Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Evolution of Horsemanship

As we move into a new way to be with our horses I couldn't help but think about how horsemanship has evolved in the past century and I noticed some parallels with dog training and child rearing.

Dogs, kids, horses – we have tended to treat them the same over the years. In the past, and not that long ago, certainly within this last century, people relied on corporal punishment to keep all three in line. Encarta describes corporal punishment as ‘the striking of someone’s body as punishment’. All three have had more than their share of that over the centuries.

‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ – was still a common saying about how to raise children when I was a child. The strap was used in school when I was in grade school ( yeah I am THAT old), fathers still took off their belt, or mother’s threatened about what would happen when ‘dad got home’, all in the name of raising a good, obedient child that would be a valuable member of society. Dogs had the old choke chain on them or a boot to the butt if they were out of line. And horses of course had the whip and spur and the proverbial 2x4 if they did not comply. Corporal punishment was the standard, accepted way to control.

For those new to the horse world, let me go into more detail on what I will occasionally refer to as old horsemanship. It was a time ‘when men were men and horses were horses’. They all had a job to do and it was all about survival. This working style of horsemanship is still used in many places today but that is a natural part of evolution. We are not all early adaptors and it is not appropriate for everyone. In the old system young horses were sent out to be ‘broke’, not trained or started slowly as they are in most places today. And that word ‘broke’ was quite literal, as a lot of horses did not come home from the trainers in one piece physically or emotionally. The desired broke horse was one who turned his will over to his rider completely without question. That is what the working horseman required to get his job done.

In old horsemanship, horses were halter broke and taught to tie by being snubbed to a large post and letting them fight it out. When they had finally accepted that, they would be ‘sacked out’. This term describes a desensitizing process where a blanket or jacket is thrown over the horse numerous times until the horse realizes that he can not get away and that in fact, it does not hurt him. But can you imagine the terror and panic for a prey, flight animal in the meantime?

Restraining horses was the norm. A lot of time horses were hobbled for the same reason, either both front feet or a scotch hobble where one hind leg is tied up to a rope around their neck so they can not resist while being saddled or mounted for the first time. Some trainers used what is called a ‘running W’. This was a loose hobble worn around the front legs that the horse could move freely about with but when the trainer said whoa if the horse did not stop you could pull the rope and take a front leg away or throw them on their nose. Throwing down in general was a common practise to prove dominance. All of these training tools to take away the horses natural instinct which is to run in response to a fearful situation.

Along comes natural horsemanship, where the horse’s natural instincts are allowed, not restrained and restricted. What a breath of fresh air! We were no longer restraining horses but allowing them to move their feet if they were afraid or unsure of something. It seemed natural. We were imprinting them as foals within the first 24 hours of life to make sure they could accept everything that we would later throw at them. We were building trust, talking leadership.

The round pen was no longer just a 6 foot high breaking corral, but became an integral part of ground work no matter what age your horse was. Here the rider not only allowed the horse to move but drove them forward to establish dominance, simulating what they believed the top horses in the herd did. It worked. It dazzled audiences to see a wild young horse following a person around in 20 minutes or so. I tried it, it worked perfectly but I was a bit puzzled about how ‘natural’ it was. I had seen my herd boss push the others away from food or the shed and make them wait while he drank but I had never seen him run another horse in a circle for long periods of time. But this was adopted as a kinder more gentle way to get the horse’s compliance or obedience. Anything he did not agree with from picking up feet, to being touched or handled with various objects was met with sending him out to work. I saw this technique demonstrated very successfully at the Mane Event just last year, with a horse that would not hold up his feet. Most horses will figure out very quickly that running is not the answer and therefore begin thinking and searching for the correct one.

For some horses that are very submissive or afraid, this period of running can be an exhaustive process taking hours. These flighty types, sometimes called right brained or in my personality profiling called Perfectionist or People Pleaser may never find the right answer. I have heard clinicians say that you must win at this, even if it takes all day. As soon as we heard the word ‘win’, we should have realized that there would also be a ‘loser’ in this game. These personality types tended to be the losers, that went from trainer to trainer.

The natural horsemanship has many positive sides, in terms of letting the horse learn and find a right place to be. The trainer makes ‘the wrong thing difficult, the right thing easy’, to quote the daddy of them all – Ray Hunt. He revolutionized horsemanship, especially starting colts. I watched the first clinic with him in the 70’s. It was fascinating. He put riders on colts with only a saddle and turned them loose. Needless to say there was some running (really fast running), but surprisingly not a lot of riders bucked off. This was not for the faint of heart type of rider. I, for one, preferred to watch from the stands. Huge change rippled through the horse world. Colts were now started in halters and allowed to move. Trust was a thing talked about and worked toward.

Following Hunt and Dorrance were clinicians who found ways to break this down for the more timid types of riders. They filled the stadiums showing us all how we could get our horses to do these amazing feats. Every one of us that was looking for a better way signed up. We took the 10 year program that anyone could follow to get their horse to be the safe and solid riding partner they wanted. We signed up for the clinics and put all our horses through the paces. We were all becoming trainers. Our horses were becoming the safe solid ones we had hoped for, but this still seemed to be at a cost. In many cases, behind safe and solid was bored or shut down. Their faces told the story.

Children today, like the horses, are treated much differently than they were in the past. They now are given many privileges and choices, but the culture of fear in our society has insisted that parents micro management their time for almost every waking hour. Parents can no longer say ‘be home before dark’ and turn them loose in their community or even allow them to walk to school in most places. Again we see the safety factor create conditions where movement must be controlled. And a quick comparison to dogs finds most of them on a leash almost any time they are outside. Clicker and positive training tools are now the norm. Dog, horse or child psychology is understood by most. With all three we have moved into more positive training but training for control none the less. What is wrong with that? Doesn’t it keep them safe, healthy, growing old, learning more than they have ever learned? Yes, yes and yes, but here is where I want to leave the door open a crack and suggest, just suggest or throw out a ‘what if’. What if we allowed them to grow up to be what they have come here to be?


  1. Once again, you give a tantalizing "crack in the door" idea.

    sharon marshall

  2. What if indeed.

    Part of the problem is the notion of them needing to grow "up" - as if the standardly accepted ideal behaviour is the ultimate goal. The most interesting people I know never 'grew up' they found their way eventually, and added years of wisdom and experience in the process.

    If only they (dog, child, horse) knew coming in what they were to be. But isn't that the point? Not knowing? So that together we can discover their true calling or role as we move along together? What we want and what we ultimately get (and sometimes what we need) are rarely ever the same; be it with horses, children or pets. But discovering that true nature and working with it for mutual gain is what it's all about.

    But we'd have to give up some of that 'control' to gain that insight, and maybe that's where we the trainers / parents/ owners (and society) need to adjust our expectations and learn the art of acceptance.

    Still though, it makes you wonder...