Hopefully this post finds you all well. We’ve been in a global pandemic for a year now. How are you holding up? Me? Awe shucks; thanks for asking. I am exhausted and overwhelmed, but also excited and hopeful, all at the same time. There is an end in sight and I look forward to reconnecting with all of you, in person, soon.
If you follow me on Facebook, then you already know that Mr. De Frates Horsemanship and I have been extremely busy this last year, all part of the plan, and are in the final push to finish several large projects before my precious Cortana gives birth to her first child at the beginning of May, and my mentor, Brandi Lyons, comes to hold two clinics as part of our grand opening at the end of the same month. In preparation for opening the doors at my brand new facility, a process that has taken four years thus far, I started advertising, just a little bit, and the interest I’ve been getting in my services, even while we are still in winter, is encouraging. In each conversation I’ve had with these new potential clients they have asked me the same question. It is an important question that I’m guessing you have asked yourself before. It is such an important question that I stopped writing blogs about it a couple years ago and started writing a book! That book is nowhere near done and while I hope to finish it this year, that’s probably not realistic, so, I thought I would take a few to put pen to paper and share my answer to this important question with all of you. But first, I am sure you are wondering what this incredibly important question is, uh? The question all of my potential clients have been asking me is: “What exactly is Horsemanship anyway”?
I get asked this question mainly because I don’t teach or train a specific discipline, like dressage or reining, but I also get asked this question because Horsemanship does mean different things to different people. Each big name clinician out there has their own take on the answer, their own theory, and I guess I am no different. If you are considering working with a Horsemanship trainer, I encourage you to learn all you can about that trainer’s basic philosophy on the matter before you embark on a working relationship with them. One of the biggest blessings, and curses, in the equine industry is that there are a million different ways to do everything with a horse, from how you ask them to pick up their feet, to how you ask them to pick up a canter or a lope. There are some basic concepts, like pressure and release, that are utilized by the majority of trainers, but there are more concepts that vary between trainers than there are that are similar. For example, some trainers start with light pressure and build that pressure until the horse reponses, then release. Others start training a cue with hard pressure, and then get lighter over time. Horses are absolutely brilliant and completely capable of learning whatever we want them to learn using whatever method we choose to try, but using a consistent method will help you reach your goals faster. Finding the trainer that utilizes methods that resonate with you can make all the difference in your equestrian experience. I applaud these clients for asking the question. So, what are my methods? How do I answer this critical question? What is horsemanship to me? And probably most critically, what’s the bite-sized, non-novel length answer ;)
Horsemanship to me is a journey to create a balanced partnership with a horse. A balance between my desires and the horses. Balance between fast and slow, hard and soft, loud and quiet. Balance between control and freedom. Balance between teaching and learning. Balance between talking and listening. Balance between tradition and evolution. Balance between mastery and new challenges. Horsemanship is also sacrifice, negotiation, and cooperation. Horsemanship is trust and forgiveness. Horsemanship is attention and beauty. Horsemanship is how I strive to live my life: in balance with those I love.
I know what you are thinking, “That’s nice, Dana. That description of Horsemanship is very idyllic but WHAT does that all mean when you work with me and my horse? How do you find all this balance and still get a horse to do what you want, when you want, while not getting hurt?” That, my dear readers, is the real question. How do I get a horse to do what I want, when I want, consistently and safely?
As you can probably already tell, I strive for balance in all things, I am a Libra after all, so it should come as no surprise that I also try to find balance between the vast range of methods out there. If training techniques were placed on a spectrum that ranged from ‘beat the horse into submission’ to ‘horses are wild creatures that should never be tamed’, I would land near the middle, and slightly off center towards the ‘horses are wild creatures that should never be tamed’ side of the spectrum. I listen to my horses, take the time each needs, respect their opinions, and do my best to let them live in the most natural environment I can provide, together as a herd, on a track, barefoot and fuzzy. I also set consistent boundaries with my horses so that they know how I want them to behave around me. I have some pretty demanding expectations too, like trot when I ask for a trot, and stop when I ask for to stop, but I also expect that my horses will occasionally be afraid of things, like killer butterflies, and rightfully so; those things are deadly! I expect my horses to be afraid of things, AND I expect them to trust me and listen to me when they are afraid so I can navigate them to safety. From this balanced perspective is where my methods originate. Those methods are, in short, to influence four key pillars of the partnership, the Speed, Direction, Body, and Emotions of both horse AND human. When I have control of all four of those things, in both myself and in my trusted equine partner, we become unstoppable. I know I’ve already passed the limit of what would be considered a bite-sized response, but bear with me for a moment longer while we quickly talk about each of these areas and how they all interconnect to make magic!
