WHAT exactly is horsemanship? Does it require a cowboy hat? Chaps? Manically waving about a carrot stick or a flag? Rope wiggling?! And why do people stand and just stare at their horses all the time?!
Well, firstly, you do not need to don a cowboy hat, or chaps. Simply come as you are. You can wear a cap, a hard hat, a sombrero…whatever floats your boat. Jods, leggings, breeches, joggers…whatever you like! You can use a carrot stick if you must, although they’re really not my thing…I find them a bit cumbersome. Flags can be very handy though, and as for stopping and staring at your horse…well, I’ll explain that later.
In the last few years, starting with some rather hair-raising and well-publicised incidents across mainstream media from ‘that’ pentathlon incident in 2021, and various other incidents, and concerns raised across many different sports in the horse world; the need for enhanced knowledge in horsemanship across the board in the equestrian industry, has become very clear.
While there is currently a movement of ‘change makers’ gathering speed and audience at the moment (I like to include myself in this, but really, we’re looking at the big guns, the likes of Warwick Schiller, and Tristan Tucker to name but a few), there is no doubt more can be done, particularly in the equestrian education sector in the UK, Ireland and across Europe. Proven techniques that help train horses in a manner which works with the horse, focusing on connection, and relationship, rather than just trying to ‘make them do the thing’ to name but a few.
So, let’s rewind back to, ‘what is horsemanship?’
The dictionary definition of ‘horsemanship’ is ‘the art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman.’ (or woman!) This is fairly accurate, although I’d like to add a rather large sprinkling of ‘knowledge, understanding, and empathy’ into that definition too. Skill and ability, can only take you so far, if you want a truly happy and engaged horse.
What if you could understand why your horse does what they do, and what if you could help them learn in a way in which they actually stay relaxed? What if you could help them to feel more confident in all they do, truly helping them to be their ‘best selves’ in all situations?
This includes going to shows without being ‘sharp’ and losing their minds, being able to deal with plastic bags floating about, loading with no stress, being able to lunge without being dragged around by a bucking looney, and hacking out with zero drama. What if they could truly enjoy their work, and their time with you? It’s all possible, it just requires time, patience, good preparation, and opening your mind to the possibility of trying something different.
The truth is, we all question our methods at some point. I didn’t start out with a knowledge of horsemanship, at all. I started out as a teenager in a particularly ‘old school’ traditional riding school, and I learnt to kick and smack my way over jumps. I learnt that if a horse dragged you about when you were leading them, that ‘it was just them’. I learnt to poke a horse up the behind with a broom if they didn’t want to go into a stable or into a trailer, to using a stronger bit if you couldn’t stop, and saw lots of much worse things in practice from others that make me feel incredibly uncomfortable to recall.
The frustrating thing with these methods, is that they do work in some cases- and they can ‘get you by’- which is why people continue to use them. I’d like to point out however that the results are nearly always temporary, and work only to a certain degree. This is because essentially, you’re making the horse internalise a behaviour that they’re demonstrating either through pain, fear, or lack of understanding. Rather than addressing the problem/core issue, and helping them work through it, we’re just making them do ‘x’ in spite of it, which can cause further pain, trauma, and more adverse or compounded behaviours later on.
In some cases, sadly, this creates a ‘problem’ horse scenario. The other unhelpful thing to add is we’re conditioned by old ways and old establishments to ‘just get on with it’, ignoring our own thoughts, feelings, and instincts, and those of our horses. This can be damaging not only to the horse, but often to us physically, and in some cases harmful to our own mindset too.
So, what does it mean to practice horsemanship? Really, it can be as simple or as high level as you want it to be, and anything is a good start. At a basic level, it can mean taking your time, and noticing your horse. It could mean learning their body language, learning about their coping mechanisms, and teaching them that they are safe in their environment, and safe with you (this is where some of the standing and staring comes in!). It can involve a good groundwork programme where you can carry out body control movements that will help you with all you do with your horse, and one in which you can enrich your horse’s working routine.
It could include giving your horse variety in their routine, exposing them to different scenarios, and helping them ‘prepare’ for situations, by breaking things down, rather than just ‘getting on with it’. The possibilities are endless and the rewards really are many.
To conclude, horsemanship can come in many forms (and in many outfits!) but ultimately, it all stems from a need, and a want to better understand our equine friends and to help them to be their best and happiest selves in whatever situation or environment they find themselves in.
We owe our four legged pals that much, surely…?
Kimberly Dunn will be writing a bimonthly column in Horse Sense to share some of her horsemanship methods and to introduce some of her coaching and mindset techniques to readers.
If you would like to find out more about Kimberly and Idyllwild Horsemanship you can visit www.idyllwildhorsemanship.com