And yesterday and this morning I rode my horses after they'd had a lot of days off over the past two weeks. All three horses were just about perfect from the moment I got on - no running them around or lungeing first, just get on and ride. When I was riding Red and Pie yesterday afternoon, another rider commented again on how calm they were.
This got me thinking about my horses, and how completely wonderful they now are to ride, almost every time. What makes this possible? It isn't just temperament - both Dawn and Red could be described as high-strung and even somewhat reactive - they're very sensitive and alert, and Red came to me as a horse who was very anxious and insecure. Pie is still young - he's 7 and is capable of some big spooks. But under almost all circumstances, I just get on and ride and they deliver. How come we're able to do this? There's no real magic to it, it's all very straightforward. I'm no expert, but here's what I've found that works, for me and my horses.
Firs, what does "calm" mean? I think when most people say my horses are calm, they mean that they work well, without signs of nervousness, and without rushing, pulling or acting up. I mean those things, too, but I mean something else, too - that leads the horse to look calm while allowing them to really perform for me. There's that magical combination of relaxation with true forward - from the hindquarters - responsiveness and consistent softness. Think fire plus ice and you've got what I want from my horses.
Here are some things that I don't think qualify as calm. Calm isn't a horse that's exhausted from being lunged to death or ridden into the ground. Calm isn't a horse that's dull, shut down, checked out or that's given up due to coercion. Calm isn't a horse that's been desensitized or sacked out - that can be a horse that's shut down or that has given up or can be a horse that's comfortable with specific objects - that's not calm, that's just desensitized to those objects. Calm isn't a horse that's "broken" or coerced into submission. Calm isn't a young horse that has been imprinted - there may be an appearance of calm but the horse may not have the ability to deal with challenging situations.
Calm requires a horse that is secure and self-confident, together with you. This doesn't just happen - horses are prey animals and for them to feel secure and confident in partnership with a human isn't something that comes naturally to them. (That's why the term "natural horsemanship" is such a misnomer - there's nothing natural about humans working with horses.) Calm has to be learned, and the horse, in order to learn it, has to feel secure with you as a leader - which has, as far as I'm concerned, nothing whatsoever to do with being your horse's "alpha" - interacting with horses in that way is just another form of dominance/submission in disguise, and that's not calm, that's just dominance/submission.
A calm horse isn't necessarily a horse that won't ever spook, although spooking is likely to be less common - but it's what happens right after the spook that will tell if the horse is calm or not.
To my mind, a calm horse arises from a combination of things, all of which need to be present for the horse to be able to be secure and confident. They are:
- Management (handling and stabling) practices
- Training and experience
- What the human brings to the party
I'll be doing some other posts on those aspects of calmness.
A side note on the nervous or insecure rider, or beginner rider. Riding a well-trained horse that has a basically quiet temperament can really allow a nervous or beginning rider to develop skills and confidence. A nervous, anxious, high-strung or mistrained/undertrained horse is a very bad combination with a nervous or inexperienced rider or handler.
More to come . . .