Unnatural Horsemanship: At Liberty
Posted on April 5th, 2018
Since humans and horses first shared the same land, humans have pondered how to control horses. Anyone working with a one or two thousand pound animal has an interest in understanding, prediction and control. Many equestrians take lessons for years in an attempt to better control the horse, and we are knee-deep in books, clinics, DVDs, magazines and tips from others who own horses. The interactions between humans and horses have not likely changed since these two species first met. Domestication has produced horses that are less fearful and easier to handle, but a horse’s hopes and dreams, delights and concerns, are likely the very same as 10,000 years ago. Horses did little to domesticate humans, who likely see them the same way as they did long ago.
“Traditional horsemanship” is a broad term that encompasses how humans interact with horses. But the term exists only because some have tried to imagine a different way of doing things.
“Natural horsemanship” seems to be about carefully observing horses in order to understand them, and about treating them gently. Practitioners can’t say much more than that in defining it. The founders of this school of thought — Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman — were all profoundly inarticulate in delineating differences between their approach and that of traditional handlers. When we read about Natural horsemanship, we don’t ever get a definition of “Natural horsemanship”. When we read about riding, we are not likely to find any useful definition of words like “feel”, “lightness”,“seat”, “impulsion”, or “harmony.”
Proponents of natural horsemanship imagine that they have an understanding of the natural history and behavior of the horse that traditional horsemen lack. This is not correct. Cowboys and soldiers fighting with Genghis Khan spent substantial time observing their steeds and thinking about natural horse behavior.
Proponents of natural horsemanship imagine that there are big differences between the kindness of natural horsemanship and the cruelty of traditional horsemanship. But the Parellis, who claim to be apostles for natural horsemanship, use spurs and bits and all of the of the claptrap of traditional equestrians. They offer “games”, such as “the porcupine game”, in which they poke their horse with a hand-held spur.
We are wrong when we imagine that only we are observant, or that only we are kind. A warrior riding with Genghis Khan had to observe horses carefully, understand them, and build trust with them. He needed to treat his horses with enough kindness that he could catch them in the morning. A cowboy in the American West faced the same requirements. Kindness and cruelty have both been themes in our treatment of horses. All horses are “broken” — that is, their spirit is broken, they learn helplessness, and become more resigned to whatever the humans want to do now.
The history of horsemanship has been almost entirely from a single school of thought: that the horse needed to be controlled at all times. That the horse had to be made to fear the rider for that control to happen (today we use the word “respect” to label the fear we desire, making it more palatable.) That a horse that was not “under control” was necessarily dangerous. Those practicing traditional/natural horsemanship argue that horses are big and strong and could be dangerous. They could run off. They could step on you. They could bite. And they would likely do some of these things left to their own devices, if not kept under control at all times.
I do not see a difference between natural horsemanship and traditional horsemanship. Horsemen of both schools treat their horses the same way in the field, in the stall, in hand, and from the saddle. I am not alone in failing to see differences.
The Failure of Natural Horsemanship
Proponents of natural horsemanship have failed to define their philosophy. The notion that they observe horses more carefully, have studied the natural history of horses more thoroughly, or act with greater kindness toward horses is simply not true. Their argument succeeds only when an imaginary evil twin — “traditional horsemanship” — is seen to loom. But once a natural horseman actually encounters traditional horsemen and rides with them, the differences blur and disappear. It is not about splitting hairs. There is simply no way to distinguish between the philosophies.
Proponents of natural horsemanship have also failed to deliver on their promises. They all say that they want to have a better relationship with their horse, in which they have a “true partnership.” And some claim to have achieved this. But most still seem to fear their horses, and fear losing control of them.
The yearnings for a new kind of horsemanship are evident in phrases such as “at liberty”, “bitless bridle”, “partnership”. Many who embraced natural horsemanship were hoping for a relationship with minimal coercion. Riding without reins is probably the high point proof of such an unnatural relationship. Go online and search for videos of “Emma Massingale”, “riding without reins” or “Stacy Westfall”. Yes. We want to be able to do these things.
The original desires of those who thirsting for partnership are still alive. Natural horsemanship gave only a sip of water. The driving force that powered the Natural Horsemanship movement is still available, looking for partnership.