Speed is at the base of all things in Horsemanship. It’s akin to the soil on which you are trying to build a house. How fast do I want my horse to walk when I lead him from his stall to the tie rail? Is that the same speed I expect when we are moseying around grazing between luscious grass spots or is a different speed preferrable? When do I pick up my rein quickly vs when do I pick it up slowly and how will my speed change how my horse responds? How fast do I want my horse to lope in the arena? Do I want that same speed when that same horse and I are out on the trail racing my husband and his mount? No! I want a slow motion lope in the arena and I want to hit the nitrous in that race!
Direction is our next Horsemanship pillar, and in keeping with my house building metaphor, it’s the foundation of our home. Where do we want to take all that speed, or lack thereof? Do we want our horse to go in the trailer or over a jump? Do I pull the rein to my belly button or my hip? In the round pen, do I step into my horse or away from my horse and how will my direction influence theirs? Do I want to canter on the rail or in a 20m circle?
Being able to control the Body is a critical component of influencing speed and direction and it is also imperative if you want safety, but it can be so much more if you want it to be. Body control is like the walls of the house we are building. You can live in a house with four walls, or you can live in a house with 500 walls, the choice is up to you, and your bank account ;) When you can influence the speed and direction of a specific body part you can do some pretty cool stuff, like lope sideways. Body control, how we, and by we I do still mean both horse and rider, move, when we move, where we move which body part, is what sets the pros apart from us commoners. Just watch some grand prix dressage riders to see what I mean; they are masters.
Last in our Horsemanship pillar line up is Emotional control, and in our house metaphor, it’s our roof. Our perception of reality is directly influenced by our emotions. If we can control our emotions, we can directly influence our perception of reality. If we can also then influence our horses emotions we can almost guarantee unlimited potential. No one likes making the four hour journey to the family cabin only to open the door and find the roof leaking! Okay, actually, I can’t verify that last statement because I do not, nor does anyone I know, actually have a family cabin, so maybe people do enjoy that ;) The idea still applies to our time with our horses regardless of my social status. No one likes getting out to the barn to ride after a crappy day at work only to discover that your horse is a complete nut job. If your day was bad enough, that just might break you and after yelling at your horse you run home crying and take it out on your amazing partner. You’d do that, not me, never. Mr. De Frates Horsemanship is a saint. If you could easily help your horse calm down however, get on and have a great ride, all of your days may end quite differently. On the flip side, sometimes we need to amp our horses up! Doesn’t matter if you are trying to outrun a mountain lion, or do some tempi changes, sometimes we need to harness the energy instead of shut it down. What would you do with your horse if you didn’t have to deal with either of your fears, anxiety or nervousness, or if you could ask your horse to turn it up a notch at a moment's notice?
With a solid foundation, you can build a house on crappy soil or the side of a hill. With stable soil, your house’s foundation can falter and your house will be fine. If the weather is nice you can sleep out under the stars on a blanket of soft grass without walls or a roof to shelter you. You can also be blissfully content for years to come with four small walls and a thatch roof. You can also build a mansion on the most stable soil, with the strongest foundation, more rooms than you can count and a gorgeous spanish tile roof. I'm not here to judge the type of house you want to live in; I'm here to help you move in!
Horsemanship to me is planning and then building the type of house you want to live in with your horse. Not everyone wants to live in a mansion, and some of us are big fans of indoor plumbing, so again, we must find the right partner, and the right balance. I help my clients do this by plotting a course between dreams and reality and then balancing the improvement of both horse and rider across the four pillars of Speed, Direction, Body and Emotions, that are needed to reach their goals.
If you want to improve your horsemanship, build a house, or move into a new house, I would be honored to help you so please do reach out. Until next time, I wish you balance and the ability to Lead the Change you want to see in your horse.