chip the horse

Training: Letting a Horse be a Horse

I’ve heard folks say things like, “We did some training and now I’m going to let her just be a horse for the summer.” or “I’m not going to touch him until he’s 3 or 4. He can just be a horse until then.”

My question, sarcasm intended, is this: Is there something, other than a horse, that they can possibly be?

This is one of those figurative catch phrases that we humans just pick up and use. The meaning though is this: I am just going to let the horse do what horses do in the herd without human intervention. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. However, horses can be horses with us as well. I’ll go so far as to say they should. And that it’s absolutely essential.

Let’s dig into this though and think about it a bit. We can draw the conclusion from the statement that just being a horse is a good, positive thing. Free of pressure and stress. As the statement makes clear, that we’re going to let them do. There is an implicit implication that being a horse is something a horse needs, to the extent that we feel we have to allow it.

Would it also be valid to draw the conclusion that when the horse is in training or being ridden, there is a part of them – part of what makes them a horse – that we don’t desire? A need that the horse has that we’ll not permit?

If that is not the case, then why do we differentiate between a horse existing as a horse versus existing in a training program or riding?

What’s up with Training?

Many training programs work at putting the horse through a predefined set of steps. That program is intended to meet the requirements of the owner or the trainer, so that the horse comes away from the training program being able to do certain things. The training to build the things can be regimental in nature, that is, the horse is worked through methodical steps in a fixed amount of time, for example, the common 30 days training.

In order to get all the things done in a fixed amount of time, it’s difficult to focus on the individual needs or uniquenesses of any particular horse. The program might have the flexibility to slow down to accommodate a certain horse but the content stays the same.

Back when I was in grade school, I recall several kids that failed a grade (back when that was possible). Those that failed had to repeat a grade – even grades 1, 2 or 3. Why? It’s simple. The curriculum at that time did not allow for any deviance from the syllabus; every kid was taught the same thing, at the same time and in the same way. If they didn’t get it, too bad.

Every human being is unique. We gravitate towards different styles of learning. We learn in different ways and at different rates. With an educational system devoid of flexibility, some kids fail. Geniuses can fail a school grade, not because they have trouble learning, but because the learning system didn’t allow for them. Today, educational programs are more flexible to facilitate the variety learning styles, needs and interests of those being taught. We know that everyone can excel in their own way when their learning needs are met.

While common logic for humans, it’s rare in the horse world. Horses are just as unique as people. To expect that every horse can be put through the same program in the same timeframe and succeed is outrageous…maybe unfair is a better word.

Recently I worked with two colts that were brothers. They were remarkedly different from one another. One was outgoing, friendly and curious. His brother was reserved and tended to fear anything new. Neither had been exposed to any training. What we saw was their raw personality. Did we work those two colts in the same way? Of course not. They each required different approaches with respect to leadership and pressure.

It’s common in a clinic to have a horse that just got back from the trainer that we had to restart, or that the owner expressed concern that the horse came back from training in a worse state than when they left. There are reasons for this, but let’s focus on one in particular.

Did you know? We have many videos on our website that are all about our unique approach to horse and people training. For some videos that get right into some fun and important concepts, check out:

Your New Horse or Colt – First Exercises Part 1 and 2
In this video series we show you how to discover what your horse is all about, building a positive leadership agreement and identifying and helping them with their unique struggles. Check it out!

The Human Parallels

Human educators learn about learning: how we learn; different learning styles. They are taught how to create programs that meet the needs of different individuals. Think about a human competitive athlete. Their success is dependent not only on their physical ability, but there mental well-being. In fact, we even have a profession that deals with Sports Psychology. We realize that every human being can be successful when not only their physical needs are met, but their mental needs as well. We go so far as to train people to focus on that very thing. A training program for an athlete is particular to that athlete. We’re all different.

As a parallel, a successful equine program must employ factual knowledge of how a horse thinks, learns, perceives leadership and the herd, connecting that knowledge to a factual, and practical, understanding of their physiology. It’s not common.

But without that we end up restarting horses that just came back from the trainer. We have horses that wash out from the training program. I’ve had more than one client tell me the trainer let them know their horse was untrainable or only good for meat (I’m serious). Subsequently we turned those horses into amazing, successful and happy critters.

