I have the privilege of working with almost 200 students every year. But it’s occurred to me that due to my scheduling, or my student’s scheduling, we might not necessarily see each other every year. Every year I feel like I’m that much further along the path that is my own horsemanship/instructor’s journey and I myself am often surprised and humbled by the direction that the people and horses in my life can lead my journey. I would like to take a moment to share with you where I am at this time, so if we see each other or not, you will, in a way, still be a part of my path, and I hope very much to be a part of yours.
There are three very important themes that I seem to be focusing on this year so far, as of June 2011. The first of these is “holes”. For a long time, horsemen I know have spoken of a horse having “a hole” or “holes” in his training. The term “hole” has been used to mean that a concept or skill has been missed along the way (usually in a horse’s formative training), and was found later on (usually due to a problem). “Holes” are not usually seen as a good thing.
I feel like holes are pretty important to a horse. If a horse has holes in his knowledge base, in his foundation, or in his experiences and understanding of his life and work, this can cause him to be anxious, pushy, worried, withdrawn, difficult to get to focussed or even aggressive. Now, just because a horse is any of those things doesn’t mean he necessarily HAS holes in his life. But it CAN mean that sometimes. A horse who has holes in his life can be insecure and unconfident.
Enter some thoughts about people (horsemen, in particular), with holes in their horse lives, in their knowledge base, in their foundation, in their experience and understanding. A horseman with holes can be insecure and unconfident. Pair a horse with holes with a horseman with holes (especially corresponding holes) and it can be a recipe for disaster (or a psychiatrist’s couch!!!!).
A good foundation of basic knowledge is immeasurably important for a horse. It seems like there are some foundational skills that every horse should have regardless of breed or discipline. That list of foundational skills will only expand depending on the job the horse is expected to do. A good riding or saddle horse will have a long list of foundational skills, all built one upon the other carefully and methodically over years.
It’s pretty much the same for people in their horse work. There are foundational skills every horseman should know, and then he or she will spend years adding to that knowledge and skill base, depending on their area(s) of interest or study.
Whenever foundation pieces are missing in a horse or in a person, it will eventually show up. If a foundation piece is missing, it’s likely that the pieces that should be built upon that foundation will be missing or shakey. If a horse or a person is going to be truly effective and confident in their work, they must have a good foundation
Then there are the words. I love words. I love using them and discovering them and agreeing upon them so we can all communicate. Only once we agree on meanings can we use words to communicate amongst ourselves. This is just like working with horses. We must first discuss vocabulary, agree on definitions and only then can we put that vocabulary to work to have discussions.
I think I’m using some different words these days than I used to, as I further explore some ideas. As I more deeply explore an idea, I may rename it with a word that feels right to me. Sometimes I change words because I’ve adopted a word that a student used for something that seems especially appropriate and accurate. In some cases I’ve adopted more “classical” definitions for words, as these definitions have stood the test of time.
I often ask students what they mean by some of the words they use. “What do you mean by ‘softness’?” “What behaviors do you see that cause you to say your horse has ‘an attitude’?” I used to assume that I knew what people meant by the words they chose. I don’t assume any more. I just ask. I’d like you to do the same. If you hear or see me use a word and you’re not sure what I mean by it, go ahead and ask. It may mean that I’ve broken down an old idea into smaller parts, or that my feel for a concept may have changed over time so I’ve chosen a new word to describe that feel more accurately. For instance, for me, “ground work” is just too big a term now. It used to be a good catch-all for any non-ridden work, but it’s just too non-specific to be a useful vocabulary word for me any more. As my skills have changed, that term has become inadequate. Now there’s halter work, lunging, round pen work, trailer loading, flag work, rope work, feet work, and long-lining, to name a few. Then there’s working a horse off a saddle horse. Is that considered “ground work”? Yikes!
I enjoy this process quite a lot. I’ve begun dissecting the idea and the word “softness” into some more manageable (for me) ideas and feels and words. This has been really fun and I hope has led to a new level of clarity in my mind and with my horses. I find that as new layers of awareness add new meaning to old ideas, new words become necessary to express that new layer. It’s very satisfying to me to use a word and see the feel and meaning of that word go through a student and their horse.
The third theme that I seem to be revisiting time and time again (due to it showing up in my own work over and over too) is the idea that there seems to be and needs to be a logical order to things. This may seem silly and obvious to a fault, but it is not.
For instance, in many cases, halter work needs to come before trailer loading or long-lining work. Until we explain to the horse how to follow the halter and feel of the halter rope, his other work in the halter will lack softness and understanding, and in extreme cases, we just might not have control at all. That halter work is also a precursor to his work in the bridle. While we can do things out of order if we wish, it is inefficient and oftentimes hard on the horse and on us.
Where the rider is concerned, it is important to learn how to ride. This may sound silly, but many of today’s horsemen are middle-aged women returning to horses after quite a few years away. They may not have been riding at a very advanced level when they stopped riding all those years ago, but many of them are going and buying horses and just going and trying to ride them in all sorts of situations. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. One would think that it might be prudent to take a few lessons and learn to walk, trot, and canter before heading out over the hills on a 200-head group trail ride. Learn to ride, get an independent seat and hands and get fit. Then we can get some magic happening in the saddle. Think of it this way, as long as we’re working on staying on, we can’t really work on anything else. First we learn to stay on, then we work toward learning basic aids. When we’ve mastered use of the basic aids, then we can begin the very long process of blending and refining those aids into invisibility. But we cannot refine an aid for which we do not understand the basic version. It just doesn’t work that way.
Well, let me rephrase that. We COULD do it that way, but that would leave a hole in our knowledge and experience base. And this brings us back to my first point.
Working with horses and becoming an accomplished horseman is hard work, fraught with frustrations and deep personal challenges. Giving ourselves and our horses good foundations is a substantial challenge in and of itself. This part of my own journey, this new and deeper understanding of the value of a good foundation has given me a more profound appreciation for all my teachers through the years. It has also made me a more conscientious teacher of all things foundational.