It was over a decade ago, I was spending some time with my friends, Anne and Paul over at Cefn Mably Lusitano. My favourite hoof bloke, Peter Laidley was visiting, leading a hoof care clinic. We were all taking a closer look at how hooves function, so we can care for this vital part of equine anatomy more effectively. Not a set method or school of barehoof trimming, just how my horse’s feet work, and what is needed for them to be the best they can be – so was born what Peter called the “Jenni and Penny trim”. Other owners and their horses had something else, what they needed, not what me and Penny needed.
So it is the same with horsemanship. There are lots of methods and schools of horsemanship, but good horsemanship is good horsemanship, and here’s why. Horses have the same basic biology (including psychology) in common, but they are all individuals. Good horsemanship recognises the individual, that individuals respond differently to the same stimuli, because each has slightly different biology, and each has their own life experience. This means some horses are more reactive, or more optimistic, or more fearful, or simply recover more quickly.
This doesn’t mean that the claims that one method works on all horses aren’t entirely untrue. For example proponents of equitation science, who consciously apply learning theory according to the International Society of Equitation Science’s principles, find that careful application of their most usual methods work. The horses learn the correct responses to simple stimuli, and learn to do so reliably. The operative word here is ‘careful’, the trainer must be aware of the horse’s emotional state, and how aroused they are, in order to choose what to do and how in order to have optimal effect. Quite simply being aware of how the horse is feeling, how alert they are and how reactive they are likely to be, while sensibly applying learning theory (whether the trainer is aware of these common, natural laws of learning or not), then the basis for good horsemanship is there.
That basis requires one to reach a certain level of competence that may be more easily reached for those who lack intuitive feel, and even for those who do, by learning more about horse behaviour – from sound, evidence-based sources. This is what I’m talking about with ‘way beyond method’. Learning the method without learning the reasons for how the method works (or doesn’t), or why and when to apply them (or not), only paints half the picture and increases the potential for failure, threat to animal welfare, and increased risk to the safety of all. Way beyond method is about knowing what individual horses are cognitively, emotionally and physically capable of – what actually constitutes natural behaviour, how the horse actually learns (that’s not just by rote), how the horse’s feelings affect what he learns, and crucially, how our actions influence all of the above. To be ready to be a good horseman means being open to new learning always. The biggest take-home message I have ever received about horses is that one should always be learning about them. I’ve sworn by it, and lived by it ever since I got that gift aged probably about 9 years old!
Going back to that tranquil afternoon of learning hoof, good horsemanship is about being able to create the ‘Jenni and Penny method’ (or ‘insert other names here method’). In fact it’s co-creation – we need to be open to our horse’s input too! There’s no ‘one true path’ but as we’re often reminded, ‘many roads to Rome’ so in the words of my friend, Rachel Beddingfield, “seek wide and deep” when you seek new learning to fill in that jigsaw and help better your horsemanship. I may also be able to help you in that. Soon I will be running training workshops at an exciting new project, Equate, where young people with additional educational needs will be able to gain skills for the world of work, and horse folk will be able to come to sessions dedicated to sharing horse behaviour and learning knowledge and building attendees skills.