When a training program does not meet the needs of the horse – only meeting the wants of the human, the horse can end up paying the price. Training might be a miserable or even painful experience for them. I worked with a horse whose training experience was so awful that he had learned to violently defend himself against humans. Some horses just shut down. Others have their worst fears confirmed. I own a horse whose trainer starved him almost to death. For those unfortunate horses, I absolutely agree that they need to just be a horse.

Think about it from the opposite side of the fence. Would you excel in a program that forced you to do things even if you struggled with them? That met your fears with force? Or would you excel better in a program where your struggles were met with understanding and support? Where your questions were answered?

Relational Horsemanship

Relational horsemanship takes a unique approach, but one that’s entirely sensible. In this style we work at educating people; allowing every rider, coach and trainer the opportunity to gain the knowledge they need to be the best trainers for their horses. Relational horsemanship is more than just a style though. It’s a supportive community where we understand and help each other. One aspect of our clinics that always moves me is how supporting all the participants are of each other. And for the horse, well, it’s vital that the horse be a horse – always. They’re already great at that. And it’s just as vital that we learn how to be horses too.

What if horse training was all about humans learning horses instead of horses learning human? What if the main intent of a horse training program was to benefit the horse instead of simply meet the wants of the human? What if a horse could be a horse throughout their training? What if we capitalized on what the horse can do naturally instead of struggle with their inability to be humans?

Relational horsemanship answers those questions. We learn to communicate in the way the horse understands so we don’t rely solely on cues and pushbuttons. We capitalize on the fact that the horse’s biggest asset – their singular biggest skill which they all excel at – is their ability to follow with incredible precision.

A horse can follow with innate intimacy, your focus, energy and balance. Their spatial awareness and sensitivity is astounding. They’re able to communicate to us with exceptional clarity. They are, in my humble opinion, the perfect followers. And they can follow us in anything we ask of them: any gait and any maneuver in any degree of energy. Without being trained.

There are a couple of prerequisites though: that we learn to lead in the way a horse perceives leadership. That we learn to communicate in the way a horse does. That we work to meet the horse’s needs instead of service our wants, and understand that our goals and desires will always be achieved when we put our focus on the success of the horse.

The onus is on us, then, to provide the horse with a training environment which allows them to do what they do best – be a horse. To support their natural ability to follow us in athletic partnership without encumbrance.

Addressing Training Needs

What components of horse training would we see through the lens of relational horsemanship?

That’s really the subject for a novel, but in a short list I’d say the following:

  • A focus on the partnership between horse and rider. That’s a very relational component. In that we find trust – something earned and not given. Trust will eventually build faith.
  • A focus on the horse as an individual with unique needs and struggles. In that we stray from step-based training because we adapt to what the horse needs at any given time.
  • An understanding of HOW a horse does something versus HOW TO MAKE a horse do something. They can all do the thing. What prevents it is their fear, lack of leadership or a request not presented in a way they understand.
  • An understanding of balance from a bio-mechanical perspective. It’s easy to understand and changes our perception of riding. When a horse is in balance, every move can be easy and without brace.
  • Exercises that focus on encouraging a horse’s natural ability to try and be curious.
  • An understanding that every try is a success that we and our horse will share pride in.
  • An understanding that the horse’s only job is to follow with precision. In order for that to be possible our job is to lead with precision, understanding, compassion, strength and support.
  • Developing the understanding in our horse of how to deal with pressures and anxieties in a non-instinctual way: to release tension and follow our focus.
  • Using aids as just that: aids. They are not controls and should not be used as such. In this we develop an understanding of how to truly lead a horse when mounted.
  • Laughter. Kind of an odd one, I know. But it is so huge. When things don’t go right, laugh.
  • Eliminating the use of myths and employing facts. A horse cannot be rude. A horse can see in front of them. Eye-eye contact with a horse is essential and connective, it’s not aggressive. The world isn’t flat, either.
  • The horse understands that with you, they can try anything and need not fear. That said they need also understand that when they have questions or uncertainties, you will address them in a positive way that builds your relationship.
  • The horse understands that the rein is supportive, not a control and certainly not a tool to argue about direction.

Ultimately training for a horse should result in a horse that follows us to a high degree of precision because they believe in us. The training for a horse must include the rider; we learn about ourselves together. We’re a team. Our trained horse will have faith in us: a belief that our decisions provide them with a feeling of success, pride, safety and acceptance.

Training for our horse should allow them to be a horse. The best horse they can be. With us along for the ride.

Scott Phillips
November 2021

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About admin

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

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