No one’s supposed to act like a predator around a horse, right? Doing so triggers a horse’s innate prey-species insecurities, making it harder for him to learn and stay calm. The experts have been telling us this for years.
So you know better than to make obvious “predator moves” around your horse, such as charging up to him, shouting at him, or losing your temper.
But avoiding a prey animal’s hot buttons can be a much subtler thing than that. I learned this 30 years ago, during my time with the California Department of Fish and Game. I was writing an article on wildlife photographer Tupper Ansel Blake; he told me people in his line of work can’t afford to let themselves hurry. Hurrying creates what he called “afterness”–an intensity of purpose coupled with time urgency that’s a red alert to wild animals.
“The pressure we feel to get our pictures is just like the pressure a predator feels to make a kill,” he explained. “When you project that ?afterness’ feeling, animals are going to pick up on it?because that’s how they stay alive.”
When you think of it, it’s not surprising that these same subtleties are at work with your horse. When you’re in a hurry or otherwise feeling pressured to catch, groom, or saddle him, or to execute an under-saddle maneuver, you’re projecting “afterness.” That makes him at least vaguely uncomfortable–which can distract him from learning–and it certainly doesn’t enhance the horse-human bond.
As a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many top trainers, and everything I’ve learned from them reinforces this message. I remember watching Ray Hunt gentling a colt at the Fresno (California) Livestock Symposium in 1981. Working in front of an audience, he obviously didn’t have all the time in the world?but he surely acted as if he did. One of the most remarkable things about Tom Dorrance, Ray’s mentor and the grandfather of natural horsemanship, was his absolute calm, unhurried way with horses. He projected an almost zen-like serenity, creating an atmosphere that horses seemed to adore.
And there are other great trainers I’ve seen display this all-the-time-in-the-world manner when training their horses at home…and had world champions to show for it: Bobby Ingersoll, Greg Ward, John Hoyt, to name just a few.
So there must be something to it.
The problem, of course, is that we recreational and amateur riders are often strapped for time. We want to get the most out of our barn visits, so sometimes we rush.
But we shouldn’t. Because less can be more.
So try doing it the way the champions do. Slow down. Measure your movements. Take a deep breath, and don’t be surprised if your horse does the same. Stay in the moment, focus on your horse, be a little zen.
And enjoy. Your horse will, too.