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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’

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Train Outside the Box


Which Horse Trainer and Method Should You Emulate?

Selecting the right horse trainer or Method to emulate can be a daunting task for newcomers to the world of horse training. As with nearly any occupation or hobby, there are many authorities within the field willing to offer advice, some good, some not so good. Before spending an investment in time and money newcomers will often ask… which trainer should I follow? The answer may surprise you:

No one and everyone!   Let's look at this seemingly oxymoron a bit closer. You should not attempt to duplicate the style of any one particular horse trainer, yet you should try to study as many different horse trainers as possible during your horse career. I realize a far more convenient answer would be to point out one supreme trainer in the horse world and suggest focusing on him or her, but the fact of the matter such a magic bullet just doesn't exist for two reasons; there are many talented horse trainers, each with their different styles and advice. Judging one as being better than all others is simply not possible or reasonable. Whereas one trainer may practice a style that is perfect for me, you may find the style to be somewhat incompatible to you – or vice versa!

An old adage states that "all roads lead to Rome" and a similar context can be applied towards horse training. Whereas there are false paths that will lead to an unproductive or miserable relationship with a horse, the fact of the matter is many paths lead to success. As long as the trainer believes in understanding a horse and his language rather than dominating a horse through violence or fear, chances are his path is one of those that will lead to success.  Training is not an exact science or emulation – it's a natural flow that should bring out the highest level of comfort and confidence between you and your horse. Back about 50 years ago left-handed writing was deemed improper, so some schools would require left-handed students to write with their right hand, regardless of the fact that it's not a natural instinct or comfort zone for left-handers. Could such students learn to go against their instincts?  Absolutely. Left-handed people have always been forced to live in a right-handed world. Was it an ideal scenario for them? No – it disregarded their inherent skills and instincts and forced them to adopt someone else's natural ways.

You should look upon horse training in the same context. Although you can follow one trainer's style to the letter, you may later find that had you tweaked a few things here or there you would have been even more efficient or confident. A horse trainer should possess confidence in his own actions and ability before attempting to guide an untrained horse, for an integral part of the training process is lending that confidence to the horse to reassure the horse that the foreign stimuli and behaviors introduced to him are nothing to worry about. If you're uncomfortable with your requests, you can bet your horse will probably pick up on your hesitation or awkwardness.


Training on the Surface

Although horses are “living, decision making animals”, too often humans treat horses much like they’re machines.  As a result, a horse often must try to fill in for the human in order to understand what the human wants him to do.  But the human rarely takes that into consideration and continues to go through the same routine to try and get the horse to respond for him, never realizing that her/his horse is trying the best it can to fill the blanks.

“For example, the human and her/his horse might just go through the motions, lunging or loping endless circles with no clear goal in mind”.  Even though the horse does what the human asks, it checked out mentally 20 circles ago.  I speak of this as ‘training on the surface’.  There is no ‘feel’ there.  If the trainer had been paying attention and educating the horse to follow a feel and feeling what the horse’s body was telling them, they’d have realized that they’d accomplished their goal.  I once believed that a trainer could produce softness in a horse simple by asking for it in a soft manner!  Then some years ago, I ran into a horse that gave me what seemed like a soft feel, but it didn’t mean anything to him; he’d just been programmed to follow a routine.  Although he was soft he did not follow my feel or its’ owner for that matter!  He did what I wanted, but it didn’t mean anything to him and he’d just been programmed to follow a routine.  If I changed the routine, he didn’t know what to do!

“I have learned that just because people stick a label on a training method, it doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything but training the horses on the surface.  The human can do the round pen or the rope halter process but if it’s not done with a feel, which means reading what the horse is telling you through his body language and having the timing to recognize that moment in which the horse is telling you he’s ready for the next step; then it’s no better than any other kind of training”!  When something is presented to a horse with true feel, then you have a two way communication that means something to your horse, instead of a one way communication that might or might not mean anything to him.  With feel, you can get phenomenal results.  If you work on the surface, the horse is just a creature of habit; that’s the big difference. “We humans get so stuck in routine and bogged down with our habits that if the horse doesn’t fit them, it is labelled a ‘Rogue’ or ‘crazy’.  That’s why the horse gets into so much trouble…because the human isn’t willing to look beyond that narrow vision”


Life in the Horse’s Mind

Part of my training philosophy centers around a concept referred to as “balancing our minds and bodies as well as our horse’s mind and body”.  By this, I mean the ability to communicate effectively where we want the horse to go and what we want the horse to do next.  In everything we do we help our horse respond to what we want him to do rather than resist.  We spend time working on every aspect of our horsemanship, seeking quality in every detail.  The horse might check out of our class, which is my way of saying he’s become distracted.  And that’s okay but we must have a way to get him to come back to us and stay focused on us for longer and longer periods of time.  I mean keep his mind focused on us.  If his mind’s with us, then his body also will be. 