The rarity of any alternative to the controlling mandate of traditional/natural horsemanship leads us to this conclusion: any alternative is unnatural. I am proposing a new way of thinking about horses and interacting with them. Here are some differences between old and new:
|Traditional/Natural Horsemanship||Unnatural Horsemanship|
|Respect||Horses must respect handlers.||Handlers must respect horses.|
|Personal Space||Horses should not approach a handler unless invited. The minimum distance permitted is defined by the anxiety of the handler, but is usually several feet.||Horses don’t have any requirement for personal space. When they feel affection, they come into contact. This should be encouraged. Horse love is a contact sport.|
|Fear||Many practitioners fear horses, and fear underlies their requirements for respect and personal space. Practitioners try to turn this around, and use crops, whips, and other “aids” to trigger fear in their horses.||Handlers can have no fear of horses. By careful observation, a handler must learn to correctly predict what a horse will do in a situation, to maximize safety. The horse must find the handler always safe. Being close to the handler should always be comforting.|
|Leadership||The handler is the boss. The horse must accept this.||In reality, a group of horses shares leadership, influencing each other. Only in this way does the band stay together and move to meet its needs. On a trail ride with unnatural horsemanship, both horse and rider will often agree, but when they don’t the horse will sometimes get his way.|
|Aids||Any aids are valid, but should be used with some restraint. Ideally, aids should not cause injury. The least coercive aids should be used first, and escalation should only occur when they do not work. For instance, there is a hierarchy of bits, and the handler should use the mildest bit that achieves the desired result.||Most “aids” are inappropriate at all times. Bits, spurs, twitches, chains, and whips are always inappropriate. Rope halters, with knots on the nose piece, are inappropriate. Aids are valid for signaling, directing, requesting, suggesting, but not for coercing or punishing.|
|Reward||A good horse may be patted, rubbed, or given a treat. Some emphasize principles of learning in timing the delivery of rewards. But a horse must conform to the handler’s agenda and requirements to obtain rewards.||Horses are rewarded for their proximity and companionship. Rewards emphasize what horses prefer with each other: rubbing and scratching necks, backs, and chests. A horse need not perform a trick to get a carrot. It can have one any time that it does not ask.|
|Talking to Mr. Horse||Handlers often use a large vocabulary with their horse, delivering various communications at the same decibel level as humans speak to each other, often delivered with a “baby talk” twist.||Primates are the only mammals with frequent vocalizations; horses are normally silent. Effective handlers use only a few words with their horse: words for left, right, stop, go, and praise. All words can be whispered. All should be delivered with exactly the same intonation each time.|
|Grooming||Done with brushes, curry combs, and other tools. The goal is a glossy, dirt-free coat.||Done with ungloved hands. Sometimes brushes and other tools are also used. The goal is to cause maximum pleasure to the horse. Remaining dirt causes no harm.|
|Pressure||Pressure may be used to initiate the horse’s movement, as when a lead line is tugged to get the horse walking. When the horse does what is required (or an approximation of it), the pressure is released, providing the horse with a reward. If you want a horse to follow you, you will provide a sharp tug on the lead line. If the horse does not follow, you will repeat again and again until the horse steps forward. At this point, you will stop tugging.||Physical pressure is used only as a signal to the horse. If you want the horse to follow you, you might give the lead line a very gentle, brief tug. But the tug is terminated immediately, before the horse yields. If the horse now comes forward, it is of his own volition.|
|Force||Force is sometimes necessary to achieve results. Force should be “fair” but “firm”.||Force is never used.|
|Pain||Causing the horse pain should be avoided, unless the horse does not do what is expected of it.||Under no circumstance is a handler permitted to cause a horse pain.|
|Rider Safety||Rider safety is the highest priority. Anything that helps maintain control of the horse is acceptable.||Horse safety is the highest priority. Riders sometimes fall. Some need to be more careful.|
|Round Pen||The round pen is used as a means of preventing escape. Standard behavior of a handler is to drive the horse away through direct eye contact at haunches, arm motions, and sometimes a lounge whip. The handler drives it away, the round pen forces it to circle round and round. Finally, the handler stops driving it off. Advocates emphasize that this harnesses its “flight instinct. ” When the horse stops running, puts his head down, and licks his lips, the horse is said to have submitted to the handler.||The round pen is certainly a means of preventing escape, and provides an opportunity to develop a relationship at liberty without the use of reins or lead line. But we do not drive a horse away in the round pen — we never want our horse to leave us, and do not want to develop a fearful response to any body posture or gesture. We do not ask a horse to submit, or to be submissive.|
|Breaking||When a traditional cowboy sets out to break a horse, he makes things unpleasant for the horse such as tying its feet and pinning it to the ground and whipping it. When the horse’s spirit is broken, and it seems willing to yield, the cowboy may stop whipping and allow the horse to stand. In the cowboy movies, he may simply get on the horse and ride it until it gives up, demonstrating his heroism and skill, and convincing the horse that efforts to escape are pointless. In real-life, once a horse is broken, a real cowboy is likely to make an effort to be kind and understanding, and try to see the world through the horse’s eyes.[note Miller, Robert M., and Rick Lamb. The revolution in horsemanship and what it means to mankind. The Lyons Press, 2005.]||A horse that has never been ridden can be ready for riding without ever using a bit, halter, saddle, or other “aid.” Emma Massengale spent a month living on an island with two wild horses and four horses of her own to demonstrate this.[note Massengale, Emma “The Island Project”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVfrYbXNKeA]|
|Entering a Stall||Handlers simply walk into a stall, watching where they step. They put a halter on the horse and lead it out into the aisle of the barn.||Handlers understand that their horse must be ready for their approach, and that the horse must invite this approach. Smart handlers wait at the stall door until the horse comes to it. They enter the stall slowly, eyes cast downward. If horse retreats, they freeze and wait for horse to stop and return to them. They approach the horse slowly, and when permitted, place a firm hand where the horse wants it most and fears it least: the chest, not the face.|
|Using Reins||Riders are taught to ride “with contact”, meaning that they should always keep some light steady tension on the reins.||Most riders will rarely use reins at all, and they will be slack nearly all the time. They will almost never try for “contact”. And because the reins won’t connect to a bit, a little contact won’t be tough on the horse.|
How Close Are You and Your Horse?
