Horse Training Methodology is a Reflection of the Horse Trainer

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I am simultaneously reading my book, Soulful Horsemanship, getting it ready for publishing and Chris Irwin’s book, Dancing with your Dark Horse.  Irwan has a deep well of knowledge and beautifully integrates an understanding of the inner worlds of horses and humans.  I had not previously read Irwin’s work and find his writing to be rather aligned with my thought processes.  We agree that horses have the ability to help us grow as individuals.  We agree that the lessons learned in the arena can transform the rest of your life.  We agree that there is a spiritual connection with horses.

While a lot of the fundamental principles upon which our teachings are based are aligned, we still approach horsemanship somewhat differently.  Irwin emphasizes certain aspects more than I do – such as the importance of being in control.  I was beginning to question whether or not I was overlooking something really important in Soulful Horsemanship.  Am I not clear enough in my text about setting boundaries, being a strong leader, or being in charge?  Do I need to change the way that I have presented information?  This sort of pondering led to an epiphany – teachers and trainers will teach and train according to who they are on the inside.

It seems silly that I hadn’t fully grasped this concept before.  I just wrote an entire book on how the horse is a reflection of the soul and working with them provides an opportunity to see what is really at the core of our being.  I even put a section in there about the importance of choosing an instructor because the horse will be affected by that person’s underlying attitude, emotion, and approach to life.  I strongly believe and understand this concept, yet somehow did not equate it to the teachings and writings of major clinicians and authors.

Irwin is likely talking about the importance of being in control because he has that need.  He is likely facing horses who are more aggressive because that is a projection of his inner world.  I wouldn’t presume to know this, but Irwin himself alludes to it in his book.  He recounts a tale of a pretty significant encounter he had with a very aggressive mare.  I have a lot of respect for his honesty and openness in sharing that story, which couldn’t have been easy, as a teaching example for the rest of us.  He explains how this brutal encounter tapped into a well of “poison” within him.  He goes on to say, “She had shown me the door to my healing – deep and dark though it seemed.  And once I understood her message, I realized that every horse I had ever worked with had been trying to teach me the same lesson all along.  I just hadn’t been ready, willing, or able to hear their message.”

I find that so profound for all of us.  In part because it is a testimony to the fact that horses are a reflection of who we are and they have the ability to help us heal and find emotional freedom.  Furthermore, I think it is important to understand the ramifications that go along with this idea.  In Irwin’s case, you have a well-known clinician and trainer who has developed a system of interacting with horse’s based on his perception and experience.  He is teaching the importance of being in control, for example, based on the emotional healing that he needs to go through.  His approach is effective based around the need he is fulfilling for himself.  That does not mean that his students have the same “poison” in them.

I am using Chris Irwin as an example because he is so forthright in his book that it sheds light on his inner world in a way that you do not get with every author.  However, horses are a reflection of every trainer that works with them.  All of the big training methods out there are based around that trainer’s inner world projecting onto the horses and the trainer developing skills to handle the pattern off issues that he/she sees.  I tend to focus more on frightened horses in Soulful Horsemanship, which is definitely a reflection of my inner landscape.  My “poison” is deep-rooted fear.  That fear is manifested in my horses.  I have then developed, as a rider, trainer, and teacher, a system that addresses fearful horses because it is the pattern I see.  Based on my needs, I focus on the importance of empowering horses and bringing them up to a level of equals rather than emphasizing the need to be the boss.

In over 20 years of riding experience and working extensively with equine rescues, I have never encountered an overly aggressive horse.  I have dealt with bullies but nothing to the extent that some individuals have experienced.  Did I just get lucky?  Or are those individuals contributing to the degree of aggression that is reflected in their horse?  Not that they are wrong or bad, but that the horse is illuminating the lesson they need to learn.  I have, instead, dealt with countless horses that were terrified and needed gentle kindness rather than strict boundaries.

I think this is an important thing for equestrians to understand.  We have a proliferation of clinicians in the horse world.  I don’t think any of these new methodologies are right or wrong in totality.  I think each one is an excellent solution to the inner challenges that the clinician needs to work through.  If we put our entire belief into someone else’s approach then we are not being authentic in working with the horse from the heart.  If we allow the horse to reflect our own inner world we can each, through intuition and guidance, find our own methodology and solutions that will enable us to heal and grow.

Learn from everyone.  Notice similarities and differences between each approach.  Do you resonate with some teachings and feel resistant to others?  Follow your gut feeling and find the approach that will help you in your unique partnership with your horse.  That approach may be a hodge-podge of techniques from various teachers rather than following the exact recipe laid out by one teacher.

Reflective Horse

13 responses

  1. “Or are those individuals contributing to the degree of aggression that is reflected in their horse? Not that they are wrong or bad, but that the horse is illuminating the lesson they need to learn.”

    Wonderful insight in this entry. I think I see the above (quoted text) at my barn. The owner trained the trainers, and they do exactly as she did.

    Which brings me to: “Do you resonate with some teachings and feel resistant to others? Follow your gut feeling and find the approach that will help you in your unique partnership with your horse. That approach may be a hodge-podge of techniques from various teachers rather than following the exact recipe laid out by one teacher.”

    Yes, I feel resistant to the “conversations” that are had with some of the horses, including the one I lease. My instinct and intuition tell me to try something else. The problem is that I am not experienced, so …… But I really felt what you were saying here, as I have experienced it.

