Greg's Theory on Horsemanship
"Love the horse more than you love the sport."
Thanks to “natural horsemanship” pioneers Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman, horsemanship no longer means grooming, feeding and leading. Today, we hear about such things as “unity” and “harmony” between the horse and the rider. Now obsolete, thankfully, are such devices as tie-downs, twisted-wire snaffles, lunge lines, side reins, and mechanical hackamores. Instead, through education and an understanding of the horse’s mind, we can help the horse feel confident and secure in our environment. This is our responsibility to the horse. This new approach of working with the mind of the horse is a common-sense one. There’s nothing mystical about it.
“Horsemanship” is the human’s ability to create unity with the horse from feel, timing, and balance. This is achieved through understanding the mind of the horse. The result is a calm, content horse that exhibits suppleness, straightness, energy (or “life”), and flexibility—all the things necessary for any discipline of riding. We need to develop the ability to understand what the horses are telling us by reading their expressions and, further, by fulfilling their need to be comfortable on the inside. The horse is the best teacher there is if you can learn to listen, but for now you may need someone to translate the horse’s language into human terms.
Humility, time, dedication, discipline, patience, and self-awareness are the major ingredients to achieving a confident, soft, willing horse. This is a tall order to ask of oneself, but by thoroughly following this path to horsemanship you’ll not fail the horses. Finally let the final judge of all work be the horse, for you can always believe what he says. We begin the program by laying a foundation.
What’s needed from the human to build a foundation:
The first thing the human needs is the willingness to become teachable.
This may require that you put your short-term training goals on hold. You’ll need to be open-minded about new ideas. You must make an honest assessment of your current training or riding approach and change what’s not working.
You must develop self-awareness.
You must be aware of your body actions and expressions and understand how they affect the horse. Do you realize that you’re “training” your horse every time you come near or in contact with him? Self-awareness includes understanding when you’re approaching your horse in a manner that’s offensive to him. (For example, do you pet him on the end of the nose? This can tickle him and cause a negative reaction.) What words would your horse use to describe you? Impatient, resentful, demanding, frustrated—or kind, willing, and patient? Are you as willing to take the blame for not fixing the bad things as you are to take the credit for the good things?
Develop observation skills and the ability to read the horse’s expressions.
Horses communicate through their expressions. Begin to watch the whole horse, not just his eyes and ears. Anyone can see a horse bucking or kicking, but do you see the more subtle things like the softening of the eyes, or the licking of the lips, or the straightening of the body? It’s the little things that make the big difference. Do you get distracted just before something important happens? Good concentration takes practice.
Feel is probably the most difficult aspect of natural horsemanship. This not only involves the physical feel, but also the more abstract feel associated with your presence. Your goal is to one day feel of your horse as much as he can feel of you. Horses far exceed the human’s ability in the area of feel.
This is the ability to admit what is working and what is not.
Educating yourself with only the horse’s best interest in mind.
Discipline and patience
Follow through with consistency. Work on “horse time.” Horses have no concept of human time and clocks. Be willing to see a project through or don’t start it at all.
What’s needed to build the foundation with your horse:
From the Ground (Groundwork)
The foundation with the horse starts with the ground. A quick assessment of the horse will reveal many areas of resistance in the horse. Every “hole” in the foundation has the potential to be a problem from the saddle. Weak or missing areas or places of resistance must be identified and addressed with specific exercises from the ground. In addition to fixing these holes, you must identify how the rider has contributed to this situation. The rider must now adjust his approach so he doesn’t recreate the original problem or resistance. The result will be a horse that’s responsive and respectful from the ground. This horse is also much safer to handle and be around.
From the Saddle
Greg works with riders in the same manner as from the ground. Weak or resistant areas are identified, and then they’re addressed with riding exercises. Goals of specific riding disciplines—such as dressage, jumping, and cow working—will be incorporated into the exercises so the rider can begin to focus on these goals. For horses without problems, Greg emphasizes safety, concerns for the horse, and consistency in achieving your goals.
The end result of a strong foundation is a horse and rider working together toward a common goal. Rather than being dependent on a trainer, the rider is now beginning to develop the tools needed to access and learn from the horse.
Greg’s Methods - 'The Tool Box'
The skillful use of a saw and hammer can create a simple table or a magnificent castle. Natural horsemanship training has its own “saw and hammer” tools. They are:
The application and release of pressure
Observation—visual, tactile, and empathetic
Application and release of pressure
Pressure is anything that makes the horse feel wary and guarded, from halter tension to body language and position.
The formula is simple.
Apply pressure, causing slight discomfort.
As soon as the horse makes an effort in the right direction, or thinks of making an effort in the right direction, release the pressure, relieving the discomfort and causing the horse to associate right behavior with the pleasure of release.
What is not so simple is learning to see and sense when the horse makes an “effort in the right direction.”
This requires the second tool.
An ear twitches, the back line drops slightly, something behind the eyes softens almost imperceptibly. These are things that can be seen, if you’re paying close enough attention.
Underneath you, a breath is released, a hind leg crosses over, the right shoulder braces. These are things that can be felt if your senses are “open.”
Invisibly, something “in the air” shifts—from wariness to interest, from fear to understanding, from defiance to respect. These are things that can be noticed when you learn to notice and trust your instincts.
Becoming proficient in this new approach requires the cultivation of three “attitudes.”
An attitude of regard and respect for the animal
An attitude of authenticity, which encompasses the triangle of self awareness, self honesty, and humility
An attitude of compassionate authority
Let’s examine each one:
Regard and respect
Someone with a regard and respect for the horse recognizes the intelligent and giving nature of the horse. He or she is willing to study its non-verbal language of subtle movement, whole body sensitivity, and empathy. Above all, one with regard and respect for the horse acknowledges the extreme sensitivity of this animal to emotional shifts in the human and learns to use that sensitivity as a mirror.
The attitude of authenticity encompasses more than simple sincerity. Authenticity implies being true to oneself, which requires self-awareness, self-honesty, and humility. Without self-awareness, one can never understand what emotional shifts the horse is responding to. Without self-honesty, one cannot look objectively at mistakes. Without humility, one cannot admit when the horse knows better.
Compassion means feeling the troubles of another with the urge to help. Though it’s important to let the horse know who’s in charge, this must be done with a minute-by-minute concern for the horse’s comfort-discomfort threshold and an ability to reassure the horse of its safety.
Seeking Safety with Horsemanship
Tap on or near a lizard, and you’ll see it retreat instinctively toward a perceived place of safety. This protective impulse is common to all nervous systems, from the simple system of a reptile to the extremely complex nervous system represented by the human brain. (In fact, the part of the human brain which houses this and other primitive responses is often referred to as the “reptilian brain.”) It’s an ancient physiology, then, behind the statement that “all creatures move away from discomfort and toward safety.”
Understanding this simple fact is the foundation of a new level of horsemanship and training that is slowly transforming the historically brutal world of “horse-breaking.” Because horsemanship is concerned primarily with the comfort of the horse, it is, in essence, a compassionate approach. And because the level of sensitivity it demands of the rider is foreign to most, it sometimes appears mysterious—hence the misleading term “horse whisperer.”