There are many situations where your horse’s cooperation might be desirable. When it happens, you can think “Yippee! Partnership!” When it doesn’t happen, you may think otherwise.
Consider these 10 situations in which a horse might demonstrate his willingness to read your mind, cooperate, and partner up with you. Give yourself 10 points for reading this far, and some bonus points if you like your honest answers to any of these questions:
- You drive your car past your horse’s pasture. Does he look up and stare?
- You approach the gate of your horse’s pasture on foot. Does he stop what he’s doing and come to you? (extra credit: does he reach the gate before you?)
- You hold up his halter. Does he put his head down into it, and wait for you to fasten it?
- You walk him to the barn. Does he walk with his head at your elbow? Or is he pulling ahead, dragging behind, or wandering off?
- You open the back door of the trailer and walk in. Does he clamber on behind you?
- You don’t put a bridle on. You don’t put a bitless bridle on. You just attach your reins to his halter. Is this adequate for an all-day trail ride?
- You saddle him and step up onto the mounting block. Does he move closer, and reposition so that his left stirrup is at your leg? Does he wait for you to mount?
- You head down the driveway, away from the barn, without using reins. Does he stay on the driveway, or suddenly make a U-turn to head back to his friends?
- You ride off on a new trail in the woods. How far can you go without touching the reins? five miles?
- You have a slice of carrot to offer him. Can you put it between your lips and let him take it with his lips?
You have interacted with a horse that is at liberty. He was standing in his pasture, and when you approached, he walked away. He was standing at the hitching post a minute ago, and seems to have come untied. The trailer ramp was down, and he didn’t seem to want to get on board.
A horse that is truly at liberty may truly disappoint. Horses do not want to be ridden. Do not want to spend their time with humans. Most of the time, they want to be with their friends, eating, rolling, and cracking horse jokes.
You can use take a look at these ten questions every month or so to measure how you are progressing in your partnership with your horse.
So how do you get from reality (in which your horse wants nothing to do with you) to partnership (where you appear inseparable, and able to read each others’ minds)? Something must change — you, your horse, or both. Changing your behavior with your horse is incredibly difficult, yet is the easiest way to bring about partnership.
To get closer to a horse, we must change ourselves. If we change, the horse may follow. If we persist in our ways, the gap between you and your horse may remain.
On the Ground
In his Stall
Your horse’s stall is his. It is not yours. If you want to enter it, please knock. Enter gently, and spend time grooming with your bare hands. By using your bare hands, you’ll find cuts and bumps and parasites and sore spots that you should know about. A brush is just a way to keep your hands clean. He won’t mind if you rub him with your horsey hands, and I assume you were going to wash them when you get home anyway.
Refrain from putting on a halter until near the end of your grooming session, as it will interfere with rubbing his face, cheeks, and chin. Keeping a constant eye on his communication, favor grooming that he favors. He’ll tell you what that is by lowering his head, closing his eyes, dropping his lower lip, and perhaps allowing it to tremble. Your horse had nothing on his calendar, and you should have nothing on yours. Groom him for as long as he seems to enjoy it, and don’t go rushing to the next task on your checklist.
Before you leave his stall, make sure that you wouldn’t mind sleeping in it either. Remove any poop. Ensure that everything on the floor is dry. Clean and fill water buckets. Ensure there is plenty of hay for his return. This is something that stable staff will do, more or less, because they are paid. It is something you should also do to show your love.
In the Round Pen
Natural horsemanship practitioners are in love with the near-magical control they seem to have in the round pen. With just some eye contact and hand signals, they can convince their horse to run in circles, come to a stop, reverse direction. When their horse has had enough, and is ready to submit, they think, he coasts to a stop, lowers his head, licks his lips, and comes to them.
You won’t do this. You don’t want your horse to submit. You don’t want to drive your horse off, even if you can do it with some amazing hand and eye coordination. You want to be as close to your horse as you can get, and want to remain this way.
The round pen is perfect to develop this arrangement. If your horse walks off, he won’t get far, and you’ll be able to round him up and try again. Remember that your influence on your horse is an inverse function of the distance between you. With your horse at 10 feet, you will have 1/10 of the influence you have when he is at one foot. For a practical example: if you are standing so close to your horse that you can touch, he’ll pay attention when you whisper sweet nothings in his ear. But at 10 feet, sweet nothings amount to almost nothing. The inverse function is probably something like the inverse of the square of the distance: at 10 feet, you’ll only have 1/100 the control you have at 1 foot. At 100 feet, you’ll have 1/10,000 that much control. In short, our control vanishes with the first increases in distance at liberty.
