Saturday, May 2, 2009

Natural horsemanship and the back country rider/packer

Perhaps an odd combination, you may at first say: natural horsemanship and the back country rider/packer. But it’s really not. In fact, it’s as natural as, well, natural horsemanship.

Natural horsemanship. The horse world seems to be lacking of a better expression for horse gentling, starting and positive horse handling and training. I would prefer to use another term, as this one was first coined and made so popular by Parelli. Although I know he’s done such wonderful work in getting the word and method out there, there are so many other talented and skillful teachers spreading a similar word, and thanks to the research of Rick Lamb and Dr. Robert Miller, we know such positive approaches to horsemanship have been around though out history. In any case, whoever you follow, whoever you’ve read or watched, whoever you learn from, whoever you are most comfortable with their means and ways, most of us seem to be learning that you don’t have to use fear and force to have a willing partner. In fact, most of us are finding that fair, compassionate and clear leadership work a whole lot better.

I am going to guess that outfitters and back country horsemen have a rough and tough typecast. I know that’s what I used to think before meeting one, becoming one and marrying one. And yet, starting with the first “real” outfitter I ever met, I learned what a good, solid working relationship between horse and human can look like. I learned that there doesn’t have to be flash and dash and a beautiful dance in order to have a connection with your horse. Sometimes, there is a very subtle, subdued care and respect between the two, built upon years and hours and miles of getting through it together, helping each other out, taking care of each other, being out there surviving with each other. (Funny, this sounds like a description of an old married couple…)

When I first met that outfitter, alone and far away off in the mountains of the Trinity Alps in the far north of California, riding a solid sorrel with the kindest, wisest eyes I think I ever saw, with a pack of six or eight little burros trotting along quite contentedly in line behind… I decided he had the best job in the world. I wanted to do what he did. He obviously enjoyed his stock, and his stock, I could tell, worked with this man, not out of fear, but out of some sort of pride I didn’t really understand at the time. The man and his stock knew they had a real job to do.

Think about it. Who spends more time out there living and working with their stock than the outfitter? Not many. So wouldn’t it be fair to assume that they are not so far behind in their knowledge and understanding of a good horse/human relationship? Of course, but I don’t know why it took me a while to figure that one out.

Today, one of the finest outfitters I know trains his own stock, and although I have never seen his training in action, I can guarantee it is of a “natural horsemanship” inclination, though perhaps not filed under a certain popular name brand. I have ridden his horses and packed his stock and they are wise, thoughtful, patient and well mannered. They have been trained well, and treated well. They have no fear of flying hands or whips or ropes; they are obviously used to fair but firm ways and means. They expect just treatment, and in turn, are willing to work together with you to give you all they can. Quietly and calmly. With lightness.

In my last post, I mentioned how I strive for lightness on the rope, for the most response from my horse with the least amount of pressure. I don’t fight with my horses, and don’t tolerate them to fight with me. I once read about how so many of the problems we are concerned with are just little details of the big picture. Focus on the big picture, and the little problems work themselves out. Here’s a good example. My little Arab stud horse used to rear and strike when I’d work with him from the ground (and his back, for that matter). I ignored that, from a safe distance, and continued to work on the important lessons at hand. I didn’t fight back, thus stimulating the fight part of a horse’s “fight or flight” instinct, which I find is even stronger in stallions. And sure enough, he completely got over it. Hey, it’s a lot of work. There are better things to do. And why fight if you don’t get a reaction? So he stopped. And started working with me.

Whoever you have learned or are learning from, and I here make the assumption we are all still learning, not to the point where we feel we know it all (I hope to never be at that point), most underlying principles and the actual techniques for natural horsemanship are quite similar, regardless of your practice, discipline, style, form or direction of riding. Our goals seem to be the same: a positive, safe, solid working relationship with our horse. A horse that will do whatever we ask, lightly, thoughtfully, eagerly, safely. A rider that will communicate his or her needs and directions with the least amount of effort, blend smoothly and comfortably with his or her horse when riding, and achieve results with ease and grace.

First and foremost, we always must keep in mind to work with the horse, not against him; and to teach with firm but fair leadership. A horse understand a quick bite or kick from the boss mare that says “no!” or “stop that!” but he/she does not understand any amount of punishment or physical force that is not instant and directly related to the action at hand. All the horse learns from that is, “geez, what a bad mood he/she is in...” And really, isn’t that all it is? As Jane from The Literary Horse commented, “What it does take is more patience, awareness, focus, and self control/responsibility.”

The basic principles of natural horsemanship are the same for all of us, no matter what we do together with our equine companions: race or rope, hunt or jump, show or go… far off into the mountains.

Here’s a list I’ve been putting together as a regular reminder, based on quotes, ideas and teaching from all the many far more knowledgeable and experienced horsemen than myself. I personally have a long way to go, but many a goal to stive toward, working on myself first, my horse second.

1. Patience.
2. Consistency.
3. Remain centered, balanced – on the ground, in the saddle.
4. Focus. Have a job to do. You and the horse.
5. Communicate clearly. In a language the horse understands.
6. In every interaction with the horse, strive to be a positive leader; not one of the herd, not the harsh dictator.
7. Be fair. Be as gentle as possible, but as firm as necessary.
8. Make the right thing easy, the wrong thing difficult.
9. Reward the slightest try, the smallest change.
10. Teach with the release, the relief.
11. Have hands that close slowly, open quickly.
12. Think and feel of and for the horse. Work with the horses mind, not just his feet.
13. Set the horse up to succeed.
14. Take responsibility if the horse does not.
15. Make sure the horse understands what you are asking.
16. Adjust to fit the situation. Every horse, every lesson, every trail, every day is different.
17. Respect the horse, his need for self preservation, his limits, his bright mind, his sensitivity, his instincts and level of taught responses, his ways and means of communicating.
18. Practice approach and retreat. Nature does not usually follow the straight line.
19. Take the time it takes.
20. Less is more.
21. Know when to walk away.

This may sound like a list of quotes from Tom Dorrance, and I know much of this wisdom became shared so readily because of him, his love of the horse, and his ability to work with and care for the people he taught. (I believe you have to care about your students in order for them to want to listen to you.)

Well, that’s about the tip of the iceberg on this subject. But suppose I’ve already been sitting here long enough. Time to get out with my horses and work on putting the theory into practice!