A 5 Minute Introduction to ‘Proper Horsemanship’

By , December 20, 2013 6:49 pm

I got an email recently from a lady with a four year old horse:

“I’m looking for an instructor who is into ‘proper’ horsemanship and it looks like you might be able to direct me. It’s so hard to get someone who doesn’t think you’re ‘spoiling’ your horse when you prefer not to use a whip, don’t do loads of lunging in long reins etc”

This approach she described really struck me as odd. Mostly because this approach to horses is not something I am familiar with any more. I do something a lot different, and it started when I was six years old.

When I was growing up riding ponies, one thing really fascinated me. And this was not taught in my pony club, or riding lessons I attended.

It was the difference between riding a horse, and ‘making’ a horse.

“The horse is a reflection of the rider‘s ability.” Ray Hunt

At home, Dad would always have a young horse who hadn’t been started / broken. He’d buy them (usually with me in attendance) at the horse sales at three or four years of age. Then he’d spend some time gaining their trust, and progressing slowly. A bridle would appear. Then a saddle would arrive. After a few weeks of various activities to get the horse happy and confident with the tack, one day after leaning over various times, he would sit up properly in the saddle for a minute or two, and then dismount. There was never any fuss. Things would progress again to a little riding around the front paddock, and then further afield. It took a while but every horse turned out like a true gentleman. Perfect manners, confident, happy and easy for anyone to handle, including a 4 foot young girl.

The whole process of ‘making’ a horse (that’s how Dad described it) blew my mind. I wanted to do more than ride a horse. I wanted to be able to ‘make’ a horse. But they didn’t teach you that in pony club. I knew there was magic in horsemanship, and in working with these amazing creatures, but I didn’t know how I could become part of it.

“I need to know my job, what I’m trying to teach, and you don’t learn that overnight. It takes a lifetime to learn how to live a lifetime. I see young people that are around horses for four or five years, and they know it all. They haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s amazing what a horse will get done in spite of them” Ray Hunt

A few years on I was in my mid teens and finishing up in pony club. I wasn’t learning a lot. I didn’t want to go showjumping every Sunday or get on the eventing team. Instead I wanted to learn how I could train a horse properly.

Once to get my mare to move her hindquarters sideways, an instructor punched her side. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I was mad. Really mad. That was not acceptable to me and how I was brought up to treat a horse. The same went for tying down horses, using gadgets and gismos – with no thought given to the physical or emotional impact (usually bad) these were having on their horses. Not for me thanks, there must be another way. There was no horsemanship present, and unfortunately not a lot compassion or understanding either.

I vowed that summer that was the last time my horse & I would learn from someone like that.

I grew up. I ended up in college, then in work, and my horse time was limited to local riding school horses and playing with a local polocrosse team. All good fun, but I knew I was missing out on learning what I really wanted to – horsemanship.

“You need to have a picture in your mind of what you want your horse to do.”
Ray Hunt

I quit my first job, and went to Australia. I found some people who did know about ‘proper’ horsemanship. They knew how to read a horses body language and they knew ways of teaching things the horse found acceptable. And from this they were doing some pretty amazing things I had never seen people do with horses back home. I found more trainers who were as good and even better to learn more from (like Tom & Sarah Widdicombe (UK), Steve Halfpenny (AUS), Brad Weeks (AUS), Mark Rashid (USA), Buck Brannaman (USA)).

Then I decided to buy a Connemara to try out all this stuff on.

“I did so many wrong things for so long, until the horse came along that wouldn’t put up with me.” Ray Hunt

Then this happened:

– I started him using the methods I had learned in Australia.
– Things went very slowly & worked out well that year so I wrote a book about it.
– Then as we did more riding, more issues & cracks started to appear. Things most horses accepted he had issues with. Like looking for comfort. Like getting along in peace.
– I did a few clinics with my horse & some super trainers, and it was suggested twice (and I can understand why) that I should sell him and get something I could make more progress with.
– Being stubborn and as the problem was only lack or progress (rather than a safety issue), I decided to keep going.
– I started to improve my horsemanship fast, as I had no alternative. I ate up horse books, horse DVDs and I kept up my trips to see the best horsemen I knew – sadly none who lived near me.
– For two years it was tough. I worked with a horse who didn’t want to work with me. I fixed some things, we got better, then I found more problems. My awareness of what was happening every second improved a lot which helped our progress a little. Some days my main goal was to get one good thing to happen so we could quit & call it a day.
– The change came when Australian legend Steve Halfpenny rode my horse for 5 minutes in Tipperary. My horse was just as unhelpful, refusing to do anything he was asked (even just to walk forward!) but a light bulb went off in my head.

