That one episode of Parelli Natural Horsemanship on RFD TV has had me thinking for days. All it takes is for one seed to be planted and off we go, eh?
Linda Parelli demonstrated one exercise for going to get the horse that encapsulates so much that is right about horsemanship. She carefully showed how to walk out into the paddock, field or barn to get the horse for riding in a way that maintains or builds a horse’s confidence. She spoke a lot about confidence, because that’s a Parelli trope. But it kept occurring to me that it’s not just about confidence. It’s about seeking to establish and maintain equal footing in the relationship with the horse.
I know I’m as guilty of this as the next person. We grab a halter and stride purposefully out to the stall, filed, paddock, one intention, very clear. We march right up to our horse, pop the halter on and march back to tack up. In a way, this is imposing our will on a horse who might have had other plans. It can leave the horse feeling gobsmacked and kidnapped. Realistically speaking, of course, we can’t just say,
oh Dobbin, I know you were counting on lazing and grazing all day, so I’ll just mosey back home and pay my bills instead of working on those lead changes.
We ride horses for a reason. Notwithstanding PETA’s arguments, we have to get stuff done.
Linda Parelli demonstrated her method of going to get a horse for work. The essence: hold your horses! Don’t be in such a hurry that you can think only of your purpose and forget to build the relationship and the horse’s confidence. I would add that oftentimes we are not really thinking about what we are doing or how we are doing it at all. Our minds are someplace else. Parelli approaches the horse slowly, making eye contact as soon as she is within range. The moment the horse notices her, she stops. If the horse looks or turns away, or in the worst case scenario, runs or walks away, she stops in her tracks and waits for eye contact. This allows the transaction to happen on equal terms. How often we forget that this is an interaction between two beings. It’s not grabbing a grocery item off a shelf! When eye contact is re-established, she moves forward with the same slow deliberation. She speaks softly to the horse in greeting. Once she is beside the horse, she doesn’t just slap on the halter and make off with him. She takes a moment to scratch or rub some itchy spots, to greet him as he’d like to be greeted, and then gently puts on the halter. The horse will be glad to see her next time, especially if there’s a touch-oriented greeting, or an occasional cookie. For she has made the initial contact one of equality rather than a forced intrusion. She doesn’t then march off to the grooming stall with only her purpose in mind. She and the horse walk together. There is touch. This is the equine version of conversation. There is play (Parelli games on foot). It’s a peaceful and cooperative transition from separation to togetherness that is diametrically opposed to striding into the paddock, haltering and yanking the horse back to the barn.
Though less easy to encapsulate in a paragraph or two, Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTouch and T.T.E.A.M. method of making and maintaing intimate and respectful contact with a horse, and ensuring that calm and effective learning can take place is even more effective in creating a mentally and emotionally stable learning environment. Or a calm mind for hacking. At some point, I will write about this in detail. Suffice it to say that touch is the salient word here. Just as Parelli centers her greeting on awareness and touch, Tellington TTouch focuses on touch as the medium of communication for all of horsemanship.
Equally important in Parelli’s and Tellington-Jones’ methods are taking the time it takes to get the job done. I have so often wanted to shout at myself and others: “Just hold your horses!” We need to spend more time with tasks that at first might seem menial, unimportant. But what is more important that establishing a secure bond? If you’re at all familiar with attachment theory (in human developmental psychology), you know that youngsters need a secure relationship with their adult caregivers in order to develop normal social and emotional development behavior. It is my belief that this is the basis for much of modern horsemanship’s “friendly” and “join up” concepts, as espoused by trainers such as Frank Bell, Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts.
This change of purpose from the immediate, human gratification of getting the horse for the work we have planned, to a perspective-altering “using-the-getting-of-the-horse-as-a-teaching-tool” is an easy one to make. And holding your horses has far-reaching benefits for the relationship between human and horse and the social and emotional development of the horse, which can only increase his learning and performance.