If your horse follows you around with his nose at your right elbow and no lead line, you won’t need the round pen. Otherwise, I suggest spending time together in the round pen.
Begin with comfortable halter and a slack lead line. Hand groom your horse until he seems interested in your attention. Propose that you walk forward. Take a few steps. Do not put any tension on the lead line. If he follows, reward. If he does not follow, wait. Or return to his side, love him some more, and try again.
Once he is following, work on decreasing the distance between your right elbow and his nose. Do this by adjusting your pace. Reward whenever you get close to this perfect alignment. You can even come to a complete halt to rub his chest and lavish praise. Repeat your start/love/stop/love sequence until he understands that being close to you is what produces the love.
You can use a clicker, but this isn’t a trick. It will be standard behavior in your future. So I think you can put the clicker away. And you can use small treats or sliced carrots, but treats are a cheap substitute for bare handed love.
Once your horse has the hang of heeling like a well-trained dog, you can practice sudden stops and sudden turns. I like to signal all of my intentions, on the grounds that it may make my behavior less surprising. I signal a direction change by using an extended hand, pointing in the direction we will go. I may move the hand up and down to make it more noticeable, and I may show open it flat and show him the flat side, for the same reason. When I signal a stop, I use my flat hand facing downward and palm toward him. When I transition from stop to start, moving to stop, or turning this way or that, I usually say the magic word “Ready?” which (I fancy) increases his vigilance for some other signal of a change in what we are doing.
Once your horse is behaving perfectly in the round pen, following at your elbow, you can hang your lead rope up over his back, and let him lead himself.
Don’t expect that your horse will happily follow you for weeks while you walk in circles in the round pen. He will get bored too. Take that as a sign of his intelligence, rather than a sign of a short attention span. So when he gets bored, find another project.
Go for a Walk
Your horse has plenty of places he’d like to go, things he’d like to see. Take him for a walk around the farm, letting him lead you. If he stops to graze, you’ll stop and let him. If he wants to say hello to those horses over there, you’ll let him walk over and greet them. He’s taking you for a walk, showing you what he wants to do.
If he pulls on the lead line, you should understand that he has a strong desire to be wherever he’s headed. Pulling on a lead line is normal: you used to do it all the time. Now, with a little restraint, you’ll be able to understand where he wants to be. If he pulls you toward his pasture gate, I guess that’s his way of saying “let’s go to the pasture!”. Once you reach the gate, he’ll stop pulling.
If you find your horse with no overpowering needs to be elsewhere, you can amble along together. As he encounters amazing grass, of course you’ll stop. You can talk to him, groom him, and study his salad preferences. If you hit some truly amazing grass, you might lie down in it with one hand on your lead line, and let him have it. Eventually, he’ll be willing to move on — perhaps to the grass over there.
Grass may factor into your route selection. Those who fancy they have a great bond with their horse usually demonstrate it in an arena or round pen or other area without any snacks. I don’t need to show off, but if I want to walk on my walk, I’m likely to move down the middle of the driveway, and head for a trail in the woods where there isn’t much to snack on. You’ll make better progress with fewer distractions.
The early stages of learning to walk with a horse show asymmetries in leadership. Either the human is bullying, or the horse is. But a real partnership meets both your objectives and his, meaning that you sometimes go this way, sometimes that, and when you find some great grass, stop briefly to enjoy it. My mule has learned the perfect compromise for grazing on the run: when we are on a hike and I’m on her back, if she sees some great stuff that she can quickly grab, she’ll do so and keep moving. We don’t lose a step, and she gets her snack. Such a feat is only possible with a slack rein and shared leadership.
To move toward partnership, we must set aside some of our tack, and shift some gear to variations that give the horse more freedom, and that give you a bit less control. This gear shift will actually help you move toward partnership, because clothes make the man, and you will adjust your standards for perfection when you adjust your gear. Your new self-congratulations for a trail ride might sound like this: “Made out with Mr. Horse at start and finish. Covered 10 miles. The river was beautiful today. Touched the reins only 5 times. Had only one minor disagreement. Saw lots of wildlife. Rode right through a herd of deer.”
Without A Bit
When I was about 23, and had been on my own for some time, I visited a new optometrist. There was nothing wrong with my eyes, but I wore glasses, and had done so since I was 3 years old. For those twenty years, I was told by my parents and the optometrist that I should see an optometrist regularly. There was always the possibility that I would need a new prescription, and new glasses. So on this optometrist visit, I was surprised to hear him ask me “Why do you wear glasses?” My reply sounds idiotic: “I have always worn glasses. I was told I should.” He replied: “Well, you know that they don’t do you any good. I can give you another prescription if you want, but you don’t need to wear them.” I was stunned. Not only was this a change to what I’d done for 20 years, but it also questioned whether I’d been wrong for 20 years: I knew that they did not improve my vision, but wore them anyway. I rode my bicycle back to my apartment, the wind finally in my face. It was scary. It was liberating. When I think about how much my parents spent on my glasses, I don’t have good feelings for my early optometrist.
Those who use a bit have the same defense as I had for my glasses: they have been told that their horse needed a bit, and they have always used one.