I learned 3 things that day:

1) It wasn’t me.
2) I needed to go slower, be more exact and very specific with what I was asking and what I didn’t realise I was asking. I needed to progress one step at a time.
3) I need to stop blocking my horse. Asking him to go one way, but having my weight subtly set up to ask him to move another way, was causing problems. Tiny tiny little things like this he couldn’t understand and was going from confused to frustrated. I’d never met a horse with such a low tolerance for his rider not being perfectly in tune with the correct way he expected to be ridden. It was so clear to him, but it took me a while to figure out even doing tiny things wrong in the saddle, was causing serious issues for my horse.

“The slower you go the faster you will learn.”
Ray Hunt

That was four years ago, and we have not had a lesson together since. But there have been some big changes.

First up I realised we had a better chance of improving if I rode Oz a little every day. So I quit my job in the spring and spent the summer riding my horse. Consistent slow, step by step work started to make a difference with us.

I used every single thing I could remember from watching & riding with Steve Halfpenny, Brad & the Widdicomes, watching Martin Black & Peter Campbell. I read about a million horsemanship books by Buck Brannaman, Mark Rashid, & co. I wasn’t going to fail at horsemanship due to a lack of knowledge, and I was now learning from the best trainers in the world.

That summer when I first sat upon Oz, he refused to move one step. I knew if I forced it I’d end up bucked off beautifully. Oz, for reasons known to himself was not ready to walk around with a rider right then.

That day getting my horse to move just 1 foot was a big deal. So after a few minutes of me gently suggesting, Oz finally stepped one front foot sideways while I was in the saddle. Job done, I dismounted, lesson over and successful. The next we would aim for 2 steps.

All you need to get better is a little improvement each day.

“The horse will teach you if you‘ll listen.”
Ray Hunt

We built on from that day, and again it was slow progress.

Speed was an issue – what we could do in walk ended up in a bomb going off in trot. So we did a lot of walking.

Straight lines were an issue. On a bend Oz had to concentrate on me a little, but left to his own devices in a straight line he would have started World War Three in 2 steps of a straight line. And being in the saddle then was not the best idea in the world. There was no such thing as daydreaming while you were riding Oz.

So we worked on things other than straight lines. All we really had as a base was a really good halt. He could win competitions for standing still.

I had realised is that while I had a bit of a handful of a horse. But in terms of learning about horsemanship, I had the perfect horse.

“Recognize the smallest change, the slightest try.”
Ray Hunt

We slowly (trust me!) got better and then on occasion Oz would blow my mind in a good way. We spent a lot of time working on relaxation, then focus and attention, then softness and communication. It stood to reason that eventually some of this stuff would start to sink in.

I started to get results riding Oz that I had never experienced, bar on Steve Halfpennys beautiful horses out in Australia. And once or twice, Oz would outshine even them!

Ozzie started to do things I never thought I would experience as a rider, let alone have them being done by a horse I owned and had trained. He regularly begin to take my breath away.

I was getting results by just THINKING of what I wanted him to do.

I was getting 100% willingness and softness and I was finally getting access to the whole horse – physically, mentally and emotionally.

“You feel and listen to the horse. The experience of the results of his response
helps you understand for the next time.”
Tom Dorrance

Today I just came back in from riding Oz bareback in a halter in the field. I wrote up a quick report here for a few friends who I share we progress with:

“The result: A glorious ride. Very mellow, Oz was soft & just flowed… one shoulder in in particular blew my mind, I just set it up very gently and I could HEAR his brain processing and he just yielding the parts of his body I asked him too. Felt like he was floating. Also felt like I could ask him to yield any part of his body (even if it ended up looking like twister) and he’d do it for me! Fab ride up the field, lots of walk the lines, backups, HQ & FQ yields, changes of tempo, turns from weight changes… just fab.”

