We have all heard that in order to become better horseman we need to ride more. In fact, I think it is just the opposite. I think if we spent less time riding or doing anything and more time just observing and being in the company of horses we would grow immensely as horsemen and riders.
As equestrians we tend to do plenty of riding. Although there are loads of chores and less glamorous parts about being equestrians, many of us get through this stuff in order to ride. We rush through tacking and grooming to spend another 15 minutes on the horse. Not everyone does this, but many people do. It takes lots of patience and thought to not find yourself rushing to ride.
In fact, we tend to rush at the barn in general. Even if we aren’t pressed for time and don’t have a list of chores to do we often make ourselves busy. We find things to do to take up all our time not spent riding so that we don’t have time left to just sit around.
Sitting around makes many of us uncomfortable. We lack the patience to do nothing and find mere observation boring. After 5 minutes we will be checking our phones to see if we can manufacture something that we need to do. If that fails our thoughts turn to what we will cook for dinner or what we need to pick up at the store. When our bodies aren’t busy our minds take over the eternal busyness.
This busyness and lack of time spent observing the horse leads to a lack of understanding of the horse. We understand how the horse responds to us, but don’t see how the horse responds to stimuli in his natural environment, how he works through anxiety, and how he is at peace. This knowledge is critical in order for us to understand how to train the horse. Knowing the horse’s natural inclinations, strengths, and weaknesses allows us to better communicate with and support the horse when we are working with him.
Maybe you think you aren’t a trainer so you are in the clear. You can happily go on riding your horse and being as busy as you please. That’s garbage and you know it. Every time you interact with your horse you are teaching him something. Even if you aren’t a skilled equestrian you still owe it to your horse to be the best you can be.
I urge you, regardless of your knowledge or skill set, to spend at least an hour a week observing your horse at liberty. Don’t even brush your horse. Just sit quietly outside his stall, in his pasture, or near the turnout. Don’t interact with him, talk to him, or get distracted. Notice what your horse is doing in every little moment and try to figure out why he is behaving in this manner.
What separates the good horseman from the great horseman is the time spent observing the horse. Second-hand knowledge from others doesn’t quite resonate the way observation does. Even top level trainers can benefit from this study of the horse and many of the best trainers, including Tom Dorrance, spent hours simply observing without interfering.
Not only will this observation help you understand the horse, it will also allow the horse to be comfortable with your presence. Too often our presence means that the horse needs to do something. He gets so used to being asked to perform that he gets nervous when you don’t ask him for anything. The horse learns to depend on a steady stream of instruction from you when you are present. A lot of times we unknowingly encourage this behavior because it leads to a focused, obedient horse. However, we lose the thinking part of the horse.
The horse learns to shut down when we are present instead of being completely engaged because we have demanded and rewarded having the horse’s full attention. In reality, if we are going to partner with the horse, we want responsiveness and engagement, not a reliance on us dictating the horse’s every move. This also covers up the horse’s own insecurities, preventing him from being the confident partner we desire.
Make it a goal this week to take some time and spend it just observing your horse. It might take some work to get used to it, but with practice it will become easier. Strive to learn something you didn’t know before and think about how that can affect your interactions with your horse. Learn how horses communicate and exist in order to communicate better with your horse. After all, being a better horseman is all about learning to speak the horse’s language better.