As president of the Canadian Cowboy Challenge (CCC) Association I chat with members and event hosts – both current and prospective – on a daily basis, usually via email. I had one email conversation recently that left me thinking. Something mentally stimulating to contemplate while riding around on the mower for a couple of hours today.
The topic of conversation was tack, in particular, headgear. The person that contacted me was disappointed that the CCC has a rule stating what type of bits and non-bitted headgear can be used and that rule doesn’t allow folks to ride horses in halters. For the sake of this discussion, it is not important why the rule exists. What got me thinking were statements from the person suggesting that they felt that anything more than a halter without knots is severe and that bridle-less riding is a goal of Natural Horsemanship. To each his/her own, for sure, but this opens up a huge can of worms, doesn’t it?
In the opinion of many, the phrase Natural Horsemanship has devolved from a term relating to the horse-rider connection to a sales tag for clinicians and assorted equipment. People will pay excessive amounts for a lead rope with a Natural Horsemanship tag on it, when the same thing is available from the Peavey Mart for $15. It’s simply a marketing phrase now. Be realistic: there is nothing natural about horsemanship. It’s a very difficult concept to put into words. It’s even harder to put it into practice.
Well, lets chat about horsemanship. The word has no concrete meaning; every person you ask has a different definition. Personally I like to describe horsemanship as an attitude; a set of beliefs. It is a way I live my life. It is a way I handle myself whether around horses or not in situations that call for action, leadership and might involve stress of some sort. Horsemanship is how I communicate and deeper than that, it is how I conceptualize communication. Horsemanship involves a degree of openness to different ways of thinking that are not generally seen in the human population at large. Horsemanship is unselfish.? Horsemanship is not easy.
Horsemanship is something within you as opposed to something you do.
That said, you can understand how this persons insistence on tack as a requisite definition of horsemanship struck a sour note with me. Purchasing specific tack won’t make you a better horseperson. The only thing that will is your own attitude and how that affects your hands, feet and energetic presentation to your horse. It is possible that you might have to become a different person in order to achieve it: changing your belief system and how you deal with events in your life. That step is probably farther than most people are willing to go. Thus the reliance on creative tack to define horsemanship and ride our horses it’s the easiest way out.
But is it the right way? Consider this: a sentient animal can’t do anything physical without it being commanded by the brain. The muscles of the body move in response. A horse’s brain works amazingly fast, doesn’t it ? Consider a horse galloping across an uneven field. At that speed they have to look for predators, evaluate the terrain, gauge their footfalls to avoid tripping and much more. The horses brain is an incredibly fast computer.
It is a computer that is seldom given the credit it deserves. Relying only on tack and physical cues to control the horse is typical and accepted as standard practice in the equine world. This is the case because it is easy for humans to do this we naturally look for the quickest way to accomplish something. We do things with our hands. We have hands and complex vocal abilities. Horses do not. And yet they communicate just fine with each other. Horses can move each other around without the use of complex headgear. Horses communicate with energy, space, intention and emotion. The horseperson knows this and will seek to understand and emulate this.
What tack the individual uses is suited to the situation, skill of the rider, degree of training of the horse and many other things. A particular product will never suit every horse in every situation. It’s not always a hackamore. It’s not always a halter. It’s not always a bridle or cavesson or pool noodle or beach ball or whatever you choose to use. What you use is dictated by what the horse needs in the given situation and what your goals are.
My discussion with the individual involved a day of emails going back and forth. It was actually a very good conversation. In part it was about extremes vs. realistic sensibility. An extreme environmentalist would abhor the use of my truck because of the diesel that it uses. But I need equipment that can haul thousands of pounds of horses up a mountain road, move heavy equipment around, haul loads of gravel or lumber and many other tasks. It’s the reality of the situation.
Likewise there are those that argue that a human on a horse is severe because it puts pressure on his back that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Because we ride, I assume that we have no issue putting 100lb plus loads on top of a horse. Is that severe? I guess it depends on how you ride, or what kind of ‘seat’ you have, doesn’t it ? So why the fuss about a knot in a halter when we are putting that much weight on a horse? How much does a halter knot weigh ? I’ll bet you need a pretty fine scale to measure a weight that miniscule. The only time that knot will cause the horse any discomfort is when you pull on it.
A quick little math aside here. I didn’t go out and measure my saddle nor did I measure where and how the majority of it contacts my horse. But the point is valid: Lets say that my saddle contacts my horse evenly over 150in2, and that the saddle and I weigh 200lb. That is 1.3lb per square inch. Not much pressure at all. Lets say you pack around 50lb bags of feed every day and are comfortable lifting 50lb loads. You would be just as capable pulling a lead rope with 50lb pressure or much more if you jerk it. Lets say that your pressure is split equally between 2 main halter knots, and that each knot contacts the horses nose over 1/4 in2. 50lb over 1/2 in2 = 100lb / in2. Wow. 1.3lb for the saddle vs. 100lb for the halter knot. But a halter knot itself weighs next to nothing.
