Get-it-done Horsemanship: Effective or abusive?
I remember the moment as clear as day. It is that powerful a memory in a brain that doesn’t hold onto many (I always say my brain does regular clear outs of information it deems unimportant).
I’m fourteen or fifteen and I’m riding a lesson horse in a ring. We’re jumping, or we’re trying to. It’s not going well. My instructor is screaming at me. Screaming. My horse is, looking back in reflection (hindsight is indeed 20/20), terrified. He has refused a jump, more than likely because he’s scared of it. My instructor is screaming this at me over and over. “Get it done!” and “Don’t let him get away with it.” Eventually, with much kicking and whipping, he carried his terrified self and mine over the jump. Our heart rates were both racing. We were both scared, bordering on traumatized. Both in a place where we are unable to think or be effective in any way.
Most of my early riding memories were just like this. Screaming instructor, knot of anxiety in my belly, fear of failing or making a mistake, riding unnerved or shut down horses, forcing them into all manner of potentially unsafe scenarios, all interspersed and colliding with my passion and why I was there in the first place, my deep and unending love of horses. Sprinkled every now and again into the mix was that necessary ingredient to keep the train on the tracks – praise. It kept my head above water when I felt like my I was an abject failure at this riding stuff.
Fast forward to six years later and the start of my relationship with Diva, my 16H Percheron-morgan mare. My first horse and I always say jokingly, my longest committed relationship at twelve and a half years. Thankfully, my instructor at the time was lovely and some of the unwinding of my earlier conditioning to the get-it-done style of horsemanship had already begun. But it wasn’t even close to complete. I found that out when I started employing parts of it in my work with Diva. Bad idea. Or so said the broken finger, the road rash, the leg that was sure it had been torn off by a tree (yes, two inches is not enough space between a tree and your saddle for a leg to fit comfortably through at a canter), and my very very bruised pride.
Thankfully, I had just begun my training as an Equine Sport Therapist and was seeing horses in a very different light, a light which I’ll share more with you shortly. At that point, I knew I needed to do something and I knew that selling Diva wasn’t an option (although I’ll admit, the thought did cross my mind a time or two). I realized as well at about this time that I had some bad horsemanship habits from my earlier training that were rather difficult to break. Thus began my intensive self-imposed/Diva-imposed exploration/complete unravelling of this type of horsemanship and why it just doesn’t really work, unless a few very specific and essential ingredients are present. And this as well, we we will get into shortly, plus some excellent alternatives.
I’m getting very broad here when I say get-it-done horsemanship – in fact, I completely made the term up (I think!). It came to me while driving away from a client’s place a little while back. She’d shared a story, one about a horse show that she’d visited the day previous. A horse in the ring was refusing a jump and was getting the snot whipped out of him by his rider. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in the hunter-jumper world, made evident by the announcer, who, while sharing that the pair were disqualified for taking too long to finish the course, also shared a get-it-done opinion over the loudspeaker, praising the rider’s continued attempts to make her horse do what it was told.
My client left the show that day in an outrage, mainly because the majority of the crowd strongly supported this make-it-happen viewpoint – as a highly sensitive horse women she could feel the deep fear and discomfort of the horse in the pit of her belly, sitting in the stands. So right there, in my car, I made up this term, because I knew I had to speak to this topic once and for all. Is this type of horsemanship effective or abusive? And what are some great alternatives to this not-so-great way that many of us have learned to be with horses.
Yes, this is about as close as I come to a rant, and I’ll probably swear, mainly because you should really swear if you’re going to rant and, of course, because I love to swear.
Let’s just get this piece out of the way. We have all done it. As horse people, you would be a rare bird not to employ a get-it-done tactic somewhere along the line of your interactions with horses. As a non-horse person, you probably think this is terrible and cruel. The fact is, sometimes you just have to. Horses are huge and powerful prey animals who are known to lose their minds from time to time in fear, which can lead to a human bug splat, which is not cool. So what I’m saying is that, if done with fairness and with the well-being of the horse in mind, sometimes get-it-done horsemanship is essential for survival. That’s the key. Right there. With fairness and the well-being of the horse in mind.
Let’s rewind back to the beginning of my relationship with Diva, when I was still rather clueless and rather conditioned to a certain way of thinking about horses and how to work with them.
Let’s refer to this particular event as the my leg-almost-being-ripped-off incident. At the time Diva was four years old, out on a trail by herself with me (who she did not really trust at all) miles from home and I was acting like an asshole. Her well-being was not top of mind, nor was fairness. I just really wanted her to do as she was told “like a good horse should.”
I had an agenda, I had an expectation, and I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen, despite her protests.
What I didn’t account for was Diva’s intelligence and the strength of her need for fairness and respect – that and the tree she cantered my leg right into. Yes, it hurt like a bitch. Yes, I screamed for help (no-one came, the buggers). Yes, Diva may have stared at me writhing on the ground in pain like I was a nut job. Yes, I limped home pathetically (no one even batted an eyelash in my direction even though I was really laying on the pathetic like a pro). Yes, I eventually dragged my sorry ass back onto Diva and rode side-saddle the remaining several kilometres home, all the while pondering finding her a new home.