There are surely some horses that do need a bit, but I’m inclined to think that a horse that needs a bit should not be ridden. Your horse, almost certainly, does not need a bit.
My first horse was a Thoroughbred. Descended from Secretariat and many other famous race horses, he had won a fortune at the track. His approach to surviving in life was simple: when there is trouble, get out of Dodge. And do it fast. But his winning ways disappeared when he broke an ankle at the track, and now no one wanted him. Fast and flighty? yes. A horse that needed a bit? Of course.
Except I did not want to use a bit, and bought him a bitless bridle for our first ride. We had our share of excitement in the woods, and he often felt a need to be elsewhere whenever deer jumped or other wildlife surprised us. But he never needed a bit. The transition to no bit was as smooth as could be, and he’d amble along on our hikes as if this is the way all horses do it. He was not a perfect horse, but there was never once when a bit would have made him safer or “better”.
My mule was raised with a bit, and was never bitless until we met when she was 11. My first ride was in a halter. All of my rides have been in halters. I cannot imagine what benefit a bit could give me in my relationship with this dream girl.
If you decide to skip the bit, you have options on what you use. Your existing bridle may have bit hangers that can be removed. You might try a “bitless bridle” — one which cranks down on the nose as you pull the rein on one side or the other (or both!). I gave up bitless bridles when I found that most maintained some pressure on those delicate nose bones long after I’d relaxed my grip. But that begs the question: if not bitless, then what?
Many great halters are not designed for reins, and lack any sort of rings on the side. But all halters have a central ring below the chin, designed for the halter. I find that this works perfectly well as an attachment point for your reins. And if you detach one end of your reins, you suddenly have a halter and lead line — very nice if you are no longer riding.
Riding Bitless: Your First Ride
Ride without a bit? If you are not ready to give it a try, you are not ready for Partnership. But if you would try it just once, then here’s my advice.
Begin by evaluating your horse. Are there any spots on his back that twitch when you touch them? Does he show any concern when you put the saddle on his back? When you pull the cinch tighter? If so, it is likely that your saddle does not fit. He won’t benefit from removing the pain in his mouth until you remove the pain in his back. So get this straightened out.
Dress for success. You should have a Point Two air vest. Attach it to your saddle as soon as you are mounted. It will save your ribs and spine if you fall. You should also have a very good helmet if you think that the ground might be just as hard as your head.
Start in a fenced area where your runaway horse cannot reach any speed. A round pen is great for this.
An assistant would be a good idea. This could be a friend who can help hold your wild steed as you try to mount. A friend with a cell phone, ready to dial 911.
Get on using a mounting block, and ride. Can you turn left? right? Can you stop? Can you find any difference in your horse’s behavior when the bit is missing?
If you survive this, you might try riding in a ring. Walk him to the ring, and close all the gates behind you. With your friend’s assistance, mount using a mounting block. As in the round pen, can you find your horse behaving differently than when he has a bit?
Finally, try all the other kinds of riding you do with your horse. I bet you’ll become a disciple. Maybe an evangelist.
Evangelists have biceps. It may be that I use more effort when I disagree with an unbitted horse than I would with a bitted horse. But there are simple solutions to this. If your horse wants to run away (with or without a bit), stop this early, before he reaches a gallop. Use just a single rein, and use both hands on it. Pull as hard as you need to in order to flex his neck and bring his head to the side. This will force him to circle, which is hard to do at a gallop! After a few tight circles, release that rein and assess the situation. He may still be full of beans, or he may have settled. My thoroughbred needed this control a dozen or so times in our ten years together, but my mule never has.
I do not recommend leaving your reins at home. Bring them. Attach them to your halter. Simply put them down, when you can, and pick them up when you need them.
A trail rider without any reins will surely run into trouble. My mule has a good understanding of staying on the shoulder if it is usable. She understands that she should stay right. If two bikers approach us side-by-side, and we are on a double track trail, she’ll pull off to let them pass. But she doesn’t understand cross-traffic. When the trail crosses the road, she doesn’t want to slow. I want her to come to a complete stop, and to only proceed when it is safe. Reins save two butts at every road crossing. And there are turns in our ride that I may feel strongly about. The trailer is this way, and we are finished with our ride. So that is the way we must go. Or we are not yet finished, so this is the way we must go. Reins settle disagreements, when they occur.
To put reins down, you’ll need closed reins that are a single piece from one side of the halter to the other. English reins will do if the two halves are buckled, but I have never understood why someone would want to ride around with a buckle in their hands. Reins made of yacht rope, in a length 7 1/2 to 10 feet are probably best. With closed reins, you can let go and they will rest on your horse’s neck. If he needs to grab a snack along the trail, you will still be able to hold one end while he stretches down.
To let go and relax, you want to be assured that you will always be able to grab the reins, so will want to keep one end near you. An inexpensive rein keeper will do this job for you. Once you are hooked up, practice with the rein keeper. Let go of the reins and see where they go. Let your horse graze, and see what happens. You want to be able to trust the rein keeper, because one day you may need those reins.
