By Steve Bauhr
In this horse world, especially within the confines of the Natural Horsemanship community, you will hear three phrases over and over again in relationship to handling horses: Always start out as Gentle as possible, Always reward the slightest try, and be only as firm as necessary. I have not met many folks who have any issue with being as gentle as possible. Most horse people love their horses, and have little interest in rough treatment.
Although recognizing a Try maybe difficult for folks new to horses, most are good with this concept as well. The caveat being, horses learn on the release of pressure, not on the giving of pressure, so recognizing a try is essential to our success. Being only as firm as necessary- Wow! Here’s where the gap is, and here’s why I’m writing this article.
Horsemanship is most definitely an art more than it is a science. I’m sorry to my dressage friends, but it just is. But that’s good news because it gives us all a blank canvas to explore ideas and concepts to find out what works for our horses and for us. It just can’t be a “Cookie Cutter” type of deal. Too many different horses handled by too many different people has proven that. So even though these three principles of Natural Horsemanship will always work, it’s how they are applied by different folks to different horses is what makes this whole deal so cool.
All that said, let’s get back to, “Being as firm as necessary.” I’ve found, what I believe to be, three reasons why so few horse people are able to visit this place. The first is they want a “Cosmic Connection” with their horse, where the need to firm up doesn’t exist because their horse loves them so much. Folks, your horse might enjoy the time you spend together, they might even nicker when they see you coming, but given their own druthers, most horses would rather be out on a thousand acres eating grass, with you, (and your saddle), at least a thousand acres away!
The second reason most folks are unsuccessful at being as firm as necessary, is fear. Not knowing how their horse might react to them being firm is scary. Remember- if you’re going to ask for a big response, you might have to ride or deal with a big response. That intimidates a lot of folks.
The third reason, when they finally do get as firm as necessary, they’re mad! Anger, and for that matter a lot of our emotions, have no place when working with horses. When we get mad, we can no longer reason or observe what’s going on. We’re just reacting or lashing out, and it leaves us no frame of reference the next time we need to firm up.
A person starts to be successful at anything in life when they can control their emotions. They are able to take in the whole picture and remember what the outcome was. Observe, remember, and compare. It’s what Tom Dorrance did his whole life, leaving him an incredible data bank in which he used to help any horse with any problem.
Why firm up? Because it’s real to the horse, they can understand firm correction or firm pressure as long as the first two rules are still being observed, especially rewarding the slightest try. It’s a language of Equis being used every day in herd life. For example: I have nine horses in my pasture at home right now. There’s one on the top, and there’s one on the bottom of the pecking order. At the stock tank, if the top horse is drinking and a lower peck horse approaches, he simply lays his ears back (Gentle as possible). If the lower peck horse stops or turns away, the top horse rewards that try by not taking his head off. But if there’s no response by the lower peck horse, the top horse goes into action. He either charges that horse- teeth barred, or he comes at him kicking. It’s fast, not over controlled by emotion, and it’s over. Minutes later you might see these same two horses side by side eating grass. It wasn’t personal, it just was.
So how does that relate to me and my horse? Well, here’s a place I see this being an issue in the saddle: lateral movement. The rider would like the horse to move laterally to open the gate. The rider is not wearing spurs, so the rider pushes on the horse’s side with no response. The rider then kind of kicks the horse’s side, and this time the horse lays his ears back, and actually moves into the rider’s leg rather than away from it. The rider quits. The rider asked as gently as possible, but the rider did not get to reward a try because there was no try.
Here’s how it should have went. The rider is wearing spurs. The rider pushes their heel down and turns their toe out on the leg they wish the horse to move away from. The horse does nothing. The rider now rocks their heel toward the horse’s side, allowing the rowel of the spur to make contact with the horse. The horse lays back his ears and moves into the leg. The rider continues pushing with the spur until the horse stops moving into their leg. STOP! That’s a try! The rider starts over, and this time, the horse lays his ears back but moves away from the leg one step. STOP! That’s a try!
The rider builds from there. Why was the rider successful? This rider was OK with being as firm as necessary, which meant, in this case, using a spur in a humane manner, convincing the horse to move away from it. The horse was fine with this once the rules were clear. He moves the correct way, the spur went away. It wouldn’t be long before the rider could just wiggle their big toe on the leg they would like to move the horse away from, and he’d move, not waiting for the spur.
I have met and worked with folks who refuse to wear spurs and ride horses that do not respond to their legs, and yet this goes on for years. Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result. I see it all day in the horse world due to this chasm between as gentle as possible, and as firm as necessary.
How do I get better at this concept? As always in my articles, I suggest the help of a professional trainer. You’re neighbor might be a great person with years of experience, but they’re not a Pro, and chances are they don’t have all the answers. Go get some help. You will learn how to firm up when needed- safely and with a positive result. Don’t be in that chasm, only using two of the Natural Horsemanship principles. Don’t have places where your horse is holding you hostage.
See ya out there!
Steve Bauhr owns and operates Bauhr Ranch, a full horse training facility in Chinese Camp, California. For more info go to bauhrranch.com and find us on Facebook!