Retiring from a long career as a professional rider and trainer, I took up running and developed an even deeper empathy for the athletic stresses and pain-causing activities we tend to inflict on our equine companions.
It took many years of working with horses, even having been around top trainers and international-level competition, to develop a deep personal awareness and compassion for these wonderful wild-turned-domesticated animals. You can read about them, attend clinics, ride and show many horses, and yet full awakening to the true depths of genuine horsemanship takes years and lots of dedicated, hard work. After all, it is a sport, and a very unique one given our partners are non-human.
I always had a high level of communicative abilities with animals, but it still took all that time of riding dozens of horses of every breed, discipline and level of training to turn myself into the kind of rider that could quickly analyze a horse’s issues, determine if they were pain or training related or both, and develop a plan to remedy the situation, which was sometimes the factor between life and death for some horses.
It doesn’t matter what you place on a horse. Bit or bitless. Saddle or bareback. Boots, bandages, blanket, surcingle. Other than leaving them to graze in their preferred environments, nothing we really do with a horse is “natural”… at least not to them.
Everything you use to train your horse, including sitting on him yourself, is putting some kind of pressure on him. When you ask him to move, even if it’s a walk, that’s asking for an athletic exercise.
You’re asking the horse’s musculoskeletal system to engage in movement, and his brain to compute the aids being communicated to him. The tack, the footing, the fitness and competence of the rider, all bear taking into account as to how the horse is going to move, react, develop, and recover from the session.
The best thing a horse-lover can do for a horse is to learn how to ride correctly. It’s a specialized, lengthy process that seems to have fallen by the wayside as more people have purchased horses that are too young, mishandled, poorly trained, or too large for them to handle confidently.
A well-trained schoolmaster is worth his weight in gold, and harder than ever to come by as it’s difficult to convince newer riders to buy a seasoned, older show or trail horse.
A good instructor will have at least one perfect lungeing horse on the lesson string who will quietly pack a novice rider through the development of their seat and hands. They are the proverbial “Steady-Eddies” of the equine world who don’t miss a beat while a rider learns to have balance without the benefit of stirrups, and quiet, independent hands without the use of reins.
Reins are “earned” when the rider can control body movement and go with the horse, with the hands remaining quiet and able to effectively apply correct rein aids with softness and discretion. Never pulling back, never pulling the neck around, and knowing the exact moment to “give” to the horse.
Sadly, few riders have this kind of start in the saddle and this has been a serious downfall in the standards of the equine industry as a whole. Whether a bridle is bitless or not, pressure is still exerted on the horse to control him in some way or form, and if the seat is also not in perfect balance, the horse will suffer for it and compensatory muscle imbalance leading to eventual lameness will be the result.
If a horse is also excessively worked in a round pen, or endures far too much time learning “tricks” and ground work, both his physical and mental state can deteriorate, especially at the hands of novice trainers who should really be spending more time on schoolmasters learning the basics.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of horses who are unrideable, lame, poorly trained, and yet young and healthy go to slaughter in Canada and Mexico every year (and some states that are reopening horse processing plants). Many are race horses, some are old, some are the result of overbreeding, and yet none of them deserve such a fate.
Not a single one of our beloved riding and companion horses should ever have to know the terror of being stuffed in a kill-buyer’s trailer without food and water, only to have to march up that ramp to the slaughter-box and have their lives end by captive bolt. Of course they know what’s happening. Science has proven they are sentient beings who feel pain and display emotion.
Be ever mindful when working with a horse. Are you developing an athlete and building his muscles to where he will become strong enough to carry a rider through all gaits, optimizing his movement and displaying freedom and regularity of the paces? Proper muscular development should allow the horse to be relatively sound and useful through most of its lifetime.
Have you taken the time to study equitation science and become a trained rider yourself with proper body control, application of aids and soft, giving hands?
Are you willing to always put the welfare of your horse above any kind of riding or groundwork you wish to do with him?
Do you take the time to groom properly, check legs and feet for any heat and swelling, feel the back and neck for sensitivity and pain, and take note of the muscular development to make sure it’s even on both sides?
Have you taken responsibility for a horse from the beginning to the end of its life, keeping track if sold, and knowing where that horse is when it passes away?
Holistic horsemanship is so much more than a desire to “bond” with these extraordinary animals. Being aware of their needs in a domestic situation is of utmost importance, as well as their impact on the environment in an increasingly sensitive world with diminishing open land. Besides their health and welfare, being responsible and respectful enough of their domestication warrants that we become the best riders first of all, and then the possibility of becoming a trainer exists.
Minding the horse, after all, is also a process of minding ourselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s a process that will ultimately make us better human beings in the end. The horses will thank us.