Keeping It Simple
by Scott Thomson
I've been a pretty fair athlete throughout my life. In my teenage years, I was an honorable mention on some All-American high school basketball teams. I had feelers from the Pirates and the Reds as a pitching prospect, and still hold a couple of pitching records at my high school, even after some 45 years. I was the number-two distance runner on the only high school cross-country team to ever win three consecutive state championships in New York. I even played drums in a pretty good band.
I continued with my athletic interests during adulthood. I taught tennis to beginners, at various times have carried a single-digit handicap in golf, and seemed a natural at cricket and lawn bowling during some visits to England. I kept up my basketball well into my 50s, playing on touring teams and winning national age group titles. I've even had the chance to attend some driver's schools and been behind the wheel of some pretty fast cars on a road course.
You'll notice there is nothing in there about horses. Truth be told, the only time I was ever on a horse in my early years was when I hopped on one in the sixth grade in an attempt to impress the cutest girl in my class, an accomplished rider. It was a disaster and she never considered going out with me until I got a driver's license years later and my family had a Triumph TR-3 sports car.
So, with good physical skills and an open mind, but no background in horses, how did I get to where I am with my horsemanship?
When I started playing with horses, the first thing that struck me was that this was the greatest athletic challenge I'd ever seen. Certainly not in the sense that you needed great strength or cardiovascular fitness, but more from the subtle skills necessary to safely work with these animals. What makes riding so different is your teammate is another species with a different language, a 1,000-pound flight animal that would prefer not to be doing what you're asking it to do.
What I found so challenging was that working with horses seemed to be an activity where absolutely every movement you make influences the horse's behavior. To me, riding was more like the complex activities of golf, playing the drums, dancing or driving a race car — activities where feel, timing and even the smallest movements can make or break the results. A strange mix, you might think. Bear with me on this one.
With golf, everything you do before you hit the ball influences where that ball goes. The position of your feet, your posture, the grip, the position of your head, the movement of your hips, shoulders, etc. — all these things determine how the club head meets the ball. Minor changes or alignment issues and you're breaking windows, hunting for lost balls and practicing your X-rated vocabulary rather than hitting the next shot from the fairway.
If you're playing the drums and your feet are in rhythm but your hands can't carry a beat, you won't be playing in many bands. If you're heading down the back stretch at 150 mph and your movements aren't smooth, coordinated and precise, you'll be testing the roll cage and flame-retardant suit pretty quickly.
As for dancing, well, one trip to the Buckhorn on a Friday night with a good band will tell you all you need to know about what happens when two creatures try to work together, even when they are the same species and use the same language.
When faced with the reality of what it takes to work in harmony with a horse, I immediately looked for the "equation" that would make it easy. There must be a book, a trainer, a DVD or a piece of equipment that would show me if I just sat a certain way, pulled the reins thus, used my legs just so, then the horse would behave, work and look the way the "picture" should. Bless my first riding instructor who, after listening to my stream of questions during a lesson — where should I put my hands, where should I touch the horse, where should my legs be, etc., etc. — finally stopped the lesson and shouted, "There is no formula, there is no equation, it is all about feel and it is different with every rider and every horse!"
That was the proverbial light bulb, the magic bullet, for me. Because I was new to this and a bit nervous, and had never failed at anything athletic, I'd forgotten one of the most important points of any athletic activity: Keep it simple!
Like everything else these days, there is a lot of information out there about how to be better with horses. Way too much, in my view. And, in a world that has become instant, people are looking for the fastest way to improve, thinking there just has to be a shortcut that will save time and be less work. I know many horse people with years of experience who have every book, video and piece of equipment, who have been to clinic after clinic and worked with dozens of different trainers, who have changed horses and philosophies on a regular basis, all in a quest to make it easier or faster.
You know what? Most of these people don't seem to get much better. I think that's mostly because when they sit on their horses, there is simply too much information from too many different sources going through their heads, making it impossible to have a clear, simple vision of how to communicate with the horse and how to work in partnership and harmony.
Back to my golf analogy. When a recreational golfer stands over the ball and his mind is cluttered with things like "Johnny Miller says this, Tiger says to do this, Phil would do it this way, the article I read yesterday said hold the club like this, etc." — well, I can promise you that ball will never be seen again. There are simply too many "swing thoughts" in play to have a smooth, coordinated swing that will send the ball where you want it. The pros and best recreational golfers focus on a good visual and a single, simple swing thought when they tee it up, and their bodies react accordingly, unfettered by over-thinking. We need to do this with our horses, too.
I have some advice based on how I sifted through all this and made it simple again, helping me advance much more quickly with my horsemanship. First, find a philosophy for your foundation work that fits with what you want to have with your horse. It could be Parelli, Dunning, Avila or Barbier; it doesn't really matter. If they approach things the way you would like to, then stick with them and don't muddy the waters.
Second, if you have competitive interests or want to advance in refinement, find an approach/trainer specializing in your interest with methods consistent with your foundation philosophy. That way, at most you'll have only two major influences on your riding that don't really conflict with one another.
Lastly, accept your responsibility in this partnership. If you can't walk, chew gum, rub your belly and pat your head, then you need to work a bit on your own body before you can work with your horse more effectively. An animal that can feel a mosquito land on his butt surely knows when his rider is confused, lacks coordination or asks for too many different things at once.
Good horsemanship in all disciplines is based on the same principles, and the rider's ability to execute them — give quick, clear, precise direction with your aids; reward every good try and success with a release of pressure; always prepare your horse to the position necessary to succeed; strive for softness and relaxation before and during movements; let your horse use his natural gifts. You can wrap those principles in the language of dressage, natural horsemanship or western riding, but they are the same in every discipline. This is not always easy to do well, but it is really all the human has to do. In fact, it is a pretty small and interconnected list. So, keep things simple and stay focused on these basics, and you and your horse will be a much prettier picture.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship. He can be reached with comments or questions at email@example.com or (575) 388-1830.