My approach to horsemanship is not a method. A method is a systematic procedure, an organized plan that controls the way something is done, a body of techniques. An approach is a way of doing or thinking about something. The Dorrance brothers and Ray Hunt presented an approach to horses, not a method. To me, their approach is better than anyone's method. This approach is not about headgear, or about English vs. Western. It is about thinking from the horse's point of view, and doing what is fitting for the horse in any given situation.
An approach cannot be taught as easily as a method. It is not a concrete set of actions to be learned or imitated. This approach comes from a sympathy or empathy with the horse, recognizing and respecting the horse's thoughts, feelings and instincts. It is based on the concept of a trusting partnership, not human superiority or ego, not force or fear, not equipment.
Many people today work within this framework of good horsemanship. What makes my approach any different from anyone else's? Many people use a similar approach, but here's what I like to emphasize: attention, attitude, and awareness. These are some of the things I think are most helpful when working with horses. Attention has to do with where the mind is directed. Attitude is how the mind is directed--the horse's mood and feelings. As for the importance of awareness, improved horsemanship is a matter of improved powers of observation and awareness.
Having the horse's attention is the basis of everything we do with a horse. If you don't have his attention, nothing else really matters--you can't accomplish much. To continue without his attention just teaches him that he doesn't need to give you his attention. Many people don't realize that they don't have the attention. They don't know where it is or that they even need to have it. So first a person needs to become aware of this important aspect--starting the moment you approach the horse to catch him. Once you become aware of the horse's attention, you can learn how to get it, keep it and use it. You also need to give the horse your full attention.
I want to be aware of the horse's attitude toward everything. I want to adjust my approach so I can work with that attitude and improve it so we both are in a learning frame of mind. I want a calm attitude. Giving a big release every so often also (like a minute or two) gives the horse a chance to relax, to lower his head, to sigh and blow out. I try not to go go go, drive drive drive, ask ask ask (or worse yet, to tell).
Here's an example of how attention and attitude can be applied in the saddle: drawing vs. pressuring. I find that using the inside leg to draw the attention before going that direction is more fitting than using the outside leg to create pressure. Both ways work, but I find that drawing the horse's attention is much less confrontational than pressuring him to move in a certain direction. I feel I can get his attention with a better attitude. Once I get his attention with my inside leg in the direction I want to go, and my attention and body is also in that direction, then I can ask him to move his feet, with little or no other aids needed.
Riding with awareness of both yourself and your horse, paying attention to some of these little things like his attention and attitude, and making adjustments to your approach, you might find that many of your issues or co-called "problems" in your relationship with your horse will take care of themselves.
Getting with the horse involves your attitude, intent and approach. It also involves how you ride--how you use your whole body. "Hangerman" is a visual I created years ago at a 4-H clinic to help the kids understand how to use their bodies. This is such a simple and effective teaching tool that I use it with every student and at every clinic. Picture a metal clothes hanger bent into the shape of a little man: "Hangerman." His arms are bent to the front like he would hold the reins, and above the horn, so that later on he'll be able to easily handle the coils of his lass rope. His legs are spread to fit over a horse, a little black hat covers his bald head.
When Hangerman wants to circle to the left, he looks where he wants to go. His head can't move separately from his body, nor can his hands, so his whole body "looks"--eyes, hands, and bellybutton line up. He does not lift or take one arm or hand out to the side; his arms hang from his shoulders, shoulder-width apart, elbows bent, holding the reins, so both reins move together when he turns. His hands do not move the reins--his body does.
Hangerman is what happens naturally when I look with my whole body where I am going. (click to see Hangerman article) Looking over the outside ear puts my weight slightly on the outside seat bone, opening up the inside shoulder so that I am not blocking the horse's movement or causing him to drop a shoulder. As my weight sinks on one seatbone, that shoulder is lowered and my other is lifted, lifting my hand and rein naturally.
Imagining walking on the ground with a horse-length 2X4 between my legs puts my legs in the right position--on a circle, inside leg slightly back, outside leg slightly forward. Drawing with the attention with the inside leg/rein before asking for the feet to follow gets the horse "ready" mentally and physically so I never surprise him.
My weight is distributed between my seat and upper thighs; this is where I feel the horse and offer him my feel, intent and energy. My lower leg hangs down. I don't ride my stirrups or push on them, or push my heels down, feet forward, or push my lower leg away from the horse's side. This puts a brace in the leg and keeps the lower leg from hanging close to the side so it can communicate with a subtle tightening of calf, but never causing "white noise."
I initiate movement from my seatbones, not my legs. My legs just follow and enforce my seatbone. I seldom have to "use" my spur; if my legs are close, the horse runs into them by himself if he ignores my body language. But if my feet are pushed forward or out to the side, a big movement is required to leg my horse or bring my spur into play. Again, this is doing things "to" the horse.
I ride with both slack and contact, so I do lots of changing hand-hold on the reins, riding both one- and two-handed. Hangarman is best introduced with light contact; later you can do it effectively with slack and as you get some distance to your feel.
I let my body move with the horse: my lower back is loose and acts like a U-joint, flexing both front to back and side to side as my hips move in a figure-eight. With each step, my hips and shoulders rock slightly forward and back as well as up and down as the barrel sways, which also causes my legs to swing slightly in and out. The horse's legs and feet are my legs and feet; I move like I would move if my feet were on the ground. As my body moves in time with the horse's feet, my hands and the reins swing also, left/right and up/down. This rhythm in the reins helps me in riding with slack.
Because all movement comes from my core, my hands/reins and my legs will signal the horse at the right time, in rhythm with the feet, not randomly. My legs do not hold and press. They do not tell the horse to move a foot when it is on the ground and unable to respond. I feel the horse's feet by feeling all these body parts working together--my body and his horse body.
My body energy and intent tell the horse if I want movement--when and how much to move, when/where/how much to slow/stop. More body, less hands. This avoids one of the most common faults--busy hands, pulling or jerking on the horse's mouth, which makes a hard mouth and a bad attitude. If my hands don't move independently of my body, then the horse always has a pre-signal from my body and is not surprised by my hands. He can prepare his own mind and body, so that the hands often are not even needed except as a slight back-up or reinforcement. If you use your hands independently of the rest of your body, thereby possibly surprising your horse, he can become anxious, resentful of the hands, never knowing when pressure might come "out of the blue."
Instead of using cues (touching the horse in a certain place in a certain way to get a trained response, always doing it in exactly the same way), I communicate with the whole horse--his body and mind--with my whole body and mind. This is the basis of Hangerman-riding. I sit up, balanced, lifting my sternum, looking where I'm going, not down at my horse. Having a job, or creating an imaginary job, helps me look where I'm going, and gives more meaning to what I ask of the horse. I always try to do less, sooner. My goal is that the horse's mind and body follow my mind and body like a thought following a thought.
Good horsemanship includes good riding. Good riding is being able to communicate effectively with your horse, so that you move as one being. Good riding sets you up to ride with feel because you ride in rhythm and harmony with the horse.
Groundwork: The purpose of groundwork is to assess the horse's attitude and see if he will easily give me his attention. Moving him around is for the purpose of improving both of those if needed, and getting him ready to ride. Groundwork should relate to what we do in the saddle and how we do it. As my horse progresses, my groundwork may consist of catching, leading, grooming, saddling, and moving around before tightening the cinch.