Letting go is hard in the beginning. You’ll come to a log on the trail, and think that you need to provide valuable micromanagement to help your horse figure out what to do about it. You’ll come to a puddle and be certain he needs further guidance. You’ll be amazed at how often you have the impulse to help the poor idiot. And if you can restrain yourself, you’ll be amazed at what an idiot you’ve been. Of course your horse knows what to do about a tree or puddle in the trail.
Learning to ride without reins not only means learning when micromanagement is not needed. It also means learning when management will be needed. My mule might slow to listen to some strange sound, inaudible to me. We’ll stand there a few minutes, and I’m happy to let her process whatever mystery she has uncovered. But at this point, her chance of making a U-turn on the trail sky rockets. Usually she resumes our forward motion when I suggest it. But sometimes she’ll wheel about and head away from what she’s decided is danger. So I always gather the reins — or prepare to gather the reins — in anticipation of such a move on her part. If I can stop her before she has begun her turn, it takes far less effort to get her to continue on down the trail. As you learn to ride without reins, you’ll learn more about when you’ll need to ride with reins.
The world is full of advice on which saddle you should have. In my own thinking, the saddle must serve three needs: your horse’s comfort, your own comfort, and your own safety.
Many ride without a thought to the horse’s comfort, and find it easy to overlook the signals the horse sends that this saddle hurts. But your horse’s comfort is obviously critical to his happiness and to having a good relationship with you. Use a saddle that fits for a good connection to your horse.
Your own comfort is critical, too. Seat size is not a measure of the size of your seat, so stop worrying if someone suggests you need a large size. Seat size is the length of the seat front to back, and is defined by the length of your upper leg, from knee to pelvis. If your saddle’s seat is too small, you’ll find yourself pushing your butt up against the cantle, and after a few hours will have a nice saddle sore.
One day I had a chance to ride a young horse. The lady saddled him up, and I climbed aboard. We went down to the other end of the ring, and he did a little bucking. I reflected on what a sweet heart this little guy was, and how he must be nervous about this project. We continued our loop, and back at the other end, again some bucking. I wanted to hug him: thank you for sharing your feelings. I know you must be scared. I’m sorry. When I get off, I’ll really show you that I’m a nice guy.
When I did manage to get off, the lady said “Wow! You are quite a rider! That was only the second time that this horse has ever been ridden!” What she didn’t know: I’m no rider at all. I’m used to an English saddle on a crazy thoroughbred. It was getting out of the Western saddle that was the hard part for me, not staying in it.
Your own safety is important too. I think this rules out all English saddles, which are designed to unload riders all over the course. Shined up as required by proper society, they are slippery when wet, slippery when dry. And the shape of the saddle means that you can just slide right off when such a slip occurs, without catching anything on the saddle. If your horse ever stops short, you won’t. Australian and Western saddles are far better if you want to avoid broken bones from sudden stops. When I first tried a Western saddle, I realized why cowboys don’t wear helmets: English riders can’t stay on an English saddle; amateur cowboys can’t get out of a Western saddle. And in writing this, I realize the difference in wording: we are “on” an English saddle, “in” a Western saddle.
But Western is not necessarily the safest saddle. My all-time favorite saddle was an Abetta Endurance saddle. It seemed to put me closer to my mule’s back than the Western saddle I had for her, and gave me the feeling of having a better grip. Whenever she wheeled, I wheeled; whenever she reared, I reared; whenever she took off, I took off. That’s how you should find your saddle.
My Abetta was size 16, a bit too short for me. And it didn’t fit my mule’s back. After a long ride, she’d be sore, and it would take two or three days for her back to settle down. Because of a complete absence of competent saddle fitters in my area, I was forced to do a little research online. What I found was Stonewall Saddles[note. http://stonewallsaddles.com/]. I’ll have more to report when it arrives.
Without a Saddle
Is part of the glory of true partnership the ability to ride without a saddle? Nope. It is a dumb idea.
A saddle that fits properly will distribute your weight across more of your horse’s back than no saddle, and he will benefit. And it will give you more adhesion, and you will benefit.
I once rode my thoroughbred around my farm bareback, with just a string around his neck to signal which way I wanted to go. I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a helmet. He responded perfectly to my instructions by string, and we were moving on down the road. Up ahead I spotted a pasture with some of his friends. I knew he would be wanting to chat with them, and so anticipated that he would be picking up his pace. To compensate for his expected acceleration, I cleverly leaned forward. As I did this, he spotted them, and stopped abruptly. I did not. The road is pretty hard where I live. If he was not 17.3, I don’t think the road would have been any softer.
A saddle probably makes more sense to someone who has had shoulder surgery than to someone who has not.
The Magic Tricks
If you are to succeed at partnership, you will discover that your horse was almost ready, and they necessary changes all involve you.
