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On Yer Bike!
(An article by Stephanie Fry written for "Speaker's Corner" of the Aug/Sept 2011 edition of Natural Horsemanship Magazine)
The more I learn about horses, the more I find there is to know. Barely a day goes by without them "blowing my socks off" with remarkable demonstrations of their nobility and generosity. Simply being in their presence almost inevitably results in feelings of wellbeing, and the potential quality of the bond that it is possible to forge between horse and human is nothing short of an extraordinary healing experience facilitating genuine and lasting personal growth.
That a partnership between humans (the ultimate predator) and horses (the ultimate prey animal) is possible at all is nothing short of a miracle. In order to increase their chances of survival, equines have evolved to function as individual parts of that larger organism, the herd, and are as such supremely sensitive to the slightest change in the emotional response and body language of both their fellow herd members and their predators. This is why they can read humans like a book and reflect back to us, with immediacy and absolute, unflinching honesty, feelings, barriers and psychological conditions we are not even aware of having.
These days, people want a pill for every ailment, a gadget for every problem and horse that will always do as it is told. And if he falls short of the expectations placed on him, he is "sent on" (or else this is where rehabilitators like myself come in to pick up the pieces). Some people would really be better off buying a motorbike.
A feeling of safety is of the utmost importance in every horse's life. It ranks way above the need for food, procreation, play and even companionship. Many horses who don't "measure up" have acquired mental and emotional problems as a result of the stresses they are constantly made to endure in "traditional" management systems.
In order for any healing to take place we need to address this top priority by offering them the strong leadership they need to feel safe (or else they will, usually reluctantly, take over because needs must). It follows that, no matter how successful the rehabilitation process itself may have been, placing the "rehabilitated" equine back in the same circumstances will result in the horse reverting. For any improvement to be maintained when he returns home (or goes to a new one), it is therefore imperative that horse and owner progess together.
Leadership does not equal "showing them who's boss". That is more appropriately described as bullying. True leaders are physically fit, alert and motivated with a strong focus. They are consistent and in full control of their emotions at all times (i.e. unlikely to get anxious, upset, irritated, angry, moody...). They are firm but fair; patient, persistent and predictable. They are articulate and clear in their communications. You get the picture.
The challenge of self-improvement for the sake of their relationship with their horse can be difficult to accept for many people, as can be the need to put this relationship first, often at the expense of other agendas (be that performance-related and competitive success, loading for transport or even simply that Sunday afternoon hack).
This is why there is such resistance out there to this "newfangled" approach to horsemanship (which is actually only new because it is so old!). Horses will test and reassess their leaders every day because they believe their survival depends on it. And there's no pretending. Your horse will see right through you.
When growing up I was told that a healthy horse will always sleep standing up. It makes me wonder how many people have never seen their horse lie down because he will hear them coming and think "uh-oh, here we go again". And even how many of you, very worthy readers, who genuinely seek to walk a mile in your horse's hooves, have ever really, I mean REALLY, meditated on what it must be like for such a highly-tuned, naturally claustrophobic and panicoholic prey animal to be born into and live in an environment artificially created for them by predators, where even basic choices are limited and the freedom to pick their close friends for life, their location, their food or their routine doesn't exist.
How sure would you be, day-to-day, that you will not eventually be killed and eaten? Just how much would it take to build that trust? And how little for it to be broken?