Riding, working and training horses, as with anything, gains better results through better understanding. True horsemanship, working in a safe manner by building trust and respect, requires comprehending several principles from the perspective of the horse.
Personal safety is a horse’s main priority, ranking higher even than eating, which comes in a close second. Everything about they’re physical makeup is created for survival, from their sharp eyesight and hearing to their flight instinct that can be triggered in a fraction of a second. Because flight is the primary defense mechanism and the feet are necessary for this reaction, there is a solid connection between the feet and the mind of a horse.
In order to have a working relationship built on trust we must understand this connection and its relationship to the equine’s need for leadership. This need is directly correlated to the requirement for safety as well and is naturally provided for in the herd setting – that is, until we remove them from the herd and want them to interact with us in a safe, trusting manner.
A horse’s mind is naturally set in “reaction” – instinctive, instant reaction. This is where humans get in trouble. The horse perceives danger and reacts, usually faster than we can adjust and we get hurt. The key is to give the horse another option by teaching his mind to “respond” – listening to our cues and staying “with” us in spite of perceived danger. We do this by building trust and respect and by consistent, clear communication.
Horses communicate through body language and the hierarchy of the herd is determined through this medium. This can be as subtle as the twitch of an ear or as forceful as a double-barreled kick, whatever it takes to get the point across. When we become fluent in this language then we can direct the horse’s feet in specific ways, using pressure and release with the proper timing to engage their minds in the choice to cooperate. This teaches them that they can trust us with their mobility, which is the same as putting their lives in our hands. This foundational connection is vital to all further training if you want a horse that is willing and safe both on the ground and under saddle.