The moral of the story? For me it was this.
Horses, in general, think get-it-done horsemanship, when it’s laced with agenda, fear-mongering, unnecessary force, no release or give-or-take, unrealistic expectations and the need to look good for others, is a steaming pile of shit. Yes, I know some of you think the moral of the story is that Diva was a bad egg, a spoilt rotten mare with a definite mean streak. I can tell you, twelve years later, that she is anything but. In fact, she is one of the most handy horses I know, great under saddle, kind, solid, versatile and fancy when she needs to be. I can put any three year old or ninety year old on her and she takes perfect care, doesn’t put a foot wrong. And believe me, at the time I wanted to make that the moral of the story too, but thankfully some part of me knew better. She turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Because of her, here I sit writing this little piece for you. Because of her my life is ridiculously amazing. So, what really happened that day? Let’s talk about it.
If you’re up for it, can we start with a few of the assumptions get-it-done horsemanship makes? (And why horses know that it’s a bunch of bullshit and we should too).
I just love to get all deep, so here goes…
The first assumption this type of horsemanship makes is this.
That you give a horse an inch and they will always take a mile. That you give even a little and they will have you over a barrel – in short, you are screwed and they have already taken over your partnership and more and will continue on until they run the planet and have taken over the universe. Ok, slight exaggeration, but seriously, what do we think they’re going to do if we just stop, breath and sort our shit out before continuing? Why is it that we think picking a fight and getting something done regardless of the cost to the sanity of both horse and rider is a good idea? Do we forget that no adaptation is actually able to happen unless we calm the heck down and get back to parasympathetic? I could go back into our ancestors and war-time and such, but I’ll leave that until another post. For today, we need to realize this assumption is actually not true and is based on the following, also untrue, assumption.
Here it is…
That our horses are innately bad and malicious characters, out to take advantage of our kindness at every turn. I know it sounds totally ridiculous but I kid you not, this is where the give-an-inch-take-a-mile thing actually comes from. The reality is, if your horse doesn’t want to jump a jump, he’s probably scared or at least a little nervous about the idea (he is a prey animal after all, with a very different way of viewing the world). If he doesn’t want to get in a trailer, he’s probably scared (and personally, I don’t blame him – you are asking a prey animal to get into a metal, moving death trap). This is a prey animal we’re talking about – a huge survival-oriented being wired for flight or fight that allows us little humans/predators to ride directly where a cougar would land during the hunt. That is mighty generous stuff right there.
Here’s the truth. Horses, when they feel safe, are actually an incredibly generous bunch. They trust humans, sometimes, in my opinion, more than they should, and take comfort in fairness, consistency, release and kindness. Their main priorities are just like ours, safety and comfort. And being beaten and kicked to get over a jump they’re scared of does not do wonders for their confidence or their trust in you. In fact, you’re going to pay a much higher price for forcing them over the jump than giving them the release and comfort they seek because they’re scared and really need a minute to suss things out and get their head straight.
I’m not saying to let them walk all over you – but I am saying to take a breath, relax and start again from a place where you can both move forward with even a smidge of confidence, together. That’s the crux point – together. One of these options builds trust and a sense of partnership and considers the horse, the other, not so much. One of these options honours the relationship, the other puts the emphasis on winning, performing and succeeding at all costs. Here’s what I know. It’s never worth it.
And the third assumption of this type of horsemanship is this…
That horses are gymnastically capable of things that, frankly, they aren’t. As an Equine Sport Therapist I have seen horses put up with all sorts of things – poor riding, awful fitting saddles, terrible bits, and most commonly, body pain caused by all these things and more. There has not been a horse I have worked on in twelve years that did not have some kind of structural issue, fascial or muscle imbalance or physical discomfort. Not one in thousands.
Horses carry all sorts of things in their musculoskeletal system. A horse refusing a jump could easily be saying “I can’t do this – my body cannot physically do this without consequences.” Yes, it’s true, some horses can be lazy and evasive (I like to call it energy conservative), but most are pretty darn honest about the fact that they are having a hard time with the thing you’re asking them to do. Get-it-done horsemanship doesn’t always account for this fact – the hard to swallow reality that this horse that you spent your well earned cash buying is currently unable to do the job it was purchased for. It’s a pretty tricky pill to swallow. But once you choke it down, you can actually find solutions that work for you both, that build the strength and straightness and suppleness over time, to create a foundation for both of you to feel good in your bodies. Check out my resources at the end of this article for more on that.
Which leads me to the fourth and final assumption.
That horses are non-feeling machines. I’m not kidding you here – many horse people still think of them this way. The old paradigm still exists that these hugely sensitive beings are empty inside. Working animals who need to earn their keep or else – animals that need to be controlled and managed so they work for us. Openly expressive horses are labelled bad a lot of the time. Horses that share their opinion about disrespectful, unfair treatment are often passed from home to home, described as impossible or dangerous.
