Do you remember the very first time you heard the term Natural Horsemanship? I loved the sound of those words together. It felt holistic and honorable, and well, natural.

And there was a gap between what I thought those words should mean and what the work looked like in real life. The concept of pressure and release was supposed to be an improvement over traditional methods. Not some much; my favorite training quote from Xenophon in 430BC,

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.

Instead there were frantic horses running in circles or horses so shut down that their eyes were dead. The human had an arsenal of signature halters, whips and ropes. Extreme tack designed to make up for our shortcomings. To be fair, we were all on a learning curve.

And that concept of de-sensitizing? Is that really what you want? It’s common knowledge that a horse’s senses are better than ours; his vision, hearing, smell are sharp and keen. Rather than contradict their instinct, wouldn’t we be smarter to listen to them, and then use their awareness, partnered with our intellect, to help them feel safe? Isn’t a confident horse the goal of leadership?

For some of us, the reality of natural horsemanship didn’t reach our ideal hope, and that’s okay. Despite the claims on the video packaging, training horses has never been a one-size-fits-all task. Rather than being mad about the terminology, or getting defensive about your precious bit of knowledge, or maybe worst of all, giving a horse-video personality rock star status, it’s better to understand that the awareness needed to train a horse is something we can only learn a small step at a time.

Learning to read is a great analogy. In the beginning we’re laboriously sounding out words and barely breathing. The dull story of Dick and Jane drags along until we eventually get to the page that says The End. Being able to make sense out of letters and punctuation is a huge accomplishment but it’s just the beginning; a ticket to enter the world of literature and history.

It isn’t that we move the end-line; it’s more like the definition of words grow with our perception. In training, it’s common sense that if we keep doing the same thing, we’ll continue to get the same results. For a horse to improve, we have to improve ourselves–maybe up our vocabulary and comprehension level.

And finally, I get to my point:  I’ve written a couple of recent posts about carrots and stated my favorite reward is release. I got asked a simple question, “What is release?” The answer changes…

When beginning with horses, humans have a habit of over-stating the obvious. We conveniently forget that horses are half the conversation. Instead we lecture: We ask a horse to walk and then keep giving cues as if the horse is deaf. We nag, we reiterate, we clarify, and we blather on without punctuation–blahblahblah.

So in the very first release might be the moment when you stop hitting your horse in the face with a bag on a stick. During a bad ride, halting to complain to another rider is a release for a horse. It hurts to admit it, but dismounting is a huge reward, especially when our communication methods aren’t clear or fair. It’s a depressing fact that in the beginning, horses like us when we finally shut up. It’s even more depressing to think of the number of riders who think this is as good as it gets. It’s like learning to read but never using it for more than reading traffic signs.

Then one day, we stumble upon a few inspiring words. Meaning we notice that our horse has offered a moment of grace. He’s managed to be heard over our barrage of cues and we’re dumbstruck. We slack our chatter to try to comprehend what just happened, and it’s a release. Perhaps accidental, but still, there’s a pause in the pressure we exert and that instant is a release for both of you. If you admit it, you’re curious about what will happen next.

It’s a plot twist: the story gets more interesting when there are other characters besides yourself. So you let the story unravel slowly, and there’s a moment when you listen to your horse without correction and he tells you something you didn’t know. The narrative becomes a dialog. If you give him a chance, you find out your horse has a sense of humor. Laughing together is a release.

As the sweet moment settles, it’s obvious that you’ll never be able to force his obedience. And you also admit that when you look into your horse’s eye, you can’t deny the intelligence there. He deserves more respect from you; more dignity for his attempt to translate your cues, even if he doesn’t think you are much of a communicator. That’s him giving you a release.

Eventually you might look at that old video or see an ignorant rider kicking and jerking his horse, and it will look like a silly comic book hero fighting a made-up monster. There’s a sadness for the horse that’s hard to let go of because you remember you had a start not so different. That’s when the scope of the plot becomes clear. It’s the epic story of revolution and freedom, told with respect and dignity. Understanding blossoms into compassion and there’s a genuine release that feels pretty close to enlightenment.

Release has taken on a dimension that you would have never understood in the beginning. It’s like discovering poetry; using fewer words to communicate an infinite ideal.

Because in the end, a relationship with a horse has nothing to do with a video or a carrot stick or special rope. What matters to a horse is release; that quality of peace in the stillness between breaths.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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