From time to time, I take the time to think about where I am on my horsemanship journey, and where it looks like the journey is taking me next. I do posts from time to time to reflect on this - it helps me think things through. The series of posts on this topic are in a sidebar - Steps on the Journey.
I'm at one of those inflection points in my horsemanship journey. I was beginning to get a glimpse of this in the summer of 2009, and did two posts describing where I was and where I thought I needed to go next with my horsemanship. I've recently reread these two posts, which are particularly relevant to what I'm writing about today - you may want to take the time to read them now as they describe my journey and how I got to where I am today:
Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road (from the summer of 2009) and
Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention (also from the summer of 2009)
I was beginning to get a glimpse at that time about how to work with the inside of the horse and not just the outside, and I've been continuing down that road since, working on my attention and focus and also how my body mechanics and thoughts influence the horse - there's more in the sidebar about those topics.
But what does it really mean to work with the inside of the horse instead of the outside? What does it mean to establish a connection with the inside of the horse, and what implications does this have for my work with horses? I think what this means for me is that I need to be working with my horses to develop virtues as much as, or more than, actions, and that I should work on actions while taking account of the underpinning of the virtues. But what does that mean?
Working with horses on actions is what most of us, I expect, me included, do most of the time when we're working with horses - we want the horse to behave for the farrier or the vet, lead well, turn here, stop here, back this way, do a proper shoulder-in from point A to point B, do a rollback in the correct way, jump that course of jumps with the correct strides and lead changes, sort those cows, go down that trail and cross that bridge, etc. - the list is endless. Those are all actions we want the horse to perform, and if we have a clear idea of what we want and communicate that well to the horse and allow the horse to learn to do it, we get the actions we desire. I think that's what many people mean when they say a horse is trained (in whatever discipline or activity). It's a chain we build, link by link, with our horses. If we do this by breaking down the tasks into small steps, and work with our horse in a way that allows the horse to figure out what we want, the chain gradually gets built. When we say a horse has a "hole" in its training, we often mean that he doesn't know how to do some action we'd like the horse to do.
But ultimately, a lot of that is technique and working with the outside of the horse. There's nothing at all wrong with that if it's done carefully and with respect for the horse and how the horse is feeling about things. But how do I work with the inside of the horse, and build that connection and relationship?
For me, there's something underneath all that technique and working with the horse on actions - I think of it as developing/teaching what I can virtues. Virtues aren't actions or activities, they're ways of feeling, thinking and being - an approach to the horse's life with me - that I want the horse to develop. Each horse comes with its own personality and temperament, inherent strengths and weaknesses, and prior life experiences and training (some of which may have taken virtues away from the horse rather than adding them), and will need more or less work on certain virtues. Here's a partial list of the virtues I'd like to awaken or develop in my horses:
Curiosity/ability to experiment
If these virtues are strong, developing or adding actions becomes much easier, I think. In this list the order isn't important, although I believe in working with my horses that certain virtues are more fundamental. If you have other virtues you think are important, please add them in the comments.
I firmly believe that, if I develop these virtues in my horses, that they won't just be mechanical horses, skilled at performing certain actions well, but will have the emotional and mental resources to cope with new situations and to learn new things where previously learned actions may not be applicable. Mechanical horses do well what we ask them to do - horses with virtues have resources beyond that. I don't think this is just a matter of a horse's inherent temperament, I think it's something that can be developed in the horse. And I also think that there is work on actions, and ways of working on actions, that are really about developing these virtues in the horse - a good example would be my "just standing around" work - yes, I end up with a horse that can stand still for as long as I need (action), but the horse is really developing patience (virtue), which has follow-on effects in other work. I believe that all training in actions must take account of how it relates to the virtues, and how that training might advance or not the development of the virtues.
I also believe that in order to develop these virtues in the horse, that I must model them to my horse. If I want my horse to be responsive and move forward with impulsion, I must bring that energy to the equation and allow rather than restricting forward motion. If I want my horse to be patient, I must be patient myself. If I want my horse to be kind, I must be kind (this, by the way, has nothing to do with letting a horse intrude into your personal space). If I want a self-confident horse, I must be self-confident myself. If I want calmness and relaxation, I must offer that to the horse. If I want a horse that is soft and willing from the inside, I must offer softness and must be willing to listen to what the horse has to say. If I want trust, I must be trustworthy. This requires me to develop my own virtues in order to be able to model them to the horse - and that's a life-long task for me - horsemanship, and life, are never done. Effectively what I want is for the virtues to flow back and forth between the horse and me in a conversation where we share values and can work on actions together out of that shared "philosophy".
That's enough for today - I expect I'll have more to say in future posts on how I define the virtues, how I am trying to work on virtues with my horses, and how that relates to where each horse is with their work at this point in time. I'm extremely excited about where my horsemanship journey is taking me next!
Addition - see the following posts for more specifics on each horse:
Developing the Virtues - Dawn
Developing the Virtues - Pie
Developing the Virtues - Drifter