Some of the stuff we can do together, and more importantly – HOW we do it – just blows my mind. He has actually reduced me to tears on one or two occasions after offering me some really beautiful soft work.

I recently did an Aikido course based around softness and asking focusing on how you can help the horse, rather than how you can make the horse do x,y or z. This small change in thought has a massive effect on how your body cues your horse when riding.

Physically after I ride I now feel like I’ve just had a 2 hour relaxing massage and a pilates class and now my muscles are all loose and stretched – it’s the strangest feeling and I can’t quite explain it properly. And if I feel this happy and relaxed, it has to rub off on the horse physically as well. It actually feels like a drug.

All of this horsemanship, which is so practical has such massive effects on the quality of our ridden work. But it’s knowledge that you really have to look hard to find people to teach you about. It is horsemanship but it is not common knowledge yet.

“You’re not working on the horse, you’re working on yourself. ”
Ray Hunt

Today we are still working on getting better & have a long way to go yet. I do think what I’ve learned is very special and I value it so much.

But I myself am not special at all. I have no special gift for horses.

I have no inherent talent that means I have an natural ability for this work. I begin like everyone else, no knowing one end of a horse from the other. I simply decided I wanted to learn, and when I found a teacher applied myself to the task and didn’t quit.

“You can’t teach feel, you have to experience it.”
Bill Dorrance

If you want to improve your horsemanship – literally take it to places that will blow your mind – you can do it too.

5 things you should know about horsemanship;.

1) Improvement is possible for everyone. You don’t need to be special or amazingly talented or have an expensive horse.
2) You need to learn from people that really understand horsemanship, not just riding. Get this wrong and progression is very difficult.
3) If you are not improving right now, find a different trainer. When starting off this stuff is really hard to figure out on your own.
4) Finding a good horsemanship trainer in Ireland is not impossible, but it is difficult. (I fly all of mine in from abroad to be honest. Or I go travelling). Great horsemanship trainers do not walk up to your doorstep. There are very few. So you have to be hungry enough to put in the effort to go and find them. I started by travelling abroad to get lessons and watch people teach in the UK & Australia. If I had waited till someone came to Ireland I would have been waiting a long time back then.

5 unexpected ways horsemanship changed me:

1) I have made THE BEST friends all over the world – from New Zealand & Australia, to the UK & the USA.
2) I’ve quit my job on more than one occasion to travel the world & improve my horsemanship. There is something very satisfing about telling your boss you are quitting your job to ride horses in Australia!
3) I worked pretty hard in my job to afford to travel. This helped my business and work career.
4) I wanted to live nearer my horse, so I quit my job 18 months ago & now run my own software business. This allows me to ride my horse anytime I want and it’s much more enjoyable & successful than working for a company.
5) I have something I am passionate about. I don’t just watch TV in the evenings and go to the shopping centre at the weekend. Being involved in horses enriches my life so much its difficult to describe in writing here.

If what you read strikes a chord with you, and you want to learn from some of the people how I have found very helpful, you can start right now. Great horsemanship does not have to come with a ‘great’ price tag.

How you can get started:

1) You can read this blog. Check out my clinic reports from amazing trainers. You’ll find at least 50 exercises you can start to work on with your horse, both on the ground and ridden.
2) Buy the BUCK (by Buck Brannaman) DVD on amazon for about €10.
3) Buy one of the Mark Rashid books on Amazon and prepare to fall in love with his stories and horsemanship.
4) Watch some of the trainers I mentioned above on youtube and get inspired. If you like what you see, check out their website.
5) Come and see this horsemanship in person, in Tipperary in June 2014, when Mark Rashid comes over to teach.

I wish you great adventure & fun on this journey.

When we meet I’ll introduce you to the little grey horse who made my life so much more fun.

Elaine & Oz.

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