Horse's Thoughts Pt2 - How Long Can A Horse Concentrate?

It is a common misconceptions that horses have a very short attention span. But this is not true. The ability of a horse to be attentive to something depends on the importance of that something in a horse's thoughts. People often confuse their inability to make themselves or the work important to a horse with the horse's inability to focus.


A Horse's Thoughts Pt1 - Soft and Hard Thoughts

This is the first in a series of videos about a horse's thoughts and how they apply in Good Horsemanship. In this video I discuss the difference between a horse having hard thoughts and soft thoughts. This is a very important concept when it comes to working with horses because it relates to the mental and emotional calm.


Classical Horsemanship

I was asked recently what I thought was the difference between classical riding and modern riding. Being familiar with the background of the person who asked the question I know they were surprised when I answered, “none of significance.”


They were expecting me to respond with some complicated examination of how much better riding use to be in the olden days of past masters. But the question is a nonsense question because riding is just doing stuff with a horse while sitting on its back. The real question is what is the difference between classical and modern horsemanship, not riding.


Horsemanship covers the entire spectrum of all that we do with a horse, all the ways we interact and communicate. Riding is just one aspect of horsemanship and arguably not even the most important aspect.


One could put the case that classical riding involves certain equipment choices, specified principles of posture and seat, and particular ways of applying the aids. But in reality, the purpose of those classical rules is to maximize communication with a horse. They have no inherent purpose in themselves and if a particular horse finds it works better for them for the rider to sit facing backward and to hold the left rein in the right hand and the right rein in the left hand, then the rules derived from the old masters are purposeless.


On the other hand, the concepts that make up the classical principles of horsemanship are much more relevant, important and worth discussing/debating. To be clear, my personal definition of Classical Horsemanship is exactly the same as Good Horsemanship – they are indistinguishable to me.


Last year I wrote an essay on the difference between classical and modern dressage and concluded that the principles of classical dressage are so poorly defined that debating the two schools is impossible because nobody knows what they mean.


However, I propose a definition of what it means to label an approach to training horses as classical horsemanship. It has nothing to do with old versus new methods. It has nothing to do with techniques practiced by very famous horse people or by people only known to their mother. It has nothing to do with any particular discipline or type of equipment. It is simply a mindset that anybody can take to their horsemanship irrespective of their experience or background or influences.


Classical horsemanship has two components.

1. Allowing a horse’s change of thought to dictate its actions.

2. The horse’s change of thought brings it comfort ie, its thought’s are soft.


I know it seems simple, but I think this definition encompasses all that I believe in how best to get along with horses in the process of working with them.


Although I believe the term “Classical Horsemanship” as I have defined is fundamental to all good horsemanship, sadly so little training in the world seems to get it. I find most people agree with the idea that good or classical horsemanship pivots around the premise that a horse’s mind is the thing we are actually training, not its feet. They also agree that emotions are the key in preparing a horse’s response and the quality of that response. Nonetheless, agreement of these concepts is about as far as it goes. When it actually comes to putting them into practice most of it is forgotten. It’s talking the talk without walking the walk for most trainers.


I don’t think it is deliberate and for many, I don’t think they are even aware of it. I know that I sometimes fall short of putting into practice everything I say. It’s a perpetual struggle that I battle every time I handle a horse. I often know when I have made a mistake and try to fix it, but there must be a centrillion times (I don’t know how many a centrillion is, but it’s a lot) that my mistakes are a secret to everyone (including myself) but the horse. Nevertheless, my work is styled with the central focus that in everything I ask of a horse I am always trying to shape a horse’s thinking first before concerning myself with the feet. This is not true of the vast majority of horse people I have seen, even though they may see it differently.


So the next time you watch somebody working a horse, ask yourself does the horse have the idea to doing something before he does it and are his thoughts soft or hard?


