This is adapted from an article that I wrote for EquiAds Ireland Magazine,  2008.

I would say that the question that I get asked most frequently is “Do you do natural horsemanship?” closely followed by “Are you a horse whisperer?” 

These are probably two of the most difficult questions to answer, simply because everyone has a different definition of what natural horsemanship is, and what being a horse whisperer entails! You see I could answer yes and no to them both and be telling the truth. However, what I always say to people is that I don’t believe in the ‘method’ approach to horsemanship. And horse whispering may be a cosmic art, or it may simply be the ability to read and listen to what a horse is saying- this doesn’t necessarily need a sixth sense (although it helps sometimes!).

What I believe in is GOOD horsemanship.

I believe that this entails understanding a horse’s natural behaviour (i.e. that they are herd animals, prey animals and flight animals).

We need to understand that horses are all individuals and that temperament means that they each fall onto a different point on the spectrum of being herd, prey and flight animals (i.e. some are more sensitive,  more reactive or less confident than others).

We should understand how horses learn and how best to train them, taking into account these individual differences, and take on board the lessons learned from scientific research as well as practical experience.

We need to culitvate the awareness to listen to the horse and work out what they are trying to say with their behaviour (even if this means developing a bit of a sixth sense!).

We must develop ourselves.  What are the qualities of a good trainer and how do we achieve or cultivate these? How can we improve our self awareness and feel.?

It is essential that we understand how different management and training techniques affect each individual’s stress levels and learning abilities.

By knowing ourselves as individuals and recognising our strengths and weaknesses we can work on making life easier for the horse by improving ourselves as horse people, rather than making life easier for us with the use of gadgets and quick fixes.

Alois Podhajsky (former Director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna) said that “If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or chance and that it was practised long ago by the old masters”.

The more I experience on a practical level in my work, and the more I study the various ‘methods’ of horsemanship, from classical and natural right through, the more I agree with this statement.

There are so many similarities, and time and again you see that great horsemen use very similar techniques, though they might be described in different ways.

However, to me, the key is in understanding WHY these methods work. When you take the approach of studying WHY, you will find that you do not follow a ‘method’ but instead are on the road to GOOD horsemanship.

The most important quality of good horsemanship is that you have complete freedom to work with the horse in what is the most suitable way for that individual, given their temperament, history and your experience.

‘Methods’ often lead to people getting stuck in boxes. When you adhere to a ‘method’ set out by a particular horse person, you have to follow their recommendations and experiences. This can be incredibly useful in the early stages because you benefit from their experience and it can help to set a structure on how you work.

However there is no substitute for understanding WHY, and often these methods don’t teach the WHY, simply the HOW. In fact, as a psychologist and having studied equine behaviour and training on an academic as well as practical level I can tell you that often the WHY of these methods is very different to what some of these horse people say it is!

Following a method can work well enough until you meet a horse that doesn’t respond to this particular method in the expected manner. I have seen some well known and respected trainers get caught in this trap. The only way to truly assess what is the best way to work with a horse is to understand the WHY. After all, this famous quote says it all: “Art ends where violence begins. Violence begins where knowledge ends”.

For this reason, my driving passion in what I do is not to create a method that people follow- it is to give people the tools to understand WHY- so that they can study every horse person and every method, and pick and choose the best bits to incorporate into their own way of doing things.

For this same reason I like to teach people to understand themselves as individuals, their strengths and weaknesses and how these feed into their time spent with horses, so that they can play to their strengths and work on their weaknesses. 

I believe that understanding WHY is empowering and inspiring people to be the absolute best horse people they can be.

If you would like to learn a little more about this and about my philosophy, then visit my website www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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