Equestrianism doesn’t get a lot of mass-market attention, so growing up pony-mad, I lapped up anything I could. The novels and movie adaptations of International Velvet and Black Beauty were favourites of mine, and remain so now. I was a little older by the time The Horse Whisperer movie was released (and it wasn’t until a few years later that I read the book, discovered that the endings were completely different, and still can’t decide which I prefer). But this post isn’t about literature or film.
The Horse Whisperer was shown on TV this weekend, and sparked a small discussion between my sister and myself about natural horsemanship and how it’s represented in the movie. I grew up in an era where my pony magazines seemed to endlessly promote Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks and, as a precocious child, I felt like it was being rammed down my throat by the equestrian media. All I wanted to do was ride horses and learn how to look after them, I didn’t care what cowboys with their ropes thought about it. So it’s only in the last 10 months or so that I’ve seriously looked at natural horsemanship, what it’s about and why I should care. When I signed my contract to go to camp last summer, the horseback director got in touch with all of her staff and asked us to prepare some lesson plans for the riding classes we’d teach and, if we could, do some reading about natural horsemanship. She likes to practice it if possible, so I duly did a little reading, but still wasn’t all that interested.
And then I watched a documentary which blew my mind. Who was the protagonist? Monty Roberts. Of course. The man whom I had judged as a child to be a shameless self-promoter and salesman of expensive training aids, was the one who impressed me via the medium of TV. It didn’t hurt that some of my other heroes were featured in the documentary, which was a BBC programme about the Queen’s passion for horses and how she works with them, and Monty was shown working with a racehorse. The transformation in the horse was outstanding, and finally bought into natural horsemanship as a concept.
One of the main things which had been holding me back – and this can be the case with many parts of life for me; I think this applies to things like teaching, parenting, learning and many other things – is the way in which people will state their devotion to one method. I’m much more of a pick and mix person: if I agree with part of what one trainer says, but disagree with something else, I’ll learn the positive lesson, take away the piece I’d like to use and put it with an element I’ve learned from someone else. I don’t like the idea that you have to buy in to one belief system, recite one person’s words and that you can then be considered an expert. I like to combine different approaches to make something which suits me best and is, potentially, more effective as a result.
I see now that I can therefore make any discipline which I’m interested in work for me in this way. First, it’s a case of deciding what I want from it. Having done some more thinking, here’s how I’d like to apply natural horsemanship: I’d like it to help me to understand horses better, to have a better working relationship with them and for it to be about harmony, working as a true partnership rather than my relationship with horses being about straight up obedience. My perception is that this may be difficult for people like me, who don’t have their own horse and work with horses who are exposed to many different people on a weekly basis. What might be more appropriate is that I start learning these skills in order to put them into practice when I am working with the same horses on a daily basis again.
But what the thought process has also led me to is this realisation: natural horsemanship may not be all that much about books and theories and gimmicks anyway – it could be exactly that, the literal meaning of the words. The theories promoted in The Horse Whisperer aren’t dissimilar to those mentioned less directly in International Velvet and Black Beauty: understanding, bonding and co-operation. Horses learn their behaviour from each other and from those they’re handled by – bad ponies aren’t born, as many instructors told me when I was little.
I was flipping through a book at the barn last summer and found a quote which I now try to keep in the forefront of my mind when working with horses. It’s from one of Pat Parelli’s books, and we liked it so much when I found it that we decided it needed to go on display:
Have you changed your mind over time about a particular approach or theory? Which techniques do you employ to create the most productive environment?