The point is that, in many cases, it isn’t the tack that causes severity. It’s your hands. A halter – in the wrong hands – can be more severe than a good bit. This isn’t opinion – it’s simple physics and common sense: you pull on something, you add pressure.
For me the use of particular headgear will always be a path of learning. For example I consider the hackamore a tool that requires utmost reverence. The hands are sacred. To make that work for me requires that I am comfortable communicating with my horse in other ways: using energy, space, intention and emotion. His language. I use my hands to ask for things such as yield…release…thought. Not to steer him or back him up. To ask for gait changes I change my energy and focus vs. kicking or spurs. Seldom is more than a change in my energy required because a horse is just that sensitive. Until you train him not to be, that is. Exploring that connection, the sensitivity and mental acuity of that animal is one of the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
So would I consider riding in just a halter ? Absolutely. I ride bridle-less, with bits, with halters, with the hackamore…it depends on site and situation.
Humans have devised all sorts of contraptions to control horses rather than spend the time it takes to really figure out how horses communicate and work with them on their level. It’s just how we are. We build devices to manipulate our environment and to make things quicker and easier. I don’t have to pen a letter and sent it via oceanic ship to communicate with my buddy in Japan. I can have a video Skype chat on my phone just about anywhere I am on the planet. It’s convenient. It’s a progression of technology. The horse world has been affected in the same way. Gel filled pads. ? Complex footwear.? Supplements ?
And tack.? I feel quite sad about it sometimes.? Not so much because people use devices that I would class as severe or unnecessary, but because people actually believe they have to – and in some cases lack the knowledge of their proper use. I had someone show up at my ranch one day with a horse so strapped down with devices contrived to force his body into a pretty position that I had no idea how he even moved. His rider had been told, by an expensive clinician, that she required these devices in order to ride the horse.
What saddens me is that we have proclaimed professionals in this industry that preach the use of devices that for all purposes, completely ignore that that the horse is an intelligent, thinking animal; teaching instead methods of controlling it. Going in hand with that is the fact that many people, innocently enough, just don’t know any better. We were not born knowing how to ride or train a horse. Riders want to learn; they seek out individuals to help them, pay a lot of money but generally have no idea whether or not the equipment or methods they are using are appropriate or detrimental to the horse or situation. Only through experience can we learn that.
So where do we go from here? What tack can be classed under the moniker horsemanship? The CCC has a list of what headgear is not appropriate. We will also disqualify a rider for inappropriate treatment of a horse or abusive use of tack. Equipment that is intended to cause a horse pain, or the use of equipment to cause a horse pain, and you can do this with a non-knotted halter–this as well is grounds for disqualification.
It’s not what you use, it’s how you use it.? A spade bit in the proper hands is an exquisite depiction of horsemanship. A simple halter in the wrong hands is the converse. What we do with our hands starts with our attitude and beliefs. And in my humble opinion, that is what sets you off a disciple of horsemanship.
Whatever you choose to do, whatever equipment you choose to ride with, I challenge you with this:
Instead of buying tack in order to control your horse or as a problem fix or using a certain piece of tack as the be all – end all of headgear, spend some time and do the opposite–discover what your horse needs by working with him with as little as possible. Then you can justify how your tack is assisting the learning progress of your horse because you have a starting point. You should be able to explain how your tack physically and mentally – supports what you are asking your horse to do. For example, would you be able to explain how lifting a rein, which is connected to your headgear of choice, connects to the horse’s musculature and skeletal workings and can affect the placement of his hind foot? ??Can you explain how your tack can be used to change or affect your horse’s thought as opposed to simply a cue to move a part of his body?
There are tools to suit any task. Having the knowledge of why and how a tool works is essential. Particularly when that tool is used with an intelligent, thinking animal.
Horsemanship is an art to be studied and practiced. Horsemanship isn’t a class of equipment. Horsemanship is a belief in something you can be. It manifests itself in ways that stimulate the mind of the horse. If you are using equipment as your sole judgement of horsemanship, you are missing the point altogether. Horsemanship starts with you – the gear follows. Not the other way around.
If you are interested in exploring the path of training your horse with a focus on how the horse thinks and communicates; if you’re interested in how his body works and how you can go way further in your riding or competing with this knowledge…and particularly if you’re interested in putting all that to practice and having some FUN on an obstacle challenge course, join us for one of our clinics this summer!