I have a colleague who has, on multiple occasions, asked me what secrets I’ve found to working with other of our colleagues. This person is at a level of management where one would think she’s encountered many different types of people. None of the people she has asked me about are particularly difficult to work with, in my experience. I find it difficult to provide her many answers, as every relationship is unique. How I interact with a given person may not work for her if that “style” is not natural for her. I found myself contemplating those conversations with her as I scanned through so many Facebook posts from people offering you the deep secret to having a better relationship with your horse – each one with their own special “language” invented to make them stand out. Just as with my colleague, I cannot help but think they are complicating something that just should not be that hard.
Training horses can be a complicated process. You have to understand the end goal activity, what is required both physically and cognitively from the horse, and how to break that end goal down into the tiny building blocks needed to develop the horse’s body and mind. Along with that, you have to understand how your body and mind need to be developed for the activity, and hopefully work on that before attempting to teach the horse anything without guidance. Complexity will obviously vary depending upon the activity. Riding down farm roads at the back of your property will not be as complicated as teaching a horse to jump a Grand Prix course. But the trainers I’m referring to above don’t claim to teach you how to do anything – they are strictly focused on how to build a relationship. Is it really that hard?
I genuinely do wonder about that. Just as I am slightly puzzled each time my colleague asks me how to work with another colleague, I am puzzled by how much time and money some people seem to put into just having a relationship with their horse. Do they pay someone to help them develop relationships with friends and family? I know, that may seem flip – but relationships are complicated things that are unique to the two parties. When things go wrong, a counselor may be able to help the two parties resolve the issues – just as a good trainer should between you and your horse. Yet, you meet people and you develop relationships with no outside assistance – just interactions between you and the other individual.
In reading through promotions by these trainers you would come to the conclusion that most people struggle to have a relationship with their horse. I find this idea to be very sad. Horses are not complicated when it comes to relationships. As humans we may complicate things – but I find most of these “relationship” trainers do exactly that, in the name of making things better. They give fancy names to their “exercises”, some of which amount to basic interactions such as going for a walk. They speak like counselors, telling you to present your “authentic self” (as if we are somehow out to con our horses?). They give you plenty of ways to feel inadequate as well, by talking about horses constantly feeling threatened by our predator hearts and flooding us with calming signals we have to constantly look for. Precise body language, flags on sticks, brain science – all of these become tools you must use to develop a good basic relationship with your horse.
I am not discounting the importance of the relationship with your horse. That has been the most important part for me over the fifty years I’ve been around horses. But that was the easiest part to master. It took me far more years to learn how to train horses for the various activities I’ve participated in – and that is an ongoing journey. In fact, there was little learning necessary to create good relationships with the horses I met. Both of our species are programmed to connect socially, and history shows that neither limits those connections to their own species (and for those who say that we are predator and they are prey, I’ve raised enough foals who had zero fear of humans, and I’ve never met a horse who showed fear of humans that wasn’t for cause). Just as with any relationship, it is built upon interactions, feedback and response.
It’s not that I don’t see a place for helping people with their relationships with their horses. I did a lot of that when I was teaching and training. But when it’s the sole focus, when techniques are labeled “proprietary” (sorry, there’s nothing left that’s new in training horses … whatever it is, someone has done it before), when it comes with cute labels, when it claims to use science but praises stress responses as “breakthroughs”, and when they won’t let you see anything of their work without you paying first – those are all signs that should make you question the validity of the “method”. When it comes to anything surrounding horses, never fall for words alone – you have every right to see what you are paying for before you buy. There is no mysterious veil around working with horses, and anyone who tells you so is not being honest with you.
I started this blog, years ago, as a reaction to the extreme changes in the sports I’d once loved. It has only gotten worse since then. However, the interest has also grown in viewing horses as more than just sports equipment, understanding their behavior, and building a better future. I applaud all of that. But, with every cultural shift come those who will take advantage by trying to sell themselves as the remedy – as having all the answers you’ve been seeking. I’m now disturbed by just how complicated some of these people want you to believe a relationship with horses can be. I watched it start with the round-pen gurus in the ’80s, and many of the people I’m referring to had their start in that world, and they inherited the over-complication of the relationship from that ‘culture’. Having a horse should be a joy and a fulfillment of a dream – not hard work and constant worry about making a misstep. Your horse certainly doesn’t want to have to work hard just to have a relationship. Perhaps that is the thing we can best learn from the horse – just how easy and relaxed a relationship can be.
Be good to your horses!