The irony is, horses are as far from machines as you can get – they are expressive, emotional, loving beings with one of the biggest capacities for connection in the animal kingdom. And what’s really cool is that through connection, through trust, and with a horse who is into what you’re into, you’ll clean up in the show ring purely as an awesome side effect.
Who knew, after our initial attempt at trail riding together and my almost torn off leg, that one of Diva’s fave things would be trail riding and that she’d be a superstar at it! I certainly did not, but man, is it ever fun to connect with her out on the open range or in the forest. That being said, not every horse wants to be a show horse, not every horse wants to be a lesson horse (that is not an easy job!) and not every horse wants to stand around all day doing nothing. A part of this whole relationship thing is the two of you figuring out what cool stuff you’d like to do together and then going and doing that together, as a team!
So where’s the balance between too soft and too firm?
I believe the answer always lies in your unique relationship with your horse. Is what you’re doing driving you and your horse apart or bringing you closer? Is how you’re working with your horse building connection, softness and feel or tearing it down? That’s how you can tell the difference between effective or completely ineffective/being shitty to your horse.
Here’s some ways to tell if your horse is actually enjoying your style of horsemanship at the moment…
- Are they relaxed under saddle? As in, are their muscles relaxed, is their eye happy, are their ears attentive (not slammed back on their head like they are pondering losing their shit)?
- Are their eyes soft and mouth relaxed when they are with you?
- Are they happy to see you when you come out to the paddock or do they race away to the other corner?
- Does they stand for their saddle or move/flinch? (and not just because they are a robot, taught to not move under pain of death)
- Do they seem to want to connect with you on the ground and not just at feeding time?
- Are they open to going forward under saddle without tail swishing or teeth grinding?
- Are they picking up what you’re putting down (are they learning stuff)?
- Do they respect your leadership or resist it?
- And finally…does your horse seem to trust you in new situations?
These are just a few of the tell-tale signs of a happy partner. Definitely worth noting. Especially if what you’re wanting is an actual relationship and not a weird robo-horse who does exactly what is asked of him and wears the pressure until he implodes into a stress-fueled mess. And I’ve worked with enough of those horses to know that what they don’t express on the outside is eating them up on the inside (I’m sure we’ve all met a person or two like this!).
But Alexa, where is the balance?
Very good question. As I mentioned above, it’s never fun being a human bug splat because your 1300 pound prey animal unknowingly used you as a welcome mat. Firm boundaries have been one of the greatest connectors in my relationship with Diva, but they are always fair and delivered with love. I will be very very firm if necessary, because at the end of the day, my safety means her safety and is of the utmost importance to both of us. She is 1300 pounds after all and I am, well, little. Right after setting a boundary and being firm, I will get as soft as I can, taking a deep breath and fully releasing any tension that might have gathered. And then I might need to get a little firm again, but more than likely, not quite as firm. Your horse needs to know this one thing – that you will always, always get soft even right after fair firmness. That the firmness will give way to connection and to release, but that that it also means something.
Yes, sometimes, as my friend Stefanie Travers likes to say, you will blow up the lab. Yes, sometimes you will do the wrong thing and break down some of that hard earned trust. Yes, you will lose your temper (I can promise you this one). But, thankfully, horses are about as forgiving as they come. Say sorry (believe me, you’re not the only one talking to your horse. I’m over here talking to my horse too). Be accountable for being a shit. Wait for the lick and chew of integration and understanding. Take time and space for yourself, as much as it takes to get back to your centre. Remember that you are not losing ground with your horse by taking some space and not being the demanding asshole that you want to be in that moment (yes, I sometimes become the incredible hulk when something happens too – what a perfect moment to walk away and take some big deep breaths and maybe shove your face full of chocolate). Then, when you’re ready, take a deep breath and start again with the clear intention of connection and fairness in mind.
That’s the thing about relationships. You’re going to screw up and do the wrong thing. It’s ok. Just be willing to admit that you goofed. I promise, your horse will forgive you. Your humility is a beautiful courageous thing, as is your willingness to be the best partner to your horse that you can be, despite what you’ve been taught and despite what the rest of the world thinks.
May you always be a bit of a badass and follow the rules of your heart – it knows best how to love.
xo from a fellow badass/rebel
I promised some cool resources so here they are:
- If you think your horse is protesting/resisting because they are in pain, you would be a totally rocking horse steward if you gifted the both of you (well, mostly your horse) a body work session to get a base line of where they are at and to start the healing process. Message me if you’d like a practitioner recommendation in your area and I’ll do my best to find someone awesome! And if you’re on Vancouver Island, I’m happy to work with your horse and give you said baseline, because I do stuff like that.
- My friend Heather Nelson recently introduced me to Straightness Training and I am pretty excited about it. It’s a step-by-step groundwork focused process to build up strength, suppleness, evenness and straightness in your horse. Which helps them to be capable of all the wonderful things you’d like them to do. Check out one of the introductory videos here.
- Speaking of Heather, her liberty video series is awesome! Working at liberty allows your horse to choose how they’d like to participate – it takes the make right our of things and puts you on level ground. I love it. Check out one of her videos here.