    • I think this is common. We all go through the phase of feeling too inexperienced to trust ourselves so we follow our teachers. This is necessary – there is a lot to learn about horses and in order to work with them safely we must learn from others. However, techniques and ideas get passed down from one person to the next without a lot of question. A good example from my life, that many can resonate with, is mane pulling. I was taught that it does not hurt the horse to pull his mane and grew up to teach the same. Every person that I have ever encountered, upon being taught how to pull a mane, cringes at the thought because they are instinctively uncomfortable with it. Then the teacher explains, as was explained to them, that it does not hurt the horse. There is no actual evidence that horses do not have nerve roots along their crest – of course it is uncomfortable to have their hair ripped out. We wouldn’t need to twitch them if it wasn’t uncomfortable. Yet, this belief and practice continues to be passed from one generation to the next.

      I really just want people to pause and reflect – as you have. Learn what you can but don’t value other’s knowledge and experience at the expense of your intuition and inner knowing. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and join in the conversation.

  2. I am encouraged by your general direction here, but disturbed by the implication that horses can be reduced to a single emotion or label. I took on a severely abused horse that was labeled a killer because I prefer to believe that most dangerous horses are frightened, hurting, and don’t have the skills to communicate with humans. We worked through the fear and pain, I had a great companion, and one day the horse nearly put both back feet through the wall of his stall kicking out at a passerby. I was down the barn aisle when it happened and saw that it was a preemptive aggressive attack.

    While I had seen the horse panic on many occasions, that kick did not arise out of fear. It turned out the the person who inspired the kick was abusive to both animals and people, but there was no overt threat to the horse at that moment. I had to face the fact that my horse actually was an aggressive dangerous ‘killer’. What is difficult for people to understand is that he was BOTH capable of and willing to do great harm to some individuals AND a profoundly trustworthy and gentle companion to me. I realized I needed to trust the horse’s ability to judge people’s character, as well as make sure neither the horse or visitors were endangered if I was going to keep him. Labels only limited both my and the horse’s options.

    True, horses will reflect our own fear and aggression back to us in an effort to communicate with us. However, once we start listening to them, there is a lot more there than a mirror. Self-awareness is an essential starting point, but genuine awareness of other is where horsemanship begins to unfold. This is true regardless of any individual’s methodology.

    It would be a great boon to horses if the idea that anyone can learn horsemanship from a weekend clinic was discredited. If you want a teacher, find some one whose horses are consistently sound, well-mannered, companionable, and enthusiastic about their work. Then observe them and their horses. If you have to clean stalls to be around them, do it. It will be the best investment of your time and money. And if you don’t like what you see, for god’s sake, don’t continue giving people money to abuse their or your horses!

    • Thank you for your insight. I don’t think that any horse can be put into a single box or carry only one label – same is true with humans. The horse and human are both multifaceted individuals. It is through the partnership and communication that horsemanship develops. Each horse is unique, each human is unique, and each partnership/interaction is unique. It is for that very reason that I do not think that any one method will work in every situation.

      Of course each horse has their own personality and are more than a mirror. However, they do reflect who we are and the way that we choose to work with them. They are capable of reading us on a deep level. I think the example you gave illustrates that they read us and react differently based on who we are. Unless we are willing to look at ourselves, our actions, and our methods then we are missing half the equation. We can not just focus on the behavior traits of the horses – we must be willing to look at our own behavior as well.

      Regardless of whether you believe the horse is a reflection of your inner world, I still think it is important for students to understand that the methodology and techniques used by a trainer are a reflection of that individual. Students have a tendency to latch onto a certain method at the expense of learning other methods or listening to their own intuition. I would like to invite people to consider that there could be more going on in the interaction between trainer and horse – that there is a connection on an energetic emotional level. Based on that interaction, the trainer develops techniques. Those techniques will not necessarily be universally applicable because each interaction is unique, horses do not carry a single label, and there is more going on than meets the eye.

      • I agree with you up to ‘based on that interaction the trainer develops techniques’ . The idea that techniques are how horses are trained is itself the fundamental and unfortunately wide spread pervasive distortion.
        There are principles of horsemanship that are universal because they are the language through which humans and horses have learned to communicate over thousands of years. No two conversations are going to be identical because no two situations or individuals are going to be identical even though the rules that structure that language are unchanging, just as our correspondence depends on the underlying structure of the English language.
        If you are truly pursuing horsemanship as a spiritual practice, learn to communicate through your body and your breath, and respect your horses’ feedback. That will open the door to perceiving the energetic and emotional worlds.
        And if you would have less horse abuse in the world do NOT pay people to abuse you or the horse. It is a sad truth, but most people abuse horses because it pays. I quit teaching and I quit breeding because most people are a buying a fantasy and they pay to hear that the horse is the problem not them. Those who are truly willing to learn to ride are few and far between. True and lasting change comes about one small step at a time by each individual, and on rare occasions I am foolish enough to speak out in the frail hope that there might be a receptive ear out there somewhere.

  3. What a thoughtful post! I’ve been asking myself the same questions and over the years have come to approach any way of training the horse with an open mind but never to subscribe to the one and only method. Rather to take away from each that what agrees with my own thought process, that what ‘feels’ right in my own heart and mind. You’ve put the whole concept so eloquently!

    • Thank you. I love connecting with people who are working through the same thought processes. It can be confusing to wade through what feels right and its nice to share with others. All the best!

  4. Very insightful!
    This part really resonated with me – I agree absolutely! : ” Did I just get lucky? Or are those individuals contributing to the degree of aggression that is reflected in their horse? Not that they are wrong or bad, but that the horse is illuminating the lesson they need to learn. I have, instead, dealt with countless horses that were terrified and needed gentle kindness rather than strict boundaries.”

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