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I often am told by riders "I can sit anything". My reply is always the same "Why would you want to sit on something that by bucking clearly does not want you on its back?"
When backing horses my preference is to do so bare back. Not just because the young uneducated equine back will make some dramatic changes as it gets used to carrying a rider, or saddle fitting becomes an expensive pastime, or because I am trying to be a ‘natural horse person’, but because to ride a green horse for the first time without tack requires an enormous amount of trust on both sides.
Trust comes from within and with time. It cannot be forced, bought, tricked or trained.
Trust is not earned by manipulating equine behaviour or their communication process. It is not earned by dominating them. Even loving horses is not enough.
Trust comes from understanding that domestication has put horses at our mercy. They are not in our care because they choose to be, but because we want them for ourselves, whatever our motivation.
Trust is not the horse doing everything I ask when I ask. That is not trust, that is training. Trust is earned and it is a two way process!
The wonderful thing about bareback riding is the rider cannot take advantage of the horse. There is no tack to anchor onto so you cannot force the horse or create a false sense of security for yourself. I just use a head collar with reins so I don’t depend on a bit to do my work for me. I listen to the behaviour of my horse and I work with it, not against it.
All horses are individuals, all have different tolerances, (often shaped by their experience of humans), so I purposely have no set formula, method or rules but I am strict on manners - MY manners. Once a horse has let me sit on it for the first time I say thank you by getting off. This removes fear and pressure and sets up the beginning of a two-way understanding. As their confidence and understanding grows the basics such as moving forward, turning left and right and stopping become a natural learning progression. During this time they also get a good opportunity to feel what it’s like to carry me and learn how to adjust their balance without causing them any strain.
Working this way allows the horse to have an opinion about what’s going on, it also affords me the time to learn about my horse from a new perspective, from its back.
I want to know what my horse thinks of this new situation and of me so I listen and learn. If I don’t know what my horse is thinking or feeling, what use am I as a trainer? All this early opportunity for the horse to know that its trust was not misplaced would be lost if all my concentration was on teaching my horse to go forwards, backwards and turning in it’s first lesson.
An argument often levelled at me is “It all sounds lovely but it takes too long.” The irony of this statement is if you truly understand how equines think and learn this process will allow you to achieve far more in a shorter space of time than any other approach. It is OUR inability, not the horse’s, that determines how long something takes.
We don’t hand ourselves over unconditionally to people, so why expect our animals to? I know that if I do not trust someone I am not going to put myself without question, in his or her hands. I am not going to let them dominate me, bully me, or speak on my behalf. So why should horses, why should any living creature, be at the mercy of our desires or ambitions or time scales?
There is no doubt that horses learn and move on in their education without trust in place. However, as long as we know this is not because of us, but in spite of us, then we at least have an honest perspective.
Bare back is not a short cut and if our intention is purely to use our horses for our own pleasure or benefit, rather than considering theirs, then earning their trust is never going to be high on our agenda.
Whether they are going to be a pet, competitor or professional, my joy is a horse that I go out riding with. I want to know that if I take a wrong turn and get lost in the woods, my horse will help us out because he has been encouraged to think, make decisions and have a say in our journey together. I want a horse that if I fall off and let go of the reins won’t disappear in the distance. I want a horse that will not crash into a fence because I approached it incorrectly and he is too terrified to question my decision. I want a horse that knows he will not be forced to cross a bridge when he is unsure of his footing. In other words, I want a friend who trusts and cares as much about me as I do about him and that at the end of the day we believe in and look out for each other.
In my opinion, this is trust, this is love, this is a passion and what owning, riding, training and handling horses is all about.
NB: I am not advocating everyone should ride or back horses without tack. However, it is my belief that tack should be used purely as an aid for riders and not used to take advantage, or ignore the behaviour and emotions, of an animal generous enough to carry you.
© Emma Kurrels 2004
Emma Kurrels is the founder of Voices for Horses, and also a freelance trainer and writer, producing a column on equine behaviour for the ‘Q&A’ section of Horse Magazine. After working in the UK, America and Australia, studying and researching different training methods and the science of behaviour, Emma realized that a great mass of conflicting information was being offered by many different schools of thought. On her return to England in 1999 Emma became a co-founder of Company of Horses, an organization dedicated to offering balanced education, combining academic theory with practical guidance in handling and training. This especially focused on the ways in which human actions and motivation alter equine behaviour. During her career as a trainer Emma met many people, amateur as well as professional, with concerns ranging across the board, often struggling to find solutions, help or support. This sowed the seeds of the Voices for Horses website.
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