Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Be With Your Horse

I finally got hold of a copy of Be With Your Horse: Getting to the Heart of Horsemanship by Tom Widdicombe - Amazon U.S. couldn't get it for me and I was about to order directly from Amazon U.K. when I discovered it at the tack store - how handy! My older daughter stayed with Tom and his wife when she was in the U.K., so I almost feel as if I know them - I hope to have the chance to meet them in person someday.

It's interesting to me how sometimes the people and things I need to grow in my life show up at exactly the time when I need them - does that ever happen to you? Tom's book reinforces for me how fundamentally important the quality of the relationship with the horse is when working with horses. It's really not about technique, cues, or exercises or one training method or another - it's about the horse and me and how we interact. Although I agree with Tom that some horsemen and women are just naturally more skilled at making that fundamental connection with the horse, I believe as he does that each of us can make substantial progress down this road. I did two posts back in July right before I attended the Mark Rashid clinic, and after reading Tom Moates's excellent book based on his work with Harry Whitney. These posts talked about where I thought my horsemanship needed to go - the next stage on the road - and everything that's happened since has confirmed for me that this is the path I need to take. These two posts are Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road, and Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention. That led to my road map for my work with Dawn, and how I'm thinking about the work with her that is in the September post The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . The Horse Has Already Left.

Tom repeatedly makes the very important point that how we are with our horse is as important, and probably more important, than what we do with our horse. This is particularly important if my goal is to influence, and change, how the inside of the horse feels about things, and not just apply technique to the outside of the horse.

Here are some representative quotes from the book, and thoughts that the book prompted for me, to give you a flavor.

When the ask turns into a tell, we sometimes can lose the horse and its cooperation - paradoxically, doing more can result in less effectiveness. Most of us are doing too much, all the time, with our bodies and our minds, and this can discomfit the horse and make it hard for the horse to do what we want or to feel comfortable with us.

Remember that whenever you are with your horse, you are training your horse. You may not be training him to do something good, but you will be training him to so something . . . . [Y]es, I would like to relax with my horse, but I have realized that for me to be able to relax with my horse, I have to make sure that my horse can relax with me. (p. 33)

I like to establish really early on with a horse that there is a place where we can both be together where nothing is happening, where we both just stand quietly, together. This is the basis of everything I do. Horses feel safe there because there is no pressure and it is easy for them to understand that they are getting it right. (p. 35)

One thing you really need to take on board is that if a horse asks you a question and you don't answer it, he will take that as a "yes". That is why if you want to train your horse well, whenever you are with him you must answer all his questions. (p. 36)

Keep things as simple and clear as possible - don't heap on cues and pressure and expect your horse to understand what you want - he's more likely to become frustrated and stop trying.

Give your horse time to process your asks and respond - be patient - and also be with your horse, and read your horse, to anticipate and get ahead of thoughts that your horse may be forming that might be about to turn into actions.

I want to get my horse to [give me his attention] in the most gentle way that I can, and the reason for doing this gently is not just because I want everything to be gentle and nice and so on, it's because gentle works better. . . . With gentle comes respect - with rough comes fear. (p. 56)

Sometimes just a few small changes in the way that you are with your horse can make all the difference. It is important to realize that it is how you are that determines how your horse is. You are the key to the whole thing. There is no magic switch that will make everything work, nor any piece of equipment that will sort it out for you. The horse needs you to be there for him . . . (p. 58)(italics added)

Keeping things clear and simple makes it easier for the horse, and if you do this when you get to complex things they may be simpler than you thought. Quiet, calm and attention are the basis for a relationship with the horse.

