By now, those of you who are serious about horses and have been reading some of the books found on my Manes and Tales Booklist will have realized that every trainer has their own philosophy. On this website, I have taken everything I have learned, pared out the parts I disagree with or find are not optimal when compared with other methods, and conglomerated it all into one place. By looking at other trainers who have done this, I see that this is one of the best ways of truly becoming a good horse person.
I bring this up because I have a lot of new methods and thoughts in my arsenal right now. I recently attended a clinic put on by Josh Nichol, an Alberta trainer who has a very different philosophy than any trainer I have met before. A lot of what he said stuck with me, but with one caveat. As he said himself, his is a philosophy that you either take or leave. It either turns you on or turns you off; you want more, or you want nothing to do with it.
Here are some of the things he said (paraphrased, because I could not write fast enough to keep up!):
Every horse has needs, and when we meet those needs, we have a happy horse.
In other words, the problems we see in horses (bucking, shying, walking away during mounting) all indicate an underlying need that is not being met. Hint: the need is not to be corrected or ‘put in his place.’
Leadership and balance are the two main things in horsemanship. Once you have leadership, things can start getting balanced. With balance comes self-carriage, collection, and a horse that is physically able to do what is asked of him.
We take the leadership role in a horse/human relationship. But how often do we think of leadership as dictatorship? Josh drew a sharp distinction between the two. Dictatorship is one person telling everyone else what to do. Leadership is a conversation, and the one who has the strongest ideas is the one that will be followed. This is why some horses walk all over their handlers (figuratively, I hope). The horse is the one with the ideas, and the handler says, ‘oh, okay!’ and backs off. Leadership is saying, ‘no, I really want to do this!’ and the horse replies, ‘alright. I kinda wanted to just hang out here, but this sounds like fun too.’
As for the balance part, a horse naturally has balance. But when we go and jump on their backs, a lot of them lose it. They can’t seem to keep their feet in order underneath them. Only once we have their trust in our leadership can we help them to begin setting their feet straight, and once they can do that, they can hold their body straight, and then they can turn in circles without falling over, and then they can start making themselves look pretty like they do in the field, and the dominoes continue right down to collection.
Every horse has a monument and a donkey.
This was my favourite part. I see a lot of donkeys in the circles I ride in. A rider is praised if she strongly corrects a horse, even if no offence was committed. She’s ‘showing him who’s boss.’ If another rider gets on that horse and he rides it so poetically that he totally disappears from the equation and onlookers notice only how beautiful the horse looks, he receives no congratulations. The horse does.
That, in essence, is why Josh’s philosophy is taken up by so few. Our motives for riding, training, and any other horse activity is glory. My friends, this ought not be so. It is our job to find that monument and bring it out, to bring glory to God for the wonderful creatures He has made, and to forego whatever glory might have come to us.
How many of us have been taught from the first day we handled a horse how to correct it—usually by strong-arming it back to where it should have been, dragging it by the head? I was taught that. This ‘normal’ philosophy comes out when I am riding, too. When the horse refuses to stop, for instance. What were we all taught to do? Pull its head to its side so it has to circle tightly. It can’t run like that, right? Well, just this weekend I heard about a horse who did manage to run at full gallop with its head tilted to the side by its rider, and I cannot imagine anything more dangerous.
Josh Nichol believes that behind these behaviours we feel we need to correct, there is an underlying problem. He does not attack the particular behaviour, but seeks to find out what is really going on. He addresses the horse where it is at, not where it appears to be.
This is a philosophy not many will submit to taking. I, for one, am taking it.