I can tell within seconds if I'm witnessing a master at work with their horse, or a novice. I can tell just by the way they go about leading a horse or feeding a horse.
These two experiences, leading and feeding, are perhaps the most undervalued of all horsemanship experiences among novices. And sadly amongst some people who have kept horses their whole lives. The reason it's sad is because it lends to the idea that horses are for riding and everything other than riding training isn't really training. Of course, this idea is incomplete and inaccurate. Having horses is about much more than just riding. Just ask your horse.
Horses need basic care like food, water, shelter, space to move and social experiences. But horses also need leadership. And what better place to offer leadership than when you feed and when you lead. To help understand what I'm talking about I'll give you two scenarios and then reshape how you should respond in those two scenarios.
Joe walks out to the barn to collect some hay for his horse. Joe's horse notices what's happening and begins to whinny and pace the fence, excited for his meal. Joe wheels out a load of hay and begins to throw it over the fence. Joe's horse is already at the fence and leaning over, taking a bite, even before it leaves Joe's hands. Joe doesn't mind, he just tosses the hay over the fence and walks back to the barn to clean up and reset for another day.
Question for the reader: What is Joe's horse learning? Is he learning to be calm or anxious about feeding? Is he learning to patient or frantic? Will he learn these lessons and will those lessons then crossover into other areas of Joe's time with his horse?
I hope you can deduce the truth. Joe's horse is learning to be impatient and frantic about food and it will crossover into other areas of training. So what could Joe do different?
Scene 1: Feeding Time Revised
Joe walks out to the barn to collect some hay for his horse. Joe's horse notices what's happening and begins to whinny and pace the fence, excited for his meal. Joe wheels out a load of hay and begins to throw it over the fence but pauses because his horse is trying to take some hay before his turn. Joe drives the horse backward, away from the hay then sets the hay on the ground within his own reach. The horse quickly returns to get his hay but Joe say's "no," to the horse, "not yet." The horse looks at him quizzically and Joe reaches out his hand to offer a connection. His horse ignores the offer and ducks under his hand to grab some hay. Joe quickly drives him back again, then reaches his hand out to offer a connection again. Finally, his horse reaches out his nose to Joe's hand with a soft expression on his face, and they connect. It's brief but sincere. Joe then steps back and allows the horse to step in and begin eating. As his horse begins eating, Joe lingers and even reaches out to pet and bond with him while he's eating because Joe knows that bonding with a horse while eating is as good as anytime because it floods the horse with positive associations with Joe.
Question: What did Joe's horse learn?
Joe's horse is learning to be patient, connected to Joe and not the hay, trusting that Joe, even though he's tough, is kind and wants to make a true bond.
Sally finishes working with her horse in the arena and begins leading her back to the field where she'll let her go. Her horse is walking a little faster than Sally, apparently ready to be free. So Sally hangs on a little tighter on the line and quickens her pace to keep up. When she reaches the gait, her horse is noticeably more anxious. After working with the gate and finally getting it open she steps inside and wrestles with the halter until it slips off her horse. Her horse then trots away, happy to be with her old friends. Sally gathers her things and heads back to the barn unaware of what her horse has learned.
Question: What has her horse learned? Has her horse learned to walk Sally's pace or do her own thing? How will that translate to riding? Has her horse leaned to be patient and connected or... distracted and impatient? What will happen tomorrow when Sally goes to get her horse?
I hope you can deduce the truth again. Sally's horse is learning to be disconnected and impatient, doing her own thing. A horse that leads poorly also rides poorly, often moving at their own pace with no regard for their leader, unless the leader hangs on tighter to the lead rope or reins. Her horse will be harder to catch tomorrow as a result of being let go like that. So what could Sally do different?
Scene 2: Leading Revised
Sally finishes working with her horse in the arena and begins leading her back to the field where she'll let her go. Her horse is walking a little faster than Sally, apparently ready to be free. Sally notices this right away and addresses her horse firmly by planting her feet and driving her horse backward, resetting the position, and asking her horse to stay at her pace, connected with a loose line. When her horse steps back and connects, Sally continues walking toward the gate. By the time Sally reaches the gate she's made more than twenty five of these harsh corrections, stopping her feet each time and resetting the position, and her horse is finally starting to get the idea. And... each time she corrects the position and connection it gets a little easier. After opening the gate, Sally takes her horse into the field, at which time, her horse seems to get anxious about Sally taking the halter off. So instead of just taking it off, Sally walks her horse around the field, reinforcing the connection she wants. When her horse is calm, Sally takes the halter off, asking for connection one more time. Then, Sally walks away from her horse instead of her horse walking away her. Sally knows that being the first to leave is important. She knows that training calmness and connection, in position, is valuable for everyday riding and she's also certain that her horse will be easy to catch because she left on such a positive note.
Question: What did Sally's horse learn this time?
Sally's horse is learning to walk at Sally's pace which will crossover to riding. Sally's horse is staying with her at the end, proving to Sally that it's okay to leave because they are connected. Sally's horse is learning patience and positive associations to people despite the firmness Sally had to operate with during those early corrections. Sally's horse is becoming a true partner.
In both revised scenarios, Joe's and Sally's horses are becoming smarter, calmer, more connected. All this training took place outside the ring, outside the traditional training areas. And, as a result, Joe's and Sally's horses will be safer and happier around people than any other horses without this handling. All because, in the end... Joe and Sally learned the sacred art of leading and feeding.
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