Dictionary.com defines horsemanship as "1. The art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman; 2. Equitation (the act or art or riding on horseback)." I’m sure most riders agree that riding is much more than merely sitting on a horse, yet certainly the best riders make it appear that way! Is this not the level of skill we should all wish to achieve? A harmony where horse and rider appear to be one.
To improve and refine our skills we need to consider not just what we are asking of our horses, but how and when. Often you see riders who simply use stronger and stronger aids when the horse doesn’t respond as they wish, at times even resorting to pain and fear – this is akin to yelling at or punishing someone who doesn’t understand a question you have asked. Instead, we might try to ask the question in a different way or consider if they have the knowledge to answer the question, or even if it is the right question to ask in the first place! What is your first response when the horse doesn’t respond as you want? Is it to simply repeat? Get stronger? At what point do you examine yourself – how am I asking this? Is my timing right? Is the horse capable of even doing it?
No matter what discipline we ride, the goal is to influence the horse, so they do as we ask, when we ask. One of the most important skills I learned, (admittedly quite recently) is the timing of the footfalls in each of the gaits - no one had ever taught me, and I had to figure it out myself, allowing me to now teach it effectively. I’ve encountered many other intermediate to advanced riders that don’t have this fundamental knowledge, indicating it is simply not being taught on a widespread basis. The only time we can influence a horse’s footfall for exercises such as lateral movements and flying changes is when it is in motion, so timing matters and to get the timing right, you need to know where the feet are! If we ask for something at the wrong time, it may be physically impossible for the horse to respond correctly.
Another fundamental concept many riders understand yet fail to practice is the importance of consistency and clarity in the application of the aids, the use of one aid for one response. Horses simply don’t understand one aid in certain circumstances requires a particular response but in different circumstances means something else. At a most basic level, we can consider our vocal cues – the common cluck for “go”. But often riders will use a cluck to mean walk, trot, canter, move over, go faster, back up……… We can’t blame the horse if he doesn’t get the right response on first attempt, and yet often we do!
It is not the horse’s responsibility to understand us, the onus rests entirely on us to train the horse in a way that makes sense to them. Good horsemanship requires patience, lateral and critical thinking, self-awareness, and the willingness to learn and perhaps even put aside previously held beliefs. A rider needs the ability to consider what they are trying to achieve and the approach they are taking to make it easy for the horse to succeed. Those that teach have an obligation to raise the standard of horsemanship, and all of us have a duty to learn as much as possible.
Jenni Fugate is a team member of The Equine Expert LLC, a multi-discipline equine expert witness and consulting firm offering legal expert witness and consulting services in court cases, legal matters, appraisals, and business affairs. Jenni is an expert in Arabians, Teaching, Dressage and Biomechanics. She is a native of Australia and has been working with horses since she was a child, she studied at Melbourne University and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Equine). She now lives in Utah on her farm where she trains and teaches. For more information on Jenni visit www.theequineexpert.com or you may contact Jenni at Jenni@theequineexpert.com. The opinions expressed are those of Jenni as an expert equestrian.