Collective Decision Making. The literature on horsemanship is overstuffed with claims that “horses need leadership”. We are told that they have leaders in the wild, and if you don’t step up to provide it, your horse will be racked with indecision and je ne sais quoi. It may surprise you to learn what horse researchers know: in the wild, horses don’t have leaders. Horses don’t know about leadership. They know about collective decision making. Collective decision making is what any herd of horses, flock of birds or school of fish does. This concept gives the horse much more credit than the leadership notion, because it recognizes that horses are independent thinkers, even as they love a herd.
You will explore this concept with your horse, and exploit it. Whenever the two of you must reach a decision, and you don’t care much what is decided, let him decide, and go along with it. In those matters where you really do care, let your vote be the strongest. In those other decisions, where you think it might be nice to go left, and he thinks it might be nice to go right, explain your thoughts to him, let him explain his to you, and let things resolve on their own. I find this especially useful on a trail ride when I get lost. If he tells me that he, too, is lost, then we take a different approach than when he is certain he knows where the trail is. As much as I find it easy to bully, I find it delightful to converse and negotiate.
Constant Contact. A horse is a social animal. Add him to a group of other horses and they quickly become inseparable buddies. Remove him from this group and he’ll be “barn sour”. The friendships that your horse makes are the result of repeated exposure. Horses don’t judge each other on looks or mental acuity or sense of humor. They judge on familiarity. The more familiar you are to your horse, the more likely he is to follow you around.
If it is mere familiarity that provides the basis for a horse’s attraction to others, then you should not expect your horse to happily leave his pasture mates for a day with you unless you are as familiar to him as they are. Real success in convincing a horse to walk across a pasture for you will come if you spend 5 or 6 hours a day, every day, with your horse. This is one great difference between the requirements of traditional/natural horsemanship and at liberty. Those who practice traditional/natural horsemanship demand their horse’s attention and cooperation in every encounter, even if they only ride once a week.
Patience. We run out of patience too soon, never finding out what would have happened if we had persisted. Once on my thoroughbred, we came to a gully that he was too nervous to descend. I decided to wait for him to sort it out. I waited and waited. And then I looked at my watch. I’d only been waiting five minutes. I waited some more. And finally he got up the nerve to try it. If I’d only waited 4 minutes, I would not have learned that he would eventually sort it out. And I would not have had all the other splendid rides we subsequently took, in which that nasty gully was nothing at all, in his mind. Remember that your horse’s timetable is not your own. What seems like too slow to you might seem just right to him.
Repetition. The more you do something with your horse when he is not at liberty, the more habitual that act will become. The more habitual it becomes, the less overt control you will need. Stacy Westfall has done the reining ride with her horse and her reins thousands and thousands of times. She has done the same perfect circles, the same sliding stops thousands of times. So when she sets aside her reins, her horse knows just what to do. Repetition is part of her recipe for success.
Positive associations. My mule will generally walk with me with a slack lead line and her nose at my elbow. Perfect, you say. But it turns out that my elbow is right about where my pocket is, and my pocket is right about where I keep a stash of carrot chunks. For no good reason, I’m prone to slip her these chunks as we amble along and talk. If I sometimes fail to deliver a chunk, or if I run out, she doesn’t pout. Fact is, I’ve got her associating walking with me with these good times, and she must unavoidably have a good time in that position even when the carrots stop. This doesn’t cost me a lot in carrots — maybe 10 carrots per hour is my payout rate. But it gives us both a lot of pleasure. And it only costs me about 50 cents.
She doesn’t love me for my carrots, because I do much to confuse things. For instance, I’m as likely to scratch her chest or neck, or rub the top of her head as I am to deliver a carrot. I groom her with my fingernails and bare hands as much as I do with a brush, and the joy of our physical contact motivates togetherness.
Some worry that I’m teaching her to beg, but instead I’ve taught her not to beg. If she ever asks for a carrot in a way that I find offensive, I DO NOT give it to her.
No negative associations. Nothing bad should ever come from hanging out with me. You can never, ever, ever yell at your horse, or lose you temper. Never yank on the reins or lead line. Never kick him in the side with your heel. He is not your property. He is your partner. Do unto others…
One of her herd. When I enter her pasture to catch her, if another horse comes up, I behave as if this is just what I was hoping for. That horse can have some lovings. If my mule seems to not want to be caught, I work on simply becoming a member of her herd first, walking slowly and haltingly toward the center of the group, eyes to the ground. Once the others are settled, she is always willing to drop her anxiety and come over. On the other hand, if I am annoyed by another horse approaching me in her pasture, and try shooing that horse off, I raise the anxiety level of the entire herd. I must understand that when I take her from her herd, I’m taking her from the most important social structure in her life, and asking her to be a solitary mule, with just this human mutt as a companion.
Watch More Carefully. How does your horse walk over to another horse in his pasture? When a horse walks to any destination under his own authority, he ambles. He stops frequently, as if distracted. He looks everywhere but where he’s going. He might take five minutes to cross from one side of a small paddock to the other. If you can bear to spend the time observing your horse go somewhere, you’ll see that he multitasks. He gets where he was going, but only after getting other places too. Now compare this with our own strategy for catching a horse: open the gate, walk in, close the gate, and walk straight toward your horse. If horses don’t do it that way, why would you? So if you want to be accepted by a herd of horses, if you want to catch one of them, then start behaving like them. They’ll teach you how to do this if you look. Horse whispering is less important than horse listening, horse watching.