Photo: At clinics I sometimes bring up the notion of Fred Astaire’s ability to be one with a partner as our goal to be one with a horse. But who knew Fred was also so wise in the ways of horse’s?

Why Do Horses Push on People?


The Horse As A Teacher

One of the things I have heard coming from the mouths of other trainers, instructors, and clinicians on a regular basis is, “I learned it from the horse,” or “Everything I know was taught to me by the horse.” Lots of professionals and a few amateur horse people give complete credit to horses for all that they know about horses and training.


It’s the claim that a person got their knowledge about training and working with horses straight from the horse’s mouth that I want to discuss today.


Don’t get me wrong. I do believe a person can only transition into a skilled practitioner if they listen and are perceptive (and receptive) to a horse’s response to the work. It would be both ignorant and arrogant for a person to think they know more about working with horses than any horse on the planet. They are the ultimate judges of when we get it right and when we get it wrong. So I absolutely believe in the power of horses to be our professors, our instructors as much as it is for us to be theirs. As we try to shape their behaviour, they are constantly shaping our behaviour. It is how it should be if we are to reach our full potential as horse people.


But there are considerations to be made when giving full credit to a horse for the things we know.


The first is that when a horse talks to us, are we always listening? And the second, do we have enough knowledge to interpret what a horse is trying to tell us in the way the horse intended? By excluding outside inspiration and teaching, we are saying to the world that we were born with a greater understanding of the mind of a horse than anybody else. We don’t need to learn from the mistakes of other trainers because the horse will tell us everything we need to know.


When I hear a trainer or clinician espouse that they learned everything from the horse, I see it as simply a nice idea with which to sell their knowledge to an audience. But the truth of it relies on a person’s ability to accurately understand the lesson to be learned from a horse’s response. This is a big assumption and I believe it has led to many myths and lies in the training world.


A room full of trainers can watch a horse respond in some way and you’ll possibly get a room full of variable opinions as to why it happened and how it could be altered. They could all claim that their knowledge comes from watching and studying horses. But if every horse person went to the same college and had the same professors, how can there be so many answers to the same question?


The answer is that people’s interpretation of what they see when they study the behaviour of horses is never unbiased. It is always skewed by both their present knowledge and understanding and their history.


You have probably heard the expression that if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. This is true in studying horsemanship too. If all we know about horses comes from a particular discipline or philosophy or trainer, then we see everything in the context of that experience. We probably can’t see it from the angle of another person with a different background might. And we certainly can’t be sure it is how a horse sees it.


This entire ramble is to make the point that it is not enough to be content with the knowledge and experience we already have. It is not enough to be comfortable that we are learning to be skilled horse people direct from the horse’s mouth. We can’t know that what we are learning is what a horse has to teach us.


To avoid the pitfalls of being comfortable with our abilities, we should ensure we listen and watch other talented horse people from a wide range of experience and disciplines. Their interpretation of what a horse is trying to tell us might be very different from ours AND they could be right! You don’t know until you put it to the test. It is too easy to believe we understand horses because we don’t have too much trouble with them. But sometimes that is more a testament to the wonderfully co-operative nature of horses than it is to our level of skill and understanding.


When I was younger and first heard somebody spout how they learned everything they know from studying horses, I was impressed. I figured that is how it is supposed to be. But now I am not so young and not so impressionable, I almost always dismiss these people as idiots. They are idiots if they truly believe their own rhetoric and they are even bigger idiots if they think their ability to understand horses is greater than others who approach horse training differently.


I have had several mentors in my life who have strongly influenced my philosophy and training, yet I continue to try to be aware of what others are doing and teaching. I have been doing this for quite awhile now, so most of the time I see approaches I am not surprised at or overwhelmed by, but occasionally I see and hear something that opens my eyes and starts my little brain whirring and eager to try it on the next victim I get my hands on. In any case, I feel I owe it to the horses to make sure I get what they have to tell me as right as can be, which means keeping myself open to testing new ideas.