An Introduction To Instinctive Equestrianism

Chrissie Turner By Chrissie Turner, 4th Mar 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Pets>Horses

An introduction to developing an instinctive rapport with horses which will assist in all aspects of horsemanship and training.

There Is No 'One Way'

Ever since man first realised that the horse could be used as more than just a tasty meal, he has strived to find ways of bending the horse's will to his own - often with as little effort on his own part as possible.

Sadly, there will always be those who will try to force the horse to do what man commands - using whips, ropes, starvation, thirst, confinement etc. as weapons against the horse until the animal is, quite literally, broken-spirited. There are many others who seek to persuade the horse to work for man in gentler ways - ways which have been used for centuries until they have become 'standard practise' - the traditional ways in which to break a horse so that it bows to our will.

Then we have the ones who appear to have hidden powers - often known as 'horse whisperers'. Those who seem to be able to form an empathic bond with any equine and seem, with hardly any effort at all, to be able to persuade the horse to co-operate ..... but be wary - even these people can have a darker side – a side often hidden from the public eye.

The thing is that all these methods have varying success - mainly because people do not realise that the success of any given training method depends mostly on the horse!

The best trainers understand that not all horses are the same, nor will they respond the same to man's various techniques. A good trainer takes the time to learn as many different techniques as possible, without becoming a 'disciple' to any single method. He spends time assessing every horse as an individual - and then uses the best method(s) for that horse and that situation.

In other words, equestrianism requires us to tap into our most basic psyche - our instincts. The best method of training a horse comes, not from a book or video, but from within the soul. 

Tap Into Your Psyche

Training the horse requires infinite patience - and the ability to read the horse's every move, every slightest action, every minute reaction. A good trainer can anticipate and never assumes anything.

For many years, the most publicised way of horse training was the conventional technique whereby, as a three year old, a horse was introduced to relevant equipment and then a rider, gradually, over a period of approximately six weeks. Which, for many, works fine – or would do if horses were all the same!

Horses are as diverse as humans in their looks, personalities, likes and dislikes, abilities, metabolisms, actions and reactions. Even two horses from the same parentage may not even look alike, much less react the same! Horses can be bold or timid, nervous or confident, gentle or thuggish - and every variation in between! Simply because 'X' works with horse 'A', it does not mean that the same method - or combination of methods - will work with horse 'B'... or 'C'... A good horse trainer is constantly aware of the individuality of the horse and treats each horse as a totally new project, constantly assessing and reassessing the situation and the horse's reactions.

No training can take place without first assessing the horse's psyche. Is the horse confident? Does he seem frightened? Problems with horses arise from three main bases - Fear, Ignorance or Cantankerousness! It is IMPERATIVE that a trainer knows which of these is causing the issue in hand - make an error here and the horse could be ruined for the rest of it's life!

The 'Natural' Way

Over recent years there has been a lot of hype about 'Natural' horsemanship techniques - yet this is not a new concept. All that is new is that the techniques have become more widely publicised. Man has been studying horses for thousands of years and the TRUE horsemen have always strived to train horses in a way which would come naturally to the horse - to communicate their wishes in a manner which the horse readily understands. The major flaw in the recent publication of these techniques is that some trainers make the mistake of encouraging even the most novice horse people to try the techniques for themselves - And that is when the rot sets in.

It is great that the public get to see demonstrations of good equestrianism and different training techniques but the most sensible advice any trainer publicly demonstrating their methods can give is: PLEASE DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME!

 Another important thing to remember is how easy it is to inadvertently teach a horse bad habits... For example: tension in a rider can soon turn a normally placid horse into a head shaker, a puller or even a rearer. Lack of confidence when handling or riding a horse can encourage a horse to nap or fidget... feeding too many treats can teach a horse to bite... the list goes on. All too often we hear of horses which were easy to handle and ride becoming unmanageable... many times over the years people have rehabilitated horses, only to have them revert to their old behaviour when back with their owner.

So, apart from rehabilitating the horse, a trainer needs to help the owner understand how to help the horse to STAY rehabilitated! This should hopefully mean that there is less chance of the owner inadvertently encouraging the horse to misbehave.

 We humans, as the (supposedly) more intelligent beings, need to learn how to work within the horse's instincts – which often means working outside our own... For example, if something startles a horse and causes it to shoot forwards, the instinctive reaction of the rider is to grab the reins tight, tip forwards and grip hard with the legs – all of which will make the situation worse! When a horse is startled, the 'fear / flight' response is triggered. A rider reacting in the way described only compounds the horse's fear, making flight (in the horse's mind) even more imperative! If flight is prevented, the the 'fight' response kicks in – resulting in rearing and bucking etc. To combat this, rider needs to train themselves to allow the horse to go two of three strides then quietly pull up... harder than it sounds – but this will allow the basic 'flight' instinct to be overcome rather than creating a bigger issue.

Combating Tension

A horse rider's biggest enemy is tension. Watch a group of horses, quietly grazing.... if there is a strange noise or movement, one of the horses will suddenly lift it's head, ears pricked, all senses attuned for possible danger – the body is tense, poised for flight! The horse(s) may snort, prance in small circles etc... other horses will follow suit... then a decision is made – either 'oh, it's not a threat after all' – in which case the horses will all relax and go back to grazing or 'That's a threat!' and the horses will gallop off!

This most basic fear / flight response of the horse has to be foremost in our minds when we are doing anything around horses. The horse will take it's cue from us and tension breeds tension. Whether in the saddle or on the ground, if we become tense – for whatever reason - the horse will interpret this tension as 'fear' … The horse will then begin to become tense and agitated, trying to figure out what has triggered our 'fear' reflex – adrenalin will kick in and the horse's 'flight' mechanism will 'primed'. This is the crucial point – a common occurrence now is that the rider, sensing the horse becoming tense and poised to react, will tense up even more – triggering a vicious circle which, unless broken, will result in the horse's flight mechanism kicking in – hence bolting, bucking, rearing kicking out etc. It is therefore imperative that, no matter how tense, worried or scared we may feel, we must take care NOT to transmit these feelings to the horse. If the rider or handler can relax, the horse will sense this and become more relaxed too. Here again we have the rider / handler needing to overcome their own instinctive reactions in order to overcome the horse's.

Practising relaxation techniques will help to relieve tension and help you to help your horse. Also, spend time observing horses – how they interact, how they demonstrate their feelings – towards both humans and other horses – and try to read your horse's psyche. A true horseman learn to 'tune in' to a horse, honing his own instincts to work in harmony with – not at odds with – those of our equine friends.


Horse, Horse Care, Horse Instinct, Horse Trainer, Horseback, Horseback Rider, Horseback Riding, Horses, Natural Horsemanship

Meet the author

author avatar Chrissie Turner
I am an experienced horse trainer / instructor. I have been involved in all aspects of horse care and horsemanship for 45 years.

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