My tools Express and Extend my Intention
Did you ever dream of being in complete harmony with your horse, with no tack on your horse at all? Perhaps you imagined your horse galloping up the field to meet you then cantering bareback and unbridled together through forests and flowering meadows. You might have dreamt of riding a tall, proud and powerful horse that carried you confidently high above the admiring crowds. Or was your dream horse your closest buddy, your playmate and confidant who stuck by you through thick and thin? What happened to that dream; how much of that fantasy have you brought into reality?
Did your early encounters with a real horse put a dampener on your fantasy? We come to the horse naively thinking they will happily cooperate but soon discover that horses have their own will, defences, and agenda and can easily outsmart our demands. Tools become an integral part of learning how to convince the horse to do things with us. The type of tools we choose and the way we use them will largely determine whether we manifest our dream or become a heartless master of equine slaves.
Tools can be a wand or a weapon, depending upon the person using them. Many years ago I coined the phrase, “Trust me, trust my tools” to help students think about tools as an extension of themselves. We too easily see tools as separate from us and forget that they communicate and amplify one’s intention. The nature, emotion, and intention of a person are transmitted through the tool to the horse and therefore, to use a tool kindly and effectively, it is important that the person has self-control and coordination.
If you lack sufficient physical and emotional self-control your tool can become a weapon. For example, it is easy to unintentionally slap your horse too hard with a whip or swinging rope. It is just as easy to deliberately slap your horse too hard if you are angry and frustrated. Many tools, such as whips, long ropes and shank bits amplify the energy and intention of the handler and therefore can easily make the horse fearful.
Tools can be a Wand or a Weapon
Communication with the horse breaks down when people do the wrong thing. Tools are ineffective in the hands of someone who is unclear about what they want from the horse, unsure how to ask, insensitive to the horse, or who cannot project their intention with the right energy or belief. You have no doubt witnessed these extremes: one horse is terrified of the whip, and yet another ignores its constant flicking. Misused, our tools do not help us clearly and kindly explain, instead, we demonstrate to the horse that people have little self-control and can be anything from irritating but relatively harmless; confusing; to downright dangerous. None of these attitudes brings us closer to our dreams.
There are many painful devices available designed specifically to force horses into submission. I consider downright cruel any device or tool that forces the horse to surrender as the only way it can avoid pain. Nailed hobbles are an example of this. Cruel tools and methods do not give the horse time to understand and intentionally or easily inflict pain or cause injury, and therefore create fear. When the horse does not trust your tools, it will not trust you, either.
Are your tools helping you and your horse transition to greater trust and understanding, or are you being hoodwinked into thinking so? Many riders think their horses are light and responsive when ridden in shank bits or lever hackamores, not realising that rein pressure causes pain, which is easily amplified by even a small increase in pressure from the rider’s hands. Other tools, such as whips, are not intrinsically cruel, but can be so in the wrong hands. Tools that offer a quick fix usually come at the price of trust and genuine communication and the chance to ever experience a truly harmonious bond with your horse.
Put Trust First
Tools can mask some of our weaknesses, but the greater our weakness and the stronger the tool, the more damage we inflict upon the horse’s body and mind. Horses demonstrate our weaknesses by not performing to the standard we desire, or by exhibiting undesirable or even dangerous behaviours. Many horses are highly forgiving and tolerant of the use of some less severe tools and human behaviour, but the more severe our tools and behaviour, the more the horse will disassociate, rebel, or both.
Resorting to stronger, more severe tools to compensate for a lack of know-how leads to inflicting ever more damage to the horse’s body and mind and eats away our opportunity for harmony. In harmonious relationships communication is subtle and refined, like mind reading, but misused tools do the equivalent of yelling obtuse orders to the horse. The horse will probably reply as you would: by responding obtusely, or not at all.
Handled well, some tools can be very useful in improving communication, helping us build trusting relationships and opening opportunities to safely enjoy a range of experiences. Have you ever thought about what your tools say about your skills, knowledge and attitude to your horse? The tools you use and the way you use them are either taking you towards, or moving you away from your dream. No doubt you dreamed of a close bond with your horse, not subjugation and suffering. Horses do not wish to make life hard for themselves; they are merely trying to find the best answer for themselves. Our challenge is to ensure we have mutual trust and understanding so that both parties agree on the answer. Our horses do not get to choose what use we put them to, we do, and it is amazing that they let us do anything with them at all.
Give your horse the Time it Needs to Take rather than the Time you want to Spend
Being at the bottom of the food chain makes horses naturally and sensibly fearful. Careless behaviour on our part can easily trigger their instinctive fear responses. A horse cannot learn when fearing for his safety, just as we would not concentrate on a good novel if the stables holding our precious horses caught on fire. Unfortunately, many tools and methods cause the horse to be more fearful, not less. Being mindful of the function and effect each tool has on our horse helps keep us on the path to harmony.
When you develop your physical and emotional self-control you enable the horse to stay relaxed enough to observe, understand and respond to you i.e. communication improves. With self-control, tools become an extension of oneself to express intention in a clear and considered way. It is not necessary to have a vast array of tools when your intention is clear and kind, responsive and well projected.
The person who maintains physical and emotional control, and has clearly focussed intention, requires fewer tools than one who has not developed these traits. These attributes make it easier for the horse to trust the person and understand what is being asked of them. Horses enjoy cooperating and communicating with someone they understand and trust to protect them from harm. Unfortunately, sometimes a person’s conscious intention differs from their unconscious intention. The horse observes your behaviour, emotions, and intention and if these are not all working together congruently the horse will behave defensively. This may be anything: standing immobilised, moving stiffly, rushing, bolting, and everything in between.
I believe everyone is doing their best at their current level of capacity. One way to ascertain a person’s capacity is by the tools they use and the way they use them. The right tool used in the right manner (putting the horse’s welfare first) helps ensure that the horse is more confident at the end of a session than at the beginning. Honestly appraising our tools and methods from our horse’s perspective will open the door to finding better ways to engage with our horses. Many tools only make sense to humans: horses would not choose harsher tools over a trusting relationship with kind and clear communication.
Do your tools aid your dialogue or cause distress?
People suggest all sorts of tools and gadgets to those seeking advice. We take recommendations from other people but turn a blind eye to the opinions of our horses (expressed through their behaviour). If we listened to our horses with an open heart, gave them all the time they needed rather than the time we want to spend, considered their physical and emotional feelings, and put trust first, we would enable our horses to learn. We would joyfully discover that our horses have much to teach us, too. Both horse and human would look forward to being together and doing things together, and we would realise we do actually have the horse we once dreamed of.