When you hear the word horsemanship, what does it mean to you? It is defined as ‘the art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman.’
Why is it that there often seem to be weak links in the training chain where fundamental understanding of equine ethology should have been deeply rooted? Lending to this impression, for example, is how often horses get sent outside of their usual program for mannering, or retraining of any undesirable habits under saddle. My first thought is not ‘what’s wrong with the horse and/or rider’, but ‘what was missed in the critical early stages of learning?’ The horse is capable of understanding how to wait quietly at the mounting block, or stand obediently for the farrier. The horse is capable of confidently performing his day to day exercise routine without panic or tantrum. Just as horses are apt to learning, as long as they trust and respect their teacher, so do we have the ability to adapt and become more educated to successfully work with our mount through each difficulty presented. We just have to be willing to make a change within ourselves.
This is not to say that inquiring or reaching outside of our habitual training program for help when problems arise is a poor choice. I myself have found great benefit to a more open-minded approach when it comes to developing my horses. I have often questioned and experimented with my own go-to techniques, as well as those of other equestrian professionals. I don’t believe there is any one perfect method or formula that guarantees a trusting and ideal relationship between equine and equestrian. I do believe that what contributes most to a rewarding partnership is the ability to check our ego at the barn door and consider the horses perspective.
I regard horsemanship not as a quality exclusive to any one equestrian discipline, but as a discipline itself, and at its best a lifestyle that transcends all equine recreation or sport specificity.
Horsemanship is not best measured by a handlers’ use of auxiliary equipment to control their horses bodies to make them jump higher, extend the stride bigger, or spin on the spot tighter. Rather, it should be gauged by their fair, educated approach and consideration to understand what the horse needs in order to perform their best comfortably and confidently. It is not the horses job to make the rider look good, it is the riders job not to interfere with what the horse can naturally accomplish without hindrance.
After more than thirty years being part of the equestrian industry as a student, competitor, trainer and coach, my greatest personal achievements have come out of making the best choices I was capable of in each circumstance. These have certainly not always been the most comfortable choices for me, but ultimately the best I could do for my horse and I collectively at that time. The willingness to self-improve and a commitment the study and practice of equine science contribute significantly to the equally invaluable hours of experience in the saddle.
For me, horsemanship success is not so much about setting and achieving a fixed goal as adapting to be whatever the horse needs me to be, at any time, in order to achieve harmony and oneness with them. Only then is it possible to surmount each intermediary step leading to the goal. We have earned the right to call ourselves horse people not simply because we promote that we love horses, or because we can handle them safely and competently. The greatest honour is when our truest critic and best teacher, the horse, has privileged us by following our lead in any situation out of mutual trust, respect and understanding.