It is very handy to show the horse that he can actually relax - that he can just stand there and rely on you to take care of things. With some horses, it is almost as if they have forgotten how to do nothing, and in a lot of cases this is simply because their owners just do too much. (p. 62)

[W]hat I believe is the key to success with horses, is an understanding of the principles behind the system. Working with horses is not just a series of actions that guarantee a result. . . . Horses respond differently to different situations and to different pressures of ask . . . . You have to read the situation and be with each different horse in each different moment. . . . So when someone tells you their little trick for dealing with a bitey horse, just remember that that is what it is - a little trick. It doesn't cure the underlying problem of why the horse was biting you in the first place. And that is the job you really need to be working on. (pp. 63-64)
[N]o matter what technique you use, if you are not in the right place within yourself, then the results will not be as good as if you were. Your horse knows if you are there with him, or not. . . . Take care to notice that your horse is comfortable with where you are and what you are doing. If you are causing him anxiety, then back off a bit to a point that he is happy and work from there. This is a crucial point, which is at the heart of the decisions you need to take about what to do with your horse and when to do it: every time you ask your horse to do something he is not comfortable with, in his mind he marks you down as a problem. If you can ask him several times in a row to do things with which he has no problem, then hopefully he will mark you down as no problem too. After that, you stand a good chance of making progress into those areas that previously were totally no go. (pp. 89-90)

You need to be calm and rational, and your actions need to be logical and consistent. These qualities are really important to horses and can make a huge difference in the way that they respond to you. . . . If you want to be your horse's leader, then you have to offer him someone whom he considers worth following, whom he perceives as knowing where they are going, and whom he sees as both trustworthy and reliable. (p. 93)

[I]f you decide to follow any method of training at all, it really needs to be done with sensitivity, and that means in empathy with your horse's situation. If you work your horse sympathetically, taking care of his state of mind, making sure that he is giving you what you want willingly, not reluctantly, and keeping him happy, then you are getting something right. What often happens with systems and methods is that the larger goal of achieving a willing horse gets sacrificed for the smaller goals of completing the exercises. (p. 143)

You cannot bail out on your horse - you have to stay in there with him, taking the responsibility or he will have to take it for himself, and horses aren't so good at that. Their responses aren't always to our liking. (p. 146)

At the point when you realize that you are the main project, then the real work and the real progress begins. When finding that way of being that horses are truly comfortable with becomes your main goal, then things really do begin to fall into place. (p. 148)

And a final quote - this one really sums it all up for me: "Get it into your mind how it is for the horse." (p. 192)

Although this book is full of interesting and useful anecdotes and examples, it isn't a training manual. It's about more fundamental and important stuff than that. It will be a great help to me as I continue down the road that I'm on with horses. If you can find this book, get it and read it.

In conclusion - it's interesting how these things are all coming together for me - two brief quotes from my second Beyond Pressure and Release post:
I've known for a while that it really isn't any more about pressure and release, or giving cues to get certain types of behavior from the horse. It's about me, and what I can notice and understand. Horses are incredibly sensitive animals - so much more sensitive than us - and we have to pay very close attention or we miss so much that they are trying to tell us.

One of the things it's all about is attention - the attention the horse pays to us and even more importantly the attention we pay the horse. How can we expect a horse to pay attention to us and follow our direction when much of the time we're not even really paying attention to the horse? A dull horse - one that seems insensitive and unresponsive to our cues - is a horse that has tuned us out. The horse is no longer paying attention, and must be thinking - "I'm tired of this person "shouting" at me all the time with her cues, and her endless drilling and repetition of what I already know, and then when I'm ready to talk to her, she isn't even paying attention to me!" The nervous, fretful, and even the explosive horse is telling us that it doesn't find any comfort with us - we haven't helped the horse find a way to be that is more comfortable inside - and the horse just wants to get away from us and the whole situation.

The road I'm on isn't easy when thought about in traditional training terms - but maybe it's easier than I thought! I'm looking to establish a quiet, safe, place for my horses so that we can pay close attention to each other and progress down the road together. I believe these things are achievable, and I'm excited to be with my horses on this journey.

Have a lovely November day, and may it include horses!


  1. Well put, again. Many riders do not listen to their horses but do expect their horses to listen to them. It's too easy to demand obedience instead of cooperation.