By doing this through feel, we can direct his energy and he can learn to focus on us longer.  This requires that we build a foundation on the ground based on trust and respect instead of fear.  Simple examples are:

·         We may not always take to time to groom the horse properly and just slap a saddle like a sack of potatoes and go.  But because horses are very sensitive animals, we should take the time and always swing the saddle up on the horses back with one soft & fluid motion.  This allows the horse to accept the saddle instead of thinking he has to escape.

·         A person goes to step up on her/his horse and before they can even get their leg over the saddle, that horse is halfway across the arena.  The rider didn’t take the time to arrange the life in the horse’s mind and body by tipping its head toward them and getting control of its feet before attempting to mount. 

Good training methods and behavior problems take time…Unfortunately, some humans want it all to happen now, they want a quick fix and/or the easy solution!  I have yet to meet the horse that wears a watch or cares what time it is?


Behavior Problems

A qualified trainer that understands human and equine behavior can help you to understand the behavior[s] and resolve behavior problems.  If your horse's behavior is concerning you for any reason, spending time with your horse can become stressful, upsetting or even dangerous and we can class the behavior that is worrying you as a 'behavior problem'.  Clearly, people's attitudes about what is or is not a problem vary widely, from those who are concerned by small signs of tension in their horse to those who happily report that they had a good week and only got bucked off three times!  The term 'behavior problem' does not put any blame on your horse or you; it simply means that you have a concern about how he is behaving. So, whether your horse's behavior is, for example:

 

·         causing you concerns for your safety or the safety of others

·         causing you worry about his welfare

·          causing you worry due to complaints about his behavior from staff or other owners at your stable

·         preventing you from performing routine tasks such as tacking, mounting and/or riding out

·         detracting from your progress in training, competition or a pleasure ride

·         simply puzzling you because you don't understand his behavior

·          lack of confidence


Strict Routine?

Personally I do not believe in training via strict routine.  I prefer horses to be focused on us wherever we are and whatever we do!  By that, I mean that the horse is mentally tuned in to respond to whatever we ask that is safe.  Most of us prefer our horse to respond because they are our partners, not our slave.  They are focused on us because they want to be, not because they are forced into it. 

We establish this partnership by being highly consistent, from the Foundation on the Ground training with every horse.  Every horse can be different, some in small ways and some more so.  Once we learn what a particular horse needs from us to begin to trust us, we build on that with consistent treatment.  When we work with them on the ground or mounted, they know what to expect and when we ask them to try something new; they have no reason not to trust us.

Sometimes we get confused when by thinking being consistent means always doing the same thing in the same order.  This isn’t consistency, it’s a routine.  Someone might lunge or ride a horse in a lope 10 circles to the left and 10 circles to the right every day…really all we need is one perfect circle to the right and one to left!  We don’t want our horses to think they can do 20 circles and then quit.  We don’t want to have the horse do 20 circles to get one good one, we want our horse to follow a feel.

We should compare a feel to dancing.  When we see a couple on the dance floor and they really look nice together it’s a willing partnership.  There is a softness there, a fluidness, they are two separate people, yet they are moving as one.  People who worry about what their horses will do in a new or unusual situation have trained their horses through constant routines and habits to be apprehensive about change yet they do not realize it. 

If a horse is with you at home, he will be with you wherever you are.  “If he’s with you on the ground, he will be with you when you are on his back”.  Change is a good thing, for you and especially for your horse; “Try doing something different with your horse and you’ll find yourself going to ride your horse more often”!


Any master of any trade becomes a master only because they realize that life is a constant learning experience – one should never rest on their laurels or be complacent with what they currently know. The same should hold true for all of us who enjoy and work with horses. Each time you read about or witness techniques from various natural horsemen you will often pick up an intriguing idea or two to try out yourself. Experiment! See how they work for you. At the same time you should not attempt to clone any specific horse trainer no matter how skilled he or she may be. Use the knowledge you are gathering and combine it with your natural instincts and flow. Create your own overall technique that blends the best of all training methods and you will be well on your way to success.