How to recognize good horsemanship

How do you recognize good horsemanship?

The answer to this is not an easy answer. To truly answer this question, it requires that you study and understand the nature of the horse. Then you can evaluate someone based on this knowledge. However, gaining this understanding can take a very long time. The reality is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to do this. So, I would like to offer some guidelines for you to consider whether you are considering your own horsemanship skills or you are looking to learn from another horseman.

Demos Vs. Training

It is one thing to watch a horseman do a demo on a well-trained horse. But, what you are seeing is an “end result”. You are not seeing how they got the horse to the point that you are seeing. I believe that the end does not justify the means. If you are only looking for end results, then you are viewing the horse as an object to be used and you do not truly respect them. 

If you are wanting to learn from a horseman, you should watch them work with new horses and with problem horses. This should start with groundwork as well as in the saddle. You don’t have to interfere with their training session by asking them to explain or to answer questions; just watch and observe the following:

Communication

Good Horsemanship Principle: Horses use body language to communicate.

Evaluate how the horseman communicates with horses.

Summary

To repeat, it takes a long time to understand and practice good horsemanship. If you find a good horseman who is skilled and can teach you, this is a much quicker way to learn. However, always be on the watch and determine for yourself what good horsemanship is; it’s not always what another horseman will tell or show you. You alone are ultimately responsible for your actions and how you treat and train your horse. You cannot blame it on someone else. That’s kind of the way with all of life, isn’t it?

  • Horseman uses mechanical leverage (Bad) – relying on long-shank bits to control a horse is an example of using mechanical leverage. Pulling on the reins exerts leverage on the horse’s mouth and tongue. This is essentially relying on pain in order to achieve compliance. This produces resentful horses. Resentful horses have the ability to explode on you with no warning. When that happens, the rider (if they survive) is left puzzling over what happened.
  • Horseman uses force (Bad) – using spurs to teach a horse to side-pass is an example of using force. You can easily teach your horse to side-pass without jabbing him in the sides.
  • Horseman gets emotional (Bad) – if the horseman is not calm and unemotional throughout the session, there’s a good chance he will resort to physical punishment when he gets frustrated. He may not show it while you’re watching, but when you’re not around you don’t know what he’s going to do.
  • Horseman uses body language (Good) – you observe the horse responding to body language cues the horseman is giving. For example, can he get a horse to move just by looking at him?
  • Horseman uses light touch or feel (Good) – you find it hard to see the signals that he is giving the horse. Of course, this depends on how green the horse is. Green horses will require more obvious signals until they start catching on. However, giving a more obvious signal doesn’t mean using more force.

Learning

Good Horsemanship Principle: Horses don’t learn from cues, they learn from the release of the cue.

  • Horseman releases cues at the earliest possible moment (Good) – The horse’s main goal in life is to feel safe and comfortable. The use of cues to get horses to respond to specific requests involves asking the horse a question (i.e. giving the horse a cue) and waiting until they respond with the right answer. Of course the cue has to make some sense and, early on, the horse may need several cues. As soon as the horse responds, the cue should be immediately removed. Continuing to give a cue when the horse is doing what is being asked demonstrates a failure to understand this basic principle. Again, this observation should be tempered with the level of training that the horse has received.
  • Horseman asks for too much, too soon (Bad) – A horsemen who is in a hurry tends to ask more from a horse than he is ready for. This creates confusion and builds up resentment in the horse.
  • Horseman builds on cues (Good) – A good horseman takes his time using simple cues and then builds on them in a way the horse is able to expand.

Addressing Problems

Good Horsemanship Principle: Most perceived horse problems are not the real problem; they are only symptoms of the real problem.

In addition to watching a horseman work with a horse that has problems, you can give him a little “quiz”. Ask the horseman how they would deal with some horse problems. Here are some examples:

  • Horse won’t accept a saddle
    If the horseman begins by talking about various techniques to fix the problem, this may be a bad sign. There are professional horseman who do all kinds of inhumane things to try to “fix” this kind of problem. They include things like tying the horse up for hours with water bottles and tin cans tied onto his saddle.
    A good horseman would approach this kind of problem by trying to find out all he could about the history of the horse, making sure that there was nothing physically wrong with horse by suggesting a Vet checkup and looking at other potential causes of pain to the horse, like using tack that fits badly. After eliminating potential physical problems, techniques that do not involve fear, intimidation and mechanical restraint would be explored.
  • Horse won’t stand still for you without tying him
    If the horseman’s response involves mechanical solutions, you should avoid him. The solution for this is founded on good communication, relationship and trust.
    I was once on a trail ride with some friends. One of my friends had to go off to “water a bush” and he asked me to hold his horse. I had seen this horse in action with his owner and I knew that the only way this horse knew how to stand still was to be held tightly by the rope very close to his head. I took the opportunity to show the horse how to stand still without my holding on to the rope. It took about 5 minutes. When my friend came back he saw his horse standing still with the lead rope dropped to the ground. He looked at me and said “That’s amazing! What did you do?”. I just smiled at him. I figured the next step was up to him. Did he really want to know how to get that level of cooperation or not? Well, sadly, he didn’t pursue the answer to that question. He still has to micro-manage his horse to get him to stand still.
  • Horse has a habit of throwing his head up
    A head raising problem is a symptom; it’s not the real problem. If the horseman suggests the use of mechanical solutions such as tie downs, he’s attacking the symptom instead of the problem. Head raising problems are usually associated with fear, pain or disrespect. A good horseman will take time to figure out which one of these is the root of the problem and address it.

If you can, observe the horseman when he’s dealing with a problem horse. A good horseman stays calm, patient and methodical while addressing the problem.

Ground work

Good Horsemanship Principle: Horses learn fundamentals best by working with them on the ground.

Ask the horseman his view about groundwork. The most natural way to relate to a horse is on the ground. This is the place to establish communication, trust and respect. In the very beginning of a horse’s training, 100% of the work should be on the ground. As the training progresses, more is done in the saddle. However, the ground work continues to be the place to introduce new concepts and refinements to the horse before the technique is tried from the saddle.

For example, if the horseman wants to teach a trail horse to jump over logs he should start by having the horse learn to do it while the horseman is on the ground. This gives the horse the chance to develop his confidence, balance and jumping abilities. When he is confident and fluent in jumping, that’s when the horseman saddles up and jumps the log.

Horsemen who rush to get into the saddle with a horse and who do not place much emphasis on ground work tend to be more focused on results than on good foundational skills. Lack of good foundational skills will come back to haunt you later.

Summary

To repeat, it takes a long time to understand and practice good horsemanship. If you find a good horseman who is skilled and can teach you, this is a much quicker way to learn. However, always be on the watch and determine for yourself what good horsemanship is; it’s not always what another horseman will tell or show you. You alone are ultimately responsible for your actions and how you treat and train your horse. You cannot blame it on someone else. That’s kind of the way with all of life, isn’t it?