Get a Grip. Your need to micromanage must be set aside if you are to ride without reins. Your need to control should be controlled. If you are going to pretend that your time together is a partnership, then you can’t get your way all the time.
The Wide World of Partnership Sports
To see how silly the idea of partnership is, consider what the sporting world would look like:
Horse racing. We would never drug an injured horse to enable him to run with the injury. We would never force a horse to move so fast that he developed stress fractures from the turns. We would not use a starter’s gun to launch a horse from the gate in terror. We would not be using crops to beat a horse that wasn’t giving 100%. So partnership-based horse racing might take a different form. What speed in a quarter mile can a horse achieve without reins, spurs, and crop? Racing might be done against the clock. Some laughter might be heard.
Dressage. I can hear you laughing. If your dressage horse is so willing to perform with minimal aids, then let’s set all of those aids aside and assess that willingness. Can you do it without tack?
Polo. Polo is a dangerous form of horse racing. You won’t likely be achieving the control you need of your polo pony without reins — unless you are competing with others without reins. Then, a good measure of forgiveness will come in handy. Teaching your horse the rudiments of the game will help.
If your horse doesn’t want to do your favorite horse sport, and won’t do it unless you make him, what does this tell you? If your horse won’t do it willingly, then you simply don’t have a partnership with your horse under this circumstance.
But there are some horse sports that will prosper in a world of partnership. Here are some:
Broomstick polo. Fraternity boys played this when I was in college, and it was the highlight of many Friday nights. Riding in jeans and bareback, a typical move involved reaching for the ball with a broom and falling off. Climbing back on and falling off. There were no running horses, no injuries to horse, rider, or fans, and lots of merriment.
Polocrosse. This equestrian sport is already kind to horses, and could be done without reins, or with reins attached to a halter.
Trail riding. Trails provide the bulk of the steering you need when you are on a reinless trail ride, and you can work on bird study merit badge or just about anything else. Trail riding is much improved without the reins.
Obstacle courses. If you want to challenge yourself, then try the full-featured obstacle course without reins. If your horse willingly goes through the cowboy curtain or over the teeter totter when asked, even with slack reins, then you’ve accomplished something.
Horseboarding. A “horseboard” is a “mountain board”; a mountain board is a snowboard with wheels, designed to allow snowboarders to practice their sport without snow. They’ve got 8″ wheels and an axle that extends a bit beyond the sides of the board, bindings like on a snowboard, and a brake whose lever is attached to the end of a cable you hold in your hand. (You’ll find the brake handy when going down a hill, or coming to a stop.) Emma’s variation sometimes pulled a small trailer, which carried her stuff. She had two ponies pull her, but you can get by with just one. [note. Massingale, Emma. “Horseboarding the Outer Hebrides.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6lCzn9RxUE]
The Hunt Club. My mule and I have come closer to happy living foxes than most members of your local hunt club. We can just saunter down the trail, reins on her neck, taking in the airs. Presto. There’s a bluebird. Or a herd of deer. Or an egret. Or a squirrel. Or a fox. If I had my cell phone handy, I could get a good shot. I cannot account for why wildlife sees no need to flee when we come down the trail. Perhaps my mule is just as calm as the deer, and her calmness spreads to them. Perhaps my presence on her back goes unnoticed. But we have our own fine hunt club, and catch sight of many things on every ride.
Show Jumping? My mule is a great athlete. In the woods, she easily jumps big downed trees that block the trail to a height of about 4 feet. In the ring, though, she would prefer to walk through jumps. I’ve taken to hanging my coat on those jumps, making them look sturdier, and she’ll jump. One of my projects this summer is to try the equivalent of show jumping without reins. We’ll see.
The Obstacles to Life At Liberty
Playing with a horse at liberty is truly the best thing you could ever do with a horse. When you find me in the barn, it might be because I’m in the stall where there is a man laughing. When you see us on a walk, you might notice 6 legs, but only one body. On the trail, if you study the front end, it looks like my mule is not quite dressed.
You won’t be an outcast if you take to the approaches in this article. But you likely won’t find any friends with the same interests. Every time things go wrong in your life, there will be muttering behind your back. Daredevil. Self-destructive. Idiot. Actually, I don’t know, because I never hear this stuff. But I know that it’s out there.
My mule and I were standing in some good grass enjoying ourselves one day when a woman came along with her horse. Every 20 feet or so she would stop and shake her lead line violently, making her horse back up. I could see no problem, so asked the woman what she was doing. She said “Oh. They have to be taught respect. She doesn’t respect me. This teaches it.” I don’t think respect can be taught. I don’t think horses can be taught it. I don’t think this woman was doing anything but making her horse miserable. My mule didn’t seem to have anything to add to my thoughts.
What Should We Call this Thing?
Partnership? “Free Riding”? “At Liberty”? Unnatural horsemanship is an attention-getter, but won’t serve a longer-range purpose.