    Horses like my Tucker, ones that do not tolerate "rudeness" from the rider very well, can be good teachers for all of this. He certainly has made me into a more "thinking/feeling" rider.

  2. Well said, I like to say "get in the moment with your horse" Looks like a great book

  3. The stuff about listening to your horse rings especially true for me today. I think many people assume that unless you see lameness, everything is fine. For a couple of weeks I think Panama has been trying to tell me that he wasn't comfortable, but I wasn't listening when he yanked his foot away or was a pill under saddle, so he actually bit me on Friday. I know some horses are much more willing to bite or do something drastic like that to get their point across, but with horses that like to please, we have to keep in mind that they FIRST try to tell us without breaking any rules -- and it may take them a while before they'll go so far as acting out to try to tell you something.

  4. That sounds like an awesome book - I will have a look for it over here - I really like the part where you are to do things gently. I couldn't agree more. I had a chiropractor tell me that Sam was a very girthy horse. I had never had a problem of any kind with him and asked her how she had come to this decision. She showed me and she was right but I have always saddled up very carefully and quietly. The girth is done up in slow stages. She couldn't believe that I had never had a problem but it is like a lot of the things I do - slowly and softly and I think a horse really appreciates that. When I am in a hurry Sam becomes tense, if I keep things soft he stays soft.

    Also you must do things for your horse. I will stand between Sam and another horse - I try and keep out of harms way but if that horse trys to have ago at Sam I step in and protect him. I presume that is why now if something is upsetting him if I just keep a hand on him somewhere he seems to cope a little better.

    I also make sure that Sam and I have some down time - we often just stand and take in the scenery, our surrounds. He used to fidget a lot when we started this but now he just watches the world run past with me. He will usually give me a snuffle in the hair during this time and we will have a cuddle but I believe all these little things have helped us build a relationship. Yes I still have a lot of issues to work through personally but I know I have a great patient horse to work with.

  5. Thanks Kate, It sounds like a book I'd like to read.

  6. Over the years I've learned to listen to my horses and hear what they are saying. When they ask a question I try to answer it simply and directly. This sounds like a good common sense book on how to interact with your horses.

  7. Looks like a book I will have to put on the ol' Christmas list. I have been working a lot on liberty the past couple weeks and you really put your relationship to the test. When you take off the lead rope...all that is left is the truth.

  8. Sounds like a great common sense book. Hope I can find it.

  9. Sounds like a great read - and exactly where I am (philosophically) and strive to be (physically) with horses at this point.

  10. Sounds like a great read, that is neat that your daughter stayed with them.

  11. Excellent post about this very helpful book. Thanks for sharing this. I've been working with Baby Doll on our relationship on the ground lately. Every day, I do more than just feed her, I spend time with her, and we work on At Liberty activities. She seems to look forward to this time with me, too. And if I have skipped it, she will stare at me, or stand outside her pen, even when she has a full hay net ready and waiting.
    And then she will follow me and work together with me.

    We have a long way to go, and sometimes I feel as if he is not all the way with me, but maybe it's also my doing and I can work on that, too. But for the most part I feel as if our ground work is going well and I hope one day it will help us work well together when I'm on her back again.....


  12. I do love this book (I have a link where I bought it on my blog, btw) and am re-reading it over and over. It's like a great movie, the more to watch, the more you see.

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  15. stilllearning - It's hard to offer advice and it sounds like you're on the right track. For me, it all starts with leading, and making sure the horse clearly understands the boundaries of your personal space - a horse that is really clear on what you want will be a happier, calmer horse. Then, work on having the horse feel safe just standing calmly and quietly with you, in the safest place you have for him - perhaps it's the indoor, perhaps standing just outside the barn door. He'll tell you when he's feeling good about this in one location, then you can move, not too far, to another location. If you encounter a problem, take a step back to a safer spot. It may take a while for him to figure out that he can just be quiet with you, and be safe doing that. If his attention strays, calmly ask for it back in as soft a manner as you can. Small steps, calm and quiet. Good luck - let us know how it goes!

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