Michèle and I have been married several years, and we sometimes have the same idea at the same time. Just when one is about the suggest something, the other is already making plans to do it. It’s like we are two people sharing the same mind for a moment. I’m sure many people have had the same experience with people they are close to.
In our efforts to strive to be better horse people we aim for the highest possible goal of working as one with our horses. The idea of unity or working equally with a horse often times seems unattainable or at the very least extremely elusive. Yet, the best of the best horse people have told us for decades that it is there for the taking if we work hard enough at understanding the needs and motives of horses and how we can work with them and not against them.
Tom Dorrance wrote an entire book devoted to the premise that it is possible. He was a great horseman who had a seemingly magic way with horses and will forever remain one of the icons of the horse world. So when Tom says it’s possible, why would we ever question it?
Even so, I think it is does need to be examined because if Tom (and others) got it wrong, it has consequences for where we are heading with our horsemanship.
I see two problems with the concept of working in unity with a horse. Firstly, nobody really knows what that means. I have yet to see a definition of ‘unity’ that explains every person’s idea of the concept. It appears that unity with a horse means different things to different people. If this is true, then by one person’s definition working in unity may be possible, but by another person’s definition it could be completely impossible.
And secondly problem with the concept of working in unity with a horse is the source of where it comes from.
Perhaps I should explain myself better. Please give me some slack because I find these ideas difficult to think about in my own head, let alone trying to explain them to others.
Let’s examine what it means to work with a horse.
From what I have learned, almost every person assumes that working in unity refers to both parties being like-minded. They are on the same page and share the same idea. So when working in unity with a horse, one might assume it means that what a horse is thinking and doing is the same thing as what a rider wants the horse to think and do.
Yet, if a horse is thinking to take some action that the rider wants, why is there a need to direct a horse’s thought? Even the best horseman spend their lives training horses with the use of pressure, and teaching people how to use pressure and interact in a way with horses, that put ideas into a horse’s head that weren’t there at the start. There’s no unity until a rider implants it in a horse’s mind somehow. So my question is, is unity that is imposed still unity?
I remember when I was much younger competing in a jumping event, when I was approaching a jump on the wrong canter lead. I thought to myself that I needed to swap leads in order to be balanced on the take off coming off a tight turn. As I thought about telling my horse to change lead, he did it. It seemed it happened before I gave the signal. That was the first time I thought I had something close to being in true unity with my horse. Yet, it is not possible for me to say my horse and I had a secret communication because it is more probable that the horse was responding to a change of balance that jumping off a turn created. It is very possible that the communication was not between my horse, and me but between my horse and the jump course.
Another example that comes easily to mind happened when I was working a client’s horse in a round yard while riding my own horse. I remember thinking I need to cut the client’s horse off and send it around in the opposite direction. Even before I finished the thought, my horse prepared himself to block the other horse. He was cutting across the pen before I even knew what was happening. At the time, I was thrilled how tuned in my horse was to my thoughts. However, in hindsight it may have been that my horse had learned his job very well and was ahead of me, which is more about him taking over the job. Or it could have been that I presented such subtle cues that my horse felt, but I didn’t. In either case, is that really working as one or not? This is not an easy question to answer.
As a horseman who has seen a lot of other horse people, I make no apology to any of them for saying I question if I have ever seen any of them ever achieve unity with a horse. Not because I don’t believe some have a great relationship with their horses, but because I believe unity with a horse probably goes beyond a great relationship or partnership. No matter how great their work with a horse was, everything came from the rider implanting an idea first before the horse had the idea itself.
So again I ask, is unity that is imposed still unity? I think this is a very important question we should all ask ourselves.
It seems to me that in the vast majority of cases, when it comes to riders and horses, the only time a horse spontaneously comes up with the same idea as the human, is when a strong pattern of behaviour has developed and there is large element of routine or habit to the work. For example, point a well-educated jumping horse at a jump, they jump out of routine and sometimes even without a rider. Then there is the case of cutting horses, where in many cases the rider is little more than a lump in a saddle.
The second problem with working in unity with a horse that I see is the issue that what a horse wants changes constantly. Presumably, if a horse and person are as one in what they are thinking and doing, then it seems a fairly logical conclusion to suggest they these things they are thinking and doing are things that they choose to do from free will and which seem like a good idea that offers comfort and even pleasure at the time.
But what gives a horse pleasure? Well, I see my horse sleeping under a tree, so I guess it’s fair to say that sleeping under trees give my horse pleasure. However, how does that account that sometimes he also gallops around the paddock? So maybe sleeping and galloping give my horse pleasure? Then what about rolls in the sand? Well, then sleeping, galloping and rolling must give my horse pleasure.
Now I see a problem. Does my horse enjoy it when I gallop him? Maybe - if he felt like galloping. But if he felt like sleeping under a tree and I asked him to gallop, does he still enjoy the gallop? I already know my horse likes to gallop, so how could we not be in unity by asking him to gallop?
If working in unity with my horse means that we are on the same page, does changing my horse’s page from what he wanted to what I wanted - without causing him stress or anxiety - still count as unity?
I truly believe that most the trainers/clinicians that sell the idea of working in unity with a horse don’t know what it is they mean. For most people, it means obedience without resistance or worry. But I believe, that true unity is something much deeper than that. I just don’t know for sure if it exists or it is something we like to tell ourselves we have or will have one day.
For a push-me-pull-me, each end of the animal has to be working in unity.