Charity Paashaus has integrated natural horsemanship with eventing with great success, collecting clients along the way who want to learn how to work with their horses on the ground in order to achieve their goals. In this edition of What's in Your Ring, Charity gives us some hints on good horsemanship and some basic exercises to get started with.
Since its resurgence in the 1980s, the term “Natural Horsemanship” has challenged industry standards and singlehandedly created a point of division in the horse world for both the professional and the recreational horseman. It was perceived as a “horse whisperer” type of fad versus a “serious” or traditional approach to horse training.
Mention the term Natural Horsemanship, and many people envision someone wiggling unnecessarily long ropes or lying in a field betwixt their horses feeding them organic homemade cookies.
Natural horsemanship has gained popularity for the “problem” horse such as those who won’t load in a trailer, cross water, who bolt, bucks, or rear, or are otherwise deemed “unrideable.” It seems that when all traditional options have been exhausted, a Natural Horseman can be called in with his or her set of rope halters, sticks, flags, and tarps as a last resort to work their magic on said horse in the hopes it can be reintroduced to performing the originally desired job.
Unfortunately, a common perception in the mainstream horse community is that natural horsemanship is a “mystical” or “fluffy” approach to dealing with last resort horses and is not seen as relevant or applicable to our everyday training practices, no matter what our chosen discipline.
‘Natural’ vs. ‘Normal’
This is due largely to the “natural” versus “normal” approaches to horse training being marketed to us as two exclusively individual and separate sets of products. As a result, it is implied that the two could never coexist or complement one another and therefore we, as equine consumers, find ourselves forced to choose between the two.
Simply put, taking a “natural” approach means training with your horse in a way that prioritizes the horse’s mental and emotional fitness in addition to their physical fitness. Traditional horsemanship tends to have us focus on training the horse’s body; whereas a natural approach to horsemanship awards us the privilege of gaining influence over the horse’s mind and heart. I promise you, a horse has not ever refused to respond to a physical aid without the prior refusal of its mind.
This means there are truly only two choices in how we relate to horses; not “normal” or “natural,” but rather “good” or “poor” horsemanship. “Good,” meaning we either provide learning opportunities for our horses in a slow, methodical sequence that allows them to think, trust and respond, or we choose to force the horse to react in fear of consequences, or in extreme situations, self-preservation. Good horsemanship takes a patient and empathetic individual with a well laid out sequence in mind with the intent to develop a rhythmical and relaxed equine athlete.
When a client comes to me with a challenge they have been having with their horses, the root cause can be traced back to a lack of two very basic and well-known ingredients: respect without fear and rhythmical relaxation.
Whether the horse is refusing a jump, struggling to maintain a connection over the topline when asked to remain soft and supple on the bit, or simply not scoring well in their dressage test, the solution is always to build the horse’s respectful confidence through rhythmic relaxation. The steps to achieve these components, however, are widely debated and elusive at best. The two exercises listed below are what I have found to be the most effective and efficient way to create a willing and relaxed partner, even before we put a foot in the stirrup.
Both of the following exercises can be completed in any tools you normally use. The tools you see my student and I using are just what I have found to be the most effective.
‘Increasing the Topline’
Creating and allowing a straight, relaxed posture without force will lead to the relaxed mind. It is important that when doing groundwork, whether it is our primary focus in a session, or in preparation to ride, we are aware of a few fundamental keys to success.
As we observe our horse moving around us at the end of the line, it is imperative that we are particular about the shape and straightness, rhythm, and relaxation level that the horse is achieving. As your horse is traveling around you at the end of your line, maintain a consistent and even contact from your lead hand to the halter to encourage your horse to move out in a longer ground-covering stride and own the space in front of him or her.
The ideal end result through this exercises is a horse stretched across its topline in a “long and low” stretching trot. A horse relaxing its physical topline will in turn find internal relaxation. Once you have achieved relaxation indicated by an elongated frame and released ribcage while audibly blowing out on the flat, you can start to introduce obstacles in your horse’s path to test their commitment to the rhythm and relaxation.
Don’t be tempted to throw in the towel too early; this exercise will take time and repetition, in order to achieve a result that is reliable and able to be duplicated.
‘Back It Up’
Backing is not something horses naturally do unless a dominant horse is present. A horse that is backing in rhythmical relaxation is a horse that is respectful and mentally ready to yield to your aids. When a horse is moving backwards, they should move with the diagonal hind and front foot just as they do in the trot.
The trot and backup are laterally balanced gaits, lending themselves as the platform to internal relaxation. With a steady pressure on the lead rope that is connected to your core and not just your hand, ask your horse to yield with lightness backwards. If your horse is not willing to yield initially, which is a very common response; softly and progressively add a driving aid to encourage the horse to move away from the steady pressure being passively applied to the nerves on the bridge of its nose through the halter.
A driving aid can be as simple as a light tap from a dressage whip on the horse’s chest. Be very particular that the horse is not merely moving backwards, but backwards with a respectful lightness of a few ounces or less. It is not enough to get the horse to GO backwards, the horse has to THINK backwards. Once you have your horse yielding to pressure in a light and respectful manner on the flat, increase mental suppleness by asking for the yield over a ground pole.
Let it be good and encouraging news that you should not need to feel pressure to choose between “Natural” and “Normal” horsemanship, but choose to make the commitment to a solid and sound foundation with your horse through mental and emotional fitness built in a specific and well planned sequence.
For more information on Charity’s training program, please visit her website.