For me, horsemanship is a journey, not a destination. It's a bit like climbing a mountain range - you work long and hard to ascend a mountain, reach the top and enjoy the view. But from there, you can see that there is another mountain beyond that is even higher. You can decide to stay where you are - at the top of the mountain you're on, or move on to the next mountain by descending to the valley and then climbing up again.
So far in my horsemanship journey, I've climbed two mountains. The first was my long experience in traditional riding, where I became proficient at riding and even training horses to do various mechanical tasks, such as jumping, lower level dressage and jumping cross-country. I rode a lot of horses successfully, including some considered difficult by others, and was successful - many ribbons and prizes. But although my horses did what I wanted, and I liked them, they were really just mechanical horses. My technique was good, but the whole thing was hollow. I blithely accepted what I now consider unacceptable training techniques and gadgets. I was at the top of the first mountain. I had had small glimpses of the real deal when I was a pre-teen riding my own horses without any instruction - I had one mare who would do anything I asked or even thought.
I was at the top of the first mountain. The breaking point was a very bad experience we had with Dawn and our trainer at the time. Dawn was a green horse, and our trainer attempted, by the use of force that became more and more excessive, to make Dawn jump a grid that was far beyond her understanding and abilities at the time. As the horse became more and more frantic and the trainer more and more violent - the horse "had to be forced to do it or otherwise it would learn it could disobey", I knew we were done, with that trainer and that way of training - I'm a slow learner and I should have caught on much sooner. I pulled my daughters from lessons, and my horses from training and gave my notice to leave the stable. Overnight, Dawn went from a sweet horse to one that was vicious - she had lost her trust in people. I kept my younger daughter away from her for about a week - she was especially angry at my daughter - and worked with and just barely managed to get her back. That's how vicious horses are made - they aren't born that way.
We brought all our horses home to our barn and tried to figure out what to do - we'd never ridden without a trainer. We knew there had to be another way, but we didn't have a clue what it was. And then, seemingly by chance, we basically tripped and fell over Mark Rashid and his way of working with horses - a friend told us to go audit one of his clinics. Over the next 5 years, and a number of clinics that we audited and rode in, we made amazing progress with our horses, using methods that looked to build true partnership with the horse using much more subtle and effective methods. This required rebuilding our horsemanship, and how we worked with and related to horses, from scratch - we descended into the valley and climbed the next mountain.
I've just realized - today - that I've reached the top of the next mountain. I know how to do a lot of stuff "correctly" - without the use of force and gadgets and in a way that produces good results with the horse, using pressure and release techniques. I've got a whole bag of tricks for lots of circumstances. But the real deal is still missing - not because of any deficiency in what Mark has taught us, but because of my own lack of comprehension and understanding. You know how you can hear something, and even see it, a thousand times, and not really get it? I've been feeling stuck in my horsemanship in a couple of ways. First, with Maisie, I can do much more than I could before with her, and mostly softly, but there are still situations where she is troubled and I haven't been able to help her. And then there's Dawn. My younger daughter is going off to college in the fall, and Dawn will effectively become my horse. Dawn is troubled in a number of ways, and I was worried and apprehensive about how I would approach working with her - she's a big challenge to me as it is very difficult to connect with her and keep her attention, and she is extremely spooky and reactive.
Just today, I began to see the outlines of the next mountain, and I'm very excited. The journey into the valley will require tearing down and building anew what I have learned, and adding to it, in the journey that is horsemanship. The catalyst for this is first, my feeling stuck, second, my encountering, just today, a book by Tom Moates about his learning from Harry Whitney and Harry's approach to horsemanship, and, third, the fact that I will be auditing a Mark Rashid clinic starting Friday. The combination of events is virtually miraculous - this time I think I may actually begin to really hear what Mark is saying and see what he is doing.
I need in a subsequent post to describe where I see this going - the book by Tom Moates about Harry Whitney has sparked the beginnings of increased understanding and I'm going to write more about that. I haven't been this excited in years about where horsemanship is going to take me next!