumpy around people for a long time after she got him. He always held his head very high when she tried to lead him or work around him. He was so braced and tense at the beginning of our session that he had a knot of tightness behind his poll. In this photo, Ruth is very involved with what I'm doing-she's bending over as I'm bending over with her horse as he starts to lower his head. I'm explaining that it takes very little pressure-usually with a horse, less is more.
Picture 2. Ruth asked me "How much pressure are you putting on my horse?" and I put my hand on her shoulder and her head and showed her how much pressure I was using to ask him to relax. It was basically the weight of my hand plus a little encouragement.
I try to set up a session so that it demonstrates the importance of these simple little things. It demonstrates how, once people get to know their horse, they take him for granted and get caught up in this relationship they have with him. They begin trying to communicate with him as if he's a human instead of a horse. And that's how they get in trouble-because they're offering the horse something he doesn't have the capacity to understand. For instance, expecting the horse to reason something out when he isn't capable of reasoning-he can only associate.
Picture 3. Here's the end product of the groundwork with this horse: I am kneeling on the ground by his feet with no pressure on his head and he's dropped his head down beside me. He's totally relaxed with me.
Quite often when a rider comes to me with a "problem" the actual problem isn't what they think it is, it's something totally different--one of these basic little things they learned about a long time ago. The head-lowering exercise shown here is intended to communicate, "Hey, buddy, it's okay, you can relax and hang out with me." The other thing I tell people is that they need to set things up so their horse looks to them for direction. Because self-preservation is what's most important to a horse. In a herd, the horse is always going to look to the herd boss for direction. You have to set that up, offer the horse a good deal and show him you know what's important to him. You have to show him that you know how he has to arrange himself before he does something. After I get through with talking about the theory, I get into the technical stuff like teaching people the sequence of the horse's footfalls and how he has to arrange himself on his feet to stay balanced in order to make transitions, from walk to trot to canter, and to go where you want him to go. You need to prepare him for those changes so you can keep him balanced. That's important to the horse-if he's not balanced he's going to be afraid, because all he has to protect himself is those feet. He needs to feel he has the freedom to get away any time he feels he has to.
Just bringing those concepts to light for people and helping them to focus on "Okay, I want my horse to do this." The person then needs to learn what the horse needs to do in order to be able to do what they're asking. It's very simple, basic stuff. The person may have heard it before but they think it's something basic and they've progressed beyond it. The human mind, once it's learned something, wants to do it better and faster and easier. With the horse, you have to keep going back and keep it basic and simple. The horse can only think of one thing at a time. And if it doesn't happen for us immediately, we want it to happen so we change and do something else, ask a different way. We don't wait long enough for the horse to react and do what we want. Ninety percent of the time, I find that for the people I work with it's only a matter of waiting another three seconds and the horse will get it. There's also a difference between reacting and responding-a horse reacts if you don't give him time to think and respond to your request. If you prepare him for the fact that you're going to ask for, say, a halt, he can understand it more easily. It's simple stuff that most people take for granted.
Read the story of how Margaret and Scott trained Shadow to Advanced-Level combined driving in the April 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.
The first in Margaret's series of training videos is now available. For more information you can email Margaret at firstname.lastname@example.org.