As I navigate through the real and virtual horseworlds, I am finding that new ‘breeds’ of horsemen have been created since I first started riding. Whether it’s the changing times, or the advent of social media, any differences in aspect or approach to horses seems amplified from what I encountered in the past. Perhaps they existed all the time, but something has brought the differences to the forefront – but differences there definitely are. So, in a fun and very non-scientific way, let me introduce you to these types. Which one are you?
The Scientist – This type will only believe what science has proved. They often assert that what I, and horsemen of the past, believe will only be true when science proves it. Their approach to training discussions will always boil down to concepts of conditioning (positive/negative reinforcement/punishment). Or maybe they have focused on the biomechanical aspect, and will discuss everything in terms of each specific muscle, tendon, ligament, joint, etc. Once someone of this ilk even posed a question of exactly which of the aforementioned were engaged (and how) in a single stride of a specific sort.
On the plus side, they are a tremendous wealth of knowledge – I continue to learn from my conversations with those of this type. On the negative side, I find many of my conversations with them leave out the soul of the horse. Empathy is key for any teacher, and it cannot be boiled down into a formula of R+ versus R-. If I’d listened to what science has told me about my horses, most of my life, I would not have the relationship with them that I do. Ironically, for those who tell me what I believe can’t be true until proved by science, the newest science on horses is simply reinforcing what I (and countless horsemen of the past) have known about horses from simply living with them – they have intelligence, emotions, and try to communicate with us.
The Engineer – This type is focused on the mechanics of it all. From what I see around me, this type has become very common. For the engineer, it’s about the position, the saddle, the movement, etc. They are not very interested in the science behind it – just what aid leads to what movement, and what specific movement solves what specific problem. They can ride patterns with tremendous precision and accuracy (though not always with correctness or artistry). As with the Scientist, this type can be a great resource for those specific mechanical problems you are facing; but they also can lose sight of the soul of the horse in their pursuit of engineered perfection. There is nothing about the horse that can be boiled down to a plan or a formula, without riding roughshod over them as individuals, generally leading to them shutting down. Most of the best works on classical riding warn against this approach. I envy the engineer their precision and focus on detail – but only to the extent that they keep enough art in it to honor the horse.
The Scholar – For this type, the focus is generally in study of the works of the past. They are incredibly well versed in what horsemen of what era invented what movement, exercise, piece of tack, or general concept. I love conversing with this type, having grown up in an academic setting. I gain new references and resources – and I’m just plain a nerd for history. My library has expanded greatly through interaction with this type. Where this type goes wrong is where they have spent more time with the books than with the horses – or where they have used the books as their sole source of learning. Most scholarly equestrian works of the past give warning, up front, that the written word is little substitute for real experience, and for having eyes on the ground. Also, I and others have read many works of more contemporary authors, whom we can still see ride and teach, where the written word doesn’t match what they actually practice.
As I was writing this, an extended argument was breaking out on a classical Facebook group about the quality of Baucher’s riding as compared to his contemporaries. Since no one alive could have actually witnessed it, this seems a pointless debate as compared to discussing actual riding and training methods that we can share and demonstrate. But then, that’s probably why I never became a college professor – because endless debates of things that cannot be known or proven just don’t interest me.
The Artist – This is the type who learns, rides, and trains in an organic way. Some may start with solid backgrounds that they are expanding in ways that fit no specific mold; others have eschewed all formal learning, and focus only on the horse as their ‘teacher’. At its best, this type results in the likes of Nuno Oliveira. By accounts I’ve heard from those who knew him, his own riding was a continued pursuit of just what could be accomplished in the partnership between horse and rider, never limiting himself strictly to established levels, styles, or movements. This type will often understand the horse better than others – but only if they take the time to understand their ‘medium’. Picasso was not great and influential because he started out by painting abstractly – he started by learning and understanding the traditional style, which gave him a solid base from which to stray effectively. Having known many people in the arts, I have met those of a particular temperament that eschews all but their own emotion in the work. This type can easily pursue their riding with a blind eye to the effect it may have on the horse as an individual.
The Eclectic – It may seem obvious by now that this is the type that I tend toward – an aspect of my personality not limited to horses. This type blends some combination of any or all of the above. They will never obtain the level of absolute knowledge and expertise in any of those approaches that someone who focuses on them will – it would take several lifetimes to do so. But, they tend to highly effective horsemen, and among the better teachers that I have encountered.
So, what type are you? Can you think of other types that I’ve missed?
Of course this list is just for fun – but I am encountering more and more people who seem to pick a single approach and insist that anyone who does not share their focus is somehow less informed than they are. This is an unfortunate attitude, as each of us can learn from the slightly different approach another may take. You may gain a new way of looking at something, or learn the scientific reason behind something you know from experience. In these times when so many issues seem to be causing deep divides, love of the horse should be something that unites us.
Be good to your horses!