As an equestrian, your goal should be to keep your horse in his beautiful and natural form. Who doesn’t love to see a beautiful horse and rider?
The problem is, we have the idea that training starts ugly and gets better as we progress. So much of what is learnt with horses focuses on getting obedience first that we forget to ‘catch the apples’ falling into our hands.
In most horsemanship programs, shaping our horse is like icing on the cake. It’s true that when you only focus on getting a nice shape, the harmonious relationship usually disappears and we see an abusive human and a confused horse. So how can we manage to see ‘icing’ before you’ve finished baking the entire cake? Horsemen like Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling have the answer and it’s really simple! It starts with us.
|See my mom’s lower back looks tense. Although Soleil is stepping nicely under with his hindquarters, his expression is terse.|
|Here we see how relaxed, yet upright Hanna is. Soleil maintains a beautiful posture while confidently stepping forward.|
I was out with Storm yesterday. He was with his friends in their 80-acre winter pasture and I was on foot. I have made it my goal to get a nice circle with him, but have so far only had eggs and rectangles. So I’ve decided to change my perspective. Since Storm has a very strong mind, I know that he will only make a perfect circle if he gets exact and clear directions. No amount of manipulation, pushing, pressure, or rewards is going to work with him.
So I went out with no halter, trusting that when I got it right, he’d get it right too. After all, I see horses longeing each other all the time – their noses on each other’s tails, arcing around like two dancers. Could I not achieve the same thing if I brought myself into a clear position?
The first step was to get into the right frame of mind. Usually, the first thing I do when I go out to Storm is pet him. Would a leader in the herd focus on grooming before gaining respect? I don’t think so.
The second step was to actually move. How did I want Storm to move? I moved the same way. I felt my head lifting and my knees stepping higher through the snow. My back straightened and I took a deep breath. Storm saw me coming from far away, and actually stopped eating. The look on his face was absolutely dazzled.
Instead of me approaching him, he approached me. Wow, right?! Everyone dreams of having an eager horse, but most of the time this is achieved by tons of positive reinforcement. I had just achieved this devotion through taking a deep breath and standing up straight.
For a second, I thought about how cute he was and how grand it would be to just kiss his nose. My posture stooped for a moment and Storm began nibbling on me. Instantly, I remembered that nibbling is a sign of a leaderless horse. It’s a form of displaced behaviour, as cute as it is sometimes. Calmly made my personal space known.
This was not the mindless exercise of ‘joining up’. I do not drive horses around to burn off energy (although I was certainly burning my energy!) I drove him with my body language only, by stepping into the stallion’s position in a circle. I knew that once I was in the correct position, Storm would begin bending around me, and we would dance the infinite dance of a circle together.
Little did I know how much Storm was watching my posture. As you’d imagine, I got pretty tired running around in deep snow. but I wasn’t too tired to see that every time I would utilize my core and intentionally run gracefully, Storm would acknowledge me. When he finally stopped to look at me, I took that opportunity to stop and heave a few breaths.
As I slouched over and panted for oxygen, Storm nosed his way over to me and began to nibble. Again! This time, I straightened up immediately and prepared to drive him again, only I didn’t have to. The minute I straightened up, Storm had come to attention, ears forward and ready to connect. I realized in the half hour that I was with him, how much my posture as a leader meant to him. It was like magic. Once I noticed what was happening, I thought to myself, of course! When I become strong within myself, there is no reason for him to disregard me!
Horses are really just responding in the moment. If you look weak, they will simply attempt to take over leadership in order to protect both of you. They’re not thinking of taking advantage or being disrespectful. They are simply viewing you as the weaker link in the herd.
Once I began to think like that, I realized that Storm always does what I tell him. If I tell him I’m weak (start slouching, breathing too fast, getting distracted) he’s going to take up leadership. If I keep my game on (stand tall, have confidence in myself, take slow breaths) he will synchronize with me. No reinforcements necessary.
At the end of our successful session (I got some nice bending out of him), I used a yoga technique to slow my heart rate down from all the running. My hand was on Storm’s side as I breathed deeply and slowly through my belly. When I took a deep breath and sighed, I felt his whole body melt and I heard him sigh as well. In that moment, our breaths were literally going at the same rate. There is no better feeling than two synchronized heart beats.
Shaping starts at the beginning.
I want Storm to always maintain his natural form and never to end up like an over-used camp horse. Shaping is part of his education and his development, or should I say, it is what I must preserve throughout his development. There’s a really simple rule you can follow: If it doesn’t preserve the horse’s beauty, it’s the wrong technique.
This doesn’t mean you can’t assert leadership. It also doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to cuddle with your horse. But when you actually assert leadership and provide a safe space for your horse to explore and grow up, your horse will become even more beautiful rather than getting beaten down.
This post was edited February 2018