by Mitzi Summers

For a novice just entering the world of working with horses can at times feel like entering a minefield. Before the “new” systems were introduced to the public as Natural Horsemanship methods, experts often had differences of opinion among themselves. In learning, expanding, and gaining knowledge, differing opinions are always welcome to the student of the art of training a horse.

As long as a schooling idea makes sense to the horse, cannot be considered cruel and has nothing to do with a trainer’s ego or money, I want to explore it and learn about it and fit it into my toolbox of knowledge. So my “method” has evolved from the success (for me) of all sorts of ideas and methods. Before being accepted, a method had to:

1. Make sense to the horse – resulting in the horse understanding what we silly humans are attempting to get it to do.

2. In general, lowering the horse’s adrenaline and building his quiet trust. The few horses I have had who were dangerously aggressive NOT from fear needed me to match their negative energy for a short time, sometimes just seconds.

3. Be part of positive reinforcement. Force is simply not the answer. It must not involve subjugating the horse; the term “partnership,” sometimes loosely thrown about, needs to be the result.

I have become aware that some systems emphasize the key word “respect” so that it almost becomes a mantra. Of course we want our horses to identify where their body and ours is and not invade our “space” without being invited. But the purpose of a horse’s behavior must be constantly monitored. Sometimes the approach to a horse has become as if he is a predator — an animal we must constantly be on the lookout for in case he becomes threatening. I have often seen handlers punish a horse for taking a step toward them — not in a threatening manner, just curiosity. A horse is not a machine.

I was recently working with a horse and after tacking him up his owner and I were discussing tack fit. The horse was placidly standing next to us and then because we did not tell him differently, took a sideways step toward us, just shifting his weight. His owner stated that her previous trainer would have really yanked on him and “moved his feet” as he had invaded her space, as if he were a carnivore testing our vulnerability. On the contrary, he was just a prey animal whose chief emotion is fear. It was a plus that he felt comfortable standing with us.

Constantly being on guard in case your horse does not respect your every movement can lead to negative feelings about your horse instead of a trusting, accepting attitude which your horse can reciprocate. “Pick your battles” is an apt term, and so many of the little mistakes a horse may make (most probably because we were not clear to him) are simply insignificant. Your horse should look forward to your training sessions, not be insecure and fearful that he may make a mistake. I have seen “learned helplessness” result in constant corrections to a horse. They are very sensitive creatures, and we should always train them with a positive attitude, not a “get him before he gets me” state of mind.

Flexibility has to be one of a trainer or instructor’s main abilities. I do not know how many times I have had a lesson or training session all planned, and then when I start the lesson I need to significantly adjust what I am doing according to what is actually happening in front of me. Once I was all set to start my student on flying changes. Once we started the lesson it was obvious that to continue with my plan would be completely detrimental. Both horse and rider were not “clicking”, and it was necessary to review the steps we had already taken. Sometimes there are definite reasons for sudden discord, (bad weather necessitated the horse not be turned out for several days for example), and at times the reason is not evident (the student had a fight with her husband), but it needs to be a positive session for both parties and end on a positive note. It turned out that the next week everyone had done their homework and the horse started flying changes with calmness and understanding.

Part of the magic in horse training is the ability to understand another sentient being and determine the best way to gain his understanding and trust. If a horse I work with assertively marches toward me when I open the stable door, of course I will be assertive and back him up from halter and a hand on the point of his shoulder. If he marches toward me four steps he gets backed up five or six. Then my energy and body language make certain that he understands.

I often have “problem” horses sent to me and I love it. But my students know that in a schooling session we may start out with one plan in mind and try at least two more until we find the magic key to their particular horse. When you work with your trainer it should always be a three-way collaboration — your horse, you, and the instructor. I always tell my students that they know their horse better than I do so I will teach WITH them, not AT them.

It has to be the same when you are working with your horse. They will whisper to you and tell you the answer and the way to work with them.

If I am given five horses to train, I guarantee that none of them will need the same exact exercises or timeline or ground work. They will all require differences. For this reason we are all challenged and grateful for the diversity in our horses.